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 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 the dry, dusty central Indian town seem to watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his brothers as they hustle for food and money.
One time 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 Guddu 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 (he will later learn) 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 three weeks on the streets until a stranger takes him to a police station. When attempts to establish his identity fail, he passes through a frightening juvenile home into 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. Against all odds, he’s eventually reunited with his long-lost family after tracing his hometown on Google Earth – a feat that made global headlines.
It is reported that 80,000 children go missing in India each year, and despite the pitiless indifference and some sinister near-misses he encountered on the streets, Saroo has been left with a sincere belief in the goodness of people, and the importance of seizing opportunities.
A Long Way Home is as broadly appealing and crowd-pleasing as Lion – the new Oscar-nominated adaptation starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It offers more information about both his birth and adoptive families, and on the page, is even more awe-inspiring and courageous.