Jewish Roots in India

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, August 8, 2008


A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home

By Sadia Shepard

Penguin Press. 364 pp. $25.95

Besides being a personal memoir and a portrait of a family that includes the world's three major monotheistic religions, "The Girl From Foreign" is a meditation on how our individual memories inevitably slip away, either into oblivion or into that dull collective consciousness we call history.

The main, organizing event here occurred in 1947, when India at once gained its independence from Britain and split into two countries -- Hindus remaining primarily in the main body of the subcontinent; Muslims peeling off to the west and east, to form Pakistan. (Decades later, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.) The average American, if there is such a thing, might remember 1947 as part of the beginning of the Cold War. But Indians have the nerve to be fascinated by the events that occurred in their own country that year, the public history that overlaps, vividly, with their personal memories.

Little Sadia Shepard and her younger brother, Cassim, grew up first in Denver, then Chestnut Hill, Mass., in what she considered to be a wonderful and normal life with three terrific adults: her American dad, a tall, rangy, white Protestant; her beautiful Muslim mother, who was born and raised in an affluent home in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan; and her sweet maternal grandmother, who raised the kids and kept the house while the adult couple ran an architectural firm. This grandma has a set of slightly dissonant memories: "A very long time ago," she tells young Sadia, "your ancestors left Israel in a ship . . . and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion." Sadia's nana had spent her early adult years as a Muslim wife in a beautiful beach house in Bombay. But she was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Her prayers, years later, are Muslim, but in her childhood she was a Jew.

These tales told by Sadia's grandmother change over the years and seem highly edited for the children. Yes, she was a member of a group called Bene Israel. As a young adult she worked as a nurse in a Bombay hospital, while being secretly married -- or perhaps not -- to a handsome Muslim. But then, in 1947, when partition came, she was forced to move with her wealthy husband to Karachi. She was in for a rude shock. "When Nana left Bombay for Karachi after the Partition of India," the author tells us, "she left behind her birthplace and community for a new life; she became the third wife in a joint Muslim household, all three families under one roof."

But to Sadia, the details of her nana's Jewish youth remained tantalizingly obscure. What had really become of that legendarily small group of Jews who had set out from Israel 2,000 years earlier, who still evidently believed that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and who had settled so long before on the Konkan coast of Western India? According to Nana's stories, they barely remembered their religion, "abstaining from eating fish without fins and scales, and circumcising their male infants on the eighth day after their birth," but knowing only one prayer. It wasn't until the early 19th century that Christian missionaries passing through clued them in on the existence of their own Old Testament. Sadia's grandmother's childhood religion remained exasperatingly obscure, hard to understand, in stark contrast to her father's straight-up Christianity and her mother's Islam. The American household cheerfully accommodated these disparate beliefs by celebrating every possible religious holiday without getting too serious about any one religion.

Then Nana dies. Sadia obsesses about this lost life, the lost memories. She gets a grant to go on a fact-finding trip to Bombay, Karachi and the Konkan coast. Thanks to genes from her rangy dad, she's maybe a foot taller than everyone else, a "girl from foreign," a bit of a freak. Many of the Indians she meets are less than hospitable. The lost settlements of the Bene Israel are very hard to find. Sadia aches with loneliness. But she sticks it out; she runs down every clue. She visits the home of her nana's Muslim relatives: They've spitefully gutted her old apartment, possibly because she was Jewish, possibly because she was the youngest and prettiest of the wives, possibly because they just needed the wiring, plumbing and furniture. Sadie will never find out, but her mother, safely in America, isn't surprised.

At every step Sadia is pestered by religious zealots to choose a faith -- and a nationality while she's at it. But she steadfastly refuses, choosing to keep her options open.

But what a rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore she's uncovered! As our personal memories turn into history, all too often the colors are leached from them. But Sadia Shepard tints the colors back in. We see lavish Muslim weddings, Jewish villages hidden in Indian jungles, earnest lovers reaching across religion and culture. The author's laudable accomplishment is that she yanks her grandmother's story from the coffin of forgetfulness and breathes it back into life.

Sunday in Book World

· Why you're still stuck in traffic.

· Rebuilding falling-down houses.

· The story of Brigham Young's 19th wife.

· Daphne du Maurier's obsession with the Brontes.

· And teen vampires grow up.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company