Monday, December 24, 2007

Blessey, blessed or brave?

The ace director gets ready to release his new film, Calcutta News

By Shevlin Sebastian

After a satisfactory day of shooting for Calcutta News, which stars Dileep and Meera Jasmine, director Blessey Iype Thomas, 42, retired to his hotel room in Kolkata’s Lake Market area. Around midnight, a slight rain began. Blessey paid no attention. At his usual time of 4 a.m., he got up and looked outside the window. It was still raining, but it did not seem like a heavy rain. However, later, when he went down to the reception, he got a shock: the room was under water. He stood on a bench and looked out towards the street. Again, he was surprised to see that the unit van was half under water.

“Since the kitchen was also water-logged, there was no tea or breakfast,” says Blessey. “I was so worried.” There were 150 people who had come all the way from Kerala and they needed to be fed. “I had read about the floods in Kolkata, but this was the first time I was actually experiencing it,” he says.

Anyway, the problems were solved and a couple of days passed. Once again, there was a rain and the streets got flooded. This time Blessey decided that he would incorporate this scene into the movie. “Immediately, I called Dileep and Meera and the crew members,” he says. “By the time everybody arrived, amazingly, the water had drained off.”

Then somebody suggested that the street where Meera Jasmine was staying was flooded. So, the crew went there, but there was not enough water to show that the city was flooded. “Suddenly, we got a call from my hotel saying that the street in front had become flooded again,” says Blessey. “So, we rushed back. It must have been a low-lying area and water from other areas might have come there. In the end, we shot a song sequence on the flooded street. This was an extraordinary experience for me.”

Blessey is sitting on a low sofa just outside the dubbing room at the Lal Media Arts centre in Kochi. On the door an appropriate sticker has been pasted: ‘Bare Foot Inside, Ego Outside’. The 5’11” director, wearing a striped black shirt and trousers, gives an impression of serene grace, but says, “Yes, I look calm now, but on the set, I behave like a madman.” When he says this, he breaks out into a boyish smile. The director is waiting for Dileep, who has to do the dubbing for the last few scenes of Calcutta News.

Asked why the setting of Kolkata for his latest film, he says, “The city has a very important place in the imaginative life of creative artists, writers and thinkers of Kerala,” he says. Most of the classic films have been made by Calcuttans: Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Then there are the powerful writings of Rabindranath Tagore. “Even an ordinary worker has read the short stories of Bimal Mitra,” he says. “And who can forget tremendous personalities like Swami Vivekananda and Mother Teresa?”

Calcutta News traces the life of a television journalist Ajith Thomas going through the travails of his job. “It is a thriller in parts, but there is also a romantic interest, played by Meera,” says Blessey. The film, which will be released in January, 2008, has raised a lot of expectations, because of Blessey’s previous films.

He made a stunning debut in 2004 with Kaazcha, which starred Mammooty, and is about the friendship between a small-town film operator and a Gujarati boy orphaned in the 2001 earthquake. The next film, Thanmatra, was about Alzhemeir’s Disease, with Mohanlal playing the lead. This was followed by Palunku, again starring Mammooty as a farmer making a move to the city. All the films were received well, although Palunku did not do as well as the other two at the box office. Still, Blessey, among the younger set of directors, is a rising star.

But the road to success has not been easy. He spent 18 years as an assistant to Padmarajan, Jayaraj, Lohitadas and others. Asked what he learned from Padmarajan, he says, “I understood that one should do stories about ordinary people and give realistic dialogues. In fact, I feel that this naturalness is reflected in the movies I have made so far.”

Director Jayaraj gives a perspective from the other side. “Blessey’s strong point has been his detailed planning for every scene,” he says. “It creates a powerful effect. And he goes deeply into the subject of the film.”

The well-known caterer, Naushad, 41, who, along with Sevi Mano Mathew, produced Kaazcha, says, “Blessey has a tremendous passion for films. He is willing to go to any length to get a good shot.”

Unfortunately, he seemed unwilling to go to any length to become a director. Jayaraj says that the one reason Blessey took so long to make his debut was because “he is too self-effacing. In fact, I had to prod him to make his first film”.

When Blessey approached a top star, the latter rejected the theme of Kaazcha outright, saying it would not work. Upset and desperate, and at the suggestion of Jayaraj, Blessey went and met reigning superstar Mammooty and gave a one-line description of Kaazcha. Mammooty immediately said it would be an outstanding film. “This was the turning point in my life,” says Blessey.

He told Mammooty he did not have a script, because the established writers felt it would be difficult to have a workable screenplay, because the protagonists could not converse with each other in Malayalam. Then Mammooty said, “Why don’t you write it, and if it does not work out, we can ask somebody else to write it?”

That was how Blessey, who had never written a line before, became a script-writer. Later, for Thanmatra, he would win a state award for best screenplay, as well as best director. These are the twists and turns of life that amaze the director.

Blessey was born in Tiruvala, the youngest of six children, of a pharmacist, who died when the director was only three years old. “My father was a big absence in my life,” he says. “That is why, unconsciously, in all my films, there is a deep love and affection shown by the father for the children.” He says he wanted to enjoy on film what he could not experience in real life: a father-son relationship. The director was also close to his mother, but she died when he was 16 years old. “Even now, when I remember my mother, tears come to my eyes,” he says.

The family lived next to the Deepa theatre and his love for films began in childhood. “I would watch a film on every Saturday,” he says. “Then, at night, when I lay on the bed, I was able to hear the dialogues clearly. And I would recreate the scenes in my mind. This habit helped develop my visual imagination.” (Incidentally, Deepa theatre has been demolished, and a shopping mall is coming up in its place).

When Blessey grew up, he did his graduation in zoology from Mar Thoma College in Tiruvalla. But, unlike most middle-class youngsters, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a film director. Today, he continues to live in Tiruvalla with his wife, Mini, 36, and sons, Adith, 12 and Akhil, 9.

Meanwhile, as fans wait patiently to see what magic Blessey has wrought in Calcutta News, on the day the film is released, the director will go to church and spend several hours there, “praying that the audience reaction is positive. I only come out of the church after the matinee show is over”.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

When death comes calling… a few conclusions

By Shevlin Sebastian

Fact: An assistant sub-inspector, M.C. Elias, 47, died after suffering a head injury while trying to disperse SFI and ABVP activists in the NSS Hindu College campus at Changanassery on Friday, October 26. Elias was hit on the back of the head by a rod while he was trying to pacify the two groups. The campus had been tense because of recent college union elections.

Comment: On Friday morning, when Elias read the newspaper at his house, he could never have imagined that he would be on the front page in the next day’s newspapers. He could also never have imagined when he was told to go to the NSS Hindu College that it would be his last assignment. Could his wife, Sherin, a teacher, have imagined, when she said goodbye, before leaving for work, that she would never see her husband alive again?

As for the children, Sherin, Akhil and Sneha, at one moment, their father was at the centre of their lives, but now, they are staring at an immense and painful void. What about the young man who bludgeoned the police officer to death? Could he have imagined, as he set out to do battle for his student’s union -- the mood angry, the adrenaline surging -- that he would soon be snuffing out a man’s life, shattering the happiness of a family and, probably, destroying his own life and his family’s, if he is caught.

Two facts are evident from this incident: the randomness of a tragic event and its earth-shattering impact on people. And secondly, whether we acknowledge it or not, at every moment of our life, death is hovering at the edges. When we step out into the chaotic traffic, ride an elevator, watch a cricket match or amble around in a park, death can strike you down, no matter what age you are. It could be through an accident, a sudden heart attack, a mob stampede or a bomb blast.

And yet, immersed in our day-to-day life, consumed by ambition, greed and power lust, we forget that death exists. Elias's sudden death should make us realise that the only two permanent events in life are birth and death, while the rest, though important for survival, like a family and a career, are transient.

Nothing lasts!

Of course, all this is no consolation for the Elias family.

But a constant awareness of death should, hopefully, help us to become better human beings: loving and compassionate. And for all the young men in the world who itch to wreak havoc, here's some food for thought: any violence that you mete out on your fellow human beings is, at its core, an assault on your own soul.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

‘Attitude determines your altitude’

So says Maaney Paul, HR guide and motivational speaker, who has impacted hundreds of lives over the years through his talks

By Shevlin Sebastian

Maaney V. Paul, 48, strides confidently onto the stage at the Christu Jayanthi Public School in Kakkanad. He looks intently at the group of teachers sitting in front of him and says, “The predominant job of a teacher is not to teach. It is to make a child enjoy learning. You should create an ambience to learn. If a student likes his teacher, the chances of him drifting away from the subject are minimised.”

Paul says teachers should not differentiate between good or bad students. “But if you ask teachers whether they discriminate, they will deny this, but, unconsciously, they may be doing so. Children can sense it,” he says. “A bias is a programme which is running in your head without your knowledge.”

The teachers listen raptly, even though Paul speaks non-stop, and without visual aids, for more than an hour. The only time he pauses is when he sips a glass of water to clear his parched throat. His intensity can be gauged by the sheen, caused by perspiration, on his face, and the vigorousness in his voice.

Later, the vice-principal, Fr. Varghese Kachappilly, says, “All the teachers appreciated the talk. The difference between Paul’s talk and the others we have heard so far is that he offered a lot of practical tips. This will enable the staff to become better teachers.”

Paul has been a motivational speaker and HR guide for the past 13 years. He has conducted courses for companies like Wipro, Lovelock and Lewes, Toonz Animation, the Alliance Francaise, the Kerala Police, the Nirma University, Ahmedabad, the Rais Hassan Saadi Group in the UAE and the World Health Organisation. “I have had 500 clients so far,” he says.

“Paul has a great ability to teach, convince and motivate,” says Arun Kumar Sinha, 44, the Inspector-General of Police, Thiruvananthapuram Range. “What also impressed me was his sincerity and passion.”

Dr. M.V. Pylee, 88, former Vice-Chancellor of Cochin University of Science and Technology, says, “I recently attended a talk by Paul and he electrified the audience. He is a very able speaker.”

So, the question to this able speaker is simple: why do millions of people fail to achieve success in life? “It is because they have the wrong attitude,” he says. “These attitudes are instilled in childhood and we seem unable to change it.” Anything we do over a period of time becomes a behavioural pattern. And, most of the time, this pattern is negative.

He gives an example: a boss tells a group of people that he wants one of them to take the initiative and present a programme for an upcoming event. “The first response of most of the people is, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” even though each of them can do it,” he says. “The right attitude should be, ‘Let me try.’”

He tells about his own negative pattern. When he was invited to give his first speech during a Rotaract meeting at Thiruvananthapuram in 1992, he could not utter a single word. “I just froze when I saw 400 people in front of me,” he says. “I stepped off the dais feeling humiliated. That night, I decided that I would become a speaker.”

Paul says there are two sides to a human being: One is the conscious part, while the other is the unconscious or functional part. “If the unconscious has a negative attitude, then negative things tend to happen to you,” he says. “The only way out is to change your attitude.”

To change the attitude, you need to learn to control the mind. “There are exercises for this, like breathing techniques and meditation,” he says. “The moment you are able to change your attitude, you will become an unbelievably powerful person.”

He says that Indra Nooyi, 52, the CEO of Pepsico and Vikram Pandit, 50, the new CEO of Citigroup rose from a low level to the pinnacle of success. “Attitude determines your altitude,” says Paul. “If you have the wrong attitude, you get stuck at the bottom and are unable to grow.”

For many years, Paul, an academically poor student in Sainik School at Amravati Nagar in Tamil Nadu, was unable to grow. A Malayli, he was born in Coimbatore, where his father had an optical business. After graduating in economics from Coimbatore, he dabbled unsuccessfully for four years in various business activities before he threw it all up and went to Thiruvananthapuram in 1984 and began helping his brother in a furniture business.

At the same time, searching for a meaning in life, he began to do volunteer work at the Oolampara Mental Health Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. “It changed my life,” he says. “I found that I had plenty of things to thank God about. I changed my attitude, and soon, good things began happening in my life.”

Today, Paul, through his talks, has been being doing good things to hundreds of people and some of the feedback can be seen on his web site: The Aluva-based motivational speaker says, “We may not be able to change the world, but, through sincere effort and perseverance, we can change ourselves.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Body in America, heart in Kerala

Malayali immigrants in America are torn between the loss of roots and the desire for a comfortable life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Most of the Malayalis in America lead a sheltered life,” says A.G. Alias, 71, an American-based psychiatrist, who was in Kochi recently. “That means, they do not cross boundaries. For example, in New York, they will not go to a high crime area like Harlem.”

He says the Malayalis, most of whom belong to the upper middle class, prefer to move around with other Malayalis and tend to associate with white, black or Hispanic Americans only at the work place. Not everybody agrees. The California-based engineering manager, Biju Abraham, 39, says he knows of Malayalis who have very good American friends.

However, it is not easy to be assimilated in a foreign country. Initially, when Malayalis go to America, they suffer from homesickness. “But once they have lived there for six months, they begin to enjoy the material comforts and the ease of travel,” says Alias. “Road congestion or broken roads are rare and there is no overpopulation”.

And, where earlier, they would feel nostalgic for the culture of Kerala, now it is easily available, like turning on a tap. They can access Asianet and Surya television channels, the latest Malayalam music and films are available on DVD, the newspapers can be read on the Internet and at the local Indian stores, you can get tapioca, pappadams, bananas and masala powders.

Says Suresh Pulikara, 41, an IT manager in California: “Every other week we get to see a new Malayalam movie at a cinema hall in the Bay area. And there are a couple of fine Malayali restaurants nearby.” Alias says the Malayalis have created their own Keralas in America. “They no longer miss out on what is happening back home,” he says.

But all is not smooth sailing. When their children grow up and become more American than Malayalis, the parents have a mixed reaction. “They would like to raise children like the way they were brought up in Kerala, but they know they can’t do that,” says Alias. “It eats into them, but, eventually, they learn to adjust.”

Suresh Pulikara is not sure whether there is any need to feel upset. “Even in Kerala the new generation is not growing up like the old generation,” he says. “If our children have to grow up in America, it is best to be an American, rather than an ‘American-Born Confused Desi’”.

When asked about the reaction of a first-generation American Malayali if their son or daughter married a black or a white American, Dr Sudhirdas Prayaga, 43, the CEO of a biotechnology company, says, “They will get upset. Most of the first-generation are Malayalis at heart and would want their children to marry within the community.”

Anish Nair, 36, an engineering manager, says that having a non-Indian son or daughter-in-law is not an easy thing to accept. “It needs a lot of compromise and adjustment on both ends,” he says. “I would try to influence my kids to opt for an Indian spouse, not because I am prejudiced, but because culture and values play a prominent role in our lives. That said, I would still respect the wishes of my kids.”

With this complicated attitude towards life of the first generation, does the second generation have any problem in adjusting to life in America? “The second generation has turned out well,” says Alias. “Around 75 per cent do well in academics. Most of them don’t break laws or get arrested, or take drugs. And they mix easily with other Americans.”

The New York-based schoolteacher, Sheeba Jacob, 29, a second generation Malayali, says she has found a comfortable niche in the United States and, at the same time, she is “proud to be Indian, a person of colour, and a child of immigrants”.

Growing up in the United States, she was surrounded by Gujaratis, Punjabis and Tamilians. “I learned to appreciate these different groups,” she says. “Recently, my friend cooked a Diwali dinner and when I looked around the room, I saw this landscape of Indian people from all over.”

Sheeba sounds comfortable in her own skin, but is the first generation also comfortable? As they grow older, do they feel a sense of loss regarding their roots? “The loss is getting less because when they go back home, they find that most of their friends or relatives have died or gone elsewhere,” says Alias “The connection to Kerala becomes brittle.”

So, for the older generation, it could be a difficult experience: their links with their home state become tenuous and they are not fully assimilated into American society, what with their segregation and hyphenated identities: Indian-Americans.

So, in the overall context, is emigration good or bad? “The pluses are better opportunities, high job satisfaction and a better standard of living,” says Prayaga. “The minuses are a moral bankruptcy. We miss the social interactions of Kerala and the children miss the presence of grandparents and relatives. Since life in America is fast-paced, there are fewer family get-togethers.”

Suresh Pulikara begs to differ. “All of us Malayalis gather at one of our friend's place for festivals like Onam, Easter, Christmas and Vishu,” he says. “This helps us to keep in touch with our culture and also gives an opportunity for our children to mingle with other Malayali children.”

Sheeba, of the second generation, has another perspective: “Whenever an immigrant group moves from one location to another, there is bound to be cultural gaps. Things get lost in translation. The key is to keep an open mind and be tolerant towards everyone.”

Alias is not sure whether emigration is good or bad. “The best deal would be for the Malayalis to go to the USA, spend a few years there, save some money, learn something new, and then come back. That would be beneficial for the individual and the country.” But, unfortunately, this does not happen. He says that less than five per cent come back.

Biju Abraham says the main reason people do not want to come back is the high standard of living. “You cannot understand how good the quality of life is in America, unless you live here,” he says.

Meanwhile, Alias, in the autumn of his life, does suffer from a stab of regret. “The Indian tax payer spent so much money so that I could get a good education,” he says. “The country expected me to serve it. But since I went away forever, India did not benefit. I feel guilty about this.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sailing on choppy waters

The boats of the island ferry, off Marine Drive, break down frequently. The passengers are angry over the shoddy service. But driver P. Bhargavan carries on gamely

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night in June, 2003, it was raining heavily. Because of the low visibility, P. Bhargavan, 52, was carefully steering the boat from Poothotta to Panavally. Suddenly, he saw a canoe, with two fishermen, in the path of the boat. The brakes were applied, but it was too late. “The boat rammed into the canoe and hit one man on the chest,” says Bhargavan. “He fell into the water and got entangled in the propeller. He was cut into half.” The body was discovered at Aroor three days later, while his companion managed to swim to safety.

Thereafter, Bhargavan was suspended and it was only after six months that he was reinstated. “I can never forget that incident,” he says. “I have bad dreams often. Sometimes, I wake up with a jerk in the night and remember the scene.”

It is on a sunny Monday morning that Bhargavan is recounting the incident. He is gently steering the boat from Ernakulam towards the Willingdon Island. In his glass-paned cubicle, on top, he sits behind the steering wheel, one hand holding a white thread, which is connected to a bell below. “The other driver sits next to the passengers, and handles the gears and the accelerator.” So, every now and then, Bhargavan rings the bell to tell the driver what to do.

All around, the water looks still, although a closer look reveals tiny waves. At a distance, on the left, you can see the familiar landmarks of the Port Trust office and the Taj Malabar hotel. On the right is the Goshree Bridge, while on the water, there is a dredger, a tourist liner, a container ship, a couple of tourist boats, with the familiar red plastic chairs on the upper deck, and canoes with bare-bodied fishermen. “On other days, you can see tankers, warships, speed boats, and vessels of the Coast Guard and Navy,” says Bhargavan. “It is quite crowded.”

But it is not so crowded that one cannot enjoy the cool breeze that is blowing. On asked which is the most difficult season to work in, Bhargavan says it is during the monsoon. “There are strong waves that hit the boat,” he says. “I have to concentrate very hard to ensure that the boat cuts through the waves cleanly.” When it rains, the glass panes in the cubicle are kept open, because there are no wipers. So, poor Bhargavan gets wet all the time.

Soon, the boat reaches the Willingdon Island Embarkation Jetty. A few people get down and some get on. “The passengers consist of labourers, students, vendors, women, children and people in white collar jobs,” he says. Soon, the boat moves off, on the final run to Vypeen Island.

Bhargavan has been doing this job for 24 years. His shift starts at 3.30 p.m. and ends at 10.15 p.m. Then he spends the night in a rest-room on the jetty and, on the next morning, he starts work at 6.30 a.m. This shift finishes at 1.45 p.m. Then, he has to only join duty the next day at 3.30 p.m. “So, we work for 24 hours, and then get a day off,” he says. In the two shifts, he does a total of 26 trips.

It seems like a comfortable job, far away from the noise and chaos of the city traffic, but Bhargavan has a different take. “I am tired,” he says. “To see water all the time can be depressing.”

What also depresses him and the other drivers is the constant abuse that they get from passengers. “Sometimes, because of mechanical problems, the boat does not work, but the people get angry when this happens,” says P.M. Renjan, 50, the traffic superintendent in charge of the regional office, Ernakulam, of the State Water Transport Department, which runs the ferry service.

G. Vinod, 29, a passenger, says the people get furious because the boats suffer from frequent breakdowns. “To a certain extent, this is true,” says Renjan. The problem is too much bureaucracy. To replace a bolt, which costs Rs 5, a driver has to submit a requisition form, which has to be signed by three officers. “Repair works get delayed because of this,” says Renjan.

There are other frustrations, too. Sometimes, the boat has a mechanical failure in the middle of the backwaters. “There are no walkie talkies to communicate to the authorities that we are stranded,” says Bhargavan. It is only when another boat goes past, that the message is passed that help is needed.

P.V. Prakash, 50, a regular commuter from Fort Kochi, says the department runs the service in a shoddy manner. “They rarely follow a fixed daily schedule,” he says. “If the boat to Mattancherry is not working, the authorities will put the passengers on the Vypeen boat and ask the driver to go to Mattancherry.” The passengers to Vypeen, naturally, will get angry. “This happens almost every day,” says Prakash.

So, what is the solution? “Privatisation is the only way out,” says Prakash. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the department wants to give up its monopoly.” So, the woes of the passengers will continue. As for Bhargavan, just three years away from retirement, he may be beyond caring.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In tune with the cosmic energy

A few youngsters in Kochi propagate the Chinese teaching of Falun Dafa

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, Nikhil Govind, 22, was lying on his bed at his home in Pachalam. He was thinking about the lectures he had read of the Falun Dafa Master Li Hongzhi. Suddenly, he felt his body become stiff. He could not move his hands and legs. “I felt scared,” says Govind. “I wanted to call my parents, but I could not, because my tongue was stuck. I started hearing strange sounds in my ear.” Soon, an energy enveloped him from head to foot. “I remembered reading that when this process happened, it meant my body was getting purified.”

After the energy went over his body, like the way the light moved over a paper in a photostat machine, he was able to move his hands and feet. “After that I was in a state of bliss for several hours,” he says.

Govind is a believer of the Falun Dafa philosophy, which states that to be a better human being, you have to follow the three great virtues of the universe: Truthfulness, Benevolence, and Forbearance. Falun Dafa also has five sets of meditation exercises, all gentle stretching movements, which allow the cosmic energy to flow into the body. Incidentally, Falun Dafa is also known as Falun Gong.

Lin Hongzhi started the movement in China in 1992. It spread rapidly throughout the length and breadth of the country. But in 1999, seeing its popularity, the Chinese Communist Party banned the movement and cracked down on its practitioners. The ensuing international media coverage brought unprecedented worldwide publicity to the teaching. According to the web site -- -- it has followers in 80 countries, with more than 100 million followers. In China, itself, despite the crackdown, there are still millions of followers.

Govind encountered the Falun Dafa teaching by accident. One day in 2005, a cousin, Naveen Arthapully checked the Falun Dafa India web site, and saw that a group in Hyderabad was going to have a demonstration of the exercises. “He asked me to come along,” says Govind. They stayed for two days and learnt the exercises. Then Govind read the books by Hongzhi and started practicing on his own.

On a Wednesday evening, last week, a group of four young men gather at the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium at Kaloor. Jose Johni, 22, and Govind have both just completed their B. Tech. Ajith Kumar, 23, works at a call centre while Hamesh Vinod, 20, is doing a Marine course.

Govind and Johni are wearing bright yellow T-shirts with the words ‘Falun Dafa’ printed in English and Chinese, and the name of the web site below it.

Asked how the teaching changed his life, Govind says, “I used to drink and smoke, but I stopped after practising Falun Dafa. I have got rid of negative traits like anger, fear and jealousy.” In its place, he says, he has a clear mind, better concentration, and inner peace.

Ajith Kumar has also stopped drinking and smoking. “I was searching for a meaning in life and Falun Dafa has provided it,” he says. For Johni, who has been practising for the past one and a half years, Falun Dafa has purified his body. “Earlier, I would become tense, especially when exams were approaching, but now I feel relaxed all the time,” he says. For Vinod, who has tried all sorts of therapies, including reiki and meditation, in Falun Dafa, the impact on the mind and the body is instantaneous. “I am looking to increase my mental power,” he says.

Govind places a MP3 player, which looks like a small white cube, on the floor and switches it on. Haunting Chinese music, as well as the chants of Li Hongzhi, can be heard. Immediately, the young men stand still, with their eyes closed. After a few moments, they begin to make languid movements of their arms as they begin the first exercise: ‘Buddha stretching a thousand arms’.

Meanwhile, even though it is a stadium, there are cars, tipper lorries and autorickshaws, with blaring horns, going past. “One reason we do this in a public place is to get more people to know about Falun Dafa,” says Govind. “We distribute leaflets to those who show an interest.”

However, most people, on their evening walk, barely glance at the group, except for one elderly man, who is wearing white keds. He stops and stares silently. He seems to be debating within himself whether to come forward or not, but in the end, he walks away.

The group is not aware of this, because during the five exercises, their eyes are closed. But doing the programme in public has been an effective method because they have got a few members, including Vinod. “I used to come for weightlifting in a gym in the stadium and when I saw them, I got curious and wanted to know more.”

“There is no fee,” says Govind. “Falun Dafa has no headquarters or centres anywhere. All of us are volunteers, we have printed the leaflets with our own money, and we feel this is the best way to get people interested in the teaching.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 07, 2007

In the cold zone

P.M. Karthikeyan handles dead bodies at the freezer at the General Hospital with calmness

By Shevlin Sebastian

When handler P.M. Karthikeyan, 40, opens the freezer at the General Hospital, a blast of cold air shoots outwards. In the lighted interior, one can see three bodies placed on metal racks: one is an elderly woman, with straggly black hair, wearing a green saree, while the other two are emaciated old men, with sunken cheeks and grey stubble on their faces. One man’s eyes are open: they are large and black and fathomless. “They fell ill on the road,” says Karthikeyan. “The local people must have brought them to the hospital, and they have died without family or relatives around.”

As soon as they die, the police are informed. Following an investigation, the police will get the photo and address published in the newspapers. “If somebody comes forward, he or she will have to prove they are related to the deceased person,” says K.N. Omana, the medical superintendent. “It could be through identity cards or rations cards or photographs. When it is confirmed, the body is released to them.”

If nobody claims the body within eight days, the Hospital Development Committee will arrange for the cremation. “Sometimes, if the body is in a reasonably healthy condition, it will be sent to a medical college,” says Omana. “There are many pending requests.” Incidentally, the cold storage section is run by the Dhanwandhari Service Society and the fee is Rs 400 per day.

Asked how people react when they come to collect the bodies, Karthikeyan says, “Most people do not cry because the family might have thrown out the deceased for various reasons. They come in order to do the last rites.” However, there is an emotional reaction when people die suddenly, like in an accident.

Kartikeyan remembers the case of two middle-aged brothers who were traveling on a motorbike near the High Court two months ago. “Somehow, the bike hit something and the younger brother flew off and landed under the wheels of a bus coming from the opposite direction,” he says. “He died instantly. It was a traumatic experience for the family.”

For Karthikeyan, death is no longer a trauma. “I treat the body like I am handling a piece of furniture,” he says. “That is the only way I can survive in this job.” However, despite so many years of experience, this father of two young daughters is unable to face the death of a child. “It is a painful sight,” he says. “When children die, it seems as if they are sleeping. They look peaceful. There is no struggle. There is no change on their faces.”

On the other hand, he says, when adults die, it seems as if they have waged a terrible struggle, before succumbing to their fate. “Sometimes, the fists are bunched together, the jaw is clenched and their eyes jut out,” he says.

Asked how people die, Karthikeyan says, “Most die through accidents, illness or old age. And, of course, there are suicides.” Some die by hanging, or poisoning, or burning or drowning or by throwing themselves in front of speeding trains. “Sometimes, the head is severed from the body, and we have to store the different parts in the freezer,” he says.

Karthikeyan does a 24-hour duty, then gets the next day off. His family stays in Parur. His wife does not like the job he is doing, because he is dealing with dead bodies all the time. “But she knows that this is my bread and butter, so she does not say anything,” he says.

His salary is low, but he gets the occasional tip, around Rs 100, from people who come to collect the body. When asked whether handlers extort money from relatives, as is the widespread belief, he says, “It is not true. I am a God-fearing man. I cannot ask for money from people at such a difficult time.”

Yes, indeed, it is a difficult time when a death happens. So, does the man who faces death every day remember a particular death? “Yes,” he says, and tells the story of Balan. He was a bachelor who would hang around the hospital. “He was not employed by anybody, but would lend a helping hand to us in the cold storage section and make some money,” says Karthikeyan. Sometimes, he would accompany the police when they had to collect a body or go to the crematorium to help dispose off a body. “He did this job for 35 years,” says Karthikeyan. “He was a nice man, but he had one vice: he drank heavily.”

Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, he died one day outside the cold storage section. “Since he had not been officially entered as a patient in the hospital, the police had to be informed,” says Karthikeyan. “So, we had to place him in the freezer till the investigation was done. Think about it! The man who had put so many bodies in the freezer ended up being there himself.”

That night, Kartikeyan slept outside, while Balan was inside. “I remembered the many nights when Balan and I slept next to each other,” he says. After the post-mortem, Kartikeyan and another colleague washed Balan’s body, dressed him in good clothes and took the body to the crematorium for the last rites.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Oh come, all ye faithful!

A trip to the ancient sites in Jordan, Israel and Egypt can be a life-affirming experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The most remarkable experience for me was the time I spent at the Dead Sea,” said Mary Thomas of Kochi. “Because the Dead Sea has so much of salt content, you will not sink. So, you can lie on the water, like on a bed, and float for hours together. It was magical.” She said there were no fishes or any other living organism in the water. Incidentally, the Dead Sea, at 1,300 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on the Earth’s surface.

When businessman Peter K. Joseph saw the path taken by Jesus Christ to the Crucifixion at Cavalry, he was surprised to see that the road was not that steep and the hill was not that high. “Artists have always depicted it otherwise,” he said. “At Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, The Church of The Holy Sepulchre has been built and is really worth seeing.”

Mary Thomas and Peter Joseph are part of a growing number of tourists from Kochi who have gone to Jordan, Israel and Egypt to experience first-hand the origins of the three great religions of the world -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Nearly all of them went through travel agents who have packaged it as the ‘Holy Land’ trips.

One of the veteran agents is Joseph Antony, 46, the managing director of Galilee Travel and Cargo Agency at Panampilly Nagar. “In seven years, I have done 29 trips,” he said. “Usually, the group consists of Christians. But Muslims also come, because the third holiest shrine in Islam, after the mosques at Mecca and Medina, is the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. So, their primary interest is to offer prayers there.”

He said he took an average of 30 people on every trip. The cost per person was Rs 59,500, which included sightseeing, airfare, hotel accommodation (breakfast, lunch and dinner included), and the cost of visa and departure taxes.

The ten-day trip started at Amman, Jordan, with a visit to Mount Nebo. “This was where Moses saw the Promised Land,” said Peter Joseph. From there, there were stops at Jericho and Nazareth, Jesus’s boyhood town, where you can see the Church of the Annunciation. According to the Bible, it was at this spot that the archangel Gabriel appeared and told the Virgin Mary she would be bearing a son by the name of Jesus.

“At Tabgha, you can see the Church of the Beatitudes where Jesus gave the famous Sermon on the Mount,” said Antony. The next stop was Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast. “The old wine cisterns have all been preserved,” he said.

Other journeys included a trip to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, the holiest spot of the Jews, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. “You experienced a tremendous feeling at the Garden because it was here that Jesus Christ prayed the night before his crucifixion and where his disciple, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him to the Romans,” said Antony.

One of the last stops, before the group moved to Egypt, was at Mount Sinai. “This was the place where Moses saw the burning bush,” said contractor K.G. Thomas, 49. With a group of friends, he climbed the 2,285m peak. They started at 9 p.m. and reached the summit at 4 a.m. “The moonlight was very bright in those parts, so, we could see easily,” he says. “The hike was worth it, because the sunrise was a magnificent sight.”

Throughout the trip, a guide travelled with the group and explained the historical importance of every place. “The elderly were emotionally moved by the sight of the holy places,” said Antony. “Their faith was reaffirmed.” Peter Joseph said he had read about all these places and the incidents in the Bible from his school days. “But now, I received a physical confirmation,” he said.

For Mary Thomas, apart from the religious significance, what really amazed her was that the women in Israel had such strong personalities. “They work in all sorts of jobs, including the police and the military, and are as competent as the men,” she said. “As a woman, I cannot imagine having that sort of confidence and power here in Kerala.”

Did any of them feel apprehensive because of the unrest in Palestine and the spate of suicide bombings in Israel? “If there was a bomb blast in Mumbai, it did not mean that the city came to a standstill,” said Peter Joseph. “Life went on. So that was how it was in Israel.” Antony said that most of the problems occurred only on the Gaza strip. Contractor Thomas said, “We are used to bomb blasts in our country. So, I did not feel nervous.” However, they had to go through several body checks. “They do it fast and smoothly and without ruffling feathers,” said Thomas. “It is not like in India where, during a body check, the people are put to a lot of inconvenience.”

Asked whether they would like to go again, all of them said a forceful, “Yes, if finances permit.” Said Peter Joseph: “Next time, I would like to go alone. There are so many historical places to explore.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, November 30, 2007

On the right track

Station Master N. Rajeev keeps a cool head, as 80 trains pass through Ernakulam South every day

By Shevlin Sebastian

A surprising discovery is that the office of the Ernakulam South station master -- the Route Relay Interlocking Cabin -- is 300 metres away from the station and close to the South bridge. On the second floor, in a large, spacious room, standing in front of a panel, which consists of shiny red knobs, numerous switches and lines, embedded with tiny bulbs, is station master N. Rajeev, 45.

He has just got a call from the station master at Kumbalam, Saratchandra Babu, asking whether he can send the Netravati Express to South station. Rajeev gives the go-ahead and a few minutes later, the Netravati goes past under the glass-paned cabin windows and comes to a halt on Platform No 1.

“For the Netravati Express, the scheduled halt is ten minutes,” says Rajeev. “Once I get the clearance from the station master at Ernakulam North, Roy Thomas, I will give the go-ahead.”

When the Netravati Express is waiting at the platform, it is represented by yellow lights on the panel. When the train starts moving, the yellow lights turn to red. So, just by staring at the panel, you can chart the progress of the train, till it reaches the North station. “At a single glance, I can also know whether there are any trains on the five platforms or the nine tracks at the South station,” he says.

Rajeev is a soft-spoken man, who smiles easily, even though he is doing a high-pressure job. On an average, 80 trains pass through the South station every day and he cannot afford to make a mistake. So, he looks alert all the time. Asked to give a schedule of trains, from 3 p.m., for the next few hours, he says, “One passenger train will come from Allapuzha to Ernakulam. Then, there is the Delhi-bound Kerala Express, which is coming from Kottayam. This will go to North. At the same time, the Guruvayur Passenger from North will be coming to South.”

He goes on and on, naming several trains, which will be coming and going, till he stops, with the Allapuzha-Ernakulam passenger, which arrives at 7.25 p.m.

His by-rote knowledge is impressive and it shows how deeply Rajeev is involved in his work. Since it is a 24-hour job, he is always working on a shift, but the working hours are unusual. He comes to work at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning and works till 8 p.m., a shift of ten hours He goes home and returns at 6 a.m. on Tuesday and does a shift for four hours. Then he leaves and comes back at 8 p.m. for a night shift, which will finish at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

“It works out to 10 + 4 + 10 = 24 hours, with a ten hour gap between the three shifts,” he says. “On Wednesday, I have an off day and I will report for work on Thursday at 10 a.m.” But after he finishes the second round of shifts, again at 6 a.m., he gets that day off, the next day also, and has to join duty only on the third day at 10 a.m.

Despite Rajeev’s sincerity and hard work, and one is sure his colleagues in other sections must be equally focused, passengers continue to complain about the late running of trains.

”I don’t think trains run late these days,” he says. “There is an enormous improvement in communications and efficiency. Engine speeds have also increased. On some sections, trains travel at 100 km per hour.”

Usually, he says, trains are late because of unforeseen events: a tree falls on the track or it is submerged under flood waters. Or, as it happened near South station some time ago: an advertising board, fixed on the terrace of a building, was blown off, because of fierce winds, and it fell on electricity lines near the tracks, cutting off the power supply. “When these things happen, trains will be late,” he says.

But he admits that on single-line tracks from Ernakulam to Kottayam and beyond, there will always be a delay because of ‘crossings’. “These are not major delays,” says Rajeev. “But I can understand that in the view of a short-distance traveler, it is a long wait.”

So, how does he tackle the wrath of passengers? “It is difficult to placate them,” he says. “They have a mass mentality. Even if I try to explain the reasons for the delay as honestly as possible, my lone voice is silenced by the voice of the angry mass.”

P. Jayakumar, a regular commuter from Kottayam, says, “A public address system inside the train could enable the driver to inform passengers why the train is late.” When Rajeev is told about this, he says, “There are plans to set up such a system.”

Nevertheless, despite the discontent of passengers, Rajeev, who lives at Tripunithara, with wife, Snusha, 38 and son, Abhijith, 3 ½, enjoys the thrill of doing his job without causing any accidents. “Sometimes, when I am sleeping, I dream of the control panel and I see myself making moves smoothly,” he says, with a smile.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saying ‘Yes’ to life

Struck by a crippling physical disorder at 25, Peter Joseph recovered and went on to become a successful businessman, a CEO of Shalom TV and a popular lyricist

By Shevlin Sebastian

Peter K. Joseph was working for the Danish multinational, DISA, in Bangalore. One day in December, 1984, while he was doing Christmas shopping with his wife, Beena, he was assailed by a severe pain. Following the advice of his regular physician, he underwent a checkup at St. Martha’s Hospital. After the tests were analysed, the orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Surendra, said, “You are showing the first signs of a disorder called Ankylosing Spondylitis. This disease will attack your spine and the major joints like the hips, shoulders and the neck. You will be bedridden within a few years.”

A distraught Peter went to the nearby Cubbon Park and sat in silence for a few hours. Then he resolved that he would not tell anybody, including his wife, Beena, about the disease. It was barely six months since he had married her. They had met in Newman College in Thodupuzha, his home town, fell in love, and got married. “I wanted to live happily with Beena for those few years,” he says.

So, he continued working. He managed for four years but then his health declined alarmingly and he had no option but to resign. By now, he could hardly walk. He suffered regularly from chest infections and breathlessness. He was in and out of the ICU every two months. Eventually, he went back to Thodupuzha, and, as predicted, he became bedridden.

“My body became very thin,” he says. “I was finding it difficult to digest food.” The lungs began to get affected and breathing became a problem. “When the hips and the spine are under attack, you experience a severe pain,” he says. “I have spent sleepless nights for months, despite being given the maximum sedation.”

One year passed, and during the second year, Peter began to lose hope and strength. “It was at this time, a friend, Dr George Panthackal, told me, ‘You will come out of this.’ He was the first to tell me that there was a slight chance of the disease being arrested. This gave me enormous hope.”

And indeed, in 1991, the miracle occurred: the disease was arrested, but it was a gradual process. Then, Peter embarked on the long and painful road to recovery. “The greatest achievement in my life was when, step by step, I walked 25 metres around my house,” says Peter. “After that, I was bed-ridden for four days, because my cartilages became swollen.” When Peter recovered, he went for another round. Again, he had to rest for a few days. “This went on for months,” he says. “Finally, there came a time when I was able to do three rounds.”

To strengthen his limbs, he began swimming at a pool that belonged to a local ayurvedic hospital. He continued this for five years. At the same time, to earn a living, he began repairing satellite TV receivers. This led to a move into cable television. In 1992, he moved into the dish antenna business and the brand, Sharcstar, which he promoted, became the largest-selling product in Kerala. “With a driver, I traveled all over the state in my Maruti car meeting dealers,” he says. In 1998, he took over the sole distribution of STAR TV for Kerala and in 2006, the Kochi-based businessman won the ‘STAR Regional Champion – South’ award for best performance.

When Shalom wanted to launch its television channel in 2005, Peter, who was, by then, well known in the broadcasting industry, was appointed as the CEO and MD. It was only in January this year that he relinquished the position and is now one of the directors. He is also, unbelievably, a lyricist of Christian devotional songs.

“When I was bedridden, I started writing lyrics,” he says. “When I recovered, I wanted to bring out a cassette of my songs.” He approached music director Peter Cheranalloor, and they brought out an album, ‘Edanthottam’, which did very well in the market. To date, he has written the lyrics for 30 songs, and most of them have been hits. Says Cheranalloor: “Peter’s lyrics spring from his life experiences and have a depth of feeling.”

So how has Peter, 47, achieved all this? “To know the full extent of your abilities, you have to suffer from a disability,” he says. “Every human being has enormous untapped potential. Usually, a person feels he has fulfilled his potential, but that is untrue. They only use 20 per cent of their abilities. People say I am disabled, but I feel ordinary people are disabled.”

A positive mental attitude is very important, he says. “Most of us have a negative attitude. When I fell sick, people showed a lot of care, they absorbed my sadness as a part of theirs, but nobody showed any fighting spirit. There was a passive acceptance of fate.”

Peter, however, has carved out a new fate. Says acquaintance Binoy Job, the Delhi-based Head of Special Programmes, NDTV: “Despite severe physical disabilities, Peter has achieved more than what able people would have done.” Incidentally, on his company website,, Peter has the following phrase running at the bottom of every page: ‘The sky is not the limit’.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Smiling through the twilight years

Retired Catholic priests stay at a home and learn to live with a group of young seminarians

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I am the Balan (boy) of the house,” says a laughing Fr. Ambrose Arackal. “At 75, I am the youngest.” He is sitting behind a desk in his room at Avila Bhavan, a home for retired priests at Chembumukku, Kochi. On the opposite side, on a table, there is a brand new Samsung television set. “When I retired a few months ago as the parish priest from Holy Family Church in Perumpilly, in the Vypeen islands, parishioners presented me with this set.” Just next to the TV is a framed black and white photograph of his late parents, Vareed, 67, a farmer, and his mother Thresia. “My mother died recently at 102,” he says. “So I have a long way to go.”

Behind the large curtain that divides the room, there is a bed placed against the wall and a small table and an attached bathroom. In Avila Bhavan, there are 16 rooms, but only 10 are occupied. It is a U-shaped building and while one wing houses the retired priests, the middle section contains the refectory, the kitchen, the recreation, the physiotherapy and the reading rooms, while the other wing is a seminary for budding priests. So the old and the new live side by side, separated by a garden, full of blooming roses, sunflowers, marigolds and towering mango trees.

At 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, a few priests are taking a walk along the open corridor. Fr. Anthony Koombayil, 83, walks with a shuffling gait, while Fr. Joseph Thaikoodan, 90, takes a few steps, stops, takes another few steps. The younger Monsignor Bruno Cherukodath, 76, who is wearing a neck brace, because of spondylitis, walks steadily.

In the recreation room, sitting in front of an easel, is Fr. Michael Panakal. He is giving final touches to an oil painting of Mother Mary and a teenage Jesus, with several doves flying about. “I am a singer, but there is nobody to hear my singing,” he says. “So, I am painting now.” Later, he points at his paintings of Pope John Paul 11, Pope Benedict and a man plying his boat in the Kerala backwaters, which are hanging on the walls.

Fr. Panakal was the first director of the well-known Cochin Arts and Communications, which offers training in music, dance and art. His stint lasted 16 years. Says current director Fr. William Nellikal, 48: “Fr Panakal was a gifted song-writer and painter.” But at 91, his career far behind him, the priest has to contend with a host of health problems. “I have only one kidney and that is not functioning properly,” says Fr. Panakal. “I have diabetes and heart problems. I also suffer from arthritis.” But it is heartening to see that he discusses his ailments with a smile.

In another room sits Fr. Joseph Thaikoodan. “Reading and writing helps me pass the time,” he says, in a very low voice. “I read a lot of books on technology.”

Ordained in 1949, he was an assistant at the St. Francis Assisi Cathedral in Ernakulam. “I happened to meet a German who invited me to come for the International Eucharistic Congress in Munich in 1960,” he says. “Somehow, I was able to go.” From Munich, Thaikoodan went to London and stayed for 20 years. “I took my doctorate in technology and taught in schools and colleges,” he says. Then, in the early eighties, he was told to return. He obeyed and began teaching at St. Albert’s College in Kochi.

Nearly all the priests have had busy and fulfilling careers. Some, like Fr. Cherukodath, who suffered a mild cerebral stroke in 1990, had to slow down. But they all look happy and smile easily. “Yes, they are enjoying their lives, even though they have health problems,” says Fr. Alex Kurisuparambil, 41, the administrator. “What has helped is the sense of community here and the regular routine that has been established.”

The routine goes like this: at 6.15 a.m., there is mass in the small chapel. All the priests attend this. They return to their rooms by 6.45 a.m. and assemble again at 7.30 a.m. for breakfast in the refectory. At 10 a.m., tea or coffee is served for those who are interested. At noon, lunch is served, which is followed by an afternoon siesta. Tea is served at 4 p.m. Thereafter, they go for evening walks. At 7 p.m. dinner is served followed by a short prayer in the chapel at 7.40 p.m. The priests then retire to their rooms. Most go to sleep by 10 p.m., but Fr. Thaikoodan says he stays up till 11 p.m.

The distinctive feature about Catholic priests is that they cannot marry and must remain celibate throughout their lives. Asked whether this is difficult, Fr. Thaikoodan laughs and says, “If I were a married man, I would have to look after my family and take on so many other responsibilities. Now, I am a free man.” Says Fr. Cherukodath: “By the grace of God, I have never found celibacy a problem. Priests should be celibate, otherwise they cannot be totally dedicated.”

What about loneliness? Do they suffer from it? “I don’t feel lonely because there are other priests here and we exchange ideas and meet each other several times a day,” says Fr. Cherukodath. Says Fr. Arackal: “For 48 years, I have lived in different parishes. At night, we stayed alone, so we became accustomed to it.”

As they talk, the silence is punctuated by the chirping of the lovebirds, which are housed in a wire-mesh cage in the corridor. But its noise is drowned by the shouts of the youngsters in the other wing. The exuberance of youth! So, what do the veterans think of the youngsters? Did these energetic lads have the stamina to go the full distance as priests, or will the temptations of the world lure them to opt out?

Fr. Cherukodath says the youngsters should be clear in their mind whether they want to be priests or not. “There will be some dropouts,” he says. “Nowadays, because of nuclear families, children end up becoming selfish and think only of themselves. To be a good priest, you have to sacrifice your life for the good of the people.” Fr. Arackal says the boys should be sure whether they have received the call from God to become priests.

On another evening, I go across to the students’ wing. And as I ascend the stairs to the first floor, I can hear loud singing accompanied by music. Vice Rector Fr. Antony Valungal says the boys are preparing for a cultural function in the seminary. And so there they are, in a large room, these 12 boys, some in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts, others in shirts and trousers, while one is wearing a replica of the striking yellow jersey of the Brazilian football team. They are all standing around Tinku George, who is playing on a Yamaha electronic keyboard. Accompanying him on the guitar is Darwin Kodathus. “We are planning a chain song,” says Robin V. Raphy.

So, the group begins with a couple of devotional songs in Malayalam before they move into Dum Maro Dum, Mukabla, Mukabla, Meri Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aaye Gitu, to Mera Joota Hai Japani, then to Sara Jahaan Se Accha and concludes with a bang with A.R. Rahman’s Vande Mataram.

Their faces look flushed and excited after the rehearsal. So what did they think of the old priests on the other side? “I will give the answer,” says Stevin Joseph, 17. Then he closes his eyes and knits his eyebrows. His Adam’s apple goes up and down a few times. The other boys stare at him in silence.

“They are an inspiration to us,” he finally says. “They are saints, who have dedicated their lives to the church and now they are resting after their lifelong work. They look very happy and if we lead lives like them, we will also be happy.” So many people say that life has no meaning, he says, but “when we see them, we realise that life does have meaning. I feel that if I follow in their footsteps, there will be meaning in my life”.

Vincent Linu, 17, says, “They have done so much of good work for the church. I would like to do the same.”

Did they know that their shouts could be heard on the other side? “Yes,” says Raphy. “We are making a noise because of our music practice and our rehearsals for a play.”

Do they meet the priests? They nod in unison. What do the priests say to them? “Don’t make so much noise,” says Joseph. All the boys smile.

Outside, in the semi darkness, when one stands near the entrance, the two wings are a study in contrast. On the left, there is a pin-drop silence and all the doors are closed. On the right, the lights are brighter, the doors are open, and the shouts continue.

The Avila Bhavan is a metaphor for life. When you are young, you are consumed by ambition and an energetic drive and are eager to make a mark. But when it is all over, you just want to move into a restful silence.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian, Express, Kochi)

Friday, November 23, 2007

On the road

Roadroller driver Anthony Shiby works diligently to give the roads a smooth look

By Shevlin Sebastian

On Monday evening, the sun has already set, when I climb in behind driver Anthony Shiby, 34, on his road roller at Valanjambalan, on the stretch towards the South bridge. It is the peak traffic hour: Cars, buses, jeeps, auto-rickshaws, two-wheelers and trucks are moving in a never-ending flow on both sides. On one side, empty tar drums placed at intervals with a rope linked to all the drums act as a barrier for the traffic.

Shiby presses the starter button, shifts the gear and the roadroller moves forward. He leans to the left, to ensure that the wheels are going over the gravel chips and the tar spray. As the 8-tonne vehicle, which consumes 15 litres of diesel every day, keeps moving forward, worker Kunjumol, pours water, with a plastic mug, on the three rollers. “This is to prevent the tar from sticking on to the rollers,” says Shiby. The bucket is kept on a step of the vehicle and Kunjomol is always dipping into it and wetting the rollers.

Shiby reaches the end of the patch, a distance of 30 metres, then shifts the gear into reverse, and now he is looking back to ensure that he is going in a straight line. When he reaches the end, he shifts the gear and starts moving forward again. This time, he is leaning on the right. Shiby rarely sits straight: either he is leaning to the right or the left or looking back.

“At this moment, it is not that hot,” says Shiby. “But during the day, the heat from the tar on the road, combined with the heat from the engine and the metal roof makes it very uncomfortable.” As he expertly brakes at the end of the stretch, Shiby says, “11 a.m. to 3 p.m. is the toughest period.”

Back and forth he goes, at least 20 times each way, till the road begins to have a semblance of smoothness. At one side, workers are busy mixing the gravel chips in a machine and are getting the tar spray ready for the next stretch of road.

Meanwhile, cars honk and a policeman tries to bring order with stiff movements of his arms. So, how difficult is it to work in the middle of so much traffic? “I have got used to it,” says Shiby. “We get a lot of help from the policemen, who try to ensure that the traffic moves in a smooth manner. Without their co-operation, it would have been difficult to get the work done.”

He says most drivers are also co-operative. “But the ones who curse me the most are the bus drivers,” says Shiby, with a smile. “They have time deadlines to meet and they think I am slowing them up.”

Soon, Shiby finishes the work on this section, and steps off the vehicle. And while he waits patiently for the gravel chips to be put on the next patch, he talks about his beginnings.

Shiby became a driver by accident. His uncle, who was a driver for contractor T.J. Mathai, initiated him into the profession. He has been a driver for 14 years now and earns Rs 500 a day. “The road repair season is from November to May,” he says. “We usually don’t work in the rainy season, although, sometimes, there are some patches that need to be repaired.”

Standing nearby are two men who are keeping an eagle eye on the work that is being done. They are an Assistant Engineer and an overseer of the Cochin Corporation (both do not wish to be identified).

Asked why the roads break up so fast, the overseer says that after a road has been repaired, it needs at least fifteen days ‘rest’, when no vehicle should travel on it. “Forget 15 days, we are unable to give the road one second of rest.” He says it is not possible for the Valanjambalam road to be closed, since there is no parallel road to Vytilla. “If the roads are concretised, it will last a long time,” says the Assistant Engineer (AE). “Undoubtedly, there is a huge initial investment.”

What about the perennial suggestion that, instead of disrupting traffic during the day, road repairs could be done at night, as it is, in metros like Delhi and Mumbai? “There are no proper street lights in Kochi,” says the AE. “You cannot see properly. So, we cannot point out the mistakes being done.” Later, a worker says, “Maybe, the officials don’t want to miss out on a good night’s sleep.”

Meanwhile, Shiby has started work on the second patch. It is now 6.30 p.m. and darkness has already appeared on the horizon. “I will finish off this patch, and that should end the work for this section,” he says. The stretch, from M.G. Road, in front of the Medical Trust Hospital, to the South Bridge, took eight days to finish. So, where is he going tomorrow? “I am told it will be the Thammanam-Pullepady stretch.” And though a cynical public might look with contempt at the way road repairs are done, Shiby is satisfied with the job he is doing.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Raising the bar all the time

Rajeev Ravi, the cinematographer of Chandni Bar, Classmates and other films, is a top talent

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I was shooting the last scene of Chandi Bar,” says cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, 34. “It was a shot where the son of a bar dancer [played by Tabu] kills a man. As he walks away, he can see Tabu approaching. As the camera moves in for a close-up of the actress, the audience can see Tabu is crying.”

During the rehearsal, Rajeev, perched on a crane, went close to Tabu. “Suddenly, she told me, ‘Rajeev, there is a lot of distortion going on.’ What she meant was that her features were being exaggerated and she did not look glamourous.”

“In which scene?” I asked.

“‘90 per cent of the film,’ she said.”

“I was shattered when she said that,” says Rajeev. “Here I was, shooting with heartfelt sincerity, and the star of the film said I had distorted her face. It was a painful experience.”

Later, when Chandni Bar became a hit and Tabu won the National Award for Best Actress, all was forgotten. Apart from the accolades for acting, the cinematography came in for much praise, and Rajeev felt vindicated.

“Artistes should remember that it is not the face or the good looks which make for good cinema,” he says. “If the portrayal of the character is good, an artiste will look good, irrespective of the physical looks. Think of Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah or Rajnikant.”

Rajeev is sitting with folded legs on a sofa at his parents’ home on Pozhoth Lane and is on a six-week break. He continues to talk about Chandni Bar, his first film, which established his reputation. “When I went inside a dancing bar in Mumbai for the first time, I had a mixed feeling,” he says. “I could see these girls dancing, some of them were flirting with me, there were plenty of colourful lights, and yet, at the same time, it was scary.”

When he delved into their lives, he discovered that they stayed in depressing conditions in slums, harassed by husbands or boyfriends, and a few had illegitimate children.

“For Chandni Bar, I used the colour green a lot,” he says. “Green is the colour of fertility. It is also the colour of poison, especially in mythology.” So, he used green filters and put green shades on the windows. “In some scenes, the green gives off a soothing look, while in others, it evokes fear,” he says. (For those who have not seen the film, there are several scenes featured on You Tube).

Apart from Chandni Bar, Rajeev has worked in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking and Gulal, Jana in Tamil and 10 films in Malayalam. Asked about the state of the Malayalam industry, he says, “For the people who run it – be it the distributors, the exhibitors and producers, it is just a business.” He says stars like Mammooty and Mohanlal are controlling the show. “They don’t want to take creative risks any more,” he says. “They are just trying to stay on top. And at the top, the aim is just money-making; only a hit counts, nothing else.”

But Rajeev is motivated by the desire to make classy films. Born and brought up in Kochi, he did his B. Sc. from Maharaja’s College. A passion for cinema was kindled in college and he admired the films of K.G. George, Ritwik Ghatak and Jean-Luc Godard. In 1994, he gained admission to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. “It was one of the best experiences in my life,” he says. “The FTII has one of the best facilities in Asia.”

The stint in FTII has enabled him to make a mark, and he dazzled in director Lal Jose’s superhit, Classmates. “Rajeev is up to date with the latest technology,” says Jose. “He is a sweet person. You need somebody you can get along with, because, in the end, a cameraman is a director’s better half.”

As a director’s better half, does a cinematographer get complete freedom or does the director impose his vision? “It depends on the director,” says Rajeev. “There are some directors who are clear about the images they want.” He says that when he worked on a film by Girish Kasaravalli, the Kannada director would give clear instructions on where the camera should be placed, and the type of lens that should be used. “Then you are just a technician,” he says. “However, in 75 per cent of the films that I have worked in, I have been able to implement my vision.”

His vision must be good, because he has a growing legion of admirers. Says Chak De India director, Shimit Amin, who worked with Rajeev on an incomplete film, Let’s Catch Veerapan: “He is one of the brightest talents in Indian cinematography. Rajeev has a great eye, is sensitive to the story, and knows what is required of him.”

Assistant director Aubin Sebastian says: “Rajeev has a calm temperament. We worked together on The Bypass, which won an award at the London Film Festival in 2003. I learnt a lot from him.”

So what next? In February, 2008, Rajeev is going to start work on a Vishal Bharadwaj production, starring Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan. So, for this low-key Malayali, who has already done a commendable body of work, the cinematic journey continues…

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Giving the right signals

Policeman M.A. Damodaran handles the chaotic city traffic with skill and a smile on his face

By Shevlin Sebastian

“There have been many times when film star Mammooty would stop the car at Madhava Pharmacy Junction, roll down the glass, and greet me,” says Assistant Sub Inspector M. A. Damodaran, 54. Whenever he is physically handling the traffic, Damodaran catches the eye with his decisive gestures and visible enthusiasm. More times than not, he ensures a smooth flow of traffic.

On a Sunday morning, he looks relaxed, as he stands near the Medical Trust Hospital crossing, holding a Motorola walkie-talkie in his hand. “Sunday is usually an easy day,” he says. “There is heavy traffic from 10.30 to 11.30 a.m. because a lot of people from outside the city come for shopping.” He says most of the jams occur during the cinema show times of 3 and 6 p.m., outside Shenoys, Kavita and the Savita complex and outside parks, which is where most families go for outings on Sundays.

Damodaran points towards the Dwaraka hotel crossing and says it is a most difficult junction for a policeman. “There is an up and down traffic, there are two U-turns there, and a crossing from left to right,” he says. “Don’t forget, the Medical Trust crossing is less than 100 metres away.” So, there are plenty of vehicles coming all the time from all directions. “If the constable’s concentration lapses a little, a jam will form in no time,” he says.

At West Traffic station, Damodaran, with 17 years of handling city traffic, is the most experienced. He is also one of the best: On August 15, he won the Chief Minister’s Police Medal ‘for excellent work and devotion to duty’. Says former Kochi Commissioner of Police P. Vijayan: “Damodaran has a positive attitude and is very energetic. Whenever he is manning the traffic, be it at Kaloor or Vytilla, there are no traffic jams.”

When asked on how he handles jams, Damodaran, his eyes widening in excitement, says, “If, at a junction, all the vehicles are ranged against each other and there is no place to move, you should look quickly at all the four sides and see if there is a small gap anywhere.”

If he detects a gap, the ASI will ask a couple of drivers to reverse into the opening. “Suddenly, a space will open up at the centre and I will allow two vehicles from one side to go across,” he says. “The ideal method is to release the vehicles on each side little by little. You have to understand that you cannot solve a jam immediately. It has to be done gradually. In the end, the traffic will start flowing smoothly.”

On most days, Damodaran arrives at the Traffic West station by 7.45 a.m. for the 8 a.m. shift. This lasts till 11.30 a.m. Then there is a break for one and a half hours when he returns to the station. He relaxes by taking off his shirt and washing his face and hands, and having lunch. The second shift is from 1 to 5 p.m. “We can leave at 5 p.m., but if there is a jam, we will have to stay till it is cleared. So, on some days, I do go home late.”

Damodaran stays at Tripunithara with his wife, Soudhamini, 45, an Anganavadi teacher, and daughter, Priyanka, 10. They live comfortably on his monthly income of Rs 15,000. When asked about the most difficult season to work in, he says it is during the monsoons. “The traffic moves slowly, because of the rain and the bad roads, and there is a strong possibility of jams.” Plus, the constables are standing in the rain and getting wet. “After the morning shift, we try to dry out the socks during the break, but after that we have to wear it again,” says Damodaran. “So, for hours, we are in wet clothes, and socks and shoes.”

It is a tiring job in any weather and, yet, he says, that even though he is entitled to take a day off every week, he hardly takes it. “In fact, out of 48 days in the year, I probably take 10 days off,” he says. This is amazing, because he is not even talking about casual or privileged leaves. Things are bad for the others also; most constables get a one-day leave after 20 or 25 days. And all this is because of the extreme shortage of constables.

Says Circle Inspector D.S. Suneesh Babu of Traffic West station: “We have a total of 259 constables to handle the traffic in the city. You will be amazed to know that the strength of the force has remained the same since 1991, even though the traffic and the size of the city have increased several folds.” Apparently, the state government has been unable to take a decision on increasing the number of constables.

But nothing fazes Damodaran. Day in and day out, he is there on the roads, a smiling, intense man, whose passion is to untie the Gordian knot that is the Kochi traffic and make the roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.

(To reproduce this article, permission has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Mather of all ads

Prakash Kurup of Identiti transformed real estate advertising in Kerala with his innovative campaigns for Mather

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a chance meeting, but it changed the fortunes of two people. Prakash Kurup, 51, the director of Identiti Advertising, approached Raffi Mather, 36, the Director and CEO of Mather Projects and Constructions, to get permission to use his bowling alley at Esplanade for a Coca Cola commercial in 1999. They got talking and Raffi said he had ventured into the real estate business and needed to advertise it. “However, he said, the advertising agencies he had approached wanted a bank guarantee of Rs 25 lakh,” says Kurup. “He told me he could only afford a budget of Rs 2 lakh.”

Kurup took up the challenge and made an ad with the catchline, ‘Get Comfortable, Get a Home’. Two advertising boards were set up, one at Aroor, at the entrance to Kochi and the other in Alwaye.

When the ads appeared, Raffi was able to sell a few apartments in the Whitewater project in Thevara. Enthused, he increased the advertising budget to Rs 5 lakh. Soon, the team – then copywriter, Shailaja Prashanth, Art Director, Sunil C.K., Account Manager, Saji Jose and Kurup presented another idea with the same copy, but, instead of showing an apartment, they showed a family—a husband and wife in a happy situation.

This, according to Kurup, was a first in real estate advertising in Kerala. “Till then, market leaders, like Southern Investments and Skyline Builders, made the building the hero, but we decided to focus on people,” says Kurup. “Somehow, it clicked and Raffi received lots of enquiries. We were the first one to put the emphasis on lifestyle. Now everybody is following us.”

Of course, the turning point was the catchline, ‘Work Hard. Live Easy’, coined by the talented Shailaja, 30, Associate Creative Director. “It had to do with the kind of mind-set that was starting to appear in Kerala,” she says. For a long time, people could buy houses only when they retired, after saving money for years. But now, because of easy home loans, the owners were becoming younger. “And these people liked to work hard and party harder,” she says. “We were trying to say, ‘Yes, there is passion for your job and for life, but, at the same time, you would like to chill out when you go back home.’”

But the moot question is, do ads really influence people when they have to make heavy investments like a flat? “If you have your positioning and target audience right, it does influence people,” says Shailaja. “Very often, the agency or the client is confused about who they are speaking to, or what the product is.”

Mather, she says, had its focus clear: it wanted to sell a lifestyle. Raffi confirms that his target customer is the young professional, be it a doctor, engineer or a chartered accountant, who is a member of the emerging middle class. “My projects are aimed at these people, because they show so much excitement when they own a house,” he says.

Prakash Kurup says the hype of the ads matched the reality. “Raffi is a sincere builder,” he says. “He would look into small complaints and rectify it immediately. If a customer did not like the colour of a particular tile, he would get it replaced.”

Today, Mather is one of the leading brands in the state, and its image has been enhanced by the association with cricketer S. Sreesanth. The agency and the client discovered that Sreesanth was living in a small house off Thammanan Road. “We told him if you stay here, as a celebrity, you are not safe and secondly, it does not suit your image,” says Raffi. Mather offered him a villa in Kings Brook in Maradu, along with a three-year advertising contract, which Sreesanth accepted.

Essentially, the cricketer was hired to appeal to customers outside India, since 80% of the premium villas and the flats are bought by the NRIs. Also, in places like Saudi Arabia, where there are restrictions on female models, Sreesanth, as a male celebrity, was a safe bet. “Recently, we held a press conference in Dubai,” says Kurup. “It was the first time Gulf News covered the event on the front page, the sports page and the media page, all because of the presence of Sreesanth.”

Like Sreesanth, Kurup is flying high. Following his B.Com from Mahatma Gandhi College in Thiruvananthapuram, he did his post-graduation in advertising from Davar’s College of Commerce in Mumbai and joined Clarion in 1981. Thereafter, for the next 18 years, he worked in top-notch advertising firms in Mumbai and Bangalore, before he came to Kochi and set up Identiti.

When asked why the word, Identiti, ended with an ‘I’, he says, “I wanted to create an identity through the word, because people would ask about the ‘I’. Also, I wanted to give a sense of innovation in the name itself.”

Today, apart from Mather, which has an annual advertising budget of Rs 3 crore, Identiti has other clients like the Joy Alukkas Wedding Centre (Rs 3 crore), the Kumarakom Lake Resort (Rs 2 crore) and the Shriram Group, Bangalore (Rs 2.5 crore).

Thanks to his innovations, Kurup has forged his Identiti in the Kerala market.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The complete man

Gautam Singhania, the head honcho of the Raymond Group, lives life with passion and energy

By Shevlin Sebastian

You had to appreciate Gautam Singhania’s candour. The Chairman and Managing Director of the Raymond Group had arrived two hours late for the inauguration of the Zapp! showroom (3000 sq. ft.) on M.G. Road and here was his explanation: “Yesterday, I had partied the whole night because of India’s Twenty20 win over Australia. Hence, I was unable to come on time.” Other top executives would have probably said that they had been delayed because of ‘technical problems’, but not Singhania.

And in keeping with his status of being a billionaire, he flew from Mumbai on his private jet, the Challenger 604 Bombardier, which can seat nine people and costs a cool $45 million. The moment he landed at Nedumbassery airport, he took a helicopter ride to Marine Drive. From there, he was driven to the shop where some conservative people were taken aback by his sartorial style: torn blue jeans, a blue shirt, sneakers, and sunshades.

And even as he said the right things about the state, “Kerala is an important market for us. We have opened the first Zapp! store in the heart of the city and will be launching the second one in Kozhikode,” the straight talking came through regarding investment.

“The reason why Gujarat gets so much of investment is because the leaders are able to market the state,” he says. “Kerala needs to do that. At this moment, industrialists are not aware of Kerala as an investment destination.”

The Raymond Group has a turnover of Rs 2000 crore and it has best-selling brands like Park Avenue, Parx, Manzoni, Colorplus, and, not to forget, Kama Sutra condoms. The international children’s clothing line, Zapp!, is now available in 18 cities.

As he talks, there is a fashion show by a group of children wearing the Autumn-Winter 2007 collection. Some glide on roller skates, two of them do somersaults, one does a karate kick and it is altogether fun to watch. “Zapp! is aimed for the 4-14 year age group,” says Singhania. “There is now a new generation of fashion-conscious young adults.”

One boy nearly loses his balance on his roller skates, but steadies himself at the last moment, as Singhania says, “Raymond is keeping its ear to the ground and is offering discerning consumers the best quality products.”

One really valuable product that Raymond has created is the world’s finest worsted suiting fabric. This has been made out of the finest wool grade available in the world – the Super 230s wool, which is a mere 11.8 microns in diameter (a micron is a millionth of a metre or, approximately, one-fifth the diameter of a human hair).

This fabric is available as suit lengths under ‘The Chairman’s Collection’. “Only a few pieces have been made, so it is a prized possession for those who buy them,” says Singhania. Cost of one suit: Rs 4.25 lakh. At the 2005 Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence, billionaire Lakshmi Mittal was the first customer.

At 42, Singhania is leading the Raymond Group with verve and dynamism. Asked about the qualities of a good leader, he says, “Carlos Gohsn, the President and CEO of Renault, said, ‘In my job I have to do three things: Communicate, motivate and simplify. You have to communicate to your people what you need. Then to make them do it, you have to motivate them. If there is a problem, you have to simplify it.’”

Have there been moments when he has felt the responsibility overwhelming him? “Not at all,” says Singhania. “You have to do what you have to do.” Could things have been easier, since he was born in a business environment and inherited the company? “Nothing comes easy in life,” he says. “There are many challenges and you have to adapt to the situation.”

Apart from being a driven man at work, Singhania is also known for his passion for adrenalin-fueled sports like driving racing cars, flying jets and steering boats at high speeds. “I enjoy sport,” he says. “Life is more than business. I believe that one must pursue whatever talents one has. And, don’t forget, this passion is hereditary.”

His father, Vijaypat Singhania, set a world record by flying solo in a hot-air balloon to a height of 69,852 feet on November 26, 2005, and is an adventurer in his own right. Asked about how his father has influenced him, Singhania says, “The most important lesson I have learnt from my dad is to trust people. And we also have to be a company that people trust. Trust means everything. There should be trust in your business and personal dealings. This trust has been there for generations.”

It is time for him to go, since, within a certain time limit, his private jet has to land in Mumbai airport. So, within the flash of an eye, he is gone, back to where he came from, embodying the most famous advertising line of the Raymond Group: the complete man.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ray of hope

Cancer in children is occurring more frequently but the good news is that it is curable most of the time

By Shevlin Sebastian

"Amma, I am feeling hungry," says three-year-old Jayalakshmi.

“Yes, baby, I will give you something to eat,” says her mother, Mini Jayakumar.

Jayalakshmi is sitting on the bed in the children's cancer ward at Welcare hospital in Kochi. She is resplendent in a purple paavada (skirt) and blouse, red glass bangles on her arms, and small gold earrings. The only telling sign that she is suffering from neuroblastoma is that her head is completely bald. "She has gone through nine sessions of chemotherapy," says Mini. "The tenth one will be done on October 22. Following that there will be a bone marrow examination and a CT scan."

Mini is married to Jayakumar, who works as a salesman in a textile firm in Kochi. They live in Vaikom. Jayalakshmi is their only child. Her illness was discovered when a doctor pressed her stomach and noticed a bulge. She has been undergoing treatment for the past six months. "We have spent Rs 2 lakh so far," says Mini, as her eyes fill up. "We have taken loans from friends and relatives."

The doctor has told them that the treatment will continue for another year, at the least. “In the beginning, they said it was a difficult case, but now there has been a lot of improvement,” says Jayakumar.

How was the child taking the treatment? “She is happy most of the time,” says Mini. “But when there is chemotherapy, Jayalakshmi gets angry or irritated. But that is the case with adults, too. Chemo is like a fire in the veins.”

In the next bed sits Ajay Ramesh, 3 ½, from Trissur who is suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. "He has spent 35 days in hospital," says his mother, Bhuvaneshwari, 27. "Ten chemo treatments have been done. The doctor says that he will need regular treatment for two and a half years." The total cost is Rs 2.5 lakh, which is a huge sum for a family, whose bread-winner is a labourer. The family has taken loans, but there was one piece of good news: A plea for money, which appeared in The New Indian Express, resulted in donations amounting to Rs 55,000.

On one side, there is Rafiq (name changed), who is only two years old, a plump, smiling boy, bare-bodied and in green shorts, who is suffering from acute myeloid leukaemia. “He is a very playful child,” says his mother Ameena, 27. The father, Majeed, 37, has a haggard look on his face. He works as a labourer in Calicut and the expenses are beginning to wreck his life.

“The doctor says the treatment will continue for four months,” says Majeed. “We hope he will get better soon.” Later, oncologist P.S. Sreedharan would say that Rafiq’s prognosis is bleak and his life hangs in the balance.

Cancer among children is rising steadily. "Every month, we get ten new patients," says Sreedharan. "The reasons for paediatric cancer are several."

One reason, he says, is hereditary. Around 10 per cent occurs because of this. Then, viral infections can lead to cancer. There are a lot of chemicals and pesticides in food, which can cause cancer. Some of the chemotherapy drugs can produce cancer as a side-effect much later.

“The commonest form or cancer among children is leukaemia or blood cancer,” says Sreedharan. “Then there are brain tumours and they develop other malignancies like sarcoma.”

But the good news is that cancer among children is curable, if detected early. However, to ensure a cure, the treatment has to be aggressive. “So, doctors tend to combine chemotherapy, radiation and surgery," says Dr. Yamini Krishnan, oncologist at Lakeshore Hospital. But, surprisingly, the child is able to tolerate the treatment better than adults because their organs are healthy. "Elderly patients will be having problems like hypertension, diabetes, cardiac problems, and strokes," says Krishnan. According to both doctors’ estimate, around 65 per cent of the children are cured, while the rest have a relapse after a few years.

Sreedharan says he knows of several children, who, when they become a little older, forget the traumatic experience. “They have some vague idea that they have been to this hospital and seen that doctor and this nurse,” he says, with a smile. “But they have forgotten everything and are absolutely normal now. This is the best part! Children teach us a lesson: we should live in the present, instead of the past or the future, as we tend to do most of the time.”

When you stand around for a while in the ward, you can sense the intense emotional charge among the people present. Says M.T. Cherian, the administrator of Welcare: "Why does God give these innocent children so much hardship? When I see them, my heart breaks. To be honest, I don’t come too often to the ward."

Staff nurse, Jessy Benny, 32, says, "I feel sad when I look at these children, because my children are of the same age. We get attached to the children, and know the stories of their parents and what a financial blow it is for them.”

Not all parents can withstand the emotional and financial burden. On Tuesday, 25th September, Dasan 52, his wife Kamalam, 46, and son Jisilin, 15, committed suicide at Lakeshore Hospital by consuming pesticides. Jislin was suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, Kamalam, from kidney failure, while Dasan had suffered a partial stroke some time ago. Relatives said the acute financial crisis, caused by the medical treatment, forced the family to take the extreme step.

In Jisilin’s case, Sreedharan, who also works in Lakeshore, felt that the boy was on the way to recovery. So, although it might sound bleak and hopeless when you hear that a child has leukaemia, “the majority get cured and later lead full and fruitful lives,” he says. “Parents should remember this.”

However, Dasan lacked the fighting spirit to go through the dark night before the dawn and extinguished the most precious gift that we have: a life. But, in the overall context, Dasan’s is a rare case of defeat. Most parents, when faced with a child’s life-threatening illness, will react like Jayakumar, the father of Jayalakshmi, who says, “I will do anything so that my daughter can live.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Man on the move

Postman O.P. Premnath delivers letters with gusto and efficiency

By Shevlin Sebastian

At precisely 3 p.m. O.P. Premnath, 43, the speed post postman, rides down Salim Ali Road, near Marine Drive, and enters the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. He parks his bicycle near the entrance, checks the letters and rushes towards the elevator. On the second floor, Dr. Sunil Kumar Mohammed, head of the Molluscun Fisheries Department, enters the elevator and says, “Hi, Premnath, how are you?” The postman replies, “I am fine, Sir.”

Premnath gets off at the third floor and rushes into an office. A young woman, P. Vinitha, is having coffee and banana fries. As she signs for the letter, Premnath asks, “Chechi, why are you having kattan kaapi?” She smiles and says, “Just for a change.”

On the fourth floor, as he is walking briskly, a man hails him. He is Dr. A. Jayaprakash, a principal scientist of the Pelagic Fisheries Department. “Today is my last day,” he tells Premnath. “I am retiring after 38 years and 3 months on the job.” The postman shakes his hand and wishes him all the best for the future. Jayaprakash tells a visitor, “Premnath is much appreciated here. He is a pleasant person and has a smile on his face all the time.”

He steps into an office and gives a letter to P.K. Harikumar, a technical officer, who says, “Premnath is prompt, sincere and efficient.”

Apart from giving letters, Premnath is also collecting letters from various departments under the Book Now Pay Later scheme. After 25 minutes, Premnath walks out, and cycles next door to the National Institute of Oceanography where he parks the cycle in the porch. “I am the only one who is allowed to do this,” he says, with a smile. Inside, in an air conditioned office, K.R.G. Nair, 52, the PA to the Scientist-In-Charge, signs for the letter and gives two Honeyfab sweets to the postman.

Thereafter, the postman is off to the Advocate General’s office, then to Tarangini apartments (Navy Quarters), on to the Broadway branches of the Oriental Bank of Commerce and the State Bank of India, then to the Federal Bank on Marine Drive, to the GCDA complex, where he delivers letters at the NRI branch of the South Indian Bank, the office of the Small Scale Industries, and the Swiss Time house.

The most amazing thing about Premnath is how well liked he is. What really tilted the popularity scales in his favour was when, during one Christmas, he came up with the idea of wearing a Santa Claus suit. His rationale: “I noticed that whenever I went to any office, people looked very serious all the time. I wanted to make them smile.” So, he donned the suit and set out.

And in the offices, people took a while to realise it was Premnath the postman in the Santa suit. Soon, smiles burst out everywhere. “The next day, all of them complimented me, and said, ‘This is a very good idea. You must do this more often,’” says Premnath. “So, now, every year, when Christmas approaches, they ask, ‘Are you going to come as Papa?’ When Onam comes, they will ask whether I will come as Maveli, because once I had also dressed as Mahabali also.” Says Nair of the Oceanography Institute: “Who can forget Premnath as Mahabali and Santa Claus? He is a wonderful person.” But in the last three years, because of an increased work load, the postman has been unable to find the time to wear the costumes.

Premnath’s duty hours are from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. When he comes in, from his home in Puthu Vypeen, the Group D staff will be putting the delivery stamp on the 1,200 letters which would have arrived the previous night. “My four colleagues and I will help the Group 4 staff in sorting out the letters,” says Premnath. “It will be put in different cubbyholes.” This takes about an hour. Then the clerical staff has to give out a computer printout of the letters that Premnath has to deliver. If they are busy, Premnath takes the printout himself.

He sets out at 9.30 a.m. and will be back by 12.30 p.m. by which time he would have delivered 90 letters. In his second shift, starting at 1.30 p.m., he delivers around 50 letters. “In a straight line, my beat is 4 kms, but since I am going in circles most of the time, I cycle about 45 kms a day,” says Premnath, who has a monthly salary of Rs 7000.

Undoubtedly, in this era of the widespread use of e-mail, the number of letters that have to be delivered has gone down. But in the speed post section, the letters are steadily going up, because of the ‘One India One Rate’ plan: Rs 25 for packets weighing less than 50 grams. So how strong is the challenge from private courier companies?

“Undoubtedly, they are cheaper, but they are a threat only in the cities,” says P.C. Paulose, senior superintendent of post offices. “There are 1,55,516 post offices all over India, so no courier agency can match our infrastructure.”

And no agency can have a remarkable postman like Premnath, the winner of the 1996-97 'Dak Seva Award' (The Best Postman in the State).

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)