Mother, son separated, begin 25-year global search
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KHANDWA, India — Saroo’s eyes snapped open and everything was suddenly, horribly, wrong.
The 5-year-old’s tiny body was still curled up on the hard wooden seat of the Indian train, just as it was when he’d drifted off to sleep. The rattle of the train was loud and steady, just as it always was when he rode home with his big brother, Guddu.
But Guddu was not there. And the alien landscape flashing past the window looked nothing like home.
This is the first in a two-part series.
Saroo’s heart began to pound. The train car was empty. His brother should have been there, sweeping under the seats for loose change. Where was Guddu?
Where was Saroo?
It was 1987 and Saroo knew only that he was alone on the train.
Soon, he would find himself alone in the world. He wouldn’t know for decades that this fateful train ride was setting into motion a chain of events both fantastic and horrific — events that would tear him away from his family and join him with a new one. Events that would spark the determined hunt of a mother for her son and a son for his mother, brought together only to realize that you can never really go home again.
In the beginning, though, all Saroo knew was that nothing was as it should be. “MA!” he screamed, wild with fear as he ran up and down the empty compartment, tears streaming down his face. “GUDDU!”
Only the relentless hum of the train answered his cries. Outside the window, the remains of his old life had faded into the distance. The train was thundering down the track toward a destination — and a destiny — unknown.
Fatima Munshi was frantic. When she returned to her cramped house after a hard day of work on a construction site, her two young sons still hadn’t arrived. They should have been back hours earlier.
Fatima lived for her children. She had little else to live for.
She was born to landless Hindu peasants who worked as near slaves in others’ fields until her father was killed by a heart attack and her mother died a few months later in childbirth. At the age of 10, she was sentenced to one of the most miserable of fates in rural India: That of an orphan girl, with no family to offer support or protection, nobody to arrange her marriage or pay her dowry.
But the little girl had grit.
She waded into fieldwork, harvesting crops to survive. Neighbors slipped her and her four siblings scraps. As a teenager, she moved into a construction job, carrying cement in a broad bowl balanced on her head above her petite but sturdy frame.
She caught the eye of her supervisor, an orphan himself. In a whirlwind romance rare in tradition-bound India, they fell in love and got married. She converted to Islam and changed her name from Kamla to Fatima.
They moved to the town of Khandwa and found a home in Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood of tiny buildings subdivided into tinier apartments filled with day laborers, vegetable vendors and the cheap domestic workers who kept the town running.
She bore three sons in quick succession, Guddu, Kallu, and her baby boy, Saroo. When they grew up, she dreamed, they would live in big homes nearby and each give her 10 rupees (20 cents) a day, so she wouldn’t have to work and could look after her grandchildren.
Then the life she had worked so hard to rebuild collapsed.
Her husband stopped coming home, first for a night, then several nights in a row. He stopped giving them money and food. Eventually, even as Fatima grew pregnant with their daughter, he took a second wife. Fatima blamed black magic.
One Sunday, a desperate Fatima, with her baby girl on her hip, confronted him. She beat him with a shoe. He beat her with a stick. Soon the whole neighborhood gathered, and in front of the village elders, they instantly divorced.
Fatima stood on her doorstep, back at the bottom where she had started, an abandoned woman with four young children and no family for support. She was the poorest in a neighborhood of poor people, a charity case even for those who had nothing.
She went back to work in construction. Guddu, who was about 7, and Saroo, four years younger, took to begging for food and loose change.
When the monsoon leaked through their roof and turned the dirt floor of their home to mud, she huddled them into a dry corner to sleep. When the summer heat forced them to sleep outside, she billowed out her head scarf as a thin sheet to cover them.
Often there was no dinner, and she put them to bed with a glass of water. “Mom, give us food,” they would beg. “There is none,” she’d answer in shame.
“I have nothing,” she thought on those wretched nights, “but at least I have my children around me.”
Saroo slumped in his seat. How long had he been asleep? It was dark when he’d boarded the train, and now it was bright. Half a day had surely passed.
He struggled to think. He remembered how he and Guddu had taken the train from their local station, Khandwa, to Burhanpur, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, to hunt for change. When they arrived, a weary Saroo had collapsed into a seat on the platform. Guddu had promised to be back in a minute and walked off.
When Saroo had next opened his eyes, a train was waiting at the platform. Guddu must be on board, he had thought, still in a sleepy fog. So Saroo had boarded the train and drifted off again, thinking his brother would wake him at Khandwa.
But now the train was stopping. There was no Guddu, and this was not Khandwa.
The doors opened and Saroo stepped out into chaos.
Hordes of people, pushing, rushing. Speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. He was in Calcutta, nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from home. It might as well have been Mars.
He pleaded for help. But he spoke Hindi, and most here spoke Bengali. Besides, he had never been to school; he didn’t know his last name, or the city he came from — only the name of his neighborhood and not how to spell it. No one understood him.
No one wanted to deal with yet another child beggar in a country that has millions of them. No one cared.
Frantic, he boarded another train, hoping it would take him home. It looped back to Calcutta. He hopped another train, and another, praying he would be carried back to his family. They all returned to this strange, frightening place.
Saroo did this for days, begging passengers for food. This, at least, was familiar; back home, he begged every day for a cup of chai tea or a bite of roti bread.
Now, he scrounged together enough morsels to survive. At night, he slept underneath the train station’s seats. Eventually, he ventured into the streets.
The mighty Ganges river that snaked through the city reminded Saroo of his favorite waterfall back home, where he had spent so many happy days watching the local fishermen catch their dinners.
But this new river offered no peace; the fierce current and deep water sucked him under when he tried to swim. A bystander plucked him out, but he was terrified. He retreated to the streets, approaching a man who spoke Hindi for help. The man took Saroo home, and gave him food and a place to sleep.
Saroo grew uneasy when the man invited a friend over for breakfast. He shivered, without knowing why, under the friend’s gaze. That night, when Saroo was supposed to be washing dishes, he fled.
Barefoot, he ran, the men chasing close behind. But Saroo was small and quick. He slipped into an alley, where he hid until they passed.
When night fell and her boys still weren’t home, Fatima panicked. She took a neighbor she called Uncle Akbar to the station to look for them, but most of the trains had already come and gone. They searched the nearby market where the boys would beg. She went to the fountain where they liked to play.
By morning, her body felt like it was on fire. Her mind raced.
Maybe they had been kidnapped.
Maybe they were lost.
Maybe they were dead.
She had never been on a train before, but she and Uncle Akbar rode to Burhanpur and Bhusawal, asking police if they had seen her sons. She widened her search to bigger and further cities.
She cried and prayed for their safe return at the holy crypt of the Sufi Muslim saint Tekri Wale Baba. She approached another mystic said to channel the dead saint’s spirit.
“There are no longer two flowers,” he said. “One flower has fallen, the other has gone to a far off place. He doesn’t remember where he is from. He will come back, but only after a long, long time.”
She didn’t believe him. Her boys were going to be fine.
Then she ran into a police officer she knew.
Guddu was dead, he said.
The boy had either fallen off the train or been pushed. Police took photos of the mangled but still identifiable body found by the tracks, and then cremated him.
Miserable, Saroo walked across a bridge to the other side of the Ganges, where he met another man who spoke Hindi. This man took him to a government center for abandoned children. The workers fed him, then moved him to a larger holding area, swarming with lost youngsters.
It was hell. The bigger kids picked on him. No one spoke Hindi. He tried to explain who he was, but it was hopeless.
Weeks later, a staffer told him he was moving again. He was cleaned up, dressed up and transported to the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption.
This place was heaven. There were around 15 children, and no one bullied him. He even made friends. He had a comfortable bed, fresh clothes, plenty of food.
The staff hunted for his family, using the scraps of information Saroo remembered. But it wasn’t enough. The government declared him a lost child.
Months went by. Then one day, a worker approached him with news.
A new family wanted him. And they lived in a place called Australia.
Where was Saroo, Fatima thought. Her happy son, who would accompany her to work sites and build little roads out of rock. Her sweet boy who insisted his baby sister sit next to him at every meal. She had nursed him through eight days of high fever after he was kicked in the face by a horse, she wouldn’t give up now.
She and Uncle Akbar, a Muslim holy man, took to the rails again. He begged for food for their survival. She was repeatedly cornered by passengers, police officers and rail workers who tried to rape her. She would cry and beg for mercy, she was just a mother looking for her missing son, take pity.
They searched the train stations of Bhopal and Sikanderabad, the police stations in Hyderabad, the jails in Bombay. They visited cities three or four times, talking to anyone who might have seen her missing son.
But she never went as far as Calcutta.
She couldn’t imagine he had gone so far.
Saroo was zooming through the clouds toward an island called Tasmania. He chewed anxiously on a chocolate bar and thought about the new family waiting for him. The adoption agency had given him an album with photos of his new parents, his new house, his new dad’s car. His new life.
When the plane landed, he was escorted to a VIP area and spotted his adoptive parents. He was nervous and shy; they were patient and kind. They went through his photo album, then took him to his new home.
It was a palace. Four bedrooms, a lounge, a kitchen and a big back yard where he could play.
He had his own room, decorated in cheerful yellows and blues. Atop his bed sat a stuffed koala he dubbed “Koala Dundee.” It became his favorite toy.
The kitchen was stocked with sweets, and his adoptive parents cooked him delicious Indian dinners. He sometimes ate as if it were his last meal. Sensing his loneliness, they adopted another Indian boy. His new brother.
It was like a story in a book. Very few of the millions of parentless children in India end up adopted by families overseas; the annual number has never topped 1,200 in recent decades, according to India’s Central Adoption Resource Authority.
Saroo was given a new last name: Brierley. He went to school, learned English, made friends.
But the questions about his past still simmered. The map of India hanging on his bedroom wall, a certain song or something learned in school could ignite a blaze of images from his old life so vivid it felt like he was still there.
On restless nights, he thought about his mother. Was she OK? Was Guddu?
Sometimes he cried. Often, he prayed: If there is anything magical in the world, he pleaded silently, could you help me find my family?
After three months riding trains, Fatima was exhausted. She abandoned her physical search for a mystical one.
She visited a holy man who pointed to the horizon and said her son was there with a good Hindu family.
Every Thursday she walked an hour to a Sufi tomb to offer incense and rose petals in prayer for Saroo’s return.
At the Eid festival, when she bought Shakila and Kallu new clothes, she would buy an outfit for Saroo too and donate it to charity.
She didn’t buy herself anything. She had pledged not to do nice things for herself, not to enjoy life, until Saroo returned.
She dreamed of growing wings and flying to him.
When she slept, sometimes she would see him, pull him on her lap and play with him. Sometimes he was sleeping next to her. When she awoke, he was gone.
Kallu and Shakila watched her cry all the time.
Kallu refused to pray; he blamed God for destroying his family.
Shakila prayed to every God she could find. She went with neighbors to church to ask Jesus to bring her brother back. She prayed for Saroo at the local Hindu temple. She fasted for Allah and bowed at the shrines of Sufi saints.
Saroo was grown now, a university student studying business and hospitality. His classmates were friendly, and he found himself drawn to the students from India.
Years had passed since that awful train ride, but Saroo hadn’t stopped searching for answers. And so he asked his new Indian friends: Had they heard of a train station that started with a B… Bara-something?
Lots of train stations in India sound like that, they told him. They needed more information.
All Saroo had were the vivid memories of his town — the waterfall he played in, the train station, the fountain near the cinema. The laneways surrounding his house.
His house… he had recently used Google’s satellite feature to get a bird’s eye view of his Australian house. Would it have similar images of his homeland?
He sat down at a computer and called up a map of India. He randomly zoomed in on a train track and followed it, scrutinizing stations he passed, searching for something familiar. He zeroed in on Calcutta, since that was where he’d ended up, and worked backwards. He narrowed down the search area by multiplying the approximate time he’d been on the train by an estimate of how fast an Indian train could have traveled.
It was a needle in a haystack, and he knew it. Still, his hunt dragged on for years. His girlfriend, Lisa Williams, watched him hunch over his computer night after night, scrolling and searching. She wondered if this ritual would ever stop. If Saroo would ever stop.
In Ganesh Talai, Fatima refused to stop as well.
She had never touched a computer, heard of Google or seen an airplane up close. But for a quarter century, she remained a regular visitor to fortunetellers.
This time, she brought some rice to a Sufi mystic. He scattered it on the floor and stared hard at the grains to find her destiny.
Your Saroo, he said, is coming home. He will be back in 40 days.
Saroo’s eyes drifted across an image of yet another train station and froze. The walkover bridge, the water tank — exactly as he remembered. He scrolled further. The waterfall where he used to swim. A familiar tunnel. The fountain.
His heart was pounding. He pressed a hand to his forehead.
The map listed the town as “Khandwa.” He plugged the name into Facebook. Bam — a group called “‘Khandwa’ My Home Town.”
On March 31, 2011, he wrote:
“can anyone help me, i think im from Khandwa. i havent seen or been back to the place for 24 years. Just wandering if there is a big fountain near the Cinema?”
The administrator’s response was vague. On April 3, 2011, Saroo tried again:
“Can anyone tell me, the name of the town or suburb on the top right hand side of Khandwa? I think it starts with G…”
The adminstrator answered the next day: “Ganesh Talai.”
Ganesh Talai. Home.
He raced into the bedroom, waking Williams with shouts of victory. He told his adoptive parents. Everyone was excited, but cautious. “There’s a lot of water fountains in India,” Saroo’s mother told him.
But he knew. And he knew he had to find out what had happened to his family. To Guddu. To his mother. He knew he had to go back.
But what was he going back to?
TO BE CONTINUED
This story was reported by Nessman from Khandwa, India, and Gelineau from Sydney, Australia. It is based on multiple interviews with Saroo Brierley, his girlfriend Lisa Williams, mother Fatima Munshi, sister Shakila Khan, a representative of the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, photographs of Saroo and Fatima’s reunion, and the reporters’ own observations from watching and listening to them. Quotes from the “‘Khandwa’ My Home Town” Facebook site appear as they were written.
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