Science, Tech & Environment

Indian man, separated from his family at age 5, uses Google Earth to find his mom

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When Saroo Brierly found this waterfall and this dam on a map outside of Khandwa, India, using Google Earth, he knew he found where he'd come from. (Graphic by The World.)

India’s trains are notoriously chaotic and confusing.

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They certainly were for Saroo Brierly. Some 25 years ago, he and his brother boarded a train in India searching for lost coins or other valuables.

He was 5 at the time.

Saroo and his brother were separated, and he ended up on another train. He fell asleep, and woke up 14 hours later on the other side of India.

He was in Calcutta.

Brierly couldn’t read, write, or understand the local Bengali language — one of among hundreds of languages in India. He couldn’t go home, because he didn’t know where he was from.

Brierly became a beggar, one of the many children on the streets of Calcutta. After some time, he was taken in by an orphanage, and put up for adoption.

An Australian couple adopted him and took him home to Tasmania.

Fast forward a couple decades and Brierly still wondered exactly where he’s from.

“One night I just said to myself, ‘I don’t know where my hometown is, but I do know where I ended up,’ and that was in Calcutta,” Brierly said.

So, Saroo settled on a formula to figure it out — using Google Earth.

“So I kind of timed a rough amount of hours I was on the trains, with the kilometers of the speed of the trains. And I sort of put out a ruler from Calcutta out. And it created a radius. And it so happens the very night where I found it, I was just sort of out of the circle and I zoomed down and, BANG, it just sort of came up,” Brierly said.

“It” was the town of Khandwa.

Using Google Earth, he found the waterfall and dam where he used to play. They were right outside town — just where he’d remembered them.

Recently, he made his way home, to the neighborhood of Ganesh Talai.

But when he got there, Brierly said, his former house was padlocked and derelict. As he stood in front of the building, a crowd gathered.

Initially, Brierly said, no one seemed to know his family. But the neighbors kept coming and talking to him.

“That’s when I struck gold. And they said ‘just wait here for a second,’ and I did. And when they did come back they said ‘now I’ll be taking you to your mother,’” Brierly recounted.

Brierly said the reunion with his mother was awkward.

“I think she had a bit of trouble grasping that your son after 25 years has reappeared like a ghost,” he said.

A ghost perhaps, but not a complete surprise. Saroo said his mother had gone to a fortune teller who told her she’d be reunited with her son someday.

And that had given her strength.