“Welcome Geeta. It is truly wonderful to have you back home. Was truly a delight to spend time with you today.”
From the time she walked out of the Delhi airport before 11 am till Monday evening, when this tweet was posted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the extraordinary story of a hearing and speech impaired girl who strayed across the border around 15 years ago had taken a few more extraordinary turns.
Geeta met the Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister, addressed reporters in sign language, failed to recognise the family that had come from Bihar to claim her, was slated to undergo a DNA test to confirm her identity and scheduled to stay till an answer is found with a charitable organisation.
The day was no less eventful for those linked to her.
Members of the Edhi foundation, including Karachi-based Bilqis Bano Edhi, who had taken care of Geeta in Pakistan, was feted as “honoured guests” with a “thankful” Prime Minister announcing “a contribution of Rs 1 crore to their foundation”.
On the other side was the Mahato family, headed by a farm labourer, who had come from Saharsa in full media glare, hoping to take “Heera” home, only to be put on hold — they count her as one among seven siblings and say she had gone missing at a village fair.
Watching his daughter arrive in India on TV cameras at the Bihar Bhawan lobby, Janardhan Mahato told The Indian Express: “She loved to be photographed even as a child. But we did not have cameras. So she would giggle and pose before the mirror. Look at her today… this is all destiny.”
“We were waiting for the moment when Geeta would be happy to see them. But after the initial hug, Geeta refused to identify them. There was zero spark,” said sources present at the meeting.
Swaraj and the officials tried desperately to get Geeta to remember the Mahatos. The family was even asked to recite a lullaby or a story from her childhood days, but there was no recollection. For almost about 30 minutes, they sat in the room through periods of awkward silence.
“She is being very naughty or I may have grown so old that she didn’t recognise me,” a confused Mahato told The Indian Express.
About an hour later, Swaraj told the eagerly waiting media: “There is a complication…Geeta has refused to identify the family. We have collected her blood samples and that of the Mahato family. A DNA test will be conducted to see if she is indeed the child of the Mahato family.”
Asked what would happen of the test failed, Swaraj said the search for Geeta’s parents would continue. Till then, Swaraj said, Geeta would be staying with an Indore-based charitable organisation, headed by Monika Punjabi, who runs a school for the speech and hearing impaired.
In case the DNA test confirms that the Mahato family is indeed Geeta’s own, Swaraj said the Government would “try and ask her to remember…we will sit with her…maybe, experts like Monika will have to spend hours with her”.
In fact, Geeta communicated to reporters in sign language that was interpreted by Punjabi. “I used to be upset sometimes in Pakistan…but, now, in India, I feel very happy,” Punjabi said, citing Geeta.
According to sources, there were discrepancies in the versions provided by Geeta and the Mahato family on how she strayed into Pakistan 12 years ago. “There are inconsistencies, but then she was too young when she crossed over to Pakistan…so we will have to wait for the DNA test,” sources said.
Swaraj also thanked Bilqis for taking care of Geeta in Pakistan, and said that not only did she give her the love of a mother but also protected her religious freedom.
Edhi said, “When we used to call her Fatima, she wasn’t happy. She would fold her hands, touch our feet. She also used to ask for bells to pray with. That’s when we realised that she is not a Muslim and from India. And I gave her the name Geeta.”
Asked whether the Bollywood movie “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” helped get Geeta back to India, Edhi said, “Yeh hamari story le li…par hamara kaam kar diya (they took our story, but did our job).”
Swaraj said Edhi had asked her to get Geeta married: “I told her that you will be surely invited.”
The External Affairs Minister also said that Geeta would be given vocational training to make her independent. She announced that the Edhi family would be treated as “state guests” and taken to Agra and Delhi — and even Ajmer Sharif, if they wished to. “They are our honoured guests,” Swaraj said.
In another twist, Geeta’s meeting with the Prime Minister was captured for posterity in a photograph in which she is seen clinging on to the PM’s arm, but a reception in her honour by the Pakistan High Commission was cancelled due to the earthquake in the region.
And finally, it turns out that Bilqis Bano Edhi was born in Bantwa Junagadh — in Gujarat.