Mother, son separated, begin 25-year global search

Associated Press Modified: June 10, 2012 at 12:15 am •  Published: June 9, 2012
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KHANDWA, India (AP) — Saroo's eyes snapped open and everything was suddenly, horribly, wrong.

The 5-year-old's tiny body was still curled up on the hard wooden seat of the Indian train, just as it was when he'd drifted off to sleep. The rattle of the train was loud and steady, just as it always was when he rode home with his big brother, Guddu.

But Guddu was not there. And the alien landscape flashing past the window looked nothing like home.

_____

This is the first in a two-part series.

_____

Saroo's heart began to pound. The train car was empty. His brother should have been there, sweeping under the seats for loose change. Where was Guddu?

Where was Saroo?

It was 1987 and Saroo knew only that he was alone on the train.

Soon, he would find himself alone in the world. He wouldn't know for decades that this fateful train ride was setting into motion a chain of events both fantastic and horrific — events that would tear him away from his family and join him with a new one. Events that would spark the determined hunt of a mother for her son and a son for his mother, brought together only to realize that you can never really go home again.

In the beginning, though, all Saroo knew was that nothing was as it should be. "MA!" he screamed, wild with fear as he ran up and down the empty compartment, tears streaming down his face. "GUDDU!"

Only the relentless hum of the train answered his cries. Outside the window, the remains of his old life had faded into the distance. The train was thundering down the track toward a destination — and a destiny — unknown.

___

Fatima Munshi was frantic. When she returned to her cramped house after a hard day of work on a construction site, her two young sons still hadn't arrived. They should have been back hours earlier.

Fatima lived for her children. She had little else to live for.

She was born to landless Hindu peasants who worked as near slaves in others' fields until her father was killed by a heart attack and her mother died a few months later in childbirth. At the age of 10, she was sentenced to one of the most miserable of fates in rural India: That of an orphan girl, with no family to offer support or protection, nobody to arrange her marriage or pay her dowry.

But the little girl had grit.

She waded into fieldwork, harvesting crops to survive. Neighbors slipped her and her four siblings scraps. As a teenager, she moved into a construction job, carrying cement in a broad bowl balanced on her head above her petite but sturdy frame.

She caught the eye of her supervisor, an orphan himself. In a whirlwind romance rare in tradition-bound India, they fell in love and got married. She converted to Islam and changed her name from Kamla to Fatima.

They moved to the town of Khandwa and found a home in Ganesh Talai, a neighborhood of tiny buildings subdivided into tinier apartments filled with day laborers, vegetable vendors and the cheap domestic workers who kept the town running.

She bore three sons in quick succession, Guddu, Kallu, and her baby boy, Saroo. When they grew up, she dreamed, they would live in big homes nearby and each give her 10 rupees (20 cents) a day, so she wouldn't have to work and could look after her grandchildren.

Then the life she had worked so hard to rebuild collapsed.

Her husband stopped coming home, first for a night, then several nights in a row. He stopped giving them money and food. Eventually, even as Fatima grew pregnant with their daughter, he took a second wife. Fatima blamed black magic.

One Sunday, a desperate Fatima, with her baby girl on her hip, confronted him. She beat him with a shoe. He beat her with a stick. Soon the whole neighborhood gathered, and in front of the village elders, they instantly divorced.

Fatima stood on her doorstep, back at the bottom where she had started, an abandoned woman with four young children and no family for support. She was the poorest in a neighborhood of poor people, a charity case even for those who had nothing.

She went back to work in construction. Guddu, who was about 7, and Saroo, four years younger, took to begging for food and loose change.

When the monsoon leaked through their roof and turned the dirt floor of their home to mud, she huddled them into a dry corner to sleep. When the summer heat forced them to sleep outside, she billowed out her head scarf as a thin sheet to cover them.

Often there was no dinner, and she put them to bed with a glass of water. "Mom, give us food," they would beg. "There is none," she'd answer in shame.

"I have nothing," she thought on those wretched nights, "but at least I have my children around me."

___

Saroo slumped in his seat. How long had he been asleep? It was dark when he'd boarded the train, and now it was bright. Half a day had surely passed.

He struggled to think. He remembered how he and Guddu had taken the train from their local station, Khandwa, to Burhanpur, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, to hunt for change. When they arrived, a weary Saroo had collapsed into a seat on the platform. Guddu had promised to be back in a minute and walked off.

When Saroo had next opened his eyes, a train was waiting at the platform. Guddu must be on board, he had thought, still in a sleepy fog. So Saroo had boarded the train and drifted off again, thinking his brother would wake him at Khandwa.

But now the train was stopping. There was no Guddu, and this was not Khandwa.

The doors opened and Saroo stepped out into chaos.

Hordes of people, pushing, rushing. Speaking in an unfamiliar tongue. He was in Calcutta, nearly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from home. It might as well have been Mars.

He pleaded for help. But he spoke Hindi, and most here spoke Bengali. Besides, he had never been to school; he didn't know his last name, or the city he came from — only the name of his neighborhood and not how to spell it. No one understood him.

No one wanted to deal with yet another child beggar in a country that has millions of them. No one cared.

Frantic, he boarded another train, hoping it would take him home. It looped back to Calcutta. He hopped another train, and another, praying he would be carried back to his family. They all returned to this strange, frightening place.

Saroo did this for days, begging passengers for food. This, at least, was familiar; back home, he begged every day for a cup of chai tea or a bite of roti bread.

Now, he scrounged together enough morsels to survive. At night, he slept underneath the train station's seats. Eventually, he ventured into the streets.

The mighty Ganges river that snaked through the city reminded Saroo of his favorite waterfall back home, where he had spent so many happy days watching the local fishermen catch their dinners.

But this new river offered no peace; the fierce current and deep water sucked him under when he tried to swim. A bystander plucked him out, but he was terrified. He retreated to the streets, approaching a man who spoke Hindi for help. The man took Saroo home, and gave him food and a place to sleep.

Saroo grew uneasy when the man invited a friend over for breakfast. He shivered, without knowing why, under the friend's gaze. That night, when Saroo was supposed to be washing dishes, he fled.

Barefoot, he ran, the men chasing close behind. But Saroo was small and quick. He slipped into an alley, where he hid until they passed.

___

When night fell and her boys still weren't home, Fatima panicked. She took a neighbor she called Uncle Akbar to the station to look for them, but most of the trains had already come and gone. They searched the nearby market where the boys would beg. She went to the fountain where they liked to play.

By morning, her body felt like it was on fire. Her mind raced.

Maybe they had been kidnapped.

Maybe they were lost.

Maybe they were dead.

She had never been on a train before, but she and Uncle Akbar rode to Burhanpur and Bhusawal, asking police if they had seen her sons. She widened her search to bigger and further cities.

She cried and prayed for their safe return at the holy crypt of the Sufi Muslim saint Tekri Wale Baba. She approached another mystic said to channel the dead saint's spirit.

"There are no longer two flowers," he said. "One flower has fallen, the other has gone to a far off place. He doesn't remember where he is from. He will come back, but only after a long, long time."

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