September 4, 2010

INDIA: Cinderella Story

MUMBAI, Maharashtra / Harmony Magazine /  People in Profile / September 4, 2010

Cinderella story

Globetrotter, ballerina and teacher Shahi Walter Abraham, an Israeli Jew, reminisces about the City of Dreams that made all hers come true. Dhanya Nair Sankar listens

She lives in a small, one-room kitchen apartment at the Bombay Hospital nurses’ quarters in Mumbai with her adopted daughter Florence, who is also her best friend. Entering their world, you feel like an unannounced guest but you banish the thought as soon as Shahi Walter Abraham walks in.

She greets you with a warm smile; for a centenarian, her handshake is surprisingly firm. You soon realise that her soft voice is at odds with her colourful past — that of a foot-tapping ballerina and piano teacher.

Abraham is one of the few surviving members of the Ashkenazi Jews, a community of priestly lineage also known as the original Israeli Jews. Abraham chose to stay back in Mumbai even though most of her family and friends returned to Israel in the 1980s. But they still visit Abraham on special occasions. “My family is spread across the globe,” says Abraham. “My younger sister lives in London. I visited her a few years ago and she was here last year on my birthday. I regularly talk to my relatives in Israel over the phone.” And no, she has never felt any cultural alienation. “India, with its rich vibrancy has always been home,” she says.

Born and brought up in Kolkata, where her father was a trader and mother a homemaker, Abraham has fond memories of her childhood. “In Kolkata, we had a tennis court at home. I spent my days studying, playing, learning the piano and ballet,” reminisces Abraham, lost in a sea of memories. “Dancing gave me the greatest happiness.” And thanks to some well-connected family friends, the young Abraham also had the chance to travel across India to places like Mussoorie, Darjeeling and around Kolkata. “The travel bug bit me when I was a teenager. At the age of 15, I visited Mussoorie and was awestruck. I had never felt like an outsider but I was convinced I was home.”

This was also where the ballerina-to-be had her first Cinderella moment, while she was studying. “The Prince of Mussoorie was a handsome man and a great dancer,” says Abraham, reliving those special moments. “I was taken by his dancing. I unwittingly entered his circle and we danced the ballroom dance, matching step for step. It was wonderful.” But the young ballerina paid a price. “I was severely scolded by my hostel warden and told that women were not supposed to gallivant with strange men. That baffled me as my parents had never made any distinction on the basis of gender.” Abraham explains, “In Jewish households, the mother is the ultimate boss. I had grown up seeing my mother manage every bit of the house. She taught me how to run a tight ship.”

Being the eldest of five sisters in a middle-class family, Abraham decided to discontinue her studies after two years in college so that she could look after her family. “My first job saw me working as a secretary at D J Keemer, a British company in Kolkata,” she remembers. “There, I learnt the nuances of bookkeeping.” Indian history paints a patriarchal picture, where women played second fiddle. Yet Abraham is a refreshing contrast. “In the British era, and maybe even just after Independence, patriarchy was the prevailing norm. But when I was in my 20s, there were women who worked. The workforce in the British mills was largely female and most women worked out of choice.”

Abraham doesn’t have family in Kolkata any more and thus doesn’t visit that city. But apart from being home, it was also where she met her late husband Walter Abraham. Memories of him make her face crinkle into a deep smile. “Walter was a rascal,” she says. She then breaks into peals of laughter. “He was a very good-looking guy. He was a good swimmer, very athletic and such a charmer that he had women of all ages swooning over him.” Walter was a year younger and was to marry another woman, his mother’s choice. But one look at the young and beautiful Shahi and he changed his mind! “I don’t know how I caught Walter’s eye,” says Abraham, with a coy smile. “He was very flamboyant while I was very shy. But some things are just meant to be.”

Left: Abraham with husband Walter. Right: With adopted daughter Florence

The couple married after a short courtship when Shahi was 28. “We were more than husband and wife. We were each other’s best friend,” says Abraham, eyes moist. “Those were the good old days, when marriages meant a firm commitment. Today, a marriage is ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.” Walter landed a job at a travel agency in Mumbai, where he went on to become manager. The couple, who never had children, moved to southern Mumbai in the early 1960s and lived in a colonial building in the Fort area. In her late 40s, Abraham joined the Robby Shelam School in Fort as accountant and piano teacher.

The couple loved travelling and would paint the town red in their ‘black beauty’, an old Ambassador car. “We drove to places like Pune, Mahabaleshwar, Indore, Kerala and Dehradun. Petrol was so cheap, the roads were not crowded and driving was fun,” recalls Abraham, who has also visited Israel, London, and the US among other places. She sold the car a few years ago: “Places have become so crowded now…travelling is not a pleasure anymore.”

Abraham belongs to an era when history was not confined to the pages of books but was being made; she calls Bombay a ‘City of Dreams’. “It was truly a melting point of cultures,” she says. “There were Jews, Christians, Hindus all living together. We respected each other and celebrated diversity. There was no discrimination on the basis of language or region. I feel saddened by how language has been politicised.”

A page turned in Abraham’s life when Walter passed away at the age of 76. “Of course, at times I feel incredibly lonely but then we had a lifetime of happiness and the memories still warm my heart,” she says. At 100, age is etched on Abraham’s face but she insists it’s just a three-digit figure. She is clearly not daunted by it — she still doesn’t use a wheelchair and has survived two bouts of cancer. Abraham fought off breast cancer in 1970 and secondary melanoma in the early 1990s. And though she has the usual aches and pains, she doesn’t let anything get her down.

“Problems eventually pass,” she says philosophically. No wonder her doctors affectionately call her a ‘tough cookie’. She is still fastidious about everything, including her tax returns. “I am very meticulous about money matters. It is important to spend wisely and live within your means,” explains Abraham; words of wisdom in today’s materialistic world. She is also deeply religious and loves animals. Thrifty or not, she regularly sets aside a small sum to take care of street dogs, a habit she says she learnt from her husband. And she definitely doesn’t like being treated indulgently. “Till last year, I used to fast during days of Atonement. But now Florence, who is also my nurse, force-feeds me,” she says, screwing up her nose.

Florence, who is deputy director of the Nursing Department at Bombay Hospital, says she admires Abraham’s chutzpah. “I came to Mumbai looking for work from Rajasthan in 1964 and met the Walters in 1972,” she reminisces. “I landed a post as a nurse at Bombay Hospital and the Walters became my local guardians. They readily let me into their lives and their hearts. Shahi and I have been inseparable ever since.” For Florence, Abraham is not just a surrogate mother but a confidant. “Even at her age, she doesn’t need any help to do her daily chores. I’ve seen her through many ups and downs but never has she lost her spirit or her faith in the Almighty. She is a sweetheart!”

As a former ballerina, Abraham used to visit the orchestras in Mumbai till only a few years go. She also busies herself listening to old English songs and cricket. “I don’t visit the orchestras or watch movies so much now as I feel both mediums have become loud,” says Abraham. “But I rarely miss Amitabh Bachchan’s movies. He still hasn’t lost any of his charm!” She’s a keen cricket fan too; Anil Kumble is her favourite. “Though I watch it less now owing to my health, I never missed a match when Anil Kumble played,” she beams. Asked if she has any regrets, Abraham quickly replies in the negative. But after a pause, she shares her only unfulfilled dream. “I always wanted to be an actor,” she confides wistfully. “If marriage had not happened, I could have been one.” But she adds, “I have had a rocking life. At least, I am able to laugh at the small things.”

Featured in Harmony Magazine
August 2010