In Conversation: Esther David by Shweta Rao Garg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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