Being Jewish in Ahmedabad

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The Walled City (Library of Modern Jewish Literature)  By Esther DavidDavid belongs, like the poet Nissim Ezekiel, to the Bene Israel tribe which settled in India over 2000 years ago. The Walled City is the story of a Jewish girl’s coming of age in the very Hindu city of Ahmedabad. The girl David writes about lives in the area between Relief Road, Delhi Darwaza and Khamasa, a neighbourhood in which the Jewish extended family to which she belongs rubs shoulders with Hindus and Muslims, in a variety of roles, domestics, vendors and neighbours. Though the novel is supposedly fiction, it reads like a work of non fiction because it is so close to every day life as experienced by the Jewish diaspora in Ahmedabad.

One can only guess at the period in which the book is set because there is no reflection of the political upheavals sweeping the subcontinent, however, it seems to be set in the 1950’s. The children go to convent schools and their way of life is dominated by English values and English speech. They do not belong to their neighbourhood and yet, at the heart lies a yearning – the narrator, who has no name, wants to be a Hindu like her friend Subhadra. She finds ‘the colourful and noisy Hindu temple an easier place to pray in’ than the synagogue. When she grows up and falls in love with the princely Raphael who comes from a superior tribe of Baghdadi Jews, she goes up to him with a whispered Krishna leela on her lips as a prayer for good luck instead of a traditional Hebrew one.

There are glimpses of life in other communities. Mandakini, a Jain girl who was loved by the narrator’s Cousin Samuel, decides to become a nun. And her renunciation is described, the girl leaving in a silver chariot drawn by white horses with musicians playing in front of her, to a place where each hair on her head with be torn out and where she will leave her shoes and her former self behind.

“David’s prose is textured and lyrical, full of the glitter of lahengas and the clash of bangles, the colour and brightness of a world the narrator cannot possess.”

The narrator’s life is a restricted one, walled in as she calls it. Around the close knit ghetto, despite the friends and neighbours from other communities is a strangely threatening environment. She mentions riots but without going into details. ‘There are guns and rifles. Outsiders, say the newspapers, are creating the disturbances…Doors locked. What is your religion?’ Nothing more enunciated than this. Her uncles decide to move to a housing colony where the neighbours will be Christians and Parsis, people of their kind of Book. ‘The riots have erupted again and the poison creepers grow like huge fishing nets…’ A relation is found dead on the street, stabbed in the stomach.

The narrator’s religion separates her from the rest of her known world. She cannot fall in love with a Hindu or Moslem because that is against the laws of her community. At the same time there is a shortage of Jewish partners – cousins are forbidden because close blood ties spoil the genes. And Raphael is too superior to really notice her, especially since he is sent abroad to study. There is of course, the possibility of migrating to Israel as many community members are doing, but in lingers like the threat of the riots in an undercurrent to the text.

A sense of hopelessness keeps returning as people leave or die and the narrator’s world shrinks smaller and smaller. David’s prose is textured and lyrical, full of the glitter of lahengas and the clash of bangles, the colour and brightness of a world the narrator cannot possess. Not that the envied Subhadra is any happier. She dies mysteriously protesting at being forced to marry a man much older than she is and one whom she does not love. The narrator, filled with love for Raphael, in the end does not marry, her task to look after the elders in her extended family.

David lives in Ahmedabad, though not in her original neighbourhood, which may be some kind of comment on how painful it was to live there.

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Being Jewish in Ahmedabad
by Esther David

One Comment on "Being Jewish in Ahmedabad"

  1. koshkha
    18/05/2010 at 16:17 Permalink

    What a fascinating book. We visited the Synagogue in Cochin a few years ago and there was only one woman there under the age of about 40 and no young men left at all. It was sad to hear that she was unlikely to be able to ever marry because the pool of potential suitors was empty.

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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