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, tying together a miraculous sequence of events that once would have been ready fodder for Oprah Winfrey in her talk show days. Luckily for readers — and moviegoers — there is just such a tale in Saroo Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” which served as the basis for the acclaimed 2016 movie “Lion,” starring Dev Patel.
There is a real feeling of catharsis when reading Brierley’s astounding narrative. It comes in the classic sense of a happy ending, for the journey of the author, both as a boy and then again as a young man, evokes the audacity of a fable. However, 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 boy living in poverty, but rich in his mother’s and his three siblings’ love, to his life of comfort and affluence in Australia with adoptive parents and a brother.
The threads that connected his two worlds were gossamer-thin, the faintest of clues embedded in the unyielding memories of his childhood. Though it had once been his home, India was an abstraction for the author, a place his adoptive mother taught him about on a map.
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Little did Brierley know, it would be a map that led him back to the moment and place that changed his life forever — a train station, where at 5 years old, he boarded an empty train car searching for his older brother.
At that moment, the boy was 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.”
Thus began young Saroo’s nightmare. He was barefoot, penniless and desperately hungry and thirsty. Shock overwhelmed him and his mind went numb as he sat in that bustling train station.
He had been trained, as many poor children in India were, to avoid authority figures — for they had always led to trouble. For him, “It felt as if the people in the station weren’t people at all but a great solid mass, like a river or the sky, on which (he) could make no impact.” Invisible, he was simply another child devoured by the city.
Showing an astounding amount of resourcefulness for his age, he made a conscious decision to solve his problem by living off the abundance of trash and systematically boarded trains that left the hub of the city’s central station in the hopes of chancing onto one that would take him 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 began this terrifying journey.
Brierley writes of this time with 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 months, and sheer luck and the kindness of a handful of strangers saved him from the myriad fates that claim countless forgotten children.
The longer he lived on the streets, the more that life became normal. With the resiliency of a child, he learned the places to avoid and where to linger. As time passed, so too did the hope of reuniting with his family.
“The home I’d lost felt farther away with each bite of food that I foraged,” he wrote.
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 stop there for Brierley never abandoned the idea that his birth mother was still out there somewhere in India, and he longed for answers.
The remarkable outcome spurred by his determination to find his way home again could have only succeeded in the modern world, for without Google Earth, his story most certainly would 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,” he wrote. “I now have two families, not two identities. I am Saroo Brierley.”
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