'Your first husband did not want children?'
'He did. That was the whole problem, because I couldn't conceive. They accused me of marrying under false pretences. It was horrible.'
'How long were you married?'
'Around four years or so.'
'If you are married for longer, the roots are deeper.'
'Listen, don't worry about Roo. She is going to be fine.'
'Fate can be so cruel sometimes.'
'Look at it this way, at least you all love her.'
Raman sighed. What was he thinking? Wondered Ishita anxiously. Was he remembering his ex-wife?
'She is very fond of you,' remarked Raman after a while, thinking he hadn't given Ishita her due.
'It's mutual,' Ishita said in the long pause that followed. By now they had turned into the side road that led to Mor Vihar. They stopped outside the house and Raman ran around to help Ishita with the still-sleeping child.
'Thank goodness I fed her, but she was very fussy with her food. I hope she is not falling sick,' said Ishita as Raman carried his daughter indoors.
'I hope not. I don't know what I'll do then.'
'Send her to me,' laughed Ishita.
Ishita looked around. Instead of the spectacular living arrangements she had imagined, she saw a spacious flat, near but bland, with ordinary furniture.
Raman noticed her gaze. 'I am afraid everything is a mess. Ganga and Ganesh tend to get a little lazy when there is no supervision. When I am home I prefer to spend all my time with Roohi rather than worrying about the house.'
'Not at all. It is very nicely kept.'
'It's a company rental, not really my own. Would you like a drink?'
'Should we order a pizza?' he asked after a while.
'Doesn't Ganesh cook for you?'
'When I tell him to. He makes very good omelettes.'
She wondered how often Ganesh's cooking skills were employed.
'Anything, I will have anything.'
But it turned out there were no eggs, so pizza was ordered instead.
'I can't think how I forgot to order eggs. He is supposed to remind me.'
'I love pizza too.'
Two hours later, Ishita returned home. Her mother was waiting.
'Why did you take so long? It's late.'
'So what? I am thirty-two.'
'So? That is still young.'
'Mummy, please, leave me alone.'
That night Ishita couldn't sleep. Being with Raman was like having a taste of what every woman she was ever jealous of had. A man and a child. People to look after and care for, people who loved you in return.
Raman too couldn't sleep. He found himself feeling protective of Ishita in a way he never had with Shagun. Even after years of marriage he had always been the supplicant, worshipping at the altar of her beauty, never ceasing to be grateful that she was his.
How many hours had he spent trying to decipher his wife's thoughts? Was she in a good mood, was she dissatisfied or happy? He had wanted to know her inside out, but she had remained an enigma.
Mrs Rajora also lay awake. She had recognised the withdrawn look on Ishita's face, a look that suggested secrets. She started worrying and decided to confide to her husband.
He was of no help; 'I'm not asking anybody to take my girl. If the Kaushiks are keen they can come with a proposal.'
'Always taking the easy way out,' she muttered.
'Well, you tell me, what would you like me to do?' he countered.
'I want you to show a little concern for your daughter's future.'
'You have worried about her future these past five years, did that help?'
Mrs Rajora didn't bother to reply back.
Her maternal antennae up, Mrs Rajora waited for Ishita to be at work before she began her search. She opened her cupboard, felt under the clothes, her bathroom shelf, her drawers, looking for something that would give her a clue. She fumbled beneath a pile of woollens in her other cupboard, when she touched something hard. Nestling at the very back was a big bottle of branded perfume still in its white box. Ishita could not afford to buy such things, therefore it had to be a present.
The girl appeared in the late afternoon. The mother let her have her lunch. Then she let her have her nap. Afterwards when she woke up, she told her.
'I found a bottle of perfume in your cupboard. Looked costly.'
'Why were you looking in my cupboard?'
'The dhobi came. I had to put your clothes away, didn't I?'
'The perfume was at the back, under my shawls. You would not have found it unless you were looking.'
'Beta, never mind that. I only want to be sure that you are not doing anything to harm yourself.'
Ishita didn't say anything.
'Beta, say something. I have stood by you, and you keep secrets from me.'
'Mummy, please. There is nothing to tell. I am not doing anything wrong.'
Mrs Rajora looked wounded, while Ishita got up to leave as she always did in these circumstances. She made her way to the park, to sit on a cement bench. How she hated every narrow-minded conservative individual around her. In what way could she make her mother understand? For her she was still a princess, albeit a somewhat tarnished one.
The summer of 2000.
It is time for the children to visit their mother.
Ishita was anxious. With Roo gone, how much will they meet?
'I will miss Roo.'
'I won't,' he replies.
'No, I need some time with you. The two of you are always clinging to each other.'
A week after the children's departure and it was clear that Raman intended this to be their time. Flicking channels one night at Raman's house, they came across a beauty contest.
'Lots of Indians are winning these things,' remarked Ishita.
Raman looked at her.
'I wonder what it is like to be really beautiful,' she went on. 'The most beautiful in the universe.'
'It's like nothing. It's what's inside that matters.'
'That's poor consolation. You watch. This woman will go on to become a film star, and all the world will run after her. They won't think of what she is really like, it's only people like me who have to think like that.'
'It's a company that runs these beauty pageants, they have a profit motive. I know how commerce works – lots of hype – some substance, sure, but it's blown all out of proportion.'
Was he talking about this contest or his ex-wife?
'And that is why you are more attractive. You don't play games and you are what you seem. So, you are more beautiful.'
Ishita's lies at home grew more fluent. She was going to spend the night here, there, with this friend and that, unconvincing plans, but necessary as face-saving devices.
'I wish my mother wouldn't worry so much. It's hard for her, I know, but I am thirty-two,' said Ishita to Raman. 'She knows I am lying, but still I have to do it.'
'Does she mind a lot?' asked Raman.
Ishita rolled her eyes. 'If only you knew. On and on she goes – neighbours, reputation, vulnerable position. At my age, why should I bother about anybody?'
Raman glanced speculatively at her, plain-featured like him, the same sallow complexion, but with a smile that lit her whole face. If marriages were between soul mates, this woman was more naturally his partner.
What would his children think if they got married? Roohi loved her, that he knew, but there was Arjun to consider. He was so close to his mother, he was not going to accept a replacement easily.
'You also worry too much,' said Ishita.
Mrs Hingorani noticed the change in her.
'Beti, you are looking happy.'
Ishita looked down and fiddled with her dupatta. Was her joy really so transparent?
After a while, she did feel at liberty to tell Mrs Hingorani about Raman's virtues, followed by how adorable his daughter was, however, about Arjun she said nothing.
Shortly afterwards, Raman suggested they go to the jeweller's to pick a ring. He reached out and held her hand. 'We both have a better chance of happiness this time round, don't you think?'
She allowed herself a small nod, yes, she did think. For months, he and Roo had been firmly lodged in her heart. As she confessed this she reddened; for a woman like Ishita, saying things was tantamount to feeling them less – emotions clothed in words lost something in the transaction.
Neither of them mentioned the word love, but in the days that followed Ishita's feelings for him grew more. He responded with ardour, and when they entered the jeweller's shop, it was with an air of mutual self-satisfaction.
'A ring,' announced Raman to the salesman.
'What price range, Sir?'
At jewellery counters unfortunately love needs to be translated into rupees.
'Any price range,' said Raman grandly. Those words meant more to Ishita than any luxurious ring.
They settled on a mid-range one for 30,000. The diamonds were finely cut, and though small, the gems clustered in a way that made them look larger. On Ishita's hand true love sparkled.
When Raman dropped her off at a scooter stand, she went back to gazing at her ring, turning her hand, admiring its tiny glints. It was much nicer than the big ugly thing she had had the first time round, a solid lump of gold with many inferior yellow-grade diamonds plastered over it. This was delicate, refined, simple and elegant. Reluctantly, she took it off in the elevator and tucked it inside her purse. It was her sweet secret.
Raman insisted upon concealment. 'I don't want your mother to know. Don't tell anybody.'
'But you told me she is married by now.'
'She might use it as an excuse to take Roohi.'
'By claiming that Roohi has a stepmother now.'
'Is that what Nandan says?'
'Then? Besides, you have an agreement.'
'You think she is like you, but she's not. Laws are nothing to her.'
'Still, what can she do?'
'You don't know her.'
'Please, please let me tell my parents, please. It won't go further and it will make them happy. They have suffered so much because of me.'
After a lot of persuasion he gave in reluctantly.
'I kept waiting and waiting for you last night. Where were you?' asked her mother.
They both knew where she was.
It was breakfast time.
They were sitting around the dining table squeezed against a corner of the room. As Ishita wiped her paratha against the last little bit of white butter on her plate, sucked the last little bit of mango pickle dry, she thought her news would in a small way compensate her mother for all the years of devoted care.
'I have something to tell both of you.'
'For once. But it is a big, big secret. He is very apprehensive of his ex-wife coming to know.'
'He has proposed?'
'When? Oh, I knew this would happen, I knew it. You could not be so self-sacrificing for nothing, care for all those slum children for nothing.'
'Thank you, Papa.'
'He is a good man. Sensible, mature and responsible.'
There were tears in Mrs Rajora's eyes. It was a miracle that her daughter had got this chance of returning to the status that was so rudely snatched away from her.
'Does Roo know?'
'Not yet. Raman gets very tense about anything to do with the children.'
'Oh God, the man has a heart of a girl.'
'Mama, you don't know what he has been through. She poisons them against him, especially Arjun. Thank God he is in boarding school.'
'So when is he going to tell the boy?'
'Probably never. Because of her.'
Mrs Rajora thought that the more people knew, the more secure her daughter's prospects. She didn't approve of this hole-in-corner stuff, it smacked of the insincere. Raman was divorced, even if his ex-wife were to know, what could she do? With all the haste she herself had shown, why should she care about Raman's own plans?
Ishita took to dropping in on Mrs Kaushik, who in her mind was her mother-in-law. And Mrs Kaushik welcomed her, inviting her over when it was her turn to host a kitty party, watching the ease with which she mingled with the other aunties. This was something she had never done with Shagun, there had never been an opportunity. Uneasiness marred Raman's pleasure in his engagement. Ishita was a steady girl, and he made an effort to enjoy his courtship, though in a cautious, discreet way.
Slowly his flat registered the changes in his life.
'Why do you have so many pictures of her?' Ishita demanded.
'Do I?' he asked. He looked blankly at his bedside table, at the picture of Shagun as a bride, at the two of them mounted on their wedding-reception thrones.
'Not only here,' she elaborated, 'but downstairs as well. With her and the children, you two, alone, then with the parents…'
to be continued...