Of Calcutta, and its dying Jewish culture

Of Calcutta, and its dying Jewish culture

By ASIYA ISLAM | | 12 January, 2013
A scene from Calcutta Kosher

It is not surprising that most of us wouldn't know much about the Bengali Jewish community in Calcutta given that only about 27 of them remain today. The synagogues that belonged to these Jews, who migrated primarily from Baghdad, Iraq in the late 18th century, are more of tourist spots rather than worship houses these days. It was this unusual background that provided the theme for Shelley Silas' play 'Calcutta Kosher'.

A dying mother, symbolising the dying Jewish culture in Calcutta, brings back two sisters — Esther (Harvey Virdi), the elder one, an Anglicised uptight woman with an almost stiff upper lip, and Sylvie (Shelley King), the easy-going one who, in her mother's words, has turned into an "American nightmare". The sisters remind us how two siblings from the same parents can be complete contrasts. It is clear that neither belongs in the crumbling house in Calcutta where their mother wants to take her last breath. Which is why, rather than stay with their dying mother in Calcutta, both Esther and Sylvie are there to persuade their mother to come and spend her remaining days with them.

The dying matriarch, Molly (Jane Lowe), is however, intent on staying put and reveals and revels in her attachment to the family property. Her attachments, however, turn out to be a bit more than just the crumbling house. As the mother and daughters argue over who should go where, Molly announces that she has a third daughter from another man she loved – Maki (Rina Mahoney), who was brought to their house as a toddler and was always believed to be an orphan by the two sisters.

The women characters are all different, yet in their own way, each delves into questioning herself and what society expects of her.

Of course, this sudden revelation jeopardises all discussion of who belongs where. It upsets Esther more who appears to be her father's girl, while Sylvie questions her moral hypocrisy reminding her that their father's visits to girls in Calcutta's lanes did not go unnoticed. The third daughter, Maki, provides an interesting disaporic dimension to the plot. While the now 'truly foreign' Esther and Sylvie remain unconvinced that Calcutta holds much for them, or anyone, Maki, who has spent her entire life in the city and works for the arts and culture section of a magazine, believes in what it has to offer.

As with other plays produced by Kali theatre, the plot is strongly female dominated; Siddique (Kaleem Janjua), the care taker, is the only male character in the play. The women characters are all different, yet in their own way, each delves into questioning herself and what society expects of her. Together they make up an interesting plot about family ties, moral values, identity and belonging.

As Sylvie cajoles Esther to join her in snorting cocaine off their mother's beautiful silver gilded hand mirror, the audience becomes ready to receive some of the best punch lines from the blingy lady from LA whose therapist thinks she "talks too much". The loud American, the repressed English woman and the dutiful Indian daughter are all stereotypical images, but at the same time, very identifiable. The performances are brilliantly delivered and the play achieves the difficult balance between tickling and moving the audience.

Directed by Janet Steele, Calcutta Kosher is part of Kali theatre's festival to celebrate their 21 years of delivering cutting edge theatre by South Asian women.

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