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10 Mar - 16 Mar , 2012
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CUSTODY

The next evening Shagun looked uneasily at her husband. Though there was no change in his demeanour, her dread increased. Days went by, still nothing. Ashok tried to calm her, instant exposure didn't follow a disclosure, but he had never been married and didn't know how much a husband and wife can tell each other without a single word. When the Lovely Detective Agency handed a manila envelope to Raman in his office he thought he was half prepared for what lay inside. Later he could admire their sagacity; without the pictures he would never have believed it.
It was infinitely worse than he expected. Out-of-focus photographs of Shagun leaving a place that had number 27 painted next to the gate. There was his wife getting into a taxi and Ashok bending over her, there were the two of them lightly kissing in an open doorway; Shagun was wearing different clothes, in every picture. How had the photographer managed to take these without their knowledge? But of their authenticity he had not a doubt.
CUSTODYHe had employed the agency so that the truth would dispel his confusion, but the information paralysed him even more. He could confront his wife, but his boss? How could he stay on in the same firm? The long hours and hard work he had poured into the company, being rewarded with recognition, bonuses and incentives. If he left he would suffer financially, besides which it would be impossible to find an equally good job.
All these past months, working so closely with Ashok, planning the Mang-oh! campaign with him, being grateful to him for putting so much energy into his department, while the man was having an affair with his wife, and destroying his family. There must be rules against this – company rules. He would not rest till Ashok Khanna was publicly disgraced. Whom to approach most effectively, the PR regional head office, or the PR section in New York?
It only took a few minutes, though, for revenge to seem pointless. No protest, however strong, could get back the security he had lost. He remained bent over his desk simulating work, as the office slowly emptied. By ten he was the only one left. Then all pretence over, he pulled the tainted folder out from under its innocent covering papers and gave himself up to anguish. So this was what had accounted for her distance, and he had thought she wanted him to travel less.
The sound of the phone roused him. It was Shagun:
'What is the matter? Why haven't you come yet?'
What could he tell her? He loathed her voice.
'Raman?'
CUSTODYStill he could not reply.
'Raman? Are you there?'
He put the phone down. There was nothing to say. But he did get up. His children were at home, as well as his lying, cheating wife. He must go to them.
So he knew. The disclosures had done their job. She sat next to the dumb instrument, her hands cold, a sweaty film of fear on her upper lip. The minutes passed, and she could not move. She looked at the clock: 10.09. Her marriage was over at 10.09, May 20th, 1998. Her son was ten, her daughter less than two.
She lifted the receiver, and dialled her lover's number.
'He knows.'
'Are you sure?'
'Yes.'
'It is out in the open, good. Just get through this, darling. Or I can come and get you. It is what I always wanted.'
'No, it's all right. It won't be long now.'
Carefully, she placed the receiver in its cradle. There was a little dirt around the numbers, clearly Ganga had taken advantage of her absent-mindedness to forget all she had taught her about cleaning and dusting. Absently, she fiddled with the phone. Should she go to her mother's? Take the children? Right now they were sleeping, she would have to wake them up, answer their questions, endure the looks of the servants. Tomorrow. Tomorrow things would be clearer. There were other people who loved her, and if she could no longer hide, perhaps that was a good thing.
When Raman returned he wondered how he had never seen the guilt that was so evident in every gesture, every word. A lack of easiness, forced attention, periods of abstraction. Yes, that is how the faithless behaved. Now that she was in front of him, clearly apprehensive, pain entered the anger that had been so sharp in the car.
All the way home he had thought of what he was going to say, the harshness, the biting contempt. He would drag her screaming by the hair, out of the house, down the stairs. What did he care if she had no clothes, no money, if the neighbours heard? Should the children ask he would say she was dead. If only she were dead, how much simpler that would be.
But when he actually stepped through the front door, he could not even raise his voice. He wanted this agony to abate, and he knew of nothing that would help. He was still, his movements quiet. Dinner was eaten in silence. Finally, 'Arjun and Roohi were asking for you,' Shagun offered tentatively. 'Now that their holidays have begun they wanted to know what we're doing this summer. But you are always touring so I said no plans for the moment.'
He concentrated on the apple he was peeling. She noticed the slight trembling of his hands, the pallor on his face. 'Aren't you going to say anything?'
'What is there to say? You tell me.'
Bravely she continued, 'Is anything wrong? You seem upset.'
It was hard for him to look at her, the fear in her face was as apparent as the guilt, but to come out with an accusation was to make the nightmare still more real. But he had to, and when dinner was cleared and the servants gone, he started, praying for inspiration, for something to say that would make her see sense.
Was it true, what he had found out?
She only looked terrified.
Was there anything lacking in their home, their marriage, anything at all, that she should amuse herself...
His misery stopped his words and he half turned, wanting her to see and comfort him, for this dreadful thing to be washed away, perhaps by both their tears.
No gesture or sound.
'You have nothing to say?'
'What do you mean?' Her face was shrivelled, he noticed the tight little fists in her lap.
'Is it not clear? Why do you insist on playing the innocent?'
'I have done nothing.'
'Nothing? Screwing around with Ashok Khanna is nothing?'
'What are you saying?'
'What did he promise you?'
'How dare you talk like that? What kind of husband are you?'
'So it's not true?'
She looked down.
'I have had you followed for one month. There are pictures to prove it – do you want to see them, or should I show them to Ashok's boss instead? Have him deported? Then what will you do, you and your precious love. His career in the company is finished,
finished. I will see to it, see to it, do you understand?'
So it wasn't the disclosure, he had her followed. All of a sudden she hated him.
'This was what was behind all that acting in the ad films. Not your natural talent, though your talent for acting, is worth an Oscar. Month after month to pretend to be my wife, and yet – all the time – all the time – Shagun, how could you? I trusted you. If there was something wrong, why didn't you tell me? I was working so hard – for whom do I work but my family? – and you –' His tears did not allow him to say more, while her own trickled down her cheeks. She stood up. 'I have wronged you. I didn't mean to. But please don't tell the children.'
CUSTODY
Alone in the room, he gradually grew calmer. He had cried more in this one evening than he had in his entire life, but clearly that didn't mean anything to anyone. He could hear his wife rustling about, the door of the room opening, closing, opening, closing. She was going to sleep separately, it seemed.
Wearily he got up, went to the bathroom, looked in the toilet case for the Anxit that he habitually took when he was travelling to help him sleep. Carefully, he pressed two out from the strip. Hopefully this should take care of the night ahead – if not he would drink himself into oblivion.
The next day, with his world changed, Raman drove to office, determined to spread the change around. The walking pillar of effrontery known as Ashok Khanna should be made to pay for his sins.
Now the pleasure he had taken in the boss's interest in his work struck him as pathetic. Pathetic too all those brainstorming sessions that had helped create new initiatives. How had Ashok Khanna been able to look him in the eye? Seemed empathetic and encouraging?
Bitterness filled him. The man stupid enough to be betrayed by the two most important people at work and at home had to be mentally challenged.
He got into the elevator and pressed the button. Every day he told himself he should walk up to the fifth floor, but every day he was in too much of a hurry. Today, he had more time, but what was the use of looking after his health? If he was lucky he would die in the lift. All problems solved.
Once in office he heard that Ashok Khanna had reported sick. If there was anything urgent, he was available at home. Ashok Khanna, ever the fast mover. Had he already made a disclosure? Whatever it was, there should be no more delay in passing on his own information.
He picked up the phone to dial the Bombay office. He would talk to the head of HR there, it seemed easier than going international. He felt sick and weary, no longer able to calculate the repercussions of what had happened as he tried to summon up the energy needed to destroy his boss. It was all he could do to keep from being destroyed himself.
At that very moment Shagun was with Ashok in his house.
'You promised me it was safe.'
'Have you seen the pictures?'
No, their existence was humiliation enough.
'Then how do you know their contents? Could be you leaving the house, or you getting into a taxi, or us talking together – there could be a thousand explanations for that.'
'He was sure I was having an affair. He said he had photographic proof.'
'It's not of us in the bedroom, so don't worry about that. I have questioned the servants closely. The house is clean.'
'Anyway, he knows, and I – I did not want to deny it.'
'Little point. Your life is with me, not with him.'
'I'm not ready.'
'It's a big step you are taking. Just do it, the readiness will come later.'
'So, you at least are glad.'
'You know I hated all this hole-in-corner stuff. If you have to get a divorce, fight for custody, let's start now.'
'These things are not so easy in India.'
'Is anything easy in India? That's not the point. Should we see a lawyer? My old school friend is one of the best. Practices in the High Court.'
'What about the children?'
'What about them? They will be in your life, don't worry. And darling, I know where my responsibilities lie. That's a promise. We will ask Madz.'
'Is that your friend's name?'
'Madan Singh. We used to call him Mad. Maddy. Madz.'
Shagun was silent. It was lawyer time, the time of consequences, even though her relationship with her lover was hardly the most established thing in her life. She roused herself to bid farewell to her intense secret world, with its perilous edge of desire, its hours devoted to subterfuge. In the next few days many equations changed.
Ashok took long leave, coming to a quick understanding with various heads of departments. He would work away from the Delhi office, and Raman was spared the embarrassment of facing him.
At work Raman could read sympathy for himself in glances, could read knowledge in the way nothing about Ashok was said in front of him. The grapevine declared he would not be returning, that he was going to travel soon, probably to New York.
Raman wished he too could take off somewhere, but how can you take off from your life? Wherever he turned, there was no escape; home, office, all imbued with a sense of failure.
The HR head in Bombay had been most sympathetic. The company would support him in every way they could. Pay for marriage counselling sessions, help him relocate, let him go on leave.
But Raman wanted more. He wanted Ashok punished. It was bad for the morale of the company if bosses could get away with stealing wives and wrecking homes.
He hoped the flaws in this assertion weren't obvious. This was a company, not a moral science school. It was up to the wife to defend her integrity. His wife, the weak chink in his armour.
At any rate he wanted a change of scene. He wanted nothing to do with Mang-oh! any more; he could not travel as much as this product demanded. He needed to stay in one place for a while, his children were going to need him.
The company was understanding. Since no one else had his expertise or experience, they couldn't relieve him of Mang-ho!, but they could increase his staff, so that the stress on him was drastically reduced. He told himself to be satisfied with these concessions.
Suffering continued unabated in the Kaushik household. Shagun tried to have little to do with Raman. The minute he came home she left. As he watched her go, he told himself he didn't care what she did or where she went. He ate with the children, then put them to bed. His wife would return in the morning to get them ready for school.
Unfairly, it was to the father that the son put his questions.
'Where is Mama?'
'Ask your mother, beta, ask why she wants to leave her home and her children.'
'She says she is going away, Papa. She was crying, Papa.'
'And did she tell you she has found another man to love, my boss in fact, and now my boss has left work? Too afraid to face the music. I could take them to court.'
Arjun began fiddling with his Game Boy, and Raman, recalling the rules of parenting, looked over his shoulder at the tiny screen and tried to engage with the little fighting figures.
If only he had not been so busy, there would have been more of a connection between him and his son, more of an established routine with his children. But even so, to be surrounded by their presence was the only source of healing he had.
Ashok to Shagun: 'Dearest, I have to go.'

to be continued...



 
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