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08 - 14 Sept, 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION
CUSTODY

I am convinced that it will be resolved in my favour. Girls are always awarded to their mothers. And what can Raman do for her that I won't do better? All he could do was put her in a convent – I am still upset about that. There is a very good residential school in Singapore, called United World College which prepares you for the International Baccalaureate. Once she graduates she can go to any university in the world. I can imagine my little Roo prospering just like her brother is doing at DPA.
CUSTODYI am quite excited about our Singapore posting. For one thing, you will be able to visit more often. Health insurance is also cheaper here Mama – maybe you can be persuaded to live with me? We can give it an initial try. Singapore is only five hours from Delhi! It seems like nothing now.
If your internet connection is slow or not working, call the computer guy. Don't start writing letters again – I beg of you.
Shagun

Mama – such good news – we have got a date for the court hearing. It has taken six months, but all parties are to gather in the judge's chambers on November 26th. Custody of both children will be reopened. It is in everybody's interest to decide the case quickly. The children are growing and soon it will be too late.
Both Ashok and I are coming to Delhi. We will stay at the Imperial. He is also trying this trip up with some work and as you know the company pays for some pretty fancy accommodation, so Mama, this one time I won't be staying with you. Also Tees Hazari is closer to CP.
How is it that they feel they have the right to keep Roo from me? Me, her real mother. Soon they will be proved wrong.
Shagun

On the appointed afternoon, Roohi and her parents drove to Tees Hazari. The idea of missing school pleased the child. She was dressed in a pink printed skirt, umbrella cut, with a lacy pink sweater. On her feet were white closed shoes and frilled pink socks. Her hair was in two neat plaits, plastic flowers dangled at the ends of her rubber ties. A Hello Kitty tote bag was next to her, with her book and water bottle. Small gold earrings glinted in her ears. Ishita, looking at her, wondered which judge would take a child away from a mother who could produce this? Which judge on earth?
They didn't say much along the way. Nandan's junior met them at the Tees Hazari entrance and led them up the stairs. They emerged into the large open foyer before the courts of the Additional District Judge. Ishita's eyes quickly raked through the assemblage. She was immediately recognisable, a peacock among the hens, trying to look toned down, in an earth-coloured kameez with a black shalwar and chunri, and discreet diamond jewellery. Her hair was tied back, she could see curls escaping from her ponytail. CUSTODYThe only make-up was the touch of kajal drawn across her lower lids, emphasising the singularity of her green eyes.
So this was the woman Raman had loved. Poor fool. No doubt the wife would be looking at her and thinking how deplorably Raman had chosen the second time, well, she would show her.
The woman was eagerly scanning the crowd. Seeing them, she stepped forward. 'Roohi, darling,' she called.
Everybody in the foyer stared as hard as they could, some looked excited.
Ishita clutched the child's hand.
'Darling, baby.' Shagun came closer. Roohi was gazing at the woman, the woman was smiling, looking at her with all the love of three pent-up years. What an actress, thought Ishita, if you cared for your child so much you shouldn't have abandoned her. She nudged Raman. He went up to Shagun, said something, but she broke away, stepping closer.
'Darling, every time your brother came, I hoped you could come too. I came back to get you once, but they told me you were in hospital.'
This was too much. That was almost three years ago – how was the child supposed to respond? In her preparations, Ishita had sidestepped their own lies. Now she felt angry with herself, she should have anticipated this. Roohi fidgeted and fixed her glance on the dirty floor.
'I have missed you so much, my darling. I think of you every day. I have been wanting to see you for ever, but they told me you kept falling sick. Is that true?'
'Are you trying to say we are lying?'
'I am not talking to you. I am talking to my daughter.'
'Whom you deserted.'
'Raman, who is this woman?'
'Shagun, meet Ishita, my wife. She has been Roohi's devoted caretaker almost since you left.'
Devoted caretaker? Not mother. Had Raman lost his mind, to present her as some kind of faithful family retainer? She tugged at the child's hand: 'Let's go, beta.' Raman put his arm on hers, but she shrugged him off gently.
It was crowded and they had to push before they reached a lower floor. Once or twice she looked back, but no one was following. They would wait downstairs, said Ishita. Away from that woman who told her all kinds of lies, trying to upset her.
Roohi said nothing.
'Soon it will all be over, I promise.'
It was getting towards four o'clock when the judge called them to her chambers.
Raman, Ishita, Shagun and Roohi slowly walked inside to sit around a low table arranged in one corner of her large room.
'Coffee? Tea?'
They all shook their heads.
Shagun began to talk. 'The father has not allowed me to see my daughter, despite the agreement, Your Honour, for over two years. One excuse after another. One lie after another. He is guilty of contempt of court.'
'Then why have you waited for so long?'
'If I had known so much time would pass, I would have filed a case sooner. But he kept sending doctors' certificates, and I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, for my daughter's sake. I came to India to see her, but he claimed she was in the hospital, a blatant lie. He even objected to the child's naani meeting her. The two times Roohi visited me, I sent her back faithfully. Otherwise it is so easy to kidnap, you know how many cases there are like that, Your Honour, but unlike this man, I wanted to keep to our legal agreement. However, I now want custody of both my children, particularly of my little girl, who is growing up without any maternal influence. This man is no longer trustworthy. Maybe because he has married again, and there is a stepmother in the picture. We all know what stepmothers are like.'
'Why did you give up custody of your daughter?'
'I will be honest with you, Your Honour. My marriage to this man had broken down due to irreconcilable differences, and he would only give me a divorce if I gave him custody.'
Ishita started to speak, when Raman pinched her. The judge leafed through the case files, then looked at the little girl. Three pairs of eyes stared at her.
'How old is she?'
'Seven and a half.' This was Ishita.
'Her birthday is the twenty-second of June,' said Shagun.
'Where is the boy now?'
'Boarding school,' said Raman.
'And he shares his holidays with both parents?'
'Yes, Your Honour.' said Shagun.
Raman glared at Shagun. 'I hardly get to see Arjun, four days in the year, that's all. And last year not even that.'
'More than I get to see Roohi,' she spat back. 'You visit him in school. You have custody.'
'How old is the boy?' interrupted the judge, frowning.
'Fifteen and a half.'
'So almost sixteen?'
'Yes, Your Honour.'
'At that age he is old enough to decide which parent he wants to stay with. No? In two or three years he will vote, after all.'
She looked at the parents in front of her expectantly and they tried to smile at this witticism.
'Your Honour, the little girl does not want to leave me,' put in Ishita hurriedly. 'How can we send her anywhere? We know there is an agreement but she falls ill, I think because of the stress of leaving the only happy home she has known. Last time she visited America, she had nightmares for a month. Ever since my marriage, I have put her welfare above everything. I think of her as my own flesh and blood. If anybody is like a stepmother, it is this lady. To be a mother you need a heart.'
'Your Honour, I object,' protested Shagun. 'They have persuaded her to turn against me.'
'You can ask the child what the situation is at home, and who she looks upon as her mother.'
Roohi shrank a little towards Ishita. Ishita put her arm around her.
The judge looked at Shagun. 'You are married?'
'Yes, Your Honour. To Ashok Khanna. He is going to be the head of The Brand in Singapore. We can give CUSTODYmy daughter an excellent education, a really good life, the best of everything.'
'Where is your husband now?'
The moment this question was asked, the atmosphere in the judge's room altered. Imperceptible triumph, yes, where was this putative father? Imperceptible tension, who would have thought he was required, as the air registered the changed breaths of the three litigants in the room.
'He had several meetings today, Your Honour. He is in a responsible position and many people rely on him to get things done. But he can come if necessary. He is always available if needed.'
'No, it is all right.'
The judge looked at the girl. 'Why do you not want to visit your mother?'
'Answer her, beta,' said Ishita.
But Roohi said nothing.
'You went twice? Didn't you like it?' asked the judge.
Roo shook her head.
'Your brother goes, you should also. Yes?'
Again she shook her head, as she fidgeted with her Hello Kitty bag. The judge looked speculatively at the warring parents arrayed before her.
'I would like to talk to the child alone.'
They got up to leave, Ishita with a last little pat.
The three of them sat wordlessly outside. Ishita felt Raman's heavy, solid presence as the heat from his body touched the edges of her sari and crept to her heart. Her eyes prickled. What was her little girl saying in there, what was the judge asking? Her hand crept beneath her husband's elbow.
Shagun was standing near the window, cell phone next to her ear. Ishita watched her out of the corner of her eye – she must be phoning her husband. Why hadn't the man come? Would that have strengthened their case or weakened it? Did she imagine the claims of the mother to be so strong that nothing else mattered?
It took twenty minutes for Roohi to emerge. Both women rose, but Ishita reached her first. 'You can take Roo and go,' said Raman kindly to his wife. She took the child's hand and started leading her out of the courtroom. Raman stayed behind to listen to the order, so did Shagun.
'Where's Papa?' asked Roohi as they headed towards the stairs.
'He's coming,' said Ishita. 'He has to do some paperwork.'
'Oh.'
They slowed down.
'What did the judge say, beta?'
'Who did I want to stay with?'
'And you said?'
Roohi did not say anything for a moment.
'Beta.' Ishita shook her arm, her voice quavered, her sweaty face was wrinkled with the weight of her fears. 'What did you say?'
'I said I wanted to stay with my mother. I said Ishita.'
'She asked if anybody was making me say this.'
'And?'
'I said no.'
'And?'
'She asked didn't I want to go with my brother to meet my mother?'
'What did you say?'
'I said Ishita is my mother. I wanted to stay with her.'
They reached the car. 'Get in, beta.'
'Aren't we waiting for Papa?'
'Yes, we are,' said Ishita, tapping out a message on her newly acquired mobile.
Fifteen minutes passed before her cell phone rang. The judge had given Roohi to them and Arjun to Shagun. If the children wanted, there would be visits but not otherwise, he would come in a taxi.
Maybe he was trying to work out something with the ex-wife about Arjun. She could have told him he was bound to fail, such a woman did not have it in her to be generous.
Ishita's thoughts were with her husband as they slowly negotiated the evening traffic along the stretch of Ring Road leading to South Delhi. Somewhere in the depths of the lower courts, he was mediating his past and present lives.
This was something he had to do alone. Meanwhile she was carrying the most precious part of the marriage with her.
She stretched out a hand and clutched her daughter's firmly in it.
She knew he would not realise the boy had been lost to him long ago. He would hold on to the myth that he played a part in his son's life simply because he was the father. Raman was such an idealist he couldn't see what was in front of him.
Well, she couldn't help with the boy, but she would make up to him as much as possible with the girl. Tenderly she opened the fingers of her daughter's somewhat grubby hand and kissed the palm.
The worst was over, over, thank God. Confidence flooded her. She had won this first, most difficult round. Roohi was almost eight, in ten years custody would be legally immaterial. She didn't think that woman would go on appeal, but if she did, she was armed with all the art of delay. Another four years and she would be absolutely safe. In the mean time victory lay with the possessor.

to be continued...

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