“The winter will ask what we did all summer.” (Gypsy proverb)
The incessant monsoon rains and a simple friendship were all we had in common. She, from a long line of sub-continental nomads, was camping in the Himalayan foothills where fertile summer pastures might feed the family’s herds. I, as generations of elite before me, was escaping the seething summer in the cool, pine-scented altitudes. Casually, we shared my front step and conversation drifted to last night’s downpour. “Your tent isn’t waterproof? What happens when everything gets drenched? How do you dry out your bedding? What do you sleep on?” She reciprocated my curiosity with, “We’ve always slept on pine needles. What do you sleep on?” And seeing my foam mattress, “I could never sleep on that; it’s too soft!”
Every Gypsy is not, like my friend, a Nomad, just as every Traveler is not a Gypsy. Many a Traveler lives in a home and many a Drifter would not sleep on pine needles. What defines a “Gypsy”—albeit a term they do not favor—is a nomadic state of mind. Neither time nor place roots their identity. Adapting in the present and being flexible for the future—‘A Gypsy at rest remains a traveler.’ 1
Reminiscing through my childhood looking glass I had always been intrigued by the carefree lifestyle of our camping neighbors. One late Autumn day they would turn up to the tune of cowbells and cattle-call, having traveled for months by mountain road to “the plains”. A hum of voices, hammering tent pegs and clatter of dishes beckoned me to my observation deck. Ironically, my perch was the huge stone wall that divided their mysterious and fascinating campsite from my safe and comfortable home. I peeled back the cover of their timeless existence as, for hours, I watched them “playing house”. How generous (or indifferent) they must have been to put up with my curious gaze. One day I ran to my parents, reporting that things were not as they should be next door. Wailing and inactivity had replaced the pleasant hum of life. Would I like to go along with my mother to mourn the loss of their baby? “Yes”…and “No.” It is one thing to watch a play; quite another to be a part of it. Even at a young age I was confronted with my prejudice–the attitude that Gypsies are mysterious, almost mythical; alluring yet untouchable; models of freedom as long as they are kept at arm’s length.
And “kept at arm’s length” is the unfortunate story of the Gypsy past. To gain a handle on the history of generations of “Travelers” is as hard as to trace their wanderings. Studies on the commonalities of Gypsy languages world-wide, indicate that they originated in the Indian subcontinent. That a diaspora crisscrossed the globe is undoubted, but not until the fourteenth century have unambiguous documents been at hand. These documents range from royal and religious letters of approval to pejorative commentary on, ”…the poorest creatures ever seen.”
Stateless people have etched paths on every continent. They have befriended fragile, arid lands which have in turn been their life line. Met with tolerance, rejection, negotiation, persecution, punishment, and assimilation, theirs is “a culture forged at the fringes of society.” 2 Urbanization and industrialization have further pushed them to the fringe, where they are less likely to be perceived as curious, but a bane to the social order—not as racially different, but socially foreign. “They’re not a bad people, we just don’t want them here.” When a minority need fight for its right to exist, an aggressive attitude of self defense can often be misread as rebellion, which is the page of history on which we find ourselves.
It wasn’t always so. There was a time when pastoral land and people were more finely tuned–necessarily interdependent. Ties were forged between farmers and graziers, villagers and servicers, even armies and informants. Travelers were not beggars but shepherds and itinerant traders and laborers of every imaginable type. They worked when they had to (freedom and free time being esteemed more valuable than income). Rarely engaged in fixed employment, Travelers expected to canvas and haggle for customers–this enabled their mobility and control. I remember as a child, answering the insistent banging on the door, to find a few industrious Gypsy women with handfuls of freshly picked blackberries for sale. Berry pie was our delicious benefit from their initiative. More entertaining were the charmed snakes, docile bears in chains, and my favorite—the performing monkeys—whose owners seemed a buoyant, agreeable type. They scoured the hillsides to the unique “knockity-knock-knock” of the monkey drum, and for a pittance performed on the stages of our verandahs. Securing the dunce cap with an under-chin rubber band, the master would dramatically command, “Become a gentleman!” Obediently the monkey would take a seat on the upturned can, cross its legs, point its chin out and look sternly intelligent. I do believe the joke was on us—society’s “gentlemen.”
Gypsy communities have their own “gentlemen” or respected leaders—distinguished not by age or appointment, but by those who have earned respect through intelligence, discretion and wealth (large families being a portion of their assets). Children are brought up collectively—the elderly playing a major role in orientating them into the community ways of thinking and acting.
As for the women, “There was a mysteriousness in meeting them and wondering what kind of human resided inside the cocoon, and rarely have I been as aware of women, or as fascinated by them, as I was in Afghanistan, where I saw none,” said Michener in his novel, Caravans, that romanticized Gypsy life. To the contrary, what surprised me as a youngster was how free, unguarded and visible Gypsy women were in contrast to those of the majority community. The migrating caravans of animals and their belongings were followed by women, heads held high with carefree but determined steps, long dresses swaying unashamedly. These dresses hid many meters of fabric in their folds—the washing of which was an all-day-affair. In the summer I loved to crouch and gaze from my overhead rock face as groups gathered and jabbered in the mountain stream-bed, stretching vibrant semi-circled-garments on sun-drenched rocks to dry. I was naive then to the power of the woman’s role in creating cleanliness and order.
Thirty years later I was to sit with my Gujar friend, knowing more but no less naive. I captured her family on Polaroid. I captured her friendship in painting. But I couldn’t capture the Gypsy. I wished in friendship, to step into her shoes. But it’s a long, hard road in Gypsy shoes.
1. Jean-Pierre Liegeois, Gypsies: An Illustrated History, translated by Tony Berrett 2nd ed (London: Al Saqi Books 2005), 54.
2. Ibid., 56.