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


There were no unwritten rules regarding social mixing except when it came to marriage. I think there was a sense that Indian, Armenian, Jewish, Anglo Indian and these categories did not mix in terms of marriage. It was never said outright but we understood that. It was more problematic marrying a Muslim and slightly less problematic to marry a Hindu. But more problematic to marry an “Indian” than a “non Indian.” Non-Indian would be Jew, Armenian and Anglo Indian. Parsi would be considered Indian. –Dolores (Anglo Indian, 1955)

I had an uncle who had a Jewish mistress, who I think he married. She was a Bagdadi Jew…My family knew about her...She did not have a family here… (her) boys have not tried to impinge on family assets after my uncle died. They took their mother’s surname. Many Bengali gentlemen had Jewish mistresses especially the Bhadrotypes…In those days most men had mistresses. Their wives stayed home and they married them when they were as young as 13. The men would go to their mistresses and these women were in the background but accepted by their families. It was quite laissez faire – they were quite liberal and women had to put up with what men did. —Naseem (Muslim, 1942)

In those days there was no inter-marriage. It was just ‘not done’ in the society of those days for both Bengalis and Jews. We (growing us as family in Agarpara) were like brothers and sisters and though we had the occasional adolescent crushes there was too much familiarity for any romance to develop. We would want to sit next to the boy we liked and for a while it was nice, but very soon nudging, pinching and shoving would kill all romantic thoughts and places would change without any rancor. I think we lived in such close proximity that romance never survived, but friendship did. Even Jews within the colony did not marry one another but looked outside when selecting partners. We in the colony, of course, reserved the right to approve of their choice or otherwise. But there were affairs between the Jewish adults, which we were then too young to realize but not across cultural lines. There were very strict boundaries about intermarriage all over India then and Agarpara was no different only in that respect. –Iti (Bengali Hindu, late 1941)

I can tell you that the mindset of those days was orthodox. Only with our generation was there a break down as that was the generation of change. The older ones like my mother-in-law made me feel like I was an outsider. I never contested her because she lived in New York and I in Bangalore…My mother in law felt when I got married that there was a stranger in their midst…They loved my cooking and would call people over when I cooked. I knew so much about Jewish cooking that they loved my food. I was the repository of Jewish cooking in my circle. But still they did not think of me as one of them. She was brought up in a blinkered way. —Maureen (Anglo Indian, 1939)

My parents did not attend my marriage for a raft of reasons. They would not want me to marry anybody out. But I did marry out, and they settled later because they liked him as a person and they liked his parents. So they accepted it. His parents accepted me from the word go…They made me feel part of the family from the start. –Jo (Anglo Indian, 1946)

The Jewish girls and boys were not easy to mix with because if you fell in love they would not get married to a non-Jew. It was the same with Anglo Indians. In the fifties it was not okay for Anglo Indians to marry out of the community. Before the 50’s it was hard for Anglo Indians to marry out. We were conservative too. All communities were. – Name withheld (Anglo Indian, 1938)

I knew Rachel as she was my best friend. Rachel's children would never have dared married outside. We knew that. They were very closed and protective, like the Parsis. That was a plus point.  Now they (Parsis) are marrying out. Bengalis married out more. I think it was their religion was deeply ingrained. They would not have dreamt to marry out. They were very rigid and conservative. Hindus were like that too. -Reena (Brahma, 1935)