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Delhiwale: City’s Jewish pride

A look at those whose life and work made a difference to the capital and who happened to be Jewish.

delhi Updated: Aug 01, 2017 12:01 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
Delhi news,Delhiwale,Delhi's jews
Delhi’s lone Jewish cemetery near Khan Market. (Mayank Austen Soofi / HT Photo)

The Capital’s Jewish legacy goes beyond its only synagogue and graveyard, both near Khan Market.We introduce you to four people of Jewish parentage who helped shape the sensibilities of our city.

1. Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed

A celebrated Sufi saint today, Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed, who was also a poet, was briefly profiled by author Saleem Kidwai in his book Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History. He wrote: “Sarmad was born a Jew in Kashan (in modern-day Iran), around 1590. He became a trader and acquired knowledge of mystic traditions and of Arabic and Persian poetry. Before he arrived in the port city of Thatta (in modern-day Sindh) in 1632, he had converted to Islam. In Thatta he met a Hindu boy named Abhai Chand. The attraction was mutual and soon after meeting him, Sarmad abandoned his trade and became a naked fakir.”

Booklets sold outside Sarmad’s dargah in Old Delhi.

Sarmad eventually settled in Delhi, where he was executed by emperor Aurangzeb because of his radical beliefs. His tiny memorial lies close to Jama Masjid in the Walled City. A book on Sarmad Shahid was also written by freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, whose tomb-garden, incidentally, lies next to Sarmad’s dargah.

2. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The award-winning novelist and scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala lived in north Delhi’s Civil Lines for about 25 years. Some of her novels, such as The Householder, were set in this city. She was born in Cologne, Germany, and was the daughter of a Jewish-Polish immigrant, many of whose family members perished in the holocaust. Ms Jhabvala grew up in United Kindom — her father had settled in London fleeing the Nazis. She married Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala after completing her graduation in English Literature at Queen Mary College in London, and moved with him to Delhi. Not many people know that her husband taught at Delhi School of Architecture. Ms Jhabvala died in Manhattan, New York in 2013.

3. Hannah Sen

She was the founder and principal of Delhi’s Lady Irwin College. Born in 1894, her mother was a Baghdadi Jew. Her father was a Hindu lawyer who converted to Judaism. According to the encyclopedic Jewish Women’s Archive, Ms Sen started out as a teacher in the Jewish Girls School in Calcutta before becoming the first Indian principal of the New High School for Girls in Bombay in l922. She helped found the Lady Irwin College of Home Science in New Delhi, where she served as principal until l947. She was an active member of Delhi’s Jewish community and played a role in the building of city’s only synagogue.

4. Joseph Allen Stein

He designed some of Delhi’s most beautiful garden-buildings — the India International Center (IIC), the Triveni Kala Sangam and the India Habitat Center (IHC).

Born in 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska, Jospeh Stein worked with renowned architects such as Ely Jacques Kahn and Richard Neutra, and was inspired by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Eliel Saarinen. In 1952, he arrived in Kolkata as a professor of architecture at Bengal Engineering College (now University) in Shibpur. Three years later, he moved to Delhi and created some of its most iconic post-independence buildings.

He spent most of his remaining years in this city. He first lived in Chanakyapuri from 1955 to 1968, before moving to Sundar Nagar. After his wife’s death, he moved further south to Friends Colony. On weekends, he would dine at the IIC, always ordering seekh kebab and naan. Devoted to the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Koestler, he managed to learn only two Hindi words: accha (okay) and bas (enough). In 2001, he was on a visit to the US when he fell ill and died aged 89.

Remarking on his father’s faith, his son David told us, “I think he would have been deeply dismayed to have been thought of as a Jewish architect. In our home there was only architecture and humanism, no religion. He saw all men (and women) as equals in all important respects, and creating a humane environment for all regardless of their social situation was paramount in his mind.”

First Published: Jul 31, 2017 13:56 IST