It was from a brief report on Pakistan’s Geo News channel in July 2012 that I first learnt of the woman called Geeta, so brief that one would have missed it if one blinked. The news clip referred to a speech and hearing impaired woman who had been stranded in Pakistan since she strayed across the border 13 years ago.
Except for a few minutes of footage showing Geeta praying at a temple in Karachi and meeting a man who read out her scribbles in Hindi, there was nothing else about the woman. It wasn’t even apparent from the report that Geeta was the name given to her by the Pakistani woman who had been caring for her.
Having learnt that Geeta was living in a shelter in Karachi run by the Edhi Foundation, I reached out to a spokesman for Pakistan’s largest charity founded by philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi. Going to Karachi to uncover more details about Geeta was out of the question because the Pakistan government had withdrawn my three-city visa and limited me to Islamabad.
Edhi Foundation spokesman Anwar Kazmi put me in touch with Bilquis Edhi, the wife of Abdul Sattar Edhi who had taken Geeta under her wing after she attempted to escape from several shelters in Lahore. Bilquis ‘apa’ explained to me Geeta’s speech and hearing impairments had left her frustrated as she was unable to explain her plight to others.
The patience showed by Bilquis, who let Geeta set up her own mandir in a corner of the shelter, allowed the woman to open up and tell people through sign language about her Indian origins.
The Edhi Foundation reached out to priests in Karachi’s Hindu temples – among the few people in Pakistan, other than spooks from intelligence agencies, who can read the Devanagari script – to decipher Geeta’s writings. This yielded some clues about Geeta’s village in India but not enough to pinpoint a geographic location. Most people concluded from these clues that Geeta belonged to either Bihar or Jharkhand.
After my report for the news wire that I worked for at the time appeared in Indian media outlets, there was considerable interest in Geeta’s case. Pakistani rights activist Ansar Burney and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan made a concerted push to trace her family.
But as media and public interest waned, Geeta’s story too faded from the limelight. Until Salman Khan scored a massive hit this year with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a film whose storyline was eerily similar to the real life story of Geeta. The fresh push resulted in Indian diplomats confirming Geeta’s nationality and finalising the process to bring her home. Though Geeta has returned home, her journey still isn’t over.
(The writer was an Islamabad-based correspondent during 2007-13)