Saroo was only five years old when he became separated from his family. He was working as a sweeper on India’s trains with his older brother. “It was late in the evening. We got off the train, and I was so exhausted that I just sat down in a train station and fell asleep.”
The rest of his life would be determined by that fateful nap. “I expected my brother to return and wake me up, but he was nowhere to be found when I awoke. I noticed a train in front of me and assumed he was on it. So I decided to get on it in the hopes of meeting up with my brother.”
On the train, Saroo did not see his brother. Instead, he dozed off and was startled when he awoke 14 hours later. He had arrived in Calcutta, India’s third-largest city and notorious for its slums, though he did not realise it at the time.
“I was terrified to death. I had no idea where I was. I had only recently begun to seek out people and ask them questions.”
He was soon sleeping on the streets. “It was a terrifying environment to be in. I don’t think any mother or father wants their five-year-old wandering around alone in Calcutta’s slums and train stations.”
The young boy had to learn to fend for himself. He became a beggar, one of many children who begged on the city’s streets. “I had to be extremely cautious. Nobody could be trusted.”
He was once approached by a man who offered him food, shelter, and a way home. Saroo, on the other hand, was suspicious. “I ran away because I thought he was going to do something bad to me.”
He did, however, eventually leave the streets. An orphanage took him in and placed him up for adoption. He was adopted by the Brierleys, a Tasmanian couple. “I accepted that I was lost and couldn’t find my way back home, so I thought going to Australia would be fantastic.”
Saroo adapted well to his new surroundings. However, as he grew older, his desire to find his birth family grew stronger. The problem was that he didn’t know the name of the town he came from as a five-year-old illiterate. He only had his vivid memories to rely on. As a result, he began looking for his birthplace on Google Earth.
“It was as if I were Superman. You can go over and mentally take a photo and ask, “Does this match?” And even if you say “No,” you keep going, going, going.”
Saroo eventually devised a more effective strategy. “I calculated a rough distance of about 1,200 kilometres by multiplying the time I was on the train, which was about 14 hours, by the speed of Indian trains.”
On a map, he drew a circle with its centre in Calcutta and a radius equal to the distance he believed he had travelled. Surprisingly, he quickly found what he was looking for: Khandwa. “When I found it, I zoomed down and it appeared out of nowhere. I made it all the way from where I used to play at the waterfall.”
He soon arrived in Khandwa, the town he had found online. With the help of his childhood memories, he navigated the town. He eventually found his own place in Ganesh Talai’s neighbourhood. It was not, however, what he had hoped for. “I noticed a lock on the door when I arrived. It appeared to be run-down and battered, as if no one had lived there in a long time.”
Saroo still remembered the names of his family and had a photograph of himself as a child. His family had relocated, according to a neighbour.
Another person showed up, and then a third, and that’s when I realised I’d struck gold. ‘Just wait a second, and I’ll be right back,’ he said. ‘Now I will be taking you to your mother,’ he said when he returned after a few minutes.”
“I just felt numb and wondered if I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.”
Saroo was whisked away to meet his mother, who happened to be nearby. He didn’t recognise her at first.
“She was 34 years old and a lovely lady the last time I saw her, and I had forgotten that age would catch up with her. However, the facial structure remained, and I recognised her and said, “Yes, you are my mother.”
“She took my hand in hers and led me to her home. She was speechless in front of me. She appeared to be as numb as I was. She had a hard time believing that her son had just reappeared like a ghost after 25 years.”
Despite her fears that he was dead, Saroo’s mother had been told by a fortune teller that she would see her son again one day. “I believe the fortune-teller gave her a jolt of energy to keep going until that day came.”
What about Saroo’s original travelling companion, his brother? Regrettably, the news was not encouraging. “My brother was discovered in two pieces on a railway track a month after I vanished.” His mother had no idea if there had been any foul play or if the boy had simply slipped and fallen under a train.
“We were extremely close, and one of the most heartbreaking things for me when I left India was learning that my older brother had died.”
Saroo Brierley slept for years wishing he could see his mother and birth family again. He is extremely grateful now that he has. He has maintained contact with his newly discovered family.
“It has relieved the strain on my shoulders. I’m sleeping much better now.”
And there’s something else that’ll help him sleep better: with the success of Slumdog Millionaire still fresh in his mind, publishers and film producers are taking notice of his incredible storey.