Two young policemen were already pushing people away from the main attraction, although no one moved without protest. And when the policemen confronted another segment of the mass, those just ushered away shuffled right back to where they had stood. A couple of boys were still jumping on the creature, even as the cops waved their batons and screamed at them. No sooner were they shooed off than another couple scaled the carcass, using it as a trampoline, as their parents snapped pictures on their mobile phones. So it was that I caught my first glimpse of the monster. I recognized it at once from a documentary on satellite TV. It was a whale shark. And it was at least forty feet long, as the fishermen had earlier suggested. No doubt it weighed many tons, too.
“Please, Haji Sahib,” Inspector Hashim pleaded. “Have your man cover it up.”
“Alright, alright. Because we are friends.” An irked Haji Sahib instructed his ticket seller to bring a tarp, sufficiently stridently for the Inspector to hear. But I was close enough to him to catch the wily fish dealer whisper that the man should take his time and someone else should be sent to continue selling tickets out of sight of the police. And even when a gigantic green tarp did appear to be draped over the unfortunate beast, it only remained as long as the police were looking on. The moment their backs were turned, it was yanked off to the cheers of the throng. The policemen, meanwhile, were not so easily duped, returning time and again to order the tarp back, seeing it done, only for the whole exercise to be repeated when they attempted to walk away. As tickets had never stopped being sold, the gathering also kept growing, particularly as school was now out, and a greater and greater collective moan rose every time they were denied their money’s worth.
In the midst of this seemingly endless cycle of cheers and moans, I noticed an unexpected figure standing back from the crowd: the gora Haji Sahib had mentioned. “Bill, Bill!” I called out. He was an American journalist that I had encountered a number of times at the Press Club. Just the day before we had attended a briefing on a suicide bombing at a mosque — the reason he had flown into Karachi from Delhi. I didn’t expect to see him here, taking an interest in this kind of story, but here he was, a hulking policeman at his side for protection. I don’t think he recognized me on the dock, but he feigned a smile, pearly whites gleaming in the sun, as we shook hands.
“I couldn’t miss this,” he explained. “A break from you people killing each other. But now I wish I hadn’t come. These fisher folk really are barbarians,” he sneered. “Don’t they realize this is an endangered species?”
Before I could answer, his mobile rang and he stepped away to take the call. I thought I’d talk to some members of the crowd while Bill was occupied. Close by was a little girl holding her mother’s hand. “Did you see the fish?” I asked.
Because at that moment a hush fell over the crowd and as at least a dozen policemen surrounded them. They were soon revealed to be the city commissioner’s escort.
“No,” she cried. “I was really excited when Amma said she’ll bring me. But the big boys don’t let us get near. Still, I hear it’s enormous!”
“It is,” I confirmed. “It’s a whale shark, I think.”
“Shark! Thank Lord Shiva we couldn’t get close.”
“No need to worry,” I said. “It doesn’t even have any teeth. These are very gentle creatures.”
“Really? Can I take it home, then?”
Her mother smiled and, excusing herself, dragged her daughter off. So I decided to snap a couple of pictures and crack open my notebook to jot down a few impressions. This seemed to draw the attention of another man nearby, a dozen boys and girls huddled around him. He turned out to be a pastor from a church in Saddar. I had interviewed him, once. “Are you going to write about this?” he asked.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“You should,” he instructed. “The Bible talks of such creatures. Jonah spent days in the belly of such a fish. That’s why I brought the children — so they could behold the wonder of God’s creation.”
“It is truly a wonder,” I said, declining to point out that this was not a whale. Good thing, too. Because at that moment a hush fell over the crowd as at least a dozen policemen surrounded them. They were soon revealed to be the city commissioner’s escort.
The commissioner was well-known to me — at least, professionally. He was at every press conference, condemning the latest atrocity committed by some militant or criminal outfit. He had a preference for brown suits as grim as the frown he wore when offering his condolences to the relatives of the victims. Allah’s swift justice, he always assured, was guaranteed. Of course, he was lying through his dentures, rumored to be paid for by the criminals he claimed to be pursuing. As he now climbed on the bed of a pick-up truck to address a very different audience, flanked by officials from the harbor association, I couldn’t help but wonder what his angle was today. Why was he here? What was his interest in a fish? What did he hope to gain? I listened for clues in his speech, but none were immediately apparent. He barked that the monster was a protected species and so the property of the government. Haji Sahib would be compensated and the head of the harbor association would arrange for his catch to be immediately transferred to the custody of the Marine Fisheries Department. Experts from the United Kingdom were already on their way to carry out an autopsy.
Having instructed the mob to disperse peacefully, he and his entourage then withdrew, though not before exchanging a few words with Haji Sahib, leaving the police to carry out their orders. The crowd did not immediately obey, grumbling that they had paid to see the monster. But the commissioner did not look back. The lone scientist from the Marine Fisheries Department, however, lingered and grasped the opportunity to mingle with the people and explain his intentions. Many now gathered around him. I joined them and saw Bill draw near, too.