The evening is still, the birds silent, the wind dead like a tramp, flopped on a footpath. The sky is dressed in dust and dusk. His lungs cannot pull in half the air they used to soak till the last summer. The pain is boring holes through his shins. It has been welling up for many months now, a dull throbbing at first and then seething like steam, in his legs and the left arm and the hollow of his chest. And then the bout of dizziness and a ball of shards clogging his throat.
He looks blearily at the temple which is still a mile away, its white dome and a mast slanting to the north, the orange flag drooping. An ironic thought twists his lips. Now that the atheist seeks the Lord, the Lord slippeth away from him, as if in revenge.
The first murmurs of the evening prayers are already in the air. Soon, the road would be echoing with bells and cymbals clanging like clockwork, in tandem with the rising chorus of vows and obeisance, cleaving the opaque heart of the nightfall. Insatiable, dolorous humans, howling away their lives to insatiable deities, deaf and dumb. He leans against a gulmohar tree on the pavement to steady the knocking in his ribs and then slumps in a huff. A fit of vomiting overtakes his torso; his palms are clammy with sweat. His mouth is sour with undigested meal. Whiskey stings his nasal passage, fine malt squirms into gutter wash. Is it already hitting him, the stroke? Myocardial infarction? Cardiac arrest? Is this how his miseries are going to end now, halfway, unrequited? Can’t they wait till the final moment, till he entered the sanctum —the force that could once pound into him the courage, the audacity to approach a nymphet like Maya? But then surely, she had tripped over his candour and childlike warmth. The union, no matter how brief or doomed it was, held its sway while it had lasted.
The twister within ebbs and he pulls himself up. His feet quake as he ambles towards the temple in general. The prayers burst forth like a flash flood over the evening’s dunes. Today he will strain his ears for something sharper than the Lord and his devotees. A fowler shoots a pigeon from a rooftop and it plummets to the road, spins wildly and dies. He jumps and gesticulates at the scoundrel who looks back at him dangerously.
He fumbles ahead ruefully with fresh pangs coursing through his veins, makes it to the crowded gateway just as the commotion comes to an end, as abruptly as it had begun. A wispy breeze turns in, like a drop of hope escaping the upturned tumbler of justice. The priest begins the rounds with a pot of burning camphor. Now he catches a glimpse of the woman who is no more his wife with the man who is his brother still. She is as resplendent as ever and her peer as nonchalant. They are swiftly moving out of the eastern entrance, getting closer by the second to the black BMW, its engine purring, the chauffeur ready. Then he hears the clear report of a .44 Magnum. And then another after a second. He doesn’t hear the one that hits his skull.
He had to pay the assassin the last coin he had owned.