Forgotten memories of being desi

Noomi_Rapace.jpgI just recently heard that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was being made into a film. This perplexed me because I thought there was a film adaptation of that novel! Yes, there was, but that was a Swedish production, and the new film is “made in America.” Fair enough.

What does this have to do with this weblog? The actress who plays the protagonist in the Swedish film, Noomi Rapace, had a father who was a Gitano, a Spanish Romani (the term “Roma” is really an ethnonym for the eastern Romani). In case you don’t know, the Romani language is clearly Indo-Aryan. Its closeness to Indo-Aryan dialects of the Indian subcontinent is such that the story goes that Indian sailors who were stationed in Britain overheard, and understood, much of the conversation of local British Gypsies.

The origin of this population in the Indian subcontinent is evident through multiple lines of inquiry. Both in terms of culture, and genetics. Most of the genetic results focus on paternal and maternal lineages, but some “genome bloggers” have obtained samples from people with Roma background, and they clearly have distinctive South Asian ancestry. Because of intermarriage obviously this is not always visibly salient. How many people are aware that Charlie Chaplin was 1/4 Romanichal?But this post isn’t about Romani, but another group of brown folk who have forgotten about being brown. I’m talking about the Cape Coloureds of South Africa. It is well known that this population has ancestry form local Africans, whether Khoisan or Bantu, as well as a Northern European heritage shared with Afrikaners (culturally they are somewhat interchangeable with their Afrikaner “cousins” in language and religion). Often there is also an awareness that the Cape Coloureds have some Southeast Asian ancestry, because of the ubiquity of slaves and servants from this region of the world across the Dutch colonial empire (e.g., Suriname), as well as the existence of the Cape Malays.

But what about the Indian ancestors of the Cape Coloureds? This is not so well known, despite the fact that the Dutch brought many Indian servants and slaves to South Africa as well. Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape Colony and for whom the city of Stellenbosch is named, had a maternal grandmother who was an enslaved Indian.

A few years ago a paper came out which quantified the extent of Indian ancestry in a set of 20 Cape Coloureds. It looks to be about ~10 percent. More recently I obtained 3 samples of Cape Coloured origin (unrelated). I “ran” them through the program ADMIXTURE. My results were in line with what the earlier team had found. I used my “Gujarati_B” reference sample, which seems to be Patels, to explore for any South Asian ancestry. I also compared the Cape Coloureds to Chinese, a set of San (Bushmen), Bantu Africans, and white Americans, and Yemeni Jews. The Cape Coloureds had contributions from all the groups. The Chinese are a reasonable proxy for Southeast Asians on a continental scale. South Asian ancestry for the Cape Coloureds was clearly outside of the margin of error. The fact that it was approximately the same in all three individuals suggests that it this absorption of Indian ancestry occurred early on in the ethnogenesis of the community, as there is not much intra-population variance..

Cape Coloureds are 8.8% of South African’s population. Indians are 2.6%. Assuming that Cape Coloureds are ~10% Indian, one can infer that around ~1/3 of the distinctive South Asian ancestry among South Africans is actually not within the enumerated Indian population.

This is to some extent all ancient history, though I suspect people will find it moderately interesting. But, it perhaps points us to possibilities in the global future, as identities, self-conceptions, are mixed & matched, and combinations generate novel startling configurations.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

15 thoughts on “Forgotten memories of being desi

  1. Razib Khan: “How many people are aware that Charlie Chaplin was 1/4 Romanichal?”

    I was very familiar with this, my friend. Also, Rita Hayworth (Aga Khan’s ex-wife), and one of the world’s greatest guitarist, Django Reinhardt, were also Romani. The word “Django” was actually his nickname. It means “Wake up!” in Romani, and the Indo-Aryan languages of South Asia still use a word “jay-go” to mean “Wake up!” to this day.

    Bob Hoskins, from the Roger Rabbit movie, is supposedly part Romani. I don’t believe this at all. I believe that he was Jewish, and he thought that there were more job opportunities in entertainment as a Roma and not as a Jew. So some folks like to pretend to have Roma ancestry…or even Scythian/Siberian/Kazakh ancestry, but that’s a different story.

    The Roma’s (or Rroma as how they once liked to be transliterated in order to be not be confused with the Romanians) introduced amazing music and dance to Central and Western Europe. Flamenco dance still has a lot of kathak influence there, and flamenco chord progressions is quite eastern or in Phrygian mode. Oh yes, I believe that they wear garish clothing.

    I once met 2 American Roma’s here in Boston about 4 years ago. Their mother was an Italian-American, and the elder of the two brothers had a very Bostonian accent, and at 21, looked much older than a 35 year older. They were all very nice and happy to talk to me.

    One other thing about Romas: There may have been 2 independent migrations of them outside the Subcontinent from 2 different regions. I believe that the first migration occurred around 400 AD from modern-day Kashmir area. This is why many linguists classify Roma language as belonging to the Dardic sub-branch of Indo-Iranian language. These Romas settled along the Silk Road to Armenia, Iran, Arabic nations, Turkey, and Central Asia.

    Another group migrated out of modern-day Rajasthan, and in my opinion, Punjab, probably on the year 1000 AD (+/- 10 years), which corresponded with Ghazni’s rule of Hindustan. Their language was from the Indo-Aryan sub-branch from the Indo-Iranian branch. This latter migration made its way all the way to Eastern Europe about 5 centuries later, but by then, they had forgotten their origins, which I find amazing. When asked from the local Europeans, I believe in Holland, what their origins were, the Romas, being slightly more than cocky desis, replied “We are from heaven.” However, they identified their origins as being Egyptian, probably due to the cultural clout and prestige of that area. This is why we call them “Gypsy”: It’s cognate with the word “Egypt.”

    Not much longer after that, the white Europeans noticed that they engaged in a lot of petty thievery. To this day, “jipped” means “stole”, and this is cognate with “Gypsy.” AFAIK, the Gypsy/Roma words that’s made it to our English language are “pal” (friend) and “chav” (mischievous boys).

  2. I was very familiar with this, my friend.

    my friend, are you not familiar with idiomatic english? and did you write the wikipedia entry? 🙂

    • ” father christmas flies in from his grotto in jullundur – indian!”

      khuswant singh is the best santa-look-alike I know of. But seriously, some old sikh men are oh so chrismassy.

  3. 1) please read the whole post if you are going to comment

    2) don’t impute intent upon me

    otherwise i’ll just delete your comment when i see it.

    (if you complain about this policy, i’m going to delete that too)

  4. What do you mean by “combinations generate novel startling configurations?” Combinations/configurations of genes, or identities? Even if you’re referring to both, what makes them “startling?” It’s important to document and appreciate the travel of gene pools, but what do you think are the greater implications of knowing that genes from the subcontinent were dispersed elsewhere?

    Yes, genes dispersed. Funtastic. To each their own conclusion on the significance of Chaplin and Ms. Rapace having some Indian in them. They might just be as Indian as I am Arab and Caucasian. Initially, your post came off to me like an uncle-like attempt to include famous folks in the cultural group, but I know that’s not at all what you’re going for. It’s good to know that folks mixed. Warm and fuzzy, yes, we are more alike than different. Here’s to havin good lookin babies.

  5. This is too weird…I was just reading about Charlie Chaplin’s Romanichal ancestry yesterday. Learned some interesting stuff about angloromani-the British “gypsy” dialect. For example, ‘jaw ta puch tiri pen” means “go and ask your sister.” Compare with guju “jau tu puch tari ben ne” (via wikipedia). Some interesting etymology too. English “dad” is actually a gypsy loanword, based on north indian Dada. Gibberish come from Jeeb (tongue).

  6. but what do you think are the greater implications of knowing that genes from the subcontinent were dispersed elsewhere

    i think it is a general and not south asian issue. there is a natural and useful tendency to bracket cultural and genetic variation in the “chunks” which we’re familiar with. and that is fine, and there isn’t going to be too much intermarriage to really diminish the big chunks which exist today. but, a substantial proportion of the world’s population in the near future will be more like the cape coloureds, a bit of all sorts of “incongruous” components. to give an explicit example, barack obama’s half-sister sister on his mother’s side is half-indonesian and married to a chinese canadian. he has a half-brother on his father’s side who lives in china and is married to a chinese woman. this sort of family tree is not that uncommon among the “global elite” (e.g., rupert murdoch has half-chinese children, and 1/4 ghananian grandchildren, etc.).

    in terms of what it is brown/desi, there is a parochial and narrow aspect which is important, significant, and will remain demographically dominant. but, in terms of what is brown/desi for diasporic people it is going to be more “mixed up.” more “dougla” as a triniadian would put it. the categories and contexts will multiply, and dualisms will break down, because they won’t be useful.

    as for being an “uncle-type,” people who are familiar with me will know that wasn’t my intent. but i contribute to a lot of blogs, so i can’t exactly take the time to contextualize everything about my background constantly 🙂 people will take different things from the same post, and that’s fine actually, but i do demand that they not impute back to me their own interpretation of intent. you can find out about me pretty easily, so there’s no need to guess that much. my own children are going to be half-brownz, and i count many of that kind as friends, so i have a particular interest in issues of hybridity.

  7. Elvis Presley and Michael Caine are reputed to be Gypsy by origin. There are several more cases of famous people we didn’t know were Gypsy.

  8. My friend’s restaurant once hosted a group of American “Roma” after one of their funerals. The “petty thievery” is for real. If he hadn’t kept an eagle eye out, they would have stripped the place. For some reason they ate all the deserts and left the rest of the food. I don’t know if that was custom, ritual or they just didn’t like the cuisine.They even threw food on the walls which they said was a ritual. They paid extra for that privilege, which has absolutely no background in any desi culture. Maybe they picked it up from the Greeks throwing glasses into the fire. Oh, and they had said when they reserved the room that they were “Greek.”

  9. A Razib post that’s missing his last “I’m bored – closing the comments” comment? Wow. 🙂

  10. and please note, i do check the threads of my posts on this weblog. that’s one reason i close them after a few weeks, as i don’t want to keeping monitoring an open ended number of threads.