This, unfortunately, also turns out to be the biggest drawback
of the novel. The first half of the narrative does, in fact,
read like a historical account, albeit a fairly colorful one,
peopled as it is with some interesting characters. Though the
author does try to give these characters some or the other
peculiar facet to make them more human and interesting, yet many
of them remain lifeless, more so as they donít seem to be
going anywhere in particular nor carrying the plot forward.
The book is
replete with the history and culture of the Bene Israeli Jews.
Right from their names ó Moses, Tamara, Shlumith, Abigayail,
Solomon, Ahron ó to the prayers in the synagogue, the bar
mitzvah ceremony, Hebrew speech, Sabbath prayers and Hallah
bread. However, the adopted the Konkan, then the Marathi and
then the Ahmadabadi way: they spoke the language, the women wore
nine-yard sarees, bangles, nose rings and flowers in their hair,
ate paan from silver paan boxes with nutcrackers
nestling inside. "When they fled their homeland and landed
in India after the shipwreck, the Bene Israelies followed the
dictum: mix with the people where you have found a new home.
Keep your religion a secret. Let nobody know who you are."
The novel becomes
interesting when the family shifts to Ahmadabad and the novel
focuses on David and Bathsheba, Estherís grandparents, her
parents Joshua and Naomi, her own childhood and her search for
identity. In fact, there is a palpable change in the pace of the
novel in the later half of the book, the reason perhaps being
that these are accounts of either her own or other peopleís
childhood is a strange one, overshadowed as it is by her fatherís
zoo at Ahmadabad. Visits by dignitaries to the zoo included
those by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi when both were Prime
Ministers. Esther is disgusted by their reactions to the Zoo ó
her fatherís pride and joy ó reaction which is touching in
its loyalty to her father. Joshua grows in stature from a
would-be actor to a hunter of note to the creator of the
zoological park at Ahmadabad. Many of the experiences narrated
seem to have a myth-like quality about them.
herself bare to the readerís scrutiny when she writes about
her growing-up years. She talks of her two failed marriages, her
misunderstandings with her parents and her poor performance in
school. She speaks of her attempted rape, "I prayed and
hoped that God was a woman. At least she would understand about
being a girl and give me the strength to tell my mother about
Finally, the book
deals with Estherís search for her roots. The Jewish bonds
that have become weak over the generations finally find strength
again and beckon Esther to Israel to search for her true
identity. "Israel was my oasis. It was the place where I
could escape to when I was in distress. Year after year I told
myself, Ďnext year, Jerusalemí." But when she reaches
Israel she realises that "I had given myself many reasons
to run away from India. Gradually, however, I realized that I
had lived there as a Jew without fear. When I heard the stories
of other immigrants and met the Holocaust survivors, I realized
that in India we had never suffered because we were Jews.
Perhaps it was the only country in the world where Jews had
never faced persecution."
her identity, Esther remarries and travels to France. She
finally comes to terms with her Indianness and realises that
home is in India.
Had the author
confined herself to telling her own story without trying to
confuse the reader by littering the book with many characters,
it would have made for a tighter plot and a more readable story.
Only a reader who has the patience to wade through the first
half of the novel will get to appreciate the second, definitely
more readable part.