Wednesday, 15 November 2017

#40 A book set in the place you live

Aliyah – Sethu (Translated by Catherine Thankamma) 

“If you remain in the land where you sprouted, you will wilt. It is good to be replanted when you grow a bit. It is true in the case of plants and in the case of people too. You need some time to take root, that is all.”
 
Kochi , a seaside town in the coastal state of Kerala has had a very colourful past – but one which is probably fading with time.  In A. Sethumadhavan’s  novel, which has been translated from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma , he narrates through the medium of fiction, the tale of a community of Jews who once called Kochi their home. Focusing on Salomon, a young Jewish man and the decisions that his family and his community would have to take – to ultimately confront their Jewish heritage and the land they belong to.

Jews, while being persecuted across Europe, had once fled to different parts of the world. Those who landed in Kochi were welcomed and given safety by the then ruling monarchs. For many centuries did Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians all live beside each other in certain pockets of this port city of Kochi. Synagogues were built and they settled down and laid roots as time went by.
By the 16th century, after a new wave of Jewish migration there became established two groups of Jews – the white skinned foreign Jews and the black skinned native Jews , a.k.a. Paradesi Jews and Malabari ‘Black’ Jews. Apparently it wasn’t necessarily based on the skin colour. By the 18th century there were eight synagogues in five different Kerala towns and villages.

The Paradesi Jewish Synagogue in Kochi, Kerala - now a Heritage Monument
However, after decades of calling Kochi their home, shifting political climate caused a mass migration of Jews to a newly formed state – Israel (formed in 1948). This migration was termed as ‘aliyah’ – thus the title. However, as we see through the fictionalized story of Salomon and his family, it was not an easy decision to make. Many Jews did migrate in response to the Zionist call – and many Jews remained. Because, in the end, where do you belong – in the soil that you grew up in or in the soil that has been newly demarcated to be your “land”? What does it mean to be a Jew in Kochi, the last Jew that too – when all the rest have decided to leave for the Promised Land? These and many other diasporic dilemmas are poignantly explored in this novel.

Set in the village of Chendamangalam, it begins with a nightmare seen by young Salomon who sees a ship and sea crows in his prophetic dream. His affectionate grandmother Eshimuthimma is thrilled since she believes it is a sign from above that the time has come for them to move to the Promised Land, Israel. However, Salomon will keep questioning whether he feels more at home here - in the only land he has ever known,  the land where his mother was buried (Rebeccamma, died when he was four), the place where he has an identity.  His father, Evron and his uncle Elias are more practical in their ways unlike Salomon who is a bit of a dreamer.

The chapters reveal the past of the family, from the time of their grandfather who settled there first and to the present generation where only one male heir remain to continue the family line – Salomon.  The political turmoil, the religious and cultural conflict of the time, the myth and cultural beliefs of a time that remains forgotten in dusty volumes, empty synagogues are brought alive in the pages of Aliyah. We meet several characters through Salomon, who have their own part to play in the unfolding of events that leads up to the day when the Jewish community finally leaves the shores of the town.

Which country is home? On the one hand there is India, where generations of Jews have lived peacefully and where they have never been persecuted for their faith. And on the other hand, there is the promised land of Israel, which they know very little about — and going there means that suddenly there are possessions be sold, money to be paid to an agency, ships to board, and a final, overwhelming cutting of all ties to their homes.

The Hindu and Christian neighbours of the Jews are bewildered at this turn of events, and rather suspicious. Nobody can comprehend why the Jews feel that they are foreigners in India — which is not surprising, since most of the Jews are not necessarily able to articulate why they want to leave. Nor do they know much about Israel.

So, this novel gives a certain insight into a lot of history which is relatively unknown. However, it does not meet the promise it sets out to deliver. At certain points it felt that there was too much meandering and the character of Salomon simply seemed to be acting as a bystander rather than someone who we could relate to as being caught in a decisive turmoil. It generated enough interest simply by its premise of a story that surrounds a fading community. And certain moments were  decidedly poignant. For instance, the night before they have to leave for Israel, not one of them in the family can bring themselves to eat anything. And Eshimuthimma, who had for so long yearned to go the land across the seas, calls Salomon beside  her and shows him a tiny pouch in which she is carrying the soil of her homeland, of Kochi, so that when she dies she can be buried with it beside her.  Memorable.

Sashi Tharoor, who was present at the launch of this book in Delhi earlier this year had this to say about the novel:

What is your identity? Is it the racial memory as it were or is it the place and the people with whom you always lived? Where is your allegiance? Where is your love and loyalty? Who commands it? These are questions embedded in the narrative of Aliyah.

Couldn’t have put it better.

[Note on title: Aliyah - Pronounced: a-LEE-yuh for synagogue use, ah-lee-YAH for immigration to Israel, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “to go up.” This can mean the honour of saying a blessing before and after the Torah reading during a worship service, or immigrating to Israel.]

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