Before “Lion,” the story behind an unlikely family reunion
KHANDWA, India (AP) — Editor’s note: Four years before the movie “Lion” was released, two Associated Press reporters told the story of Saroo Brierley’s complicated reunion with his mother, Fatima Munshi. This is that story, which was originally published by the AP in 2012:
Saroo’s eyes snapped open and everything was suddenly, horribly, wrong.
The 5-year-old’s tiny body was still curled up on the hard wooden seat of the Indian train, just as it was when he’d drifted off to sleep. The rattle of the train was loud and steady, just as it always was when he rode home with his big brother, Guddu.
But Guddu was not there. And the alien landscape flashing past the window looked nothing like home.
Saroo’s heart began to pound. The train car was empty. His brother should have been there, sweeping under the seats for loose change. Where was Guddu?
Where was Saroo?
It was 1987 and Saroo knew only that he was alone on the train.
Soon, he would find himself alone in the world. He wouldn’t know for decades that this fateful train ride was setting into motion a chain of events both fantastic and horrific — events that would tear him away from his family and join him with a new one. Events that would spark the determined hunt of a mother for her son and a son for his mother, brought together only to realize that you can never really go home again.
In the beginning, though, all Saroo knew was that nothing was as it should be. “MA!” he screamed, wild with fear as he ran up and down the empty compartment, tears streaming down his face. “GUDDU!”
Only the relentless hum of the train answered his cries. Outside the window, the remains of his old life had faded into the distance. The train was thundering down the track toward a destination — and a destiny — unknown.
Fatima Munshi was frantic. When she returned to her cramped house after a hard day of work on a construction site, her two young sons still hadn’t arrived. They should have been back hours earlier.
Fatima lived for her children. She had little else to live for.
She was born to landless Hindu peasants who worked as near-slaves in others’ fields until her father was killed by a heart attack and her mother died a few months later in childbirth. At the age of 10, she was sentenced to one of the most miserable of fates in rural India: That of an orphan girl, with no family to offer support or protection, nobody to arrange her marriage or pay her dowry.
But the little girl had grit.
She waded into fieldwork, harvesting crops to survive. Neighbors slipped her and her four siblings scraps. As a teenager, she moved into a construction job, carrying cement in a broad bowl balanced on her head above her petite but sturdy frame.
She caught the eye of her supervisor, an orphan himself. In a whirlwind romance rare in tradition-bound India, they fell in love and got married. She converted to Islam and changed her name from Kamla to Fatima.
They moved to the town of Khandwa and found a home in Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood of tiny buildings subdivided into tinier apartments filled with day laborers, vegetable vendors and the cheap domestic workers who kept the town running.
She bore three sons in quick succession, Guddu, Kallu, and her baby boy, Saroo. When they grew up, she dreamed, they would live in big homes nearby and each give her 10 rupees (20 cents) a day, so she wouldn’t have to work and could look after her grandchildren.
Then the life she had worked so hard to rebuild collapsed.
Her husband stopped coming home, first for a night, then several nights in a row. He stopped giving them money and food. Eventually, even as Fatima grew pregnant with their daughter, he took a second wife. Fatima blamed black magic.
One Sunday, a desperate Fatima, with her baby girl on her hip, confronted him. She beat him with a shoe. He beat her with a stick. Soon the whole neighborhood gathered, and in front of the village elders, they instantly divorced.
Fatima stood on her doorstep, back at the bottom where she had started, an abandoned woman with four young children and no family for support. She was the poorest in a neighborhood of poor people, a charity case even for those who had nothing.
She went back to work in construction. Guddu, who was about 7, and Saroo, four years younger, took to begging for food and loose change.
When the monsoon leaked through their roof and turned the dirt floor of their home to mud, she huddled them into a dry corner to sleep. When the summer heat forced them to sleep outside, she billowed out her head scarf as a thin sheet to cover them.
Often there was no dinner, and she put them to bed with a glass of water. “Mom, give us food,” they would beg. “There is none,” she’d answer in shame.
“I have nothing,” she thought on those wretched nights, “but at least I have my children around me.”
Saroo slumped in his seat. How long had he been asleep? It was dark when he’d boarded the train, and now it was bright. Half a day had surely passed.
He struggled to think. He remembered how he and Guddu had taken the train from their local station, Khandwa, to Burhanpur, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, to hunt for change. When they arrived, a weary Saroo had collapsed into a seat on the platform. Guddu had promised to be back in a minute and walked off.
When Saroo had next opened his eyes, a train was waiting at the platform. Guddu must be on board, he had thought, still in a sleepy fog. So Saroo had boarded the train and drifted off again, thinking his brother would wake him at Khandwa.
But now the train was stopping. There was no Guddu, and this was not Khandwa.
The doors opened and Saroo stepped out into chaos.
Hordes of people, pushing, rushing. Speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. He was in Calcutta, nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from home. It might as well have been Mars.
He pleaded for help. But he spoke Hindi, and most here spoke Bengali. Besides, he had never been to school; he didn’t know his last name, or the city he came from — only the name of his neighborhood and not how to spell it. No one understood him.
No one wanted to deal with yet another child beggar in a country that has millions of them. No one cared.
Frantic, he boarded another train, hoping it would take him home. It looped back to Calcutta. He hopped another train, and another, praying he would be carried back to his family. They all returned to this strange, frightening place.
Saroo did this for days, begging passengers for food. This, at least, was familiar; back home, he begged every day for a cup of chai tea or a bite of roti bread.
Now, he scrounged together enough morsels to survive. At night, he slept underneath the train station’s seats. Eventually, he ventured into the streets.
The mighty Ganges river that snaked through the city reminded Saroo of his favorite waterfall back home, where he had spent so many happy days watching the local fishermen catch their dinners.
But this new river offered no peace; the fierce current and deep water sucked him under when he tried to swim. A bystander plucked him out, but he was terrified. He retreated to the streets, approaching a man who spoke Hindi for help. The man took Saroo home, and gave him food and a place to sleep.
Saroo grew uneasy when the man invited a friend over for breakfast. He shivered, without knowing why, under the friend’s gaze. That night, when Saroo was supposed to be washing dishes, he fled.
Barefoot, he ran, the men chasing close behind. But Saroo was small and quick. He slipped into an alley, where he hid until they passed.
When night fell and her boys still weren’t home, Fatima panicked. She took a neighbor she called Uncle Akbar to the station to look for them, but most of the trains had already come and gone. They searched the nearby market where the boys would beg. She went to the fountain where they liked to play.
By morning, her body felt like it was on fire. Her mind raced.
Maybe they had been kidnapped.
Maybe they were lost.
Maybe they were dead.
She had never been on a train before, but she and Uncle Akbar rode to Burhanpur and Bhusawal, asking police if they had seen her sons. She widened her search to bigger and further cities.
She cried and prayed for their safe return at the holy crypt of the Sufi Muslim saint Tekri Wale Baba. She approached another mystic said to channel the dead saint’s spirit.
“There are no longer two flowers,” he said. “One flower has fallen, the other has gone to a far off place. He doesn’t remember where he is from. He will come back, but only after a long, long time.”
She didn’t believe him. Her boys were going to be fine.
Then she ran into a police officer she knew.
Guddu was dead, he said.
The boy had either fallen off the train or been pushed. Police took photos of the mangled but still identifiable body found by the tracks, and then cremated him.
Miserable, Saroo walked across a bridge to the other side of the Ganges, where he met another man who spoke Hindi. This man took him to a government center for abandoned children. The workers fed him, then moved him to a larger holding area, swarming with lost youngsters.
It was hell. The bigger kids picked on him. No one spoke Hindi. He tried to explain who he was, but it was hopeless.
Weeks later, a staffer told him he was moving again. He was cleaned up, dressed up and transported to the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption.
This place was heaven. There were around 15 children, and no one bullied him. He even made friends. He had a comfortable bed, fresh clothes, plenty of food.
The staff hunted for his family, using the scraps of information Saroo remembered. But it wasn’t enough. The government declared him a lost child.
Months went by. Then one day, a worker approached him with news.
A new family wanted him. And they lived in a place called Australia.
Where was Saroo, Fatima thought. Her happy son, who would accompany her to work sites and build little roads out of rock. Her sweet boy who insisted his baby sister sit next to him at every meal. She had nursed him through eight days of high fever after he was kicked in the face by a horse; she wouldn’t give up now.
She and Uncle Akbar, a Muslim holy man, took to the rails again. He begged for food for their survival. She was repeatedly cornered by passengers, police officers and rail workers who tried to rape her. She would cry and beg for mercy — she was just a mother looking for her missing son, take pity.
They searched the train stations of Bhopal and Sikanderabad, the police stations in Hyderabad, the jails in Bombay. They visited cities three or four times, talking to anyone who might have seen her missing son.
But she never went as far as Calcutta.
She couldn’t imagine he had gone so far.
Saroo was zooming through the clouds toward an island called Tasmania. He chewed anxiously on a chocolate bar and thought about the new family waiting for him. The adoption agency had given him an album with photos of his new parents, his new house, his new dad’s car. His new life.
When the plane landed, he was escorted to a VIP area and spotted his adoptive parents. He was nervous and shy; they were patient and kind. They went through his photo album, then took him to his new home.
It was a palace. Four bedrooms, a lounge, a kitchen and a big back yard where he could play.
He had his own room, decorated in cheerful yellows and blues. Atop his bed sat a stuffed koala he dubbed “Koala Dundee.” It became his favorite toy.
The kitchen was stocked with sweets, and his adoptive parents cooked him delicious Indian dinners. He sometimes ate as if it were his last meal. Sensing his loneliness, they adopted another Indian boy. His new brother.
It was like a story in a book. Very few of the millions of parentless children in India end up adopted by families overseas; the annual number has never topped 1,200 in recent decades, according to India’s Central Adoption Resource Authority.
Saroo was given a new last name: Brierley. He went to school, learned English, made friends.
But the questions about his past still simmered. The map of India hanging on his bedroom wall, a certain song or something learned in school could ignite a blaze of images from his old life so vivid it felt like he was still there.
On restless nights, he thought about his mother. Was she OK? Was Guddu?
Sometimes he cried. Often, he prayed: If there is anything magical in the world, he pleaded silently, could you help me find my family?
After three months riding trains, Fatima was exhausted. She abandoned her physical search for a mystical one.
She visited a holy man who pointed to the horizon and said her son was there with a good Hindu family.
Every Thursday she walked an hour to a Sufi tomb to offer incense and rose petals in prayer for Saroo’s return.
At the Eid festival, when she bought Shakila and Kallu new clothes, she would buy an outfit for Saroo too and donate it to charity.
She didn’t buy herself anything. She had pledged not to do nice things for herself, not to enjoy life, until Saroo returned.
She dreamed of growing wings and flying to him.
When she slept, sometimes she would see him, pull him on her lap and play with him. Sometimes he was sleeping next to her. When she awoke, he was gone.
Kallu and Shakila watched her cry all the time.
Kallu refused to pray; he blamed God for destroying his family.
Shakila prayed to every God she could find. She went with neighbors to church to ask Jesus to bring her brother back. She prayed for Saroo at the local Hindu temple. She fasted for Allah and bowed at the shrines of Sufi saints.
Saroo was grown now, a university student studying business and hospitality. His classmates were friendly, and he found himself drawn to the students from India.
Years had passed since that awful train ride, but Saroo hadn’t stopped searching for answers. And so he asked his new Indian friends: Had they heard of a train station that started with a B ... Bara-something?
Lots of train stations in India sound like that, they told him. They needed more information.
All Saroo had were the vivid memories of his town — the waterfall he played in, the train station, the fountain near the cinema. The laneways surrounding his house.
His house ... he had recently used Google’s satellite feature to get a bird’s eye view of his Australian house. Would it have similar images of his homeland?
He sat down at a computer and called up a map of India. He randomly zoomed in on a train track and followed it, scrutinizing stations he passed, searching for something familiar. He zeroed in on Calcutta, since that was where he’d ended up, and worked backwards. He narrowed down the search area by multiplying the approximate time he’d been on the train by an estimate of how fast an Indian train could have traveled.
It was a needle in a haystack, and he knew it. Still, his hunt dragged on for years. His girlfriend, Lisa Williams, watched him hunch over his computer night after night, scrolling and searching. She wondered if this ritual would ever stop. If Saroo would ever stop.
In Ganesh Talai, Fatima refused to stop as well.
She had never touched a computer, heard of Google or seen an airplane up close. But for a quarter century, she remained a regular visitor to fortunetellers.
This time, she brought some rice to a Sufi mystic. He scattered it on the floor and stared hard at the grains to find her destiny.
Your Saroo, he said, is coming home. He will be back in 40 days.
Saroo’s eyes drifted across an image of yet another train station and froze. The walkover bridge, the water tank — exactly as he remembered. He scrolled further. The waterfall where he used to swim. A familiar tunnel. The fountain.
His heart was pounding. He pressed a hand to his forehead.
The map listed the town as “Khandwa.” He plugged the name into Facebook. Bam — a group called ”‘Khandwa’ My Home Town.”
On March 31, 2011, he wrote:
“can anyone help me, i think im from Khandwa. i havent seen or been back to the place for 24 years. Just wandering if there is a big fountain near the Cinema?”
The administrator’s response was vague. On April 3, 2011, Saroo tried again:
“Can anyone tell me, the name of the town or suburb on the top right hand side of Khandwa? I think it starts with G...”
The administrator answered the next day: “Ganesh Talai.”
Ganesh Talai. Home.
He raced into the bedroom, waking Williams with shouts of victory. He told his adoptive parents. Everyone was excited, but cautious. “There’s a lot of water fountains in India,” Saroo’s mother told him.
But he knew. And he knew he had to find out what had happened to his family. To Guddu. To his mother. He knew he had to go back.
But what was he going back to?
Saroo Brierley pulled up to the train station and stepped out of his car into the chaotic landscape that had haunted his dreams.
The swerving bicycles, noisy three-wheelers and vendors’ pushcarts crowding the streets of this Indian town were half a world from where he lived in Australia’s tranquil island state of Tasmania. And yet he knew that once — a lifetime ago — he had called this place home.
It was Feb. 12, 2012, and he hadn’t been here in nearly 25 years, since that nightmarish day when his brother vanished and a train whisked him away from everything he knew. Since he had ended up an orphan in distant Calcutta, before an Australian couple adopted him and gave him a second chance at family.
It took years of searching the Internet before he finally found his way back to this town. After all this time, would his family still be here? If they were, what would they say? What would he say?
His loved ones in Australia had warned him not to expect too much. He remembered the cramped house he had left behind, the poverty, the hunger. He’d spent years wondering about the fate of his family, and tried now to prepare himself for the worst.
He stood still, drinking it all in. Through his now-adult eyes, everything seemed much smaller than in his memory. But the smells and sounds were the same, and the layout almost exactly as he remembered: The road near the train tracks, the fountain he’d spotted on an Internet satellite image. He began to walk, following twisty pathways etched into his brain as a child.
Saroo could feel it. His memory was guiding him home.
Fatima struggled to take her usual nap after returning from her morning routine of cleaning neighbors’ homes and washing their dishes. Her mind was filled with thoughts of Saroo. She had heard of a man wandering through a nearby neighborhood who had amnesia and couldn’t find his family.
Could that be her son? She doubted it. She had heard he wasn’t tall like her other children, but she decided she would find him in the next day or two just to be sure. She gave up on sleeping and rose from the bed she had borrowed from a neighbor, rolling off a mattress so wafer thin that a gentle hand could feel the metal slats underneath.
She sat on her doorstep, watching life go by along the alley.
Saroo stared at the house in front of him in shock. One, because it was the place he’d called home so long ago. Two, because it seemed impossibly tiny; the top of the front door reached his chest. He was examining the door’s padlock and chain when a woman emerged from the adjacent house. She asked, in hybrid Hindi-English, if he needed help.
Saroo pulled out a copy of a childhood photo his Australian parents had taken of him. He showed it to the woman, tried to explain. He said the names of his siblings and mother, waiting for a flicker of recognition. He felt dread growing in his gut as she stared in silence. Was his family dead? Had he lost them forever?
More neighbors were gathering. He repeated his pleas. Did someone, anyone, know where his family was?
A man plucked the photo from Saroo’s hand. “Wait here,” he said, and hurried off. A few minutes later, he returned.
“Come with me,” he said. “I am going to take you to your mother.”
Saroo was numb as the man guided him around the corner, where three women stood waiting. He stared at them blankly. Only the woman in the middle seemed remotely familiar.
“This is your mother,” the man said, gesturing toward the woman in the center.
She had been young, in her 30s, the last time he saw her. She looked so much older now. But behind the weathered face, there was something unmistakable. Unforgettable.
Mother. His mother.
Fatima was still sitting on her doorstep when she heard the words she always knew would come, but couldn’t believe were actually being spoken.
“Your Saroo is back,” a neighbor screamed, running toward her.
Fatima walked down her alley and saw a mob of people walking up the road as if in a procession. In the middle stood a man calling out the names of her family.
Of his family.
He rushed to her, and she to him. They grabbed each other and hugged tightly. He couldn’t find words, so he just held her.
The scar from the long-ago horse kick was still there in his forehead, and he had the same chin dimple that marked all her children, but Fatima would have recognized him anyway, even though he was now 30. She led him by the hand to her new home and hugged him for what felt like an hour, cried and caressed his head.
“My Saroo is back,” she said. “The almighty has finally answered my prayers. He has brought the joy back. He has finally brought my Saroo back.”
Saroo was overwhelmed. Tears slid down his face.
He wanted to know whether Fatima had looked for him. She told him about her search and how she had never given up hope. He told her that when he went through tough times, he would think of his family in India and go into a corner and cry. Saroo was devastated to learn about his brother Guddu’s grisly death on the train tracks.
Fatima called Kallu and Shakila with the news of their brother’s return. Kallu raced over on his motorcycle.
“You will be happy now,” he told his mother. “Your son is back.”
Saroo broke away to call his girlfriend. Lisa Williams, who had spent endless nights watching him hunt online for his hometown, was still asleep when the phone rang. Saroo had done it: He had found his family.
Williams shot out of bed. “What?!” she screamed. He repeated the words. She began to dance around the room. Closure, she thought. At last.
Closure is complicated.
Saroo’s questions about his family’s fate were answered, but new ones about how to deal with the future took their place.
Fatima’s quest was over too, but how much did her lost son want to be in her life? Enough to satisfy a mother who never gave up on finding him?
Can a mother and son ripped apart, separated by decades, thousands of miles and different cultures, fit back together again?
Their first problem: They couldn’t communicate.
Fatima was illiterate and knew no English. Saroo remembered only a tiny handful of Hindi words. It took them hours to find a neighbor to translate.
Over the next few days, they communicated through hand gestures. Not understanding anything happening around him, Saroo would sit quietly and watch his family. If an English speaker dropped by, they would chat.
He was unfamiliar in other ways as well. He drank bottled water so he wouldn’t get sick from the hose everyone else drank from outside. Fatima worried that he wouldn’t like the food she made, though he said it was fine. Even his name was strange. They pronounced it ‘SHEH roo’ in keeping with the local Hindi dialect; He had anglicized it to ‘SAH roo.’
They hired a photographer to document their reunion. In one photo, Fatima, wearing a sari, tenderly cradles his face in her hand and kisses his cheek. Saroo, wearing a pink T-shirt and jeans, smiles wide and looks at the camera.
Their 10 days together went by so fast — too fast. Local media kept trying to interview him. Neighbors stopped by to meet the boy who had miraculously returned. There was little time for the family to be alone.
Suddenly, Fatima was standing with Saroo outside the airport terminal, wanting to drag him back home with her. He said goodbye, then walked inside to check in. It wasn’t long before he came back out, to see if she was still there. She was, and waited with him until he finally had to leave. He promised he would return.
In Tasmania, Saroo faced more changes. The media frenzy over his story intensified. He hired an agent to juggle interview requests. Movie producers began calling. Publishing houses battled over the book rights.
He went back to work at his family’s hose supply business, and hunted for a house with his girlfriend. He turned off his phone at night to silence the relentless ringing.
He began sending Fatima $100 a month, so she could quit her job cleaning homes and washing dishes that pays her about 1,500 rupees ($30) a month. But she hasn’t quit her job and hasn’t touched the money he put in her bank account. She insists she won’t take his money unless he gives it to her in person.
She seems to want him to care for his mother as a good Indian boy should, seeing to her every need, following her commands and revering her above any job, girlfriend or wife. That’s what many sons are brought up to do in India. Not in Australia.
She still lives in her tiny concrete home with peeling whitewash and a roof of bamboo and corrugated metal, surviving on subsidized grain, near-rotten onions she buys at a discount and stale bread she softens in lentil stew. She frets that her poverty might embarrass Saroo or his Australian parents.
The gulf between mother and son remains vast.
Fatima and Shakila beg a visitor to call Saroo for them.
The conversation, through a translator, begins like so many other mother-son calls. She asks if he is eating. Then she complains he doesn’t call enough.
“Why don’t you talk to us?” she asks. “At least ask how your mother is doing.”
They don’t speak the same language, so what’s the point in calling, he says. When he does call, he has trouble getting through. Meanwhile, his sister calls him, sometimes in the middle of work, sometimes in the middle of the night. She never speaks, he says, frustrated. It’s like a crank call.
Fatima says she left him a message and cried when he didn’t call her back. The ache for her son is clear in her voice.
Saroo insists he sends text messages to his brother to have translated and passed on to her.
“I’m not able to talk to them all the time, it’s just hard for me,” he says.
She grows sarcastic.
“Take care of the family you are staying with, don’t bother with this family here,” she says.
They need to understand the difficult position he is in, he says.
“I’ve got to be very careful with everything, you see. I don’t want to upset my family here and give too much attention to my family in India,” he says.
Then he announces he is coming back. He is getting money together and is going to buy her a house.
“No, no!” she says angrily. Don’t bother coming. I will go away for a few months and no one will be here to see you, she says, voice dripping with acid.
“Just stay calm and be happy that I’m alive and you know where I am,” he says in exasperation.
Fatima is in such a fury, the translator stops interpreting her words. Her rage is incomprehensible to her perplexed son.
“I was hoping that my son would come back. How could I have known that my son would not come back,” she hisses into the phone. “With my heart and my soul I prayed to the almighty, I went walking barefoot for your sake. Why will my prayers not be answered? You continue staying there, son. If you think of a family, think only about that side of the family.”
Saroo doesn’t want to overthink it. He wants to revel in the joy of their remarkable reunion. For him, it has been a miracle punctuated by a happy ending.
“It’s sort of taken a weight off my shoulders,” he says. “Instead of going to bed at night and thinking, ‘How is my family? Are they still alive?’ I know in my head now I can let those questions rest.”
He hopes to visit India once or twice a year, but he cannot move back. He has other responsibilities, other family and a whole other life in Tasmania.
He is Australian now.
“This is where I live,” he says. “When I come back, whether it’s sooner or later, then we can start building our relationship again.”
Fatima is confused and frustrated.
She doesn’t want him to move back here, where there is nothing. But she wants to be with him. Maybe she can move to Australia, she says. She adds sternly that she would ban all girlfriends from his house.
A few minutes later she softens. She couldn’t really move away from her life here to an unfamiliar place where no one can talk with her, she says.
At least, and at last, Saroo’s return has brought her “mental peace,” she says. She tries to understand that he has new parents, new expectations and a new life a world away.
She just wants him to see her once in a while, to call her occasionally, even if they can only speak a few sentences to each other.
“For the moment,” she says, “it’s enough for me that I went to him. And he called me Amma.”
This story was reported by Nessman from Khandwa, India, and Gelineau from Sydney, Australia. It is based on multiple interviews with Saroo Brierley, his girlfriend Lisa Williams, mother Fatima Munshi, sister Shakila Khan, a representative of the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, photographs of Saroo and Fatima’s reunion, and the reporters’ own observations from watching and listening to them.