‘My Novels are My Jewish voice'
Dignity Dialogue|October 2020
Sahitya Akademi Award recipient Esther David (75) is often referred to as the ‘Indian Jewish author’. In this interview with Aruna Raghuram, she talks about her fascinating childhood, her brush with art, taking up writing and her love for cooking.
Aruna Raghuram

When Esther David agreed to an email interview in the times of lockdown, I was delighted. Though we wouldn’t be meeting face to face, I had earlier met and interviewed her many times in Ahmedabad. I remember her trademark large red ‘bindi’ and broad smile, her warmth and hospitality whenever I dropped in. Esther dons many hats – apart from being a writer, she is an artist, sculptor, critic, columnist and illustrator of her books. In this interview, the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 reminisces about her adventurous childhood, life growing up in the old city of Ahmedabad, how an artist and art critic became a Writer, Jewish culture and traditions, and much more.

A ‘Wild’ Upbringing

Esther was born into a Bene Israel Jewish family in Ahmedabad on March 17, 1945. Her father, Reuben David, founded the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden near Kankaria lake in the city. Her mother, Sarah, was a school teacher. Earlier, her father would spend hours in the forests hunting with friends, who belonged to the former royal families of Gujarat. But he laid down his guns when he saw a dying deer and became a wildlife conservationist. narrates Esther: “When my father was creating a zoo on the hillocks around the Kankaria lake of Ahmedabad, each day was full of surprises connected with birds and animals.”

“Even before the zoo happened, my father had kennels and we had a variety of dogs. We had song birds and my father had built a name for himself as a naturalist. When I was five years old, the civic authorities decided to make a zoo around Kankaria lake. As a result, often birds and animals were brought home. once my father brought home a panther cub before he settled him in the zoo! From a young age I developed a love for nature and understood the meaning of wildlife conservation,” she adds. For her it was amazing that her father fearlessly entered enclosures of lions and tigers.

He even conducted an experiment in co-existence – his pet lion, Montu, started living in the same enclosure with Tommy, a dog. And, he would often join them! It was the same with the tiger Raju, an Alsatian, a macaque, and her father, she says. Esther wrote ‘My Father’s Zoo’ as a tribute to her Tarzan-like father. not only was he a champion of wildlife, he was also known as the ‘gentle animal keeper of Ahmedabad’ and a ‘miracle man’ who could walk into the cages of lions and tigers, she says. From a young age, Esther observed how each animal made a home in the zoo. She described these experiences in the book which was subsequently translated into Gujarati.

Childhood in the Old City

Esther was born and raised in the old city of Ahmedabad. What was it like living there? “We lived as a joint family in our ancestral house near Delhi Darwaza, where growing up was like a family feeling. The houses were close to each other, without barriers of caste, and I understood the meaning of communal harmony. The courtyard was the soul of the house. Every evening, friends, relatives and neighbours dropped in and were offered sherbet and snacks,” she reminisces.

It was even better when they had family dinners to celebrate Jewish festivals. They also celebrated Diwali, Eid and Christmas with neighbours. ‘The Walled City’ is the title of her first novel. In fact, she has used this part of Ahmedabad as a backdrop for almost all her novels. As the youngest child in a joint family, and also the only child of working parents, she was taken care of by family members. She did not miss out on siblings though she was an only child. Her uncle’s four children were more than siblings. “My uncle always said he had five children! I was never treated like an only child and shared everything from gifts to chocolates with my cousins,” she says.

The house had a library which was a favourite haunt. She voraciously read all that she was allowed to read, and many books she wasn’t and did not understand, she recollects. The library gave her a heritage. She had three storytellers feeding her imagination – the library, her grandmother who related family stories while she cuddled on her lap, and Mani, the cook, who regaled her with folk tales. She remembers Mani vividly – wrapped in a “sari with the flavour of garlic and a fertile imagination”, as Esther puts it. Then, there was the zoo, song birds and dogs and so she never felt lonely.

Artistic Journey

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