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The Extraordinary Story of a Man Who Used Google Earth to Find His Birth Mother

Dev Patel and Priyanka Bose in the film "Lion."
Dev Patel (as Saroo Brierley) and Priyanka Bose (as Kamla) in the film "Lion."

​Saroo Brierley was a small boy when he got lost. This wasn't a case of a tiny child losing his way in a crowded store or taking a wrong turn on a trail. He boarded a train that led to a journey far from his hometown in India. He exited in Calcutta, a massive city, perhaps even more immense for a five-year-old with no way of getting back home. He didn't know how to read or how to explain where he was from. He had to fend for himself on the streets before he was taken into a group home. When it appeared that no one could find his family, Brierley was adopted by a couple in Australia.

It took decades for Brierley to find the path to his old home. In fact, it took the advent of Google Earth for him to begin the search and a few years of zooming in and out of images of India to find it. When Brierley finally made his way back to his birth family, the event made headlines almost immediately. His successful search has inspired numerous news stories over the years. Brierley has talked extensively on how he used technology to embark on a search that would have seemed otherwise impossible. He also wrote a memoir, "A Long Way Home." That book is the basis for the movie, "Lion," starring Dev Patel as Brierley and featuring performances from Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The film, which screened for the KCET Cinema Series on November 22, is now in theaters. 

"I read the book immediately and my heart literally jumped through my chest," screenwriter Luke Davies, who adapted the memoir for film, said to the KCET Cinema Series audience, "simply because the story seemed so pure and so powerful, like a kind of mythic fable."

Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."
Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."

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Brierley was born into an impoverished family in India. He was the third of four children and raised in his early years by a single mother who worked grueling hours. Even at the tender age of four, Brierley had serious responsibilities. He took care of his younger sister and helped find food to eat. One night, he accompanied an older brother on a trek that took them to a train station in another town. His brother told him to wait at the station. Brierley fell asleep and, when he woke, his brother was nowhere to be found. The little boy hopped a train trying to find his sibling. 

Brierley recalls the events with vague memories and intense emotional details. In "A Long Way Home," he describes the realization that he was stuck on a train as "at once a feeling of weakness, hyperactivity and incredulity." He adds that he doesn't remember his immediate response, but still recalls the heart-racing anxiety of being alone in a train car, looking at signs he couldn't read, ultimately calling for his brothers and his mom, but getting no response. 

Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."
Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."

In his memoir, Brierley notes that he believed he had been on the train for between 12 and 15 hours when he got lost. It wasn't until he made his way back to India as an adult that he realized that his travels lasted much longer than that. But, it wasn't just the distance that stood in the way of Brierley and his home. He didn't know his last name. He also mispronounced his first name; after reuniting with his mother, Brierley learned that she named him Sheru (which means "Lion"). He also mispronounced the name of his town and the town where he caught the train. Away from his family, he was on his own on the streets of a very large city. He encountered some men who offered to help him. Young Brierley was apprehensive. As an adult, he explains it as a "perceived cost/benefit analysis" that a child forced into a grown-up situation develops. He escaped before they could take advantage of him. Eventually, he met an older boy who took Brierley to the police. That led to a stint in a group home and then, after the authorities were unable to locate his family, placement in an orphanage. Brierley was quickly adopted by an Australian couple and moved to Hobart, Tasmania. 

Brierley's adoptive parents, John and Sue, provided a good home for the young boy. "Mum and Dad were very affectionate, right from the start, always giving me lots of cuddles and making me feel safe, secure, loved, and above all, wanted," he writes in "A Long Way Home. "That meant a lot to a child who'd been lost and had experienced what it was like for no one to care about him."

Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierley), David Wenham (as John Brierley) and Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."
Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierley), David Wenham (as John Brierley) and Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."

He admits that there was some internal conflict in his life. Once Brierley got to Hobart, his world changed dramatically. Where once he had to beg for food, now he had an abundance of it. But, he had endured a traumatic journey. Brierley describes his experience of settling into Australia, how a movie or a piece of music triggers emotional memories, as he struggled to explain what happened until he was able to converse in English.

Brierley ultimately adapted to Australian life. His parents kept reminders of India around him, like a map that was in his bedroom. He also maintained friendships with other children who were adopted from India. But, he identified as Australian or, as he writes, "a proud Tassie" (i.e., someone from Tasmania). He describes his teenage years as fairly typical: he made friends and was a bit rebellious until his grades started to suffer and his parents reprimanded him. He worked in restaurants and clubs and eventually went back to school to study hospitality management. In college, he met students from India who helped rekindle interest in his homeland. His new friends wanted to help him find his family, but the details Brierley conveyed weren't immediately familiar to them. 

Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierley) and Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."
Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierley) and Sunny Pawar (as a young Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."

He tried searching for the names of the towns he recalled, but found nothing online or on maps. He referred to his hometown as "Ginestlay," which was a mispronunciation that, in part, led to his difficulties in finding the place. Once Google Earth was released, he tried searching along the images of train routes, hunting for landmarks that matched the ones that lived in his memory. But, that didn't make the task any less daunting. He would drop the search and start it up again. He admits that there was a fear haunting him as well. "If I could find no trace of my home and family, how would I keep holding on to their memory?" Brierley writes in his memoir. 

Years passed. Brierley finished school, moved back to Hobart and eventually went to work for his parents' business. He put the search on hold again, making a decision to focus on the good life that he had. But, Brierley thought of a new, more logical, means of searching Google Earth. He got back to work and it was, once again, a frustrating mission. Even when working with stricter search parameters, he was still digging through a vast space filled with hundreds of millions of people. The search became an obsession. Finally, on March 31, 2011, almost by accident, he found his lead. Brierley checked and double-checked after stumbling upon a city called Khandwa that looked all-too familiar. He found out that there was a small town next to it called Ganesh Talai, which was close in pronunciation to the "Ginestlay" that he recalled. 

Dev Patel (as Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."
Dev Patel (as Saroo Bierley) in the film "Lion."

Nearly a year later, Brierley made it to India to look for his family. They were not at the home he remembered, but, fortunately, he was able to speak with someone in English and show the photos of him as a child. Soon thereafter, he met his mother again after more than 25 years of separation. They spoke with the assistance of a translator. Brierley met his two surviving siblings; sadly, his older brother Guddu was killed in a train accident on the same night that Brierley went missing. He noted that his mother remained in the small town just in case Brierley was ever able to make it back home. 

For Brierley, finding his family helped bridge together two parts of his life. Since then, he has made multiple trips back to India. Eventually, both of his mothers were able to meet each other through a taping of the Australian show "60 Minutes." Through his travels, he was able to piece together parts of the history that were so personal, yet so vague. He even rode one of the possible train lines that led to his disappearance. In his memoir, Brierley refers to himself as being "doubly blessed" for having two families. Thanks to technology, he was able to reconnect with the family that he had lost and build the connection between the two places in which he was raised. 

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