Brown Baggers met on June 15 to discuss A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly, a memoir about a young Indian boy who gets stuck on a train and transported away from his family at the age of five. Eventually he gets connected to an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple after no one could locate his parents or where he came from. The book has recently been made into acclaimed movie Lion.
Readers were surprised to learn this memoir was ghostwritten. Some questioned the veracity of the memories of a young child. Readers said a traumatic experience like Brierly’s would have made a strong enough impression to be remembered for life, but others wondered if a young child could actually remember details like what he had to eat for each meal 25 years later and if maybe he had assistance from his Indian family once they reconnected. Readers mentioned factual discrepancies with listed ages, which corresponds with the author’s own admission of being unreliable on timelines due to his hunger, exhaustion, and trauma. Many readers agreed that the early childhood facts being embellished didn’t concern them because they felt the story was emotionally true.
“What is truth?” Readers agreed that truth can be elusive and is something that might be searched for.
Readers were surprised to learn about some of the conditions in poor, rural India where Brierly was born. He was tasked with watching his toddler sister as a four year old which seems a lot of responsibility. He was also able to fend for himself for a few weeks in Kolkata when he arrives despite being so young. Just the magnitude of people, especially hungry and homeless children, was hard to imagine but it explained why adults in the story were reticent to assist young Brierly when he was lost on the streets. Readers figured being poor might have led to increased responsibility at a younger age.
Some readers thought there were problems with the narration of the book. They weren’t sure if it was a discrepancy between Brierly’s story and the ghostwriter, or Brierly’s more recent memories and adult voice versus the created version of his five-year-old-self. It didn’t stop anyone from finishing, but it did make it a little difficult for some readers to get into. It was also noted that Brierly’s telling is very unemotional, perhaps because of his traumatic experience and trouble connecting with people later on in life.
Readers talked about this being the best possible outcome for Brierly (or any adoptee) who goes seeking their birth family – a warm welcome, and family still where they were decades before. The happy ending is what made the story great and while Brierly encourages the search for adoptees (it’s why he wrote the book) it easily could’ve ended up much more disappointing.
Readers said the adoptive parents seemed to be great and do everything they could to make Brierly’s life comfortable and preserve his culture, although the seeking out of a “brown skinned child” could certainly be interpreted in a questionable way. Readers wondered if the hints at racism Brierly experienced might have been a little more damaging than he implies.
Readers who had seen the film agreed that it was good but the book was better.
Interviews with Saroo Brierley
Interview with Sue Brierley
From the WSJ
Brown Baggers will meet again on July 20 at noon to discuss Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.