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ROVING GENES

Gypsies are invariably associated with mobility. They are constantly on the move. One reason for this is the fact that in most places, especially in Europe, they have been the victims of persecution and pogroms. Research has now revealed when their roaming started and from where. It started from somewhere in India’s northwest, the area which witnessed migration into India beginning with the coming of the Aryans in small groups about a thousand years before the birth of Christ. But those who have come to be known as gypsies — or Europe’s Romani people — moved out of India around 1400 years ago. They used the overland route to cross the Indus and go into Europe by way of Central Asia. They thus did exactly the opposite of what the Aryans and the Kushans did, and later the Mughals were to do. It is impossible to say if this migration was en masse; logic would suggest that it wasn’t. Thus the gypsies probably moved out of India over a long period of time spread over four or five centuries — from the seventh century AD to the Ghaznavid invasions in the 11th century.

It is interesting that during this period there was no large centralizing empire in India like the Maurya or the Gupta empires. Decentralization and the relative lack of political stability determined and facilitated this movement of people. It was a period of churning and uncertainty that made people restless and prompted them to seek life elsewhere. When they moved into Europe, little did the Romanis know that they were introducing a new cultural dimension into Europe, which, at that time, was also in the throes of political turmoil, religious ferment and a degree of economic stagnation. Since that time, the gypsies have been part of Europe’s marginalized population. This, not only because of their size (they number 11 million today), but also because of their distinctive culture, which resisted being absorbed into mainstream European culture. The gypsies thus retained their customs, their legends, their music and above all their irrepressible desire to be on the move disregarding geographical and national boundaries. As a community, gypsies are antithetical to the nation state. A gypsy with a passport is almost a contradiction in terms.

It is significant that scientists have found genetic links between the gypsies and the Doms from northwest India. The doms are part of India’s huge marginalized population, relegated as they are to the bottom of the caste hierarchy with the job of handling dead bodies and funerary rites. The science of genetics has thus brought together two marginalized communities in two very different parts of the world. Historians have pondered over the complex relationship of India with the West. The gypsies were India’s gift to Europe and the latter still hasn’t been able to assimilate, or even cope with, that gift.