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Shelley Silas

by: Shelley Silas - Last updated: 2004-06-15

Shelley Silas

Shelley Silas

In Calcutta Kosher, writer Shelley Silas examines family and cultural identity of Jews in India. The play, which is on at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East has recived much acclaim. Writing for SJ, Shelley reveals what it means to be Indian and Jewish.

Whenever I am asked about my background, where I am from - because people can usually tell I’m not English - I respond with “I was born in Calcutta and I'm a Jew.”  Immediately I say this, everyone always wants more information.

The need for others to know more about my Indian Jewish background, and my increasing irritation at Jews in popular British and American media being portrayed as only ever being Eastern European, meant I had to set the record straight.  As a writer, writing a play about my mostly unknown culture seemed the best thing to do.

My grandparents came from Baghdad, Calcutta and Penang.  My parents were both born in Calcutta.  My father left when he was two and grew up in Jerusalem, my mother grew up in Calcutta, coming to London in her early twenties to work.   They met here through mutual friends.  They went to India, had my sister, then me, and when I was two we came to London.  I returned to India for the first time when I was twenty-six.  It felt good and right, as if my identity was finally in place.

Growing up in North London, I was teased at school, because I was born in India.  My skin is white, but I wouldn’t call myself English, I don’t identify as English.  It’s not just about where I grew up, it’s about where my parents grew up, my family’s cultural identity – and in my case it isn’t English.  I don’t believe cultural identity is only related to the colour of your skin.

The wonderful thing about my north London comprehensive was that there was such a cross section of society, I mixed with people from all over the world - friends whose families were from Afghanistan, Persia, Pakistan, India, America.  In fact I still have my school photo, where we’re all lined up, eagerly smiling.  And I’m glad I went to such a mixed school.  Two of the boys I went to school with are now quite well known.  One is in politics; the other owns a famous lap-dancing club.  Both shall remain nameless!

Because I am white, because I have a ‘London’ accent, because I grew up here, I think Indians see me as white English, and Jews in England often assume I am from Eastern European descent – until they look closer, and questions start to be asked.  When I tell anyone that I was born in Calcutta, they tend to assume that my family was part of the Raj – but Indian Jews were very separate from that culture too.  I don’t really belong anywhere – which is why my play has generated such interest in so many people.  What does it mean to belong?

It’s also to do with the food.  Indian Jewish food is not Jewish food as most British people know it (meaning Eastern European), nor is it the kind of Indian food we all know and love.  It is unique.

I suppose then, that the food I eat forms part of my cultural identity as well.  Dishes such as Aloomakallas, Mahmoosa and Chiturney, which are mentioned in the play.  (The recipes are included at the end of the published play script, published by Oberon press…)

I think it’s easy for all of us to make assumptions about each other – you look like this so you must be that; you sound like that, so you must be from there.  Identities are constantly being challenged and boundaries are shifting all the time.  People are moving around more widely than at any other time.  One of the themes Calcutta Kosher deals with, is how to keep your own culture and identity, when all around you is in opposition to that.  When your parents live in another country, and your friends don’t really understand what you’re about.  I suppose this was another reason for writing the play - as a way of my maintaining my culture by putting it down on paper, showing it to an audience and sharing it.  And I feel that is exactly what I have achieved.