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Ahmedabad – A city with a rich cultural heritage – Esther David

Culture is Power.

It empowers cities and the people who live there.

In the fifties, Ahmedabad was known as a city of textile mills.

It also had a rich legacy of Gandhi Ashram, ancient Islamic Architecture, Temples, Step-Wells, Bird-Feeders known as ‘Chabutras,’ ‘Pols’ and ‘Havelis;’ made with intricate wood carvings.

It was then; that the world’s best known architects came to Ahmedabad on invitation and gave a new flavour to the city with their architectural marvels.

One of Le Corbusier’s first buildings was a cultural center known as Sanskar Kendra, where the people of Ahmedabad saw the famed photo-exhibition, ‘The Family of Man.’

Today, there are many more cultural centers, auditoriums and art galleries, which showcase visual arts, performing arts, music concerts, dance festivals, theatre and various other activities, which are making the city into a cultural center of Gujarat.

Ahmedabad is a magical city.

It has Shaking Minarets, a Walking Mosque; ‘Chate-Pir-ki- Dargah,’ the niche of a Laughing Lady; who made weepy children smile ‘Hasti Bibi no Gokhlo.’  

It is a city without walls, but is still known as the Walled City. Here, there are bazaars with jingling bangles, the smell of new brooms, raw mangos, fresh vegetables, green mint, pink candy floss, the forbidden cart with the coloured bottles of sherbet and pickles, which lend certain richness to our life. This feeling still holds true in some parts of the old city. Maybe, it is quickly changing its character and identity, yet, it has retained its 604 year old heritage and efforts are being made to declare it as a UNESCO, World Heritage City.

Each and every part of the old city has a story or fable attached to it. The streets and Pols of the old city are known in context to these and most areas of the walled city are marked with an image, which become symbolic of these spaces, where it is not unusual to see people sitting around a tree and retelling stories of the ‘…good old days…’

A well known story is about Manecknath; a sage who wove mats and had a dispute with Sultan Ahmedshah, who was building a fortress around the city. Much to the Sultan’s bewilderment, the walls, which were built during the day, turned to rubble at night.

The Sultan was mystified by the occurrence, till he discovered that, when Manecknath removed the threads from his mat, the fortress fell.

Later the dispute was resolved and the badshah built the fortress. This is how Maneck Chowk, the open bazaar in the old city gets its name, as it is the venue of Manecknath’s memorial.

Manek Chowk also houses the main vegetable market, which has as much inside, as outside; on the pavements. Here, during summer, mango, the king of fruit, reigns supreme, with as many poetic names as possible from hafooz, kesar, badam, gulab, totapuri, neelam to sundari with mounds of raw green mangoes rajapuri, vanraj, desi, sold along with green figs.

They have everything from chikoo, corn, papaya, gooseberries, guava, apples, plums, berries, bananas, water melon, pineapple and sweet-lime.

Ahmedabad also owes its existence to the Sufi Saint Sheikh Ahmed Khattu.

The city was conceived in the Saint’s magical mind.

Sultan Ahmedshah was his follower and seeked his advice for the foundation of the city. Khattu told him to find four religious men to lay the foundation stone of the city.

Another well known story is that, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi lives in Ahmedabad.

According to folklore, late one night, when the Goddess stood at the main entrance to the city at Teen Darwaza; she knocked on the massive gates. The guard opened the gate against rules, as in those days; all gates of the walled city were opened at seven in the morning and closed at seven in the evening to the beat of drums.

The guard refused entry to the Goddess and asked her to wait. He left her standing there, as he went to take permission from the Sultan.

When the Sultan heard about the guard’s folly of stopping the Goddess from entering the city, he beheaded the guard. Actually, there are many versions to this story.

Later, the emperor rushed to welcome the Goddess; but she had disappeared into the city.

Since then, it is believed that Goddess Laxmi resides in the walled city and brings prosperity to the people of Ahmedabad.

An eternal lamp is kept burning in an alcove of the central arch of Teen Darwaza; in memory of Goddess Laxmi’s presence in Ahmedabad.

These stories are the soul of the city.

Ahmedabad is also known as a city of dust – ‘Gardabad.’

It is a city of contrasts, where there is Moghul architecture and the best of modern architecture, from Sultan Ahmed Shah to Le Corbusier to Louise Kahn. 

Newcomers often dislike the city for more reasons than one, but, if you meet them in a couple of years, you will learn that they have settled down in Ahmedabad. 

The city has a tendency to grow on newcomers to the city, creeping into their sensibilities, as slowly; they start admiring its pace and history

Ahmedabad is now a highly developed city, but look closely and you will see that it still retains the quality of an overgrown village. Between the malls and high rise apartments, you will see glimpses of various communities in  traditional dresses, along with their cattle and other animals. For a change, one can also see them on motorbikes wearing jeans instead of ‘dhotis,’ sport shoes with a tell-tale turban and ear-studs. Our traffic moves along with camels, cows, dogs and elephants, as kites and vultures patrol the skies. Lines of langurs sit on walls, as bee-eaters, sunbirds, peafowl and a variety of smaller birds can be spotted in the green patches of the city, which also attracts a variety of migratory water- birds during winter, like Rosy Pastors, Flamingos and Pelicans. It is also during winter that the city creates quiet another atmosphere during ‘Uttrayan,’ the festival of Kite-Flying. Earth and sky, fill with kites and the air resound with cries of ‘Kaipo-Che,’ in true Ahmedabadi spirit. The village-feeling is further accentuated when you see vendors selling earthenware at almost all street corners. Like our haute couture and nouveau cuisine, these co-exist with the biggest boutiques of the city.

Yet, between shopping complexes and towering housing societies with their aquarium apartments, you could be surprised to see an ancient ‘Chabutro,’ as it rises majestically between hoardings and buildings.

This is Ahmedabad, which has a combination of Islamic architecture, modern buildings and old ‘Havelis’. The newly landscaped Sarkhej Roza from1458 A.D., a Spanish hacienda type bungalow, a house with glass walls, the parrots and peacocks in the brass chain of a swing, Kankaria lake, Naginawadi; the summer palace of Sultan Qutbuddin, the zoo, the glass façade of a commercial complex; shining in the neon lights, a tiled roof of an old house, the last chimney of a long forgotten textile mill, the fragrance of Arabia wafting from ‘Bhatiyar Gully’- a street of master chefs known for Moglai cuisine, the folk paintings on the  huts of migrant labourers, the sand-stone surfaces of mosques, the fragrance of sandal wood emitting from the cool interior of temples with marble floorings and the kaleidoscopic colours of textiles in Ratan Pol, as shop keepers call out in Gujarati, “you do not have to pay to see…;” which is in contrast to the policed-off-the-rack-shopping in malls.

Ahmedabad is an ancient city with a rich heritage. Yet, it still retains its living culture through its architecture, performing arts, visual arts, textiles, food, folk arts and life styles. It is a vibrant colourful city, which is a mixture of old Moghul monuments and modern architecture. Although, it is an industrial city, it has still retained a certain old-world character. Ahmedabad is also known for its tea-stalls, which can be seen all over the city.  Most people enjoy sharing a cup of tea with friends, known as ‘cutting chai.’

Food, also forms an integral part of Ahmedabadi life. The Gujarati thali is well known, as it is based on the Indian aesthetics of ‘Navras,’ the nine flavours and colours of life. Similarly, during Navratri, the nine nights of dancing, the city becomes truly Gujarati, when Ahmedabadis perform raas-garba dances in their sparkling Navratri dresses and jewelery.

Even as Western Ahmedabad is fast becoming a city of malls and high-rise housing complexes, the old city continues to preserve some rites and rituals, like the playing of drums at Sultan Ahmed Shah’s mosque, reminding us, that once upon a time, the Walled City was a Fort, which protected us and was linked to the ‘Darwazas’ or gates.

But today, the walls have disappeared, the gates stand alone and the city has grown with many arteries, which cut across the river and beyond.

It is said, in ancient times, Saint Dadhichi had hidden in his spine, the weapons of the Gods and lived here; in this; our city, in an Ashram, where the lion and the lamb lay down together at his feet. This is also the land of Mahatma Gandhi and one can feel peaceful, while sitting on the ghats there, on the banks of River Sabarmati.

Since 1451, Ahmedabad already had a rich heritage of the arts, known as the Western Indian style of painting on palm-leaf in bright colours.

One of the early works on the city was by the Dutch painter Philip Baldeus, who made a print in 1672, titled ‘The City of Ahmedabath.’ Later, in 1850 Captain Biggs of the East India Company documented the architectural monuments of Ahmedabad.

By then, painter Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) had already entered the hearts and homes of the people of Ahmedabad with his prints of Indian gods and other mythological characters. He paintedIndian subjects with Western techniques and inspired many artists, when he came to Ahmedabad for a brief period.

The turning point came in 1878; when Nobel Laureate; poet Rabindranath Tagore came to Ahmedabad to stay with his elder brother, thereafter, he often visited the city.

With this, as a background, art activities gained momentum through the efforts of painter Ravishanker Raval (1892-1977). As a young boy, growing up in Bhavnagar, he was so desperate to paint that he made a brush with the hair of his top-knot. When, he came to Ahmedabad and started an art school.

It is a fairly unknown fact that Mahatma Gandhi also played a pivotal role in the creation of a cultural ethos in Ahmedabad. When he organized the Haripura Congress; he asked famed painter Nandlal Bose of Rabindranath Tagore’s art school, Santiniketan and Ravishanker Raval to paint together. Itwas the beginning of a new era of the arts. 

Later, when young aspiring painter Chaganlal Jadav befriended N.S.Bendre who headed the painting department of Vadodara’s Faculty of Fine Arts, he was exposed to various art forms and painted in the French impressionistic stye. His work impressed the young Ahmedabad based mill-owner Amit Ambalal, who started painting under Jadav’s guidance. Later, he was to leave his family business and take to painting, creating his own language in terms of form, theme and humour.

While, Haku Shah created quiet another genre of painting, by merging tribal forms with modern idioms.

During this period, Piraji Sagara was also experimenting with mix media techniques using old wood carvings and merging them with human figures.

Soon, younger artists were experimenting with mix media techniques and abstractions, giving another dimension to the arts.

Today, the art scene has a global appeal, with more and more artists turning towards Installation art and other multi-media techniques.

So, while exploring the cultural background of the city, we understand that all arts have existed together in Ahmedabad.

 

In this context, it is important to understand that Indian mythology gives great importance to the five elements of the universe; that is earth, sky, air, water and fire. So, any object made with clay, immediately conjures images of these elements. Clay is the symbol of our earth-and-craft-based-culture and our inheritance of clay objects, which have come down to us from the Indus Valley Civilization, the remains of which can be seen at Lothal in Gujarat, which have similiarities to many clay or terracotta forms made by certain communities of Gujarat.

In fact, in earlier times, our homes were also built; in tune with the natural rhythms of the sun, moon, wind and rain.

Yet, since the last many years, clay plays a minimal role in our lives. This has resulted in the slow disappearance of potters’ from the ‘gaams’ and ‘puras’ – the village-like settlements situated in and around Ahmedabad. Maybe, because of the arrival of filtered water plants, which have taken over the water-pot or ‘matka’-culture from the city. Since, the last few years, most potters have left for their villages or have stopped working, so, most consignments of terracotta objects come to the city through middle-men.

For the aesthetically inclined, it was a fascinating sight to see our potters’ working on their wheels. They made pots, while sitting on the floor, making bowl after bowl from one single ball of clay. Their hands were sensitive to clay, which was kneaded, thrown on the wheel, centered, raised, given a form, dried; eventually fired in a pit, removed, cleaned, as the women appllied a red-ochre-slip and dried them in the sun. Later, the potter would knock the surface of each pot with his knuckles; to hear the perfectly-fired-sound-of-the-pot. This entire process had a magical quality.

Nevertheless, clay has re-appeared in our lives, as it is often used by designers. In a similar manner, ‘Warli Art,’ ‘Pithora Painting, ‘Kutch-Clay-Relief-Work’ are extensively used in interiors with expertise taken from crafts-people. Besides clay, wood carvers, stone carvers, bamboo artists, textile artists and others who work with their hands; understand their material and form a link between all arts.

Today, Ahmedabad is known to be a city with a living culture, which has a history of more than six hundred years, where all arts have existed together, making Ahmedabad into a city with a rich cultural heritage.

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Cathedral Notre Dame of Paris – Before and After – by Esther David

I read about the fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a feeling of personal loss. Long back, in the early nineties, I had seen it for the first time, almost every day, as the bus I took, went past a bridge on the River Seine. I always chose a seat from where I could see the Notre Dame. Its architecture is such that, it appears to stand on a triangular island, with its spire, the flying buttresses and the stained glass windows. From a distance, it feels familiar, like the images described in the English translations of the novel by Alexander Dumas – ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ In my teens, the film based on the book scared me; with its images of Chimeras, Strix and Gargoyles looking down from the parapets, corridors and water-sprouts; sculpted on the upper sections of the cathedral, seemed to come alive.

So, when I saw the fires of Notre Dame, reducing it to mere armature, I was aghast, thinking of the transient nature of life. It takes years to build a cathedral like Notre Dame and a just a few hours to reduce it to dust.

 

A large plaza faces the cathedral, as devotees enter, holding candles with piety; amidst the crowds of tourists.

When, I entered the arched doorway, which has relief sculptures of “The Last Judgment,” along with the story of the Genesis, with tall elongated figures of the apostles, fully draped, over-looking the river and in complete harmony with the cathedral. These figures are sculpted taller than the normal length of a human body, as according to sculptural techniques, human figures appear to have a normal size, when seen from a distance. To add, the cathedral has very few nude figures, except for Adam and Eve, which are covered with creepers, like Adam has a fig-leaf and Eve is draped in her own long hair.

 

Having seen the Notre Dame, at day or night; was an over-powering experience with its impressive architecture. It looked different from the outside; while inside the cathedral, there was a different atmosphere, which was charged with beauty and spirituality.

 

It was fascinating that the outside did not give away; the inner beauty, which was in total contrast to the façade and other sides, with their flying buttresses and ribbed vaults, which gave height to the cathedral. This was to become the signature style of Gothic architecture, along with; its elongated sculptures and stained glass windows. All these elements along with the spire appeared to touch the sky and infinity.

Today, after the fire, it somehow; gives hope; that one day, Notre Dame will stand all over again.

At Notre Dame, both worshippers and tourists enter another world as they feel enveloped in an ethereal light. For those, who have experienced this light, it never leaves their aesthetic sensibilities, as light fills the entire space of the cathedral.

And, about light…I saw the Notre Dame in the early nineties. Till then, I had been teaching History of Art at design schools of Ahmedabad; India, and often showed slides of stained glass windows of Notre Dame. But, while teaching art in India, the stained glass windows looked like bright circles of colour in slides and art-films.

Everything changed, when I entered the Notre Dame de Paris, I was engulfed in its spiritual glow.

Rose windows are very much part of Christian art, which started as a small rose, which first appeared in Romanesque art, embedded with  coloured glass and then became an enormous rose, which filled the walls of Gothic cathedrals with colour and light. Stained glass is a typical artistic genre of Gothic cathedrals of France and other European countries, as coloured glass pieces are held in place with metal armatures. The colour, compositions and figures are decided in advance, through a series of working drawings and sketches, which I had seen in a workshop near the cathedral of Chartres, near Paris.

After which, they are affixed on the inner walls of the cathedral and since these survived the fire, they are sturdy and will survive – Time.

The rose petals have innumerable figurative narratives, like the apostles and the center, almost always depicts an important incident from the life of Jesus Christ, like the nativity, relevant happenings and miracles.

The central rectangular space, facing the altar is made in painted wood in muted colours, embellished with gold, which resemble Russian Iconic art, as it unfolds the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Near the altar, there is a sculpture of Mother Mary wearing a crown of jewels. And, at the altar, there is a Cross is set against the background of a rose window and another magnificent sculpture by Nicholas Coustou. It shows Mother Mary looking down upon Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns and has just been brought down from the cross and placed on her lap, as great sorrow is writ large upon her delicate features. This marble sculpture has a certain resemblance to Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta,’ as it looks more delicate and fragile.

The anterooms of the cathedral have exhibition areas, where one can see the magnificent robes worn by priests, bishops, kings, displayed along with glass cases of gems, jeweled crowns, the crown of thorns and the Bible in various sizes from small to big, embellished with jewels and intricate artistic calligraphy. These illuminated Manuscripts of the Bible were decorated by the greatest artisans of the 12th Century; when Notre Dame was constructed. On the sides there are elevators, which take visitors to the top parapets to have a grand-stand view of the city of Paris.

The light within the Notre Dame had fascinated me; with its unforgettable aura, Besides, that, the inner spaces of the cathedral are enveloped in a meditative silence, which were sometimes broken; when the bells toll or you hear the midnight mass at the end of the year.

Otherwise, worshippers are seen in the inner sanctum-sanctorum, whispering prayes, lighting tall candles, as slowly the clouds disperse and a ray of sunlight changes direction. A thousand candles glow inside the cathedral, as the ray of light enters from one of the petals of the rose-shaped stained glass windows and the sun, softly enters the cathedral of Notre Dame, flooding it with light, that there are no words to describe its beauty, as it transformed it; with a heavenly divine glow.

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Imphal -2 : Mother Market

It was in Imphal, Manipur that I discovered Mother-Market or Ema-Market, which is run by women. There are two main markets opposite each other in huge sprawling buildings, which also have places of worship, like a clay-plastered temples of Radha-Krishna and some other gods of the Hindu pantheon. Here, the women-vendors sit in rows with their ware, like food, bamboo and textiles. Everywhere, there were flower sellers, selling mounds of exotic flowers of all colours; along with orchids and purple lotus flowers. While banana-leaves cut into squares or rectangles, were placed next to all types of fruit, vegetables, mostly leafy or with roots, along with eggs, next to a fish market.

Hindu traders were seen with caste-marks, like thin lines in black or vermillion colours, which were painted from the tip of their nose to their forehead. Most women were dressed in their traditional dresses of the sarong-like mekhla worn with a blouse and a shawl or in saris, often with embroidered borders, similar to those worn by Manipuri dancers. They also keep cash or valuables in small embroidered hand bags shaped like a Manipuri dancers dome shaped skirt. They were also seen in transparent pastel coloured saris, embellished with subtle woven flowers, typical of Manipur. The men were dressed in trousers, shirts or dhotis worn with kurtas, while most men were seen in trousers, jeans, T-shirts, sports caps and wearing sport-shoes. Some women were also seen in jeans, kurtis and scarves and riding scooters, complete with helmet. The textile market, also run by women, was very popular; with its variety of colourful fabrics.

Besides cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws are also used as a popular form of transport in Imphal.

The food markets of Ema-Market are very popular, arranged with benches, where; both men and women were seen eating food in steel plates or banana leaves. The food was cooked right there; in vessels simmering over coal stoves, as their plates were filled with rice, dal or fish-curry with pakode or fritters, fermented fish, dried strips of meat, cooked soya-soup served in paper-cups, along with black-rice kheer. While packaged food like shrimp-paste and pickled apple jam were also available in the market.

Some stalls had fabric dolls dressed in the Manipuri dance attire with male drum-players dressed in dhotis and turbans. Some corners of the bazaar were stacked with bamboo artifacts, knives, spears. Then, there were ritualistic objects made with puffed rice cooked in jaggery; shaped like pyramids or roasted rice flour; ground with sugar, shaped like boxes or made into laddoos.

Most Manipuris love paan, which are available everywhere, so paan, beetle-leaf and chopped beetle nut are supposed to be the perfect ending to all meals. These markets were efficiently run and a perfect example of Women-Power.

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Imphal -1 : The Floating Island

Some invitations come unannounced. And, this was one such reason to take-off to Manipur. This years, my trips to Assam and Mizoram, made me aware about North-East India. I was to participate in an event in Imphal, Manipur. It was a short trip; but exhilarating. Before, the aircraft landed on Imphal’s table-top runway, I saw that the airport was small, homely and had a Pagoda-style roof. Before, we touched the runway; I had a grand-stand view of Loktak Lake. This sweet water lake is also used as a source of potable water, irrigation and livelihood for fishermen and their families living in the surrounding areas, in huts, shacks or homes built on the lake’s floating islands, where rain-water harvesting is also done. It is an amazing expanse of water, divided into artificially created circles, squares and rectangles for fish-farming, which is done by co-operatives. These islands are created by soil, organic matter, overgrown mass of vegetation, wild rice, floating plants, which almost reach the base of the lake. Innumerable islands are spread over Loktak Wetlands, as they remain stationary or float over the water. These islands are homes to families, who live on the islands in shacks or stilt-huts. They make a living by rowing canoes in the lake, catching fish or fermenting fish on home-made coal or wood-fire stoves and sell, both fresh and fermented fish to vendors of Imphal, while keeping some for their own kitchen, as their homes rock, lightly on the lake. Fishermen row their canoes over the lake; to reach the banks of the river, if they have errands in neighbouring villages or Imphal. Loktak lake has floating villages, with fishing nets and canoes tied to the hut, along with defined circles for fishing. In fact, they appear to be sailing like magical islands on the lake, which also has the only floating wild life sanctuary of the world, known as Keibul Lamjo National Park. As the vegetation in Loktak lake is dense and holds everything together, the park looks like a dense forest, which rests on the lake and is home to the endangered Eld’s or Brow-Antelered-Deer or Sangai Deer, which is also known as the Dancing Deer and is a protected species in Manipur.  A motif of the Sangai Deer also appears on Manipuri shawls. This deer is a little smaller than the Sambar, as the male has a brown coat, while the doe is smaller. Herds of Sangai Deer live on Loktak Lake along with Sambar, Barking Deer, Wild Boar, Gibbons, Macaque, Civets, Marbled Cats, reptiles like Pythons, water birds, migratory birds; like ducks, Teals, Cranes, Ibis and Geese. While some birds fly over the lake or up above in the sky, often swooping down to capture a fish from the lake and take wing.

The entire panorama of Loktak lake looks like a magical world. One often assumes the floating world is up and above in the skies, somewhere above the clouds, here. Hut, here it sales on the surface of Loktak lake. Everything moves here, as the wild life sanctuary appears to be anchored almost at the base of the lake, which is not so, and lends a fascinating dream-like quality. It is an Utopian world, where nothing needs to be anchored, yet lives and survives during various seasons; the various seasons, like a beautiful mobile landscape, which appears to be rooted, but is not, yet it roots the people, animals and birds living on the lake…forever moving, floating; as the waves carry them forward; into a dream world…which has all the elements of a fairytale….

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Stories of Love and Loss in a Transit Flat

When Juliet Abraham, who is Jewish, has a runaway marriage with Rahul Abhiram, a Hindu, their families are initially furious but soon relent. They buy the couple an apartment in Shalom India Housing Society, Ahmedabad. However, once the couple leaves for Israel, they rent out the apartment to a series of tenants from the Bene Israel community, for each of whom it becomes the venue of an unfolding love story.

Myra comes to India from America to teach the Torah to Indian Jews. Wooed assiduously by Ezra, she instead escapes into a new life with a Hindu guru. Ruby rekindles an old flame, only to find out too late that men betray. Ilana, a strict and uptight police officer, is forced to meet potential grooms by her parents and realizes that it’s good to let loose sometimes. And Bollywood-crazy Sangita has many adventures in India as she tries to trace her grandmother’s grave. The mischievous Prophet Elijah, benevolently presiding over the small community, occasionally creates havoc but finally makes sure that peace prevails.

Bombay Brides is about home, heritage, rites, rituals and roots. It offers the delights of SahityaAkademi Award-winner Esther David’s exquisite light observations on what it means to be the last surviving members of a diminishing community, accompanied by her marvellous, evocative illustrations.

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In search of a homeland – by Esther David

March 24th 2018

Jewish New Year – this year is 5778

In a few days, Jews all over the world will be celebrating the festival of Passover – literally meaning Pass-over from the Red Sea, when the Jewish patriarch Moses led the Jews to freedom from slavery when they were in Egypt, as graphically seen in the film The Ten Commandemnets and other films. After that, Moses received the Ten Commandements, which is celebrated with the festival known as Shavouth. But, after a series of events, God banished them to the deserts in the Middle East, where they were in search of their Homeland, which they eventually found in a land, close to today’s Israel.

This is how, the concept of the wandering Jew is connected to Jews and was like a thin streak within me. It was a feeling I never understood for a long time, till I was almost in my mid-forties and became conscious of my Jewish traditions.

During, my first avatar as an artist, art critic, I was already writing as a columnist, first about art, then the old city of Ahmedabad, because, I grew up there and am attached to it.

I am a Bene Israel Jew. There are five Jewish communities in India. As, most communities have immigrated to Israel, the largest group is the Bene Israel Jews, who live in western India, Mumbai, Alibaug, Ahmedabad and Pune. Cochin Jews came from Spain and  live in Kochi and Kerala, Baghdadi Jews came from Iraq and live Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews are from Andhra Pradesh, Bene Menashe Jews belong to Mizoram. There is also a small Synagogue in Delhi, for a few Indian Jews and Jews from other countries who work in the embassies.

Bene Israel Jews are known to have come to India, some two thousand years back, as they were fleeing from Greek persecution and after a shipwreck, landed on the coastal region of Alibaug in India, where they worked as farmers and oil pressers and also added the name of the village they belonged to, so that their names had an Indian ring, like those from Navgao had a name like Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin Navgaokar.

Being a columnist for a long time, helped me develop my skills at writing and led me towards my first novel THE WALLED CITY. It was an abstract search about being a Jew, with a name like Esther, which is often pronounced in different ways. I titled it as the walled city, as that is a place I know best.

Another similarity is that, when we came to India, so many years back, after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple. I have read, it was like a walled city.

Jews still worship at the last wall there, known as the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall. Jews from all over the world pray at this wall. Between the rocks of this wall, Jews insert slips of paper or letters to the Lord asking him to fulfill secret wishes.

Later, I wrote BY THE SABARMATI, a collection of short stories, which were based around the lives of women, while working on the theme of Intuitive art or Outsider Art with uneducated artists living in underprivileged areas.

The city is almost like my grandmother, I lost long back. She taught me many lessons about life and heritage, not only about cities, city stories, family stories, but also food, she forced us to help her, when she made various foods for Jewish festivals. When my grandmother died, our joint family in the old city disintegrated and was divided into nuclear homes. Our family was no longer religious, but once in a while, we all did go to the Synagogue, that is when I was at a loss, as I could not understand the prayers which were in Hebrew. Actually, they were beautifully sung and somewhere stayed within me. But, I still have difficulties in following Hebrew prayers. I prefer my English prayers books.

During various periods of my life, I often attended prayers at the Synagogue, but when I started writing BOOK OF ESTHER, I often went there to research and study, tradtions and rituals from Joseph Pingle, whom I call Johny bhai and understood the Kosher dietary law from his wife Julie. With her, we set up a stall of Jewish food at IIM’s Satvik food fair for three years and it was a success.

We do not have a Rabbi, but we have a cantor, known as a Hazzan, as any elder in our community, who has had a Bar-Mitzvah, can lead the prayers.

Book of Esther is about five generations of a Jewish family living in India. To research for this novel, I went to Alibaug, my native place to understand the landscape and meet some Jewish families, who still live there. As, soon as I landed there, I felt at home. I have the same feeling, when I am in the walled city of Ahmedabad. This was the beginning of trying to understand the concept of Homeland, as since a young age, grandmother, would hold us in her arms and whisper in our ears,

“Next year in Jerualem.”

Later, even, if we were not religious, there was a certain pressure, that we live Jewish lives and leave for Israel.

I never understood, How? It unsettled me.

Even today, Indian Jews always say, India is their Motherland and Israel is their Fatherland or Homeland. In this context, the Mother-Tongue of Bene Israel Jews is Marathi and in Israel they have a newsletter in Marathi known as Mai-Boli.

Today, there are 145 Jews in Ahmedabad. Maybe 2000 in Maharashtra. So, there are 4000 Jews in India and 80, 000 Indian Jews in Israel. Indian born Israeli Jews know Hebrew, but older people have difficulty with the language.

Yet, Bollywood is a bonding factor amongst all Indian Jews and also Indophhile Israelis and have a large scale Bollywood festival known as Hodu-Yada, as according to the Bible, India was known as Hodu and shows both countries had connections since ancient times.

Long back, when I showed the manuscript of The Walled City to the poet Nissim Ezekiel, he explained to me, that as Jews living in India, we do go through moments of a certain cross-culture conflict. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Yes, I am very Indian, and very Gujarati, yet there are moments, when I am invited to various religious events held by different Indian communities and am not always comfortable. But, then, it is the same, when I am amongst Jews at the Synagogues in India and abroad. The reason being, that these Temples, as Jews also refer to their Synagogues as Temples are orthodox, while in some western countries, there are liberal Synagogues, where I am comfortable.  Yet, in India and elsewhere I discovered that Jews have a right to question about some laws or traditions and that we are a Matriachal society, where the women have a certain power about making decisions, are respected and important in preserving Jewish rituals in family and community.

 

My journey as an author began with The Walled City, when it was launched, it reached out to readers in India, abroad and the Jewish Diaspora. Then, the French translation was launched in Paris and when people came to see and meet an Indian Jew, I became known as an Indian-Jewish-Author. I suddenly felt comfortable and in a way, ‘At Home.’

With this novel, the concept of homeland was getting clear.

By then, I was educating myself and studying the Jewish way of life, rituals, traditions, artefacts and food. I also realized that, I belong to a community, which is on the verge of extinction. So, I became part of a team when a small section of Jewish objects were to be displayed at Sanskar Kendra’s City Museum and also made sure that the Synagogue was listed as a heritage monument in Ahmedabad. Then, I was also part of a citizen’s initiative with the FRIENDS OF ISRAEL and Times of India, so that we could save an old Jewish cemetery in Vadodara’s Nizampura area; from real estate agents who wanted to make a mall there. But, we were not successful in saving the Surat cemetery. These are some of the ways, I participate in the community, as form of a “Mitzvah,’ which is the Hebrew word foor doing a good turn and am always present for any other difficulties, which the Jewish community maybe facing.

 

With the launch of BOOK OF ESTHER, I received emails and letters from a Pakistani journalist about a certain Aunty Rachel, who lived in Karachi and protected the cemetery there, as the Synagogue had been destroyed.

She was a Bene Israel Jew, a school teacher and spoke fluent English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. When, she was very old, with help from the American embassy, she was flown to Israel, where she died and the cemetery in Pakistan was taken over by others. With the Vadodara story, Aunt Rachel and some unused Synagogues I had seen in Alibaug, these became the seed of my novel BOOK OF RACHEL. In Alibaug, I had been invited to many Jewish homes, where I discovered food, which was similar to the food my grandmother used to make. Somehow, these fragrances came back to me; and I included them in BOOK OF RACHEL, starting each chapter with an old Jewish recipe, which we rarely make today. This is how Rachel became a realty for me, as she preserves the heritage of Synagogues and food.

In continuation, another publisher suggested, I write Jewish short stories, I agreed, but, while working on this collection, I set the characters in a housing society, confronting the various social problems and cross cultural conflicts faced by a mini-micrcroscopic community living in India, surrounded by so many attractions and yet trying to preserve the Jewish heritage. This is how SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY was created, where the protagonist is Prophet Elijah, whom I discovered in Alibaug.

Bene Israel Jews believe in the Prophet and it is said, on his way to heaven, Prophet Elijah passed through India, Alibaug on the Konkan coast and left a mark of the hoof marks of his horses and chariot wheels on a rock. So, Bene Israel Jews start all events as a thanksgiving to the Prophet and ask him to fulfill secret wishes and once these are realized, that particular person or family, holds a Malida ceremony and feeds the entire community. So, in my novel SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY, the Prophet visits Jewish homes, during the festival of Passover, all over the world. During a certain prayer, a chair is kept aside for him, and he is offered a goblet of wine. I loved this concept and belief and enjoyed writing about it. In Gujarat, he is offered black currant sherbet, as Gujarat is a Dry-State.    

Indian Jewish life has many Indian influences, like the offering of a Malida is made with flaked rice or poha mixed with sugar and grated coconut, dates, petals of red roses, apples and bananas. A Mehendi or Henna ceremony is also held and garbas have been recently included, but during a wedding bride and groom wear western clothes.

A word about the Jewish dietary law or Kosher – the Law says, “Thou shalt not cook the lamb in its mothers milk.” And, so in the absence of Kosher meat, which is available only during festivals, Jews prefer to remain vegetarians almost the whole year around. The same with wine, in the absence of kosher wine, we make a sherbet with black currants, which looks similar to wine.

And, to keep the law, Indian Jews use coconut milk instead of dairy, so there is a Maharstrian and Konkani influence in our food habits. We also love Gujarati snacks.  

We have a lunar calendar, so our festivals arrive during Indian festivals, like Purim is on Holi and our New Year Rosh Ha Shana is celebrated during Navratri.

After writing Shalom India Housing Society, I could work on the documentation of the Jews of Gujarat and now I am studying Jewish cuisine. And, as I have a collection of old photographs of my family, I also studied these photographs, interviewed Jewish women of Gujarat and Mumbai and wrote a chapter, SARI-SUTRA for a friend’s book on Indian Jews.

This is how my journey continues, but, before I end, I would like to say the old city of Ahmedabad is equally important to me. I use Ahmedabad as a stage on which, I set almost all my novels. Eventually, I wrote AHMEDABAD:A CITY WITH A PAST.

If you saw me in the street, you would not believe that I am a Jew, but once at the Synaagogue, we cover our head, men wear prayer shawls, with skull-caps or kippas and we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…

This is how created my Homeland, as now, I just have to open my books and I know, I have reached my homeland….

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Creativity is a room with many doors – Esther David

For years, words, forms and images have been my saviours, leading me towards creation.

This is my world.

A world where I exist.

A world, which has no definite boundaries.

But, much before that, I had already created my own literary world.

In the library of our ancestral house in the walled city, the only child of working parents, the library was my keeper. Here, I had three story tellers feeding my imagination – the library where I read all that I was not allowed to read and which I did not understand. The library gave me a heritage. My grandmother gave me family stories, as I lay in her lap and Mani the cook regaled me with folk tales wrapped in her sari which was full of flavours of garlic, curries and a fertile imagination.

In my first novel The Walled City, she appeared in this form – “Mani surprises everybody by having a bath under the garden tap, an old sari wrapped around her thin frame. She lets me watch while she puts on a freshly washed sari and also permits me to look into her tin box. It has broken mirror, two saris, a torn petticoat, a multi-coloured poster of kaaba, and a small wooden perfume box lined with velvet, holding a little cut glass bottle of jasmine attar, the only remaining keepsake to remind her of her family. She opens it allows me to float in the fragrance for a moment, and then closes it again. There is no reason to wear perfume.”

But, before that, as a sculptor, I discovered that the sculptural material has its own limitations. It allows you to play with it, up to a point. After that the physical aspect of the material somehow controls you. I was always restless with the size, format, and felt a certain resistance from the material.

I felt the physical material was always dominating me, almost telling me what to do. The only aspects of art, where I was comfortable and at ease, were art history, art appreciation, sketching and drawing.

But, sculpture was my profession and I had to make a living out of it. After working in almost all sculptural material like clay, plaster, stone, metal and wood. I preferred wood as it seemed to listen to me, sometimes. After all, a block of wood had gone through various phases of growth, from seed, plant, tree – nurtured in the dust of the soil of the earth, where dust turns into dust.

As I later wrote in my first novel THE WALLED CITY – “Mysterious dwelling places of my ancestors. I am just a seed of the buried tree.”

Whenever I worked on a form, my sketch books were full of words and sketches. Sometimes the words and forms were connected.

I also realized that as a sculptor, I was feeling imprisoned in the block of wood. Only words seemed to liberate me.

I was not at peace with myself.

The medium of sculpture as my creative language was becoming a burden.

I did not want to be the chisel welding super woman.

I just wanted to be who I was. I wanted to go further, perhaps with words, with a voice of my own.

I wanted to be in control of my creativity.

How and where I was to accomplish this desire, I did not know.

I was feeling imprisoned in the blocks of wood stacked in my back yard. I was feeling suffocated. I wanted to break free and create for myself an endless landscape, where I could work freely with words, forms, images.

At the same time, I believe that today all those different fragments of painting, sculpture and writing have merged together into my books. Much of my academic training as an artist has helped in creating images while I write and my writing helps while I draw. Words become lines and lines become words

While reading R.K.Narayan, I was enchanted by Malgudi and decided to use the old city of Ahmedabad; like a stage, on which I set most of my novels. In my columns, Ahmedabad emerged in many ways and it was with great pleasure that read it was declared a World Heritage City. It is almost 607 years and has a living heritage in its various nooks and corners.

At that point, I had already written THE WALLED CITY and was in Mumbai, so I went to meet the famed poet Nissim Ezekiel, who also happens to be a Bene Israel Jew and we were related from my maternal side.

Not only a poet, he was an art critic and was my role model, where it came to his poetry and truthful criticism, when he reviewed art exhibitions and his opinions mattered to both artists and readers. I like the last part of his Latter-Day Psalms, “All that fuss about faith, all those decisions to praise God, the repeated appeals, denunciations, laments and hopes, the division of men into virtuous and wicked! How boring and pathetic, but also how elemental, how spiritual the language, how fiery and human in the folly of its feelings! The images are beautiful birds and colourful fish: they fly, they swim in my Jewish consciousness. God is a presence here and the people are real. I see their sins. I hear His anger. Now I am through with the Psalms; they are part of my flesh.” Besides Nissim Ezekiel, there were few Indian Jewish authors.

Earlier, he used to encourage me; both as an artist and an art critic. Hesitantly, I gave him, the manuscript of THE WALLED CITY and asked for his opinion. Few months later, I received a postcard from him, saying,”…your writing is a formidable work of literary art.” Elated, I sent the manuscript to many publishers and when the book was published, I wanted Nissim Ezekiel to launch it, but unfortunately, he was unwell. I was distressed, but went through with the launch, on my own; in Ahmedabad. My narrative was simple and had abstract undertones of my conflicts. Suddenly, I was in the literary world.

Before I turned to words, in between I had turned towards art activism and worked in the area of art for development. Because, I had noticed that the sweeper’s son made dolls and masks from objects he picked from the garbage bin. That was the time, I started thinking about natural artists and started wondering and questioning whether it was possible to be creative without formal education? I came to the conclusion; that spontaneous images of untrained artists were exciting, original and intense. Perhaps this questioning had started, when as a child, I realized that Mani, who had looked after me, along with my grandmother was a natural story teller. Later, I was to meet many more such natural artists. Eventually when I took to writing, all these characters found a place in my novels and short stories, BY THE SABARMATI.

 

By then, I had decided to restrict myself only to literature. It gives me the space and freedom I have always been looking for.

Literature allows me to expand in all directions. It gives me a limitless space for creation. Writing allows me to journey across an entire landscape of experiences.

When I started writing my first novel THE WALLED CITY, it liberated me. Writing satisfies me. My expression comes through at its fullest through words which create forms and images.

It does not resist me. It allows me to flow and grow. It gives me a flexibility of expression.

In “The Walled City,” the walls were symbolic of city, community, family and even womanhood. I tend to set all my work around women and Ahmedabad. I use the city like a stage. This is the beginning of my first novel – “I was born in the walled city of the fourteen gates. Walls on which the black-faced langurs with their flag like tails sit like sentinels, daring me to break the line of their gray bodies – or- The house is like a Banyan tree. To reach it, one must turn to the right from Dilli darwaza-it is said, a Moghul emperor had returned to Delhi, royally piqued because the umbrella of his elephant had grazed the the arch over the gate – continue past the shops selling mattresses and then squeeze between the garage for the family victoria and the Syed family’s three-storied house, where there are more goats and chickens than people and where the air is always thick with the strange smell of goat droppings and jui flowers. Or Jerusalem with the golden stones. Eyes swimming like fishes in the turquoise Sea of Galilee…skins mingling, mixing, changing colour. Graves on the shores of Navgaon. Six couples crouching in the womb of the earth.”

Once the editing of a novel is completed, I remain involved with the cover and almost all the characters of my novels are often created in my sketch books. These later transform into illustrations for my novels.

Like the description of Sulemanbhai – “In the morning sun, Sulemanbhai’s hennaed hair with its yellow streaks matches the colour of the roses. Swept backwards without a parting, it contrasts with the white beard bristling under the paan-stained buck teeth. The effect is startling. His brown eyes shine like a hyena’s or this description – Aunty Jerusha stands in the doorway, wrapped in a blue silk kimono with a red dragon running across it. Her face is plastered with powder like a geisha’s and one of her moth eaten French scarves adorn her balding scalp. Though it is the height of summer, she is wearing her ancient fur tufted bedroom slippers with the made in England tags still hanging from the corners.”

With the launch of THE WALLED CITY and the response it received, I started working around the genre of Indo-Jewish literature.

Till then, I did not understand; what it meant to be a practicing Jew, as ours was a secular family. Whatever I had learnt; was from my grandmother, the rituals and traditions she followed; when we lived as a joint family or when she took us to the Synagogue.

Research about the intricacies of Jewish life, started with BOOK OF ESTHER.

Let me clarify, today, I have a better understanding of Jewish life, but I am not religious.

Much later, my passion for the old city of Ahmedabad, where I spent my childhood was published as AHMEDABAD:CITY WITH A PAST.

The Walled city, which has been translated into French, Gujarati and Marathi, brought in much of the imagery that I had earlier practiced as a visual artist and received critical acclaim. It was a story of three generations of Bene Israel Jewish women living in the city of Ahmedabad, India. The book was translated into French by Sonia Terangle titled LA VILLE EN SES MURS, and published by Editions Philippe Picquier, France. It was shortlisted for the Premier Liste de Prix Femina in France. In Gujarati, it was translated by Renuka Sheth and in Marathi; it was translated by late Gauri Deshpande and then Ambika Sarkar.

The Walled City was republished by Syracuse University Press; USA in 2002. Later, it was repbulished by Westland Books in 2009 and is now available as an EBook.  Irene Vilar-Cuperman, acquisitions editor, Syracuse University press, New York, wrote, “I am halfway through The Walled City and don’t have enough words to describe my enchantment with it! My admiration goes out to you. Your literary voice is endearing, truthful and powerful. I truly love The Walled City and will make sure that it is read and read and read.”

I would like to say a few words about Gauri Deshpande, I met her at a conference and she offered to translate THE WALLED CITY in Marathi. Late Gauri Deshpande was a well known writer and translator, known for her bold themes and innovative writing in Marathi. She had published poems, essays and short stories in English as well and known for her translation of the sixteen volumes of Sir. Richard Burton’s The Arabian nights is considered a landmark event in Marathi publishing history. She was also teaching post graduate courses in English Literature at the University of Poona.

I like her short stories, in ROSE JAM, she wrote, “I was not crazy about being put to work in my holidays, specially not on rose jam. One had to get up very early, while the dew was still on the flowers. The flowers had to belong to only one variety of rose, the very thorny indigenous, deep pink, heavily fragrant one with fleshy petals. My father, an enthusiastic gardener in his spare time, had planted a few of these rose bushes in our garden. So we would be hauled out of bed, made to wash and sent off with baskets to bring in the heavily scent laden roses, only the fully open ones, without spilling too much of the dew. Aai would then separate the petals and lay them in a thick layer at the bottom of a stout glass jar with a wide mouth. On top of this layer she would lay rock candy, roughly pounded and mixed with a bit of colloidal coral. Then she would cover this jar with another layer of rose petals, and another of sugar mixture, until the jar was full. Then she would put it on the roof where it would catch the fierce summer sun and slowly cook itself and settle into a sticky jam at the bottom of the jar. The next day she would send us off for more roses and begin another layer. This would go on until the jam had no further to settle and the jar was full…I am certain it is only on account of this wonderful remedy that I never had heat stroke, sunburn, headache or nosebleed throughout those out of doors summers.”

While in “By the Sabarmati,” I tried to give a voice to the women I had  known, as they lived in hutments in under-privileged areas of Ahmedabad, when Pushpa narrates  – “ I hated my veil, as I could never lift it and see things properly, and it always enveloped me in a haze. So, I entertained myself by using the colour of my sari as a transparent glass. When I looked through it, everything in my world was tinted with different colours. It was a game I played with myself. Sometimes green fields appeared orange, the moon looked purple and the sun could be either gray, brown or black. Even faces changed colour like a rainbow, The face that never changed colour was that of my mother, it was always there in a flood of white tears.”

These are three women I worked with in the beginning and their works were exhibited at Unesco, Paris to much acclaim. In France, I was invited by Unesco to show the work of Natural artists in an exhibition titled – IN THE STREET, JUST ACROSS MY HOUSE.

Pushpa started earning well by transferring her paintings into patch work, with this money she bought two sewing machines and has since returned to her village. Her forays in the art world have strengthened her, she no longer covers her face, leant to read and write and was respected in her society as Mastrani. I refer to this work as Action through Art. Her story, inspired me to write a collection of short stories, which were published by Penguin India titled BY THE SABARMATI. She was the inspiration behind stories of people I had known, some of whom were natural artists. The stories are in their own voices. I have therefore placed myself in the circle of their experience, which I have tried to understand in the first person, which could be my story – your story.  I wrote about Pushpa in these words – “ I hated my veil, as I could never lift it and see things properly, and it always enveloped me in a haze. So, I entertained myself by using the colour of my sari as a transparent glass. When I looked through it, everything in my world was tinted with different colours. It was a game I played with myself. Sometimes green fields appeared orange, the moon looked purple and the sun could be either gray, brown or black. Even faces changed colour like a rainbow, The face that never changed colour was that of my mother, it was always there in a flood of white tears.”

In my novels, I mingle fact and fiction and create my own world. But, everything changed, when I discovered Alibaug on the Konkan coast, the Indian homeland of Bene Israel Jews. Slowly, I became better informed about the Jewish experience in India, collecting family histories, documenting, Jewish life styles, costumes, Synagogues, cuisine and artifacts.

Then, I was commissioned to write Book of Esther by Penguin Books. As I sat among the old photographs, I saw the remains of our old family house at Delhi Darwaza, I started weaving stories based on research and memory, as it slowly transformed into one single narrative.

Book of Esther is part fiction, part reality.

I am named after Queen Esther, who helped liberate the Jews of Persia and finds mention in the Megillat, known as The Book of Esther in the Bible, so I used it as a base for my novel.

It is also based largely around my family.

Being the only child of working parents, I was often left with my grandmother in the ancestral house where she stayed with my uncle and his family. It was here in the Delhi Darwaza house, where relatives visited us during vacations and sometimes stayed on for long periods, where I heard family stories. That was before their exodus to Israel, England, America and Canada. Yet, the house remained the main satellite, which received many stories, through letters, telephonic talks or just nostalgia on part of those who were left behind. The elders departed to RIP and the others started losing contact. And, I spent long hours with a large collection of photographs and stories. This became the fertile ground for THE BOOK OF ESTHER.

Soon after, On the initiative of Dr. Shalva Weil of Jerusalem University, I wrote a small article for Marg about Jewish costumes, “Sari-Sutra.” This study helped me in the description of my characters. 

That was also the time, after the death of my father. Suddenly, I needed the comfort of the large extended family I had lost. Some characters, which took shape there, have found their way in the latter part of Book of Esther.

For me, these ancestors are real. Sometimes I am a bird from the tree, sometimes as blind as a bat. I feel their presence around me. Sometimes they bind me, sometimes they comfort me.

And Shalva Weil wrote in her book KARMIC PASSAGES, “The Bene Israel novelist who grew up with a tiger.”

During this period, my editor Mala Dayal, felt the story of growing up in a zoo, could take the form of a book, for people of all ages and I wrote MY FATHERS ZOO. And, Khushwant Singh wrote,” When Steve Irwin, the famous crocodile hunter was killed by a sting Ray in September, last year, I had concluded that only Australia produced daredevils who could capture dangerous animals like crocodiles, alligators and venomous snakes with their bare hands. I was wrong. Many Indians have been doing so down the generations and do so to this day. Among the most famous was Reuben David of Ahmedabad. He not only captured crocodiles and snakes but also tigers, lions, langoors, bears and a variety of birds in his home and the zoo he set up. He formulated his own herbal medicines to keep his friends in good shape. His life story has been written by his daughter Esther David. Her line drawings illustrate how close he was to birds and beasts :he had been living with them. He sat by a female crocodile while she was laying her eggs and helped her to incubate them. It is a true life story of how harmonious human-animal relationships can be, any person who gives his love to an animal or bird will have it returned in full measure. The book is specially meant for teenagers but makes an equally fascinating read for grown-ups. “

With the launch of BOOK OF ESTHER, I received emails and letters from a Pakistani journalist about a certain Aunty Rachel, who lived in Karachi and protected the cemetery there as the Synagogue had been destroyed. She was a Bene Israel Jew, a school teacher and spoke fluent English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. When, she was very old, with help from the American embassy, she was flown to Israel, where she died and the cemetery was taken over by others. BOOK OF RACHEL took shape, while writing Book of Esther. I had discovered in Alibaug, where the Bene Israel Jews had first landed, that their food was similar to the food; my grandmother used to make, Somehow, these fragrances came back to me, and I included them in BOOK OF RACHEL, starting each chapter with an old Jewish recipe, which we rarely make today. This is how Rachel became realty, as she preserves the heritage of Synagogues and food. And, I started each chapter of BOOK OF RACHEL with a recipe, as Rachel struggles to save a Synagogue from land-sharks. In continuation, another publisher suggested, I write Jewish short stories, I agreed, but, while working on this collection, I set the characters in a housing society, confronting the various social problems and cross cultural conflicts faced by such a small community. In India, Jews are surrounded by so many attractions and yet trying to preserve the Jewish heritage. This is how SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY was created and became a novel. The protagonist of this novel is Prophet Elijah, whom I discovered in Alibaug. In a way, SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY happened because of Book of Rachel, in which the Prophet Elijah is the main character. So, I decided to weave SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY around the Prophet, as for us Bene Israel Jews, Prophet Elijah is more than real.  About the housing society, in the past, I had seen Jews living together in Jacob Circle in Bombay. More recently, there is a similar housing society, in Thane near Bombay. SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY is set in Ahmedabad after the communal riots of 2002. The storyline weaves the lives of its residents and their inter-cultural relationships with other Indian communities. They are also caught in their longing for The Promised Land, Israel, as today, most families live in divided homelands. This novel also deals with other sensitive issues like conversion and how the young are attracted towards people of other communities. To write about these concerns, I visited the homes of Bene Israel Jews, interacted with them and got a better insight into their lifestyles. The novel traces conflicts between parents, children, lovers and neighbours with occasional interventions by the Prophet Elijah, to whom the characters turn to in times of trouble.

Bene Israel Jews believe in the Prophet and believe, on his way to heaven, Prophet Eliaj passed through India, Alibaug on the Konkan coast and left a mark of the hoof marks of his horses and chariot wheels on a rock. So, Bene Israel Jews start all events as a thanksgiving to the Prophet and ask him to fulfill some wishes and once done, that particular person or family, holds a Malida ceremony and feeds the entire community.

So, in my novel SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY, the Prophet visits Jewish homes, during the festival of Passover, all over the world. During a certain prayer, a chair is kept aside for him, and he is offered a goblet of wine, which is kept aside for him. I loved this concept and belief and enjoyed writing how, sometimes he helped people or was even mischievous in creating problems for others. In Gujarat, he is offered black currant sherbet. Indian Jewish life has many Indian influences, like the Malida made with a offering of flaked rice or poha mixed with sugar and coconut, dates, petals of desi red roses, apples and bananas, even a Mehendi or Henna ceremony is held before a wedding in Indian clothes, garbas have been recently included, but during a wedding bride and groom wear western clothes. SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY gave me a place in the calendar of Hadassah-Brandeis University, U.S.A. in 2010-2011; as one of the twelve best-known Jewish women authors of the world. Soon after, they gave me the opportunity to research and document Bene Israel Jews of Gujarat; titled, “I AM ASEED OF THE TREE,” which has been published by India International Center as a journal. Today, I am documenting the cuisine of Indian Jews. Besides Bene Israel Jews, there are Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews of Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and Bene Menashe Jews of Mizoram.

My novels are researched by many other scholars in India and abroad, like Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam of the The Art Institute of Chicago and the French International School of Chicago, USA., has written, “Esther David belongs to the Bene Israel Jewish community of India. Her book ‘The Walled City,’ translated into French as ‘La Ville en ses Murs,’, may in fact be a metaphor for her hometown, India, but it also seems to us, for Jerusalem and can also be another perspective, a metaphor for any mental confinement. This book is followed by Book of Esther and Book of Rachel, which tell the story of Esther David, but also her community, the Bene Israel, which share many values with the Indians but also with the Jews. The pages of this book illustrate the difficulty of the journey through otherness, the impossible detachment of man and his territory, the complexity of envisaging our destiny otherwise.”

Let me explain, although I like to read Jewish authors, I read novels, which are not based on Jewish subjects. I have been inspired by authors like Rabindranath Tagore, Alexandre Dumas, R.K.Narayan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Margeurite Duras,  Orhan Pamuk, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Graham Greene, Laura Esquivel, Iravati Karve, Ismat Chugtai, Rohinton Mistry and Arun Joshi. I am fascinated by Arun Joshi’s novel, The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. It is one of my old favorites.

I had bought it in the seventies from a bookshop at the railway station. Often I turn to this book as it is all about freedom of the human spirit. Recently, it has been republished with a new cover, as a good work of literature survives time.  The entire gist of the book is narrated in the first page “As I grow old, I realize that the most futile cry of man is his wish to be understood. The effort to understand is even more futile. If in spite of this I propose to relate Billy’s story, it is not because I claim to have understood him, as it is on account of a deep and unrelieved sense of wonder that in the middle of the twentieth century, in the heart of Delhi’s smart society, there should have lived a man of such extraordinary obsessions.” Arun Joshi ends the novel with this strong statement, “The strange case of Billy Biswas had at last been disposed off in the only manner that a humdrum society knows of disposing its rebels, its seers, its true lovers.”

Through the years, Art became a way of life, while literature is my life.

Because, inside me, there was a sea of stories, but as a sculptor I was locked in a block of wood. 

My novels are MY JEWISH VOICE…because; I had a dream; I wanted to recreate my experience of being an Indian Jew, through my novels.

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Chandigarh by Esther David

It was just by chance that I discovered the Chandi-Temple, a few kilometers from Chandigarh; in a tree-lined forest; full of birds. I had not expected that the name of this very modern city designed by famed Swiss architect could be connected with the Mother Goddess. According to the plaque affixed there, it is said that after the Goddess had defeated the demon, she had stopped in the vicinity, where the temple stands now and was spotted by a ‘Rishi,’ who made a small temple for her. Later, it is said, a local ruler made a walled city nearby, with a fortress meaning ‘Gadh.’

After India became independent, it was decided that Le Corbusier would build Chandigarh.

Excavations in this area have revealed that objects from the Indus Valley civilization have been found and exhibited at Le Corbusier Center in Chandigarh.

Last month, while I was at IIT Ropar also known as Roop-Nagar to give a lecture, I discovered another Indus Valley site there, which has a very well maintained small museum.  On the way back, I saw a narrow gauge station, from where a tiny train can take tourists to Simla, passing through winding hills, tunnels and forests. This charming railway station reminds one of a Bimal Roy film-set, like the one in Bandini.

When, I was there, preparations for Baisakhi were under way, so I decided to spend my evenings at the Tagore Auditorium with its brick and glass façade, where I saw Bhangra,  heard vocal and instrumental music with other dance forms.

This lush green, well planned city of gardens and manicured trees also has a National Museum, which houses an amazing collection of miniature paintings, sculptures and a few pieces of modern Indian art.  

While I was in Chandigarh, Le Corbusier Center and Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademy inaugurated the “Open Hand – Art Studios,” to commemorate Corbusier’s cousin’s Pierre Jeanneret 122nd anniversary, as he was architect, designer  and close associate of Le Corbusier on many projects. His chairs are on display at the center. The air was festive, as installations were displayed on the lawns, like a painted auto-rickshaw and many more. So, I went to see

Le Corbusier’s; “Open Hand Sculpture,” which can also looks like a bird.

It is a mobile and according to the wind direction moves slowly in all directions, standing amidst mango trees, as the fruit was just beginning to ripen, the most tantalizing moment was at sunset, the golden orb of the sun, could be seen suspended on the horizon from the tall rectangular pedestal of the Open Hand.

On the way back, I stopped at a sector known for its “Phulkari” shops and saw a Corbusier bus-stand. I marveled the use of verticals and horizontals, which are a beautiful mix of art and geometry.

Right then, a bright magenta-pink car overtook my cab, I noticed it was painted in floral designs all over. A young woman was in the driver’s seat and on her car door, there was a yellow signage, “CAUTION-WOMAN DRIVING.”

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Assam – Esther David

They say; Assam’s river Brahmaputra is one of the longest rivers’ in India and known to be one of the few male rivers, as most Indian rivers have feminine names. On landing at Guwahati airport, one could feel the whiff of fresh air and, while driving to the hotel, we saw colourful houses with sloping roofs on hillocks, as some women and school girls could be seen on the winding streets; dressed in the Assamese two-sari ‘Mekhla.’ Reaching the hotel, from the large glass window in my room, I could see the river flowing bank to bank, almost resembling a sea dotted with boats. One can take rides on barges from the many jetties and remember scenes from Satyajit Ray films, set against hills, mist, a light rainfall and beautiful landscapes. From here, it is important to see the Kamakhya Temple. It is said, when Lord Shiva was in a fury, he salvaged the body parts of Sati, his wife, who had immolated herself. He threw these all over India. And, it so happened that her pubic or ‘Yoni’ fell; where the temple stands. So, in a way, the temple resembles a womb or ‘Garbh-Griha.’ The temple winds downwards, like an inverted well. The temple is on a hill top, which can be reached by driving through winding roads, which have stalls, from where women buy bamboo articles, ritualistic offerings, along with red and white bangles.

 

We were in Guwahati for a literary event, where we were greeted with ‘Gamchas,’ white stoles woven with red designs, as a mark of respect, these were draped around our shoulders. Everywhere, there were conical ceremonial objects in metal, accompanied with statues of Rhinoceros. So, we made a quick trip to the Zoo, where we took a buggy-ride and saw Indian and African Rhinoceros, Thamin Deer, a white Tiger, Gibbons, massive Assamese Bisons known as Mithun and innumerable birds. Back at the conference, we had a taste of Assam with chicken curry, brown rice, parval cooked in a light sauce, crispy fried karelas, Rosogollas and red-Assam-tea. In the market place, we saw bamboo hats, brown poha or flaked rice, fresh vegetables and mounds of gourds; amidst Momo-stands. But, I could not take my eyes off, a fabric shop, where a sari border was woven with designs of Rhino and Deer.

At that very moment, I understood how art, life and nature can be woven together by an imaginative artisan.

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The Scars Remain

Last week, most Jews all over the world celebrated Passover, in memory of the Exodus and freedom, when they were slaves in ancient Egypt. Most Jews all over the world remember these days by laying a Seder table, specially with unleavened bread and retelling the story of the parting of the Red Sea. And, as it often happens in the Jewish calendar, festive occasions are followed by memorial services like Yom Hashoah, meaning Holocaust Day. The word Shoah in Hebrew means calamity and is almost always referred to the Holocaust memorial day by Jews. It is observed by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, in Hebrew, which means prayers to the dead, a solemn remembrance day, when memorial candles are lit for those who perished during the Holocaust. Today, observing this day is done in different ways by Jewish communities all over the world, like reciting poems, reading letters, diaries like that of Anne Frank, narrating real-life stories of survivors or families relive the happenings in the lives of relatives, like grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, friends or neighbours, they lost in the Holocaust, when six million Jews were persecuted or died in Nazi Germany under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.

In my younger days, I remember, my grandmother, uncle and some others of the family fasted, wore white clothes, as though they were in mourning. In the evening, they lit a candle and said the Kaddish. As Primo Levi said, “…it happened, so it can happen again… this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen and it can happen anywhere.” Those who followed Levi’s work know that he could bear his own dark inner labyrinths of terrifying memories.

The scars remain.

While traveling abroad, often one meets Jews, whose families were victims of the Holocaust and slowly, like old books, whose pages have either been torn or stuck together with their tears, they remember those who were theirs but had never met or do not even know what they looked like. Often, they try to trace resemblances in the physique or facial features of those they lost and are now part of their nightmares.

I have also known some old friends, who try to understand themselves and why they behave in a certain way, wondering if this is how one of their ancestors was, could have been. And is that why they are who they are?

In France, I befriended a survivor, a woman, who was hardly five or six years old when she lost her entire family when the ghetto they lived in was burnt down. Somehow, she was taken to safety and is a grandmother with a large family. Yet she lives in two worlds, of darkness and light: When the memories crowd her, of the yellow star stitched as a patch on shirts; of how she would often dig for potatoes when hungry, which her mother roasted or made soup with, and feels she is falling into an unknown void, from the balcony of a burning ghetto.

Or meeting an old friend, when he came to Ahmedabad and over dinner, told me, that he was a young boy when Hitler hoisted the swastika on the Eiffel Tower. His family had left for America. He was to follow them with an aunt in a car via Portugal, from where they were to take a ship with their meagre belongings and some valuables, abandoning their home, business and everything they owned. He was afraid and felt greatly responsible for his aunt’s safety. On reaching New York, they realised that all their valuables were stolen. They had to start all over again and the trauma of those days never left him, although he has done very well in his profession and is a great-grandfather. But, all his life, he was haunted by his cousin sister, shot in Belsen. He always had nightmares of seeing her in a ditch, face down, legs drawn up, arms outstretched, mouth open, dead, the yellow Star of David stitched on her breast like a wound. He told me that he had spent a lifetime trying to wipe out that particular image from his mind, but could not. Much later, he had read about Dachau, Treblinka, Wolzek, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Mauthausen, Belsen and Auschwitz, looking for her.

Then, I have also met some readers from western countries, who came to meet me, first on the pretext of meeting an Indian Jew, to understand that India was the only country in the world where Jews had not faced any form of persecution. After long conversations, they opened up, just to tell me that their ancestors had gone through the horrors of the Holocaust and had dropped a curtain upon the past. Yet, oft and on, they wanted to return to an area of Jewish life they had denied for themselves. Sometimes, they wanted to see an Indian synagogue, sometimes wanted to be there for the Friday evening Shabbat and participate in a festival, as they felt comfortable. On return to their countries, sometimes they went back to a liberal Jewish community or did not, but stayed in touch with me.

This evening, as I sit writing about Holocaust Day, from my window I can see the waning moon rising and I would like to quote a line from a psalm. “… they walked through the valley of the shadow of death…”

So, let us remember, “…lest we forget…”

 

Courtesy : Indian Express