The Financial Express

A dignified life for Bangladesh water gypsies

| Updated: September 29, 2021 21:03:23

Anjuman Begum, a water gypsy, is placing a mattress over the rooftop of their boat for drying in the sun	— bdnews24.com Anjuman Begum, a water gypsy, is placing a mattress over the rooftop of their boat for drying in the sun — bdnews24.com

Only 15 years ago, flotillas of water gypsies moving along the rivers of Bangladesh were a common spectacle. These flotillas would comprise small boats with roofs made of tin or sliced bamboo pieces, and assorted materials. Normally, the boats will be seen carrying a family, at times an extended one. Several children, babies to teenagers, would be found on almost every boat. These water gypsies would live on boats for generations in a row. They used to earn their living by selling herbal and curative tidbits, curing rural women of gout-related and dental problems, complicated pains etc by employing crude treatments and recitation or singing of mumbo jumbo.

However, the Bedey women in Bangladesh once were synonymous with snake charming. A couple of these gypsy women moving along the village paths, specially made baskets of snakes on their head, were a common scenario in rural Bangladesh. Calling them home, watching the hood-spreading snakes, and getting ostensibly cured of complicated ailments would once be a part of the rural leisurely life. Although they called the shots in a family, the males would remain engaged in simply idling away their time back in their boat-houses. The Bedey males are highly possessive and protective of their women. Glisteningly dark-skinned, and gifted with a sprightly sing-song voice, the Bedey young women have for ages been objects of attraction for mainland male communities. The celebrated village bard --- Poet Jasim Uddin exploited the subject extensively. One of his popular folk ballads deals with a love affair between a mainland wealthy youth and a Bedey woman. As it was vehemently disapproved of by the Bedey elders, the two fled to a distant place. They were caught by an influential Bedey youth who was infatuated to the woman. Finding no way out, the loving couple took their lives together. 

 For ages, the Bedey women would go out with their herbal as well as faith-healing objects to return home with their meagre income. They would also bring home rice and pulses given to them by the ladies of well-off families in addition to money. The Bedey flotillas would not stay at a venue for more than a fortnight. Poverty and perceived insecurity of their women would prompt them to shift from even an otherwise peaceful place. According to Bengal region's ethnologists, through the ages these water gypsies remained economically hard-pressed.  

This unique community was once a spectacular view in the river-filled Bangladesh. Thanks to their makeshift boat-houses with their whole families and belongings on them, they would shun large rivers. They moved throughout the land's minor rivers and canals; and would make night halts near villages and riverside 'bazars'. In their golden times, every flotilla would have a wise elderly man. He would be respected by all, irrespective of sex. The man had an uncanny prescience about approaching storms. On flotillas, he would act as guide to his own Bedey community. Even a flotilla had at times to venture out into the middle of formidably large rivers; but he would finally herd them into the safe riversides. Perhaps this is the reason the spectacular sight of rows of boats would be seen pass along the banks of big rivers.

In the nearly last two decades, the number of water gypsies began facing a fast decline with the land's smaller rivers dying out or disappearing. Moreover, grabbing of almost all rivers by encroachers had contributed to the Bedeys' sharp thinning out. The history of the water gypsies dates back to the ancient times. Originally called the 'Manta', this water tribe is said to have arrived in the land of Bengal from the region of Assam. Though having a resemblance with Bangla, they speak a different language within themselves. The Bedeys originated from an Indo-Aryan stock. There are many ethnological theories on why and how they opted for a nomadic lifestyle on rivers. According to a school, in the ancient times the Bedeys used to practice animism. They would also worship many deities, a practice which is traced back to ancient Assam. Later, they converted to Islam en masse. However, despite their predominantly Muslim identity, sections of them still practise lots of pre-Islamic rites. By nature, peace-loving and family-bound, many term them 'xenophobic'. And it's true they are suspicious of strangers and love to remain close-knit within their own community.

The Bedeys, like the northern Indian, West Asian and European gypsies, continue to be marginalised. They are generally viewed as social pariahs. Thanks to their centuries of poverty, deprivation of education and lots of 'notoriety' for various reasons, many of them have opted for turning around. In Bangladesh, upon facing humiliating social discrimination for centuries, the country's water gypsies have started settling down on riverside lands.

 Many of them have left their nomadic way of life, and are trying to get merged with the social mainstream. Giving up their age-old lifestyle of floating on rivers aimlessly, the new-generation Bedeys appear to have become desperate for a state-recognised identity. What they aspire for are voting rights, education of their children, access to state sponsored loans for agriculture and many other financial incentives. For now a number of NGOs have extended their cooperation to the Bedeys, who have bidden farewell to their boat-centred life.

Up to the 1930s, European poets and painters had given the gypsies a special place in their literary and artistic output. Over the decades, a section of gypsies began developing a discomfort of sorts at these special attentions. A strong sense of dignity had found way into their psyche. But the nations of overtly egoistic nature still hesitate to integrate the gypsies into the mainstream society. In the process, the nomads who began their march from Asia, with no ulterior motive, may have to wait many more decades to be recognised by the conventional societies in Europe. The Gypsies, then called Roma or Romani people, were also subject to pre-WW-II persecution in Bavaria in Germany. During 1933-1939, the Nazi government police in Bavaria began hunting down the Romani people as they had 'alien blood', and, thus, were undesirable. A department known as the Central Office for Gypsy Affairs opened to help police record the whereabouts of the gypsies. It was the poor gypsies who prompted the Nazi Germany to toy with the idea of the evil experiment of 'eugenics'.

The case for Bangladesh gypsies is completely unique and different from the similar other cases. Unlike the southern Asian and West Asian gypsies, the water gypsies of Bangladesh haven't moved through different continents. Except within the sub-continental countries, they were never known to have crossed borders to reach the other territories. To speak specifically, the Bedeys remained within the Bangla-speaking areas, especially the eastern part of Bengal, now Bangladesh.

This river-filled land has been the Bedeys' ancestral home for generations. Perhaps the water gypsies couldn't think of any better place where they can settle down. In many ways, they have earned the right to call Bangladesh their home. Their case is similar to the Europeans in North America or the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking peoples in South America. Keeping these facts in consideration, the Bedeys deserve to be recognised as the residents of this sovereign state. Like the larger indigenous segments of population in the country, as rights activists observe, the Bedeys are now in a position from where they can demand access to education, housing, land purchase and many basic rights. That they have no permanent address, and have to lead a life of floating in rivers is no fault of theirs. Keeping pace with the changes in times, many prompted by the tampering with rivers, and their dream of leading their lives like the other citizens, the Bedeys' aspirations ought not to be skirted. If full citizenship is not possible, they can be allowed to enjoy a special type of residency. The conscientious persons do not want to see the water gypsies as a drag on society. Temptations to opt for dubious ways of life have already started overtaking many of them. The Bedeys are seen giving in to these aberrations out of sheer desperation.

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