Chris Crerar, Associated Press
This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1.
KHANDWA, India — Saroo Brierley pulled up to the train station and stepped out of his car into the chaotic landscape that had haunted his dreams.
The swerving bicycles, noisy three-wheelers and vendors' pushcarts crowding the streets of this Indian town were half a world from where he lived in Australia's tranquil island state of Tasmania. And yet he knew that once — a lifetime ago — he had called this place home.
It was Feb. 12, 2012, and he hadn't been here in nearly 25 years, since that nightmarish day when his brother vanished and a train whisked him away from everything he knew. Since he had ended up an orphan in distant Calcutta, before an Australian couple adopted him and gave him a second chance at family.
It took years of searching the Internet before he finally found his way back to this town. After all this time, would his family still be here? If they were, what would they say? What would he say?
His loved ones in Australia had warned him not to expect too much. He remembered the cramped house he had left behind, the poverty, the hunger. He'd spent years wondering about the fate of his family, and tried now to prepare himself for the worst.
He stood still, drinking it all in. Through his now-adult eyes, everything seemed much smaller than in his memory. But the smells and sounds were the same, and the layout almost exactly as he remembered: The road near the train tracks, the fountain he'd spotted on an Internet satellite image. He began to walk, following twisty pathways etched into his brain as a child.
Saroo could feel it. His memory was guiding him home.
Fatima struggled to take her usual nap after returning from her morning routine of cleaning neighbors' homes and washing their dishes. Her mind was filled with thoughts of Saroo. She had heard of a man wandering through a nearby neighborhood who had amnesia and couldn't find his family.
Could that be her son? She doubted it. She had heard he wasn't tall like her other children, but she decided she would find him in the next day or two just to be sure. She gave up on sleeping and rose from the bed she had borrowed from a neighbor, rolling off a mattress so wafer thin that a gentle hand could feel the metal slats underneath.
She sat on her doorstep, watching life go by along the alley.
Saroo stared at the house in front of him in shock. One, because it was the place he'd called home so long ago. Two, because it seemed impossibly tiny; the top of the front door reached his chest. He was examining the door's padlock and chain when a woman emerged from the adjacent house. She asked, in hybrid Hindi-English, if he needed help.
Saroo pulled out a copy of a childhood photo his Australian parents had taken of him. He showed it to the woman, tried to explain. He said the names of his siblings and mother, waiting for a flicker of recognition. He felt dread growing in his gut as she stared in silence. Was his family dead? Had he lost them forever?
More neighbors were gathering. He repeated his pleas. Did someone, anyone, know where his family was?
A man plucked the photo from Saroo's hand. "Wait here," he said, and hurried off. A few minutes later, he returned.
"Come with me," he said. "I am going to take you to your mother."
Saroo was numb as the man guided him around the corner, where three women stood waiting. He stared at them blankly. Only the woman in the middle seemed remotely familiar.
"This is your mother," the man said, gesturing toward the woman in the center.
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