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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Lost Boy Finds Mother Using Google Earth

A Dickensian tale for the information age.

  • April 17, 2012

At the end of the day, say what you will about technology. At least, sometimes, it helps an Indian boy find his mother, after years of separation, using satellite imagery of the earth.

The BBC has the remarkable story in full detail, but here are its brief outlines. Saroo Brierley was born in an Indian village, and when he was five years old, he made the mistake of his life. He was traveling with his brother, a sweeper on a train, and wound up falling asleep at a train station. Not seeing his brother, Saroo got on the next train he saw, and fell asleep again–awaking some 14 hours later in Calcutta. He became a street child there, was taken in by an orphanage, and considered himself lucky to be adopted, eventually, by a couple from Tasmania. This was making the best of a bad situation: “I accepted that I was lost and that I could not find my way back home, so I thought it was great that I was going to Australia,” he told the BBC.

As he grew older, he felt an intense desire to reunite with his birth family. The only problem? Since he had been only five and illiterate when he got lost, he couldn’t remember the name of his village. What he did remember were his village’s geographical features. So he began what must have seemed, to many, a fool’s errand: he began searching for the place on Google Earth. As he put it: “It was just like being Superman. You are able to go over and take a photo mentally and ask, ‘Does this match?’ And when you say, ‘No’, you keep on going and going and going.”

When this initially proved fruitless, Saroo honed in on a more focused methodology: he multiplied the time he had spent on the train, 14 hours, by the speed of trains when he was lost in 1986. He drew an appropriate radius from Calcutta on a map, and started searching again.

Then something crazy happened: it worked. “When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up,” he told the BBC. “I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play.” His town, he learned, was called Khandwa. And so he went there, 25 years after his fateful nap, and was reunited with his mother.

The story is so remarkable, and so anomalous, that I hesitate to try to draw a technological moral from it. The whole thing is so downright Dickensian, and involves as many strokes of good luck as bad, that it’s not exactly as though Saroo’s success reuniting with lost love ones can be scaled.

But I keep coming back to that line about what it felt like to search for his village from the skies, over his computer: “It was just like being Superman.” Who hasn’t felt that the things we are capable of, in our hyper-technological age, are akin to super powers?

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