Book Review: An Illustrated Children’s Book on The First Jewish Settler in Calcutta

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Title: Shalome Rides a Royal Elephant
Author & Illustrator: Jael Silliman
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Paperback: 72 pages
M.R.P: INR 350

Author, scholar and women’s right activist Jael Silliman recently released her new children’s book Shalome Rides a Royal Elephant. As she writes in the Author’s Note, the story is based on the diary of her great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Shalome Obadiah ha Cohen, the first Jewish settler in Calcutta. Every day, Shalome wrote in his diary about the places he visited, the people he met as well as his business dealings. A pioneer of sorts, Shalome knew a lot about astronomy, philosophy and the Jewish religion. Jewish traders from across the Middle East followed him and built synagogues, schools and hospitals, and set up important businesses in Calcutta.
The story is narrated in the voice of Chanchal, Shalome’s brilliant monkey. It starts in 1792 in the port city of Surat, where Shalome reached after a long journey through the Indian Ocean from Aleppo in Syria. Chanchal impressed him with a dance of the Dandiya Raas, and began to accompany him everywhere. Thereafter, Shalome bought a house and started a business in Surat. He also married a beautiful girl called Najima.

A Jewish chief merchant, Shalome traded in a number of precious commodities, such as gold leaf, copper, coral, elephant tusks, indigo, dates and coffee. His shipments came from various countries, such as China, Siam, Zanzibar, Arabia, and across India. He soon decided to leave Surat and set up business in Calcutta, the capital of India in those days. They travelled by carriage and boat down the Ganges river, crossing many cities and villages on the way.
Shalome arrived in Calcutta in 1798, where he rented a large house from an Armenian. He was the first Jew to set up his home and business in Calcutta. Visiting all of the city’s main sights – Chowringhee, Esplanade, Government House, Tank Square and Fort William – Chanchal describes Calcutta as an important place, with stately buildings and the well laid streets. Traders from across the country and the world came here, and people spoke various languages—Portuguese, Chinese, Armenian, Dutch, English, Greek, Arabic, Persian as well as regional Indian languages. Thus, it was a place where several people belonging to different cultures and communities lived together in harmony.

Author and illustrator Jael Silliman

Shalome hired Jews from Aleppo and Cochin to work in his businesses. Being a religious person, Shalome opened a prayer hall in his home and prayed several times a day. Gradually, his family grew, consisting of nine children— six girls and three boys. Over a period of time, his business also grew. He traded in silks, cloth, indigo and precious jewels.
A true explorer, Shalome was always looking for new opportunities and places to explore. In 1813, he moved to Chinsurah on the banks of the Hooghly river. Chinsurah was a settlement made by the Dutch, who had come to Bengal as traders before the British. Here, Shalome lived in a grand mansion on the riverbank. In 1814, Shalome went to the home of the British Viceroy in Calcutta to attend the celebrations of the signing of a treaty between Britain and many other European countries after Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo.
In 1816, he set out for Lucknow by boat, where the Nawab invited him and gave him a special title of Vazir. He spent more than two years in the city. Here, Shalome also rode a royal elephant alongside the king, which was a special honour. Chanchal describes Lucknow as a stately city with many mosques as well as splendid buildings and palaces with domes and minarets. In Lucknow, Shalome lived in a large palace, which was opposite the house of the British Resident. When he left Lucknow, thirty of the Nawab’s soldiers escorted him to Calcutta. Shalome’s son-in-law, Moses Dwek, soon took over the running of his businesses in Calcutta.

As she writes in the Author's Note, the story is based on the diary of her great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Shalome Obadiah ha Cohen, the first Jewish settler in Calcutta. Every day, Shalome wrote in his diary about the places he visited, the people he met as well as his business dealings. A pioneer of sorts, Shalome knew a lot about astronomy, philosophy and the Jewish religion.

In 1822, Shalome went on a special mission to Punjab, where he was invited by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The first Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, he had captured the Kohinoor, the biggest diamond in the world, from Shah Shuja of Afghanistan. Many years later, the Kohinoor was surrendered to Queen Victoria of England.
Though still a leader of the community at the age of 65, Shalome began ageing. He began spending more time writing and praying. In 1836, he passed away.
The book also includes one of his last poems:
Now turn to me and listen (to) what I say.
Make haste, repent, give alms this very day.
Do not delay and leave it till tomorrow.
The day is short—and the time you cannot borrow.
With colourful pictures complementing the text, the book is a fun and interesting way to teach young readers about an important period in India’s history. Along the way, Chanchal also describes several Jewish traditions and rituals, such as wedding festivities, Sabbath lunches and Middle Eastern sweetmeats, such as baklava, a traditional delicacy made of pistachio nuts and honey sauce.

Shalome Rides a Royal Elephant is available for sale on https://speakingtigerbooks.com/product/shalome-rides-a-royal-elephant/

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