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, and bonded, with for one and a half years in Trichy while doing research for her doctorate on the ‘dream narratives’ of the Narikuruva (alternatively known as the Vaghizi) people.
“I came to Chennai first in 1996 to meet them. I’ve been fascinated by the gypsies almost all my life,” says Ayako, now thirty eight years old and fluent in Tamil as well as the Narikuruva dialect. “Though they’re always 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 for a long time; living in camping sites… we became friends.”
Discussing how India is the original home of the gypsies, she explains how their travels around the world are shrouded in mystery. “They began from North West India sometime between the 2nd and 9th century. Today, because of politics they’re forced to settle down. But even if they are not nomadic their lifestyles are very fluid. They change jobs constantly, and do work that’s inherently unstable, like picking scraps, selling antiques, gardening…” She adds, “Because they were always the last to come, they’re perpetual outsiders.”
She chose to travel to Chennai because she was curious how little information there was available about the gypsies of South India. “I went to Madras University and asked about the Vaghizi. They live in the streets, in Triplicane, by the beach…”
Although her first visit was brief she was so fascinated she vowed to return. “I decided to do a Doctorate on them, and this time I wanted to live with them. Otherwise I can never understand how they live and what they feel.”
Since Trichy has the biggest population of Vaghizi, she decided to go there. “No local research assistant would come with me. I was told they’re dirty, dangerous…” So she went alone, and stayed for one and a half years. “For the first 4 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, but I got it connected, put in a fan. Also a phone.”
“After a while it got easier. I even went on a business travels with them. We took buses to Goa, Sabrimala to sell beads…” While they have no written records, stories and names are passed down through generations. “One man I met in Trichy could recite his ancestors’ names for 17 generations. They also pass on a folded cloth that represents their goddess.”
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,” Ayako 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.
Mesmersized by her new family, she kept extending her stay. “I finally left because I had to go back and write the thesis. It’s tough to keep in touch. They are out of the house a lot of the time… and even when they are home often the phone is cut,” she sighs, adding “Although I submitted my research, I’ve come back every year.”
Ayako’s 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 is a hurry to get to Trichy. “I’m staying a week… and looking forward to going home!”