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Bedeys leaving their traditional boat-homes, let the boat drift away aimlessly

Shihab Sarkar | January 11, 2019 00:00:00

The October 2018 issue of the National Geographic magazine carries a pictorial story on the Iranian nomadic people. In terms of the adversities facing these roaming communities, they show a similarity with the Bangladesh water or river gypsies, locally termed 'Bedeys'. They have for centuries been moving on boats on the rivers and vast water bodies across the country. Like their ancestors, they conduct all chores of their lives including marriage and raising families on country boats. The Iranian nomads live in the country's northern hilly region. Until recently they have hardly thought about the modern amenities of life and the necessity of enrolling their children on school. The scenario has changed radically of late. A number of parents sending their offspring to the nearby cities, and taking pride in their 'educated' status, is fast inspiring the others to arrange opportunities for their children's studies in urban schools. In general, children's education has lately become one of the top socio-familial priorities in the Iranian nomadic communities. Many have started mulling to migrate to the cities, leaving behind the nomadic life.

Almost like the Iranian nomads, the 'Bedeys' of Bangladesh have for some decades been bidding farewell to their ancestral boats and getting down to the land. Many have switched over to agriculture, small businesses and other new vocations, leaving their age-old professions. Snake charming and snake catching being the focal area of their livelihood, the 'Bedey' professions have for centuries been related to this commonly feared and awed reptile --- in one way or another. To the common rural people, they have different types of identities. If a group of them earn their living by arranging sessions of 'snake games', the others are found engaged in quackery of various types. Lots of myths are associated with the 'Bedeys'. A common one is they are the descendants of the shamans and clairvoyants who once inhabited the lands of sorcery in the fabled Kamroop and Kamakkhya. The places were once believed to be a part of the ancient Assam, now an Indian state on the northeast of Bangladesh.

The 'Bedeys' of Bangladesh couldn't but change with times. With the advent of the technology-based modern way of life in the mainstream society, their superstition-centred life fell on bad times. Their age-old professions witnessed a sharp fall in the number of their clients. For toothaches, backaches and waist pains, people in villages turn no longer to the 'Bedey' healers. Over-the-counter medicines for these ailments are available even in the remotest parts of rural Bangladesh. On the other hand, in the age of online entertainments few youngsters are found drawn to the now-archaic games long enjoyed by the villagers.

The widespread dislocations in their way of life and many other disruptive developments have left their negative impacts on the 'Bedey' lifestyle. One of them has appeared in the form of poverty. There are few 'Bedey' families now who are not affected by the scourge of poverty. 'Bedeys' moving about the rivers in isolation, instead of in flotillas (Bohor) is a common spectacle these days. Besides, a few of the families are seen living in boats without 'Chhoi' (thatched or tin roofs). Scenes such as these were beyond imagination in the past. In cases, they are seen afflicted by extreme forms of poverty. On occasions, owing to lack of enough means to enable them to lead a tolerably decent life, a section of people from this community, especially young women, choose dishonest paths to survive. 'Bedey' women coercing passersby on the city streets into paying them 'bakshish' is one. In case of refusal by any to give in to these extortions, the furious women threaten to release small snakes on them. Besides, a section of 'Bedey' males are alleged to be getting involved in drug running and other questionable acts. Sociological experts and community leaders point the finger at poverty, coupled with social neglect, for this fast slide in the Bedey way of life. It should not have been so.

Unlike many other well-known gypsy communities around the world, the 'Bedeys' of Bengal have traditionally been known as peaceful. A family-centred community with patriarchal headmen, they are required to abide by stringent rules. These are related to the day-to-day matters, socio-cultural norms and even premarital relationship. Marriage between a non-'Bedey' mainlander male and a Bedey female is strictly prohibited. Still instances of unapproved cross-cultural marriage and the consequent purges are not too uncommon. A verse-play based the heart-rending tale of such a love-and-marriage occupies an immortal place in modern Bangla folk literature. Written by Poet Pallikabi Jasim Uddin, it is still staged in the Bangladesh and international folk festivals.

To the distress of the ethnologists, the onslaught of poverty and social marginalisation has long been robbing the 'Bedey' community of their basic values and virtues. As they start leaving their traditional boat-homes, they allegorically let the boat drift away aimlessly. A similar destiny awaits them on the land which they choose as their new settlement. Over the last few decades, the tale of the 'Bedey' community has been one of unabated disintegration, with a section of male and female youths going astray. Thanks to the intervention of a section of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the headlong plunge could be checked. Even while on their boats, many 'Bedey' families have been seen using solar power with panels mounted on their boat roofs. Many of them continue to do so after settling on the landed plots. A considerable number of them start growing crops. This practice of 'Bedeys' resorting to agriculture goes against their age-old way of life. As time wears on, these water-gypsies continue to make a break with their past filled with elements of blissful ignorance. 'Bedey' children attending classes at primary schools on the city suburbs are a common spectacle now. News reports of these students performing brilliantly at the junior-level and secondary school examinations are not infrequent in the media. But they need more morale booster and financial incentives to become integrated with the mainstream society --- at least at the broader, mundane level.

Meanwhile, in the process of assimilation with the greater segments of population the 'Bedeys' lose their carefully guarded identity. This is how the majority segments of a population overrun the minority communities. In the case of the Bangladesh river-gypsies, they have long lost their written script. Their spoken language is largely a pidgin one --- a mixture of their original vocabularies and modern Bangla expressions including dialects and slang. Few of today's new-generation 'Bedey' youths are aware of their ethno-cultural roots buried in their long-lost 'Mangta' past.

Ethnologists fear that the continued social and national-level neglect meted out to the 'Bedeys' may eventually lead to their extinction. Bangladesh was once home to dozens of non-tribal ethnic communities. They included professional hunters, bird catchers, informal circus teams as well as story tellers and magicians. Over time, the modern technology-bred entertainments have all but swallowed the homegrown and simple amusements. With them the nation has lost a number of its colourful population segments as well. The void has been filled up by online tech-savvy communities and the related digital gadgets. Thus a 'Bedey' teenage boy browsing a smartphone at a riverside tea-corner may not be as surprising as it appeared in the past.


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