Saturday, November 17, 2018

So Cool And Sweet



Entrepreneur Shafeek K talks about how he set up a Kulfi Shop at the Lulu Mall, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Shafeek K was in a nostalgic mood. Soon, an image popped into his mind.
It was the lunch break at the NSS High School at Ottapalam. As he stepped out of the class to go to the ground, he could hear the tinkle of a bell. With other schoolboys, he ran to the gate. It was a man pushing a cart. He was selling kulfis. “It cost Rs 1 at that time,” says Shafeek. “Four of us shared one kulfi stick.” He began to have it regularly.

For Shafeek a lifelong love for kulfi was engendered. This was deepened when his Delhi-based uncle KU Kutty would come for his annual visit. “Whenever he came home, he would bring Bengali sweets like sandesh, rosagollas and malpuas,” he says.

So Shafeek developed a sweet tooth. As an entrepreneur, he was thinking of starting a business when suddenly he got the idea of starting a kulfi shop in Kochi. But he did not know anything about how to make kulfis and whether the business could be a viable one. “But I knew that there are not many kulfi shops in Kochi,” he says.   

So Shafeek went to the best kulfi shop in Delhi called Krishna Di Kulfi. “They have been running it for 60 years,” he says “It is a small area but there is always a huge crowd.”

The owners allowed Shafeek into the kitchen so that he could have an idea of how it is made. Then, through a friend, Shafeek met a dessert chef in Delhi called Raju Bhagel, who was willing to relocate to Kochi. Later, Shafeek flew to Mumbai and wandered around the kulfi shops on Chowpatty Beach and spoke to many people. He gained more insight into the business. 

Thereafter, he returned to Kochi, mulled over his experiences and decided to take the plunge. Shafeek decided to set up his shop at the Lulu Mall, to ensure that he has brand visibility. “Let’s face it, the mall is a very popular place,” he says.

The ‘Kulfi Shop’ had a soft launch three months ago. The 320 sq.ft. outlet is just near the Kochi Metro skywalk. “It is an apt location, as many people use the Metro these days,” says Shafeek. “They see our sign and tend to stop.”

There are more than 50 items on offer. These include the Malai, Pista, Mango, Meetha Pan, Sitafal and Coffee Walnut. The prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 150. The most expensive is the traditional kulfi kept in a mud dish called the matka. Fruits like mango and guava are also added. Other kulfis have rose petals and gulab jamun. Green chilly is also popular. As the name implies it is a mix of chillies and cream. “But the most popular is the four-in-one kulfi,” says Shafeek. “This has mango, guava, sapota and strawberry and costs Rs 120. But we keep changing the combinations.”

Expectedly, the crowd is the most during the weekends and on festive occasions. Surprisingly, there are a lot more Malayalis than North Indians or outsiders. “That is because Malayalis have become curious to try it,” says Shafeek. “I am happy to say that many are returning customers.”

As he talks, he points at a middle-aged Arab with his wife, wearing a black hijab, and a small boy. “They have been repeat customers for a while now,” he says. Another customer is electronics engineer Amit Das (name changed) from Aluva. He told Shafeek that when he asked a friend where to get the best kulfi in India the latter mentioned the Mumbai Kulfi shop. So Amit went to Mumbai and had it. Then he came to the Kulfi Shop and tasted their products. He told Shafeek, “I have to say yours is much better. I like it a lot.”    

The good news is that the kulfis are not outsourced. Instead, Shafeek has set up a six-member team overseen by chef Raju at a location in Edapally to make the kulfis. The milk is boiled for eight hours, and to the residual cream is added sugar, fruits, and almonds. Then it is put in a freezer at minus 12 degrees Centigrade for several hours. When it is brought to the shop, Shafeek tastes most of them. “I am trying to ensure that the quality is maintained at all times,” he says.  

Thus far, the shop is doing well. “Whenever I look at the kulfis, I feel a sense of happiness,” says Shafeek. “Maybe, it is a reminder of the enjoyment I had in my childhood having them.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Slices Of Reel Life




Sanu Varghese, the Kottayam-born cinematographer of the Bollywood hit, ‘Badhaai Ho’, talks about his experiences  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The day before the Hindi film ‘Badhaai Ho’ was released (October 18), the film’s cinematographer Sanu Varghese told friends, “I have no doubt that the film will be a hit. Just not sure how big it will be.”

It is big all right. At the time of writing, it has earned Rs 115 crore at the box office and is now one among the top grossers of 2018.   

The story is simple. A middle-aged couple, played by Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta, get intimate. As a result, Neena gets pregnant. The only problem is that they have two sons, one aged 25 (Ayushmann Khurrana), while the other is 15 years old (Shardul Rana). 

The reaction is predictable: everybody from Neena’s mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri in a transfixing performance), who stays with them at their modest apartment in Delhi, the sons, relatives and the society at large are shocked and ashamed. Thereafter, it is a mix of comedy and sadness but it makes for riveting watching.

The cinematography is unobtrusive. Most times, you forget you are watching a film. But Sanu says that there is also an active storytelling by the camera.

There is one scene where the family is back together, after their mother gives birth,  and the children are cracking a joke with their grandmother,” he says. “The camera stays on the children and then it slowly moves away and focuses on the father and the mother who are in the kitchen. I am leading the audience along. This is deliberate story-telling.”

Asked the reasons why ‘Badhaai Ho’ did well, Sanu says, “It is like a Malayalam script. The best example would be Mohanlal trying to set up a biscuit factory in ‘Mithunam’ (1993). It is a film where you make everybody laugh in the first half and then cry in the second half.”  

Sanu’s journey to Bollywood was not in a straight line. He had been interested in photography even as he did his Bachelors at the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, he did a MA in communication at the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication at the University of Hyderabad. Following that, in search of a job, the Kottayam-born Sanu left for Mumbai in 1996. Then, without any technical training, he got work as a cameraman in documentaries and advertising films and later joined TV18.

But he showed a natural talent from the beginning. One who is a fan is ‘Badhaai Ho’ director Amit Sharma, who says, “Sanu is a cinematographer who has a story-telling ability. He has always been an asset on the set, whether it be advertising or feature films, because I have done both with him. He has a clear vision and has his own point of view. His scenes are very realistic. Shooting realistic scenes is much more difficult than taking glamour shots.”  

The start

Sanu got his first break in ‘Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon’ (2003), which was produced by Ramgopal Varma, of ‘Satya’ fame, and starred Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali. “It received praise from critics but did not do so well at the box office,” he says. Some of the other films he worked in include ‘Karthik Calling Karthik’, ‘David’, ‘Wazir’, the Malayalam films, ‘Elektra’ and ‘Take Off’, and Kamal Haasan's Tamil film, ‘Marmayogi’, which was shelved in pre-production.

But in 2011, he shot for Kamal’s ‘Vishwaroopam’. The shoot took one-and-a-half years to complete, but it was a turning point for Sanu. “When you work with a legend like Kamal Sir, you learn something new every day,” says Sanu. “He comes from a choreography background, so he looks at scenes through that angle. Till then I tended to shoot static frames. But Kamal Sir is the one who opened my mind to the possibility of everything moving. How the total energy of a scene can be changed, with the camera as well as the actors moving. This was something new for me.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether the competition in Bollywood is severe, Sanu says, “I don’t look at what the other guys are doing. I am only thinking about what I can do when I am shooting for a particular film. It is an inner exploration. That’s how I will be able to do work which I can call my own. I also want to tell stories without showing off.”

Interestingly, he says, to be a good cinematographer, you need to understand music, drama, the craft of acting, cinema on a larger level, how light and water behave, as well as the climate.

At present, he is working on a Telugu film called ‘Jersey’ starring Nani, a new- generation star. And, unusually, he does not take any film that is offered to him. “I earn my living by making advertising films so I can choose scripts which I like,” says Sanu, who is married to Sandeepa, a commercial filmmaker and they have a daughter called Miyako. 

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

‘Visitors should also be participants’ -- Curator Anita Dube


By Shevlin Sebastian

Anita Dube, the curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, said that she was inspired by a sculpture of the late Malayali artist KP Krishnakumar (1958-89). “It is about a young boy who is listening -- to the stones, flowers and earth,” says Anita, at a ‘Meet The Curator’ function held in Kochi on Friday. “I chose this work because it is a boy who has not yet acquired a masculinity that all men aspire to be. He is in a nebulous state. I am working against that type of toxic masculinity that has been the norm in our social life.”

So, not surprisingly, more than half of the 89 artists who will be taking part in the Biennale, (December 12, 2018 - March 29, 2019), are women. “They do not get as many opportunities as the men,” says the first woman curator of the Biennale. “So I wanted to correct that.”

The theme, incidentally, is titled ‘Possibilities of a non-alienated life’. And Anita came to it through prolonged thinking and reflection. “The first question I asked myself was who is my primary audience?” she says. “Is it the one percent that goes to Venice, Sharjah and the Kochi Biennales? Or is it the six lakh spectators who came to the last edition with no stake
in culture except for a thirst for aesthetic knowledge?”

And she realised that she needed to showcase accessible artworks for the majority. Also, she wanted the visitors to be participants. So, apart from the exhibition area, Anita is setting up a pavilion where anybody could come and speak, show a film clip, or talk about a lecture. “You could even sing a Malayalam song,” she says. “I am hoping conversations could develop, and arguments could be had.”

Interestingly, Anita, in her travels to over 30 countries to select artists, decided to focus on those from Latin America, and Africa apart from many countries in South-East Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. “I want to give a chance to those who are on the margins of international art,” she says.

Earlier, Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founders of the Biennale stated that after the floods devastated Kerala a few months ago, he called up Anish Kapoor, one of the world’s leading artists. He told him that they had set up an ‘Art Rises For Kerala’ initiative and were planning an auction of works. Anish replied, “Anytime for Kerala and the Kochi Biennale Foundation.”

And Anish has already contributed a work. The other notables who will contribute include Dayanita Singh and Subodh Gupta. “About 40 national and international artists will take part in the auction that will take place in Kochi on January 18, 2019,” says Bose. “The proceeds, which I hope will reach Rs 5 crore, will be given to the Chief Minister’s Fund.”

Another notable plan is to re-use the materials which will be used to set up the pavilion at the Cabral Yard to build houses for the downtrodden. “We will Recycle, Reuse and Rebuild,” says Bose. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Timeless Songs Of Shonar Bangla



At a song-lecture demonstration at Kochi recently, musician Dr Santanu Dutta focused on the nearly 2000 songs composed by the creative genius Rabindranath Tagore, as well as the folk song genre of Bengal 

Pics: Rabindranath Tagore (illustration by Tapas Ranjan); Santanu Dutta 

By Shevlin Sebastian   

Santanu Dutta sits cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a hall in The Kerala Museum at Kochi on Saturday. In front of him is a harmonium and sheaves of paper. Behind him is a plant, placed in a glass vase, with its leaves and thin branches reaching towards the ceiling. The lights are muted, as the audience waits with a sense of expectation.

Santanu says, “You will be surprised to know that, apart from India’s national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore also wrote the national anthem of Bangladesh.” And the musician immediately moves the keys of the harmonium and sings:  

Amar shonar Bangla
(My golden Bengal)
Ami tomay bhalobashi
(I love you)
Chirodin tomar akash
(always your sky)
Tomar batash
(your air)
Amar prane bajay b√£shi.
(sets my heart in tune as if it were a flute)

Adopted in 1971 by the new country, it had been actually been written to protest the partition of Bengal on communal lines by the British in 1905.

Santanu was giving a song/lecture demonstration on the songs of Tagore, which is called Rabindra Sangeet as well as the folk song genre in Bengal. But not surprisingly, Rabindra Sangeet dominated his talk. “To compose his music, Tagore took inspiration from Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, from Western tunes and the folk songs of Bengal,” says Santanu.

The literary genius of Bengal would compose songs as and when inspiration hit him. “In his lifetime, Tagore had written the lyrics and tunes of about 2000 songs,” says Santanu. “But, out of that, around 50 are really popular.”

Some like ‘Ami Chini Go Chini’, which Kishore Kumar sang for the Satyajit Ray film, ‘Charulata’ (1964), are regarded as classics. In ‘Ami Chini Go’, Ray changed the word ‘Videshini’ (woman) to ‘Bou-Thakurani’ (sister-in-law) in the last line. “That’s because, in the film, the brother-in-law was singing to his sister-in-law. And that created a lot of controversies. At that time, the copyright of the song remained with Visva Bharathi University (it expired in 2001). And I think Ray did not take the permission to change the lyrics.” Nevertheless, the change remained.  

Interestingly, the Rabindra Sangeet songs were not popular during Tagore’s lifetime (he died on August 7, 1941). Instead, the big push came when the Centre celebrated Tagore’s 100th birth anniversary on May 7, 1961. “Many Rabindra Bhavans were set up in several states,” says Santanu. “There were musicians like Pankaj Kumar Mullick who propagated his music on radio and later, on TV. Soon, it became very popular.”  

Asked the charms of Rabindra Sangeet, Santanu says, “The lyrics are timeless and universal.” Broadly, the songs can be placed in five categories: love, nature, worship of the Divine, nationalism, and themes like laughter and sorrow.

In earlier times, the songs would be accompanied by the esraj, a stringed instrument. Later, the harmonium began to be used, even though it is regarded as an incomplete instrument. “It does not have all the notes, especially when you move from one tune to another,” says Santanu.

But it does not matter. Whatever instrument you use or books you read, you cannot avoid Tagore in Bengal. “He was active in so many genres: painting, poems, novels, dramas, and dance dramas,” says Santanu. “He was a gigantic talent, on par with Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Like Tolstoy, Tagore had clear views on how to organise the rural economy, improve agriculture and have a new system of education.”

To fulfill his vision in education, Tagore set up the Visva Bharathi College in 1921 at Santiniketan (it became a full University in 1951). Today it is a centre for languages, the arts, music, philosophy, literature and rural management, as well as a green oasis. “There were few trees in Santiniketan many years ago,” says Santanu. “But now there are trees from all over the world.”

Apart from Rabindra Sangeet Santanu spoke about the different folk music genres in Bengal. He should know since he has done a doctorate from Burdwan University on the geographical locations of the different genres.

In the northern part of West Bengal and Bangladesh, the Bhawaiya music is very popular,” says Santanu. “Abbas Uddin Ahmed is a famous singer of the Bhawaiya. The instrument used is a dotara (two-stringed).” In Eastern Bengal, it is the Bhatiali (boatmen songs). “The lyrics deal with love and devotion to the guru,” says Santanu.

In the western part, it is called the Jhumur. This is very popular among the tribals like the Mundas and Lodhas. And in central Bengal, it is the songs of the Bauls. Their songs are the most popular among all the folk styles. “Purnadas Baul is the most famous Baul singer,” says Santanu. “All in all, Bengal has a rich cultural heritage when it comes to music.” 

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

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Sounds Of A City


German sound artist Lisa Premke, who spent two months at Fort Kochi, put up an unusual sound installation

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Berlin-based sound artist Lisa Premke walked on the streets of Fort Kochi, in end July, her ears pricked up. There were so many sounds: the noisy exhaust of an auto-rickshaw, the blaring of a car horn, the blast of the horn of a ferry from the nearby backwaters, loud conversations among people in the different languages of English, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. This was followed by the muezzin’s call for prayer from the local mosque. And when there seemed a break in the noise, she could hear the cawing of the crows and the chirping of sparrows.

“The loud sounds occurred so often, there was a constant rhythm,” says Lisa,
who had come as a participant of a two-month residency programme of the Goethe-Institut in Bangalore.

Lisa says that in Kochi, the sounds were not singular. “Instead, they were all mixed up together,” says Lisa. “Because of the humidity, the sounds carried long and far. But since the buildings did not have sleek surfaces – most had crevices, pock-marked concrete walls, and green moss, the sounds did not bounce back. So, the sounds entered everywhere. I would compare it to an early morning fog. Surprisingly, it did not get on my nerves at all. On the other hand, it was rather calming.”

And it was in Kochi that Lisa heard some sounds for the first time. One was the fall of the monsoon rain. “When it fell on a roof made of an asbestos sheet, it made a different sound than when it fell on a tiled roof, or when it hit concrete walls and vehicles,” she says. “Nature was creating its own pattern of sounds.”

The monsoon set a dominating rhythm to the life around. “When it rained, life slowed down,” says Lisa. “People waited patiently. And after an hour when it stopped raining, life continued at its usual pace.”

Of course, Lisa was heartbroken to see the widespread destruction wrought about by the floods. “It was so sad,” she says.

But the most unique sound she heard was through an excursion. One night, she, along with a friend, went into the backwaters and recorded the sounds of thousands of frogs as they let out their once-a-year mating cry. “It was a like a choir,” she says, with a smile.

Lisa spent days going mulling over her experiences at her Pepper House studio which faced the backwaters. And finally, she came up with an installation, in which she hung thin, long chains on bamboo rods across the hall. And when the breeze blew through the windows, the chains swayed creating a tinkling sound, or it could be the sound of rain falling, or glass breaking into small pieces. In her own way, Lisa had created a unique sound.

And in December, during the Kochi Muziris Biennale, she will take this installation outside, so that the crowds can enjoy the chains swinging in the open breeze and making a noise.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare the sounds of Kochi and Berlin, Lisa, who has a Masters of Sound Degree from the Glasgow School of Arts, says, “The sound in Kochi is like when you play music on the sound system while you are working – you get used to the constant background noise. In terms of sound, Berlin is quiet. But when the sound happens, like a car horn blowing, it is very loud. That is because it usually hits against the sleek surfaces of buildings and bounces back very hard. So, it can get irritating, unlike in
Kochi.”

As to how she got interested in sound, in the first place, Lisa says that it has something to do with her childhood in Hanover, Germany. “There were distinct seasons, so in summer you could hear the sounds of birds, but this stopped in winter when the snow fell and the temperatures went to - 14 degrees Centigrade,”  says Lisa. “So, you end up doing 'active listening.' And when you hear something you know exactly what it is. I got fascinated by sounds at that age.”  

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Plastic, It's Fantastic



Rotary Club members Simi Stephen and Maya Varghese are giving awareness classes in schools and colleges about the benefits of recycling plastic even as they collect the waste to give to recyclers

Illustration by Tapas Ranjan. Simi Stephen and Maya Varghese. Photo by A. Sanesh   
By Shevlin Sebastian

Rotary Club member Simi Stephen stood on the stage of the St. Peter’s Senior Secondary School at  Kadayiruppu next to a row of students in white and green uniforms as they began to sing:

Bits of plastic
Bits of plastic
Plastic everywhere
Plastic everywhere
Pick them up
Stamp on them
Keep them in your bag
Keep them in your bag
Let's recycle
Let's recycle

(The tune was based on the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Bits of Paper’).

The auditorium was filled with students who made movements as if they were picking up waste from the ground, then they rolled their arms in a circular motion to show that recycling was taking place.

Simi Stephen and her colleague Maya Varghese are on a plastic collection drive. They belong to the Rotary Club of Cochin North which has a ‘Conserve’ programme run by the women called the Rotary Annes. But now they have become the Ernakulam District Co-Ordinators for the ‘I Challenge Plastic Bottles’ campaign initiated by Fr. Davis Chiramel of the Kidney Federation of India. It was launched on October 2 all over Kerala.

So Simi and Maya have gone to different schools, colleges, youth clubs, and resident associations and talked about how plastic bottles can be recycled. At the Santa Maria Senior Secondary School, at Mundamveli, the principal Sr Rosamma said to the students, “After the floods, the plastic bottle has become a great threat to Kerala. We have to do something to save ourselves as well as the earth. I will ask Simi Maam to talk more about this.”

Simi nodded, smiled and said, “Please do not throw plastic bottles. If you throw it, it takes 1450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose completely. These bottles have chemicals in them. When it leaks into the soil, it will enter the food chain and into our bodies. And when it rains these chemicals pollute the ponds and rivers.” And burning it results in harmful chemicals entering the atmosphere.  

But there is a way out. Many things can be recycled using the bottle. “With 63 mineral water bottles you can make a sweater,” says Maya. “And you need less than 30 bottles to make one T-shirt. After it is recycled, usually into threads, it can be sold to manufacturers who make buttons, mugs, buckets, stick files and polythene covers.

In Tamil Nadu, 20 percent of the bottles are recycled for road making. “If we can do this in Kerala, all plastic can be reclaimed or recycled,” says Maya. “All roads will become very strong and be able to withstand the strong monsoon rains. Plastic can also be used in construction. Instead of brick and cement, hollow bricks can be made from plastic.”

So, plastic bottles should not be regarded as a waste. And recycling can reduce costs. "Since plastic is a byproduct of petroleum, if we recycle, we can reduce its manufacture," says Simi. "As a result, a huge amount of money can be saved.”

But the biggest problem is that when the waste is given for collection, it is not segregated. “In Kerala, there is no awareness among the people on how to segregate the different types of plastic,” says Simi. “And it is necessary that we do so. Because there are different types of recyclers for different plastic products. So, one recycler may only take plastic and soft drink bottles. Another may take plastic covers. A third uses milk packets, bread covers and grocery packs. Another recycler only wants Harpic, shampoo, and five-litre bottles.”

But for all this to be successful, the plastic has to be segregated at home. If it is not,  it is difficult to segregate using labour because of the high costs. “The payment is from Rs 8 to Rs 11 per kg,” says Maya. Apart from this, it is difficult to get an open space to do this type of work. “No landlord would like to give his place for this type of work because he knows that it will become a dumping ground, as well as a health hazard,” says Maya.

Meanwhile, the duo’s talks at the schools have borne results. From the St. Peter’s school alone, they collected 535 kgs of plastic bottles. Over 2.5 tonnes have been collected from different schools and colleges in Kothamangalam, Kolencherry and other places in Ernakulam district in the past three weeks. These are put in large white sacks and transported by the Kerala Scrap Owners Association to various recyclers who pay Rs 10 per kg. This money is sent back to all the contributing schools.  

Interestingly, the pair were surprised at the change of attitude among the students. This has come about because of the floods which devastated the state in September. “They told us that even as they observed the overflowing rivers, they were astonished to see the huge amount of waste, like plastic bottles and packets which went past. So, they are very aware of the damage that is being done to the environment. Hopefully, future generations will ensure that we will have a plastic-safe world.” 

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

Friday, November 02, 2018

A Voice From The Past



A comment that I received yesterday on FB from the Singapore-based Prakhar Kumar Goel, sent me hurtling into the past:

'Hello Shevlin sir. I read your book "A race to win & other stories" long time back during my school days. It had a very positive impact on my upbringing. Thank you for authoring the book and making my childhood more memorable. May God bless you!'

(Image 1) 

'A Race To Win and other stories' was published in the mid 1990s by HarperCollins.

The book consisted of short stories about growing up as a child in India.

There were tales about a ball boy becoming a tennis champion, a boy overcoming shyness through his prowess as an athlete, a daughter talking about life with an alcoholic father, sibling jealousies, how a story-telling servant inspires a child to become a writer and even a Letter To God.

It is out of print now.

Is there a publisher out there that will republish?

Copyright is with the author.

(Image 2) 

The title story, 'A Race To Win' was selected for the ten-story anthology, 'Best of Target Stories'. This was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the magazine.

In the 1980 and 90's, Target was the leading English language children's magazine in the country. It was brought out by the India Today group. Sadly it closed down.

The editor was the legendary Rosalind Wilson, who was of British origin. She gave opportunities to so many new writers including myself.

She published several stories of mine, sent through the post, in those times, before I was finally able to go from Kolkata and meet her at her New Delhi office.

Her dedication, sincerity and her unparalleled desire to nurture talent -- which writer can remember the late Rosalind (she died of cancer, aged 49, in 1992) except without a deep sense of gratefulness. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Stepping On The Accelerator



Lekha Rajendran’s life turned topsy-turvy when her husband died in an accident. But the mother of one refused to be cowed down. Today, she runs her own driving school at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6.30 a.m. on a recent day, Lekha Rajendran was sitting in the passenger seat of an Estilo as it moved through Kadavanthra, Kochi. In the driver’s seat was a 20-year-old girl who was staring intently at the road. Lekha asked the girl to change into second gear. The girl did so but took her leg off the clutch a bit too soon and the car jerked a bit before she managed to get it right.

Lekha runs the Leshya Driving School in Kochi. If somebody had told her a few years ago that she would be owning a driving school, she would have called that person mad.

But Lekha’s life changed irrevocably on April 1, 2013. At 11 p.m., she received a call on her mobile phone at her home in Salem. The caller said, “Your husband met with an accident near the railway gate. We are taking him to the government hospital.”

Along with her son Hariharan, who was an engineering student, Lekha rushed to the hospital.  

When they reached there, Lekha saw that her husband Rajendran was lying unattended on the floor next to a door. “They had not even administered first aid,” she says. “I shouted and protested.”

So, the nurses hurriedly took Rajendran into the ward and the blood stains were wiped away. But by this time, Rajendran began vomiting. So Lekha took him to a private hospital, where he was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit.

Earlier, while talking to the bystanders, she was able to piece together what had happened. Rajendran was travelling helmetless on a Suzuki bike on the main road. Suddenly, a young man on another bike raced from a side road and hit Rajendran.  

My husband fell to the side of the road, but a pointed stone entered his neck,” says Lekha.

Anyway, Rajendran remained in the hospital for 17 days. “He was breathing but did not open his eyes even once,” says Lekha. “Eventually, my husband passed away.”

Lekha went into shock. “I could not understand what had happened,” she says. “For a long time, I found his death difficult to accept. When I would read about accidents in the newspaper, I would think that this happened to other people and not us.”  

Meanwhile, the hospital bill came to a large amount. Rajendran, who was working as a contractor for the Railways, did not have much savings. So the burden to clear the debt fell on Lekha. She returned to Kerala, she belongs to Vaikom, and thanks to a friend, Sreevarma, she joined a pharmaceuticals company at Kochi as a medical representative. Her son remained at the hostel of the Thiagarajar College of Engineering at Madurai.  

For the next three years, Lekha travelled on a scooter to places like Kottayam and Ettumanoor. “I enjoyed the work but had to stop because I developed back pain,” she says. “The doctor told me to stop using a two-wheeler.”  

So, Lekha, after securing a driving license for four-wheelers, became an instructor in a driving school in end-2014. “I love driving,” she says. “I enjoy the control and the confidence that I feel whenever I sit behind the wheel. I also enjoy teaching.”

After two years, Lekha felt the desire to become independent. So, on November 13, 2017, she started her own school.

Today, Lekha has become a different person altogether. “It has been a tremendous change for me,” she says. “During my twenty-year marriage, I hardly ever stepped out of the house. I was a frog in the well. Now I have become outgoing and confident, although it took a tragedy for me to become a new person.”

This confidence has enabled her to tackle some of the negative experiences that she has faced. “When people come to know that I am a widow, they get different ideas,” says the 43-year-old. “And that is difficult to bear. Initially, they come with the idea of wanting to help, but later, they reveal their actual motive of wanting to get friendly with me.”

Meanwhile, she is proud of her son, who has a job at Kochi and is doing his M.Tech in SRM College at Chennai. He goes on weekends to attend the classes while he is also doing his MBA, through distance education, from Pondicherry University.

The driving lesson came to an end. The girl got out of the car. And so did Lekha. She went back to her office. Life goes on. But this woman, unlike many others, has refused to succumb to depression and passivity and has turned her life around. 

A quiet heroine of our times! 

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Triggering An Inner Healing



A group of trained volunteers from Pune, along with local NGOs spent a month in Eloor trying to help flood victims overcome their emotional trauma 

Illustration by Amit Bandre; (from left): Jahnavi Iyenger, Dnyaneshwar Ghuge, Seeba Bhojwani, Bobby Zacharia and KK Sunil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Lakshmi is standing at the door of her house at Eloor wearing a white saree, matching the white of her hair. The Periyar river is less than ten feet away. But on this day, it flows gently and calmly. It has been a few weeks since the river water rose and submerged her house. But the 80-year-old managed to escape, thanks to alert fishermen, on a boat towards a school which was set on higher ground.

It is a small house: a bedroom, kitchen and a bathroom at the side. “That is all that I need,” she says. “My husband abandoned me forty years ago. He has another wife and family now. I brought up four children -- three sons and a daughter -- on my own. They are all married. Now only one son bothers to look me up.”

Asked whether she is scared about the future, she says, “What will happen will happen. If you want to die, can you do so? Only God can decide that.”

Listening to her intently is a group of people. They include Seeba Bhojani, Dnyaneshwar Ghuge, and Bobby Zacharia, trained volunteers who have come all the way from Pune along with their youngest colleague Jahnavi Iyengar. She has just passed her Class 12 exams and is on a gap year. With them is KK Sunil of the Kochi-based NGO Chaithram, a suicide-prevention group. The Pune members are part of the group HiCup -- ‘Hope, Change, Prosper’, which had been set up by Seeba. They have partnered with a Pune NGO Jnana Prabodhini and Maithri, a suicide-prevention NGO in Kochi.

The Pune team had read about the floods in the newspapers. They felt a need to contribute. “I knew from my own experience that after a major disaster, the most neglected aspect is the emotional damage,” says Seeba. “People have lost their earnings, belongings and homes, and even their loved ones. That is very traumatic. I felt we should listen to their problems, and help in their psychological recovery.”

The Eloor Municipality was the most affected. Nearly all the houses went under water. After talking to the municipality chairman, they decided to focus on wards 1, 2 and 31. Overall, they visited 400 houses. And for some houses, they made three visits spread over a month.

After the initial effort to get their houses cleaned, the people were faced with the problem of earning a living. Most of them were farmers, some were carpenters while a few were mechanics. “There was one man who was running a workshop,” says Seeba. “But the welding equipment got damaged. And he cannot use it again. Now he does not have the money to invest in a new one.”

A tailor’s sewing machine was damaged in the floods. The woman repaired it but the people who are giving her clothes to stitch do not have enough money to pay the appropriate amount. “So, she cannot earn a decent income,” says Jahnavi. In another case, a family had 30 sheep and all had died. Unfortunately, the animals were not insured.

Meanwhile, the stress is getting to people. Alcoholic consumption has increased. “Many men are running away from reality by drinking,” says Bobby. “Unfortunately, some of them, when they get drunk, end up beating their wives.”

Children have also suffered. “Many felt neglected,” says Bobby. “Their parents were focused on the work of getting their house back to normal.”

The children have gone through their own trauma of losing their favourite books, textbooks or a precious toy. Many had chickens, parrots, cats and goats as pets. “They were emotionally attached to these animals,” says Bobby. “So when they died, the children felt sad.”

As for the teenagers, a few felt angry and rebellious. “Earlier, they would listen to their parents, but post-flood, they don’t,” says Sunil. “They prefer to go out with their friends. When we talked to one boy, who is in Class 11, he said that this is the only way he can get some mental relief. He had lost his books, a computer table, and his beloved keyboard. He told us he had no one to share his sorrows, except with his friends.”

There are health breakdowns, too. “Many are diabetic and have heart problems,” says Dnyaneshwar. “Most government medical centres in the area had shut down because of the floods. So the people could not get their regular medicines. One woman was going through a fertility treatment and could not take medicines for a month. So her problems have resumed.”

But some people have found simple ways to combat stress. One lady had a hen which had laid four eggs. And they have all become small chicks. When she feels depressed, she goes to the courtyard and spends time in front of the chicks as they run around. “She feels happy,” says Seeba. “Another woman, when she was cleaning her house, saw a small fish swimming in the water. She picked it up and put it in a bowl. Now she keeps staring at the fish. She says that this enables her to destress.”

Interestingly, no one is angry with God about what had happened. “On the other hand, they are thankful that God had saved their houses and families,” says Sunil. “They know that in places like Idukki, several houses were swept away in the floods. And so many lives were lost. One woman said, ‘I am very grateful to God that he spared us’. They have become more spiritual and pray a lot now. They no longer take anything for granted.”

But the road to recovery is long and arduous. While the Pune group will be returning soon, Sunil said that they would continue to provide emotional support for at least six months, to ensure that there is some form of psychological healing. “We are hoping for the best,” he says. 

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

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Beauty Of Art


The Neelambari resort at Arattupuzha, Kerala focuses on traditional classical dance forms

Photo: TS Sreeni and his wife Meera. Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

Revital Eytan, senior lecturer and a director in the School of Performing Arts at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Tel-Aviv, was in Kochi recently. She wanted to do research on the performing arts of South India. As she moved around, somebody told her that the best place to witness authentic classical dance performances was at the Neelambari Ecotourism resort at Arattupuzha (80 kms from Kochi). So she decided to go for a day.

Managing Partner TS Sreeni arranged for Revital to see a koodiyattam dance. But to ensure that Revital understood what she was seeing, Sreeni quickly briefed her on the social and historical context. After the performance, she asked the dancer whether she could learn from him. The end result: Revital stayed for eight days.

The Neelambari is a resort with a difference. “The idea is to showcase the rich cultural legacy of Kerala,” says Sreeni. So, the resort has a Koothambalam (a sort of temple theatre). Inside the hall, there are four intricately carved pillars. The ceiling is also etched with fine designs. The wooden stage floor gleams. The backdrop is a wooden wall. The audience sits on cane chairs, as a cool breeze blows in through the trellised windows.

And it is in this hall that visitors can see a Kathakali dance as well as Thayambaka (drums), and Tolpava Koothu (puppetry) performances. Interestingly, there are no in-house artists. Instead, Sreeni calls them to the resort or takes the visitors to dance centres nearby. Noted Koodiyattam exponent Usha Nangiar has a dance school just three kilometres away. Usha shows the movements in slow motion and explains the symbolism. “It is very enchanting for the guests,” says Sreeni.

Incidentally, the design of the main building at Neelambari is in traditional nalukettu-style (this is a rectangular structure where four halls are joined together with a central courtyard which is open to the sky). Mural paintings adorn the walls. The roof is made of red tiles. This area comprises the reception and the lounge. Nearby, there are cottages of two rooms each. The furniture, the doors and windows are wooden; everything is spic and span. The ambience is rural. There are no sounds except of birds and insects. Mentally, you tend to slow down and feel calm.

For those who are not interested in the arts, there are yoga classes, Ayurveda massage, the use of a spa, a boat trip down the nearby Karuvannur river, apart from visits to nearby temples and villages.

And it is interesting to know that Sreeni has given up a thriving career in the IT business. After passing out of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur in 1998, he had worked in Wipro before joining Kalkitech, an IT company in Bangalore. In 2016, when he quit, he had been vice-president of international sales at Dubai. “I wanted to try something different,” he says. “Initially, my plan was to write a novel.”

But a chance meeting with a friend, who is an affluent businessman based in Dubai, was a turning point. The latter agreed to invest in Neelambari as an art centre.

Art has always been close to Sreeni. “I grew up in a cultural ambience at Chalakudy,” he says. “There was a Kathakali Club in our area. When I grew older, I read a lot of books on traditional dance forms and kept attending programmes.” But while in Dubai, Sreeni joined a group that conducted the prestigious International Koodiyattam and Kathakali Festival. “I was able to make a lot of contacts with artists,” he says. “My interest deepened and this eventually resulted in the Neelambari.”

Saturday, October 27, 2018

“This Award Is A Boost For Regional Writers”



Says author Benyamin after winning the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature (Rs 25 lakh) for his novel ‘Jasmine Days’

Photo of Benyamin by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When it was announced that Benyamin had won the inaugural Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize For Literature for his novel, ‘Jasmine Days’ at a function in New Delhi, on October 24, he felt an overwhelming excitement. “I also felt surprised I had won even though I was on the shortlist,” he says.

The other books included ‘Poonachi: Or The Story of a Black Goat’ by Perumal Murugan, ‘Latitudes of Longing’ by Shubhangi Swarup, ‘Half The Night Is Gone’ by Amitabha Bagchi, and ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ by Anuradha Roy. Not surprisingly when he went on stage, he said, “This is the most beautiful evening of my life.”

After the function, author Arshia Sattar told Benyamin, “From the time of the publication of ‘Goat Days’ [Benyamin’s best-selling novel], I felt you deserved a big award, so I am happy you finally got it.” A smiling Benyamin said, “It was a happy moment for me when she said that.”

Benyamin was also happy that a regional language novel was able to win this prestigious award. “Too many people abroad believe that Indian literature means Indian-English literature,” he said. “But my win has shown that there is very good work being done in the regional languages. I believe this will prove a boost for regional writers. People have the mistaken impression that we are not that good and do not communicate to a larger world.”

The novel, (translated into English by the New York-based teacher Shahnaz Habib), focuses on the life of radio jockey Sameera Parveen from Pakistan and how her life changes when a revolution comes to an unnamed West Asia country. The events described are similar to what took place in different countries of West Asia, following the Arab Spring of 2010.

I lived in Manama (Bahrain) for over 20 years, so I had some knowledge of the area,” he said. “In Bahrain, people protested at the Central Square asking for democracy but in the end, it failed. So I thought I would write a novel about it.”

All these conflicts, as well as a rising fanaticism all over the world, is worrying Benyamin. “The power of religion is growing day by day,” he said. “Neighbours are becoming enemies. People are losing their tolerance and compassion. People say, ‘My religion and my belief are the right ones. Any other religion and thought processes are wrong’.”

The spread of technology is accelerating the divide. “In earlier times, if a person spouted hatred it was limited to a certain area,” he says. “Now, thanks to Facebook, Whatsapp and other apps, a man’s verbal poison can travel the entire world and infect so many people. In fact, sadly, too many people are spreading poison all the time. I fear for the future of societies when there is so much of hatred all around.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether there is a market for literary fiction, Benyamin says, “In every civilisation reading has not been a major pastime. In fact, it is a small minority that reads books, especially literary works. But I believe that, thanks to rising education levels, the number of readers has steadily increased, especially in Malayalam literature.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Drug Bust, Revisited



Former Australian diplomat Brian Milgate entangled with drug smugglers at Kochi in 1983 and went through harrowing experiences. After writing a screenplay, he had recently come to Kochi with an idea of making a bilingual film
 
By Shevlin Sebastian

In January, 1983, sailor Brian Milgate set sail from Darwin, Australia, accompanied by his girlfriend Alison McGuinness, to take part in a transatlantic yacht race from Britain.
 
However, near the coast of Sri Lanka, the rudder of his yacht ‘Tiger Rag’ got entangled with a fishing net. He pushed on, but a sudden storm made it difficult. Since he was near Kochi, he stopped near the Bolgatty Palace for repairs.
 
Soon, he befriended a fellow Australian named James Howard, who had been living at the Palace for a year with his girlfriend Jyl Gocher. A retired photojournalist, James told Brian he was going to England for a medical check-up and would bring back spare parts for his yacht. But, in return, Brian should supervise the repairs which were taking place on his own boat ‘Steppenwolf’. Brian agreed. Soon, James left.
 
As Brian began working on the ‘Steppenwolf’, he became suspicious. “There were sophisticated electronic equipment, a powerful transmitter, a satellite-linked navigator, computers and dark-room equipment,” says Brian, while on a recent visit to Kochi where he stayed at the Bolgatty Palace.
 
And James did not return by plane. Instead, he came on a ship called the ‘Hetty’ in March and was accompanied by a man called Richard Merkley. The latter was known in drug enforcement circles as a narcotics trafficker.
 
Brian aired his suspicions to the Customs at Kochi. They raided the ship but did not find anything incriminating. James was incensed. He hired a couple of men to kill Brian, but the latter managed to escape.
 
Brian then spoke to Maxwell Fernandes, a reporter of the Indian Express who published the story. It created a furore. James filed a defamation suit against Brian, who had to hire a lawyer to defend himself
 
In the end, Brian managed to return to Perth along with Allison. Thereafter, he did intensive research and sent letters regarding his suspicions about the ‘Hetty’ to the drug enforcement agencies in London and Washington.
 
Meanwhile, the ‘Hetty’ set sail from Kochi. And sometime in November, when it appeared near the coast of New Jersey, the US Coast Guard intercepted it. A search was done. Below a cargo of timber, there were 13 tonnes of hashish in the form of bricks. It was worth $200 million and was one of the biggest international drug hauls ever. 

“I was told that because of this interception, the Mafia in America lost $75 million which they had paid as an advance for the consignment,” says Brian. “But even though there was a suspicion that the hashish had been put into the ship at Kochi, nothing could be proved. So James could not be apprehended.”
 
Anyway, back in Perth, to overcomes the stress and tensions of the past several months, Brian and Alison wrote a book. This was published as ‘The Cochin Connection -- Two against the drug trade: a true story’ which became a bestseller. Soon, many Hollywood studios expressed an interest in making a film. Five screenplays were written. But Brian was not satisfied by any one. So, no film was made.
 
In the meantime, a qualified Naval architect, Brian concentrated on his career as a trade diplomat in the Australian government. “I worked on two trade missions to Japan to make environmental changes in industry,” he says. Brian also wrote the national policy on water because he was the team leader on the Economic Water Resources Model.
 
Thereafter, tired of dealing with politicians, Brian left the government and started the Lemon Myrtle Farms. “It is an organic farm,” he says. “We have 1.2 million trees. Lemon Myrtle is an Australian native tree. We make oil, tea and food flavouring.”
 
These are exported to Germany, England. Singapore and Malaysia. But after 25 years of running the farm, Brian sold it two years ago. “Now I am retired,” he says. “And I am travelling the world on my yacht and having a good time.”

As for his personal life, he married Allison and divorced her after 10 years. Thereafter, for ten years, he remained single, before he married a Chinese doctor who lives in Australia. Then, in January, this year, he, along with his wife, had gone to the latter’s home in Chengdu, China. She wanted to look after her 87-year-old father who was ailing. That was when Brian got the idea to write the screenplay of 'The Cochin Connection' himself. “It took me two months,” he says.

Brian had come to Kochi to meet Mollywood producers who would be interested in making a film. “It will be a bilingual production, in Malayalam and English,” he says. “Talks are going on.”

Meanwhile, most of the dramatis personae are no longer there. James died of cancer, at the age of 67, in 1987. James’s girlfriend Jyl took his money and bought an apartment in Singapore. “I am told she is living there comfortably,” says Brian.

Maxwell  died in 1985 at the age of 46. “He had been threatened by James and the stress and trauma of the episode may have led to his premature death”, says his Kochi-based uncle Edgar Morris, who is helping Brian in connecting with prospective Mollywood producers. “I remember that whenever I walked with him on the streets, he would constantly look back.” 

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