Gypsies; the permanent nomads.
Not only perfecting the art of travelling but taking it above and beyond in comparison to any other part of the South Asian Sub-culture, the Gypsies of South Asia are an indigenous tribe native to a turbulent region. A turbulent region that has been yearning for peace for over half a century: the former State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Be it sunshine or rain, regardless of the political scenarios around the volatile Line of Control, these wandering souls have one purpose in life: to travel. Moving to higher ground in the Summers and to the Plains in Winters, the Gypsies of South Asia travel with their belongings and livestock, mounted over their reliable mules, accompanied by their faithful dogs.
The prised possession are the livestock; that thrive on grass and vegetation that grows afresh after the melting away of the winter snow on the mountain faces of this Sub-Himalayan region, locally known as ‘Backs’.
Living off the land, the major source of nourishment is milk and its byproducts: harvested from the livestock that they tediously tend to.
Our paths crossed on a leisurely hiking trip while taking a break from the ever so similar desert terrain of the Middle East. The green mountains and thick forests, which were once a norm, is a much awaited escape from the dull harsh desert environment.
The hiking party laid camp close to where the nomads had settled for the season. Probably unaccustomed to neighbours, the curious eyed children stared as if trying to make sense of this trespassing onto their mountain face. As dust resettles behind a fleeing carriage over a dirt road, vigilance gave way to curiosity and the Elder of the Clan walked across to greet the ramblers. Customary greetings exchanged and ice broken, as we sat with on the beautiful lush green grass, the children that had been ever so cautious, followed suit. Some of the children took to running around the ‘guests’, some were rather heedless, whereas a couple retreated to the safety of an old man’s lap, who was soaking the sun in front of their summer home.
‘What brings you here?’, asked the Elder of the Clan, his eyes searching, his stern hollow glare, moving for one face to another.
As we spoke of our intentions and it was established that we meant no harm, his eyes relaxed and a smile broke out on his travel hardened face. The midday sun bestowed prominence to his wrinkled face; the wrinkles seemingly visible as if they were willfully carved at the hand of a skilled artisan. The wrinkles that were evidence of the many seasons past, of experiences like none other, of happiness, sorrow and grief: of life.
Someone asked for tea, if it would not be too much of a hassle.
The request was countered with another question: ‘Have you eaten?’
Upon receiving a reply that seemed to have been well anticipated, our request for tea was refused based on the reply to the counter question and the reply was simple, inviting and bursting with hospitality: ‘How can you have tea when you have not eaten?’
There-forth the treat unfolded and it was a treat all right!
We were invited into their humble abode. The hut was simple yet more homely than most homes I have had the pleasure to have visited: half a metre circular hole dug in the ground, lined with straw reinforced mud, the ground covered in straw mats topped with cushy quilts, walls leading to the roof made out of wood and stone — stalked together expertly, and the roof — an amalgamation of straw and mud supported by wooden beams. The cooking area was close to the entrance, regimented by the Queen of the Castle, with a couple of lasses submitting at her every command.
Food was served and boy we were in for a ride!
A traditional yogurt curry was served in an earthen bowl, fresh off the wood-burning stove, with a mound of farm fresh butter right in the centre of the bowl, served with ‘chapatis’ or round thin pitta bread. Natural spring water followed by a cup of tea to wash it all down.
Everyone at some point might have fantasised about heaven. To me, thinking back, that moment was as close as it could get to heaven.
We stayed there for a little while talking about the things that matters to them, things that matters to us, and things that did not matter at all.
Towards the end, a companion paid them for them hospitality, we thanked them dearly and set off back to ground zero: where everything was less simple, and everything ordinary.
The feeling of gratitude, to God and to our gracious hosts, unparalleled food and the simplicity of it all accounted to an unforgettable experience.