"For 28 years I’ve wondered what happened to this lady with the sad eyes who never got to see her baby grow up," says Leila. She was born in Kolkata, India and brought up in Brighton after being adopted. Leila has only one photograph of her birth mother – the lady with the sad eyes – which she's kept from the few documents provided by the orphanage where she was left at just one day old.
In BBC Two's new documentary series Searching For Mum, 28-year-old Leila travels to India in the hope of tracking down her biological mother and meeting her for the first time. "The strange thing about being adopted is knowing that you could've lived a completely different life with different parents," she later adds."It’s only been a couple of years that I’ve realised that this woman may have been forced to give me up, and she might be thinking that one day I would come back to India to find her."
"I reached a point where to know nothing about my birth mother feels like a massive void and it needs to be filled." Thrust into the chaos and confusion of trying to piece together bits of the past proves to be an emotionally challenging journey, and we quickly discover that Leila's search for the missing part of her identity is more common than first thought.
Kolkata is often considered the heart of adoption in India. Over the years, thousands of babies have been given up amid circumstances such as poverty or secret, socially unacceptable relationships. Leila learns that she falls into the latter camp but holds on to the hope that, at the very least, she was born out of love. Her adoptive parents were told Leila's mother was a domestic servant who had an affair with a wealthy businessman from out of town, and wasn't able to keep her daughter because of the taboo surrounding the 'legitimacy' of her child. "It's a bit like a Disney film," Leila muses optimistically, albeit remaining aware that should she find new information on this journey, everything she knows about her birth may turn out to be a lie.
With little more to go on than a single photograph and the name and address on adoption documents that were compiled almost three decades ago, Leila soon realises that the information she has might not be enough to uncover the truth of what happened to her mother. She is escorted through Kolkata by Ian, an adoption counsellor who has helped other adoptees with their searches and who shares a similar story. He and Leila are two of more than 4,000 children sent abroad by the International Mission of Hope (IMH), an orphanage that specialised in babies born from unwanted pregnancies. It closed in 2003, resulting in thousands of lost records and even more loose ends.
Unlike Ian, who was raised in America and left with little to trace back to his biological parents, Leila was one of the few babies adopted in Britain, where immigration required a full set of papers with those all-important contact details. After a promising start, their search uncovers a history of systematic cover-ups and sharing of false information within the IMH. False names, incorrect addresses and misleading accounts of how the orphanage operated are all brought to the surface in what transpires to be a wildly disheartening system, leaving Leila with even less of an idea of who her mother is than when she first started.
The poor handling of information about adopted children and their biological parents is echoed in 43-year-old Teri’s story. She shares this episode with Leila and also travels back to Kolkata for the first time since adoption, only to be met with similar frustrations and standoffs. Much like 38-year-old Rebecca and 27-year-old Ria, whose adoption stories are told in part one of the series, Searching For Mum: Sri Lanka, the programme raises difficult questions which, despite the women’s best efforts, have proven almost impossible to answer. Why were adoptions so poorly (and in some cases, deliberately) recorded on such a large scale? Can you be confident in your identity without knowing who your biological family is? And how do you move on if you never find the answers?
Searching For Mum: India is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm