Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 7: Jews in Shushan

(1891)


My newly purchased house furniture was, at the least, insecure; the legs
parted from the chairs, and the tops from the tables, on the slightest
provocation. But such as it was, it was to be paid for, and Ephraim,
agent and collector for the local auctioneer, waited in the verandah
with the receipt. He was announced by the Mahomedan servant as 'Ephraim,
Yahudi'--Ephraim the Jew. He who believes in the Brotherhood of Man
should hear my Elahi Bukhsh grinding the second word through his white
teeth with all the scorn he dare show before his master. Ephraim was,
personally, meek in manner--so meek indeed that one could not understand
how he had fallen into the profession of bill-collecting. He resembled
an over-fed sheep, and his voice suited his figure. There was a fixed,
unvarying mask of childish wonder upon his face. If you paid him, he was
as one marvelling at your wealth; if you sent him away, he seemed
puzzled at your hard-heartedness. Never was Jew more unlike his dread
breed. Ephraim wore list slippers and coats of duster-cloth, so
preposterously patterned that the most brazen of British subalterns
would have shied from them in fear. Very slow and deliberate was his
speech, and carefully guarded to give offence to no one. After many
weeks, Ephraim was induced to speak to me of his friends.

'There be eight of us in Shushan, and we are waiting till there are ten.
Then we shall apply for a synagogue, and get leave from Calcutta. To-day
we have no synagogue; and I, only I, am Priest and Butcher to our
people. I am of the tribe of Judah--I think, but I am not sure. My
father was of the tribe of Judah, and we wish much to get our synagogue.
I shall be a priest of that synagogue.'

Shushan is a big city in the North of India, counting its dwellers by
the ten thousand; and these eight of the Chosen People were shut up in
its midst, waiting till time or chance sent them their full
congregation.

Miriam the wife of Ephraim, two little children, an orphan boy of their
people, Epraim's uncle Jackrael Israel, a white-haired old man, his wife
Hester, a Jew from Cutch, one Hyem Benjamin, and Ephraim, Priest and
Butcher, made up the list of the Jews in Shushan. They lived in one
house, on the outskirts of the great city, amid heaps of saltpetre,
rotten bricks, herds of kine, and a fixed pillar of dust caused by the
incessant passing of the beasts to the river to drink. In the evening
the children of the City came to the waste place to fly their kites, and
Ephraim's sons held aloof, watching the sport from the roof, but never
descending to take part in them. At the back of the house stood a small
brick enclosure, in which Ephraim prepared the daily meat for his people
after the custom of the Jews. Once the rude door of the square was
suddenly smashed open by a struggle from inside, and showed the meek
bill-collector at his work, nostrils dilated, lips drawn back over his
teeth, and his hands upon a half-maddened sheep. He was attired in
strange raiment, having no relation whatever to duster coats or list
slippers, and a knife was in his mouth. As he struggled with the animal
between the walls, the breath came from him in thick sobs, and the
nature of the man seemed changed. When the ordained slaughter was ended,
he saw that the door was open and shut it hastily, his hand leaving a
red mark on the timber, while his children from the neighbouring house-
top looked down awe-stricken and open-eyed. A glimpse of Ephraim busied
in one of his religious capacities was no thing to be desired twice.

Summer came upon Shushan, turning the trodden waste-ground to iron, and
bringing sickness to the city.

'It will not touch us,' said Ephraim confidently. 'Before the winter we
shall have our synagogue. My brother and his wife and children are
coming up from Calcutta, and THEN I shall be the priest of the
synagogue.'

Jackrael Israel, the old man, would crawl out in the stifling evenings
to sit on the rubbish-heap and watch the corpses being borne down to the
river.

'It will not come near us,' said Jackrael Israel feebly, 'for we are the
People of God, and my nephew will be priest of our synagogue. Let them
die.' He crept back to his house again and barred the door to shut
himself off from the world of the Gentile.

But Miriam, the wife of Ephraim, looked out of the window at the dead as
the biers passed and said that she was afraid. Ephraim comforted her
with hopes of the synagogue to be, and collected bills as was his
custom.

In one night, the two children died and were buried early in the morning
by Ephraim. The deaths never appeared in the City returns. 'The sorrow
is my sorrow,' said Ephraim; and this to him seemed a sufficient reason
for setting at naught the sanitary regulations of a large, flourishing,
and remarkably well-governed Empire.

The orphan boy, dependent on the charity of Ephraim and his wife, could
have felt no gratitude, and must have been a ruffian. He begged for
whatever money his protectors would give him, and with that fled down-
country for his life. A week after the death of her children Miriam left
her bed at night and wandered over the country to find them. She heard
them crying behind every bush, or drowning in every pool of water in the
fields, and she begged the cartmen on the Grand Trunk Road not to steal
her little ones from her. In the morning the sun rose and beat upon her
bare head, and she turned into the cool wet crops to lie down and never
came back; though Hyem Benjamin and Ephraim sought her for two nights.

The look of patient wonder on Ephraim's face deepened, but he presently
found an explanation. 'There are so few of us here, and these people are
so many,' said he, 'that, it may be, our God has forgotten us.'

In the house on the outskirts of the city old Jackrael Israel and Hester
grumbled that there was no one to wait on them, and that Miriam had been
untrue to her race. Ephraim went out and collected bills, and in the
evenings smoked with Hyem Benjamin till, one dawning, Hyem Benjamin
died, having first paid all his debts to Ephraim. Jackrael Israel and
Hester sat alone in the empty house all day, and, when Ephraim returned,
wept the easy tears of age till they cried themselves asleep.

A week later Ephraim, staggering under a huge bundle of clothes and
cooking-pots, led the old man and woman to the railway station, where
the bustle and confusion made them whimper.

'We are going back to Calcutta,' said Ephraim, to whose sleeve Hester
was clinging. 'There are more of us there, and here my house is empty.'

He helped Hester into the carriage and, turning back, said to me, 'I
should have been priest of the synagogue if there had been ten of us.
Surely we must have been forgotten by our God.'

The remnant of the broken colony passed out of the station on their
journey south; while a subaltern, turning over the books on the
bookstall, was whistling to himself 'The Ten Little Nigger Boys.'

But the tune sounded as solemn as the Dead March.

It was the dirge of the Jews in Shushan.


Rudyard Kipling