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 café 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