Saturday, March 21, 2020

A surfeit of feminine voices



Malayalam author Sethu’s first novel in English, ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ is about a house for helpless girls run by a former nun  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One of the surprises when you pick up ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ by author Sethu, his first English novel, is the foreword. It is written by none other than Sr. Jesme, who wrote the best-seling 'Amen', the life of a nun in Kerala. But then it no longer becomes a surprise when you realise one of the main characters is Madam Agatha, a former nun who runs a home for troubled girls from all over the country. 

But Sethu clarifies that he had not read Sr. Jesme’s ‘Amen’ when he wrote the book, which has been published by Niyogi Books. However, he was aware of the troubles faced by her and other nuns in their daily life because of the widespread coverage in the media. “Maybe, the impact was unconscious,” he says. However, Sethu received a compliment when Sr. Jesme called him up, after reading the novel and said, “This is my story.” 

In the foreword Sr. Jesme writes, ‘Sethu has imbibed the nuances of a woman’s mind who has left the convent life and is to be commended for creating a character like Madam Agatha. She has transformed herself from a religious entity into a secular personality.” 

This is true. Because, very early in the novel, Agatha says, “This is not an orphanage run by the mothers or a madhom run by the swamis. I had never asked you about your religion or caste, Neither did I listen to your private prayers to find out your religion. Your prayers are nothing but your attempt for a private communication with the Almighty.” 

She also told the inmates that there should be no loud prayers or chanting of bhajans of any community in the open hall. If one wanted they could do so privately in their room, without disturbing the peace of others. This would be a secular space and only those who believe in secularism and tolerance should join. 

And Sethu had a specific reason to focus on these subjects. “It is to highlight the situation the country is going through,” he says. “This is my first socio-political novel.”  

At the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, there is a procession of girls from all over India, like Sabeena, Parveen Singh, and Ranjini, who are suffering from various psychological issues and running away to get some mental peace. 

Asked why he attempted a novel in English, Sethu says, “It was an adventure or you can call it a misadventure.” 

What is interesting to know is that Sethu studied in a Malayalam-medium school in the village of Chendamangalam. “I did not learn English properly,” he says. “What I know is acquired English. When I was writing ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’, over six months, I often consulted the dictionary as well as a thesaurus.” 

Many of the characters are composites. What helped was that thanks to his more than four-decade-long working career Sethu has worked in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. And during his career, Sethu has met a wide variety of people. “I am also comfortable with the languages and cultures of these places,” says Sethu, who retired in 2005 as chairman and managing director of the South Indian Bank.

The reviews from readers have been positive. Says Moumita Roy: “The story idea is unique and fresh. The character of Madam Agatha is well researched. The scenario of the plot is relatable with current India. The story has been narrated nicely. I enjoyed reading it.” 

And Sethu is also enjoying his 55th year as a writer. He has published 35 novels and short story collections. Among the many prizes he has won is the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award, the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award as well as the Vayalar Award. “It has been a long journey,” says the 78-year-old with a smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, March 20, 2020

Kerala priest remembers encounters with Nirbhaya convicts


By Shevlin Sebastian 

Fr. John Puthuva was working as a counsellor in Tihar Jail from 2012-15. So, during his work, he met many prisoners including the Nirbhaya killers, Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Akshay Thakur. They had brutally raped and murdered a 23-year old physiotherapy intern on a moving bus. All of them wore head covers, with slits, as they went for hearings during their trial at a fast-track court in mid-2013. Fr John would meet them on their return, offer words of consolation and tell them to pray to God for forgiveness. The police constables listened quietly. 

Later, inmates assaulted Mukesh and he was kept in solitary imprisonment for his safety. 

Once, the priest, along with a couple of volunteers went to Ravidas camp, a slum in RK Puram, South Delhi to meet up with Mukesh’s family. But they were refused access. However, when they made another attempt, they were allowed to meet the slum dwellers as well as the neighbours because they identified themselves as social service workers. “The local people told me that what they did was a horrendous crime,” says Fr John. “They knew the men had to be punished.” 

But Fr. John, who is now the parish priest of the St. George’s Church in Kalady, has his reservations about the hanging of Mukesh, Vinay, Pawan and Akshay, which took place in the early hours of March 20. “I believe God gives us life, so we have no right to take a human life,” he says. “Instead, exemplary punishment should have been given.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Snapshots of the present



Author Krishna Kumar, in his book, ‘Between Genes and Memes’ writes perceptively about the impact of social media, the lack of critical thinking and the fear of missing out

By Shevlin Sebastian

In his book, ‘Between Genes and Memes’, Kochi-based HR consultant Krishna Kumar says, “Look at a chicken’s life. From the beginning of its life to the time it reaches 40 days, it is fed every day. Every single feeding firms up the bird’s belief that it is the natural rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race. And then, one day, something unexpected happens, which revises its entire belief system. On the 40th day, it reaches maximum safety when the risk, in fact, the highest.

Tailspin: A farm chicken, which always feared the hunter dogs in the courtyard, finally gets eaten by the owner, master and guardian.”

The 228-page book, published by Recto and Verso and available on Amazon and Kindle, is filled with nuggets of wisdom on every page. The chapter headings include, ‘Reputation makes you a slave’, ‘What meditation, marathons, music and marijuana can do for you’, ‘How clickbait articles consume half of our lives’ and ‘Facts tell, stories sell’.

In ‘stories sell’, Krishna says, “Humans think in stories. Not in data. We aspire to be rational but 80 percent of our decisions are irrational. We are driven by emotions, and not by logic. It requires a lot of willpower to drive decisions based on logic. It is like swimming against the tide. It is hard. In the new economy, companies claim their decision-making is driven by insights from data analytics, but ultimate decisions are based on biases, emotions and fears. That is utterly human. So, it is important to learn the art of story-telling.”

Nine years ago, Krishna began writing on Facebook. Then he moved to Twitter and Linkedin. He adopted a contrarian stand. Soon, he began to get readers. They responded to what he wrote. “They told me they are aware of the idea but the way I say it is different,” says Krishna.

However, one day, his sister said, “You can impress with snippets. But can you show me how good you are, with a 2000-word blog.”

Krishna took up the challenge. Initially, he found it very tough. His thoughts would go haywire. There was no logic or structure. But slowly, he learnt how to write.

Recently, web developer Limi Joseph told Krishna that his blog was not secure, and there should be a back-up. Krishna agreed. The back-up was done. And the 300 posts were sent to him in a single word document. As Krishna re-read his posts, he had a mixed reaction. “Some of the posts embarrassed me, while some surprised me,” he says. “Some were instant deletes.” And slowly it dawned on him that he could make a book. But he says that it needed his editor Joshy Mathew’s skills to get the book into a coherent shape.

At a coffee shop in Kochi, his mind wanders over a wide array of subjects. At one point, he bemoaned the lack of importance given to philosophy. “People are practical these days,” he says. “If you ask a friend to define success, he will define it in terms of money and possessions. He will not think much of people who have found meaning in life and may have had a deep contribution in various sectors but it cannot be measured. But philosophy can lead to wisdom. It is more valuable than knowledge.”

And, he says that this ceaseless consumption of byte-sized information through the mobile phone has become an addiction. “We are in a constant state of FOMO: fear of missing out,” he says. “It creates restlessness. We are afraid of being with ourselves.”

It has also damaged the brain. “There is no critical thinking or analysis,” says Krishna. “People read news from five different sources, but there is no analysis. The hurry to give opinions results in snap judgements. And it may not be right, too.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

India’s first woman superstar



In his well-written and engaging biography, author Satyarth Nayak decodes the reasons behind actor Sridevi’s stupendous success over five decades

Photos: The book cover; author Satyarth Nayak  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day after the film ‘Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja’ (1993) was released, actor Sridevi, as well as her future husband Boney Kapoor, who was the film’s producer, were travelling in a car at Mumbai. In the front seat, beside the driver, sat the film’s director Satish Kaushik. 

Satish turned, looked at Boney and said, “Sir, what is the box office collection of the first day?” With a budget of Rs 7 crore, it had been the most expensive film ever made. 

Boney said, “The film has crashed.” 

Satish broke down because it was his debut film as director. 

Suddenly Satish felt a hand on his back. And when he turned he saw that it was Sridevi. The superstar consoled Satish by saying, “It’s alright. Don’t worry. Such things happen. It is not your fault.” 

Satish was touched by Sridevi’s gesture. “She had delivered a big flop, and I was responsible for that,” he says. “And yet she was consoling me. It takes a very big heart to behave like that.” 

This anecdote is recounted in the well-written and engaging biography ‘Sridevi - The Eternal Screen Goddess’ by the Mumbai-based author Satyarth Nayak. 

Asked the reasons why he decided to write the book, Satyarth says, “She was India’s first female superstar. Sridevi was the only actress who was No 1 in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. She was also the only actress who made a successful comeback after a 15-year hiatus, following her marriage and motherhood with ‘English Vinglish’ (2012). And, lastly, there was the prolific career: 300 films in five languages.”  

The book moves forward chronologically with chapter headings like ‘Little Star’, ‘Teen Heroine’, ‘Deccan Diva’, ‘Bombay Bombshell’, ‘Reel Regina’, ‘Indian Goddess’, ‘Last Empress’ ‘Homeward Bound’, and ‘Comeback Czarina’. 

As for the reasons why she became such a big star, Satyarth says, “She was very versatile as an artist. Sridevi could do comedy, tragedy, and drama very well. She was also a very good dancer.” 

Actor Kajol, in the foreword, suggests a few more reasons. “Sridevi knew which script would work and which wouldn’t,” she writes. “She had the pulse of the audience at all times. She knew the camera so well -- how it would shoot her, which was the best angle. She paid attention to the minutest of details. And her eyes spoke volumes.” 

And along the way, she had a big impact, especially on women. “Sridevi did comedy so well, there was a fearlessness in her that empowered women,” says Satyarth. “They realised they could just be themselves instead of being prim, proper and ladylike.” She also challenged patriarchy, sexism and fought for wage parity in Bollywood.   

Another unintended impact was on the LGBT community. In her career, Sridevi played many double roles. This dichotomy appealed to the LGBT community where they have a public persona as well as a private one. “So, they could easily identify with her on-screen,” says Satyarth. The biggest impact on the community was through the film ‘Nagina’ (1986) where Sridevi plays a snake who masquerades as a human being. 

Finally, Satyarth deals at length with the sudden and inexplicable drowning of the star in a bathtub at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai, on February 24, 2018, at the age of 54. Numerous conspiracy theories were bandied about, as well as allegations of murder. But Satyarth says, “It is all rubbish.” 

After Sridevi’s death, Satyarth spoke to Boney Kapoor, South superstar Nagarjuna and Pankuj Parashar, the director of ‘Chalbaaz’. “All three told me Sridevi suffered from low blood pressure,” says Satyarth. “Nagarjuna told me that they were shooting a Ram Gopal Varma film ‘Govinda Govinda’ (1993). One day as they waited for Sridevi to come to the set, they heard she had fainted in the bathroom.”

Pankuj said that when they were shooting for the film, ‘Meri Biwi Ka Jawab Nahin’ (2004), on one occasion, Sridevi had again fainted in the bathroom. “She battled low blood pressure for a long time,” says Satyarth. “There were several instances when she had collapsed. Boney Kapoor said sometimes when they were walking together, she would fall. What might have happened was that when she got into the tub, at her suite in Dubai, she might have fainted and drowned.” 

(The Sunday Magazine, New Indian Express, South Indian editions and in Delhi)

Monday, March 16, 2020

The story of Indian migration



Author Shreya Sen-Handley is the first Indian woman to write an epic poem for the Welsh National Opera

Photos: Shreya Sen-Handley; with the members of the Wales National Opera  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On the morning after her return from attending a literary festival in Kolkata sometime ago, author Shreya Sen-Handley opened her email and got a shock. There was a message by Sir David Pountney, the director of the Welsh National Opera. He told Shreya they are staging an opera called ‘Migrations’, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing, when the British went to America for the first time on the Mayflower ship. But they also wanted a contribution from her to focus on the Indian migration to the UK. For about five minutes, Shreya was in shock. Then she Google searched to check whether Sir David was a hoax. But it turned out that he was indeed the director. So Shreya said yes and got cracking. 

In the end, she wrote an epic poem titled, ‘This is the life!’ “There are two central Indian characters, doctors Jai and Neera who had been invited by the British government to come across to help build the National Health Service,” says Shreya. “They were promised a wonderful life. But when they came they were treated badly, and were doing longer hours than everybody else and getting less pay.”  

During that time, in 1968, there were anti-immigration riots in London. Two white people who had gone on a march landed up at the hospital with injuries because of a scuffle. “The Indian doctors had to treat the racists,” says Shreya. “But following successful treatment, there is a realisation among the whites that the Indians are worthy members of their society. So, there is a rapprochement at the end.” 

As to how the poem is used, Shreya says, “The composer Will Todd has set it to music, and he is working with Sir David and the ‘Migrations’ team to produce it for the stage. Every word written for an opera is sung, unlike musical theatre where some of it is said than sung.” There will be Bollywood-style dances, British-Indian singers and instruments like the sitar and the tabla will be used. 

The premiere is to be held on October 3, at the Wales Millennium Centre which is the home of the Welsh National Opera. Prince Charles is the head of the institution. “There is a good chance he will attend,” says Shreya. Thereafter there will be six performances in different venues in Birmingham, Plymouth, Bristol and Southampton, and the run will conclude on November 28. 

For the two-hour long event, there will be one hundred people in the cast and another hundred in the three different choirs, apart from a full live orchestra. And to her surprise, Shreya realised that she is in exalted company. Only two other Indians have received similar invitations to contribute to an opera -- Amit Chaudhuri and Jeet Thayil. “I am perhaps the first Indian and South Asian woman to write for a major opera,” she says. “I feel thrilled.” 

Shreya is a multi-talented person. Apart from poetry, she does book cover illustrations for major English publishers in India and Britain. HarperCollins has recently published her second book, a collection of short stories called ‘Strange’, which legendary author Ruskin Bond described as ‘masterful’. “All the stories have unexpected endings,” says Shreya. “It is a mix of science fiction, dystopia, fantasy, comedy, horror and romance.” Her earlier book was called ‘Memoirs of my body’.  

She is also a columnist for many newspapers and magazines in India and teaches creative writing at Cambridge and Nottingham universities. Shreya was a director of the Nottingham Festival of Literature and is a governor of schools. She is also a regular commentator on current affairs for the BBC, Notts TV, and other media. Married to a Briton, she has two children and has been living in Britain since 2000.  

Shreya also belongs to a family which has a notable heritage. Her paternal grandfather Satyabrata Sen worked in the United Nations and was also an advisor to the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as well as the Kerala government. Her mother is the great grand-niece of the spiritual philosopher Sri Aurobindo. A great-great-grandfather was Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Modern Review, who published articles by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. “Many regard him as the father of Indian journalism,” says Shreya. “So writing is in my blood.”

Friday, March 13, 2020

At home in a different home


The Thiruvananthapuram-based Hindustani classical singer Abhradita Banerjee begins new classes at the Jani Music Academy at Kochi. She talks about her career and her life as a Bengali in Kerala

Photo by Arun Angela 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The train from Thiruvananthapuram was late. But it did not spoil the mood of Hindustani classical singer/teacher Abhradita Banerjee. She had a bright smile on her face when she reached the Jani Music Academy at Kochi, which is run by noted Mollywood playback singer Ganesh Sundaram. Abhradita had come to start classes for students in Hindustani classical. 

In Thiruvananthapuram, this singer, of Bengali origin, has a music school called ‘Mukthaangan’, which was set up in 2009. But Abhradita came to Kerala 23 years ago. That’s because her husband Dr Moinak Banerjee is a senior scientist at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology. “It was an arranged marriage,” she says. 

So, how do a scientist and an artist get along? “My husband told me right at the beginning of our marriage that we are friends first, then husband and wife,” says Abhradita. “That has worked out very well. We are happy together.” 

And she is very happy in Kerala, too. “As a Bengali, I get a lot of respect, maybe because I come from the land of creative geniuses like Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray,” says Abhradita. “Both states love art and culture. In any house you visit, you will always see the children learning an art form, be it music, dance or painting. Also, apart from a similar climate, both communities like fish a lot.” 

Interestingly, Abhradita did not grow up in Bengal. Instead, because of her father’s job in the Railway Mail Service, she grew up in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. 

When her father, Raj Kumar Maitra realised that Abhradita had a talent for singing, he encouraged her. Because he had wanted to be a singer, but due to economic difficulties, he could not pursue his passion. On most evenings Raj Kumar would take her for classes at teacher Sumati Rajimwale’s home. “My father would sit outside and listen intently,” she says. “When we would return home, he would coach me.” 

Later, he was able to persuade tabla player Pandit Madan Chouhan, who won the Padma Shri this year, to come to their house twice a week and practice the tabla and teach Abhradita. 

The classes went on. 

One evening, in 1987, when Abhradita was 13 years old, the guruji did not arrive. Raj Kumar sent a letter through a boy reminding him, but the musician still did not arrive. He felt a bit disappointed. The next morning, he asked Abhradita to sing a particular song by Iqbal Bano. But she said, “Baba, I am running late for class. Will do so in the evening.” 

But after class, Abhradita went straight for tuition at a teacher’s house. Suddenly, a visitor came. It was her elder brother. He said, “Baba is ill.” And took her home. Raj Kumar, who had a heart attack, was lying on a bed. “He looked at me, took his last breath and passed away,” says Abhradita. “He was only 54.” 

So shocked was Abhradita by this event that she did not sing for an entire year. But when she returned, she won the first Lata Mangeshkar award which was instituted by the Madhya Pradesh government. Some of the other awards she won included the Akashvani Light Music (ghazals) competition, the Centre’s National Music Competition, and the Malayalam Mithra award 2018 given by the World Malayali Council and the Kerala state government. She has also brought out a set of seven songs called Karuna Nidhan, based on Swati Thirunal’s rare Hindi bhajans. 

And she sings in many places all over India and on numerous TV channels. “I am happy that I was able to fulfil my father’s dreams,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Of abandoned houses and multiple fences



The Jaffna-based artist Jasmine Nilani Joseph has spent two months at Fort Kochi thanks to a residency of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. She talks about life as an artist in Sri Lanka

Photo by Arun Angela

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Jasmine Nilani Joseph sits next to a window in a large hall at Pepper House, at Fort Kochi. On a table in front of her, there are long wooden boxes. “Tamils have a tradition of collecting jewels,” says Jasmine, an artist from Sri Lanka. “Normally, they don’t wear the jewels, which they have. They keep it inside a box, and tell people, ‘I have this much jewellery’.”

Right next to the boxes, using a pen, she has drawn images of abandoned houses with a black pen on white paper. “These houses, like the jewellery, are there as a display, not for use,” says Jasmine, who had come from Jaffna to spend two months at Fort Kochi based on a residency given by the Kochi Muziris Foundation. “So I wanted to connect the two.” 

Abandoned houses also raise questions in the mind. “Whose house is this?” says Jasmine. “Who lived here? How was the house in earlier times? Every house has its own story and memories. As an artist, I wanted to document them. I saw similar houses in Fort Kochi, too. One day they will vanish. In Jaffna, I did 30 drawings of these houses.” 

Jasmine has experience of abandoned houses. When she was five years old, because of the civil war, the family moved to Vavuniya where she and her family spent three years in a refugee camp. “There were times when we were hungry,” she says. “Money was tight. My father no longer had an income.” Later, the family was able to build a house with the support of the government. 

From young, Jasmine was interested in the arts. “As a child, I was fascinated by colours,” she says. So, when she grew older and told her parents she wanted to become an artist, unusually, they agreed. It helped that she was the youngest of two sisters and a brother. So Jasmine was able to do her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Jaffna in 2010. Thereafter, she embarked on her career as an artist.  

In 2017, she held an exhibition called ‘Fences’ at Colombo. Throughout her life, she saw fences, made of barbed wires and palmyra leaves, everywhere. “There are cultural and physical fences,” she says. “Whenever I saw a fence I would ask myself, ‘Why do we build fences? Even if two people are best friends, they are separated by a fence. Why is there a barrier?’ When you go through a street in Jaffna, you can see a lot of fences.”

But the fences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils seem to be disintegrating. 

There are a lot of things we have in common,” she says. “When I travel to Colombo, on the train, there are a lot of Sinhala passengers. We sit together and chat about many things. A lot of Sinhalese and Tamil artists are working together. In the universities, classes consist of both Tamil and Sinhalese students. In Sri Lanka today, both the communities are trying to understand each other. People are slowly coming together.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Story of An Iconic Family



Sunil Kant Munjal, a member of the second generation of the Munjal family, on a recent visit to Kochi, tells the story of how Hero Cycles became one of the great companies of India 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Sunil Kant Munjal was supposed to arrive in Kochi at 4.15 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. But at 3.30 pm the information came through that he was in Coimbatore. So, it seemed he would be late. But thanks to a helicopter ride, he was right on time. 

The chairman of the Hero Enterprise had come to release the book about their family called ‘The Making Of Hero’ during the annual meeting of the Kerala Management Association. The 221-page book has been published by HarperCollins Publishers and is priced at Rs 699. According to Sachin Sharma, Senior Commissioning Editor of HarperCollins India, who had come to Kochi, it has already scaled up the best-seller charts. 

Sunil is the author of this well-written book which traces the history of the Munjal family. They had initially been based in the town of Kamalia in Pakistan but lost everything during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The family settled in Ludhiana and set up Hero Cycles in 1956. In 30 years, it became the largest bicycle company in the world. 

And very early in the book, Sunil answers a likely question that might emerge in the mind of the reader. “While my uncles Dayanand and Om Prakash were packing up to move to Ludhiana, one of their suppliers, a Muslim by the name of Kareem Deen, was preparing to shift to Pakistan. He manufactured bicycle saddles under a brand name he had created himself. Before he left, Kareem Deen went to see his friend Om Prakash Munjal.   

What happened next would be a life-changing moment for our family. Uncle Om Prakash asked Kareen Deen whether the Munjals could use the brand name for their business. He agreed….. and so, with nothing more than a casual nod, his brand passed to the Munjals. Yes, dear reader, you guessed correctly, it was ‘Hero’.”

The book is packed with numerous anecdotes and shows the trials and tribulations the family faced before they were able to make a mark.

And they made a mark because it was based on ethical principles. As the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, in the foreword, “Brijmohan Lall Munjal and his brothers belonged to the first generation of entrepreneurs who believed in the credo of learning by doing. They also ran their enterprise like a giant family and prioritised people and profits together in a symbiotic relationship.” 

And they had the providential good luck too. In the 1970s, Atlas Cycles was the largest player in the industry. However, there was a labour strike which lasted for a while. And it coincided with the peak season for bicycles. Many Atlas Cycles dealers had to rush to Hero Cycles to procure their supplies. “Once they entered into this relationship with Hero Cycles, they got to experience our way of doing business in terms of fairness, timely supplies, consistent quality and timely payment,” says Sunil. “From this point on, their relationship with Hero became permanent, and this put Hero Cycles on a continuous growth path.” 

One of the most important chapters was on how the family restructured the company so that the transition of ownership to the younger generation would be smooth. As Sunil says, “Global research studies, including those by management consultants and research firms, show that 94 per cent of family businesses rarely survive beyond the third generation. In many cases, they tend to implode because of infighting. Only 6 per cent remain intact or make a smooth transition.” And thanks to careful planning and discussions, the Hero Group has managed to stay in the six per cent.    

In a way, this book can be a text-book for family firms on how to run a successful business over several decades. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, March 06, 2020

When a girl gets harassed



Bureaucrat Dr KN Raghavan has written his first novel, ‘A slice of Calicut Halwa’, about the life and times of Rema

Photo by Arun Angela

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, author KN Raghavan was having a chat with a friend at Kochi. The latter recounted a story. “He told me there was a man Deepak who would stalk his mutual friend Meena and harass her when she was in college,” says Raghavan. “But today, Meena is 50 plus, married and has children. Deepak went abroad and made a lot of money. But recently, he came back and began stalking Meena again, apart from sending non-stop text messages. Stalking has become electronic.” 

Raghavan was taken aback when he heard this. “A lot of things happen at the adolescent age which people might not be proud of,” he says. “But they get over it and become mature. But for a certain percentage of the population, these adolescent urges remain.”

Raghavan is not a fiction writer. But suddenly a plot came to his mind, on the lines of what happened to Meena. So, even though he felt apprehensive, he decided to make an attempt to write a novel. So, every morning he would write. And surprisingly for him, it flowed easily. At the end of two months, he had a novel. This has just been published as ‘A slice of Calicut Halwa’ by Zorba Books and is priced at Rs 225. It is available on Amazon, Flipkart, Shopclues and Snapdeal. 

The story is set in Calicut Medical College where Raghavan had himself studied. Rema is a brilliant young girl who begins to get harassed by a young man from the law college. Her confidence and self-esteem get affected. But life goes on. Rema gets married to a lawyer, who happens to be a closet homosexual. She feels trapped. And,  later, the law student resumes harassing her. The twists and turns from these developments form the core of the novel.   

Asked the difference between fiction and non-fiction, Raghavan says, “Fiction means you just go inside your head. For non-fiction, you have to do a lot of research. You have to chronicle details in a systematic manner. When you write a chapter, you have to give your references. It’s time-consuming. But since I enjoy doing it, this is a welcome experience.”  

Raghavan has published three non-fiction books thus far. In 1999, he wrote ‘World Cup Chronicle’. In 2012, he published ‘Dividing Lines: Contours of India-China Conflict’ and in 2016, he came out with ‘Vanishing Shangri La: History of Tibet and Dalai Lamas in the Twentieth century’.  

As to whether reading has declined, Raghavan nods and says, “The number of bookshops in Kochi have gone down. There was a beautiful bookstore in the Oberon Mall which has sadly closed down. The number of people who go to libraries is becoming less. As for the avid readers, they have moved from print to digital.”

Raghavan’s only child Aishwarya, who lives in Sweden, swears by the Kindle. She had urged her father to buy one but he prefers the charm of holding a physical book in his hands. 

A career bureaucrat, Raghavan was Commissioner of Customs (2012-2017) in Kochi as well as Principal Commissioner of Central GST in Mumbai from 2017-19. Today, he is the Kottayam-based Executive Director of the Rubber Board of India. 

Kerala is almost saturated,” he says. “There is no land to grow more rubber. So we are trying to develop plantations in Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. I travel to these places once a month to oversee the work. I am also looking at non-traditional areas like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.” 

He agrees it is a tough time for rubber growers. “That’s because international prices are very low,” he says.

Meanwhile, when asked about his future plans as a writer, Raghavan says, “I am toying with the idea of writing about the decline of the Left and why it is vanishing from India.”

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Seeing beauty in ordinary things



The Adelaide-based artist Jane Skeer spent a month at Fort Kochi and produced unique installation art from waste materials. She talks about her experiences

Pics: By Arun Angela   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

As the Adelaide-based artist Jane Skeer was talking about her works to a group of young visitors at the Pepper House, Fort Kochi, tears began to roll down her face. She quickly took a handkerchief and dabbed at her face. “I am so sorry,” she says. “I feel so sad that I will be leaving Kochi within a couple of days and returning home.” 

Jane had come for one month on a Kochi Biennale Foundation-Adelaide Residency Exchange. While one artist comes from there, an Indian artist will go and spend a month there. 

For Jane, this is her first visit to Fort Kochi. And she is smitten. “I am taken up by the culture, history and people,” she says. “I spent three to four hours walking around every day, talking to people and taking photographs. What I am most impressed with is the people’s love for family and country. You’ve got it all together so much better than we have in Australia.” 

She says that there is hardly any colour in Australia. “Our construction is all about cement and steel,” she says. “We make straight and massive structures. Our architecture has no personality. You come to Fort Kochi and it is colourful, vibrant and beautiful. I don’t see anything ugly.” 

Jane’s forte is in installation art. In her temporary studio at Pepper House, she has stacked discarded blue cement bags in a triangle at one side of the hall. It is in striking contrast to the red walls all around. 

She had seen the bags on the roadside while walking around. “I thought it was interesting, the way the light was falling on them,” says Jane. Then she noticed that plants were grown in them and placed on top of fences. “There are so many different uses for it,” she says. “It seemed like vessels. And when I looked out through the window at Pepper House, at the backwaters, I saw a boat, another type of vessel, carrying goods and services.” 

In the next room, she again used the discarded sacks and placed them in three different rows, of thirty sacks each, but containing the colours of saffron, white and green. “This is my version of the national flag of India,” she says, with a smile.

While standing on the seashore, she noticed that small terracotta stones had floated in from the river. She quickly collected several and made a circular design on the floor of her studio. It gave an impression of being part of an ancient culture. 

On the walls, Jane had put up several photographs. Ordinary sights became extraordinary through her camera lens. So, an image of several red Indane gas cylinders, stacked up, with a chain going through them all, becomes, in Jane’s eyes, “An art installation. I love the way they have been stacked, the beautiful markings on it, which indicates its history. Each gas cylinder stands for a person, home or business.” 

Jane is a late bloomer. It was only at the age of 47, this mother of two boys and two girls, who are all in their twenties and thirties, went to the Adelaide Central School of Art and said, “I think I can paint.” But to gain entry, she also had to do a sculpture course. And right from the beginning, she became a natural at sculpting.  

I found my passion and now I just can't stop,” she says. Every year, since 2015, she has been holding several exhibitions of her installation art. And in her spare time, she writes poetry, too. 

Here are a few lines: 

All the answers I need 
Are inside me. 

All the love I need 
Is inside me. 

All the happiness I desire 
Is within me. 

I have it all. 

I don’t need anybody at all.’

Does that mean she does not need her husband, a businessman, whom Jane had been helping in his work? She laughs and says, “Who knows? I am growing wings. I might just fly away. Or we may become closer. Who can say what will happen?” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

All at sea


Manoj Joy, the new managing director of the Sailors’ Welfare Association, talks about the problems faced by the seafarers and the remedies that are taken

Photo by R. Satish Babu  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One night at Pathanapuram in Kollam, Devayani Nair woke up with a scream. Her husband, Prabhakaran Nair, an ex-serviceman, said, “What has happened?” 

She replied, “Praveen (son) is in some problem.” 

Prabhakaran calmed her down by saying it was a dream. 

But the next morning, Praveen called up and said, “Somali pirates have taken control of our ship.” The moment Devayani heard this, she said “Aiyyo” and lost her mental equilibrium. 

Praveen had been just five days into his career as a cadet on the Iranian ship MV Amin Darya. There were two Indians apart from six Pakistanis who comprised the crew. 

A ransom was paid and the ship was freed. But when the ship reached the port of Mombasa in Kenya, the security forces raided it and confiscated eight kgs of heroin worth $12 million. The captain and crew were arrested. Soon, Prabhakaran got in touch with Manoj Joy of the Sailors’ Welfare Association (SWA) to ask for his help. Manoj agreed, but it would take all of three years, and the tireless efforts of the Malayalee Samajam in Mombasa before Praveen was freed. 

“Praveen’s mother never recovered. Two years ago, she died, less than 50 years of age,” says Manoj, who, on October 18, 2018 won the Safety at Sea's prestigious International Award in the ‘Unsung Hero’ category held at Mayfair, London. And in August, 2019, he became the managing director of SWA.    

But today, he is busy keeping track of the spread of coronavirus, in case it affects Indian sailors. He would want to render all help to the families. There was an alarm recently when seven Sri Lankan sailors were quarantined at Colombo because they had fallen ill. They were working on a French operated container ship which had travelled from China to Egypt. However, tests confirmed they were in the clear. 

Meanwhile, in Chennai, the SWA, which is part of the 201-year-old Sailor Society in the UK, is running a free medical project for retired seafarers who are having economic problems. “Our ambulance picks up the patients at designated points,” says Manoj. “SWA is tied up with one of the finest hospitals in Chennai known as the Voluntary Health Services Hospital. The treatment and medicines provided are free.”  

In Kasaragod, where there are 3000 sailors, SWA is setting up a vehicle that can ferry retired seafarers and their family members to a hospital in Mangalore. The society repaired a seafarer’s house in Chennai, last year, which was leaking. The funds came from contributions made by shipping companies. 

Sometime ago, the Chennai-based Manoj, who has spent 18 years at sea, went to Kothamangalam in Kerala to attend the wedding of the daughter of the missing seafarer Jose Mathew Katampally. 

Jose was an engineer on the tug Jupiter VI. On September 5, 2005, the tug went missing as it was towing a ship, ‘Satsang’, from Walvis Bay in Namibia to a ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat. “Nobody knows what happened to the ship and crew,” says Manoj. “The family received a compensation of Rs 25 lakh.” In established international companies, the compensation given is Rs 70 lakh. 

Sadly, life is not easy for seafarers. In earlier days after duty, the men would assemble in the mess hall and have a drink and enjoy some camaraderie with each other. “Now they are all isolated in their cabins with their mobile phones,” says Manoj. “They are sending Whatsapp messages all the time. Some get depressed when they get news from home. So, in despair, they throw themselves into the sea.” 

In the past, sailors would have longer port stays. They would mingle with the people and enjoy the local cuisine. “Today, thanks to technology and mechanisation, the turnaround at a port is much faster,” says Manoj. “Also, because of security concerns, most of the ports don’t allow the sailors to embark. In places like Iran, you should get back to the port within six hours. In Indian ports, you can go outside but by 8 p.m. you have to be back on the ship.” 

The scenario changed when America was attacked during 9/11. “The Americans tightened security at all their ports and thereafter many countries followed suit,” says Manoj. 

And cadets are not much valued, because there is a surplus. For the training, they end up spending about Rs 8 to 10 lakh. To pay the fees, they take bank loans by mortgaging their property. “Some of them are hell-bent on going to the sea,” says Manoj. “If I am a cadet, then to become an officer I have to spend 18 months at sea. So they get into any ship they can.” 

As a result, many cadets work on ships which are run by fly-by-night operators. Some of the sailors are abandoned at foreign ports without being paid, or stranded at sea without food and wages. “So we have to help to bring them back,” says Manoj. “And when they die, the fly-by-night operators do not take the responsibility of sending the body back or pay the compensation. The SWA is trying to help these distressed sailors to get justice.”  

Finally, Manoj says, “Despite all these problems, working on a ship can be a fun experience. But it is very important that you are employed by a reputed company.”

Monday, March 02, 2020

Aussies, here we come


Two artists, Sabyasachi Bhattacharjee and Sunil KR will be taking part in a residency programme in Australia organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation and the Adelaide Residency Exchange 

Photo: Sabyasachi Bhattacharjee and Sunil KR. Photo by Arun Angela  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is a hot February afternoon. But on the first floor of Pepper House, the humidity is not affecting Sabyasachi Bhattacharjee, a young Tripura artist who is now based in Baroda. On a piece of cloth hanging from the ceiling, he is tracing an image. Sabyasachi is doing this in 10 feet sections. The total length will be around 100 feet. 

He is looking at the marine algae phytoplankton. “The algae drift about on the surface of the ocean but it is also one of the most important sources of oxygen on the planet,” says Sabyasachi. “Because of photosynthesis, it converts carbon dioxide into oxygen and is an important cog in the aquatic food web .” 

Along with the plant’s drift, Sabyasachi is also looking at the human drift or migration that is happening all over the world. “I am trying to compare both and seeing how it will work out,” he says. “But every ten feet of my installation, the landscape will change, just as it happens in real life when after 10 km the language can change and become a sub-language.” 

Sabyasachi is hoping to hold a residency show parallel to the next edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale which commences on December 12, 2020. 

The young artist is on a two-month residency, since January, from the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). But on March 17, he will be jetting off to Adelaide where he will spend one month on a KBF-Adelaide Residency Exchange. “I am hoping that when I  look at my homeland from that far-off place I will get a different perspective.”  

This is his second visit abroad. In 2018, Sabyasachi went to take part in an Art Asia fair in South Korea. 

Meanwhile, for Sabyasachi, Fort Kochi is a familiar place. In an earlier Biennale, he had spent two months working as an assistant to the artists. “Fort Kochi feels like home now,” he says. But the focus on his art remains constant. He comes in at 11 am and works till 7 p.m. “This is something I love to do,” he says. “I am a full-time artist now.” 

Like him, senior photographer KR Sunil is a full-time artist. He has been a featured artist at the Kochi Muziris Biennale of 2016. Some of his subjects include the dhow workers of Malabar, and the town of Mattancherry with its myriad identities that includes the Jews, Kutchi Muslims and Anglo Indians. He has also focused on the folk ritual called Bharani when devotees assemble in large numbers at a temple in Kodungallur and use harsh words to appease the goddess.   

Once Sabyasachi returns, it will be Sunil’s turn to go to Adelaide. And Sunil is excited. “It is my first trip abroad,” he says. And he is already researching the possible subjects he can focus upon. “There are some old houses in Adelaide,” he says. “I might want to take photos of that.” He says he might look at the seafarers of Australia. And at the end of his stay, he is planning an audio-visual presentation, apart from a one-day Open Studio.  

The exposure will be enriching,” says Sunil. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 28, 2020

Nature Vs Development




Senior artist N Balamuralikrishnan’s painting exhibition, ‘Memoirs of Onattukara’ is a thought-provoking one

Photos: N. Balamuralikrishnan. Paddy fields. A telecom tower. Pics by Arun Angela 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

As one stepped into the ‘Memoirs of Onattukara’ exhibition by artist N Balamuralikrishnan, at the Durbar Hall Gallery, Kochi, a large canvas catches the eye. It is almost like a drone’s eye view of several green paddy fields stretching out in the distance with green parrots flying above it, along with a white swan. In front, are several golden sheaves of paddy. It brings a moment of tranquillity as one stares at it. But immediately next to this 14’x 4’ acrylic on canvas is an image of a hill seen between the bars of a telecom tower. And that sets the tone for the exhibition. 

On the opposite side, on a large black-and-white canvas, a lorry is dumping waste on a patch of land. But when you look closely at the garbage, you can see an owl, rabbit, tortoise, mouse, frog, snail, beetle, and a mouse trapped in it. In another image, a paddy field next to a railway line is filled with pieces of stone. 

My hometown of Onattukara has changed,” says Balamuralikrishnan. “In the name of development, forests and paddy fields have been flattened. Buildings have come up. Telecom towers have been installed in sacred groves. This has spoilt the harmony of the place. Money has been coming from the Malayalis living in the Gulf and is causing rapid changes.” 

Balamuralikrishnan had created an image of a man carrying large plastic materials like buckets, mugs, brooms, ladles, pots and chairs on a bicycle. “The arrival of plastic has also caused a lot of damage,” he says.  

For several years Balamuralikrishnan had been an art teacher in a government school in Kannur. But in 2013, after taking voluntary retirement, he returned to his hometown and was able to observe the changes first-hand.

He also focused a bit on history. In one image, the head of a statue of Lord Buddha, with a topknot, can be seen nose-deep inside a lake. At the side, broken columns are lying about, with grass growing over it.  

The Hindu sage and reformer Chattampi Swamikal (1853-1924) while visiting Mavelikara saw women washing clothes by hitting the stone of a statue which was three-quarters below the surface of a river. Sensing there was something more, with the help of the local people, Chattampi was able to bring up the statue of Lord Buddha. And today, it has been put in a place of prominence.  

In the eight century, the Onattukara area was a flourishing centre for Buddhist culture. Many villages and towns had names ending in Palli, which was common in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. But soon Hinduism reasserted itself. As a consequence, Buddhism faded away. 

Meanwhile, on one side, Balamuralikrishnan has done several small charcoal drawings within the frame of a canvas. In one, a bare-bodied man, with palms upraised, near his face was shouting “Hoi Hoi”, to warn lower-caste people to stay away. Behind him was a horse-drawn carriage, which had an upper-caste passenger. When they went past a school, social reformer TK Madhavan, who was a child then, mimicked the sound of “Hoi, Hoi.” 

The carriage moved on. After several hours, two men came to find out who had shouted. The children and teachers remained silent. But Madhavan confessed and was beaten up. 

It was a time when workers also had to hide when a member of the upper caste walked on the road,” says Balamuralikrishnan.  

But there was a path to freedom. Another image showed a tall, bearded Christian priest, in a white cassock, arms upraised, while on the ground in front of him sat several downtrodden people. “Because of the priest’s help the lower castes were able to get access to education and by adopting Christianity they could walk anywhere,” says Balamuralikrishnan.

Other images include members of the Communist Party holding aloft their hammer and sickle flags, as they took out a demonstration, a boat on a river and an autorickshaw, with a loudspeaker on top, announcing a death.  

All in all, this senior artist’s exhibition, comprising 21 works, is a thought-provoking one. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)