Between hearth and heart
“I feel at home here,” says 40-something Bajram (pronounced Behram) Haliti, sitting in the Kurukshetra University guesthouse. That’s odd you’d think, considering he is a Serbian national who has just stepped into India for the first time. For a view on why this Shashi Kapoor lookalike wasn’t just being off-handish, you have to take a big leap — of about a 1,000 years.
It was then that some Bajigars and Lohars migrated westwards from India. This community of nomadic gypsies, called Romas, is now settled all across Eastern Europe. Their language, Romani, is strikingly close to Punjabi: ear is kann, eye is yakh, tooth is dant, tongue is jeebh, water is pani.
But in Europe, the Romas are still being integrated into their host Balkan cultures. In Bajram’s adopted country, Serbia-Montenegro (he is a refugee from Kosovo), some 250,000 of them live in 600-odd makeshift communities.
But they still want to engage with Indian culture as their own. Bajram, a poet-activist, says: “I wrote a poem on Mirabai.” In his study, Bajram — who saw his library of 6,500 books burnt to ashes in Kosovo — keeps a picture of Rabindranath Tagore for inspiration.
But given that he can’t do anywhere as the Romas do, what does he want from India? “We want nothing but recognition,” says Damyanovich, the first Roma to become a Serbian minister in the previous government. “We should be declared an Indian ethnic minority in Europe so our human rights are restored to us.” And there lies the Roma story — between the hearth and the heart.