The Melancholy Family

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Review of 'Calcutta Kosher' by Shelley Silas, Theatre Royal, Stratford

Kali Production Company specialises in bringing the writing of Asian women to the stage. Calcutta Kosher is a welcome addition to that admirable project.

India has been host to three main groups of diaspora Jews - the Bene Israel, Cochin Jews and Baghdadi Jews. As first-comers, the Bene Israel combined Jewish with Hindu and Muslim practices until the arrival of the Cochin, who were fleeing persecution in Portugal during more Inquisitive times. They found a haven free from the obscenities of European anti-Semitism.

The subject of this play, the Baghdadi Jews came at the end of the 18th century from what are now Iraq and Syria, mostly as traders in jute, cotton and silk, and tended to adopt some of the mannerisms and assumptions of the British Raj. Their numbers peaked at around 2,000 during the Second World War after the Japanese invasion of Burma. Emigration to Israel and elsewhere means the Baghdadis are now a tiny dwindling community of the elderly, mostly women, in the suburbs of Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta).

The dying woman at the centre of this play represents a declining community on the verge of extinction, a distinctive identity which is about to be lost forever.

Her two daughters - one uptight and British, the other a rather stereotypically brash Californian - have crossed the continents on her invitation to find she is on her deathbed. They are shocked to discover that the live-in servant who they grew up with and who now tends to their mother's every need is in fact their half-sister, the product of an affair with a Hindu man. Snobbish attitudes about the social rank of different religious groups are challenged.

This is a comedy permeated throughout by the eerie melancholy of sunset. The quality of the writing is uneven - it's at its best in the second act, when the darker revelations result in uncomfortable silences. It founders when too often it heads towards rather weak and predictable jokes, as if Asian women writers won't be accepted by an audience unless they try to be the next Meera Syal.

That doesn't matter though, because the play's subdued but charming sadness is what remains with you as you leave the auditorium.