Every year, Saroo Brierley celebrates his birthday on May 22. But that wasn’t the day he was born. It was the day he was found.
As a 5-year-old boy growing up in rural India, Brierley would often join his older brother as they scrounged for coins and food on trains to help their impoverished mother and siblings. One day in 1986, Brierley fell asleep inside an empty train stationed a few stops away from their hometown while waiting for his brother to fetch him. When he awoke hours later, he was hundreds of miles away, careening on an out-of-service train eventually headed for Calcutta.
“The panic set in,” Brierley tells PEOPLE of waking up to find himself hungry, locked inside and hurtling toward an unknown destination. “I was crying for my mom and my brother and my sister.”
Bierley would spend several terrifying weeks surviving on the streets of Calcutta before eventually being placed in an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. He’d go on to chronicle the ordeal in his memoir A Long Journey Home — and his story is now the subject of the new film Lion, starring Dev Patel as Brierley and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mom, Sue.
Even more astonishing, Brierley’s journey would take him full circle: More than two decades after he was torn from his Indian family, Brierley would reunite with his birth mother following a painstaking search for a hometown he barely remembered, using Google Earth.
Now 35, Brierley, who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, with his adoptive parents, can still remember that pivotal day in his Indian hometown before his life was forever derailed — from its “dusty smell” to “the screeching of brakes, the people shouting and the pitter-patter of feet.”
Being unprooted to Calcutta, however, plunged him into chaos. He subsisted by eating discarded food and drinking from faucets. At one point, he fled from a gang who abducted street children. “There’s no salvation at all,” he says. “The only thing you could do is just try and survive a day at a time.”
For a while, Brierley was taken in by a local teenager and his family, before he was brought to authorities and processed at a precinct on May 22, 1987 — the day they designated as his birthday in official papers. Young Brierley, a Hindi speaker who didn’t understand Calcutta’s Bengali dialect, didn’t even know the day he was born.
His adoption by Sue and John Brierley provided salvation for the lost child. “Saroo’s arrival was a kind of birth into our family,” Sue tells PEOPLE of first meeting their son at an airport in Tasmania. “It was just a fantastic moment, filled with love and joy.” They handed him some chocolates, a book and a stuffed koala toy. Brierley later named it Koala Dundee.
“It didn’t take us long to realize he had come from a good family,” John says, “with love around him.”
Brierley grew up in a happy home a stone’s throw away from the beach, and his parents later adopted another boy from India. But Brierley remained haunted by his turbulent, mysterious past. So when he discovered Google Earth, which provides aerial views of the planet, he saw it as a chance to track down his birth family.
Over five years, he embarked on an “obsessive” search, tracing a spiderweb’s worth of train tracks, all spiraling out from the city now known as Kolkata. Then one day, he came upon something: a water tower he recognized. “Was this reality? Am I dreaming?” he wondered.
From there, puzzle pieces — blurred but familiar — slowly fell into place. A train-station platform. A pedestrian bridge. A ravine. It was the topography of a lost youth.
“It was a surreal moment,” he explains of his discovery. “Inside, I was jumping with joy.”
In February 2012, Brierley traveled to the central Indian city of Khandwa, fueled by the support of his adoptive parents. “If he wanted to explore that,” says Sue, “we wanted him to be fully happy about his identity.”
As he wandered through Khandwa, Brierley slowly retraced roads and pathways that began to snap into focus, following them until they led him to a familiar, dusty place filled with the sounds of screeching brakes, people shouting and the pitter-patter of feet: his hometown.
There, villagers took him to an elderly woman who looked back in shock. Surrounded by townsfolk, she stepped forward, knowingly reached out, and touched her son. Brierley and his birth mother, Fatima, hugged tightly through tears. “It was the most pivotal moment of my life,” he says.
A year later, Sue, accompanied by Brierley, traveled to Khandwa to meet the woman with whom she now shared a fateful bond. With the help of a translator, the three came together.
“The earth seemed to be sort of moving,” Sue says of that moment. “I started to cry, and she hugged me. She said through the translator, ‘He’s your son now. I give my son to you.’ We stood there for quite a while, just the three of us holding each other. Suddenly there was no noise. There was only our breathing.”
Brierley has since returned more than a dozen times to India to visit Fatima, whom he bought a house for.
“He’s so lovely,” Dev Patel says of Brierley. “We met in Australia, and he is so generous. Saroo’s the epitome of just a fiercely driven young man. And he has an incredible memory, down to the eggs I ordered at that meal, the clothes I was wearing, everything. He remembers crystal-clear.”
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Indeed, Brierley holds on to things tightly: Nearly 30 years after he first arrived in Australia, he still has that stuffed koala toy that his parents gave him at the airport. Gray, with bulging eyes that pop out of their sockets, it’s kept in a bedroom at his parents’ house.
“He was the teddy bear that I could hold on to when I was having my dreams of fear, zooming back to the scary times in Calcutta,” says Brierley, who hopes that his story will be a beacon to others. “For people who have been in similar situations, wandering and yearning to find their loved ones, their family or whatever it may be — I hope that this movie empowers them,” he offers.
Those close to him, for their part, are keeping a vow of their own. Says Sue, “There was no way we were going to let him get lost again.”