Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

Life after 'Lion': Saroo Brierley is now documenting the search for his father

We get the inside story from the writer about two new memoirs (one by his mum) and his thoughts on Dev Patel

Saroo Brierley is working on new material. Courtesy Four Communications
Saroo Brierley is working on new material. Courtesy Four Communications

The last chapter of Saroo Brierley’s life is perhaps the only portion that the general public aren’t yet privy to. After all, the first 31 years went out for public consumption when he penned his tell-all memoir A Long Way Home in 2013, and when British actor Dev Patel took his story not only to the big screen, but to the Academy Awards, too.

But what of everything that came after the happy ending? Well, that thirst to know what has become of Brierley – the Indian child who got lost so far from home that he wound up rehoused in Tasmania, only to go in search of his real mother two decades later with only a faint memory and Google Earth as guidance – can now be satiated. “I’m writing another book,” he tells The National. “It will be the sequel, and Mum’s writing the prequel.”

The sentence is rattled off, just like that, as if each of its components aren’t huge, lifelong achievements for most people. Oh, and there’s one more thing: his story is also being developed into a stage show.

Saroo Brierly, far right, with his birth and adoptive mothers in his hometown in India. Courtesy Saroo Brierley
Saroo Brierly, far right, with his birth and adoptive mothers in his hometown in India. Courtesy Saroo Brierley

Brierley, now 37, is in the capital this week for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, alongside other renowned authors flocking in from across the globe, such as Ben Okri and Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. The guest of honour this year is India, which is particularly poignant for Brierley. The impending additions to his oeuvre have not yet been officially announced, so he is understandably coy with the finer details.

What he is certain of, however, is how his story will end. “It will finish off with finding my father. I know where he is, but I just haven’t had the strength to finalise that point. It’s an individual thing that you do by yourself, there’s a lot of soul searching.”

This sequel seems eerily similar to a journey he took the world on just a few years earlier; a delayed echo of his first grand trip from India to Australia to trace his heritage. You probably know Brierley’s story – Dev Patel almost won an Oscar for it. Nicole Kidman played his mother. It shot Sunny Pawar (a young boy from a Mumbai slum, who played young Saroo) to fame.

Lion, the film adaptation of Brierley’s memoir, was released in 2016 to critical acclaim and garnered six Oscar nominations. It sent the already well-known story into the stratosphere.

Saroo with Dev and Sunny.Courtesy Four Communications
Brierley with Sunny Pawar, who played him as a child in the film, and Dev Patel. Courtesy Four Communications

Brierley was born Sheru Munshi Khan in Ganesh Talai, a suburb in the town of Khandwa in India’s Madhya Pradesh province. His father left when he and his three siblings were young, throwing the family into bitter poverty and leaving his mother to work for long stretches of time at a construction site to provide for the family. When even her meagre salary wasn’t enough, the children took to begging at railway stations.

When he was five, Brierley followed his brother Guddu on the train to the city of Burhanpur, 70 kilometres away. At the station, Brierley was under strict instruction to stay put and await his brother’s return. But Guddu never returned, and when Brierley went off in search of him, he ended up falling asleep on a train that inadvertently sped him 1,500 kilometres across unfamiliar countryside to Kolkata. Unbeknown to him, Guddu had been hit and killed by an oncoming train.

Being unable to communicate his plight with anyone in Bengali-speaking Kolkata, Brierley survived on the street until he was reported to local police as a lost child and eventually placed in the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption. It was there that he was adopted by Sue and John Brierley from Hobart, in Australia’s southern island of Tasmania. Thus began his new life, in which Sheru became Saroo (a mispronunciation of his given name).

Brierley has always spoken fondly about the years he spent growing up in Australia, learning English and going on to study business and hospitality – though his former life was never far from his thoughts and he became infatuated with searching satellite images on Google Earth, spending hours at a time painstakingly scouring railway lines across the country, with only faint memories as guidance.

Saroo's photo as a five-year-old which was in his pocket when he got lost. For a Story by SNM Abdi in A&L, March, 2014. CREDIT: Courtesy Saroo Brierley
Saroo Brierley aged five. Courtesy Saroo Brierley

Those vague recollections, of a fountain near the train tracks and a water tower, helped him finally chance upon his home during his online quest. The last pages of Brierley’s story detail his solo journey back to Khandwa in 2012, where locals lead him through the streets to his mother and surviving brother and sister.

The emotional reunion was feasted upon by international media (and later conveyed via Patel as the film’s emotional crescendo) and was followed by an invitation from several publishing houses to write a book. A Long Way Home came out the following year. “The only thing at that point that I’d really written was an essay, and I’d read street signs and Cosmopolitan – and text messages, don’t forget them,” he says with a laugh. “But I thought, why not? At the end of the day, you’ll learn, you’ll practise and you’ll improve.”

Patel’s turn as Brierley in Lion came next. Though good PR protocol probably dictates a story subject be complimentary of the actor portraying them (at least on the pre-release junket circuit), Brierley’s praise for Patel has always seemed genuine. He has genuinely gushed over the British actor in interviews about the movie throughout the years. A picture of the three beaming Saroos – Patel, Brierley and Pawar – seemed to prove Brierley’s story had really come full circle.

Saroo (Dev Patel) is all grown up and looking for clues about his past. Mark Rogers / AP
Dev Patel as Brierley in 'Lion'. AP

For Google Earth, it was also something of a marketing jackpot. Here was a man extolling the virtues of their software without a nudge, in a viral story that simply couldn’t be scripted. Understandably, the platform did go on to take full advantage of the unintentional, yet wholly welcome, publicity: you’ll now find Brierley’s face and story plastered across various advertisements, interactive stories and videos on the platform.

But even as the glitz and the glamour fell away in the wake of the movie’s release and after-parties, the glitter hasn’t yet dimmed for Brierley. His post-Lion years have been full of engagements on the motivational and corporate speaking circuit. He revisits his home frequently, and keeps in regular contact with his biological mother. He bought her a house and topped up her bank account. But it is Australia that remains his base. “There hasn’t really been a coming down,” he says. “It does get tiring, though. I’ve had my bag packed for five years and been living out of a suitcase for that long, but don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I love the destinations I get to go to.”

In 2017, that meant 150 flights to various locations, 90 in 2018 and a planned 60 for 2019. And indeed, it’s hard not to speak to Brierley and have him rehash the same things he has done in four years of interviews was his story really as it was on screen? What did they miss? What’s Dev Patel like? So we don’t, but as it turns out, he doesn’t really mind. “I enjoy it because when you talk about it, it really lifts the spirits of people because we can be so constrained in the world we live in. When people hear a story like this, it really lifts the human spirit.

Brierley reunited with his Indian mother after 25 years. Courtesy Saroo Brierley
Brierley reunited with his Indian mother after 25 years. Courtesy Saroo Brierley

“The best reaction I had was in Salt Lake City. A person stood up and said, ‘This isn’t a question, but this is a commendation for you and what you have done in writing a book and showing the world how you can see it in different ways’. That was so gratifying, because you never get that.”

This will be Brierley’s second time in the UAE, after taking part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2018. “I’m really looking forward to it and honoured to be invited,” he says.

He’ll probably be discussing his new book, though, he still “can’t say too much”.

“It will be everything after 2017 – and it’s going to go into the mechanics of the story more. We’ll go really in depth into certain things.”

Expect the same from the prequel, being penned by his Australian mother Sue, about the earlier years. So does that mean we could be looking at at least one more impending film; another Oscar contender? Another star turn for Patel? “I can’t say,” he laughs, but follows with: “Maybe.”

But even if it doesn’t, Brierley seems content with sharing that incredible journey from Australia to India, all those years ago, for the time being. “I’m still riding it. I think I’ve got another 15 years in me, and then hopefully I’ll be out of it and I’ll start living a normal life.”

So does that final full stop come with finding his father? Probably, Brierley says, but you’ll just have to wait for the book (and / or film) to see how that goes.

For the full line-up of speakers and more information, visit www.adbookfair.com

Updated: April 21, 2019 04:53 PM

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