April 30, 2018 by readingoutside
If you’ve heard of this book, it’s most likely because the Academy Award-nominated movie Lion was based on it. I actually saw the movie first and wasn’t all that impressed. I found it to be too melodramatic and awkwardly-paced. However, I was intrigued by the story behind it and had a hunch that the book was going to be much more interesting. To my surprise, it was not only better, but absolutely amazing! Taking a chance on this book was one of the best reading decisions I ever made.
A Long Way Home is the real-life story of Saroo Brierley. Saroo was born in India in 1981 and lived with his mother, sister and two brothers in a poverty-stricken village. His father walked out on the family when Saroo was very young, and his older brother Guddu became the man of the family. When Saroo was only five years old, he accompanied his brother to a nearby train station and waited on a bench while Guddu was out working. Guddu never returned. Saroo fell asleep and when he woke up, he tried to find his brother on a train waiting at the station. However, the train was empty and Saroo got locked into his compartment. For hours, he remained trapped on the train until he finally ended up in Calcutta.
Once in Calcutta, Saroo found himself in a confusing sea of people, none of whom were able to help him. For months he survived on the streets confused, scared and alone. The fact that he was able to fend for himself, at only five years old, is absolutely astonishing to me. But as Saroo points out in his memoir, he was used to hunger, poverty, and fighting to survive.
Saroo finally got the help he needed thanks to a kind stranger, and he eventually found his way to an orphanage and was adopted by a family in Tasmania. His new life was a huge culture shock of comfort and affluence beyond his wildest dreams. Even though he quickly learned to love his new family and home, he never stopped thinking about his Indian family, wondering what happened to them.
For years, Saroo clung to his memories until he stumbled on Google Earth in the 2000s. Using only his distant, faded recollections of his hometown, he embarked on an impossible search over millions of square kilometers of satellite images. For six years he meticulously traced train track after train track, doubting he would ever find his home, until one fateful night changed everything…
As soon as I started Saroo’s story, I was immediately hooked, and from there it remained completely fascinating, never dragging at any point in the narrative. Something about the details of Saroo’s life drew me in, particularly the early memories of his childhood in India. He is the same age as me, and I was curious to learn what life had been like during his childhood there, comparing it to my own comfortable 1980s childhood in Canada. It is almost impossible for me to imagine a world where a child can be lost, millions of children can be lost, and the world just lets them live on the street without caring. I also found his quest to find home deeply intriguing, as I imagine in the same scenario I would also become as absorbed and obsessed as Saroo was. By the end I cried so many times I lost count. The last few chapters are beautiful and perfect. There are still so many questions – what exactly had happened to Guddu that night? Why had there been no one on Saroo’s train? – and there will never be satisfactory answers. But in the end, Saroo is able to find some sort of closure that helps him build a new identity in the happiest of ways.