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 Hindu mother Kamala, older brothers Guddu and Kullu and younger sister Shekila. His Muslim father Munshi abandoned the family when Saroo was a toddler and started a new family.
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 food and/or change. When young Saroo grew tired, his brother left him to nap on a bench before making the trek home. When Saroo woke, Guddu was nowhere to be found.
Saroo looked on the train that was in the station to see if he could find Guddu. While on board, the train began to move. On the long journey, after discovering Guddu was nowhere on board, Saroo 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 or his own last name, was illiterate and couldn't count to 10, his newfound surroundings were terrifying. He exited the train and found himself in Calcutta's bustling train station, full of unfamiliar faces. He approached strangers and asked for help, but no one wanted to listen or help — children with no families were a common sight in Calcutta, begging on the street. Also, Saroo's language skills were lacking, never having attended school. 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.
When Saroo woke he 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. He spent weeks fending for himself on the disorienting streets of Calcutta, where he escaped child molesters and a gang of children that gave him a beating. Finally, he approached a gentleman who brought him to a local home for delinquent children, where Saroo saw "kids with no arms, no legs, deformed faces." He assumed Saroo would be safer there. Following a short stint at the home, which Saroo described as a hellish place, he was transferred to an orphanage.
The orphanage, while still no luxury, was safer than the home, with less bullies for Saroo to avoid. 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. Saroo was told he was going to have new parents, an Australian couple living in Tasmania. Saroo was cleaned, given new clothing and was taught how to eat with cutlery rather than his bare hands.
John and Sue Brierley owned a company and lived a comfortable life. Saroo was given photos of his new parents to look at before meeting them and he was astounded to see a photo of John posing with his car. "My new father has a car!" he excitedly told the other orphans.
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.