Dhaka, a four hundred year old city, rises through the mist of a cold wintry morning, near its genesis, the Buriganga river. It makes its way through many byzantine alleys, proverbial for their old memories. Even after a long, chequered change in the face of time, these alleys still survive old houses with frieze cornice, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with towering minarets and century old forts, kattras and landing ghats that witnessed many generations of local and foreign rule. Now, there lives their petty descendants, outnumbered by the great influx of new people from all over the country who find themselves in small, bedraggled one or two-room flats in spindly buildings – strewn across the entire Old Dhaka – that are relatively cheaper than houses in other parts of the city. The myths that ruled the hearts of their old denizens are forgotten by the new. The alleys lament their lost myth and histories—the trading of Muslin, a legendary fabric that Europeans believed was webbed by fairies with threads made of winds; the flourishing business of attar made from aloe, nageswar and keora; the old population of Sakharis that used to make bangles from conch-shells; the silk weaving community known as Basakhs; the Kuttis, the Sukhbas and many other unheard-of communities, distinct for their ways of living. There seems to be a dearth of poets and writers to tell you the stories of this lost world.
The streets of Old Dhaka are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two-feet frontage scramble for sun all year round. On winter mornings their residents come out of their houses, gathering in groups, squatting by a bonfire. Children play hopscotch all day and chase after dogs that are periodically inoculated by the Mosquito Repelling Department.
Today is one such dog inoculation day for the Mosquito Repelling Department. A small group of dog catchers have come out on the streets from their office near the old Dhakeshwari temple. A faded blue jeep waits for them. The driver, a gangly man in a red, woollen muffler, honks a couple of times, amusing the pedestrians that notice the group that strolls with strange instruments: three hand nets (larger than regular fishing nets) with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and a rifle equipped with darts to tranquilise the dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.
There are five dog catchers in the group. The youngest is a ten-year-old boy in a 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 stray dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The group leader, a middle-aged man with a thick beard, quiets the boy down, bashes him on the head, and says, “Save it for a dog, you little punk!” The other dog catchers in the group are of different ages; only two of them have reached the prime of their youth. They look as calm as a winter’s day.
A small crowd, entertained by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group from all sides until the driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. Before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort though, the driver stops the car. The little boy in in the grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two dogs lying about, curled up on the pavement.
The group shows agility in catching the dogs. Once a dog catcher tries to trap one of them into the hand net, the dog darts out towards a small gate of an old house, but another man in the group stretches out his hand net and traps the dog into it instantly. The little boy draws a dose of vaccine into the syringe and passes it to the thickly-bearded leader. The dog in the net squirms unsteadily and tries to pull itself out, with nervous woofing. The little boy tries to calm the dog, rubbing its shoulder and belly. And when the leader injects the dog, he sings a rhyme in a vivacious effort to quell its pain:
The children have slept and the countryside is quiet as the Borgis have come to plunder.
The sparrows have eaten up our paddy; oh, how can we pay our rent?
Our paddy and betel leaves are all lost; what else can we give?
Wait a few days more; we have planted garlic.
Lulled by the warmth of the rhyme and the vaccine’s mild sedative effect, the dog rests on the ground, sprawling with its eyes closed. The leader of the group urges a dog catcher to spray the dog’s fur, to mark it as a “safe” animal. At a roadside shop, a small group of breakfasters glance at the dog catchers while dipping porota in steaming hot tea. They listen to the sturdy chef talking to his second-in-line who flattens the flour dough with a wooden roller: “They will take the dogs into a forsaken place inside the government compound. There they have dug a large hole where they will throw all the dogs, and bury them alive.” An elderly man snaps at him and says, “They just vaccinate the dogs. They don’t kill them.” Another man in a plaid shirt pipes up, “What is this vaccination all about? Dogs must be killed before they go mad!”
Meanwhile a large crowd gathers around the dog catchers. Some of them do not understand what these men are after; others wonder whether they will catch the few stray monkeys that pester pedestrians and the residents of this area.
So they keep shouting:
“At least three, near the northern side of the Lalbagh Fort!”
“Catch the monkeys on our roofs!”
Flustered by the onslaught of tips, the dog catchers hesitate to move to their next direction, but when their leader strides towards the alley that is flanked by the Fort wall, they all follow him at a hurried pace. The dogs seem to have a keen sense of their impending catch. The distinct gait and furtive look of the dog catchers, along with the metallic clangour of the pincer, tells them to hide before the dog catchers approach them.
The interstices inside these alleys are profuse and visible only to small creatures like dogs. Each one in the group checks every chink or fissure in the walls of old houses, and lifts up the manhole lids to see if any dogs remain hidden underneath. They catch three more dogs and inoculate them quickly while the little boy sings his lulling rhyme. They don’t forget to mark them safe, spraying a green circle on each dog’s coat.
A middle-aged man has been standing in the alley ever since they had entered the Agamasi Street. With prying eyes, he notices the circular marks on the coat, and just before the dog catchers leave the alley, he jibes at the tea seller, referring to the group and the vaccinated dogs, “Look at the losers! Don’t they look like thieves with this circular mark on their fur? As if they’ve just come out of jail!”
The thickly-bearded leader stops for a while and the middle-aged man chuckles at the success of his jibe, “The colour will fade soon. Can’t they cut their tails or ears instead? This way it would be easier to mark the vaccinated ones. How can they recognise the non-vaccinated from the vaccinated ones a month later? They are a bunch of morons! With all that government money, what else can you expect?”
The leader seems to be insulted by his words. He comes forward and challenges the man, “Wash the dog with the best soap in the world. See if the colour fades or not.”
The man isn’t convinced and says, “Go on. Finish your business. I know the type of work you do! Don’t vaunt here anymore!”
The man, locally known as Mir Habib, claims that his entire family is in the direct line of descent of Mir Jumla II, a prominent subhadar of Bengal from 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 is “Mir”. I remain silent at the frontage that has a small causeway covered by a row of bougainvillea. He notices me standing at the gate and says, “Mir, have you seen the impertinence of these government men? They think they are the deciders of our fate!”
I reply with enthusiasm, “Yes, yes!”
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 the alley! I remember him – waking up with a disoriented feeling, in the middle of several nights – cursing dogs for barking so loudly, and saying, “Satan itself has influenced them! And look at these people sleeping! They seem to have not been affected by the godforsaken woofing at all.” He hates the new generation that has infested the whole of Old Dhaka, and spews snide remarks at them all day long.
At this time, when Mir Habib is concocting more comments, someone cries out from the bend, “There is a black dog in Saha Lane!” The dog catchers hurry there with their instruments, alerted by the cue for a new catch. Mir Habib too follows them before they disappear among a large concourse of local residents. Once the dog is seen in the vicinity of a newly built house, he asks the leader, “How do you know whether a dog is infected with rabies or not?”
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, signalling the dog catchers to trap the dog with hand nets. Mir Habib steps forward and takes a gulp of water from a faucet and spouts it at the dog that has already been cornered by the catchers. Then he declares proudly, “Rabies-infected dogs fear water and so the only way to confirm the disease is to water it like I am doing now!”
The black dog darts across the two dog catchers and evades the ensuing trap. Mir Habib takes a hosepipe that poor residents use for supplying water from the government faucet into their houses, and aims it at the dog. But instead of hitting the black dog, the spurt wets some curious pedestrians and residents. The dog runs, zigzagging across the road and capering unsteadily, and then disappears into the street that ends in the old landing ghat.
Mir Habib pursues the dog with a dash, 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 these alleys.
A crowd also follows them. For everyone in the group and the crowd, it appears that they are on a hunting game. The leader prepares his rifle with a dart that will tranquilise the dog; another man carries the big pincer on his shoulder, which, once placed on the neck of the dog, will frustrate all attempts at counter-attack.
“Cut its vas deferens today! Make the dog impotent!” Mir Habib grits his teeth, cheering for the dog catchers and the crowd.
When Mir Habib and the dog catchers enter Boro Kattra Lane, they see that a street crowd has already encircled the rebellious dog. The frightened creature barks at everyone and tries to escape in vain. The little boy, who is not seen among the dog catchers in Saha Lane, shoulders through the crowd, going towards it. A frisson of alarm goes through the black dog, and coming close, the boy notices that the dog is one-eyed and its back is almost wet. Mir Habib could only hit its tail and back partially.
The little boy throws his arms open and makes a soft clucking sound, to which the black dog bays back for a while and then falls completely silent. The crowd has stopped jeering; the entire alley falls silent, too. Even the old buildings of the area seem to have lent their ears to listen to what the little boy is saying to the black dog. Now it comes closer to him and whines its fear out so faintly, so softly, that it remains inaudible to the crowd. A single pupil in the dog’s right eye has enlarged after a long frightening chase. It shows every sign of being afraid. Only when the little boy rubs its neck and shoulder does it close its eyes in silent gratitude. It closes its eyes to a sort of mob that is afraid of getting wet on the cold, mist-shrouded 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 in the sky of Old Dhaka begins to evaporate, and the sun touches the cornices of old houses and several krisnachura trees in the fort compound, rusting away the cruelty and pent-up feelings of the silent crowd. Their souls move musically to the little boy’s cadence of the rhyme. Mir Habib has also stopped talking; he goes quiet and puts the hosepipe on the roadside kerb, and looks at the dog and the little boy like the other pedestrians. When a dog catcher steps forward with a hand net, their leader stops him and says softly, “We will vaccinate the black dog another day.”