When she walked out the gates it was with the feeling that Mother had been moved by her story. It was Ishita's belief that in OSC Roohi's progress would be much better.
The admission procedures in VV were spread over a week and from morning to night. An intelligent school, commented Raman.
Ishita was staring at the forms they were supposed to fill out. Eight pages of questions. One would think the child was applying for a Ph.D., the list was so exhaustive.
She looked at the other parents in the brightly coloured kindergarten room.
Raman was going through the questions.
When the form was filled, the three of them were called. One teacher engaged the parents' attention, while the other engaged Roohi in a conversation at some distance.
Ishita noticed that a paper and pencil were given to Roo, saw the teacher prompting her, noticed silence from her daughter. She saw all this through sidelong glances.
Inevitably, questions were raised about Arjun. He was such a promising boy. Where was he now? How is he adjusting?
Ishita could see the teacher observing her, and immediately this made her feel inadequate. Somewhat gruffly she said that the adjustment process had been successful for everybody. Arjun was happy in boarding school, while Roohi was happy in playschool.
When the rejection letter came, Raman went to meet the principal. He was an alumnus, his son an ex-student, why had this happened, there must be a misunderstanding?
No, no misunderstanding. The child had seemed disturbed during the interview. They wanted to take her, but she hardly answered any questions. She could only recite a nursery rhyme and that was not adequate enough.
The circumstances are special, pleaded Raman. But the school had little patience with such presumptions. They were not in a position to allow second chances.
As Raman drove home, impotent rage filled him.
Now Ishita was the one to console. Whatever happened was for the best. Even their questions showed how judgemental they were. However, she was sure that OSC would be more receptive to the daughters of alumni. The old-school network was strong there.
Raman did not have the heart to argue. His alma mater was considered one of the best schools in Delhi. He hadn't found the teachers judgemental, they only wanted a fair evaluation.
Roohi did get admission in OSC. The child wrote her ABC, rattled off her nursery rhyme, recited her numbers, and drew intelligent connections between a bottle of milk and a cow, a lace and a shoe, a bird and a nest, the moon and stars, a cup and saucer.
Her daughter would do well in this environment, of that Ishita was determined. Maybe Raman was right, they emphasised rote learning more than some of the newer schools. But students performed well in exams, and it was a competitive world out there.
In April, Roohi joined a class of fifty little girls. Every morning, Ishita went to drop her and picked her up at noon.
'It's a lot of time to spend on the road,' commented the father. 'I hardly get to see you in the morning.'
'I know, but what to do? From next year we will send her by bus. By then she will know other children. Right now she has no friends, poor thing.'
Raman nodded in agreement.
Arjun was by now nearing his second year at the Academy. Once a month, when parents were allowed to visit, his father would drive to Dehradun. Ishita refused to accompany him, claiming that the bonding between father and son would be more effective without her.
Though it was not allowed, Raman always went armed with food, hoping that his son would get to eat at least some of it.
For lunch, they usually drove into town where they ate pizza or dosa.
Arjun's final report card came. The boy had scored in the 80s and 90s in every subject, surpassing his performance of the previous year. At least some of the fears concerning a traumatised child in a hostile environment could be laid to rest. Whatever treatment was meted out to him, it wasn't bad enough to hamper his academic achievements.
Raman stared at the card lovingly.
'Look at how well he has done,' he boasted to Ishita.
'Yes, indeed,' she exclaimed, but she wasn't that enthusiastic like him.
Ishita meanwhile was focused on Roohi's life in OSC. Convents too had changed. Roohi's class was large, it was true, but she seemed at ease. School presented no terrors for her, nor were holidays a time of escape. Her friends too were many. A whole shelf in the dining room was devoted to her creations; there was even a framed collage, splash of gory colours and awkward strokes. Raman saw no need to puff the daughter's head up so much, it was not as though she was a genius.
But could Raman see how she was growing in confidence?
Yes, Raman could.
Raman was analysing some spreadsheets in his office when Shagun phoned. For a moment he was startled. Did she have trouble sleeping, that she had rung at 2 a.m. American time? He tried to judge the nuances of her voice.
'I want to discuss Roo.'
'What about her?'
'Don't play games with me, Raman. You didn't send her last time. Now I want to be sure that you don't repeat this.'
'Don't repeat this? You think her admissions could have waited?'
'You know what I mean. I am going to make the arrangements, in fact I am coming there, but will you co-operate?'
'These trips are unsettling for her. You have no idea how she suffers going back and forth. Last time, she had nightmares. Kept crying about a wolf. It took me weeks to settle her down.'
Silence on the other end.
'God only knows what rubbish you filled her head with, Arjun continued this game in the plane, scaring her out of her wits.'
'It was very traumatic sending her back. She wanted to stay with me.'
'This is what you have subject our children to.'
'Don't moralise, Raman. You are so self-righteous all the time that I can't stand it. I sent her back only because of our agreement.'
'The point is she finds this kind of dislocation extremely unsettling. She is not even five – what does she understand of anything?'
'Are you refusing to send her? I will be in Delhi, I keep telling you.'
'She is refusing to go.'
'Impossible. Put her on the phone. Let me talk to her.'
'That will be difficult.'
'Because I am the one who has to deal with her after you have finished your talking and your visiting.'
'It will be in everybody's best interests if we co-operate about the children,' said Shagun coldly, before ending the conversation.
'Shagun phoned today.'
'What did she want?'
'Roo in the holidays. She is coming to India to make sure.'
'I'm not sending her anywhere.'
'It's part of the agreement.'
'If the agreement says push your children in the well, will you do that?'
'Explain your objections to a judge when she charges me with contempt of court, OK?'
His tone brought forth tears. 'Aren't we on the same side?'
It was his daughter and therefore, yes, they were on the same side. But this was a problem which was not going to be solved by stubbornness. He drew her close.
'I thought you would look forward to spend some quality time with me. We will go somewhere – have a real honeymoon. Won't that be nice?' he said to her.
She was not to be distracted. Roohi was turning five, old enough to find this see-sawing between real and biological mothers very stressful. When she had first met the child, she had been so withdrawn, did he want that again?
'What is best for the child has already been decided, it is not for us to reinterpret the issue.' said Raman. 'Why do you feel so threatened? Don't you see how loving she is? You think her feelings will vanish, just like that? What's your problem?'
'Raman, haven't you heard of parents circumventing the law so far as custody is concerned? Now Shagun knows we don't sent her easily. Suppose she decides to keep Roo, what will we do? We don't have the resources to fight her there. It's not as though you can retaliate through Arjun. We will simply lose her. Are you ready to take that risk?'
'Why should she keep her? She sent her back not once, but twice.'
'She is more settled; there is more scope for deceit, because she has you lulled.'
'Her husband will not want a child there all the time.'
'Are you sure?'
'How can I be sure of anything to do with them?'
This was the problem that led them next Sunday, to Nandan.
'Contempt of court is a serious matter,' said Nandan.
'But what if she doesn't send the child back? What can we do?' asked Ishita.
'Then you can do nothing. But why do you think she won't?'
'In her place, I wouldn't.'
'She is not you – I keep telling you that,' said Raman impatiently.
Looking at his wife struggling against circumstances, Raman felt bad. What did she want, after all? Only to be able to love Roohi as her own. He cleared his throat: was there no way out?
'She is doing so well in school, settled and happy – the judge can send someone to see,' pleaded Ishita.
The men smiled indulgently. Women knew nothing.
'I am only talking about the welfare of the child, that's all. Such things can cause psychological damage, then their whole lives will be ruined.'
'Bhabhi, the law doesn't work like that. Contempt is a serious thing, you can't go against the rights a judge has given. All you can do is delay. That's the best I can offer.'
'Delay the case?'
'No. Contempt cases are decided quickly. You can delay sending the child for one reason or another. Illness, camp – whatever you think will be plausible. Above all, you should not be accused of obstructing justice.'
Walking back to her parents' flat, Ishita was a little subdued.
'She runs off and abandons Roohi and now we send her to her. It's simply not right.'
'Then what? I don't think we have a choice, that's all.' said Raman tiredly. He looked at the children running about in the park. Everything about the situation tore at him.
'I think my heart will break,' Ishita said as they got into the elevator. 'I can't bear this half-here-half-there situation. I have given her everything – not because of you, but because of her.'
'I know, dearest, I know.'
'Sometimes I think I was better off at Jeevan, caring for many children, but loving none as a parent. Now I care for one – but I feel this constant tension which is due to the fear of losing her.'
She smiled at him faintly, a twisted smile. Eventually they decided that when the time came to send her, they would provide a medical certificate. The details could be figured out later.
Raman's thoughts now inconveniently wandered in a direction Ishita thought completely unnecessary. 'I wonder if Roohi might object when later on she discovers we kept her form her mother.'
'Don't you think it's our duty to keep her from being manipulated, while she is still so young? Besides, she will not object.'
'How can you be so sure?'
'How? Because she is better off with us. Besides, we are not keeping her away for ever.'
Meanwhile, Shagun to her mother:
Yesterday was our fourth anniversary, imagine four years since we met at that fateful party at the Oberoi! To celebrate, he took me to Veda where they have fusion Indian cuisine. He wanted to have desi food, to commemorate the country of our love.
I can't wait to see you and the children. I have timed my visit to India to coincide with their holidays, so I can take them back with me. You know my initial efforts have borne fruit, and I am setting up a small import business. Once I establish my sources, I will be on a more secure ground.
Do you ever get to see Roo? Raman must know she misses you. Do please phone him Mama – and ask if she can come over – he can be there the whole time if he wants. He is beginning to show signs of paranoia, as though I would kidnap the children! True, one does hear of such cases, but Ashok would never allow it.
Mama, also find out if Roo is happy in school? Of all the places he had to pick OSC??!! Trust Raman to send her to a convent. He is so boring and conventional.
Lots of love, Shagun.
P.S: Don't forget to call Roo over.
Three days later.
'What's the matter?'
'I got a phone call from Mrs Sabharwal.'
'Can't they leave us alone?'
'She says she misses the children.'
'Whose fault is that?'
'She wants to see Roo.'
'Go, by all means. I don't know how much this will remind Roo of that woman, but yes, I suppose it will look bad if you refuse.'
The careful tone of his wife was not lost on the husband. Later, as Ishita was putting the child to sleep, Raman turned on the TV, and spent a long time staring at successive images of the world's misery. In the light of all this, he wished he could consider his own tribulations minor.
He thought of all those times he had parked outside the Sabharwal gate in Alaknanda, waiting for his children. Not once had his ex-mother-in-law ever tried to talk to him, let alone sympathise with him. Thinking of all this made him far angrier with Mrs Sabharwal than he had ever been before.
The next time Mrs Sabharwal phoned, Raman was distant and polite. He was sorry, but Roo refused to visit Alaknanda. Maybe the place had bad associations for her. Stammering, Mrs Sabharwal got off the phone. No matter how mean it made him feel, Raman was determined to look after his own interests.
The school buses will come to Nehru Stadium on June 1st. Next day, Roo and I will go to Naani's place. Mama will be waiting for us there. I won a point for my house because I did so well in my exams. Rest is fine.
to be continued...