The keeper of India's Jewish stories

Oct 11, 2013, 01:52 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Jael Silliman wants to keep the legacy of India's Jews, especially from her home town, Calcutta, alive. Helming an ongoing digital archive project and a just released debut novel on Jews, she shares with Fiona Fernandez about charting a community chronicle

“There are only 30 of us left in Calcutta. And to think, there were 3,000 in the 1940s and 50s!” sighs Jael Silliman. The archivist, writer, and former expert and professor on women’s affairs, is in Mumbai for a couple of reasons. Soaking in the sights and sounds during our walk around buzzing Flora Fountain she remarks how the city appears cleaner since her previous visit, nine months back. “Is it because of the rains?” she asks. I smile. Positive feedback from visitors is alwayswelcome.

The main hall of the Maghen David Synagogue. It is considered to be the biggest synagogue in Asia. Pics Courtesy/ Jael Silliman

Save a Jewish legacy
Moments later, we are sipping on Apple Tea at a nearby cafe, and I bring up that shocking figure. “…It’s true. At 58, I am considered ‘young’ in the community. Some of the older members are in their nineties,” says Silliman, leading us into the first of her reasons for this Mumbai visit. “I am working on a digital archive on Calcutta’s Jews, and Mumbai was an automatic stop for my research because of its strong Jewish connect.” The Sassoons had a link with our city, she informs. Silliman’s forefathers made Calcutta their home since 1798. Half an hour into our chat, and I am regaled with stories of her maternal great grandparents who hailed from Basra in Iraq, and their travels across Asia’s trading hubs. Baghdadi Jews were prosperous traders whose businesses stretched from the Persian Gulf and Karachi, to Rangoon and Hong Kong. Photographs from her earlier non-fiction work, Jewish Portraits: Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives From A Diaspora of Hope, portrays a striking Middle Eastern appearance in attire among early Baghdadi Jews, and the gradual Indianisation after they settled on the Subcontinent. 

Close-up of the architectural details inside Calcutta’s  Maghen David Synagogue

Virtual treasure
Our historic travelogue crosses centuries, to four years ago, when Silliman decided to return ‘home’ -- Calcutta. She taught at the University of Iowa, and later, worked at the Ford Foundation focusing on women’s affairs. After 30 years, she returned from the US to be with her mother. From her Moira Street residence, she got hooked on to the idea of chronicling the fascinating history of her tiny community, and has never looked back.  “My children had grown up, and I felt the urge to return to Calcutta. People would visit our synagogues but have no idea of its history or the Jewish contributions and connect in Calcutta. I was advised by a visiting Irish tourist to create an archive. I realised that we had nothing to protect and showcase our traditions and legacy in the city. The idea to go digital seemed like a practical option,” she says, with the energy of a 16-year-old. As luck would have it, she learnt that Jadavpur University’s Centre for Text and Records were keen on taking it forward. Today, she, along with a few students, are working on this archive -- filming, rewording of texts and chronicling of content is in full swing. “I loved the idea of the virtual space because it provides immense depth. It will be light on text, yet rich in content,” she reveals, adding that it would take at least another year and a half to complete. 

Jael Silliman takes a breather to soak in the historic significance of Flora Fountain. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Fact-finding mission
The archive will provide amazing insight. “It will include our buildings, customs, texts, chants (from a Philadelphia-based Rabbi), photographs from the 1890s, our love for horse racing, and of course, our food. My mother recreated recipes in our kitchen,” she adds. She’s travelled to Delhi, and now, Mumbai to dig deeper. “Yesteryear actress Pramila was a Jew. She was born Esther Victoria Abraham and was free India’s first Miss India. I will be meeting her son in Dadar who has agreed to share some great records,” she quips, as she takes our leave, possibly in search of a hidden Jewish anecdote in one of Fort’s forgotten bylanes.

The man with many hats
Jael Silliman’s other reason for this Mumbai visit is for the release of her debut novel. In her words, it is “a love song for Calcutta”. Set in the city, it looks at the complex father-daughter relationship in a Jewish family and one that simultaneously charts the changes that the community and city experienced from the 1960s to the 80s, and later. Magically woven as an intricate tale of emotion, family ties, laughter and pain, it draws from the unconditional acceptance of love. Self published, Silliman delightful sketches grace the openers for every chapter.

Did you know?
Baghdad was the seat of Jewish learning and traditions, for centuries. Hence, the term is collectively used to represent Jews who belong to Calcutta, according to Silliman.

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