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Bring back the matka

When the mercury rises in summer in Gujarat, some people set up cold water counters known as parab or serve free butter-milk in kiosks set up all over the city. This tradition is part of a quaint Gujarati ritual, because as a form of greeting, we first offer water to guests. So whenever I ask my guests if they will have cold water from the fridge or matka, clay pot, they invariably ask for the latter with a surprised look, asking,“How come you have a matka? Isn’t it a lot of work to wash it every day and fill it?” This question never stops to surprise me as I cannot imagine life without a matka. It has a pride of place in my kitchen, covered royally with a brass lid, which has a charming peacock shaped knob, and I tell them that matka-water is cooler and better than fridge water; because,during summer,we tend to drink chilled drinks and end up having a sore throat.

It saddens me to face the fact that since the last few years, clay water pots have disappeared from most homes, maybe because the design of the filter water machines or water purifying systems are not conducive to fill the same water in a matka.Yes, it is a little more work to wash it, adjust the water- filter-pipes and fill it, that is if you are in a hurry.

For me, any object made in clay conjures up images of earth,water and fire.The matka is a symbol of our earth-and-crafts-based culture. It is also our inheritance of terracotta, which has come down to us from the Indus Valley Civilisation. Terracotta objects are a visual delight. They are not heavy, neither big nor small, but have the correct size and I start wondering, why we cannot revive the use of clay pots or even a kulhar culture; not only in Gujarat but all over India. With the disappearance of the clay pot, I have noticed that one rarely sees potters in our cities.

But I am hopeful, as Ahmedabad still has small village-like-clusters known as gaams and puras like Vastrapur or Jodhpur gaam etc,where there was always a resident potter. It was a normal sight to see the potter working on his wheel, sitting hunched upon the earth under a tree, and like a magician, creating innumerable pots from just one lump of clay. He also creates kulhars, diyas, ritualistic articles, idols of mini gods, pot-bellied piggybanks and the beautiful garbo or perforated clay pot for the Navaratri festival. These articles are then dried on rooftops, under the sun and moon. When completely dry, these are coated with a red-ochre dip by the women of the house and arranged in an earthen kiln dug in the ground nearby, covered with fodder,wood shavings,cowdung cakes and fired till done, so that one could play a beat on the matka like a ghatam player!


Courtesy : Speaking Tree



The man-eater lion of Gir

Slowly and steadily, in the name of development, we are encroaching upon the lawful space of wild animals and birds. Recently, it was distressing to read about a Gir lion attacking a young boy in a village near Amreli. Immediately, one of these lions was proclaimed to be a man-eater. That very day, a concerned authority of North Gujarat made a frightening statement that since such incidents were increasing, people living in these areas should be allowed to keep firearms to kill the lions; if necessary. Any wild life enthusiast would dread this idea, as it is bad enough to have poachers and now, should we have armed villagers?  Immediately, what came to my mind, was my zoologist father Reuben David’s statement, “When a man kills an animal it is called bravery but when an animal kills a man it is called man-eater.”

This is exactly what is happening, soon after this incident, the entire Pride of Lions in Gir was caged, as the authorities were not sure, as to which of the ten lions was a man-eater. We agree that human life is precious, but the earth and certain habitats belong to other species, which inhabit the earth and they also need preservation. Maybe, they were caged as a form of punishment. In one image, there were seen in a trap-cage with dead cattle as food. To this, any wild life expert will tell you, that this act of confining these lions to cages, will only bring their ferocious instinct to the fore. So, with a sense of helplessness, we read another statement, where the lions are branded as blood thirsty. This is in a contrast to a programme, which appeared on a popular television show; few months back, which showed how well the Gir lions are looked after; and besides the usual forest staff, a group of women rangers were also employed there; so the show was titled “The Lion Queens of Gujarat.”  

Now, the question is; how do you identify a man-eater lion from the rest, so, it’s best to end this mystery with this quote from Jim Corbett, which is about tigers, but could be used for Big Cats in general and also our Lions,” Tigers, except when wounded or when man-eaters, are on the whole very good tempered…occasionally a tiger will object to too close an approach to its cubs or to a kill that it is guarding. The objection invariably takes the form of growling and if this does not prove effective, it is followed by short rushes accompanied by terrifying roars, if these warnings are disregarded, the blame for any injury inflicted entirely rests with the intruder.”  Other known reasons are that Big Cats become man-eaters when they cannot hunt due to an injury, old age, broken teeth, damaged claws, disturbance of habitat with construction work in the name of development and provocation. So, the question is, which one is it, that immediately a statement is issued that – fourteen lions are SUSPECTED of killing humans.  

Is this going to be the fate of the last of the endangered Asiatic Lions of Gir and how long are we going to encroach upon their territory in the name of  development projects, which are coming up in this area and push them into the list of extinct animals. Because, even if they are shifted to Madhya Pradesh; will they be able to withstand the tiger population. So, here, all we can do is quote Rudyard Kipling, “Words are, of course the most powerful drug used by mankind…”

In this context, I would like to raise a question – a news report on 29th November 2016 says that another person was attacked by a lion again, but the person survived, The question is, if the SUPPOSED MAN EATER LIONS are caged, which one is this lion? Is there a lack of natural food for lions that, they are attacking human beings? If wild life enthusiasts are reading this Blog, we request, please do whatever you can do…

(Esther David is founder member of the group – Friends of Reuben David)


All about Mothers – Esther David

This week, as the IPSC results were announced, it was interesting to read that many young women were at the forefront. So invariably one starts thinking about the Hindi film ‘Nil Battey Sannata.’ Here, some scenes show the protagonist Chanda and her daughter Apeksha, almost regularly have a quick dinner of noodles. As, today it is one of the easiest of meals in almost all sections of society. Some years back, when Lilaben, who looks after my home; returned after her son’s marriage, she was rather agitated, that her daughter- in-law, who works as a labourer; wanted noodles for breakfast, instead of chapattis. And, that her son obliged; was even more shocking for her. So, this scene in the film, did not surprise me, as Chanda, a single mother who works as a bai at her Doctor-Madam’s home and also does multi-tasking in a variety of menial jobs; has very little time and can only cook lunch in the mornings, specifically for her daughter Apeksha’s dabba.

The bright side of Chanda’s life is that; she has an affectionate relationship with her enlightened Doctor- Madam, who motivates her to go back to school and also inspire her reluctant daughter to study further; although Apeksha is convinced that she will follow her mother’s footsteps. But, Chanda has a dream. She wants Apeksha to join the Indian administrative services. And, after a long struggle; makes sure that she does.

The film stirred a deep chord within me, as it had so many tones to the complex mother-daughter relationship. If most women could be like Chanda and her Doctor-Madam, India would be a different place for women and the girl-child.

In contrast, the American film Mother’s Day with stars like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston; had other connotations, as women go through a variety of emotions as celebrations of Mother’s Day begin; and seemingly unconnected mothers and daughters come closer. Like the divorced mother of two comes to terms with her ex-husband’s new wife or a popular author, who had given up her daughter for adoption; but denies the relationship when she comes face to face with the child, now a grown up woman; but eventually accepts her. While another older woman gives a surprise visit to her two daughters’ and is shocked to meet each with partners she finds hard to accept, like an Asian husband of one and the lesbian relationship of the other. But, then; all’s well that ends well, when they eventually come to terms with their reality.

Interestingly, both films were released close to Mother’s Day, albeit with different story lines; yet, we realize that, when it comes to mothers and daughters, one need not celebrate this relationship for just one day, but if the bond is deep and strong, everyday could be; maybe, a special Mother-Daughters Day!


The Hand of Lakshmi

Why is it believed that Lakshmi lives in Ahmedabad? Find out with ESTHER DAVID

Goddess LakshmiIt is believed that Goddess Lakshmi lives in Ahmedabad and on Deepavali night,we wait for her, making beautiful rangolis, light clay lamps and welcome her.To mark this story, an eternal light is kept burning for her in an alcove of Teen Darwaza of the old city of Ahmedabad. There are many stories about the presence of Lakshmi in Ahmedabad. It is said, late one night, when the goddess stood at the entrance of the city, the guard allowed her to enter, left her there, locked the door from inside and went to take permission from the Sultan. He was beheaded for leaving the goddess standing alone at the gate.Then, the Sultan rushed to welcome her,but by then she had disappeared into the city. Another version is that the Sultan deliberately beheaded the guard so that Lakshmi could not leave the city.And, according to the third version, the goddess of wealth was already in the city; she wanted to leave and requested the guard to open the doors, but he did not; because, if she left,Ahmedabad would lose its prosperity. Since then, an eternal light burns in an alcove at the central arch of Three Gates, better known as Teen Darwaza.

For years, we saw Jabbar Mirza light a lamp here. It is said he belonged to the family of caretakers of the lamp.Today, he is no more, so instead of him, his wife looks after the lamp. There is yet another story attributed to Lakshmi, as Bhadra Fort is right opposite Teen Darwaza, which has the hand of Lakshmi. Women of most communities offer to it sindoor, lotus flowers and incense sticks.A straight road from here leads to her alcove where the eternal light burns for the devout.

Favourite Spot

Her hand is carved in low relief on the right-hand-side of the of the Fort gateway. It is above eye level and one can assume that she must be tall,but her palms were small like a young girl’s. But the length of her hand from wrist to elbow is that of an older woman.The level of the hand indicates that she may have been standing at this gate, resting her hand on the pillar, before entering the city. The ritual of lighting a lamp for Goddess Lakshmi is being practised for ages. It is interesting to note that it has become a form of worship to walk from Bhadra Fort to her alcove at Teen Darwaza. So, maybe, there is yet another story to Lakshmi’s arrival in Ahmedabad, as most commercial houses, even if they have larger establishments in the western side of the city, still function from small shops in the walled city because of a popular belief that Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, resides in the old city.

Courtesy : Speaking Tree



The Passover Table

Among my prized possessions is a book, gifted by my daughter for the Jewish festival of Passover. Known as Haggadah, it is the story of the Exodus, read during Passover.The book is illustrated with paintings by Marc Chagall in his distinct style and tells the story of the Exodus or the crossing of the Red Sea, when the Jews fled to safety from the persecution of their Egyptian masters, as seen in the film Ten Commandments. Since Moses received enlightenment to cross the sea and later received the Ten Commandments,he is shown with two rays of light emitting from his head — a metaphor of enlightenment. The Passover Seder is a ritualistic dinner that signifies order,arrangement and beauty.

As the ritualistic platter is spread on the table,the story of the liberation of Jews from ancient Egypt is retold.This is done year after year with the reading of the Haggadah with family and friends.Often, Indian Jews celebrate Passover together; at a hall or pavilion next to the synagogue, as our numbers are dwindling. Each person around the table participates in the revival of memory. A traditional Passover table in India is decorated with a fresh tablecloth,flowers, candles,a special platter of food symbolising the events,covered with a ceremonial textile, set with the best tableware. Unleavened bread is eaten during Passover,which is known as ‘bin-khameerchi- bhakri’ in Marathi by the Bene Israel Jews of western India. Passover is observed for seven days by eating unleavened bread in memory of the Exodus.This bhakri is hand rolled and roasted like a chapati and is different from matzo bread available in western countries, which is often factory- made.The Jews left Egypt in a hurry with unleavened dough wrapped in their meagre belongings.When they crossed the sea, they made bread with it and so it became symbolic of freedom from slavery and continues to be an integral part of the Passover Seder, as it is said,“He brought us forth from bondage to freedom, from grief to joy, from mourning to festivity, from darkness to great light.”

The Passover platter has bitter herbs to remind us of the hardships suffered by Jews, lemon juice to symbolise tears and the sweet date, sheera, which is similar to the mortar used to build the pyramids. A roasted shank bone is kept in memory of the sacrificial lamb, along with a boiled egg and bottles of wine, which are all symbolic of the elements of the earth. The Kabala or ancient text of Jewish mysticism explains the connection between human beings and the cosmic law, as it explores the connection between simple objects from the daily life of human beings and God, like the mezuzahon,the door post,Shabbat candles on the table and unleavened bread on the Passover Seder. A special goblet of wine for Prophet Elijah is kept aside on the Seder table, as it is believed that the prophet visits our homes during Passover.When a prayer is recited for him,the main door of the house is opened as a welcome. In Gujarat, we make sherbet of black currant in the absence of wine. The festival of Passover is a constant source of inspiration for Jews all over the world, as they pray for deliverance from injustice, which also means liberation from all forms of persecution in a global sense.

Courtesy : Speaking Tree :



Zoos and Provincial Intimacies or Diasporic Intimacy and Jewish Indian Experience by Kavita Daiya

The American literary scene has many robust literary traditions-African American Literature, Asian American writing, Jewish writing, immigrant writing-that illuminate the experience of being a minority, of being from elsewhere, and of reinventing home.  Svetlana Boym, the Harvard scholar and Russian émigré who passed away last month, too young, wrote eloquently about how migration inspires the invention of new forms of homeliness in one’s new country, often marked by an affectionate farewell nod to the homeland left behind: she calls this exilic or “diasporic intimacy.”  The Jewish Indian writer Esther David’s part novel part memoir Book of Esther speaks to both, the invention of diasporic intimacy, and American traditions of migrant and minority literatures.

Indian and Indian American fiction writers who address ethnic diversity and minority experience often dwell on regional as well as Hindu-Muslim differences (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Bharati Mukherjee,and others), and caste discrimination (Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Manil Suri).  In this arena, Canada-based Rohinton Mistry’s fiction revolving around Parsis or Zoroastrians, who migrated from Persia to India in the 8th to 10thcentury, offers a beautiful glimpse of a minority community that has made remarkable contributions to modern India.  Similarly, born into the Bene Israel community in India, Esther David vividly illuminates life in India’s small, ancient, and remarkable Jewish community. The Bene Israel are considered by some to belong to the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Accounts of their arrival vary: H. S. Kehimkar suggested that their ancestors washed ashore from a shipwreck off the Konkan coast, in Navgaon, when they were persecuted in the Galilee by Antiochus Epiphanes (173-163 B.C.E.).  Others, like D. J. Samson, argue that the Bene Israel arrived in India between 740 and 500 B.C.E.  Originally a farming and oil-pressing people, they held on to some Jewish customs and practices, while adopting Konkani dress, food, and the Marathi language.  Under British rule, they prospered and migrated to urban areas, where the establishment of synagogues, education, and travel revived their Jewish traditions.  As the Jewish genealogical journal Avotaynu notes, “The Bene Israel flourished for 2,400 years in a tolerant land [India] that has never known anti-Semitism, and were successful in all aspects of the socio-economic and cultural life of the people of the region.”However, emigration to the Americas, Europe, and Israel since1947-48 has left barely 4000 Bene Israel members in India today.

Esther David (b. 1945) grew up in the western city of Ahmedabad, spending much of her childhood in and near the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden established in 1951by her veterinarian father Reuben David.  Later, Reuben also founded the Natural History Museum in Ahmedabad. Trained as an artist, Esther David first wrote art criticism for leading newspapers like Times of India, before turning to fiction.  Unlike the award-winning work of India’s other Bene Israel writer, the late poet Nissim Ezekiel, Esther David’s large corpus of fiction revolves around the Bene Israel, and especially, women’s experience. Her novels and short stories are published in the US and India, and translated in multiple languages.  They straddle India, Israel, France, and the US, and have garnered recognition in India and abroad.  For example, the Hadassah-Brandeis University 2010-2011 calendar featured David’s novel Shalom India Housing Society as one of 12 international Jewish women’s works. In 2010, David won India’s highest literary honor-the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Book of Esther is an autobiographical novel; its multi-generational story of the Dandekar family is rooted in family tales, photographs, diaries, letters, and memories.  It begins in the nineteenth century with the story of a female protagonist Bathsheba who lives in a small village Danda, while her husband is off fighting wars as a soldier in the British army.  In four sections, each named for a central character in a generation-“Bathsheba,” “David,” “Joshua,” and “Esther”- the novel traces the lives and loves, marriages, migrations, and family conflicts of four generations.  The story of these many intimacies is tied up with how its characters navigate the vicissitudes of British colonial occupation, find work in the East India Company and the British army, win local elections, or become doctors; how they transmit, preserve, and perform Jewish traditions and identity in everyday life; how they throw in their lot with the Indian freedom struggle, plan to emigrate to Israel and America, or reinvent tradition and belonging in independent India.

The characters of Book of Esther are drawn in bold brush strokes that make them endearing and memorable: for instance, Bathsheba embraces an unconventional gender role, when, as a woman living in a hamlet, she expertly starts running the family farm because her soldier-husband is away.  From Bathsheba and Solomon’s marriage, to her conflicts with her daughter Tamara, and the failures of romance and marriage in the lives of Tamara and later, Esther, we see strong Jewish women who negotiate complex diasporic intimacies—fragile, emergent, and at times, dispossessing. The narrative is littered with details that lend texture and color to these stories about minority intimacies.  When David describes Jewish traditions performed in the rituals of birth, marriage, food, death, and festivals by the various characters, the intermingling of local languages and practices with Jewish custom illuminates the startling hybridity of Jewish Indian everyday life.  This is a rarely visible India on the global stage—one that David wonderfully opens up for us.  For instance, one day, Bathsheba and Solomon make a pilgrimage to a stunning rocky clearing in a small hamlet Sagav where it is said Prophet Elijah had appeared: “They washed their feet in the clear water of the pond and walked around Eliyahu Hannabi cha tapa as one did in a temple. Abigayail had whispered to Bathsheba that Eliyahu Hannabi was their Ganesha. All auspicious occasions started with the Eliyahu Hannabi, the same way that the Hindus started everything with the Ganesh sthapan.  In the land of idols, the relic was an image which helped the Bene Israel relate to their prophet.” (43)

This moment of cross-cultural translation is not an urbane and elite cosmopolitanism; it unveils instead a vernacular intermingling of cultures as a practice of survival, on the one hand, and of exuberant invention and bricolage in rural and provincial spaces, on the other. This is an intensely provincial hybridity; it links with how the novel conveys the internal diversity of India’s Jewish community, comprised of Bagdadi Jews, Cochin Jews, and the Bene Israel Jews.  For instance, Esther’s account of her famous aunt Dr. Jerusha, one of India’s first women doctors, illustrates how skin color and racism get intertwined under colonialism and divide the Jewish community. Although in love, Dr. Jerusha and her colleague Dr. Ezra, a Bagdadi Jew, could never get married.  The Bagdadi Jews traditionally scorned the Bene Israel as inauthentic and darker skinned—and so Jerusha’s father David refuses to allow her to marry him.

The Dandekar men in Book of Esther are a motley crew: fascinating, intrepid, and at times, inflexible patriarchs who, across the generations, move from the farm in Alibaug to urban professional lives as elected representatives (David), doctors, and vets (Joshua, Samuel, and others).  Section three “Joshua” revolves around an eponymous character modeled on David’s father Reuben.  It beautifully captures how Joshua, like Reuben, starts out as a professional hunter who arranges hunts for the local royal families, but ends up a tireless conservationist. After his father David coaxes him into completing a British correspondence degree in veterinarian studies, Joshua becomes a self-taught zoologist and taxidermist who establishes Ahmedabad’s first zoo—the Hill Garden Zoo. For his path-breaking conservation work, Reuben David was awarded the Indian Government’s fourth highest honor the Padma Shri in 1975.The novel depicts seminal moments in Joshua’s life-when the then Prime Minister Nehru visits the zoo, and Joshua’s encounters with panthers, ostriches, and lion cubs that arrive there—effectively conveying the mutual affection, compassion, and respect that mark his relationships with the zoo’s denizens.  Esther’s account of growing up with “Joshua and his menagerie,” her startling and at times humorous depiction of the deeply touching bonds between its human and non-human inhabitants, is one of the most unique, resonant, and strangely moving parts of the book.

The final section “Esther” is the most autobiographical; it also returns to the questions about marriage and intimacy raised earlier, as they appear in Esther’s tumultuous life.  It is a frank and honest memoir of her experiences of sexual and domestic violence, custody battles, poverty, and loneliness.  Even as friends, lovers, and husbands move in and out of her life from America and Paris, we see David becoming an artist and a writer as a single mother. There is the story of her rediscovery of her Jewish heritage, her son’s disability, her migration to Israel and Paris even as she watches young men leaving for the United States, and eventually Esther’s reinvention of identity and diasporic intimacy, as both Jewish and Indian.

Spanning the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, with characters that travel across villages and countries, from Alibaug to Bombay, Ahmedabad, America, Paris, and Tel Aviv, Book of Esther paints a charming, vivid, and surprising picture of spirited Indian Jewish men and women who defy convention, and fashion provincial, cross-cultural intimacies.  Like her other works Book of Rachel and The Walled Citythe novel is rooted in the flavor and color of the local particularity of the Jewish communities in the Konkan, and in Ahmedabad.  Simultaneously, it poignantly depicts people shaped by the long, global experience of dispersal and diaspora, and its provincial beauty–one that resonates in uncanny ways with American writing on minority experience.

Kavita Daiya

Visiting NEH Chair in the Humanities, 2015-2016

Albright College

Associate Professor of English

George Washington University

Histories of Migration and Violence Digital Archive:
Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender and National Culture in Postcolonial India(paperback)
Associate Editor, South Asian Review



Meet the Author – Esther David

Sahitya AkademiSahitya Akademi cordially invites you to Meet the Author – Esther David, on 3rd April 2016 in Ahmedabad.

Time – 6 pm

Venue – Gujarat Sahitya Parishad, Govardhan Bhavan,

Behind Times of India, Ashram Road,


Since 1987, Sahitya Akademi, periodically arranges a programme called “Meet the Author” in which a distinguished writer is invited to speak on his life and works so that other writers and scholars have a deep and personal understanding of the writer and his writings. The speech lasting for about 40 minutes is usually followed by a lively discussion for another 30 to 40 minutes. The programme is open for all.



Memorial Service

In Gujarat, the word Besna or Besnu means getting together for the memorial service of a person who has recently died. As a rule, announcements of a death appear in newspapers, along with a passport size photograph of the deceased. Besna, also means to sit down, but the larger connotation of the word Besnu is with death. This is when people are invited to meet the grieving family for a few hours, a day after the funeral. Normally, for the Besna ceremony mourners dress in white, as the Besna ceremony, either inside or outside the house is in white, where mattresses covered with white sheets are spread on the floor or chairs are kept aside for the aged. Except for family members, we do not stay for more than five to ten minutes, as we express our condolences by offering flowers at the photograph, then offer condolences to the family with folded hands, stay for a while; and leave in silence.

During the last few years, I have never been to a Besna, as I prefer to meet the family on some other day or write a letter expressing my grief.

But, this week, I went to a Besna, when a dear friend’s mother died and I received a sms saying, ”Our beloved mother left for her heavenly abode  on…. the Besna is arranged on…at…from 4 to 6 p.m. So, I decided to go for the Besna and what I saw was totally different from what I had known in the past. It was in a prayer hall inside a temple, but instead of silence, there was a bhajan group; singing old Gujarati songs, like,”…after all we are toys of ash…” With such songs, the entire atmosphere was charged with emotion and it was with great difficulty that I could control my tears…

Courtesy : Speaking Tree