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16 - 22 June , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
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CUSTODY

Each succeeding day was better than the one before. They woke by five, and by six they went for trekking. Sometimes they went to a dry river bed, on another to a village, or a picnic spot, with their tiffins of sandwiches and cutlets. Everything they did was together, 9and thus they formed the ties they needed in order to survive.
On the night before they left, the housemaster dressed up as a ghost, terrifying the boys so much that they slept in pairs. It provided all the conversation on their return journey, who had been scared, and who had been foolish enough to believe in the existence of ghosts. Back at Dehradun, they found out that the five days away had changed everything. Already each child was getting attached CUSTODYto the Academy, with memories of home drifting beneath the impressions of school and the mid-term.

XXI
'Beta, is Arjun nicely settled? I am so worried about him.'
It was 6.05 on Friday evening. Roohi had just departed with Raman.
Shagun looked at her mother with despair.
'If Raman would leave him alone, he would be settled. Imagine he went all the way to Dehradun to see him. Arjun didn't like that at all.'
'Why didn't Arjun like that? He is his father.'
'Mama! Sometimes I think you deliberately misunderstand the situation. Ashok went with us to Dehradun the first time, and Arjun was introduced as his son. They allowed us to register Arjun's name so late because Ashok had been a student there, and he was school captain. They enrolled Arjun into Shivalik House because it is Ashok's old house. They even allowed Arjun to not officially pass class VI because they were so understanding about the situation at home. And then Raman comes and says I am the father. How does that look?'
It looked as bad and as messy as her daughter's life was.
'Poor boy,' she said now.
'Exactly. Poor boy.'
'Did Arjun tell you all this?'
'More or less. I had to drag it out of him when I went to meet him. He told me that Raman came, and he was not prepared. When someone asked about him he said that Raman is his father. Not that children care, but he didn't know what to say.'
'Yes, I see.'
'I told him, write to Papa suggesting it is difficult to meet in school, you will meet him during the holidays. I told him, if I say anything, he will file an application accusing me of contempt of court. Judge Mathur said the father has to have visitation rights.'
'Did he write to his father?'
'I didn't ask. Because everyone will then say that I am trying to influence Arjun. Raman might even produce the letter in court.'
'But has Raman gone again?'
'How should I know? It is not as though we talk.'
Mrs Sabharwal was getting increasingly upset. She got up to put the food on the table, unfolding her legs from the takht, groping for her chappals.
Shagun stared at her mother's feet. The nail polish was chipping – why couldn't she be more careful? She was young enough – unlike other grandmothers she knew.
'When did you last have a pedicure?'
The mother slid her feet under her sari. She knew how particular her daughter was about grooming.
'If I am not with you, you are going to neglect yourself?'
'With all this happening you want me to think of pedicures?'
'Even your hair is looking terrible. All white and patchy at the back.'
'What to do? If I go there, they will ask me about you. What will I say?'
'You lie. What business is it of Mrs Mehra's anyway? People love to pry into the lives of others, I have noticed that. My ex-in-laws were the worst. Thank goodness I will never have to see them again.'
'Don't say things like that – they are the children's grandparents. I wouldn't like it, if I couldn't see my two sweet little babas.'
This brought the children back into the conversation, which put Shagun in a ferociously bad mood and forced her mother's speedy exit into the kitchen.

Next Friday, 6.05, Shagun approached her mother, a look of determined reconciliation on her face. Mrs Sabharwal had spent a wretched week, sleeping badly.
CUSTODY'Now Mama, you know I hate quarrelling with you.'
'I know, beta, I know,' said the mother uneasily.
'Give me some tea, because I have news and I want to tell it to you nicely.'
This alarmed Mrs Sabharwal so much that she could barely add leaves to the pot, barely notice the chocolate pastries that Shagun now laid onto a plate.
'You shouldn't buy so much for me, beti.' she said mechanically.
'Let me, Mama. Who knows what the future will bring, or for how long I can do it?'
'Are you going somewhere?'
'Ashok has finally got his posting to the US.'
'The US! What about your case? The children? The divorce petition?'
'He was offered this post a year ago, and instead of accepting it, he chose to delay it. How can I go on allowing him to do that?' said Shagun.
'What do you mean?'
'He needs to accept this offer for his career.'
'Is that what he is saying?'
'Mama! Obviously not. Should he say he is leaving me and going to the US? He is too much of a man to do such a thing.'
'But beta, how can you go? But if you don't go, that also is not good. You should think about it very carefully.' It was one of Mrs Sabharwal's fears that having chased too much love, Shagun would die alone and friendless in her old age.
The tea tray was now on the little round dining table in one corner of the living area. Shagun poured her mother's tea, pushed the chocolate pastries closer, shook some savouries onto a plate and slowly started nibbling.
'What are you thinking?' asked her mother.
'Of how my life has turned out.'
There was no response the mother could trust herself with.
'You must think it's entirely my fault.'
'No, I don't,' said Mrs Sabharwal bravely.
Her mother was such a bad liar, thought Shagun. But once everything was settled she would find it easier to accept her broken marriage.
As of now the simplest things caused her worry.
'So if Ashok goes, what about you, the children? Their schools?'
'When parents have a transferable job, children end up in boarding school. It's not so uncommon, you know?'
'But Roo can't go to boarding school. And will the courts allow you to take her?'
'Raman will make sure I can't take her anywhere. Once he gets to know about the US posting, he will promptly get a stay order. Until custody is decided I am stuck. Ashok says he is willing to stay in India as long as necessary, but I can't allow so much sacrifice, can I?'
No, agreed Mrs Sabharwal.
Shagun was silent, her thoughts in Judge Mathur's chambers. Everybody said that in a custody dispute, the father was awarded the boy, but effectively she had got her son. Even if Raman did get to see Arjun, the boy was essentially hers. But Roohi? Roohi was not even three. Suppose she gave her up in order to get a divorce? She could always claim her later. With visitation rights, she would be able to maintain contact, and it would be easy to get Roohi to say she wanted to stay with her mother.
On being explained Shagun's strategy, Mrs Sabharwal tried to look intelligent. It was of the utmost importance that Shagun get a divorce, but at such a high price?
'If it will work, nothing like it,' she said cautiously.
'Of course it will work, Mama,' exclaimed the daughter. 'You don't think I could give Roohi up just like that? You saw what happened with Arjun?'
'Yes, I saw. But beti, Roohi is very young.'
'And I am only going for a short time. I will come back to see her, take her there with me for a while. Raman won't insist on this jurisdiction of the court nonsense when everything has been settled and he has what he wants. If there is any other way I can get a divorce, tell me.'
There didn't seem to be.
If Raman was not agreeable, she would never get a divorce. She could give power of attorney to her poor mother to represent her in court, continue to fight her cases through Madz, but what would be the good? It would take a lifetime and then some. The Indian legal system stank. Justice delayed was justice denied, a truth experienced every day by countless litigants throughout the country.

The estranged wife phoned. 'I want a divorce.'
Raman knew that. She had filed a petition, kidnapped the children, fabricated myriad cruelties, committed perjury, for what but the freedom to marry?
He held the phone tightly, longing to wound. 'Why ask? It's already in the court.'
'I want one now.'
'I am not going to give you a damn thing unless custody is decided and that too in my favour. If the children become too old, and the issue irrelevant, I will never free you. Never.'
'So take the children and give me a divorce.'
'What?'
'Take them.'
'Are you serious?'
'Yes.'
'Why should I trust you?'
'Ask my lawyer.'
Again the phone was put down. He knew she couldn't bear to talk to him, but that was all right. Obviously she wanted to marry fast.
So, the rumours he had heard were true, Ashok was posted to the US. He knew it was easier to leave India married, but was marriage worth the price of custody? Roohi, who would have almost certainly been CUSTODYawarded to the mother, yes, she would be a gift indeed. Even if it meant Shagun getting what she wanted.

Mrs Kaushik sat cross-legged on the sofa. 'This boy really loved her. He was a generous, good husband. We will see to it that she gets nothing. Nothing.'
'She is willing to give up all claims to his property, all maintenance for herself. All she wants is divorce by mutual consent, the custody case dropped and visitation rights. Half the holidays and weekends. Just what the father had.'
'Suppose she has another child,' demanded the vigilant mother.
'Mummy, Papa, I do not want to discuss this. All I want is to make sure she will not kidnap the children.'
'If you have custody, what is the problem'
'You never know, they have already been taken away by force once I don't want it to happen again.'
'Yes,' said the mother excitedly. 'She may only be pretending to give the children for the sake of divorce. Once she is abroad it will be easy to just keep them.'
'If she can take them out of the country, I will not agree to a divorce,' Raman eventually said. 'Even if it means I don't get Roo.'
Two days later she called. 'What are you so afraid of?'
'You.'
'How can you prevent children from meeting their mother? I did not stop them from meeting you.'
'After I won visitation rights.'
'Well, now I am offering you custody, what more do you want? That I should never see them? No judge will agree to that. And if I am abroad, I should be allowed to bring them on a visit.'
'Raman? Are you listening? We can both benefit, is that so hard to understand?'
'When have you tried to benefit me?'
'If that is your attitude, there is no point in talking.'

Next week Shagun's mother phoned him to say that Roohi was ill and could not see him. If he so desired, she could produce a medical certificate.
They both knew a medical certificate was not worth the paper it was on, any quack doctor would sell you one.
Once, twice, thrice. Over three weekends Raman was told that his daughter was sick and couldn't see him.
'What is the nature of this illness that lasts so long? He demanded of the lying, uneasy grandmother. 'I have given her the benefit of the doubt, but one more week and I am going to file another application.'
'Beta, she is really unwell. Nothing serious, though. Just cough, cold, fever, sometimes it gets OK, then again it comes. She is quite weak. The doctor says it is in the air.'
'I suppose Roohi is not going to school either,' he enquired sarcastically on the phone.
'No, beta.' said Mrs Sabharwal.
Shagun was not the only one to know that Mrs Sabharwal was a terrible liar.
Eventually he gave in, as his wife must have known he would.
Take your divorce. But the children are mine. If you dare mess with them, you see what I will do.

XXII
Divorce by mutual consent was initiated. The couple appeared in court, swore that it was impossible for them to live together and that they were not acting under duress. Six months later, they would reiterate the same thing, upon which divorce would be granted. Shagun was to give up all ownership of their joint assets, all claims to maintenance, the legal guardianship of the children, only demanding visitation rights in the holidays.
'I hope my generosity, my willingness to settle, give Raman an inkling of where I am coming from,' Shagun said to her mother.
'Is this what Ashok thinks?'
'Ashok feels equally responsible to my kids, Mama – you should know that by now.'
'And Roo?'
'When the time comes he will attend to Roo.'
'I hope he continues to be so involved, beti. People change after marriage.'
'If I didn't have absolute faith in Ashok, I would not have given up everything for him.'
Mrs Sabharwal could find nothing to say to all this reasoning.
'Ashok is already planning our holidays for when we are all together. He feels we need to bond together as a family. We will go somewhere, perhaps Bhutan, and maybe Arjun can get a few archery lessons there. Ashok will no doubt arrange things down to the last detail, he is so used to multitasking, he does it even at home.'
'I'm sure he does.'

to be continued...

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