Vestiges of the Jewish community have a strong presence here
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Synagogue Lane in Jew Town is a case in point. Once home to a bustling community of Cochin Jews, Synagogue Lane has just under ten members of the community left. A colourful commercial hustle bustle has overtaken the privacy of the community that once flourished and thrived in its orthodoxy and culture. The Pardesi Synagogue (built in 1568) and the Dutch clock tower at the end of the lane stand as mute witnesses to the passage of time. As heritage site the lane remains architecturally unchanged, yet the activity it witnesses now is in no way related to its glorious past.
Today the homes of the Jews have turned into shops crammed with expensive, eye-catching products. Tourists come in droves clicking every remnant of a history that lived, of a change that is in process and of times then and now.
P. E. Thomas grew up playing ball in the lane with Jewish kids. He recalls the times when it was purely a residential place of the white Jews. “It was a strange world. I loved coming here,” he says.
Thomas’s uncle was the head cook with S. S. Koder, a well-known businessman and a distinguished member of the community. His aunt was in-charge of the laundry of all the families in the lane. “They had given my uncle a small house behind their house. I came down here on my holidays. In a way I grew up here among the Jewish children.” Seventeen years ago Thomas started a shop, ‘Little Queen Embroidery’, selling embroidered products at Synagogue lane. The second flush of migration saw many Jews leaving for Israel, he says. He got the store from Issac Ashkanazi, a Jew. “My cousin sister still works for them in Israel,” he says.
Keith Hallegua, 50, is one of the youngest members of the community. He has seen the change. The first commercial enterprise he recalls was an ice-cream shop started by a Jewish gentleman Ezzie Roby. “It sold ice-lollies for 10 paisa,” says Keith and remembers walking his mother’s snappy Pomeranian Sabrina in the lane, before it turned a tourist destination. Perhaps the first shop started by a non Jew was ‘Indian Arts’. The building belonged to Keith’s uncle who worked for Esso. The house called ‘Beth Hathikvah’ belonged to Elias Koder. Young Alex Rockey is the new owner of the house. He plans to make it his home and open it as a homestay to the many who visit the area. Cochin Oil Merchants, Estd 1935, clearly discloses its date of formation. “It must definitely have been a Jewish home before that. There was a gunny making unit opposite that which too must have been a Jewish residence,” says Keith.
Reema and Gumbriel Guy Salem, elders of the community, sit opposite each other watching the tourists walk past through the open half door. They talk of the Jewish children who have migrated to different parts of the world. They recall the last big wedding of Glen and Leslie at the Synagogue and the reception thereafter at Sasoon Hall called Puthan Veedu.
Walking down the lane one can see signage of Jewish culture. Nameplates in Hebrew, Jewish name boards, - Sassoon, Cohen, Solomon Hall, the Star of David all strongly invoke the Jewish presence.
“Mandalay Hall, belonged to my maternal grandparents who lived for sometime in Mandalay. We were about 16 families in this lane. Most of these houses have not changed the façade. There was a verandah in the house opposite Leela Manzil,” says Keith.
Thomas recreates the scene when the dwellers in the homes would sit on their window sills and talk to each other across the lane. He recalls food cooked in a big kitchen during festivals
C. Ramesh opened an antique shop on this lane in the 80s. The tourist trickle had increased by then.
The first ‘Kashmiri’ shop came to the lane about 15 years ago, says Raja Mohammed who set up shop here 11 years ago. Sunshine India proclaims itself as a hassle free shop. Arshid Ahmad from Srinagar started the shop three years ago. The Kashmiris are the newest businessmen in the area.
Commercial plurality has brought the world to Synagogue lane replacing the singleness of a community. Indira Gandhi visited the synagogue as Prime Minister, in 1968 and in 1992 the Queen of England graced the landmark edifice. The street that has hosted dignitaries now takes the footfalls of hundreds of holidayers.
Today the scene has changed 360 degrees. New accents are heard all around. Hawkers, vendors, chaiwalas throng the place. Tourists make a beeline to the synagogue, which sees little activity. “They asked me to become the warden,” says Keith who too wishes to go away. The change has left him befuddled. “I feel lost, lonely and unsure,” he says coping with a past that’s close to his heart and a present that offers no future, especially on this lane where he spent his childhood.