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India, Israel and the Jewish People

Jews in Indian-language writings

For centuries, Indians and Jews have met in person, communicated through trade or “imagined” each other as in Hellenistic and Medieval times (discussed more fully in the next chapter).

Hindu Indians first heard of Judaism as a world religion in the 19th century.74 In writings of the time one can find both respect for and rejection of Judaism. What was known in India was unrelated to the Jews of India but was spread by British Protestant missionaries. Some Hindu polemics against the Bible were meant to counter Christian missionary pressures. Even in the 20th century, some Indians, including Gandhi, wrote about Judaism in ways that showed that they saw Judaism through the prism of Christianity.76 Other Hindu reactions to Judaism were positive which facilitated the three meetings between Hindu and Jewish religious leaders in 2007 and the following years described earlier.

As far as is known, the first Indian language novel with a Jewish theme appeared in 1939. The Marathi writer Vishram Bedekar (Marathi is the language of the State of Maharashtra and its capital Mumbai/Bombay) published a novel on the problematics of Jewish immigration to India.77 It illustrates a particular issue of that time. Before World War II, Gandhi, Nehru, and Indian intellectuals discussed the plight of Europe’s persecuted Jews and the possibility of their immigration to India, but the British colonial authorities closed India’s doors to fleeing Jews. A second, shorter novel, Mozelle was written after the war in another Indian language, Urdu. The writer Saadat Hassan Manto who moved from India to Pakistan in 1948 captured the violence of partition through the story of a Jewish woman in Bombay who saved the life of her former Sikh lover and his fiancé. Mozelle has been translated into English and French. Finally, in 2013, Sheela Rohekar, currently the only Hindi-language Indian Jewish writer, published her much anticipated novel Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha. Rohekar describes the life of India’s Bene Israel community 60 years after most had left for Israel. These three novels are not much known in India. Widely known in India, however, is the work of the country’s most prominent Jewish poet, Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004). He has been called the Indian-English poetry’s “Father of Modernity.” At least two of his poems allude to his experience as a young Jew in India. Ezekiel’s allusions opened the way for a new Indian literary tradition.

Jews, Judaism, and Israel in India’s Contemporary English-Language Fiction

In the late 20th century, 150 years after Jews had appeared in Western and Russian novels, they also became visible in Indian English-language literature. These books were more widely read, in and outside India. At least seven percent of the Indian population, approximately 100 million people or more, are estimated to read English, including a large proportion of the elites and many young professionals.

Today, India is blessed with many outstanding and internationally respected English fiction writers. For this chapter, 25 books have been reviewed. The authors are Aravind Adiga, Chetan Bhagat, Anita Desai, Amitav Gosh, V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Vikas Swarup. Most of these names appear on “ten most important Indian writers” lists found on the Internet.78 Many of these authors have spent part of their lives outside India, mainly in America or Britain, some live permanently there, and one, Naipaul, has never lived in India. Thus they have a foot in both worlds, the West and India, yet they are quintessentially Indian. They focus on Indian problems and want to speak to the Indian public. By 2013, four of these authors have published five books with major Jewish characters and themes. In addition, there are at least five more books by these and other authors containing important references to Jews or Judaism. A comprehensive list of the main works by all nine authors reviewed comprised more than 60 titles in 2013. Thus, five books about Jews and Judaism is not insignificant, considering that Jews have never played a critical role in Indian history.

Four 20th Century Classics: Anita Desai, Amitav Gosh, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth79
The first English-language book written by an Indian mainstream author with a Jew at its center is Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay of 1988. Baumgartner is a refugee from Nazi Germany who survives in India while his parents perish in the Holocaust. After 1945, he is murdered by a German drug addict he had helped but who needed more money – a senseless, tragic death. Wherever Baumgartner lives he remains a foreigner. Many of Desai’s books are about common people who straddle different cultures and are destined to fail.
Vikram Seth’s 2005 Two Lives is also about the Holocaust. Seth writes about his Indian granduncle who married a German Jewish women. Her family was murdered in Nazi Germany. Seth goes to Israel and searches the records of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, for details of their deportation and deaths. He describes the silent suffering of his great-aunt with remarkable sensitivity – but ends the book with a two-page polemic against Israel. His combination of deep sympathy for the dead Jews of the Holocaust with equally deep antipathy for the living ones of Israel can be found increasingly in some Western circles.

Amitav Gosh’s 1992 In An Antique Land is about the life, writings, and wanderings of one of the great Jewish India traders of the 12th century, the Egyptian Abraham Ben Yiju. Gosh learned medieval Judeo-Arabic in order to read the sources about him in the original. He interspersed this tale with scenes from his own life as a student in Egypt. When he wanted to visit the grave of a Jewish saint buried in Egypt, the local police turns him back. He invests this incident with symbolic significance. He understands that the happy symbiosis of Jewish, Arab, and Indian culture in Ben Yiju’s century has been destroyed for good, and that Egypt no longer has a place for Jews and their culture.

Finally, Salman Rushdie has written two novels with Jewish “heroes,” if one can call them such. The Moor’s Last Sigh from 1995 describes a fictional Jew from Cochin in Kerala, Abraham Zogoiby, a descendent of Jews who fled Spain in the 15th century. He is expelled by his community after he marries a Christian and becomes a major criminal, a trafficker of weapons and women. Among other crimes, he finances the nuclear armament of one of Israel’s unspecified enemies and is finally blown up by Bombay’s most dangerous fictitious Hindu crime syndicates. This is the only Indian novel by a mainstream writer that refers to India’s own Jews.

Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar The Clown is about a fictional American Jew, Max Ophuls, who had escaped Nazi-occupied France. He becomes U.S. Ambassador to India. There he seduces the beautiful wife of a Kashmiri Muslim who murders him 20 years later. In the meantime he was also the U.S. secret anti-terrorism chief and shed a lot of innocent blood. The book reads like a critical metaphor of the perceived anti-Muslim alliance between the United States and the Jews under the Bush administration. Both of Rushdie’s fictional Jews are exceptionally brilliant and rich, and both are serial philanderers and law-breakers who meet a violent end. Rushdie is no more anti-Semitic than he is anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, or anti-Hindu, he is bitter and cynical. However, these two novels transplant to India anti-Jewish images born in the West. In his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, his portrayal of Jews is understanding and sympathetic. Rushdie is the Indian author with the broadest knowledge of Jews, both Indian and Western.

Desai, Seth, Gosh, and Rushdie’s books reflect, to some extent, the image of Jews some Indian elites and intellectuals had while the Congress Party was in power. There is sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust but not for Israel, and little understanding of Jewish history or culture.

Two Radical Writers: V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy
There are other, more radical Indian writers, who express contradictory opinions. One is V.S. Naipaul, the most prolific Indian expat writer, and a Nobel laureate. None of his books has more than fleeting references to Jews, but most are full of his rage against Islam and the Arabs who, in his view, have “vandalized” India. He visited several Muslim countries twice, in 1981 and 1995. He reports about the vicious, widespread anti-Semitism he found in each of these countries – a fact that India did not wish to acknowledge during the decades it was hostile to Israel and allied with the Arab world.80 Another radical writer is Arundathi Roy, arguably the best-known radical left-wing author of India.81 She, like Naipaul, is also full of rage – but against the perceived discrimination against Muslims and other “under-dogs” in India, and about the allegedly daily “genocide” perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians. At least Roy is not a hypocrite. Whereas Seth attacked only Israel, Roy regards both her own country, India, and the United States as no better, if not worse. Neither Naipaul nor Roy seems to be interested in Jews. On the Arabs and Israel, they represent two different Indian opinion trends that have always been present – although today greater numbers are said to support Israel.

New Voices of the 21st Century
Between 2004 and 2014, several new, hitherto unknown Indian English-language novelists emerged on the scene. Aravind Adiga, Vikas Swarup, and Chetan Bhagat are among the most prominent.82 Bhagat writes about young Indians, their lives and dreams, but is little known abroad. By 2008, he was India’s best-selling English-language novelist of all time, with 7 million copies of his novels sold. Adiga’s The White Tiger from 2008 became world-famous. It is about the life and dreams of a low-caste servant who despises his rich, callous master and finally kills him. Arguably, this is both the most hilarious and most serious book about India ever written by an Indian. Swarup is an Indian diplomat in active service. He wrote a novel that became the basis for the Hollywood blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. In another book he ridicules a gang of Muslim terrorists who kidnapped an American and end up being killed by the CIA.

These three authors are neither “classical” nor “radical,” they are the new voice of Indian literature. They speak to India’s youth as no novelist has before. They are funny as well as deeply concerned. They flay India’s failings – corruption, incompetence, dirt, theft, cruelty – in a jocular way, kill India’s “holy cows” one by one and mock the “losers,” the governments that have ruled India since independence. Foreign affairs in general and the Middle East in particular do not seem to interest them. These authors are true patriots. They want India to be great, but they know that the country must change profoundly if it wants to rise. Their books preceded Modi’s victory by a few years, and their young readers helped to bring him to power because he promised change. In India as in other countries, literature is not only a reflection of dominant or minority opinion trends, it can serve as a precursor of deep societal and political change.

The Mirror Question: India in Jewish and Israeli Fiction

What is the image of India in Jewish and Israeli fiction? How does this image compare to the image of the Jews in Indian fiction? We have been able to identify only two Jewish novelists who wrote about India in English or Hebrew: the Indian Jewish writer Esther David and the Israeli Abraham B. Yehoshua. In addition, a number of Indian travel books have responded to the allure India has exerted on Israeli and Jewish minds, which began long before there were diplomatic relations between India and Israel. Some of these books are of high literary quality. For example, the India travel book of Azriel Carlebach, one of Israel’s most prestigious early journalists, published in 1956 in Hebrew, or Spring, Heat, Rains – A South Indian Diary from 2009 by the Israeli scholar David Shulman.83 But these and others are not books of fiction.

Esther David
Esther David, born to a Bene Israel family in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, wrote several novels about the Jews of India that are partly fictional and partly autobiographical. Although some of her books have been translated into Gujerati, she has no national following in India comparable to that of the Indian fiction writers mentioned and is not widely known in the Jewish world either.84

One novel, The Walled City, is about Jewish life in the old city of Ahmedabad at the time of independence (1947). The “walls” evoke not only old Ahmedabad, they are a metaphor for the invisible walls that separated India’s religions, languages, and castes. These “walls” allowed India’s Jews to maintain their identity and avoid assimilation. In 1947, the walls begin to fall. A little Jewish girl, Esther, befriends a Hindu girl who invites her home. She is received warmly but is told that as a “meat-eater” she is not allowed to enter a Hindu kitchen. She has guilt feelings and questions her Jewishness – until her grandmother convinces the entire family to move to the newly created State of Israel. The story describes the dilemmas of India’s Jews after 1947 and the reasons for their emigration. Esther David is not blind to India’s dark sides, but her description of the country’s sounds, smells, colors, and textures, the music, food, spices, and fragrances brings the “magic of India” to life like no other novel. Her love for India and everything Indian appears on each page. Her later book, Rachel, describes the life of an old Jewish woman at the turn of the 21st century. She had refused to accompany her children to Israel. Her duty is to clean and guard the now empty synagogue of her village. She is deeply disturbed when “her” synagogue, which no longer has any worshippers, is about to be sold. But the attorney who prepares the transaction papers has a vision one night – the Prophet Elijah appears to him miraculously, which puts an end to the sale. In India, religion still very much informs everyday life. There is a sad atmosphere in this story, which closes 1,000 years of history. Only the affection of Rachel’s Hindu neighbors provides comfort. Still, India’s image continues to shine brightly.

Abraham B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua is a fifth-generation Israeli novelist of world fame. His 1996 book, Open Heart, (in the Hebrew original, Return from India), was an instant success.85 It was translated into many languages and adapted, in 2002, into an Israeli film. Return from India is a complicated love story set in Israel and India. The story is also a discreet homage to the tens of thousands of young Israelis who are deeply attracted to India, but Yehoshua questions their motives. Are they naïve seekers of truth and spirituality who need a respite from Israel? Are they youngsters who could not fulfill their ambitions and look for ways to escape? Two doctors travel to India to bring home a young Israeli woman, an India-lover, who contracted a life-threatening illness. The two are first shocked by the sight of the poor, the sick, and the dying in the streets, but slowly their preconceptions begin to change. Are our Western views about the sense of life and death the only valid ones? Could we not learn something from India’s views?

Esther David’s and Yehoshua’s books contain a dose of enthusiasm, even love for India, but it is unrequited love. No similar love has, so far, been returned by the Indian novelists who have written about Jews, Judaism, and Israel. But it is still early in the day. Indian and Jewish fiction writers have only just begun to discover each other’s history and culture.