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A Passage to Gujarat

Esther David’s novels chronicle a community of Jews in a province riddled with ethnic violence

Amy Rosenberg
June 04, 2008

In early 2002, in India’s western state of Gujarat, a caravan of Hindu extremists died in a fire on board a train after a scuffle with Muslims on a station platform exploded into mob fury. In response, gangs of armed Hindus stormed the state’s biggest cities, and three days of gruesome rioting ensued: A fetus, according to newspapers, was ripped from its mother’s womb, young girls were gang-raped, a prominent politician was sliced apart limb by limb, and as many as two thousand Hindus and Muslims—mostly the latter—perished. During one brief lull in the violence, writer Esther David, a lifelong resident of Gujarat’s capital, Ahmedabad, slipped out of her house to stock up on some food at the market. She was stopped short by what she saw in front of her: Under a white sheet lay a naked corpse. It was a neighbor, a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man. She’d been attacked with swords and left to die.

David’s house was in a dangerous area, on the border of a predominantly Muslim neighborhood known as “Mini-Pakistan” and a predominantly Hindu one called Gupta Nagar. But David belongs to neither camp—she’s Jewish. And while the tiny population of Jews in India proudly proclaims its country as the only one in the world where Jews have never been persecuted (though historians report pogroms against them on the southwest coast in the sixteenth century, during the Portuguese Inquisition), being Jewish in India has never been simple. “Growing up, it was always an inner thing,” David says. “It happened behind closed doors. Most people around us didn’t understand what we were.” The 2002 riots made that lack of understanding precarious and inspired a new kind of fear. “It was the fear of being mistaken,” says David. “We are a minority. We have a mixture of Biblical and Indian names. And our sons are circumcised. It was the fear of mistaken identity.”

In a tense city like Ahmedabad, such a fear is understandable. Geographically, it’s cut in two by a river, the Sabarmati (which, incidentally, lent its name to the train whose torching set off the riots, the Sabarmati Express). To the east of the river lies an ancient district, its timeworn wall still visible; to the west is a newer district, full of malls, high-rises, and new housing developments. Politically, it’s a center for Hindu fundamentalism, the heart of a state that largely supports India’s right-wing religious party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and that is led by a man whose admirers sometimes compare him to Hitler. (Hitler himself has been hailed as a great man in state-approved school textbooks.) And demographically, it’s defined by tacit rules of segregation: Hindus in their localities; Muslims in theirs, Jews, Christians, and Parsis mixed together in the spaces left over.

Even before the riots, many of the 160 Jewish families left in Ahmedabad—most of the two thousand or so who lived there at the time David was born had relocated to Israel beginning in the 1950s, seeking new blood for marriage and life as part of a majority—moved to an apartment complex on the western side of the Sabarmati. At first David declined to join them. She wanted to remain near the center, close to the cultural hub of the place (Ahmedabad is also renowned for its art schools, textile production, and dance programs), in the house where, except for a handful of years in France and a few failed attempts to settle in Israel, she’d lived since childhood. But soon the fear of violence became overwhelming, and David moved, too. To come to terms with the upheavals—personal and societal—she knew she needed to write about them. The result, her sixth book and fourth novel, Shalom India Housing Society, was brought out this past fall by the Delhi-based publisher Women Unlimited (like most of her other works it will probably be translated from English into Gujarati for her home audience, and also published in France and the United States). It examines the lives of Ahmedabad’s Jews after the riots and, more generally, outlines the hopes and insecurities that shape individuals who make up a dwindling minority.

Like most of the Hindu women around her—and like many other Indian women, Jews included—David wears bright saris and sports a giant red bindi on her forehead. Her grey, flowing locks contrast strikingly with her dark skin. “If you saw me on the street,” she says, “you wouldn’t know that I’m Jewish.” But from a young age David has felt bewilderingly aware of her hidden difference. “When I was growing up, it was a matter of great confusion to be Indian in nearly every way, but to have a Biblical name and say my prayers in Hebrew,” she says. “People around us, my friends, believed in many gods, while we had the Book. Their religion was full of sound and color, while we had, except for a few festivals, just prayers. I felt very apart from everyone.”

Her sense of separation was furthered by the fact that her parents were not religious, while most of the families she grew up among were strictly observant. When she was very young, she and her parents lived with her grandmother, who kept the Sabbath and attended synagogue regularly; David was passionately attached to her. But when she was seven, her parents moved with her across the city, where her father began building a zoo. The focus of her life shifted, and the warmth and religious tradition that her grandmother embodied disappeared, a painful experience David fictionalized in her first novel, The Walled City. “My father believed more in Darwinism than in Judaism,” she says. “All we had after the move was a mezuzah at the door. It was an exciting life, growing up with birds and animals, but it made me even more different—being Jewish, but not quite, and having a zoo as a playground.”

It took decades for David to reestablish a connection to Judaism. Exposed to art and literature from an early age by her father, whose interests tended as much toward the intellectual as the zoological, and by a distant cousin, Nissim Ezekiel, India’s most famous Jew and one of its best-known poets, David studied sculpture and art history at the University of Baroda, got married, had two children—and soon found herself a single mother. Needing to earn a living, she taught art classes and held exhibitions, but she found herself longing to write. It wasn’t until she hit her mid-fifties that she found the time and space to do so.

Since then, she has made up for lost time. By the Sabarmati, a short story collection with a focus on the plight of women in a patriarchal society, swiftly followed The Walled City. Soon after came The Book of Esther, a sweeping historical novel that depicts five generations of Jews who belong, as David does, to the Bene Israel tribe (one of four distinct groups of Jews in India). It was the process of writing that book that rekindled David’s interest in her religion. “Being Jewish, and spending a long time running from my Jewish self,” she explains, “is what made me a writer. And then it was only in writing that I was able to understand myself, my family, and where I came from. I still cannot follow the religion like other Indian Jews, but, through research and a sense of history, I am now more spiritually Jewish.” Two subsequent books have allowed David further exploration: a children’s story called In My Father’s Zoo, based on the experiences of her youth, and The Book of Rachel, about an aging widow in southwestern India whose children, along with most of the rest of her community, have emigrated to Israel.

But it is Shalom India Housing Society that most directly takes up the question of what it means to be Jewish in a place where Judaism is disappearing and has never been entirely understood to begin with. The book consists of brief, elliptical vignettes (a style characteristic of all David’s writing), each one outlining the life of a different resident in a Jewish apartment complex. As the residents go about their daily business—sending children to school, commuting across the river to work, readying themselves for the annual costume contest hosted by their synagogue—the younger generation struggles to free itself from the traditionalism and insecurities of its elders. Those elders, meanwhile, desperately hold on to their culture, clinging to it all the more tightly in the aftermath of the riots. Diana, a homely young woman jilted by her childhood sweetheart, shocks her family and friends when she runs off with a Hindu man. Yael, a teenager raised by her mother and spinster aunt, rebels when she is forbidden to appear at the costume contest in a chaniya choli—a long, swingy skirt and backless blouse, typical attire for Hindu girls from Gujarat—donning a friend’s anyway and dancing in it in front of the whole community. Ben Hur, a design student, convinces his Hindu girlfriend to convert to Judaism, but cannot convince his mother to accept her. At times the sketchiness of the stories makes for frustrating reading, with whole sections of characters’ lives glossed over in places, or narratives so loosely structured that they have little focus. But taken together, the vignettes lay out a poignant tale of a group never quite at home in its homeland.

In India, there are only a few English-language print publications that publish literary reviews in significant numbers, and the book-blogging community, though active, is small. But one review of Shalom India Housing Society has appeared in a national magazine, Business Standard, and the reviewer’s response is revealing: “It’s not a great work of art,” Mitali Saran writes, “but it is a nice piece of social anthropology, with a good deal of heart thrown in.” It is, indeed, for her social anthropology—her chronicling of the Bene Israel way of life—that David is probably best known. The Walled City, for example, is frequently referred to as the “first Indian Jewish novel.” And, for non-Indian readers (and probably a good number of non-Jewish Indians), part of the attraction of the new book is its presentation of anthropologically fascinating facts about Ahmedabad’s Jews (for example, that they worship the prophet Elijah, making pilgrimages to a rock in south India where he is said to have rested on his way to heaven and hanging small posters of him, white-bearded and pink-robed, in their homes). But to focus on such facts is to pay too little attention to David’s rendering of the inner lives of people whose way of life is disappearing and whose identities are insecure.

For David, on a personal level, such insecurity is uncomfortable but ultimately transitory. “My home is in Ahmedabad,” she says, “despite the dangers of living here. There is comfort in that.” But beyond that she speaks of a larger hope. “We are able to keep ourselves together here,” she says. “But even if we don’t survive in this place, we have Israel. We have a place to go.”