Friday, February 29, 2008

Wisdom uninterrupted

Brahma Kumari Usha, with the aid of the Gita, tells what is wrong with man today

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1974, when Brahma Kumari Usha was 13 years old she had a vision of Lord Krishna sitting on a globe and playing the flute “I saw this image with my eyes open,” she says. “I rubbed my eyes and the vision remained. It was a turning point in my life.”

This happened in the town of Choma in Zambia. Her father, a businessman, had come to Zambia several years earlier. Usha’s mother, who was a devotee of Lord Krishna, made Usha sing bhajans from a very young age. The family would also have regular meditation sessions and it was during one of these periods that Usha saw the vision of Krishna.

In 1976, because of the new Zambian government rule that children from the age of 14 should go for national service, like doing road and bridge construction works, the family decided to return to India. They settled in Surat and Usha continued studying but in 1980, at age 19, she went to Mount Abu, the headquarters of the Brahma Kumaris, to meet the founder, Dada Lekhraj. He was a spiritual father to Usha and was called Baba. “I asked Baba what I should do with my life?” she says. “Baba just looked at me and said, ‘There is little time. So, don’t waste it. Go into service.’”

Usha was fearful because she did not know how to speak Hindi. “Baba blessed me and said, ‘You stay here for some time and learn it.’” Usha stayed at Mount Abu and was able to learn Hindi in just three months. “It was a miracle,” she says. On May 22, 1980, she dedicated herself to the Brahma Kumaris (www.brahmakumaris.com). After that she was sent to Mumbai where she spent 12 years.

Among the highlights of her time in Mumbai was the padayatra she undertook on August 5, 1985. Around 600 Brahma Kumars and Kumaris went on a journey by foot from all over India with the idea of congregating in New Delhi on October 24 to celebrate the UN Year of the Youth. Usha joined the Mumbai group and walked for two and a half months traveling through various villages and preaching to the people. “We spread the message of spirituality and the benefits of rajayoga meditation,” she says.

And, along the way, several miracles took place. Once when they walked into a village in Rajasthan, where it had not rained for three years, suddenly, it started raining. “The villagers worshipped us like Gods,” she says. “Sometimes when we felt very hot, we would pray to God and a single cloud would appear and move steadily over us.”

In the dacoit-infested Chambal Valley in Madhya Pradesh, they were walking silently, listening to devotional songs. “Suddenly, a man stepped forward with a knife and said, ‘Whatever you have, give it to me,’” says Usha. “We replied, ‘We don’t have anything.’ The man looked hard at us and something happened to him. Because the next thing he did was to surrender his knife.”

Usha’s face glows with happiness when she recounts the incident. At the Brahma Kumari centre at Edapally, she is dressed in a crisp white saree and blouse and with a badge, with the words, ‘Om Shanti’, pinned on her lapel. She is a senior Raja Yoga meditation teacher as well as a management trainer of the Prajapati Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya. She has traveled to all parts of India and in the US, Canada, Europe, Hongkong, Singapore, Russia, Malaysia and Cambodia. “I usually go to places where people understand English,” she says.

Asked how man can find happiness, Usha says, “The spirit needs wisdom, purity, love peace, happiness, and will power.” In great persons like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Buddha, their soul batteries were fully charged. “In today’s world, the soul battery is discharged,” she says. “Human beings are leading a suffocating life.”

This suffocation could be one reason why on a Monday evening, a steady stream of people are entering the large shamiana at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium to hear Usha, 47, speak on ‘the spiritual significance of the Gita’.

Among them is P.K. Venugopal, 49, who works in the IT industry. “I am looking for salvation,” he says. “After 60, I will dedicate my life to spirituality.” Housewife Jaya Rajendran, 46, is looking for some practical lessons from the Gita. “I also want to bring up my children by making them imbibe the Gita. And I want them to have positive thoughts all the time.”

When Usha starts speaking, she is mesmerising. She uses no notes, occasionally clicks on a mouse in her Power Point presentation, but the words flow out effortlessly. She has clarity, passion and sincerity.

Some samples: ‘The soul is the master of the sense organs. As soon as I can master my sense organs, I will be able to master so many things around me.’ ‘As you think, so you become. When you think negative, you drain your energy. When you think positive, you generate energy.’ At the end of two hours, which seem to pass by in minutes, it seems there is a yearning among the audience to get in touch with the divine. And she shows the way: “I talk to God in the same way I am talking with you.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Woodpecker!

Ramakrishnan has to ensure there is no damage to property when he cuts down a tree

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, A. Ramakrishnan, 62, was climbing a coconut tree at Kakkanad, placing the rope grip every few feet around the trunk, so that he could pull himself up. However, just a few feet from the top, he was astonished to discover that he had placed the grip across the back of a viper.

“The snake lashed at me with its tail several times,” he says. “Any other cutter would have let go in fear and fallen down.” But, thanks to Ramakrishnan’s experience and confidence, he reached forward, grabbed the snake by the neck and flung it to the ground. “If the snake had bitten me, I would have been dead within moments,” he says.

All this is part of the every-day experience in Ramakrishnan’s life. He has been doing this job for the past 37 years and has cut more than 15,000 trees in and around Kochi. So, does he feel bad when he cuts down a tree? “No, even though I know I am killing a tree,” he says. But, just as people kill living things like fishes and hens to sell, he says, “cutting trees is how I earn my livelihood.”

But, emotionally, it might not be an easy job to do. Because when you cut a tree, it invariably cries: the water rolls down the trunk. The water, which is pulled from the earth through its roots, travels through the middle of the tree.

“So, when you hit the mid-section with your axe, the sap flows out,” says Ramakrishnan. “Yes, the tree does weep and if you listen carefully, it does make a crying sound: ‘Kiriri, kiriri’. In that sense, trees are like human beings.”

Trees are a favourite subject for Ramakrishnan, but he became a tree-cutter by accident. At the age of 25, a tree cutter, George, came to his house and said he was looking for an assistant. So, he spent several days helping George.

“He did not teach me the trade, because he was afraid that once I learnt the ropes, I would take away his assignments,” says Ramakrishnan. So, he observed carefully how George went about his job. Then, one day, in his house at Padivattom, he told his father he was going to cut down a tree, which was standing at the corner of the plot.

“I climbed up the tree and made some cuts, but it was at the wrong places,” he says. “One part almost fell on me and I had to jump away hurriedly.” He took the whole day to bring down the tree. But the next day, he called himself a tree cutter and has been doing the job ever since.

“To cut a tree properly, you have to note the location of the house, the position of the neighbouring houses, the walls and the road,” he says. “And then you have to find out which is the safest area to drop the tree.” The best method is to chop away at the trunk, till the tree begins to sway. Then, with the help of ropes, the top half is pulled down.

At the Pastoral Orientation Centre (POC), at Padivattom, he puts this knowledge to good use. The tree is on the edge of the property: there is the boundary wall on one side, a building behind it, a road beside the wall and there are numerous electric and cable wires dangling between posts.

Yet, with skill and finesse, he drops the top half of the tree in the gap between the wall and the road, and avoids damage to the wires. “Ramakrishnan has lots of experience,” says Joy George, 55, the manager at POC. “He does his job neatly and with sincerity. We call him often.”

At his home, he speaks with an understated passion as he shows the axe, with its steely edge, the nylon ropes that act as a grip for his feet and the wooden rod, which he ties with ropes around the trunk, so that he can sit on it and do his work. So, has he ever fallen off a tree? “Never,” he says. “Thanks to the grace of God.”

But he does know of people who have fallen. One morning, before setting out for work, Chandran (name changed) drank some liquor to get fortified. When he climbed the tree, he did not realise that it was diseased. So, when he started hacking away at the trunk, the tree collapsed and he fell from a height of 60 feet.

“Chandran died instantly,” says Ramakrishnan. “Tree cutters drink so that they don’t get scared and they feel it gives them physical strength.” He says that he avoids drinking and one of the first things he does before climbing a tree is to check whether it is sturdy or not.

But the long years on the job are taking its toll. His left leg is swollen up, because of elephantiasis and his hands tremble, the after-effects of doing such hard physical labour for so many years. “When I lie down after a day’s work, my whole body aches,” he says. Then he pauses and says, “I know I have about two years left.”

And suddenly, there is a look of emptiness on his face.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

‘Basheer is one of the great writers of world literature’

Says former professor of linguistics, Ronald Asher, who has translated several of the author’s novels into English

By Shevlin Sebastian

Professor Ronald E. Asher, 81, looked a bit harried in the guest room at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi. He had to go to Kuttipuram in a hour’s time, but before that, he had to attend a function where he would be releasing author Shashi Tharoor’s book of essays, Bookless in Baghdad, published in Malayalam by DC Books. But in the meantime, a group of academics wanted to do an interview with him, while a visitor was keen to take photographs. But, despite the press of time, all was completed on schedule and Asher looked pleased and happy.
A former professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, Asher is well known for translating several of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s novels into English.

Here are excerpts from an interview:

Who introduced you to the works of Basheer?
An acquaintance, the late C.K. Nalina Babu recommended that I read Paaththummaayude Aadu and he kindly took me through it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

What is it that you like about Basheer’s writing?
His style, his skilful use of what is superficially very simple language, his humour, his variety, his versatility and the poetic quality of his language that is frequently found in his best work.

When did you first meet Basheer? What sort of a man was he?
I met him in 1963. He was likeable, warm-hearted, fascinating, enthralling and amusing. He was a wonderful person to talk to. His oral anecdotes were of the same quality as his published stories.

Do you have any interesting memories of Basheer?
I remember my first visit to see Basheer. After telling him the day on which I would arrive, I took a bus from Kochi to Calicut, and then another one to Beypore. When I got off the bus, he was waiting at the bus stop. I was amazed. How did he know the exact time I would arrive?!!

You had said that Basheer is one of the great writers of world literature. But he is hardly known abroad.Anyone who has read him knows he is a great writer. The problem is that too few people outside Kerala have read him. Those of us who are his enthusiasts must continue to work towards remedying this regrettable situation.

Why are Basheer’s books still popular?
His writings have a timeless quality; they do not date. He is, without question, one of the truly great writers of the 20th century.

How did you get interested in Malayalam literature?
My interest developed from reading translations of Chandu Menon's Indulekha and Thakazhi's Chemmeen.

Where did you learn to speak and write Malayalam?
An academic friend in London, Dr. Joseph Minattoor, taught me the script from a first-grade reader. In 1963, I learned the spoken language in Kochi, with the help of Nalina Babu and his friend, N. Unnikrishnan Nair.

When did you decide to translate Basheer’s works into English? After I met him, I decided, with his enthusiastic approval, to attempt a translation into English. Eventually, I translated Ntuppooppaakkoraanaendaarnnu, Balyakalasakhi, Paaththummaayude Aadu and Anal Haq.

How long did you take to translate a book?

At a summer school at the University of Illinois in 1967, I went through the text of Ntuppooppaa and Balyakalasakhi with Achamma Coilparampil Chandrasekaran (my teaching assistant for a course in Malayalam), sorting out some of the parts, especially the dialect forms, which caused me difficulties. By the end of the summer school, we had completed a draft translation of these two novels. I then worked on my own for several years, consulting Basheer about one problem or another, whenever I went to see him in Beypore.

How often would you meet him?

For a few years, the meetings were annual. Inevitably, as I got older, my visits to India decreased in frequency.

Did you show the manuscripts to any expert in Malayalam?

No, I never showed the manuscript to any expert (doubtless a mistake!), so, any faults in the translations are my responsibility alone! Paaththummaayude Aadu was published by Edinburgh University Press in 1979. In 1980, Ntuppooppaa, Balyakalasakhi and Paaththummaayude Aadu were published in a single volume by Edinburgh University Press under the title, Me grandad 'ad an elephant!

It is said that the peculiarity of Basheer's language makes it difficult to get the nuances right in English. Do you agree?
I would hesitate to use the word 'peculiarity'. However, his use of language (which superficially looks very simple) is very subtle, and the translator does indeed have difficulty in conveying the same meaning in another language.

What are the qualities of a good translator?

He should be sensitive to shades of meaning in the source language and the language of translation. He should also have a love for the work being translated.

What was the critical and popular response?

The reviews were positive. The popular response was less widespread than I had hoped, because of the difficulty of marketing translations in the UK and the US. However, individuals said they enjoyed reading it.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 18, 2008

It’s a small world

With a height ranging from 2 to 4 feet, small men in Kerala struggle to survive in a largely indifferent society

By Shevlin Sebastian

When S. Bhuvanachandran, 30, was in school, and it became clear that he was shorter than all his classmates, some of his friends told him that if he hung from a rope, he could become tall. So, Bhuvanachandran, with the help of a friend, tied two ropes to a tree in his house at Thiruvananthapuram and attached rubber rings at the end of it. He gripped the rings and hung from it for several days.

One day, Bhuvanachandran, who is 3’ tall, decided that he would try a somersault, like they did in the circus. “When I attempted it, because my arms are short, my head got stuck inside one ring,” he says.

When he tried to pull his head out he ended up swinging from side to side. “I was stuck, and there seemed no way to free myself,” he says. He says he was lucky the rings were made of rubber, and not iron, otherwise, it would have cut into the neck.

“A neighbour was watching and he assumed I was trying a new style,” says Bhuvanachandran. “After a while, he shouted, ‘Chandra, isn’t it time to stop?’”

Since he was unable to speak, because of the ring around his neck, Bhuvanachandran stuck his tongue out and enlarged his eyes. “My neighbour was puzzled by my behaviour,” he says. “It was only when he came close that he realised that I was stuck and freed me.”

It is at this point in the tale that a group of small men, who are listening intently to Bhuvanachandran, burst out laughing. They range in height from 3’ to 4’ 6”, and in age from 19 to 42. Like Bhuvanachandran, they are members of an entertainment troupe, Janaseva Kalavedi.

Bhuvanachandran breaks out into a wide grin as he finishes his story. “I realised there was no point in doing these exercises,” he says. “The doctors confirmed that I would be short forever.” Bhuvanachandran scolded his friends for suggesting the ‘rope’ idea, while his brothers told him to be happy with his height.

On a sunny Friday morning, the small men are lounging around on chairs and on beds in a first floor hall at the campus of the Janaseva Sisubhavan, an orphanage run by founder-president Jose Maveli, 56, at Aluva, 30 kilometres from Kochi. When the troupe performed at the Sisubhavan in 2005, they were touched by the children’s reaction. “A few begged us to hug them, because nobody had done so,” says Ajay Kumar. A relationship developed between the small men and the orphans and so, Maveli allowed them to stay at Sisubhavan. They get free food and accommodation.

The troupe use Sisubhavan as a base and go for shows all over the state. It is a two-hour performance of comedy, dance, drama and song. “This is the way we earn our living,” says S. Babish, 24, who is 4’ tall.

Just like the orphans, the small men have also gone through difficult times. When Ajay Kumar was in Class ten, whenever there were protests by students, they would rush out of the class. Invariably, Ajay would be the last, because he was afraid he would be trampled upon. “The other students would get angry because they thought I did not want to participate in the demonstration,” he says. “They would grab my collar and drag me out.”

When Bhuvanachandran was ten years old, whenever the teacher entered the room, all the students would stand up and wish him ‘good morning’. Because the bench was so high, by the time he reached the floor, to stand up, everybody had sat down. “One day, the teacher told me, in front of the class, ‘Chandran, you can greet me sitting down.’ It was an embarrassing moment for me,” he says.

This lack of height has obvious disadvantages: like when they use public transport. “When we travel by buses, after fifteen minutes of standing, we feel tired and we need to sit,” says Babish. “Passengers sometimes get up when they see us, but most people ignore us.” When they travel on a train, if they get a seat, there is no problem. “But if there is too much of a rush, we will avoid getting on, because the chance of getting injured is very high,” he says.

It is a life lived on the margins, and, sadly, they are always at the mercy of normal people. “When people see us alone, they make fun,” says Ajay. “But when they see us in a group, they are more careful. What people don’t realise is that, except for our height, we are as normal as anybody.”

And like most normal men, when these small people become adults, one of their ardent desires is to get married, which is an uphill task for most of them. In the group of nine members, only S. Mubash, 25, and Ajay are married. Amazingly, the 4’ Ajay, 42, has married a woman, Seena, 32, who is 6’. “My wife is the tallest in the area where we live and I am the shortest,” he says. “People laugh when they see us together.”

They got together thanks to Ajay’s friend, Kumar, who had got married to a girl called Mini. She was a friend of Seena and had told her about Ajay but warned her that he was very short. “Seena agreed to see me,” says Ajay. “I said that her being so tall was not an issue for me. I just wanted somebody who could be my wife.” Eventually, Seena accepted the proposal. “There is no problem for sex,” he says. “Only my legs and arms are small. Otherwise, I am normal.” Today, he has two girls, Vrinda, 12, and Ganga, 10, but they have inherited his genes and are short. Meanwhile, Babish hopes to get married within the next few weeks, while the others are praying for similar luck.
There is a gung-ho positive energy among the group members. For each one of them, the turning point in their life was the film, Albutha Dweep (Wonder Island), directed by Vinayan, which was released in 2005. The film is based loosely on the famous English story, Gulliver’s Travels, and is set on a fictitious island, Vamanapuri, where the men are 3’ tall, while the women, because of a thousand-year-old curse, are of normal size and beautiful. The hero is Unda Pakru (see box), who is Prince Gajendran, the heir-apparent.

Vinayan placed advertisements in newspapers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in order to get the 300 small men he needed for the film. It took him six months to get all the men and among those selected were the members of the Janaseva Kalivedi troupe.

The 3’ tall Bhuvanachandran says that when he first went to the set at Malampuzha, near Pallakad, he was astonished to see men who were shorter than him. “When we exchanged our life stories, I realised I was not alone,” he says. “Some of them had suffered much more than me.”

Sanal Jose, 22, who is 4’ 6” tall, says he saw men who could not walk and some had such small hands that they could not scratch their backs and had to use a stick. “I realised I was lucky,” he says.

Director Vijayan says that when the 300 men saw each other, there was a tremendous excitement. “They could not believe there were so many short men in India,” he says. “One of them told me later that this was the first time he was having a conversation without craning his neck.”

Vinayan, who interacted with them over several weeks, has a keen idea of their psyche. “They are like children,” he says. “They get emotional very quickly. They cry easily and become violent very fast. Since they have suffered so much, because of their height, they have a keen sense of empathy for people who have gone through a bad time.” He says that most of them are tormented by a deep inferiority complex and have spent years cooped up in rooms, afraid to meet the gaze of normal people.

Albutha Dweep became a hit and there were some positive benefits for the small men. “About 20 small men were able to get married,” says Vinayan. “Somehow, the girls, after seeing the film, realised that, except for their height, there was nothing wrong with these men.”

Secondly, a powerful ‘can do’ attitude developed among the men. Soon after the film was released, they decided to form an association: The All Kerala Small Men Association was set up on August 18, 2005, with Jose Maveli, who is of normal height, as president. There are 400 members on the rolls now. Says Maveli, “We have asked the government to include small men, with a maximum height of 4’ 6”, in the physically handicapped section.”

As Unda Pakru says, “We are not physically handicapped, but at the same time, we are.” Maveli says that the small men should not be treated on the same par as normal people. “When they travel, they run the risk of being killed and they also find it difficult to get jobs,” he says. “So, they need help.” So far, the government has not reacted, even though the association had submitted a petition to the Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan a few months ago.

Meanwhile, whether they receive any government benefits or not, and despite the travails and difficulties of their daily life, most have a constant child-like smile on their faces.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Chennai)


The most famous small man in Kerala

When Unda Pakru, 30, steps out of a television studio in Kochi, he is mobbed by fans, who are much taller than him. They shake his hand, ask for autographs and stand next to him, so that photographs can be taken. Pakru smiles easily, a 2’ 10” dynamo. He is wearing a colourful purple shirt, a gold necklace around his neck and several rings on his fingers.

Brought up in Kottayam, Pakru showed early talent in mimicry, elocution and acting. He made his acting debut in the Malayalam film, Ambili Ammavan, in 1984 and the name of the character he played was called Unda Pakru (Small Man). “When the film was telecast through Doordarshan, the name got stuck and ever since, I have been known as Unda Pakru,” he says. “Now, nobody knows my actual name, Ajay Kumar.”

He has acted in 33 films but his turning point came when he played the hero in the film Albhutha Dweep (Wonder Island) directed by Vinayan. Inspired by ‘Gulliver's Travels’, 300 short people acted in the film. Pakru plays Prince Gajendran who lives in the kingdom of Vamanapuri. The movie became a hit and changed the public attitude towards short people. “In Malayalam, this is the first film where a short person is the hero,” says Pakru. This role led to a Special Jury Mention in the Kerala State film awards in 2005 and also an unexpected international award: He was merited an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, as the shortest hero playing an adult role in a commercial film.

Pakru also has his own troupe, which specialises in comedy skits. “The show is called, ‘Guinness Comedy Records 2008,’” he says, with a smile. So far, he has made about 35 trips to the Middle East, the USA, Europe and Australia.

Clearly, he is the most successful small man in Kerala. He has made a new house, Akshaya, in Kottayam and moves around in a Scorpio. But the icing on the cake was his arranged marriage with Gayatri, who is 5’ tall, in March, 2006. “I did confess to Gayatri before the wedding that I was not sure whether I would be able to fulfill my marital obligations, but I felt confident,” he says. In the end, Gayatri did get pregnant but sadly, the child died ten days after birth because of hypertension.

So, how do people regard him? “When some people see me, they look astounded,” he says. “Some people look joyful. Some people have a sympathetic look. Some people can’t believe there is a person like me.”

But, as Pakru says, he is real and, in the eyes of the public, a popular star.

Snippets

From all walks of life
In America, there are organisations like The Little People of America, which has 6,000 members. To be a member, you cannot be taller than 4' 10". According to its web site, the parents of more than 80 per cent of the small people are of average height, with no history of dwarfism in the family.

Causes
There are more than 200 causes for dwarfism, but the most common is achondroplasia. This is characterised by an average-sized trunk, short arms and legs, an enlarged head and prominent forehead. There is a dwarfism gene, which can be inherited from either parent. Sometimes, there is a mutation in a single gene in either a sperm or egg cell from parents of normal size.

Ancient Egypt and small people
According to researchers, ancient Egyptians worshipped dwarf gods. They were called Bes and Ptah. Bes protected women and children, while Ptah was connected with rejuvenation. Dwarves held a respectable position in Egyptian society. There are numerous images of dwarfs on tomb walls and on paintings depicting them as dancers, entertainers, jewellers and attendants.

A 'small' homage
Terra Jole, who is 3' tall, is known as the mini-Britney Spears. She dresses like Spears and sings her songs on the club circuit in Las Vegas. Her videos are among the most watched on YouTube. Like Jole, small people are in demand in Western films, television serials, advertisements and corporate events. Because of this demand, talent agencies like littlepeopleglobal.com have sprouted up.

Don't call them midget
In Western countries, small people consider the name 'midget' as offensive. The term came into prominence during the 18th century when small people were displayed for public amusement. The term, 'little people' is accepted everywhere.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oh Kochi, my Kochi!

The Mahajankatti family from Karnataka loves the city so much that they plan to settle down here forever

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, last year, Dherendra Mahajankatti, 42, who was working in Kotak Mahindra, was transferred to Mumbai after seven years in Kochi. When he landed in Mumbai, he says, “From Day 1, I felt disillusioned. I never liked the city. It was crowded and hectic, and there was no natural beauty.” People had no emotions or sentiments, he says, and were only interested in making money.

Ten days later, he had to make a lightning trip to Kochi to clear up some official work. When he arrived on a Jet Airways flight and stepped on the soil of Kerala, tears of joy fell from his eyes. “When I saw the land and the greenery, I felt so contented, happy and secure,” he says. “I felt as if I was back home. Every moment of the 25 kilometre journey, from Nedumbassery airport to Palarivattom, was so memorable. Words cannot describe the beauty of this state.”

Nevertheless, Dherendra returned to Mumbai, because he had no other job. But he told himself, that ‘whatever happens, I must return to Kochi’. He repeated this thought to his wife Lakshmi, 35, on the phone but told her it would take some time to get another job.

Despite Dherendra urging his wife to stay on in Kochi, Lakshmi missed her husband so much, she decided to come. So, in May, 2007, she arrived in Mumbai with their daughter Siddhi, 9 and son, Shrikar, 4.

Like Dherendra, Lakshmi’s initial impression of Mumbai was also negative. “I found the place very dirty,” she says. Although later, she admitted, she did enjoy the energy of the city and the varied opportunities to do different kind of things.

Daughter Siddhi, 9, liked Mumbai for the first three months and then wanted to return to Kochi. “I love the waters off Marine Drive,” she says. “I love to see the boats. I like the red rice, because it is not a heavy food.” As for little Shrikar, he liked the big houses of Kochi and complained to his mother about the small flat they were living in Mumbai.

The Mahajankattis stayed in a 530 sq. ft. flat at Andheri, a far cry from the 1,200 sq. ft. flat they were staying in Padivattom. Within a few months, they would also be getting possession of a 1,600 sq. ft. Apple Town villa that Dherendra had bought at Kakkanad.

So, the family pined for Kerala, as they went on with their lives in Mumbai. But apart from Kerala’s famed physical beauty, did they like the people? “Yes,” says Dherendra. “Malayalis are gentle, crisp, polite and do not have a vulgar way of talking, as it is there in other states.”

But Lakshmi says that in her experience, Malayalis have a tendency to be rigid in their habits and customs. She gives the example of a dinner party she held recently where she had made pav bhaaji, golgappas and pudina pulao. “I felt disappointed when my Malayali friends just pecked at the food,” she says. “If it is rice and meat, they would happily eat away.”

Initially, Lakshmi found it difficult to adjust to Kochi because of the language barrier. She says that one day she had gone to buy kayam (asafoetida) at a store at Palarivattom. “I just could not explain what I wanted,” she says. “I told the shopkeeper, ‘Oil, mustard, it splutters’, but he could not understand. Then I looked around and spotted it.” Then he asked Lakshmi whether she wanted anything else and she said no, by using the Hindi word, ‘Bas’. “The shopkeeper immediately called a person standing nearby and asked him to show me the way to the bus stop,” says Lakshmi.

But now she can read, write and speak in Malayalam. “I can also sing Malayalam songs and my friends proudly show me off to their relatives,” she says. “They are thrilled I have become a Malayali.”

But, did these new ‘Malayalis’ experience the well-known Malayali tendency to indulge in ‘paara’ - the habit of plunging a knife into a person, while having a gentle smile on the face? “This is a human trait that exists everywhere,” says Dherendra. “I experienced it in Bangalore, in Ahmedabad and in many places in north India, except that they called it by another name: ‘politics’. So, when somebody is doing well, there is always an Indian tendency to bring him down.”

Meanwhile, after a relentless search, Dherendra finally got a job. He is now working as Assistant General Manager (Operations) in the real estate firm, Apple a day. The family returned to Kochi in November, 2007, just ten months after Dherendra had left.

He is the rare case of a non-Malayali, who loves Kochi so much that he gave up a lucrative job and moved back.

So, will the Mahajankattis from Karnataka settle down permanently in Kochi?

“I will be staying here forever,” says Dherendra in a firm voice. Seeing her husband’s look of determination, Lakshmi, the ever-dutiful wife, says, “I guess, we will live out our old age in our villa.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Simply Anita

Author Anita Nair launches Tumbi, the English children’s imprint of DC Books and also talks about her career

By Shevlin Sebastian

“What I like most about Tumbi is its affordable price,” says well-known author Anita Nair, 42. “The books brought out by good children’s publishers in India are on the expensive side.” Anita was the chief guest at the launch of Tumbi, the English children’s imprint of DC Books, at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi.

“It is encouraging that a regional publisher like DC Books is moving into the national, as well as the international arena,” she says. “An added advantage is that the production standards of Tumbi are very high.”

The CEO of DC Books, Ravi Deecee, says the company will be entering the pan-Asian children’s market by the end of 2008. “Essentially, we are taking Indian content abroad, in the form of folk and traditional tales and creative fiction,” he says. “Several well-known writers, like Jaishree Mishra, have agreed to write for the imprint.”

Meanwhile, four of Anita’s children’s books, English versions of well-known Malayalam folk tales, were released, under the Tumbi imprint, on Friday at a grand function -- children sang and danced with zest, while extracts were read out from Anita’s books.

“These are tales that I heard as a child,” says Anita. “Later, when I narrated these stories to my son, when he was a child, I could see the pleasure it gave him.” She realised there would be other children who would like these stories and decided to write them down.

Saraswathy Rajagopalan, the editor of Tumbi, feels that since Anita’s stories are written in a simple style, children will find it enjoyable. “In most children’s stories, there is a moralising tone, but Anita has avoided that,” she says.

However, Anita’s forte, as is well known, is in adult novels, which have found a home all over the world. So far, her books, like the best-selling Ladies Coupe, have been published in 26 languages and in countries like Greece, Israel, Spain, Italy, Germany and Poland. And she meets fans all over the place.

In November, 2004, Anita was in Warsaw, having lunch at University CafĂ©, with her Polish publisher, Tomack, of Swiat Literacki. A blonde woman, in her mid-forties, who was walking past, suddenly stopped, stared at the Indian author, and said, “Are you Anita Nair?”

“It was a ‘Wow’ feeling for me,” says Anita. “I can understand being recognised in Bangalore or Kerala, but in Poland, of all places!” The woman had just finished reading the UK edition of Ladies Coupe, and had liked it very much. “She said, ‘It is amazing to see you here and I am so glad that your book is being published in Polish,’” says Anita, a look of wonder on her face as she remembers the meeting.

So, has the reaction of readers in other countries been similar? “The response has been uniform,” says Anita. “They ask, ‘How do you know our stories?’ To think that my book, set in a particular culture, means something to them, is very gratifying. My conclusion: the human condition is universal.”

The Bangalore-based Vani Mahesh, 35, who runs an online library, easylib.com, says that while living in America a few years ago, she was a member of a book club in San Jose, California. “They were reading Ladies Coupe,” says Vani. “I was surprised to see that women from different professions and countries could relate to Anita’s characters.”

Vani says there is a common thread running through all of Anita’s novels. “The female protagonists are vulnerable, while, at the same time, they possess an inner strength,” she says. “This is an apt description of woman anywhere in the world.”

So, is this true of Kerala women or are they different? “Women in Kerala are like a beautiful self-sacrificing woman who puts everybody else’s life before her own and continues to be a doormat,” says Anita.

Kerala used to be a progressive state, says this English graduate of N.S.S. College, Ottapalam. “But because women watch television serials, which have a pan Indian influence, suddenly I see young, married women who wear the signs of marriage like an emblem. That really gets to me.”

She is also worried about the new practice of purdah among Muslim women. “We never had this system before,” she says. “Suddenly, everybody is in purdah, which is an import from the Gulf countries. I feel uneasy about this.”

She is also uneasy at the new trend in publishing these days: huge advances being paid to celebrity authors. Recently, Amitav Ghosh received an advance of Rs 44 lakh for three books. “I am not so sure whether this is a positive trend,” she says. “Publishers have to earn back this money.” The Indian market is not that big. A bestseller means 5,000 copies and first print run is usually 2,000 copies. “To recover that sort of money you can imagine how many books they would have to sell,” she says.

“What Anita says is true,” says V.K. Karthika, editor-in-chief of the Delhi-based Harper Collins Publishers. “We would have to sell a lot more copies than before.”

Meanwhile, a focused Anita continues to write ceaselessly and readers are lapping it up, book after book.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 08, 2008

‘Kerala is fitfully moving in the right direction’

Says former top UN diplomat and well-known author, Shashi Tharoor

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Shashi Tharoor, 51, acclaimed author and former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, was approaching the dais at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi, a visually challenged young man appeared in his path. He was Jijeesh, 19, a student of St. Joseph’s College in Devagiri, who had come all the way from Calicut accompanied by his teacher, S. Nagesh, 45. The reason: he was a fan of Tharoor’s writing and had read some of it in Braille and had wanted to meet the author. A moved Tharoor spent several minutes talking with Jijeesh and autographed a book.

Tharoor was in Kochi to attend the release of the Malayalam version of his book of essays, Bookless in Baghdad, which has been brought out by DC Books.

Clad in a brown kurta and cream mundu, he spoke with grace, erudition and humour. Later, that evening, at a reading session at the Taj Residency for his latest book, The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cell Phone, he held the audience spellbound for more than an hour airing his views on the drawbacks of socialism, the rise of China, and the importance of the India-US nuclear deal, among other topics. Today, Tharoor is the chairman of the Dubai-based Afras Ventures, which is interested in investment opportunities, primarily in Kerala.

Excerpts from the interview:

Looking back, do you have any regrets about being a losing candidate for the UN Secretary-General’s post?
One loses, because somebody else got more votes, but I did come a close second out of seven candidates. I left the race with my head held high. When you lose, and if you don’t feel disappointed, then you did not want it badly enough. So, I am disappointed but, at the same time, I have no regrets.

Why did you quit the UN?
The truth is that Ban Ki-Moon, who won the race, was generous enough to invite me to remain as an Under Secretary-General, but I knew that the time had come to step aside gracefully and not crowd the space of the victor. I wanted to do my own thing and reinvent my own life.

Do you miss the stature, the perks and the diplomatic passport?
It was less than I imagined. I don't believe in looking back. And I would rather be valued for who I am, than the position I hold.

You are a former diplomat, a writer and a journalist. For diplomacy, you need to interact with a lot of people. To write, you need to be alone. How do you manage the two?
It is not a contradiction for me. I have always tried to do two sets of things, even from my earlier years. When I worked as a diplomat, which often involved dealing with people, negotiations, meetings and travel, I did it as best as I could. But when I wrote, I reached into a different part of myself.

Bookless in Baghdad has been translated to Malayalam. What has been the reaction of readers to your earlier books in Malayalam?
Unfortunately, I have not read any reviews, but I have met individual readers who have appreciated my books. I don’t seem to have done too badly in terms of sales or popular response.

Is Kerala moving in the right direction?
It is fitfully moving in the right direction. There is a recognition that old ways and prejudices have to be cast aside. We have already seen another Communist government in this country [West Bengal] have a much more successful track record in attracting investment than our government here. But in my meetings with the Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, and several senior government officials, I got the impression that they are much more open than they would have been a couple of years ago. But I would not say they have changed completely.

Are you happy your twin sons are following in your footsteps: Ishaan, 23, works for Time magazine in Hongkong while Kanishk is working as a journalist for the web site, Open Democracy.
Ishaan went to cover the Maoist camps in Nepal, and wrote an article, which the senior editors liked so much, that they gave him a byline on the cover [Time, February 11, 2008, Asia Edition]. This is unprecedented at his age. Kanishk, in his own way, is doing very well and has become an expert on terrorism and international security questions. I am very proud of both of them.

You are married to Canadian-born Christa Giles. Was it love at first or second sight?
Christa is somebody whom I met professionally in the United Nations a long time ago. The thing is that after the failure of my first marriage [to Tilotamma, whom he had married at age 21], you tend to be a little hesitant before launching into a second one. So, it took me some time to realise I had met the right person. I suppose, it has to be love at second sight.
We got married last year and have not yet reached our first anniversary. Christa is based in New York and is the Deputy Secretary of the UN Disarmament Commission. That is why, even though I am not a US resident, I keep going back to New York because someone very special is waiting for me there.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

From Israel, with love

Acclaimed best-selling Israeli novelist, Zeruya Shalev, is looking forward to seeing her book in Malayalam. She was a guest at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.45 a.m., on January 29, 2004, Zeruya Shalev, 48, was walking on a sidewalk on Gaza Street in Jerusalem. She had just dropped her son Yaal, 8, to school. A bus, crowded with office-goers, was going past, when a suicide bomber, standing inside, detonated a bomb.

“I heard a huge sound, and then I rose high in the air and fell on the sidewalk,” says Zeruya. “My right leg was hurt badly. I realised it was a terror attack. I was in shock but I was not surprised.”

She was not surprised because there had been a spate of suicide bombings in Israel. Zeruya was in the middle of writing her novel, Late Family, and the first thought that came to her mind was: ‘I want to go home to continue writing.’” She tried to get up and but could not because of her damaged leg. Lying next to her was the burnt-out body of a middle aged woman. “It was hell,” she says. “There were glass fragments all over.”

In the end, 11 people died, 70 were wounded, and the Palestinian group, Fatah, claimed responsibility. As for Zeruya, after a major surgery on her leg, she spent the next six months in physiotherapy, before she could walk again.

At the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi, this best-selling Israeli novelist does not show much emotion on her face as she describes the incident. Instead, there is a far-away look in her eyes. “I wish for peace between Israel and Palestine,” she says. “I wish we can live together, two neighbours, two friendly states. Our area can be a paradise if there is no fundamentalism on both sides.”

Zeruya is a slim woman, dressed in a black top and trousers. She has a long face, framed by black hair, with alabaster skin, and red lips but even though she is not conventionally beautiful, she has a striking look and compelling eyes.

Moments earlier, when she arrives at the fair, accompanied by Ravi Deecee, the CEO of DC Books, she is taken aback when a group of girls and boys from the Cochin Refinery School, on a journalism project, ply her with questions. “Where are you from?” says S. Shravani, 16. “What is the name of your book?” says Irene Lillian Titus. “What is the book all about?” says Kokila Ananda Mani. But taken up by the enthusiasm shown by the girls, she tries to answer in halting English.

Zeruya has published four novels till now, out of which Love Life, Husband and Wife and Late Family have been bestsellers in several countries. Love Life is included in German magazine Der Spiegel`s list of ‘20 Best Novels in World Literature’ in the past 40 years while Husband and Wife is included in the French FNAC list of the ‘200 Best Books of the Decade.’ Zeruya has also won several international literary prizes.

Says Nilli Cohen, the director of the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature: “Zeruya is a very important author for us and because of her best-sellers, we have been able to propagate Hebrew literature all over the world.” According to Cohen, Zeruya’s books have been translated into 27 languages and the latest will be in Malayalam.

Says Ravi Deecee: “Love Life will be published within a couple of months and we have high expectations that it will do well.”

So what are her books all about? “I write about love, marriage, and the relationship between children and parents,” she says. “I talk about the inner conflict within a person, and the conflict between man and woman. I write about the longing of the human soul for happiness and love.”

So what is her take on love in the 21st century? “When we are young, the only thing we are bothered about is to find the right person and we think everything will be all right when that happens,” she says. But when we grow up, she says, we understand that to find the right person is only the first stage in a relationship. Then you will have to deal with the problems of living together and confronting the other person. “It is very difficult,” she says.

Unlike the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, for Zeruya “writing is as easy as breathing for me.” But for many years, she could not find the time to write because of her job as a literary editor in Keter publishing house. “Editing is a pleasure, but it is time-consuming, and in the end, writing is the best pleasure for me,” she says. So, she now confines herself to reading the occasional manuscript while she concentrates on her writing.

Apart from writing, she is a keen reader and has read Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things and Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy. At the fair, as she walks around, drawing curious glances from onlookers, she sees a computer which displays the Malayalam script and exclaims, “Wow, it looks so beautiful. I am just waiting to see my book in Malayalam.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Looking ahead

Tapan Jana of Orissa lost a leg when a building collapsed near the Boat Jetty four months ago. Fitted with an artificial leg, he is striving to move on in life

By Shevlin Sebastian

September 13, 2007, was just another day for Tapan Jana, 22. He was working as a labourer for the Kunnel Group at Thevara jetty. At 7 p.m., he returned to the house, on Cannonshed Road, beside the Indian Coffee House, with his twenty-year-old cousins, Basudev and Ranjit Mallick. “I felt happy,” says Tapan. “I was earning well [Rs 140 per day] and the people here were nice.”

After bantering with the other Oriyas present, Tapan had his bath and dinner and went to sleep early: at 9 p.m. At 11.20 p.m., his life changed forever. The 90-year-old building collapsed in a heap. There were 30 Oriyas sleeping in the main room. While several managed to flee, Reshmi Ranjan Dalai, 24, and Babuli Jana, 20, who were sleeping next to a wall, were trapped underneath and died. On the other side of the room, an iron beam fell on Tapan’s right leg.

“The room was full of dust,” says Ranjit. “I could hear Tapan calling me by my nickname, ‘Kashia, Kashia, something has fallen on my leg’, but I could not see him in the darkness.” It was only after the fire force removed the debris, during a five-hour operation, that Tapan could be rescued.

But his leg looked in bad shape. Says orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Sabin Viswanath, 40, of Specialists’ Hospital: “In a leg injury like Tapan’s, the muscles and the blood vessels are crushed and the bone is fractured. Soon, there will be a natural degeneration of the tissues. This releases toxins, which can endanger the life of the person. So, it is better to save the life than the limb.” A couple of days after the incident, Tapan’s leg was amputated above the knee.

“One day, I was fit and healthy,” says Tapan. “The next day I did not have a leg.” Not surprisingly, Tapan felt suicidal. The days passed in a blur of despair and hopelessness. But thankfully, for him, help was at hand in the form of the hospital’s clinical psychologist, Sindhu Ajith, 35.

“I had several counseling sessions with Tapan,” says Sindhu. “I told him that with the help of an artificial limb, he would be able to lead a normal life. And slowly, his gloomy mood lifted.”

Sindhu says the mind plays a vital role during this vulnerable time. “Your immunity goes up if you have a positive attitude,” she says. She also played a masterstroke: she asked Tapan to provide counseling to other accident victims in the hospital, who were feeling depressed. “Tapan realised there were others like him and there was no need to feel sad,” says Sindhu. Matron K.V. Baby, 54, says, “He has developed a belief that he can move ahead in life.”

But Tapan says he suffers from occasional nightmares. “I have dreams where people are fighting each other and in the process somebody is hitting me,” he says. “I awaken, feeling fearful. This happens regularly.”

Sindhu says that Tapan is probably going through the last stages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “It will go away after a while,” she says.

What has been a mental solace for Tapan is that building owner, Mathen L. Chakola, 43, and Kunnel Constructions, where Tapan worked, have already paid Rs 92,000 for hospital expenses, including Rs 800 per week as a sort of wages for Basudev, who has been a constant companion of Tapan since the accident. “The welfare and security of our employees are very important to us,” says Anthony Kunnel, 47, managing director of the Kunnel Group.

Mathen has also paid Rs 3 lakh each to the family of the two Oriyas who died and deposited a Rs 3.5 lakh compensation cheque to District Collector A.P.M. Mohammed Hanish for Tapan. “I am doing this out of humanitarian considerations,” says Mathen. “Since it is a sheer accident, there are no legal necessities and, more so, they were staying in my house in an informal arrangement.”

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Tapan was fitted with an artificial leg. In the second-floor ward of the Specialists’ Hospital, dressed in a brown T-shirt and trousers, Tapan walks easily up and down the corridor, a smile creasing his face. It is difficult to believe he is using an artificial leg.

A few days ago, Hanish gave a cheque of Rs 75,000 to the hospital, again a contribution by Mathen Chakola, as payment for the leg.

At this moment, there are a few more outstanding medical, canteen and other bills, but the Deputy Director of Specialists’ Hospital, Dr Sabin Viswanath, says these will be waived off. Within a few days, Tapan will be able to leave for Orissa. Collector Hanish says that he will give the cheque on the day Tapan leaves and is hopeful the boy will be able to use the money wisely to rebuild his life.

As for Tapan he is clear about what he wants to do with the money. “I want to open a shop in my village of Bhusandpur Sasan,” he says.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Tender loving care

Nurse Manjusha, of Specialists’ Hospital, has expertise and empathy in equal measure

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few months ago, a seven-year-old boy, Rashid (name changed), was crossing the road at Angamaly. A car hit him and ran over his arm. The boy was rushed to the Specialists’ Hospital, near Ernakulam North Station. “His right arm was soaked in blood,” says staff nurse N.T. Manjusha, 29. “The skin and flesh had peeled off and I could see the bones.”

Rashid was conscious, but was crying out in pain and fear. “He would not allow us to inspect the arm,” says Manjusha. “We had to control him by holding his shoulders and legs. I was sure his arm could not be saved. It looked like a stick.”

Rashid had lost a lot of blood and was getting weaker. He was immediately put on a glucose drip by Manjusha and blood transfusion was administered on the orders of a doctor. Slowly, his condition became stabilised.

Today, a few months later, Rashid has recovered completely and now uses his hand to write also. “When he comes for physiotherapy with his parents, he says ‘Hi’ to me and the other nurses,” says Manjusha. “I cannot forget the face of Rashid because he is the same age as my son and it could have happened to my child.”

Manjusha has a son Acquin, 7, and a one-year-old daughter, Alka, and lives in Kalamassery with businessman, Pradeep, and her in-laws. She has been employed in the Specialists’ Hospital for the past six years, and works in the wards and the casualty department.

“Most of the time we deal with accident victims,” she says. So, does she feel apprehensive when encountering emergency patients? “There is no time to feel nervous,” she says. “I am focused on listening to what the doctor says on how to save the patient’s life.”

But not all patients survive. So what is Manjusha’s reaction when a death occurs? “If the patient is young, it is very painful,” she says. “Suppose a 30-year-old married man, who has a child, dies in an accident, I will feel very sad for the family. I take out my despair by telling my husband about it.”

Manjusha has a day, as well as a night shift. The day shift starts at 8.30 a.m. and ends at 5.30 p.m. The night shift starts at 5.30 p.m. and ends the next day at 8.30 a.m. As expected, the night shift, which comes once after every fortnight, is tougher.

At night, there are two nurses on duty. After they administer the final round of medicines at midnight, one nurse takes a nap, while the other stays awake for three hours. At 3 a.m., they switch roles. At 6 a.m., both do a check on the patients. And one of the patients that Manjusha looks after is seven-year-old Gouri Suresh.

A victim of a road accident, Gouri lies on a bed, her left leg in plaster, and the pony-tailed girl is playing games on the mobile phone. “I like Manjusha very much,” she says. Says Gouri’s mother, Jayashree, 39: “Manjusha is as good as a doctor in the way she does the job. She is a very talented nurse.” Anaesthetist Dr. Thomas Sebastian says, “Manjusha is very efficient and is always pleasant with the patients.”

So, does this pleasant nurse feel depressed when she sees sick people all the time? “Not at all,” she says. “But I feel dejected when I go home and my children or family members fall sick. Then, there is no relief, either at home or the hospital, and so, it becomes difficult to handle emotionally.”

At the hospital, Manjusha is one among 60 nurses and Matron, K.V. Baby, 54, keeps a sharp eye on all of them. But she is not at all happy with the current generation. “When we were studying, there was a lot of sincerity and dedication,” she says. “But nowadays, women join the profession because they want to go abroad and earn lakhs of rupees.” As is well known, there are numerous job opportunities for nurses in the USA, UK, Canada and Australia

Most nurses used to come to hospitals like the Specialists’ to pick up on experience and go abroad. So, there was a high attrition rate. But nowadays, nurses have to sign a two-year bond. “In our youth, the nurses were keen to learn new things,” says Baby. “But now they seem lazy and obsessed about money.”

Says nurse Chintha Joseph, 37: “In some ways I agree with the matron. There are a few nurses who look at it only as a profession and not as a vocation, so they do not have the same kind of dedication as the matron.”

Some of them, she says, have been pushed into the profession because of parents who are attracted by the high salaries abroad. But they may not like nursing at all; hence, the lack of enthusiasm for the job.

But for Manjusha, who loves nursing, she has lots of enthusiasm for the job.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)