Born and raised in rural India, Saroo Brierley fell asleep on a train at a local station he was visiting with his brother and woke up in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), thousands of miles away from his home, where he survived on the streets until he was taken in by an orphanage. He was five years old. He was soon adopted by John and Sue Brierley, a couple from Hobart, Australia, who raised him to adulthood. Years later, at age 25, Brierley was inspired to find the village and the family he had lost so long ago. With the help of his vivid childhood memories and Google Earth, Brierley was able to rediscover a place not found on most maps and reunite himself with his birth family.
Kristin Shelley, Director of the East Lansing Public Library, feels that Brierley’s story, recorded in his memoir A Long Way Home, will resonate with many East Lansing residents. Shelley, along with five other women, selected A Long Way Home for the this year’s One Book, One Community (OBOC) event.
“I think it does resonate to people who may be adopted or have an [adoptee], especially an international [adoptee in the family],” Shelley said in an interview.
Shelley, whose mother passed away in April, says her mother’s life experiences helped her understand Brierley’s.
“My mom was adopted two weeks after she was born. So there’s no records, and you know, she didn’t have any memory of her birth family,” Shelley said. According to Shelley’s mother, “every adoptee” experiences a desire to learn more about her or his birth families and where she or he came from. This was part of the reason Shelley and the OBOC committee selected A Long Way Home for the sixteenth year of the program.
One Book, One Community is a collaborative effort between the City of East Lansing and Michigan State University. The selection committee—made up of East Lansing residents, City employees, and university affiliates—chooses a book each year that fits a central theme. The 2017 OBOC theme is "Lost & Found: A Journey of Self Discovery.” In addition to inviting the author of the selected book to speak at the Hannah Community Center and MSU’s Breslin Center, the city and university host a number of events throughout August and September related to the selected book or theme.
At the OBOC kickoff event, held at the Hannah Community Center on Sunday, August 27, Brierley shared his story in front of an audience of East Lansing community members. This was followed by a question and answer session. In response to a question fielded by an audience member, Brierley expressed his hope that his story would inspire more families to adopt.
“I hope that [my story] empowers and educates people, knowing that there are people out there going through life that no one’s aware of, that actually exist, [such] as myself, as you saw,” Brierley said on Sunday. “And for me, also to [promote] awareness of adoption as well. I think at the apex of it all, that’s what I want people really to sort of get out of this, that there are children out there that are definitely in need . . . we should embrace adoption a lot more than where it is. Not just in the U.S. and Australia, but globally.”
Brierley also discussed charity work that he, with the distributors and producers of Lion, has become involved with since the movie was made.
“What we wanted to do is create a foundation to help two organizations, which is Magic Bus and Railway Children.” Magic Bus is an organization that supports impoverished children, and Railway Children provides shelter and aid to children living in railway stations such Howrah Station, where Brierley lived for almost a month when he arrived in Calcutta. Both organizations operate globally. Brierley’s foundation has raised over $1 million for the two charities.
Although he said that adoption was his main focus when promoting his book and movie, Brierley acknowledged that there were other ways his story might resonate with readers regardless of their proximity to an adoptee like himself.
“It resonates individually in all of us differently,” Brierley said about his story. “It evokes attributes in all of us differently.” He said that people found many themes in his journey, but one that seemed especially important to readers was perseverance.
“Life is a rollercoaster. It goes up, and it goes down, and when it goes down, it doesn’t mean that you give up on everything.” This philosophy, Brierley says, was important when he began to use his fragmented knowledge of the region where he was born to attempt to locate it on the then-newly-minted Google Earth.
As a newly-adopted child in Hobart, Brierley would visualize the path from the train station where he became lost to his old home, ingraining landmarks along the way in his memory.
Though these memories helped him immensely, there were several times when Brierley was struggling to locate his hometown in the vastness of India when he contemplated giving up. Eventually, however, he made the decision to “never give up on family” and to continue with his search.
Brierley’s persistence finally paid off while he was searching Google Earth at two o’clock in the morning one day in 2011. Though he had been searching for five years, he remembers feeling surprised at how quickly he found his hometown.
“When you’re trying to succeed in something, time sits still,” Brierley said. “And all you can do is focus and try and achieve what you’ve been wanting to do.”
Brierley reunited with his birth family soon after discovering Burhanpur, the city where he had fallen asleep on the train, and Khandwa, his nearby hometown. Though Brierley no longer speaks Hindi, the language he spoke there as a child, he has reestablished his relationship with his birth family through regular visits and phone calls.
“I’ve been back [to India] about sixteen times,” Brierley said. Though many visits to his hometown were related to book and film publicity events, Brierley always makes sure to stop by his mother’s house in Khandwa.
“There’s 25 years of separation, you know, and that’s a lot of catching up to do.”
Throughout the month of September, One Book One Community will be hosting a variety of events related to A Long Way Home, including a showing of Lion and follow-up discussion at the MSU Main Library this Thursday, September 14, and a writing workshop at the (SCENE) Metrospace in downtown East Lansing on Tuesday, September 26. (Click here for the complete list of events.)
For families interested in adopting, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has information on the adoption process at its dedicated webpage.
During the question and answer session at the kickoff event, Brierley was asked whether he regretted deciding to come to Australia with his adoptive parents. He replied that he had none.
“Change doesn’t happen because you just sit back and let it, it happens because you take the first step,” he said. “I think everyone shouldn’t be so scared of taking a chance at things.”
For Brierley, the chance he took in going to Australia has certainly paid off: not only was he adopted by loving parents, he managed to reunite with a family he thought he would never see again.
“The trajectory of my life from where it was to where it’s become—I guess it was just meant to be like that,” Brierley said. “I guess maybe sometimes catching the wrong train can take you to the right station.”
Evan Dempsey was a participant in ELi's Summer Youth Journalism Program.