Saroo Brierley's memoir is so incredible that sometimes it reads like a work of fiction. At five years old, he became lost in one of the world's most overpopulated cities. He not only managed to survive, but overcame adversity without a shard of bitterness.
His astonishing story begins in the mid-1980s. Saroo lived with his mother, two older brothers and younger sister in rural India. His recollections of growing up in poverty are fact-based and not coloured with self-pity. "My mother worked six days a week for a handful of rupees," he recalls. "There were many occasions when we begged for money and food."
One night, he became separated from his oldest brother at a local train station. An open compartment looked like a comfortable place to wait for his brother, so he boarded the train and fell asleep. When he woke, the train was moving, Saroo was alone and the landscape looked unfamiliar. For several hours, he either cried or sat in a quiet daze. The train finally stopped in Calcutta.
"I stepped off the train with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I had no money, no food and no identification of any sort," recalls Saroo. He also didn't know his last name.
A resilient child with honed survival skills, he scavenged enough food, water and shelter to get by. Saroo's instincts got him out of some dangerous situations and he eventually made friends with a teenage boy and his family.
They connected him with the police, who in turn took Saroo to an adoption agency. After a search for his family yielded no results, he was matched with adoptive parents from Australia within six months.
"Mum and Dad were very affectionate, giving me cuddles and making me feel safe, secure, loved and, above all, wanted," he says. "I bonded with them readily and very soon trusted them completely. Even at the age of six, I understood that I had been awarded a rare second chance."
Although heartwarming, his recollections omit crucial details, such as the fear of abandonment, adjusting to an abundance of food and learning Australian customs.
But some of Saroo's memories are extremely poignant, such as his adoptive mother drawing a map of his hometown based on his memories. "I pointed out where my family's home was, the way to the river, and the bridge under which you walked to get to the train station."
As he got older, Saroo became interested in searching for his birth family and discovered the power of Google Earth. "Night after night, I sat staring at railway lines, searching for places my five-year-old mind might recognize," recalls Saroo. "It was a repetitive, forensic exercise."
In 2011, at age 29, he saw a train station via Google Earth that looked familiar. That revelation led to an incredible journey involving family and self-discovery.
Throughout his narrative, Saroo reflects on how it feels to be adopted. "Adoptees often describe the constant feeling of there being something missing. I didn't feel that. I never forgot my Indian mother and family, but being separated from them didn't (prevent) me from pursuing a full life. I'd learned... that I needed to take opportunities as they came. Part of that was gratefully accepting the life I was granted through my adoption."
Saroo's values speak volumes about the quality of his upbringing. It would have been fascinating to learn more about his adoptive parents. That said, the utter enormity of his experience is inherently dramatic and his strength of character makes up for any shortcomings in his writing.
Saroo's extraordinary story is being made into a major feature film.
Deborah Bowers is a Winnipeg writer and marketing director who has experienced the journey of searching for her birth family.