Ayako Iwatani stayed with the Narikuravars for more than a year, ate their food and travelled around with them as part of her research
Ayako Iwatani is heading home — to the gypsies. Her biological family may be in Japan, where she's an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hiroshima University. But right now she's bouncing with excitement about visiting the people she lived with for one and a half years in Tiruchi while researching her doctorate on the ‘dream narratives' of the Narikuravars (also known as the Vaghizi).
“I came to Chennai first in 1996 to meet them. I've been fascinated by gypsies almost all my life,” says Ayako, now 38 years old and fluent in Tamil as well as the Narikuravar dialect. “Though they're seen as vagabonds and criminals, they're also so attractive and mysterious. I was curious about how they see themselves.”
When she finished school, Ayako made a journey that would influence the rest of her life. “I went to the South of France to meet the Gitan gypsies… you know, the ones who do flamenco.” (Once of Europe's most prominent gypsy groups, the Gitans, who spent many years in Spain before settling in France, are stereotypically colourful, with dusky skin, rousing music and theatrical dancing.) “I stayed with them in camping sites… we became friends.”
India is the original home of gypsies, but the pattern of their movement to other parts are shrouded in mystery. “They began from North West India sometime between the 2nd and 9th century. Today, national boundaries force them to settle down. Their lifestyles are still very fluid though. They change jobs constantly, and engage in work such as picking scraps, selling antiques and jewellery, gardening…” She adds, “Because they were always the last migrants, they're perpetual outsiders.”
Ayako chose Chennai because there was little information about the gypsies of South India. “I went to Madras University and asked about the Vaghizi. I was told they live on the streets, in Triplicane, by the beach.”
Although her first visit was brief, she vowed to return. “I decided to do a doctorate on them, and live with them. Otherwise, I could have never understood how they live and what they feel.” She chose Tiruchi because it had the biggest population of Vaghizi people. “No research assistant would come with me, saying they're dirty, dangerous…”
So she went alone, and stayed for one and a half years.
“For the first four or five months it was very hard. Five of us shared one room. Men, women and children all sleeping together. There was no electricity at first, also no phone.” “After a while it got easier. I even went on business travels with them. We took buses to Goa, Sabrimala to sell beads.” She says although the Vaghizi have no written records, stories and names are passed down through generations. “One man I met in Tiruchi could recite his ancestors' names for 17 generations!”
The food was wildly varied, cooked on wood fires. “Narikutti Curry… I think that's jackal — or is it a fox — from the forest. I've eaten cat once,” she says blithely, adding “Also pigeons, rabbits… local vegetables. It's good food. I love the rasam, same spices but made in a different way. So good.”
Her PhD on their ‘Dream Narrative' was based on early morning conversations, when everyone discussed their dreams. “For them dreams are important. In their dreams they are goddesses.” Like the Gypsies of Europe who celebrate ‘Black Sarah' their patron saint (also called Sara-la-Kali and Black Madonna), the Vaghizi believe in a female higher power.
Mesmersised, she kept extending her stay. “I finally left because I had to go back and write the thesis. Although I have submitted my research, I've come back every year to visit They're my family now.”
Her current trip's dedicated to the street performers in Gujarat, also of gypsy origin. “I'm here for just one month this time.” Right now however, she's in a hurry to get to Tiruchi . “I'm staying for a week… and looking forward to seeing my family!”