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Tracing the roots of a family tree

| CRIS
Published : Jun 21, 2016, 10:14 pm IST
Updated : Jun 21, 2016, 10:14 pm IST

People keep referring to The House of Wives as his first novel, but it is not. Veteran playwright Simon Choa-Johnston says he had a novella published in 1984.

Veteran playwright Simon Choa-Johnston heeded his intuition and followed the little white pebbles that led him to family history
 Veteran playwright Simon Choa-Johnston heeded his intuition and followed the little white pebbles that led him to family history

People keep referring to The House of Wives as his first novel, but it is not. Veteran playwright Simon Choa-Johnston says he had a novella published in 1984. “It was a confluence of a young writer and a well-meaning but equally young publishing house. I’ve forgiven myself for that,” says Canada-based author.

The novella experience made him flee from writing novels and turn to playwrighting, radio dramas and TV serials. But years later when he found an old box of letters and diaries from decades ago, he wrote his novel — a fictionalised account of his family history, about his opium-trading great grandfather Emanuel and his two wives, The House of Wives. “My thirst for information about my ancestors turned rapidly into an obsession, then an addiction.” Discovering via the Internet that Emanuel was born in Calcutta was like a hook. Then I discovered he was from a prominent Jewish family so I read up on Sephardic Jews and Jews in India. That led me to tracing their lineage to Iraq and Venice. And to the HSBC archives and all sorts of dusty basement files. I felt like Indiana Jones lurching from one adventure to the next. When I was filled to the bursting the only relief was to write it all down and damn the consequences,” he says.

 

He followed information in Calcutta and Hong Kong, where Emanuel had migrated to, like the trail of white pebbles that Hansel and Gretel left to find their way home. He found Emanuel’s name in a history account of Jews in India written by Rabbi Musleah, in Calcutta. “I found entries in the almanac at the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. Back in Calcutta, my friend Rig David helped me locate the two synagogues there which the Belilios family had helped to build. Later, he led me to Howrah (across the old bridge) and to my delight and surprise located Belilios Road and the ruins of a once palatial compound, where my ancestors lived.”

What surprised him the most during his research was finding about the fact about 14 million pounds of opium being sold to China in 1880s. “If I couldn’t verify why they did something, I simply made it up. My novel exists in the gaps between verifiable facts.”

 

In Hong Kong, he had help from John Grey, chairman and CEO of HSBC who let him root around the bank’s archives, where he found Emanuel’s signature on many Board of Directors’ meetings. “Then I saw his portrait that hung in the bank’s foyer at one time when he was the chairman. Throughout my years of research, I felt a powerful presence leading me from one clue to the next. All I had to do was to listen to my intuition and follow the little white pebbles.”