Whitefield, close enough to be a part of Bangalore but far
enough to be its own place, is an island of glass-walled towers, where
thousands go every day to sit in front of a computer. Its streets are filled
with large Volvo buses that ferry the IT worker, crawling like giant red
caterpillars groaning under their own weight.
“Do you know Whitefield?” asks Seema Moses. Not the one she knows, not the one she dismissed in 1940 as a young bride from Shanghai. At that time, Whitefield was a popular British settlement that many Anglo-Indian families made their home. When Seema’s husband Aaron suggested that they live in Whitefield, she told him: “I come from a modern city and you want to take me to a village? No way!”
The Moseses continued to live in their eight-bedroom house on Palace Road with a large well, some Malayali servants, and a talented man named Kochapi to cook, in a locality of the rich and famous, around the aristocracy. At 96, Seema is the matriarch of one of Old Bangalore’s remaining Jewish families.
Bangalore’s Jewish history is one of its best kept secrets. Only a handful of Jews have ever been through the city; even fewer have made it their home. Much of what’s written about the city’s Jewish heritage is anecdotal at worst and deductive at best. For instance, researcher Ronnie Johnson put the city’s Jewish connection about 180 years ago, after finding what is believed to be the oldest Jewish grave in the Hosur Road (European) cemetery—that of an Australian-born gentleman named M. Horvitz—dated June 1898.
More recently, during the Second World War—with or without encouragement from Sir C. V. Raman’s open invitation to German Jews to work at the Indian Institute of Science—a few Jewish families moved to Bangalore. The late 1930s and 1940s is said to have been the time when a dozen Jewish families lived here.
But Independence—of both India and Israel—caused many of them to leave. A few families moved back to Israel, while several others moved to England, America or Australia in search of a better fortune. Today, about 30 Jewish families live in various parts of the city, most of them Israeli citizens working in the IT sector.
ubin Moses Nahoum, a man of Iraqi descent from San Francisco, was a trader destined for Singapore when he heard the news that gold had been found in the mines of Kolar, a settlement 70 kilometres north of Bangalore. The gold he could trade for his “wagon-load of knick-knacks”! Taking a sharp detour, perhaps one of fate too, Rubin landed in Calcutta at the turn of the century, from where he travelled south to Bangalore and set up Rubin Moses and Sons, a shoe store that went on to become a household name.
Bangalore cantonment those days welcomed anyone who could sell a thing or two the British and the Anglo-Indians needed. Rubin found the right thing: imported shoes of various kinds—walking, horse riding, orthopaedic—you name it, he had it. An old letterhead described Rubin Moses and Sons as “manufacturers and agents; importers of high grade British footwear”. Spreading wide across numbers 7, 8 and 9, Commercial Street, the store had high ceilings, large windows and monkey tops adorning it, and the inscription “In god we trust”.
Rubin Moses was a short, mustachioed man, often seen in a three-piece suit and never without his favourite felt hat. He was not a man of great eloquence, at least not in English. His writing was mostly in Arabic; he signed his wedding katubah in Arabic. About the early days of Rubin Moses and Sons, Aaron Moses, Rubin’s son, says in an interview: “…and Winston Churchill would come in horseback and then boom out: ‘Rubin, are my boots ready?’ My father would run out with them all neatly packed. Oh yes, Churchill was a good customer.”
The cantonment—separated from the old “pete” (read as pay-tay) by Cubbon Park—the British army, the Air Force and the polo-playing soldiers, bungalows with monkey tops and traffic-free days and nights: Bangalore set the mise-en-scène for the Rubin Moses story.
Rubin’s story would be incomplete without that of his partner in life and business: Rahma. Bangalore’s inability to offer Rubin a Jewish bride sent him on a journey towards Calcutta, where he met Rahma. An English-educated, hookah-smoking woman of small build, stern demeanour, and strong personality, Rahma was more than just Rubin’s wife: she ran Rubin Moses and Sons with him and a few years after he was gone in 1936, and took care of his other businesses, like collecting rent from their tenants across Commercial Street.
When Subedar Samuel Nagavkar passed away in Bangalore in 1904, he may have just been the first Jew of influence to get for his community a burial ground in the city. Nagavkar is the first to rest under the soil in the Jewish cemetery on Mysore Road, Bangalore. Under the patronage of the Maharajas of Mysore, the land even after 110 years continues to exist as a Jewish burial site was granted to Benjamin Abraham Nagavkar, the Subedar’s son, earmarked for community burials. The Moses family has taken over and maintained it ever since.
Though the community was indeed very small, the Moseses were not the only Jewish family in Bangalore. The Caduris—who had a readymade ladies clothing store in Commercial Street—the Noahs, Michael Schumer, G. Moses, and Isaac Cohen—who ran an auction house—were a few others who had once made Bangalore their home.
Rahma commanded great respect in the Jewish community in Bangalore. In a city that was never known for its Jewish heritage, Rahma let her own home be used as a synagogue. She converted a large hall into a place of worship, complete with a Torah from the Cochin Synagogue. At sundown every Friday—the Sabbath—she held open nights in her home, serving kosher food after the Torah readings.
One such regular visitor, during the last few years before
the Indian independence, was a British Air Force combat pilot who went on to
become the President of Israel: Ezer
Weizmann. As the story goes, Rubin and Rahma had four daughters, for one of whom he seemed to have developed a special liking!
offee cup tightly clutched in my hand, with the hum of Bangalore traffic for company, I wait in the drawing room of a regular city home: tucked away in a one-way street, an apartment complex of no distinguishing identity, no parking for visitors, a security guard who asks more questions than your in-laws did when they chose you for their ward, a dump of uncollected garbage.
Soon enough, Seema arrives, hair completely grey but memory intact, and welcomes me with maternal warmth. She does not look more than 5 feet 3 inches tall, slouching on her walker; she could have well been a few inches taller in her days. She is fair, thin and bespectacled, dressed in a comfortable pair of pants, a round-neck T-shirt, and a dark blue fleece jacket zipped up halfway. I’ve been told she is a little hard of hearing, so I speak up to introduce myself. She recognises me immediately from my visit a couple of weeks ago. She is eager to talk.
Showing her journals with handwritten notes over each incident worth discussing in the family’s life, Seema apologises for her shaky hand. She has seen many Bangalores: the war-ready city where petrol was rationed, leaving her to walk; the “jungle” she believes it once was; the post-Independence euphoria to the present day “business centre”; the “mini New York” she tells me Bangalore has become.
“When I first arrived in Bangalore, I was shocked to see some people pushing a cart through the back entrance of the house to collect the toilet,” she says of the “night carts”.
At one point, the Moses family owned several properties across Bangalore Cantonment, many of which have turned into large commercial buildings or residential complexes today. After moving out of the palatial Palace Road bungalow to a few other bungalows over the decades, Seema lives now in a duplex apartment. Within the large apartment that is decorated in an eclectic mix of colonial and Indian, Seema’s room is her oasis of China. Along with the essentials that support a person her age, her room is decorated with Chinese paintings of generals and landscape, little statues of laughing Buddhas on her table top, and a small set of miniature “terracota army”. Her room is a little Chinese holiday in itself.
When she is not on holiday, Seema lives in the same Bangalore we all inhabit—the IT city of rotting garbage and stationary traffic—with her son Sidney. A successful, now retired horse trainer, Sidney married a Sikh woman in the fashion industry and has a daughter studying in the UK who once wore a little frock torn away from Seema’s designer wedding gown.
Seema was a girl from a wealthy family in Shanghai. Born on April 24, 1918, to Jewish parents—one of whom was born in Bombay—she went to the Thomas Hanbury School on Nan Yang Road. In her early twenties, she met Aaron—Rubin’s son—at a friend’s home in Shanghai. Aaron had travelled far and wide, in search of a Jewish bride; like his father before him, Bangalore had failed him too in this regard.
It was love at first sight. Aaron asked to go on a date with
her the very next day. Initially hesitant, Seema agreed to meet him for lunch,
where he asked to marry her. Though she intended to marry him, she was unsure
if Aaron was indeed genuine. She sent him away, saying, “‘Go back home and tell
your mother about me. If she approves, send me my passage money and I’ll be on
Aaron went home and told his family about Seema and they loved her too, writing her long letters and inviting her to come over as early as she could. Aaron sent her the passage money and she was on her way, aboard the S. S. Szchwen. Along the way, she stayed a couple of days in Hong Kong for shopping and a week in Singapore, and then took another ship—S. S. Kumsang (which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942 and sank)—to Calcutta.
Landing in Bangalore a few days later, to the very warm welcome of her sisters-, brothers- and mother-in-law, Seema was now one of Bangalore Cantonment’s elite: a popular Jewish business family with distinguished and wealthy clientele; English-speaking, servant-keeping, suit-wearing, car-driving, and hookah-smoking friends of the British.
Most of Bangalore’s elite were businesspeople, many of whom made their fortune by simply serving for the needs of the British military station in the city. Several taverns supplying beer made a few bucks before the first and only industry to be opened inside the Bangalore Cantonment—the Bangalore brewery in 1889—began operations, partly to protect soldiers from abuse of country liquor from the “city”.
The First World War saw many a soldier drink his evenings
away in the bars and dancehalls of South Parade (now M. G. Road), Funnels being
the most prominent, run by liquor baron K. N. Guruswamy. The need for leather
led to Devarajeevanahalli becoming the hub of tanneries. Russell Market, near
Blackpally (now Sivajinagar) was the biggest bazaar area in the Cantonment,
where maids and drivers of the British families went for their supply of
With business families like that of army contractor Yejaman Mohammed Ali and Rai Bahadur Sir Arcot Narayanswamy Mudaliar for company, the Moseses were among the select few.
eema’s wedding to Aaron was a grand affair; the newspapers called it “A Hebrew Wedding”. At the Mythic Society, Nissim Ezra, general manager of the National Tobacco Company in Calcutta, gave Seema’s hand in marriage in front of a large gathering of family and friends from all communities.
Seema’s trousseau, designed by popular French designer Maison La Femme de-Domain, itself gets healthy column-inch space in the papers the next day: “The bride looked extremely charming: she wore a frock of ivory French lace, slip of ivory slipper satin attached to the long train. It was cut on princess liens, and the neck was a high cowl finished at the back with a row of loops and buttons. She wore an orange blossom halo, simple tatte veil, white satin shoes and she carried a sheaf of arum lilies.”
Their wedding reception was conducted in the place several of Bangalore’s rich and famous held theirs: at Funnels on South Parade. Right in the middle of Bangalore cantonment’s proud boulevard, Funnels was known as the place British soldiers took their Anglo-Indian girlfriends for food, drink, and merrymaking. As was standard practice of the Bangalorean elite, Seema and Aaron had a grand reception complete with a five-tiered cake and wine.
A swiftly industrialising part of Bangalore was also a honeymoon spot for the newlyweds. Thippagondanahalli— where the river Arkvathy meets the Kumudavathi—is where Aaron and Seema went for their honeymoon: near a man-made reservoir whose construction was supervised by Sir M. Visvesvaraya. A part of the city’s drinking water still comes from here.
ate last year, researcher Rachel Lee was in Bangalore to present her findings about an architectural link between masala dosas and war: German-born Jewish architect Otto H. Koenigsberger’s connection to Bangalore. Koenigsberger fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and, after a few years of travel and learning, arrived in the South Indian princely state of Mysore, introduced to him by his uncle Max Born, a Nobel prize-winning physicist and mathematician. In April 1939, he moved to Bangalore, sharing a bungalow with one of the few Bangalorean Jewish families of the time, the Brinitzers.
From whatever little is left of memory in the city, wartime in Bangalore is remembered as one of tension and anticipation. Seema distinctly remembers having all her windows covered with black paper, while they tried to remain home safe. Her sister-in-law Kathleen worked in the military office then and they were warned about impending danger, and advised to leave for Dehradun, which was considered much safer. Rahma and her daughters moved north, while Seema—with her little son—and Sophie, her sister-in-law, decided to stay back.
Petrol was rationed, leaving most people at the mercy of their feet for transportation. Rice was in short supply, MTR having to resort to an innovation called rava idli to feed the public. Margaret Ledger, a British nurse, recollects an encounter with prisoners of war at the British Military Hospital, Bangalore in WW2 People’s War, an archive of memories maintained by the BBC:
“Italian prisoners of war, who were captured in North Africa, were employed on general duties. They were very polite, but enjoyed hiding away from work. One day three of them had disappeared, and I went to search for them, because we were short of staff. They were sitting outside the Quartermaster’s Stores. I told them to come back to the ward. In a chorus of three voices, they replied ‘Madam, we do not make war, we make love.’”
As the war progressed, the British government in India was desperate for all the help it could have, which it got in the setting up of an aircraft assembly unit in the Mysore State. In the city of Bangalore, in 1941, Hindustan Aircraft Limited (as it was called then) produced India’s first aircraft—the Harlow trainer.
To support HAL with world-class engineers, the Mysore State agreed to invest in establishing an Aeronautical Engineering Department close by, wartime as it was, encouraged the British Raj to join in too. Koenigsberger was asked to design the building. Ambitious as it was during his time, he erected a 30 metre-long elliptical low speed closed-circuit wind tunnel, the first of its kind in India. Straddling it is the department building: white-painted, plaster covered bricks on top of a granite plinth. Commissioned by the Royal Air Force, he built a hydrogen plant that enabled mass production of hydrogen, perhaps as an additive to petrol to increase its octane content to enhance its capability as an airplane fuel.
An oft-told story about Bangalore’s role in the World Wars is that of the Bangalore torpedo. Though built in Bangalore by Captain McClintock in 1912 itself, the device gained international fame only on D-Day on June 6, 1944, in France, at the beginning of the end of World War II.
As the war ended, it had changed Bangalore a little too. In a few years, one of Asia’s largest aerospace companies was established; India’s premier scientific university had a new aeronautical department, paving the way for several more large public sector undertakings to set up headquarters here in the near future. As peace was settling down, the city was returning to a new normal. Rahma, along with her daughters, also returned home, to carry on conducting her business and her family.
ost-Independence Bangalore left Rubin Moses and Sons with no option but to adapt themselves to the new and changing market. Importing shoes primarily for the needs of the British soldiers was no more viable. The soldiers had left, but the Moses family was here to stay. Buying leather from the Mysore Chrome Tanning Company (in place of which now stands a large bus stand), Aaron and Ezra Moses (Rubin’s younger son), diversified into machine-made local shoes.
This diversification also came with the need to venture beyond the word-of-mouth publicity they were getting thus far. A “result of numerous requests from a very large public in India”, a 12-page catalogue of the Fifties—“Good footwear is an asset to character” written in larger font than the name “Rubin Moses and Sons” itself—lists some of the most popular shoes sold at the store.
The store that was once the place where “aristocracy shopped” listed “three qualities in footwear designed to meet the demands of three sections of the public”: the really high class shoe, the medium priced shoe, and the moderately priced shoe for those of moderate means.
The catalogue also reveals that Ezra was the one who travelled to the “United Kinkdom” for education, practical knowledge and shoe craft, to better their prospects.
The next generation of the family was as entrepreneurial, if not more, than Rubin himself. Sophie Earl, Aaron’s sister, ran a highly popular dressmakers called Earl & Co. on Commercial Street and later on South Parade, near Barton Court. Aaron himself tried his hand at other businesses too: an automobile store next to the shoe shop where “he used to put up catchy slogans like ‘Pay cash and buy a Nash’”.
“In those days, the 1940s and the 1950s, Rubin Moses and Sons was a very popular store, a household name in leather products. Theirs was a story that was waiting to be told,” says Anand Sirur, a writer on Old Bangalore. He typed out a short piece, and sent it to Ruskin Bond who was interested in the story too, and helped him edit it. “I wrote very fondly of the possibility of Winston Churchill having shopped from Rubin Moses,” he says. A discussion with Bond led him to think the incident may have just been apocryphal, like many old houses in Whitefield who claim Churchill was a tenant.
He says, “You know, Churchill is supposed to have been in Bangalore for only a few years in the last decade of the 19th century. In fact, even before 1900, he had left for the Boer War.”
ubin Moses and Sons was one of the many old businesses that
shut shop in the 1980s. The Eighties mark a special change in the life of
Bangalore city. Urbanisation, the real estate boom, and multinational companies
setting up businesses here led to a growth in population, and brought with it a
change in the city’s flavour. Until then, the largely self-sufficient
Bangalore—with small traders and individual businesses, hand-crafting or safely
importing goods for the public—gave way to the international brands of
mass-produced products. Old, family-owned, custom product-selling businesses
gave way to mass-produced, standardised “brands” on the high street. Commercial
Street, which once accommodated shops that served the wealthy, now began
sprouting nomadic street vendors who ran their fly-by-day stores in any place
they could find.
It was the beginning of many things: of times when the city and the cantonment segregation ceased to exist. Of times when authentic Brahmin food and home-brewed beer began giving way to fast food and Bisleri. Of times when MICO and HAL were giving up their place to Infosys as the emblem of commerce in Bangalore.
South Parade was already M. G. Road, Cavalry Road became a positively rhyming Kamaraj Road, horse carriages gave way to cars, and the north Indian migrants of the IT sector were bringing with them paneer butter masala (and gobi manchurian that came from a place no one knows). Bangalore has always been the city that lends itself to the needs of the time and moulds itself into what it needs to be, often suffering the outcomes silently.
Sitting under the tall roof around awkwardly positioned pillars, at small tables waiting for their token number to be called, very few of the customers of Woody’s on Commercial Street in Bangalore would know that the newly painted and furnished restaurant stands in a century-old building. Even when the monkey tops of Rubin Moses and Sons gave way to the air conditioned service hall of Woody’s restaurant, the pillars stayed on, almost metaphoric of the trees, lakes, Kempe Gowda towers, and other old Bangalorean treasures, many breathing their last (some beneath new, flashy yellow and red paints).
What it loses in heritage preservation, Bangalore tends to make up for in looking onward and upward. To this day, Bangalore attracts anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit: from technology startups to our mobile golgappa-wala. Creativity is Bangalore’s muse: be it the man who insists on collecting a fee for parking in a Bangalore Corporation-allotted free space, or the new web company that brings your groceries to your doorstep.
The Eighties were simply the final straw in the life of Rubin Moses and Sons. From the 1950s, the second generation of Moseses began leaving Bangalore. Two of Rubin’s daughters, Margeret and Kathleen, left for South Africa. Another daughter Rosalind went to America. Ezra chose Canada and Sophie, England. Maurice Moses, the youngest of Aaron’s brothers, stayed on in Bangalore and passed away in 2001.
What also began leaving Bangalore in those years is the trace of the Moses family in various parts of Bangalore. Rubin House, where Rahma lived and died, had gone past the era of being Eastern Lodge to becoming a colourful modern sari store on Kamaraj Road. The house on St. Mark’s Road—where Sidney remembers jumping the wall to go to school and bringing boarders home every day for lunch—has become a residential complex. Their eight-bedroom palatial bungalow is becoming a commercial structure on Palace Road, though Seema assures me that the well is still there.
Like Rubin, his children and grandchildren too had the knack to make the most of the situation they were in; move on from where there is no opportunity and sail towards fortune. For the Moses family, the 1980s were the decade of moving on from the shoe shop towards the fortune that they inherited: land in Bangalore’s prime location. In the fight between cherishing the past and shaping the future, they’ve made the same choice that rest of Bangalore has made.
Over hours of conversation about her Bangalore and mine, Seema Moses repeatedly comes back to the one line, “Bangalore is not the same as the good old days. But times change and you have to change too, finish!” Her understanding of what happened to Rubin Moses and Sons is surprisingly similar: as a metamorphosis of a shoe store into a restaurant because that was the need of the hour.