In 1980s India, five-year-old Saroo, like many small children in poor communities, looks after a younger sibling; he has special responsibility for his baby sister Shekila. He washes and feeds her, and plays games of peekaboo. Saroo’s streetwise big brothers, Guddu and Kallu, take care of each other and little Saroo.
With no father at home, their mother works on construction sites, carrying rocks and stones on her head in the baking heat. Despite this hardship, Saroo is lucky – his family are poor, but they are, Saroo will recall, “reasonably happy”.
Saroo’s mother is warm and kindhearted, and neighbours in their dry, dusty central Indian town watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his older brothers when they hustle for food and money.
On one longer jaunt with his eldest brother Guddu, an exhausted Saroo is left to nod off on a bench on a railway platform. When he wakes up, it is dark, and his brother has vanished. Saroo stumbles onto a waiting train and goes back to sleep.
Childhood memory can be unreliable, but suffice to say Saroo finds himself alone and trapped on a moving train, carrying him 1,500km east to the megacity of Kolkata.
There, people mainly speak Bengali. Saroo speaks Hindi, and is unable to pronounce the name of his town or his last name. (It later turns out he was mispronouncing even his first name – his name is actually Sheru, or ‘Lion’ in Hindi.)
He spends a unbelievable three weeks on the streets until an older boy takes him to a police station. As attempts to establish his identity fail, he finds himself first in a frightening juvenile home, and then mercifully in the care of a adoption agency, ISSA, before being flown to his adoptive parents in Tasmania – Sue and John Brierley.
From the impoverished child with broken teeth and a heart murmour, Saroo grows into a healthy and amiable adult, a “proud Tassie”. Yet he never forgets India or fully moves on. Nobody can find his original home until a new technology – Google Earth -leads him to months of searching, eventually reuniting him with his past.
My thoughts (updated after seeing the movie)*
This is a remarkable story that captured the attention of the world. Reading Lion, it’s impossible not to empathize with little Saroo as he finds himself trapped and terrified, then lost amid Kolkata’s immense Howrah Station.
Despite the pitiless indifference and random cruelty of adults – not to mention some of the sinister near-misses he had on the streets – the adult Saroo says that his journey left him with a sincere belief in the goodness of people.
80,000 children go missing in India each year, yet Saroo does not seem to suffer from the survivor’s guilt that was the driving force in the film adaptation*. Instead he emphasizes the importance of grabbing opportunities when they are presented.
Lion may now be a major Oscar-nominated movie starring Nicole Kidman, but I’m very glad it jumped out at me from the bookshelf first. 5 stars.