Novel explores Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata
'The Man with Many Hats' by Jael Silliman offers rare glimpse into life of tiny community which was last of Jewish communities to settle in India and first to leave it, but made significant contributions to city's cultural and commercial life
June 19, 2013 was a historic day, as it saw the release of the only work of fiction by a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of Kolkata.
Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Tazpit
The Jewish community of Kolkata was the last of the Jewish communities to settle in India and the first to leave it, but during their stay the Baghdadis made significant contributions to its cultural and commercial life.
The novel, "The Man with Many Hats," written by Jael Silliman, becomes even more significant as "definitions of who is and who is not an Indian are being increasingly politicized, the identities of place are being essentialized and secular forces are increasingly challenged. In this political context, minority narratives such as this one have an essentially important place. They resist efforts to seek to communalize India’s past and present and contrast sharply with contemporary histories in India today that are being rewritten to serve communal politics,” as Silliman wrote in her book "Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope" (2001), while working as a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Iowa.
Book cover (photo courtesy of Tazpit News Agency)
In "Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames," Jael explored in clear-eyed non-fiction the history of three generations of her Jewish female ancestors in Kolkata. "The Man with Many Hats" covers similar ground fictionally, mainly through the eyes of her protagonist Rachel. The novel offers an in-depth insight into Jewish and Bengali customs, a tangible tour of Kolkata in all its glory and an evocation of what, in non-fiction, might be called "cross-cultural exchanges,” as Shashi Tharoor points out in his foreword to the novel.
Silliman is neither the only Indian Jewish novelist nor the only Indian Jewish novelist who writes in English and not even the only woman among the Indian Jewish writers. Her novel is also not the first to be based on the Baghdadi Jewish community of Kolkata, for there has been Gay Courter’s Flowers in the Blood (1990). But with this maiden novel of hers, she certainly emerges as the first novelist ever from her Baghdadi Jewish community of Kolkata.
It is a valuable social document as it gives a rare glimpse into the life of the tiny community, now on the verge of extinction, in post-independence Calcutta (now called Kolkata) when it was rapidly getting even tinier as a result of the Jewish exodus from India.
The book further delves into the interesting interfaith relations in cosmopolitan Kolkata, and in doing so breaks many stereotypes, like the Jews and Muslims being natural adversaries. She provides us a peek into the emotional bond that emerged between Muslims, who were traditionally employed as cooks in Baghdadi households, and their Jewish employers.
“Jael Silliman evokes an India that has all but disappeared and draws on her personal knowledge of the Jews of India to create a unique and powerful novel about the human heart,” Chitra Divakaruni, author of "Oleander Girl, Palace of Illusions" points out.
It provides an insight into the sensibilities and sensitivities of the members of a minority within a minority, which happens to be the smallest religious minority of India, after they stay back in India while most of their fellow members of the community leave for other countries: “The Kolkata Jews had come to the city from Iraq and Syria when the British first came to trade in India, and had grown and prospered under the Raj. Favored by the British and commercially successful, many were unsure of their economic futures when India gained Independence.
"Since they were a tightly knit community, once a few Jews chose to leave, other family members soon followed suit. By the 1960s, the community had dwindled precipitously. This saddened Morris who had opted to stay – he had a thriving family business, many friends and loved his life in Kolkata. He was optimistic about India’s future and wanted to be part of the new, emerging India. Morris resolved to be both Jewish and Indian, and quite sure he could fuse the two identities successfully.”
While there has been a string of novels by Esther David on her Bene Israel community, short stories about them by Sophie Judah, and a Hindi novel each by Meera Mahadevan and Sheela Rohekar, this is the only work of fiction on the Baghdadi Jewish community from a member of its in any language.
The novel is dotted with interesting memories of how life used to be for Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata, which makes it so absorbing, like the replacement of French glass cylinders of perfumed water with water pistols for the festival of Simchat Torah, the legendary Nahoum’s Bakery in New Market, the use of Arabic curses like kusemek or ibn kalb, the interesting Jewish visitors from other parts of the world, "how at one time 90% of the buildings on Chowringhee, the main thoroughfare" there "were either owned by the Ezras, a Jewish dynasty, or by a Mr. Aratoon, an Armenian", "the Yael Choir that met once a week to learn and sing Jewish songs and dance the Hora," the Jewish Girls Hostel, the Judean Club, the Hebrew lessons,
the Baghdadi delicacies, viz., cheese samboosas, kuliches, baklavas, date babas, etc., the synagogues there, viz., the Magen David, the Beth El and the Neveh Shalome, and many other.
The novel progresses as the protagonist Rachel narrates her life story and reminisces about her fluctuating relationship with her father, "knowing it would take her years to fully grasp the totality of the man with many hats who had been her father."
It could be counted among the best works of fiction exploring the complications and subtleties of a father-daughter relationship.
Reprinted with permission from Tazpit News Agency