In 1986, a young Indian boy by the name of Saroo Brierly was working as a sweeper on India's trains. On one fateful night, he'd make a mistake that would go on to determine not only the rest of his childhood, but a substantial portion of his life. It was a sequence of ill-fortuned events that led the then five-year old Saroo over 1,000km from home and his family, to the impoverished slums and crowded streets of Calcutta. It took him 25 years and the help of Google's virtual globe to find his way back home...
Speaking to the BBC, Saroo recalls the nightmarish turn of events that left him destitute, horrifyingly alone and scared for his life amongst the streets of India's third-largest city. Working late one night with his older brother on one of India's trains, “we got off the train, and I was so tired that I just took a set at a train station, and I ended up falling asleep. And when I awoke, [my brother] was nowhere to be seen, I thought [he] would come back and wake me up. I saw a train in front of me and thought he must be on that train, so I decided to get on it and hoped that I would meet my brother.”
He never did find his brother aboard the train, instead falling sleep once again and awaking 14 hours later in Calcutta. “It was a very scary place to be. I didn't know where I was, I just started to look for people and ask them questions.” Soon becoming one of the many other orphans on the streets of the city and living rough, Saroo became a beggar, an unfortunate reality for a young boy who had, a few days earlier, had the warmth of his family to fall back on.
For the five-year old who had once had nothing but bad luck however, Saroo did eventually find solace in being taken in by an orphanage, and was later adopted by a couple from Tasmania. Although he readjusted to life well with his adoptive parents, his true home was never far out of mind. With only memories to go on (Saroo was illiterate and thus could not remember the name of his home town), Saroo's only hope of finding his way back lay with a piece of software that saw its release in 2005, a whole 19 years on from the fateful events that had come to define his life to that point.
“[Using Google Earth] was just like being Superman. You are able to go over and take a photo mentally and ask, 'Does this match?' And when you say, 'No', you keep on going and going and going.” Then, using basic maths to calculate the distance the train could have covered in the 14 hours he was sleeping (“about 1,200km”), Saroo drew a circle from the epicentre of Calcutta to visualise the regions his home town could inhabit. Miraculously, and with just a couple of notable landmarks to use as markers - “I navigated [the town] all the way from the waterfall where I used to play” - he found it. Khandwa.
Home to around 170,000 people and located in the East Nimar District of India, Saroo soon made his way to the neighbourhood he once knew as home, Ganesh Talai, in the hope to find his mother. “When I got to the door I saw a lock on it. It looked old and battered, as if no-one had lived there for quite a long time,” he describes. But that's because no-one had. In fact, according to a neighbour who recognised the five-year old Saroo from a photograph, his family had moved some time ago. “Another person came and then a third person turned up, and that is when I struck gold. He said, 'Just wait here for a second and I shall be back.' And when he did come back after a couple of minutes he said, 'Now I will be taking you to your mother.' I just felt numb and though, 'Am I hearing what I think I am hearing?'”
Incredibly, after 25 years estranged from his family, a piece of technology developed by the search giant Google - founded a whole 12 years after he became lost - had finally helped him find his way back after over a quarter of a century missing. Taken to his mother who was nearby, Saroo didn't immediately recognise the woman in front of him, recalling how “she was 34 years old and a pretty lady the last time I saw here. I had forgotten that age would get the better of her. But the facial structure was still there and I recognised her and I said, 'Yes, you are my mother'. She grabbed my hand and took me to her house. She could not say anything to me. I think she was as numb as I was. She had a bit of trouble grasping that her son, after 25 years, had just reappeared like a ghost."
But it was him, and Google had led the way...