'Yes, Miss,' he replied and walked slowly to the playground to join his friends, who would all want to know why he had been singled out. It had to be a reprimand of some sort.
The next morning his legs hurt so, he couldn't get up.
Shagun pleaded: he was her big boy, too big to fuss, too big to stay in bed. See, even Roo was getting ready.
Arjun stubbornly clung to his pains.
'What's the matter with you?' asked Shagun over a breakfast that took place three hours later. He detected the entreaty in her voice, which made her seem the weaker one. This both dismayed and exhilarated him.
'I'm not feeling well.'
She felt his forehead.
After a pause: 'Do you miss your father?'
This question was dragged from her. Arjun was an intelligent child, their situation should have been clear by now. Ashok had offered to talk to him, but she had nervously refused, even though he had assured her that all he wanted was for Arjun to know he had a place in his life. But she hadn't considered her son ready for such information.
'Are we going back?'
'No. I can't go back.'
The boy played with his food. 'Why?'
'Don't be silly, Arjun, you know 'why.'
He didn't really. All his friends had their parents firmly in the background – to be lied to over minor matters like homework, to be avoided over baths, to be coaxed when something was wanted, to be obeyed when it came to tuition, to be pleased by doing well in tests. Nobody consciously thought about them. Now he was the different one.
'I don't want to go to school,' he said suddenly, the problem becoming clear.
'You have to.'
'Why do I have to? You said your feelings had changed towards Papa, well mine have changed about VV.'
'Don't be such a silly-billy.'
He said nothing, continuing to play with his scrambled eggs, now quite cold.
'Eat your food.'
'I am not hungry.'
'All you friends will get ahead of you if you start staying home for no reason. What – ' She paused, the words – will your father say? – dying in her momentarily amnesiac mind. She drew close to Arjun and stroked his hair, hoping to achieve through love what reasoning could not accomplish; he must go for her sake, how was he going to be big and smart if he did not go to school?, etc., etc.
His mother was giving this too much importance. He knew he could not, and this kind of attention made him uncomfortable.'
'Can't I go someplace else?'
'Do you know how difficult admissions are?'
Arjun got up, went to the drawing room and impatiently flicked the remote at the TV. Cartoons he had long outgrown appeared on the screen. Roohi must have been watching this stupid channel last night as she was being fed. Listlessly he gazed as Pingu the penguin led his snowy childhood in some frozen Arctic landscape.
The next morning again Arjun complained of pain.
A doctor's appointment was made.
'It hurts when I walk,' whined the child to Dr. Jain.
'A long time.'
'Did you fall? Injure yourself playing?'
Arjun shook his head. Where was the question of playing? He wanted to shun all those who had known him.
'He doesn't go out much nowadays, Doctor – the work has suddenly increased in class VI. He remains quite long with his books, my boy has become very studious.'
'Exercise is essential. If you fall sick how will that help your studies?' observed the doctor absently as she checked his injection schedule, examined his reflexes, palpitated his abdomen, took his height and weight.
'He is growing,' she remarked.
His mother nodded.
'Beta, wait outside,' continued the doctor.
Arjun limped his way to the waiting room.
'I can't find any physical symptom. Sometimes there is an emotional cause. Is anything troubling him?'
Dr Jain had known the children since their births. She was well acquainted with Raman, and Shagun now felt unequal to the task of explaining which of all the recent changes in their lives might be the one (if any) that was causing her child stress.
'You know how it is with children, Doctor. Somebody might have said something to him – he might be brooding.'
'No problem at school?'
The doctor hid her scepticism. There was something different about both Arjun and his mother, but there was only so much a medical practitioner can do.
'If he does not get better, we shall have to do a series of tests. Meanwhile put him on this course of vitamins and calcium. Make sure he drinks lots of milk, eats dahi, eggs or fish, two katoris of wholegrain dals…'
In these eleven years Shagun knew the list of the doctor's preferred foods by heart. She paid and left.
On their way home, Shagun asked, 'Is something bothering you, beta? The doctor thought you might be upset and that is why you have a slight discomfort in your leg. Mind and body are one, you know.'
'I hate school'
Every time Arjun said anything about school he was exploring territory new to him. School was what drew his mother's attention. That and the pain in his leg.
Arjun couldn't imagine being allowed to linger in his old house, whatever aches he might have had. His sense of the possibilities in his present life took on a different dimension.
When Ashok became aware of the situation he suggested stronger measures. It was unhealthy for the child to get his way in this manner.
And though Shagun was not unwilling, it proved impossible to effect. Arjun refused to get up; if she dragged him off the bed, he refused to brush his teeth, or have a bath, or put on his clothes, or eat his breakfast. Each step was a battle, only given up when it was too late to enter the school gates without a medical certificate.
These morning struggles were accompanied by tears on the part of the mother, while the daughter, looking on cried in sympathy.
Whenever Shagun tried to reason with her son, or coax him into complaint behaviour, he would stubbornly look away. The pain this caused her filtered through to Ashok, forcing him to devote a whole evening to discussing Arjun's problems. At the end of Shagun's long narrative, he looked thoughtful and said poor bugger.
'The boy probably can't stand me – I possess the mother's love, and I am not even the father. His leg is probably paining because he wants your sole attention. I don't blame him. My leg would pain too in such circumstances.'
'Don't say that.'
'Why not? It's probably true.'
'The doctor asked if there were any changes in the family, and I said no. I didn't want her to think –'
Ashok snorted into the dim light. Probably some tight-assed judgemental doctor. What would she know? But there was always boarding school.
Boarding school? Her son? No. Never. Boarding Schools were for children whose parents did not love them.
And then Ashok really started. The child was reflecting his mother's guilt – she had to recognise that. It would probably do him good to be away. The world had no patience with these kinds of imaginary illnesses. He was basically a good kid, the right circumstances would make a man out of him. He himself had had to fight for all he got, including here. Success didn't come just like that – there was a connection between upbringing and achievement.
His own DPA years were the best of his life. He still remembered his school number 7901, marked on all his possessions.
Were he a son of his, he went on, when Shagun interrupted, everything he had said about Arjun weighing on her heart. She understood he could never feel for the boy, it was her fault for leaving the child's father, she would pay for her sins for the rest of her life.
It was their first serious fight, and they were still not talking to each other when Ashok left for Bombay next morning.
Ashok's two-day trip to Bombay produced no change in Arjun's willingness to get up. On his return, and another long talk later, Shagun approached Arjun's bed where he lay, leg hurting, staring at the wall.
'Beta, would you like to go to boarding school?'
'I don't think you are very happy here,' continued his mother, putting her arms around him. 'Ashok Uncle is finding out about the Dehradun Public Academy. He himself went there. It is rated one of the best schools in India. Didn't you say a classmate of yours was studying for the entrance test?'
Arjun turned his head away. She stared at his back, Ashok had said, don't push, just drop the idea in his head, this is not going to work if he doesn't want to go. And leave him alone, don't entertain him, don't mollycoddle him.
Someone else was determining, directing, deciding. It felt strange. But her own method had failed.
She got up and left the room.
Fed up with legal delays, Raman decided to meet his son at school. Driving towards Vivekananda Vidayalaya, he told himself that even a glimpse would satisfy him. His hands tight on the wheel, he thought of the many restless moments spent over Shagun during courtship and marvelled that not one of those could match his present torment.
The turn leading to VV was lined with buses, and Raman had to park on the main road. As he walked the remaining distance, he could see drivers and conductors standing around, waiting for one fifty.
The bell rang and 1,500 white and navy blue-clad children surged through the porch towards the gate. His eyes slid over every emerging boy roughly his son's height, but no Arjun, no Arjun, no Arjun. If he had known some of the boy's friends, he could have enquired about his whereabouts, but all the socialising had been through the mother, and he recognised no one.
The stream thinned, buses began to pull out, conductors banging on the sides.
So – either his son had not come or he had become a car child. How could he find out? How much did the school know about Arjun's new situation? To ask at the office might expose him as the unfortunate offspring of warring parents, and he preferred to wait a bit more before he did that.
He started the car and drove dully back to office, a heavy weight on his heart. Seeing his son was not going to be as simple as a trip to the school gates.
Once home he phoned Mrs Sabharwal. 'Why wasn't Arjun in school today?'
'He was feeling a little unwell, nothing serious. Leg is paining, also headache, body ache,' she improvised valiantly. Raman, hearing the panic in her voice, immediately decided he could no longer trust his mother-in-law. Blood was thicker than water: in any conflict she would be on her daughter's side, no matter the years of caring between them.
'I want to talk to him.'
'He will just call you back.'
'Make sure he does,' said Raman, putting the phone down on Mrs Sabharwal's gentle, unsteady notes.
He waited and waited, but his son did not phone.
The idea of going to a place where no one would know his parents had separated, where he would not have to avoid friends who had once visited him at home, where he would not have to read pity and curiosity in the glances of the people around him, that idea gradually began to seem like a good one to Arjun.
But how could he not live in Delhi? No matter how uncomfortable he was in this unfamiliar house, he was afraid of leaving his mother with that man. When they left their home Shagun had said she would explain everything, but instead of any explanation she behaved as though the shift from Raman Kaushik to Ashok Khanna was as natural as changing clothes.
From time to time she informed her son that he would understand the situation when he grew up. People often said this when they wanted to stop questions, and he did stop his questions. He had no desire to stress his mother, afraid of the few times she had seemed on the verge of tears.
For a moment he envied Roohi, whose interactions with people were so simple. All she had to do was begin to cry and her mother ran to her. 'Darling, what is the matter? Tell Mama, are you hurt?' And darling would cry ten times louder to prove that indeed she was hurt. He hated all this, including himself in the this hatred. His heart felt like lead, and he wished he had never been born.
One week later his mother asked him whether he had thought further of the Dehradun Public Academy. No one would force him, but if that was not an option, he simply had to go to VV, in a wheelchair if necessary.
The boy's face remained inscrutable.
'I do not know why you are behaving so strangely,' continued the desperate mother. 'I cannot tolerate all this unhappiness. Don't you love me? Can't you see I am doing everything for your own good?' Her tears began to fall.
'I didn't say I didn't want to go,' mumbled Arjun.
That it was the right response he could see from her brightening face. 'Once you make up your mind, I don't see why you will not do well in the entrance tests – you always have been successful in exams,' she sniffed, already looking less traumatised.
His mother's pleasure extended into the days after, and Arjun wondered whether it was his grudging 'I didn't say I didn't want to go' that had made the difference in the atmosphere of the house. His leg felt better, it didn't hurt as much when he walked.
When the uncle was in Delhi, his mother and he spent a long time in the drawing room after dinner, both of them drinking. The room smelled of liquor and tobacco. His father hadn't smoked, this man did, and there was the smell of cigarettes everywhere, and his mother didn't object as she used to with guests in their old house.
His own departure began to preoccupy him, and soon not a day passed when he did not visualise a different setting for himself.
to be continued...