The incredible story of Saroo Brierley

Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain
Aug 31, 2013 05:46 PM IST

How an Indian boy who grew up in Australia used Google Earth to find his family in a small village in Madhya Pradesh, 26 years after being lost

It had become an obsession, looking for Ginestlay (if only he could spell it right!) or for that other railway station – it started with a ‘B’ and sounded like Berampur. It was late in the night, his girlfriend Lisa had long gone to bed and Saroo Brierley was poring over a map at their apartment in Hobart, the capital of the Australian island state of Tasmania. He’d been doing this meticulously for a year now – zooming in and out of railway tracks originating from Kolkata’s Howrah station on Google Earth.

This is what he knew: Ginestlay was not by the mountains, it wasn’t on the seaside, it wasn’t lush. It was a dusty little village. Berampur was roughly 12 hours away (by train) from Kolkata. He remembered the landmarks, a fountain, a river, a bridge… He had searched through West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh but found nothing familiar. If only he could find the right station – Brahmapur, Baharampur, Birampur, Burhampoor… what was Berampur called? – he knew he could find his way back home.

Saroo&the chocolate factory: Saroo’s first word to his Australian parents was ‘Cadbury’
Saroo&the chocolate factory: Saroo’s first word to his Australian parents was ‘Cadbury’

Saroo Munshi Khan was almost always hungry. It wasn’t like they didn’t have any food – it was just never enough. His father had abandoned the family, so Kamla, his mum, worked at construction sites. The three brothers had learnt to get by, sometimes they stole food, other times, they begged. Guddu and Kallu would get small jobs to help out. They didn’t go to school. Five-year-old Saroo couldn’t write his name or even count till 10. He spent most of his time looking after his baby sister Shekila, while everybody else scrounged for food or money. One day, Guddu let Saroo come along on one of his excursions, to look for food or coins people may have dropped on railway platforms. “I remember feeling very excited,” Saroo recalls. But he was soon exhausted and fell asleep on a bench. “Just sit down and don’t move,” Guddu told him. Saroo woke up later in the night – he was all alone, other than a waiting train at the platform. Maybe Guddu had gone inside? Saroo went in to look. And fell asleep again, when he awoke, it was morning and the train was already criss-crossing through a lush countryside. Saroo was in the middle of nowhere and he didn’t know how to get back home.

But he tried desperately. At the Howrah Station, nobody noticed the lost, little boy running from platform to platform, hopping on one train or the other, any train that may take him back to ‘Ginestlay’. He ate peanuts or other bits of food people had dropped on the ground.

“Anything could have happened to me, the possibilities make my stomach churn,” says Saroo. “I could have ended up in child-slavery, some gang, been sexually abused,” it’s something that still scares him. Especially since he was so close to these things becoming a reality – he survived on the streets of Calcutta, alone for months. He was instinctively aware of the dangers lurking on the streets, but he also received kindness – a man who saved him from drowning, a mother who gave him food and a boy who gave him shelter and then took him to the police station. It was 1987, the police could make no sense of “Berampur”, Saroo was declared a lost child and transferred to a juvenile home. It was here, that the NGO, Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, found him and added him to their adoption list.

Big happy family: Saroo with his mother Kamla, his brother Kallu’s family on the left, his sister Shekila and her son on the right
Big happy family: Saroo with his mother Kamla, his brother Kallu’s family on the left, his sister Shekila and her son on the right

John and Sue Brierley could have children of their own. Sue had had an epiphany of sorts – a vision: A ‘brown-skinned’ child standing next to her. In 1987, 14 million children under 10 in India died from illness or starvation. They decided to adopt an Indian child. When Saroo flew down to Australia, he could not speak a word of English. They couldn’t speak in Hindi. They communicated in cuddles and hugs. They often went over to an Indian neighbour’s house for some translation and Indian food.

Growing up was a breeze. “We were a sport-oriented family. Because I was athletic, I made friends easily,” he says. There were a few wild phases here and there, but nothing out of hand. “I knew I’d been given another chance, another life in Australia by my parents, so I didn’t want to hurt them. Mum always says, ‘You were a pretty good kid.’”

He still missed his family back in India, wondered how they were. As he grew older, the urge to find his way back home strengthened. He didn’t know where it was but he remembered what it looked like. If only someone could show him some photographs? Saroo found Google Earth.

On the last day of March, in the middle of the night – Saroo was patiently looking over Madhya Pradesh. He knew it could take years, he may never even find his elusive village but he was possessed.

Packed to the Brierleys: Saroo with John and Sue Brierley and his brother (a second adopted Indian son) Mantosh
Packed to the Brierleys: Saroo with John and Sue Brierley and his brother (a second adopted Indian son) Mantosh

He found Burhanpur.

Burhanpur? There was a water tank, the bridge, the ring-road. Berampur? This was it! He followed the path he remembered to the next station – it was the right station but Khandwa railway station didn’t sound remotely like Ginestlay.

He found a Facebook group, Khandwa: My Home Town. He left them a message: “can anyone help me, i think im from Khandwa. i havent seen or been back to the place for 24 years. Just wandering if there is a big fountain near the Cinema? (sic)”

He got a response: “well we cant tell u exactly . . . . . there is a garden near cinema but the fountain is not that much Big.. n the cinema is closed form years.. wel we will try to update some pics . . hope u will recollect some thing … (sic)”

He posted again: “Can anyone tell me, the name of the town or suburb on the top right hand side of Khandwa? I think it starts with G . . . . . . . . not sure how you spell it, but i think it goes like this (Gunesttellay)? The town is Muslim one side and Hindus on the other which was 24 years ago but might be different now. (sic)” The reply, “Ganesh Talai.”

Eleven months later, in February last year, he was on a flight to India. From the hotel, he walked back the route almost etched in memory. He passed the fountain, the street where he used to play as a child, everything were familiar yet so changed. There were electric poles, it was so industrialised, there were more houses. And then, he was standing right outside his old house.

Good Sport: One thing Saroo loved about his new family was their love for the outdoors
Good Sport: One thing Saroo loved about his new family was their love for the outdoors

He had remembered the way back home, even after 26 years. He remembered so many little details of his childhood. “When I was a child I never went to school. There wasn’t a lot of communication growing up. I was pretty much always with my sister, taking care of her. I barely talked, so my learning was a visual thing as opposed to oratorial behaviour. I had developed a large vocabulary of understanding based on what I saw,” he now figures.

The house stood there, abandoned. He had known this could be a possibility, the trip could prove to be futile. But he had come so far!

A woman next door asked him if he wanted help. “Saroo,” he said, pointing to an old photo of himself. Then, pointing to the house he recited, “Kamla, Guddu, Kallu, Shekila.” In broken English, she told him nobody lived there anymore. A crowd had begun to gather. A man took his picture and walked away. He soon returned and said, “Come with me. I will take you to your mother, now.”

They recognised each other. Kamla held her son’s hand and led him to her house. “Sheru, Sheru” she repeated over and over again. Then it hit him. He had been pronouncing his name wrong all along.

Kallu managed a factory, he was married with three children. Shekila was also married and had a son. Guddu never came back home either. They found his body on a train track.

Family photos: Saroo was first introduced to his adoptive parents through a red photo book
Family photos: Saroo was first introduced to his adoptive parents through a red photo book

This is a real story. It’s now a book, A Long Way Back (published by Penguin Books). See-Saw films (They made the Oscar-winning 2010 film, The King’s Speech) have secured the rights to make it into a movie.

Saroo has been back to India thrice since then.

Once to recreate the journey for the book, then for Google Big Tent and earlier this year to shoot Sixty Minutes, an Australia segment about his life (you can watch it online). He’s been fortunate to not have had to pay for the flights and accommodation after his first visit – the frequent visits helped strengthen a bond. “Once a year is something that I plan to do,” he says.

He had long forgotten the Hindi he knew, and his family never learnt English. Communicating is “extremely difficult.” They’re still getting to know each other, they talk about the things they used to do – with the help of a translator. “Sometimes, I really sort of scramble my brother’s brain and my mother’s brain to bring out the memory of things they only remember parts of. They’re so flabbergasted and shocked in knowing that I remember such details. And then there are the stories that even I don’t remember – my mother tells me how I’d wander off when I was supposed to take care of Shekila. There’s just so much to talk about! It’s 25 years of not knowing what’s happened to me and what they’ve been up to. ‘Did you think about us, did you remember us?’… Everyone has so many questions… including my nephews and niece.”

He’s coming home again soon for more questions and answers.

1981: Saroo was born (as estimated by officials in Kolkata)

1986: He boards the train, ends up in Kolkata

1987: He is adopted by John and Sue Brierley and grows up in Tasmania

2007: He makes many Indian friends in college in Canberra; begins searching for his hometown

2011: March 31: He finds his village on Google Earth

2012: In February, he comes to India, finds his family

From HT Brunch, September 1

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