A short story about the Jewish spice traders in Cochin, India
|The Last Jew in Mattanchery
(By Josma Ettumanur)
Yaakov Kohler was old and has an empire of history to preserve. He walked slowly on Jews street in a full sleeves shirt ironed firm by Mohammed who walked behind in a calculated pace so as to be always behind Kohler.
At times Mr Kohler looked around at the spice shops where cardamom and clove samples were displayed in large glass jars and cinnamon in original kept with a small board saying it was original as duplicate wood bark imported from Sri Lanka was at large sold as cinnamon to which Mr Kohler had objected when he was at the helm of affairs. Let it be any spice, Kohler could identify the quality in one look and one smell as it was a profession of almost one century as his ancestors who came from Spain liked Fort Cochin and settled here as Mattancherry turned out to be a second home for Jewish community.
In front of the Synagogue Mr Kohler looked back and Mohammed’s hand was there, with a neatly ironed white towel. He covered his head with the cloth in reverence and entered the synagogue. Mohammed as usual backed from the synagogue gate to a corner of the street and waited. His was an unusual relation as per political standards. But as human beings Kohler was like a god to him. As an orphan when Mohammed was entrusted to Kohler long back, he was coming out after reading Torah at the Bimah of Paradesi synagogue, the oldest place of worship for the Jews in any Commonwealth country.
As the biggest name in spice trade, he was busy and wanted a boy at his shop to assist and for errand jobs although he had several workers at the stock room. It was at that time some community workers and Police brought the boy. It was a pathetic story that they told. The boy’s mother jumped from Harbour Bridge into the water which flows to Arabian Sea and her dead body was not found. She dragged the boy also with her from the bridge but fishermen saved him from death. Underwater swimmers from Indian Navy’s Southern Naval Command at Cochin explored full day. “Seems that her body was driven to the Sea as it was low tide time”
Mr Kohler did not ask even the boy’s name or religion. Being a Jew born in a country where every day he met a lot of people except a Jew, he never cared. But he asked about his mother’s death to the people who brought the boy.
“Triple Talaq.” They said.Her husband was in Dubai and had an affair with a Malappuram girl. She found the woman and fought with her. He sent his Triple talaq. That he has divorced her. A marriage was over. And when the boy stood as a question mark before her she walked to the Harbour Bridge dragging him.
And Mohammed grew like his son. The day his wife returned to Jerusalem Kohler asked her,
“What about our properties?”
.“Give it to Mohammed. All these days he was like a son to us.”
Mohammed looked at Mr Kohler who walked in wavering steps to the inside where the holy Torah was worshiped. As it was his duty to care for the Jewish businessman who preferred to be in India while all his Jewish brethren returned to Israel. Mohammed saw him praying at the Torah Ark and he continued waiting when a tourist came and asked about Mr Kohler. He pointed inside and the tourist thanked Mohammed and covered his head with a towel and took his shoes out before entering inside.
Suddenly he turned back and in a friendly mood asked him, “Forgot to ask. What’s your name?”
“Mo ha mmed”
“Mohammed? How come you are here?”
“I am Mr Kohler’s assistant.”
“How come? You are a Muslim, no?”
“Yes. That’s why I waited outside”
The tourist’s face became grim.
“Sir, what happened?” Mohammed asked innocently in anticipation.
Instead of answering he muttered something and looked sternly at Mohammed.
“I come from Jerusalem… and it is your luck that you are not there”
“Sir I am with Mr Kohler since 40 years. I owe my life to him.”
Again the tourist from Jerusalem muttered something and went inside fixing the cloth on his head. Mohammed moved a little far and waited for his master.
Trucks loaded with Black Pepper passed through the narrow road towards the warehouse for spices on other end of the road. And he thought of the golden era when his master Mr Kohler ruled Mattancherry spice market. Ships came to Cochin port from World over and filled Nutmeg and Cinnamon and Pepper in full. Kohler needed green tea at intervals. Along with that, shopping for the family kitchen was Mohammed’s responsibility. Daily trip to Standard Chartered bank in Wellington Island for cheque depositing was carried by Mohammed and Kohler trusted him to draw cash, however big the amount was.
His community migrated to Israel one by one, but Kohler stayed back. When the rabbi of the synagogue Amos Cohen went to Jerusalem, Kohler took over even the rabbi’s work as he was reluctant to abandon the holy place, the Paradesi synagogue. When Kohler’s wife Aliza wanted to go back, Mohammed was unhappy as she was so kind to him. He used to help her in kitchen for making round challah for Jewish New year. Mohammed loved sweet round challah. Every year she used to put the head of a fish on the dining table for prosperity in the coming year. He was afraid that Mr Kohler would also join his wife to Israel. But Mr Kohler stayed back.
The tourist came out along with Kohler and asked him why he stayed back.
He said, “This is the history of this place since 1568 and I won’t orphan my belief. I am a Jew. But I was born in this Kochi soil and would die here on the shores of Arabian Sea”. Kohler explained in detail as he has done number of times before.
It was not a mere sentimental decision. It was historical. When the second temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire, Jews were tortured with new taxes like fiscus Judaicus and they had to flee their place. Jews dispersed to various lands. Some fled to further east from the Middle East and reached the ancient city of Muziris on Kerala coast in India. It was a flourishing city since prehistoric period where Saint Thomas reached in AD 48. In 1341 Periyar river flooded like anything. The mother of all floods destroyed the city of Muziris.
But Kohler’s ancestors reached in 1498 as they were expelled from Spain as per the Alhambra decree by the catholic monarchs. Their boats came to Kerala coast and settled in Fort Kochi where they flourished in spice trade as the King Raja Varma of Cochin provided all support. Even the synagogue stands on King’s palace grounds.
“Now you tell me, is it proper to leave this place?”
The tourist wondered and touched the steps of the synagogue and showed respect. Seeing Kohler, Mohammed came near and again the face of the tourist got grim. He said something in unknown language to Mr Kohler and he turned to Mohammed which made it clear what the subject was. Some sort of unknown fear came up in Mohammed’s mind and he stood there like a block of wax ready to be burned and finished any time. As he got down the steps he held the hands of Mohammed firm as if to show the firm faith in Mohammed and walked slow.
Party leaders came from the other side and showed rare humility and with much love said, “Comrade Vikraman wants to meet Sahib.”
“Where is he? I will come”
“Oh no! You are old and sick. Comrade would come to your house.”
Kohler knew the reason for the sweetness in their words. When elections are near they need money and suddenly remember you.
Mr Kohler was thinking of Vikraman of yesteryears. He was a nuisance then. In Wellington Island and Mattancherry his men in uniform made all kind of agitations. They never cared about the people who invest and do business. When the spice trucks come from the High ranges they used to come and put a new demand and object unloading till their demands were accepted. Then at the port these people object to loading of spices on the ships. Ships have to stay idle for days and weeks resulting in huge damages to be paid by the exporter and many business men stopped shop and moved to ports in other States. The way in which they talked and behaved was the main issue. Apart from a uniform and some levied fees these people were not controllable from the party side as many of them were criminals who came and got the uniform. For them jail was an intermediate place of stay as they go and come. He warned them that he may be forced to find other workers to unload. “OK you can. But we must get the wages for that. We would just watch them doing the job.”
They put a name for that, “Watching fee”
‘Nowhere in the world such a fee exist”
“OK, then take it as we created another record for our State. Just take it like that. Somebody works, you simply watch them working and the wages comes to you as watching fees. What a beautiful idea! We love Democristan.”
“And what if somebody objects?”
“We may deal them physically”
“Many of us have got into Police force. They will charge a case against the complainer.”
“For objecting duties like watching work for a fee. And even if some judge punishes, when we return to power next time, they are freed from jail after the first cabinet meeting. And yes, the judge’s effigy is burnt and ashes dropped into the sea before he gets a transfer to Kasargodu for sure”
Mr Kohler used to complain to Vikraman. He used to point at one bulky book. 1392 pages. ‘Das Kapital’. Written by Engels and famed in the name of Marx. Both Germans in England.
“Where it says?”
“You find out. I have no time to find out”
“This book says about the situations in thinly populated western countries”
“You are a foreigner. Your skin says that”
“My ancestors. I was born and brought here”
When Kohler insisted Vikraman’s gang started shouting slogans.
“Inquilaab Zindabad ! Workers Union Zindabad!
EMS, AKG, Sundarayya Zindabad!
On the streets of Chicago...
When our brethren were falling down..”
Kohler had visited Chicago many times as a lot of Indians live there and they use Indian spices. Chicago and Florida were two of his best markets. He never understood why here in India Communists raise this slogan everytime. In Chicago nobody seems to be bothered about the slogan. He retreated.
Kohler knew that Vikraman always sided with them thinking about the income from them. He even managed to put their leader in Parliament election as a candidate. When fighting with them for survival became difficult, Kohler thought of putting a stop to export. Meanwhile shipping companies had decided to shift business to Mangalore and Tuticorin outside Democristan because of trade union extremism as there was no reason in reasoning with them.
As he was entering his residence many youth wearing khaki and red uniform and cap similar to Delhi police came on motorbikes and slogan shouting went up. Some vehicles followed and in the end a huge Mercedes car came and stopped as per red and khaki people directed.
Vikraman came out of the car like a Maharaja and there was push and pull and commotion to receive him and guide to the house of Mr Kohler. Kohler stood outside to receive him, with the same smile he had half a century back, when Vikraman used to visit him on a bicycle asking for money. Suddenly all those memories came to his mind and this King class arrival was a reformation happened to the Communist leader while it was a reversal for the Jewish trader. In those periods Vikraman used to come and talk like a goonda demanding cash. Then Mr Kohler had the capacity to ask him to wait asKohler was the busiest spice trader in India. Vikraman abused Kohler’s staff for keeping him waiting while Mr Kohler’s sound on phone reverberated from his office cabin. “What happened to the shipment to Russia..? What? Call Singapore. Solve the issue. Call the shipping agency. US order has to be delivered before next month end…What, Suez Canal problem? No I did not read anything in Economic Times…I am not getting Kattappana trunk call. Make it lightning call. It is so urgent. Or try Vandanmedu and ask them to contact Kattappana. By tomorrow morning pepper has to reach here…”
As Mr Kohler was so busy in business, Vikraman enters into an argument with his assistant and forcefully enters the cabin, draws a chair and sits. The staff member who was in a dilemma stands at the door and Kohler pacifies her with a wave.
Vikraman found some cashew on the table which was served to a visitor from Bombay half an hour back. As he started to chew cashew nuts, Kohler extended the plate further to Vikraman’s side so as to make the offering official. He calls his staff and orders tea.
Fresh tea leaves from Kannan devan hills in Munnaar and Vandanmedu cardamom boiled in the teapot in the kitchenette and the aroma spread in entire office. After sipping hot tea, Vikraman commented, “Very good tea. But I have not come to drink your tea, Sahib. Onam is coming and you have to increase the bonus.”
“I have done that even without your interference” Kohler pointed out.
“That was the problem. If you do like that, then what are we for? You have to double what you have already declared.”
“How was that possible Vikraman? Whatever we could give was offered. Please don’t put the company into problem. You can come and demand because I am running this show. You need a wall to draw the art.”
“Whether your company goes to hell or not was not our issue. You must give double bonus. Otherwise, I warn you, from next week the workers will strike”
“See, you can interfere if there was an issue between the company management and workers. Why do you come between us just to throttle the company by raising such demands?”
Mr Kohler remembered that the meeting was a disaster. Vikraman threatened him and went out leading to a one month strike at the company which paralyzed operations….
Kohler found a largely smiling Vikraman with extended hand for shake.
Kohler invited him inside. A large gang of supporters tried to push in. Kohler disliked such crowds as he had bad experience from such party crowd in olden times. Mobs without any control. Many of them carried buckets.
But once got seated Vikraman encouraged followers, “Sit where ever you can”
In the melee followed many of them fell down. Several curios got broken and Kohler had to order some to come out as they tried to push inside even the bed room.
“Right,” Vikraman said. “Let me introduce this capitalist comrade as one of our old friends who supported us many a times. Today also we all are here expecting his whole hearted support.”
Mr Kohler kept silence. He had to suffer a lot because of this man who sits as a king on the Sofa, he just thought.
“See, I have stopped my business, so I am afraid I may not be a good target for you anymore.”
“That is your problem. But we need some fund to face the elections.”
“When I had good business, I had helped you, if you remember”
“That is old story, Mr Kohler. Now the expenses to run the Party are too much.”
“Yes I know. Then you needed only the bicycle .. No petrol needed.. but now..”
“Please don’t misunderstand as this Mercedes was gifted by a party supporter from New York.”
Kohler tried to resist. Still he could not contain the laugh and asked, “What’s a communist supporter doing in New York? You always raise slogans against America.”
“We need money.. from any devil we have to get it .. That’s all. And more over he was doing good work for the party as he launches cyber attack on party opponents from his safe place. Many of his trolls are famous”
Kohler looked at the buckets Vikraman’s supporters carried. Vikraman said, “Just to collect people’s contribution. But what’s it after all! We can’t live by eating peanuts.”
“Yes that is the case of people without unions also.’
Vikraman did not speak anything for a while. Then he pointed to his followers to forward the buckets.
Mr Kohler said as to finish off, “Comrade, I told you that I don’t have any business now. So please spare me.”
Vikraman jumped up and said, “Come comrades”.
While he was stepping down he spat towards the Jew’s house and said, “Now I understand why our party support Palestine.”
Followers came up running and asked in his ear, “Any retaliation..? Black oil, acid, stones, urine?”
Vikraman blocked them with his right hand raising and called his P A and gave instructions in hushed voice. As the Mercedes car sped away, the PA called local leaders and had a hushed up meeting near the Chinese fishing nets.
In the afternoon loud speakers tied on top of an auto rickshaw blaring announcements about a pro Palestine meeting going to be held on Jews street circulated through the streets of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi.
“Friends of Palestine,” it said, “remembers Yasser Arafat”
Nobody knew the relevance. But party meetings have stock attendance and people started flowing to Jews Street. Vikraman called Viplav Kumar, “It is urgent. Just get me some atrocities against Palestine warriors.”
Viplav searched in Google and said, “There are many. How many you want?”
“Give me a dozen”
“Old or new?’
Just before dark a large group of people marched to the meeting place. ‘Inquilab Zindabad”. There were drums and bugles and slogans and red flags aplenty.
The Mercedes car came last and Vikraman was escorted on the stage and as he alighted firecracker chains were fired. A lot of tourists used the occasion to film an Indian event.
“Excuse me. Is this a temple festival?”
The comrade who answered searched awhile for apt words. Then said, “Party festival”.
“I see,” the tourist swayed head and asked, “What party?”
As the tourist women showed more interest, a small crowd gathered around and asked them, “You are from?”
“I am from Germany. She is from Russia.” All started their mobile cameras focussed on the women.
“Really? Then you are our party friends. Party founders German and branch in Russia” in available English one comrade said. What could be the relation between the two, may be wives of two brothers, some started thinking. No that can’t be as they are from two countries.. If not from related families, it was dangerous, they thought.
Somebody ran to call Viplav Kumar’s TV crew. “Two women foreign comrades have come to attend our meeting”
“Women?” Viplav and team ran after them.
They told him several times that they were just two friends and have no idea about Communism or Democristan. But Viplav won’t spare them. He has several programmes and he made them the subject in almost all. At last Vikraman sent for him. He was about to start his speech.
The stage was near the synagogue. Vikraman cleverly spoke in favour of Palestine and against Donald Trump. Mr Kohler was wondering why such a meeting was held in front of his house when it was no occasion. Religions and mass movements stand upon the believing community’s strength. Here I am alone.
Knowing Vikraman for about a three fourth of a century Mr Kohler could make out the reason. When Mohammed pointed out Kohler just said, “The end of the World is not today”.
(A chapter from the novel, "Frauds in the Pond" @ Josmaettumanur)