How “Gypsies” inspired my novel Gypsy Escapades William J. Jackson
Seeking one thing we sometimes find another; yet often it’s the thing not originally sought which enables us to understand better the entire picture of what we were seeking all along. I was in Madras (now called Chennai) for eighteen months doing research from autumn 1980 till spring 1982. I was studying Tyagaraja, a nineteenth century Brahmin composer and folk hero remembered for his musical masterpieces. To get to the experts to study this saint’s lyrics and life, every day I passed by a seemingly permanent encampment of people the locals called “gypsies.” Most people seemed to avoid them.
The gypsies lived on an island between a busy street and a slow one, which was an access lane to walled estates. They had no roof over their heads, just makeshift little tent-like hovels, but many of them had beautiful features and sturdy bodies. The children would beg as I waited for the bus to take me to another part of town. Sometimes a tiny child holding an even tinier baby on her hip would ask for money for food with hand gestures. The children’s faces looked as if they had never been washed. Occasionally, one would sing a rough song and pantomime a sketchy dance. The gypsies gave the impression of a fallen people, a group that had lost status and prosperity centuries ago, living in a world that had little use for them.
On my way home I saw people from the encampment sifting through garbage outside a marriage hall, hoping to gather some morsels from the discarded plantain leaves used as plates by the wedding guests. During the monsoon gypsy kids sought shelter beneath the trees, under store awnings and in bus stop shelters.
I later found that there were other small communities of these people in Tamil Nadu. Some had a little land and lived in small houses. The group near where I lived was probably the poorest of this poor minority. For those eighteen months when I saw them every day they seemed an unforgettable clan surviving on the edge.
The gypsies wore bright clothes and had beautiful faces. Who are they, I wondered as I carried my books and papers to scholars’ offices at Madras University, in another part of town. When I inquired, my main research helper said, “Oh they’re just the Kuravas, Narikuravas. Gypsies.” I wrote the word “Kuravas” in my notes, and after that I would occasionally see them mentioned in newspaper articles. “The Narikuravas of Tamil Nadu have appealed to the Central Government to include the tribe in the scheduled castes or scheduled tribes list. In a statement the Narikurava District Association said the tribe was now included in the list of backward classes, and with an economic, educational and social status much lower than that of the backward communities, they were being deprived of the facilities available to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.” The Mail (newspaper), Oct. 10, 1981.
There was something unique about them. They were the poorest of the poor but were so full of life, and walked with proud confidence. After studying Sanskrit, history, comparative religion and literature for several years in graduate school at Harvard I had become bookish. But now, doing research far from America, seeing the gypsies every day had the effect of a Madras sugarcane squeezer on my emotions. Between the cranked rollers of poignancy and beauty my feelings flowed and my imagination went beyond historical data.
I find in my Madras notebooks many doctoral dissertation notes and drafts of lyric translations from Telugu, but also entries I made as I wondered about the gypsies. “They are the most impoverished, but walk with an impudent swagger, and seem rich in passions—so passionate that they imagine they are some kind of kings—kings of the dust, and so they wear jewels—the men wear colored beads, and the women silver anklets. They wear bright cloth to distinguish themselves from the dust. Why do they live on the island between a busy street and a slow one, surrounded by bags of rags and paper litter? The young women, often with a baby in a sling over the shoulder, collect scraps of paper in burlap bags—that’s how they make money. Why?” An old musicologist told me, “They refuse to work for anyone. Very independent. The men catch or shoot birds. The women sell beads and jackal horns. Jackals do not have horns; those sold by the women are good luck charms.”
In my studies at the University of Madras Library, where the Bay of Bengal was blindingly bright with tropical sun and an open sewer canal filled the air with repugnant stench, I found a reference to the Kuravas in a thesis discussing the origins of Yakshaganas—musical dramas. Centuries ago the Kuravas were said to have descended from the mountains, bringing feathers and bear claws and herbs and fruits. They sang and danced in valley villages, miming stories from the hills. I imagined hefty Brahmins, shocked at the beauty of lean and fine-featured dancers singing and freely following undulating tribal rhythms. The Brahmins are said to have incorporated some of the magic of the rhythmical dance and emotional mime into their Sanskritic tradition, turning old Purana stories into musicals for popular performance. India’s high culture owed something to the people of the dust.
An old British book, Manual of Tanjore District, reported “Kuravas are beggars and thieves, some traffic in salt, keep herds of donkeys and bullocks to convey salt from the coast and hawk it from place to place. They carry grain from inland towns and take it to the coast where they barter it for salt.” The women told fortunes, too.
Once I passed the Kurava settlement at night, and a woman emerged from the huts and walked up to a blazing fire—the flames gleamed against her like an opal. Most Madrasi women wear long saris all year, even on the hottest days. These people wear less. The children often wear nearly nothing until puberty, and the buttocks of squatting men are often seen. The women wear pleated skirts which reach the knee and have a red border at the bottom edge, and they favor satiny halter-type blouses. In sweltering India, where clothes show social standing, those lowest in society can show more skin without self-consciousness.
It takes trust to release yourself from the tunnel vision endemic to graduate school, and be initiated into life, which includes illiterates who live a barefoot reality far from modernity. Mad dogs and foreigners go out in the noon sun in Madras. And quenching your thirst at cold drink stalls you get fevers and chills. After seven months my wife and I got hepatitis, which turns you yellow and gives you a jaundiced mood. I’d been a vegetarian for ten years but now I daydreamed of fish.
Craving protein, we began to frequent a market near our flat for fresh fish. We’d never gone down the narrow lane leading to it until then. I wrote an aerogram home describing how two gypsy men in red turbans sometimes stood on either side of the entrance to the lane, looking like two torches. Wow. That image was the seed of an adventure novel about India which I knew one day I would write. It took more than 30 years to realize that dream. Inside the ancient-looking marketplace were poor merchants squatting behind vegetables, chickens, fish spread out on cloths or flat stones. In a busy part of the bazaar two Narikurava men held freshly cleaned wild fowls dangling from strings. It reminded me of Sanskrit writings describing tribal fowlers.
The Narikuravas were so colorful and fascinating. They had a bad rep—for sending trained monkeys into homes to pilfer, etc., as all gypsies do. In the modern culture of India I never saw these people included as equals. I wanted to tell a story in which Narikuravas helped others accomplish a difficult task, using their talents and skills.
I gathered everything I could find written about their lives. I talked with them, even though we shared few common vocabulary words. I bargained with them for beads and jackal horns. I shared food with the ones who begged. I corresponded with a couple of European scholars who spent time conducting in-depth research about their customs. I collected factual information, wrote a research paper and presented it at a conference. I arranged for royalties of my Oxford University Press books to be given to a non-profit which supports Narikurava education and cottage industries.
Later, after teaching and working on academic projects for many years, I turned to creative writing projects which would allow me to tell stories about the India I had experienced—people and places, sounds and smells, dawns and rains. Being far from home gives perspectives and experiences I never could have imagined. I’m glad when people warned me “Don’t get involved with gypsies” I ignored their advice.
William J. Jackson twitter @tsalabagundi
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