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Muslims in Indian-Jewish Fiction

By Anna Guttman

Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims do not have the thematic centrality for Indian Jewish writers that they have had for other 20th and 21st Century Indian writers.  Often Muslim characters are at the fringes of Jewish writers’ fictional world; their faith indicated by their name, but of little significance to the plot. Partition, however, looms large in the representation of community relations between Jews and Muslims in 20th and 21st century fiction. Jewish perspectives on partition arguably reframe India’s history of nationalism and communalism, however, and challenge contemporary truisms about religious conflicts between Muslims and others.

In one of the earliest examples of Indian Jewish fiction, Meera Mahadevan’s Shulamith, the titular character and her family have been chased out of Karachi shortly after partition.  Though rarely discussed, partition included Jewish casualties. Yet this traumatic history does not, at least initially, drive a permanent wedge between the communities. For Shulamith, any conflict between Jews and Muslims is a painful “domestic squabble” brought on by an “evil century” (40). There is a clear distinction in her mind, between “the true Muslim” who “will always continue to be a brother to a Bene-Israel” and those who desecrated the synagogue in Karachi, who are “not good Muslims” (58). Her son Uriel, however, is less convinced. He is preparing to move to Israel, and feels closer to his fellow Jews than his fellow (non-Jewish) Indians. The younger generation, it seems, is less forgiving than the older.

This is a recurring theme. Sophie Judah, in her short story, “Nathoo,” (part of her collection, Dropped From Heaven) tells the story of Abraham, a Jewish soldier in the Indian army who attempts, unsuccessfully, to stop the violence, and to bring order and safety to a scarred and bewildered refugee population. Pained by what he sees, he tries to find healing in adopting Nathoo, an orphaned Hindu boy. Abraham is warned from the outset by his fellow soldiers that Nathoo may perceive him as Muslim, and may therefore respond badly to this attempt at friendship. Instead, Nathoo accepts Abraham’s explanation of his faith, and states that even though he is glad that Abraham is “not a Mohammedan,” Muslims from his home village accompanied his own family as they fled Pakistan (58).  He therefore recognizes that members of all faiths are capable of kindness, as well as violence.

But Nathoo is deeply traumatized and struggles to adapt to life with Abraham and his family. Things come to a head when old family friends of Abraham, Mr. and Mrs. Quadri, come to visit. Nathoo becomes hysterical and alternately flees and attacks Abraham’s Muslim guests. The irony is, of course, that the Quadris are also deeply traumatized, having lost much of their own family during partition. Occasionally, they weep together.  But ultimately, the conflict is an irresolvable one in which Abraham himself experiences a series of losses, including the loss of his adopted son. Nathoo commits suicide when he is beaten up by a gang of Hindu boys who accuse him of betrayal for living with a ‘Muslim’ family. It is only in the young man’s suicide note that we learn his given name, which points to the personal and communal erasure perpetuated by partition, and its ongoing fallout.

The fault, here, is not with anyone’s faith – but with humanity, for their betrayal of God.  Betrayal is a common theme, and these divisions only seem to harden as Judah’s narrative moves forward in time. In a later story, “The Courtship of Naomi Samuel,” which is set in the mid-1970s, Isaac Kahn, an Israeli, visits a Bene Israel community where he falls in love with the titular Naomi. The relationship is shattered, however, when Isaac realizes that the wine for Shabbat has been prepared by Selma, a Muslim, and close friend of Naomi’s family. Technically, as Isaac points out, this renders the wine not kosher, though Naomi has full confidence in Selma’s knowledge of and adherence to Jewish standards of food preparation. Selma asks in response, “Am I an untouchable?” (214) and begins to cry. Naomi turns Isaac out, though he may represent her last chance at marriage, stating, “You have insulted the only real friend we have, and we will not stand upon our brother’s blood” (214).  On the one hand, this might be viewed as a form of personal and community solidarity that transcends and trumps religion.  Yet this is not a simplistically happy moment. Isaac’s situation is ironic from the outset given that he himself is mistaken in this text for a Muslim (Kahn, of course, sounding similar to Khan).  Isaac leaves feeling sorry that he has offended Selma, but has no opportunity to reconcile with her. Naomi will remain unmarried, and while she does not mind, it is clear that her community will continue to ebb away, which pains her parents.

This sense of loss is particularly acute in Esther David’s work. In her earliest novel, The Walled City, the scars of partition run deep, but Muslims seamlessly integrate into the protagonist’s Jewish household. They frequently lend out their backyard to neighbours, both Hindu and Muslim, for various rituals and celebrations. Throughout her oeuvre she weaves a rich tapestry of connection between Jews and Muslims in India. The Book of Esther begins with the story of her ancestors’ capture by Tipu Sultan in an 18th century battle with British forces. Divekar and his fellow Jewish soldiers fear for their lives, but are granted clemency at the insistence of the Sultan’s mother, who identifies the Jewish prisoners with the Banu Israel described in the Koran, and as people of the book. Such acts of benevolence are reflected in the everyday lives of the characters whose religious stories and rituals intersect at common places of worship. Indeed, when one of Divekar’s descendants gets involved in politics during the nationalist era, he finds that “nobody bothered about David’s religion or caste” (118).

In David’s work, as elsewhere, however, this easy sense of tolerance and accommodation is disrupted by partition. There is still, in the 1940s and 50s, a sense of religious syncretism, with local saints and gurus revered by Jews, Muslims and Hindus alike. In The Walled City, the narrator’s aunt has converted to Islam from Judaism upon her marriage to a Muslim man, but declares that she is, in truth, a human first, and remains welcome in the home of her birth, even as she is welcomed into her in-laws’ family (166).  But these signs of hope are overtaken by senseless riots and “dark days,” in which friends and neighbours are killed at “Ahmedabad’s wailing wall” (188). David thereby links Ahmedabad to Jerusalem – but as a site of mourning and destruction, destruction wrought precisely because – not in spite of – its significance to many different communities.

In the twenty-first century, the prospects for reconciliation look, to David, especially bleak. In her more optimistic book, Shalom India Housing Society, there are still acts of tolerance, but the communities are largely separate. Fearing for their safety, Ahmedabad’s Jews have moved into a single apartment complex, but feel guilt at leaving their Muslim neighbours to their fate. When the Jewish Miriam elopes with Zulfikar, and begins life with him as a Muslim in Pakistan, she loses touch with her family. Ironically, though her family is initially pained and confused, they try to contact her and wish to reconcile. Erroneously assuming that her family will never accept her decision, Miriam, now Mariam, never tries to contact them. After many years, Mariam’s mother’s letters reach her. She is happy to hear from her family, but Mariam cannot openly associate with the marginalized Jewish community in Karachi, nor return to India to visit her remaining family. While Indian Jews were neither major perpetrators, nor primary targets, of communal violence, they are unable, in these texts, to pick up the pieces of the broken continent, and like other Indians, find their families and selves irrevocably divided.

The ebbing brotherhood between Indian Jew and Indian Muslim is a loss not only for those two communities, for Bene Israel authors, but for all Indians, and, indeed, the world.  For Esther David, Hindu militancy is a betrayal of the national dream and of India’s founding fathers. At a global moment where so much suffering is occurring in the name of faith, Indian Jewish fiction points us to the tolerance of our recent history as evidence that faith-based conflicts are neither inevitable, nor eternal. At the same time, they map an increasingly globalized world where community relations are no longer, and cannot be, based solely on local events and practices. The challenge, then, is to bring local and intimate traditions of friendship, syncretism and tolerance to a world stage, and not allow them to be erased by the forces of global geopolitics.

Professor Anna Guttman
is Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Lakehead University, Canada. She is the co-editor of The Global Literary Field and author of The Nation of India in Contemporary Indian Literature and Writing Indians and Jews: Metaphorics of Jewishness in South Asian Literature.


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

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