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Ibbetson's observations reflected the prejudices of the day and the widely held belief in Britain that nomads—and especially the dark-skinned Romany-speaking people known as Gypsies—were incorrigible agents of vice. Such attitudes transferred easily to the subcontinent. In 1871, colonial authorities passed a notorious piece of legislation called the Criminal Tribes Act, which identified dozens of nomadic groups as, in effect, criminal by nature. Itinerant families were required to register with police, and thousands of men, women, and children were forcibly corralled in work camps, some of them run by the Salvation Army, according to the book Dishonoured by History, by Indian sociologist Meena Radhakrishna.

After independence in 1947, the law was replaced by a comparable if less draconian measure, the Habitual Offenders Act, and the stigma of criminality lingers. "I would never have imagined that the descendants of these communities would be viewed with exactly the same prejudices," Radhakrishna says. "It's not that they don't want to be a part of society—they are not allowed to be."

THE WOMEN were fixing dinner. With a mortar and pestle, Kailashi crushed chili peppers for a vegetable stew, while Kanya cooked chapatis, the ubiquitous Indian flatbread, over an open fire. Night was coming, so they had to work fast, because of the prohibition against lamps. The Lohar had arrived in the village a few days earlier and weren't sure how long they would stay. It depended on the availability of work. As one of them said, nodding in the direction of a nearby buffalo, "There is not much of a difference between my life and that buffalo's life. He's roaming for food, and we also roam for food."

It was hard to argue with the comparison. The Lohar had never been to school. They relieved themselves in fields and slept under the stars, except during monsoon season, when they rigged their carts with awnings and encircled them with low mud walls to prevent flooding. They had never heard of the United States. When I first turned up, Kanya assumed—despite my white skin—that I was from Jaipur, the state capital, which was 40 miles distant and marked the geographic limit of her experience. "Ahhh," she said when I explained the airplane. "You came in a cheel gaadi." An eagle cart.

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