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When stone turns to water – Jewish Book Council, New York, U.S.A.

As, the year ends, we light candles to celebrate Hanukkah and feast upon fried Samosas or potato Cutlets at the Magen Abraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad, I look back and wonder how our large joint family, which lived together in an old house in the walled city of Ahmedabad, slowly disintegrated. Through the years, many elders left for their heavenly abode and others immigrated to Israel, Canada, England, Australia and U.S.A. In a similar manner, I left Ahmedabad many times, but kept returning and became part of the last few Jews of Ahmedabad, meeting them often and breaking bread together at the Synagogue.

There are 140 Jews in Ahmedabad and we celebrate festivals together and are like one big family.  My ancestors lived here for almost five generations and much later in life, I had the responsibility of disposing off their belongings. In this process, I have minimized my own possessions. It pains me; to write that when I gave away the last object from my kitchen, it was one of the hardest moments of my life. I had to, as there was no place for it.  It was precious, even if it was a slab of stone. It had the touch of all the women of my family inscribed on it. It was a grinding stone with a pestle, which was always kept on the floor or on the large kitchen platform. All masalas and chutneys were ground on it. The pressure of the human hand on the ingredients was essential to get the right texture to the paste, as ginger, garlic, green chilis or dry red chilis, grated coconut, coriander – cumin seeds and coriander leaves were ground together, so that it could be sauteed with sliced onions frying in a casserole. And, when black pepper curry was made, the ingredients varied and needed special skill at grinding roasted but peeled onions, ginger, garlic and peppercorns.

This elaborate process of grinding masala needed hands of steel and a continuous semi-circular-hand-movement to prepare a smooth paste. It was an intricate part of cooking curries and making chutneys. This chore was assigned to the cook or her help and if the women were not satisfied with the end-result, often they hitched up their saris, sat down on a wooden stool and ground the paste themselves or asked the maid to place the stone on the platform, to avoid backaches.

Mid-morning; as lunch and dinner preparations started, it was not uncommon to see the women standing over the maid to check the paste; as she sat hunched on the floor grinding masala.

Our grinding stone was more than a hundred years old and had chisel marks on the surface, so that the ingredients could be ground into a smooth paste. But, it was no longer rough, as stone artisans were not easily available to roughen the surface.

The stone was a precious memento of the past, but I could no longer accommodate it in my apartment. I even tried to use it as a pedestal to keep some of my pot-plants. I was heartbroken and gave it to our old driver, as he said; his wife needed a grinding stone. So, it went to their home in the shanty town opposite our housing society. Soon after, I bought an electric mixer-grinder to process masalas in a few minutes, but I was never satisfied. I was sure the masala never released the flavors, which it used to from the grinding stone…when stone turned to water…  

I have a fascination for grinding stones, which remind me of the Stone Age or an Egyptian sculpture of a woman grinding grain. Grinding stones come in all shapes and sizes. Ours was about fourteen inches by ten inches in length and breadth, while the pestle was shaped like a cylindrical stone. This size was just right to hold it in both hands and grind the paste.

Often, I become nostalgic about grinding stones, as they remind me of the women of my family, as they made green or red masala paste for a curry and checked its consistency by rubbing a little paste between their fingers, before it was cooked in coconut milk, which was sometimes mixed with Tamarind extract or strands of fragrant Saffron dissolved in a tiny bowl of water. It had to have the right consistency without a speck of the elements used to make it.

Once, the casserole of curry was put on the stove; pieces of chicken, fish or meat were added and cooked, as strong flavours filled the house with a delicious aroma.

Sometimes, even if; I did not cook green, red or black pepper curry, which were almost always served with coconut rice, their nostalgic fragrances wafted towards me and touched the inner chords of my being, as they transformed into a beautiful aesthetic experience, which stayed within me….


Bene Appetit – The Cuisine of Indian Jews – Deccan Herald

Few months back, Jews all over the world celebrated ‘Rosh Hashanah,’ the Jewish New Year. In India, we greeted each other and had apple slices dipped in honey for a sweet beginning. The Bene Israel Jews of Western India, Cochin Jews, Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and Bnei Menashe Jews of North-East India; also made sweets or cakes with ingredients like  coconut, wheat extract, semolina or rice flour in accordance to the ‘Jewish Dietary Law’ of not mixing meat dishes with dairy products. Platters of offerings were prepared for the New Year, like the Bene Israel Jews arrange a platter with a whole fried fish, cooked meat, a ‘Bhakhri’ or flat-bread, bowls of apples slices, honey,  pomegranate seeds, boiled cubed potatos, ‘Doodhi’ or bottle gourd, beetroot, green ‘Chauli’ or ‘Black eyed Beans’ along with goblets of ‘Sherbet.’ While Bnei Menashe Jews prepare a platter of fish heads, Challah bread, cooked pumpkin pieces, boiled beans, fried onion roots, carrot slices, fish or meat curry with, pomegranate seeds, almonds, sliced apples, honey and goblets of ‘Sherbet.’ Each community prepares these platters according to available ingredients.

The Bene Israel Jews also prepare a ‘Malida’ platter for a thanksgiving ceremony for Prophet Elijah; with sweetened ‘Poha’ mixed with grated coconut, garnished with raisins, nuts alongwith Dates, bananas, chopped fruit and Rose petals.

I have fond memories of the time, when I lived in a joint family in a big haveli-like-house in a Pol of the old city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where Shabbath prayers were held on our dining table and traditional Jewish food was cooked for dinner or on Sundays for lunch or for festivals. Yet, I had a craving for Gujarati food, as fragrances of ‘Farsan’ or savoury snacks wafted into our house. Much later, whenever I invited vegetarian friends for lunch or dinner, I realized that my food was never as good as theirs. So, as a challenge, I started making a vegetarian green masala curry; which is normally made by Jews with chicken, mutton or fish. I served it with my favourite ‘Tilkut’ potatoes, coconut rice and a dessert of sweet puris or ‘Kippur-chi-Puri,’ made by Bene Israel Jews to break the fast of ‘Yom Kippur’ or ‘Day of Atonement.’ They loved it.

 Jewish cuisine has some regional influences, but it is made with a difference, as we observe a strict ‘Jewish Dietary Law,’ which says, ‘Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s  milk.’ So, different sets of utensils are used to cook meat and dairy products.

 All over India, Jews make grape-juice ‘Sherbet’ for Shabbath prayers or other festivals. Non-vegetarian dishes are made with coconut milk; similarly rice puddings are also made with coconut milk; instead of milk, like ‘Chak-hao’ made with black rice by Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram. We also prefer fish with rice and a variety of curries made with red or green masala.

Unlike western countries, some ingredients are not available off-the-rack to make Jewish recipes, so local ingredients are used, like for ‘Passover,’ we make ‘Date-Sheera’ and ‘Matzo’ a flat bread, which is made with unleavened wheat flour and roasted on a ‘tava.’ Similarly, we use sprouted flat beans or ‘Field-Beans’ to break the fast of ‘Tisha B’Av.’ And, Bene Ephraim Jews make a delicious chicken curry with ‘Gongura Leaves,’ poppy seeds, grated coconut, cashew paste, which is mixed with the basic masala and served with colourful festive rice. . 

There are about fve thousand Jews in India. We are a mini-microscopic community and with each emigration to Israel and other western countries; we are decreasing in numbers, so some traditional foods are forgotten. Yet, while travelling, I discovered there was always someone; who remembered a recipe and gave it to me. It is important to add here that although many Indian Jews speak English, along with regional languages; our prayers are chanted in ‘Hebrew.’ 

I wrote about Indian Jewish food, as it is made today; in recent times. Interestingly, many Indian Jews are vegetarians as ‘Kosher’ meat is not always available and almost always, most meals end with fruit. While writing, ‘Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews,’ I discovered, most Indian Jews have preserved ‘The Dietary Law,’ which is the base of all Jewish cooking, which can be seen in the homes of the five Jewish communities of India. Indian Jewish food has some regional influences and ingredients, as each festival or event is celebrated with a specific ritualistic, traditional recipe. Yet, each community makes some recipes, which are similar to the country of their origin, which they fled due to persecution; and came to settle in India, like ‘Sesame Chutney,’ ‘Fish Egg Curry,’ ‘Kooba Dumplings,’ ‘Mahmoosa,’ ‘Pastillas,’ ‘Chik-cha-Halva,’ ‘Semolina or Coconut Cake,’ ‘Soya Bean Sauce’ and ‘Bamboo Shoots with Green Chillies.’ Here, I discovered distant flavours of Israel, Persia, Spain, Middle-East and the Far-East, as ’The Jewish tradition of food is not mere memory, but a heritage passed on from one generation to the next and needs to be preserved.’  

Published in Deccan Herald


Saffron Dreams – Esther David

Yesterday, I was re-organizing my kitchen and discovered a few bottles of different sizes. I could not recognize their contents, as I had them for a long time, but for one reason or other, I had never used them. On close scrutiny, I noticed that these bottles had small quantities of saffron stuck at the base of the bottle. The saffron was very old and I knew, I would never use it, yet I tried to open the lid of one of the bottles, but could not. So I placed them behind containers of other spices. I did not know what to do with so much saffron and nor did I want to throw it away, as I knew saffron was a precious condiment. Ruefully, I looked at the saffron bottles, standing amidst containers of cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

That day, when I tried opening the saffron bottle, I felt transformed into another world, as I felt; I was drowning in a sea of memories.

I smelled my fingers and saw that they had transformed into strings of saffron, as their fragrance enveloped me in a cloud, from where, the past emerged and I remembered the time, we had lived as a joint family.

I became nostalgic and wanted to break open the cloud, which held me captive. All, I wanted to do; was to remove the fragrance of saffron, which had enmeshed me. From this cloud, another form emerged; it was that of my grandmother clad in a white sari. She always kept her precious saffron in a coin-size box, which was hidden in her cupboard; in between the folds of her neatly folded saris or in a tiny pocket stitched inside her sari-blouse. Interestingly, when she needed it most, she always forgot where she had hidden it; and searched for it, all over the house.

Whenever, she opened her cupboard, the fragrance of saffron hit me; and made me dizzy with desire. When, she did not find the saffron in her boxes full of old photographs and mementos or the cupboard, she upturned all her belongings, worried that she had lost it. She perspired profusely and wiped her face with her sari and eventually found the tiny box, tied into a knot in her pallav, which was tucked into the soft folds of her waistline. Relieved, she would smile, unknot it, hold the box in her palms, open it and sprinkle saffron into her favourite recipes, saying, “Saffron is precious, it is as expensive as gold…” And, when we sat down for dinner, we bonded, like one big family, as just one pinch of saffron worked like a magic potion.

As a child, I often slept in her lap and felt myself floating in saffron dreams…which were forgotten when she passed away and only returned, when I found the bottles of saffron.  Memories of the past blossomed like the bewitching saffron crocus flowers in my being. This feeling was so strong that it took me backwards into time and I felt locked in a diorama. I felt blinded as the fragrance of saffron became a metaphor to memory, leading me through a path, towards the rose-wood dining table, where we ate together in the old ancestral house in the walled city of Ahmedabad. And, as our plates were piled with chicken kesari, coconut rice or biryani made with a sprinkling of saffron, it filled with euphoric aromas.

I knew that fragrance and memory had a deep connection with the past. Yet, I wanted to dust them away from my hands, my clothes and the very air I breathed.

Again, I reached for the bottles and magically the glass-cage disappeared. I lifted the bottles, placed them in the front row of the kitchen shelf and moved the spice bottles to another shelf. I saw the saffron had dried with age, but had the power to move me…


We are islands within ourselves – by Esther David

As soon as the Corona-virus spread its fangs all over the world, followed with a Lockdown and curfew, I felt like an island surrounded by a sea of conflicting emotions.

Nine months later, even after the Unlock, when shops have opened and life appears to be normal, yet we are afraid to meet each other…do not touch, keep a safe distance. Agreed, but we can at least speak a few words of concern, because it is important to communicate or else the island within us will float away towards unknown horizons…

I feel my body has a millions of pores, from where the virus can enter and drag me to the final destination…and dust will turn to dust….

There were many patients who were admitted to Covid-hospitals, they could not see their families and the trauma of those, who were quarantined at home, is unimaginable. I am sure, they felt ostracized by society, yet there were some good Samaritans, who looked after their needs.

A surrealistic image emerges in my mind, of a vast desert-land full of specks of human beings, keeping a safe distance from each other, silently walking towards a dark horizon….  

When our area was declared as a contaminated zone, I called the police control room and the receptionist wanted to know the reason of my call, so I told her, I needed groceries and medicines. In ten minutes, a police van arrived at my door with four young police women, dressed in uniform, berets, gloves and masks. They were friendly, took the list and drove away and much to my surprise, in an hour they were back, with all that I needed.

My house-help could not come to my place for almost four to five months. Soon after the Unlock, she arrived, wearing a mask and smiled as I gave her a bottle of sanitizer, she rubbed it over her hands and was happy to be back to work. I realized; all I needed was someone to ask me, “How are you today?”

During the Pandemic, followed by the Lockdown, whenever somebody called, I felt energized and came to the conclusion that the human voice has a great capacity to heal, comfort and lend warmth. In contrast, I also heard stories of discord amongst couples and families. Almost every single human being was finding it difficult to be locked-up at home. Maybe by the time, the Pandemic recedes; it will leave behind broken relationships and dissent amongst most families.

Before the Pandemic, I had noticed, hospitals used deep green curtains and the medical staff, even wore masks of the same colour, along with their white coats. But, as soon as the Pandemic arrived, I started identifying the medical staff by their Personal-Protection-Equipment in white and sky blue colours.

Blue and white are the colours of the universe, purity, beauty, silence and exude a feeling of peace. Strangely, it has become a colour we associate with Corona-virus and death.

In Gujarat, according to rules, Navratri was celebrated in private homes or inside housing societies. The festival passed peacefully, but everything changed with Diwali, when there was an air of festivity, as though; there was no Pandemic looming large over our lives. And, as the fireworks, shot upwards, there was an increase in cases, eventually a two-day curfew was imposed in the city.

Every morning, I wake up, remembering the labyrinth of long silent hours, but alive in a world, where we have transformed into islands within ourselves.

This article appeared in THE SPEAKING TREE column of THE TIMES OF INDIA on 18th January 2021



On invitation of the The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, for the online lecture series ‘Shalom Bombay.’ This is an excerpt from her talk –  

“If you were to meet me in the street, you would never guess that I am a Jew. But, I am an Indian Bene Israel Jew with a very Biblical name like Esther. Maybe, most of us feel this, but at home, for shabath prayers or at the synagogue, the women cover their head, men wear kippas and prayer shawls, and together we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…and with diminishing numbers, as our families live in Israel and other countries, Bene Israel Jews of India prefer to celebrate festivals together, like one big family. While I was writing and researching for my novels, ‘Book of Esther’ and ‘Book of Rachel,’ I realized that in a multi-cultural country like India, where Bene Israel Jews are a mini-microscopic minority community, they have retained a strong Jewish identity; with their rites, rituals, traditions and lifestyle. Indian influences can be seen in dress, food habits, choice of jewellery; wearing flowers in the hair, the mehendi ceremony, before a wedding and using coconut milk instead of dairy products to keep the dietary law. Maharashtrian influences can be seen in their lifestyle, for example, puran-poli is made during the festival of Purim. They also make an unusual sweet during the Jewish New Year, known as ‘chik-cha-halwa,’ made with wheat extract and coconut milk, which is different from Indian milk based sweets.Traditional dishes are made during festivals or weddings or at community gatherings. Poha or beaten rice is used by Bene Israel Jews for preparing a malida as an offering for wish fulfilment to Prophet Elijah. Poha is washed, mixed with grated coconut, sugar, raisins, chopped nuts along with dates, dates, bananas and seasonal fruits. The Malida is followed by a community dinner. As a follow-up of my research for my novels, when I went to Alibaug and stood at the ‘Rock of Elijah’ or ‘Eliahu Hananbi cha Tapa,’ I was fascinated with the abstract concept of the Prophet. The malida ceremony for Prophet Elijah is held; only by the Bene Israel Jews. So, the Prophet appears in most of my novels, like ‘Book of Rachel’ as a divine intervention and in ‘Shalom India Housing Society,’ where he arrives to keep the Bene Israel Jewish community together. Here, I have also explored the cross-cultural conflict of staying back in India or immigrating to Israel, where they have family and community. Most Bene Israel Jews have Maharashtrian surnames, which indicate the village, which adopted them, after they were shipwrecked in the coastal area near Alibaug. They are fluent in Marathi, but, prayers are said in Hebrew. Much earlier Hebrew prayer books were translated into Marathi and are often seen at some Jewish homes and synagogues. More recently, I have noticed Bene Israel Jews are well versed in Hebrew, as they attend Hebrew classes and often travel between India and Israel, yet; I have heard them saying, ‘India is our motherland…”      



Since I became known as an ‘Indian Jewish author,’ and being a Jew, I would often wonder, if my novels would ever be translated in Hebrew, about which, I had written in ‘BOOK OF RACHEL’ – ‘the language of our prayers.” Then, I gave up, but last year in 2020, I received a phone call from Gandhian scholar Shimon Lev, author of ‘Soulmates – The Story of Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach,’ published by Orient Black-Swan 2012. He was in Ahmedabad, working on another project. So, we decided to meet at a café, where I often meet friends. I do not know, at which moment, over cups of tea and cold-drinks, Shimon asked about my novels; and was surprised that am not translated in Hebrew. 

Later, miraculously, during the Lockdown, I received an email about such a possibility and the rest is history….

As the Jewish New Year approaches and my novel ‘Book of Rachel,’ Hebrew edition, titled, ‘Sefer Rachel’ is available in Israel, I wish to say – A big “Thank You” and “New Year Greetings” to my publisher Ktzia, friend Shimon for believing in ‘Rachel,’ so that the book is a reality, also for his endless questions, detailing and editing the Hebrew edition, Yontan for translating Book of Rachel, Roni for her article and dear friend Shalva… 

–      Esther David      

Publishing House Gamma, Tel Aviv

Link:  (Owner Dr. Ktzia Alon)

Editor and Academic editor – Dr Shimon Lev

Translation: Yontan Alon

Content of the Book:

Preface: Shimon Lev

The Book of Rachel – Esther David

(Hebrew Title – SEFER RACHEL) 

Food and related items glossary: Dr.  Shimon Lev

Epilogue: Dr.  Shimon Lev

Between Danda and Dimona – The Story of Bnei Israel Community in India and Israel – Prof. Shalva Weil

 Exoticizing the Self: Indianness and Jewishness in the Literary Work of Esther David –  – Dr. Roni Parchak

Being an Indian- Jewish Womam – The Mizrachi Feminism of Rachel (Dandkar) and Esther (David)


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)


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….   


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…)


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.