Monday, December 24, 2007

Blessey, blessed or brave?

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When death comes calling… a few conclusions

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing lasts!

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2007

‘Attitude determines your altitude’

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2007

Body in America, heart in Kerala

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sailing on choppy waters

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In tune with the cosmic energy

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 07, 2007

In the cold zone

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Oh come, all ye faithful!

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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