If you’re a fan of the TV reunion series Long Lost Family, you’ll know that behind the moving stories of disconnected family members often lies a trail of impeccable record-keeping navigated by the show’s meticulous researchers.
For those people who were born thousands of miles away from the UK, however, the challenge of tracing their past frequently proves far more complex. All too often the records that may shed light on their adoption have been lost, destroyed or even faked.
And that’s the distressing reality facing four British women as they return to Sri Lanka and India to trace their birth mothers for a moving two-part documentary in the BBC’s Big British Asian Summer starting this week.
- Everything you need to know about BBC2’s Searching for Mum: Sri Lanka
- “Shakespeare is so Bollywood”: Anita Rani shares her love for India’s cinema classics
- Sign up for the free RadioTimes.com newsletter
All four were adopted at, or soon after, birth, and raised in the UK – and all are gripped by a longing to know more about their background and meet the mother who gave birth to them.
At 27, Ria Sloan is the youngest of the four featured. A chef who lives with her girlfriend Kat near Inverness, Ria had a happy childhood in the Scottish Highlands, raised by parents who adopted her when she was just three weeks old from war-ravaged Sri Lanka via a Dutch adoption agency.
“I knew from fairly early on I was adopted,” she says. “I remember asking Dad why I was a different colour, and that’s when he told me I came from Sri Lanka. I didn’t fully understand, but I accepted it. Initially I wasn’t that curious.”
That changed as she entered her teenage years. “I was one of the very few Asians at secondary school, so while I’d always stood out, those differences became more obvious. I started to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed in Sri Lanka.”
Just a few documents and one photograph connected her to that life: a picture of Ria’s birth mother holding her as a newborn, along with a letter that described her as “unmarried, illiterate and unemployed” and incapable of supporting Ria. The letter also stated she didn’t want any further contact.
“I remember being very upset by that,” Ria says. “There was a rejection there that I didn’t know how to process.”
It took years for her even to try – only when she met Kat three years ago did Ria finally feel able to fully explore her past. “Now, looking back, I realise there was always this huge question mark – but it wasn’t until I was in a really secure relationship that I felt able to try to answer it,” she says.
Having taken the decision to return to Sri Lanka to embark on her search, Ria knew there were no guarantees. Omens did not immediately look promising: on arrival she had to confront the reality that not only was record-keeping often shambolic, but that the
records that did exist were not to be relied on, with many adoption agencies faking both paperwork and accompanying photographs.
For Ria, whose only palpable link to her birth was her one photo, this was devastating. “I had put a lot of trust into that photograph – it was really all I had – and then suddenly I didn’t know if it meant anything. That was very hard. I knew there was corruption but I hadn’t ever really related it to me. It felt pretty shocking.”
When the hospital cited on her birth certificate as her place of birth said it had no record of her, the prospects looked bleaker still – until Ria learnt that Lulelamulla, which was given as her mother’s home town, did exist.
Lulelamulla is a remote village around an hour’s drive south of the capital, Colombo, and Ria arrived there to discover that an extended family sharing her given birth name still lived there – in the house where she was born.
In the space of a few hours she had gone from having no blood relations she knew of to a grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins and – most movingly of all – a mum.
“It was quite overwhelming,” she says. “I had no idea I was going to be presented with so many family members – and to hear that they already knew about me was really special. It was a turning point mentally in terms of everything I thought I knew.
Her birth mother, Sumithra, told Ria how, abandoned by her partner and with her parents unwilling to support her, she was left with no choice but to give up her baby and had cried for three months afterwards.
“More than anything, I was just really happy to know the truth,” says Ria now. “That was enough for me in that moment.”
She stayed for two days, marvelling at the contrast between her birth family’s rudimentary life and her own and yet also at the family resemblances that linked them.
“I did feel very privileged when I looked at the circumstances in which they lived,” she says. “At the same time I felt very at home there. Pictures of my cousins when they were really young are almost identical to family snaps of me and that was an amazing feeling.”
She has stayed in touch since returning to the UK and plans to go back to Sri Lanka as soon as she can. “The distance means it’s not easy. My mum can’t speak any English or read and write, but I do video calls with my cousins and we send each other pictures,” she says.
“I’m very aware that we live very different lives, but that doesn’t matter. I have a strong yearning to go back.”
Her British parents have been nothing but supportive. “I told them this is no reflection on them – I just needed to find out who I was.”
It’s a discovery that has brought Ria renewed peace. “This big question mark that was a big weight on my shoulders – it’s now gone,” she says. “I totally underestimated how important my identity was until I found it.”
Searching for Mum: Sri Lanka is on Thursday 9.00pm BBC2