When I started writing Shambala Junction in Amsterdam in 2009, I had no idea that there was a traumatised young man named Saroo Brierley. Oceans away from me in Australia, he was desperately searching satellite images on Google Earth, trying to find a way from Howrah railway station to the home he lost as a child in India.
I had angrily started to write my novel, tentatively titled Finding Piya, after reading a short news article in an Indian community newspaper about babies for sale in India. The article described a flourishing trade in unscrupulous international adoptions operating out of India.
Shambala Junction was published in 2016, after winning the Virginia Prize for Fiction in the UK. Also in 2016, the much-feted movie Lion opened in movie theaters worldwide starring scene-stealer Sunny Pawar, as well as Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. Lion is based on Brierley’s memoir (A Long Way Home, 2013).
Although Saroo Brierley was not an orphan, he had been adopted into a home in Canberra. The adult Brierley’s flashbacks would take him on a long journey to find his family in India and Lion puts a human face on a real problem in international adoptions; children who are not orphans can be torn from their roots and birth families and given up for international adoptions.
In a market where rich foreigners pay in thousands of dollars to adopt and children are sold for mere hundreds, there is the potential for corruption, and this is where Shambala Junction starts its story.
Shambala Junction begins with an Indian-American woman, Iris Sen, getting lost in a railway station after she steps off a train to buy a bottle of water. She is rescued by Aman and gets embroiled in the search for Aman’s baby, Piya, who is being offered to Western homes although her family desperately wants the baby back.
Finding Piya was the original title for this novel, which is at heart a thrilling chase to find the missing Piya. I changed the title because the book became so much more than just a chase, and the Buddhist connotations in Shambala are important in this book, as well as in India, where the sacred coexists with the profane on many planes.
Shambala Junction is about a person wanting to do good, about stumbling our way through a gray world, making terrible mistakes, but ultimately doing the right thing even when it comes at a high personal cost.
I hope the characters in this book – especially the women—will shatter some stereotypes about submissive Asian femininity (as the real activist Gulabi Gang is doing). I want to open dialogues on social issues through this book and I am delighted to see that the initial reviews on Goodreads and Amazon show readers engaging with these serious issues despite the distractions of a high-stakes chase!
Unfortunately celebrity adoptions – like those by Madonna or Brangelina – gloss over the realities and do little to address the real-world problems underlying international adoptions. As recently as on Feb 6, 2017, the BBC covered Madonna posting instagram pictures of her adopted Malawi twins and writing "I am deeply grateful to all those in Malawi who helped make this possible," before appealing for privacy from the media during "this transitional time."
What doesn’t appear in this happy picture is the other child she adopted in 2006, David, who was not an orphan as his father (and grandmother) were alive; also, as the Guardian reported, adoptions to foreigners was illegal in Malawi and Madonna had to fight a legal battle for his custody. An NPR article on David's adoption questions Madonna’s intentions by linking the issue to slavery.
Corruption in international adoptions IS a human rights issue, but there is no outcry because the children are frequently taken from impoverished homes into a more affluent life -- as shown in Lion -- and for many, that alone justifies the means. This is a highly contentious issue with some adoption agencies pushing agendas like Kidnapping for Jesus.
But surely there are many ways to improve the future of impoverished children without transplanting them out of familiar places where they surrounded by loved ones, especially as most are taken at an age when they are unable to articulate a preference? The cost of doing good should not be based on a geography of entitlement, where adopted children prosper in new western homes, leaving their natal homes fractured in the process.