Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '19 & Jan '20



Diasporic Identity and Belonging: Adoption, Dislocation and Cultural Assimilation in Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home

Anju Devadas R. D., Research Scholar, Dept. of English, Mar Ivanios College, Trivandrum



Considered as one of the classical countries of migration, Australia’s public policies and perceptions on migration and diversity have been based on a long-standing set of assumptions and have greatly contributed to the South Asian diaspora. The adoption of children into Australian landscape to give them a semblance of normal life, by providing the displaced love and care and to develop them as able and successful individuals is a product of diasporic relations and transnationalism. The forced adoption and dislocation and the imposition of a cultural identity usually evoke specific trauma in some while some dispersed individuals identify and assimilate into the cultural identity of the migrated country feeling a sense of belonging to the foster parents and the current situation keeping in the reservoir of their mind the memories of home and homeland. The “in-betweenness” of longing for the homeland and at the same time belonging to the diaspora assimilating with the diasporic cultural identity is a repeated motif in diasporic literature. This paper strives to analyse the transformation of Indian Australian businessman Saroo Brierley from an Indian street-child to adopted Australian and his diasporic identity and belonging after cultural assimilation as authentically portrayed in his memoir A Long Way Home which inspired the Oscar-nominated movie Lion.

Keywords: diaspora, identity, adoption, dislocation, migration, assimilation


The collective experiences of dispersed ethnic populations, the struggles of movement and dislocation to an alien territory, and the relationship between the geographical space and identity form the subject of investigation in diaspora studies. Diaspora studies are generally concerned with the consequence of imperial dominance and cultural dislocation, examining the effect of forced displacement, usually resulting in violent histories of trauma. The impact of globalisation and transnational migration has resulted in the dominance of narratives discussing the effects of forced migration leading to the traumatic experiences of dislocation, a sense of continuing alienation, and fragmentation faced by the migrant away from their established homeland. But along with the existence of migrant and refugee narratives with traumatic and harrowing experiences, there are also instances of cultural and ethnic identification with the country of immigration, and the migrants making prospects and better living conditions without much traumatic history. The yearning for the homeland along with acquiring a feeling of belongingness in the immigrated country gets reiterated in some of the narratives of the diaspora.

The host country constitutes a new actuality for the immigrant giving him a sense of belonging and normalcy as it removes the deprived conditions in his home country. While some adapt to the cultural facets of the new country, others struggle to identify with the attitudes, behaviours, and lifestyle practices of the host country. Traditions, customs, and values are combined and reconstituted to create a sense of equilibrium and to introduce reorganizations of belonging. The process of acculturation occurs through the adoption of food practices, dress preference, decoration, leisure pursuits, social activity, and topics of conversation of the host country, with or without losing the cultural traits of their originations. “The dynamics of importing “native” ethnic cultures into a new culture entails negotiation of one’s ethno-cultural identity and personal self with the wider society.” (Appadurai 48) In the article “The New Mobilities Paradigm”, Sheller and Urry says,

Mobilities highlight dislocation, displacement, disjuncture, and dialogism as widespread conditions of migrant subjectivity in the world today … in leaving a place migrants often carry parts of it with them which are reassembled in the material form of souvenirs, textures, foods, colours, scents, and sounds – reconfiguring the place of arrival both figuratively and imaginatively. (211)

Australia has a long-established history of accepting immigrants as immigration stands as a defining feature of its social and economic life. Generally regarded as “the Land of Opportunity,” Australia openly welcomed immigrants from various nations without much discrimination or prejudice. The South Asian migrants have contributed immensely to the cultural heritage and diversity of Australia enhancing the country’s economic and political panorama. Over the last two decades, “India and China have emerged as the largest countries of origin for permanent migrants. The number from India has grown from 3000 migrants in 1996 to more than 40,000 by 2013.” (Doherty) India, China, and the United Kingdom provide the majority of migrants to Australia. The transnational migration and adoption has not only rescued desperate lives suffering human rights violation, poverty, and persecution, but also gave a sense of hope, survival, and standard of living. In his book The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Flanagan explores the linkages between the experiences of migration and turbulent events of the past and the hopes the migrants garner for their country of immigration. He says,

Australia was ordinary, and even if it wasn’t, they didn’t want to know about that. They simply wanted a world that might be ordered with the hope that the order might last long enough to build a home and raise a family and have them, in turn, bring their children back, and then to die knowing one has as much as one could rightfully expect out of life without having to suffer cataclysmic wars, occupations, revolutions, destruction of homes, cities, nations, countries, languages, peoples. (116)

Saroo Brierley is an Indian-born Australian businessman who shot to sudden fame after his life story was adapted into Garth Davis’ 2016 biographical drama Lion. In 2013, he published a book entitled A Long Way Home which served as the basis for the film’s screenplay. The memoir tells the story of how, in 1986, Saroo Munshi Khan, an illiterate, impoverished five-year-old falls asleep waiting for his elder brother Guddu to return for him at an Indian train station. After awaking, he walks onto an empty train carriage thinking his Guddu may be there and falls back to sleep. He later realizes the train is in motion. When Saroo is finally able to unboard, he is nearly 1,000 miles away from home in Calcutta where a completely different language is spoken. Scared, lost and illiterate, he couldn’t communicate enough to ask for help, and somehow survived the streets of that city for months, dodging dangers like abuse and drugs, fighting poverty and starvation. Escaping weeks of harrowing experiences living on Calcutta’s streets, then becoming one of many children at Liluah Juvenile Home, Saroo is eventually brought to the Nava Jeevan orphanage. Mrs. Saroj Sood, founder honorary secretary of The Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, helped Saroo in the adoption process. He was adopted by Sue and John Brierley in Australia. As he adjusts, he longs for a sibling to play with, and later Mantosh joins the Brierleys through adoption from India itself.

            Growing up half a world away, with a new name and a new family, Saroo’s transition to life in Hobart, Tasmania was relatively easy. At the orphanage Nava Jeevan itself, Saroo was provided with a photo album that offered a clear picture of the people who were adopting him, their house, and other aspect of their lives. It created a normalcy as both Sue and John Brierley were accommodating, open and inclusive to all his dilemmas. He admits that when he got adopted, the emphasis was on the future and not on the past. He understood that Australia was a place capable of helping poor children without families and giving them opportunities most children in Indian never have. In the chapter “A New Life”, Saroo details his transformation from a street urchin lost in Calcutta to an adopted Australian.

My transition to life in another country and culture wasn’t difficult as one might expect, most likely because, compared to what I’d gone through in India, it was obvious that I was better off in Australia. Of, course, more than anything I wanted to find my mother again, but once I’ve realized 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 lot 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 for no one to care 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. (Brierley 11)

When Saroo gets adapted to Australia, he underwent cultural assimilation while retaining some memories of his home country. It is the process whereby an individual or group belonging to a minority acquires the cultural characteristic of a different and dominant ethnic or cultural group. The immigrants who migrate adapt to the cultural facets of the dominant societal group. In situations of continuous contact, cultures have exchanged and blended foods, music, dances, clothing, tools, and technologies. Acculturation results in the adoption of another country’s language, which is then modified over time to become a new, distinct, language.

When Saroo returned India to find the whereabouts of his mother and siblings, he had no connection with the cultural facets of the place he was born. He carried no memorabilia, just some names he had reiterated in his mind to never have lost it from his consciousness. When he reaches the neighbourhood he lived, he realises that he looks like Indian, but a Westerner in his attire and his behaviour. Saroo adapted to the life and culture of Australia, forgetting the language and culture of India.

She’s curious, understandably. I look Indian, but my very Western clothes are 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. I remember barely any Hindi, and I’m not confident about how to produce the little I do know. (Brierley 7)

Food habits and food consumption are affected by acculturation. Food habits are discreet and practiced privately, and change occurs slowly. Consumption of new food items is affected by the availability of native ingredients, convenience, and cost; therefore, an immediate change is likely to occur. Saroo was slowly introduced to an Australian diet while at the beginning he ate a lot of Indian food which tasted different from what he used to have. Sue fed Saroo things that would build his strength. For a child brought up in Hindu tradition, slaughtering cow, the holy animal was a taboo. “Apparently, in the end, the delight I took in having abundant food close at hand overcame matters of taste or culture.”

Saroo quickly assimilated to the lifestyle in Australia with great help and support from his foster parents. He was provided with the gift of education which he was denied in his home country. Saroo was so enchanted by what he was learning that he said, “I loved school. I used to say to Mum and Dad after I came home, “I’m learning like magic!” since there is no free education in India, I probably never would have made it to school without coming to Tasmanian Howrah.” (Brierley 64) He forgot his native language Hindi and began learning English. He stood out to everyone since he had white parents and at school when he was asked where he was from, he would reply “I’m from India.” He doesn’t remember any racism at school and compared to other non-Anglos, he grew up without any scars of racism.

Saroo always remembered surviving on the streets of Calcutta in an area named Howrah and how it was an incredible coincidence to enjoy the luxuries at central Hobart. He was grateful for all the gifts his foster parents showered upon him and he never took it for granted. He did well in school and utilised every facility he was provided as he knew what deprivation meant in his life. He experienced nature in the outdoors, taking active participation in playing golf, camping, hiking, and sailing. John Brierley often took Saroo on his two-man catamaran, which built his curiosity and love for water and also helped in improving his swimming skills.

I was no slouch in school, despite the fact that my English was still under development. I got on well with my teachers and loved them, and they seemed to love me, too. In my middle primary years, I did very well, even skipping a year, which coincided with a huge growth spurt. Then when I got to secondary school, the gap in my learning from that missed year became evident, and I struggled with written language for a while. Outside of school, my mum and dad continued to take me camping, sailing, and hiking. I loved the outdoors as they did, and we went on many fun holidays together. I felt safe and secure in my new life. (Brierley 64-65)

While Saroo was adapting himself to life in Australia, his brother Mantosh had a hard time understanding the permanency of the situation. Being physically and sexually abused at the Liluah orphanage and earlier at his own home, he was compounded by emotional volatility caused by his traumas. He became explosively angry without provocation and did not enjoy school like Saroo. But he shared his enthusiasm for swimming and fishing together and in other sports.  Mantosh wasn’t used to accepting direction from women in authority, a prejudice that stemmed from the cultural norms in India. While Mantosh was loud and disobedient, rebelling at everything, Saroo was reticent and reserved, trying to please his parents, at the same time enjoying his independence. 

Australia was a good place that was helping poor children without families and giving them opportunities most children in India would never have. Sue and John Brierley chose to adopt from India after realising the fact that around fourteen million children under the age of ten died from starvation or illness when the whole population of Australia was seventeen million. Sue had always been fascinated by India and knew about the conditions of the people suffering great distress and poverty. The motto of ISSA, “Somewhere a child is waiting. Somewhere a family is waiting. We at ISSA bring them together.” (Brierley 74) Sue was an advocate of replacing Australia’s various state laws on intercountry adoption with a simplified federal law, as the country had to capabilities to offer a normal life to the children experiencing horrifying situations in India.

Sue had decorated the house with Indian objects, like Hindu statues, brass ornaments and bells, and a lot of elephant figurines. Sue had also put some Indian printed fabric in Saroo’s room, across the dresser, and a carved wooden puppet in a brightly colored outfit. Sue put a map on Saroo’s bedroom wall to never forget his origins.

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 colored outfit. All these seemed 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. (Brierley 9)

By the time Saroo began secondary school, there were a lot of students from different ethnic backgrounds – particularly Greeks, Chinese, and other Indians. He participated in a lot of activities, particularly soccer, swimming, and track and field. When Saroo began high school, the map of India was still on his wall, but he hardly noticed it next to his posters of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Saroo was growing up Australian—a proud Tassie. He was a robust, happy, windsurfing, fully fledged Aussie who had completely forgotten his native language and was experiencing a reverse cultural shock. When he interacted with Indian kids at school, he felt that he was stripped of his “Indianness” becoming an Australian among Indians, rather than being somewhat exotic.

He became an Australian in effect losing his Indian citizenship and his migration effected his upliftment from rags to riches. Over the period of time, he realised that Australia as the new environment, away from India, has only made progress in his life. He has deep attachment towards his home country which is realised through his search for roots. After several failed attempts, he discovers his home via Google Earth technology and travels to his childhood home in the village of Ganesh Talai which he used to mispronounce as Ginestlay. In his book Experience and Representation: Contemporary Perspectives on Migration in Australia, Keith Jacobs discusses how migration effects in building and developing independence and emotional strength in migrants utilising the opportunities of the host country. He says,

They found that an important part of migration was the fostering or acquisition of a sense of place and belonging in their new environment and that this often required a reinvention of the self over a period of time. They also found that the migration process itself in many instances created a surge of new emotional strength and energy although this was more common amongst individuals who sought to extend their networks than those who privileged independence. (Jacobs 24)

The concept of diaspora formation has been conceptualized in a triadic relationship between the country of origin, the country of settlement, and the ethnic group. The question of citizenship, belonging and being a member of a different society other than the familiar social milieu is associated with the immigrants’ primary relationship to the host country. The social connections and interactions with other people in terms of quantity and quality define social integration. Thus Saroo has a diasporic identity of “in-betweenness” because of his dislocation to Australia on being adopted by a loving and caring family who saved him from the complexities of poverty, loss, and hunger. He has a sense of belonging to both cultures, by adapting and assimilating to the Australian culture and lifestyle through his adoption and because of his familial blood bonds to his Indian family.



Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Brierley, Saroo. A Long Way Home. Viking, 2013.

Doherty, Ben, and Nick Evershed. “The changing shape of Australia’s immigration policy.”  The Guardian, 23 Mar. 2018.

Flanagan, R. The Sound of One Hand Clapping. Macmillan, 1997.

Jacobs, Keith. Experience and Representation: Contemporary Perspectives on Migration in Australia. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011.

Sheller, M., and Urry. “The New Mobilities Paradigm.” Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, no. 2, 2006, pp.  207–26.