Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Boy Who Was Lost for 25 Years

In 1986, Saroo Brierley was a five-year-old boy in Khandwa, India. One day, he was following his brother around at his job: a sweeper on India’s trains. The work was dirty and long, requiring his brother to work late into the night. As it got later, Saroo grew tired. Eventually he sat down on a seat at one of the station benches while his brother worked and he fell asleep.

Saroo Brierley
When he awoke, his brother was nowhere to be seen. Saroo was scared and panicked. There was a train in the station, waiting. Saroo, thinking his brother must be on the train, jumped onboard before it left. Still exhausted and not seeing his brother like he had hoped, he fell asleep again.

When he awoke for the second time, everything, including his life, had changed. He found that 14 hours had passed and he was now in a strange city. It was a sprawling metropolis; a city of massive scope and size. It was Calcutta, home to millions of people (roughly 9.1 million in 1981 and 11.1 million in 1991), and a place that dwarfs New York City in size. The city is spread out over 728 miles, and comprises 3 different municipal corporations, 39 local municipalities, 72 smaller cities and 527 towns and villages, all combined under one giant umbrella of unity. Calcutta proper is 71 square miles alone.

It is notorious for its slums, with millions living along roads, railway lines and waterways. Thirty-three percent of the city’s population lived in the slums and Saroo found himself there…alone and confused.

He lived for a year on the streets, begging for food and anything else he could get his hands on. Luck was on his side when, in 1987 he was taken into an orphanage and was adopted by an Australian couple. The couple took Saroo to Tasmania, where he lived for the next 25 years.

The day came when he wanted to find his birth family. But being only five at the time, and illiterate, he had no idea what the name of his hometown was. So he decided to use math and Google Earth. Looking at Calcutta on a map, and knowing he had traveled 14 hours in his sleep, he calculated his time on the train, with the rate of speed of Indian trains and came up the figure of 1200…1200 kilometers. He circled a radius around Calcutta, extending 1200 kilometers and went to work on Google Earth, scanning the satellite images of the countryside, looking for landmarks that he could remember from his childhood.

Eventually, he found a waterfall he used to play around and found his hometown: Khandwa. Traveling there, he was flooded with memories and was able to guide himself to his old house…only to find it locked up and desolate. Carrying a photo of himself as a child, he began to talk to neighbors, who told him the family had moved many years ago. About to give up hope, a man eventually led him to another house, where he found his mother.

He learned that his brother had been found dead a month after he disappeared, cut in half on train tracks. It is unknown if it was an accident or not.

Saroo still lives in Tasmania, but keeps in regular touch with the family he lost 25 years ago.

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