Published June 10, 2012
KHANDWA, India – 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?
This is the second in a two-part series.
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 thirties, 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.