A few thoughts on the Romas (gypsies)

No post today on inspirational craft ideas, or my delights in discovering France, (though they do make very pleasant topics!) today I would want to talk of a slightly disturbing topic… that of Romas. Who are they? Before arriving in France, I had not even known their existence. I’ve heard of ‘gypsies’, stuff I read in my childhood books, but I never knew if these gypsies were ‘real people’, like do they actually exist? Do they really travel all the time and never settle down? I used to read as a child that frequently they stole things.

Last evening, I was working on a new art project (I’m quite excited about it, but keeping it a secret for now! :) ), my TV was on and a documentary had just started on the Romas living in Paris, in the terrible looking slums I was shocked to discover was possible to be seen in some forgotten corners of the big city. Usually, I keep my channel tuned to something a little boring so I won’t be diverted from what I’m doing, and the pleasant TV noise can just fill up the room. But I was quickly forced to raise my head, to see what the Romas were all about. After a while, I gave up on my project, I knew that even though the topic of Romas was disturbing, that there are people like them who live in such poverty in a rich country, I would make myself see reality, and not shy away from it.

Ok, so in a gist, the Romas are a special group of people who occupy perhaps the lowest rung of the social ladder. They are extremely, extremely poor. They are spread over the eastern European countries, namely Romania, Bolivia, Kosovo,Turkey etc and well, they are considered a huge menace to society given their thieving ways, and refusal to work along with society. My husband shares all of his deepest thoughts with me, and soon I understood he is anti-Roma, which I am almost sure now most west Europeans are. Well, if I were living in France a long time, and if I were constantly exposed to stories of their crimes and thieving, I think I would develop strong opinions too. I do have my own personal story of a negative brush with the Roma. Once traveling by metro, I felt my handbag being gently tugged at. I was surprised, and looking down, I saw three children, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, very inefficiently getting on to the game of thieving. They reached around my waist, they were so small and I didn’t know whether to laugh or say something to them. Though I still didn’t have the eyes for it, I was beginning to understand by their clothes, their demeanor, that these kids, were Romas.

What shocked me most?? The Romas have Indian heritage!! How come no one ever told me that before? I discovered that thanks to the documentary. An ancient looking photo showed Romas dressed in what could have passed off as Indian clothes, that of turban and special pants called dhotis. Even I could make out that given the clothes, I’d say they were of Rajasthani background. Peering into the faces of the Romas being interviewed in the documentary, I discovered that quite a few of the men could still pass off as Indians. Even though they migrated / were taken as slaves, about 9-10 centuries ago (yes, the date is approximately around the 11th century that they moved out from India), shockingly they still retain genes that trace them back to their Indian roots. Also, they have certain words in their vocabulary that sound Indian ( they call ‘meat’ mas which is the same in Hindi) and their numbers are also very similar to Hindi.

However, I noted that a) They no longer seem to have Indian names.  The Romas in the documentary yesterday had come into France from Romania, and so they had names like Ionel and other Romanian names b) Their eating style has also changed a lot over the years. Digging through the internet for a little more information on them, I found out that their food pattern is mostly meat. This may sound disgusting, but they eat infected carcasses from roadsides. If any resemblance to Indians of long ago has to be drawn, they almost sound to belong to the class of the ‘Untouchables’ in India, a class of people who, long ago, were considered the lowest of the lowest in society. While things have changed a lot for such people in India (former ‘untouchables’ are now accepted citizens of the country, they suffer no stigma), the Romas, if indeed they were the Untouchables, continue an existence of extreme suffering, as their lot is condemned to deep prejudice, and stigma on integrating them into general society. 

Following the documentary yesterday though, all I could see were the women and children suffering, living in slums and camps with no water supply or electricity. The mayor had made them proposals of giving them money so they could go back to their countries and not return, but many of the Romas stubbornly refused to move. I am not sure of the intricacies of the legal system, but the police cannot force them out of the country. Their presence has to be ‘suffered’.

I have read interesting opinions on the net from two individuals. One is a man from Kosovo, who grew up familiar to the surrounding racism against gypsies and he feels that this is a very dangerous sentiment as terrible consequences due to it have already been felt in Europe before. He believes there are certain sections of the gypsies who are sincere and show willingness to integrate and be seen as respected and educated citizens of society. The other voice on the subject belonged to a Roma herself, someone whose parents moved to New York while she was young, and she never revealed until she was in her twenties that she was a Roma. (I am not sure if the ‘menace of the Romas is felt at all in the US) She was deeply ashamed of her roots, and she admitted she would never let herself or her children ever be in contact with the Romas. 

It is amazing how centuries ago, the stories of displacements of Indians to far flung strange countries have evolved so much over time. The Romas themselves, the Indians who were taken as slaves in Surinam (there is a distinct story there too, that I am vaguely familiar with, but wish to learn more), and those taken as slaves in the South east Asian countries. It’s so amazing, mostly because as an Indian grown up in India, one hears almost nothing of them, almost as though they never existed. But they do exist! Perhaps such displaced Indians don’t call themselves as Indians too anymore, their generations outside of India have spanned centuries, but there is no denying, that they do share the Indian heritage. Wow! If there is anybody who knows of a book on such a topic, I would very much appreciate the share! 

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13 thoughts on “A few thoughts on the Romas (gypsies)

  1. What I like about this post, and in general about your perspective, is the unbiased picture that you try to portray…It was, of course, very interesting to read about the Romas, about whom, I knew nothing till now…and the only reference I had prior to your post, was in “The Castafiore Emerald” in which, a group of gypsies settle down in Marlinspike, and they are suspected of stealing the emerald…It was written years ago, and Herge had provided quite an unbiased portrayal…but, even at that time, they were looked at, suspiciously! India has plenty of such communities, who due to abject poverty, are forced into thievery…and the government does nothing concrete and long term to alleviate their suffering…

    • Thanks for your feedback, Know-All! Isn’t it strange to discover such facts?! When I hear such stories of displaced Indians into remote corners of the world and how they have carved their own history, it’s simply amazing how the human history evolves! As an Indian, it does come as a big surprise especially to know the lot of the Romas. It has crossed my mind if they even belonged to the ‘Banjara’ tribe of Rajasthan, since I surmised from their clothes that they seemed to come from there. Thanks again! :)

      • Do read Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, in that order. It will give you an idea about how the people migrated from India to far away lands. It is part of the Ibis trilogy, the third part of which is yet to released. I am presently reading River of Smoke…excellent!

      • Hungry Tide is probably the best book to get introduced to his style of writing…since you have liked it, you will thoroughly enjoy sea of poppies.. :)

  2. We have Romas up in the north too, they’ve been around forever. When I was a kid there were still a lot of sayings around such as “you need to be nice, otherwise the Romas will take you”. They were still a travelling people, lived among their tribe (don’t know if they’d use that word) members, kids didn’t go to school and overall had their own ways. They lived on selling crafts from house to house, some had race horses (yes, some are wealthy) or stealing. They still have their own traditions, and the Romas in Finland have their own way of dressing (I don’t think they have those clothes anywhere else) so you can easily recognise them (I guess the dark hair in the country of the blondes helps too ;) ) but they are not travelling any more, they go to school and to uni like anyone else, they work. They are, in my opinion, pretty integrated, but they have kept their traditions, but those traditions don’t harm anyone else. As far as I know there is not more criminality among Romas than other Finns nowadays. What changed the whole thing was a decision: more refunds to meeting Romas eg for social workers, getting to know their culture, enforcing the obligation of attending school even on Roma children (or have your kids taken, they played hard) and a law that still to this day (I think) allows Finnish Romas to get retired when they turn 18. At least they did, honestly. I think the pension made it unnecessary to steal, and sure, there are still those who choose never to work (as there are those non-Roman Finns who choose to live on benefits all there lives) but most of Romas, as far as I know, actually choose to pay for themselves with their own work. Unfortunately there are still a lot of prejudices so even though Romas so they are often discriminated on the labour market. I have met quite a few Romas through my previous work, so that is what I base my view on. So they are still discriminated but not “the lowest of the low” and not living in extreme poverty. But then we have a new phenomenon thanks to EU: the Roma beggars who come from Romania and Bulgaria. People don’t like them as we didn’t have beggars before. and nobody knows what to do with these poor people.

    • Thank you very much for your feedback, I must admit I was looking forward to what you may have to say on this, I was curious if there were Romas in Finland! And the picture you have provided of the Romas surprises me, I doubt if there exists Romas who are normal citizens of France. Yes, the only variety I see and hear of are the poor who sneak in mostly from Romania or Bulgaria. And they live either in slums or trailers. When I tried to search for info on the Romas on the net, I find opinions that are either extreme or vague. People find it mostly disdainful to speak about them. Thanks again for making me aware of their relatively better-off situation in Finland (they can retire when they are 18?! Wow!). They do seem to receive enough perks to desist them of criminal activities.

      • Maybe I should add that the social security for everyone is pretty wide spread here, and that is believed to be the reason for the low rate of criminality in Finland (as well as the other Nordic countries), so even though nobody else can reitre at the age of 18 (unless you have a disability that makes you unfit to work) I guess it is not compleeeeetely surprising. A little still ;) and I am sure people have a lot of opinions on that one too…
        Not everyone here is tolerant (unfortunately). Also, my own views may not be quite the average as I actually have worked with a number of Romas (and other underprivileged people) seeing, I believe, more of the picture than the average Finn (also getting to know and understand some of their traditions. Some I don’t understand, not even with good explanations, e.g. the “blood vendettas” they can have going on between the tribes, and the reason can be like a century old). Most Finns, I believe, would never have really had anything to do with a Roma, Romas keep a lot to their own people, which probably feeds the prejudices (?).

      • Thanks again for your thoughts! It’s nice to know that you have spent time working for the underprivileged, which also perhaps explains that you know a little bit more on their culture, circumstances etc. I find that in Europe, there is almost no interaction between the ‘rich and the ‘poor’, unlike in India where the poor brush alongside the rich everyday. Here in Europe, I can only depend on the Tv, or if I were to work in NGO’s to actually be in touch with the underprivileged in society.

  3. An interesting topic to write on. I think this community is to be found in Russia as well. I wasn’t aware of their Indian origins.

    We have had a huge influx of the Romani people in the UK and, most times, they do get negative press. It makes me sad and angry to see them, along with small babies and children, beg at traffic lights. However, I think some parts of the UK (local governments) have launched initiatives which actively integrate them into local communities.

    As for Romani people in literature, not sure whether this link is of any use to you: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fictional_representations_of_Romani_people

    • Thanks Ishita for your thoughts, and the link that you gave me to read. It was interesting, especially the list of literature and movies I can look up on to more Romani knowledge. The conditions of the Romani are appalling, and I do hope too, that there can be found some way that can help improve their situation. I know that sounds easier said than done! :(

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