Growing up in Tasmania, Saroo Brierley had a map of India on his wall. “The map’s hundreds of place names swam before me in my childhood,” he recalls. “Long before I could read them, I knew that the immense V of India was teeming with cities and towns, with deserts and mountains, rivers and forests – the Ganges, the Himalayas, tigers, gods! – and it came to fascinate me. I would stare up at the map, lost in the thought that somewhere among all those names was the place I had come from.”
Until the age of five, Saroo lived with his mother, two brothers and baby sister in a remote, impoverished town called Khandwa. Accompanying his brother to work in a nearby town one day, he got lost and trapped on a cross-country train. He ended up almost 1,500km away, across the country in Calcutta (now Kolkata), alone, unable to find his way back, with others seeming more likely to abuse rather than help him. After spending several weeks on the streets, he was sent to a government juvenile detention centre, and later an adoption organisation. They tried to trace his family but Saroo could not remember enough details about where he was from for his family to be traced, and so it was arranged for him to be adopted by a couple in Australia.
Since I was a kid, I’d go to bed and have these dreams The Brierleys offered Saroo a loving home, but he was haunted by the memories of the life and family he had lost. “It was traumatic to have these memories and this feeling of uncertainty but I learned how to deal with it,” Saroo says from Tasmania, where he still lives. “Since I was a kid, I’d go to bed and have these dreams… But what was a burden for such a long time really kept these thoughts and memories alive.”
Years later, while Saroo was at college, Google Earth was released and he realised that if he could find landmarks from his memory, he would be able to find the family he had lost. After five years of obsessively searching online, following various train tracks across the vast subcontinent, he spotted a station with the water tower and tunnel he recognised – and after 25 years, found his way back home. He travelled, alone again, back to Khandwa and retraced the route he used to walk from the train station to his home. When he arrived there he found that the shack, shared by a family of five, was empty and crumbling. He showed a picture of himself, like the one featured here of him as a young boy, to people passing and somebody said: “Come with me, I’m going to take you to your mother.”
Twenty-five years after he had disappeared, Saroo was reunited with his birth mother. Although his family had moved away, she had wanted to stay close to her old home in case one day her son would return. “My mother described her reactions better than I ever could mine: she said she was ‘surprised with thunder’ that her boy had come back, and that the happiness in her heart was ‘as deep as the sea’.
The ultimate driving force was knowing if my family was alive“The ultimate driving force was knowing if my family was alive,” Saroo says. “Seeing their faces again and telling them I’m okay – and knowing that they’re okay as well. Who else wouldn’t want that too? It was about having closure, and there is closure now.”
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
Following the incredible, if bittersweet, reunion with his family, Saroo’s story became a media sensation. He wrote a book, which has become the source of the Bafta-nominated film Lion, starring Dev Patel (above) and Nicole Kidman.
Saroo is now 35, though nobody knows his real date of birth. “I don’t have a birth certificate,” he says. “The 22nd of May was when I was found in India, and they thought they would give me that day and month but in regards of the year, they thought I was roughly an ’81 baby – but I always say I’m younger! My biological mother suspected it was around June, July or August, so I guess maybe it wasn’t too far off, but you’re testing a 63-year-old traumatised woman’s memory.”
Although his story is as remarkable as they come, one thing that becomes clear is it – the first half at least – is sadly not unique. Saroo was one child lost in Calcutta, where an estimated 100,000 children lived on the streets. In the year he was adopted, in 1987, the population of Australia was 17 million, while in India that year 14 million children under the age of 10 died of illness or starvation. Today, 800,000 children go missing in India every year; many are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and many run away to escape abuse and exploitation. Saroo’s adoptive parents decided that the world had enough people in it already, and with so many millions of people in dire need they chose to adopt. “They agreed there were other ways to create a family beyond having children themselves,” Saroo says. “They didn’t want to reproduce, they wanted to help somebody out there in need.”
Saroo’s mother Sue is played by Nicole Kidman in the film, who has also adopted two children of her own. She says that she was attracted to the film because it shows how an adoptive mother’s love for a child can be the same as a birth mother’s: “When it’s shown in the film with such warmth and openness and compass-ion, I think that’s a beautiful thing for people to see.”
My parents helped me by giving me affection, and through what’s happened to me I shared that with the worldThe Brierleys knew they couldn’t’ change the world but they could change someone’s world. “I just needed love and salvation,” Saroo says. “My parents helped me by giving me affection, and through what’s happened to me I shared that with the world. Even if it’s one person out there that feels some hope and sees light at the end of the tunnel then that’s something.
It was about having closure, and there is closure now
“It also makes people understand that we all underestimate ourselves. The brain is a fascinating organ, its instinct, adaptability, endurance, will, strength, emotion, ability to wonder… I know I was a little child but it shows the resilience of a five-year-old and the resilience of an adult. [The young] Saroo is a mentor in my life.”
When Saroo eventually learned where he was from after years of scanning satellite pictures, he realised the answer he was looking for had never been far away. “My home had been marked on the map above my desk the whole time,” Saroo says. “If only I’d known where to look.”
Lion is in cinemas from January 20. Lion by Saroo Brierley is out now (Penguin, £8.99).