Lion: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, Loss and Courage
Dr. Stephanie Kripa-Coooper Lewter is an Indian-American social worker, life coach, speaker, author and philanthropist. She came to America as a toddler through international adoption from an orphanage in India giving her tender heart a deep desire at a young age to understand her “why.” Believing a person’s present circumstances never determines their ultimate destiny in life, her life’s work is to uplift, connect and inspire. She is co-founder of Lost Sarees, along with Founder and National Chair of Roshni, Lost Sarees’ National Women’s Giving Circle that connects women with South Asian heritage to give, serve and lead. In 2017, she penned a “Manifesto for the Adoptee’s Soul” as a gift for Dear Adoption. She has also written online for Lost Daughters and Masala Mommas. She is the recipient of the 2012 Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award by St. John’s Adoption Initiative which explored the identity journeys of women adopted transnationally as children in their quest for authenticity and connection. In 2012, she co-authored a chapter with her daughter, “Beautiful,” in Parenting as Adoptees. In 2013, she wrote the forward to An-Ya and Her Diary: Reader and Parent Guide, “Dedicated To Nikhila And The Nikhila’s Of The World.” Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute graduate and former President/CEO of a nonprofit youth mentoring organization, she can be followed and reached here.
On Christmas Day, I watched Lion with my family and it shook me to my core. Poignant, soul-wrenching and stunning with powerful acting, breathtaking cinematography and a touching musical score, Lion is deserving of its multiple nominations and awards. Actors Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel’s magnificent performances are bound to steal your heart.
Based on a true story, 5 year-old Saroo Munshi Khan (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep waiting for his older brother Guddu to return for him at an Indian train station. After awaking, he walks onto an empty train carriage thinking Guddu may be there and falls back to sleep. He later realizes the train is in motion. When Saroo is finally able to unboard, he is nearly 1,000 miles away from home in Calcutta where a completely different language is spoken. Escaping weeks of harrowing experiences living on Calcutta’s streets, then one of many children at Liluah Juvenile Home, Saroo is eventually brought to the Nava Jeevan orphanage. He is adopted by Sue and John Brierley in Australia. As he adjusts, he longs for a sibling to play with, and later Mantosh joins the Brierleys through adoption from India also. Midway through the film, grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) embarks on the college journey. Encounters with other international Indian students triggers memories of his mother Kamla, Guddu and little sister Shekila. Introduced to Google Earth, he begins the painstakingly slow process of searching for his hometown and family.
It’s unrealistic for one film to portray the full complexities of poverty, loss and adoption that Saroo’s single story holds. While there were departures from Saroo Brierley’s 250-page memoir, A Long Way Home, adapting his story to film, I applaud the way Lion keeps Saroo’s perspective as an adoptee central (although adoptive parent savior and rescuing themes emerge based on how Saroo frames his story to the world — see Chapter 4 in Saroo’s book entitled “Salvation”). Lion gets many aspects right about the adoption journey and is especially heart-rending for Indian adoptees and others transnationally adopted. Many can relate to the awkwardness of being asked to introduce who we are and where we are from, or the sleepless nights spent wondering about our families far beyond our reach oceans a part. Lion eloquently captured on screen the longing and pull upon my soul to find my Indian family and the reunion I have dreamed about a million times in my heart.
Lion also affirms quietly the following truths:
- Children can be active agents of change in their lives when listened to. Saroo told multiple adults in Calcutta he was lost, that his home was really far, and he needed help to find his mother only to be dismissed, taken advantage of or misunderstood. Saroo remained so clear about his family even after experiencing emotional trauma that separation bears. Too many adults he reached out to — especially those in authority — did so little to listen and care.
- A mother’s grief when a child goes missing is unfathomable. Kamla tried to find Saroo for years spending any little spare money she had to look for him and remained in the neighborhood believing he would one day return. Kamla couldn’t read or write and newspapers notices of Saroo’s whereabouts never reached her. Such grief she endured for so many years without any closure on how her son disappeared. More must be done to reunite children with their families who have lost a child that has gone missing or is trafficked.
- Children who are adopted are not blank pages; they arrive with a past. Whether adopted on the first day of life, at five or 15 years of age, adopted children join their families connected to a past. Saroo’s strong instincts, agency and survival skills before being separated from his family, undoubtedly helped him stay alive when he lived on Calcutta’s streets alone. His brother Mantosh arrived to Australia with a completely different history and trauma. Adoption professionals and adoptive families should ensure a child’s background history is honored and not ignored.
- The desire to search is healthy. Family and societal norms often impose a gratitude narrative upon adoptees expressed by the lengths many adoptees take to shield their adopted parents or family members from their desire to search. This underestimates the capacity adoptees have to simultaneously love multiple families, places and homes. Greater resources are needed for adoptees who are searching.
- Processing the losses and gains that accompany adoption is an ever-changing, lifelong journey. Time changes many things including how we feel about adoption as new life experiences shift how we look at the world. Saroo’s perspective will likely continue to evolve when new questions undoubtedly emerge as it does for so many adoptees who are navigating the complexities of reunion.
A few weeks ago, I watched Lion again, this time with several Indian women whose friendships I treasure: Poornema, Anuradha and Jyothi. Although we do not share the adoption journey, we share so many other aspects of our identities together – as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and immigrants in America. The universal themes in Lion of family, loss, identity and a mother’s love and search for home touched their hearts. We cried together as Saroo and Kamla finally embrace 25 years later after so many endless days and sleepless nights searching. As the credits finished rolling, their presence, hugs and heartfelt words conveyed to me that they understood, more deeply, the quiet ache my heart holds. They know first-hand the intricate contradictions and complexities that growing up in India holds.
Lion is a must-see film for those in the adoption constellation. It’s also for anyone who has felt the love of a mother, sibling or a child. Lion reminds us to never give up on unspoken dreams for our families despite impossible odds. I will never stop searching for my Indian family although the likelihood of a reunion grows infinitely smaller with each passing year. Unlike Saroo, I have nothing – no names, words or memories – to guide me home. We adoptees are so much more than what happened to us even amidst our deepest heartaches and losses that shape part of who we are in this world. Ultimately, Lion shows us that love transcends borders and the courage it takes to listen and follow one’s heart.
Watch the Lion trailer below.