The first question I ask Saroo Brierley is: what was racing through his mind when 32 years ago, as a five-year-old he found himself alone on a train that was hurtling to a destination he had no clue about.
Staring at his clasped hands, Saroo mulls the question for a while. ‘I was scared,’ says the author of A Long Way Home, a memoir of his early life, a subtle Australian drawl underlying his tone. ‘Tired and very scared.’
Any kid would have been. Less than a metre tall and unable to string together a proper sentence, Saroo had rarely travelled beyond his small town of Khandwa, in Central India. ‘It wasn’t the first time I was on a train but, yes, I’d never been on a long train journey before.’ And when it happened, he ended up 1,500km away from home.
But the story of Saroo, who was in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature earlier this year, is more than just that of a kid who was lost on a train and found himself in an alien city 14 hours later. It is the story of a boy who, estranged from his family at 5, had a series of harrowing experiences on the streets of Kolkata, and ended up in an orphanage before he was adopted by a loving Tasmanian couple and taken Down Under.
The story doesn’t end there. More than two decades later, the wheel would turn full circle and Saroo would return to his birth town – for an emotional reunion with his biological mother, Fatima.
A tale that is truly the stuff of films, indeed, two years ago it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster. Lion, starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, received six Oscar nominations including one for best adapted screenplay. But more about the film later. First, the real story for those who may have missed the reel one:
Born Sheru Munshi Khan into an impoverished family in Khandwa in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Saroo, as he was affectionately called, and his brother Guddu would often while away time playing near the railway station in his little town, occasionally hopping onto a train, doing sundry chores for passengers to earn a couple of rupees, hopping off at the next station and catching a train back home.
Living in a slum and too poor to go to school and, the only memories he has of his childhood is of ‘hanging around near the tracks but mostly of looking after my younger sister at home’, he says.
The fact that he did not attend school meant ‘I couldn’t even string a proper sentence. Because I didn’t interact with other kids, my [language skills] didn’t really develop. The only person I spoke to at any length was my sister,’ says Saroo, who is also a motivational speaker today.
Language skills are what he would miss sorely when in 1986, his life would take a roller-coaster ride. Five years old at the time, he accompanied his brother on a train ride to the nearby town of Burhanpur. While Guddu cleaned train compartments to earn a few rupees from travellers, Saroo would spend time looking out of the windows.
Alighting at the next station, Guddu told his kid brother to wait on the platform while he scampered off to get some food. That would be the last time Saroo would see him. (Unknown to him, a tragedy befell Guddu - while hopping from one compartment to another, he slipped and fell and was run over by a train.)
Hungry and tired waiting for his brother to return, Saroo fell asleep on the station. Waking up a couple of hours later, he looked around for his brother and not finding him on the platform, the little boy clambered into a train that was at the station hoping it would take him back to his home town. Little did he know that the express was headed in the opposite direction.
‘Once the train started pulling out of the station, I went in search of my brother hoping he’d be in one of the compartments. But I couldn’t find him,’ Saroo recalls. Exhausted, he sat down in a corner and fell asleep. Hours later when he woke up and looked out of the window, he found the train slicing through unfamiliar terrain. ‘Scared and worried, I withdrew further into a corner,’ he says.
Fourteen hours after he boarded the train in Burhanpur, Saroo found himself in Howrah railway station in Kolkata, a bustling metropolis more than 1,500km away and across the country – a world far removed from his small town in Madhya Pradesh.
‘I still remember the moment I got off at the station,’ says Saroo. ‘I had no idea what I’d encounter. Here I was in a station I’d never seen before. I felt totally alienated and scared. At that point solitude was required. And solace. I never envisaged that a train could take me so far away. I cried for hours.’
Unable to speak the language – Bengali – and not sure of the name of his hometown, Saroo spent the day on the platform searching for food in trash bins near eateries careful to avoid the police who patrolled the platforms chasing away the homeless.
A group of street kids offered him some food. Some even tried asking him where he was from hoping to help get him back on a train to his destination. However, the young boy, perhaps too stressed out and scared, could not give them a proper answer and the street kids gave up.
Over the days, Saroo became street wise, learning to fend for himself eating what he could by scavenging from bins and sleeping on railway platform benches. Some days he would accompany bigger street boys to rummage through landfills in search of items of value, other days he would beg for food. Always at great risk of abuse, Saroo was once tempted with an offer of food and shelter and a ticket back to his home town by two strangers he saw on the road. However, he managed to run away from them. ‘I had to be careful,’ he says. ‘I could not trust anyone.’
Luckily for the boy, a couple of months later, a social worker chanced upon him and handed him over to a care home where little Saroo was taken in and put up for adoption. A few months later, Sue and John Brierley, a couple from Tasmania, Australia, happened to visit the orphanage and adopted Saroo.
This time around, Saroo’s life-changing trip was by plane.
Meanwhile, back in his hometown, Saroo’s mother was distraught with grief. When the two boys failed to return, she and a helpful neighbour scoured the nearby railway stations looking under benches, on railway tracks, platforms and even in train compartments for her kids. But their searches were in vain.
When the local police too could offer little help, the desperate woman turned to soothsayers, one of whom hinted that a son of her’s could be ‘in a faraway land’; he was silent about the other.
‘A fortune teller told [my mum] ‘one day, your son will return’, and I think that gave her some hope. That as well as being a mother and [never ever wanting to believe] that her son is no longer alive,’ says Saroo.
Across the oceans, growing up in Australia, the young boy had initially given up all hope of being reunited with his biological family again. ‘I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to meet my mother or sister again.’
Overwhelmed by the new place and a new set of parents who were extremely loving, Saroo tried to find his feet once again. ‘My [adoptive] parents are amazing people,’ says Saroo. ‘My [adoptive] mum [Sue] is a gently spoken person who has a tremendous love for India, its culture and spirituality. The transition was amazing when I came to Australia – from decorating the house according to Indian styles, to eating Indian food, to talking about India... My dad and mother certainly fortified me and made me stronger. While she was such a spiritual and amazing woman, dad was an alpha male businessman.’
His adoptive parents did all they could to give Saroo a good life and a firm grounding. ‘The most important lesson they taught me was to always be honest,’ he says. “Be truthful to others and to yourself,’ they told me. Honesty, I feel, played a big part in helping me being who I am, and fortifying me and making me happy. My mum would tell me ‘if you do wrong things, you will not be a happy person. Do the right things and you will be.’’
Although he was living a good life with his new family, deep inside, Saroo was missing his family in India. ‘While in Australia, there was always the nostalgia for home; all along, I was keen to find answers which was connected to my nostalgia.’
So when he was not busy pursuing a degree in business and hospitality, he would go online – relying on his childhood memories of places and landmarks and hoping they would help him find his hometown.
‘I started using Google Earth when I was around 20 years of age,’ he says. Logging into the program, he would zoom in on Indian cities that adjoined railway tracks and seek out landmarks that, even if faintly, rang a bell.
For over five years, he spent countless hours virtually searching for his home and roots. He admits there were periods when he wanted to give up convinced it was a futile exercise simply because he was not sure where to look or even what exactly to look for. ‘But I had honest determination and sheer grit and was fierce. I wanted to prove that it is possible to find that needle in the haystack – that particular station I had boarded the train that day.’
What kept you going? I ask.
Saroo takes a sip of water from a bottle he is carrying, his eyes acquiring a faraway gaze as he considers the question. ‘The love for my mother and my sister,’ he says, after a moment. ‘The outcome I think would have been different if I knew that my mother or my family didn’t really love me, and it was organised for my brother to take me to the train station that day and put me on that train. Perhaps because my mother did not have enough money to feed all the children and one had to go and somehow I was the short straw.
‘But it was not like that. I never felt that, although it did come to my mind and I felt that it could be a possibility; it was considered. But I don’t think that I really strongly felt that in my heart. It was just an unfortunate set of events. I accidentally stepped onto that train that day…’
Every night – and whenever he had time during the day – Saroo would go online searching for that railway station that was in his home town. Some days, he would zoom in on the Kolkata railway station and trace journeys down almost every possible rail track that touched the city hoping some landmark would signal his birth town.
Then one night early in 2011, while scrolling, his hand froze. The cursor was hovering over a railway station named Burhanpur when he saw something that set his heart racing. ‘I was about to give up looking and retire for the night when I thought let’s not have any stone left unturned. Call it serendipity or providence, but I took a chance to look in detail although I kept telling myself how can a small boy travel all the way [across India].’
He zoomed in on the railway station and saw a water tank on the left side. ‘Then I saw a walkover bridge. And a little river. The memories came rushing back… All these landmarks were exactly what were in my memory.’ Saroo knew he was on track.
Unable to believe his luck, he says: ‘For some time though I was wondering whether I was awake or dreaming. But it was real.’
In some parts of India, changes that occur are usually not dramatic which was why 25 years later, the place looked largely the same. ‘The only dramatic changes were the kind of decay in some buildings,’ he says.
Heart still pounding, he searched for the name of the town; it was Khandwa. He logged into Facebook, typed in ‘Khandwa’ and found a group. He posted a query requesting for names of some landmarks and suburbs and a few days later, the admin replied. One of the names of places he mentioned was Ganesh Talai.
The penny dropped. Bingo. Home. The name of his suburb instantly triggered Saroo’s memory and he knew he was on track. ‘I just had to go back and see my family,’ he says.
On Feb 12, 2012, nearly 25 years since he boarded the train that would take him away from his biological family, Saroo returned to his home town of Kandhwa. Walking down the dusty road that led to his simple house, memories came fast and thick – of his sister, brother, mother, the games he played, the food they ate, the neighbours they had… A stranger he stopped to ask directions from, led him by hand to a small house before which stood a woman who looked vaguely familiar. His mother. Before Saroo had even reached, the grapevine brought her news that a stranger had arrived in the suburb and was enquiring about her house and whereabouts. Could it be Saroo? she wondered for a moment. Now here he was.
What was it like meeting your mother after more than two decades, I ask.
Saroo smiles. ‘It was amazing,’ he says. ‘I was looking at a woman whom I had last seen 25 years ago. I felt bitter-sweet emotions. I remembered of all the lovely moments I had with her and all of a sudden being oceans apart. I felt sad about it, then happy to see her once again because I thought I would never see her again.
‘I felt like rejoicing. I felt happy and elated for having found what I had been searching for for such a long time. There was a kind of closure. [The task of searching] was no longer hanging heavy on your shoulders.
‘It was a realisation that through hard work and trying to defy odds you can find the light at the end of the tunnel. So yes it was a miracle but hard work certainly shows.’
While closure it certainly was, it was not easy for both of them. For one, language was a barrier. While his mother knew no English, Saroo remembered barely a handful of Hindi terms. Nevertheless, they spent 10 days communicating through gestures and, when an English translator was available, longer and more meaningful exchanges.
After the brief visit, Saroo returned to Australia promising to make another trip to India soon.
Then came the media interviews. And Hollywood.
‘Lion was my first experience with Hollywood,’ say Saroo. Dev Patel played Saroo while Nicole Kidman essayed the role of Sue. The movie was a runaway critical success.
Is he happy with the way the movie was made?
‘It was more than 87 per cent there so I think that is a good per cent. I think they never really wanted to augment what I do in the story because [the story] in itself was just amazing. Justice was certainly done and my parents and I are really happy and over the moon.’
Saroo falls silent for a moment.
‘It takes a lot of courage to tell a personal story. I think my story gives hope to people. It gives them the strength to fight and to a lot of people who have been in situations similar to mine, it is like a light at the end of a tunnel.’