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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
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CUSTODY

'We have already said all that in our main petition.'
'Say it again.'
'You have to keep in mind that in the case of marital disputes, boarding school may be considered a good option.'
'So she can do anything she wants? Deprive me of my children just like that?'
'No. But keep in mind that in boarding school you can visit him.'
Irritated, Raman brushed this palliative aside. Normally Nandan was quick to understand the nuisance value of legal procedures.
'I want her thwarted. She thinks she can make me invisible, that a father's rights can be ignored. I am going to fight her every inch of the way. You have to help.'
'What am I here for? Just be prepared for the judge to decide it in the child's best interest to be away from disputing parties.'
'I am prepared.'
CUSTODYWhat a terrible life his cousin must be leading, thought Nandan, as he instructed his junior to draw up a standard plea for staying the boy's removal from the court's jurisdiction.
'I phoned Papa.'
'Why?'
'Just like that.'
'I told you he wants to keep us apart. He has filed a case against me. A case in court. Do you know what that means?'
'No'
'Is this the first time you have phoned him?'
'Yes.'
She should have told Arjun not to contact his father. But she found it easier to treat her husband as unmentionable, unnameable, unseeable.
'Well, what did he say?'
'He sounded surprised.'
Of course. It must have been a shock. For a moment she put herself in his shoes, then quickly drew back to her own.
'Did you say anything about DPA? Going there?'
'No.'
'Are you sure?'
'We hardly talked.'
'Then why did you phone him?'
'It's just that...'
'Are you missing your father?'
No response.
Shagun looked at her son. He continued to eat, his long eyelashes spread against the pink and white of his cheek. She loved gazing at him, he was so handsome. And once he went to the Academy he would get that open confident laughing look many of the boys there had. Right now, the expression on his face was shut in, wary, guarded.
He had become paler ever since he had stopped playing games. She sighed. Arjun glanced at her; she took his hand and squeezed it. Three days later the interim application notice was served at Shagun's official address.
Mrs Sabharwal looked at this fresh invitation to despair. By now she too felt that the best thing for Arjun would be to go to Dehradun. How long could such a situation last, not attending school? If his father had been around, this would not have happened. She picked up the phone.
Her daughter's silence at this news unsettled her.
'Beta?' she asked into the void.
'Still here.'
'I am saying this notice from the court has come.'
'I heard you the first time, Mama.'
'Shall I open it?'
'You won't understand the contents.'
That was true enough, but one had to say something, do something.

Shagun and Ashok were in Madan Singh's home office,
'You have to understand that they will do everything to prevent the child being removed,' pointed out Madz.
'Even if it is in the child's best interest to go to a better school?' demanded Ashok.
'We will make a case of course, but not everyone will think it is better.'
'Right now he is not going to any school,' put in Shagun.
'We will say all that, don't worry. And of course the judge will look at the child's best interest, ask him why he is not going to school, what does he want?'
'How soon before it is heard?'
'If nobody tries to delay, shouldn't take too long.'
And then visitation rights, asked Shagun? If granted, wouldn't that deprive Raman of all incentive to divorce? Why would he want her happy?
'You can't do much about visitation rights – you have to reconcile yourselves to that, the judge will grant them.'
'It's confusing for the children – first there then here then there,' reasoned Shagun, 'Surely that can't be in their best interest.'
'They do link best interest with the biological parents, rightly or wrongly,' reasoned Madz.
'Admissions can't wait,' said Ashok impatiently.
'The judge knows that. I have every expectation that this application will be heard quickly.'
A few days later Raman received a call from his estranged wife.
'Why have you filed this application?'
'Why have you withdrawn him from his school? A perfectly good school, where he was happy, had friends, did well.'
'He needs to start a new life.'
'That's what you think. You want to send him to a self-obsessed all-boys institution where he will be subject to the kind of bullying and fagging that will scar him for the rest of his life. You need my consent, or hasn't your lawyer told you that I am the natural guardian?'
'And hasn't your lawyer told you that custody can go to either parent?'
'And hasn't your lawyer told you that custody of a male child belongs to the father?'
'Goodbye,' said Shagun as she slammed the phone down to look at her problem and to come to one conclusion. The child had to personally reject the father, personally choose DPA, personally convince the CUSTODYjudge.

XVIII
In October, Arjun took the DPA entrance exam at Vasant Valley School, the Delhi centre. For three hours parents waited outside, chatted, drank coffee, compared schools, compared children, looked nervous. Shagun sat in a corner, her eyes fixed unmoving on a magazine. She saw her son's face in the pages, saw his eight school-going years, contented successful years, from which he was now being removed because of the complications in her life.
A little older – or a little younger – and this situation would not have arisen. Roo went wherever she was sent, while a more mature Arjun would not have developed pains no one could explain.
Her mind went unwillingly to Raman's words. Bullying and fagging. Lifelong scars. All boys. She had asked Ashok, had there been any molesting cases? Were younger boys bullied by older ones? Were teachers sufficiently vigilant? Ashok had laughed, did she want to protect Arjun from the world? Would she say he was scarred? Immediately she became defensive and the question was never answered.
Well, it was no longer in her hands. If Arjun got through, that would be a sign, if he didn't, that would be another sign, she thought, rustling more magazine pages, not really wanting to know what Fareed Zakaria had to say about the world, but opinions were useful in social conversation.
Arjun passed the written exams, and was now eligible for the interview in December, one of 200. The three of them drove to Dehradun the day before, Arjun sitting next to the man in front, preparing for possible questions in general knowledge and current events. Ashok grilled him on his reading, his interests, his strong points, his talents, sport preferences, how would he contribute to the school? Various hypothetical situations followed.
Shagun listened from the back seat, noticing how well her boy performed in these tests of Ashok's. If nothing else, DPA had brought them closer.
Next morning at school. An hour of hanging around then finally Arjun's turn. He disappeared into the Principal's office from which he would emerge fifteen minutes later, his fate decided.
Never before had he been in such a position, said Ashok, as they waited anxiously outside, but the boy would do well, he was clearly bright.
Well, smiled Shagun as she used the word for the first time in this connection, he had never been a parent before.
Arjun emerged. They pounced on him: how, what, and did you? Nothing unexpected was asked, he replied. He read out a poetry passage, did the mental maths, defined temperature without using the word temperature, answered questions about his likes and dislikes.
These fifteen minutes could be the most important in his life, said the new father expansively. Now they could only wait and see, but Arjun was not to get tense, he had a good feeling just from his conversations with the teachers.
And Shagun could kiss the ground her lover walked on, she was so grateful for everything he had done.
By the end of January, the phone call came: your son has been selected. Out of thousands, he had been one of the few to cross the finish line. He was a lucky boy, wasn't he?
The intervening two months were spent in getting medical tests done, getting clothes made, sending measurements to the DPA tailor, and stitching number 2341 onto every blessed thing. Through all these preparations was the cold fear that Raman could stop Arjun from going.
A date in February had been fixed for hearing of arguments. They had a month in which to make sure that Arjun was so keen to go to DPA that he would steadfastly maintain this in the face of the most sceptical judge.
Shagun alone could not create this enthusiasm. Her son would leave all he knew, and her own heart was too wavering. Ashok knew no such uncertainty. There was now a point to sharing his memories: the boy needed to be inspired, and through him his mother. During dinner he described going to the roof of Shivalik House at night, staying there till dawn without a teacher knowing. He spoke of stealing lichis from the trees in the compound given out on hire, how they distracted the old guard, threw stones to bring down the fruit, that though still unripe had all the sweetness of the forbidden. He spoke of their mid-term mountain expeditions, the most fun in the upper classes, when they arranged the trek by themselves, and knew the unfettered companionship of being alone with friends.
Once as a boy he wrote up the mandatory logbook – sights seen, money spent, halting points, etc. – all twenty-four hours and then had taken the train home to Jullunder for the remaining four days! Another made up the whole log but was caught – foolishly he had described flaming rhododendrons when the season was over. PP house got many demerit points as a result.
Mother and son giggled. Arjun's after-inner thoughts were full of what he heard – could he ever talk like this abut VV? He liked it, but once he left, he left. Even his father had never shared school stories with him.
Meanwhile in a tiny part of her heart Shagun fantasised about the day when Ashok would share similar anecdotes with Roo, show a similar interest in her schooling and her future. She could see he found it difficult to relate to such a small girl. When Roo was there, Ashok at best bestowed an absent-minded caress, at worst ignored her completely.
When she tried to get him involved, he looked uncomprehending. Once he laughed and said, give me time CUSTODY– I'm not an instant father, you know.
But you were an instant lover.
Look who I had to love.
He reached out to touch her, and the children slipped from both their minds.

February 16th.
The day for arguments. Raman was so nervous that he was spending a lot of time was the bathroom. He will meet his son after months, in a court, with the devil woman by his side. Nandan had cautioned him not to expect too much – and he did not expect too much, he really didn't.
'Remember you must focus on the larger issue,' said Nandan.
'What is the larger issue? All I want is to see my children. It's seven months, do you realise, seven months?' His voice broke.
Nandan wished for the millionth time that family obligations did not extend to the legal sphere. But they did, and he carried on his shoulders the burden of Raman's anguish, along with the knowledge of a system that was not going to provide any relief soon. 'With the removal-from-jurisdiction application, the judge will most probably, 99 per cent, resolve the visitation rights as well,' he now said. 'They won't be able to delay, so good for us.'
As Raman remained unresponsive, Nandan tried to buck him up by pointing out the many silver linings in this particular cloud. No matter what the decision, he would be better off than before.

'You remember all I have told you?' Shagun asked on the way to Tees Hazari.
Arjun nodded, though in fact it was humanly impossible to retain everything she had said over the past two weeks.
Now she did a recap. He had to tell the judge he hated VV, she had a letter from school to prove that he hadn't been attending for months. His uncle Nandan, who was his father's lawyer, might try and suggest he was being kept home by force. All he had to do was tell the truth.
His father might want to speak to him, but he must only do what he felt like, OK, beta?
Above all, no information about their private life. Nothing about Uncle. Officially they stayed with Naani in Alaknanda. The court did not understand that people could change, no, they had to go on living with the same person till they died. They had the power to take away her children, put her in jail. This was a very hypocritical country- narrow-minded and censorious.
The judge would probably ask him who he wanted to live with. In this unfair system, fathers had greater rights over male children so he had to say very, very clearly he wanted to live with his mother, and even then they would consider, though it was so obvious that he was part of her, he looked like her, everybody said so.
She reached for his hand and held it, driving somewhat dangerously as a result, but Arjun's hand in hers was more important than safety considerations.
In the parking lot, just before they got down, she slipped a black thread with a little Om medallion around Arjun's neck and tucked it into his shirt. 'To protect you,' she murmured. He hoped what ever it was they had come for would soon be over.
Once inside the lower courts, mother and son picked their way through hawkers, lawyers and their assistants, public notary wallahs, litigants and associated family. Madan Singh's junior was waiting for them inside the main entrance.
'Is everybody here?' asked Shagun significantly. The assistant nodded. He wore grey and black stripped pants, a black coat, and a high-collared white shirt. His glasses straddled a thick and shiny nose.
On the way to the court of Additional District Judge Mathur, led them across corridors, up flights of paan-stained staircases, to lobby with benches against the wall. For a nanosecond Arjun did not recognise the man standing on one side at the head of the stairs looking at him, smiling, stepping forward. His mother's grip tightened. He panicked, then his hand was jerked and he knew what to do, look down and quicken his step. Anyway he didn't really want to see his father, it unleashed more emotions than he knew what to do with.
Nandan to Raman as they waited for their turn inside the courtroom: 'Such things happen. Don't take it personally,'

to be continued...

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