Monday, February 18, 2008

It’s a small world

With a height ranging from 2 to 4 feet, small men in Kerala struggle to survive in a largely indifferent society

By Shevlin Sebastian

When S. Bhuvanachandran, 30, was in school, and it became clear that he was shorter than all his classmates, some of his friends told him that if he hung from a rope, he could become tall. So, Bhuvanachandran, with the help of a friend, tied two ropes to a tree in his house at Thiruvananthapuram and attached rubber rings at the end of it. He gripped the rings and hung from it for several days.

One day, Bhuvanachandran, who is 3’ tall, decided that he would try a somersault, like they did in the circus. “When I attempted it, because my arms are short, my head got stuck inside one ring,” he says.

When he tried to pull his head out he ended up swinging from side to side. “I was stuck, and there seemed no way to free myself,” he says. He says he was lucky the rings were made of rubber, and not iron, otherwise, it would have cut into the neck.

“A neighbour was watching and he assumed I was trying a new style,” says Bhuvanachandran. “After a while, he shouted, ‘Chandra, isn’t it time to stop?’”

Since he was unable to speak, because of the ring around his neck, Bhuvanachandran stuck his tongue out and enlarged his eyes. “My neighbour was puzzled by my behaviour,” he says. “It was only when he came close that he realised that I was stuck and freed me.”

It is at this point in the tale that a group of small men, who are listening intently to Bhuvanachandran, burst out laughing. They range in height from 3’ to 4’ 6”, and in age from 19 to 42. Like Bhuvanachandran, they are members of an entertainment troupe, Janaseva Kalavedi.

Bhuvanachandran breaks out into a wide grin as he finishes his story. “I realised there was no point in doing these exercises,” he says. “The doctors confirmed that I would be short forever.” Bhuvanachandran scolded his friends for suggesting the ‘rope’ idea, while his brothers told him to be happy with his height.

On a sunny Friday morning, the small men are lounging around on chairs and on beds in a first floor hall at the campus of the Janaseva Sisubhavan, an orphanage run by founder-president Jose Maveli, 56, at Aluva, 30 kilometres from Kochi. When the troupe performed at the Sisubhavan in 2005, they were touched by the children’s reaction. “A few begged us to hug them, because nobody had done so,” says Ajay Kumar. A relationship developed between the small men and the orphans and so, Maveli allowed them to stay at Sisubhavan. They get free food and accommodation.

The troupe use Sisubhavan as a base and go for shows all over the state. It is a two-hour performance of comedy, dance, drama and song. “This is the way we earn our living,” says S. Babish, 24, who is 4’ tall.

Just like the orphans, the small men have also gone through difficult times. When Ajay Kumar was in Class ten, whenever there were protests by students, they would rush out of the class. Invariably, Ajay would be the last, because he was afraid he would be trampled upon. “The other students would get angry because they thought I did not want to participate in the demonstration,” he says. “They would grab my collar and drag me out.”

When Bhuvanachandran was ten years old, whenever the teacher entered the room, all the students would stand up and wish him ‘good morning’. Because the bench was so high, by the time he reached the floor, to stand up, everybody had sat down. “One day, the teacher told me, in front of the class, ‘Chandran, you can greet me sitting down.’ It was an embarrassing moment for me,” he says.

This lack of height has obvious disadvantages: like when they use public transport. “When we travel by buses, after fifteen minutes of standing, we feel tired and we need to sit,” says Babish. “Passengers sometimes get up when they see us, but most people ignore us.” When they travel on a train, if they get a seat, there is no problem. “But if there is too much of a rush, we will avoid getting on, because the chance of getting injured is very high,” he says.

It is a life lived on the margins, and, sadly, they are always at the mercy of normal people. “When people see us alone, they make fun,” says Ajay. “But when they see us in a group, they are more careful. What people don’t realise is that, except for our height, we are as normal as anybody.”

And like most normal men, when these small people become adults, one of their ardent desires is to get married, which is an uphill task for most of them. In the group of nine members, only S. Mubash, 25, and Ajay are married. Amazingly, the 4’ Ajay, 42, has married a woman, Seena, 32, who is 6’. “My wife is the tallest in the area where we live and I am the shortest,” he says. “People laugh when they see us together.”

They got together thanks to Ajay’s friend, Kumar, who had got married to a girl called Mini. She was a friend of Seena and had told her about Ajay but warned her that he was very short. “Seena agreed to see me,” says Ajay. “I said that her being so tall was not an issue for me. I just wanted somebody who could be my wife.” Eventually, Seena accepted the proposal. “There is no problem for sex,” he says. “Only my legs and arms are small. Otherwise, I am normal.” Today, he has two girls, Vrinda, 12, and Ganga, 10, but they have inherited his genes and are short. Meanwhile, Babish hopes to get married within the next few weeks, while the others are praying for similar luck.
There is a gung-ho positive energy among the group members. For each one of them, the turning point in their life was the film, Albutha Dweep (Wonder Island), directed by Vinayan, which was released in 2005. The film is based loosely on the famous English story, Gulliver’s Travels, and is set on a fictitious island, Vamanapuri, where the men are 3’ tall, while the women, because of a thousand-year-old curse, are of normal size and beautiful. The hero is Unda Pakru (see box), who is Prince Gajendran, the heir-apparent.

Vinayan placed advertisements in newspapers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in order to get the 300 small men he needed for the film. It took him six months to get all the men and among those selected were the members of the Janaseva Kalivedi troupe.

The 3’ tall Bhuvanachandran says that when he first went to the set at Malampuzha, near Pallakad, he was astonished to see men who were shorter than him. “When we exchanged our life stories, I realised I was not alone,” he says. “Some of them had suffered much more than me.”

Sanal Jose, 22, who is 4’ 6” tall, says he saw men who could not walk and some had such small hands that they could not scratch their backs and had to use a stick. “I realised I was lucky,” he says.

Director Vijayan says that when the 300 men saw each other, there was a tremendous excitement. “They could not believe there were so many short men in India,” he says. “One of them told me later that this was the first time he was having a conversation without craning his neck.”

Vinayan, who interacted with them over several weeks, has a keen idea of their psyche. “They are like children,” he says. “They get emotional very quickly. They cry easily and become violent very fast. Since they have suffered so much, because of their height, they have a keen sense of empathy for people who have gone through a bad time.” He says that most of them are tormented by a deep inferiority complex and have spent years cooped up in rooms, afraid to meet the gaze of normal people.

Albutha Dweep became a hit and there were some positive benefits for the small men. “About 20 small men were able to get married,” says Vinayan. “Somehow, the girls, after seeing the film, realised that, except for their height, there was nothing wrong with these men.”

Secondly, a powerful ‘can do’ attitude developed among the men. Soon after the film was released, they decided to form an association: The All Kerala Small Men Association was set up on August 18, 2005, with Jose Maveli, who is of normal height, as president. There are 400 members on the rolls now. Says Maveli, “We have asked the government to include small men, with a maximum height of 4’ 6”, in the physically handicapped section.”

As Unda Pakru says, “We are not physically handicapped, but at the same time, we are.” Maveli says that the small men should not be treated on the same par as normal people. “When they travel, they run the risk of being killed and they also find it difficult to get jobs,” he says. “So, they need help.” So far, the government has not reacted, even though the association had submitted a petition to the Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan a few months ago.

Meanwhile, whether they receive any government benefits or not, and despite the travails and difficulties of their daily life, most have a constant child-like smile on their faces.

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

The most famous small man in Kerala

When Unda Pakru, 30, steps out of a television studio in Kochi, he is mobbed by fans, who are much taller than him. They shake his hand, ask for autographs and stand next to him, so that photographs can be taken. Pakru smiles easily, a 2’ 10” dynamo. He is wearing a colourful purple shirt, a gold necklace around his neck and several rings on his fingers.

Brought up in Kottayam, Pakru showed early talent in mimicry, elocution and acting. He made his acting debut in the Malayalam film, Ambili Ammavan, in 1984 and the name of the character he played was called Unda Pakru (Small Man). “When the film was telecast through Doordarshan, the name got stuck and ever since, I have been known as Unda Pakru,” he says. “Now, nobody knows my actual name, Ajay Kumar.”

He has acted in 33 films but his turning point came when he played the hero in the film Albhutha Dweep (Wonder Island) directed by Vinayan. Inspired by ‘Gulliver's Travels’, 300 short people acted in the film. Pakru plays Prince Gajendran who lives in the kingdom of Vamanapuri. The movie became a hit and changed the public attitude towards short people. “In Malayalam, this is the first film where a short person is the hero,” says Pakru. This role led to a Special Jury Mention in the Kerala State film awards in 2005 and also an unexpected international award: He was merited an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, as the shortest hero playing an adult role in a commercial film.

Pakru also has his own troupe, which specialises in comedy skits. “The show is called, ‘Guinness Comedy Records 2008,’” he says, with a smile. So far, he has made about 35 trips to the Middle East, the USA, Europe and Australia.

Clearly, he is the most successful small man in Kerala. He has made a new house, Akshaya, in Kottayam and moves around in a Scorpio. But the icing on the cake was his arranged marriage with Gayatri, who is 5’ tall, in March, 2006. “I did confess to Gayatri before the wedding that I was not sure whether I would be able to fulfill my marital obligations, but I felt confident,” he says. In the end, Gayatri did get pregnant but sadly, the child died ten days after birth because of hypertension.

So, how do people regard him? “When some people see me, they look astounded,” he says. “Some people look joyful. Some people have a sympathetic look. Some people can’t believe there is a person like me.”

But, as Pakru says, he is real and, in the eyes of the public, a popular star.


From all walks of life
In America, there are organisations like The Little People of America, which has 6,000 members. To be a member, you cannot be taller than 4' 10". According to its web site, the parents of more than 80 per cent of the small people are of average height, with no history of dwarfism in the family.

There are more than 200 causes for dwarfism, but the most common is achondroplasia. This is characterised by an average-sized trunk, short arms and legs, an enlarged head and prominent forehead. There is a dwarfism gene, which can be inherited from either parent. Sometimes, there is a mutation in a single gene in either a sperm or egg cell from parents of normal size.

Ancient Egypt and small people
According to researchers, ancient Egyptians worshipped dwarf gods. They were called Bes and Ptah. Bes protected women and children, while Ptah was connected with rejuvenation. Dwarves held a respectable position in Egyptian society. There are numerous images of dwarfs on tomb walls and on paintings depicting them as dancers, entertainers, jewellers and attendants.

A 'small' homage
Terra Jole, who is 3' tall, is known as the mini-Britney Spears. She dresses like Spears and sings her songs on the club circuit in Las Vegas. Her videos are among the most watched on YouTube. Like Jole, small people are in demand in Western films, television serials, advertisements and corporate events. Because of this demand, talent agencies like have sprouted up.

Don't call them midget
In Western countries, small people consider the name 'midget' as offensive. The term came into prominence during the 18th century when small people were displayed for public amusement. The term, 'little people' is accepted everywhere.

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