- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Penguin India; Reissue edition (7 October 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670049093
- ISBN-13: 978-0670049097
- Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 3.2 x 21.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,27,361 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Book of Esther Hardcover – 7 Oct 2002
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The author and her family belong to the Bene-Israel Jewish community, which was traditionally based in western India - mainly in Gujurat and Maharastra. The community's origins are obscure, but popular lore believes that it consists of the descendants of survivors of a ship wrecked on the Konkan coast of India. The survivors, all Jewish, were believed to have been fleeing from Antioch sometme long before Christ was born.
Esther's family, the author's family, originated in the village of Dandekar, but migrated to bigger centres such as Ahmedabad and Bombay (Mumbai). The author divides her narrative into four sections. The first three are centered around her ancestors including her father, who was the founder of Ahmedabad's world-renowned zoo. The final section is about the author's life.
Each section is fascinating, and reads like a well-paced novel. She conveys to the reader a great deal of information about her Jewish community, including how it maintained itself apart from other Indian Jewish communities, such as the Cochin and Baghdadi Jews. The desire to maintain the 'purity' of the Bene Israel people becomes glaringly obvious when it comes to Esther's prospects for marriage. This is movingly described in the final section of her book.
The section on Esther's father, Joshua, and his passion for animals surpasses the writing of the famous Gerald Durrell. Like every Jewish son, his father had wanted Joshua to become something 'respectable' like a doctor, but this was not to be. Joshua was no friend of schoolwork. However his skills as a 'shikari' (hunter) led to his profound understanding of animals and nature, and this led him eventually to founding a zoo. Esther describes this beautifully in a mixture of poignancy and humour.
I am not sure that this book is so much a work of fiction, a 'novel as it is described on the book-cover, as much as an extremely well-crafted account of history. But, it matters not how you classify this work, it is a masterpiece. I am so glad that Mr Shanbhag, owner of the now non-existent Premier Bookshop in Bangalore, reccommended it to me, even though he did not have it in stock! I have had my copy, acquired from another great bookshop in Bangalore (Blossom Book House) for years gathering dust, unread. I am so very glad that, at last, I have read it, and heartily reccommend it to everyone.
Review by author of "rediscovering Albania"
I trace my roots to a small village in Konkan, and the names and descriptions in the book are very familiar. The book paints a portrait of life in the villages of the Konkan. After living for centuries amongst the Hindus, some blending of religious practices was inevitable. Thus a reference to offerings made to Nagdeva (the Serpent deity) is on the same page as one about a pilgrimage to "Eliyahu Hannabi cha Tapa" (the mythical hoof mark of Prophet Elijah's chariot) in Sagav, near the town of Khandala. After living for centuries amongst Marathi speaking people, even the Ten Commandments are known as "Daha Agnya", which is a literal translation into Marathi.
The extent to which the Konkan Jews were integrated into local society is a testimonial to the religious tolerance and acceptance of diversity which is a hallmark of Indian culture. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in studying how cultures and religions interacted over the centuries in the melting pot of India, and how Judaism found refuge in India and thrived over the centuries.
Many of the Marathi-speaking Jews of the Konkan have now migrated to Israel, so this book may be prove to be the last - and lasting - testimonial to the Jewish experience in Western India.