Saroo Brierley on ‘Lion’ and the incredible rediscovery of his home in India
The great metal curve of Howrah Bridge rises above the Hooghly River. A ceaseless sea of humanity surges across it and down through the ornately massive train station. Along the banks people bathe, wash clothes and dishes, lather shampoo. A tide of rubbish and vegetation floats by. There is the smell of urine, the fragrance of flowers, coriander, turmeric.
At the bottom of the solid, crushing heap of Calcutta, a tiny lost boy is invisible to the thousands of people who push past him. Frightened and alone, scavenging for scraps of food, searching for somewhere safe to sleep. Heartbroken, barefoot and trying to find his way back home. The child was not yet five years old when it happened, when he disappeared. “Everything looked so big back then,” Saroo Brierley says now, gazing out at the filthy river in what is now known as Kolkata. “It was full-on.”
Saroo was used to being hungry. He was already resilient. Before the train took him across India, torn away from everything he knew, he and his brothers would spend their days begging for food, stealing fruit, running wild. “We were just vagabonds,” he says. “I was fearless.”
After their Hindu mother had been abandoned by her Muslim husband she worked on building sites, carrying heavy rocks and stones on her head six days a week, often being away for days in other towns. And still she didn’t earn enough to feed her four children.
“Most of the time there was nothing to eat when you woke up in the morning. We didn’t have food so we lived some days with, some days without, and some days with just the tiniest morsel to get us through.”
He used to hang around the school gates, an urchin in rags. But in a country where there is no free education, there was no possibility of schooling.
“I so longed to go to school. I would see all these kids dressed up in their school uniform and here is me, looking like I did, watching all these kids in line going into the school.”
In the evenings, when parents had gathered in the other children, he would still be outside. “There was nothing constructive to do in the day.”
As they entered adolescence his older brothers, Guddu and Kallu, began roaming further from home, sleeping in railway stations and under bridges, living off their wits, looking for food and money to bring home. Saroo was responsible for his baby sister, Shakila, who would chew on charcoal out of hunger. But one night when his mother was home he persuaded Guddu to take him on his nocturnal adventures. They left on a bicycle to catch the train to Burhanpur.
By the time they got there the little boy was drowsy. Guddu left him to sleep on a wooden bench at the station, telling him not to move. When he woke up in the small hours there was a train with its carriage door open with more comfortable seats. He climbed in and went back to sleep. He woke in daylight in a train that was rattling along, the only person in a carriage with locked doors, trapped, and getting further and further from home. “When I think back now,” he says, “and relive the full horror of having no idea where I was going, it is like a nightmare. I remember it in snapshots.”
Twenty-five years later Saroo would find out that Guddu hadn’t come back to get him because the 14-year-old had fallen off a moving train and been killed that night.
When the train lurched to a stop on the other side of India and the doors finally opened, Saroo was in the sprawling city of Calcutta, one of the most dangerous, desperate places in the world. A place where street children are snatched and trafficked, where strangers are not kind. He was illiterate, couldn’t read signs, did not speak Bengali, couldn’t get anyone to understand him, was mispronouncing the name of his home. There was so much noise. “Ginestlay,” he would desperately call out.
A lifetime later he would discover the name of the neighbourhood he was trying to say was Ganesh Talai.
In January last year Saroo found himself in the surreal situation of watching his life become Lion. Already it had been a book, A Long Way Home; now it was a Hollywood film. He saw himself again as that sad, lost, vulnerable boy. All those memories. “I cried and cried,” he says. But, at 33, he was standing outside looking in. Now he was on top of the heap, a reversal of fortune. “That little boy is grown up,” he says with a smile.
On the riverbank he was chatting to his small self being played by the elfin child Sunny Pawar. At one point, as the river surged, Saroo shuddered at the memory of nearly drowning on the changing tide, being pulled out by a homeless man.
“I find it amazing that I was able to walk around and survive the way that I did,” he tells me. “Life could have been so different. I could have stayed there in the railway hut and not run away. And the possibilities of being prostituted, slave labour, sold for organs, used for robbery, all those things were on the cards.”
The cameras are filming in the courtyard in the decaying grandeur of a once great house. This is doubling for Liluah, the juvenile detention centre that also took in lost children. The film production has taken over an entire city block. The small bewildered Saroo is being brought here to the jeering of kids behind bars. The child actors have been brought in from the slums because middle-class children are too well fed. This was a depository for delinquents, criminals, the horribly disabled, outcasts, the unwanted and unloved. People would scale the walls to come and abuse the children. The guards would turn the other way when the kids ran out crying. Saroo was bullied and beaten up. It was “the worst place on earth”.
Saroo didn’t stay here. He made it to an orphanage, Nava Jeevan. He made it to Saroj Sood, now 83, who has run the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption since 1966.
Decisions on the fate of more than 2000 children have been made at her tiny curved desk in her small dark wood-panelled office. The walls are papered with the photos of those who have gone all over the world to begin again. These are the children of destiny, she says. “No child is born an orphan. Every child has a right to a life and a family. We have to give them a chance.”
In a yellowing ledger, in her spidery handwriting, are the names of the children who went to Australia. In those letters is Saroo.
As soon as Sue and John Brierley saw a photo of Saroo “it was if he had been born to us. Totally, from that moment,” says Sue. “It was thrilling. He was such a darling little boy.”
Saroo landed in Melbourne on the night of September 25, 1987, still clinging to the remnants of a Cadbury chocolate bar he had eked out over the long trip. He was about six years old.
Almost 30 years later, Saroo speaks with Sue Brierley’s precise, thoughtful cadences. “I take my hat off to them and the way they socialise and treat people,” he says. “My mum was just great, my father was just great. They are such amazing people to me. They are just gods for giving me this chance.”
He discusses everything with Sue. “Mum monitored my progression from day dot. She was my psychiatrist, she put my mind through things.”
Not far from where we talk one of the most famous actresses in the world is acting the part of Sue in the film. David Wenham is playing John.
“I am sort of okay with it,” Sue says of Nicole Kidman being her. “The first thing she said to me was that she had sought the role herself, she had particularly wanted it. So from then on it was really easy to talk to her. And she is very affectionate. She basically sat beside me the whole time with her arm around me. In a way she gives affection because she needs it herself. So it was very easy to just sit and hold her hand.”
Saroo was studying hospitality in Canberra when he discovered Google Earth. For a while he used it to explore India, to scour his past, but overcome by the enormity he gave up. Later he moved back to Hobart to work in his father’s business selling industrial hoses, valves and pumps. He moved in with his girlfriend. When they broke up he had a long period of introspection, questioning, a crisis of identity. “It was six years of trying to understand myself. I started to think about myself and my life and where I am going, and to try to get some foundations for myself. And to find out what does and doesn’t matter. I talked to Mum and Dad a lot.”
Emerging from this darkness, he started in earnest to look for a way home. Methodically, he worked out that he had probably travelled 1600 kilometres on the train, and circled a radius out from Calcutta – “a staggering amount of territory,” he admits.
“I needed information, like did it rain there, was it cold, was there a monsoon, which way the sun came up, the social events, the food, to find out where I was likely to be from.”
He returned to Google Earth, to the satellite pictures of the land he knew but couldn’t remember. It became an obsession, going along the train tracks, looking at the towns, hovering over them, night after night. Then on March 31, 2011, following a junction, he found the overpass and water tower he was looking for. Scrolling across farms, forest, a river, he found the “picture in my head exactly. I’d gone over and over it in my head so that I never forgot it.” It had taken eight months of searching.
It took him another year to save up and “get my head ready for it. I had to be very cautious about it, I didn’t want to stuff it up because it would be very detrimental to me.”
The Brierleys and his then girlfriend, Lisa, wanted to go with him for support, but he had to do this alone. When he left Australia his expectation was that he would find his home town, Khandwa, and its suburb of Ganesh Talai. “And take my socks off and walk the streets that I used to. It was what I had dreamt of doing.”
But when he arrived in Khandwa, he thought, why not try to find his family? “My feet were just in auto mode. They knew exactly where I was going. Everything looked so small. I would have to sit down because the tar is hot on the road. It just brought all those memories back. The temple, the little bridge, and the brick wall fence, being hungry. I nearly turned back because it was too much. But I kept pushing forward.”
Twenty-five years after he had left he was standing right in front of the tiny one-room shack that had been his home. It was abandoned. It was over. His family were gone; maybe they were dead. Devastation.
But then a man walked over who spoke English. He said, “Come with me I will take you to your mother.”
And there she was, staring at him in wonderment, screaming, crying. “I was looking at her, just staring at her eyes and face. And I just couldn’t believe that this was real. It was the dream I had been having. Time stood still. It was like you couldn’t feel anything, your mind was numb. It was like a nuclear fusion, really. It was too much to take in.” His name was actually Sheru, he discovered: Hindi for lion.
The film of Saroo’s life had a premiere screening at an industry function on the Gold Coast in October. Saroo and Sue were there. It is powerful, visceral, moving. There is Oscar buzz. Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo, is winning acting awards at international film festivals, as is Nicole Kidman.
As the film ended, Sue was overwhelmed, in pieces, clinging to Saroo. Six months ago he stopped working for John and is now on the speaking circuit. As the film launches globally, he is in a showbiz whirl.
Despite being pumped from the gym, he is still the same old calm Saroo, if somewhat glossier these days. “I have built myself pretty solid, I have a good foundation. Being in the limelight doesn’t really affect me.” This is just another twist in his episodic life. “If there is a theme going, it is of change all the time. I have learnt to accept that now: that my destiny has just changed again. I am just happy to be part of it all. It is like, ‘What else have you got to throw at me?’ ”
Susan Chenery travelled with the assistance of SeeSaw Films.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Destiny’s child". Subscribe here.