There’s a moment during my phone call with Jael Silliman when I stopped listening to what she was saying. It’s not that I had tuned out – far from it. It’s just that my head was filled with memories of the many drives back home through central Calcutta (now Kolkata) from Howrah Station that I took while I was growing up, and the sense of amazement I always felt when we passed by the synagogue. My thoughts as we drove past it were always on the same lines: We have a synagogue in Calcutta. Wow! Calcutta has a Jewish community. Wow! My hometown is the hometown of all sorts of people and so much of it is so pretty.
These memories were sparked by Silliman, a Baghdadi Jew from Calcutta, now an academic in the US, telling me why she wanted to write a novel set in Calcutta. “I felt nobody ever really understood what Calcutta was like,” she said. “I wanted people to take a different look at it. In the States, where I studied and worked, when I told people I was from Calcutta, they reacted as though it was the back of beyond. So I wanted people around the world and even from other parts of India to see it as it really was.” Silliman’s novel, The Man With Many Hats, is her first (though she’s written non-fiction before, including a book on Jewish women in India called Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope) and was inspired by her colourful childhood.