The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.
The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.
Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.
There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.
A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.
The group shows agility at catching the dogs. But the dogs are already awake. When a dog catcher tries to trap one of them into the hand net, the dog darts out and runs towards the arched gate of an old house, but another man in the group stretches out his hand net and in the nick of time, traps the dog into it. The little boy draws a dose of vaccine into a syringe and passes it to the thickly-bearded leader. The dog in the net squirms unsteadily and tries to pull itself out with ceaseless nervous woofing. The little boy tries to calm the dog, rubbing its shoulder and belly. And when their leader injects it, he sings a rhyme in a vivacious effort to quell its pain. The leader asks one of the dog catchers to spray on the animal’s coat and mark it ‘safe’.
Dipping porota in hot fuming tea, a small group of breakfasters squints at the dog catchers from a roadside shop. They listen to the sturdy cook talking to his second who is flattening flour dough with a wooden roller: ‘You don’t know what they do with these curs, do you? They will take them to a forsaken place. There lies a deep, dark hole, just like hell, into which they will throw them all. They always bury dogs alive!’
An elderly man snaps at him, ‘Don’t spoil the boy, Kaalu. They just vaccinate the dogs. Have you seen any cage van? They don’t kill them anymore.’ Another man in a plaid shirt pipes up, ‘But they have a rifle with them. I bet you don’t know what they use it for. Dogs must be killed before they go mad!’
Meanwhile, a large crowd has gathered around the dog catchers. Some of them do not make out what these men are after; others are agog whether they will catch a few stray monkeys that pester pedestrians and residents of this area. So they keep shouting: ‘This way!’
‘At least three to the north of Lalbagh Fort!’
‘Please catch the monkeys on our roofs!’
Flustered by a flurry of tips, the dog catchers hesitate to pick up their next direction, but when their leader strides towards the alley that is flanked by the Fort wall, they follow him with hurried paces. The interstices in the walls of these old buildings are profuse, and are visible only to small creatures like dogs. Each one in the group examines every chink and fissure in the wall and lifts up manhole lids lest they miss spotting a dog or two hiding underground. They catch three more dogs and quickly inoculate them while the little boy sings his lulling rhyme. A green circle on their coats will advertise their innocuousness for the next few weeks.
A stout semi-elderly man has been standing in the alley since the dog catchers entered Lalbagh Road, observing their activities. When they are about to leave the alley, he jibes to a tea seller, ‘See, what the losers have done to these rotten beasts! Don’t they look like thieves with funny marks on their asses? As if they have just come out of jail!’
As the thickly-bearded leader stops at his words, the man chuckles at the success of his barbs. ‘This colour will fade soon. They could have cut their tails or ears instead. It would have been easier to mark the beasts this way. How will they recognize the non-vaccinated beasts from the vaccinated ones say a month later? Bunch of morons! Government money! What else can you expect?’
The leader seems to be insulted by his words. He comes forward immediately and challenges the man, ‘Wash up the dog with the number one soap in the world. See if the colour fades.’
The man is not convinced. ‘Go on, go on… Do your business. I know the type of work you do! Don’t vaunt here anymore!’
The man is locally known as Mir Habib. He claims that his entire family lies in the direct line of descent of Mir Jumla II, a prominent subhadar of Bengal in the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. I know him quite well as I am a tenant of his house. He — despite the fact that I am also a new dweller in this part of the city — has rented me a one room flat in the attic of his three-storied house just because my surname starts with ‘Mir’. He notices me standing at the gate and says, ‘Mir, have you seen the impertinence of these government men? They think they are the decider of our fate!’
‘Yes, yes!’ I reply, nodding, not contradicting his claim in the least. Mine was an attended enthusiasm to prolong the cheap tenancy he has offered me. I am yet to land the good job I have been searching for the last couple of years.
Mir Habib is an intrinsically curious man. He goes after the group and keeps urging them to flush out every single dog holed up in the nooks of old houses and shops. I remember him — waking on many nights with a disoriented feeling — cursing dogs for barking so loudly. ‘The Satan itself has influenced these beasts! And look at these people in sleep! Not affected by their godforsaken woofing at all.’ He hates the new generation that has infested this part of the city known as Old Dhaka and spews snide remarks at them on every possible occasion.
Just as Mir Habib prepares another volley of words, someone cries from the bend, ‘There is a black dog in Raja Shrenaath Street!’ The dog catchers walk hurriedly at the cue for a new catch. Mir Habib also follows them, shouting at their leader, ‘How do you diagnose a dog, whether it is infected with rabies?’
The leader has already got the impression that Mir Habib is a chatterbox. He doesn’t seem to mind his prolixity and goes about his usual business after spotting the black dog in Raja Shrenaath Street. He signals his group to trap the dog with hand nets. Mir Habib steps forward, takes a gulp of water from a faucet, and spouting it at the dog that has already been cornered by the dog catchers, declares very proudly, ‘Dogs fear water when they are infected with rabies. So the only way to see if a dog fears water and confirm its disease is to water it like this!’
The black dog darts across two dog catchers and evades the ensuing trap. Mir Habib takes a hosepipe which the poor residents use for supplying water from the government faucets into their houses, and aims it at the dog. Instead of hitting the black dog, the spurt wets some curious pedestrians and residents. The dog zigzags unsteadily across the road before disappearing into the street that leads to the former Buckland Bund.
Mir Habib dashes after the dog, his lungi slackening and the hem of his panjabi fluttering in the air. The dog catchers also plan anew and scatter in the second alley to surprise and corner the dog from the opposite direction. They seem to be really familiar with all these alleys.
‘Cut off its balls! Make the dog impotent!’ Mir Habib grits his teeth, cheering the dog catchers.
When Mir Habib and the dog catchers enter Jagannath Saha Lane, they see that a crowd has already hemmed in the rebellious dog. The frightened creature barks at everyone and tries to escape in vain. The little boy, who was not seen among the dog catchers in the previous street, shoulders through the crowd toward it. A frisson of alarm goes through the black dog. Coming close, the boy notices that the dog is one-eyed and its back is almost wet. Mir Habib has actually been able to aim at its tail and back.
The little boy throws his arms open and makes a soft clucking sound. The black dog bays back for a while, and then falls silent. The crowd stops jeering; the entire alley is quiet. Even the old architectures of the area seem to have lent their ears to listen to what the little boy whispers to the black dog. Whatever the boy says to it, it makes the world of the frightened creature a little convivial. The black dog now comes closer to him and whines out its fear so faintly, so low that it remains inaudible to the crowd. Its right pupil — still surviving many undocumented histories of animal cruelty — has enlarged after the frightening chase. Only when the little boy rubs its neck and shoulder does it close its eyes in silent gratitude — it closes its eyes to the sort of mob that is afraid of getting wet on the misty, cold winter morning. When the other dog catchers of the Mosquito Repelling Department appear at the intersection, the little boy embraces the black dog and starts singing in a loving voice:
Our paddy and betel leaves are all lost; what else can we give?
Wait a few days more; we have planted garlic.
The dense mist begins to evaporate and the sun touches the cornices of old houses and leafy branches of krisnachura trees in the fort compound, drying up the cruelty and pent-up feelings of the silent crowd. Their thoughts move musically to the little boy’s cadence of the lulling rhyme. Mir Habib has also stopped talking; like the other pedestrians, he too looks at the dog and the little boy. When a dog catcher steps forward with a hand net, their leader stops him. ‘We will vaccinate the black dog another day,’ he says.
Mir Arif works as a staff writer for Arts & Letters, a widely read literary supplement published by Dhaka Tribune, one of Bangladesh’s leading English dailies. An avid reader of contemporary South Asian writing, he loves reading works by Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Shashi Tharoor. He writes fiction regularly, and some of his short stories have appeared in Arts & Letters and The Penmen Review.