"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware." ~ Martin Buber


Eid in Mattancherry

Masha Hassan shares the story of the journey of a young girl to Kochi in Kerala. It is a journey of escape - from the memories of her dead father and the celebration of festivals like Eid and Bakra-Eid. The escape becomes a home-coming and a release.

I knew I had arrived at Kochi as soon as I saw the green carpets through the aeroplane seat window. Square green patches looked like biscuits with thin streaks of white waterfalls. It was so unlike Delhi!

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adam's woodhouseMy first task was to reach Parvana Junction near Fort Kochi where my homestay, "Adam's Woodhouse" was waiting for me. Rather than taking a cab which would have cost 2000 rupees, but a much faster journey, I decided to take the local bus which cost me 150 rupees and 3 hours to reach. But it was worth every single penny and minute since it turned out to be the best way to get acquainted with the place as well as the people. By the time I reached Parwana Junction I was completely exhausted and it was already 9.30 pm. All I wanted to do was dive into bed.

I woke up with a soft knock on the door. It took me a while to recollect where I was. The sight of the piping hot Idli and Sambhar and a tumbler of south indian coffee freshened me up.That was by far the best Sambhar I had ever tasted. A hot shower and I was ready to go. As I climbed down the stairs of my Woodhouse room I was greeted by the owner, Feroz.

Good morning Madam, I hope you slept well?" he smiled politely through his funny looking Dali moustache,wearing a blue chequered lungi. He gave me a map of Kochi and offered to arrange trips for Allepey Backwaters, Munnar Topstation, Kathakkali and so on. I thanked him for his help but decided to explore the place on my own.

Shops and everything else in Kochi open at 10 am, and start shutting by 6 or 7 in the evening, which I was not aware of. I had left a little early so i ended up reaching Mattancherry and wandering through Jew Town, after taking a short tranquilizing walk on the beach.

Dutch PalaceMattancherry was a rather odd name for a locality, and more so for a Palace turned into a Museum. I was informed by the man sitting at the reception counter that it got its name from "AncherryMattom", a Namboodiri illam. Over time, it metamorphosed to Matt-Ancherry.

Later, when the gates of the Mattancherry Palace, also known as Dutch Palace, opened I finally stepped into the magnificence by paying 20 rupees for the ticket. I walked through the mythology of the Ramayana beginning with the sacrifice of Dasaratha, on to Sita returning from Lanka, and finishing with Krishna's Lilas. It was a peep into history, culture, clothes, ornaments, hairstyles, use of technology, transformation in live, of the rulers as well as the masses. Liberal use of yellow and red colours in the murals gelled perfectly with the unique red floor of the Palace. Later on I was pleasantly surprised to see the 'Kochi glossy red floor' in shops, restaurants and houses as well.

synagogueI checked Dutch Palace from my list and walked towards the synagogue: a picture of peace and simplicity. Having bought a small book on the history of Jews in Kerala, I strolled through the Jew market of spices, oils, antiques and furniture. The shopkeepers mistook me for a foreigner but I was happy to disappoint them by saying I belong to India.

After I toured the Pardesi synagogue my stomach had started to growl loudly. In Kochi you don't need a tour guide, but if you are looking for one just get into a tuktuk! These auto drivers have a good command over English and they know all the places, from the best restaurants to the best Ayurveda spas .The auto driver dropped me off at a restaurant called Talk of the Town. He also taught me my very first Malyalam word: Nanni (thank you).

This restaurant is situated on the road to Fort Kochi. This was the first time I was introduced to Raja Ravi Verma. I ordered a veg thali with 5 smalls katoris with different vegetable sabzis like okra, beetroot, pumpkin. The thali contained a bowl full of rice and two pieces of appam (rice cake) and one piece of applam (papad).

After revitalizing myself, I booked an evening show to watch the Kathakali and Kalaripayattu (traditional Keralan martial arts) in the Kerala Kathakali centre, 5 minutes walk from the "Talk of the Town" and right next to a Momo place.

kathakaliIn the meantime, I walked the streets of Kochi. There is a weird yet comforting sense of oneness in this city, an unity in the diversity: the men wearing kurta pyjamas and skull caps cracking jokes and playing carom, alongside the ones wearing lungis with tilaks on their foreheads. One is somehow humbled by this city where history, culture, myth and the humility of the locals is so evident.

The gabled roofs, sloped wooden window panels, mud/terracotta walls and clay floors are not the usual brick and cement, boring and dull buildings seen in Delhi. They are lively, vibrant and eye catching. The most remarkable thing was a deliberate avoidance of air-conditioners and even ceiling-fans to preserve the houses, buildings and monuments. No wonder, Kochi has been declared as a heritage city.

This city was extraordinarily clean compared to most parts of India. This was probably the main reason that I felt I was in a different country. Another uncommon yet intriguing factor is the blend of cultures evident through their food, people, architecture and history, which I later experienced during my dinner at Fusion Bay - a small restaurant at Fort Kochi started by four young friends.This place was packed with tourists - Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans. Even though I had to wait but it was worth every bite. I ordered the Dutch meal, followed by banana fritters. The Fusion Bay serves super delicious pumpkin soup in wooden bowls as a starter with every meal.

My first day in Kochi was enthralling. I learned much more from observing mundane activities. Though I hadn't found accommodation near the beach I had managed to cover most of the 'must-see' sights.

The next day, my morning began with the famous ayurvedic rituals- sirodhara and nasyam, then drinking coconut water and finally, finding a place, Amma's Inn, cheap and exactly 5 minutes from the beach. I decided to have my dinner at the 'Italian Restaurant'. The fully lit Cathedral seen from the glass window, Jazz tunes filling the air, the pasta and the chicken soup was perfect.

Chinese fishing netsI had to head back early as I had to pack and pay Feroz. Eid was near and I wanted to vacate as soon as possible as I knew Feroz and his family would be celebrating Eid, which I did not want to observe. The main reason, as a matter of fact, for travelling and coming to Kochi was to avoid the pain of celebration. I had lost my father and I dreaded the sight of the festivals, especially Eid. I ended up fleeing from Delhi. These festivities only increased my grief, reminding me how incomplete Eid was without him.

The next morning I woke up to the cheerful hubbub of Feroz's family. I got more restless and therefore ended up leaving way before the checkout time. I wished Feroz and his family Eid Mubarak and then searched for a tuktuk to Fort Kochi. After a long wait and missing a direct bus, I ended up sharing the auto with a Muslim lady and her son who had to get off a bit before my stop. The lady with the head scarf saw the Arabic tattoo on my forearm and asked me if I was a Muslim. When I said yes, she got very excited, told me how her son is learning English and is fairly good at it. She immediately told him to sing a rhyme to me which he did. Out of curiosity and courtesy I asked his mother how old he was, to which she replied that he was 7. He had a delightful vibe that I don't usually feel around children. I dug into my bag and found a hand-made chocolate which I had purchased the day before from Mattancherry and offered it to him while asking his name. He smiled ecstatically and said "Shahir".

I was stunned. For a moment I felt dazed, I asked him again what his name was. His mother, wrapping her arms around him, said, "his name is Shahir".

My eyes turned red and two tears trickled down my cheek. She looked at my face and asked if something was wrong. I hurriedly wiped my tears and said "no not at all, your son is adorable". I looked at him and then I said "you know what? This is my father's name".

He looked delighted to hear this. And then just suddenly her mother invited me for Eid to her house in Mattancherry. She said, "you eat my place, I cook tasty mutton". I wanted to say no, but somehow I couldn't. The stop she had to get off was a huge ground in a narrow gully filled with thousands of men, women and children ready to offer namaz. I was bewildered. I had no idea what was going on. It had been two years since I participated in these rituals.

I took out my scarf, hastily covered my head and started my day with an offering of namaz. While I did, I was filled with emotions and astonishment. Then the lady took me to her home in Mattancherry, entering through a small cave like door. It was a nice cosy little Kerala house. She put out a banana leaf in front of me, served me appam, which was again incongruous for Eid, and poured hot and fragrant mutton curry. This was an overwhelming experience. It was like "coming home" - eating mutton in Mattancherry.

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