Society

Raconteurs of Fort Kochi

Kochi Fort  

There must be surely something singular about Fort Kochi that drives writers to come up frequently with a book inspired by the place. Something in the air, something in the setting, something in the people, something in the tales, something that misses the common eye. The locale has been a dramatic setting of thrillers, a fabled backdrop to historical fiction, delightful material for illustrated books, and of course offers unalloyed matter for history. While some writers revel in its past, others are fascinated by its remnants; while some celebrate the mixed demography and the consequent lingua franca - a typical Fort Kochi lingo - others are captivated by its visual appeal. Whatever be the reason, the romance of the writer with Fort Kochi seems unabated.

Santa and the Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi by E. P. Unny that was recently released takes readers through the crossover histories of half a millennium with 135 caricatures and related commentary. Unny writes, “pack all of this and a million mosquitoes into one square mile and you have Fort Kochi.”

“The place has a visual coherence. It has many histories and surprisingly no feudal baggage. History is extended politics and I am a political cartoonist,” he says. Unny hails from Palakkad. His only association with the place were his visits as a young man to his uncle’s home, who resided in the splendid Aspinwall bungalow. The book is a visual journey through centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British heritage to the distilled present day life. Little Lisbon, Homely Holland, Mini England, Karl Marx…and such, chapters, describe the past and the present through chronicles of legendary characters.

The rain trees of Fort Kochi that seem to charm every visitor have caught Unny’s fancy too. In elegant understated prose he calls the signature tree, a graphic editor, “modulating the hype around monuments.” Unny took five weeks to illustrate the one square mile, being directed by friends to illustrate characters that are an integral part of the composition.

Unlike Unny, George Thundiparambil is from Fort Kochi. His book Maya published in 2008 has Kapri, the cigar-chewing, hat donning spirit of Fort Kochi as its hero. “Fort Kochi is a cultural meeting point and that’s why people are attracted to it. It was the first European settlement in Asia. Not only from an Indian point of view but from a global point too Fort Kochi was very significant,” says George stressing that it is the layered history of the place that gives it its singularity. “The story of Kapri is Fort Kochi lore. I have seen cigars at his shrine, where people light candles,” says George who was inspired to fictionalise this story based on local belief and sourced it from a booklet Kaprikathagal written by a person named Aziz from Mattancherry.

George set his screenplay ‘Kozhikode to Kochi’ in Fort Kochi too. In Maya, the climax is reached on the fictitious 500th anniversary celebrations of Vasco Da Gama’s arrival on the shores of Fort Kochi. The kidnapped heroine is rescued by Kapri, the friendly ghost who finds lost things and souls.

“In one word it is Vasco Da Gama,” writer N.S. Madhavan considers the reason why Fort Kochi remains exciting and curious to writers. “India’s colonial past began here, though by the time the British came it became an outpost.” But Madhavan makes a slight distinction. He says, “Mattancherry, perhaps more than Fort Kochi fired the writer’s imagination. There are books in Malayalam and a couple in English, part of Salman Rushdie’s novel - The Moor’s Last Sigh is located there.”

His penchant for Fort Kochi comes from his first impressions. “I saw the sea for the first time in Fort Kochi, as a four-year-old. It was a mind boggling experience. That is good reason to love the place,” says Madhavan who rented a place on Beach Road while he worked on his debut novel Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal,(2003) translated as Litanies of the Dutch Battery in 2010. Madhavan says that Ponjikkara Rafi’s books always had references to Fort Kochi and the plays of Nelson Fernandes too were inspired by the place.

Most writers speak of two or three common factors that draw and inspire them to the place - its history, its visual appeal and mixed lineage that gives birth to quaint stories with strange characters.

While Unny combines drawing with chronicles, Madhavan weavesChurch Fort Kochi into his story about an imaginary place with five Dutch canons on its promontory and George spins a riveting fast-paced story out of prevalent popular lore.

Tanya Abraham, a freelance writer from Fort Kochi, says that she was so often queried about the history and stories of the place that she decided to compile them into a book. Her slim volume Fort Cochin-History and Untold Stories are handed-down tales and vignettes that are a part of traveller’s guide tales to authentic researched matter. Between a guide book and a pocket book that caters to travellers and carries with it the romance of the place is Meena Divakar’s Post Code 1. It is a quick compilation of photos and related story of places and people of Fort Kochi. Most writers doing research on the place invariably reach out for K.L. Bernard’s History of Fort Cochin. Though some of it is contested history but it is a book most referred to, says K.J. Sohan, a history buff and former mayor from Fort. With each writer deriving something unique for themselves from Fort Kochi the place continues to be their muse.


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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 2:17:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/raconteurs-of-fort-kochi/article6491840.ece

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