Mattancherry is not my homeland. I was not born or bred there. I first encountered this land as a visitor. I was to write poems as part of an exhibition curated by Riyas Komu at Uru Art Harbour. Mattancherry was the thina (landscape) and title of the show.
To me, Mattanchery was the shore of rundown godowns, ancient edifices and tourist lives. I travelled to that shore, many days, many times. Slowly and softly, Mattancherry opened its myriad layers and narrow alleys to me, like water weeds parting ways to a rowing boat. A fabled land shaped by its ancientness and diversity. A place that lives in the many layers of vocations, communities, lifestyles and dialects; its diverse people living cheek by jowl, literally. Its spaces and edifices wallow in ancient memories. Here, an archaic back door of the Subcontinent opens to the outer world. A nation by itself, its diversity of shared history and coexistence is a model not just for Kerala, but even the rest of the world. Its nationalism has to be one in which the people’s past, present and wishes for future mingle, merge and move.
I wanted to capture the tenuous yet resilient texture of its life through words. In time I discovered that it was impossible and dishonest to travel around like a tourist or journalist and portray the people in four or five poems. Such museumisation would not only be unworkable, but also quiet disrespectful and unethical to the land and its people. I felt I ought to spend a long time to unravel the many-layered story of Mattancherry and tell it through its singular inhabitants. A few of those early attempts at portrait-poetry became a part of the exhibition.
For ages Maimunni Ali, fondly called Alikka, has been waking up at wee hours and walking the alleys of Mattancherry selling fish to households. I met him one early morning at landing station, on the shores where the first wave of industrialisation in Kerala rolled in. He was a boat workman, his legs bear bullet scars from the police firing during the1953 worker’s struggle. Now 78, he continues his daily walk through Mattancherry to sell his fish.
At 94, Sarah Cohen is one of the last links of Jewish history in Kochi. Sitting near the window, she was reading the Holy Book when I went to meet her. Outside the window, were a group of school children; watching us taking her photographs. She raised her head, her face resigned to being reduced to an exhibit. Her caretaker said she had not slept the whole night. She was weeping: Where have all my people gone? I am alone. I sat beside her for a long time. I wrote a poem set to the tune of a Jewish song she sang. The poem is her monologue to God.
Nelson Fernandez is the bard of the land. A playwright, trade unionist, Kochi’s own writer whose many verses have been immortalised in the voice of the great Mehboob. He has written over five hundred songs, done over a hundred plays. In his 80s, he continues to be involved in the labour movement. The poem on Nelson Fernandez takes off from a song he had composed for Mehboob and retraces his style of writing.
A mother in her 80s, Chandrakala, who makes pappadams kneeling on the floor of her house, is the last of a generation of pappadam-makers. In her hands, pappadams that resemble full moon take birth, the cycle of labour and production, a skill that is likely to end with her; her life conjoining with the feminine self of the universe itself.
Pratti is a washerwoman, aged 85. She is representative of the continuing labour of the Vannar community which was settled in Mattanchery by the Dutch four centuries ago. Standing in knee-deep water she churns the dirt off. On the clothesline, multicolored flags fly. She presses and folds and sees them off, to return with the sweat and stain and smell of the land.
How many such people, how many such lives; my journeys to Mattancherry continue. This writing experience was new to me. These were living people who I hadn’t known for long or had the freedom to engage with uninhibitedly. Every written line stretched across an unknown abyss. It should not be too loud or muted, or sound untrue. Each face-to-face meeting was an encounter of body and soul, something I could not do without peering deep into my self, my past and present.
Mattancherry, I think, released me — my life and writing — from a possible stagnancy. I was writing about ordinary people. They were to read it. I wanted them to relate to it. The verses were not to appear in print. The poems and its subjects appeared first in big letters, thirty-feet above the ground, on the peeling walls of an old crumbling godown. Numerous artists and other diverse people read them, standing beneath, head raised. The people who had become the poems too came, with their families. Alikka’s daughter read the verse and told me: “He is short- tempered. You must add that.” Alikka laughed. It’s true. It’s the kind of anger that, fifty years ago, made him dump his fish basket over the head of a Brahmin who called him a dog. The act defined an age of political rage.
In retrospect I realise that each one of them was writing their own selves. However, some lives that caught my imagination remained elusive. Ismail, an old-time goonda, was one such. We became friends, or so I thought. But he didn’t take shape in my words. Like a varaal fish, he slipped away from words.
I grew up in a village in Alapuzha. My father was a political worker. The boundaries between life within the house and the world outside were very thin. Every person gave, shared and cared for their neighbour to build the inter-connected life of the village. It is this ease and openness that was lost when I became part of the urban middle-class. Mattancherry carried me back to my childhood and its terrain of many spontaneities.
Under its sun and rain, picking its bins and drains, soaked in its mud and water, my life and language gained a new verve. I became a native of Mattancherry; Mattancherry became my homeland.