February 25, 2008

Our third week in Bombay is coming to an end, as is our first round of scouting and meeting within the Bene Israel community.

Benjamin Isaac, the director of O.R.T., an international organization founded in Russia, told us the story of Krishna to explain the way his community is stretched between India and Israel. Krishna was adopted when he was very young, and while he felt strongly attached to the woman who brought him up, he always felt an eternal love for his natural mother. This metaphor shed its poetic light on some of the reasons why the majority of the Bene Israel left a country where they had lived peacefully for 2000 years. Later on, Mr. Isaac confessed a very personal paradox: although he married a Christian woman, causing his mother lots of despair, he still felt bothered when his son married a Catholic woman.

Elijah Jacob is the country manager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (A.J.D.C.), a New York based organization helping Jewish communities throughout the world to maintain and develop. Its action is mostly oriented towards the elderly and the poor, but they also create programs dedicated to adults and the youth. We visited the old people’s house Bayiti, where the nine tenants (60-85 years old) were as enchanted by our visit as we were delighted to listen to their stories. In a very humoristic way, M. Elias Gawulkar was expressing his emotions by readjusting permanently his impressive moustache.
20-year-old Natasha Joseph is the only young Bene Israel employed by the A.J.D.C. From a Jewish father and Hindu-born converted mother, she has dropped religious practice and developed instead a faith in social activism, both towards the Jewish community and her country.

Almost 2’000 Bene Israel (out of the 5’000 Jews in India) live in Thane, a suburb located 21 miles North-East of Bombay. Like many other Mumbaikars (inhabitants of Bombay), the Bene Israel left the city and its expensive rents to settle down in developing cities. The Thane community is the only one to have a Rabbi, M. Abraham Benjamin, who is also an employee of Israeli airline El-Al, for which he manages the preparation of kosher meals. All the other Bene Israel synagogues only survive with hazzanim (cantors). In Mr. Benjamin’s views, keeping the group alive relies more on weddings within the community than training younger rabbis.

Let us now go back to Bombay, whose charming extravagance has been described in previous chronicles. Unfortunately, the global picture is much more terrifying. One should rather think of Bombay as a deserted battlefield where enchanting roses grow here and there. Mathias, who was born in Sao Paulo, often heard Westerners saying his native city was an urban nightmare. They would now define it as a peaceful shelter. Torn apart between slums and wild real estate projects, it seems like the concept of urbanism hasn’t reached Bombay yet. Very few sidewalks deserve that name, unless one enjoys walking through opened up trash bags, urine and cheaply built mattresses. Thousands of bamboo scaffoldings are used to make up the structural problem resulting from the city government’s lack of anticipation. Building sites, dust and continuous noises increase the strength of the pale fog-covered sun, which often turn to be aggressive and tiring.
Although this city is exhausting for one’s senses, Bombay survives thanks to its people’s unbreakable good mood. With an average monthly income under $120, the huge majority is doomed to living in horrifying slums, when they can avoid sleeping on the streets among the rats.

Yesterday, we inadvertently saw two men defecating outdoors. Like 6 million other Mumbaikars, these two have no access to toilets. Misery, dirt, pollution: Bombay’s plagues are ever increasing, with 6000 tons of trash produced every day and 28 millions inhabitants by the year 2015.

The train experience probably recounts the best this city and its unbelievably exaggerated contrasts. Serving 6.3 millions people daily, the train network is a crucial pillar of the city. During rush hour, which sometimes seems to last the whole day, the global fight provoked by a coming train leaves speechless. Within a few seconds, some jump out of the still running engine, bumping in those who the next second are using elbows, shoulders and insults to make their way into the huge, rolling sardine can. Thanks to an undisputable miracle, we managed to be part of the elected sardines, convinced that we had experienced a rehearsal of what an entrance in Hell would be. It was then very surprising to observe Indians smiling like one smiles after a boisterous football game. For the latecomers, the brave or the poetic ones, making the journey in between two cars or on the roof is also considered an option.
These trains might be the only way for Mumbaikars to escape reality: with their heads popping out of the open doors, they distantly watch their city as the wind strokes their faces and the engine’s noise becomes a lullaby. For a moment, they manage to forget Bombay’s inhumanity, making another flower growing from the stumble.

Indians’ unaltered serenity and joyous spontaneity are a great lesson. Let us hope that they will learn how to fight unhealthiness, pollution and especially the lack of infrastructure.

Out of this mess, we have managed to make a livable environment, especially in our neighborhood where we are regulars in several shops and restaurants. Actually, if street- crossing was recognized an Olympic sport, we could definitely be in the France team. It takes agility, reactivity and most importantly a great fate and no fear of dying to penetrate the multidirectional bazaar of cabs, buses, cars, bikes and cycles. Still, we are taking a growing pleasure in going through the experience. Would it be a sign of our becoming Mumbaikars?