As Saroo describes his early childhood in India, he poignantly asserts that growing up hungry and in poverty fundamentally shapes people's lives and can have a brutal effect on their childhoods. He recalls in horrific detail how little his family had to eat, as well as the risks he took to steal scraps of food whenever he could. However awful growing up in poverty was, however, Saroo also links the skills he developed during his early childhood to the reason he later survived for weeks in Calcutta. Essentially, Saroo suggests that his survival was a result of having been, in many ways, very much not a child thanks to his experiences of poverty.
Saroo and his siblings are extremely isolated as children, in part because of Saroo's birth family's poverty, and in part because of their unconventional religious makeup (Kamla is Hindu, while Saroo's birth father is Muslim, though Kamla raises her children in a Muslim neighborhood and has them undergo Muslim traditions such as circumcision). This combination of isolation and poverty means that all of Kamla's children develop a strong sense of independence at a very young age. Saroo, for example, is put in charge of watching his baby sister Shekila when he's around three years old while Kamla spends days at a time away, working on construction sites. Because Saroo is allowed this responsibility and because it's also culturally acceptable for him to leave Shekila unattended for hours at a time, he spends a great deal of time wandering the streets alone, begging for food and stealing when he can. This teaches him the skills he later uses to feed himself as a lone child in Calcutta, as he's already an adept thief, used to being constantly hungry, and used to functioning without adult guidance or supervision. The amount of time Saroo spends alone on the streets also affords him finely tuned street smarts—essentially, he understands how to both gauge which vendor stalls or individuals will be the best targets to steal from, as well as identify individuals that may seem kindly at first glance, but actually mean to hurt him. This later proves to be one of the most important skills that Saroo develops. When a kindly railway worker takes Saroo in, promising to introduce him to a friend who will help, Saroo instinctively understands upon meeting the "friend" that there's something amiss—and his instincts are proven correct when several railway workers angrily pursue him when he escapes.
As street smart and as used to poverty as Saroo is, his experiences in Calcutta impress upon both him and the reader how tenuous the "positive" aspects of poverty that help Saroo survive truly are. The two nights that Saroo spends in the railway workers' shack begin immediately to break down his willingness to sleep on the streets, which in turn leaves him far more willing to trust the actually kind mother who takes him in for a night, as well as the teenager who later turns him in to the police. This breaking down of his survival skills reinforces for the reader that as smart and adult as Saroo may seem as he traverses Calcutta's streets, he is indeed still a child—and that care and food are enough to, in some ways, return him to a state of being truly a child once more, no matter his experiences.
Though Saroo credits his survival to his experiences with poverty, he's also very careful to remind the reader on multiple occasions that he was one of the lucky ones. His street smarts certainly helped him, but his survival was much more the work of chance and dumb luck, and his story isn't intended to be taken as a sweeping representation of childhood poverty in India. Saroo explains that in 1987, the year he was adopted, 14 million Indian children died of starvation or illness. He also notes that even today, a horrific number of lone children from Indian streets are trafficked into slavery, both sexual and otherwise, or even sold for their organs by people like the railway workers' friend. With this, Saroo suggests that his experiences of childhood poverty were certainly a contributing factor in his survival, but the same absolutely cannot be said for all children. For him, adulthood is a privileged state that means he survived his childhood—a privilege that is denied to many Indian children.
Survival, Poverty, and Childhood ThemeTracker
Survival, Poverty, and Childhood Quotes in A Long Way Home
This episode stayed with me as an example of my mother's courage in turning to face down her pursuers, and also of the vulnerability of the poor in India. Really, it was just luck that the crowds backed off.
Hunger limits you because you are constantly thinking about getting food, keeping the food if you do get your hands on some, and not knowing when you are going to eat next. It's a vicious cycle...Not having enough to eat paralyzes you and keeps you living hour by hour instead of thinking about what you would like to accomplish...Hunger and poverty steal your childhood and take away your innocence and sense of security.
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.
What happened to Mantosh exposed the harm that the bureaucratic adoption system can inflict. When I learned about his past, later on, I couldn't stop thinking about the nights I'd spent in the Liluah juvenile home, and how easily I could've experienced trauma similar to what Mantosh had experienced.
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"?
And even though it was exhausting to go over my story again and again with the media, I thought I had a kind of duty to do it, because it might help people—what had happened to me was remarkable, and might offer hope to others who wanted to find their lost family but thought it impossible.
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.
But like the teenager who later took me to the police station, he had given me another chance to live. He hadn't profited from his act in any way...and I had never thanked him.
But my experiences have undoubtedly shaped who I am today, providing me with an unshakable faith in the importance of family—however it is formed—and a belief in the goodness of people and the importance of grasping opportunities as they are presented.