In India recently on family business, I picked up two outstanding books about the sub-continent, Earth’s second most populous state and most populous democracy, in the impressively comprehensive bookstore of Bahri and Sons in the Saket district of Delhi.
Both books are set in India, albeit more than a century apart: the first, Lion,is a contemporary true story of Saroo Brierley’s, its author’s, difficult childhood in India and later life in Australia, while the other, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, is a fictional story of the life of an orphan boy during the heyday of the British Raj in India, yet both books have more in common than such a summary might suggest. Each book is concerned with its central character’s search for identity. Both Saroo and Kim are by circumstance the products of both eastern and western culture, and learn to come to terms with this mixed inheritance. Both Kim and Saroo are born into extreme poverty, and must in childhood rely upon their wits to survive. Both books are quest narratives. Lion is a search for its narrator’s roots in a faraway country, while Kim is a search for purpose and enlightenment on a journey in India itself. In other respects, the two accounts are quite different. Lion, first published as A Long Way Home in 2013, is a modern story by a writer now in his thirties. It is a riveting read not unlike that of the successful and satisfying detective story it resembles, while Kim makes greater demands on the modern reader’s patience and attention, as it is in large measure a detailed examination of a complex and ancient civilization then ruled over by Queen Victoria. Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, six years after the publication of Kim, which is considered his masterpiece. He died in 1936, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Saroo’s Moslem father abandons his Hindu mother for another woman, leaving her to bring up their four children in abject rural poverty by herself. Saroo’s story begins when he makes the mistake of falling asleep at the age of five in an unattended train standing in a station near his home with its doors open in the evening to help dissipate the heat built up inside during the day.
When he awakens, Saroo finds himself locked in the carriage until it reaches its destination many hundreds of kilometers from home in the terminus at Howrah Station in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Lost, hungry, helpless, unable to read or make himself understood to the indifferent crowds in a strange city to whom he is merely one of the 80,000 children who go missing in India every year, he does not know how to appeal to authority for help, does not know where home is, and is lucky to escape a kidnapping attempt. He is eventually adopted from an orphanage by a childless Australian couple who bring him up with love and compassion, for which he is deeply grateful, in Hobart, Tasmania. Nevertheless, he needs to know who he is, where he has come from, and whether his mother, brothers and sister are still alive. His search for his roots takes the form of painstaking, even obsessive, enquiry and research, and its ultimate success is due largely to advances in Google Earth technology. The book’s final chapters testify to the determination of the human spirit to overcome adversity, and the ending, with the author’s admission that he is “profoundly humbled” by the happy outcome of reunion with his family after a separation of 25 years, and the healing and reconciliation that accompanies it, is deeply moving. In 2016, Lion was made into an equally satisfying film starring Dev Patel.