Documentary filmmaker Shepard searches for her history deep in the heart of India’s tiny Jewish community.
Growing up in Boston, the author knew that her mother was a Muslim from Pakistan, her father a Christian from Colorado. When she was 13, in 1988, she learned that her grandmother had been born in Bombay, a member of the Bene Israel community, which believes it is one of the lost tribes of Israel. Shortly before Nana’s death in 2000, Shepard promised she would go to India and study her ancestors. Her debut memoir begins 15 months later as she arrived in muggy Bombay to fulfill that promise. The ensuing trip was full of meetings with colorful characters and pensive reflections on identity, community and family. Shepard’s journey through India took place as the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks, which provided a recurring backdrop to her travels. In the nonlinear narrative of Part One, “Storytelling,” the author dips back in time to recall how her parents met, to talk about her childhood and to examine her grandmother’s influence on the family. Then she settles into “Fieldwork,” a more conventional, chronological documentation of her journey. It throws up a number of intriguing revelations. One member of the Bene Israel community talked openly about the dwindling job opportunities for young Jews in Bombay, partly rectified in recent times by the booming call-center industry. Others seized on Shepard’s ambivalence about religion and advised her to study a faith, preferably Judaism, and pick a partner from that denomination to marry. The author also traveled to Pakistan, where her grandmother and millions of other Indian Muslims moved after Partition in 1948. At Nana’s old flat in Karachi, Shepard discovered a sheaf of her letters; these, together with the stories she told her granddaughter about her past, constitute the book’s most interesting parts.
A readable account that gives a vivid taste of life in present-day India as well as a poignant glimpse of complicated family relations.