For India-born Saroo Brierly, becoming lost on the streets of Calcutta at age five meant he would almost certainly never see his family again.
After weeks of fruitless, childish searching for home, Saroo ended up in an orphanage and was adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierly, who brought him to Tasmania where he grew up.
By the time he reached adulthood, though, Saroo had an unshakeable desire to find the place he came from, and two things conspired in his favour: the development of the Google Earth app, and the prayers of his mother back in India.
Both were power-tools that led Saroo in 2012 to eventually find his mother, against the odds, in a nation of a billion people.
The movie Lion, inspired Saroo’s remarkable story, has just broken box-office records, recording the biggest first-weekend for an independent Australian movie.
- The Uplifting True Story of ‘Lion’ [Review, Red Carpet Slideshow]
- Shaky Future for 145,000 Compassion Sponsor Children in India
Watching His Own Story Come to Life on Silver Screen
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Laura Bennett, Saroo said that sitting in the cinema watching his own story, was still mesmerising, even though he’s lived it for years now—a tribute to the performances of Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar and David Wenham.
“I thought I was going to be a bit desensitised,” he said, “but I just found myself so captivated through it all. It just sort of put me back in.”
Saroo recalls his childhood experience of getting lost, like it was yesterday.
“I came down to the nearby train station with my brother…I pulled my brother towards a seat and laid down and went to sleep,” he explained. “He said ‘stay here, I’ll be back in a second’. And when I woke up he was nowhere to be seen.
“That yearning became stronger and I had to listen to my heart and my dreams.”
“I thought he was on the train that was just standing there. I boarded the carriage, thinking he was a couple of carriages away. I thought as an impulse decision to go to sleep in the cubicle waiting for him, not knowing that he was never on there. And when I woke up the next day, I was on a train, destination unknown. And it was so scary and frightening.”
Five-year-old Saroo then spent weeks catching random trains in the vain hope he might get back home.
“I was just a five-year-old kid, thinking quite primitively that if I can catch any train within this huge multi-platform station that it will take me back,” he said. “But what I know now is that there was no hope at all.”
When he reached his teens and twenties, Saroo felt a growing desire to return home and find his family of origin.
“It’s always been a yearning and atlas maps sort of helped, for example I knew I was not from the North, not from the South,” he said. “But that yearning became stronger and I had to listen to my heart and my dreams and my feelings.”
Saroo said there is no way he would have found his family without Google Earth. He searched the app each night for three years, from 5pm to 2am – that’s close to 10,000 hours. While didn’t tell his adoptive parents about his search at first, his mother suspected something was going on, judging by how tired he was every morning.
In a video created by Google, Saroo explains his search.
“I thought about how long I was on board the train and worked out my search radius,” he says. “I didn’t speak Bengali, so Bangladesh was out. I remembered looking at the stars, so I wasn’t from a city. I remembered it being warm at night, which ruled out the colder regions. From there, my only option was to follow the tracks that still remained.”
The Power of A Mother’s Faithful Prayers
Meanwhile, back in Burhanpur, Saroo’s mother Fatima Bi, a woman of faith, was praying. In an interview with BBC News she said that she never gave up asking God to bring her lost son back to her one day. Fatima was previously a Hindu who had converted to Islam.
“My only prayer was that God would fulfil my wish to meet my son before I die,” she said. “I always prayed that I will meet my son one day.”
She said she experienced “heaven on earth” when her son came back to her home village. “The happiness in my heart was as deep as the sea.”
Despite their 25-year separation, Fatima is grateful for the life Saroo has had in Australia. And Saroo, too, has a very positive view of adoption, telling Laura Bennett that it’s worked out well for him.
“When people who want to adopt, they genuinely want to share love with another child. Everyone’s got reasons for it. I don’t think there’s a bad side to adopting children at all. Look how I turned out; absolutely nothing wrong. Considering what I went through, you would think that this child would be psychologically scarred, or need lots of medication and therapy. But it’s not like that. I like to consider I’m still pretty sound!”
Since 2012, Saroo has been back to India 14 times so far, spending a lot of time seeing his mother and buying her a house, enabling her to leave life in the slums behind.
“I Knew He’d Been Loved” Says Adoptive Mother, Sue
In an interview with TV’s Studio 10, Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue Brierly said that she could see Saroo had been raised well, because of his courageous personality.
“When Saroo came, he was so nurtured and calm, I knew he’d been loved,” she said. “And he was confident he had the skills to survive, otherwise he would’ve surely died in Calcutta. So I knew he’d had good mothering before he came to me. And because of how he could learn—because you can’t learn if you are traumatised.”
In an interview with ABC’s 7:30, actor Nicole Kidman said that as an adoptive parent herself, she was drawn to the script of the film. “I think it was just meant to be,” she said.
Saroo’s mother Sue Brierly said that the emotional rollercoaster of this chapter in her family’s life was portrayed very accurately on the screen, and was hard to take at first, but that she’s now ‘OK with it’.
The film has also taught Nicole’s husband Keith Urban a lot about the challenges of being an adoptive parent.