To be Vaghri in modern India is to be a pariah, to live outside the mainstream, neither peasant nor city dweller, on the fringe of a rapidly developing economy. And that is how they like to be. Independent, proud, secretive and a problem for the local authorities.
The Vaghri are the Gypsies of India, the landless caste, and descendants of the great migrating tribes of north India, of whom the gypsies of the world owe their origin.
With their long hair, tattoos and necklaces made from the claws and teeth of the animals they hunt, they are physically striking and their lives are as much an enigma to local Indians as to any outsider.
They survive by hunting in the forests and fields, selling trinkets to the tourists and generally trading on their difference. It is their difference that defines them, and has allowed them to maintain a distinct culture. But times are changing even for the
recalcitrant Gypsies. The younger generation are no longer happy to remain outcasts yet fear losing their independence.
Followed over a period of ten years, we see the story of Karthik, the only member of his tribe who goes to school and who is adamant about being a good student as well as a good hunter. Karthik is trying to walk between two worlds, the traditional life of the nomad hunter and a citizen of modern India. But he knows what’s at stake and how difficult his path will be. He has the example of his older beloved cousin Ravi.
Ravi was a hustler. He could make any tourist part with their money with his charm alone. We see him grow, over the last ten years, into a rebellious teen. Challenging the traditions of the tribe, seeking ways to escape the poverty and hardship of gypsy life by cutting his hair, (the most sacred of taboos) and travelling to the city to seek work only to find the same prejudice and difficulty there. Years later, he returned the prodigal son, keen to raise a dowry to win a bride. He struggles to find his way back but in despair and anger dramatically swallows poison and is rushed to hospital where he dies.
Karthik is deeply affected by his cousin’s fate. He sets out to bring together the gypsy tribes and lead the next generation of boys through their first sacrifice, the ultimate celebration and rites of passage in gypsy culture. We follow Karthik on this quest, visiting the gypsy communities, exploring the lush countryside, French colonial settlements, ancient ruins and the pulsating city of Chennai.
It is this mix of growing self-awareness, determination and faith, that makes Karthik’s story compelling.