Australian author Saroo Brierley’s story would be hard to believe were it not so well-documented.
As a poverty-stricken boy of five, he was separated from his older brother, Guddu, while they were riding trains and begging for food near his hometown of Khandwa, which is in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
In the nearby city of Burhanpur, Brierley fell asleep on a bench at the station after his brother told him to stay there for a while.
When Brierley woke up, he saw an open door on a train and wandered inside, half expecting his brother to be there.
Unbeknownst to him, Guddu had been killed by an oncoming train at the station. Brierley fell asleep again, and when he woke up he was locked in the carriage, travelling east toward an unknown destination.
“I must have been on that train for two days,” Brierley, 37, said in a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office. “I ended up in Calcutta [now Kolkata] in this sort of massive train station with three different platforms.”
He was 1,600 kilometres from his hometown, and he didn’t know the Bengali language used in Kolkata.
“I walked out of the train station,” Brierley recalled. “I saw food on the ground and started eating that. I got some water and kept myself alive.”
His time in Kolkata was filled with terror. He said he nearly drowned twice in the Hooghly River. He also mentioned nearly being abducted by some men and fleeing from a gang of boys who threw glass bottles at him.
For a few weeks, Brierley stayed with a teenager before winding up in a government juvenile detention prison. Nobody knew where his family lived, so he couldn’t be sent home.
“I was there for a few weeks and then taken to an orphanage,” Brierley said. “Then I was adopted from India to Australia.”
If it sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because his life story was depicted in the dramatic 2016 biopic Lion, starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman. The film was based on Brierley’s 2013 memoir, A Long Way Home, and was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.
Brierley spoke to the Straight before attending a May 19 fundraising dinner at the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre to benefit the Indian Summer festival, which will be held in July.
The story of growing up with his Australian adoptive parents, John and Sue, couldn’t be more different than the fear he experienced in Kolkata.
Warm, loving, and respectful of his Indian heritage, they provided a stable home in the Tasmanian city of Hobart.
After Brierley learned English, he tried to explain to them what happened to him in India.
“I think they were quite shocked,” he said. “But they may have thought at the same time, ‘Is he making this up?’ ”
Like many Australian boys, he grew up playing a lot of sports, and he later studied business and hospitality.
But Brierley couldn’t let go of his past, often wondering what had become of his childhood family.
In his early 20s, he discovered Google Earth, which gave him the capacity to use his laptop to search for his hometown.
“I was thinking, ‘How am I going to find the needle in the haystack?’ which, as you know, was Burhanpur train station,” he said.
He thought about the architecture of the station and that of his hometown, often working well into the night on Google Earth.
Brierley could recall images so he had to systematically examine train stations again and again, ruling one out before moving to the next one on his laptop.
In 2011, he experienced what he called his “eureka moment”: he’d found the suburb where he had grown up, within the city of Khandwa. It was called Ganesh Talai.
“I told my parents about it,” he said. “They were quite gobsmacked.”
The following year, Brierley reunited with his birth mother, Kamla Munshi, in a story that captured headlines around the world.
“My mother and I were both in tears,” he said.
Brierley used the word "amazing" to describe what it felt like walking in the streets of Ganesh Talai—and he didn't have high expecations that he would find his family.
When he did, it was "very emotional and surreal".
A police officer contacted the media, which turned him into an instant celebrity. Fame followed him on his way back to Australia, with 60 MInutes knocking on his door wanting to do a documentary.
Later, he bought his natural mom a house, and he remains in contact with her, a brother and a sister, and his nieces and nephews.
“I think I’ve seen her about 18 times within five years,” Brierley said. “It’s a mental cleanse [visiting India]. I come back to Australia feeling pretty good.”
Some Indians don't like the film Slumdog Millionaire for the way it portrayed how poor kids survive in parts of the subcontinent, reinforcing a common vision of India in the West as a pool of poverty and despair.
But Brierley told the Straight that he felt that film was an accurate depiction of what things are like for street children in large Indian cities.
When Brierley finally saw Lion, it brought tears to his eyes within the first 10 minutes.
"I'm quite an emotional person, so I guess I just broke down immediately."
His birth mother is Muslim and she often prayed for his return. But Brierley acknowledged that he hasn't spoken a great deal about spirituality with her since they were reunited, noting that after 25 years, there are so many other things they had to catch up on.
He was uncomfortable at first with the idea of writing a book because it's such an extremely personal story and Hobart isn't a huge city. But it became easier to continue as he realized that it might help other people who are in a similar situation—having been adopted and not knowing their full family history.
"I just thought about doing something good, and had no idea it would become so big," Brierley commented. "I didn't realize there was going to be a movie coming out and my life was going to segue in a different direction."
Since his book was published, many people have contacted him to explain how they found their lost mother or father or how it encouraged them to embark on a search.
"It's had a massive effect, and probably a bigger effect globally than what I'm aware of," Brierley said. "The other thing, too, is I'm hoping this movie and the story will sort of soften the hearts of bureaucrats and politicians with regard to opening gates for adoption."