“We’ll find her, don’t worry. A police officer should be here soon,” Mohit said softly to console Rohini, his wife. They deliberated on where Rima, their fifteen-year old daughter might be and they didn’t have a clue.
The police officer arrived soon and it was 10:11 PM.
“Imran Ali,” the officer introduced himself.
“Mohit Ganesh. Thank you for coming, officer.”
The three of them settled down and Imran asked, “So, what happened?”
“Rima and I were having lunch when I got a call from our staff at the boutique saying that one of our regular customers wanted to see me,” Rohini recollected, “So I left immediately. I got back later in the evening and went about my chores. I thought Rima was studying in her room and realized that she was missing when I went to call for her dinner.”
“And where were you, Mr. Mohit?” Imran asked.
“I was at office since morning.”
“Did you notice anything suspicious or unusual about Rima today?” Imran asked Rohini.
“She came home early from school today. She said she was not feeling well. Other than that, she was like her usual self.”
“I would like to see her room.”
“Sure,” Rohini said and the three of them went to the room, which was well kept and clean.
“Did you check her things?” Imran queried.
“Yes, everything seems to be in order,” Rohini replied, “But when I opened the door, the fan was still running and her mobile phone was lying on her bed. She never went anywhere without her mobile and she always lets me know when she is going somewhere,” Rohini replied.
“So it’s just the three of you living here?”
“Yes,” Mohit answered.
“Okay. Where is her mobile?”
“I’ll get it,” Rohini said, and soon she returned with it. The phone didn’t have any lock on it and Imran checked the call log.
“Nothing much in here,” Imran noted.
“Rima isn’t very social and she doesn’t have many friends. So I don’t know where to look for her or whom to ask,” Rohini said.
“Any missing valuables, like cash or jewelry?”
“I didn’t check thoroughly but everything seems to be in place,” Rohini replied.
“What was she wearing when you saw her last?”
“Black t-shirt and I think she was in her beige shorts,” Rohini recollected.
“Alright, I’ll need her photos, mobile phone and the names and numbers of her closest friends or anyone else whom you think was close with Rima. In the meantime, I have a team that is already patrolling the neighborhood. I’ll let you know when we have something. One of you will have to come to the station tomorrow morning to file a complaint. I am sure we’ll find her,” Imran said.
He collected the information he needed and left.
After a quick investigation, Imran returned to Mohit’s house the next day.
“My team and I are running around trying to find your daughter but we cannot do it if you don’t tell us what you know,” Imran said furiously.
“I… I don’t understand, I already told you everything I know,” Rohini said.
“I don’t think so. You told me that your daughter reached home early yesterday saying she wasn’t feeling too well. Her teacher said that she couldn’t have left the campus without a guardian. You were at home and Mohit was at his office, then how did she leave the campus? How come you never asked her about it?”
Mohit and Rohini were quiet.
“I need answers,” Imran insisted.
“When Rima reached home yesterday, I was in my room, working on a new design for a client,” Rohini said, “She walked past my room hurriedly and went straight to her room, and locked herself up. I knocked on her door and asked her to open it but she said… she said that she… she hated us all, and asked me to leave her alone or else…” Rohini paused as her eyes filled with tears, “…or else she would kill herself.”
Rohini tried her best to maintain her composure but she ended up bursting in tears.
"Then why did you tell me that everything was normal yesterday?” Imran probed.
“Rima opened the door a bit later and came to see me. I asked her what happened, and how she got out of school early. She just told me that she doesn’t want to talk about it and if I persisted then she would lock herself in her room again. So I didn’t pursue further and thought I’ll speak with Mohit when he got back home. But while serving lunch I probed again, and she replied that she wasn’t feeling too well. When I asked her how she got out of school, she got up and went to her room in anger, without having lunch. That’s when I got a call from my boutique and I had to leave.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?” Imran asked again.
“I thought it would only complicate things.”
Imran was furious and wanted to give her a piece of his mind but decided not to.
“So everything wasn’t well between you and your daughter?” Imran asked suspiciously.
“She behaved indifferently at times but yesterday was the first time she said that she hated everyone. I have never seen her behave like that before,” Rohini said.
“We always made sure that she got whatever she wanted,” Mohit said, “In fact, Rohini doesn’t attend any calls from her boutique on weekends so that we all can have our family time without any disturbance. We did everything we could as parents.”
“Did you give her money as well?”
“Yes, every month we gave her an amount. We wanted her to be independent and get used to managing money,” Mohit replied.
“Do you know how she spent it?”
“No, we never asked her but I think she usually spent it on clothes and stuff. She was free to buy whatever she wanted, no restrictions.”
“No! Rima would never do drugs,” Rohini retorted.
“Her teacher caught her with drugs yesterday,” Imran revealed as the parents stared at each other in disbelief.
“There must be some kind of misunderstanding, officer. Our daughter would never do drugs. We are certain about that,” Mohit insisted.
“She was caught with drugs but it doesn’t necessarily have to be hers. Her teacher tried to contact you both yesterday to inform about this but neither of you answered her call.”
“We usually don’t answer calls from unknown numbers,” Mohit replied.
“She was caught with drugs and it’s certain that someone gave it to her. I want the two of you to think really hard about that. I have a feeling that that person would know where Rima is.”
Imran left and on his way back to his office, he called one of his officers for an update. He got to know that the CCTV cameras near Rima’s house had recorded images of a pickup van entering the compound at 4:24 PM, and it returned after about five minutes. Further investigations revealed that the van belongs to a laundry service company and the driver’s name is Varun. Police interrogated him but let him go since they didn’t find anything suspicious.
The investigation wasn’t progressing much but later that night, to everyone’s disbelief, Rima was picked up by a Highway Patrol unit and she was brought home. Her t-shirt was torn, she had bruises on her cheeks, hands, knees and at the back of her shoulder. She could barely walk. Her parents were distraught when they saw her in that condition. Imran suggested to take her to a hospital but Rima refused. She refused to talk and went to her room.
Rima couldn’t sleep that night, and she twisted and turned on her bed, thinking of everything that had happened.
Earlier that day…
Rima woke up to the sound of someone unlocking a padlock outside her door. The room was fairly dark and the only source of light was the cracks on the wooden door. As the door opened, she adjusted her eyes to the light as she peered at the teen who stepped inside. He was holding a steel glass and he offered it to her.
“Tea,” he said.
“I don’t want it,” Rima said in disdain as she got up from the mat she was lying on.
“You didn’t have lunch?” the boy asked noticing she hadn’t even touched the plate that was placed on the cemented floor next to her mat.
“How do you expect me to eat inside this stinking shed!?” Rima retorted.
“Have this tea at least,” he said offering it to her again.
She slapped his hand away and the steel glass fell off his grip, spilling tea onto the floor.
“Can’t you understand? I don’t want it. Get it?” Rima asked in anger.
The boy picked up the glass and without saying anything he headed towards the door.
“I need a smoke,” Rima demanded.
He reached for a plastic packet from his pocket and gave it to her. Rima quickly opened the packet and took a joint from inside, as the boy offered her a matchbox. She lit it up, took a drag and blew out a cloud of smoke onto his face.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“For how long are you going to keep me here?” she asked taking another drag.
“I don’t know. We are waiting for the right time to move you out.”
“I want to go far away from here,” Rima said sitting down on the mat and rested the back of her head against the wall. She took a deep drag and it filled her lungs with smoke. She then held her breath for a few seconds before blowing it towards the ceiling with her eyes closed.
“Why do you want to run away?” Chottu asked sitting beside her.
“I have no one here,” she replied with her eyes still closed.
“What about your parents?”
“They don’t care about me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they don’t.”
“I wish I knew who my parents were.”
“I wish I never knew my parents.”
“You don’t know the value of what you have till you have lost it.”
“Haha… Yeah right!” she said sarcastically, “I just left my parents and their value is still down where it’s supposed to be. In fact, it plunged more when I got to know that there isn’t any news about me missing. Just shows how caring they are.”
“Who told you this?”
Chottu’s mobile beeped in his pocket and Rima opened her eyes. She watched him reach for his mobile from his pocket.
“Is that an iPhone or am I high already?”
Chottu smiled as he checked the notification and it led him to his Facebook app.
“That’s a pretty cool picture,” Rima commented as a picture of him standing next to a bike loaded up on his phone.
“Thanks, uploaded it yesterday.”
“So many comments and likes already! Must be your classmates?”
“I don’t have classmates.”
“How old are you?”
“So you don’t go to school?”
“No. I have been helping Varun ever since he found me on the streets. He was also abandoned by his parents, like me. We grew up together and did everything we could for survival.”
“I wish I could do all that too. I mean look at you guys, you have everything. Best of all, you have someone who cares about you and who would do anything for you. That is priceless! You know, I didn’t even have anyone to talk to. Well, I used to, till my grandma was alive. She was everything to me. But ever since she passed away, I am on my own. In fact, I was so lonely that I used to talk to a crow by my window.”
“Yes, a crow,” Rima beamed with excitement, “One day I was just blankly staring out my window, munching on a biscuit, when this crow flew by and sat outside. And it just kept hopping around without leaving. So I threw a piece of biscuit towards it and it took the biscuit and flew away. Ever since that day, the crow would show up whenever it saw me by the window. I used to feed it and then talked to it about whatever came to my mind. There was no fear of being judged. And all that I got back was caw-caw. But at times I felt it understood what I was saying. I became so attached to it that I felt as if it is my late grandma. Crazy right?”
“So was this before smoking or after?” Chottu quipped.
“That’s mean!” Rima nudged him, smiling all the while. Chottu noticed how excited she was when she spoke about the crow.
“Umm. You are on Facebook too right?” he asked.
“Yes, but not very active there. I don’t have many friends like you.”
“Show me,” he said giving his phone to her.
Rima pulled up her profile. “Here you go,” she said giving the phone back to him.
Chottu checked it out and said, “Wow! So many photos!”
“I didn’t upload them. Dad and mom did, and they tagged me.”
“You guys seem like a very happy family. What you said about your parents is totally opposite in these photos.”
“That’s social media for you. At least, everyone is having a more than perfect life in their virtual worlds.”
“I know what you mean but your case seems to be different. Every week your parents post your pictures. If you didn’t visit these places or didn’t hang out every week, then where did the pictures come from?” Chottu asked curiously.
“I call it ‘scheduled love’. My parents have a timetable for everything. As if we are machines that are programmed to do certain tasks at certain times. And loving their daughter is a task that is scheduled for weekends. It’s like, I don’t even exist on weekdays.”
A drop of tear rolled down her cheek as she reflected on her life.
“Did you try talking to them about how you felt?”
“What’s the point? They think they have it all figured out. They wouldn’t even care if I told them anything.”
“Maybe they were just well organized. I mean, they have their jobs to take care of too. I guess they realize that they don’t get enough time to spend with you during the weekdays and that is why they make sure they spend time with you during the weekends. What else could they have done?”
“You cannot love someone with a timetable. It’s not natural. You might be spending time with the person but that cannot be love. Even a crow understands that. In fact, even Varun could sense my pain and he is an outsider whom I only saw twice a week.”
“And Varun introduced you to drugs to help you from all this.”
“Yes, and now he is helping me to get far away from here so that I can start fresh, start a new life…”
They were silent for a while as both of them were lost in thoughts. It was getting darker inside the room as the light began to fade outside, and soon it was so dark that they could hardly see each other.
“I’ll go get a candle,” Chottu said and she heard him move in the darkness towards the door, and soon he was gone.
Several hours later, Chottu returned to her room with a candle and said, “We have to go now.”
“We are leaving?” she asked getting up from the mat.
“Where are we going?”
“I am taking you home.”
“Your home? I mean, isn’t that risky? What if someone saw me there?” she asked.
“I am taking you to your home.”
“What!?” Rima stepped back and glared at him, “No, you are not! Where is Varun?”
“Rima, you have to listen to me. This place is not right for you, it’s not safe. You must go back to your parents,” Chottu said gripping either side of her shoulders.
“I am not going back to my parents, ever. Understand?” she pushed Chottu away firmly.
“I want to see Varun. He promised to help me,” saying that Rima headed towards the door.
“Varun is planning to sell you off to a brothel.”
“Brothel?” Rima froze in disbelief.
“You’ll be sold off to the highest bidder tomorrow morning,” Chottu revealed. He moved closer to her and said, “You should go back home.”
“My parents don’t even care where I am. I am safer with you, Chottu. Take me away from here. Let’s run away.”
“Your parents have been searching for you desperately. Varun lied to you. The cops have already questioned him twice. You are not safe with me, you are not safe with anyone but your parents,” Chottu said sternly, “And from whatever you have told me so far, all you have to do is talk to them openly about your feelings. I am sure they will understand. The world is full of people like Varun who will manipulate your thoughts and make you believe what they say to take advantage of you.
All you have to do is ask yourself if you have taken the effort to make things work for you? Have you ever talked to your parents about feeling neglected? They didn’t raise you to end up at a brothel or end up with people like us. You have no idea what could happen to you. See this?” he asked taking a pack of condoms from his pocket and showed it to her, “I was asked to drug and rape you, and to film it as a backup plan.”
Rima reeled in thoughts, stepping backwards, away from him.
“I mixed sleeping pills in Varun’s drink. He is sound asleep and we have to leave before he wakes up,” Chottu said.
“Do you think my parents will accept me? Will they understand?”
“They will. They are your parents after all.”
Rima just stood there, confused and undecided.
Chottu stepped closer to her, took her hand and led her outside. They scanned the area quickly and moved nimbly in the darkness. Chottu led her to a wall with barbed wires.
“Here, step on my hands and climb,” Chottu said softly as he dropped both hands and locked them together for her to step on.
Rima stepped on it and reached for the top of the wall and pulled herself up. She got under the barbed wires and snaked her way to the other side, but in between, the back of her shoulder was caught in the wire and bruised her skin.
“Ow! Ah!” she moaned in pain and as she tried to get the wire off her t-shirt, she lost balance and fell to the other side. She landed on her hands followed by her cheek and rolled a few times, hurting and bruising herself in the process.
“Are you alright?” Chottu asked as he got to the other side and helped her up.
“Do I look like am alright? I can barely stand,” Rima said in pain as she brushed off the dirt on her clothes and herself. She checked the bruises and then looked around. The place was deserted and she spotted a bike beside the wall.
“Come, we don’t have time to waste,” Chottu said, helping her to the bike.
He rode towards the city and after about twenty minutes, Chottu spotted a Highway Patrol vehicle from a distance and he turned off the headlight of his bike. He parked the bike by the roadside and both of them got off. Before she walked towards the vehicle, Chottu had requested her not to tell anyone about Varun and him. She promised she wouldn’t and thanked him for what he had done.
Back in her bedroom…
Rima fell asleep sometime into the night and in the days that followed, she had withdrawal symptoms as she craved for drugs again. She was taken to a drug rehabilitation center and stayed there for a few days. Rima wrote down everything she had to tell her parents. As promised, she left out details of Varun and Chottu in her letter. She couldn’t muster the courage to give it to them herself and so she posted it to her home address.
Even though Rima had apologized and pleaded for their forgiveness in her letter, Mohit and Rohini were distraught after reading it. It took a while for them to come to terms with it.
“What more could we have done for her, Mohit?” Rohini asked holding the letter.
“We should have thought from her perspective,” Mohit said softly after a few seconds, “We assumed that our daughter was fine with our plan of loving her. She wanted us every day and not just on weekends. Isn’t that a fair ask from a child?”
“But we have our jobs and our passions as well. And it’s not like we ignored her completely. We did our best to maintain a work-life balance, didn’t we? If she wants then I am willing to shut down our boutique and be with her. Nothing is more valuable to me than our family,” Rohini said as her eyes filled up and she moved towards Mohit to hug him.
“Rohini, that is not what she wants. She is growing up and she wants her voice to be heard, her presence to be felt. She doesn’t want to hear us discussing work during dinner. Rather than asking how her studies are going on, she wants us to ask how she is doing. There is more to our daughter than her studies and all that we have done is given her a timetable to live her life. The places we take her doesn’t matter to her. What matters to her is whom she is spending time with. But we have drifted so far away from her that she sees us as mere housemates.”
“We should talk to her. I want to make sure that she’ll never have to run away again. I want her to realize that we are there for her, no matter what.”
“Yes, we should hear her out. Or else we’ll end up like those successful businessmen or celebrities who claim to have achieved everything in life but missed spending time with their families. All of us try to do our best to manage family and work or school, and being organized and systematic is definitely good. Having a plan and schedule is ideal, but unfortunately, we cannot schedule our emotions. We don’t even realize that our devices have become dearer to us than the people around us. We have become just another profile on social media and messenger apps, and data points for machines to learn. At work, we have become mere names on a spreadsheet with numbers against us, and at school or college, we are roll numbers with grades against us. Somewhere amidst all the chores and chaos, we are lost, and knowingly or unknowingly, we are all guilty.
Eventually, we end up blaming the circumstances at work, parenting, education and other systems around us instead of trying to find a balance. If only each one of us understood the importance of this balance, perhaps we could have been there for each other more. Maybe, just maybe, someone might need us more than we know. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a crow by our window, to share our true feelings.”
Mohit and Rohini were very fortunate to have their daughter return home unharmed. Not every family is blessed with a second chance, and Mohit was convinced that they could redeem those lost moments. Because this time around, Mohit, Rohini, and Rima were going to work things out, together… as a family.