'Good morning, Auntie,' chorused rows of children all different sizes, neatly dressed, hair slick with oil, faces shining. Mrs Hingorani made sure the students didn't look the poor, underprivileged creatures they actually were. Appearances were important, a sense of worth even more so.
'Where are your shoes? Tomorrow, wear your shoes and come. What do you mean they are lost? Find them.'
'Why is your skirt torn? Tell Mummy to stitch the hem.'
'Where are your socks? You can't come to school without socks.'
'How many of you don't have shoes? The shoe seller is coming tomorrow. He will take your sizes.'
'Of course you can have a uniform. Come every day and you will get one.'
'Where have you been the last two months?'
'This is a toilet, this is the flush. No, you can't do anything on the floor. No, you have to use the bathroom one by one. You do your business in the pot, one at a time.'
'You have to wash your hands here, here in this basin. And put the soap back in the dish, don't throw it in the sink.'
It was a new world for Ishita, and one right at her doorstep. Mandavili was walking distance, but in social terms it lay light years away. Every day she now woke with a purpose. For of course she volunteered; face to face with eager children, so obviously in need, it only took a day to come to the decision. Here, who cared if she had a broken marriage, who cared if her tubes were fused together by a long-ago disease?
What had her mother once said when trying to rouse her fro her apathy? A drop of ink gets lost in a bucket of water, and here in the bucket of Mandavili her grief receded. At first she had been afraid that these children might bring painfully to mind the one she had failed to conceive, but the social gulf was too vast for that to happen.
So it was with equanimity that she met the mothers at the PTA meetings which Mrs Hingorani organised, believing it gave them recognition and encouraged self-respect.
These women, battling a thousand needs, empty stomachs, drunken husbands, semi-literate children, with no chance of escape from their poverty, looked at the world with hopeful, though somewhat weary eyes.
Yes, indeed, Mandavili was the sea in which Ishita's own sorrows could drown.
Ishita along with Mrs Hingorani went marching to Parliament House to protest the nuclear device tested in the Pokhran desert. Drawing parallels between herself and the women involved in the freedom struggle: they too had courted arrest. Contradicting her father, no, it was not necessary for India to assert herself as a world power, not when she couldn't feed her children, making the man think his daughter had grown more in the NGO than in her years of marriage.
Raising funds along with Mrs Hingorani, asking for donations, explaining their purpose. Every month 2,000 had to be found for rent, 400 for the helper, 1,000 for the food. Money for shoes, uniforms, books and copies, money for another teacher, where are the volunteers in our country? If only there were more like Ishita, mourned Mrs Hingorani.
To feel valued for the first time by the outside world.
In July, she was offered salary by Mrs Hingorani, her usefulness recognised, her position in the school entrenched.
Perhaps it was something Ishita said, but one day Mrs Hingorani dropped in on her parents, to tell them how grateful she was to them for sparing their daughter, truly she wouldn't know what to do without her. The children too had grown so attached – she was now as popular as Helmut, the German boy who had chose to work for them. Indeed, she laughed, the mark of their fondness was the lice that Ishita had already had to deal with twice. Helmut had shaved his head, but Ishita couldn't do that.
In a flat as small as theirs, how can the daughter get lice and the mother not know? Ishita quickly changed the topic, and Mrs Hingorani, sensitive to glacial currents, allowed herself to be directed into whichever channel she was propelled to.
As soon as the visitor went Ishita said, 'I didn't tell because I knew you would worry.'
'A mother is never free from worry. First they give you lice, next it will be pneumonia, or typhoid, or… or… drug-resistant TB.'
'I won't fall sick. Mrs Hingorani hasn't.'
'Did she get lice?'
'Yes, she did.'
Mrs Rajora looked distinctly cheerful at the thought of the spry Mrs Hingorani's short grey hair dotted with eggs, crawling with lice.
'I know you don't like me working there, you want me to be in better company, and this would only have proved you right,' said Ishita, patting the soft skin of her mother's ageing face.
'Beta, God will reward you, as he did Mother Teresa. So many people in her debt – such a grand funeral. You are following in her footsteps.'
Ishita giggled. 'I don't have it in me to be Mother Teresa. And I am sure lice would have attacked her if she didn't have that thing on her head.'
'How do you know all the eggs are dead?'
'I put the medicine on twice, Mummy.'
'Ishu,' said Mrs Rajora, struggling with herself. 'You keep saying you need volunteers, you never thought of asking your mother? You know next month I retire.'
The transition from university librarian to volunteer social worker was not smooth. Deep down Mrs Rajora never saw the point of it. See, they lose their shoes, see, you have to go after them to make them come – see, that boy is teaching all those little children filthy language, I heard him, what is a nine-year-old doing in KG? – see, they come back from the village and you have to start from scratch – when they are older how much are they going to remember? – what is the point in teaching slum children English, or making them use computers? – they will only go back to the streets and forget everything – see, see, see…
A few weeks and Mrs Hingorani was forced to have a talk with Ishita. 'It's not her fault, this is the way society thinks. At least she is doing her best to help, which is more than can be said of many.'
But her best wasn't even scratching the surface, Ishita thought – and you are too nice to say so. Her heart swelled then subsided as two opposing claims pinched it in swift pincer like movements.
That evening Ishita was with her mother: 'It is attitudes like these we have to fight. You can't say it's no use, a journey to the moon starts with a single step.'
Mrs Rajora looked defeated. What had the moon got to do with anything? She was willing to teach slum children, willing to expose herself to lice, and still her daughter found fault with her, imagining she was not for social justice, which was a lie.
In the end Mrs Rajora was put in charge of the kitchen, or rather the little kerosene stove, on which they managed things like scrambled eggs with chopped onions and green chillies, or khichdi with curd from the market. Once she was in front of a fire, Mrs Rajora's instincts to feed knew no social checks.
And Ishita, seeing her mother squatting on the floor, working the single-burner stove, organising leftovers from her own kitchen, buying biscuits and an occasional tin of powdered milk, witnessing all this, she herself jumped over the gap between them.
Every Sunday both parents sat with the papers, pencil in hand, circling the marriage advertisements where a divorcee was acceptable. This narrowed their choices, but surely somewhere there was a man suitable for a girl like Ishita Rajora. A girl with all the home-making qualities, with so much love to give.
Ishita watched their efforts from a safe emotional distance. There was no point trying for happiness, but it was important for her parents to imagine they were doing something about her future.
She was married to her work, not one suitor could give her a similar satisfaction.
When Shagun left her marriage, it became impossible for Mrs Sabharwal to hold her head high in the community. Every neighbour got to know as the news seeped through the walls of the clustered flats. Ami, who had arranged the introduction, felt personally offended. If Mrs Sabharwal didn't mind her saying so, there must be something essentially wrong with Shagun for her to leave a husband as devoted as Raman.
It's hard to know exactly what is going on between two people, replied the mother, and she began to avoid her neighbours.
Worse things happened. A process server came.
'What do you want?' asked Mrs Sabharwal, trying to sound aggressive.
'Are you Shagun Kaushik?'
'I am her mother.'
'She has to sign for this.'
'Give it to me.'
'If I give it to you, my job will go, I am a poor man'
He could be a poor man, but every statement sounded like a threat. An emissary of the court promising to return tomorrow same time, determined to deliver disaster concealed in the envelope hanging from his limp hand.
No one in the family had ever been involved in a court case. There was something unsavoury about the whole thing, some profound incapacity to lead your life according to prescribed norms.
She had heard of cases lasting ten years, twenty years, property disputes carried on by grandchildren, custody cases only resolved by the child's reaching eighteen, divorce disputes lasting into old age. Which man would not tire of a woman – no matter how beautiful – who came burdened with legal baggage?
Besides, she could see no place for the children in the new set-up, Suppose there were problems between them and Ashok? What would happen?
Taking the children had been Ashok's idea, if only to bring Raman to the bargaining table. She had asked nicely for a divorce, been prepared to sacrifice, but the man refused to admit the marriage was over, slammed the phone down on her, what other choice did she have?
The mother could see no good end to any of this. 'Just tell me what I should do when the serve comes tomorrow,' she said, her voice weighty with unexpressed fears.
A few hours later Shagun phoned back. 'He says we must accept it.'
'You have to come, then.'
'I will be there.'
Well, thought Mrs Sabharwal as she put down the receiver, at least she would get to see her daughter. Those days had gone, along with so much else, when they used to meet at least once a week. Now just phone conversations, hardly anything else.
When Shagun came the next day it was with Roohi. 'My darling,' cried the grandmother, rushing to her. 'I have missed you so, so much. Did you think of me, sweetheart? Did you miss your Naani?'
Roohi hid behind her mother.
'Mama, please give her time. She is still confused.'
Mrs Sabharwal thought the little girl far removed from the sweet smiling child she had known. 'How is school, beta?' she asked.
'The teachers say she has become quite withdrawn. I had to tell them what has happened at home – so they can be on their guard in case Raman tries to kidnap her.'
'What did they say to that?'
'What would they say? My situation is not so uncommon, you know.'
Mrs Sabharwal did not know but said nothing.
'Anyway, the child is happier, that is what matters.'
They had lunch and waited for the server. 'I wonder what it is,' said Mrs Sabharwal, to fill the awkwardness between Shagun and herself.
'Couldn't be a plea for divorce,' said the daughter dryly.
'Must be custody.'
Mrs Sabharwal looked blank.
'Mama, I wish everybody were as sweet and simple as you. You think once the marriage is over everything naturally follows? No such luck. Divorce takes a lifetime and if you are not living together where do the children go?'
'Exactly. They can only be with one of us at a time. The question is who, how, where and when? All that is custody.'
This information made Mrs Sabharwal so sad she could hardly speak.
'I'll be the one to file for divorce,' continued Shagun. 'We are working it out with Madz.'
'Ashok's lawyer friend.'
'What will you do if he doesn't divorce you? He may not want to.'
'Don't I know that? Punishment is what he is after.'
'Beta, he must be very upset. You know how much he loves his children.'
Shagun's face hardened and Mrs Sabharwal understood she must not say things like this.
All afternoon they waited. Shagun started fretting about Arjun coming home from school and not finding her.
'Surely he is used to that?'
'Things are different now, Mama. My children need me.'
It was around four thirty, when Shagun was coaxing Roohi to drink her evening glass of milk that the server finally came. Shagun grabbed the sheaf of papers stamped with judicial insignia, signed, called a taxi and departed, leaving the mother to feel a little slighted, a lithe ignored, a little unimportant.
In the taxi Shagun flattened the thick wad with unsteady hands.
'What is that, Mama?' asked Roohi, taking her thumb out of her mouth.
'Nothing, beta, let Mama read.'
The thumb went back and Roohi returned her gaze to the city.
Petitioner – Mr Raman Kaushik, Respondent – Mrs Shagun Kaushik – flip, flip to the end, what did he want? If only, only a divorce, but no, his meanness made that impossible, ah, here it was, that for the reasons stated above, the petitioner's prayer was that the two minor children be restored to their father's custody.
Back went Shagun to the reasons mentioned above. She had guessed they would be awful, but this awful? One affair changed into licentiousness from the day they married, her own mother turned into a procuress, her uncaring nature in full display as she abandoned her children to co-habit with Ashok Khanna. Exposure to him threatened the minors' psychological well-being, she herself was an evil moral influence. The paper slid from her lap to the taxi floor.
'What is it, Mama?'
She could not answer.
The child shook her arm: 'Mama, Mama, what is it?'
'It is a little message from your father. He is trying to kill me.'
The grip on her arm tightened.
'You must never see him, or go to him, even if he calls you. He is a bad, bad man.'
Roohi looked down. The mother gazed at the bits of scalp that showed through the fine hair of her daughter's bent head. She put an arm around her, 'Never leave me, darling, never,' and the child bobbed reassuringly against her shoulder.
Arjun was in the drawing room when they came back.
'Where were you?' he demanded. 'I was waiting for you. Nobody knew where you were.' His face was tense as he fixed his mother with an accusing stare. A glass of milk was sitting on the table next to him, a thickened layer of malai crusting its surface.
to be continued...