"No I have not" I replied somewhat embarrassed that I had not even heard about the book, as my friend insisted "Oh you must read it."
When I returned home there was a UPS package on my doorstep. One of the three books in the box was Sadia Shepherd's 'The Girl from Foreign' along with 'Blood River' by Tim Butcher, an account of the horrendous situation in the Congo and 'Broken Reed' a posthumously published novel about the Partition by Sophia Mustafa.
I knew Shepherd's book was where I had to begin. Once started it was difficult to put it down, though life's necessities constantly interrupted. Almost four hundred pages, every section is a delightful treat.
Part travelogue, part memoir as its cover blurb informs us, what drew me instantly to 'The Girl from Foreign' was that Shepherd had journeyed into the same Western mountainous coast that had recently played a role in my own passage of self-discovery. While I checked out the Maratha forts I had been reading about for decades, trying to understand the history of my people whose native place it was, Shepherd had gone there hunting for the whereabouts of her people who had come thousands of miles across the seas and found refuge in its hilly terrain. My heritage was deeply rooted there, Shepherd's had dug deeply to create roots there.
It was her maternal grandmother, her beloved Nana, who was the product of the diversities of languages, religions the peculiarly provincial origins that are so integral to the South Asian identity. In Nana's case much had gotten lost in a post-partition life that she had been compelled to carve out in a land that was 'foreign' to her. Yet she had been able to pass on the essential nucleus of her roots to her granddaughter.
Nana's immersion into a completely alien world is something many of us can relate to, those of us who have moved from one land to another, from one dominant religious-cultural mix to a minority one. But few of us are able to communicate it as meaningfully as Nana has done with the author.
An untraditional liaison, exceptional choices had been made by this seemingly conventional, gentle woman yet she had retained her core. A major part of Nana's life was a mystery, a secret, private hidings that she had dared to entrust to her granddaughter only in indirect ways, such as giving her the key to the cupboard that had been locked behind in Pakistan, snippets of songs and stories that she had taught her American born grandchild, a ritualistic dish or two that Shepherd could immediately relate to thousands of miles away.
Nana told her "...many times, that recipes just don't make food but teach you patience and care." This child molded by diverse religions, nationalities, languages connects with them, much to her own surprise at times.
Nana was a complex woman, mindful of her Jewish lineage but she had also unconditionally accepted the Islamic religion and way of life of the man she had fallen in love with and for whom she had given up her own family as well as her faith and much more. All this made an indelible mark on Shepherd who like her grandparent is a person of multiple conflicting influences.
It is this multi-layered flow not only of her grandmother's heredity but also her own inheritance that Shepherd had come to get a deeper understanding of when she embarked on her journey eastwards. She was fascinated by Nana's Jewish ancestry that had melted into the overpowering culture of the Indian sub-continent, a force strong enough to pull Shepherd across the seas, the Fulbright fellowship only a practical vehicle through which to access it.
It is an intriguing narrative, all told with ease by this skilful writer. The smooth transitions are totally absorbing as we move facilely from one setting to another, from the city to the hamlets along the Arabian sea, from the cosmopolitan Mumbai to the Islamic ambience of the Karachi household to which Sadia must adapt as she explains why and what had taken her to India rather than spend more time with her immediate family in the Pakistani metropolis.
We go back and forth from India to Pakistan, Mumbai to Boston, Maharashtra to the rugged Punjab, blending into the Jewish, Muslim and occasionally even the Christian threads that bind the writer. The various strands don't tie the reader down but weave seamlessly into a mosaic that brings Nana's people vividly to life.
It is a story of the trans-national identity creation, the complicated psychological process that can be so confusing and conflict-ridden, something that is part of so many of us who have come from one place, live in another setting and have our anchors laid down in many emotional homes.
Shepherd catches the delicate possibilities that must be left unspoken in the oriental cultures, sensitively reflected when she writes about how her relationship with the young man Rekhev develops. He befriends her from the time she runs into him on the premises of the Film Institute in Pune, introducing Sadia to the delicate nuances of life in a dominantly Marathi setting where this boy from Jammu is himself an outsider.
"I don't know how to summarize what I have been experiencing in Bombay. I don't know the words to explain how I spend my time, the work that I am doing, how strangely exhausting it is. I don't know how to explain my friendship with Rekhev or what it means. This is the first time I encounter the split-in-two feeling of dividing a life between multiple places" Shepherd writes towards the end of her memoir.
Rekhev is "a non-traveler" this young man insists as he offers to accompany Sadia into the hinterland a somewhat unconventional act for two single persons of opposite gender roaming together even in the modern day India. As he watches over her, admires her, is attracted by her yet he categorically refuses to 'become a chapter' in her book.
Shepherd may be the international observer, the one who has seen a lot of the outside world but it is people like Rekhev along with the villagers on the Kokan coast, the fragmented Jewish communities in Maharashtra, the residents around Alibagh to Mumbai aspiring to go to Israel, sometimes disillusioned by the dream it offers sometimes continuing to dream on are the ones who teach her. It is in this group of people away from modern communication channels, where they have hung on to traditions that they brought with them thousands of years ago but are versatile enough to adapt to today's world that she finds her worldview broaden.
Shepherd explains to them how mixed and varied her background is, one that is not conflicted and nor tearing her asunder because she can be Christian, Jewish, Muslim all at the same time. Their seeming simplicity of worldview can grasp what she is saying because they have lived it even if they have not intellectually conceptualized it. She does not have to choose one, she tells a rather skeptical relative from the Bene Israeli though she admits to doubts within herself. It's not an easy acceptance but neither does it seem that she is compromising herself.
The other reason why the book appealed to me is that the writer is about the same age as my own daughter, also an ABCD, like Shepherd someone who has chosen an untraditional profession. This maternal connection brought out certain protectiveness along with a more hyper-critical eye. Once I realized what was happening I took a distancing breath and went back to the pages with a renewed sense of curiosity. And I was not disappointed.
To see how comfortable Shepherd seemed in whatever skin she was wearing, whether as a visiting niece in a traditional Karachi extended family, or with Daniel and Leah as she relates to this young couple's dreams about their married life, how they may or may not adjust in Israel or when she allows the recently married Bengali Sangeeta herself a transplant on the western coast, waiting for her sailor husband as she shows off her Dubai bought video camera. When this relative stranger decides to adorn Sadia with the flashy fineries to fit into the festive mood, this girl from 'foreign', who had come to find her place amongst the Bene people celebrating a traditional Jewish festival fits right in.
The customs these centuries-old immigrants, 'foreigners' practice may be an oddity in the rural coast of Maharashtra, yet it is here Nana's people had been painted into the landscape, and like them Shepherd too finds a spot in the complex panorama.
At times the language limitations both on Sadia's part and those who are trying to translate ideas and meanings for her create barriers, especially for a reader new to the cultural nuances of the area. But then if Shepherd had paused to unravel these strings it might not have given the narrative the natural speed that makes it flow, not fast and turbulently but leisurely and emotionally engaging.
Certainly a book I recommend, my underlined copy is already earmarked to be passed on to my ABCD daughter.
Book Description: Sadia Shepard grew up in a joyful, chaotic home just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where cultures intertwined, her father a white Protestant from Colorado and her mother a Muslim from Pakistan. Her childhood was spent in a house full of stories and storytellers, where the customs and religions of both of her parents were celebrated and cherished with equal enthusiasm. But Sadia’s cultural legacy grew more complex when she discovered that there was one story she had never been told. Her beloved maternal grandmother was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family, but in fact had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community whose members believe that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. This new knowledge complicated Sadia's cultural inheritance even further, intimately linking her to the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and to the customs of India, the United States, and Pakistan.
At her grandmother's deathbed, Sadia makes a promise to begin the process of filling in the missing pieces of her family's fractured mosaic. With the help of a Fulbright Scholarship and armed with a suitcase of camera equipment, she arrives in Bombay, where she finds herself struggling to document a community in transition. Her search to connect with the Bene Israel community and understand its unique traditions brings her into contact with a cast of remarkable characters, tests her sense of self, and forces her to examine what it means to lose and seek one’s place, one’s homelands, and one’s history. In the process, she unearths long-lost family secrets, confronts her fears of failure, and finds love in places that surprise her.
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