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07 - 13 July , 2012
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Next time I come to Delhi, I am going to buy a computer and make sure you learn how to use it. Everybody here communicates with their relatives through e-mail. Just imagine – we will hear from each other every day, wouldn't it be just great?
If you insist I will get you the hearing aid, though I think its nonsense that you cannot hear me on the phone. It's the cost that worries you – don't deny it. Stop converting dollars into rupees. We earn in dollars now, remember?
I can't wait for you to come here. At night from our apartment windows you can see the city lights twinkling, the view is breathtakingly beautiful. When I am on my own, I do a little shopping and at home I do all the things we had servants for in India. We are very cosy here. We cook together, then after dinner we usually go out.
The only thing that upsets me is seeing women with small kids. When the weather is good, they are all over the Central Park. If I mention the children to Ashok, he suggests me that I should start working. I see CUSTODYno connection.
Ashok had a word with someone in the embassy, and there will be no trouble with the visas. Raman will drop the children at your place the night before. Thank goodness Raman was cooperative enough to let me take the children first. But then he knows he has everything to gain by remaining in my good books. Ashok is right, it is not good for the children if the divorced parents are hostile to one another. We will both be at the airport to receive you. I have bought toys for Roo and games for Arjun.
Your loving daughter,
Shagun.

Three weeks into the children's departure and Raman was still angry. Shagun had asked him to change the dates, it was not such a big deal, but every careful distant word had been uttered as though she was doing him a hugh favour. It will be fun for all of you to be together for New Year, so I don't mind if you send them to me earlier. Later on it gets too cold, besides, they shouldn't have to spend time being outfitted for warm clothes so close to Christmas when shopping is a nightmare.
He had never heard such flimsy excuses. Clothes! As though she couldn't buy them ahead of time! She knew their sizes. No. Shagun did not want to be encumbered by her children on Millennium Eve.
It was not his concern, he told himself. He drove the children to Alaknanda, their warmest clothes packed in a suitcase. How had Mrs Sabharwal arranged the visas? Again not his concern.
What about his own millennium plans? Just about everyone he knew was planning to leave the city. A guy in his office was going to New Zealand, so he could greet the New Year a few hours earlier than his fellow Indians. Another was going to London, another was going to be in New York, at Times Square, the most happening place in the world, with the most happening party of all.
The only thing that made him feel better was the prospect of seeing his children, however, there were still some days to go before he was scheduled to pick them up from Alaknanda. Then the whole world could go to anywhere, along with his ex and he wouldn't give a damn. He would gather everybody who was dear to him in his house, parents, children, relatives, and surrounded by the people he loved, he would CUSTODYwelcome the millennium, and hope that every succeeding year in the new century was as happy.

Dearest Mama,
It is the middle of the night and I cannot sleep. My heart is full – but I don't want to disturb Ashok – he has a busy day at work tomorrow.
It is so silent. It's only been three hours since I came home, but every minute I hear screams of loss. Tomorrow Raman will come to get the children, and then you will feel a little of my loneliness. That's not a nice thing to say, is it? Sorry. But you will see them again in the next holidays before I do. If Raman is even halfway decent, he would ensure that their contact with you continued but he is too petty.
If Ashok knew I was sitting here like this he would be quite hurt, especially after our dinner. He took me to this fabulous restaurant – he guessed I would need cheering up. Now that you have been here, why is it so difficult for you to imagine yourself living with me? You are not comfortable with Ashok, that's it, no?
How were Roo and Arjun during the flight? Ashok spent his extra miles on upgrades for all of you – he is always thinking of practical ways to make me happy.
Over dinner he again said I had to work. How will that stop me from missing my children, I don't know, but I mustn't grumble. Nobody gets everything, and if I had to do it all over again, I would.
Your loving daughter,
Shagun.

The Kaushiks were quite determined to make Raman's party a huge success. The most important thing is family, they declared, when we have each other we have everything. His parents helped him plan the menu. To ensure a festive atmosphere he strung coloured lights around the tiny veranda off the drawing room, he bought small presents for Nandan's twins and his own children.
What about Ishita? Roohi would love to see her, his parents would approve, but he was not sure how Arjun would react. He didn't want to risk any tension, though in excluding her he knew he was being unfair, but he would explain it all to her later.

Millennium Eve. The Kaushiks came armed with food. The men drank and talked politics and the children disappeared into another room. Raman fought away wistful memories of the times when the flat was always like this, full of life and children. He reminded himself instead of what he had. Through the horrible months of divorce and custody his family had stood by him. Nandan particularly had never charged him a rupee, nor ever complained about the time he had taken up.
They drank, they ate, then the children opened their presents.
Then finally, 1999 was over.
The relatives left looking tired yet happy. Now he and Arjun were sitting in front of the TV.
'When are they going to show New York?' asked the boy.
'New York is ten and a half hours behind us, beta. It is still daylight there. You can get up early in the morning and watch. Now go to bed.'
The boy just remained sitting, staring drowsily at the TV screen.
'Is there something in particular you are looking for?'
He didn't reply.
'As you can see, they are not focusing on individuals. Only crowds.'
Just then the camera zoomed in on one swaying woman in Cairo. Arjun looked reproachfully at his father.
'That woman is performing on stage.'
He knew his mother would be at Times Square that night, witness to the lowering of the crystal ball. Be sure to watch it, beta, I will try and stand where the cameras are, and wave to you on the eve of this new millennium, my darling boy. It will be a link between you and me. I miss you so much.
'Your mother will be at Times Square?'
Arjun nodded.
'Along with thousands of others. I doubt you will see her on TV.'
'Papa, please. I feel like watching.'
Raman got the boy's quilt and pillow and arranged them around him on the sofa, then switched off the lights.
In the morning he found his son sleeping on the sofa, the remote near his pillow, the TV on, images from New Year festivities still being showcased.

Ishita also spent the Millennium Eve in front of the TV with her parents. She was somewhat withdrawn and her mother looked at her worriedly.
It was cold outside, but still the celebratory noises continued relentlessly. The Society had hosted a dinner, and there had been a bonfire as well.
Mrs Kaushik had told her mother that in two weeks Arjun would be going back to school. Then may be Raman would come over with Roo, but she was not sure she wanted to see him if she was just a convenient option for his daughter, someone who would amuse her while they visited. If that was the case, she must watch herself, she was in danger of growing too fond of essentially borrowed goods.

It was a long and mostly silent trip to Dehradun with Arjun strapped into the front seat, looking out of the window. They stopped for lunch. Arjun ordered chicken tikka roll. Raman had the same.
'You will miss this food,' he remarked.
'It's all right.'
'I will come and visit you.'
Arjun didn't say anything.
'Did you go out with Ashok Uncle when you were in New York?'
'Sometimes. Mostly Mama went with us. Naani was there too.'
Mrs Sabharwal in New York? Why not? She was Shagun's mother, it was natural that she should visit her CUSTODYnewly married daughter.

Mama dearest!
Happy 2000! Did you get my card? And the flowers I sent? Did you eat the Christmas cake? What did you do on New Years' Eve?
My Millennium Eve was everything one could possibly wish for. Sometimes I feel so happy Mama, I guess I am one of the lucky ones. We were at Times Square when this huge glittering ball descended. Everybody was screaming and dancing – Ashok and I danced too. He says I have given him a new lease of life.
We are thinking of renting a little cottage on a lake in New England for a month in the summer when the children come next. You will love it, Mama! There is so much beauty in America.
Ashok says he will go canoeing with Arjun. I will teach Roo how to swim. She is a bit timid, but once I introduce her to sports she will improve.
Look at me! It is only January, and I am already talking about the next visit. Ashok is a big planner. Plan A, then Plan B – the back-up plan. Do you know what the back-up plan was if I did not get a divorce? Relocate in India! Imagine – when he has lived most of his life abroad! Do you think I should believe him?
Your loving daughter,
Shagun.

XXV
Back from Dehradun, one of the first things Raman did was go over to see Ishita.
'How are you?' she started, polite and careful.
Raman could hear the hurt, justified from a certain perspective.
'I hope your new year went well?' she went on valiantly in the face of his silence.
Fine, considering the circumstances. A month ago his children had returned from their trip, and from then on they had been difficult to deal with. He could not shower them with lavish holiday trips, but he could give them stability and love, and he had spent the past month trying to do just that.
'I am sorry,' said Ishita, slightly flummoxed.
'What for? None of this is your fault.'
'Yes, but you are such a good man, such a caring father that it is upsetting to see you miserable.'
Raman sighed. He always felt miserable after dropping Arjun at his school, he told her.
Didn't he think that was the right place for his son?
'Oh, it might be for all I know. Ashok got him into this place, and I feel my son getting distant from me every day and I don't know how to stop it, that's all.'
A weight lifted from Ishita's heart. This is what she had hoped for, that there were problems; that Raman wasn't so happy with his children that their presence obliterated her. More confidently she now said, 'I was hoping to meet Arjun.'
'I was also hoping. But things have changed. Now I feel there is a reporter lurking in my son, he sees things through his mother's eyes. He is too young to be doing this.'
'It's hard,' observed Ishita invitingly.
'Then there is this growing tension between him and Roo. When I am alone with him, it's fine. But when Roo is there, he just lashes out, I don't know why, though I imagine it has something to do with the divorce.'
'Um.'
'Sorry to bore you.'
He was not boring her, she was just wondering, how to help. Actually, children were enormously resilient. If he could just see her slum kids, abused from morning to night, yet they had this pliancy, this optimism – they were so different from adults.
Raman looked thoughtful.
And so the ball rolled between them.
It took a few more months, a few more casual meetings, and many hours of prayer on the part of their mothers, but it became natural for Raman to meet Ishita whenever he came to meet his family. He would dial the number of her flat on the intercom the minute he came.
Would she like to come over? He was here with Roohi.
The fact that it was always Roohi was fine with Ishita. Her pleasure in the child's company was unambiguous, while Roohi also liked her a lot.
One evening he found Roohi with Ishita, and such was the child's insistence that she would not leave Auntie that Raman offered to take Ishita home if such a thing was acceptable.
'Of course it is acceptable,' said Mrs Kaushik.
'I don't know, Auntie,' said Ishita, feeling shy. 'Mummy is waiting for me.'
'Arre, Uncle will tell your mother, don't worry, beta.'
Ishita looked at Mr Kaushik, 'Yes, yes, beta, I'll tell them.'
With Roohi cradled in her arms, Ishita sat in the front seat.
'Is she heavy?' enquired Raman tenderly.
'She's not heavy at all.'
'She has had so many upheavals in her life.'
'Well, at least she has learned to cope. Does she talk about her mother a lot?'
'Not really.'
'Today she drew a picture of a happy family – mother, father, brother, sister. My heart bled for her.'
'Yeah. Nice dream. It was mine as well.'
'Mine too.'
'I can see you are very fond of children.'
'Yes.'

to be continued...

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