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He took her hand and squeezed it.
Let him say what he wants, she thought, but it had been her love for his child that had set her apart from other women.
Next evening, Ishita said to Raman:
'The teachers were delighted to see me. Turns out they did know about the marriage break-up.'
'How come? I never told them.'
'But she did.'
'She did, huh?'
'Anyway, they said children are getting ready for big-school interviews, and they were wondering what are our plans for Roo.'
Raman looked down. Shagun had taken care of all the school formalities for Arjun.
Ishita stared at his guilty face. He was the girl's father, it was his duty to make sure things got down on CUSTODYtime. What would have happened had she not intervened?

It was November. Raman and Ishita were both concerned about the children. Shagun had announced that she expected both Roohi and Arjun to be dropped at Alaknanda on January 1st. Surely Raman would not let Roohi go, she was too young to handle change. Earlier, it was different, but now with two loving parents there was no need for her to be sent anywhere.
She brought this up tentatively one night. They were sitting on their first-floor balcony on cane chairs.
'I don't know if I have a choice.' said Raman. 'It's only for a few weeks. She has probably come to be with the kids.'
'What about her interviews for the school?'
'But we don't know when she will get an interview call.'
Ishita went on, 'Not to mention the confusion in her mind. You know they ask all kinds of questions. How on earth do you expect her to say anything in this situation? Can we afford to play with her future like this?'
'We may not have a choice.'
'Of course we have a choice. We don't have to send her.'
'Ishu, just remember, we don't have complete control over her. Her mother does have visitation rights, and even if by some miracle we manage to have her not go these holidays, there will be others.'
'Let's cross those bridges when we come to them. I am worried about now.'
'I am just trying to warn you. We may not be able to control everything.'
'What are you trying to say?'
'I don't want your heart broken like mine was.'
'It won't, don't worry.'
Raman remained silent.
'If you need a medical certificate, we can get it made.'
Medical certificate. That was what Shagun had used to wear him down when she stopped sending Roohi for the weekends. It would serve her right.
'What illness?'
'Measles? Chickenpox?'
They sat wondering, but in the end decided that school admission was something that any court would understand, no need to go in for overkill with an illness. Nobody would believe it.
Issue number two.
'You will meet Arjun,' said Raman.
That was undeniable, but she was apprehensive.
'I hope he doesn't hate me,' she managed.
'His reaction is natural.'
'I understand.'
'Things will sort themselves out.'
'Children have to be guided. If we left everything to fate, then nobody would do anything about anything.'
'Everything will be fine. It is the first time he will be seeing another woman in his mother's place.'
'He must be used to such things. After all, he has been seeing another man in his father's place for a while now.'
Raman remained silent. In the darkness, Ishita could not see his face clearly.
'He is very young. We have to be patient. You are so good with children, you will know how to handle CUSTODYhim,' he now said.
Ishita clung to these soothing words.

XXVIII
November 30th.

'Would you like us to come with you to fetch him?' asked Ishita the night before.
It was obvious she wanted Arjun to feel welcome, but perhaps it would be better to go alone. It would be the first time he would be meeting Ishita, he could mentally prepare him in the car.
He looked at his wife. Earnestness, sincerity, hope, tension and anxiety, he could see all these emotions in her eyes.

As he stood around the Nehru Stadium's parking lot, he went over his prepared speech.
Up and down he paced the parking lot, avoiding the groups of waiting people, clearly known to each other. He himself knew no one.
The buses began to come.
Arjun appeared. It took time for easiness to flow between them, so it was a little awkwardly that Raman started in the car, 'Beta, I wrote to you about my marriage. Auntie is very keen to meet you. You will give her a chance, no?'
The boy grunted.
'She has made delicious brownies for you. I told her you don't like nuts in them.'
'Why isn't Roohi coming with me to Mama's?'
'I told you, beta, she has to go to a school next year. This is the time of entrance tests and interviews. Each school gives a different date, and the process continues till January. Maybe you don't remember, but we had to do the same for you.'
Arjun stared sullenly out of the window. This was not the homecoming Raman had imagined. He only had four weeks with the boy. 'Anyway, this is not really your problem.'
'Mama said to make sure she comes.'
'Mama must have forgotten about school admissions. You had better remind her.'
They were getting closer to home. At the sound of the horn, Ishita looked out of the window. The chowkidar unlatched the gate, and the car got into the little driveway.
Ishita hurried to open the door. Roohi followed, skipping. Raman took the boy's bag and said, 'Beta, this is Ishita Auntie.'
Ishita stepped towards him, smiling, 'How was your trip?' she asked.
Arjun didn't respond.
'Well, beta?' said the father.
'Fine,' he reluctantly replied.
'Would you like something to eat? I have made lunch for you.'
'No thanks.'
'Eat something, you must be hungry.' added Raman.
'We ate on the way.'
'Are you sure?'
He shook his head, went to his room and shut the door.
Raman squeezed Ishita's hand. 'Give him time.'
'He is very handsome,' she responded carefully.
'Takes after his mother.'
'I gathered that.'
Raman looked at her. 'Are you OK?'
'Of course. Now let's hope he eats dinner. It's chicken tikka.'
'How long can he not eat? He is bound to feel hungry.'

Next day, Roohi stood next to her brother's bed, and poked him. 'Bhaiyya, get up, get up. Look what I made for you.'
It was a greeting card. "Welcome Home, Bhaiyya.", was written on it and three figures were drawn. A father, mother and a sister.
The boy opened one eye and took the paper.
'Who's that?' he jabbed a finger at the female standing in the middle.
Roohi fell silent.
'Huh – who's that?'
Still she said nothing.
'Looks like Auntie,' he said.
'Yes,' she replied.
'Who?'
She giggled. 'Auntie.'
'Clever girl.'
That pleased Roohi. 'Play with me Bhaiyya, I have got some new games.'
He opened his quilt. 'Come.'
She dived into the warmth and wriggled close to her brother. They lay there, neither saying anything.
Raman could hear Ishita in the kitchen. He made his way to the children's room, and the two heads together filled him with the strong sentiments parents experience at such a sight. Hope for the future, bonding that goes beyond the parents and a connection that no divorce can sever. Raman went to fetch his camera, this scene needed to be captured to buoy him up in his bad times.
'What are you doing?' asked Ishita, coming to announce breakfast. Yesterday was bad, but she would leave no stone unturned to make today better. She had especially made aloo-puri, the boy might CUSTODYappreciate that after months of hostel food.
'See how sweet they look.'
'Who?'
'Arjun and Roohi. Just take a look – they are lying in bed together, I am going to take a picture.'

'Do you remember Mama?'
She nodded.
'Not the auntie living with you in this house. Mama in America.'
Again she nodded.
'She loves you very much. Now don't you forget that. She is your real mother, no matter what anyone says. All right?'
Roohi lay still.
'You saw her six moths ago. Remember the big lake? Remember the cabin next to it? And the canoe which you were too scared to get into? Remember?' he repeated impatiently. He must have the dumbest sister in the world.
She nodded.
Arjun drew a long breath.
Roohi got up.
'Where are you going?'
'For su-su.'
'Come back then.'
She ran out of the room as her father was coming. 'Where are you going, beta? Come, let's take a photo of you and Bhaiyya together.'
'Su-su.'
'Come back quickly.'
'Roohi!' Ishita followed her.
'It must be nice, no, seeing Arjun after all this time?'
Roohi nodded. The safest thing to do in practically all circumstances was to nod.
'Is anything wrong?'
She shook her head.
'What was Arjun telling you?'
'Nothing.'
'Are you sure?'
Roohi had not yet learned to lie. 'I love you, my precious. You are the best thing that has happened to me. Now you will remember that, won't you?' Ishita said.
The head under her chin bobbed.
'Doesn't matter who was here before me. We are fated to be mother and daughter, you and I.'
'OK.'
'I am the person who looks after you, sees to your food, makes sure you do your homework, buys you pretty things, who will never leave you, no matter what.'
The child pushed her head further into Ishita's chest.
'Let's go and tell Arjun that, shall we? Perhaps he doesn't know there are two kinds of mothers. The ones who give birth to babies, and then forget about them, and the other ones who look after the babies for the rest of their lives.'

In the bedroom, Raman was sitting on Arjun's bed, his hand on the boy's back, occasionally reaching out to stroke his hair. 'I have missed you so much, beta. You have no idea.'
The boy smiled absently.
'I keep wondering how you are. You hardly write to me, and then when you do, you write such brief letters.'
'There is nothing to tell.'
'Still, I worry about you. As it is there is hardly any contact between us.'
'I'm all right.'
Raman looked at Arjun, saw his ex-wife's face, thought of the measly four weeks he was going to have with his son before he departed. Whatever it was, he was destined to always feel pain.
What was taking Roohi so long?
The child came. Ishita stood by, while Raman fussed with the camera and finally took the picture.
At the breakfast table, Raman sees how carefully Ishita piles Arjun's plate with puri, pickle and potato, how she asks him what his favourite foods are so that she can cook them.
'You eat, enough feeding of us all,' he tells her.
Towards the end, when all is done, she thinks carefully before she says, 'Beta, I am like Roohi's mother. I hope to be your mother too, at least your mother in this house.'
'We can discuss all that later, Ish,' said Raman.
'Of course we can. Only I thought best to get things clear in the beginning. After all, Roohi has to live here with us – she shouldn't feel confused.'
Arjun glared at his sister, who was making potato gravy dots around her plate.
'Don't play with your food, beta,' said Ishita. Roohi paid no attention. Ordinarily, Ishita would have let this go, but this moment was not ordinary. Raman was not backing her claims as he should.
'Beta,' she repeated, 'Don't play with your food.'
'Let her be,' said Raman.
Ishita rose, gathered the plates that normally the maid gathered, and let her husband knew through her thin, tightened lips, that things were going to go badly unless he did something. He got up to follow her.
'Arjun is just a child. It's difficult for him too, you have to remember that.'
Yes, he was just a child. And her husband was just his father, unable to see that children too might have scheming minds. Her face grew tight. 'At least remember how hard I am trying to make this work. And I won't have him disturbing Roo.'
Raman clicked his tongue in exasperation. 'Don't you go behaving irrationally now. I have my hands full as it is.' It was the harshest thing he had ever said to her.
'I'm sorry,' she said quickly.
He put his arm around her shoulders. 'Give it time. Not even one day has passed.'
'You might have to say something to him. It must be hard on him to see me in his mother's place, but he has to understand that this situation is not of your making. He must see that we are together in this.'
'If necessary, I will. Trust me, can you?'

A few days later, Raman decided to take Arjun to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Ishita thought it was a wonderful idea, father and son needed to be alone together, she said looking at him lovingly, and he thought what a good girl Ishita was, if anything it was his fault that she was in such an impossible situation.
Raman wanted no harsh note to disturb his interaction with Arjun. He booked a package of two nights, three days in the Maurya Sheraton. He was sure that the child had stayed in some pretty fancy places with Shagun and Ashok. Well, he could give him fancy as well.
For three days, father and son bonded, away from all the distractions. Arjun was now more willing to talk about the things he did at Shivalik House, the tricks they played on the teachers, the house matches, the six-or-seven-kilometer trek they had taken over Diwali weekend. Raman was careful not to ask many questions, he found that irritated his son.
Arjun clearly loved being in Agra. 'Do we have to go home?' he asked, on the evening of the third day, but yes, they had to go.
'Your sister will be very disappointed. She has been so looking forward to her elder brother's visit. When is he coming? She used to ask me all the time. And you are with me only for four weeks, after all.'
Arjun had nothing to say to any of this.

to be continued...

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