Tag Archives: Historical Context

Exodus by Leon Uris

exodus

It was way, way back somewhere in my teens when I read Exodus for the first time. When I asked to borrow it from the school library on the recommendation of a friend, I remember the librarian asking me if I should be reading such a thick book just as the exams were approaching. Then she said in a resigned manner, “Knowing you you’ll make short work of it.” And she was right for I devoured it, so to say. As a teenager Exodus by Leon Uris was an eyeopener but then as the young are wont to be idealistic and fired about one issue till the next one comes along, so was I. I forgot the book.
Last year, I read Mossad by Israeli journalists, Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, and therein awoke an itch to read Exodus again. I was looking for a copy of the book on kindle with little luck and bookstores around me surprisingly did not have one. So, when a friend said she had an ageing copy left to her by her Grandma, I jumped at the chance and requisitioned it. After these many years I remembered the story vaguely, but knew that it had made an impact. In my teens I had read Exodus in 2 days, in my 40s it took me longer. If you are a lifelong student of English Literature and a voracious reader like me you would have read numerous books on the Holocaust seen from various perspectives. You would have researched various references to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you would have some inkling of the rich history of the Jews. But, you would not necessarily have read how the modern State of Israel came into being, Leon Uris in Exodus gives this triumphant carving of an oasis by the Jews, within a text of 600 pages.

The fictional story begins in Cyprus where Jews fleeing from Europe are held in prison-like camps by the British and the reader is introduced to Ari Ben Canaan. A dashing mountain of a man, he is a member of Mossad Aliyah Bet. A man principled and committed to the land he is born to protect, he plans the escape of 300 children aboard the ship named Exodus, leaving the British shame faced in front of the entire world. He is aided by his Palmach team on the ground, a Cypriot sympathiser, an American journalist – Mark Parker and a reluctant American nurse – Kitty Fremont, in his audacious plan. For the plan to succeed there are two more characters essential: Karen Hansen Clement and Dov Landau. Two orphans of the holocaust, one saved by the Danes with all the faith of her people and the other condemned by the Poles filled with all the hate inflicted upon his. From there the story progresses to Palestine, controlled by the British, here more characters are introduced such as Barak Be Canaan and Avika, Ari’s father and uncle respectively. We meet Sarah who against all odds and torture by the British does not crack and Ruth who is representative of all the woman who rebelled at stereotypical roles and worked alongside the men in ditches and mud and emerged better at Dairy farming, these are Ari’s mother and Aunt. Johana, Ari’s sister, and Dafna, Ari’s love, both soldiers and members of the Haganah, the Jewish defence force redefine valour. Through the fictional back stories of the characters Uris reveals the historical truth of reclaiming of farmland from marshes and swamps by the sheer grit of the Jewish pioneers (Third Aliyah) and forming the various kibbutz (agricultural collective communities) and how each generation contributed to fighting for the dream of a homeland.

When I read the book as a teen I was fascinated by the story yet being from the generation that scoured libraries for information, I did not have enough resources to research much. Now I Googled almost every detail as I read, and came across fascinating information, which makes Exodus a compelling read.

I was further enthralled to discover the manner in which Hebrew became the spoken language of a nation. The state languages of Israel are Hebrew and Modern Arabic. Hebrew is the holy language of Judaism, the Jews across the world spoke Yiddish along with the language of the country they inhabited. There is no precedent to this revival of a language without any native speakers becoming a spoken language by several million as is with Hebrew. But then, the whole story of the revival of the State of Israel is a remarkable one rooted deep in Judaism.

Judaism is almost 3,000 years old, the first of the Abrahamic religions its texts, values and traditions influenced later Abrahamic religions including Christianity, Islam and the Baha’I Faith. The history of mankind is littered with story after story of man’s brutal greed, the Children of Israel too had to defend their lands from the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, Crusaders and an endless list of muraders who wanted to gobble them up, resulting in creating the largest diaspora in the middle ages. The Jews scattered to save themselves and their faith from the yoke of tyranny, but did the world provide them with a safe heaven? Sadly not. What followed was racial prejudice, ghettos, pogroms, The Jewish Pale of Settlement and the Holocaust. From East to West for two thousand years the Jews wandered looking for dignity and freedom. They struggled, they strived, they adapted and were loyal to the nations they adopted. Very few accorded them the dignity and freedom they searched for whereas most gifted them with persecution and legal restrictions. The Jewish Question” is a very interesting term that I came across in Exodus and was appalled to understand the implications of it. Under the covers of this innocent sounding term is millennia of Anti-Semitism. But what is both terrifying and wonderous at once, is the faith of Judaism. That refused to die. Despite the foot of prejudice attempting to choke out the very breath from their windpipes, the Jews dug deeper hugging their faith close to their emancipated bodies. To fathom how after 2000 years of savage abuse, abysmal degradation and searing inhumanity, the Jewish people still kept their faith. Their belief that they were the chosen ones and the Messiah would one day lead them to their land of milk and honey, is nothing short of wonderous.

So, how did they keep their faith? In the folds of the book you will discern many reasons for this, but none resonated with me as much as this one about the pursuit of wisdom, Uris writes: Community life pivoted around the Holy Laws, the synagogue, and the rabbi, who was at once teacher, spiritual leader, judge and administrator of the community. The rabbis of the Pale were all great scholars. Their wisdom was far-reaching and rarely questioned… Indeed the community moved as one for the existence of all…The poor donated to the poorer. The poorer – to the poorer yet. Charity was the eleventh, the unwritten commandment. Leading scholars and religious leaders had to be cared for. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the pursuit of wisdom.

There were two aspects that disturbed me in the book. The first was the way the Arabs were portrayed by Uris. He describes them with a bias that is unsettling. In Uris’ words: The air was foul with the mixed aroma of thick coffee, tobacco, hashish smoke and the vile odors of the rest of the village; Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars… filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere. How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children. This could be attributed in some part to the policy of the British. On November 2, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent his letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, stating that: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Balfour Declaration of 1917, gave Britain the administration of Palestine, with the understanding that it would work on behalf of both its Jewish and Arab inhabitants. As an Indian, I was not surprised and this became the second disturbing aspect in the book – how the British played Jews against Arabs. It is summed up neatly by Uris’ fictional character General Sir Clarence Trevor-Brown: The only kingdom that runs on righteousness is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdoms of the earth run on oil. The Arabs have oil. It is evident from the telling of the story that Uris holds a baised opinion about Arabs and the British.

I am told by a dear friend that The Haj by Leon Uris gives the Arab side of the story. I am now searching for it. Readers who own any Leon Uris books do hold on to your yellowing pages, these books are not easy to procure.

To just Leon Uris was an American Jew who as a war correspondent covered the Arab–Israeli fighting in 1956. His experiences and discoveries led to writing the Exodus which was first published in 1958 by Doubleday. Exodus went on to become an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind (1936). It remained number 1, on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks after its release. It initiated a new sympathy for the newly established State of Israel and fed the American minds with a twisted view of the Arab people. Celebrated by many it has also been denigrated equally, “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel,” said Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.

The reason I liked the book immensely is stated in Uris’s dedication message : all those good folk who spend their chapters hating themselves, the world, and all their aunt’s and uncles…all those steeped in self-pity…all those golden riders of the psychoanalysis coach…I have shown the other side of the coin, and written about my people who, against a lethargic world and with little less than courage, conquered unconquerable odds.

Genre: Historical Fiction

Ilaa’s Story

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(This is a short story I wrote last year for the Write India Contest. The prompt, in the form of the first nine lines, was given by Amish.  Though a short cut today, this story is special to me as it was one of the first that I wrote.)

Close to the city of Paithan, in a small village called Sauviragram, which lay along the banks of the great river Godavari, lived a woman named Ilaa. Being cotton farmers, her family was well to do, but not among the richest in their area. It was the harvest season, and cotton had to be picked from the plants. The wholesalers and traders from Paithan would be arriving in just a few weeks, carrying gold and goods for barter. They would exchange what they carried for the cotton that the farmers grew. The bales of cotton had to be ready in time! Work was at its peak!

But Ilaa was not to be found in the fields. She wasn’t working. Instead, she was sitting by the banks of the great river Godavari.

‘I am sick of this!’ she grunted loudly, as she looked down on her hands, scarred and bleeding from picking the rough bolls of cotton for days now.

“If Baba were here, I wouldn’t be subjected to this indignity!”

Tears flooded Ilaa’s eyes as she thought of her dear Baba, her strong and versatile father, who with a twinkle in his eyes over-rode all opposition to his only daughter being educated alongside his son. Ujjwal, Ilaa’s mild mannered brother from a young and tender age had shown a leaning towards letters which delighted his illiterate yet enlightened father. He had the most renowned Brahmin, Dyaneshwarji in the village accept Ujjwal as his shishy.

Ilaa, a girl child born after five generations in his family was Baba’s delight; he named her Ilaa after the Goddess of speech and also the female form of the first ruler of Paithan. Ilaa followed her brother everywhere and could not be separated from him even at the Gurukul. She learnt what Ujjwal did twice as fast; her interest in her brother’s studies pleased her father even more.  Baba convinced Dyaneshwarji to let her attend classes in Vedic studies too. He entertained notions of his daughter growing up to being a great sage like Lopamudra, Gargi and Maitreye of the Vedic ages.

Ilaa was an imp as a child, everyone doted on her, everyone that is, except for her Ajoba, her grandmother, Baba’s mother. Ajoba hated Ilaa from the day she saw her son’s eyes shine with unconcealed adoration for his beautiful little baby daughter. Ajoba disliked anyone taking away her son’s affections; she barely tolerated Ilaa’s, gentle Ai. Only because of Ai’s utmost patience with the older lady’s love for her only child, did that fragile relationship work.

 

Baba was born late in Ajoba and Bhau’s marriage, long after Bhau’s mother had married him off to another doe eyed beauty who had given him three boys and Ajoba was maligned with the word ‘infertile’ by the people of the village. In a society that places value on a woman’s ability to provide an heir to continue her husband’s bloodline, side-lined by her own family and ostracised by the villagers, hers was a lonely and miserable existence.

Bitter from the taunts of the villagers and pettiness of Bhau’s other family, she had all but given up hope for any happiness in her life, when by the grace of the Gods she found herself the mother of a strapping young baby boy. This happy turn of events should have restored her good nature, however, she refused to let go of the past and remained embittered, mistrustful and ill-tempered, alienating herself from the whole village. If there was any good left in her it was reserved for her only child, whom she brought up with jealous affection.

Bhau’s other three sons died at various stages of growing up as the times were harsh and the weak in spirit were wont to. All the families’ lands and rich cotton fields were passed down to Baba, “as is rightful,” Ajoba had said unfeelingly to her rival. It was credit to the young boy that he did not grow up to become anything like his draconian mother. He was wise, free spirited, quick to laugh, finding the good in everyone and everything.  As he grew into manhood his charming temperament won over the entire village and with it the Headman’s educated daughter, the old lady given no choice reluctantly accepted. This was the first of many battles that Baba would fight with his mother and win. Sending Ilaa to school would be another.

As llaa reminisced about the past she again thought of her predicament.

Baba was gone!

He had followed the Peshwa Baji Rao’s call to arms to every able bodied man against the cursed ruler of Hyderabad, Nizam-ul-Mulk. How the whole family had begged Baba not to go, he was a farmer they said, Ajoba had wept and threatened, Ujjwal had pleaded, Ilaa had cried, to no avail! Baba’s mind was made up! Ai, said nothing, with pride in her eyes she had performed the aarti and bade Vijayi bhava, (return victorious) to the love of her life. That was Ai, stoic with complete faith in Baba and her Gods.

Baba left the responsibility of the farm and household to Ajoba, knowing his wife to be too timid to stand up to his mother and Ujjwal was more academic than farmer. Many of the farm hands and men of the village had followed Baba, a natural leader of men. Soon after the harvesting season for the cotton had arrived, and Ajoba’s first directive had been to pull Ilaa out of school to help out in the fields. Ujjwal was allowed to continue.

“Girls should be helping out at home and in the fields, going to school, ridiculous!” she announced. “Your father had foolish notions for you girl, sixteen already and no prospects of getting married yet, your place from now is at home!”

Ilaa, the darling of her father, not used to being denied her every wish, stood up against her grandmother. It was a sight to see, the grandmother with her head shaven and dressed in all white, ramrod straight, with the stiff bearings of a woman used to getting her own way, the grand-daughter young, beautiful and vibrant her eyes flashing.

“The Rig Vedic society was a free society; women were as free as the men. Education was equally accessible for boys and girls. Girls studied the Vedas and fine arts,” Illa reasoned.

“Nonsense! These are not the Vedic times, no man will marry a woman who knows the Vedas but doesn’t know any housework,” retorted Ajoba. “You are responsible for the management of your future household and need to learn to be a devoted wife, taking care of her husband’s needs.”

“But, brahmavadinis or married female scholars like Lopamudra, Sulabha Maitreyi, Gargi are still revered and they strengthened the knowledge of their husbands,” countered Ilaa.

“Silly child,” laughed Ajoba, “Too much in the company of books has turned your mind to mush!”

“But the Mahanirvana Tantra praises the birth of a scholarly daughter in these words: ‘A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care,” tried Ilaa .

“Enough!” thundered the formidable old lady, “there is no more to be said, you will do as I say.”

With neither the matriarch nor the young woman giving way, the atmosphere in the house was fraught with stress. Finally, Ai pleaded with her daughter to stand down.

“It’s only a matter of some time,” she appealed, “Your father will be back soon, life will go back to the way it was.”

Where the commands of the grandmother did not deter Ilaa’s resolve, her gentle Ai’s entreaty could not be ignored, with a sigh she gave in. Peace returned to the household and Ilaa hid her unhappiness well.

Till today!

 

 

Last night Ujjwal had returned from the Gurukul excited, he’d pulled Ilaa aside and given her the news.

“Ilaa, you won’t believe what’s happened!  Dyaneshwarji has been invited to the brahmayajna, the annual discourse at Sant Jaganade Maharaj Temple in Paithan, next week. He’s been asked to bring two of his most promising students to participate too. There’s to be a pariksha day after to decide who would be going. Guruji has asked you to participate as well!”

For a moment Ilaa forgot that she was not allowed to attend school anymore, “We are the brightest in the class, Guruji has always said, we are sure to be selected! Why the pariksha?” she asked.

“He probably wants it to appear fair,” replied Ujjwal, “the other students and their parents would complain otherwise. He’s asked you to attend school from tomorrow. We need to prepare.”

Ilaa’s eyes shone with excitement, she’d been dreaming of this day for years, ever since she had heard the story of Gargi, the Vedic prophetess and daughter of sage Vachaknu, who with her knowledge had stumped many eminent sages in her time.

Suddenly, Ilaa’s face fell as she remembered, “Ajoba will never let me go,” she whispered.

This morning when she reached the fields and looked around her, she could not take it anymore, she’d run till she had collapsed at this, her favourite spot near the holy river Godavari, hidden from prying eyes by an ancient Banyan tree. The sun danced on the dappled waters of the river while tiny fish darted in the darkened pools formed on its rocky banks, Ilaa sat there in reflective melancholy oblivious to the beauty of her surroundings. Normally this place would bring calm to her restive mind, not today, the peace that she craved eluded her. Her heart was breaking into tiny pieces.

“I can’t go on like this anymore! It’s not fair!”

“I knew I’d find you here. Did you know this used to be my favourite place too, to hide away from the world?” she heard her mother say as she sat down next to her.

“Ai!” with tears flowing down her eyes Ilaa rested her head in her mother’s lap.

Ai, ran her fingers through Ilaa’s thick black hair, “My lovely child!”

“Did Ujjwal tell you about the Brahmayajna?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not fair, Ai!”

“I know, you’ve been very patient, my child,”

“This was my dream, Ai!”

“Yes, I know that’s why I’m here. To release you from my request for peace in the house, I want you to follow your dreams.”

“You can’t be serious Ai, you know Ajoba will never let me!”

“Your Ajoba has had a difficult life, child,” began Ai.

“That does not give her the right to destroy my life,” interrupted Ilaa, vehemently.

“No one is destroying your life Ilaa,” laughed Ai, “let me finish.”

“Your Ajoba as a young woman was a lot like you, she too wanted to be educated but never got the opportunity. Married off young she gave her heart and soul to her new family, you are very well aware of how things turned out for her. I know deep down in that prickly exterior beats a kind heart.”

“Your joking right Ai, Ajoba’s kind heart, ha! Are we discussing the same woman?”

“To be fair to her Ilaa, she may have a harsh tongue, but she’s never been mean to me. I’ve always had my space and taken my own decisions.”

“Ai, that’s because of your own generous and kind nature.”

“No dear, she’s always been possessive of your father, but ever since I’ve come into the family she’s always treated me with respect and I know in her own way she loves us all.”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that one, Ai.”

“Ok, let’s get back to your life being destroyed,” smiled Ai.

“If only Baba were here, he’d never hold me back.”

“Nothing’s holding you back, Ilaa, your father showed you a path. He can’t always be there to hold your hand and take every step with you. Neither can I, you have to find your way forward.”

“But, how Ai!”

“Ah! Now that’s something that needs to be figured out.”

“How about I pretend I’m going to the fields and instead go off to the Gurukul, Ajoba will never know! She doesn’t come to the fields!”

“Lying and sneaking, is that the way you want to do it then?”

Ilaa looked sheepish.

“Then how?” she groaned.

“Like Krishna said in the Gita, by doing your dharma, in life we all encounter dilemmas, although perhaps less dramatically than Arjun.”

“Isn’t my dharma to obey my parents and elders?”

“Yes, however, as a student your dharma is to follow knowledge and learning.”

“So are you saying I should take on Ajoba?”

Ai laughed, “You’re not on the battlefield with Ajoba, Ilaa.”

“Ilaa, all the scholars that you look up to, Lopamudra, Sulabha, Maitreyi, Gargi, were women who lived in the Vedic ages, the status of women in that age was different from ours. They were accorded the Upanayana, or thread ceremony that allowed them to attain higher learning like their male counterparts.”

“I know all that Ai! What’s your point?”

“My point, my dear impatient child, is that they had not only the opportunity but also the social sanctions to pursue learning. Over the ages our societal structure has changed, things are not that easy now.”

“So are you saying I should give up?”

“Not at all. Women in our times too have broken social barriers forced upon them and emerged winners. Look at how esteemed literary women like Aka Bai and Kena, disciples of Ramdas Swami, are. Do we all not revere Rajmata Jijabai, Shivaji’s mother, who as regent not only laid the foundations of the Maratha kingdom but also inspired her son to become a great leader? Also, Tarabai Mohite who, after the death of her husband Rajaram, took over the reins of the Maratha Army and sent the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb scurrying. They all found a way to bring about change and mind you, it was not a cake walk for them. Ilaa, the history of Maratha women has many such examples and nothing would give me more pleasure than to have posterity remember your name with them.”

Ilaa listened with amazement to her Ai! Who would have thought that behind that gentle demeanour hid such a passionate persona.

Ai, got up and held her hand out to Ilaa.

“Come,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes, “there is cotton to be dealt with… or not!”

Ilaa, followed Ai reflecting quietly.

The next morning Ilaa woke up at dawn, got dressed and stepped out of her room into the Courtyard, with the accoutrements for her day at the Gurukul.

“Where do you think you’re off to, young lady?” demanded Ajoba.

Ilaa expecting this smiled and went up to her grandmother.

Touching the old lady’s feet she said, “I’m going to the Gurukul, to prepare so that I can accompany my Guru to the Brahmayajna.”

“You dare defy me, child?” asked an apoplectic Ajoba.

“My karma has brought me to a place where I have to see through my dharma,” replied Ilaa.

“Do not speak in riddles child! What is this karma-dharma?”

“Oh revered Grandmother, as a child my father recognising that he had a scholarly daughter helped me attain my karma. Today, I am honour bound to see through to my dharma, to my Guru and bring my learning to fruition. I seek your blessings willingly, however, if your choice is not to give them, that too I will understand. ”

So saying Ilaa quietly got up, took her Ai’s blessings and walked out of the house with a bewildered Ajoba looking on.