Kochi native Varghese recalls a curious Queen enquiring about fishing net weaving

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth engaging in a conversation with T Vidyasagar, president, Indian Pepper and Spices Trade Association, on Mattanchery Jew Street. File photo: Manorama archives

Fort Kochi: The memories of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visiting their colony 25 years ago and the warmth in her behaviour is still etched fresh in the minds of residents of St John Pattom Mini Colony, Beach Road, Fort Kochi.

The longest reigning British ruler stopped over in Kochi on October 17, 1997, as part of her third visit to India. Her Majesty was pleasant and freely interacted with the residents as she walked along the colony.

Queen Elizabeth | KJ Varghese
KJ Varghese with the Malayala Manorama newspaper carrying news of the Queen's arrival in the state

On seeing fisherman K J Varghese, a native of Kathikatt Thayyil, weaving and repairing his fishing nets, the Queen turned curious. She walked up to him and exchanged pleasantries.

Varghese remembers every detail of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The Queen wanted to know about the thread used in repairing the net, for which he somehow managed to say 'tankies.’

She continued to interact, and Varghese remembers replying ‘Yes’ to some of her queries.

Queen Elizabeth looking at the sacred book preserved in Mattanchery Synagogue. The book, written in Hebrew on animal skin, is kept in a silver box. The golden crown can also be seen. Warden SH Halegua and then District Collector VP Joy, among others, are also present. PHOTO: Manorama Archives

It was K J Sohan, the then Mayor, who explained to the Queen the things that Varghese said. On one occasion, the Queen was very impressed and said, 'Good!'. "Her compliment is still fresh in my mind," Varghese said with a beaming smile.

The 77-year-old still goes fishing in the sea. The photo that appeared in the ‘Malayala Manorama’ newspaper the next day on the Queen’s visit showed her curiously looking at Varghese weaving.

He has preserved the old newspaper paper clipping, neatly wrapped with a plastic cover.

Currently, 64 families are living in the colony. It was renovated under the Poverty Eradication programme, implemented with the help of the British government. The place is also called Queen Elizabeth Colony after her maiden visit. A plaque set up in commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit is still there.

The Queen set aside nearly six hours from her busy schedule to visit Kochi and the Jewish Synagogue in Mattancherry. A heavy security cover was provided to the Queen then. Residents' movements were restricted two hours before the arrival of the British ruler. This was done in the wake of certain organisations calling for a protest against the Queen visiting the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the first European navigator, located at St Francis Church.

Traditional dancers welcome Queen Elizabeth II to Taj Malabar Hotel in Kochi during her Kerala visit in October 1997.

She even participated in the prayers held in Malayalam during her church visit. Her stay was at the Taj Malabar Hotel on Willingdon Island. And she even found time to enjoy a graceful performance of Mohiniyattom, the state’s traditional classical dance form.

The beautifully-laid blue tiles of the Jewish synagogue had then caught the fancy of the Queen. While returning, she presented a silver wine cup to the authorities and even signed in the Visitor's Book.

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