Finding My India

When I was a child, I pictured India in wax shapes, still-life window displays. There was my auntie, her son on one hip, stirring lentils in Mumbai, locked in mid-motion. Or streets crowded with people, rickshaws weaving between papayas and lettuce laid out to sell across the pavement. Each new vision, I would file away; each scent of ginger or story of a scampering mongoose evoked a new still-life. Once formed, the pictures never changed and remained sealed in their wax frames. This was how I understood India.

What little else I learned about India came from E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, V.S. Naipaul-all Victorian and colonial. I also knew the story of India’s Jews: an ancient shipwreck that left seven men and seven women, Hebrews, stranded on its shores. Jews had lived for centuries in villages, and eventually made their way to Mumbai, then called Bombay. My mother and her family had been born there decades ago, but dispersed to Israel and then settled in America.

Certain I would go there someday, I started writing about India and Indian Jews, making a place for this missing piece of my identity. Going there, I felt, would be a homecoming, a validation of everything I had pictured. When I was 31, the opportunity finally came, as my new husband and I embarked on an extended honeymoon. The land and its ancient Jewish community that I had romanticized from afar would finally be before me, a much-awaited confirmation.

From the moment we landed in Mumbai, however, and emerged into its steamy lace of mosquitoes and masses of people, I could barely connect what unfolded before me with what I had pictured. I could not believe my life had been so narrow as to not know what it meant to be in a place like this, where it seemed no one person-Jew or otherwise-could make a mark or scratch, let alone surface with significance above the surrounding chaos.

Real-life poverty here looked like it had on television at home but was far vaster, more tangible, and smelly, too. The heat, urine and exhaust seemed to seep into my skin, turning the waters of my eyes a coughing black. Tranquility was rare, preserved in guarded spaces. Each time we left those areas for the rest of the city, I forgot anew what it was to feel safe, to have for myself a morsel of fresh air and quiet.

But as I adjusted, I began to take in more. I saw the glossy colors and music of Bollywood, the lushness of vine-draped trees, glistening orange pastries. There were women painted in green and red, rows of men sleeping on the streets, their bent knees looked jagged, linked in the night like architecture against the honking, noise and crowds of millions. I found that I could look upon just-butchered food smeared in flies, and could expect a simple drink of untreated water to be poison. I learned to wave with the right hand instead of the left, meant for toileting, and to shrug off the fact that laundry, beaten clean in a holy lake, came out smelling smoked from the tons of corpse ashes poured in each year. I made a point to stay modestly covered, even in the unbearable heat.

Despite this contrast to my pristine imaginings, despite how uncomfortable India felt in three dimensions, I soon sniffed out spices forgotten since childhood and recognized intonations I could not quite translate into American. I recalled from some deep, collective memory the dizzying sensuality of religions rubbing together, Buddhas and Ganeshes blowing smoke Os and tossing flowers at each other.

I had come to this vast, exotic subcontinent to make sense of its centuries-old society. Instead I felt all around me the growth spurts of a new one taking form. In this way, we wandered India’s infinity. It came home to me one afternoon in Mumbai, as we sat in a rare quiet corner and drank milk-tea, watching fat cows saunter by, pilgrims to pasture. Suddenly a motorcycle howled near, spraying dust. A shaved Israeli backpacker dismounted. He put his name in queue for an Alef-Bet keyboard at the internet cafe across the street, perused Israeli advertisements on the shop window next door, then plopped down at a table. Scanning the menu, he pointed a tattooed finger at the waiter. “Let’s have a plate of hummus. And Israeli salad.”

“Sababa, achi.” Not only did the Indian waiter speak Hebrew slang, but he paired it with such a backhand nonchalance, we could have been in Tel Aviv.

This was just one of the subcultures of Jews scattered across the continent. In Mumbai, we found the local Jews for whom I had come, the last of the ancient communities who might explain to me my heritage. Emptied through mass emigration, their remnant seemed feeble, toothless, dying. They spoke of how vibrant their community used to be, pointing to their own lives and practices as if they were museum exhibits.

We spent Shabbat at one of the few synagogues that still drew a minyan, a musty wooden building with balconies painted turquoise and lazy ceiling fans that seemed to chop at the air in random bursts of will. There was a sense of bitterness that turned the day’s simple d’var Torah into a brimstone tirade, a complaint of no one to oversee it all. Resources were lacking; the leaders wore too many hats. For Kiddush, we gathered in the basement, women and men separately, and ate curry egg, rice and chicken with formality-a meal of mechanics and inertia.

We ate other meals in Mumbai with the recently planted kiruv or outreach groups trying to lure Jews abroad into greater religious practice. The few stale native Jews were not their priority; rather, they focused their zeal on the dynamic flood of tourists and wanderers. Their sense of purpose showed clearest in the rebbetzins, young, already big from babies. They had married into lives of good works in the familiarity of Flatbush or Haifa and then found themselves plodding through dirty Indian streets, stepping around corpses, haggling over cucumbers with the locals. Still, they never seemed bothered by it, in their single-minded mission to put kosher meatballs and fresh challah on the tables where their rabbis taught Torah to searching hippies.

Mumbai’s remaining Jews were American businessmen leaping upon the country’s growing economy, middle-aged tour groups, granola-stuffed high school girls come to volunteer at orphanages, and a few leathered old-timers from New Jersey, now fluent in Hindi and melded into the population. Among them all were Jews like me, connected in biology and imagination, trying to learn about where they came from, as if a glimpse could explain anything.

But most of Mumbai’s Jewish visitors are Israelis, backpackers, many fresh from the army, who seemed to have an instantaneous chemical reaction to India. As soon as their bodies mix with airport smog, nose rings and thick dreadlocks sprout, skin withers inside dirty cotton garb, calluses crack open, pushing forth sandal straps and copper anklets. They were everywhere, playing chess and guitar on every corner, smoking in every cafe.

Something mysterious was drawing these Jewish masses to India and, though I could not yet understand what that was, I felt it resonating in my own muscles. I, too, was hoping to connect, to animate the wax figures of my imagination, to feel some sort of access I might be entitled to by blood.

In such a wild place, I may as well have been waiting for the crowded streets to sweep themselves open at my whisper, or the monsoons to rain saffron. The city of Mumbai left me awed, Indian Jews as a people left me tender-but there was no quick channel through them for a deep connection. I had to start from scratch. And so we moved onwards in India, past Mumbai, heading up north to the Himalayas.

What was the nature, the inspiration of this searching in India? Perhaps it was the juxtaposed poverty and grandeur, the amazing starkness that led the mind to wander. Perhaps it was that this stripping of anonymity-this being defined by others through differences of skin color, style, language and presence-prompted a desire for greater definition on one’s own terms. Perhaps, for Israelis drained by their army service, it was an easy way to learn mind-expanding yoga and philosophy and get drugs cheap. Perhaps it was just that wisdom was sweeter if earned through sweat and crossing continents.

But maybe greater than all this was the rush of the uprooting itself, the ripping away of those wax figures that we all carry in our minds. The loss of established norms could somehow crystallize an identity, evoke a spiritual response.

Suddenly surrounded by peoples steeped in exotic religious life-Hindus meditating, Buddhists spinning prayer wheels, Sikhs garbed in symbols up and down their bodies-even the most stubbornly secular Jews were left to wonder what greater forces existed, what it could be that everyone else seemed to know. Numbness melted away under such vibrancy.

Whether for reasons simply social or achingly spiritual, Jews who would have waved off haredim close to home pushed through crowded streets and strange bazaars to come to eat cholent at the local Jewish House, to learn and pray and sing and own their religion in a new way. Being Jewish was suddenly more raw and relevant when defined in the way our ancients first set themselves apart-in contrast to millions of people around us worshipping idols.

After several weeks in Mumbai, we ascended into the Himalayas, where I experienced for myself something of this profound connection. There in the mountains was the happiest home we made for ourselves in India. Cool even in the summer, spare, the region felt remote from the rest of the country. Soldiers deemed it punishment to be stationed at bases out there and, in the winter months, each village had to fend for itself, living off the barley it had grown and a handful of lightbulbs. The capital, Leh, where we stayed, a small town at heart, was prosperous, clean and enchanting. The bowled green valley stretched into purple desert mountains with snow whipped high on top below a blue sky.

We were far from the only tourists up here. After Israelis discovered the Himalayas and made them one of their bases, the kiruv groups followed. We found a young rabbi-his wife and three children sprawled across the floor playing patty cake-in a Jewish House he had set up, thousands of meters above the rest of the world, with a library, Torah scrolls and kosher kitchen. Friday nights, they hosted Shabbat dinners for sometimes four hundred people guests, eating soup under tents from pots as large as tubs. Between the Torah discussions, dotted lovingly with stories of Rav Nachman of Breslov and booming Carlebach melodies, one of the most striking moments was seeing an Indian tourist who happened to be wandering by pop his head into the tent area at the sound of the commotion. He watched with interest for a while, then reached for his camera and snapped a picture to show people at home.

It delighted us to learn that this Jewish House in the middle of the Himalayas also had a mikvah we could use. We would not have to descend our beautiful mountains and crisscross the subcontinent in search of one when it was time for me to immerse, so my husband and I could be intimately together again.

The first mikvah I had entered was in Queens. The walls were plastered in pale green tiles, the waters syrupy from chlorine. The woman who assisted me was competent, experienced, a firm help in my fumbling. It was the month before our wedding, and I learned from her that every future mikvah visit would conjure the joy of our wedding. I could picture, as if in wax again, what that would mean, but I had no idea how much this blessing would deepen in India’s embrace.

Up in the Himalayas, the mikvah lay outdoors in a sukkah-like booth under the black night and star swarms. The mikvah’s water was so mountain-cold that my husband carried massive potfuls of it back and forth to heat on the stove flames, each weighed-down, waddling step a shared ceremony.

Finally the mikvah was ready for me. The rebbetzin hugged me, led me out to it, and spoke a few words of Torah. “Follow me,” she whispered, and the hush of her words accompanied me down the path. “These waters are connected to the waters in the Garden of Eden.” I knew without doubt this was true.

There was no polish or marble along this path, no Queens convenience. But fat wax candles had been lit along its way, creating an enchanting sheen over the fence, behind which I heard Indian life closing down for the day. Soon all that remained was a pool of pure water before me. I descended into the cold, letting it sink within me, welcome, again and again, till the rebbetzin said simply for me and my husband, “Now you are together.”

In that moment, though I could not name it, I understood what drew so many of Israel’s Jews to India. Looking with new eyes at the ritual of old pictures, I paused, dripping, and let the spirit of it all catch up to me.

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