It took a night-in, take-out (that coincidentally happened to be Indian) and the company of friends for my wife and I to finally watch one of the best picture nominations from a year ago, Lion. The film tells the true story of Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), the heart-wrenching displacement from his family at a young age, and his subsequent winding journey home.
The film begins back-dropped by the rugged landscape of rural India. Saroo’s life is humble but beautifully simple. His mother is a laborer so to help the family Saroo and his older brother, Guddu, try to find work wherever they can. One evening, he and Guddu travel by train to the neighboring town for work. But after an ill-timed nap, Saroo wakes up alone and disoriented, his brother nowhere in site. With understandable fear and confusion setting in, 5 year-old Saroo boards another train hoping to correct his mistake. But to his dismay, it takes him farther and farther away.
Saroo finally gets off the train in Calcutta, his mishap placing hundreds of miles between him and family. Homeless and unable to speak the local language, he wanders the streets, is chased by police, and eludes danger for months before landing in an orphanage where he is soon adopted by a family in Australia. In a way, Australia is a respite from his wanderings as he is lovingly cared for by his new parents and develops a deep relationship with his adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman). As little Saroo plays with a rubber duck in the bathtub of his new home, Sue fondly watches and serenely whispers the words that any child, that anyone, longs to hear: “So you’ve come a long way haven’t you, little one. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. But one day you’ll tell me all about it, you’ll tell me everything; who you are, everything. I’ll always listen. Always.”
Shortly after this touching scene, the movie jumps to present day and we see 25 year-old Saroo in a different body of water, surfing off the coast of Australia. What is meant to be a serene moment in the grace of the waves is tinged with a feeling of lostness at sea. In some regards it brings to mind the reality that Saroo is just as homesick in Australia as he would be in the middle of the ocean. As an adult, it is evident that the metaphorical waves toss and turn as Saroo longingly scans the horizon for home. With only a handful of memories serving as his coordinates, his search is hopeless until he finds a map that could finally lead him home. The map in which he studies is not one he unfurls across a table but the release of Google’s new “Google Earth” feature in the mid-2000s. He plots and graphs, memorizes train routes and racks his brain for the fleeting memories of home. In his searching we feel the whiplash of his emotions; flashbacks of home are vivid in color, saturated with nostalgia and rooted in peace but are disrupted with shots of Saroo seemingly trapped in his apartment in a web of dead ends.
In his essay “Message in the Bottle”, writer Walker Percy examines the tension between lostness and home through the lense of a marooned castaway. He begs the question, what is a castaway to do? He responds:
“He should be what he is and not pretend to be somebody else. He should be a castaway and not pretend to be at home on the island. To be a castaway is to be in a grave predicament and this is not a happy state of affairs. But it is very much happier than being a castaway and pretending one is not. This is despair. The worst of all despairs is to be at home when one is homeless. But what is it to be a castaway? To be a castaway is to search for news from across the seas.”
Saroo knew about the land beyond the sea. He longed for it. And, spoiler alert, he makes it home. It is a triumphant return of the lost boy to his village, his culture, and his family. Kamla, Saroo’s mother, said that she was “surprised with thunder” when her son came home and that the happiness in her heart was “as deep as the ocean.” It’s hard not to cheer for stories like Saroo’s. And I think it’s because, in some regard, we all long for a sense of home and belonging; we’re all castaways longing for home.
Although I tend to associate being far from home with Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, Lion feels more like the lost sheep parable verses before. In the parable that Jesus gives, we don’t know what happened to the sheep or how it got lost; all we know is that it is. Similarly, Saroo’s lostness wasn’t a turning against family or country but the folly of a 5 year-old boy who accidentally fell asleep and lost his way.
Saroo’s struggle to find his way home is beyond imagining. And yet there’s something about his story that resonates on a deeper level in which Percy’s imagery helps elucidate; it’s natural to long for news from across the seas. Comforting words from theologian Chad Bird remind us that “We’re homo incurvatus in se, man turned in on himself. And as in the lives of biblical people, so in our daily lives, we have a God who is turned outward toward us. He searches for the lost sheep and rejoices to carry it home. The Shepherd comes to us in our tears and confusion, as we hold in our hands the shattered remains of the lives we once knew, and begins his most important work in our hearts.”
That there is someone who knows our past and the baggage we carry, acknowledges its weight, and still promises to never leave, is a profound grace. Kind of like the reassuring words from a mother to her son as he plays in the tub, or the shepherd finding us in the brambles and our mess, or the good news of Jesus meeting us on our deserted island and sailing our restless souls home.