This is the kind of stuff old Bollywood movies are made of. An innocent child separated from family, left to wander on the streets, transported to another continent, reunited three decades later.

For Saroo Brierley, it was no movie. It was a struggle for identity. A painstaking process that relied heavily on hazy memories and Google Earth.

I don’t know how to begin without sensationalizing the tale. How to tell you this incredible story. I will begin with the beginnings.

The Separation

The tragic separation happened when 5-year-old Saroo was helping his elder brother earn money to buy the day’s meal. They were rummaging through the coaches of trains, looking for coins people might have dropped on the floors, when Saroo, who was exhausted, dozed off at the railway platform, telling his brother to wake him up when it was time to go. The brother never returned (20 years later Saroo was to find that he was crushed under a train on those very railway tracks). In a bid to find him, Saroo boarded the train and ended up 200 miles away from home.

Saroo as a child

The 5-year-old child ended on the streets, in an unknown land (it was Calcutta) where nobody spoke his language. The boy was taken to prison by a well-meaning soul as that seemed the safest place, and from there shifted to a juvenile home.

It was Saroo’s luck that he was picked up by an Australian couple. From there, things went uphill. In Australia, he went to school, was well-provided for, and grew up like any other child.

Life Began Afresh in Australia 

Saroo with his foster parents

In the beautiful harbor town of Hobart where he lived, Saroo had everything going for him. His new family was affluent, they had a boat on which they would take their Indian son sailing. Saroo was popular among his friends, especially girls. But the racial difference and the fact that he was adopted was much too big for him to ignore. His past secretly haunted him. He wanted to find out where he came from.

The Search

Spending the nights on Goggle Earth

And so began the search. His only tools were his faded memory and Google Earth. He zoomed in on India on Google Earth.

It was like finding a needle in a haystack. He didn’t remember the name of his hometown – the only memory of his hometown was the fountain near which he had once hurt himself, the train station and a dam nearby.

“I was flying over India on Google Earth just like Superman,” he recalled, “trying to zoom in on every town that I saw.”

How do you search for something as vague as this?

He began by tracking railway tracks that went out of Calcutta, the city from where his Australian parents had adopted him. Taking a mathematical approach, he realized that since he had fallen asleep in the evening and arrived in Calcutta the next morning, he need to calculate the distance travelled by the train in that time period. Contacting his Indian friends to find out the speed of Indian trains in the 1980s, he got the first concrete fact he wanted – that he had boarded the train 960 km from Calcutta. That his hometown was somewhere 960 km from Calcutta.

The haystack was still too dense.

On Google Earth, he drew a circle with 960 km radius around Calcutta. This was the circle where his needle was.

He then eliminated areas that didn’t speak Hindi, since Hindi was all he had known as a child. There were still many areas to be searched. Saroo started spending nights, hours at a time flying over India.

When you say it , it seems surreal, almost fantasmical: an Indian boy who left the country at five, grew up in a land far away, virtually flying over villages and towns of his homeland at night when the rest of the world was asleep.

Today I am no longer a technology-hater.                                                                                                                                                 .

The Reunion

With his two mothers

After what felt like eternity, Saroo identified the dam and the railway track on Google Earth. It was a town named Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. He booked his flight tickets to India.

What if his family was dead? What if they had moved somewhere else? A hundred fears clouded his mind as he made his way to the village.

With only a photo of himself as a child in hand, he began making inquiries, and soon enough the neighbours led him to his house. He got to know that his full name was Saroo Munshi Khan.

“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.”

Saroo with his biological mother, Shekila Khan

“It has taken the weight off my shoulders. I sleep a lot better now.” Saroo says.

Saroo has penned down his 25-year long ordeal in a book titled A Long Way Home. The makers of Slumdog Millionaire have shown keen interest in Saroo’s story, and soon this incredible story might be seen on the 70 mm screen.

The book published by Penguin

Saroo continues to live with his Australian family in Hobart and handles his father’s business. He is in touch with his biological family, and intends to buy his mother a bigger house.

Stories like these are rare. Children left on the streets often end up  in the same place — on the streets. The underbelly of urban life in a third world country is grim, to say the least. It is very difficult for a slumdog to become a millionaire.

Nishi Jain

Nishi Jain spent some precious years of her life studying English literature, editing novels, and writing newspaper articles. Then one day, as she was sitting under a tree with no branches, a rotten pancake fell on her head from the window above and she had her Newtonian moment. From then on, all she does is eat pancakes, write, and profess fake love to pastry chefs.

Nishi Jain – who has written posts on WAH Blog.