No one knows for sure how old Saroo Brierley was when fate and circumstance conspired to rip him away from all he knew. He might have been as young as four when he fell asleep on a decommissioned train while looking for his brother, a train that carried him more than 1600 kilometres across India, leaving behind his family, his home, his life.
“As a child, I couldn’t really talk about my experience, because I didn’t know the language very well,” he says. “I didn’t have any friends; my only friend was my sister, who was around three years old. We were living in the slums and couldn’t afford to go to school. So my visual memory was heightened, and that’s what stayed with me.”
After a series of trials and misadventures, young Saroo ended up in a Calcutta orphanage, from which he was adopted by Hobart couple Sue and John Brierley. As an adult he stumbled onto Google Earth, painstakingly using the then-fledgling technology and his powerful memories to retrace his journey and, eventually, reunite with his family – 25 years after losing them.
It’s a tale that’s incredible in the truest sense of the word; if it were fiction you’d dismiss it out of hand. And it’s been brought to life in splendid form in a new film, Lion, with an all-star cast including Dev Patel as Saroo and Nicole Kidman as Sue.
“It was surreal,” Saroo says of watching his life unfold on screen. “I was holding onto my seat really hard, trying not to tear up, but they just came pouring out. It’s an enthralling, enchanting movie.”
Sue says she found it easy to relate to Nicole, “who went to a lot of trouble to get it right” – including the wonder of her very first meeting with Saroo, which she’ll never forget. “All my Christmases came at once,” she says. “He was just the sweetest little boy, and I could tell by looking into his eyes that he was special. All parents say that, but look what’s happened.”
The Brierleys knew Saroo had lost his family, but the full details of his journey took time to emerge. “It was a gradual exposure of this Aladdin’s cave of information and history and intrigue,” Sue says. “We didn’t force the issue, we didn’t want it to seem like it was a condition of him being with us … and bit by bit, little things would pop out.”
As heartwarming as the film is, Lion also captures the profound melancholy of belonging to two worlds and none. Saroo recollects friends noticing that his mind was elsewhere as he struggled to reconcile past and present. “It was a tough time. I’d take two or three hours to go to sleep, and then I’d dream of a sort of astral projection, coming out of my body and materialising in the streets that I used to walk at night. All of a sudden I’d be standing in front of the house I grew up in, and I’d go inside and try to project to my mother and my sister that I was alive, that I was OK.”
When Saroo came across Google Earth, he realised he could harness his strong visual memories of his early childhood to help with his search. But he didn’t know how to spell the name of his hometown, or even where it was; it didn’t help that this was a time of slower internet speeds, which meant excruciating load times as he navigated the tangle of train tracks across India.
Finally, in 2011, after five years of searching, he recognised some landmarks – a water tower, a quarry, enough to merit a trip and a joyous reunion with his family. He recounted his quest in a memoir, Lion: A Long Way Home, which was published in 2013 to rave reviews and formed the basis of the film.
Saroo and his birth mother are re-establishing their bond; he sends her money, and has bought her a house (Sue asks if he’s fixed the roof – one mother checking up to make sure he’s taking proper care of his other mother).
“I think they’d like to come here, but it’s a little bit difficult,” says Saroo. “It’s not just flying 15 hours to come here; she’s never seen a plane, let alone been on one.”
“We have regular conversations, once or twice a month, with a translator who lives around the corner; there’s 25 years of separation and so much to catch up on.”
Sue says the family always knew Saroo was searching for something, even if they didn’t know what.
“Quite often John and I would be asked if we were afraid Saroo would leave us, if he would want to go back to his birth country, but never for a moment did I fear that. I knew where his heart lay,” she says.
“Since he found his first family he’s calmer and more relaxed. He’s found this impossible thing; it’s truly a miracle, and it’s freed him to move forward with his maturity as a man.”
Saroo considers himself Australian, though it’s a question he’s been asked over and over again; Sue says his eyes “glaze over” when he’s asked who he follows in the cricket.
“My heart is in Australia because that’s where my family is,” Saroo says. “I’ve had closure; all this weight on my shoulders that had been there for so long has been lifted.”
For now he’s working with the family business in Hobart, doing motivational speaking, and is taking an “extra-long gap year” while he’s on the publicity circuit for Lion – but what’s next?
“There are things pending that are yet to be revealed,” he says, with a wry smile. “But I don’t think I’m going to be going away soon.”
- Lion (PG) is in cinemas now
- Lion: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (Penguin books)