Gripping tale of survival
There, Where the Pepper Grows
by Bem Le Hunte. HarperCollins.
Pages 296. Rs 295.
K. Rajbir Deswal
This is a masterly work of purposeful fiction in the backdrop of a historical perspective, advocating tolerance and fellow feeling. A saga of atrocity, intensity, conflict and despair, it finds a happy ending; while throughout the narrative, the uprooted Jewish characters had "no sense of belonging" to any place in the world till they reach Calcutta by chance, and the place becomes their "Palestine and Jerusalem."
The story has two settings—one in the war-ravaged Warsaw and the other in the refugee capital Calcutta. The timeline has World War II in it.
Compelled by Nazi persecution, a Jewish family fights a battle for survival and manages many an eventful escape from Poland via Russia and Japan to reach India—the land of peace and tolerance. Interwoven in the tale is the exuberance of platonic love and horrific details of torture meted out to the Jewish community by the German army.
Benjamin, the hero and a young doctor, attempts a near fatal and silly misadventure in taking on the might of the invading German tanks in Warsaw. Thereafter, leaving his love Eva and his parents behind, he moves on to a small town called Piaski, where he finds work under Dr Ruben, who has a widowed daughter, Rivka, and her six-year-old son, Daniel.
Dr Ruben is taken prisoner by the authorities for writing an "offending" communication to them. When the fate of Dr Ruben remains unknown, Benjamin has to flee from Piaski with Daniel, and Rivka taken as his wife.
From here begin the hair-raising accounts of atrocities committed in Nazi camps. People are uprooted, dragged out of their dwellings, humiliated, tortured and killed. The heart-gripping narration compels the reader go biting nails.
The most pathetic is the scene when Rivka, like half a dozen other members of the party escaping through a tunnel, hits Daniel with a chair, to test if he would scream and wake up the guards. Benjamin’s parents are shot dead and his house taken over in Warsaw but he is able to bring along Eva for moving to some safe place out of Poland.
When Benjamin, Rivka, Eva and Daniel disembark in Calcutta with other refugees, with their boat Asma Maru developing some problem, they are very well received by the local Jewish community. With two women staying with Benjamin, one his wife and the other his childhood friend and old flame, Eva, they encounter some conflict when the man confesses he still loved Eva. But then she finds a match in Joel, turns to Judaism, and migrates to New York.
The author Bem Le Hunte was born in Calcutta and he has described the details about the city with mastery of an indulgent chronicler. Daniel grows here to become a proud Indian while Benjamin practices medicine with a local doctor and spends about 50 years in the City of Joy, with Rivka.
The couple is quite surprised to find that in a country of many faiths, the Jews and the Muslims live together with others. Local hospitality impresses the refugee Jewish family from Poland and they make India their home and hearth.
However, a small patch of desperation again proves traumatic to the family when towards the Indian Independence, Hindu-Muslim riots breakout and the fear of Japanese bombing the port of Calcutta keeps looming large on their minds. Once again, Benjamin has to treat men and women attacked by the warring communities but soon peace prevails. Benjamin and Rivka have children and grandchildren and ultimately, on insistence from their children, they decide to migrate to New York.