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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  True Stories | Such a long journey

True Stories | Such a long journey

The protagonists of these two memoirs give wrenching accounts of losing and finding home under the strangest circumstances

Saroo Brierley with his Indian family. Photo courtesy: Penguin Books indiaPremium
Saroo Brierley with his Indian family. Photo courtesy: Penguin Books india

Jillian Haslam was sharply dressed, smartly accessorized in stilettos and designer handbag, when she met us at the lobby of a five-star hotel in south Delhi a few weeks ago. A 43-year-old philanthropist and inspirational speaker living in the UK, Haslam has the air of a millionaire, which she really is, though she wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. On the contrary, as her memoir Indian. English. reveals, Haslam’s early life, in Calcutta (now Kolkata), was spent in squalor, poverty and the daily danger of being harmed by hostile neighbours.

Narrated in an emotionally engaging and candid voice, the book, though not the most impressively designed or edited, tells the story of Haslam’s nightmarish childhood and adolescence in a series of pithy chapters. There is no literary artifice to her narration; it’s a book that is meant to be read more for the kind of the story it tells than for the craft it employs in the telling.

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Jillian Haslam in New Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

After working in the Capital for a few years, Haslam got selected by Bank of America, where her projects for corporate charity earned her accolades and eventually a passage to England, where she now lives with her husband and two of her sisters.

In the book Haslam describes this journey in wrenching prose. There are moments that appear surreal, even cinematic: her firm resolve to keep her dying younger sister alive by begging for milk from a corner shop; the trials faced by her family during the turbulent 1970s, when West Bengal was gripped by Naxalism; and the relentless struggle to keep herself and her young sisters fed, clothed and unharmed.

Mocked as “sada choohas" (white rats), the Haslam sisters faced continual torment from society. The family had to migrate to Calcutta from a suburb on the fringes of the city when they came to know of a clandestine plan to kidnap Haslam’s elder sister, Donna, who drew attention for her blonde hair and blue eyes.

Indian. English: By Jillian Haslam, New Generation Publishing, 228 pages, £7.99 (around Rs 810)
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Indian. English: By Jillian Haslam, New Generation Publishing, 228 pages, £7.99 (around Rs 810)

If Haslam’s rags-to-riches story has the quality of an extended bad dream, Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home unfolds like a fairy tale. Another memoir of losing and finding one’s bearings in the world, Brierley’s account is more sophisticated, fully realized and complex than Haslam’s. There is a more sustained engagement with the nature of memory, its comforts and treacheries, the way it distances the past even as it brings it into closer scrunity. Brierley’s is a toned-down voice, more clinical than dramatic.

Born in a small town in Madhya Pradesh in 1981, Brierley was separated from his family as a five-year-old when he fell asleep on a train. Abandoned by his father shortly after his birth, he was growing up with his mother, Kamla, and three siblings in Khandwa, battling a life of want and hunger, when one day he decided to join his older brother Guddu when he went scavenging for leftovers and begging for alms on trains. Tired and hungry, little Saroo decided to rest a bit. When he woke up, he was miles away, in a city he did not know the name of, and with the limited vocabulary of a toddler, was unable to explain to anyone where his own home was.

Brierley’s life, for the next one year, involved living on the streets, being on the run from traffickers, and ending up in a juvenile home before being given away for adoption to an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley.

A Long Way Home: By Saroo Brierly, Penguin, 262 pages, Rs 399
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A Long Way Home: By Saroo Brierly, Penguin, 262 pages, Rs 399

At the end of his quest, Brierley finds the original “home" he had left for his adopted one—but the reunion, though moving, is not cloyingly sentimental. Warmly welcomed back by his biological family, Brierley does not lose perspective of the gulf that now separates them—of wealth, class, and even ethnicity, after having grown up “Australian" since the age of 6 and under the loving care of his foster parents.

Brierley’s final reckoning is with the “little boy" who got lost, and it is this sense of objective identification without being oppressed by the trappings of filial affiliations that gives his memoir its special edge. His journey back to origins gives Brierley a fuller understanding of the individual he is, without being necessarily tied down to either human or geographical coordinates.

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Published: 05 Oct 2013, 12:09 AM IST
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