Published:  12:28 AM, 13 September 2019

The bamboo in our culture

The bamboo in our culture

You cannot ignore the bamboo. More to the point, you cannot cast aside the truth that the bamboo has played a vital role at various points in our history.

That it has a power of its own, either to intimidate or set the mind thinking was demonstrated some years ago when a young lawmaker in Rangpur, hundreds of his followers in tow and with sleek, shining green bamboos in hand, descended on the local medical college for purposes that were as nefarious as they were reprehensible. The bamboo came in handy, even when those under attack fought back and gave the lawmaker and his hangers-on a taste of that self-same bamboo.

The bamboo, then, is what we employ when we set out to do something we cannot argue through with logic. Back in the old days, when chars rose out of the many riverbeds in the country, large gangs of men with criminal intent, generally led by a local politician and armed with hard, forbidding bamboos, rushed forth to occupy those chars.

Heads were split open, hearts stopped beating and blood flowed on the fresh new sand. It was something like the mythic battles of old, with the bamboo serving for a decision maker. The more bamboos you had, the bigger the chances of your battlefield triumph. The char was yours to rule over. The rest of the world be damned.

But do note that sinister intent has not always been at the back of the bamboo argument. In our villages, even in these days of quick money and quicker rise of concrete structures, the bamboo serves as the foundation of humble huts in lonely villages. Nothing can serve as more durable construction material than the bamboo.

It goes deep into the ground and holds up an entire home. In the old days (perhaps even now) its hollow space served a purpose. Rural men and women, not particularly inclined to go to the bank and deposit their savings there, simply put coins and currency notes of different dimensions into those hollows. Quite often, the notes were eaten up by worms, but that did little to deter our wise ancestors from trusting the bamboo more than they would trust a distant, impersonal bank.

Something of the religious comes attached to the bamboo. You see this when people die in this country. Apart from the need for a shroud and a swiftly dug grave, there is a brisk rush for bamboos because split bamboos serve as a roof on the grave of the one who has closed his eyes on the temporal world. The splits are set carefully and lovingly over a grave and then covered over with plantain leaves. Even as the heart breaks in us, we then move into placing all that dug up soil on the grave, a place whence the dead one will not rise again. Not, at least, until the day of judgement.

And yet the bamboo is also a reason for celebration. It comes in useful at marriages, in the villages and in the towns, when bridal gates of a lofty kind need to be erected. You see, the bridegroom and his retinue must be made to feel the significance of the day. Of course, you can have gates made of banana plants, but then there is a chance that a slight wind or a bunch of running, giggling children will simply push them down. Where would that leave the bridal party? The bamboo holds up the huge shamiana under which hundreds of people, quite oblivious of the fact that there is a tomorrow, go on feasting as if today will never end.

In the distant past, when the term 'connectivity' had not yet been invented, the bamboo was all we had to cross a stream if we meant to reach our villages through the winding paths between the fields of paddy and jute. It was no bridge, not even a culvert. In fact, it was a contraption based on the primitive.

Two bamboos stretched across the stream, one at shoulder level on which you placed your hand and the other underfoot on which you moved forward gingerly in order not to slip into the water below. But then, some did fall and did give us cause for some much needed mirth. The fallen one then needed to be plucked from the river, almost like a fish at the end of a rod.

In the perspective of national politics, the bamboo was forever immortalised in Bengali history when a million people cheered every word that Bangabandhu declaimed at the old Race Course on 7 March 1971. The bamboo was not really the weapon we would need in our war of national liberation, but it made the point: if anyone so much as tried to thwart our wish for self-determination, the bamboo waited for him.

It was heavy, it was large and it produced a thwack when it landed so beautifully on the back of the oppressor. Moreover, there was a symbolism that came into it. In the days before the Pakistan army began its mission of murder and rape at the end of March 1971, young Bengali men and women trained with sawed-off bamboo pieces at Dhaka University. Those bamboo pieces would within weeks be replaced by guns. The bamboo, as you can imagine, was to show us the way to a good war.

Whole shards of poetry have come to be attached to the bamboo. On damp, drizzly monsoon nights in our villages, the sound of rain and wind through the bamboo groves serves as a perpetual reminder of the timelessness of our pastoral roots. Naughty children, warned by irritated mothers of the existence of ghosts amidst those groves, go off to sleep in gentle manner.

The bamboo often transforms itself into a barrier, when neighbours put up fences between one another or to prevent the neighbour's cow or goat from cheerfully eating up the plants growing in their courtyard. The bamboo becomes scaffolding for the poverty-stricken men who must be atop them as they build the homes of the affluent. A sudden plunge off that bamboo throws up instant tragedy. Titumir tried warding off his enemies through raising a bamboo fortress for his soldiers.

Let us call it a day. But, ah! In the ultimate sense, the bamboo often becomes an apt expression, a metaphor as it were, for human anger. Your neighbour purloins your mangoes and your coconuts every night.  One dark morning, in fiendish mood, you tell him you will give him the bamboo.  Your fruits are stolen no more.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age

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