Mrs Hingorani turned the conversation to work. Their numbers meant they would simply have to find a larger place and spread their donation net wider to cover the extra rent. Her friend in Boston had suggested that Aid USA put them on their website. They were going to send some of their local representatives to inspect Jeevan; hopefully this would lead to greater funds. Meanwhile two more German kids were coming as volunteers, it was lucky that their experience here counted towards their school grades, would Ishita show them around?
Yes, of course, said Ishita, dragged from her useless thoughts. The proof was completely charming. Small-built, with light brown skin, straight black hair, slightly buck teeth, a dimple, she perched possessively next to her mother, leaning against her.
The mother, typically, was boasting of her child's achievements, above all of the 92 percent in the class X board exams. For one year the pressure was so intense, the poor girl couldn't pursue her painting, dancing or singing.
She must be very talented, said Ishita as she looked at certificates that primarily attested to maternal devotion. Perhaps love so dearly bought had to be constantly reaffirmed. Or was it her own limitations that made her think it dearly bought?
It took a few more weeks, but eventually Ishita did decide to investigate adoption. The agency she phoned gave her some starting points. First she had to register, then there would be a home visit. Her parents' support was absolutely vital, especially because she was a single woman. For the home study, it was important the family appear united.
Ishita informed her parents of all this over dinner. God willing, they would become grandparents.
Mrs Rajora took to her bed.
She lay awake for a long time, sighing so loudly that at last her husband relented. 'What is it?' he asked.
'Ishita,' moaned his wife. 'Adopt. Who will marry her if she comes burdened with a child?'
'Who is marrying her now?'
'That's not the point. She is still so young, only just turned thirty. There is at least a chance.'
'We have been looking for three years, who have we found?'
'But there is still hope. You want that that too should go?'
'Adoption is a noble, compassionate act. More people should do it.'
'But they don't, do they? Why should only our daughter be noble? Let married couples who can't have children, let them be noble.'
'You used to say she was like Mother Teresa.'
'Mother Teresa was a nun. How can their personal lives be the same? Besides, she's dead now.'
'And still remembered.'
'Beti, are you very keen on this adopting business?'
'I'm not sure, Papa. It's a way of having something to live for, to plan for. Otherwise – what is there?'
Pity coursed through the father as he was confronted with this idealistic solution. No one could ask for a better girl. But some are not destined for a normal family life – it was his tragedy that Ishita was one such.
'But are you absolutely certain? I know of no adopted child.'
'No one here. But in other places…'
'And you have met them?'
'With Mrs Hingorani. A very sweet girl. Just finished class X. Remember I told you I was going?'
'And meeting that child convinced you?'
'I am still not sure. But one day I will be all alone. Why should I go on waiting for some man to marry me? Can you guarantee that will happen?'
'There is time. We will find someone.'
The hollow words filled the room with their lack of conviction. Ishita merely looked at him, then went back to staring at the clothes line strung across the small veranda.
Whenever Ishita fell silent like this, her father imagined her to be brooding over her lost husband.
'Beta, you know we will help in any way. We want you to be happy,' he said somewhat hastily.
'I will be, but not in the way you think.'
'Come, come, you are still young.'
'I wish you would understand how sick I am of his whole marriage business.'
'We want the best for you.'
'That's why I agree to go on seeing these ridiculous men.'
The father had had no idea that Ishita was seeing suitors just to please them. He had always thought her disinclination was the result of bitter experience that could be overcome with the right man. But if she planned to adopt she was quite clearly shutting the door to one particular future. For the first time since her divorce he began to believe her.
He started to bargain. The year she turned thirty-one, they would both come with her to adoption agencies. He too would love a child in the house. 'But if you are going to be a single parent, you will need more money. It is a lifelong responsibility. Of course you will have the security of this house, but that is not enough.'
'I know, Papa.'
'Maybe do an MA in History – that means you can teach in the university, better salary, more free time. Later on you can do an M.Phil, to qualify for a permanent job, but meanwhile you will be earning.'
'Auntie will be happy if I better my prospects.'
'How long for this adoption process?'
'Two or three years.'
'In which time you should have your degree.'
'At least it will be nice to choose my fate instead of just waiting for some husband to appear.'
At the brightness in her face, Mr Rajora wondered whether independence could go so far in making his daughter happy.
He had a lengthy conversation with his wife. 'If this is what she wants we have to help her.'
'But what about her marriage?' wailed the mother.
Mr Rajora grabbed the bull by the horns. Their daughter was not very pretty, not fair, not rich, not fertile, not virginal. It was possible she would never remarry. And then? Who would she have when they died?
His wife bridled. Their daughter had regular features, was slim, wheatish, not badly off, caring, it all depended on your perspective.
'You can't go on building castles in the air and expect others to do the same,' said Mr Rajora. 'Otherwise she will go ahead and do what she wants and we will be estranged. She has been a good girl, now we must be equally good parents.'
'We are good parents.'
'We have followed society's norms. Now we have to be the parents our daughter needs. A thirty-year-old divorcee.'
At these harsh words Mrs Rajora winced. 'I know people adopt – I too live in this world. In the university especially I used to hear …' said the mother, her voice trailing as she tried to find words to make this reality more acceptable.
Arjun lay on the back seat, his head on a small hard cushion. When he turned he could see the man's wavy grey hair, and, faintly illuminated by the dashboard lights, Shagun's hand resting on his thigh.
They had been on the road an hour before the man referred to the purpose of their trip. It would be the turning point in Arjun's life, he prophesied. He remembered his own mother's fears when it came to sending him away, but his IFS father was posted so frequently that she didn't have much choice.
It was still dark; on leaving the city the night seemed to grow thicker. Through the panes of the car some stars were visible. Arjun closed his eyes once more and felt the car's throb beneath his body. His mother's hand snaked around and rested on his arm for a moment, before finding its way back to the man's leg. The atmosphere in the car was intimate, the three of them held together by the darkness.
The man's voice started again, the sound of the engine and the wind straining through a crack in the window overlaying his words. But then his tone became more animated and he could hear talk of houses, Shivalik, Zanskar, Vindhya, Karakorum, Satpura, Pir Panjal, each divided into junior and senor sections. Lovingly he spoke of the fagging they had to do for their seniiors, the rooms they had to clean, the errands they had to run, the cigarettes they were asked to smuggle in, the punishments they endured and then inflicted.
Talking of school naturally led to what came afterwards, and it was clear that nothing subsequently quite matched up, not NYU, where he had gone as an undergraduate, not Harvard, where he had done an MBA. Ashok's career seemed to have been launched from DPA, his second home, gilded with the golden glaze of youth and nostalgia.
Finally it grew light. His mother felt around in her basket for his breakfast, omelette smothered in ketchup between two slices of bread. An orange followed, peeled and passed over.
When travelling with his father, they never departed so early, everything was disorganised and bad-tempered in the morning. And then in the car there was the gradual ebbing of tension, the determination to enjoy themselves, the rustle of chip packets, the smell of Bourbon chocolate biscuits, the feel of crumbs everywhere. Later there would be the tourist lodge where they would stop for the first meal of the day.
Six hours after they left Delhi they reached the cantonment area of Dehrandun, and in ten minutes they were outside the school. While the man talked to the guard, Arjun stared at the gates. The letters 'Donated by the Class of 82' were carved into the metal framework on top while an island surrounded by a sea was embossed in the centre. Our emblem, said the man, an oasis in today's world, while the mother repeated the information in case her son hadn't understood.
Inside, a gravel path, red-brick buildings covered with ivy, a tree-lined lawn. As they walked down towards the administrative section, small stones crunched beneath their triple steps.
A few boys strolled around dressed in grey shorts and T-shirts. Arjun looked at them curiously, his experience of school so far had been among masses of the young.
Headmaster was expecting them, said the secretary, but he had been called for an unexpected meeting. In half an hour, say? Would they like someone to show them around?
Genial laughter. No, they needed no one, and as they turned away the man addressed Arjun – come, let me show you where I spend the best years of my life.
Arjun had nothing to say to this. For him school was something to be tolerated, and he knew no one who thought differently. His mother laughed the laugh that had accompanied them since Delhi, giving her son the feeling that she would be of no use here.
They strolled through the main school block, through arched corridors, flanked by ivy-covered walls. Then down some steps onto the biggest playing field Arjun had ever seen. 'There,' said the man, pointing to some buildings on the right, 'Shivalik House, my home for six years. You will go here, sons are always allotted their fathers' houses. Next to it, Zanskar House. This is the oldest block; the school was started by the British over a hundred years ago, and it still is among the finest in India. Some families have an unbroken chain of father and son attending.'
His mother giggled again, while Arjun stood still for a moment staring around him, not knowing what to make of the word 'son.'
As they walked through the covered veranda of Shivalik House, they came to a black and white photo which had 'Mr J.A. Dingle' written under it. Ashok stopped before it. 'Great man. Legend in the school.'
'I hope he is lucky enough to get in,' remarked the mother anxiously. The man looked impatient, and said of course Arjun would get in, he came with his recommendation.
A few metres down the corridor was a tailor – some boys were chatting to him. Still further down a barber was cutting hair. All was tranquil. The rooms they passed had three beds each and not much else. Alternating with these were rooms with rows of desks. Sleep, study, play – it was obvious what the school was all about.
At last they arrived at a wall of pictures. On the one dated 1975, the man put his finger on a figure sitting in the middle of the front row, along with five others. ''Here I am.'
'It doesn't say you were school captain. It doesn't say anything,' said Shagun, protective of the man's history.
'That's somewhere else.' Ashok turned to the boy 'I was almost twelve when I came here. Your age.' He paused. 'And I left as school captain.'
Arjun had no idea of what the man was talking about. He was so old, older than his father, his youth was not even worth considering.
'Let's see your name as captain,' suggested the mother.
He led them to white-painted lists on long wooden boards: captains of Cross Country, Diving, Swimming, Tennis, Basketball, Dramatics, Squash, Cricket, Hockey, Soccer, Athletics, Boxing, Chess, Music. And there school Captain – 1975 – Ashok Khanna.
Arjun gazed at the names. History is not really for the young, but at the point he felt that to have your name painted on boards was not such a bad thing, decrepit though you might be now.
He had to see more of the school when the man and his mother had their private meeting with the Principal.
'Do you like it here?' he asked the boy appointed to show him around.
'Yes,' said the boy. 'What do you play?'
'Cricket, swimming, chess, athletics. What house was your father in?'
'Their cricket team is pretty good.'
'What house are you in?
'PP. Pir Panjal.'
'Is it really so important, your house?'
'Hey, hasn't your father told you all about that? It's everything.'
'I was just checking, you know.'
'My younger brother is going to come here.'
'I wish I had a brother.'
The two boys roamed around the grounds for another ten minutes, Arjun too shy to ask what was it really like, really?
Back to the Principal's office.' So, young man, what did you think of the school?'
'I like it, Sir.'
'Let's go and show you the dining hall, share a meal with the boys, all right?'
'All right, Sir.'
It was one fifteen as they headed towards the dining hall. The mother tried to hold her son's hand, but he pulled it away. Inside the noise was overpowering. They settled at a table with three empty places, a boy obligingly got up to make a fourth, even as Shagun was declaring her willingness to sit elsewhere.
to be continued...