Deccan Herald – Review of AHMEDABAD: CITY WITH A PAST –

THE SOUL OF A CITY – by Maya Jaypal


This is the work of a miniaturist, who by definition is an artist whose specialty is small discreet works. Esther David is a miniaturist describing the city she grew up in, accompanied by exquisite hand-drawn-almost like etchings of the city’s foibles, chosen for their unusual environments. Her admiration and acknowledgement of the impact of Ahmedabad on her life comes through…. the style is easy, inviting the reader into her world.

Leena Misra Indian Express, Books “City of Memories” – 9-4-2016

Leena Misra is Resident Editor of Indian Express, Ahmedabad.

From Zen, the opulent industrialist’s home, in the newer Satellite area of Ahmedabad, to the love story of Sparky and Mandy, a three legged stray and his mate, in a not-so-new part of Ahmedabad, Esther David takes the reader through a 140 page nostalgic tour of the city, through its many peoples, places, fables, in her latest book : Ahmedabad :City with a Past. Through this narrative, David tries connecting the old and new Ahmedabads only to find that while one moves on, the other lives in memories. You meet the citizens of a diverse city : Ramattar, the tea vendor outside the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Mohmed Isaq, the autorickshaw-wala who tells her the story of the remains of the city’s fortwall, or Aunty Mary, who runs a restaurant serving Goan food in Khanpur. …The author’s nostalgia about the traditional Ahmedabad when women sat with huge sev-making machines to fry the chickpea flour snacks, or when children went about with rock salt collecting sabras ( raw rock crystals) on new year, on the eastern bank of the Sabarmati river, does not reconcile with the Ahmedabad where people eat out, and ride Mercedes Benz and Porches. For her it is a city split into Hindu and Muslim Ahmedabad.

.…The book begins with the detailing of Zen, a lavish glass house of an industrialist where she was a guest, where food lifts took meals up to rooms and its members rarely dined together on the glass dining table. …It is contrasted to the obstinate dining table of her own home in old Ahmedabad. It was transported out of the old house with great difficulty and refused to enter the new homes of the family. “With time, it has become larger, as it absorbed the load of our memories. It could not be forced into smaller tenements or apartments.” It finally ended up as a small coffee table which moved with her to an apartment near Zen, where she held a rather reluctant housewarming party.

Paul John – The Times of India – 13-2-2016


(Esther David’s book depicts Ahmedabad, a city, that is at the crossroads)

History rarely mentions grandmothers. Yet, grandmother Shebabeth was the first ‘illiterate’ historian for Sahitya Akademi Award winner Esther David in her childhood. Shebabeth and her housemaid Mani introduced five year Esther to a rich tapestry of myths, legends and stories about the multi-cultural city of Ahmedabad.

About 64 years later Esther has finally revealed these living images to Amdavadis in her latest book, Ahmedabad : A City with a Past. Esther is credited to being a pioneer of Indo-Jewish literature, but this new book is her first ‘non-fiction’ venture…her narrative explores Ahmedabad, a city that stands today at the intersection of ancient monuments and modern-day high-rises and glitzy malls. Esther brings to the fore how the Walled City was an inspiration for founding fathers of modern architecture…The author says,”The Ahmedabad I knew, exists in my mind. I often recreate it, with its fables and city stories, which are the soul of the city. I wrote this book to capture that imagery, which will soon be lost.”

Dr.Shweta Rao Garg – Assistant Professor, DA-IICT Ahmedabad –

Ahmedabad : City with a Past – April 2016

Reading this book is like talking a walk in the crowded walled city of Ahmedabad – it is fast paced, it takes you in a quick succession from one street to another, from one alleyway to the next, from the overbridge to under, from slums to plush malls, from medieval temples to dargahs. It is but natural that you are swayed way, lost in the labyrinths of the city, but hold on tight to the book, the author and the memory keeper, Esther David will guide you back safely in her favoured auto rickshaw for a breather at the banks of Sabarmati River, then drop you near one of the old gates, just so that you may lose yourself in the city and its past, yet again.

Shruti Panniker – Ahmedabad Mirror – Ahmedabad : City with a Past – 14-3-2016


Her ground floor apartment in Gulbai Tekra houses cupboards that swell with an impressive collection of books. Amid Shakespeare, Darwin, Gabriel García Márquez and her own novels, a book of fairytales shyly peeks out. Ask her, and she smiles, “That is my daughter’s favourite, and mine, too! “ There’s something else that makes her smile, too. A smile that reaches her eyes when talking about Ahmedabad. That’s author Esther David for you, who speaks about her city of her birth with a fondness that cannot go unnoticed.

David, also a columnist and an art critic who illustrates her own novels, is ready with her new book, Ahmedabad City with a Past. She celebrates Ahmedabad like none else -through words, drawings and of course, love.David believes there are two Ahmedabads within the city. “After 600 years, this city still lives, it has survived time. It has vibrancy, is full of life and retains its rich heritage through architecture, life styles, arts and food, “explains David, adding “We have two Ahmedabads. And I’m fine with it. Why?
Because cities exist in the mind and Ahmedabad exists in mine. “ She goes on to explain the east and west sides -the old and the `new’ co-exist.David, whose father founded the Ahmedabad zoo, also reveals how much of works went into the book that took four years to take shape. “

The Old City is holding onto its own, onto its tradition in a unique way,“ says David, adding that Ahmedabad is “my stage where I set my novels“.She writes about the Jewish life in India, belonging to the “small Bene Israel Jewish community“. And this book ensures the reader hitch-hikes a rickshaw ride into the walled city, to absorb its varied hues, laced with rich fables and wonderful stories.

Letter from Nissim Ezekiel – ….your writing is a formidable work of literary art.

Namita Gokhale-Biblio – The Walled City has a Jewish subject, which is uniquely Indian.

Le Figaro by Marie-France Calle – Esther David evokes a world of colourful  Indian Jewish characters, bringing to mind Isaac Bashevis Singer’s evocation of the Shetetls in Poland and the Dybukks haunting them. (Shetetls are Jewish dwelling places or Jewish villages in East Europe and Dybukks are spirits or ghosts which possess people according to Polish folklore.)

The Hindu  by Rivka Israel – With Book of Esther, Esther David has done for the Bene Israel, what Rohinton did for Parsis.

Alain and Christian Londner wrote – After writing the poetic novel “The Walled City” around the city of Ahmedabad and the delicious “Book of Rachel” which dealt with the heritage of food and old monuments, “Shalom India Residence” is constructed in a brilliant manner with Jewish portraits facing a universal predicament of the human situation. It expresses their cross-cultural conflicts as they try to preserve their rites and rituals, a phenomenon faced by most people today, as we live multicultural lives. Written in a manner reminiscent of famed French Jewish author Georges Perec’s novel “La Vie mode d’emploi “ meaning – “Life A user’s Manual.” Actually, this novel is like a kosher sauce and has a series of brilliant stories about the lives of Bene Israel Jews, a mini-microscopic community of India. It is a splendid novel, as the narration runs through the novel with a certain sour-sweet humour and brings into focus the in-defeat able spirit of its characters.

Ranjit Hoskote-Gentleman – This book is a celebration of colours, fragrances, rituals, textures and variously coded emotions of a vanished milieu. A living archive, it is a visit to the childhood museum.

Amy Kazmin – The Jerusalem Report – A potent ground breaking powerful novel, which is brutally honest.

Randhir Khare- Indian Review of Books – Jewish literature has down the ages, displayed a unique ability to flow in continuity like an underground river. Esther David’s first novel catches mystical and magical rhythms of life with an individual voice, which enriches the novel.

The Hindu – It is indeed rare to find a writer in Indian English who responds to her environment and the spiritual and cultural heritage.

The Sunday Express – The Peacocks Tale by Kishwar Ahluwalia – A Jewish woman traces her ancestry. The result is a vivacious Indian story.

Bachi Karkaria – Times of India, Sunday review – The circumscribed lives of women, span thresholds and tragedies. It is a canvas of small things, which take the form of big shadows on the wall.

Business Standard – Book of Esther is a masterpiece in story telling.

The Sunday Express – The Peacocks Tale by Kishwar Ahluwalia – A Jewish woman traces her ancestry. The result is a vivacious Indian story. Delicately woven between memory and fiction, Book of Esther reminds one of a fine tapestry where humans, birds, animals coexist in myriad kaleidoscopic hues. Each thread of the elegant deftly chosen colors spins life and stirs the elements.

Sunday Midday by Bachi Karkaria – I couldn’t put your book down and the fact that it is by you and about you was not the only reason. I found it warm, subtle and from the heart. The book deafened me to the Diwali bursting all around me for reasons bigger than gender benders. Its undercurrents was about people, indeed the whole community trying to find a honorable compromise between assimilation and individuality.

The Jerusalem Post by Shalva Weil – Book of Esther is East of Esther’s Persia, a full scale Jewish novel of the unique Bene Israel community of India.

India Today – Special Issue – by Geeta Doctor – It is a raw mango of a book, as sweet and tart as the memories of an Indian childhood….to most people it would consist one portion of R.K.Narayan, the sheer exuberance of Malgudi, a dash of sentimentality from Tagore’s Kabuliwallah…David, uses the recipes she has garnered to tell Rachel’s story with the same zest and involvement, which Rachel employed to cook for her family.

Sahara Time – by A.J.Thomas – Book of Rachel by Esther David is an astonishing specimen of a novel. It has a unique structure in that the author captions each chapter with the name of a dish found in a rare recipe of Bene Israel and follows the recipe through its entirety…the acclaim that Esther David is receiving is like a well-cooked Jewish dish, this novel too appeals to the taste buds of the cultured reader.

Femina – by Manju Ramanan – Rachel, a Bene Israel woman uses food to please, ensnare, establish control as well as entertain various characters of the novel. Food is her arena. Her platform to rule the world.

Mans World – by Jerry Pinto – Esther David is one of those quiet miniaturists who captures Jewish life in India in her novel Book of Rachel, without resorting to too much romanticism or too much nostalgia.

Saima Shakil Husain – Dawn – Karachi – In the literary tradition of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate(1992)and Marsha Mehran’s Pomegranate Soup(2005), Ahmedabad native Esther David has cooked up the often mouth watering Book of Rachel which lovingly depicts India’s fast diminishing Bene Israel (Jewish) community through its culinary arts…the title of the book has an ‘Old Testament” feel to it; encouraging one to expect a narrative involving one of the heroes or prophets of the ancient Israelites. Indeed the novel’s protagonist Rachel is something of a heroine…as a tribute to the ancient myth about the origins of the community – seven couples survived a shipwreck – invokes an emotion similar to that inspired by the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Deepika Shetty – The Sunday Tribune –… when I think of Gujarat I think of a lot of things, colour, humility and above all these women, strong women who have emerged in their own right from Bhavnagar to Bhuj and from Ahmedabad to Surat. The images that spring in the mind are those of women, strong, independent and always on the go…..Esther with her clever pen and equally adept brush strokes sketches out the sharp, jagged tip of the iceberg variety kind of stories, which challenge you and probe you to ask questions….Esther’s writing has its roots in real life, invariably all the stories are imbued with a deep sense of realism….some stories begin with an idea, some with an image. As images of Gujarat reverberate in each story, the message in each of the stories is universal. Yes, there are Pols, the Guptanagar slums, but the victories and defeats of the women in the Pols speak louder than the local context in which they are represented.

There are strong metaphors, chilling endings, but each of the stories keeps you asking for more.

Hindustan Times – Khushwant Singh – 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 being 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.

About Esther David by Subashree Krishnaswamy

In the firmament of Indian writing in English, Esther David’s voice is like none other. Refusing to be pigeonholed, boldly defying categorisation, Esther remains… well, quintessentially herself. Her writing is much like Dilhi Darwaza, her favourite haunt in Ahmedabad: colourful, irrepressible, bustling with life, zesty, where people from every class jostle for space, where the seamier side of life is unabashedly and unapologetically displayed. Above all, it speaks tellingly of the human condition.

Esther set the tone with her impressive debut, The Walled City, which is set in Ahmedabad, the city of walls. The ingenious title runs like a metaphor throughout the novel, where walls of all kinds exist. Written in the first person, it traces the lives of three generations of a large extended Jewish family, as seen through the eyes of an impressionable a young girl.  The sheer exuberance she sees around her – the gods, the festivities, and the symbols – to which she is irresistibly drawn, is in sharp contrast to her strict, almost spartan upbringing, dictated by her religion. She struggles, she rebels, she fights, she submits, yet never gives up the valiant search to carve her identity. She tries to make sense of a life, torn apart not only by conflicting personal emotions but by a city divided, seething with tension, where old values have crumbled.

Yet Ahmedabad remains home, from which she can never escape. Esther brings her artist’s sensibility to the novel: no detail escapes her eye, and the imagery is fresh and startling. The characters – the parents, the grandparents, the cousins and old retainers – crowd our minds, refusing to leave, even long after we put the book down. We share the vicissitudes of the protagonist – who tantalizingly remains unnamed – making them our very own, as we wait breathlessly to learn about her fate. The book is well produced, enlivened by Esther’s charming sketches.

In her second book, By the Sabarmati, Esther recreates the lives of women who live in the fringes of society, people who we might meet every day, but people who we never notice. An outcome of a project aimed at creating social awareness, it is a plucky effort – not many writers in English are given to writing about people who don’t speak English.  Slipping off her shoes, Esther walks barefoot with them, laughing and crying, sharing their joys and sorrows. Investing them with the dignity they deserve, she shares with us their courageous tales, deftly drawing out their creativity in the process.

There is just one word to describe Book of Esther: gutsy. Many an author has been known to borrow extensively from family lore and legend, but not many would admit to doing so. Esther firmly states that the book is loosely based on her family. Deeply personal and unflinchingly honest, she chronicles the lives of a prodigiously talented Jewish family (characters all), sweeping across places, generations and times with a deft and sure hand. It is about discovering a Jewish heritage in an alien ethos, about being a miniscule minority in India, about wanting to belong, yet desperately holding on to one’s identity. Sliding effortlessly between fact and fiction, the anecdotes, by turns moving, funny and poignant, flow effortlessly.

The novel begins in the nineteenth century, with the redoubtable Bathsheba steering the fortunes of the family, which finally chooses Ahmedabad as home. The descendants inherit the healing teach; but Joshua, defying tradition, chooses to tend to the voiceless, founding the city’s first zoo. Esther, sensitive and unusual, shaped by her unusual upbringing, the legacy of which hangs heavy, struggles to find her identity and roots. The journey takes her across continents, to Israel andFrance, only to find its way back to the nest – Ahmedabad – like a homing pigeon.

The impressive novel is not merely a chronicle of a Jewish family; it is the testimony of survivors.

Esther, author, artist and columnist, is a gifted storyteller who steadfastly refuses to compromise to suit the market. She grapples with issues that concern her, and in the process showcases realities that are universal. Reading is a sharing experience, yes, but with Esther readers make a kind of secret bonding, as if she were speaking to them alone.

Subashree Krishnaswamy

(Subashree Krishnaswamy was Editor of Indian Review of Books and editor of Esther David’s first novel THE WALLED CITY)


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