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Return to roots, coolie girl to Google boy

She is an American journalist, he is an Australian businessman. Both embarked on a journey to identify their roots in India and for both Gaiutra Bahadur, the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, and Saroo Brierley, the author of A Long Way Home, the journey was an extremely personal one with Calcutta also playing a key role.

Bahadur, a Guyanian by birth whose family migrated to the US when she was six years old, began the journey following that of her great-grandmother who left India for Guyana as an indentured labour, four months pregnant and alone. Brierley got lost when he was five years old but held on to the memories of his hometown, even though he did not know its name. And thanks to Google Earth he was able to find his way back, 25 years later.

Both authors spoke about the “odyssey of identity” in conversation with journalist Sandip Roy for the session Coolie Woman to Google Boy at the Kolkata Literary Meet on Saturday.

For Bahadur, her great-grandmother’s story soon became the story of all the indentured women labourers who ended up in plantations in the Caribbean. It took her back to Guyana, on to London and Scotland and then to the village in Chhapra, Bihar, where her great-grandmother was from.

“Seventy-five per cent of those women travelled on their own. Because the number of women were much lesser they did not have the luxury to choose the kind of partner they wanted. It also led to a lot of sexual abuse and assault,” said Bahadur, for whom the book provided an understanding of how she came to be where she was.

For Brierley, writing the book was a very personal exercise. “I held on to the memories of my hometown, of all the landmarks that might identify it as the place from which I boarded the train that brought me to Howrah and I started looking. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack but the needle was there and I wanted to find it.”

Brierley wandered the streets of Calcutta for weeks before he was put in an orphanage from where he was adopted by an Australian family. He was reunited with his birth mother 25 years after he got separated from her. Brierley’s story will be made into a film by the same team that produced The King’s Speech and will hit screens in 2015.