It’s a story straight out of a Blockbuster hit: 5-year-old Indian boy gets lost on train. Ends up in Calcutta slum. Gets taken in by orphanage, then adopted by Tasmanian couple. Twenty-five years later, uses Google Earth to search for birth mother. Finds her! (Can’t you just imagine the Oscar acceptance speech?)
This actually happened to a boy named Saroo Brierley, who in 1986 was traveling with his older brother (the two were working as sweepers on India’s trains). As he explains to BBC News, “It was late at night. We got off the train, and I was so tired that I just took a seat at a train station, and I ended up falling asleep… I thought my brother would come back and wake me up but when I awoke he was nowhere to be seen. I saw a train in front of me and thought he must be on that train. So I decided to get on it and hoped that I would meet my brother.”
Saroo never did find his brother. Instead, he fell asleep and woke up 14 hours away in Calcutta, where he lived on the streets begging for money. He was taken in by an orphanage and later adopted by a Tasmanian couple. According to BBC News, he had a happy upbringing but never lost the desire to find his birth family. So he turned to Google Earth for some answers.
Keep in mind that Saroo was illiterate as a 5-year-old and had not known the name of the town he had come from. So he multiplied the time he was on the train (around 14 hours) with the speed of Indian trains and came up with a rough distance. (Is this bringing you back to high-school math problem-solving?) Saroo soon discovered his home town, Khandwa. “When I found it [on Google Earth], I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play,” he said.
Saroo flew to Khandwa and eventually found his own home, which was old and battered with a lock on the front door. A neighbor told him his family had moved but word quickly spread that he was searching for them. Pretty soon, he was taken to his mother, whom he didn’t recognize at first. He told BBC News:
“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 recognied 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.”
Sadly, Saroo’s older brother’s body was found on a railway track just one month after the pair became separated. That’s taken a toll on Saroo, but he’s eternally grateful to have reunited with his mother and other family members, with whom he keeps in regular touch. “It has taken the weight off my shoulders. I sleep a lot better now,” he said.
It’s a bittersweet story, to be sure, and a pretty unbelievable one at that. I cannot even begin to imagine the shock Saroo’s mother must have felt to have her child magically reappear after 25 years. It really is incredible and, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind finding out all the minor details, even if that entailed watching it on the big screen one day. Something tells me that’ll happen before we know it.
(Photo: CNET UK)