It was a 30-year-long wait for Surjeet Singh's family, but all the long months and years his kin lived without him were forgotten the moment it became clear that he would walk a free man from Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail soon.
"Tun buddh suhagan ho gayi (you have become a married woman in old age)," remarked an excited villager to Surjeet Singh's wife Harbans Kaur, who had lost hope of seeing her husband again in her lifetime. That was till 2005.
"Surjeet means coming alive again. Now, he has got a second life. And I always knew that he is alive," said Harbans Kaur, with tears of joy in her eyes. She had no words to explain her feelings on Wednesday after the news of release of her husband, who spent the last 30 years like a long night of sorrows. She blushed like a newly-wed as villagers thronged her house to greet her.
Villagers of Fidda, 38km from Ferozepur, were getting ready to accord a grand welcome to Surjeet. "There will be a grand welcome for Surjeet in the village. We will go to Attari to receive him. We have been collecting funds to arrange for the welcome party," said Joginder Singh, a resident of Fidda.
"We are all eagerly awaiting my father's release from Lahore jail. He completed his term years ago. Finally, he will be released," an elated Kulwinder, a son of Surjeet, said.
He maintained that his father inadvertently crossed over into Pakistan in 1981 and was arrested there. He was charged with spying and sent to prison.
It was on Tuesday that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had ordered the release of Surjeet Singh who was sentenced to death in Pakistan for allegedly spying for India. Later, his conviction was converted into 25-year imprisonment. Surjeet had completed his sentence in 2010 but his release has become possible now due to effort made by his family in India.
After 15 years of marriage, it was in 1981 that Surjeet disappeared without any intimation to his wife Harbans Kaur and his four children. Surjeet was in his early 40s at that time and had also worked for Punjab police in the past. At that time, his youngest daughter was one-and-a-half years old and eldest 12 years old.
Some time ago, the release of a prisoner from Pakistan had raised the hope of the family. Gurjit Singh was the first to inform the family about Surjeet Singh's whereabouts in 2005. Gurjit was also in Kot Lakhpat jail for long after travel agents duped him with promise of taking him to Europe. After his release, Gurjit brought a letter written by Surjeet informing his kin that he was alive and his release was due in 2010.
A long struggle for Surjeet's kin
The last 30 years were really difficult times for the family of Surjeet Singh. The Indian government offered no financial help to the family and it was left to fend for itself. Money shortage did not permit Harbans Kaur to provide quality education to her four children.
The financial condition of the family was such that the kin could not even manage to visit Pakistan in the last seven years to meet Surjeet Singh after they came to know that he was lodged in Kot Lakhpat jail in Pakistan.
During this period, his one son succumbed to a brain disease since Harbans had no money for his proper treatment. Surjeet does not know about his son's death yet.
He also does not know that seven of his nine brothers and sisters had also died while he was lodged in Pakistan jail. Surjeet's father Succha Singh passed away in 2003 while his other son Jaswinder died in 2005. His two daughters Parminder and Rani have been married.
The family was forced to sell their house left behind by Surjeet Singh in 1981. Son Kulwinder has constructed a new house outside the village by taking a bank loan.
"My husband sacrificed his whole life for the nation but successive governments just disowned us and our repeated attempts to seek help from various state and central authorities went in vain," rued Harbans Kaur.
It was Pakistan lawyer Awais Sheikh who offered to help the family in the hour of crisis. Sheikh is also the lawyer of Sarabjit Singh. Awais did not charge a single penny to file the case for the release of Surjeet Singh in the high court in Pakistan.
If it was Dalbir for Sarabjit, it was daughter Parvinder for Surjeet
Surjeet's daughter Parvinder fought tirelessly to secure the release of her father. In 2006, she met Pakistan human rights activist Ansar Burney during his visit to Indian Punjab. She though had to struggle hard to get an appointment.
Then she made contact with Dalbir Kaur, the elder sister of Sarabjit and came in contacts with the Pakistani lawyer.
Parvinder also worked hard, preferring not to go to school and instead taking up manufacture of khadi products at home to ensure two square meals for the family. "It was a tough fight but finally has borne fruit. I am thankful to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari for ordering the release of my father.
"I appeal to both the governments of India and Pakistan to release all prisoners jailed in both the countries even after completing their sentences," she said.
"We are also sad for Sarabjit Singh. It would have been better if the news of release of my father had been announced without any confusion," she added.