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January 25, 2006


A well researched book on the conditions of Gypsies in Eastern Europe. Recently, I had a discussion on this with a friend Dr. Shyamala Devi Rathod who is gypsy and is currently a professor of Economics in a University in Andhra Pradesh. She is an activist for her community and a recognised chronicler of history of the Roma people. She had very positive things to say about the book but said that there had been a lot of criticism of the book from some sections of Roma scholars because the author's theory about the Roma origins and language were not very accurate.
Thanks for the review.

Can you ask your friend for a recommendation of a more acceptable (to the Romas) source about the theory of the Roma /Gypsy origin?

'Bury Me Standing' is not that great of a source on 'Roma' people's history. Please refer to the below

The below was extracted from:

IndiaStar Review of Books

Bury Me Standing--
The Gypsies and Their Journey
by Isabel Fonseca
(New York: Vintage, 1996)
322 pages, $13

Reviewed by C. J. S. Wallia

Gypsies, the long-lost children of India, number about 12 million worldwide. In Europe, the 8 million Gypsies constitute its largest minority. Recent films like Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom: A Musical History of the Gypsies from India to Spain (1994) and books like Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey (1996) will help ensure that the Gypsies do not again disappear -- outside the world's consciousness.
Bury Me Standing -- the title comes from the Gypsy saying, "Bury me standing, I've been on my knees all my life"-- is a compassionate book about a marginalized and much-maligned people. Nonetheless, over the past seven centuries, the Gypsies have made many contributions to European folk music, dance, and lore. An outstanding example of these contribitions --Flameno-- highlights the Cannes award-winning Latcho Drom .
When Isabel Fonseca, an American journalist and former assistant editor of the Times Literary Supplement, set out to write this book in 1991, she "had in mind that the Gypsies were 'the New Jews of Eastern Europe.'" After four years of field work that included living with Gypsy families in many European countries and researching library documents, she concluded that the Gypsies "alongside with the Jews are ancient scapegoats."
Traditionally, Gypsies never kept any written records nor sustained an oral history. The research on their origin began with a systematic philological analysis of their language, Romani, which has been firmly established as a Sanskritic language. Words like dand, (tooth), mun, (mouth), lon, (salt), akha (eyes), khel (play) are identical with those in Punjabi spoken in northwest India. Fonseca does not comment on the obvious resemblance with Punjabi, presumably because of her unfamiliarity with it or any other modern Indian language. She is also puzzled by the Gypsy habit of shaking head side-to-side to signify yes. This distinctive gesture alone suffices to pinpoint their India origin -- rendering all linguistic evidence redundant! If confirmation were needed, it would be readily provided by the Gypsy music's use of the Indian ragas such as Bairavi, Mulkausa, and Kalyani as well as the bol (the rhythmic syllables -- tak, dhin, dha -- imitating drum beats).
Fonseca seems to think that the current scholarly consensus is that the Gypsies are from the Dom group of tribes, still extant in India, making their living as wandering musicians, smiths, metalworkers, scavengers, and basketmakers. They migrated first from northwest India to Persia in 950 A.D. at the invitation of Shah Behram Gur. As recorded by the contemporary Persian historian Hamza, the Shah "out of solicitude for his subjects, imported 12,000 musicians for their listening pleasure."
Fonseca errs in stating that the Gypsy designation for themsleves as Roma is derived from Dom, one of the outcaste tirbes in India. Roma is a variation of "ramante," a Punjabi word meaning moving, wandering. This etymology is cogently discussed in W.R. Rishi's book "ROMA: The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, second edition" published in 1996 by Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab, India. Rishi traces the origin of the Roma to the 500, 000 prisoners of war taken by Muhamad Ghaznvi in 1001 from the Punjab to Afghanistan and subjected to Islamic conversion by the sword. Many of them resisted by escaping westward to the Christian lands of Armenia and Greece. To this day, the Roma use the word Gajo, derived from Ghazi-- the Koranic title of infidel-killing Muslims-- as a disparaging term. The Roma are from the warrior castes of the Punjab.
The Roma appeared in Europe first in 1300 A.D., fleeing from forcible Islamic conversions by the Turks. In Europe, ironically, they were accused of being advance spies for the Turks, and persecuted again. They were also mistaken as Egyptians, whence the folklore origin of the term Gypsy. Fonseca apparently is unaware of yet another etymology: Punjab-say -- from Punjab, which was what the earliest immigrants to Persia replied when asked where they have come from. By the time, they reached Byzantium, the locals heard Punjab-say as Jabsay, Gypsy. The locals took Gypsy to mean from Egypt, a country they had heard of.
The history of the Roma in Europe, gleaned, for the most part, from court- and church-records and from rare academic publications, is a horror--Europe's heart of darkness. One of the examples Fonseca cites is the 1783 dissertation published by Heinrich Grellman of Gottingen University. In his book, Grellman describes an event of the previous year in Hont county, Hungary: "The case involved more than 150 Gypsies, forty-one of whom were tortured into confessions of cannibalism. Fifteen men were hanged, six broken on the wheel, two quartered, and eighteen women beheaded -- before an investigation ordered by the Hapsburg monarch Joseph II revealed that all of the supposed victims were still alive."
During World War II, the Nazis exterminated 1.5 million Gypsies. At the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis' lawyers argued that the killing of the Gypsies was justified since they had been punished as criminals, not as a race. There was no one to speak for the Gypsies, and the international tribunal accepted this as exonerating defense! Ah, humanity.
Although tyrants, bigots, and the misinformed have often stereotyped the Gypsies as congenital criminals, sociological studies show that the Gypsies commit crimes no more than others. A large-scale study cited by Fonseca: In Romania, which has the largest Gypsy population of any country, out of all criminal convictions that of the Gypsies total 11 percent. Their population in the country? Exactly 11 percent. (The Gypsies in Romania do not have equal access to the justice system. Their situation is worse than that of the Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S.A.)
In recent decades, a Gypsy intelligentsia has begun to emerge. Fonseca presents detailed profiles of several. Dr. Ian Hancock, an American Gypsy, and the author of The Pariah Syndrome, was instrumental in bringing about, in April 1994, the first-ever Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., on the human-rights abuses of the Gypsies. After prolonged efforts, Hancock also succeeded in the Gypsy inclusion in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Gypsy inclusion had long been opposed by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner! It was only after Wiesel's resignation, writes Fonseca, herself an American Jew, that one Gypsy was allowed onto the museum's 65-member council. (The council comprised more than thirty Jews as well as Poles, Ukranians, and Russians among others but not a single Gypsy.)
Saip Jusuf is the author of one of the first Romani grammars and a principal leader in Skopje, Macedonia, which has the largest Gypsy settlement anywhere. Jusuf helped organize the first world Romany Congress in 1971 in London. The conference was financed in part by the Government of India, and at its urging the U.N. agreed first to recognize the Rom as a distinct ethnic group and several years later accorded voting rights to the International Romani Union.
In an interview with the author, Jusuf, having converted from Islam to his ancestral Hinduism, joyously displayed his new icon collection of Ganesha, Parvati, and Durga . Ramche Mustupha, a poet, showed his passport. Under "citizenship" it recorded Yugoslav; under "nationality," Hindu. The lost children of India, having found their ancestral land, are very proud of its ancient civilization -- the oldest continuous civilization in the world -- "Amaro Baro Thanh" (Romani for "our big land"). Fonseca observes: "Many of the young women, fed up with the baggy-bottomed Turkish trousers they were supposed to wear, have begun to wear saris."
Unlike other beleaguered and marginalized minorities, the Rom are not seeking a homeland of their own, a Romanistan, in or outside India. The Rom are resisting, as they always have, to maintain the freedom for a life-style of their choosing. "To allow this to the Gypsies," Vaclav Havel, in Prague, said, "is the litmus test of a civil society." However, Havel's is a lonely voice. All over Central and East Europe "Death to the Gypsies" graffiti can be observed. Since the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslavakia, twenty-eight Gypsies have been murdered.
Fonseca cites several specific cases of terrorism against the Gypsies during the 90's. "In February 1995, in Oberwart, Austria, a town seventy-five miles south of Vienna, four Gypsy men were murdered. A pipe bomb had been concealed behind a sign that said, in Gothic tombstone lettering, 'Gypsies go back to India'; the bomb exploded in their faces when they tried to take it down. The first response of the Austrian police was to search the victims' own settlement for weapons; 'Gypsies killed by own bomb,' the papers reported." Oberwart, Austria, is in Burgenland, where the Gypsies have been settled for three centuries.
The resurging repression of the Gypsies is Europe's continuing crime against humanity. At the Nazi trials in Nuremberg, there was no one to speak on behalf of the Gypsies. Now, the Gypsies have at least this eloquent book exposing Europe's recrudescing genocidal threats to them.

Susette, thank you for another review of the book.

I notice that the errors in Fonseca's description of Gypsy origin are minor in the details of caste etc. not in the broad sense, in as much as Fonseca unequivocally places the Gypsies as travelers from North India - drawing linguistic similarities with present day dialects in Haryana.

It is also interesting that the Indian government did not want the "origin" issue played up too prominently for fear that mistreatement and discrimination against the Gypsies in Europe might some day result in a mass reverse exodus of European Gypsies back to India, a la the European Jews to Israel.

What a great discussion. I've had real trouble finding people who actually read this wonderful book -- making me think that the distaste for Gypsies among even intelligent people is so great that finding out about them by reading is as undesired as getting to know them personally. It's interesting to read a deeper account here than Fonseca was able to provide of Gypsy origins, but where her book excels is in her study of their will to maintain their otherness, of their longing to be included, too, and their feelings about those who will not include them -- even within the pale of fellow human beings. While clinging to their folkways, they live outside history with no clear sense of their own history -- Europe's eternal unlettered Others. One man Fonseca grew friendly with did not know what country he and the others in his camp lived in, only the name of the nearest-by city. It's not possible to read it without thinking hard about how you conceive of others who are and are not like you, how your least charitable and coldest-hearted assessments of them feed into the very behavior you most detest in them. This book is a deep contribution to literature about the meaning of tolerance -- but wonderfully written, and anything but preachy.

This reminded me of an excellent movie on gypsies that I saw many years ago - Latcho Drom by Tony Gatlif.

Bury me standing, seems like a good read.

I would also recommend, "Witch of Portobello" by Paulo Coelho which is also a light read into gypsie life. I would call that fictional tale a 'gypsie-101' for beginners.

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Ruchira's review of the book "Bury me Standing". The Kali link may be important, but let us also remember that many ancient cults use dark stone for godheads, and annoint them accordingly. Hence the Siladevata is dark in many traditional families, Jagannath in Puri is another dark god, and the dark Shiva ling has attributes of special power. Rajasthan often has statues of black, not blue, Krishna in marble. What I am suggesting is that the Roma and the Hindu groups, and many other people too may have naturally turned to pantheistic expressions in which the shining dark stone with a streak of colour makes for a prominent figure of "worship".
The connection between Roma and the Indian gypsies is also cultural and linguistic, so the area of enquiry will be fairly large. I recently read Kamala Markandaya's posthumous novel Bombay Tiger (2008). Look out for the gypsy woman there who bravely takes on a business tycoon in Bombay! Wonderful vignettes of woman power.

The work of Fonseca is yet another addition to the dismal history of Gypsies, a word so hated and spurned in Europe. However, it would be wrong to turn its importance down so far as it brings to light the current phase of Gyposide and inhuman treatment, a racial mettle, indeed....

I've almost finished this book and it has been a revelation to me. I had never really thought terribly hard about Gypsies, only managing to muster human to human compassion for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the east of Europe. Fonseca explains so much, particularly with regard to the invisibility of Roma as an ethnic group and whilst it is important to understand where they may have come from originally, I'm not sure of that relevance to the rest of us. The history of an enslaved people under Vlad the Impaler in Romania may explain why some Gypsies behave in a stock predictable way in their dealings with Gadjoes just as American negroes did in the deep south of USA before the protest movements grew in the 50s and 60s.

The Gadjo majority do not seem to see Gypsies as human beings at all, at best only as some sort of romantic colour, or at worst a social nuisance. The only protest letter I have ever bothered to write to the BBC about a TV program involved a thoroughly improbable plot of 'Allo allo from the early 80s where, in a setting of Nazi occupied France in WW2, a group of colourful traveling Gypsies arrive in the village and the usual farce ensues. Rene says at one point "you mean I married a Gypo!". i could hardly believe my ears - wrote to protest that it was unlikely that the Nazi regime would have tolerated the Gypsy encampment, the Gypsies themselves would have probably been deported to Belsen for extermination and what would have been the public outcry if Rene had had caused instead to exclaim "you mean I married a Yid" or something equally obnoxious.

Needless to say, I did not even receive an acknowledgement for my letter from the BBC.

I'm quite sad to see that this thread was last visited nearly three years ago.

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