Book review: A Long Way Home

A Long Way HomeA Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sweet story of how a child of five managed to survive lost in the city of Calcutta for weeks before being taken in by police, put up for adoption, then moved to Australia before, improbably, finding his birth mother still living near his childhood home 25 years later, using Google Earth, of all things.

The first third of the story depicts life in the Indian village of Ganesh Talai, where the poverty-stricken family struggles to find enough to eat. Eventually Saroo’s older brothers start begging and working around the railroads farther away from the village and one time the eldest, Guddu, offers to take the then-five year old Saroo with him for the day. Exhausted by the long train ride, Saroo waits on a platform at the station after his brother promises to return later that day–but never does.

After growing impatient, Saroo tries to find his way back home by boarding another train but ends up on a journey that takes him 1500 km away, ending with him in the giant rail terminus of Howrah, in the city of Kolkata (then Calcutta). Surviving on a combination of wits, fast legs, a general distrust and begging, Saroo spends weeks in Kolkata before finally being taken by a teen to the police and reported as lost.

Fairly swiftly he is adopted by an Australian couple and moves to a new home in Hobart, Tasmania. There, 25 years later, he uses Google Earth and then Facebook to begin an improbable quest to find his hometown and birth family.

But he never finds them. The book is only 20 pages long.

Kidding! While later admitting his search methodology could have been more efficient, Saroo does eventually find his home village and the reunion with his mother is touching, yet bittersweet, given the lost years and the fate of his older brother, killed by a train (hence why he never returned to fetch his younger brother).

While his memories as a five year old are sometimes inaccurate–he will never remember the exact train route he took that managed to land him in Kolkata) he retained enough detail about his home town to positively identify local landmarks on a satellite map, an amazing achievement, more so given the lengthy passage of time.

Even now, writing this review, I am still struck at how Saroo’s dedicated effort yielded the proverbial needle in the haystack. This is a remarkable story and well worth checking out. The photos (at the end of the ebook version) are especially sweet, showing the reunited family with smiles all around.

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