Trapped between places

Trapped between places

The  Walled City:  Esther David Westland,2009,  pp 200, Rs 250

Set in the City of Ahmedabad, where the author grew up, the book explores the world of Jews settled in India through the eyes of the protagonist, who interestingly remains nameless. Written in the first person, the reader feels one with the character, as she goes through various conflicts. The chief one — growing up in her Jewish home, where the matriarch of the family, the grandmother, is trying hard to keep Jewish traditions alive.

The same grandmother feels that her roots are of Maharashtrian, although the family now lives in Ahmedabad. “... Granny wears the nine-yard sari in the Maharashtrian way and covers her head. She speaks to us in Marathi. We answer her in Gujarati. She always scolds Hannah and Naomi for not teaching us Marathi. It is our mother tongue, she says.”

The tales that the little girl has been told of her Jewish ancestors shipwrecked on the Konkan coast, “reciting the Hebrew prayers silently and becoming one with the people there, wearing Indian clothes, speaking the local language and taking a new name, the name of the village that adopted them...,” evoke rich images. The three generations of women in the family — the grandmother, the mother and aunts, the protagonist and her cousin, stand out.

The girl herself has many dreams, mainly that of getting married to an eligible Jew. The choice is not wide, since it is such a minuscule community. Esther has cleverly used the historic fact that Ahmedabad began as a walled city. An image that primarily comes to anyone’s mind when they hear of a ‘walled city’ is that of a human settlement that is safe and secure. When walls crumble away, it leaves the city vulnerable and helpless, and that image is used to good effect by the author. As the tale progresses and as the main character faces one misfortune after another, she uses the symbolism of the walls crumbling away very effectively.

The tale also touches upon the regular departure of Indian Jews to Israel — ‘the promised land’ — and how those Jews try and hold on to their links with India, and their Indian sensibilities, especially when they come on trips to visit relatives. “... They go sightseeing and secretly on the pavement of Mission Church near Ellis Bridge, they look for the fortune-teller of their younger days, shyly bringing out frayed horoscopes from handbags and trying to find release from their fears of the future...”

The tale also manages to bring out the madness of violent riots that break out periodically in India, and that the victims of such communal riots are usually harmless people just going about the business of eking out a living.

There is a deep chord of sadness that I found right through the book, coupled with silent suffering and insecurities, mainly of the woman protagonist and the other Jewish women. It also brings out the poignancy of the lives of women trapped into leading a life centred around the needs of family members, while being forced to give up the right to have their own dreams and aspirations.

The tale is primarily meant to be about a Bene Israeli woman trying to find her own identity. But there are many layers to this book. Reading it was a moving experience.

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