- Published: 28 November 2016
- ISBN: 9780143572305
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 272
- RRP: $22.99
Lion: A Long Way Home
I’ve been thinking about this day for twenty-five years. Growing up half a world away, with a new name and a new family, wondering whether I would ever see my mother and brothers and sister again. And now here I am, standing at a door near the corner of a run-down building in a poor district of a small, dusty town in central India – the place I grew up – and no-one lives there. It’s empty.
The last time I stood here I was five years old.
The door, its hinges broken, is so much smaller than I remember it as a child – now I would have to bend over to fit through it. There’s no point in knocking. Through the window, as well as some gaps in the familiar crumbling brick wall, I can see into the tiny room my family shared, the ceiling only a little higher than my head.
This was my worst fear, so paralysing that I suppressed it almost completely – that once I finally found my home, after years of searching, my family wouldn’t be in it.
Not for the first time in my life, I’m lost and I don’t know what to do. This time I’m thirty, I’ve got money in my pocket and a ticket home, but I feel just like I did on that railway platform all those years ago – it’s hard to breathe, my mind is racing and I wish I could change the past.
Then the neighbour’s door opens. A young woman in red robes comes out of the better maintained flat next door, holding a baby in her arms. She’s curious, understandably. I look Indian, but my Western clothes are probably a little too new, my hair carefully styled – I’m obviously an outsider, a foreigner. To make matters worse, I can’t speak her language, so when she speaks to me, I can only guess that she’s asking me what I want here. I remember barely any Hindi and I’m not confident about how to pronounce the little I do know. I say, ‘I don’t speak Hindi, I speak English,’ and I’m astonished when she responds, ‘I speak English, a little.’ I point at the abandoned room and recite the names of the people who used to live there – ‘Kamla, Guddu, Kallu, Shekila’ – and then I point to myself and say, ‘Saroo.’
This time the woman remains silent. Then I remember something Mum gave me back in Australia, for just this situation. I scrabble around in my daypack and pull out an A4 page with colour photographs of me as a child. Again I point to myself, and then say ‘little’ as I point to the boy in the photographs. ‘Saroo.’
I try to remember who lived next door to us when this was my home. Was there a little girl who could now be this woman?
She stares at the page, then at me. I’m not sure if she understands, but this time she speaks, in hesitant English.
‘People . . . not live here . . . today,’ she says.
Although she is only confirming what I know, to hear her say it aloud hits me hard. I feel dizzy. I’m left standing there in front of her, unable to move.
I’ve always known that even if I managed to find my way back here, my family might have moved. Even in my short time with them, they had moved here from another place – poor people often don’t have much say in where they live, and my mother used to have to take whatever work she could get.
These are the thoughts that start coming out of the box I’ve put them in. The other possibility – that my mother is dead – I jam back inside.
A man who has noticed us approaches, so I start my mantra over again, reciting the names of my mother, Kamla, my brothers, Guddu and Kallu, my sister, Shekila, and me, Saroo. He is about to say something when another man wanders up and takes over. ‘Yes? How can I help?’ he says in clear English.
This is the first person I’ve been able to talk to properly since I arrived in India, and my story comes tumbling out quickly: I used to live here when I was a little boy, I went off with my brother and got lost, I grew up in another country, I couldn’t even remember the name of this place, but now I’ve found my way back here, to Ganesh Talai, to try to find my mother, my brothers and my sister. Kamla, Guddu, Kallu, Shekila.
He looks surprised at the story and I recite the family names yet again.
After a moment, he says, ‘Please wait here. I’ll be back in two minutes.’
My mind races with possibilities – what’s he gone to get? Someone who might know what happened to them? An address, even? But has he understood who I am? I don’t have to wait long before he’s back. And he says the words I’ll never forget: ‘Come with me. I’m going to take you to your mother.’
Chapter 1: Remembering
When I was growing up in Hobart, I had a map of India on my bedroom wall. My mother – my adoptive mother, Mum – had put it there to help me feel at home when I arrived from that country at the age of six to live with them, in 1987. She had to teach me what the map represented – I was completely uneducated and don’t think I even knew what a map was, let alone the shape of India.
Mum had decorated the house with Indian objects – there were some Hindu statues, brass ornaments and bells, and lots of little elephant figurines. I didn’t know then that these weren’t normal objects to have in an Australian house. She had also put some Indian printed fabric in my room, across the dresser, and a carved wooden puppet in a brightly coloured outfit. All these things were sort of familiar, even if I hadn’t seen anything exactly like them before. Another adoptive parent might have made the decision that I was young enough to start my life in Australia with a clean slate and could be brought up without much reference to where I’d come from. But my skin colour would always have given away my origins, and anyway, she and my father chose to adopt a child from India for a reason.
The map’s hundreds of place names swam before me in my childhood. Long before I could read them, I knew that the immense V of the Indian subcontinent was a place teeming with cities and towns, with deserts and mountains, rivers and forests – the Ganges, the Himalayas, tigers, gods! – and it came to fascinate me. I would stare up at the map, lost in the thought that somewhere among all those names was the place I had come from, the place of my birth. I knew it was called ‘Ginestlay’, but whether that was the name of a city, or a town, or a village, or maybe even a street – and where to start looking for it on that map – I had no idea.
I didn’t know for certain how old I was, either. Although official documents showed my birthday as 22 May 1981, the year had been estimated by Indian authorities and the date was the day I had arrived at the orphanage from which I had been offered up for adoption. An uneducated, confused boy, I hadn’t been able to explain much about who I was or where I’d come from.
At first, Mum and Dad didn’t know how I’d become lost. All they knew – all anyone knew – was that I’d been picked off the streets of Calcutta, as it was still known then, and after attempts to find my family had failed I had been put in the orphanage. Happily for all of us, I was adopted by the Brierleys. So to start with, Mum and Dad would point to Calcutta on my map and tell me that’s where I came from – but in fact the first time I ever heard the name of that city was when they said it. It wasn’t until about a year after I arrived, once I’d made some headway with English, that I was able to explain I didn’t come from Calcutta at all – a train had taken me there from a train station near ‘Ginestlay’, which might have been called something like ‘Bramapour’, ‘Berampur’ . . . I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that it was a long way from Calcutta and no-one had been able to help me find it.
Of course, when I first arrived, the emphasis was on the future, not the past. I was being introduced to a new life in a very different world from the one I’d been born into, and my new mum and dad were putting a lot of effort into facing the challenges that brought. Mum didn’t worry too much about my learning English immediately as she knew it would come through day-to-day use. Rather than trying to rush me into it, she thought it was far more important at the outset to comfort and care for me, and gain my trust. You don’t need words for that.
She also knew an Indian couple in the neighbourhood, Saleen and Jacob, and we would visit them regularly to eat Indian food together. They would speak with me in my own language, Hindi, asking simple questions and translating instructions and things Mum and Dad wanted me to know about how we’d live our life together. Coming from a very basic background, I didn’t speak much Hindi either, but being understood by someone was a huge help in becoming comfortable about my new surrounds. Anything my new parents weren’t able to communicate through gestures and smiles we knew Saleen and Jacob could help us with, so we never got stuck.
As children do, I picked up my new language quite quickly. But at first I spoke very little about my past in India. My parents didn’t want to push me to talk about it until I was ready, and apparently I didn’t show many signs that I gave it much thought. Mum remembers a time when I was seven, when out of the blue I got very distressed and cried out, ‘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 walk to watch the students. We agreed then that it probably didn’t matter anymore. But deep down, it did matter to me. My memories were all I had of my past, and privately I thought about them over and over, trying to ensure I didn’t ‘beget’.
In fact, the past was never far from my mind. At night, memories would flash by and I’d have trouble calming myself so I could sleep. Daytime was generally better, with lots of activity to distract me, but my mind was always busy. As a consequence of this and my determination not to forget, I have always recalled my childhood experiences in India clearly, as an almost complete picture – my family, my home and the traumatic events surrounding my separation from them have remained fresh in my mind, sometimes in great detail. Some of these memories were good, and some of them bad – but I couldn’t have one without the other, and I couldn’t let them go.
My transition to life in another country and culture wasn’t as difficult as one might expect, most likely because, compared to what I’d gone through in India, it was so obvious that I was better off in Australia. Of course, more than anything I wanted to find my mother again, but once I’d realised that was impossible I knew I had to take whatever opportunity came my way to survive. Mum and Dad were very affectionate, right from the start, always giving me lots of cuddles and making me feel safe, secure, loved and, above all, wanted. That meant a lot to a child who’d been lost and had experienced what it was like when no-one cared about him. I bonded with them readily and very soon trusted them completely. Even at the age of six (I would always accept 1981 as the year of my birth), I understood that I had been awarded a rare second chance. I quickly became Saroo Brierley.
Now I was safe and secure in my new home in Hobart, I thought perhaps it was somehow wrong to dwell on the past – that part of the new life was to keep the old locked away – so I kept my night-thoughts to myself. I didn’t have the language to explain it at first, anyway. And to some degree I also wasn’t aware of how unusual my story was – it was upsetting to me, but I thought it was just the kind of thing that happened to people. It was only later, when I began to open up to people about my experiences, that I knew from their reactions it was out of the ordinary.
Occasionally the night-thoughts would spill over into the day. I remember Mum and Dad taking me to see the Hindi film Salaam Bombay. Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause.
Even sad music of any kind (though particularly classical) could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that, even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I’d lost.
But slowly I began talking about the past. Only a month or so after my arrival, I described to Saleen my Indian family in outline – mother, sister, two brothers – and that I’d been separated from my brother and become lost. I didn’t have the resources to explain too much, and Saleen gently let me lead where I wanted to go, rather than pressing me. Gradually, as my English improved, I told Mum and Dad a few more things, like the fact that my father had left the family when I was very little. Most of the time, though, I concentrated on the present: going to school, making friends and discovering a love of sport.
Then, one wet weekend just over a year after I’d arrived in Hobart, I surprised Mum – and myself – by opening up about my life in India. I’d probably come to feel more settled in my new life and had some more words to put to my experiences. I found myself telling her more than ever before about my Indian family: about how we were so poor that we often went hungry, or how my mother would have me go around to people’s houses in the neighbourhood with a pot to beg for any leftover food. It was an emotional conversation and Mum held me close. She suggested that together we draw a map of the place I was from, and as she drew I pointed out where my family’s home was on our street, which way you went to walk to the river where all the kids played, and where the bridge was under which you walked to get to the train station. We traced the route with our fingers and then drew the home’s layout in detail. We put in where each member of my family slept – even the order in which we lay down at night. We returned to the map and refined it as my English improved. But in the whirl of memories brought on by first making that map, I was soon telling Mum about the circumstances of my becoming lost, as she looked at me, amazed, and took notes. She drew a wavy line on the map, pointing to Calcutta, and wrote ‘a very long journey’.
A couple of months later, we took a trip to Melbourne to visit some other kids who had been adopted from the same Calcutta orphanage as me. Talking enthusiastically in Hindi to my fellow adoptees inevitably brought back the past very vividly. For the first time, I told Mum that the place I was from was called Ginestlay, and when she asked me where I was talking about, I confidently, if a little illogically, replied, ‘You take me there and I’ll show you. I know the way.’
Saying aloud the name of my home for the first time since arriving in Australia was like opening a release valve. Soon after that, I told an even more complete version of events to a teacher I liked at school. Over an hour and a half, she wrote notes too, with that same amazed expression. Strange as I found Australia, for Mum and my teacher, hearing me talk about India must have been like trying to understand things that had occurred on another planet.
The story I told them was about people and places I’d turned over in my mind again and again since I arrived, and which I would continue to think about often as I grew up. Not surprisingly, there are gaps here and there. Sometimes I’m unsure of details, such as the order in which incidents occurred, or how many days passed between them. And it can be difficult for me to separate what I thought and felt then, as a child, from what I’ve come to think and feel over the course of the twenty-six years that followed. But although repeated revisiting, searching the past for clues, might have disturbed some of the evidence, much of my childhood experience remains vivid in my memory.
Back then, it was a relief to tell my story, as far as I understood it. Now, after the life-changing events sparked two years ago, I am excited by the prospect that sharing my experiences might inspire hope in others.
Chapter 2: Getting Lost
First of all, I remember days spent watching over my baby sister, Shekila, her grubby face smiling up at me as we played peekaboo. And I remember long, warm nights during the hot months of the year, when my family would join the others with whom we shared the house and gather together outside in the courtyard, while someone played the harmonium and others sang. I had a real sense of belonging and wellbeing on those nights. The women would bring out bedding and blankets, and we would all huddle together, gazing up at the stars, before closing our eyes in sleep.
That was in our first house, where I was born, which we shared with another Hindu family. Each group had their own side of a large central room, with brick walls and an unsealed floor of cowpats, straw and mud. It was very simple, but certainly no chawl, those warrens of slums where the unfortunate families of the megacities like Mumbai and Delhi find themselves living. Despite the closeness of the quarters we all got along. My memories of this time are some of my happiest.
My mother was a Hindu and my father a Muslim – an unusual marriage at the time, and one that didn’t last long. My father spent very little time with us – I later discovered he had taken a second wife – and so my mother raised us by herself. Although we weren’t brought up as Muslims, my mother moved us to the Muslim side of town, where I spent most of my childhood. She was very beautiful, slender, with long, lustrous hair – I remember her as the loveliest woman in the world. As well as my mother and my baby sister, there were also my older brothers, Guddu and Kallu, whom I loved and looked up to.
In our second home we were by ourselves, but in more cramped quarters. Our flat was one of three on the ground level of a red brick building, and so had the same cowpat and mud floor. Again a single room, it had a little fireplace in one corner and a clay tank in another, with water we’d drink and sometimes wash with. There was a single shelf where we kept our sleeping blankets. The structure was always falling apart a little – my brothers and I would sometimes pull out a brick and peer outside for fun, before putting it back in place.
Our town was generally hot and dry, except during the heavy rains of the monsoon. A range of large hills in the distance was the source of the river that ran past the old town walls, and in the monsoon, the river would break its banks and flood the surrounding fields – we used to wait for the river to fall back after the monsoon rains stopped, so we could get back to trying to catch little fish in more manageable waters. In town, the monsoon also meant the low railway underpass filled with water from the stream it crossed and become unusable. The underpass was a favourite place to play, despite the dust and gravel that sometimes rained down on us when a train crossed.
Our neighbourhood of the town was very poor. When I was running along its broken and unpaved streets, it housed the town’s many railway workers, and to the more wealthy and highborn citizenry of the town it was literally on the wrong side of the tracks. There wasn’t much that was new – some of the buildings were tumbling down. Those who didn’t live in communal buildings lived in tiny houses like we had, one or two rooms down narrow, twisting alleyways, furnished in the most basic way – a shelf here and there, a low wooden bed and a tap over a drain, perhaps.
Apart from us kids, the streets were full of cows wandering around, even in the town centre, where they might sleep in the middle of the busiest roads. Pigs slept in families, huddled together on a street corner at night, and in the day they would be gone, foraging for whatever they could find. It was almost as if they worked nine to five, and clocked off to go home and sleep. You wouldn’t know if they belonged to anyone – they were just there. There were goats too, kept by the Muslim families, and chickens pecking in the dust. Unfortunately, there were also lots of dogs, which scared me – some were friendly, but many were unpredictable or vicious. I was particularly afraid of dogs after I was chased by one, snarling and barking. As I ran away, I tripped and hit my head on a broken tile sticking up from the old pathway. I was lucky not to lose an eye, but got a bad gash along the line of my eyebrow, which a neighbour patched up with a bandage. When I’d finally resumed my walk home, I ran into Baba, our local holy man, and he told me never to be afraid of dogs – that they would only bite you if they felt you were scared of them. I tried to keep that advice in mind, but remained nervous around dogs on the street. I knew from my mother that some dogs had a deadly disease that you could catch from them, even if they didn’t do worse than nip you. I still don’t like dogs, and I’ve still got the scar.
After my father left, my mother had to work to support us. Soon after Shekila’s birth, she went off to work on building sites, carrying heavy rocks and stones on her head in the hot sun, six days a week, from morning until dusk. It meant I didn’t see very much of her. Often she had to go to other towns for work and could be away for days at a time. Sometimes we would only see her a couple of times a week. And still she couldn’t earn enough money to provide for herself and four children. To help make ends meet, when Guddu was around ten, he took a job washing dishes in a restaurant. Even then, we often went hungry. We lived one day at a time. There were many occasions when we begged for food from neighbours, or begged for money and food on the streets by the marketplace and around the railway station, but somehow we managed a subsistence, living day-today and hand-to-mouth. Everyone used to go out at the start of the day and get whatever they could, be it money or food, and at the end of each day we would return, put whatever we had managed to find on the table, and everyone would share. I remember feeling hungry most of the time, but oddly enough I wasn’t too distressed by it. It became part of life and I accepted it. We were very skinny children, with blown-up stomachs from gas and no food. We were probably malnourished, but then so were poor children all across India, so it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Like a lot of kids in the neighbourhood, my brothers and I got creative about finding things to eat. Sometimes it was as simple as throwing stones at mangoes up in someone’s tree, trying to knock one down. But other times we were more adventurous.
Walking home one day, we decided to take a back way through the fields and came across a large hen house, around fifty metres long. Armed guards were on duty but Guddu thought we could safely get our hands on some eggs, so we made a plan. We would stay hidden until the guards went on a tea break, then I would go into the hen house first, being shorter and harder to spot, and Guddu and Kallu would follow. Guddu told us to roll our shirts up inside out so that they could serve as little baskets. We were to collect as many eggs as quickly as we could, then run out and go straight back home.
We watched from a hideout until the guards’ break, when they went to sit with the shed workers, eating rotis and drinking chai. There was no time to waste. I was first inside and started grabbing eggs. Guddu and Kallu followed and did the same. But the chickens became disturbed by our presence and started squawking loudly, alerting the guards. We dashed straight back out as the guards ran towards the shed, only about twenty metres from us. Guddu yelled, ‘Run for it!’ and we split up and bolted. We were a lot faster than the guards, and luckily they chose not to shoot at us. After sprinting for a few minutes I realised I’d given them the slip and walked the rest of the way home.
Unfortunately, the act of running had not been kind to my eggs, and of the nine I’d collected only two remained intact – the rest were dripping down my shirtfront. My brothers had beaten me home and my mother had the fry pan on the flame. Between us we had ten eggs left – enough to feed us all. I was ravenous as I watched my mother give the first batch to Shekila and I couldn’t help myself – I nabbed a fried egg from my sister’s plate and ran out the door, ignoring her ear-splitting cry of protest.
On another occasion, I woke early feeling very hungry and found there was nothing to eat in the house. I remembered having noticed a field of ripening tomatoes nearby and went out determined to lay my hands on some. It was cool in the early morning air and I still had my sleeping blanket wrapped around me. When I reached the field, I squeezed in through a gap in the barbed-wire fence and within moments I was picking tomatoes, eating some on the spot, savouring their soft flesh. But then I heard a whistle blow loudly and saw a group of five or six older boys running quickly towards me across the field. I dashed back to the fence, and, being little, managed to squeeze through an opening I knew would be too small for them. My prized red blanket got snagged on the barbed wire, and with the boys bearing down on me I had no choice but to leave it behind. When I got home my mother was happy I had brought some tomatoes to eat, but furious I had lost my blanket in the process. She didn’t beat me like a lot of parents did, though; she never raised a hand to any of us.
Another run-in involving food almost cost me my life. I accepted a job ferrying ten large watermelons across the town’s main street for a man with a stall in the town market. He offered me a little money and I hoped he might add a slice of watermelon when I was done. But the watermelons were very large and I was still small, and, struggling with the first one, I wasn’t able to keep track of the heavy traffic. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the tarred road, bleeding from the head, with the watermelon next to me crushed into crimson pulp. I was lucky my head had not been crushed in the same way, as I’d been struck by a speeding motorcycle and gone under its wheel. My leg was also injured. The rider took pity on me and gave me a lift home, and I limped into my house. My mother was horrified and took me straight to a doctor, who bandaged my injuries. I don’t know how she paid for it.
As they grew up, my brothers spent more time away from Ginestlay, searching for new hunting grounds and sleeping away from the house in railway stations and under bridges. Sometimes the holy man, Baba, would look after Shekila and me at the mosque, or he would take me fishing in the river with his long bamboo stick and line. Otherwise, we would be in the care of other families who lived nearby, or with Guddu in the restaurant where he scrubbed pots and pans at a tub.
Harsh as all this sounds, I think we were reasonably happy, although of course we would have wished for things to be different. Often, first thing in the morning, I would go and hang around by the gates of the local school as the children entered in their uniforms, and I would stare inside, wishing I could be a pupil there like them. But we couldn’t afford for me to be sent to school. It made me a bit shy, because it was obvious I had no education. I couldn’t read or write, and didn’t know many words – I spoke poorly and had trouble communicating.
The person I was closest to was my baby sister, Shekila. After a certain age, I was responsible for her welfare. My duties were to wash and feed her, and watch over her. Shekila and I used to sleep in the same bed, and when we woke I would fetch her whatever breakfast I could find. We used to play together: peekaboo and hide and seek. Shekila was so tiny and beautiful. She loved being with me and followed me everywhere, and I protected her and was always on alert to hear if anyone had mistreated her. Shekila was my main priority, as much as a very young child can have a sense of that sort of responsibility. Although Guddu was older, Kallu played a similar role with him. As Guddu had taken on a few jobs at different times to help with the family income, Kallu took care of him as one of our breadwinners – the younger brother would ensure that the elder was getting enough to eat and that if he stayed away from the home he had a safe place to sleep. So with no father around, and our mother often away working, we took care of each other.
For the most part, I stuck to the boundaries of the house and its courtyard. I spent long days sitting on the earthen floor alone, idly listening in on conversations and watching life go on around me, while Shekila slept inside. Sometimes the local townsfolk who kept an eye on us would let me go off and find wood for cooking, and I would haul it back and stack it by the side of the house. I also occasionally earned a paisa or two – enough for a lollipop – by helping the local storekeeper with his deliveries of wooden planks. He’d have me stack them in the pen by the store’s front door. But mostly I simply sat alone in that courtyard. We had no TV or radio. There were no books or newspapers, although, of course, I couldn’t have read them anyway. It was a simple, basic existence.
Our diet was basic as well: roti bread, rice and daal, sometimes with a few vegetables tossed in, if we were lucky. There was fruit grown in our area, but that was a luxury and most of it was sold off for cash. There weren’t many trees around that we could pilfer fruit from. Like the town’s vegetable plots, they were well guarded. We learned to live with hunger, as it was always there.
In the afternoons, kids would come by after school and I was allowed to go off and play with them. Sometimes we’d play cricket on whatever patch of bare earth we could use. I also loved to chase butterflies, or glowbugs when it got darker. Flying kites was another favourite pastime. The kites were very simple – sticks and paper – but to own even a basic kite required a little money. So if I wanted a kite, I’d try to spot one stuck in a tree and climb up and get it, no matter how dangerous it was. We conducted some exciting kite dogfights, for which we would stick sand to our kite’s string, giving it an abrasive cutting edge. We would try to cut the string of the other’s kite as it flew. Kids played marbles too, but again, you needed money to get a marble to start with.
I didn’t really have any close friends – maybe it was because of our having moved neighbourhoods, or perhaps a general mistrust of those I didn’t already know well – so I hung out as much as possible with my brothers, whom I adored.
As I got a bit older, I was given more leeway outside the house and was allowed to start playing with kids further away. Sometimes I’d leave Shekila at the house for a while, knowing she could safely pass the time by herself while I was out – I’m sure this is illegal in the West, but in my town it wasn’t uncommon when parents had other things to do, and I’d been left like that many times myself so I didn’t feel guilty about it.
Like any kid, to begin with I stayed close to home, so that if anything bad happened I could run down this or that street, take a quick turn, and be home. Eventually, though, I started venturing as far as the town centre. Or my brothers and I would go down to the river below the dam wall, a long walk away, beyond the edge of town. We’d watch fishermen using nets to catch fish.
By this time, Guddu and Kallu were about fourteen and twelve, and spending very little time at home. I didn’t see them more than two or three times a week. They were mostly living off their wits, scouring the streets for whatever they could find to subsist on and sleeping nights in railway stations, where they sometimes earned food or money for sweeping. Most of the time they stayed at another town a few stops down the train line, about an hour away. They would tell me Ginestlay was no good, so they were going to a place called something like ‘Berampur’ – I couldn’t quite remember its name – where it was easier to find money and food. And they had started making friends there, all of them getting around by jumping on and off trains.
When I was about four or five, occasionally my brothers would take me along with them. If a conductor ever asked for a ticket, we got off and then hopped on the next train. We’d pass through a couple of very small stations – just platforms in the middle of nowhere – before arriving at the Berampur station, smaller than Ginestlay’s, and on the outskirts of town. But my brothers would only let me go as far as the station; I couldn’t go wandering off into the town, where I might get lost. So I’d hang around the platforms while they worked, then go back home with them. Instead of food we had a lot of freedom, and we liked it.
One night, when I was five years old, I was at home, tired from a day playing out in the streets, but excited that tonight almost the whole family was gathered for dinner. My mother was home from work and, more unusually, Guddu had come back to see us. Kallu was the only one missing.
That evening, Guddu stayed for about an hour, as the four of us ate together. As Guddu was the eldest, it was he that I looked up to the most. He hadn’t been home for some time and I missed hanging out with him and Kallu as a gang. I’d begun to feel I wasn’t a little boy anymore, to be left at home while they were out in the world.
When our mother went out, perhaps to see if she could get us some more food, Guddu announced that he was leaving – going back to Berampur. The thought of being left behind, as always, a little kid stuck at home with nothing to do, was too much. I jumped up and said, ‘I’m coming with you!’ It was early evening – if I went with him, there was little likelihood of him getting me back home that night. We’d have to stay together. He thought about it for a moment and then agreed – I was thrilled. We left Shekila sitting on the floor and were gone before my mother returned. She probably wouldn’t have been too worried, with me in my brother’s care.
Soon, I was laughing as we sped through the night, Guddu doubling me on a bike he had hired through the quiet streets to the train station. What could be better? I’d travelled with my brothers before, but that night was different. I was going off with Guddu without a plan for when we were coming home or where we might sleep, just like he did with Kallu. I didn’t know how long he would let me stay with him, but as we raced through the streets I didn’t care.
I still vividly remember the ride. I sat on the bar just behind the bike’s handlebars with my feet resting on either side of the front wheel axle. It was a bumpy trip, as there were potholes everywhere in the road, but I didn’t mind at all. There were a lot of glowbugs flying in the air, and we passed some kids chasing them. A boy yelled out, ‘Hey, Guddu!’ but we rode on. I was proud that Guddu was known about town. I had even heard him being mentioned once when I was on a train – I thought he was famous. We had to keep a good lookout for people walking on the street in the dark, especially when we went under the low railway bridge. Then Guddu said we’d walk the rest of the way. Maybe he was tired with me on board too. So I hopped off and he pushed the bike along the main street to the station, past the busy chai sellers. When we were near the station entrance, Guddu hid the hire bike behind some thick bushes and we walked across the overpass to wait for the next train.
By the time the train pulled in noisily and we had scuttled aboard, I was already becoming sleepy. We got as comfortable as we could on the hard wooden seats, but the fun of the adventure was starting to wear off. I rested my head on Guddu’s shoulder as the train left the station. It was getting late, and we’d be on the train for about an hour. I don’t know if Guddu was having second thoughts about letting me come, but I was starting to feel a bit guilty, because my mother usually needed me to babysit Shekila while she was at work, and I didn’t know when I’d be back.
By the time we got off at Berampur, I was so exhausted I slumped onto a wooden bench on the platform and said I couldn’t go on without a rest. Guddu said that was fine – there were a few things he needed to do anyway. ‘Just sit down and don’t move. I’ll come back in a little while and we can find somewhere to sleep the night.’ He was probably going to scavenge some food, or hunt for coins around the platforms. I lay down, shut my eyes and must have fallen asleep straightaway.
When I woke up, it was very quiet and the station was deserted. Bleary-eyed, I looked around for Guddu but couldn’t see him anywhere. There was a train at the platform where we’d got off, with its carriage door open, but I didn’t know if it was the same one, or how long I’d been asleep.
I’ve often wondered exactly what I thought right then. I was still half-asleep and unnerved by finding myself alone at night. My thoughts were muddled. Guddu wasn’t around but he’d said he wasn’t going far – maybe he’d got back on the train? I shuffled over and climbed the boarding stairs to have a look. I have a memory of seeing some people asleep on board, and stepping back down in case they woke up and called a conductor. Guddu had said I should stay put, but he was probably on board in a different carriage, working, sweeping underneath the seats. What if I fell asleep on the dark platform again and the train pulled out and I was left alone?
I looked into a different carriage and found no-one, but the empty wooden bench seats were more comfortable and felt safer than the quiet station – Guddu would come and get me soon, smiling, perhaps with a treat he’d found while cleaning. There was plenty of room to stretch out. In a few moments, I was sleeping peacefully again.
This time, I must have slept properly. When I awoke, it was broad daylight and the full sun was glaring straight into my eyes. And, I realised with a jolt, the train was moving – rattling steadily along its tracks.
I jumped up. There was still no-one in my carriage, and the landscape outside the barred windows was passing quickly. My brother was nowhere to be seen. I had been left undisturbed, a small boy asleep, alone on a speeding train.
The low-class carriages weren’t connected to each other with internal doors. Travellers boarded and exited their carriage from doors on the outside at each end. I raced to one end of the carriage and tried the doors on either side – they were both locked, or wouldn’t budge. I ran down the other end – the doors there were locked too.
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 exactly what I did in that moment – screamed, banged the windows, cried, cursed. I was frantic, my heart beating triple-time. I couldn’t read any of the signs in the carriage, which might have told me where I was heading or even how to get out. I ran up and down and looked beneath all the benches, in case someone else was asleep somewhere. There was only me. But I kept running up and down, yelling out my brother’s name, begging him to come and get me. I called for my mother, and my brother Kallu too, but all in vain. No-one answered and the train didn’t stop.
I didn’t keep a journal during the most traumatic parts of my life because, let’s face it, I didn’t want to remember that shit.
My writing career unofficially began at McLean Hospital, the psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School in Belmont, Massachusetts.
MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work
It’s an unusual feeling to be interviewed about your darkest secret, unusual but also freeing.