Saroo Brierley - whose life story is now a Hollywood film - used his vivid memories of India to help find his way home. And his recollection of his first day in Australia is just as strong.
From the crowded but lonely streets of India, to the welcoming arms of a new Australian family, Saroo Brierley’s journey has captured the world’s attention.
Saroo was just five years old when he found himself lost on the streets of Kolkata (formally known as Calcutta), thousands of kilometres from home.
Tasmanian couple Sue and John Brierley adopted him, but Saroo’s story was just beginning.
"If I lost it then I would have lost my identity."
Fast-forward 25 years, with the help of Google Earth and a few precious memories, Saroo managed to locate his birth mother.
His story is now a Hollywood film – ‘Lion’, starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman – and a major contender this awards season.
Saroo credits his vivid memories – from the feel of his modest family home in India, to drinking milk late at night as a young child – with helping him hold onto his identity.
“Having that astral projection as a child growing up into my adulthood, the out of body experience and reliving what had happened in those times in India as a child, I think it just sustained within me perpetually because I held it so tight due to the fact that if I lost it then I would have lost my identity,” he told SBS.
“Even the slightest fact of trying to find home, how would you recall it, in which ways would you go about it? These memories were integral to me finding my way home.”
As Saroo’s English skills improved in Australia, his mother, Sue, says she made a concerted effort to keep his memories of India alive.
“I was really trying to keep it fresh in his mind and we wanted to know what his life was before he came to us, so it was really important to discuss these things – I documented it in diaries,” she said.
“I just really wanted to retain as much of the memory of Saroo’s first life. It was obviously tough, but on the other hand he knew love and affection and that really helped him settle with us.”
Saroo remembers his first day in Australia just as fondly as his young life in India.
“It’s a massive contrast from where I’ve come from, not knowing that another country exists,” he said.
“Coming to Australia it was just really magical for me. It just had the wow factor of a different sort of place and more so just being with a family that wanted to love me and to have me because I knew back then, before coming to Australia there was no way of getting back home or finding my real family.”
While socialising is often a luxury for poorer communities in India, Saroo says his interest in sport helped him settle into his new life, and he found Australia “extremely” accepting.
“Being involved in sports and having a very sport orientated family just helped the transition extremely well,” he said.
“I guess in a way your school colleagues saw you out and about and you were part of the team you were getting into the Australian way, learning the language. The transition was extremely smooth.”