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“A woman has to work harder than a man in the same job to prove her worth. Having a career doesn’t make me a bad wife and mother.”
Shalini felt out of place even before setting a foot inside the district court where her divorce proceeding was scheduled to be heard. Board rooms, hotels, convention centres and offices were familiar territory for her. A courtroom was a new experience.
‘How has it come to this?’ she thought, looking for familiar faces.
Her glance fell on Anirudh before her lawyer waved at her. She walked towards the front row of seats at the fore of the magistrate’s bench. She nodded to her lawyer but walked past him to the other side of the aisle, pausing beside her husband and son.
“Mummy,” the ten-year-old boy called out and hugged her.
“Everything ok, young man?” Shalini asked, patting her son’s head.
“Everything is fine, Mummy. Dad and I play video games every day now,” he replied. Shalini felt a tad disappointed. What had she expected? After all, her family was used to a life without her.
“Why are you letting Saksham play video games every day, Anirudh?” she turned to her husband.
“Because I can’t say no to him. Because I like seeing the delight on his face when he plays the games. Because I don’t know how else to engage him in these circumstances,” her husband replied.
An awkward silence followed before Anirudh asked, “How are you?”
“I am ok.”
“You must be. Now you have all the time in the world to work.”
Shalini didn’t reply. Instead, she walked to the other side of the aisle to sit next to her lawyer.
Financial independence is very important. I don’t earn, and hence am dependent on your father for making the smallest of purchases. Make sure you don’t have to ask for money from anyone in your life.
Shalini remembered her mother’s advice when she was ten years old. Money. Independence. Career. She had grown up listening to their significance in one’s life.
“All rise,” the bailiff’s voice boomed in the sparsely populated room. Shalini looked on as the judge took her place in the chair.
“Case No 302. Anirudh Mehta vs Shalini Mehta,” the bailiff announced.
The judge studied the papers in front of her for some time.
“Mr Anirudh Mehta, Mrs Shalini Mehta,” the judge said, peering down at them. “You both have been staying separately for six months. Would you like to reconsider your decision to divorce?”
Shalini and Anirudh looked at each other.
“No, your honour,” Anirudh spoke first.
“As my husband says,” Shalini said. “There is no point in staying in a marriage when one of the two people is unhappy.”
“And what are the grounds for your unhappiness Mr Mehta?” the judge asked.
“My wife doesn’t have time for her family, Your Honour. From the outset of the marriage, I was subservient to her career aspirations and ambitions. My wife isn’t at home for half the month and in front of her laptop when she is.”
The judge frowned. “Is it wrong to be ambitious if you are a woman? Does a woman not have the right to have career aspirations?” she asked.
“Absolutely not wrong, Your Honour. But a career doesn’t mean that a woman foregoes all family responsibilities, especially as a wife and mother. I was reconciled to playing second fiddle to her career, but I don’t want my son to feel neglected anymore. Despite her promise, she failed to turn up at the Sports Day Meet at Saksham’s school for the umpteenth time. Our son was the only one without having any of his parents in the stands that day. He cried himself to sleep that night because of the merciless teasing of his friends.”
“And where were you on that day, Mr Mehta? You could have turned up for the Sports Meet yourself.”
“He attends most of Saksham’s school events and Parent Teacher’s Meetings. That week he was travelling outstation for a planned office trip. So I was supposed to attend the sports meet.” It was Shalini who answered.
“I see,” the judge said. “And why couldn’t you make it, Mrs Mehta?”
“Because I could not excuse myself from attending an important client meeting scheduled at the last minute. I didn’t know that not attending that school event would be a big deal.”
“That is the issue, Your Honour. Anything about home isn’t a big deal in front of her work. Missed birthday parties, forgotten anniversaries, no time to meet relatives, a child brought up by maids- that has been the story of our marriage. I am tired of making excuses to my son on his mother’s behalf. No more now.”
“I have a more hectic job than you, Anirudh,” Shalini spoke to Anirudh through her tears. “A woman has to work harder than a man in the same job to prove her worth. Having a career doesn’t make me a bad wife and mother.”
“Working on the laptop beside your son when he is down with high fever doesn’t make you a career woman. Not having time to see the card he made for you on your birthday doesn’t make you a good mother. Expecting home to be run on autopilot and your husband’s responsibility to handle pressing matters doesn’t make you a good wife.” Anirudh retorted. “It is the right of a man or woman to have a career. But that doesn’t give either of them the right to neglect their family.”
“Order, order,” the judge shouted, banging her gavel on the table. “This is a court, not your living room.”
Don’t let your husband dictate terms to you. If you agree to him once, you’ll have to agree to him all your life. Let no one treat you as a pushover.
Shalini recalled her mother’s advice on the day of her wedding.
The judge continued, “When men pay too much attention to their careers, expecting their wives to take care of their homes, they are glorified. But when women do the same, they are vilified. Is it fair?”
“No, it isn’t, your honour,” Anirudh replied. “But two wrongs don’t make a right. A woman repeating the mistake of her male counterpart will result in a dysfunctional family and, ultimately, society. Is it too much to ask for both husband and wife to give equal importance to family?”
There was no reply from the bench.
“In any case,” Anirudh continued, “I am not the sort of man who won’t give time to his family. I treat my wife as an equal in every way and expect her to provide some time for our son. I have tried explaining it to her many times, but our views don’t align on this front. That is why we are here today.”
There was a pause before the judge asked, “It seems you both agree to the divorce. But why aren’t you proposing to pay any settlement to your wife, Mr Mehta?”
“I earn more than my husband, Your Honour, and don’t want any settlement,” Shalini quickly said.
The judge looked unhappy but said, “So that leaves only one ground of contention. The custody of your son.”
“Yes. That is the only thing I want from my husband. A child needs his mother growing up,” Shalini said.
“A child needs both parents, Your Honour.” Anirudh interrupted, “But Saksham has practically lived with one parent for most of his childhood. It will be best for Saksham to stay with the parent who gives him the time and attention he deserves. That is me. Giving Saksham’s custody to Shalini just because she is a woman would be unfair when I am divorcing her because she doesn’t have time for Saksham and me. I am not saying that Shalini won’t have any rights over Saksham after the divorce. She can visit him whenever she wants.”
“I love my son,” Shalini said. “I will provide him all the comforts in the world. Only a mother knows what is best for her child. Anirudh can’t take my child away from me.”
“He is my child too, Shalini. Do remember that.”
“Order, order.” The judge barked. “Speak to the bench and not to each other. No shouting matches in the courtroom.”
Shalini gulped a glass of water kept at the table. Anirudh clenched and unclenched his fists.
“It is clear that both of you love your child and are capable of providing him with a good home and decent education. Therefore, it is a question of happiness. Who will the child be happier to stay with?”
“Your Honour,” Anirudh’s lawyer chipped in, “Why don’t we put the question to the child? He is here in the courtroom.”
Shalini was horrified. Why put her son in a spot? She could see that the suggestion had also come as a shock to Anirudh.
Saksham sat straight on his seat, staring at the bench.
Shalini nudged her lawyer. “I object, Your Honour,” the lawyer said. “A minor child can not be the best judge of his welfare. Why put him through all this?”
“And yet, the minor child is in the courtroom today,” the judge said.
“Today was a school holiday, and I didn’t want to leave him alone at home,” Anirudh said. “And I agree with my wife’s lawyer here. My counsel has overstepped. I don’t want my son to be put in a spot.”
“It is your son’s happiness and welfare that we debate, Mr Mehta. He is ten years old and understands everything. Isn’t it fair to ask him what he wants rather than imposing our assumptions on him?”
Anirudh kept quiet.
“Saksham beta,” the judge asked gently, “do you understand what is happening here today?”
Saksham nodded. “Mummy and Papa are going to separate,” he said. “I will not be able to stay with both of them together.”
“Yes,” the judge said. “And before we decide who you stay with, we want to know your view. Who do you want to stay with- your Mummy or Papa?”
Children understand everything, including the value of money. If you cannot spend enough time with your child, shower him with gifts. He will not mind your long absences if that means him getting his favourite toys and things.
Her mother’s advice when Saksham was three rang in Shalini’s mind. By then, Shalini’s mother had started a new innings with a career at mid-life. Shalini was all the more inspired by her and followed her advice.
Shalini turned her face towards Saksham and saw him looking at her. She smiled at him.
“Who do you want to stay with, Saksham?” the judge asked again.
Saksham looked at the judge. “I love both my parents. But since I have to choose one, I would prefer to stay with Papa,” he said.
Shalini sank back in her seat.
“Are you sure, Saksham? Why do you want to stay with your father?”
“Don’t overstep,” Shalini wanted to shout at the judge, but Saksham replied before she could open her mouth. “Yes, I am. Papa helps me with my homework and has more time for me. Mummy is busy. I do want to keep visiting Mummy, though. ”
Tears coursed through Shalini’s cheeks once again.
“If Saksham wants to stay with Anirudh, I have no objection whatsoever, Your Honour,” she said. “Please close the proceedings.”
“But…,” the judge started to say before Shalini interrupted her.
“You have had your say, Mother,” she said, addressing the bench. “Thank you for my prosperous career and my ruined marriage. Throughout my life, I have gone by your advice. Let my son go by what he wants.”
The judge’s gavel hung in mid-air. She stared at Shalini with her mouth open.
“Shalini, calm down. This is a courtroom,” Anirudh said with concern.
Shalini didn’t hear his words. She was back in the past, running a marathon throughout her life. First, the constant endeavour to secure top grades in school, then the relentless pursuit for excellence in college. All for the approval in her mother’s eyes. She hadn’t realised when her mother’s yardsticks had become a measure of her self-worth.
She wanted to stand apart in her career. Not stand alone in life.
“Shalini, are you alright?” Anirudh’s words brought her back to the present. He was standing beside her chair, with concern written over his face. There was something else. ‘Does he still love me? Shalini thought.
“Yes, yes. I am fine, don’t worry,” she assured him.
She looked at her mother, also the judge presiding over the case.
“I won’t go against my son’s wishes. Having called for his views, I hope the court will respect them. I await your verdict.”
The whirring noise of the ceiling fan was the only sound to be heard for some time.
“Very well,” the judge said after some time. “Going by mutual consent, I hereby pronounce the marriage between Anirudh Mehta and Shalini Mehta as nu..”
“Wait, your honour,” Anirudh shouted. Everyone looked at him. “All said and done, it is evident that Shalini cares for our son and respects his wishes. I am glad to have a wife like that and want to give our marriage a second chance. I am sure that we would be able to work out something together.”
Shalini could not believe her ears. A second chance. She will not let go of this opportunity.
“Provided Shalini is ready, of course.” Anirudh looked at his wife, as did the rest of the occupants in the room.
Shalini gulped and nodded.
“Ok then.” the judge said, with the relief visible on her face. She was spared the agony of signing the marriage annulment orders of her only child. “Let’s talk about how both of you plan to go ahead from here on…”
Pragya Devi came to her chambers and took off her black coat. It had been a long, warm day. After her daughter’s divorce hearing, which fortunately ended on a happy note, there were four other cases on her docket. All the debates, discussions, and acrimonies between the parties involved sometimes got to her. But most of the days, she loved her job.
She looked at her watch and dialled a number on her mobile.
“Hello,” the voice at the other end said.
“Are you free today evening? Let us go out for dinner.”
“Is everything alright? I mean, how come you want to go out with me in the evening and not spend time with your colleagues and friends?” her husband asked, surprised.
“We have been living separate lives under the same roof long enough. I want to give our marriage a second chance,” Pragya Devi replied.
Image source: a still from the film Corporate
Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...
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