Tuesday, June 02, 2020

A haven for bruised souls

Sachithra Soman runs a shelter for dogs and cats, at Kochi, many of whom have paralytic injuries

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 11 p.m. Sachithra Soman lies down on a mattress which is placed on the floor next to a wall. Within moments, 25 cats and kittens will find different places on the bed, curl up and sleep. But there are exceptions. Honey, a one-year-old cat, always lies on Sachithra’s stomach and nibbles at her nightie. Sreekutty and Aishwarya nibble at her ears. All three cats lost their mother a few days after they were born. “They miss nibbling milk from their mother,” says Sachithra. “Honey thinks I am the mother.”

Because of the three, Sachithra sleeps straight on her back, with her hands at the side, and avoids turning to the left and right. “It’s tough,” she says, with a smile. “But I have got used to it.”

Her rented house, near Marottichuvadu Junction at Edapally, Kochi, has an area of 15 cents. It is set away from the main road, down a narrow private lane. There is a sizeable area in front of the house and at the side, there is a muddy section where Sachithra grows vegetables. Apart from cats, there are nine dogs. A few of the dogs are injured.

Muthu used to stay in front of the Tellicherry Kitchen at Kathrikadavu. At night, the employees would throw scraps of food at Muthu. One day, a car hit the dog. It became paralysed. A few local volunteers were informed. They took the dog to the hospital. The doctor suggested euthanasia. But they were reluctant. The dog received treatment for one month. A dog wheelchair was bought for Rs 7500, and a waterbed for Rs 1800. The total bill came to Rs 25,000. All of them, including Sachithra, are part of a Facebook group of animal lovers. Well-wishers paid the bill. Then Muthu was given to Sachithra. She looked after it. Today, Muthu can walk, but with a limp.

Muthu is the only male. The females have names like Bhavana, Menaka, Reshma and Bhagyani. Sachithra has a sense of humour. She calls two cats by the name of Ambani and Adani.

Sachithra came in the news recently when she began feeding dogs during the coronavirus lockdown. “I realised that many of them were starving,” she says. So, every evening, Sachithra and other volunteers fed about 150 strays in different parts of Kochi.

On the first day, the dogs stayed away and watched Sachithra place the packet. They approached it only when she moved away. “They are afraid of human beings,” she says. “But on the third day, they started jumping on me and expressed their love.”

Once again, well-wishers sponsored the cost.

At her home, Sachithra wakes up early. And she ensures she cleans up all the ablutions. Then she sweeps the house and makes the meals. Just before 10 a.m., she feeds them rice, chicken and dog food like Pedigree, Chappie, and Drools. Then she places bowls of water at different places and leaves. She works as a salesperson in a private company. This was the routine before the lockdown. When she returns at 6.30 p.m., she gives them another meal.

If she is late, all the cats will stand near the gate looking anxious and worried.

“Many people say that cats have no love or attachment,” says Sachithra. “But my experience has been different. They are very loving. But they like to be loved, too.”

As for the dogs, Sachithra shows her love by bathing them once every ten days. She uses a scrub, dog shampoo and water. But most of the dogs don’t enjoy it. “That’s because they have never had a bath like this before,” she says. “They are strays and feel scared. Muthu refuses all the time.”

Asked how she developed a love for animals, Sachithra says that her father housed many cats in their home at Kilimanoor. “When my father came across an abandoned cat, he would bring it to the house,” she says. “I felt empathy for them.”

This empathy remained dormant. Then, one day, Sachithra and her friends went to the Ernakulam Town station. They were waiting to board a train to attend the Thrissur Pooram festival. As she looked around the platform, Sachithra saw a kitten at one corner. “Nobody cared for it,” says Sachithra. “It seemed to me as if it was about to die.” So, she picked the kitten up, put it in a basket and took it to Thrissur. She was wondering how she would take care of it. But in Thrissur, her friend, the nurse Papa Henry offered to look after it.” [Papa was in the news when she offered to work in any hospital in Kerala for COVID patients.]

When she returned to Kochi Sachithra got an idea of starting an animal shelter. And she set up one. But there have been hurdles. The house at Edappally is the sixth one she has rented. Because everywhere, the locals have objected.

This is in stark contrast to Mumbai where she lived for several years and had dogs in her ground-floor apartment. All her neighbours supported her and fed the animals themselves. When she relocated to Kochi, they promised to look after the dogs.

But in this area, too, the local people have raised a protest. The residents of a five-storey building, in the next plot, have given a complaint to the Thrikkakara municipality.

At 6.30 a.m., on a Sunday, Ajitha Thankappan, the councillor of the municipality came to Sachithra’s house and told her that as a tenant, she could not run an animal shelter. Sachithra replied that according to the Indian Constitution, owners and tenants have equal rights to run an animal shelter. “I am not doing anything illegal,” she says. “The municipality has failed to look after these strays. And now, they are trying to prevent someone from taking up this responsibility.”

Ajitha says she had received several complaints from Sachithra’s neighbours. They say the barking of the dogs is constant, especially at night. “There are old people who live nearby,” says Ajitha. “They find it difficult to handle the noise. They also told me this is a residential area, and it is not the right place to have an animal shelter.”

Sachithra admits the barking of dogs does happen but not often.

Meanwhile, the municipality has sent a notice asking Sachithra to make proper arrangements to house the dogs, a possible shed, and for the removal of faeces in a scientific way.

Following Ajitha’s visit, Sachithra has also filed a police complaint. One dog named Arun died suddenly. She suspects that he had been poisoned. The wall of the neighbouring building is broken. So dogs can jump into the parking area. Maybe somebody did some mischief.

Natural deaths have also taken place. This month, a 12-year-old dog stopped eating. Sachithra took her to the hospital. The vet said that the liver and kidney had stopped functioning. So, she brought the dog back. It died four days later. A few months ago, ten kittens died when they were afflicted with panleukopenia (this is a contagious viral disease of cats).

“I felt so sad,” she says. “They were my babies.”

And she has to carry them to the yard, take a spade, make a hole and bury them.

Incidentally, all the dogs and cats are up for free adoption. All you have to do is to go to the shelter, select the animal, prove that you are sincere and take the pet you want.

You have to hand it to her. This is a one-woman show. Sachithra does not have any helpers. Most maids don’t want to work with animals. “The love of my dogs and cats sustains me,” she says, with a smile. 

(Published in The Kochi Post)

Saturday, May 30, 2020

“The Kochi Biennale will take place”

Says Bose Krishnamachari, one of the co-founders

Pics: The ARCOMadrid Art Fair; the exhibition area converted into a quarantine zone; Bose Krishnamachari with ARCOMadrid Co-Director Maribel Lopez; Bose with his family

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On February 28, Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, walked about the massive exhibition area of the ARCO Madrid Art Fair. He had been invited as a delegate by the Embassy of Spain and Instituto Cervantes. This was one of the most prominent fairs in Spain. Around 1300 artists, 500 collectors and 200 gallery owners took part. During the four-day event, there were 93,000 visitors. Bose gazed at large paintings hung on gallery walls, checked into book stores and listened to discussions on art. 

But three weeks later, Bose got a shock when he saw a photo. The entire exhibition area had been converted into a quarantine zone as the coronavirus went rampant in Spain. There were many beds, in long rows, covered with pristine white sheets and pillows. “That’s when I realised the gravity of the situation,” he says. 

Since the beginning of March, Bose has been in lockdown at his apartment in Mumbai. And, this was the first time in ten years, he has been with his family for so long. So, he has passed the time by playing cards, chess, and snakes and ladders with his children Aaryan, 17, and Kannaki, 14. 

Aaryan, who is doing his Plus 2, is studying science, architecture and design at the Ramnarain Ruia College, while Kannaki is in Class 9 at the JBCN International School. On May 27, they celebrated her birthday. Bose’s wife Radhika made a heart-shaped chocolate cake, with chocolate shavings on top, and placed a single candle on it. 

Bose has also been leafing through albums of his children’s birthdays, his wedding and his many travels. “It triggered interesting memories,” he says. “I felt a keen sense of nostalgia. I have always taken photographs of my travels and made albums.” 

In the early mornings, he goes to the terrace. At one side there is a green space. The Japanese green bamboo has grown six feet high. Using a hose, he waters the jasmines, roses and curry leaves. 

On most days, he is in touch with the team members of the Kochi Biennale Foundation who are working from out of their homes and with the curator, the Singapore-based artist Shubigi Rao.

Bose is confident that the nearly four-month-long Biennale will start on time, on December 12. “Shubigi has short-listed the participants,” says Bose. “Now, only Kerala artists need to be selected. Before the lockdown happened, Shubigi had already travelled to 35 countries.” 

Asked about the likely impact of social distancing, Bose says, “Public health and safety are most important. We are already in touch with museums and art organisations to learn the best practices for visitor management, communication, and sanitisation. There will be some changes in exhibition design.”  

He is hoping that despite the funds’ crunch, the Kerala state government will support the art festival. “It will help revive tourism in the state and give a boost to the local economy,” he says. “People are keen to see it takes place. I’ve got calls from international gallery owners and collectors who want to book their hotel rooms in advance.” 

He is hoping the Centre will also lend a helping hand because culture is one of the country’s biggest assets. “But, unlike Europe and America, we have not learned how to project and market it,” he says.   

In a recent webinar with Central government officials and festival directors, Bose urged them to open one museum in each of the 29 states but there was a lukewarm reaction. Bose feels that in India the awareness about the soft power of culture is yet to happen. 

This year, despite the impact of COVID-19 on their economies, Germany, France, Canada and the United Arab Emirates have increased their cultural budgets. “They know they have to preserve their institutions,” says Bose. “Tourism contributes a lot to their economies.”    

Bose is very appreciative of the Kerala state government, which is planning to open a major cultural centre in each of the 14 districts. “The state has become a front-runner by pumping in Rs 50 crore in each district. If the Centre can contribute Rs 100 crore to each of the centres, then the cultural investment will be proportionate to the cultural potential,” says Bose. 

Meanwhile, regarding his artistic work, Bose has been doing some drawings. He could not go to his studio because it is too risky in Mumbai to step out. The city has one of the highest infection rates in the country. 

As to whether the pandemic will have a damaging effect on art, Bose shakes his head and says, “On the contrary, there will be a heightened interest in art and culture. People have had the time to reflect on what are the most important things in life.” 

(Published in The Kochi Post)

Friday, May 29, 2020

The teaching never stops

Rufus D’Souza has completed 50 years of football coaching at the Parade Ground at Fort Kochi 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On the morning of May 19, news photographer Vikas Ramdas went to Burger Street in Fort Kochi to have a cup of coffee with Rufus D’Souza. Thereafter, he took a video. The football coach was celebrating his 50th year of training young lads at the Parade Ground.

In the video, Rufus said, “I have been treated with great respect in Fort Kochi. Almost everybody calls me Uncle.”

Vikas uploaded the video to Facebook. As a result, many people came to know about Rufus reaching his landmark.

A day later, I reached his house, set away from the main road. There was a large tree in front, green plants and chipped stones on the ground. At 88, Rufus has an unlined face, looks years younger, and has a tranquil smile. Scribes had been calling him, he said. In an hour, the local MLA KJ Maxi would be dropping in to congratulate him.

But like most things in life, Rufus’ coaching began accidentally. On May 19, 1970, he went to the Parade Ground with a ball and a hockey stick. The aim was to sharpen his dribbling and shot-making skills. A day later, Rufus’ neighbour D’Costa asked whether he could help train his son Sam in football. Rufus agreed.

The next day, Rufus told Sam to run with the ball, while he continued to train as a hockey player. However, over the next few days, more boys came. And that was when Rufus took it seriously.

So, every morning, at 5.30 a.m., he would be at the ground. All the players have to arrive punctually. If any of them is late, he asks them to go back.

There are other rules. All must come in their football kit. “There should be no jazzy hairstyles,” says Rufus. “I will not accept it. Neither will I accept drinking, smoking or taking drugs. Nobody can use the words, “Eda (hey you) or ‘poda’ (get lost).”

The coaching -- two hours in the morning and evening -- is done for free, because many of the boys come from poor families. However, if some well-off parents were to give a dakshina (donation), Rufus does not refuse. He uses the money to buy jerseys, stockings, shin pads and boots for the poor children.

In his coaching, Rufus imparts the skills of dribbling, passing, kicking, stopping, and taking a penalty.

Asked the technique to hit a successful penalty, Rufus says the player should select a spot in the goal where he wants to hit the ball. He should keep that in his mind’s eye. And as he runs to take the shot, he should only look at the ball. “If he looks at the movements of the goal-keeper, the player will lose his concentration,” says Rufus.

As for the goalkeeper, he should also keep an eye on the ball. “Many players do feints as they approach the ball and that can be distracting,” he says.

The tips pour forth like an onrushing waterfall during the monsoon season. “The most important skill in football is to receive the ball,” he says. “Ideally, you should be away from the opponents, in vacant spaces. You should use the inner and outer foot. Throughout the game, you should keep an eye on the ball, your colleagues and the opponents.”

Not surprisingly, he has produced many players who did well. They include Dinesh Naik who played for the Indian hockey team in the Sydney Olympics (2000) and captained the Kerala and Tamil Nadu state teams. Feroz Sharif was the Indian goalkeeper for the 1997 Nehru Cup, 1998 Asian Games, and 1998 FIFA World Cup qualification matches. He is the current coach of the Indian team. KA Anson played for Kerala, FC Kochin and India. PP Tobias and Hamilton Bobby played for the Kerala junior team as well as India. Anil Kumar, who is the secretary of the Kerala Football Association, was captain of the MG University captain and All-India Services team.

Despite his intense passion for the game, Rufus does not watch international football on TV. “It’s very boring,” he says. “In our time, there was 70 minutes of football. For 50 minutes, the ball was moved forward. Nowadays, there is 90 minutes of football. Out of that, for 20 minutes the ball is played forward and 70 minutes it is played backwards. So what is the charm in it? They developed this style because the players don’t want to get injured. They want to play safe.”

But Rufus has never hesitated to attack the goal when he played. This may be due to his sporting genes. His father Louis D’Souza was a hockey goalkeeper, while mother Dorothy played basketball. Rufus was adept at both football and hockey. “I practised very hard, with sincerity and dedication,” he says.

In 1954 Rufus captained the Travancore State hockey team in the Bangalore Nationals. During 1961-62, Rufus played football for the Western Indian Match Company for the princely sum of Rs 10 per day. In 1962 Rufus joined the State Bank of India (SBI) in Madras.

“I helped Madras State win the first Southern Pentangular tournament,” he says. Rufus also played for South Zone in hockey and football. In 1971, Rufus became the captain of the Kerala hockey team.

Interestingly, he has remained a bachelor. “I was not sure what sort of partner I would get,” says Rufus. “But I have no regrets. Instead of being a father to only two children, I am the father of so many boys. In any case, I am married to football..”

But he is not alone. His brother and family stay with him. In his living room, his sister-in-law Nancy offers tea and biscuits with a warm smile. 

(Published in Kochi Post) 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

My friend Mark Peters

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Mark Peters (extreme left) with South African journalist Mansoor Jaffer and Shevlin Sebastian. Photo taken by Mansoor's wife Kay

On most days, at 1 p.m., my colleague Mark Peters would come up from the circulation department on the ground floor to the editorial section on the first floor of our newspaper in Kochi and beckon to me. Then we would go to the canteen to have lunch. And our conversations could be on politics, human relationships, marriage, history, psychology, media and, of course, women. Most of the time I listened, because Mark was a natural raconteur. Since both of us grew outside Kerala, there was an easy camaraderie.

Mark had this extraordinary gift of being friends with everybody in the office. From the boss to the peon and the security guards. And in Fort Kochi where he stayed, this Tuticorin-born Anglo Indian would talk with the stationery shop owner, the fisherman, the bus conductor, homestay owners and strangers.

Once when he went into the post office, he saw a foreigner. Mark introduced himself in his impeccable English. It turned out that the man was a top shot at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Washington. Many big guns would roam around Fort Kochi, revelling in their anonymity and the unique charm of the town. But if Mark came across them, be it man or woman, he would unlock their identity.

And then he would make a call…. to me.

“Hi, I’ve got a good story for you,” he said.

And he was right. It would always be an interesting person to meet and do a story.

I remember Mark telling me, in December, 2011, of a South African journalist Mansoor Jaffer who had come to India, along with his wife, Kay, in search of his Indian roots in Maharashtra. But their first stop was Fort Kochi. And I met him and did a story. Kay took a picture of the three of us together and that is the only photo in which Mark and I are in the same frame.

Mark was a fount of ideas and had an unerring instinct of what would make an interesting story.

Once I told Mark he could have been such an excellent journalist.

He smiled enigmatically.

Sometimes, a story idea would come accidentally to Mark. Once, near the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India, at Kochi, he was crossing the busy road when a bus speeded up. So, he was stranded in the middle next to the female traffic warden. So, he started chatting with her.

When he came for lunch, he told me about Sajitha.

“It’s an excellent story,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“I am,” he said.

So I met her. And Mark turned out to be right. It was an interesting story. Sajitha told me of a man who had an epileptic fit on the road right in front of the traffic. Blood and water dribbled out of his mouth. She stopped the vehicles, with an upraised palm, and placed her watch on his palm. She remembered the touch of metal helped to control a fit.

Then, with the help of bystanders, Sajitha put him in an autorickshaw and took him to the Lisie Hospital. By then, the man had become unconscious. She took his mobile, called a random number, and it turned out to be a friend. That friend informed the family members. Soon, they arrived at the hospital.

One week later, the grateful man came to the crossing and presented Sajitha with a gift. “You saved my life,” he said, with a smile.

When the article appeared, she received a lot of kudos. Sajitha thanked Mark for organising the coverage. And I thanked Mark for the idea.

Mark left the office in 2014. But we remained in touch. I would go across to Fort Kochi and have lunch or tea with him. Since the Kochi Muziris Biennale was held in Fort Kochi, as a feature writer, I went often to the venues. So, there was always a chance to meet Mark.

Then one day, one-and-a-half years ago, he called me and said, “I have grave news.”

“What is it?” I said.

“I have been diagnosed with colon cancer,” he said. “Stage 4.”

The moment I heard Stage 4, I became silent for a few moments. Stage 4 is too late. My father-in-law died of pancreatic cancer. He was in Stage 4 when it was discovered. Later, I spoke to a doctor who was a top-notch gastroenterologist. He said Stage 4 in the colon was bad news.

Mark went through several rounds of chemotherapy followed by exhaustion, loss of appetite and weight. But through all this, his voice and his thinking remained crystal clear. To raise his spirits, I would crack a raunchy joke. He laughed easily. It reminded him of delightful times -- of Christmas lunches with his family and New Year’s Eve parties.

But the odds were stacked against him.

For a while, the cancer was in remission. Then it returned with increased force.

Once when I called him, he said, “It’s all over the place .... lungs, liver.” Then his voice trailed off.

And in the past two months, Mark declined. He knew that he was going. And he felt sad that he could not see all his children: while one son remained in Fort Kochi, two sons and a daughter lived in Dubai.

His wife Evelyn told me that Mark would always ask when the lockdown would end, so he could see his children for the last time.

Sadly, the lockdown did not end.

On the morning of May 18, I called Mark. He said, “Shevlin,” and couldn’t speak further. All I heard was laboured breathing. Evelyn took the phone and said, “Mark is unable to speak.”

At 8.30 p.m., Mark complained of breathlessness. Evelyn took him to Lisie Hospital. He was put on a ventilator. But the doctor warned her that Mark could not take in the oxygen much. He said he may live for a day or two.

But it did not take that long. By 11.45 p.m., Mark breathed his last.

My wonderful friend and a fount of ideas was no more. He was only 59 years old.

Since it was not unexpected, it was not a shock. But a weight descended on my heart. I felt impoverished. The only thing that matters in life is relationships. All the rest, like fame, money, position and power are ephemeral. People remember how you behaved, not what you achieved.

At the cemetery, as I waited for the body to arrive, I overheard people say, “Mark was a gracious man.” “He was a wonderful friend of mine.” “Mark was always well-dressed, polite and with a smile on his face.”

Then the coffin arrived in an ambulance. Mourners held the hooks at the side and carried the coffin to the cemetery. The lid was removed. Mark had been swathed in white. He had white gloves with a black rosary between his fingers. A small wooden crucifix had been placed on his chest. And cream flower petals lay strewn along the length of the body. The priest said the prayers. There were fewer people around, because of the lockdown restrictions. There were trees in different areas. But where Mark was being buried, it was in the sunlight.

The coffin was laid to rest. Family members and friends threw in white flowers. It fell softly on the lid. And as the gravedigger filled up the grave with mud, Evelyn looked at her Dubai-based children, who were watching the event on a live stream, and said, “Daddy is gone…. forever.”

Yes, Mark has gone physically but he will always remain in my heart. And in the hearts of those who loved him.

And as I was returning home, I thought to myself, ‘I won’t be surprised if Mark, somewhere in the Universe, will continue to pop story ideas in my subconscious when I am fast asleep at night.’ 

(Published in The Kochi Post)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Trying to weave magic again

His debut novel, ‘The Carpet Weaver’ was a best-seller. The gay Afghan vegan author Nemat Sadat is busy at work on his second book

Pics: Nemat Sadat at his mother's house in San Diego; with author and politician Shashi Tharoor 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 8 a.m. in San Diego, USA, author Nemat Sadat awakens. As he has a cup of coffee, he switches on the TV and watches the news. Not surprisingly, it is all about the coronavirus. He rubs his hand through his hair -- a mix of ash blonde highlights and natural dark brown hair. 

Nemat is slim and tall; this is accentuated by the tight blue t-shirt that he is wearing. He sits at his desk, at his mother’s home, and switches on the laptop.

He is at work on his second novel titled, ‘Keeping Up With The Hepburns’, which is set in the present-day America of President Donald Trump. “My hero, a young gay vegan Afghan has a spiritual awakening after he meets his twin flame,” he says.

Nemat feels confident and optimistic about this book, because his debut novel, ‘The Carpet Weaver’ has created waves. It has sold 6750 copies in the Indian subcontinent before Covid-19 brought sales to a halt. This is amazing since most first novels sell a few hundred copies only. On June 14, he will celebrate the first anniversary of its publication.

The ‘Carpet Weaver’ tells the story of Kanishka Nurzada, the son of a leading carpet seller in Kabul. He falls in love with his friend Maihan. In the late 1970s and early 80s, when the book is set, until today, gays in Afghanistan face the death penalty.

“In Islam, if a man loves another man it is an abomination,” says Nemat, who moved from Kabul to Germany with his parents as a baby and then resettled in the US when he was five years old. “The first line in my book states: ‘The one thing I know is that Allah never forgives sodomy’.”

Incidentally, in 68 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders (LGBT) are regarded as criminals. The punishment includes life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Nemat felt compelled to tell this story because he wanted to be a catalyst for those who hide in the closet and the shadows.

As to why he used the name of Kanishka, Nemat says, “It was inspired by the Emperor Kanishka the Great who ruled over ancient Afghanistan.”

It took Nemat 11 years to write the novel, as he was busy trying to earn a living. He worked as an editorial assistant at the ‘United Nations Chronicle’, as a production intern at journalist Fareed Zakaria’s popular TV show ‘GPS’, hosted by CNN and as a production assistant at ABC News’ Nightline show.

When he approached Western literary agents, he got rejection after rejection. Overall, 450 agents said no. “In the US, there is too much political correctness,” says Nemat. “They were worried about the reaction from the Muslim world. They remembered what had happened to Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ [the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s de facto ruler, issued a fatwa in 1989, along with a $6 million bounty, to kill the author for blasphemy]. I am a gay, ex-Muslim, and writing about the LGBT community in Afghanistan. They felt it was safer to say no.”

Another likely reason was the negative Western attitude towards Muslims in the USA and UK deepened following the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. “All Muslims are looked upon as terrorists,” says Nemat. “And after America’s difficult military experience in Afghanistan, it is regarded as a barbaric place. Anything that comes out from there is villainous.”

Finally, Nemat approached the New Delhi-based literary agent Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side Agency. “As soon as Kanishka read the manuscript, he said, ‘This will be a big book’,” says Nemat. “We got many offers and went with Penguin Random House India. It was the most written-about debut fiction book last year. The reviews have been positive.”

Despite that, Nemat pushed hard. He came to India and did several interviews with print, TV journalists and radio jockeys. He took part in literary festivals, at Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, spoke at college functions and remained active on Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. And in November, last year, at the Tata LiteratureLive Festival in Mumbai, Nemat also hosted a writing workshop titled ‘Unputdownable: How to Write a Commercially Viable Novel’.

Nemat had also come to Kochi in February during the Krithi Book Festival. I met him for a 90-minute chat over cups of tea and vegetable cutlets. He laughed easily, and his eyes crinkled with amusement, as he mocked the West and the anti-gay crowd.

Nemat became super-excited when he had an accidental meeting with the Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor at the Penguin book stall. They posed for a photo with both holding the book up. While Tharoor wore a saffron juba and a black Nehru jacket, Nemat was in a striped maroon and blue T-shirt and faded blue jeans.

Later, the MP tweeted about the encounter: ‘Had a serendipitous meeting with gay Afghan author Nemat Sadat, whose first novel “The Carpet Weaver” is making waves and has propelled him on a 55-city tour through India. Great to see young Afghans finding a new literary voice’.

Nemat had then said, “Maan, he’s got 7.5 million followers on Twitter. What a boost for me.”

Asked how important marketing is for the success of a book, Nemat says, “Very important. Readers have to be aware about your book. The first 90 days, after publication, is make-or-break. But you have to write an excellent book. Otherwise, it will fall apart.”

In his travels to publicise the book, Nemat enjoyed the interaction with readers. In Mumbai, he met a woman, whose son had come out as a gay. “She had accepted it, but when she read my novel, she understood what the journey is like for a member of the LGBT community,” says Nemat. “Now she empathises with her son, not only as a mother, but as a human being.”

As for India as a country, Nemat shakes his head in wonder. “India is not a monolith,” he says. “What surprised me was the provincialism. It didn’t matter which city I visited, most people identified themselves first as Delhiites, Kolkatans, Kochiites, and Mumbaikars before they regarded themselves as Indian. Being Indian was their second or third identity. That surprised me, coming from Afghanistan and the US.”

Nevertheless, he loves the openness. “Well-read Indians, especially those who are working in the publishing business, are broad-minded and open to fresh ideas,” says Nemat. “That’s because India embraces unique perspectives. The country doesn’t have a dominant narrative, like Afghanistan, which is shaped by Islam and Pashtun nationalism or the United States, which is dominated by ‘race’, whiteness and American exceptionalism.”

However, in India today, he says, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to impose a Hindu nationalist narrative. “But in a country as diverse as India, creating such a majoritarian narrative would require many people to sacrifice their identities,” he says. “It will send India back to the days of colonialism when the British imposed an Anglo cultural narrative. That’s why, at every turn, religious minorities and secular Indians are resisting and pushing back against the Hinduisation of India.”

Meanwhile, back in San Diego, Nemat is tapping the keys in a steady rhythm on his laptop. Words, sentences and paragraphs form on the screen. He wants to finish the first draft by May 27. Because the next day, he will resume an MA in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Of course, owing to the coronavirus, he will be doing the work online.

So, it’s eight to ten hours of writing every day, with breaks for lunch and a jog in the evening. At night, he either reads a novel or watches a film. 

The literary journey of Nemat Sadat continues... 

(Published in The Kochi Post)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

View from the Emerald Isle

Sri Lankan artist Dr Manoranjana Herath talks about his work and that of his wife Dilini Perera during a visit to Kochi

Pics: Manoranjana Herath; 'Princess of My World'; Dilini Perera; her work    

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On a recent morning, Sri Lankan artist Dr. Manoranjana Herath steps back from a 4’ tall sculpture, made of cement and iron, he has just completed at his studio in Colombo. It shows a bald-headed woman with her hands clasped together in front of her. She has large butterfly-type wings attached to her shoulder. This is the seventh in a series called ‘Princess Of My World’. “This series is to show my appreciation of women,” says Herath, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts. “They also have a desire to fly and achieve their dreams. But many times, they have to face obstacles and tragedies.” 

“I do abstract paintings, too,” says Herath, who had come to Kochi before the lockdown.     

The abstract works were inspired by Herath’s visit in August, last year to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southern Sri Lanka. Owing to the monsoon rains, he could feel the sodden leaves under his feet. The air was crisp, and there was a canopy of vivid green. The twitter of birds added to the sense of tranquility that he felt. 

“When you observe Nature closely, you can see uncommon patterns, shapes, colours, rhythms and textures,” says Herath. “I tried to reproduce that on the canvas. I have also used the original prints of leaves and applied some colour on it. What I want to say is that we are all part of Nature. So, we have to protect it.”  

Herath’s wife Dilini Perera is also an artist. In one work, she has drawn a dusky-skinned woman, with blue eyes, large flowers in her blue hair, and wearing a pearl necklace, against a backdrop of water, with fishes in it. “An acrylic on canvas, this is a poetic version of a woman,” says Herath, whose wife did not come to Kochi. “Dilini does stylistic images. So far, she has held two exhibitions and many group shows.” 

The couple met in college, fell in love, got married in 2000, and have two sons, Akalanka, 18 and Aloka, 13. Asked whether it is difficult for two artists to live together, Herath smiles and says, “We get along very well. There is a better understanding because of our mutual passion for art.” 

However, Herath is frank enough to say there is not much of an audience for art in Sri Lanka. “For the inauguration of any exhibition, there will be only 30 to 40 people present,” he says. “And most of them will be friends of the artist.” 

Herath came to Kochi at the invitation of his friends Girish Kalleli and Lekha Vylopilly. “Two years ago, I had asked Lekha, ‘Can we do something?’ And that has borne fruition now,” says Herath. “I love to travel. Artists should always meet new people and places. But this is the first time I am coming to Kerala.” 

Asked about the impact of the two-decade-long civil war on the sensibilities of artists, Herath says, “There are a few artists who still focus on the sufferings borne by the people. For me, the war is history. I don’t want to hurt people through my work. People are suffering everywhere. So I don’t want them to feel depressed when they come for an exhibition.”  

As for the relations between the different communities, Herath says, “Many people only see through the lens of their religion or community. Then it becomes a problem. Some people talk about how the Sinhalese are the majority, while the Muslims and Tamils belong to the minority. As an artist, I believe we are all human beings. There is a common humanity. So we should accept everybody. Once upon a time, we had lived peacefully with each other. I hope that day will return.” 

(Published in The Kochi Post)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Love in a bakery

Mohammed Rafi met Susanne in Kerala and fell in love. Nearly 30 years later, it is still going strong. They talk about their relationship in these times of rising divorce rates

Pics: Mohammed Rafi and Susanne; Noah Harith   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The dog comes up. Then he carefully sniffs at the visitor. Behind the dog -- a Staffordshire bull terrier -- the brick-red house shines in the morning sunlight. On the verandah is a wooden table, at one side. Glasses are filled with lime juice. The couple sit with a smile on their faces. Mohammed Rafi runs a bakery in Shoranur town. His wife, Susanne, who is from Cologne, Germany is a farmer. The land is just behind the house. She grows organic rice, vegetables, mangoes, coconuts, and bananas. 

The couple’s love story began in the 1980’s. Susanne had come to the Kerala Kalamandalam, at Cheruthuruthy, three kilometres from Shoranur, to do a Carnatic singing course. 

Every now and then, she, along with a few friends, would stop at a bakery to have pastries and soft drinks. Sitting at the cash counter was Rafi. He was instantly attracted to Susanne. The German, on the other hand, did not notice him at all. 

Later, Rafi befriended a French couple, who were friends with Susanne. “That’s how I connected with Susanne,” says Rafi.

But while Rafi did not speak German, Susanne did not speak English very well. “But we had a wordless connection,” says Susanne. One day, Rafi proposed. Susanne said, “I will take you to Germany, so that you can see where I come from,” she told him. 

In late 1989, he flew with Susanne to Germany. Susanne’s mother Lilo taught German to Rafi. He began to speak to Susanne. They developed an understanding. And on September 6, 1990, they had a registered marriage in Germany. 

For the honeymoon they went to the Spanish island of Mallorca. “It was a beautiful time,” says Rafi. “We hired a two wheeler and travelled around the island. At that moment we were always together.” 

In 1993, their only child Noah was born. 

As to why they named their son Noah, Susanne says, “Because I knew since the past 30 years that the world is going downhill, owing to climate change, the word which has become so fashionable now. Noah is about the Ark who rescues all the animals, and I love animals.” 

In 1996, they returned to Kerala. Rafi took over the bakery which had been run by his late father. The couple have been living in Kerala ever since. 

In front of their house, in the distance, two white houses can be seen. One belongs to the couple’s 26-year-old son Noah Harith, a professional biker, while the other is Susanne’s studio. She is a painter. 

Asked to list his positive points, Susanne says, “I think too much. Sometimes, this is a burden. Then I will consult Rafi and he will give me a short and appropriate answer. I like that. We are together but we live independent lives. He is busy with his shop and I am busy with my farm. It is good. But when there is a need, Rafi is always there. We have developed a deep understanding.” 

As for Rafi, he was initially attracted by her glowing blonde hair. “Then when I got friendly with her, I liked her character,” he says. “She is honest and transparent.”

Meanwhile, over two decades, Susanne has noticed that Kerala has changed. “Earlier, there would be one car in a day,” she says. “Now there are thousands. The people blow their horns and make a lot of noise. The inner quietness is gone.” 

Thanks to a consumer boom, there is a frenzy of buying. “This desire is always present in the minds of the people,” says Susanne. “I miss the earlier simplicity. In the West development took time. So they had the time to mentally digest what was happening. In India things have moved very fast thanks to the influence of the media.”   

But what Susanne loves about Kerala is the way babies are treated. “There is always physical contact. The mother, relatives, siblings and grandparents are always holding the child,” she says. “This is one reason why India, with all its problems, is still holding together. There is a base of love and confidence in every person. On the other hand, in Germany, the baby is left alone. Maybe because both parents are working, or there is nobody to help. There is not that nearness.” 

She pauses and says, “In the end, there are pluses and minuses in both countries. I cherish the best aspects of both.”  

(Published in The Kochi Post)