A five-year-old boy lost and alone in a huge city. In our world, that would make headlines. But in India, it is everyday and commonplace for children to be abandoned to whatever fate deals out to them, and usually, fate is not kind. But in Lion, the incredible memoir by Saroo Brierley, what is initially a hopeless and tragic case of a lost child remarkably turns into a miraculous rescue and then a reconnection with what had been lost.
Saroo is the second youngest child in an Indian village family. His mother who has been abandoned by her husband works on building sites, leaving the children to care for each other. However, at five, Saroo tires of watching his younger sister and seeking adventure follows his older brother to the local train station to forage for food or whatever else he can find to sustain his hungry family. However, things don’t go to plan and five-year-old Saroo finds himself asleep on a train. Not only is he alone, but he cannot get off as the carriage is locked. When he finally manages to escape many hours later, it is into a world of chaos and busyness totally unlike his small village.
To our western world view, the sight of a five-year-old child alone on a train platform would have kindly adults alert to finding the responsible adult. Authorities would be on hand, and the media would be on standby with the story. However, in India, sadly this does not happen as many children are abandoned or even maimed so they can live and beg on the streets. And so tiny Saroo must learn to survive, and survive he does. One can only wince inside at his harrowing tale of eating food that he finds on the ground (after brushing off the dirt) sleeping rough and escaping sexual predators. Remembering he is only five, my motherly and grandmotherly heart went out to this child.
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Because it is not fiction.
It was true and it is still true to this day. Eventually Saroo is sent to a boy’s reformatory which is even more unsafe than the streets, and finally to an orphanage.
Saroo’s life changes for the better when he is adopted by a Tasmanian couple, the Brierley’s who have decided that adopting a child will do a little to helping the many homeless and abandoned children in the third world. Saroo settles happily into his new family life, learning English, going to school and having his health improve. His parents make sure he is in touch with his cultural roots and even ensure he meets other Indian families so he can feel at home. A map on his bedroom wall reminds him of how far he has come.
As Saroo grows to be a young man and eventually make his own way in the world, he starts to question his own identity, and so from a few scraps of memory and visual dreams, and with the help of Google maps and high-speed broadband, he invests many hours of work into finding his home. He does not know the name of his village but has a fragment of a word. What would make most people give up over a few days, however, absorbs this young man. His relationships, his Australian family and indeed, his identity hangs on finding out who he really is. Although happy in his Australian self, he knows he needs to find his roots in order to be complete.
What follows is a story of such stoic commitment, such minute attention to detail and on such focused determination, that when Saroo finally recognises his little village on the Google map, the reader breathes a sigh of relief. However, will he find his family when he returns and even if he does, will they recognise him and will they accept him?
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Lion was originally written as A Long Way Home and has now been made into a film which will be screened in the next few weeks. The book is not a long read, but it is intensely poignant, painful and yet triumphant. What could have been another tragic tale of a lost and vulnerable child either exploited or killed, ends up as a heartwarming tale of determination and bravery. Nobody could fail to be moved by this story or to be touched by the life of this courageous young man.
I loved Lion and would recommend it is a book that should be read by everyone, even if it is to just to reflect on just how lucky we are to be born into our western culture.
Lion by Saroo Brierley is available now from Dymocks.