Is Saroo Brierley’s story “Lion” a modern parable?
In 1986, Saroo, a five year old, lives with his elder brother Guddu, his mother and his younger sister in Khandwa, India. Guddu and Saroo steal coal from freight trains to trade for milk and food. One day Saroo follows his brother to a job and they arrive at a nearby train station, where Saroo decides to stay back and take a nap. Guddu tries to wake him up, but Saroo is too tired. When Guddu does not return, Saroo searches for him and boards a train presuming Guddu is aboard. He falls asleep again in one of the compartments, and wakes up to find the train in motion. After several days it arrives in faraway Calcutta, where he doesn’t understand the local Bengali language. He stands at a ticket counter and tries to obtain a ticket home, but the attendant does not recognise the name of his village, which Saroo says is “Ginestlay”. He spends the night in the station with some street children, but is then forced to run when they are snatched by some adults.
Saroo continues to wander around the city before coming across Noor, a seemingly friendly woman who brings him back to her apartment. She tells Saroo that a man, Rama, will help him find his way home. Saroo, sensing that Noor and Rama have sinister intentions, runs away and escapes Noor when she pursues him. A young man eventually takes Saroo to the police. Unable to trace his family, they put him in an orphanage. Three months later, Saroo is introduced to Mrs. Sood, who tells him she has placed an advertisement about him in several local newspapers, but no one has responded. She then tells him that an Australian couple is interested in adopting him. She begins to teach Saroo English and he moves to Hobart, Tasmania in 1987, under the care of Sue and John Brierley, where he slowly starts to settle in. A year later, they adopt another boy, Mantosh, who has trouble adjusting to his new home and suffers from rage and self-harm.
Twenty years later, Saroo, now a young man, moves to Melbourne to study hotel management. He starts a relationship with Lucy, an American student. During a meal with some Indian friends at their home, he comes across jalebi, a delicacy he remembers from his childhood. He confides that he is adopted, and his friends suggest he use Google Earth to search for his hometown in India. Saroo begins his search, but over time disconnects from Lucy, overwhelmed by the thought of emotions his family must have gone through when he was missing.
Saroo visits Sue, whose health is deteriorating, and learns that she is not infertile, but had chosen to help others in need through adoption, believing that there were already too many people on Earth. Saroo spends a long time searching fruitlessly for his hometown. One evening, while scanning Google Earth, he notices the rock formations where his mother worked, and then finds the area where he lived: the district called Khandwa, and the locality, Ganesh Talai. He finally tells his adoptive mother about his search, and she fully supports his efforts.
Saroo returns to his hometown, where he has an emotional reunion with his biological mother and sister, but learns that Guddu is dead. Guddu was killed by a train the same night that they went to the station as children. Their mother never gave up hope and believed that one day her missing son would return, and never moved away from the village. The film ends with captions about the real Saroo’s return to India in February 2012. Photos of the real Australian family are shown, as well as a video of Saroo and Sue meeting his biological mother in India, who deeply appreciates Sue’s care for her son. Saroo later learned that he had been mispronouncing his own name, which was actually Sheru, a diminutive for sher, the Hindi word for “lion”. (Wikipedia)
A True Story
The book upon which this film is based is quite a journey. I saw the movie first, then read the book. I found the screenplay followed the book closely, but deviated on a couple of points, such as: Saroo had two brothers and one sister, not one of each; his ‘adopted’ brother, Mantosh, does not come across as a difficult child, nor a dysfunctional adult; and his adoptive Mother, Sue, isn’t sickly at all.
The parable begins with a young man, the younger of two sons, who asks his father to give him his share of the estate. The implication is the son could not wait for his father’s death for his inheritance, he wanted it immediately. The father agrees and divides his estate between both sons.
Upon receiving his portion of the inheritance, the younger son travels to a distant country and wastes all his money in extravagant living. Immediately thereafter, a famine strikes the land; he becomes desperately poor and is forced to take work as a swineherd. (This, too, would have been abhorrent to Jesus’ Jewish audience, who considered swine unclean animals.) When he reaches the point of envying the food of the pigs he is watching, he finally comes to his senses:
But when he came to himself he said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough to spare, and I’m dying with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.'”He arose, and came to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
— Luke 15:17–20, World English Bible
This implies the father was hopefully watching for the son’s return.
The son does not even have time to finish his rehearsed speech, since the father calls for his servants to dress him in a fine robe, a ring, and sandals, and slaughter the “fattened calf” for a celebratory meal.
The older son, who was at work in the fields, hears the sound of celebration, and is told about the return of his younger brother. He is not impressed, and becomes angry. He also has a speech for his father:
But he answered his father, “Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this, your son, came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” — Luke 15:29–30, World English Bible
The parable concludes with the father explaining that because the younger son had returned, in a sense, from the dead, celebration was necessary:
“But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” — Luke 15:32, World English Bible