By Daniela Frendo, Epicure & Culture Contributor
At the age of seven, Chellamuthu was kidnapped and sold to a Christian orphanage in India. From the poverty-stricken village of Erode, he suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar place three hours away from home. He begged people at the orphanage to return him to his family, but his pleading was to no avail. Eventually, Chellamuthu was flown halfway across the world to Salt Lake City, Utah where he met his adoptive parents. He was also given a new name. Taj.
Child trafficking remains rampant in many parts of India. According to Child Line India, over 40,000 children are kidnapped every year. About 11,000 of these cases sadly remain untraced. New Delhi has particularly high numbers for kidnapping in India. The majority of abducted children are exploited as sex slaves or trafficked for forced labor. Many others are snatched from their parents and sold for adoption to unsuspecting couples.
Thirty-five years after his abduction, Taj traveled back to India with the hope of tracing his biological parents. His remarkable journey has been the inspiration behind The Orphan Keeper, an autobiographical novel by award-winning author Camron Wright, which has just been released early September 2016.
Epicure & Culture interviewed Taj to learn more about his transition from one culture to another, and his mission to discover the truth about his past.
1. What is your earliest memory of the orphanage?
I have several memories of the orphanage: I remember a circular fountain where as children we would gather for our baths and to sing songs. It was filled by a spout that stuck out from the wall, which was pretty amazing to me, since at home we would carry in our water in buckets.
I also remember there was a large rectangular room where all the children slept. And they had electricity there, a luxury I didn’t have at home. I was one of the older children, and as such, I would help care for the babies.One man's harrowing story of being #kidnapped in #India, and what he did to adapt and #survive Click To Tweet
2. How would you describe the orphanage?
The orphanage was generally clean, at least by Indian standards, and we always had enough food to eat. That was a new experience for me being from a family that was extremely poor. I don’t remember being mistreated at the orphanage in any way, and would say that the people were kind and that the children were generally well cared for.
3. What was it like to be brought up by a new family and in a different culture?
At first it was difficult. Everything was foreign to me—carpet, electricity, strange food and a language I couldn’t understand. Add to that the fact that in my new community, I was the only dark-skinned person for miles. In short, I was lonely, scared and missing home.
Gradually, however, as time passed, I adapted. I came to understand that to survive in this new and strange place, I was going to have to forget my past and face my present. I focused on learning English, on fitting in. My new parents also got me involved in scouting and sports—and over time, I developed a new life—and identity—in the U.S.
4. So what prompted you to embark on a journey that would help you discover your roots? What obstacles did you face along the way?
As I grew to be a young man, the questions about my life that I’d carefully hidden away seemed to resurface. Questions like: “Who am I? What is my place in this world? How exactly did I end up here?”
During this time, I had the opportunity to go to London for my church. It was my first opportunity since arriving in the U.S. as a child to interact with large groups of Indians—people who looked just like me. At first I was terrified. But then, as I’d smell their curry, see their colorful dress, and hear their language, memories of my childhood began to come back. While in London I even drew a crude map of my home in India—things like a park, a river, the huts where we lived. I was determined then that I was going to go back to India one day and try to find my family.
That opportunity occurred a handful of years later when I met — and eventually married — a girl named Priya from southern India. As we started to date we discovered that she had some amazing connections to my past. Most notably, her father had been friends in India with the orphanage owner, the very orphanage where I’d been sold as a child. What are the chances?
When I finally returned to India with Priya, the only clue I had was the orphanage address on the letters my mother had received. Sadly, I found the orphanage had been closed down. I also learned that the orphanage owner had passed away a few years earlier. It was a moment where I could have given up, but I felt like something inside was driving me forward.
Through an amazing series of both discoveries and setbacks — and a few coincidences that are still hard to believe — I eventually reunited with my family, only to find that despite the many years I’d been gone, my Indian mother had never given up looking.This #book tells the story of a man who was #kidnapped in #India and found his parents 35 years later Click To Tweet
5) Do you think that your story will help raise more awareness about India’s stolen children?
I would guess my story will bring attention to the issue, but I hope it also draws attention to the good in life—the blessing of adoption, for example. My intent isn’t to lament the negative, but rather to celebrate the positive. We all have challenges, sorrows and regrets—some of which are beyond our control. It’s what we make of those challenges that will shape who we become as people.
Do you want to help end kidnapping in India and the trafficking of children? Please see the following project and organization links. Note: Before donating time, money or resources please do your own research into any organization or project, whether listed below or not.
- GoodWeave.org: Working to end child labor in South Asia’ weaving industry.
- UNICEF.org has a number of ways to get involved on their website, from donations to raising awareness online and more.
- Check out the Women Under Siege Project, a journalism group investigating “how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st,” in India and other parts of the world.
- Donate to or volunteer with Child Line India.
- Donate to or volunteer with Prajwala, who work to end the trafficking of children and women in India and beyond.
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