All her life, Kamila had wanted to find her birth family. She hoped that retirement would give her the much needed time but a prognosis of incurable cancer put paid to that. They say curiosity kills the cat but not in Kamila’s case – it keeps her alive. As her own future shuts down, the past, that she had half-heartedly researched until she realizes that death is imminent, begins to open up. She discovers that her parents come from Switzerland and India. And that’s just the beginning…
This is the story of one woman’s quest for her origins – and some of the unexpected insights that lit up her path.
Kamila Zahno is an adopted British/Swiss/Indian woman who writes about identity, adoption and living with cancer. She has just published her memoir Chasing Ghosts: not just an Adoption Memoir, the story of growing up as a mixed-race child in 1950s Birmingham, getting involved as a black activist in the ‘80s, and her recent search for her birth parents’ families. Her book was researched and written while living with a diagnosis of incurable cancer. Kamila’s quest is interwoven with the attempts by her three adopted siblings to find their own birth parents. In 2015 her short story, The Search, an amusing account of her meetings with adoption counselors, was published in Tangled Roots: true life stories about mixed-race Britain. In 2015 she completed the Guardian’s year-long memoir writing course, tutored by Damian Barr.
She graduated with an MA in geography from Edinburgh University in 1974, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Western Ontario. She worked as a town planner for the London Borough of Southwark for several years, switching to a career in consultancy designing and implementing socio-economic policy for local and central government. One of Kamila’s favorite pieces of work was to facilitate local people to spend European Union regional grant money to address poverty in Tottenham, North London.
Kamila lives in north London with her cat.
Website – https://kamilazahno.com/
Extract from Chasing Ghosts: Darjeeling
A year after my mother’s death Dad scattered her ashes in Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens. I left soon afterward to visit her family in Calcutta and her birthplace, Darjeeling, in an attempt to capture her spirit and to discover my own origins. I had the idea of burning a photo of Mum and scattering the ashes in Darjeeling.
In the afternoon I visited Tenzing Rock, named after the famous Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who had actually climbed it in front of India’s first prime minister, Nehru. Located some way out of town, it was a pleasant walk on a quiet road. Certainly worth visiting, the sheer rock rose high above the road, but I didn’t fancy having a go at climbing it. Nearby, at North Point, was the start of the Ropeway, the cable car which travels over tea gardens down to the bottom of the valley. I was finishing a cup of chai at North Point when the Ropeway started up. I clambered in and soon I was completely alone soaring high over the Ranjit Tea Gardens for five kilometers. An eerily silent experience. There were no views of the mountains beyond but being swathed in mist was surely more atmospheric. I thought of Mum then and, if I had burned that photo, this would have been the time to scatter the fragments of paper on the valley below.
Just before reaching the valley the sun burst through the swirls of mist, creating a moment of clarity for me. Dad was right. Mum did love Edinburgh Botanics and her true spirit remained there, not in Darjeeling. Perhaps I had an overly romantic view of my mum being Indian and an unrealistic expectation that I would find that part of her – and of me – here in Darjeeling. Back in Calcutta, I had discovered her family background but Raadhika’s kindness and patience only fuelled my anger at being left out of this warm and loving family for so long. Pieces of my Indian heritage had been put in place by this trip, and I was thrilled, but it didn’t make me any more Indian.
And was it really my heritage? Who was I kidding? Just because I was Indian – partly Indian – didn’t mean this was my heritage. I had to face up to the truth that I had been running away from – Mum wasn’t my real mum. That’s why she felt that I didn’t belong to her Indian family. I needed to find my own family.
For more information on Chasing Ghosts see www.kamilazahno.com
Kamila’s Search for her Birth Family
This is a story and a half. I first started searching for my birth family in 1991 – the year after my adoptive mother died. It was a journey that was to take 25 years, a stop-start sort of journey with pauses and rests. For many adoptees, the death of their adoptive parents triggers a search for their birth family. It seems disrespectful somehow to seek out more families. Shouldn’t your adoptive family be enough?
I’d always been told that my father was Indian and my mother Swiss. I was fascinated by this mixture and was lucky enough to be adopted by a woman who was herself a Bengali from Calcutta. When Mum died I felt that link to India was broken. I set off to India for the first time to regain that link, but it didn’t work. I was a stranger wandering around India trying but failing, to fit in. My mum wasn’t my real mum, after all. I needed to find my own family.
That’s when I was first introduced to that strange being – the adoption counselor. In Britain, adoption was shrouded in secrecy for children born before 1976. After that, it became more open but for me, born in 1952, the whole thing was still secret. Birth parents couldn’t search for their children and adopted people had to go through an official process even to get their original birth certificates. The best place to start was the adoption services of the local authority so I arranged an interview with a lovely woman, Jenny. She’d been able to find some basic information – I was really pleased she confirmed that my birth mother was indeed Swiss and my father Indian. But her role wasn’t really to give me information, it was to test whether I was sane enough to take anything my adoption file might reveal. And to find out why I was searching and if I wanted to meet my parents. It was like an exam! I’ll always remember Jenny’s words: ‘Once you find out the basics, you might want to know a little more, then a little bit more, until finally you want to meet them.’ I told Jenny all I wanted to know for now was the circumstances of my birth. Having passed the exam Jenny then referred me to another adoption counselor, the keeper of my papers at the adoption agency.
That’s when I met the frosty Miss Keele who barred me from possessing my file – the story of my own life. But she did give me the letter my mother had sent to the agency to arrange my adoption. And that told me that she has been a Swiss au pair working north London and that my father had been an Indian student of engineering. And, unusually, in my file was a letter from my father saying he’d wanted to visit me in the agency’s nursery. Miss Keele told me that my mother eventually went back to Switzerland and I assumed that my father had returned to India once he had his qualification.
What to do now? Cold though she might have been, Miss Keele did give me the contact for an organization that could arrange to search further but when I asked them they said they didn’t have the resources to conduct international searches. I didn’t know how to proceed so I stopped looking – there was no Google to help me in those days.
It was not until my adoptive father died in 2007 that I took up the search again. Sixteen years after I first visited the adoption agency. A few years previously my sister Ellen had searched for her birth mother and she’d been given access to her complete adoption file. Adoption was no longer a taboo subject and it was recognized that adoptees shouldn’t be denied access to their own records. That whetted my appetite to find out more for myself. But this meant – guess what – yet another visit to that strange beast, the adoption counselor. I went through the same rigmarole but this time I was given my whole file to take away.
You’ll have to read my memoir Chasing Ghosts to find out what happened next!
For more information on Chasing Ghosts see www.kamilazahno.com