The food was indifferent, dahi, dal, thick rotis, and a mixed sabzi that claimed no acquaintance with the vegetables inside it. For dessert a watery custard with slightly off fruit was served. Arjun barely ate. And how could he, thought Shagun, after a lifetime of specially catered meals? She looked around: her lover was attacking his plate, the boys were eating heartily, such appetites were persuasive.
Momentarily distracted from the leathery morsel in her mouth, Shagun went over the discussion they had had with the Principal. Ashok had explained the delicate nature of their domestic situation, Arjun was effectively now his son, and the conflict at home was stultifying his growth. His academic achievements might have been excellent but DPA would foster his leadership potential as no other school could.
Just to hear the conviction in Ashok's voice was worth every kilometre of the journey. Arjun had managed to make Ashok interested in him, thus lightening the burdens of parenting.
These thoughts naturally led to how much she adored Ashok. All those people who had said that a man could not care for another man's children were wrong. Even though it was practically impossible for him to leave his work, here he was trying to make sure the boy received the same education he had received. She imagined the day when they would be a family unit, with the same unthinking love flowing between them as had once existed between herself, her children and a father in a far-off time, in a place she would rather not remember.
A final encounter with the Principal, who genially avowed that once the child was admitted they would make sure he followed in his father's footsteps, and with every indication of his life changing beyond recognition, Arjun slowly walked out of the school gates, leaving behind the island at the centre of the stormy seas of life.
On the way back he was silent. Mechanically he shoved the chips his mother had thoughtfully provided into his mouth. He was hungry, he had eaten little of the school food. Soon he felt thirsty, but unlike other trips the car was not stopped for him to drink. Water fell on his shirt as he tipped the bottle to his lips, but never mind, said his mother, it will soon dry.
The man drove on. He didn't think it was tactically advisable to ask the mother or son if they liked the place. They would only realise the rightness of this move later, and only then would they be grateful they had had such an opportunity.
By seven it was dark. Full of chips, a banana, an apple, two oranges, Bourbon biscuits and one Coke, Arjun did fall asleep to the murmur of voices in front. In his dreams there was a large playing field covered with stubbled yellowing grass. A pavilion at one end was filled with boys, they were all looking at him running, but he was alone. He didn't know where he had to run to, just that his life depended on winning. Everybody clapped. He looked around for his father, but he was not visible.
They reached Delhi at midnight.
The next morning over breakfast Arjun said,
'Can I talk to Papa?'
'Is it about DPA?'
'Nothing. Forget it.'
'Tell me, beta. I'm your mother.'
The boy pushed his eggs around his plate.
'I know it is not easy changing schools, but you heard what Uncle said, it is a great opportunity. Every DPA boy thinks of those years as the best ones in his life. The friendships formed there are for ever, maybe because they live together for six years. The sports too are very good. You will develop into a champion.'
'Does Papa know?'
'We will tell him once you get admission.'
'How do you know I will get admission?'
'Your uncle has good connections. Wasn't that obvious?'
'Then the exam doesn't matter?'
'It matters. But connections make everything easier.'
'When will we get to know?'
'Test – next month, interview – December, results – January, join – April.'
'Will you send Roohi to boarding school also?'
'No – I mean I haven't thought of it. She is too small. Besides, she hasn't stopped going to school. You have.'
The boy could think of nothing more to say.
In the next night's dream, the pavilion had disappeared. He was running in a mist. He thought he could see the boy who had shown him around, but when he came close he had no features. Disturbed, he woke up.
What were his options? Return to VV? He could tell his friend he had been ill – really ill – he knew they wouldn't ask questions. On the other hand not a single parent trod the DPA expanses, not a single sister or relative.
All he had to do was pass a couple of exams and that expanse was his.
'Well, how is Arjun? Where is he?'
'He says he is not feeling well.'
'Sometime he gets a little moody,' said the mother apologetically. 'I don't know what it is.'
'Did he say anything about the school?'
'Change can make one fearful – but he'll get over it, trust me.'
'I don't know how keen he is on going. He refuses to study for the entrance exams. I can't force him, though I tried.'
Ashok looked at her. Almost the only time she looked unhappy was when her children were being discussed.
'Didn't you say he always did well in exams?'
'Yes, but he studied for them. We were always very strict about that. Now I really don't know what's happening. I think he didn't do so well in his weekly tests this term. But why didn't he say anything? Oh, I just don't know.'
'Should I talk to him?'
'No, no, it's fine,' said Shagun in alarm.
'What's the matter, darling? If you want us to have a relationship you have to let us talk to each other. Stop trying to protect him.'
'Let him get into DPA. Let some more time pass. You yourself said too many changes are not good for him.'
'Dearest, I won't do anything against your wishes. But he should make some effort – it's bad for him to think things will just fall into his lap.'
Shagun to her son:
'You have to revise the class VI syllabus. I have hired someone to help you.'
'I know it.'
'Are you being difficult on purpose? Go to school if you don't want a tutor.'
Arjun stared at her defiantly, his stubborn eleven-year-old face holding back babyish tears.
'Beta,' tried his mother again, 'I know this might be a strange situation for you, but we have no choice. The tutor will come three times a week from tomorrow. You will like him. He is a young man.'
Arjun immediately resolved to hate him.
The next day the tutor came.
'By the end of October he will be tested in Maths, Hindi, English and Science,' Shagun said. 'It's for the DPA entrance exam. I am only interested in results. He has to get in.'
'Madam, I am here, no? What is your good name, beta?' asked the tutor, turning to the sullen child.
The sullen child did not reply.
'Your good name? 'repeated Mr Kumar genially.
'Arjun, his name is Arjun.'
'First and foremost, he must do all assignments, all. Only then results will come. No magic. Hard work only.' His thickly accented English dismayed Shagun. Any visions of this man as a companion for her son vanished. Agencies obviously didn't supply big brothers.
'Your uncle will be so pleased you are studying hard.' said the mother to the son.
She couldn't say that Ashok felt Arjun was indulged and badly behaved. She answered indirectly: 'You must do well, even though children of alumni are favoured with a five per cent advantage.'
'Papa is not from DPA.'
'Uncle said you were like his son. That is why they are allowing you to sit for the entrance exams. Otherwise you have to register a year in advance, some old students register the moment their sons are born.'
Arjun stared at her. He remembered the moment he and the man stood before the black and white picture dated 1975, remembered the touch of his hand on his shoulder and the confusion the gesture caused him.
Shagun drew her son onto her lap, saying he was getting so big and heavy – soon they would not be able to sit like this. She put Arjun's arm around her neck, and rocked him to and fro. One day she hoped he would see her love behind the move to DPA, a change that might have unsettled him enough to want contact with his father. Her grip around the boy tightened, as she thought angrily, how much time had Raman spent with him anyway, that his loss should make such a big difference now? She was giving him a better role model – maybe in time he would realise that too.
Tuesday was Shagun's day at the beauty parlour; it was always deliciously empty. Arjun waited for her to leave before he carefully opened his old school diary to the front page. Numbers to be contacted in an emergency. There in his father's small handwriting was his office phone number, the house phone and the grandparents' numbers. They were as he had remembered them.
It was close to eleven when Raman's phone rang in the office. Irritated, he picked up, and for a moment did not recognise the voice of his son.
'Arjun – Arjun – Arjun.'
Raman started speaking as fast as he could, these precious seconds must not be wasted. Did Arjun know how much he missed him and his sister? He had gone to his school but not seen him. He had phoned their naani for news, but she had told him nothing. No matter what lies he was told Arjun must never forget that his children were his life. He was moving heaven and earth to get permission to see them, he had got a lawyer, his Nandan uncle, and he was going to win visitation rights soon.
Arjun did not recognise this unfamiliar man. Never had he known Raman to have gone to his school, to sound so eager and breathless. Finally his silence penetrated the father's eloquence.
'Beta, at least tell me this, why have you stopped going to school? Is there any problem?' Tears threatened Raman's voice, and he struggled against them. He did not want to frighten his son, God only knew what he had been through.
Arjun began to wish he hadn't made this phone call.
'Beta, should I bring you home?' Just tell me where to come.'
'Next month I will take the Dehrandun Public Academy entrance test, Papa.'
'Why? You go to a very good school, the best in Delhi. What are they doing to you?'
Wrong thing to say.
'Beta, is this your idea to change schools? Is something upsetting you?'
More silence proved that this too was the wrong thing to say.
'I want you to be happy, wherever you are.'
'It's all right.'
'Tell your mother, if you stay with me, you will see her every weekend. And if there is some trouble in school, I will sort it out with the teachers, but you have to let me know.'
As he was talking, the father heard a gentle click followed by the dial tone.
Had someone come into the room? The boy had sounded so distant. But he had called him, he was reaching out, Raman had to do something.
He would phone the Principal of DPA, tell them that he would file a case of wrongful confinement if they admitted his son. Schools are wary of legal tangles, they would immediately back away.
And such a school! Snobbish, isolated, obsessed with the old-boy network. He disliked the DPA alumni he knew, fucked up, assuming entitlement, aggressive when denied it, stuck in a time wrap. Ashok Khanna was a good example of a basically intelligent person gone dreadfully wrong. His behaviour suggested a lack of moral training.
Dehradun Public Academy was a colonial hang over, VV an embodiment of modern cosmopolitan India. Arjun had finished the elementary Hindi immersion section only last year, and was barely into the very different experience of the English middle school. You had to go through all of Vivekananda Vidyalaya to benefit from its all-Indian ethos.
That evening Raman reached his cousin's office in Mayur Vihar Market before Nandan. He sat in the small outside room sipping syrupy tea, waiting, waiting, more desperate than he had ever been.
But then every time he came he thought he was more desperate than he had ever been. So far his private life lurched from nightmare to nightmare.
In sharp contrast to Nandan. Surrounded by his parents, wife and twins, the breadwinner of his family, his cousin gleamed with contentment. He often said, 'I am a simple man and I want a simple life.' Any vindication he must have felt as he witnessed Raman's downfall, he was kind enough to keep to himself.
The door opened. Nandan entered, wiping his face which sweated easily. 'Bring two teas,' he told his peon as he gestured his cousin into the inner office. 'Do you want some samosas? The corner halwai is an expert.'
Samosas. He too had once been able to devote thought to teatime snacks. But now he merely shook his head as he entered the office to receive the relief of practical planning.
'We need to file another interim application.'
'On what grounds?'
'She is sending him away.'
'Yes. He is already in a good school but she wants to uproot him only to make sure he will be far from me.'
'How do you know all this?'
'He didn't say much.'
'Did he say he didn't want to go?'
This made Raman pause. How to explain to Nandan the variations of his son's breath, the quality of his silence, the visual image of a frightened eleven-year-old getting in touch with his father after many months?
'Not in so many words. But still she is making an attempt to remove him from the jurisdiction of the court. We can certainly try to prevent that. Also, why should he go away to boarding school? He is going to VV. People kill to get into VV.'
'The court will look at the best interests of the child. Did he say when he was going?'
'No, he didn't. He has to get admission first. Apparently, the exams are in October.'
'That doesn't give us much time.'
'But if he gets in he will only go next April.'
'We will file a stay order against removal.'
'What will you say?'
'That he is being forcibly sent to boarding school.'
'He didn't actually say this in so many words. They might have brainwashed him into wanting to go.'
That was the trouble with Raman. He lacked the killer instinct. Arre, you want the child, you have to assert such things. But he sought to harass the mother without affecting the boy. Such things were rarely possible.
'The judge will probably talk to him. Find out what his wishes are.'
'Say the mother has prevented me from seeing the children for months. That she is living with her lover, and they are being exposed to evil influences.'
to be continued...