Coming off of a successful, award-winning story such as “The Rent Collector,” Utah author Camron Wright was always on the lookout for his next book idea, but it had to be just right.
His latest story, “The Orphan Keeper” (Shadow Mountain, $24.99), found him at a basketball game.
“I went to a basketball game with my friend. We are both writers, so of course, the conversation turned to stories, and he told me about Taj and his amazing story,” Wright said.
The story Wright learned about starts in India, where Chellamuthu (Taj) was born. When Chellamuthu was around 7 years old, he was taken by strangers to a Christian orphanage three hours away from his home and placed with an unsuspecting family for adoption. This Utah family changed his name to Taj Rowland, taught him English and raised and loved him as one of their own.
Over time, Taj forgot his past in India but was still filled with a feeling that he didn’t know who he was. He went to London on a study abroad in hopes of finding himself. While there, he stayed with an Indian family and bits of his memory returned.
A decade later, he met Priya, who is from Southern India and has shocking ties to the Christian Orphanage. With the new information, Taj sought to put together the puzzle of his life story without knowing all of the pieces and worked to let go of the demons from his troubled past.
After hearing the details, Wright said he wanted to meet Taj right away.
“It was such a great story and I so desperately wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
Fortunately for Wright, Taj agreed to work with him on writing a novel based on his experience, and the feelings quickly went from desperation to nervousness.
“He gave me the go ahead, and suddenly I want to do justice for his story and it becomes daunting and overwhelming,” Wright said.
While the bulk of the information for the story came through interviews, Wright and Taj also traveled to India together to do research. They visited the town Taj was taken from and the orphanage and met the people who played a part in his story.
“It was extremely helpful,” Wright said. “It added a richness to the story that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”
The richness Wright speaks of comes in through the Indian landscape, food and culture, but also through Taj’s memories as a child, and then as a college student and married man. Wright also includes portions of the story from the points of view of Taj’s birth mother, the owners of the orphanage and his adoptive mother.
Even though Wright spent many hours collecting interviews to tell Taj’s story, there were still some missing pieces that he and Taj had to fill in together.
“That is the reason (the book is) fiction,” Wright said. “It needs to be called a novel and not nonfiction because while Taj knows the basic circumstances of his kidnapping, he doesn’t know if they lured him in or if they grabbed him. Certain details about his past, conversations he didn’t know, we had to fill in to complete the story, and that is the fiction.”
With such an incredible story being heavily based on true events, the novel's themes include the idea that life is hard, there’s no such thing as a coincidence, and to never give up hope.
“It’s interesting because some early readers commented to end the story at a certain part to make it happier. But I say life isn’t all that simple,” Wright said. “Taj can’t say he wishes he wasn’t kidnapped because he wouldn’t have his wife and kids, but because of that, he’s missing certain parts of growing up that were taken from him. We all have struggles that we face in our lives, and he’s no exception.”
The reader will quickly find out Taj had many struggles along the way. Throughout his story, moments of coincidence occur that are unexplainable, but Wright doesn’t believe in coincidence.
“I just don’t think in Taj’s case especially there is a rational way to explaining these moments away,” Wright said. “Call it God, fate or the universe, there is a higher power the overshadows our life at times that these coincidences couldn’t have been chance.”
Wright is quick to remind that Taj’s life wasn't all easy-going after his kidnapping or that everything fell into place. He had to work hard to get the outcome he received, and his story still isn’t over, which something Wright finds inspiration in.
“Taj was so persistent. I would’ve given up.” Wright said. “He hit roadblock after roadblock, and it would’ve been so easy to say, ‘I guess I’ll never find my family.’ He was in a country with a billion people full of dead ends, and he was driven to keep looking. Taj reminds us all to never give up. Keep trying and don’t give up hope.”
While the story is Taj’s, Wright’s descriptive language and ability to inhabit real-life characters so they come across the page to inspire emotion is truly a talent. His words are a vehicle of hope; his message, an uplifting one.
“One of the messages that I hope comes through is if God cares about a poor kid in India, he probably cares about me,” he said.
"The Orphan Keeper" is scheduled to go on sale Sept. 6. It doesn't contain any sexual content or objectionable language but does include two briefly described instances of child abuse.
A documentary about Taj's journey titled "Lost in India — A Boy's Journey Home" is scheduled to air on KSL Ch. 5 Sunday, Oct. 2, at noon.