Masala is not just an idea I discovered in India. A version of masala has travelled with me, in me, as me, all my life.
I have mentioned that I am a product of mixture. My father’s line, despite its seeming rootedness in Britain, also includes Anglo-Irish and Huguenot migrants, as well as Direnzis from Italy who may have been sephardic Jewish escapees of the Spanish Inquisition. And my mother traces her ancestry through generations of Ashkenazi Jewish migration, from eastern European shtetls to cosmopolitan cities such as Vienna and Istanbul.
Mixture was part of my mother’s life too. the storms of history had ripped her family apart in Germany and Poland, blowing her to Russia and Uzbekistan before dropping her in Palestine in 1946. She still speaks nostalgically about her time in a multicultural boarding school where her classmates were Palestinian Arabs as well as Jewish migrants. And then the storms of history blew again with the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, culminating in the formation of Israel in 1948. This Partition divided her from her Palestinian classmates, placing them on the different side of a border between the new Jewish state and its Arab neighbours. It also generated a historical amnesia that suddenly made enemies of Jews and Arabs, despite languages and histories that are more entangled than they are separate. One “I” and one “P”, divided from each other by a traumatic Partition; perhaps I was fated to move to a part of India not far from Pakistan.
And perhaps because of my mother’s experience in the Nazi holocaust as well as Palestine I was fated to embrace a certain set of political convictions.
There’s not much about me that is Jewish, at the level of belief or practice: I do not believe in god, I was never Bar Mitzvahed, and I attend Passover Seders with a dread fear that I will be called upon to recite Hebrew blessings or parts of the Haggadah that I do not know. But I became a strong believer in the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam. This Hebrew phrase literally means “repair of the world”. It used to represent, for ancient Jews, a call to reject idolatry; in recent centuries it has come to signify differently.
The Siddur Sim Shalom, a Jewish book of prayer, explains tikkun Olam with the verse “may citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry”. So tikkun olam is not simply an imperative to repair the lot of Jews so that “hatred and bigotry” never happens again to us. It is a clarion call to insure that the majoritarian hatred that roiled Nazi Germany never again victimises anyone.
For me, the ethical burden of tikkun olam demands the imaginative cross-communal solidarity to which the Mexican Zapatista revolutionary subcomandante Marcos has given such beautiful expression:
Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal,...a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, aKkurd in Turkey, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.
Marcos asks that we think outside ourselves, invite others into our sense of who we are. Alas, tikkun olam seems to be increasingly mutating into something for Jews alone. Instead of Marcos’s cross-communal solidarity with victims of bigotry and hate, “repair of the world” has degenerated into the task of creating a greater Israel and, by means of illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank, destroying the viability of any future Palestinian state.
But in 2003, I caught a strong whiff of Marcos’s version of tikkun olam. and I caught it, of all places, in a street in Kerala.
Jew Street in Cochin – now known as Kochi – is the main thoroughfare of the ancient quarter known as Jew Town. It features a shop called Akbar Arts. Turn the corner, and you will pass the Sree Ganesha Café followed by the Lawrence handicrafts store. And then, a few yards further, you will see the Paradesi synagogue. the name supposedly refers to the “foreign” Jews who built it. But there is also much that is pardesi inside it. Look down, and you see white-and-blue Chinese tiles. Look up, and there are Belgian chandeliers. Stand at the front door, and look back down the street: Akbar, Sree Ganesha, and Lawrence. That’s my kind of Jew Town: not majoritarian or pure, but nestling cheek by jowl with Muslim, Hindu, and Christian neighbours from whom it absorbs, and to whom it gives, the politics of the more-than-one, the more-than-me, the more-than-my-clan. This is tikkun olam I can believe in.
As I inhaled the mingled Malabar masala scents of Jew Street, where Jew, Christian, Hindu and Muslim have likewise mingled for centuries, I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s anti-hero Moraes Zogoiby in his extraordinary novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). This Indian child of a Portuguese-Indian mother and a Jewish-Indian father, each with a splash of Moorish blood in their veins, is the “high-born cross-breed male heir to the spice-trade-‘n’-big-business crores of the da Gama-Zogoiby dynasty of Cochin.”
As befits both his masala parentage and his family business, Moraes is born from “not only pepper, but also cardamoms, cashews, cinnamon, ginger, pistachios, cloves; and as well as spice ’n’ nuts there were coffee beans, and the mighty tea leaf itself.” Here Rushdie uses Malabar masala as a metaphor for the rich cultural mixture of Cochin – a mixture the city shares, in his imagination, with modern Bombay and medieval Granada, both crucial locations in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
But another masala city lurks in The Moor’s Last Sigh. And that city is the Venice of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Indeed, the play’s subtitle – The Moor of Venice – suggests something of Rushdie’s thought experiment with masala identity. Shakespeare’s Moor (the term is associated with both Muslims and Africans) belongs to white Christian Venice; as such, he is an exemplar of cultural mixture. Mixture is glimpsed also in Shakespeare’s other Venetian play, The Merchant of Venice, whose alternate title for much of its production history was “The Jew of Venice”.
Taken together, the two plays and their migrant characters Othello and Shylock test the limits of what we might call masala identity: the possibility of being Moorish and Venetian, Jewish and Venetian, at the same time. In The Merchant of Venice, that possibility is warded off through enforced or elective Jewish conversion to the majority Christian community. But in Othello, masala identity is tragically strained to suicidal breaking point: when Othello kills himself at the play’s end, he does so by telling a story about a patriotic Venetian slaying an evil Turk who had spoken rudely about his city. The poignant irony is that Othello, in his dramatic suicide, plays the parts of both the patriotic Venetian and the evil Turk. his masala identity is affirmed. But it is affirmed only as a deadly mix, where one part brutally rejects the other, killing it and dying too.
For Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh, the deadliness of Othello’s masala identity has a chilling, tragic relevance to modern India. it is not just that Shakespeare’s Moor is a victim of the villainous Iago’s bigotry. It is that Othello himself also perpetuates that bigotry. The “last sigh” of the novel’s title refers to the mythic gasp of the final Moorish ruler in Spain, Sultan Boabdil, as he abandoned his gloriously multicultural Granada in the wake of the Christian reconquista of 1492, ending with a sigh centuries of rich cultural dialogue between Jews, Muslims and Christians. But it also refers to Othello’s last sigh as his patriotic Venetian avatar smites the evil turk in himself. In rushdie’s nightmare vision of India, written in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Hindu-Muslim Bombay riots of 1993, India has become a latter-day Othello, administering to its own rich mixtures a self-willed deathblow born of a lust for purity.
Cochin’s Jew Street reverberates with many uncanny echoes of Shakespeare’s Venice.
Not just because of the rich legacies of Jewish and Muslim culture that are evident in the area. Nor just because of the similarities between Venice and Cochin as port cities, riddled with canals and multicultural traders. even as modern Cochin seems to model a masala more-than-oneness, the pressures within it to purify and singularise identity are – as in shakespeare’s Venice – increasingly irresistible. The differences between my first visit to Cochin in July 2003 and my most recent one in september 2017 are revealing on this score.
In 2003, I first met Sara Cohen, the last living Jew in Jew Street. By that point most of Cochin’s small but robust Jewish community had been persuaded post-independence to move to Israel, on the utterly misguided assumption that religious identity must trump all other forms of cultural affiliation. Sara had resisted the tide: she was firmly a Jew of Cochin, content with her masala identity. In 2003 she was a still-sprightly 78, and I spent an afternoon with her in her apartment.
We had been introduced by a mutual friend from the United States, who thought a Jew from one god’s own country – New Zealand – might get along with a Jew from the other god’s own country. And we did, as Sara was a very congenial host. But she was a little puzzled by my presumption of solidarity with her, as I spoke no Malayalam. Bored by my lack of conversational sparkle, she turned on her television and became lost in a Malayalam soap opera, Sthree (Woman). I couldn’t understand the language, but I could follow its over-the-top action. I too became absorbed by what I saw.
Two Jews from different parts of the world bonded that day. And we bonded not over our Jewishness but, rather, over our shared absorption in the melodramatic masala tale of a hapless Malayali Hindu maiden tormented by wicked men. It could have been the tale of Desdemona’s childhood maid Barbary – the shadowy figure who shares her name with the northwest coast of Africa, and who taught her young mistress a tragic song about the evils that men do to women.
But as Sara and I shared cookies, watching Sthree, we also unwittingly acted different parts from Othello. Sara played Othello, a pardesi of Venice. And I played Desdemona, absorbed by outlandish tales from a strange land. Part of me fell in love that day. Not with my 78-year-old companion, sweet as she was, but with a vision of border-crossing possibility that I glimpsed in India’s stunning pluralism.
Nearly fifteen years later I visited Jew Street again. Cochin has changed dramatically in the intervening time. The changes are partly for the good: there are now more cafes, the streets are cleaner, and the highly successful Kochi-Muziris Biennale has put more art in public spaces and more colour on the buildings. But it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost too.
Cochin’s spice markets, though still active, are now becoming theme parks for tourists. And the transformation of the city’s spicy masala outlets is a potent metaphor for the transformation of its cultural masala, at least the version that includes Jewish ingredients. Both types of masala are nowadays less part of the city’s lived practices than they are exotic commodities for the titillation of tourists.
Sara, now 93, had been turned into something of an exotic attraction herself; her once typical Malayali house has become a Jewish tourist shrine complete with wrought-iron window-grill star of David, through which mostly Western visitors aim cameras to capture snaps of the last living Jew in Jew street. She has also started wearing a kipa – a Jewish skullcap – as a badge of religious identity recognisable to foreigners, something I didn’t see her do fifteen years ago when her sartorial preference was the standard-issue Malayali nightie.
This transformation is not as depressing as the supposedly “comic” outcome of The Merchant of Venice.
There Shylock, the Jew of Venice, is made to convert to Christianity; his daughter Jessica, having eloped with a Christian, is also absorbed into the majority community. But Sara’s transformation does remind me a little of the end of Othello. Her wearing a kipa may not be the deadly tragedy of that play. But to make Jewishness the singular truth of her identity at the expense of the other masala ingredients in her mix – in other words, to repudiate how she is a Jew of Cochin who loves to watch Malayalam soap operas and to bake English cookies – is akin to Othello’s deadly rejection of his own plurality.
Cochin’s cultural masala has attracted the watchful interest of India’s new political powers. At the time of my last visit in 2017, the central government had dispatched Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath to Kerala – India’s most committedly plural state, in which Hindus, Christians and Muslims each constitute around a third of the population – for a series of janrakshas. Their remit, to lecture Malayali Hindus against the danger of love jihad, was a saffronised version of Iago’s warning to Desdemona’s horrified father Brabantio: “even now, now, very now, a black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.88-9).
But neither Brabantio nor Iago realise that, in the cultural mix of Venice, the ram is not definable just as black, nor the ewe as white. Identifications on the basis of colour alone – on the basis of any one “core” identity – ignore the mixtures that constitute the Moor of Venice and his wife, the senator’s daughter whose songs were taught to her in childhood by a woman named, and possibly from, Barbary. The Hindutva fight against love jihad takes aim not just at cross-communal desire. It also seeks to obliterate the possibility of mixture within each of us.
So, let the world know: I am a Jewish-Kiwi-Anglo-Irish love jihadi, partnered with a Malayali from a Hindu Nair family who probably has some Muslim Arab and Christian Portuguese and who-knows-what African ancestry.
And my parents and their parents before them were love jihadis too, each of them marrying someone from another country and bequeathing mixture to their children. As a love jihadi, let me say my love jihadi prayer: l’tikkun olam, l’tikkun othello, l’tikkun desdemona. l’tikkun tikkun. To the repair of the world, to the repair of Othello, to the repair of Desdemona. To the repair of repair.
This is not simply a Hebrew prayer. A version of it resonates in Urdu and Hindi in a beautiful song from the film Delhi-6 (2009): “marammat mukaddar ki kar do maula, mere maula (repair fate, oh lord, my lord).” and more: “toot ke bikharna mujhko zaroor aata hai (i know very well how to scatter into pieces).” This scattering and shattering of the seemingly singular self is also an act of repair that acknowledges the plurality in all of us.
Because “repair” is not just about making whole what has been broken. If we think that, then we need to repair the idea of repair. For me it is hard not to hear the “pair” in “re-pair”. The modern word “pair” refers to more than a couple; it derives from the latin “paria”, from which we also get the word “parity,” meaning an equalisation between different entities. To re-pair is to assert a parity between parts that might be different but work together, between parts that constitute a functioning more-than-oneness, between parts whose bond has been tragically broken. Broken within ourselves as much as with others.
Parity is not purity. May all mixtures be repaired, and respected, in their parts’ parity. Our tragedy, in these days of purity, is that they are not.
Excerpted with permission from Masala Shakespeare: How A Firangi Writer Became Indian, Jonathan Gil Harris, Aleph Book Company.