Book review: ‘A Long Way Home,’ by Saroo Brierley
Special to the Daily
Every once in awhile, a story comes along that seems too remarkable to be true, the sort of miraculous sequence of events that would once have been ready fodder for Oprah Winfrey in her talk show days, or, as it turned out in reality, for a joyful movie, one seemingly larger than life. Luckily for readers — and moviegoers — there is such a tale: Saroo Brierley’s memoir “A Long way Home: A Boy’s Incredible Journey from India to Australia and Back Again,” which served as the basis for the highly acclaimed 2016 movie “Lion,” starring Dev Patel.
There is a real feeling of catharsis when reading Brierley’s astounding narrative, in the classic sense of a happy ending, for the journey of the author as a boy — and then again as a young man — evokes the audacity of a fable, but it is set in the real world, a place where wonderment and miraculous occurrences can often seem wanting.
Brierley’s story spans three decades, from his earliest years in India as a young boy, where he lived in poverty, but with a wealth of love from his mother and his three siblings, to his life of comfort and affluence in Australia with his adoptive parents and brother. The threads that connected his two worlds were gossamer-thin, the faintest of clues embedded in the unyielding memories of his childhood.
India was an abstraction
Though it had once been his home, India was an abstraction for the author, one his adoptive mother had to teach him about on a map. Little did Brierley know, but it would be a map that would lead him back to the moment and the place that had changed his life forever, the train station where he, at only 5 years old, had boarded an empty train car searching for his older brother, only to be swept away from everything he had ever known to Calcutta, “the sprawling mega-city famous for its overpopulation, pollution and crushing poverty — one of the most dangerous cities in the world,” a place where a small boy could be swallowed whole.
Thus began young Saroo’s nightmare. He was barefoot, with no money, and he was desperately hungry and thirsty after long, panicked hours on the train. Shock overwhelmed him as he sat in the bustling train station of Calcutta, his mind numb. He says he had been trained, as most poor Indian children were, to stay away from authority figures, for they had always led to trouble. “The people in the station weren’t people at all but a great solid mass I couldn’t make any impact on, like a river or sky.” He was invisible, simply another child devoured by the city.
With an astounding amount of resourcefulness for one so young, he made the conscious decision to solve his problem on his own, living off the trash that piled in abundance and systematically boarding trains that left the hub of the city’s central station, in the hopes of chancing on the one that would take him back home. But, therein lay the crux of his problem. Uneducated and unable to read, he did not know the name of his hometown, let alone the station from which he had begun his terrifying journey.
Brierley writes of this time with such honesty and expressiveness, the reader is transported to the terrifying bigness of the world that he inhabited as a lost little boy. His perilous situation lasted for months, and sheer luck and the kindness of a handful of strangers saved him from the myriad of fates that often claim countless unnamed and forgotten children.
But the longer he lived on the streets, the more that life became normal, and with the resiliency of a child, he learned where to avoid and where to linger, all to live another single day. But as time passed, so too did any hope of ever returning to his family. “The home I’d lost felt farther away with each bite of food that I foraged.”
Adoption and love
His eventual adoption by a loving Australian family ends the first chapter of his extraordinary story, but the gripping nature of the narrative does not end there, for Brierley never abandoned the idea that his birth mother was still out there somewhere on the vast landmass of India, and he felt compelled to use what morsels of memory still lingering in the corners of his mind to facilitate a return to her. He longed for answers.
The remarkable outcome of his determination to persist in the belief that he could find his home again could have only succeeded in the modern world in which he found himself living, for without the aid of Google Earth, his story would most certainly have turned out differently.
The narrative ramps up into deeply emotional territory as Brierley recounts the series of events that led him back to his Indian family, an experience that culminated in one emotional meeting after another and gave him a perspective on his past that gained him a new sense of peace. “I am not conflicted about who I am or where to call home. I now have two families, not two identities. I am Saroo Brierley.”