Bittersweet homecoming for Indian woman raised in Pakistan

Oct 26, 2015 | International, News

Geeta holds her palms together in greeting as she looks out of a van while leaving for an airport to depart for New Delhi, outside the Edhi Foundation in Karachi. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

Geeta holds her palms together in greeting as she looks out of a van while leaving for an airport to depart for New Delhi, outside the Edhi Foundation in Karachi. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

By Mahnoor Yawar

India welcomed the return of a daughter Monday morning, 13 years after she strayed beyond its borders.

Known only as Geeta, the young hearing- and speech-impaired woman arrived in Delhi from Karachi on Monday morning accompanied by a small contingent of her adopted Pakistani family.

The big trip comes mere days after she identified her family in photos sent from India, after extensive efforts by the Indian government to locate her since acknowledging her as a citizen in August.

The government will now carry out a DNA test to ascertain if the family, who met her in Delhi, is really hers.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said Geeta is “refusing to recognize her family,” and will “counsel” her to accept them if the DNA test proved they were related.

If the tests are negative, she will be cared for at a shelter in India until her family is traced, officials said. Her widely feted arrival on Indian soil was a huge turnaround for national authorities, who as little as three months ago, did not even acknowledge her as a citizen. 

Her plight came to light following the success of a Bollywood movie that paralleled her life. In the 2015 Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a young mute Pakistani girl wanders into Indian territory and gets trapped there, until one pious man takes it upon himself to bring her back home.

The movie’s writers said they had never heard Geeta’s story when they made the movie. However, the star of the movie, Salman Khan, has since been vocal in his efforts to reunite Geeta with her rightful family and homeland.

The young girl was found on a special train service (the Samjhota Express) that ran from New Delhi to Lahore in 2002. She couldn’t say or hear a word, and was terribly agitated when authorities found her. No one knew how she’d gotten on the train, but she gestured cupping her ears and flinching when she was asked, as though taking cover from an explosion.

She had no documents, no accompaniment, no identification. They estimated her age to be about 11.

Unsure of what to do with her, local police handed her over to a girls’ shelter run by the country’s largest welfare organization, the Edhi Foundation. Founded by 87-year-old philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1951, the trust runs more than 330 welfare centres in rural and urban Pakistan which operate as kitchens, rehabilitation homes and shelters for abandoned women and children.

“She was very agitated during the year she spent at our Lahore shelter homes,” said Anwar Kazmi, personal secretary to Edhi. The shelter named her Fatima.

But the shelter staff was vastly underprepared to handle a case of this kind. She would often try to run away. “So they sent her to us in Karachi some time in 2003,” Kazmi said.

He said Edhi’s wife Bilquis, a nurse and philanthropist who has revolutionized the country with the foundation’s maternity and adoption services, took a liking to the girl. After the young girl bowed down to touch her elder’s feet out of respect and repeatedly asked for a prayer bell, it became clear to Bilquis: she was Hindu.

Bilquis rechristened her Geeta. “We never ask anyone to convert their religion,” said the emotional Bilquis in a news conference in Delhi on Monday.

Geeta (L) receives a kiss on her hand by Bilquis Edhi at Edhi Foundation in Karachi. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

Geeta (L) receives a kiss on her hand by Bilquis Edhi at Edhi Foundation in Karachi. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

Soon after Geeta moved in, Kazmi said, Bilquis was quick to readjust her household to accommodate the girl’s belief system. She had a small temple built in a separate room of the house to allow her to worship uninterrupted. Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi were celebrated in the house alongside all the Muslim holidays. She took pains to find someone who could read the girl’s script – not quite Hindi, but a regional version of Sanskrit – so she could communicate. But most of all, Kazmi said, Bilquis helped her find home by showing her a map of India. Geeta pointed to Bihar, a state in the northeastern India.

Kazmi said this was when the Edhi Foundation started to undertake the mission of trying to get Geeta home.

“We tried to work with the Indian High Commission. We got in touch with a few NGOs in India,” said Kazmi. He doesn’t acknowledge the bitter rivalry between Pakistan and India that closed off the possibility of working together to get her home.

“We did everything we could to try and locate her family, but it just didn’t work.”

Then, more than a decade later, a blockbuster movie highlighted her story, and Indian authorities could no longer look away from their own “mystery girl.”

The family that has come forward to claim Geeta as their long-lost daughter “Heera” say that their girl was married with a child and living in Punjab with her family, which does not correlate with her age.

Media personalities across the border are skeptical of the story, and worry that the young woman’s welfare may be at stake.

“I think in the eagerness to prove the Pakistan-India standoff can be thawed through civic action, they’ve gone a bit overboard,” said Pakistani journalist Haseeb Asif. “Human beings always end up as barter chips.”

Both Pakistani and Indian officials were quick to use the opportunity to lament hundreds of prisoners languishing on the wrong side of the border with no hope of return. Relations between the two countries are , with no indication of whether peace talks will resume.

Indian Prime Minister Modi announced a donation of 10m Indian rupees for the Edhi Foundation, which Edhi “politely declined” as the foundation cannot take donations from governments, only individuals.

Kazmi said the Edhis don’t care for politics or PR. They just want their girl to be happy.

“She’s not really separating from us. We will keep in touch with her,” said Faisal Edhi, director of the foundation and son of the Edhis, said in a news conference before her departure from Karachi.

Kazmi chuckles over the phone. “Of course Bilquis will miss her. We’ll all miss her. 13 years is no laughing matter – she will always be part of the family and always has a home if she wants to come back.”