Book Review: Trapped in Nostalgia and Failed Promises

Shepard, Sadia. The Girl From Foreign. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

The only thing that may interest readers of Edna Fernandes’s anthropological study of the Jews in Kerala is the collection of trivia about the community, its rituals, and a graphic account of the Jewish colonies. But sadly, a conspicuous lack of intellectual probing results in the stating of the most obvious facts, as the author rehashes what she has read and heard, and draws banal conclusions about the Jews.

Throughout the book, the author tries to squeeze her observations into the narrow confines of a ‘fatalistic’ theory: that the Keralite Jews are fast becoming extinct, with the death of the elders and the refusal of the young to marry within the community. Every chapter talks about Kerala’s Jews becoming “living relics” that tourists come to see and photograph, Jewish rituals being reduced to some basic gestures, the magnificent synagogues changing into storerooms and shops, forcing the end of the apartheid between the white Jews of Mattancheri and the black Jews of Malabar. The repetitive generalizations force the entire spectrum of characters with their oddities and absurdities – Gamy Salem, Reema, Babu Joseph the black shohet and his two daughters, Sarah Cohen, the chirpy old widow – to dissolve in the dull monotone of collective doom.

A similar homogenizing tendency can be noticed in Fernandes’s treatment of the historical past of the Jews. She keeps harking back to their Israeli lineage, though none of the people interviewed refer to it unless prodded by the author. Clich?d markers of Jewish history are used: the demolition of King Solomon’s Second Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, the history of the Tabernacle and the narratives of the Old Testament. Kerala becomes the “Promised Land”, and Joseph Rabban, the leader of the Indian Jews in the fourth century AD, becomes the new King David.

It must be said, though, that Fernandes is thorough with the speculative theories on the arrival of the Jews in India. The Jews had first settled in Cranganore, before winning the support of regional Hindu kings and mediating between them and the Portuguese settlers in the 16th century. The whites and the blacks – the Paradesis and Malabaris – eventually fell out, each claiming monopoly over Rabban’s lineage. All these interest the reader, but not if the facts keep turning up like bad pennies in every chapter, with nothing being added by way of analysis or of individual voices.

Perhaps the book could have made a mark had the author not chosen to remain a scholar and an outsider. She observes the Jews from a distance, being guided by her books and theories, not trusting her feelings to produce a subjective understanding. Sammy’s rude behaviour, Sarah’s mirth, Babu’s pride in his daughter’s Nasa dreams strike a chord or two here and there, but the microcosms get lost in the overarching, exoticized picture of the community. The people are passed through the filter of her research, and end up enacting (or so she would have us believe) roles assigned to them by their grand, collective history. Her subjects are, for her, an “anthropological marvel”, so much so that even their simple day-to-day activities or light-hearted comments make them agents of history – the “migrants” and “exiles” of Solomon’s kingdom. One wonders how she is any better than the camera-toting tourists who she mentions with great contempt in her book.

But ironically, she also takes it upon herself to speak on behalf of the Jews. And this makes her ventriloquism pretentious and presumptuous, and her tone narcissistic. Sentences such as “I pulled out my notebook containing a list of names of the Cochini Jews I had carefully gleaned from historical accounts and memoirs like jewels from the dust…” or “I invaded their ‘natural habitat’… I scanned the horizon for their distinctive markings… I had become a stalker of the Jews of Synagogue Lane” are tasteless exhibitions of the scholar’s superiority. As a result, what could have been an exposition of an acute dilemma between, or an intellectual synthesis of, an anthropologist looking for historical detail and a human observer fathoming people, ends up being a blunt and repetitive enumeration of facts. When she does try to inject some humour – such as referring to Sarah and Jacob Cohen as “the Ash and Abhishek of Cochin”, or calling herself a “child protesting to the headmaster” while trying to interview the ill-tempered Sammy – she sounds either facetious or self-important. If she had indeed intended her work to be a mixture of impersonal and personal components, then, it has to be said, she has squarely failed on the second count.

When Fernandes journeys to Israel to see how the Jews from Kerala had settled there, she finds that the moshavs or towns in and around Negev are full of such migrant families. The racial bigotry that haunted their past in Kerala, has vanished from their lives in Israel. The black and the white Jews of Cochin here are united through the daily miseries of a war-stricken land. However, there is no question mark here against their survival as a race. Here, Fernandes meets Bezalel, the exporter of flowers and winner of several national and international awards for notable contribution to Indo-Israeli relations. There is Nili, a young girl looking for a Jewish groom. But Fernandes fails to read the nuances of their socio-political existence, especially in the context of the political tensions in Israel. Why does she think that these migrants are bound to feel nostalgic at every mention of Kerala? But then, she is given to seeing connections everywhere: in the “pungent tang of garam masala” at Bezalel’s house, she can see “Cochin’s tropical marketplace that first enticed the merchant seamen of King Solomon to India’s shores”; a look at Isaac Nehemia’s skullcap “made of cotton fabric printed with bright tropical palm leaves” convinces her that it is a “tribute to his old motherland”, Kerala.

Perhaps Fernandes was inspired by Amitav Ghosh’s experiments with temporal and spatial shifts in In An Antique Land. But Ghosh’s experiment of moving to and fro among Mangalore and Egyptian towns, among Muslims, Hindus and Jews, and between the distant past and the present, succeeds because his analysis is able to go beyond the limitations of historical facts and objective details. Fernandes, saddled as she is with her scholarly theories, moves back and forth between Israel and Kerala, but does not make an effort to look at the lives of the Jews of Kerala in contemporary social, political, racial or even human contexts. The result is a lot of facts and figures, signifying nothing.


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