Saroo Brierley true story
Google Earth is a remarkable tool that allows users to virtually transport themselves anywhere on the planet. From the desolate, arid deserts of the Australian Outback to the tantalizing, turquoise waters of Tortola, the app employs the use of satellite imagery to bring the world's vast and varied locations to the fingertips of web surfers. Its capabilities are spectacular but no one can attest to Google Earth's power and proficiency quite like Saroo Brierley.
Saroo, whose birth name is Saroo Munshi Khan, was born in the small Indian town of Khandwa in 1981. He grew up under a tin roof in a mud-brick house, which he shared with his mother Kamala, older brothers Guddu and Kullu and younger sister Shekila. His father Munshi abandoned the family when Saroo was a toddler.
One night in 1986, Guddu, who had assumed the role of man of the house in Munshi's absence, took Saroo to a nearby railway station to scour for change. They searched for hours and young Saroo grew tired. He informed his older brother that he needed a nap before making the trek home and Guddu ushered him to a bench where he told him to sleep. He said that he'd occupy himself while Saroo rested and that they'd travel home together when he woke.
However, when Saroo finally did wake, he couldn't find Guddu. He assumed that he had boarded a train and that if Saroo did the same, Guddu would eventually locate him. He walked into a carriage and again fell asleep. When he woke, he was alone on a train that was speeding through the Indian countryside. He couldn't find Guddu and began to panic. He screamed for his older brother, ran up and down the carriage looking for help, only to realize it was abandoned. Saroo later recalled in a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair that being alone on the carriage "was a lot like being in prison, a captive." He said he was "just crying and crying."
Hours passed before the train came to a stop. For five-year-old Saroo, who had never ventured beyond the borders of Khandwa, didn't know the name of his hometown, was illiterate and couldn't count to 10, his newfound surroundings were terrifying. He exited the train and entered a bustling station full of unfamiliar faces. He approached strangers and asked for help, but not one person spoke Hindi, the language he knew. Eventually, he worked up the courage to begin searching for something he might recognize. Instead, he encountered packs of homeless people and piles of corpses. Afraid, he curled up under an empty row of seats and fell asleep. Unbeknownst to him, he was in Calcutta's main train station.
Saroo woke and began the process of boarding random trains in the hope that he'd be taken home. He never was. Saroo's trips routinely took him out of Calcutta only to bring him back into the chaotic, fast-paced city. He survived on food he found in the trash and what he was given after begging from strangers. After weeks of fending for himself on the disorienting streets of Calcutta, he was spotted by a gentleman who brought him to a local prison. He assumed that Saroo would be safer there. Following a short stint at the prison, Saroo was transferred to what he told Vanity Fair was a "horrific" juvenile home. While at the home, he saw "kids with no arms, no legs, deformed faces."
However, the home was a place of hope. The Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption (ISSA) frequently visited and added Saroo to their adoption list when no responses were received from the photo they released of him on their missing children bulletin. From the juvenile home, Saroo was transferred to an orphanage where he was cleaned and instructed on how to eat with cutlery rather than his bare hands. He was groomed to be adopted by Western parents, who turned out to be John and Sue Brierley.
The Brierleys were an Australian couple living in Tasmania. Rather than give birth to their own child, they saw adoption as a way to give back. They owned a company and lived a comfortable life in Hobart.
Saroo revealed to Vanity Fair that when he arrived in Hobart, he told himself the following: "Here's a new opportunity... I'll accept this and I'll accept them as my family." He knew only a few English words, but reveled in the Brierleys' air-conditioned home and adored his bedroom, stuffed koala bear and the map of India that Sue plastered next to his bed. Saroo routinely joined his new parents on boat excursions around the Tasman Sea, where he learned to swim.
He quickly adjusted to life in Tasmania, developing an Australian accent and growing into an athletic, popular teen. He had a girlfriend and played big brother to another Indian boy that the Brierleys adopted. But he was haunted by the thought of his roots and the biological family he vaguely remembered. He told Vanity Fair, "Even though I was with people I trusted, my new family, I still wanted to know how my family [was]: Will I ever see them again? Is my brother still alive? Can I see my mother's face once again? I would go to sleep and a picture of my mum would come in my head."
In 2009, he began a journey that would lead him home. After graduating from college and reeling in the aftermath of a recent breakup, he opened his laptop, launched Google Chrome and took a virtual trip across India via Google Earth. He didn't know the name of his hometown and had no idea whether his search would yield favorable results, but he was determined to try. He started by following train tracks out of Calcutta.
Three years later, Saroo hadn't made much progress. But while at a new girlfriend's place and able to connect to high-speed Internet, he revived his efforts and reframed his search. He decided to approach his task the way he approached mathematical problems. The number of hours that had passed while he was asleep on the train and the speed at which the train travelled in 1986 were factors he took into account. With Calcutta at the center, Saroo drew a circle with a radius of roughly 960 kilometers. A perimeter was formed and he focused his search within it.
Using Google Earth one fateful evening, Saroo's eye caught a landmark that jogged his memory. He came across a bridge near an industrial tank by a train station located in Western India. He frantically searched for the name of the closest town to the bridge and when he saw it, a spark was lit. He saw the name Burhanpur, which he recalled as the station where he and his brother Guddu last saw each other. Saroo hastily followed train tracks out of Burhanpur station and arrived in a town where he recognized other landmarks, including a fountain and a river that flowed over a dam. The town's name was Khandwa.
Saroo logged into Facebook and searched for Khandwa groups. He conversed with various people who confirmed that the landmarks he saw did in fact belong to Khandwa. Additionally, other suspicions he had about his hometown were verified as well. As far as he was concerned, it was time to fly to India.
John Brierley was encouraging of Saroo's pursuit to uncover his past but Sue was hesitant. She knew that some families intentionally sent their young away so that they had one less mouth to feed and feared this was the case for Saroo. If that wasn't true, she worried that Saroo's memory was murkier than he cared to admit. But despite the mixed reactions from his Australian parents, Saroo travelled home to India on February 10, 2012, 25 years after he was separated from his brother.
Saroo made his way to the town of Khandwa. He retraced his childhood footsteps and dodged pigs, wild dogs and the dhoti and burka-donning people of the dusty streets before he arrived at a mud-brick house with a tin roof. The woman living in it didn't know of his family but a passerby who overheard their conversation brought him to a house where three women sat outside. Saroo closely examined each one and instinctively knew that the woman wearing a yellow, flower printed robe with gray hair pulled back in a bun was his mother. In a state of disbelief, mother and son approached each other and embraced in an impassioned hug.
Saroo's mother, who had converted to Islam and changed her name from Kamala to Fatima, brought him indoors. She called her daughter, who quickly arrived. Shekila bore an uncanny resemblance to Saroo. Soon after, Kullu was summoned. But when Saroo inquired about Guddu, Fatima's eyes welled with tears. She explained to Saroo that mere weeks after he disappeared, Guddu's body was found split in two. His remains were discovered on train tracks and no clear explanation for his death ever emerged.
Fatima also revealed to Saroo that she relentlessly searched for him after he vanished. She quit looking, however, when she met a fortune teller who told her that a reunion with Saroo was imminent but out of her control.
Saroo stayed in Khandwa with his biological family for 11 days. Before he returned to Tasmania, he sent the Brierleys the following text message: "The questions I wanted answered have been answered. There are no more dead ends. My family is true and genuine, as we are in Australia. She has thanked you, mum and dad, for bringing me up. My brother and sister and mum understand fully that you and dad are my family, and they don't want to intervene in any way. They are happy just knowing that I'm alive, and that's all they want. I hope you know that you guys are first with me, which will never change. Love you."
Although his permanent residence is in Tasmania, Saroo maintains regular contact with his family in India. He sends money to support them, which means his mother is free from having to work physically strenuous jobs.
In 2014, Saroo published an autobiography called A Long Way Home, which went on to become a No. 1 international bestseller. The book also serves as the basis for Lion, Garth Davis' film adaptation of Saroo's phenomenal story. Dev Patel plays Saroo, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham star as the Brierleys and Rooney Mara rounds out the supporting cast. ~Matthew Pariselli.
Photo from the cover of Saroo's autobiography A Long Way Home, published by Viking.