Monday, June 24, 2019

"Yogi-San, we are going to vote for you”



The Pune-born Yogendra Puranik became the first Indian to win electoral office in Japan. He talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Through the corner of his eye, Yogendra (nickname: Yogi) Puranik notices a man in a wheelchair, who is hovering near the edge of the crowd in the area of Kasai in Tokyo. Yogi is campaigning to win a seat as a councillor in the Edogawa Ward assembly. The 35-year-old man stands up, and with the help of people next to him, manages to come near Yogi.

Then he says, “Yogi San, what are you going to do for the handicapped people?”
For a few moments, Yogi is flummoxed. He is a dynamic-looking 41-year-old, with an easy smile, wearing a black pinstripe suit, a green tie and shiny black shoes. On his lapel, Yogi had pinned two tiny flags next to each other: that of Japan and India. He also has a white sash across his chest which displays one word, in red Japanese letters, ‘Yogi’.

The candidate shakes his head and said, “Honestly speaking, I don't have a separate agenda for the physically-challenged people,” he says. “But if I am elected, I want to do something for everybody. So that will include the physically-challenged.”

The man says, “Yogi San, I like the way you acknowledged that you have not written about our concerns in your election manifesto. I believe you are a person I can trust. So I am going to vote for you.”

Yogi smiles and says simply, “Thank you.”

Wherever he goes, be it in parks, outside metro stations, office buildings or malls many people shake his hand and say, “We are going to vote for you.”

And they did. Because when the election results were announced on April 23, Yogi became the first Indian to win electoral office in Japan.

It was the culmination of a long journey. It began after he completed his Class 12 studies, and his father suggested that, apart from studying physics and IT, Yogi should study a foreign language. “My father told me Japanese could be a good option,” says Yogi. So, in July, 1994, he began a three-year degree course from the University of Pune, where the Puraniks lived.

He liked the language and was able to complete the course. In September, 1999, he got a scholarship for a one-year course. “We were given housing, and lived in a cosy environment,” says Yogi. “Everything was well taken care of.”

Following his return, he started working for an IT company in Pune. Then, in March, 2001, he got a job in an IBM company and returned to Japan. But this time he did not enjoy his stay. “I found the society to be very hard,” he says. “The Japanese are, on the surface, very receptive and polite, but actually, they keep a distance from you. Even among the Japanese, they keep a distance from each other. So when it came to a Japanese and a non-Japanese, the gap is quite large. So, I started feeling very lonely.”

He resigned after eight months and returned to Pune. But fate had other plans in store. When he joined Infosys in 2003, they sent him back to Japan once again. But this time, Yogi was determined to do something about his isolation.

He started participating in community gatherings, meetings, and the Parent Teacher Association in Nishi-Kasai, the area where he lived, in Tokyo. “I went to local festivals, not just to attend, but to participate, enjoy the food and help out in the preparations,” he says.  

The Japanese got very excited. In the next year, he was appointed as the director of the festival. They told him, “Yogi San, you should be our bridge with the foreigners living in our society.”

And Yogi did become an effective bridge. He also became very popular. But his turning point came during the massive earthquake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, followed by the tsunami. He, along with a couple of friends, set up a helpline for the Indian community. They received more than 300 calls daily. Apart from that, with Japanese friends, he went into hundreds of local homes and provided a helping hand. “That was when I became close to the Japanese,” he says. “I felt I belonged.” So, in October, 2011, Yogi applied for citizenship and got his papers a year later.

On the personal front, he was briefly married to a Chinese woman, Zhe Zhang, whom he had met at the University of Japan. The marriage did not work out, but they had a son Chinmay whom Yogi brought up on his own. He is studying in Class 12 in Britain.

“Zhe lives in China,” says Yogi. “My son visits her regularly.”

Asked about his future plans, Yogi says, “I want to become an MP one day. I also want to change Japanese society by making people show more emotion and attachment to each other, just like the Indian way. ”

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Starting from scratch


John Geevargese is the leading Malayali entrepreneur in Gujarat. He talks about his success story as his autobiography in Malayalam is released at a function in Kochi

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

John Geevargese stared at the TV screen in utter shock on the morning of June 23, 1980. The cameras were panning on the broken parts of the Pitts S-2A plane which had crash-landed around 500 yards from Willingdon Crescent, the official residence of Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi. It had been flown by Sanjay, who was a passionate flyer. While doing an acrobatic turn, he lost control. The crash killed Sanjay instantly He was only 33.

A few weeks earlier, the Ahmedabad-based entrepreneur had met Sanjay through Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon. This was regarding the Maruti car project which Sanjay had started. John wanted to become a dealer for the whole of Gujarat. Sanjay accepted John’s request and the latter gave a security deposit of Rs 3 lakh.  

But Sanjay’s death put the project into uncertainty. John wondered what to do. He already had put up a showroom, with an area of 16,000 sq. ft. on Ashram Road. “That’s when I decided to go into the retail business and set up the ‘Sales India’ shop,” says John, while on a recent visit to Kochi where his autobiography in Malayalam, ‘Eithihaasika Jeevitham’ was released.  

It was an outlet in the right place at the right time. India was moving from a socialist to a consumer economy. John started selling refrigerators, air conditioners and small appliances. To improve the customers’ experience, John laid out everything in a stylish manner.  

Soon, ‘Sales India’ made a name for itself. “If a customer experienced any problem with an appliance, I would get it replaced,” says John.

This created a good impact with customers. Now John has 33 outlets across the state.
Then John’s life took a different direction. One day in 1991, the leading members of the Association of South Indians in Ahmedabad (Asia) approached John and told him that the school they were running was in financial difficulties. “They said they were not in a position to pay the salaries of the teachers,” he says. “Initially I was not very keen but in the end, I took over the management.”

Soon, John put all his efforts to make the Asia school a success. Then he started another one. Now there are five schools. Then he ventured into colleges and set up the JG (his initials) International School. Now there are 25 colleges all over the state. In total, there are 12,500 students, of which 4700 are in the schools.

The schools are run almost in a philanthropic way. The children of any South Indian, with an annual income of less than Rs 5 lakh can study free of cost at any of the Asia schools, under the CBSE syllabus, from nursery to Class 12. The cost of the uniforms, books and travel are paid for. John also set up a Performing Arts College, which offers Bachelor's and Master's degrees  in classical dance, drama and music.

John’s most recent achievement was to set up a YMCA International Centre, in an area of 4 lakh sq. ft. Some of Bollywood’s leading singers like Sonu Nigam, Hariharan, Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan have performed there.

Sometimes, on peaceful Sunday afternoons at his bungalow on Ashram Road, John goes back into the past. He grew up in idyllic Enathu, which is in Pathanamthitta district. As a child, he would take a herd of buffaloes to the Kallada river so that they could frolic in the water. He would lie on the grassy bank, and stare at the sky. And every morning, he would go barefoot to school, which was 14 kms away. His father Geevargese Chona ran a small grocery shop cum tea stall. “Thanks to my father, business is in my blood,” he says.

When he passed out of Fatima College in Kollam with a B.Com degree, he decided to go outside the state to improve his prospects. In 1958, he went to Chennai and from there to Mumbai where he secured a job at the Secretariat as a Lower Division Clerk. At that time Mumbai consisted of Gujarat and Maharashtra. But in 1960, Mumbai was divided into two states. “Being a non-Maharashtrian, I was sent to Gujarat,” says John. “That was how I reached Ahmedabad.” But within seven years, John resigned and became a businessman.

Asked to describe the people of Gujarat, he says, “The Gujaratis are very lovable and trustworthy. They will not cheat you. They will not indulge in any quarrels. They believe in making money and they want everybody who comes to Gujarat to become rich. They are not jealous.”  

John is married to homemaker Chandramati, and has three children, Jose, Joy and Sunita. Asked the secret of success, the 82-year-old says, “You should have a clear vision. And always say to yourself, ‘I will make it’ and it will happen.”  

And it has. Says MP Chandran, Trustee and Executive Director of the Asia Charitable Trust, “John Sir has worked for 60 years, 15 hours a day, sacrificing time with family and giving up his personal satisfaction to build a fortune. But he used it to help others. And he told me he has no regrets.” 

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Getting high….non-stop


Diana Joseph, the founder of the Kochi-based NGO ‘Venda’ (Say No To Drugs) talks about how drug-taking has become an epidemic among the youth in Kerala

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Amma, I am going cycling,” says Luke, on a Saturday afternoon at his home in Fort Kochi. Since this has become a weekly habit for a few weeks, Luke’s mother Reena says, “Okay.” The fifteen-year-old takes his bicycle out on the road and starts pedalling.

After 10 minutes, Luke reaches the beach and meets up with his classmates, all of whom are students at a nearby government school. Soon, Mahesh Uncle, an elderly person of their community arrives on a bicycle. All the students do ‘high fives’ with him before they set out.

They ride down many roads. All of them love cycling. And after an hour or so, they enter Container Road, which is near the International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadom. There are many trucks parked on one side. Mahesh introduces the boys to the drivers, many of whom are from North India. Soon, the boys are given treats, followed by alcohol and drugs. Hours pass. The boys are also shown pornographic films on mobiles. They are feeling dazed by what they are seeing and taking. Later, as it gets dark, the drivers sodomise the youngsters. Each time, it happens, Luke feels disturbed.

Finally, he tells the physical trainer in the school, who calls the Kochi-based NGO ‘Venda’ (Say No To Drugs). ‘Venda’ is part of the Bangalore-based ‘Fourth Wave Foundation’, which works for education, empowerment, ethics and inclusion. In Kochi, they started focusing on drug counselling because of widespread addiction.

Luke and his friends went through rigorous counselling over a period of months before they returned to normal,” says Diana Joseph, the founder-director of ‘Venda’. “Today, they are concentrating on their studies but, at the same time, they are being monitored.” And what made Diana especially happy was the quick reaction of the police and the Narcotics Control Bureau, when they were informed about what was happening. “They began regular patrolling,” says Diana. “Now, the road has become safe.”

But the news otherwise is gloomy. On May 30, at a function, at Kochi, Kerala State Excise Commissioner Rishiraj Singh said, “The second highest drug abuse cases in India has been reported from Kochi.” (Amritsar has the highest).

The drug users are as young as nine years old. They include boys and girls. Most of them stay in high-risk areas where drug-taking is rampant. “As a result, children will end up being mules (drug carriers), or they will use it or get affected by it. Maybe, somebody in the family is already an addict.” As for the drugs which are consumed, they include heroin, marijuana, hashish, crack and cocaine.

Asked how they get access to it, Diana says, “You can buy it online if you can get access to certain shadowy groups on Facebook and Whatsapp. Many small shops, like bakery outlets and photocopy shops, near schools sell it. Apart from them, it seems like organised crime is pushing these drugs in towns and cities all over Kerala.”

Not surprisingly, many teenagers from financially straitened families are lured to become mules. “I want to be rich,” says Deepak, 17. “Only donkeys sit in classrooms for twenty years to earn a small salary every month. That’s why I became a mule. It’s good money. If there is a big haul, I can earn Rs 1 lakh or more from one delivery.”

As for the reasons for youngsters taking to drugs, Diana says, “Peer pressure. Exam stress. Broken families. Emotional problems. Failed affairs.”

So ‘Venda’ has embarked on a ‘prevention is better than a cure’ programme. So they go to schools and colleges and conduct programmes about the dangers of drugs, of how lives can get ruined if you get addicted. “Awareness makes a difference,” says Diana. “We also do counselling for parents as well as teachers. Many of them are in a state of denial. They find it difficult to accept that their child or student is taking drugs.”

Last year the NGO dealt with 221 cases. “Out of that 62% came out of the addiction,” says Diana. “Another 10% are out of it but need long-term help. About 28% need continued counselling.”

All this hard work has resulted in some good news for ‘Venda’. Diana was invited to present ‘Venda’s’ work at the 61st Congressional on Narcotics and Drugs at the United Nations in November last year. ‘Venda’ was also featured as a ‘Best Practice Case’ in the guide for civil societies at the Ministerial Segment of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in March this year. “We are happy to make a difference, however small it may be,” says Diana. 

(Some names have been changed)

Monday, June 17, 2019

Local, natural and delicious




Corporate Chef Suresh Pillai of the Raviz Resort and Spa, on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam, has made a unique menu based on the fishes in the lake

Pics: Chef Suresh Pillai with Chris Gayle; Chef Suresh Pillai; the Pearlspot Pollichathu (fried)  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The cap has the word, ‘Attitude’ written on the front. The white sleeveless banian compliments the black Bermuda shorts. There are tattoos all over the arms and upper shoulders, and golden necklaces around his neck. West Indian star cricketer Chris Gayle looks relaxed and breaks out into an easy smile as he sits at the floating restaurant, ‘Randaal’, of the Raviz Resort and Spa, on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, at Kollam (138 km from Kochi).

Chris is accompanied by his girlfriend Natasha Berridge and two-year-old daughter Crisalina. Corporate chef Suresh Pillai places a sizzling pearlspot fish on a green leaf in front of the cricketer. Chris takes a fork and digs into the fish. After a while, he looks up and says, “It’s good, man.”

Suresh beams and provides a seafood meal: prawn, oysters, crab and snapper.

Later Suresh says, “We always use fresh ingredients. The pearlspot has its own flavour. In Kerala cuisine, there is a tendency to use a lot of masala powder. As a result, it overcomes the flavour of the fish. So, for the pearlspot, I used the first extract of the coconut milk, black pepper, ginger and curry leaves. I did not put any masala, but a dash of turmeric.” Incidentally, after Chris’s visit, Suresh changed the name of the dish from Pearlspot Pollichathu (fried) to Pearlspot King Gayle.  

Since the resort is next to the lake, Suresh has made a specific menu called the ‘Taste of Ashtamudi’. “Usually only the local people eat these fishes, but I wanted our guests also to enjoy it,” says Suresh, who worked in London for 14 years and was a participant in the BBC Masterchef programme in 2017.

Earlier, there was a thinking that foreigners prefer large fish like kingfish, which has very little bones. But I have discovered they also like fishes with bones. Also, the lake fish have a distinct flavour.”

In Asthamudi, which has an area of 62 kms, there is a tributary called the Kanjirode. Earlier, there was a tapioca factory. The tapioca waste would be dumped into the lake. “The pearlspot loves this waste,” says Suresh. “As a result, the fish has more flavour and is regarded as one of the best.” It is also the most expensive. The usual pearlspot sells for Rs 400 per kilo, but the Kanjirode pearlspot sells for Rs 900 per kilo.

Another reason for the unique taste is because the mud has an earthy taste. In the olden times, the work on making coir products would take place by the side of lakes and rivers in Alleppey and Kollam districts. “The shell of the coconut would be soaked in the water for three months,” says Suresh. “And this is the cause for all sorts of flavours in the fishes.”

Apart from the pearlspot, the other items on the menu are the yellow clams, mussels, groupers, mullets, Indian bream, catfish and oysters. “In the West, people eat oysters raw, but in Kerala, we prefer to cook it,” says Suresh. “It could be stir or deep fried or roasted.”

Suresh also serves Tiger Prawns, as well as the mud crabs. The mud crabs are caught in a most unusual way. There is a long rope that has numerous hooks, which has feed on it. Then it is placed in the water. The crab starts feeding on it. The rope is gently pulled up. And the crabs are pulled away and put into a fishing net.

Usually, the fishermen go to catch fish every day at about 4 a.m. Suresh sometimes buys the catch from the local market or some fishermen come directly to the resort. Unfortunately, there is a negative aspect to this fishing.  

Some fishermen use nets with small gaps. As a result, all the fish are caught including the baby fishes. “They should only catch the bigger fish and leave the small ones,” says Suresh. “But this is not being done. One snapper can feed six people. But if a baby snapper dies, it is gone forever. There is a lack of awareness among fishermen. They don’t know how to sustain the environment. So many species are becoming extinct. However, some know they are doing harm. But they say they are doing it for their livelihood.”

Suresh suggests that like in the seas, there should be a ban on fishing in the lake during particular months. “The government should also conduct awareness classes,” he says. “That is the only way to protect our fish wealth.” 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A long-ago photograph churns up emotions



By Shevlin Sebastian

When my former classmate Ranjan Kamath put up a photo on Facebook, of a few of our teachers, at St. Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata, emotions welled up inside me like an ocean wave. It is a picture taken of them as a group, in 1976, on an early morning, at Park Street, outside the famed Mocambo restaurant.

The angled sunlight lights up the wall behind them, but all of them are in the shade. Among the women, who are in the majority, I can recognise Mrs. Fernandes, Mrs. Mustafi, Mrs Sodhi, Miss Gonsalves and Mrs Stephens. While one wears jeans, another is in black slacks, three are in brightly-coloured bell-bottoms, one in a skirt, while the rest are in sarees. But they are smiling and looking happy. And they are exactly as I remembered them, in their thirties and forties, radiating energy and confidence.

Right in front of the group, sitting on his haunches is the handsome Ronald Gass. His sunshades are resting on his wavy hair, and he wears a brown T-shirt and slacks, with long sideburns, a style statement of that time.

They are about to go for the annual teachers’ picnic on a bus. So, this is a pick-up point. They look ready to have fun in each other’s company.

So how did Ranjan get the photo? His mother Cecelia D’Souza was a teacher and this was in her collection. But she died of cancer two years ago. A heart-breaking blow for him. Others may have died, but I don’t know. One teacher, Rama Singh, lives in New York with her son Arvinder Pal.

They must all be in their seventies and eighties. Their youthful looks must have given way to wrinkles, creaking joints, and a slower pace of life. Has life treated them well? Are they okay financially? Do they have health problems? Are their children looking after them? Or are they now living in an old age home? I had no answers. But the photo confirmed what I knew subconsciously: their influence abides in me, as strong as ever.

When I look at the photo, I am also looking at my own passing years. The student in me is long dead, along with a bit of the innocence of that time. I could not help but think of time. How it never stops, but just goes on and on...relentlessly. As I keep staring at the photo, I have an unexpected reaction -- my throat tightens. It takes me a while to understand why. Just as we students and teachers are moving forward, from the opposite side, Lord Yama, the God of Death is moving towards us, on a horse, his mace held high, waiting to pluck us, one by one. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South Indian editions)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

It’s your turn to fix it




Cartoonist Ibrahim Badusha’s recent exhibition, at Allapuzha, on the dangers of plastic, aimed at children, is set to travel to schools all over India. He hopes they will bring about the changes that are needed when they grow up

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, cartoonist Ibrahim Badusha is sitting at his work table in his home at Aluva. He is drawing a dolphin which has a plastic bottle stuck to its beak. After a while, his seven-year-old son Fannan comes to the room, looks at the dolphin and says, “What is this?” Badusha says it is a dolphin. Then Fannan says, “Is this how dolphins look like? Do they have a bottle at the end of their nose?”

That is the opportunity for Badusha to educate his son about the massive environmental damage being done by plastic. He is busy making several similar cartoons.

In one two fish with frightened eyes look at an oil slick, some of which had percolated below the surface of the sea. In another, a fisherwoman is selling a packet of fish to a man and she visualises what is inside the fish: bits of paper, plastic, and tiny cloth material. One cartoon depicts a fish which is swimming inside a bottle in a way to show the tonnes of plastic that has been dumped into the sea.

There is a simple drawing of a large vessel carrying goods and the propeller is sending sound waves below the surface. Two dolphins are near it, their mouths open and one of them is preparing to wear earphones.   

Many people are not aware of the sound pollution in the seas and oceans,” says Badusha. “The noise of the propellers of thousands of ships all over the world disturbs the fishes no end. There is a lot of echo in the oceans.”

Extensive radar use by ships also upsets the big whales. They have large families and they communicate through sound waves. But that gets disturbed because of the sounds emitted by the radar. Many times, the whales get disoriented and they end up near the seashore. Large sperm whales also develop reproductive problems.

What is also an unknown is the damage caused by Navy warship exercises held by different countries in the oceans. During the exercise, bombs are burst and the debris falls to the ocean floor. “I was not aware of this till I began doing research,” says Badusha.

Nuclear waste is also dumped into the oceans, most of it in secret by many countries including China. “This is also damaging the oceans and the fishes,” says Badusha.

Badusha has done several of these cartoons, on A3 size chart paper, and it was exhibited as part of a travelling show by his friend and nature warrior Firoz Ahmed Seagift. The first show took place in Alleppey on World Ocean Day on June 8. “This show will travel all over India,” says Badusha.

Since it is aimed at children Badusha has used the minimal number of lines, to make the drawings simple and accessible. “Only children can bring about a change when they grow up,” says Badusha, who is known as ‘Cartoonman’ by students. “Today’s older generations will not do much. So we need to make children aware of what is happening. And they will react. A small spark will be ignited. This will sink into their subconscious. And they will behave differently when they grow up.”

Badusha says that cartoons are an important way of communication. “Children are growing up in a visually-saturated culture thanks to mobiles, TV and the laptop,” he says. “They are unable to read an entire page of text. To get their attention, you will have to put in illustrations. Bigger drawings and less text. Videos and comics are the other methods.”  

Badusha is keenly aware of environmental damage because he grew up next to the Periyar river in Aluva. On one shore, his mother’s family lived while his father’s family lived on the other side. “I would travel by boat back and forth,” he says. “In those times the water was like a mirror. It was that clear. I would swim in it often.” During the summer season, when it would get dried up at certain places, Badusha would walk across to his mother’s house. But all that changed when there was massive sand mining.

And companies started sending their industrial effluents into the Periyar. “The river has turned orange many times,” he says. “If you take a dip, you could get a skin disease. That is how things have changed. In those areas where there are too much of effluents, the fish are dying. To be honest, I no longer eat the fish of the Periyar because it is unhealthy.”

But last year’s massive floods resulted in tonnes of sand, mud and silt again being deposited in the river. “In one way, the river has been cleaned,” he says. But Badusha will also never forget the parallel path of plastic waste, along with oil slicks that floated down.  

At Changampuzha Park, Kochi, where Badusha had come to attend the inauguration of an exhibition by young cartoonist Prince, he says, “It is easy to lose hope, but as artists, we must think positively and strive to change the mindset.” 

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Keeping the light burning


In the ‘Shine On’ vocational centre, at the Snehadaan in Bengaluru, young HIV-infected patients make scented candles for a living

Photos: Fr. Biju Joseph. A scented candle. Photos by Pushkar V 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent morning, when Suresh BM awakens, he feels a sense of sadness. He has no memory of his parents. The family had lived in Idukki. But when he was in the kindergarten class, both his parents passed away. His father, a labourer, had AIDS. He infected his wife. Among the three children, all of them boys, only Suresh, the middle child, was infected.

The 21-year-old gets out of bed in his room at the Snehadaan at Bengaluru and looks at his mobile. There is one photo of his parents. His father, dressed in a white shirt and mundu, with black moustache and beard, is sitting on a chair, cradling his chin with his fingers. He looked unsmilingly at the camera. His mother, who had jet-black hair, wore a blue saree and had small earrings. She was also unsmiling. ‘I don’t know them,’ he thinks.

Soon, he looks at his watch. It is time to get ready. At 9 a.m. he walks across to the ‘Shine On’ vocational centre which has a candle-making unit. There are four other boys present, along with Uma, a widowed mother of a five-year-old. All of them are HIV infected patients.

Work begins. They put a container with water on a gas stove. Inside it, they place a saucepan which contains wax. “This is called double boiling,” says Suresh. “If you melt the wax directly a part of it becomes vapour and we lose quite a bit of wax.”

To melt one kilo takes 30 minutes. When it is in liquid form, crayons are put in. This provides the different colours like red, green and blue. Following that a liquid perfume is added. These include fragrances like lavender, peach, strawberry and lemongrass. Thereafter, the wax is poured into different mounds and left to dry.

The candles are used as return gifts at weddings, schools and corporate events. It is also used in churches during festivals like Easter and Christmas. And the demand is high. The designs are eye-catching and pleasing. Many are in the shape of flowers and trees, while others are tubular or circular-shaped.

And founder/director Fr. Biju Joseph, of the Order of St. Camillus, is happy. Many youths from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, started coming to the centre for HIV treatment. “Some of the youngsters, mainly from Kerala, are orphans,” says Fr. Biju. “I felt that I should provide some employment opportunities for them.”

It was while discussing this with colleagues and well-wishers that somebody suggested a candle-making unit because of its low capital investment. And that was how ‘Shine On’ was started in August, 2017.

Even as the youths work, they continue to be on Antiretroviral Therapy. These are the tablets which are taken to fight the AIDS virus. “They have to take it every day,” says the 40-year-old priest. “This will keep the virus dormant. If they maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly, the boys can live for a long time.”

But once every three months, they have to take a blood test to ensure that their CD4 count does not go below 300. (CD4 are white blood cells that fight infection. When the virus attacks the immune system, the number of these cells goes down. When the CD4 count goes below 200, a person is diagnosed with AIDS. The normal range is between 500-1500).

Meanwhile, despite the stress of knowing that he has the virus inside him, Suresh is happy. “I feel a sense of satisfaction with the work that I do,” says Suresh, who provides the designs on many of the candles.

But there is a crisis of confidence every now and then. He admits he is afraid to go out and live on his own. “I am worried about how people will react if they come to know that I am HIV-infected,” he says. Suresh has been living on the campus for the past five years. His colleague Mohan has been there for three years.  

At 4 p.m., work comes to a halt. After a quick tea, they go out to play badminton, soccer or cricket. “I feel relaxed when I play,” says Mohan. At night, Mohan lights a candle and prays to God to protect him. 

(Some names have been changed)

Monday, June 10, 2019

Hotshot Striker



Alan Solomon KJ is the only player from Kerala who will be part of the Indian football team for the Homeless World Cup which will be held in Cardiff, Wales. 64 countries are taking part   

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 am, on a recent morning, the mobile alarm rings in Alan Solomon KJ’s house at Chellanam. The 20-year-old switches it off, and gets up. Quickly he gets ready, and puts on a T shirt, shorts and sneakers. The air is still and unmoving. It is a humid morning. But the roar of the waves is a soothing sound at this coastal village in Ernakulam district. Soon, he sets out on a jog. There are hardly any people on the streets. The few stray dogs have seen him often so they don’t bark.

Alan is on a five kilometre run. As he runs on the tarred streets, a word pops into his mind: ‘Wales’. And suddenly, a nameless excitement pervades his body. Without realising it, he begins to run faster.

There is a reason why ‘Wales’ caused such an excitement in him. Because, in July, he will indeed be in the city of Cardiff, as a member of the Indian football team. The Homeless World Cup is taking place from July 27-August 3. Around 64 countries are taking part.

The football that is played is different from the usual football that we see all the time. There is a maximum of four players per team on the court. These include three outfield players and one goalkeeper along with four substitute players. “Players can be substituted all the time,” says Alan. Each match lasts for 14 minutes and there is a one-minute interval at the seventh minute. The pitch is smaller and the ball never goes out of play, since it is played in an enclosed area. “Hence, it can get very tiring,” says Alan. Incidentally, the criteria for participation is that players should be living in a slum.

Alan’s life changed when he met members of Project Venda (Say No to Drugs) at Chellanam. This programme is run by the Bengaluru-based Fourth Wave Foundation. “We work with young adults from high-risk areas who are exposed to a lifestyle of drugs and help them to steer clear,” says Diana Joseph, founder/director of the foundation. “In Chellanam we noticed that there is a culture of playing football. So we set up a team and they began to do well.”

In fact, when the Kerala team took part in the national slum soccer championships at Mumbai in March this year, all the eight members were from Chellanam.

At the tournament, the Kerala team lost in the semi-finals. Alan has an easy explanation for the setback. “We played three matches on a single day,” he says. “Our last match was against West Bengal, and we lost because we were so tired.”   

Nevertheless, a few players impressed, but it was only Alan who made it to the final team. Now he is the only player from Kerala who will represent India. “My role is that of a striker, to score as many goals, as possible,” he says. The other players are from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

All of them, like Alan have a deep passion for football. Alan fell in love with the game when he began playing it in Class five at the St. Mary’s school at Chellanam. Thankfully, the school had good coaches, so he learnt all the right techniques and developed into a fine player. 

Today, he plays in numerous five-a-side, seven-a-side and 11-a-side teams in the district.
There are many sponsors, but we don’t get any salary,” he says. “Instead, the prize money is shared between all the players. This could vary from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000.” Of course it means Alan’s teams have to win tournaments. Which they have done quite a few times.

Meanwhile, on the education front, Alan is doing his Plus Two. Thus far, his father, Joseph, a fisherman and homemaker mother Helen are supportive of his footballing ambitions. “Thanks to the ISL (Indian Super League) it is possible to make a comfortable living through football,” he says, with a smile. 

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

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

The power of antiquity



The Kochi-based antique collector Bobin J Mannanal has ancient coins, litho prints, seals, stamps, and a curved stick that acted like a boomerang

Photos: Bobin J Mannanal. Coins during Tipu Sultan's reign. Pics by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1819, Colonel John Munro, the British Resident at the Court of Travancore invited the Reverend Henry Baker to set up a seminary for Syrian Christian priests. Following that, Baker worked on several other projects. Then, one day, he went to the Peermade hills with the idea of setting up a coffee plantation.

Things went according to plan. Labourers were hired. The land was cleared. And the cultivation began. The company was called Southern Coffee Plantation Limited. But instead of paying the workers with money, they were given tokens. “These tokens had value only inside the plantation,” says the Kochi-based antique collector Bobin J Mannanal, as he shows the coin: it has an image of rolling hills with a factory in front. “These could be exchanged for food items. There were similar tokens in the tea estates of Munnar also. It was a form of slavery, a sort of bonded labour.”

Bobin’s newly-opened antique shop ‘Leora’ is an eye-popping trove of all kinds of items like old seals, beads, weapons, and coins. Earlier, all these were on display, like as if at a museum, at a leading five-star hotel in the city. But now he felt it would be better off in a shop, with a possibility to buy and sell items.   

Not surprisingly, he has numerous gold, lead and copper coins. These belonged mostly to the dynasties in South India: Cholas, Pandyas, Venad Cheras and the Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan (1750-99). In Tipu’s kingdom, he had ⅛, ¼, ½, one paise and two paise copper coins. In silver, there were one rupee and two rupees, as well as smaller denominations.

Interestingly, Bobin says, only the upper-middle and the affluent classes used these coins, especially for property deals. In 1419, King Kotha Varma of the kingdom of Thekkumkur, Kerala sold a large parcel of land (modern-day Poonjar in Kottayam district) to Pandyan King Manavikrama Kulasekhara Perumal, in exchange of 10,000 coins and one emerald stone.

As for the rest of the population, they relied on the barter system. “And none of them owned any land,” says Bobin. “Instead, they worked on the lands of the rich but had to give 75 percent of the produce to the landlord.”

Because these coins are rare, there is a huge demand in international markets. “In Bangalore, last year, during an auction a Shah Jahan Gold Mohur was sold for Rs 1.1 crore,” says Bobin. “In 2013, at an auction in London, a Tipu double rupee, minted in Kozhikode, went for Rs 35 lakhs.”

Thereafter, Bobin shows a glass-framed litho print hanging on a wall. It shows Tipu fighting the British during the Siege of Seringapatam (1799). In the work by English painter Henry Singleton, the British soldiers, in their bright red tunics and white trousers are aiming muskets at the opposition. Tipu, with glaring eyes, has an upraised sword, but a British soldier has already shot at him from a pistol.

Twelve litho prints were made to show how Tipu was defeated,” says Bobin. A few years ago, at an auction in London, another collector sold one for Rs 7 lakh.

Bobin then takes out a curved stick with a sharp iron edge. It is called a valari. And is similar to the Australian boomerang. Two brothers, who were chieftains, Chinna and Periya Marudhu had transformed this hunting weapon into the valari. They lived in the Sivaganga Estate in modern-day Tamil Nadu which was ruled by Queen Velu Nachiyar. In 1801, when a 750-strong contingent of British soldiers attacked the kingdom, the valari created havoc. It could slice a neck and return to the thrower. After the battle, the British outlawed the valari, physically destroyed 25,000 of them, and hanged the brothers at the Tiruppattur fort on October 24, 1801.

Asked the lessons that he has learnt, Bobin says, “In our history, there is a lot of bloodshed and betrayal. History is not like in the films we see. You could get killed at any time, especially if you are a member of the lower castes.”  

On the personal front, Bobin became interested in collecting when he came across his father’s collection of foreign coins and stamps. Since his father, Johnikutty Joseph passed away from a heart attack when Bobin was only ten years old, he did not know the reasons behind his interest. “But it must have been an unconscious inspiration for me,” he says, and adds, “This hobby has brought a lot of joy to me.” 

Monday, June 03, 2019

The country where the Equator is located




The Kochi-based entrepreneur Balram Menon talks about his impressions of Ecuador as well as the Galapagos Islands, which was made famous by naturalist Charles Darwin

Photos: Balram Menon with  Dr Steffi Estanio; Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Spanish for ‘Middle of the World’) and at the Galapagos Islands    

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is noon on a cloudy day in April. The place: Puerto Ayora, a town on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. The Kochi-based entrepreneur Balram Menon adjusts his helmet and his sunshades. He is dressed in a black T-shirt and Bermuda shorts. A few metres behind him is a 27-year-old paediatric surgeon from Buenos Aires,  Dr Steffi Estanio, who is hunched low on a bicycle. A day earlier, they had met in a boat which was taking tourists around and agreed to meet the next day for cycling.

This is a downhill route, a dedicated track for cyclists. The length: 19 kms. Soon, they set out. On the left, there are tall grassy plants. On the right is a highway. Balram adjusts the Go Pro camera, which is shooting him as he cycles down. He says, “Steffi, say hi to the camera.” She duly does so. Soon, they are gathering speed. They are now going at 60 km/hour.  

After a few minutes, Balram hears a sound. He quickly looks back and realises that Steffi has fallen down. Balram begins to apply the brakes, but he is not used to the bike and falls down. Thankfully, he has a few abrasions only on his left arm. He gets up quickly and rushes back. Steffi is bleeding at the back of her head. The locals rush the duo on an open truck to the nearest hospital.  

But when her head is stitched Steffi loses her memory. “She asked me who I am,” says Balram. He calls a doctor friend in Kochi who tells him that the loss of memory will last a day. Nevertheless, Balram keeps showing the videos of their ride. “Steffi finally understands what has happened,” says Balram.

It is a novel experience for Balram. On the advice of a friend, he decides to go for a holiday to the Latin American country of Ecuador. It is 19,000 kms from Kochi. The flight route is circuitous. First, he flies to Delhi. From there he goes to Amsterdam. Thereafter, it is a 14-hour flight to Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Since Quito is at an altitude of 18,000 feet, hence, first-time visitors face the risk of experiencing altitude sickness. So, when they check into a hotel, they are given cocoa leaves. “You warm it in hot water and drink it like green tea,” says Balram. “It helps ward off uneasiness.” Incidentally, cocoa leaves are used to make cocaine, the drug of choice for many international celebrities.

At Quito, Balram is taken up by the simplicity and friendliness of the local people.  “They had not heard of India and are happy to know that I have come from a far-off place,” he says. To one local, Balram gives a Rs 20 note. The man walks about showing it to everybody. Since the people only know Spanish, he uses Google Translator to communicate.

Not many people know that the Equator is located in Ecuador. The place to go is the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (‘Middle of the World’, in Spanish). “You stand on a yellow line and the latitude and longitude is 0 degrees,” says Balram. On the left side of the yellow line is the Northern Hemisphere while on the right it is the Southern Hemisphere. To show this, a tourist guide puts some leaves in a wash-basin filled with water. Then she takes off the stopcock, and the leaves on the left side will turn clockwise while it is anti-clockwise on the right. Also, because of the zero gravitational force, a local shows that he can balance an egg on a nail.

Soon, Balram begins travelling within the country. He goes to Banos, 220 kms from Quito to see the Pail√≥n del Diablo or ‘Devil’s Cauldron’ waterfall. The fall of the water, from a steep height of 240 feet, is a fascinating melange of sound, foam and mist.

Another trip is to the world-famous Galapagos Island archipelago, which is 1000 kms from Quito. On one island, Santa Cruz, you can see the Charles Darwin Research Station, which was established in 1964. Among many other subjects, they do research on tortoises. Charles himself spent some time in 1835 and was so inspired by the wildlife he saw on the islands, he was able to pen down his revolutionary Theory Of Evolution.

You can see a carcass of an 800-year-old tortoise called Harriet. In fact, the world's biggest tortoise can be found in Galapagos. It weighs around 400 kgs and is 110 years old. Balaram gets a photo taken of him sitting on his haunches next to it.

There are some unusual birds, too. “One species is called the blue-footed boobies,” says Balram. Booby means clown in Spanish. Their feet are blue in colour. When the mating season arrives, the males raise their feet to attract the females. Then it flaps its wings, which are of a wide span. Then if the female is receptive, they will rub their long beaks together.

Finally, when asked about the cuisine, Balram says, “In everything the people use bananas. They mix pork and beef with bananas. The shrimp is not cooked. Instead, lime juice is put on it along with pepper. This is called ceviche. It is their national dish and very tasty. They also eat crabs, octopus and oysters. But their speciality, Cuy is a small guinea pig rat. It is roasted and eaten. Sometimes, it is grilled. They also use potato, rice, pasta and yuca (a type of bread roll).”  

Overall, Balram had the time of his life. And he is busy saving up money for his next sojourn to South America. 

Saturday, June 01, 2019

When one heart replaced another



One of Kerala’s leading cardiac surgeons Jose Chacko Periappuram fulfilled a long-cherished dream by visiting the Heart of Cape Town Museum, in South Africa, which is dedicated to Dr Christiaan Bernard, the first man to do a heart transplant

Photos: Dr. Jose Chacko Periappuram; Dr. Christiaan Bernard 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 3.30 p.m., on December 2, 1967, at the Observatory Road in Cape Town, a car comes to a stop across Wrensch’s Town bakery. The driver is Edward Myrtle, 66. The others in the car include Edward’s wife Myrtle, 54, daughter Denise, 25 and son Keith, 14. Myrtle and Denise get out, cross the road and enter the bakery. They want to buy a caramel cake for a family friend, Rachel, whom they are going to meet.

A few minutes later, they step out and are crossing the road. At that moment, an inebriated man by the name of Frederick Prins speeds through a red traffic signal and hits the duo with full force. Myrtle dies on the spot, while Denise is flung up in the air. Her head hits the wheel cap of the family car before she lands on the pavement. She is rushed in an ambulance to the casualty unit of the Groote Schuur Hospital, which is just two kilometres away.

But a few hours later the doctors declared her brain dead. A request is put to Edward. Can Denise’s heart be transplanted into a dying patient Louis Washkansky, 54, who is suffering from heart failure. Edward thinks for a brief while before he gives his assent. “Denise was a very giving person,” he said later, explaining his decision.  

At midnight, the operation for the world’s first heart transplant begins. By 5.45 a.m., after several moments of high tension, Denise’s heart starts beating inside Louis. An emotional Dr Christiaan Bernard, the cardiac surgeon, who did the pioneering surgery, told his staff in Afrikaans, “Dit gaan werk!” (It’s going to work). And yes, it did work and Bernard entered the history books as the first man to do a heart transplant.

At the Heart of Cape Town Museum, located on the premises of Groote Schuur Hospital, on the afternoon of May 3, 2019, Dr. Jose Chacko Periappuram, one of Kerala’s leading doctors, who is the chief cardiac surgeon at the Lisie Hospital, Kochi, listens to the story told by a guide with bated breath. It had always been a dream for him to see the museum and now it had come true.

As the group -- which consisted of his wife Jaimy, 11-year-old son John, Jose’s brother Dr Mathew, a paediatrician from Birmingham, and his wife Mary -- were taken around, the doctor duo looked stunned when they saw the equipment. “The heart-lung machine looked so outdated,” says Jose. “In those times, the operation theatres were open ones. There was no air conditioning. The ceiling was ten metres high, so there was plenty of ventilation. The students used to come and sit on a balcony at one side of the operating room. Was it germ-free? I am not sure.”   

In one room, there was was a silicone figure of Bernard in a white waistcoat sitting on a chair and talking on a phone. “This was a recreation of Dr Bernard’s consulting room,” says Jose. “It looked so real.”

Thanks to Bernard’s pioneering work, lakhs of transplants have now taken place all over the world. Jose himself became the first to do a heart transplant in Kerala and the first to do a heart retransplant in India. “Dr Bernard is a hero to me,” he says. “Whenever we did a Powerpoint presentation on organ donation or transplantation to doctors, nurses or outsiders, our first slide is always a photo of Dr Bernard.”  

But what remained in Jose’s mind following his museum visit was that Bernard, and his team, in the 1950s, when the heart-lung machine was only in the process of being developed, thought about a possible heart transplantation. “It is an organ which people don’t want to touch because it is so vital and even touching it can produce changes in the heartbeat, rhythm and blood pressure,” he says. “So, even thinking about doing a heart transplant was very courageous.”  

One of Jose’s enduring regrets is that he was not able to meet Bernard in person. However, the celebrity surgeon did come to Chennai on December 14, 1995, to inaugurate the Madras Medical Mission hospital which was founded by Jose’s mentor Dr KM Cherian. Chief Minister J Jayalalitha was also present. But by the time Jose came to know about the visit, through newspaper reports, Bernard had already returned to South Africa. Six years later. Bernard passed away at age 78.  

Asked to describe Bernard, after his visit to the museum, Jose says, “He was a pioneer and a daredevil who had a dashing personality. He was the right person at the right place at the right time.”

However, not everybody was happy with Bernard’s achievement. He had trained in the USA and worked closely with doctors who were doing research on transplants at the University of Minnesota. They were getting ready, after long years of practice and research, to do the first heart transplant when Bernard flew back to South Africa and beat them to it. At the museum, the guide told Jose, with obvious pride in her voice, “We beat the Americans.”

Jose says, “It is no surprise that the Americans have been angry about this for decades.” 

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Making clean dirty water



My School’ from Tirur wins the second prize in the entrepreneurial category at the Roborave International competition in California. It was a learning experience for the students

(From left): Robotics teacher Sunil Paul, Ameesh Roshan, a NASA scientist, Aiza Noura, Manha Ziyaan, Vasudev Hari and Sherrin Mathew, Director-Academics of My School, Tirur 

(From left): Ameesh Roshan, Vasudev Hari, Aiza Noura, Sherrin Mathew, Director-Academics and Manha Ziyaan at California 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The moment the team from ‘My School’, Tirur entered the hall of the Santa Clara Convention Centre at California, for the Roborave International competition held recently there was an intake of breath. That’s because the group was wearing traditional Kerala attire. 

While the boys, Amish Roshan Chirakkal and Vasudev P Hari wore brightly coloured shirts and white mundus, the girls, Aiza Noura and Manha Ziyaan wore the dhavani (half saree in off-white) and colourful blouses. As for the Director-Academics Sherrin Mathew, she wore an orange saree with a beaded green necklace. 

The participants as well as the visitors had never seen an attire like this before,” says Sherrin. “They found it unique. They came and touched our clothes. A few said, ‘How many metres is the saree? How do you wear it? Are you comfortable having so much of cloth covering your body? How does it hold up?’ They also wanted to know about the handloom material.” 

The ‘My School’ team had come to participate in the entrepreneurial category. And they brought a very simple project. Says Class 7 student Aiza, “Our project was about water harvesting. In Kerala, we get a lot of excess rainfall, yet we face drought when summer comes around. That’s because we are not storing the water, purifying it, so that we can use it. Instead, we allow it to flow back to the sea.” 

With the help of their robotics teacher Sunil Paul, who accompanied them to California, they made a prototype in which the water is collected in one section in an enclosure. The dirt particles are allowed to settle down. Then it is moved to the next section which has bits of charcoal. When the water goes through that, it is purified, and in the third section, the water is stored. 

It was a very simple project, and very cheap,” says Sherrin. 

Meanwhile, the group was in for a shock. Some of the other projects were so sophisticated, especially the type of robots that had been made. “We realised we are way behind in terms of our knowledge of robotics,” said Aiza. 

Students in the age group of 12-14 took part. And they came from seven countries -- the USA, China, Poland, Mexico, India, New Mexico and Spain. Overall, there were 42 participants. The judging was done by visitors. 

And the winners were Indians Sri N and Sahasra C, who represented the USA. Sri is only in Class three but he had made a sophisticated robot. “He is so advanced in his knowledge,” says Sunil. “Sri has a bright future ahead of him.” 

But the good news was that the ‘My School’ team won the second prize in their category. 

Among the visitors, there were a few scientists from the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), which is just 10 kms away from the venue. The next day the children were invited to come to NASA. Which they did. “It was very interesting to see the different exhibits,” says Sherrin. 

One lesson the group learnt was the importance of robotics. “The knowledge displayed by the children of other countries was amazing,” says Sherrin. “We need to upgrade our studies, otherwise, internationally, we stand no chance.” 

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