There aren’t many success stories amongst the street children of Kolkata. Certainly not on the scale of Saroo Brierley, whose book was turned into the movie Lion, tipped for Oscar glory this weekend. It’s a story so moving that even hard bitten hacks at the private screening I went to were suspiciously red-eyed as the credits rolled. It has since captivated audiences worldwide – because it’s all true.
Starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel, Lion tells Saroo’s own incredible life story. Born into an impoverished family in rural India, his mother laboured in a quarry carrying rocks. They had barely enough to eat and as a small child he used to ride local trains with his older brother begging for food or a few rupees. One night, aged just five years-old he got separated and rode on a train to Kolkata, 1000 kilometers away, landing in the city’s Howrah railway station – the biggest in India and home to hundreds of the city’s abandoned kids.
He couldn’t speak Bengali, and didn’t know his village name, so faced the perils of life on the street alone, until he was adopted by an Australian family. Fast forward 25 years and Saroo, a young adult in Tasmania, uses newly invented Google Earth to search for the village he remembers as a child and eventually is reunited with the family he lost.
It’s not hard to see why this extraordinary tale has been made into a Hollywood movie, but for Theresa Godly, 42, an actor from Walton-upon-Thames, it struck a particularly heartbreaking chord.
Born on the streets of Kolkata on 26th December 1974, Theresa was handed to Shishu Bhavan, the Missionaries of Charity orphanage, just a few days later. She still has her adoption papers, signed by Mother Theresa. She knows a little about her Anglo-Indian birth mother, Yvonne, including, she thinks, her late husband’s last name: Fernandez. She had been widowed, she was destitute and living on the streets, she may have been forced to become a sex worker or been a victim of rape.
Whatever the reason, she gave up her newborn daughter and Theresa was adopted at eight months’ old by Janey and Stephen Godly, who couldn’t have a biological baby of their own, and brought her up in Streatham, south-east London as their much-loved only child.
“My mum, Janey had Indian heritage so you would never have guessed I was adopted from looking at the three of us,” says Theresa, “but I grew up always knowing that I was special and had been chosen.” Still, she always felt bitter about having been abandoned. “I had a real chip on my shoulder about my birth mother who I assumed didn’t care about me at all, I had no idea about the situation in India, despite Mum trying to explain it to me.”
It was only when Theresa became a mother herself at 19, to her daughter Chloe, now 22, and later her son Luca, now eight, that she realised giving up your baby would be the most difficult thing for any woman to do.
“I started to understand the magnitude of what this woman must have gone through in her heart and mind. If she had been raped perhaps she couldn’t bear to have a reminder of that in her life; whichever way I think about it, I know she suffered and that haunts me every single day of my life.”
Theresa saw Lion at the London film festival last year, before its release, and it sparked searching questions: “Where is my birth mother? Is she even alive? Is she still living on the streets? Does she ever wonder what happened to me? I thought, if Saroo Brierley managed to find his mother with no real information and little help, then there is hope for me and I must search for her properly. It also made me realise that I can’t be the only person out there, looking.”
For street children and those that work with them in Kolkata, Saroo’s story – or at least the early part of it – is, sadly, not remarkable at all. The Hope Foundation, for whom I have been UK ambassador since 2008, looks after thousands of children living on the streets or in slums, providing education, food and healthcare and trying to protect children from abuse and exploitation.
When I first visited Kolkata’s slums I was overwhelmed, not just by the sensory overload; the noise, the colour, the smell and chaos of poverty, but by the scale. It’s estimated there are around 250,000 children living or working on the streets – the numbers are impossible to comprehend.
Like Saroo, there are also tens of thousands of people, worldwide, who were adopted from Indian orphanages, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. Reliable records are hard to come by but there are almost certainly thousands in the UK. Each one of them has a story, as well.
Since Lion’s release, Theresa has managed to make contact with the volunteer who cared for her before her adoption, and discovered that, unusually, her birth mother handed her in to the orphanage herself – and came back to visit her: “As a mother, having felt that love, I couldn’t imagine being parted from my children. Now I know she didn’t abandon me.”
Even more startlingly, she learned that when her mother brought another child with her, meaning she must have a sibling – and in May, will be making an emotional journey to Kolkata with a documentary team, to try to find them.
“I’ve accepted my birth mother may have passed away, but if I have a brother or sister, I want to help them.” Even if her search is unsuccessful, she is keen to highlight the plight of street children in the city of her birth; “these people are my people.”
Though the Hope Foundation aren’t running a tracing service, they anticipate that the buzz surrounding Lion will inspire many more who were adopted from Kolkata and are keen to use their local knowledge to help those who’d like to try and find family.
One woman who got in touch through Facebook, told how she was found in a basket and taken into an orphanage before being adopted by an English couple when she was five, and growing up in Sussex.
“Perhaps we can help and support each other,” says Theresa. “We are the lucky ones, we were given a better start and a bright future.”
Although it’s estimated there are around 30 million orphans in India today, much tighter restrictions mean only a few hundred are now officially adopted overseas each year (although illegal baby and child trafficking may account for many more).
The Hope Foundation isn’t involved in adopting children, in fact it does everything possible to keep children who live in slums with their family, by getting them into schools, paying for uniforms, providing safe places and hot food for them after school and helping their mothers to find work, so the children don’t have to.
It runs drug rehabilitation clinics for children who use solvents to relieve hunger and temporarily escape the reality of their existence; also depicted in Lion. It takes those with nowhere to sleep, or those who are particularly vulnerable, such as children of sex workers, into what it calls ‘protection homes’ rather than orphanages; the goal being to reunite them with family members, even sporadically, if there’s no one who can look after them full-time.
Because as Theresa and Saroo’s stories show, many of India’s street children do have parents, somewhere.