She scratched her head again, a bit more violently this time. Her skin was raw with scratches and lack of exposure had given her a haunted look. For a moment Shehla agreed with the girl’s family; she did look possessed. But something in Laila’s eyes told her she was wrong. She couldn’t quite name the feeling. It was a mixture of anger, frustration, depression and agony.
‘I think she wants to go out,’ Shehla informed the matron who stood behind her, stiff and frightened.
‘No!’ she cried. ‘If we let her out she’ll run away. That’s what she wants; freedom.’
Freedom. The word drowned her in her own sense of despair. All of a sudden her sympathy with the girl vanished. Understanding took its place as she looked back at the young, scratched face. She must have noticed it too, her eyes switched to display affection for her visitor as well.
‘Where’s her family? I need to talk to them,’ she told the matron resolutely as they got out of Laila’s room. She had to run to keep pace with the matron who was walking as fast as she could to escape the violent inmate of the asylum. Laila had turned wild after Shehla had asked her about her family.
‘That’s out of order. No one knows her family,’ the plump woman said breathlessly.
‘What? They don’t come to see her?’
‘No why would they? They are scared.’
‘Someone must know about them, tell me. I need to talk to them.’ She raised her voice so it boomed in the deserted corridor. The matron stopped in her tracks and looked at her fiercely.
‘Keep your voice down! I led you to her, that’s enough. I can’t take you to anyone else.’
‘I said keep your voice down! All the officials are here. I have taken a huge risk for you. If anyone hears you I’ll be doomed.’ Panic and fear dominated her voice and features.
Laila was admitted in the asylum after she tried to run away from her house a year ago. She was hysterical when she was brought back to her village. The village which was ruled by her family; where she was a prisoner. The hysteria made it easier for the doctors to declare her mentally ill and bring her into the asylum where she was ‘looked after’ by the NGO, one which was fathered by Laila’s family. She had not seen the light of day since. Her captivity, however, had served its purpose. While it ensured Laila’s continued imprisonment, it also allowed the NGO to speak up for women rights and receive tons of donations. Shehla’s interest in her was natural. Laila’s case had the potential of making the front page.
They could still hear the distant yells and thrashing from Laila’s room. The matron’s panic-stricken face turned into a mask of fear.
(This is my first short story. Special credit to Imaan Sheikh, whose stories made me want to write one.)