Monday, June 29, 2015

Something Unique About It



For the first time in India, a poetry installation, combining sound and sculpture, took place at the Durbar Hall Art Gallery, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The horse installation; the man; (from left) P Raveendranath, S. Kalesh, George Gabriel, Vinod Krishna and Renganaath Ravee. Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

When the eminent danseuse Mallika Sarabhai placed her hands around a globe hanging between the head and tail of a horse sculpture at the Durbar Hall Art Gallery, Kochi, the voice of poet Ajeesh Dasan could be heard on the speaker system.

The horse declared:
I am the National Animal
My ancestors took part in the freedom struggle.
I am not applying for a pension
As I do not have any certificate.
Other animals stood around the horse
The elephant, the ass, the giraffe,
The peacock, the boar, the lion.”

A shrill neighing sound of a horse was heard on the soundtrack. Expectedly, this was followed by the angry roar of a tiger (India's National Animal), not happy at the desire of the horse to replace him. Thereafter, there was the rumble of an elephant, as well as the grunts of the ass and boar.

The poem ended with the chilling sound of a cage closing. “The zoo-keeper comes up and calmly pushes the horse into the cage,” says Ajeesh. “People are also getting caged and losing their freedom.”

For the audience, which included the former Education Minister MA Baby, the deputy mayor of the Cochin Corporation, Bhadra Satish, artist Bose Krishnamachari, the tribal activist CK Janu, and actor Joy Mathews, this was an unique experience. Not surprisingly, they listened in rapt attention. This is the first time in India that a poetry installation has been done.

Some time ago, when film-maker Vinod Krishna read Ajeesh’s poem, 'Deseeya Mrigam' (National Animal), he was reminded of the late American chess genius Bobby Fischer. “The Cold War was taking place between America and Russia, but Bobby was a man who did not believe in boundaries,” says Vinod. “The horse is also like that.”

But man is bound by too many restrictions and boundaries. “A human being cannot go anywhere without a passport,” says Vinod. “We have so many cards: Aadhar, Ration and the Unique Identity Card. But we come to the earth without any document. In the end, we become victims of the corporate culture and those who want to rule over us.”

One day, Vinod felt that there was a scope to do something with it. And that is how he came up with the idea of an installation. But he wondered how to get the funds for it. When he broached the idea to his lawyer-friend, P. Raveendranath, the latter immediately contributed Rs 1.5 lakh. The remaining Rs 1.5 lakh was got through individual contributions as well as loans.

Incidentally, the rearing-up horse, made by the sculptor Gabriel George, is 70 per cent iron, while the rest is foam and scrap.

The second installation, again made by Gabriel, is of a man lying down, his body shaped like a microphone, but with several loudspeakers attached to his body. The poem, 'Sabda Mahasamudram' (Ocean of voices), is by the talented poet S. Kalesh.

Here is the first stanza:

'A man, rankled
by his own sound
about to sculpt
a stout silence and play
suddenly one day
found himself ringed
by a herd of puny
little sounds.'

The rulers are telling us what to do and what not to do,” says Kalesh. “And this is represented by the loudspeakers. The person represents the common man who is unable to talk back. We have so many things to say, but are not able to do so. Today, along with this loss of freedom, there is a simultaneous rise of fascism. We no longer have an individuality.”

In order to bring attention to the project, Vinod decided to rope in a celebrity. So, he sent the images, as well as the concept, to actors Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi and the activist Mallika Sarabhai. “All of them expressed an interest and said they would be willing to come to Kochi,” says Vinod. “But, when the hall was booked, only Mallika was free to come.”

Apart from Mallika, many ordinary people, too, also came. One morning, a 34-year-old physically challenged man arrived in a wheelchair. “He had been to many art shows,” says Vinod. “But after listening to the two poems, he suddenly felt a desire to stand up and walk. This was the first time he was experiencing this feeling. I was deeply moved by this.”

Interestingly, Vinod says it was the youngsters and women who enjoyed the show the most. “Many women told me that they felt a mental release when they heard the poems and saw the installations,” says Vinod. “I think it is because they have been suppressed for so long.”

Says the Mumbai-based Renganaath Ravee, the sound designer for the project: “Everybody wants to experience something new. In India, movies and TV serials are the only forms of entertainment. The traditional art forms are not moving with the times. Maybe, that is why there has been such a positive response to our show.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Star of Their Publicity Campaigns


Many top business people in Kerala, like Boby Chemmanur, TS Pattabhiramam, Dr. M M Ramachandran and Beena Kannan, appear regularly in their print and visual media advertisements. They give their reasons for it

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Boby Chemmanur with Diego Maradona; Beena Kannan 

At 9 a.m., on the morning of October 24, 2012, businessman Boby Chemmanur felt extremely tense. He was at a suite of the Blue Nile Hotel in Kannur. Football legend Diego Maradona was sleeping. He had checked in late the previous night after a long flight. But the introduction of Maradona to the people of Kannur was to take place at the Municipal Stadium at 10 a.m. Despite repeated entreaties by Boby and the former footballer's manager, Maradona refused to get up. Instead, he threw a pillow in anger at Boby.

He asked that the inaugural function be shifted to 4 p.m.,” says Boby. “It came as a shock to me.” Boby switched on the TV and showed Maradona the lakhs of people who were waiting for his arrival.

In the end, Maradona got ready, hugged and kissed Boby and went to the stadium. He danced, sang and did tricks with the football. The crowds were entranced and happy.

Thanks to this unprecedented event, Boby got priceless media coverage. “I have to admit that the sales went up,” he says. “It also led to the development of my business. My own image was projected all over.” Today, Boby's Chemmanur International Jewellers is a RS Iyer​ 2,000-crore group, with branches in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and in places like Dubai, Kuwait and Kuala Lumpur.

Later, Boby also did a well publicised 812-km run from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram to spread the message of blood donation in March 2014. “Again it was well received,” he says. And Boby began appearing in his company's ads regularly.

Asked the reason why, he says, “I felt that I would be the best person to promote the brand, as compared to a brand ambassador. I realised that what I say about my products will be accepted by the people. With a brand ambassador the public will always have the feeling that they took money from the sponsor and hence they are promoting the product.”

There are others who are doing the same thing. They include TS Pattabhiramam of Kalyan Silks, Dr. M M Ramachandran of the Atlas Group and Beena Kannan of Seematti.

Whenever customers become aware that Beena is at her Kochi store, they will go to meet her. “They want to know about the new products of Seematti,” she says. “So I will give a detailed explanation. They feel confident about the product, because I am the designer.”

That is how, one day, when she started her own boutique in cotton sarees, Beena decided to appear in the print and visual advertisements. “I felt it would be more authentic if I appear in my own advertisements,” she says.

However, Beena says that she does not want to do it too often as people will get tired of seeing the same person. So, she has taken on brand ambassadors like Lisa Haydon and Urmila Matondkar. “They have their own impact,” she says. “But you need to change your brand ambassadors often, because people want novelty, glamour and new faces. Look at Mollywood. All the heroines keep on changing, but the heroes have remained the same for decades.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the impact from the marketing point of view, US Kutty, Director, Sobhagya Advertising, says, “It was a masterstroke by Boby to bring Maradona to Kerala, especially in the north where there is such a craze for football. By associating with Maradona, Bobby enhanced his personal brand value. And his jewellery firm became famous.”

And when the owner projects himself, a lot of attention falls on the company. Especially if there are many companies selling the same type of product. “So, in that way, Boby Chemannur, Beena Kannan, TS Pattabhiramam and Atlas Ramachandran are doing the right thing,” says Kutty.

Adds Dominic Savio, Vice President, DDB Mudra, South and East: “When the owners appear in their own ads, it definitely adds value to the brand. For example, Beena Kannan is a known face. She is fashionable. Women tend to believe her because she is regarded as an authority on fashion.”

As for TS Pattabhiramam of Kalyan Silks, he has projected himself in a different way. “If you watch the advertisements of Kalyan Silks, he has positioned himself as an authority of silks,” says Dominic. “He is shown as visiting the smallest of villages in the remotest parts of the country in search of the best silks. Therefore, when you buy a product from his shops, you can be rest assured it is going to be pure silk.”

But Kutty says there is a risk involved also. “If something goes wrong, the owner will lose face and his reputation will be damaged forever,” he says. “Take the case of Maggie Noodles. If the company MD had projected himself in the media, it would have ended his career in the company.”

Adds Dominic: “The convicted Ramalinga Raju has not only destroyed his own image but also of Satyam Computers which had once been a savvy IT firm.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

“Artistes are singing the Songs of the Rulers”

Says danseuse Mallika Sarabhai, while inaugurating a poetry installation at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

I am Bose,” said Bose Krishnamachari, the Kochi Biennale founder, and held out his hand towards eminent danseuse Mallika Sarabhai at the Durbar Hall, Kochi.

Of course I know who you are,” said a smiling Mallika. “The Biennales have just been wonderful.”

Mallika had come to inaugurate a unique poetry installation, which combined literature, sound, art and culture. She is a striking woman, with high cheekbones and flashing eyes, and with a fashion style of her own: she wore a large earring on one ear and a smaller one in the other, while a several- beaded necklace adorned her neck.

But what she spoke struck at the heart of the state of present-day society. “If you look at the history of any ancient civilization, the arts did two things: the arts educated and it critiqued,” said Mallika. “But somehow, because of the development of a capitalist culture, there is a culture of giving awards, a culture of doling out money, and giving freebies. As a result, the voice of artistes in India has become the voice of advertising. More and more artistes sing the song of the rulers, whether the rulers were kings earlier or politicians now.”

The greater part of the arts today has become uncritical and remains in the realm of safety, she said. “We have lost our voice and have been deafened by noise: intellectual, political and mercantile,” said Mallika. “We study, but we don’t learn. We learn, but we don’t become wiser. We listen but we don’t hear. We have forgotten to listen to either our own truths or the sounds of nature.”

For the audience, who listened raptly, these were disturbing truths in an era of fast living and little inner reflection.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Down-To-Earth and Natural


COLUMN: OUR HOME

Sherly, wife of Benny Behanan, MLA, talks about her house at Thrikakkara

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by K. Rajesh Kumar

It is only at 10 p.m. that Benny Behanan, the MLA, gets free. That is when he repairs to his ground-floor bedroom at Thrikkakara. At one side, near the bed, there are two armchairs facing each other, near windows, which open out to a lawn. Wife Sherly sits opposite him. They chat about the events of the day. “It is the only period when we get to spend time with each other,” says Sherly.

It is a spacious bedroom. There are wooden slats placed in triangular and rectangular styles on the wall just above the bed. “These are the remnants from our earlier house, which our architect Suku [Dass] did not want to throw away,” says Sherly.

Indeed, they had been staying in the same area for more than two decades. The initial plan was to renovate the house. But a friend of Benny's suggested that a new house be built, since the original one was below road level. In the end the Behanans agreed with the suggestion. “We did soil-filling at the location, so that the house could reach the road level,” says Suku.

And three years ago, the house came up. The 3200 sq. ft. house has a sloping roof and a wide garage. Sherly had asked for one important attribute: there should be plenty of light inside the house. So Suku opened up a section of the terrace, just above the staircase, and placed a glass pergola. As a result, the sunlight just pours down the stairs. “I wanted to create a play of light and shadow,” says Suku.

And in a rectangle, near the staircase, filled with small rocks, Suku has embedded old bamboo poles and oars. A thick rope is connected to the ceiling. “I put in the ropes to emphasise the height of the stairwell,” says Suku, who got the ropes from a second-hand shop at Mattancherry. These had been used to hold a ship's anchor. The bamboo, which was treated naturally, was sourced from Adimali.

One visible result is that there is, indeed, a lot of light inside the house. “Whenever we go to other homes, I always get a feeling that there is not enough light,” says Sherly.

Among the many rooms, the dining room is the favourite place for Sherly. “Since it is South-facing, there is a lot of breeze in the evenings,” she says. “Tea and conversations takes place here often with family members.”

In the dining room, under the glass-topped table, Suku has embedded several wooden blocks and reepers. “These are the materials of the previous house, which I retained,” he says.

From the kitchen, the living and dining room, as well as the rooms on the first floor, the main gate is easily visible. “My son, Venu, and daughter-in-law are hearing-impaired,” says Sherly. “So Suku has designed it in such a way that they can see the gate at all times.”

On the first floor, in Venu's bedroom, there is a study area at one side. Suku has made a glass skylight on the ceiling so that natural sunlight can light up the room. On the opposite end, of the house, there is a family room which doubles up as a home theatre, with wall-length carpets adorning the floor.

As for Benny's office, it is located on the ground floor, at one side. There is a separate entrance, with inbuilt seats on the verandah. “This ensures our privacy,” says Sherly.

Overall, she is happy with the house. “There is a lot of positive energy inside,” she says. But there are a couple of drawbacks. “There is not much space in front, but the total area is only 11 cents,” says Sherly. “The garage seems to be small now. Again, this is not Suku's fault. We have three cars now.”

Another drawback: the road outside is narrow. So visitors have to park their vehicles on the main road, 50 metres away, if they want to visit the Behanans. “But we have nice neighbours,” says Sherly. “And there is plenty of water in the well.”

One of the first functions to be held in the house was a wedding reception for Venu on December 25, 2012. “[Senior Congress leader] Vayalarji [Ravi] came to the house the previous day,” says Sherly. “He liked the house. In fact, Vayalar Sir's daughter, Lakshmi, wanted to hire the same architect.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Paper Tigresses of Kochi


To help a friend overcome financial woes, Diwia Thomas began Papertrail, an outfit that makes paper bags and products. Now it is helping hundreds of troubled women to earn a living  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

One day, in November, 2008, Diwia Thomas dropped in at the home of her friend Susan George (name changed) at Kochi. After a while, she asked Susan for a cup of tea. Susan said that there was no milk. So Diwia replied that she was okay with a cup of black tea. When Susan returned from the kitchen, she said, “You are my closest friend. Why should I hide things from you? We have not had milk for a while. George's business has failed. We are in financial trouble.”

Susan belonged to an upper middle-class family. She could not go for work, because her son went to school at 7 a.m. and returned at 12 p.m. The daughter left at 9 a.m., and returned at 2 p.m. “This meant she had only three hours, from 9 to 12 p.m., to do something,” says Diwia.

An upset Diwia went home and wondered what to do. Then she suddenly remembered that she had learnt paper bag-making in Bangalore, while on a visit, several years ago.

The next morning, she told Susan about this. Susan agreed. Diwia taught her to make them. Within a few days, Susan was able to make 60 bags in three hours. She was paid Rs 2 per bag. And that was how Diwia's outfit, ‘Papertrail’ began.

Today, there are hundreds of women who are making different products: newspaper bags, gift bags, lanterns, gift boxes, coasters, cards and pens made of paper. The products are supplied to restaurants, boutiques and corporates. For example: a leading Japanese car company gives a custom-made art paper bag to their customers. This is made by Papertrail.

Today, we make about 15,000 bags a month,” says Diwia. She has units in different parts of Kochi. But what is most interesting are the women who work for Papertrail. “They are the battered, abused, and abandoned,” says Diwia. “When a woman is thrown out on the streets by the husband, literally, with only her clothes on her back, she needs money to feed her children. So, we train them to make bags, so that they can earn quickly. ”

Sadly, abuse cuts across all strata of society. Meera Raghavan, 55, (name changed) stays in a tony neighbourhood in Kochi. However, her affluent businessman-husband is estranged from her, even though they are living in the same house. “He does not give any money to Meera,” says Diwia. “So she secretly makes paper bags to get some spending money.” Her only child, a married son, who is working in Australia, is unaware of this.

Asked about the advantages of an all-women workforce, Diwia says, “They are focused, trustworthy and responsible with finances. All the quality control is done by them. I tell them that the customers are theirs, not mine.”

But there are disadvantages, too. “They have mood swings,” says Diwia. “They become easily depressed. They feel a constant pressure from society. For centuries, women have stood beneath men. So they have a social conditioning which tells them that they cannot achieve anything without a man's help. But by doing this work, they develop self-confidence, courage and optimism.”

And Diwia is happy to do her bit. Her grandfather KB Jacob and her grand uncle were freedom fighters and Municipal Chairmen of Fort Kochi, while her father, Santhosh Burleigh, was a councillor of the Cochin Corporation. “We were taught that if you can do something for society, then you are doing something worthwhile,” says Diwia, a web strategist. “For me, Papertrail is my contribution.” 

(A slightly different version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Close-ups and Long Range Shots

The Cineplay, 'Between The Lines', was shown for the first time at Kochi with a screening at the Southern Naval Command. The audience had an enjoyable experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

Hi, my name is Shekhar Anand and I am a criminal lawyer. You must have heard about the Reddys and the forest scam. Yes I nailed them...And I have a lovely wife Maya. We met in law school.

Maya: I remember the first time we met it was at a debating competition. The topic was, 'What works? Love or arranged marriage?' And both of us were put in the arranged marriage team.

Shekhar: And we won.

Maya: Yes, but only to fall in love the very next week.

Shekhar: But I have to confess. For me, it was during the debate itself.

Maya: And this he told me on the day of the marriage.

Shekhar: And it has been ten wonderful years since.”

These are the beginning dialogues of the gripping Cine Play, 'Between The Lines', which stars Subodh Maskara and his wife Nandita Das. The story is of Shekhar, an ace criminal lawyer, who ends up taking up the case of a man, Mukesh, whose wife, Kavita shoots at him, but he survives. However, in a twist, Maya, who is tackling her first case, after a long hiatus, is fighting on behalf of Kavita. And the tensions in the courtroom inevitably spills over to the home front.

Incidentally, a cineplay is a film made of a play. 'Between The Lines' was shot in five days at a studio in Mumbai. There were close-ups, long-range shots, and multiple takes, just like in a film.And it was shown for the first time in Kochi, before a packed audience, at the Southern Naval Command. And the response was unanimous: it was a good experience.

I have watched a lot of plays in Mumbai,” says Captain Sanjay Panda. “However, this is the first first time that I am seeing a Cineplay. It was absorbing and gripping. Both Nandita Das and Subodh Maskara were outstanding.The analogy: the difference between reading a physical book and on a Kindle reader. Undoubtedly, a live play is much better. But when you consider that we are in Kochi, and not many theatre groups will come here to perform, this is a good alternative. ”

Another viewer who agreed was teacher Naazli Shah. “Yet, it was a mesmerising experience,” she says. “However, if given an option, I would opt for an actual play. That is because I have seen a lot of plays in places like Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. And there is nothing to match a live experience.”

But a CinePlay, Naazli says, is the best way to attract young people. “Many have a feeling that watching plays, rather than films, is a boring way to pass the time,” she says.

But Naazli has the opposite attitude. “A play, when compared to a movie, is a far more enriching experience,” she says. “We spend a lot of money on seeing films, but there is not much of an emotional connect. On the other hand, a theatre experience is magical. You feel connected to the actors, especially if they put up a good performance.”

As for Captain Sanjay, watching a play or a CinePlay is a stress buster. “After a long day at work, this is a nice way to relax,” he says. “Also, you develop empathy for people. Overall, play-watching helps in character development.”

Meanwhile, Anurag Khanna, who is handling the marketing of Cineplays, is ecstatic. “We have got a stupendous response from all over India,” he says. “Cineplays have been shown in clubs, theatres, colleges and cultural centres. Right now, there are 50 distributors who are regularly screening our Cineplays. By the end of the year, the CinePlay would have been shown in 100 cities across India. It is an idea whose time has come.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

“A True Leader should be Humble”


Says John Samuel, former Chief Post Master General, during a leadership seminar at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

On June 25, 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi were present at Srinagar to release a stamp on renowned Kashmiri poet Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor. At that time, John Samuel was Chief Post Master General of Jammu and Kashmir.

When Samuel interacted with Sonia, he was taken aback by her humility. “At that time, Sonia was the most powerful woman in India,” says Samuel. “But you never got that impression when you spoke to her. What struck me was how simple and soft-spoken she was.”

The Delhi-based Samuel retired from the postal service in January this year and has embarked on a career to nurture leaders. He came to Kochi recently to give a one-day seminar called 'High Performance Leadership', organised by Ebenezer Holiday Pvt. Ltd.

Leadership consists of two aspects,” says John. “There should be a high level of professionalism coupled with humility. Both should go together. That should be the aspiration.”

John says that it is very important for leaders to treat staff members as people first and employees second. “Employees are not just happy to get their salary,” he says. “You need to give them dignity and motivate them. You need to make them feel that they are an important part of the organisation. As a government officer, I may not be able to give them more money, but I can make them become responsible people who will be able to serve society well.”

Leadership is also about developing other leaders. “A Managing Director of a company should develop 10 or 20 leaders among the staff,” he says. “Most leaders feel that they will become a threat to his position. But that is not true. If he has fewer leaders, the chances of his company growing are substantially less.”

However, Samuel agrees that it is not easy to develop leaders, because most people shy away from leadership. “Leadership is hard work,” he says. “You are exposed. People can point fingers at you. So, you need to have courage, conviction and confidence. You should be able to say to the staff, 'I have difficulties, I may not be 100 per cent correct, but this is who I am'. But man's tendency is to be a sheep. If somebody else can take the responsibility most people are happy. They want to live a stress-free life without thinking too hard.”

Meanwhile, Samuel is equally aware of the poor quality of leadership in India today. “There are two types of leaders that you see,” he says. “There are leaders who have a passion to transform. And there are others who want to add to their personal wealth. Unfortunately, the majority of leaders are focused on the 'personal gains' approach. We need to change that.”

What is also needed is a changed perception of the bureaucracy in the eyes of the people. “When people interact with the bureaucracy, it is usually with staffers at the lower rungs, like clerks and peons,” he says. “Many have not received any training on how to deal with the public. So people have negative experiences. But in my long career in the bureaucracy, I have noticed that many leaders, at the helm of affairs, like a secretary to the government of India, are doing good work.”

He was particularly impressed with a leader like Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former Governor of West Bengal. “He is a man of extraordinary vision, professionalism, and humility,” says Samuel, who met him when he was working in Assam. “The governor of Kashmir NN Vohra is also a remarkable man. He is trying to bring about a transformation of society, by bringing all the communities together.”

In fact, seminar participant Anu Abraham Donny remembers a particular incident that Samuel recounted where he was able to bring all the communities together. This happened in Jammu. Samuel wanted to open a post office and he was looking for a ground to have an opening ceremony. But he just could not find one. Eventually, a Muslim approached him and gave him the ground which belonged to a mosque. “The ceremony took place on a Friday,” says Anu. “This showed Samuel's influence on that one man and the community.”

For Anu the take-away from the seminar was a new concept of leadership. “It consisted of the twin qualities of compassion and faithfulness,” she says. “You should go the extra mile for a stranger or an employee. And you have to be truthful in everything you do.”

Incidentally not many will be aware that Samuel was the brains behind the Speed Post scheme which has been running successfully for years. He is the rare leader: one who practices what he preaches. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Forever Love


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Daisy Luke talks about life with the actor Prem Prakash

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Rajeev Prasad

The first time Daisy Luke saw the actor Prem Prakash was on a stage at the CMS College in Kottayam in 1967. He was singing a Hindi song. “Prem had a beautiful voice,” says Daisy. “At that time, he was one of the most popular singers in the college.”

Prem and Daisy began interacting with each other, because they were members of the Catholic Students Union. “Later, there were musical evenings,” says Daisy. “Prem would tell me about them. So I would go to listen. Sometimes, I would suggest one or two songs which I liked. And he would sing them.”

Since Prem was four years older, soon, he passed out and joined his father's tea business. But one day, in February, 1968, Daisy received a letter at home. It was from Prem. 

He said he wanted to marry me,” says Daisy. “I liked him but was not ready to say yes. One reason was because I was not keeping well. I had rheumatic fever and had problems with my heart. A valve was not functioning properly. I was not sure what to do.”  

Later, Prem's elder brother, the noted actor, Jose Prakash, came to the house with a formal proposal. “My parents were worried about my health,” says Daisy. “My father said that a doctor must certify that I am okay. Only then would he give the consent for the marriage.”

So Prem, Daisy and her older cousin Mathew went to meet the noted Dr. Sebastian Zacharias in Ernakulam. Several tests were done. After examining the results, Dr. Sebastian pronounced that Daisy was physically fit. “It was only then that we decided to go ahead with the marriage,” says Daisy.

It took place on December 30, 1968, at the Lourdes church in Kottayam. But Daisy was feeling nervous. In the early morning, she cut her forefinger while slicing a vegetable. So, she put a small plaster on it. However, in the church, while she was holding a flower bouquet, some part of it pressed against the plaster. Daisy started bleeding again. “Nobody knew about it, but I felt a slight pain throughout the mass,” she says. It seems to be an early indication of the pain and joy that characterises all marriages.

For their honeymoon, the couple went to Kanyakumari. They went for long walks on the beach and enjoyed the full-moon nights. One evening they sat on the beach and Prem started singing. Soon, a crowd gathered. “Everybody enjoyed Prem’s singing,” says Daisy

It was at the beach that Prem made a solemn promise. “My husband said that every year from now on, we would be celebrating our anniversary at Kanyakumari,” says Daisy. “However, I have not seen Kanyakumari ever since.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Daisy says, “Prem is a loving person. In fact, he loved his parents more than me. The first day, after our marriage, he told me that I should also love them unreservedly. So, I treated them like my own parents.”

Daisy loves Prem unreservedly, too, and enjoys his sense of humour. “Whenever there is a family gathering, everybody wants him to be present, because he brings it alive with his witticisms,” she says.

As for his negative traits, Prem tends to get tense over the smallest of matters. “On the other hand, I remain cool,” says Daisy, who had been an English literature teacher at the BCM College for Women at Kottayam for three decades.

The couple have three children: Bobby, Sanjay and Thangam. While Bobby and Sanjay are a successful Mollywood scriptwriting team, daughter Thangam is a Singapore-based homemaker.

As a father, Prem is a soft parent. “He has never shouted at the children, nor used the stick,” says Daisy. “I also did not use the stick because Prem would not allow me. But they have all turned out well. We are proud of them.”

Daisy is also proud of Prem's acting in the recently-released film, 'Nirnayakam'. “Prem has an important role,” says Daisy. “The mature artiste in him has come out. He has acted well.”

But, interestingly, for both husband and wife, their most memorable moment had nothing to do with films. It was the birth of their first grandchild, Anjali, on March 19, 2005, at the Matha Hospital, Thellakom, Kottayam.

Many friends had told me that being a grandparent is the best experience, but I never really understood what they meant, till I held my own grandchild,” says Daisy. “It was a thrilling moment. I believe the reason is because we are there to witness the continuation of the family.” Incidentally, the Prakashes have six grandchildren.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Daisy says, “In a marriage, you must think more about the partnership than about yourself. That will help you to adjust. There is no love in marriage. Love is in the people. And people have to put it into the marriage. Lastly, spouses should respect each other and their families.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)


Friday, June 12, 2015

Kill Or Get Killed


Air Vice Marshal M. John (Retd.) has written a racy thriller about the underworld in Mumbai
By Shevlin Sebastian
'When his right hand came up, it had the silenced pistol in it.... his first two shots hit the Joint Commissioner (Jt CP) in the stomach. One shot shattered the spine, and effectively paralysed the Jt CP waist downwards. The lady’s face was frozen in shock, while the girl was on the verge of a scream. He swung the pistol to the right and shot the girl twice in the face. He only had to move the pistol slightly to the left to shoot the lady twice in the face. The silencer was effective, and the ‘phuut’ sounds the shot made would have been barely audible outside the room.’
This is an extract from 'The First Coffin', a quick-paced thriller, written by the Delhi-based Air Vice Marshal M John (Retd). 
The scene described is the murder of Dinesh Cherian, the Joint Commissioner of Mumbai Police (Crime), along with his wife and daughter, by a hitman hired by underworld don Rajesh Devgun. The latter was angered by some of the moves made by Dinesh which hampered his business. 
In fact, the novel has two parallel strands. There is Ranjit Cherian, a carefree young man who is a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He happens to be the son of Dinesh. But he has an unexpected reaction to the murder of his family. He thirsts for revenge against the killers. And then there is Ranjit Jacobs, the hitman, who also has a military background. But he is furious because the Devgun family has not made the full payment for his successful hit. So he is out to take revenge. 

And the novel follows the many experiences that both of them have in the Mumbai underworld. “However, both achieve their aims in a limited manner,” says author John. Nevertheless, the scenes depicted are so vivid and alive that it is a bit of a surprise to know John has had no contact with the criminal elements in Mumbai. 

Most of the research was done on the Internet,” he says. “I avoided reading the good books on the underworld, like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, so that I did not get limited in my imagination.” 

John also clarifies that the Don portrayed in his novel is not at all like Dawood Ibrahim or Chhota Rajan. “Most of these underworld gangs have religious or community affiliations,” says John. “So Dawood has a Muslim-only gang, while Chhota Rajan runs a Hindu gang. But the Don in my book does not have any such compartmentalisation. His gang has members of all religions, cultures and communities. I tried to keep out of the stereotypes.” 

There are incidents set in Kerala, highlighting the early life of Ranjit Cherian, vignettes from the National Defence Academy, the pleasures of flying, scenes set in Kashmir, Goa and Thailand, the life of criminals in Mumbai, illegal organ harvesting, the activities of the beggar mafia, the experiences of a starlet who becomes the mistress of a criminal, and encounters with Israeli women tourists. 

The writing is smooth and fluent. And John has a natural talent for story-telling. He might have inherited this trait from his late father, PR John, a Thiruvananthapuram-based bureau chief of a vernacular newspaper. “As a child I would see him walk up and down in his room at night and sometimes talking to himself,” says John. “I believe my father was framing the story that he was planning to write the next day. Surprisingly, I too have the same habit, although I do my thinking sitting down.” 

But by profession John spent 38 years in the Indian Air Force and reached the post of Air Vice Marshal. He had done stints in places as varied as Jamnagar, Jodhpur, Bareilly, Hyderabad, Tezpur, Gwalior, Delhi, and Bagdogra. “I also had a three-year stint in Bangkok, as a Defence Attache attached to the Indian embassy,” he says. 

Following his retirement in 2010, he had a lot of time on his hands. That was when he thought he would try his hand at writing. “I wrote in fits and starts,” says John. “There were days when I would not write. And there were other days when I would write a lot. This is probably not the best way to work.” 

Perhaps that is also why he took four years to finish the book. “Thereafter, I sent it to my daughter and son-in-law who gave me some suggestions,” says John, who did make some changes. The novel is published by Notion Press and is priced at `295. It is available on Amazon, Flipkart, Bookadda, and Infibeam. 

Thanks to the positive reactions, I am planning to write a sequel,” says John. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Having A Ball


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn
Premi talks about life with the former Indian football captain, Jo Paul Ancheri
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photos by Mithun Vinod
When the proposal came, Premy was thrilled, because it was from the family of the famed footballer Jo Paul Ancheri. “I was interested in football, because my father would watch the game on TV,” says Premy. “I was also  excited to meet a celebrity for the first time.”
So, on October 5, 2008, Premy peeped through the first floor window of her house in Pazhanji, Thrissur district, and watched an ash-coloured Qualis enter the courtyard. Jo Paul, the former Indian football captain, was at the wheel. When he stepped out, she saw that he was wearing a blue shirt and a white mundu.
He went a few steps forward and then he turned and went back. Jo Paul had left the keys in the ignition.
While inside the house, Jo Paul enquired about Premy’s job. She was working in the accounts section of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. “He asked me whether I was keen to carry on working after marriage,” says Premy. “I said, ‘Yes’.”
And it was also a yes from both sides to the marriage. Two months later, on December 6, Jo Paul asked Premy to meet him in front of the Aswini Hospital in Thrissur. He came in a Maruti Alto car that belonged to his school friend, IM Vijayan, the famed former Indian footballer. They went for a long drive. Jo Paul told her that because of his career, he would be away from home for long periods. Premy agreed to adjust. 

On the way back, they stopped at a roadside juice shop. When Premy took the glass, which contained orange juice, it slipped and the entire contents fell on her. The dress became ruined. “So we went to a Kalyan Silks store,” she says. “But because, it was already in the newspapers that Jo Paul was getting married, he stayed in the car, while I went in, and selected three dresses. Then Jo Paul came in, quickly selected one, and went out. I then paid the money, wore the dress and came out. It is a sweet memory for me.” 

The marriage took place on December 28, 2008, at the Marta Mariam Big Church in Thrissur. At the reception, Jo Paul’s close friend, the actor Kalabhavan Mani sang a song. “But I was in a dazed state that I cannot remember the words at all,” says Premy. 

Another of Jo Paul’s friend, Sudhir, presented her with a large pumpkin saying that he had brought it all the way from his garden in Kannur. “But the joke was on me,” says Premy. “There was a vegetable decoration at the reception hall. Sudhir had just picked the pumpkin from the table and presented it to me.” 

For their honeymoon, the couple went to Kolkata where Jo Paul was the chief coach of the Mohun Bagan Sail Football Academy. They spent their days sight-seeing. One evening, when they stepped out of the Victoria Memorial, Jo Paul asked Premy whether she would like to go on a ride. “That was the first time that I got onto a horse-drawn carriage,” she says. “It was very exciting for me.” 

On another occasion, they went to the hill station of Darjeeling. One day, they got up at 2.30 am and went halfway up the Tiger Hill on a jeep. “Then we got down and had to walk for the rest of the way,” says Premy. “Jo Paul found it easy, but I became breathless soon. It was the first time I was getting up so early. And it was quite cold even though I was wearing two sweaters.” 

But the effort was worth it. They saw the sunrise at 3.40 am. “It was a magical sight to see the sun come over the Kanchenjunga mountains,” she says. 

A few months after her marriage, Premy returned to Thiruvananthapuram, while Jo Paul stayed on in Kolkata. But today, while Premy continues to live in Thiruvananthapuram, with their two children, Christina, 6, and Paul, 1 ½, Jo Paul is the chief coach of the Thrissur-based Red Star Academy. 

Asked about his qualities, Premy says, “Jo Paul is patient, mature and never loses his temper. On the other hand, I get angry very quickly. He is a true friend. If anybody has a problem, whether it is a family member, a relative or a friend, he will go out of his way to help them.” 

This helps Premy in an indirect way. “When my daughter was one year old, she felt down and hurt her jaw and an operation needed to be done,” says Premy. “It was Jo Paul’s friends and their family members who accompanied me to the hospital.” 

But Jo Paul has a weakness: his children. “If our children want something expensive he will buy it for them,” says Premy. “I always tell him that we should only buy what is necessary. If we give whatever they ask, it will spoil them. But he rarely listens to me.” 

Interestingly, when asked whether she has seen Jo Paul play, she shakes her head. “But once I saw a CD of a few matches he played,” she says.  “I got so scared. It is so much a physical sport. I was so glad that I got married to Jo Paul after his career had ended. Otherwise, it would have been so stressful for me.” 

As for tips for a successful marriage, Premy says, “Be honest at all times. This is very important for a successful marriage. Share your thoughts and feelings. That will help develop an understanding of each other. Finally, try to avoid ego battles.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, June 08, 2015

Riding like the wind

Arun Kottoor is the first Keralite to complete the 200, 300, 400, 600 and 1000 km cycling rides organised by the 100-year-old Audax Cycling Club of Paris. He will take part in the 1200 km ride from Paris to Brest and back

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

Cyclist Arun Kottoor was feeling tense. He was near a town called Vaniyambadi in Tamil Nadu, but was running late. Arun was doing a 300 km bicycle race from Bangalore, in December, 2013, which had to be completed in 20 hours. But suddenly, two youngsters on a motorbike came up and said, “Stop, stop.”

A panic-stricken Arun said, in broken Tamil, “I don't have time. I have to reach the next checkpoint.”

They insisted. But Arun did not stop. So the boys left.

But after five kilometres Arun saw a human chain, formed by 25 youngsters, across the road. “I was forced to come to a stop,” he says. Then Arun noticed the bike riders and realised that they had set it up.

One of them said, “Sorry Sir, but you have to pose with us for photos.”

So Arun had no option but to stop and get his photographs taken. Nevertheless, despite this hindrance, Arun did complete the race on time.

The Kochi-based Arun, 48, is the first Malayali to complete the 200, 300, 400, 600 and 1000 km cycling rides within a stipulated time. All these races are monitored by the 100-year-old Audax Cycling Club of Paris, which organises amateur cycling races all over the world.

And because he did all these races twice, in successive years, he is now eligible to take part in the prestigious 1200 km race from Paris to Brest and back in August this year. The race takes place once in every four years. More than 6000 cyclists from all over the world will be taking part.

A farmer, Arun is training regularly at his cardamom and rubber estates in Idukki and Palakkad. For his races, Arun uses a Lapierre Sensium road bike, which costs Rs 1 lakh. It has a powerful headlight as well as backlight, as well as 20 gears. And to have a safe journey, Arun wears a reflective jacket.

Before setting out on a race, Arun has to do small calculations. “If 300 kms is to be done in 20 hours, this works out to 15 kms per hour, without a stop,” he says. “Since I have to make stops, to buy drinking water, have meals, or repair a puncture, I need to go at 19 km/hour.”

Of course, night riding is difficult. “When I feel drowsy I stop, close my eyes, and rest for five minutes under a shop awning or a bus shelter,” he says. “Then I start cycling again.”

Not surprisingly, cycling is not easy in India. “In Kerala, there is only one four-lane highway, from Mannuthi to Cherthala,” he says. “Otherwise, it is just two lanes. Many times, buses and trucks are right behind me. However, in states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, there are four lanes. So I ride on the edge of the highway, but the traffic is heavy at all times.”

Then there is the heat to contend with. When he was riding in Vijayawada recently, the daytime temperatures had reached 43 degrees Centigrade. “So, you get dehydrated,” says Arun. “I have glucose and a bottle of water every hour.” And every now and then he will pour water over his helmet. “So, when I start riding again, there is a cooling effect on my face,” he says.

Incidentally, Arun began cycling in 2011 when he suffered a ligament tear while playing badminton. The doctors suggested a less hard-impact sport. “So I opted for cycling,” he says, with a smile. 

(A shorter version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Straight From The Heart

Lance Miller, a World Champion in Public Speaking, gives a few tips on how to be a good speaker

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony 

I was 26 years old,” said Lance Miller. “I was living in a small town in Indiana. I had a job I did not like. I hadn’t a date in three years. And I had a couple of roommates named Mom and Dad. I felt like my life was going nowhere. So I took control. I left my home and my family and I headed to Los Angeles to start over.”

This partial autobiography, which can be seen on YouTube, was part of Miller’s speech called ‘The Ultimate Question’ which enabled him to win the 2005 World Championship for Public Speaking conducted by the Toastmasters International group, at Toronto, Canada. In the final, there were 10 contestants, although the initial number was 28,000 from over 100 countries. A panel of 20 Toastmasters judged the contestants on speech content, organisation, voice quality and gestures

And to ensure that he had a championship-winning speech, Miller practised relentlessly. “I gave the same speech to 35 toastmaster Clubs,” he says. “Then I got a feedback from the members. Based on that, I kept changing the speech all the time.”

But his success was also based on many years of defeat. Miller lost at the club level for nine years, then at the district level four times, and once in the semi-final. “And each time I lost, it was painful,” he says. “There were a lot of emotions involved, but I learnt valuable lessons. One was to never give up, to keep moving forward.”

Today, Miller is a speech trainer and life coach who travels all over the world teaching people on how to speak correctly. He was in Kochi recently where he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of District 92, which consists of Toastmasters clubs from Kerala and Karnataka.

Asked about the qualities needed to be a good speaker, Miller says, “Speaking is a muscle. So you have to exercise it. If you don’t do so, it will atrophy and you will lose the skill.”

Another necessary attribute is the ability to project life energy. “You should have enough energy to fill the room,” says Miller. “For a major part of our life we are told to sit still and be quiet. So it takes some practice to get your life energy out. However, you will be able to do so if the message that you are giving is important to you.”

It is also important to be authentic. “Be true to yourself,” says Miller. “Don’t try to be dazzling. Just be the same person on stage that you would be in the hallway. The only difference should be that your energy should be amplified.”

Another important attribute is clarity. “A lot of people are not clear in their own mind about what their speech is all about,” he says. “If it is not clear to you, then it will not be so in the audience’s mind. I have a rule that states that no matter how clear it is in your mind, it is less so in the audience’s mind. So a speech has to be crystal-clear in your mind to get the point across.”

Meanwhile, there are common errors that most speakers make. “People have a tendency to lecture the crowd,” says Miller. “That puts people off. It is better to ‘share’ with the crowd, rather than ‘tell’ or ‘look down’ at them. In other words, you should be natural and humble. Then there are others who give rehearsed speeches. That prevents one from connecting with the audience.”

Since he is so well travelled, Miller is in the right position to compare Asian and Western speakers. “In Asia, English is a second language,” says Miller. “So, the fluency and articulation in English are much less. There is an English dialect for different areas of the world. The local people will understand each other, but many times I cannot do so even though English is my native language. But that is the problem in the West, also. There are several regional accents including a Cockney accent in Britain, which is very difficult to understand.”

But the Toastmasters in Kochi understood Miller very well. “Miller was confidence personified,” says George Thomas, Governor of Division H, District 92. “He showed the importance of natural body language, an expressive face, voice modulation, pauses, eye contact and the use of space on a stage. And he garnished his speech with dashes of humour. It was a great learning opportunity for us.”

However, not all are enamoured of Miller’s way of speaking. Once, Miller noticed a man nodding off at one his speeches. But later, the man re-assured Miller by saying, “L ance, I was listening to your speech. I only had my eyes closed.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)