Indian Jewish Narratives
By Esther David
The walled city of Ahmedabad stimulates me.
Walking in the hustle and bustle of the city inspires me, and I return to my laptop; revitalized.
If the old city gives me energy, often, it also bears me down with its communal problems. These incidents remain etched in my memory for a long time and emerge in my writing. It is the same feeling I carry within me in context to natural calamities like the cyclone or earthquake. I like the architecture, the narrow winding streets, wood carvings, and its rich craft tradition.
While I was working on Book of Esther, Ahmedabad experienced the worst earthquake of the century, followed by a communal riot, which shook the very roots of our existence.
The city of Ahmedabad with all its complexities has been the driving force of all my work.
The Walled City was written when I came upon a torn photograph of my mother’s family, which I had never known. That was the time I had lost my father. I needed the comfort of the large extended family; I had lost through the years. Some characters, which took shape there, have found their way in Book of Esther, Book of Rachel, and Shalom India Housing Society.
My ancestors have now become real to me and the family, I have lost, resembles a tree. Sometimes I am a bird from the tree, sometimes as blind as a bat.
While writing my novels, I feel their presence around me. And, once I finish writing a novel, I feel strangely lost without them.
Sometimes they bind me, sometimes comfort me.
Book of Esther is a historical novel, based loosely around my family. Being the only child of working parents, I was often left with my grandmother in the ancestral house. It was here in the walled city, where relatives visited us during vacations and sometimes stayed on for long periods, I had heard family stories. That was before their exodus to Israel and other countries. Yet, the old house remained the main satellite, which received all these stories, through letters, telephonic talks or just nostalgia on part of those who were left behind. Passing through the sieve of time, these stories have changed in terms of form and content with the addition of my own imagination, which has repainted every possible incident into fiction. The elders of my family and others started losing contact, till I found myself alone with a large collection of photographs and stories. This became the fertile ground to create Book of Esther.
I went as far backwards as possible. I tried to decipher the writing on the grave stones, studied the photographs, and went through family documents.
Then, I went on a yātrā to Alibaug, where Bene Israel Jews had landed after a shipwreck on the Konkan coast. Yet it was hard to determine historical facts, as it is said, we lost our Books during the shipwreck.
I tried to string all these details together into my work. I reconstructed the landscape by studying old sepia toned brittle edged photographs and family heirlooms.
I started following the route that the family had taken, weaving its way from Israel, the sea, the storm, the shipwreck, the verdant seashore around Alibaug, onwards to Mumbai and towards the arid landscape of Ahmedabad.
I tried to enter the minds of my ancestors and think like them and connect them with the few ancestors I had known. While writing, I understood that the women and men of my family were thinking individuals. They were trying to bring change and growth into our family. I tried to understand their lives by reconstructing their lives as I tried to retell a part of our history.
While researching for Book of Esther in Alibaug, I met an elderly Jewish lady living in a village near a Synagogue, which was no longer used for services. It gave me the perfect setting for Book of Rachel.
During those years, after the publication of The Walled City, I received innumerable mails and letters from people who had read my book.
One such email was from a Pakistani journalist, who wrote to me about Aunt Rachel, the last surviving Jew of Pakistan. I knew that Pakistan once had a Synagogue and a Jewish graveyard. I was told that the Synagogue was destroyed in a fire and the aging Aunt Rachel looked after the cemetery, as she protected it from land sharks. Since, she died a few years back, I do not know what has happened to the cemetery.
Even, while working on Book of Esther, I had seen many old Synagogues on the Konkan coast, which were in ruins. Around this time, I became involved with the Vadodara Jewish cemetery dispute, which took place in a city near Ahmedabad. With the help of prominent citizens of Vadodara, I could save it from real estate agents, who had already started demolishing a part of the cemetery.
So, Book of Rachel is all about preservation of the Jewish heritage in India. I wove the story around the theme of love, food, and heritage. It is about the old who have been left behind by families, which immigrated to Israel.
In this novel, Rachel’s life revolves around her fight to preserve the ancient Synagogue in her backyard, as she tries out an ancient recipe everyday.
I included recipes in Book of Rachel, as I noticed that food habits of my community were changing and our traditional food habits would soon be forgotten. Once while going through my papers, I found an old file, written by an aunt and saw that the recipes were different from what we had at community dinners at the Synagogue.
Similarly, Shalom India Housing Society happened because of Book of Rachel, in which the Prophet Elijah is the protagonist. I decided to weave it around the prophet, as for Bene Israel Jews, Prophet Elijah is more than real.
I had seen a similar housing society in the fifties, where they lived together in Mumbai’s Jacob Circle. More recently, there is a similar housing society in Thane near Bombay. Shalom India Housing Society is fictional and set in Ahmedabad after the communal riots of 2002. The storyline is woven around the lives of its residents and their inter-cultural relationships with other Indian communities and their longing for The Promised Land, Israel, as today, most Jewish families live in divided homelands.
Writing satisfies me.
Words give me a flexibility of expression.
And, I tend to set all my work around Ahmedabad, as I use the city like a stage for my characters. In my novel, The Walled City, the walls are symbolic of city, community, family, and womanhood.
But, much before that, I had already created my own literary world in the library of our ancestral house in the walled city. The only child of working parents, I had three story tellers feeding my imagination: the library, my grandmother, and Mani, the cook.
I understood that my Jewish experience was hidden somewhere within me and waiting to be discovered through my novels. This search drove me to write novels based on the Jewish experience in India and started a personal journey through the study of Jewish history and family histories, which gave form to my novels and a new dimension to my life.
Esther David is an Ahmedabad based Indian Jewish writer. She received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 for English Literature from the Government of India. Her novel Book of Rachel was awarded the Prix Eugenia Brazier in 2009. She was Writer-in-Residence at Villa Mont Noir, France in 1999-2000 and at St. Nazaire, France 2001-2002 and co-ordinated a review magazine on Indian literature for Maison des ecrivains et Traducteurs. She has been a sculptor, art critic and has taught Art History and Art Appreciation at well known design schools of Ahmedabad. She was chairperson, Gujarat State Fine Arts Academy, and is still part of the art world and illustrates her own novels. She also created an art movement known as Intuitive Art and has worked with uneducated natural artists of Ahmedabad. These paintings, sculptures, quilts, and patchwork paintings were exhibited at Unesco, Paris in 1993 at Gallery Bonvin on the theme of Art in Underprivileged Areas and Intuitive Art on the International Woman’s Day.
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