A long road home for lost Indian boy

It took 25 years for Mother, son to find each other

By Kristen Gelineau And Ravi Nessman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 9 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

In this May 10, 2012 photo, Fatima Munshi, working as domestic help, washes clothes at a house in Khandwa, India. Living in Australia, Saroo Brierley, 30, reunited with his biological mother, Munshi, in February 2012, 25 years after an ill-fated train ride left him an orphan on the streets of Calcutta. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Associated Press

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Read Part two.

KHANDWA, India — Saroo's eyes snapped open and everything was suddenly, horribly, wrong.

The 5-year-old's tiny body was still curled up on the hard wooden seat of the Indian train, just as it was when he'd drifted off to sleep. The rattle of the train was loud and steady, just as it always was when he rode home with his big brother, Guddu.

But Guddu was not there. And the alien landscape flashing past the window looked nothing like home.

Saroo's heart began to pound. The train car was empty. His brother should have been there, sweeping under the seats for loose change. Where was Guddu?

Where was Saroo?

It was 1987 and Saroo knew only that he was alone on the train.

Soon, he would find himself alone in the world. He wouldn't know for decades that this fateful train ride was setting into motion a chain of events both fantastic and horrific — events that would tear him away from his family and join him with a new one. Events that would spark the determined hunt of a mother for her son and a son for his mother, brought together only to realize that you can never really go home again.

In the beginning, though, all Saroo knew was that nothing was as it should be. "MA!" he screamed, wild with fear as he ran up and down the empty compartment, tears streaming down his face. "GUDDU!"

Only the relentless hum of the train answered his cries. Outside the window, the remains of his old life had faded into the distance. The train was thundering down the track toward a destination — and a destiny — unknown.

Fatima Munshi was frantic. When she returned to her cramped house after a hard day of work on a construction site, her two young sons still hadn't arrived. They should have been back hours earlier.

Fatima lived for her children. She had little else to live for.

She was born to landless Hindu peasants who worked as near slaves in others' fields until her father was killed by a heart attack and her mother died a few months later in childbirth. At the age of 10, she was sentenced to one of the most miserable of fates in rural India: That of an orphan girl, with no family to offer support or protection, nobody to arrange her marriage or pay her dowry.

But the little girl had grit.

She waded into fieldwork, harvesting crops to survive. Neighbors slipped her and her four siblings scraps. As a teenager, she moved into a construction job, carrying cement in a broad bowl balanced on her head above her petite but sturdy frame.

She caught the eye of her supervisor, an orphan himself. In a whirlwind romance rare in tradition-bound India, they fell in love and got married. She converted to Islam and changed her name from Kamla to Fatima.

They moved to the town of Khandwa and found a home in Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood of tiny buildings subdivided into tinier apartments filled with day laborers, vegetable vendors and the cheap domestic workers who kept the town running.

She bore three sons in quick succession, Guddu, Kallu, and her baby boy, Saroo. When they grew up, she dreamed, they would live in big homes nearby and each give her 10 rupees (20 cents) a day, so she wouldn't have to work and could look after her grandchildren.

Then the life she had worked so hard to rebuild collapsed.

Her husband stopped coming home, first for a night, then several nights in a row. He stopped giving them money and food. Eventually, even as Fatima grew pregnant with their daughter, he took a second wife. Fatima blamed black magic.

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