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CUSTODY

'Beta, give him some credit. After all these years you have suddenly turned against him. Naturally he will look for reasons.'
'Come to the point, Ma. What did he say?'
'He wanted to know if there was something troubling you. He finds you changed, less interested in the children and the household.'
'What a bastard.'
In the face of this reaction, Mrs Sabharwal did not know how to continue. She had tried to convince Raman that the only thing wrong with Shagun was that she needed a little change. She would look after the children if they went on a holiday, it was not healthy to work so hard, his life was of greater value. If he didn't want to say anything directly, she could make the suggestion to Shagun.
Her flustered insistence increased Raman's suspicions. Abruptly he terminated the call, he was sorry, he had not wanted to cause concern, and this formality from one who had been so close to her increased her grief.
CUSTODY'So? Is he now going to spy on me?'
'Such a thing is beyond him.'
'Then? What did he want?'
'Does he have to want something? Have you forgotten he has been phoning me for twelve years?'
'High time he stopped. Just because his own mother is so horrible, doesn't mean he can have mine.'
At this point, Mr Sabharwal almost gave up, but thinking of the desolation in Raman's voice, she tried again. Maybe the couple should go on a holiday. He had said he was too busy, but she knew that was just his pride.
'A holiday? Are you mad? Why?'
'It will be good for you two.'
'Who is you two?'
'What kind of question is this? You and Raman – who else? I will keep the children.'
'Did Raman tell you to ask?'
'No.'
'Then?'
Her mother watched her lip curl, then burst out with, 'I think Raman suspects.'
'Nonsense, he is too stupid.'
'Don't talk like that.'
'Why not? Just because you love him doesn't mean I have to.'
'He is the father of your children.'
'So?'
'Give him some respect. Till now you never thought he was stupid.'
'Till now, till now. What did I know till now?'
'Beti, have you ever thought of the consequences of your actions? Even if you don't care for Raman, for heaven's sake preserve some appearances. You think all wives love their husbands? But they stay married. You are so idealistic, you don't think about the long term. What about society, what about your children?'
Shagun turned her head away. Against the word 'children' she had no defence. Drearily she thought yes, what about the children? She couldn't leave them, she didn't see how she could take them. Ashok had a transferable job: even if he got an extension, he would eventually go, and she, she would have to stay.
In this situation all she could do was live from day to day. She didn't want to hear her mother's worries, they echoed too precisely her own fears.
'Till now you were a happy wife and mother,' observed wrong, you never said. Now this man has come to fill your head with rubbish ideas.'
This was the trouble with her mother, thought Shagun, she just couldn't leave her past alone.
After the phone call to his mother-in-law Raman put the photographs of Shagun in his briefcase, She had been the woman who held his heart in her hand, and though he knew she did not love him with an intensity similar to his own, it hadn't seemed to matter.
No longer.
Once Raman commissioned the Lovely Detective Agency he began his certain descent into hell. How many men needed to initiate something like this? Was the problem that he had married someone too beautiful? His mother had thought so all along and now his mother-in-law's voice suggested it was just a matter of finding out the details.
For one month Raman lived in no man's land. Much of that time was spent on tour. Back home he dreaded the evidence his yearning heart obsessively sought, that his wife had changed towards him. When they were together he felt barriers he was not invited to bridge.
Shagun was largely unaware of this. Contrary to her mother's opinion, she was not determined to think ill of her husband, it was just that with her heart full of another man, the married occupant had to be accommodated on the margins.
It was her children who dragged her back to the reality of the past twelve years, standing like sentinels in the way of what her whole being craved, a life with Ashok Khanna. She owed it to them to try and save her marriage. But the effort was too much, she couldn't make it in a sustained way. These days she appeared schizophrenic: one minute madly concerned with her children's well-being, the next abstracted, the next excessively attentive to Raman, the next absorbed in her private world.
Meanwhile Raman was doing really well at work. The Mang-ho! scheme was bearing fruit, and the fact that there was no one to share his triumph made his success hollow.
He was certain of a big bonus, but the plans mooted with so much pleasure about the World Cup had now soured. His friends were still going ahead with hotel and plane reservations, trying to figure out which combination would allow them to see India play. Shagun's silence at these sessions made him silent too. Why should he spend his hard-earned money on certain misery? He didn't want to be trapped with a wife who seemed unaware of his existence.
CUSTODYThe days passed like this and nothing brought relief.
'Darling?'
Ashok glowed. It had taken so long for her to address him by any endearment that each of them struck him as an achievement.
'Say that word again.'
'No, listen. I think he knows.'
'He does seem rather pulled down.'
'You see.'
'But he is performing brilliantly. And working hard, doing promotional events, getting local celebs and sponsors. He has successfully created a demand for Mang-oh! in six cities, and incidentally increased the sales of water and beverages. We are now moving into permanent commitments, donating refrigerators, refurbishing school canteens, on the condition that only our products are sold. A huge bonus and a special mention await him at the end of the year.'
Shagun did wish that everything didn't have to ceaselessly revert back to The Brand. Though perhaps inevitable, it wasn't nice. When she said this, he only laughed, Ashok didn't bother to remember all her wishes, her likes and dislikes. She was still getting used to this.
'That's wonderful – that The Brand is doing so well,' she now said dutifully.
'You don't really care, do you?'
'It's just a drink.'
'It's my life, or was until I saw you.'
'Well, I hope seeing me won't affect our career.'
'Are you sure he suspects?'
'He avoids me.'
'All the better for us. So what if you are married? You are mine. I don't want to share you with anybody.'
'No, seriously.'
'Seriously.'
She blushed, and he thought for the hundredth time that he could spend his whole life just gazing at her face.
'Besides, avoiding you must be good for him. He is becoming so innovative, it's amazing. After the target schools he moved to colleges, and then he thought of hiring students to promote Mang-oh on campus. Saves us money and gets better results. Unlike earlier, he has all the data at his fingertips. People are beginning to notice the way he is campaigning.'
'Well, it will be for the first time. They never noticed him before.'
'I wonder why. He is solid.'
What business does he have to speak of Raman in those terms? Thought the wife resentfully as she heard words her own mother had used so often. Ashok went on pensively, 'I think he needs to have someone behind him. Even if only notionally. He is a really good team player.'
'Is he glad you are there for him?' she asked with a difficulty he did not notice.
'Not sure. We worked together more in the beginning – now all we do is toss around ideas – look at targets – but he sees how best to meet them.'
'But don't you feel awkward? After all…'
'Once I am in office, I forget everything else.'
CUSTODY'So he is a cog in a wheel?'
'As am I.'
A silence fell between them as he played with her hair. He was forty-three, and found the distraction of being in love unnerving. For one thing his personal and his professional lives had become linked in a way that he found distasteful. Clear, straightforward, cutting to the chase, that was his temperament. It irked him not to have her when he wanted, not to call her openly, always thinking of what would be safe and what not.
In the beginning she had been so brave and matter-of-fact, now she was more fearful. Things never remained static; in business you were always fighting to keep your position, because if you didn't go ahead, you started to decline. And it was turning out to be true of love as well. Should he leave its management to Shagun, he was sure the whole relationship would be doomed.
'Sweetheart, the first thing we have to do towards planning our future is inform the company of our relationship.'
'What? Why?'
'We are in the same organisation, your husband and I. We have to make a disclosure about anything that affects its working.'
'Don't bother. You will finish and go. I have to stay for my children. How will they like it when they grow up and realise their mother is a divorcee?'
Ashok lost his temper. 'What is there to realise? This is why I hate this place. This obsession with what others think. By the time your children grow up the whole world will have changed. Certainly this benighted country. Things are moving so fast as it is. Ten years ago you couldn't get a Coke, pizza or burger here. There wasn't even colour TV. And now? Everything.'
'What has colour TV got to do with my marriage?' she asked, lip trembling. Ashok was always seeing connections where none were obvious to her.
'Traditional versus modern values, individual versus society,' he elaborated, putting a contrite arm around her. 'I just want to take you away from here. This narrow social set-up is all you know – that's why you are afraid. But it will all be fine, fine. Trust me, darling.'
'Yes,' she said slowly, 'even Princess Diana left her husband. She found happiness before she died. Who knows how long we have?'
'Are you saying we are going to die? In a car speeding to avoid paparazzi?'
'Well – she just wanted to be happy too.'
'All right, let's look at Diana. So much of her identity was bound up with being the Princess of Wales. But she didn't care. She followed her heart. And you must follow yours. Something else will emerge if only you let it. In Diana's case she started saying she was the people's princess – you have to admire the repackaging that went into that. We only have one life to live and everybody wants to live it the best they can.'
'But then she had that terrible accident and her children were orphaned.'
He sighed and reverted to the original problem. 'This situation has to change. It would be disastrous for me if Raman did the disclosing. I would appear to be exploiting him and you. This will go down badly, the company frowns on anything that prevents employees from giving their best.'
'You should have thought of that earlier,' she said, giving him a sideways glance, over the naked back that had so attracted him when he had first seen her at the Oberoi party a year ago. The white curved expanse interrupted by the thin black band of her blouse and the sari tied low over her hips had seized him more powerfully.
'I know it's difficult for you. But you'll see. It's better in the long run.'
'Disclosure to whom?'
'I could report to Hong Kong – or New York.'
'New York. That's far enough away.'
'I wish I could say distances make a difference, but they don't. He will get to know.'
'He can't get to know yet.'
'We can wait a few weeks.'
'A few weeks!'
She was panic-stricken. Why were things moving so fast? When she started her affair she had thought a lover would add to her experience, make up for all the things she had missed having married straight out of college. She had heard of other women who took lovers – their whole lives didn't change.
She thought of her nights with Raman. The last time she had refused his overtures, he had not repeated them. They lay together, tossing and turning, sleeping in fits and starts, staring into the darkness. In the morning often he looked haggard, while her eyes had faint purple circles under them.
A few days later, Ashok to Shagun: 'I mentioned our situation to a colleague in the US – Bill is a great friend as well.'
'Why? Why did you say anything? You promised to wait.' She clung to him, as though he could allow her to have her cake and eat it too.
He caressed her back gently, his hand lingering on the slenderness of her neck under the heaviness of her thick bright hair. If only he could take away her fear. Somehow manage it so that all the consequences were shouldered by himself.
'I only sounded him out,' and it surprised him how easily he could be patient. 'Just to get a sense of things. We have to be realistic.'
Wearily Shagun supposed he was right. Whatever way you looked at it, she would have to give up something, and suffer accordingly.
'All right.'
'It's only a matter of time before he finds out who it is. If you think he is suspicious, it is the next step.'
'He talks of you with great respect. All stuff about Mang-oh – and the deliverables.'
'The deliverables are almost over.'
'So, who would you go to?'
'My own boss, who is head of South-East Asia – that's in Hong Kong. Or I could go to New York, that's headquarters.'
'Can they fire you?'
'Theoretically they can do anything. But they won't want to lose me. Perhaps they will suggest a transfer – but it's a joint decision. The Brand was built by consensus, by treating people well, by willing participation.'
'Well, do it quickly, whatever you have to do. My life is a nightmare. It's hard to be a wife when your heart is somewhere else. If only I were not a mother, how easy, it would be. To leave him, to live with you, just be happy.'
He said nothing – only went on stroking her back, her face, her hair till she calmed down.
'So I have your permission to make a disclosure?'
She merely nodded, then got ready and went away.

to be continued...



 
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