New Delhi: India has thrown up US-based film-maker and writer Sadia Shepard's roots.
Sadiya, who straddles three exotic cultures, is an American Protestant Christian with a Jewish and an Islamic heritage.
She has been born out of “two exciting love stories” involving her parents and grandparents, one of which is set in India.
Her book, “The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home” - a memoir- traces her grandmother's Jewish heritage as a member of the small Bene Israel (Jewish) community in Mumbai; her unusual love story and a secret wedding to a Muslim from Pakistan.
It was presented by the American Centre, Penguin Books India and The United States- India Educational Foundation- at the American Centre in the capital Wednesday.
“The Girl from Foreign... is a very American story about search for roots. When I was 15, I learnt that there was one story I had never been told. Nana, my grandmother was not a Muslim like the rest of her family in Pakistan. In fact, she begun her life as Rachael Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India which believes itself to have descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked on the Konkan coast nearly 2,000 years ago,” Sadia told a packed house.
According to the legend, only seven men and women survived the wreck and their descendants can still be found along the coast; making a living by pressing oil from seeds.
Many members of the community live in Mumbai – having made their mark in Bollywood and in the armed forces. But the chunk of the Gen Next has migrated to Israel- still the “promised land of the Jews”.
A rough estimate puts the number of Bene Israel tribe at 5,000.
“I had the fortune to be raised by my grandmother who flew to Boston, where my father Richard (a 6 ft 6 inches tall American) and my mother Sumina (a 5ft 5 inches Pakistani from Karachi) lived, to help my mother cope with childbirth. She stayed back. There is this tremendous tradition of story-telling in south Asia and I began to pry the love story from my grandmother in my teens,” Sadia recalled, explaining the genesis of the book.
Her grandmother, re-christened Rahat after converting to Islam, would “open up at times like a key” to recount her days in India, most of it from her dreams.
“She was blessed with a kind of clairvoyance and her stories were lyrical and evocative. When she spoke of India, her voice and speech would change. As a result, India became a kind of mythical land for me. Before her death in 2000, she extracted a promise from me that I would visit Mumbai, the city of her birth which I managed to do in 2001,” Sadia said.
Her grandmother, the filmmaker-writer said, eloped with a Muslim man from Pakistan, a family friend, at 17. “She hid her marriage for 10 years till the birth of her child. My grandfather built her a house at Worli facing the sea. It was named Rahat Villa after her,” Sadia recalled.
The house was the locus of Rahat's dreams, Sadia said. “It was symbol of loss – the home she left behind after Partition,” Sadia said.
In Mumbai, Sadiya chronicled her journey and experiences in dairies. “First one, then 3 and then 18- the diaries piled up. Once I went back to New York, it became the source of my book,” Sadia said.
The presentation of the book was followed by the screening of her documentary, “In Search of the Bene Israel” - which explored the lives and culture of the Bene Jews in Mumbai and along the Konkan coast through the eyes of a young Jewish couple, Ronen and Hannah from Mumbai and a family of oil-pressers in a Konkani village.
While Ronen and his Jewish wife from India migrates to Isreal for a better future, the oil-presser's family decides to stay back and guard a 2000-year-old legacy in the village.
--Madhusree Chatterjee and Jay Akbar