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Roma - 'Children of India'

While reading a review of a film I was surprised to learn that it was made by a Roma about a large Roma family. The film is about a sunny day when the family with about 15 kids in tow goes out on a sunny day with tp celebrate their fresh start in Berlin. The name of the film is “And-Ek Ghes” in Romani (“One fine day” in English) which the reviewer found “visually chaotic” but telling an intimate tale of their “tumultuous uprooting” and yet of “strong hope, often contrived and staged”.

It also gives glimpses of their private joys and sorrows. In telling the tale the camera travels to a whole lot of places in Europe as the family gets split in search of employment signifying their rootless existence. The celebration in Berlin itself is indicative of a fresh start for a family that has been on the move. In that kind of confusion and turmoil in constant itinerancy what the Roma hold on to is a vestige of their home country in the shape of “Bollywood” wherein India sneaks in every now and then. The other name of Hindi Cinema largely made in Bombay (now Mumbai) is Bollywood. It is also sometimes used pejoratively for Hindi Cinema.

“Bollywood” is what ties them down to India, providing the thread that tenuously links them to a country which they left centuries ago. Having migrated around 1500 years ago from India, they marched west through West Asia to North Africa as also to the continent of Europe. They are widely dispersed in East Europe, Central Europe, Western Europe, Russia and some parts of North Africa. A sizable number has since crossed the Atlantic and has settled down in the United States and even Brazil.

The Roma are believed to have migrated from Rajasthan and what was once old composite Punjab. Genetically, they belong to north-western India and are likely to have belonged to several castes including Dom, Banjara, Gujjar etc., now known as Other Backward Classes. But then there are Dom in Northern Pakistan, Baltistan, too who are traditionally dancers and musicians. It is also believed that the Dom of the Middle East and the Roma of Europe are descendants of Dom, who travelled to Persia as servants and musicians for returning armies, some say, including those of Alexander. No reason for this migration which appears to have taken place in waves is forthcoming. Were they subjected to acute atrocities or torture propelling them to flee their own country? No one really knows. But they constitute the oldest diaspora that this country has. They speak a language which is closer to Marwari and Lambadi that is generally known as an Indo-Aryan language with heavy Balkan influences

I did not know that “gypsy” was a pejorative term for the Roma but the term is even now used in England. Long years ago I remember to have seen a feature on gypsies – yes gypsies, not on Roma – of England in the only English language periodical that used to be published then, The Illustrated Weekly of India. It was accompanied by a hand-drawn sketch, more like a caricature of gypsies, significantly showing their broken-down donkey-pulled cart with tattered cloth-covered top with their pots and pans spilling over and overflowing with other shabby belongings, Filth and squalor all round and numerous children in dirty, torn clothes were shown playing on the dusty road. The sketch effectively conveyed the poverty of gypsies and their nomadic life. The write-up described their travail and travels across the country, from moor to moor and from meadows to meadows, teased, mocked, laughed at and tormented right through their way by white children who spewed contempt at them.

The gypsies always had a troubled life. They were despised for their way of life and were considered as pests – thieves and drunkards – and, hence, they were always compelled to stay out of town like outcasts. Although, their skills in black-smithy, minding of horses, handicraft and other trades were availed of yet they seldom were allowed into the mainstream of western society. Yet their dance-form was integrated into Spanish flamenco. During our travels in Europe we came across gypsies both in Buda and Pest. At the Hero’s Square in Pest an elderly gypsy woman was quietly following the tourists and trying to push her wares which were nothing but knitted woollen women’s garments. Up on the ramparts of Buda we met another who was hawking beautiful crocheted items of tableware. From their faces they seemed tired and drawn which was later explained by the guide. She said that before nightfall they would have to clear out and get back to Romania across the border. The women of gypsy families on Romanian borders would shuttle back and forth every day for custom as there were hardly any tourists in Romania.

A headline in one of our national dailies screamed last year about “unspeakable assault on a Roma teen” near Paris that sparked an outrage to move even President Hollande. The teen, belonging to a Roma camp near an abandoned house, was accused of robbery and beaten so badly by a group of men that he was reported to be fighting for life in a hospital. The French, of course, have been anti-Roma and President Sarkozy had initiated a plan to repatriate them living in around 350-odd camps in France back to Romania and Bulgaria. He didn’t want “wild squatting and camping of the Roma” in squalid conditions in France. The French government put thousands of them on planes putting 300 Euros in their pockets and sent them off to Romania. Ironically, some French pay to see the very same gypsies perform in Pushkar or Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

America seems to have about a million gypsies fairly well distributed in the entire country. Though they have not been able to avoid persecution yet some have done well – better than what they have been able to do in Europe. Believe it or not, Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, Cher, the famous contralto, are supposed to be of gypsy/Roma stock – just as Europeans Pablo Picasso and Charles Chaplin. The US got them in waves over the centuries. It is claimed Columbus had a few in his ship. But there has been even flow from Eastern Europe after their slavery was discontinued in Romania and other Balkan countries.

Napoleon too chipped in with a few thousand, shipping them to Louisiana, a territory held by France in early 19th Century. The Nazis liquidated a million of them, giving them a big push to flee across the Atlantic. They have very significantly adapted themselves to the American way of life yet they have largely retained their ethnic identity. For them their family and community are of paramount importance. That is why their weddings are known as “fat gypsy weddings” where the entire community collects in their ethnic chic that is so admired by even the white Americans. Their colourful horse-pulled four-wheeler caravans, too, are much admired. Nonetheless, they always have that lurking fear of facing the same hardships and harassment that their European counterparts face on a regular basis. Hence they generally make themselves “invisible”, passing themselves as of other ethnicities – “assimilation” in American society being somewhat tricky.

Despised, derided, deported and driven away from almost all parts of the world it is only here in India that they have found acceptance and rightly so. The Minister of External Affairs, addressing the recent conclave of Roma from all over the world happened to call them “Children of India” which went to mean a lot to them. To be part of Indian diaspora is something they were yearning for. Granting nationality being somewhat difficult, this was the next best thing to bring them closer to the country that they see only in potboilers churned out by Bollywood.

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