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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

It was a palace. Four bedrooms, a lounge, a kitchen and a big back yard where he could play.

He had his own room, decorated in cheerful yellows and blues. Atop his bed sat a stuffed koala he dubbed "Koala Dundee." It became his favorite toy.

The kitchen was stocked with sweets, and his adoptive parents cooked him delicious Indian dinners. He sometimes ate as if it were his last meal. Sensing his loneliness, they adopted another Indian boy. His new brother.

It was like a story in a book. Very few of the millions of parentless children in India end up adopted by families overseas; the annual number has never topped 1,200 in recent decades, according to India's Central Adoption Resource Authority.

Saroo was given a new last name: Brierley. He went to school, learned English, made friends.

But the questions about his past still simmered. The map of India hanging on his bedroom wall, a certain song or something learned in school could ignite a blaze of images from his old life so vivid it felt like he was still there.

On restless nights, he thought about his mother. Was she OK? Was Guddu?

Sometimes he cried. Often, he prayed: If there is anything magical in the world, he pleaded silently, could you help me find my family?

After three months riding trains, Fatima was exhausted. She abandoned her physical search for a mystical one.

She visited a holy man who pointed to the horizon and said her son was there with a good Hindu family.

Every Thursday she walked an hour to a Sufi tomb to offer incense and rose petals in prayer for Saroo's return.

At the Eid festival, when she bought Shakila and Kallu new clothes, she would buy an outfit for Saroo too and donate it to charity.

She didn't buy herself anything. She had pledged not to do nice things for herself, not to enjoy life, until Saroo returned.

She dreamed of growing wings and flying to him.

When she slept, sometimes she would see him, pull him on her lap and play with him. Sometimes he was sleeping next to her. When she awoke, he was gone.

Kallu and Shakila watched her cry all the time.

Kallu refused to pray; he blamed God for destroying his family.

Shakila prayed to every God she could find. She went with neighbors to church to ask Jesus to bring her brother back. She prayed for Saroo at the local Hindu temple. She fasted for Allah and bowed at the shrines of Sufi saints.

Saroo was grown now, a university student studying business and hospitality. His classmates were friendly, and he found himself drawn to the students from India.

Years had passed since that awful train ride, but Saroo hadn't stopped searching for answers. And so he asked his new Indian friends: Had they heard of a train station that started with a B... Bara-something?

Lots of train stations in India sound like that, they told him. They needed more information.

All Saroo had were the vivid memories of his town — the waterfall he played in, the train station, the fountain near the cinema. The laneways surrounding his house.

His house... he had recently used Google's satellite feature to get a bird's eye view of his Australian house. Would it have similar images of his homeland?

He sat down at a computer and called up a map of India. He randomly zoomed in on a train track and followed it, scrutinizing stations he passed, searching for something familiar. He zeroed in on Calcutta, since that was where he'd ended up, and worked backwards. He narrowed down the search area by multiplying the approximate time he'd been on the train by an estimate of how fast an Indian train could have traveled.

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