The story of a deaf-mute woman who lost her family when she wandered over one of the world’s most militarised borders as a child has sparked a rare moment of warmth between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, as diplomats work to help her.
Geeta, a slim young Hindu woman now in her early 20s, was around 11 years old when she crossed from India to Pakistan, a mistake that would spark an odyssey to find her family and captivate the public after a hit film with a similar plot was released last month.
Her story comes amid frosty relations between the two South Asian powers following a series of militant attacks that India blames on Pakistan.
Geeta’s plight resonates deeply; the hostilities keep apart many families who were separated when majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan became two different countries in 1947.
The neighbours have fought three wars since the partition.
Everyone is hoping that Geeta’s story, at least, will have a happy ending.
Geeta was brought to a home for lost and abandoned children by Pakistani soldiers, say officials at the charitable Edhi Foundation.
Geeta, who is illiterate, mimes the explosion of a hand grenade, and shows how she ducked and ran before being caught by armed men.
At first, Geeta was kept at a home for abandoned and orphaned children in the eastern city of Lahore, where she was given the Muslim name Fatima, said Faisal Edhi, son of the charity’s founder.
“She used to pick fights with the other children on a regular basis and the person in charge of the home … could not control her,” he said.
So the carers sent Geeta to the charity’s headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest and richest city.
“My mother realized that she was a Hindu when she gestured with both of her hands joined together and touched her feet,” he said, describing traditional Indian gestures of greeting. “My mother changed her name to Geeta.”
Over the years, charity founder Abdul Sattar Edhi, a frail figure with a long white beard, took Geeta to pray at Hindu temples. Charity officials marked Hindu holy days with her and included her in their Muslim celebrations.
Geeta would point at maps of India, especially to an area in the south of Jharkhand State. She mimes memories of a childhood home located near fields, cows, a road and a hospital.
It was unclear how she came to be near the Pakistani border, on the other side of India, Edhi officials said.
“We contacted the Indian High Commission twice in 2011. People from the High Commission visited her in Karachi, took her particulars, but nothing came of it,” said Anwar Kazmi, a senior official from the Edhi Foundation.
“Now, thanks to a Bollywood blockbuster, there is hope.”
The movie “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” was released last month. Superstar Salman Khan plays an Indian man who finds a mute Pakistani girl and tries to reunite her with her family.
The scriptwriters were unaware of Geeta’s story, but the movie generated an avalanche of interest in her case.
This week, the Indian ambassador visited her in Karachi.
“Our High Commissioner believes that Geeta is an Indian. We will bring Geeta back to India,” Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted on Tuesday. “We are grateful to all individuals and institutions in Pakistan who looked after Geeta.”
So far, one family says it thinks she may be their young daughter, lost when she was four as they begged at a railway station near the border. The mother and two children are deaf and cannot speak, like Geeta.
But Geeta does not recognise their pictures and says they are not her family. Although Edhi officials say she has become part of their home, Geeta says she has not given up hope of seeing her own family again.
“Geeta wants to go back, India is very good,” Faisal Edhi said, interpreting her sign language. “I am not happy here.”