Memory Of India | Verve Magazine
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June 14, 2013

Memory Of India

Text by Vinod Advani. Photographs by Ritam Banerjee.

Orna Sagiv, Consul General of Israel to India is busy packing her bags at the end of a great innings in the country. Though the beginning of her stay here seemed less than auspicious, she and her family have made so many friends in Mumbai that they are finding it hard to leave. One such, Vinod Advani, talks to her of her Indian sojourn….

Do you remember what you were doing on that fateful night of 26/11 when evil entered Mumbai and changed our lives forever? I do. I was dining with a hundred others at the French ambassador’s felicitation dinner for Nadir Godrej. Midway through the bonhomie in a midtown five-star hotel, we heard explosions in the distance….

Orna Sagiv recalls it vividly. As the newly arrived Consul General of Israel to India, Orna was hosting a dinner for a high-level delegation in her Kemps Corner high-rise. She did not hear the explosions, because someone had switched on the TV. “A cricket match was on that evening. I told the guest to please switch it off because it was diverting people’s attention. Then the phone started ringing in someone’s handbag. She gave it to her husband and said why don’t you take the call? While he was talking we started seeing on TV that something is happening in Mumbai.” That call was from the Rabbi and he was sobbing that there was a terror attack at Chabad House. His family would be killed before 24 hours were up and their little son Moshe, the sad reminder of a happy community that once was. That was to come but right now how were Orna and the others to know that!

In a matter of minutes, Orna’s apartment turned into a battle zone, sealed off to the outside as rescue tactical plans burned up the telephone lines between Mumbai and Tel Aviv. For three endless days her home remained in this maelstrom of madness. But the horror of it all remained long after her guests finally flew to Israel, long after Mumbai’s candlelit marches were forgotten. Security was beefed up, she got swamped by people from Delhi, there was media presence around the clock and her husband Isaac (Zaccy) co-ordinating with staff, going to hospitals, trying to find and identify bodies. Her oldest son Nadav was 11 years old, her second son Matan eight and the youngest, Luly, her pretty baby daughter a tender three. This then was Orna’s family’s baptism by fire.

In my innumerable interactions with Orna over the years, I have come to admire her courage and also appreciate the many hats she wears with aplomb. A mother. A wife. A diplomat who after finishing her official period of four years, even asked for a year’s extension. I asked her then and I ask her now, as she prepares to pack her bags and bid adieu to India, why did she not leave after the attacks? Did she ever question Fate about why she was sent here?

As she reaches back into the eventful years in Mumbai, a thoughtful mien crosses her expressive face. It’s a face that reflects the survival of many storms, yet is tempered by perennial optimism. “I don’t know what led us here, but there is a reason we stayed on. And the fact that we have so many Indian friends, we have developed an emotional bond with this country. It was so very difficult back in 2008. It took us a long time to recover from that on a personal level. My husband was the rock in the storm. Keeping the family together, helping me 24/7, keeping calm. And now we don’t want to leave India….”

Israel is represented by only about 103 ambassadors and consul generals, worldwide. This includes around 10 women. And Orna is one of the 10! None of the other women may have faced what Orna did, which makes her one of a kind? Modesty is quick to arrive. “I don’t think so. Maybe in other places people deal with different issues and face different challenges.” Given the fact that Israeli missions have to be so very security conscious, how safe has she and her family felt here? “Of course, we always have to be on guard. Tensions were high again when one of our lady colleagues was attacked in Delhi. But we feel safe here. At the end of the day you try to put everything aside and just focus on what you have to do and keep yourself really busy with work. I cannot just sit and think about the risks. I am here to represent my country and I need to do it the best way I know.”

She knew nothing about water management when she arrived here. That was just one of the things she had to learn. Quickly too. And also address what she calls the 3D effect! Orna laughs, “When I speak to all kinds of audiences here – students, journalists, business people and others – I ask them what they know about Israel. The answer always is Defence, Drip Irrigation and Diamonds. So I introduce technological innovations and many small things that all of us use on a daily basis, without realising that they are Israeli inventions. Like the BBM on BlackBerry, the first mobile phone, the Pill Cam (you know those pills that you swallow that doctors use to examine the insides for surgery), the USB pen drive et al. And of course about water management, which is our specialty. Don’t forget Israel is mostly desert, transformed!”

So tell us Orna, what are the similarities between Jewish and Indian Mothers, I ask. “Before I came here I thought that the Jewish mother is the most pushy in the world. She will always push food into her children or anyone around her…. But this is nothing compared to the Indian mother who will push food till you cannot move anymore! Next, in Judaism for generations education has been the most important thing. The Jewish mother will save like mad to ensure her children get a good education. But here in India, I was amazed by the Indian mother who actually sits with her children and studies for their exams. I am full of admiration because I will never do that. I don’t think my children will actually bear me sitting with their studies. I also admire the passion with which so many mothers here involve themselves in so many activities.”

She sees her children transformed by their life in India. Luly used to ask her mum, “Why does this girl on the road have no clothes? Or, why is this boy knocking on the car door and asking for money? You have to give them answers, it’s something that they don’t see in Israel and suddenly they come here and it’s a different reality. Now my kids are happy to give away their own stuff. When they realised that there is a meaning to the act of giving, they learn values.”

The kids have also gone with their mother to children’s shelters or orphanages supported by the Israeli Consulate. The boys play football and when they first saw these kids playing without shoes and socks, they did the same; took their shoes off and played barefoot! “When the kids realised that not everyone has an Xbox or Playstation, it was a life changing moment for them,” smiles Orna with a very satisfied look indeed, happy in the knowledge that her children will not grow up into spoilt brats.

What the kids really don’t want is to leave India. They just love it here with all the friends they have in school, the friends who live in their condominiums and the sleepovers that they love. Nadav is almost 16, Matan soon 13 and Luly eight, so their formative years have been spent in Mumbai and it’s going to be a real wrench when they leave.

Now the conversation progresses naturally to the topic of husband Isaac, who is not just a house husband but also a successful businessman in his own right. What kind of balance is required there? Does Orna come home every night after a work dinner or diplomatic soirée and sing a song to him because he’s looked after the kids while she was away? “Sing a song! Are you serious? Being a diplomat is not an easy job and being a woman diplomat is according to me even harder and if you don’t have a very supportive partner you will not be able to do it. Unless you decide that you have one, you should not get married. If you have a family and you want to maintain the family you really need to have a supportive partner. I am happy to say that I do have such a partner. I do travel a lot and have a lot of activities in the evening. So Isaac is the wind beneath my wings.”

I have met Isaac dozens of times and he is a regular guy who juggles three roles too. Businessman. Father. Husband.To his credit, I have always seen him maintain a low profile, he never thrusts himself into the limelight. Because he is down to earth, he is able to cope with the challenges that come from being married to a prominent diplomat. “I don’t believe you can have two parents who have very demanding careers at the same time. Before we got married we discussed the fact that I will be posted to other countries and one of us will have to be more present for the kids. And I have to say Zaccy is a fantastic and understanding husband and father. I am so lucky.”

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