When it struck like the Big Ben
Sally Solomon’s new book is another reminder that India in general and Calcutta in particular lost some of its cosmopolitan flavour with the Jewish exodus. Like Armenians, Greeks, Parsis, Chinese and scattered Europeans, they enriched Calcutta’s cultural diversity and testified to its vibrant commerce. The two chatty memoirs also poignantly highlight the Jew’s dilemma of identity that has burgeoned into a global challenge.
I’ve known Sally, a spry 91, in London for several years, and her brother, Sam Luddy, in Calcutta much longer. As she recounted in Hooghly Tales: Stories of Growing up in Calcutta under the Raj, they are Baghdadi Jews, descended from Shalom Aaron Cohen of Aleppo, who founded Calcutta’s Jewish community in 1797. Sally doesn’t write of grand Jews like the donors of Gubbay House where my father regularly threatened to banish me (it being the monkeys’ home in the zoo) or Lady Ezra whose garden parties my grandmother remembered. There’s no mention of the Sassoons from whom my old friend and colleague, Ellis Abraham, was doubly descended, the Gariahat excise conspiracy case or the ghosts that haunt the income tax offices at Bamboo Villa. As Sally’s latest book, Where Rivers Meet: Memories of Madras 1948-1972, shows, it was in Madras that she and her husband moved into society.
Her artless narrative of Bentinck Street and the lanes around New Market bring vividly to life a time when internationalism wasn’t the prerogative of the rich and fashionable. Long residence had turned Jews into another Indian community. Sally’s “Naanee” (grandmother) in Grants Lane wore ankle-length muslin, smoked a hookah, had a silver pan box and spoke Arabic. One of my aunts boasted that as a young girl on the marriage mart she was described as “beautiful as a Yehudini”. They told me in the Cochin synagogue, with its purdah gallery, I needn’t cover my head but shouldn’t wear shoes. Such prejudice as existed was imbibed from the British. Sally says that after a film on the Easter story and crucifixion at a Kodaikanal convent, a Muslim student stood up, pointed at her daughter and said, “Jew, look what you have done!” We would throw rulers at a classmate called Aaron and dare him to turn them into snakes like his Biblical namesake. Even the Anglo-Indian masters had an occasional dig. Since Sally’s husband also went to La Martiniere (and undoubtedly called R.J. Fearn “Horsey”), he must have suffered similar pranks. Nevertheless, Indians never practised the institutional racism that excluded local Jews from the Madras and Adyar Clubs.
Sally’s account of her son’s circumcision must be contrasted with the story I have recounted before about Sir Jeremy Raisman of the Indian Civil Service, finance member of the Viceroy’s Council and “the ideal last viceroy India never had” according to Anand Chandarvarkar. The Raismans were extremely poor Jewish refugees from Lithuania who somehow managed a living in Leeds. The boys made good, Jeremy joined the ICS and, in the fullness of time, brought his toddler son to Leeds. His grandmother offered to take him to the loo when the boy wanted to pee but Jeremy wouldn’t allow it. As his mother argued and son pleaded, he bundled the boy into the car and drove back to London. He didn’t want to hurt his orthodox mother’s sensibilities by letting her see her grandson wasn’t circumcised. Given imperial India’s Anglo-Saxon snobbishness, he may not even have admitted to being Jewish.
Sally proudly flaunted the badges of her tribe. Horrified when a nurse was about to anaesthetize her eight-day-old son before his foreskin was severed, she exclaimed, “No, no, the Brith Meela must be done in the primitive way with just a touch of wine on the lips!” She shut her eyes and blocked her ears as the prayer started. “The expected cry was brief, and painful for me to hear, but the sudden shock did the baby no harm. Almost immediately, his urgency to relieve himself in a curving arc of urine sent our little group scattering into the four corners of the room.”
Such details of ritual, diet and folklore brought home to me for the first time that the Jewish boys I had known were as different at home as us Hindus from the Anglo-Indians we mixed with. Familiar landmarks provide a more personal reason for savouring both books. Flury’s & Trinca’s was a single establishment then, the New Market clock actually chimed like Big Ben, the kitabwallah peddled books and Kabuliwallahs preyed on victims. Baren Roy and Govind Swaminadhan are dead but General J.F.R. (Jake) Jacob is with us, the Victoria Technical Institute sells linen and lingerie embroidered by nuns, and Nahoum hasn’t yet followed Firpo and Kellner into oblivion. Occasionally, time may play tricks with Sally’s memory. So many Anglo-Indians boast of dating the future Merle Oberon that Queenie Thompson’s appearance on a motorbike pillion may be part of the legend. And the copper dome that “shone like gold in the brightness of the rising sun” surely topped Victoria House and not the General Post Office?
“Are we English?” Sally asks. “Are we Indian? I did not feel either of these; just thought of myself as Jewish — not so much in a religious sense as belonging to a group identified by its religion. I dressed like the English, spoke their language, embraced some of their ways of life; but neither they nor I would consider I belonged. The same applied to being Indian, but in different areas. I did not adopt their dress, speak their language even reasonably well, yet I belonged more, felt India was my native place. I still feel this today.” She couldn’t relate to European Jewish refugees because Indian Jews “had not gone through the horrors of the Holocaust”. The few Israelis in India emerge as strident, officious and sanctimonious. She enjoyed her holiday in Israel but when it came to living there, she “realised that being a Jew and being Israeli were two different things”.
Back to the recurring question, “Then what was I? I was just a Jew, living in India. Even as an Indian national, I never really felt Indian or anything else. India was my home, and got my total loyalty. I do not think I could have felt the same way about Israel; committing myself wholly, even to the extent of expecting my children to join the army. I would never dream of any such thing.” Sally observes astutely of Israel’s 75,000 Indian Jews, “Sometimes, a religious background did help to decide in favour of emigration; more often, the cutting edge was the standard of living.” I have no doubt that motivated the Cochin Black Jews packing flowers in Beersheba who spoke only Malayali and Hebrew. It’s also the prime impulse for Mizos and Manipuris who have suddenly discovered they are the lost tribe of Manasseh. Humble Asian immigrants serve the economic needs of Israel’s dominant European Ashkenazi Jews.
When migrating to England in 1972, Sally made her husband promise to buy a house in India and to take her back every year. “My longing for my native land is never more than on those dark, wet Friday nights when I have to comfort myself with images of browning potatoes (aloo muckulla) and all the bitter-sweet memories contained in their crispy skins.” But returning to Madras in 1998, she felt it was no longer home. The Wandering Jew has no home.
Shalom Aaron Cohen, who died in 1836, was buried in the Narkeldanga cemetery he bought with a ruby ring. There were only a few old men there when Ellis Abraham was buried. Watching his adopted Bengali son, Jiban, handkerchief on his head, help carry the long-handled box (aron) that is a Jewish coffin, it occurred to me Calcutta won’t need another cemetery. The loss is Calcutta’s… and India’s.