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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

Review: Bombay Brides by Esther David

Bombay Brides strings together the stories of some of the people who pass through a fictional Bene Israel enclave in Ahmedabad

books Updated: Jul 12, 2019 19:36 IST
Kushalrani Gulab
Kushalrani Gulab
Hindustan Times
A Jewish blows the 'shofar' horn to gather devotees around the Torah at the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad on September 9, 2010, on Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana.
A Jewish blows the 'shofar' horn to gather devotees around the Torah at the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad on September 9, 2010, on Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana. (AFP)
         


216pp, Rs 499; HarperCollins
216pp, Rs 499; HarperCollins

Because life is like this only, I started reading Flora, the 13th story in Esther David’s collection Bombay Brides, immediately after I returned from my first consultation with a dietician to whom my sister had hauled me with a gun to my head.

Flora, the heroine of this story, is a lovely woman in early middle age: pretty, kind, smart, unequivocally adored by children and instant friend of almost everyone she meets. But she has never had an offer of marriage because she is fat. When she meets Joseph, a jolly, handsome, smart man in early middle age who has also never had an offer of marriage because he is fat, she gets along with him brilliantly. Before long, the matchmakers (or meddlers) of Ahmedabad’s Shalom India Housing Society spring into action and next thing Flora and Joseph know, they are engaged to be married.

But alas. The matchmakers (or meddlers) then make a massive mistake. They insist that Flora loses weight so she’ll be a pretty bride. As she gets slimmer, Joseph begins to think he must be slimmer too, to deserve this beautiful woman by his side. And after they marry, their focus on their looks drives the couple apart. Joseph begins an affair, Flora leaves him though she is pregnant, and they only get together again when Joseph arrives for the baby’s naming ceremony, now clearly too distraught and unhappy without Flora to care about his weight. Yes, they are both stout again, and now they together again and happy.

I don’t suppose my sister will accept this story as evidence that my first consultation with the dietician should be my last since I never wanted to marry even when I was slim. But Flora is just one example of the kind of charming story David has put together in Bombay Brides and it can certainly be used as evidence that you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Of course, the story of Flora is not as simple as the author has made it appear. When you read the actual story rather than the summary I have presented you with, you will understand there’s more to Flora and Joseph’s relationship than the way they look. That’s what you’ll find in every story in Bombay Brides – David’s writing is so simple that we almost miss the complexities behind her tales. She presents her stories the way our mothers and teachers told us stories when we were very young and had no idea we were imbibing ethics and world views and perspectives along with mischievous rabbits, wild adventures and endless fun. This is why her books feel so comforting, when actually they are not.

Bombay Brides strings together the different stories of some of the people who temporarily inhabit or pass through the Shalom India Housing Society in Ahmedabad. The title, David explains, is based on the fact that many of the brides who arrive and depart from this complex are from Bombay or thereabout since the Bene Israel community, to which most of the characters belong, is very small in Gujarat.

Esther David at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2018.
Esther David at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2018. ( Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO )

The stories all have women’s names as titles, but each is just as much about the people who live among these women as about the women themselves. Some stories are sweet and have happy endings, some are rather melancholy, some downright tragic, and some uplifting. All the stories are about ordinary events: the woman police officer who believes that in keeping with her position, she should always be serious, the singer whose parents marry her to the man who’ll ignore her one physical flaw as long as she never sings again, the widow who meets the man who was her first love and hopes he will now be her last love – none of these stories are out of the ordinary. Even their resolutions are what you expect; there are no twists in these tales. But the sense of comfort they give their readers makes them pleasing.

Read more: JLF 2018: No cutting this umbilical cord, says author Sethu on India’s bond with Israel

What I loved the most about this book however is David’s depictions of the lives of the Bene Israel community in India. This is a very old community, as much a part of the culture of India’s upper western coastline as any other community in terms of looks, lifestyles and lusciousness of food. David may or may not have intended it when she collected these stories in a book, but to me reading Bombay Brides in this period of communal divisiveness that India is going through, the book is a shining example of hope for the country all over again. The Jews of India may be a tiny minority, getting smaller with every flight that departs India for Israel, but they’re just as Indian as everyone who was born, lives, and works here. For that alone I would read this book. That the stories are charming as well is simply the silver topping on the gulab jamun.

Kushalrani Gulab is an independent journalist.

First Published: Jul 12, 2019 19:36 IST

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