Sheela Rohekar, the only Jewish writer of the Hindi language, has launched her latest novel, “Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha,” which is her first novel to depict the life of her Bene Israel community in India. The official launch took place on March 30 at the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Academy of Dance and Drama, in Lucknow. The event was organized by the Lucknow Book Club.
This new book is a significant moment in the history of Indian and Jewish literature, as it was 52 years ago, in 1961, that the only other Hindi novel portraying the life of India’s smallest religious minority, the Jewish community, was published. The only other Hindi novel portraying the life of Jewish community got published in the form of Meera Mahadevan’s “Apna Ghar.”
It never occurred to Rohekar that the Jewish society in India could be of any interest in a nation where people are hardly aware of the existence of Jews, in spite of their presence in the country for possibly two millennia. Most of the Indians are either ignorant of Jews or know them only through secondary sources, not as a result of any direct contact because of their small numbers in India.
Rohekar said, “I felt ashamed and embarrassed when I was asked by Professor Heinz Werner Wessler of Uppsala University in Sweden if I had ever written a story or poem or essay or novel with Jewish characters or a Jewish theme in my literary career in Hindi and Gujarati spanning over 40 years. The question ‘why?’ repeatedly kept echoing within me. Was it my apprehension that nobody would be able to understand the concerns and sensibilities of a community as small as mine in this huge sea of humanity? However this question kept troubling me, and now my [latest] novel ‘Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha’ has the story of a Jewish family as its theme.”
Rohekar began her literary career in 1968 with the publication of a Hindi story in the prestigious Hindi literary journal “Dharmayug” and then a collection of short stories. Her first Hindi novel, “Din’nt” (1977), won the prestigious Yashpal Award. This was followed by her second novel, “Tav’z,” in 2005. It is the story of the developments that take place once Reva, a Hindu woman, marries Anvar, a Muslim, and the saga of the inter-religious and inter-communal relations.
Maybe it was Rohekar’s own interfaith marriage with her Hindu husband that inspired her to weave a story around a Hindu-Muslim marriage. Interestingly, Rohekar’s only child, her son from her Hindu husband, is neither Hindu nor Jewish, but a practicing Buddhist, though Rohekar herself continues to be Jewish.
“I got married to a Hindu Kayastha (a caste). To tell you honestly, I felt scared after the marriage. I was well aware how I would be chastised by society. And that is exactly what happened,” Rohekar said. “The elderly, lesser educated women in my husband’s extended family accepted me reluctantly but refused to accept even water or food from my hands.”
The Lucknow Book Club was faced with opposition to their endeavor to organize a function to release the Hindi language’s second novel on Indian Jews. This opposition is a testament to the growing anti-Semitism among a section of the city’s Muslim population, a recent example of which was an anti-Semitic illustration printed in The Lucknow Tribune. The Lucknow Book Club was determined to organize the book release function in the face of this anti-Semitic opposition and despite the lack of appropriate funds.
Nitin Prakash, the book club’s secretary, Dr. Manoj Singh, its president, and other members such as Shinjini Singh, a Cambridge scholar, and Siddhartha Rastogi, a management studies professor, have been bravely countering the opposition on Facebook and elsewhere.
Rohekar’s “Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha” comes across as a much bolder novel than Mahadevan’s “Apna Ghar,” as it also indulges in a critique of Indian attitudes toward Jews, which “Apna Ghar” does not, though both novels do acknowledge the absence of anti-Semitism in India.
Maybe it is the 20 years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel and the success of Esther David, the best known Indian Jewish novelist who writes in English, which emboldened Rohekar to write the way she did. This is in contrast to Mahadevan, who published “Apna Ghar” in 1961 at a time when there was neither any other Indian Jewish novelist in any language nor any relations between India and Israel, and it was to remain so for the next three decades.