In 1986, Saroo Brierley and his brother were working as sweepers for India’s train system when they got separated. Five-year-old Saroo fell asleep on a train and woke up in Calcutta: not the place for a five-year-old to find himself alone. After living on the streets for a time, he was taken into an orphanage and adopted, but he never stopped thinking about his lost family.
Saroo settled down well in his new home. But as he got older the desire to find his birth family became increasingly strong. The problem was that as an illiterate five-year-old he had not known the name of the town he had come from. All he had to go on were his vivid memories. So he began using Google Earth to search for where he might have been born.
“It was just like being Superman. You are able to go over and take a photo mentally and ask, ‘Does this match?’ And when you say, ‘No’, you keep on going and going and going.”
Eventually Saroo hit on a more effective strategy. “I multiplied the time I was on the train, about 14 hours, with the speed of Indian trains and I came up with a rough distance, about 1,200km.”
He drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance he thought he had travelled. Incredibly, he soon discovered what he was looking for: Khandwa. “When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play.”
Soon he made his way to Khandwa, the town he had discovered online. He found his way around the town with his childhood memories. Eventually he found his own home in the neighbourhood of Ganesh Talai. But it was not what he had hoped for. “When I got to the door I saw a lock on it. It look old and battered, as if no-one had lived there for quite a long time.”
Saroo had a photograph of himself as a child and he still remembered the names of his family. A neighbour said that his family had moved.
“Another person came and then a third person turned up, and that is when I struck gold. He said, ‘Just wait here for a second and I shall be back.’ And when he did come back after a couple of minutes he said, ‘Now I will be taking you to your mother.’”
“I just felt numb and thought, ‘Am I hearing what I think I am hearing?’”
Saroo was taken to meet his mother who was nearby. At first he did not recognise her.
“The last time I saw her she was 34 years old and a pretty lady, I had forgotten that age would get the better of her. But the facial structure was still there and I recognised her and I said, ‘Yes, you are my mother.’
“She grabbed my hand and took me to her house. She could not say anything to me. I think she was as numb as I was. She had a bit of trouble grasping that her son, after 25 years, had just reappeared like a ghost.”