A Long Way Home

by

Saroo Brierley

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A Long Way Home: 2. Getting Lost Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Saroo vividly remembers caring for his baby sister, Shekila. He's her sole caregiver when Kamla is away, working for days at a time. During the hot months, Saroo's family sits in the courtyard with the other family that lives in their house to sing and drink milk. These are happy times in Saroo’s memories. Kamla is a Hindu, while his birth father is a Muslim. His father is often absent, and when he is around, he’s very violent. After he moves in with his new wife he attempts to make Kamla move away, but Kamla is too poor to move. Finally, he has to move himself.
Noting that Kamla’s poverty is what kept her from being able to move is an early example of the ways that poverty shapes people’s lives in fundamental ways. Her poverty means that she has little ability to dictate the terms of her life. However, it’s also important to recognize that Saroo remembers this as a happy time, in spite of the poverty his family experienced. Essentially, poverty and joy aren’t mutually exclusive.
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Saroo is too young to understand his parents’ separation. His only vivid memory of his birth father is visiting when he is four years old to see his father’s new baby. Kamla gets Shekila, Saroo, Kallu, and Guddu up and dressed early to take a day-long journey by bus and on foot. The next morning, Kamla doesn’t accompany her children to her husband’s home. Saroo is happy to see his father and thinks his father’s wife is nice. The children spend the night there, although Guddu and Kallu run away that night. Saroo learns later that they were unhappy with their family’s situation and wanted to escape. They’re found later that morning, safe and sound.
This journey—and the fact that Kamla doesn’t accompany her children for the actual visit—illustrates again how little power she has to dictate the terms of her life because of her economic standing. Though Saroo doesn’t mention it, this is also the product of her gender: she has little power to stand up to her husband because she’s female, which shows too that family can help people thrive as well as trap them in dangerous circumstances.
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Later that same morning, Saroo watches his birth father approach and realizes he’s chasing Kamla. She finally spins around to confront him. As they shout at each other, Hindus line up with Kamla, while Muslims line up with Saroo’s father. Saroo and his siblings move towards Kamla when suddenly, Saroo’s father throws a rock at Kamla’s head. She falls, bleeding, and this manages to shock the crowds and dissolve the tension. Saroo later fixates on this moment as being indicative of Kamla’s courage, as well as how vulnerable poor people in India are—his mother, as well as he and his siblings, could’ve easily been killed.
This event shows some of the religious animosity at play throughout India, and it reinforces how unusual Kamla and Saroo’s birth father’s marriage was. It is, in fact, something that can make life very dangerous for all involved, as evidenced by Saroo’s assertion that they all could’ve died. When the children move towards Kamla, it alludes to Saroo’s later assertion that he feels stronger bonds to both of his mothers than he does to his fathers.
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After Saroo’s birth father leaves, Kamla moves her children to the Muslim side of town. Saroo remembers no religious instruction, and remembers thinking that the only difference between Muslims and Hindus was that they dressed differently. Though Saroo is excited by the new home, he’s afraid of the spiders. He believes he lives in a town called “Ginestlay,” which is hot and dry except during monsoon season.
Saroo’s belief about what delineates Muslims and Hindus again reminds the reader that most of this part of his narration needs to be considered in terms of the fact that he is a child with an incomplete grasp of the world around him.
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Saroo’s neighborhood is very poor. People either live in communal housing or tiny and dilapidated single-family houses like Saroo’s family. Cows, other livestock, and dogs wander the street. Saroo is afraid of the dogs, especially after one chases him and causes him to fall, and he suffers a nasty gash along an eyebrow. Baba, the local holy man, tells Saroo afterwards to not be afraid of dogs, but this doesn’t help Saroo much.
Baba’s advice here stands as an early example of Saroo’s community extending outside his immediate family. This begins to show Saroo that there are other kind people in the world besides his relatives (save his birth father).
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After Shekila’s birth, Kamla goes to work on building sites. She works six days per week for a tiny amount of money, and is often away for days at a time. Guddu begins working at age ten, and the family survives by begging from neighbors. Saroo occasionally finds crockery left out to be cleaned and picks what food he can off of the bottom. He explains to the reader that when a person is starving, they don’t much care where their next meal comes from. Hunger means that a person thinks only of how to obtain food, and they’re never able to think further in the future than the next meal. He declares that hunger and poverty steal childhoods, innocence, and security—though he was lucky, as he learned to thrive.
The picture Saroo paints for the reader shows that overwhelmingly, poverty and hunger mean that Saroo and his siblings aren’t ever given the space to be carefree children. At young ages, they’re forced to fight for their lives instead of being allowed to play or dream of the future. However, Saroo’s assertion that he thrived shows that as horrible as this situation was for him, it also afforded him some important and useful skills, as evidenced by the fact that he made it to adulthood.
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Because they live in a Muslim neighborhood, Kamla has Saroo circumcised at age three. He never learns exactly why she has this happen, as Kamla raises her children Hindu. Regardless, Saroo arrives home to find Baba there, along with a number of others. Baba explains that something important is going to happen. Several men take Saroo upstairs to sit in a large clay pot. He remains calm until a man appears with a razor blade. Fortunately, the procedure is over in seconds. Kallu is circumcised next, but not Guddu. The neighborhood feasts that evening, but Kallu and Saroo sit on the roof in just their shirts, listening.
Again, Saroo’s very clear lack of understanding reinforces how young he is at the time; he’s simply too young to be privy to his mother’s decision-making process. It’s worth considering that Kamla may have chosen to circumcise her sons so that they fit in better and could have a chance of thriving in the Muslim neighborhood, something that might not be as easy without this marker of being Muslim.
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Saroo and his siblings enjoy a more varied diet in the Muslim neighborhood, and they actually get to eat full meals during celebrations. They also find food at the Saturday market. Guddu, being the oldest, feels responsible for his siblings’ survival, so he begins selling toothbrush kits on train platforms at age ten. Though all of Kamla’s children are known by local police as petty thieves, they often get away with their discrepancies—until they arrest Guddu, using a law meant to protect him as justification. When Kamla figures out what happened, she bullies the guards into letting Guddu go.
Guddu’s decision to begin working at age ten again illustrates how poverty stole Guddu’s childhood; it was far more important for him to support his family than think of himself and his personal desires or dreams. However, his arrest shows that this kind of independence and tenuous adulthood can also be dangerous. Essentially, the family’s poverty means that they have to walk a very fine line in order to survive.
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Everyone in Saroo’s family goes out during the day to obtain food or money, and they pool their resources at night. Kamla cooks what she can with the ingredients her children bring home, and Saroo loves her cooking. He feels hungry most of the time. He, Kallu, and Guddu become increasingly more creative about obtaining food as time goes on, knocking fruit out of trees and once stealing eggs from a henhouse watched by armed guards. Though they steal a number of eggs, only ten make it home unbroken. Kamla fries the eggs, and Saroo is jealous when Shekila receives the first one. Saroo steals it and races outside with it. Kamla never punishes him.
It's important to notice that though Saroo’s family is very clearly in dire poverty, this doesn’t necessarily affect how their closeness as a family in a negative way. Rather, it almost seems to force the members of the family to cling together even more tightly. Saroo will later note that this is something he believes was relatively unique to his family, which reinforces that there’s something special about Saroo and the bonds he shares with his family.
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One morning, Saroo wakes up hungry and takes his sleeping blanket with him to a tomato field. He picks tomatoes and runs away when he sees boys racing after him, but his blanket gets caught on the barbed wire fence. Kamla is furious that Saroo lost his blanket, though she doesn’t beat him like other parents would. Saroo also steals sometimes from Kamla’s landlady. Another time, he lands a job carrying watermelons across the town’s main street. He struggles with the heavy melons in traffic and suddenly finds himself knocked to the ground. Though Saroo’s leg is injured, the melon suffers a worse fate: it’s crushed to pulp. He has no idea how Kamla pays the doctor who treats his leg.
The fate of the melon here illustrates just how tenuous life is on the streets, especially for a small child: it is truly a matter of life and death, and one wrong move has the potential to end a person’s life. Again, it’s also noteworthy that Kamla is somehow able to pay a doctor to treat Saroo. This shows that she cares deeply for the health and wellbeing of her family, while Saroo’s confusion as to how she paid for it shows again how young and naïve he is at this point.
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Saroo only sees food being given away once, and he frantically finds a plastic bag in which to carry the hot curry home. The only other thing Saroo wants aside from food is to attend school, which he cannot do due to finances. He speaks poorly as a result. As Saroo and his brothers get older, Guddu and Kallu begin spending more time away from “Ginestlay.” Saroo spends time with Baba, who he thinks of as more of a father than his birth father. They fish together, and Baba sometimes feeds Saroo and talks to him about the future. Saroo also forms a bond with a supervisor at a military school camp. The supervisor feeds Saroo porridge in the morning and teaches him to whistle.
Saroo’s poor language skills are another example of the ways that poverty fundamentally shapes people’s lives—he literrally cannot afford to learn to speak better. This passage also sets the precedent that while kindness certainly exists in Saroo’s world, it’s not necessarily something that’s easy to come by, or something that Saroo should expect from people who aren’t his family.
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With Guddu and Kallu spending more time away, Saroo becomes very close to Shekila. Saroo becomes her primary caregiver when he’s around four, and they play and eat together. Saroo spends most of his time around the house with her, though he occasionally stacks wood for a local shopkeeper. Shekila begins eating charcoal when she’s two to appease her hunger, and sees a woman several times to get some relief from the digestive effects of this. Saroo plays cricket with other kids in the evenings and envies the richer kids’ kites, though he doesn’t have any close friends.
Eating charcoal can cause major and dangerous constipation, hence the need for immediate medical care when Shekila does this. Again, the fact that Kamla seeks care for Shekila even though her payment methods are unknown or questionable suggests that she puts the welfare of her family above other things. Poverty can reorganize a person’s priorities.
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At fourteen and twelve, Guddu and Kallu spend most of their time away, often at a town a few stops down the train line called “Berampur.” They occasionally take Saroo with them when he’s four or five, and Saroo begs for money in the station. One evening when Saroo is five, everyone but Kallu is home for dinner. Kamla goes out afterwards, and Guddu announces that he’s going back to “Berampur.” Saroo, not wanting to be left behind, insists he’s going with. Guddu agrees, and they leave Shekila alone.
As with “Ginestlay,” the use of quotations around “Berampur” tells the reader that this isn’t the real name of the station; rather, it’s how five-year-old Saroo thinks of and understands his world. It’s also clear that Saroo greatly admires Guddu, and being allowed to go with him feels like proof that Guddu recognizes how grown-up Saroo is getting.
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Saroo is thrilled as he heads off with Guddu on a bike. He’s tired by the time they board a train, and the adventure doesn’t seem as fun anymore. Finally, when they reach “Berampur,” Saroo insists he needs to sleep. Guddu tells Saroo to stay put and promises to return. Saroo wakes up some time later and sees a train at the same platform where he and Guddu got off. He has no idea how long he’s been asleep, but he decides to look for Guddu on the train. Afraid of being left alone again, Saroo searches several carriages. One is entirely empty, so Saroo settles in and falls asleep, believing that Guddu is surely in another carriage.
The fact that Saroo loses interest in the adventure so quickly again illustrates just how young he is—though he’d like to think otherwise, he is a child who needs a place to sleep at night, just like any other five-year-old. It soon becomes clear that Guddu isn’t on the train, which shows that Saroo’s belief that he is there is something that Saroo creates in order to make this event easier to deal with.
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When Saroo wakes, there’s bright sunlight outside. The train is moving, and he can’t see Guddu anywhere. He finds the doors to the carriage locked, and he begins to panic. He runs through the carriage, looking for Guddu and yelling his name, and eventually, curls up and cries. Saroo shuts down to a degree, and he cries, sleeps, and looks out the window in turn. Once, he wakes up when the train is stopped, but can’t see anyone on the platform and the doors won’t open. Eventually, the panic recedes a bit and Saroo decides he needs to behave like his brothers: he can beg, and he can eventually find his way back home.
The fact that Saroo is so quickly able to conquer his panic and vow to be like his brothers shows that in some ways, his poverty has the potential to save him—Guddu and Kallu taught him how to beg and sleep on the streets, which will prove necessary skills when Saroo finally makes it off the train. However, this is also indicative of how poverty can steal a person’s life. Saroo very literally cannot afford to dwell on his lost family; he must concentrate on survival.
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After another six hours, the landscape becomes green and watery. The train goes through small towns, and then the landscape outside becomes entirely urban. The train slows and finally stops at a station where hundreds of people swarm on the platform. Someone opens the carriage, and Saroo darts out. He learns only later that he jumped off in Calcutta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. He’s frightened by the crowds, and nobody seems to even notice him as he calls out “Ginestlay, Berampur?” Several people stop to see if they can help, but nobody understands “Ginestlay.” It never occurs to Saroo that the policemen, people he’d learned to avoid, might be able to help.
Though Saroo overwhelmingly credits his survival in Calcutta to his experiences with poverty, the fact that he was labeled a petty thief in his hometown means that he doesn’t understand that policemen can help at all—to him, they’re just people who get him in trouble when he gets caught. His lack of language, a result of his poverty, also keeps him from getting help here, as evidenced by the people who give up when they cannot understand what he’s saying.
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Saroo decides to take the next train from his platform, reasoning that it should head back to “Berampur.” It turns around in a smaller town and heads back to the massive station after an hour. For days, Saroo takes trains out in hopes that they’ll take him home. None of them do. He eats dropped peanuts and corncobs and learns to get by. Nobody ever asks him for a ticket, though he avoids trains with conductors. None of the adults he does speak with are able or willing to help him.
For a five-year-old, the ability to clearly reason that the train should head back from whence it came illustrates one of the positive aspects of Saroo’s upbringing: it’s taught him to be logical and levelheaded in situations like this, regardless of the fact that he never manages to get on the right train.
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As time goes on, Saroo becomes familiar with the huge station. He watches a group of children who also sleep in the station, and he sleeps near them to feel safer. One night, however, Saroo wakes to screams. One child screams for the others to run, and Saroo sees children being carried off by adults. He darts onto the tracks and into a tunnel to escape. Around a corner, he comes face to face with an oncoming train, and he presses himself against the wall to avoid being crushed. After it passes, he continues to follow the tracks and leaves them when he reaches a road. He reaches a massive river and stares at it and the busy bridge spanning it, feeling lost and alone.
By not providing context or explanation from an adult’s perspective on what happened, Saroo asks the reader to experience this with him as though the reader is also a child. This allows the reader to share more of Saroo’s emotional experiences of his time on the streets.
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Finally, Saroo walks down to the riverbank. Vendors shoo him away, and he eventually comes upon some holy men sleeping. They wear saffron robes and look scary, but he reasons he’ll be safer around holy people. Saroo falls asleep and wakes in the morning, alone.
For Saroo, religion is something that he equates with safety and kindness, regardless of what the religious people in question look like. These holy men essentially allow Saroo to make more sense of his surroundings.
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