Set in Stone

Mumbai’s Muslim engraver of Jewish tombstones

01 August 2014
Mohammad Abdul Yaseen has engraved tombstones for Mumbai’s dwindling Jewish community for over forty years.
Sameer Khan

EARLY ON A BRIGHT FEBRUARY MORNING, under a small shed in a corner of the Jewish cemetery in Worli, Mumbai, 74-year-old Mohammad Abdul Yaseen chipped away at a grey stone slab using a large hammer and chisel. The graveyard was small and solemn, and tombstones stood in neat lines, bearing the Star of David alongside inscriptions in various combinations of Hebrew, Marathi and English. Yaseen chiselled Hebrew characters into the stone, intent on his work.

Yaseen, a devout Muslim, is the only expert engraver of Jewish tombstones in Maharashtra today. He has practiced his trade for over forty years, and is fluent in Hebrew. Beside him stood another man, who introduced himself as Daniel Bamnolkar, the cemetery’s caretaker and a member of Mumbai’s Bene Israel community. The Bene Israel are Jews who have lived along the Konkan Coast for two millennia, adopting local customs and languages while retaining a distinct cultural identity. Their population in India peaked at about twenty thousand in the late 1940s, but many subsequently emigrated, mostly to Israel. Today they number only about five thousand in Mumbai, with a couple thousand more in Pune. It is this population that Yaseen serves, alongside Mumbai’s small handful of Baghdadi Jews, who are descendedants of mid-nineteenth-century immigrants from West Asia.

Yaseen arrived in Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh in 1968 as a young man looking for work. He was introduced to Aaron Menashe, a respected Bene Israeli who made tombstones for the community, whom he started to assist. Menashe passed his skills on to Yaseen, and also taught him to read and write Hebrew. When Menashe and his family moved to Israel in 1971, Yaseen took up his mentor’s work, both in Mumbai and across Maharashtra.

Such close ties between a Muslim and a Jew were not surprising in Mumbai. For centuries, Jews have lived in peace, and built their synagogues, in the city’s Muslim neighbourhoods. For instance, the Gate of Mercy, Mumbai’s oldest remaining synagogue, was built in its present location in the predominantly Muslim area of Bhendi Bazaar, close to the Masjid commuter railway station, in 1860. Few realise that the station is actually named after the synagogue, and not a mosque; the Bene Israel call their synagogues “masjids,” and the Gate of Mercy is also known as Juni Masjid. Other Mumbai synagogues are also located in Muslim localities, such as Byculla, Madanpura and Jacob Circle.

We were soon joined by Mohammad Islam, Yaseen’s fifty-year-old son. Islam spoke fondly of “uncle Aaron Menashe,” who was the family’s “greatest pillar of strength when my father arrived in Mumbai.” Yaseen is teaching his trade to his son, but there seems little chance that the family business will survive in future generations. The job is arduous, and does not pay very well; “each tombstone takes approximately fifteen days,” Yaseen said, and the dwindling Jewish population means there are no more than two or three orders every month. Islam told me his father was “used to living within his modest means,” but that his children “had bigger ambitions.” “Both my sons are educated as engineers,” he said, “and the eldest is working in Saudi Arabia.”

Yaseen saw nothing unusual in being a Muslim working with the Jewish community. “I just adore the love and affection showered upon me,” he said. Whenever old friends who moved abroad come back to visit, Yaseen said, after paying their respects to their ancestors they make it a point to introduce their families to “Yaseen chacha”—uncle Yaseen. Many have invited him to Israel, where they say his expertise would guarantee a lucrative career. But Yaseen has declined all invitations, preferring to enjoy the twilight of his life with his family, working in the cemetery where he spent his best years, “among the Jewish people.” “I never bothered about money,” he added, “and god always blessed me with a simple, honest living.”

Sameer Khan is a playwright, author and independent writer. He tweets as @samkhan999.

Keywords: Mumbai Bene Israel community Judaism in India