He is looking at the quiet river flowing ceaselessly by his window, canoes and ships floating and advancing with an equal ease to strike a congruent picture with the slowly moving pallid autumnal sun. This is a morning indulgence for Prateek, a total anti-thesis to his otherwise hurried pace of life. Sometime he would sit still like the meditative Buddha, his gaze never leaving the river and the hot, piping, aromatic tea in the tiny tea-cup turning cold in this entire process of watching a divine scenario of a river flowing tirelessly in his backyard. 'Why do you derive so much pleasure in watching a rickety river like the Thames when you have already seen swirling rivers like the Brahmaputra or the Paagaldiya back home in Assam?' His friend Dipak told him the moment Prateek, otherwise a very reticent person, mentioned about this obsession to his Assamese friends during a gossip session.
These days, he refrains to share his private passions with his desi friends lest they might intrude breezily in his vast and volatile mental world, his exclusive domain where he wants to reign like a king. He doesn't want to talk about Ethel or her dog, Bunny either. One day during a prolonged gossip and wine session, Prateek talked about Ethel and Bunny to this motley group of Assamese friends. It was either the exhilarating effect of alcohol or the soothing background music or the tasty food that Swati, wife of Dipak cooked for all of them. Whatever was the provocation, he made one of the biggest blunders of baring his feelings for Ethel and Bunny. Dipak was almost wild with rage, 'Who is this Ethel? Why should you run around a white woman? Are we running short of good-looking girls in our native place? And why should her dog become so important for you? One day she'll make you to clean dog-shits, I'm telling you.......idiot...'
It was the time to go to the office. He took a quick bath, gulped down something, put on casual attire and rushed to the nearby tube station. Though he knew that it was going to be a long, circuitous journey through tube, monorail and bus to his office in the Canary Wharf, he could feel a kind of swing in his feet for the coming weekend. That evening he had to go to Dipak's place for dinner. Dipak must have invited some of the Assamese families scattered across London city and Swati must be busy cooking a lavish meal of rice, fish and chicken for all of them. Dipak would talk passionately about the land that had been left behind. He would also draw some plan for the development of people there during all these animated living room deliberations. Some appeared pragmatic, but most sounded fanciful.
The day went off fast like all other Fridays in the past. Most of his colleagues, old or young, caught in the weekend fervours left office early to attend get-togethers or parties with friends or families. Prateek, who usually stayed back to complete all leftover work in a deserted office on Friday evenings, also left office little early that evening and headed breezily towards Baker Street. He must find out the Pet Shop there to buy something exotic for that spoilt brat called Bunny. He was sure that Ethel and Bunny would be thrilled to receive an unexpected and uninvited guest like him on this unique day. Prateek wanted to share Ethel's excitement on the birthday of her best buddy. In the pet-shop, he could find a striking red collar, a red hat and a blue fur jacket for Bunny. Ethel would be overjoyed and so would Bunny at this beautifully covered gift packet. Bunny would look regal in this combination of red collar and red hat; the blue fur jacket would enhance the splendour of his look. A faint smile seeped out of Prateek's lips at that anticipated sight.
When he had first met the duo, a vivacious dog and an equally high-spirited but frail lady playing a ball in the nearby park a few months back, Prateek was really amazed at the playfulness of the dog and the vigorous response of his mistress. She would throw the ball at a distance and the dog would run almost half a mile downward in that undulating green carpet to catch it. Once while throwing the ball, her entire body was going forward with that thrust and suddenly there she was, slumped on the ground. Thankfully it was a soft ground. On an impulse Prateek ran towards her and caught hold of her fallen body. 'Hope you are ok! Not hurt, I suppose....' Ethel was visibly touched at this gesture of an unknown man. That was the beginning of their budding friendship. Bunny was also equally delighted at this friendship between his lonely mistress and a stranger from a faraway land. 'It is strange, you see. Bunny doesn't like most of my friends. He can't stand my brothers and sisters. They used to drop in once a while, but then also Bunny got irritated.....it is another matter that of late they've stopped coming altogether. ......This jealous boy of mine has taken a liking to you..... I can't believe it.' Whenever they talked about Bunny, Ethel never used the word dog for him. For her, Bunny was either Bunny or my boy.
Prateek's mother seems to be very upset these days. He has always been the mama's boy. He wanted to be in theatre but quietly went to an engineering college when his mother decided that it was the best career choice for a bright student like her son. He wanted to join the local engineering college in his hometown Guwahati as a teacher. But at that juncture also the wish of this iron lady prevailed. He joined a multinational company and shifted to London. The same strong-willed mother mentioned during a casual telephoning chat with her son that Jinti was a good-looking girl from an old, traditional family and very soon she was going to be a software engineer like him. It was going to be a perfect match, his mother had concluded like an authority on a subject. 'No, I'm not going to be hitched this soon....'. He almost screamed like a maniac. His mother was taken aback by this sudden show of defiance by her very obedient son. 'But why? She's a good girl. A bright Engineering student. She cooks so well. No vanity. Very good in housekeeping. She'd go out for work also.'
On another day, his adorable younger sister asked him, 'How are your neighbours? Are they good people?'
'I don't know. I know none of them.'
'Suppose, God forbids, something happens to you there, some serious problems in the night, will the neighbours come to your rescue?'
Prateek couldn't suppress his chuckle, 'Look, my dear foolish girl, if I'm dead here inside the house, no one would come to know for days together. It's London, not Guwahati.'
She must have been on the verge of breaking down at the thought of this grim scenario, 'Then why do you refuse to marry? Jinti is a nice girl. If something happens to you at that lonely place, she'd be there with you to help you out.....'
How can he convince them that, of late, he has started cherishing this loneliness? This looking at the quiet river in a dew filled morning all alone has become his passion. Roaming around the neighbourhood with Ethel and bunny has become an obsession. They would go to the small departmental store in the neighbourhood together, he would help Ethel in picking up the week's provision, Ethel would see to it that his trolley is filled with all the things he needed. He would help Ethel in pushing her trolley outside. In all these marketing trips, poor bunny would wait outside patiently. But as soon as they were out of the store, Bunny would create a ruckus for sometime by jumping up and down around his mistress. A pat or two from Ethel would soon sober him down. Before Prateek met Ethel, he never ventured out in the sleepy neighbourhood. But Ethel put this bug of roaming around in the green, wavering meadows on holidays; during those occasional outings he would throw the ball at Bunny and he would run along Bunny to catch the ball gliding downward at a breakneck speed. He certainly didn't want to lose these precious moments for a girl chosen by his family back home.
Prateek enters Dipak's house stealthily after putting Bunny's gift packet in a corner of the living room. Living room has already become full with the invitees. Dipak's crispy voice can be clearly heard in this din, 'We should send all Bangladeshis back from the soil of Assam.....Let us build an Assamese cultural centre here.......We may pull some resources to send aid for flood victims there.....' Thank God, Dipak didn't see the gift packet. He would have screamed at the top of his voice, 'She has made you a slave. Her dog has become so important for you. In our country people have been dying in hordes and here you are wasting your energy on a dog....'
Swati has suddenly seen him entering the room, 'Hey Prateek. So nice to see you after such a long time!'
It was a fact that he had come to Dipak's place after a long time. In the initial stage of his stay in London when he was too forlorn and homesick, Dipak's home was the only place where Prateek got some emotional relief. Doors of their house were always open and welcoming during that difficult phase and he frequented their house any time of the day or night whenever he felt low.
'Why should he come here? There may be so many other sources of amusements there..' One could fathom a trace of mock anger in the booming voice of Dipak.
'Please don't pull his leg. If he likes someone, why should you mind? My only grievance is that he has kept her away from us. We could see photographs of the dog in his cell phone, a whole lot of them, but the mistress of the dog is seen nowhere.' It was Swati as usual in her generous self.
'You should know one thing Prateek. This British girl with whom you've become very friendly these days shouldn't become your life partner.'
'Why she shouldn't become his wife? Who are you to decide his choice of wife, Dipak? Have you ever seen her or met her?' Swati was really furious at this blatant intrusion of her husband in the personal life of Prateek.
'Don't get upset Swati. Look, today we are all worried about the flood situation in Assam. We are equally worried about influx of Bangladeshis in our home state. His British wife will never understand our concern or emotion.'
'There are so many Assamese girls there who won't be bothered about your concern or emotion. On the other hand, I've seen many European or American son-in-laws or daughter-in-laws who show genuine feelings for our culture. Michael Finkey, that NASA astronaut, that Assamese son-in-law, he danced Bihu during his space travel.'
Dipak waved his hands in a dismissive gesture. 'Ok, ok, we'll welcome his British bride with a bouquet and folded hands. Now my dear wife, please bring something for us to eat.'
Swati went inside to bring some snacks for the guests. Before she went, she tapped lightly on Prateek's left shoulder and told in a whispering tone, 'Your mother spoke to me. Jinti is a simple girl. Pretty and petite. Warm and friendly. But I understand your situation....It's a matter of heart......'
The discussions veered round the influx of millions of Bangladeshis to Assam through a porous border. Dipak had been livid with rage about this unabated flow of people to his state from another country. 'Why are you so quiet Prateek? You are not worried about this problem?'
Prateek was silent for a moment. 'What to tell? We have also come to this country in large numbers and collectively we must have also become object of ire here.'
Dipak was really angry this time, 'We didn't just sneak into the border and come like them. We had to cross all those hurdles of job interviews, visas, immigrations and what not. And we have been contributing to this economy.'
'Bangladeshis have also been contributing. They are doing all kinds of cheap menial jobs there. They have been using inhospitable fallow lands to produce different vegetables......'
Prateek had expected a very strong retort from Dipak. But Swati entered with a tray full of fried fish at the same time and Dipak almost leapt out of his chair to grab a big piece. All other guests also joined the fray good-humouredly and the congregation became one of total gay abandon.
By the time, the party was over it is too late and Prateek, as usual, stayed back for the night due to Dipak's prodding. 'I won't let you go at this hour. You have chosen to stay in that god-forsaken area. Anything might happen there at this time.....'
'Ok. But I need to leave early tomorrow. Probably I'll leave before you people wake up. It must have been a hectic and tiring day for both of you. You should get up late.'
It is a quiet Sunday morning. London seems to be in a state of hibernation after a hectic, fun-filled night. Prateek has to hurry back to his house after negotiating with the usual modes of bus, monorail and tube to spring a surprise on an unsuspecting Ethel. He must reach there before breakfast. He would ring the doorbell and as soon as she opens the door, he would start singing the birthday song for Bunny. He would propose to take both of them out for a sumptuous breakfast to the nearby Susie's Tavern. Ethel would be surprised and elated. By this time she must have forgotten that she has once mentioned about Bunny's birthday to him.
He must quicken his pace to catch hold of Ethel before it is too late.
Now, he is at the doorstep of his apartment. He throws a glance at Ethel's apartment in the other building across the narrow road. He has never been to her house before. They used to meet at different places like the departmental store or the park or the green, desolate field. He is surprised to see a small congregation of people in front of her apartment. Has she organised some birthday party without him being aware about it? Suddenly he realises that he knows so little about her. In fact, his closeness to her confines to some moments only and it never expanded towards her elusive past or an omnipotent present.
While all these whirlwind thoughts have been going on in his mind, suddenly he sees two cops among that crowd. His heart misses a beat. Poor Ethel must be in some sort of trouble! He runs like a mad person to that scene.
'What's happened Sir?' Prateek is still grasping for his breath.
'This lady has been dead for the last two or three days. Only when this unbearable stink started coming out of the house, one of the neighbours informed us. Must be a massive heart attack. It happens. 85 year old lady living alone with a dog. Apparently she doesn't have any close relative or friend.....'
The garrulous cop has been going on and on. After sometime, the dead body of his frail, old friend covered with a white sheet is brought out. He runs towards her. Ethel seems to have been sleeping in a state of total bliss. When Ethel's dead body is put at the rear side of the ambulance, Bunny comes from nowhere and jumps onto the ambulance. There he is sitting by the side of the dead body with a lost look. He is not even looking at Prateek as if he has never known or met him earlier. The ambulance leaves with a soft, whirring sound. The thin crowd have also dispersed instantaneously. Prateek stands there like a forlorn man bereft of all joys in life. A mourner for a dear friend lost. Suddenly there is total void in his life.
An elderly man comes out from a ground-floor apartment with a tennis racquet in his hands to play a game or two with his buddies in the nearby club, a young couple rushes out in hurry to spend the Sunday afternoon together in an exotic place, a young mother pushes a pram with a child sitting inside to the nearby park. There is no trace of Ethel or Bunny in that place as if they never existed there in the first place.
Suddenly Prateek starts running. He throws the gift packet for Bunny in a wastepaper basket found on the way. When he reaches home and dials the phone, his sister sounds very sleepy on the other side, 'What's the matter bro? Are you in some kind of trouble? It's late afternoon here, raining....'
'I'm getting married. Please get it fixed today itself. Jinti, Minti, whoever! Anyone will do. If I die inside my house here, no one, I say no one will come to know till I stink.'