A Long Way Home

by

Saroo Brierley

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A Long Way Home: 13. Returning Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Saroo explains that he feels as though he has to do one final thing: take the train from Burhanpur to Kolkata as an adult. He initially tries to buy his ticket in Khandwa, which is no easy task: train tickets in India must be certified in order to guarantee a passenger their seat for the entire journey, and not speaking Hindi complicates matters. Swarnima helps Saroo figure out what route he might have taken as a child. There are two possible options: one that goes south with a transfer in Bhusawal, and one that arcs nonstop all the way to Kolkata.
The struggle to match up Saroo's fragmented childhood memories of being on the train with the modern train schedule is something that's surely complicated by the years that have passed between the two journeys. This also isn't something that technology can really help with, as there's simply no way to validate what happened to him as a child. 
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Looking at the two routes, Saroo is forced to confront how uncertain his memories of the train are. It’s clear that his belief that he was only on the train for 15 hours was wrong; there’s no way to get from Burhanpur to Kolkata in less than 24 hours, and 29 hours is a more common travel time. Saroo also realizes that his assumption that he woke on the platform and boarded the train in front of him must be wrong as well. He would’ve boarded a southbound train from that platform, and southbound trains don’t go to Kolkata directly. He realizes he either changed platforms or changed trains at some point.
It's worth noting that part of the reason Saroo cannot ever know for sure which route he took has to do with his poverty, not just his spotty memories: his lack of education meant that he wasn't able to even make any memories of the names of stations that he passed through, since he couldn't read the signs.
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Saroo explains that his memories of that night aren’t clear. Sometimes, he has a flicker of an image of jumping off a train and getting on another one, but he’s unsure if it’s real. If it’s real, it could mean that he did go to Bhusawal and boarded a train to Kolkata, though it’s also possible that in Bhusawal he got on the same train going back from whence it came, slept through the Burhanpur stop, and went to Kolkata on the other route. There’s no way to be sure. Saroo decides to honor his memory of being trapped on the train and books a ticket on the Kolkata Mail from Burhanpur.
The decision that Saroo is forced to make (which route makes most sense versus which route best fits with his memories) illustrates how there are times when what's actually most important about memory is simply choosing to honor it without questioning its truth. In this way, Saroo decides that what matters is that he felt trapped and alone, not that he takes the route that's actually the most probable.
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It’s unlikely this was the train Saroo took, as it would’ve only stopped in Burhanpur for two minutes and a conductor would’ve checked off new passengers. This is one of the mysteries of Saroo’s journey, however: he doesn’t remember seeing conductors at all, and conductors are a constant on interstate trains. However, Saroo remains firm in his decision to take the Kolkata Mail. Before he leaves, he visits Kamla one final time to take family photos. It’s emotional to get to say goodbye to his mother before leaving for the train this time, as he hadn’t gotten to as a child.
The absence of conductors in Saroo's memories could point to a number of things, including the possibility that he simply blocked memories of seeing them or that he was able avoid them successfully. Then, by saying goodbye to Kamla, Saroo is in some ways able to make peace with the way things happened the first time. This is a way to symbolically atone for or ease the pain that his first journey caused everyone.
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Saroo watches fireworks in Burhanpur that night, somewhat worried about what reliving his childhood memories might dredge up or what memories it might challenge. Saroo wakes later to a knock on his door from a rickshaw driver, showers in cold water, and heads for the Burhanpur station at 4:00 am. When they arrive, Saroo reads that the train will be an hour late. He takes the time to look around the station. While it had been dirty when he was a child, it’s now very clean. Saroo studies the opposite platform, sure that it’s where Guddu left him and where he boarded.
As an adult, Saroo's education and literacy means that he can conduct himself with far less anxiety than he did as a child. Rather than panicking, as he did when Guddu was late, Saroo can calmly and reasonably decide to wait and just sit with his memories in the station.
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Saroo catches the eye of a chai seller across the tracks and motions that he’d like a cup. Just as the seller regains his platform after serving Saroo, a freight train rushes by at full speed—trains don’t slow down at stations in India. Saroo wonders if Guddu died doing the same thing the chai man just did. He thinks that despite the confusion surrounding which platform he boarded from, he still feels sure about what happened after he boarded: he looked for Guddu, curled up to sleep, and woke to bright sunlight. He reasons that the time must have felt like eternity to a five-year-old.
Again, simply being an adult, being able to read, and being able to recognize these unknowns sheds light on Saroo's childhood memories. Even if he cannot ever fully reconcile his memories with the information in front of him, taking the memories and this information together shows how both can at the very least create a more complete picture of his terror and lack of knowledge as a child.
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Other passengers arrive on the platform in time to catch the late train. A conductor ushers Saroo into the appropriate first-class carriage. Saroo wonders about his memory of the carriage being empty, something that never happens in India. He wonders if his carriage was maybe headed for repair or was a work train. As the Kolkata Mail pulls out, Saroo shivers and reminds himself that he’s setting things right by taking this journey.
Again, it's possible that in his terror and distrust of adults, Saroo may have simply avoided the adults and then not remembered them. It's impossible to know, but the lack of concrete information again adds to the sense of mystery surrounding Saroo's first journey and the good fortune he experienced because of it.
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Saroo explains that when he was a child, most people traveled by rail. The trains weren’t fast then and still aren’t fast now. After an hour of being on the train, Saroo realizes that if he indeed took this route as a child, he went right through Khandwa. He wonders if he slept through the stop. Had he woken up, he could’ve simply gotten off and gone home.
Again, it's mere coincidence that Saroo could've just gotten off the train and gone home. Realizing this adds more emotion and meaning to Saroo's memories, as it shows again that there are clearly things he didn't realize at the time.
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Saroo’s train comes to life with the sounds of ringtones, conversation, and vendors selling chai and food. As Saroo walks to the pantry car, he becomes more convinced that the train he was on as a child must not have been in use given the major differences and the lack of passengers. He makes a point of studying the landscape outside, which is much like he remembers it. He thinks that he’s more anxious than nervous about returning to Kolkata as night falls.
The possibility that Saroo was on an out-of-use train would be a major coincidence, supporting even further Saroo's belief that his journey to Australia and back again is one guided by chance and luck. Theoretically, it's possible that if his train had been in use, he could've found someone able to help him and gone home.
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Saroo feels at peace lying down in the bumpy train, listening to the Hindi around him. Earlier that day, he’d spoken with a little boy who was excited to practice his English. They talked about cricket, and the boy seemed disappointed that Saroo isn’t married. The boy did seem satisfied when Saroo explained he has family in both India and Tasmania, and he realized that he’s also satisfied with that answer.
Saroo's satisfaction with having two families suggests that he's becoming more and more comfortable with his new extended family—and further, that it's not even especially interesting or strange for a small Indian boy to hear about.
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Late the next morning, the train begins to slow down. Saroo looks at all the tracks snaking out from Howrah Station and realizes that he never stood a chance of finding his way home as a child. Finally, at 12:20 pm, the train reaches Howrah Station. Saroo stands on the platform, noticing that now, people surge around him—as a child, they’d ignored him. He thinks that one upset child in such a busy place wouldn’t have been a strange sight. Saroo finds the station hauntingly familiar, though he doesn’t notice any homeless children inside. He notices some outside, and can barely believe he survived. He takes a taxi to his hotel.
Saroo's disbelief that he survived again shows how far he's come from his early childhood of poverty—it's difficult for him now to truly and viscerally remember what it felt like to be so poor and reliant on only his street smarts, because he no longer needs them. This again shows that kindness and care can help break down some of the effects of poverty.
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That afternoon, Saroo meets up with a translator and takes a taxi to the ISSA office to visit Mrs. Sood. The office looks exactly as it did when Saroo was a child, and Mrs. Sood is shocked to see Saroo. Though she’s in her eighties, she remembers Saroo perfectly. She inquires after Mum and Kamla, and then asks a social worker, Mrs. Medhora, to find Saroo’s file.
Mrs. Sood remembers Saroo, because for her, adoption is something that truly affects people; it's not just something theoretical. It's a way for her to truly make the world a better place, and Saroo's return is proof of that.
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Saroo explains that Mrs. Sood has been helping children for 37 years, and has arranged about 2,000 adoptions. She was born in New Delhi, earned a law degree, and facilitated her first adoption in 1963. After she helped a Swedish woman adopt an Indian child, the woman wrote about Mrs. Sood and inspired Mrs. Sood to move to Calcutta, receive training in adoption, and finally open ISSA in 1975. Mrs. Sood explains that while Saroo’s adoption had been easy, intercountry adoption is now very difficult—it often takes between one and five years.
Though Saroo doesn't speak much about the laws that govern adoption, adoptions can take such a long time mostly because of the rules surrounding them. Though they're often intended to support and protect children, an unfortunate side effect is that the process can take longer. Some of these systems set up to help can also end up causing harm—but there is no clear solution to the issue.
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Saroo thinks of Mum, who is still very frustrated with how difficult adoption can be, especially after her experience trying to adopt Mantosh. He explains that in 1987, it only took a few weeks to arrange his adoption. Mrs. Sood explains that it’s very common for families to do what Saroo’s parents did and adopt a second child from India. Finally, Mrs. Medhora returns with Saroo’s file. Saroo reads that he was taken to the police on April 21, 1987, classified as a child in need of care, and then spent a month in Liluah. From there, he was turned over to ISSA on May 22. ISSA then had two months to either find Saroo’s family or declare him adoptable by another. If they hadn’t been successful, Saroo would’ve been returned to Liluah, as Mantosh was.
By comparing Saroo's experience with Mantosh's, it becomes clear that Saroo's life could've easily gone very differently. It was undeniably wonderful that things went the way they did after he was turned over to ISSA, but it was also absolutely a matter of luck. While Saroo's story is special, so many children in India are simply not as lucky as he was.
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ISSA had photographed Saroo and published the picture in several newspapers, none of which were distributed anywhere near Khandwa. He was declared free for adoption on June 26, the Brierleys were approved to adopt him on August 24, and he received his passport on September 14. Ten days later, he boarded the plane for Melbourne. Mrs. Medhora also explains to Saroo that he’d been wrong about why he’d been released from Liluah; while he used to think it was because he was in good health, it was actually because he was lost. ISSA intended to reunite him with Kamla.
Mrs. Medhora explains that they took Saroo in because he was lost, showing that even though ISSA is an adoption agency primarily, it also places a great deal of importance on its charges' birth families. Essentially, it recognizes all sorts of families as valuable, and does what it can to support them in any way possible.
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It also comes to light that ISSA hadn’t known that Saroo spent weeks on Kolkata’s streets. He hadn’t offered any information and likely wouldn’t have been able to tell them much had they asked specifically. They believe he was very lucky to have survived in Kolkata for several days, let alone weeks. Finally, Saroo bids Mrs. Sood goodbye. He gets back in the taxi with Mrs. Medhora and the interpreter to visit Nava Jeevan. The building Saroo remembers is now a free daycare center. Then, they visit the Juvenile Court and finally, Liluah.
Now that Nava Jeevan is a daycare center, it means that there are more children who won't be unattended during the day, as Saroo was as a child—and in turn, those children hopefully won't suffer the same kind of heartache Saroo did as a result of being separated. ISSA's shock at hearing that Saroo had been on the streets for so long reinforces just how lucky he was, and how unusual his story truly is.
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The building looks like a fortress, and Saroo remembers the massive gates outside. Now, the building is a home for women and girls. Somehow it seems less brutal, though it still seems like a place one would want to escape quickly. The visit to Liluah helps ease some of the pain Saroo feels about his past. He wonders how people could’ve slipped over the tall fences without anyone saying anything, and he feels thankful that he survived.
The people who snuck into Liluah likely had some degree of power over those in charge of protecting the children there, suggesting another way that trying to do the right thing can become complicated in bureaucratic situations like this.
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To end his journey, Saroo walks the streets near the Howrah Station. He marvels that he could still smell the fruit as a child over the stench of human waste. He walks to the river, but decides to not go down to the edge. He instead decides to cross the Howrah Bridge. The crush of humanity is incredible, and Saroo marvels at how small he must’ve felt as a child. After walking a short way across, Saroo stops and looks back to the riverbank. He looks for the holy men he slept near but doesn’t see them, and also observes the place where he almost drowned. He thinks of the homeless man who saved him, as well as the teenager who took him to the police. Saroo thanks the homeless man as the sun begins to set.
Though the homeless man is certainly deceased by now, Saroo is able to use the book itself as a vehicle to thank all these people who helped him survive as a child. What matters more is the fact that Saroo is finally able to make it public that these people took it upon themselves to help him for seemingly no reason. In turn, he encourages the reader to think about people who may have helped them and how it may be possible to thank those people and pay the kindness forward in some way.
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