Trapped. Alone. Frightened. Vulnerable. Helpless.
It’s hard to fathom the terror felt by a five-year old child who stuck on an empty train, speeding away from the safety of home in the middle of a dark night.
Saroo Brierley’s incredible memoir, the Long Way Home, describes that moment in gut-wrenching detail:
“I can still feel the icy chill of panic that hit me when I realised I was trapped – a feeling of being weak, hyperactive and incredulous, all in one. I don’t recall what I did exactly in that moment – screamed, banged the windows, cried, cursed. I was frantic, my heart beating triple time … But I kept running up and down, yelling out my brother’s name, begging for him to come and get me. I called for my mother, and for my brother Kallu too, but all in vain. No-one answered and the train didn’t stop.”
Saroo recounts his incredible journey from lost child in the middle of India, to growing up as an adopted child in Tasmania, and back to India after (with the help of Google earth and Facebook) he manages to discover his home town and then tracks down his birth family.
It’s a story that most of us in Australia are aware of. It was covered extensively in the media, including by 60 Minutes, and then his book was given the Hollywood treatment and turned into a blockbuster movie starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.
Saroo’s book is a remarkable tale of heartbreak, resilience, determination, the love of family, and – most of all – hope. The book is not always polished – but it doesn’t need to be. Saroo writes as if he’s having a conversation in your lounge room. It’s authentic, and its authenticity adds to the power of his narrative, and at times to the drama.
Saroo survived through a combination of luck, determination and the kindness of others. He was saved from drowning twice – by the same homeless man each time. And then he was effectively rescued from the streets – firstly by a family who took him in and alerted the local police to his plight, and then by Mrs Sood, who plucked him out of a horrifying juvenile facility in Kolkata.
Mrs Sood ran an adoption service called ISSA – linking orphaned Indian children with adoptive parents in other countries. In Saroo’s case, she connected him with the Brierleys, a married couple in the beachside Hobart suburb of Howrah.
FROM HOWRAH STATION TO HOWRAH PRIMARY
The view from Howrah (Tas) back to a snow-covered Mt Wellington/kunanyi
Tasmania’s version of Howrah is a world away from the wild human ocean of India’s Howrah Train Station, where Saroo spent his first nights as a homeless street kid.
It’s also where I grew up, just a few streets down the road from the Brierley’s house.
While not being as conspicuously wealthy as, say, Sandy Bay or Battery Point, Howrah is a template of modern middle class suburban Australia.
In other words, it’s a place where most people have enough to share, and have the capacity to help others in need. Not many, however, go as far as the Brierleys did.
It makes you wonder - why is it that we don’t do more to help people to escape chronic poverty?
PRIVILEGE AND EXCUSES
The obvious answer is the siren song of self-interest. Whenever someone says ‘we should do more to help others’, there is always someone else ready to say ‘we should put ourselves first’.
But even when we start off with good and generous intentions, we can still find a myriad of reasons not to engage with problems that are beyond our own backyard.
Firstly, we get daunted by the scale of the mountain. We convince ourselves that the problems of poverty and injustice, pain, human suffering, environmental degradation and climate change are just so big that there is nothing we can do.
We might also raise questions about effectiveness. For example, do aid programs actually deliver what they promise? Then there’s the old issue of dependency. We ask whether aid is genuinely empowering people, or just papering over the cracks of their poverty?
And do other people even want our help? Or are our impulses in the privileged anglosphere just a reflection of a white saviour complex? Are our western interventions into the affairs of so-called developing nations just a more subtle form of imperialism?
If we follow this line of thought further, we could even begin to raise questions about Saroo’s adoption.*
We may ask if he was adopted … or trafficked?**
Saroo, however, leaves us in no doubt:
"The motto of ISSA, run by the wonderful Mrs Saroj Sood, is this: ‘Somewhere there is a child waiting. Somewhere a family is waiting. We at ISSA bring them together.' And in our case it really was as simple as that … Certainly, I’ll always be profoundly grateful, to both my parents, for the life they’ve given me."
And here’s the thing: we are right to consider these important, complex, ethical questions, and yes we must think about them carefully, but there is a risk that we get so caught up in these questions that we choose to do nothing at all.
And ultimately, doing nothing helps no-one.
TIME TO REBOOT OUR SENSE OF COMPASSION
Lately we’ve been handed a new excuse for ignoring global poverty: the global pandemic.
Our tendency to shrink into the safety of our own neighbourhoods has been exacerbated by the health crisis. Not only have we become physically cut off from the rest of world, we’ve been psychologically consumed by the daily news cycle of COVID cases, lockdowns and travel restrictions.
Frankly, we all need a post-COVID reality check.
It’s time we re-engaged with the great global challenges of our time: poverty, injustice, exploitation, violence and sustainability.
It’s time we looked beyond our own backyard. It’s time to reboot our sense of compassion for kids like Saroo.
Finally, I want to a give a plug to a Northern Rivers couple who have never stopped helping others, and who haven’t let COVID-19 slow them down.
Rikki and Rob Fisher run a small not-for-profit organisation, Kenya Kids International (KKI), to support disadvantaged families in the remote Kenyan village of Agolomuok.
KKI has funded a number of projects in the village over the past few years, such as getting a water supply to the local primary school, providing regular meals for students, and a sponsorship program to support individual families.
You can find out more about KKI by going to its website https://www.kenyakidsinternational.org.au
And you get a copy of The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley at your local bookshop or online at Booktopia.
*Sue Brierley has now written her own book, Lioness, which explains her own story and her motivations for adopting Saroo and his brother Manosh.
**Concern over the legitimacy and ethics of some international adoptions agencies has led to the rules relating overseas adoptions being dramatically tightened. Indeed, the number of international adoptions around the world has dropped by 72% since 2005.