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Arohi turned 18. But unlike most girls her age who would perhaps have celebrated their coming of age, she was on a mission—plotting her escape from her parents' (father and stepmother) home in Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu to her maternal grandfather's residence in Mumbai.

Just six months ago, the plucky teenager was caught in the midst of a bitter and highly publicized custody battle and the Bombay high court had granted her custody to her father and stepmother much against her wishes.

So, as soon as she turned a major, Arohi, who aspires to be an aeronautical engineer, returned "home" to King's Circle in Mumbai. Iterating that her bond with her grandparents is much stronger than that with her own father, the youngster is now preparing for her HSC examination.

Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Arohi, explaining her brave decision to run away from home on December 7, said, "I had kept in touch with my grandfather over the phone. Even after my phone was confiscated by my parents, I kept in touch with him through public phones. I wanted to run away on my birthday itself, but my stepmother was in Mumbai at that time. So, I waited for her to begin her journey back to Cuddalore."

Revealing that her college friends had egged her on to listen to her heart, she said, "I took the afternoon bus to Puducherry, which is not very far from Cuddalore. My grandmother's sister lives there. I reached late in the evening and spent the better part of the evening in a public garden."

In fact, it was not the first time that the girl had tried to escape to Mumbai. Arohi had made a similar attempt in May, barely a month after the court order, but her father traced her and took her back home. But this time things were different. "On December 8, I went to a women's police station and told them that I had turned 18 and wanted to live with my grandparents. My dad did not pursue me this time. I wrote a letter, saying that I had no grievance against him and this would not spoil our relationship," she revealed, smiling. Her grandfather drove to Puducherry and brought Arohi back to the city on December 15.

Despite the bitterness, Arohi refrains from using harsh words against her parents. "I just never felt part of the family. My dad was good to me, but when it came to my stepmother he always took her side. She always treated me badly and favoured my stepsister and brother," she said. Arushi also expressed surprise that her father had made no attempts to contact her this time around. "I want to talk to him. But I will call him only once my exams are over."

Arohi lost her biological mother in 1994, when she was just one-and-a-half-years old. Her father remarried, and she grew up thinking her stepmother was her mother. Only when she turned 10 did she learn about her mother. " I used to see her pictures at the homes of relatives but didn't know who she was. I used even visit my grandfather's home thinking they were just relatives. Everytime I used to see my mom's picture in their house, I used to ask my grandmother about her. But she would only sob, never give me an answer," Arohi said, as her grandmother, sitting across the table, smiled. Arohi finally found out about her mother during her aunt's wedding in 2007.

The fact that her father and stepmother had kept her in the dark about her mom hurt Arohi. And when she turned 14, she called up her grandfather and requested him to take her away from home. So, her grandfather went to her school one day and took her to his home. But there was more to come. Arohi's father and stepmother filed a petition with the child welfare committee (CWC) seeking that the girl be returned to them. But the CWC ruling went in favour of the grandfather, and her parents moved the high court.

In their petition, they said they had decided keep the news of her mother a secret until Arohi had reached an appropriate age to cope with the truth. The Bombay high court on April 20 ordered that Arohi be sent back to her parents. Just a fortnight after the court order, when Arohi returned to her father's home in Chunabhatti, her stepmother told her that she and her two step siblings were going to visit their father in Cuddalore where he worked. "But I was shocked when, on my arrival, my father told me that we were to settle down in Cuddalore permanently. Even though I was unhappy with the court order, I was happy that I was still close to my grandparents. This seemed like a well thought out plan to keep me away from them," she said. Arohi, who had failed her HSC exams, due to the stress then enrolled in a diploma course in a college in Cuddalore.

Back in Mumbai, Arohi's plans include shopping, catching up on the latest in films and studies. "I left Cuddalore without any clothes except the uniform I was wearing. I have re-connected with the friends who stood by me. I am happy to be back home and just study and do well in my board exams," she said. Nodding in agreement, her grandfather says, "She has to prove to everybody that she is a good girl. I want her to forget all the issues and move ahead in life. I harbour no bitterness against anybody and hope there will be peace in our lives now."

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