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Contemporary Indian Jewish literature in Hindi

By Heinz Werner Wessler

Emigration to Israel has effected Indian Judaism since the 1950s on a large scale, and all over the critical limit for the viability of each of the three groups is probably reached, as the documentary film “Next year in Bombay” (2010) somehow demonstrates, in which Sharon and Sharona Galsulkar are the last educators of a small Indian Jewish community, desperately trying to keep the rest of the community alive. The extreme diaspora is however not a new historical experience among Indian Jews. The social organisation of Indian society along caste lines helped the three main groups of Indian Jews (Bene Israel, Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews) to define its separate identity and maintain networks over long distances. The postcolonial emigration, however, together with a growing number of mixed marriages, challenges Jewish identity in India to the core.

Hindi, the official language of the Indian Union and the North Indian lingua franca, does not belong to the traditional mother tongues of Indian Jews. However, the postcolonial period has seen two important Hindi authors, Mira Mahadevan and Sheila Rohekar.

Sheila Rohekar (born 1942) is a born Bene Israel, brought up in Ahmedabad and Pune. She has been living in Delhi and Lucknow for decades and is presently probably the only living Jewish Hindi author. She has been teaching natural sciences on college level and is married to the Hindi author Ravīndra Varmā. Her early stories and her first collection entitled Laiflain nī bahār, were written in Gujarati in the 1970s. After moving to North India, she began to write in Hindi. Her short stories were published in established Hindi magazines like Sārikā and Dharmyug, and later Hans, Kathā Deś, and Kathā Kram. In 1978, her first short novel in Hindi, Dinānt, was published, followed by her second novel Tāvīz (“The amulette”) in 2005.

The plot of Sheila Rohekar’s novel Tāvīz is based on a love marriage between a Hindu woman (Revā) and a Muslim man (Anvar) and the social, psychological, and political consequences of this conscious transgression of religious boundaries. Inter-communal marriage is not a new theme in Hindi literature, reflected in Krishna Sobti’s (Kṛṣṇā Sobtī) Ār se bichuī in particular. Jewish identity is neither constructed nor even visible in this contemporary novel. It can however be argued that the perception of an inter-religious marriage and the threat to this social relationship by Hindu reactionary forces displays a minority perspective that is essential for the construction of the plot and its narrativity.

Tāvīz starts off with the last announcement to identify the dead body of a middle aged lady in a Lucknow newspaper. At the end of the novel, the readers will know that it was Revā’s body. Nainā talks to her husband Nīraj jokingly as he reads out the newspaper announcement while she serves tea. His remark is that “If this poor thing is not even identified, who might cry about her?” Nainā responds that the police will definitely be crying because they have to fix the final rites and to leave the file in their board (p.9). They remain unaware that both of them had known the dead lady, who appears to have committed suicide by throwing herself below a train – the reader will find out she was actually brutally murdered. On the next page, they talk about Revā’s son, who has also disappeared some years ago – the reader will find out that he also was killed. Both of them simply disappear without leaving name and memory even among close relatives and friends.

The frame narration is on the fate of Revā, her husband Anvar, and their son Annu. All the three end up being brutally killed on different occasions. After the suspension effect in the first chapter, the narration returns to the narrated time, beginning sometime in the 1960s. Revā has to break with her family, when she decides to marry not only a boy of her own choice, but even a Muslim medical doctor, Anvar – even though her father somewhere supports her and does not let her go without his blessing. The couple decides for a civil marriage (p.90), which again both their families cannot accept. Revā has a modern middle class background, while in Anvar’s case, the family fits into the stereotype of Muslim families in India – it is more “backward”, Anvar being the first university educated person in the family. Nevertheless, Anvar’s family finds a way to cope with what they perceive as one of the whims of their son, while her marriage turns out to break Revā away from her family altogether. The couple moves to the boy’s family, where she is accepted as the new daughter-in-law. The family members, however, first take it for granted that she would convert to Islam, which she refuses. After the first shock, they manage however to cope even with this decision, even though only after some argument. Anvar, her husband, is liberal in opinions and supports her individual decision making, and he even accepts that their son, even though circumcised, is not brought up as a Muslim. This part of the story is localized in Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

The narration goes back and forth in narrative time, changing between auctorial narration, reportage,  and forms of non-linear story-telling, including flashback, suspense and particularly a series of references back to the 19th and the earlier 20th century, reflected in the diary of Revā’s grandfather. This diary forms something like a narration within the narration, contrasting the present with its exclusive identity politics and the colonial and early postcolonial golden past with its less rigid options of transcending religious boundaries. Revā’s paternal grandfather, a freedom fighter, describes his presence in the diary and also reports stories that he has heard from earlier generations. Compared to Revā, grandfather is much more outspoken. After 1947, he becomes more and more critical of the new state and its society. For Revā, the national enthusiasm and morale of the freedom fight is already part of a past narrative, her visits at the Sabarmati Ashram close to Ahmedabad on free Sundays have already become part of middle class weekend programme routine. Mahatma Gandhi as a moral ideal is somehow present, but disputed (p.127) or without any impact on one’s own life or one’s own social and intellectual reality. During a later visit to Sabarmati Ashram together with her son Annu, some five or six years after Anvar’s murder, Maheś Jhā, the future second husband joins them on a Sunday trip to Sabarmati Ashram, and proposes marriage.

At crucial points in the book, critical reflections on the situation before and after independence are mixed in, and particularly in grandfather’s diary, which Revā keeps reading, and which constitutes the memorial link between not only the political past and present, but also between her and her family relationship (which is broken because of her love marriage). So writes grandfather in 1959: “What has been achieved by independence? The social setup is the same, the trench between poor and rich is the same.”

While Revā’s love relationship and marriage with Anvar is a symbolic act of transcending the borders of religious communities, the brutal murder of her husband, her son, and herself reveal the structure of a society which is threatened, when walls between communities are disrespected and borders transcended. Annu and his identity crisis as a young lad (“Main kaun hūn?”) is the living symbol of the failure of identity constructions beyond traditional social boundaries in modern India. Annu experiences his hybrid origin not as a positive gift, but as a burden.

Beyond this basic plot, the novel allows several readings: As a narration of several generations of Revā’s family, it is a family novel. It also is a coming-of-age novel of Anvar and Revā’s son, explaining his identity problems and the personal radicalization in terms of Hindutva as a substitute for a strong inborn identity. The novel can also be read as an effort to explore the psycho-social basis of religious violence. After all, it is also on the plight of a secular-minded woman transcending social borders, the loneliness and moral strength of Annu’s mother. Clearly, a certain identification of the author and her main female character is palpable, she being the victim of society.

The novel narrates the failure to maintain this space. During the communal riot in Ahmedabad in 1969, Anvar is lured away from home by Hindu rioters disguised as hospital staff, who are asking the doctor to follow them to the hospital because of an emergency. They also inspire him to take his son with him, but Annu spontaneously decides to stay with his mother. This spontaneous decision saves his life. This story is referred to a couple of times in the novel (and particularly on page 117 and 271). Later on, Anvar’s brutally tortured body is recovered.

When Revā decides for a second marriage to the Hindu widower Maheś Jhā, the boy is 12. Once she has moved to his place, which happens to be in Lucknow, it turns out that he prefers his two own physical sons to Annu. The most discriminatory person, however, is Maheś’s pious widowed mother. Discrimination is particularly imminent in some symbolic prohibitions, especially when she does not let him come close to her Pūjā utensils and uses every chance to make him understand that he is half-blood and, therefore, illegitimate (p.216 etc.).

Annu studies in college, but his main concern is his sense of belonging, which he gets neither from his mother nor his murdered father. His standard question within himself is: “Main kaun hūn?”(Who am I?)” (p.217, 219,224 etc.), and the response is a bit difficult an issue. When his friends turn towards Hindutva nationalism, he decides to follow suit. He himself starts to participate in political meetings and denies his Muslim descent, mutating into a kār sevak (p.239), an activist for the construction of the notorious Rām janmabhūmi-temple in Ayodhya. He kind of substitutes his lack of identity by radicalism.

He breaks with his stepfather and his own mother, but shortly after, he is killed in Ayodhya in 1990 during the agitation by a police bullet. Then follows a central event for the fictional plot: While being prepared for cremation, his friends find out that Annu is circumcised. “iskī to kaṭī huī hai!…musallā hai sālā! Bhencod yahān kyā kar rahā thā?” (p.245) (“His is cut away! … this damn Mussulman! What was this sisterfucker doing here?”)

The first reaction on the naked truth is that this aberration must be some kind of “cālākī”, some trick: the dead Annu is accused of being a Muslim (p.244). This leads to a number of questions. Hindu activists on the spot spontaneously immediately turn aggressive and start swearing and maltreating the dead body. The political leaders – all of them Brahmins – discuss the issue more seriously. There is suspicion that this issue might easily lead into complications. Annu could have been a Pakistani agent provocateur (“sārā bavelā śurū kahāṃ se huā? To jī uttar milā, ṭoṃṭī se.”). Simply because of the visible circumcision, it is in any case taken for granted that a Muslim has maliciously crept into the Hindu campaign, and thereby polluted and desacralized the “śobhāyātrā”, i.e. the campaign for the destruction of the Babri Masjid (p.247). Other options are also discussed with the Superintendent of Police, who appears to be a close associate, and also Brahmin. In any case, it is taken for granted that Annu must have been part of a larger conspiracy. The cremation is first denied – only when Annu’s friends Vikās and Bhabhu take care of it, the cadaver is last not least cremated. But the “leader” (netā) argues, his ashes should be thrown into the dustbin instead of the river (p.248).

A central element in Revā’s biography is her visits to the Sabarmati Ashram and the Mahatma Gandhi memorial culture that is related to this place close to Ahmedabad. The Mahatma is a faint memory of moral integrity and serious effort to develop Indian identity without denying traditional identities. But for Annu, this is just a visit to a museum, and completely unrelated to his own life. Finally the motif, which transforms Annu into a Hindu activist, is “power” (sattā, p.274). This “power” helps him recover from the feeling of being powerless against his stepfather, who treats him badly. At the same time, Annu’s radicalization is a move to overcome the impossibility to have a relationship with the four year younger, Nainā (p.274), who is reluctant because of Annu’s half-bred background. Annu’s identity as a child of a mixed marriage cannot but create a severe identity crisis in the young man. Becoming an activist is overcompensation of his psychological situation and, finally, leads to the denial of his Muslim father. He reinvents his own biography with a Hindu father (p.242), who in reality is his stepfather.

For Sheila Rohekar, the enormous violence resulting from mainstream society is the focus of her attention as a writer. This is primordial structural violence, which can easily turn into direct violence, if traditional identities and their relation to the primordial ones are questioned and disregarded. The high sensitivity of the author for the vulnerability of minorities and their awareness of transcending limitations of traditional identities is related to her personal identity as an Indian Jew. Jewish issues, however, have never been a focus of her writing until her recent novel, Miss Sāmūel: ek yahūdī gāthā (2013) – “Hindi’s second novel on Indian Jews appears after 52 years, written by its only Jewish writer” (, accessed 14.12.2014).

Rohekar had considered another title for this novel for a while, Apne hone kī jagah (“The space to be oneself”, compare p.223) – taking up the question on identity raised by Annu in Tāvīz, but her publisher had convinced her to go for a title that would clearly indicate Jewish identity to the customer/reader. “Yahūdī? Yah kaun-sī jāti hai?” (p.92): “Jewish? What cast is this?” – the clerk asking this question tends to identify “Jewish” with Muslim or alternatively with the Indo-Christian community. The novel evolves on questions of Indian Jewish identity before and after the post-colonial emigration that led the Jewish community in India to the verge of extinction. It is narrated from the perspective of Jewish and other female inhabitants of a vṛddhāśram – a home for elderly people – and is a swansong for the dwindling Jewish community in India.

The book consists of the narrations of memories of old women reflecting on their lives, and particularly of Miss Sāmūel. There is no ongoing plot, no finale but something like a melancholic fading out of memories. The most dramatic episodes of interreligious interactions narrated are similar to Tāvīz, the story of a Jew ending up to be murdered in communal violence. Like Anant Siddiqui in Tāvīz, Bobby (i.e. Michael Samuel) is murdered during riots, but, in his case, because he is taken for a Muslim. The result of a discussion on Jewish identity leads to the statement that the identity of Jews should be marked as “Hindū yahūdī” (p. 56). Sīmā Sāmūel argues, however, that there is no God at all (p.129) but this statement does not fit to the ascriptions that nobody can avoid in the Indian social context. Sima comes to the conclusion that it would have been better if she were Hindu (Sīmā soctī hai ki yahūdī na hote hindū hotī to acchā hotā, p.222).

The other famous Jewish Hindi author is Mira Mahadevan (Mīrā Mahādevan), who is particularly known for one novel, Apnā ghar, originally published in Hindi in 1961 and in English translation under the title “Shulamith” in 1975. It describes the Bene Israel lifestyle and identity conflicts in early post-colonial India, during the period of emigration of the majority of Bene Israel to Israel. Mahādevan has also written a dozen short stories on various issues, demonstrating a strong Gandhian influence on her perception of social and communal conflicts in modern India. Mira Mahadevan, born Miriam Jacob Mendrekar, and married to a South Indian Hindu, has lived in an atmosphere inspired by Gandhian thought, partly in the famous Sabarmati Ashram in Maharashtra, where Hindi has been promoted as the spoken language of daily communication, which made her feel at home in Hindi.


Professor Heinz Werner Wessler is professor of Indology at the University of Uppsala (Sweden). He has studied in Bonn (Germany), New Delhi (India), and Zuerich (Switzerland). His PhD is on “The Concept of Time and History in the Vishnupurana.” He has also worked on Sikh literature and contemporary Dalit Hindi literature (book in press). He is council member of the European Association of South Asian Studies (EASAS) and Forum for South Asian Studies (FSAS) Uppsala.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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