Friday, November 30, 2007

On the right track

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Saying ‘Yes’ to life

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

Smiling through the twilight years

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2007

On the road

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Raising the bar all the time

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

“In which scene?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Giving the right signals

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Mather of all ads

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The complete man

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ray of hope

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Man on the move

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The East-West experience

An assistant vice president of California State University, Geetha Mary Thomas, compares life here and in the United States, where she has lived for 36 years

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a summer day in New York in 1971, Geetha Mary Thomas stepped out and, like she did in Kochi, she opened an umbrella to avoid the sunlight. “Soon, I could sense that everybody was snickering and passing comments,” says Geetha, 56. “I could not understand why, till my husband said, ‘They are asking why you are using an umbrella on a sunny day.’ Americans use an umbrella only when it rains. They embrace the sun, while we run away from it, because it is so hot here.”

At that time, her face had flushed red with embarrassment but now, talking about it in a 9th floor apartment in Kochi, she laughs at the memory. She had gone to America because of her marriage to Dr. George Thomas, a polymer chemical engineer. They settled down in Ohio and had three children: Priya, George and Premi. After the children grew up, Geetha, who had a degree in physics, switched streams and completed a MBA and chartered accountancy and started working. Today, she is an assistant vice president for resource management at California State University.

When asked to compare educational systems in the US and India, Geetha, who did her Class Ten from St Teresa’s, Ernakulam, her pre-degree at St. Joseph’s, Irinjalakuda, and her B.Sc. from Presidency College, Chennai, says, “College was very regimented. For example, if I took the first group -- maths and physics -- I could not change course and go into medicine or some other stream.” The biggest advantage in America was that you had choices, she says. “For example, if you are studying engineering and if you did not like it, you could go into medicine.”

However, it is not all gloom and doom for the Indian educational system. “Children coming from India are very strong in maths and sciences,” she says. “American students are not so good, because the teachers do not emphasise the fundamentals. Even today, if somebody has passed out from IIT, he will be as good, or better than a Harvard graduate.”

Yet, despite these advantages, how is that America produces so many more Nobel Laureates, especially in the sciences, while we have just a handful? “America has a system which encourages creative thinking, talent and merit,” she says. “In India, there is too much of hierarchy and that stifles talent.”

Geetha’s husband, George, who is an alumni of IIT, Kharagpur, has retired as a senior research scientist from Goodyear Tyres, and so, the couple come once in two years to Kerala. So what are the changes she sees now?

“Women in Kerala have equal power as the men, and careers are encouraged,” she says.
“I see more and more women working now. This was not the case when I was growing up. My father [the late Dr. Antony Panikulam] did not want me to have a career.”

And even though she lived in America, where individuality is emphasised, she had to postpone having a career because of the children. But now when she looks back, she is glad she stayed at home and became a hands-on mother. “This is a big issue for women in the United States, and it will be an issue here: motherhood vs. career,” she says. “In America, women, who are keen to have careers, are getting pregnant only in their thirties and forties. My daughter, Priya, who is 35, has just had her first child. And she is wondering whether she should stay at home or continue in her career in medical insurance.”

Geetha says one of her younger colleagues, Anu Parekh (name changed), who graduated from the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, gave birth to a son. “For quite a while, Anu felt very frustrated,” says Geetha. “She could not travel or do many things. I told her she had to choose between career or motherhood. It is difficult to do both.” After a lot of soul-searching, Anu has plumped for motherhood, because she wanted to bring her son up in a loving atmosphere.

Geetha, like most successful first immigrant Malayali marriages, has also lived in a loving atmosphere, although the divorce rate in the USA is an astonishing 50 per cent.

“But divorce is increasing in Kerala also,” says Geetha. “The stigma is disappearing. Even my mother, who is 87, was telling me the other day about a couple who were having marital problems and she felt it was time for them to annul the marriage.”

Geetha is elegantly dressed, and speaks with a marked American accent. Even though she has grey hair, she looks younger. But now, as the couple head towards the sunset years, Geetha experiences a heartache. “We miss the family,” she says. “Earlier, we were busy raising the children, but now that they have gone, we are suffering from the ‘empty nest syndrome’. I am sure we would not have experienced the same emptiness if we lived in Kerala.”

She says the family is one of the strong points of Kerala society. With a wistful look on her face, she says, “I miss the food, the culture, the language and the people.”

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

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The fastest bowler in the world

That’s Jhulan Goswami for you. The ICC Women’s Cricketer of the year is all set to break more records

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I saw the 1997 Women's World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand at the Eden Gardens,” says Jhulan Goswami, 23. “I got inspired enough to find out where the women's cricket association office in Kolkata was. There, I met the coach, Swapan Sadhu.”

She started training under him at Vivekananda Park. In 1999, she was selected to play for Bengal. Because of her good performance in her first season, Air India hired her in 2000. “In 2002, I made my debut for India,” she says. So far, she has played 79 one-day internationals and eight Tests in New Zealand, South Africa, New Zealand, India and England.

Of course, the highlight of her career was when she helped India to a historic
first-ever Test series triumph over England in August last year. She took 10 for 78 in the second Test at Taunton and became the first Indian women to take 10 wickets in a Test. Later, she was named the player of the series. It was this performance that enabled her to win the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year Award for 2007, which was presented to her by Twenty 20 Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni at a glittering function at Johannesburg on September 10.

The trophy, made by Swarovski, is a crystal cricket ball, studded with 4,200 Swarovski crystal beads, and it is enclosed in a hand, which represents the concept of ‘breaking through’ in the pursuit of excellence. Incidentally, the other nominees were Lisa Sthalekar of Australia and England's Claire Taylor.

Not many people know that Goswami is the fastest bowler in international women’s cricket today. She has reached a top speed of 135 kms per hour, and, like her idol, former Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath, she has a nagging accuracy. “I do weights, I do sprints and I am a good athlete,” she says. “I have done everything that you need to do in order to be a good fast bowler.”

So far, she has taken 33 Test and 96 ODI wickets. In the ODIs, along with Nooshin Al Khadeer, she is the second highest wicket-taker for India, after the retired Neetu David, who took 130 wickets.

Says Subhangi Kulkarni, the convenor of the BCCI women’s committee: “Goswami has put in a lot of effort to improve her game. Apart from being a good bowler, she also bats well and is a brilliant slip fielder.” Veena Paralkar, the manager of the Indian team in England, says, “She has overcome a lot of setbacks to be where she is now. Jhulan is a good human being and is the pride of the Indian team.”

Goswami was in Kochi recently for the Castrol Awards for Cricketing Excellence function. The 5’ 11” Goswami, wearing a blue coat and trousers, towered over all the women, and a few men, as well. She announced a new Outstanding Indian Women Cricketer of The Year award instituted by Castrol.

“This experience in Kochi has been superb,” she says, as she ate vanilla ice-cream mixed with chocolate sauce and caramel nuts. “It was so nice to meet legendary cricketers like Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Erapalli Prasanna, Bishen Singh Bedi, and Chandrasekhar. All of them showed a lot of appreciation to me for winning the ICC award and were very encouraging.”

It has been a long journey for Goswami. She grew up in a small town, Lalpur, 80 kms from Kolkata. When she was a young girl, she would play football, volleyball and cricket with the neighbourhood boys. “Because we played tennis ball cricket, I did batting, bowling and fielding,” she says. “I loved it.”

But life became a tough grind for Goswami when she started training under her coach Sandhu in far-away Kolkata. She had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch the first train in order to make it to the ground on time. But she persevered and in her very first season, she impressed selectors and fellow players with her pace and movement. Today, she is one of the brightest talents in Indian women’s cricket.

And now that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has taken over women’s cricket, women cricketers like Goswami can hope to get a better deal. At this moment, unlike the men, who get paid Rs 2.6 lakh for a Test, the women cricketers are paid a paltry Rs 2,500 per match and a $50 daily allowance when they go abroad.

“The BCCI has only recently taken over women's cricket,” says Goswami. “So, they need to be given some time. Now, we are allowed to use the same facilities as the men. I am sure things will improve in two years’ time.”

So, what are the future goals of this Commercial Service Supervisor of Air India? “I believe in doing well today, then, automatically, the tomorrow will be looked after,” she says. “I don't have any specific goals. I just believe in today.”

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