The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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BOOK OF ESTHER By Esther David, Viking, Rs 395

Reading Book of Esther, one can easily forget that it is a work of fiction. This is because Esther David writes with a straightforward honesty that one generally associates with the deeply personal. Book of Esther covers five generations and over two hundred years of a Jewish family living in India.

In a note that comes as a prologue to the novel, David says that she had intended to write a novel that would tell “her story”. Despite the cliché, David manages to pull it off. She starts to document the early history of the Dandekar family, named after their original Danda village on the Konkan coast, through the eyes of Bathsheba in the 18th century — an unconventional woman who ran the “badee” instead of the sons of the house.

Herein emerges a pattern in the novel — it is the women of strength who are the first to stifle their daughters. Indeed, the family as a destructive force is a recurrent theme in the novel. It affects the life of Tamara, who is trapped by her strong yet superstitious mother into a loveless marriage. Women are to be “seen and not heard”. Tamara’s place is in the house, and she is bound to abide by the choices her parents make for her.

The family proves too much for Esther herself — as we discover in the fourth book tilted “Esther”. Living in the relatively modern post-independence times, she too is prevented from marrying the man of her choice. “The poisonous creeper called Family had gripped my feet and I could not move,” she says in disgust. Esther’s freedom is circumscribed by her parents who cannot come to terms with the twists their daughter’s life takes, and question her actions and integrity.

Bathsheba’s grandson and his son after him — whose life forms the subject matter of the second book, “David” — however, benefit from her strength. Even Joshua, Esther’s father, who breaks all family rules and does on to become a huge success, tries to force his daughter to live by the suffocating rules of society that he never follows himself.

David is not bothered with writing beautiful prose here. Her style is conversational, with the narrator’s voice often interrupting the flow of the novel every now and then. Indeed, this fluidity further adds to the illusion of autobiography. But just as our ways of remembering are often fractured, the thread of the narrative is also frequently disrupted. There is also much overlapping among the four sections into which the book is divided — many of the events in “Joshua” and “Esther” are repeated and have relevance to both lives. For example, Joshua’s experience with cancer is related in the section on his daughter, which hampers the flow of logic and character development.

The strength of Book of Esther lies in its rich characterization. Many interesting people drop off along the way, but Esther manages to capture the essence and the romance of those central to the novel. Joshua, in particular, is fascinating. His growth from a weak and frightened young boy to a shikari, and finally to a conservationist who establishes a delightful zoo is wonderfully handled. However his transition to a father lacking in warmth, however, could have been better depicted.

Identity, in this novel, is deeply embedded in family and religion. The author captures the conflicts and the insecurity of a minority community living away from its homeland. For such a community, maintaining cultural purity and integrity becomes the source of comfort and also anguish. But as the “wayward” Esther proves, centuries of memory are impossible to run away from.

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