Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: Eternity in a Bamboo Forest

There is a famous phrase in Bengali which, roughly translated, means: “The lion is king of the jungle; the jackal is king of the bamboo forest.”


There once was a jackal. And this jackal was the best in school. Lions always attained the highest glories, so his classmates first thought he was a lion. But clearly he was a jackal, for he sometimes acted strangely. Still, this jackal was an impressive jackal, and they offered him the throne of the jungle.


The jungle was a great jungle. Lush trees grew in this jungle. Clear water flowed through this jungle. All ate, drank and were merry in this jungle. “How lucky is this jackal!” they thought, “He will be king of the jungle!”


But the jackal said no. The animals of the bamboo forest had asked him to be king. His classmates did not understand. The bamboo forest had few rivers. Sometimes coconuts did not grow. Neighboring forests warred against each other and brought war to the bamboo forest. Even under the leadership of a great jackal, the future of the bamboo forest did not look glorious.


The jackal had come armed with arguments. He wanted his classmates’ support. He said he could help build new irrigation tunnels. He could plant new coconut trees. He might broker peace between the kings of the neighboring forests. The bamboo forest could use a jackal like him.


The monkeys—the great risk analysts of the jungle—said if the jackal could make the bamboo forest as great as the jungle, he would be remembered as a glorious jackal. But that would never happen. Progress would be slow, if there was progress at all.


The jackal saw they were right. He had been silly. The next day he would sit on the throne of the jungle.


That night, the jackal and his good friend, the lion, were watching the stars in the sky. Through the quiet air, they heard the distant singing of the animals of the bamboo forest. They were surprised. There had been drought in the bamboo forest. Many had died. Yet the animals of the forest were singing. And their song carried hope to the skies. And the stars twinkled as the song reached them.


And the jackal’s heart yearned to belong to that song, to sing with the animals that could make such song after such disaster! The song ended, and the jackal was silent. Then he told the lion he would join the animals of the bamboo forest. And the next day he did.


The lion was made king of the jungle, and many years went by. The animals of the jungle ate and drank and were merry. And the lion was proud to be king of such a jungle. And he forgot about the jackal.


Then one day the lion fell ill. The elephant—the great doctor of the jungle—told the lion this was the end of his life. And the lion felt strange. He did not know what to think. And suddenly he wondered what had become of his forgotten friend, the jackal?


The lion went to visit the jackal, and the jackal was happy to see him. He explained that the bamboo forest had made small progress. Water now flowed more steadily. Coconuts grew each year. There were many struggles, but the animals of the bamboo forest worked hard each day, and each night they sang together.


That day, the lion worked with the animals of the bamboo forest. It was tiring work. But the progress they all hoped for was made. And of this the lion felt good. He ate dinner with the animals of the bamboo forest. At night he joined in their song. And then they all went to sleep.


But the lion could not sleep. His heart was stirring. And the stirring felt good. The lion wished to stay awake, and feel the stirrings of his heart.


The lion looked at the stream nearby, and was startled by the reflection. A jackal was looking back at him! What could it mean? His body eased. He felt that he had never felt so easy in all his easy days in the jungle. And after so many years gone by, he clung to this moment of ease. “Though it be only for a moment,” he thought, “this moment feels so much longer than all the moments that came before.”


He looked up to the stars. They were twinkling as they had long ago, and their light showered wisdom upon him. “Moments of eternity,” he declared, “rest in self-defined castles!” He paused, enjoying the sound of the words. “They are hidden in the bamboo forests, and treasured by a jackal’s heart!” And the new-born jackal looked down, and he smiled at his reflection. And then the new-born jackal died.


Send Aysha your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.