Cour­tesy of the author

Cour­tesy of the author

I didn’t know I was Jew­ish until my fam­i­ly left India in 1973 and my moth­er signed me up for Sun­day school at the local syn­a­gogue in New Jer­sey. I’d grown up in Bom­bay (now Mum­bai) in the six­ties and sev­en­ties, the daugh­ter of an Indi­an Jain father and an Amer­i­can Jew­ish moth­er — both reli­gious minori­ties in a Hin­du-major­i­ty country.

In a long poem Trop­ics” in my poet­ry col­lec­tion For­est with Cas­tanets, I reflect on what India means to me. As a child, I chant­ed Jain prayers and par­tic­i­pat­ed in Jain rit­u­als with my extend­ed fam­i­ly, but that had lit­tle impact on my dai­ly life. The Bom­bay of my youth was a mix of peo­ple of dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties and reli­gions who fit togeth­er com­fort­ably enough, with their habits, prayers, and cacoph­o­nous hag­gling stitched into the city’s dai­ly life.

Like every­one else, my sis­ter and I cel­e­brat­ed the major pub­lic hol­i­days of Hin­duism. On Holi we hurled col­or­ful pow­ders at strangers on the streets and came home rain­bow-col­ored and wild-eyed. On Diwali we twirled sparklers on our ter­race over­look­ing the city, whose streets were a trail map of oil lamps, and clutched our sparklers tight until the small explod­ing stars burned down to our fists. We attend­ed Christ­mas at Breach Can­dy swim­ming pool and watched plas­tic rein­deers fer­ry San­ta mer­ri­ly along before claim­ing our gifts. We attend­ed a few Fri­day night Shab­bat ser­vices at the home of my mother’s best friend, who belonged to the cen­turies-old com­mu­ni­ty of Bagh­da­di Jews in Bom­bay — although back then my moth­er was not inter­est­ed in Judaism. We cel­e­brat­ed Rak­sha­band­han, a Jain hol­i­day dur­ing which the girls in a fam­i­ly tied rakhis, or amulets, around the wrists of their broth­ers and male cousins, and they gave us small sums of mon­ey in return. The exchange of gifts and mon­ey was meant to sym­bol­i­cal­ly reflect our under­stand­ing that our rel­a­tives would pro­tect us from harm.

I didn’t real­ly think that any­one would need pro­tect­ing, though. I had a peace­ful post-colo­nial life as a child, and didn’t have to rec­on­cile that with the sav­agery of the Indi­an subcontinent’s divi­sion into India and Pak­istan decades ear­li­er. In 1947, between one and two mil­lion peo­ple were slaugh­tered dur­ing what was known as Par­ti­tion — hacked or burned in their homes, on the streets they grew up on, or while try­ing to flee the car­nage on foot or on trains. Hin­dus and Sikhs were on one side and Mus­lims on the oth­er. It’s still shock­ing to think that the mas­sacres came to Bom­bay — not only because of my calm child­hood there, but also because Bom­bay has always been con­sid­ered the most tol­er­ant city in India. The coun­try itself is one of the few places in the world where Jews were nev­er per­se­cut­ed. (Some have been there for thou­sands of years, prac­tic­ing an Indi­an­ized ver­sion of Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism.)

The coun­try itself is one of the few places in the world where Jews were nev­er persecuted.

Here’s how the Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Man­to, who lived in Bom­bay from 1936 to 1947, described his beloved city to read­ers: You can be hap­py here on two pen­nies a day or on ten thou­sand rupees a day, if you wish. You can also spend your life here as the unhap­pi­est man in the world. You can do what you want. No one will find fault with you. No one will sub­ject you to moralizing.”

Despite his ide­al­is­tic vision of Bom­bay as a refuge for free thinkers, Man­to, a Mus­lim, was dri­ven from the city after Par­ti­tion. Heart­bro­ken, he left for Pak­istan in Jan­u­ary 1948. How­ev­er, he con­tin­ued to set many of his sto­ries in Bom­bay, includ­ing one called Mozelle,” about a coquet­tish and inde­pen­dent Indi­an Jew­ish woman and her Sikh lover, Tar­lochan, which is set at the time of the com­mu­nal riots of Partition.

In Manto’s sto­ry, Mozelle roams the city at will. She com­mands Tar­lochan to shave his beard (which isn’t allowed for Sikhs) in order to mar­ry her, then skips town with anoth­er lover. He finds a gen­tle Sikh girl to mar­ry. Mozelle returns to find him wor­ry­ing about his beloved, who lives in a Mus­lim dis­trict where Sikhs are being slaugh­tered as revenge for Sikh killings of Mus­lims up north. Think­ing she is safe because she is a Jew, Mozelle breaks cur­few and march­es into the Mus­lim neigh­bor­hood, with her ex-lover trail­ing her. They enter the girl’s build­ing, where Sikhs are being mur­dered one floor up. Mozelle puts her Jew­ish” dress on the Sikh girl and push­es her out the door. She dash­es up the stairs naked to dis­tract the aston­ished mob, which chas­es her. She slips and tum­bles down the stairs, and when her for­mer lover removes his tur­ban to cov­er her as she dies, she push­es it away: Take away this rag of your reli­gion. I don’t need it,” she says cool­ly, unashamed of her exposed body.

The sto­ry has always felt shock­ing to me, part­ly because of Mozelle’s unfath­omable sac­ri­fice and part­ly because of the vicious­ness of neigh­bor against neighbor.

The sto­ry has always felt shock­ing to me, part­ly because of Mozelle’s unfath­omable sac­ri­fice and part­ly because of the vicious­ness of neigh­bor against neigh­bor. We want to believe we are safe in our com­mu­ni­ties. Most of India’s minori­ties escaped the blood­let­ting of Par­ti­tion, just as India sur­vived World War II large­ly unscathed, and just as I enjoyed an easy life in my Cum­bal­la Hill home with its expan­sive ter­race with sea views. To me, Mozelle’s death makes stark the last­ing mad­ness of Par­ti­tion. If you help a friend or neigh­bor, you, too, will be killed. Below the diverse and tol­er­ant spir­it that makes the city of Bom­bay so unusu­al is a feroc­i­ty that can be tapped by polit­i­cal and reli­gious extrem­ists. Man­to dares us to con­demn this brazen, fear­less woman who pro­tects the man and saves his beloved. Mozelle acts how Manto’s city com­pelled her to act. It is not the sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed woman but ordi­nary Mus­lims, Sikhs, and Hin­dus who have sinned.

I moved to an all-white New Jer­sey sub­urb at the age of sev­en; Indi­an-Jain and Jew­ish made me a dou­ble minor­i­ty in the States, too. But here, peo­ple were less tol­er­ant. I was the wrong reli­gion and the wrong col­or, and fre­quent­ly elicit­ed foul treat­ment from oth­er chil­dren. My expe­ri­ence being per­se­cut­ed was not at all com­pa­ra­ble to the unfath­omable dan­gers peo­ple faced dur­ing Par­ti­tion, but, look­ing back, it was the first time that I expe­ri­enced the hard truth that peo­ple are not con­sid­ered equal. Man­to res­onates with me now because I can iden­ti­fy with the racism and big­otry in his sto­ries — but also because he deft­ly chron­i­cles, amid the hor­rors of Par­ti­tion, people’s ordi­nary desires and moti­va­tions. Noth­ing seems to entire­ly dis­lodge Manto’s belief that peo­ple are resilient. Like Man­to, I also felt exiled from a place I loved, and which seemed to love me back, and like Man­to I became a stranger in a for­eign land — sur­round­ed not by the goings-on of a thriv­ing, diverse metrop­o­lis with mazes of streets to wan­der and open ocean beyond, but by homo­ge­neous square lawns and fences.

Spir­i­tu­al­ly speak­ing, I am at sea — con­ver­sant with many faiths, ful­ly at home in none of them.

Cour­tesy of the author

Spir­i­tu­al­ly speak­ing, I am at sea — con­ver­sant with many faiths, ful­ly at home in none of them. When I arrived in Amer­i­ca, the Jain and Hin­du hol­i­days I grew up cel­e­brat­ing dis­ap­peared from our lives. I went to syn­a­gogue and switched my atten­tion whole­sale to being a Jew, guid­ed by my moth­er, increas­ing­ly obser­vant now that she was free of India. When I was sev­en­teen, I went to Israel and felt at home there. But as I got old­er, what mat­tered most was an intel­lec­tu­al life I was begin­ning to live. It was Jew­ish writ­ers and Jew­ish thought, not God, that I was after. Even­tu­al­ly I stopped believ­ing in God, lib­er­at­ed by the free­dom that Judaism allows for ques­tion­ing your beliefs. In Jain­ism, this wasn’t an issue because there is no god, only Nir­vana. But to be spir­i­tu­al, now, is to wonder.

But as I got old­er, what mat­tered most was an intel­lec­tu­al life I was begin­ning to live. It was Jew­ish writ­ers and Jew­ish thought, not God, that I was after.

As a non-believ­ing half-Jain and a non-prac­tic­ing half-Jew, I have my own, decid­ed­ly mixed feel­ings about reli­gion — unlike Tar­lochan, I’m sus­pi­cious of it, and unlike Mozelle, I don’t take it for grant­ed. I light a few Hanukkah can­dles and note that it is Yom Kip­pur. I read Jew­ish books. I attend my sister’s Passover seder and swal­low my words when I get to the parts about God. I envy the peace that Jain­ism gives some mem­bers of my fam­i­ly, and the tenets it shares with Judaism: kind­ness, being a men­sch, try­ing to endure in the face of suf­fer­ing. My two iden­ti­ties over­lap eas­i­ly for me because they are both part of my his­to­ry. But Bom­bay, my old home, still exists for me as a place every­thing mixed nat­u­ral­ly, and there is no need to define or ques­tion what I believe.

I am a Bom­bay on the move,” Man­to said when he left. Wher­ev­er I hap­pen to be, that is where I will make a world of my own.” Like him, I some­times feel off-sides or dis­placed, but my reli­gious loy­al­ties are my own: My tem­ple lives in the sea, with mem­o­ries and bare feet. / Its gifts are cold water, its only wor­ship­per is me.”

Diane Mehta was born in Frank­furt, grew up in Bom­bay and New Jer­sey, stud­ied in Boston, and now makes her home in New York City. Her sec­ond poet­ry col­lec­tion Tiny Extrav­a­gan­zas is out with Arrow­smith Press on Oct 15, 2023. Her essay col­lec­tion Hap­pi­er Far comes out in 2024. New and recent work is in The New York­er, Vir­ginia Quar­ter­ly Review, Keny­on Review, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and A Pub­lic Space. Her writ­ing has been rec­og­nized by the Peter Heinegg Lit­er­ary Award, the Café Roy­al Cul­tur­al Foun­da­tion, and fel­low­ships at Civitel­la Ranieri and Yad­do. She was an edi­tor at A Pub­lic Space, PEN Amer­i­ca, and Guer­ni­ca. Her lat­est project is a poet­ry cycle con­nect­ed to The Divine Com­e­dy. She is also col­lab­o­rat­ing with musi­cians to invent a new way of work­ing through sound together.