Kozhikode: The Ambiguous Present of a Once Cosmopolitan City
By P. Anima
As a teenager in the Kozhikode of the 1990s, ‘cosmopolitan’ would have been the last attribute I would have given the city. Like generations of young men and women from a small town, one graduated with a solitary agenda – to get out. My life as a young woman in conservative Kozhikode was largely regimented; movement was to school/college and back home. A weekly trip to the central library at Mananchira was part of the schedule. At times there were movies with friends and rare visits with an elder cousin to the SM Street to pick up a pair of what was quaintly called the ‘churidhar.’
The city, to me, was just a bunch of points and names. And the names, however intriguing, never appeared so at that time. If diversity was the norm here always, my incurious eyes thoroughly missed it. By the end of the 90s, I had swiftly exited Kozhikode, as per plan, and it meant freedom from parochialism and the limitations of a small town.
It remained so, for over a decade and a half, until circumstances forced me back to the place I had always called home without ever knowing it much. Going back as a journalist, I realized all I had to do was scrape the surface a little. A curious pair of eyes and the city unraveled in such hues that a sense of marvel at its rich past and multiculturalism became the natural way of seeing it.
Kozhikode, despite its contemporary fetish for malls and skyscrapers, has largely remained a city caught in its past. The past has been rich, vibrant and cosmopolitan, and it appears, the city which has struggled ever since to live up to its past, has given up at some point. As a journalist, I travelled to places known and unknown, met people old and new, and stories, often linked to the city’s long history and multiculturalism, unfolded from nooks. It always surprised me how really interesting bits about the place were hidden under a veneer of new-found constrictions.
An easy guide to the city’s multicultural and trade-savvy past is its street names. A ‘Silk Street’ still exists, but conjuring up images of Chinese traders haggling with the local people will solely depend on one’s imagination. All that is left here are old bungalows restored to be restaurants, and carpet and antiques shops.
Any new visitor to Kozhikode is likely to throw SM Street back at you. Once the shopping centre, it is fast losing out to the sprouting shopping malls. An acronym for Sweet Meat Street, it’s the key to the city’s cosmopolitan identity – one that embraced visitors, imbibed from them, and forged newer identities. For a story on the city’s intriguing street names, I had met MGS Narayanan, Kozhikode’s one-stop man for history. He recalled that Sweet Meat Street goes back to the Zamorin’s time when the rulers invited Gujarati sweet meat makers to the city and accommodated their shops outside the palace walls in Kottaparamba. The Gujarati community not only gave the city a version of the sweet that is its trademark, but also proved to be a crucial player in its commercial circuit. The Gujarati School and the Gujarati Hall, which hosts with equal ease a trader’s meet and a pookkalam (flower carpet) competition, are reminders to the standing of the community. The bustling Gujarati Street is still around. Old bungalows belonging to Gujarati business families are strewn across the city centre, but many have quietly left for the comforts of beach-front apartments. It’s common to see photographers scurry out of the newsroom for the photo-op when members of the community perform puja at the beach, offering milk, sweet rice, and coconuts on the second day of the Ashad month in Gujarati calendar. The ritual is to appease the sea god and is a reckoner for the time past, when the sea played a crucial role in maritime businesses.
It is not difficult to imagine the sense of modernism the Parsis would have brought to Kozhikode when they first landed on its shores two centuries back. Once a strong trading community here, they are a rarity now. Darius Marshall, whose family is among the couple left in the region, often points in jest to the fire temple and cemetery at SM Street when enquiries are made about the rest of them.
If ‘cosmopolitanism’ could roughly mean “a place that embraces its multicultural demographics”, Kozhikode has enough of those. Physical symbols of diverse cultural influences aren’t hard to find here. An example we like to gloat about is the Mishkal mosque, in the historical hub Kuttichira, the architecture of which resembles a temple. Kuttichira itself is a mini mine of history with strong Arab links. Old bungalows with countless rooms and inhabitants still exist and they tell tales of soaring business and faltering fortunes. I have come across houses called Ceylon and Bombay house here, an indication of how much the owners travelled to make a life. At Ceylon House, the current occupants claimed that the tiles on the floor were indeed from Ceylon.
The old-timers, a generation that has seen last bits of the city’s heady days, appear to have imbibed a few cosmopolitan streaks too. An old colleague, from a traditional Muslim family which traces its roots to Yemen, had recounted that matriarchs in his family smoked cigarettes. The men and the women sat, smoked, and chatted, he had said. The present-day Kozhikode may have none of it.
Often the easiest marker to cultural influences in a place is its cuisine and Kozhikode has a legacy. At Zains, a small eatery near the beach with many besotted loyalists, the matronly owner Zainabi talked about the culinary influences that characterize a typical Moplah spread. ‘Stuffing’ is a preferred practice and everything from the rice pathiri to chicken will do with a bit of it. Zainabi had heard stories of Arab weddings where stuffed camel was a delicacy. By the time it reached Kozhikode, the scale and the animal got smaller and we made do with stuffed lambs for occasions. She joyously recalled how lambs were stuffed with five chicken and 10 eggs. When it comes to everyday cuisine, one will find in Zainabi’s glass shelves chicken stuffed with a couple of boiled eggs.
The Arab influence in cuisine is predominant in present day Kozhikode too, thanks to continuous waves of migration to the Middle East. Fancy shops sell assorted dates and dry fruits and supermarkets as a policy stock kuboos and shawarma giving any other fast food a run for its money. If in the past, outsiders came to Kozhikode and left imprints of their culture for us to absorb, the reverse is now at work. As the local people venture out in search of livelihood and travel and migrate, they simultaneously create a local market for foreign products.
The exodus of the men folk from the city, largely to the Middle East, has quietly revolutionized the lives of women. With the men away, large number of families are run by women. An instructor at the local Maruti driving school pointed out that lot of women from conservative families were taking up driving classes. With the men away, they didn’t want to be dependent on drivers and preferred to have control over their swanky cars.
If one is looking for physical markers of cosmopolitanism, it’s easy to find them in Kozhikode. The range of cultural imprints one finds here is remarkable and the city is largely characterized by peaceful co-existence. But how much of what the city has witnessed has percolated to its people, especially at a time when our hearts and minds are growing smaller, remains to be seen.
P. Anima is a Delhi-based journalist who works for The Hindu Business Line’s weekly magazine BLink.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.