Creating a ‘fine latticework of sentiment and language’, Pramila Venkateswaran’s latest poetry collection, We are Not a Museum, resurrects place and memory to become a powerful sthalapurana for the city of Kochi and the lives of the Jewish peoples in it.
A certain sublimity rises from the page to take charge of your senses as you step into the landscape of Pramila Venkateswaran’s latest collection of poems, We are Not a Museum. The fine latticework of sentiment and language beckons you in every poem here, inviting you to advance into its mystery. The light is mellow gold, the quietness, sepia, and the voice, vintage through and through. Luxuriating in the book’s expansive calm, you wish to know where you are. Answers rush to you as waves to the shore and there is no way you can choose between one answer and another. You let them all kiss your curiosity and gently recede, surrendering yourself to the metaphysics of the question.
We Are Not a Museum is certainly, as its subtitle states, about the Jews of Kochi and the city of Kochi itself, but it is also, equally, about the place of memory, about memory as place, and about the memories of a community acquired by being-in-place. Thematically intrinsic to this book is the idea of home, the making of a self/hood, the palimpsest of identity, the amnesia of history, and the necessity of commemoration as a political act within the rampant socio-cultural practices of erasure of minority groups across the world today, with the result that a defiant ethical urge to establish a just historical narrative for memory, deeply animates these poems.
The Jews of Kochi constitute the oldest of the five groups of Jews in India believed, by many, to have set foot on the Southwestern Malabar coast as merchants of the Hebrew king Solomon in the 10th century BC. In recorded history, Judaism is the first foreign religion to have arrived in India, finding and making a safe and distinct place for itself on the country’s syncretic soil. Later, in the 16th century, another wave of Sephardi Jews is supposed to have entered Malabar from Iberia, fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. Known more popularly as the Paradesi Jews or Foreign Jews, they first made the ancient port of Cranganore and later, after its silting, the port of Kochi or Cochin (as it was known until 1996) their home.
Embracing wholeheartedly the Malayalam language and using Hebrew only for religious purposes, the Jews adapted themselves to their new homeland with grit, gusto, resilience, and faith, and though numerically they were never a very large group, they soon established a significant cultural presence within their local community via architectural, artistic, culinary, sartorial, religious and spiritual influences. In the economic and political life of Kerala also, the role of the Jews remained noteworthy. Their industry, mercantile capital, navigational expertise, ability to mobilize resources and establish cross-oceanic Semitic networks for the circulation of spices and other commodities between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, were of great significance to the local rulers who frequently relied on the Jews to meet much of their emergency and wartime expenses.
The Jews of Kochi, thus, flourished for almost two thousand years, under the patronage of the local rulers, their settlements and synagogues becoming valuable cultural texts within Kerala’s changing cityscape, and the nuclei around which the trade and commerce of its local markets constellated. However, deteriorating economic opportunities and the decline in their socio-economic status after the independence of India in 1947, and the historical simultaneity of the birth of their historic homeland of Israel as a nation in 1948, led to an exodus of the Jews from Kerala. Today, the community has less than a handful of members, and its cemeteries and synagogues have all fallen into decay, the Paradesi synagogue being the only one with regular religious congregations on its premises. Some synagogues have been vandalized, some sold, some adapted as warehouses or shops, two having been converted into museums to showcase the heritage of the Jewish community.
The title of Pramila Venkateswaran’s distilled collection of forty poems, We Are Not a Museum, a glorious and heartfelt tribute to the Jewish past and present of Kochi, derives, perhaps, from a cultural activist impetus to decry the museumization of the Jews by establishing a strong counter-narrative of their vital, breathing and throbbing presence within the historical social fabric. It is essential to note the pronoun ‘we’ in the title, a key to the identity of kinship that the speaker of these poems upholds. When one recalls Venkateswaran’s own Tamil Brahman identity, her philosophical and epistemological identification with the Jews by erasing the self/other boundary and accomplishing a merging of subjectivity, throws light on an important ideological aspiration of the book – the mnemonic restoration of cultural plurality and of India’s (now highly threatened) syncretic multiculturalism. Written from the Indian diaspora, Venkateswaran’s observations on identity also raise valuable questions about the existential nature of global migrations, the perpetual encounter between the present and the past, the un/reliability of history, the politics of official memory, and the urgent need to establish alternate personal and public archives of narrative remembering.
“Coming is always arduous/ —mountains, near-death escapades/ until you chalk a square space/ and call it home,” begins the first poem of the collection, ‘Exile’, that commemorates the coming of the Jews to Malabar amidst “Arabs/ Christians, Syrian Christians/ Hindus and Buddhists on/ this Keral land divinely blessed” (‘Gifting and Receiving’). In the form of short historical vignettes and in a language that is both highly emotive and economic in its tight suggestiveness, these poems document the entire 2000 year history of the Jews of Kochi. In the narrative of arrival in ‘The Long Journey’, one notes startling parallels to the narratives of the refugees of the Partition in India, their urgent wrapping up of home by bundling
…everything they owned:
two skirts, two blouses, a loaf of bread, dried
olives, figs, some meat,
a square cloth, two bowls,
Joseph’s robe, the family Bible,
and a small sack of earth
to remind them where they came
One notes, with wonder, Venkateswaran’s remarkable ventriloquism in these poems as she assumes, throughout the book, a range of voices – of the first-generation migrant Jews, of the locals who welcomed them, of the second and third generations of Jews in Kochi, of those who emigrated to Israel, and finally, her own. ‘Chorus: At the Palace of the Raja of Cochin’ describes how the Jews must have appeared to the local populace – “speaking a tongue we have not heard before” but “there is grace in their speech”. ‘Esther Hosts her Sisters in Kochi Synagogue’ offers an eloquent description of the Jews adapting their socio-religious traditions to local customs and practices, thus fostering a version of Judaism that seamlessly blended with Kerala’s multi-ethnic cultural terrain: “In full-sleeved churidhar kameez she smiles like Kochi harbor/ At her sisters who’ve come from deserts bruised orange.” Written loosely in the ghazal form, the use of the radif ‘orange’ invokes a host of symbolic associations in every couplet – of exile, assimilation, toil, globalized cultural homogenisation, the most telling being “how violent thoughts manifest in orange” – an unignorable reminder of the rising right-wing violence in India in the service of saffronism and purism. ‘Naming’ voices the dream of one generation of Jews for a more empowered next generation as the speaker, in choosing a name for a daughter, wants to make a choice that is sufficiently modern and yet proudly connected to their ethnic roots: “I want a name with currency, modern./ Daughter with heft. Her words will move worlds./ I want my mol to be a presence/ no one will forget. So Golda it will be.”
There is an abundance of ethnographic detail here – details of cuisine “fish kozhambu, rice and appam” (‘Dear Papa’), religious services to mark gratitude for “the honey of life” (‘Evening Song’), Jewish mythology, the Jewish graves above the ground “in a large field—mound after mound—/ As if symmetry helps us swallow/ the unbearable” (‘Cemetery’), and so on. The city of Kochi acquires, through such details, an almost tangible presence in the reader’s imagination with its “comfort of succor/ among the tumult of the market, in the lazy/ rocking of the boats on dreamy water”.
The spirit of syncretism powerfully underlines the book’s narrative. ‘Torah Scrolls’ recalls how the gold crowns on the filigreed cylinders that held the sacred Torah scrolls in a synagogue, were a gift from the local Raja of Travancore “for he knew the worth/ of guarding the sacred store”. ‘The Clock Tower’ describes the 45 feet tall clock tower that was erected in 1760 next to the Paradesi synagogue in Mattanchery by a Jewish businessman, its unique feature being its four faces with numerals written in Hebrew, Arabic, Roman, and Malayalam – an imposing architectural assertion of Kochi’s composite cultural heritage.
Deftly watermarking this collection is the metaphor of journey, a symbolic narrative acknowledgement of the multiple migrations, physical and psychological, of the Jews. Poems like ‘Desert Experiment’, ‘History’, ‘Movement’, and ‘Immigrating to Israel’ conjure the decline of the Jewish community in Kochi as a result of unfavourable economic conditions in India and their mass emigration to Israel: “As the land that was promised took more than it was offered,/ my grandchildren flew to the Negev” (‘Desert Experiment’). In ‘Our Days Are Like Passing Shadows’ and ‘Field Trip’, those who choose to stay behind remain conscious of deepening decadence and approaching cessation. Almost every poem in the book registers an acute awareness of movement, of arrivals and departures, of “to” and “from”, each of them continually changing physical places till they merge into the metaphysical:
Soon they will stop looking
Just like in the afterlife, no one
says, “Oh, I want to go back,”
knowing full well the passage will be the same:
shuffling one’s way to the afterlife. (‘History’)
“We are racing against /time, intone anthropologists, archiving every / letter and coin, for memory is unreliable,” states the poet in the eponymous poem ‘We are Not a Museum’, fully conscious that such archiving is not enough until we summon ethics and empathy to the entire cultural memory project. It is in this deeply existential dimension that We Are Not a Museum refuses to be about only Jews or Kochi and becomes both requiem and anthem in and for a globalized world order, where institutionalized erasure of minorities is the only way through which ideological fanaticism can sustain itself.
In its resurrection of place and memory, We Are Not a Museum, thus becomes a powerful sthalapurana for the city of Kochi and the life of the Jews in it. Its eyes penetrate deep into the past, its ears are sharp, and in its cadence is a spiritual majesty that befits the profundity of its project. To have the content of We Are Not a Museum put together as historical nonfiction would have been admirable but in poetry, its vision, range and profound lyricism magically astound. The narrative, with its rhythmic juxtaposition of several temporal frames, offers a sense of linearity as well as circularity, both dimensions being integral to historical understanding. There is a grace in the narration that refuses to surrender to the exigencies of history, its poise being an aesthetic symbol of the resilience of minorities globally, and a reminder of how, after everything is lost, the story remains to become a vital strategy of reclamation.
Pramila Venkateswaran’s We are Not a Museum is published by Finishing Line Press and is available to purchase online now. Follow Pramila on Twitter and see her website for more information about her work and writing.