An Indian woman stranded in Pakistan for thirteen years, has finally returned home.
Found wondering alone and in distress along one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders, Geeta was taken in by a shelter in Pakistan for more than 10 years.
Last week the young woman made the long awaited journey home but there are still mysteries to solve in her story.
In this special cross-border report, Naeem Sahoutara and Jasvinder Sehgal, trace her journey from Karachi to New Delhi.
The Bollywood movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a big hit in Pakistan this July.
The story is about a young girl, Geeta, who mistakenly left India during her Kashmiri family’s religious pilgrimage.
Deaf and dumb, the young girl is unable communicate to border police and find her way home.
The movie took the cinemas and cable networks here by storm.
“Whenever it came on cable I watched it,” says Nasreen Patrick, a 46-year-old nurse, “A number of times… You don’t get bored watching this movie.”
Nasreen has been a fan of Bollywood movies since her childhood and says this story had something special.
But when the movie was released, no one suspected it was based on a true story and that Geeta was living just kilometers away.
A short walk from the movie cinema in Karachi, Geeta, the real character, is worshiping at a shelter home.
Philanthropist Bilquees Edhi, is head of the shelter home, and remembers the day that Geeta wandered into her care.
“One day she was found around the India-Pakistan border in Lahore. The India border security guards spotted her in distress and handed her over to their Pakistani counterparts, assuming that she was a Pakistani and had mistakenly crossed into India,” she explains.
Unable to hear or speak, and without identity papers, the border guards brought Geeta to the shelter where she would spend the next thirteen years of her life.
Initially she was registered as Fatima, because it was assumed she was a Muslim.
But, things miraculously changed five years ago, explains Bilquees.
“One day some Indian program was being shown on the television in my room. Geeta was sitting here with me,” she says, “That’s when all of sudden she started moving her hands excitedly, telling me that she belongs to India.”
After that she was given an Indian name – Geeta – and has been praying to be reunited with her family.
When the Bajrangi Bhaijaan movie was released, Geeta’s story become headline news.
Following the hype the Indian deputy high commissioner in Islamabad visited Geeta and accepted her as an Indian national. This month she was issued a visa.
With unresolved issues between the two countries, and a heavily militarized border, relations have been tense between India and Pakistan over recent years.
In September the two sides postponed much-awaited diplomatic talks to resolve longing standing issues, including discussions over Kashmir.
But Geeta’s story has become a symbolic of a strong connection between the two nations.
With a smile on her face Geeta is packing up her belongings, getting ready to leave for New Delhi in the morning, where my colleague Jasvinder will continue to trace Geeta’s journey...
Here at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, thousands of people have come to receive Geeta.
Among them is Janardhan Mahato, a man who claims to be Geeta’s father.
He has come with his three sons to receive his missing daughter and is sure she will recognize him instantly.
“God is very great. Nobody can prove that she is not my daughter. Once she meets me, she will definitely hug me in her arms,” he says.
Janardhan claims that Geeta is her eldest daughter and that her real name is Heera.
He explains how it was that she managed to go missing across an international border.
“We married her to a boy of Kartarpur in the state of Punjab. He took her to Maliha village and after 2-3 months the couple went to attend the fair of Baisakhi, but she got lost,” explains Janardhan, “Eight other relatives and I searched for her for three months. I put advertisements on television and in newspaper, but it was all in vain.”
Its 10.30 a.m. now and the Pakistan International Airlines flight PK 272 carrying Geeta from Karachi has just landed.
At the exit gate of the special lounge, people are eager to meet India’s newfound daughter.
And here she comes, smiling Geeta, dressed in a red tunic, her head covered with a matching scarf, she is clutching bouquets of roses.
From the airport she is taken directly to Indian foreign ministry for a press conference where she is welcomed by India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj.
“I thank the Government of Pakistan from the bottom of my heart that without any delay, all the formalities of completing her papers were done in no time,” she says, “Due to this only, today Geeta is here. I also want to thank the NGO who took care of Geeta in Pakistan all these years. Geeta is not an ordinary girl and we will take utmost care of her.”
But Sushma says that Geeta will not be handed over to Mahatos, as she failed to recognize them.
“Today when we arranged a meeting of Geeta and the Mahatos couple along with their three sons, but she refused to identify them,” she says, “She says that the couple are not her parents. Now we have taken the blood samples for a DNA test.”
As the DNA results are being processed Geeta will be sent to an institution in Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, where she will learn sign language.
Monica Punjabi is a sign language teacher at the Indore institute.
She is also at the press conference telling Geeta in sign language, what’s going on.
Geeta, who can understand some basic signing, replies to her using her hands, and Monica translates this into words.
“She is saying that I want to live in India now. I am very happy here. I will definitely do some work but will live here, only.”
From Bollywood to real life, the lead actor of the Bajranji Bhaijaan film says India must make sure things turn out well for Geeta.
“We should try hard to find her real parents out. Her future should be better than her past,” he says, “We should make it sure that her life out here is much better than her life over there. Otherwise what’s the fun of bringing her here?”
In India and Pakistan this week, truth has proved stranger than fiction.