Tuesday, May 21, 2019

‘Stranded Abroad’ provides free assistance to Malayalis who fall into legal trouble in Dubai

Photos: Illustration by Soumyadip Sinha; Arun Abraham 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a Monday morning in Dubai. But Shreya, 16, and Anil, 14, are sitting at home and watching TV, instead of being in school. That’s because their father does not have the money to pay their school fees. Jacob George was working in an insurance company as a senior accountant for a few years. “But I wanted to earn more,” he says.

So, he quit the company, took a bank loan and started a travel company. But his timing was wrong. Dubai has been in an economic downturn for the past few years. “The firm did not do well,” he says. And soon Jacob found himself in financial trouble. Creditors came knocking at his door.

Kochi native and Dubai-based lawyer Arun Abraham is the founder of ‘Stranded Abroad’, a not-for-profit firm. He set it up in May, last year, to help Malayalis who are in legal trouble. Jacob approached Arun and, somehow, the latter managed to keep him out of jail. But because he is under a travel ban, Jacob is stuck in Dubai.  

It was because of cases like Jacob that Arun felt an urge to help these people who are in limbo. “I have lived in Dubai for many years,” he says. “During the course of my work, many Malayalis have approached me. In most cases, the breadwinner is in jail. His family back home in Kerala is the one who actually suffers. They have no clue about what to do. There was a lacuna. They needed someone to guide and assist them. So, through my organisation, I provide the advice and link them to lawyers.”

Arun has set up a network of fifteen Arab lawyers who provide their services for free. “They are friends and people of a similar mindset,” he says. He also links them to community leaders who provide moral support.     

As for the different offences that Malayalis are charged with, they include financial misappropriation, unpaid debt, drunk driving, visa violations, overstay issues, and drug-related offences.

Junaid Malik, 20, who was working in an IT firm, was having grass (cannabis) in his home. The police arrested him and did a medical test. Usually, drugs stay in the system for two weeks. They got his name from a friend, Mani, who was arrested earlier. They forced Mani to give up the names of his friends who took drugs with him.

He received a ten month sentence, because he is a first-time offender. Following the completion, Junaid was deported.  

All these problems put the family under severe financial stress. For drunk driving, the fine is a steep 30,000 dirhams (Rs 5.7 lakh). “Sadly, it may lead to loss of employment and a steep drop in income,” says Arun.  

The only silver lining is that the Dubai government has introduced a new rule regarding bounced cheques a couple of years ago. “Now if the amount is below 200,000 dirhams, you only have to pay a fine,” says Arun.

So what is the way forward? Arun suggests that the Indian associations in Dubai should hold refresher classes for Malayalis so they know the legal hurdles they might have to face if something goes wrong. “Too many Malayalis are unaware of the dangers,” says Arun. “They take loans casually. They give cheques without enough balance in their accounts. They drink and drive. They succumb to the greed of wanting more money. All this can cause immense damage. You have to be cautious if you want to live a hassle-free life in Dubai.”  

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Little-known, ignored and forgotten

In his solo exhibition, photographer Praveen Rengaraj has focused on the lives of fishermen in and around Kochi

Photos: Praveen Rengaraj by Albin Mathew. Image of fisherman by Praveen Rengaraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photographer Praveen Rengaraj stood on Mandapam beach in Tamil Nadu. It was a tranquil setting. A clean beach, the roar of the waves, wisps of cloud in the sky on a December morning. Soon, the fishing boats returned. There were loud cries of joy. It had been a good day’s catch. Praveen approached them. They readily agreed to be photographed. One later took him for a ride. When he returned, a fisherman by the name of Guruswamy requested him to come to his home for lunch.

It was a two-room thatched hut near the beach. Praveen sat on the floor and had a meal of rice, rasam and the choicest fish. In the end, he offered Rs 500 because he felt happy. Guruswamy said, “How can I take any money? You are my guest.” Praveen was moved. “This behaviour of theirs, so friendly and large-hearted is what drew me towards them,” he says.

Praveen returned to Kochi and began taking photographs of fishermen. It helped that his apartment overlooked the backwaters. Later, he shot in different parts of Kerala, in Bengal, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the US. Today, his first-ever solo exhibition called ‘Beyond Fishermen’, is taking place at the Kashi Art Gallery at Fort Kochi (April 6 - May 31). Interestingly, he decided to put up the photos only of the fishermen in and around Kochi.    

Praveen has taken images of the boatmen, sometimes in the early morning, as the sun is rising, when they embarked for fishing, or when they returned, at twilight, with the sunlight like a single ray just lighting up the fisherman’s body as well as a portion of the boat, or when they sat on the river’s edge with an introspective look on their faces. Looking at the images, viewers become aware of the solitary nature of the job.  

For me, a fisherman is an extension of nature,” says Praveen. “I have not viewed him as a person in physical form. Instead, he is faceless, almost like a shadow. For me, God is the ultimate artist, and a fisherman steps in from one side and adds a new perspective to the water body.”

Praveen has gained a new perspective about fishermen thanks to his constant interactions. “They have a deep belief in nature,” he says. “Many have the conviction that nature will not disappoint. If not today you will get something tomorrow. So, even if he does not get fish on any particular day, the fisherman is not disappointed. All fishermen have a positive attitude. You wave at them. They will wave back.”

Another reason for their joy could be the close proximity to water. “It is a calming medium,” says Praveen. “The sound of a waterfall, the dribble of rainwater falling from a roof to the ground, or the slap of the oar against the water, you tend to fall into a meditative mood..”  

A constant interaction with Nature leads to humility, too. “A fisherman’s material possessions is very limited,” says Praveen. “In this age of voracious consumerism, you can only drive only one car at a time. Yet people want two or three cars. People have 30 pairs of shoes but can only wear one pair at a time. Does happiness arise from owning things? I have no idea. In many ways, the fisherman’s simple existence is a life lesson for all of us in the middle class: less is more.”  

Praveen’s ardent desire, through the exhibition, is to make people aware of the fishermen. “They have been the mainstay of Kerala for centuries but we have not given him the respect that he deserves,” he says. “He has always been an unsung hero. During the floods last year it was the fishermen who saved so many lives. And without their tireless work, you cannot enjoy fish in your cuisine.”

Praveen also enjoys photography with a passion. His life turned when his mother gave him an Agfa camera when he was only seven years old. The son of an Army officer, photography, however, has not been a full-time career. Instead, he worked in the tea industry, first as a planter and later as a taster. Then he shifted professions and began developing high-end boutique hotels. But through it all, photography remained a constant. “I hope one day to bring out a coffee table book on the fishermen,” says the 47-year-old.  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exposing the underbelly

The late Dalit Christian author Paul Chirakkarode’s ‘Pulayathara’, which is regarded as a masterpiece, focuses on the oppression of the marginalised communities. It has just been published in an English translation

Photos: Paul Chirakkarode illustration by Amit Bandre; Catherina Thankamma

By Shevlin Sebastian

Songs resonated within the Church as the dark-skinned womenfolk sat in a row and sang…
Were these women unaware of the truth? The Church that was blessed by their vital music was filled with caste prejudice. Did they not know it? There was no light here. No spirituality A place wholly darkened by superstition and the elitism of caste. O people, who come here hoping for light, go back! This is an organisation built by rich men who have made God a witness for the prosecution. In this religion which has turned into an organisation, there is no virtue, no spirituality. It is now a dark place, where good people cannot see their way at all.’
This is an extract from ‘Pulayathara’, a novel written by Dalit human rights activist and author Paul Chirakkarode (1939-2008). Published by Oxford University Press, in a superb English translation by the Kochi-based English teacher Catherine Thankamma, it is a mesmerising read. Incidentally, the Malayalam version was published in 1962. And it is now regarded as the first Dalit Christian novel in Malayalam literature.

It tells the story of how the low-caste Pulayar and Parayar communities were exploited mercilessly by the landowners -- upper-caste Hindus and wealthy Christians -- of the Kuttanad region in central Kerala. They worked long hours on the paddy fields and got a few sheaves of paddy as payment.

It would be about 250 grams of grain per day, to feed the entire family,” says Catherine. And in the non-harvesting season, they usually starved. Apart from this, the marginalised communities did not have a proper place which they could call their home since they were not allowed to own land.

But there was hope at hand. At the Hilltop Church, if you converted, you were given a Christian name, as well as a tiny patch of land where you could build a house. And so, many of the lower castes adopted Christianity in the hope of ending a life of discrimination.

Unfortunately, that hope turned out to be false. Because the upper-caste Christians refused to accept the new entrants on an equal footing. So, while the former sat on benches and chairs at the back of the church, the members of the lower castes sat on the floor in front. Not surprisingly, there was anger and a rising need to protest against this injustice.

All this has been described with passion and skill by Chirakkarode as he looks deeply into the characters: non-convert Thevan Pulayan, new converts Kandankoran and his wife Anna, Pallithara Pathros, church stalwart Custodian Thomas, landowner Narayanan Nair, and tea-stall owner Pillaichan, among many others.

This is not Chirakkarode’s only book. In fact, he published eight more novels, two collections of short stories, several critical studies and a well-received biography of B.R.Ambedkar. “But ‘Pulayathara’ is regarded as his masterpiece,” says Catherine.

Interestingly, he could not get a publisher. Most probably, it was because he was a Dalit Christian, says Catherine. So, Chirakkarode self-published the novel with a print run of 500 copies. Today, just a couple of copies exist, one of which is in the Public Library at Thiruvananthapuram. “He was an under-rated writer,” says Catherine. “And that is a pity.”

Chirakkarode lived in the era of literary icons like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P. Kesava Dev, S.K. Pottekkatt and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. “Except for Basheer, these writers have addressed caste-related atrocities, but it was peripheral to the thematic concerns of their novels,” says Catherine. “They were members of privileged castes. Hence, no amount of sympathy can replace an actual felt experience.”

And Chirakkarode did have a felt experience. He was the son of a first-generation Dalit convert Rev LT Daniel, who was a preacher of the Christian Missionary Society. But, unlike other converts, Paul had access to education. He ended up getting a master’s degree in economics, law, sociology, English and Malayalam literature.

Thanks to his education, Chirakkarode became deeply aware about the humiliations and sufferings of the poor, especially of the members of his own community,” says Catherine. “As a result, he developed an evangelical zeal for justice.”

For many Malayalis who have grown up outside Kerala and have only a rudimentary knowledge of Malayalam, this novel is a must-read. It gives a picture of the inequality, prejudice, class divisions, and the heartless exploitation of the lower castes that took place for centuries in God’s Own Country. 

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Yap, yap….these biscuits are good for you

Home-baker Jayalakshmi Deepak discovered that when she gave her dogs processed food they would feel distressed. Now she has made home-made natural biscuits that the dogs can eat without having any side-effects

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Albin Mathew 

On a recent Saturday evening, a few friends had gathered at home-baker Jayalakshmi Deepak’s house at Kochi. Soon, the topic drifted to whether having dogs as pets are a bane or a boon. Jayalakshmi’s entrepreneur husband Deepak is a dog lover. As he spoke intensely on the subject, suddenly, there was a blur of movement. It was their boxer dog Hooch. The dog put a paw on Deepak’s arms and started licking his hand. “On hearing Deepak’s loud voice, Hooch wanted to calm him down,” says Jayalakshmi.

Not surprisingly, the group burst into laughter. “Later, my husband tried to fool Hooch by deliberately raising his voice,” says Jayalakshmi. “But Hooch did not react because he could detect the difference in tone.”

Apart from Hooch, Jayalakshmi has a female boxer called Bailey and a Basset Hound called Toddy. While Hooch and Bailey live inside their first-floor apartment, Toddy stays in the compound. “They are our children,” says Jayalakshmi, who has a 17-year-old daughter Diya, who also loves dogs
However, all was hunky dory with her dogs, but a few months ago Jayalakshmi came to realise that the processed food that she gave her dogs was having a negative impact on them. They would have stomach pains and looked distressed.

A research on Google confirmed Jayalakshmi’s suspicions. In fact, this is a worldwide problem. Many vets have stated that it is better to avoid giving processed foods to dogs. Most processed foods, like biscuits, grapes, and corn have a lot of artificial preservatives, colours, chemicals, additives and fillers.

That was when Jayalakshmi got the idea of making nutritious and natural biscuits. After careful research, she has made flavours like chicken cranberry, beef pumpkin spinach, fish-carrot-beetroot, banana and peanut butter. But she quickly adds, “I make the peanut butter myself. As for the oil, it is home-milled coconut oil. The latest studies show that this is good for the skin and hair of dogs.” She also adds natural flours like ragi, oats and wheat. The end result is that the biscuits are free of artificial preservatives.   

The biscuits, marketed under the brand name of Hooch and Bailey’s Barkery, have been packed in 100-gram packets and are being sold at rates ranging from Rs 150 to Rs 170 per packet. The impact on her dogs has been immediate. They no longer have any stomach problems. And their appetite has increased.

Meanwhile, when asked about the home-made meals that she gives Hooch and Bailey, Jayalakshmi says, “It is predominantly proteins.” So, at 10 a.m., she gives around 200 grams of chicken each with broth, and a dash of turmeric. Sometimes, she gives biscuits with yoghurt. For lunch, at 3 p.m., it is 250 grams of fish and rice. “They love anchovies or sardines, which have the maximum omega-3 fats,” says Jayalakshmi, who has loved dogs since her childhood and played with many of them in her grandfather’s house at Chendamangalam. “At 9 p.m., for dinner, it is a combination of almost raw beef. I place it in boiling water, just to kill off the bacteria. I also add carrots and spinach.”

At the end, she gives bones. “Dogs have a natural urge to bite so if you give them bones they will stop destroying the furniture,” says Jayalakshmi. “It also strengthens the jaws.”

As to why she goes through so much effort, Jayalakshmi says, “Dogs have an unconditional love for you. In the morning when I open the door of the balcony where they sleep, they show so much excitement. They do a boxer shake called the kidney bean dance. It's like as if they have not seen me for two months. I must say it is a beautiful sight. It makes my day.”

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mollywood Director Blessy’s film on Mar Chrysostom wins Guinness World Records Award for longest documentary

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On the evening of May 9, director Blessy got an e-mail which sent his heart aflutter. The Guinness World Records Award told him he had set the world record for the longest documentary. The film, ‘100 Years of Chrysostum’, is about the life of the 102-year-old senior Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan. At 48 hours 10 minutes, it easily defeated the earlier record of 21 hours.

But there was a long process to apply for the award. Blessy had to send the details about the film, the number of shots and rushes, and how long it was. He also needed a certificate from the Censor Board. Interestingly, online, they could only issue a certificate which is 999 minutes long. But Blesssy’s film is 2880 minutes long. So they had to upgrade their site.

Then for seven days, at Thiruvananthapuram, the Board Members saw the film before they issued the certificate,” says Blessy. “This is the longest film that they had ever seen. A premiere show had to take place. I had to do a public screening for five consecutive days before it could be eligible for the award.”

The shooting began on May 1, 2015, and it took two years to finish. Asked why he decided to make a film, Blessy says, “We live in an era where religion is narrow-minded and divisive, and people do not accept the believers of other faiths. So, we need the Bishop's attitude of being able to see the face of God in all human beings, whatever religion he belongs to.”

In the documentary, Mar Chrysostom is also seen interacting with celebrities like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, actors Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suesh Gopi, singers KJ Yesudas and KS Chithra, former sportspersons PT Usha and IM Vijayan and writers like the late ONV Kurup and MT Vasudevan Nair.

Interestingly, Blessy found Mar Chrysostom a natural in front of the camera. There is a scene where an old woman has to proffer a mug filled with coffee. But since her hands shook, she was given an empty mug. “But we did not inform the Bishop about that,” says Blessy. “But very naturally he took the cup and pretended to drink from it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Bridging the religious divide

Saleena Musthafa, a Muslim, one of Kerala’s senior woman trainers of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living course, talks about her experiences 

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is 6 a.m., but Kochi remains dark on this February morning. There are several stars scattered across the sky. But inside a brightly-lit convention hall, Art of Living trainer Saleena Musthafa waits patiently as the people trickle in: businessmen, teachers doctors, engineers, and IT professionals, an even mix of men and women.

The programme begins. “Many people are stressed-out, angry and tense,” says Saleena. “But life is a gift. It is supposed to be celebrated. We should be happy. That is what I am going to teach you.”

Saleena pauses and asks, “What is the first thing a new-born baby does?”

A couple of members says, “Cry.” But one says, “Breath.”

Saleena gets excited and says, “Exactly. The baby takes a breath before it cries. And when a person dies, it is the breath that stops. Breath is at the core of life. Unfortunately, we pay little attention to it even though it is so important. But we get a deeper understanding of its importance when we use the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique, as taught to us by Guruji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Through controlled breathing, you can become relaxed and calm.”

Whatever Saleena says sounds fine, except when you look at her. She is a Muslim who wears a hijab to cover her hair. Her religion has not hampered her teaching at all.  

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has said that the Sudarshan Kriya is beyond religion,” she says. “So Guruji wants Christians to remain Christians, Hindus to be Hindus, and Muslims should be Muslims.”

However, her relatives are not very appreciative. “Some of them are very orthodox,” she says. “They ask me why I am following a swami. You have the Quran, they tell me. But I have told them many times that I have not given up my religion. I am still praying regularly and doing all the observances of a devout Muslim.”

What brings solace to Saleena is that her immediate family is fully behind her. They include her husband Muhammad Mustapha, her two children, as well as her 70-year-old businessman father EK Kunju Mohammad.

In fact, she says, her father has a progressive attitude. When Saleena was in class five, he gave her books by Swami Vivekananda, Osho and Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati to read.

Saleena’s life changed in 2001 when a close relative died. She went into an emotional turmoil. Seeing her in this state, her father’s close friend, CRP Mohammed asked her to attend an Art of Living course. “He had done one and liked it a lot,” says Saleena. So she attended her first course at Payyoli, Kozhikode in May, 2001.

Saleena felt an immediate change when she did the Sudarshan Kriya. “I developed a positive attitude,” she says. She attended two more courses in quick succession. Thereafter, Saleena went to the International Centre of Art of Living in Bangalore to do more courses and harboured a desire to meet Sri Sri.

One day she was standing in a queue outside a hall to get a darshan. Soon,  Sri Sri arrived. When he saw Saleena, he came up to her, smiled and said, “You should do the TTC [Teacher Training Course] soon.”

Saleena was stunned when he said this. But she nodded and after a year, Saleena became a qualified teacher.

Incidentally, whenever Sri Sri comes to Kerala, Saleena tries to meet him. “I feel happy and humbled to be in the presence of such a great person,” she says. As for Sri Sri, he
always recognises her and says, “Hi Saleena, how are you?” Recently, at a public function, he introduced her to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.  

And there are many who look happy when they see a Muslim take a class. “I think it is a confirmation to them that India’s syncretic culture, which has lasted for thousands of years, is still going strong,” says Saleena, who also takes classes for children, youth as well as corporates.

One corporate who came out of curiosity was Girija Sreekumar, the managing director of an IT firm. One day, she was passing through the Padivattom suburb in Kochi, when she saw a banner. It showed the images of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Saleena next to each other. “It really attracted me,” she says. “And when I saw Saleena I realised her presence gave out a message that there was nothing religious about the programme. Later, thanks to her excellent teaching of the Sudarshan Kriya, I felt very energetic and positive-minded. She is doing a very good job.”  

Adds the Tokyo-based Swami Sadyojatah, International Director, Art of Living: “Saleena constantly updates herself on all aspects of the teaching. She has been able to motivate hundreds of people to lead a happy, healthy and stress-free life. Her dedication and enthusiasm have been a constant inspiration for other trainers.”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Goodbye darkness, hello sunshine

On the eve of Mother’s Day (May 12), single mother Jince Mary Johns talks about her life experiences

Photos: Jince Mary Johns; Jince and Eldo on their wedding day 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Eldo Suresh Mathew was feeling low. He was returning from Kothamanagalam following the funeral of his cousin Saji, who, along with his young son, died in a car accident. In the car sat his wife Jince Mary Johns, his seven-month-old son Tarun and his father Mathew. Eldo dropped his wife and son at her home at Kuruppampady. Then he took his bike and decided to drop his father at his own home nearby.

On the way, at 3 p.m., on June 1, 1996, there was a dip in the road at Pookattupadi, on the Perumbavoor-Kakkanad route. As Eldo approached from one side, a private bus approached from the other side. Both were speeding.

Suddenly, the driver Manu (name changed) recognised Eldo. The latter would pick up Manu at a bus stop at the end of the day, whenever he saw the driver. They stayed in the same area. To show recognition, Manu quickly flicked on his headlights and switched it off. That distracted Eldo. He lost his focus and hit the bus with full force.

Eldo was rushed to the Ernakulam Medical Centre but was declared ‘brought dead on arrival’. An engineer with the Hindustan Organic Chemicals (HOC), he was only 30 years old. His father died three days later at the Medical Trust Hospital. Eldo’s mother had died much earlier.

Jince went into shock when she heard the news. She was 23 and had been married to Eldo for only two years.

I would run out of the house and go towards the St. Mary’s Church at Thengode where Eldo was buried,” she says. “Finally, I was taken to a doctor and put on tranquilisers.” She took them for six months.

Jince found it difficult to recover because she missed Eldo. “He was very loving and caring,” she says. “Because he was a few years older, he treated me almost like a daughter. Eldo showed a lot of affection towards me.”

But, thanks to her parents’ support, Jince slowly picked up the pieces of her life. She got a compensatory job at HOC.

But, very soon, relatives began putting pressure on her to remarry. “Many would come to me with proposals,” she says. “But I kept saying no. I was scared about how my son would be treated. There were many instances where stepfathers treated their stepchildren badly. Yet, at the same time, there were other men who adopted their wife’s child as their own. But I did not want to take the risk.”

Jince began working in HOC. One day, she had a surprise visitor. It was Manu the driver. After the accident, he had stopped driving buses. And moved to driving trucks. He had come to deliver some material to the factory. “He met me and apologised profusely,” says Jince. “I said, ‘Let it be’.”

After 12 years, Jince developed asthma, because the chemical phenol is the main product in the factory while cumene and benzene are the by-products. “I became allergic to cumene,” she says. “At one time I had to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.” So she quit and joined the HR department of an equity firm.

There were other health issues, too. In 2002, she had a tumour in her pancreas. She was admitted to Amrita Hospital for surgery. While there, she had a strange experience. During the surgery, when she was unconscious, she saw Eldo. He was sitting beside her wearing a white shirt and mundu. Unlike in real life, he was wearing spectacles. “He was holding my hand,” says Jince. “But he did not say anything. He looked calm and peaceful.”

Later, doctors told Jince that the moment she regained consciousness, following the surgery, her first words were, “Eldo, don’t leave me.”

Another health emergency occurred when Tarun had Cushing’s Disease in 2009. This is a tumour of the pituitary gland, but it is not cancerous. However, it can cause blindness and hormonal ill-effects. Treatment is through surgery. It was done at the CMC Hospital at Vellore. The tumour was cut off but the disease returned in 2011. Because of Tarun’s recurring health problems, Jince had to quit her job. “The medical expenses were high,” she says. “I had to sell a bit of property which I inherited from Eldo to pay the bills.”

After a five-year break, in May, 2017, Jince, along with a partner, started the L3 Design Studio on Convent Road. L3 means Look Love Live. She sells salwar kameez, sarees, skirts, trousers and blouses. There is also a tailoring unit.

At 47, life is going on. Asked how she has managed to handle the ups and downs of her life, she says, “God gave me the strength. I also learnt to develop my own emotional resources.”

One side-effect of being single is she had to ward off men. “Some of them misunderstood my friendliness and got other ideas,” she says.

There were financial setbacks, too. She invested in a chit fund but it failed. “A friend’s husband borrowed money from me and did not pay it back,” says Jince. “But I am soldiering on.”

So, on Mother’s Day, on May 12, what is the message she wants to give other women? “Cherish motherhood, cherish your husband, and enjoy family life as much as possible,” she says. “It can all be lost in a moment.” 

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

Monday, May 06, 2019

What do women think?

At the ‘She’ exhibition held at Kochi recently, women artists have their say about  different aspects of life

Photos: Some of the participating artists; work by Anu Zafaran, Uthara Remesh and Devu GR. Pics by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most days, by habit, artist Anu Zafaran looks out of the window of her 15th floor apartment in Kochi. Sometimes, she sees a blue sky, sometimes it is grey. The sight puts her in a reflective mood. Soon, she turns to her canvas and begins to paint.  The resulting works have been displayed at the ‘She’ exhibition which was held at the Kerala History Museum recently. 

In one, there is a sad-looking woman with reflective eyes, but with red sensuous lips. In front of her are large banana leaves. At one side there are flower petals, a bird standing still on a leaf, branches, and a silhouette of a woman who seems to be screaming. At the bottom, there is a girl who is looking upwards with curiosity at the pair of women. “I am trying to portray the relationship between nature and people,” she says.

Many people who know Anu told her that the portrait of the sad woman is that of her mother. “I don’t know,” says Anu. “My mother played a very big role in my life, but she died of stomach cancer in 2010. I do miss her. When I was 16, my father also passed away owing to a sudden heart attack. So my mother had a difficult time bringing me up and my brother.”

Anu is also a fan of the late Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Among his novels, she likes ‘Love in the time of cholera’. “That is why there is a lushness in the canvas, apart from the fact that Kerala is lush too,” says Anu.

Young artist Uthara Remesh has a different kind of lushness. Her work, an acrylic on plywood,  called ‘The Birth’, from a distance, seems to indicate a woman’s vagina. Red coloured fish is flowing down the channel. On all sides, trees abound along the thighs.  

Every aspect of the painting represents a woman,” says Uthara. “I see myself as a fish, who is flowing through the water. I fell in love with a man when I was painting this. The work represents my feeling of being a complete woman and maybe a subconscious desire to have a child.”

Uthara met Mahin at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, at Kochi. After graduating, the pair got married on December 18, 2016. In another work, ‘Hug’, Uthara drew a semi-naked version of herself resting her face against Mahin’s chest, a look of bliss on her face, despite the shut eyes.

This is a night scene,” says Uthara. “Mahin cares a lot about me and my family. That makes me feel wanted.” She used watercolours, beads, gum and different types of ink.
The works of 21 artists, a mix of established as well as upcoming artists had been on display. Says senior artist O Sundar who came up with the concept, “In the word, ‘She’, there is a He. Just as in a man’s success there is a woman, it is vice versa too. This was a message to the feminists. I feel there is an unnecessary fight between the sexes.”

There are works of varying themes. In Devu GR’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Agony and Ecstasy’, there is an image of cactus plants in a desert against a backdrop of pink coloured clouds. In the middle cactus, there is a bird which has come to peck at the flower called a bromeliad. “The cactus has a lot of thorns and yet it also has a beautiful flower,” says Devu. “Because of the thorns we usually tend to avoid touching the cactus. This is similar to human beings. Somebody may look tough, but if you approach him or her, you might find something sweet in them.”  

Young Soumya VN has also painted a sweet image. A girl is lying sideways on a mattress wearing a Kerala-style blouse and skirt. There are a few hibiscus flowers in the four corners. But what is prominent is the mobile phone which is placed next to her. “I wanted to show my connection with the phone, but not in a negative way,” says Soumya, who is doing her third year Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Sree Sankaracharya University at Kalady. “I am staying in the hostel. Thanks to the phone, I am able to stay in touch with my family and friends.”

Participating artists

Sara Hussain, Bindhi Rajagopal, Babita Rajiv, Jiji Ajith, Anju Acharya, Sreeja Pallam, Minimol MN, Reshmi Sreedhar, Meera Krishna, Celin Jacob, Biji KC, Smija Vijayan, Kripa Lalu, Gopika S Nair, Aswathy Rathish, Minnubabu P, and Yamini Mohan 

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Making the ordinary extraordinary

Chef Amal CA, of the Le Meridien, Kochi takes the regular dishes of the Kerala cuisine and makes all sorts of tasty innovations 

Photos: Chef Amal CA; the pearlspot preparation; tapioca with fish; rice dumplings. Pics by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most mornings, when Amal CA, Chef De Cuisine -- F&B Production, at the Le Meridien, Kochi, awakens, he has a recurring thought: ‘What can I make something new today?’  

Thus, on a recent morning, at the kitchen of the hotel, he got into full experimental mode. And the first dish that he made had fried pearlspot, and spread over it was a marinated mix. It consisted of raw mango, shallots, garlic, ginger, curry leaf and a dash of kandhari (chillies). “This is a healthy combination,” says Amal. “And because it is the mango season, I wanted to add a touch of the fruit.”

At one side of the plate, there is a stretch of rice, almost like a pathway. The Kaima rice, which is usually grown in Wayanad, is an aromatic, non-basmati rice. To this, Amal had added air-dried curry leaf to give it a greenish tinge. Thereafter, he added a vegetable salad, consisting of strips of carrot and onions, with a dash of lemon.

I ensure that all my dishes have proteins, carbohydrates and fibre,” he says. So, in this dish, the pearlspot provided the proteins, carbohydrates came from the kaima rice and the fibre was got from the vegetables.  

His next dish seems like the typical tapioca (kappa) and fish curry. But it is quite different, because for one, the kappa is creamy and milky. There are two fillets of pearlspot with a layer of masala in between, which has kokum and coconut. Once again, there are vegetables on one side.

The third dish has been inspired by a Syrian Christian dish called ‘chemeen koonthal idiyappam’. So, in a circle on the edge of the plate are the pidis (rice dumplings) but soaked in a yellow coconut gravy. In the middle is the traditional idiyappam (rice noodles), but instead of the usual grated coconut, there are prawns and squids. Again, there is a salad, at one corner, with a small addition: a small bowl of flavoured coconut milk, which you can add to the idiyappam.

All three dishes are sumptuous in taste. You get gripped by the various spices, and the combinations clearly show that Amal has a natural talent and feel for cooking.

As he beams, Amal says, “I want to make dishes which do not lose its authentic taste. It should also be a mind-blowing experience. Many guests have told me, ‘This is the first time I have ever eaten something like this’.”

The chef, who grew up in Kothamangalam, got attracted to cooking at a very early age. “Both my parents were interested in cooking, as well as a few uncles,” says Amal. “But the biggest inspiration has been my mother, Indira. We are three boys and had no sisters. From childhood, we would help our mother in the kitchen.”

Indira would show the boys how to make one appam and then would tell the boys to make the rest. “That was how we learned,” he says. “She would always tell us to make food in our own style.”

And Amal learnt to implement it early. Since he was plump, his mother would tell him to eat one egg, while his brothers had two. “So I would add a lot of onions, and chillies, to bulk up my omelette, so that it seemed I was having two eggs,” he says, with a smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, May 02, 2019

When the words come tumbling out

VJ Mathews, a former Air Force staffer, has just published an English version of his Malayalam novel, ‘Mithya’. Thus far, he has published 26 novels. He is also a successful entrepreneur 

Illustration by Tapas Ranjan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Flying from Jorhat to Dibrugarh was very pleasant. When returning, the take-off from Dibrugarh was also very smooth. But after fifteen minutes of flying, while crossing the Naga Hills, the engine developed some problem and started to produce unusual sounds which made Enasu and the other passengers feel panicky. Slowly, that sound increased and turned into a very high-pitched roar, like a Sten gun firing. Fut…...fut…...fut.

Suddenly, the aircraft engine stopped and the propeller became still. The plane started to descend with its nose down. Enasu could see the forest approaching. The death bell started to ring in his ears...’

This is an extract from entrepreneur VJ Mathew’s book, ‘Devil and Deity’, a just-released English translation of his Malayalam novel, ‘Mithya’. Priced at Rs 300, it is a fast-paced story about the trials and tribulations of Air Force pilot VD Enasu, who was one of the heroes of the Indo-Pak war of 1971.

Mathew has written the novel based on his own experiences. He had worked as a radar mechanic during the 1965 and ‘71 India-Pakistan wars. “Our job was to observe and track our flight movements as well as those of the enemy,” says Mathews. “There were sixty of us in an air-conditioned underground bunker, at Barnala in Punjab. Pakistan launched four bombing and three strafing attacks on the bunker, but nothing happened because we were 30 feet below the ground.”  

Following 16 years of service, Mathews opted for premature retirement. His reasoning was simple. “The salary was very low in the Air Force,” says Mathews. “It was only much later that the Pay Commission increased the pay. Now my pension is much more than the salary I received.”

Thereafter, in 1979, Mathews started his own business of making printed cartons. The Letha Group of Industries was a success from the very beginning. In 2000, when the then Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav banned the use of plastic cups, Mathews swiftly moved to develop paper ones.

And the business boomed even more. Helped by his sons Jackson and Don, they began supplying cups to Americans troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, they are supplying to coffee chains, tea houses and airlines like Indigo and Vistara as well as many other companies. But their focus is primarily on exports to countries like Australia, Britain and Germany.

We are the No 1 paper cup manufacturer in India,” says Jackson. “We make about 20 lakh cups a day.”

And they have made some innovations. About 95 per cent of the paper cups worldwide have a plastic lining. But Leetha has been the first to adopt a bio-degradable and compostable product. “We have received certification from the leading international body Intertek,” says Don.  

But despite his success story, Mathews cannot forget his poverty-stricken childhood. Memories bubble up as if the events just took place yesterday.

When he was studying at the St. Thomas school in Pala, the family was too poor to even provide him with a meal. “My classmates would bring lunch and eat it in class because there was no separate dining room,” says Mathews. “When I would get the aroma of the food, I would feel a pain in my jaws. I know that very few people have experienced this level of hunger.”

In Class nine, one afternoon, owing to an empty stomach, he could not concentrate and dozed off. The teacher Sunny noticed it, came up and tapped Mathews with a scale. The latter fell to the floor in a faint. Sunny panicked. Quickly he carried Mathews to the staff room.   

Mathews was perspiring heavily. Sunny quickly took off the shirt. Then he saw the flat stomach. He said, “Mathew, did you not take any food today?”

The boy wept. So Sunny called a student, gave him four annas and said, “Go and bring a dosa.” The dosa was brought and Mathews ate it with relish. At his air-conditioned office, at South Kalamassery, a few days ago, the 75-year-old Mathews says, “The taste of the dosa is still there in my mouth.”

Meanwhile, during his days in the Air Force, whenever he had some free time, he would start writing. Soon, he began publishing articles in Malayalam magazines and newspapers. A few months after he started his factory, Mathews wrote his first novel 'Adiyozhukkukal'. This was serialised in the Kerala Times newspaper and was well received when it was published. Well-known journalist cum media owner MP Veerendra Kumar wrote, ‘There is a flood of novels, but 'Adiyozhukkukal'. has come like a Noah’s Ark.’ The book went into three editions.

Thus far, Mathews has written 26 books. Asked when he writes, he says, “Whenever I get free time. Sometimes I get up at midnight and write for an hour. Writing comes very easily to me.”   
Finally, on asked to give some tips for young people at the beginning of their careers, Mathews says, “Be 100 percent submissive to God. Consult Him before taking any decisions. To hear his voice, you have to meditate and think. Then you will make the right decisions. And you should also work very hard because nothing comes easy in life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A unique ability

At the ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition held at Fort Kochi recently, autistic youngsters displayed their remarkable artistic talent

Photos: Rohit Anand in front of his work; Ajai Vadakkath (centre) with a few artists; artist Pranav Nair's work, 'Why I Love Google'. Pics by A. Sanesh    

By Shevlin Sebastian

The tall Rohit Anand, an 18-year-old autistic boy strides into the Dravidia Gallery in Fort Kochi and goes straight to his exhibit. There are three paintings side by side, all of them acrylic on canvas. In the first, titled, ‘I want’, there is an image of him in the forefront, head bowed, eye closed, and just where his head is, there is an image of a brown-skinned young girl, with black hair, prominent lips and flower-type earrings. She is looking ahead expressionlessly. Just next to her is another image, showing the back of her head.
This is Manasi,” he says, pointing at the girl. “She used to come to ‘Sense Kaleidoscopes’ (an autism school in Bangalore) where I study. Now she is not there. I miss her. I like Manasi a lot. We used to play snakes and ladders.”

Listening to him is Akshayee Shetty, the founder-director of ‘Sense’. “Rohit has been thinking about girls,” she says. “Children with autism have the same needs as teenagers everywhere. If the youngster is thinking of wanting a girlfriend, there is nothing wrong with that.”  

In the next work, Rohit is again in the forefront, his mouth opened in anger, his teeth bared, rage in his eyes, while above him is a mirror that has been broken in places. “On November 2, 2015, it was my friend Ayush Bambani’s birthday,” says Rohit. “He was crying a lot. The sound angered me. So I broke a mirror.”

And in the third work, titled ‘Voices’, his face is distorted, in the manner of a Salvador Dali painting. There are word blurbs all around, with angry messages in it. “I feel very upset when my mother or somebody else scolds me,” says Rohit.

These paintings were displayed at the ‘Outsider Art’ exhibition where 64 works by 38 artists were on display. The show, held recently, was organised by former Navy commander and art lover, Ajai Vadakkath, and his wife Priti, who are parents of a 17-year-old autistic boy.

The idea for the exhibition came to Ajai when in July last year he came across the works of Ayush Bambani and was impressed. Ajai has an idea about art since Priti is an artist while his brother Vivek Vilasini had been a featured artist in the first edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. As a result, Ajai had been a volunteer at the inaugural Biennale and became friends with co-founder Bose Krishnamachari.

So he sent the images to Bose and the latter was impressed. Then Ajai said, “Bose, it's about time these kinds of works are brought to the mainstream. Can we get the support of the Biennale Foundation?”

Bose immediately agreed. Then Ajai, who is part of many autism groups sent out the message to parents in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad that he was looking for artworks. “There is another huge autism group in Yahoo groups, more than 4000 parents,” says Ajai. “I mentioned clearly that this is not a sympathy exhibition. It is merit-based. In fact, Bose told me, ‘I will look at the art, I will not look at the level of disability, nor the age. I don’t want to be biased’.”

The exhibition has many impressive artworks, with children of varying disabilities producing some remarkable work, mainly in the abstract style.

The 33-year-old Swaminathan, one of the oldest participants, sees an image but he only knows how to represent it through lines. Not surprisingly, his work, ‘Chennai Central’ shows the railway station through lines.

On the other hand, Pranav Nair prefers to use triangles, rectangles, circles and squares. Ayush likes dogs, so he draws the animal all the time. Some of the other artists who participated included Sidharth Murali, Sachin Joshi, Indubala, Sakshi Chawla, Kalash Kariappa, Sanjay, Tanisha Lahiri, Melvina and Kajal Ashar.

Meanwhile, as Bose walks around on the inaugural day, he shakes his head and says, “They have a genuine talent. I did not know that so many of them were so artistic. This is the first of its kind for the Biennale Foundation. We would like to do similar exhibitions in other cities.”

Ajai nods his head happily when he hears that and says, “It is heartwarming when talented autistic children are able to express themselves through their art.” 

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

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Enjoy some salad days

A medical alarm forced professional Vinoj Kumar to make changes in his diet. Now he, along with his wife Dr. Geetha P, and family friend Athira Sasidharan have started an online store, ‘EatGreen’ at Kochi that sells only salads 

Photos: Geetha P (left) and Athira Sasidharan; Vinoj Kumar; the Mediterranean chicken salad

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Vinoj Kumar, the Kochi-based founder of EatGreen, got a call. It was from  Dr Sajy V. Kuruttukulam, the chief cardiologist of the Medical Trust Hospital. He gave Vinoj the good news. The 65-year-old patient who had been eating his salad meals for a fortnight had experienced some quick benefits: his blood sugar, which was at 200, had come down to 90. A diabetic, his daily insulin intake was reduced from
160 units to 90 units.

Dr Sajy asked Vinoj to come to the hospital. So the latter went and briefed him about the salads. “He said he was very satisfied with the menu and would recommend it to his patients,” says Vinoj.

Dr Sajy also gave a suggestion: to make a salad for diabetic patients called ‘Sunset Salad’. “We have started the research,” says Vinoj. By ‘we’, he meant his wife Geetha P, who is a former physics teacher and has a doctorate on the subject.

The couple, along with their friend Athira Sasidharan, started their online salad store called ‘EatGreen’ on January 23. Five years ago, they got interested in health foods when Vinoj unexpectedly got a heart ailment at age 29, while working in a multinational firm. He felt he needed to make changes in his diet.

The duo concluded that salads would be the best replacement. They have around 15 varieties of vegetarian and non-vegetarian salads. In vegetarian salads, for example, the Finicky Pickery item, at 188 calories, has red cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, cucumber, carrots, croutons, mango, parsley, sesame seeds and sweet and spicy mango dressing. The other vegetarian salads include Santa Fe, Brussel Sprouts + Herbs, Spicy Thai Salad and the Mediterranean Quinoa Chickpeas Bowl.

Quinoa, which we import from Latin America, and is boiled, is a fibre-rich food which is high in protein and minerals,” says Vinoj. “Plus, it is gluten-free, and has plenty of fibre, magnesium, vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various antioxidants.”

However, the Mediterranean chicken salad is the most popular item. The prices range from Rs 170 and go up to Rs 340. In non-vegetarian salads, there is the Salmon Green Salad, Sweet Egg Valley, the Shrimp Spinner and the Nicoise Tuna Salad. “In Kerala, non-vegetarian items are more popular than vegetarian,” says Vinoj.  

Asked whether salads can replace a rice-based meal, Geetha says, “We have designed it in such a way that it meets all your calorie needs: 280 grams will fill you up. There are good and bad calories. From 20 grams of sugar, you will gain 80 calories. But if you have one egg, you will get the same number of calories. But the healthier option is the egg.” (Incidentally, a Malayali meal has about 600-700 calories).  

All vegetables have good calories but the way it is made is important. “If we deep-fry it, too much oil gets into the vegetables,” says Geetha. “When the oil is heated it turns to some other chemical form which is not good for our health. It will result in our cholesterol levels going up.”  

In EatGreen they are using extra virgin olive oils. “It has many powerful antioxidants, and lowers the risk of heart attacks and obesity,” says Vinoj. “It also reduces the chances of a stroke.”  

Meanwhile, when asked whether there are pesticides in the vegetables, Vinoj says, “We source fresh and hygienic vegetables from Ooty and Bengaluru. If the quality is not maintained we return it. For safety sake, we clean the vegetables using water mixed with vinegar.”  

Thus far, their clientele include doctors, engineers, members of the IT industry and harried moms. “Many mothers struggle to make their children eat vegetables,” says Geetha. “This is easily achieved through our salads.”

Finally, Vinoj says he is the best example of the impact of a salad diet. “My LDH cholesterol, the bad one, has come down from 160 to 100, in just a month,” he says with a smile. 

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