Community and belonging in Indian Jewish literature
2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar's Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman's The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women's writing among Indian Jews.
Considering the numerical insignificance of Jews in India – the highest the population ever reached was 30,000 in 1951, when India's total population was 300 million; today it is around 5000 out of 1.3 billion – the community has left its cultural mark on Indian society. Most of the earliest female stars of silent cinema were Jewish: they were the first group to break the taboo associated with women in the performing arts, and thus paved the way for women of other communities to follow suit.
Yet Indian Jewish culture remains underexplored. Bahais Joseph Talkar's Marathi novel Gul and Sanobar (1867) is considered the first published work of literature by a Bene Israel Jew. It was soon followed by M D Talkar's Bagh-o-Bahar. But the best known Jewish writer from India has been Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), who wrote poetry and plays and is acknowledged as the father of modern English poetry in India. The first Indian Jew to publish a novel in English depicting the Bene Israel community was Esther David, whose The Walled City was published in 1997. Since then she has emerged as the most published Indian Jewish novelist in English, with a number of novels to her credit: Book of Esther (2002), Book of Rachel (2006), Shalom India Housing Society (2007), My Father's Zoo (2007), The Man with Enormous Wings (2010), and a collection of short-stories, By the Sabarmati (1999). Another Bene Israel author, Sophie Judah, is known for her collection of English short stories, Dropped from Heaven (2007), in which she traces the recent history of Indian Jews from the 1930s until the present (at a point when the river in Judah's fictional town has dried up, the Jewish population almost vanished, and the town's only synagogue was transformed into a pickle and chutney factory.)
Identity and community
Rohekar's and Silliman's works are, therefore, particularly welcome developments in Indian Jewish literature. Through Miss Samuel's protagonist, Miss Seema Samuel, Rohekar looks back at the Bene Israel Jews' existence in India. According to tradition, a ship-wreck two millennia ago brought the community to the west coast of India, between present-day Mumbai and Goa (official documents detailing their arrival, however, date only from the 17th century). The 63 year-old Miss Seema spends her days in an old-age home two hours away from Pune, thinking about the last six generations of her Bene Israel family in Ahmedabad (the same community from which Rohekar originates).
According to the Bene Israel legend, the people are descendants of seven Israelite men and seven Israelite women who survived a shipwreck off the village of Navgaon on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra circa 175 BCE, after they fled Israel during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. The legend is often suspected of being an attempt to scale the social hierarchy, as it resembles the origin-legend of the Chitpavan Brahmins, who traditionally enjoyed the highest status in Maharashtrian society. The Bene Israel, in contrast, were traditionally oil pressers. According to Chitpavan legend, Chitpavan Brahmins are descended from 14 foreigners who perished in a shipwreck but were brought back to life by Parshurama (one of Vishnu's incarnations) who then taught them Brahmin rites. An alternative version of this legend is given by the Bene Israel, attributing to themselves the same origin as the Chitpavans. According to their version, when they were washed ashore, some of them were mistaken for dead. As they were about to be cremated by the local people they regained consciousness, after which they converted to Hinduism and eventually came to be known as Chitpavan Brahmins. The Bene Israel are the descendants of those shipwreck survivors who did not convert to Hinduism. Yulia Egorova, author of Jews and India: Perceptions and Image, argues that this belief of the Bene Israel community resembles the practice of sanskritisation within Hindu communities: "The Bene Israel were ready to imitate the style of life of higher castes, but adhered to their own theory of origin: they did not claim that their ancestors had been Chitpavan Brahmans but dwelt on the Jewish origin of the Chitpavans. This gave them a blood link with this high caste group." No historical evidence has as yet been found to support the Bene Israel claim.
Rohekar's literary career began in 1968 with the publication of a story in the Hindi literary journal Dharmayug, along with a collection of Gujarati short stories, Lifeline nee Bahar. Later, she wrote two novels: Dinānt (1977), which won the Yashpal Award, and Tāvīz (2005). However, Miss Samuel is the first novel in which she portrays her own community. During an interview with Heinz Werner Wessler, a German Hindi scholar, it dawned on her that she was the only living Jewish novelist writing in Hindi. In an interview she gave to me in 2011, she said:
I felt ashamed and embarrassed when I was asked by Professor Wessler if I had ever written any story or poem or essay or novel with Jewish characters or a Jewish theme in my literary career in Hindi and Gujarati spanning over a period of forty years. The question 'why?' repeatedly kept echoing within me. Was it my apprehension that nobody would be able to understand the concerns and sensibilities of a community as small as mine in this huge sea of humanity? However, this question kept troubling me and now my [latest] novel Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha has the story of a Jewish family as its theme.