The passing away of Sarah Cohen, 96, marks the end of a chapter in Kochi’s 2,000-year-old tale of multiculturalism
Cohen’s demise leaves behind many questions like how does one explain Kochi’s tolerance and multiculturalism, and what can modern India glean from it?
The locals as well as the tourists usually stop for a moment as they pass by a small house couched next to the entrance to a cluster of lanes called Jew Town, in Mattancherry, in Kerala’s coastal town of Kochi. For the tourists, the house can immediately pique curiosity—with its gates neatly decorated with the Jewish star of David, its bars painted white and blue like the Israeli flag, and Hebrew lettering adorned across the entire inner wall.
For the locals, too, it is a house close to their hearts. For decades, they have seen a diminutive woman lounge in a wooden recliner inside the house, selling hand-made embroidery covers and Jewish kippahs (skullcaps).
The house belonged to Sarah Cohen, who would have celebrated her 97th birthday last Wednesday (28 August), if she had been alive for five more days. With her passing the previous Friday, Jew Town now mourns the loss of its senior-most, beloved and, perhaps, most photographed “Paradesi (foreign) Jew". The Jew town has now only two Paradesi Jews left, who are away from town most of the year, visiting kin who now live all across the world. Effectively, one chapter in the collective history of Jew Town came to an end that weekend.
Celebrated writer Salman Rushdie had predicted this day in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, parts of which are based in Kochi. It is “an extinction to be mourned; not an extermination, such as (it) occurred elsewhere," Rushdie wrote, in reference to the warm reception Jews got in Kochi, compared to the hostility they faced in many other places. It is, he added, “the end, nevertheless, of a story that took two thousand years to tell".
Many things have changed over those 2,000 years, but the monsoon winds and spice markets, set up by the traders who latched on those winds to navigate the world, still remain. The Jews, too, had originally followed the sea winds and the spices—some fleeing persecution, and some for business.
But those ancient bonds are now fraying. Only an estimated 4,000 Jews remain in the entire country, mostly in Mumbai and Kolkata. New India’s Jewish connection is with the state of Israel, with political and security ties rapidly expanding following a pivot in the country’s foreign policy which began in the early 2000s.
The people, though, are fast disappearing. Markers like the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai (named after illustrious British-era entrepreneur David Sassoon) and the searing writing of post-colonial poet Nissim Ezekiel are vague reminders of a centuries-old connection.
Sarah Cohen was one such link, who welcomed any and every visitor into her home, just the way Kochi had opened its doors for her ancestors.
Cohen’s absence from the bylanes of old Kochi leaves behind a void filled with many questions: How does one explain the city’s tolerance and multiculturalism, and what can modern India glean from it? And what happened to the lives of the Jews as Kochi swiftly transformed from a small fishing village into a modern cosmopolitan city?
A diversity Disneyland
Kochi has a long history with the rest of the world. Traditionally, it has been a place where seafarers from South-East Asia, West Asia, Europe, Africa and China met. The descendants of the traders made the city into a melting pot of cultures, a diversity Disneyland.
“One story has it that the Jews first came to Kodungallur, the capital of Chera Dynasty close to Kochi, on the ships of King Solomon (1st century BC). They are typically called the Malabari Jews or Black Jews," said M.G.S. Narayanan, a Kerala-based senior historian and former chairman of Indian Council of Historical Research.
“A second generation of Sephardic Jewish settlers came sometime in the 15th century, after they were expelled during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. They called themselves the ‘White Jews’ or, in local parlance, the Paradesi Jews,"he added.
Kochi’s acceptance of Jews, and their assimilation into the city, is a testament to the tolerance long associated with the town, a stark contrast to the conflict-ridden social history of migration in India and elsewhere in the world.
According to most local stories, the migrant settlers were mercantilists in the spice trade when they came, and were largely accorded high esteem by local monarchs. Historical evidence shows how Chera king Bhaskara Ravi Varma bestowed them with copper plates as gifts, and accorded privileges such as tax exemption and religious freedom “as long as the world and the moon exist", according to Narayanan.
In 1344, they built India’s oldest Jewish temple, Kochangadi Synagogue. During the Portuguese invasion, they were granted sanctuary by the Hindu Rajah (king) of Kochi, Keshava Rama Varma. The Paradesi synagogue and the Jew Town neighbourhood were also built on the land granted by Varma. In the post-colonial era, the Jewish professionals returned the favour by building the city’s first street lamps, the ferries, and so on.
Some 15 different ethnic communities still call Kochi their home. Their ancestors can be traced back to the Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, and Persians, among others. There are Indian “others" too, from states such as Gujarat and Karnataka, who continue to make the city tick.
The keeper of the local Jain temple is a Hindu Vanniyar. In the Marathi temple close by, the keeper is a Konkani-speaking Kudumbi, a community which supposedly fled Goa when the Portuguese invaded. During Christmas, when the whole town erupts in a carnival, the temple pooja (worship) is offered by the Christian festival organizers, and everybody from Christians to Muslims make large rangolis in front of the temple. It has been like this for centuries.
A causal evening walk by the beach will bring one across a stretch of Chinese fishing nets, a remnant of the spice-route era, that lay ensconced next to Russian tattoo-makers, next to European clubs, next to Muslims selling beef, next to the strictly-vegetarian Konkani bankers, next to Gujarati traders, next to Hindu temples, and so on.
“We call it a cultural mosaic," said K.J. Sohan, a long-time chronicler of Kochi’s many stories, and a former mayor of the larger Ernakulam town. “We are the opposite of a world riddled with ethnic conflicts. We are a cosmopolitan, secular town that includes everyone," said Sohan.
“Look at this building," he said, pointing to the front entrance of a cooperative bank. “It (the bank) was founded 73 years ago by V.S. Dara Singh, a north Indian freedom fighter and trade union leader, who even won as a Congress legislator from here. Today, can you imagine a north Indian contesting election in south India?"
As one reaches Cohen’s house, Kashmiri traders just next door are busy selling pashmina shawls under a painted board that reads Shalom (the Hebrew word for peace). A recent book One Heart, Two Worlds chronicles in detail the stories of Kochi’s Jews. Cohen is a prominent presence.
“Sarah and her husband Dickey, a reputed lawyer, were neighbours who fell in love and got married. The couple had no children. But their home in Jew Town was an open house for parties," according to the book.
Cohen’s two handymen were Thaha Ibrahim, a Muslim street hawker, and Selene Xavier, a Christian cook.
“Thaha, who ran errands for the family from a very early age, eventually became a part of the family," said Rocky, a family friend. “Given the Arab-Jewish rivalry, outsiders were often surprised (to see) a Jew accepting a Muslim and vice-versa," he said. “But to us, it was natural."
When Thaha, who was still roaming around the house showing visitors Cohen’s embroideries, finally made an appearance, he said: “I can hardly speak. It is my third day without proper sleep," he said. But he couldn’t stop sharing a memory or two about Cohen.
“She said something before she died. I thought she was saying Kanji (rice soup). Only after her death, I came to know that Jews have a system of placing stones during the burial. So, she was probably saying Kallu (stone). She knew she was dying," said Thaha.
He is aware of the hostility between Jews and Muslims. “There are no good Jews and bad Jews, sir," he said when asked about it. “There are only good people and bad people."
The exodus and decline
The disappearance of the Paradesi Jews in Kochi reportedly started with the founding of Israel, the promised land for the community, right after the Second World War. “They always wanted to go home. So, when their homeland was available, they started migrating back one by one," said Narayanan.
Sohan said the strengthening of the Mossad (Israel’s secret service) played a big role in this transformation. “They came here and very secretly arranged transit back to Israel. I had a White Jew classmate who always talked about crossing all the mountains and the sea between here and Israel. When he finally went, we didn’t even know!"
However, in recent years, he says, the Parades Jew migratory route has shifted to countries such as the US and England, rather than Israel, in search of better educational prospects and jobs, mirroring the path taking by their Anglo-Indian neighbours in the town.
“After the Jews, the Kachi Memon community, who are mostly into trading and stock exchange, will probably vanish within 25 years," Sohan said.
The city is also seeing cracks in its vaunted chapter of tolerance, with the advancement of fundamentalist Hindu and Muslim outfits. Minor skirmishes had erupted after the Babri Masjid demolition. Caste wars are still playing out, even among the Jews. The Black Jews and White Jews also do not always see eye-to-eye, similar to the so-called upper and lower castes within Hinduism, especially when it comes to marriage.
Economic opportunities with the city have unmistakably dwindled. Kochi can arguably called the hub of urban poverty in modern day Kerala, after the loss of hundreds of jobs kept alive by the once-thriving port.
“Most of the people in the city were employed in some port-related activity. The loading and unloading of goods on to ships, which had to be manually done, provided many blue-collar jobs," Sohan said.
“The first shift came with container ships and then customs started doing house-audit (at the factory site) instead of at the ports. Earlier, companies would have big storage spaces (at the port), which would be manned by a huge labour force."
“Next came the shift toward strategic supply of goods by trains, instead of via ports, by the Indian state. Other suburbs of Ernakulam city, such as Angamaly and Eloor, were picked for storage godowns and supply as they were strategically tied to railway lines. Earlier, all of these used to be imported via the Kochi port," Sohan added.
Clearly, like the journey of Cohen’s community, the city’s progress has also reached a dead end. But much like how her wrinkles and laughter are etched on to the minds of Kochites, the boats still resting on the sea preside over the city, along with the many memories of its once prosperous sea routes and the once-eventful spice trade.
Cohen’s body was laid to rest last Sunday in a corner of the “Jew Cemetery" in Mattancherry. During the day, Yaakov Finkelstein, her grandnephew and the present consul general of Israel in Mumbai, placed a fistful of earth from Israel over the coffin. “It is the end of an era," he later tweeted. And just like that, a 2,000-year-old story came to a close, with a few banal characters, as a tweet.