After Mum and Dad adopt five-year-old Saroo, he is secretly meticulous about regularly running through his memories of his family in India, his terrifying experience on the train to Calcutta, and the weeks he spent begging there, all in case it ever becomes possible for him to use his memories to reconnect with his birth family. However, even before his adoption, while he's at the orphanage in Calcutta, Saroo discovers that his memory isn't as fail-proof as he'd thought: for one, nobody has heard of his hometown, "Ginestlay." Then, when Saroo begins his search for his birth family as a young adult, he discovers that the fledgling internet can help him fill in the gaps created by his faulty childhood memory. In this way, Saroo's memoir interrogates the limits of memory—especially when memories are colored by fear, anxiety, or extreme youth—as well as the ways that technology and friendship can add nuance, depth, and clarity to incomplete or inaccurate memories.
Saroo's account begins by describing his memories and perceptions of his hometown "Ginestlay," his train journey to Calcutta, and the few harrowing weeks he managed to survive on the streets of Calcutta. During these accounts, Saroo's narration uses the names and landmarks he believed were true and correct as a child. It soon becomes clear that Saroo's memory is faulty at best, however; he believes he was only on the train to Calcutta overnight, and no towns with names remotely similar to "Ginestlay" exist within a twelve- to fifteen-hour radius. To complicate matters further, Saroo boarded from a station he believes Guddu referred to as "Berampur," a name that exists in various spellings all over the Indian subcontinent. All of this casts a veil of uncertainty over Saroo's memories, as none of what he remembers is at all verifiable by the authorities that try to help him.
When Saroo attends college and meets foreign exchange students from India for the first time, he discovers that his story takes on greater meaning for both him and them because the students from Calcutta put names with the landmarks he describes: they finally name the massive Calcutta train station as the Howrah station, the largest station in India, and can name the river and bridge where he spent time as the Hooghly River and Howrah Bridge. Though Saroo could've certainly found out the names of these Calcutta landmarks on his own, what rekindles Saroo's interest in his own memories is the fact that other people are interested—in part because they're familiar with these places. For them, the thought of a five-year-old lost in Howrah Station is especially compelling and heart-wrenching because, unlike Mum, Dad, and other Australian friends, they understand how massive the station truly is. This in turn shows how Saroo uses the experiences and memories of others to add more depth and meaning to his own memories, as well as assign them more real-world meaning.
Finally, Saroo takes his memories to the internet and specifically, to Google Earth. Google Earth allows Saroo to use the information he'd gleaned from his memories and the additional information provided by the Indian exchange students to develop a method for searching the maps for "Ginestlay" and "Berampur" stations with familiar landmarks along the railway lines snaking out from Howrah Station. When Saroo finally discovers what he believes is his hometown and the Burhanpur station where he boarded, he ends up turning to Facebook for help in solving the final mystery: according to Google Earth, his hometown is called Khandwa, but he can still find no mention of "Ginestlay" anywhere. Saroo connects on Facebook with a kind man from the area who suggests that "Ginestlay" is actually Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood in Khandwa, thus solving the mystery and helping Saroo develop a more complete understanding of how he saw the world as a child.
These final revelations illustrate that as tightly as Saroo held onto his memories and as important as they were, they were unable to tell the whole story due to the fact that they were incomplete, compromised, and, most importantly, were made when Saroo was a small child with an incomplete grasp of his own world. The fact that Saroo is able to ultimately reconstruct his memories, however, and to do so from a great distance, shows that the errors of memory can be helped by outside sources of friendship, technology, and the friendships that technology can facilitate via social media.
Memory, Technology, and Friendship ThemeTracker
Memory, Technology, and Friendship Quotes in A Long Way Home
"Me begot!" Later she found out I was upset that I had forgotten the way to the school near my Indian home, where I used to watch the students. We agreed that it probably didn't matter anymore. But deep down, it mattered to me. My memories were all I had of my past, and privately I thought about them over and over, trying to ensure that I didn't "beget."
Once, a porter appeared to understand that I was lost, but when I couldn't immediately make myself understood, he made it clear I wasn't to bother him anymore. The world of adults was closed to me, so I continued to try to solve my problem by myself.
Of course, I can't be sure what the railway worker's friend had planned or what happened to the children who were grabbed from the station that night I slept nearby, but I feel pretty certain that they faced greater horrors than I ever did.
I told them what I could. They recorded my answers on their many forms and documents. "Ginestlay" meant nothing to them. I struggled to remember the name of the place where I'd boarded the train, but could only say that my brothers called it something like "Burampourr..."
The types of people who had tried to capture me when I was on the streets clearly didn't let walls and gates stop them...I know now that few are taken off the streets, and many of those who are have a lot of suffering ahead of them.
Apparently, in the end, the delight I took in having abundant food close at hand overcame most matters of taste or culture.
I was keen on the idea of having a sibling. In fact, it seemed that the person I missed most from India was my sister. "What do you want for Christmas?" my mum would ask me every year. "I want Shekila back," I often said.
It was completely different describing my time in the train station to people who knew it as Kolkata's massive Howrah Station, and the river next to it as the Hooghly River.
...Khandwa Railway Station.
The name meant nothing to me.
My stomach knotted. How could this be?
Things had looked so right all the way from Burhanpur, which had to be the "B" town I had tried to remember. But if the bridge and the river were correct, where was "Ginestlay"?
Mum had such a dedicated belief in adoption and the authentic family that adoption created. I was worried about how my news would affect her, and I wanted to reassure her that of course they would always be my parents.
I began to realize that just as my search for my mother had in some ways shaped my life, her faith that I was alive had shaped hers. She couldn't search, but she did the next best thing: she stayed still.