His face is a picture of concentration as 22-month-old Avnish Tiwari races toy cars across the mosaic floor of his home in Indore, in central India. But the moment the doorbell rings, he grins, and pushing away his toys, he races to the door and waits for the maid to answer it. It’s barely open before Aditya Tiwari enters, and scoops up the little boy into his arms.
‘How are you, my darling,’ the 28-year-old man says, swinging the toddler around until he giggles. The little boy holds Aditya’s face between his palms and kisses him.
The pair are as close as any father and son – except they’re not biologically related. Aditya adopted Avnish, who has Down’s Syndrome and a heart condition, a little over a month ago.
‘I brought him home on January 1,’ Aditya says. ‘Avnish is, without doubt, the best new year’s gift I could get.’
Adopting a special needs child would have been hard on any couple. What makes this situation even more remarkable is that Aditya is single – and India’s youngest man to adopt a child.
‘I’d wanted to adopt him from the moment I saw him, and I was determined to bring him home,’ he says. ‘Now I’m indescribably happy.’
However, the process wasn’t easy. The software engineer spent 15 months struggling with a rigid bureaucracy to adopt the infant, who he first met in September 2014.
Aditya was accompanying his mother Santosh, 60, to visit an orphanage in Indore, as she wanted to give out sweets to celebrate her husband Kailash’s birthday. ‘My parents were often involved in several charity initiatives and helped in matters of social care, so I grew up surrounded by the desire to help and make a difference,’ he says. ‘We always went to the orphanage run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in our home town. We used to make regular donations and visit the children.
‘Then, I saw this baby. He was dressed in a white tee and was lying forlorn in his little bed. But the moment he saw me, his dark eyes seemed to light up. He smiled and kept staring at me, his eyes filled with hope. It was a look of desperately wanting to be loved. I just felt I could not leave him. Ever.’
Even though he wasn’t married, had no intention of becoming a single father, and had no idea of how to look after a baby, Aditya realised at that moment that he needed to look after the little boy.
‘It’s hard to explain,’ he says. ‘It’s as if we had a connection, a bond. It was instantaneous. I just couldn’t take my eyes off of him or bear to be away from him.’
Upon enquiring about him, the orphanage authorities told Aditya that the baby had been abandoned by his parents two weeks after he was born in March 2014, after tests found he had Down’s Syndrome. Additionally, Aditya was informed that Avnish had a congenital heart condition as well. Called ventricular septal defect in medical circles and commonly referred to as a hole in the heart, it’s a hole in the wall that separates the right and left ventricles of the heart.
‘But that only made me love him all the more,’ says Aditya. ‘I was determined to take him home as my son and provide him with expert medical care.’
Aditya met with the orphanage managers and asked if he could adopt the boy right away. He was met with refusal.
‘They said I couldn’t adopt the baby because I was single,’ he says.
‘They did not tell me that even single men could adopt a child although, according to the regulations, the man has to be over 30 years. And I was only 26.’ Aditya went home that evening and couldn’t stop thinking about little Avnish.
The next day, he contacted the Central Adoption Resource Authority (Cara) and State Adoption Resource Agency (Sara). But he didn’t receive an answer.
Frustrated after waiting for two months, Aditya contacted the Ministry of Women and Child Development and registered a complaint, saying he was yet to get a reply from the adoption authorities.
The move paid off. The ministry wrote back informing Aditya that the legal age to adopt a baby for an unmarried man in India is 30. But he was unwilling to wait another four years, and decided to make his plea to the highest authorities of the country, including the Indian prime minister and the president.
Meanwhile, having begun the adoption procedure, Aditya decided to take care of all the financial needs of Avnish, including paying for his medicines, food and therapy. ‘I would visit him almost every day either before going to work or after and spend time with him,’ he says. ‘We developed a strong bond and I could see that he was looking forward to my visits.’
This continued for almost a year. ‘I’d talk to my mother and sister Priyanka Dave, who is married, to learn more about childcare and how to be a good parent,’ he adds.
But last March, Aditya was in for a shock: he was told Avnish was going to be moved to Delhi, where he would be put up for adoption by couples from overseas.
‘I was devastated,’ he says. ‘I became very stressed and couldn’t imagine life without him. I called the Delhi centre but they were not helpful. I was terrified of losing him. That’s when I decided to take serious action.’
Aditya once again contacted Cara and Sara for help. He also emailed human rights activists, members of parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.
He spent over two months reaching out to as many people as possible, requesting the rules to be amended so that he could adopt the boy at the earliest.
‘Apart from age, the main issue was that I was single,’ Aditya says. ‘Many government officials wondered why a single man in his mid-20s would want to adopt a boy with Down’s Syndrome. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that it could be because I wanted to give him the love of a father.
‘I wanted to make it clear that one doesn’t need to be married to be able to be a loving father to a child who needs it.’
But it wasn’t only the authorities that Aditya had issues with. His family as well as many of his friends were worried about his plan. ‘We’re big on tradition in India,’ says Aditya. ‘No one had heard of a single man adopting a child. People thought I was crazy. My parents worried I’d never be able to find a wife because I’d adopted a child.
‘But I explained how much I loved this boy and that we had a connection. I told them that it wasn’t just about me; I had a duty towards this boy now. What would happen to him if I didn’t take him?’ Eventually Aditya’s parents agreed and soon became his biggest supporters.
Meanwhile, the charity where Avnish lived told Aditya that one of the hurdles he would face was that the biological parents hadn’t legally handed over the child for adoption.
To tackle the issue, Aditya set up a meeting with the boy’s parents in their home town Bhopal, about 200km away.
‘I also wanted to understand why they abandoned the boy and request them to legally surrender the baby to the government so I could adopt him,’ he says. ‘And I found that the parents [who cannot be named for legal reasons] were quite well placed and financially capable of taking care of him.
‘Their only issue was embarrassment. They told me they felt ashamed within their society because of his condition. It was a shock and I felt terribly sad. They made it clear that they did not want to have anything to do with him.’
Avnish’s biological parents were happy to legally surrender him to the government and signed the requisite papers last June. ‘I begged the charity not to send the boy to Delhi and just hold on for a little longer,’ says Aditya.
In August 2015, the laws of adoption were amended – and government officials say Aditya’s case was a crucial catalyst – and the age limit for single men to adopt children was reduced to 25.
‘I was elated when I heard the news,’ Aditya says. ‘All my hard work appeared to have paid off.’ But there were still a lot of paperwork and checklists to get through.
‘A whole team of government officials conducted a detailed study and review of my background – how I live, what my house, qualifications, earnings and character are like, etc.’
Month after month passed and the wait was unbearable for Aditya. Finally, on January 1, Aditya was awarded official custody of Avnish. ‘It was a wonderful moment,’ he remembers. ‘It had been a long fight and there were times I didn’t think it was going to happen, but I couldn’t imagine life without Avnish so I kept on fighting.
‘Avnish is a special boy. Yes, he has Down’s Syndrome, a hole in his heart and poor vision, but he is full of love. He’s a very special child and now he has a family that loves him.’
Aditya has already contacted doctors in Mumbai to correct Avnish’s heart condition. ‘They have been very optimistic,’ he says.
‘Since I’ve brought him home, the bond with him has only grown stronger. I know what he likes to eat – dal, rice and roti. He also has a sweet tooth.
‘He enjoys playing with me and one of the most amazing things is that he rarely cries. He enjoys meeting people and never throws tantrums.’
Aditya relies on Santosh and a nanny to look after Avnish while he’s at work. Would he like to get married some day? ‘Of course I would,’ he says.
‘There is even more pressure on me to marry now because I have to prove to everyone that a single man with an adopted son is not an unsuitable bachelor.
‘I want a wife who will help me care for Avnish. I want him to have a mother.
‘I want to give Avnish everything he deserves. He’s had a tough start in life but from now on, I will ensure he has a good one. And maybe one day, I’ll adopt another child so Avnish can have a sibling.’