But here she was, in Pakistan, on the wrong side of one of the world’s most militarized borders. Somehow she’d wandered across it alone back in 2003, when she was no more than 11 years old.
Now 23, Geeta has lived more than half her life in Pakistan; her true family and identity remained an apparently unsolvable mystery for most of that time. But a blockbuster Bollywood film that unwittingly told Geeta’s story in reverse — a young Pakistani girl with a speech impediment winds up in India — captured the hearts of two often antagonistic countries and brought new attention to her case.
It might even be responsible for her happy ending. Right after the film came out, India’s High Commission in Pakistan, which is what they call embassies in Commonwealth countries, began investigating the young woman’s story.
And on Thursday, this news came: “The Indian high commissioner has lately sent a family photo to us,” Anwer Kazmi, a senior official at shelter in Karachi where Geeta lives, told Agence France-Presse, “and Geeta has recognized the family.”
The Indian government has recognized Geeta as a citizen, the Hindu reported, and she’ll likely fly to Delhi within the next two weeks. If a DNA test matches her to the people who are believed to be her family, she’ll then head to their home in Bihar, a state on the border with Nepal and Bangladesh.
Geeta will also be Skyping with her family, Kazmi told AFP, and officials hope she can confirm their relationship then, bringing and end to a long an often disheartening search for the young woman’s family.
The story of how Geeta arrived in Pakistan is unclear. Reuters reported she was caught by armed men; the Indian Express says that she was found alone on a Samjhauta Express — the train that links Delhi and Lahore — at Lahore Station.
Either way, she was soon brought to a Lahore branch of the Edhi Foundation, a charity that runs shelters and health services. Staff there called her Fatima, a Muslim name, since they had no way of knowing her true name or identity.
When the girl called Fatima began acting out, staff at the Lahore center sent her to headquarters in Karachi, Faisal Edhi, son of the charity’s founder, told Reuters.
“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 a traditional Indian greeting.
So Fatima became Geeta, and the effort to figure out what an Indian girl was doing in Pakistan began.
But they had very little to go on. Geeta was able to mime memories of a home near fields, cows, a road, and could recall having seven brothers and four sisters, according to the Indian Express. She copied words from Hindi magazines. Most heartbreaking of all were the moments when she saw maps of India. Sobbing noiselessly, she pointed at two states in the eastern half of the country, tapping her finger toward the two regions again and again.
Edhi Foundation staff took her case repeatedly to the Indian High Commission — at one point, officials came to the Karachi shelter to visit Geeta — but nothing ever came of it. Pakistan’s renowned human rights lawyer Ansar Burney also visited India three years ago, hoping to use Geeta’s photographs and videos to find her family. He too had little luck.
Though she remained hundreds of miles from home, Geeta stuck to the traditions she grew up with. According to the Indian Express, the shelter’s staff set aside a room for her to pray as a Hindu. And when they urged her to marry a Hindu boy in Pakistan and begin a new life for herself, she refused. She would only get married in India, she insisted.
Then, this summer, the Bollywood drama “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” came out. The characteristically epic movie, which stars Salman Khan, told a story not unlike Geeta’s: a young Pakistani girl wanders off a train in India, and a friendly benefactor (Khan) must move heaven and Earth to get her back home.
All of a sudden, interest in Geeta’s case surged. Khan asked the film’s director to help Burney find the young woman’s family. The Indian government sent envoys to Karachi to talk with her.
Indian television channel NDTV said that Geeta broke into tears watching “Bajrangi Bhaijaan.”
Though she doesn’t fly out for at least a week, the TV station reports, she is already packed and ready to go home.