A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

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Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

1947 Migration to Pakistan, wikipedia

There are so many tragic stories surrounding the independence of India and the formation of East and West Pakistan, or the 1947 partition, as it’s often referred to, sadly thousands that will never be told because there is no one left to tell them. It was a moment in history that demonstrated what happens to humanity when fear and panic take hold in the wake of political posturing and it is devastating.

Train to Pakistan was written in 1956, a mere nine years after the British drew a controversial line through India, sending Muslims to the newly named Pakistan and banishing Hindus and Sikhs from that territory.

The author, who died in 2014 at the age of 99, belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in the area that was to become Pakistan, was an outspoken critic of the establishment, intolerant of hypocrisy, who abandoned his studies in law and diplomacy to become a writer. Witness to killings on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, his novel is his reflection of events in that period in history, his frustration with various parties and people in positions of authority and a comment on the individual living in fear.

Khushwant Singh takes the Punjabi farming village of Mano Majra, a small village on the border between India and Pakistan, one of strategic importance to the railway system, and narrates the moment when news of this change arrives and shows how it affects this community.

The trains are symbolic to the story, portenders of what is to come; in the past they have run like clockwork and though they rarely stop, the lives of the villagers is intricately linked to their passing. When the trains become delayed, the rhythm of the village gets out of sync and worse when the trains begin to stop in Mano Majra, life will never be the same.

An educated young man named Iqbal arrives from Delhi, sent by his party to observe the impact of the news.

Well, Babuji,’ began the Muslim. ‘Tell us something. What is happening in the world?
What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?
‘We live in this little village and know nothing,’ the lambardar put in. ‘Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?’

The villagers aren’t convinced by Iqbal’s idealistic view that freedom will follow Independence.

‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?
After a long silence the lambardar (Headman/Revenue collector) answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more land or more buffaloes?
‘No,’ the Muslim said. ‘Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.’

Iqbal and a young local man are wrongly arrested for a murder just as the village arrives as a point where it can longer deny what is happening elsewhere in the country. The town’s Muslims are told to leave and eerily quiet trains begin to arrive in the village, causing consternation and fear. The fate of the two young men becomes a political consideration, justice playing no role. It builds to a terrible climax and will leave them and generations to follow scarred by the experience.

Brilliant, a compelling read, and one that was relatively respectful to all who were affected and to readers with vivid imaginations, who don’t need certain scenes described in overly graphic detail.

Buy a Copy of The Train to Pakistan via Book Depository

Further Reading:

Obituary: Khushwant Singh by Reginald Massey

Partition: 70 years On – Authors consider its legacy and the crises now facing their countries

– featuring Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahmima Anam, Fatima Bhutto, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra and others

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

I came across Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup not long after reading the Sri Lankan author Nayomi Munaweera’s excellent second novel, What Lies Between Us which was published earlier this year and when I read her comment below on the novel, I was even more interested. Coincidentally, I’d been following Radhika Swarup on twitter and soon after seeing her book  around, she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading it.

‘A heartbreaking story … on a chapter of South Asian history that has often been deemed too painful to be explored fully.’
Nayomi Munaweera, Author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

River PartsIt is 1947, in the province of Punjab, which sits between India and Pakistan, an area where Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and others live side by side. Tension is mounting as political events cause rifts between friends and neighbours as many of the Muslim population support the area becoming part of Pakistan and many Hindu fear for their lives, while the same tensions exist among Muslims living in the predominantly Hindu parts of India.

They are all living on the cusp of Pakistan’s creation and the brutal partition of the two countries, which will split Punjab in two, the west becoming Pakistan, the east India, triggering the largest mass migration of humanity in history, affecting 10 million people.

Asha and Nargis are neighbours and best friends, they go to school together and spend time in each others homes, sharing their excitement at the future, especially as they are close to marriageable age and they know it’s something their parents are considering on their behalf. After he walks her to school for a week, Asha slowly becomes close to Nargis brother Firoze, a relationship that was unlikely to be accepted by their families even without the changes that Partition is threatening to bring.

‘Punjab has been set alight,’ he said at length. ‘It’s burning with a call for freedom, with a call for Partition.’

‘A call you favour.’

‘There’s no room for Muslims in a  free India.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘It is,’ he said firmly.

Partition 1947The thing they all fear most, that some desire most happens and Asha’s family leave their past behind and head for Delhi. Firoze helps them to escape and Asha leaves with a secret she has kept from everyone, the future unknown.

‘Suddenly those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatist and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed.’

We follow the life of Asha and all that happens to her, the sacrifices she makes, the effect of the secrets she holds and watches as the family she raises and lives among move far from the childhood and attitudes she has known. She makes peace with what has happened and accepts her new life, until 50 years later, when old memories resurface as she visits her daughter and grand-daughter in New York, who are in conflict as Asha’s Indian grand-daughter has fallen in love with Hussain, a young Muslim originally from Pakistan.

One of the most touching scenes in the novel, one that must have encapsulated the thought processes of so many, was when a grandmother from Pakistan asks Asha about Delhi because she too had been severed from her roots. That and the frequent, evocative references to the way she would make tea or other subtle habits that retained within them, the essence of where she had come from – representing those seemingly insignificant things people miss, that when they encounter again, provide immense nostalgic pleasure. Radhik Swarup evokes these memory inducing touches without sentimentalising, we sense it at a primal level, as those who have ever left home for an extended period will recognise.

‘But I want you to tell me about India. I want you to tell me what changed in Delhi after I left.’

‘It’s changed. There are new shops, new roads, new names.’ She saw the woman’s face fall, and she leaned forward, taking her hands in her own. ‘But in spirit it remains the same. It’s still a village at heart; noisy and intrusive. There are still the narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.’ The woman closed her eyes, considered Asha’s words, and a slow smile spread on her face. ‘In that case’, she said, ‘all is well.’

An often heart-breaking story of the impossibilities of love to survive political and religious differences and events, the way it changes lives, how people cope and the deep compassion required if it is ever to be overcome.

Author, Radhika Swarup

Author, Radhika Swarup

Radhika Swarup is an Indian author based in London, whose family was displaced by the Partition, having had to leave Pakistan and move to India, so the events and their repercussions are ‘engraved on our psyche’ .

Where The River Parts is her debut novel.

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The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

tuskTania James’s The Tusk That Did the Damage is a story about a couple of very young American film-makers who travel to a  Keralan wildlife park in South India to make a documentary about a veterinarian they’ve heard of, who rescues orphaned elephants. One of those orphaned elephants is now on the loose and is being pursued by poachers.

The young elephant orphaned after the brutal death of its mother, initially seized as a baby by poachers earns the name Gravedigger after developing a reputation for covering his human victims with leaves and dirt after death. Having escaped captivity he is being pursued by poachers, a significant price on his head.

Manu is the younger brother of a poacher, disturbed by what he discovers his brother is up to and the lies he tells his wife to cover for his absences. For the sake of his mother, who pleads with him to watch over her eldest son, he follows his brother on this last deadly pursuit, to try to ensure his safety; he knows the danger very well as his best friend was one of the victims of Gravedigger, but he hopes to keep his brother out of danger and trouble.

It is a story of a tribe of elephants in South India, who have lost their ability to roam freely and live as their nature intended, forever changed by their interactions with humans, it is also about those who wish to care for and protect elephants, those who are willing to exploit them and outsiders looking for a sensational story to bolster their careers.

Remembering India

Remembering India

It is a clash of cultures, of people and species who have forgotten how to live in harmony and are having to live with the consequences of their behaviours.

The narrative follows the elephant they name Gravedigger, the film maker Emma and Manu, the younger brother of the ivory poacher.

“Fresh out of college, we’d been looking for a subject for our first documentary feature when I learned about Ravi from an inflight magazine. The photos of fuzzy elephant calves hooked me for the usual cutesy reasons; the description of the veterinary doctor glowed with dramatic potential.”

The story moves between the three narratives, following their lives, looking back at the events that have shaped them until now, leading them towards each other and the inevitable confrontations that beckon.

“The trouble began when my mother found a pouch of bullets in Jayan’s cabinet – thick and crude as if sawed from a steering rod – and thrust the pouch at my father. She felt it a father’s duty to straighten out a wayward son even if the father himself was wayward past hope.”

There is an authenticity to the narrative of the younger brother that has the effect of drawing the reader deep into the lives of his family and neighbours, that his story involves more than just himself may be one of the reasons I was captivated by these sections.

The insights into the perceptions from the elephants point of view are sensitively if briefly handled, I wished this narrative voice could have been even stronger.

“I had never stood in such intimate company with a wild bull elephant or felt its breath steaming upon my face, had never watched the ground beneath my feet fall away until all that remained was the small patch on which I stood trembling. How could a man survive such a thing unchanged? How could he glimpse that unholy omen, a warning as ancient as the oldest of fables, as obvious as a black-bellied cloud, and ignore it?”

The film-makers felt unnatural in the environment, lacking understanding, empathy and not spending sufficient time to learn anything, they were the major weakness in the narrative for me. It is interesting having recently read Yasmina Khadra’s The African Equation, that both authors depict a similar stereotype of the Westerner entering into a foreign culture for a short period of time, insufficient to be able to able to understand it from the inside and this case, perhaps not wishing to see it in any other way that a sensational one.

It might be time for me to read  Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland, brought to my attention by Ann Morgan, in her A Year of Reading the World project. The author ran away from his native Togo, to avoid having to be initiated into a snake cult and after reading a children’s book about a place called Greenland that had no snakes, he made that his destination. For the next twelve years, he travelled overland working his way towards his destination, sharing his observations and experiences. Not just an adventure, his book published in 1977 in France won a literary prize and since Ann Morgan read and reviewed it, the story has been picked up by a film producer.

*

Note: The Tusk That Did the Damage was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Gogol, The Namesake

I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ from the library recently, I seem to have read her work in reverse order, starting with her most recent collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ a collection of stories of the experience of second generation immigrants and moving eventually to the book that won the prize.

As I mention in one of my first (and most read) blog posts ‘Why People Don’t Read Short Stories’, it is not my habit to read a short story collection straight through, I stop and start and read them at random and so it has been with both these enticing volumes.

I noticed the bookshop book club was reading ‘The Namesake’ this month and I had just read an excellent essay by Lahiri in the New York Times called ‘My Life’s Sentences’ relating to her love of certain paragraphs in books and the construction of a sentence, so I decided to read her only novel ‘The Namesake’ which had been on the shelf since seeing the Mira Nair directed film a few years ago, which I loved.

‘The Namesake’ refers to Gogol, the Bengali son of the Ganguli family who immigrate to America, a consequence of Ashoke’s (Gogol’s father) changed outlook on life following a serious train accident, a catalyst for change that impacts and shapes the lives of all his family, an event that he does not speak of to his son until he is an adult.

The train is used as a metaphor for change in the novel, many of the significant turning points in the lives of the characters take place during a train journey, which in itself transports people physically from the familiar to a less familiar location and is an environment that one usually cannot escape from.

Not speaking about things is common among these characters, aided by the distant third person narrative which skips from the present to the past, in particular the most dramatic events are seen through the prism of the past, drawing the reader into this protective shield from potentially harmful events.

Gogol, is American, but his Russian name, his Bengali family and their culture mark him as different to many in his community. His home life is different to the average neighbourhood child and he finds himself like many children of immigrants and third culture kids, living between two worlds.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all grow up seeking to affirm our sense of personal and group identity, absorbing those questions of Who am I? Where do I belong? Traditionally, the family and the community reflect that notion and it is not until we step outside those comfort zones that we might question it. But for children growing up among worlds and between cultures the awareness comes much earlier.

For most of his life once he becomes aware of the differences, Gogol does what he can to minimise them, seeking out the ordinary, trying to blend in. He tries to suppress his cultural links, portrayed through his choice of girlfriend and change of name.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Lahiri’s short stories, which portray composites of life for immigrants of first or second generations from India, this book highlights one family’s experience, the dilemmas that each generation face which will mould their characters. We follow Gogol’s journey, try to understand it, imaging ourselves in the shoes of another, witness to the culture clash within this one family.

I consider briefly the clash of cultures within my own small family and understand the inclination to put it toward the back of mind. Writing is a good option for expressing the pathways of these experiences. I wonder if the presence of a large community from the parent culture assists or hinders integration. I find these stories leave many more questions than answers; there is no guide, just individual experience and the necessity to persevere, to survive.

India My Heart

Over the long weekend I read the lengthy ‘Shantaram’ by David Gregory Roberts set in Mumbai (Bombay). I have never been to Bombay, but I did spend a month travelling in India in 1995 and the experience remains imprinted in my heart and memory, for me the country and its people have no equal. I love it. It is at the very top of my list of destinations, experiences and insights.

The first pages of this extraordinary story are reminiscent of many travellers’ journeys to India, the assault on all the senses, the welcoming committee, the brick of rupees, the taxi rides.

the glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face.”

“The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.”

“there were beggars, jugglers, snake charmers, musicians, astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers”

India is where you are introduced to your wits. Until I travelled there, it was a mere expression ‘make sure you have your wits about you’. In India, they rise up within you from some deep, slumbering place inside and become a living, breathing extra sensory force, providing a necessary equanimity and alert, their reward, insight.

Shantaram’ is the story of an Australian fugitive, posing as a New Zealand traveller who arrives in Bombay and unlike most travellers who stay only long enough to experience the city and plan their next destination, he stays.

Without exception, those who stay are escaping something and what that is, seems to have a direct relationship to how deep they become involved in the city’s underworld activities. Roberts stays out of trouble to begin with and provides a delightful insight into his blossoming friendship with Prabaker, who truly does represent India’s heart. Due to misfortune he moves to a slum where he spends his days working from his well-stocked first aid kit, providing rudimentary medical treatment to the inhabitants as he becomes part of the fabric of the slum community.

The two friends spend some months in Prabaker’s home village with his family and these are chapters are my favourite, portrayed with humour, a sensitive understanding and compassion. It is the calm before the storm and a period that I didn’t want to end.

Prabaker told me that family and his neighbours were concerned that I would be lonely, that I must be lonely, in a strange place, without my own family. They decided to sit with me on that first night, mounting a vigil in the dark until they were sure that I was peacefully deep in sleep. After all, the little guide remarked, people in my country, in my village, would do the same for him, if he went there and missed his family, wouldn’t they?”

However Robert’s luck changes when he is arrested one night and discovers he has unknown enemies with unknown motives and the experience of prison will unleash the darkest aspect of his character. When he is finally released he goes to work with the Bombay mafia, delving into the world of black market drug, currency and false document dealings all the while awaiting that future moment where he can exact revenge against his enemy.

This book draws you into a frightening and fascinating world that I am not sure whether we are better off knowing of or remaining in blissful ignorance of. I guess it is no worse than being subjected to the news media every evening with its plethora of images and reports of violence, oppression, corruption and greed, something I waver between wishing to avoid (and often do) and needing to have a balanced and informed awareness of.

What I perceive is the oft dreadful consequence of a genetic predisposition combined with early life tragic event that leads to a kind of corruption of the soul, I am reminded of Jonathan Ronson’s dip into the characteristics of a psychopath in The Psychopath Test which describes someone charming and influential who lacks empathy, and has an intense need to be liked. I don’t think the character in this story is a psychopath, but many in his circle survive precisely because they are not beleaguered by the emotional constraints of sympathy or empathy whether they were born like that or have become that.

Chilling indeed, though more than offset by that other extreme, a city of people whose smiles are in the eyes which broaden to encompass their whole face and being to cross that divide between people of different cultures and leave us with a warm, perplexed feeling. How is it that among such poverty, despair and ruthlessness exist the happiest people on earth?

And to know the answer to that one can only go there, experience it and ponder it oneself.