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QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION WITH
Flowers in the Blood
Q. Flowers in the Blood is set within an intriguing community, the Jews of Calcutta, India. How did you get the idea to write about this exotic group?
A. While researching my previous novel, Code Ezra, I was traveling in Israel. My guide—a former Israeli spy, by the way—pointed out a suburb near Lod Airport and said that it was populated by Indian Jews. Since I had not known there were Jews in India, I was curious about them. When I finished writing that book I asked the librarian at the Judaica Library at the University of Florida (yes, there is such a library, and it is an outstanding resource), for information. The book he gave me about the Jews of Calcutta fascinated me. There was one story, about the murder of the wife of an opium merchant, that stirred my novelist’s blood. What if the daughter of the victim had found the body, what if she had been a small child, what if she had wanted to avenge her mother’ s murder? Once I started down that road there was no turning back. Fortunately my publisher was tantalized with the plot and agreed to support the project.
Q. Calcutta is not the only place the Jews resided, is it?
A. No, there were three major groups of Jews in India. The first, and the primary subject of Flowers in the Blood, are the Baghdadi Jews who came from Iraq in the early 19th century. They settled mainly in the urban centers of Bombay and Calcutta, and for the most part were merchants. Their primary language was Arabic. The most numerous element were the Bene Israel. Their origin is obscured. Sane believed they fled the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes around 175 B.C., others believe that they were part of the dispersal after the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. They adopted regional dress, as well as the local language, Marathi, as their mother tongue. Even their names showed signs of assimilation. The smallest group, never numbering more than two to three thousand, are the Cochin Jews. They are said to have immigrated to India when the Temple was destroyed by Titus. From the fifth until the fifteenth century the Jews of this area had an independent principality or kingdom ruled over by a prince of their own race and choice.
Q. Did the Jews suffer any anti-Semitism in India?
A. No, remarkably, India, which has been the hone of Jewish communities for more than 2000 years, has welcomed the Jews, and few areas of the world can match its record. Unlike Jews who went to Europe, those in India were permitted to own and till land. Many of the Bene Israel sect, in particular, volunteered to serve as officers and on the courts of local kings and the military under the British Raj. A Bene Israel was the admiral of Angre, a ruler from India’s West Coast, who built up a strong naval force that fought the British in the 18th century. The only significant case of persecution took place in Cranganore, on what is now the Kerala coast, and this was by the Portuguese. However, they were sheltered by other Indians, including the maharajah of the area who had the synagogue built adjoining the palace so he could personally protect them.
Q. Why then have so many Jews left India during the last fifty years?
A. Two almost simultaneous events: the departure of the British from India in 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel caused a voluntary, large scale emigration.
Q. What remains of the Jews in India today?
A. In Calcutta there are less than 200 today, as compared to the more than 10, 000 Jews in 1945. Only six Jewish families remain in New Delhi, and in Cochin there are less than a hundred left. There are only about twenty or so synagogues that remain open, nest of which are located in the Bombay area. Most of the Jews of India are now living in Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.
Q. Flowers in the Blood refers to opium poppies, and your heroine, Dinah Sassoon becomes involved in the family trade. Wasn’t this illegal?
A. On the contrary, opium was crucial to the balance of trade during the British Raj, at least until the early 1900s. In fact, it solved their deficit problem. They purchased huge quantities of tea, silk and porcelain from the Chinese, but they had nothing to barter with in return. Then the British discovered that the poppy, which grew wonderfully in their nearby colony of India, bad a ready and increasing market in China. Even better, because the opium was addictive, a supply was always welcome and the price continued to rise. Unfortunately, the Chinese mandarins did not agree that the drug the barbarians were peddling was good for their people, so they declared it illegal. Britain was outraged at the disruption of their profitable trade, thus the opium wars were fought. They bombarded Canton, seized Hong Kong, occupied Shanghai, and ended up virtually forcing the Chinese to accept their poppies.
Q. How did the Jewish merchants become involved in this trade?
A. The Sassoons were among several Jewish merchants (the Sassoons in my book are entirely fictional, by the way) who joined with Indian and British merchants (most notably Jardine Matheson) as middlemen. The British owned the rights to the poppy crops, then conducted wholesale auctions in Calcutta. It was up to the enterprising merchants to get the chests of opium into the Inner Land of China and mark up the price accordingly along the way. Don’t forget that other merchants were bringing legal opium to other parts of the world like England (where the artistic set including Coleridge and De Quincy made it famous) and the United States. In the early part of the nineteenth century the Yankee Clipper opium traders included the progenitors of prestigious American families with names like Astor, Forbes, Perkins, and Cabot.
Q. What part does the poppy play in the drug trade?
A. Considered both a blessing and a curse, papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, offers wonderful relief f ran pain, but is easily addictive, both physically and psychologically. Dependent users will do almost anything to have it—steal, lie, prostitute themselves, etc. Heroin, which is a chemically treated morphine, is now a massive worldwide problem, wrecking lives, causing death, and yet providing an enormously profitable—yet treacherous—illegal business.
Q. What is the situation regarding the growth of opium in India today?
A. At present India is the only legal producer of opium. Other countries, including Turkey, the U.S.S.R., Poland, and Czechoslovakia provide legal poppy straw and seeds for pharmaceutical uses. A United Nations treaty acknowledges the poppy’s medicinal value, while requiring the elimination of illicit cultivation. Most of the illegal production canes from the Golden Crescent of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand. The sane fields of Patna, which Dinah visits in Flowers in the Blood contribute to the approximately one thousand metric tons of opium used to produce morphine and codeine. Even with all the new drugs we are able to produce using chemical technology, morphine is believed to be the best for the nest acute pains, and if you take codeine, perhaps combined with Tylenol or a cough syrup, you too will have a distillation of the Indian poppy, or the same flowers in your blood.
Q. Your heroine, Dinah, does not want anything to do with the opium business, yet she ends up running it. How does she rationalize this?
A. Dinah grows up believing her mother’s murder was due to her opium addiction and yet she is filled with conflicts because her family’s enormous wealth is due to that trade. Initially she tries to stay away from the business, but circumstances bring her into the thick of it. Her conflicts probably mirror many scions of dynasties founded on the profits of an currently legal substances that undermine health, including alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. When she finds out her own beloved husband is addicted, she determines—no matter the cost to the family’s aspire—to prove their wealth to other endeavors.