Thursday, 13 September 2012

Kim's Review: The Walled City

Esther David's The Walled City tells the tale of a young Bene Israeli Jewish girl born in 1940 in Ahmedabad in the first person. This girl is surrounded by a myriad influences, customs, cultures and stories and the book tells the tale of her trying to make sense of it all.

Her paternal grandmother has adopted some Marathi customs (including the way she wears her sari)and even though she is illiterate, she knows all the Hebrew prayers and has her own strong beliefs.

Her mother Naomi's relationships with everyone in the family are strained and as a working woman, she is an abberration at her husbands house. But she has very strict views on what is the "right" way that a Jewish girl should be raised and detests any "non Jewish" influences in her daughters life.

Compared to her mothers strong influence, her father doesn't have as much of an influence/ impact on her life and he does come across as hen pecked.

Her maternal grandfather Daniel who worked with a British firm has adopted a lot of their habits and customs.

Her foreign returned doctor aunt who dresses smartly but has her own demons to face.

Her cousins Malka & Samuel who are just a little older than her and just as confused.

All of these people have a different Jewsih perspective and influence on this young girls life.

She studies in a Christian convent school. 

She is exposed to the Hindu way of life through her childhood friends Subhadra and Pratibha, who share tales from their own beliefs, teach her Indian dance and she sometimes joins them in their prayers saying she feels more comfortable praying in a temple than in a synagogue.
Living in the Walled city, they have a lot of Muslim neighbours and her uncle invites them to use their large backyard for celebrating festivals and functions where the cousins are exposed to biryanis and singing girls.
Ancestral photos show women of previous generations wrapped in the 9 yard sari dhothi/Marathi style with nose rings, armlets & anklets adorning them, but her mother Naomi has a huge fight with her father Daniel, when he buys anklets for his granddaughter to wear, saying that Jewish girls should wear no ornaments except a chain, brooch, watch or bangles.

The messages she receives about her own religion are mixed. Her uncle Menachem winks when he says that it is not permissible to mix milk & meat while happily rounding off a non vegetarian meal with pedhas or gulab jamuns. She doesn't know Hebrew and hence does not know what any of her prayers mean which she finds in strong contrast to her Hindu friends who know exactly what they are saying when they pray.

The difference in food, in expectations, in beliefs and traditions all keep assaulting this young girl but she has nowhere to get answers to the questions that plague her.. The casteist feelings between Baghdadi jews and Bene Israeli Jews brings about its own set of worries for this girl.

How does she deal with it all, how do all these people impact her life, what is the purpose of her life, will she be able to assert any kind of independence. All these questions constantly come up in the mind of the reader of this book.

Each of the characters is well etched and its very easy to sympathise with most of their perspectives since the author explains where each one of them is coming from.

Esther David changed professions (from an art critic) & wrote this novel when she was almost 50. She says she wrote this book to understand herself, her community and her religion. She confesses to not doing any research but just writing straight from her heart.

And it worked. The Walled City's largest success has been in the world of Global Jewish Literature and while there are a lot of nuances of Jewish life in Ahmedabad revealed in the tale, the tale itself could be of any young girl born into any small community in any Indian non-metro city.

The Walls of the city referenced in the book are symbolic of the walls of Indian communities, of the family and of being a woman. In Esther David's words, The Walled City is all about isolation and immense cross cultural conflict.

A lovely read, the book is not so much about the walled city of Ahmedabad but about the search for ones identity.

Does this book give a perspective on Ahmedabad the city it is set in?
Not so much, it could be set in any walled city.
Does this book give a perspective on growing up Jewish in Ahmedabad/India?
Most definitely, yes!

Rating: 4 / 5

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