Essential Quality Of A Good Writer Is To Keep Writing: Esther David

Esther David, noted Ahmedabad based writer, artist and columnist shares her thoughts on writing and a career in the arts.

When Esther David agreed to an email interview, I was delighted. Though we wouldn’t be meeting face to face – I had met and interviewed her many times in Ahmedabad. I remember her trademark large red bindi and broad smile, her warmth and hospitality whenever I dropped in.

Esther dons many hats – apart from being a writer, she is an artist, sculptor, critic, columnist, and illustrator of her own books. In this interview, the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010, reminisces about her adventurous childhood, how an artist and art critic became a writer, Jewish culture and traditions, and her love for Ahmedabad.

The Sahitya Akademi Award winner has this advice for writers: “The essential quality of a good writer is to keep writing.”

Encounters With Animals 

Esther was born into a Bene Israel Jewish family in Ahmedabad on 17 March 1945. Her father, Reuben David, a wildlife conservationist, founded the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden near Kankaria lake in the city. Her mother, Sarah, was a school teacher.

For her it was amazing that her father fearlessly entered enclosures of lions and tigers. He even conducted an experiment in co-existence – his pet lion Montu started living in the same enclosure with Tommy, a dog. And, he would often join them! It was the same with the tiger Raju, an alsatian, a macaque, and her father, she says. She wrote ‘My Father’s Zoo’ as a tribute to her Tarzan-like father known as the “gentle animal keeper of Ahmedabad”.

Journey As An Artist  

After completing her schooling in Ahmedabad, Esther joined M.S. University in Vadodara studying fine arts and art history. “I feel art and literature have the ability to break barriers and have the power to touch upon the human condition. Art school gave me an exposure to arts, literature, cinema, music, dance and theatre. Even while I was at art school, I enjoyed writing papers on art history and art appreciation. Creativity is a room with many doors…” says Esther.

After graduating from M.S. University, she came back to Ahmedabad and started teaching sculpture, art history and art appreciation. She taught at Sheth Chimanlal Nagindas Fine Arts College, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT).

Exhibitions of Esther’s sculptures and drawings were held from 1968 to 1979 at Jehangir Art Gallery and Taj Art Gallery in Mumbai, and in 1992 at Gallery Bonvin in Paris. Collections of her sculptures are in India and abroad. She has been chairperson of the Gujarat State Lalit Kala Akademi. Esther is passionate about ‘untutored art’ practised in the underprivieged areas of Ahmedabad.

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How She Became A Writer  

Esther was in her 40s when she wrote her first novel. “Inside me, there was a sea of stories…My novels are my Jewish voice. I wanted to recreate my experience of being an Indian Jew through my novels. I was in search of a homeland, which I found within my novels. Through my novels, I wanted to understand my Jewish legacy,” explains Esther.

She says her parents were not religious, but later in life she felt the need to know about Judaism. She understands herself and her religion better through her novels, she elaborates.

Her very first novel ‘The Walled City’ received critical acclaim and was translated into French, Gujarati and Marathi. It remains her personal favourite till date.

One of her books, ‘By the Sabarmati’, is a collection of 22 stories based on the lives and aspirations of women.  Does she think of yourself as a feminist writer? “I believe women must have a voice of their own and create their own space in all areas of life. My message would be to continue being creative and develop an individual identity of your own,” says Esther.

Focus On Jewish Culture

Esther’s writings are mostly about Jewish culture and the life of the small, dwindling, close-knit Bene Israel community. “Being part of the Bene Israel Jewish community of western India, I tried to write about the problems faced by this mini-microscopic Jewish community in a vast multi-cultural country like India, as they try to preserve their Jewish identity and heritage,” she says.

She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2010 from the Government of India for ‘The Book of Rachel’. The novel is about the elderly who have been left behind in India by families which immigrated to Israel. Rachel makes it her mission in life to fight for the preservation of an ancient synagogue. She deals with her feelings of isolation by trying out an ancient recipe every day. Rachel is her favourite character from her books, says Esther.

Her other books are ‘Book of Esther’, ‘Shalom India Housing Society’, ‘The Man with the Enormous Wings’ and ‘Bombay Brides’. “The hardest book to write was ‘Book of Esther’, where I researched the lives of five generations of a Jewish family living in India and created the relevant characters, landscapes, details, rites, rituals, customs and narratives,” says Esther. The book is loosely based on her own family.

‘Book of Esther’ has been taught in the course of ‘Gender and Literature Post-colonial South Asia and beyond’, at the department of English, George Washington University in US.

Among the national and international writers who have influenced her the most, Esther names Rabindranath Tagore, Alexandre Dumas, R.K. Narayan (for the world of Malgudi), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie (‘Shame’), Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Margeurite Duras, Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Graham Greene, Laura Esquivel, Iravati Karve, Ismat Chugtai, Rohinton Mistry, and Arun Joshi (‘The Strange Case of Billy Biswas’). Some of her favourite authors have written about the loss of homeland, she says.

Ode to Jewish cuisine

‘Bene Appetit – The Cuisine of Indian Jews’ was published in 2021 by Harper Collins India. Esther received the National Jewish Book Award USA for this book.

“Traditional Indian Jewish food is a dying art, and I decided to transcribe these recipes from the kitchen to the page. In a quest to record the culinary practices, I journeyed across India chronicling culture, attire, festivals, rituals and traditional feasts. The book has a number of recipes of delectable dishes,” says Esther.

Love for Ahmedabad

In 2016, her book ‘Ahmedabad City with a Past’ came out. “What was earlier called the Walled City had bazaars with jingling bangles, the smell of new brooms, raw mangos, fresh vegetables, green mint, pink candy floss, carts with coloured bottles of ‘sherbet’, and pickles – all these lent a certain richness to life.”

Each and every part of the old city has a story or fable attached to it, she says. The pols, traditional housing clusters, are a special feature in the old city of Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad, a UNESCO World Heritage City, has a living heritage, even if it is a mega-city. It has the strong cultural heritage, which brings together the old and the new, like world famous architecture by Le Corbusier and Louise Kahn, and ‘havelis’. Yet, it still retains the essence of an overgrown village, says Esther.

Image credits Jaipur Literature Festival video from which this screengrab has been taken

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About the Author

Aruna Raghuram

I am a freelance journalist and write on parenting, personalities, women’s issues, environment, and other social causes. read more...

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