On October 26, 2015, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted the photograph of a young woman, Geeta, holding onto his arm and smiling away from the camera. “Welcome Geeta. It is truly wonderful to have you back home.” That same day he announced, again via Twitter, the donation of 10 million Indian rupees to the Edhi Foundation for having given shelter to the deaf Geeta and then arranging her journey back to India, the country she had left as a child under mysterious circumstances. “…Too priceless to be measured,” is how Modi commented on this Karachi-based charity’s help to Geeta.
Geeta had flown from Pakistan to India after 13 years to be reunited with her family. No one knows who her parents are, and while the search continues for them, she is staying at the Indore Deaf Bilingual Academy.
In a photograph taken on her journey out of Pakistan, there is a purple shopping bag from the Pakistani fashion brand Khaadi next to her. Geeta sits with her palms touching, with a smile on her face, as she is escorted in a van to the airport in Karachi.
This summer’s Bollywood megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan tells almost the same story — of a deaf child who is lost across the border and is heroically returned to her homeland by the hero, played by Salman Khan. The movie makes many arguments for a homogenous humanity across borders – sincerity, love, friendship – while foregrounding differences that could be understood and accepted: the Muslim love for eating meat or Bajrangi’s love for Hanuman or the inhumanity of the police. It was only after that movie that journalists began to tweet out the story of Geeta, this “real-life Munni”.
A couple of months after Geeta’s departure, I am watching – via Twitter and online video streaming – Modi’s (surprise) visit to Lahore to wish Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday and attend Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. Journalists and commentators on Twitter are divided on the possible factors behind the visit. One vocal group notes the involvement of Sajjan Jindal, the Indian businessman with major stakes in a mining consortium which has purchased rights to extracting iron ore from Afghanistan to turn it into steel. Jindal was in Lahore the same day, after all. “In Lahore to greet PM Navaz Sharif [sic] on his birthday,” reads a tweet by the steel tycoon on December 25, 2015.
Khaadi. Salman Khan. Steel.
What unites these strands is the South Asian consumer: the one in Lahore and Delhi who buys designer clothes, watches Bollywood movies and wants easy regional commerce in minerals, metals and all sorts of consumer goods. Modi and Sharif, both proud of their pro-business credentials, no doubt wish to accelerate such commerce and the consumption that it fuels and is fuelled by. While India and Pakistan have long insisted on defining themselves through their borders, capital has no love lost for any boundaries or restrictions. Capital sees a young Pakistani labour market and a vast Indian market requiring iron and gas from Afghanistan and Balochistan in order for the regional and global economies to keep moving at their current pace, if not better.
The jingoists and the xenophobes on both sides of the India-Pakistan border have plenty of ammunition – cultural and theological – to scream against normalcy between the two countries. There is also scant evidence that the dominant paradigms governing their bilateral relations have shifted much. Surely, one can point to a story like that of Geeta’s to demonstrate that the two nuclear-armed neighbours are making some progress towards normalising their relations, but it is remarkable precisely because of its singularity.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indian and Pakistani fishermen caught in the open sea continue to languish in prisons on the wrong side of the border. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of families divided by the Pakistan-India border constantly ache to reunite. Their hope lies not in the real-world heroism of Abdul Sattar Edhi or the fictional one of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, but in the calculus of capital which seeks to unite us all as consumers.
Photo: Geeta leaves for the airport from the Edhi Foundation in Karachi | White Star
This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. Through a selection of photographs, the Herald took a look at some of the events and developments that were extremely significant in 2015.To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.