'Leave her out.'
'Listen. This is not a party, where you are so nice and polite to each other. If she is easily scared, so much the better.'
'She is old, I don't want her upset,' said Raman, regretting the unmanly flaws in his character.
'We have to utilise everything we have.'
'Why can't we subpoena his servant, or chowkidar? How much can they lie in front of lawyers?'
Nandan sighed. Clearly Raman had taken his notions of the Indian judiciary from American films. 'Our system is different. We don't subpoena, for one thing. If we need to question them, we have to give their names on our list of witnesses. And they could very well say they never saw Shagun in their lives – won't be very good for us. Do you see?'
'Suppose I just go to their schools and take the children. What can she do?'
'She can then take them back. What's to stop her?'
'What's to stop me?'
'Nothing. You can go on doing this until a court decision. Or unless you come to an agreement.'
'An agreement is not in the picture. We have to fight.'
Initially, they all wanted to fight. He had seen it happen time and again. Fight, despair, compromise. The courts defeated everybody. Cases like this could take years, but clients need to be disillusioned slowly.
'Right now we are focusing on direct and circumstantial evidence that we are confident about. We have to file this as fast as possible so you can get visitation rights. Once those are granted, nobody can stop you from seeing your children. Later on we will attach our list of witnesses and the evidence we mean to use.'
Raman leaned back in his chair. His father's instinct to go to Nandan had proved right. He saw the noose around Shagun tightening. How much could she deny?
'To what address should we send the notice?' he asked.
'To her mother's?'
'But suppose the mother says she is not living with her?'
'Then where is she living? That is even more suspect.'
Raman left Nandan more buoyant than at any time during the last ten days. Let Shagun see he too could fight back, that he was no longer Mr Nice Guy.
On his way to the car he met a vaguely familiar-looking woman.
'Hello, beta,' she said, a smile briefly smoothing her worried features.
'Hello, Aunti,' he replied, flashing his general all-purpose grin.
'Children all right? Haven't seen them here for a while.'
'Everything is all right,' said Raman and turned his back.
'That Raman Kaushik is very strange,' remarked Mrs Rajora to her husband later in the evening. 'I don't think he recognised me. Used to come so often. Then he had his heart attack.'
'Everywhere there are troubles,' said the phlegmatic husband.
Mrs Rajora only had to think of her daughter to agree. Would their duties never be over? Would Ishita never be happy?
But things were improving, Mrs Rajora decided, keeping in mind that she should be grateful to God, to look at what she had rather than what she didn't. And what she had was a daughter who was better off now than when she first returned home three years ago.
In the early days Ishita had spent every moment moping. Free at last from pretending things were all right meant she was free to lie listlessly on her bed, make no effort with her appearance and focus full time on her loss.
Head buried in her pillow, she thought of the body that had known as much love, and then so much punishment. Stubbornly it had remained barren despite the money spent, the hormones, the injections, the painful procedures. She could not conceive, whereupon SK had decided he could not love her.
If only she could tear out her whole reproductive system and throw it on the road. Everybody in the building must know why she had come back. Return to sender. Receipt for 5 lakhs attached.
Her parents were equally devastated. They held themselves responsible for her half functioning organs. They could say her childhood TB was karma, but the consolations of karma were meagre. Their daughter was still young, and the prospect of endless dreary years ahead was frightening.
The forty-five minutes on the bus to work each morning was Mrs Rajora's time for contemplation. All around her, it seemed, were broken marriages. Even Princess Diana, beautiful, privileged, adored, even she couldn't keep her husband. No matter where you lived, what your circumstances, women always suffered.
SK's parents were not willing to try everything, that had been the main problem. If a sheep could be cloned, why not use the same technology to clone their precious son? Ishu would have co-operated fully.
The bus came to its stop at Patel Chest, and Mrs Rajora got off to start her working day, rehearsing the half-truths she would tell if anybody asked about her daughter. For the first time she realised how inconsiderate social inquisitiveness could be. Thank God she was retiring soon.
It was dusk, and Mrs Rajora and Mrs Kaushik were ambling around the building. Birds wheeled in the sky, before settling down on some of the high trees that bordered the housing society. There were a few pale wisps of cloud, touched by the pink of a sun that had sunk beyond the tall apartment blocks that made up the jagged skyline of PPG. The air was cool, soon the navratras would start and the society temple would resound with prayers.
Now Mrs Kaushik was intrigued. However, Mrs Rajora had not imparted any information concerning Ishita's sudden arrival three weeks ago.
Once before she had had to bang on her friend's door to get news of what was bothering her. Now she tried again.
'How is beti Ishu?'
Mrs Rajora, gentlest of creatures, made the word forbidding.
Mrs Kaushik rather unkindly persisted. 'Everything OK? I am sure that the stones the astrologer gave will work. You have to give these things time.'
Her friend changed the topic. 'How is Raman doing? Such good news about Shagun's pregnancy. Are they hoping for a girl this time?'
When it comes to their children, people love to talk and talk, as though those children were universal objects of concern. So Mrs Kaushik allowed herself to be distracted.
Mrs Rajora crept into her apartment exhausted. Usually she came back from walking rejuvenated, her interest in humanity piqued with its daily dose of gossip. Now her own daughter was the subject of such curiosity.
She must be getting morbidly sensitive. Mrs Kaushik had always shown such genuine solicitude that she should have been able to share her troubles with her. But what had happened to Ishita was so awful that it was impossible to confide even with dear friends.'
Mr Rajora walked in the morning, with four or five of his acquaintances, practically racing around the building. Once done, he would have breakfast, then come down to the small administrative section near the entrance, where, as an elected office-bearer, he was kept busy with society affairs, its security, the lifts, temple matters, community events, lunches, kirtans, raffles.
Every day on his return he found his daughter still in bed. Grief was all very well, but she was carrying this to ridiculous lengths. She needed some occupation, brooding was good for no one. What was her B.Ed. for, if not to protect her against such eventualities?
'I wanted to work, you got me married,' was her sullen response.
'I am sorry, beta. At the time it seemed the right thing to do.'
Mollified by this admission of guilt which she was now in the habit of demanding, Ishita said she had every intention of looking for a job as soon as she was able.
'Nothing is going to fall in your lap,' said her father, 'you have to go out and try.'
Hopelessness filled Ishita. Her father was right, nothing was going to fall into her lap. But that meant she had to resume life from where she had left off five years ago. Although she had been reluctant to marry, her passion for her husband was such that now the acme of her desire was to be in SK's arms, his heart. Alone in the house, how many times had she picked up the phone to dial his number? Just to hear his dear voice one more time? And then put the phone down sadly – she was divorced, he didn't want her, he had made that so clear. She still had her pride. The only way to be close to him was to shut her eyes and fantasise herself back to the love they had once shared.
'Beti? It's just a few hours' work. Let's start with something small.'
'Would you like to participate in the building drive to collect clothes and household items for the earthquake victims in the north-east? The trucks are already booked. Think of others more unfortunate.'
But no, she couldn't bear going door to door, speaking into people's inquisitive faces. She just couldn't.
The trouble was that people did talk, confirmed Mrs Rajora as she told her husband about Leela Kaushik's questions, again suppressing her own envy of her friend, another grandchild on the way and a son who was rising like a star in the corporate world.
Eventually, inspired by some of the women in the building, Mrs Rajora came up with suggestions about starting a home business with baked goods, or designing clothes with a tailor installed in the veranda. The world was open to an enterprising woman. All this Ishita rejected, repeating her offers of leaving if her parents found her a burden.
It was best to leave their daughter alone, concluded the parents. She took too much tension. They themselves would have to tell their acquaintances of Ishu's return; better they shoulder the questions, otherwise their fragile girl might well spend the rest of her life glued to the mattress.
When Ishita did eventually venture forth looking for a job, it turned out to be an unpleasant enterprise. Her standing was not high in the teacher pool. She had a degree but no experience. Every place she went to asked her to check later, or worse still to look in the newspapers, they would advertise should there be a vacancy. No assurances anywhere.
Further and further away from Patparganj she tried, twenty, twenty-five kilometres. Nothing, nothing, Hadn't she already known that in the cards dealt out by life she would not get the winning deal?
The halwais had put up tables in the quadrangle near the society office in Block A. Feeling self-conscious among such gathered acquaintances, Ishita took a tiny morsel of mutter paneer onto her tinfoil plate, along with a puri, careful to avoid eye contact with anyone.
'Beti, is that all you are going to eat?'
Mrs Hingorani. Ishita looked at the grey frizzy hair of the woman, the lined good-natured face, and wondered what she wanted. Everybody over a certain age was a cornucopia of prying questions.
'Not keeping so well, Auntie,' she mumbled. If she wished to eschew neighbourly interaction, she should have remained upstairs, but that would have meant dealing with her mother's disappointment, so here she was down among the wolves.
She started to edge away, when Auntie asked was Ishita free these days? If so, would she like to do a little voluntary work? She ran a school for slum children.
The sight of all children was detestable, but those from the slums were a different breed, not the adorable creatures that fate had robbed her of, but urchins who were visible everywhere with their running noses and sharp ways.
'Why don't you drop by tomorrow and see?' Mrs Hingorani suggested into the heavy silence.
Even for a person committed to lifelong inertia this did not seem too great a concession. She agreed to be by the gate next morning at nine.
Her parents were surprised to see Ishita get up early. 'Where are you going?'
'With Mrs Hingorani.'
'To do what?'
'Some volunteer stuff.'
'Be careful. She has a big heart, but she tries to get people to work for free.'
Ishita, further depressed, opened the door and left. Why were her parents always investing the smallest action with so much significance? It weighed her down, she with her broken wings, who longed to fly.
The rickshaw reached the main road, where the noise was deafening. Horns blared and the fumes of cars, buses and two-wheelers hung thickly over one and all, ensuring that if they spoke they coughed, if they breathed they shortened their life span.
Through the ride Ishita kept up polite conversation.
'How did you start a school, Auntie?'
It began five years ago, with a young boy playing marbles next to his father, the chowkidar who manned the gate. Why wasn't he in school? Demanded Mrs Hingorani, her eyes on the child as he mapped out his future on the dusty pavement, each idle marble ensuring that he never rose from it.
He keeps running away.
Come to my house, said Mrs Hingorani to the truant. Soon he was joined by his sister, then his neighbours, then the neighbours' neighbours as word spread. They came to learn English, to see a flush toilet, to sit on the carpet, to watch TV, to swell the rooms with young impoverished lives, till there were fifty, before school, after school, running in shifts, and the apartment could take no more.
She moved to a two-room set-up in Mandavili. Mandavili, one street down, left from the lights, the poor and crowded colony teeming with domestic labourers, dhobis, sweepers, electricians, carpenters, drivers, plumbers, electricians, watchmen, rickshaw wallahs, small shopkeepers, roadside vendors of fruit and vegetables, pavement sellers of goods, all the people who provided services to the thousands of co-operative housing dweller of PPG. The women here earned a living by cooking and cleaning while their daughters stayed at home also cooking and minding their toddler siblings.
They stopped outside a tall, narrow building before a flight of steps leading inside. Parked next to it was a van.
'Have you picked up the food?' Mrs Hingorani asked the driver.
It turned out she fed them as well. They came hungry, listless, unable to concentrate.
The van, donated by a bereaved father, picked up party leftovers twice a week from five-star hotels, allowing the youngsters a taste of cakes, rolls and pizza slices.
to be continued...