In her latest book, Bombay Brides (HarperCollins), Jewish author-artist Esther David, 73, strings together 18 stories of love and loss set in a flat in a housing society in Ahmedabad, that is rented out to tenants from the Bene Israel community by a young couple who has moved to Israel. Through these fictional and quirky accounts, David, who won the 2010 Sahitya Akademi Award for The Book of Rachel, describes what it means to be the last members of a diminishing community. Excerpts:
How did the 18 stories of Bombay Brides come together?
When I wrote my first novel, The Walled City (1997), I created some Jewish characters, whom I reintroduced in Book of Esther (2002), loosely based on four generations of a Bene Israel Jewish family. This family lives in Alibag, where Bene Israel Jews — the ‘children of Israel’ — first landed, about 2,000 years ago, after a shipwreck. During the British Raj, the men of this large extended family joined the British services. Most of them were doctors and moved from Alibag to Pune, Mumbai and, then, Ahmedabad. Later, others immigrated to Israel, the US, Canada and elsewhere. The characters from The Walled City, Book of Esther, Book of Rachel and other novels almost became real as I placed them in various situations in Bombay Brides.
The characters came to me as I met Indian Jews and their families in Mumbai, Alibag, Kochi, Kolkata, and other places as I have been travelling for the last eight years to document Indian Jews and their cuisine. I noticed that most Jewish brides settled in Ahmedabad came from Bombay (now Mumbai), like my grandmother, mother and aunts. Thus, my narration moves from Alibag to Ahmedabad and Israel. Bombay Brides is set in the Ahmedabad of today. There are about 140 Jews in Gujarat, who come together at the only place of worship in the state, the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad, during festivals of the Jewish New Year, Hanukkah and the Day of Atonement.
What is your relationship with your characters?
In the 1950s, I lived in a joint family in a haveli in Ahmedabad. Since most of my family have moved to other countries, these characters in my novels have become like my extended family.
How have the Bene Israel Jews adopted Indian ways of life?
At homes or are at the synagogue, for Sabbath or other festivals, women cover their head with a sari-end, a dupatta or a scarf and the men wear a kippa or a prayer shawl. India is the only country in the world where Jews have not faced persecution, so Indian Jews refer to India as Motherland and Israel as Homeland or Fatherland.
Food is a strong presence in your book. What’s the speciality of Bene Israel Jewish cuisine?
Indian Jews have Indian food but follow a strict Jewish dietary law, which says, ‘Thou shalt not mix the lamb in its mother’s milk’. They do not cook dairy products with meat dishes. But, as kosher meat is not always available, most Indian Jews are vegetarians. As a substitute to dairy products, they use coconut milk. Bene Israel Jewish food has a strong influence of Maharashtrian and Konkani cuisine. Certain traditional recipes are made during specific festivals. For most prayers, they make blackcurrant sherbet, in the absence of kosher wine. A sweet made with wheat extract, coconut milk, sugar and nuts is made to celebrate the Jewish New Year.
A number of your characters keep moving between India and Israel.
During some festivals, Bene Israel Jews return to the synagogues in Mumbai or Ahmedabad. It is a balancing act to be Indian and Jewish and to retain Jewish ethos in a multicultural country like India, as there is no idol worship in Judaism. Our names are Biblical and to integrate fully into Indian life is never easy.
Prophet Elijah appears in each of your stories, in the most unlikely of situations. Was that deliberate?
Bene Israels love Prophet Elijah, aka Eliahu Hannavi, who, they believe, rose to heaven in his chariot from a site near Haifa in Israel. But before that, he came to India. His chariot touched a rock in Khandala, a small village near Alibag, leaving marks of the wheels and horse hooves on it. It is known as the Rock of Prophet Elijah (Eliahu-Hannavi-cha-Tapa in Marathi), to which Bene Israels make wish-fulfillment vows.