Marketing the Figure of the Jew: Writing South Asia, Reading America

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Author: Anna Guttman
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,336 words

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[(essay date 2006) In the following essay, Guttman considers writing, marketing, and reading strategies pertaining to postcolonial literature with Jewish themes, using Baumgartner's Bombay as an illustrative example.]

The subject of Jews has enjoyed something of a boom in South Asia in recent years, and not only from authors of fiction. This paper focuses specifically on Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay (1989), but Desai is not the only major author of Indian descent to include major Jewish characters in their fiction: so have Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. At least five new histories of the Jews of India have been published in the last five years alone1 (a large figure, given the relative paucity of earlier interest, and the tiny size of the Indian Jewish community, estimated to be between four and ten thousand).2 In March 2001, dedicated a special issue to the Jews of India.3 That history was reprinted on the website of the ultra-nationalist Hindu fundamentalist group, Hindu Unity, where it is positioned in such a way as to both underline Hindu tolerance and to position Jews as fellow enemies of Islam.4 Despite the small size of the Jewish community in India, Jews seem to loom large in the South Asian imaginary, both in the subcontinent, and in the diaspora.

The phenomena of the Jew in Indian literature in English has been conditioned by two distinctive social contexts of production and consumption, neither of which can be fully outlined here: distinctively South Asian attitudes towards Jews and Jewishness, which evolved largely out of the subcontinent's experiences of and encounters with Jewish life, and what, for lack of a better word, could be understood as a Western or Anglo-American literary economy, which, at least since the renaissance, has constructed the figure of the Jew as a site of anxiety about a range of issues including, but not limited to, capitalism, sexual desire and miscegenation. It is beyond the scope of this paper to give a complete account of this figure and its travels (which, in any case has been done elsewhere)--suffice it to say that, the figure of the Jew is a symbol, an ideological construct, that is, at best, only tangentially related to actual instantiations of Jewish life. What is particularly relevant for the purposes of this chapter, however, is the central and very specific role, that figure has played in the global literary economy.

The Bestseller and the Jew

The first ever bestseller list, published by Bookman, was headed by George Du Maurier's Trilby. The story, to give the briefest possible summary, is of a poor young woman, the title character, who, controlled and hypnotized by a sinister Jew, Svengali, becomes a wildly popular singer. One of the novel's more interesting features is that it depicts and examines the very popular outpouring of enthusiasm for art that the book itself was to generate. The association of Jewishness with commercialization generally, and the commodification of culture more specifically, was not,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100090482