WHEN she went missing, it was a winter morning in 1979, “probably January 20”. The Shingne family looked for Panchfula, then 53, for two years, before giving up. For 41 years, Panchfula lived less than 500 km away. Given her mental disability, she couldn’t tell the Muslim family that took her in about her home; and the Shingnes had few resources to track her down, in the time before mobile phones and Google.
Last week, a sudden name Panchfula dug out of her memory, a quick Internet search, and some photos and videos shared over the phone reunited her, now 94, with her family. From the Shingne home in Nagpur to the Khan household in Kotatala village in Damoh district of Madhya Pradesh, the story of the miracle is being shared over and over six days later.
Esrar Khan, 40, talks about how his father Noor Mohammad, a truck driver, stumbled upon Panchfula just outside their village Kotatala, lying by the roadside and stung by honeybees. “He took her to a doctor. After she recovered, he tried to find out who she was, but she was not coherent. She would utter words like ‘Khamia Nagar’, ‘Nagpur’, ‘Medical’. My father even went to Nagpur, but police could not help,” Khan says.
Over the years, Panchfula became a member of the large family — Khan has two brothers and four sisters — with everyone addressing her as “mausi (aunt)”. Panchfula called Noor “Chaturbhuj bhaiyya”. Khan recalls how, at every meal, she would keep aside one roti in a basket, saying it was for either “Bhaiyyalal” or “Chaturbhuj” – the names of her son and brother, as the Khans now realise.
In May, Khan, who works with an organisation that organises cleft-lip corrective surgery camps for the needy, says he heard Panchfula utter a new word, ‘Parsapur’. “I was not sure if she had ever taken that name before. So, I immediately Googled it, to find there was such a place in Amravati district of Maharashtra. Further search led me to a name, Kanishka Online, from the same place with a phone number. When I called up, a person called Abhishek picked up, and I asked if there was a place called Khamia Nagar nearby. He said there was one Khanjam Nagar, about 3 km away. I sent him some photos and videos of Panchfula, requesting him to search if she had any kin there.”
Soon, Abhishek got back: yes, Panchfula originally belonged to that village in Amravati and continued to have relatives there. They in turn got in touch with her family settled in Nagpur. On June 17, Bhaiyyalal’s son, Pruthvi Bhaiyyalal Shingne, arrived in Kotatala to meet his grandmother.
Khan says they were heartbroken when they realised Pruthvi wanted to take her back. “I told him you can come to meet her whenever you want, but please don’t take her away. But, he was insistent. So I said he had to accord us the privilege of conducting her last rites as per our tradition, when the time comes, to which he agreed.”
The whole village turned up to see Panchfula off. The Khans were in tears. Panchfula herself was content, once told it was Bhaiyyalal who had come to get her, Khan says.
Bhaiyyalal, Panchfula’s only child, died in 2017. Pruthvi says her husband Tejpal passed away in 1995, and Chaturbhuj six months ago. Over at Kotatala, Noor too is dead, having died of heart problems in 2007.
The families can’t say if Panchfula, who links all of them together, realises this. Or, that the Shingne family now lives in Dipti Singal area, rather than Garoba Maidan, from where she went missing. She is hard of hearing now, and her eyesight is very weak. But, apart from that, she might still be in 1979, Pruthvi says. “When we brought her to this house, she didn’t react. It seems she is still the same person she was then.”
For that, the Shingnes say they only have the Khans to thank. “Who does so much for a mentally unstable person? Even your closest relatives won’t,” says Panchfula’s daughter-in-law and Pruthvi’s mother Suman. “This shows humanity is bigger than any religion or caste.”
The Khans hope it stays that way, and that the Shingnes will let Kotatala be Panchfula’s final resting place. Pruthvi says while he got his grandmother home so that he could do his bit for her, he can’t object. “The right to the last rites is theirs since they took care of her for 40 years.”
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