A spider-bite piercing on the lip, short hair with side bangs, T-shirts with hoodies, and her “favourite” — the goofy, charming ‘Joey Tribbiani’ of the popular sitcom Friends, the best friend anyone could ask for. And dreams — lots of them — of setting off on long treks, finding love, moving abroad someday. That was Shraddha, the girl from Vasai, a Mumbai suburb, trying to find her feet as the ground beneath her rocked unsteadily at the best of times. And then, one day, Shraddha stopped trying. Messages from her friends went unanswered.
Until, last week, six months since she went missing, the Delhi Police arrested her boyfriend, 28-year-old Aaftab Poonawala, who allegedly confessed to killing Shraddha at their rented flat in Delhi’s Chattarpur Pahadi area on May 18, chopping her body into several pieces and dumping them in an alleged attempt to erase all evidence.
A week into the investigation, save for Aaftab’s claims, police are yet to find any concrete evidence linking him to the murder, with questions swirling over some of macabre details that have emerged so far. Police have formed multiple teams to visit Gurgaon, Mumbai, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in connection with the investigation.
“I was in Class 6 when I first met Shraddha. Both our families had moved into this building in Vasai around the same time and we soon became best friends. We were part of a small circle of friends but we had fun together. She was the tomboy of our group — always in T-shirts, hoodies and pants; never wore any make-up. She was the same all through her school and junior college days,” says a friend of Shraddha’s who kept in touch with her all along.
After school and junior college from New English School in Vasai, Shraddha pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media (BMM) from Viva college in Virar, over 15 km away.
Conversations that The Sunday Express had with Shraddha’s friends from school and college, all of whom spoke on strict condition of anonymity, paint the picture of a girl drawn to global culture and music, someone who followed the Billboard charts as keenly as she did a Lebanon radio station. She also loved watching reruns of the popular 90s’ sitcom, Friends, with Joey Tribiani, played by Matt LeBlanc, her favourite character.
“She had a lot of expectations from life. She wanted to do a lot of things. She had plans to save money and settle down abroad with Aaftab. She told me she wants to be either in Canada or Dubai,” says one of Shraddha’s friends from junior college.
The friends say her dreams were possibly her way out of some of the unpleasantness at home. Growing up, Shraddha and her younger brother Jay were witness to frequent fights at home between their parents. Eventually, in 2016, her father, who had a sales job, started living separately with his mother in the same locality, while Shraddha and her brother stayed on with their mother.
The father and daughter drifted apart, with his few visits home taken up by discussions with her mother Suman over the ownership of the house.
It was around this time that she met Aaftab on dating app Bumble. He, incidentally, was from the same Vasai suburb as she was. He appeared, her friends said, to be the emotional anchor she needed — someone who liked cooking, photography, tattoos and was an animal lover. Most importantly for Shraddha, like her, Aaftab loved travelling and long treks, something that is said to have brought the two closer.
Aaftab, who did his schooling from St. Francis High School in Vasai and had enrolled for a Bachelor’s in Management Studies from a well-known college in Santacruz, however, dropped out, saying he wanted to get into “business”. A year later, he resumed studies and completed his graduation.
His friends say that around this time, he developed a flair for cooking, having taken to watching food shows.
Unlike Shraddha, though, Poonawala was very expressive on social media, where he posted selfies and photographs with his mother, brother and friends. A Facebook post from 2017 has Aaftab endorsing a campaign to stop the cutting of trees in Aarey Colony, along with posts supporting the LGBT movement and an appeal to not burst crackers.
But the ones to have caught the attention of many now are, ironically, those on women’s empowerment — among others, a post from 2014 that says “women are not born with labels #StopDiscrimination”.
“Engaging, intelligent, and pleasant,” says Shraddha’s friend from junior college, talking about his first impression of Aaftab when Shraddha introduced him in 2019. “In that first meeting, I liked the guy so much. He seemed kind and composed. It never occurred to me that he could be dangerous,” says the friend.
As Shraddha and Aaftab began dating, they were to discover more things in common: both of them often spoke about “making it big” and living on their own terms, a way to escape the disconnect they felt with their families.
Shraddha’s childhood friend says that with Aaftab by her side, she was now no longer the “tomboy” that she was all through her school and college days. “She started wearing make-up, wore western clothes and was more aware of how she looked and what she wore. She also grew her hair. I once helped her with her make-up after she said she was considering that as a career option,” the friend said.
In 2019, Shraddha told her mother Suman that she wanted to leave home and live with Aaftab. In his complaint to the Mumbai Police, filed on October 6 this year, her father said, “My daughter told my wife in 2019 that she wants to be in a live-in relationship with Aaftab Poonawala… my wife and I told her not to, because I am Hindu and… that boy is Muslim. We don’t do inter-religion/inter-caste marriage.”
But Shraddha had made up her mind. As matters heated up, Shraddha stormed out of her house, saying, “I am 25 years old now and I have every right to make my own decisions.”
Aaftab’s parents, too, tried to dissuade him from an inter-faith relationship, but he was adamant. In 2019, the couple moved into a flat in Kinni Complex in Naigaon East, and later moved to Regal Cooperative Housing Society in Vasai’s Evershine City, where they lived for 11 months from October 2020 to September 2021. It now emerges that they described themselves as a married couple while taking the Vasai house on rent.
The fights began soon after, with verbal exchanges ending in physical assaults. Initially, it was all very confusing, says the friend from junior college.
“Shraddha used to tell me that Aaftab would cook for her, even feed her with his own hands. She also told me how the same man would thrash her brutally at other times,” he says.
Shraddha’s father says she informed her mother Suman of Aaftab’s violent ways, but insisted that she would give him another chance. In January 2020, Suman died of a heart ailment.
In Aaftab’s statement to the Mumbai Police — who called him twice for questioning following the complaint filed by Shraddha’s father — he said that it was after the death of her mother that Shraddha began fighting with him.
As the fights turned ugly, Shraddha moved between the flat she shared with Aaftab and her family’s flat in Vasai. Her younger brother had by then moved in with their father. The relationship between the daughter and father strained further over the ownership of their house, the friend said. With no family to turn to, Aaftab was the only emotional anchor that Shraddha had.
“After her mother’s death, Aaftab was by her side. But they also fought — and then, he would beat her like an animal. Despite all that, Shraddha still wanted to marry him and start a family, but he kept putting it off,” said her friend from junior college.
He says the fights and bitterness soon took a toll on Shraddha. “Though she had confidence issues all along, they got worse. She would always be insecure and believe that people were talking about her and passing judgments. Aaftab fuelled that sense of insecurity, telling her nobody cared for her — neither family, nor friends,” says the friend, adding that she eventually stopped messaging him.
This friend says he was “shocked” when Shraddha called him later that year in 2020 and told him about Aaftab’s abusive behaviour. In June-July last year, she reached out to him again after being beaten up by Aaftab. “My friend and I went to their flat and confronted Aaftab and threatened to file a case against him. Shraddha stayed for two days at the house of a common friend, but then, she again went back to him. I do not know what influence he had on her but one thing was clear: she loved him and was emotionally dependent on him,” said the friend.
It didn’t help their relationship that their finances were strained as both of them failed to keep their jobs, and neither of them had a family to fall back on. Shraddha quit as team leader of a BPO firm in September 2021 — after short stints at a sports retail store and a call centre — while Aftab never held down his job. After dropping out of undergraduate programme in Management Studies from a well-known college in Santacruz, he had tried his hand at business, before working in a call centre and as a chef. By the time he met Shraddha, he had turned into a food vlogger and taken to posting pictures on his Instagram page.
On Instagram and other social media, on which he used the handle “HungryChokro Escapades”, Aaftab had introduced himself and his younger brother as “photographers and culinary professionals”.
In March this year, the couple decided to go on a trekking trip to Himachal Pradesh before eventually relocating to Delhi. This, their friends said, was an attempt to rekindle their relationship.
Her friend said Shraddha was banking on the small amount that she had saved up and hoped it would last them at least two months — “they were hoping they would come back from the trekking trip and look for jobs in Delhi. She had called me up in April to discuss job interviews”, said the friend.
While in Himachal Pradesh with Aaftab, Shraddha told at least two of her friends that Aaftab had not changed his ways and that they have almost broken up. She was killed on May 18 — two days after the anniversary of their relationship and three days after they moved into a rented flat in Delhi.
In September this year, alerted by one of her friends about his messages to Shraddha having gone unanswered, her father lodged a complaint at the Manikpur police station in Vasai.
Later that month, Aaftab was called in for questioning by the Mumbai Police. Incidentally, it’s around this time that he went home to Vasai and helped his parents move to a house in the Mira Road area of Mumbai.
A neighbour said, “Around 20 days before Aaftab’s name appeared in the case, the family shifted somewhere. His parents told us that their younger son had got a job in Mumbai and that they were moving out of the suburbs to some place near Mumbai.”
At the Vasai housing society, where the Poonawalas own a flat and where Aaftab grew up, residents expressed shock at the gruesome details that have been emerging of the murder.
Aaftab grew up here, the elder of the two children of the Poonawalas, who own a footwear business.
Building secretary Abdul Khan says Aaftab’s family mostly kept to themselves but visited the Jamatkhana, the community space. A volunteer at the Jamatkhana said that while Aaftab’s father visited often, he never saw Aaftab around.