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The Kashmiris of Jew Town

Old Kochi is home to a small community of Kashmiri traders. The weather, the food, the culture, everything is different here. But it has one thing in common with home—the warmth of the people

Nasir Hussain with his wife Mouhzeena Nibras
Nasir Hussain with his wife Mouhzeena Nibras (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

The half-open grey windows of the white Jewish synagogue, partially visible from the entrance of the by-lane, entice you to explore more. The slanting tiled roofs, the curio shops exhibiting antique and vintage artefacts and the colourful walls, all sport old-world charm in the Jew Town of Mattancherry in Kochi.

Just as you are transported back some centuries, you hear the chants of azadi (freedom). A group of young men are watching a protest video, shot in August in Srinagar, on a mobile phone. A man asks in Kashmiri, “Protest kathaez gov—downtown haez (where did the protest happen—downtown)?" Nodding his head, a young boy replies, “Ahnaez (yes)."

Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town.
Curio and handicrafts shops in Jew Town. (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

It’s a dull day for business in Jew Town’s Synagogue Lane. The shops in this by-lane, which sell embroidered kurtas, pashminas, papier-mâché boxes and hand-knotted silk carpets, are deserted. And the Kashmiri traders who own or work in these shops are catching up on news from home.

“This is the only place in India where we can live the way we want," says 42-year-old Nasir Hussain, a Kashmiri who hails from Saida Kadal, Srinagar, and runs two shops in Synagogue Lane.

At a time when over eight million people have been through a lockdown in the Kashmir valley, after Article 370 of the Constitution was effectively revoked on 5 August, serene Mattancherry and adjoining Fort Kochi offer the comfort of home to about 500 Kashmiri traders, who own over a hundred shops here.

They first started shifting here when militancy gripped the valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following in the footsteps of Gulshan Khatai, the first Kashmiri businessman to open a handicrafts shop in Kochi in 1972. Another trader, Khursheed Geelani opened the first Kashmiri handicrafts shop in Jew Town in 1992. Over the years, many others left strife-torn Kashmir for a peaceful life in this southern port city, about 3,500km away. Everything is different here—the weather, food habits, culture and language. There is, however, one thing in common with Kashmir—the warmth of the people.

Hussain is one of the many Kashmiris who have settled here. As a 17-year-old from Saida Kadal, he says he wanted to escape the daily intimidation by security forces. “They frisked me every time I stepped out of home. They would not even let me put my hands inside the pheran (loose Kashmiri cloak) even in cold winters, as if I was carrying a gun under the pheran," he recalls.

After he cleared class XII in 1999, Hussain left to work at a handicrafts factory in Madurai, without informing his family. In 2001, he was sent to Kochi when the company opened a unit there. Four years later, he opened his own shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi. Today, he owns four shops—two each in Fort Kochi and Jew Town.

Hussain is married to a local Malayali, Mouhzeena Nibras. He met her in 2003—she was studying in a school close to his shop. Tasked with an assignment on the Shia Muslims of Kashmir, she sought the help of Kashmiri shop-owners like Hussain. They fell in love and married nearly seven years later, in 2010. Some local Kashmiris objected—Hussain is Shia and Mouhzeena, Sunni. “For us, religion and its complexities were never important. We were in love with each other and it was good enough a reason to get married," says Mouhzeena.

“This is my home now," says Hussain.

In August, an IAS officer from the state, Kannan Gopinathan, resigned from the civil service in protest against the lockdown in Kashmir. “People of India have failed Kashmiris, we didn’t stand for them, we never registered our protest against the lockdown. It is shameful that Kashmiris feel safe only in Kerala. The onus is on us, Indians, to build a safe environment across the country," Gopinathan tells Lounge.

In today’s polarized India, this could sound like wishful thinking but Kerala, a state with 54.73% Hindus, 26.56% Muslims and 18.38% Christians, is a pluralistic society. Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, former Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, have remained havens of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism. Yamini Nair, co-author of One Heart. Two Worlds. (2019), says the 5 sq. km radius of Mattancherry has traditionally been a multicultural space. It is home to at least 39 communities, including Jews, Sindhis, Konkanis, Rajasthanis, Tamil Vannans, Gowda Saraswat Brahmins, Dakhinis (from Hyderabad), Anglo-Indians (from Goa), early settlers from Yemen, and now Kashmiris. “It has always showered its warmth to all; it gave equal space to all," Nair says.

She adds that historical evidence shows that the earliest Jewish traders, popularly known as Malabari Jews, landed in present-day Kodungallur as early as 970 BC. They dealt in spices, silk, pearls, ivory and animals. Apparently, they later shifted south to Kochi, owing to floods.

Jew Town is named after a later community of primarily European Jewish migrants, also called Paradesi Jews, who arrived from Spain in the 15th century. “The Hindu kings of Kerala warmly welcomed the Jewish settlers over the years and gifted them several pieces of land. The Paradesi synagogue in the Jew Town of Mattancherry is built upon one such piece of land," Nair says.

You have to cross the Kashimir handicraft shops to enter the Paradesi synagogue.

“Interestingly, the clock tower of the synagogue itself is an example of the multiculturalism of this place: The numbering of the clock is done in four different languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Malayalam and Roman," says Nair, adding that there are only five Jews left in Mattancherry. The others have left or passed on.

Historian Rajan Gurukkal says, “The contiguous existence of synagogues, churches and the temples and mosques accounts for the mutually complementary coexistence of communities."

Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town
Sajid Khatai at his shop in Jew Town (Photo: Melton Antony/Mint)

This year, on Eid, when the Kashmiris went for morning prayers to a mosque in Fort Kochi, they prayed for peace in the valley. “This Eid, we were only worried about our families back home. For the first time, we had no celebrations for Eid, there were no guests or special dinner," says 44-year-old shop owner Sajid Khatai, originally from downtown Srinagar. Usually, festivals in Mattancherry are occasions for communities to celebrate together and savour fusion cuisines such as the coconut milk curries of the Malayalis, the papadams popularized by the Gowda Saraswat Brahmins and the brown gram of the Gujaratis.

“Even though most Kashmiris avoided eating beef in Kashmir to not hurt the sentiments of their Pandit neighbours, they have taken to Malabar parantha and beef curry, the popular cuisine of Malayalis here," Sajid says.

Kashmiri children go to local schools and speak fluent Malayalam. Hussain’s two children—a nine-year-old daughter and five-year-old son—have picked up Kashmiri during their annual visits to Kashmir. They are fond of Kashmir but often fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.

“This year, while stepping out of Srinagar airport, when my son gave a salute to the tricolour because he has learnt to do so in school, one of my relatives objected to it. My son was confused; he asked me the reason for their objection. I was not sure how to explain the strained relationship between the Indian government and people of Kashmir to a five-year-old," Hussain says.

The lockdown in Kashmir has impacted business in Mattancherry too.

Hussain says he had ordered items such as carpets, shawls and papier-mâché boxes worth 10 lakh in June—these still haven’t arrived from Kashmir. “The labourers working in shawl factories were mostly from Bihar, and they left Kashmir. The colours required for papier-mâché are not available since the markets are closed. After having been stuck in their homes for about four months, people don’t know where to pick up their scattered lives from," says Hussain.

About 150 unemployed men from Kashmir have arrived to work in their shops since the lockdown in August.

Parvaiz Ahmed Dar of Srinagar is one of them. Dar, 28, used to earn about 15,000 a month as a salesman at a handicrafts shop in Srinagar—but the lockdown changed that. Now the sole bread-winner for a family of eight, he arrived in Fort Kochi about a month ago. “Safety is the bonus here," says Dar, who earns 12,000 a month now. “There is no frisking, no questioning and no detention by police."

Of course, the local police do keep an eye on them. Sajid, who heads the Kashmiri traders welfare association in Kochi, routinely provides them an updated list of all Kashmiri shop-owners and workers. His strong connect with the place, however, remains intact.

“This is a truly cosmopolitan and secular place which welcomes everyone," Hussain says. “It is India, yet not India."

Sonia Sarkar is a journalist covering South and South-East Asia.

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