Amaira’s Fortune received an Honourable Mention in the American Literary Taxidermy Short Story Competition 2020. Contestants from all over the globe entered narratives which had to be written between the first and last lines of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. I’m very happy to get an HM in such a big competition.
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.
Amaira checked the description and the address her mother had written down for her. She looked up again. She was standing in front of a grey building, but, from the opposite side of the street, she’d counted only thirty-one-storeys. Mindful of the traffic, she crossed the road again and counted the floors a second time.
Yes, thirty-one. There must be three basement carparks that contribute to the thirty-four, she reasoned.
She folded the paper, pocketed it, and looked for an entrance to a parking station. There was a descending driveway to her right.
Good, I’m in the right place. But how odd that the building is described as squat. Thirty- four storeys is hardly squat. Weird!
The office she sought was on the sixteenth floor. She entered the building and looked for the elevator. She saw it to her right, took a deep breath and exhaled through pursed lips. She was aware she was anxious as she approached the elevator and pressed the button.
The sixteenth floor’s gawdy yellow carpet bellowed out at her when the elevator opened.
Good grief, that’s a bit loud, she thought.
There was a directory board on the wall. She was looking for Family First, an adoption agency. The board indicated Suite 4. The closer Amaira got to Suite 4, the more anxious she became. She could see a receptionist through the window but couldn’t open the door. The young woman motioned through the window to Amaira to press the buzzer.
Gosh, that’s an odd way to conduct business, she thought. I wonder why people can’t just walk in.
Once inside Amaira was ushered into an office where files were squashed tightly into bookcases. Still more folders were piled in corners and pushed against the cupboards beneath the shelves.
Not a very professional outfit, she thought.
A dour, sage suited woman returned to her office and looked questioningly at Amaira.
“Hello, I’m Amaira Taylor” she said, extending a hand towards the unwelcoming woman.
“I was in an orphanage in Chennai, India, and adopted by Janet and Alan Taylor in Mosman. I’ve come here believing you may have records that will help me find my birth mother.”
The woman ignored her outstretched hand.
“How old were you when you were adopted?”
“What makes you think we have your records – and from that long ago, as well?” the woman said, scrutinising Amaira coldly.
“My parents believe this was the adoption agency that the orphanage in Chennai dealt with,” Amaira answered, aware she was being inspected.
“I see. Have you had a happy adoption?”
“Yes, very happy. I have wonderful parents, thank you.”
“Well, why would you want to find your birth parents now, then?”
Amaira had no desire to say that she’d heard that children were stolen from the busy streets of Chennai and sold to western couples. She simply said, “I want to know how they fared when I left. My parents and I would be able to help my birth parents if they needed it. If I have younger siblings or nieces and nephews, we could contribute to the cost of their education, for instance.”
“And what if they gave you up because they didn’t want you? How would you cope with rejection a second time?”
“I imagine it would be rare for a mother not to want her child. And I think it would be very unfortunate if I was a child that wasn’t wanted. But I’m a compassionate person. I don’t think there’d be any circumstance that was occurring in the lives of the parents at the time that would prevent me from being understanding. Giving up a child simply isn’t done lightly. Most parents give their children up because of economic hardship, not because they don’t want them. And,” she added, “at the end of the day I’d still have my Australian parents.”
“Well, you seem to have all the answers, don’t you? So, what do you want from me?”
Amaira was already uneasy. The locked door, the unprofessional office presentation, and now this uncaring woman. She decided to remain friendly.
“If my adoptive mother is correct, and you were the primary Australian contact between my adoptive parents and the orphanage, you may still have my records. I know my birth mother’s name. If you have her name, perhaps her address will also be on file. If you could search through your records and tell me where she was living when I was relinquished, I could start my search from there.”
“What year? And what name?”
“It was 1994 and my mother’s name was Bhagyashri. My adoptive Mum said that a surname was never mentioned. I’m aware that women in that region didn’t have surnames, although if she married, she might have taken her husband’s name.”
“Right, well,” she said as she reached for some files in the corner of the room, “these folders relate to 1994.” She retrieved half a dozen with the appropriate year date. “Go away for an hour or so and I’ll have one of my staff go through them. When did you arrive in Australia?”
“In September 1993 and I was born on September 13th, 1990.”
“Right, then, off you go. Come back in an hour.”
Amaira left. She had an uneasy feeling about this organisation. There was something about the unpleasant woman and the way the place was run that seemed dubious. She ordered a Devonshire tea in a nearby café and rang her mother.
“It looks like a second-rate shady outfit, Mum,” Amaira confided in a hushed tone. “I have an unsettling feeling about the place, but I just need the name of a village. If I get that, I’ll be happy. It’ll be a place to start.”
“The name of her father or a husband if she had one would be useful too, sweetheart, because women often took the name of the significant male in their life. But look, hang in there. Continue to be polite and friendly to this woman and then act excited and grateful if she comes up with anything. Just remember, Dad and I are with you all the way, no matter what, okay?”
“Okay, Mum, I hear you.”
When Amaira returned to Family First, the sage suited woman had left. The receptionist handed Amaira a sheet of paper on which she had written an address in Thiruverkadu, in northern Chennai. There was no husband on file and Bhagyashri was not present at the handover of her child to the orphanage. The receptionist had noted that Amaira’s grandfather
had relinquished her. And she’d found one more important piece of information. Bhagyashri’s father’s, name. Amaira’s grandfather was called Siddharth.
Amaira graciously thanked the receptionist and left. She was excited. Now she could book a flight to India.
Perhaps my birth mother was unmarried. Or maybe her husband had left her. I refuse to believe she didn’t want me.
Amaira was bursting with excitement to tell her Australian mother the news. Over dinner, they began to plan their trip to India.
Alan Taylor was concerned. “Be very careful, you two. If the rumours are correct and you were stolen and sold to that orphanage, Amaira, it could well open a worse can of worms than would develop if you found you were relinquished by choice.”
“I know Dad, we’ll be careful, we promise, won’t we Mum.”
“We’ll have our wits about us constantly,” Janet replied. “I don’t expect it’s any safer in that crowded city now than it was back then. There’s currently a black-market trade in western children, so why wouldn’t there be trafficking of Indian children? My prime objective is to find your birth mother and make amends if indeed you were stolen.”
Within a month, Janet Taylor and her adopted Indian daughter, Amaira were in Chennai, in southern India. Upon arrival, they sought the services of a lawyer who was familiar with the orphanage Amaira had been adopted from.
Wafiya Bhatt said, “That establishment has recently been prosecuted for forging surrender deeds from parents. Just as you found the office in Sydney had deeds of adoption for the
children who reached Australia, so too have I confiscated documents from that institution during the recent court case. They verify the illegal trade in children.”
The information that Amaira had provided when she first wrote to Wafiya enabled her to locate Amaira’s adoption papers. They were indeed false.
“See here, Amaira, this is your mother’s name. But this is not her signature. Your mother was illiterate. She could not sign her name like this. This is the cursive script of a literate person.”
“How do you know she was illiterate? Do you know her? Have you met her?” Amaira asked.
“As soon as you contacted me, I looked for her. She is well, and still living in Chennai. I needed to ask her about the circumstances of the adoption. Whatever they were, I felt it appropriate to prepare you before you met her.”
“Oh, my goodness, this is astonishing. Thank you so much for finding her. Did she relinquish me by choice? Does she have other children? Was she married?” Amaira asked.
The lawyer smiled and said gently, “You will both be able to ask her a million questions yourself.”
“She knows we want to meet her?” Janet asked.
“She does, but before you do, there are some things I feel you need to know. And I have Baghyrashi’s consent to tell you.”
Amaira felt a bit woozy. This was all too incredible for words. Janet put her arm around her and hugged her close. Wafiya directed both women to sit down. She asked her secretary to bring refreshments, then proceeded to disclose what happened over twenty years before.
“Your birth mother was forced into marriage. Your birth father was unhappy with the arrangement and left to be with another woman just before you were born. Bhagyashri’s mother had passed away and her father was aging with ill health. He was determined that Bhagyashri would care for him for the remainder of his life. A baby did not fit into that equation.”
“My grandfather relinquished me to the orphanage?”
“Actually, Amaira, there is no easy way to tell you this but,” Wafiya paused and examined Amaira’s face to determine her strength of character. Satisfied that Amaira could cope with the news, she continued.
“He sold you.”
Wafiya paused again to allow Amaira and Janet time to digest this news. Then she added, “The fact that you were a pretty child attracted the equivalent of $75 Australian dollars. That would’ve been a small fortune to a man such as him at the time. Once he got his money, he was gone. He wouldn’t have known what happened to you after that. He had what he wanted – he had his daughter to care for him and he was relatively rich into the bargain. Here is his mark on the surrender document.”
“Siddharth died a few years after he sold you, Amaira. Baghyashri subsequently married a good man and the union produced three babies. You have a half-brother and two half-sisters,” Wafiya said
The Taylors were thrilled. In fact, they were both heart-broken, joyous, apprehensive and anxious all rolled into one.
Janet was anguished that Baghyashri’s beautiful baby had been stolen from her but joyous that she had been blessed with raising her. Amaira was heart-broken for her birth mother to lose her, yet joyful that she had experienced a privileged upbringing with her loving adoptive parents. Both women were apprehensive and anxious, but excited too. Would Baghyashri accept her daughter and the woman who had brought her up? Would the husband’s pride be hurt by meeting his wife’s affluent child, or would he feel threatened in some way by this Australian family who by his standards were wealthy? Would the children embrace their elder sister?
“I’ll organise a reunion with your birth mother immediately,” said Wafiya. “I’ve lined up an interpreter to transport you and translate for you.”
Janet and Amaira were introduced to an amiable woman called Charita Anand. They seated themselves in her car.
The roads were a nightmare.
“Driving in India clearly requires the use of telepathy,” Janet said. “I’m glad you are driving and not me, Charita.”
“What is it you say? ‘Hold on to your hat’, Charita said. They all laughed.
Baghyashri’s dwelling was not quite in the slums, but its size and condition indicated that the family was still poor by the Taylor’s standards.
Baghyashri was standing at her door. The minute she saw her first child she was overcome with emotion. She wiped away copious tears. Janet motioned Amaira to go forward first. Amaira held out her hands to her birth mother and searched her eyes – for anything, truth, love, anything. As Amaira’s vision blurred with tears the two women embraced. Baghyashri
pulled away muttering emotionally. She gently touched her child’s face, her hair and her pretty outfit.
“Baghyashri is joyful that you kept the name she gave her,” Charita said to Janet.
Then the two mothers embraced. Janet too was tearful as she examined Baghyashri’s features for resemblance to Amaira.
Charita Anand was delighted by the women’s interaction.
Baghyashri told Charita to tell Janet that her name, ‘Baghyashri’, meant ‘fortunate’ and that she was fortunate indeed to see her baby again, so beautiful and accomplished. And fortunate that, if she had to lose her at least it was to a kind and elegant lady such as Janet was.
The children were introduced to their sister, tentative at first but enamoured by the meeting’s end. The husband appeared gracious and welcoming.
Janet asked Charita to request permission to return. For Baghyashri and her family, there was no hesitation. It was duly arranged.
Presently Janet and Amaira left with Charita amid joyous tears and smiles. Mother and daughter were returned to their hotel.
The Taylors had been advised that dinner at their hotel that evening would be shared with the patrons of a neighbouring boarding house which had sustained extensive damage in a fire that morning. It was an extraordinary situation, the solution for which required lateral thinking, and this evidently was what was decided upon.
Janet and Amaira were the first to enter the dining room. A notice board indicated the seating. They found that they were sharing a table with seven other diners. Dainty place-
cards with their names written in a pretty script indicated their seats. Next to the Taylors were Wendy and Alan South, and on their left was Wendy’s brother Samuel West. To his left were the Souths’ daughters, Allison and Libby. To the South girls’ left, and therefore, to Janet and Amaira’s right, were Caroline and Gary East.
Would you look at that Mum, whispered Amaira with a cheeky grin.
The names of all our dinner companions. They’re coordinates on the compass.
South-south west, south-south east, east…
Rhonda Valentine Dixon