Friday, May 30, 2008

‘My father had a loving nature’

(A series on childhood memories)

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, on his 82nd birthday on May 29, talks about the events that made a mark on him

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil was five years old, he could not be found in the house in North Parur, where he was staying with his parents and siblings. “My family, along with some neighbours, began searching for me,” he says.

They looked into every nook and corner, including the compound. Finally, with sorrow in their hearts, they headed towards the pond where the children used to swim, assuming that he had drowned. But they could not locate the body.

The family returned to the house and one of the Cardinal’s neighbours went into the bedroom and lifted the blanket. “And there I was, sleeping peacefully,” says Vithayathil. “I had covered myself completely with the blanket. Since I was small, they thought I was a pillow.”

Cardinal Vithayathil, who turns 82 on May 29, has a far-away look in his eyes, as he recounts the events of his childhood. It is an interesting experience for the leader of the Catholic church in Kerala, who, during a private function recently, said, “I have 38 lakh children to look after.”

In Vithayathil’s family, it was his mother, Thresiamma, who was the strict disciplinarian. And she was not hesitant to use the cane. “I remember, one day, for some reason, I had disobeyed my father and, as my mother started hitting me with a cane, she said, ‘What is the fourth commandment of God?’

“I said, ‘Honour your father and mother.’”

“What do you mean by honouring your father and mother?’”

“I said, ‘If you ask how a pappadam looks like, we can say it is like a circle. But if you ask me what does a circle look like, who can answer that question? So, there is nothing more to say, except that we should honour our parents.’”

These witty retorts would enrage his mother and the beatings would continue. But later, when the Cardinal would go to sleep, she would come to his room and smother his face with kisses.

“At that time, I could not believe this was being done for my good,” he says. “Now, when I look back, the disciplining corrected many faults of mine.”

Vithayathil says he loved his mother intensely and also had a close relationship with his father. “My father had a loving nature and I never saw him in a bad mood,” he says. “He always enquired about our progress in school.”

Vithayathil was a good student, except for Sanskrit, which was his second language. In the first exam, he got 13 out of 100. “My mother got very upset,” he says. “Thereafter, it was decided that I would get tuition from the Sanskrit teacher.”

The coaching helped, because in the next exam, Vithayathil scored 78 and had no problems with Sanskrit thereafter.

The high point of his early education was when he stood first, along with a girl, in catechism during the Class four final examinations. “The girl later became a nun, Sr. Fabiana,” he says. “Sadly, she passed away sometime ago.”

Vithayathil also excelled on the playing field also. During an inter-class football final, when he was nine years old, he kicked the ball from the back and it went soaring over the heads of the players and into the opponent’s goal. “It was an unforgettable memory,” says Vithayathil. “However, we lost the match, 2-1.”

Another happy memory was when his father, Joseph Vithayathil, a leader of the Nivarthanam movement, stood for elections for the Parur and Kunnathunad Assembly seat in 1936.

“We received a telegram from my uncle, Abraham Vadakel,” says the cardinal. “It said, ‘Vithayathil successful, Tharakan second’. So, my father became a MLA for the first time and there was a great joy in the house. It was the turning point in his life and for the fortunes of our family.”

An occasion of great joy for the Cardinal took place recently when he went and saw the baptism register at St. Thomas church, Kottekavu, North Parur. “My name, my parents’ name and my godparents’ name – it was all so clear and legible, even though nearly 82 years have passed,” he says. “I wonder whether government registers can be kept in this pristine condition. I felt proud that the church documents had been preserved so well.”

And the Cardinal looks well preserved, too, despite the advancing years. In retrospect, he says, despite the intense disciplining, it was a happy childhood.

So, what does he think of today’s children? “Because most families have one or two children, they are pampered and get hurt easily,” he says. “When you get reprimands, you develop the inner strength to withstand the ups and downs of life.”

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

Monday, May 26, 2008

You can win!

Armed with that attitude, Shiv Khera has set up a thriving career as a motivational speaker

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1976, when Shiv Khera was struggling to make headway in his life in Toronto, he came across an advertisement in the newspaper that motivational speaker Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ fame) was in town. Khera attended the meeting and says, “Dr. Peale looked at the audience and said, ‘Do you have any problems?’”

“Everybody raised their hands.”

“How many people would like to solve their problems?”

“Everybody raised their hands.”

“Then he said, ‘On my way here to the meeting, there was a place where I saw some people who were relaxed and comfortable, and had no problems. How many people would like to be like those people?’”

“Again, everybody raised their hands,” says Khera.

“And then he said, ‘Two blocks from here, there is a cemetery and there are some people lying there, with no problems at all, at peace with the world. How many people would like to get rid of their problems like them?’”

“Everybody put their hands in the pocket,” says Khera, with a smile. “And then Dr Peale said, ‘Problems are a sign of life. As long as you are alive, you will have problems. The day you don’t have them, you are dead.’”

32 years later, Khera remembers the event as if it took place yesterday. “It was the turning point in my life,” he says.

Armed with a positive attitude, and clearly defined goals, Khera moved to New Jersey in America in 1978, set up a successful business in life insurance, and sold the company in 1995 for a large sum of money. During that time, he also began giving attitude and motivational courses.

But he made his mark when his 1998 book, ‘You can Win’ sold 1 million copies in eight languages. “I wrote the book to express my gratitude to Dr Peale who had changed my life and also to take the message to the next generation,” he says.

The manuscript, which was rejected by more than 100 publishers, was published by Prentice Hall in Singapore. Later, he wrote other best-sellers like ‘Living with Honour’ and ‘Freedom is not free’.

Just outside the hall at the Gokulam Park Inn Convention Centre, in Kochi, Khera’s books and CDs are on sale, while inside, the man himself, clad in a blue safari suit, with mike in hand, is talking to a group of 120 corporates about self-esteem, attitude, motivation, success and leadership in a three-day training programme organised by the Ekal Educational and Charitable Society.

“There are either good or bad leaders,” says Khera. “Good leaders actively guide and bad leaders actively misguide. Good leaders create more leaders and bad leaders look to create followers, because they are insecure.”

The audience listens to him in rapt silence. One of them is S. Sankaran, the former chairperson (Kerala) of the Confederation of Indian Industry. “Unlike other programmes, we were able to understand what he said at once,” he says. “The good thing was that whatever he said was applicable both at home and at the workplace.”

Khera had to work hard to become successful. Born in Dhanbad, he was educated at Delhi, but in 1973, at 23, just a month after he had got married, the Central government nationalised the coal mines which his late father owned in Jharkhand and left Khera a pauper.

“We were on the streets overnight,” he says. Desperate, he tried his hand at several businesses, but it flopped. In the end, with the help of his sister, he emigrated to Canada on November 13, 1975.

Today, he travels across the country, and to Singapore and Mauritius and the US to give talks on personality development.

Asked why so many people lead unsuccessful lives, he says, “Most people have dreams, not goals. A goal is a dream with a deadline, clear direction and a plan of action.” He says a study by Yale University concluded that less three per cent of people in the world had goals.

“Goal-driven people put in 200 per cent,” he says. He gives the example of American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “A reporter came to Spitz and said, ‘Must be a lucky day.’ Spitz replied, ‘What are you talking about? In the 1968 Mexico Olympics, I won three gold medals. I was happy, but I was also unhappy because I could have won more.’

So, between Mexico and Munich, in four years, Spitz swam 10,000 hours. That works out to 2,500 hours a year, which translates to eight hours a day, with no Sundays off. “Go sit in the water for eight hours a day for four years and your body will shrivel,” said Spitz. “So, did I get lucky?”

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The king of bass

Jayen Varma, the fastest percussive bassist in the world, has big plans for his new band, Indian Epics

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1981, there was an open-air rock show being held at the Rajendra Maidan in Kochi. Jayen Varma was standing near the stage and watching his friend, Antony Isaacs (a member of Usha Uthup’s troupe) perform.

During the interval, one of Jayen’s friends urged him to go and play on the drums. “I had never stepped on a stage before and so I was scared,” he says. But another friend pushed him forward.

“I saw this large crowd and thought I am about to faint now,” he says. “But when I sat down behind the drums, I immediately started playing. Soon, I began to relax.”

Jayen played for fifteen minutes and in a daze he saw the others come back to the stage, excluding the drummer, and the group launched into Bob Marley’s, ‘Buffalo Soldier’.

Jayen experienced an excitement and joy he had never felt before. Unlike most people, he came to music late. One day, when Jayen was 21, Antony was practicing on the rhythm guitar, while he sat on a nearby chair and knocked out drumbeats on his thighs with his fingers. “Jayen, you have a natural talent,” said Antony. “You should become a musician.”

At that moment, Jayen decided to take up music seriously and immediately passed up a chance to study for an engineering degree. “Two of my brothers were already engineers and my family was upset by my decision,” he says.

Jayen went to Goa and spent six months there playing with several bands. But feeling homesick, he returned home and started learning the guitar on his own and the mridangam under Parassala Ravi, who was the former principal of the Palakkad Music College. He trained for five years, but in 1986, Jayen secured a job with the Devaswom Board.

Thereafter, he became a part-time bass guitarist for the group, Firefly, which did gigs all over south India. “We played all types of music: rock and roll, funk, jazz rock and jazz,” he says.

In the meantime, 22 years passed, and because of numerous problems in his job, including court cases, Jayen finally quit the Devaswom Board in March. In April, he started a new band, Indian Epics, which comprises Ashwin Sivadas on the drums, Firefly colleague, Sumesh Parameshwar, on the lead guitar, himself on bass guitar, and guest vocalist, Karoline Greenacre.

She is a South African who lives in Spain, and has come to Kochi for a few months to work as a volunteer music teacher. “Indian Epics is a raga-funk-rock band,” says Jayen.

On a Wednesday morning, the group is rehearsing in Jayen’s family tharavadu at Tripunithara. There is Ashwin, who plays a thumping beat, Karoline taps her shoulders and arms and makes sounds with her mouth, as Sumesh conjures up some brilliant riffs, while Jayen provides low-key bass sounds. The music is rich, loud and elevating. In no time, the group has forgotten the presence of the visitor and has moved smoothly into a zone of their own.

Meanwhile, as the band makes its way – it played its first gig on April 17 for the Rotary Club – Jayen has set a world record. Today, he is known as the fastest percussive bassist in the world: he can play 36 notes per second.

This feat has been ratified by the Registry of Official World Records of the Record Holders Republic, U.K., and will soon be featured on ‘Believe The Unbelievable’ on AXN TV.

Asked how he set the record, Jayan says he practised for more than seven hours a day for six months. At that time, he was working as a liaison officer in the Devaswom Board at Thrissur and, every morning, he would travel on the Bokaro Express from Ernakulam. “Throughout the two-hour journey, I would hit the mobile phone with my fingers,” he says. “The speed increased and helped me in setting the record.”

Jayen says that he is also the first musician to play the mridangam on the guitar. Recently, he gave an online class to a Mexican musician. “It is becoming a new trend among bass guitarists,” he says.

Karoline confirms that she has never seen anyone play the guitar like that. “Jayen’s playing is different and sounds very exotic,” she says. Firefly founder, Sriram Iyer, says that Jayen is one of the best bass guitarists in India. “He creates a hypnotic sound when he plays the mridangam on the guitar,” he says.

Meanwhile, the future plans of the band include touring abroad. “We want to make a worldwide impact,” says Jeyan, 47, whose mother Thankamani, wife Kala and daughters, Athira, 20, and Ashwathi, 15, are the pillars of support in this new venture.

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

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stepping back in time

At the Museum of Kerala History at Kochi, you see history at close quarters as well as the great art of East and West

By Shevlin Sebastian

Some years ago, a German couple, both professors in their fifties, had come to Kerala and wanted to see the Museum of Kerala History at Kochi. Apparently, one of their friends in Germany had termed it as a ‘must-see’.

They stayed in Fort Kochi, toured Ernakulam, and, one evening, they stopped to have tea at a roadside shop near Vytilla. They asked the show owner and, by coincidence, a Malayalam newspaper had carried an article on the museum on that same day. The shop-owner proudly showed the article to the couple, as he gave directions to the museum.

“Everybody knows about the museum,” says Prasanna Varma, assistant manager at the museum. “In the end, the couple said they had toured the whole of Asia and had not seen a museum like this.”

The Museum of Kerala History, set in granite, sits on 1.3 acres of land, in Edapally besides the National Highway 47. It was set up in 1987 by the late businessman, Madhavan Nayar, who was known as the ‘father of the seafood export industry in India’.

“He said that since society had given him so much, he wanted to give something in return,” says Army Captain V. Karunakaran (retd.), the manager.

The museum is divided into four parts: the museum of Kerala history, a gallery of paintings and sculptures, a Centre for Visual Arts and the Dolls Museum.

In the museum of Kerala History, there is a sound and light show, which shows thirty-seven scenes, highlighting the achievements of 90 historical figures, like Sankara and Swathi Thirunal, who shaped the history of Kerala. The costumes are authentic, and you get the feeling the figures will spring to life at any moment.

The show is an engrossing spectacle, accompanied by traditional music and commentary. Spotlights are switched on and off, falling on different eras, while the rest of the hall is in complete darkness. One moves in a circle to go through 2000 years of history.

“Through this show, I wanted to spark the interest of the visitor in the history of Kerala,” Madhavan Nayar had once said. Indeed, it is a journey back in time, into a forgotten world.

At the gallery of paintings and sculptures, you can see the traditional Kerala mural art, the patachitras from Orissa, where the paintings are done on palm leaves and cloth and the Tanjavur school of painting. This school has wooden boards decorated with gold leaf, semi-precious stones and mirror work.

And, of course, there is the superb ‘Reverie’ by Raja Ravi Varma and paintings by contemporary masters like Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, F.N. Souza, K.G. Subramanian and M.F. Hussain.

At the Centre for Visual Arts, there are reproductions of paintings by Paul Cezanne, Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and other masters. “Usually, Madhavan Nayar would travel to museums in India and all over the world to buy prints and reproductions,” says Prasanna. “Sometimes, reproductions were given by foreign embassies and it has been put up for the benefit of the fine arts students.”

One day, an Austrian couple, Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, who were researching for a biography on Raja Ravi Varma, had come to see the maestro’s painting.

“In the end, they saw the entire museum and appreciated it,” says Prasanna. “They asked why there were no reproductions of the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo and we said that we had tried but could not get it.”

Eventually, the couple left Kochi and went to Paris. From there, by sea mail, they sent the wonderful reproductions of Da Vinci, which hang at the centre today. “For the next three years, they came regularly and were happy to see that the reproductions had been mounted,” says Prasanna.

Just above the Centre of Visual Arts is the Dolls Museum, which has a rare collection of authentic dolls from various parts of the country and from USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.

“This section is one of the most attractive of its kind in India,” says Capt. Karunakaran. Another section, which is also very attractive, is the Gallery of Miniatures, which contains reproductions of paintings of the court of the Mughal emperors and the ever-popular Radha-Krishna theme.

Asked about the type of visitors who come, Karunakaran says, “Students arrive from schools and colleges from all over Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. We have regular visitors from the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai and several other art schools in Kerala. Families visit during the vacations. And foreigners come during the tourist season of August to March.” Incidentally, during the tourist season, the museum gets 15,000 visitors a month.

And the institution is keen to carry on its good work. “We want to acquire more world-class paintings,” says Karunakaran.

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

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Teaching to speak English quickly

Jacob Nettikkatt says students know to read and write the language, but are unable to speak it

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1984, when Jacob Nettikkatt was reading a newspaper in Kolkata, where he had been working for many years, he saw an advertisement for a personality development course by well-known motivational speaker Aparesh Acharya.

Jacob rushed to take part. “Within one and a half hours of listening to Aparesh, my imagination took wing,” he says. “Aparesh spoke about the consequences of having the right and wrong attitude.”

Soon after this course, Jacob, who worked as an export manager, says he got a divine call to be a teacher. He decided to teach an export-import management course. Once he began, he came across many students who could not communicate in English and so he decided to start an English-speaking course. Thereafter, teaching English became his passion.

In 1992, Jacob returned to Kochi and began teaching this course at the Renewal Centre at Kaloor. He did it for 15 years, and in 2006, he brought out the four-volume, ‘Easy Way to Learn English’.

In 2007, he established the Xavier Institute of Management ( on Azad Road, teaching English to students.

“There is something wrong with our educational system, where students know how to read and write English, but are unable to speak it,” he says.

Jacob has developed several techniques to enable students to pick up a fluency in the language.

He has divided a sentence into three parts: Action/Action taken/Receiver. Jacob teaches his students on how to fill these columns with the appropriate words.

He agrees that it is similar to subject, verb and object, but “in schools and colleges, they don’t teach you how to fill up the columns. So, the student cannot construct his own sentence.”

Jacob also realised that students can gain fluency in spoken English quicker if they know how to develop the powers of the mind. So, he has written a book on the ‘Mind and its functions’, which was released last month.

“More than 90 per cent of the students are unaware of how the mind works,” he says. “So, their functioning as human beings is in a state of disarray. A student should learn to develop the different powers of the mind as explained in the book.”

For example, if a student has a tendency to forget, he suggests that he or she should visualise a TV screen. Then the student can write something on that screen by using the imagination.

“There is no need for any paper and pen,” he says. “Try to read the written matter from the mental screen, with the inner eye.”

Jacob says that if you are able to do it, then you can write messages or even speeches on the mental screen and read it back when required. “You will not need to write down anything ever again,” he says. He calls this the power of visualisation.

He has other suggestions: in order to have harmonious relationships, people should always look at life from the other person’s perspective.

“Most of the time, people only see things from their own viewpoint, so it becomes a one-sided thinking,” he says. “When we look from the other person’s angle, we are able to avoid saying hurtful words.”

Meanwhile, Dr. G.P.C. Nayar, the chairman of the SCMS Group of Educational Institutions, who wrote the foreword, says, “What I like about the book is that Jacob has based it on his own observations. Usually, when a person writes a book on the mind, they refer to so many books, but he has avoided that. This book is based on a lifetime observation of human behaviour.”

Jacob’s understanding of human nature has come through his own suffering. His eldest son contracted meningitis when he was seven years old and the treatment lasted for 14 years. “He has also become mentally challenged,” he says. But his second son is an engineer and works for a German multinational company in Dubai.

Jacob’s future plans include writing more books and spreading his methodology of teaching English in various parts of India.

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

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Shooting at high speed

In his 20-year career, George Francis has photographed more than 1100 motorsport rallies in every part of the country

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the last stage of the Himalayan Car rally in 2004, it started snowing heavily. The rally got cancelled and photographer George Francis was at Pang, 28,000 feet above sea level. With driver, Manvinder Singh, George set out for Manali in a Toyota Qualis.

“The road was blanketed with snow,” says George. “At 11 a.m., it was dark and the visibility was poor. I was scared. Manvinder kept tapping the Qualis against the mountain, so that it would not go to the other side.”

The other side had a drop of 15,000 ft. and instantaneous death. “Throughout that journey, Manvinder would say, ‘Are you scared?’” says George. “I would reply, ‘I am not scared because you are driving.’” After several hours of traveling at 10 km/h, they finally made it to safety.

This is one of the many memorable experiences that George, originally from Pulincunnu, near Changanacherry, has experienced in his 20-year career as a Chennai-based photographer of car and bike rallies. He has covered more than 1100 rallies, races, motocross, autocross and dirt track events in every nook and corner of the country.

So, what is it about motorsport that has made him focus on it for so long? “I love speed and I like the excitement of seeing new places,” he says. “You are working for several hours at a stretch, but all the time you are in a place where the scenery is spectacular.”

As to the techniques needed to cover a rally, he says the most important aspect is to develop the right timing to shoot, since the vehicles are traveling so fast.

“This comes from experience,” he says. “I keenly observe the style of the driver. For a particular turn, some drivers will do it stylishly, while others will slide across.”

Expectedly, in trying to get these high quality photographs, George, 47, had several close shaves. He remembers once, in 1994, when he was shooting during a rally near Chennai, the Gypsy car, driven by Asian Rally champion Hari Singh, seemed exceptionally close when he looked through the lens. When he looked up, he saw the car go over his head.

But he has not suffered any major injuries. So, it was an irony that when he was vacationing at Mulavukad island, Kochi, recently, one night, while traveling with his brother-in-law, Sabu Xavier, an auto-rickshaw suddenly appeared in the path of the car. Sabu swerved, the car hit a tree and George received a deep gash on his face.

“That’s life,” he says, with a laugh, as he points at the stitches on his face.

George, who graduated with a literature degree from Loyola College, Chennai, worked briefly as a journalist before he started his own agency, Scorp News on September 1, 1985. “Since I belong to the star sign, Scorpio, I decided to give it the name, Scorp,” he says. Today, he is regarded as the doyen among photographers in the motorsport fraternity.

Says Hormazd Sorabjee, editor, Autocar India: “George always gets the right shot. There is no one else who will get the picture we wanted. He is the only major photographer in motorsport.”

Rally driver Lohit Urs, ranked No 2 in India, says, “George takes fantastic photographs. It is difficult to take good shots because the cars are moving at such high speed, but he has the skill. Whatever photographs I have in my collection, they have all been taken by him.”

George says his success has been in creating a market for motorsport pictures. “I was the first to take photographs of rallies in an organised manner,” he says.

Earlier, during the time of analog cameras, he would shoot around 250 pictures for a rally. But now, thanks to the digital revolution and a team of 3 photographers, around 4000 photographs are taken of a single rally.

“People have realised that motorsport has a good market,” he says. At present, there are more than a dozen automobile magazines in India.

Asked how long he would carry on in this physically demanding profession, George says, “Till I die. This is a passion for me.”

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

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

‘Beena takes decisions quickly’

M. Beena, the former collector of Thrissur, was recently appointed collector of Ernakulam. Her husband, P. Vijayan, the SP of Malappuram district, talks about his wife and their life together

By Shevlin Sebastian

When did you get married to Beena?
We got married on November 6, 2000.

How difficult is it to have a marriage where both of you have hectic careers and are physically apart most of the time?
It is not a difficult thing for Beena and me, but it is difficult for our children, Vishnupriya and Vignesh. But whenever we meet, the primary focus is our children and we try to enjoy each other’s company in a much deeper way. We have to schedule our meetings in advance, but we try to meet as often as possible.

Is it easy for the children?
Of course, they are not in the presence of the father or the mother all the time. Compared to many other children, those whose fathers are working in the Middle East or the Army, they are better off. When I was commissioner of police at Ernakulam, I would, sometimes, take the children to the office and they would play at one corner. I did this so that they could always be in the presence of the father.

What are the qualities that you admire in Beena?
I like her simplicity and she is a very good mother. As an administrator, she makes decisions quickly and ensures that it is implemented. She is also good at negotiations and has the ability to take the team along with her. Lastly, she is very sensitive to the problems faced by the downtrodden.

How difficult is this Ernakulam assignment, as compared to Thrissur? I don’t think it is going to be difficult at all. She has lots of experience. Generally, when somebody is posted at Ernakulam, it is a first-time experience. But Beena has already been a collector of Thrissur, and has handled various responsibilities in other districts. Whereever she has gone, she has done wonders.

Is there any advice you would give her?
We never give advice to each other. We discuss matters in a constructive way. And then we make suggestions to each other.

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

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Old is gold!

Veteran athlete, Rajam Gopi, winner of 80 national medals, wants to get better, while she goes about her job as a sweeper in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

On an April evening, as the rain falls in torrents, accompanied by gusts of wind and flashes of lightning, M.N. Rajam Gopi, 50, stares wistfully at the puddles forming on the synthetic track at the Maharaja’s College ground at Kochi.

“I feel restless if I don’t do my daily runs,” she says. Standing next to her is training partner, T.C. Sasi, 50, a 1500m runner. Both are wearing tracksuits and sneakers.

In the gallery filled with noisy teenagers who are kicking a plastic bottle cap to each other, and chattering youths in orange and black football jerseys, none of them is aware that Rajam is a champion veteran athlete.

So far, Rajam has won 80 medals -- 40 gold, 25 silver and 15 bronze medals in various national and international meets. At the recent Guwahati National championships, she won the gold in the 5 km walk, the 5000m and the 300m hurdles.

A 100 and 200m sprinter, she can also do cross-country running and marathons -- she came first in the women’s section in the recent Metlife Marathon at Kochi.

Rajam had excelled in athletics right from her school days. “I would always come first in the sprint races,” she says. However, her teachers in the government school would cast her aside and name the wealthier girls as the winner. “It hurt me a lot,” she says.

Rajam stopped studying in Class 9 and by fifteen, she was married. In the course of the next twenty years, she had two children, Anil Kumar, 33, an auto-rickshaw driver, and Deepa, 28, who is married and has a child.

“During those years, I had a great desire to return to athletics, but I never got a chance,” she says. Her husband, Gopi, who is a porter at the state transport bus stand, had no idea about sports. “But one day I insisted that he should accompany me so that I could take part in my first veterans’ meet in Kottayam,” she says.

This was 15 years ago and she performed well: she won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, and the walking event in the 35-39 age group.

Thereafter, there has been no stopping her. Apart from national championships medals, she has won gold at the Asian Championships in Bangalore in 2000 and 2006.“Rajam, who is extremely hard-working and dedicated, can easily shine at the international level,” says her Thrissur-based coach, A. Ramachandran.

But Rajam’s biggest problem is the lack of funds. “I was selected to take part in eight Asian Games, but I had no money or sponsors” she says.

But in September, 2007, luck initially smiled on her when she managed to collect Rs 1.5 lakh as sponsorship money to take part in the World Masters Athletics Championships at Riccione, Italy.

Some of her sponsors included management mentor Madhav Menon and the then city Collector Mohammed Hanish, who chipped in with Rs 20,000.

However, a rebel national association submitted a letter to the Italian embassy stating that there was a case going on in the Karnataka High Court against the national association, and hence, the visas should not be issued.

“So, we did not get the visas,” says Dr Sabu P. Samuel, the secretary of the Kerala State Veterans Athletic Association. Says Rajam: “It was a big disappointment.”

But she is undeterred. Every morning, she trains for half an hour at the college ground, then from 8.30 a.m. to 1 p.m., she works as a sweeper in two travel agencies, and by 3 p.m., she starts work in a lab. She works till 5 p.m., comes to Maharaja’s College ground and trains for two hours.

So why is she working so hard? “When you run, all the problems in the world vanish and you feel so happy,” she says.

What also makes her happy is the camaraderie. “When I go for national meets with the other team members, we feel so joyful,” she says. More than 100 veteran athletes from Kerala traveled together to take part in the national championships. “We had to change three trains to reach Guwahati, but it was fun,” she says.

Meanwhile, her immediate focus is a cross-country race in Mysore in May. But she has to pay from her own pocket for travel and other expenses. “Unfortunately, the Veterans’ Association does not have any money,” says Samuel. Rajam has applied for funds from the state government, but has not received a response.

But when an activity becomes a passion, you do it, irrespective of all the obstacles.

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