Sheru was a five-year-old boy helping his family live by their wits in a small town in north central India. His father was a Muslim, and had left the family to marry a second wife. His mother was a Hindu, struggling to raise three boys and a girl. Sheru was the youngest of the three boys. He couldn’t quite pronounce his name correctly and so called himself “Saroo.” He had one significant responsibility, other than begging for food and sometimes stealing it: taking care of his little sister while his mother worked carting rocks for a construction crew. His mother would often be gone for three or four days at a time for her job.
His older brothers worked, begged, and sometimes stole as well. In search of work, they would often sneak aboard trains to travel to the next town or two down the line. One day, Saroo’s oldest brother took Saroo with him. The little boy was thrilled to go along. When they arrived, his brother tells Saroo to wait at the train station until he returns. He falls asleep on a bench. When he awakens, the station is deserted, and there is no sign of his brother. A train arrives, and the little boy gets in and looks for his brother. He discovers the train car is empty, with barred windows and doors that open only from the outside. And then the train begins to move.
A Long Way Home is Saroo Brierly’s remarkable and true story of what happened when he boarded that train. The train traveled across India to Calcutta (now called Kolkata). And the five-year-old boy found himself in one of the largest, most densely populated, and most dangerous cities in the world. With only two fragments of information about where his family lived, Saroo would live on the streets of Calcutta for six months, avoid police, child molesters, gangs preying on orphaned and abandoned children, and an always-constant hunger for food.
Saroo was eventually befriended by a teenager, taken to the police station, confined to a juvenile facility (along with children like himself, young criminals, and children needing medical care), and then adopted by a couple in Tasmania, the island off the southern coast of Australia. And there he lived, with a bedroom larger than the room his family in India shared and with a real bed, until he reached adulthood and began working with his adopted father in the family business.
With the advent of the internet and especially Google Earth, he begins to search for his family in India. It takes years, but the recognition of a water tower in a small town begins the journey home, a journey that ends in finding his birth family. The house they had lived in was abandoned and crumbling, but his mother lived nearby. She insisted on staying near where they had lived because she believed her youngest son would one day come home. And he did.
Saroo’s story is a story of desperate and unimaginable poverty, what people do to survive, the love of two families in radically different circumstances, and the determination of a young man to find out what had happened to his brother and his family after that train began to move.
The book had been made into a movie, Lion, starring Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) and Nicole Kidman. It is scheduled for release in U.S. movie theaters on Nov. 25.
Top photograph: a scene from the movie “Lion,” based on A Long Way Home.