One of the few songs I remember from my childhood is –
My mother said I never should
Play with the gypsies in the woods.
If I did, she would say
You naughty girl to disobey.
In the song, the mother threatens to disown the girl, while the father promises to hit her head with a teapot lid. But she runs off anyway.
As a child, I read books that portrayed gypsies as fortune tellers, bogey-men, and thieves. Far from being put off by these negative attributes, I was intrigued. I loved their freedom of movement, to simply break camp and move whenever the spirit urged them.
Never having set eyes on a real European gypsy, I imagined our Korava were those gypsies. The Korava women, called Korathi in Tamil, wear colourful skirts, beads, and glittering earrings, albeit of different style from European gypsies. I yearned to dress like them, but their style was too flamboyant for the staid tastes of my family.
When I grew older, I sought to know more about the Roma, as the European gypsies are called. I wasn’t surprised their suspected country of origin was India, but I was appalled by their history of slavery, forced evictions, forced sterilisations, and jail terms for minor infractions in every European country. The Nazis killed an estimated 2,20,000 to 15,00,000. As recently as 2009, France deported 10,000 Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, both countries with a history of discrimination against the ethnic minority.
The story of our nomadic tribes such as the Korava and the Irula is no different. They were declared criminal by the British colonial government, confined to camps, jailed for minor offences, and had their traditional nomadic life restricted by laws. They didn’t conform to the British idea of civilisation, which meant settled agriculture and hard work. The nomads were seen as lazy freeloaders who paid no taxes and didn’t contribute to the nation’s economy. Even Indian society looks down upon these people of no fixed address.
In the face of such hostility, the Korava flaunt their differentness. Although the men wear shirts and lungi like villagers, they wear their long hair coiled in a bun, stride with muzzleloader rifles slung over their shoulders, and speak in loud guttural voices. Nobody messes with them for fear of receiving an earful of strident, colourful invectives. As a young radical, I admired their style and moxie.
Although little is known of the Korava origins, according to popular perception, they came from the general area of Gujarat, perhaps Rajasthan. Angus Fraser, the author of the book The Gypsies, says the Roma came from the same region, most probably Rajasthan. So was I right: Could the Korava and Roma be related after all?
In December 2011, Isabel Mendizabal from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain, and a team of European geneticists examined the DNA of 13 Roma groups from across Europe. They say the Roma migrated out of India 1,500 years ago, and that Punjab was most likely their homeland. I hope someone conducts a similar study of Korava origins.
I first met members of the tribe in person when Rom introduced me to Manangatti and Bangarapilli. They were master trappers and hunters, with a remarkable skill in mimicking creatures’ calls. A few enterprising Korava sold sacks of large bandicoots as feed for crocodiles and lizards at the Madras Croc Bank. Although the nomads don’t eat the one-kg-heavy rodents, they eat anything else that walks or flies: jackals, pussy cats, palm squirrels, monitor lizards, and birds of all kinds, even crows and vultures.
I didn’t realise how much my worldview was influenced by the tribal way of life until a couple of months ago. When I found palm squirrels devastating our kumquat crop, I threatened to roast and serve the pests with kumquat glaze for Christmas. Rom was startled at my suggestion. I argued defensively, it was a perfectly logical solution.
Rom exclaimed, “You twisted Korathi!”
I preened at the compliment.
Keywords: My husband and other animals