It was a humid Friday afternoon as I was strolling down the Jew Street in Mattancherry, a popular locality in Western Cochin. The streets were quaint and intriguing. The Star of David, swastika signs and hoardings titled Shalom (Hebrew word for Salaam/Hello) were a common sight outside the antique stores and souvenir shops. I wondered if the owners were among the last-living Kochi Jews I had read about during my course on Indian Jews. Walking down the Paradesi Synagogue road, I noticed a house-board saying Sarah Cohen and I decided to enter the building. It was a shop-cum-house, with a range of Kippot and menorahs on the shelves. There was a collection of books in Hebrew resting atop an old shelf and the wall was decorated with black and white photos. I could sense a Jewish connection.
A few steps further, a mid-aged man standing at some distance welcomed us to his shop, like usual tourists. I wasn’t sure if the man was Jewish but after some hesitation, I greeted the man with Shalom and added that his shop had a beautiful collection of artifacts. “There’s nothing like flattery to break the ice!”, as Ruskin Bond had said. To my delight, he smiled back and introduced himself as Thaha — the caretaker of the shop. I told him about my academic Israeli connection. Evidently elated, he got into a lengthy conversation about Indian Jews. I was full of questions and he was patient enough to answer them all in great detail.
“So how many Jewish people live here now?” I enquired. “Once upon a time, there were 2,000 Jews here. Now there are four families with five people”! The numbers were astounding. He drew out a barrage of archival documents — mostly old newspaper clippings and photographs of his Jewish neighbours. With utmost care, he pulled out a tattered piece of paper; the Law degree of his late Jewish neighbour — Abraham Barak Salem, the famous Indian nationalist and Zionist, who had acquired a degree from Madras University in 1902. The man is no more, nor is his family. His house has been rented out by his children who emigrated to Canada but his name is being kept alive in the old files of a creaky cupboard in this shop. “The neighbourhood was very different then,” Thaha exclaimed, adding that his childhood memories were a window to the Jewish culture which he observed at close quarters. Sharing his understanding of the legendary history of Cochin Jews, he said that these Jews are believed to have reached the shores of Cranganore (Shingly/Kodungallur) centuries ago, from where they moved to Mattancherry in 14th century. Eventually, Jews from Middle Eastern countries such as Baghdad, Yemen also immigrated and became a part of the Kochi Jewish community. The latter, known as the Paradesi Jews, constructed their synagogue which now stands tall at the dead-end of the street.
As we spoke, I noticed an old and wrinkled lady sitting in the next room. She wore a faint smile on her pale face. Thaha informed that she was Sarah Cohen, the nonagenarian owner of the house and the oldest of the last five Jews living here. “She is too old to talk but she won’t mind a photograph”, he said as he walked me to her room. He murmured something to her in Malayalam, of which I could only identity two words “Israel” and “student”! She nodded her head in response. We clicked a few photographs before she retired to bed for rest.
Partingly, Thaha offered me a book on Kochi Jews titled Jew Town Synagogue written by late Abraham Barak Salem, his Jewish neighbour and handed me a business card with his full name “Thaha Ibrahim”! It struck me then that the man, who gave such an enthusiastic account of the Kochi Jews, was a Muslim. In the process of keeping the past alive, people like Thaha also become a part of the history. My last words to him were, “Thank you for your time. Ramadan Kareem.”
It was June 15th — the last day of Ramadan. A holy encounter, indeed!