The life story of Saroo Brierley is characterised by some extraordinary events since he was lost in India and subsequently adopted by an Australian couple in Tasmania.
His memoir A Long Way Home became an international best seller when first published in 2012 and the recent release of Lion, the feature film adapted from his book, continues to spread his story to a wider audience. The film has already won several international film awards and secured a number of Oscar nominations.
The release of Lion has reignited some discussion about adoption in Australia with Sue Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive mother, actor Nicole Kidman, who plays Sue in the film, and the Sydney based pro-adoption organisation, AdoptChange, with its founder Debra Lee Furness, all trying to leverage off the popularity of the film to promote adoption more generally.
Their message: Australian governments have an inherent anti-adoption culture and a burdensome bureaucracy that unnecessarily slows processes to the detriment of children in need. Consequently they would like to see adoption processes quicken and rates increase.
Lion does open conversations about adoption and before responding to whether the tempo of adoptions should be increased, for those who are unfamiliar with Saroo’s story here are some highlights.
Highlights of Saroo’s Story
In the early 1980s Saru Munshi Khan (Saru means lion in his original Hindu language) was part of a closely knit, single parent family, living with his mother, Fatima Munshi, elder brothers Guddu and Kallu and his younger sister Sheklia, in a single room in Ganesh Talai, a suburb of Khandwa, in the central province of Madhya Pradesh in India.
His father had left the family to re-marry, leaving Fatima the difficult task of raising her young family on her meagre takings of carrying rocks at a nearby building site. Poverty was part of their lives.
The brothers would often head to the railway station and tracks to beg for money or scraps of food. Sometimes they would scavenge coal off train carriages to exchange for food so that the family could eat.
When Saru was aged 5 he pleaded with Guddu to take him on an excursion to Burhanpur, 70kms south of Khandwa. On arrival, and to tired to continue, Guddu left Saru on a bench at the railway station to sleep, telling him he would return to collect him once he has completed his nocturnal search for supplies.
When Saru wakes, he cannot find his brother. He panics. He searches inside an empty train. Falls asleep. Wakes again, this time on a moving train. Between sleeps he loses track of time and distance and within days arrives at Howrah Railway Station, in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a station moving over a million passengers a day.
He knows he is lost. What he doesn’t know is that he is over 1600kms from home.
Saru survives on the city streets and river bank for several weeks before being picked up by a stranger who hands him over to police who in turn moves him to Liluah, a juvenile detention centre, before he is taken to Nava Jeevan an orphanage where he spends the next two months. His plight is referred to the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption who make an attempt to trace his family, their task made more difficult as Saru has no form of identification, doesn’t know his full name and is unable to correctly pronounce his home town.
Five months after becoming lost he is put on a plane destined for Tasmania, with his new adoptive parents, Sue and John Brierley, meeting him at Melbourne Airport for the first time, before taking the final flight together to his new home in Hobart.
Saru, through his adoption becomes Saroo Brierley, transitioning into a new country and culture. In learning English he loses his ability to speak Hindu. He is absorbed into Australian suburbia, safe and secure with his new adoptive parents and Mantosh, who enters the family about five years later, similarly adopted from India as an older child.
On finishing school Saroo, does a hospitality course and later enrols at the Australian International Hotel School in Canberra. Here he meets other students of Indian descent. In discussing his adoption with them his past becomes present releasing repressed memories and emotions.
Feeling a level of natural kinship and encouraged by their interest and support, Saroo begins the first steps in the expansive task, soon to become an obsession, of searching for his original home. Through Google Earth he starts to retrace his journey via a web of railway tracks stretching outwards from Kolkata, his final destination.
His search area colossal – a third of India’s landmass, nearly 1 million square kilometres, where 345 million people reside. Within this landscape he is looking for 4 family members using the aerial eye of a satellite map and the visual imprints from his childhood memory.
Remarkably, after several years of searching, on 31 March 2011, he finds what he is looking for: familiar landmarks from his childhood – a water tower, pedestrian under pass, small dam, a fountain.
Within a year he flies to India alone, his first visit since leaving as a young boy 25 years before.
He walks his old neighbourhood, finds his original house. It is empty.
A neighbour asks him who he is looking for? On saying his name and showing him his childhood photo taken at the Kolkata police station, the man takes Saroo around the corner where he is reunited with his mother, brother and sister.
Such is the incredible outcome of his story, it goes viral. Many interviews, new found fame, a book and the film follow.
The Motivations of Adoptive Parents
There is a scene in the film (and passages in the book) where Sue Brierley explains to Saroo her reason for adopting, recounting a ‘vision’ she had as a young girl with a brown skinned boy by her side. She tells Saroo that she could have had children but decided to adopt instead to fulfil her vision of giving children from poor countries the family they needed.
Interestingly, both Ms Kidman and Ms Furness respectively have made similar statements about why they adopted, ‘mapped out in the stars’ … ‘just felt it, no vision but pretty similar’ … ‘It was my destiny to adopt’; ‘I had an extraordinary message … an incredible electric storm over Iowa … on a flight between Los Angeles and Toronto’ (Iowa being the home of the birth mother Ms Furness had been speaking to).
There is a certain mystique about visions, symbolic messages and esoteric concepts of being universally ordained, that may make for entertaining conversations and good melodrama but they are bizarre starting points for stepping forward to strip a child of its original identity and remove it from its first family, forever.
Why do adoptive parents adopt?
Professor Rene Hoksbergen is a decorated academic from Holland who has written extensively about intercountry adoption and adoptive parenting. Through his research he has identified five generations of adoptive parents, creating a framework for understanding their motivations and value orientations. A brief summary of these generations is outlined below.
Five Generations of Intercountry Adoptive Parents
The first generation was the traditional closed adoption era starting in the late 40s / early 50s, when adoption was seen as a service for childless couples with single mothers encouraged to give up their children due to the social stigma and prejudice surrounding having a child out of wedlock.
The principles of confidentiality, secrecy and anonymity characterised this phase.
There was little information or research about adoption and its consequences with adoptive parents very much left on their own. As most children and parents were of the same race secrecy could be maintained.
The second generation coincided with a trend towards individualism, where traditional notions of the nuclear family, sexuality and parental authority were challenged, and relationships between mother and a child redefined. There was a greater acceptance of single parenthood and through the media, particularly television, the plight of poor countries with children in need of help became more widely known. To mitigate the poverty in Third World countries many western middle and upper middle class couples saw adoption as the last opportunity for these children to survive or to develop normally.
Adoption came to be seen as a form of childcare and was externally motivated.
Consequently, this second generation of adoptive parents, to which Sue Brierley certainly belongs, were open, idealistic and with high expectations. They firmly embraced the newness of the intercountry adoption phenomenon believing the power of nurture over nature, and where any obstacle adoption presented could be overcome.
During this second generation an increase in inter-racial and older child placements occurred. Although adoption had lost its taboo status and there was more study and information about it adoptive parents had unrealistic expectations about their child, and did not expect, nor prepared for, the complex psychological problems their traumatised children presented, particularly those who had suffered neglect or abuse prior to being adopted. In addition, there was little after care or agency help in supporting the adoptive parents or their adopted children.
In Lion we are given short glimpses of the challenges coping with a traumatised adopted child. There are scenes where Mantosh, Saboo’s adoptive brother, who was abused before he was adopted, is anything but the happy or compliant child, his behaviour loud, disobedient, rebellious and emotionally volatile putting pressure on all family members.
Personally one of the saddest scenes in the film was when Saroo visits Mantosh in the Tasmanian forests where he has retreated to a shack isolating himself and all those around him. A man in need of help and support. Unlike Saroo his adoptive journey doesn’t include a mother rediscovered and family reunited, which is not uncommon for many intercountry adoptees.
The third generation of adoptive parents was more realistic and materialistic. More research and clinical practice that followed the second generation had revealed adoptive families faced intense psychological and emotional problems, disappointment had tempered their idealism. Agencies were now inclined to advise potential adoptive parents of the risks upfront and also in a better position to offer more help.
The fourth generation, often exemplified by celebrity adopters, were more optimistic, prosperous and demanding. Greater individualism, had the effect of ‘claiming a child’ to fulfil their material wishes. Their ultimate belief – they had a right to a child.
For the infertile if medical science didn’t work or was to uncomfortable to endure then adoption needed to provide the child they wanted. This generation was more internally orientated, driven by a sense of entitlement with less focus on the best interests of a child in need.
The fifth and current generation are those who are faced with contradictions. Intercountry adoption is not straightforward. After decades of scandals; learning to deal and help traumatised children; in some instances having to cope with children who had been sold or wrongly informed about the true family status of a child; of too many middlemen and too much money involved; and the side-stepping of rules and regulations set up to protect children at risk, new intercountry adoptive parents are now faced with the sobering question of whether children offered for adoption are really adoptable according to the standards of the receiving countries.
The consequence is that there has been a decrease in intercountry adoptions worldwide and less potential adoptive parents coming forward leading Professor Hoksbergen to conclude that intercountry adoption will never again be as popular as it was during the second open/idealistic period.
Furthermore, with a growing shift to medical technology and surrogacy, parents-in-waiting are now using these methods more frequently to obtain the children they so desire.
What he doesn’t include in his analysis is that adopted people around the world, the children who have become adults across these five generations, irrespective of whether they have domestic- or intercountry adoption origins, are beginning to speak out against adoption both as an ideology and as a practice, many carrying the long term harmful effects as they struggle with their adult lives.
Implicit in Professor Hoksbergen framework is regardless of the motivation or value system under pinning it, where there is demand, supply will follow and demand factors do not always align with the best long term interests of the child.
Ultimately, what is needed is less an increase in intercountry adoption and more models and support structures that strengthen families, including those in materially poorer countries, so that these families and their children can remain together and prosper.
Significantly, Saroo was no orphan – he was a lost child.
The first part of the film succinctly captures the warmth of Saroo’s first family, the horror of getting lost and the anguish of seeing him having to adapt and survive in a strange city where he knows no one, cannot speak their language and has nothing except for the shirt and pants he wears.
Forfeiting your original family and identity just because you are lost is a high price to pay for adoption.
Think about it, all parents, including adoptive parents: your child is lost and the best the authorities can do is hand the child to an adoption agency for export at some undisclosed fee. Would that be an acceptable outcome for you and your child?
Where there is demand, supply will follow.
Supporters of intercountry adoption often use emotive arguments that rescuing children from poverty stricken countries around the world is justified as the children are orphans and it is only through intercountry adoption that they can survive, or have the opportunity to develop normally.
Evidence from around the world has shown that in many countries the children in, and removed from, orphanages are not orphans – they have at least one surviving parent or living family members. More often than not they are placed in these institutions because their parents are poor and believe orphanages will feed and give their children an education. Not that they will lose them forever.
Poverty is never an open invitation to permanently remove a child from their family through intercountry adoption. That all children need care, protection and opportunity wherever they reside is not in question. Care models that support families need to be embraced and they are out there.
Many readers will be familiar with Tara Winkler, a former NSW Young Australian of the Year who was twice featured on the ABC’s Australian Story. In 2007 young, optimistic and well intentioned, Tara went to Cambodia as a volunteer and stayed to rescue 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage. She followed the example of many other westerners opening up her own orphanage, funded through Australian donors and benefactors, believing this would be the best for the children.
After years of learning the hard way, as revealed in her book, How (not) To Start An Orphanage … by a woman who did, Tara began to understand the dynamics about the true intergenerational nature of poverty and the adverse effects of institutional care, conceding the creation of orphanages and volunteer tourism was actually making the plight of children worse, not offering a long term solution.
She completely changed her model of support, closing her orphanage and establishing the CCT Holistic Family Based Care Model whose priority is for children to remain living with their biological family and where they have been removed, to return them.
Through family tracing and counselling her model includes reestablishing relationships and support so that the children can return happily and safely to their biological families.
Critically, to support this family reintegration principle income generation programmes are implemented to empower and assist parents or guardians to begin small businesses, or to access employment, along with safe housing and to manage ongoing heath to enable families to remain together and prosper.
CCT is a strong contemporary example of a programme that addresses the vagaries of poverty and the negative effect it has on the health and well being of families. It reduces the likelihood of families having to split up, or their children shifted into institutional care or lost to intercountry adoption.
Notwithstanding the love and protection Saroo received through his second family both he and Fatima, his first mother, would have been spared the trauma and loss they both suffered through a combined family reintegration and income support programme similar to what CCT offers. All lost children in India deserve the same opportunity of support so that they can stay together and prosper within their own families.
Most adopted people at some point in their lives will search for their personal information or original families.
Saroo’s search, which becomes an obsession, is given ample screen time as he explores the meagre points of reference he has, landmarks etched in his childhood memory that are linked to a railway station beginning with a letter ‘B’ somewhere west of Kolkata that may be visible and accessible through Google Earth.
He undertakes his search in secret so as not to upset his adoptive parents and be seen to be disloyal, a common scenario experienced by many an adopted person, irrespective of whether their adoption is via a domestic or international pathway.
No adopted person should have to endure what Saroo had to do spending years in front of a computer screen scanning the earth like a bird-like bloodhound trying to find the visual clues that would lead him back to his home and family. That he was able to do so, is what makes his search so extraordinary, capturing the world’s attention and admiration.
Intercountry adopted people face many challenges and obstacles in seeking their original families and support they need, as exemplified by Mantosh.
Lynelle Long, an intercountry and transracial adoptee with origins in Vietnam, recently compiled search and reunion stories from over 40 intercountry adoptees from 14 sending and 10 receiving countries for the Australian InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) support organisation she belongs to.
Readers are referred to a review of paper in an earlier Ipsify posting. The paper offers greater depth and useful suggestions about what can be done to make future search and reunions pathways easier and more helpful for intercountry adoptees who walk this pathway.
Saroo’s story has many dimensions – a first family rich in motherly and sibling love though scarce in material possessions; being lost; rescued; sent to the ends of the earth and through adoption given a new identity and family, the latter offering love, protection and security although never extinguishing the deep emotional need for Saroo to be reconnected with what he had accidentally lost, his first family. His search – long, tedious and done in secret – is, against all odds, wonderfully successful and inspiring. He finds Fatima, Kallu, Sheklia, his mother and surviving siblings, which sparks a rush of global interest leading to a memoir, film and fame.
Saroo’s adopted journey is far from over. As a young man, there is much more to come as he adapts to his adoptive legacy of straddling two families, two countries, two cultures, two identities. At some point he may confront his father – responsible for so much heartache in the family; have to deal with ageing parents located at opposite sides of the world; begin his own family.
The media interest will eventually wane and he will be left to reflect on his incredible journey and find his own voice free from his adoptive mother’s influence and the filters of both ghost and screen writers.
How much is he Saru? How much is he Saroo?
And how strong is his belief that every effort be made to keep original families together and support programmes to help them, rather than aiding preventable loss and separation through intercountry adoption?
The lion is yet to roar.