My memories are punctuated by hoof beats and silence. Some things I’ll never forget, no matter how much I want to, their firefly moments etched into my mind like scratches on a prison door; and some things I just have to say, no matter how the words catch in my throat and choke me into silence.
Kako Tonju never let me ride up front. He said that riding on the footboard wasn’t for little girls. So, when he hoisted me up and patted a little cushion next to him, I knew something was wrong. It didn’t matter though, I loved it up there. Hmara, their old but sturdy horse, was the colour of an angry spring sky – light and dark grey swirling together, with a lightning bright stripe down the center of his nose. He plodded along rhythmically, swaying the wagon from side to side, often putting me right to sleep. At times, Tonju would sing along with the clip-clop, his crackling voice like a midwinter fire. But, today he wasn’t singing. His face, lined with age, was drawn and his eyes hollow and bright. Occasionally, he reached over and patted me on the head or pointed out a tiny dot he assured me was a divesesko cheriklo, a skylark. Bibi Šuki huddled with my small cousins in the back of the wagon. When she was younger she’d always walked proudly at Hmara’s side, guiding her around potholes and other obstacles. Now she was too old and her wizened frame made it difficult to walk, so she rode in the back with us children.
The day was largely silent, broken only by Hmara’s clopping hooves and an occasional honking car horn. Eventually, the roads began to narrow and we saw tell-tale smoke rising above the hedgerow. As we pulled into the field, I recognised the area where we’d met the previous summer, but there were more than double the number of wagons, cars, vans, and caravans littering the grass now. Pavol, Lenka, and Arseni came squealing across the field, rapidly followed by about five other children.
“Kako Tonju let you ride up with him?” Pavol asked breathlessly, the awe spread across his face as big as his smile. I nodded and puffed out my chest a little. At seven, I was older than Pavol, but his father was next in line to be Baro Rom, so I couldn’t act the way I did with the other kids. Besides, there’d been talk of he and I becoming betrothed when the time was right (and I fervently hoped that the time was never right) and that always made me feel awkward.
“ČUHI!” The shout cut through the early evening air like a knife and I instantly recognized my mother’s voice and the nickname [mouse] that she called me. Kissing Kako lightly on the cheek I hopped down and sprinted across the field, barely beating Pavol to my parent’s car.
“She rode up front with Kako!” Pavol blurted before I could warn him not to. My parents didn’t always approve of the way Kako spoiled me and riding up on the footboard was something girls just didn’t do. Strangely though, daj only looked at me and smiled a little, before mumbling, “mišto, little mouse,” and telling me to get on and clean my hands and face. Rushing to the back of the car, past uncle Bajusiči’s sagging old caravan, I dutifully washed and smoothed down my skirt. The air was getting chill and the smell of food grabbed at my stomach.
As the night drew on, between the songs and dancing, and between the food-filled silences, no one spoke of why we were here. I noticed that Kako and Bibi sat slightly to the side, in front of their wagon, occasionally approached by one of the other adults, hugged or shoulder-slapped purposefully. The boys ran around like a flock of noisy gulls, chattering and exploding into the spaces between caravans and tents. The girls huddled in quiet corners, talking in hushed tones about hairstyles, which boy they wanted to marry, and the latest gossip. In between listening to the older men and smoking, a group of teenage boys tended the few horses down by the stream, while the older girls heaped food onto plates and poured drinks endlessly.
I sat next to Maami Babka, the smoke from her cigarettes dancing timidly with wood smoke from the fire. Now and then she’d turn to me to comment on something and the sweet sickly scent of whisky coated her words. On the other side, Bibi Lemija sat staring blankly into the fire, puffing on her old pipe, her braids tucked into the front of her coat. Leaning over she wrapped a scarf tight around my head and I was grateful for it, despite the crackling heat from the fire. As the night wore on the talking turned into story-telling, each more grand and more convoluted than the one before. Children draped like blankets on their mother’s laps, younger brothers huddled restlessly in the tight arms of their older sisters. Eventually, Kako Tonju and Bibi Šuki shuffled to the front and Pavol’s father, Havel loudly shushed everyone, even though we were already quiet.
“Maloko hin baxtaloro, alje ame sam …” Kako started, his voice cracking.
Not everyone is very lucky, but we are
I don’t remember everything that was said. The evening was late, I was young, and the passage of time has washed away many of the words, but I know that there were a lot of tears and toasts and it was the last time I rode behind Hmara in the wagon. In fact, neither the wagon and Hmara nor my aunt and uncle ever came home again. Kako and Bibi travelled south with Kako Bajusiči and his family and stayed with the rest of our relatives around the New Forest and Devon, passing away not long after their arrival – first bibi, then kako. Hmara went with Kako Balado, since he still had Hmara’s younger siblings. He swore that Hmara passed away the very same second that Kako Tonju took his last breath.
The wagon? It went up in a cacophony of flames in the early morning light, shattering the silence with its deafening roar. It burned for hours, the paint bubbling and hissing, the windows cracking and popping, and the black smoke curling long and beard-like into the pale, sad sky.
The journey home with my parents was grey and quiet and empty and seemed like it lasted for days. When I was small I didn’t understand what happened that night, and sometimes I barely understand even now.
Our family was largely nomadic for a long period of time. It was a wandering not born out of desire, but out of need. Driven west out of India by continual threats, violence, hatred, and poverty, eventually my ancestors found a living in Slovakia and Southern Poland. At least for a while. Before the Communists, before the War, and before the hungry smoke [bokhalo thuv] came and devoured our families.
Originally, we’d only had horses, wagons, and our feet… the steps were the breath and the rhythm of our lives. We travelled because we had to, but even as a child it was easy to romanticize the clopping hooves, blue skies, and endless fields. I didn’t know then, that it was illegal to stop by the side of the road, that it was becoming illegal to park a wagon on common land, or that the common land was being taken away from us. I didn’t know that my family were finding it harder and harder to find work and places to stay, and I didn’t know that even my relatives who had settled were being evicted over and again.
The day I found out, was the day Tonju and Šuki lost everything. I didn’t understand it then, but I knew it in my bones, the way geese know when a storm’s coming. When I was ten, my grandfather told me that they’d had no choice. The authorities had made keeping both the wagon and Hmara impossible. Wagons were an extension of their owners. That wagon had seen the births and young lives of many of my relatives, it had rolled, lazily all across the world. It had its own stories, songs, and dreams. Better to save it from the callous hands of the police or bailiffs and hand it willingly to the flames and the sky. That same year I was with my grandparents when they were evicted from their house, and I began to understand things in a way that I hadn’t before. It was snowing, I had no shoes, and they left us shivering on the sidewalk.
As a child, my life just was. I was a Gypsy because that’s what people said I was. I travelled with my family, because that’s what they did. I ran, sometimes dirty, sometimes wearing ripped, one-size-too-small secondhand clothes, through our withered villages in Slovakia, oblivious to the conditions in which my aunts and uncles lived their lives. When I look back, there’s always a time before and a time after. A time when I didn’t understand and a time when the veneer fell away and I understood everything for what it was.
I was bullied for being Gypsy. My grandparents were evicted multiple times, my uncles were arrested for being in a bar at the wrong time of day, my brothers were always in trouble at school. Little things constantly chipped away at my idyllic childhood patchwork of blue and green. My parents, aunts and uncles had trouble finding and keeping work. Our uneasy summers, filled with constant movement, aching fingers from fruit-picking, and nights under the stars, began to etch out the difference between settled and nomadic. Slowly, like water dripping on stone, I began to understand my own restless feet.
Baba once told me that because we looked different, talked different, and had different ways of doing things, people didn’t want us around. Sure, they’d let us muck out their animals, mend their pots and pans, or work in their fields, but they didn’t want us living in their towns and villages. Mostly, she said, people just didn’t understand where these “black folk” came from. Year after year and country after country, laws were passed making our way of life illegal. We weren’t allowed to be “itinerant”, we weren’t allowed to travel to find work. We had to settle. To speak the majority language. We had to make ourselves into up-standing non-Romani citizens. Yet, at the same time, no one wanted us in their town. They wanted us to go settle somewhere else. Anywhere else. So we were evicted, often on pain of death, to go try our luck in the next place. In fact, after World War II, after the Holocaust, the Romani way of life was still illegal. We were still considered racially inferior and dangerous. Imagine that, walking out of Auschwitz, one of only a handful of survivors and being told “no one wants you here”.
There were sayings I heard as a child; ‘black as a Gypsy’s heart’, ‘as honest as a Gypsy’, ‘be good or the Gypsies’ll take you’ which seemed to hammer these sentiments home. To outsiders, we were dirty, thieving, dishonest, mean, violent, drunkards with nothing to offer but disease and empty pockets.
Kako Tonju and Bibi Šuki had done nothing wrong. The societal and political structures that had forced their relatives into a nomadic way of life, were now trying to force them out of it. Their wagon was condemned, their grandchildren threatened with “being put in the system”, their freedoms constantly impinged by police raids, social worker visits, council representative visits, landowner visits. Most of my other relatives had caravans, so they were at least spared the “health code violation” bullshit that was plastered to the front door every time Kako and Bibi stepped away for a minute.
The majority of Romani didn’t become nomadic by choice; the majority of Romani didn’t become settled by choice.
For a people who are so supposedly “free”, we appear to have very little freedom.