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Saroo Munshi Khan was a hungry child. Sure, he had food to eat from time to time, but it was never enough. Having been abandoned by his father at a very young age, he and his three brothers, a sister, along with a loving mother who worked at a construction site, had been accustomed to living in poverty. The brothers begged for food at times, sometimes they resorted to stealing things—necessity being the mother of all evil!
He was five-years-old when his older brother Guddu took him on one of his expeditions, to look for money and spare food on railway platforms. Saroo was excited to be with his brother, looking forward to having a fun time, but little did he know that his life was going to change forever. His brother left him on the bench at the platform, asking him to stay put; so an exhausted Saroo fell asleep on the bench. When he woke up at night, he panicked not being able to find his brother. There was a train waiting at the platform, thinking his brother must be inside, he went in to look. Exhaustion took over him and he fell asleep again. This time when he woke up, he had travelled 1000 mile from his town of Khandwa in MP to Calcutta.
This was in 1986, Saroo didn’t know how to write, read and certainly didn’t know the name of the place he was from. For the next few weeks, he travelled in and out of Calcutta in train, hoping to somehow miraculously get back at his hometown—but to no avail. At the bustling and crowded Howrah station, Saroo was all alone. Nobody had noticed this little, lost child! Soon, he learned to fend for himself—he became a beggar. “I had to be quite careful. You could not trust anyone.” He was approached by a man who promised him food and shelter but Saroo was suspicious and couldn’t trust him. “Ultimately I think he was going to do something not nice to me, so I ran away.”
His luck took a drastic turn when a kind boy finally took him to the police in 1987. He was declared a lost child and put up in a juvenile home. Ultimately, an NGO, Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, found him and added him to their adoption list.
He was then adopted by John and Sue Brierley, a couple from Tasmania, Australia. He moved to his new home in a different country altogether, learned English and soon forgot Hindi. He accepted his fate, that he has lost his family forever, but life as they say—strange are its ways!
He still missed his family back in India, his desire to find his family strengthened when he grew older. He didn’t know the names of the towns or nearby cities—all he had was his vivid memories as a child that was still clear as a day in his mind. If only someone could show him photographs. An idea struck him—he’ll use Google Earth to search for where he might have been born.
“I kind of timed a rough amount of hours I was on the trains, with the kilometers of the speed of the trains. And I sort of put out a ruler from Calcutta out. And it created a radius. And it so happens the very night where I found it, I was just sort of out of the circle and I zoomed down and -BANG — it just sort of came up,” he said. Using the maps, he found the waterfall and dam where he and his brothers used to play.
And just like that, he soon found himself on a flight to India. He walked back on the same route of his village, Ganesh Talai, which was almost etched in his minds. He passed the familiar fountain, the street, the same electric poles—everything was familiar yet changed drastically. He found his old home but it stood there abandoned. He took help from the neighbors, reciting the names of his family members and his mother. And then he struck gold. One of the neighbors connected the dots, recognized him and took him to his mother. His reunion with his mother was, well, awkward. His brother Guddu never returned from that trip, his body was found lying on a train track. His other brother was married with 3 kids, so was his sister with one kid. His mother, on the other hand, was still coming to terms with the realization that his son was back.
He said his mother had gone to a fortune teller who told her she’d be reunited with her son someday and that had given her strength!
His story has also been converted into a book, A Long Way Back (published by Penguin Books). See-Saw films, on the other hand, have secured the rights to make it into a movie. The film, Lion, will star Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel and Rooney Mara. It will be released in 2016.