Five days have passed since 96-year-old Sarah Cohen, the oldest Paradesi Jewish woman in India breathed her last, but her trusted aides Thaha Ibrahim and Celin Xavier are yet to come to terms with it.
“I still feel her presence in this house,” said 49-year-old Thaha Ibrahim, a devout Muslim, sitting on a chair near the Jew Town-facing window of Sarah's green and red-painted house at Mattancherry in Kerala's Ernakulam district.
Seventy-year-old Celin, a devout Christian, echoed Thaha. “I still hear her footsteps.”
Thaha and Celin looked after Sarah, who died just four days before her 97th birthday last Friday. The three lived in perfect harmony despite believing in different Semitic religions that are at loggerheads elsewhere.
Sarah was a member of the ever-shrinking Paradesi Jew community in Mattancherry, a small town all of the 5km radius facing Vembanad lake and home to 39 communities with diverse cultures. Migration to Israel and deaths have brought down the number of Jews here to just two. The community owns a 450-year-old synagogue, Paradesi Synagogue. Paradesi in Malayalam means foreigner as they are believed to have come from Portugal. A few metres separated Sarah's house and the synagogue. She was buried at Mattancherry's Jewish cemetery, Gan Shalom (Garden of Peace), on Sunday, next to her husband Jacob Cohen.
The genial Sarah – who used to sit near the window of her home clad in a colourful house dress and a matching Kippah, the traditional Jew cap – commanded a lot of respect in Jew Town. Many of her friends had migrated to Israel, the Promised Land, but she stayed put in Mattancherry only to become the most visible face of Jews in Kerala. Her popularity was evident when a huge crowd, cutting across religions, turned out to pay their last respects.
A Class 6 dropout, Thaha was all of 12 years when he arrived at the Jew Town to sell souvenirs to tourists and work at his uncle's pepper drying unit. “I sold picture post cards and spices to tourists. A chance encounter with Sarah aunty's husband Jacob Cohen had changed my life forever,” recounted Thaha.
Thaha was struggling to find a place to keep his belongings before going home. “Jacob uncle allowed me to keep the stuff in their house. It was the beginning of a new journey. And I became an unofficial member of the Cohen family,” he said.
Thaha helped Sarah to run her embroidery shop that sold traditional Challa wraps used to cover bread loaves, Kippah, headscarves and shawls. She also made use of Thaha's tailoring skills – he hails from a family of dress makers in Kochangadi, also in Mattancherry.
In the late 90s, Thaha made several vain attempts for a foreign job. He had eventually shelved it after Jacob fell ill. A few days before his death in 1999, Jacob pleaded him not to leave Sarah alone. The couple did not have any children. “It was a God-sent opportunity to give something back to the Cohen family. I am happy that I fulfilled his request,” Thaha said.
At the shop, Thaha worked as the material purchase manager, Kippah maker and marketing professional. “Though I worked for her, she treated me like her son. She advised me to spend miserly, but she gave me money whenever I needed,” he said.
So he bought his first bike with generous help from her. “She gave me Rs 9,000, half of the money to buy a bike.”
A few years later, when his passion for photography reached its peak, he decided to buy a camera, only to be admonished by Sarah. “She supported me when she realised my genuine interest in photography,” he said Thaha is in possession of a huge collection of Sarah's rare photographs and videos. “I will use them in the documentary that I am planning to work on,” he said.
Tears welled Thaha's eyes when he remembered how she forced him to quit tobacco chewing. “Thaha, you will die soon if you continue to chew tobacco,” she had warned. “And she asked me to touch her head and make a promise. Since then I never chewed tobacco,” he said.
'Jew Town is my university'
Jew Town has been Thaha's second home for more than three decades, and he reveres its residents, culture and, more than anything else, the Cohens for helping him to achieve much more than a normal school drop-out.
Interactions with engineers, lawyers and businesspersons from the community made him much wiser. Now he knows the advantages of wooden buildings, history of Semitic religions and the impact of 1924 floods in Vembanad lake, among many other things. It spurred him to undertake his own historical explorations, including how to determine the age of heritage sites. “Now, I am working on a project to determine the age of Chempittapally, or Mosque with a Copper Roof, in Mattancherry,” he said.
Little wonder, then, that Thaha describes himself as a student of 'Jew Town University'. “Cohen family and their relatives are my teachers here,” he said.
Celin, a cook and caregiver
Celin's association with Sarah began in 2002, three years after Jacob's death. “I cooked food for her in the beginning, but later doubled up as her caregiver,” Celin said.
“Sarah relished food varieties,” she said. “By the grace of God, she ate well till her death.”
From 2012, Celin used to share the bed with Sarah. “I made it a habit after she fell from bed in the middle of the night.”
She said Sarah had a sharp memory and knew many Jewish prayer songs by heart. “She forgot some of them when age caught up with her, but she tried to recollect them when relatives visited her,” she said.
Paradesi Jews around the world are all praise for Thaha and Celin for taking care of Sarah. Yaakov Finkelstein, Sarah's grandnephew and Consul General of Israel in Mumbai, said Thaha looked after Sarah as his own mother. “He took care of Sarah aunty for many years. Theirs was a mother-son relationship. Celin was also a wonderful caregiver,” he said.