The Way Back Home

The Way Back Home

Saroo Brierley, whose miraculous journey is the subject of Oscar-nominated film Lion, on his life in Australia and reuniting with his family in India after 25 years.

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Saroo Brierley.

All his life, Saroo Brierley had been saying his name wrong. It was the only bit of information he was sure of, when nothing remained of his old life in Ganesh Talai, Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. But he would learn what his name really was, on a sunny February afternoon when a long journey home would end in front of a woman who was once his mother. “She cried and called me Sheru (lion). Time stopped and the earth just stood still for me,” says Brierley, who shot to global fame in 2012, when newspapers reported the story of an Indian-Australian man who used Google Earth to find the Indian town he used to live in with his family, 25 years ago, from whom he had been separated from in an unfortunate series of events. His miraculous discovery and his return home is now the subject of the Oscar-nominated motion picture, Lion. Based on his 2013 memoir, A Long Way Home, the film has been directed by Garth Davis, and stars Dev Patel as Brierley, Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother Sue, Priyanka Bose as his biological mother Fatima, and newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo.

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It was on a fateful day in 1987, when Brierley, then only five-years-old, and his older brother Guddu, boarded a train to Burhanpur from Khandwa. Their mother was mostly away working as a bricklayer on construction sites and the father had abandoned his wife and four children. When they reached Burhanpur, Brierley was tired and slept on a bench; Guddu said he’d return shortly. But when the little boy awoke close to midnight, Guddu was nowhere to be found. Panicking, he boarded a train, assuming it would take him back home. Little did he know that it was a train to Calcutta, more than 1,600 km away from Khandwa.

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Dev Patel with co-star Rooney Mara in the Garth Davis film.

At Howrah station, Brierley would have to live by his wits — scavenging for food, sleeping on the streets, running away from traffickers. After weeks, he was thrown into a juvenile detention centre. “I was illiterate, I didn’t even know my name was Sheru Munshi Khan. I didn’t know the names of my parents or the town I was from. I couldn’t ask anybody to help me,” says Brierley, 35, in India to promote the film. After he was identified as a “lost” child, an orphanage stepped in. “I lived there for a few months and was included in the first wave of Indian children being adopted by Australian families,” says Brierley.

Sue and John Brierley, residents of Hobart, Tasmania, would welcome him into their lives. “My mum was very attracted towards India. She knew that she was adopting a child from a poverty-stricken background, somebody with psychological scars. She did a lot to facilitate my transition,” says Brierley, who joined the family trade — a plumbing and lifting gear retail business — after graduation. But all through the years, Brierley says, there remained an ache to go home. “It was a heavy weight to carry, always looking for closure,” he says.


In 2010, Brierley began to work on a website for the family business. “While I was developing it, I stumbled upon Google Earth and started mucking about with it. Later on, I began to use the application to locate the station where I’d boarded the train to Calcutta,” he says. Brierley soon became obsessed with tracing train routes from Howrah to other parts of India.

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Actors Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in a still from Lion.

In 2011, he had a breakthrough. “I thought to myself, that I’ve looked to the north and the south, so it just to be this large strip between Calcutta and western India. I had never thought of that location before,” says Brierley. In February, he found Khandwa district on Google Earth. “What I’d been calling ‘Ginestlay’ was actually Ganesh Talai. I knew I’d found my home,” says Brierley, who set to work for a year to save money for the trip to India. “The next year, I flew to India. My birth mother still lived in the same area, and when she saw me, she knew who I was,” he says.

Brierley travels to Khandwa whenever possible and keeps in touch with his mother over the phone. “I bought the house I found her in, I give her some money every month. She’s had a very hard life. There’s 25 years of separation, so when we talk, we’re going over memories, hers and mine. What used to happen on Saturdays or special days, what dishes she used to cook for us, things like that,” he says.