September 1, 2015

Truth is often stranger than fiction. And seldom more so than in the case of Geeta, whose heart rending story mirrors the plot of the recent Salman Khan blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan. As the angelic little Munni, who is bereft of the power of speech, stole the hearts of audiences across the country, it soon came to light that a real life parallel  of the film’s young protagonist has been living at the Edhi Centre in Karachi for over 10 years now.

Geeta is, in fact, not only mute but completely deaf as well. And unlike the fortunate Munni who is joyfully reunited with her family, our real-life heroine is still patiently waiting for that happy day.

Geeta is a slight, serious young lady who, despite her diminutive stature and disability, knows how to stand her ground and indeed, get her own way. “She has a mind of her own,” says Bilquis Edhi with an indulgent smile. “She does things according to her own mood.  When she wants to she will work, when she wants to she will be social. She loves to dance and is an excellent dancer if in the mood. But most of the time she is a very sober girl.”

Much like in the movie, Geeta was separated from her family and somehow strayed across the border. Unable to explain herself to the unsympathetic and impatient guards at the border, she was pushed to the Pakistani side even though she was an Indian.

The border guards handed her over to the Lahore police who then placed her in some institution. But she kept running away to look for home. Finally she was shipped off to the Edhi Centre in Karachi where she has lived ever since.

Geeta does know how to write and that would have been the perfect means of communication for her. Unfortunately, her writing is not in Hindi but in a local script that few can decipher. “We did get in someone to come and figure out what she was writing,” says Bilquis Edhi. “And that’s how she answered all our questions.” Geeta tells us that she is one of seven siblings and that her father used to go out to cut wood. She describes her home and its surrounding areas. But, sadly, the details provided by her have not been sufficient to trace her family.

For the past 10 years, Geeta has been raised as a daughter of the Edhi family. Seeing the little girl’s distress, Mrs Edhi FullSizeRendereven provided her a sanctum in a little mandir in an upstairs room at the Edhi Centre. This is where Geeta goes to pray and pour her heart out. “We celebrate all her festivals, whether Holi or Diwali. I arrange for sweets and snacks on Diwali and rang on Holi. Everyone joins in.” The true religion at the Edhi Centre is that of humanity and kindness. The simple wisdom and unparalleled goodness of the Edhis cuts through all the rigid indoctrination and self-righteousness that pervades society today. In the same spirit, Geeta is also often seen prostrating herself on a prayer mat  and celebrating all the Muslim festivals.

However, while she no longer runs away in the hope of reaching home, Geeta has never stopped yearning for her family. “Not a day passes that she doesn’t think of them,” says Mrs Edhi. “Where can I get her family from? Many visitors have come, some families even came to claim her but they were all false leads.”

After the release of Bajrangi Bhaijan, Geeta became the centre of media attention, rekindling her hopes of finding her family. She has appeared in television morning shows and on the front pages of newspapers. Even Salman Khan has apparently taken notice and issued a statement first expressing great surprise at the parallels and hoping that the Indian government tries to help her. “I watched the film with Geeta,” says Mrs Edhi. “ She liked it and was thrilled when the girl is returned to her family. But I told her Salman Khan gets beaten up a lot to make it happen. I can’t do that for you. I’m old.”

Bilquis Edhi says that she could arrange a good marriage for Geeta with someone of her own religion. But she won’t hear of it. “ So I have left her alone. I really hope and pray her dreams come true.” Mrs Edhi is stoic and completely in empathy with the girl’s desire to return home, even though she has done her best to nurture Geeta. Her only caveat in life, and quite unrelated to this incident, is the theft at the Edhi Centre that has still not been resolved. “Our money was never returned to us, except a small portion.”As for Geeta, there is no better publicity than Bollywood, with its finger set firmly on the pulse of the people. There couldn’t have been a more effective forum for telling Geeta’s story. Who knows, she may yet have a Bollywood ending too.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.