Sethu’s latest novel Aliya delves deep into the minds of the Jews of Chendamangalam, who leave the land of their birth to ‘return’ to the Promised Land. The author tells that Aliya is a different kind of Diaspora novel

In the Seventies, Sethu, along with contemporaries such as Vijayan, Kakkanadan, Zachariah and Mukundan rode the crest of the wave of modernism in Malayalam fiction. Beginning with Njangal Adimakal in 1972 to his latest work Aliya, his works have coursed through the landscape of the human mind. With Marupiravi in 2011, he turns to familiar geographies and delves into its past. Sethu, the raconteur has taken his storytelling to a different plane in Aliya; he delves into the minds of the Jews of Chendamangalam, a people with a long history of displacement, their apparent seamless assimilation is not without a longing for a land to call their own. “The readers have set notions about every writer: if it is Sethu, there could only be two themes - fantasy and predicament of women. I have tried to innovate and re-discover myself with each novel,” is how he describes his works. In this interview, he speaks about Aliya and its making:

Did Aliya emerge as a sequel to Marupiravi, or, was it lying dormant in you?

Not really. In fact, the theme of Aliya was taking shape in my mind even before I ventured into Marupiravi. The Jewish community was a formidable presence in our area, Chendamangalam, Ernakulam district, during my school days. I had many Jewish schoolmates and when their families started leaving the village, it was a painful process for us. At that age, we could not understand the high sounding concepts such as ‘call of the religion,’ ‘return to the Promised Land’ etc. Decades later, when, as a writer, I tried to probe deep into the heritage and history of our area, many of those old unanswered questions took concrete shape and made me look far and wide. Thus was born Aliya.

Did the weaving of oral history and a chronology of the traditional movement of the Jews involve more of an academic research into the community and less of storytelling?

This is not a historical novel. Although there is a definite storyline involving fictional characters, it’s a mix of history, myths, legends and imagination. Since I am neither a historian nor even a student of history, this journey into the past was quite daunting, and, at the same time, exciting and rewarding

This ‘return’ to the new homeland and abandoning the land of their birth, was it out of a sense of patriotism, the craving to belong to a space to call their own, or representative of the mental state of the homeless anywhere

The feelings were mixed. I have tried to analyse the inner conflicts and dilemma in the minds of the migrants through some of the characters. While the elders were excited about the return to the Holy Land and a burial there, there were a few who dared to raise uncomfortable questions. Binder Daveed, for one, believed that religion cannot be the sole unifying factor and would love to be known as a better human being than an ardent Jew; the protagonist, Salamon, was confused about what was in store for them in an alien land; and a liberal like Elias, well aware of how history has been cruel to the Jews, arguing for a strong wall of Jewish unity against future onslaughts

Through Binder Daveed, Moses, Elias, and Eshimuthi the history of the Kerala Jews’ integration with the locality is obvious. Then, was it the pull of faith, or reclaiming of a lost identity of a people with a long history of persecution that shows up here

The dilemma was obvious. The Jews are one of the rarest Diasporas in the world. The Jews here are aware of the fact that when their ancestors were on the run to save their lives, our land was one which welcomed them with open arms. They were given not only a safe abode and a protective umbrella, but also a pride of place in a complex multi-religious, multi-cultural society.

Eshimuthi comes through as the traditional Jewish woman, the sons’ wives, Rebecca and Esther, are different. Did it emerge from the true life situation, or, was it part of your usual understanding of the woman in most of your works

I do not believe in telling the stories of real-life characters. I never typecast my characters. Rather, I would like to portray my women as strong-willed with a distinct identity of their own, possessive about their own space, and willing to assert their rights in a male-dominated society. This is too universal to be tied to a particular set of people of a certain area, although the social milieu may change.

Pavithran is a person of the present. He has strong views on ideology and political developments, but he has a very genuine question: Why are you leaving this land? Have you any reason to feel unwanted here? Could you elaborate on this sense of hurt when a community which has struck roots here decides to move out to an unknown homeland, could you elaborate?

I admit that the views of comrade Pavithran are somewhat contemporary and that a certain degree of creative freedom has been taken in his portrayal. But, it is a fact that the political class at that time was not too comfortable with this process of migration: they considered it a betrayal of the land which had supported them when they were badly in need of it

Concept of Diaspora

In the case of Aliya I had tried to look at the plight of the ‘Jewish Diaspora’ as such from the point of Chendamangalam Jews. The concept of Diaspora is often mistaken for ‘pravasam.’ In the case of Jews, it is slightly different. They are not ‘outcastes’ as far as India is concerned since they had gone on their own volition. Still the pain remains, which is just not plain nostalgia, but something deeper than that, I would describe it as a kind of un-snappable umbilical cord with the place of birth. To that extent, this is a different kind of Diaspora novel.