Monday, June 30, 2008

Making the right choices

Physically-challenged people earn a new lease of life when they get married to each other.

By Shevlin Sebastian

"It was only when my mother gave me a sign saying the baby was okay that I heaved a sigh of relief," says Beena Varkey, 27, about the birth of her daughter a few months ago. She had reasons to be worried. She is deaf but can utter some unintelligible sounds. Her husband, Joy Varkey, 28, is deaf and dumb from birth. They have been married for a little over a year, and it was a tense period when Beena got pregnant.

"We were afraid that our child would also become deaf and dumb, like us, and, yet, we had to take the risk," says Beena. "After marriage, like everybody else, we were looking forward to having children."

But the baby is as normal as a ray of sunlight. Asked how they would hear the cries of the child at night, Joy says, "I put my hand across her body when she goes to sleep. So, the moment, she starts crying, her arms and legs move and I know she needs to be fed."

Beena says she presses herself against the baby's body and when the child kicks, she knows it is hungry. Beena's mother-in-law, Mary Amma, says that if they both miss the movements of the baby, she hears the cries and awakens Beena. (Joy and Beena communicate in sign language, while their neighbour and Joy's childhood friend, Regi Kumar does the translation).

For Joy and Beena, in ordinary circumstances, they would not have met, since they live more than 50 kms apart. But the Prathyasha Foundation placed an advertisement in several newspapers announcing a pre-marital meet for disabled people in May, 2006. Joy and Beena, with their respective families, took part. "I saw four girls, but I liked Beena immediately," he says. Beena says she also liked Joy and was thrilled when her mother and brother had the same sentiments.

Beena says her family wanted her to get married to a normal person but she was against the idea. "I felt that such a man would not be able to understand me," she says. "So I told my mother I would like to get married to a deaf and dumb person. I am very happy with Joy. He is a good man."

Joy had wanted to get married because all his friends had got married and he was leading a solitary life. "Marriage has been great for me," he says. "I have somebody beside me to face the problems of life. But most importantly, I have this gift from God." He points at his black-eyed daughter, Jocelyn, who, having just woken up, has a sleepy look.

The couple lives with Joy's aged parents in a brick house at Veliyanad, 38 kms from Kochi. Joy is a rubber tapper who earns Rs 180 per day, while Beena has been trained as a tailor. She has slowed down now that she has to look after the baby. It is a happy marriage and a happy family, with a crowning glory, a daughter.

But, for another couple, the absence of a child is causing heartbreak. Suresh Kumar, 35, has been blind from the age of 10. Again, like Joy, he wanted to get married and, thanks to a woman, Rachel, whom he met accidentally at the General Hospital, he was introduced to Priya, 31. She did not suffer from a disability, but came from a poor family. "My mother had no dowry to give," she says. "So, the chances of getting married were non-existent."

Rachel told Priya that Suresh may be blind, "but he is a good person." When Priya met Suresh, she did, indeed, like him and they decided to get married, under the aegis of the Prathyasha Foundation. Rachel had got them registered there. Later, the foundation gave her a sewing machine, so that Priya could earn a living as a tailor.

In their two-room house, at the back of a large house, at Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi, the sewing machine is placed at the centre of a bare room.

"I barely earn Rs 1000 a month from tailoring, while Suresh is jobless,” she says. “The monthly rent is Rs 1000 and the electricity bill is Rs 150. I was in financial difficulties before my marriage and nothing has changed thereafter."

She says this without bitterness and confirms she has no regrets about marrying a blind man. "I always had an empathy for the physically disadvantaged," she says.

For Suresh, apart from the humiliation of being unemployed, he is going through another agony. So far, he has been unable to consummate the marriage.

"To be impotent is a very painful experience," he says. "I am taking tablets, but, so far, there have been no signs of improvement. I am so keen to become a father." Priya says that the lack of a sex life is a problem, but her bigger worry is that they have no place to call their own.

There are different worries for the Thahas who live in the Kochi suburb of Vennala. "I was extremely tense on the day of my son's marriage with Sajitha," says Shamshuddin Thaha. From childhood, his son, Anshaf, 29, was unable to control his urine and needed to go to the toilet all the time. Whenever he went outside, a tube would be attached to a plastic packet.

It was not that Shamsuddin had been deceptive. He had informed Sajitha's elder brother about the disability, but he had kept mum: he wanted the marriage to go ahead. Till then, no man had been willing to marry the polio-afflicted Sajitha.

Like Sajitha, Anshaf had been born with a problem in his spine. A botched operation resulted in his legs becoming partially paralysed.

Shamshuddin knew that on the first day after the marriage Sajitha would become aware of 'the problem'.

"It was a shock when I saw the tube," says Sajitha. "But I have accepted Anshaf's disability. Nowadays, it is I who boil the tube to keep it in a hygienic state.” The loyal Sajitha has not told her parents about Anshaf’s malady.

Sajitha had met and liked Anshaf at the pre-marital meet held by the Prathyasha Foundation. "The only issue was that I was a year older, but Anshaf's family did not have a problem with that," she says.

Anshaf's mother, Ishabeeby, a former headmistress in a government school, says, "Prophet Mohammed was 25 when he married the 40-year-old Khadija. So, this marriage would have been pleasing to God."

The couple looks happy in the two-storeyed house which they share with Anshaf's parents, an elder brother and a younger sister. Sajitha has a small tailoring shop nearby, while Anshaf works at Prathyasha.

"We are able to make ends meet," she says. Both are happy they are not alone. "It is when you are going through problems in life that you appreciate the presence of a companion," says Anshaf. Sajitha nods.

Anshaf says their only problem now, after two years of marriage, is that they don't have any children. As he says this, there is a sudden silence in the room.

Finally, Ishabeeby says, "God will provide."

(Some names have been changed)

A Norwegian excursion

Nina Anderson, 32, is doing a TV and film course at the Westerdals School of Communication at Oslo, Norway. Every year, the class would go on a field trip to different countries. This year, the students felt that India would be an interesting country to visit.

Since Nina and fellow student, Mari Dotseth, 24, had been working with the disabled in Norway, they decided to make a documentary on the subject. Both of them searched the Internet and came across the Prathyasha Foundation at Kochi. So, they got in touch and arrived in January for a month's stay, accompanied by cameraman, Lars Braatho Rangtveit, 23.

"We focused on the work of the Foundation," says Nina. They were also inspired by the life of founder Simon George and traced his career, how he faced his sudden disability at age 21 and the reasons behind the setting up of the Foundation. "We also interviewed the people who received help," says Nina.

What struck the team was how difficult it was for the disabled to function in India. "In Norway, the government helps the disabled financially," she says. "Most of the buildings, parks and public transport have been designed in such a way that the disabled are able to get an easy access," she says. "This is not the case in India. The disabled seem to be ignored by everybody."

Asked about the most interesting event during their trip, Nina mentioned the pre-marital meet which they attended. "It is a unique concept," she says. "There is nothing like this in Norway. When we showed the clips in our school, the students were amazed."

The Pratyasha Foundation

Doing good work

All three couples and a few others like them are grateful to the Prathyasha Foundation (

The organisation was set up on June 25, 2004, by Simon George. At the age of 21, he had a mysterious illness and was paralysed from the waist downwards.

"Thanks to my disability, I realised I needed to do something for the physically challenged," he says. "In India, if you become physically challenged, you feel a sense of hopelessness. You are isolated from the family, society and from life itself."

George said that when he met up with disadvantaged people, they had two intense wishes. "One was the desire to get married and the other was to get a job," he says. "That was when I got the idea of starting a pre-marital meet where physically challenged men and women could come from all over Kerala and see whether they could find somebody suitable to marry."

In December, 2005, the first meet was held at Kochi and it became a huge success. Thereafter, seven meets have been held and more than 100 couples have tied the knot. George has plans to start a job fair and a rejuvenation centre.

Astonishingly, he says, the poor treat the physically challenged in a far humane manner than the middle and the affluent classes.

He tells a true story of two brothers in Calicut. "One is normal, while the other is physically challenged,” he says. “When the normal brother got married, he ensured that his brother did not tie the knot because that would mean the division of the property." Sometimes, he says, the normal brother tortures the other; the aim is to kill him off slowly.

Even parents are biased. "Physically disadvantaged children are not given an education, because parents feel there is no point in investing money on them," he says. "They are usually treated like servants, or hidden from view.”

Parents are also hesitant to say they have a physically challenged child. "In India, unlike in the West, the attitude towards the physically challenged is negative,” says George. “It is regarded as a curse. People are unwilling to ask for help, as they feel it will damage the image of the family."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Doomsday 2050?

If present trends in global warming continue, there is a strong possibility that Kochi will be partially inundated in the coming decades

By Shevlin Sebastian

M.R. Vishnu Prasad, 27, P. Neena, 23, and C. Shanuga, 22, stand on M.G. Road in Kochi on a Tuesday morning wearing green jackets with the word, ‘Greenpeace’ written in white on them.

They have booklets and green-coloured petitions which contain an appeal to coastal MPs to raise the point of global warming in an upcoming session of Parliament. “If present warming trends continue, there is a strong possibility that Kochi will be partially inundated in 2050,” says Vishnu.

And so they approach pedestrians with a mix of caution and bravado. Most say they don’t want to hear the spiel. Some point at their watches and say they are in a hurry, but Vishnu finally gets two young men, N. Nishant and Sebastian James, both 21, to stop and listen.

With enlarged eyes and forceful gesticulations, Vishnu explains the dangers of global warming and the problems that will befell Kochi. Eventually, the two young men sign the petitions that Vishnu proffers.

Later, Sebastian says, “I agree global warming is doing some damage to the earth, but it is difficult to believe Kochi will go under water.”

Nishant feels the people should take steps to prevent global warming. “But most of the citizens are selfish and not socially involved,” he says.

For the past few weeks, the international NGO, Greenpeace, has launched a campaign in Kochi called Blue Alert. Activists have put up blue hazard signs on Marine Drive, Vasco Da Gama Square in Fort Kochi and on Jews Street in Mattancherry with the words, 'Climate Change Zone Ahead'. On the signs are drawings of people drowning and of cars and buildings being submerged.

Activists also pasted 'Eviction 2050' notices on buildings on Marine Drive. “This is to warn the residents that these buildings will not survive in the year 2050, as the surging sea waters will inundate them,” says Greenpeace city coordinator, Shiju Raj.

Shiju says that more than 200 people participated in the Blue Solidarity March, organised by Greenpeace, on April 12 demanding action. “People responded because they understand that the state of the climate is a personal issue,” he says. “It is about their homes, and their children’s future.”

In fact, MPs like Dr K.S. Manoj and Francis K. George have promised to take up the issue in Parliament. Says George: “We have to show vision and leadership, since the future of our country and the people are at stake.”

At the present rate of global warming, there will be a rise of 4 to 5 degrees centigrade in world temperatures in the next few decades.

“This will lead to the breaking-up of glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and will contribute to the rise in sea levels,” says Somnath Narayan, Climate and Energy campaigner of Greenpeace-India.

According to Sudhir Chella Ranjan of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, a one metre rise in sea level will result in 6000 sq. km in India being flooded.

At the current rate of global warming, there is a strong possibility of a rise of 3 to 5 metres in sea levels in the next 40 years. “All coastal cities like Kochi, Kolkata and Mumbai are at risk of being inundated by 2050,” he says. “More than 125 million people will be rendered homeless.”

This will result in mass movements of entire villages, towns and cities away from the coast.

“It is likely that large inland cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad will have to be prepared to accommodate enormous numbers of migrants from the coast,” says Sudhir. “Also, coastal cities like Kochi would have lost trillions of dollars in terms of their existing physical and social capital.”

Somnath says that it is not just an environmental, but a humanitarian and an economic crisis, as well.

“Our monsoons are going to be unpredictable, our agriculture will be hit, wheat production could go down by 20 per cent,” he says. “The Himalayan glaciers that feed our river systems in the north are rapidly receding and this could mean that the Ganges could become a seasonal river in the coming decades!”

So, is global warning irreversible? “Yes, it is,” says Somnath. “But we have a window of less than eight years in which to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, the awareness of the climate crisis is at its infancy in India.”

So, what is the way out? Sudhir says a manageable rise of 2 degrees in centigrade will only lead to the displacement of 5 million people. “However, there has to be a commitment, not only at the State and the national level, but from all countries, industralised and developing, to cut down on their emissions.”

So, is the world listening or will we go blindly into Doomsday 2050?

Only time will tell.

What we can do

Change a bulb: Replace one regular incandescent bulb with a CFL. This can save 70 kgs of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year

Drive less: Walk, cycle, car pool or take public transport. You save 3 kg of CO2 for every kilometre you don’t drive.

Recycle more:
You can save a huge amount of CO2 by recycling material.

Check your tyres: Keep your tyres inflated properly. This can improve mileage by more than 3 per cent. Every litre of petrol saved keeps 3 kg of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Turn off electronic devices: Simply turning off your TV, stereo, DVD player and computer will save thousands of kgs of CO2 every year.

Stop cutting trees and plant more of them:
A single tree absorbs over 1 tonne of CO2 over its lifetime.


Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi

Those were the days

(A series on childhood memories)

Veteran journalist Leela Menon says the best part of her life was her childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, there was no milk in the house,” says veteran journalist Leela Menon. So, her mother, Janaki Amma, told her to go to her aunt’s house to get some milk. When Leela was returning through the paddy fields, she stumbled and half the milk spilled out. Fearing a scolding from Janaki Amma, Leela filled the container with water from the paddy field. “When I gave it to her, my mother said, ‘Why is the colour of the milk like this?’”

“I replied, ‘Nowadays, the cows are giving milk like this.’”

“She said, ‘Who told you this?’”

“‘Aunty,’ I replied.”

Janaki Amma went outside, pulled out a branch from the coffee tree and gave her a thrashing. “Don’t tell lies,” she said.

Leela smiles as she remembers the incident which took place so many decades ago. Her apartment at Kadavanthra is elegantly furnished: large paintings on a wall, brass mementoes against another wall, and a stunning black and white photograph of her in her younger days. In the balcony, there are several potted plants.

Here is another memory: One night, in her village of Vengola (7 kms from Perumbavoor), a group of people were returning from the temple. While the elders were walking behind, holding up burning coconut fronds, Leela and the other children ran on ahead. Suddenly, a large, yellow snake bit her on the leg. “I immediately started crying and shouted, ‘A snake has bitten me.’”

Leela was rushed home. At that time the nearest hospital was six kilometres away. “My neighbour and classmate, Kunhikrishnan, was sent to call for the visha vaidiyan (snake doctor),” she says.

As soon as the doctor saw the boy, he immediately guessed the type of snake and told Kunhikrishnan it was not as poisonous as the cobra. Apart from anti-venom medicine, the doctor gave instructions that Leela should not eat or sleep.

“The poison tends to move around in the body if you go to sleep,” says Leela. Hence, it was a sleepless night for Leela, but the next day she was okay.

However, Leela’s father, Neelakantan Kartha, was not okay. When she was two, he was struck by paralysis and remained bed-ridden for the rest of his life. Thereafter, the house revolved around Janaki Amma, who looked after the three children -- one boy and two girls -- and the six-acre property.

“My mother was a lovely person,” says Leela. “In the nights, she would hug me and go to sleep. Whenever there was lightning, she would hold me tight. She lavished attention on me, because I was the youngest.”

Leela also revelled in the attention and company of numerous cousins and friends who lived nearby. “We would wander around, plucking mangoes,” she says. “We used to run around and play on the swings which were set up on the trees.”

Thanks to the presence of several cows and goats, Leela developed a love for animals. “Some of the goats were my pets,” she says. “I used to call them Ramani, Sudha and, Bindu. When Bindu died, I cried a lot.”

Death was never far away in the life of the villagers. One day in 1939, she had gone to play at her aunt’s place when word was sent that her father was dying. “So my aunt brought me back,” she says. “The house was full of people.”

Leela, who was six at that time, could not understand what had happened. “In the afternoon, I saw wooden logs in the compound,” she says. Much later, at dusk, when all the people had left, Leela saw her mother standing at the door of the kitchen and staring at the dying embers of the funeral pyre.

“There was a look of utter desolation on her face,” says Leela. “I went and hugged her. She cried for a long time.” Her mother was only 36 years old when her father died at 52.

Seeing tragedy at such close quarters gave Leela the inner strength to surmount several physical and mental setbacks in her own life, including the death of her husband, Major M. Bhaskara Menon in 1996.

Today, as the first woman journalist in Kerala, she is a trail blazer. So, did she have this writing ambition when she was young?

“One day, a cousin, Sreedharan Chettan asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I replied that I just wanted a job, but I had no idea of the profession,” she says. When he asked how much salary Leela wanted, she replied, “Rs 120.” At that time it was the highest salary.

Amazingly, when Leela got her first job as a clerk at the Hyderabad General Post Office in 1949, her salary was Rs 120.

What you wish, that you get.

Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Creating a small niche

Publisher, Niche of Truth, tries to dispel the many misconceptions of Islam through books, cassettes and pamphlets

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 24, 2001, M. M. Akbar, the executive director of publisher Niche of Truth, had a debate about Islam and Hinduism with the then President of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Kerala unit), Dr. Puthezhath Ramachandran at Perunalmannal, Malappuram. About 10,000 people were in attendance.

Following the debate, Ramachandran told Akbar that the several misconceptions he had about Islam were cleared. “Imagine, the president of the VHP was telling me this,” says Akbar, 42. “So, that meant he did not know the real picture, even though he was fighting against Islam.” Ramachandran says, “It was an enlightening experience for me.”

Akbar says that in Kerala people live along segregated lines, and are ignorant about the beliefs of others. “Hence, there are so many misinterpretations, which lead to a clash between communities.”

To counter this, Niche of Truth was set up in 1990 in Malappuram. Subsequently, its headquarters has now been shifted to Kochi.

The aim, says Akbar, is to spread the message of Islam and remove apprehensions that the religion propagates terrorism and that jihad means the killing of non-Muslims. He says the message is propagated through books, CDs and pamphlets.

“We encourage people to ask questions about Islam and we give our responses,” he says. “We are aware that terrorist activities are taking place in the name of Islam and we are fighting against that.”

Ramchandran says that a few terrorists are creating the impression that every Muslim is a fanatic. “In fact, more than 90 per cent of the Muslims are peace-loving,” he says.

Niche of Truth publishes books which advocate the relevance of the Quran in modern life, the necessity of religion in the era of science, and the authenticity of the Holy Book.

However, at the book fair at ‘Salvation-the international exhibition of Islam’ at the JN International Stadium at Kochi a few weeks ago, it was interesting to see that there were as many CDs as books.

“People are reading less these days,” says Akbar, with a smile. “The CDs sells more than the books. People do not want to strive to get knowledge. It seems to me they are just lazy.”

But Akbar is not lazy. In fact, he is keen to change the negative perception of Islam, which, he feels, is being propagated by the mainstream media.

“The media in India is a product of globalisation,” he says. “In globalisation, Islam is enemy No. 1. The Western bias is being followed by the Indian media. We are doing our best to clear the falsehoods, but the negativity continues.”

The Niche of Truth office is on the third floor of the Salafi Cultural Complex, near Vytilla. Inside, on shelves, books and CDs are on sale. On one side, there is the office of Snehasamvadan, a monthly magazine.

On the opposite side, is the Creative Media section where the CDs and the documentaries are made, a research unit, a recording studio, an administrative section, as well as a library.

“We have Muslim and non-Muslim visitors who come to the library,” says Nabeel Mohammed V, who works at Niche.

Apart from publishing original works, Niche also does several translations. Says Shameem K. Hashim: “We usually translate world-famous Islamic books into Malayalam. The last book I translated is called, ‘From my sisters’ lips’ by Na’ima B. Robert.”

Born in Britain, Nai’ma, a black of South African descent, embraced Islam and, as the synopsis in says, the book ‘recounts the compelling story of her conversion, and also offers first-hand accounts of some of the extraordinary Muslim women she has come to know in recent years - women like herself who have chosen to live behind the veil.’

However, the best-selling book for Niche is ‘The authenticity of Quran’ written by Akbar himself. “Around 10,000 copies have been sold,” he says. “In the book, I answer many criticisms against Islam and the Quran.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Write Stuff

Author Shinie Antony makes a mark with her latest collection of short stories, ‘Séance on a Sunday Afternoon’

By Shevlin Sebastian

The story, ‘The Sofa’, in Shinie Antony’s latest book, ‘Séance on a Sunday Afternoon’, starts off with an old man peeling off what he thinks is his socks, but it is actually his skin.

“That image came from nowhere,” says Shinie, 42. “The old man remained in my mind for a long time till I had to question as to what he was doing and what had happened to him.” She says that these characters are phantoms who “want their stories to be told. They badger me inside my head.”

Shinie listens to the badgering and puts down what they have to say. The end result: Séance, her third short story collection, 22 tales in all, published by Rupa, is intriguing and gripping. “Writing is very painful for me,” she says. “It is like torturing yourself. A short story is squeezed out of me.”

When she says this, there is a palpable sense of relief that the book is over as she sits in a coffee shop at Kochi and sips a Café Nirvana. The Bangalore-based author is in town with her family (husband Dean Mathew, daughters Nimisha, 13, and Mihika, 8) for a weekend stay with her parents.

Despite the stress, Shinie has been writing steadily. Her first book of short stories, ‘Barefoot and Pregnant’, published by Rupa in 2002, contained the story, ‘A Dog’s Death’ which won a Highly Commended Award in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association short story competition of 2001. The next year, she won the Asian Award in the same competition for the story, ‘Somewhere in Gujarat’.

Her next books were both released in 2005. One, a novel, ‘Kardamom’s Kisses’, was published by Rupa, while ‘Planet Polygamous’, 36 short stories about infidelity, was published by Indialog.

So, is infidelity a widespread phenomenon in urban India? “Yes it is,” says Shinie, who has been happily married to Dean for 14 years. “I know a lot of women who have had affairs and, at any given opportunity they are full of complaints about the spouse, unaware that they themselves are not putting in 100 per cent in the relationship.”

She says most of the stories in the book are based on true incidents. “I had a couple confide in me, simultaneously, that they were having affairs,” she says. “But the marriage survived.”

As to the reasons for infidelity, Shinie says the consumerist culture is having its effect on relationships. “People want to put the card into the ATM machine and want cash, loyalty and fun, but everything has to come from the other side,” she says. “They are not looking at how much they have to put into it.”

Shinie, on the other hand, is committed to her relationships and her writing. The daughter of a Navy officer, she grew up in Mumbai, Delhi, Lakshwadeep and Kochi, where she spent five years and graduated in literature from St. Teresa’s College.

It was, as expected, God’s Own Country which has had the most impact on her psyche. “The sense of belonging I feel in Kerala, I can’t get that anywhere else,” she says. “I can take the backwaters, as well as the lecherousness. The men in Kerala have a Ph.d in staring.”

Shinie remembers the time when she had gone for a film with a few of her college friends. When they came out, they saw a wall of grinning men standing in front waiting to go in for the next show. “There was no way we could get through without being pawed,” she says.

Shinie had an unexpected reaction: she sat down on the ground and began weeping. Immediately, the guards and a lone policeman cleared a path, so that the girls could go out. “You begin to see sexuality as something creepy,” she says. “The male libido in Kerala is like a can of kerosene. It only needs a match.”

Sometimes, these experiences do light up the match of creativity in her. So, how much of her fiction is autobiographical?

“No writer sets out to write anything personal,” she says. “You take great pains to separate your life from the fiction you are writing, although there are certain nuances and reactions that are unmistakably you.”

Thanks to an original voice and a lucid style, Shinie, a former journalist, who is now a full-time writer has a rising national reputation.

Says Trisha Bora, her editor at Rupa: “Shinie has the ability to flesh out her characters very well. Most of her stories deal with life in a city and, hence, urban readers feel connected to it.”

At the launch of Séance, a few weeks ago, painter Anjali Ela Menon described it as a 21st century book. “Shinie belongs to a bold and courageous generation,” she says. “Séance is unputdownable.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hail Helvetica!

It’s the font that became the most widely used typeface in the 20th century. A film on it was screened in Kochi recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1957, Eduard Hoffmann, a director of the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, asked Max Miedinger, a former employee and freelance designer, to design a new font. Hoffmann wanted a sans-serif typeface that could compete with the popular Akzidenz Grotesk typeface. After a year of effort, with frequent inputs from Hoffmann, Miedinger came up with Helvetica.

The word, Helvetica, is a derivative of Helvetia, the Latin name for Switzerland. Within a matter of years, Helvetica became the most widely used sans serif typeface of the 20th century.

In 2006, filmmaker Gary Hustwit decided to make a film on the typeface. On the web site (, he gives the reasons why: “Since millions of people see and use Helvetica every day, I wondered, how a typeface drawn by a little-known Swiss designer become one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words fifty years later?”

Helvetica is a gripping 80-minute film on the powerful impact of the font worldwide. Shot in New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich and London, it contains interviews with noted graphic designers like Erik Spiekermann, Wim Crouwel and Massimo Vignelli.

Italian designer Vignelli says, “Helvetica the king of all fonts.” While designer Michael Bierut says, “Helvetica is everywhere. It’s like air. You can’t help breathing it in.”

The film has been screened in 150 cities and last week it was shown in Kochi by Design and People and Open Eyed Dreams, an art promotion house. Sethu Dass, of Design and People, says that even though Helvetica is Europe’s contribution to typeface, it has been controversial.

“Thanks to its clean and neutral look, many companies, like Coke, which supported the Vietnam War, used this font, to give a good impression of itself,” he says. Designer Paula Scher says, “Helvetica is the font of the Vietnam War.”

Apart from Coke, some of the other companies, which adopted Helvetica, include Nestle, Intel, American Airlines, Lufthansa, Toyota, Microsoft and Panasonic.

In Kochi, there is a mixed crowd of graphic designers, architects, web designers and human rights activists who have come to watch the film.

Mathewkutty J. Mattam, who runs a graphic design shop, Blackboard, says he had heard about Helvetica during his college days. “But I really understood its impact only when I saw this film,” he says.

Mathewkutty uses Helvetica often because it is a neutral font. That means it can go along with any text or visual. “For example, if you put the word ‘love’ in Helvetica, and when you look at it, you can experience that emotion,” he says. “That is one of its strengths. It is a legible font: easy to read from close and from afar. It is good for logos and signboards.”

Vinod Laxman, a lecturer in applied art at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, says that Helvetica is the most readable font in the world.

“Fonts are the visual elements of any language,” he says. “I always tell my students that whatever they write should be clear and Helvetica fits the bill perfectly.”

Architect Raj Menon says the interesting part about the film was how it showed that Helvetica was accepted whole-heartedly in the sixties and seventies, but “later, there was a negative reaction to it. Then, in the nineties, people sort of began coming back to the spirit of Helvetica."

Menon also liked the way the history of the font was traced out. "It was quite mind-boggling how something as simple as a font became such a strong character in the film and in life,” he says.

The audience reaction has been strongly positive across the world and, as expected, the most intense reaction came from Switzerland.

Journalist Sukhdev Sandhu in London’s Daily Telegraph quotes director Gary Hustwit: "There were 800 people at the after-screening party at Zurich which went on till 6 a.m. They had a giant mirrored 'H' that was spinning above the dance floor with laser lights pointed at it. It was bizarre."

Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi

Sunday, June 22, 2008


(A series on childhood memories)

Mohamed Ali, the chairman of Mfar Group of Companies at Kochi, exhibited fearlessness throughout his childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when Mohamed Ali was returning home from school, he saw a gold chain lying on the ground. “I picked it up and started playing with it,” he says. “A neighbour’s wife saw this, realized the value, and immediately took the necklace to my grandmother, Umhani.”

Umhani passed the information to the owner of the village grocery shop, where everybody congregated for evening shopping. He pasted a notice stating that a necklace had been found.

It turned out that a woman had borrowed the necklace to wear it for a wedding and it had slipped from her neck. “She was on the verge of committing suicide, because she could not bear the loss of the necklace,” says Ali.

The chairman of the Mfar Group of Companies gives an impression of quiet confidence, as he sits in his spacious office at the Le Meridien Hotel at Kochi. Through his wall-length glass-paned window you can see manicured lawns and a cool blue swimming pool. This environment is a far cry from Ali’s beginnings in the remote village of Talikulam in Thrissur district.

“Our family was better off than the other villagers in terms of land holdings,” he says. “So, there were plenty of mango, coconut and cashew trees.”

His father was a farmer, and the main source of income was coconuts. But the drawback was that there was not much of liquidity. “Sometimes, when we needed money desperately, it was not there,” he says. “Those were hard times. But my needs were limited. So, I never asked for money.”

There was not much scope to spend it. Interestingly, at that time, family members, especially children, were discouraged from eating from outside. “There was a certain taboo attached to it,” he says.

But that did not mean Ali did not have fun. Groups of children – neighbours, friends and classmates – would wander around, plucking mangoes, climbing trees, going for swims and playing all sorts of games like kolu kalli.

“I was always the winner,” he says. “I was brave and fearless and unafraid to take up challenges.”

Ali says his father was like this. “So, maybe, I have inherited these traits,” he says.

His fearlessness was well known in the family. So, whenever there was a need to call the midwife in the middle of the night and even though he would have to cross two graveyards to reach her house, it was Ali who set out.

“During those times, there was a lot of talk about ghosts and demons,” he says. “So, nobody dared to walk through a graveyard at night, but I had no fear.” In fact, he never even carried a light, and would find his way with the help of the moonlight.

Like the previous personalities who have appeared in ‘Rare View’, Ali also feels he has had a better childhood than his children. “We were in direct touch with nature and experienced life in the raw,” he says. “We walked barefoot to school and got wet in the rain. Our parents did not get upset, like they do today.”

In contrast, Ali’s children grew up in Muscat. “In a city, you have a house and a compound and the children have to wander about there,” he says. “We did not have the gadgets that children have today, but I think we experienced more enjoyment.”

What was also a source of joy were the rare occasions when he got a chance to travel in the only car in the village: a black Chevrolet owned by a man whom everyone called ‘Uncle’.

“We would hire this car whenever we would have to go for a wedding,” he says. “I remember that at least thirteen people would fit inside the car.”

Like the top-quality Chevrolet, Ali was always in the top five in the class. Asked who had been the biggest influence on him during his childhood, Ali says, “My grandmother. She had tremendous leadership qualities and had the final say on many occasions, especially during emergencies.”

Sadly, she died when Ali was only seven years old. But he says, he is not a forceful leader like her. “I am softer,” he says. His grandfather and his father were kind people, and he says he is more like them.

His brother-in-law M.M. Abdul Basheer confirms this: “Ali treats everyone – whether rich or poor – with the same degree of respect. He also has a sharp and analytical mind, and a powerful memory.”

All these traits, which made its first appearance in his childhood, have combined to make Mohammed Ali, 59, the successful businessman he is today.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's a dog's world

The four-member dog squad at the Cochin International Airport is on high alert for explosives and other such devices

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, a few months ago, dog handler Solomon Raja gets a call from the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at the Cochin International airport. There is a beeping sound in a luggage hold of the economy class of a Jet Airways flight coming from Mumbai.

When the aircraft lands, it is taken to the isolation wing and the passengers are evacuated. Then Solomon enters the aircraft with Paro, a four-year-old Black Labrador.

"Paro sniffs around the cabin, and indicates to me that there are no explosives, but the beep continues," says Solomon. Later, the bomb disposal squad opens the luggage hold and finds a toy.

"Apparently, it starts beeping when the battery is low," says dog consultant Col. Rajasekharan Nair. "The stewards did not want to question anybody about the sound, as it could create a panic situation.” Hence, only the captain is informed and he promptly relays the message to the ATC at Kochi.

The dog squad, under the supervision of Col. Nair, was established in September, 2007. "In order to have a foolproof security system, explosive detection is an inevitable part of the work," says airport director A.C.K. Nair. "Using dogs is the most effective method."

A more mundane reason is that the airport depends on the Tripunithara-based dog squad of the Kerala Police. "If there is a bomb scare, it takes two hours to get the dogs to the airport," says Muralidharan Nair, senior manager, security. "Nowadays, we are having VIP movements daily. Hence, there is a need to sanitise different areas all the time."

The air-conditioned dog kennel is one side of the airport. There are four dogs – two Black Labradors, Paro and Rambhi, and two Golden Labradors, Charlie and Ivy. Their individual handlers – Solomon Raja, S.S. Bhagat, Baiju Varghese and P.S. Sumesh – work for the Central Industrial Security Force.

Asked why the Labrador breed was chosen, Col. Nair says, "It is intelligent, easy to train and has a calm temperament."

Of the four dogs, Paro and Rambhi were bought, fully trained, from the Army Dog Training School at Meerut at a price of Rs. 1, 26,000 each. The other two were bought as puppies at Rs 15,000 each from Coimbatore and were flown, with its handlers, to the training facility of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police at Chandigarh.

Asked about the work profile, Col. Nair says, "The dogs are trained to detect various types of conventional explosives: RDX, TNT, PETN, plastic explosives, cordite and gun powder.” However, the handlers have to keep making the dogs smell the various types of explosives, because they tend to forget, like human beings.

In the mornings and evenings, the dogs are taken, two at a time, to the airport to sniff at various pieces of luggage. Interestingly, the dogs can only work for 45 minutes at a stretch.

"They get tired because sniffing is a very intense job,” says dog handler Baiju Varghese. “That is why we are building up its stamina." So, in the off-duty hours, the dogs have to walk and jog and run through an obstacle course.

Col. Nair says dogs seldom make mistakes. But sometimes, as it happened during the failed terrorist attack at London’s Heathrow airport last year, you could get past a dog check if you use a new material, like glycerine. "Certain shampoos are now being used by terrorists," he says. "So, we have to train the dogs to identify the new smells."

Asked what advantage dogs have over human beings, in terms of smell, Col. Nair says, "Human beings have 5 million receptor cells in their noses, while dogs have 225million."

In the kennel building, each dog stays in a long, narrow room. It is bare, clean, sound-proofed and the air-conditioner is humming at 23 degrees centigrade.

"Air-conditioning is needed as temperature variations, moisture and dust has to be avoided,” says director Nair. “If it gets too hot, or if the dog hears the sound of airplanes, it gets stressed out and will not be able to work at an optimal level."

But Col. Nair says the dogs are doing a good job. And at first glance, it is clear there is a bond between the handlers and the dogs. "Dogs are almost human in their emotions,” says Sumesh. “If a dog is happy with its handler, it will remain cheerful and work well.”

Asked whether they prefer the company of cheerful dogs to human beings, they all nod and Col. Nair quotes playwright George Bernard Shaw: "A dog is superior to a man in that it has a fair share of man's intelligence, but none of his meanness."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

There’s no such thing as a free ride!

Women Travelling Ticket Examiners face resistance from travellers and an occasional sexist remark as they go about their jobs

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is raining in torrents at Ernakulam South station on a Monday morning, but that does not deter Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) Ann Mary Sydna D’Cruze, 36.

She jumps into a sleeper bogie of the 6041 Chennai-Alleppey Express and starts checking tickets. The men passengers look with surprise because she is a woman, but they comply silently.

Ann zips through each compartment, checking, signing and returning the ticket, all in one smooth movement. For a couple of male passengers who are sleeping on the upper bunks, she prods them with the tip of her pen. So far, everybody has tickets.

She goes into the next bogie: all is legal. Then the next bogie: no ticket-less travelers. In the fourth bogie, she turns to her boss, M.A. Varghese, chief ticket inspector, anti-fraud squad, who is accompanying her, and says, “Sir, we will have to move on to another train.”

He nods and they get down at a sleepy station, Turavur, and jump into the 334 Kayamkulam-Ernakulam Passenger, which is going to Ernakulam. And, immediately, Ann strikes gold.

“I was late,” says Nancy Thomas, 42. “So, I had no option but to rush into the train at Mararikulam without a ticket. But I have just told my son to buy a ticket for me.” Ann says, “I am sorry but you have to pay a fine of Rs 270.”

Nancy enlarges her eyes in shock and says, “Why are you harassing me? Don’t you have a mother or sisters? Why can’t you show some consideration?”

Ann is unfazed. “How much money do you have?”

Nancy opens her purse and shows a Rs 20 and a Rs 10 note. Varghese says, “Please deposit the money tomorrow at our office at Ernakulam South, otherwise, you will be prosecuted.”

Meanwhile, Ann opens a pad called the ‘statement of understanding’ and asks for the address and telephone numbers. But Nancy is suffering from amnesia. “I don’t know the pin-code,” she says. “We don’t have a phone at home.”

Ann says in a polite but determined voice, “If you don’t give me the proper details or pay the fine, you can be jailed.” Finally, Nancy’s resistance crumbles and she supplies the correct information.

Later, Ann says, “I am sure her son is not on the train. She may have been traveling ticket-less for a long time but, today, her luck has run out.”

In the next bogie, Joy George’s luck has also run out. “My friend, Prasad, has my ticket,” he says to Ann. But Prasad, who is sitting a few seats away, has only one ticket.

Varghese asks the 18-year-old, who is wearing a skin-tight T-shirt and a steel necklace, to pay up. Joy takes out a ten rupee note and says, “That’s all I have.”

By this time, a small crowd of curious passengers gathers around. Varghese tells Joy about the problems he will face if he does not pay the fine.

Prasad suddenly says, “We will pay,” and proffers a Rs 100 note to Varghese, a clear bribe. But the chief inspector brushes his hand away and says, with an unflinching gaze, “The amount is Rs 270.”

Prasad and Joy exchange glances. Then, reluctantly, Joy takes out a purse from his trouser pocket and pulls out Rs 100, while Prasad gives Rs 200 and the fine is paid.

It is a good day for Ann. She catches six ticket-less travelers in three bogies, but two of them -- Rajeev Menon and Sailesh Yadav -- are caught, just as the train reaches Ernakulam South station. So, they accompany her to the TTEs room, which is near the entrance.

Inside, there are several other TTEs sitting around and there is loud banter and laughter. A peon brings several cups of coffee and biscuits. As Ann notes down Rajeev’s address, he says sheepishly, “I forget to carry my season ticket today.” Ann tells him to pay the fine the next day.

Sailesh, from Patna, who works as a foreman in a construction firm, deposits Rs 240 and says he will pay the remaining amount the next day. They leave and Ann sighs, as she sips her coffee. After a brief rest, she will set out again.

During the eight-hour shift, she gets in and out of four trains. And on most days, she gets an average of two passengers per train. But she is glad she did not get an extreme reaction from passengers, like what happened to her colleague, Bindu Mathew, recently.

One morning, Bindu, 32, is checking tickets on the Island Express. Through the corner of her eye, she notices a young man -- who is sitting with a group of nursing students from Bangalore -- move towards the door. In one swift movement he jumps off and lands on the gravel and rolls for a while. When he gets up, there is blood on his face and hands. “Thankfully, the train is not going fast,” says Bindu.

Later, the nursing students tell her that the youth had boasted to the girls that he is a successful businessman from Bangalore. “So, probably, faced with the embarrassment of being exposed as a ticket-less traveler, he had taken this extreme step,” she says. “Many passengers do this.”

Apart from the men, there are several ticket-less travellers in the ladies’ bogie. “Most women feel there will be no checking,” says Bindu’s colleague, S. Sreedevi. “However, once they are caught, the majority pay up quickly.”

Several TTEs say they rarely face any problems from ordinary people; instead, they face stiff resistance from the educated and affluent people. “They want to wear us down by arguing and by hinting that we may be pocketing the fine,” says Jiji Balan.

Others who don’t pay are college students. “Most of the time, they only carry an ATM card,” says Ann. So, at the next major station, the TTE will get down with the youngsters, so that they can withdraw the money from the ATM.

If they do not have an ATM card, the youth will have to go home or to one of their relative’s house and get the money. “We lose one or two hours waiting for these passengers,” says Ann.

Like in any job, they also encounter problems. “There is eve teasing,” admits Bindu. “Sometimes, a man will make a suggestive comment, but I ignore it. If I try to make a hullabaloo, the other passengers will hear about it and it is not worth the trouble. Secondly, I will be wasting time.”

Time-management is important to these women who have to handle the hassles of managing a home and a career. Surprisingly, they also face problems from the weather. “The rainy season is the most difficult,” says Jiji. “Because, despite having an umbrella, we always get wet, when we go from the reserved to the general compartment, and when we cross platforms, to get into another train.”

Whatever the problems, these women TTE’s are determined to extract their pound of flesh for a simple reason: every month they have to meet a target of Rs 15,000; hence, the need to nail every transgressor.

To ensure that they are successful, they wear ordinary clothes, instead of the distinctive white uniform of the TTE. (Incidentally, in Kerala, there are no regular women TTEs. In fact, all of them work in the anti-fraud section).

So, come rain or shine, they are focused on their daily cat and mouse game with passengers. So, what is the advice they would give passengers? “Please pay the fine,” they plead in unison. “We cannot understand why people would want to risk going to jail, or lose an arm or a leg or even their lives, rather than pay a fine which, usually, does not exceed Rs. 300.”

Varghese remembers a group of football lovers who had come to watch a match at Ernakulam and took a train to return to Aluva, 30 kms away. None of them had tickets. When he confronted them, all seven rushed to the door and jumped off, one by one. “Sadly, the last man slipped and fell under the wheels,” he says. “Please pay the fine!”

(Some names have been changed)

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Looking back with pleasure

(A series on childhood memories)

Despite suffering from mild dyslexia, Kochuouseph Chittilappilly had an enjoyable childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

Kochuouseph Chittilappilly was sitting on the last bench in Class three at St. John's Primary school at Parappur, near Thrissur. Behind him was a bamboo partition and on the other side sat the students of Class four.

Suddenly, he noticed a girl's long plait was trailing under the partition. As Gopalakrishnan Master droned on, Kochuouseph lifted the end of the plait and tied it around a nail on the partition.

Soon, classes ended, and when the girl tried to stand up she fell over backwards and landed on the floor. "There was a hullabaloo and I was caught," says Kochuouseph. "But what saved me from a severe punishment was that my cousin sister, Alice, was a close friend of that girl, and so, she did not create a fuss."

More than half a century later, a boyish grin breaks out on the face of the managing director of V-Guard Industries Ltd., as he recalls the incident, while sitting in his palatial house, besides National Highway 47 at Kochi.

More memories tumble out. When he was in Class two, the class teacher would take the help of children to grow vegetables in the backyard of the school.

"We would plant the seeds and water it regularly," he says. But when the vegetables were ready the teacher would take it home or give some to his colleagues. “We did the work while the teachers enjoyed the fruits," he says.

Before joining school, he was taught at home by a retired teacher called Panicker Master. Kochuouseph was a natural left-hander, but Panicker compelled him to write with the right hand.

"I found it very difficult," says Kochuouseph. "Every time I wrote with my left hand, he would force me to use the other hand. As a result, my handwriting is still poor."

This forced change might have contributed to the mild dyslexia he has suffered throughout his life. "When I write the number 92, it comes out as 29," he says. "This happens even now. So, I always have to re-check whatever I write."

Although it hampered him in school, he never failed in a subject or a class. "I would just take more time than the others to finish my exams," he says. "There would be a lot of scratches and crosses in my answer sheet."

But Kochuouseph says that despite these minor problems, he had a happy childhood. And the summer holidays was the highlight of the year. Because then, he, along with his five brothers and sisters, would be taken to his mother's house at Njarakkal in the Vypeen Islands.

"We went by train to Ernakulam and then took a boat from the high court jetty," he says. "I still remember the train journey. The noise of the steam engine and the way the levers moved was very exciting. I would look out of the window and my face would get blackened because of the coal dust."

The Njarakkal property was large and there was an army of cousins present and they would play games, like ball badminton, and go fishing in the canal which flowed at the back of the property.

"When we returned from the summer holidays, the teacher would say, ‘Has anybody traveled on a train?’" says Kochuouseph. "I would be the only one to raise my hand. Then he would ask, ‘Has anybody traveled by boat?’ and once again I would raise my hand."

It was a comfortable life for the family, because his father was a prosperous farmer. But Kochuouseph was keenly aware that the other children were not having it easy.

He remembers the time when the school planned an excursion to the Peechi dam. “The teachers said they would need at least 50 children, but even in a school of 1200, that was not possible,” he says. “Money was scarce and, at that time, parents felt that this was a luxury.” So, for many years, the trips had to be cancelled.

But Kochuouseph did not mind. He spent his spare time repairing gadgets. “I was a technically-oriented person,” he says. And he put that knowledge to good use.

During Christmas, one year, he made a crib. “I had attached a switch in such a way that when you placed your hand on the baby Jesus, a bulb would light up,” he says. “I was only 11 years old.”

However, his sister, Achamma, who is a year older, says that when Kochuouseph was not tinkering with gadgets, he was always playing some prank or the other.

“He would get a lot of beatings from my parents,” she says. “I used to feel sad about it.” But Kochuouseph looks back with affection. “Even though my parents were strict, I could sense their love for us children.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to check your mate!

Lev Psakhis, one of the foremost chess coaches in the world, gives lessons to Kerala’s first grandmaster, G.N. Gopal

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 p.m. on a Friday, Israeli chess coach Lev Psakhis, 49, leans back in his chair and runs his hands through his dishevelled hair. It has been a long and intense day for him. In his hotel room at Kochi, there are CDs placed haphazardly on the bed, a half-open novel -- ‘Hyperion’ by Dan Simmons -- and a laptop. On a low table, there is a chess set, with green and white squares and cream-coloured pieces.

Sitting opposite Psakhis, looking cool and composed is G.N. Gopal, 19, Kerala’s first grandmaster, who is ranked No. 7 in India. Thanks to Geojit Financial Services Ltd., which has paid for the expenses of Psakhis, Gopal is being tutored for a month. “Gopal had wanted to be trained by a foreign coach, so we decided to help him,” says Jaya Jacob Alexander, the chief of human resources at Geojit.

T.M.S. Nampootiripad, Gopal’s first coach, says that Psakhis is one of the foremost coaches in the world. “He has a phenomenal memory,” he says. “He can recall every move in all the games that the former world champion Bobby Fischer had played in twenty years.”

So what is Psakhis teaching the youngster? “Gopal’s primary weakness is his inexperience,” he says. “So, I am passing on some tips that I have gained from my many years of international competition.”

Gopal says that since he is an attacking player, Psakhis is working on strengthening his defence and positional play. “He is also teaching me on how to make the right decisions during the critical moments of a game,” he says.

Another key area is the control of emotions. “The coach says that Asians tend to be over-emotional at all times,” says Gopal. “This is a genetic quality. Sometimes, this is good, and, sometimes, it is bad. However, it is better to be calm.”

The Russian-born Psakhis, who was once ranked World No. 7, was a calm player. In 1981, he was joint Soviet champion with Garry Kasparov. Later, Psakhis, who migrated to Israel in 1989, assisted Kasparov in his preparations for the world championships duel with Anatoly Karpov.

So, what does he think of Kasparov, who retired from chess in March, 2005? “He was the greatest player in history,” he says. “He was talented, self-motivated, and worked very hard. However, he had trouble in maintaining relationships. You may like or dislike him as a person, but as a player, he was supreme.”

When asked to compare Kasparov and Vishwanathan Anand, Psakhis says, “Both are strong players, but they are completely different.”

According to most media accounts, Kasparov destroyed Anand psychologically during the 1995 World Championship match at New York. “Kasparov is a killer,” says Psakhis. “He tries to finish off a rival forever, but Anand kills only for the match and does not mind facing the rival again.”

But Psakhis says that Anand has recovered strongly from the defeat and is a respected world champion. “There are no arguments about Anand’s stature,” he says.

Gopal listens intently to Psakhis. Every day, this lanky college student comes from his home at Aluva and starts training with the coach at 10 a.m. For the past few days, they have been doing an in-depth analysis of well-known games. The hours pass in a blur. “Sometimes, we have lunch only at 3 p.m.,” says Gopal. “After a two-hour break, we work again for two hours.”

As a result of this intensive labour, Psakhis has been unable to see Kochi. “Nine hours with Gopal and before he comes, I prepare for three hours,” says Psakhis. “It is work, work, and more work.” However, Gopal says, “For Psakhis, chess is a passion.”

After this stint, Psakhis’ next assignment is in Kozhikode where he will coach the Indian team, which includes Gopal, for the Chess Olympiad that will be held in November in Dresden, Germany.

Asked why, apart from Anand, no Indian player has made much of an impact at the international level, the coach says, “It is because of a lack of exposure. The more you play against foreign players, the better you will become.”

He says the situation will improve because, thanks to the rising affluence, Indian players are taking part in many more international competitions.

At this moment, he says, apart from Anand, only three players have reached the international level: K. Sasikaran, P. Harikrishna, and Koneru Humpy.

And Gopal is hoping to be the next player. “My immediate goal is to reach 2,600 ELO points. At this moment, I have 2,562 points. And, of course, my long-term goal is to reach the Top 10.”

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

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The heart of the matter

(A series on childhood memories)

Cardiac specialist, Jose Chacko Periappuram, talks about beatings in school and the death of a younger brother

By Shevlin Sebastian

At St. Paul’s school in Ettumanoor, Jose Chacko Periappuram sat on a jute dustbin by accident. The dustbin, as expected, was flattened. The teacher complained to the headmistress, a nun. The next day, in front of the assembly, Jose was asked to come on stage. The nun made a sign and a peon bought another dustbin.

Then she said, “Jose, do show the assembly how you sat on a dustbin.” As he was about to sit down, the nun gave a whack with the cane. Thereafter, she followed it with several strikes, as the students and teachers sniggered.

“It was cruel and degrading,” says Jose, 49, one of the leading heart specialists in the city. Later, the humiliation continued when he returned to class and his classmates took turns in making fun of him.

In his air-conditioned chamber at Lisie Hospital, in Kochi, where he is the chief cardiac surgeon, as nurses hovered around and several people waited patiently to talk to him, Jose travelled easily into the distant past.

Here is another memory: one day, during class, he began to draw an image of a boy with horns sticking out from his head. The first few drawings did not come up to expectations, so he carried on making more figures. Suddenly, the teacher said, “Jose, what are you doing?” Then, she looked at the drawings and said, “You have done 19 drawings of devils, and there are 19 teachers.”

The teacher took offence and even though Jose protested his innocence, she complained to the principal. He was hauled up in front of the assembly and given another beating. “Too much punishment has a negative effect,” he says.

But it was not all sadness and reprimands. During the summer holidays he would go and spend time at his grandfather’s farm in Piravom. There were pigs, ducks, hens and cows, apart from 100 acres under paddy cultivation.

And Jose, along with his cousins, tilled the fields, plucked tapioca, and collected chillies. “We would also go to the nearby hills to collect fruit,” he says. “But there was an ever-present danger of snake bites. People had died because of it.”

But the elders did not prevent the children from going. “Remember this was the time when there were no pagers or telephones or mobiles,” he says. “There were very few hospitals and public transport was rare. So, if you suffered a snake bite, there was a good chance you could die.” But the children went ahead and had a good time.

“At that time, the air was pure,” he says. “When we returned, we did not eat burgers but healthy food like rice and jackfruit.” He says that, nowadays, children are missing out on childhood. “They feel more at home with computers and laptops,” says this father of three boys. “They live future-oriented lives. To be honest, my childhood has been far better than those of my children.”

It was an enjoyable childhood, indeed, but it was marred by tragedy. His younger brother, Kuriachan, died of a skin infection when he was four years old. “At that time, infant mortality was high,” says Jose.

He remembers his late father, Prof. P.M. Chacko, a former principal of St. Thomas College, Pala, saying, “Our son has gone to heaven to bless and look after us.”

Thereafter, for many years, Jose prayed to Kuriachan when he was going through difficult times. And whenever he went anywhere, via Paravoor, he would pray at his brother’s grave at St. John’s church. “I always feel he is protecting me,” he says.

Jose, himself, escaped death by a whisker. One day his father and uncles – one of them was the famous Fr. Abel, the founder of Kala Bhawan -- had gone to swim in a nearby lake at Piravom.

They asked Jose, then six years old, to sit on the edge of the bank. When his father looked up after a while, Jose was missing. The uncles thought he had gone back home.

“But suddenly, my father saw my head bob in the water,” says Jose. He went down again and it was only when he had come up for the third time that his father was able to reach him.

“There is a belief that after coming up for the third time, the person usually drowns, but, by the grace of God, I was saved,” he says.

He was saved, he thought, to become a priest. That was his initial ambition. But, instead, he has become a celebrated cardiac surgeon, who performed Kerala’s first heart transplant surgery. “Just like a priest does spiritual healing, similarly, I do physical healing,” says the chairman of the Heartcare Foundation.

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

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Entering the Dragon’s land

A group of Rajagiri Public School students, along with a teacher, went on a fortnight-long trip to China

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Rajagiri Public School teacher, Cisily George, met Ming Ping, 13, at the Baoding Eastern Bilingual School in China, she asked her whether she would like to come to India. “My father told me to say no,” said Ming.

When Cisily asked why, the girl said, “In India, there are plenty of hungry people.”

After a few days, Ming gave a lollipop to Cisily. “Thereafter, she gave a lollipop every day,” says Cisily. “When we were leaving, she hugged me and cried and said she would surely come to India one day.”

Cisily and seven teenage students – four girls and three boys – went on a fortnight-long cultural exchange trip to one of the largest private schools in China. Baoding is situated in Hebei province, 120 kms from Beijing.

Nearly 80 per cent of the 2,100 students are boarders. There are also international students from Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia, Norway and Russia. Asked why foreign students come, Cisily gives the example of Bahadur, a 14-year old Russian boy, who wants to become a diplomat. “He says that since China is going to be the next superpower, it will be an advantage if he knows how to write and speak in Chinese,” says Cisily.

For the Rajagiri students, the trip is a revelation. “The classes start at 7.15 a.m.,” says Esther George. “At 11.30 a.m., there is a lunch break. Following that, the children go to their rooms and can rest or study till 2.15 p.m.”

The next session lasts till 4.30 p.m. Thereafter, there is a break, which includes dinner at 5 p.m., and lasts till 6.30 p.m. Then there are classes till 8.30 p.m. “It works out to about 13 hours with five hours of break in between,” says Esther. Vivek S.J. says that at night, the lights were switched on in all the school buildings. “It was an unusual sight,” he says.

And for the students, it is one long slog. Says Abjy P. Kurian: “They work from Monday to the Friday of the second week, which works out to 12 days.” On Friday, the students are allowed to go home, but have to return on Sunday afternoon.

It seems to be tough for the younger children. Cisily remembers a four-year old boy, who held her hand, and began crying. “I asked the teacher what was the problem?” she says. “She said the boy was feeling homesick.”

The Rajagiri students did not feel homesick. In fact, they enjoyed the spotlessly clean surroundings and the 15 degree centigrade temperature. Asked about the subjects being taught, Malavika Satheesh says it is the same, as in India, but with one difference.

“Everything is in Chinese, while English is taught only as a subject,” she says. The Rajagiri students had lessons in the Chinese language, paper cutting, calligraphy, dancing, painting, singing and wushu (a martial art).

On the weekends, the students, along with Cisily, would go to the nearby Jingxiu park, where groups of elderly Chinese would either play cards or music, or do exercises. “In Baoding, there are very few foreigners,” says Malavika. “Hence, we were treated like celebrities. In their culture, big eyes are a very attractive feature. So, they would stare wonderstruck at us.”

Most of them had seen Hindi films and were aware of Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai. “They felt that, because of our films, all Indians can sing and dance,” says Soha Abdul Shukoor. “So, we danced to Kuttanadan Punchayile from Kazhcha in the heart of China.”

Of course, the highlight of the trip was the visit to the Great Wall. “It is 6,400 kms long,” says Vivek. “When you see it from a distance, it is very beautiful. But, at close quarters, you realise that there are no carvings, it is just a wall.”

What amazed the group were the superb expressways. “Nobody blows the horn or cuts lanes in China,” says Abjy. “From far, you can see this straight line of cars.” A worried Cisily says: “The Chinese will get a heart attack when they come to Kochi and see the chaotic traffic, the dirt and the garbage lying all over the place.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Austin Mulerikal, the director of the school, is happy at the successful outcome. “This trip was a leap in the dark for us,” he says. “We were keen to send the children, because no school from Kerala has gone on a cultural exchange visit to China.” Says the principal, Susan Varghese Cherian: “Thanks to the efforts of the PTA, which handled the logistics of the trip, we were able to give our students a unique experience.”

The happy smiles on the students’ faces confirm that, indeed, it had been an unforgettable trip.

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