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The Jewish Gandhi and Barack Obama

By T V R Shenoy
September 08, 2008 17:47 IST
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'Barack is a Muslim name!' my American interlocutor insisted.

'Oh no, it isn't,' I shot back, 'We had one in India long before the name was famous in the United States, and he was called the 'Jewish Gandhi'.'

The Jews who gave the 'Old Jew Town' in Kochi its name are a rapidly diminishing presence. By some accounts there may now be fewer than a hundred left in Kochi of a thriving community that once numbered in the thousands. But they were still a visible presence in the town up to the 1950s, and there is still an A B Salem Road in Kochi.

A B Salem is now all but forgotten, so much so that even the small road named in his honour after his death is occasionally called 'Abu Salem Road'. It is an easy enough mistake to make I suppose, but it is completely incorrect. The initials 'A B' stood for 'Abraham Barak,' and the man himself was still alive up to the mid-1960s.

As I said, being a fellow Kochi man is one of the reasons I knew about A B Salem. The second reason is that he was, like me, a product of Maharaja's College in Ernakulam. (In Kerala -- as in Maharashtra -- students leave school to join college for the equivalent of what would be classes XI and XII in Delhi, Chennai, and Kolkata.)

Salem left for Madras, which is where he earned both his BA and his law degrees, before returning to what was then the princely state of Cochin.

In the 1920s and 1930s he was involved in various trade union activities and in pursuing a nationalist agenda in the then-evolving legislatures. When the Indian States' Peoples Party was founded under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, Salem was one of the first three secretaries. (The organisation served as a wing of the Congress in the princely states, which then covered almost a third of India.)

While Salem's talents as an orator and as an organiser were welcome in the days of the Raj, his influence rapidly waned when politics became a numbers game. Simply put, there weren't enough Jews to give Salem a solid electoral foundation.

In 1948, Israel was recreated as an independent nation after almost two thousand years, and issued a clarion call to the Jewish diaspora to return to their ancient homeland. The Jews of Kochi had preserved their traditions under the protection of conservative Hindu kings but feared being swamped by the secular India being crafted by Pandit Nehru and his successors.

Salem encouraged his fellow Jews to emigrate, while warning them that they would be forced to yield to 'Western' norms, but could never bring himself to leave his beloved Kerala.

The veteran did petition the Government of India to be appointed to the Indian mission in Israel, but Pandit Nehru -- reputedly under Maulana Azad's influence -- refused to have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. There would be no Indian embassy in Israel until a quarter of a century after Salem's death, more than four decades of wasted diplomatic opportunity.

So what exactly is 'Barak,' which was Salem's middle name and Senator Obama's first name in a variant spelling? The original Hebrew root is 'Baruch,' which means 'blessed.' The Latin equivalent seems to be 'Benedict', which is the name chosen by the current Pope by the way.

So how did a Hebrew name reach Kenya, which was the homeland of Senator Obama's father? There are two theories: That it was brought there by Muslim traders sailing across from Arabia, or by the ancient Christian and Jewish communities to the north in Ethiopia. (The Jews of Ethiopia trace their arrival to the times of King Solomon; most of them were lifted to Israel in a rescue operation during the great famines that ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s.)

As for A B Salem's surname, that too is of Hebrew origin, going back to the word 'Shalom' which means 'peace'. Yes, the Urdu greeting 'Salaam' goes back to the same root if you were wondering.

Senator Obama's middle name, Hussein, is undeniably Muslim. It says something of the climate in the United States today that merely bearing such a name is seen, in some quarters anyway, as a stigma. (It probably doesn't help that it was also borne by the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein!) But the man himself is a practising Christian by all accounts, and his famous first name is not Arabic -- or even Swahili -- but Hebrew.

If the amount of disinformation that spreads so rapidly in the United States is disturbing our own lack of appreciation of our rich heritage is almost as troubling. How many in the Kochi of today remember Abraham Barak Salem, or even take the trouble to find out for whom 'A B Salem Road' was named? Come to that, how many in Mumbai remember the David Sassoon whose family built Sassoon Docks?

The Jews of India were always a microscopic community -- and shrinking by the day -- but their contributions deserve to be honoured.

Tailpiece: Did you know there is a slight South Asian connection to the Obama campaign? One of Vice-Presidential nominee Joseph Biden's foreign policy team is Jonah Blank. I had known him only as the author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God, a travelogue of India that follows in the footsteps of Lord Rama, but never knew of his political connections until meeting him in Washington. Blank's wife is from Nepal, he did research at the Banaras Hindu University, and is conversant not just in Hindi but in Sanskrit too. Should the Obama-Biden ticket win, we may hear more of Jonah Blank.

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T V R Shenoy