Sunday, September 30, 2007

On the tips of his toes

Waiter Sankaranarayanan tries to fulfill the guests’ need even before they ask him

By Shevlin Sebastian

When waiter Sankaranarayanan, 46, was going to get married in 1994, he gave invites to twenty five of his regular customers at The Mercy hotel. Imagine his surprise when each one presented him with cash envelopes, ranging from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000. "I was moved," he says. "They were showing their love and appreciation for the service I had rendered to them over the years."

Sankaranarayanan has been working at the The Mercy hotel for the past 26 years and has now become its senior-most waiter. He is assigned either to the Roof Garden restaurant, the bar or the new luxury business hotel.

So what sort of guests does he handle? "In the bar, we get gregarious bachelors, married men and loners,” he says. “Some have particular brands they like and order it all the time. Some want ice, some don't want ice. I try to fulfill their needs, even before they ask me. That makes them happy."

Apart from liquor-guzzling men, on weekends and public holidays, several families come regularly to the Roof Garden restaurant. So, do they order the same dishes all the time? "Not at all," says Sankaranarayanan, with a smile. "Sometimes, the family follows the choice of their children, sometimes, the wife or the husband does the ordering. When the family is accompanied by friends, they allow them to make the selection."

But there are also families which, despite the variety in the food on offer, also order regular dishes. "Our hotel is well-known for its ginger prawns and chickens and Kerala-style prawn fry," he says. "The guests say that they don't get these tasty dishes in other hotels."

He says that one of the strong points of the hotel is that they have plenty of repeat customers. And this is ensured by the waiters and the support staff behaving in a courteous manner. "The logic is simple," he says. "If we behave well, the guests will come often, the hotel will earn profits and we will get our salaries."

However, not all waiters follow this logic. "Young waiters behave any which way they want," he says. "They are also very fickle. They stay for three months at one place, before they move to the next hotel. So, there is no loyalty to any one organisation."

This loyal employee stumbled into the hospitality industry by accident. After he completed his pre-degree, he was looking for a job. His elder brother was working as a waiter in the Al Akapuri Hotel in Kozhikode and arranged for him to get a job. He did a three-year stint there, before moving to Kochi.

He stays in the hotel’s staff quarters at Ravipuram, while his family--wife Sathy, 39, and sons, Sharath, 14, and Sanath, 8--live in the family tharvad at Palakkad. He goes there for four days a month. “I have been living like this ever since I got married,” he says. “My family has also got used to it.”

His monthly salary is Rs 3500 and, like all waiters, he depends on tips to boost his income. “Nowadays, ninety percent of the guests give tips,” he says. “On week days, we get a total of Rs 400 to Rs 500 per day as tips. On weekends, this can go up to Rs 650. This money is shared among 17 waiters and each waiter gets about Rs 2,500 every month.”

However, these tips remain steady during the non-monsoon season, October to May, and the graph goes higher during festivals like Christmas, Onam and New Year’s Eve. But the business goes down during the rainy months, as is expected, and during the Lenten period before Easter and the Sabarimala season.

Getting tips is the pleasant side of working as a waiter. But there are numerous instances, when a customer is rude or drunk and abuses the waiter. So what does Sankaranarayanan do, in these circumstances? “I try to remain as calm as possible and try to soothe the guest down,” he says.

But not all waiters remain calm. Some shout back at the guest. Then what happens? “Once or twice, it may be overlooked,” says Sankaranarayanan. “However, if a customer lodges a complaint, there is a strong possibility the waiter will be sacked. The hotel has hired us not to lose our temper with the guests but to treat them in the best possible way.”

Treating people well is Sankaranarayanan’s forte. Says K.K. Sunny, general manager of The Mercy: “He always takes a keen interest to find out what the customer wants and delivers it to him as soon as he can. He is a sincere person and does everything from the heart.”

Says long-time customer, Sreekumar Menon, 41, a businessman: “Sankaranarayanan knows how to behave with a customer. If I run short of money, he will allow me to pay part of the bill at a later date. Which waiter will do this? Of all the waiters I have met, he is the best.”

Sankaranarayanan smiles at the accolade and says, “I just try to do my best all the time.”

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Spanish sojourn

Kochi lad Evans Thomas goes to Barcelona and gets a glimpse of what international football is like

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was five minutes to eight on a sunny August morning at the Nou Camp stadium at Barcelona Football Club. One by one, the players arrived in cars to attend the 8 a.m. training session. Suddenly, a red car whizzed to a stop in front of the entrance.

"Ronaldinho was sitting in the middle at the back, his face half-covered by a handkerchief," says Evans Thomas, who is a student of Choice School. "The car was driven by friends. Ronaldinho was unable to drive himself because he is so popular in Barcelona and will be mobbed."

Even at this early hour, there were fans waiting to take photographs and shout greetings at one of the world's greatest footballers. "Despite being a hero," says Thomas, "everyone says he is a down-to-earth person."

Thomas, 16, was in Barcelona to attend a week's training with the coaches of the club's junior team. It happened like a dream. In July, Nike India announced a 'Where's the next' contest to unearth the best football talent in India. You had to be between 15 and 17 years of age and you needed to post a one-minute video displaying your football skills on the Nike web site.

Based on these videos, ten boys, including Thomas, were selected from all over India and were brought to Delhi in August. They were divided into two teams, and the match was watched by former Indian football captain Baichung Bhutia. In the end, Thomas was selected to represent India (See The New Indian Express, August 10). A 16 member team from Asia, including players from Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and India, reached Barcelona in end August.

His first impressions of Barcelona? "It is a very clean city," says Thomas. "The infrastructure is perfect. The roads are clean, there are no potholes like in Kochi. The traffic moves smoothly, nobody blows the horn, and there are separate lanes for cars, taxis, buses and for people to walk. On both sides, there are old-fashioned buildings, but it looks unique."

But the most stunning experience for Thomas was when he watched a friendly match between Barcelona and Inter Milan at the Nou Camp stadium. The kick-off was at 10.30 p.m., so that people could have dinner and then come for the match.

Earlier, while taking a stroll, he was astonished to find the city swathed in the club colours of red and blue. There were club flags hoisted everywhere, on top of buildings, on store fronts and on cars.

"Men, women and children wore T-shirts with the club's colours," he says. "Dogs had coats in Barcelona colours and the carriages of babies had the club logo. Football plays a major role in the lives of the people. There are no other activities when a match is going on."

And when it came to describing the Nou Camp stadium, where the match was held, Thomas's eyes became round, like saucers. "It is huge and can seat 99,000 people," he says. "The Nehru stadium in Kaloor is like an ant compared to Nou Camp." The stadium has an area of 55,000 square metres, with press rooms, changing rooms and hospitality boxes. There are 100 entrances all around the stadium.

The match was a knockout, as Barcelona blanked Inter Milan, 5-0. "They say that when Barcelona scores a goal, you can feel the earth vibrating 10 kilometres away,” says Thomas. “When I was there, the spectators did several Mexican waves. I could actually feel the whole place shaking."

Says Srinivasan Gopalkrishnan, Brand Communications Manager, Nike, who accompanied Thomas to Barcelona: "We were awestruck. Entering the stadium and experiencing a sea of people cheering for Barca [the nickname for the club], was an unforgettable experience."

The serious business for Thomas took place in the mornings when the two coaches, a Japanese and a Spaniard, gave tips on technique and attitude. "They placed a lot of emphasis on enjoying yourself," he says. "They said that if you are tense, you won't be able to play a normal game."

The Asian team played friendly matches with teams of youngsters of the same age. They won some, lost a few, and learned a few strategies along the way. Says Gopalkrishnan: "The coaches said Thomas has a lot of potential and can strike well with both feet – which is a bonus. However, he was found wanting where physical build was concerned, which is crucial for football. The coaches felt that if he worked on his physique, he would do very well."

That is good news, indeed. Surely, Thomas, after this great experience, must be still dreaming of becoming a professional player? "I don't see myself working in an office," he says. "I rather go out and play football. This trip has showed me how lives can revolve around the game. My father said that in India, it is difficult to make a living by playing football. But he said he would support me if I can get a breakthrough abroad."

And what about Nike? Will the firm make this search for talent an annual event? "We have not taken a decision on it, but the option is open," says Sanjay Gangopadhyay, Marketing Director, Nike India. Perhaps the firm could follow its own world-famous slogan: Just Do It!

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

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The reel life

Cinema operator Ravi Chandran and his colleagues watch movies all the time, but they rue the missed public holidays

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I used to see a lot of films at Devi Theatre in Thiruvankulam,” says Ravi Chandran, 45, the cinema operator at Sridhar Theatre. Since his father's friend, Kunjan Menon, was the operator, Ravi would stand at the door of the cabin where the projector was kept. “I was afraid to tell him about my desire to be an operator,” says Chandran.

So, he tried for a job at the nearby Neelima theatre, but to no avail. In 1985, when Chandran was seeing a film at Devi, Menon met the lad during the interval and told him to see him after the show. “Kunjan Chettan had heard that I had not got a breakthrough at Neelima,” he says. “He offered me a job and I joined the next day.” Chandran worked in Devi for three and a half years, before he got his operator’s license from the Electrical Inspectorate in Thiruvananthapuram.

Then came another opportunity. His wife’s grandfather was employed with the Shenoy's group. “One day, he told me there was a vacancy for a cinema operator and that is how I came to work in Sridhar,” says Chandran. He has been working here for the past 18 years.

He stays in Tripunithara and comes to work by noon. The first thing he does is to clean up the projector. Next, he loads the reels of the current movie, Heyy Baby. “The advantage of this projector is that, because it has a big spool, it will last till the interval,” he says. “In the earlier carbon projector, we had to change the spool after every two reels.”

As he talks, two more operators, V.S. Venugopalan, 49, and Jacob James, 35, report for duty. Like Ravi, they are also veterans. Venugopalan has 29 years of experience, while James has logged 14 years on the job.

A few minutes later, a bell, with a piercing sound, is heard in the room. Venugopalan immediately presses a switch on the wall, moves to the back of the room and switches on the music system. “The bell is from the office,” says Venugopalan. “They want to check whether we are ready. We acknowledge it by pressing a switch, and then we start the music. Next, the ticket counters will be opened. Later, the ushers or ‘gatekeepers’, who stand at the door, will guide the patrons inside.”

After a few minutes, there is another bell. This is the sign to start the film. Venugopalan presses a red switch and the projector comes to life. Soon, the credits of Heyy Baby start to roll on the big screen. Since they are veterans, they hardly look at the screen. But when do they see a film, like Heyy Baby, for the first time? “The reels came on the morning of the first day, so we saw it, along with the public, at the 3 p.m. show,” says Chandran. If there is a worldwide release, the film will come a day before and they are able to have a preview.

When you look through the narrow glass panel, it seems the audience is sitting far away. The room is soundproof, although the door is always kept open. So are they aware of the audience reaction during a film? “Yes,” says Chandran. “For example, in Heyy Baby, ten minutes before the end, there is a dance item by Shah Rukh, who is not in the movie. When he appears, the audience breaks into such loud cheers and applause that we can hear them. He is the man of the moment, because Chak De India was such a big hit.”

Chandran says the film ran for three weeks in Sridhar and it was house full till the last show, before it was shifted to Little Shenoys. “After that, we screened Ram Gopal Varma’s Aag, and it turned out to be a huge flop,” he says, with a rueful smile.

So, do they have an idea which film will be a hit or a flop? “For a film to be a hit, you need a good script,” says Chandran. “It is the backbone of the movie. The acting should also be great. You don’t need stars for that, just good actors. And it is not always right to think that music adds value. Sometimes, too many songs disturb the flow of the movie.”

It seems like a good occupation seeing movies all the time. But, like in any job, there are drawbacks. They never get a holiday during festivals, public holidays and Sundays, because that is the time when people throng the theatres the most. “Our evenings are never free,” says James. “Last week, my sons, Aman, 7 ½, and Atul, 6, asked me whether I could get another job, where I could return home in the evenings, like their neighbour’s father.” And one should not forget the long hours. Invariably, they leave the theatre by midnight, after the second show, which means, it is a 12 hour shift.

But perhaps the one major advantage, despite these disadvantages, is that their families can see movies whenever they like. All three burst out laughing when this is suggested. “No, our families don’t come very often,” says James. “I only bring them when there is a good film. For example, all our families saw Chak De India.”

It seems it is reel life for the operators and real life for their families.

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

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Turbu Charged

A 13-year-old boy, training at the Rajagiri Swimming Academy in Kochi, wins international medals

By Shevlin Sebastian

"On the day of the 50m backstroke final, I had fever," says Turbu Valiyaparambil, 13, who took part in the first-ever South Asian Swimming and Water Polo championships held at Islamabad, Pakistan, in early September. "But I still managed to win a silver medal, because I had a strong finish."

Turbu also won a bronze in the 100m backstroke in the Under 14 category. Around 300 swimmers, both boys and girls, from six countries-- Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan--took part. So, it was a remarkable achievement for a boy who grew up in Pattambi in Palghat and was taking part in his first-ever international competition.

At the swimming pool of the Rajagiri Swimming Academy, which is part of the Rajagari Public School, in Kalamassery, Turbu is doing a backstroke lap in the 25 metre pool. It is clear, even to the untrained eye, that his body is not streamlined enough and there is a slight movement of the head, but the talent and the energy is evident.

Turbu is one of six members of the Sports Division run by the Rajagiri Swimming Academy. The others are Ananda Krishnan and Sreeresh R.N. (Under 12), Rekha C.R. and Emilda P. Raju (Under 14) and Abhijith (Under 17). Asked about the mode of selection, Unnikrishnan Nair, 31, the head coach, says, "The criterion was the performance in a particular age group and the timings. Most of them are already on the national list." Since the children are from Thiruvananthapuram and Palghat, the girls are staying at St. Bridget’s Convent in Kalamassery, while a house has been rented for the boys.

"We are spending Rs 2 lakh annually on their board, lodging, education and swimming expenses," says Fr. Austin Mulerikal, the director of the Academy. "This is part of the social commitment of the CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate)."

Fr. Austin says the academy wants to make the swimming facilities available to students who cannot afford to study in Rajagiri Public School. "In fact," he says, "the sports division has been set up exclusively to aid talented, financially-strapped sportsmen from outside the school."

The six swimmers come every morning and evening for practice in the school pool. During the day, the children study in government and private schools in and around Kalamassery. Turbu, with his commendable performance in Islamabad, has moved ahead of the rest.

His father, Harish Chandran, worked briefly for the Air Force before he became a farmer. "My father was very interested in swimming," says Turbu. "He made a 25 metre pond in our house. I started swimming from the age of four." All the four children, with unusual names like Nandiya, Hardian, Stabile, and the youngest, Turbu, were taught swimming.

His coach says that Turbu's main drawback is the lack of a proper technique. "For example, in the backstroke, his head wobbles," says Nair. "I corrected this and the entry of his arm into the water. When he got it right, he bettered his timing in the 50m backstroke by three seconds, which is a huge improvement."

So what are his ward’s future goals? "Next year, Turbu should win the gold in the under 14 age group in the South Asian championships," says Nair. Adds S. Rajiv, secretary of the Kerala Aquatic Association: “If Turbu continues to receive intensive training, he is bound to win more international medals.”

Turbu has higher ambitions. "I want to win an Asian Games gold medal," he says.

This is a valid goal, but he has to practice extremely hard for the next five to six years to achieve this. But there is little hope of reaching a world standard. Nair gives a small comparison: "Turbu, at 13, has a height of 5' 6". In Australia, a 13-year-old swimmer will have a height of 6’1” or 6’ 2”. With one stroke, the Australian swimmer covers around 8 feet. The best senior level Indian swimmer has a reach of only 6 feet.” The Australians also have the advantages of proper training, top class infrastructure and coaches and a calorie-rich diet.

However, some aspects, like a good diet, are being followed in the academy. For example, after every training session, the swimmers get a glass of milk and a banana or an egg. There is a weekly timetable for meals. "On Monday morning, breakfast is puttu and kadala," says Nair. "For lunch, it is rice, sambhar, curd, and three vegetables. At night, it is chicken and chapatti." The chart is put up in the kitchen and the cook follows it diligently. And the six are also diligently chasing their dreams.

"We want to increase the number of students to 12 and are looking for sponsors," says Fr. Austin. "The Kerala Sports Council has shown some interest and have asked us for a proposal."

Says Rajiv, who is also a member of the Kerala Sports Council: “We want to support the project with money and technical assistance, because, apart from Turbu, we feel there are a few more swimmers who can do well at the international level.”

So, it looks like the future of swimming in Kerala is Turbu-charged.

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

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Defending the country with body and soul

Brigadier Philip Thomas, who passed away recently, was a veteran of three wars

By Shevlin Sebastian

"Whenever my father went on an assignment, he would write to us every three days," says Thomas Phillip, the son of Brigadier Philip Thomas, 88, who died on September 8 in Kochi. "However, during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, we did not get a letter for three weeks."

At that time, the family was stationed in Jhansi. The Brigadier’s wife, Chachiamma, was working as a volunteer nurse tending to wounded soldiers at the military hospital, when one soldier told her stunning news: Thomas saab had been killed. “My mother was very upset,” says Phillip. “She would sit in the evenings and hug both of us and cry. I was 13 and my brother, Joseph, was 11. But we did not receive any official word about his death.”

Every day, they would pore over newspapers for news about deaths in the war. Fortunately, after three weeks, Chachiamma got a letter from the brigadier saying that the truck, which was carrying the mail, had been bombed. “It was a nerve-wracking period for us,” says Phillip, 55, who is the managing director of Cochin Spices.

But there were happy memories, too. When the Indian Army overran Sialkot, Thomas found two dogs, a male Egyptian sheep dog and a female bull terrier, which he brought back to Jhansi. He did not know their names, so he named them Bhutto and Begum. “At that time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, while Begum is how you address a Pakistani woman,” says Phillip. It was during this war that his father was promoted to Brigadier.

Thomas embarked on an Army career by chance. In 1943, he was told by a friend that the British were offering commissions to Indian graduates to be officers in the British Indian Army. (Thomas was a mathematics graduate from St. Thomas College, Trissur). So, he applied and got selected. “It was a big thing to be an Officer commanding Indian, as well as British troops,” says Phillip. “The pay was also excellent. In 1946, as a Captain, he was getting Rs 800 per month, which was a small fortune in those days.”

Thomas took part in the Second World War, fighting in the British Indian army, against the Japanese. After the war, he held postings in Delhi, Darjeeling, Ahmednagar, Hyderabad, Ranchi and Ramgarh in 1961.

During the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, the Chinese army launched an attack on the Sikkim border. Around 700 Indian soldiers and a lieutenant colonel, Badhwar, were killed. Thomas’s regiment was sent in as a replacement. When Thomas inspected the area, he saw that one of the reasons for the debacle was because the artillery guns had not been strategically deployed. He did a reconnaissance and found an ideal embankment where he could place the Russian-make field guns. “Gun positions are crucial in times of war,” says Phillip.

With accurate shelling, Brigadier Thomas and his unit stopped the Chinese advancement. However, the land, where he had placed his guns, happened to be the burial ground of the Chogyals, the rulers of Sikkim. Tashi Namgyal Chogyal complained to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who referred the matter to Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. Ultimately, B.M. Kaul, the lieutenant general of the Eastern Command, asked Thomas for an explanation. The Brigadier proved that the location was vital for India’s interests.

Later, after stints in Dehra Dun, Tezpur, Belgaum and Naba (Punjab), Thomas retired in August, 1971, after 28 years of service. “However,” says Phillip, with a smile, “he was able to draw pension for 36 years, much longer than his service period.”

So what sort of a man was he? Says his younger son, Joseph, 53: “He never complained about anything. This was a quality he displayed upto his death. Weak and unable to speak, he would always whisper ‘I am alright’ to everyone who asked how he was!”

Says Dr. C.T. Mathew, the founder principal of Government Dental College, Calicut: “My brother was a man of enormous energy who worked with immense dedication.” At that time, a collector was getting a salary of Rs 500, and so, Thomas, with his salary of Rs 800, was able to send money to help his father, who was a school headmaster, to tide over financial difficulties. “When I went for my dentistry course in Mumbai,” says Mathew, “it was Thomas who paid a considerable part of the expenses, even though he had a family of his own.”

Of the two sons, Phillip was unable to join the Army, since he had flat feet, but he tried four times. Joseph served for 32 years in the Army, before he took premature retirement in 2005 as a Colonel. He is now a Senior Vice President in a logistics company at Bangalore.

In the end, Thomas had a lung infection which led to septicimea, which affected his kidneys and his liver. “He died at 11.30 p.m. on September 8,” says Phillip. “If he had lived half an hour more, he would have been able to celebrate his 61st wedding anniversary.”

A sudden memory comes up for Phillip: “Before my father left for the 1962 and 1965 wars, he would take me aside and say, ‘If I don't come back, as the man of the house, you will have to look after your mother and your brother.’ But he came back. But this time, when he actually went, he did not tell me.”

A tear rolled down his face.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nothing to mar this legend

Mar Chrysostum, the popular head of the Mar Thoma Church, is retiring. At 90, his mind is sharp and his repartees even sharper

By Shevlin Sebastian

"I went for the golden jubilee celebrations of the Pala diocese of the Catholic Church. Bishop Mar Joseph Pallikaparambil mentioned that there were 1.25 lakh priests all over the world," says Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostum, Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church. "When my chance came to speak, I said, 'It seems to me that the last Bishop of Pala will be Pallikaparambil. Why do I say that, you might ask? Because, if all the people become priests and nuns, there will be no children.'"

An impish child-like smile breaks out on Mar Chrysostum's face, as he sits in his office at Mar Thoma headquarters in Tiruvella. He is about to retire as the supreme head of the church on October 1. He is an imposing figure, in a pink cassock, with a soft white beard and tendrils of silver hair falling over his shoulders. This is topped by a black headgear, called a masanapsa.

So, the question is put forth: For Catholics, a priest has to be celibate. On the other hand, a priest in the Mar Thoma church can get married. Does celibacy lead to more dedication on the part of the priests?

"I don't subscribe to that view," says Mar Chrysostum. "A celibate has to move with the people and soon, there are various allegations hurled against him. If I don't like somebody, I can say, 'this priest went with that lady'. It may be true, it may not be. People believe these allegations very easily. So, this damages his effectiveness."

But undoubtedly, he says, there is dedication on the part of celibates, like when nuns and priests teach in a school, the results are very good. "However, one should not force celibacy on people," he says. "I decided to become a celibate, because, as a bishop, I felt I could contribute more."

He is 90, but you can easily see the sharp intelligence lurking in his twinkling eyes. When asked whether he is mentally alert, he replies, with a smile, "I don't have Alzhemeir's disease, if that is what you are trying to say."

Says Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil: “Mar Chrysostum is well known for his humourous speeches. Through all this, he will be driving home important truths and values. I found him a very pleasant man. When I became cardinal he honoured me by inviting me as the chief guest during the Maramon convention. During his speech, he asked a rhetorical question: ‘Are there special chairs for cardinals in heaven?’”

Indeed, earthy positions are temporary and through that question it is clear that Mar Chrysostum has his feet firmly on the ground. And this could be because of his upbringing.

His father, the Very Rev. K.E. Oommen was a priest and became the Vicar General (the highest position among priests). "Right from childhood, because of my parents’ influence, I was committed to the church and God," says Mar Chrysostum.

Soon after graduating from Union Christian College in Alwaye, he heard that the Mar Thoma church wanted to start a missionary centre in Ankola, Karnataka. “Since I had two brothers, who could support my parents, I decided to become a priest,” he says. He studied at United Theological College, Bangalore, and St. Augustine’s College at Canterbury, England.

He was ordained in 1944 and became a bishop on May 23, 1953. On October 22, 1999, he became the supreme head of the Mar Thoma Church when the then Metropolitan, Alexander Mar Thoma, opted for voluntary retirement. Now it is Mar Chrysostum's turn to leave.

Asked why, he says, "Joseph Mar Irenaeus, who is succeeding me, is very efficient and dynamic. I am getting weaker and weaker to tackle a world that is moving very fast."

The world is, indeed, moving fast, so is there any danger of religion losing its relevance in the 21st century? "I don't think that, in any century, people can survive without religion,” he says. “Because, without God, there is no reality. All religions accept this. The reality is God."

However, there are ungodly realities, too. Like the spat between the Christian churches and the present government in the education sector. Asked whether the LDF government was infringing on minority rights, he says, "Let me give you an example. One day, my sister fell ill and my mother gave her milk and soup. For us three brothers, she gave kappa and kanji. Is this fair? We are the majority and she is the minority. However, this minority needs protection. I am disappointed by the LDF. The infringement of minority rights is really an infringement on the freedom of man."

He says this without any trace of bitterness. Says the Rev. M.O. Oommen, 45, the vicar of Sharon Mar Thoma church, Palarivattom, who has known Mar Chrysostum for many years: “He accepts contradictory viewpoints with grace, although he has strong opinions.”

More than an hour has passed in delightful conversation, and the time has come to ask just one more question: What is the secret of his long life?

"The first thing you should do is ask the God Almighty why did He allow this man to live so long?" he says, breaking out into a playful smile. Then he become serious and says, "It is the sheer grace of God. It is not because of any merit or special favour. I tell my people that God, in his wisdom, has understood that I am not yet ready for the Kingdom of God."

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

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Siren call

Ambulance driver M.O. Jayan has handled police harassment and customer indifference with equanimity

By Shevlin Sebastian

"I was taking a patient from the Medical Trust hospital to the Alleppey Medical College," says M.O. Jayan, 34, the ambulance driver for Welcare Hospital. "He was an old man, in his eighties, and his forty-year-old son was accompanying him. He was being given oxygen. But, now and then, the tube was falling off. This was unusual. The tube never falls off. So, I had to stop the vehicle four times and adjust the tube."

Jayan finally discovered what was happening when he looked through the rear view mirror. The son was pressing on the tube, to prevent the oxygen from reaching his father. Hence, the pressure built up at the other end and the tube was falling off. So, he asked the man why he was doing this. The man said, "I have been looking after my sick father for nine years. Because the medical expenses were so high, I had to sell my house and move to a rented flat. My brothers and sisters are not bothered at all." Both his wife and he were labourers. He had three daughters, all of a marriageable age.

"Even though I felt sad, I could understand his agony," says Jayan. "His father was draining away the money. Hence, he wished that his father was dead. This happened five years ago and it is an incident that I have never forgotten."

Jayan has been an ambulance driver for 14 years. He is on 24 hour call and says that he gets around two calls a day, and the monthly average works out to about 50. Most of the calls are for patients who have been in accidents or have suffered fractures or dislocations. "When they call us, it is not necessary they will ask to be taken to Welcare," he says. "They might want to go to the Medical Trust or the Ernakulam Medical Centre."

And he can take them there in a very short time because an ambulance driver has certain privileges. If he is carrying a patient, who is in a medical emergency, he can activate the siren, go down a one-way street, cross red lights and go in the opposite lane. But, as is usually the case with freedoms in India, it is frequently abused.

"There are many drivers who activate the siren even when they are not carrying a patient, as they do not want to get stuck in traffic," he says. "As a result, we are losing our credibility." Sometimes, bus drivers can see inside the ambulance and they will refuse to move their vehicles to the side. "When there is a genuine emergency, this attitude can have fatal consequences," he says.

Despite this, Jayan says the public is always willing to co-operate. "Our problem is with the police," he says. Some time ago, he got a call from Amrita Hospital to collect a patient immediately. So he switched on the siren, so that he could travel quickly. At Edapally, the constable noticed the empty ambulance and detained him for one and a half hours, despite his pleas. The Amrita hospital was forced to hire another ambulance.

A constable, who is manning the Judge's Avenue crossing, but does not want to be identified, says, "Most of the time, ambulance drivers misuse the siren. Actually, you can use the siren only in an emergency. You cannot use it when you are transporting a dead body. Another problem is that drivers use mobile phones while driving. This is against the law."

Jayan says that people call him on the mobile only when there is an emergency. "How can I avoid taking the call?" he says. "It could be a matter of life and death."

"Rules are rules," says the constable. "It cannot be changed for ambulance drivers."

Jayan earns about Rs 4000 a month and about Rs 3000 extra from overtime work, as he is the only driver in Welcare. "For Jayan, the hospital is providing free food and accommodation," says M.T. Cherian, the administrator for Welcare.

During the week, the driver stays in the hospital and goes home on the weekend to Angamaly, where his wife, Sindhu, 28, and his two young sons, Chris Jay Martin and Aine Joseph, stay.

In his long career, what he misses most of all is the tips that he would get from the relatives of patients. "When I started out, there was no need for a salary," he says. "I could have survived on the tips alone. But now, people's attitude has changed. Since there are so many private ambulances, they feel we are making good profits and hence there is no need to give a tip."

Another aspect which surprises him is the way people refuse to help when he brings a stretcher to collect a patient. "They feel that since they are paying us, it is our duty," he says. "Even if it is their own father or mother, they don't want to lend a helping hand. Things have changed. Earlier, people had a heart. Now, it is all business-like."

But Jayan carries on, ferrying people to and from hospitals. Some live, some die, and the cycle of life goes on.

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

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hot and happening

Sharath Kamal, the twice national champion, is one of the brightest talents in Indian table tennis

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was a youngster,” says national table tennis champion, A. Sharath Kamal, 24, “I would get up at 4 a.m., get on my cycle and go to a stadium. I would do a number of jogs and then I would set out for the training academy.”

Since his father was away coaching at a national table tennis camp, his mother began to worry. She had no idea where her son was going so early in the morning. Kamal never told her. She wondered whether her son was into drugs.

So she told her brother-in-law, A. Muralidhara Rao, 50, who was Kamal’s coach, to find out. “So, one morning, my uncle comes to me with a grim look on his face and says, ‘Kamal, where are you going every morning before you come to the centre?’

“I replied, ‘I go for a jog.’”

“‘Why did you not tell us?’ he said. I said, ‘I didn’t know I had to tell you or mum.’”

Kamal laughs when he recalls the incident and says, “It was then my family realised how keen I was to become a top class player.” Perspiration drips from his forehead as he talks inside the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium at Kochi. Because of the absence of air-conditioning, it is hot and sultry. He has just won his semi-final match against Sanil Shetty in the national ranking tournament. (Later, in the evening, he would win the final against Subhajit Saha).

There are hardly any spectators around, even though Kamal, the two-time national champion, is one of the hottest talents in Indian table tennis. He is the first Indian to win the men’s gold at the 2004 Commonwealth Table Tennis championships, as well as the individual gold medal at the Commonwealth Games at Melbourne in 2006. The 6’1” tall player beat crowd favourite, William Henzell, of Australia in the final.

It was a topsy-turvy match. Kamal won the first game, lost the next two, won the fourth and fifth games, then lost the sixth game, before he managed to squeak through, 11-8, in the decider. The striking thing about this win was how, unlike doubt-ridden Indian players of the past, he was able to hold his nerve and go in for the kill.

So what is the secret of his success? “If you can focus on the ball for two and a half hours, and completely shut out the crowd and your opponent, it is like meditating,” he says. “My mind becomes still, and I reach a state of pure concentration. That is how I have won tight matches.”

Incidentally, this powerful mental skill was taught to him by his uncle. His initiation into the game also happened because of his family. Kamal’s father, A. Srinavasa Rao and Muralidhara were state level table tennis players in Andhra Pradesh before they became coaches in Chennai. Today, they run the Achanta Kamala Gangadharam Table Tennis Development Centre, which is named after their mother. In the past, they have developed talents like Chetan Baboor, S. Raman and Arun Selvi, but their biggest find has been none other than Kamal.

In one of the most competitive sports in the world, Kamal is ranked No. 80 and his goal is to reach the top 50 within the next few months. This is possible because, as Ian Marshall, Editor of International Table Tennis Ferderation Publications, says, “Kamal is one of the most improved players in the world in the 21st century.”

In order to better his prospects, Kamal has moved to Spain, where he plays for a club, Sanse, in San Sebastian. “We play matches all over Spain,” he says. “This year, the club has qualified for the European Championship, where the top 16 clubs in Europe take part.” The club provides free accommodation, along with a salary of 1000 Euros a month. “I don’t save much because the monthly expenses are quite high,” he says.

In Kochi, in his match against Sanil Shetty, Kamal plays casually. Sometimes, instead of hitting the ball with the middle of the racket, it hits the edge and balloons upwards. Sometimes, a smash hits the net. Because of these unforced errors, Shetty, 18, is able to win a game before Kamal, eventually, wins the match. “It was not my best effort,” admits Kamal. “I was playing in second gear.”

Not everybody approves of this. Bona Thomas John, a member of the selection committee of the Railways, says, “Kamal is over-confident. Because he is sure of winning, whenever he plays in India, he takes it easy. Instead of beating an opponent in straight sets, he relaxes and plays to the gallery.”

Muralidhara defends his ward by saying that at the international level, the ball comes at speeds of over 100 km/hour. “Kamal was finding it difficult to get into his rhythm because Shetty was playing a game based on too much spin,” he says.

But impartial spectators would tend to agree with John. Nevertheless, Kamal, a B.Com graduate from Loyola College, Chennai, is a soft-spoken fellow with good manners. As former national champion, V. Chandrasekhar, says, “He is a simple and down to earth person, as well as a top class player.”

So what next for Kamal? Although the Arjuna Award winner of 2004 did not tell us his ultimate goal, his coach did. “Obviously, he wants to become the world champion,” says Muralidhara. “But there is a long way to go.”

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

Monday, September 10, 2007

Darkness at noon

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

At the peak of his career, thrice national table tennis champion V. Chandrasekhar suffered irreparable brain damage during a botched surgery. He is struggling on as a coach

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium, former national table tennis champion V. Chandrasekhar, 50, is giving tips in rapid-fire Tamil to his ward R.S. Raja during his first round match against West Bengal's Jayanta Sarkar in the South Zone national ranking tournament. Raja nods happily, as he has just won the opening game of the seven-game

At first glance, it seems there is nothing wrong with Chandrasekhar, except for the striking look of melancholy on his face. But a closer look reveals an occasional trembling of the body, an unsteady walk and oscillating eyeballs. "This is called Nystagma," he says. "I can't focus on an image for too long. I can see the ball during play most of the time, but, sometimes, it gets blurred."

Chandrasekhar's life turned topsy-turvy in 1984. At that time, he had been a thrice national champion. He was 27 years old, handsome and articulate, a gold medalist in economics and law from Madras University. On the court, he showed the most amazing reflexes, smashing balls coming at him at 100 km per hour with style and finesse. Then,
on September 14, he went in for a routine knee surgery at Apollo Hospital in Chennai.

During the surgery, proper anaesthesia was not administered, and he suffered irreparable brain damage. After 36 days in a near coma, "when I came back to my senses, I realised I had become 90% blind. I could not move. At that time, I did not know the seriousness of it all." The doctors kept assuring him that everything would be all right, but after six months of physiotherapy, there was no improvement at all. "I finally realised they were taking me for a long, long ride," he says.

Raja plays a good shot and Chandra says, "Well done." However, the lad loses the second game.

"It was the most horrific time of my life," says Chandra, as he continues his story. "I sank into a deep depression. I wanted to commit suicide."

But as a player, Chandra was a fighter and he slowly began picking up the threads of his life. Publicity in the media enabled him to get the funds to go for an operation in Canada. His physical condition improved a little.

In 1985, he filed a lawsuit against the hospital. It took three years for the case to come to trial. Finally, in 1993, after interviewing ten witnesses and amassing more than a thousand pages of evidence, Justice S. Pratap Singh found the doctor, H. Ranganatham, and the anaesthetist, Monica De, guilty of negligence and awarded a compensation of Rs 17 lakh. Apollo Hospital appealed, the case went to the Supreme Court, but two years later, the hospital settled out of court by paying Rs 16 lakh.

"The compensation was not much," says Chandra. "But, in those days, a medical suit for negligence was unheard of. Things have changed today. No organisation could have escaped with this sort of blunder, because there is so much of television coverage."

Indeed, there was not much of television in those days, but the print media did give him a lot of support. “I agree,” he says. “The press has always stood behind me. Imagine if such a thing had happened to a clerk in a bank or an office. He will simply lie down and blame destiny and fate. Then somebody will read out some verses from the Bhagwad Gita and he will be very happy."

Chandrasekhar has also got a chance to be happy in the midst of all this suffering. Nine years ago, through a friend, he met Mala, who, like him, works in The State Bank of India, (he is an assistant manager) and she agreed to marry him. They have a seven-year-old son Sanjay. "He is a fine boy and I hope that he comes up in life," he says.

Chandrasekhar is helping other children to come up in life. He runs a coaching centre called the SDAT-Chandra TT Academy. (SDAT stands for Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu). He has about 70 students and nine of them have come to play in Kochi.

Meanwhile, young Raja, after tying the match at three games each, loses the decider.
Chandrasekhar shrugs his shoulders and says, "Raja is capable of playing brilliantly, but he can also play some bad shots. That is why he lost the match."

Chandrasekhar, on the other hand, has lost very few matches in his career. And you can understand why when you read this paragraph from his book, 'My fightback from death's door', published by East-West Books in 2006: "Every opponent can be beaten and has to be beaten. Do not be overawed by reputation. Don't underestimate yourself. Study the opponent's strength and prepare. Mental preparation, along with fitness and training, can take you to the top.''

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pure, for sure

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

An oxygen parlour at Traffic West police station, the first in the state, rapidly gains in popularity

By Shevlin Sebastian

In July, 2004, Circle Inspector D.S. Suneesh Babu read an article in the New Indian Express about an oxygen parlour being opened for policemen in Hyderabad. That was when he got the idea of starting one in Kerala. In the article it was stated that BPL Healthcare were making these oxygenators. He got in touch with the local dealer, C.H. Suresh and placed an order for two. It cost Rs 60,000 each. While one was sponsored by the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association, the other was given by a group of doctors. "I wanted to bring some relief to our traffic constables who suffer from respiratory ailments," says Babu.

In the courtyard of the Traffic West police station, near the High Court, there is a hut-like cement structure, with a tiled roof that is shaped like a frozen wave. The words, 'Oxygen Parlour' is pasted in black on the front door. Inside, there is just a small room, wide enough for a cot to be placed, along with four plastic chairs and a side table. A floor fan offers some respite from the heat. The oxygenators are placed on the floor and you have the option of lying down or sitting while receiving the oxygen. "We get about 15 policemen on an average every day," says constable, K. Sabu, 31, who mans the parlour from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

One who has come for relief is constable P.O. Reji, 34, who does stints at various points in the city, like the Madhava Pharmacy junction. "While working, a lot of smoke and dust enters our lungs," he says. "Sometimes, I am unable to breathe. We feel very tired after we finish our duty. When there is a break and I have the time, I come and inhale some oxygen. There is a cooling effect on the body."

Mohanan C. Manjakara, the pulmonologist at Lakeshore Hospital, says that inhaling pure oxygen, especially for constables, is helpful as it helps reduce the carboxyhaemoglobin in the blood. “They will feel fresh for a little while,” he says.

The oxygenator has two plastic tubes, with nose clips at one end. When one inserts the tubes into the nose and Sabu turns the knob on, the pressure is so low, one is not sure whether any air is going in. So Sabu pulls out the tubes and places it over the eyes. It is then that one experiences a gust of air. "Because the pressure is low, you have to inhale for about twenty minutes," says Sabu, as he pushes the tubes back into the nose.

As to why there is no pressure, Suresh, the BPL dealer, says the continuous process of taking the air from the atmosphere, getting it processed and delivering it means there is no storage. "You cannot have any pressure if there is no storage," he says.
So how does the oxygenator work? When it is switched on, it takes in the atmospheric air, which contains about 20 per cent of oxygen and 80 per cent nitrogen. The air is sent through an ordinary filter, then through two sieve beds, which contains zeolite granules. Every 20 seconds, the nitrogen is discharged, through a magnetic valve, and a popping sound is heard. "Since the air is dry, it is sent through two humidifier bottles," says Suresh. The end result is 93 per cent pure oxygen.

However, even after the allotted 20 minutes of inhaling, there is not much of a difference for me, just a cool feeling around the head. "A normal person using an oxygenator will not experience much of a change," says Suresh. "But, for constables, there is a significant difference."

True, there may be a difference for constables, but it is temporary. The pollution is going to get worse, as the number of vehicles continues to increase at a relentless pace. Nevertheless, this oxygen parlour provides a much needed respite for these harried men in uniform.

The French connection

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

A French woman, married to a Malayali, tries to come to terms with the complex society in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

One Sunday evening, at the Abad Food Court in Bay Pride Mall in Kochi, nearly all the tables are filled with stylish young couples, bawling children, bored husbands, matronly wives, and an old man leaning heavily on a cane. But it is just one couple that is at the centre of attention. They sit at a small table, gazing into each other’s eyes. Through the glass walls, shoppers stop and stare. A group of college boys ogle unabashedly. Two of them surreptitiously take photos on their mobile phones.

The man has curly black hair, black eyes and is wearing a white mundu. She has brown hair, kaajal-rimmed green eyes, a dash of sindhur in the parting of her hair, and is wearing a beautiful Kerala saree.

His name is R. Rajesh, 33, from Pattanakad and she is Corrine Mathou, 29, from France. So what was their feeling while all this intense staring was going on? Says Corrine: “I saw one lady call all her relatives together and point at me. I felt like a monkey. This sort of staring and pointing happens everywhere I go. I don't think it is because I am a woman or that I am married to a Malayali. It is just because I am a foreigner.”

Rajesh says a few days ago, Corrine went to his office on Marine Drive and later, they stepped out for a walk. A few seconds later, a colleague followed them downstairs and he saw many people were staring at something. “When he checked, it turned out that they were all looking at us,” says Rajesh. “Sometimes, the staring is to the point of rudeness.”

He says that when he is with Corrine, people will pass comments like ‘He has made a good catch by marrying this Maadama. Now he must be earning in dollars.’

“When I married this French girl, everybody felt I married her for money or to go abroad. Both assumptions are wrong: she does not have any money and I don't want to leave Kerala.”

They met in 1999 when she came down from Paris to learn Kathakali at the Vijnanakalavedi Cultural Centre at Aranmula, near Pathanamtitta. He was working as an administrative officer at the centre. It took them years to get to know each other, “because of the conservative society,” as Corrine says. However, they became close in 2004 when they went on a trip to Cambodia. Corrine had gone to do a comparison of classical Khmer dance with Mohiniyattom, while he accompanied her as a photographer.

They got married in 2005. Today, she is learning Mohiniyattom and doing a doctorate on the ‘aesthetics and the philosophy of art’ from St. Denis University in Paris. So, she travels back and forth. Rajesh is working as a senior sales consultant in a UK-based travel firm in Kochi. But ever since their marriage, Corrine is getting a crash course in Kerala culture.

“Whenever I visit homes, I always see that the men are idle, while the women are busy doing the housework,” she says. “This never happens in France. The husband and wife share the work. If one cooks, the other washes the dishes.”

She pauses, smiles sweetly at Rajesh, and plunges in the knife: “In fact, one of the minus points in our marriage is that I have to do all the housework. He always asks me to make tea. If I don't make tea, he won't have tea. That was really surprising.”

Corrine says this kindly and without malice. Her sweetness becomes clear when after a few minutes she provides tea and biscuits at the dining table of their seventh floor apartment on Chitoor Road. She is slowly getting adjusted to the dominance of the male in Kerala society. However, she has already got used to the lecherousness.

Whenever she traveled on the train, men would approach her, and say, ‘Hello, are you on vacation?’ and thrust visiting cards at her and say, ‘Call me, or send an e-mail’. “It seems to me that they thought all white women were prostitutes,” she says. In despair, she would rush to the air-conditioned bogie and there, well-dressed gentlemen in their forties, wearing ties and shoes, would do the same ‘visiting card’ routine.

Says an animated Rajesh: “In Kerala, the number of married couples who have a thriving sexual life is very small. They are living together for the sake of the children, the family, and society. By the time they are forty years old, they stop having sex with each other. That is why these middle-aged men pounce on women like Corrine.”

Corrine nods and says, “I also get the feeling there is very little sex taking place in marriages. Once a woman becomes a mother, her sexual life seems to be over. Now her focus is only on her children. It seems to me you cannot be a mother and a wife at the same time. The wife eats and eats and becomes fat and ugly. Eventually, the husband ends up looking elsewhere.”

Both husband and wife look at each other. Then Corrine takes a deep breath and says, “Having said that, I would like to say that it is impossible to understand such a complex and deep culture completely, unless you are born and brought up in it.”

True, but what both have said is food for thought for our morally conflicted society.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Having the ride of his life

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

Loco pilot M.M. Roly encounters suicides, accidents and delays during his constant journeys

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 2.15 p.m. on a Friday, inside the cabin of the diesel engine of the Mumbai-bound 6346 Netravati Express at Ernakulam junction, loco pilot M.M. Roly, 44, has just been given the go-ahead on the walkie talkie by the guard, M. Balakrishnan.

Roly shifts the throttle handle and the train begins to move forward slowly. Inside, on the other side, sits C. Sateesh, 39, assistant loco pilot, and standing between them is loco inspector K.V. Mathew.

As the train gathers speed, through the glass, Roly can see people crossing the tracks all the time. He has no option but to keep pressing the horn. "What the people don't understand is that if they slip and fall, I am unable to do anything,” says Roly. “After applying the brakes, the engine takes 600m to come to a halt." He points at two boys, around eight years old, in khaki shorts, standing next to a bicycle, on the very edge of the track. "See, how close they are standing," he says, with a worried shake of his head.

Roly steadily increases the speed: from 40 to 50 to 60 kms. Inside the cabin, the sound of the engine is like the never-ending roar of a waterfall. You have to shout to have a conversation. The floor throbs with the swaying and the jerking. The wind blows in through the open windows. When the train takes a curve, Roly cannot see the other side, because of the length of the engine. Then Sateesh has to see if the upcoming signal is green. If it is so, he shouts, "Proceed," and Roly raises his hand, as if he is acknowledging a long lost friend, and shouts back, "Yes, proceed." They do this throughout the journey. When the signal is yellow, Sateesh will shout, "Caution", and Roly will reply, “Caution”, while for red, both will say, "Danger."

It is an extremely important job because if the pilot goes past a red signal, he faces an immediate dismissal from service. "I know of lots of drivers who have lost their jobs overnight," says Roly.

When you look around, the surprising discovery is that there is no bathroom. "Forget about the bathroom, we got a back rest for our seats only recently," says Roly, pointing at his seat that has seen better days. "In fact, the majority of the pilots suffer from backache." Mathew says that earlier, instead of seats, they had just wooden planks.

Since the cabin has large windows on both sides, the pilots are at the mercy of the elements. "We don't like the rainy season, as the water seeps in because the rubber webbing on the windows is loose," says Sateesh. "During the summer, the cabin gets very hot. The best season for us is a moderate climate, when it is neither hot or cold."

What about air-conditioning the cabin? "You won't believe it, but the reason the authorities give for not air-conditioning the cabin is because they feel we will go to sleep,” says Roly. All three of them laugh out aloud.

Suddenly, Sateesh says, "We are approaching Divine Nagar."

Both the pilots look forward to Divine Nagar. When the engine stops, the reason becomes clear. The elderly C. Selvin, wearing a blue security badge of the Divine Nagar Retreat Centre, approaches the engine and proffers a flask and some styrofoam cups. The tea is poured into the cups and everybody has a sip. It is rich, thick and sweet.

"The Centre is thankful the train is stopping here and this is their way of showing gratitude," says Mathew. Selvin takes the empty flask and waves goodbye. "We stop here on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays," says Roly. "You will be surprised to know that more people get on here than at Ernakulam." A peep through the window confirms what Roly is saying.

The journey continues. We have crossed Aluva and are now on the way to Thrissur.
Whenever the train is on a curve, Roly glances back. "I am looking to see if there are any sparks or fire or smoke coming out of any of the coaches," he says.

The train reaches Shoranur at 4.45 p.m., just five minutes behind schedule. Roly signs the log and passes on the responsibility to loco pilot Mathew Kurian. By the time the train reaches Mumbai, there will be six crew changes.

Roly meets up with other loco pilots and they go to a roadside tea shop to have vada and steaming cups of tea. Later, he sits on a bench in the pilots' rest room and tells his life story: he saw an advertisement in the newspaper asking for loco pilots. Since he had a diploma in engineering, he applied and was selected in 1986. For the first few years, he was an assistant loco pilot. Then he did a written test and underwent a five-month training before he became a goods train driver. Another seven years went by, before he became a mail/express driver. "This is the maximum I can go," he says. "But if a vacancy comes up for loco inspector, I can try for that." (The loco inspector has to travel in engines and evaluate pilots periodically).

Roly has a gross earning of Rs 23,000 and lives with his wife, Jaya, 42, and daughters Riya, 14, and Reeja, 10, in Kuravalingad. Asked about how society views his job, he says that most people are very curious, since it is an unusual job, but the most persistent question is about suicides.

Around 90 per cent of the deaths on the tracks are because of suicides, the rest being accidents at unmanned level crossings. "I know of one driver who has witnessed 165 cases," says Mathew. "In my own career, I have seen about 30 deaths. For a year, we are disturbed and the images keep coming back in the mind. But after a while, we get used to it."

He tells the story of travelling on a good train from Piravam Road. Just after the bridge, over the Muvattupuzha river, because there was a caution sign, they were going at 20km/hour. "At a distance, we saw a woman in a red saree lying on the track," he says. "Since the speed was slow, we were able to stop in time. But the woman did not get up."

After a while, he says, she looked up with a puzzled look on her face. She had wanted to die and here she was, still alive. "We were afraid to approach her, in case she threw some stones at us," he says. "Instead, we shouted and blew the horn and told her to move away. Finally, she got up and left. But later, I heard that she had walked a kilometre in the opposite direction, and when the next train came, she got herself killed."

Adds Roly: "Sometimes, there are cases when a man has been murdered and put on the track. This is usually on a curve, so we cannot see the body, except at the last minute. This is one way of getting rid of the evidence."

A loco pilot can work till 60, but around 10 per cent lose their jobs because of crossing red lights, while another 50 per cent lose their jobs between the ages of 50 and 55, when, because of health problems, they are unable to pass the A1 medical examination. "Either, they are shunted to a desk job or offered a VRS [Voluntary Retirement Scheme]," says Mathew. Roly is aware of the danger and says he often goes for morning walks and keeps a careful watch on his diet.

Asked about the problems facing pilots, Alex Thomas, safety counsellor of the Thiruvananthapuram division, says, “Most of the problems are faced by goods train pilots. Since there is a single line in several parts of the state, they have to wait for hours. To do 150 kms takes them 10-12 hours, instead of five to six hours, because other trains always get precedence over them.”

After a while, the pilots feel angry and start hating their jobs. “Sometimes, after a night of driving, they are still working and are unable to go to the toilet,” he says. Also, in remote stations, there are no facilities for eating food, so they go hungry for hours.

Just outside the Ernakulam Junction station, there is a rest house for pilots. There are neatly printed signs on the wall: 'A little care makes mishaps rare' or 'While on duty, concentrate on your job'. The dormitory has nine beds, with attached mosquito nets, and several pilots are sleeping. The place looks clean at first glance, and there is talk about providing cabins to give an element of privacy. In the dining room, around a large table, a few pilots are having lunch: fish, sambhar, vegetables and rice.

Mathew says, "If you have any complaint, now is the time to tell them."

"We don't have just one complaint," says one pilot. "We have several." There are mocking smiles all around. But, in the end, they feel it is prudent to remain silent.

From Shoranur, on the return journey, by the 6306 Inter-City Express, Roly gets green signals throughout the journey and hits 80km/hour, the maximum speed limit for this section, several times. Up and down gradients, sometimes turning left, sometimes right, sometimes just going straight as an arrow, the scenery whizzing past, it is a drive of high skill and confidence by Roly.

The train arrives on time at Ernakulam Town and then hits a man-made obstacle: there are no platforms free at Ernakulam Junction and the minutes tick by. After ten minutes, a group of irate passengers appear near the window and one of them shouts, "Why aren't you leaving? How long are you going to wait here?"

Roly politely tells them of the delay and adds, "Even I want to go home."

It is only after half an hour that the green signal is given and slowly and wearily, Roly moves the throttle handle, and embarks on the last lap of the journey...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The end of the road

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

At the Ravipuram crematorium, a son comes to terms with his father’s departure, while caretakers struggle to cope in the presence of constant death

By Shevlin Sebastian

Caretaker N.K. Mohandas, 51, and his cousin, Ajit N.N., 35, hurriedly put the sand on the floor beneath the pyre. Then coconut husks are put on top of it. The wooden logs are pulled out from a room and put in neat rows on one side. Soon, the pyre, actually two sawed-off rails placed on two bricks each at the four corners, is ready.

At 4.40 p.m. on a sunny Thursday afternoon, the ambulance arrives. The body, covered by a cream sheet, is taken on a black metal stretcher and placed on the floor before the pyre. The pujari, Narayana Vadyar, who has come all the way from Tripunithara, intones the prayers and the son, bare-bodied and in a white dhoti, repeats the prayers in a low voice.

After half an hour, the body is placed on the pyre and the face and chest are uncovered. The man is a broad-shouldered, muscular man with a thick white moustache, thick grey eyebrows and straggly silver hair. Even in death, he exudes confidence and strength. His name is R.Venkateshwaran, 72, a former senior official of Indian Rare Earths Limited. Cause of death: cerebral haemorrhage.

When the final rituals are over, it is now Mohandas’s turn. He places the wooden logs on all sides of the body, till a tiny hillock is made. Then, deftly, with a small piece of wood, he lights the pyre and the son, Jayachandran Venkateshswaran, 38, looks on unblinkingly as the logs catches fire. Later, he would say, “It was very sad to realize that my father had come to this state. He was a very conscientious, dutiful religious, sincere, good natured and humorous man.”

As the body begins to disintegrate, the breeze blows and the rustle of leaves from the nearby trees can be heard. Crows are cawing and there is a sudden screech of a parrot. Up above, the sky is a translucent blue and small white clouds drift lazily along. Life goes on as an individual--a professional, a husband, a father, a brother, a cousin, a friend and a grandfather--slowly turns into ashes.

Every day, at least one body is burnt at the Ravipuram crematorium and Mohandas is one the one who handles all the responsibilities.

"My father did this job for 30 years as a salaried worker of the Cochin Corporation," he says. "When he died in July, 1994, I decided to take up the job."
Mohandas is soft-spoken, with slightly reddish eyes and has a sense of dignity about him.

"I treat this as a job," he continues, "but since I am a human being, I am affected by all what I see. So, I need to drink regularly to face death constantly."
This father of four says that sometimes when he is sitting down for a meal, the image of a dead child will come to his mind and then he feels very sad and is unable to eat. "Then I take a 'small' and after that, I can eat," he says, with a wry smile.

When old people die, he says, the relatives are not that demonstrative in their sadness. But when children or young parents die, the sorrow expressed is so heart-rending, he finds it difficult to sleep.

“You will be surprised to know that most of the deaths take place during the Karakaddam month,” he says. “I don’t know why this happens. This is happening year after year. The average works out to 30 deaths a month or one a day.”

As to the type of people who are brought for burial, Mohandas’ cousin, Ajit, who is completely bald, even though he is only 35, says, “Brahmins, Nairs, Pulayiris, a few Ezhavas and the Kudumbis come. Except for the Kudumbis who sometimes come drunk and behave badly, all the rest treat us well.”

Astonishingly, Mohandas does not get a salary from the Cochin Corporation even though the crematorium is under its jurisdiction. "Once the electric crematorium stopped functioning, they stopped giving paying me."

He charges Rs 1100 for a cremation. If it is in the night, or if the body is coming directly from the mortuary, he takes Rs 100 extra. "We need more wood to burn a cold body, since it is full of water," he says. "After deducting all the expenses, we earn Rs 365. This I share with Ajit and another worker."

The facilities are poor. For example, there is no bathroom, just a broken white bucket at one corner near a tap. However, the Corporation is constructing a new building, where two more pyres will be set up, which will bring the total number of pyres to seven.

Mohandas talks about the recent cremation of Dominic Joseph of Casino Hotel fame (“lots of VIPs came”) and then mentions the astonishing fact that the family did a complete refurbishing of the crematorium. “At the back, there was a lot of wild growth, which was cleaned up,” he says, “the walls, the doors and the gate was painted and the place looks clean and spacious now.”

Jose Dominic, the son of Dominic Joseph and the managing director of CGH Earth, says, “The crematorium was in bad shape. So, we felt we needed to clean it up.”
After this first experience for his family, he says, “All communities should resort to cremation. It is a wise way of addressing the issues of social equality and ecological concerns.”

Standing near the entrance is P.K. Ramachandran, 50, vice president of the Kochi unit of the Kerala Brahmana Sabha. Whenever anybody in the community dies, like in the case of Venkateshswaran, he rushes to help the family with the funeral arrangements.

“I am very happy to do this service for mankind, because in certain families, when death happens, nobody knows what to do,” he says. “They are in shock and that is when I step in, to make all the arrangements.”

As he watches Venkateshswaran’s body being reduced to ashes, Ramachandran says, “I have burnt crorepatis and poor people and the end destination is the same for everybody. When we are living, we are fighting with each other, who is bigger, who is richer, who is stronger. But see, what happens to each one of us at the end.”

Adds P. Veeraraghavan, 77, the president of the Ernakulam Grama Jana Samooham: “Birth and death are unchangeable. It is not in your hands. Look at this gentleman (he points at Venkateshswaran), he had such a strong body. But he suddenly got a brain haemorrhage and died. By my estimate, he should have lived for another ten years.”

He pauses and says, “Death can come at any time.”

Arriving with one name, departing with another

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

It seemed a routine matter when Indian Airlines officials informed K.E. Joy, superintendent of police, emigration, at Nedumbassery Airport that a dead body would be arriving on Flight IC 596 from Sharjah on August 29.

According to the passport, the name of the diseased was Naseema Abdulla. When the body landed, Circle Inspector E.G. Vijaykumar asked aloud whether the spouse, Abdulla Ibrahim, was around. Instead, he was met with silence. Then, a 22-year-old, who identified himself as Ratheesh, stepped forward and said he was the son.

"That was strange," said Joy. "Why did the boy have a name like Ratheesh, when
his mother was a Muslim?"

But what really aroused the suspicions of the police was the behaviour of the man who accompanied the body. "Abdul Rahim was not answering questions properly and kept mumbling something," said Vijaykumar. Then an attender showed a lot of interest in trying to take the body out of the arrival area. So, Vijaykumar questioned Ratheesh intensely and the truth came out: his mother's name was actually Hymavathy and she was a Hindu, not a Muslim. The family lived in Vellikulangara in Thrissur. Hymavathy had been married to a man called Sukumaran. "Apparently, after the husband died, she married again, and Ratheesh was the son from the second marriage," said Vijaykumar.

Then the second husband died and Hymavathy had gone to Sharjah to work as a housemaid. The lower middle class family had financial problems. Said Joy: "She must have taken a passport in a Muslim name in order to better her chances for employment." Added Vijaykumar, "Most probably, she was living with this Abdul Rahim."

As for the attender's haste in helping the family, the answer was simple: Hymavathy was his uncle's wife, from the second marriage.

In the end, the body was released to the family. But Abdul Rahim ran out of luck. "We have impounded his passport," said Vijaykumar. "Since it has a Karnataka address, we have sent it there to get it verified."