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 11:20 p.m. MDT

One Sunday, a desperate Fatima, with her baby girl on her hip, confronted him. She beat him with a shoe. He beat her with a stick. Soon the whole neighborhood gathered, and in front of the village elders, they instantly divorced.

Fatima stood on her doorstep, back at the bottom where she had started, an abandoned woman with four young children and no family for support. She was the poorest in a neighborhood of poor people, a charity case even for those who had nothing.

She went back to work in construction. Guddu, who was about 7, and Saroo, four years younger, took to begging for food and loose change.

When the monsoon leaked through their roof and turned the dirt floor of their home to mud, she huddled them into a dry corner to sleep. When the summer heat forced them to sleep outside, she billowed out her head scarf as a thin sheet to cover them.

Often there was no dinner, and she put them to bed with a glass of water. "Mom, give us food," they would beg. "There is none," she'd answer in shame.

"I have nothing," she thought on those wretched nights, "but at least I have my children around me."

Saroo slumped in his seat. How long had he been asleep? It was dark when he'd boarded the train, and now it was bright. Half a day had surely passed.

He struggled to think. He remembered how he and Guddu had taken the train from their local station, Khandwa, to Burhanpur, about 40 miles away, to hunt for change. When they arrived, a weary Saroo had collapsed into a seat on the platform. Guddu had promised to be back in a minute and walked off.

When Saroo had next opened his eyes, a train was waiting at the platform. Guddu must be on board, he had thought, still in a sleepy fog. So Saroo had boarded the train and drifted off again, thinking his brother would wake him at Khandwa.

But now the train was stopping. There was no Guddu, and this was not Khandwa.

The doors opened and Saroo stepped out into chaos.

Hordes of people, pushing, rushing. Speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. He was in Calcutta, nearly 930 miles from home. It might as well have been Mars.

He pleaded for help. But he spoke Hindi, and most here spoke Bengali. Besides, he had never been to school; he didn't know his last name, or the city he came from — only the name of his neighborhood and not how to spell it. No one understood him.

No one wanted to deal with yet another child beggar in a country that has millions of them. No one cared.

Frantic, he boarded another train, hoping it would take him home. It looped back to Calcutta. He hopped another train, and another, praying he would be carried back to his family. They all returned to this strange, frightening place.

Saroo did this for days, begging passengers for food. This, at least, was familiar; back home, he begged every day for a cup of chai tea or a bite of roti bread.

Now, he scrounged together enough morsels to survive. At night, he slept underneath the train station's seats. Eventually, he ventured into the streets.

The mighty Ganges river that snaked through the city reminded Saroo of his favorite waterfall back home, where he had spent so many happy days watching the local fishermen catch their dinners.

But this new river offered no peace; the fierce current and deep water sucked him under when he tried to swim. A bystander plucked him out, but he was terrified. He retreated to the streets, approaching a man who spoke Hindi for help. The man took Saroo home, and gave him food and a place to sleep.

Saroo grew uneasy when the man invited a friend over for breakfast. He shivered, without knowing why, under the friend's gaze. That night, when Saroo was supposed to be washing dishes, he fled.

Barefoot, he ran, the men chasing close behind. But Saroo was small and quick. He slipped into an alley, where he hid until they passed.

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