Monday, July 28, 2008

Forsaking felony

Like in other parts of India, criminal gangs thrive in Kerala. However, a priest, through counseling sessions, tries to persuade them to give up crime.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Fr. Bosco Njaliath, of the Carmelite order, had befriended a gangster, Raghu, whose younger brother, Sajan, had been killed in an intra-gang rivalry. He held long counselling sessions with Raghu, and dissuaded him from taking revenge.

Meanwhile, the gang members, who killed Sajan, were afraid that Raghu would retaliate. So, one evening, four men attacked Raghu, sliced off his legs and stabbed him 28 times. “I was devastated by Raghu’s death,” says Fr. Njaliath. “I decided to do something for these misguided young men.”

He began visiting the houses of these gang members in and around Angamaly, 40 kms from Kochi, and befriended them. He took the help of the local police, including the then SI, Bijo Alexander.

After ten months of persuasion, he was able to get 50 men, belonging to various gangs, to take part in a seven-day counselling course at the Carmel Bhavan at Karukutty, near Angamaly.

The theme of the course: ‘The emptiness of the criminal life.’ “We asked the gangsters, whether they had profited by indulging in these criminal activities? Were they happy?” says Fr. Njaliath. “We wanted them to analyse their lives. We tried to show them that there were no gains, only losses. We told them that, whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians, they are all God’s children.”

In counselling, the priest observed that most of them suffered from the pinpricks of conscience. “One day, a young man, who had killed three men, confessed that he was unable to go to sleep without the help of alcohol,” says Fr. Njaliath. “The moment he awoke, he saw nightmarish images of the crimes he had done.”

It has not been easy for the priest to rehabilitate them. “I know of many boys who came for counseling, stayed for a few days, then could not resist returning to the gangs and ended up dead,” says the priest. “If they remain in the gangs, they are usually dead by 40.”

But Fr. Njaliath has success stories too. “Quite a few gangsters have started a new life by working in small jobs or starting businesses of their own,” says police officer Bijo Alexander.

The priest has encouraged the gangsters to stay at Carmel Bhawan for as long as they want. They attend regular counseling sessions, say prayers, play volleyball or football and work in a brick-making unit that Fr. Njaliath has started nearby. “The longer they stay away from their companions, the better are the chances to lead a straight life,” he says.

For most of these criminals, an unhappy childhood has been the root cause of all their troubles. “My father, who was an alcoholic, beat me and my brothers often and was always quarreling with my mother,” says Pratap, a gang member. “The atmosphere at home was oppressive, so, I spent all my time on the streets and finally ended up joining a gang.”

But what is worrying Fr. Njaliath is how the present-day youth are attracted to people like Pratap. “They see these boys drinking, smoking and spending money lavishly on entertainment,” says the priest. “The gang members wear designer clothes, carry the latest mobile phones and move around in flashy cars like Scorpios.”

Many girls are attracted to them and end up having affairs with these gangsters. “Some come from good families,” he says.

What is not helping matters is the moral breakdown in society. “The basic virtues, like honesty, sincerity and the necessity for hard work have vanished,” says Fr. Njaliath. “In films, these gangsters are glorified. There is a feeling in society that if you do not have money, you are nobody. So, people want to make money quickly and are willing to break the law.”

Apart from the amoral environment, gangs will continue to thrive, says Mani, a gang member, because of the close link with politicians. They use the gangs for protection, to intimidate opponents, and to protect illegal wealth.

“If a gang member is arrested, the politician will immediately call the police station and order the boy to be released,” he says. “If he is not, the police officer is transferred.”

Of course, there are good police officers, but most of the time they are hamstrung by the pervasive corruption among the law-enforcers and the Damocles sword of ‘punishment transfers’ hanging over their heads.

“After some time, even the good officers realise that inaction is better than action,” says Mani, with a smile.

Says police officer Alexander: “In a democracy, there are pressures from all sections of society, including politicians. But we have learnt to overcome them and get the work done.”

However, most gangsters say they continue to thrive despite the ‘ever-vigilant’ policemen.
(Some names have been changed.)

The story of a gangster

On a Wednesday evening, a couple of years ago, Mahesh is walking down a road in Thrissur. Suresh hides in a side street. As soon as Mahesh comes abreast, Suresh jumps out and stabs Mahesh twice in the chest and runs away. There is a stunned silence on the road for several seconds before pedestrians rush towards the fallen man, while panicky shopkeepers pull down the shutters.

By the time the police arrive and take Mahesh to the hospital, it is too late. “I have no regrets,” says Suresh. “I don’t have any bad dreams or nightmares about the murder. Mahesh deserved to die.”

Suresh belonged to a gang, whose members held a friendly football match with another gang. During the course of the match, Mahesh had an altercation with Anil, a member of Suresh’s gang. Later, Mahesh’s gang decided to teach Anil a lesson. So they waylaid Anil and beat him to a pulp. As they were leaving, Mahesh said, “Let me give a parting shot.”

He ran back, twisted Anil’s neck and hit his head with an iron rod. It was a fatal blow. Anil died a day later in hospital. When Suresh heard about this, he had vowed to take revenge. Now Mahesh was dead. And Suresh was on the run for several months. Finally, he was arrested and now he is out on bail.

A stocky, muscular man, with a week’s stubble on his face, he says, “The only thing I am worried about is being convicted by the court. I might get life imprisonment.”

Suresh has a valid reason to be scared. One of his former colleagues, Ravi, who had committed a murder, had been convicted recently to life imprisonment by a fast-track court.

Suresh had become a gang member by accident. One day, when he was 18 years old, he was playing cards with a neighbour, Ranjit. There was an altercation, and Suresh slapped Ranjit.

Ranjit, a senior member of the CPI(M), returned with a group of friends and beat Suresh up. Later, Suresh was arrested and taken to the sub-jail at Aluva.

“When people go to jail for the first time, they have one of two reactions,” he says. “They vow to themselves that they will never go to jail again, and so, they avoid wrongdoing. The second group thinks that this is all there is to it, so there is nothing to fear.”

Suresh belonged to the second group.

“I thirsted for revenge,” he says. “I felt that violence was a part and parcel of life.” When he was released from prison, Suresh joined a gang and spent the next 14 years indulging in murder, robbery, confiscating vehicles of loan defaulters, arranging compromises between rival businessmen for a fee, apart from indulging in intra-gang fights, punctuated by short spells in jail.

Finally, Suresh had two turning points in his life. Once, when he was hard up for money, he had started selling drugs. For an investment of Rs 5,000, he made a profit of Rs 25,000.

One day when he returned home, his mother told him there was a letter from his sister who was a social worker at Kolkata.

“She wrote that she was working to rehabilitate drug addicts,” says Suresh. “The first thought that came to my mind after reading the letter was that while my sister was trying to save drug addicts, here I was, trying to destroy them through drug addiction. So, I decided to get out of the drug business.”

The second turning point occurred when he met Fr. Bosco Njaliath of the Carmelite Order who was holding a counseling session for gangsters.

After the session, Suresh experienced a peace of mind for the first time in years. He decided to get out of the gang, but it was not easy. “My enemies were keen to wipe me off,” he says. “But I knew that if I remained I would be scared for the rest of my life. Hence, I decided to take the risk and leave.”

In the first year, he faced a lot of harassment. “I had to move around with three to four boys, as protection,” he says. “I realised that the only way to survive was to stay out of sight of my enemies, avoid getting into fights, or losing my temper. Whenever I saw a fight take place somewhere, I moved in the opposite direction.”

Today, he has a small business, selling toys, but he is not sure whether he will be able to stay free of the gangs. He got married a year ago and has a baby son.

“My wife knows everything about my life,” he says. It was a love marriage and they had known each other from school. “There was no way I could have had an arranged marriage, because of all that has happened,” he says. “I have a bad reputation.”

Asked on the advice he would give an eighteen-year-old who might want to join a gang, Suresh says, “He should never join. He will gain nothing from it. On the other hand, there is a strong possibility that he will die. In all my years with these gangs, I don’t know of a single person who has come good after all this violence and robbery.”

(Some names have been changed)

The modus operandi of the gangs

If there is a loan default on a car loan, banks allegedly hire these gangs to recover the vehicle. The banks have one key to the vehicle. “This is given to the gang who takes the vehicle away, if it is parked somewhere,” says John, a gang member. “Otherwise, the defaulter is stopped on the road and his vehicle is forcibly taken away.”

The payment to the gang is fixed: Rs 1500 for a bike, Rs 3000 for an autorickshaw, Rs 5000 for a car and Rs 15,000 for bigger vehicles.

The second job is to enforce compromises. If somebody owes a lot of money, the creditor hires the gang to extract the money. “We will use the threat of violence to get the money back and we are given a commission for it,” says Rajesh, a gang member. “This can be a good amount.”

Then they steal black money which is transported up and down the national highways. These belong to politicians and businessmen. They get a tip-off that a car is carrying this money and they attack it and steal the cash. After the robbery, a commission is given to the person who gives the tip. “Recently, one gang cleaned up Rs 5 crore during such an attack,” says Rajesh. Later, the gang leader was shot dead, in retaliation.

These gangsters use the money to fuel their alcoholic and drug addictions. “Quite a few of them are sex addicts and spend a lot of money on their girlfriends,” says John.

According to Rajesh, there are about 3500 women, between the ages of 15 and 35 who are in the flesh trade in Kochi. “They take apartments for rent and arrange for brokers to bring in the men,” he says. “Sometimes, like the police, we raid these flats to get money and have sex with the girls.” Incidentally, he says, whenever there is an advertisement in the newspapers for a massage parlour, “be sure that it is just a front for a sex racket.”

Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The long and the short of it

(A series on childhood memories)

Thanks to his father’s encouragement, T.C. Yohannan, the former Asian Games long jump gold medallist, devoted his life to sports

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, T.C. Yohannan was going to school with a few friends at Irumpanagad in Kollam district. Near the entrance, there was a narrow canal. A friend asked the eleven-year-old Yohannan whether he would be able to jump across it. The prize: a glass of lime juice.

Yohannan took up the challenge, walked some distance away, turned round and sprinted. At the last moment, he jumped, but it was not good enough. He landed in the water, much to the amusement of his friends. His uniform all wet, Yohannan had to return home.

“When my father asked me what had happened, I told him the truth,” says Yohannan, the 1974 Asian Games long jump gold medallist. “He put his hands on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

Then his father took Yohannan to the same spot, one kilometre from home, and asked him to try again. Yohannan jumped and fell into the water again. “It was only on the fourth attempt that I was able to cross the canal,” he says. “It was an inspirational moment for me! I have never forgotten my father’s show of support.”

Thereafter, Yohannan took part in numerous sporting events in school and came first many times. “A notice would be sent to all the classes listing the achievements of the students in various categories and I would feel happy when my name would be called out,” says Yohannan. “It was also an incentive to carry on doing well.”

He also had teachers who encouraged him. “Mathaikutty Sir, who taught physical education, helped us a lot,” says Yohannan. “To prepare for the annual school sports meet, we would have daily training in the evenings at school and Sir would provide refreshments.” The headmaster, Varghese Sir, also encouraged the students to excel in sports.

Yohannan was the son of a farmer. But times were difficult, since the family was large: there were seven sons in total. “I was aware that there was not much money in the house,” he says. “So, I would never ask anything from my parents.”

Instead, whenever he needed money to spend, like, during the temple festival, he would borrow it from his friends. “I would buy sweets, balloons and cashew nuts,” he says.

By the time he was twelve years old, his dream had crystallised: he wanted to excel in sports. But he needed a pair of running shoes and did not know how to get it.

However, one day, when nobody was at home, Yohannan wandered about and saw that there were several large brass pots, which were used to keep grain, in a storage room. He took an empty one and sold it in the village. “I got Rs 15 for it,” he says. “With that money, I was able to buy the running shoes.”

Yohannan would go, every morning, for practice at a long jump pit, near a clump of coconut trees. “As soon as the elders of the village saw me, they would pass comments like, ‘See how he is wasting his time’, ‘he should try to concentrate on his studies, instead he is jumping,’” says Yohannan.

“I would pretend that I had not heard the comments. At that time, in the 1960s, people felt that sports were a waste of time.”

From childhood, Yohannan was brave and focused about his sporting career, but he would get nervous whenever his family went out in the late evenings, and he was the only one at home.

“I would go outside, climb a tree in the courtyard, talk to myself, and wait till the family returned,” he says, with a sheepish smile.

So, who was the one who influenced him the most: his father or mother? “It was my father,” he says. “He was a simple man, who, once when he made a decision, would stick to it. He was also hard-working, focused, sincere, and dedicated. I inherited these traits from him.”

His mother, on the other hand, was loving and kind. “I have these qualities, too,” he says.

He remembers a conversation he once had with her. “When I got married, I told my mother that I would be having only two children,” says Yohannan, the youngest among the seven children. “She laughed and said, ‘If your father and I had thought that way, how would you have won an Asian Games gold medal?’"

Nevertheless, Yohannan, 61, who is married to Annie, has only two children: sons, Tisvy, who lives in Australia, and the Chennai-based Tinu, the first Keralite to play Test cricket for India.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It’s a contagious feeling!

The Christian band, Kontagious, touched hearts during their recent concert at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Guide whose blessings will/ destroy all that is evil/The father, mother and teacher/Who is the Incarnation of the Word/The Lord Jesus Christ.

These lines, from the Tamil poem, ‘Deva Lakshanam’, can be heard at the start of the album, ‘Know Your Name’, by the Kontagious band. It was written by a Christian, Vedanayagam Sastriar, a poet at the court of the Muslim King Serfoji of Thanjavur in the 17th century.

“The reason why Serfoji appointed Sastriar as a poet was because they were classmates in school,” says Kontagious bandleader Saroop Oomen.

Another hymn is ‘Ente Sampath, Ennu Choluvan’, one of the famous works of the 19th century Malayali Christian preacher, Mutampakkal Kochoonju Upadesi. Out of the 12 songs on the album, there are 6 worship songs, three hymns, and three songs in Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi.

The Hindi song happened accidentally. The Dehra-Dun based pop and religious singer, Bhupender Nath, while on a honeymoon in Chennai, met up with the band members and said he had a half-finished poem, ‘Mahima’.

Bhupender’s voice was recorded first and the arrangements added later. The result is a pulsating, serene song in praise of God. “When we sent the final version to Bhupender, he was in tears,” says Saroop.

The classic hymn, ‘How Great You Are’, has a beautiful rendition of a Carnatic alaap by Sindhu K. Das, who also sings the Sastriar hymn at the beginning of the album.

What adds lustre to the music is the frequent use of the flute, tabla, ghatam, and mridangam, apart from the electric guitar, bass, and the keyboard.

‘Know your name,’ the band’s second album, was released some time ago. “The title song was the last among the 15 songs I had written,” says Saroop. “I played all my favourite songs in front of a group of people, but everybody loved ‘Know your name’, which was my reject song.”

For Saroop it was an eye-opener. “I understood that people like simplicity in songs,” he says. “Everybody remembers, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. The best way to communicate is to be clear and unpretentious.”

Kontagious performed in Kochi recently in a ‘Women’s Dayout’ programme organised by Livejam. “The music we play does not sound like traditional church songs,” says Saroop. “We play rock, pop, a cappella, blues, and Carnatic hymns.”

Says guitarist Bruce Lee: “The youth of today want different styles of music. And they want to see a band which is enjoying itself and believing in what they are doing.”

Rohan Philip Mathew, 24, who attended the Kochi concert, says, “I enjoyed the original tracks, and the meaningful lyrics.”

Maya Mathew, 26, who was listening to Kontagious for the first time, says, “The song, ‘Mahima’, was really good. A couple of my friends also liked Mahima the best. I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.”

Kontagious was formed in 1998 with the aim of spreading the positive message of the Bible. So far, the band has played in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi, Kottayam and Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

The band received one of its most enthusiastic receptions in the north-eastern state. “It was an open-air concert at the Fire Brigade grounds and more than 10,000 people were in attendance,” says Saroop.

In 2004, the group did an extensive tour of the United Arab Emirates, doing 17 concerts in 20 days. Audience reaction varied from place to place, but Saroop says they got the strongest emotional response when they played in a Filipino church at Dubai.

“The people were crying, laughing and shouting,” says Saroop. “It was amazing.”

Saroop admits the target audience is the youth. So, what is going on in the minds of young people these days? “The trend now is to say no to everything,” says Bruce. “If somebody tells them, ‘Don’t do drugs’, they will say, ‘I want to do drugs.’”

Kontagious is trying, in its own small way, to guide the youth along the right path. Says Saroop: “You cannot advise them. They have to first connect with you and then they might listen.” Adds Bruce: “We are hoping, through our songs, to provide some answers to the youth’s quest for the meaning of life.”

Only time will tell whether Kontagious has had a contagious effect on the youth.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Destiny's child

(A series on childhood memories)

A son of a washerman, Justice V.K. Mohanan says that, despite the financial hardships, he had a happy childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, lawyer Ghulam Muhammed gave a speech at a primary school in Muvattupuzha, where V.K. Mohanan was a student. Ghulam said, “One morning, when I was going for a walk, I saw a policeman arrest a man.”

Curious, the lawyer made enquiries and was told that the man had been caught for doing a circus act without a valid license. “But what had actually happened was that the man had been walking past a hotel,” said Ghulam. “A customer ate a banana and threw the skin onto the road. The man slipped on it and ended up doing a circus act without a valid license.”

At this point in the retelling of the speech, Justice Mohanan, of the Kerala high court, breaks out into prolonged laughter. “This was the type of funny anecdote that Ghulam was famous for,” he says.

Mohanan laughs easily, but he has had a tough life. The son of a washerman (dhobi), one of his enduring memories was of awakening every morning and seeing his father, already at work, pressing clothes with a heavy iron. His mother would assist him and both would go to the nearby Muvattupuzha river to wash the clothes.

Mohanan would help them every evening after school by delivering clothes. He would also collect the money. At that time, it was about 25 paise to wash and iron a piece of cloth.

However, whenever he went on his rounds, he sensed, from the people’s reaction, that this job was of a lower status than others. “When I grew older, I understood that their attitude towards me reflected the hierarchical structure of society,” he says.

Mohanan was also keenly aware that the family was in financial difficulties. He would be given a pair of shorts and told that he would have to wear it for the rest of the year. “After a few months, it would tear, but I would carry on wearing it,” says Mohanan.

During Independence Day celebrations, the teacher would ask the students to make flags and bring it to school. “Even though I knew there was no money in the house to buy the coloured paper, I would still ask my father,” he says. “Somehow, he would always find some money to give me.”

But his childhood was not a grim one. There was a large field near his house, where he would play football with his friends. “But the ball was different from the ones being used now,” he says. “It was called a nipple football.”

This was a bladder, with the tube jutting out, like a nipple. “With an air pump, we would fill it up, tie the end, and then insert it into a leather covering,” says Mohanan.

During the rainy season, the river would overflow the bank and the field would become flooded. “We used to take the boat from the nearby houses and go fishing,” he says. “Sometimes, we would lose our balance, and tumble from the boat. At other times, we would go swimming. It was a happy time.”

Apart from these activities, he would see a lot of films at the Lakshmi theatre. He earned the money for the 25 paise ticket by doing errands for his neighbours. “MGR was my favourite hero,” says Mohanan, “I saw the MGR film, Kudiyirundha Kovil, 14 times because there were a lot of stunts and he was playing a double role.”

To his parents, Mohanan was a hero, along with his elder brother Vijayan, simply, by being alive. “My mother gave birth to ten children, and eight died,” he says. “Some died in the womb, some died at child birth, while others died in early childhood. So, my brother and I were precious to my parents. They showered a lot of love on us.”

His neighbour, Leela Cherian, was also very affectionate. When his parents would go out for work, it was Leela who looked after Mohanan. She played a decisive role in his life when she insisted to his parents that he must go to school. “At that time, my parents did not understand the importance of education,” says Mohanan. “I am eternally grateful to her.”

He showed his appreciation by inviting Leela as a special guest for his swearing-in as a high court judge. If Mohanan has any regrets it is that his parents, both of whom died a decade ago, could not see his elevation to the post of judge.

“I am now in a comfortable position in life, but I can never forget the hardships of my childhood,” says Mohanan, who is married to Geetha, a government servant, and has a 16-year-old daughter, Chandni.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The power of the spoken word

Zakir Naik, famed speaker, talks about Islam and other religions

By Shevlin Sebastian

"If there is no God, there is no salvation," says Zakir Naik, an Islamic speaker who had come to Kochi a few weeks ago. "But if you know God, then you will know salvation."

There is an appreciative murmur from the audience on Naik's clever word play. His tone is reassuring, but he makes some interesting distinctions: "The Hindu says everything is God, but the Muslim says everything is God's." There are more nods. Throughout his one-hour talk, he is able to quote, verbatim, from verse and chapter from the Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads, the Bible and the Quran.

The audience listens with rapt silence. Because of the segregation of the sexes, the women sit at the back, most of them dressed in black chadors, while the men throng the front rows. Behind Naik, on the stage, sit several local dignitaries.

At the conclusion of the talk, he asks for questions from the audience. A young man asks, "Why are there no women on the stage?" Naik categorically states that Islam does not allow the intermingling between the sexes.

Another man reads out a verse from St. John in the Bible and says that Naik had got it wrong in his speech. Naik defends himself admirably, quotes verses before and after and wins the point, to sustained applause.

"Naik has done an enormous amount of study over the last 15 years to master the different scriptures," says his close associate Dr Syed Mohammed Shuaib. "Most of the non-Muslims are convinced by his replies because he usually quotes from the scriptures of the religion of the person asking the question." Clearly, apart from his knowledge, Naik has the talented speaker's ability to grip an audience.

A day later, Naik explains his oratorical brilliance: "When a person stands on a stage, what he speaks carries only 7 per cent weightage. The others skills -- eye-to-eye contact, proper pronunciation, modulation and gestures -- make up the rest."

Asked about his subject matter, he says, "I usually talk about the similarities between the various religions. Most people who follow any religion have hardly read the scriptures. They blindly follow what the priest, the pandit or the maulana says. I tell them to read the scriptures and if it is tallying with what the preacher is saying, then accept it. Otherwise, don't."

He admits there are some elements within the Muslim community who are against him. "They are afraid of losing their flock," he says, with a smile. He says he gets the maximum support from educated Muslims, Christians and Hindus.

Naik, of Konkan origin, was born in Mumbai, and qualified as a doctor of medicine, but changed his mind when he met the great South African speaker Sheik Ahmed Husain Deedat, who was best known for his witty inter-religious debates.

"I met him in December, 1987, and felt inspired," says Naik. So, even while he was studying for medicine, Naik got involved in Da'wah (inviting people towards Islam). "So, from being a doctor of bodies, I became a doctor of souls," he says.

Today, Naik is a rising star among speakers of Islam and has already given more than 1,200 talks worldwide. So what are the questions that audiences ask him all the time?

He replies rapidly: "What is the meaning of jihad? Why does Islam allow a man to have four wives? Why does Islam subjugate women by keeping her behind the veil? Why are there Muslims terrorists?"

Regarding Muslim terrorists, he says, "Before India got freedom in 1947, many Indians were fighting for the freedom of the country. These people were called terrorists by the British government, but we regard them as freedom fighters. The same people, the same activity, but there are two different labels. It is a matter of perception. So, today, whoever is in power, whatever label he gives to a person, it sticks to him."

Naik has been fighting these misrepresentations through his talks, his books and CDs and the Peace TV channel, which is owned by the Islamic Research Foundation, of which he is the founder-president.

Asked about the current state of Hindu-Muslim relations, he says, "Relations between educated Hindus and Muslims are good, but there will always be elements on both sides who will try to create mischief."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dance your way to God

At the Osho Glimpse Centre, people come in search of the divine

By Shevlin Sebastian

At precisely 6.30 p.m. on a Saturday evening, Subin Das puts on the CD which will provide the music for the Kundalini Meditation at the Osho Glimpse Centre at Panampilly Nagar. Among those present, there is Sasidharan Parameshwaran, 45, Lekha Nambiar, 38, the pony-tailed, V.P. Kalam, 38, and Subin, 22.

For the first stage, which is of 15 minutes duration, the participants shake their bodies. And straightaway, Subin catches the eyes with his vibrant movements. The others are more subdued.

As Osho says about this stage, “When your body starts a little trembling, help it. But if you force it, it will become a physical exercise. Then the shaking will be there, but it will be just on the surface and will not penetrate you.”

In the second stage, the music is much more spirited – the sounds of the sitar and the tabla can be heard -- and now is the time to dance. Again, it is Subin who impresses, as he turns on his heels, raises his arms, moves back and forth, seemingly in the thrall of some power within him.

In the third stage, the participants stand or sit in a comfortable position, with eyes closed, and have to watch what is happening in the mind and outside. In the fourth and final stage, they have to lie on the floor, eyes closed, hands spread out at the sides and be still.

The CD goes silent, but at the end of 15 minutes, there is a loud gong, like the tolling of a church bell, signifying the end of the one-hour meditation.

When asked about his mood after the meditation, Sasidharan says, “What I am feeling now cannot be explained. Nor can it be shared.”

Says Kalam: “When a man is drunk he cannot explain what he is going through to somebody who has never had a drink.”

As for Subin, he says, “If I try to explain my experience, the truth will slip away.”

All of them had been in search for truth and meaning. Sasidharan says he had visited Shri Mata Amritanandamayi’s ashram, did the advanced course in the Art of Living by Ravi Shankar and attended courses at the Chinmaya Mission.

“They are all good, but, for me, the search stops at Osho,” he says. “In Kundalini meditation, the effect is immediate. The mind becomes silent. You reach the source at once.”

Lekha Nambiar, an English teacher, says she always has a sense of well-being after doing the Kundalini meditation. “My energy levels increase,” she says. “I feel fulfilled. This is the end of my search. Osho is the ultimate.”

Standing to one side and listening to the people talk about their experiences is Swami Jeevan Vismay.

It was Jeevan who started Osho Glimpse in October, 2006. Originally a Muslim -- M.K. Aboobacker -- Jeevan grew up in Kozhikode, became a member of the CPI (ML), spent several years in fruitless agitations and went to jail.

Later, he went to Salalah in Oman and Dubai, earned well and spent lavishly on entertainment, and still experienced emptiness. He tried the various strands of Islam, but nothing worked. He returned to Kerala in 1991.

A few years later, a friend gave him a cassette, which contained a discourse on money by Osho and said, “Since you are going mad even after having so much money, why don’t you hear this?”

When Jeevan heard the cassette, he experienced a new perception about life. “Then I began to read a lot of Osho,” he says. “And in every book, he insisted that one should meditate.”

When Jeevan heard that there would be a three-day meditation camp at Kozhikode in 2001, he decided to take part. “It was the turning point in my life,” he says. “I finally realised I am not my body, my mind or my feelings. I am just a witness to pure consciousness.”

Today, Jeevan, who runs a thriving travel agency, is an ardent Osho devotee and meditates once a day.

At the Osho Glimpse centre, there are numerous books, CDs, posters and magazines for sale. Asked about the response, he says, “In our lending library, there are 500 members.” The books have also been doing well. “A representative of DC Books told us recently that Osho books have high sales,” says Jeevan.

To popularise the teachings, the centre recently organised a week-long film festival. “Quite a few people turned up,” says Jeevan. “Osho is not like the water from the Kochi Corporation. We cannot supply it to every house. Those who thirst for Osho will come in search of him.”

Some Osho sayings

One cannot be pure without being humble, because there is no greater impurity than ego.

Do whatsoever you are doing, but remain a witness to it, and immediately the quality of your doing is transformed.

Once you start thinking about the future and ambition and desire, you are missing this moment.

Authentic religiousness is a childlike innocence, playfulness and a whole-hearted capacity for laughter.

A man living out of fear is always trembling inside.

Thoughts are substitutes for awareness.

Do whatsoever you are doing, but remain a witness to it, and immediately the quality of your doing is transformed.

Don’t be afraid, this existence is not your enemy. This existence mothers you; this existence is ready to support you in every possible way.

In the journey of life, intuition is the only teacher.

Truth happens where there are no clouds of thoughts moving in your consciousness.

If you have lived this moment totally, intensely, your next moment is going to be still more golden.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

'I liked to read and read'

(A series on childhood memories)

English literature was a passion for Ernakulam District Collector M. Beena, when she was growing up at Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day, when I was three years old, I slipped and fell as I ran up the stairs in our house at Thampanoor, Thiruvananthapuram,” says Ernakulam District Collector Dr. M. Beena. Her face hit the jagged edge of the railing. “There was a lot of blood,” she says. “Since my mother was working, there was only the servant to look after me.”

The panic-stricken woman tried a desperate, natural remedy: she put coffee powder on the wound and managed to stop the bleeding. As soon as her mother came home, she took Beena to the hospital. “Two stitches were needed to close the wound,” she says, and points to a small mark near the corner of her right eye.

Beena seemed to be accident-prone when she was a child. Once, she stood between a chair and a table and pretended to drive a cycle. Inevitably, she lost her balance, fell face down and lost two teeth.

On another occasion, her finger got stuck in the jamb and a sudden breeze caused the door to shut and a nail was ripped off. “Here,” she says, pointing at the forefingers of both her hands. “One has a different shape from the other.”

Beena and her elder sister, Shailaja, who is a doctor, are the children of R. Mahadevan Pillai and the late Radhamani Ammal, who passed away in May at the age of 68. Both of them worked at the Accountant-General’s office.

“My mother had the biggest influence on me,” she says. "She pushed me because she had high expectations.” Radhamani Ammal tended to focus on the extra-curricular activities.

Beena remembers a fancy dress competition she took part in when she was in Class three. There were few parents present because it was a week day. But when Beena, who was dressed as Krishna, looked at the audience, she spotted her mother. “I remember how happy I felt,” she says. “My mother was always so supportive.”

Her mother also had a tremendous fighting spirit. “Once, when she took Shailaja for admission to the Holy Angels’ school the nun said no. “My mother said, ‘If you don’t accept my daughter, you will be losing an SSLC rank holder,’ says Beena. “Because she had the courage to speak like that, my sister gained admission.”

Beena saw her mother’s bravery at close quarters when, one night, when she was ten years old, she woke up to see the curtain on fire in her bedroom. Apparently, a mosquito coil had been placed on the window sill and, somehow, the curtain caught fire.

Just below the window, there were several books and it could have become a major blaze. “I shouted and alerted everybody,” says Beena. “My mother single-handedly pulled down the curtain and stamped out the fire with the help of a sheet.”

After Shailaja’s admission, it was easy for Beena to join Holy Angels’. And it turned out to be a good decision. “Whatever I am, it is because of my school,” she says.

She was a good student and was passionate about reading. “Whatever free time I had, I would read and read,” she says. “I have gone through the entire series of Enid Blyton books.”

By Class five, she had started reading the classics, which included novels by the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the madding crowd’. “I loved English literature,” she says. “We used to live in a residential colony, Amba Nagar, and I would go to every house saying, ‘Do you have a book?’ The aunties would get exasperated and always gave me something.”

It was a happy childhood. She remembers going with her family for temple visits, for long walks on the beach, for films and eating out. They would frequent the Ashoka Bhavan and the Hotel Saurashtra, which was Beena’s favourite. “There was pucca Gujarati food there,” she says. “Even now, I enjoy that food the most.”

It was a middle class life, with no financial hardships. “However, we never squandered money,” she says. “Even to give an extra rupee for the auto-rickshaw fare, my mother would fight over it.”

Her mother was the fighter, but what about her father? “My father was a peaceful and gentle person,” says Beena. “I am like that.” What she remembers most about her father was when he had to sign the report cards. “He would go down the list of subjects with his fingers, asking, ‘Where is Mathematics?’” says Beena. “And when he would see the marks, he would say, ‘You should improve.’ Because my father was an accountant, he was very good at Mathematics.”

Beena smiles when she says this, but, suddenly, her face turns wistful, and she lapses into silence. Finally, this mother of two children, who is married to Malappuram DSP P. Vijayan, says, “I miss my mother a lot.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, July 11, 2008

A New INNings

The Bat and Ball Inn is steeped in cricket memorabilia and is a must-visit for any fan

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, cricketer S. Sreesanth dropped in at the Chennai house of former Kerala Ranji Trophy cricketer, J.K. Mahendra. Over the course of a meal, Mahendra asked Sreesanth whether he would be keen to invest in a cricket homestay called, 'The Bat and Ball Inn'.

"Sreesanth agreed, but when I started the work, Robin Uthappa also indicated an interest," says Mahendra.

The first Bat and Ball Inn, a 4000 sq. ft. homestay, was inaugurated in Bangalore on December 6, 2007. Then Mahendra felt that since Sreesanth is from Kerala and since "I owed so much to Kerala cricket, I decided we should open a similar homestay in Kochi."

When commentator Charu Sharma, a long-time acquaintance of Mahendra, heard about this venture, he decided to become a partner also. "I invested because of the connection with the game," says Sharma. "Even though there is not much of a memorabilia culture in the country, Mahendra has worked hard to set up a fine inn."

The Kochi Bat and Ball Inn, which began functioning a few weeks ago, is on Mills Lane, opposite the Kasavukada shop on Foreshore Road, Kochi.

And the first thing that catches the eye is a long green pole with arrows pointing in different directions. The Cricket Club of India is 1384 kms from the inn, while the Melbourne Cricket Ground is 8876 kms away; Lord's is 8500 kms away, while the Eden Gardens is at a distance of 2366 km.

Near the entrance, there are photographs of some of the greatest cricketers of Indian cricket: Polly Umrigar, Vinoo Mankad, Pankaj Gupte, Amar Singh, and Vijay Hazare.

Inside, there is a signed painting of Anil Kumble by Yusuf Arakkal and a painting of Donald Bradman with a cherubic Sachin Tendulkar. There are dramatic pictures of the 1983 World Cup win and the Nat West Trophy triumph in 2002.

On the ground floor, there is a restaurant, Cornucopia, which serves dishes from all over the world, including Continental, Spanish, Italian and Thai. "The food is top class," says film director Ranjit Thomas, a regular visitor.

In the souvenir shop, opposite the restaurant, there are caps, mugs, key-chains, T-shirts, bats, DVDs and books on cricket, as well as jewellery items on sale.

One pair of earrings has tiny gold cricket balls dangling from it. "One woman, who was mad about the game, bought it," says Mahendra. "I told her she could wear it when she goes to watch a match."

On the stairs, there are magnificent photographs of Ranjitsinghji, Duleepsinhji and a young Donald Bradman essaying a pull stroke. And taking pride of place across one wall is a signed poster of Wisden's Five Great Cricketers of the Century: Don Bradman, Gary Sobers, Shane Warne, Jack Hobbs and Vivian Richards.

Just next to it are autographed T-shirts by Sreesanth and Tinu Yohannan, Kerala's first Test cricketer, who has scrawled, in blue felt pen, across the front: 'To J.K. Sir who gave me my first big break' (Mahendra was once a National junior selector).

On the first floor, there are autographed bats by Sunil Gavaskar, Don Bradman, Gary Sobers and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

"To get Pataudi to sign his bat, I sought an appointment, flew to Delhi and got it done," says Mahendra. On another wall, there is an amusing series of pictures of Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee taking off the caps of Sunil Gavaskar, Geoff Boycott and Clive Lloyd with short-pitched balls.

The Homestay has five neat and classy suites, each in the name of a legend: Sunil Gavaskar, Richard Hadlee, Vivian Richards, Gary Sobers and Dennis Lillee.

On the first floor, there is The Village Shop, where South African Molly Pinto is checking out the home furnishing merchandise.

"This place is beautiful," she says. "I have never seen anything like this in South Africa. The amount of effort that has been taken to set this up must be tremendous."

Indeed, but will a concept like a homestay work in Kochi? "Homestays are becoming popular, because people are looking for personalised treatment," says Mahendra. "We are also providing a different kind of ambience. People who love cricket will like to come here."

Agrees Charu Sharma: "It's a nice place to hang around. The rooms are lovely, the d├ęcor is great and the inn is set in a nice old bungalow." Says Ranjit: "It is more like a cricketer's museum than a homestay. For me, instead of the museum, the rooms and the restaurant are value additions."

Cricket fans, when they visit the homestay, will feel that the entire Bat and Ball Inn is a value addition to the city.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

'I remember I played Arjuna once'

(A series on childhood memories)

Kamakshi Balakrishna, the director of Chinmaya Vidyapeet, talks about a childhood which abounded in cultural activities

By Shevlin Sebastian

"My father owned a green Buick," says Kamakshi Balakrishna, the director of the Chinmaya Vidyapeet. "He bought it from the then Archbishop of Verapoly. This was one of the few cars in Ernakulam at that time."

The roads, she says, were not congested. There were plenty of buffalo carts, hand-pulled rickshaws, cycles and a few cars. "Some roads were tarred but, mostly, the roads were made of red soil," says Kamakshi. "It was very easy to travel on and the distances were not much. Even when we traveled to Thrissur, it was a comfortable journey."

Kamakshi's late father, Mannathazathu Appukuttan Menon, was a well-known lawyer and lived in a large house on Diwan's Road at Kochi.

"My father had a keen sense of discipline," she says. One example of her father's strictness was that all the children had to come back home by 6 p.m. every day and wait in front of the puja room. "Usually, the girls would be on time," Kamakshi says. "The boys would sometimes be late. Then they would have to wait outside."

After the prayers, the children – five sisters and two brothers -- would have to study. At that time, there was no electricity. So, they would sit near kerosene lamps and learn silently.

"My father would walk up and down and keep an eye on us," she says. Her father also insisted on the children going to the Ernakulam Siva temple every morning at 6 a.m. "We would come back, study for a while and go to school," she says.

Kamakshi studied at St. Teresa's school. "Both Mother Mary, who was the headmistress and Sr Lucina were very good teachers," she says. "I was an average student, but very hard-working and I enjoyed studying there."

Eventually, Kamakshi grew up to enjoy a stellar career at the Chinmaya Mission educational institutions. But she bemoans the lack of discipline today in most children.

"I don't suggest the use of the cane," she says. "Parents must discipline children with affection. You have to explain to them the pros and cons of every action that they do." She suggests that parents should praise their children as often as they can. "You must make them feel wanted," she says.

Like her mother, Parukutty Amma, who would make every member of the family feel important. "She was a very affectionate person and sacrificed a lot for the family," says Kamakshi. "Sometimes, my father would say suddenly, 'Four people will be coming for lunch' and my mother would never complain."

Kamakshi also has fond memories of her grandmother. "She would tell us a lot of stories from the Puranas," she says. "I felt very sad when she passed away. There was a void in our lives."

This close-knit family still lives together on Diwan's Road. "All the brothers and sisters have houses there," she says. Kamakshi was married to the late Brigadier V.K. Balakrishna and has two daughters, Maya and Rema.

When Kamakshi was young, the children were interested in the fine arts. A Young Folks Club was set up. The club would organise plays from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the house and the parents and elders would watch.

"I remember I played Arjuna once," she says. "I wore a white dhoti and carried a bow and arrow. It was a powerful role."

Apart from plays, Kamakshi would watch a lot of films with her sisters at the Menaka hall. "We would buy a book of tickets at the beginning of the month," she says. "Then whenever we wanted to see a film, we could tear off a ticket and go for the show. At that time, watching films was the only source of entertainment."

When she grew older, she enjoyed the films of Prem Nazir and Satyen. "Satyen had a personality and a dignity in his acting," she says. However, her hero in real life was her late elder brother Devidas. She says he was a disciplined and gentlemanly person who never used foul language. He was also very witty.

It was a house where prominent cultural figures would come for an evening get-together. The legendary poet, Vallathol, a friend of Kamakshi's father, was a regular visitor.

"Vallathol was a humble person," she says. "Whenever he was writing a poem, he would consult my father about its merits and demerits. We children would listen in another room."

As the conversation comes to an end, Kamakshi takes a while to return to the present. Then she says, with a smile, "I was lucky to have had such a wonderful childhood."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The word surgeon

The Kochi-based Prof. M.T. Thomas checks for errors for two national news magazines and sends his feedback

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every Saturday afternoon, Prof. M.T. Thomas of Bharat Mata College goes to an agency near the South bridge. There, he collects the latest edition of 'India Today' and 'Outlook'. Later, he drops in at 'The Week' office and collects a copy. Thereafter, till Sunday night, he is perusing every page of the three national magazines looking for errors. He has been doing this for the past ten years.

It all began when he began highlighting mistakes in 'The Week' in a letter to the editor. After six months, the magazine asked him to do it regularly on a retainer basis. Later, 'India Today' got interested, hired him, and he also spots lapses in 'Outlook' for the 'India Today' editorial team.

So what are the misprints that are found in these magazines? "The most common is spelling mistakes," says Thomas. He gives the example of the word, 'dahlia'.

"Most of the time, sub-editors forget to put the h," he says. "Logically, there should not be an h. But the dahlia is named after the 18th-century Swedish botanist Anders Dahl."

Then there is the word, 'dysentery'. "It ends in ery," he says. "However, most people spell it as dysentry." 'Vacuum' is wrongly spelled, either with one u or two c's.

"The reason for these mistakes is that these are tricky words," he says. "Unless you check it in the dictionary, you are not going to get it right."

There are also grammatical inaccuracies, he says, like wrong tenses and prepositions, and nouns and verbs not being in agreement.

Then there are errors of usage. Take this sentence: 'He washed his hands of'.
"Usually, people use the word, 'off', instead of 'of'," he says.

He gives another example: 'To clean the Aegean stables'. "There is no such expression," he says. "It is the Augean stables, and many people make this mistake."

By Monday morning, he sends an email to 'India Today', pointing out the lapses, with paragraph and page number included. He was not sure about the reaction till he visited the magazine's editorial office in New Delhi a couple of years ago. An editor said, "We wait for your email in the same way we used to wait for our results: with a mix of excitement and nervousness."

So what is his advice to the editorial team? "Check the dictionary as often as possible, especially when you have a doubt," he says.

Apart from magazines, Thomas has also worked for publishers like Macmillan and Oxford University Press (OUP). It began when he was teaching a book of poems published by OUP and spotted numerous mistakes.

"I sent the corrections to OUP and the editors were appalled," he says. Soon, they started sending him books to proofread. "But the problem with working with such publishers is that the editors change regularly, so there is no continuity," he says. Hence, he stopped.

Thomas developed this interest when he worked on several English-Malayalam dictionaries in 1987. "It sparked my interest in words," he says. Also, a few years earlier, he worked for several months in The Daily, a Mumbai newspaper. "There, I was told to do a review of 'Indira Gandhi' by Swraj Paul," he says. "I spotted several misprints and wrote a letter to the author."

The London-based industrialist sent a letter of appreciation and promised to make the changes in the new edition. That sparked a lifelong passion for spotting errors.

Thomas has also spotted mistakes in international magazines like Time. Says Winston Hunter of the editorial office at New York: "Thomas has a remarkably keen eye for typographical and grammatical details. We were most impressed by his compilation of misprints – not to mention embarrassed by how many he found."

As a result of his meticulousness, people appreciate his work. When Thomas sent an email to author-cum-journalist Anita Pratap pointing out errors in an article written by her in 'Outlook' magazine, she replied, "I am amazed at the trouble you have taken. I have learnt a long time ago that it is pointless to worry about typographical mistakes. Your blood pressure just rises."

Dr. Jame Abraham, of West Virginia University, the editor of a book on clinical oncology that Thomas proofread, wrote, "I am glad there are sharp individuals like you around to make sure that what we write is accurate."

Tricky words

Assassination; bizarre; Caribbean; gramophone; Fahrenheit; hippopotamus, infarction; minuscule; pavilion; yacht

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

To hell and back

Many HIV+ patients went through a harrowing time before they finally found their equilibrium

By Shevlin Sebastian

When you look at Sumathi, you cannot imagine she is sick in any way. Her face is glowing, she is dressed in a blue Kanjeevaram saree, with gold earrings and a necklace, and she speaks in a low but confident voice.

In 2001, her husband became HIV positive, and a year later, she also tested positive. By then, she had two children, although she was only 20 years old. And thus began the harrowing reaction from family and neighbours.

“Since there was only one bathroom in the house, there was a fear that my husband and I would pass the virus to the others,” she says. So the family, which comprised her in-laws, two brother-in-laws and a sister-in-law, constructed a makeshift toilet at the back of the house.

For six months, husband and wife stayed inside one room. Sumathi was not allowed to feed or touch the children. When she used a path which was also used by neighbours, they would put bleaching powder on it.

When her mother-in-law went to the nearby river at Palakkad to wash the clothes, if there were women having a bath downstream, they would move upstream, so that the water would not flow towards them.

“There was nobody to support us,” she says, as her eyes fill up. “The only good news then was that my children had tested negative.” Her husband passed away in 2003. Sumathi found a meaning in life when she started working as a peer counsellor at Prathyasha, the Care and Support Centre, which is supported by the Kerala State Aids Control Society.

Elango Ramchander, an ex-president of the Indian Network of People Living with HIV, tested positive in 1988. “At that time, it was regarded as a death sentence,” he says. What did not help was his doctor’s prognosis that he would die within three years.

“Every day I would see the sunrise and feel very happy,” he says. “Then, at night, I would see the moon and say to myself, ‘one day is over’” He says that when a person has the virus, the pain and the fever constitutes only 35 per cent of the suffering. “The emotional and psychological problems are 65 per cent,” he says.

At the end of three years, Elango assumed he would die soon, but that did not happen. “The information turned out to be wrong,” he says.

The tide changed for Elango when he joined the NGO, Samraksha. “It was only then that I got all the information, support and courage,” he says. “I realised I could survive.”

In 2000, Elango got married to a HIV positive woman, Asha, and has a son, Yatish Darshan, who is free of the virus.

Both Sumathi and Elango had come to Kochi to attend a seminar organised by the Council of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Kerala ((CPK+) in collaboration with the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR).

At the seminar, the good news being announced was that attitudes towards HIV+ people are changing, albeit slowly. David Bodapati, of CFAR, says that, indeed, people are a lot more accepting these days. But there has to be a change of attitude in the rural areas.

In Kerala, he has been disappointed at the discrimination shown to HIV+ students in schools. In the case of Bency and Benson in Kollam and Sathyashi Jyothi in Kottayam, parents protested against the presence of these affected children.

“They were being vengeful,” says G. Anjana, president of CPK+. “Parents are aware the virus will not spread by children studying together.” She says she welcomes the government plan to introduce a rule that a school could lose its license if it removes a HIV positive child from the rolls.

“The school authorities should stand firm,” she says. “The majority of the parents do not have a problem, it is just a few who are resisting.”

Meanwhile, CFAR is advocating a closer tie-up with the media because it is only through it that the stigma can be removed completely.

“Our aim is to link NGOs with the media,” says David. Elango says they want to promote a lot of positive stories in the media. “I have been living with the HIV virus for the past 20 years,” he says. “I want to show that even if you are positive, you can lead a healthy life.”

Sumathi says she is also in good health and does not take any tablets at all. “My CD4 count is 1762.” (Normal CD4 counts in adults range from 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimetre of blood. The CD4 count goes down as the HIV disease progresses).

“A positive attitude makes a big difference,” she says.

HIV/ AIDS in Kerala
• HIV Estimates : 24,831
• AIDS reported: 3547 (as on Feb 08)
• AIDS death toll: 1040
Features of the HIV epidemic in Kerala
• The first HIV infected case identified in 1987
• More than 90% of infections are acquired heterosexually
• The epidemic is predominantly related to migration
• 40% of households have one migrant
• Men are infected in cities outside the state by female sex workers
No significant rural-urban difference
• Skilled workers most commonly infected
• The median age for infected males 31 years
• Females 27 years

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)