Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Girl From Foreign

78. The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home, by Sadia Shepard

Sadia Shepard parents were from very different worlds, her father an American-born Protestant, her mother a Pakistani-born Muslim of Indian descent. But in fact the third major monotheistic religion is also represented in Shepard's background, as her mother's mother was a Jew who converted to Islam upon her marriage. When she was dying, Shepard's grandmother urged Sadia to go to India to learn about this part of her history. Fulbright fellowship in hand, Sadia did so, and this book is the result (along with a documentary film - Shepard is a filmmaker).

Shepard's grandmother's family were members of the Bene Israel (or Beni-Israel), Indian Jews whose tradition says that they were shipwrecked off the coast of India, although the dates and reasons are varied, some saying it was after the destruction of the Second Temple, others that they arrived during the reign of King Solomon, and there are other stories as well.

It would be a mistake, however, to expect this book to be a history of the Bene Israel. It's not, and wasn't intended to be. It's a family history, the story of Shepard's family, here, in India, and in Pakistan (where they moved after Partition). In the course of learning that history, she learns about the present-day Bene Israel, a community that is diminishing, as the younger generation looks towards Israel as a homeland, but still striving to maintain its traditions. The book is also the story of how Shepard adjusts to living in India, her friendships and study there. She sees it now through her own eyes and that of her grandmother. Shepard also is trying to find out if she needs to choose one religious path, or if she can reconcile and merge the three traditions into which she was born. It's a struggle that she hasn't resolved, one that most children of mixed religious and ethnic backgrounds go through.

I was struck by the contrast between the warm personal relationships among Muslim, Jew and Hindi and the political conflicts caused by Partition. It's a great sadness and shame and wonder that the adherents of different religions can appreciate and admire and help one another, can be close friends and associates, and yet be willing to kill each other because they worship the same god in different ways.

For another book on the same subject, you might want to read Carmit Delman's Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing up between cultures: a Memoir of an Indian Jewish girl.

Beni-Israel, from the Jewish Encyclopedia.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, the link was very interesting. I had no inkling of these people.