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Making 'foreign' one's own

Vikram Johri  |  New Delhi 

Sadia Shepard came to India in 2001 on a Fulbright grant to study the history of the Bene Israel community. Her trip was driven not so much by scholarship as by her need to pluck a very personal strand of history. Sadia’s grandmother had been a Jew until she married into a Muslim family. As a child growing up in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Sadia often heard her grandmother recount her past: “A very long time ago, your ancestors left Israel in a ship—a big, wide wooden ship—and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck, they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion.”

As Sadia will come to learn, her grandmother, affectionately called Nana, did not quite forget her religion. When she discovers a pin inside a tiny wooden box, on which the words “Rachel Jacobs” are inscribed, Sadia finds herself in a nebulous territory of shifting religious allegiances and multiple identities, all belonging to one enigmatic person, her Nana.

The daughter of a white Protestant man and a brown-skinned Muslim woman, Sadia grew up first in Denver and later in Chestnut Hill, under the watchful care of Nana. Hers was a privileged childhood—her parents ran a successful architecture firm, and her mother belonged to one of Pakistan’s most prosperous families. It was in this genteel backdrop that Sadia learnt new, and initially frightening, things about Nana.

Nana narrates to Sadia, in a curious mélange of memory and fiction, the story of the Bene Israel community, who set out from Israel over 2,000 years ago, and came to settle on the Konkan coast. This communal history soon gives way to the personal, including the taboo topic of Nana’s marriage to a Muslim man, the shift from Bombay to Karachi after marriage, and what that entailed for the families. To Sadia, herself the product of mixed parentage, Nana’s stories are both immediate and distant, and she cannot bring herself to accept Nana’s incomplete splaying of the past.

When Nana dies, Sadia decides to make a trip to India and Pakistan and explore the tenuous links that connect her to the subcontinent. Armed with a Fulbright grant, she lands in Pune, at the Film and Television Institute of India, and begins her journey of discovery.

In Bombay, this “girl from foreign” comes across the familiar sights and sounds of the metropolis, and her account vacillates between the fatuous and the hilarious. When she is groped by a bunch of scoundrels in the second-class compartment of a local train, she starts cursing loudly in English, to the general amusement of all. Horrified, she recollects being told what to do in a situation like this, and she shouts, “Don’t you have a sister?” One by one, the hands drop.

The real delight of this book, however, comes from the little-known facets of the Jewish community in India, a community even more in need of preservation than the Parsis, whose travails are regularly chronicled in the media. How many of us knew about the Chabad House in Bombay until terrorists attacked it on 26/11? Sadia takes us into the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla, and explains how the Baghdadi Jewish community that built it, did not associate themselves with the Bene Israel for a good part of their history. Only in recent decades, due to the dwindling population of both communities, they have come closer and now share synagogues.

At Nana’s old flat in Karachi, Sadia chances upon a cache of letters that reveal a different side of Nana’s to the one she has known. These papers capture, in sweet clumsiness, the long courtship between Nana and her husband, and the marital troubles they faced later. Delving into them accustoms Sadia to a new aspect of Nana’s life, a fuller picture of which begins taking shape. To the reader, besides, the letters bring a much-needed relief from the fact-laden history that goes before.

Ultimately, The Girl From Foreign scores because of the happy matrimony of the anthropological and the personal. Sadia’s consummate writing contains ample pointers to her profession (she is a filmmaker). Given her multiracial background, the book is a well-deserved ode to the reality of hyphenated identities.


THE GIRL FROM FOREIGN
A SEARCH FOR SHIPWRECKED ANCESTORS, FORGOTTEN HISTORIES, AND A SENSE OF HOME

Sadia Shepard
Penguin
364 pages; Rs 450

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First Published: Thu, December 18 2008. 00:00 IST
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