Every second Israeli one meets has either just returned from India, or is about to go there, or has some close relative or friend who is currently living it up in Manali or Goa. There is this fad here among the young, to backpack around the world as soon as they are released from their compulsory three-year military service term. Dumping uniforms and guns, Israeli kids rush off to de-stress. And India is a favourite destination.
Most locals have seen more of our country than I have, from Cochin to Manali to Rajasthan, Goa, and Mangalore; there does not seem to be a corner of our country that has not seen an Israeli visitor. The lure of a cheap destination apart, these youngsters come back with a genuine liking for our food and culture. Some like Barak Luman and Itzik stay on in Banaras for years to learn classical Indian music, in true guru-shishya parampara. There is a dedicated group of fans of Indian classical music and dance here, which regularly organise mehfils. The mood of the evening is set by discreet namastes and steaming cups of adrak chai. It is quite a scene, strapping young men and women, often with dreadlocks, wearing khadi pyjama-kurtas and rudraksh malas, applauding sitar recitals with authentic kya baat hai’s.
Yoga is wildly popular. There’s the Iyengar Yoga Association, a Sahaja Yoga group, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living has an active branch and every town has quite a few yoga classes. No gym worth its shekels can ignore the yoga enthusiasts. Teachers turn up in the aforementioned uniform of khadi pyjama-kurtas with jholas and kolhapuri chappals. The beach is a favourite haunt of Israeli yogis, with figures suspended in shirshasana a common sight.
These are of course the pursuits of the more esoteric Indophile. I have heard many stories of men in the former Soviet Union bursting spontaneously into Mera joota hai Japani at the sight of Indians. Here it is ichak dana beechak dana. The old man in charge of the cold cuts section at my supermarket ichak danas in his off key baritone from the moment he sees me, right until he has finished packing my order and I am out of his sight. He is very happy to watch the countless re-runs of Aag and Anari on the free-to-air television channels. Naturally my exalted status as a native of Raj Kapoor-land means that he is generous with the meat, always adding a good handful of extra slices to each packet, after it has been billed. Ditto our machhli walla, who claims to have spent six idyllic months in Goa on $500 (Rs 22,000), living off the day’s catch of pomphret and bombil. He insists he is working at the supermarket for just as long as it takes him to save up enough for his next trip to India.
Strangely the Hebrew word for Indian is ‘hodoo’ which also means turkey, as in the bird - which we learnt the hard way during an argument the first time we went looking for a turkey. Not understanding why when we asked for the bird, the man in the shop kept asking us ‘hodoo?’, which we were, but did not want to buy. What we needed was a turkey - unknown to us, a hodoo in disguise! So why would a Hodoo want to buy a hodoo?
On the other side of the political divide, in the Arab market in Jerusalem at Dasmascus Gate, the setting is very different. It is a strange world there, teeming with people - rather like a haat in a small town in India. An entirely decorative seller of a drink made from carob dominates the entrance to the market, bending ever so slightly to dispense juice into glasses from a huge brass vessel made up of pipes, with bells strapped onto his back. In this market, the aroma of spices sold straight from the sacks by weight mingles with the flavour of Arab coffee. Mouthwateringly fresh baklava is strewn in huge trays outside sweet shops. Sugary pink somethings that look like iced jalebis scream for attention. Whole carcasses hang in butchers shops; you can choose your cut. Nothing fancy-shmancy like plastic wrap and Styrofoam containers for the customers, its black plastic bags and newspaper to wrap the produce. Quite a contrast to the urban sophistication of downtown Tel Aviv!
Young men chase you down the narrow streets of the market.
‘India? Take this, pure silver, only $50 for you sister…’
The India motif persists however. Here, the Bollywood idols are different, newer. A wave of homesickness sweeps over me when an unknown voice calls from behind ‘Zeenat Aman!’ This could be Paharganj! The Khans rule supreme here, as do Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. The narrow streets, the shouting hawkers, the sounds and tastes, an occasional Salman or Aamir smiling down from peeling green painted walls beguile the senses with an illusion of home.
And on the trendy Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, the hip crowd sways to Punjabi MC’s Mundeya tu bach ke rahi…