Kings Have Adorned Her



David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David.

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah), and Sassoon David.

A fortune teller greeted David Sassoon on his way home from synagogue one night in Baghdad and told him to leave at once for India. He would be blessed with immense riches, she said. He was the son of Sheikh Sassoon, chief banker for the Ottoman pasha and nasi, or leader, of Baghdad’s Jewish community. Fleeing the despotic Daud Pasha, who had it out for the wealthy merchant, Sassoon settled in Bombay in 1833, eager to trade under British protection.

Back in the 1830s, Bombay was a port city of seven islands, a relative backwater, but a place where Sassoon could live and conduct business in peace, thanks to the East India Company and in large part to its president, Gerald Aungier. Back in 1668, England, eager to pawn off the Portuguese territory, rented the company the worthless, swampy islands for £10 of gold a year. Aungier saw promise. He moved the company’s Surat operation 165 miles south to Bombay, established courts and added judges, guaranteed religious freedom and individual rights (and loans) to traders and artisans, encouraged racial and religious communities to have spokesmen, and built causeways, docks, and a mint. Aungier created the ethic of equal opportunity that Bombayites would cherish for centuries by urging justice to all “without fear or favor,” says Naresh Fernandes in his smart new biography of Bombay, City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay.

November is the fifth anniversary of the bombings at the Taj and Oberoi, two luxury hotels in South Bombay. The much-loved Taj was built by the industrialist Jamshed Tata in 1903, after another hotel turned him away because of his skin color. It’s a hotel that well-off locals grew up in, wandering the halls to admire its magnificent art collection, and lunching at the Sea Lounge, which overlooks the Gateway of India. (It was famously a watering hole for gambler and derbyman Victor Sassoon, David’s great-grandson, who lived at a suite at the Taj in the 1920s and 1940s.)

The targeted murders of Chabad Jews at Nariman House during the 2008 attacks were an odd turn of events. New Jews, known by few, they were not a part of Bombay’s historic landscape. They existed largely to house Israeli travelers, famously fond of long Indian sojourns. (Goa and the Himalayas are Israeli hubs.) The murders signaled not the arrival of anti-Semitism in India proper as much as it underscored the truth that anyone and everyone has always been welcome in Bombay. Though targeting Jews is no fluke anywhere, the real story is the story of Bombay’s Jews, which for all purposes started with David Sassoon. 

Bombay in the early nineteenth century was bustling with horse dealers, traders, and immigrants, an exciting destination with great sea access for its burgeoning trade center. Sassoon settled in smoothly with Bombay’s thirty or so Baghdadi Jewish families. Jewish traders had arrived from Baghdad, Basra, and Aleppo in the eighteenth century, says Joan G. Roland, author of The Jewish Communities of India. (The term Baghdadi includes all Arabic-speaking Jews.) They were not the only Jews in India. Preceding the Iraqi Jews by a century were European Jewish merchants, and by even longer were the Bene Israel Jews whose descendants, legend has it, hailed back a thousand years or so on the Konkan Coast, just south of Bombay. By 1833, the year David Sassoon arrived, several thousand of those Jews had moved south from Surat to settle in Bombay. The city, in fact, housed India’s two largest Jewish populations peacefully, and without incident, for four hundred years. And India housed them for even longer.

Sassoon was India’s most famous Jew, the man whose grandsons built Bombay’s cotton mills on the back of his textile and opium businesses with China and the Gulf ports, and whose empire extended across not only India but all of Asia. Known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” Sassoon and his heirs established a trading dynasty along the Silk Route, and expanded into real estate, banking, and countless other commodities. They built the Sassoon Mechanics Institute (now the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room), a trade school for the public, and funded dozens of Jewish schools, libraries, synagogues, monuments, hospitals, and other scientific and civic institutions that helped advance Bombay into the commercial center it is today. “They were a major contributor to India’s economic growth, especially in the last half of the nineteenth century,” says Roland, “and they funded whatever the government needed.”

Sassoon’s fortune is inextricably tied up with that of Bombay itself. He made a windfall off the boom in the textiles trade between 1861 and 1865, during the American Civil War, when the Union blockaded Confederate cotton exports from Alabama and a panic of supply hit Lancashire, England’s main mill town. They turned to India. “The frenzied demand for India’s cotton transformed her economy and catapulted the Sassoons into an unprecedented prosperity and influence,” says Stanley Jackson in The Sassoons. Textile manufacturing went into high gear. Money poured into Bombay. The savvy Sassoons acted as middlemen between mill owners and cotton growers and profited off the wharves and foreshore they bought up decades earlier. They even insulated themselves from the inevitable crash, when the American cotton trade resumed, by expanding into mills, Java sugar, and Indian tea, all while continuing their steady supply of goods to the Gulf. By 1880, Jacob, David’s grandson, was opening and streamlining mills. By the end of the century, those mills employed a third of India’s half a million factory workers. 

But nothing put Bombay into sharper relief than the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. After snatching India back from the East India Company in 1858 (the beginning of the Raj), the British Crown set their sights on their economic engine of a colony, a captive market for British manufacturing, a source of revenue (remittances, trade) and of raw materials, and a hub for their geopolitical power. They invested heavily in India’s growth to suit their own. Suez reduced Bombay’s distance to London by three-quarters, giving Bombay quick access to European ports. The freight wars started. The Sassoons, who were already shipping bulk cargo, held their own among ruthless competition. Bombay blossomed into a leading international port. Albert-Abdullah, David’s son, capitalized on the possibilities. Though mocked for it, he built a 200,000-square-foot wet dock in 1875, which let high-volume traffic into Bombay’s port for the first time. It was a wild success.

A half century later, that Suez access gave foreigners easy passage into India. Central and Eastern Europe Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis poured into town in the 1930s and 1940s. Bombay’s two Jewish communities, which for hundreds of years had little to do with one another, took them all in, and Victor Sassoon contributed generously to their welfare.

Bombay had a thriving, if fractured, Jewish culture. There were Jewish papers—one for Bene Israel Jews that folded in 1927 and, by 1930, the Jewish Advocate, which after 1933 became the Jewish Tribune and was run by the sophisticated Joseph Sargon, the Bombay correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Service. Sargon made an effort at rapprochement between the two communities, and ran everything from jokes to political editorials to features on finding a good Jewish match. Zionism, when it came to India via the Jewish Agency and other organizations, had mixed results in different communities. The wealthy Baghdadis didn’t give two hoots about Zionism, happy as they were under British protection. Middle-class Baghdadis were more religious and Zionist-leaning; their community was more insular, and their children jointed the Habonim, a youth group. They kept Shabbat, saw movies at the Regal together, and summered at hill stations. Fundraising for Palestine took place in the form of sewing parties or tea dances, but most Indian Jews were more concerned about their privileges under the British, and their government and mill jobs, than they were about Palestine.

Arguments about Zionism that took place in the public forum of the Times of India paralleled the global debate over Great Britain’s immigration quotas. Who would take Europe’s Jews in? Nazis tried to use the issue to exploit Indian Muslims’ sympathies for Palestinian Arabs, to no avail. “The Nazi structure in India was part of a well-organised network of world espionage and propaganda,” reported the Times of India on September 14, 1939. Gestapo agents posed in Tibet as explorers, radio propaganda was fed through musical programs, and Germans invited Indians to lectures on Nazism at their clubs. They targeted communalists, newspapers, and set up business houses to distribute pro-Nazi literature, says the scholar Eugene J. D’Souza. But the few newspapers, or rather pamphlets, that the Nazis got published were run by men with “questionable reputations” and had low circulations. In short, the Nazis’ efforts to infiltrate, from roughly 1933 to 1939, fell flat. To both Hindus and Muslims, the Nazis appeared as anti-Christian and anti-Semitic and the enemies of the British and democracy, says D’Souza. Young Indians “tired of Nazi scheming against the country” and founded the Anti-Nazi League in Bombay. Nehru was quick to stand up for Jewish immigration into India during the war, and Jinnah blew out some hot air about Palestine to appease India’s Muslims, but was smart enough to know that he couldn’t make a reasonable case for a Muslim homeland in Pakistan while refusing Jews the same in Palestine. He even rebuked other Muslims for their anti-Semitic remarks at a meeting of the All-India Muslim League in 1938. Anti-Semitism simply wasn’t in India’s blood. And in the years leading up to and during Independence, India was a bloody place.

In the end, India was too tolerant a country to absorb Nazi hate-mongering. Its spirit of tolerance, and its international aspect, was what made Bombay a place for expats of all kinds. African Americans flocked to Bombay for its jazz scene in the 1930s and 1940s, says Fernandes, whose 2011 book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, chronicles Bombay’s jazz scene, roughly from the 1930s on. The music that proliferated reflected back the improvising, hybrid spirit of Bombay, a city built by migrants and a sponge for foreign sensibilities. Bombay was socially progressive, with a permissiveness few cities could match. And for African Americans, Fernandes observes, it was a better option than Jim Crow–era America.

Bombay hit a fever pitch between the 1920s and 1940s. I grew up under the post-Independence culture of economic nationalism, the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Bombay was a quiet town with few foreigners and a clutch of Indian stores. After Independence and until its economic liberalization in 1991, India’s socialist-leaning policies made it financially disadvantageous for foreign businesses to conduct trade or invest. After Independence, businesses packed up and left. But back in the early decades of the twentieth century, Bombay was a lively town, with fancy British department stores and French boutiques, and big hotels and dance halls like the Taj where wealthy Indians, Anglo-Indians, and the British mixed over drinks in stylish art deco ballrooms. They were listening to jazz, imported straight from New Orleans. The Minnesota violinist Leon Abbey and his band the Savoy Bearcats were a fixture in the Taj Mahal Hotel from 1935 on. His style of hot jazz, a mix of swing and rumba, sent Bombay into a tizzy. The city joined Paris and South America as a destination for touring musicians. Bombay had become a town of social exuberance and open-mindedness. Scores of British, American, and Australian servicemen were eager to be entertained, and they got what they wished.

Bollywood’s film industry kicked into high gear. Filmmakers hired dance-hall musicians to arrange film scores—Jews, Goans, and African Americans all played on Bollywood soundtracks. The Baghdadi Jews already had a musical presence in Bombay, says Sara Manasseh, an ethnomusicologist in London whom Fernandes refers to in Foxtrot. Their traditions worked their way into mainstream culture and films, and two Jewish musicians in particular “made their mark as multi-instrumentalists,” she says. Both Faizulla Taghioff and Isaac David-Dandekar played on soundtracks for the studios. Taghioff taught the legendary Indian film composer Shankar Jaikishan. David-Dandekar, who played the mandolin, the Middle Eastern oud and qanun (lute and zither), and a slew of other instruments, became the foremost music director of Indian films and imparted his own style—reminiscent of Middle-Eastern music—to the studio music of the time. In an e-mail, Fernandes tells me that the title of his book takes its name from India’s first jazz song, written by Mena Silas, a Bombay composer and Baghdadi Jew (born in Shanghai). Among other “jazzy Jews” was the clarinetist Reuben Solomon, a member of the Jive Boys, a hot Burmese band, and one of thousands who fled Rangoon as the Japanese advanced.

But the real stars were the Baghdadi Jewish women, who had a formative role in the silent era of Bollywood films. They literally defined Bollywood’s dramatic and dance-infused artistic style, says Danny Ben-Moshe, a Melbourne-based documentary filmmaker whose Shalom Bollywood (out in 2014) chronicles the prominent role of Jews in Bollywood. In the early twentieth century, it was taboo for Hindu and Muslim women to perform in public. Progressive Jews from the Baghdadi community were game. They created the notion of female stardom and gave Indian cinema an enormous kickstart, says Ben-Moshe. Hollywood was enormously influential at the time, so when Parsi theater producers diversified into film in the 1920s, they wanted films that looked American. They had been resigned to using men, Shakespeare-style, to act out women’s parts, so they were eager to hire Jewish women, who had spunk and who were prepared to do what it took (stunts, risqué dancing, tight dresses) to work in cinema. The light-skinned tone of Baghdadi women fit the low-light needs of celluloid. Key to the way the Bollywood song-and-dance act evolved was the fact that these women started out as dancers. Patience Cooper, the first woman to appear in a silent film, was a Calcutta Jew who was known across South Asia for her performances with the Corinthian Dance Theater Company. She and other Jewish dancer-actresses who performed in Parsi theatre brought what Ben-Moshe describes as a distinct stage technique to the screen.

Jewish women weren’t peripheral to the film scene, they were central to it. Together they forward-marched Indian women, along with Indian cinema, into the future, and they paved the way for other Indian women to enter the film industry decades later. These early decades are indebted to the silent era’s superstar, the gorgeous Sulochana, a Baghdadi Jew named Ruby Myers. “Sulochona was the matriarch of female stardom in Indian cinema,” says Ben-Moshe. “She created the art of the possible.” She also stirred a debate in parliament because she earned more than the governor of Bombay, and the viceroy. In Typist Girl and in Telephone Girl, her real-world, working-girl roles embodied the cosmopolitanism (she actually worked as a phone operator) that captivated the masses at the time. When called into the Indian Cinematographic Committee to explain herself, she didn’t mince words in her defense. “She had no inhibitions, a lot of chutzpah, so whatever she got in terms of criticism she gave back,” says Ben-Moshe.

Several other Jewish women had defining roles in Bollywood cinema, both because of their popularity but also because of their on- and off-screen behavior: Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) played the quintessential vamp—not the modest Indian girl—alongside Raj Kapoor; Pramila (Esther Abrahams) did her own stunts; and Miss Rose, a ballroom dancer, moved to Bombay, adapted her style to traditional dance for movies, and divorced her husband (unheard of in the 1920s). Her afterhours parties on Marine Drive were renowned. After the American bands wound down at the Taj, everyone would head to her place, musicians would jam, and drinks would flow, says Ben-Moshe. A few decades later, David Joseph Penkar, also a playwright for Parsi theater, wrote the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931. He too brought the song-and-dance formula from the Parsi stage to Indian cinema.

Interestingly, the Sassoons didn’t contribute to these particular arts. They did, however, fund educational institutions and they build synagogues. David built Magen David Synagogue in Byculla (and Ohel David in Pune, four hours away) and his grandson Jacob built Knesset Eliyahoo in Fort. For years, Bombay’s many synagogues were the hubs of Jewish social life. But these days, Bombay is no longer a city of Jews. At its height in 1951, Roland says, the Jewish population reached nearly thirty thousand Jews in a country of three million people. But it became clear, as Independence encroached, that economic prospects for Jews were dwindling. Victor Sassoon sold off his mills, lost many of his assets in Shanghai (it fell to the communists), and retreated with his fortune to the Bahamas. Most Jews followed suit. The British historically favored minorities (Jews, Anglo-Indians, Christians, and Parsis) in civil-service jobs, and the Bene Israel community anticipated that those jobs would be nationalized. Once the British left, communal hiring preferences would make Jews even more unemployable. Many in the Bene Israel community, influenced by the Jewish Agency’s activism and promises of work, moved to Israel to help build the Jewish state. The Baghdadis, with substantial networks of families and business interests abroad, departed for London, Australia, and New York.

This Golden Age of Indian Jewry was long over when I lived in Bombay. I was raised by aunties with bright silk or cotton saris that rustled as they walked, chubby women who promised me glorious pearl-and-gold bangles when I married, and who sat on the floor, chattering away while painstakingly plucking coriander leaves from their stems, one by one, as their husbands played gin rummy and my cousins and I raced around outside or played carom together. My aunties were Jain, the religion my father absorbed, if not practiced. My mother, an Ashkenazi Jew, grew up in Brooklyn. What little Jewish life we practiced was tied to Marge Gubbay, a Baghdadi Jew and a close friend of my mother’s. But being Jewish did not mean anything in particular, outweighed as it was by Bombay’s catch-all secularism. Everyone celebrated everything. Whatever holiday crossed our path, we reveled in. Kids lined up to see Santa Claus when he came to Breach Candy, the subcontinent-shaped swimming pool the British built for themselves. When tens of thousands marched down to Chowpatty Beach to hurl effigies of Ganesh into the tides during Ganesh Chaturthi, we gleefully joined the procession. On Holi, we too bought packets of colored dyes and threw them at strangers. Jain rituals were fun, if sober, with acapella chanting by my grandmother and Gujarati prayers that felt meaningless but compelling, especially when we’d get sweets or money. Religion was daily life, but daily life was not religious.

This fall, for the first time in their history, Jewish synagogues have been put on alert against possible terrorist attacks. Yasin Bhatkal, leader of Indian Mujahideen (IM), an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for the 2008 bombings), told police the organization was targeting Jews and Israelis in India. Even if IM’s target is mainly foreign Jews, not Indian Jews, it’s understandably disconcerting to a community that has lived in peace for a thousand years. Still, not much is likely to shake Bombay out of its spirit of resilience. Said Kipling’s Kim of his native city: “Kings have adorned her with fantastic buildings, endowed her with charities, crammed her with pensioners, and drenched her with blood. She is the centre of all idleness, intrigue, and luxury.”

Diane Mehta is a writer living in Brooklyn.