LONE STAND: Saroo Brierley on stage at the Mildura Arts Centre this week.
By JOHN DOOLEY
MALLEE Family Care (MFC) held its 33rd annual general meeting last Monday at the Mildura Arts Centre, which featured special guest speaker internationally-acclaimed author, Saroo Brierley.
For those who don’t know the story of Saroo’s extraordinary life, it is possibly one of the most fascinating in recent times.
Saroo 37, was born in the Indian town of Khandwa, and in 1986, aged only five, he lost all contact with his family when he was at a train station waiting for his brother, who never returned.
After living on the streets of Calcutta for three weeks by himself, Saroo was placed into an orphanage from where an Australian family adopted him.
He then grew up with his newly adopted parents in Hobart, where he would spend the next 25 years.
In 2012, after years of trying to track down his family searching Google Earth for a railway station, the image of which had been indelibly etched on his brain as a five-year-old, amazingly Saroo finally found the station, Burhanpur, on a map.
Shortly after, Saroo travelled to India, with the blessing of his adoptive parents, in an attempt to find his biological mother, two brothers and sister. Incredibly, after 25 years of separation, he was reunited with his mother and family.
Before Saroo spoke to the audience, a trailer from the Oscar-nominated film ‘Lion’, the adaptation from his book ‘A Long Way Home’ was played, after which he said every time he saw it, he had a deeply nostalgic feeling.
“It always cuts a little bit too close to the bone and goes to the heart,” he said. “More than 30 years ago I was living in a slum-suburb somewhere in India, I was just five years of age and stood barely a metre in height.
“The only possession I had on myself were my shorts and a shirt, which hadn’t been washed for months and months. My family consisted of my two brothers, myself, my sister and my mum.”
Saroo’s father had abandoned them just after his sister was born, and so his family became destitute.
“We suffered great deprivation and adversity,” he said. “It meant that my mum had to go to the outskirts of town to look for work as a labourer, and the distance was around two to three hours, which made it quite difficult for her to come back to myself and my sister and we were alone a lot.
“I was assigned to look after my sister, and I tried the best as I possibly could, and would knock on people’s doors during the evenings to see if they had some leftover food.”
Even though Saroo had this responsibility, he had a longing for some adventure, and wanted to join his brother on his outings.
“I had my eye on my brother because he would come back at random times and then disappear again without notice,” he said. “All of a sudden I saw this silhouette of him walking around outside which indicated to me he was about to leave, and so I chased after him and said, ‘Don’t go I want to come with you, I don’t want to stay here any more’.
“After a bit of resistance he gave in and said okay.”
Little did Saroo know this was going to be the beginning of a nightmare.
“Before you knew it, we were catching the late night train from my hometown train station to the nearby train station of Burhanpur,” he said. “The train stopped at the station and my brother and I stood up, I grabbed his hand and we walked through the nooks and crannies of the carriage and disembarked onto the platform.
“I was so tired and I saw this seat on the platform and pulled my brother towards it. He could see I was very tired and he said, ‘Stay here for a minute, I’ll be back’.”
They were the last two words that Saroo ever heard him say.
“I nodded off to sleep, I’m not to sure if I was asleep for half-an-hour, two hours or three hours, it could have been four hours, but when I woke up, my brother was nowhere to be seen,” he said.
After wondering what he was going to do, Saroo boarded another train that would take him to Calcutta, a big Indian city more than 1600 kilometres away, and a 15-hour train journey.
“I had no idea the distance that I had covered and I started catching all these different trains for days and days – sometimes two to three hours each way – but without any luck because every train that I caught would travel to the end of the line and then go back from where I had come from,” he said.
“I did that for days and it was futile. I thought I’m not getting anywhere here, I need to try something else, but I was scared to leave the train station in Calcutta because I felt safe within its boundaries.
“There were all sorts of people walking around looking at me – so should I stay here, or should I keep on going and venture out? That was a big decision to make.”
Eventually Saroo found himself detained in a juvenile prison for his own safety, this would prove a turning point.
“I was surrounded by juvenile delinquents, some had missing limbs, some were mentally challenged, others were thieves and I’m amongst all of this – it was definitely a scary place,” he said.
“The authorities, not knowing anything about me, put an advertisement in the local Calcutta paper to see if anybody recognised me, but no-one came forward to claim me, the next move was to place me in an orphanage where I could be adopted.”
Saroo ended up in the care of ISSA, the Indian Society of Sponsorship and Adoption, and the organisation also searched for Saroo’s family without success.
“The orphanage then said to me, ‘Saroo, you have a choice of staying here, or you can go to Australia’,” he said. “At that point I thought about everything I had been through, the trials and tribulations of a little child and I realised that there was no way of getting back home, and my gut feeling was that I should take this second option.
“My adoptive family in Tasmania sent over a photo book, which showed my new mother and father and my bedroom, a little teddy bear, and the plane that I would be flying from India to Australia in, which was aimed at smoothing the transition of coming to Australia to be with my adoptive family.”
Before he knew it, Saroo was on a jumbo jet heading to Australia, arriving in Melbourne initially, and then to Hobart in Tasmania.
“What a contrast it was from the hustle and bustle of Calcutta to the aesthetic beauty and serenity of Hobart,” he said.
Saroo said that for a long time after settling in with his new family, he would have constant dreams where he visualised returning to India and finding his lost family.
“I wondered why I was having this nostalgic feeling all the time, I seemed to be separating myself from this psychological scarring that had happened in Calcutta, and trying to adjust to my new life in Tasmania and battling with that all the time,” he said.
“Then in my early 20s I thought I need to resolve this, and maybe find a way to go back home to find my family.
“I didn’t want to go through life not having tried to find them, I had to give it a valiant effort. Call it serendipity, call it providence, I searched region after region on Google and found a town called Burhanpur, all the landmarks near the station matched the memory, the image I had embedded in my brain.
“I couldn’t believe I had found it after searching for such a long time, thinking I would never find it.”
Eventually Saroo was reunited with his mother and family, and sadly discovered that his older brother had died shortly after they were separated, killed near the station, most likely that night.
“I must have put my mother into such an emotional turmoil just arriving on her doorstep unannounced, after so many years away,” he said.
“The question I wanted to ask her was, ‘Did you ever look for me?’ I asked her that through a translator (Saroo doesn’t speak Indian) and she said, ‘Yes, I went north, south, everywhere trying to find you, I never dreamed you might have ended up in Calcutta’.
“I was truly grateful, not only did I find my mum, but also my sister and my brother and now I have nieces and nephews which I never thought I would have.”
Saroo said that his biological father is aware of his existence, and he knows his father has seen photos of him as he is today.
“He knows about me and he has a family of his own, and so in time, it is probably something that I want to discover – now isn’t the time, it’s a very personal thing,” he said.
Today Saroo is still in constant touch with his mother, and speaks with her regularly with the assistance of a translator.
He has travelled to India more that 16 times since finding his family, and has bought his mother a house and provides financial assistance to his family.
Saroo also has contact with the orphanage which in so many ways saved his life, and to whom he is very grateful and provides ongoing support.
“I’m currently doing a lot of writing, the sequel to ‘A Long Way Home’ as well as a script for the ‘Bollywood’ version of Lion,” he said. ‘A Long Way Home’ is a two-part story, and I have only told the first part.
“When I got home from the trip to India, I sat on the couch talking to my parents and I realised what a massive shock to the system I had just experienced. I remember going to a place near my home and I looked out to the horizon and I thought, ‘What’s next?’
“That’s where the new story begins – everything hasn’t finished within me yet.”