'The child turns away from his own father? How else can I take it?'
'Arre, it's a matter of dispute. Relationships change when there is a dispute.'
'Especially this. In a custody issue, the parents in possession usually coaches the minor, particularly if they want to prove a point.'
Raman's gaze fastened onto the back of his son sitting in the front row. Everything was manipulation and deviousness, nothing was straightforward any more. This was the corrosive game his wife had elected to play.
'It will be OK. The judge will 99 per cent grant you visitation rights. You will be able to see both your children.'
The judge was still in her chambers. If only Arjun would turn around, give a smile, a glance, some kind of acknowledgement, he would be reassured. But nothing was bestowed on this pining man.
How cruel children can be, thought Nandan. Of course he was following his mother's instructions, but he could tell Raman this till nightfall for all the difference it would make to his suffering. He looked at his watch: their time was scheduled for two thirty, it was two fifteen. The minutes dragged on. Raman was mumbling something under his breath, probably a prayer. Well, perhaps his prayers were working, the judge was in, and they were going to get a hearing.
Their name was announced. The boy was led into the judge's chamber; the mother remained in her seat, pulled out a magazine from her red purse and opened it, oblivious to all. The white hand with its shiny polished nails could be seen from the last row where her estranged husband sat, ill with anxiety.
Such calculated coldness puzzled Nandan. He could not understand the heart that would inflict this pain on a husband of twelve years. Going to court, making sure the son be kept permanently away, the son who, till Roohi came, had absorbed both of them completely and equally.
He wondered as he often did about the things husbands and wives did to each other. This case was worse because it involved his relatives.
'I hope she burns in hell,' muttered Raman uselessly.
'Whatever decision the judge takes, at least your waiting will be over,' said Nandan.
'Are you telling me I will go from the frying pan into the fire.'
'In these cases, it is often considered better to send the minor to boarding school, especially if the child is desirous. And think, he will be away from their influence, you want that, don't you.'
'Her only aim is to send him away from me.'
'You will also get visitation rights.'
Raman grunted. No matter how often he repeated the facts he still hadn't accepted his situation, thought Nandan. Only time would help.
Twenty minutes later the parents were called. The judge was sitting on one side of a low coffee table next to Arjun. Her dyed black hair was pulled into a bun, drawing attention to her bright red mouth and large glittery earrings. She had a deliberately remote businesslike manner, and an accent that was somewhat unsteady.
Each side was asked to speak.
Were the differences irreconcilable?
A few minutes were enough to show they were. She had filed for divorce, he for custody.
They were meeting to decide what to do in the child's best interest. The application filed sought to prevent removal from Delhi. Why was such removal taking place?
'Your Honour,' said Shagun, 'I have tried to send him to his school, but he keeps saying he doesn't want to go. Only then I took this step of finding out about Dehradun Public Academy.'
'Beta, what is wrong with this school?' asked Raman.
Arjun said nothing.
'Are you afraid of anything? There is nothing really to stop you from returning to your school, the best in Delhi. Your friends miss you, they keep phoning. I miss you.'
'I object, Your Honour. He is putting words in the child's mouth.'
It did not take the judge long to decide that the child should be allowed to go to boarding school, and the father should have access to his children every weekend, from Friday six to Sunday six. Half the children's school holidays would be spent with him.
The stenographer recorded this, then typed it on court paper, while they waited outside for a copy. Raman knew Shagun so well, he could feel her relief even in this room of legalities. What did she care about his anguish? She would never be happy in her new relationship, never. Ashok had the reputation of being a womaniser, no charms had been strong enough to ensnare him over the last twenty years, none until he set eyes upon his wife. And then he had reached into the heart of his family and stolen its essence.
On the way home, it was an exhausted Shagun who drove, almost as silent as her son. Arjun was going to DPA. That was the main thing. With one hand on the steering wheel she caressed his head. 'Beta, you are my intelligent, smart boy. You managed to convince the judge that it was best to go to boarding school. Uncle will be very proud.'
'What about Papa?
'What about him?'
'The judge said I had to see him.'
'You don't want to see him?'
No answer to this one.
'It will just be for the weekends. Now that you are going to the Academy it won't even be for that long.'
Arjun still had nothing to say.
'Beta, you must answer when I am talking to you. Otherwise Mama is going to be very sad.'
You can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink, and all Shagun got was monosyllables. Though she consoled herself with how pleased Ashok would be with the news about DPA, an insidious melancholy crept in. The anguish she felt about Raman's visitation rights would not be shared by him, nor the pain of her impending separation from her son.
You can't keep the kids away from him for ever, he said.
She felt betrayed, his rationality was too cold. And to think she had not told him about the efforts Arjun had made to contact his father, uneasily imagining such news to be detrimental to the newer relationship.
When Raman went to pick up his children that weekend it was from the grandmother's flat. This place once so welcoming was now effectively barred to him. Sitting in car in the parking lot he waited, then waited again for five seconds to pass. There he was, on the dot, at six o'clock, Friday evening. If they didn't come out he would burn the building down with Mrs Sabharwal in it. He leaned on the horn and made enough noise to suggest a heart attack right there at the wheel.
The door opened, she came across the angan to the outer metal gate, waving goodbye. He looked away. Once he had worshipped every inch of her body and soul. For a temporary infatuation, she had nullified their past, trampled on his home and set out to destroy him. There was poison in every inch of her.
He jumped out and opened his arms to the slowly approaching children. As he held them in his arms, his happiness was so severe, it broke his breath into sharp quick gusts.
'My darlings, my precious ones, my babies,' he said, over and over again, stroking their hair, touching their faces. Roohi put a tentative arm across his shoulder, Arjun remained wooden.
Once in the car, Arjun taxied imaginary airplanes across the window, while Roohi clutched her new Barbie. At a stop light she shyly showed her father the doll's special attaché case. As he examined the tiny items inside his eyes grew wet, and Roohi quickly snapped the case shut.
They went to Nirula's for lunch – pizzas, burgers, Coke, ice cream, anything they wanted was theirs. 'So, my sweet hearts,' started Raman, his tone hearty and bluff, 'I have been trying to get in touch with you for a long time. Did you know that?'
Silently they shook their heads. She must have warned them what to say or not to say. 'Can't you talk to me? Will your mother scold you?'
Again they shook their heads.
'Where are you living?'
'Why are you never there when I phone for you? I won't get angry- just tell me the truth.'
At this Roohi opened her mouth for the first time: 'Mama says we will never see her again if we talk to you.'
'What, you are not going to talk for two days?'
'Mama didn't say that –Roohi is lying.'
Roohi looked down at the Barbie in her lap, and placed a bit of pizza next to the plastic lips. Raman looked at his kids. Seven months and they seemed little strangers, his and not his.
First of all, the school issue. Though the judge had declared that Arjun's future lay in DPA, he was convinced that the child's desire could only be the result of brain-washing. And how involved was Ashok with Arjun that he would expend the time and effort required to change a school? Shagun had neither the contacts not the resources to manage such a transfer.
'Beta, when are you leaving?'
'Are you sure you want to go?'
The boy nodded.
'You do realise what DPA means? It's an all-boys boarding school, which makes it a completely artificial environment. If anything happens to you, you have no parents to turn to. People who go there talk very highly of it, but that is because they don't know anything else.'
'I have been there, Papa. Two times.'
'Is it true you stopped going to VV?'
The smallest nod.
'But why, beta? For eight years you were happy there, had good friends, got all-rounder prizes.'
They were beating around the bush. Raman knew why he had stopped going. With everything changed, why should school remain the same, especially for a boy as sensitive as Arjun? Helplessly he reasoned, 'Beta you know even if Papa and Mama live separately, there is no need to inflict greater change upon your life. In school who will care what goes on at home?'
To this lame statement there was no reply.
'Why don't you consider living with me?' he continued. 'Nobody else can take the place of your father. And I will never stop you from visiting Mama. At least give it a try, you can always go to DPA next year.'
'I have to go this year, Papa. It's the starting year.'
'Don't you have to pass the class VI exams? And how will you do that if you don't go to school?' Raman had done a little research of his own.
'I don't have to.'
'What makes you so special?'
'But you don't have to?'
Ashok, of course. For this too he must have pulled the requisite strings. This was a school in which the old-boys network was very important. Where connections were all that mattered, and rules not as important as who you knew.
Calm down, he told his agitated heart. He is not going tomorrow. This has to be a fun weekend, they have to feel your love, realise that they can tell you anything, that their home is with you, now and always.
But it was difficult to be calm. His children appeared so different, he couldn't handle the change he saw in every gesture, the many months that he had missed out on their lives.
The children accepted his fevered attentions as their due, but they said little about the trauma the mother's kidnapping had caused. He had always assumed the trauma was mutual, indeed that was the source of much of his grief. But even as he gently probed, searching for clues, it seemed otherwise. How were they treated? Did they miss him? How was that other uncle? Fine, fine, fine to everything.
He had imagined their reunion very differently – at the very least that the joy would be shared. Absent were the tales of longing and separation, absent too the combined unburdening of hearts. There was therefore no chance for the subtext he had been set to convey, all yourselves against the enemy, call me secretly, lie to your mother. In the face of his phlegmatic children, his own enthusiasm seemed overstated.
Raman was deeply disappointed.
Next day. 'Beta, look, I got you a new videogame.'
'Oh, really? What?'
'Roller Coaster Tycoon. The man in Palika Bazaar said it was selling a lot. I even played a bit of it.'
'Why would you play a game?'
'To learn the rules, so when you came the two of us could get into it faster. We don't have much time together as it is,' said the father carefully.
'Are there fights in it?'
The computer was switched on and the little magic figures of RCT appeared on the screen. As Raman explained the game, the parks, the roller coasters that had to be constructed ,the paths that had to be built, the kiosks, the facilities that had to be maintained, the entrance fees that had to be charged, some of the wariness left his son's face. A few hours of Roller Coaster Tycoon and Arjun was hooked. 'I'm sure Sumant has nothing like this.'
'Well, why don't you call him over? We can go and pick him up.'
Arjun's face darkened. 'No.'
You can tell me. I am your father.'
'He's from VV. I don't want to see him.'
And Raman had no choice but to focus on the corkscrew rollercoaster they were building, check the number of guests, check the park rating, and increase the cost of the tickets to hire more security men, there was so much vandalism at the moment.
Just then Roohi got up from her afternoon nap and clambered onto her father. Arjun looked at her with disgust. She was like an animal – always wanting to be petted, like the cat they once had, rubbing her back against any leg that happened to be nearby. He wanted his father to concentrate so they could plan more park attractions, but he knew Roohi would go on interrupting, demanding attention and getting it.
to be continued...