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

School Days

They were a very fun loving community. Always ready to have fun and they got us into a lot of mischief. Ilana was so naughty she brought stink bombs to class!–Farkondeh (Iranian Muslim, 1942)

I interacted with the pretty Jewish girl Sarah in school, in the Literature class. We were supposed to write about a character in Shakespeare that impressed us and I wrote about Shylock. When I wrote about his character, the teacher said it was good. I was asked to read it out. I was surprised when Sarah started to sob.  When I asked her why she said, ‘Because you said all this about Jews (referring to them as misers).’ I was taken aback as that is not how I felt, I was just detailing about Shylock. What I had tried to bring out was that his point of view was also valid. He had a grudge and he expressed it. He was not a hypocrite. He said what he had to say but it was Shakespeare’s attitude towards the Jews that cast him in a bad light. –Katayun (Parsi, 1938)

I visited Justin’s home and when I was there, in Bishop Lefroy Road, I saw two books that had a spine with Hebrew written on it. He did not want to appear different so other than this, there were no overt signs of his Jewishness that I knew. We used to treat Justin badly because of Anti-Semitic prejudices, especially among the Christian boys. There was an element of playfulness in our teasing him that came from Anglo prejudice...Gerry Gubbay and Adrian Gubbay were the two wealthy Gubbay brothers who attended our school. Gerry Gubbay was a good bit older than the other Gubbay. The wealthier Gubbay did not wear the uniform that we all wore. Instead he wore long-sleeved silk shirts and did not participate in any school rituals, like the assemblies we all attended. He rode in Tivoli Court, in the riding school there, which is now the apartment building. –Sunanda Datta Ray (Bengali Hindu, 1937)

My aunt was very friendly with Seema Meyers…Seema lived in the school which she owned and ran. It was a nursery school and was known to be a very good one. She had a big heart. My cousin’s sister had a brain tumour and was slightly slow, Seema would let her take care of the children to give her confidence and at the same time give her a sense of purpose and something to do. –Rati (Punjabi Hindu, 1954)

When I came back (from Devonshire)…I was in Calcutta Girls’ School and I was there for a year and in the lower section there were boys and girls together. And a young boy said: “You speak in a funny way.” I guess he was referring to my accent. His name was Abraham Abraham...And he said “Well, I am Jewish.” I did not even know who was Hindu, Christian etc…Abraham Abraham was my class mate. Besides him in school I did not know who was what religion and it did not even occur to me to know this. But later on I was told by other children about their background. I was told I was the only Hindu in school, and I said what is that, and they said I was not a Christian. I asked a lovely teacher what is the difference and she sorted it out for me at 11 years old.  I had a very sheltered life in Devon. Cal Girls School was my first experience of difference.—Nilima (Bengali Hindu, 1927)