When the gypsies came to town

This happened in the winter of 1959. There was a wave of unrest in the “kancha bazaar” (kitchen market) in the city of Dinajpur. Someone made a bugle call: “The gypsies are here. Allah save us! Secure your belongings.” It was as if some calamity had befallen the small town. Sajeed, our servant, ran back from the bazaar and excitedly broke the news.

The kancha bazaar at this time was the center of news, both real and imagined, and the pulse of society. There was an immediate turmoil in our family. Everyone spoke enthusiastically. Mother was worried. Our Dadi (paternal grandmother), a pious and conservative old-school lady who knew enough about the gypsies from her childhood in Malda, declared with masterful impetus that they were mean people. Prejudice and fascination combined with a litany of negative attributes ranging from: theft, witchcraft, witchcraft, black magic, child abduction were all associated with it. Even our young aunt and teenage paternal uncle added, “these people know about Jadu” (magic). However, what struck me as a little odd, even at 5 years old, was the sudden fury the news had stirred in an otherwise quiet and orderly home. I became very curious. Who were these strange people? Our front and rear doors were quickly locked. It was debated whether we (the children) should be sent to school on this day or not? Even our beloved companion dog, Pinky, sensed something was wrong and barked endlessly. Only our father kept his cool. With a breath, he rode his bike to his office, happy to get away from it all. “Don’t forget to notify the police,” his mother called after him. No one then cared to remember that our famous national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam was in love with the gypsy and admiringly wrote an enchanting ode to the Iranian dancer playing the tambourine.

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It was difficult for us children to fall asleep that night. We tossed and turned, trembled and shivered. Mother scolded us. We were told to close our eyes and go to sleep. We faked sleep for a while, before sleep and “dreamland” overtook our weary souls. However, as children our fear and excitement was palpable. Then all hell broke out the next morning. Sajeed sounded the alarm, “Amma O Amma, amgo khaise re khaise, gypsy ra bashar pechone ease!“(Mother O mother! We are lost. The Gypsies are here in our backyard!”) We all woke up with a start. For the first time, I saw an expression of concern on my father’s face. He told everyone to stay inside as he and Uncle Akram rushed to our backyard to investigate. Sajeed was right. The house we lived in previously belonged to a Hindu litigator who left for India shortly after the partition. He was standing on high ground. In our backyard there was a small patch of land that we used as a vegetable garden, at the edge of which was a steep drop of about four feet into a shallow, murky, dying channel called the Ghagra. It was once an important canal dug by Raja Ramnath of Dinapur for drainage and sanitation purposes to ensure the city’s public health. However, in our time the Ghagra was silted up and had very little water except during the rainy season. The canal previously drew water from a nearby ancient river called the Kanchan, mentioned even in ancient Hindu scriptures. Unfortunately, when we saw the Ghagra, it slowly meandered through town like an oversized drain carrying trash. Viewed from our backyard across the canal, stretched a vast expanse of uninhabited land where the cattle were mad. The Gypsies had camped there. It is also where the local communities of the dom, chamars and the sweepers, the Hindus of the lower castes, let go of their pigs for food. In the winter we would watch the pigs from our rooftops and wonder aloud why the pigs depicted in our English story books were always white or pink in color, while the ones we saw were dark, dirty, and wallowing in. dirt. As little children, my older sister and I naively believed that since English Sahibs are white, their pigs must be too!

That day we all ran up to the roof to observe the gypsies from afar. There were probably four families of them who had pitched a few tattered tents. Their noisy and disheveled children ran around, while their donkeys grazed. But what alarmed us were the big black watchdogs they had brought. These ferocious dogs had seen us before and were barking furiously. We despaired for our little Pinky and resolved to keep her inside. Gypsies in loose clothing and headwear (turban) were busy searching the wasteland for firewood and dry leaves, while their women in swollen colorful ghagrara (skirt) were already busy with their pots and pans. . It was the first time my sister and I had seen gypsies. We were fascinated. Racially, they clearly stood out from us. They were getting bigger and bigger. Their skin color varied from swarthy to light. They spotted us on the roof, seemed to wave at first, then scoffed. Our elders immediately let us down into the house.

Soon the local administration called the police. There was an altercation between the gypsies and the police. Their children were crying and the dogs were barking threateningly. Later our father said that the gypsies had prayed for a day or two of reprieve before they left. They had come across the Indian border (West Dinajpur, West Bengal), to try to sell their wares in our part of Dinajpur. They were said to originally belong to Rajasthan, India.

The next day everything was calm. The gypsies stayed behind and we went to school. During this time, a most unnecessary incident took place. Our servant Sajeed had opened the door on the rear wall of our house to let the sweeper in. While doing so, he was surprised to see nearby Gypsy women washing utensils and clothes in the brackish water of the Ghagra. They smiled at her and said in a handful of Hindustani if ​​the Begum Sahiba (i.e. our mother) of the house would be interested in seeing their wares. A frightened Sajeed has lost his temper. He was abusive and threatened them with a piece of firewood. The enraged gypsies in turn shouted obscenities and threw some bricks in our backyard. However, our uncle Akram managed to calm things down. The gypsy women left reluctantly. Later, Sajeed was severely criticized by our parents for his insanity.

A few days later, while we were at school, a commotion broke out again at the gypsy camp. This time, the local police came and forcibly evicted them amidst much uproar. In less than an hour, the gypsies, having hastily packed their things onto their donkeys, were gone, all gesticulating wildly and taunting the police. They also left behind a whole mess, which was then set on fire.

As night fell over us with silence, I had a high fever. Our Dadi prayed next to my bed, while my mother cried softly. Aunt Sara worried about the sudden onset of my fever, joked, “It’s all Sajeed’s fault. He should never have behaved so brutally with them. Now the gypsies have put a curse on this house.” Our father laughed. “Nonsense” he said. “It’s just a bloody coincidence. Don’t be so superstitious. It’s not Islamic.”

Waqar A Khan is the founder of the Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.

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