Sunday, April 19, 2020


 Julian Assange in 2010 and 2019


The revelation Julian Assange has a partner and they have two young children conceived during his time in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London raised the world’s eyebrows on Easter Sunday. The Assange saga was already akin to a spicy casserole, but this latest twist was like tossing in a handful of chopped chillie. 

South African-born lawyer Stella Morris says she joined Assange’s legal team and met him in 2011, and they began a relationship four years later. She says she posted the online Easter video revealing the relationship because UK authorities were about to reveal it anyway. She describes Julian Assange as generous, tender and loving, nothing like the figure we've seen routinely demonised by politicians and elements of the media for years. The closeness of their bond is apparent in the video, and as their young sons play in the room she tearfully recounts how she feels he’s been subjected to ten years of measures to break him down and try to destroy his life. She says she also posted the video because she’s worried that in his poor state of health he could contract COVID-19 in Belmarsh Prison in London, where he’s being held during US extradition proceedings, and wants him temporarily released on humanitarian grounds.

The contentious cat, in the Embassy window

Before Belmarsh his address was the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He spent seven years in refuge there, but that ended a year ago with his protection being lifted and Assange being hauled out by British police. Not long before the embassy let the police in, an Ecuadorian minister claimed Assange was smearing human excrement on the walls. The media, well, lapped it up. London’s Daily Mail published pictures of a few dirty items in a kitchen sink and a tiny bathroom with, yes, the toilet seat up, in a story headed “Assange inside his fetid lair: Revealed, the full squalid horror that drove embassy staff to finally kick him out.” Presumably the Ecuadorian pronouncement was intended to justify the action to come, and the police arrived for him soon after.

Stella Morris says the world has failed Julian Assange. Over the years Australian politicians appear to have had little inclination to do much to help him, although the rather odd couple of Andrew Wilkie and George Christiansen did visit him in Belmarsh earlier this year, raised serious concerns about his health and urged the UK to block the US request to extradite him to face espionage charges in an American court. But other Australian politicians have seemingly done little. When she was prime minister, Julia Gillard called him a lawbreaker, but couldn’t say whose and which laws. He certainly hasn’t been charged with any breaches of Australian laws, which one would have thought the primary concern of our politicians. Some in the Australian media have branded him a braggart and a narcissist. Some have said he isn’t a “real journalist”. But his failure to serve a cadetship with the Woop-Woop Bugle does seem beside the point. Stella Morris called him a whistle-blower – and that he certainly is. He’s also certainly a citizen-journalist, an activist and a publisher. 

Whatever you call him, he’s long blown the whistle on powerful forces in our world. That he sometimes published unredacted material that may have posed threats to vulnerable individuals is a criticism that can legitimately be levelled at him. But Assange and his team at Wikileaks, as well as the self-exiled Edward Snowden, can be seen in their own way as carrying on the work of the likes 
of Daniel Ellsberg and Woodward & Bernstein into the 21st Century – holding authority to account by exposing dirty linen that otherwise would have remained stashed under “state secrets”. Yes, fine journalists from the world’s media did band together for the Panama Papers – but despite the scandalous nature of the commercial dealings they exposed, in the end that ebbed and subsided quickly. Releasing hundreds of thousands of classified US documents that show how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have really been conducted is another matter entirely. 

We must remember the Vietnam of Michael Herr’s Dispatches was the last war in which the press had some freedom of movement to witness and report. Journalists could hop board military helicopters and report on what they saw in battle. Now coverage is tightly controlled, the reality of war hidden from public view, which made these troves all the more important. Perhaps the most famous item, a video titled “Collateral Murder”, showed at least 18 unarmed people including two journalists being gunned down by an Apache helicopter in Iraq in 2007. But by bringing material like this to light, Julian Assange was exposed to the full wrath of those he threatened. 

He first ran afoul of the law over sexual misconduct allegations by two women in Sweden. This part of the story is now so muddied and complicated that possibly many people can’t remember much about it. The claims put forward by Swedish prosecutors a decade ago seem largely - but not exclusively - to pertain to his not using a condom during intercourse. What actually happened in those encounters we may never know. He’s never faced a court on the allegations and in all likelihood won’t. Assange has always denied any criminal wrongdoing. One of his lawyers later suggested the women were “honey pots”, for what we’re told is known in the spook trade as “honey traps”. But one thing is certain – those sexual encounters marked the beginning of the end of Julian Assange’s liberty, health, youth, and ability to continue doing the investigative work he had been. 

After the complaints were lodged he was questioned by Swedish police, after which he returned to the UK, apparently unhindered. But then Sweden issued an international warrant, and he gave himself up to British police for questioning, and was granted bail. Sweden applied for and in May 2012 was granted his extradition. At that point Assange fled into refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, saying he feared the US would try to extradite him from Sweden to face espionage charges over the troves of leaked documents. This was lambasted as outlandishly conspiracist by much of the world’s media - but it later turned out they were all wrong, and he was right.

The media attacks continued nonetheless, seemingly intensifying as his years in the embassy wore on. When he was forcibly removed in April last year, the liberal US magazine The Atlantic published an excoriating piece by Michael Weiss headlined “Julian Assange Got What He Deserved”. The sub-heading accused him of being a “megalomaniac” and of “promiscuity with the facts” (whatever that means, but yes we do get the implication). 

In it Weiss opened not with prim facts of his own regarding Assange’s work, but a slew of ad hominem slurs, even contriving an image link between the activist and a hanged dictator.

 “In the end, the man who reportedly smeared feces on the walls of his lodgings, mistreated his kitten, and variously blamed the ills of the world on feminists and bespectacled Jewish writers was pulled from the Ecuadorian embassy looking every inch like a powdered-sugar Saddam Hussein plucked straight from his spider hole.”

I followed the links in Weiss's story and found the kitten reference amounted to little more than a claim he needed to take better care of his cat (although it does appear rather untormented in photographs from the embassy, and if it is indeed the same cat in the video with Stella Morris it looks anything but a mistreated animal); that an LA Times review of a film about Assange quotes him calling the Swedish allegations a “radical feminist conspiracy”, but no mention of blaming the ills of the world on feminists; and that the tweet regarding Jewish writers was a deleted one from a Wikileaks source and its author is not verified. Assange has emphatically denied any allegation of anti-semitism.

But if Weiss’s intention was to smear his subject with ordure, he couldn’t have got off to a more pungent start, even if in a later paragraph he does acknowledge a former Ecuadorian minister denied the excrement claim, and said it might just have been an eviction pretext. Weiss goes on to mention the tentacles of Russia and the 2016 Clinton email disclosure and whether Assange was a possibly unwitting pawn in a geopolitical play. That may or may not be the case. Some people might think those emails got Donald Trump over the line. Given what seems to have been in them – in the end not much – and that the sharpest point of attack was Hillary Clinton using a private server for official emails, it’s hard to gauge if voters in Ohio and Indiana or elsewhere voted for Trump because of them, or because of Cambridge Analytica’s laser-sights targeting of swayable voters, or that they wanted a “disruptor” billionaire TV star for a president, or some other reason such as their jobs disappearing. 

Weiss goes on to label Assange “the Bakunin of bullshit”. The Russian anarchist may just have enjoyed that, but even if it were the case, is that enough to support Assange being shackled and dragged to the US to face those (once ridiculed) spying charges, and potentially spend the rest of his life in an American jail for being a whistle-blower and doing what journalists are meant to do - report the truth? Did members of the US liberal media say Daniel Ellsberg “got what he deserved” when he was charged with espionage and theft over the Pentagon Papers? Or did they think perhaps he was a nice person who bathed regularly and minded his pets, to be supported rather than verbally eviscerated? Ellsberg was not a career journalist either – he was a former Defense Department official and worked for the Rand Corporation. And like Assange he blew the whistle on secrets about how the US was conducting a war, in his case Vietnam.

Reading Weiss’s year-old article now is an unsettling reminder of how much vitriol Assange has faced, from all sides. He’s been called a narcissist by judges and journalists, and a “seedy ego-maniac” by the Telegraph in London. 

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly has consistently argued for his right to a fair trial, and to avoid extradition to the US as she fears he won’t get a fair trial there. But she’s also written that nearly everyone she knows – including people one might suppose would support him – is “bored” with him (she’s not among them). If that is how seeming progressives in Australia see him, it strikes me as exceptionally odd and callous. And is he somehow meant to be entertaining? A few weeks ago she wrote about the start of the extradition proceedings in the UK, and how much is already stacked against him. And as she noted: “Everyone has a view on Assange. But, frankly, our views should be irrelevant. We, the public, are not in the know. We’re easily manipulated. We can be wrong.”

For what it’s worth I’m going to have a crack at it anyway, even if unlike Elizabeth Farrelly I haven’t met him. My take is he’s a social justice activist who got in far, far over his depth, who learned the tools of the e-trade early on and saw their power and potential to crack vaults and divulge secrets he believed people have a right to know but their governments don’t want told. Has he always behaved perfectly? Well, have his critics? Has anyone? Are his personal habits scrupulously hygienic? Who can say? But one can only imagine what seven years hiding out in a cubby hole might do to your head and habits. But has he revealed important information that’s enhanced our understanding of power and realpolitik in the 21st century? Definitely. Has he pursued that goal, even if to his personal loss? He has. Has he become famous, notorious even, in the process? Definitely. Did he set out with the goal of gaining personal attention and fame, as one might expect from a “narcissist” and “megalomanic”? My own sense is no. He’s clearly highly intelligent and would have realised what and who he was taking on was a risk to all at Wikileaks, but as its chief to him in particular. But he went on with it. For personal fame? No - that would seem collateral damage.

A few more questions then. 

Does Michael Weiss, or the Daily Mail, or anyone else now believe Julian Assange was smearing excrement around and not bathing while he was involved in an ongoing intimate relationship? Smearing shit round your pad for time with a lover? Really? OK, but did he neglect cleaning his bathroom? Well, possibly. Line up ye guilty millions.

Will the media say they were wrong to pour scorn on him when he said the US wanted to extradite him, all those years ago? Where are the retractions and apologies?

Why did the Ecuadorians really want to get rid of him? Stella Morris says he was being spied on, and this has been reported by others in his legal team. Does this mean officials, and possibly those of other governments, may have been able to monitor intimate acts? And might it have just been that Assange began coping better having love in his life, and that a decision was made somewhere to tighten the screws even harder? That’s not a conspiracy theory - just a question.

His fate now largely rests with the British judiciary. If it agrees to his extradition, it would seem his US trial (and his future and that of his new family) will turn on whether it can be proved he encouraged and/or aided Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning to access the Iraqi trove. Daniel Ellsberg himself was charged with theft as well as espionage, but his case didn’t proceed because of “gross governmental misconduct” – viz, dirty tricks by Nixon’s men. 

Ellsberg became a hero for liberals: Assange gets the opposite treatment, vilified for his alleged “character flaws”. But both essentially did the same thing, draw back the veil on how the US conducted itself in the world’s last three major conflicts - Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. That is the fact, and the work, of both men. For the record, Ellsberg has called the charges against Assange the most significant attack on press freedom since the Pentagon Papers and has hailed Manning as an “American hero”.

Last year the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said Julian Assange has been psychologically tortured. He said his mental and physical state have shown an alarming deterioration, and that Britain, Sweden and the United States were responsible. He also said he should not be extradited to the US. 

Stella Morris says her partner is in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in Belmarsh Prison. She fears his life might be coming to an end. She says the world has failed him. She’s right. And as an Australian I feel we have failed him in particular, as one of us.

Larry Buttrose, 20 April 2020.
The views expressed here are my own only.

Monday, July 22, 2019

YESTERDAY reviewed by Larry Buttrose


Written by Richard Curtis 
Directed by Danny Boyle

reviewed by Larry Buttrose
image: badgreeb pictures

Possibly a barometer for how the world is feeling is the quota of feelgood movies being released – which means the world must be feeling rather crap now. A maestro of feelgood is British writer Richard Curtis, with movie credits including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill andLove Actually.Curtis does feelgood very well - and in the words of the great and tragically mortal Ian Dury, he’s doing very well. 

Musicalfeelgood films are the current thing: Bohemian RhapsodyRocketman, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis project, the forthcoming Blinded By The Light- about how Bruce Springsteen saves a nonconforming young South Asian Brit - and today there’s Yesterday, written by Curtis, about how the Beatles save a nonconforming young South Asian Brit.

The recipe for Yesterdayis house of Curtis to its sunny side of the valley, spiritually-nourishing, ethically-sourced roots. In this case, begin with a big dollop of unrequited love, simmer for a couple of hours with conflicted ambition, caramelise with comedy and garnish with sentiment. In this case, add the zest of some of the finest pop songs ever written (as well as a bunch by Ed Sheeran) and serve with a wink. And did I say concept is turned up high in this one? It’s sci-fi sky-high, so that from the start you might wonder if it isn’t perhaps overcooked and sticking to the bottom. 

Think on this – or as Richard Curtis might have put it, Imagine! (Okay, yes that was Lennon post-Beatles…). Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, Eastenders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a greyscale English seaside town. Lily James (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!) is Ellie, longtime friend, fulltime school teacher, his more than fulltime manager and true believer. She’s loyal, fun, smart. She’s also in love with him (self-absorbed Jack doesn’t even notice), and being played by a movie starlet, she’s gorgeous. He somehow doesn’t notice that either. She’s dressed down for the part, but as with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, his being blind to her radiance is an arduous suspension of disbelief on our part. 

Young Jack’s career is going nowhere and he’s decided to chuck it when the high concept stuff literally strikes. Cycling home one night he’s hit by a bus just as the entire world gets blacked out for a few seconds. When the lights blink back on and Jack is extracted from the tarmac with black stumps for a couple of teeth, via some cosmic glitch no-one else it seems can remember the Beatles, Oasis, Harry Potter, Coca-Cola or cigarettes. In other words, not all bad news. Neither Jack’s friends nor Professor Google know of the songs nor even the existence of the Beatles – and, taking high concept right through the roof, even Jack’s Beatles vinyl LPs have vanished from his record rack. It’s as if the Beatles never were. Imagine! (Sorry.)

It doesn’t take long for a certain look to cross Jack’s ever-harried features, and he frantically plasters the titles of as many Beatles’ songs as he can remember on post-it notes on his bedroom wall, and racks his brain for the lyrics, especially to Eleanor Rigby(which even though he finally remembers it, he never actually sings). But he does know Yesterday and Let It Be straight off the bat, and his musical resurrection to friends and family - the latter an over-cheesy scene - proves the beginning of the world’s rebooted love affair with the songs of the Beatles… only now they’re known as the songs of Jack Malik.

Slowly at first, then with the inevitable, wrecking ball momentum of an elimination reality TV show, Jack’s voice is heard, or more precisely, his (Beatle) songs are. Jack is a strong enough performer, but the songs are stellar to any ear that can hear. Enter Ed Sheeran, portraying a nerdy pop star named Ed Sheeran, with a nice slice of generosity. Sheeran asks Jack to open for him in Moscow, but with her teaching job, manager Ellie can’t accompany him. So he goes with his good-hearted n’er do well roadie mate Rocky (Joel Fry), who’s a bit like the love-child of Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd. With the aid of a rollicking Back In The USSRto a heaving mob of pinkly hyperventilating young Russians, Jack’s momentum approaches critical mass: he’s approached by Sheeran’s shudderingly awful manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) and accepts the hemlock chalice of fame with its inevitable ticket to LA. Ellie takes her redundancy with profoundly good grace, and they part continents. 

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting,Slumdog Millionaire) has kept a steady enough hand on the tiller for the first act and a half, but Debra is an over the top pastiche of a yoga posing, preening, nasty corporate ogre, and her entry is a real downtick. Debra thinks it’s clever to say the ghastly things we know rock managers think: real ones keep that stuff to themselves. While the other roles are played for truth, this is written and played for knowing guffaws: it jars. 

Jack finds himself torn between the false life he’s careering into, and Ellie, who inevitably begins to drift away just as he realises what she means to him. The launch of his album - already being hailed as the greatest ever – takes place on the rooftop (big nod to the Beatles’ 1969 gig) of a pub near his old home in England. Ellie’s there with her new beau, the stork-like producer Gavin who did Jack’s first Sun Session-style recordings, and when Jack performs Help!he delivers it with a wallop, if anything an even more desperate crie de coeurthan the original. Disconsolate backstage afterwards, he agrees to see two people he suspects know the truth about him…one of whom has come armed with a toy yellow submarine. But he’s ready literally to face the music…

There’s a nice twist here, but unfortunately it’s also the point where the film really begins to unravel. Provided with an address, Jack travels to an isolated seaside home. There he meets someone who must not be named here, who tells us virtually nothing but gives Jack the sage advice we’ve been internally screaming for the entire movie – tell the girl you love her you twit, before she’s gone forever!

He plans to do so guesting at a Sheeran concert at Wembley, but first he confesses he’s a fraud, passing off the work of the Fab Four as his own. I won’t spoil the rest, but do warn it does involve possibly the Beatles’ most annoying-ever song, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da


Famed Hollywood script doctor Robert McKee has a simple maxim for screenwriters: Tell the truth. In script terms that means don’t try to paper over parts of your story that don’t add up or make sense just by saying “they’ll never notice it”. If that advice is ignored, after viewing a film like Yesterdaythe little things that might have nagged vaguely in the cinema become itches you must scratch. So when Jack Malik throws away his career – albeit for good, moral reasons – by naming to all of Wembley the four people who’d written “his” songs, it raises the question of is this a world in which those people never existed as the Beatles, or have they simply been forgotten as the pop phenomenon they were by nearly everyone alive? This is a decision that’s never properly made by the creative team, and it fuddles and undermines the narrative sandcastle.

I realise this may be a level of analysis some might say a film like this doesn’t require. It’s just a bit of fun, eh? But Yesterdayis about serious things: ambition, love, commitment, truth - and the answers and resolution are moral ones. The fudging of the central conceit refracts tellingly throughout the entire structure. 

The other problem with unanswered questions is you may start to think about other things, such as the choice of songs. There’s an FX nod to one of the Beatles’ greatest, A Day In The Life- but no song. The mysterious and beautiful Across The Universeis reduced to a post-it note, and what about the Pythonesque mad joy of I Am The Walrus? I was grateful at least for In My Life, but so much of the genius of the Beatles was their unique synergy, their velvety, intoxicating melodies and thrilling harmonies, as well as their courage in stripping a song down to something spare, stark and affecting. And then there’s their fellow genius, producer George Martin, rightly known as “the fifth Beatle”. 

The Beatles made great art as an organic whole. It wasn’t paint by numbers, packaging of components, and it was on the far side of the creative universe from the iPop of now. In trying to construct a worthy monument to them, Curtis and Boyle have stumbled over important story decisions – but they’ve shown too the genius of the Beatles can’t be deconstructed and reconstructed: their magic is there between the digits of the digital, it’s the unseen and ineffable, the air that swishes through this wildly cast narrative net.

And yet… I mostly enjoyed Yesterday- for its, yes, feelgood heart, its acting, direction, and wit. And its music – well, nearly of it. Life goes on, bra!…If only I could get that ear-worm out of my head, thanks a million Danny. 

©2019 Larry Buttrose

Monday, August 13, 2018

My apologies to all for my long absence in posting to this blog. I simply wasn't able to get access because of forgotten codes etc. Now it's good to be back, and I'll post more soon. - Larry

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


photograph Larry Buttrose

Saroo Brierley (centre), Swarnima Mandloi (fourth left) and Saroo's mother Kamla (second left), and me at right of Saroo.

I was sitting in my home office in the Blue Mountains on a typically chilly midwinter day when for some reason I checked an old email account I rarely used and found an email from someone at Penguin Books. When I opened it I saw it was from the publisher, Ben Ball, asking about my interest in ghost-writing a book about a lost Indian boy.
            I rang him and instantly knew this was a remarkable true life saga: a young boy gets lost on a train in the west of India, and ends up thousands of kilometres away in the chaos of Howrah Station in Calcutta (now Kolkata). On the streets near the station he survives for weeks, if not months, as a street kid, before being turned in to the police and then plucked by fate in the form of a kind-hearted adoption agent, and a few months later is living with his new family in Hobart. There he has a typically Aussie childhood, and then a quarter of a century later, after years of searching using Google Earth by following rail lines away from Kolkata, locates his original home town. He flies to India and miraculously manages to meet his family who still live in his old home town. The family is overjoyed to see their lost son again. The circle closes.
            Before long I was sitting in the Penguin’s Sydney office in Surry Hills where Ben introduced me to Saroo and his then manager, Andrew Fraser. Saroo was a sizeable man with a direct, no-nonsense manner. Andrew exuded experience and professionalism, yet at the same time was relaxed and easygoing. They both seemed open and down to earth, and we eased into the meeting. I told them how much I loved the story and what a terrific book it would make, but also spoke about how much I loved India, having travelled there on a number of occasions, and had included it in two travel books. I had even set a novel in Pondicherry (now Puduchery), written while staying in the legendary Sea Side Guest House on the esplanade looking out onto the Bay of Bengal.
            The three of us seemed to get on, and I returned home hopeful of getting the job. I didn’t know how many others were interviewed, but I imagined it would be a few - it was a very good project. When I didn’t hear anything for around a week, I thought it might have gone to someone else, but wrote Ben an email to check, and he later got back apologising that he’d been off work due to illness, and that if I still wanted the job I could have it. I confirmed that I did indeed want it. The deadline was very tight though: they needed the book researched in Tasmania and India, and a manuscript of 80 thousand words, completed by early December, for planned release for Mothers Day the following year. By the time the contract was finalised, that was just three months to research and write the book.  It would clearly be a challenge, especially as I was also working as a sessional university teacher and contracted until November, but I quickly scheduled in two trips to Hobart to interview Saroo and his Australian family, working around my university commitments. 

I had never been to Tasmania before, and the airliner flew in through low banks of purple black clouds, over a slate-toned sea and a jagged coastline that looked a bit like Ireland. I checked in to my hotel near the Hobart docks, called home to my partner Belle and our then three year old, Ada, and settled in. The following day I recorded the first of many hours of interviews with Saroo.
            There had been a lot of coverage of the story already, from the BBC and major American magazines, to The Age and ABC local radio in Hobart. The media interest had begun soon after Saroo found his mother, brother and sister in Khandwa, the small regional centre in Madhya Pradesh in the central west of India that was his birthplace. Neighbours had initially joined in the celebration, but word soon spread through the working class suburb of Ganesh Talai where they lived, and then through the entire town, and before long people were thronging in to see him, the small boy who had vanished so long ago and come home as a grown man, from halfway around the world.  The next day the local media was onto the story, and word spread much farther afield, with crews flying in to cover the story and take it to all corners of India. That was when the international media got hold of it, and, ultimately, Penguin gained the rights for a book. It had all happened in the space of just a few months.
            ‘I was pretty amazed,’ Saroo told me, at our first recording session. He speaks with the laconic, matter-of-fact delivery of many Australians. ‘It was obviously a big thing for me personally, but I never could have imagined it would be of such interest to so many others. Sometimes I just had to go back to my hotel room in Khandwa to get away from it, it was so intense.’
            Now he was sitting in another hotel room in Hobart, and telling the story again, only this time it would be the account of his entire life, where he had grown up in Khandwa, and how he had become lost on that fateful night, the train journey across India, survival on the streets of Calcutta, and everything that followed.

            I took the questioning back to his earliest memories, his family, his mother and father. His father was Muslim, and his mother Kamla was Hindu. He told me of the shocking day his father had arrived home with another woman and said she was now his wife. Kamla and the four children had to go and live elsewhere.
Saroo told me his name was an Anglicised version of Sheru, which means “Lion”. I asked his father’s surname, and he said it was Khan.  ‘That means “emperor” or “king”, I think,’ I said. ‘So there you are - you’re the Lion King!’
            Over the next few days we pieced together his childhood, and how his elder brother Guddu had become a breadwinner, working as a sweeper on trains, while his mother worked carrying large stones on her head for building sites and roads. They only made a pittance between them, however, and often the children had to forage, stealing tomatoes, and in one hair-raising episode in which they nearly got caught, for eggs.
            Between interview sessions, Saroo would go home, search his memories, write down notes and bullet points, and then we would sit down together and go over his recollections again. Some memories were clearer, but others we needed to go over again and again, because his memories were hazy, or something wasn’t quite adding up.
            One of the early issues I raised was his memory of the train journey across India. His recollection was that on the night he got lost, he had gone to the local railway station with Guddu, and they had taken a train to the nearby town of Burhanpur, where Guddu was working at the station. It had been a spur of the moment decision, and it was already mid evening when they got there, and five year old Saroo was tired. His brother had gone off to do his work, and Saroo had stretched out on a bench to sleep. When he awoke some time later, it was still the dead of night, and he had called for his brother, but got no answer.  Then he saw that a train had drawn up at the platform, its doors open, and he thought his brother might be on it, sweeping up papers and peanut shells, as he often did on-board trains as well as on the platforms. Soon after Saroo got on board, however, the doors had clanged shut and the train started moving, and so his horror journey, locked on board a train going to the far side of India, had begun.
            His memory was that he had spent a night the train, and it had arrived the next day in Calcutta. He had told as much to an American magazine reporter who had visited Hobart not long before to write a major feature story, and who had reported it as a journey of some 13 hours. But one look at an online map made me doubt very much that an Indian train could travel all that distance in such a short time. I had travelled a fair bit on Indian trains, and one thing I knew was they never got anywhere fast.
            Also, I wondered why there had been no-one else in the carriage for him to speak with, or why he hadn’t managed to call out to people on the platforms at stops along the way. This sort of detail Saroo was not at all sure of, and said that as a very small child alone with no money, no ID, just the shirt and shorts he was dressed in, he must have lapsed into some kind of semi-conscious state.
            That made sense, and was at least a partial explanation. It also helped make sense of the discovery I made on the Indian Railways site that even now, 25 years later, it still takes the only train that goes direct from Burhanpur  to Calcutta a full 32 hours to make the journey - more than double what the American magazine had reported.
            After each day’s work I would have dinner and then return to the computer to start roughing the book out. Saroo would email in extra pieces of information – something he had just recalled, or an answer to a question that had hadn’t been able to remember at the time.
            But the clock was ticking. I had 10 weeks left to come back to Hobart and interview other family members, finish the university semester and finalise student marks, and get on a plane to India with Saroo. And by the time we finished our expected month in India, I needed to have the book written.
            The second trip to Hobart was most notable for my meeting with Sue, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother. She was engaging, quick-witted and enjoyable company. She had always been a passionate believer in adopting in-need children from countries less privileged than our own, and her husband had come to embrace that view too. Not only had they adopted Saroo, but his adoptive brother Mantosh too, and they had raised the two Indian boys as their own. I had asked Saroo if he had experienced racism growing up as a dark-skinned Indian kid in schools in Tasmania decades ago, and he had said ‘no’, but Sue’s memory was different. She said there had been racism, including one woman who would not let her child be on the same sports team. When I put this to Saroo, he said ‘I probably just wasn’t very aware of it back then’, and left it at that.
            I also interviewed his girlfriend, Lisa, including the Eureka moment when he had found what he was looking for online.
            ‘He more or less yelled from the lounge room, “Babes, babes, you’ve got to come see this!” So I got up [from bed] and poked my head around and looked at the computer screen [in the living room] and he goes “This is it, this is my home town!” And I go, “Are you sure, are you certain?” and he said “Yeah, yeah, it is, it is!” And I said “Oh god, that’s great!” So yeah, that was quite a happy moment.’
            Back home, I transcribed the recordings and drafted what I had from them, and bounced them to and fro with Saroo for additions, deletions and changes. There was 20,000 words and the bones of the story down, but I was apprehensive yet about the mountain that needed to be climbed, with the bulk of the book yet to be written while travelling in India.

November came around quickly, and I was aboard a flight to Delhi. Saroo had gone on ahead and was meeting me at the airport. We had been booked into a tourist hotel near the airport that neither of us particularly liked. Still, the last time I had been in Delhi I had stayed at Ringo’s Guest House, a legendary traveller’s haunt near Connaught Place in the centre of the city, where each room came with its own full tray of rat poison under the board-top bed, and a wafer thin mattress was extra. This one was a business traveller’s hotel, and by contrast, it was cushy, if a bit dull.
            Although it was winter in Delhi, the days were still warm and close. I had read that thousands of people in the city died each year from illnesses associated with air pollution, and could believe it: the smog was so thick its tendrils clutched in at your nasal tracts. I had first visited Delhi back in 1987. Then the centre was still manageable. Yes the roads were chaotic, with every kind of vehicle and conveyance vying for space with pedestrians, as well as wandering cows, pigs and dogs, but the intervening decades of development had led to an explosion in traffic. The roads were all clogged, backed up, and a taxi journey anywhere took an eternity.
            One night we sat at a cafĂ© on the corner of an arterial road near our hotel at rush hour, and witnessed a most extraordinary sight. This was no simple traffic jam, but buses, trucks, cars, cycles and motorcycles, taxis and tuk-tuks, animals, humans, all packed in so tightly and densely together that they appeared to constitute a multi-hued paste in the process of being extruded millimetre by millimetre from a tube. It did not move so much as unfold, like a bizarre stage tableau, a cruel, vehicular butoh, before the astonished eye.
            I suggested we visit the Red Fort. Built in the seventeenth century by Shah Jahan, whose workers also constructed the Taj Mahal, it was here that masses gathered on 15 August 1947 when India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru raised the nation’s new flag to celebrate Indian independence from Britain.
            The massive fort remains a potent symbol of the Indian state, and I wanted to ask Saroo how Indian he felt within its walls. But as we stood there, in the heart of that fortress, his answer was direct – even here, he felt Australian. Although there were many aspects of India he liked and identified with, he was Australian. And I could see he was right. I was born in Adelaide of an Anglo-Celtic family, but in many ways Saroo was more Aussie than me. After all, I’d packed hiking boots for the trip, while Saroo walked the broken and dirty pavements and roads of India in shorts and a pair of thongs.
            The Fort was hit by a terrorist attack in 2000, and security was tight at the main gate, with a battery of metal scanners, and then we had had to walk through the machine gun sights of the permanent security post beyond. We faced similarly tight security two days later when we flew down to the city of Indore, north of Khandwa. But there as they scanned and patted us down and got us to stand up on blocks and extend our arms for closer examination, I was grateful for the level of security, and I’m sure Saroo was too.
            The uneventful flight south to Indore was followed by a typically nail-biting, terrifying two-hour taxi ride south down a busy main road, until we finally arrived at Khandwa in the late afternoon, and were dropped off at our hotel.
            The place was a converted old British army barracks, one star at best, but there was little choice in Khandwa: it wasn’t a place tourists came to, and the face I saw in my room’s cracked mirror was the only non-Indian one I would see the whole time we were there.  Breakfast was interesting. If we were lucky there was toast, perhaps an egg. Sometimes the only thing we could get was a cup of tea, without milk. While I had stayed before in pretty basic accommodation in India, this set a new standard.
            Soon after we arrived, Saroo set off alone to visit his family, something we both thought the right thing. He had only spent a few days with them on his first visit earlier in the year, and was still feeling his way towards getting to know them again. But the next day we set off together, navigating the broken and cratered roads into the centre of Khandwa, about one kilometre away. There we came to the railway underpass that was one of the map features he had identified on Google Earth to find his way back here. Considering the commonness of so many features he recognized… a water tower, a lake, the underpass… it remains a miracle that he found his way back here at all, just as it is a miracle he survived on the streets alone in Calcutta as a small, lone boy. Yes, other kids survive on the streets there, but they are members of gangs, groups: young Saroo had been entirely on his own. But Saroo’s life has all been about defying the odds, and here we were, walking under that underpass and through the streets of Ganesh Talai, on our way to his Indian family, and home.
            Ganesh Talai is a working class area, poor by metropolitan Indian standards, but no cardboard box chawl. These were little houses, butted one against the other, in an orderly layout of streets and lanes. Houses were neatly painted, sometimes in bright colours, and there was an immediate sense of a close-knit neighbourhood.
            We turned into a narrow alleyway, and the second house on our left belonged to Saroo’s mother.  She was there to greet us, a greying, slender but strong looking woman with a keen eye and welcoming smile. The years she had carried rocks for road crews were written on her, and the trials she had endured losing two children, yet strangely enough, a moment later they vanished. Life had touched her, yes, but somehow its mark remained light.
            As we talked, she fondled Saroo’s hand maternally. His brother Kallu and sister Shekila both arrived as well, and were equally delighted to see him again.
            Saroo has long forgotten most of his Hindi, so the next day we returned with an interpreter. This was serendipity. We had been expecting his mother’s elderly neighbor to translate for us, as she had on Saroo’s first visit, but I had chanced upon another potential translator. I had met Swarnima in a queue at the railway station that morning. I had overheard her speaking in clear, perfect English to the elderly man behind the counter. She had noticed I was a foreigner in town, gave me a quizzical look, and we spoke. She was young and educated, highly intelligent, just what we needed. It turned out that she was from a wealthy political family in Khandwa, back home for the Diwali holidays from her job in Mumbai, and after I explained why we were there she was happy to spend some of her time back in her home town working with us. Saroo and I were even invited into her family home for a Diwali ceremony, and the ongoing relationship worked so well that she ultimately played Kamla in dramatised sequences that Channel Nine shot in India for its 60 Minutes segment on Saroo in 2013.

photograph Larry Buttrose
Me with Swarnima and Saroo at Diwali ceremony

With Swarnima’s help I was able to fill in aspects of the story from his family’s point of view, including his mother’s unshakeable faith that one day Saroo would return, as he ultimately did. She said she used to face to the south, and pray for his return. As it turned out, she had been facing in the right direction, even if he was farther south than she might have ever imagined.
            The days passed quickly in Khandwa. We visited the town centre, where Saroo pointed out landmarks such as the old cinema, and the nearby lake, and other crucial landmarks he had identified on Google Earth. We also met with Rochak Nagori, the young man who ran Khandwa My Home Town, the Facebook group Saroo had contacted for vital confirmation of facts, and who had helped cement the conviction that he was right that he had finally found his home town after years of fruitless searching online.
            A major part of our journey was to be crossing India by train, following as well as we could the route that the young Saroo might have taken. Saroo had not done this on his first trip back, but I considered it crucial for him to re-live it to see if any memories came back, as well of course as perhaps recalling more things that happened to him in Calcutta, once we reached our destination. There was only one direct service between Khandwa and Calcutta, the daily train service from Mumbai. For authenticity, we needed to catch it from Burhanpur, the next town along the line, where the young Saroo had ventured onto a train in the middle of the night, and couldn’t get off it until it stopped in Calcutta.  After we said our goodbyes to his family, a small crowd gathered in the nearby dusty town square of Ganesh Talai, where the locals again farewelled the man who had returned. As we headed off, small boys around the same age as the young Saroo had been ran alongside the car, laughing and shouting out their goodbyes.

After another predictably hair-raising road trip to Burhanpur, we checked in to the one hotel that looked reasonable, dined at tables set outside under the stars, and turned in for an early night. A taxi was booked to pick us up before dawn, to take us to the station.
            We emerged with our bags into a chilly pre-dawn, with sleeping people huddled in blankets by the roadside, and found our driver. We set off down silent streets, past low blocks of concrete apartments, darkened houses and shuttered up shops, past pigs rooting in the dust for scraps, to the station. When we arrived the parking lot was already alive with people jostling about with big bags and even bigger bundles, and we made our way over the overpass, to the platform where our train would arrive. It was running late - no-one was quite sure how late - so we settled in for a wait. Once I had waited ten freezing hours on a platform in Varanasi, and hoped this would be no repeat of that. While we waited, Saroo pointed out the water tower behind the station, which had been another of his vital landmarks on Google Earth. As I had been all along, I dutifully photographed everything for the book.
            Swarnima had helped us book our seats back in Khandwa, and so we were at least assured of berths. We were travelling first class, but on this train that didn’t translate to anything fancy – just two seats that converted into bunks for sleeping. The sheets at least were clean, and the meals that came around were tasty thalis.
            The train trundled off into the early morning, along dusty plains that gradually gave way to more fertile countryside. The vista opened out on either side of seemingly endless fields being tilled by India’s great agricultural class, the ones who don’t live in the flashy apartment blocks in Delhi and Mumbai, but in humble villages where they tend their crops and beasts. The sky was a hazy blue, and went on over the flatlands forever. Occasionally we passed through towns, and then cities, with factories and industrial plants, before plunging on ever eastwards, back into the rural heartland of India. I tried prompting Saroo about the world that passed by in our window, but it was clear that little remained in his memory from that terrifying journey he took as a boy. That was not surprising, but I did my best to prompt responses, and occasionally they came.
            That night I slept soundly, swaying in my bunk, and in the morning some young children travelling with their parents quizzed us, oddities that we were aboard this train. I told them a little about Saroo, and to remember his name and that they had travelled on this train journey with him.
            As the second morning wore on, palm trees and lush green undergrowth appeared in our window, and paddy fields flooded with water that would have been an amazing sight for the young Saroo, coming from such a dry part of India. We passed satellite towns, and then the train began to slow as we approached the Asian metropolis of Kolkata. I had been here once before, and remembered it fondly for its combination of the intelligence and wit of the Bengalis, and its superb British Raj-era architecture such as the Victoria monument and the Writers Building (from where armies of clerks penned and dispatched the orders of the once all powerful East India Company).
            Leaving the train, we found ourselves at the centre of the maelstrom that is the Howrah railway terminus. People swirled everywhere around us, hauling bags, clutching briefcases, begging for a rupee, running for a train. I asked Saroo to stand in the middle of it, and photographed him standing still amid all that frantic movement, just as he had decades before, even if now he towered above the crowd, whereas back then he would have gazed up into an endless mass of passing legs.
            Outside was hot and sultry, the air heavily polluted, although not as bad as Delhi had been. We had been booked into an upmarket hotel out on the edge of town near the airport, and so next came the long taxi ride out there. Security was tight on arrival, and our bags were scanned before we could go into the gleaming new tower building. The world we entered was cool and ordered, a little slice of five star western affluence, and our rooms were ideal as a retreat from the grind of the world outside, which we would need to re-enter each day in pursuit of Saroo’s story here. There was a gym and even a rooftop infinity pool, from the cooling depths of which we could watch the endless procession of jetliners on final approach to the airport. There were plenty of bars too, but better than that, my room was cool and quiet, and with fast wifi. I knew I could settle in here and finish the book.
            I had written some pieces along the way, but still only had about 30,000 words down, and needed to write 50,000 more in around two and a half weeks to meet my deadline, as well as conduct more research here. That was going to be a push for anyone.
            During the days that followed, we went back to Howrah Station by the Hoogly Rover, where the young Saroo had survived somehow, on scraps from food vendors, and had slept under the massive Howrah Bridge with sadhus. He had also almost drowned here – twice – swimming in the river. We visited the home for lost children where he had been taken after being picked up by police, a fortress-like structure to which, he was told back then, children came but never left.
            But he had left, because of a monumental stroke of luck. A woman called Mrs Sood ran an adoption agency, and had read the police notes about Saroo, and noted his account that he had come from far away, involuntarily, by train. She advertised in newspapers in Bengal and surrounding states, but no-one came forward to claim him as their child. Little did she know that she would have needed to advertise on the far side of India. But she took Saroo into her orphanage, which we also visited, and soon began arrangements for his adoption. Within a few months of being picked up by police, Saroo would be living with a loving family in Hobart, a place so far beyond his experience it must have felt as if he had stepped onto the surface of a very benign Mars.
            Mrs Sood trained as a lawyer in Delhi, but found a calling to help the needy in Calcutta, and has been helping arrange adoptions for children for decades. She is now an elderly but spry, wry and witty woman with sparkling eyes. She still runs the adoption agency from the same premises, in a British-era mews house in central Kolkata, and she greeted Saroo like her own child, which in a way he is, owing his life to her – something about which he was keenly aware. She showed me photographs and his file from back then, and was clearly delighted to learn he had rediscovered his Indian family, and now far from being the lost waif whom she had taken in, he had not just one family, but two.
            Our research done, Saroo flew off for some R&R in Mumbai, planning another visit to his family before returning to Australia. For me, though, tens of thousands of words still needed to be written before my deadline. My daily skype sessions with Belle and Ada helped keep me sane, but basically my life became three meals a day in the hotel restaurant, some time in the gym and pool, and the rest at my desk, churning out copy. With a few days to go I still needed twenty or so thousand words, but after a discussion with the publishers, the amount was reduced to seventy thousand words. That I knew I could make, and I managed to write the final sentence on the morning of the deadline, and pressed Send on the email containing the finished manuscript. After that, it was in the expert hands of the editor, Michael Nolan, and Ben Ball (who both did a terrific job on it). All that remained for me was breakfast, check out, and a short taxi ride to the airport.
            Arriving home early the next day, I was met by my own family, Belle and Ada, and thanked the heavens that I had them. I already knew the value of family, but my journey with Saroo had taught me something very personal: without it we are merely chaff in the wind.

photograph Larry Buttrose
Saroo and his mother with brother Kallu and sister Shekila