Mama! I am fine!
I won't tell you anything in future if you get so upset. Couples quarrel you know. Honestly, how on earth could you think he would leave me – just because of one fight?! In fact he is coming back today.
Anyway, I always go to the airport to receive him. I put on the things he likes to see me in, like elegant western clothes.
A few weeks after the Dehradun trip, Ishita brought up the subject again. In order to protect their interests, wouldn't it be a good idea to consult Nandan? It was better to regularise the situation.
Next Sunday, the business-cum-pleasure meeting at Swarg Nivas took place.
Nandan said, 'She has filed nothing yet.'
'But she can, can't she?'
'Of course she can.'
'But look at how young Roo is. Besides, it wasn't possible to send her. She got sick, then her school admissions came up, then she got sick again. Surely, childhood illnesses are believable,' said Ishita.
'We've gone through this before,' said Nandan, jiggling his pencil violently between his first two fingers, looking at Ishita. 'You have to abide by the decision of the judge, otherwise what is the point of the legal process? As for her being too young, if that objection was not raised earlier, when she was younger, you cannot make it a point of consideration now. If the brother can go, why not the sister with him? And then you have custody of both children, it will look bad, very bad.'
'Custody of both children, that's all rubbish,' snorted Raman. 'Because we don't send Roohi, she doesn't let Arjun visit me. But Roohi thinks of Ishita as her mother, Ishita herself is very reluctant to have the child's heart divided, and she takes such good care of her, what am I to say? She is not your child? You have to send her away to someone she does not even remember clearly? I can't do that.'
'It's just a brief visit in the holidays with her brother. The girl is with you the whole year round,' pointed out Nandan.
'Would you send your child away?' asked Ishita. 'It's not just a question of holidays. It's how confused she will be, it's the distance created between Roo and me.'
'I only want their happiness,' said Raman.
That was the trouble with his cousin, thought Nandan, he kept muddying the issue with words like 'happiness', when it was rights that were in dispute. He thought for a little while.
'I wouldn't ordinarily suggest this – but since she hasn't filed for contempt, let's wait. The longer she goes without doing anything, the stronger our position will be. I wonder why she is not being advised better.'
'Maybe because she is in US?'
'If she wants her daughter it makes no difference where she is. She has to show she is in earnest. Otherwise her case will become weak.'
'Can't we file contempt against her for refusing to send Arjun in the holidays?'
Don't sound so hopeful, thought Ishita. We are here for Roo, not your son.
'How old is Arjun?'
'In his case custody has no meaning. The boy can see you or not, as he wishes.'
Another year passed.
In the winter holidays, Roo had typhoid. Copies attesting to this were signed and delivered to the grandmother's address.
In the summer holidays, still very weak from her bout of typhoid, she was advised to recuperate in the mountains. Once there, her parents sent her to a ten-day camp. The camp co-ordinator gave a signed testimonial stating how much Roohi's fitness had increased. Once more photocopies were made and sent by registered post to Mrs Sabharwal.
That summer was also the first time Arjun went directly to the airport from school without the usual night with his father. Raman didn't reveal his grief to Ishita.
She did register, though, the absence of the usual excitement that preceded Arjun's arrivals. For a while she said nothing. If he didn't want to share, she should not intrude, but his persistent air of sad abstraction broke her down.
'What's the matter? Something to do with Arjun, no?'
'He's not coming here on his way to his mother.'
'Why? You are his father.'
'You know why.'
Ishita silently put her arms around her husband. 'I will do whatever you want me to,' she averred.
But it was too late for that. No matter what happened, someone or the other would suffer. They sat like this for a while.
'If you'd like to meet him on the way back, let me see her.'
He said nothing.
'Raman! Are you there?'
'What on earth do you want? Just leave me alone.'
'Oh, stop being such a cry-baby. Tell me. Are you going to let me meet Roo? If not, no Arjun ever.'
'Why do you keep on linking the two children? The day you walked out, that link was broken. And further destroyed when you sent Arjun to that school.'
'Oh, stop talking nonsense, and let me see her. It's almost three years. She must have really grown.'
'She has, yes.'
'Raman, please. She is my daughter, I have rights. You can be there the whole time. What are you so afraid of?'
'She has got a settled life now, something you chose not to give her. Anyway, she never mentions you.'
'You have turned her against me, Raman. Go to hell.'
The cell went dead.
The grapevine in Raman's office was activated enough for him to hear that Ashok Khanna was coming to South-East Asia as head of the region.
From Shagun's perspective it would be an ideal situation. Proximity to India meant it would be easier for her to start legal harassment. Well, time had weakened her case, she would find that out soon enough.
Idly he went on the internet – to check out the pictures the previous Brand occupant had taken of Ashok's house in Singapore. Of course Ashok was going to get the good things of life, he thought, staring at the glittering blue surface of the private swimming pool.
So this was where Arjun was going to spend his holidays.
'They are going to Singapore. Head of region,' said Raman to Ishita later that evening.
'May be 9/11 scared them.'
'I somehow doubt that.'
'Just our luck. They should stay in the US for ever. What is the need for them to come here?'
'Oh, God knows. He is practically CEO now.'
Her hands began to tremble.
'It may not be so bad,' said Raman.
'If that woman dares to come near my daughter, I am not responsible for the consequences.'
'What can you do? I have told you they have the law on their side, we are the ones who are breaking it.'
'So are you just going to wait for them to come and take her?'
'There is no point anticipating the worst – it creates tension and upsets all of us. Think of how Roohi will feel.'
'Believe me, I think of nothing else.'
That he knew was true.
'I didn't even get ready for you,' said Ishita forlornly.
'Stop worrying,' he repeated. 'How is it going to help if you wander around like this, looking so stressed? What will Roo think?'
'What does it matter what she thinks, when I may not even have her?'
'How can you say that? At the most we are talking visits.'
'Visits. I certainly know what visits mean.'
Raman was silent, the spectre of King Solomon flitting across his mind.
'What? You are just going to sit there with your head in your hands and say nothing?'
'I have nothing to say.'
Ishita glanced at him with irritation.
Later, he thought how sick he was of children. People talked of the joys they brought; why were the sorrows so seldom mentioned, sorrows that could corrode your whole life, that far outweighed the heartache of a faithless love?
In the mean time Nandan:
'If you want to get rid of this problem, we'll have to file another case.'
'Saying it is in the best interests of the child for you to have sole custody. She cries, her health is bad and she refuses to leave her stepmother.'
'Yes, and we can't send her so far.'
'Let us not make it an issue of distance. Shagun can always say she will come here – in fact she came once to see the minor and you sent a medical certificate. The judge will probably call the child – how old is she?'
'Too young. But still we can try. And it will take some time before the hearing. We have to prove that it is in her best interest not to meet her biological mother. That is difficult, you know. But otherwise we have no case.'
'In her mind she only has one mother, and that is Ishita.'
'Great. She just has to say so then. And let us hope the judge is sympathetic.'
They filed their case pleading that it would be psychologically damaging to force the minor to visit her birth mother when she had no desire to. Her stepmother and she had a loving relationship.
Ishita meanwhile organised her forces. 'Roo?' she started.
Ishita stared at her daughter.
Roohi looked up. 'What Mama?'
'Come here, darling.' Ishita opened her arms. Roohi crept into them. 'You are my precious girl. You will never forget that, will you?'
The child's head bobbed obediently.
'I wonder do you remember that other woman who once lived here?'
The bob was indistinguishable.
'Suppose, beta, she – or somebody tried to come and take you away from me. Then what would you do?'
'You have to say – that your real parents are Mama and Papa. And if anybody asks you your mama's name, or who is your mama, what will you say…?'
'Ishita. You have to take my name, and say Ishita.'
Roohi kept quiet.
'Do you want to know why I am saying all this?'
The daughter made no response.
Once there was a wicked woman who was very beautiful. Despite having two wonderful children and a loving husband, she chose another man. The husband fell very, very sick. The boy was sent to boarding school. The girl, the sweetest little girl in the world, was left alone. Then Ishita came – she loved the father, she loved the little girl. Slowly the family that had been so wantonly destroyed was rebuilt. Now the little girl was very brave. When the evil woman dragged her to court –
Court was a place where a judge decided fights between people. Suppose two people are fighting over a piece of land – then they will go to court – and the judge will decide who keeps the land. When people fight over children the same thing happens.
'I have to do my homework, Mama.'
'In a minute, darling. There is only a bit left.'
'Only this. Do you think you can tell the judge that you don't want to see the woman who left you?'
'And stay with us?'
Roo nodded again.
The reply to their petition came. The earlier agreement was quoted. The petitioner was already in contempt for denying access to the minor. His excuses were mala fide. At one point he had alleged the minor was in hospital, but changed his story when the mother wanted to see her, and claimed the child was convalescing at home. Numerous other examples of malfeasance followed. In conclusion the respondent asked for custody of both children.
Nandan was right, said Raman, it was a big mistake on her part not to have filed contempt at the first cited instance.
Every day Ishita felt she was treading on eggshells. When she looked at Roohi she saw a vulnerable creature going about her business unaware of the predator crouching in the bushes nearby. She tried to warn her against strangers, particularly a woman claiming she was her mother, whom she might even remember, but who was not to trusted. Like witches in fairy tales, she would come disguised as beautiful in order to gain the child's trust, but in reality she was out to harm her. Her intention was to capture Roo and take her far, far away.
Enough, said her husband.
'Why enough? We are not in a normal situation. She has to be able to tell the judge what is best for her.'
'Don't exaggerate,' said Raman sharply. He hated what Ishita was doing – but exercising power over children, moulding them in order that they survive their circumstances was not something he was good at.
This was the time for tough love, said Ishita. Softness and gentleness had their place, but in other circumstances.
Raman ceased to protest. He too was afraid of his daughter being taken away, and he could trust neither himself nor the law to prevent this.
So he watched Roo's face grow tense, held her when she crept into their bed at night because of her bad dreams, silently helped change the sheets when she wet them, noticing how Ishita did her best to soothe and comfort the child. Soon the whole thing would be over, and they would be able to live a normal peaceful existence, that so many others took for granted.
His wife had a quality he knew he lacked. Maybe it was the tough love she kept talking about.
We have filed for contempt of court, and demanded custody of both children. In the end Ashok came through and got in touch with Madz. Madz told him action should have been taken earlier, but Ashok wasted no time on that.
He told him, do your best, I have full faith in you.
to be continued...