Ever since I’ve been reunited with a lot of my school buddies, most conversations online veer to the place we grew up in. Recently, a few of my Jain friends were wishing each other ‘Michhami Dukkadam’ on Facebook and it immediately transported me to my childhood when I used to tag along with my neighbours Hemal and Manish Shah to the Jain temple to take part in the festivities. Yet another friend Sathya recounted to me, the details of the annual Jamnashtami procession, complete with the breaking of mud pots and little Krishnas on the roads.
We lived in Mattancherry, a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural part of Cochin that is home to migrants from different states of India. We can no longer call them migrants though, for atleast more than four generations of most families have settled down in this quaint part of Cochin and are as much a part of the Keralite ethos as a true-blue Malayali. And now when I look back, I am proud to be part of a landscape where different communities existed peacefully, imbibing the best from one another, making one cohesive whole.
The Gujaratis and Jains came all the way from Gujarat to do business in spices. So did the Marwaris from Rajasthan. Enterprising Konkanis from Karnataka and the Northern parts of Kerala did business and also took up jobs in Cochin. The Tamil Brahmins came from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, mostly from Tirunelveli district. Then there were a small group of Maharashtrians, a smattering of Bengalis and also a few Jewish families, who stayed at the Jew Street, near the oldest synagogue in Asia and who surprisingly only, spoke Malayalam. (I believe, there are very few Jews left, maybe just one or two) and but of course, the Malayalis.
I absolutely loved the festivities that made the bylanes of Mattancherry burst into colour. Whether it was the annual Sasthapreethi (ayyappa puja) that we Tamil Brahmins celebrated every year or the Garuda Seva at the Tirumala Devasom temple… there were festivities galore. Come September-October and the roads are filled with chattering Gujarati women clad in colourful ghagra-cholis and saris in the colours of the day on their way to dance the evening away. We too went to watch the garba and dandiya raas on most Navratri days. The skies lit up with fireworks during Diwali and for Onam, there were pookalams in the courtyard of most homes. And yes, when we had to pray for someone’s health, we lit candles at the Kuriyachan Palli. (a church)
It’s not uncommon to hear different languages spoken in Mattancherry. The vegetable vendors still haggle in Gujarati with their customers while the Gujarati businessmen conduct business in chaste Malayalam. Most of us spoke each other’s languages; Hemal and Manish spoke good Tamizh while some of my cousins spoke Gujarati and Konkani.
And then, the food! Puthu’s Hotel (a small restaurant that has been around for more than 50 years) has the fluffiest iddlis as the main item on its menu. Also little bondas and the spiciest potato roast (that is sadly not available now). My brother remembers that no one kept a count of what you were eating. If you said, you ate 10 iddlis (and that my friends is a piddly number… you definitely ate more!), then you are charged just for that. No questions asked. Santhilal Mithaiwala is equally famous; its ghatiyas, jalebis, pedas and the puri-aloo sabji attract people in hordes. I also liked the puttu-kadala from Bhagavathi Café, a small eatery near the Palliyarkavu temple. The only medium-sized restaurant that still exists is the Krishna Café which I still frequent for old times’ sake!
There’s so much more to Mattancherry than the people, food or the quaint customs. There’s something here that appeals to everyone. And no amount of travelling all over the world or living in big cities can take that feeling of ‘oneness’ away from you. And that I feel makes you relate better to different types of people and cuts across all barriers of caste, creed or religion. At a recent meeting of school friends, who lived in Mattancherry and who now live all over the world, we pigged out on a traditional Kerala sadya. During the lunch, my friend Urvi Shelat who lives in Ahmedabad casually remarked, “I am taking home loads and loads of packets of puttu podi and aapam podi…”
Well, to rephrase an old cliché, “You can take a person out of Mattancherry, but you cannot take Mattancherry out of a person!”
Excuse me, while I go make Gujarati kadhi for dinner tonight!