Her son, Tejas, was on the other side of the world when Malini Byanna realized that the suburban life they had built together with soccer, Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church was in jeopardy.
Sobbing, Byanna, a lawyer, walked into the Hoffman Estates Police Department on Oct. 10 and gave voice to her worst fear.
"Tejas has been abducted in India," Byanna told the police. "I need to get my son. I'm not giving him up."
The resulting legal battle has pitted the single mom against her former husband, Vikram Akula, a multimillionaire and powerful entrepreneur in India who gives lectures alongside Bill Gates and knows the Ghandis, as well as Bollywood actresses. In the India courts, Akula won the right to keep Tejas, who had lived with his mother since she gave birth to him in 2001, in India.
Here in Illinois, lawyers from both sides call this one of the most important and complicated custody cases ever. They stage spirited, emotional and well-documented arguments, and file motions the judge deems "absolutely brilliant." An army of supporters and friends rallies behind Byanna in her attempt to reclaim her son and bring him home.
The decision due by the end of this month from Cook County Circuit Court Judge Pamela E. Loza will set an international precedent involving the world's oldest democracy and its largest. A lawyer and arbitrator in more than 1,000 civil and criminal cases when she still had time to serve as president of the Arlington Heights Sunrise Rotary Club, Loza can either relinquish Illinois jurisdiction or she can wrest the fate of Tejas from the Supreme Court of India.
On this sunny March day, trees are starting to bud in anticipation of spring. Inside, Byanna, 41, walks past the box of special matching ornaments she and Tejas traditionally hung on the two Christmas trees still up in her Hoffman Estates townhouse.
"Everything stays up until Tejas comes home," Byanna says determinedly. Spending all her time and money on the custody case, she even put the boy's Yorkshire terrier, Tillie, in temporary shelter. The rest of the residence hasn't changed since Byanna came home alone from India for a professional conference and minor surgery only to rush back when she learned her son wouldn't be coming home as expected. She discovered through an e-mail that, in India, her ex-husband had filed papers seeking custody of Tejas.
She demanded that Tejas be returned home in time for Halloween. She wanted him home for Thanksgiving. She expected he'd be home for Christmas. She hoped he'd be home for Valentine's Day and the Boy Scout Blue and Gold ceremony where all his St. Hubert's third-grade classmates made the transition from Bear to Webelos. She prayed he'd be home for his ninth birthday party.
His young friends hung birthday banners and gathered at the Byanna home for the party that Tejas attended briefly through an Internet connection that was early in the morning here and at bedtime in India. The birthday cookie cake telling him to "come home soon" remains in the freezer.
"I don't know how she gets up in the morning," says Angie Pearce, a Roselle mom who remembers Byanna as the upbeat pompom girl at Conant High School in the 1980s. Pearce recently became one of the many supporters who have come together on Facebook. Pearce and Winfield mom Patti Reuter, another Conant connection, talk about how much they admire Byanna's strength during an ordeal that weighs so heavily on her heart. Saying they can't fathom having a child stuck in a world more than 8,000 miles away, these moms show support by sitting next to Byanna in the tiny courtroom on the 19th floor of Chicago's Daley Center.
Cracking the worldwide list of top 50 businesspeople in magazines such as Time and Business Week, Vikram Akula is just another rich and powerful client for lawyers Alan Toback and Michael G. DiDomenico. Their firm, Lake Toback, has represented athletes, celebrities, politicians and newsworthy cases such as the custody battle among Walgreen heirs.
As this hearing starts, Toback calmly reminds everyone to be civil, polite, avoid the "mudslinging" and "expletives" used in an earlier hearing and shun the use of sensational words such as "kidnapping."
"I've called this case a kidnapping from Day One," fires back Marvin J. Leavitt, a former Illinois Appellate Court justice and veteran partner of Grund & Leavitt, which represents Byanna.
"Vikram is a respected, international businessman," DiDomenico says of the 41-year-old man who has won social justice awards for his microfinance business that brings venture capital opportunities to the poor, mostly women, in India. Akula sought custody in the best interest of his son after "the umpteenth manic episode" of his mother, the lawyer argues. She alleges in court documents that her ex-husband is narcissistic and anti-social.
While a Hoffman Estates police detective sits in on the hearing, no criminal charges have been filed and no warrants have been issued.
"This is a snatch. This is a kidnapping," counters Leavitt, arguing that Akula lied about his ex-wife acting oddly and suffering from mental illnesses, lied about his son being Hindu instead of Christian, and filed documents "filled with falsehoods" that enabled him to use "his wealth and power" and a bias in favor of Hindus and males to win a 62-page decision from an India judge that allows him to keep Tejas.
Along with the trophies from soccer and karate, Tejas' bedroom in Hoffman Estates sports a statue of Jesus, a crucifix and a copy of the Lord's Prayer. A large plaque that dominates the living room reads, "Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest in every room," and was picked out by Tejas before he could read, his mom says.
"He has Jesus in his heart, his mind and soul all the time," says Byanna, who was raised Hindu in the suburbs but became interested in Catholicism while working for Catholic Charities in 1992. She and Akula were married in a Hindu ceremony, but Byanna was baptized into the Christian faith in 2002, shortly after Tejas was baptized.
"Tejas doesn't want to miss Mass," Byanna says. "He doesn't like to go to bed without his prayers."
His friends "don't understand why he isn't back yet," says C.J. Kula, who adds that her four sons consider Tejas part of their family in Schaumburg. Her son Christopher and Tejas became friends during preschool at Schaumburg Christian School.
"He (Christopher) is upset because they've never missed each other's birthdays. We celebrate every Easter together," Kula says. At a garage sale this weekend, Christopher bought a basketball game for Tejas.
"He's always thinking of his buddy," Kula says, adding that her boys "pray for him every morning and every night."
Tejas' Scout leader, his karate coach and others say the boy is a typical American kid with lots of friends who miss him.
"My son has been stripped of his entire identity," Byanna says, adding that Tejas now plays cricket, attends an international school and can't go to church.
Byanna remembers meeting Akula briefly in 1994 when he spoke at a development conference in Illinois. Two years later, Akula, who was working on a graduate degree at the University of Chicago, attended a fundraiser organized by Byanna for a shelter for battered Asian women and children.
"He asked me to marry him on our first date," Byanna remembers, adding that he had beautiful, captivating eyes. The first song at their Dec. 18, 1999, wedding was "Lost in Your Eyes."
The couple and their baby boy visited India in the summer of 2001 and divorced in Illinois two weeks before their third anniversary. Byanna was awarded sole custody of their son, and Akula had visitation rights. Akula was convicted of domestic battery in 2004, and an Illinois court reaffirmed Byanna's custody and restricted Akula's visitation rights in 2005.
A lawyer who works with custody cases, Byanna agreed to go with Tejas to India in July 2009 to give him time with his father. She says she was naive when she agreed to remain in India with Tejas beyond August. She thought her ex-husband had changed.
"I believe in redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation - I'm a true Catholic," she says. "I was totally set up."
She says her ex-husband persuaded her to lease a house, called the Tej Mahal in honor of Tejas, in Hyderabad. While Byanna says she and her son planned to come home in the fall, she says she submitted forms at her ex-husband's behest seeking permission to stay in India until 2013 and to enroll her son in an international school - all facts the India court used to determine she "ordinarily resided" in India, meaning that nation, not Illinois, now had jurisdiction and the power to decide where Tejas should live.
Byanna says their stay in India was a temporary experiment that, had it succeeded, still would have meant the mom and her son would have spent every school holiday and summer in a house in Schaumburg that Akula was just about to buy for them.
"We're Americans," she says, adding that she planned to practice law here and continue the Lotus Rising Foundation she started to help people struggling with oppression and violence.
Judge Loza could rule that Illinois retains the right to decide what's in Tejas' best interest, or she could yield jurisdiction to India. If ordered to return to Chicago with Tejas, Akula no doubt will appeal. If the legal case rests with India, Byanna, who has a team of lawyers in that nation, vows to continue the fight for her son, which could drag on.
The law case drains not only her money. Byanna says she also worries that the more time her son spends in India, away from her, the more he could change.
"He's living a millionaire, Disney lifestyle, but he'd rather live with his impoverished mommy and live an American, Christian life," Byanna says. "You have to keep that light in your heart."