Between Shadow and Light ...
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
Between Shadow and Light: My roots in the Baghdadi Jewish community of Kolkata
I grew up in Westmount, Quebec, an affluent municipality within the City of Montreal. In those years, Westmount was an English-speaking, British-identified island in a province whose population was 80 percent French-speaking and viscerally anti-British. Of this last fact I was totally ignorant. One of my school textbooks in the early years opened with a list of the Kings and Queens of England, which we memorized. Like many or most of the Jewish children in Westmount, I attended schools run by the Protestant School Board, where we learned about the life of Jesus, mapped Paul’s travels, and sang Onward Christian Soldiers.
There was and still is a Jewish presence in Westmount, including two major synagogues, one Conservative/Orthodox and the other Reform. My high school, Westmount High, had a significant proportion of Jewish children but none of them had the same background as I did. There were a very few Sephardim but the overwhelming majority were Ashkenazi. The foods they ate, the gefilte fish and others, were never on the menu at home. And absolutely no one had a mother born in Alexandria, of parents from Georgia and Turkey and a father from the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. Apart from one of my two best friends, who is a glorious mix of Lithuanian Jewish, Japanese and Scottish, I think I identified mostly with my Anglo-Saxon Protestant friends. But as time went on, that identification became increasingly mis-aligned. I felt that I didn’t really fit in, anywhere. Despite my ever-present big smile, I was unhappy and didn’t know why.
After a wide-ranging path that took me to Papua New Guinea and to small-town Saskatchewan, life eventually led me back to my own backyard. I became interested in Jewish life and my Jewish identity in stages, including what became a kind of quest to know more about my father’s background. This was difficult because my father talked very little about his background. There was a sense that there was pain back there that he didn’t want to revisit; shadows, mystery, pain. Later on, when my sisters and I were older, we came to see that not only was Calcutta not talked about much, but also that there were things that had been deliberately kept from us. At the same time, a lot of the background may simply have been washed away in the tides of migration and immigration, the drive towards the light, the new, something fresh and free to offer one’s children.
Although my father didn’t talk much about his background in India, it was nonetheless a presence. There were stories, a few objects and a number of photos. It has been over three decades now that I have been searching out and accumulating additional bits and pieces, traces, letters, photos, in an attempt to fill out and make sense of what we had received. The work is not done, I am not finished. But I wanted to bring together what I have now, what I have gathered so far, to begin to share it with my children and my sister’s children and our grandchildren, once they are old enough to appreciate it. And also, thanks to Jael Silliman and this website, with others from the community and with whomever else may be interested.
A final note, about the moment in which I am writing. At 71, I am looking back over seven decades of life, both the paths my life has taken through the world and the inner journey that has been and is constantly unfolding in parallel. I have a certain maturity of perspective and the compassion that goes with it, bringing a richness to both the light and the shadows. And then: I have spent all of this past COVID-year living and working away from our home in Montreal: in San Antonio, Texas, and in Detroit, Michigan. The sense of where “home” is has become increasingly unclear and can more easily stretch to encompass that far-away but important part that was India. Further, this year has been marked by the murder of George Floyd and new public discourse about structural inequalities, implicit bias, and the power-over structures that have formed and deformed our societies. Looking back at my father’s background in Calcutta under the British Raj I am aware of the hierarchies, the class systems and caste systems that shaped my father, his father, the whole family, and the Westmount of my youth as well.
This exhibit brings together photos, letters and a few artefacts relating to my father’s family. Born into the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta in 1914, my father left there with his father and brother in 1933 to go to London, England to study medicine. In London, through an unlikely Calcutta connection, he met my Alexandria-born mother and moved with her to Winnipeg, Canada in 1948 to take up a position in a newly forming group of Jewish doctors there. Here are life-span collages of my father and mother.
My father was happy to leave England and its class system behind and he was pleased with his position in Winnipeg. However, leaving the London she loved for Winnipeg was too much of a disruption in terms both of climate and of culture for my mother. My two younger sisters and I were all born in Winnipeg: I in 1949, my sister Michelle in 1951 and Diana in 1955. But in early 1956, at my mother’s insistence, our family moved to Montreal where my sisters and I grew up.
We had no family in Montreal or anywhere in Canada. My father's cousin Ezra lived in New Rochelle, New York, and we visited back-and-forth on occasion during our childhoods. I remember being tremendously impressed by my "Uncle Ezra" who had acquired the technology to cut records! (although he was my father's cousin and technically not our uncle, we always called him Uncle Ezra.
Uncle Ezra recorded all of us. I seem to remember my cousin Sally Ann being recorded as she recited with feeling “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. But in these visits India was not mentioned, not that I remember, and Calcutta, India, were not on my radar screen. Although there is a Baghdadi Jewish community in Montreal, my father was not in touch with it. My mother was a free spirit, an actress, a photographer, a social worker, an artist, a writer. Religion did not interest her, in fact, for reasons I have delved into elsewhere, she had something of an aversion to religion generally and Judaism in particular. Not too surprisingly then, my own felt connection to Jewish life was minimal until my late 20s or early 30s, when I was suddenly overtaken with a desire to fill in the blanks. Really, to bring some life to the blank spot, the torn fabric that sat where my identity should have been. The material presented here mends many of the broken fibers ….
Of the different pieces I am presenting here, one stands out. This has to do with Ruby, my grandmother, my father’s mother. As children, my sisters and I knew that my father had been brought up by Aunt Seemah, whose name my youngest sister carries as her middle name. All three of us had the opportunity to meet Aunt Seemah in Jerusalem, where she had moved from London to end her days. We assumed that our grandmother Ruby, whose name our middle sister carries as her middle name, must have died when my father and his brother were very young. Only when we were young women in our 20s did a question from one of my sisters provoke the information that our grandmother Ruby had lived on much longer and that she had been institutionalized, in a mental institution. Although, as I mention in the final section below, I have recently been trying to find some information about this, we still don’t know why she was put away. The process of putting this material together has answered a few questions, while raising even more. Ruby, her life and her fate, remain a painful mystery.
About my father
Looking back over the ground covered by my father in his lifetime, and I in mine, I think of what our beloved Reconstructionist Rabbi Ron Aigen used to call the “Jewish Journey”, the ways in which we have moved towards or away from or within “Jewish“ along our life paths. It seems to me that for my ancestors, who came from Baghdad to Calcutta in the mid-1800s, ”journey” and “Jewish journey” were inseparable. “Jewish” was the environment, the air one breathed, the water in which one swam. The split, the move away from orthodoxy, came in my father’s generation: both my father and his brother separated themselves from the practices they had grown up with, each for his own reasons and in his own way. In my father’s case it was complex. I remember my father telling me once how unreasonable he found the Sabbath rules. That if he wanted to bring a handkerchief with him on Shabbat, he had to tie it around his wrist so as not to violate the rule against carrying.
I always had the impression that my father’s relationship to Judaism was intimately interwoven with his relationship with his own father, which was not the happiest. On some level, conscious or unconscious, did he blame his father for sending his mother away? We do know that my father yearned to be an engineer, to build things, to build bridges and other things. But his father insisted that he become a doctor. In this case however, the story had a happy ending as he told it, that one can be happy in more than one career.
If a traditional kind of patriarchy impeded my father’s choices early on, because of his father, the patriarchal model that was Empire and Colonialism also impacted him deeply, in ways I can only guess at. I remember my father telling me that when he was growing up, British was the top; that was where the power and authority lay, and that was what one aspired to. But he knew that as a Jew, there was no way he would ever be British. And on the other hand, the ferment of Indian independence was being felt. But there too, as a Jew, my father said he didn’t feel that this was his struggle. On another occasion he spoke of his determination, upon arrival in London, to get rid of his Indian accent, as though it were something to be ashamed of.
My father found firm ground as a rationalist, in line with the surge of Modernity, Enlightenment. He admired Winston Churchill. When I went to high school, Latin was being offered as a subject but I wasn’t allowed to study it. This is because Winston Churchill had shown how useless it was to learn to say “O Table!” My father liked to arrive at conclusions from first principles. His analysis was that the only good reason to study Latin was to learn the roots of English words. So he got some books to teach my sisters and me Greek and Latin root words in English. 100 days to a more powerful vocabulary and such books. It was fun! I used to have my father’s dictionary. I remember that on the flyleaf my father had written his name Ezra Gubbay, and then his street address, and then Calcutta and then India and then, I believe, Western Hemisphere and it went out to the universe. So that’s the context in which my father saw himself. He had that reach of spirit.
As an addendum, my sister Michelle brings a corrective to what I initially wrote about our father’s attitude to Churchill. She remembers the other side: that he critically cited Churchill’s infamous disdain of Gandhi as “a little man in a loincloth.” She also reminded me that he would say: in India, RICH meant Rob India Come Home.” Further, that he would complete the phrase “The sun never sets on the British Empire” with “and the wages never rise.” Michelle also remembers our father talking about Gandhi's campaign against the salt tax, and his march to the sea to get sea salt. In other words, while our father may not have felt that the struggle for Indian independence was his struggle, he was sympathetic; certainly he was not pro-Churchill all the way.
“We were Baghdadi Jews” he would say, spoken with some pride. There were also the Parsis, from Iran. And the Jews of Cochin. And also the Bene Israel. It seemed important to him to explain this to me.
Although he left it behind him in India, along with other baggage of different kinds no doubt, my father had had a good Jewish education. They didn’t study Talmud, he told me once. However it seems that his father, my grandfather, who must I suppose have been a Zionist, had found a tutor in modern Hebrew for his children. Despite my father’s agnosticism and his total lack of practice, his education, a clarity about his Jewish identity, and a fondness for things Jewish remained part of him. He also kept several of his prayer shawls. Here below is one, somewhere we have another, with his monogram embroidered in the corner. We also have a monogrammed Bible and several machzorim.
One touching story is of my father’s first meeting with a doctor colleague’s Israeli wife, Batia. His first words to her, spoken with some sense of awe, were “At medaberet lashon hakodesh”, You speak the holy tongue! And then later, when my husband Peter and I brought our newborn youngest son to meet his grandparents, who were waiting on the front steps of their home, my father instinctively reached out, put his hand on Joseph’s head, and pronounced the priestly blessing Yevarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha ….”. Or earlier when, at my high school graduation he wanted to give me a gift of money, and was stumbling to express to me the humility he felt; not that he thought himself so grand and powerful to be offering this. He made a fist and stretched his arm out, “It is not by my mighty hand and outstretched arm…!” I think my father was happy that I married a Jew, and that we eventually joined a synagogue, even though he himself had no use for such. Further, during the period when Peter and I were living in Israel, he would send us off after a Montreal visit with the words “derech Shalom”.
My own ongoing Jewish journey has been long and complex and this is not the place to trace it in detail. I would however like to mention a few key markers along that path. Like a number of other Jews of my generation, my reconnection with Judaism and Jewish life came through academic study. I had returned to school to do a Masters degree in Comparative Education, intending to focus my thesis on Papua New Guinea, where I had recently spent a year. One of the courses that I took centered in part on Montreal’s Jewish community, and made the distinction between the quite different cultures present in the Ashkenazi versus the Sephardi communities. Here for the first time it dawned on me that the alienation from Jewish life that I had felt growing up might have been due, at least in part, to the fact that my roots were so different from those of the Ashkenazim who were in the large majority among Jewish students in my school. Maybe I felt different because I was different; maybe there was a place for me in Jewish life after all! My change of thesis topic, from Papua New Guinea to the Jewish Public Library of Montreal, did not connect me with my Sephardic and Mizrahi roots but they did plunge me deeply into Montreal Jewish history and into the Jewish world more generally. This led to my determination to go and live in Israel, where I met my Swedish Jewish husband, Peter Helfer, and then to our return to Montreal, where we were blessed with three beautiful boys, now wonderful young men.
When our boys were still relatively young, I became dissatisfied with the level of my Jewish knowledge. I wanted to pass on something rich and meaningful in terms of Jewish heritage but felt inadequate to the task. So I set off on a pathway to a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. Along the way I met Dr. Jael Silliman. She had come to Montreal at the invitation of my thesis advisor, Dr. Norma Joseph, to talk about her then new book, Jewish Portraits Indian Frames. This was tremendously exciting for me! Almost unbelievable. Here I was encountering something other than the traditional Jewish Studies I was engaged with. The history and sociology I was learning had begun to fill in the blanks in my knowledge and give me a general map of Jewish history and heritage. But my studies did not in any way focus on my own particular background. Here, with Jael Silliman, was a living link to that small community that I was actually descended from!
Jael and I sat down for a chat and it was wonderful. I was of course avid for information about my family and in particular about Ruby Gubbay. “Oh,” she said, “you must contact Rabbi Musleah, he knows everyone!” So I did.
Although Rabbi Musleah could not enlighten me about my grandmother Ruby or her fate, he did most generously volunteer to draw me a family tree based on cemetery records. Here below is a scan of the original fax that Rabbi Musleah sent me at the time. This is followed by a chart that I have just now put together in order to display Rabbi Musleah’s information in a slightly tidier manner; my chart includes a bit of additional information.
It is again thanks to Jael Silliman, to the documentary movie in which she features Dwelling in Travelling and to the website she has created Recalling Jewish Calcutta, that I have been prompted to gather the images, letters and artefacts I have been ferreting out and squirreling away these many decades. I am happy and grateful that they are finding a home.
What I have gathered
We Used To …
Watching the documentary Dwelling in Travelling stimulated a flood of memories. The way that people from the Calcutta Jewish community speak, their intonations and even some turns of phrase, reminded me powerfully of my father. For example, different people, in talking about community life as they remember it, use the phrase “we used to…”. We used to go to Nahoum’s pastry shop, for example … But that was exactly how my father spoke! Same words, same intonation, all conjuring a lovely, nostalgia-tinged feeling of a happy lost world: “We used to get mangoes; and what mangoes! They were so juicy we had to eat them over the bathtub!” My father had a fondness for Indian sweets, though we didn’t have them very often. Gulab jamun he particularly favored. Hearing people in the documentary talk about Nahoum’s, the pastry store that my father surely went to, brought up an image of him as a young boy, delighting in the sweetness of a treat of some kind. Perhaps at the age he was in this picture, possibly after his mother had been separated from him, but before life began throwing many other challenges his way. The thought of that innocent pleasure brought tears to my eyes.
And there were other “we used-tos” associated with food. “We used to get this special cheese and it was braided!” I remember one time my father was overcome with the wish to have this cheese again. I think he did find something close to it in one of our markets. And then, “They used to bring the cow around, for our milk”. As a city girl born and bred, I have to say I find something comforting in knowing that I’m just one generation removed from being that close to a cow ... I also remember my father recounting with a kind of glee the ritual of kapparot on Yom Kippur. Someone would go out into the middle of the street and hold a chicken by its legs, twirl it around and shout kapparah! I remember a vivid burst of energy as he would tell the story. I do believe he must have told it a number of times because I seem to remember my mother chiming in for the punchline.
Watching the documentary provoked a string of memories about people from the Calcutta community who passed through our home in Montreal at one time or another. There were a few who came through once or even a few times. However, one person from that community is responsible for me being here at all, the woman who introduced my parents to each other, Nancy Nevinson, born Nancy Ezekiel. A second key person is not from the Jewish community but was from India. As I recount below, Sarala Sharma became almost a family member and kept India alive at home from 1966 when we met her until the end of her life, and then beyond, through my friendship with her daughter Rashmi. A third person, Sylvia David, became a kind of extended family member, for the years when she lived in Montreal and then after, when she returned to England.
Nancy Ezekiel Nevinson
Nancy Ezekiel was born in Chittagong, then part of India, now Bangladesh, on 26 July 1918, the youngest daughter of David Ezekiel and Reemah Kadoorie. Nancy had two sisters, Anna and Ray (Rachel), and a brother, Hugh. When Nancy was very young the family moved to Calcutta, though they retained their home in Chittagong. In the 1930s they came to London, where they lived at 1 Avenue Road. I remember my father telling me that the “Jewish boys” would gather there, I suppose for the sabbath and festivals.
The photo below may have been taken on Avenue Road, but this is not certain. What seems clear is that my grandfather Robin is standing there in the back row with his little moustache and goatee, and Nancy’s father is seated on the right, with his two-tone shoes. Nancy’s son Nigel speculates that the others in the photo might be from his grandmother’s side, the Kadoories.
Two of Nancy’s three children, Nigel and Jennifer (later Gen), both followed in their mother’s footsteps and became actors.
Nancy studied at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1937. There she met and became best friends with my mother, who was the youngest scholarship student to be admitted to that fabled institution – at age 15! At RADA Nancy was advised to adopt a non-Jewish stage name due to concerns about anti-semitism. She chose Nevinson in honor of the artist Christopher Nevinson, whom she admired.
Nancy and my mother were both crazy about the theatre. Nancy tells how the two would bring their stools and sit on the sidewalk waiting to get cheap tickets either up in the Gallery, or down in the Pit.
The beginnings of the friendship between Nancy and my father remain shrouded in mystery. Both left Calcutta for London, with their families, in the early 1930s. They could well have first met as young people in India, though my father was four years older than Nancy. It is clear that their friendship deepened after both had moved to London.
In 1945 circumstance brought both my father and Nancy back to India, my father on leave from the British 8th army (medical corps) in Italy and Nancy touring with John Gielgud and his company. It is my distinct impression that my father and Nancy met up at that period but I cannot be certain.
One thing that is clear is that among her responsibilities with Gielgud’s troupe, Nancy was to understudy Gertrude in Hamlet. Then suddenly Gertrude got sick and Nancy had to step in. So Nancy did play Gertrude, and did it well. Gielgud’s collected letters include one to his mother in which he says, “Fortunately the fuzzy-haired Jewess [Nancy Nevinson] who plays Mrs Bradman, is an excellent understudy and has already played Gertrude and Arcati admirably, only it’s a bore having to rehearse constantly.”
Gielgud goes on to epitomize in tone and content, contemporary British disdainful attitudes towards Indians, “The natives are idiotic, and everything is cold, late, badly organized and slovenly, and yet there is a certain leisureliness and decorative elegance about it that is not wholly unattractive.” O Empire.
Apparently my mother must have seen Eric with Nancy at some point and told her, “Oh Nan, I like him!” So Nancy introduced them.
The shidduch was a success ... My parents married in 1947, followed by a honeymoon in the English countryside.
In this photo, dedicated by my parents to Nancy, we see my grandfather Robin standing behind, looking, I must say, pleased, despite his clenched fist.
Nancy went on to have a long, rich career in theatre, starting in 1938 and extending until 2002. The story of Nancy’s life in theatre is beautifully told by her son Nigel Hoyes-Cock, in his charming memoir The Golden Age of Theatre: The life and times of actress Nancy Nevinson.
Although she wasn’t directly related, Nancy was always a close part of our family life. As my godmother, she would send me little cards remarking what a neglectful godmother she was to “my little goddaughter”.
This note, hastily written on the stationary of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal, where Peter and I were married, is one of the most touching among all that we received.
Nancy lived on until age 93, lucky to have found a place at the Glebelands Care Home in Wokingham, a beautiful home “for retired stars of the small and silver screen”. It was on an outing from Glebelands that she met Prince Charles.
Nancy's mother, Reemah Kadoorie Ezekiel
In 1969, age 20, I embarked on my first solo trip to Europe and then went on to Israel to meet Aunt Seemah for the first time. I stopped in London and stayed with Nigel at 37a Stormont Road. Although I didn’t see that much of her, Nancy’s mother Reemah Ezekiel, known as “Mrs. E”, or “Gran”, was nonetheless a wonderful presence. She was famous for leaving little notes everywhere, instructing her grandchildren to look after themselves, eat properly, dress warmly, and so on.
I remember one intimate moment when Gran spoke to me alone. She spoke softly but clearly. She told me that she had “had it all” … tennis and jewellery and fancy dresses, this is what I remember. And that having had all that, she was content now and didn’t need any more. This memory has stayed with me, something about it quite precious and inspiring.
And then the famous story: While I was there in 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts orbited the moon in a “dress rehearsal” for the first Moon landing. We were terribly excited about this and wanted to communicate the momentous information to Gran. I remember we repeated the information to her a couple of times as she didn’t really get what we were trying to tell her. When it did sink in, that we were proposing the preposterous idea that men were going around the moon she said, “Don’t be ridiculous! It’s far too small!!”
My parents would also go and visit in London, where my mother had many deep emotional ties, including her best friend Nancy as well as her sister Mary and brother Simon, and indeed all of London that she loved so much. My sister Michelle remembers us visiting as a family and how she was counselled to eat a piece of bread to quell the fire in her mouth after she tasted one of Mrs. E’s curries, which were famously hot. My mother adored the potatoes Mrs. E. would make. This is the recipe in Nancy’s handwriting.
The one person most responsible for maintaining India as an ongoing presence in our lives was not Jewish, nor was she from Calcutta. This was Sarala Sharma.
Sarala Sharma had come to Montreal to create and run the India National Pavilion at the World's Fair Expo ’67. She had brought a small troupe of dancers with her, to offer classical Indian dance performances at the pavilion, and she wanted to have a doctor available should one be needed. The India connection led her to my father, and to the start of what became an important friendship. Mrs. Sharma – we always called her Sarala – had been widowed early. Her husband had been politically active and had worked for Gandhi, including being imprisoned for ten years; he had then been an early member of the Constituent Assembly elected to draw up India’s first Constitution. Tragically, he died as a still-young man, of a heart attack. Sarala’s own parents and family had been deeply engaged with Gandhi and were close to Nehru; Sarala’s father had been in prison with Nehru and she herself was imprisoned as a student for her activities.
As a young wife and then a young widow Sarala became interested in the handiwork being produced by women in different regions of India. She was able to observe this as she travelled the country seeking to support the floods of refugees displaced by Partition. The expertise in the area of Indian crafts that Sarala developed, together with her drive and passion, her vivaciousness and natural diplomacy, made her a good choice for representing India abroad. This she did in 1956, representing India at the World Federation of United Nations Associations in Geneva, then in 1958 at both the Brussels World’s Fair and the Leipzig Trade Fair. In 1959 she joined the Indian government as Director of Development and Export of Handicrafts and the next year toured the United States at the invitation of that government. This was followed by her representing India at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and the Commonwealth Arts Festival in London in 1965.
That Sarala Sharma should be in charge of India’s presence at the Montreal World’s Fair was by then a given. She came to Montreal in 1966 together with her daughter Rashmi, who was about my age. I met Rashmi at McGill when she invited me to dress in a black leotard and tights in order to be part of a performance of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, that she was creating for a literature class we were both taking. Our meeting happened at almost the same time as my father was becoming a doctor for the India pavilion. It was a standing challenge in the family as to whether our parents or Rashmi and I were the first to get together.
Recently I was surprised to come across a couple of old snapshots showing Sarala together with my father’s brother Robin and also with Robin’s wife Betty, posing in front of the fireplace at my parents’ home. As my father and his brother spent many years enmeshed in fraternal friction, Robin and Betty were not frequent visitors to Montreal, not during the years they lived in London nor later, when they had retired back to Betty’s native Yorkshire. The degree to which Sarala was considered practically a family member, and the warmth of the relationship, show clearly in these pictures.
As Sarala became part of our family, India did too. She and my father would chatter together in Hindi around the dining room table, where Sarala’s place was assured. Likely they spoke of nothing much at all, but they loved to pretend that they were keeping secrets from the rest of us! As the cadences of Hindi wove their way into our inner landscapes, so too did something of the pride in the richness of Indian cultures that Sarala radiated so effortlessly.
As an Expo ’67 dignitary, Sarala lived in Habitat ’67, the innovative modular housing structure designed by Israeli/Canadian/American architect Moshe Safdie. Her two-level apartment there was a jewel, glittering with treasures.
Among the treasures , this large, striking painting by Bhupen Khakhar hung over Saralah's dining table. The image worked its way into my inner world, and those hands became a motif in my own artwork.
Here is Sarala with my mother and my sister Diana at Sarala’s place; a portrait by artist Eva Prager hangs behind them.
When eventually the installations that had been part of Expo 67 and then Man and His World had to be taken down, we inherited some lovely bits and pieces that had decorated the Pavilion: two papier mâché masks and two paintings, reproductions of traditional tantric art. These pieces too wove themselves into the texture of our environment, became part of who we were, we are.
The household/protector god Ganesh, remover of obstacles, had a special role; we would speak of him as of a friend or someone familiar. The papier mâché Ganesh mask lived happily with our mother, on the balcony of the apartment she moved to after my father died and she sold the family home. Since then and until today, Ganesh, ever resilient, welcomes visitors to my sister Diana’s home. My sisters and I received small glass Ganesh statues from Sarala at one point.
As well, my parents gave me a beautiful bronze statue of Ganesh with Lakshmi (?) seated on his lap as an engagement present, and this statue has been a concrete part of our own hearth and home ever since. And these are just a few examples of the cultural riches Sarala left in her wake or gifted us with.
One outstanding moment occurred in the living room of my parents’ home. It was afternoon and the sun was slanting in, glinting off the golden borders woven into the series of beautiful silk shawls fanned out across the floor. They had been laid out, one more gorgeous than the other, by Mr. Panikkar (spelling? Title?), who had come calling to express his gratitude to my father for ministering to the personnel of the Pavilion. After setting out this treasure trove of fabrics for the women of the family, my mother and three sisters, Mr. Panikkar paused. And now, he said, pulling out a completely unadorned, feather-light, gentle-brown shawl, here is my most precious gift. So fine you can pull it through a wedding ring, this is a pashmina shawl. Jackie Kennedy has one; this one is for you.
Though Sarala Sharma was very much part of our lives for decades, I have come to realize that there is still much more for me to discover about this modest, gifted, unusual woman, at another time.
One person from the community who became a presence in our lives for many years was Sylvia David. She had moved from India to London, England, I am not sure when. For some time, some years, Sylvia lived in Montreal. She was very much part of our lives as young girls. She had a little Austin (Morris) mini car and would sometimes take us for drives. I remember one time we were coming back to the city. It was nighttime and dark. In the middle distance we could see Montreal’s iconic Mount Royal, with Saint Joseph’s oratory on top. Sylvia asked us “Can anybody see a pin cushion, a jewelled pin cushion?” She was delighted to be drawing our attention to the beautiful “jewelled pincushion” that was Mount Royal. I can feel her presence, her thick dark short-cut curly hair, the silky moisturized brown skin of her cheek as I look sideways at her. I hear the way her mouth puckers and her tongue clucks against the roof of her mouth; there are traces of song in her voice, maybe Indian song.
Another memory was from much later. Sylvia was again living in England and for some reason came to visit in Montreal. This had to do with my father’s silk tallit, that he had brought with him from Calcutta. By this time I was committed to Jewish life and liked to wear the tallit to our Reconstructionist synagogue. But it had a little spot, or it was a little dingy. Sylvia in her inimitable way claimed to know just the thing to fix it! It was some kind of special crystals that we proceeded to go to the store, that we triumphantly actually found, and then bought. Sylvia treated the tallit with the crystals. The first time was not so very successful, so she did it again. With each treatment the tallit got a little yellower so by the end instead of being improved it was the opposite! I still feel a little twinge when I think of it.
After she had left Montreal and returned to London to live, Sylvia used to send us care packages. Very British things. Horlicks, which she swore by. I believe there were also oat cakes and perhaps fruit cakes. I think we girls meant a lot to her. She wanted to maintain the connection and continue to be a source of good things in our lives.
In 2003 I wrote to Sylvia in London, hoping she might have memories, details to share about the Calcutta community generally and in particular about my father and the family. She wrote back in a letter dated January 29, 2003. In the letter Sylvia explains that she spent 9 months of each year at an English public school that was founded by an “English Tea Planter, Col. Dow”. She says that the school was beautiful and had “its own complete hill.” However, during the time she spent in Calcutta, she saw mostly or only her parents and their friends; many of her school friends lived in other parts of India.
In her letter, Sylvia speaks of my father’s two aunts, Sally and Seemah. She says how impressed she was with Aunt Sal and she mentions Aunt Sal’s brother Uncle Eze as a wealthy man. But Sylvia does not mention Sally and Eze’s sister, Seemah’s cousin, my grandmother Ruby. Likely Ruby had already been sent away by the time Sylvia was born as Sylvia was a few years younger than my father.
Growing up, my sisters and I knew that my father had been brought up not by his mother but by “Aunt Seemah”. Aunt Seemah was always spoken of with great affection, almost reverence. She moved from Calcutta to London and then, towards the end of her life, to Israel, where my sisters and I were all able to visit her. I only wish in my case that I had had the perspective then that I have today, rather than that of a self-centered 20-year-old …
My visit to Aunt Seemah was the farthest point of my first solo Europe trip in 1969, the one that started off for me in London, staying with Reemah Ezekiel on Avenue Road. The trip to Israel was altogether a great adventure, including a kibbutz stay, a desert jeep outing, and meeting with relatives on my mother’s side of the family. It was all very romantic for me, naïve and non-politicized as I was. Unlike many young Jews in that period I was not really tuned in, neither to the existential threat so many felt at the onset of the Six-Day War, nor to the pride and exaltation experienced at the victory. I was a dreamer, in worlds of my own, captivated by the look and feel of things but disconnected from their political meanings. I do remember though standing on a railway platform. A woman with a tanned, sand-dusted face, wearing a patterned triangular cloth head scarf tied in a knot at the back. She approached and spoke to me. She asked how long I was staying and said, “Come. Come live here. Have children. We need soldiers.”
During my brief stay in London, Aunty Mary, my mother’s sister, gave me Aunt Seemah’s silver teapots to bring to her in Israel. I suppose that when Aunt Seemah moved to Israel, presumably some time after Statehood was declared, it makes sense that she would have left her teapots behind, though I don’t know how they ended up with Aunty Mary. More than this, I shall never know what else Aunt Seemah left behind, material or immaterial ...
So it was that I arrived in Israel, my first time, at night, hanging on to a navy blue string bag with Aunt Seemah’s teapots in it. I had planned to stay at the Y but apparently it was full, no room. Someone on the bus said they knew somewhere, a hostel in Jerusalem, and I could come along. Dreamlike images float back: shepherds’ huts glowing white in the deep night on the road from Lod. Walking through Jerusalem’s Old City, the streets dark. Cats. One black-robed figure flits to the side of the narrow street, across those ancient wide paving stones. The sharp spout of a silver teapot scratching my calf, my sandals becoming uncomfortable. We arrive at the hostel, just inside the Damascus Gate. There is no room for me there either. The dormitories are segregated and the women’s one is full. But if I like, I can sleep on the roof. What a gift. My first night and then first morning in Jerusalem. Lying there alone on a cot on the roof, watching the stars slowly fade as light begins to seep into the night sky, pale yellow and peach at the horizon. And then the muezzin’s call to prayer. Haunting, enchanting, perfect.
There are two moments I remember from my visit to Aunt Seemah. It doesn’t really make sense but my memory of where she lived is of a kind of cave-like room. It wasn’t dark, there were windows, illumination. No tables or chairs that I can remember, though there probably were at least chairs. I remember a continuous shelf-like structure all around the room, the edges of this “shelf” rounded as though the whole thing was made of clay.
Aunt Seemah and I must have talked, likely at some length. I suspect that, rather than ask the 1001 questions I would have, had I been able to meet her today, I dominated the conversation with a monologue about me, myself and I. And my 20-year-old angst. I suspect this because one of my two memories is that Aunt Seemah counseled me against becoming subject to “brain worry”!
My other memory is both acutely embarrassing and telling. The minimal Jewish education I had had at that point was from the Reform synagogue my parents had joined, presumably in an effort to retain a connection with Judaism and Jewish life but not to revert to what they saw as outmoded customs. If the Reform movement in those years had moved on from the infamous “Trefa Banquet” of 1883, at which shrimp and other shellfish were served, it was still common practice in the movement to regard the laws of kashrut as outmoded and unnecessary for those who upheld the tenets of “Ethical monotheism”. Certainly no one had taught me that there was even such a thing as kashrut, much less the laws to be observed.
Aunt Seemah must have served tea. With milk. Possibly some sweets that included dairy products. The good girl that I was and am wanted to be helpful and took our dirty dishes over to the dish washing area. My memory is that Aunt Seemah gasped and her skin turned a kind of greenish color. I suppose I must have laid down our tea dishes in the area reserved for meat plates. Nonetheless, along with my embarrassment, I remember Aunt Seemah’s graciousness. My memory is that she recovered almost at once, murmuring something about the no doubt legitimate reasons for the ignorance of her almost-granddaughter.
It never occurred to me to think of Aunt Seemah as an almost-grandmother. But then such a thought was never mentioned much less encouraged. There was always a great distance. Actually the paradox of great closeness and great distance.
Who was Aunt Seemah? It is only now in putting these photos and memories together that I ask myself that question, even begin to consider that this was a woman with a life. And more: this is the woman who would have soothed my father’s tears, would have encouraged and advised him, been “like a mother” to him and his brother. A lovely woman who certainly could have married and had a family of her own, but who chose to stand by her brother and to raise his children. This collage of photos shows her first in 1928 when she would have been likely in her mid-thirties, in India; then several views of her presumably visiting in London, in different poses, all charming, all gracious. There is one of her in London with her brother, my grandfather Robin, sitting in a garden swing; she might be in her 50s there. And then that last grey-haired photo where she would likely have been in her 60s or early 70s, my age now. Where was it taken? Certainly it shows her radiating a lovely gentle warmth, spirituality perhaps, something she had retained all through the challenging changes of her life.
A surprising new source of information turned up in a totally unexpected way in 1994, the year my father died. My sister Michelle in Los Angeles was returning some books to the Jewish Library there when the librarian stopped short. I know you! she said. Oh no, my sister answered, I don’t think so, it must be another Gubbay … But the woman insisted. Really, I have seen your photo, yours and those of your sisters!
So it was that we came to know that some first cousins of my father’s were living in Los Angeles. With my father now gone, this news came as a beautiful gift and I was tremendously excited. I was eventually led to Abraham, “the family historian,” brother to Sally, the librarian Michelle had met. Abraham explained that he and his two siblings are the children of Nissim Ezra, the youngest of seven siblings of whom my grandfather Robin was the middle one. (see chart) Further, that Nissim had shared a home with his older, unmarried sister Sally. In her will, Sally stipulated that if Nissim married a Jewish girl he would get a monthly pension from her savings. So it was that in 1952, at age 56, Nissim married his cousin Seema Levi, then 25 years old, and proceeded to have three children. As Abraham’s letter states, the family moved from Calcutta to Israel, where they experienced a kind of culture shock. After a time, for reasons I’d love to know more about, they moved on to Los Angeles.
It is thanks to Abraham that we received this stunning portrait of our grandmother Ruby, his aunt. Although Abraham had never met Ruby, he had heard wonderful things about her, her sweetness and lovely character. He kept and perhaps still keeps this photo on his dresser.
In addition, the letter Abraham wrote me is a precious source. Though not terribly extensive, it is alive and real, a living witness. I regret that Abraham and I have lost touch as I have more questions to ask …
In the late 1990s my husband Peter and I had the opportunity to meet Abraham and also Sally and her family in Los Angeles. We were given a warm welcome and a family friend, Ruth, had also been invited. Ruth was another precious, living witness. She had known my grandfather Robin, whom I had always thought of as a rather rigid and not very warm person because of how my father spoke of him. But Ruth loved my grandfather and spoke of him with tremendous affection. Apparently my grandfather would stop and stay with her and her family on the Sabbath if he was on his way somewhere. After Peter and I had returned to Montreal, Ruth wrote to me.
Along with her letter, Ruth enclosed a letter that grandfather Robin had written to her almost 50 years previous, and that she had treasured ever since. It reads:
My darling Ruth,
Your lovely card arrived with the gift of one dollar for the aged Home received and evoked my goodwill to bless you for the New Year. Sweet to the sweet and God’s sweets to you. I have not sent out cards this year so please accept this with the best of good will and as the messenger carrying ??? blessings to your home for the new year.
I am here for Rosh Hashana & Kippur & am keeping much better thank God. I do not think the doctor is going to allow me to fast as I have heard today. Thank God for this day. May God bless you with a peaceful old age free of all care or pain. You have delighted me with your card and gift. May God send you His delights ?along with? this letter. In short my heart is full aflame for you. Some people here are so kindly disposed and helpful. Address all letters to 2 Hanger Court London W5. This letter may reach you a little late but all the month of Tishrei is a month of greeting.
Hope to hear from you soon loving to know that I am in your mind.
God bless you both like He blessed Abraham & Sarah
Which image of my grandfather is correct? The benevolent philanthropist or the strict, distant father?
In 2005 my second cousin Joe Gubbay, son of my father’s cousin Ezra, took his family on a roots trip to India and brought back what might be considered a bit of evidence in this area. Joe and his family had an amazing visit and brought back gorgeous photos. Joe was kind enough to photograph this memorial stone dedicated to my grandfather. I love its quiet meditative feel and keep a copy of it on my desk, though I wonder what steps might be taken to restore it. This stone is again evidence of my grandfather’s philanthropy and kindness. As a side note, Peter and I did not think about the fact that there were Josephs on my father’s side of the family when we gave our youngest son this name.
We were reminded charmingly of this when Uncle Ezra wrote to our Joseph sending his regrets at not being able to attend his bar mitzvah, but expressing how important the name “Joseph” was to him.
In addition to the photo I treasure of my grandfather’s memorial stone, Joe Gubbay is the source of another small treasure, a movie. This scratchy old movie, the last part in color, has been spliced together. It seems that Uncle Ezra’s fascination and competence with new technologies extended to early movies. The movie shows my father and Joe’s father, my “Uncle Ezra” and also Miriam, Ezra’s wife. This photo, labelled on the back "Ezra Gubbay and Miriam Gubbay taken 1946 Calcutta" gives a date.
And then: who is the marvellous old woman in the movie, walking up and puffing away on her cigarette? Surely it is my father's and his cousin’s grandmother! Though in happier mood here, with her far flung grandsons close by, she certainly does look like the sad woman in this photo from India. If indeed her daughter Ruby was taken away to institution, she would have had good reason to be sad ...
Why didn’t I meet Grandfather Robin? I have a beautiful photo somewhere, taken in London, of my older cousin Penny, my mother’s sister’s daughter, holding hands with me on one side and my cousin Sandra on the other. Sandra and I look to be 4 or 5 years old there. I also have a lovely memory, the only, brief memory I have of having met any of my grandparents. I remember my mother’s father, Grandpa Albert, picking me up till I could see the top of his wooden armoire, where he kept a box of chocolates!
But if all this is true, then Grandfather Robin Gubbay would have still been alive and living there in London when we visited. Here he is with my cousins, his two grandsons, in 1954. Why was I not taken to meet him? If he was away, why did my parents not arrange our trip for a time when he was there? Surely he would have wanted to meet his little granddaughters? And if not, what was the problem between my father and his own father? On the other hand, I suppose it is possible that I was taken to meet him and that I simply don’t remember.
David David, Felicia Jacobs, Cold Calls, Books, Bunny Jacob
Apart from the few people who kept India and the Calcutta Jewish community present in our lives growing up, there were small things. Occasionally someone from the community would pass through Montreal and come by to see us.
As well, there were the books that would arrive. Esmond Ezra’s impressive big volumes, Turning Back the Pages, gave me the idea to write to him. The kind letters he wrote back to me on October 26 and November 28, 2003, gave me some additional pieces of information and were one more living connection; I am sorry that I was not able to take up his invitation to visit him in London.
I do not have all the names at the moment but, in addition to Turning Back the Pages there were quite a number of additional books that were sent to my father. There were other histories of the Calcutta Jews, including On the Banks of the Ganga, by Rabbi Musleah, who had made the family tree for me, and also cookbooks. All of this contributed to some kind of confirmation of a certain Calcutta Jewish identity, though in the absence of a community this identity remained insubstantial.
Sally Gubbay, Nissim, Hagop Goudsouzian
From time to time through the years people would call us. Newly arrived and looking through the phone book for Gubbays, they wanted to know if we were related. I cannot remember a case of finding family that way, though I do remember one individual who should have connected but didn’t. When I was 22 or 23 and living in my first apartment, someone saw S. Gubbay on my mailbox and rang my bell. A guy called Nissim was visiting his friend Jack, who lived in the building and was keen to find out if I was the Sally Gubbay he had known in Calcutta. I very much regret that at that time I had no idea that Sally Gubbay was my father’s first cousin, so I told Nissim I had never heard of her. Nonetheless, in the process of writing this memoir I came to think of that incident and remembered the friend who had been with Nissim and his name came to me. Jack, now Hagop, Goudsouzian is a wonderful filmmaker and, although Nissim has disappeared from memory, Hagop and I have reconnected, almost 50 years later.
David hey David!
Apparently David David had not been a brilliant student. He liked to ride his bicycle through the streets of Calcutta with his clothes flapping. My father would talk about him sometimes, always fondly: “We used to call him David, hey David!” And then one day, miraculously, David-hey-David turned up in Montreal. He had an unfailingly sunny presence. David David had become a teacher and had landed a job in Val-d’Or, in northern Quebec, of all places. From Calcutta to Val-d’Or! As long as he kept that job, he would come through our place regularly and talk to us. After a long exposition he would pause and say in his warm, singsong voice “Right or wrong? I’m usually wrong…”
There was a woman called, I think, Felicia Jacob, who came through at least once. All I remember was that she had dark curly hair and a distinctive mole or beauty mark on her face and that she was a nice lady who was friendly with my father.
One unusual connection was made after my father died. Out of the blue I received a note from an André Gubbay. Written upon learning of my mother's death, he offers his condolences. He then details his own origins from Calcutta to New Caledonia, Australia, and finally the small town of St-Jean-Port-Joli on the St. Lawrence River. His letter was written in French, translation here. André Gubbay and I corresponded with yearly greeting cards for a number of years; his were always charming and I loved receiving them. We did manage to meet once, at Trudeau airport in Montreal. André Gubbay was on his way to visit his brother and had a couple of hours between flights. He regaled me with accounts of his brother’s place in New Caledonia, how beautiful it was and what wonderful, long, meditative walks he would take along the beach there every day. I remember that André Gubbay wore a cowboy hat and that the waitress flirted with him, calling him "mon cowboy" (my cowboy)! Such an unlikely moment and a delightful one.
Whenever people from the Calcutta community came through, or when a new book arrived, there was a certain feeling of warmth, interest, excitement, a little buzz between my parents. I remember the same kind of feeling one time when they returned from a trip to London. There was a kind of electricity as my father spoke of having met Bunny Jacob there. I remember my parents saying that Bunny Jacob was involved in music and conducting. The name B.N. Elias was spoken energetically. I didn’t know what I was hearing (what is Bean Elias?) until watching Dwelling in Travelling, where I was able to make the connection with the famous Calcutta company. This charming wedding photo is from Wikipedia.
My Passage through India in 1976
The first years of my working life were spent in the area of natural resources and environment policies. In 1975 I got a job at the University of Papua New Guinea as assistant to the convenor of that year’s Waigani Seminar on The Melanesian Environment. I spent a wonderful year in Port Moresby, a year full of challenge and discovery. My plane ticket was an around-the-world package with the option of making a number of stops on the way. One of my stops on the way back to Montreal was in India, where I stayed for about three weeks. A good part of the time I was roaming around. I remember the magic of the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, huge aluminum mirrors reflecting light in onto breathtaking works of sacred art. The Red Fort; the Taj Mahal. I have one memory of having wandered into a village square, wearing the burnt orange diagonally-paneled seersucker skirt I had sewed for myself back home. In my mind’s eye I see a big tree with overhanging branches in the middle of the area. What I remember is the ridiculous idea that I had in my mind at the time, that I was invisible, that I could quietly go anywhere at all and not be noticed. Ridiculous because I was taller than anyone in that square and must have stood out like a beacon. I also remember a train station, an immense, monochrome, soot-tinged space. On the far platform sprawling families were spread around mountains of lumpy sacks of goods and chattels and also animals, chickens maybe, a goat. I remember the wicket gridded with parallel black metal bars where I went to buy my ticket. An immense ledger book, very wide across, with ruled ledger lines, onto which the clerk carefully wrote by hand in black ink.
These wanderings I did on my own but I was also received, in Calcutta and I think in Delhi too, by family friends. I cannot remember the names. There was also Timmy, who had been a close friend of my father and, like him, a doctor. Timmy was married to someone whose name I only remember as The Colonel and they invited me to visit them in the hills, in Dehradun. I remember taking the bus up a twisting mountain road; around one bend looking down on a little town square bursting bright with marigolds, deep valley below. I also visited Timmy’s daughter in Bombay. Sunita was a beautiful, warm woman who impressed me very much; she and her husband took me I remember to a nightclub.
But in terms of my own family connections, it was my stay in Calcutta that meant the most. The woman I was staying with took me to the impressive Magen David synagogue. I also remember a narrow street with workshops where I went and had a lovely silk shirt made as well as a pair of beautiful tan-colored suede boots, that I most unfortunately sprayed green ink all over in Kathmandu while trying to fill a new fountain pen. The idea that one could have clothing like this tailor-made astonished and delighted me.
It seems to me now that I was likely staying close to where my father had lived, at 2 Robinson Street. Likely, because I remember walking to and through weathered stone monuments in the mysterious, overgrown, Park Street cemetery, which Google Maps tells me is close by there. Also close to Robinson Street is St. Xavier’s, where my father went to school. It is perhaps my most precious memory of India, walking over there. I remember approaching the school and seeing a very big courtyard with no shade whatsoever. There was a sundial in the middle. Around the edges, a deep veranda. I remember walking in and finding an old priest sitting alone, shaded under the veranda’s roof. As I see him in my mind’s eye, he was dressed all in white. The whole scene was washed in white, the big bare courtyard under the high sun. I went up to the priest and spoke of my father and his brother. And the old priest said “Yes, I remember the Gubbay boys”. This is my memory. It is precious to me as one living link between the real me, my real life, and that distant world in which my father was born and was shaped.
My presentation at Dorshei Emet
One step along the path of my search for myself through my Calcutta roots came with the final course I took as part of Concordia University’s Bachelor of Fine Arts/Studio Arts degree program. I started and finished this program during the years I was doing my PhD in Jewish Studies at Concordia, the PhD itself being driven by a quest for identity. The last course in the BFA was one in digital art and I chose to focus all my assignments on my father. I made a large rice paper print based on a super-enlarged scan of the fringes of my father’s tallis, laid over an image of the Andromeda galaxy.
In addition I created a couple of photo collages based on scans of a photo of my father in army uniform in Calcutta, with Andromeda glowing behind the small windows. For our end-of-term show, I also printed on rice paper parts of Rabbi Musleah’s family tree, as well as a drawing I had done of our oldest son Ariel when he was a baby. Here above are the prints as displayed at my synagogue in 2019. For the synagogue display I further printed a number of the letters referenced in this memoir, of which one can be seen in the middle here.
Here is the context: In 2019 the Reconstructionist synagogue I belong to in Montreal, Dorshei Emet, had created a “Kabbalat Shabbat Around the World” series with the support of the local Jewish Community Foundation. The series started in Quebec, featuring French Canadian pea soup and Quebecois musicians. It moved on to Ethiopia. After that there was a Mimouna celebration with Sephardic caftans, live Moroccan music and a belly dance show. The Kabbalat Shabbat Mizrachi also featured a belly dancing troupe; the traditions of Greek Jews event served spanakopita, tzatziki, ouzo and more along with a Greek folkloric dance troupe and bouzouki players. A tango show followed the Kabbalat Shabbat Con Sabor Latino; the Romanian shabbat had musicians and “fabulous entertainment” and the British Isles had pipers and highland dancers. Then it was India’s turn, and I was invited. The big draws were to be a Bollywood dancer, henna tattoos, samosas and an Indian sweet table. The program director asked me if I could give a little presentation, max 10 minutes, after services in the sanctuary and before the food and entertainment. I asked whether I could also place a little installation in the social hall, where dinner and entertainment would be happening. It was agreed and I did. The installation was up for a short time, as people were eating, and I was able to say a few words just before the meal began. But when the Bollywood dancer was going to come on, I had to take my installation down. Not star billing for me perhaps, but I think those who saw the installation enjoyed it and for me, it was a big thing. Even more special as it just so happened that the date was May 24, my father’s birthday.
I dressed up in the caftan I had sewn from a beautiful sari that Sarala Sharma had given me and wore a lovely rhinestone and ruby necklace inherited from Aunt Seemah. In addition to the rice paper tallis collage and the end-of-year-show prints from Concordia, I had put together display boards that included a number of the photos shown in this memoir.
Hastily photographed at the time, the slide show below shows Board one; Board two; Board three. I also included a copy of an acrylic painting I had done many years before, that featured the papier mâché mask inherited from Sarala Sharma’s Expo ’67 India pavilion (other elements include a hand holding the ivory-handled hunting knife my mother inherited from her father, and that she used regularly in the kitchen for odd tasks).
One beautiful element that was part of this exhibit is a series of photographs of wedding sarees. I still have the box, on which it is written “Two sarees” (in whose handwriting?). The fabric is beautiful. I think of them as wedding sarees because that is what my mother called them. She even had the idea that I should wear one for my own wedding and dressed me up to try it out. Fortunately or unfortunately, her good friend Miriam Berger absolutely forbade her and she dropped the idea.
It has been and is enlightening for me to bring together the materials gathered here, to remember and reflect and so to nourish memory and identity. But even as there has been new light shed, shadows remain, the biggest among them being the mystery of our grandmother Ruby.
As I mentioned in the Introduction, my sisters and I heard nothing about our grandmother growing up. We assumed she must have died when our father was very young. There were a couple of old photos in our parents’ albums; I don’t remember ever looking at them while our parents were alive: a formal wedding photo and one of Ruby holding her two young boys, my father and his brother. But the story does not end there. Further information about our grandmother has come, but has come in what I would have to describe as a series of shocking surprises.
It must be at least 40 years ago now that my younger sister asked our mother about our grandmother. This was when our mother revealed that Ruby had not died in the early 1920s, that she had lived on for another two decades, almost into our own lifetimes.
The next piece came some fifteen years later from Cousin Abraham, for whom his Aunt Ruby was and is a very special being. From Abraham came this amazing portrait of a young Ruby, her enigmatic gaze looking out from under her elaborate Victorian hat and dress. From Abraham too came the information that Ruby had been sent to the asylum at Ranchi.
Another decade, and my sisters and I were sorting through my mother’s books and papers after she died. I picked this up, a plain brown envelope addressed to Uncle Ezra. And this is what I found: an old, worm-eaten copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And inside, Ruby’s own hand signing her book, dated 1906. She was 17. The original artefact is not clearer than the image here, which is frustrating, as there are other intriguing inscriptions. In the upper right of that inside cover, something almost unreadable; looks like the beginning may say “A love of truths …” and there seems to be a date but I can’t read it. Then on that page, clearly, 60 years after his mother signed the book, my father signed “Eric Gubbay, 11 Nov 1966” and wrote: “Ruby Gubbay, mother of Eric and Robin Gubbay. Sally – the sister of Ruby.” Almost as though my father wanted to keep the record clear for posterity. And then on the Title Page at the top, the signature seems pretty clearly to read Ezra Gubbay, then T ??? and then the date, that looks like 1934. Who is this and why did he sign?
So many questions surround that little book. Who sent it to Uncle Ezra, in that envelope? The month on the postmark, or maybe it’s the day of the month, seems clear, “04” . But the year is gone.
It was in the process of preparing my presentation for Dorshei Emet that I took the time to look closely at the different bits and pieces I had been accumulating over the years and was struck by a letter my father had written to his Uncle Nissim, Cousin Abraham’s father, on hearing of the death of Aunt Sal. It is an extraordinary letter. Transcription is below.
6 February 1952
952 Dorchester Avenue
My darling uncle Nissim,
It was a shock to hear from my brother of the passing away of our beloved and Aunt Sal – may God rest her soul.
Great distances separate us and so we lose touch with one another – but in this sorrow our hearts come together and memories crowd in. The days gone by – and they seem long ago now – when Abraham and I as children used to visit Grandmother on the Feast Days and the family was gathered together except for my mother. So many memories of Uncle Eze and Aunt Sal and you and us boys. And the most recent memories of Sudder Street when Aunt Sal and you gave me great welcome as I came to you, a soldier in the Army.
It is always in times like this that we ask ourselves "What does it all mean?" "What is the scheme of things?" There is no answer except in faith and religion. The seed of life is handed on and that is all that we can see. The sons of my brother and my two daughters carry the qualities of my mother's family. God bless them all.
I wish you long life and health. Aline and the children greet you with a kiss.
I am touched in reading this letter by its poetry and soul. I encourage you to read it, slowly. In addition, I was struck when I first read the letter by this: “the family was gathered … except for my mother.” This means that even though he never talked to us children about his mother, she was still very much with him in 1952. This struck me because my assumption had been, somehow, that if our father didn’t talk about his mother, he had somehow forgotten about her. Clearly he had not; he remembered her and he remembered her absence. Further, he makes a point of saying that “the seed of life is handed on” and that his children “carry the qualities of my mother’s family. God bless them all.” I do wonder what he meant. Which qualities might he have had in mind? Were there unspoken understandings there, between my father and Nissim?
And now, in the process of looking more closely at the documents I have accumulated, I have taken a closer look at the back of the postcard my father wrote in 1933 to Aunt Sally. Until now I had always been completely taken with the front of the card…. And indeed, it is striking. Among other things, the stratification: two high-riders on camels: my broadly-grinning 19-year-old father and … who is that? Do I recognize my grandfather’s distinctive moustache and goatee? Where is brother Abraham? And the lower levels, presumably the Egyptian guides: why does one get a donkey? Is that one wearing a beret?
But now I have turned my attention to the back of the card, the message, see the second slide in the slideshow above. The greeting is to “My dear Sally,” addressed to “Mrs. J. E. Gubbay at 12 Alipore Road.” Then: What does this say? “hope all of you are well. You will get all news from today’s letter to …” It looks like the next word could be “Matty,” but I have come across no reference to a person by that name. And this would have to be someone very close. Might that word be, “Mother?” And if so, what are the implications? It is also meaningful to me that my father at age 19 speaks of a “royal Pasha” … He continued to use the word “pasha” when he wanted to speak of luxury and ease. We even called one of our cats at home growing up Pasha.
There is a very small photo, maybe 2" x 3". On the back is written: “This only copy available gathering at Uncle Sol’s house 17 Alipore Road. About 25 years ago. With love from Dad. 1.12.1947.” Twenty-five years ago would mean the photo was taken in 1922. My father is there, smiling, seated, wearing long pants unlike the boy beside him, still in short pants. In 1922 my father would have been 8 years old. He could be 8 here, maybe 9? And who is the woman right beside him if not his mother, Ruby? Her gentle, round face, distinctive eyebrows, hair pulled to one side. More mysteries! The inscription “only copy available” suggests that perhaps my father would have asked his father for such a picture, that would have included his mother. Is this what happened? Here Ruby would have been 33 or 34. Meaning she would have had her first child age 24 or 25. Was that not late for a woman in those days? But most of all, IS that Ruby? If so, what are the implications?
A final piece, for now. Watching the documentary “Dwelling in Traveling” stimulated a flood of memories. After watching I sat down on Sunday, October 11, 2020 and wrote 5 dense pages of notes. In the middle of that process, I decided to do a bit of research. Since I had had the name “Asylum at Ranchi” from cousin Abraham in 1996, I had periodically searched the Internet for information but to no avail. But now it occurred to me that this might have changed, with so much more information becoming available online from day to day, it might be worth another look. My notes say,
And sure enough there are several references [to the asylum at Ranchi] and they are fascinating. I almost got lost trying to track down some references… But in any case the main point is that the asylum at Ranchi seems to have been a European establishment run by an enlightened man, Dr. Berkeley Hill. There are photos. So the whole Dark mystery of our grandmother's incarceration has a little more light shed upon it. The one thing we don’t know is why she was put there. It seems quite clear that she was not in any way insane.
It took me a while to find someone to write to at Ranchi but eventually I was directed to the Institute’s head, Dr. D. Ram. I wrote to him but did not receive a reply. I wanted to phone but was confused by the 9+ hour time difference until I realized that if I called late from here it would be working hours the next day. Here is my note from Monday November 9, 2020:
I called Dr. Ram at around 11 PM. He was exceptionally kind. He wanted to make sure that I understood that he understood the situation and that it was delicate. He said that he had a bunch of records in his office and he had looked after receiving my email, but they yielded no information about Ruby. He said he was going to look elsewhere.
I have heard no further. But then just now I see that the Institute has had a new director since February of this year so I will need to make another effort to connect.
Who was Ruby and what happened to her? We still do not know. Tiny cracks have appeared in what had seemed to be my father’s wall-to-wall silence on the subject of his mother. And as for my family, with all its complications, the shadow and the light, to quote my father, “God bless them all” ... God bless us all.