Monday, August 6, 2012

Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

The first book of my new book club season was enjoyable though a little unusual.  First of all, it's a self described novel but I think it's better described as a series of inter-related short stories.  In fact, I found it less frustrating once I started viewing it this way as I no longer felt the need to turn back and remind myself who every character mentioned was.  It didn't usually matter.
The book is about a fictional housing community in Ahmedabad, India.  It is based on actual anti-Muslim riots which occurred in that city in 2002, following which many Jews left the old city where they'd lived for generations around the synagogue for fear of being confused with Muslims (apparently the Hindus used circumcision to identify their Muslim foes).  In the novel, many move to the Shalom India Housing Society which was intended to house only Jews but when only enough Jews could be found to fill Building A, Building B units were sold to other minorities like Christians and Parsis.
The book starts with a mythical (and somewhat humorous) chapter where Elijah the Prophet descends to earth on the eve of Passover and checks what each member of the Housing Society has left for him in the wine glass they've set aside for his visit.  This is our first introduction to the numerous characters. Apparently Elijah plays a special role in the Judaism of the Bene Israel Jews of India - unlike other Jews, they pray to him for special protection and blessings.
Each subsequent chapter delves further into the lives of someone in the building and is written from their perspective.  The characters face many issues - barrenness and unwanted pregnancy, intermarriage with both Hindus and Muslims, extra-marital affairs, interfering in-laws and the pull of the land of Israel.
The author provides insight into a lesser known Jewish community and creates interesting, sympathetic characters.  Unfortunately there are far too many of them which sometimes gets confusing and a little tedious.  But nonetheless I found it worth working my way through.  As an aside, there is an interesting afterward by an Indian Jew of Baghdadi origin which provides historical context about the handful of Jewish communities in India.

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