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.