City’s French connection

AHMEDABAD: The tales of a small Amdavadi community – largely obscured by the vast patchwork of India’s infinite ethnicities – are being relished by the French bookdom. ‘Shalom India Housing Society’, a novel by city-based writer Esther David, has been translated in French. At one level, the book offers sociological diagnostics of Bene Israel (Sons of Israel) Jews who arrived in India some 2,000 years ago, according to myth if not historiography. On another level, ‘Shalom India Housing Society’ is a literary meditation in which Prophet Elijah becomes a flaneur (roamer/lounger), a creative force created by Charles Baudelaire. A flaneur trawls a city searching for its soul.

In David’s imagining, even if Elijah is not given to Baudelairean wanderings in urbania, he walks across all the 19 stories in the book – and into characters’ lives – with the authority of the protagonist. The novel opens with Elijah’s ‘bio’ and establishes his centrality to the narrative. David describes how Bene Israel Jews contravened Judaism’s injunction against idol worship and gave Elijah a face.

Indeed, when the prophet prepares for a global jaunt on Passover to receive traditional hospitality garnished with modern Indian flavours, David captures an affecting multicultural moment. “As he pinned a blue mantle to his shoulders with brooches and put on his gold bracelets,” David writes, “Prophet Elijah was satisfied that he looked exactly like the poster he had seen in most Bene Israel homes of India.”

Braving rogue waves and surviving the perils of shipwreck, Bene Israel Jews settled on the Konkan coast and went through the inevitable phase of Indianization. Their story would not have exerted global appeal had it not been for the colourful humanity that India imprints on to its citizens’ lives. And that colour has been evoked delicately by David. ‘Shalom India Housing Society’ – a fictitious Ahmedabad apartment complex – has drawn admiration in France.

French reviewers Alain and Christian Londner write: “The [book] is constructed in a brilliant manner with Jewish portraits facing a universal predicament of the human situation. It expresses their cross-cultural conflicts as they try to preserve their rites and rituals.”

David’s first book, ‘The Walled City’ (1997), was translated in French as ‘La Ville en ses Murs’. It was nominated for the Premier Liste de Prix Femina. Her next work, ‘Book of Rachel’, was translated in French as ‘Le Livre de Rachel’ and won the Prix Eugene Brazier. For Ahmedabad, David seems to be the consistent French connection.


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