“Which one of you can tell me about the fish you sold to Haji Sahib?”
“We have had enough of this fish,” a lean fellow spoke up, eyes still fixed on his dinner.
“And Haji Sahib…” another protested.
“We got a few hundred rupees each for all that work,” a third was more forthcoming. “And I hear Haji Sahib is charging fifty rupees per person to see it.” Munching, he added, “What’s it to you, anyway?”
“I’m a reporter,” I explained. “I want to write about how you landed this great beast. I can pay. It must have taken much skill.”
All ears perked up. I was even invited to join them for dinner, which I did, taking a seat cross-legged on the floor.
“Dilawar first spotted it,” a man who hadn’t yet spoken pointed out his fellow.
“I did,” Dilawar admitted. He was no more than a boy, really, one of so many Bangladeshis who had smuggled themselves across India on their way to Europe, only to be waylaid in Pakistan until they earned the fee charged by traffickers. No doubt their boss, Muhammad Jamal, was in on the deal. “I did,” Dilawar repeated, proud of his feat. “It was caught in our nets. It was alive. We often find smaller ones, too, but just cut them loose. This one, though, so big…we tried to cut it loose, but it died. So we decided it might compensate us for our lost time, even dead. It’s the biggest one we have ever seen. How many hours it took to pull it in. And we had to tie it to side the boat. No way we could haul it on board. It was too big!”
“So, it was alive when you found it?”
“Yes, yes,” one of the others clarified, “but it was unconscious. The water is very dirty, you know. From the factories. It makes them sick. We know not to catch them, saab. It is the law. But then they get caught in our nets…ruin our nets…waste all our time. And Jamal saab complains. ‘You Bengalis are losing me money. You owe me for my nets.’ On and on…”
Thanking them for their version of events, I emptied my pockets. I was on my way to buy some groceries when I came upon the unfolding story at the harbor, so I had a couple of thousand rupees. They seemed pleased, insisting I at least eat a little rice. But I excused myself, eager to get to the fisheries man at the museum. It was already past seven and I didn’t want to miss him.
By the time my rickshaw pulled up at the dilapidated Natural History Museum, it was a few minutes before nine. Traffic! Although the museum had been long abandoned — no funds, said the government — tonight more than the chowkidar were milling about outside its gate. Dr. Ilahi was there. So, too, was a pretty young woman, “Dr. Nurjahan…from the Wildlife Department,” she said. Dr. Ilahi also introduced me to a greyed old fellow from the Research Council, another no less wrinkled from the Oceanography Institute, and two young marine biologists from the University. I was surprised to see them all outside. I presumed they had already finished the autopsy.
And although we did not discuss it further, we who had stood outside the abandoned Natural History Museum that night, each of us was certain that the fish taken from the deep waters off the harbor had found its way to Sri Lanka, after all. Chop, chop!
“No.” Dr. Nurjahan shook her head so vigorously her dupatta slipped off. “The specimen hasn’t arrived.”
I was stunned. It was already in a state of decay on the dock. I had seen it loaded on a truck hours ago.
“I’ve called the commissioner’s office,” Dr. Ilahi dejectedly clarified, “the police inspector, the fellow from the harbor association…even Haji Sahib. No one is answering. No one is returning my calls… And Dr. Amin from Islamabad is on his way. He was going to preserve it for display in the new museum in the capital. What will he say, my wasting his time and money?”
“The specimen will be beyond preservation, now,” the senior from the Research Council added, his colleagues from the other institutions nodding in agreement.
“Well,” I hoped my finds would cheer them a bit, “I found the fishermen who brought it in. They said it was alive when they found it, but died before they could release it. Pollution makes them sick, they said.”
“Who knows,” one of the professors spoke to his colleagues, rather than me. “The species is valuable to them. It fetches millions on the black market. They may not have intentionally tried to catch it, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t kill it.”
“But,” Dr. Nurjahan interjected, “they all know the law. My office sends people to talk to them…often. And many of them listen. Even the fishermen on the Indus have been releasing the river dolphins. You know all this.”
“And pollution is definitely killing whale sharks…” Dr. Ilahi added.
Dr. Nurjahan only shrugged, draping the dupatta back over her brow, appearing somewhat chagrined at the doubtful university man. “I suppose we will never know.”
She was right. We waited around for another couple of hours. We made the same calls to the same people repeatedly, but to no avail. Even the next day, we made calls and, checking with each other, all confirmed the silence on the other end. No comment. No experts from the U.K. The great beast had disappeared like a political dissident. And although we did not discuss it further, we who had stood outside the abandoned Natural History Museum that night, each of us was certain that the fish taken from the deep waters off the harbor had found its way to Sri Lanka, after all. Chop, chop! We had no reason to doubt that everyone from the city commissioner to Haji Sahib had got their cut, each portioned according to the color of their teeth: red, yellow, silver or white. Yes, even Bill got a share. A few days later I read his report, published in the New York Times, no less: ‘Pakistanis Terrorize the Seas.’ But as Dr. Nurjahan had said, the truth is that we will never be certain of what actually happened. All I know is that the people of Karachi briefly glimpsed something extraordinary that day — a monster, a catfish, a shark…perhaps even the whale that swallowed Jonah. But all that remained of it, all that at least I was left with, was the memory of the most unholy stench I have ever sniffed.
M. Reza Pirbhai is an author and professor currently teaching World and South Asian history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Before moving to Doha, he studied and taught in the USA and Canada. He has also called the UK, Philippines and United Arab Emirates home at various points in his life, but is originally from Pakistan.