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.

Puthu's - for the fluffiest iddlis ever

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!

Santhilal S. Mithaiwala, Gujarati Road, Mattancherry, Kochi - 2 (and that's written in Malayalam)

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!

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25 thoughts on “Lessons in multi-cultural pluralism or why I ‘heart’ Mattancherry

  1. You aptly said, “you can take a person out of Mattancherry, but you can not take Mattancherry out of a person’s heart”. Thanks for the blog on Puthu’s Cafe (my brother – 4th in generation, runs the cafe now). Don’t you remember ‘Uundhiyano Sak’ and Chungi’s Dosa Sambar.

    Last but not least, Potato roast will be waiting for you when you visit India next time. Please do inform me in advance.

  2. Being a Mattancherrian, I would like to add a few more communities who contributed to the amazing diversity of the place. one, a few Maharastrian families who has their own set of customs, festivals and a Gopalakrishna temple to offer prayers. Then there is the Chettiar community, speaking Telugu, and occupied mostly in the dairy business. And there are few Punjabis, not Sardars, who are into transport business. And then the Pathani Muslims, speaking a strange mix of Gujarati and Sindhi..the list seems endless. Thanks for this nostalgic post.

    1. thanks narayanan…. there’s lots more to mattancherry as you’ve mentioned – enough to fill up a whole book. more than anything else, i feel that it’s the middle class values that will hold us in good stead… the feeling of togetherness… perhaps that’s why most of us are connected even now… as i grow older, i appreciate the way i lived life all the more…

  3. Hi, Rekha ….let me add on behalf of the ‘ Mattanchery boys’… .”Kaicka” Biriyani, Pazampori, Pathiri ;),Mohandas’s ”Parotta & Kadala ”( T.D. School ), Elite hotel ‘Jam Bun’ (later came to know that it’s ‘Donuts’ in other part of the world), Kappalandi mukku ‘Juice shop(Oh! I forgot its name), Kamath Mam’s Beeda, Chirag’s 420(entire thekkaemadam will vote for this ;)), Cherlai ‘Soda Sarbath’…. and ‘Krishna Cafe’ was the only A/C ‘hotel’ in Kochi, .

    In that way no part of this world can beat ‘Mattanchery’ (kochi), as we grew up we know the difference between Ramzan’ and Bahkri Id, we knew how Maharashtrian’s celebrated ‘Ganesh festival’ (Krishnan Temple, they projected movies during festival I remember watching ‘Karnan’ movie there), ‘Papanji kali’ during Christmas, Konkanis ‘Valiyambalam Utsavam’ (Tirumaldevan ‘Aaratt’?), have you been to those ‘Thullal’ in ‘Mahanjana vadi'(in Pandit road?) and ‘Ser Vadi’ (Kannadigas, I guess). There used to be one ‘Kaapiri Mutthappan'(it’s there near MTB, they used to light candles, my ‘Paati’ used to say if we don’t light candles ‘Kaapiri Mutthappan’ will throw stones at our house ;)).

    I was always thinking the entire country was like that till I started working here. Later realized we were the only fortunate ones to have understood, celebrated and enjoyed every good things India can offer. We have a community Hall(Town Hall), Community Gym (Cochin Gymnasium ;)), schools and even College in ‘walking distance’. Now started even telling my daughter that how fortunate we were, that we can just walk to school, don’t have to ‘drive’ to reach a playground or movie theatre. Cosmopolitan Kochi is truly the ‘Queen of Arabian Sea’, we are lucky to be the ‘Prince’ and ‘Princess’, who are out to rule this world :)[Appadiyae Vazkhaya otturom!!!;)

    I remember there’s even one ‘character’ where I lived ( My house was next to Jain Temple, near Vadakkaemadam), his name was ‘Kallan Mohammad(‘Mommadh’), a well ‘accepted community thief’.

    Konjam ‘over’ aayiduchuna sorry, but you triggered it. Thanks!

    1. ha! ha! venkat… i seem to have struck the right chord… onnum ‘over’ illai… it’s… from the heart… for we are all heart 🙂 all you’ve mentioned here make us the people we are today. there’s no doubt about that!

  4. Such liveliness in your writing Rekhs……. Woww……… Hadn’t stepped into Puthu’s or Shantibhai’s shop till got married…… is when got to know what the real taste of it is all like…… Thanks to my hubby for that…..Still have that taste buds alive……

    Keep writing more n more…..

      1. Needless to say…. yes….we have been tru to our roots….. the thought that stuck me while reading was that had I been married to a non-mattancherian 🙂 :)…. wouldn’t have got a chance to relish this taste……;) except for the kachori…….which is as Namrata rightly said….. World famous……

  5. Do you remember the stuff we used to eat from the lady outside our school …I miss those goodies, the salted mango..the gooseberries..etc.. do u remember the sip up.. the parrys toffee…from kaka shop… And kachori from Santhilal…it is world famous now. I used to love the idlies of Kini Mam…opp to the balaji temple…the best idlis in the world. and the best sambar….also the pan at chirag pan house….the list can go on …and i am feeling hungry now rekha… Keep writing dear…Cheers!

  6. rekha… theres something about the style you write in that is so very heart warming. theres romance in every sentence you frame and it keeps the reader hooked. loved it 🙂

  7. rekha.. thats a wonderful blog. This is exactly what i used to boast about our kochi, to my friends in Chennai. I would like to widen our scope to fortcochin area also, where anglo-indians, christians and muslims live in total communal harmony.

    We never realized this till we stepped out to the real world .Last week i had our friend’s daughter at my home during the vinayaka chathurthi pooja, When i offered her the kozhukkataai’s she refused to eat it since it was kept in the pooja.!! She is hardly 12 years. I know people who refused to attend my marriage, since there was a temple !! They waited outside the temple and joined us for the lunch. And remember we used to visit our school chapels almost daily and never found it against our own culture and religion. Many of my christian and muslim friends used to come with us to TD temple and kolothu temple. I always used to feel angry when i see people behaving like this.

    After reading your blog, i realise that my anger is due to the fact that ” Mattanchery is still inside me”.

    1. exactly my sentiments, chitra! i’ve faced the same kind of situations as well. A senior colleague of mine at the newspaper was from Chennai and when he called me ‘papaathi’ for the first time, I did not understand what it meant till my father told me that it was a derogatory term used for Brahmins. On the other hand, I had a Muslim colleague from Allahabad who brought us ‘ganga jal’ without asking because he knew it was holy for us. So, it takes all types of people to make this world. And yes, we are ‘richer’ because we grew up in a multi-cultural atmosphere. At our school reunion, the teachers were stunned that we remembered the words to the hymns we learnt, especially, ‘Bind us together’… do you remember that one?

  8. I just loved you reminding me of “shanthilal” , i very much miss his “kachori” and “pakkoda”. can never get anywhere the same taste. i wait every year to get them in packets from my cousins. So confident life was inspite of the fag end disturbances. But you have really reminded us of everything. So close lakshmi bazaar was to run for anything for our school works. Everything was at a very short distance and how much we used to walk. I really miss those days too. Still fresh in the mind.

    1. thanks jyothi! I too miss lakshmi bazaar a lot now that I live in ekm… i never fail to make atleast two trips to mattancherry every vacation and in 2010, i stayed there for three days when i went for sasthapreethi. that was one of the best times of my life 🙂

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