Abandoned at birth, Swede returns to Mumbai for clues on biological mother

Erika ‘Sheetala’ Sandberg (41), who was adopted from a Matunga orphanage by a Swedish couple, returns to renew her vows with the motherland

Erika Sandberg holds a photo of son Jonas. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Erika Sandberg holds a photo of son Jonas. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Mumbai-born Erika Sandberg aka Sheetala admits that she felt an overpowering need to connect with India only after the birth of her son Jonas seven years ago. In all fairness though, Sandberg never knew India, much less Mumbai. The 41-year-old Swedish national was abandoned two days after birth at a Matunga orphanage, and within months, adopted by a loving couple from Sweden.

Sandberg, who is on an annual visit to India to help her son, Jonas alias Shante, keep his roots with India, candidly admits that she has no interest in tracking down her biological parents. But, there is a ‘godmother’, Swaran Ahuja, who prompted Sandberg’s first attempts to connect with India.

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Erika Sandberg jams with her father during a session with intellectually-disabled adults in Sweden
Erika Sandberg jams with her father during a session with intellectually-disabled adults in Sweden

Fairy godmother
Sandberg, who was born in Bombay on January 2, 1976, was handed over to a Matunga orphanage — Shradhanand Mahila Ashram — when she was just two days old. There, little Sheetala (her Indian name) had her first encounter with Ahuja, a resident of Churchgate who was tasked with the process of three adoptions.

Swaran Ahuja (left), an orphanage coordinator whom Sandberg considers her godmother
Swaran Ahuja (left), an orphanage coordinator whom Sandberg considers her godmother

“She came to see me once a week for the eight months before I moved to Sweden. I call her my godmother because she always watched over me, even after I moved to Sweden... When I was a year old, Swaran [Ahuja] came to see me to make sure I was doing well. Then, after I turned 15, she again came to see me. My mother and she kept in touch through letters during those years.”

What perhaps prompted Ahuja to share a close bond that transcended borders and time was their coinciding birth dates.

Loving parents
Sandberg’s isn’t a heartbreaking story of abandonment. She found loving parents in a Swedish couple, who often opened their hearts and doors to the less fortunate around them. The couple were already foster parents to 16-year-old Sten when Sandberg came into their lives.

“I grew up in a small village 60 km south of Stockholm, Sweden. My parents would get home all the less fortunate children from in and around our village who could not go anywhere during summer vacations, and did everything possible, including taking them out on excursions, to make their vacations memorable,” says Sandberg.

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As a child, she stood out in her village and was often bullied for her Indian features. But, it was her parents’ love that helped heal all wounds. Although they were always open about her roots, they made it clear that race or colour would never stymie their love for Sten and her.

Enjoyed being different
“I looked different from other children. I was the only one who had brown eyes and dark hair, whereas others, including Sten, were fair. I was bullied by other children in school and at play, but I enjoyed having a different identity,” she says.

Being conscious of her looks at all times prompted her to visit India with her mother at the age of 19. The visit was solely to fulfil her desire to connect with her biological parents.

“I was told my biological parents couldn’t be tracked because no one knew where I came from. I made my peace with that and since then, have never given much thought to my biological parents. I believe the people who take care of you and keep in touch with you are your family.”

“I was happy with Swaran [Ahuja] in India and my Swedish parents. My mother and I did another trip in 2001 to meet Swaran and her family,” she says.

World-wise
It was perhaps the realisation that she had been ‘saved’ by her Swedish parents that have prompted her to give back to society. “I always wanted to see the world. I started with Australia at the age of 18, where I worked on ecological farms. I later settled in Sweden with a man I was dating and studied to be a lecturer. I earned a scholarship to spend some time in Egypt to make a film on a small fishing village there,” she says.

After returning to Sweden, she worked as a teacher for three years before getting the itch to get back to working as a volunteer. “I was trained by the United Nations, learned some Arabic and was then sent to teach at a refugee camp in Jordan for four months.

She returned home to work with the children of immigrants. That’s when she met her now live-in partner, Anders (59), with whom she had Jonas. “When he was born, we started coming to India every year. The connection with India became important and I wanted him to be part of this culture too. My son looks like me and I’m glad about that,” she laughs.

Immersed in the arts
Sandberg has spent the last seven years immersed in music and theatre with intellectually-disabled adults in Sweden. “I recently joined the university to study leadership in social work to start my own NGO,” she says.

So, does she want to adopt a child from India, too? Sandberg cites her age and health - she suffers from multiple sclerosis - against taking such a decision. She, however, wants to support orphans and assist disabled adults connect with the world through music.

Sandberg, Anders and Jonas are currently in Goa and will leave for Sweden on February 19.

Giving back
Soon after Sandberg’s parents death in the last five years, she auctioned household property and wanted to donate Rs 80,000 from the proceeds to the Matunga orphanage. “But there has been no response to my letter. I have now approached another orphanage, Bal Asha Trust in Worli, who have agreed to take the donation,” she says.

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