Friday, January 25, 2008

Life at 30,000 feet!

Cherian Parakkal, currently using his 39th passport, gives tips on international travel

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Cherian Parakkal, 54, the director of the Canada-based Sutton Healthcare International, was travelling with his family on a bus in Austria. They had lunch, which consisted of meat and fish, along with 30 other passengers at a restaurant. “After lunch, we set out again,” says Cherian. “Half an hour later, somebody asked the driver to stop.”

The man ran out onto a field and relieved himself. He returned and the bus started moving again. “Soon, a second person raised his hand,” he says. “In the end, thanks to food poisoning, all 30 passengers, including my family and I, had to relieve ourselves in the fields.” Since he had anti-diarrhoea tablets, by the evening, things settled down. “This is an experience I cannot forget,” he says, with a laugh.

Cherian has been traveling 15 days a month for 25 years, as a senior marketing professional in the pharmaceutical industry. Based in Dubai, he has traveled to 60 countries in the USA, Europe, Africa, the Far East and the Middle East and is now using his 39th passport.

On a recent visit to Kochi, where he has an apartment, he gives some advice on international travel. “The climate is different when you travel east or west,” he says. “If you traveling west, like, say, to Switzerland, you have to wear heavy, woolen clothes.”

He says that because Indians live in a tropical climate, it is difficult for them to face the European cold, even in the summer. “Wearing thermal clothes is the best defence,” he says. “It consists of a pant and a shirt which has sleeves and reaches up to the neck. You have to wear this throughout.” Travelling east is easy because the climate is warmer, so cottons should be preferred.

But traveling has its dangers. Once on a trip to America, Cherian was robbed inside the Newark International airport at New Jersey. “I learnt a lesson from that, which other travelers should follow,” he says. “Always keep your travel documents, money, credit cards and passport on your body, instead of the bag. So, if the bag gets lost, or is stolen, you have your passport and money with you.”

And what tip would he give for those traveling on long-haul flights? “You need to drink a lot of water to fight dehydration,” he says. “You have to do a bit of exercise in between, to keep the blood circulation flowing.”

He suggests walking up and down the aisle. Or, when one is sitting, you should move the fingers, the ankles, the feet, and the calf muscles. He also suggests a moderate intake of alcohol, otherwise, you could end up with a severe headache.

However, even without taking alcohol, travelling across time zones can result in headaches, because of the effects of jet lag. “Your sleeping pattern is disturbed for three to four days,” he says. However, things are easier if you travel westwards, because you gain time.

He gives an example: Suppose you are travelling at 9 a.m. from Dubai on a Thursday morning, the time in New York is midnight on Wednesday. But you will reach New York at 4 p.m. on Thursday itself. “So, even though the flight is 13 hours long, I have landed on the same day, so, the jet lag is much less,” he says.

But when a passenger returns, he starts at 11 p.m. from New York on a Thursday and reaches Dubai on Friday at 9 p.m. because of the time difference. So, it makes a mess of the system. “When it is time to sleep, you are awake,” he says. “When you should be awake, you feel like sleeping. You go to the toilet, and things do not happen. It takes three days to readjust.”

His wife Betty, 50, has also had to adjust to the long absences of her husband. “It is very hard,” she says. “I have to make most of the day-to-day decisions. Before the advent of mobile phones, it was tougher. The children, especially my son, miss their dad’s presence.” The Parakkals have a daughter, Sheryl, 18, and a son, Deryl, 14.

The family has traveled abroad extensively but when you ask them about their most favourite country, the Parakkals say, without hesitation, “There is no place like home, sweet home.”

But Cherian has his grievances about Kochi. “The first three days I enjoy very much,” he says. “On the fourth day I get tired because of the traffic congestion. The infrastructure also needs to improve a lot.”

There is a social behaviour in Kochi that, he feels, could improve a bit. “Everyone says they want to meet me, but they will not come to meet me,” he says. “Instead, I have to go and meet them. If I don’t, they complain about it. In other places, people find the time to come and see me.”

Then he laughs and says, “No place on earth is perfect.”

Asked whether he will continue to do international travel, he says, “Yes, because travel is always a welcome change from my routine life. I enjoy meeting new people and cultures. There is no greater joy for me.”

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

Monday, January 21, 2008

My friend, Prince Pothole!

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever I went to the vegetable market at Palarivattom in Kochi, I would go past a pothole.

One day it said, "Should you avoid potholes all the time?"

"My scooter is new," I said, as I nearly fell off my two-wheeler in shock to see a talking pothole. "So, I have to be careful."

"Sometimes, a jerk is good for your back and for your life," it said.

"Very true indeed, but not for my scooter," I said.

The pothole smiled and said, "My name is Prince." Then he told me the story behind its name. Every year, there was a competition among potholes in Kochi about which would be the deepest and the largest. The competition, judged by three retired potholes, always ended on October 31, after the monsoon season was over.

”There was a pothole on M.G. Road, opposite the Formost shop, which was bigger than me,” said Prince. “So, that pothole has been crowned king, but, as the runner-up, I get to be called Prince."

"Prince Charming, indeed!" I said. But I immediately noticed that there were some pointed stones on the rim of the pothole.

"You have some rough edges," I said.

Prince laughed and said, "Potholes are like people. Those who have rough edges, are warm inside, while those who show outwardly that they are warm, are cold inside."

"Very interesting,” I said. “Tell me more."

"Contractor Mad Man Mani gave me a box of chocolate gravel to encourage me to become bigger and deeper,” said Prince. “I asked him for a P(othole)-Pod, so that I could listen to some good music, but he said it was very expensive."

"It seems to me that in India nobody is exempt from being bribed," I said.

Prince laughed and said, "The whole system is corrupt, so, what can an individual pothole like me do? I am helpless."

"You are helpless now, later you will say you are hapless and the situation in the country will become hopeless," I said.

"Ha, ha," said Prince.

I looked at my watch and said, "Goodbye, I have to go."

My busy life went on. But, whenever I went to Palarivattom, I would stop and have a chat with Prince.

But, last Monday, I got a shock. The pothole had vanished under a covering of tar and gravel. I knocked on the tar, and shouted, "Prince, are you there?"

"Yes!" said a voice, which seemed to come from far away.

"What happened?" I said.

"Now that the rainy season is over, the potholes are being filled up," Prince said. "I will be resting for six months. Contractor Mani has promised me the road will break up in June."

"Does he keep his word?” I asked.

“Always,” said Prince. “The engineers and the supervisors of the Cochin Corporation are happy with Mani because he delivers a broken road on schedule.”

“So, I will see you in June, same time, same hole," I said. "In the meantime, best wishes for a Happy New Year!"

"Same to you and three cheers!" said Prince.

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

Long walk to freedom

Lesbians in Kerala struggle to keep body and soul together in a highly conservative society

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last month, Roma, 20, and her girlfriend, Geeta, 20, were travelling from Thiruvananthapuram to Palghat in an unreserved compartment of the Chennai Mail. At Kottayam, two girls got into the train. “The moment I saw them, I knew that there was something wrong,” says Roma. “They looked extremely disturbed.” Since the compartment was full, Roma was unable to talk to them.

At Ernakulam, the bogie emptied, and only Roma, Geeta and the two girls remained. “Once the train started moving, I asked them where they are going and they replied they were going to Chennai,” says Roma. When she asked them where they were staying in Chennai, they did not reply. “I knew they had never been to Chennai,” she says. “They were two girls from a village and looked completely lost. Since they were unwilling to open up, I told them I worked for Sangama, a Bangalore-based lesbian organisation” (

She gave them Sangama’s visiting card and told them that if they had any problems, they could call and ask for help. On the back of the card, Roma also wrote her mobile number. At Palghat, Roma and Geeta got down. Through the window, Roma said, “Whatever problems you are facing, please don’t think of committing suicide.”

The next day at 8 a.m., the girls called Roma from Chennai. They confirmed what she had suspected: they were lesbians. One of the girls said, “We love each other but we are facing a lot of problems from our parents. So, we have run away from home.”

Astonishingly, this was their fourth trip on the Chennai Mail. Every time, the train arrived at Chennai, they would spend the day at the station and take the evening train back. They would reach Thiruvananthapuram and take the evening train to Chennai once again.

“They had Rs 900 with them,” says Roma. Once that money got over, they were planning to commit suicide. Roma told the girls she would get back and called Sangama. She told a volunteer, Dixon, to get in touch with the girls in Chennai. He called and asked them to come to Bangalore, because Sangama runs a shelter. Later Roma called and told them, “There are a lot of Malayali lesbians here. You will get free board and lodging and will be able to stay for a few months. It is better than committing suicide.” The girls took the night train to Bangalore and reached Sangama. “For the past few weeks, they have been staying there,” says Roma.

The 5’ tall Roma looks petite and fragile. She lives in a three-room house with a terrace in front. An overhanging tree provides a much-needed shade. Inside the house, there is very little furniture: a bed placed against one wall, a table against another. Roma has been living with Geeta for the past one and a half years and they do freelance jobs in data composing to earn a living. Like all lesbians, she also went through a traumatic time.

In Tiruvalla, where she lived, two years ago, Roma got friendly with a neighbour, Sana, who was the same age as her. “It was not a lesbian relationship because there was never a sexual angle to it,” she says. “We used to write letters which contained sentences that implied a deep friendship.” Sana’s brother saw the letters and created a ruckus. Feeling under tremendous pressure, they fled to Thiruvanathapuram. The parents informed the police who managed to trace them because of a call Roma made on Sana’s mobile phone.

“In the court, I said we were both 18 and wanted to live on our own,” says Roma. “The court released us, but the police forced us to sign a statement stating that we wanted to go back to our families.”

What was most stunning to Roma was that when the girls were being sent back to Tiruvalla, it was in a convoy of jeeps. “The police behaved as if we were dangerous criminals, when, actually, we were just two young girls who liked each other,” she says. “I cannot forget that experience.”

Sana wilted under family pressure and got married. Roma, however, was made of sterner stuff. She left home and stayed with friends in Kollam. There, she met Geeta and fell in love. “Today, my parents, as well as Geeta’s, have accepted our sexual orientation,” says Roma. “So, our situation is far better than what the others are going through.”

So, is it difficult to come out in Kerala? “Let me give you an example,” says Roma. “Geeta and I are living in a rented accommodation. If the landlord comes to know that we are lesbians, he will immediately ask me to vacate the house.” She says that she knows of many lesbians who, because of intense social pressure, have got married but are unhappy and pine for their woman lovers. Others, who are less resilient, have ended up committing suicide. “There is no mental or physical space in Kerala to be a lesbian,” she says.

Roma is getting ready to go out on an errand, when her two friends, Meena, 29, and Lata, 41, drop in. While Meena looks delicate, with her slim arms and legs, Lata is broad-shouldered and has a confident look in her eyes. They have been a couple for six years now. “During all this time, we have not spent a single night apart from each other,” says Lata. “I cannot sleep if I do not feel the warmth of Meena’s body next to me.”

Lata says that as a child, she was always attracted to women. She had an affair with another student when she was in Class six. “We had a physical and emotional connection.”

However, that did not last. By the time, she was in Class ten, her family came to know about her lesbian tendencies and pressured her to get married. But she said no. However, the resistance began taking an emotional toll on her. In despair, she consulted a psychiatrist, but he told her that lesbianism was an innate trait.

Eventually, she left her home and moved into a hostel. It was there that she met Meena. “When I saw Meena for the first time, I was not attracted to her,” she says. “But, after a while, I got friendly, and I told her my life story. Immediately, Meena showed an interest in me.”

At that time, Meena, who was an abandoned child, was looking for an anchor in her life. Lata remembers, with a radiant smile, how she seduced Meena for the first time.

The younger girl slept in a dormitory, while Lata shared a room with three other girls. For three nights in a row, in November, 2000, Lata would go near the window and throw pebbles at Meena to wake her up. But Meena did not come out. “Then, on the fourth night, she came to my room,” says Lata. “Till then, we had never touched each other. I hugged her and kissed her. She kissed me back. Then we made love.”

Meena says she did not enjoy her first sexual experience with Lata. “In fact, I was put off,” she says. “But, gradually, I learned to enjoy it.” She is frank enough to admit that she is physically attracted to Lata more than enjoying an emotional compatibility. “She is a good lover,” says Meena. “Lata shows a lot of affection, but she can be rude and short-tempered. She is very suspicious and extremely possessive.”

Lata, who has found a partner after several years of solitary drifting, says she is scared she will lose Meena. “That is why I am so possessive. I am very happy now.”

But what if Meena, who is 12 years younger, finds another partner? “If she leaves me, I will commit suicide,” says Lata. “I have very strong feelings for Meena. We have gone through happiness and sorrow together. At my age, I don’t think I will get such a nice girl.”

Meena entwines her fingers in Lata’s, looks deeply into her companion’s eyes, and says, “I will never leave you.” They seem to have an intense physical relationship. They sit next to each other, their shoulders and legs touching, always holding hands. Later, in the evening, when they stand on the terrace – the sky is a cloudy grey and a gentle breeze is blowing -- Meena leans gently and places her face on Lata’s chest. The older woman gives a tender smile. Then Meena caresses Lata’s hair and the minutes pass in a blissful silence.

However, it is a temporary bliss. In the hostel where they stay, there are suspicions that they are lesbians. A few inmates have taunted them. The hostel administrators are trying to evict them. “But we are holding firm,” says Lata. “We will fight all those who oppose our relationship.” When Meena hears this, she gives a supportive smile.

At lunchtime, Michelle, 40, comes in. She wears cargo pants and has brown streaks in her hair and kaajal-rimmed eyes. She speaks with a distinctive twang, having been brought up in Australia. A Malayali, she is the intellectual in the group, and carries a book, ‘Sexualities’, which is a collection of papers on sexuality in India. She has published papers herself and has found her life’s goal: fighting for minority sexual rights in Kerala. At the outset, she makes it clear that she would be uncomfortable with personal questions “of the voyeuristic kind”. So, it is a factual Q & A with her.

Are most women in Kerala scared to come out?
Yes. This is because of the conservative society in which we live in. We have to worry about being harassed in the streets, about losing employment, about the attitude of the family, so the majority of the people who have same-sex relationships say that the only way they can remain in Kerala is by keeping their relationship private. But I am increasingly meeting men and women who want to come out and tell people about their orientation.

Is it a strain not to come out?
It depends on the individual. I know of men and women who have come out, and they said that even though they have other problems, they felt a relief. They did not have to hide all the time.

What is the reaction of parents when they are told that their daughter is a lesbian?
It is usually bad in the beginning. Sometimes, the parents forcibly separate the duo, put them under house arrest or send them to a psychiatrist.

What is the most common experience for lesbians?
It is the pressure to get married. The traditional notion of family life is very powerful, even for somebody who just wants to remain single. Another problem is to find a partner who will actually stay with you. If same-sex couples tend to break up more easily it is because they have to endure a lot of social pressure. It takes a huge amount of courage to have such a relationship in Kerala. You also need a partner who has the same level of courage. Most feel it is best to leave the state.

If you are a lesbian, would marriage help get ride of this tendency?
I know of people who have got married in the hope that it would change their orientation, but it did not happen. They had the same desires for a woman as before.

Is Kerala society changing or is it hypocritical?
It is both. Our group did not exist ten years ago. In the last five years, more and more same-sex organisations have come up. There is a greater visibility in the media and there are more positive stories. In my experience of interacting with sexual minorities in Kerala, I am meeting more people who say that their parents and their friends know and have accepted their preferences. It is good news, but there is a long way to go. Personally and politically, I want to link same-sex rights with general sexual rights: the right to choose one’s sexuality.

(A shorter version has appeared in The New Indian Express)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Looking good

Beauty parlour attendant, R. Vinitha, does her bit to make women look pretty

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Monday morning, on her way to her office at Panampilly Nagar, Suja Thomas, (name changed), decides, on a whim that she will pop into Swanys beauty parlour at Kadavanthra for a facial. Parlour attendant, R. Vinitha, 20, wearing a white coat over a black salwar kameez, makes Suja sit on a reclining chair. She places a colourful headband on her head, to prevent the hair from falling on her face. Then she folds the hair upwards into a bunch, and holds it together with two yellow clips. Finally, she places a green towel across Suja’s chest and shoulders.

Vinitha presses a tube and cleansing cream squirts out onto a piece of cotton. She uses it to rub Suja’s face clean of dirt and in the process, also removes the kaajal that Suja, 36, had put on her eyelids, before she set out for work.

“Since Suja’s skin is sensitive, I am putting a light bleach,” says Vinitha, as she uses a small plastic spatula to apply the bleach. Soon, Suja’s face and neck are covered in a yellow paste. Then Vinitha puts cool, wet cotton patches on Suja’s eyes. “Now, Suja Madam will remain like this for about fifteen minutes,” she says, as she steps out of the room into the reception area.

Vinitha has the shyness of one who is still in the early stages of her career. She did a six-month course in a beauty parlour before she got this job at Swanys where she has been working for the past two years. She comes in at 9 a.m. and works till 6.30 p.m. Thereafter, it is a 75 minute bus ride to Cherthala where she stays.

“I take an average of one hour with each customer,” she says. Customers range from young girls, to working women, to housewives, to elderly women in their sixties.

“Most women do facials, waxing, pedicure or manicure,” she says. “Other options include an oil massage, the washing and dyeing of hair, and the trimming of the eyebrows.”

Most of the customers are in the 30-50 year age group. Owner Swany Siby, 38, explains why. “By the time a woman reaches 30, she would have probably gone through a pregnancy and put on weight,” she says. “So, she comes to their parlour to regain her good looks.” As for those in their forties and fifties, as looks fade, restoration work is necessary.

Meanwhile, the fifteen minutes is up and Vinitha steps back into the room. Suja looks relaxed: the eyes closed, the body stretched out. Vinitha does a gentle massage of the face to increase the blood circulation. During the massage, she presses down on certain pressure points: the area near the eyes, on the top of the head and at the point where the jaw and the ears meet.

Following a steam wash, a pack, which has fruit contents, is placed on the face. “This contains several vitamins and it seeps through the open pores of the skin,” she says. After several minutes, Vinitha takes off the pack and Suja opens her eyes, 45 minutes after she has entered the parlour.

As she pays the fee of Rs 300, Suja says, “Vinitha has a light touch and has the necessary patience and poise to deal with different kinds of customers.”

Vinitha remembers one such customer: a 40-year old housewife. “There was a heavy rush that day,” she says. The woman wanted her eyebrows to be shaped well, but she had very little hair. “When I did it, somehow, the eyebrows became thin and she got upset,” she says. “In the end, Madam Swany placated her.”

Anyway, the lady returned after a few weeks, and this time, Vinitha did a good job and the woman praised her. “I felt very relieved that day,” she says. “To be honest, most of the customers are happy with my work.”

Sherin Danish, 24, who is studying for her MBA, is a regular customer. “What I like about Swanys is that it is a hygienic place and the staff is efficient.” Housewife Bella Jacob, 38, who has been a customer for the past six years, says that she always receives personal attention. “The staff is always smiling,” she says.

Meanwhile, other customers arrive and Vinitha gets busy. “I handle more customers on the weekends because women have many functions to attend,” she says. “It is a stressful job, because you have to work fast, while, at the same time, the customer has to be satisfied with the job you have done.”

So, are these women who go to the parlour trying to look good for their spouses? “No!” says Swany emphatically. “They are doing it for themselves.”

But Bella does not agree. “One reason I go to a parlour is to look pretty for my husband,” she says. “I also want to look good because it makes me self-confident.” Building confidence could be one reason or, as Sherin says, “Women will always feel the need to look good and presentable.”

Thanks to this ever-present need, Swanys is thriving and, along with it, the unassuming Vinitha.

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A gem of a lady

Jewellery designer, Rosily Paul Vadakkel, uses her imagination to make unique designs

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1996, Rosily Paul Vadakkel, 48, was working for a jewellery firm, Enchante, in Delhi. At that time, the well-known politician Maneka Gandhi gave a commission to the firm: she wanted jewellery with designs based on animals. Many designers from the firm showed samples, but Maneka rejected them all.

Desperate and frustrated, the firm’s director asked Rosily whether she would like to try. “At that time, I was the junior-most designer,” she says. Anyway, she went and met Maneka. “After talking with her, I realised she did not want a replica of an animal, but a stylised form which had a global appeal.”

Rosily took a week off and did research in numerous libraries of the capital. Then she drew several designs. At the end of the week, she went back to the director and said she was ready. Soon, a meeting was set up.

“I was nervous and scared because this was my first assignment,” she says. “But when Maneka saw my designs, she liked it immediately and said, ‘You have done a good job.’ When I look back, it was a tremendous morale-booster for me. I suddenly realised I could create good designs.”

On a fortnight’s vacation in Kerala, Rosily, with her luxuriant flowing hair and colourful saree, gives off an impression of vivacity at her apartment in Aluva. A decade after the Maneka incident, she is running a successful design firm, Rosily Paul Creations, which has an outlet at the Gold Souk in Gurgaon. She does designs for necklaces, rings, bangles and earrings, with prices ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10 lakh.

Rosily says her forte is custom-made jewellery. So how does she go about making the right designs for customers? “First of all, you have to understand the likes and dislikes of the customer,” she says. Some women like floral designs, while others dislike them. “There is a customer who only likes geometric designs,” she says. Some women are rigid, while others are flexible and will ask Rosily for an opinion.

Her customers range from the upper middle class to the affluent. The Delhi-based Anupama Khera, 40, has been buying regularly for several years. “The plus point of Rosily is that she is able to do alterations that caters to my taste, my requirements, and, most importantly, my budget,” she says. “I like her designs because it leans towards the contemporary.”

Anuradha Sinha, 45, who works in a multinational firm, also agrees that Rosily’s strength lies in the fact that she is able to personalise the jewellery. “She designs according to what I have in mind,” she says. “Whenever I wear Rosily’s creations, I feel that it belongs to me. She has a unique style.”

This uniqueness has enabled her to win several awards. She twice won the De Beers National Jewellery Design Competition in the bridal category, won the first prize, as well as the Critic’s Award in the Tahiti Pearl Trophy for the Indian Subcontinent in 2004 in the necklace category, apart from five Swarnanjali awards from the World Gold Council. In 2006, she was the national winner in the Tahiti Pearl Trophy International in the Parure category.

Rosily explains the creativity behind the making of a necklace which won the first prize at Vision 2005, a competition conducted by the Indian Institute of Gems and Jewellery. “I saw a jasmine on a fence,” she says. “That inspired me.”

Her necklace does look like a jasmine. It flows from one side. “The basic idea is to resemble creepers going over a fence,” she says. “I have represented the fence with four chains, made of 18 carat gold. There are leaves and flowers and, at the tip, I have put black pearls to signify the buds.” Made of gold, and weighing 240 grams, it costs a whopping Rs 3.5 lakh.

Rosily, who is making waves in Delhi, says there is a difference in the fashion styles of North and South Indian women. “North Indian women are more stylish, design-oriented and prefer big-size jewellery,” she says. “There is a bit of showing off.” South Indian women, on the other hand, prefer understated jewellery to match their conservative dressing style.

This popular designer was born in Kaduthuruthy, did her B.Sc. from Deva Matha College in Kuravilangad and her Masters in Sociology from Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu. Marriage to businessman Joy Paul Vadakkel meant she had to move to Delhi. She spent several years looking after her children, Mathew, now 18, and Tushara, 17.

Then, one day, she saw an advertisement in a newspaper about a course in gemology conducted by the Indian Institute of Gemology. She attended it and found that she enjoyed it immensely. Thereafter, she did a course in jewellery design from South Delhi Polytechnic and discovered, to her astonishment, that she had a talent for drawing. Following this, she did an advanced course in design and as a goldsmith from a German expert, S.R. Schroeder and, fully equipped, has been able to make a mark as a jewellery designer.

Asked how she is different from other designers, Rosily says, “I am an imaginative person. Unless you can imagine, you cannot create something unique. That is my strength.”

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

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Making it all up

Make-up artist, Binesh Bhaskar, makes actors look authentic on screen

By Shevlin Sebastian

Veteran director Thampy Kannanthanam was playing the role of a cruel administrator in an orphanage in the children’s film, Oliver Twist, in 2006. When make-up man Binesh Bhaskar, 33, went to see him, he had turned the end of his thick moustache downwards to create an impression of cruelty.

Binesh plucked up his courage and said, “You should cut the hair at the sides, be clean-shaven, and, if you put on coloured lens, it will make you look sinister.”

Kannanthanam asked Binesh about his career. Satisfied by what he heard, he said, “Nobody has spoken to me like this before, but I will follow your instructions.”

So, Kannanthanam had his hair cut and got a good shave. Then Binesh inserted brown lens into his eyes. “When Kannanthanam saw himself in the mirror, he shook my hand in appreciation,” says Binesh. “He said, ‘You have succeeded in making me look cruel’”.

In his ten-year career, Binesh has done make-up for most of the stars, including Mammooty, Jagathy Sreekumar, Nedumudy Venu, Indrajith, Sreenivasan, Manoj K. Jain, Kalabhavan Mani, Divya Unni, K.P.A.C. Lalitha and Samvritha Sunil.

So what is the secret of a good make-up? “Most people think that the purpose of make-up is to make the actors look glamourous, but that is not true,” he says. It depends on the scene, the character and the mood.

Binesh gives an example: If a star acts as a cobbler, he will have to put the make-up in such a way that signifies he has spent a lot of time in the sun. “Even if Mohanlal was to play this role, I can’t make him look glamourous,” he says.

Actress Samvritha Sunil says that Binesh’s make-up always suits the character she is playing. “For example, in Vasthavam, I play a homely woman and he ensured that my make-up was natural and light,” she says. The strength of Binesh, she says, is that he does a lot of homework about the scene before he applies the make-up.

Binesh agrees and says that he ensures that he gets an idea of the storyline by talking to the director and the scriptwriter. “I need to know the psychological state of the character in a particular scene, as well as the economic and social background,” he says.

Actor Indrajit says Binesh is one of the more talented make-up artistes among the younger generation. “After he does his make-up on me, I feel very satisfied,” he says.
However, the attitude of actors towards make-up is mixed. Senior artistes like Nedumudy Venu and Jagathy Sreekumar, who have been in the trade for a long time, know that a good make-up makes a big difference in the presentation of a character. “So, they are patient and give time,” says Binesh.

On the other hand, younger artistes are impatient and want to finish the make-up quickly. But after they gain some experience, “they begin to understand the importance of make-up,” says Binesh, with a smile.

Make-up is important, but in the long run, is it bad for the skin? “Skin does not get damaged by make-up,” says Binesh. “I have discovered that make-up keeps the skin young. It is a protection against the sun, the dust and the powerful lights.”

However, at the end of the day, you have to make sure you take it off, he says, otherwise, the skin does not get a chance to breathe and will be damaged.

At his office on Powerhouse Road, Binesh comes across as intense and focused. “I feel odd sitting in my office today,” he says. It has been two months since he has come here, since he did back-to-back work for two films. “To be frank, I prefer to be on a film set.”

But make-up assignments in the Malayalam film industry are not so frequent, because the number of films produced every year is not high. Says Binesh: “In 2006, I did seven films, but in 2007, I only did two. Hence, I make advertisement films to keep the home fires burning.”

Born in Adimali, it was in high school that Binesh showed an interest in writing scripts and acting. Since his father was the manager of a local cinema hall, he also saw films several times a week. He began acting in school plays and decided to embark on a career as either a scriptwriter or a director.

However, an acquaintance, Unni, who was an assistant director, told him that because he had no backing or technical expertise, it would be difficult to get a breakthrough. So, he decided to become a make-up man, since for school plays, he had already done make-up. He became an assistant to established make-up artiste, Pattanam Shah. Thereafter, he worked for P.V. Shankar for a few years before he became independent.

Asked whether the profession was competitive, Binesh nods in the affirmative. “There are plenty of new technicians, but, unfortunately, the number of films is not going up, so the opportunities are few,” he says.

These youngsters are waiting for an opportunity to get a breakthrough, and they would not think twice of sidelining a senior. “These things happen,” he says. “Seniors don’t give room for others to come up, so they have to fight to get the space.”

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

Friday, January 11, 2008

It’s goodbye forever!

Assistant Sub Inspector M.A. Damodaran has retired from the police force after more than three decades of service

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of Kochi’s best-known traffic policemen, Assistant Sub Inspector, M.A. Damodaran, 55, will no longer be seen on the streets. On December 31, last year, Damodaran retired after 33 ½ years of service. On that particular day, there is a mood of celebration at his house at Monappilly in south Tripunithara. Children are milling about. Friends and relatives arrive, with beaming smiles on their faces.

A shamiana has been erected in the courtyard, with chairs and tables arranged in two long rows. Inside the house, on a low table, are placed several trophies that Damodaran has won during his long and dedicated career.

Daughter Priyanka, 11, points, with pride, at a picture in a glass-paned wall cabinet. It shows Damodaran receiving the Chief Minister’s Best Policeman Medal for 2007. Says a wistful Priyanka: “I feel very sad that I will no longer see Papa wearing his uniform.”

The man himself is at Traffic (West) station, near the High Court, to sign off on his last day and will be returning with his colleagues for a farewell lunch.

Outside Damodaran’s house stands neighbour M.K. Thilakan, 38, who works for a lawyer on Banerjee Road. “Damodaran is a self-made man,” he says. “He has always worked sincerely for the people.” Whenever Thilakan walked past the Madhava Pharmacy junction and Damodaran spotted him, he would always offer him tea from a nearby shop, even though he was busy directing the chaotic traffic.

As Thilakan talks, Damodaran’s wife, Soudamini, 45, an Anganvadi teacher, wearing a cream silk saree and a gold necklace, comes out. She gives the impression of being calm and patient. “Whatever work my husband did, be it as a policeman or at home, he did it with the utmost sincerity,” she says. “I am proud of him.”

Soon, there is a buzz among the guests: Damodaran and his colleagues have arrived! They troop into the house. Priyanka pins the Chief Minister’s silver medal on his uniform. The policemen, several of whom are in plainclothes, stand next to Damodaran, as photographs are taken. A few shake his hand. There are more visitors, and this time, it is the policemen from the nearby Hill Palace station.

E.M. Shamsudeen, the ASI of the station, who began his career at nearly the same time as Damodaran, says, “In 30 years, there has not been a single allegation of corruption against Damodaran. He is an exceptional officer.” From the reaction of the visitors, it is clear that they hold him in high esteem.

Soon, it is time for a lunch of chicken biriyani, an onion salad and lime pickle. It is only by 3.30 p.m. that all the guests leave. Damodaran steps outside and stands under a tree. “I feel very sad that my career is over,” he says. “What I will miss most are the relationships I had built up over the years with so many people.”

As the slanting rays of the sun falls on his face, one can easily see his eyes well up, but he manages to regain control of his emotions. “Now I fear that the people will not recognise me, because I will not be wearing a uniform.” He pauses, looks at his body and says, “I feel so fit and energetic. I could have easily worked for a few more years.”

Assistant Commissioner of Police, K.B. Venugopal, 46, of Traffic (West) feels that 55 is too early an age for a policeman to retire. “60 would be ideal, or at least 58,” he says. “Somebody like Damodaran, who has the energy of a 35-year-old, could have easily carried on.”

Circle Inspector D.S. Suneesh Babu says that Damodaran had a tremendous enthusiasm for the job. “He was willing to work at any time, especially during the peak hours,” he says. “He had such a natural talent in managing the traffic.”

Asked about his future plans, Damodaran says he will look for a job, as befitting his experience and skill. If that does not happen, he will do social service and continue to take care of his family.

It seems the right time to ask him about what advice he would give a young man joining the force today. “A policeman should know the rules and follow it to the letter,” he says. “He should be truthful and serve the people with the utmost sincerity. He should treat people equally, whether rich or poor, and should show concern for the downtrodden.”

And on the subject of corruption, he says, “There is a simple way of avoiding bribes: always live within your salary.”

But will a new policeman be able to follow Damodaran’s advice because he may soon realise that, just like in society, corruption is also widespread in the force? The chances are high that the young man will barter his integrity for money. So, it seems that what Damodaran’s friend, P.V. Mohan, 51, said, could turn out to be true: “I don’t think there will be another Damodaran in the police force.”

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

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Dalai Lama’s Men

Sethu Das, who started the web site, Friends of Tibet, and his brother, Suku, are creating an awareness of the Chinese oppression of Tibet

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1995, Sethu Das, 37, the son of the illustrious Malayali cartoonist, C.J. Yesudasan, went on a holiday to Jammu. From there, he decided to go to Srinagar. On the first day, the bus went half way and had to return to Jammu because of a landslide. On the second day, the road was deemed unsafe: a terrorist group had attacked an Army convoy.

So, Sethu went to the bus terminus at Pathankot, which is on the border of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Buses from Pathankot went to all parts of north India. Sethu saw that all the buses were full, except for one bus, which was going to Dharamshala. On a whim, he decided to go there. What Sethu did not know then was that Dharamshala was where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile had its headquarters.

So, when Sethu landed up at the town, he was intrigued to see monks and nuns in saffron robes walking around. He enquired and was told that these innocent-looking people were political prisoners who had escaped from Tibet because of brutal Chinese oppression. “It was an eye-opener for me that such a horrible situation existed in Tibet,” says Sethu. What further stunned him was the revelation that nearly all of them had been tortured in Chinese prisons.

“One monk showed me his right hand,” says Sethu. “Two fingers had been chopped off.” Then, there was the tall and well-built Reting Tempa Tsering, 70. He had spent 18 years in Chinese jails and was shot at while escaping to India. “The bullet was lodged in his back,” says Sethu. Despite the urging of the Dalai Lama to remove it through surgery, Tsering refused. He said he wanted the bullet to be a symbol of Chinese torture.

Meanwhile, shocked at his ignorance of the Tibetan tragedy, Sethu began interacting with the members of Gu-Chu-Sum, an association of former political prisoners from Tibet. He collected books and videos on the subject and started helping out by sending donations from Mumbai, where he worked as a designer. In 1999, he came up with the idea of a web site: Friends of Tibet. The first member was his younger brother, Suku, 34, who lives in Kochi and works as an architect. Later, it became a full-fledged Tibet Support Group.

“In India today, there are 3,900 members, with 21 chapters, while international chapters in Uruguay, Pakistan, Nepal, Spain, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom have been set up,” says Sethu.

In Kochi, the Friends of Tibet office at Changampuzha Nagar, which is run by Suku, is small and cosy: there are low sofas, a blackboard on a wall, and various posters on Tibet, one of which has this line: ‘China, get out of Tibet’. “We are trying to bring an awareness of Tibet to the people here by distributing leaflets, having public meetings and launching campaigns,” says Suku.

The latest campaign is called ‘The World with Tibet’. These are postcards which show the map of the world, but with one crucial difference: Tibet is shown as an independent country.

Asked about the reaction of Kochiites to the Tibet issue, Suku says that there are differing responses. Those who are aware of China’s overwhelming military control of the country, say, “Why are you fighting for a lost cause?”

Another group questions the need to fight on behalf of foreigners, when there are so many causes within the country that need support. “As long as Tibetans remain in India, and are unable to go back, we will fight for their rights,” says Suku.

One of those fighting for their rights in Kochi is activist, V.J. Jose, 52. Every month, he conducts meetings, where he shows films about China’s oppression of Tibet and gives talks explaining the history and the background of the country. “After seeing the films, young people express shock at what is happening in Tibet,” he says.

If you check out the web site (, you will see gruesome photographs of executions of Tibetan activists by Chinese soldiers. In one, the head of a young Tibetan woman has been blown off by a gun blast. The people are in agony and as their culture and way of life are being destroyed by the Chinese, Tibetans are fleeing the country. Nearly all of them find refuge in India and there are a few families in Kochi, as well. “There are 1.3 lakh Tibetans in India living in 54 settlements,” says the Mumbai-based Sethu. “They are hoping to return to a free and independent Tibet one day.”

Although this seems like an impossible dream, the Das brothers continue to fight for the Tibetan cause in Kochi and in several parts of India trying to bring an awareness about a country which, for many people, is just a name on a map.

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

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Smooth operator

Crane operator P. Prasanthan uses a high level of concentration and steady hands to do his job

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 a.m., crane operator P. Prasanthan, 27, climbs 84 steps to reach the 6’ x 10’ glass-paned air-conditioned booth of the Mobile Harbour Crane, which is located at the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal of the Cochin Port Trust.

Inside the booth, which is perched at a height of 70 ft., the chair is like what you see in the cockpit of an airplane, with a head-rest, while in front of the arm-rests, there are two joysticks, which are used to control the crane. There is a computer in front, which gives information about any abnormality: if there is a problem with the locking system, or if the container is overweight or the fuel is low.

Prasanthan’s job is simple: to load and unload containers from ships. “You need a sharp eye and good concentration,” he says. “You should also be confident. One mistake can cause a major accident.”

On the mobile crane, there is a spreader (an attachment to the boom), which has locks. At the four corners of the 20 or 40 ft. containers, there are holes. “The spreader is brought close to the container and once the locks fit perfectly into the holes, sensors will confirm this, and it will lock automatically,” says Prasanthan. Once that happens, the container will be lifted and moved from either the ship to the port or vice versa.

Prasanthan, who has been doing this job for the past three years, does three types of weekly shifts. “The morning shift begins at 7 a.m.,” he says. However, he works till 9.30 a.m., and then another operator takes over. Since the job requires a high degree of concentration, all crane operators are allowed to work in short bursts. At noon, Prasanthan resumes work and carries on till 3 p.m. So, in an eight-hour shift, he works for five and a half hours and is allowed a break of two and a half hours.

The afternoon shift is from 3 to 9.30 p.m. while the night shift begins at 9.30 p.m. and ends at 5.30 a.m. As expected, the night shift is the most difficult. “I work till midnight, then I get to rest till 3 a.m. and that is a very difficult time to stay awake,” he says.

This is the case for the 40 crane operators who ensure that the work goes on non-stop day and night. “A crane operator is no longer regarded like a driver,” says Cherian Abraham, 38, Manager-Operations, Indian Gateway Terminal Pvt. Ltd. “He belongs to the supervisory cadre. There is nobody above him to monitor his job. The equipment, as well as completing the work on time, is his responsibility.”

When you walk around the different yards, all you can see are the blue, red, white and green containers, sitting one on top of the other, with the names, Maersk, P&O, Hapag-Lloyd, Evergreen, and Emirates on some of them. Each container, when fully loaded, can weigh up to 30 tons. There are some containers, called reefers, which are refrigerated and the temperature inside can be seen on a panel outside: minus 14 degrees centigrade.

“Perishable goods, like vegetables, are put in these containers,” says Prasanthan. The majority of the imports are raw cashew from Africa. “Then there is metal scrap, clothes, text books, computer parts and even cars. Around eight cars can fit into one 40 ft. container,” says Giby Issac, 30, the yard supervisor.

Issac, like all the men on the yard, is wearing a yellow helmet, specially-made thick-soled black shoes inserted with metal clips, and a shining lemon-green jacket with reflective strips pasted on it. “These jackets are easily visible during the night and the early morning, and in the rainy season,” says Issac.

Since the containers come in different colours, it is difficult, from the top of a crane, to identify a person if he is wearing normal clothes. “But when the workers wear this jacket, the colour is quickly visible,” says Prasanthan. “An operator can notice immediately if somebody is moving towards a dangerous place. He can stop the crane and ask the man to move away.”

The reason why it is compulsory to wear helmets is that there is always a chance that a nut can get loose from a crane and fall on the head. As for safety shoes, Cherian Abraham says that when you walk on board a ship, you can hit a hard edge, and if you are wearing soft shoes, you can break your toes. “Our company, which is a part of DP World, Dubai, is spending a lot of money on safety measures,” he says. “You cannot replace a human life, so it is better to take precautions.”

Meanwhile, down on the ground, a fierce wind is blowing, as the loading gets completed on the container ship, Maersk Ronneby. With a stack of 900 containers, it is about to embark for Colombo. Prasanthan looks upwards at the booth in which he spends so many intense hours, and says, “In this job, there is a lot of stress, but there is also a sense of exhilaration when you do the job well.”

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