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Shalom India Housing Society Paperback – 1 Jan 2007
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Having grown up in India (and also having lived in Ahmedabad for a couple of years), I can relate to the day to day struggles that one faces. The El Dorado of escaping to better prospects in a better country (in this case Israel) is always there. However, to be honest, that trend is on the decline amongst the Indian professional classes in the post 2002 time period when this novel is set. Having said that, being a minority with the danger of getting trapped in riots, one can relate to the desire of the Bene Israeli community members to migrate.
At the same time, the characters are drawn to their Indianness and their Indian roots. Even those who migrated to Israel have nostalgic feelings for India. Two of them , Juliet and Romiel marry and migrate to Israel but eventually return to Ahmedabad (India) finding it difficult to manage their lives in Israel.
Almost all the characters belong to the Bene Israeli community and live in a fictional housing society called Shalom India Society. There are two apartment blocks - one is occupied primarily by the Jews and the other by other minorities (i.e. Christians). The novel weaves around the lives of the characters living in the society , explores their insecurities and aspirations and the relationships that they form. The author touches upon almost all aspects of human emotions that one faces in modern day living.
In some ways, one can find a reflection of Rohinton Mistry's "Swimming Lessons" in this novel in the sense that it is based on characters belonging to a very unique yet very Indian community. Mistry's book is based on characters belonging to the Parsi community whilst Esther's is based on the Jewish community. Mistry's novel has a male perspective of events but Esther's has a very distinct feminine one.
The novel starts with a supernatural event of Prophet Elijah descending to earth in his chariot to meet with people celebrating the Passover. The narration is lighthearted and witty but as the novel progresses the writer focuses more on the deeper aspects of human relationships across various age groups.
There is Leon , a teenager boy, who cross dresses and his mother is worried that he may turn out to be gay. Yael, a couple of years older than Leon, who fancies Leon but is unable to express herself to him and feels suffocated by the strict conservative dress code and regime prescribed to her widowed mother and spinster aunt. There is Salome who is childless and past her prime and ardently wishes for one. Contrast this with Sippora who is much younger and has two kids but finds herself pregnant with a third. She confides with Sippora that she plans to abort the child but changes her mind at the last moment on the operating table.
There is Ruby who is widowed and feels drawn to Franco (non Jewish) and is left contemplating whether she can marry him and how she could convince her grown up daughter about it. Then there is Rachel who finds an internet love with a boy in Israel who unfortunately dies in a blast. She is heartbroken at a young age and feels unable to express herself to anyone but finds comfort with Yacov. There is he case of Juliet who finds love in a non Jew Hindu boy who converts to Judaism to marry Juliet. Good for her! She goes with her heart. Brave girl. Eventually, they find acceptance.
There is the case of Ben Hur who falls in love with Lolo who is Hindu and has lost her mother. She deserts him to escape an oppressive and abusive step father. Ben Hur is heart broken. Diana to whom Ben Hur is matched up to marry by their parents at a very young age, refuses to marry Ben Hur after his relationship with Lolo. She makes it big in the fashion world and marries Manav a non Jew who was a trainer at a modeling agency. They fall in love and marry. There is Ezra who takes on the role of property manager. Ezel strives to find the right balance between his mother Malka and wife Tamar. His wife separates from him and leaves for Israel leaving their two kids with Ezel. After a year, she returns to pick up the kids. But something happens and they get together. Good for them!
There are a few more interesting characters....
A very welcome read. Will rate the novel PG 13 though and was bit surprised to learn about the promiscuity of some of the characters in the novel!
One is left with a palpable feeling of human richness after reading this work.