Scholar, academic, activist, novelist, anthropologist, archivist: Indian Jewish writer Jael Silliman wears many hats professionally. (Arguably, a few more than even Morris, the eponymous protagonist of her quirky first novel, The Man with Many Hats.) While her new novel, The Teak Almirah, led us to a conversation with her, soon we found ourselves meandering pleasantly at the intersection of history and memory, until we landed upon the subject of books, and Silliman gave us a sparkling list to take home.
The Calcutta Jews
Silliman grew up in the Calcutta of the 1960s, by when the city’s close-knit and thriving Jewish community, almost all of them Baghdadi Jews, had left already – or were about to leave. The Jewish Girls’ School was no longer meant only for Jewish girls (Silliman studied at Loreto House and not Jewish Girls’ School like her mother and grandmother had) and the pews of the oldest synagogue, the Neveh Shalome on Canning Street, which Silliman’s family frequented, were no longer full on festival days.
And then, in 1972, in pursuit of the future, Silliman left Calcutta herself.
The Calcutta Jews, unlike the Cochin Jews or the Bene Israelis, migrated to India much later, only in the late-eighteenth century, to escape persecution in the Ottoman Empire. The moniker “Baghdadi” was not literal – as they came not only from Iraq but from various countries of West Asia, including Syria, Iran and Yemen – but owed itself to the liturgy of Baghdad, formerly a great centre for Judaism, which the Calcutta Jews followed.
All technical questions were referred to the learned rabbis of Baghdad. (Silliman’s ancestor, Shalome Cohen from Syria, is believed to be the very first Baghdadi Jewish settler in Calcutta.) The community thrived commercially, contributed to Calcutta’s mercantile boom, built institutions and synagogues, and though never very large in number, was an influential voice.
After 1947, though, many of the Baghdadi Jews, much like the Armenians and the Parsis of Calcutta, sought to become exiles from what was, effectively, their second homeland. A few left because they were worried about socialism in the wake of Indian independence and nationalisation of businesses, while many of the young sought better economic opportunities abroad and chose to migrate to the United States, Australia, Canada, even the United Kingdom.
Several of the idealistic went to Israel, where a new experiment in multiculturalism was being attempted. (However, it is true that in the early years of Israel, many Baghdadi Jews – like Jews from Morocco and the Bene Israel – faced racial discrimination from the Askenazi Jews.) But wherever they settled, the Baghdadi Jews took with them a piece of Calcutta embedded in recipes, memories, specific phrases and quirks.
The way back home
After a distinguished academic career – degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard, the University of Texas-Austin and a PhD from Columbia – Silliman became a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa for many years, subsequently working as a Program Officer for reproductive rights and then women’s rights at the Ford Foundation, for its Human Rights Unit. However, the pull of Calcutta remained strong. Her best-known academic book, Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope recounted the lives of four generations of Jewish women in her family, and re-created, with poignant insight, their journey to Calcutta and their lives in the city.
In 2009, once her daughters had left the nest, Silliman, along with her redoubtable mother, Flower – an exponent, among other culinary traditions, of Jewish-Indian cooking, decided to return to Calcutta – where a minuscule community of Baghdadi Jews remained, down to two dozen or so from the 4000 around the time of Independence.
In the cityscape, while the names bearing testimony to Jewish lives and contributions remained (Ezra Street, Belilos Street and Synagogues Street) – iconic buildings like Chowringhee Mansions stood tall, and Nahoum’s, the famous bakery in New Market, continued to hold fort – the Jewish presence had slipped behind a veil.
Calcutta’s infamous encroachments had all but masked the beautiful synagogues, so that the thousands passing by daily had no idea what lay behind the rows of temporary shops, and the Judean Club, once the hub of Jewish youths, had been replaced by a shopping arcade called “Treasure Island”.
One of the youngest members of Calcutta’s Jewish community at 60, Silliman brought her considerable enterprise and energy to the discussions on heritage, preservation and oral history. Maintaining the synagogues, schools and the expansive cemetery in Narkeldanga has not been easy. But the institutions remain.
In a typically Indian twist, while in other parts of the world the war between the Jews and the Muslims is a subject of daily threat analysis, in Calcutta, the Jewish Girls’ School provides education primarily to Muslim girls, and the Jewish synagogues and the cemetery are maintained by diligent Muslim caretakers who have cared for them over several generations.
In the early days, Silliman and her mother, Flower, found themselves becoming a guide to many travelling Baghdadi Jews from around the world who had come to India in search of traces of their ancestors and were completely lost in the madness of the city’s ever-changing cartography. Where would these ancestors have lived? the travellers wondered, while encountering a metropolis that has expanded its borders massively since independence. Where were they lain to rest?
Realising that something needed to be done to preserve the knowledge that was recorded only in the memories of Calcutta’s Jewish populace (both diaspora and city-based) Silliman, in association with the School For Cultural Text and Studies at Jadavpur, the National University of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, and a Nehru Fulbright grant went on to create a staggering archive, “Recalling Jewish Calcutta”, to record and revisit the culture, contributions and the highlights of the Jewish community in Calcutta, for posterity.
It is a treasure trove of anecdotes, recipes, press clippings, photographs, films and music, family narratives, all arranged under thematic exhibits for those wishing to learn more about this flourishing community that could make such significant contributions because of the city’s inclusive and cosmopolitan culture (the archive is used extensively for academics and others interested in learning about the community as well as by Baghdadi Jews who might be interested in finding out more about their ancestors).
The new novel
In fact, Silliman’s new book The Teak Almirah deals with exactly these concerns, embroidered in rich detail, through the lives of its four protagonists.
Seema Elias stayed on in Calcutta while the rest of her family migrated to Australia, waiting for someone – but who? Mordy Ezekiel has returned to the city from his somewhat anodyne existence in Australia after six decades, to visit the graves of his parents, and is unable to find any traces of the Calcutta he knew. Tamara Silas, a gay dancer, comes to her beloved late father’s city on a generous grant to teach Flamenco and learn Kathak, and invents for herself a new family. And far away, in Poona, Firoza Ardeshir discovers a chilling secret.
The Teak Almirah is a charming novel that evokes Calcutta of the 1960s and Calcutta of the here and now with equal piquancy. it was to talk about it that I got in touch with Silliman. However, as we began chatting about what Jewish Indian writing is all about – does it have to by Indian Jews or about Indian Jews? – Jael began to suggest a list of books about the Jewish-Indian experience that everyone interested in the subject must read.
It was so fascinating and fresh that we decided to focus on it and here’s what we got: a list of seven must-read Jewish Indian books – or, wait, should we say Indian-Jewish books? (“Jewish fiction”, much like “Indian literature”, is a composite of many variables. While Indian literature is in a variety of languages, Jewish literature globally is not only written in many languages but also reflect the realities of differing ethnicities and geographies.)
Though we are looking at fiction and non-fiction here, one must begin with a quick tribute to the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel, of course, the grand old man of Jewish Indian and Indian English – writing. His A Night of the Scorpion is perhaps one of the most anthologised Indian poems.
Mozelle, Saadat Hasan Manto
A short story, it’s included here because Manto’s portrayal of Mozelle, the protagonist, an eccentric Jewish girl in Bombay during the Partition riots, remains unparalleled to this day. She is a unique (anti-)heroine, unpredictable and memorable. It might be just one story in a great writer’s oeuvre – a competent translation is available here – but it definitely captures something intangible about Jewish life in Bombay in the 1940s.
The Walled City, Esther David
Esther David is the best-known writer of Jewish-Indian fiction. Of all her novels, The Walled City is my favourite. It is set in Ahmedabad, and is a coming-of-age story about a young Bene Israeli girl growing up in the walled city, attempting to preserve her Jewish roots without understanding them. As violence engulfs the city, the concept of walls takes on a new layered epiphany.
“When I wrote The Walled City,” David writes in the foreword to the new edition, “I was a wandering Jew. I was in search of a homeland. But, as soon as The Walled City was published, I found my home in my novel. Home is still not a country, city, place, but it is somewhere inside my novel The Walled City. I just have to open the book and I am at home.” This is the book to begin with, actually, if we have to put them in order!
Book of Esther, Esther David
Esther David is allowed two books on the list!
A fascinating novel based on her family history, Book of Esther recreates in detail the lives of the Bene Israel in a small village on the Konkan coast, Danda, and charts their journeys. Beginning in the 19th century with Bathsheba, who awaits her husband’s return, Book of Esther tells the story of her adored grandson, David, a healer of great repute, whose eccentric animal-obsessed son, Joshua, is the author’s father. The fifth generation’s retelling of the clan’s tale goes back to the story of the origins of the community, and the last part about herself and her father’s zoo is as funny as it is moving.
My own book, Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, while narrative non-fiction to her novel, has a sort of kinship with this book.
Flowers in the Blood, Gay Courter
An epic saga about the gorgeous Dinah Sassoon, daughter of the richest opium trader of Calcutta and a pillar of the city’s tiny tight-knit community of Baghdadi Jews, who hunts for justice – and love – after the mysterious murder of her mother turns her privileged life upside down. It’s a page-turning historical novel that takes the characters from the intriguing and conspicuously different Jewish worlds of Calcutta to Darjeeling, Cochin and Travancore, and, finally, to Hong Kong, via an exotic and vividly told tale of passion and history.
The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home, Sadia Shepard
Sadia Shepard grew up in a white clapboard house on Chestnut Hill, just outside of Boston, USA, with her white American Protestant father, Pakistani Muslim mother, hybrid little brother, and most importantly, her beloved maternal grandmother, who told her endless stories. One day, when she was 13, she found out that Nana was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family but had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India. And then, after her renaming, she became the owner of a beautiful sea-facing house in Bombay that her adoring husband named for her: Rahat Villa.
Armed with a suitcase of camera equipment, Sadia arrives in Bombay on a Fulbright scholarship, “as an amateur detective on that most American of journeys: a search for the roots of my own particular tree. This is a reverse migration. I have returned to the land that nurtured my grandmother and my mother, to walk where they walked, to make my own map within their maps.”
The Girl from Foreign is a nuanced, strikingly written memoir about inherited memories, complicated homelands and, of course, a celebration of the spirit of the Bene Israeli community.
Jews and the Indian National Art Project, Kenneth X Robbins
An attractive coffee-table book that chronicles the seminal role played by Western Jews in the shaping and development of the contemporary Indian art scene. With rare images of lost paintings, by artists such as Fyzee Rahamin and Magda Nachman, and other never-seen-before paintings, this showcases the works of forgotten geniuses such as Anna Molka Ahmed, Mirra Alfassa aka The Mother, Siona Benjamin, Carmel Berkson, and Fredda Brilliant, as well as of photographers David Mordecai and Man Ray, and architects Otto Konigsberger, Moshe Safdie. It also includes an assessment of the work of critics, scholars and art patrons like Ernst Cohn-Wiener, Charles Fabri, Stella Kramrisch, and Marion Harry Spielmann. An off-beat book that tells a remarkable story about the secret cross-cultural currents that animate the worlds of art and artists.
Now that I think of it, equally interesting is Kenneth X Robbins’s book, Western Jews in India: From the Fifteenth Century to the Present, about the role that Western Jews have played in the last 500 years in shaping India’s historical narrative, including spiritual leaders, adventurers, soldiers, architects of iconic Indian buildings and colonial leaders.
Being Indian, Being Israeli: Migration, Ethnicity and Gender in the Jewish Homeland, Maina Chawla Singh
Professor and academic Maina Chawla Singh spent several years in Israel when her husband was the Indian Ambassador there, and conducted extensive fieldwork among the Indian Jews who had migrated to Israel since 1948 – over 150 ethnographies and interviews, between the years 2005 and 2008. The book captures the nuanced differences between the migration experiences of the three Jewish-Indian communities, the varying extents of their acculturation, and the complicated nature of their hybrid identities. It is the first book of its kind and an extremely important resource for anyone trying to understand the subject of migration of Indian Jews to Israel, and both the lacunae and the joys of their triply hybrid lives.
Postscript: I was delighted to find that two recent novels, Kunal Basu’s Kalkatta and Kalyan Ray’s No Country, include at least passing references to Baghdadi Jewish characters, so I remain in hope that more books covering the breadth of the community’s experiences in India will be written!
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