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In Conversation: Esther David by Shweta Rao Garg

Shweta Rao Garg – First of all, congratulations for winning Sahitya Akademi award for Book of Rachel. How did the idea of an Indo-Jewish recipe book cum fiction first occur to you? Rachel, the sixty something protagonist of your book seems to choose food as her personal memoir, food also helps her win friends who eventually help her win the synagogue back, thus food becomes political. How important is food in the novel?

Esther David – Book of Rachel happened because of various reasons. While researching for Book of Esther, I met an elderly Jewish lady living in a village near a Synagogue, which was no longer used for services. It gave me the perfect setting for Book of Rachel.

During those years, I was already known as Jewish writer after the publication of The Walled City. And, I received innumerable mails and letters from people who had read my book.

One such email was from a Pakistani journalist Shershah Syed, who wrote to me about a certain Aunt Rachel, the last surviving Jew of Pakistan. I knew that Pakistan once had a Synagogue and a Jewish graveyard. I was told that the Synagogue was destroyed in a fire and the aging aunt Rachel, looked after the cemetery, as she protected it from land sharks. Since, she died a few years back, I do not know what has happened to the cemetery. And, while working on Book of Esther, I had seen many old Synagogues on the Konkan coast, which were in ruins. Around this time, I also became involved with the Baroda Jewish cemetery dispute, which took place in a city near Ahmedabad. With the help of prominent citizens of Baroda, I could save it from real estate agents, who had already started demolishing a part of the cemetery. So, I could collect first hand information about this matter.

This was also the time that I noticed that Bene Israel Jewish food habits had changed and realized that some of our traditional food habits would soon be forgotten.

And, once while going through my papers, I found an old file, written by one of my aunt’s and saw that the recipes were different from what we made in our homes or at community dinners at the Synagogue.

So, Book of Rachel is all about preservation of the Jewish heritage in India. I wove the story around the theme of love, food and heritage. Often, about the old who have been left behind by families, which immigrated to Israel. About Synagogues, which have been abandoned and are in ruins. In the novel Rachel’s life revolves around her fight to preserve an ancient Synagogue in her backyard, as she tries out an ancient recipe at the beginning of each chapter.

SR: How much of a Rachel is Esther, especially in interspersing memories with flavors?

ED: Here and there, but mainly researched women of Jewish community and my own return to traditional Jewish food as preservation of heritage, tradition or ritual, as mentioned in chapter of Purim and Puran Poli, where young Rachel wins back her fiance. I also believe food, if cooked with good energy and love helps relationships and transforms into a magical potion. When I wrote Book of Rachel, both my children, now adults had left to make their own homes. So, I started coping with the vacuam by trying these recipes, either with my cook and her niece-in-law, Lila and Raili. Later, I discovered Julie Pingle, the cantor Johny Pingle’s wife at the Synagogue and saw that, as she was from Bombay and came from a traditional background, she could cook, all that I had known as a child from the women of house. So, we started experimenting and every week, she brought for me a dabba of traditional food and even demonstrated how to make kanavali. When she cooks in large quantities, I often spend a lot of time with her and watching her cook. And, while researching in Alibaug, the ancestral hometown, I discovered many Jewish women cooking like my grandmother, especially Sofie Wakrulkar, mother of Irene, who is married in Ahmedabad to a distant nephew, but does not cook like her mother. So, it became important to write about it. Actually, Julie Pingle is the Synagogue caterer and if by mistake she does not make Paneer bhurjee or Punjabi style food or dhosas, Undhiyu-puri-jalebi, chana puri, kadhi-pulao-shrikhand etc, nobody eats her Bene Israel style food, which is traditionally Bene Israel Jewish food, made with the dietary law of not mixing milk with meat. So we use coconut milk. But, they dont mind, if she makes mutton as a Jewish style masala curry. They also like Chik cha Halwa and Kippur Chi Poorie as mentioned in Book of Rachel as they are sweet and very few women can make it. So, now Bombay also has a woman caterer for Bene Israel Jewish food, if somebody feels like it. I think, this is an important study for me as a writer, who also happens to be a woman. I respect traditional food of not only Bene Israel or Polish Jews from my daughters in-laws side, but from all over the world.

SR: Can you tell the readers more about Bene Israel food and how it is linked to their identity? You were also a part of a food festival in Ahmedabad and started writing columns on food. Is preoccupation with food something to do your being a woman belonging to  a minority ethnic group?

ED: Yes and No. In the process of my food column, I was convinced that human beings in general, are getting caught up by the global invasion of fast food, fusion, multi cuisine and assume that there is no reason to be proud about traditional or ritualists food as they sound too desi. This shocks me, in my own community and others. Like, during Divali, chocolates have replaced mithai. I am even more shocked when Jews don’t like Sol Kadhi. Or when Gujaratis say, Gujarat is not only about dhoklas and handvo. Actually, today, very few women can make dhoklas. Do what you like and become global in food, etc, but dont deny the rich history of your existence. So, Book of Rachel is about such interrogations with myself.

SR: How much is a food a legitimate subject for Indian fiction and why?

ED: If it is important in cinema, why not in literature? look at the best cinema of the world, not India, where most things happen around food. I think, food is an important element of detailing, which can be used in literature and helps even in describing certain characters or differences between characters. It gives colour to situations. My favourite books and Spanish film is- Like water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Aphrodite by Isabelle Allende. I love them and also the way Amy Tan uses food in her novels, is just fascinating. But, one word of caution, one cannot do too much of it, or else, your novel can become a cook book. So, although I have 300 Bene Israel recipes, I chose carefully. I love to read Madhur Jaffery, but eventually, it does go into the category of cookbook. But, Chitrita Bannerji did use it to great effect in Hour of the Goddess, but again, the recipes are included like a cookbook. Actually, food has to be woven carefully into novels, so that, in totality,the story line remains important, not the food.

(“Food in Indian Literature”, Muse India, May-June 2011 issue)

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When Cyclone Nisarga reached me… – Esther David

I live in Ahmedabad.  And, after a long summer spent in Lockdown, suddenly one morning, the light changed and it started raining. Monsoon had arrived. That evening, while watching Cyclone Nisarga on television, I started receiving innumerable phone calls and messages from India and abroad, asking me, if all was well, with my family in Alibaug. I did not answer, as I was intently watching the havoc in Alibaug, as the waves were rising as high as the coconut trees against the backdrop of a dark clouded sky and turbulent sea. Yes, I know Alibaug, as often, I use this place like a stage to set my novels, but I do not have relatives there, except for a friend’s family. 

Alibaug is the land of my ancestors; as the Bene Israel Jews landed here, after a shipwreck, some 2000 years ago, while fleeing from their Greek persecutors. And, since the millennium, I have often been to Alibaug, researching for my novel BOOK OF ESTHER and then BOOK OF RACHEL.  During these years, I discovered, the ROCK OF ELIJAH in Sagav village near Alibaug, where he is known to have landed. It is believed, when he flew back to heaven in his chariot of fire, the wheels left a dent in the rock there, which is worshipped by Bene Israel Jews as a pilgrimage site. This coastal landscape inspired me, so I set BOOK OF RACHEL in my ancestral village near Alibaug and the novel starts like this, ” The cyclone lashed Rachel’s house exactly at three thirty that afternoon and brought with it a fish at her doorstep…”.

Soon after Nisarga hit Alibaug and the messages started pouring in, I did not know how to tell them that I did not have any relatives in Alibaug. I was connected to Alibaug through my novel BOOK OF RACHEL, where the story revolves around Rachel, her family and some other characters.

Slowly, by midnight, as the cyclone moved away from Alibaug, I realized that, for those who had read BOOK OF RACHEL, the protagonist Rachel, her family and all those who were part of the story had transformed into real characters for my readers and had become part of my family. I was deeply touched and did not tell them that the only relative, I had in Alibaug was Rachel….   

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The Worry Box – Esther David

During these difficult days, we all need something to comfort us.

I found my comfort in a worry-box.

But, the other day, I forgot to close the lid of my worry box and the house was flooded with worries. To add to it, I lost its lid. And, I started looking for the lid, so as not to blow my own lid. In the process, the whole house was in a mess, as I looked for it. It added, one more worry to my deluge of worries, as I knew, it would take hours to get back some semblance of sanity in my house and head. Even after tables, drawers, cupboards, shelves and every possible space had been turned upside down; the lid could not be traced. I even looked for it, under pillows and mattresses, wondering if it had sneaked into the quilting.

It hadn’t.

Exhausted, I sat down on the floor and leaned against a chair and jumped as I felt, something touch my hand, it was the lid of my worry box. Strangely looking alive, as it tried to tell me that it was there, sitting very close to me and telling me, that I need not worry about anything. Actually, it was comforting me.

Quickly, I picked up the lid, as though it was the most precious object of my life. I rushed to my worry box, closed it and felt an ethereal calm descend upon me. It felt so good, that, I put away all the things I had pulled out, while looking for it.

Only when the lid was firmly placed on the worry box, did it bring some order in my life.

A worry box is one of the most delicate objects on earth.

If, by chance, you misplace the lid, you must also be careful that the bottom of the box does not give way, because, then, your worries will find a thousand and one ways of returning back to you.

Sometimes, seemingly small inconspicuous objects like these; have the capacity of changing our lives.

Few years back, a friend who had gone Mexico for a conference had brought it for me, saying it was the perfect gift for a worry-bird like me.

The worry box is a beautifully crafted artifact from Mexico, where worry is crafted as a work of art.

It came packed in a tiny cloth bag, as the box within was no bigger than a walnut. It was made with strips of bark, decorated with red brush strokes. It was so small, that I could sleep with it, tucked under my pillow.

Seven dolls lie cradled inside the worry box, in accordance to the laws of numerology. The stick-figure-dolls are made of wood, have two black dots for eyes and another dot for the mouth, while the hair is braided in U-turns, like Mayan women.

The dolls are dressed in shirts and sarongs, in greens, pinks, purples, blue and reds, held at the waist with a bright sash, which contrasts with the colour of the dress. They could look alike, yet each doll has her own identity and a body language, which is not immediately evident, but, if you look closely, you will notice that the dolls change shape according to the nature of worry.

Telling the doll about your worries, is an art in itself. When worries start buzzing like bees in your head, open the lid of your worry box, pick up one doll, hold its ear to your mouth and whisper your worry into the dolls ear. People, like me who habitually speak to their dolls, will tell you that, when you open the box, without thinking, you immediately pick up a doll, which is supposed to listen to you. Sometimes, it even raises its arm and reaches out to you, maybe even comforts you by caressing your cheek. It is believed that once you start speaking to your dolls, automatically your worries are transmitted to them and you can sleep in peace.

Just one word of caution, the worry box is not known to be effective during the day. It is an unspoken rule, that worries must be whispered to the dolls, only at night, that too, just before you go to bed. The other rule, is that you must be alone with your worry box. You are then, supposed to open the worry box, tenderly pick up a doll, hold her in the cup of your palm, wake her up, wipe her clean, arrange her dress, whisper your worries to her, put her back in the box, tuck her in, close the lid and place the box, under your pillow, so that your worries stay within the box, and you can sleep uninterrupted…..(This is a highly artistic device, more effective than any other treatment used by worry-birds.No social distancing necessary…)

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A Living Statue – Esther David

She was sitting still on the pavement. In fact she was kneeling in silent prayer. Long lashes curled over her closed eyes, her lips curved in a soft smile and the drapery flowing around her. Her face was painted white and she resembled a marble sculpture. There was a bowl at her knee. It was full of coins. She was one of the many roadside “Living Statues” of Paris.

There are many ways to earn a living in Paris. Besides the usual jobs, artistes like this young woman make a living by playing statue on tourist spots. Nearer the Louvre museum, there are those who dress like an Egyptian pharoah, a Greek god or imitate one of the many sculptures from the museum. This is good business, if the artiste has the courage to face the changing climate and pose without moving for innumerable hours.

The queue was long at the Musee d’Orsay on the River Seine, which houses one of the best collections of Impressionism. Here, the queues are not boring, as all around entertainment is for free. If you like what you see, you could leave a few cents for the street-artists.

On this particular day, we saw the kneeling Madonna on the pavement. She was definitely a hit, because her bowl was full. For background music, a musician was playing a one man brass band. He was sitting on a folding cycle seat and playing a drum; an accordion, a flute, all connected to system, which relayed taped music. His hat was placed at the base of the drum, but in contrast to the kneeling Madonna, his hat was empty.

The scenario was like a theatre-of-the-absurd, as we also saw some Indians. They were selling post cards of the Eiffel Tower or roasting chestnuts. They were brilliant salesmen, because as soon as, it started raining, the cards disappeared and they started selling umbrellas. They were dressed in old track-suits and torn shoes. Sadly, they live in small apartments, situated in the faraway suburbs of Paris; about ten to a room, surviving hand to mouth, yet sending home; a part of their earnings. It is a mystery, how they manage on a shoe-string budget. They are hard working, as they sell flowers at night; around restaurants. The team of four works in unison as they speak to each other in Hindi or one of them teaches them a few words of French, to induce better salesmanship. Every morning, they travel long distances to buy cheap flowers, toys and umbrellas. But, the tinkle of Euros in their pockets is more important than anything else.

Going back to our story, the vendor of chestnuts had attracted people who wanted to eat something warm. And, as the rain slowed down, one of them; brought out colourful plastic spider-men and stuck them to the walls of the museum. Children started pestering their parents to buy these toys.

But, all eyes were on the kneeling Madonna. There were long discussions whether she was breathing? Some said, they had seen her breathe, some had seen her face muscles twitch and others said, her eyelashes fluttered or that she had raised her eyebrows. Some had seen her body move under the drapery. We wondered what made her do what she was doing. Did she need the money? or was she a young art student working for her fees? We were worried that she would be cold and drenched, because it was washing away her white make up and exposing her pale pink cheeks. She was a beautiful young woman and resembled a marble nymph.

One young man, decided to tell her to move elsewhere, but nobody spoke to her. The queue moved on and we looked backwards to see what happened to our Madonna.

The end of the story is something like this, a big rough man appeared from the bar behind her, emptied the money in a pouch, pulled off, our Madonna’s – plaster-cast-head-mask with a jerk, exposed her real, simple, human face, held the mask under his arms, picked up the chair, hidden under her flowing drapery and placed it under the balcony. Then, like an expert make-up artist, he touched the make-up of the mask and put it away on a rack in the bar, along with the drapery, which our Madonna had neatly folded for him. Then, she went into the bar and after a few minutes, she emerged, having transformed into a young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater, who walked away, without a backward glance.  

We did not know whether to laugh or cry, as we had come to believe that she was real.

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Great Minds Think Alike – by Esther David

They say; ‘great minds think alike.’ Recently, this became obvious, while I was reading a comparative study about famed artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures, which were created in 1906.

Matisse and Picasso had many common elements. Both artists were like opposites in every possible way, yet, they bonded with their artistic sensibilities, which was a mixture of friendship and competition. According to their patrons Leo and Gertrude Stein, together they blazed a trail leading towards modern art, while breaking down boundaries between sculpture, painting, drawings, graphic arts and leading, the arts towards total artistic freedom.

Their work shows many common themes which run in parallels. Both artists are known to have been deeply involved with cubism and fauvism. Their styles and colours come through in their work with tremendous variations, connected somewhere or other with a surprising common link. There may be some differences here and there, yet the strain is the same in colour application and the use of volume in their forms. For example, if one sees Picasso’s fascination for the guitar, Matisse painted the violin. If Matisse was photographed with a dove on his shoulder, Picasso had an owl perched on his arm. Matisse can be identified by bright pinks, while Picasso is known for his blues. The human figure is a common thread between their works, as it can be seen as a tree or a cathedral. The sitting woman with hands raised and the reclining figure or the Odalisque appears repeatedly in the works of both artists. Often, the human figures moves with a certain serpentine grace, even if a slight difference is seen in Picasso’s human figures, as he was impressed by African masks. Picasso painted the human face like a mask or slashed the human figure with brutal angular brush strokes. But, in Matisse’s work, there was more detail and loving colour application, yet the portrait as a cube, appears with variations in the works of both artists.

When one looks at the paintings of Matisse, we tend to focus on his bright colours and floral-Persian-carpet backgrounds.

Fauvism was a word coined by an art critic for Matisse, who attacked the artist, saying that the bright colours used by him and other artists were wild, meaning ‘fauve’ in French.

Today there are no such reservations in the arts, thanks to Matisse and Picasso, as the wilder the better.

In the same context, the cube as a geometric volume appears often in the sculptures of Matisse.

In the history of sculpture, his work is of great importance, as Matisse stands apart with his sculpture of a woman’s back, which resembles a tree trunk. Together, when one views the sculptures of Matisse and Picasso, surprisingly, one cannot tell Matisse apart. He sculpts his heads by cutting them into leaf like cubes; an extraordinary exercise in cubism, the difference between the two appears to be subtle, because Picasso’s heads have a heavier organic quality.  But, both artists use the human figure like a cut-out, almost like a strong silhouette emerging from a wall. The sculpted limbs, stretch, move, turn inwards, reach the sky, dance or turn somersaults.

While, the dancers painted by Matisse move in entwined circles, while Picasso’s dancers have an edgy upwards movement. Even in matters of materials, Matisse preferred collages and Picasso painted or twisted paper or metal sheets  into dancers, creating his famous Minotaur’s’ or half human-half animal forms.

Both artists explored various themes with the utmost simplicity, like the reclining figure, the standing figure, bathers on a seashore or melancholic dreamers.

They look like forms, as seen from a distance, composed within interiors with floral background, which have paintings, collages, sculptures; all created with a brilliant use fauvism and cubism. 

To study these great artists was an exciting journey into the language of the human figure, as revealed by Matisse and Picasso, because; ‘great minds think alike.’

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Flying-Around during a Lock-Down – Esther David

During these difficult times during Covid-19  and the ensuing total lock-down in India, while staying at home, bird watching was not on my my list, to go through the day. But, since the lock-down, my mornings have changed, as I hear bird songs, which gives a good start to the day. Suddenly, with the absence of human beings and rumble of vehicles, if one can turn a deaf ear to the barking of stay dogs and see the birds around you, it will bring you closer to nature. These birds around your homes or housing societies are becoming daring and unafraid of coming closer to us. If you look  carefully and listen to their calls, you will see that they are all over the place. Even, as squirrels are boldly running around and giving final touches to their nests in secret corners; which are woven with spun strings, shredded textiles, pieces of cotton, moss, dry grass and fibrous strings.   

The other day, a Sun Bird flew into my ground floor apartment as the door was open, then feeling rather confused, it made an U-turn and flew away. The other day, a friend told me, that Babblers are out-numbering Pigeons around her housing society. Crows, Pigeons, Swallows are also seen, as Babblers fly around in groups or have a leisurely sand-bath in a children’s play ground. And, when she is in the kitchen; making her first cup of coffee, a pair of Swallows fearlessly sits on the rim of her kitchen-window-sill or knock on the window panes with their beaks and make her smile. While, behind her apartment building, there is an unused green zone, which gives a pleasant view from her balcony, as a flock of Black Ibis roost there on a tree. From here, she watches the Ibis and many other birds flying amidst the foliage or nesting in the trees. The closeness between wild life and us humans; is increasing. 

To continue the bird story, last week, a young friend living in a tenement; opened her front door and saw a sparrow. Excitedly, she called; ‘I just saw a sparrow,’ as she believes, sparrows are an endangered species. She quickly closed the door, so as not to frighten the bird, as it was perched on a branch of the mogra creeper; she had planted next to the main door. Since then, every morning, she leaves bowls of grains and water for the sparrow, so that it continues to visit her and eventually feels inspired to make a nest in the foliage of the fragrant mogra creeper. 

I spend my mornings watching the aerial gliding of Sun-birds, along with Bulbuls, Robins, Mynahs, Babblers, Flower-peckers and if you are lucky, you could also see a stray Egret or Starling. Since the Lock-Down, in this still-silence around me, I can hear the distant cries of a Kingfisher, Coppersmith, Koel and Peafowl, as Kites and Falcons patrol the skies, while looking for a prey, down below on earth. 

Every morning, I study a flowering bush, close to my bedroom window, as I disturb a few butterflies, flitting over the flower-beds. As, they disappear, I look for the nest, a pair of Tailor-Birds are making in one of the broad leafed plants, stitching the leaves into a cozy nest for their brood. And, to add colour to our surroundings, during the sleepy mid-afternoon hours, a flock of wild Indian Parrots arrive to perch on a young Neem tree, chattering away, maybe about the sudden silence zone, which has descended upon a world, predominantly inhabited by human beings. I try to decipher the hidden meaning of these bird songs, as we have a lot to learn from nature…because as they say ‘Nature is a great educator…’   

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Curry-patta leaves and Champa blossoms

If you try gardening, you will notice that nature has her own method of functioning. Try as you may, you cannot dictate terms to her and she will grow exactly as she wants to. With every passing day, one can learn something new from nature. As we experienced, some lessons are learnt the hard way. For example, one should never cut down a tree or plant and expect another to grow in the same place all over again. This is exactly what happened to our curry-patta plant. 

After we cut down the first one for unknown reasons, year after year we tried planting some more saplings in the same place. Like a curse, this patch of earth became barren, while the mogra nearby had a luxuriant growth. 

After many useless efforts, we abandoned this patch as a possible location for the new currypatta tree. We planted a young sapling in another place. To our relief it started growing faster than we expected. When the tree reached our shoulders, we plucked its leaves with a sense of achievement. But, there was something lacking. It lacked that special tadka-fragrance. The mali from the nursery was sent for to confirm whether it was a curry-patta tree or some other plant. He crushed a leaf and breathing deep into it proclaimed that it was an original. Nevertheless, he was surprised that the leaves did not have the fragrance of curries. 

The following monsoon we bought another curry-patta with a guaranty. We planted it next to the one without fragrance, assuming the land was fertile there. The new curry-patta also shot up in a year. We were tense and afraid to pluck the leaves. What, if this one also did not have a fragrance? Luckily this one had a strong curry flavour. 

The mali informed us that it was a female tree, because she had flowers. He insisted that the one without fragrance was a male. 

To grow, apparently they needed each other. When planted together, they had struck the perfect balance. If marriages are made in heaven, this was it. 

We also had a similar experience with the Champa. An ancient tree suffocating under a canopy of trees refused to bloom. But, a Champa which peeped over our garden wall was always laden with fragrant white flowers. Every morning this tree sprinkled her flowers on our lawn. These were collected and arranged around the house in bowls of water. 

During monsoon we repeated the curry-patta experiment. We planted a young champa close to the wall. The method worked. In a few months, we noticed the young Champa had grown and blossomed. By next year this plant should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Champa next door. Here, the plot thickens, as it is hard to figure out the male from the female as both have a luxuriant growth. 

If you are interested in gardening, you must have noticed many such miracles of nature. The effect of the sun, moon, seasons, hours of the day, growing, fading, falling, flowering and growth, everything in nature is connected to each other in some way or other.

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Hellaro – An Ode to Freedom – by Esther David

Can music empower women, heal them and awaken them?

Yes.

These were my first thoughts, as I watched the Gujarati film ‘Hellaro’ by Abhishek Shah and his team. Truthfully, the poster attracted me and I went to see the garba sequences. As, I watched the film, I got trapped into the waft and weave of womens empowerment; with the resounding rhythm of the dhol, which awaken an entire community of suppressed women. The beats of the dhol also tell us the untold story of the agonized drummer. The film, based on folklore, begins with the symbolic use of a sword-dance is performed only by men; as the women stay indoors. The sword becomes a metaphor of a patriarchal society, which is a way of life in a far away village of Kutch. Late at night, the men perform the vigorous sword-dance to evoke the Mother Goddess, as rains have eluded this region for the past three years. The women stay indoors, suffocating under rules and regulations; laid down by men. These men worship the Mother Goddess-who also happens to be a woman, but they treat their own women as objects of lust and violence in a decadent society. The situation changes with the arrival of the new bride Manjhrii. Slowly, the women are empowered, as the wave of change comes in the most unexpected manner. The only respite these women have from their dark world is when every morning, they carry headloads of brass pots to fill water from a lake; farway from their village. At the lake, they breathe; the air of freedom, even if it is for a short time. On one such day, they see a man, sprawled in the desert, dying of thirst. Manjhri breaks all rules, offers him water and revives him. He is carrying a dhol, as he is a drummer and as a gesture of gratitude, respectfully; stands with his back to them; playing the dhol for them and the women cannot control their desire to dance. Suddenly with beats of the dhol; they feel unshackled and their garba becomes a spontaneous act of freedom. Walking long distances in the desert to get water is no longer an ardous task. As, every day, when the women leave the village to fill watter, they look forward to the moment, when they can smile, laugh, chat, sing and dance with gay abandon, enjoying a short but precious moment of happiness. These are some metaphors, which become symbolic of freedom. This is also the beginning of protest against a male dominated society. The reverberating beats of the dhol inspires the women. It also inspires young women viewers like my niece Dhara, who said, ‘Actually, the real protagonist of this film is the garba.’ With the mere act of dancing, the women cross swords with a male dominated society, which has so far suppressed their voice, their expression and their very existence. It infuses in them; a desire to break all barriers under Manjhri’s leadership. Her eyes speak volumes about womens lives and their need to express themselves through garba. If the men perform an aggressive sword-dance; late at night, in contrast the women dance under the scorching sun, in the stark desert-land of Kutch. Dressed in colourful clothes and swirling gracefully, they remain untouched by the blistering hot sands of the desert. They bond into a chain, which eventually leads them into a direct confrontation with the men. The only man, who wordlessly supports them, according to Manjhri, is a man with the soul of a woman, which is the Mukhi’s son. I was mesmerized, as there was nothing artificial in the film, be it the set, the bhunga, the village, costumes, embroidery, interiors, jewelry and the women themselves. I felt, I was in a real village of Kutch with real people and I was part of their lives….

Come, what may; when they dance; the earth, trembles with their united power and strength, as they are determined to break all shackles. They are no longer birds with clipped wings, as their colourful saris grow wings and they are about to fly away… 

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Sara Cohen – Obituary – by Esther David

( article appeared in Times of India, Kochi edition 31st August 2019)

On Friday, before Sara Cohen could light the shabath candles; and before Monday, when the call of Selihot, for festivities of the Jewish festivities begin on Monday, Sara; one of the last few Pardesi Jews of Kochi, closed her eyes and left for her heavenly abode at 96. She will be laid to rest at the cemetery near the synagogue at Mattancherry.

Sara was married to Jacob Cohen and became synomimus with Cochin Jews, as Sara was a living legend. Prof. Shalva Weil, senior researcher, RIFIE, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Israel; who has extensively researched Indian Jews, writes – “Sad. I knew her for 40 years. Everyone loved her. She was dearly looked after by Muslim caretaker for many years now. He expanded her embroidery cottage industry. There is no visitor to Cochin who didn’t pop in to buy a challah-cover (shababth-bread cover) or a kippa (yarmulke).”

 

A year back, when I was in Kochi, at Jew Town, Synagogue Street, Kochi, amidst spice shops, antique warehouses, old Jewish homes with railings and grilled windows with the Star of David, I saw Sara Cohen, one of the oldest Jews of this small community of Cochin Jews; sitting at the window of her home, watching tourists, as her craftsperson Celine embroidered ceremonial hamotsi covers, kippas, Jewish sacred textiles trimmed with lace borders and other ritualistic objects, which were on display in the foyer. Thaha, Sara’s caretaker and Man Friday was looking after Sara’s Embroidery shop in the hall of her house. He became part of her life, like a family member as outside her window with the grill of the Star of David, his uncle sold post cards.

He started helping her and set up the sales-center, which resembles a museum. It preserves the rich heritage and essence of a Jewish home, as it gives a rare insight into Jewish life, with Sara’s artifacts and a few black and white photographs of her family. Sitting at the window, as Sarah chants Hebrew prayers and keeps a watch on her kitchen, as her cook makes traditional Jewish dishes, which she had taught her, when she was in good health. Earlier, I had met Thoufeek Zakariya from Kochi, a chef by profession, who is also known for Hebrew calligraphy, which he learnt, as he often visited Sara Cohen, because, he lived in Jew Street at Fort Kochi, near the Pardesi Synagogue. Thoufeek had shown me the recipe of ‘pastel,’ shot on his cell-phone in Sara Cohen’s kitchen as he had grown up near her house. It is said; she also relished Kerala dishes, dhosa, idli, the Jewish chalalh bread and other dishes made by Cochin Jews.

Sara’s endeavour in the area of ceremonial Jewish embroidery began in 1984, when she started making kippas in satin and embroidering them, along with other textiles used for Jewish festivals. She also made runners for dining tables, handkerchiefs, asked some crafts-people to make coconut shell goblets, cups, hannukah candle stands, menorah-stands, mini-wood-toys of animals, as her multi-coloured kippas in shimmering satin or velvet, were displayed beautifully on a tree-shaped-stand. The kippas were known as “Souvenirs of the Past.” It was a favourite shopping destination for most tourists. She was inclusive of everybody she met; and this is seen in her embroidery of the map of India.   

Sara preferred hand embroidered textiles. I noticed her craftsperson Celine embroidering these textiles, as Sara sat nearby; looking out of the window. In this room, there was a bedstead with a portrait of Sara wearing her late husband’s bright pink kippa, along with a poster of Prophet Moses with the plaque of the Ten Commandements.

As I think of Sara, I feel, it is the end of an era, which was a part of the history of India.

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An open letter to Mahatma Gandhi – Esther David

Respected Gandhiji, I am writing this letter to you with great sorrow, as the other day, I was passing by Gandhi Bridge, where your statue has been standing since 1969. It was made by famed sculptor late Kanti Patel, who is known for his expertise at making your statues. His studio in Ahmedabad hidden in a chikoo-wadi with flocks of Peacocks, has innumerable plaster casts and moulds in all sizes. There is one particular sculpture was done; with a live sitting given by  Mahatma Gandhi to Kantibhai. 

And, as I said, when I was on Ashram road, I could not see your statue, immediately. Of course, I have been reading in the newspapers about the dilemma of the civic authorities, as they do not know which would be the perfect place to relocate you. Anyway, as my auto-rickshaw stopped to turn towards Gujarat Vidyapeeth, I saw your statue. I could see that the Ashram Road flyover was flying over you. Actually, very close to your head. Maybe, it could hurt you. Till the time, a decision is taken, as you stand there, your thoughts about peace, will be disturbed by the incessant rumble of vehicles. 

I started wondering; are people aware that this particular statue is yours? Or do they assume, you are one of those many unnamed national leaders, who have been standing there, for ages or do they know who you are – The Father of the nation or The Father of the freedom movement.

Today, we have so much freedom that we may have forgotten you and do not know what to do with you.

I am writing this, as I have doubts, if people recognize Indulal Yagnik’s statue, standing on a rock on the eastern side of Nehru Bridge is also sculpted by Kanti Patel.

Public art has always been a major issue in Ahmedabad. At, most crossroads of the city, we have either national leaders or sculptures, which are sponsored by well known companies or there are forms, like a kettle or a kumbh or a flame.  These are not works of great art; the sponsors grow a lot of green around the traffic circle, even if the sculpted-form are not visually appealing.

I feel, in the case of national leaders, some artists need to study anatomy, before making statues for public places. And, there should be a committee of aesthetic consultants, to decide about form, subject, size, material and colour. If not, these forms give a wrong message about art to the general public.

At the end, I feel, if this how, they are going to leave you or shift you to Vadaj crossroads or no-where, I have come to the conclusion that, we have forgotten you. With my heartfelt respects, yours truly…

(P.S. Maybe, you will be happier, if they give you a place, where you belong – Gandhi Ashram)