It was going to be Arjun's first trip home after DPA. He had been away for two months, his father thought, long enough for him to know whether he liked the school or not. And if he didn't he would record that on tape and produce it as evidence in court in order to protect him.
For now, eager to restore the sense of family his son had lost through the desertion of the mother, Raman planned a Goa holiday trip that included his parents. He would pick his son up from Alaknanda and after a day of preparation they would leave. Roohi's birthday would be celebrated on the beach – he bought some knick-knacks from Khan Market for a little party he planned there. It would be a surprise for her, different from anything she had ever experienced.
As the Goa Express left Nizamuddin Station, Raman felt the nightmare of the past year easing with the gentle rocking of the train. This compartment contained what he loved most on this earth, and as he looked at his loved ones he thought it could have been worse. He could have lost a child, for instance, instead of a wife who, all said and done was replaceable. One arm tightened around Roohi sitting on his lap, the other stretched out to stroke Arjun's hair. The boy was looking good, clearly it had benefited him to be away from the harmful atmosphere of his mother's home.
Panjim. From the station they hired a van that would take them straight to their hotel. As they drove, Arjun focused on the beauty of the landscape. Initially, he had resisted Goa, all he had wanted was to stay at home, eat, watch TV and sleep without a bell ringing in his ears every twenty minutes. Now he relished this first encounter with the sea.
Finally they reached their destination. The hotel was a low white building, with rooms on three sides of a pool, criss-crossed by red-gravelled walkways, flanked by overcharging green palms. Everybody was charmed by everything. Mornings and evenings were spent at the beach, playing, walking along the shore, the rolling water and crashing waves bringing joy to all.
The highs lasted all the way back to Delhi. Even the train being late didn't matter so much, thought Raman, when they were together.
Unfortunately, Goa had also liberated the grandparents' tongues. They were mindful of their son's interests, and in that connection thought it vital to know what was going on in the boy's head. They couldn't trust Raman to give the child an adequate idea of his sufferings.
Now they seized this opportunity and started bombarding Arjun with questions. What was school like? Didn't he miss his father? Do other grandparents visit?
Raman said, 'Leave him alone,' but the grandparents continued with the questioning.
'Does your mother write to you?'
'What does she say?'
'She must say something.'
'How are you? That's what she says.'
'Nothing. Why don't you ask her?'
Later, they told themselves that the boy had become very proud, very stand-offish.
Eventually, Raman became firm enough for the questions to stop, while Arjun grew wary of his grandparents.
Back in Delhi, the boy was at his most eloquent when confronted with Roohi. 'You are so stupid, you don't understand anything.'
It hurt Raman, this dismissal of the little sister. Who else did these children have but each other?
'Be nice to Roo, she could hardly wait for you to come,' he said to Arjun. 'You have to be tolerant, she is still very young,'
Arjun had behaved so well in Goa; was it something about this house or the memory of his mother that triggered such aggression? He could think of no other explanation.
At night when Roohi was asleep, and things were peaceful, father and son watched the Cricket World Cup, the event that was to have brought Raman and Shagun closer. Now they discussed the likelihood of India's winning, went through the A and B team rankings, discussed players, their scores, their merits.
'Do you miss your mother?' Raman once asked.
'Where is she now?'
'I don't know.'
'You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to, son – only don't say you don't know when you do.'
'She keeps travelling, Papa, how should I know where she is?' The child had begun to whine and Raman told himself never to ask about his mother again. The secret desire to be assured of her unhappiness was a sign of weakness, besides it was really none of his business.
The only topic of conversation Arjun was enthusiastic about was school. In a mere two months she had become a proper Academy boy. 'Won't you like to go back to VV, beta,' the father had tried asking, but the answer was such a clear no that Raman had to reconcile himself to DPA being Arjun's school.
All too soon the children's time with their father was over. Shagun phoned: "Please pack Roohi's things and drop the children at my mother's place."
Gloomily he drove them to Alaknanda. With Roohi at least things would change after the divorce, but the separation from Arjun would continue now that he was in boarding school.
'Bye, beta, write once you reach Dehradun. Remember to phone. I will come to visit you, all right? Papa loves you, beta.'
With Arjun back in school and Roohi with her mother Raman felt lost. It was useless confiding in his parents, they thought cursing Shagun was the only way to make him feel better. With an empty heart and an empty house, the office was the place that seemed most natural to him. Anyway, he had to compensate for his time away from The Brand.
A new regional requirement from Hong Kong demanded his full attention. A few more weeks and the second divorce petition would be signed. He would be married no longer, a phase of his life over. Soon he would have to figure out what his world looked like with Shagun inexorably out of it.
A week before the final signing, Shagun hauled Roohi onto her lap. She loved her little girl so much, but her hands were tied, tied so hard she felt the knots chafing at her skin. She longed to leave this terrible city, go far, far away.
The child continued to suck her thumb.
Shagun pulled at her hand. Roohi was too old to be doing this, but she had not worked at stopping her. In all the recent upheavals, let the thumb at least be constant.
'Roohi? Listen to me.'
Raman's face looked up at her.
'Beta – would you like to spend some time with your father?'
The child looked puzzled. She did see her father. Every weekend.
Shagun rephrased the question. 'Not like now. Longer. Go to school from there.'
'I have some work.'
'I want to come.'
'Children are not allowed. Now wouldn't you like to spend more time with your father? You really like being in that house, don't you?'
'No,' said Roohi and put her thumb back in her mouth.
'Bhaiyya said to look after you. I promised Bhaiyya before he left for school.'
'Bhaiyya did not know what he was talking about. He was just anxious about leaving. How can a small baby look after a big mother?'
'I want to come with you.'
'Beta, your school is here, your friends are here, your grandparents are here. And your Papa will miss you.'
By now Roohi was looking thoroughly alarmed. 'No, Mama, no.'
Impatiently, Shagun gave her a little shake. 'Beta, where I am going, children are not allowed. How will I take you? The police will send you back, and it will all be your father's fault.'
At this unexpected information Roohi began to cry. Shagun instantly regretted all she had said, but Roohi could sometimes be slow to understand. 'Shush, beta, shush, Mama loves you. Don't worry – I will come back quickly – make a home for my Roohibaba. Everything will be all right, I will find you a wonderful school – don't worry.'
'But I want to come with you now.'
'Beta, you can't. I will be put in jail if I take you.'
Roohi went on sobbing.
'Nothing will change. You are still my baby girl. Remember that I love you. Always, always. Now stop, stop this crying. Come, let's see what cartoons are on TV.'
Shagun carried her to the drawing room and settled down in front of the TV. She hoped that the child would be in a better mood by the time Ashok came home. Though he never complained, the sound of children's programmes gave him a headache and Shagun tried to protect him from the noise.
It was raining a few days later, when Raman came to pick up Roohi from her grandmother's house. Unlike other times there was no Shagun standing theatrically at the entrance. When his daughter emerged it was with the grandmother struggling under an umbrella, clutching a suitcase, with a school bag slung from her shoulder. The door slammed, the car reversed and sped out of the central parking lot, while the grandmother stood, holding the hem of her sari up with one hand, watching her grandchild go. Once the car was out of sight she turned and walked heavily back to her apartment where her daughter was waiting.
Did he say anything? Did Roohi cry? Did she go willingly? No, no, yes.
For the rest of the day, Shagun remained sunk in apathy. It would take time to get used to her new status as part-time mother. Once they were in their own apartment in New York she would regain her equilibrium. Ashok had said they would find one overlooking Central Park. Just the name was enough to distract her. The real Central Park, not the falsely named builders' creation in Gurgaon.
Yes, she couldn't wait to start her new life. They would keep house together, they would have no servants, they would do everything by themselves, just the two of them, laying the blocks of a happy, successful union.
A week later, Raman and Shagun were divorced. Thirty days had to pass before either was free to marry.
So great was the relief in the Kaushik household. At last their son was out of the clutches of that woman. Raman had been generous, very generous, he had not made his wife suffer, nor had he punished her by refusing a divorce. Such men were rewarded in lifetimes to come.
As for the jewellery, Shagun herself offered it, bringing it to court in a little attaché case: 'Please keep this for Roohi.'
Clearly, thought Raman, she wanted nothing from him – nothing except her freedom. Not a shred, not a pin, not a rupee would she keep from their former life.
It would be prudent to forget her existence as quickly as possible. From now on he would devote himself to his children.
Thirty-one days later Shagun returned to Tees Hazari, this time to sign the marriage register. She felt guilty for Raman, but she had made all the amends she could. He could hold no grudge against her, nor blame her for any misfortune. She had returned the jewellery he had not asked for. She had given him the children.
It was one in the morning, foggy outside, with rain splattering against the windshield when Mrs Sabharwal accompanied her new son-in-law and daughter to the airport.
Ashok had expressed some inadvertent astonishment at the requirement that they spend their last night in India at his mother-in-law's place. 'Please, darling,' said Shagun, 'She is very upset we are going. She really wants to come and drop us.'
'Why is she so upset? You know she is always welcome wherever we are.'
'She says she will wait and see how things go before she visits.'
'All right,' said Ashok, not quite aware of the dimensions of Mrs Sabharwal's loneliness, nor intuitive enough to suggest alternative solutions.
To herself Shagun wondered at the difference another marriage could bring. Had she been going to New York with Raman she knew he would have spent hours with her mother, convincing her to stay with them.
Now they were driving slowly, negotiating the fog that had suddenly thickened. Ashok, sitting in front, looked impatiently at his watch. 'There is plenty of time, darling,' murmured his wife from the back seat, her hand in her mother's.
They reached Indira Gandhi International Airport, their car inching along with others up the ramp. In front of the long entranceway they stopped abreast two other vehicles, adding to the chaos. Ashok jumped out and darted towards a free cart, the driver pulled the suitcases from the dickey, and there stood husband and wife in the line inching towards their designated door. Mrs Sabharwal was stopped at the barricade, passengers only from this point. With a last hug and a last kiss, Shagun disappeared inside. Mrs Sabharwal remained standing as she watched her daughter exit in pursuit of happiness.
'Such good news,' said Mrs Rajora, beaming with excitement.
'What is it?' asked Ishita, sitting in the veranda looking at the strings of coloured lights that decorated the balconies of the buildings around them. It was Diwali and Ishita had just delivered a box of sweets to Mrs Hingorani. Now all she wanted was to be left alone.
'Raman is divorced!'
Mrs Kaushik had revealed this when Mrs Rajora had gone to give her some Diwali dry fruit. Seeing her friend looking so sad, Mrs Rajora had scolded her for keeping secrets. Privacy and discretion were all very well, but a friend's concern also had to be given value. Why this permanently worried expression? Hadn't she herself told Leela everything about Ishita as soon as she was asked? Hadn't she?
Leela cried and said it was much worse than anything that had happened to Ishu – here there were children involved and the fear that Raman would die.
Ishita listened silently. She was given a quick recap of those unnoticed years: Raman, so brilliant, marriage always considered so perfect, now look what happened.
to be continued...