The British Empire Library

The Turban Jewel: A Bene Israeli Indian Tale

by Sophie Judah

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Milly is a Jewish woman, a Bene Israeli, living in pre-independence Lahore, now part of modern day Pakistan. Mother, wife, and daughter-in- law living a 'normal ' life under the shadow of the Swaraj movement. The British Raj is on the cusp of its eclipse but no one knows when and if the sun will ever set on the empire, and neither does Milly, nor how the freedom struggle would ensnare the unwary. Milly, the protagonist of Sophie Judah 's third book The Turban Jewel, could not have fathomed, even in her wildest dreams, what life had in store for her and her family. Does Milly rise to the challenges life presents? Do her children persevere? Does her husband 's humanity prevail? The author leaves us hanging by her every word as she weaves a story of suspense and human drama, allowing us to exhale only through the last pages of this riveting story without wasting words to narrate a remarkable tale of perseverance, faith, love, friendship and humanity. The story moves from Lahore to Jwalanagar, an imaginary town in Central India (probably Jabalpur, because her own family, while she was growing up as an army brat, seemed to circle back to it) chugging along like a smoke belching locomotive, building speed as it hurtles headlong into the uncertain terrain of Milly's life.

Sophie Judah's first book, a collection of short stories, Dropped from Heaven spans from pre to post-independence India, partition of India and Pakistan, Hindu Muslim conflict, the Bene Israel and the land of their forefathers - Eretz Israel. The stories narrate the brutality and generosity of humans with equal sensitivity. Many of those same characters are subtly inlaid in Milly's world in The Turban Jewel and stumbling upon them feels like deja vu as we try to tease apart their identities, much like Jack London 's Alaskan characters in every story he writes about them. Although The Turban Jewel is a story about a woman, it is not a feminist novel. It is a story of survival - of one woman, her fami ly and her community. It also delves into the customs, traditions and lifestyle of the little known Jewish community in India describing life as it is; narrating the good and the evil with equal deft and objectivity. We watch community events, friendships and other relationships develop or deteriorate. We watch Milly pay the price for every decision she makes. We watch the victim become the perpetrator. We see what gui lt, revenge and neglect can do to ordinary people. The same circumstances have a different effect on each of Milly's children. A good read.

British Empire Book
Sophie Judah
Austin Macauley Publishers
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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