Jewish-Indian author Author Esther David, who won an award in English at the Sahitya Academy Writers' Meet is a woman of many talents. An artist, writer, and sculptor she gets candid about her experiences with Srishti Jha.
Q. What made you write Book of Rachel? What was the driving force behind it?
Book of Rachel happened because of various reasons. While researching for it, I met an elderly Jewish lady living in a village near a Synagogue, which was no longer used for services. During those years, I was already known as Jewish writer after the publication of The Walled City. And, I received innumerable mails and letters from people who had read my book. One such email was from a Pakistani journalist Shershah Syed, who wrote to me about a certain aunt Rachel, the last surviving Jew of Pakistan. I knew that Pakistan once had a Synagogue and a Jewish graveyard. I was told that the Synagogue was destroyed in a fire and the aging aunt Rachel, looked after the cemetery, as she protected it from land sharks. Since, she died a few years back, I do not know what has happened to the cemetery. Around this time, I also became involved with the Baroda Jewish cemetery dispute, which took place in a city near Ahmedabad. So, I could collect first hand information about this matter.
So, Book of Rachel is all about preservation of the Jewish heritage in India, the theme of love, food and heritage, about the old who have been left behind by families, which immigrated to Israel, and about Synagogues, which have been abandoned and are in ruins.
Q: When was your first story published? What was it all about?
When I was in my mid-forties, I started writing my first novel, The Walled City. It allowed me to flow and grow and gave me flexibility of expression. Even in The Walled City, the walls of the city became symbolic of city, community, society, family and womanhood. This was also about being Jewish and the walls seemed to surround me in concentric circles. Again, I was trying to break these walls.
The book was written straight from the heart, a rather abstract novel, as I was trying to understand my Jewish identity. I was the insider of the Jewish community who kept on feeling like an outsider. With The Walled City something changed within me. Art became a way of life, while literature is life.
Q: Was it difficult being a Jew? Do you have any imprints from your childhood about that?
Till my grandmother was alive and we were a joint family (till I was seven), there was a strong Jewish feeling in the house. They followed all the festivals and observed the Sabbath and did prayers in the houses. Grandmother also took us to the synagogue for weddings and festivals and that has been a fond memory of my life.
Another aspect of my growing up years was that I was an only child of my parents and was often left with my grandmother in the ancestral home in the old city of Ahmedabad. Here I created my own literary world in the family library. I also had two storytellers who fed my imagination. My grandmother told me family stories, which have been the base of my novel Book of Esther. The second storyteller was the cook Mani, who told me city stories along with folk stories, which were full of myth.
Q: How do you combine art and literature in your work?
By heart, I am an artist, but the writing is a profession, which is very close to my heart. I feel art and literature have the ability to break barriers and have the power to touch upon the human condition. Art school gave me an exposure to arts, literature, cinema, music, dance and theatre. But, even while I was at art school, I enjoyed writing papers on art history and art appreciation.
Creativity is a room with many doors and I can open both doors and use one in the other and vice-versa.