The morning of May 30th.
'I was thinking,' said Ishita.
'What?' Raman was looking moodily at his breakfast. Ishita had made him a Spanish omelette. But she might as well not have bothered for all the appetite he was exhibiting.
'Why are you so unlike yourself?'
'I am fine.'
'Anyway, I was thinking that perhaps Roo and I could spend the night over at my parent's house?'
'Sweetheart, you know he is allergic to the sight of me.'
'But I think Arjun would like to see his sister.'
'Boys that age are usually impatient with little girls,' she said carefully.
'Arjun is not like other boys.'
'Well, I don't know about that. But I do know that Roo never mentions him.'
'Are you going to make sure that both of them never meet?' he asked.
'Isn't it more sensible? If we send a medical certificate, and Arjun says Roo is perfectly fine – then we will have a contempt-of-court case on our hands.'
Raman knew this logic was unanswerable. He said nothing as he watched her pack a small bag and tell her daughter that they were going to spend the night at the grand parent's place.
'No, beta, not Papa. He has some work to do.'
So, she was not even going to tell her that her own brother was coming. He couldn't bear the injustice of that, so, as he put their things into the car he said, 'Bhaiyya is coming, darling.'
'School. Would you like to meet him? He often asks about you.'
'Not this time.' said Ishita quickly. 'Now say bye to Papa.'
A nervous shadow crossed Roohi's small features. Ishita took her daughter's hand and they both waved to Raman as the car carefully backed out of the driveway and onto the road.
Nehru Stadium, the Academy buses, and in the second one, was Arjun.
Raman's eyes greedily drank in his son's attractive features. Dehradun certainly suited him.
'You look good.'
'This midterm we went to Tope Sarai.'
'Where is Tope Sarai?'
'In the mountains of course.'
'Did you camp there?'
'So, tomorrow I will drop you off at your grandmother's, but today we are going to enjoy ourselves. At home I have got your favourite food made for you. Shami kebabs and chicken curry. Later on, we can order pizza. No point going out when you are with me for just one day.'
At the mention of food, Arjun brightened. 'That's nice, Papa.'
Raman beamed. 'It's a pity we have so little time now, but on your way back from your mother, we will really have fun, I promise.'
Again the boy smiled, and Raman allowed himself to think that maybe the rough patch with his son was over.
Inside the house, Arjun demanded, 'Where is Roohi?'
'She is not well.'
'Mama said you might say she is not well,' accused the boy.
'Children fall ill.'
'Where is she? In hospital?'
'Yes. Under observation.'
'Mama said to bring her.'
'Well, beta, not everything is in our hands. You have done what you can. If Roohi is ill, how can you or I help that? Don't worry. I will explain things to your mother. Tell her to phone me.'
By now the boy had lost interest in the matter. The day passed pleasantly enough.
At six o'clock the next evening, Raman dropped Arjun at Alaknanda. Then he started on his way home. How soon before Shagun would phone?
His cell rang while he was driving. He ignored it. It rang again, then again. He switched it off. He wished he could ignore her calls for ever, but bleakly realised he would have to deal with his ex-wife as long as his children were young.
'Why weren't you answering?'
'I was driving.'
'Where is she?'
'You told Arjun she is in hospital.'
'And you are sitting at home?'
'I only came here because of Arjun.'
'Do you expect me to believe this?'
'It's the truth.'
'You don't know what the truth is.'
'Why talk to me then?'
'You think I want to talk to you? I talk to you only because of my children.'
Silence. He was sick of the whole thing. Parting from his son had been a wrenching experience – he wanted to be alone for a few hours before Ishita and Roohi came home.
'All right. Go on, lie to me. What was wrong with her?'
'High fever. They thought she might go into convulsions. She is in the nursing home under observation.'
'Which nursing home?'
'Who is with her?'
'That's not your concern.'
'I suppose she was also sick when you refused to send her to my mother?'
'She didn't want to go.'
'I don't believe that. The children love their nani.'
'Love is hardly the issue here, is it, Shagun? What about betrayal?'
'Just tell me, when can you send her?'
'I don't know.'
'I have come all the way just to take her. Now this is what you do. You are a real bastard, you know that, Raman?'
Raman put the receiver down.
The next day it was Mrs Sabharwal who phoned.
'Beta, how is Roo?'
'She is still in bed.'
'What does the doctor say?'
'Wait and watch.'
'Shagun is leaving tomorrow. It will do no good to deprive a child from her mother. After all, you do see Arjun, don't you?'
He would let them know as soon as the child was well. Right now, the doctor had said travel might bring on the convulsions again.
The days passed and he heard no more. Shagun must have left, and for the time being Roohi was safe with them. As a precaution he got a medical certificate that attested to the child's high fever due to malaria. He sent a copy of this to Mrs Sabharwal's address by courier.
Two could play the same game. Shagun extended Arjun's ticket on medical grounds. He would arrive the day before his school opened to spend one night with his father. If Raman wanted to see his son, he would have to share his daughter.
For Ishita, it was an answer to a prayer not to have the boy home. He was so completely the emissary of that woman. She refused to believe that a thirteen-year-old could behave the way he did without having been seriously primed. He probably didn't even understand the consequences of telling Roohi her real mother was somewhere else.
It was equally bad with Raman. In front of his son, the husband she loved receded into an anxious, cautious father.
But his moping worried her, and she insisted they see Nandan the next time they went to Swarg Nivas.
'There's no point, what will he say? We can't file contempt-of-court, because we are also guilty of the same thing.'
Nandan confirmed Raman's suspicions: you want the son, you play fair with the daughter, then we have a leg to stand on. It's acceptable practice to delay, to prevaricate. But you can't expect them not to do the same.
During the time Arjun was away, Raman worried incessantly about his son's return. Maybe Shagun would decide to keep the child with her, making sure he would never see him again.
'Of course she will send him,' said Ishita. 'His school, studies, everything is here. Then you are always visiting him to make sure he is OK. Why would she want to disturb such a good arrangement?'
The day before Arjun was due to arrive, Raman got a curt e-mail from Shagun giving the date and time of his flight. He would be there to receive him, he wrote back into the silent reproachful void.
The plane was landing at two in the morning. He could barely bring himself to eat that evening.
Somewhat forlorn, he sat in front of the TV. He wanted a drink, but felt it inappropriate. His son should smell no alcohol on his breath when they embraced.
After the thousandth glance at his watch, Raman decided to leave for the airport. He would have to wait – perhaps many hours, but he couldn't bear to stay at home any longer.
Driving down NH8, he put on a Pink Floyd tape, a favourite one of his son's. The music would tell him that he had been deeply missed, and that his home coming started in the car.
Reaching the airport, he parked and darted across the road, paying his 50 rupees to stand inside and watch passengers emerging. The big screen showed that the Continental flight had not yet landed.
He sat on a sagging torn black leather seat in a row, facing a screen that showed passengers descending into the immigration hall, that way he would be able to spot Arjun once the plane arrived.
After an hour, they announced that the plane was going to be late. By now even the anxiety was ground out of Raman, he was just dully waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
An hour later, green lights flashed against the Continental flight number, and fifty minutes after that, a stranger walked towards him, accompanied by one of the ground staff, taller than the woman, leaner than he remembered. Two months and his son had changed so much. He recognised him of course, but the face he had visualised all the way to the airport had disappeared into an older version.
'Sign here,' said the ground-staff woman and then she departed, leaving him with his beloved son, who greeted him with a small smile, in contrast to the greater enthusiasm of those around them.
'You have grown so much, beta. How did this happen?'
The boy shrugged.
Silly question. It happened because this was the age.
As Raman reversed in the parking lot, Pink Floyd obediently welcomed Arjun.
'Why have you put that on?'
'I thought you would like it.'
'Nah. I don't listen to stuff like that any more.'
'Oh? What do you listen to then?'
'I don't know him.'
'He's really cool.'
'So, how was New York?'
'You must have had a lovely time, but beta, Papa missed you. You never phoned, you never wrote, no reply to the e-mail I sent on your birthday.'
The child was silent.
'Well, now you are here, that is the important thing.'
They drove on through the night.
'Do you have any photographs?'
'Maybe we can look at them together.'
'They are for Roohi.'
'Lovely. Now tell me everything you did.'
'We went to a huge place – it was as big as a stadium – where they sell games and stuff. They had all kinds of equipment there – really cool.'
'How nice. Did you buy anything?'
'Yeah. A GameCube.'
'Well, I hope it works here. The American system is different from ours.'
Arjun suddenly looked uninterested and simply stared ahead. Poor child, he must be so tired. These long flights were no joke.
'Soon we will be home, then you can go to sleep, beta. Hopefully, you won't have bad jet lag.'
'Where's Roohi?' said Arjun as soon as they entered the house.
'She is sleeping. It's pretty late, you know.'
'Mama sent something for her.'
'She said to give it to her myself.'
'Yes, do that. But right now, do you want something to eat? I can make you a sandwich. Give you a glass of Bournivta.'
'No, I'm not hungry. They feed you all the time in planes.'
While Arjun walked around the flat, Raman pulled the suitcase into his bedroom. He opened it, and there on the very top was a big beautifully wrapped parcel with glitter and ribbons. On it was stuck flowered paper, which said, 'For my darling daughter Roohi, from her loving Mama.'
One of the silver bows was coming off, carefully he pressed it back on.
'Where is Roohi?' repeated the brother, looking at the parcel in his father's hands.
'You will see her in the morning.'
'Mama said to give her the present myself.'
'As soon as she wakes up, you can do that. You have got all new clothes I see?'
'Yes. Mama said I had grown.'
'You have. I almost didn't recognise you at the airport.'
'Here is your kurta pyjama. I hope it still fits you. I had asked Ganga to keep your clothes ready.'
The boy disappeared into the bathroom. Raman sank back on his knees. His chest felt burdened by the gladness of setting eyes on Arjun again. Just looking at his suitcase was enough to delight him.
'Will you be all right alone, beta?' he asked as the boy came back. 'I can sleep with you if you wish.'
'Really, Papa, you think I am a baby like Roo?'
'Of course not. You are growing so fast – and going so many places. At your age, I had never been anywhere.'
Arjun slept and slept, truly dead to the world. A few times his father came in and stared at him, but his gaze did not penetrate the boy's consciousness.
Twelve hours later, he woke up.
'Breakfast, lunch or tea?' joked the father. 'I have made chicken curry for you.'
'Chicken curry then, Papa,' said the boy with his first broad grin. He looked younger, his dark hair tousled.
'Come on then. I wonder,' he remarked as he spooned rice and curry onto his son's plate, 'whether New York is really as wonderful as they say. Though now you must be an old hand. Two months away is a lot, don't you think?'
'But it was so much fun. I went everywhere by myself in the subway. Mama introduced me to some boys my age – sons of friends of theirs – we hung out, took in a game or two, saw some flicks. Played pool.'
Pool? Arjun? Raman swallowed. 'Were your friends Indian?'
'Papa loves you, beta.'
'Where's Roohi? I have to give her Mama's present.'
'You were sleeping so long she went to the market, she will be back soon. Do you want a second helping?'
Another hour and they arrived. Ishita disappeared into the kitchen, to supervise putting away the fruit she had bought, poking the mangoes to make sure none was soft, turning over each cherry to make sure none was fungus-ridden, examining the lichis and making sure that all were plump and red. She emerged to see Arjun handing over a parcel to Roohi.
'Mama said to give it straight into your hands. See, see, what it says here.'
Unfortunately, Roohi still could not read. The girl's eyes instinctively turned to her mother, and Ishita quickly sat next to her. 'How nice, a parcel from America, let's see what is inside it.' She took it in her lap, all the while admiring the ribbons and the paper. 'What do we have here? Oh a pair of jeans, two T-shirts, and little cartoon panties – see, Roo, how nice they are? And a lot of chewing gum as well! And this toy – let's see, how does it work? Etch A Sketch, oh I see, look darling… 'Etc., etc.'
to be continued...