- Book: A Long Way Home
- Location: India, Melbourne, Tasmania
- Author: Saroo Brierley
Two small children run through the main train station in Pushkar, bright red mud and sand caked into their hair. They pull at our trousers and beg for money for naan bread and shampoo, grinning and showing us their blackening teeth. ‘Don’t give them any money’ replays in my mind, a sentence I’d hear numerous times escaping the lips of Indians and travelers alike. It was usually followed by ‘they won’t receive any of the money’ or ‘you’re only helping their exploitation’. It had been repeated so often that I barely stopped to think that the poor, barefoot children roaming the streets of India are just that. Poor and barefoot.
Poverty in India confronts you from all sides. It’s in every street, in every smell. As awful as it is to say, after a while you turn yourself off from it. You’re no longer horrified by the small children cleaning the trains, your heart no longer hurts for the thousands of people sleeping at the side of the road, and you start to find the begging at every turn, annoying rather than upsetting. This is why I am so glad I read A Long Way Home whilst I was still in India.
I came across the book in a secondhand book shop in Cochin, whilst my friend and I were seeking refuge from some particularly persistent scarf salesmen. The previous day we had had a conversation about poverty in India and whether it is in any way helpful to give someone 10 Rupees. With the help of a particularly long bus journey, I read the book in 2 days.
The story is unbelievable. I mean, really hard to believe. At the age of five, Saroo is separated from his brother when he falls asleep whilst cleaning a train. After many hours he wakes up completely alone in Calcutta. The novel depicts life on the streets for a small orphan in one of India’s biggest cities. He escapes abduction by a gang who force children into work, avoids starvation and ends up in one of Calcutta’s horrific orphanages. He is eventually adopted by an Australian couple and grows up in a wealthy western household. He can never, however, truly forget his family and his early life in India. Twenty-five years later, with the help of Google Maps, numerous sleepless nights and the faint memory of a water tower near his home, he searches for his village with the hope of finding his family.
It is a remarkable story and perfectly brought to the life the truly awful dark side to the child exploitation and poverty in India. The poverty I had started to become oblivious to. One passage, which really struck a chord with me was the terror the young boy felt when he arrived in Calcutta. He ran through the station, dirt in his hair, pulling at the trousers of any adult he thought could help him, asking them in a strange language (Hindi, whereas the locals in Calcutte speak Bengali) if they had seen his brother or knew where he was. I thought back to all the children who had spoken to us in foreign tongues, who, we had presumed, were begging for money, to whom we had either said ‘no’ to, or just completely ignored.
I know it isn’t possible to give every child and every beggar in India money. However, after reading ‘A Long Way Home’ I like to think that I have become a little less blind to it. It is a scary thing to think that you have lost your compassion for other humans and don’t believe that a small child, alone, in a big city in India is anything but innocent and desperate.
The book has been made into the film “Lion” and is nominated for several Oscars. You will weep buckets!