Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Paper tigers

Agent T.R. Devadas Rao and his son work sincerely so that readers get their newspapers on time

Shevlin Sebastian

When Dhanesh Rao, 25, arrives at the Rappai’s Fast Food shop, near the Palarivattom Junction, at 4 a.m., a gentle rain is falling. Under the awning, there are two tables, while on the floor lie several packets. These contain the Thursday edition of The New Indian Express. You can barely see anything in the semi-darkness, but Dhanesh has no problems. He slices open the packet, puts the main newspaper on the table and the City Express beside it. Then, he slips the supplement into the main paper with machine-like efficiency. All around the Junction, under shop awnings, other agents, like Balakrishnan, Srikumar, Suresh and Franklin, are doing the same transfers. Meanwhile, as time passes, it becomes clear to Dhanesh that one brand has not yet been delivered.

By 5 a.m., when Dhanesh’s father, T.A. Devadas Rao, 62, arrives on a bicycle, the son tells him about the missing paper. Devadas asks that paper’s agent, Shaji Francis, 43, who is working nearby, to give a call on his mobile. Francis duly obliges and the news is that there has been some problem in the press and the delivery will be delayed.

By 5.10 p.m., the first of the delivery boys arrives on his bicycle. Manu Jay Chandran, 20, is studying fashion designing at Don Bosco, Vadathula, and lives near South Janatha Road. Says Devadas, “Apart from the monthly salary, which ranges from Rs 700 to Rs 1000, I give all the boys a free newspaper and a cup of tea.”

Soon, the others arrive: A.R. Rajesh, Suneesh, Naresh, Varghese, Manu and A.M. Chandran, 36, who has been doing this job for over 20 years. The number of copies each boy takes ranges from 75 to 175 copies. At the Palarivattom junction, apart from 150 delivery boys, 60 agents congregate every morning.

Devadas has the agency for the area from Citizen Road to Koothapady Sastha Temple, which is a distance of 2 kilometres. “By 7 a.m., all the 800 papers should be delivered, since people get busy after that,” says Devadas. “That is why I have seven boys to do the job.”

Dawn has broken, the crows have started cawing, the private buses have started running on the road but the one paper has yet to arrive. In normal circumstances, the boys would have been gone for delivery by 5.30 a.m. “We cannot leave without all the papers,” says Devadas, with a shrug. “Sometimes, these things happen.”

Finally, the van, with the delayed paper, arrives at 6.20 a.m., and there is a rush by the agents to get the copies. Within ten minutes, Devadas and Dhanesh have slipped the supplement into the main paper, all the papers have been distributed to the boys and they are on their way. Thus ends the morning session for Dhanesh, who has a day job in a private firm, and Devadas.

As for the father, he sets out for his next assignment: the collection of the dues. “This is the toughest part of the job,” he says. “Don’t forget, I have to visit 800 houses. Nowadays, both husband and wife are working, so it is not easy to find them at home.”

Not surprisingly, he gets most of his dues cleared on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. “On Sundays, I start at 7.30 a.m. and work till 1.30 p.m.,” he says “On week-days, I go out at 7.30 a.m. and finish by 9 a.m. In the evenings, I go from 5 to 6 p.m. I don’t go after the lamps are lit in the houses.”

It is a steady job and he gets a decent income, says Devadas. So, are there any problems in the job? “Yes, there is one big problem,” he says. “There are no holidays. You have to work 365 days. The four to five days that are off, not all newspapers are closed. And hence, we have to go to work.”

In fact, he says, during the recent Ayudha Puja holiday, it was the first time in several years when all the newspaper offices were closed at the same time, but this was a rare occurrence. “Whether I have a fever, cold or a chest pain, I have to be there at Palarivattom every morning at 4 a.m.,” he says. “But God has been kind to me because in these 30 years I have never suffered a major illness.”

Another problem, agent Francis says, is that it is difficult to get boys to deliver the newspapers. “Nowadays, families are small, there is only a boy and a girl, and the parents want the boy to study, instead of delivering newspapers in the morning,” he says.

Dhanesh has a professional complaint: “Most of the time, we are not sure how many supplements are there. If there is more than one supplement, we are not informed about it earlier.” After the boys have taken the papers for delivery, Dhanesh will notice the packet with the extra supplement. It is then delivered the next day.

Nevertheless, despite these problems and the steady rain, after the boys set out, following a frenzied two and a half hours of work, both father and son have a satisfied look on their faces.

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

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bengali beats

Two drummers from West Bengal played the traditional dhak during the Durga Puja celebrations in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“This is the third time we are coming to Kochi,” says Manu Ruhi Das, 38, the drummer of the dhak. He is smoking a beedi and sitting on a red plastic chair in the Rabindra Bhavan hall in Gandhi Nagar. “I enjoy coming to Kerala. It is more beautiful than West Bengal. There are so many hills and paddy fields.” Das says he likes the Malayalis because they behave politely and dress well.

Das is part of a two-member team of drummers, called dhaakis in Bengali, who had come to provide music for the Durga Puja celebrations of the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangha. When they play on the dhak, it has a hypnotic effect, akin to listening to your heart-beat: thud, thud, thud, the beat goes. Das uses two bamboo sticks, one thin and one thick, and usually hits the bottom of the drum. In front of Puja pandals in West Bengal, the dhak is usually played in synchronisation with the kanshor gonta (a metallic bell).

The dhak has a long history in West Bengal. “Before the advent of newspapers, television and the radio, messengers of the rulers would bring people to the village square through the beating of the dhak,” says teacher Mahasweta Purkayastha. “When people heard the dhak, they knew that news of some kind was about to be announced.”

Today, the dhak plays a vital role during the Puja celebrations, especially that of Durga Puja. “Just like the kottu music in temples in Kerala, our Puja is incomplete without the sound of the dhak,” says Mahasweta.

Das lives in a village near the town of Uluberia in West Bengal. His family has been drummers for generations. “I have been playing for the past 25 years,” he says. “Both my grandfather and father have been drummers. In our family, only I have the talent. The rest have gone into other professions.”

Das, who is married, has a four-year-old son, Jayanto. So, will he encourage his son to play the dhak? “If Jayanto has an in-born skill, I will encourage him, otherwise no,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Back home, Das survives through a freelance career. People hire him for marriages, pujas and club functions. Usually, Das plays in the nearby towns of Fuleswar, Chengal, Bauria, Bagnan and Bauria. “We get paid between Rs 400 to Rs 700 a day,” he says. “My monthly income is about Rs 4000 a month.” To supplement his income, he grows paddy on a small patch of land near his home.

“For the assignment in Kochi, the drummers were paid Rs 7000, while the expenses for train fare, food and accommodation were borne by the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangh,” says Ajoy Sen, general secretary. And in a sweet touch, Mahesweta had provided the drummers with the mundu, to wear for the celebrations.

So, does Das rue the missed chance of enjoying the pujas in West Bengal? “Not at all,” he says. “This is our work. If we take it easy during the Pujas, then we cannot survive in this profession.” Although there are thousands of dhak bands in West Bengal, the number of pujas have increased so much that there is now a shortage of drummers. “There is no shortage of work,” says Das. “I am working 200 days a year. And I love it. After all, not many people in India can earn their living by playing music.”

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

Friday, October 26, 2007

The wonders of wine

In his spare time, a dentist propagates the grape-based drink

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever dentist Binu T. Abraham, 35, holds a one-day course for hotel management students on his passion, wine, he holds a Q&A session at the end. And, invariably, among the barrage of questions about wine, one student will stand up and ask, "Doctor, how do you do teeth whitening?" After he answers this, there are a couple more dental questions before Abraham gently veers the subject back to wines.

"I found it interesting that there would always be a question about teeth, although the subject is wines," he says, with a laugh. "I guess, the students are keenly aware that I am also a dentist."

Abraham stumbled on to his passion by accident. He had gone to do his post-graduation in orthodontics at The New York University. "In New York, I started drinking wine with a couple of friends who knew a lot about wine," he says. "They told me how wine, unlike beer or whisky, is not a standardised product. Each wine bottle has a unique story behind it. When my California-based brother heard about my interest, he said, 'Why don't you come over?'"

So Abraham went to Napa Valley and set out on a guided tour of the vineyards. He saw how a grape was plucked, the juice extracted and how it was converted to wine and packaged in magnificently-designed bottles. "It was after this tour that I got very interested," says the Aluva-based dentist. "I started reading books on wine."

He says there are several types of wines: red, white, rose and port wines. The red wines are made from red grapes, the white from white grapes, the rose is a mixture of white and red grapes. In port wines, a little brandy is added. "It was the Portuguese who started this trend two hundred years ago," says Abraham. "When they went on long ship journeys, they found that if they poured brandy into wine, it would not get spoilt."

Of course, the king of all wines is champagne, which comes from the town of Champagne, 145 kms north of Paris. The process of making champagne is similar to making white wine. However, just before the wine is bottled, a little yeast is added. This allows fermentation to take place and one of the by-products is carbon dioxide. "Since the gas has no way to go out, the bottle is under terrific pressure, similar to the pressure of a 16 wheeler truck tyre," says Abraham. "Hence, the champagne bursts out when the cork is removed."

In India, the wine industry is booming. Last year, 7 million litres had been consumed nationwide and the annual growth is projected at an impressive 25 per cent. The main players are Indage, Sula Wines and Grover Wines.

"Grover has its vineyards in the Nandi Hills in Karnataka," says Abraham. "They brought an expert from France to set up the vineyards and now the company is making such good wines that it is exporting to France!"

In Kerala, he says, wine drinking is getting popular. However, one of the big mistakes that have been made so far was that wine was served in bars. "After I gave a training session at The Avenue Regent and The Metropolitan, both hotels have started serving wine in the restaurants," says the dentist.

Says Robert Raj, the F&B manager at The Avenue Regent, "The captain and the waiters are now able to suggest to patrons what wines to have with a particular meal. For example, red wines should be taken with red meat and white wines with white meat and fish. Thanks to Abraham, we have been able to develop a wine culture among our guests."

Anil G. Nair, 34, the general manager of The Metropolitan, says, "If you don't know anything about wines, you will have a good idea after his class." And because of his classes, many hotels now realise that storing wine in places like the kitchen, where the temperature and humidity are high, is wrong. At homes, the wine rack is usually kept on the refrigerator, says Abraham. This is also wrong as the heat and vibration from the compressor affects the wine.

"Drastic temperature variations are not good for wine," says Abraham. "The ideal temperature is 20-25 degrees Celsius." To ensure this kind of a temperature, wine has to be stored in an air-conditioned ambience.

All these precautions are for storing, but how does one buy the best wines? "It is helpful to know what grapes are used," says Abraham. "Some of the well-known grapes are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc." On the label, the name of the grape is mentioned, as well as the year. The year indicates when the grapes were plucked from the vineyard. "The best wines are those which have been stored for a long time, because wine matures slowly," he says.

Lastly, Abraham gives a tip to increase the enjoyment of the wine. "The bottle must be kept in a slanting position, so that the wine is in touch with the cork,” he says. “Then, the flavour of the cork mixes with the wine and increases the taste."

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The elephant keeper

Mahout Bhaskaran Nair has devoted his life to looking after Chandrasekaran

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, during the festival at the Sree Poornathrayesa Temple at Tripunithura, a mahout angered an elephant named Jaganathan. The elephant tried to gore him, but, by the grace of God, he missed. Another mahout, Onakkur Ponnan, who was standing nearby, hit Jaganathan’s back with a stick to distract him. As expected, Jaganathan turned around and chased Ponnan.

On the other side of the temple stood mahout Bhaskaran Nair, 49, with an elephant called Chandrasekaran. Ponnan ran between the front leg and the trunk of Chandrasekaran towards the dining hall. “As soon as Jaganathan came near, Chandrasekaran put his trunk around the body of the other elephant and held him so tightly that Jaganathan could not move,” said Nair. “Because of his swift action, he saved the life of the mahout.”

When he recounted this incident, Nair gave an affectionate slap to Chandrasekaran, who having just returned freshly scrubbed after a six-hour bath in the nearby Madhekil river in Kakkad, near Piravom, is chewing palm leaves with gusto. “After the bath, he is very hungry,” said Nair. “An elephant is an eating machine. In 24 hours, it will eat 450 kgs of fodder and drink 250 litres of water. It sleeps for only four hours a day. The rest of the time, it is eating.”

Sometime earlier, when owner Balakrishna Shenoy, 57, arrived from Kochi in his Santro car, Chandrasekaran showed his excitement by flapping his ears and extending his 3’ penis. Shenoy, who has interacted with elephants from the time he was ten years old, went near the elephant, tapped him gently on the side, and said, “How are you?” He bent his head, as if listening intently and says, “Okay, okay, I will give you something special to eat.”

But Shenoy began talking with a visitor and the minutes ticked away. Chandrasekaran gave a reminder by gently tapping Shenoy’s shoulders with his trunk. “Okay, okay, I am getting the stuff,” said Shenoy, as he instructed Nair to bring the bananas, which weighed 10 kgs, from the car trunk. When Nair returned, Shenoy began to insert the bananas, in bunches of four, into the mouth. The elephant’s eyes danced with merriment.

The bananas were vanishing fast, 6 kgs were finished when Shenoy called for a halt and told Chandrasekharan, “The remaining is for Srinivasan.” The other elephant was standing 100 metres away and was not at all in a good mood. He was about to enter musth.

Shenoy explained what musth was. “There is a gland just above the eyes,” he said. “Once a year, this gland gets swollen and it will start oozing out a liquid through a hole above the eyes. It is a mystery why this happens. Some analysts say that it is to attract females, in order to further reproduction. During musth, the male elephant has ten times more male hormones than normal and the sperm count is very high. If it indulges in sex during musth, there is a strong chance of a pregnancy.”

Incidentally, the duration of a pregnancy is 24 months. After a delivery, the she elephant will be ready for the next pregnancy after four to five years. That means, a female elephant can produce a baby once in six years. However, the ladies liked to have sex every three months, and, like all men, the male was always ready for sex. “When this gland expands, the circulation to the brain is reduced and the elephant feels mad,” said Shenoy. “It is a risky period.”

But Nair said Chadrasekharan had an even temperament and remained calm during musth also. The mahout smiled and said, “Elephants, like human beings, go through a range of emotions. They laugh, they cry, they get angry or depressed, they feel jealous and can be selfish at times.”

There was a touching rapport between mahout and elephant. So, what are the qualities of a good mahout? “He should be sincere,” said Nair. “You have to be with the elephant for 20 hours a day.” He gave some astonishing statistics: from 1980 to 2007, the only time he has been away from Chandrasekaran was for a fortnight in 2004, because he had an eye operation.

“The mahout’s job is not a job,” said Shenoy. “It is a lifelong service, the way Mother Teresa looked after the poor and the downtrodden. They cannot spend much time with their families.”

And what does the family think about the situation? Nair’s daughter, Sowmya, 22, says, “This is my father’s livelihood and we have got used to it. We know that Chandrasekaran comes first.”

Because it is the off-season, the elephant was staying in front of the mahout’s house in Kakkad. Once the season begins, they will be traveling from temple to temple. In the off season, Nair gets paid Rs 250 a day, while during the season, he gets paid Rs 1100 a day, a part of which he distributes to two assistant mahouts.

In public places like temples, Nair has a trying time dealing with the public. “The public has good intentions, but there are a lot of drunks who want to kiss the elephant or touch the tusk. As it is, the elephant is tired, after standing so long in the sun, so it gets very angry.” Shenoy said the tusk is an important symbol of the elephant’s vanity and “he hated it when people touched it without his permission”.

So, the mahout has to ensure that nothing untoward happens. However, these are not good times for mahouts. Quite a few of them have been killed recently by elephants.

Nair has an explanation for this: “Before I became a mahout, I did an apprenticeship for several years. Nowadays, within a year, a person becomes a mahout. He has no idea of the psychology of the elephant and hence does not know how to tackle it. Even owners have no idea. For them, an elephant is just a way of making money.”

In a whisper, he mentioned that Shenoy is a humane owner and loved the elephant. The owner and the mahout were emotionally attached to the elephant but what about the animal? Did he have any feelings?

Nair told a story of an elephant which fell seriously ill for many days. The mahout had been looking after it for 10 years. One day, at midnight, it grasped the hand of the mahout very firmly with its trunk, without hurting the man, and wept silently for a long time. “A few hours later, the elephant was dead,” said Nair. “He knew that he was dying and this was his way of saying goodbye.”

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

Monday, October 22, 2007

Home is where the heart is

For 65 Bengali families, Kochi is much closer to them than far-away Kolkata, as they celebrate Durga Puja

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dr. Nibit Purkayastha, 49, the Chief Medical Officer of Nicholas Hospital, Eramalloor, was studying medicine in Rangaraya Medical College, in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, he became friends with the Malayali students. When the MBBS course was over, he followed them to Kerala, because he “wanted to avoid the hustle and bustle of Calcutta”.

One of his friends, Dr. Ranjit Isaac, arranged a job for him in the Holy Cross hospital in Aroor in 1984. Later, he moved to the Krishnagiri hospital in Chandiroor. “After six years, when I left for a better job at a nearby hospital, there was a mass of people who requested me not to leave,” says Purkayastha, as he sits on a cement ledge just outside the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium in Gandhi Nagar, Kadavanthra, on a Saturday night. “Some ladies were crying. I cannot express the feelings I went through at that time.”

Today, 23 years later, Purkayashtha is one of the leading lights in Aroor. He owns a hospital and was made the first Charter President of the Rotary Club of Adoor. He mediates when there are family disputes in the area and is the president of the Keral Banga Samskriti Sangha. The Sangha was established in 1971 and the Rabindra Bhavan auditorium was built in 1995. There are about 65 Bengali families in Kochi, with a total strength of 200.

Having been in Kerala for so long, Purkayashtha, who speaks Malayalam fluently, has a keen idea of the psyche of the Malayali. “I find the people very soft,” he says. “They don’t have outbursts and fighting like there is in other places in India. I have seen many controversies erupt over the years, which have been solved without catching anybody’s collar.” Adds Kajol Banerjee, a teacher: “It is a very safe place for women.”

As for the similarities, Purkayastha’s wife, Mahasweta, a teacher in Our Lady of Mercy School in Aroor, talks about the common bond nurtured by the songs of Salil Chowdhury. “The song, Poove va, poovinte makkale va, from the film, Neelaponman, has a Bengali version called Dithang, Dithang bole which was sung by Hemanta Mukherjee,” she says.

Husband and wife keenly remember the unforgettable music of Chemmeen and the famous Manna Dey song, Maanasamaine varu. “When I came here, the first film I wanted to see was Chemmeen,” says Purkayashta. Mahasweta gives another example of the cultural bond. “The film, Ore Kadal, which stars Mamooty and Meera Jasmine, is based on a novel, Hirak Deepthi, by famous Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. In the many Malayali houses that we have visited, we have seen the novels of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.”

As they talk, all around, there is a voluble conversation by men and women, while children run about in gay abandon, just days before the biggest festival for the Bengalis, the Durga Puja (October 17–21). On the darkened stage, a group of girls, who hold small diyas in their hands, are doing a dance rehearsal to a Rabindranath Tagore song, Aguner Paresh Mani. The dots of light create a surreal effect. In the middle of the hall, in a semi-circle, sit the members of the organising committee, as they clear last minute hitches for the programmes in the upcoming week.

And there is one man in this crowd who is a blur of activity. “For the first time, the younger generation is handling the organising of the Durga Puja functions,” says Amit Sarkar, 29, who works as a key account manager in Bharti Airtel. He is a second generation Bengali who has been brought up in Kochi. His father used to work in Essar Constructions. “I feel very happy in Kochi,” he says in fluent Malayalam. “I have built my house on Chitoor Road and I am getting married soon. I like the Malayalis very much because when there is an emergency, they rush forward to help.”

Outside the auditorium, Bandana Roy Chowdhury, 18, is strolling around with a friend of hers. And it is impossible to believe that she is a Bengali. She speaks and looks like a Malayali. “I don’t have any problem of roots,” says this Class 12 student of Campion School. “I was born and brought up in Kochi and I like it here. In fact, I have more Malayali friends than Bengali.”

Even Purkayastha has more Malayali friends. “I told my friends that when I die, my body will not be flown to Kolkata. My last rites will be done here,” he says, with a laugh. Yes, he loves Kerala with a deep intensity and this becomes evident when he speaks about the unemployment problem. “There are so many educated youths here,” he says. “Why can’t the government bring in investment? Even West Bengal, a Communist state like Kerala, is pulling in so much of investment from America and China, so why should we lag behind? You go anywhere in India, the Malayalis are in the top positions. So, why is the government allowing this brain drain to happen?”

These are pertinent questions, but, unfortunately, our corrupt politicians lack the moral integrity to answer them.

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

Friday, October 19, 2007

News and Views

A former senior bureaucrat of the Tamil Nadu government has been bringing out Kochi Vartha, a weekly newspaper, for the past four years

By Shevlin Sebastian

"One issue which I took up was the opening up of the Eastern entry of the Ernakulam junction (South) railway station," says P.C. Cyriac, 64, the editor of Kochi Vartha, a bilingual weekly newspaper. "Earlier, the commuters had only one option: to use the main entrance. So, most people, to reach the station, had to tackle the bottleneck of the South overbridge." Cyriac examined the situation and found that there was a four-storey building of the Greater Cochin Development Authority lying unused. "So, we started writing about how the Railways could rent out the building."

As a result of the campaign launched by Kochi Vartha, the mainstream newspapers got into the act. As a result, the Eastern entrance became a reality one and a half years later. Now, there is a large parking lot, a proper entrance, a new platform and people can now access the South station without the necessity of going over the bridge.

Another issue that was highlighted was the necessity of ward committees. "There is a provision in the Kerala Municipalities Act (Sections 42-47) which states that the corporation council has to set up ward committees in each ward," says Cyriac. The ward councillor would be the chairman, while representatives of the resident welfare associations would be members.

Kochi Varta highlighted this lacunae. "Even today, it has not been done properly, but, at least, they are making an effort," he says.

Kochi Vartha is a newspaper of eight pages. The first issue came out in June, 2003. Today, it has a print run of 10,000 copies, although the number of subscribers is only 1000. "I give away the rest of the copies free," he says. "I am dependent on the advertisement revenue to make up for this. On some issues, I break even, on others, I make a loss."

For subscribers, the copies are sent by post. The free copies are distributed through the presidents of Residents' Welfare Associations. "It ranges from 50 to 150 copies each," says Cyriac. Others are deposited in houses by a few boys.

So what do readers think of the paper? Says C.S. Verghese, a retired engineer from HMT: "No other paper has the time and the space to concentrate on the day-to-day problems that people face: the menace of mosquitoes, drainage problems, the poor state of the roads, water scarcity, pollution, and the inefficiency of the Cochin Corporation and other civic bodies. The other newspapers are concerned with big problems and national and international news."

Mathew Joseph Moozhayil, 62, President of the Cochin Citizen's Forum, says that the paper points out many drawbacks of the Cochin Corporation. "Nowadays, officials of the corporation are listening to the views of Kochi Vartha. However, the one drawback is that the paper gives undue importance to films, and half a page is devoted to a quiz."

These are minor irritants for most readers who hold the editor in great respect. Not many people know that Cyriac has had a distinguished career in the Tamil Nadu government. This IAS officer had served as a secretary in various departments like transport, industry, local administration and sales tax. He was the Commercial Tax Commissioner and the chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board, apart from several public sector companies. He had a brief stint outside the state when he was appointed the Chairman of the Rubber Board (1985-90). Later, he fell out with then Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa over the controversy over the Pleasant Hotel in Kodaikanal.

After getting permission to build a two-storey building, the promoters constructed a seven-storey building. Cyriac raised objections and Jayalalithaa transferred him to an obscure post. Later, he was vindicated when the Supreme Court passed strictures against the administration. But Cyriac, who had reached the Chief Secretary's grade by then, opted for voluntary retirement in 2002, two years before schedule.

So, does that mean it is not possible to be morally upright in an environment of pervasive corruption? "If the Chief Minister passes a wrong order, the Secretary has the option to point it out and propose a reconsideration," he says. "If the officer fails to do so, he will have only himself to blame. If you stick to your principles, the only problem is that you will have to face transfers. That should be taken in your stride."

Cyriac returned to Kerala and took over as the managing director of Jeevan TV. He was in charge for one and a half years before new investors came in and he decided to leave. It was then that he decided to start Kochi Vartha . So, how did somebody who had no experience in journalism decide to venture into the field? "I have been writing articles in Malayalam and Tamil for newspapers and magazines for several years," he says.

And so, this former government servant, who is also a director of the Federal Bank, is still serving the people by bringing out a newspaper highlighting the problems faced by the common man.

An uncommon man indeed!

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

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Say No to discrimination

Two Kochi girls attend a camp in Kathmandu and realise that life is difficult for girls in Asian countries

By Shevlin Sebastian

"We got along famously with the Pakistani girl, Shamin Nisar," said Ann Joseph, who is studying in Class 10 in Choice School. Her friend, Riji Cherian, of Greets Public School, nodded in agreement. "We had so much fun, and we were thinking that actually our countries are supposed to be fighting with each other. It was then we realised that at the human level, we are all the same, whether Indian or Pakistani."

Ann and Riji have just returned from Kathmandu where they participated in the 4th Asian Girl Child Peace Camp. Around 42 girls, in the age group of 14 to 17, from countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar and India, took part.

"The aim of the camp was to nurture a culture of non-violence and peace," said Riji. Other objectives included the development of mediation skills, sharing the wealth of one's culture and establishing peaceful relationships among the girls in Asia.

For the two Kochi girls, the camp was an eye-opener. "I understood how different the culture, language and religion of the other girls were, but all of us faced the same problem of discrimination," said Ann.

Both were touched by the case of Mala Hla Than, a girl from Myanmar, who had to stop studying because of financial hardship. But the family ensured that her brother continued to study. "In Asian countries, girls suffer from discrimination," said Ann. "The male always gets the preference. We have to become assertive and strong and say no to discrimination."

They were struck by the lack of freedom for Shamin. "She cannot walk out of her house in Karachi on her own," said Riji. "She has to always be accompanied by her parents. If Shamin wore a kurti or trousers, men would pass crude remarks. So, she had to wear the purdah when she went out. She told us she feels as if she is in a prison."

Ann said that when Shamin was in the camp, she was very happy because she could wear what she wanted and nobody passed any remarks. "We were stunned by her situation," said Ann. "I am glad I belong to a free country like India."

The most exciting moment for Ann and Riji occurred, when, during the cultural programme, they danced to Barso Re, the hit song from Mani Ratnam's Guru and the audience went berserk. "It was then that we understood the powerful impact of Bollywood," said Riji. "In fact, our Bangladeshi friends told us the latest, hot, celebrity gossip. They knew more about Bollywood than us."

For the two fifteen-year-olds, who had travelled alone for the first time, it was a life-altering experience. And for that, they had to thank the Kochi-based NGO, the Cultural Academy of Peace. The Academy is the women's wing of the Indian Fellowship Of Reconciliation, which is part of the Netherlands-based International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). According to its web site, IFOR has branches in 43 countries. The camp in Kathmandu was organised by the Nepal chapter of IFOR, the Bikalpa Gyan Tatha Bikas Kendra.

"The younger members are our future hope and we want to empower them to promote the culture of non-violence and peace,” said Chairperson Beena Sebastian of the Cultural Academy. “This has become all the more urgent since the United Nations has declared October 2 as the day of non-violence."

Beena said that, after a screening process, Ann and Riji were selected because they "are energetic and capable and will be able to disseminate what they have learned in the camp".

It seemed to be a wise selection. Said Susan Rai, the facilitator at the camp in Kathmandu: “Ann and Riji were one of the best participants. They were disciplined, always on time, and eager to take part in all the programmes. It is not that they learnt from us, but we learnt from them.”

The plan now, according to the Cultural Academy, is to set up peace clubs in different schools in Kerala, with the two girls as the standard-bearers. Even though peace has eluded mankind for centuries, and cynicism abounds worldwide, it is still an ideal to strive for.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

All fired up!

When disasters befell people, it is fireman T. Shajikumar who rushes to the rescue

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, the Gandhi Nagar fire station received a distress call. About a kilometre from the station, a college student, Hema (name changed), had locked herself up in the kitchen, switched open the gas and vowed to commit suicide by lighting a matchstick. “The father called us and we went and broke down the door,” says fireman T. Shajikumar, 39. “She had a knife in her hand and was very angry. I told her, ‘Please don’t do anything drastic.’”

Her mother had died and her father had married a second time and the couple had gone to the Gulf. The father would send her money and Hema managed on her own for a few years. However, she fell into bad company and became a drug addict. In the end, when the couple returned from the Gulf and they tried to live together as a family, Hema could not adjust. “She was angry with everybody,” says Shajikumar. “However, we were able to disarm her.”

Today, Hema, 29, is perfectly normal, and goes past the station often on her way to the temple. “She always shows a lot of respect and gratitude towards me,” says Shajikumar. “Imagine, if she had lit the matchstick, not only would their house have blown up, but also the neighbouring houses as well.”

All this is part of the daily life of Shajikumar, who has been a fireman for the past eleven years. Among the many jobs he has done was to tackle the huge fire at Broadway in 2004 (he was there for three consecutive days), go down numerous wells, to save people, cows, dogs, cats, and buffalos, go under collapsed buildings to pull out trapped human beings and work with hydraulic cutters, to slice through twisted metal, to pull people out from bus-car collisions. Earlier, the fire services had to deal only with fire incidents, but ever since it was renamed as the Fire and Rescue Services in 2002, drownings and accidents have come under its purview.

In Kochi, fires occur because of a short-circuit or when garbage catches fire when
somebody carelessly throws a cigarette into the waste. “Unlike in the countryside, nobody will bother to douse the flame,” says Shajikumar. “All it needs is a bucket of water. City people are very selfish.” As is well known, the information about these disasters comes through phone number 101.

So what happens when you call 101? “As soon as the phone rings, we have to lift it up within three rings,” says K.S. Dinesan, 54, who sits at a table where there are numerous phones. “We will ask the details of the fire, the name and address and telephone number of the person who has called. Then we will call back to confirm if it is a genuine call.”

The reason for this is because the station receives hundreds of fake calls every day, especially by children. When children are taught first aid training, the teacher tells them the number for the police station (100), the fire station (101) and the ambulance (102). They encourage them to try these numbers. “It is a big problem for us,” says K.K. Shiju, 29, the station officer in charge. “I request the parents to tell the children not to make these calls.”

Meanwhile, as soon as a call is deemed genuine, Dinesh presses a ‘firebell’ switch. When the firemen hear it, in the dormitory or elsewhere, they rush to where Dinesh is sitting. Then, depending on what sort of fire it is or if it is an accident, a particular fire tender is selected. The five-member crew, which had been assigned to that tender during the morning roll call, immediately set out. The rule is that the fire tender has to leave the station within 60 seconds of the call.

So how do they tackle a fire? “Usually water is used,” says Shiju. “However, if it is an oil fire, we use a foam compound mixed with water, as it cuts off the oxygen.” The normal fire tender has a capacity of 4500 litres. “If the throttle of the hose is adjusted between 70 to 100 pounds, it takes 30 minutes to finish the water supply,” he says. “Usually, this is enough to douse the fire. If it is a bigger fire, we immediately call for reinforcements.”

In the Gandhi Nagar fire station there are 27 firemen. Each fireman does a shift of 24 hours; this is followed by a rest day of 24 hours, on which they can be called, if there is an emergency. After six days of duty, they get a day off. The fireman’s salaries start at Rs 5250 and can go all the way to Rs 8390, depending on grades and promotions.

In Gandhi Nagar fire station, Shajikumar is one of the most experienced. “I have seen so many deaths and tragedies, my wife tells me I have become harder than a policeman, but I don’t agree,” he says. “I care deeply for my family.”

And so, this soft-spoken man, like his colleagues, risks his life every day for the public although, he says, “None of us rarely get any gratitude in return.”

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

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hay, Kochi is amazing!

On their first visit to Kerala, a German family finds plenty of things to be amazed about

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Cornelia Hay stepped out of the air-conditioned coach of the Jana Shatabdi from Thiruvananthapuram at the Ernakulam Junction station with her family, she was flabbergasted. Two porters lifted the huge suitcases and placed it easily on their heads and went up the steep stairs of the overbridge. "We were finding it difficult just to walk up the stairs, and here they were carrying these boxes up," she said, an amazed look on her face.

This was her first visit to Kerala and she was accompanied by her husband, Martin Hay, the managing director of Steag Ketek, a subsidiary of a power plant company based in Germany, and their two children, Caroline and Thomas.

So what was it about Kerala that Cornelia found most attractive? "The bustling markets and so many people walking around," she says. "We are not used to seeing so many people on the streets in Germany."

The family was amazed at the chaotic way the traffic moved. "But, somehow, the people were calm and worked their way through," said Cornelia. "They seemed sure the other person would not be abiding by the rules. If we had the same traffic problems in Germany, there would be fatal accidents every three hundred metres or so."

A smiling Martin said, "The only way to survive the traffic here is through a sense of fatalism."

Martin has come to India several times since 2002, when the company first set up business, but this was his first visit to Kerala. "The people are kind, polite and relaxed," he said. "In Germany, people are stressed-out most of the time."

Cornelia, a lawyer by profession, could not let go of her memories of God's Own Country. "Kerala is such a green state," she said, her grey eyes sparkling with excitement. "In India, we have seen rich and poor areas, especially in Delhi, but we did not find it so much in Kerala. There seems to be much less poor people." She was thrilled that she could see rice fields and palm trees for the first time in her life. "A lot of construction work is going on and I am sure when I return after a few years, things will look very different," she said. "There is a boom going on."

Yes, indeed, Kerala and India has a booming economy, as is well known. So what is the German view of India? "When Mittal Steel bought Arcelor, one of the biggest steel companies in the world, it had a big impact on us," said Martin. "People in Germany realised that India now has a powerful economy. But there is also a feeling that jobs will be lost. So, there has been a mixed reaction to the rise of India and China."

But Germans, like Martin, cannot avoid grasping the business opportunities that are arising. Asked about his experience of doing business in India, Martin said, "The Indians are indirect, while the Germans are very direct. There is also a language problem. The same English word might have different meanings for both people. But now that we have set up a subsidiary, Encotec India, we don't experience much of a problem."

Sitting next to the couple on a sofa at the Taj Residency, and smiling constantly, was Caroline, 15, and Thomas, 14. For Caroline, the most stunning discovery was the dresses the women wore. "The saree is so bright and colourful," she said. "My Mum and I would say, 'Hey, look, there is another beautiful one.' The colours are very bright. If we wear a saree in Germany, everybody would stare at us." She said the women wore subdued colours and when they did wear bright colours, it was only one garment, like a T-shirt, not the entire outfit. "Here, a woman walks past, wearing bright pink and green," she said.

Thomas, who wears braces on his teeth, said his most amazing experience in India was seeing the Taj Mahal. "I have never seen anything like that before,” he said. “There are also so many trees in Indian cities. In Germany, trees are not allowed to grow in cities. You can only see them in the countryside."

Their Kochi-based friend, Joseph Vadakkel, said, “For the Hays, the backwater cruise off Marine Drive at sunset was their most amazing experience of their Kerala trip.”

“The sight of the Vypeen islands was spectacular,” added Martin.

But the family had one complaint: the harassment by salesmen, wherever they went in India. "We could not sit or stand anywhere without being bothered," said Cornelia. "The moment one salesman left, the next one would come with his wares."

However, she said, the problem was much less in Kerala. “In fact, one day when we stepped out of our hotel in Kovalam, one autorickshaw driver shouted, 'Do you want to go by helicopter or do you prefer to walk?' When we told him we preferred to walk, rather than use his helicopter, he smiled and did not trouble us after that."

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

Monday, October 08, 2007

On the cutting edge

Hair cutter, K.B. Binu, does his work with style and finesse

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Monday evening, Dr. Binu T. Abraham, 35, a dentist from Aluva, sets out, with his wife and two children, to Ole, the hair-cutting saloon located in the courtyard of the Grand Hotel in Kochi. For the past seven years, he has been going to one cutter, K.B. Binu, 34. “Binu knows how to give the right styling for the right age,” says Abraham. “I have a family now, and the minor modifications that he does, suits my age.” Since Abraham’s children and wife, Reena, also get their hair cut by Binu, going to Ole has “become a family outing”.

The object of the appreciation is stocky, with a visible paunch, but he has an easy smile and is dressed neatly in an orange shirt and trousers. “I am grateful to Dr. Abraham,” says Binu. “He has recommended many people to me.”

So, what is the technique for cutting hair? “You have to see how a person has combed his hair,” he says. “Later, when we wash the hair and comb it, we have an idea of what is the most suitable style. Then, we will shape it in that style and ask the customer whether he likes it or not.” If he agrees, Binu goes ahead and does the cutting.

As he talks, Binu is working on K.R. Rabin, 20. First there is a quick head wash, then a white towel is placed around the shoulders. Then Binu pastes a neck covering. This is made of paper and is imported from Dubai; it prevents the hair from falling on the shirt. “Rabin has a long face,” says Binu. “So, it is better to have a wedge style, that is, the side and the back should be short. It will give him the look of a model.”

Rabin nods and Binu goes to work with comb, scissors and a trimmer. He takes only ten minutes to do the cut. “One reason why I am fast is because most of the customers are businessmen and professionals, who are pressed for time. They want a fast and professional haircut, so I take a maximum of fifteen minutes.”

As for the style which is most preferred, he says it is a medium, short style. “This is called the executive style,” he says. “Not too much flash. They want to look presentable in offices and public gatherings.”

Of course, there are younger customers who come for colouring or to spike their hair with gel or get it cut it in Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s style. Basically, the hair is cut in an uneven manner and is allowed to fall straight. “Most of these youngsters watch a lot of MTV music videos, English and Hindi films,” says Santhosh Joseph, 20, another cutter. “So, they want to follow their heroes. Nowadays, colouring the hair has also become very popular.”

However, the majority of the customers is in the 28-50 age group and belong to the upper middle classes and the well-to do. Says Krishnan Rajan, 47, owner of Ole, who has been in the business for 25 years: “The clientele includes businessmen, film stars, high court judges, professionals and senior government officials like the collector and the commissioner of police.” Regular customer, Benny George, a corporate trainer, says, “I enjoy the ambience and the cleanliness.” Incidentally, there are Ole shops in Dubai, Kottayam, Calicut and in the Hotel International in Kochi.

The saloon, which has an area of 600 sq. ft., gets around 200 customers a day and it charges Rs 100 for a haircut. Binu, one among seven cutters, does about 20 haircuts a day. He is paid Rs 350 daily and works seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. “However, we usually finish by 9 p.m., as a lot of customers come in only by 8 p.m.,” says Binu. Like in restaurants, they earn extra from tips but, unlike waiters, this is not shared. “I get tips ranging from Rs 50 to Rs 100 per customer,” he says. “Some happy customers even give me Rs 250.” So, by a conservative estimate, Binu earns around Rs 25,000 on tips alone.

Binu came into this lucrative profession by accident. His father was a CPI(M) worker in Kottayam and since he was not corrupt, the family went through bad times. After he passed his Class ten exams, Binu, who is the youngest of seven children, went and joined Fem, a beauty parlour in Thiruvananthapuram. He stayed there for two years and returned to Kottayam. For the next few years, he tried all sorts of businesses, but it flopped. It was during this trying period, mired in debt, that he met Rajan, who hired him, taught him the basics of the trade and transformed his life. Today, he lives in Kochi, with wife, Sanju, 22, and daughters Allena, 2, and a two-month baby.

So does he enjoy his job? “Yes,” he says, with a smile. “Each customer is unique and I feel a sense of satisfaction when I do a new style and the customer shows his appreciation. Sometimes, the hours go past in a blur. I don't even know whether it is night or day.”

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

Saturday, October 06, 2007

When stars, old and new, shone on the firmament

The Castrol Awards for Cricketing Excellence was an evening of nostalgia and fun

By Shevlin Sebastian

“During our time, we used to carry one bat when we went for tours abroad,” says former Indian captain, Chandu Borde, to a question from Harsha Bhogle, at the 10th Castrol Awards for Cricketing Excellence function held at the Le Meridien.

“Sourav [Ganguly], what do you say to that?” asks Bhogle.

Says Ganguly, without a moment’s pause, “Harsha, if I carry only one bat and it breaks, I could be dropped from the team for lack of commitment.”

The audience bursts into laughter at this bittersweet reply from Ganguly, who was unceremoniously dropped from the Indian team, spent several months in the wilderness, before he clawed his way back.

The Castrol Awards, which is celebrating 75 years of Indian cricket, is an anecdote and image-rich function. A constellation of former stars, like Nari Contractor, Ajit Wadekar, Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath EAS Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar are present. From the current crop, there is Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Irfan Pathan and a few members of the Twenty20 World Cup winning team. Also, as International Brand Ambassador for Castrol, Australian captain Adam Gilchrist is also there.

To celebrate the 75 years, a Castrol Indian Cricketer of the era award is being given for each era: 1932-47; 1947-61; 1961-71; 1971-81; 1981-1997 and 1997 to 2006. Incidentally, India played its first Test, against England, on June 25, 1932, led by Colonel C.K. Nayudu.

For the first era, the late Nayudu is selected as the Castrol Indian cricketer of the era. His articulate daughter, the grey-haired Chandra, receives the prize on behalf of her father. “Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a lot like my father,” says Chandra. “He is shrewd and a big hitter of the ball. My father would have approved of him.”

The awards for the next eras are for the late Vinoo Mankad, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, while Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are joint winners for 1997-2006. For each era, there is a short and beautiful video presentation. Some of images are grainy and shaky, but it reminds us of a time which is rapidly vanishing from memory. This is followed by an interaction between Bhogle and the luminaries present.

Nari Contractor talks about how because Vinoo Mankad could not play in a Test, he is promoted as an opener, even “though I had never opened in school or college or in the Ranji Trophy. But, thereafter, I always played as an opener”.

Borde talks about the menacing speed of West Indian bowlers Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith during the 1962 tour of the Caribbean. “You won’t believe it but the very first ball Griffith bowled against us, a bouncer, the ball went over the heads of the batsman and the wicket-keeper and went to the boundary. All of us watching from the dressing room shivered in fear. Please remember, we did not have helmets at that time.”

Of course, as is well known, during that tour, a short-pitched delivery by Griffith hit Contractor on the head, which caused a near-fatal injury, and ended his playing career.

Bishen Bedi speaks about how the Indian players spent five hours in the sun during the recent victory parade in Mumbai after the Twenty20 World Cup win. “These guys didn’t mind at all,” he says. “Because they knew that when they reached the Wankhede Stadium, fat cheques were awaiting them.”

Jhulan Goswami, 24, from West Bengal, who recently won the ICC Player of the Year Award for Women, announces that Castrol is setting up a new Outstanding Indian Cricketer of The Year award for women cricketers. Bhogle says, “I saw Jhulan bowl at the Afro Asian Cup and boy, was she fast! The batswomen did not like her at all.”

The few members of the World Cup-winning team who are present -- Dinesh Karthik, Rohit Sharma, S. Sreesanth, coaches, Venkatesh Prasad and Robin Singh, and manager Lalchand Rajput -- are presented with mementos. Sreesanth is given an additional trophy. When he sees that he is the only one who has received it, he quickly places it back on the tray. Later, Naveen Kshatriya, the managing director of Castrol India, would explain: “We gave a special trophy to Sreesanth, because he is from Kerala, and the ceremony is being hosted here and also for his magnificent performance in the World Cup.” In retrospect, it seems like a mis-step in an otherwise superb programme.

The climax occurs when all the Indian captains, from Contractor to Dravid, are honoured with plaques. Ganguly receives a special award for being the most successful Indian captain. When Bhogle asks all the captains to stand closer, so that a photograph could be taken, Wadekar quips, “Should we go into a huddle?”

At the post-function dinner, Gavaskar is sitting with Chandu Borde and his wife and is holding an imaginary ball in his hand and throwing it. Amazing, these guys talk cricket all the time.

On another table, a plump Bengali lady, in a red chiffon saree, says, “Oh, I love the fish in Kerala. We went to Fort Kochi today and got such big prawns (she shows the length of her palm) and it costs only Rs 250. And do you know why we bought them? Because, my husband, even though he is a South Indian Brahmin, loves fish.”

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

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The golden voice

Pandit Jasraj enthralls Kochi with a scintillating performance

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1980, Pandit Jasraj was invited to sing in front of the great philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi at Rishi Valley at Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. Just before the concert, one of Krishnamurti's associates, Achyut Patwardhan, told Jasraj that the philosopher had listened for only an hour at a performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar, 50 minutes for the late singer M.S. Subbalakshmi and for other artistes, he would spend just half an hour. "So, please restrict your singing to just one hour," said Patwardhan.

The concert began at 4 p.m. "At 4.50 p.m. I stopped," says Jasraj, 77. "I did not want Krishnamurti to break my heart by walking out in the middle of my singing. But he said, 'Please go on singing.'" Jasraj sang till 5.20 p.m. The 85-year old Krishnamuthi looked at his watch and said, "Now is the time for my evening walk. But you should carry on."

Thereafter, there was a break for coffee. At 5.40 p.m. Jasraj began another session. Ten minutes later, there was a nudge from the harmonium player. When Jasraj looked towards the audience, he could see Krishanmurthi standing at the far end, his arm around a pillar.

"I sang for one hour," says Jasraj. "Then Krishnamurti came and sat in front of me and said, 'Sing something in Sanskrit.' I thought, 'Now, I have got him.' So, I began Raag Darbari and followed that with other ragas. In the end, I sang till 8.40 p.m. After the concert, when I bowed to touch his feet, he said, ‘No, your place is here,’ and pointed at his heart and hugged me."

Jasraj breaks into a child-like smile and says, "This was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life." He looks relaxed, wrapped in a brown shawl and white slippers, sitting on a sofa in the air-conditioned suite of the Travancore Court. The maestro is in town as the main attraction for the Idea Jalsa concert being held under the aegis of the Indian Music Academy.

The concert is to take place the next evening, so does he feel nervous, even though he has done hundreds of concerts in his career?

"Every concert is an examination," he says. "So, I do feel nervous. We musicians always say we are making a hawa mahal. That is, we are constructing a building in the air. So, we don't know how the audience will react on any given day."

Is audience reaction so important?

"I am, sometimes, confused by the audience reaction," he says. "Some days, when I feel I have sung well, somebody will come up and say, "Panditji, what happened to you today?" Sometimes, when I have not sung well, a man will have tears in his eyes, and say, 'Panditji, you took us to another level.' So, it is a mystery to me.”

The next evening, at the TDM hall, there is a standing ovation as he arrives on the stage, resplendent in a saffron kurta and dhoti, a brown waist coat and shawl, gold necklaces around his neck, and multi-coloured rings on nearly every finger. All this is topped by flowing white hair and a sweet smile. He is accompanied by singers Ankita Joshi and Madhuvanti Narayan and on the tabla by Vijay Ghate and Mukund Petkar on the harmonium.

Earlier, Carnatic vocalist, Abhishek Raghuraman, 22, the grandson of mridangam master, Palghat R. Raghu, had stunned the audience with some superlative singing. Jasraj raises the lad’s arm and says, “People ask me what is the future of classical music and this is my answer: ‘Here he is’.”

Soon, it is Jasraj’s turn. He takes a while to warm up, with the Miya Malhar raga, but once he hits his stride, with the Mishra Kaphi raga, the power of the voice hits you in the chest, slices through flesh and bone, and penetrates the soul. "Whenever I sing, I feel that I am not there," he says. "Something is coming through me, but I don't know what it is."

Although he takes frequent sips of water, and his body trembles, as he takes the high notes, the concert is a success. And right from the first note, there is a look of awe and rapt attention on the part of the other singers and the accompanists and, of course, the audience at this foremost proponent of the Mewati gharana.

Born in Hissar, Haryana, to a musical family, Jasraj’s father died when he was three years old. He received his singing training from his elder brother, Pandit Maniramji. To earn a livelihood, Maniramji took Jasraj as a tabla player for various recitals. But at 14, unhappy over the treatment of an accompanying artist, Jasraj left to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer. Today, he is regarded as a legend, having had one of the most glorious careers in Indian classical music. In 1999, Jasraj won the country’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, apart from numerous other awards.

Back at the TDM hall, Durga Jasraj gives an example of the power of her father's singing. They had gone to Pakistan, on the invitation of the government, to give a performance. During the show, Jasraj sang the ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ bhajan and the people stood up and shouted, "Allah exists!"

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