On the morning of July 26, when Pramila Venkateswaran woke up, she saw it was dark outside the window of her house in Long Island. There was a steady pitter-patter of the rain. Venkateswaran was glad that because of the summer holidays, she did not have to go to work. She is a professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College 58 km away.

She went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee.

After a while, her husband IV Ramakrishnan came in, carrying a black briefcase. He was wearing a blue shirt and black trousers. Venkateswaran liked the way he kept his white beard trim and proper. Ramakrishnan is a professor and Associate Dean in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University. It was a five-minute drive away.

“Happy birthday,” he said, as he gave Venkateswaran a peck on her cheek. “Let’s go out for dinner today.”

“Okay,” said Venkateswaran. “Hopefully, the rain will stop by then.”

“I think it will,” he said, as he headed towards the door.

Carrying her cup of coffee, Venkateswaran went to her study, opened her laptop and checked her e-mail.

One e-mail said she had won an award. She thought, “What is this? I don’t remember applying. This can’t be true.”

Venkateswaran clicked on the link. She realised she had won the first prize for poetry for her book, We Are Not a Museum, in the competition held by the New York Book Festival.

Venkateswaran had sent an entry over ten months ago. No wonder she had forgotten about the event. Her immediate thought was, “What a perfect birthday gift!” She sent the link to her daughters living in different parts of America and to her husband. She also posted the link to the award online. Soon, congratulatory messages rolled in.

The book is about the life and times of the Kochi Jews, a declining community. There are less than 15 members left. As a child, Venkateswaran had spent a few years in Jew Town.

“I would run in and out of the Paradesi Synagogue,” she said.

Her father, R Venkateswaran, used to work as a manager in Canara Bank, and was transferred to the Fort Kochi branch. “He became close to the Jewish community,” Venkateswaran said. “And especially with Satu Koder, a leading entrepreneur, who was the warden of the synagogue for over 40 years.”

Both worked together, in 1968, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the synagogue. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest. For several years after that, in her parents’ house, there hung a large black-and-white photograph of Indira Gandhi, R Venkateswaran, his wife, Kausalya, and Satu Koder standing together.

What Venkateswaran remembered was how entranced she was by the synagogue. She recollects the memory in these lines from her poem, ‘I Was Seven’ from her book.

there is so much gold and red in this temple,
the tall lamps are lit and multicoloured glass dance
their hues on the windows. How strange
the objects in the room – the tall table, the big book,
the writing on the walls. I do not even know
what building we’re in until Amma explains,
“It is a synagogue, a Jewish temple.” I carry the sound
of my light steps, velvet in my eyes.

For the past 20 years, Venkateswaran has been writing poems about her childhood. Inevitably, she wrote about her time in the synagogue. She had no plans to write a book about the Kochi Jews, but as she reflected on the rich syncretic tradition in Kerala, where the mosque, church and synagogue stood side by side and in harmony, Pramila felt she should do so.

In 2009, when she visited the synagogue, she saw tourists from all over the world. Venkateswaran said, “I thought, ‘Oh my god, people are coming here to view it. But there are actual Jews who are living there.” Hence, the title of the book, We Are Not a Museum.

And here is the poem “We are Not a Museum”:

The whole world seems to have landed on our doorstep.
How did this happen? Yesterday a woman was peeping
into my bedroom. Now I close my doors and windows
to keep out nosy tourists creeping around Mattancherry.
A journalist called asking me about my life in Kochi.
I said it is like any other woman’s. I have a huge load
of laundry to wash, dishes to scrub, chickens
to pluck. I’ll rest only in the grave. So goodbye.
I don’t care if they think we are strange or important.
It is absurd. We’re like any other Indian in this town
struggling to make life better for our children. I want
the lot of them out of this town and out of our lives.

Venkateswaran began researching the history of the Kochi Jews. She read books about anthropology, history, sociology, and ethnography related to Jewish women from Kochi and people who moved to Israel from Kochi.

When Venkateswaran was studying at Bombay University, she came in touch with the Bene Israel Jews. Her English Professor, Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), one of India’s well-known poets, was a Bene Israel Jew. “He was my mentor,” she said. “So, I felt very close to the community.” In New York, Pramila has befriended other Bene Israel Jews like the poet Zilka Joseph.

Not surprisingly, Pramila wrote about anti-semitism in “The Face of the Other”:

the face speaks to me and thereby
invites me to a relation…
Emmanuel Levinas, “Totality and Infinity”
Why do some see yellow stars
instead of faces, their marauding pens
marking the city’s walls with swastikas?
Hate clouds barrel down the ages
from the Black Sea and Ararat, from the Nile
and Babylon. It storms in
among starched shirts and rags.
Why is a Jewish child selected
to be erased? Philosophers say
to love is to see the other in oneself. But
the other blends into the unknowable.
I ask, doesn’t a child crying for his mom
on any street around the globe
make you wince?

When asked about the themes, Venkateswaran said it was an emotional experience of what it is like to be a Jew in Kochi. “I was putting my imagination into the writing,” she said. So Venkateswaran imagined the first immigrants coming to the Kerala coast. One poem looks at the paintings of the Kochi Synagogue. A few of the poems talk about how persecuted Jews embarked on perilous journeys from Iraq and modern-day Palestine to India.

Another poem describes the impact of the presence of the Portuguese, the Spanish and the English from the 15th to the 18th centuries. “There was fighting between these European colonists,” said Pramila. “The Jewish community was caught in between. The Portuguese torched their synagogues in Cranganore and they fled by boat to the Kochi harbour.”

Pramila wrote the poem, “Chorus: At the Palace of the Raja of Cochin” about the generosity of the King of Travancore.

Rajadi Raja, your royal highness Ramavarma Kulashekara Perumal,

we bow before your blessed feet. The morning breezes bring

tidings of something new to our Keral coast. Men

and women with children arrive in boats, speaking a

tongue we have not heard before. They look like merchants

from Arabia, but are different. The men wear caps

on their heads and the women wear long, pale skirts,

have dark eyes like the apsaras in your court,

wear no ornaments in their dark brown and black hair,

and walk with a firm gait beside their men.

Rajadi Raja, the men are at the palace gates and ask

to pay their respects to you. They bear baskets of dried

fruit, dates, almonds, pistachios, apricots and olives,

saplings of plants that may or may not grow here,

seeds and coins. Their hands that bear the stain of labour,

lovingly hold their children. They speak words we

don’t understand, but there is grace in their speech

and beauty in the treasures they bear for your majesty.

We will open the gates for their visit, so they gather

in the shade of the palace courtyard and await your presence.

We bow to you, sire, lord of the Keral coast, master of our

blessed land of Parasurama who continues to bless us.

The King looked at them with sympathy. “He felt they were worthwhile people who needed help,” said Venkateswaran. “So, he gave them land to settle down. He allowed them to build a synagogue. And the Jews prospered. It was a very different engagement for the Jews with the outsider. It was so different from what happened in Jewish history in other countries.”

The surrounding communities were varied. The Jews interacted with Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, members of the Gujarati community and Konkanis from Goa. “I have written poems that bring out this varied culture,” said Venkateswaran. “I also wanted to distil the historical record through poetry.”

There are 35 poems in the book “This is a sensitive and well-crafted collection,” wrote poet Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca. “‘We are not a Museum’ skilfully and thoughtfully blends two cultures into one with its unique juxtaposition of the two.”

Venkateswaran is an established poet. Her other books include Thirtha (2002), Behind Dark Waters (2008), Draw Me Inmost (2009), Trace (2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (2015), Slow Ripening (2016) and The Singer of Alleppey (2018). Of course, the road to publishing has been difficult. For her first book, she did the rounds of some 50 publishers before Yuganta Press published it. It was the same experience with her next book, Behind Dark Waters. She approached publishers on three different continents. Finally, a publisher in Texas, Plain View Press, published it.

“The third and fourth were not as hard,” Venkateswaran said. “But with my latest manuscript, tentatively titled Walls, I have been trying for the last two years, and have made no headway. She said her win would not make any impact on the chances of being published. “You are back to the drawing board all the time,” she said.

The day the news of the award came in, the rain did stop and Venkateswaran and her husband enjoyed a celebratory and birthday dinner at Sagar Indian restaurant on Long Island.