Meet Kochi’s Kashmiris

The city’s 400-strong Kashmiri community just celebrated its first local wedding in three decades. Meet them over noon chai

A lilting, unfamiliar, melody, accompanied by vigorous clapping and beats of the tumbakanari, float from an apartment in Pattalam, Fort Kochi.

Inside, Janat Altaf waits for the freshly applied henna on her hands to dry. Clustering around her are women dressed in loose salwar kameez with their heads covered as they sing of a grandmother’s blessing.

This is Janat’s pre-wedding mehndi ceremony. This is also the first traditional wedding in over three decades in the 400-strong Kashmiri community, which lives mainly in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.

“So far we have all gone home to get marrie

d but as there is turmoil in the Valley we performed the nikaah here,” says Syeed Altaf, the bride’s father. “My daughter’s wedding is the first to take place in our community here. Peer Humza, the groom, is my friend Shaukat Peer’s son. They too live here. The nikaah was at Ansar masjid in Chullikal.”

Syeed says he had hoped to invite a Kashmiri cook to make the traditional wazwan, but instead the women rallied, cooking up a fragrant feast of mash kabab, aab gosht and zafran chai.

The songs and the food are a reminder of a home 2,500 kilometres away.

Although the Kashmiri community in Kochi is small, they are an integral part of Kochi’s multi-cultural fabric. Khurshid A Geelani, who runs three charming handicraft stores in the city, came to Kochi in 1987.

He says the city started opening up to tourists in 1992. “You could say Kashmiri traders follow the tourists. Wherever there is tourism potential, you will find Kashmiris arriving,” he says.

Though the Kashmiri flow into Kochi re

ally began in 1993, when Gulshan Khatai, a revered name in the community, established a landmark store on MG Road retailing carpets, walnut wood furniture and pashmina shawls. The poet-businessman was the face of the community until he passed away in 2015. The trend he began continued. By the 2000s, the city had become a popular destination for tourists: Fort Kochi and Mattancherry saw Kashmiri handicraft stores open year after year, each bringing a different style of business.

Sajid Khatai, president, Kashmiri Traders Association, explains the migration differently. “The exodus began when militancy shot up in the Valley and tourists stopped coming there. We had to come out for our bread and butter,” he says. As most of the community is into retail of handicrafts, Sajid states that they are well known for their salesmanship. “It is commonly said that we can sell a comb to a bald man too,” he says with a loud laugh.

The Kashmiri Malayalis

“Though we are an orthodox community, we have integrated with the locals to some extent. A few of our men have married Malayali women. Our children speak Kashmiri at home and Malayalam with their friends,” says Sajid, whose daughters study in Kochi. His wife Rasiya works at the J&K Bank in Kochi.

Syed Reza Shah Madni, who is visiting from Srinagar, also has strong ties with Kerala. The first Kashmiri to come to Kerala as a student in 1958, the 80-year-old was here to attend the reunion of his batch from College of Engineering, Trivandrum.

“I have been coming for the reunion regularly since 2008,” says Madni, who was one of the two students from the State to be selected for the course. “It was a completely new world for us. We had heard of Madras but anything beyond was unknown. It took five days and five nights to reach, but our Principal Dr Keshava Rao organised everything.”

After Madni arrived in Thiruvananthapuram, he says many students followed. The first two girls to come were Krishna Dhar and Basanti Zutshi. “With them, we formed a Kashmiri Student’s Association,” he says, recalling his first experience of eating rice and curry off a banana leaf in the hostel mess.

For Krishna Dhar Bhan, Kochi became home serendipitously. Married to a Naval officer who was posted here, Krishna ran a dental clinic in Panampilly Nagar for many years before she retired. At 80, she looks back on her two worlds.

“Back in 1960, my father had to hide the fact that he was sending me to Kerala to study Dentistry from my relatives. He was a doctor and a progressive man, so he sent me so far away.” In 2017, when she last visited trouble-torn Kashmir, she says she visited her house on Gupkaar Road, now occupied by the military who let her in. She says she broke down in the office of the station commander, which used to be her bedroom. “They welcomed us. It was very moving to be in my house after all those years. I sat on my balcony and saw the mountains, clouds and chinar tree. Kochi is home; it has given me everything. But my roots are in Kashmir,” she says.

Tanveer Phumboo and

Ashrat Mir have diversified, if only slightly, from the handicrafts business. Their three stores wear a distinctive look, unlike the Kashmiri shops and showrooms, as they deal with block printing and cotton fabrics.

“We entered fashion consciously. There’s a glut in the handicrafts market and also the dangers of fake products,” says Phumboo. Mir conducts block printing classes at the store and teaches tourists to print on T-shirts, which they take back as souvenirs. “It’s caught on well,” says Mir. For them, the most important Kashmiri thing to do is to have noon chai, a salty tea brew. “Our day begins with that. Sipping noon chai is our strongest connect with home.”

Phumboo points out that, over the last decade, entire families have moved to Kochi. “Earlier only the men came on work. Now we bring our parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts….You see them and meet them around here.” It is one such interesting meeting that Krishna Bhans’s daughter Ashima recently had on Princess Street, lined with Kashmiri shops. Growing up in Kochi, Ashima says, she is unconnected with the ground realities of Kashmir. But when she met Ashrat Mir, accidentally on the road, she felt she needed to go deeper into their history.

“I told him about my ancestral house at Gupkar Road in Srinagar and of my father’s at Habba Kadal. He told me the exact histories of these places,” she says, adding “It felt strange that the two of us were discussing our roots in a land so far away; it was an unreal bonding.”

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