Mystique of the gypsy way still intrigues

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 17, 2016

Last week my piece on the gypsies of the world and how they all tie in with those living on the banks of the River Ravi and other Punjab rivers, resulted in scores of emails from all over the world coming my way. To be honest the response was surreal.

It is only fair that in this column we tackle a few of the questions, as well as dwell on the processes, that make the gypsy so special. There is a need to understand two factors in the history of the migration of people. Firstly, that migration is never part of written history, which in itself is a ‘sedentary point of view’ and seems to stick to the concept of a unitary State configuration. Secondly, that migrating people, normally, tend to join the mainstream of the host people, and within two or three generations disappear from the radar. Exceptions like the Mormons merely point to the creation of ‘isolationist norms.’

Amazingly, the nomad, which is what the gypsies of the world are, just do not, or refuse to, settle and join any mainstream. They just tend to move on. The nearest explanation, and admittedly not a good example, is like the typical Punjabi, or Lahori, who would land at any international airport and immediately start looking for ‘desi’ food. Our lack of wanting to experience and experiment, let alone assimilate, appears in strange forms. That genetic trait, it seems, and I can be absolutely wrong on this, exists in the nomads, or gypsies, of Punjab as they exist all over the world.

The absence of any science of ‘nomadology’, which two well-known researchers, Deleuze and Guattari, describe as the opposite of history, has till now been a stumbling block. But the fact is that gypsies exist, and refuse to change, and this is what make them so special. I take pride in the fact that we as a people, even though for the time being robbed of our language by a temporary aberration, no matter where and when we exist, stick to our basic DNA responses.

This irrefutable fact has been recognised and an absolutely new science has appeared which tends to research and study ‘nomadic thought’ as well as ‘nomadic art’. The study of a return to ‘precognitive’ forms of experiences, studied as a ‘flow’ is producing some amazing studies among theorists of cultural studies. The first among such scholars was, probably, Nietzsche, who sought to explain ‘bohemian’ impulses, especially in the 19th century artistic modernism. But then being a ‘bohemian’ and being a ‘gypsy’ are two very different phenomenon.

It goes without saying that we have drifted to a fairly complex theoretical explanation of our simple gypsy, our ‘banjara’ or ‘changaar’ as we describe them on the banks of our rivers. Let me clarify that the Changar tribe is a small Rajput tribe, a small portion of whom did settle down in the Taxali Gate Bazaar to sing, dance and sell rudimentary clay toys. The ‘other’ profession attributed to them is a misnomer.

But then the fact remains that we have behavioural instincts we see in ourselves that match those of our gypsy brothers. The gypsy of the Roma variety, or the North American gypsy, or the Brazilian gypsy, is culturally nearer us Punjabis than those of their host countries where they have lived for hundreds of years, if not a thousand. This is what makes them so special, and it is this very fact that has seen an avalanche of emails heading my way.

My reading is that deep down all of us feel for them, for a people far away from their original home. All this has impacted the science of sociology, which studies a relational understanding within the shifting spaces in societies. Studies in this science of ‘civilising processes’ have come up with a new category of the ‘shifting static’. The balances and inter-dependencies within the gypsy encampments is seen as greater than any influence that the external environment might present. For this very reason they are what they are.

In this brief column I would like to address a few issues concerning the gypsies which our readers have written in. On the known origins which many seek to know, it was the caste system that condemned the gypsies to be viewed as ‘thieves and distasteful’ people. The Hindus, once the Brahman-led caste system was entrenched, followed the ‘Manava Dharma Sastra’, or simply the ‘Laws of Manu’, in which these people were cursed by Manu that “they will follow the professions cursed by Manu and condemned to roam the earth till the end of time”. It might surprise you to learn that gypsies in France are known as Manush, or the people of Manu. In Finland and other European countries they have various strains, but all with the word ‘Kale’ attached, like Iberian Kale, or the ‘cigano calo’ strain in Portugal. Needless to remind that in Punjabi the word ‘Kale’ means black.

But the ‘curse of Manu’ aside, this was never the rationale of these nomads. A reader in England was curious as to why they were “blacksmiths”. We know from history what shaped the way gypsies ended up. For example when the Mongol hordes of Taimur-(e)-Lang (Taimur the lame) ransacked and virtually flattened Lahore in 1398, these nomads were all captured and made to work for the Mongol army as iron-forgers making weapons, shoeing horses, repairing vehicles, looking after horses, and of all things amusing soldiers with magic and music. Surely they were enslaved. So everywhere the Mongols went, the gypsies from Punjab went with them. Today they have sizable numbers everywhere the Mongols went. At least this is how the Rome-based Roma Council explains their dispersal.

A reader in Iran wants to know why these ‘banjara’ gypsies were so much into magic. Well, how does one answer such a query? For starters I would classify ‘magic’ as a sleigh of hand, as a soothing confidence trick. In an era when education was a rare happening, restoring confidence to people’s lives was an important psychological technique. In a way it forms part of a gypsy’s survival kit, which works well because he has the comfort of moving on and is not pestered over past performance.

A reader was interested in common gypsy names, especially in Wales. Well, I looked up the meaning of gypsy names like ‘Hawker’ and ‘Tinner’. While going through a 1911 UK census of Chobham Common in Surrey, England, I noticed that those classified as gypsies has their trade listed as ‘Hawker’. Two generations down the line their name changed to ‘Hawker’. Gypsies were known as ‘tin smiths’ and hence some got to be called ‘Smith’ and a few were called ‘Tinner’. In a country were caste does not matter, professions are the sole identity tags one has. The name ‘Thatcher’ is one well-known example.

Every country has their own unique gypsy experiences. They certainly do adjust to local condition, but then their basic identity connecting them to their long lost ‘motherland’ is something that remains, mysteriously, in place. Why this is so is worth researching. That is why they are unique.



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