“The whole area will be digital!” says Taimur Reza, the scrawny, bald-and-bearded proprietor of Taimur's betel leaf stand on the footpath outside Md Giasuddin's tin shed tea stall. “When the Metro comes our Kalshi will be a new New York!”
With hand gesture he presents the street to his two friends – three random Bengalis in a largely Bihari neighborhood – as though it were a TV game show prize: a bedbug-infested, potholed Mirpur laneway with hobby-builder housing blocks in decaying rainbow colors on the tea stall side, along with a dying factory, and a broad rubbish and sludge-filled drain on the other. Taimur is from Gopalganj: enthusiasm for the ruling party is his birthright.
“The Metro is hardly for people like us,” says a voice from below and further south. Alam, the beggar of Bholan heritage, has been sitting cross-legged with his plate at Taimur's feet every day for twelve years. He's a lanky fellow who early in his career appreciated that people were more sympathetic when he didn't tower over them. Indeed, Alam, whose knees ache from all the sitting, often rails at how height-prejudiced charity can be.
“Of course it's for you!” squeals Taimur. “All the Sahibs and Begums from the housing society who cruise this alley in their shiny cars, what will they do, eh? They'll walk to the Metro and as they go, they'll drop a few notes in your grubby little dish!”
The thought of more notes in his dish leaves Alam quiet. Thus the moment is ripe for Giasuddin to pipe in: the plump, mustached shopkeeper often waits until last to add his bit of Maijdee-bred street savvy. “The banners of praise are up, road holes dug. The job's done! They'll never actually build the Metro,” he predicts.
Taimur couldn't have let such an anti-Gopalganj slur stand except that just then Jony, a runty lad of twelve, rushes up. He's ill-at-ease. “Have you seen Tinaturner, my dog?” he asks urgently. Jony is shaping his hands as if to mime the perimeter of a sports bag. Giasuddin realizes it's one of those digital, fluffy breeds he's lost, a canine of the type that live entire lives on balconies.
“She was seen running down this lane about ten minutes ago,” Jony continues, flustered.
“Sorry. No,” says Taimur. “I saw no Tinaturner,” says Giasuddin. “I didn't see a thing,” adds Alam, pushing his friends to laughter since Alam is blind.
Jony is about to carry on down the bustling laneway when Alam continues. “But I did hear something.”
“Really?” Jony asks.
“You won't like it,” Alam warns, not only to Jony. “I heard a loud splash, then a thrashing-about sound coming from the drain.”
“Idiot!” retorts Giasuddin. “Don't start! That was years ago!”
“Tinaturner can swim,” Jony interjects. “She swam in the waves at Cox's Bazaar.”
“If it was only swimming,” mutters Alam.
“Don't listen to him!” Giasuddin barks. “His mother was a horse. He doesn't know rice from straw! Search for your dog, son. She'll turn up.”
Jony follows Giasuddin's advice, leaving three friends quietly contemplating. “It's well-known that a magur fish can walk overland,” Taimur eventually starts. “Maybe it came back?”
“Remember how it crossed the entire laneway to swallow that caged pigeon in front of Mahbub Bhai's fruit stand?” says Alam.
“That never happened!” shoots Giasuddin. “It was only talk. Okay, so there might've been a large fish in the drain back then, but fish don't eat pigeons. Besides, how could a fish take a pigeon from its cage?”
It was a reasonable point. On the other hand, the walking catfish of Kalshi, if it did exist, was no ordinary fish. Few could claim to have seen it beyond a flash of scales, but those who had caught a glimpse often trembled to recount it. The most gigantic, ferocious, ugly-looking fish they'd ever seen was the common thread: bulbous, football-sized eyes; whiskers like hideous octopus tentacles; a wart-covered mouth that stretched half the drain span. It was the size of a goat, some reported. It spat fist-sized balls of putrid sludge at passersby, insisted others.
Not even the largest pond in the farthest village had ever known a fish like the one that'd terrorized that laneway for several months, it would seem. Perhaps there is some nutrient in dying factory effluent or city run-off that can make a fish grow large, so speculation went.
“Magur fish eat anything,” says Alam. “Back in Bhola there was a big criminal in our area who kept a pond brimming with magurs. He used to throw the bodies of anyone he killed in there and the man would be reduced to bones, flesh sucked away in seconds, a whole body slurped up.”
Of course not everybody believed in the Kalshi fish at first but certain evidence was difficult to refute. For one thing, several witnesses independently referred to a v-shaped scar above its right gill. For another, that drain was the only one the slum-dwellers wouldn't fish during the monsoon floods: it was known they'd catch nothing there. It was as if every living thing, every vaguely edible morsel had been picked clean from that drain stretch.
And then there were the sewer-cleaners, that class of practitioner who routinely dives into manholes without any equipment, holding their breaths and plunging to toxic depths to clear blockages: to this day they refuse to unclog that particular drain, albeit of the easier, open-air variety. It's an aversion born of the sudden disappearance of one of their number assigned there. A more usual explanation is that the fellow was engaged in an illicit affair with a garment worker in Savar and eloped with her. But inevitably, others blame the fish.
Over time, the fish became accepted fact. Even the professor from Mirpur's esteemed Modern and Beautiful Northeast International College who resided on the third-floor of one of the better buildings could not deny the fish, in the end.
Those were stressful months. The poultry feriwalahs kept their caged chickens even on their beds of a night for security. Mothers of small children, a younger Jony among them, strictly forbade their charges to walk along the laneway without explaining why. Even Giasuddin altered his habit of leaving shingaras in the glass counter of his shop overnight in case the fish showed up. And then, shortly after the sewer-cleaner vanished so too did all signs of the fish. At the time, Taimur proposed that the sewer-cleaner had proven too much and it died of indigestion. Or perhaps he struggled and mortally wounded the creature, suggested Alam. Or, said others, it might've walked off somewhere on its fins, as magur fish do. Whatever the truth, the neighbourhood settled down.
Despite what Giasuddin said to comfort Jony, neither he nor Taimur doubted Alam's ability to hear. Over the alleyway's hubbub he'd once stopped a woman to warn her that her broach had just fallen onto the roadside. Sure enough, she gratefully found it. Could the fish be back, after all?
There was no sign of Tinaturner. Jony came looking on the following day, and the day after that. He always stopped to ask the trio and on the third day, Jony's teary eyes moved Giasuddin to speak up. “We need to tell him about the fish,” Giasuddin says.
When the elaborate thirty-five minute narration is done, Alam has an idea. “You could try to catch it,” he says to Jony. “If you split its belly open there may be some remnant of Tina Turner. At least you'd be sure.”
The next day the friends observes as hour after hour into the afternoon, Jony squats beside the drain with a usual kind of fishing pole. Lastly they call to him.
“You'll need a much bigger pole,” says Alam. “Why not borrow a bamboo scaffolding pole from the building site on the corner?”
“For bait at least half a chicken will do,” adds Taimur, “and tie it on with wire since rope will never hold the beast.”
“Here, take this for the hook,” says ever-practical Giasuddin, reaching for one of the industrial-thick s-shaped metal rods used to hang packets of crisps at his tea stall.
The following morning Jony is at it again, with about the weirdest fishing rig Mirpur has ever seen. One hour passes, then another. “If it was here, maybe it walked off again,” says Taimur.
And then, at around 11.30 a.m. there's the jolt of a terrified scream followed by a tremendous splash. Taimur and Giasuddin jump to their feet and race over the road, Alam scrambling close behind. “Hai! Hai!” sings an incredulous, trembling Taimur as they reach the drain's edge. There's no sign of the lad.
“I'm not a strong swimmer,” Giasuddin announces. “I'm feeling giddy,” says Taimur. “I really can't see,” adds Alam. Seized by a paralyzing fear of fishy lips and slippery whiskers, there'll be no heroics. None will dive in after the boy. Would you?
A bamboo scaffolding pole floats ominously on the film of sludge-water. A few toxic bubbles plop up nearby; and just then, a dirty dog of the fluffy digital variety saunters up the middle of the laneway, trotting along without a care.
Andrew Eagle is an English Instructor and feature writer of The Daily Star.