“Indians at Herod’s Gate”- NavtejSarna – 26ᵗʰ Novmeber 2015

Our November Book Club event was a talk by Mr. Navtej Sarna, currently India’s High commissioner to the UK. He spoke about his most recent book, ‘Indians at Herod’s Gate’ set in Jerusalem. His other books include a work of fiction, We Weren’t Lovers Like That, a book of short stories, Winter evenings and the non-fiction works, The Exile and The Book of Nanak. He has also translated Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama from Persian.

Eight hundred years ago Baba Farid, the great Sufi saint of the Chisti order, visited Jerusalem, freshly wrested back for Islam from the Crusaders by Saladin, and meditated there for forty days in an underground room. Later, an Indian Hospice was born through a waqf endowment around that room and has welcomedIndian pilgrims—and soldiers—to Jerusalem ever since. For close to a century, through the tumultuous years of the British Mandate, the Second World War, the birth of Israel and the ensuing decades of conflict, the Hospice has been looked after by an Indian family—first by Sheikh NazirHasan Ansari, a police inspector’s son from Saharanpur, and then by his eldest son, Sheikh Munir Ansari.

Following in the tradition of literary travellers, NavtejSarna wanders through the timeless narrow lanes of Old Jerusalem, sifting through fact and fable to trace out the unique story of the Indian Hospice and the Ansari family. What starts off as a personal conversation becomes a deeply researched but lightly told account that weaves historical narrative with the telling personal detail to reconstruct a remarkable and intimate story—of a centuries-old Indian connection to the ancient city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.Navtej brings out the flavor of the place, from the aroma of freshly ground coffee in the cafes of the city lanes to the beauty of the architecture and the sensitively portrayed characters of a family who has many tales to tell.