As soon as Maayan and I stepped out of Sandhurst Road Station, she immediately began pointing out to me all of the locations of her childhood; the playground where she would study with her mother in the mornings; the market where her nana would take her to buy vegetables; the curb where she would wait for the bus as a five-year-old headed for class. As we passed her old apartment block, an uncle selling sarees called out to her, asking how she had been since he last saw her. It’s been almost ten years since she left Sandhurst Road, but it was almost as if the neighborhood had stayed the same. Children had grown and sidewalks had cracked, but the same auntie sat on the pavement selling potatoes. We headed south down the side of the road until we got to Nani’s house.
Diana, or Nani, as I’ve come to know her, grew up in Alibaug, in a family of six children. Her family was religiously observant, and so at age 21 she was married to Samson, seven years her elder, and moved into the apartment he had been born in on Sandhurst Road. She recalls how she moved from a spacious house in Alibaug with a garden and coconut trees, and came to Bombay, where she shared a room with her five new family members. As we look through photo albums documenting her 54 years in this apartment, we pick out pieces of furniture - antique tables and metal cupboards - which had already been there many years when she came, and still stood the test of time, documenting the comings and goings of raising a resilient Jewish family in the middle of Bombay.
Maayan currently serves as the Youth Engagement Coordinator at the JDC, but her commitment to Jewish life stems from somewhere far deeper. Nani opens the cupboards and pulls out piles of bound manuscripts. We flip through Pesach Haggadot, books of Tehillim, and other Jewish texts published by the JDC which had been carefully translated and written out by Nani and her husband many years earlier. She shows me a picture of her husband’s father wrapped in his leather Tefillin straps, and exclaims to me how their home had always been a centre of prayer and activity for the Jewish community, hosting various ceremonies and functions over the years. We look at a picture of her family, sitting on the very same bed that we’re sitting on now, dressed fully in white in preparation for Yom Kippur. She shows me an old invitation to the JDC Golden Age Purim Celebration, which she hosted in her apartment. I asked her where she put everyone, and she said they moved the bed into the hallway, and brought all the people inside.
Maayan and I sit at the table, and Nani serves us lunch. She makes birda, Maayan’s favourite, along with rice, chapatis, papads, rajma, and khadhi, far more food than the three of us could possibly eat. She assures me that everything is kosher, and that she keeps three sets of dishes, one for meat, one for dairy, and one for Pesach. Maayan tells me that at her house they keep all the food separate, but use the same vessels. I ask Nani how she feels that her children and grandchildren observe Judaism in a different way than she does, and she said that at first it was a bit shocking, but she knows that times are changing and people do things in different ways.
I ask her if there’s anything she doesn’t like about the way things are done now, and she responds with ‘cellphones - the youth are always on their cellphones.’ She suggests that Maayan learn how to embroider instead.
After lunch Nani covers her head with a white handkerchief, and offers to sing some Shabbat songs for us. She hands me a Hebrew prayer book to follow along with, while she reads out of a Marathi book. We sing Dror Yikra and several other Bene Israel melodies. Maayan knows the words by heart. Even though it’s not Shabbat, I’m reminded that even though we experience in different ways, and understand meanings in our own time and locality and situation, our Judaism finds ways to connect to us. I think about my own grandmothers halfway around the world, and feel comforted by the fact that in India and Canada and all around the world, Judaism is being inhabited and perpetuated by generations after generations of strong Jewish women.
This article was previously published in the September 2018 edition of Kol India magazine.