Bombay Brides: Esther David on her book about a Jewish housing society, the women who inhabit it
Author Esther David's interest in Indian Jewish traditions grew from a need to understand herself better
In the late 50s, Esther David was in Mumbai for a cousin’s wedding when she discovered a housing society in Jacob Circle, where a lot of Jews lived. Born and brought up in a house in Ahmedabad, she was intrigued by this concept – members of her community living in different apartments in the same complex. Over five decades later, in 2012, she was in the city again when she stumbled upon another such housing society, near a synagogue in Thane. Given their diminishing numbers – many Indian Jews had emigrated to Israel and other countries in the decades since – the society stood for a wonderful sense of preservation.
A similar housing society forms the base of Bombay Brides, David’s latest work. The novel takes us into Shalom India Housing Society, a fictional complex in Ahmedabad inhabited primarily by members of the Jewish community – they live in Block A, while other communities are in Block B. Through interlinked stories, we’re introduced to a host of characters like Ezra, the building secretary; Salome, the caretaker; Sharon, a music teacher, and the various tenants who move in and out of A-107, an apartment owned by Juliet and Romiel (Rahul) a Jewish-Hindu couple who get married and move to Israel.
David decided to place the society in Ahmedabad, as it’s a city she knows best. “I believe in what RK Narayan said, that you write about what you know best. All my novels and books are set here.”
A common thread running through many of the stories is marriage – as members of the society get together to match-make, with some moving to and from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, Alibaug, Panvel and Pen. It’s also how the novel’s title came about. “In the 1850s, a lot of young Jewish men moved from Alibaug to Ahmedabad, as part of the British services. And when it was time for them to get married, they started looking for brides in Bombay. Soon Jewish women from Bombay were moving to Ahmedabad. Today, many Jewish women in Ahmedabad are from Bombay,” says David, over a phone interview from Ahmedabad.
Bombay Brides takes an evocative look at the rites, rituals and traditions of the Bene Israel, a community of Jews that settled in the Konkan belt centuries ago – many speak fluent Marathi. They pray to Prophet Elijah – almost every house in Shalom India has his framed picture. David, herself a Bene Israel Jew, did not grow up in a particularly religious household – her father Reuben David quoted Darwin and was a renowned zoologist, who founded the Kamla Nehru Zoo in Ahmedabad, while her mother was a teacher.
“Prophet Elijah is a relatively new entry in my life… since the last 15 years. Jews across the world are not allowed to worship any idols or posters or pictures. Indian Jews are the only ones who do. It’s believed that he used to be in Haifa, Israel and on his way to heaven, he passed through India, leaving a mark on a rock in Alibaug. There are several stories about him in the Torah, the Jewish Bible,” adds David.
It’s the women’s stories in Bombay Brides that draw you in – there’s Myra, who arrives in Ahmedabad on an American programme of Torah studies, and later becomes Maa Myramayi after meeting a guru at a yoga centre. Ariella and her husband live a near-perfect life in Israel until he decides to move back to Ahmedabad, concerned about his ailing father. Later, as he leaves for Israel without her and their two daughters expecting her to care for his parents, she decides to part ways with him. Golda, a talented musician, leaves her controlling husband Moses when he tries to raise his hand on her for singing in public.
The 73-year-old author says that the characters aren’t inspired by people she’s met – the community is small and quite conservative, so she has to tread carefully. On her travels to Israel, France, and certain southern and north-east Indian cities, she interacted with scores of Jewish women. “I’m always on the side of the women. I structured the stories around the human condition… how difficult it’s getting for women to try to keep a profession. They’re all highly educated – music and education are a big part of Jewish upbringing – but the rituals and traditions are quite strict,” she says. “In fact, with any religion, it’s the women who preserve traditions. How do they cope? With every character, I created a situation where I have tried to solve some such problem.”
Every chapter begins with an illustration of the character, sketched by David. The windows the women are peeking out of on the cover – also illustrated by her – were inspired by the many synagogues she has seen over the years.
David studied sculpture and art history from MS University in Baroda, and later, taught art appreciation and history and wrote columns about it. It was only when she was well into her 40s that her interest in Indian Jewish traditions developed. This stemmed from a need to understand herself better, and make sense of the insider-outsider conflict. “India is the only country where Jews were never persecuted. We have the freedom to practise our religion. How do you maintain that balance… of being Jewish in India?”
She was 50 when her first novel, The Walled City, was published. It was a chronicle of three generations of Jewish women in Ahmedabad, set after Independence. “I was not sure if it would work, but it did. And suddenly there was an explosion when it was translated into French, and I was introduced to a lot of people. That I came from Ahmedabad was surprising, as most people thought Jews are in Bombay. I realised that very few Indian Jews had written about their community, the little there was was by foreign Jews.”
Nissim Ezekiel, the late Sahetya Akademi Award-winning poet, also a Bene Israel Jew, was David’s role model. “Whenever I met him, we would talk about a lot about cross-cultural conflicts and how we survived as Jews in a country like India, which is so multi-dimensional. We live in the land of four million gods and goddesses and yet, retain our identity.” She terms it the “Jewish secret life” – on the outside, they’re often mistaken for Maharashtrians. “But the minute we enter a synagogue, we cover our hair, men wear the kippah and we say our prayers in Hebrew. Everything transforms.”
David’s interest in Judaism deepens with every book she writes. When she was in Alibaug researching for Book of Esther (2002), she discovered that the cuisine was very similar to what her grandmother would make. “We no longer eat that. Whether its food, heritage, architecture or a synagogue, everything needs a certain preservation.”
Her next book is a documentation of the culinary practices of the community – she pegs their numbers at a mere 4,000. She travelled to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal, Manipur and Mizoram to see the different regional influences. “We have very strict dietary laws, like only eating fish with scales, not combining meat and dairy. It’s fascinating when you place that within the context of a country like India, where dairy is so popular.”
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