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25 Feb - 02 Mar , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION
CUSTODY

Had there been something wrong with SK, they would have moved heaven and earth to get their son's defect corrected. In an ideal world, the same resources would have been put at the disposal of a daughter-in-law. But this was not an ideal world.
It didn't take long for the loving atmosphere around Ishita to grow so thin that it became hard for her to breathe. Was it possible for them all to change towards her, SK, Chandrakanta and Tarakanta? Hadn't they valued her for herself?
Of course they had, replied the mother-in-law when Ishita's pent-up heart burst with wounded feelings in front of the most powerful member of the household. They were simple, warm and affectionate.
Unfortunately, Ishita knew that was true.
'For us the girl's qualities were everything. You know we asked for no dowry?'
A small nod directed towards the floor.
CUSTODY'For us money is not as important as family. But beta, it is essential that Surakanta have a child. As the only son, he has to make sure that the bloodline of his forefathers continues. And now' – she hesitated slightly – 'I need to talk to your mother.'
Ishita sat as though a mountain of stones were pressing upon her.
'I will visit her tomorrow. I am sure something can be worked out. You are a sensible girl.'
'Yes, Mummy.'
In the night she asked Suryakanta, 'Why does Mummy want to talk to my mother?'
He merely grunted and she was too disheartened to insist on an answer, sure that it would make her even more miserable. Might as well live in the dark a bit longer. She would know soon enough.
Her mother phoned her as soon as her mother-in-law left. 'They want a divorce.'
'He also?'
'She says he also.'
'Then I should come home?'
'Don't be silly. They are not getting rid of us so easily.'
'What do you mean? Have you found a new fertility cure?'
The bravado in her daughter's voice broke the mother's heart. She tried to say a few encouraging words, which Ishita heard impatiently before putting the phone down.
Mrs Rajora wandered onto her tiny veranda. Discussion with her husband was useless, no matter how justified her anxiety, he accused her of needless worrying. It was his way of protecting himself, she thought.
Now she sat alone, staring at the children playing in the square below, assailed by their rising voices, their excitement, their quarrels, their play.
The bell rang. She got up, half ready with her social face. She who loved company had not exchanged a word with anyone for weeks now. But neither Mrs Rajora not the co-operative housing society was designed for solitude. It was Mrs Kaushik at the door demanding tea, determined to find out what the matter was.
All this was not to be resisted. The end result was that an appointment was made for Ishita and her mother to go and see Leela Kaushik's astrologer. 'See this jade – he got me this stone – I wear it because my mercury is too strong. Now I am not taking tension.'
'Is there something for infertility?'
'Of course. He will suggest something, he is very, very good, not at all money-minded.'
Next week, Mrs Rajora dragged her daughter to the astrologer. There is a child in her hand, he said, after CUSTODYturning her palm over several times, scrutinising it carefully by the light of a lamp.
'She is young and healthy,' pleaded the mother.
'She will know the joy of motherhood.'
'A son?'
'One girl.'
'Are you sure?'
'That is what the stars say. There is something I can give you that will help.'
The mother looked eager.
'A stone. She has to wear a white stone – pearl or moon-stone – to counteract the influence of the moon. It has to be two carats, and get the setting such that it touches her skin. It has to be made correctly, only then will it work.'
'Please will you get it made for us?'
So, no son, Surakanta's bloodline was not going to be passed on through her. Besides which, she would be forced to wear an ugly ring, sitting fatly on her finger.
'See, what did I tell you?' they demanded of each other as they left.
'You lose hope too easily,' continued the mother. 'I am doing special pujas to overcome your bad karma. There is a child in your future. Miracles do happen. We will get the stone, then we will see.'
'These people just tell you what you want to hear,' retorted Ishita. 'I can't go on living like this. He doesn't look at me any more.'
She felt degraded, a non-person, certainly a non-woman. He was determined there should be nothing left between them.
She was only twenty-six. She could look for a job, but the meaning of her life came from SK. For three and a half years she had been surrounded by his shy and tender love, she had set down roots in this home, the thought of being expelled from it was heartbreaking.
But staying was not easy. The mother began to call her shameless, the sisters refused to talk to her, the father and SK avoided her. She only saw her husband at the dinning table – a place to which she now seldom came. Who can eat if they are treated as invisible? She stayed in her room, reading magazines, flicking through TV channels, waiting for it to be late enough so she could take a sleeping pill. And not have the fantasy that Suryakanta would tell her that he loved her, now and for ever.
A month of this aid it was clear that his love must be completely dead for him to treat her so cruelly.
She took off the stupid gigantic pearl ring her mother had gotten for her as she decided she need be humiliated no further.
If her parents did not want her to kill herself they would have to see reason.
The parents changed their tactics. Did the family think they could marry and divorce as they pleased? They wanted a cash settlement. With their wealth, 10 lakhs was nothing. They can't get rid of us so easily, if you come home we can kiss goodbye to everything. What about your future?
Now besides barrenness his mother accused her of money-grabbing. Did we take a dowry, did we, did we?
We were too simple for worldly types such as you.
You must have known you couldn't have a child.'
You will never get a paisa from us.
How long do you think you can go on eating our salt?
There are ways to deal with shameless women like you.
In the dark watches of the night Ishita thought they were right, she was shameless. Who stayed where they were not wanted? When she looked in the mirror she saw plain unloved face, eyes without expression, dull skin, dry lips. She had lost all the weight she had put on since her marriage, her collar bones stuck out. Even the beggars at the street crossings looked more lively than she. Was this the person holding out for happiness?
She appealed to the back of the man who now never spoke to her. I can't go home, I can't stay here. Just make it possible for our parents to settle, and then I shall get out of your life for ever. I will agree to divorce by mutual consent, otherwise you know how long that can take. I need to leave with dignity. For the sake of the love you once had for me.
'What about you? Asking for 10 lakhs.'
She heard the disgust in his voice, and for a moment she hated her mother who made her do this. But then in the West did they not give alimony?
'Give what you like, I don't care. But I must be able to live with some independence. You can marry again, what can I do? My life is over,' she tried to say without pathos, stating a simple fact.
The back did not respond, the shoulders drew a little inwards. But Ishita knew Suryakanta had understood her position. He still cared for her, no matter what his parents might maintain. Had they been living by themselves, how different it could have been.
Poor Ishita, still believing in love, even after circumstances had raked their steely claws across her marriage. Two days later, her mother called, 'They are offering 5 lakhs. What is 5 lakhs – '
Ishita cut into this: 'Five lakhs is the price they are willing to pay. And it is me they are paying it to. If you do not want me to come home I will live as a tenant somewhere. I am leaving this house in one week. In fact,' she lied in a low controlled tone, 'There is a family close by willing to take me. I will die, or be killed if I continue to stay here, is that what you want? A corpse? You can have it today.'
Her parents were horrified. Did their daughter really think they did not want her home? They only wanted the best for her. And how could she leave without her jewellery, did she want to gift that to them?
Ishita had to speak to SK again. Her jewellery was in the family locker, and it was her mother-in-law who had the key. She trusted him to do what was right by her, and to return the pieces she had come with.
That evening SK handed her a plastic-wrapped packet. She put it in her suitcase without checking its contents. Her clothes were already packed in a steel trunk. She was sure that no one in that family would even consider as returnable all the linen, the kitchenware, the TV, the bed-clothes, or the carved wooden bed that had been part of her trousseau. Well, if they wanted to end these things back, fine, if not, fine. She didn't care.
It was late at night. Hopefully there wouldn't be too many people around in Swarg Nivas to witness her ignominious home coming. She dialled for a taxi, then called the servant to help with her baggage. He did so without meeting her gaze. No one came out to say goodbye.
CUSTODYIn the taxi her tears fell silently and were wiped away silently. She needed to get all her crying done before she arrived.
Two and a half lakhs were to be handed to Ishita on the first signing of mutual-consent divorce. Two and a half more would be given six months later when the final proceedings were over. The interim six months was a period meant for the reconciliation process. What process, thought Ishita drearily, what process? There never was a chance.
Six months later the divorce was through. Ishita was twenty-seven. Her mother tried to hide the conviction that her daughter's life was over. Even her father had to admit that the path ahead was obscure.
After the divorce Ishita resumed her maiden name. There are women who keep their own names once they get married, she told her parents bitterly. I should have been one of them.
Ordinarily the parents would have shuddered at the inauspiciousness of such an idea, but now everything had changed.

IX
The Lovely Detective Agency, Results Guaranteed required a minimum of one month to arrive at their conclusions. In matrimonial cases, they said delicately, they only relied on absolute proof. What constituted absolute proof? Demanded Raman. He himself would be satisfied with a brief account of the subject's activities, places visited, people met, he elaborated, not quite meeting the eye of the sleazy individual who was going to shadow Shagun. Who else but voyeurs would choose such a profession?
Sleazy was firm. People met could only be documented through photos. In their experience the client's first reaction was disbelief. Confidentiality was their policy and the negatives would be handed over to Mr Kaushik. Half the fees were payable in advance. In addition they would charge photography costs as well as travel expenses.
It would only be necessary to confine activities to Delhi, said Mr Kaushik, staring at the man's fat fingers, drumming out a pattern on the glass-covered surface of his Godrej desk. With every suggestion, he felt his dignity crumbling. He hadn't realised how demeaning this detective business was.
'We need pics of the subject. Face, full-body, recent.'
It sounded so horribly intimate. He sat in shamed gloominess as he felt the sanctity of his family violated.
'More than one of us will be put on her trail. If we want twenty-four-hour surveillance? Is that necessary?'
'We always tell our clients the best results are got from this only, and therefore cheaper in the long run.'
'Very well.'
'So how soon can we expect the pics?'
'Soon enough, don't worry.'
Raman left the Lovely Detective Agency, even more sick at heart. He had not thought that possible, but he was learning something every day.
Family pictures were Shagun's department.
'Where do you keep our albums?' he asked that night.
'Why do you want to know?'
'I want to look at them. Do you mind?'
She stared at him. Perhaps he was going crazy. 'Why? In all these years you never asked to look at them.'
'In all these years I had no need to.'
What was this enigmatic remark supposed to mean? That she should break down over a veiled reference to the changes in their life? Well, he could take his albums and – an Ashok phrase – stuff them up his ass. She smiled absently and when he saw the look on her face that obliterated him completely, Raman was very glad he had gone to the Lovely Detective Agency.
'They are in the last shelf of the bookcase. Be sure to put them back carefully. I don't want to rearrange them all over again.'
Once upon a time he had liked the fact that she was so careful about the handsome leather albums that illustrated the family's twelve-year history. Now as he searched through the pictures of the past, he tried to look for the lies in them. Holidays, school and family events, smiles wreathed across every face, his wife the same charming creature from start to finish, unaffected, tender, posing, it seemed happily, with him and the children.
She had not even asked why he wanted the albums, how unnatural was that? His face grew stiff with suppressed pain. Quickly he slid two pictures out from beneath the protective sheet.
Before handing over these precious photographs, he would try and talk to her mother. He knew she would do anything to keep the marriage intact.
Two days later, Shagun visited an ill-at-ease Mrs Sabharwal. 'What is this mysterious thing you wanted to see me about?' she asked.
'Raman phoned.'
'So?'
'He is worried about you.'
'Rubbish. He is just worried about himself.'

to be continued...



 
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