Monday, 21 January 2019

Return to Yangon

I love Myanmar. I l especially love Yangon. That may surprise some people. Most visitors choose to spend only a couple of days in this former capital city, see Shwedagon and then head off to Bagan or Inle. But they are missing out on the glorious chaos of Yangon, a chaos lived out in streets that teem from early morning to late at night. It is two years since I was last here and much has changed. There more restaurants and banks and trendy cafes have popped up in surprisingly large numbers. Best of all, efforts have been made to clean up some parts of the city and to improve the environment of those living there - although a huge amount remains to be done.

Yangon is a city of contradictions. The influence of Buddhism is everywhere with monks and nuns a constant presence in the streets and yet the Muslim call to prayer is heard throughout the day. There are also Hindu temples, churches of various denominations and a synagogue that serves the remaining 20 Jewish residents of Yangon. There is even a Jain temple although that may now be without a congregation as I understand there are no longer any resident Jain families. The built heritage is also astonishingly diverse and includes some of the finest colonial period buildings in Asia. Many are decaying, some have already lost and others are being saved including the Burmese Favourite department store, established in 1918, empty since 2005 and now undergoing restoration.

Arched windows, Chinatown
Colonial building, Downtown Yangon
Entrance, Chinese temple
The best way to discover the secrets of a city is to explore it on foot and so during my recent visit I spent many hours strolling through the numbered streets, arranged on a grid system like that of New York. I delighted in wandering up and down the lanes, finding markets I didn't know existed, using my ten or so words of the Myanmar (Burmese) language to engage with people and to secure a photographic record of my trip. Knowing those few words  - hello, how are you? thank you - were in many cases enough to win the warmest of smiles and a hearty response, even if preceded by a look of surprise. There were some linguistic surprises for me too such as the two boys playing football in the courtyard of a Chinese temple, keeping score in English and pretending to be Manchester United against Arsenal.




I have already mentioned the ubiquitous presence of monks and nuns. They can be seen everywhere, collecting alms in the mornings and then walking the streets throughout the day. The monks early morning round to "collect the rice" is a disciplined affair, barefoot in all weathers and locations including the wholesale fish market where the ground is covered in waste. In the mornings people stand at the side of the road waiting for the monks to pass so that they can donate to them and then receive a blessing.  Most Buddhist men will spend at least some time as a monk even if they choose to do so for a short period of time before returning to secular society. There is no such obligation for women but the nunneries (like the monasteries) take in orphans and children from poor families unable to look after them. Many of the girls out collecting are extremely young, even less than ten years old. They usually walk in pairs or small groups but I came across larger groups of eight or ten nuns on a couple of occasions.

Despite being an experienced traveler, I felt protective towards these children and began buying fruit in the mornings in order to give it to them as they passed by. I was aided in this by the generosity of some of the vendors who for reasons best known to themselves insisted on giving me extra fruit but refused to accept additional payment. I encountered this kind of generosity on many occasions during my time in Myanmar. But back to the nuns. On one morning having already given away all of my fruit I placed a few bank notes into the collecting bowl of the smallest girl in a group of very young nuns. The others immediately surrounded me calling out and holding up their bowls. How could I refuse? I could only think of my own grand daughters and how I would feel if this was their life. On a lighter note nuns come in all ages. I met two older women sitting outside Bogyoke Market. I asked if I could photograph them. They agreed but asked me to wait a moment to allow them to tidy up their clothing, taking my request very seriously.

A young monk at the fish market - notice the bare feet
Mister Ayub with his portrait
Ko Mint Lwin
Daw Khin Eye
If I have time and can find somewhere to print from a USB I try to return to the people who have allowed me to photograph them and present them with a copy of their picture. In Yangon I was able to do this for several people. These included some interesting characters. Mister Ayub has a shop in 29th street. His family came to the then Burma from Surat, Gujarat in the 1840's, established a business and have been in Yangon ever since.

Ko Myint Lwin is a barber. I noticed his open fronted shop and its very old furnishings as I walked the streets on the first day of my trip. His elderly mother, Daw Khin Eye was sitting outside the shop and told me that she thought that some of the chairs originally came from the UK. I treated myself to a 30 pence haircut when I returned to hand them copies of their pictures.

Ten years ago I bought myself a Vivienne Westwood sweater that I can't bear to part with. It has been repaired many times and I needed to repair it again in Yangon. U Zaw, owner of a small tailoring shop in the Bogalay Zay market fixed it for me on the second day of my trip. He established his shop, New Land, in 2016 when he moved to the city from a much smaller town. His family were not always tailors as his father was an engineer who worked on the railways. U Zaw did not want to accept payment from me saying that I was a guest. I insisted on paying but again, the cost was less than a pound. He works on an old Singer machine.

U Zaw, a tailor with a generous heart
Dried fish vendor, wholesale market
Informal street market, Downton Yangon
Yangon is a city of markets including huge wholesale fruit, vegetable and fish suppliers, smaller more local affairs and large numbers of seemingly informal vendors grouped together in particular streets. On this visit I walked from my hotel in 38th to 13th Street, enjoying the chaotic scenes of Chinatown and the Indian Quarter. Here amongst the old but surviving shop houses I saw chickens being plucked in enormous vats of water, meat of all kinds being cut up and displayed and snacks, fruit, vegetables and household goods on sale. Vendors call out to attract customers and delivery vehicles manage to manoeuvre amongst the most crowded and narrow of streets, albeit not always successfully. On my final day in the city I saw a delivery van accidentally overturn the stall of a woman selling fruit. Some very severe words were exchanged despite the driver getting down from his truck to help put things right.

Porter, wholesale market
A cleaner environment
Since my last visit some efforts have been made to clear the once horrifying alleys that are hidden between the numbered streets. Previously piled high with domestic rubbish and overrun with rats a number have been cleaned up by Doh Eain, an NGO that works with artists to beautify public spaces. A few simple swings and slides have been installed and the local children now have somewhere safe and pleasant to play. The project was paid for through crowd funding, perhaps demonstrating the scale of the challenge and the competing priorities in a country trying hard to deal with many issues. Small scale community based projects such as this are important in supporting people to look after their own environment.

Regular readers will know that I sometimes struggle with food when traveling. This is because I am  1) a vegetarian 2) addicted to coffee and cake 3) picky. Yangon coped admirably with me. I returned to my old favourite Pansuriya which has good coffee and a variety of tasty vegetarian dishes. Food is served in a large airy room decorated with old pictures of Yangon and other memorabilia. But I also have a couple of new favourites. Rangoon Tea House is a modern version of an old idea, serving good tea and coffee, a big range of Myanmar traditional food and dishes influenced by other cultures. And for the most authentic experience, nothing beats Lucky 7 Tea House. A huge cafe, it is busy from morning to night, has great staff, serves great tea and the tastiest samosas Ive ever eaten - and I've been to India twice.  You might need to wait for a table at both places, but the wait will be worth it. And what about cake? Well, there's always the Strand Hotel's cafe.

I said at the beginning, I love Yangon. I can't wait to return - and I won't wait two years next time.

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You can see more pictures of Myanmar here

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

An Art Deco synagogue, a famous writer and a modernist landmark - Jewish Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat. It is home to almost 6 million people, 80% of them Hindus and 13% Muslims. There are also significant numbers of Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists and almost 150 Bnei Israel Jews. During my recent time in India I was was able to meet some of the community members, to visit their beautiful synagogue during the preparations for Yom Kippur and to eat a delicious lunch in the home of India's most accomplished Jewish writer. 

The Bnei Israel Jews arrived in India about two thousand years ago. Fleeing the land of Israel after the fall of the Second Temple, survivors of a shipwreck came ashore at Alibaug in the Konkan region, on India's west coast. They lost their books in the Arabian Sea but maintained the Hebrew prayers and Jewish customs including circumcision and the dietary laws. They established new communities and worked as oil pressers and farmers. Their descendants still live in the dwindling Jewish communities of Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Alibaug, Pune and elsewhere in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The Ahmedabad community reached its peak in the 1960's with about 2,500 members. Since then many have left for Israel where communities can be found in Ashdod and Be'ersheva. Others moved to the USA.



Aviv Divekar is the Secretary of Ahmedabad's Magen Avraham synagogue. We met there whilst members of the community cleaned the building and made preparations for Yom Kippur. He told me that although there are few Jews here now, Jewish life is still possible. There is no rabbi and the last chazan left for Israel in the 1970's but one of the community members has trained in order to be able to lead the prayers and to fulfil the role of shochet. The community is very active, celebrates all of the Jewish holidays and there is a weekly minyan. Interestingly, Aviv also told me that there are several Jewish owned schools in the city but that I would be hard pressed to find Jewish pupils and the school rolls are now made up of Hindu and Muslim students. This is a common story in India. Last year I visited the Jewish Girls School in Kolkata. There are at most 20 Jews remaining in that city and there have been no Jewish students since the 1980's.

The Magen Avraham synagogue was built in 1934 and is a stunning Art Deco structure. It is maintained in good order and many original features remain including ziggurat motifs above the ark, marble chequered floors and decorative grills and bannisters. It is located in the heart of the old city, opposite a Parsi temple, close to a mosque and a Hindu temple and adjacent to a bazaar. As I walked through the streets on the way to the synagogue, people called out to ask where I am from and what is my name. To my surprise one of them asked me if I have ever been to Dewesbury. I haven't, but he had! Aviv told me that there are generally good relations with the different communities and that their representatives are invited to come and celebrate the major festivals. However there has been at least one attempted attack on the synagogue which prompted an increase in security measures including the presence of armed police.


One of the major problems for the Jews of Ahmedabad is finding a marriage partner. Young people generally seek a spouse in Mumbai which is still home to more than 3000 Jews or go overseas, particularly to Israel. Whilst this ensures Jewish continuity it does not always help sustain the local community as it seems that Mumbai brides prefer to remain in their home city and not to move to Gujarat. This issue is also the subject of Bombay Brides the latest novel of award winning author Esther David, a native of Ahmedabad.

It is the latest in a series of books by Ms. David which include both novels and works of non-fiction. She agreed to meet with me during my recent trip, very generously inviting me to lunch at her home where I was treated to a selection of wonderful Indian vegetarian dishes including a very tasty Bnei Israel dish made from potatoes and onions. The food was served on plates that bore the monogram of her father, Reuben David. He was a self taught vet and accomplished animal conservationist who established the city's zoo in the 1950's. An uncle was also a well known figure, knew Gandhi and was involved in the independence movement.

Surrounded by books, photographs and paintings, several of them her own work, she spoke about her career as a writer and her identity as a Jew in India.  After several publisher rejections, her first book The Walled City came out to acclaim in 1997. It was followed by Book Of Esther. Whilst attending a conference in Paris, Penguin offered her a contract to write a 500 page novel about five generations of a Bnei Israel family in India. Her immediate acceptance of their offer took the publishers by surprise. It was suggested she take some time to think but in response she told them "what's to think about, I'll definitely do it". A planning meeting held the next day, originally scheduled for half an hour lasted all morning and ended with a contract being signed the same afternoon. Despite then experiencing doubt on her return to Ahmedabad, she was able to produce the epic Book of Esther based on the story of her family, and inspired in part by what she described as a "huge box" of family photographs.


When I recently re-read the book I was struck by the mixture of Jewish and Hindu observance by some of the characters. Some of these practices appear to have been carried out with a degree of secrecy and guilt. I discussed this with a friend who grew up in Mumbai who told me that this mixing of faiths was not unusual and that particular saints and gurus would be revered by devotees of different faiths who would not see this as a challenge to their identity, something the was confirmed by the author.

The David family kept the holidays and traditions but were not particularly religious. The exception to this was her grandmother who Esther remembered "dragging us to the synagogue and organising our festivals at home". Despite being illiterate she was also the keeper of stories, many of which she passed on to her grand daughter and which have influenced her writing. Her parents were less religious and in preparation for writing "Book of Esther" she studied Judaism with Johnny Pingle, one of the community elders. She  developed an interest in the prophet Elijah, an important figure in Bnei Israel tradition which includes the belief that he set foot in India before ascending to heaven, stopping at a village near Alibaug and leaving the imprint of his horse's hoof on a rock. The rock is revered by Bnei Israel Jews who make pilgrimages there, to take vows and to ask for wishes to be granted. It would also come to play an important part in Esther David's life.

She spent many years struggling to find her identity, finally understanding who she was through her writing but more significantly it was a visit to the rock that clarified things for her.  On making that visit she felt "...a sense of homeland, of being a Bnei Israel who had just arrived two thousand years ago".  Esther described herself to me as a secular, Indian Jew who sometimes attends the synagogue but who is also "very desi (Indian) and pukka Ahmedabad". Before achieving acclaim as a writer, some of the community viewed her with a degree of suspicion. Art and literature were not normally things a Bnei Israel woman would be engaged in. They may also have though her a little "too Indian", partly due to her wearing a bindi but she is clearly very comfortable with who she is.

Book of Esther has recently been brought back into print in response to public demand as has Book of Rachel winner of the 2010 Sahitya Academy Award for English literature. The only changes made for the new editions are to the cover, both of which use images of fruit. This seems very appropriate given the importance of food to the culture particularly as Book of Rachel includes a recipe at the beginning of every chapter.

Esther is working on a number of projects designed to record and commemorate the Jews of India. Over a period of four years she attended every community event that she could - weddings, bar-mitzvahs, circumcisions, etc in order to make a photographic record. She is also a collector of Judaica, so much so that families leaving India often donate items to her. She has become an expert in this field and gives advice to museums on their holdings.

After a fascinating three hours spent talking with the only Jewish writer to have written about India's Jews, I left thinking how her work is preserving the history and tradition of a now very small community as well as forward to her new novel...and savouring the taste of her cooking.

Before leaving Ahmedabad I made a visit to another landmark building with Jewish connections. The magnificent modernist Indian Institute of Management designed by Jewish American architect Louis Kahn and built in the 1960's. The highlight is the Louis Kahn Plaza around which the library, classrooms and faculty offices are arranged. This spectacular structure manages to combine modernism with references to the city's past with its arches, columns and approach to providing natural light and shade. Visitors are welcome but must make an appointment in advance.


An edited version with additional photographs appears in the January edition of Jewish Renaissance magazine.

You can see more pictures of Ahmedabad here.

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