A symbol that was set right over time: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
While on diplomatic assignment in Bangkok in 2009, it was gratifying to note that my Jewish neighbours knew the true meaning of the svastika.
The Indo-Israeli concord brings some cultural reflections with it. My school on Pedder Road in Bombay was run by a dashing Jewish woman, Sophie Kelly, and I recall seeing the palm hut for Sukkot put up on her big balcony.
I had Jewish classmates when I lived in Cochin and my mother had Jewish friends. I was invited to Passover Seder in Delhi. I grew up greatly admiring Jewish people for their brilliance and work ethic.
Despite their history of persecution, they excelled in education, won more Nobels than most for contributing to human knowledge and produced some of the most uplifting music the world has heard. Scholar David Shulman of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, pulled off a civilisational coup in 2016 with his book, Tamil: A Biography.
I also respect Jews for sticking by their faith. Their god may seem stern to some while I may have “too many graven images”, as Roy, a Jewish doctor in London told me in 1997 over lunch. However, we both knew that three Jewish communities had found a haven amid my graven images. Meanwhile, the perception among Jews who did not know India seemed to change over time.
The first Jewish-Hindu summit was held in India in 2007. The second was held in Jersusalem in 2008, resulting in a joint declaration by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, led by the Chief Rabbi, Shear Yeshuv Cohen, and the Hindu Dharmacharya Sabha, led by Swami Dayanand Saraswati: “The participants reaffirmed their commitment to deepening this bilateral relationship predicated on the recognition of One Supreme Being, Creator and Guide of the Cosmos; shared values; and similar historical experiences”.
Further, they “recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’. The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”
They noted, “The Svastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition. It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances, and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich in Germany and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetrated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognize that this symbol is, and has been sacred to Hindus for millennia, long before its misappropriation.”
This changed perception came home to me when on diplomatic assignment in Bangkok in 2009. The apartment across the landing was leased to the Israeli embassy, occupied by a couple who asked me over to tea and dinner. Their children took me on a tour of each floor to see Halloween decorations.
Our friendship began over the svastika. I had a painted clay one to hang outside my door. Then it struck me I had Jewish neighbours; what would they feel each time they opened their door? When I showed it to them though, they were perfectly sweet about it. “We know about the real svastika, we’ll tell our visitors too,” they smiled, and we lived happily as neighbours.
The views expressed are personal