Academia loves a good story.

A quick JSTOR search yields papers, such as “Roast Chicken and Other Gypsy Stories”, “Gypsies Drown in Shallow Water”,  “A Gypsy, a Butterfly, and a Gadje”,  or The Gypsies’ Fiddle and Other Gypsy Stories”.  Linguists pore over our words like sweet sap dripping from a fresh, new pine. They analyze and deconstruct our paragraphs, sentences, and even single words. They tell us the meaning of our own narratives, burning holes in our past with their colonial gaze.

“A long, long, long time ago,” Papu said, his rasping voice carried by the smoke of the fire, “a strong, honourable Rom lived with his wife and seven children…” Stories like this would be spoken time and again. Small details changing, like the seasons passing by, depending on the situations our family found itself in. Some of them weren’t even told for the allegory, but simply for the telling itself. I’ve seen similar stories torn apart in academic papers and presentations, as if each word contains some mystical answer to the Romani problem. 

My family’s most valuable stories are not contained in books, academic papers, or magazine articles. They are not spoken about on this blog. Those stories, those words, have never even been spoken.

O Rom taj o Beng

O Rom taj o Beng

If you sat with Maami Babka, Baba Edita, or any of my Bibis on the low stools against the front of the house in the afternoon sun, you’d hear a thousand stories. You’d hear how the wolves stole the witch’s baby. You’d hear how Gulo tricked the devil and saved his violin and his family, too. You’d hear how smoke from a thousand fires swallowed the world. You’d also hear how so-and-so’s sister was seen with such-and-such’s brother and gosh, what a scandal!

If you didn’t know what you were hearing, you’d take them all at face value. Or perhaps you’d analyze them with your knowledge of European folklore traditions. The stories I was told of our history would not pass as history to any western historian. They’d be dismissed as fairy stories or children’s games. Maami Babka told stories of Romani who climbed seven, or maybe nine mountains until they reached the stars and could be with their ancestors. To most, this is a fairy story, a mythological narrative. To me? It’s history. My family, in their long journey out of India, across the Middle East, and into Europe, traversed many mountain ranges. Some of my relatives met the stars on those tough journeys, their bones still clattering in the wind on those snow-wrapped mountainsides.

Nothing my grandmother said was ever without meaning.

When she asked, “fetch me the water” it wasn’t simply a command to bring water. Nestled within those words was a wider history – a history of water and our ability to find it and use it. There was an understanding of the kind of water it had to be and the uses to which it could be put. There was a sense of gratitude and respect, a sense of all of the water in the world – rain, river, ocean, lake – each drop a part of the bradji full I’d bring.

Our lives are simplified into their most basic parts. Our stories dissected like a long cold cadaver. Our stories aren’t dead; our stories aren’t even finished. Never told the same way twice, you can’t prescribe a solution based on the order of our words or the words of our stories. Our past is very much alive in our future. Gulo in his vain fight against the tricky old Devil would tell you that, if only you could listen.