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21 From the Outside In: Recollections about Jewish Community of Calcutta

Lessons for Multiculturalism from Colonial Calcutta, by Jael Silliman

Lessons for Multiculturalism from Colonial Calcutta


I interviewed over 30 people, mostly elderly now, from a cross-section of communities [majority and minority], who knew Jews in Calcutta [1930 – 70’s]. Much to my surprise, this research revealed the conditions that enabled a multiculturalism to flourish in Anglicized Calcutta. As we in India, and the rest of the world are challenged to be more inclusive and embrace diversity of cultures, religions, races and traditions, there are some lessons to be learned from this experience.

Since its inception, Calcutta was a cosmopolitan port city with a large Muslim community, a fairly substantial Anglo-Indian presence (mixed race who lived in India), Armenians, Chinese, Goans, Syrian Christians, Parsis and Jews. Of all these “minority” communities, the Jews were by far the smallest, numbering at their peak in the 40’s, 4000-5000. Despite the hierarchies of colonialism, where the “British looked down on everyone,” there was a great deal of accommodation, mutual interchange and deep attachments among the various communities. To succeed in their commercial enterprises and to be part of the ruling social sphere, there was considerable assimilation to the imposed culture of British India among colonial elites across all communities.

Difference was a fact of life, as an elderly Punjabi women explains:

We had all kinds of friends. Parsis, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, Armenians and Jews. When we became friends we did not care if they were different. We knew them as people and as our friends.

A Bengali gentleman asserts:

I was very fortunate to have been brought up in a City where the minority communities all made a special contribution to the city... We did not discriminate [among the different communities]. That is what made Calcutta what it was…

This ethos of acceptance and accommodation was built on the scaffolding of shared Anglicized values, culture and a common language. The shared educational background and life-style that existed between the upper and middle classes engaged in the colonial project bridged the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between communities. While respondents often spoke a different language at home, they were fluent in English, learned in English medium schools. These schools fostered a shared understanding and worldview that welded members from different ethnic communities, generation after generation.

Although Christianity proliferated through Protestant and Catholic schools, religion, for the most part, was a private matter. Many spoke of the special care taken to accommodate one another’s traditions and customs. For example, friends of Jews accepted or accommodated the constraints around their being kosher, and Jews in turn worked around the religious restrictions of their friends. Whereas religion was a strictly private matter, the associated festivals and celebrations were often shared. An elderly Parsi recalls:

Friday night dinner with the Jewish family next door was very memorable. We were there for the prayers….In our home, we did not have the father of the family saying a prayer and passing wine around...It was not only their ritual – we were part of it.

Respondents commonly described with great pleasure the incorporation of cuisine from other communities. An Ango Indian respondent noted:

In my aunt’s house whenever we had celebrations, a standard offer was Jewish aloomakala, yakni pilaf—a rich Muslim dish that my father would bring home, and fried fish – it would always be an eclectic meal. It was part of everyday life for us.

The culture of tolerance did not obliterate differences between communities. Instead, respondents were proud of their particular identities. They mentioned having their own clubs, social and religious gatherings. An elderly Anglo Indian remembers those times:

We used to have a roaring good time. Picnics at the Botanical gardens – the Anglo Indians would have their picnics, the Goans theirs, and the Jews and Parsis would all have their own. We also had our own clubs. Later we got to know each other. Then, in addition, we would all go to the zoo. We would cycle there and say hi and bye to all our friends.

Ethnic based and religious clubs played an important role in reinforcing community identity. Simultaneously, integrated clubs for sports, cards and general socializing were opened to members of all communities though British and European clubs were exclusive. This co-existence of exclusive and shared community cultural spaces created both pride in one’s own identity and enjoyment of the diversity in which they emerged. Boundaries were maintained around inter-marriage, as that would dilute community and religious identity.

The nature of the friendships across communities was of intimacy, affection, trust and dependence. Warm friendships across communities were the norm, with many respondents recalling their closest and even best friends being from communities other than their own. Close friends were considered family. A Muslim respondent speaks of her father’s closest friend being Jewish:

I probably opened my eyes and first saw Uncle Dave. I really thought Uncle Dave was my relative. They were part of my family... He treated us like his own…

An elderly Syrian Christian gentleman talks about the reciprocity in the relationships between communities.

We were friends and colleagues [with Jews] and exposed to each other, [we] visited their families on festive occasions in particular.  When there was someone sick we mutually took care of each other.

Colonial clients, who existed outside of colonial divide and rule mandates, lived in mixed neighborhoods and socializing was primarily school and neighborhood based. Shared neighborhood geography forged intimate bonds and deep understanding of one another’s traditions and culture An elderly Parsi explains how, as a child, geographic community rather than identity defined her social milieu:

We were not allowed to go to the Parsi club when we were young because my parents were not members. We did not have transport. You see, in those days we did not have a car and it meant going all the way to the maidan which we thought was too far. We were so sheltered we were not allowed to go anywhere. We could go to Jewish homes because that was in the neighborhood. We had a few Parsi friends from school whose homes we went to and we had the same freedom there as we did with our Jewish neighbors.

A Sindhi gentleman underlines the importance of mixed neighborhoods for solidarity across ethnic/religious groups:

….all the people in the mansion [where we lived] did not bother about what community each family was from. We were secular in nature and accepted one another and were kind of proud if someone achieved something.

These sentiments are echoed by a Bengali woman who grew up in Agarpara, a Jewish company compound:

We grew up like family. We lived in each other’s houses; we slept in each other’s homes. There were no fences and no boundaries, neither physical nor mental. Just as our lawns flowed into one another’s gardens so too did our lives. We did not know the difference between being Jewish or Bengali. Whatever difference there appeared to be in our food habits or clothes (the Bengali moms wore saris while the Jewish moms wore Jalabas), we relished it as a part of our colorful lives. There was nothing that we did not know about each other’s lives. 

Today, many from minority communities, to bolster their own identities and to combat racism or other exclusionary practices, reject the politics of assimilation, often finding themselves apart from the mainstream from which opportunities flow. A glimpse into Anglicized Calcutta underlines key institutions and the civic geography that enabled a multiculturalism to flourish from the ground up.

A much more detailed paper on the topic will appear in The Journal of Indo Judaic Studies, 2015.