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American traces her Jewish roots in India with book

American writer and filmmaker Sadia Shepard came to India to find her roots and understand her heritage - a mix of Protestant, Jewish and Islamic culture.

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:04 IST

American writer and filmmaker Sadia Shepard came to India to find her roots and understand her heritage - a mix of Protestant, Jewish and Islamic culture. She left with 18 diaries full of experiences that blended to form a book.

The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home traces the Jewish heritage of Shepard's grandmother as a member of the small Bene Israel community in Mumbai, her unusual love story and a secret wedding to a Muslim from Pakistan.

It was presented by the American Centre, Penguin Books India and The United States - India Educational Foundation at the American Centre in the Capital on Wednesday.

"'The Girl from Foreign' is a very American story about a search for roots. When I was 15, I learnt that there was one story I had never been told. Nana, my grandmother, was not a Muslim like the rest of her family in Pakistan. In fact, she begun her life as Rachael Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India which believes itself to have descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked on the Konkan coast nearly 2,000 years ago," Shepard told a packed house.

According to the legend, only seven men and women survived the wreck and their descendants can still be found along the coast, making a living by pressing oil from seeds.

Many members of the community live in Mumbai - having made their mark in Bollywood and in the armed forces. But the chunk of the Gen Next has migrated to Israel - "the promised land of the Jews". A rough estimate puts the number of the Bene Israel tribe at 5,000.

"I had the fortune to be raised by my grandmother who flew to Boston - where my father Richard, a six feet six inches tall American, and my mother Sumina, a five feet five inches tall Pakistani from Karachi - lived. She came to help my mother cope with childbirth and stayed back. There is this tremendous tradition of storytelling in South Asia and I began to pry the love story from my grandmother in my teens," Shepard recalled.

Her grandmother, re-christened Rahat after converting to Islam, would "open up at times" to recount her days in India.

"She was blessed with a kind of clairvoyance and her stories were lyrical and evocative. When she spoke of India, her voice and speech would change. As a result, India became a kind of mythical land for me. Before her death in 2000, she extracted a promise from me that I would visit Mumbai, the city of her birth, which I managed to do in 2001," said the author.

Shepard's grandmother eloped with a Muslim man from Pakistan, a family friend, at 17. "She hid her marriage for 10 years till the birth of her child. My grandfather built her a house at Worli facing the sea. It was named Rahat Villa after her."

The house was the locus of Rahat's dreams, "it was a symbol of loss - the home she left behind after partition".

In Mumbai, Shepard chronicled her journey and experiences in diaries. "First one, then three and then 18 - the diaries piled up. Once I went back to New York, it became the source of my book."

The presentation of the book was followed by the screening of her documentary In Search of the Bene Israel - which explored the lives and culture of the Bene Jews in Mumbai and along the Konkan coast through the eyes of a young Jewish couple, Ronen and Hannah from Mumbai and a family of oil-pressers in a Konkani village.

While Ronen and Hannah migrate to Israel for a better future, the oil-presser's family decides to stay back and guard a 2,000-year-old legacy.