'Bad for you personally?'
'It'll pass. The wretched thing is that the rest of the world gets to know, and such negative publicity takes a while to subside.'
'Well, you were always up for a challenge, Shakes.'
His friend smiled, at this tacit reminder of an old school saying, challenges are what make a man.
'So,' said Ashok, 'you think we should file for divorce?'
'Absolutely. The sooner the better. We will need to work with Shagun for instances of mental cruelty, abuse, withholding financial support, in-law trouble, physical mistreatment.'
Ashok blanched, thinking how difficult it was to associate Raman with these words.
'Unless ofcourse he comes to his senses and agrees to mutual consent. Then all this becomes irrelevant.'
'What else can we do?'
'Cause as much obstruction as possible on the minor petition.'
'For how long?'
'As long as we can. And hope they offer us a divorce as a way out of the situation.'
Shagun was in Madan Singh's office. Ashok was with her, she was trying to think of instances of cruelty in her marriage, but couldn't come up with much.
'Why do I have to say all this? It's not true, and he can call witnesses to prove he never beat me, or denied me money, or insulted me in public.'
'Why do you want a divorce, then?'
'Because I love someone else.'
'Not a good enough reason. You have to make a case that is valid in court.'
'But I am the one that left.'
'Because of unbearable mental cruelty. I am afraid this is how divorce works.'
As strong a case was made as possible and sent to Raman Kaushik's residence.
Raman barely glanced at his wife's allegations. Though love was dead, his sense of justice found such lies intolerable. Nandan, however, maintained that the very wildness of the charges proved she was just throwing accusations in the wind, hoping one would stick. It was a weak petition, he had expected better from her lawyer, who was supposed to be quite good. It was all strategy, that Raman had to understand.
Days passed. Raman's whole soul was concentrated on August 10th when the reply to the interim application would be filed in court and the process of seeing his children would start. The night before, he phoned Nandan.
'When should we meet?'
'Isn't tomorrow the date for the interim application?'
'It is a mere formality. Supposing they actually file a reply –'
'Supposing? Don't they have to? Isn't that the purpose of the legal system, to make people do things they don't want to?'
'Yes, of course. However, the law likes to make allowances. And one of those allowances is time. Everybody knows this.'
'Still, I want to come.'
There was a little pause.
'Ramu – you don't know how these courts operate. The other side will almost certainly try to delay, and you will have made a wasted trip.'
'The judge will be party to this?'
'If their excuse is good.'
'My presence might make the judge realise I am a caring father. This is not just any old case. Both of my children have been kidnapped.'
'May I make a suggestion? Let me go and see where we are placed in the list. Then I will phone you just before our turn.'
'I don't want to miss it.'
'Don't worry, you won't.'
Nandan put the phone down. From the beginning he had known that to take on Raman's case would stress him out. To charge such a close relative was unthinkable, all he hoped was to avoid blame for the endless deferrals that were part of the system. It was a thousand-to-one chance that the other side would calmly hand in a reply tomorrow.
The tenth passed slowly. Mid-morning, still no phone call. By the end of the day, still nothing.
On the phone that evening: 'What happened, yaar?'
'Arre, hardly any of the applications got heard today. There was a bomb scare.'
The line was bad, Raman couldn't hear properly, what had Nandan just said?
'Bomb scare, bomb scare.'
'What does that mean?'
'Some joker makes an anonymous phone call – says there is a bomb in Tees Hazari. The whole building is vacated, while the police squad does a search.'
'Did they find it?'
'Of course not. Somebody probably wanted a postponement.'
'Tell me, does this happen often?'
'Often? Not really.'
'So, what are we going to do now?'
'Wait, of course. A date has been set next week for today's cases.'
'Well, let me know,' said Raman dully.
'Don't worry. This kind of think happens – you can't help it, yaar. It's a matter of luck.'
'Luck. Yes. Well.'
The conversation ended. Raman remained sitting by the phone, in a well of self-pity, listening to a house empty of all family, the only human sound was the murmur of servants. He had a good mind to bomb the courts himself. How was the ordinary man to get justice?
Ashok phoned Shagun with the news. Their lawyer's junior, all primed to take another date, had been spared the trouble. Then next week if the application came up for hearing, a date would be taken.
And after that another date. Only then would they file a reply. Only then.
What could the other side do? What could they do? Nothing.
Afterwards, Shagun phoned her mother, the poor woman had been fretting since the morning – unable to grasp the way in which the courts functioned, unable to absorb the legal landscape that her daughter was continually trying to explain to her.
'Bomb scare? Did anybody get hurt?' she asked.
'It was a scare, nothing happened.'
'Beta, you must never go to court. These days there is so much lawlessness everywhere. And the police is hopeless. Let the lawyer go – you are paying him so much.'
'Ma, I've told you before, he is an old school friend of Ashok's – he is not charging us a paisa.'
'Then how is he taking an interest?'
'That's the way their school works, the old-boy network is very strong. We are lucky, he is one of the best lawyers in Delhi.'
'Beta, I don't understand these things. Only be careful. There is lots of terrorism everywhere.'
'Right now we just want to get as many dates as we can. Let him see how it feels. All I asked for was my freedom, willing to let him have the children, still he tried to blackmail me.'
Mrs Sabharwal couldn't bear to participate when Shagun cursed the man she had lived with for so many years. 'Don't the children ask for him?'
'No. They realise it's either him or me, and they naturally prefer their mother to their father. How much time did he spend with them, that they should start missing him now?'
The man was working, he would come home tired, then both of you would go out, the thought ran treacherously through Mrs Sabharwal's mind. Such thoughts belonged unequivocally to the past.
On the 17th of August Raman phoned his cousin.
'What is going to happen tomorrow?'
Nandan sighed. 'Why don't you come and see?'
'Really? I think it will make a difference. Let the judge realise she is dealing with suffering human beings.'
'Yes, be there around eleven.'
'Even earlier if necessary?'
'Eleven is fine.'
'Bye.' The lightness in his cousin's voice made Nandan wince. He hoped against all experience that the application would be heard.
Meanwhile, Raman told his secretary he had to attend to important legal work, and she should reschedule his meetings.
This was the first time Raman was actually visiting Tees Hazari. As he followed Nandan's junior into the labyrinth inside, he felt he was entering a large government hospital. The same mix of people from poor to well dressed, the same groups of huddlers, the same air of desperation, the smell of urine coming through open bathroom doors, pools around water coolers, paan-stained walls, a body or two stretched along corridors.
Finally they reached a court on the far end of the second floor. 'Wait here,' said the junior as they came to a foyer that opened onto two rooms. 'Court of the Addl District Judge' flaked in white letters above both doors. Outside each was a board with papers stuck to it.
Raman looked around, his nerves on edge. Would Shagun be present?
There were two benches against the wall crammed with people. Lawyers with files under their arms could be seen sauntering everywhere. 'When will it be our turn? Where is Nandan?' demanded Raman.
"He's just coming.'
'Mr Nandan Kaushik said that it would be heard early.'
'It's last in the miscellaneous. Arranged date wise – our case is still new,' said the junior casually, ambling towards a clone, slapping him on his back, generating bonhomie as though he were at a party.
'Who was that?' asked Raman when he returned.
'The other side's junior.'
'You were talking to him?'
The man looked surprised. 'He's a friend of mine. Case won't come up for a while, he says.'
It seemed very wrong to Raman that his side's lawyers were consorting with the enemy. How would they fight, plot, plan, keep secrets, if they were friends?'
'Where is Nandan?'
'He is just coming. Please sitdown,' Said the junior, gesturing to the courtroom.
Inside was space to breathe and think. At the end of the room sat the judge, elevated and cordoned off, surrounded by litigants, their lawyers, families and supporters.
Raman took a seat in front, glad to be one step closer to the process that would decide his fate.
'Your Honour,' said a woman dressed in a white and black sari, 'I must protest, this is the fifth time the respondent is trying to take a date. Please grant us some relief – my client is facing great financial distress.' Next to her was a thin woman in a shalwar kameez, sindoor in her hair, bangles on her wrist, henna on her feet, all the signs of marriage. She had two children with her. God knew how far she had come, and how many times she had waited.
The other side's lawyer asked for a postponement, and after some argument it was granted. The thin mother of two dully staggered out, while the clerk typed away.
At one the judge stood up. Lunchtime. Nandan appeared. 'Come.'
'We can get something to eat in the canteen, but it's not very good.'
'When's the case?'
'I have sent Bhasin to find out – my junior.'
'He was talking to the other side's lawyer.'
'We have a professional relationship with everyone.'
Nandan was right – the food was bad. Raman could barely swallow the cold vadas, drink the too-sweet coffee. 'I thought I would see Shagun,' he probed.
'She might come.'
'But you don't think so?'
'I don't know. Depends on the advice she is getting,' said the non-committal Nandan, curved over his plate scooping the sambar into his mouth with a bent aluminium spoon. There was so much noise in the canteen that conversation was a strain.
'Is it like this all the time?
'And you come here how often?'
'You think the judge will hear our case?'
'Why? Don't they care about people's time?'
He would look like a big fool if there was no hearing, especially after he had taken half-day leave. The atmosphere of Tees Hazari was seeping into him, he could sense the hopelessness that hung in the air, the waiting that each aimless loiterer embodied.
Nandan patted his back soothingly and got up to pay.
Lunch over, they returned to their designated courtroom to find only a few people. Judge had gone for a meeting, said Bhasin as they entered. Nandan walked towards the clerk, who was brusquely greeting every fresh enquiry with the words 'next week'.
'Today's cases have been shifted to next week. That's still not too bad.'
'But didn't she know she had a meeting? Why ruin everybody's time?'
'Sometimes we do get to know when the judge is going to be busy, sometimes not – it depends,' said Nandan.
By now Raman knew better than to ask what it depended on. He felt sick to his stomach. Not only was one leave wasted, but he was no nearer to seeing his children. 'Tell me honestly – how long will all this take?'
The standard reply, not long.
They must be lying like this to everyone. That was why the place was like hell, the air thick with the collective despair emanating from the multitudes outside every courtroom.
'But you must have some idea. Papa said you had never known failure. All your cases ended either in settlement or victory.'
'That's why I stick to Tees Hazari,' said Nandan modestly. 'Arre, everybody wants to practise in the High Court, or in the Supreme Court. But then clients here suffer.'
'And having a High Court lawyer like the other side does, that impresses the judge?'
'Some judges do get impressed by a big name – but it is not worth it. Charges are too high, then instead of coming himself he sends his junior. Here everybody knows I am sincere.'
Eventually, Raman managed to drag a time estimate out of his cousin. Around six months. The hearings for the main case would go on simultaneously, but the more interim applications there were, the more the main decision would be deferred, because those got heard first. If delays suited the other side, well, Nandan shrugged, sometimes people got lucky with a bribe that worked.
'But you are already bribing the recorder and the clerk.'
'That's hardly bribing. Just a little tea money to make sure the work gets done.'
Raman drove back to office furious and miserable. The minute he entered, the phone rang. His father.
'What happened, beta?'
'Nothing. Another date. Nandan took care of the recorder so at least we will get an early one.'
'Hmmm. Nandan is a sincere boy. He knows.'
'The steno, the clerk, all get a fixed cut. What kind of system is this?'
'Arre, that's why you have a lawyer. Leave it to him. And don't worry.'
Everybody kept telling him not to worry. They did not apply that same brilliance to the problem of how to see his children.
It was around this time that Arjun started fussing over school. The first-term exams were scheduled for the end of August and he had never felt so unprepared. He had just scraped through in science, 10 to 25, and once again had had to forge his mother's signature.
As he handed in the signed test paper, his teacher asked him to stay behind during recess.
'Is anything wrong, Arjun?' she started. 'Why have you suddenly begun doing so badly? All your junior school teachers thought very highly of you.'
Arjun remained silent while the teacher supplied her own answer. Students often found class VI difficult, the sudden increase in subjects, the leap from junior to middle school, the system of weekly tests all took getting used to, but he had to buck up. She would be very disappointed if he started slacking now.
to be continued...