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Sunday, May 18, 2003
Books

A womanís search for her identity
Aradhika Sekhon

The Book of Esther
by Esther David. Viking Penguin.
Pages 394. Rs 395.

The Book of EstherTHE Book of Esther is a work of fiction inspired by a real event ó the arrival of the authorís ancestors on the Konkan coast ó at Alibaugh, where they landed after a shipwreck. The novel deals with the Jewish forefathers of Esther. The family history begins in the 19th century with Bathsheba, the Dandekar daughter-in-law, waiting for her husband, Solomon, who is a soldier. Bathsheba, the gutsy woman that she is, steers the family through difficult times and social ostracism and survives a miscarriage.

Esther David traces her Jewish roots, dealing with great-aunts, great-uncles, cousins, grandparents and extended families with deft strokes of her pen. "My ancestors have now become very real to me," she writes in the Authorís note. "I feel their presence around me. Sometimes they bind me, sometimes they comfort me." In fact, she took the aid of old family photographs, boxes containing notes, diaries, documents, paper clippings and every possible written material to help her along. She has used narratives of her cousins and grandmother, as also her own observation of the lives led by different members of the family to aid the progression of her book. Initially, she had begun The Book of Esther as a historical novel, "But", she writes, "as I journeyed with the patriarchs and the matriarchs, I decided that I did not want to write a historical novel. I wanted to write her (my) story."

 


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 first-hand experiences.

Estherís 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.

Esther lays 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 what happened."

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."

Still searching 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.