The incredible lost-and-found story of Saroo Brierley has inspired the new Hollywood film “Lion” -- a movie critics are saying has Oscar potential. But the real events are just as thrilling as the drama on screen. Brierley says he was separated from his birth mother when he was five years old and locked on a train that took him 1,000 miles across India to Calcutta. Once there, he says he survived by himself on the city’s chaotic streets for weeks until he wound up in an orphanage and was adopted by an Australian couple. For the first time on American television, Brierley explains how he found his way back to his Indian village using Google Earth and a mental map of home. He speaks to Bill Whitaker on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Brierley says the images were seared into his memory: a train station with a walkway over the tracks, a water tower, and a dam on a nearby river where he played. He attributes his remarkable recall to the circumstances of his impoverished childhood. “I reckon what it is, is that I never went to school so language wasn’t really in me...it was all visual. My visual senses were extremely heightened,” Brierley says.
“Those memories came alive when I went to sleep...I was holding on to those memories, never to let go.”
As a young child, Brierley lived in one of India’s lowest castes and, along with his beloved oldest brother, would go to the local train station to beg for food and scrounge for coins. They were out scavenging late one night when Brierley grew tired. He fell asleep on an idle train at the station. When he woke up, the train was moving and he was trapped. Brierley estimates he was stuck inside for more than a day before he reached Calcutta’s main station. “The first thing ...I am contending against is a river of people...I was panicking...I am calling out for my brother, my sister, my mother,” recalls Brierley.
He didn’t know his address or the name of his hometown. He didn’t speak the language in Calcutta. He was afraid to ask for help. He says he spent a few weeks on the streets until he made it to the orphanage which arranged for his adoption. He thrived in Australia and loved his new mom and dad, but memories of India and his birth mother persisted. “Those memories came alive when I went to sleep,” he tells Whitaker. “I was holding on to those memories, never to let go.”
As Brierley grew up, he often looked at the map of India on his wall fruitlessly searching for home. Then, in his late 20s, he discovered Google Earth and its bird’s eye view of the world. He figured he could find home if he could just match his memories with what he saw on his computer screen. It took years of searching, but he finally found the train station where his odyssey began. He went back and found his mother, still living in the same village his siblings had left. He tells Whitaker why she never left. “Because she felt that one day the son that she had lost would come back.”