Why should she be the one to escape this fate? Let her be punished, never know happiness and be miserable till she die. These thoughts caused him uneasiness. He was not used to thinking viciously about Shagun, it would take a little more practice.
That night she phoned again. 'So what is your decision?'
Once more her call took him by surprise. Clearly the breakup of a marriage operated on a different timescale for each of them. He needed to go through a period of mourning, for her it was a past that had to be forgotten.
Rage filled him.
'Well? She asked.
'The answer is no.'
It was strange how exhilarated this word made him feel. For the first time in the whole sorry matrimonial mess he felt in control. He would not divorce her, what could she do?
She came next day and took away the children.
He was met with the worried faces of his servants, who started justifying, excusing, explaining as soon as they saw him.
'Memsahib came – packed their suitcases – their school bags. What could we do?'
'You could have phoned me,' he snapped, not wanting to see the glee on their stupid faces. Ultimately, it was not their tragedy, their interest was involved but not their feelings. Well, the help was hired, what could you expect?
'It was all so sudden. She had a taxi waiting,' said Ganga.
'I asked her to stay until Sahib came home, but Memsahib said she would get in touch with you later,' explained Ganesh.
The fight was on, and any means was fair. Ever the good woman, his wife was clearly trying to help him see things in perspective. He looked around the empty house. His parents, he would go and see his parents.
'Sahib, where are you going? The children will return, I am sure. God sees everything. He will not let you suffer.'
Should he aid Ganga's cinema-induced dialogue by informing her that he was going to throw himself in the river? He slammed the door on his way out.
'What will he do?' Ganga asked Ganesh, the house to themselves, TV and all.
'How should I know? What about dinner?'
'Better to cook – he may just have gone to the market.'
And they would have huge quantities to themselves should he decide to not eat.
Blindly, Raman drove out of the colony, trying to review his options through a breaking heart. As he made his way to East Delhi the rush-hour traffic on the ITO bridge slowed him down. Inch by inch he edged around aggressive cars, darting, weaving scooters, and chugging asthmatic two-wheelers. The AC collapsed midway across; he switched it off and rolled down the windows. The hot, humid air infused with the exhaust fumes of a million vehicles made his headache worse.
As he approached Vikas Marg, the slight elevation of the bridge allowed him to see the conglomeration of cars, scooters, scooter-rickshaws, buses backed up before the traffic lights, honking, jostling, bad –tempered and trapped. Rayri wallahs and parked vehicles before shop fronts distributed commerce and misery along the road.
The light changed. He estimated at least three more cycles before he was within hailing distance of the crossing. A quarter-hour at least. His fingers travelled to the Sorbitrate in his shirt pocket., In this traffic, death could reach him before an ambulance.
Again the light change and inches gained on the road. What would his parents think? The grief would be his father's, while his mother would feel vindicated.
Another light change. He turned around, at last the line was longer behind than in front.
Light change. He revved the engine, crawled through the crossing, slowly crept up the Shakarpur bridge. Finally, the traffic lights at Mother Dairy, and left onto Society Marg, skirting still more cart sellers, and finally one more left and one more right and there he was a Swarg Nivas.
The gatekeeper recognised him and let him in. It was almost seven – it had taken him an hour and twenty minutes to do a twenty-five-minute stretch. If his parents ever fell ill, he hoped it would not be in rush hour. Mrs Kaushik prayed a lot these days, tottering down to the little temple near the gate, to sit in front of Lord Ram, an ideal husband like her son, who when his people insisted he take another wife in place of the banished Sita, ordered a gold statue in her image, rather than marry again. Of such integrity was her son, of such a sacrificial nature.
Her thoughts grew vague as she moved to her own sacrifices. She would give her life for her child; if only he would rely on her, he would see how some women can love.
Prayers over, she stood at the doorway gazing at the evening's brisk walkers, searching hopefully for Mrs Rajora, or even her sister-in-law, when she saw Raman drive in and park in the visitors' parking lot. He was alone, something had happened to the children, he would not be here otherwise.
'Beta,' she called as he started towards their apartment block.
He didn't hear.
Deaf to his mother's voice, he kept on, his walk strangely jerky. It was the children. Forced into a slow run she caught his arm, too afraid to say anything.
He stared at her for a moment blankly and she looked back, her face pinched in terror. 'She's taken them.'
They fussed over him, listened, advised. The father took immediate charge, while the mother gave Raman hot sweet tea, along with biscuits to dip in it. 'I am going to phone Nandan,' he said. 'Right now he will be in his office in Mayur Vihar.'
'I don't want to meet Nandan,' objected Raman.
'When there is a lawyer in the family, why don't you want to meet him? You would rather go to a stranger and get God knows what advice?'
'I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me.'
'Beta, why do you keep such tension in you? His will be a professional opinion, what is the use of our suggestions? He won't tell anybody, he is a very good boy.'
'But why Nandan?' went on Raman, in a monotone, as he watched his father bending over the telephone, his neat grey hair shining with pomade.
'Han beta,' said the father, 'Raman is here. You know, the situation has suddenly worsened, and we were thinking...'
A silence as his father's thinking was interrupted. 'All right, we will be there. Thank you, beta, thank you very much.'
'What does he say?' asked Raman, already feeling a little hopeful as he saw his problem winging their way to Nandan's office in the Mayur Vihar Phase II market.
'He said he will see us at once – as family we shouldn't even have to ask. Now come.'
'I just hope he won't gossip. I don't want the whole building talking of this.'
'Why will he gossip? He hears such stories all the time. And he is like your brother – you can trust his guidance. Otherwise, which lawyer cares for their clients? They are all out to make money.'
'Is Nandan good?' asked Raman on the way down. 'If I go to him I want results.'
'Arre beta, he is famous for his results. With his reputation he could move to South Delhi to a much bigger office, but he wants to stay where his parents are.'
'And you think I should have done the same thing?'
'Nobody thinks anything, all right? Go to a fancy lawyer if you feel Nandan cannot help you, but at least meet him once.'
They drove the short distance to Mayur Vihar, Phase II, Pocket I.
'Now your brother will know all the details of everything,' remarked Raman again, his unhealthy obsession with keeping things secret striking his father as a reflection of his son's extreme sensitivity.
'Beta, when you had your heart attack, they obviously figured out something was wrong.'
'You told them about my marriage?'
'Arre, when they came to visit you, they themselves asked where is Shagun? How is she coping? It was very difficult to keep silent. Especially for your mother. Your friends know, don't they?'
They parked in a side lane and walked the rest of the way, stopping before a board that said 'Nandan Kishore Kaushik, LLB'. Inside, the room was divided by a small screen partition: an office, and a waiting room with chairs lined against the wall and a coffee table with magazines.
As relatives, they got almost immediate access. Nandan stuck his prematurely balding dyed head out and said, to a couple waiting patiently, 'Just two minutes please, these people have an emergency.' Nobody believed him. A lawyer could never take only two minutes, their profession forbade it, and as for emergencies, nobody who did not feel their case was urgent would be found there.
In the office there was a cooler standing in the corner, water trickling down its khus-lined metal sides. Against the wall behind the desk was a ceiling-high bookcase, lined with thick red legal volumes.
'Beta, you know Raman has been going through a bad patch. We thought things would settle down, but they haven't,' began Mr Kaushik.
'Ji, Uncle,' said Nandan, fixing his mild neutral gaze on the pair.
The father looked at his son, but his son was staring at the trouser cuff of his waggling foot. He sighed and related the story.
'I care about nothing but my children,' said Raman at the end of it.
Mr Kaushik threw a significant glance at his nephew. See what kind of man he is, help him, it is your duty as a relative and lawyer.
Nandan ignored the look. The law was a cut-and-dried business, once you got swamped in outrage, indignation, grief and anger, you went nowhere. His clients' minds had to turn to the practical, whether they were inclined or not.
'Now, what is it that you want from me?'
'I want Roohi and Arjun back.'
'We will have to file a custody case.'
'She has kidnapped them.'
'Not legally. It is true you are the natural guardian, but so is she. And normally the mother is given custody of girls till the age of eight, and boys till the age of five.'
'He is eleven.'
'I know – so you have a good chance with him. But with Roohi it is more difficult. Ninety-nine percent of the time girls go to their mothers.'
'Even if their mother is of doubtful character?'
'That has to be proved. Of course we will say her morals are weak. You have any proof, letters for example?'
'I have pictures,' said Raman briefly.
Nandan looked approving. Mr Kaushik studied the law tomes.
'Is his face clearly visible?'
'Visible enough, and in the company of the man she is now living with.'
'We will file them in court and use them later.'
'But how long will that take? I want my children back now.'
'As soon as we file for custody we will also put in an interim application to grant us access. Then we will see.'
'So how long?'
'I have to prepare the case first. Only after that can we move an interim application.'
'Asap, of course. We need as much evidence as you have, diaries, letters, witnesses, that will prove she is an unfit mother exposing the children to nefarious influences. You know, make it as strong as possible.'
On the way back Raman negotiated his car slowly through the traffic while the small figure of his father sat next to him looking worried . 'One way or another we will have to go to court,' he remarked heavily.
'I am sorry you have to be dragged through all this muck.'
'Arre beta, don't worry about me. You just don't get worked up – that'll be very bad for your health.'
'I am not getting worked up – I only want to see my children.'
'And you will see them. God will not allow a father and his children to be separated.'
Raman gave a dry, mirthless laugh. 'Leave God out of it. He doesn't seem to be on my side lately.'
This was so undeniable that the father kept quiet.
Once back in Swarg Nivas father and mother packed a few things and left with their son. On no account would they let him spend the night alone. Raman did not protest. The thought of his empty house was dreadful to him.
Over the next few days Raman visited Nandan every evening, forced to think of his life in terms of accusation and evidence as his cousin drafted his petition. The whole process was disgusting.
'Why do I have to say all this? Half of it is not even true,' he said from time to time.
'Do you want your children or not? Courts are naturally sympathetic to women when it comes to matrimonial disputes. We have to put forward as strong an argument as possible.'
It was not hard to do. Shagun had been a faithless wife. This fact was embroidered and extended to cover the whole period of their marriage.
The plaintiff's job meant he spent many days on tour, that was the time the respondent indulged in licentious activities, even in the presence of her minor children. Photographs taken by the Lovely Detective Agency were enclosed to prove just one instance.
The plaintiff's callous behaviour. The plaintiff was a loving father, the respondent an indifferent mother, who abandoned the marital home to pursue her affairs, kidnapping the children only when a divorce was not immediately agreed to.
Even though the female minor was of tender years, living with the respondent would expose her to harmful moral influences.
The plaintiff prayed that he be granted custody of his children and in the interim be given visitation rights.
At the end of it all, Raman recognised neither himself nor Shagun. His love for his wife was lost in a maze of lies that infected even him. To mourn for a woman whose life could be constructed in this way was to reveal all the hidden ugliness beneath the beautiful exterior.
'What do you do when there is no infidelity involved?' he asked Nandan curiously.
'There is always something. Otherwise why would people divorce?'
'Alcohol, abuse, violence, exploitation, public humiliation – though that comes in more useful when the wife is filing for divorce. Husband having an affair with other women is not seen as so bad – in theory, yes, but not in practice.
But then the judge will know that much is made up.'
Nandan smiled his cigarette-stained smile. 'Made up – yes, the judge often knows that. But there is some truth in everything we say. And usually in the end the correct decision is taken. You will see.'
'In my case? You keep saying they favour the woman.'
'But we have witnesses – we will call the servants, we have the pictures – they can be used to intimidate the other party. We can use your parents to testify to what a good father you are. We can even call her mother; of course she will try and protect her daughter, but she will probably break under cross-examination.'
to be continued...