There was no need for her to go on. Those pictures were his past, what good would it do to remove them? 'I keep them for the children's sake.'
'I know, darling, I know. But do you think they need to be reminded daily that their mother has abandoned them?'
She could feel him shrink, but she forced herself to go on. 'Roohi was saying the other day, don't go auntie, stay with me. Poor thing, she must be afraid that I will also disappear. But Roohi is like my own daughter, how can I ever leave her?'
'I hope,' she continued, 'that the child will not be torn between her biological mother and me.'
'Why would she be?'
'Oh, you don't know how their minds work.'
His mind drifted back to the moment in July when he had picked up his children from Mrs Sabharwal's. It had been wonderful to see them looking so well, and that pleasure continued till Arjun left for Dehradun.
Whether it was this departure that triggered the stress, Raman didn't know, but every night Roohi wet her bed. He would find the mattress soaked through, her legs curled up, shivering uncontrollably in cool air of the AC. He bought a thick plastic sheet to place underneath her and started sleeping with the child.
Had she come to some harm in the US? Was she missing her mother? Bit by bit he coaxed his daughter to talk about her summer.
What was the uncle like? Was he OK?
Mention of the uncle usually drew a blank look from Roohi.
What about Mama? Did they spend a lot of time together?
She nodded. Books, they had read books and swum in the lake.
Each night he held her, through each tear and whimper.
She had just turned four. Her mother must have celebrated her birthday in very different circumstances from his own treat last year on the beach. Both events had one parent missing and the result was a child who cried and wet her bed every night. He found himself hating Shagun for the damage done to his baby.
Ishita had said, how many mothers can a child have? Where could a child as young as Roohi place her trust? The least he could do was to ensure that the next time around that place was solid and secure.
He started by replacing the pictures, selecting photos of the children, getting them blown up and framed. Arjun in DPA receiving a medal for athletics, Roohi on sports day. In a few months, new narratives were in place on the walls and tables.
Raman's pain was now Ishita's, his hesitations entirely understandable. She would heal him, teach him to trust.
'What have I done to deserve such devotion?' he once asked.
The day did come when Raman suggested they apply for a marriage licence, and when a month was over, get married in court. He made it absolutely clear that he wanted no fuss. They would tell their parents after it was all over, everything was to be as different as possible from their first times.
To the superstitious pair, that was one indication of the success of the present venture.
Ishita felt a bit strange, being so free from all kinds of family obligations at a time like this. Uncomfortably she wondered if her new in-laws would blame her for their exclusion.
'Don't be silly, I will tell them myself,' said Raman.
With that she had to be content.
It took two hours for them to get married.
As they walked down the corridor, Raman's attention was temporarily diverted by the colour of his wife's shalwar kameez. These courts had been the scene of his greatest humiliation, his deepest misery, and here was Ishita all dressed up in pink. Maybe women were all the same, maybe he was making a big mistake, it had been fine with just him and his children. They were the most important things in his life, not fulfilment with some woman.
Ishita was painfully aware of his distance, and she started feeling miserable. Whatever he was thinking, it was bound to be something against her, otherwise he would have shared his feelings.
They entered into the parking lot.
'I hope this doesn't come as a shock to the children,' said Raman.
If he was trying to wound her feelings, he succeeded. She didn't expect a whole lot, but some words of love just after they had signed the register would have been welcome. Was he already regretting his decision?
'Our parents will be glad,' she replied carefully.
She put a tentative hand through his arm. He pressed it. She could feel his solid warmth, and she knew that together they could create a happy life Raman would not be able to deny, no matter what he was feeling now. He too had been tossed on stormy seas, such vessels liked to rest quietly.
'Are you all right?' she asked in the car.
'I'm fine. Just anxious about the children.'
Again there was nothing to say. Time would show that the step he had taken was the right one, she had to be patient.
'You can stop worrying about me now, I am married.'
Mrs Rajora was in the kitchen, when Ishita announced this. Her jaw dropped, 'What?'
'Where? How? Are you sure?'
Marriage. That sacred word. Back and forth it went, it could not be said enough. Finally, the whole story was told and the need for secrecy explained. But here, see here was the paper to prove it. Yes, this very morning, when they thought she was going to work, she was actually driving to court, that was the way he wanted it, she repeated again and again.
They all agreed that the man was very sensitive, but his present marriage would help him recover his equilibrium and face the world with confidence.
Her new son-in-law worried too much, declared Mrs Rajora.
In the other part of the building, things were not so smooth. Such clandestine behaviour could not be regarded so indulgently, this was the son of the family, another woman was involved, ownership issues were at stake.
As he tried to pacify them, Raman marvelled at the storm created over someone they had always approved of.
Eventually, the parents calmed down. Where was she?
Telling her parents.
Ha! They must have known, the parents of a girl not knowing? What world do you live in? So innocent you are.
Raman was Raman was sick of talking, explaining, and justifying. He just wanted things to be normal. A simple, predictable, boring life, filled with the humdrum of the usual, this was his heart's desire.
'Call her,' demanded Mrs Kaushik. 'I must see my new daughter-in-law, even if you think there is no need.'
Ishita was summoned over the intercom, and she came running over in one minute flat, bending down to touch the feet of her new in-laws, the moment she entered the door.
'Beti, why did you listen to him? What is the need for all this secrecy?'
And Ishita said, 'Ma. Papa, please forgive us. We cannot live without your blessings.'
A few hours later, the parents had exhausted every reaction, blame, recrimination, wonder, congratulations and happiness.
It was time for Ishita to leave with Raman.
'Is that all?' her husband joked as he picked up the tote bag.
'I can come back for my things.'
She didn't tell him that first she needed to be in his house as a wife.
They went down together in the elevator.
They found Roohi in front of the TV watching cartoons, with Ganga next to her, also watching.
Ishita wanted the news over and done with.
She nudged Raman.
'Beta,' he started.
Roohi's gaze remained fixed on the cartoons.
'Beta, I have something important to tell you.'
He was so clumsy, did he have no idea of how to compel a child's attention, why didn't he switch the TV off? Ishita bit her lip, don't say anything, let him handle it, she told herself.
Ads came and Roohi was momentarily diverted.
'Beta, auntie and I got married this morning. She will now live with us. Isn't that nice?'
Roohi said nothing, while Ganga, whose understanding of English was comprehensive, kept her face carefully blank. Raman, duty done, marched into the bedroom.
'Tell Ganesh to get me some tea,' Ishita said, to get Ganga out of the room.
She switched the TV off, and lifted the child onto her lap. 'Beta.' She nuzzled her hair.
Roohi's thumb went back into her mouth. Ishita tilted her face towards her own and looked at the long eyelashes against the roundness of her cheeks, the pink wet mouth, the slightly sallow skin. At four, she was too old to be sucking her thumb. She pulled it out and held the glass next to her lips.
'Drink your milk, beta, and I will tell you a story.'
'Start drinking first. Can't tell you a story just like that, can I?'
Roohi took a few sips then waited. 'There was once a father who had a little girl whom he loved very, very much. That girl did not have a mother.'
'The mother had run away. She was never coming back.'
'No. Before she left though, she prayed to God to send someone to look after her darling baby. You see, in a way this mother did love her child, but there were other people calling her and she wanted to go. And the little girl was very lucky because another mother came who loved her very, very much.'
'Can you guess?'
'Well, one day the little girl's father, who was lonely, decided to marry this other woman. That way all three of them could live happily ever after. Now do you know who it is?'
Roohi stared at her milk. The glass was still not empty. Ishita tilted it against the girl's mouth and held it there till she swallowed the last drop. 'Good girl,' she said. Roohi probably felt some vestiges of attachment to that woman, and so could not answer the question. She vowed that one day though, the child would say that she loved her and her only. That would be her greatest triumph. She stroked the grubby hands. 'Come on, darling, let's wash,' she said and led her to the bathroom.
In his room, Raman cleared out one of his drawers for Ishita's things. He could hear his wife and daughter talking, could see the little girl's head against the woman's shoulder. Already, there was a change in the atmosphere of the house, and his mood lightened considerably. Thank God Roohi had accepted the marriage, for him that was ultimately the most important thing. Now only Arjun was left.
Ishita started her life with Raman and Roohi. Every dream of her's had come true.
'What time does Roohi leave for school?' she asked Raman.
'Well, I get her up at seven.'
'After breakfast and change of clothes, Ganga and the driver take her to school, which starts at eight thirty.'
'You are such a caring father,' said Ishita.
'She's my daughter after all.'
'She's our daughter now.'
He sensed the anxiety in her voice and smiled to himself, as he repeated after her, 'Our daughter.'
'Do you think I can help her get ready for school from now on? Of course, I don't want to startle the child.'
'Darling, she loves you, you know that.'
'You think? I wouldn't like to presume.'
Overnight, Roohi's life changed. 'I don't want to rush any thing,' Ishita repeatedly told her husband, while Raman watched bemused, as day by day a new regimen was put in place.
Ishita enrolled Roohi in the dance class at the Sri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra, where Ishita discovered Justin McCarthy, once American, and now Indian, versed in Sanskrit, Oriya, Tamil, and all the classical dance traditions of the South. Beginners were taught by his students, and parents were allowed to sit against the wall, eyes fastened on the backs of their daughters.
After Roohi's dance lesson was over, Ishita usually brought her to the nearby Bengali Sweet House for a dosa and ice cream. These treats were very dear to her, and she listened indulgently while the child chattered on about everything.
When she got to know that Justin was in addition the most sought-after piano teacher in town, she rented a piano and signed up Roohi for his twice-a-week lessons, making sure the child practised every day. It gave Raman great satisfaction to hear the rudimentary tunes his daughter confidently banged out. 'Beta, play something for Papa,' Ishita would say and Roohi would run to the piano to show off.
On Sunday, they went to the zoo. Roohi walked between her parents holding each by the hand. All things considered, they were happy.
Roohi jerked Raman's hand. 'Look, Papa.' Before them was a large pond, overrun with flamingos, herons, storks, ducks and swans.
'Here, darling, let's feed the ducks.'
Roohi eagerly stretched out her hands. They leaned over the railings, and threw the roti into the water despite warnings displayed prominently everywhere. The ducks gratified them by squawking excitedly, diving after the food slowly sinking into the green opaque water. They trudged and trudged. They passed tigers, giraffes, lions, and scores of brilliant exotic birds. Roohi started to drag her feet, October was still too early in the season for a comfortable outdoor expedition. The old fort was a big place and their energy was swallowed by heat and fatigue. Expedition over, they were going to eat at a nearby restaurant with the grandparents.
A few days later, Ishita suggested a visit to Roohi's school.
'They need to be informed of the changes in her life.'
'In that case, they will get to know a lot at once. I never told them Shagun left. People are so conservative.'
'Well, there are more families like ours than you think. Besides, they should be aware that now she has a mother who loves her.'
'They'll really like you, Ish.'
Ishita allowed herself a small smile.
'I hope it is not too late to enrol her into a bigger school.'
'There is no need to do that.' said Raman without thinking.
Ishita looked down, but he could see from the tightening of her lips that tears were being suppressed.
'Now please, don't start crying.'
'Roo is my responsibility too, you know. I must do my best.'
'But you don't have to prove you are doing your best. The child loves you, I love you.'
She smiled. 'You men are all alike. How can I just let things be? Where schools are concerned, it is all law of the jungle. Don't you know that?'
to be continued...