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Kashmir in Kochi: Finding reminders of the Valley in Kerala's touristy beach town

'Home' is a sentiment that is difficult to define, particularly when you're a Kashmiri who has left the Valley. While nothing can replace the feeling of being surrounded by loved ones, I learnt that other things can come close, such as the chance to tell someone about what you makes you happy or scared, or even the ability to talk and be understood in a particular language.

Irrfan* invited me into his shop for precisely this reason. I was looking at the jewelry on display outside and set my eyes on two particularly well-made pairs of Tibetan ear-rings. He popped his head out of the door and quoted an outrageous price for them. "Kisse ullu bana rahe ho bhai sahab!" I said to him, in the same way I'd address a salesman in Mumbai. Stunned at my rather average Hindi vocabulary, he insisted that I must walk in his shop and talk to him, even if I didn't end up buying any jewelry.

All it takes is one look at his pale skin and sharp features to know that Irrfan is not originally from Mattancherry in Kerala. If his mild manners are not a giveaway of his roots, the way he says 'Jannat-e-Kashmir' (he refused to call it anything else) certainly is. This was Irrfan's first visit to Kerala, but he had already warmed up to it. "The people in Kerala are the nicest in India, after Kashmir of course!" There may be an abundance of nice people, but I don't think he meets a lot of Hindi speakers who can fully understand what he means to say. Still, he was better at explaining things to the local woman who ran the shop with him than I was.

 Kashmir in Kochi: Finding reminders of the Valley in Keralas touristy beach town

Irrfan was glad to have found someone who spoke Hindi in Mattancherry. All images by the writer

Irrfan's house in Kashmir is on the edge of the Dal Lake in Srinagar, where he lives with his family. He was a salesman there too, until he found himself pulled into a violent episode when the police raided through markets in search of militants. He was tending to a tourist at the time, and as soon as he knew the police were approaching, he asked the tourist to leave. Grossly underestimating the situation, the tourist stayed on, only to be taken away by the police. "I followed the police to tell them that the tourist was innocent, but I was beaten up," he recounted.

I noticed that one part of one ear-ring was on the verge of coming apart, so I insisted on getting it replaced. Our inability to understand each other combined with the local woman's hesitance to modify the jewellery meant that it took a considerable amount of time. "Most people would have gotten up and left if a salesman took so long in Mumbai," I said. He replied by saying that people who live in big cities do not have the time to be kind. "People in Mumbai and Goa just don't have the time to sit around and talk. They don't treat salesmen well either, it's as though all they want to do is bargain."

Coming to Kerala wasn't a conscious choice for Irrfan; all he wanted was to see what life would be like away from home. He is a recent addition to the growing Kashmiri trader community, which has been doing swift business in the beach towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kerala for roughly two decades now. They sell jewellery, carpets and clothes in the mornings and noons, and spend their evenings eating meals and smoking the occasional cigarette together.

By any measure, Kerala allows them a larger degree of freedom than Kashmir does.

"Why else will I travel to the other end of the country, so many miles away from home?" said Sunny*, another Kashmiri trader who works in a shop set up in Fort Kochi. "I want to live with my family, I long to see their faces every day, to eat food made by my mother, but I won't do it at the cost of living under the fear of being nabbed all the time," he said.

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The growing Kashmiri trader community has been doing swift business in the beach towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kerala for roughly two decades now

Sunny is in his early twenties, and like Irrfan, he has come to Kerala for the first time. However, this is not his first time away from Kashmir. One evening when he was still in college, he and his friends were rounded up by the police. They were on their way to a ground to play cricket, and in their car were bats and stumps, which he says led the police to suspect that they were going to do something violent. Eventually, they were let off. The result was that Sunny, who confessed to having a privileged, cushioned upbringing and no real desire to work, found himself looking for opportunities to get out of the Valley. At one point in Kashmir, he felt that there were only three possible outcomes of his life — living in fear, being caught by the police and eventually released, or being shot on suspicion.

Sunny isn't too fond of Fort Kochi — not because of how this Keralite beach town is, per se — but simply because it's not home. Irrfan too, in spite of his optimism, warns that a sense of warmth doesn't necessarily translate into concern. "I could get injured in a road accident, and people on the street might call an ambulance. But this is not how we do things in Kashmir. I've seen so many instances where people who are sick or injured are taken care of by people in their very homes until an ambulance or doctor can arrive, irrespective of their religion, irrespective of whether they're civilians or army men," he says with pride.

The Keralites themselves aren't too happy about the Kashmiris settling here. In the few conversations I had with the locals, I noticed a sense of resentment for this trader community and the ecosystem they have set up for themselves. The locals strongly feel that that the Kashmiris have, by tying up with the local rickshaw drivers and guides and paying them a commission, ruined the local arts and crafts market and created a monopoly over the revenue earned from tourists.

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Kerala has provided a refuge to these Kashmiri traders, but it'll never truly be home

Despite living with the unfamiliarity of a new place, the constant feeling of being displaced — an occupational hazard — and the discomfort of everyday life in Kashmir at the back of their heads, their eyes danced when they spoke about the Valley. One would imagine that Irrfan would be resentful of law enforcement officials, but this was not the case. "I don't believe that they have a personal agenda, that they want to do this. They're taking orders from people above them, and that is where the problem lies — it is vested interests and politicking that had led Kashmir to become like this," he asserted. Sunny talked about how he was surprised to watch his own batchmates take up radical political stances. "Burhan Wani went to a school in an area not far away from my own. People often think that the people who are protesting are brainwashed, but I've found that a large number of them are college-educated and smart," he said.

The conversation may have been dominated by politics, but it always seemed to end on a a sweet note — of thinking about the next chance to go back to Kashmir, as well as an invitation to visit. Sunny, with his head bent over a silver ornament that he was polishing, spoke elatedly about how his elder brother was soon going to get married. "You should come, you'll see what the Valley is like when we're happy and celebrating," he said.

*Names changed on request

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 11:11:53 IST