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The Film Lion Provides Insights into Adoptive Relationships

What Saroo Brierley’s journey can tell us about adoption.

Lion is an emotional film about a poor 5-year-old Indian boy, Saroo, who accidentally and alone boards a train in a station near his home town and is carried almost a thousand miles to Calcutta. Based on what he tells them, the authorities can’t find his family and an Indian adoption agency sends him to an Australian couple in Tasmania. As a 30-year-old adult, Saroo finds his Indian family by using his memories, Facebook and a long, slow search via Goggle Earth. Today, when we are bombarded with stories about exploitation in international adoption (e.g., baby buying, stealing and selling along with exorbitant fees charged to adoptive parents), it is refreshing to hear a tale from the 1980s where an Indian woman running a small adoption agency in Calcutta is warm and caring, someone who adoptees as adults remember fondly and seek out.

Because I liked the portrait of his adoptive and birth parents in the film, I read Saroo Brierley’s 2013 memoir, A Long Way Home, the basis for the film. Lion did a good job in capturing the memoir and each compliments the other:

I was impressed with the sensitivity of the Australian parents as they adopted a six-year-old boy with traumatic experiences, not only in getting lost, but in spending up to a month on the streets of Calcutta until he was rescued. Before she knew his story, his adoptive mother put a map of India in his room, filled the house with Indian artifacts, learned how to cook Indian food and only gradually introduced a western diet. She and her husband made friends with an Indian family in their neighborhood who could talk Hindi with Saroo and translate for them while their son was learning English. His parents helped Saroo kept in touch with children from the same orphanage in India who had been adopted by families in other parts of Australia. Thus, the adoptive parents affirmed Saroo’s Indian identity.

The film implies that Saroo forgot not only Hindu, but his childhood memories, which he slowly recovered as an adult. In the memoir, we learn that while he bonded immediately with his adoptive parents – feeling loved and safe even before he could communicate with them in language – he never forgot his Indian family. Starting as a young child, he consciously fought to hold on to happy memories of his brothers and sisters and of his hard-working mother, even though they lived in abject poverty. He went over and over memories of landmarks and retraced in his mind the daily paths he wandered as a small boy. It was these memories he drew on when searching for his family as an adult, even though it turned out he had misspelled and mispronounced the name of his village and of the train station in a nearby town.

When Saroo was ten, his parents adopted another Indian boy who was nine. Both the film and memoir agree that this brother, Mantosh, was troubled from the beginning – being loud, disobedient and having trouble in school – and very different from Saroo, his happy, high achieving brother. In the memoir, Saroo tells us that despite these differences, and all the attention the parents now had to lavish on the new arrival, the two brothers enjoyed outdoor activities together. The film shows more of the brother’s adult life. He lives in a shack, with either addiction and/or mental illness issues and is only a sullen participant in family life.

However, the memoir says that Saroo’s success in finding his Indian parents made Mantosh decide to try to find the mother who had to abandon him in India (because of poverty and family violence); according to the memoir, his brother too went to work in the Australian family business. Both versions of Mantosh could be true, perhaps referring to different periods of his adult life. The coauthor of the memoir could have decided to down play the brother’s life to focus on Saroo’s more spectacular story, or perhaps Saroo was afraid he might offend his troubled brother. But I’m pleased that the film showed a bit more of the brother’s struggles as an adult, indicating that even the most loving adoptive parents can’t always overcome the traumas and biology of the pre-adoptive life.

Saroo felt he had to make this search, despite his happy life and close family ties in Australia. His story illustrates that a satisfying adoption experience is compatible with a desire to reunite with a birth family. The film ends with Saroo’s reunion with his Indian family, followed by a few pictures of the real families and some written updates on the screen. The memoir tells more about Saroo’s subsequent relationships with his Indian family, the week that he spent there, the reclaiming of dual citizenship, return visits and continuing contact via video conferencing with the help of translators. At the end of A Long Way Home, Saroo makes an observation that indicates the importance of this family tie:

Just as my search for my mother had in some ways shaped my life, her faith that I was alive had shaped hers. She couldn’t search, but she did the next best thing: she stayed still. . . . She had wanted to stay near the house she had been living in when I disappeared, so that if I ever returned, I would be able to find her. (231)

After Saroo’s internet search, when he thinks he has recognized his town, he set off for India to try to reunite with his family. His Australian parents gave their blessing, and his mother sent along pictures of him as a boy, which proved invaluable in locating his birth family. His Australian parents supported his return to India, confident in their own strong relationship to him. As in most successful adoption searches, Saroo returned to live in Australia to work in his father’s business and to partner with his Australian girl friend.

In the book, Saroo concludes that having two families has not caused identity or other conflicts for him. Rather, two families has enriched his life. His Indian mother accepts that Saroo will continue to live in Australian, while his Australian parents affirm his ongoing involvement with his Indian family. His mother went to India with Saroo to meet his birth mother.

Seemingly without adoption education or a support group, Saroo’s adoptive parents acted in ways now advocated by adoption educators. Today, in addition, they might have been advised to hire a searcher to help find Saroo’s birth family when he was still a child or a teenager. Ahead of their time, this adult adoptee, along with his birth and adoptive parents, accept the idea of extending family through adoption.

More from E. Kay Trimberger Ph.D.
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