(Durga Puja and Mahalaya play a great part in building up the emotions in Neil Must Die. For all those who feel Durga Puja close to their hearts may want to read this extract)
The Homecoming, MahaSaptami, October 16 1996
The litanies of the Mahalaya were tearing through the speakers throughout Rajdhani Express, pouring generously on the passengers, filling them up to the brim. They were all coming home. As Goddess Durga had already come into the lives and hearts of Bengal, so were they. Returning into the hearts of their own families. From various corners of the globe the Bengalis were returning home.
It was Saptami, the first day of the Durga pujas, and Neil was returning home. For the first time in two years. For the first time after Tuli’s death.
The Mahalaya was piercing through his lungs. His heart. His whole existence. Why did they have to sell the album in cassettes? It was as though the entire world had conspired against him to let him know something. That he couldn’t escape. To let him know that he was coming home, and that was the truth.
He felt uneasy. And was tempted to walk up to the train attendant and ask him to switch off the music. But he couldn’t trust himself. He didn’t know whether he would hit the man if the attendant refused. He shivered a little. He didn’t know whether that was from the excess air-conditioning or anything else. His mind was going numb.
He closed his eyes. He wished he could close his ears. He decided to bear the painful music. He decided to think about Cathy.
Her eyes were brimming with tears when he kissed her, bidding her goodbye at the airport. She held his hand and said, “I love you.” He wished he could say the same. He simply nodded.
She said, “Just give me a ring. And I’ll arrange for everything. I’m waiting for your call…” she trailed off. Her voice had cracked.
Neil felt sad for her. Sad that she was feeling so sad. He held her and hugged her close. He knew all he had to say was, “I’m coming,” at that moment. But he felt tongue-tied. He simply held her. He wanted to see her happy. Cathy looked up and searched his eyes, as if trying to fathom his confusion. He smiled to hide them. But she knew. She smiled back and held his hand tight, “Don’t rush things,” she said. “I’ll be a friend always.”
And then she turned and left. She turned back before entering the security check and waved at him, smiling. Neil too waved back. And smiled. He felt two emotions. A lump in his throat and a sense of relief. He never knew why.
He got up from the seat and walked out for a smoke. He wanted to think of Cathy and not of the place he was going to. He should have been on a plane to Stockholm and not on a train to Calcutta. He pushed the swing door of the compartment, stepped outside and lit a smoke. He had to go home someday or the other. He had to return and face his past. Good. He could think better. He opened the door of the train. Dusk sped by. Dim lights afar flashed erratically indicating that electricity had reached those villages. Before that, of course, lay acres of barren land, aman paddy having just been harvested.
He looked at the sky. He felt a sense of claustrophobia. Previously the sky was always his source of freedom. Now it seemed, ever since Tuli was up there, he had no escape.
Neil took a puff. He asked himself for the umpteenth time. Why was he always escaping? Why couldn’t he anchor somewhere? Who was he? What was his identity? He was already 24 and had not started life yet. Oh yes. He’s a criminal. How could he forget that? Now with that track-record it will be difficult to get a job either. He wasn’t qualified enough. The only option he had was to go back and join Hassan. Join Juhi. Perhaps even marry her. That was the only way out. Or get a job through her. Then of course, he’d have to marry her. He felt uneasy. Sick. Claustrophobic. Felt as if someone was throttling him. He simply had to try for a visa. He had to go to Stockholm. That was his only option.
He threw the cigarette on the speeding tracks and went inside. He looked at the happy faces. The happy families who were all going back home on holidays. They’d meet their relatives and all would be so happy. He sat down. When did he last feel happy? He didn’t remember. What was happiness? Was he searching for happiness, or searching for an escape from it?
He didn’t have an answer. His eyes stung with self-pity. He decided to sleep. He decided never to wake up…
(Available here in India)