A TREE ACROSS THE ROAD
CHAPTER 1 : A LADY IN BLACK
The cooker whistled in the kitchen. The aroma of freshly cooked arhar dal pervaded Arif’s room.
“Wake up beta! Breakfast is ready.” His mother’s voice reached his ears. He turned over in bed to avoid the glare of the sun coming in through the half-open window. Drawing a golden, silky Bhagalpuri chadar from under the pillow, he covered himself with it and went back to sleep again.
Once again the cooker whistled. The sound of footsteps approaching his room woke him up suddenly.
“Must be Abba”, he thought, fearing his father’s wrath if he found him in bed at this hour. He got out of bed hurriedly holding the loosened upper end of his lungi. Standing there he arranged the lungi, wrapping it around his waist and then knotting it properly. He rubbed his eyes and looked towards the door.
It was his brother, Zakir. Relieved, he sat down on the edge of the bed, his eyes half open and blurry. His feet were tentively touching the floor, feeling its cool indifference.
He stayed that way for a while.
Then he stood up, stretched and yawned.
His left hand moved swiftly to cover his wide-open, yawning mouth.
“Toba Astagfar! Toba Astagfar! Toba Astagfar!” He said. A smile widened his lips as his Dadi’s warning flashed in his mind, “Cover your mouth with your left hand and say Toba Astagfar thrice whenever you yawn. Otherwise, the shaitan will piss into your mouth.”
During his childhood, he had believed that the shaitan, the devil, was ever ready to piss into every yawning mouth that did not say Toba Astagfar and was not covered properly. So, whenever he yawned he did both. If sometimes he missed doing so he would spit non-stop, and then gargle till he was convinced that he had got rid of the last traces of the shaitan’s urine. He would sometimes use a solution of soap for gargling. He had never seen the shaitan but had believed in its formidable presence.
Even now, at twenty-three, he could not help saying Toba Astagfar whenever he yawned.
He looked around for today’s newspaper.
On the table near the window opening to the east, there were books and his notebooks but no newspaper. He even looked at the tangerine bookrack but all he saw was fat volumes of chemistry texts, novels, back issues of India Today and Sportstar, and a few more books. His eyes rested on Train to Pakistan, a novel by Khushwant Singh that was to be returned to Sinha Library latest by tomorrow, otherwise he would have to pay late fine.
“Zakir, where is today’s newspaper?” He asked his brother standing on the balcony. Zakir was tall, almost six feet, fair complexioned with athletic body, broad forehead, sharp nose, and narrow eyes. There is a mole of black pepper size on his left cheek. He looked like a refined and taller version of film star Govinda. Arif had walked till the door opening to the balcony. Zakir stopped brushing his teeth, spat out the foam and turned to reply ‘ Its there, Bhaiyya!’, Zakir pointed his fingers towards a bedside table.
The Saturday special pull out, Career and Competition Times, accidentally slipped out of his hands.