She looked around slowly taking the place in. Nothing had changed since the last time she was here. She walked up to the door; the board was still there. ‘Aisha’s Room’ it proclaimed with a note to ‘knock before entering’. Aisha turned back and looked at her desk, everything was in order just like she had left it, nothing had been replaced or moved. She picked up the cuddly Teddy Bear lying on her bed; she had named it Puchku in an inspired moment. A soft smile broke on her face as she remembered how hard she had fought her mom to name her teddy that. “Simpler times”, she thought.
She opened her cupboard to find her old clothes, kept neatly in order. The cupboard had a sweet fresh fragrance, reminding her of her favourite clothes freshener. She remembered her wedding dress, was at the top of the pile to the side. She looked for it and found it missing. Aisha let out a sigh, she was not sure that she wanted to see that lehnga but its absence also told her a lot. Smiling faces greeted her from the photographs up on the wall, her parents, Kavya, Mitul and Aarav; she had put the pictures up to remind her of what mattered to her. Everything was the same yet everything had changed.
The smile on their faces did not make her smile anymore. If anything she was angry. It was as if her life had stopped and she was stuck in a moment and everyone else had moved on. She had noticed the changes around her house. Everything from wall colours to upholstery had changed. And yet her room was untouched. The last six years, had changed everyone’s life around her, but not hers. “Should I be happy about it?” she thought.
Lately she was not sure what she should think. Mitul was gone, and she could not make sense of anything anymore. The more she looked at her old room the angrier she got. She should have been a part of their lives; but here she was struggling to find a place to fit in. She was not even a part of their memories, it was as if they just gave up and moved on without her. They were not even looking for her or waiting for her to come back, that is what Mitul had told her, that is what she saw. Except for this room, it was waiting and trying to tell her something else, showing her how much was held on to.
“Damn! This headache,” she thought as she felt a warm tear roll down her cheeks. Aisha hadn’t even realised that she had begun to cry. She could not stand there anymore, standing in that room just confused her even more. She longed to talk to Mitul, to ask him questions; he was the only one who could separate the truth from lies for her. Yet everyone here told her that he was the one person she could not meet. The door to the room closed suddenly, with the gust of wind that carried the fragrance of the flowers inside. Aisha trembled, and felt the onset of another panic attack. She ran downstairs to escape, only to come face to face with the two people she did not want to see, at least not yet.
Kavya, was the first to react. Looking at Aisha she did the only thing she could, she hugged her best friend tightly. No one knew what the past 6 years had done to Aisha, except Mitul. Kavya did not know what to expect, except that she had been waiting for six years to hug her best friend. Aarav was staring at the two women in front of him not knowing what to do. Both important to his life, one his present and the other his past that he thought was lost to him forever.
Aisha let Kavya lead her into the living room. She saw her parents there. She had refused to meet them when she was brought home. Aisha was not sure how she felt about her parents giving up the search for her. She knew they were told that she did what she did out of her own will. But she never ever thought that they would believe Mitul and blamed them for doing so.
Aisha looked over at Kavya and Aarav. They stood a little apart, which Aisha thought was probably out of respect for her. Them, she did not blame at all. By the time she had heard of Aarav’s engagement she had given up all hope of ever being found. When her own parents had moved on, how could she blame Aarav, No she could never blame Aarav or Kavya.
When Mitul had taken her she knew something was wrong. He was her best friend and along with Kavya they were like the three musketeers. That is why she had believed him when he said that Aarav wanted to meet her. Of course he wouldn’t send a message through Kavya, she would never help. That is why she didn’t Kavya when snuck out. That was the decision that changed her entire life. If only she had told someone, if only she had spoken to Aarav. If only…
She kept on waiting for someone to come and find her. She was just 10 minutes away the whole time. And yet, she felt as if everyone was slipping away. She had expected her parents to look for her; she had expected Aarav to not give up. She had faith that she will be found, and one day just like that everything was crushed.
Initially when Mitul told her that no one was looking for her Aisha did not believe him. But slowly it began to become apparent that no one was coming. It was getting harder for Aisha to hold on. That is when Mitul brought the recording. He left her alone as she played it.
“But shouldn’t we at least try to find out where she is?” Mitul was asking
“No, she chose this, let her go, she is dead to me,” the unmistakable voice of her father. He sounded angry, and she could hear her mother’s sobs at the back. She was waiting for her mother to say something but she did not.
“I agree, if this is what she wants Mitul, I think we should let her be,” Aisha had never heard him so broken. Aarav had thought that this was her choice.
“But I did not choose anything” she screamed into the empty room as loud as she could. Yet no one heard her. That was the moment she lost hope, the moment when she realised no one was looking for her and she was stuck here forever.
Mitul was the one keeping her alive now, the one she depended on for knowing what was happening. The day he brought Aarav and Kavya’s wedding card to her, she was happy that Aarav would not be broken anymore. After all he was marrying her best friend. She should be happy.
And that is how she accepted living with Mitul. And slowly his word became the truth for her. He was the only one who knew what was happening, and right now the only one she was conditioned to trust. And yet he was not here to tell her what to do next. She had not known the entire story of her rescue. All she could remember was the Police barging in and shooting. Mitul held her in front of him, but an officer got into a scuffle with him, and Mitul was shot. That is when she fainted. The Police took both of them to the hospital, from where Mitul was taken into Police Custody.
Aisha still did not understand why Mitul did what he did. He said he loved her, but he made her suffer for years, because that is what was best for her he said. When Aisha had come to her sense n the hospital she had given the staff her name and address. But she had refused to speak to her parents. She refused to talk to anyone, even Aarav and Kavya who had come to meet her. Confused and unsure, she had even requested the Police to take her home earlier today.
“I am sorry”, the first words she heard from her mother in years, “I should have stood my ground. I should not have believed that liar”.
Aisha cringed, not because she believed that Mitul was not a liar, but because she did not know what to believe anymore.
“How could you not know that I would never give up everything like this”, she was surprised at the firmness in her voice. “How could you not know what your own daughter is capable of? How could you believe it was my choice?”
Her father had buried his head in his hands and was crying.
“I owe you an apology too”, Aarav spoke. “Deep down, I knew…” He stopped and looked at Kavya. The look told Aisha all she needed to know.
“We knew” Kavya continued when Aarav stopped “We should have tried.”
“But you would not have gotten far without my parents support. I don’t blame you for anything. Infact I am happy that you found your happiness especially in each other.”
“I do have a favour to ask you, I need a place to stay until I figure out my life. Could I stop over with you for a few days? I will accept no as your answer, because I really don’t know if it is the right thing to ask. But I need to be somewhere else while I sort my life out, while I learn to differentiate between truth and lies again.”
It had been a few weeks since she moved in with Aarav and Kavya. She was grateful when she heard the “Yes” from Kavya. Aarav had said nothing at all. Aisha suspected Aarav did not like the idea much. Aisha knew this would complicate things, but these were the only two people she felt comfortable with right now. She felt betrayed by her parents and she did not want to live with them until she could get a handle on herself. And living alone was out of the question because of the night terrors. She would scream her heart out at nights; she felt she was back in her dark little room, hidden neatly behind the bookcase.
The guest room at Kavya’s house was nice and breezy. Aisha knew this house well. She had seen it being built brick up, it was after all Aarav’s house too. The initial awkwardness had now given way to ease between the two friends. They were almost as comfortable as they were six years back when they would have their famous girls night outs ending in sleepovers. Aisha was grateful for Kavya, comfortable presence. The first night without medication had been a torture. No one had expected the night terrors to be so bad.
When Aisha woke up screaming in the dark, she felt like she always had ever since the day Mitul had abducted her. Alone, Angry and terrified. But unlike those nights, this time Kavya had rushed to her side, hugged her and stayed up with her all night. They spoke about a lot of things. Aisha was glad that she could speak whatever she wanted. She caught up on a lot of things that went on around them.
She asked Kavya about the wedding. Aisha was surprised when Kavya said they had a court wedding. There was no cards, no celebration. Both Aarav and Kavya were against celebrating when because of what had happened. Aisha remembered the day she was shown the wedding card by Mitul and realised what a grand show he put up for her benefit. Printing a wedding card to ensure that Aisha believes that she was forgotten by the people she was expecting to remember her.
That night started a familiar routine in the house hold. Every night both the girls would spend time talking and catching up. Aarav was still distant thought. Aisha assumed he did not know how to react given the situation. Their relationship had never really ended and neither of them had any closure.
“Maybe that is what was making things hard”, thought Aisha now as she got ready for her mandatory counselling session, “Mandatory because there was talk of her suffering from a severe case of Stockholm’s Syndrome, like she could ever sympathise with Mitul”, she scoffed.
It was the counsellor who had suggested that she live in a space that feels comfortable to Aisha, and it may not necessarily be her parent’s house. She decided that she will talk to her counsellor about this problem today.
Aisha decided to make the first move. It was the right thing to do, even her counsellor had agreed. So when she got back home, Aisha decided to make a thank you dinner for Aarav and Kavya for letting her stay there and supporting her. An elaborate plan ready, Aisha started working putting it into action. She already knew what they liked to eat she just had to put dinner on the table.
She ensured that she tasted everything before putting it on the table. A simple task like cooking a meal was giving her so much joy. She remembered how her mother tried so hard to get her into the kitchen to learn to cook and how she hated to cook. As suddenly as that memory came, another more recent one came up where she was begging Mitul to cook something edible for her to eat. She even offered to go out into the kitchen and cook for the both of them. But Mitul would not let her go.
He was worried that people would see her. And so six years she ate indigestible food of bread sometimes stale, and whatever else was available. Sometimes when she was good and listened to him, he would get her something hot like instant noodles to eat. And on days Mitul would not eat at home, she would go hungry. The first time she looked at her shriveled self in the mirror, Aisha had not recognised herself. But today she was doing much better on that front.
When the door bell rang everything was ready and perfect. Aisha opened the door with a big smile on her face. The smile immediately fell when she saw her parents standing in front of her. They seemed to have a plan as they walked in with purpose.
“Pack your bags, enough of this you are coming home”, her father said.
“Yes, you know how it looks when you stay two streets away from your own house Aisha. People are talking about you and we are worried.”
“So the only reason that drove you here is not my well being but people talking?”
“Aisha how can you say that, we worry about you and hence we do not want people to talk about you, come home. This is not you home you will be more comfortable in your own bed.”
“The only reason we stayed away so long is because your mother asked me to, else I would have pulled you and taken you home a long time back.”
“So that is your solution to this, you don’t want to listen or understand me; you just want me to follow orders. Why did you not do the same when I was locked in that dingy room behind the cupboard, hungry and tortured? Why did you not come and rescue me then Dad, why? Why don’t you just give up now, like you did then? It is not that different?”
“But actually it is”, Aarav’s voice was loud and clear. “You need to sort this out with your parents, you need to go home”.
Aisha stood still as she heard those words. “Was he right? Do none of them actually care?” The thought that she was just a problem to all of them, was the only thing on her mind as she was being led away by her mother. She did not notice Kavya’s tears, or the fact that Aarav would not look her in the eye. Nor could she see the concern on her parents face. The only thing she wanted to do right now was to see Mitul and hear his reassuring voice. She wanted to know that she mattered to someone, even if it was Mitul.
Aisha was unsure about what was going on. She knew she was not angry. But, she was also sure she did not want to be here. She could not let go of this sense of betrayal, but she could not decided who had betrayed her.
Was it Kavya for not speaking? She found it strange how it was only Kavya who was quiet that day. Everyone had something to say except her. Did her best friend betray her, or she like the others did not want her all along. “But Hadn’t Kavya said yes the moment I had asked to live with them. Why did she agree if she did not want me there?”
And then Kavya had taken so much care of her, she was responsible for Aisha’s being able to sleep at night. In fact even her doctor was happy with the progress that reconnecting with Kavya had resulted in for Aisha.
“Then why?” Aisha was desperately searching for answers to her questions. Her parents knew, the doctor had told them she wouldn’t b comfortable back home, and to do everything to make this transition easy for her. Did her parents really not care? Was Mitul actually right about this, Aisha walked downstairs into the kitchen.
“You should have been more nice, you were rude to her”, suddenly she heard her mom’s voice. “She is our daughter and has been through a lot.”
“Don’t you think I know that”, her father sounded irritated. “But you know as well as I do that getting her out of that house was important. You forgot what Aarav said.”
“Her presence is causing so many issues in our life. She needs to give us some space, yes I remember these words; I heard them talk too.”
“How could I let our daughter remain in that house after that, Kavya did not even say anything? Aarav thought she was a problem, and for how long were they going to put their life on hold for Aisha’s sake”
Aisha was shocked, so this is why everything happened seemingly suddenly. This was all a part of their plan? Or were her parents just trying to save her from another heart break. Aisha suddenly felt a headache coming on. Her vision blurred and she felt suffocated.
Just like that she was back in that room. Aisha screamed, but no one heard her. She didn’t remember when she had her last meal. That is when Mitul walked in. Aisha realised he seemed conflicted. He had something in his hand, Aisha tried to get a glimpse of it, but she could not.
“I have been trying to explain to you, but you always said I was wrong”, Mitul extended his hand so that Aisha could reach out to take what he had in his hand. “This is what I have been trying to tell you. They do not want you, you do not matter.”
Aisha took the card and read the words. Aarav Weds Kavya and the invitation sent out in her parents’ name.
“I do not matter, not anymore.” The words echoed in her head. He was right. Aisha walked out of the house. She had somewhere to be.
“Where could Aisha have gone? She left to come here,” Aisha mother looked worried
“Did she specifically say she was coming here, did you ask?” The doctor asked
“No she was not talking to anyone.” Her father replied.
“I warned you to go slow, it is not easy. The emotional stress is real. I know you think she should be happy and relieved, but no one knows what she went through for 6 years. She needed you to win her trust back.” Doctor Doshi had seen several such cases in her life time. People just did not understand PTSD or Stockholm’s Syndrome for that matter.
“But…” Aisha mother began
“You knew she was showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome. You had to get her to trust you again, not tear her further apart. Do you realise how lonely she was and her visions, those terrible night terrors? How long do yout hink she will last in the world? Do you realise why…” The doctor suddenly stopped. There was no point, they really would not understand.
Aisha, knew now she would not be alone. She would be with the one person to whom she had mattered in the past 6 years. She would be finally be free, once she figured out a way to get what she wanted.