How a Bollywood movie helped bring a disabled Indian woman home from Pakistan
Almost 15 years after she unwittingly strayed across the border into Pakistan as a girl, a deaf-and-mute woman Monday was brought back to India, where officials were trying to reunite her with her family.
The 23-year-old woman, whose name has been given only as Geeta, was greeted in New Delhi by Pakistani officials, who facilitated her return to India in a case that has received widespread attention in the rival countries.
Geeta’s story was obscure until earlier this year, when a blockbuster Indian film, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” featured the mirror-image story line of a mute Pakistani girl who unknowingly crossed into India, where she was cared for and ultimately brought home by a lovable simpleton played by megastar Salman Khan.
The feel-good story — which has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide, making it one of the biggest Indian hits of all time — temporarily warmed feelings between India and Pakistan. It also rekindled interest in Geeta’s story, which became fodder for newspaper columns and talk shows.
Arriving on a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Karachi, Geeta was accompanied by five staff members with the Edhi Foundation, the nonprofit group that provided her shelter for 15 years.
“Our daughter Geeta is back in India,” Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said. Swaraj thanked the charity group, whose members were being treated as state guests.
“We are very grateful that the foundation helped her keep her traditions alive,” Swaraj said, adding that Geeta did not eat meat, which is considered anathema by devout Hindus, while in Pakistan.
According to reports, Geeta strayed into the Pakistan at age 7 or 8, when she was found by police in the eastern city of Lahore. She stayed in a series of shelters, eventually landing at Edhi, one of Pakistan’s biggest charitable organizations.
However, there was a twist in the tale after Geeta arrived in India. Indian officials said she had recognized her family from a photograph, but after she reached New Delhi she refused to recognize that family, whose surname is Mahato, Swaraj said.
The Mahato family, in the northern state of Bihar, said the girl had been married before she went missing.
“Geeta has said that she is not married as claimed by the Mahato family,” Swaraj told a news conference. “She says the Mahato family is not hers.”
Swaraj said DNA tests would be conducted on Geeta and members of the Mahato family to determine whether there was a match. Janardhan Mahato, who identified himself as her father, told the Indian Express he had spent years looking for her and had spent the last six years in mourning, assuming she was dead.
“I do not care about how many tests they want,” Mahato said. “If she embraces me that will be the biggest test for me.”
Swaraj said Geeta would be sent to a shelter in the central city of Indore pending the DNA test results.
“If DNA tests show that Mahato family is really hers, then we will counsel her and try to convince her” to join the family, Swaraj said.
“No matter if we find her parents or not, she is a daughter of India and we will take care of her.”
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.
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