As an adult, Saroo stands in front of his childhood home in India. He’s in shock: the tiny house is clearly abandoned. A young woman appears out of the next house to help, and Saroo begins to list the people who lived in the house. The woman says they don’t live there anymore. Two other men arrive, and Saroo recites the names of his family members again. One man takes Saroo’s page of childhood photos, disappears for a few minutes, and then returns. He tells Saroo to follow him; he’ll take Saroo to his mother.
Saroo is adopted when he’s six and grows up in Hobart, Tasmania. His Mum pins a map of India to his wall to make Saroo feel at home. Though Saroo has a relatively easy time adjusting to his new life, he does anxiously run through his memories of his Indian family every night. After a while, Saroo begins to talk about his life in India. Mum is flabbergasted when he explains how he became lost and ended up in Calcutta. Together, they draw a map of Saroo’s hometown and the train journey to Calcutta.
Saroo returns his story to his childhood in India. His parents separate when he’s very young, and his only clear memory of his birth father is going to visit his birth father’s new baby when he’s four years old. His mother, Kamla, takes Saroo, baby Shekila, and their brothers Guddu and Kallu on a day-long journey to visit. The children go alone to their father’s house, and the next day, a riot breaks out in the street when Kamla and Saroo’s father begin fighting. Luckily, the riot dissolves when Saroo’s father throws a rock at Kamla.
Saroo’s family lives in a poor town he knows as “Ginestlay” in a Muslim neighborhood, even though Kamla is Hindu. Kamla works on building sites and is often gone for days at a time. Guddu and Kallu work hawking small items at train stations and sweeping train cars, while Saroo goes door-to-door begging for food from neighbors. Saroo also steals food whenever he can. As Guddu and Kallu get older, they begin spending more time at “Berampur,” a train station down the line where they have better luck finding food and money. Saroo spends his time with Shekila and Baba, the local holy man. One evening when Saroo is five, Saroo insists that Guddu take him back to “Berampur” with him. Guddu agrees. Saroo quickly begins to feel tired, however, and when they reach the station, Guddu instructs Saroo to stay where he is and nap. He promises to return. Saroo does as he’s told but wakes with a start some time later. There’s a stopped train in front of him. Believing that Guddu is on the train, Saroo boards it. The doors close, trapping Saroo, and he spends about fifteen hours crying, sleeping, and panicking as the train races away from his home and family.
The train finally reaches the end of the line at a massive and busy station. None of the adults will help Saroo. Saroo reasons that he should be able to take a train home again, so he begins hopping on trains and riding them out. None of them take him home. After a week or so, Saroo sees a group of men attempting to wrestle a screaming group of children out of the station. Saroo races away and out into the bustling city of Calcutta. He walks near the river and is terrified to see decomposing and mutilated bodies, but finds a group of children playing in the water and joins them. Later, he jumps in the same spot, unaware that the water level rose. A homeless man saves him from drowning, and then does the same the next day.
As Saroo searches the city for food, he comes across a gang of boys who chase him, and he does his best to sleep near holy men, as he feels safer near them. One afternoon, Saroo almost falls asleep on the train tracks. A railway worker offers Saroo a place to sleep and a meal, and Saroo accepts. The next day, when the railway worker brings a friend to help Saroo, Saroo understands immediately that the friend means to do him harm. Saroo very narrowly escapes later the next afternoon. Saroo crosses the massive bridge and meets a little boy and his mother on the other side. They house him for a night, but the mother has no time for Saroo when he won’t listen to her. Several days later, Saroo meets a teenager who speaks very patiently and kindly to him. Saroo stays with the teenager for a few days until the teenager takes Saroo to the police.
Though Saroo is terrified of the police, they feed him and ask him questions about where he’s from. They take him to a place that looks like a prison, where Saroo tries to avoid bullies. After a month, Saroo goes to the children’s court and is turned over to Mrs. Sood and ISSA, an adoption agency. She takes him to an orphanage called Nava Jeevan and spends several weeks trying to find his family. Finally, she asks Saroo if he’d like them to find him another family. Saroo recognizes that he has no other choice, so he agrees to be adopted by a couple called the Brierleys in Australia. Saroo’s friend Asra is also going to be adopted by a couple in Australia, and they travel together on the plane. They arrive in Melbourne in September of 1987.
Saroo recognizes Mum and Dad immediately, though they cannot speak to each other. Some parts of Saroo’s new life take getting used to, but he adjusts quickly and enjoys his new life. He remains blissfully unaware of some of the racist comments he attracts, and he loves attending school. Two years later, Mum and Dad adopt a boy named Mantosh. The process takes two years, during which Mum becomes ill and Mantosh experiences physical and sexual abuse. Mantosh struggles to adjust to life in Australia when he does arrive.
Saroo explains how his parents came to their decision to adopt. Mum’s parents, Julie and Josef, immigrated to Australia after WWII ended. Josef’s experiences in the war disturbed him, and though he was initially kind and trustworthy, he soon became delusional and violent. Mum grew up terrified of him and left school at age 16 to escape. She met Dad a few years later, and they married and moved to Hobart. Because of Mum’s experiences with Josef and because of a vision of herself with a brown-skinned child she had when she was twelve, she was firm in her desire to adopt. Mum and Dad had to wait sixteen years before the law allowed them to do so, and then the process of adopting Saroo took a mere seven months.
Saroo feels like a normal teen by the time he starts high school. He has girlfriends and goofs around with his friends, though he renews his commitment to academics after Mum and Dad give him an ultimatum. He begins a degree in accounting, but enjoys his hospitality job so much he later pursues a degree in hospitality management. For this, he goes to a school in Canberra. There, he meets a number of students from India who are very interested in his story. They overwhelmingly believe that it’s possible for Saroo to find his family, and so Saroo begins searching for “Ginestlay” and “Berampur” on Google Earth.
Saroo finishes his degree in 2009 and moves back to Hobart. Rather than find a hospitality job, he goes to work with Dad at the family business. After a difficult breakup, Saroo moves in with a friend named Byron. Byron has fast internet, and Saroo soon becomes obsessive about his search for his family. He devises a plan to follow all train lines out of Howrah Station in Kolkata to a 1000 Km radius, which is how far he believes he traveled as a child. He begins dating a woman named Lisa soon after, and they move in together. Finally, in 2010, Saroo finds his hometown totally by accident: it’s well outside of his initial search zone, and it’s mysteriously called Khandwa, a name he’s never heard. Regardless, the landmarks all match up, and he finds the Burhanpur station that must be the “Berampur” he remembers. He excitedly tells Lisa, and struggles to tell Dad and Mum over the next few days. He finds a Facebook group to try to confirm whether Khandwa is indeed his hometown. It takes a while, but Saroo finally discovers that he grew up in the Khandwa suburb of Ganesh Talai—“Ginestlay.”
Saroo decides he needs to go to Khandwa by himself to find his Indian family. His parents want to come, but he insists on going alone. In 2012, he travels to Khandwa and anxiously walks the streets, feeling as though they’re both familiar and very different. He soon realizes that they look different mostly because the town now has electricity. When Saroo reaches the house he remembers, he finds it empty. The scene he opens the memoir with unfolds, and the man takes Saroo to his mother. After a moment, Saroo and Kamla recognize each other, and soon a celebration erupts. Kamla phones for Kallu and Shekila, who both arrive hours later. They all cry and hold each other, and manage to talk some with the help of translators. Kamla insists that she’s grateful to Mum and Dad for raising him, as she just wants what’s best for him. Sadly, Saroo learns that Guddu died at the same time he disappeared.
Local and national media start arriving on Saroo’s second day, and he speaks to his family with the help of a woman named Cheryl. After he returns to Hobart, Australian and international media begin contacting him. He feels compelled to tell his story in case it helps someone else. Saroo video chats regularly with his family in India, and returns to India in early winter. He learns that after his and Guddu’s disappearance, Shekila and Kallu were able to attend school. Kamla never moved from Ganesh Talai in the hope that Saroo would return, and inexplicably, she experienced a vision of him the day before he returned. Saroo also meets Rochak, the administrator of the Facebook group that helped him solve the “Ginestlay” mystery. Finally, Saroo decides that he’d like to retrace his journey from Burhanpur to Kolkata. Arranging this calls many of Saroo’s childhood memories into question, as it’s impossible to make the journey in less than 24 hours and Indian train carriages are never empty, as he remembers his being. When his train pulls into Howrah Station after 30 hours of travel, he observes the station, the Hooghly River, and the Howrah Bridge. He visits Mrs. Sood at ISSA and gets to look through his adoption file. Finally, he visits Liluah, the prison-like home where he went before going to ISSA. It’s still a terrifying place. After this, he crosses the Howrah Bridge on foot and gives silent thanks to the teenager for saving him.
A year later, Kamla and Mum meet thanks to the news program 60 Minutes. It’s an emotional experience, and the joy doesn’t need translation. Saroo explains that he’s in the process of buying Kamla a house, and he’s also helping fund repairs to the Nava Jeevan orphanage. He’s grateful for everything that happened, and has no regrets.