Such imperious syllables! Such indomitable ones! — at least when emanating from the throat of Flower Abraham Silliman as she hollers down the empty stairwell to the elevator operator in the lobby to come fetch her on the third floor. “Oh, he never listens. He can’t close his gate properly, or I don’t know what he does wrong but he always has a devil of a time fetching me. Never mind!” she says, deciding to forego the lift and use her walker to pound down the three flights of stairs herself. The apartment we’re leaving is a throwback to British Colonialism, an airy expanse of 3,000 square feet in the heart of downtown Calcutta which includes 16-foot ceilings and cannonball-proof walls for which Flower’s daughter Jael pays relatively few rupees each month, plus more for the two attendants who swab the place wet each day against the street dust and who eat their breakfast biscuits and bananas from seated positions on the tiled kitchen floor — their choice.
A palace for peanuts, basically, because it’s been rented by the family that long. Not that you’d have a hint of its grandeur from the outside. Like all the other soot-stained, crumbly-seeming castles tucked behind dusty high stucco walls throughout the city, the Halwasiya Mansion looks decayed on purpose — a ploy, perhaps, to fool the tax office. Or perhaps not: one can never be too sure. Inside, the heirs of the Jewish families who made their fortunes in Calcutta living lives of tasteful grandeur with racehorses, private clubs, and country palaces are dying out fast. Flower Abraham Silliman, navigating the wide wooden staircase past the faded but still flamboyant red paan juice stains expectorated by generations of visitors, is the last of a breed, the final flower of a once flourishing 5,000 strong.
“At 82, I’m the least doddery of us here in Cal,” she says, using the fond abbreviation favored by long-timers who resist the new-fangled spelling, Kolkata, “All the rest, maybe 12 or 18 at most, they’re all bedridden or walking with walkers. Which I am, too, come to think of it. But it’s a good time of my life. I still have my vitality. I was always obese but aside from that, nothing deters me.”
Well, not obese; imposing, maybe, befitting the matriarch of a once thriving community: a queen of sorts, the widely accepted local historian and go-to person for anyone coming to town and interested in catching a last glimpse of a quickly vanishing civilization. And never more so than today, when she makes her debut as a budding movie star on the set of a synagogue that’s been closed for decades. It’s the setting for a film centering on the making of matzo, the traditional unleavened bread used for Passover.
About that walker, though. It’s a three-pronged rubber affair that Flower wields the way Richard III might have wielded a walking stick — a weapon at times, a trusty intimate, a bludgeon capable of clearing a sidewalk or of underscoring the particular points its owner wishes to stress. Flower drops it with a flourish when she sits at the table, leans into it when she clambers inside a cab which she is doing now. The cab company is kept on lease-hire, ready to be summoned to the courtyard with a finger snap at any hour of the day or night. The old Ambassador is like a Morris Minor on its last legs, perhaps 1952 vintage, its trunk clamped down with a sturdy chain and secured by a padlock. Off we honk into a city that, well, Cal is everything you can’t begin to describe on a postcard. With 13 million inhabitants, it boils over with more frenzy, more color, more sensory overload, more families living their surprisingly dignified lives on the street right in front of you, more glittery bangles on more luminous dark-eyed women, more foodstuffs so flammable they threaten to blister your face all the way up to your scalp, more bundles of live wires tossed lazily over putrefying masonry, more eye contact with withered old men who wiggle their heads with flirtatious wisdom . . . I’m not even going to try to finish that sentence. Blame it on Calcutta.
And Flower is Cal’s mother hen. At least, of the Jewish part which means that along with warm advice, spicy gossip, and sizzling curries (Flower can cook!), comes affectionate scolding and clucking. Strong opinions are core to her job description. Here she comes now with the family history, not at all scrubbed of subjective judgment or outright inconsistencies. After all, as she might say, if you can’t be impressionistic about an ever-moving jumble like Cal, where can you be?
In brief: Flower’s Sephardic family lived for hundreds of years in Al-Uzair, the Iraqi town on the muddy banks of the Tigris where the biblical figure Ezra is buried. Baghdad 375 kilometers south was their spiritual center, especially after a plague in 1742 wiped out the local rabbis. They lived in peace under the Muslims according to dictates of the Koran, but taxes were high and Jewish merchants set out at different times for various trading ports east: Rangoon, Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The ones who settled in Calcutta in the mid 1800s were known as Baghdadis, and under the British, whom they admired, they trafficked opium to China until the Opium Wars, then tobacco, indigo, and jute (the source of burlap for bags and the backs of rugs). Fortunes were made. Members of Flower’s illustrious family, anglicized to the hilt but still speaking fluent Arabic written with Hebrew characters, were major players. Flower’s grandfather brought rickshaws here from China; another traded fez for spices. One relative was a founder of the local Bengali theater, another was a general in the Indian army? Or a viceroy’s counsel? The words are flooded out by the high-volume bleeping of other old Ambassadors like ours packing in to traverse the intersection. I estimate 14 or 20. At once.
“I’m sorry. Did you say ‘general — ?’”
Flower’s eyes twinkle mischievously through a plume of indigo-blue diesel exhaust. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, patting my knee, “Not every detail I tell you may be factually accurate but it’s close enough; you get the gist. So, when I say my cousin I may mean cousin once removed, you can check it if you like but that’s boring, don’t you think? It’s close enough. You get the swing of things. And Bob’s your uncle.”
“Bob’s your uncle. It’s an English expression. It means ‘over and done, that’s all she wrote, let’s move on.’ I told you we aped the English. Well, why wouldn’t we? They were the rulers; to get ahead, we adopted their mannerisms.”
After 48 hours in town, I’m starting to get it. Maybe. We pass a bus stop that Flower points out is located on a wrong street, and I understand that the point in these parts is to sort of make it up as you go along. The object is not so much to be correct as to keep it going. They can build a bus stop on the wrong street, on a street where no buses have gone in the history of India and no buses have any intention of going in the future, but they’ll keep it there anyway, complete with wrong street name proudly emblazoned on the front, because it’s more important to keep things moving than to get things right.
OK then. Flower is treating me to the next chapter of her saga. “Jews were never persecuted here. We were treated as honored guests. Which is very unusual for our history, needless to say. And we wanted to be honored guests. Oh, we got along very well. Never any worry about skin color or any of that. During the Sino-Indian War, one of us wanted to volunteer to fight beside our Indian brothers but they said, ‘thank you, no. You are our guests.’ And we behaved accordingly.”
So the Jews flourished. In its heyday, there were five synagogues in the city with over 200 Torah scrolls. During World War II, the Jewish population of 3,500 swelled to 5,000. “When [the refugees] came from Europe we couldn’t believe it. Were these Jews like us? But what was this thing they were biting on? Chewing gum? We had never thought of such a thing!”
With independence for India after the War, in September of 1947, uncertainty was in the air. The Jews started emptying out. Nehru was threatening to nationalize the banks. The riots between Hindus and Muslims were worrisome. “During the Great Calcutta Killings that accompanied the partition, my cousin Sanoo used to walk to school past the murdered bodies lying in the gutters.
“Short for Solomon.”
Which might serve all by itself as the uber-sound to characterize the Jewish-Indian experience. Solomon to Sanoo.
Speaking of uber-sounds, our driver is proving a maestro of the auto horn, adding piercing oboe notes to an orchestra of like-minded cabbies. It’s mid-morning rush hour, when drivers speed to work after a late breakfast, and traffic is five vehicles thick in a street wide enough to accommodate three. Whipping their steering wheels left and right as in a loose-jointed arcade game, drivers inveigle themselves wherever they can’t fit. An inch is as good as a mile. Any leftover space is filled immediately by motorcyclists. Somehow an ancient tram rattles through like a string of metal cans. In the melee it does not seem at all extraordinary that a small bird flutters in the front window and out the back before we have time to react.
“It was cheap to go by ship to England and Australia where our kids could study law and medicine,” Flower resumes, “Zionism wasn’t much on our minds but then Israel won its war of independence so that became possible. Oh, they were sorry to see us go. We gave them so many things . . .”
“The Jewish Girls’ School?” I ask, because we are passing a sign that says as much, in English letters.
“That, too,” Flower confirms, “The Jewish community still runs it, but since there are no Jewish children left, most pupils are Muslim. The students come in the morning in traditional dress, change into Western clothes to study computers and occasionally sing Jewish songs, and at the end of day change back into their original clothes
“Their parents don’t mind their daughters singing Jewish songs?”
“They’re getting an education! Weren’t you listening? I told you we get along very well.”
I ask the driver to stop so I can take a picture. Expressionlessly, he signals acknowledgement by jerking his chin to the side — the horizontal equivalent of our vertical nod. I grab a shot of a short Muslim boy, maybe 17, with a wisp of a mustache and one eye that’s been whitened out, like someone had taken an eraser to a photo. When I show him the picture, he barks with dismay and runs away. Was it confirming his worst fear that he looked the way he looked? That it was bad enough to see himself in the privacy of his mirror, but so much worse to be apprehended that way on the street by a stranger? I feel badly but am not sure how much pity to spend on the boy. How should I apportion my pity so I don’t run out? If I give too much to the boy with the white eye, would I then have less for the old woman with black, callused feet lying on the ground, chipping at concrete rubble with a bent spoon and hiding the nuggets in a torn sock?
“Thank you, driver.”
“Most welcome, gentleman.”
We pass the Calcutta Club where we lunched yesterday: the waiters in their starched white jackets waving away flies from the guests while, outside the walls, beggars do their best to keep sharp-beaked crows off their food. Soon we reach our destination: one of three-shuttered but still standing synagogues in the city. Behind its iron gates, Beth El is ordinarily closed to visitors, but a beautiful young director named Shireen Pasha from nearby Bangladesh has chosen this site in which to shoot scenes of her first feature film about a young woman who puts her life together after the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence with the help of the owner of a Jewish-Indian bakery. Flower has been serving as local advisor to the film and will jump-start her acting career this afternoon by playing the role of the overseer of the matzo-making. The synagogue itself, built in 1856, is most remarkable for how unremarkable it is — with its rectangular, neo-classical lines, it would look at home in any major Western city. But this is south Asia. Is there no Indian influence at all?
“Certainly not!” Flower snorts, “The thrust was to not assimilate . . .”
How wonderfully Jewish, I think. In all those decades of cohabitation, the Jews stood resolute against even minimally drawing upon the estimable local architectural traditions. Perhaps the only concession to the sultry, subtropical geography is the presence of louvered shutters and ceiling fans. It’s both odd and not odd at all to see such a defiantly out-of-place structure amid the low-lying hovels of welding shops and fruit markets that press upon the site from the teeming neighborhood.
“That building there,” Flower says, gesturing across the throng-filled lane toward a three-story edifice that seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, “was my Jewish School for Girls. As opposed to the newer one we saw earlier. We used to play badminton on the grass,” she says, indicating the packed dirt courtyard, “On Fridays we could smell the matzo being baked from our classrooms.”
Today the outdoor matzo-baking oven of the synagogue is getting a second life after years of abandonment. The movie people are firing it up with wood as they prepare the set for filming. I meet the two stars, a pretty young woman whose inanimate face betrays the fact that she must have been overpraised for her looks in her youth; no matter what anyone says to her, her face is stuck unmoving as if she doesn’t dare ruin the effect. But the other star is animation itself: Tom Alter, a tall, white-bearded, blue-eyed American, born of missionary parents in Bombay, who returned to India after college to become a major Bollywood star. He and I share an epoch — he’s Yale ’72 to my Brown ’71 — so we have a lot to talk about while we wait for the cameras to get prepped. Where we were when we heard Jimi had died, then Janice three weeks later. That sort of thing. Like any proper old timer of Scottish Presbyterian descent, he plays the role of the rabbinical bakery owner.
“D’you remember the 1968 Yale-Harvard football game with Tommy Lee Jones playing offensive guard?” he asks me.
But Flower doesn’t like not being the center of attention, “C’mon, I’ll show you boys the other two remaining synagogues,” she says, since we have an hour to kill before her first scene. The crush of spectators pressing against the gates for a peek of the movie is three people deep but Flower parts them easily with her terrifying walker and leads the way down a lane cluttered with goats. I can’t help staring at a chicken being waved in our faces, completely skinned but flapping hysterically. There’s that pity question again — how much do I dispense, how much do I hold in reserve? I only hope the chicken is already dead and the flapping is just reflex. In the kinetic can-can of street life, I stumble when a pack of dogs swarms through — malaria is less a problem in these parts than rabid dogs — but am caught by Tom who cautions me to beware the trail of white powder underfoot: it’s rat-killer. Someone is spray-painting his car in what passes for open air; if I were wearing sunglasses they’d be misted with white droplets. Suddenly I understand the legendary Black Hole of Calcutta where in 1756, scores of British soldiers were confined overnight in a tiny cell so that the few survivors went raving. It’s just an extreme form of the everyday Calcutta congestion.
When we hit the main drag we are confronted by the conundrum of how to cross. It was one thing to brave the traffic tsunami in a cab, entirely another to tackle it on foot. Up ahead I glimpse Flower charging down the block, plowing a path for Tom and me. “Yes auntie, yes auntie,” beg the pedestrians in her way; I see their mouths moving as they fall back on each other to make room. She stops to chuck an infant’s chin with delight, then wrangle with a shopkeeper about the price of Tupperware knock-offs. But now Tom’s been recognized. “Sir Tom!” the voices cry out from all sides. “Oh my God, Sir Tom, I never thought!” Tom chuckles indulgently as they squeeze in for a selfie.
We cross. A tuk tuk with the slogan ALWAYS HARD painted on its rear pins me against another tuk tuk named KEEP HORNING. As it swerves around me, its rearview mirror comes an inch from scooping my heart out of my chest. “You see why Indians don’t go in for adventure sports,” Tom shouts above the din, “It’s enough of an adventure just crossing the street.”
We make it. Before us, between throngs of people hawking kitchen supplies from the sidewalk, stands the Magen David synagogue of 1884 that looks, with its red brick walls and clock tower steeple, for all the world like a majestic church in the quiet English countryside. Except, it’s not quiet. Flower has discovered that throngs of people are hawking shiny aluminum pans in front of the synagogue entranceway. Tom and I raise eyebrows to each other, glad we’re not on the receiving end of her walker-waving ire.
“Are you cursing in Hebrew?” I dare to ask.
“Hebrew’s not nearly so good for cursing as Arabic,” Flower replies, “You son of 16 fathers!”
The gray tempest, however, is not without mercy. Flower soothes. Flower pats. As soon as the frightened hawkers clear the entranceway, and rib-skinny cows return to graze in various piles of garbage, all is well. “It’s the only synagogue in the world to have a steeple, but I’m quite sure I’m mistaken about that,” she tells me.
Still considered the most distinguished synagogue in the East, the synagogue is shut up tight. The Muslim caretaker (hired because Muslims are also people of the book) obliges Flower by unlocking the massive front doors. The ornate interior — Italianate, with floral-carved pillars imported from Paris and gas lamps from Belgium — is rundown but still capable of evoking awe. The teakwood benches are intact, the cane chairs still in place. “You can see why the old-timers still come back from time to time. Oh dear, here’s another instance when a date doesn’t come to me, for the life of me I can’t remember when we had enough members for the last minyan, but I won’t rack my brains, it’ll come to me . . .”
This strikes me as a kind way to treat oneself when one can’t remember something. Flower doesn’t beat herself up when the specifics get stuck on the tip of the tongue. “It’ll come to me . . . ”
Wizened photos of the synagogue’s founders in wingtip collars and flowing beards austerely grace the whitewashed walls. Of the two Torahs remaining, one is extensively water-damaged; treacherous ceiling stains above promise further mutilation unless leaks are stopped. The synagogue is under the administration of the Indian Archaeological Society and left in perpetuity to the Jews of the world but Flower is hoping some international umbrella organization will take over its preservation, lest it deteriorate to the condition of the third and last surviving synagogue, the Neveh Shalom (1831) around the corner from this one. Flower dispatches the caretaker to take me there while she stays behind. I’d never find it by myself, hidden as it is behind the sidewalk stalls in front. I can see why Flower stayed behind; she was married here in 1951 and it would distress her to see how ungentle time has been. It’s dingy to the point of decrepitude. The teak furniture is dull and moldy; the cane seats are busted; plaster flakes from the walls. The windows are mildewed, lending the sunlight a sickly cast.
“1984!” Flower exclaims when I get back to the Magen David, “That was the date of the last minyan!”
“And Bob’s your uncle,” I say.
“Right-o,” she says, slapping my shoulder, “And Fanny’s your aunt.”
I look confused.
“The English rejoinder!”
“Oh, thank you,” I say, hesitantly. Topped by Flower yet again . . .
Back at the first synagogue, filming is about to begin. Behind the gate, the horde of spectators has thickened. The Tupperware shopkeeper waves to me like we’re old friends. A befuddled old woman wanders through with what looks like human offal on her fingers. Cameras roll at last. Flower sits at a table pretending to tend a ledger listing the number of matzos the nearby servant girls have prepared. Tom strolls through in his lanky way, sampling the matzo.
“Cut!” the director cries, “What is it, Flower?”
“He would never taste the matzo before the Seder,” she points out.
“Thank you. Get that, Tom? Places, everyone. Silence on the set. Take . . . seven!”
Flower’s a natural. Though delivering only a few lines, she has presence, authority, irascible grandeur. Her timing’s perfect. But there are so many little things that can go wrong on and off a movie set, especially when it’s rush hour for the tuk tuks again and the noise redoubles.
“Take . . . 12!”
The matzo is piling up. “This is nothing,” Flower says, during a break. “We used to make lotsa matzo for the 5,000 Jews, baking the entire month of March. Oh wait, the servant girls are wearing bangles. I didn’t notice that before. They would never wear jewelry while making matzo for a Seder!”
“Hear that, ladies? Take . . . 20!”
I poke around the synagogue in earnest. In the old rabbi’s office, now being used as a dressing room, I find a baroque antique trunk that I’m told used to hold silver menorahs and plush fabrics for the pulpit. In a storage room beneath the main floor I find huge Ali Baba-type ceramic urns that used to contain the homemade wine for the congregation, sealed with cork stoppers dipped in black tar. In the crowd at the gate I recognize the white-eyed Muslim boy who ran away after I took his picture earlier today. I ask the security guards to let him in and introduce him to the stars. Turns out he’s a cook at a neighborhood restaurant; his specialty is chicken biryani. My favorite! — a bond of sorts. The evening slips by. The heat abates. Men and women extras wrap themselves tighter in their shawls. During breaks, Tom and Flower compete to see who knows the dirtiest jokes, most involving priests and rabbis. The cleanest one, which Tom was told by his missionary father, features a Scotsman immigrating to Australia, “Have you any pornography with you?” asks the customs agent.
“Pornography?” replies the Scotsman, “I don’t even own a pornograph!”
“What do you think, Flower?” I ask.
Flower looks pensive, “I think I’d like a clean toilet but I don’t think I’m going to find one,” she says. She heaves herself upright in three distinct stages, “Where’d my leading man go?”
I am faintly jealous but I’ll live. How did Flower manage to charm me so deeply in such a short time? Soon it’s nighttime. The entire matzo-baking scene needs to be reshot because the light has changed. Exhausted by the sensory excess, I drift in and out of slumber in my chair with a phrase replaying in my mind like a nursery rhyme, “Lotsa matzo in Kolkata.” Occasionally Flower’s indefatigable voice rings through, making various points, “The best tandoori I ever had was one time in Baltimore — ”
Ah, Cal! I think in my half-conscious state. Ah, Flower! You of the 3000-square foot flat with its bright orange bathrooms! You of the Calcutta Club with its marble-floored swimming pool! You and your city of beggary sumptuousness, where even the poorest women wear bright saris and the poorest men somehow manage to put heat in their smiles. With so much poverty, luxury, sorrow, pain, beauty . . . how can any of us bear to breathe?
When I wake, it’s a wrap. Inconceivably, the street horde has left. The lane in front contains only a small dusty boy kicking a brown box down the street, again and again, until his sandal flies off. I hear a half-run-over dog keening down the block and realize he’s been crying in the background for hours, dragging himself around by his front paws. It’s the end of the day so I feel safe bequeathing him the rest of my unspent pity. I find a broken Styrofoam bowl in the gutter, cadge water from a merchant to fill it, and lay it in front of the dog so he can lick it dry before he resumes keening.
An unexpected question occurs to me, borne of the day’s overabundance. What if I don’t need to apportion my pity at all — if I could give it freely to the suffering dog and the boy with the white eye and the woman chipping rubble with a bent spoon, and never use it up? What if in fact I got more with each giveaway?
I don’t know. But a certain person might be able to wrap up these weighty matters on a merry note as only she can.
She doesn’t disappoint. Back at the set, she’s thumping her cane impatiently. “We ready to leave?” I ask.
“We’d better be,” she replies, a bit of biblical levity from the lips of Queen Flower, “After all this time, even I’m about to leaven!” •
Photos provided by the author.
Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.