A woman with such looks might use her face to progress in her life. If she had possessed amazing beauty, she didn't think SK would have been so keen to leave her. It all boiled down to one's physical attributes.
'You can share divorce stories with auntie now,' she said.
'I never share your story with anyone.'
'Well, you should. What happened to me is nothing to be ashamed of.'
'People are very narrow-minded. They don't understand how misfortune can come.'
'Explain it then. Tell them I am barren.'
'I came to give you some good news, and you talk like this about yourself. It hurts me.'
'But why do you consider this good news? Do you imagine we should get married?'
'It's just news. Can't I share it?'
'Not if you have something else in mind.'
'Why are you always so negative?'
'Because I know you always think of one thing,'
'We know him, he is a neighbour and he belongs from a decent family. Perhaps – '
'Mummy! When has any proposal ever worked? Don't you get tired?'
Ishita got up to suffer in her bedroom. Would the search for a husband continue into the adoption process and after? Her father's attitude was infinitely preferable, whatever has to happen will happen.
Meanwhile, Mr Rajora discovered his wife in the veranda, shivering slightly in the chilly evening. He sighed. It had to be Ishita.
'What is it?' he asked.
'You know what it is.'
'Leave her alone. She will find her own way.'
She gave him the news of Raman Kaushik's divorce.
So this was the information that had sent Ishita flouncing into her room, while the mother sat sadly looking at the winking Diwali lights.
'Can we have a little halwa-puri now?' he asked longingly after a while. His wife hurried into the kitchen.
Twenty minutes later Ishita, chomping on her mother's crisp puris, could bring herself to mumble, 'Sorry, Mummy, I shouldn't have shouted at you. I know you worry about me, but please don't.'
Even if Ishita refused to take the news of Raman's divorce in the proper spirit, it continued to be a source of great consolation to Mrs Rajora. Shame and humiliation would touch the Kaushiks; the Rajoras could count on the companionship of similar miseries. Mrs Kaushik was relieved to find someone at her doorstop who understood her situation. With renewed intensity they rehashed their children's histories.
'The boy is too idealistic. We said, why give a divorce? You have not turned her away, but he didn't listen.'
'My girl was like that also. Arre, she was such a good wife. But the man lost interest, and she refused to stay where she was not wanted.
'To top it off, that boy is now married with two sons, while my daughter refuses to look at a man.'
'Has she started her studies yet?'
'Still applying,' said Mrs Rajora, suppressing all information about prospective adoption.
Mrs Kaushik looked thoughtful. She hadn't seen Ishita in a long time, why didn't Mrs Rajora bring her over? She will invite Raman as well.
'She is too shy. When you are divorced, people talk.'
'These days people get divorced, it's not a big deal anymore.'
'I know, but she doesn't listen to me.'
'Tell her Auntie is calling her. This Sunday.'
That Sunday Mrs Rajora told her daughter about the invitation. If she didn't accept, Mrs Kaushik would personally come and get her.
Ishita took exception to this. 'What? Why?'
'Auntie is really concerned about you and she wants you to meet Raman also.'
Ishita remained quiet. Her mother only wished her to marry so that she could have an old-age companion. Suppose they had dissimilar values? All the intervening years would be hell.
'At least go and meet the boy. He is suffering. Auntie is so afraid he will die of another heart attack and then his ex-wife will get everything.'
'So you see there is nothing common between me and him,' retorted her daughter.
'Of course there isn't. But if you could just buck him up,' pleaded Mrs Rajora.
Come Sunday, Ishita lounged around the house in her rumpled clothes all lunchtime and all afternoon. Then it was evening, and the child had still not had a bath, was she going to go to Mrs Kaushik's in her nightclothes? It was almost five o'clock and time to leave when Ishita disappeared into the bathroom to emerge ten minutes later with defiant wet hair, dressed in a plain black shalwar kameez, with a red and black mirror-work shawl thrown over her shoulder. She looked half her age.
'Come,' said the mother, her own silk sari rustling along the corridor towards the elevator.
As they made their way to the fifth floor, Mrs Rajora was grateful for Ishita's comparatively thoughtful demeanour.
'Yes?' asked the man as he opened the door.
Mrs Kaushik bustled into view, allowing Mrs Rajora to seem less monumental. 'Come, come. Beta, you remember Ishita and Auntie?'
Mother and daughter were herded into the drawing room, where a small girl was watching TV.
'Hello, baby,' said Ishita.
'Roo, say namaste,' admonished Raman.
The girl clung to her father and looked down.
'Never mind, let it be,' said Ishita. 'Children don't really like to perform.'
Raman looked at her. 'Do you also have kids?'
Mrs Rajora began to feel annoyed. Leela might have done a little preparatory explaining. 'She works in an NGO for slum children,' she offered.
Raman then had to ask about her NGO. It was nice to hear of people doing such good work.
Mrs Rajora meanwhile disappeared into the kitchen to help with the tea.
Ishita sat next to the girl. 'Do you know what this is?' making her hands into a fish.
Roohi simply stared.
'She is shy,' offered the father.
Ishita looked around for inspiration. She could feel Raman observing her and that made her nervous.
'You know I teach in a school for poor children? And when they come for the first time, often they don't say anything. Not for days and days. They are scared also. Do you know why?'
The child slowly shook her head.
'They come from poor homes and they work in their villages. Then you know what we do? We show them how to make birds and fishes like I just showed you. They sometimes don't know what they are. Do you?' Again Ishita made her hands into a fish.
'Very good. And this?'
'I don't know. What?'
'A dog about to eat you up.' Ishita snapped her fingers over Roohi's nose. Roohi giggled. 'Now I am going to draw that dog so he can eat you up better.'
'No, not eat me up.'
'OK – it will eat me up – and then, let's see, what will I do?'
'I'll just show you.'
Raman handed her a sheet of paper and a pen from his shirt pocket. Ishita sketched a figure, dupatta flapping, lost chappal, climbing up a tree, with a dog barking beneath.
'Should I teach you? Or do you want to show me what you can do?'
A small hand was put out. Raman stared at his daughter's inept squiggles and fresh anger towards Shagun overcame him. He was dependent on strangers for a motherly touch – that was what she had reduced them to.
Roohi sat on Ishita's lap and drank her milk to the telling of a long and complicated tale. Then Ishita took her up the elevator to show her where she lived.
Raman came to pick her up. 'Beta, thank Auntie,' instructed the father.
'Oh don't bother, she's just a child,' said Ishita.
'She has to learn her manners. Beta, thank Auntie, otherwise Auntie will not take you to her house again.'
'Thank you,' mumbled the girl into her father's shoulder.
And half asleep, she was taken away.
The person Ishita had felt most sorry for was the little girl. She could still feel the childish fingers laced through her own.
Next time Raman visited his mother he asked, 'Why did she get divorced?'
'Arre, why do people get divorced these days? Shanti – her mother – was upset for so long. Apparently they were crude business types who found someone else with more dowry. Then they divorced her just like that. Ruined her life.'
'Doesn't sound quite right to me.'
'Well, you never know who is lying and who is not.'
'Why didn't she have children?'
'There was some trouble,' said Mrs Kaushik cautiously. 'I sent them to my astrologer. Things happened so quickly, I don't know….' Her voice trailed off.
No matter what, thought Raman in a rush of emotion, at least he had his children, no one could take them away from him. This girl – woman – had nothing.
'So what do you think of Ishita?' his mother asked.
'What should I think?'
'Roohi liked her.'
'Roohi likes everybody. She is an affectionate child,' said Raman mournfully.
'I thought she was very good with her. She works with children, you know.'
'She seemed very ordinary, and Mummy you can stop thinking whatever it is you are thinking. I have just done with one marriage, don't try and push me into another. I intend to devote my life to my children.'
'Of course, beta, of course. Nobody is denying the importance of children but it is hard to be alone. A home needs a woman.'
'This home will have to do without one.'
Meanwhile Mrs Rajora was busy praying to her gods. She wanted to be first in line for any match that came for Raman. But she did not want to seem too pushy either.
'A man with two children, just divorced, it is not as though he is such a big catch,' said Ishita's father. 'They should be the ones asking us.'
'On what planet are you living? What kind of catch is your daughter?' The reality of the world was that all men were catches and only some women. That made the marriageable male-female ratio fragile, and the mother of a daughter constantly watchful.'
'I am not going to agree to a match in which she will not be happy. We have had enough of that.'
Mrs Rajora let him talk. It was all nonsense what he was saying. Let the match first materialise, then they could worry about the happiness.
It was just as well she had retired, she could drop in on Mrs Kaushik more often. It was time to be more social in the building and participate in kitty parties.
After Raman's divorce, Mrs Kaushik's wish was to find a simple, home-loving girl to heal the wounds in her son's life.
'I don't know why you encourage her to keep coming here,' Mr Kaushik said, 'We are hardly in a position to matchmake. Raman is an adult, he can choose his own wife.'
'Right. You want to wait until another girl puts his claws into him, another faithless woman, who will charm you along with everyone else.'
'When will you learn to stop talking?' asked Mr Kaushik angrily.
Mrs Kaushik looked weepy; she couldn't bear it when her husband was harsh with her. In disgust Mr Kaushik got up, saying he had to buy milk and vegetables. There was always something to get in times of crisis.
Mr Kaushik moodily loaded potatoes and onions into his basket at the Mother Dairy kiosk. He added a bunch of spinach, then half a kilo of tomatoes. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ishita get down from a scooter. She hauled out a plastic packet from her large cloth shoulder bag and began purposefully poking at the apples.
'Hello, beti,' he said, approaching her.
Ishita looked up, allowing Mr Kaushik to regretfully survey her features. She had a wheatish complexion, a few scattered pimples, unremarkable black hair pulled into a bun low on her heck, eyes that were large enough, height average five feet three inches. Her strongest points were her white even teeth and unselfconscious smile.
'How are you, Uncle?' she said.
'I am buying vegetables,' said Mr Kaushik.
'And I am buying apples. Papa is not allowed much sugar, but he is like a child, he has to eat sweets, no matter what the doctor says. That is why I make fruit bakes with just a little honey for dessert.' She smiled indulgently.
Dimly he remembered, how much trouble there had been in this girl's personal life. Well, he could no longer be judgemental about divorce.
In December that year a cyclone hit the eastern coast of India.
The media was full of stories of starving villagers, of flooded homes, of cholera in camps, of the irreparable damage done to the soil by sea water.
Ishita spoke to Raman. One truck had already gone, but people were still eager to donate. Did he have anything for the next truck leaving in a few days?
Indeed he had. He went home, opened cupboards he had not opened for months, looked at items he would rather not have seen. He gave and gave and gave.
'I hope you can make use of these things,' he said to Ishita.
'But this is really very generous, very generous indeed,' said Ishita, confronted with eight huge bags parked near her door. 'Why don't you drop them off at the collection place outside the society office?'
Raman's voice dropped, 'I am not sure if all of it is suitable.'
She had to ask what did he mean?
Go through them and see for yourself.
For the next hour Ishita took out random items and gazed at them nonplussed. She called her mother to help sift through the jeans, the saris and the shalwar kameezes.
'Mummy, please can you sort these? I don't want to go through them.'
And so the job passed to the mother.
Who separated, organised and bundled and gave the clothes to the collection centre.
Meanwhile the woman whose belongings were being distributed among the poor of India was at that moment sitting in New York at her husband's desk.
Central Park lay before her, she could see the bare branches of various trees swaying briskly beneath a grey sky.
The double-glazed windows kept the faint noise of the traffic out, and in the silence she could hear the water sloshing around in the dishwasher, a nice homely sound. She looked around her: would her mother be happy here? Certainly for a while. She would take her to the shopping centre and the restaurants. There was so much going on, only a moron would get bored in New York.
Take herself. She had already acquired a social circle, friends of Ashok and further on friends of friends. The wives were helpful in showing her around. Trust Ashok to give her the best of two worlds.
She picked up her pen and began.
to be continued...