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09 - 15 June , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
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In a few weeks, though, he would be away from all this. And in his mind he started imagining to the red-brick buildings, the ivy-framed windows, the estate full of trees, the butterflies darting among the flowerbeds.
That night again he dreamt of a large playing field. This time he was running in circles, sweat dripping from his body. All around him were impenetrable hedges, and beyond those were boundary walls, high walls with iron-barred gates, guarded by men in sentry-type kiosks.
Arjun was smart enough to realise that he was having these dreams because he was troubled by his parents, and this disturbed him. No one he knew dreamt, but then no one he knew had separated parents. His father, noting his pale CUSTODYmorning face, asked him what the matter was, but he couldn't say. He didn't trust his father to understand anything in his new life.
Sunday evening, with a heavy heart Raman put his children in the car to take them back to their grandmother's. He had wanted to keep them but that would be contempt of court, said Nandan when he floated the idea past him, and why would he want to get into that?
So the children were loaded into the car, and the father drove them slowly, slowly towards Alaknanda. 'I imagine,' he said as they turned into GK II, 'it must be nice, living with your naani.'
'Yes,' said Arjun.
'We don't live with Naani,' said Roohi, flushed with the two-day proximity with her father, and quite forgetting her mother's warnings, which she had never really understood.
'We do,' said Arjun quickly.
'We don't, 'repeated Roohi.
'What day is it today?'
Roohi was silent.
'See, that's how stupid you are.'
'You are stupid. We live with Mama.'
Raman could not see what was going on in the back seat, but he heard the girl cry. 'He kicked me,' she wailed.
The father had to pull to the side of the street, and put Roohi in front with him, with the big seat belt around her. Arjun scowled in the back. Why was his sister like this? Why couldn't she remember that their mother had repeatedly warned, they were not, not, in any circumstances to reveal that they did not live in Alaknanda? Maybe his sister was retarded. He had seen a retarded child living opposite his grandmother, going to the park in the evenings with his maid, trying to approach other children, who ran when they saw him coming, he was so ugly with his flat face and animal noises.
By now they were turning into the apartment gates.
'Children, next week I will come on Friday at six o'clock. And I love you, remember that.'
They grunted.
'It was nice at Nirula's, nice playing all those games,' went on Raman. The pleasures of the week should be bursting from their lips as soon as they saw their mother. She was standing at the gate, showing an eagerness to receive her children that she had never shown throughout their lives together. She must have been watching from inside, looking at the hands of the clock. A minute later than six, she would report his transgressions to the court.

For the next few weeks life continued in an unhappy way. Raman lived for the children's visits, only to experience on Sunday night a loneliness even more intense now that they had come and gone. Thanks to medical vigilance his heart had become accustomed to the strains of his emotional life. Such a pity, he thought, death would be preferable to this terrible agony, but wouldn't that just suit her? His parents would suffer but she would get everything she wanted with no hassle. No, he would live, he would fight.
Unfortunately, the legal system didn't allow for clean conflict. He had stopped phoning Nandan obsessively before each date. Anticipation and disappointment were inevitable, he must try and distance himself from the process.
Possession was nine-tenths of the law. In the case of children it was the whole law. If only his conscience allowed him to kidnap his children, but despite repeated pleas, even begging, they never said they wanted CUSTODYto live with him. And because he still believed in the necessity of a mother's love, he could not insist.

Meanwhile, Arjun was getting ready to depart for DPA.
'If for any reason you don't like it, or if somebody troubles you, phone me. I will come and get you. You don't have to stay in this school, you know.'
'It's all right, Papa.'
The week before he was to go he clung momentarily to his father. 'Come and see me, Papa. Parents can visit on Sundays.'
At this voluntary statement of love and need, Raman grabbed his son, looked solemnly into his eyes and promised that wild horses wouldn't keep him away. If it was allowed, he would come every weekend. And he would bring him lots and lots of goodies – institutional food could get boring.
Arjun giggled. 'Mama says the food at the Academy is healthy, even if it doesn't taste very good.'
'I can drive you down. See where my son is going to study?'
'It's all right.'
That was Arjun's way of saying no.

XX
April 1st.

Mother and son left by the early morning train. For the first two hours of the journey Arjun slept, his head sliding onto Shagun's arm, his mouth falling open, a bit of drool wetting her kurta sleeve. His small tender face with the downy cheek looked so vulnerable that all Raman's warnings rushed into the mother's mind, making her writhe with anxiety. Just nerves, she reassured herself, how many times had she told Arjun that she would bring him back whenever he wanted to leave?
What indeed was wrong with VV? Only that Arjun wouldn't go, and Arjun wouldn't go because she had walked out of her marriage. Because of that, he was leaving home, as determined a consequence as the turning of the wheels on the railway tracks.
She tried to replace her uneasiness with Ashok's conviction that boarding school would bring out her son's leadership qualities and connect him to an old-boys network that would support him till he died. Besides, the admissioin process had allowed Ashok to grow warm towards Arjun, strengthening the fragile foundation of her new family.
On the luggage rack above she could hear the locks making gentle clicking sounds against the metal rims of Arjun's suitcase. In it was contained all that the school allowed its pupils, and compared to the comforts her son was used to it did seem pitifully little.
Dehradun, Cantonment Station, DPA.
There were people at the gate to help, indicating the way to the junior houses at the end of the main road, next to the science block. On seeing other boys, Arjun relaxed slightly. He didn't mind that his mother helped him arrange his clothes and put away his stuff, other parents were doing the same. They met the housemaster and matron, were introduced to the linen-room bearers, shown the changing room and the three pegs that would be Arjun's.
Mother and son lunched in town, then hurried back for a meeting with the staff at four o'clock. The Principal started with a speech that spoke eloquently of the qualities of a Boy's Academy words meant to calm the fears of parents, as well as inspire the children. Shagun could see the attention Arjun gave as he listened to the Principal recite some lines from a poem by Henry Newbolt.

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind-"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

Shagun was moved. Arjun would be the son of the school, just as Ashok had been, the bearer of a torch that would burn brightly all his life.
Afterwards the senior staff was introduced, tea consumed, and reassurances delivered by the junior housemaster. At seven the matron ushered the parents briskly out, no lingering farewells, no indulgence of sentimental anxieties. For a dangerous moment, Shagun wished Raman was with her. She knew she would have dealt with the parting better if both of them had been involved.
She hoped the matron would look after her son, but how would she ever know? Arjun was allowed only two five-minute phone calls a month. Write, write, she had said, and he had nodded, but what writing could one expect of a twelve-year-old?
By nine o'clock she was lying on her train berth, praying for Arjun, promising God all manner of things if only her son kept well. That was all she wanted from life, that and a divorce.
Ashok would be back by the time she came home. They would have the house to themselves; she would go to pick up Roohi from her mother's next morning. She wished Raman had been with her, he would have talked obsessively of him, would have worried so irritatingly that there would have been no rest from weary CUSTODYreflections.

April 1st evening. The children have all changed into white kurta pyjamas and at seven thirty are seated in the junior section of the dining room. The new students are asked to stand, welcome to DPA. Everybody clapped.
'Let me tell you what to expect,' started a concerned senior.
The boys looked nervous.
'You will be given punishments: you will have to wash our clothes, clean our toilets, you will have to give us your phone chits; if anybody hears you complaining, the first time you will be slapped and the second time you will be beaten with hockey sticks. For starters, every morning at five thirty, you will have to run around the field.'
Everybody cheered and laughed.
All this was to toughen their character. Boys from other schools were woefully ignorant, they thought school was just studies, but their Academy was so much more than that, as they would see.
Titters.
When they grew up they would be grateful and thank their seniors.
'New boys, say thank you.'
'Thank you,' muttered some.
'Louder, we can't hear you.'
'Thank you,' they shouted.
And then the whole school chorused, 'April Fool!'
The new boys grinned, they had known the seniors could not be serious, they had not been taken in, not for a minute. They were also playing along by saying thank you.
For the first time in his life Arjun was with only boys;. The information they demanded of each other was cursory: where are you from, which school did you go to? All their attention was on how to manage in these unfamiliar surroundings.
That night, as Arjun lay in bed, he could hear crying from the boy on his left. The sound made him uncomfortable, thank goodness he didn't feel like that. He turned over and pulled his sheet over his head to muffle the noise.
The next day was filled with books, classes, the mysteries of the timetable and the condescension of monitors appointed to show new students around. The senior boys were enviable in their assurance. One day they too would be like them, one day.
Five days later, the mid-term break. None of the new children wanted the scheduled trip to the mountains. They had just gotten used to the many bells that guided them through the day, the early rising, the toilet queues, the quick bed-making and clothes-folding, morning milk and morning PT, just begun to figure out what was where, who was who, and what to wear when.
'Why do we have to go?'
'Why?'
'We have been to the mountains, Sir,' they chorused in collective protest, never alone always several, as they learned the security that came from groups.
They had to go because trekking was an Academy tradition – and wait and see, they wouldn't want to come back. Their destination was Dak Pathar. Into the bus and away up the winding roads. Some boys got sick on the way and hoped no one would notice. Four hours later they were deposited at the gates of the Garwahl Mandal Vikas Nigam guest house.
The school cooks were with them, along with sacks of provisions. One hour later, they sat on rocks, beneath the fragrant rustle of pine trees, eating off steel plates, caressed by the coolness of the sun.
Archery, a short trek, and a campfire took them to night. Arjun looked at his fellow students by the light of the flames; these would be his companions for the next six years. His home seemed achingly distant.
Faint sobs could be heard. He cast a covert glance at the housemaster, wasn't he going to do anything? But the master was strumming a guitar, he wanted to know what songs the boys knew. After 'Hotel California', 'We Shall Overcome', and old Kishore Kumar songs, the three teachers started talking. Their new school devoted itself to developing leaders and responsible citizens. Missing home was natural – it would be strange if they didn't feel strange (weak giggles). Hundreds went through initial homesickness – why, said the housemaster, he remembered a boy who threatened to kill himself if he couldn't go back. That boy went on to become his house captain, his name was up on the boards. They might not believe him but one day it would be the holidays that would seem long. As the words flowed the snivels became less audible, and maybe the housemaster was not so unobservant after all.

to be continued...

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