Romany Empire

One of the pieces of trivia that used to come in handy during school quiz contests was that gypsies had originated in India. Blissfully unaware that the term "gypsy" is considered pejorative in many parts of the world (besides being inaccurate, since it is a corruption of the word Egyptian), I had never bothered to look up the colourful lives of the Romany people, only 15 million of whom are scattered all over the world today.

Linguistic and anthropological evidence points towards the Romany having originated in the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India. Originally musicians in the temples in this area, they began emigrating in the eleventh century after the invasion of their homeland by Mahmud of Ghazni-- some of these displacements were voluntary (better patronage of musicians in Persia) and some involuntary (enslavement or forced to serve in the Afghan army). The pathbreaking connection between Romany and Indo-Aryan languages of northern India was discovered as late as the eighteenth century, and the migration path of the Romany has been estimated by the influence of words from other countries in their language-- Persian, Armenian and Greek.

While many ancient Romany beliefs have adapted with local customs of host countries over the years, the musical and dance skills of this community continue to set them apart, and have influenced art-forms like bolero, jazz and flamenco. Even classical composers like Liszt, Bizet (his most famous opera, Carmen, is based on a colourful gypsy character living in Spain) and Brahms have been inspired by traditional Romany musical elements. To this day, the Romany is romanticised and stereotyped as dancers, fiddlers and fortune-tellers in caravans. Unfortunately, they have also been typecast as felons and law-breakers, a fable even the venerable National Public Radio (NPR) of America helped perpetuate by damning them in a 1997 broadcast.

One of the little known tragedies of the Romany people is the porajmos (literally "devouring", in Romany) programme of persecution they were subject to under the Third Reich. Modern researchers agree that over 5,00,000 Roma were systematically exterminated by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. Ironically, the lineage of the Romany can be traced back to pure Aryan roots, but Nazi propaganda popularised the myth that their nomadic lifestyle and racial mingling was a threat to Aryan homogeneity. Romanies in Germany were sent to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where they were subject to the most inhuman medical experimentation, before being gassed or shot to death. Despite the fact that over 90% of the Romany population of Austria and Germany were wiped out during this mass murder (the same proportion of loss as Jewish people), the Romany genocide remains but a footnote in the history of the holocaust.

The Romany is the perpetual outsider. Without any home to call their own (and even being discriminated against in countries they have tried to call home), they are too few and too dispersed to lobby for acceptance of their heritage and recognition of their courage. As they wander from land to land in search of a better future, it is incumbent upon us, the educated and the educators, to extol the past of this unique group of travellers who have struggled in the face of adversity but refused to accept defeat.

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?
Langston Hughes, Minstrel Man

U-Pick Apples

Do you know what an apple tree looks like? I had always imagined them to resemble enormous banyan trees-- grand enough to orchestrate Isaac Newton's thoughts in the direction of gravity, thick enough to hide the Devil in the guise of a serpent, and tall enough to require ladders to pluck apples from. How surprised and disillusioned I was, therefore, when I went apple-picking at the Hamptons, near the eastern tip of Long Island, with a group of friends last weekend.

The orchard had rows and rows of apple trees with branches well within my arm's reach. As such, they better resembled domesticated trees of the kitchen-garden variety! While this did simplify the task of apple-picking, it robbed us of the serendipitous thrill of spotting a perfect undiscovered apple on an out-of-reach bough. For anyone used to buying apples from the supermarket, a visit to an orchard is indeed an eye-opener. The variety of colours and sizes and textures of apples-- from the omni-present gala, to the cricket ball-like Fuji and the McIntosh (which inspired the name of the first Apple computer)-- is simply astounding. It was also instructive to see over-ripe apples burst open and spread their seeds, jolting back faded memories of pollination and germination from high-school biology books.

For a concrete-jungle dweller like me, exposed only to the greenery of Calcutta's maidan or Manhattan's Central Park, an occasional visit to the orchard is but a poor substitute to actually being surrounded by flora and fauna. I have always envied my friends and family members who have grown up in towns like Durgapur or Jamshedpur, and have developed an intrinsic knowledge to pick the freshest vegetable in a market spread, or identify all the flowers in a garden. To be in close contact with nature is a wonderfully refreshing experience, and for a few delicious hours on that sun-soaked afternoon, the apple trees helped me forget the hustle and madness of the Big Apple only a hundred miles west.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Genesis, 2:16

Phoney Wars

The Wall Street Journal's technology correspondent recently invoked America's favourite bogeyman, Soviet communism, to describe the American cell-phone industry. And despite (or because of) my association with the wireless business, I have to agree that the stranglehold imposed by network carriers on handset manufacturers is as stifling and outdated as Microsoft's monopoly on the personal computer experience before the advent of the open-source revolution led by Linux.

Friends and family I meet in India or Europe are invariably surprised to see a cell-phone carrier's name on my phone instead of the logo of a Blackberry or a Palm or a Motorola. Indeed, not only does an American carrier dictate a common uniform interface from their wide variety of vendors, but they also call the shots on what applications are allowed on the phone. Their argument that the download of third-party software may cause unpredictable results and increase call volume to to their customer service (the most reviled among all public utilities), is ingenious at best.

Actually, the entire relationship between cell-phone carriers, handset manufacturers and the end-user is archaic and in need of an overhaul in America. At present, the cost of a new handset is subsidised by the carrier, who in exchange binds the customer into a two-year contract guaranteeing a steady source of revenue for the period. The loser is not only the customer (who needs to pay an early termination fee should she want to bail out because of poor service), but the telecommunications market as a whole, since manufacturers have no incentive to innovate and cut production costs like they have done elsewhere in the world. It is ironic that in the absence of subsidies, a mobile handset in the citadel of capitalism is, without exception, more expensive than the same model in communist China!

Apple had a golden opportunity to break through this incestuous relationship when they launched the iPhone earlier this year. In fact, while they appropriated the freedom to design the interface away from the carrier, they introduced their own idiosyncrasies-- their delay in releasing the software development kit (SDK) for the iPhone has prevented programmers from writing applications for it. More importantly, by aligning themselves with a single service provider, they squandered away the prospect of having a subscriber buy an unlocked world-band iPhone at an Apple Store and activating it with the network of her choice.

Google, the other great purveyor of freedom, has kept rumour-mongers busy with hints of their Android operating system which promises to offer the programming capabilities offered by Palm and Windows Mobile, but without their frequent crashes. Having already signed into an agreement with the company rolling out a nationwide WiMAX network in America, it is only natural that they should want to tap the vast 3G market as well. Despite the associated concerns with privacy (don't be surprised to receive targeted text messages based on your location and web-browsing history!), an open standard from Google may be just the catalyst needed to shake up the carriers from their self-imposed stupor.

O misery, misery, mumble and moan!
Someone invented the telephone,
And interrupted a nation's slumbers,
Ringing wrong but similar numbers.
Ogden Nash, Look What You Did, Christopher!