Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Maximum Impact

The Bengaluru-based Nivedha M has just won the 2019 Impact Maker Awards in Norway for her waste management system and took home prize money worth Rs 40 lakh

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was cold inside the Skur13 hall in Oslo, Norway during the evening of October 10. A group of 35 entrepreneurs stood on a stage in pin-drop silence. They were from all over the world: UK, USA, Kenya, Botswana and India. Among them was the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Nivedha M. She is the founder of the Trashbot machine that can automatically separate bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste.

Nivedha was wearing a black coat and shiny black boots. The Norwegian Trade Minister Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, Torbjørn Røe said, “And the winner is” … there was a pause and then he shouted, “TrashCon (the name of the company).”

Nivedha felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit her. Then, breaking out into a never-ending smile, she stepped forward and received a plaque and a large cardboard cheque from the minister. The plaque identified her as the winner of the 2019 Impact Maker Awards. This is a global competition for entrepreneurs who can provide unconventional solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. And the prize money is a cool Rs 40 lakh.

The Impact Maker Awards has been instituted by the Norway-based group Xynteo, and consists of major companies like Unilever, Mastercard, General Electric and Tatas. These firms are looking for innovative solutions for the world’s problems.

And through a vote of the 500 plus delegates in the hall, which consisted of people like the CEO of Ikea Jesper Brodin and the co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, they voted for TrashCon as having made the most impact.

Nivedha had never expected to get the award. The earlier winners were mostly Europeans and Americans. “This was the first time an Indian was winning,” says Nivedha.

When asked on stage what she would do with the money, Nivedha said, “Each of these digits will impact a thousand lives. We can create an end-to-end waste management system which includes segregation and recycling. According to my calculations, for each digit, we can prevent 300 tonnes of waste going to a landfill every month, through the use of Trashbot.” Incidentally, the recycled waste from the Trashbot can be used to make biogas and plywood-type boards. So there is no waste whatsoever.

Xynteo has also extended support to Nivedha to help her scale up the production. “We are making 10 machines a month,” she says. “Now they will help us to make 100 machines and later there will be a global outreach.”

A chemical engineer who graduated from the Rashtreeya Vidyalaya College of Engineering, the 24-year-old says, “I have found my life’s purpose. I want to create a time where there is no trash anywhere in the world.” 

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Meeting the daughter of a legend

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Debika Sen (extreme left); Mihir Sen 

One day, at artist Sasi Warrier’s studio, I met a group of lively American women travel writers who were on a tour of South India. Shepherding the group was Debika Sen, a California-based tour manager. When I heard the surname, I correctly assumed Debika of being a Bengali. We started chatting in Bengali. I am a Malayali who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in Kochi as a journalist. 

As for Debika, she is of mixed parentage. While her father was Bengali her mother, Bella, was of British-Jewish origin. “They met and fell in love when my father went to study in England,” she said. 

During our conversation, Debika suddenly said, “You might have heard of my father.” 

Then she paused and said, “His name is Mihir Sen.” 

I got a shock when she said that. Sen was one of India’s greatest long-distance swimmers. He was the first Indian to swim across the English Channel in 1958, and also set a world record by swimming in oceans in five continents during a calendar year (1966). These included the Palk Straits, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles and the length of the Panama Canal. He had famously said, “I wanted to prove to the world that Indians are not afraid.” In 1967, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. 

At that time, while working for a national sports magazine, at Kolkata, I had written articles about Sen. One was a seven-page feature called ‘Marathon Man’ in 1988. Then, in 1991, when he suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, and lost his memory, I had written another one called ‘Man Without A Past’. 

I told Debika about how I had spent time with Sen, at his office, home and during a photo shoot at the National Library. Her eyes filled up and she said, “It’s such a small world.”

But Debika also told me something that I had long forgotten. Sen had a flourishing garment factory and was wealthy. However, one day, in 1977, politician Jyoti Basu called him and asked him to campaign on behalf of the Communist party for the Assembly elections. Sen declined by saying he was a capitalist. That did not go down well with Basu. 

Soon, labour problems began to crop up in his factory. It eventually devastated Sen’s business. He became bankrupt. The stress became too much to bear. Sen developed dementia. And on June 11, 1997, he died at the age of 66. As for Bella, according to Debika, she died of a ‘broken heart’ five years later.

It was all so sad to hear. What to make of life? So many tragedies take place all the time. And, mostly, all this happens to good people, while the bad go karma-free. Does God exist? Or is He maya (an illusion)?

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South Indian editions and The Morning Standard, New Delhi)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Taking her first steps

Debutant actress Melissa Raju Thomas talks about her experiences in the upcoming ‘Moothon’ and her future plans  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Sometime ago, inside a dance bar at Malad, Mumbai, Poonam is gyrating her hips. She has kohl-rimmed eyes, red lipstick, hoop earrings, long hair, and is dressed in a bluish-green lehenga-choli. She is dancing to ‘One Two Three Four’ from the Shah Rukh Khan film ‘Chennai Express’. She swirls her hair from side to side. The strobe lights on the ceiling are going clockwise and anti-clockwise. The mostly-male audience claps and shouts. A few throw hundred rupee notes at Poonam.

At one side of the bar, two women are watching intently but silently. One is the Mollywood director Geetu Mohandas, while the other is the debutant actress Melissa Raju Thomas. The reason is simple: in Geetu’s bilingual film, ‘Moothon’, Melissa plays a bar dancer. 

As she watches Poonam, Melissa is struck by the lack of expression on her face. “There was no happiness or sadness,” says Melissa. “I got the feeling she was just doing a job. Even her smile was mechanical.” 

Later Melissa met Poonam and the latter confirmed that it was only a means to earn a living. “Poonam thought that I wanted to get into it, so she told me to stay away,” says Melissa. “That moment stayed with me.” 

In the film, Melissa is also a village girl based in Lakshadweep. And because of an  element of magic realism in the film, she also plays a mermaid. But the shoot was a tough one. “I put a fishtail, so my legs were restricted,” says Melissa. The shoot was done 15 feet below the surface of a pool in Mumbai. There were divers nearby who would give Melissa the oxygen mask. But a few moments before the shooting began, they would take it away. “I managed for about 45 seconds or so to hold my breath,” she says. When Melissa could no longer do so, she would make a sign and the divers would come and reattach the oxygen tube. 

The film stars Nivin Pauly and Roshan Mathews. And the tale is of a boy who goes in search of his elder brother in Mumbai. As for Melissa, it has been a learning experience. “One day, seeing me looking tense, Nivin told me to relax,” she says. “I realised that taking it easy is better than getting immersed in my lines and doing too much thinking. Instead, it was important to be in the present and react naturally to what was happening in the scene.” 

Early life

Melissa is the daughter of an Army officer Raju Onattu Thomas. Thanks to her father’s transferable job, she grew up in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi and Nagaland. But at age 13, the family relocated to Thiruvananthapuram and Melissa won selection at the Asianet Plus VJ Hunt Reality Show. She anchored the popular show, ‘Valkannadi’ for two years. Thereafter, after her class ten, she got a scholarship to study in Singapore, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS). 

Studying in Singapore changed me as a person,” she says. “The society is very competitive. To stand out, you had to work hard. And there is a culture of meritocracy that I liked very much. If you are good, you are rewarded.” 

Melissa also liked the emphasis on physical education and fitness. “So you tend to go for a workout or a run every other day,” says Melissa. “That is something that our Indians schools should focus on, especially with our rising stress levels.” 

It was in NUS that she studied theatre, acted in a few plays and got hooked onto acting. 

And now, she feels happy about her decision to concentrate on acting. ‘Moothon’ has received appreciation when it was screened, last month, at the Toronto Film Festival. The film, which is produced by noted Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap, who also wrote the Hindi dialogues, is slated for a November release. Now Melissa is halfway through a shoot for Bejoy Nambiar’s next film, ‘Taish’. 

Asked whether she was settling in for a career in Bollywood, Melissa says, “It depends on how things work out. It is a complicated industry and since I am an outsider, without any godfathers, it is not going to be easy.” 

She says she also has a keen interest in scriptwriting as well as direction. She may have a talent in that direction. Melissa wrote the script for a short film called ‘Faded’, which was released on HumaraMovie, a leading YouTube channel and garnered more than two million views. “Story-telling is what I love the most,” says Melissa, who has acted in numerous TV commercials. 

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

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

To unite a divided India

Entrepreneur-filmmaker Shailendra Singh has embarked on an all-India journey to celebrate the country, and to felicitate unsung heroes, accompanied by a powerful anthem, ‘One India My India’ which he has created and directed

Pics: Shailendra Singh. Photo by Albin Mathew. A rousing welcome at Kanyakumari 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Convent Junction, Kochi, when entrepreneur Shailendra Singh steps out of his jeep, he is a sight to behold. A black T-shirt with the words ‘Made in India’ in front and ‘Shailendra Singh’ at the back. A lower garment, in green, is a mix between a lungi and the kimono. On his arms are etched two statements: One is in Sanskrit saying ‘Ahimsam Yodha’ (‘I am a warrior’). Then there is ‘Mangal Da Puttur’. His father’s name is Mangal Singh while in the astrology charts, his planet is Mars. Near the wrists, there is the Om as well as a peace symbol. 

This multi-dimensional personality -- film-maker, entrepreneur, advertising star, music promoter and best-selling author -- is on an all-India rally called ‘One India My India’. He started on October 2, from the Gandhi Ashram at Kanyakumari, touched Kochi and is on his way to Srinagar via Coimbatore-Bangalore-Humpi-Kolhapur-Goa-Pune…..a total of 15 cities across 11 states, a distance of 7170 km in 18 days. 

For the rally, he has created and directed a hypnotic and moving anthem called ‘One India My India’ featuring singers Mithoon, Sukhwinder, Jubin Nautiyal and Godswill, with lyrics in Hindi, English and Punjabi by Sayeed Quadri. Shot in 20 cities of India, the highlight image is of an elephant in Kerala raising the Indian flag skyward with its trunk. With over 30 lakh hits and counting, it is well on its way to make a mark like AR Rahman’s ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’. 

Shailendra was inspired by producer Quincy Jones’ blockbuster song, ‘We are the world’, released in 1985, in which a host of stars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie lent their voices. “That was the only anthem that wanted to unite humanity,” says Shailendra. “I wanted to do something similar for India.”  

Meanwhile, when asked the reasons behind the rally, Shailendra says, “All of us are different from the outside. One is a Bengali, Malayalee, Punjabi or a Tamilian. But inside everybody is the same. The blood is red. The heart beats in the same way. All our organs are the same. My message on this trip is that everything divides us -- caste, religion, politics, money but the one thing that can unite us is love. And that is what I am propagating -- love.” 

At each stop, Shailendra is also meeting ‘Unsung Heroes’. In Kerala, he felicitated Mesh Manoharan, a trained scuba diver, who rescued 70 people on his kayak during the 2018 Kerala floods. At Hampi, he commended the muscular Shiva, in blue T-shirt and jeans, who has cremated more than 10,000 unclaimed bodies. Another hero is Padma Shree awardee Dr Ramana Rao of Bengaluru who has treated more than 20 lakh people free of cost. “In India, the true achievers are not felicitated or recognised for some strange and unknown reason,” he says. 

Shailendra, who has travelled to many countries, is an unabashed India lover. “It is the greatest country on the planet,” he says. “We are the world’s largest democracy. India lets you be who you want to be. Of course, we have a lot of problems. That’s because 1.4 billion people are trying to live together. But India is the only country in the world where you can go to a stranger’s house and ask for a cup of coffee and he will provide it with a smile and without asking any questions. In Germany, if you go to a house unannounced, they will call the cops. A couple of hours before Kochi, late at night, we stopped for idlis and the lady did not even charge us.” Incidentally, the entire journey is being streamlined live on Facebook and YouTube. 

And for this trip, Shailendra has not taken on any sponsors. “I don’t want to propagate the thought process of anybody who has commerce, politics, or power in mind,” he says. “I want to be pure.” 

This desire for purity has come after an immensely successful career. Here are a few statistics: 23 start-ups in 23 years. 500 multinational clients. Shailendra built the third-largest youth festival, ‘Sunburn’ in the world. He has made 72 films and is a National Award winner. He was also the first to launch a talent management agency, Percept and is a successful author. 

Asked for tips on success, he says, “You have to follow your passion. Sachin [Tendulkar] fell in love with batting at the age of eight. There is a theory [expanded upon in American writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling ‘Outliers’] that if you practise something for 10,000 hours you will become great.” 

But today, Shailendra is looking for a higher purpose in life. “Every sunrise, I ask the Universe to allow me to share all of myself before I die,” he says, and adds, “Too many people are living but they are not alive. I want to be alive at every single moment for the rest of my life.” 

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

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

A nursing place for animals

At the Koovapadam Animal Shelter, in Mattancherry, Gujarati couple Dinesh and Ushma Shah provide timely treatment for injured animals and birds

Pics: Dinesh and Ushma Shah; Ushma Shah. Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 4 a.m., Ushma Shah seemed to hear barking at the edge of her consciousness. She was in a deep sleep at her home in Mattancherry, Kochi. She turned to one side, hoping the sound would go away. Her husband Dinesh let out a soft snore. But the barking persisted. Soon, Ushma shook her head, got up and realised it was coming from outside. So, she stepped out, walked down a long passage, and opened the gate. A brown dog was standing there, with a wound on its back. It had large sorrowful eyes. 

Ushma took the dog in, gave it medication and provided milk and dry dog food. She recognised the dog. It had been brought in a few days earlier, after being hit by a car. But after treatment, Ushma had sent it back to its original area of Panayapally, because there was no space in the shelter. But now the dog had found its way back. 

So Ushma tended to it till the wound healed and again sent it back. 

At the shelter, there are 35 big and small dogs, seven cows and calves, one pigeon, and three cats. Sadly, one cat became paralysed when it was hit by a vehicle. 

In fact, more than 90 per cent of the injuries is due to the animals being hit by vehicles. “For street dogs as well as abandoned pets, for some reason, both are unable to judge the proper distance at which a bike or car is moving,” says Dinesh. “That’s why they get hit so often.” 

One dog was hit so hard that his eyeballs popped out. By the time, he was taken to the doctor, it was too late. “He is blind now,” says Dinesh, with a sad shake of his head. Apart from accidents, dogs also suffer from skin diseases, cancers, paralysis, tumours, nerve and kidney problems. 

Their constitution is no different from ours,” says Ushma. “They feel pain in the same way as humans. They get emotionally upset. But we have not been taught to observe this. We eat animals, so how can we have any feelings for them?” 

On the other hand, animals have feelings for their caregiver. “They show more love than human beings,” says Ushma. “Their love is unconditional.”   

In 2018, the shelter, which is part of the Delhi-based Dhyan Foundation, received a grant from the Jeanne Marchig Animal Welfare Award in Scotland to improve their infrastructure. The award was given through the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations at their ‘India For Animals’ event at Hyderabad. 

As for the Foundation, among the various works it is doing, animal welfare is at the core of their activities. “We have centres all over India as well as 30 cow shelters or gaushalas, where cattle are taken care of,” says cardiologist Dr Prasan Prabhakar, the head of the Kochi chapter. The spiritual guru is Yogi Ashwini, who is a well-known proponent of the Sanatan Kriya. 

Meanwhile, at Kochi, in the front courtyard, there are three cows and assorted calves. When a cow gets injured or sick, there is no place in Kochi, apart from this shelter, where it can receive prolonged treatment. “Cows suffer from skin problems, rashes and infections in the hooves,” says Dinesh. “Maggots will eat the flesh around the hooves. Soon, it can go deeper and deeper. They can even enter the bloodstream. Once they do that, the cow will die. So we provide timely treatment.”  

Apart from animals, Dinesh and Ushma look after birds like owls, pigeons, kites and crows. Surprisingly, most crows get injured when they graze against the strings of kites that have been cut during friendly fights in the sky. Sometimes, these strings, which are usually coated with powdered glass or plastic, stretch across two branches of a tree. “They are not able to see it, and fly through, hit the string, and damage their necks or wings,” says Dinesh. “Even pigeons and kites get injured.” 

The normal treatment for a bird is to give it medication and rub pain-relieving cream on the injured part. “Most of the time the birds don’t survive because the stress they go through while struggling to free themselves from the string becomes too much for them to handle,” says Ushma. “Out of 10 injured birds, only two survive.”  

Different birds have different characters. A crow is emotionally sturdier than a pigeon. “If we put a crow in a cage it does not like it at all,” says Dinesh. “It conveys the message by flapping its wings. The pigeon, on the other hand, is soft-hearted and sensitive and remains silent when going through the treatment.”  

The couple is consumed by their passion for the work. So, it is no surprise that Dinesh, a businessman and Ushma, a chartered accountant have given up their careers. “This is our life mission now,” they say, in unison.

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

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Staring into the void

Saleena Musthafa, who lives on the eighth floor of the Holy Faith H2O building at Maradu talks about her emotional roller-coaster ride of the past few days

Photos: Saleena Musthafa; The Holy Faith apartment building  

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the early morning of October 2, while the country celebrated Gandhi Jayanti day, Saleena Musthafa stood in the verandah of her eight-floor apartment of the H20 Holy Faith building at Maradu and stared at the backwaters. In the distance, she could see numerous trees while the slanting rays of the sun lit up the eastern sky. “This sight always gave me a sense of peace,” she says. “I would stand here most mornings for the past 11 years ever since my husband and I moved in.”

But now the situation has irrevocably changed. Suitcases and cardboard boxes are lying about in the apartment. Most of the furniture and the beds have been taken away. The state government had given the deadline of October 3, to the owners to leave the building.

The Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of Holy Faith and three other buildings -- Jain Coral Cove, Alpha Serene, and Golden Kayaloram. All the buildings have been constructed within the High Tide Line of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). The No-Development Zone is 200 metres from the coastline while the Holy Faith is at 13 metres.

When the tehsildar officers, as well as the police, entered our apartment on Monday to know about our Aaadhar card and other details that was when it sank in,” she says. “Our beloved building is indeed going to demolished.”

On Monday night many flat owners and their families gathered together and everybody was crying. “All of us have a pain in our hearts that the court never listened to what we had to say,” she says. “They never studied the petitions that we had submitted.”

The children are also traumatised. “When they go to school, their classmates ask them, ‘Is your house getting demolished?’” says Saleena “And that makes them feel so sad and upset.”
However, Saleena’s children Tarique Ahmed, 23, and Fadaya, 22, are living outside Kerala. While Tarique is doing a photography course at the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad, Fadaya is doing an architecture course in Bengaluru.

Saleena says that if some people have done wrong, they should be punished. “But why take away our homes?” says Saleena. “When we bought the flat, all the papers were in order. How are we to know that there was a violation of the CRZ? We bought this with our hard-earned money. We are not crooks. We have been tax-paying citizens all our lives. What will society gain by demolishing these buildings? There are so many other problems like bad roads, poverty, and environmental degradation that need to be solved.”

Seleena lives with her husband Muhammad Musthafa in this 2200 sq. ft. flat with a drawing cum dining room, a large kitchen, and three bedrooms with attached bathrooms. The couple bought the flat for Rs 85 lakhs. “It's resale value is Rs 1 crore,” she says. “And now we are left with nothing. We are not even sure when we will receive the Rs 25 lakh interim relief proposed by the court.”

However, the crisis has brought the people together. A few days ago, when Saleena put a message in the group WhatsApp saying she was not well, within a few minutes, there was a knock on her door. Her neighbour Krishna had bought a breakfast of idlis and sambar.

We have always been like a family and celebrated Onam, Christmas and other festivals with a lot of enthusiasm,” says Saleena. “We have gone to movies also.”

Meanwhile, Saleena, who is a certified Art Of Living teacher (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), has not given up. “I am praying hard,” she says. “In fact, all of us are hoping for a miracle, and God will save our building at the last moment.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Standing up to be counted

Former journalist KSR Menon talks about the reasons behind the setting up of the ‘Democratic Social Justice Party’, a party for the Forward castes  

Pics: KSR Menon; Photo by Arun Angela; KSR Menon (extreme right) with office-bearers and party members of the Democratic Social Justice Party 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One night, former journalist KSR Menon stood at the living room window of his seventh-floor apartment in Aluva and stared at the Periyar River. He had just returned from a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram with his friend, Prof Konni Gopakumar and felt upbeat but physically tired. So, he was enjoying the summer breeze blowing through the window. Later, as his wife Radhika laid the dishes on the dining table, Menon said, “A group of us are planning to start a political party for the Forward castes.” 

This statement expectedly received a middle-class reaction. “What?” she said, her eyes widening. “Are you guys crazy?”  

No,” Menon said. “We are serious.” 

Then he explained the reasons why. “If we have a political presence, those of our community members who are below the poverty line could get government benefits,” he said. “Because we are categorised as being a forward caste, we don’t get any benefits. We have to fight this. And we also need a political voice.” 

Radhika pondered over her husband’s remarks. Then she said, “Okay, but please don’t bring the party to the house.”   

Menon nodded, while Gopakumar gave a smile. When Menon called his children, son Ashwin in Seattle and Aishwarya, a lawyer in Delhi, both said, “Go for it Dad.” 

That was two years ago. Recently, after a lot of to-and-fro e-mails, the Election Commission of India has registered the ‘Democratic Social Justice Party’ (DSJP). “It took time because the guidelines are very strict,” says Menon. “You must have 100 founding members, an office and a constitution that adheres to the Indian Constitution. You cannot have objectives contrary to it. The office-bearers have to declare their assets.”

The office bearers include Menon as president, Gopakumar (who was a leader of the defunct National Democratic Party [NDP]) as the general secretary and businessman Mallelil Sreedharan Nair as the treasurer. The Chief Patron is Manjery Bhaskara Pillai, who heads over 100 Malabar Nair Samajam units in north Kerala and is also a director of the Global Nair Sewa Samaj. “He is very well known in the Nair community,” says Menon. 

As for a permanent symbol, it will be granted by the Election Commission only after the DSJP has participated in a few elections. 

Meanwhile, when asked about the definition of the Forward communities, Menon says, “The Nairs comprise about 80 per cent. Then there are the related communities like the Namboodiris, Nambiars, Marars, Poduvals, and Pisharodies.” 

For a while now, the DSJP leaders have been going all over the state giving speeches to community members. “The idea is gaining traction,” says Menon. “In the first meeting, we could see the people could not understand the concept of a political party. Our party, the NDP had been disbanded in 1996. Then the people said, ‘Why should we have a party?’ We replied that this will help us to fight our marginalisation in state politics.”  

Later, Menon, as well as the other DSJP leaders met G. Sukumaran Nair, the general secretary of the Nair Service Society, the leading community organisation and the latter said he would support the good work of the party.  

The people are also offering their support. After the speeches during a meeting at Kalamassery, an elderly woman came to the podium and said, “This is something we should have done a long time ago. Nobody cares for us. If there is an unjustified government transfer, we cannot appeal to anybody. I will work for the party till my last breath.” 

Another woman also came up. During the Sabarimala stir against women of a certain age being allowed to enter the temple, the 30-year-old poured kerosene on her body and was prevented from lighting up, in the nick of time, by the people nearby. “She also told us that she will work for the party till her last breath,” says Menon.  

The party is planning to contest the panchayat elections, next year, in segments where they are strong. “In Kollam, we are 30 per cent, Kannur 24 per cent, in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode, the Nairs and other related communities are 18 per cent, Ernakulam is 10 percent while in Thrissur it is 8 percent,” says Menon. “If we do tactical voting we can make a big difference. And that is also the situation in 28 Assembly constituencies, which was won by a margin of less than 5000 votes during the last Assembly elections.” 

The party is willing to stitch useful alliances, with the BJP, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, the constituents of the LDF, UDF, or the Kerala Congress. “We met [party supremo] KM Mani before he passed away,” says Menon. “He was very keen. He said that whenever the Kerala Congress aligned with the Nairs, both did very well, especially during the time of [NSS founder] Mannathu Padmanabhan (1878-1970).”


A writing life 

KSR Menon grew up in Aluva, the son of a senior government official. He did his masters from Union Christian College at Aluva, and went to Delhi to do a one-year course on journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Following that, he joined the Press Trust of India and worked there for 18 years. Thereafter, he was transferred to West Asia, where he covered the region based in Dubai. He worked in PTI for nine years. Then he quit and worked for a local newspaper followed by a freelance career that lasted nine years. He returned to Kerala in 2013.

In 2014, he published a novel, ‘Desert Hunt’. This was a gripping and fast-paced thriller about terrorists and security agents playing cat-and-mouse games in Dubai. 

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

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Christian family gifts people of Kakkathuruthu land to build temple

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The Bhagavathy Shrine; (from left): Rose Tharakan (extreme left) handing over the property deeds to Surendran, president of the Vadakkinezhath Bhagavathi Temple Trust. Others in the photo include Hormis Tharakan, former Director-General of Kerala Police, Ward Member Binu Subhagan, Ezhupunna Panchayat President Shyamalakumari, State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and Alappuzha MP AM Ariff 

It was a cloudy afternoon on September 10. But the mood was festive on the island of Kakkathuruthu (Island of Crows), which is 18 km from Kochi. A small white shamiana, with a conical top, had been put up. 

On the dais, there were dignitaries like Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, the Alappuzha MP Ariff AM, former director-general of Kerala Police, Hormis Tharakan, his sister-in-law Rose and the Ezhupunna Panchayat President Shyamalakumari and Ward member Binu Subhagan. On the table in front was a photo of Rose’s husband, PK Joseph Tharakan, who passed away on August 15, 2016, at the age of 77. 

On the island live 214 families, who comprise farmers and fishermen. While there is a resort on one side, called ‘Kayal Island Resort’, which is run by entrepreneur Maneesha Panicker, a large section of the island is owned by the Tharakan family. 

The people had gathered for a giving-away ceremony. For years, the people would get permission and have annual prayers at a small Bhagavathy shrine on Joseph Tharakan’s land. Now, in memory of Joseph, Rose was giving away six cents, and another six has been bought by the islanders. “The local people had no place for worship on the island,” says Hormis. “So, now, a proper temple can be put up.” 

Interestingly, Kochi Biennale co-founder Riyas Komu has offered to design the temple. He had visited the island along with Hormis and was much taken up the simplicity of the people, and the untouched nature of the island. “If the people agree for me to do it, then I will take into account the beliefs and rituals which are followed,” he says. “The aim is to use the local resources and set up an indigenous space for worship.” 

After the ceremony, it was the turn of folk singer Rashmi Satheesh. And as Maneesha says, “The beautiful evening was brought to life by Rashmi who is also an actor and activist. As soon as the islanders heard her deep voice and revolutionary lyrics, they felt an instant camaraderie and within minutes everyone was dancing,” she says. 

Incidentally, Kakkathuruthu hit the international spotlight when it was featured in the National Geographic feature, 'Around The World in 24 hours': one exotic place is featured for every hour. For Kakkathuruthu, the time selected was 6 p.m., for its sunset. 

But now it is going to a perpetual sunrise for the villagers, who will have a place of worship they can call their own. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A country goes bust

Director Quasar Thakore-Padamsee talks about how the play, ‘A Peasant of El Salvador’ shows the collapse of the Latin American country, the enduring charm of theatre and how audience reaction varies from place to place

Photos: Archbishop Oscar Romero; Quasar Thakore-Padamsee 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

A couple of weeks ago, Quasar Thakore-Padamsee was relaxing in the green room after a show in Delhi with the members of the QTP theatre company. They had just finished performing the play, ‘A Peasant Of El Salvador’. Suddenly, Quasar got a message. The Ambassador of El Salvador Ariel Andrade Galindo wanted to meet the group. Quasar felt a bit nervous. “Not all that we acted would be palatable for a person from El Salvador,” he says.

But Quasar’s fears proved unfounded. Ariel said what had been portrayed was the way it happened. “It was the El Salvador that he grew up in,” says Quasar. “He hung out with us for an hour and we gained a lot of insights. None of us has been to El Salvador yet.” 

This play, which was written by American authors Peter Gould and Stephen Stearns, was first staged by the QTP in 2013. And is still very popular. The audience at the JT Pac, Kochi on Sunday (September 22) were no different: they gave a standing ovation. 

The story is about a farmer Jesus who lived in a small village with his family. But the government, almost like a dictatorship, made a series of moves that resulted in the loss of his land and the deaths of his wife and a few of his children. All these roles have been played by three actors -- Meher Acharia-Dar, Pramod Pathak and Suhaas Ahuja. Amazingly, the trio plays Jesus at different stages. 

With a minimum of props, they told the story in a mesmerising way, using three languages, Hindi, English and Spanish, till it reached a resounding climax: the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was shot dead inside the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980.

What had angered the authorities was through the Catholic radio station YSAX, the Archbishop spoke about disappearances, tortures, murders and the government’s repression. Unfortunately, during the funeral ceremony, about 50 people were killed by sniper fire, allegedly by government agents. All these events led to a civil war (1979–1992), between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups which crippled the nation.

Quasar says that this story has parallels in India too. “So many thinkers and intellectuals have been assassinated -- rationalists like MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and journalist Gauri Lankesh,” says Quasar. “There is government interference in schools and colleges. History is being re-written, to suit a particular ideology. And there is political use of the military -- Kashmir is a good example.” 

Meanwhile, there were two exceptional differences during the staging of this play. Before the start, the actors came down to where the audience was sitting and read out poems by revolutionary poet Roque Dalton Garcia, who was assassinated in 1975. And at the end of the show, there was an engaging one-hour interaction inside the hall between the actors and the director with the audience, which included more than 40 students and teachers from Pallikoodam in Kottayam. The subjects included how the play was selected, the importance of rehearsals, the present situation in El Salvador and what a career in the theatre entails. 

Quasar has been a theatre professional for over two decades now. And so far, QTP has performed more than 25 plays all over India. But he admits that audience reaction differs from place to place. “In Mumbai going for a play is one of five things you are doing,” says Quasar. “In Delhi, as soon as the show is over, the audience disappears. But we enjoy performing in South India because the people listens to what is being said. They are an intelligent crowd. And we get very good feedback.” 

As for the importance of theatre in these distracted times, Quasar says, “The theatre is one of the few places where we can look at another human being with curiosity and generosity. You can watch movies, Netflix and Amazon Prime, but there is no substitute to watching an actor standing on a stage and talking to you.” 

The actors love theatre too. And there is a reason for that. “When you act in a film, it is the camera which tells the story,” says Quasar. “But in theatre, the actor tells the story. The actor is at the centre of the play.”  

So, despite their busy schedules, the actors always try to make space for the theatre. “Pramod is in ‘Mirzapur’, the Netflix show,” says Quasar. “He was shooting all night at Mumbai, then took a morning flight and came straight to the hall. He will return immediately. Suhaas was shooting in Coimbatore for a web series but still wanted to perform. That’s how much they love the theatre.” 

Quasar pauses….

Then the son of theatre legends Alyque Padamsee and Dolly Thakore says, not surprisingly, “For me, too, theatre is like a drug.” 

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

Monday, September 23, 2019

When documents yielded their secrets

Through her research with the Portuguese and Dutch records at the State Archives in Kochi, academician Ananya Chakravarti has been able to piece together the life in Kerala during the 16th and 17th centuries

Photos: A. Sanesh  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When academician Ananya Chakravarti woke up one morning at a hotel in Fort Kochi, in mid-July, she saw an image of an 11-year-old African boy who was staring, with round eyes, at the Raja of Kochi. 

Ananya shook her head and got up from the bed. She realised that she had read about the boy a day earlier at the State Government Archives at Kochi. “I found a sale deed of the boy who was sold by a man named Antonio Fernandes to the Kochi king, Rama Varma (Shakthan Thampuran) on October 11, 1793, for 200 rupias (old currency),” says Ananya. “It was very clear from the archival material that the Raja had a deep interest in acquiring black slaves from Africa.” 

An associate professor of history at Georgetown University, Washington, USA, Ananya had secured a long-term senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the regional history of the Indian Ocean coast. “I am a historian of the 16th and 17th centuries,” says the 36-year-old. 

As she browsed through the archive, she realised that there was an interesting mix of Portuguese and Dutch collections. “My advantage is that I know how to read and write in both languages,” says Ananya. 

The documents were fascinating. Ananya found everything including long theological disputes in the early 19th century in Portuguese relating to internal disputes within the Catholic Church. “It was very learned with lots of references to canon law,” she says. “There were documents which showed that the leading Konkani merchant cum broker Malpa Poi loaning money to a wide variety of people: wealthy European merchants, the deacon of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the king of Kochi himself.” 

Ananya was also looking at migrations, like the members of the Konkani community who escaped to Kochi from Goa where they were facing persecution by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century. 

There were letters from the Dutch Governor and the Director-General to the King of Kochi often interceding on behalf of their subjects. There were also missives from native Kings asking the Dutch king for military aid in the late 18th century. “All these small kingdoms had complicated relationships with the other kingdoms as well as the Dutch and the Portuguese,” says Ananya. “The Kochi Raja himself was often asking for military aid.” 

In other documents, there were complaints by officials against the way they had been treated by the higher-ups. “The Dutch would intercede on behalf of people that the Raja had kicked out of the kingdom, like the Konkani merchant Kali Prabhu for a perceived misdemeanour,” says Ananya. 

There were financial issues, too. The King often took money or land from the minority communities. “The members of these communities would insist they were subjects of the Dutch and did not have to pay money to the King,” says Ananya. “They played one against the other.”    

Ananya discovered that the relation of these European powers to the natives was much different from the supreme power displayed by the British in the 19the century. “The Europeans did not have the superior military strength and governance technology that the British had,” she says. “The balance of power between the Europeans and the locals was much more equal. They were participating as players in a landscape where the terms of politics and trade were set by the natives. The Portuguese did not have a land-based empire. They were just traders. The Dutch had a trading company called Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or the Dutch East India Company. In fact, the birth of capitalism took place with these trading companies.”  

And what will come as a surprise to most people was the incredible quality of the 16th-century paper. “It was thick and robust, which is why it has lasted for 500 years,” she says “In fact, you will see much more deterioration in 19th and 20th-century papers.” 

Meanwhile, the archives staff was happy with her presence. “Because we do not know Portuguese and Dutch, Ananya was able to show us the subject matter of the various papers,” says P Sajeev, archives superintendent. “She was very kind and helpful.”  

Ananya was having 16-hour days, doing field work and research at the archives. So engrossed was she in her work that she frequently forgot to have lunch or tea. “But then the subject is so fascinating,” she says. 

The daughter of a career diplomat, Ambassador Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd), Ananya was born in Spain and grew up in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Namibia, and Holland. But she stayed in Kolkata with her grandparents for three years from the age of 12. “My grandmother Nonda Chatterjee was a history teacher and that’s how I got interested in the subject,” says Ananya.    

Despite this inherent interest, Ananya did a degree in economics with a minor in Latin American studies and creative writing from Princeton University. After that, she worked for a year at the National Bureau of Economic Research at Cambridge. That’s when she decided she did not want to pursue a PhD in Economics and switched to history. She got her doctorate in the subject at the University of Chicago in 2012. It was the basis of her first book, ‘'The Empire of Apostles: Religion, Accommodation and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India’' (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Following a brief stint at the American University in Cairo, she is now based in Washington. 

And she has a clear aim. “There is a lot of distortions of historical facts to suit a particular agenda,” she says “Hence, I want to put out an accurate and evidence-based history.”

(An edited version was published in Sunday Magazine, the New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Still hitting the high notes

Mollywood playback singer Ganesh Sundaram reflects on his career, the changing trends in music, and his new music academy

Pics: Ganesh Sundaram; with composer Bijibal  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The evening bhajans were coming to an end at the Vasudevapuram Sree Krishna Swamy temple at Perunna. A group of boys were standing and singing loudly. Suddenly, it started raining. “Let’s go home,” one boy shouted. And the group ran out of the temple at high speed. At the back, there was a six-year-old. As he tried to catch up, he slipped and fell on the muddy road and fainted. 

But in his mind’s eye, he saw Lord Krishna. He was in black and had a tulsi garland, apart from a gold necklace. With a soothing smile on his face, he helped the boy to stand up and led him towards a bend in the road. Then he vanished. 

When Ganesh Sundaram regained consciousness, he was lying on the lap of his grandmother. He quickly told her about his vision. She patted him soothingly on the head. 

Ganesh, the senior Mollywood playback singer, was recounting this incident at his newly-opened music academy called Jani at Tripunithara. “The Krishna I saw was the same as the idol in the temple,” he says. “I may have produced this image out of my subconscious mind.”

At Perunna, living with his grandmother, now and then he would stand at the door and see whether his mother was coming. A teacher, she stayed at Tripunithara with Ganesh’s younger brother. Ganesh had been sent to Peruna when he was three years old because his mother could not handle two children at the same time. Their father worked in the Indian Army and lived mostly in North India. 

Although I pined for my mother, I was surrounded by music,” he says. “My grandmother had a very sweet voice, and my uncles and aunts sang, too. They would make me go to sleep by singing lullabies. I believed I discovered my destiny there.” 

Later, when Ganesh returned to Tripunithara he began formal coaching lessons in Carnatic vocals, which lasted for several years, through different teachers.     

Ganesh began playing for orchestras and brought out an album. But his major break happened, in 1994, when the owner of Amma Cassettes, Babu Koyiputath, a distant relative, asked him to sing for a devotional album. He did so. Thereafter, about 50 albums came out. However, it was only in 1999, that he had his first hit through the album, 'Guruthipooja'. “The songs are in praise of Bhagawathy Devi of the Chottanikkara temple,” says Ganesh. “It has simple lyrics and catchy tunes, and the public liked it a lot. They feel a sense of peace when they listen to the songs. The album is still selling.”  

Thus far, he has sung over 5000 devotional, love and patriotic songs in languages like Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and Bengali.

Along with that, he has had a thriving playback career in Malayalam films. Some of the films he has sung for include ‘Violin’, ‘Veneesile Vyapari’, ‘Kudumbasree Travels’, ‘Loudspeaker’, ‘Minnaminnikoottam’, ‘Kayamkulam Kanaran’, ‘Sree Rama Rajyam’, ‘Mayakkazhcha Parankimala’, ‘Daivathinte Swantham Cletus’, ‘Vikramadithyan’, ‘Vellimoonga’, ‘Love 24/7’, and ‘Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum’. He has also sung in Jibu Jacob’s upcoming ‘Adyarathri’, in which Biju Menon plays the lead.  

But he says that singers are rarely recognised. “When radio jockeys play our songs they only name the composer and the actors,” says Ganesh. As a result, he had some bitter-sweet experiences. 

Once he had gone for an event in Muscat. Before his performance, Ganesh was sitting in the front row with a Mollywood director. They started chatting. “I told him I am a singer,” says Ganesh. “He said he liked a few songs and named a few. I replied that I had sung those. He looked shocked and said, ‘I thought Bijibal had sung them’.” (Bijibal was the composer). 

Then the opposite happened. One day, a man called up Ganesh and said his son was a big fan of his and wanted to talk to him. Ganesh agreed and the boy said, “Sir, I loved your ‘Idukki’ song in 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram'.” Ironically, it was sung by Bijibal. 

Often, when Ganesh is sitting in a restaurant, the mobile phone will ring at a neighbouring table. “And the ringtone would be one of my songs,” says Ganesh. “But the man would not know that the singer is sitting at the next table.”  

After 25 years in the trade, Ganesh admits the competition is getting stiffer. “There are so many singers these days,” he says. “And young composers prefer singers of their generation.” 

Asked how music trends have changed, Ganesh says, “People don’t like to hear big words or sombre thoughts,” he says. “The words should be simple and direct. There is a lot of electronic music. Of course, purists say the music lacks soul, but like, in any era, there are good songs, too, like ‘Hemanthamen’ from ‘Kohinoor’ and ‘Paripparakkum Kili’ in Aby.”  

Meanwhile, to diversify, Ganesh had opened his academy on August 23 with the help of two partners, Balram Ettikkara and Ramakrishnan KG, who are music lovers. There are classes in Western vocals, guitar, violin, keyboard and piano, apart from Carnatic vocals, violin, mridangam, Hindustani vocals and tabla. “There are a total of 11 teachers,” he says. “I am happy to say that young people are interested in music. So I hope to develop many new talents.”

Asked what Jani means, he says, “A beginning.” 

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A trove of information

Author P Jayaraman’s book, ‘Random Explorations’ focuses on personality profiles, management trends, travel, social issues, and book reviews 

Pics: Author PJayaraman at his home in Kochi; the cover; with his family members in Norway 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

A few years ago, G. Balagopal, who was a former Deputy Secretary in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry was standing in line at the airport at Jeddah to gain entrance to Saudi Arabia. All the hand-bags were being checked. Behind him stood Parminder Singh (name changed) from the Ministry of External Affairs. Parminder leaned forward and whispered, “I have a scotch whisky bottle in my bag.” When Balagopal heard that, he felt an alarm within himself. In front of him, a man was having his bag taken apart, and even the chocolate pieces had been broken to see whether there was any alcoholic content. So, Balagopal knew a major fracas was about to take place. 

Soon, it was his turn. The security officer opened the zip and took out the contents: There was a shaving kit and a few underwears, apart from shirts and trousers. The officer was not glad to see the undergarments. He twitched his nose and asked Balagopal to pack and close the bag and sent him ahead. When he looked at Parminder, he was probably expecting the same. Instead of checking his bag, Parminder was waved on. “It was one of the closest shaves in my life,” says Balagopal. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief.” 

This anecdote has been recounted in management consultant P Jayaraman’s ‘Random Explorations’, which has been published by Prism Books. It is an eclectic mix. There are long profiles (7000 words and more) on Dr M V Pylee, the father of management education in Kerala, G. Balagopal, former civil servant and C. Balagopal, the noted entrepreneur. Then there is a study on power and inequality. 

Here are some fast facts from the chapter: 

India’s richest one percent owned 58 percent of the country’s wealth. 

The top 10 percent earned 80.7 percent of the total income in the country. 

India accounts for almost half the world’s poor but the total individual wealth is $5600 billion. Not surprisingly. India is the second-most unequal country in the world. 

In another chapter titled, ‘Some recent trends in management’, Jayaram’s tips for career success in today’s turbulent world are insightful: 

1. The word loyalty has been replaced by ‘business contract’.  

2. You remain in a job as long as you are the best person to execute a role. It has, therefore, become essential for you to learn continuously for your sheer survival. 

3. Tenure has been replaced by relevance. Every job is for a limited period. Once a CEO, always a CEO is no longer valid.  

4. One should focus on short-term plans in today’s rapidly-changing environment. Long-term planning has become impossible and of little value.   

In another section, he talks about speed. “In this age of disruption, only fast learners can survive and flourish,” says Jayaraman. “Traditionally, people used to treat information as power and hoard it as a method of control. But today’s organisations can ill afford to be hoarders. They have to absorb new information every hour, every day. Companies should instil curiosity and experimentation to succeed.”

The next section is about travel. Thanks to a son, Anand, who is based in Geneva and a daughter, Deepthi, who is living in Nottingham, Jayaraman has travelled to several countries, including Greece, Poland, Split (Croatia), China, Czechoslovakia, Norway and Australia. For each, he has written a history, some of the best places to visit, the archaeological sites, weather, literature, economics, demography, the characteristics of the people, and food and beverages.

Regarding food in Norway, the most common food is polse (hot dog) with pancake, which is topped by raw onions and various dressings. In Czechoslovakia, the staple food is pork, beef, birds like duck and pheasant, and carp. In Poland, Jayaraman enjoyed the Placki Ziemniaczane, a pancake filled with potato and topped with a meaty sauce.    

The last section is about the books he has read. These include ‘Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India by Vinay Sitapati, ‘India Rising: Fresh Hopes, New Fears’ by Ravi Velloor, and ‘An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire in India’ by Shashi Tharoor. 

In Tharoor’s book, Jayaraman quotes FJ Shore, a British civil servant in Bengal who testified in the House of Commons that “the fundamental principle of the English has been to make the whole Indian nation subservient in every possible way.” In 1600, when the British East India Company was set up, Britain accounted for just 1.8 per cent of the world GDP, while India was contributing 23 percent. In 1940, Britain accounted for nearly 10 percent of the world GDP while India was reduced to 3 per cent…

All in all, Jayaraman’s sixth book is a remarkable work, well-researched and well-written and sincere to the core. There’s enough food for thought to last a long time. 

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