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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

 

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Father Erviti recognizes Outside Art and its Creators – Esther David

(This chapter appeared in the book CREATING CITIZENS: Fr. Ramiro Erviti in Ahmedabad, India. 1956-86. Eds: Howard Spodek, Fr. Chakranarayan, SJ, Vanessa Nazareth-Dalal)

Illustrations by Esther David 

 

Years back, even before, I went to study art at Vadodara’s Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, I liked to watch our sweeper’s son, who looked after his siblings, while his mother swept the garden. While sweeping, she collected flattened out tooth paste tubes, empty cartons, colourful plastic bags or pieces of scrap, which she gave her son, who fashioned toys out of them to amuse his brothers and sisters. My heart went out to children who could not afford toys, but made their own in clay or other found-objects.

As an art student for the annual art-fair, my Guru Sankho Choudhuri encouraged us to invent new forms with various materials, to help us de-learn some of our education in art.

Later in life, as a practicing sculptor, this formed the base of my work with Outsider Art. I started questioning whether it was possible to be creative without formal education. I felt the spontaneous images of untrained artists were original and intense.

For example, as an only child of working parents, our cook Mani, told me the most fascinating stories. She was a natural story teller. Much later, I was to meet, many more such men and women, who were to strengthen my beliefs in natural artists and intuitive art, because they had no conditioning in art, yet surprised me; with their unusual creations. 

So, I did a small art project with Majoor Mahajan Sangh and SEWA in the early seventies. I worked with children from the Devipujak community. The response was enthusiastic and it was fascinating to see the clay toys made by them. Often, their parents helped them to make the forms, but were shy to admit that they; as adults had made toys, although their hand was visible in the clay modeling, so  daringly spontaneous. 

It was while I was searching for a potter on the riverbed to fire the toys, I met Lavingben, a widow with eight children. She made a living by selling old gunny bags, but her tin shack was decorated with masks of Tiger-heads. During the festivals she sold colourful clay bowls. She had learnt the technique from her grandfather of making a mixture of clay collected from the Sabarmati riverbed, cardboard soaked in water, ashes, powdered crystals of glue and ground fenugreek.  After a lot of persuasion she agreed to make masks for me in the same technique that she made clay bowls. She also made, mini boats, small figurines of animals, birds, scorpions, reptiles, fish, crocodiles and Elephant God Ganesha,

An exhibition of these works was organized at an art gallery and Father Erwitti of St. Xaviers Social Service scheme had seen it. The next day, he came to meet me and asked, if I would like to organize women’s activities at the Community Center at newly constructed Sanklit-Nagar for flood-hit hutment dwellers.

I agreed.

On day one, as I opened the window of the office allotted to me and I saw a veiled woman standing there asking me, to find work for her. All I had was paper and paint, so asked her to paint. Slightly raising her veil, she said, “How can I draw, when I cannot write.” I have often heard this term in villages and slum areas.

This was Pushpa Rajaram, from Mathura, who had come to live in Sanklit-Nagar with her handicapped husband and four children. Her husband had lost an arm in an oil-pressing machine in Mathura and they had come to Ahmedabad, looking for work.  Her husband sold assorted snacks at the Lal Darwaza bus-stand and had set up home in a tin shack on the Sabarmati riverbed. But, after the floods, they had received alternate accommodation in Sanklit-Nagar.

In our weekly meetings, I discussed Pushpa Rajaram with Father Erviti. He encouraged me to use art for development, make a group of women artists and also help them learn other skills from the tailoring teacher Kalaben, which would lead them towards economic independence and empowerment.

I started work with Pushpa and twenty other women of all communities living in Sanklit-Nagar, which is now known as Juhapura.

Pushpa was a natural artist and worked with me for many years.

Slowly, I gained a greater understanding about untutored art, which led me towards my passion for Outsider Art.

Pushpa is the perfect example to showcase Father Erviti’s vision. She started earning well by transferring her paintings on fabric with appliqué-work. Her designs were used by other women of the group, which was growing, and Father Erviti decided to pay Pushpa an extra amount for her designs. In a few years, she started doing well, became self-sufficient, went to craft workshops, craft-melas, attended adult education class, opened a bank account, took a loan and bought two sewing machines. Eventually, she returned to her village with her family, where she started her own unit of tailoring and patchwork.

Father Erviti commented that through art, she went back to her roots. Pushpa’s forays in the art world had strengthened her; she no longer covered her face, learnt to read, write, sign her name on application forms for loans and was respected in her society as a Mastrani or teacher. With this success story, in a few years, I started a small association to promote Outside Art, which was known as Action through Art.

My interactions with Pushpa, Lavingben and many other women artists, inspired me to write a collection of short stories, which were published by Penguin India, titled By the Sabarmati. 

The illustrations in this book are interpretations by the women and their daughters who worked with me at Sanklit Nagar. They depict Father Erewetti’s work, personality and vision, as seen through their eyes…

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The Tagorean Path – by Esther David

(Written for Prof. Sankho Chaudhuri’s centenary year celebration was held in Varanasi at Ram Chatpar Shilp Nyas Museum by sculptor Madan Lal from 24-26 February 2016. His family donated 100 sculptures and 70 drawings to the museum, as a permanent gallery will be made there in memory of Sankho Chaudhuri

( 25 February 1916 – 28 August 2006)

It is said in the Bible, that in times of difficulty ¨…help cometh from the Lord …¨ Something like this happened to me, when I was a student at Vadodara’s Faculty of Fine Arts and was denied admission to the painting department . I was in tears. My drawings were spread out in the studio and while I was collecting them, I saw a thin middle aged man, maybe a new professor; with a bird like face entering the room. He was looking for a cigarette, as his packet was empty. He borrowed a cigarette from one of the professors, lit it, stood there, smoking thoughtfully and looking at my drawings. Then, with compassion writ large in his be-spectacled heavy lidded eyes, he said. ¨You have a good hand.¨

My spirits soared. But, I did not even know who he was.  He asked me, ¨would you like to study sculpture.¨ In a shaky voice, I said, ¨when, I cannot be a painter, how can I be an artist of any sort.¨ He burst out laughing. I looked up startled, as I had never heard such a happy, loud, resounding laughter. He smiled affectionately; saying, ¨come with me, I will make you an artist.¨

He led me to the sculpture studio.

I hesitated.

Reluctantly, I stood there, saying, ¨…But, I don’t want to be a sculptor.¨

Tears were running down my face, so he asked the peon to bring service tea from the canteen, sat on the steps leading to the sculpture studio, telling me, ¨you don’t have to be a sculptor, just learn the basics and you can become an artist like Tagore.¨  Surprised ; I sat down on the steps opposite him, as he told me about his years in Santiniketan. By then, the tea had arrived, so with great finesse he poured it and offered me a cup of tea, which calmed me. I listened attentively, as I had grown up reading Tagore. He referred to Tagore as The Poet and patiently recounted events from his life, which cast a spell over me.

That day, I came to know that he was Professor Sankho Choudhuri, the head of department of sculpture. As, he was friendly; I took courage in my hands and told him, that sculpture bored me. So, he decided that besides the syllabus, I would have to write a diary with 500 words a day and as I was interested in reading, I had to spend all my spare time in the library. He also asked me to become a member at a cine club in Vadodara, where I saw films about the Holocaust and Satyajit Ray.

And, he also gave me the profound sermon, which I follow to this day, that – ¨Creativity is like a room with many doors, open any door and you will find it…¨

He came into my life at the most unexpected hour and feel blessed that I met him, as today, I can lead a life, where art is my soul and writing is my life.

Soon, I realized that Sankho Choudhuri was my Guru, as I believe that one always needs a Guru to guide us, when we are confused.

He was a fascinating, interesting and whimsical human being, who could laugh suddenly; while stamping his feet, then roll up his trousers, jump into the clay pit and knead clay with his feet, sit in silence for hours, contemplating about his next work, over a cup of tea or have animated conversations with guests like Mulk Raj Anand or other well known artists and writers who may have come to Vadodara, then decide to sculpt a portrait in clay, like the one; he made of my father in an hour; working with thumb and side of palm; creating an incredible resemblance in a technique similar to Rodin’s impressionistic application of clay; as he was a master of portraits. Sometimes, he liked to sit on a packing case in the foundry with his tea tray and tell me about his trips abroad, when he had met Henry Moore and Giacometti. He often talked about the time he had spent in Paris, where I was to eventually write my first novel and organize an exhibition of untutored art at Unesco.

He also knew how to celebrate life, as he made the campus lively, with his rendition of Rabindra Sangeet, encouraging students to play Holi, asking Kumudben Patel of the pottery department to teach me Garba steps and planning study tours along with the Fine Arts Fair.  And, whenever he did bronze casting at the foundry in the sculpture department, which went on till late night, Iraben brought us tiffins of home cooked food.

In today’s world when student-teacher relationships are indifferent, I was lucky to have been in Vadodra in the sixties, during the era of the Gurus.

Sankhoda, as I affectionately called him was a dynamic live-wire human being, who touched my life and gave me the gift of the Tagorean Path.

 
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Chocolate Dreams – Esther David

Often, I go to a Café near my home, for a cup of tea with my Laptop, where I write for a few hours. Sometimes, when it is crowded, I go to another coffee-shop, which is known for its cakes and chocolate dishes. One day, on my way to this cafe. I noticed that, another auto stopped there, and as I went inside the café, I saw that the auto-driver of the rickshaw also entered the same café. He looked like a simple man; and this café had a smartly dressed clientele, so, I assumed he had come there to pick up a cake for someone else. I found a table for myself, opened my Laptop and noticed that he was a young man, sitting at a table, telling the puzzled waiter that while driving past, he had been fascinated with the image of a certain chocolate dish, displayed on the hoarding, which he wanted to taste.

I was interested.  

I ordered my regular masala tea and watched this amazing scene being enacted in front of me. The auto-driver was uncomfortable, as rather impatiently he sat there, waiting; while watching a Bollywood song on the TV in the cafe. When he saw the waiter approaching him with a chocolate pancake in hot chocolate sauce, he gave an ethereal smile and ate hastily, as though he was in heaven. Then, stopped; as he could not finish it, so leaving behind a large portion in the plate, he stood up, to leave with a sad face, maybe he did not quite like the rather bitter taste of dark chocolate. He asked for the bill. The kind-hearted waiter saw the look on his face and with bill in hand, said that he could pack it for him. The auto-driver waited, till the remains were packed. Then, with a victorious look, he left with the packet and a big smile on his face.     

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The Jewish New Year and Navratri – By Esther David

As the new moon rises in the sky and Gujarat prepares for Navratri, the small Jewish community of Ahmedabad welcomes their New Year or Rosh Hashanah, as they remember the Genesis. Besides that, it is also the beginning of the ten days of penitence. For the New Year, apples dipped in honey are offered to sweeten the year. A day before, the New Year, the Bene Israel Jews of western India, make a sweet known as `Chik cha Halwa’. This rather rubbery sweet is made with coconut milk, wheat extract and sugar. It is cut into diamond shapes and decorated with nuts and rose-petals. This delicious pink `halwa’ captures the true essence of Indian Jewish cuisine.

new-yearJews celebrate their New Year by blowing the Shofar or Ram’s horn in Synagogues all over the world, to welcome the New Year, leading towards the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. These are also days of self-examination, when prayers are said to seek forgiveness from God; for wrongs done during the year, which is followed by Succoth or the feast of tabernacles, observed by dwelling in tents at the Synagogue. It is symbolic of the forty years of wandering, before the Jews returned to Israel.

And, as it often happens, according to the lunar calendar, Indian and Jewish festivals are often celebrated together. So, as Ahmedabad, reverberates with drum-beats and raas-garba of Navratri, mingling with the Hebrew chants of the Jewish New Year emitting from the Synagogue, where the eternal light spreads an aura around us. Around the same time, for Navratri; a clay lamp is lit and placed in the garbo, a perforated clay pot and both become symbolic of the universe, spreading a message of peace and harmony.