TRAVEL TALES

How 500 years of immigration has gifted Fort Kochi a deep sense of multiculturalism

History lingers in the air in Fort Kochi.

The boat ride from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi is as wonderfully reanimating as it is cheerily short – after passing the hustle of the jetty, and the massive Indian Navy ships reminding you that waters too have boundaries, you reach a sanctuary far removed from the hum of the rest of Kochi.

History lingers in the air in Fort Kochi, as you walk its cobbled streets and tree-lined lanes, past the cafes and bistros. The oldest fishing village in Kerala, the Portuguese ruled here from 1503 to 1682, followed by the Dutch till 1795, and then the British until the year India became independent. If you stand in the middle of Parade Ground, the square around which Fort Kochi is built, in one direction you can see David Hall, a bungalow built by the Dutch in the late 17th century, and in another direction, Cochin Club, an institution once exclusively meant for British men. Rooted at the same spot, if you turn, there’s St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India housing the gravestone of the explorer Vasco de Gama.

Architecture isn’t the only remnant of the past here. The 500 years of migration have left the 4.5 square kilometre area of Old Kochi, the collective name given to Fort Kochi and the adjacent Mattancherry, with a deep sense of multiculturalism. At least 32 communities live here, speaking at least 16 languages, other than Malayalam, according to Bonny Thomas, a local historian and a founder-member of Kochi Biennale Foundation, the charitable trust that hosts the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

St. Francis Church. Credit: Bikashrd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0.
St. Francis Church. Credit: Bikashrd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0.

Abdul Qader sits outside his house in a narrow lane on Princess Street, not far from Parade Ground, puffing on a cigarette. His great-grandparents came to Fort Kochi in 1920 as a young couple from Awadh. He speaks Hindi and Urdu, but is more comfortable with Malayalam.

“My great-grandparents set up a business selling cloth, and they made some money,” said Qader. “My grandfather invested that money in selling spices to the Middle East. But my dad lost it all. When the family fell on hard times, they became butchers.” He wants his sons to get professional jobs: “computers are good,” he said.

A grizzled 40-year-old, Qader is grateful for the way history played out. When the East India Company’s commercial monopoly ended in the 1800s, entrepreneurs flocked to the thriving port and trade centre. “This brought migrants from all over the country, be it from Mewar, Gujarat, Madras,” said Thomas. Today, the congested area is a good example of how multiculturalism can work. And thrive.

Qader’s neighbour on one side is the D’Cruz family, whose ancestors came from Goa and who speak Konkani at home. On the other side of his house live the Butts, a Kashmiri family that arrive in Fort Kochi in the 1980s when trouble erupted in their native state. The Butts now sell kaftans and carpets. “Their children go to a Malayalam medium school,” Qader said.

Princess Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0.
Princess Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0.

The extent of this diversity dawned on Thomas a while ago, while he was doing some sketches for a Malayalam novel. “All migrant communities here have their customs, festivals and food,” he said. Ganeshotsav, for instance, is celebrated with pomp, and gets contributions from Marathi, Rajasthani, Konkani and Gujarati communities. Diwali and Eid are marked with equal vim. The goat that Qader’s family slaughters for Eid-al-Adha, or Bakri Eid, is supplied by a Yadav family.

“You get the best biryani in this area, but it’s not complete without the papadums brought here first by the Konkanis,” said Thomas. “You get the best seafood – delicacies like pearl spot, white snapper. But they’re caught with fishing nets that the Chinese brought. The best vegetarian food is here – and the Marwaris and Gujaratis are to thank for that. It is a small congested area with many communities and a shared history, not just of European powers but Indian migration. Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are the most multicultural place in India.”

This comity has admittedly frayed occasionally. Following the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya in the early 1990s, there were some skirmishes in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, though nothing of the scale of the riots that killed so many in Mumbai, Delhi and other parts of India.

What happens going forward is uncertain. The port headquarters have moved from Fort Kochi to nearby Vallarpadam, affecting the economy. Jobs in Old Kochi are few, unemployment is high, migration is low, and gangs have sprouted up in a place once seen as benign.

Still, for Qader, there is hope. Fort Kochi is now home to India’s biggest art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Tourism, brought in by the festival, will create jobs, he believes. The Kerala government too has realised how valuable Fort Kochi is to the state’s cultural heritage, and is planning to revive its glory. Qader is positive. “My sons will be okay. Fort Kochi is our home. Always has been and always will be.”

An Indian fisherman catches fish in front of the popular Chinese nets at Fort Kochi. Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP
An Indian fisherman catches fish in front of the popular Chinese nets at Fort Kochi. Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

How technology is changing the way Indians work

An extensive survey reveals the forces that are shaping our new workforce 

Shreya Srivastav, 28, a sales professional, logs in from a cafe. After catching up on email, she connects with her colleagues to discuss, exchange notes and crunch numbers coming in from across India and the world. Shreya who works out of the café most of the time, is employed with an MNC and is a ‘remote worker’. At her company headquarters, there are many who defy the stereotype of a big company workforce - the marketing professional who by necessity is a ‘meeting-hopper’ on the office campus or those who have no fixed desks and are often found hobnobbing with their colleagues in the corridors for work. There are also the typical deskbound knowledge workers.

These represent a new breed of professionals in India. Gone are the days when an employee was bound to a desk and the timings of the workplace – the new set of professionals thrive on flexibility which leads to better creativity and productivity as well as work-life balance. There is one common thread to all of them – technology, tailored to their work styles, which delivers on speed and ease of interactions. Several influential industry studies and economists have predicted that digital technologies have been as impactful as the Industrial Revolution in shaping the way people work. India is at the forefront of this change because of the lack of legacy barriers, a fast-growing economy and young workers. Five factors are enabling the birth of this new workforce:

Smart is the way forward

According to the Future Workforce Study conducted by Dell, three in five working Indians surveyed said that they were likely to quit their job if their work technology did not meet their standards. Everyone knows the frustration caused by slow or broken technology – in fact 41% of the working Indians surveyed identified this as the biggest waste of time at work. A ‘Smart workplace’ translates into fast, efficient and anytime-anywhere access to data, applications and other resources. Technology adoption is thus a major factor in an employee’s choice of place of work.

Openness to new technologies

While young professionals want their companies to get the basics right, they are also open to new technologies like Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence. The Dell study clearly reflects this trend — 93% of Indians surveyed are willing to use Augmented/Virtual Reality at work and 90% say Artificial Intelligence would make their jobs easier. The use of these technologies is no longer just a novelty project at firms. For example, ThysenKrupp, the elevator manufacturer uses VR to help its maintenance technician visualize an elevator repair job before he reaches the site. In India, startups such as vPhrase and Fluid AI are evolving AI solutions in the field of data processing and predictive analysis.

Desire for flexibility 

A majority of Indians surveyed rate freedom to bring their own devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones etc.) to work very highly. This should not be surprising, personal devices are usually highly customized to an individual’s requirements and help increase their productivity. For example, some may prefer a high-performance system while others may prioritize portability over anything else. Half the working Indians surveyed also feel that the flexibility of work location enhances productivity and enables better work-life balance. Work-life balance is fast emerging as one of the top drivers of workplace happiness for employees and initiatives aimed at it are finding their way to the priority list of business leaders.

Maintaining close collaboration 

While flexible working is here to stay, there is great value in collaborating in person in the office. When people work face to face, they can pick up verbal and body language cues, respond to each other better and build connections. Thus, companies are trying to implement technology that boosts seamless collaboration, even when teams are working remotely. Work place collaboration tools like Slack and Trello help employees keep in touch and manage projects from different locations. The usage of Skype has also become common. Companies like Dell are also working on hi-tech tools such as devices which boost connectivity in the most remote locations and responsive videos screens which make people across geographies feel like they are interacting face to face.

Rise of Data Security 

All these trends involve a massive amount of data being stored and exchanged online. With this comes the inevitable anxiety around data security. Apart from more data being online, security threats have also evolved to become sophisticated cyber-attacks which traditional security systems cannot handle. The Dell study shows that about 74% of those surveyed ranked data security measures as their number one priority. This level of concern about data security has made the new Indian workforce very willing to consider new solutions such as biometric authentication and advanced encryption in work systems.

Technology is at the core of change, whether in the context of an enterprise as a whole, the workforce or the individual employee. Dell, in their study of working professionals, identified five distinct personas — the Remote Workers, the On-The-Go Workers, the Desk-centric Workers, the Corridor Warriors and the Specialized Workers.

Dell has developed a range of laptops in the Dell Latitude series to suit each of these personas and match their requirements in terms of ease, speed and power. To know more about the ‘types of professionals’ and how the Dell Latitude laptops serve each, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Dell and not by the Scroll editorial team.