Connecting dots

A sense of home

Connecting dots

A boy at a Jewish wedding.

It was in 2001 that Sadia Shepard quit her job in New York and left for India. She calls it ‘reverse migration’ — her journey to Mumbai, the city her mother and grandmother had often spoken about, their voices glazed with longing. But the main reason for her flying across many borders, and landing in India, was to fulfil a promise that she had made to her maternal grandmother, Nana, as she called her.
 
Before her death in 2000, Nana had asked Sadia to “tell her story.” Sadia didn’t know what Nana’s story was, or how to narrate it. For this, she had to be in Mumbai, the backdrop of many of Nana’s stories. If you zoom out you’d see the bigger picture, the offshoot of the central idea, the multi-hued branches that had to do with Sadia’s quest for her own identity as well. “I am here as an amateur detective on that most American of journeys: a search for the roots of my own particular tree,” she writes in The Girl From Foreign, a memoir of her time spent in India.

It was at the age of 13 that Sadia stumbled upon an intriguing piece of information — her grandmother Rahat Siddiqui, who lived with her in Boston, was not a Muslim like she had always considered her to be. Apparently, Nana originally belonged to the Bene Israel community and had once gone by the name of Rachel Jacobs. The Bene Israel or the ‘Children of Israel’ is a small Jewish community in Western India that believes that its ancestors were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast about 2000 years ago.  

Rachel’s story

At the age of 16, Rachel fell passionately in love with a Pakistani Muslim. They eloped and she decided to convert to Islam, her husband’s religion. And Rachel became Rahat. It was during the Partition that Rahat, along with her family, left Bombay for Pakistan where her children grew up. Years passed by, and she found herself in Boston, living with her daughter, her daughter’s American husband and their children, Sadia and Cassim. 

But it was only towards the end of her life that Rahat grew increasingly unsettled about the decisions that she had made in the past. Had she been wrong to give up her faith? She grew anxious about whether she’d be able to die a Jew, the way she hoped that she would. That’s when she urged Sadia to go to the city of her birth, to learn more about her shipwrecked ancestors. These facts from Nana’s life were only fragments, between which lay vast mysterious distances. It was upto Sadia to connect the dots and unravel the mystery. 

Author and filmmaker Sadia Shepard What began as a promise to her Nana eventually turned into a two-year long research project out of which emerged — a photo essay, a documentary film (In Search of Bene Israel) and a book (The Girl From Foreign). Sadia reinstates the importance of storytelling and documenting our pasts to create an informed present. Her tone remains gentle, but convincing. “I think so many of us have mothers or grandmothers who shy away from the spotlight, who choose to devote their lives to support their children and grandchildren’s studies, careers and households. My grandmother was one of these women, and the two years I spent in India afforded me the chance to recognise all of the roles she inhabited — as daughter, sister, nurse, wife, Jew, Muslim, Indian and Pakistani.” 

In her documentary film, Sadia is seen wading her way into the midst of the Bene Israel settlement, a community torn between their desire to move to a country (Israel) where they hope to reunite with their co-religionists, and to stay on in India, which has fostered their very being. Their views on this remain divided, but what seems to bind them is their faith in Judaism and their sense of belonging, or the lack of it. 

By revealing their conflicts, Sadia nudges us to explore the idea of ‘home’. Is home the place you were born in? The place where your ancestors lived? Or is it just the place where you’ve made a life for yourself? Can you have more than one home? They say home is where the heart is. As trite as that sounds, it seems to hit home.

In Mumbai, Sadia attended Friday evening prayers at the synagogue, taught public speaking classes at a Jewish vocational school where she was quick to make friends with fellow teacher Samson — a spirited guy with a bright smile — and even took a boat ride to see the area where the Bene Israel believe they were shipwrecked. Traditionally, the Bene Israel in Maharashtra earned their livelihood as oil pressers, producing lamp oil from local seeds.

Sadia’s grandmother at the age of 18When Sadia learnt that there was only  one family who continued to engage in it, she was eager to meet them — the Waskar family — who lived in a town next to Revdanda. David Waskar, who was mighty surprised that Sadia had travelled all the way to his village to meet him, readily showed Sadia how he made oil while explaining the process in great detail. David, who also looked after the Jewish masjid and graveyard, seemed reluctant to leave India. “Israel is my fatherland, but India is my motherland,” he said, as his grandson Israel gazed on. 

The other thing that stole Sadia’s attention was the concept of arranged marriage. She indulged in long, candid conversations with Ronen and Hannah, a newly engaged couple, brimming with excitement at the idea of getting married soon. “Arranged marriage is the best. Somebody my Mummy selects for me. She knows me better than anyone else,” said Ronen. Beside him sat his mother, glowing with apparent pride. He couldn’t help but beam whenever he talked about Hannah. “After things got official, I was on top of the world,” said Ronen, laughing, while his mother clapped her hands in glee. Sadia got involved in all the wedding ceremonies, quietly absorbing all their traditions.

“As I photographed Bene Israel places of worship, celebrations and daily life, I made it a point to ask each person how they would like to be photographed. After I completed my film, I returned to India with the prints and showed it to the people who are in it. For me, the film is an essay on Bene Israel history and future, and on the complexity of their identity. But for many people in the film, I became aware that it was more about the pleasure of recognition and the chance to see their stories finally recorded.” Although to the people she met in India, she may have just been ‘the girl from foreign’, her curious eyes have wandered way beyond the seemingly impermeable layers which often obstruct the outsider’s view. Perhaps she really was no outsider at all.

 Watch ‘In Search of Bene Israel’, the documentary film by Sadia Shepard on NDTV 24x7’s ‘Documentary 24x7’ on Nov 28 at 3 pm and Nov 29 at 1 pm.

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