A LONG WAY HOME
Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home, was the basis for the 2014 Academy Award nominated film, Lion, that featured much-praised performances by Dev Patel as Saroo and Nicole Kidman as his mother by adoption, Sue Brierly. Born into an impoverished family in a rural village in India, Saroo went missing at age five, inadvertently traveled over 1000 miles from home, was rescued from the streets of Kolkata and became the adopted son of the Brierly family of Hogarth, Tasmania (Australia). Should you read the book if you’ve seen the film? Yes, absolutely; in fact, read the book and see the film which is visually and emotionally moving.
The memoir adds more to the story including the conditions of Saroo’s family of birth, his survival as a street child, and how he found his family of origin twenty-five years later. It also relates the stories of his two mothers: Kamlu and Sue. Kamlu’s struggle to raise her family was aggravated by India’s essential cultural/political divide. Hindu by birth, Kamlu married a Muslim who later deserted her and their four children. This left her marginalized within a village split into Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods and stigmatized as a woman who failed to keep her husband. (Interestingly, when Saroo discovers his mother as an adult, he finds she has converted to Islam). Living in the nowhere land of this poor community, the family barely survived. Sue Brierly’s past is another central part of Saroo’s story. After a childhood marred by alcoholism, poverty, and neglect, Sue became determined to adopt children whom she might rescue as she rescued herself.
The memoir reminds the reader that a child experiences their life in their own particular way. Saroo has vivid memories of Kamlu, his brothers and sister that are full of affection, fun, and adventure as well as hunger, factors that led to the circumstances through which he became lost. His admired older brother made regular trips by train to a nearby town to pick up odd jobs for a few pennies, an irresistible draw for Saroo who begged his brother to go along. His brother granted the wish without their mother’s knowledge. A nine-year-old supervising a five-year-old had the kind of outcome one might imagine: a confused Saroo woke up from a nap at the train station, could not find his brother and forgot he was supposed to wait there. In his child’s mind, all trains must lead back to his village, so he hopped back on. Three to four days later and 1000 miles east he ended up stranded in the megacity of Kolkata, tossed into the life of a street orphan.
By luck, and through an innate sense of self-preservation, Saroo survived for some weeks, avoided an attempted kidnap and child trafficking gang and was rescued by a private organization, ISSA, that later arranged for his adoption. ISSA made a sincere effort to return him home by publicizing his case and his photo in regional newspapers. However, based upon his confused account of his journey they targeted an area that was much closer to Kolkata than his actual village. Complicating matters he did not know his family’s surname, nor the precise name of his village.
At the same time, he had vivid visual memories of the terrain, a lush green area, and of important structures: a lake, a bridge, a water tower by the rail station and a fountain in his village. Wisely, when he was seven, mum Sue had Saroo relate all of this to her, and together they made a map of his remembered landmarks, thereby fixing them in his mind. This map is reproduced in the book along with over seven pages of color photos and illustrations including the Google Earth maps that help lead him to his home province. Saroo’s virtual exploration of India lasted several years of working the internet sporadically with the encouragement and aid of friends. Then, social media brought him into contact with someone who recognized one of the landmarks recorded in his childhood map. This internet quest makes a fascinating narrative.
In real space and time, Saroo traveled to his India home, unannounced and unsure if the village he targeted was the right one (it was not possible to communicate with anyone there). In a matter of minutes, he was reunited with Kamlu, the mother whom he had adored and who kept living on the same block all those years in the hope he would find his way home. (No spoiler here: the book and movie make this clear from their beginnings). His other discoveries about the family, and the epilogue that follows make a poignant end to this memoir well worth its 255 pages. – Martha Hildreth