Roma: the Indian Diaspora in Serbia
by Lipipuspa Nayak on 02 Aug 2008 0 Comment

In the war-ravaged Balkan nation, Serbia, an Indian will always have a definite indulgence: its sizeable Roma population. These migrants from India, about 1000 AD, wow Indians with their appearance and culture, and ways of socializing that is classically Indian. Their burly sense and tradition of music and dance, which anthropologists and ethnologists point to as one of the determinants of their Indian lineage, is one more lure.


The half million Roma are spread across Serbia, central republic of the former Yugoslavia. They are present in handsome numbers in three towns: Zemun on the north-west of the capital city Belgrade; Nish, and Leskovac, two prominent towns 200 kilometers south. As you enter a Roma colony, usually at an end of a town, you unmistakably encounter a little replica of an Indian habitation. Indian look-alikes huddle in undividable groups – old men smoking hookahs, women with babies in arms; young boys and girls in western clothes – and welcome you with a warmth encountered only in India. Elderly women bend from balconies to peer. You are their brother, or sister – this is both a shared knowledge and belief as Roma are nostalgic about their motherland – India.


You file past houses with boundary walls of latticed patterns from where miniature cement images of lions and parrots peer at you. Houses with corridors and windows of arched and cusped patterns share a twinned status with traditional Indian homes. Balconies and terraces display ornamental parapets of balusters, from where hang blankets and clothes and garlands of red pepper to bask in the intermittent October-end sunshine. Mobile CD/VCD shops on cycle-trolleys by the wayside display and sell Indian films – Ashoka being the latest craze. But the best memory perhaps is the gesture of appreciation when you give a token gift of a hundred-dinar note to a baby in a family, like we do in India. The gesture is immediately followed by a senior female member fondly doing a quick thuh to the baby – spitting out vaguely on the baby – to ward off an evil eye.


Though the Roma have left their nomadic ways behind and adapted to Western ways of life, their households wear a mystically Indian aura. Indian souvenirs and showpieces embellish the shelves; you have to take your shoes off before entering the house. The Roma live in joint and extended families. Since they marry early, it is not uncommon to find gorgeous and lively great-grandmothers in the family.


They have an enormous homesickness for India. In fact you will be stunned to hear a plastic surgeon in Belgrade telling you he is pursuing the profession of Sushruta, his ancestor and the plastic surgeon of ancient India, as he hailed from the Roma community.


‘Roma’ means a man, a husband. Romany, the language of the Roma, – has many words in common with Indian languages: yaag is fire, kaan (ear), paani (water), ja (go), aawa (come), raat (night), devas (day) – to mention a few. The language is largely oral, in the absence of a script, Roman alphabets are used for writing. ‘We ran away from India and visited many countries and hence could not retained our language’ is a common defense. Romas were once called ‘gypsies’, which alludes to an Egyptian origin.


The Roma in Zemun and Nis are educated and appear quite prosperous. They number about one lakh in these two large Serbian towns. You find Roma working for the Embassy. A woman physician or a poet, or a journalist is a pleasant sight. They have sprawling Community Halls where bands play folk music of north-west India and pretty girls and boys cavort to welcome the Indian delegation. Members of the Roma Wives’ Association cook Indian dishes for the guests. They regale you with their success stories: Mirjana, a poet reveals that 2007 brought the happiest day in her life as a Rom (singular for Roma) child participated for the first time in the European Festival for children ‘Joy of Europe’ and sang a Romany song. The Serbian national TV telecast the programme. The child, a beautiful nine year old girl, the Roma face of Joy of Europe, took the stage.  


Mirjana recites her own poetry, on the war and its heroes. Her poems are brilliant, world-class; even in the absence of translation you know she is eulogizing her martyrs (…Stop for a while by my grave; And put a garland of dry autumn leaves on it… On the Day of my Farewell’).


But these stories of glory are few and far between. Roma in Leskovac, a town 100 kilometers down south of Nish, are pretty down and out. Grimy lanes and dimly lighted houses meet you in the three settlements where about 10,000 live. You have to walk through brimming drains and garbage mounds; the people are under-nourished.


The older Roma are a happy-go-lucky lot. The younger generations, who are educated, are disillusioned with life in the country, wanting jobs and integration in the mainstream. A young boy, reporting for the Serbian Radical Party, summed up the situation: “They say, finish school and we will give you jobs; but no job for a Rom… no one does anything for us; we sell sweets on the street.”


Some even forgo their ethnic minority status to be eligible for jobs. For this reason they also disclaim their religion: “My father is a Muslim, I am not.” A sizeable population has adopted the leading religion of Serbia, Eastern Orthodox Christianity.


Serbian Radical Party (SRP), the opposition party in the Serbian parliament, is taking up the cause of ethnic minorities, especially the Roma. Goran Cvetanovic, Vice President of the SRP, is an informed and educated Serb. A physician by profession, he values India, particularly in the context of the Indo-Roma sub-text. SRP founder Jovan Damjanovic, a Member in the Serbian Parliament and Vice-President, World Roma Congress, is executing an Indo-Roma centre in Belgrade. Jovan is the first Roma in Serbia to be elected as MP and was a Minister in the last cabinet. There are also extremists among the Roma: “Why can’t we have the Indian flag and Indian nationality since India is our motherland?” a member of the Romany Party queries. Roma hope the SRP will replace the ruling Democratic Party in the next elections and give them a better life.


World-wide the Roma are estimated to number about 30 million, and are thus a major ethnic community, though there is little certain data available about them for a researcher. This could be deliberate. The earliest Roma exodus from India was apparently a consequence of the invasion by the Afghan Ghazni. Torn for centuries since between race and civilisational conflicts, theirs is a weak battle for survival. Perhaps the mechanics of survival of the Roma in the Serbian political and economic mainstream is a metaphor for the interminable turbulence in the Balkans itself.


The author teaches in Bhubhaneswar; she attended the Indo-Roma Writers’ meet in Serbia

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