Greetings from Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta! I’m actually not staying here long at all because my travel plans changed recently; I’m just here on a short layover, and I’ll probably be gone by the time you see this post. I read this book in advance of my trip, though. As you’ll see, this Saroo Brierley’s Calcutta story is so mind-boggling and extraordinary that it’s hard to believe it’s all real!
When he was five years old, Saroo Brierley snuck out with his brother to tag along while his brother cleaned the local rural train station. His brother told him to stay put and wait for him to return, and Saroo fell asleep on a bench. It was night when he awoke, and here was no sign of his brother. Scared and disoriented, Saroo got on a train and fell asleep. When he woke up again, he got off the train, and not recognizing anything, jumped on the next train thinking it would take him back home.
Instead, he arrived in Calcutta and became one of the thousands of children who live on the street. He cried for help, but he didn’t know his full name or the name of his village, so there was little anyone could do to help him. He was more fortunate than most to be taken into an orphanage, and even more fortunate still to be adopted by a loving Australian couple. Still, his past and the questions about what happened to his family haunted him, and with the advent of technology, he got the idea to scour Google Earth to look for landmarks he remembered to track down his village.
There are only a handful of solid details that Brierley remembered about his five years of life before everything turned upside down — in fact, even his name isn’t the one he was born with; “Saroo” was what he knew according to his five-year-old self’s phonetic understanding — but he does have vivid memories of his siblings. Living in rural India, Saroo, his siblings, and his mother knew hunger; he writes of scavenging for food as a young child. It’s these experiences that saved him when he was alone on the streets of Calcutta, and he does discuss the myriad ways these children are vulnerable to predators and life-threatening situations.
Brierley has had a life that would not be possible if he had grown up with his family in India, and though he readily acknowledges this, he talks about his sense of loss and his urge to know what happened to his family. He begins his Google Earth searches in secret, anxiously waiting for Google satellite images to load in the slow early days of the Internet. Once he commits, he figures out a plan to conduct his search more constructively. But starting with a rough radius from Calcutta that still covered enormous swaths of land, tracking down his village — much less his family — was a longshot.
It’s astonishing that his methods actually worked and that his memories from when he was five years old were all he had to work with. I listened to this on audiobook, and I was constantly gobsmacked by his story. I’m glad it all worked out in the end.
A Long Way Home was released in Australia in 2013, then internationally in 2014.