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!