New Swatantra Times

Indian Jews and Opium Trade

Flowers in the Blood by Gay Courter, Signet

by Advocate Prem Doss Swami Doss Yehudi


Flowers In The Blood is an extraordinary story of an Indian Jewess who lived in the city of Calcutta during the British Raj. ‘‘Happiness is an illusion that cannot last,” asserts the novelist Gay Courter. Indeed, the life story of Dinah Sassoon substantiates the dictum. The convincing narratives and the persuasive descriptions in the novel unravel the passion, the failures and the ultimate achievements of this iron lady.

Dinah Sassoon loses her mother while still very young. But, at the end of the novel she is happily married and settled with a caring husband, three sons and an expanding business empire at her disposal. This novel is an important contribution to literature. Its interesting episodes present the readers with a deep insight into a bygone age.

The history of the Jews in Calcutta has been well-documented. This tiny community of Whites had identified itself with the British. Arid most of them left India when the country threw off the British yoke. A few Jews still live there. However, today there is no Jewish life in Calcutta. The Magen David Synagogue still stands; it is an important landmark of Calcutta city.

The novel opens with the premeditated murder of Luna Sassoon, the wife of the Jewish merchant Benjamin Sassoon who is away in China on a trade mission. The deceased leaves behind an young girl named Dinah and two tiny tots—Jonah and Asher.  Dinah’s reactions to the developments that follow and the traumatic experiences she undergoes form the crux of the story.

The two accused, Nissim Sadka and Moosa Chachuk, too are Jewish. “The suspects were tried before Chief Justice Sir John Neville and Sir Peter Grant, the second justice. Mr. Gardner, the Advocate General, conducted the case for the crown. Mr. Hicks defended Sadka, while Mr. O’Reily defended Cliachuk.” The trial was closely followed by the Sassoon family. Benu Sassoon assured his young daughter, “They shall hang by their necks until they are dead.” But, contrary to everyone’s expectations, the accused were found not guilty. When the people began to disperse after the pronouncement, Dinah anxiously asked her father, “Where is he (Sadka) going?” And she got the reply, “Wherever he wishes, Dinah. He is a free man.”

The failure of the British legal system to bring the murderers to justice gravely hurts the young girl. But, later the turn of events presents her with ample opportunities not only to pay respects to the memory of her mother but also to avenge her death upon her murderer.

Dinah weds Silas Luddy, whose mother is a Nepalese convert to Judaism, and soon discovers to her horror that he is a pathetic homosexual person. He fails to consummate the marriage and grants her a divorce. Her second husband, Edwin Salem, hails from the distant region of Cochin. Although he is not as affluent as the Sassoons, they stick together and are blessed with three sons Aaron, Zachariah and Jeremiah. Edwin brings Dinah to Cochin and even to the South Indian native state of Travancore, where they enjoy the hospitality of the young ruler, Prince Amar, an old friend of Edwin. Soon tragedy strikes. The couple had invested a substantial part of Dinah’s dowry in a shipping venture. The Maharajah too invests a large sum. But the vessel ‘Luna Sassoon’ sinks shattering their dreams and forcing them to flee to Calcutta to escape the wrath of the Maharajah.

While in Calcutta, word reaches Dinah Sassoon Salem that her former husband Silas Luddy, who was killed in a natural catastrophe in Darjeeling, has willed all his assets to her. With that money Dinah takes control of the Sassoon business empire establishes it on a firm footing. During a business tour in Hong Kong, she unexpectedly runs into Nissim Sadka, who has taken a new name, Song Kung Ni.  He has become a opium dealer. A tussle follows and Dinah’s body-guard, a Gorham named Gulliver, cuts him down.

This is not a historical novel, but it contains much information about Indian Jewish history. Cochin Jew Town and the Paradesi Synagogue are described in detail. Statements like “To my knowledge, the only time the Jews were treated miserably in India was under the Portuguese conquistadors” and “The rajahs of Cochin and Travancore always protected their Jewish citizens. This is why the Jews of Cochin settled close to the palace,” are factually true. But, Prince Amar is a fictional character. The references to Travancore should not be taken as absolutely historical.

Gay Courter’s portrayal of the disgusting behavior of womenfolk is true to nature. Luna Sassoon’s jewels, which should naturally go to her children, are taken away by Dinah’s aunt Bellore and she uses them as her own. Particularly revolting is the conduct of Esther Salem, Edwin’s mother. who unreservedly proceeds to examine the private parts of her prospective daughter-in-law. Her excuse is that she does not want to take any risk.

But, Zilpah Kehimkar Tassie, the third wife of Benu Sassoon, is presented as a noble lady. She hails from the renowned Bene Israel Jewish community of Bombay which was founded three millennia ago by Jewish immigrants from the Kingdom of Solomon. The affluent Baghdadi Jews were unreasonably stubborn, even fanatic, in their enmity towards Bene lsraels. Dinah’s grandmother comments, “She calls herself a Jew, but we know that the Bene lsraels are imposters.” Dinah also describes the “Indian Lady” as “this dark woman”. But as time passes she discovers new facts and confesses, “As to religious observance, Zilpah was the most dutiful mother I ever had.” And “...over a time. I was finding fewer reasons to hate her.”

The novel echoes William Shakespeare’s “Frailty thy name is woman,” particularly in referring to the moral turpitude of Luna Sassoon.  She is an opium addict who throws her marital purity to winds by inviting strange men to share her bed during the absence of her husband. And she pays for her blemish with her own life. It is explained that the assailant’s “awareness that he might not have been only man Luna invited to her bed, had driven him to desperation.” And the novelist asserts, “ woman may be satisfied with only one husband, hut never with one lover.”

Flowers in the Blood is a fascinating novel about India and her Jews Gay Courter is the widely renowned author of The Midwife, River of Dreams and Code Ezra. Her recreation of life in nineteenth-century India reveals her psychological insight and talent. The novelist lives with her husband and two sons in Florida, USA.