Once home, Arjun insisted that they play RollerCoaster Tycoon and Age of Empires to the exclusion of everything else.
As they stared at the screen, Raman used the opportunity to try and establish some mutual understanding.
'Things have changed at home, beta.'
'Do you mean your marriage, Papa?'
'Yes, and that Roohi has found a mother in Ishita. I must ask you to respect that.'
'Mama is our mother.'
'But she left and Roo is too young to be without a mother. For better or for worse, she considers Ishita in that role. Ishita too dotes on her. It is best to accept things the way they are. When Roo came back from America, she was very disturbed. She kept wetting her bed, and she mentioned some strange story about three little piggies and a big bad wolf. For some reason, this seemed to have frightened her.'
'What a baby.'
'I got quite worried. Did something bad happen there – something your mother might not be aware of?'
'Nothing. We played this game – that we were living in a house like the three little piggies – it was in a cabin by the lake, you know, Papa – anyway, she made it very difficult when Mama told her that the holiday was over. So we told her we had to go because the big bad wolf was coming to blow the place down. And cook us and eat us,' added Arjun with relish.
'She is still too young to distinguish reality from fairy tales, beta. After you left for school, she really broke down. Beta, it is disturbing for children to be shunted around like this. You are older, you understand, but she doesn't. Don't forget how young she is.'
There was a willingness to wound in Arjun that was new to Raman. What had happened to his son? He had obviously been primed during his last trip to his mother. He looked at the face, so like Shagun's.
For the initial meeting with the grandparents, Raman arranged a family lunch at Sagar. In the restaurant there would be so much going on that any tension would be dissipated in the eating and drinking.
When they arrived, they found Mr and Mrs Kaushik already waiting for them in the crowded room, seated next to the window on the second floor of this food mansion.
'Beta!' they exclaimed. 'How are you? We have missed you so much, you never wrote to us. You forgot us, didn't you?'
For the millionth time in his life, Raman wished his parents were not so tactless.
Even Ishita flinched.
'School keeps children very busy,' she said quickly.
'So busy that you forget your father, forget everybody?'
The waiter bustled up. They ordered the food.
The grandparents continued with the questions which Raman tried to answer so that the boy's surliness would not be that noticeable. The food came, they ate, they drank, they paid, then made their way down, pushing through people charging up the narrow staircase, and finally started on their separate ways home. Mr and Mrs Kaushik found it odd that they were not invited to spend the rest of the day with their son, but things had changed, they told themselves in the car, Raman would call them over when he thought it best. At least they got to see a lot of their granddaughter.
The tension continued during the remainder of Arjun's visit. Ishita looked as though each second was torture. She wanted Raman to understand her position, and not blame her later for anything. She was trying, if only he knew how hard. Four weeks were not much she realised, but Arjun was making trouble between Roohi and herself.
'You are imagining things.'
'No, I am not. He just stays in his room the whole time you are away, or he calls Roohi to him and shuts the door. What am I to think? And she only calls me Mama when he is not there.' Ishita complained.
He is just a child, thought Raman, but he said nothing, merely continued going out with his son. Those were the best times when they were alone, and he tried to create these situations as much as possible. They saw a film at the local theatre, ate potato skins and pizza at Arjun's favourite restaurant and wandered around the shopping complex before returning home. They didn't talk much. Raman said, 'I love you, son, you are my own flesh and blood, I want you to remember that always.' Arjun said, 'I know,' thus gratifying his father. Raman was not going to spoil any outing with his son by the parental strictures that Ishita so wanted. There is a time and place for everything.
For the first time, Ishita began to think it had been a bad idea to give up her job at Jeevan's. Wasn't it better to devote oneself to many children than to obsess over one little girl? Yet it had seemed the obvious course. She sighed as she returned to the papers in front of her, pushing other things out of her mind. She also had to call other mothers she knew, about the school interviews.
Raman, seeing her going over school prospectuses, was grateful. She is a good girl, he thought, he didn't know of anyone else who would be capable of this kind of devotion in such circumstances.
'I keep telling you she has a very good chance in VV, my old school, you know.' Raman said.
'I know. But I found out that children of alumni do not get any extra favours. They said if they started doing that, they would never have room for anybody else.'
'We didn't have a problem with Arjun.'
'Things are tougher now.'
'When are the interviews?'
'Gandhi, Smriti and Kriloskar this month, Modern and VV in early January, after that Springdales, Our Saviour Convent—'
'I don't want her to go to a convent,' said Raman.
'We may have no choice. It's the school I went to, it's really good. So I thought it better to fill in the forms.'
'Are you implying that no school will take her?'
'I am saying we cannot be sure of anything.' she did not look up as she said this. On her lap was a manila folder, scattered around were passport-sized pictures of Roohi – he didn't even know when she had got them taken. In these few months, she had already become indispensable. Because of her, Roohi was happy and being looked after as children should be looked after.
'Do you need help in filling out the forms?'
'Most of it is already done. But if I do, I will ask you.'
He was glad it was admission time. It was enough to keep any concerned mother occupied for months.
In the morning, Raman thought he had been unduly pessimistic. Things would work out. He had said this to himself before, but now the conviction was greater.
Ishita thought to herself, Arjun is just a child, if he is loyal to his mother, that is quite natural. It is stupid of me to mind, I have Roohi and I should be content with that.
Just before he left, Arjun cornered his sister.
'I am going tomorrow.'
She stared blankly at him.
He sat near her and showed her something in his cupped hand. It was a small passport-sized photograph of Shagun.
'Who is this?'
'Don't forget her. All right?'
'She doesn't live here any more. She is in the States where I am going now. If you weren't so stupid you would also be coming.'
Arjun felt proud that he had ended his visit on the same note with which he had started it. He had not succumbed to the enemy. He touched the photograph lying crumpled in his pocket. It was his talisman. From time to time he looked at it, knowing that the eyes that smiled back from the glossy paper were always ready to smile at him in exactly the same way. In two days' time, she would receive him at JFK Airport, waiting at the barricade, embracing him so tightly his breath would stop. Later on he would tell her all she wanted to know about Roohi.
The first rejection came while Arjun was still with them.
In mid-December, they received a curt letter telling them that their daughter would not be called for an interview at the Gandhi Smriti School.
'You should have pulled some strings.' said Ishita, staring in despair at the letter.
'It's not the end of the world. There are other schools. We never worried like this for Arjun.'
'Times have changed.'
'Not that much, all right?'
He looked a bit ferocious and she had to retreat.
Two weeks later, massive earthquakes hit Northern India. Thirty thousand died. Ishita collected bundles of old clothes and bedding from the house and drove to Swarg Nivas, to deposit them in the society office. The Brand donated money, medicines, drinking water and juices. 'It's our corporate sense of responsibility, we know how to give back.' said Raman.
As far as the next interview at Kirloskar International was concerned, Raman did make sure that Roohi was called. It was a school belonging to a business conglomerate, so it was easier for him to find a contact on the board.
'Sathe says he is doing this as a special favour to me.'
'Thank you, darling.' said Ishita.
'Hey, don't thank me. She is also my daughter, you know.'
His wife giggled at the compliment.
Since Arjun was with them, she made it a point to announce the date of the interview, so that he would convey the information to his mother.
'There is no need to do all this. We can't really make messengers out of our children.' said Raman.
'Who will tell her then? Will she trust anything you say? She will believe her son more easily.'
'He is my son too, Ish.'
'That's what I meant.'
Arjun departed before the Kirloskar interview. As the interview date came near, Raman warned Ishita. 'They only have twenty-five seats, and they are very strict about not exceeding their limit, not even if the prime minister asks.'
'Her chances are good. I have been preparing her.'
'Just don't get your hopes up.'
He was always so pessimistic, Ishita thought.
Roohi's slot was fixed for January 15th, 3.30 p.m.
'That's her nap time, she's never at her best in the afternoon. Maybe they are doing this in order to disqualify her.'
'Don't be silly. How else will they fit so many in? They are interviewing two hundred children a day.'
On the appointed date, they were collected in the school along with many others. Along the paths bordering the auditorium were stalls with hot and cold drinks. Student volunteers took down their names, then escorted them inside, where they were solicitously seated according to their appointed times in rows.
Every half-hour, groups of ten were led by a teacher into the school.
By the time Roohi was called, Ishita was a mass of anxiety. Her earlier confidence seemed misplaced.
'Do your best, darling.' she whispered into the child's ear. 'Good luck.'
The child barely acknowledged this as she left.
'Oh don't worry.' said Raman for the millionth time.
What was the use of going on saying don't worry? Couldn't he see the kind of children gathered here, smart, bright and confident? Not that Roohi wasn't all these things, but she was undoubtedly very shy.
Slowly, they walked to the Nestle kiosk. Ishita needed coffee to calm her nerves. Judging from the crowd, lots of people needed to calm their nerves and it took Raman a while to buy two cups. They sipped the hot frothy instant coffee, and while they were only halfway through, they saw a teacher leading ten small children towards the auditorium, Roohi among them.
Ishita threw her coffee cup into the trash and darted towards the child.
'How was it?'
'Fine.' The child's face revealed nothing.
They smiled at her, grabbed her hands and started walking towards the car.
On their way home, Ishita asked, 'What did they ask?'
'My mama's name.'
'What did you say?'
'I said Mama!'
'I said Raman.'
So, she had not taken her name. Understandably, she was confused. But the teachers would never realise why.
'Beti, did they ask you any nursery rhymes?' put in Raman. He knew Ishita had focused on nursery rhymes.
'Any one I wanted.'
'Which was that?'
'Good girl!' exclaimed Ishita.
Thank goodness the rest of the interview had gone well, thought Raman.
That night, Raman spent a lot of time in close proximity of his wife's anguish.
'Why are you so worried? There is always VV.'
'That's what you think.'
There was a gloomy strain in Ishita that had burgeoned in these two months of applications and interviews. For his own sanity if nothing else, he hoped Roohi would get the admission.
'Should I go and talk to Mother Superior at OSC? She was very fond of me.'
'A convent is our last choice. Let's wait and see first.'
But Ishita had to do something.
Among the thousands of children lining up for admissions, there were many who were going to be stuck in mediocre schools. And despite Raman's unfavourable opinion of convents, he would be grateful to have Roohi in OSC if other options failed. So, she did visit her old school.
In OSC, Ishita's talents had been polished to a great extent. She had been the class monitor, prefect, house captain, sports captain and vice-head girl. Ishita knew Mother Superior would favour Roohi because of Ishita.
to be continued...