In search of her roots
Her expression began to change as soon as she stepped into the Missionaries of Charity at Islampur in Old Dhaka on Christmas morning. The colourful Christmas decor of the premises could hardly draw her attention. She seemed visibly moved by a very special feeling, perhaps the most touching one of her life, as she came to the place she was born as a war child 45 years ago.
Was she looking for the room where her mother gave birth to her on May 4 in 1972? Was she trying to paint a picture of the brave woman for bringing her to this world, although not brave enough to raise the newborn? Or was she thinking about her life in Bangladesh had she not been abandoned as a reminder of trauma? It was not the time to disturb her thought by asking questions; she was better be left alone.
Now, sitting at the welcome room, Shama Jameela Mollie Hartt was listening to Sister Superior Javier, who was telling her how unwanted babies are taken care of at the charity and how many expecting mothers are given counselling against abortion. Shama, who now lives and works as a schoolteacher in Canada, speaks little. Her face betrays mixed emotions.
Her mother was among the many women left with unwanted pregnancies, bearing what served as an agonising reminder of their ordeal even months after the country was liberated.
Hundreds of the nearly 300,000 women who were raped by the Pakistan army members and their local collaborators during the war became pregnant. To get away from the physical incarnation of the pain and social stigma, many opted for abortions while many others could not — for various reasons — and had to come to terms with the reality. Shama’s mother was one of them.
“Pregnant women usually came after dark so that no one could recognise them. They wanted abortions but nuns gave them counselling for delivery, telling them that someone else might be willing to take the babies,” said Sister Javier.
Mustafa Chowdhury, who wrote a book on war babies, including that of Shama, said her biological mother went to the Missionaries with an intention of abortion too.
“She agreed to deliver the baby after a few days of counselling. Eventually, Shama was born premature and underweight,” said the Bangladesh origin Canadian who was accompanying Shama at the Missionaries.
The Sister Superior, working at the Missionaries since 1985, learnt from her seniors that most mothers did not want to even see their babies after birth. There were a few who wanted to take a look before leaving and never returned.
At the Missionaries, she was raised with dozens of other war children for two and a half months before a Canadian couple adopted her and took her to Montreal on July 19, 1972.
During the formal adoption in Montreal, the couple retained the name Molly that was given in Bangladesh, but changed the spelling to “Mollie” and added two more names, Shama and Jameela, because of their distinct meanings, in addition to the family’s surname, Hartt, according to Mustafa’s book, Unconditional Love: Story of Adoption of 1971 War Babies.
Shama, a Hindu name, means the flame of the candle and Jameela, a Muslim name, means beautiful. The couple believed naming of their child in such a manner would seem progressive that would offer their child a mutual identity.
Growing up, Shama gradually learnt about her past from her “parents” and had since been thinking about visiting her motherland. She along with her daughter came to Dhaka on December 22, in search of her roots, and visiting the Missionaries was perhaps the most thrilling yet trying part of her weeklong stay.
“I came to know that there is a record book here where something is written about me. This is the only record from where I can get an idea about me and my biological mother,” said an emotion-choked Shama.
But the existing rules of the Missionaries make it impossible for her to access those records, and Shama did not insist on it despite her strong desire to take a look at it.
During her university years, she did try to find out some information about her biological mother but heard there was no record.
“I think she [birth mother] was very brave for doing what she did,” said Shama, who grew up in a big family.
“We were nine children; eight of us were adopted from different places. Three of us from different countries — Bangladesh, Haiti and Vietnam — and the rest are from Canada but with various backgrounds.”
Shama, a successful teacher employed by Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, lives in Quebec with her 12-year-old daughter Savannah Jameela Bonnell, wished she could get honorary citizenship of Bangladesh.
Very little records are maintained at the Missionaries, like other such organisations, mostly about the babies — date of birth and the weight.
“At that time and even today, there is no provision of keeping records about the mothers, their addresses or identities for the dignity of the mothers,” said the sister, inviting Shama to the second floor to show her some of the abandoned babies.
There was music playing in one room. Some children were playing and singing as part of the Christmas celebrations. The children got new clothes, and some were sporting red Christmas caps.
In a room opposite to this, some newborns are kept. Some were being taken care of by women while some lay in cots. As Shama walked in, a lady was feeding a child some milk.
“We brought her after she was born in a city hospital last night,” the lady said, smiling. Next to her was another newborn on the lap of another woman. Shama walked up to them to have a close look.
“I am just like one of them,” Shama said softly.
As one woman approached with a baby, Shama took the baby in her arms and held her gently. After a while, she put the baby in a cot, and silently walked around to see other abandoned newborns.
Visibly overwhelmed by the experience of her two-hour stay, in her own words, it was surreal and moving to be back and see the place where she was born.
“How different my life would have been, had I stayed here. I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to be adopted. I think it would have been a very different life,” she said as she returned to the welcome room.
The most emotional part of the visit was yet to come. A lady with Christmas attire entered the room.
“Merry Christmas,” the lady greets Shama, identifying herself as Rumi. Her smiling face changed dramatically when the sister told her that Shama too was born there, as a war baby.
There was an emotional sharing between the two. They talked, hugged and exchanged feelings. They became intimate in no time. “Meeting her is something very special,” Shama said, fighting back tears.
Rumi was born at the Missionaries in 1980. Now a mother of two, she lives outside with her family but spends her day with the kids.
“We live in different countries but we are meeting at our birthplace. The only exception is that she lives far away and I am still staying here. I thank God for giving this gift, a sister, on this special day,” Rumi broke down in tears, holding Shama.
Shama came bearing Christmas gifts and donations for the orphans at the Missionaries, and gave some of the gifts away herself. Her Canadian mother also sent some money for the charity, which along with her own contribution, Shama handed over to the Sister Superior.
“This is the most memorable day of my life,” she told The Daily Star as she came out of the Missionaries. “I am going to Canada next week, but I wish to come back again sometime.”