Organized Panel Session
In a recent interview, Jael Silliman, author of two novels on the history of the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, emphasized the importance of religious identity for this community that arrived in India at the end of the 18th century and became one of the most successful colonial élites of the British Raj. Despite their integration in the economic system, the Baghdadi Jews constantly worried about the threat of ‘assimilation’. Today, reduced to a tiny marginal group and struggling to be acknowledged as a religious minority, archives of memories are resurfacing due to the effort of scholars and writers, and to the passion of guardians of cultural and culinary traditions. Engaged in an archeology of history and memory, members of this “diaspora of hope” are beginning to articulate cognitive mappings of Kolkata's urban space, where a forgotten community resurfaces via nostalgic recollections of a city once called home. Walking down the path of history and following long-term processes of identity construction, this presentation reads through Silliman’s novel The Teak Almirah (2016) in order to shed light on a community that contributed considerably to the making of colonial Calcutta into a cosmopolitan city. The novel reflects on the history of the Baghdadi Jews, whose heritage lives on in the majestic synagogues and mansions, but whose legacy is far-reaching in the complex political, social and religious space of contemporary India.