A Long Way Home (Penguin Australia, 2013), by Saroo Brierly with Larry Buttrose, is a book worth reading even after you have seen its internationally renowned film adaptation Lion (2016). Like many readers, this reviewer is deeply moved by the story of a five-year-old Indian boy who became lost on a train, survived for weeks on the chaotic streets of Calcutta, was adopted by an Australian couple and relocated to Tasmania, and, 25 years later, was able to reunite with his Indian family after searching for and finding his home town using Google Earth’s satellite images.
But it is Buttrose’s calm and sensible writing that really shapes Brierly as the main character of this book. The story is expertly told, presenting a man capable of facing his own shadows while maintaining faith in the light of his life. In the midst of all the traumatised memories is a determination to return to the beginning, a sense of purpose equipped with an acute awareness of possibilities/opportunities to confront both failure and success along the way. A mature man, indeed, who reflects and keeps hoping, who knows himself well.
Buttrose’s Wikipedia page reveals how he ghostwrote A Long Way Home in 2012:
[Buttrose] researched and wrote the book between September and December of that year, including research trips to Hobart to interview Saroo and his family, and a month-long journey to India with Saroo. There he met Saroo’s Indian family, and travelled with Saroo on a rail journey across India, retracing for the first time the journey that Saroo took two and a half decades before as a young child, that ended him in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Buttrose completed the book in his Kolkata hotel room, and emailed the manuscript to the publishers Penguin on the date of the deadline.
This is no doubt an interesting and rewarding process, to get to know a person so well that one is able to tell the story of that person’s life in such an intimate way yet remains professionally invisible in that story. It is perhaps a writer’s ultimate goal, to live in the world of his/her own subjects and share their experiences while maintaining some sort of detachment from them, achieving a perfect balance between the story itself and the act of storytelling.
Another fascinating issue raised in this book is the major role played by one’s memories in shaping one’s identity. Although these memories may be vague or even false, they contribute to the mapping of one’s life and serve as guiding beacons according to which one learns to affirm one’s positioning. As Brierly says at the end of this book in Buttrose’s words:
Even as I poured all my efforts into tracking down my home town and family, I was never searching in the hope of somehow getting back to the life I had missed. It wasn’t a matter of needing to right a wrong, nor one of wanting to return to where I belong. I am not Indian. I grew up almost all of my life in Australia, and I have family bonds here that cannot be challenged or broken. I wanted to know where I came from – to be able to look at a map and point to the place where I was born – and to throw light on some of the circumstances of my past. Most of all, though I tried to keep my expectations in check as insurance against disappointment, I hoped to find my Indian family so they would know what had happened to me… But I am not conflicted about who I am or where to call home. I now have two families, not two identifies. I am Saroo Brierly. (p.252)
It can be hard for many to position themselves between cultures, as they struggle to self-identify or face identification by others using man-made ethnic, linguistic, gender and/or even religious labels. How many of us can confidently say we are who we are, that we know who we are? It appears to be a precious lesson that we are still learning.
More details about A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly with Larry Buttrose can be found here.