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Book Review - Burnt Bread And Chutney - A Memoir Of An Indian Jewish Girl By Carmit Delman

Sudha Rao

‘From the outside, no matter what the gradations of my mixed heritage, the shadow of Indian brown in my skin caused others to automatically perceive me as Hindu or Muslim…. Still, I trekked through life with the spirit of a Jew, fleshed out by the unique challenges and wonders of a combined brown and white tradition’. Reads the inner cover of the book ‘Burnt Bread and Chutney’ by Carmit Delman.

Carmit Delman’s mother is a descendant of the Bene Israel, a community of Jews who have lived in Western India for many centuries. Her father is an American Jew who is of East European decent. Very much in love with each other and also committed to the building of Israel, the difference in race never was a problem to them. But Carmit grew up in America with a feeling of awkwardness at times when she was not able to reconcile her two rich cultural heritages.

She juxtaposes her adolescent years and bitter sweet memories of growing up into a woman with what she describes as ‘creative non-fictionalized account of her great aunt Nana Bai’s life in Maharashtra and her subsequent move to Israel and then to America where she lives with Carmit’s family. After Nana Bai’s passing on, Carmit discovered her great aunt’s diary from which she put together her life story.

Nana Bai’s influence in Carmit’s life is strong and her book explores the intermingling of cultures and rites and traditions and how they helped evolve her unique cultural identity. Nana Bai’s miserable life as the 2nd wife of her own sister’s husband is described very poignantly – she is abused constantly and is treated with utter disdain and scorn by the community. Yet, she stands tall and dignified through all her life. Each chapter opens with excerpts from Nana-Bai’s diary containing anecdotes, quotes and recipes and musings!

The book is indeed a charming narration of the growing up of a young woman between two cultures. Carmit recalls and compares the exotic aromas in her kitchen, (especially when Nana Bai is cooking) and other habits and customs with those in her American Jewish friends’ houses. Carmit’s coming of age and her transition from girl to woman also explores the combination of old and new and ancient customs, traditions and attitudes – Jewish, Indian and American. It also examines the hope and turmoil and happiness and misery and danger and excitement that are involved in the process of searching for your roots and putting them down on what you believe is your ‘homeland’!

At one point in her life, her parents along with their four children move to Israel to settle there for good but end up coming back to the US, which Carmit says topped off the many layers of influence in her: Judaism, India, America and Israel.

A book definitely worth reading!

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