Last night before dinner as I was deep-frying a batch of my favorite jalebi for dessert, Saroo Brierley’s face came to mind. Afterwards I found the 2016 movie Lion from my CD collection and watched it in bits and pieces. It tells a riveting story of how a hopelessly lost 5-year-old Saroo ends up from the slums of Khandwa, a city in central India to an idyllic coastal town of Tasmania in Australia to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley. Until a grown-up Saroo (played by Dev Patel) saw a platter of jalebi at an Indian friend’s house party years later, he was not obsessed about finding his ancestral roots. The vague memories only persisted in his dreams. It is believed to be a recurrent dream of many lost children. The sight, smell of this popular Indian dessert shook Saroo to the core. And a flood of past memories came rushing back and those recollections made him remember how he got lost in India. The emotional response to the sensation after seeing the platter brought back vague memories that he thought were lost forever. He felt the jalebi platter is somehow connected to his past. A place, scent, smell, emotion and childhood memories are often intertwined. It seemed Saroo’s nose was sniffing out nostalgia as he tried very hard to associate the sight and smell with some memories of his childhood home. Though those were not concrete and detailed memories but somehow he was transported back in time and space to a specific place in his past. The jalebis instantly evoked flashbacks to the lost boy of Ganesh Talai.
After having a relatively normal childhood and growing up with his adoptive parents, Saroo shows no visible signs of inner trauma about his separation from his family. Outwardly he seemed to have adjusted well in his new family. But as he grew older, he would stare at the map of India taped into his bedroom wall and wonder where he came from. He would think what makes a family? Is it based on blood relationship or love? Or how does one reconcile between loss and love?
The movie emphasizes the power of love between parents and children; both biological and that of the adoptive ones. It portrays the unconditional love the Brierleys shower on Saroo, and why the couple chose to adopt two children from India when they could have their own.
Set in a remote village in India, the movie starts in 1986 when Saroo accidentally got separated from his family. The title of the film is the English translation from Sheru (meaning Lion in Hindi.) Young Sheru mispronounced his name and hence became Saroo. Based on a true story, the non-fiction book A Long Way Home was adapted into a screen play. The movie was directed by Garth Davis and the screenplay written by Luke Davies. This was Davis’ debut film that brought him international fame and six Oscar nominations in 2017 at the academy awards.
Back in 1986 the world was a lot less connected. For the western viewers the first part of the film appears to be a fairytale. One cannot help but love young Saroo who was born into poverty. He did not have the luxury to believe the world to be a place of sunshine and laughter. The father left the family when he was very young. As a day laborer, Saroo’s mother would leave home for days at a time to collect coal and stones and had little time to look after her three children. They basically had to fend for them and got into all kinds of mischiefs to provide some kind of monetary help to their mother. The boys would steal coal from a moving freight train while the guard chased after them. They would exchange it for milk in the market. One night Saroo begged his 14-year-old brother Guddu to take him along into one such excursion. They tromped off into the night to the nearby train depot. When a train stopped, they got in to look for any coin and scraps of food under the seats. Soon Saroo got tired and Guddu left him on the platform asking him to sleep on a bench while he went looking for food. When he woke up Guddu was nowhere in sight. He saw a decommissioned train in front of him and went in. Looking underneath the seats, he only found peanut shells and candy wrappers. Tired and hungry, he soon fell asleep thinking Guddu is around. After a few hours he was awaken in panic by the sound of the fast moving train. The train finally stopped in Kolkata, more than 1,000 miles away from home.
What Saroo went through as a lost boy to survive the city streets is very unsettling. It was particularly hard for him as he only spoke Hindi, and didn’t know Bengali. He ate discarded food and drank from the public faucets. He slept on cardboard boxes, awakened in the deep of the night by child-snatching mob only to escape in the arms of a supposedly kind woman who in reality was working for a lewd middleman named Rama. Saroo sensed danger and ran away from there. For the next couple of months, Saroo survived relying solely on his wits with other street children. He scavenged for food in the vast city, even stealing offerings in a temple occasionally. At night when he huddled together with other lost children in an empty train station, the adult predators loitering around frightened him the most. His mother’s smile, etched in his memory got him through those scary nights.
After a few weeks, Saroo was brought to the police station by a kind stranger. He couldn’t tell them the name of his mother, as he only knew her by mum. He didn’t know his family’s surname, and garbled the name of his village as Ganeshtalay. Very little could be done to find his family with so little information. He was then sent into a juvenile detention center where he felt utter terror having to live with the street urchins and mentally handicapped kids.
A police snapshot of Saroo was placed in the Anandabazar Patrika under the missing children’s banner. But no one came looking for Saroo, and soon he became eligible for adoption.
Before the adoption, Saroo asked his case worker whether she really tried to find his mother. She replied that the newspaper where they put the advertisement has eighty thousand readers but his mother did not reply. The little boy could not confront the case worker that what were the chances of his illiterate and non-Bengali mother seeing the Bengali daily in that faraway part of India let alone answer the ad about her lost child?
International adoption became Saroo’s salvation. Without that he would have possibly remained a statistic – a lost boy in chaotic streets of Kolkata. Saroo got groomed on table manners and how to use knife and fork while eating.
Throughout the movie Lion, the human story remains the focal point. It can be an emotional experience for any parent. The movie answers some of the vital questions the adoptees face while growing up. From the adoption point of view, it is a wonderful story about international adoption where hundreds of lost children find loving homes and a sense of belonging. Often the adopted children are conflicted and start to question what the basis of a family and home are. Whether someone is an adopted child or an adoptive parent, post-adoption issues in families are very common. Lion represented those conflicting issues, and through onscreen adaptation tried to validate these points.
The story ultimately becomes about grown-up Saroo’s yearning to find his birth mother in a distant part of India. In the case of adoptive children, it is very normal to wonder about their biological parents, heritage and why they were given up for adoption. Some of them spend a lifetime searching for answers. Sometimes the adoptive parents are unable to provide them any because in a closed adoption the record of biological parent(s) is kept sealed and no information is available. Some adoptive parents such as Sue Brierley fail to understand why after getting so much love one would be curious to find birth parents. Discovering the joy decades later when the lost child finds who he really is and comes to terms with it – Lion tells us a universal story.
The second part of the movie fast forwards twenty years, shifts its focus from Saroo feeling no real connection to his past to his agonizing search and inner anguish. The little lost boy was a long way from home. But Google Earth came to the rescue. At age twenty-five, Saroo went to attend a hotel management school in Canberra. His life seems even outwardly, with a supportive girlfriend who loved Indian food. At the school, he meets a group of Indians, discovers Google Earth and becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother in India. He starts to spend sleepless nights as images of his childhood home and its surroundings had started to haunt him. His search becomes more intense as days go by. It appears that deep in his psyche he had remained haunted by his mysterious past, and continues to have flashbacks from the same. Many questions needed to be answered. His life became a puzzle; he needed to fit the pieces together so much so that twenty-five-years later he wanted to know if his birthmother 6,000 miles away ever looked for him.
Using high-speed Internet and satellite images, Saroo looked up Calcutta and calculated a search radius first and found out the speed of local trains in 1986 when he went missing. Based on the speed and the time he thought he was in that train, and by using simple arithmetic he calculated the distances that the trains could travel in approximately two days from Kolkata to the west of India. He drew two circles and then started looking at the terrain in between the two circles. He zoomed in many times and looked at the satellite imageries captured in the database of Google Earth. For months he would follow train tracks looking for any image that would match his immured memory from the night he got lost.
Saroo’s illiteracy as a young boy came very helpful in the search as he had captured everything visually and stored them in his memory. He never really forgot his little house and family in India when he was only five. Slowly, blurred but recognizable images started to fall into place. One late night, he found a place where he saw a platform, a bridge and a ravine where as a boy he used to play nearby. The topography of his lost childhood with the dam, the water tower and the flyover near Burhanpur railway station matched the images in his head. The other landmarks that he carried in his memory came alive when he zeroed down to his then neighbourhood which was named Ganesh Talai. A once familiar place was right in front of him on the screen of his laptop.
Technology provided Saroo a sense of resolution and closure. A quarter century later, Saroo’s six-year old relentless search to reunite with his birth mother came to an end.
Sue Brierley initially had failed to support Saroo’s need to look up his birth mother. She was questioning whether it is a reflection on her parenting style that had led Saroo to this long search process. Eventually she understood why Saroo was having trouble feeling comfortable about his identity – no matter how much he was loved. Sue then gave her blessing to the once lost boy who wanted to find his birth mother. She reckoned it is better for him to get rid of the insecure feelings than to internalize those. She was relieved and happy for him in spite of her private pain. It was replaced by immense happiness when Saroo texted her from India to tell her that she is and always will be his mother.
Every year, eighty thousand children go missing in India. From such an astounding number, two out of three children remain untraced. To be a lost child in India must be one of the hardest things to go through. Socio economic misery, abduction, abandonment and human trafficking play a big role for children to go missing. Many families in India spend sleepless nights over a missing child. Studies have shown that in the initial three-year period, the lost children wait for their families to find them. Often their hope turns into nightmare when they end up in the city streets begging for food and relying on the kindness of the strangers to survive. Those who fall victims to human traffickers are sometimes sold to other countries and send into brothels where they work as child sex slaves. Only the very lucky ones such as Saroo get a second chance in life when they are adopted by kind hearted couples. Sometimes they do it as infertility, medical conditions and genetic disorders stands in the way of having biological children. Other times they choose to do it when they get a sense that they need to do something bigger than themselves. They want to give a child born in another country a chance to thrive and feel loved. Many couples feel called to adopt for other reasons, and they incorporate multiple races, cultures and ethnicities into their families.
Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA