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Sun June 22, 2014
Author Interviews

With Memories And Online Maps, A Man Finds His 'Way Home'

Originally published on Mon June 23, 2014 11:11 am

More than 25 years ago, Saroo Brierley was one of many poor children in rural India. At 4 years old, he couldn't read: He didn't even know the name of his hometown. His mother was raising four children on her own, and they were constantly hungry. Brierley's older brothers would hop trains to nearby towns to search for scraps to eat.

One day, Brierley tagged along to the next city down the rail line. He took a nap in the station, and when he woke up, he couldn't see his brother. Finding himself alone, the 4-year-old decided his brother might be on the train he saw in front of him — so he hopped on.

"It was just an impulse decision," Brierley says, "that, in fact, changed my destiny for life."

That train took him across the country to Kolkata (then called Calcutta), where he spent five harrowing months. He was more than a thousand miles from his home, in a city where he did not speak the language.

He lived on the streets, then in a juvenile home and, finally, in an orphanage. There, he was adopted by an Australian family and flown to Tasmania.

As he recounts in his new book, A Long Way Home, Brierley couldn't help but wonder about his hometown back in India. He remembered landmarks, but since he didn't know his town's name, finding a small neighborhood in a vast country proved to be impossible.

Then he found Google Earth. He spent years searching for his hometown in the program's satellite images, zooming in and out of the map, exploring the web of railway lines criss-crossing India. Then, in 2011, he came across something familiar.

Brierley tells NPR's Arun Rath about his years-long search for his family and their emotional reunion.


Interview Highlights

On what he was looking for, and eventually found, in Google Earth

I thought to myself, "Well, the first thing you're gonna see before you come to your hometown is the river where you used to play with your brothers, and the waterfall, and the architecture of this particular place where you used to visit quite a lot." It has to be exactly the same, otherwise, if it's not, I'd just fly over and go somewhere else.

So I studied it very carefully — extremely carefully — and this architecture of this particular place where I used to play with my brothers in the water was exactly the same. And I questioned myself: "Well, that's a bit unusual, but there could be other places that look exactly the same too, you never know." So I thought, well, why don't we just scroll a little bit more. ... Before you know it, I was looking from a birds-eye view at the town's central business district. ...

I thought, "On the right-hand side you should see the three-platform train station" — and there it was. "And on the left-hand side you should see a big fountain" — and there it was. Everything just started to match. ... So I traced a road back that I would follow back as a child, and before I knew it I was looking at the suburb where I had grown up, and just on the right of it was the house I had grown up in. ...

I couldn't sleep for that whole night.

On what happened months later, when he took a trip back to that house and found it empty

I had come all the way to find something I'd found on Google Earth. And now I'm standing there, here's the house where I grew up as a child, and the door's shut, and it's locked, and there's no one there. And I can't believe how small it is.

And I just thought the worst, I thought perhaps everyone's gone, my whole family's died, they've passed away. But lucky for me this lady came out of a doorway holding a baby, and she said, "Can I help you?" ... And I said to her, my name is Saroo and these are my family members' names. ... Another person comes in and I sort of spill my mantra to them as well.

That went on quite a few times with other people that kept wanting to know this person that's a foreigner that's coming to a town that's never seen a foreigner ... And by the time the fourth person had come, they said, "Just stay here for a sec," and within 10 minutes they came back around and they said, "Now I'm going to take you to your mother."

And I couldn't believe it, because when I went around the corner, which was only 10, 15 meters around the corner, there [were] three ladies standing in front of an entrance to a house. And I looked at the second one and I thought, "There's something about you" — and it took me a few seconds but I decrypted what she used to looked like. ...

She looked so much shorter than I remembered when I was a 4 1/2-year-old child. But she came forth and walked forward, and I walked forward, and my emotions and tears and the chemical in my brain, you know, it was like a nuclear fusion. I just didn't know, really, what to say, because I never thought this point in time or ever seeing my mother would ever come true. And here I am, standing in front of her.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That was Ryan McGarry. He's an ER doctor and the director of the new documentary "Code Black.">>RATH: Thanks for tuning into ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun here at NPR West. More than 25 years ago, Saroo Brierley was one of many poor children in rural India.

SAROO BRIERLEY: My earliest earliest memory would have been going to sleep during the night and looking at the stars in the sky with my mother on one side of me and my siblings on the other.

RATH: His mother was raising four children on her own. They were constantly hungry. Saroo's older brothers would hop trains to nearby towns to search for scraps. One day when he was just four years old, Saroo tagged along to the next city down the rail line. Ordered by his brother to wait at the station, he decided to take a nap.

BRIERLEY: But when I woke up, my brother wasn't there anywhere to be seen. And I was thinking, you know, he should be here by now. You said you'd only be a few minutes away. And all I saw was a train in front of me. You know, I thought perhaps he's on this train. It was just as an impulse decision, which in fact changed my destiny for life.

RATH: He ended up over a thousand miles from home in Calcutta. It might as well have been an alien planet. They spoke a different language. Saroo couldn't read, didn't even know the name of his hometown. He spent five harrowing months, first on the streets, then in a juvenile home and finally in an orphanage. There he was adopted by an Australian family and began a new life in Tasmania. As he recounts in his new book, "A Long Way Home," Saroo Brierley never stopped thinking about his hometown in India. But finding a small neighborhood in a vast country where he could only remember landmarks proved impossible until Google Earth came along. Saroo spent years zooming in and out of satellite photos examining the web of railway lines across India, until one night in 2011, he saw something that he thought looked familiar.

BRIERLEY: I thought to myself, well, you know, the first thing you've got to see before you come to your hometown is the river where you used to play with your brothers in the waterfall. And, you know, the architecture of this particular place where I used to visit quite a lot has to be exactly the same, otherwise if it's not, I'll just sort of, you know, fly over and go somewhere else. And so I studied it very carefully - extremely carefully. And the architecture of this particular place where I used to play with my brothers in the water was exactly the same. And I quizzed myself. Well, that's a bit unusual, but there could be another place that looks exactly the same, too. You never know. And so I thought to myself - well, why don't we just scroll a little bit more? I scrolled up a bit left and a bit right and a bit straight here - no, you've got to go underneath here. And before you know it, I was looking from a bird's-eye view at the town's central business district right in the middle. And I thought, well, on the right-hand side you should see the three-platform train station. And there it was. And on the left-hand side you should see a big fountain and there it was. And everything just started to match. And I said well, from this point I pretty much know how to get back to my suburb. And so I just traced a road that I would follow back as a child. And before I knew it, I was sort of looking at the suburb where I had grown up. And just on the right of it was the house that I grew up in.

RATH: Was your heart just pounding when you're, you know, having these realizations, making these connections and recognizing those things?

BRIERLEY: Yeah, it was. I was - I was trying to think, you know, is this a dream? Am I in reality? Get a hold of yourself, Saroo. And, you know, I sort of did the zoom-in, zoom-out - sort of looked at different angles, 3D angles - to make sure that, you know, what I'm looking at is not something that sort of looks the same, but it is what it is. And it is my hometown and I just couldn't sleep for that whole night.

RATH: Let's skip several months ahead 'cause you go to India. You make the trip. You show up at your old house - just show up there. But no one's there. What happened?

BRIERLEY: I sort of almost fell to my knees and I thought the worst. I've come all the way to find something that I had found on Google Earth and now I'm standing there. Here's the house that I grew up in as a child and the door's shut and it's locked. And there's no one there. And I can't believe how small it is. I thought perhaps everyone's gone. My whole family's, you know, died. They've passed away. But lucky for me, there was - this lady came out of a doorway holding a baby. And she said can I help you in a very sort of English-Hindi tone. And I said to her my name is Saroo. And these are my family members' names. I tried to be animated, too, by pointing this is the house that I grew up in. She sort of, I think, understood what I was talking about and later on in the conversation, she said these people don't live here anymore. And, you know, that sort of got me down again. And I thought what do I do? And another person comes in and I sort of spill my mantra to them as well. And then that sort of went on quite a few times with other people that kept wanting to know this person that's just a foreigner that's coming to a town that's never seen a foreigner. And people are starting to congregate and gather. And by the time the fourth person had come, they said just stay here for a sec. And within 10 minutes, they came back around. And they said now I'm going to take you to your mother. And I couldn't believe it because when I went around the corner, there was three ladies standing in front of an entrance to a house. And I looked at the second one. I thought oh, there's something about you. And it took me, you know, a few seconds, but I decrypted what she used to look like to what she is when I saw her. And you looked so much shorter than as I remembered when I was a four-and-a-half-year-old child. But she came forward and I walked forward. And my emotions and tears and the chemical in my brain was like a nuclear fusion. I just didn't know really what to say because I never thought this point in time of ever seeing my mother would ever come true. And here I am standing in front of her and I don't know what she was thinking. But I think she was quite gobsmacked as in how can this day be so true because, you know, later on she really wanted to see me again and waited in the same place for a long time for my return.

RATH: It sounds like this is something that obviously - it changed your life. I have to imagine that also reconnecting must have changed the lives of your Indian family.

BRIERLEY: Yes. Well, you know, from my brother's point of you it's the time that I went missing and later on he found out that my oldest brother had died. It was a big loss to him. He had two brothers and all of a sudden within a week apart, they're all gone. And I think, they're very grateful and very happy. Now there's two in the family - two sons and one daughter. And she couldn't be, I reckon, any happier than what she is. So it's a big thing for her and the whole family. And perhaps they don't really know how to take it. But it's only time before it all sinks in that, you know, this is true. I am here. It isn't a dream. This is reality.

RATH: That's Saroo Brierley. His new book is called "A Long Way Home." Thank you so much.

BRIERLEY: Thank you very much for having me.

RATH: Again, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.