The Idea of India
On The Graves Of History, 28th January 2010

Tourists at the synagogue in Chennamagalam, Kerala

I buy a postcard.

It shows a black and white picture of a large group of local Keralan villagers standing around two tall, confident looking men who clearly do not belong to the local community. The two men, in shirts and pants, look back at the camera with confidence. The villagers however look at the camera with what appears to be confusion, anxiety and simple acquiescence. Its a look I have seen a thousand times in countless photographic ‘documentations’ of ‘subject’ peoples of Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

But this photograph was taken in 1952, well after India’s independence. Ironically, it represents what is perhaps the last great grasp of the colonial era; the formation and creation of the state of Israel.

The post card celebrates the meeting of the Zionist emissaries with Chennamagalam’s indigenous Jewish community, most all of which eventually emigrate to Israel abandoning hundreds of years of their heritage to buy into a unifying Zionist narrative. The castration was largely completed by the 1970s leaving behind nothing more than a few tombstones, and a recently restored synagogue.

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I arrived in Chennamangalam not to pursue the story of the Jews, but to see with my own eyes what is perhaps one of the most unusual buildings/monuments in the world; a prime ministerial palace that has a mosque, a church, a synagogue and a hindu temple on its four corners. The building reflected a set of values and world view that today is largely dead. And though the four spiritual buildings remain, they can hardly be described as living. The paths that once linked each of the four spiritual sites to each other are no longer. Each seems to have turned away from the other. Hindutva organizations dominate this area, their banners, wall murals and posters, lining most of the narrow roads that now cut through the forests here. The synagogue itself is basically just a tourist travel destination; cold, artificially perfect, hollow and soulless.

Questions run through my mind; what does it take for a community to simply lift anchor, abandon their past, and fall for an ideal being sold to them from men from across the seas? Why would a 700 year deep community suddenly convince itself that it can find a better life, a truer and more reflective existence, in a land far away? How could they have just left it all?

Perhaps I ask these questions because they are similar to the ones I had asked about another migration – the one where a few million muslims decide that they wanted nothing to do with the 700 odd years of history and heritage they had been responsible for and needed their own separate homeland.

The mirrors of history continue to confound and provoke.

As I walk away from the synagogue the post card held in my hand feels like a clue to a betrayal, a piece of evidence of an act that I can’t help but think of a crime against India and her heritage. Did anyone protest? Did the country simply look away? Was it easy to just disappear, or to allow it? I don’t have the answers but can only remind myself to explore this question further.

And then I see Jonathan Cooks newest piece in The National newspaper. Titled Israel plans to repatriate ‘lost Jewish tribe’ in India it offers some clues to the political and nationalist forces that informed that moment in 1952 when an entire village and community came out to celebrate the arrival of Zionist representatives and had it permanently recorded on film.

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