Heathcliff in My Rear-view Mirror
By Dr Zafar M. Iqbal
TCCI, Chicago, IL

I consider myself very fortunate growing up with and around books. My family had a fairly large collection, a good part of which survived my liberal, random ‘sharing’ with friends and others for years. ‘Loaned’ books are seldom returned, but if at all, more likely at a rate lower than ‘loaned’ money, as some of us have learned.

When my parents moved to the US over three decades ago, this collection as it was then, was donated to a local library in India that acknowledged the gift by dedicating one of its wings in their name. It had a lot of classic English literature, my father’s major focus, including a complete set of books by the Bronte sisters.

One of my early and lasting favorites has been ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily B., her only book published in 1848, a year before her death at 30 due to tuberculosis. It still haunts me -- more so since my visit a few years ago with a British friend to the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire (west of Leeds, south of Keighley, near Bradford). I finally got to see and ‘experience’ the foreboding Yorkshire moors and surrounding terrain in which the book was set in the mid-19 th century England. No one could have ordered a more fitting weather that afternoon -- dreary, wet and windy, right out of the pages of the book itself, with the ‘spirit’ of sisters all around.

After I slipped on a wet slab of concrete around the parsonage, my friend discouraged me from exploring the area any further. But surveying the moors for any glimpse of Heathcliff and Catherine, I did get drenched though. I cannot forget the day or that night when I ran a nasty temperature.

Emily Bronte portrays the central character, Heathcliff, as a “Lascar” and a “dark-skinned gipsy” -- an inscrutable alien in the 19 th century Yorkshire. Found as a homeless boy in Liverpool, Mr Earnshaw decides to adopt him, and brings him to the Yorkshire moors about 70 miles north-northeast. There, Heathcliff (name given by Mr Earnshaw) is constantly subjected to physical and emotional abuse by Mr Earnshaw’s real son, Hindley, who feels sidelined by the adoptee. The abuse gets only worse after Mr Earnshaw’s death. Later, Heathcliff goes away somewhere unspecified, makes his money, and returns as part of the landed gentry but continues to be a much-maligned anomaly in that part of England.

Right from the first page to his death in his bed, Emily Bronte studiously describes Heathcliff as a rough-hewn, insensitive misfit, quick to take offense at the slightest hint. When Mr Lockwood, his new tenant at Thrushcross Grange, comes over to pay a courtesy visit, Heathcliff rudely interrupts him just to emphasize his ownership of that place. More of this kind of behavior and attitude follows in various situations throughout the book.

On Emily’s description of Heathcliff, I offer a few comments here, with some historical context :

The word ‘Lascar’ is derived from Persian, ‘Lushker’, originally meaning a military camp or army, and later used for sailors and militiamen from the Indian subcontinent employed on European ships. This practice started as early as 1490s, when Vasco da Gama was the first to sail from Portugal to Malabar, southwestern coast of India, now Kerala. Nearby Goa became a Portuguese colony soon after, and remained so before the Indian government took it over after independence in 1947. In the 16 th and 17 centuries, Portuguese ships employed a large number of lascars from the subcontinent.

When the British East India Company, an international trading enterprise formed in 1600, reached India, the British ships employed Indian lascars (mainly from Bengal, Assam and Gujrath). On these ships, they were also brought in increasingly numbers to British ports where some of them married British girls (there were no legal restrictions against such marriages) and raised families in and around the dock area settlements.

According to some estimates, by early 1800s, there were about 10,000 Indian lascars living in Britain. By mid-1800, 3,000 to 12,000 lascars arrived annually in Britain, a trend that continued through the rest of 19 th century. At the beginning of WWI, more than 50,000 lascars lived in Britain.

Michael Herbert Fisher in his 2006 book, “Counterflows to Colonialism” [ISBN 81-7824-154-4] and in his later work on the same subject, gives a comprehensive picture of ‘lascar’ history in Britain.

Many cities in India had British cantonments or army areas. For instance, Secunderabad, twin city of Hyderabad, was one that some old Hyderabadis used to call “Lushker.” It was in a Secunderabad hospital, KEM (King Edward VII Memorial) , I was born, less than a mile from my mother’s ancestral home. Digressing further, it is also the same hospital where Sir Ronald Ross did some crucial research on the life cycle of malaria parasite in Anopheles mosquito, for which he received a Nobel in Medicine/Physiology (1902). This hospital was re-named in 1958 as Gandhi Hospital.

Heathcliff was found in a lascar settlement in Liverpool, and Emily Bronte, aware of the presence of such families living in the country, probably expanded on the folklore to create Heathcliff.


Heathcliff, described as a ‘dark-skinned gipsy’, also seems to conform to another historical caricature. Isabel Fonesca’s book, “Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey” (1995) [ISBN 0-679-73743-X], is the result of her spending four years with gypsy communities (or Roma, a term they prefer) from Albania to Poland. It is an excellent rendition of the stories of a people “on the brink,” who left India 1,000 years ago and inched their way westward, “tired of being stereotyped or marginalized” and perpetually misunderstood across the world.


Book’s title comes from a Roma proverb describing their plight: "Bury me standing. I've been on my knees all my life" [in Romany, “Prohasar man opre pirende --- sa muro djiben semas opre chegende.”]

In this book, Fonesca describes Roma/gypsy culture and customs, the prejudices they faced in different countries they lived, and the influences they had on their ways. Even Romany language has words and phrases from Hindi/Urdu, Persian, Armenian, and other Eastern European languages/dialects, along with a few from Arabic, reflecting years of migration across the world.

These nomadic communities, still present in some parts of India and referred to as “bunjaray” or “lumbaday. Generally, they are street musicians and performers with some not-always-favorable reputation.

According to Fonesca and other sources, the Gypsy diaspora worldwide is about 12 million, two-thirds (or about 8 million) of them now mainly in Eastern Europe, forming the largest minority on the continent. Vaclav Havel (1936 – 2011), a playwright, poet and essayist who was also the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of Czech Republic, once said, “the Gypsies are a litmus test not of democracy but of a civilized society.”

In addition to the Jews, the Roma were also a minority persecuted by the Nazis before and during WWII. For instance, Fonesca cites a semi-official commentary on the Nurenberg laws: “In Europe generally only Jews and Gypsies are carriers of alien blood.”

Fonesca brings up a shocking incidence (with picture) in Oberwart, Austria, where four Romas were killed in a pipe bomb explosion when one Roma tried to remove a sign that read, “Gypsies Go Back to India.” This occurred in February, 1995, in a part of Austria (Burgenland) where Roma people have been settled for more than 300 years. This reflects the persistent level of intolerance against Romas in parts of Europe, nearly seven decades after their persecution supposedly was over with the end of WWII.

Those interested in Roma history, culture and folklore would find Fonesca’s book quite illuminating.

On another personal aside, in the late-1970s, I went to Budapest, Hungary, to present two papers in a WHO/International Agency of Research on Cancer conference. After the conference, the attendees were treated to dinner and entertainment. The entertainment was by a traditional group of Roma musicians and dancers that looked more like my long-lost uncles and aunts. They, for some reason, dragged me on to the stage more than few times as a convenient though rather embarrassed partner. There, an international group of colleagues got to witness my ‘performance’ on another, perhaps more lively, stage.

We tend to defer to the British writers to portray their former colonies and ‘subjects’ during the Raj as they prefer, but I wonder how can such a portrayal not reduce Heathcliff to a stereotypic caricature ‘profiling’ unless that’s what Emily Bronte wanted the readers to conjure up.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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