Monday, March 31, 2008

See pocket, will pick

Former child pickpockets, rescued from a life on the streets, are slowly developing a moral sense, even as some miss the excitement of their former profession

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, my father was having a fight with a man,” says Anand Raju, 10. “The man hit my father with a rod and broke his leg. This happened in front of our house. I was watching and suddenly I noticed that his purse was sticking out of his pocket.”

Anand quickly stepped forward and deftly took the purse without the man knowing about it. “I felt immensely happy that I could immediately take revenge for my father’s beating,” he says. “But I also felt bad for my father.”

With the assailant’s money, Anand took his father to the hospital to get treatment. Unfortunately, the leg had suffered irreparable damage. Even today, his father walks with a limp.

Anand, from Ukkadam, Tamil Nadu, learnt how to be a pickpocket from his friend, Vadivelu. He would pick pockets near a cinema hall, K.G. Theatre, and showed Anand how to do it.

So does Anand remember his first victim? He nods and says, “He was a dark man, who was drunk and had come for the matinee show. As he walked, his purse rode up till it was near the entrance of the trouser pocket. “I was able to take it easily,” he says. Anand gave the money to his mother. When she asked him where he got the money, he said he had found it on the ground.

Anand has picked pockets outside buses, crowded market and cinema theatres. “The best place is at the cinema because there is a lot of rush,” he says. Most of the time, he says, men put their purses in the hip pocket. But there are some who prefer to put it in the front pocket of the trouser, but as they walk, sometimes, the purse rides up the thigh. “I am able to take it easily,” he says. “I did this for three years.”

Sure, his luck did run out. Once, at a bus stand, he had picked the purse of a passenger but was caught by a policeman. The policeman gave him a slap and returned the purse to the owner. An angry Anand, who was walking beside the policeman, noticed that his purse was sticking out of his rear pocket. Anand managed to take it off without him knowing. “It was one of the biggest thrills in my life,” he says, as he bursts out laughing, and claps his hands.

Anand’s uncle saw the path that he was on and knew it would inevitably lead to a life of crime. So, he told his parents about the Janaseva Sishubhavan at Aluva, Kerala and they decided to bring him here. At the Sishubhavan, Anand is talkative, lively and smiles all the time.

When asked whether he gets the urge to pick a pocket when he gets on a bus, he gives a goofy grin and says, “Yes. I used to enjoy that work.”

When Jose Mavely, 57, the founder-president of the Janaseva Sisubhavan, hears about this, he feels apologetic. “It takes some time for a boy to get rid of the tendency to rob,” he says. At the Sisubhavan, counsellors place an emphasis on studies, games and morality lessons of what is right or wrong. “Slowly, the boys develop a moral instinct,” says Mavely.

For M.D. Vishnu, 8, it was his mother who taught him to steal purses. “When people are in a rush trying to get into a bus, my mother would lift me up and I would open the bag which hung from the shoulders of the ladies, take out the purse and tuck it under my shirt,” he says. Then his mother would put him down and he would run away. Later, he would take the money and throw the purse away.

Sometimes, his elder brother, Arun or his younger sister, Kausalya, would steal the purse, give it to him and he would run away.

They would also operate on trains, usually in the afternoons, when people tended to drift off to sleep. “My brother and I would sit on either side of a male passenger,” he says.

When the man drifted off to sleep, Vishnu would take the purse and, behind the man’s back, he would pass it to his brother. Arun would empty the purse and give it back to Vishnu who would slip it back again into the hip pocket, so that the man did not suspect anything. Then they would go away. “If I did not do this, my parents would beat me,” he says.

Standing next to Vishnu is Raju Kottan, 7, who learned the tricks from his mother. He lived in Kalady in Kerala and used his fore and middle fingers to pick a pocket. But when he tries to take out counselor Bibin Jose’s purse, who is standing nearby, he is clumsy and takes a lot of time.

“It is a thick purse,” he says, with a sheepish smile. Raju’s enduring memory is of the police beating up his mother when she was caught stealing a purse. “It was very painful to see,” he says.

The youngest is Sathyavel Raju, 5. He says his father taught his elder sister, Sumathi, and him the trade. “I would pick pockets on buses,” he says. “When I did not get a purse, my father would get angry with me.”

Meanwhile, on the distaff side, Essekey Muthu, 10, from Tamil Nadu, learnt the trade from her parents. “Suppose a woman is traveling on a bus and she is holding the rod with one hand,” she says. “Usually, the bag will be hanging from her shoulders.” So, she would throw a dupatta over the bag and cut it open with the help of a blade and take out the purse. Sumathi, 8, and Parvathy Raman, 7, were taught the same method.

All of them narrated their stories with a mix of pride and shame. “These children have felt insecure for a long time,” says Bibin Jose, 26. “On the streets, they feared the policeman and in the house, they feared their parents.”

At the Sishubhavan, he says, they have gradually let down their guard and become friendly with the other inmates. “After a few months, they are able to get on the right track,” says Bibin. “Eventually, we want them to grow up and become responsible members of society.”

Janaseva Sisubhavan
Caring for the hopeless

The Janaseva Sisubhavan, set up in 1999, looks after 300 boys and girls. The aim of the organisation is to rescue destitute children and provide them shelter and a meaningful life full of love and affection (www.janasevasisubhavan.org).

Asked how the children arrive, founder President Jose Mavely, 57, says, “Sometimes, people will notice some children wandering about in their areas, and they will call us,” he says. “We will inform the local police station and file a petition from the court and after getting the go-ahead we bring them here.”

On other times, well-wishers will bring them and sometimes, when children have been brutalised, they are forcibly taken away, with the help of the police.

Sometimes, the children arrive on their own. “M.D. Vishnu’s elder brother, Arun, came to Janaseva one day and said that he needed to be saved,” says Mavely. “He said his parents were forcing him to be a pickpocket and he did not want to do it anymore.” The Sisubhavan accepted him, along with Vishnu and sister Kausalya.

Meanwhile, recently, Maveli announced at a press conference that the Sisubhavan is in debt. “We have an income of Rs 9 crore but our expenses are as high as Rs 10.5 crore,” he says. Part of the reason is that new buildings are being constructed and he has launched a public appeal for funds.

He also said that the State Government had denied the organisation a grant and the Sisubhavan has been unable to get a certificate under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).

“We need this certificate from the Centre to be eligible to receive foreign donations,” says Mavely. “To get that, we need a No Objection Certificate from the state government, but we have not got it.” Ministers have come and seen the work and shown their appreciation, he says, but there are some bureaucrats in the Social Welfare Department who are putting up roadblocks.

C.K. Raghavan Unni, 47, Joint Director of the Social Welfare Department says the Sisubhavan is doing commendable work. “However, it has not been completely following the guidelines laid down by the Juvenile Justice Act,” he says. “Hence, it will be difficult for the Sisubhavan to get the FCRA certificate.”

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

Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Gangtok, with love

Shanti Tamang, from the hills of north-east India, prefers life in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Gangtok is a beautiful place,” says hair stylist Shanti Tamang, 30. “The mountains are breathtaking and the scenery is wonderful. Everything is cheap there.” The people are always smiling and full of love. “I miss Gangtok a lot, but there were no jobs available there,” she says.

So, in 1991, Shanti, a daughter of a government servant, went with a cousin to Bangalore in search of a job. She did not get one in the IT city but moved to Mysore, where she got a job at the Kim Fa beauty parlour.

She stayed for three years and through a friend, who was working at the Kalpana beauty parlour, she met owner Elizabeth Chacko. She offered Shanti a job at the beauty parlour of the same name at Panampilly Nagar. Shanti accepted and came to Kochi in January, 1995.

“Kochi is a peaceful and safe place for women,” says Shanti. “I don’t have any fears while living here.” She lived here for five years, but in 2000, Shanti had an arranged marriage with M.S. Tamang, 32, who works in the Indian Reserve Battalion.

Following her marriage, she moved to Delhi and began working in a parlour at Connaught Place. She had 10-hour working days, apart from bus journeys of two hours to and from work. “It was too tough,” she says. “In Delhi, the parlours never closed on time and it was always dangerous to come back alone at night.”

So, one day she told her husband she wanted to return to Kochi. “He was very supportive,” she says. When Tamang arrived in Kochi, he liked the facilities and the standard of living. “What he appreciated most of all was that on the buses, there were separate sections for men and women, unlike in Delhi where men and women stood or sat together,” she says.

Shanti returned in 2003, got her old job at the Kalpana beauty parlour and rented a flat at Kadavanthra, while her husband remained in Delhi. Today, she has three small sons, Amos, Adarsh and Ashwin, who are looked after by a maid, when she goes to work.

Meanwhile, her employer is happy with her performance. Elizabath Chacko, who has hired quite a few girls from the north-east, says that “girls like Shanti are very sincere, hard-working and efficient.” Manager Elsy Joseph, 47, says that since they have plenty of Hindi-speaking customers, Shanti’s ability to speak Hindi is an advantage. “Shanti is also very good at hair cutting, styling and designing bridal wear,” she says.

Shanti says that despite her Mongoloid features, unusual in this part of the country, her customers have always behaved well and have been friendly. “In fact, most of them are very regular.”

One regular customer is media professional Sumi Thomas, 30. “Shanti is very good at styling hair and always looks for a style that will suit me,” she says. And she always has a smile on her face. “Even in the seventh month of her pregnancy, Shanti continued working and remained cheerful,” says Sumi.

Some of the clients have become friends. Mary (name changed) helped when Shanti shifted house and when her sister, Hema, who is now married to a Malayali, had to undergo a shoulder surgery at the Cochin Hospital. “She paid part of the bills,” says Shanti.

It seems that life is comfortable except for the fact that her husband is so far away. “My children miss their father a lot,” says Shanti. “They keep asking when he will be coming home.” However, in these times of easy communication, Tamang and his family speak almost every day on the phone. And he tries to come once every two or three months.

So does Shanti miss Gangtok? “Of course, I do,” she says. “But how will I survive there?”

She says that if she opens a parlour, she will get few customers. Genetically, the Sikkimese women have very little hair on their arms and legs, and hence they do not need waxing. “They are very fair, so there is no need for a facial,” she says. “Their skin is very good. All they need to do is trim and shape their eyebrows and have a haircut, which can be done at a barber shop.”

What about the fact that her children are growing up as Malayalis and not as Sikkimese? “I don’t have a problem with that,” she says. “I am keen they should have their education here.” In Sikkim, the education system is good but the students suffer from a lack of discipline. “It will also be easier for my children to get jobs in Kochi than in Gangtok,” she says.

Meanwhile, some of her well-heeled customers who have gone to Gangtok on a holiday keep asking her why she has left such a beautiful place to come and live in Kochi. “I tell them Gangtok is a good place to go for a holiday, but not to stay,” says a smiling Shanti.

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

Monday, March 24, 2008

Beijing beckons

Anju Bobby George, coached by husband Bobby, is preparing intensely to make a mark in the long jump at the Beijing Olympic Games. The question: can she win a medal this time?

By Shevlin Sebastian

Long jumper Anju Bobby George stands at the edge of the runway on a warm Friday evening in Kochi. In this Olympic year, it is her first outdoor competition: the South Asian Athletics Championships being held at the Maharaja’s College ground. She is wearing a white, sleeveless singlet, tucked into green spandex shorts, and black spikes with bright red soles.

She turns to the crowd and, with outstretched hands, urges them to raise a cheer. The spectators -- which include her parents, K.T. Markose and Gracy, her brother, Ajith, 27, Olympians Shiny Wilson, K.M. Beenamol and Mercy Kuttan -- shout and clap.

Anju walks a couple of steps, before she sets out on her run, her eyes on the runway. Halfway during the sprint, she looks up, as she reaches a top speed, hits the takeoff board perfectly, and is airborne… the arms upraised, the right leg stretched forward, a grimace breaking out on her face. It is a clean jump, 6.50 m, a new meet record, and it is enough for her to win the gold medal.

Later, surrounded by enthusiastic reporters, with microphones and notebooks, and curious spectators, she expresses confidence about her performance. “It was a good series of jumps, but I need to make some corrections in my technique. In future, I will do much better.”

Suddenly, a spectator says, “You should jump 7 metres at the Olympic Games.”

Anju looks at the man, smiles, and says, simply, “Please pray.”

The spectator has got his math right. If Anju wants to be in medal contention at Beijing in August, she would have to jump a minimum of 7 metres. It is a distance which she has not attained, her best being 6.83 m in the 2004 Olympics Games at Athens, and which she has not replicated so far in competition.

Says Olympian P.T. Usha: “Four Russian jumpers have already crossed 7 metres, so the competition is going to be stiff, but I wish Anju all the best.”

In Beijing, Anju’s main rivals will continue to be the three medal winners at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games: Russians Tatyana Lebedeva, Irina Simagina and Tatyana Kotova. But her husband and coach Bobby is confident.

“This is a different Anju from four years ago,” he says. “She has become more mature and experienced.”

Yes, Anju does give an impression of maturity as she sits, happy and relaxed, post-competition, on a chair in the now-empty stadium. Dusk has fallen, and, above the whining of a swarm of mosquitoes, she says, “I will do well at Beijing.”

She has done well at international meets before. She is the first Indian to win a medal (bronze) at a World Championships at Paris in 2003, as well as a silver in the World Athletics final in Monaco in 2005. She is also the first Indian woman to win a Commonwealth medal (bronze) in 2002 in Manchester and the first Indian woman to win a long jump gold at the 2002 Busan Asian Games.

So, what happens to the psyche when an athlete wins an international medal? “The mental barrier is broken,” says Anju. “There is a surge of self-confidence. Earlier, when I use to see the Russians and the Americans, mentally, I would feel inferior. That disappeared when I won my first international medal.”

She says that on a good day, she can defeat anybody. “I know what my capabilities are,” she says.

Asked about her preparations, she says, “Like in any big championship year, I will be taking part in at least 13 Grand Prix events, beginning with the Qatar Super Grand Prix at Doha in May.”

As she is talking, her parents come to say goodbye. They get to see her only once a year. Anju and Bobby have been consistently missing family functions for the past several years because they did not want a break in training.

Anju’s mother, Gracy, says, the family does not mind her absence. “We know that if Anju has to succeed on the international stage, she has to sacrifice a lot,” she says.

What is most remarkable about Anju’s success so far is that she has not been competing on a level playing field. Doping is a widespread menace and, despite the recent high-profile conviction of former Olympic champion Marion Jones, experts contend that the cheats are one step ahead of the testers.

When asked about the prevalence of doping, Anju tells a story. After she won the bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in Paris in 2003, Russian Igor Ter-Ovanesyan -- who, along with American Ralph Boston, held the long jump world record before it was sensationally broken by Bob Beamon in 1968 -- came up to Anju and said, "I have to admire you. How were you able to win a medal from among those girls?"

Says Anju: "I don’t know what Igor was trying to say, but drugs are poison and I don’t take poison."

This poison-free athlete is training intensely at her base in Bangalore, as another Indian athletic great offers some simple advice. “Anju should take part in several Grand Prix events, so that she can reach top form,” says Shiny Wilson. “The beauty of the long jump is that you just need one good jump. Anju is capable of producing one at Beijing that will enable her to win a medal.”

More than one billion Indians across the globe will be hoping Shiny’s wish comes true.

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

Thursday, March 20, 2008

It’s never too late!

A housewife for more than 30 years, Nirmala Nair has a thriving career as an interior designer

By Shevlin Sebastian

Interior designer Nirmala Nair, 58, started her career in 2002 by accident. Her friend, Snehalata, had a Bangalore-based interior designer, Hema, as a guest. When Snehalata asked Hema during the course of a conversation whether she would like to design her home, the interior designer responded with a cruel, “I don’t do holes like this.”

The ‘hole’ was a 1600 sq. ft. apartment at Kadavanthra. Hurt and humiliated, Snehalata turned to Nirmala for help. “I want to show Hema that I also can have a good home,” she said. “So, can you start by designing a room?”

Nirmala, who had been doing casual design work for friends and relatives for years, agreed. The first was an anteroom, which was used as a dumping place for clothes, books and other unwanted things.

“When I looked at the room, the first thing that caught my eyes was a diwan on one side,” she says. “I put a lemon green, pink and yellow cover which I had obtained from Bangalore.” Thereafter, she put green and yellow carpets, drapes and plenty of pink cushions around the room. “Snehalata’s husband plays cricket, so there were a lot of bats dumped at one corner,” says Nirmala. “I got a shocking pink weed basket and put all the bats into that. On a wall, I put a pink and green Gujarati mirror.” For a finishing touch, she added a bright green potted plant.

Friends of Snehalata admired the job done, including an American-based Malayali couple who had an 1100 sq. ft. flat at Panampilly Nagar. They asked Nirmala whether she could redesign it. “They said that they would be using it as a guest house for their office staff,” says Nirmala. “So, foreigners would be coming for brief periods of work.”

Nirmala decided to do it in ethnic Indian style. “I made the bedroom in a Rajasthani style,” she says. There were artifacts, brocaded bedspreads, carpets and pictures of deserts and paintings of women in their colourful costumes. “The overall impression was very rich,” she says.

In the living room, there were Ravi Varma paintings, with typical Kerala wooden boxes. For the kitchen, she put in orange and silver cabinet covers with touches of green. “It was so colourful, that when you went into the kitchen in the early morning, you would feel bright and sunny.”

Nirmala’s career took off after this. “I have developed my clientele solely through word of mouth,” she says. “Most of them belong to the affluent and the upper middle classes.”

One client is corporate trainer Asha Krishnan, 48. “Nirmala has no ego,” she says. “This is very helpful when you are dealing with finicky housewives. She always adapts to the client’s desires, has excellent taste herself and is extremely cost-effective.”

What is remarkable about Nirmala is that for more than 30 years she was a housewife, looking after her husband, P.G. K. Nair, 65, an electrical engineer who has his own consultancy, and her two children, Gayatri, 32, now married and living in Melbourne, Australia, and Karthik, 28, who is studying for his MBA in Manchester, England.

“I have no regrets,” she says, about her many years of joblessness. “Unless you really need to work, I feel a woman should devote all her time to the children during their growing years.”

Nowadays, mothers feel that once a child is five or six years old, they can go out for work. “I don’t think this is right,” she says. “Your children need you throughout their school years. They need somebody to talk to.”

It is very important to know whom they move around with, and what they do in their spare time. “You have to be a friend so that they come and tell you everything.” When they don’t find anybody at home that is the time they develop relations with outsiders, which can be harmful. “The parents are so busy, one cannot blame the children,” she says.

But, if a woman does not have a career in the early years, is it possible to have one after several years? “It is very difficult,” admits Nirmala. “There are many women who have talent but they were not given the chance to develop it.” One of the primary reasons is that the husband has never allowed her to think for herself. “Every woman has great capability. No man can manage a house as well as a woman does.”

So how do such women recover their lost potential? “It is never too late if you know what you want to do with your life,” says Nirmala. “Once the children have left, you should search for something to do.”

Meanwhile, thanks to luck and talent, Nirmala has been able to find her destiny and is bravely shouldering on…

(Some names have been changed)

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In love with a peaceful place

Several hundred Kashmiris have settled down in Kochi grateful for the peace and the acceptance of the people

By Shevlin Sebastian

Kashmiri businessman Gulshan Khatai, 62, who has lived in Kochi for 43 years, is used to the peaceful nature of Malayalis. But one day he was stunned when, through his glass-paned curio shop on Mahatma Gandhi Road, he saw a man slap another. He rushed out to enquire, but the local auto-rickshaw drivers said, “Sir, there is nothing to worry. Those men are from Mangalore.” Khatai laughs heartily at the memory.

Javed Ahmed, 22, who is from Sopore, also likes the peaceful nature of Malayalis. “If you ask for directions, they guide us with a lot of love,” says the salesman who works in a shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi.

A regular visitor to a mosque in Pattalam, he befriended two Malayali youths, Feroze and Anwar. Last year, when Ahmed was going home, they asked whether they could come along. The Kashmiri agreed.

“People in my village were very happy to see Malayalis for the first time,” says Ahmed. Subsequently, he took the duo all over Kashmir before returning to Fort Kochi.

Standing next to Ahmed is the energetic Mohammed Amin, 20. “My parents told me to leave Kashmir because they feared I would fall into the wrong company,” he says. A Class 8 dropout, he had spent days idly wandering about with his friends in Kunzer in Baramula district.

“The best thing about coming to Fort Kochi is that I have learnt to speak English,” he says. He gained fluency in the language by interacting with the tourists.

It is, indeed, a peaceful life for the Kashmiris but they went through a period of uncertainty when a Kashmiri, Altaf Ahmed Khan, was arrested in Idukki district in January for his alleged links with the Pakistan-based terror outfit, Hizb-ul Mujahideen.

“I did feel nervous when I read the news,” says Shabbir Hussain, 38, a shop owner. Pervez Bhatt, 26, another owner, says, “You cannot stop the people from thinking that all Kashmiris in Kochi are terrorists. So, I was scared. The police questioned us several times. It was a tense period.” However, Khan was subsequently released on bail. Kochi Commissioner of Police Manoj Abraham describes him as a ‘former militant’.

Despite the devastation wrought by militancy, for all Kashmiris in Kochi, Kashmir is Jannat (heaven), although a sardonic Bhatt says, “The heaven has now become a hell. But things have improved a lot.” Ahmed says that, God willing, one day peace will come to Kashmir and they can all go back permanently.

But till that happens, a growing number is settling down in Fort Kochi. Several own shops which sell Kashmiri shawls, clothes, carpets and jewellery. The Kashmiri business success and greater presence is sparking resentment.

An auto rickshaw driver, Jaison Xavier, who has worked in Fort Kochi for 26 years, says, “I feel uneasy about the way they are buying property and the increasing number of Kashmiris who are settling here.”

Local businessman, Rajeev Menon, 50, says there is not much business in Fort Kochi. “Whenever you look at these Kashmiri shops, there are no customers and the workers are just sitting around doing nothing for days on end. Sure, you can sell an Rs 50 item for Rs 500, but since the tourist season lasts only for a few months, how can you earn so much?” he says. “The other shops are not earning that much.”

Menon suspects the Kashmiris are dealing in fake currency with which they are buying land and buildings at three to four times the market rate. Recently, he says, a Kashmiri bought a piece of land for Rs 50 lakh.

“I feel that in future, Fort Kochi will become a terrorist haven,” he says. “The police may be aware of all this but they seem to have been bought off. The government should conduct an in-depth investigation.”

Commissioner Abraham says the police have done the necessary verification and confirms that the Kashmiris are leading normal, peaceful lives. “Till now, we have not received any report of them indulging in crime or an anti-national activity,” he says.

Meanwhile, Derson Antony, 33, secretary of the Carnival Paithrukha Samakshana Forum, says that Kashmiris have sexually attacked foreigners who have come to their shops and spoilt the image of the city. “We have also noticed that in the shops only Kashmiris are hired as salesmen,” he says.

Khatai, the president of the Kashmiri Cultural Association, frankly says that the Malayali is not a good salesman. He also gives an unusual explanation for the sex harassment charges.

“I put the blame on the foreign women,” he says. “They walk around semi-nude and that can excite any young man. There should be a code for dressing. In the West, they can roam around like that, but not in India.”

Katai, an intense and passionate man, continues to answer the other charges. “If we are using fake currency, don’t you think we will get caught?” he says. As for the complaint that Kashmiris have paid higher prices for land than the locals, Khatai says, “They should be happy. If there is a piece of land worth Rs 1 lakh and the seller is getting Rs 4 lakh for it, what is the cause for complaint?”

As to how Kashmiris can pay Rs 50 lakh to buy property, he says, several are well established and have shops all over the country and abroad. “There is a Kashmiri businessman in Kochi who has 600 shops worldwide, including five in Kochi, with a turnover of Rs 3000 crore,” he says. “If there is any illegality, surely the CID will know about it? They are very much aware of all that is happening here.”

Khatai puts down the leveling of complaints to professional envy. “The traders were sleeping in Fort Kochi but ever since the Kashmiris have arrived, they have been forced to be on their toes,” he says.

He pauses and says, “What is the hullabaloo all about? After all, we are all Indians.”

(Some names have been changed)

(Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

O Hanry!

A first-time American visitor comes to terms with the traffic, the hartal and the mesmeric performance of Tripunithura Radhakrishnan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“In Kerala, for the first time in my life, I was attacked by mosquitoes,” says American journalist Ashley Hanry, 26. “I was asleep one night and when I awoke, one side of my body was dotted with mosquito bites.” Then Ashley smiles and says, “The mosquitoes must have been surprised. It is so used to Indian blood and suddenly, it was feasting on American blood.”

Ashley was in town as part of a five-member group study exchange programme tour sponsored by the Rotary Club. She began the tour of India at Coimbatore, went to Pollachi, Annamalai, Erode, Tirupur, Coonoor, Ooty and from there to Calicut, Kochi and onwards to Thrissur.

A journalist with a small community newspaper, The Citizen, in Auburn, New York, Ashley was astonished when she saw empty streets and shuttered shops during the February 19 hartal called by the United Democratic Front. “I have never seen something like this before,” she says. “In America, neither will the government or the opposition call for a strike that will affect the livelihood of the common man.”

But the very next day, Ashley got a shock: in complete contrast, the roads were so crowded that she landed smack in a traffic jam, while traveling from Vytilla to Kakkanad. “There are jams in the US also, but the big difference here is that there is so much of honking,” she says. “When I first arrived, it took me some time to realise that people honk just to let you know they are there, and not because they are angry, as it is in the USA.”

But despite this ‘honking’ behaviour on the roads, Ashley liked the people. “Everyone has been nice,” she says. “The women in Kerala are beautiful. They have beautiful skin and attractive faces.” She liked the colourful clothes that they wore, with so many different patterns. In America, she says, the women wore either black or hard colours. “I like the salwar kameez a lot,” she says. “The saree is difficult to wear but it made me feel feminine and graceful.” Even though jeans and trousers are comfortable, she says, it does not make one feel feminine.

She also found the blend of cultures remarkable. She went to the Portuguese-built St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi, saw the Chinese fishing boats and then wandered into the Jewish synagogue. “Each culture is as distinct from the others and yet, at the same time, there is a beautiful harmony,” she says. The difference with America is stark, she says.

Says Ranjini Menon, 36, the secretary of the Tripunithara Rotary Club: “In American cities, other nationalities and cultures are not prominent. In places like New York, the American city culture dominates above all.”

This can cause a sense of disorientation. Another recent American visitor, Susan Slates says that Indian women, when they settle in the US, do not wear the saree or the salwar kameez to work. “They wear trousers or dresses and it is a loss of Indian culture for the women,” she says.

Meanwhile, for a first-time visitor like Ashley, what were her apprehensions before she set out to encounter a different culture? “I was concerned about the quality of the water,” she says. “I was told the roads would be overcrowded and bad.” The traffic did match her expectations but she was surprised there were so many people on the roads. “In America, the sidewalks are usually deserted, as people travel mostly by cars. But the people on the roads in India made the place lively.”

She says that despite the presence of cows, goats, vehicles and people, everybody managed to get along. However, the disregard for traffic rules was a revelation. “I was surprised when I saw people riding motorbikes without helmets,” she says. “When I got into the car and put on my seat belt, people said, ‘It is not necessary, we are not travelling at 100 km an hour.’”

Fair-skinned, soft-spoken, with black hair and an easy smile, she could easily be mistaken for an Indian. And she confirms this. “Lots of people in Kerala thought I was from North India.”

So, what was the highlight of her tour? She plumbs for the lecture demonstration by Tripunithura Radhakrishnan on the mridangam and ghatam. “It was simply awesome,” she says. “I have never listened to these instruments before. Radhakrishnan played African and Western beats on the ghatam and his fingers moved so fast, I could not see it.”

Ranjini says that exposure to different cultures is one of the primary aims of the Group Study Exchange (GSE) programme. “When you go to a new country, you encounter a different type of people, lifestyle, perspectives and attitudes,” she says. “You get to know them better. Rotary believes in sharing and fellowship and the GSE propagates the concept that the world is one family.”

Ashley already feels at home. She told Ranjini that when she marries her South Korean fiancĂ©, Hee-Rak, she wants to come to Kerala for her honeymoon. “I want to go on a boat cruise that lasts forever,” she says, with a beaming smile.

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

Monday, March 10, 2008

The American connection

The US based actor-businessman, Thampy Antony, is the producer of Blessey’s Calcutta News. He talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Thampy Antony, 54, the US-based producer of Calcutta News, was in a spot of bother on the film’s set at Kolkata. He needed a few foreigners to be part of a song sequence, but he was reluctant to approach agents who would charge as much as Rs 5,000 for a single person.

During this time, a friend, Alvin Anthony, suggested that since they were in Kolkata, they should go and visit the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, where the grave of Mother Teresa is located. Thampy had wanted to go earlier but had been unable to find the time. So, Alvin and he set out.

When he entered the building on AJC Bose Road, he saw a couple of young foreigners hanging around. He introduced himself by saying, “I am from California.” The Swiss girls, Eva and Elizabeth, said they had come to Kolkata to do volunteer service for the poor. They became excited when he told them that he was part of a film unit. “We would like to see some shooting,” said Eva.

“Sure,” said Thampy, told them the location and they parted ways. One hour later, when he stepped outside, the two girls were waiting patiently near his car.

A surprised Thampy said, “Why have you decided to come with me? You don’t know me at all.”

Elizabeth said, “We met you at Mother Teresa’s House, so, you must be okay.”

So, they went along with him to see the shooting. Later, Thampy told them he needed a few foreigners to act in a scene. They invited him to come to Sudder Street, where several of them stayed. He did so, and the next day, 15 foreigners acted in the film. The silver lining for the producer: None of them asked for any money, but Thampy was gracious enough to take them to a nearby bar for refreshments.

“People say that when you go to Mother Teresa’s home, good things happen,” says Thampy with a smile. “And it happened to me, because I met Eva and Elizabath, got the foreigners without going through an agent, and saved a lot of money also.”

The 6’ tall Thampy, with a neatly trimmed beard and shoulder-length hair, radiates an air of confidence as he sits on a chair in the fifth floor hotel room of the Wyte Fort at Kochi.

Born in Ponkunnam, in Kottayam district, Thampy graduated in civil engineering from the M.A. College of Engineering at Kothamangalam in 1980. Following a brief stint in the Public Works Department, in 1982, he married Prema who was doing graduate studies in genetics from the University of San Francisco.

Thampy arrived in the US in 1984 and after getting an associate degree in architecture and doing a series of jobs, his wife and he started a business in long-term health care in 1990. “Today, we own ten hospitals and have 1500 employees,” he says.

But this astute businessman has a creative side to him. He writes poetry and has acted in plays in New York and San Francisco. Thanks to his well-known younger brother, actor Babu Antony, he secured an entry into the Malayalam film industry and has acted in four films: Arabia, Made in USA, Palunku and Calcutta News. Says Babu: “My brother has a good screen presence and a tremendous passion for acting.”

Thampy has also acted as an Ayurvedic doctor in an independent English film, Beyond The Soul, directed by Rajiv Anchal, 50, in 2003. For this role, he won the Best Actor award at the Honolulu International Film Festival in 2005, the first Malayali to do so. “When Thampy first started acting for my film, I told him, ‘Don’t act, be natural’ and he understood immediately what I was trying to say,” says Anchal. It was because of his performance in Beyond The Soul that Blessey, who worked as an associate director in the film, gave him the role of a poet in Palunku.

So what was it that made Thampy decide to produce Calcutta News? “I wanted to make a good film,” he says. “The most important thing about Blessey is that he writes the script. Most directors don’t write scripts.”

Plus, he says, Blessey has 18 years of experience as an associate director. “I had full confidence in his abilities, so I gave creative freedom and there were no limits regarding the budget,” he says. As for Blessey, he says, “Unlike most producers, Thampy was not obsessed about making profits, but was keen that we make a good film.”

So, is Thampy, who plays a psychiatrist in the film, happy with the end product? “It is a very good big-budget commercial movie, and is a departure from Blessey’s earlier family-oriented films.”

Thampy says he might not produce another film, but he hopes to continue his acting career. He has just acted as a Sardarji in a mainstream Hollywood movie, The Root Of All Evil, which stars Sean Bean. The movie, now in the post-production stage, also has another Malayali, Naveen Chathapuram, a film graduate of the Columbia College in Chicago, in the production team.

Meanwhile, since Thampy has interacted with the Malayalam and Hollywood film industries, he is probably well qualified to talk about the difference between the two. “In Hollywood, the people are more professional,” says this first Malayali to become a member of the powerful Screen Actors Guild. “Apart from being paid well, they are well trained for every job. In India, what usually happens is that people learn on the job. In America, a scriptwriter, for example, will do a course before he or she enters the profession.”

He gives another example: when the shooting for a film is over, the director gives the entire footage to the editor. For one month, the editor will work with the footage and make a movie. Then he will call the director, the producer and a few actors and they will view the film and give their impressions.

“Sometimes, the director will say, ‘You have to cut that,’ or ‘you have to add that’, and that is when the actual editing takes place,” says Thampy. “So, the director gets a contrary opinion, there is a creative interaction, and the end result is a better film.”

In the Malayalam film industry, the director tells the editor what to put in, what to take out. “The problem is that there is only one way of thinking and that is the director’s,” he says. “Editing is a highly professional job and nobody should be involved in it, including the director.”

So what next for Thampy? He has just released a book, Idachakkaplamood Police Station (The Police Station of Idachakkaplamood), a comedy drama, which has been published by Olive Books.

An author, an actor, a producer and a businessman, Thampy slips into these different roles with style and finesse.

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

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sex and the Kochiite

A large number of men, dissatisfied with their marriages, take solace in the arms of sex workers

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, sex worker N. Janaki, 40, was standing near the Ernakulam Junction Railway station. An auto-rickshaw came up, and four men jumped out. They surrounded Janaki and dragged her into the vehicle. The few bystanders present watched the scene in silence. She was taken to an open field a few kilometres away.

“That night, 25 men raped me,” says Janaki. “As soon as one man finished, another man would take his place. Most of them were drunk and were in a violent mood.” She pauses, stares into the distance, and says, “I just wanted to die that night.”

When this horror finally ended, the men heaped one last humiliation on the hapless Janaki: they took away her saree and left her with nothing to wear. “Thankfully, in a nearby house, I saw a shirt hanging on a clothesline,” she says. She climbed the low wall, wore the shirt, and went home.

In normal circumstances, any woman would have given up this dangerous profession, but Janaki says that if she had stopped working, she would have starved. “I knew of nobody who could rescue me from this life,” she says.

Her husky voice gives a hint of the toughness of a woman who has dealt with all types of men -- rough, cruel, violent and tender -- in her 27-year career as a sex worker in Kochi.

She began at 13, when, angry over a quarrel she had with a brother and his wife, she ran away from her home in Kollam and went to the bus terminus. She spent two days loitering around, before a woman, Hameeda, befriended her and took her to Kochi, promising a job in a factory. But, later, Hameeda told Janaki she was a sex worker. “She passed some of her clients to me and that was how I was initiated into the trade,” she says.

So, does she remember her first customer? She nods and says, “He was 30 years old and knew at once that this was my first time, because I was trembling with fear. When he touched me, I pushed his hand away.”

This was at a lodge near the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus terminus. He offered a glass of beer, but Janaki refused to drink it. It was only when he threatened to hand her over to the police that she submitted. In the end, Hameeda took the money.

The lodge owner, Varkey, keenly aware that most men preferred young girls, encouraged her to stay. Board and lodging would be free, he said, but he would pocket the money she earned. Desperate and hungry, Janaki agreed to this lop-sided arrangement.

“In the beginning, I had one or two clients a day,” she says. “But, as time went on, I was dealing with three or four men, and later, it went up to 20 clients a day. I was getting tired.”

Janaki walked out after six months. But within days, while loitering on the streets, she was picked up by the police and spent a year in a rescue home near the Ernakulam Junction station.

She managed to get out and has been in the trade for the past several years. She started with Rs 50 for a night but now the rates for the sex workers vary from Rs 100for an hour to Rs 1000 for a night.

So what sort of customers does she get? “The rich, the poor and the middle class,” she says. There are customers who come drunk, or are violent or behave rudely. But there are many customers who treat the sex workers with dignity and affection. “We also behave well with them,” says Janaki. “Whenever they call us, we go with them, because we know that no harm will come to us.”

But there is no such luck while dealing with the police. The broad-built Renuka, with kaajal-rimmed eyes and an easy smile, who is sitting next to Janaki, says, “Now the Vanitha police tell us we cannot stand at bus stops or walk alone on the streets. We are not supposed to go for movies or take our children to hospitals.”

She says that as soon as the policewomen see them on the road, they give them a piece of paper and ask them to deposit the fine in the court.

A woman police officer, on condition of anonymity, says that it is true that they sometimes charge the sex workers when they are merely walking on the streets. “We are trying to discourage them from continuing in the profession,” she says. “Anyway, thanks to mobile phones, the number of women who actually work on the streets has gone down.”

Renuka continues with her list of grievances: she says the police will only harass the sex workers and not raid apartments where well-organised sex rackets are going on. “Obviously, the owners are paying the cops handsomely,” she says.

Kochi Commissioner of Police Manoj Abraham rejects the allegation. “We have raided numerous flats and some actresses have been arrested,” he says. “We have also closed down several so-called massage parlours.”

Renuka says she knows of cops on the night shift, who instead of trying to keep an eye on criminals, hide in the shadows near the KSRTC bus terminus and wait for men to approach the sex workers.

“The moment a deal is struck, they will pounce on the man, take him to a shady corner and coerce him to give them money,” he says. “The men end up giving at least Rs 1000.” Some of the cops, she says, make thousands of rupees every night, and “apart from all this, they also get a monthly salary. It’s a good life.”

“This is not true at all,” says Abraham. “On the other hand, we know of several cases where sex workers entice customers to follow them to deserted places and a group of accomplices will then rob the man of his money and valuables.”

Despite all these dangers, a large number of married men are regular clients. To the perennial question as to why married men go for relief to sex workers, Janaki says that some men are sexually dissatisfied with their wives. Some are disappointed when the wife won’t do all that the husband asks her to do. “A wife might not want to indulge in oral sex or try different positions,” says psychologist Prakash Chandran, 46.

Janaki says that some wives show a lack of interest in sex. “Many wives, after doing the household work, say they are too tired for sex,” she says. “Some of them suffer from a serious illness and are incapacitated.”

So, what is Janaki’s advice to these wives? “Since he is your husband, at least, for half an hour, try to fulfill his desires.”

Renuka says that about 70 % of the men stray, because of the drawbacks of wives. “But having said that, there are still men who are not content to eat from one plate,” she says. “They want to eat from many plates, so these men will stray, even if the wife is willing to fulfill her husband’s sexual fantasies.”

So, in this fast-changing world, what are the trends these days? Janaki says she knows of cases where a client takes a sex worker home, and, with the permission of the wife, has sex. “The idea behind this is that instead of the husband walking out and breaking up the marriage, by doing this, the man is able to get sexual satisfaction and the marriage remains intact.” The wives, in these cases, are not interested in sex.

Sometimes, an impotent man will hire a gigolo, so that he can satisfy the wife. “There are some husbands who find it thrilling to see their wives making love to another man,” she says.

Janaki also tells the story of a man who is obsessed in seeing lesbian sex. “So, he hires a sex worker and asks her to make love to his wife and he gets a kick from seeing that.”

Janaki no longer gets a kick at seeing the underbelly of Kochi society. Too many years in the trade has burnt her out emotionally. And now, she feels a regret that she has been a member of the oldest profession in the world for so long.

What is intensifying the regret is the presence of her 20-year-old daughter Sharada. She was born out of a one-year relationship that Janaki had with a former client, who died a few years ago.

By going through hardship and constant work, Janaki was able to ensure that Sharada did not follow in her footsteps. The girl studied in a boarding school, and, today, she is a graduate who works in the private sector.

So, does Sharada know that her mother is a sex worker? “Yes, I told her about it when she passed her Class 10 exams,” says Janaki. “I had to tell her because I did not want her to hear about me from another person. She cried for many days and did not speak to me. Now, she has accepted me as I am.”

Mother and daughter have accepted each other, but society has not. “Because of my reputation, it is going to be difficult for Sharada to get married,” says Janaki. “Most people in Kochi know that I am in the sex trade.”

This is the only time in the conversation when Janaki looks vulnerable. The hard face, which she shows to the world, dissolves and, for a brief moment, there is a glimpse of anxiety mixed with fear. Then the hardness envelops the face once again….

(Some names and locations have been changed.)

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

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Seats of learning

An American educator talks about the pros and cons of the educational systems in Kerala and America

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I love Rajagiri Public School,” says Susan Seats, 57, an educator from Arizona, USA. “I am amazed at how well they teach English. Keralites tend to speak better and proper English than most Americans.” She is impressed by the beautiful campus at Kalamassery and the quality of the teachers. “For many of the teachers, it is more than a job,” she says. “It is what they love to do.”

So, what is the strong point of the education system in Kerala? “The sense of discipline and the way the children take school so seriously,” she says. “They learn so many things.” Susan says most children in Kerala know more about America than many American children. Some American children don’t even know who is running for President. Here, most of them watch the news every day.

She says there is an air of innocence about the children. “They are very gentle and welcoming,” she says. “Many American children are aggressive, because they watch unsupervised TV and see graphic images of sex and violence. There are several children, who suffer from poor self-esteem, because they are victims of divorce.”

On the other hand, Susan is awestruck at how loving Indian parents are. There is a good communication between parents and children. “The emotional strength of mothers is amazing,” she says. “Fathers work so many hours, but still, there is a connection between them and their children.”

However, she admits, all is not hunky dory. One of the biggest drawbacks she has noticed is the pressure parents put on their children to do well in academics. “Children should be allowed to have fun and be creative,” says Susan. “If a boy does not have a high IQ, it is a painful experience for him.”

In America, she says, because of the emphasis on individuality, if a child does not do well in math or science, but if he is good in music, for example, the parents and the school will support the boy so that he can become a good musician. “There is a stress on academic excellence only for those who have the aptitude for it,” says Susan.

However, in India, she says, unlike in America, academic excellence means that you have to be good at by-rote learning. Hence, children are unable to think creatively. Susan says Indians tend to carry this non-creative habit into adulthood.

“Many of my Indian friends in Arizona have told me that in their work place if their supervisors tell them, ‘Here is the project and this is what you have to do and this is how you do it,’ they do an excellent job,” says Susan. “But if the supervisor tells the Indian engineer to create something, he finds it difficult to do it. That is one of the downsides of the Indian educational system.”

Meanwhile, last year, biology teacher Sunu Varghese, 43, went to Arizona in a teacher-exchange programme, sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association of Rajagiri. She discovered that there is no rigid examination system in the US. “In one way, it is good, because a child can develop his creativity,” she says. “But I feel that in the growing-up stage, there should be more structure and discipline.”

She says there are no uniforms, no strict syllabus and in Arizona, there is no compulsory public exam after you finish your Class ten. “You can write the exam when you feel like it,” she says. “The dropout rate is much higher. Only 50 per cent will go onwards for a university education.”

But, as expected, the technological advancement left Sunu amazed. “In most schools, students bring laptops to the classroom,” she says. “There are very few books. Children do the class work and the teacher can read it because all the computers are linked.” When a student has to do his homework, he goes to the teacher’s web site and opens a file in his name and does the work.

Many classrooms are also equipped with the smart board. The teacher can download information on to the blackboard from the Internet. So, in the classroom, information is available from around the world and is a valuable aid in teaching.

Like Susan, Sunu also feels that in our educational system, it is very difficult to develop creative talents. “There are lots of opportunities for students for creative pursuits when they are younger,” she says. “But when they reach the higher classes, in most schools, the emphasis is on academics.” Thankfully, she says, the freedom to be creative is available at Rajagiri and there are quite a few parents who encourage their children to pursue their talents.

Says Fr. Austin Mulerikal, the director of the school: “We support this because there should be equal importance to academics and extra-curricular activities. I believe there should be a holistic balance. We want to develop the complete person.”

Meanwhile, despite the drawbacks of the educational system in India, Susan says that most Americans are worried. “As Senator Barack Obama said recently, unless we match India and China in science and math, we are going to fall way behind,” she says. “Our best scientists, researchers and computer engineers are all Indians. Indians have made America great, now it is the turn of Indians to make India great.”

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