That mango tree
TO me nothing symbolises baisakh better than the mango tree. The flowering mango groves in magh-falgun are a delectable sight. The fragrance of the mango blossom has found its place in our poetry and our national anthem. And rightly so.
It is, however, in baisakh that the blossoms give way to the maturing mango, soon to ripen. Far better than the panta bhat that is nowadays eaten ceremonially, it is the mango tree that ushers in the new Bangla year with its promise of luscious abundance.
Away from home, I miss the mango tree on the first day of baisakh. I miss the young tree on the east of our village bhita, the larger one on the south and the big one spreading its moss-covered branches on the tin-roofed house we slept in. But most of all I miss a mango tree that was known not for its fruit but for something more profound.
It stood in front of the large two-storied building that housed the arts faculty of Dhaka University till it was moved to a new campus in Nilkhet. For anyone who was a student of the university in the early nineteen fifties, and even to many who weren't, and now reading this reminiscence, this would already have thrown open a floodgate of memories. And what memories they are!
It was a small tree that barely rose to the roof level of the first storey of the lofty building. It was certainly not what one could call a mohiruha. But it was a fine, well-shaped, tree, with dense foliage and no unwieldy branches. The grass was green and fairly thick even in its shade. And the tree saw history made.
This is where, under the tree, one late February morning students of the university and from afar gathered to continue their call for recognition of Bangla as a state language of the country. The campus rang with slogans: "Rashtro bhasha Bangla chai." This is where they decided to resist the imposition of a police ban on protests, and to march to the Provincial Assembly, the seat of the provincial legislature, to press home their demand.
The day was February 21, 1952. Chanting full-throated slogans, the students began to march out of the campus in groups of ten in deliberate defiance of the law. They were promptly arrested and hauled onto waiting vans. Suddenly, the police charged into the campus, lobbing teargas shells, and clubbing the crowd. The students scattered, many with wet handkerchiefs pressed against their eyes, trying in vain to ward off the sting of teargas. The mango tree saw it all.
The police left, the students regrouped and began scaling the wall that separated the campus from Dacca Medical College to rush to the college hostel compound, where the first martyrs of the language movement fell, and history was made.
Another February came and with it another protest. That was 1955. Again the police brutalised the students milling around the mango tree, chanting "Rashtro bhasha Bangla chai" and preparing to march out to the street. They were tear-gassed, many were beaten up and many more arrested. The tree witnessed it all. The tree witnessed the first marches to Bengali nationhood.
Some thirty-five years later, on one of my trips from abroad, I went looking for the mango tree. The old arts faculty building had been taken over by Dhaka Medical College. The ground was squalid and grassless. And empty.
Excepting for the dark, mutilated trunk of a tree sticking out of the ground and forking into two short, lopped limbs, like two amputated hands trying to reach into the void. Mutilated and dead. That was the mango tree I had been looking for.
How did it die? Nobody could tell me. It could not have been a natural death. Mango trees are said to live very long. Some live hundreds of years. And they are evergreen. That tree must have met a violent death. There is no commemoration of its death. Today not even the remnant of that tree stands.
Today, the first day of baisakh, the beginning of the season of green fruitfulness, I celebrate that mango tree.