On Friday, the BBC publshed an extraordinary human interest story about a young Indian man named Saroo, who was once a little boy who became very, very lost.
In 1986, Saroo was five years old, working as a "sweeper" on commuter trains with his older brother. After a day of toil, he nodded off on a train station bench, expecting his brother to wake him when it was time to catch a train home. When he awoke, he saw no sign of his brother. But a train sat at the platform, and Saroo assumed his brother was aboard. Saroo boarded and promptly dozed off again. When he awoke it was 14 hours later, and he was in desperately poor Calcutta. He was five, and didn't know the name of his own small hometown. He could tell no one where he was from.
From the Beeb:
"I was absolutely scared. I didn't know where I was. I just started to look for people and ask them questions."
Soon he was sleeping rough. "It was a very scary place to be. I don't think any mother or father would like to have their five year old wandering alone in the slums and trains stations of Calcutta."
The little boy learned to fend for himself. He became a beggar, one of the many children begging on the streets of the city. "I had to be quite careful. You could not trust anyone." Once he was approached by a man who promised him food and shelter and a way back home. But Saroo was suspicious. "Ultimately I think he was going to do something not nice to me, so I ran away."
Saroo eventually found his way into an orphanage, and was adopted by a couple in Tasmania. He settled into a new life, but was understandably intrigued by the mystery of his past. And that past would likely have stayed mysterious were it not for the advent of Google Earth. Saroo still didn't know the name of his hometown, but he remembered its landmarks well enough. From the Beeb:
"[Google Earth] 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."
Eventually Saroo hit on a more effective strategy. "I multiplied the time I was on the train, about 14 hours, with the speed of Indian trains and I came up with a rough distance, about 1,200km."
He drew a circle on a map with its centre in Calcutta, with its radius about the distance he thought he had travelled. Incredibly, he soon discovered what he was looking for: Khandwa. "When I found it, I zoomed down and bang, it just came up. I navigated it all the way from the waterfall where I used to play."
Saroo eventually visited Khandwa, where he found both heartbreak and something like closure. Read the Beeb for details. Meanwhile, movie producers and publishers have apparently taken an interest in Saroo's story — as it seems likely will Google, whose Google Earth always seemed semi-miraculous anyway, though never so much as now.