25 years ago, a 5-year-old Indian boy, Saroo, was lost while working as a sweeper on India’s trains. As the BBC Magazine describes, thanks to Google Earth he has been reunited with his mother after all these years.
After working as a sweeper on the train with his older brother, the little boy fell asleep, exhausted, at a train station. His brother wasn’t there when he woke and he got on the train he saw in front of him, fell asleep and ended up 14 hours later in Calcutta, India’s third biggest city. There, “absolutely scared,” he slept in the streets and begged, running away, at one point, from a man who promised to give him “food and shelter and a way back home”; he suspected the man “was going to do something not nice” and ran away. An orphanage took him in and he was adopted by a couple from Tasmania, the Brierleys.
As he got older, Brierley wanted more and more to find his birth family. As he was only five and illiterate, he did not remember the name of the town he was from. Then he turned to Google Earth as he tells the BBC Magazine:
“It was just like being Superman. You are able to go over and take a photo mentally and ask, ‘Does this match?’ And when you say, ‘No’, you keep on going and going and going.”
He hit upon the idea of multiplying the average speed of trains in India times the 14 hours he was on the train:
He drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance he thought he had travelled. Incredibly, he soon discovered what he was looking for: Khandwa. “When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play.”
Brierley traveled to Khandwa and found his old home. But the door was locked and battered. He spoke to neighbors; he still remembered the names of his family and the third person he spoke to took him to his mother, who lives nearby. He did not recognize her at first:
“The last time I saw her she was 34 years old and a pretty lady, I had forgotten that age would get the better of her. But the facial structure was still there and I recognised her and I said, ‘Yes, you are my mother.’
“She grabbed my hand and took me to her house. She could not say anything to me. I think she was as numb as I was. She had a bit of trouble grasping that her son, after 25 years, had just reappeared like a ghost.”
A fortune teller had told his mother that she would see him again. Sadly, the news about his older brother was tragic: His body was found on the train tracks a month after Brierley disappeared.
Brierley has remained in touch with his birth family and, says the BBC Magazine, film producers and publishers “with memories of Slumdog Millionaire still fresh” are interested in his story.
Google Earth has been the subject of disputes about privacy due to its street view function after images of men leaving strip clubs and protesters at abortion clinics turned up and the feature has been discontinued in some places around the world. Saroo’s story shows how tools like Google Earth can bring people together and, in the case of Saroo and his mother, back together again after 25 years.
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Photo by curtis palmer