My Friend Joseph
I first met Joseph on a hospital ship returning from South Africa. We had both been wounded during the early days of the Boer War and were being shipped back home to India. I had passed a restless night. The wound in my shoulder was healing, but pain made sleep difficult. I spent my time looking out of the porthole, and I watched the horizon change colors from black to gray, to streaks of pink, orange, and purple. After the sky turned a pale blue, I heard one of the other patients stir in his bed. This gave me something different to watch. I saw the dark shape of a man rise from his bed, fumble for something in his locker, and then limp toward the door. He had a crutch under one arm and a parcel under the other. He had trouble opening and closing the door, but I did not get up to help. The bloke obviously thought that he could manage by himself, so I was not going to be the one to remind him that he was incapacitated at least for the time being.
The man stood in the open doorway for a few seconds. The bundle under his arm caught my attention. He did not raise his arm or remove the parcel he held against his body, although it would have made it much easier for him to open the door if his arm could move unhindered. He placed his crutch against the bulkhead outside the door, hopped through on one leg, and then reached back to pull the door shut. I heard the sounds of the crutch on the stairs followed by creaks when each stair took his weight as he hobbled along. I wondered what made the bundle so precious that he would not let it drop. Letters from a wife or sweetheart did not normally get the amount of respect this fellow was showing for his parcel. It was also too large to contain letters, anyway.
We had been in South Africa for only a few weeks. I tried to think of other things, but my mind kept returning to the bundle under the wounded soldier’s arm. Its shape was vaguely and disturbingly familiar. I did not understand the uneasy feeling of guilt that overcame me. I had not hurt the man’s pride by helping him, so I had no reason to feel that at that moment I should have been doing something other than lying in bed imagining the naked bodies of the nurses who took care of us.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. I rose and went out on deck. Not far from the door I saw the answer to my riddle. The man stood with his back not completely to the rising sun but at a slight angle to it, so as to face northwest. He was covered with a tallit
, or prayer shawl. His held his crutch under one arm for support, while in his free hand he held a small book. The empty bags that had held his prayer shawl and phylacteries, or tefillin, lay on a chair beside him. I did not have to look at the man’s face to realize that he was one of my people. As “natives” we could not become officers in the British Army. This man had come from my ward, so he was an enlisted man, not an officer. Officers inhabited a different part of the ship. I understood the reason for my unease. I should have been praying, too. I always carried my tallit
into battle with me so that in case I got killed my body could be wrapped in it for burial. I did not carry tefillin because I did not pray regularly. Still, I wanted a Jewish funeral if it was possible.
I waited for the man to finish his prayers and place his “holy things,” as I thought them to be, into their bags before I stepped forward and introduced myself.
,” I said, as it was the only Hebrew greeting I knew. “My name is Bentzion.”
He took my hand in a firm clasp. “Joseph,” he said.
“Could we speak for a while? Would you like to sit here or shall we go below?” I asked.
“I’d rather sit out here, but my wound hurts in the cold.”
“Shall I bring up two blankets? My wound hurts, too.”
“That would be nice,” he replied.
This was the beginning of a friendship that lasted all our lives. I accompanied him to the deck every morning and evening during the rest of the voyage home. He allowed me to carry his prayer things, and I sat at a little distance from him until he finished praying. Not once did he ask me why I did not pray, too. The only time we spoke about it was when I brought up the subject.
“Have you always prayed three times a day?” I asked.
“Not always, but once I started I have not let off.”
“How did you manage in South Africa?”
“As best I could. One time, I managed to get a little free time when we were in the jungle, or bush, as they call it. I walked toward the river in order to be some distance from the other soldiers. I found a spot I liked and I said my prayers. At the part where we step back and then forward again, I felt myself step upon something that moved. I did not let that disturb my prayers. After I finished, I looked around, and there lay a crocodile. It had not harmed me, and it made no movement toward me as I walked away, although it watched me all the time.”
“Go on. You are pulling a fast one.” I laughed.
To my surprise he leaned forward and caught my elbow in a viselike grip. “Don’t call me a liar. I do not tell lies, and if you want to be my friend do not lie to me, either. If I tell you I stepped on a crocodile, you can be sure that I stepped on a crocodile. You can find any explanation for why it happened, but do not doubt the truth of my words.” He let my arm go.
I rubbed my elbow and said, “Maybe the animal was not hungry. Just like our Indian pythons, they, too, can go without food for months once they have a bellyful of some animal.”
“I will not argue with your belief. You may be right. I prefer to believe that the Lord saved me because of my daily devotions to Him.”
“I wish I could believe and pray like you do,” I said.
“Don’t worry. When the Lord decides to grab you, you will not be able to run away. You will return to the fold quietly and willingly.”
We never spoke about religion or prayer after that. We told each other everything about ourselves and our families. Then we came to the joint decision that it was time to get married. We had both had close brushes with death, so we saw the importance of having children. It would not be difficult to find brides from the villages the Bene Israel inhabited along the Konkan Coast. We had regular work, which promised a pension in old age. This was security. What else could a father want for his daughters? I was twenty-three years old, and Joseph was twenty-one. We had a future with the British Army. We considered ourselves to be suitable bridegrooms, the kind any girl would desire.
The ship docked at Bombay, but we were not free to look for girls. We had to go to a military hospital first. Army ambulances met us at the docks and took us to the big railway station called Victoria Terminus. A train waited for us there. Every wagon had a large red cross painted on both its sides. We were taken to a big military rehabilitation hospital in Deolali. This is where we met Subahdar Samuel Kolet.
Samuel Kolet was around forty-five years old. He was in charge of the medical stores. We recognized him for a fellow Bene Israel from the moment we saw him. Because Joseph wanted information about the local synagogue, we spoke to him immediately. He told us that there were very few Jewish families in the city and they had no synagogue because few of the men prayed three times a day. During festivals and on Shabbat they got together for prayers, and we were welcome to join them. He invited us to his house for kiddush and dinner on Friday night.
Dinner at Subahdar Kolet’s house changed our lives forever. He had seven children, and two of his daughters were of marriageable age. Elisheva was eighteen years old, and Ketura was sixteen. I caught one glimpse of Ketura and knew that my future lay with her. She was not exactly beautiful, but she had a certain grace and charm that overpowered me. Her eyes were large, her smile shy, and her hair fell almost to her knees. She had high cheekbones and a dimple in one cheek. I watched her, and Subahdar Kolet watched me. I was not aware of this at the time. It was Joseph who brought it to my attention.
“You made an ass of yourself,” he said when we were back in our hospital ward. “We will be lucky if he invites us again. Why did you have to stare as though you have never seen a woman in your life?”
“Simple,” I answered, a bit annoyed at being called a donkey. “I haven’t seen a girl like her before.”
“She is just another ordinary-looking girl.”
“That may be so, but I intend to marry her.”
“Congratulations. In that case the subahdar has no reason to be angry. He cannot refuse such a good match for his daughter. You are also wise in your choice. She is familiar with the life an army family leads. The adjustment will be no adjustment at all.” Joseph was sure that everything would work out for me.
I was not so sure. “You are right, Joseph, but there is a problem. Ketura is the younger of the two girls. The father will want the elder girl to be married first. I do not really want to wait,” I said.
“No problem. What are friends for? I’ll marry the elder one,” he said. “What is she like? I was too busy watching the drama you put on to notice the other girl.”
“She is small, slim, and pretty. Her hair falls only to her waist, long, but not really long like Ketura’s. Her eyes are a lighter brown than her sister’s, and her skin is lighter, too. Her nose is a bit upturned. She has pretty hands and feet,” I replied.
“You saw a lot for a man who had eyes only for the younger girl.” Joseph laughed.
The next day we searched for Subahdar Kolet during the hour we were supposed to be at the swimming pool. We found him in a storeroom counting a new consignment of red army hospital blankets. He pointed to a bench and asked us to sit there until he finished his work. We saw that he was doing nothing that he could not lay aside for a few minutes, so we assumed that he knew what we, or at least I, wanted. He was establishing his right to exert authority over us. We both took this as a positive sign.
We roasted in the Deolali sunshine. There were other benches at a distance under shady mulberry trees, but we had been asked to sit where he could watch us. It was in our interest to comply with his wishes. After about forty minutes he made his appearance and immediately took us to the veranda of the VD ward. He wanted to sit in the shade. We mopped our foreheads and necks with our handkerchiefs while he watched us with a smile. I was hesitant, but Joseph, true to his nature, came straight to the point.
“Hum ladkaiyon ka hath manganye ayie hain.
We have come to ask for the girls’ hands in marriage,” he said.
? Girls? You mean both?” he asked.
“Yes,” Joseph said.
“Give me your home addresses and the names of your commanding officers with their addresses. I must make inquiries before I decide,” Kolet said.
This was a reasonable request. It was also what custom demanded. Joseph and I knew that sometimes a bride’s father makes the groom wait for no reason at all. Our sojourn on the bench was enough for us to put Kolet in this category.
“We have only nine weeks left of our stay in the hospital here. If the answer giving and wedding are not over by then, I shall leave and look for another girl. It is not as though we are in love with the girls, and I for one cannot afford to travel back and forth,” Joseph said.
“You have just returned wounded from the war in Africa. You have money.”
“Not to waste it on silliness, I haven’t. I come from a large family that I help support. You must realize, Subahdar sahib, that I am a man of my word. What I have said I have said. I will not spit and then lick it up. I tell you I will not waste time or money for no sensible reason.”
Joseph’s outspokenness made me fear that I had lost my chance to get Ketura. I cleared my throat to say something soothing, but Joseph barged in again.
“Bentzion has offered for Ketura and I for Elisheva. I am younger than he is. This should be clear before you start making inquiries. Is there something else you wish to ask us?”
Kolet had nothing to ask, so we rose and went to the swimming pool. We spent a lot of time in the pool during the next two weeks. We were not invited to the Kolet house during this period. The subahdar had disappeared from the hospital. I made inquiries about his whereabouts when Joseph was in the gymnasium with the doctors. I knew that he would not bend under any pressure Kolet tried to exert. He told me that he thought Kolet was an ass who would let a little power go to his head and make him into a tyrant. Joseph was not going to let him make things difficult for us. I was a different proposition altogether. I was nervous and anxious. I do not know how much of it was due to love, but my pride was also involved. A refusal would be a comedown in my self-image.
The man who replaced Kolet in the storeroom told me that Kolet had taken three weeks of compassionate leave to deal with family problems.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“No, no. He is looking into the matter of two matches offered for his daughters.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “What does he say about the matches?” I added as casually as I could.
“He is hoping for the best, although one of them seems to be a bit of an akadoo
, a stiff, stubborn person. Still, if you think about the size of his community, who can blame him for being anxious about his daughters?”
I had heard enough. I knew that the girls were ours. We just had to wait until Kolet returned from his visits to our homes and those of our friends. Our commanding officers would be prompt in their approvals. The officers took as much care of their men as they could, and neither of us had a blemish on his army records. They would also feel that they owed something to the men who were wounded in action.
We kept ourselves busy with exercise and visits to the recreation room, where we played cards and carom. I became quite good at darts, while Joseph made use of the library. I was not one for reading much, but he was quite a scholar. He read in Marathi, Gujarati, and English. An Irish soldier named Peters spent hours discussing books with him, while I played games of solitaire, not understanding a word of the discussions that I listened to with only half an ear.
Subahdar Kolet appeared at our breakfast table about two weeks after our last conversation with him. “You are invited to my house for dinner this evening. Be there by seven o’clock,” he said before he turned on his heel and almost marched out.
Joseph and I applied to the duty officer for passes. We usually had to be back by ten o’clock, but Joseph decided that we needed more time. He told the officer that we were expecting to be given answers for offers we had made for the girls we intended to marry. The officer laughed and gave us passes until midnight. “The CO will kill me, but good luck,” he said as he shook hands with both of us.
“You have some cheek,” I said to Joseph when we were outside the hospital gates that evening. “You know that the doctors want us to be in bed by ten o’clock at the latest.”
“Truth has its own charm,” he replied with a big smile. “I had nothing to lose if he had said no, but it was worth a try. Now we will not have to hurry.”
Joseph bought a packet of pedas
, the sweetmeat that is usually distributed when an engagement is announced. He divided it into two small packets that could fit into his trouser pockets. “I don’t want to insult the family by seeming overconfident,” he explained. “When the answer is given, I will do the mooh meetha
. I will sweeten their mouths. I have no intention of rushing around and trying to find a sweetmeat shop at the hour old man Kolet decides to say what he has to say to us.” He suggested that I place my pedas
in an opaque bag along with other shopping we supposedly did to vary our diet in the hospital.
At the Kolet house Joseph sat quietly while the subahdar and his wife shilly-shallied about making small conversation. He did not say more than ten words in half an hour. The girls were nowhere to be seen. Joseph watched the subahdar with a half smile on his lips. This made the older man uncomfortable. “Why are you looking at me in such a way?” The question seemed torn from him against his will.
“I want to see how long you are going to beat around the bush. You have called to give us the answer, and we have come for it. What is it? Is it yes or no? Don’t waste our time. If it is no, we shall leave immediately. If it is yes, what are you fussing around for like a clucking hen?”
Subahdar Kolet seemed shocked at the impudence of a man who hoped to be his son-in-law. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Joseph, but Joseph looked back with unabashed frankness. If Kolet was trying to establish his authority over us, Joseph was making it clear that he was not a man who could be bullied. Kolet had to understand that before he gave his answer.
“Yes. You may marry my daughters,” he said.
Joseph’s hand went to his pocket, and he took out a packet of slightly squashed pedas
. He placed one in the mouth of our father-in-law-to-be and one in the mouth of our mother-in-law-to-be. I fumbled in my bag, upsetting a packet of roasted peanuts. Before I managed to take out my perfectly shaped pedas
neatly arranged in the confectioner’s box, Joseph had completed the ritual and my sweets were just a formality.
The mother called her children to set the table. All the children made their appearance with some dish or other. The family had invested a lot of time and trouble to prepare a really good meal. Joseph took out his second packet of pedas
and gave it to Elisheva when she came in with a bowl of steaming rice in her hands.
“This is for you,” he said. He looked straight into her face for the first time. He must have liked what he saw, because he gave her a smile I had never seen him give to anybody else. She blushed and looked away, pretending not to notice the touch of his hand upon hers as she took the packet from him.
We had insisted on a quick wedding, so our arrangements were hastily made. I decided to give Ketura money for the jewelry the groom is supposed to provide for the wedding. I told Joseph about this, and he agreed that it was a good idea.
“They have to wear it, so they should choose what they like,” he said.
We agreed to give them an equivalent of two months’ salaries. I was a lance naik, but Joseph was still a sepoy. His wages were smaller than mine, so Elisheva received less than Ketura did. Elisheva was not pleased. The first chance she got, she told Joseph that Ketura had more jewelry than she had.
“That is what I can afford,” he said. “Bentzion earns more than I do. You will have to get used to the idea. It is not your father’s house where all children are equal.”
“Can’t you get a loan?” she asked.
“I will not go into debt. You will just have to be satisfied with what I can afford.”
“We sisters are getting married together. It will be embarrassing when our relatives compare what you gave with what Bentzion gave.”
“Why should your true condition embarrass you? We can break off all wedding plans if you want a richer man. I can understand that, but I tell you now that I will not do things just to put on a show.”
“Perhaps you have savings somewhere,” she persisted.
“I will never tell you a lie, Sheba bai
, and if you are wise you will not tell me one, either. I have told you that I do not have more money, so you’d better believe I have no money. After we marry, I will give you my entire salary with which to run the house. If you manage to save anything, you can do what you want with it. At the moment it is I and not you who know my financial condition.”
Elisheva fell silent. Joseph was irritated. “A new wife is like a new mustache,” he said to me later. “You have to train them both in the beginning. Later you will have no control over them.” He then asked me whether Ketura wanted more than I could provide. I told him that she seemed satisfied.
“I wondered whether her father was putting ideas of a loan into her head,” he said. “He is capable of it, and I do not want Elisheva to be ruled by him when it comes to matters that should be between the two of us.”
We started visiting the Kolet family every evening. Although we were seldom left alone with our brides-to-be, it was a very sweet time for us. Each moment when the parents left or the other children were absent meant a smile or a touch that would not have been shared otherwise. Joseph seemed to like Elisheva more with each passing day. On Fridays he would buy flowers for her hair. I was only too willing to follow suit. Once I wanted to buy some chocolate, but he said that the younger brothers would grab the major share, leaving little for their sisters. Our gifts should be something only the girls could use. It would make them feel that they were special to us and that we cared about them. I was surprised to see him weave a basket for Elisheva to keep her thread and crochet hooks in. He had seen her crocheting lace for a sari petticoat and thought that his gift would be useful and appreciated. That is what he said, but I thought that he was slowly and surely falling in love with his “intended.” He smiled without making an answer when I told him this.
Three days before the weddings our families arrived. We had rented a house not far from the Kolet house. My mother visited her daughter-in-law-to-be and made her a present of a new gold necklace with earrings of a matching design. She also gave her four gold bangles that my grandmother had sent. Joseph’s mother gave Elisheva a pair of earrings and a pair of bangles that were her own. She had more children than my parents had, and she had married off a daughter the previous year, so she could not afford much. Ketura told me that Elisheva was jealous, but neither of us said anything to Joseph. He had already spoken of not marrying the girl if she made demands on him. According to Ketura, her sister was a stubborn person who liked having her own way. She did not give in easily, especially when she had her mind set on something. I thought that what he did not know could not hurt him. That was the reason I felt apprehensive when he told me that he had given Elisheva money to buy a mangal sutra
of her choice and a wedding ring according to the size of her finger.
The day before the wedding we had the mehndi
ceremony. This is when designs in henna are drawn upon the hands of the bride. As grooms we had our forefingers covered with henna paste, too. Then some of our relatives took a bit of henna from our fingers and went to the brides’ house. The groom’s henna was placed on the forefinger of the bride. We were not allowed to see our brides for ten days before the wedding, so we stayed at home and joked with the relatives who had not gone to the brides’ house.
When our relatives returned, Joseph’s mother immediately went up to him and asked, “Where are the mangal sutra
and wedding ring for the bride?”
“With her. I gave her money to buy what she likes,” he replied.
“That is what you think. I asked to see the mangal sutra
and wedding ring, and she answered, as calmly as you please, that you would have to buy them because she bought a gold chain with the money you gave her.”
Joseph just nodded.
“What are you going to do?” his mother insisted.
“Buy a wedding ring and a mangal sutra
. You can return the Benarasi silk sari we bought for the baraat
ceremony. We can use that money. She will have to come to my house in her white wedding sari.”
“You foolish boy! The baraat
sari was given to her today according to our tradition. You should have let me buy the jewelry, too. It was to accompany the sari,” she grumbled.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Joseph said, and went to bed.
The next morning Joseph went into the city. His mother wanted to accompany him. She said that her earrings and those of his two young sisters could be sold to the jeweler in exchange for a mangal sutra
“It is my problem. Let me deal with it. Nobody will have to give up anything for my sake, and my wife will have to learn to live within what I can afford if she does not want to go hungry for part of every month.”
He returned after four hours. His mother asked whether he had made his purchases. He only nodded in reply.
“May I see them?”
“You will see them on the bride after I put them on her,” he said.
During the wedding ceremony Joseph produced the narrowest wedding ring I have ever seen and placed it on Elisheva’s finger. I remember thinking that he must have sat with the jeweler to get it made. After the ceremony was over, the elder who conducted the wedding asked Joseph to put the mangal sutra
around the bride’s neck. Joseph reached into his pocket and drew out a length of twine, the kind gunnysacks are sewn up with. It was threaded through a gold bead. He tied this around the neck of his new wife. I heard him say, “It may embarrass you, but it is all I can afford.”
Joseph may sound like a hardheaded and a hard-hearted man, but I must add that his marriage worked out very well. They respected, loved, and cherished each other. They recognized that each could be as stubborn as the other. Manipulation and lies never entered their marriage. It took Elisheva more than a year to save enough money to buy a gold chain for the gold bead of her mangal sutra
. Until that time, she wore the piece of twine as a symbol of her married status. And she found that it didn’t bother her that much at all.