Monday, September 29, 2008

From darkness to a fragile dawn

Documentary filmmaker Ajay, T.G., spent 93 days in jail for an alleged ‘contact’ with Maoists in Chhattisgarh. He was released under pressure from human rights organisations. But scores of innocent people, continue to languish in prison under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 4, documentary film-maker Ajay T.G., 43, stepped outside his house at Aiyappa Nagar in Durg district, Chhattisgarh, to buy milk for his one-and-a-half-year-old son.

Two plainclothes policemen stopped him and said he had to accompany them to the Supela police station. “Can I deposit the milk and come?” he said. The policemen said no and took him to the station. From there, following a stopover at the court, he was taken to the Durg Central Jail. On the way, a policeman said, “You wrote a letter, and that has caused the problem.”

Here is the story of the letter: In April, 2004, Ajay, as cameraman, was part of a People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) team from Delhi which had come to investigate allegations of fraud in the Bastar, Dantewada and Kanker districts during the Lok Sabha elections.

While traveling in the interiors, the team was intercepted by a group of Maoists who suspected them of being undercover policemen. Ajay’s camera was confiscated and the team was forced to return to Raipur, the state capital.

On July 1, a man delivered a letter at Ajay’s home. It was from the Communist Party of India (Maoists) apologising for the harassment. The Rs 2.5 lakh Canon XL1 camera had been buried in the ground, the letter stated; hence there was a possibility of it being spoiled. Was Ajay interested in getting the camera back or the money?

Asked to whom he should address his reply, the man gave the name of Gudsa Usendi, the spokesperson of the Maoists. In his reply to Usendi, Ajay wrote that he would prefer the camera, but if it was not in a workable condition, he would like to be reimbursed. It was this letter that the police recovered following a raid on Usendi’s hideout in January this year.

“But I am not sure, since no letter was offered as evidence at court,” says Ajay, who was in Kochi recently to attend a human rights convention. So far, no charge-sheet has been filed against him by the police.

Ajay had been arrested under the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA). Under the CSPSA, ‘any contact’ with a banned organisation is regarded as a criminal offence. Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and every civil rights organisation in India has condemned this Act.

Meanwhile, in prison, Ajay slowly got used to the daily routine. Every day, the door of the barracks was opened at 5 a.m. The prisoners stepped out and had their morning ablutions and a bath. “For 250 prisoners, there was just one tap,” says Ajay. “There were always fights and abusive language around the tap. It was difficult to have a bath.” There was no bucket. Instead, a five-litre can, sliced off at one end, was the mug.

“Every day, if I was lucky, I would get about three mugs of water to have a bath,” he says. It had no effect in an area where the summer temperatures hovered around 45 degrees Centigrade.

During the day, the prisoners talked to each other about their cases. It was then that Ajay discovered that there were several innocent people, like him, in jail. One of them was an illiterate tailor. “Somebody had given him an order to make khaki uniforms (which are also worn by Maoists),” he says. “So, the police arrested him.” Ajay came across 74 tribals who had no idea why they had been arrested.

Rajendra Sail, the president of the Chhattisgarh unit of the PUCL, says the first arrest under the CSPSA was a tribal girl, Chandrakanti Toppo, a Class 12 student. She was accused of ‘having illegal relations’ -- to use the term in the police records -- with an electrician, Umesh Prasad Gupta, 28, of Ambikapur town, who was allegedly supporting the Maoists. “Both of them have been released by the High Court, suo moto, on bail,” he says.

Sail says that, according to Chhattisgarh police records, out of 139 people arrested under the act, only 7 are Maoists. “The rest are farmers, tailors, NGO workers, traders, journalists, lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, cultural activists, and filmmakers,” he says.

In July, this year, filmmaker, Amar Kanwar, set up a ‘Committee for the release of Ajay T.G.’. “I had a terrible feeling that Ajay’s case would go the way of Dr. Binayak Sen’s,” he says. (Sen, an internationally renowned public health specialist and the national vice-president of PUCL, had been arrested in May, 2007, on charges of sedition. More than a hundred organisations worldwide, apart from 22 Nobel Laureates, have appealed for his release, but he has been denied bail.)

“It was clear that the Chhattisgarh police was going to stifle any form of opposition,” says Kanwar. “So, it was important for the filmmaking community to respond to Ajay’s arrest.”

Posters and pamphlets were released. Press conferences were held. Eminent people, like Mrinal Sen, Arundhati Roy, Aruna Roy, Habib Tanvir, Harsh Mander, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan signed a statement of support. “There was no doubt that because of the pressure brought about by the committee and the PUCL, I was released from prison, on August 5, after 93 days,” says Ajay.

After he came out, Ajay read the newspapers at Raipur and was disappointed by the coverage. “The newspapers described me as the public relations officer of the Maoists,” he says. “The Raipur media is scared of the government and the police, and will publish whatever is told to it. No journalist from any newspaper had asked me for my viewpoint.”

This biased coverage destroyed his social life. His friends and relatives stayed away. “People believe what they read,” he says. Ajay and his wife, Sobha were running a study centre for slum girls. “The local people harassed the volunteers,” he says. The police asked the girls whether they were being taught to make the sounds of dogs barking or cats mewing. “Apparently, the Maoists communicate with each other in the jungles by making these sounds,” he says.

There was further tragedy for Ajay. His younger brother, Anura, 41, who works in Dubai, had wanted to see him in prison. He flew to Kerala to meet some relatives, before seeing Ajay, and died in a car accident at Thrissur on June 19.

Asked about the impact of the arrest on him, Ajay says, “I have lost faith in the Indian state, the government and my country. Before going to jail, I was a courageous person. I felt I had the right to say what was true or false.” Now he has doubts about whether he could continue to live in Chhattisgarh, without being harassed. “Yet, I want to ensure that such a thing does not happen to other people,” he says.

He pauses, as rain falls in torrents outside the window of his sister’s home, looks up and says, “I am ready to die for this.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Old is gold

(A series on childhood memories)

K.M. Mathew is 101 years old, but he avidly remembers the 1924 floods that devastated Travancore-Cochin, and the numerous snakes he killed

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the family farm of K.M. Mathew, at Udayamperoor, there was a worker named Krishnan. He used to look after a lot of hens. One day a cobra entered the coop and gobbled up 15 eggs. When Krishnan dropped a load of wood on the ground near the coop, he saw the cobra. He ran away screaming for Mathew.

“At that time, I was well known in the village for killing snakes,” says Mathew, 101. “I had no fear.” Because the cobra had eaten so much, it was unable to move. In desperation, it started vomiting out the eggs.

However, when Mathew arrived, armed with a stick, the cobra was still immobile. With one blow, he killed the snake. “I always hit a few centimetres below the back of the head,” he says. “Death is instantaneous.”

Mathew was the son of a wealthy farmer. The fourth of seven children he studied in a school at Mulanthuruthy.

“In 1916, there were no text books or slates,” he says. “The teacher would write something on the blackboard and we would memorise it. But, at the end of the day, when I reached home, I would have forgotten most of the things that had been taught.”

To reach the school, Mathew had to cross a river on a boat. On the way, his friends and neighbours would play a lot of pranks. One day, his friend, Paul, hit the edge of the boat and fell into the river. He was hauled back and seemed all right. But there was a wound on his chest, which lay untreated, and a few days later, he contracted typhoid, and died suddenly. “I have never forgotten him,” says Mathew.

When he was in Class 7, Mathew’s education was abruptly stopped, as his father needed help on the farm. So, every morning, after a breakfast of kanji and pickle, Mathew would set out for work.

Since he was the landowner’s son, his job was one of supervision. At that time, there were a large number of workers from the Pelayan caste. “In those times, we could buy these people,” says Mathew. But their fortunes changed for the better when the SNDP school was established at Udayamperoor in 1951.

“The Pelayans were able to get educated,” says Mathew. And thus began their long journey out of poverty. He remembers a Pelayan called Iyer, who worked for the family, and lived to be 100. Iyer’s grandson, Paramu, became a captain of a ship, while Paramu’s son married a girl from the Cochin royal family, and lives in America.

Sometimes, Mathew had to stay awake at night. That was when the water wheels (chakrams) were used. This was a contraption, which had several planks attached to a wheel. “Two men would press on the plank, like as if they are moving a pedal,” says Mathew. The plank would lift water from the pond and let it flow into the paddy fields. “In the absence of motor pumps, this was the way we watered the paddy fields,” he says. Most of the time, the workers fortified themselves with liquor, before working right through the night.

There were also occasions when Mathew played the role of a watchman. At night, men would roam around, plucking coconuts and mangoes from trees. Mathew and his cousins would lie in wait in the dark. As soon as a thief stole a coconut, they would nab him. “In those days, we did not take the thief to the police station,” he says. “We would slap him, and make him take an oath that he will not steal again. Usually, the thief stayed away from our property.”

Of course, there were hilarious moments, too. Sometimes, Mathew’s uncle would also accompany the young lads. Unfortunately, he suffered from a perennial throat ailment. In the silence of the night, he would clear his throat. “The moment the thieves heard that, they knew my uncle was around and would run away,” says a smiling Mathew.

It was an uneventful life, except when Nature exhibited its fury. Mathew remembers the 1924 floods, which devastated Travancore-Cochin, like as if it had happened yesterday. “It rained for nine days non-stop,” says Mathew. “Hundreds of people died, mostly in the high ranges, apart from thousands of cattle and other animals.”

In their property, except for the house, which was at an elevated level, the rest of the area was under water. “At that time, there were no dams to control the flow of the water,” he says. But there was one advantage: the silt left behind was good manure for the crops.

Mathew, who is the father of five children, and has 47 great grandchildren, is now living with his son, Dr. M.M. Francis, at Edapally. He stays with all his children a few months at a time. Asked whether the earlier eras were better, he says, simply, “Every era is nice.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Trying to change the world

Part-time musician, Thomas Easaw, sings songs in support of Barack Obama, and against the war in Iraq. He has also invented several new theories for the regeneration of mankind

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is an avid fan of Barack Obama at Kadavanthra. Thomas Easaw, an engineer and part-time singer, has brought out a CD, ‘Five for Obama’, which are songs in praise of the Democratic nominee for the US Presidency.

“Obama is the new beacon of hope worldwide,” he says. “He is the only politician in America who is willing to address the truth. If I don’t use my music and voice in support of him, I will do a great injustice to myself.”

The songs in the Obama CD range from ‘Why Not Try Obama’ to a ‘Vote for Obama’ song. Here is a sample lyric:

great nations
were never forever
so beware
You need a different man
to lead you today
So, America, think it over
Why not try Obama?

Around 2,000 copies of the CD have been made, and Thomas is giving it away as complimentary gifts. Free downloads are also available from his website:

A couple of years ago, Thomas had brought out a CD against America’s involvement in Iraq. The most popular song on it was called ‘The Request’. Amazingly, if you type, ‘anti-war songs’, in the search icon on You Tube, this song appears first on the list, out of 3,440 videos.

“With my songs, I wish to change the world for the better,” he says. “Long after I am dead and gone, I want my children to say, ‘The world, after Thomas Easaw, is definitely better than the world before him’. This can happen if people will accept my Justice Theory.”

According to Thomas, what people need today is justice. “Justice for the rich is capitalism, and justice for the poor is communism, while justice for everybody, irrespective of caste, creed or brains, is my Justice Theory,” he says.

Thomas has invented other theories also: The ‘pseudo economic’ theory; the ‘real terrorism’ theory; the ‘love yourself first’ theory; the ‘detached from the event’ theory; the ‘factual ignorance’ theory; and the ‘expect the worst’ theory.

In ‘expect the worst’ theory, he writes, ‘The first step of being optimistic is to access the situation at its worst. Once at home with the worst, everything else will be an improvement. Then, you will have only one way to go, i.e. up.’

Of course, when somebody talks like this, the usual reaction is to dismiss him as a crank, or an eccentric. “A lot of people say I am a fool,” says Thomas. “But when people read my theories they will know that what I am writing is the truth. To be considered a fool is the price you have to pay, till your contemporaries catch up with you.”

One contemporary who has caught up with him is academic editor Sajjeev Antony. “I find the theories interesting,” he says. “Thomas’ ‘love yourself first’ theory is similar to the advanced notions in psychology, both ancient and modern, which states that, unless you love yourself, you cannot love others,” he says. However, Sajjeev says, for people to accept the theories, it needs to be refined some more.

Meanwhile, as Thomas ploughs a lonely furrow, his family -- wife, Grace Thomas, and twins, Rachel and Rebecca, 14 -- are firmly behind him. “I support him whole-heartedly,” says Grace. “I feel sad when people don’t realise that he is doing this for a good cause.”

Rebecca also finds society’s negative reaction painful to bear. “People laugh at my father,” she says. “Some say the songs are good, but they don’t take it seriously. I used to get upset, but not any longer.”

For Rachel, initially, she found it difficult to understand her dad’s theories, but has now got used to it. Like her twin sister, she is also upset by the negative reaction. “But I am determined to follow my dad’s path,” she says. “I would like to be a musician, a writer, an artist, and an engineer.”

Thomas studied engineering at NSS Engineering College, Palakkad. Today, he runs a firm which makes pollution control equipment. In his spare time, he composes songs and dabbles in philosophy.

“Once in two hundred years there comes a man who questions the fundamentals of philosophy,” he says. “By chance, I am that man. If I don’t do it, in the next 50 years, the world may be in an irremediable mess.”

You could conclude easily that Thomas is mad, but he is nothing of the sort. He just has a unique way of looking at life, and an unshakeable belief that his theories can change the planet.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fun, fun, fun

(Ex-employees of The Week met for a get-together recently. A recap of the event)

By Shevlin Sebastian

And so, here we were, the ex-Weekers meeting after a long time at Litta’s place, at Rosemount Homes, on Kunjan Bawa Road on Saturday, August 30. The early birds were Anna and Sivaram, while I arrived on the dot at 5.30 p.m. Jacob got delayed, because a relative landed at his home at Kakkanad just as he was setting out. As for Sumi, the moving force of the group, well, she was laid low by a cranky daughter, Anindita, and, thus, was unable to come.

We missed you Sumi!

Apart from Litta, there was her daughter, Sneha, who is working as a designer in the kidswear section of Madura Coats at Bangalore. Litta runs a three-woman household. Her younger daughter, Sarah, is a features writer in The Economic Times and Litta, as you know, is holding court at The Hindu. She is doing desk work, but says that she has not yet come up with the classic headline that she gave for an interview with author Patrick French in The Week: ‘French Toast on the coast.’

“The Hindu wants staid headlines,” says an unstaid Litta.

And there was Anna, wearing a salwar kameez stitched by herself, fingers painted red, while toenails were black, brown streaks in her hair, and with a Cannes 2008 bag in tow. She is in a designer mood these days and was all set to party later in the night at nightclub Tandaav. Of course, we had to tease her about her famous photo with Mammooty, in which, while he looked straight ahead at the lens, Anna had her bum turned towards him and a “I wish I was with John Abraham” look.

She asked me, in all seriousness, like as if she was interviewing The Dalai Lama, “Do you think about sex ALL the time?”

Her face fell when I said, “Only 99 per cent of the time.”

Talk veered around to the sexual exploits of M.J. Akbar, Jacob’s former editor at The Deccan Chronicle, and how easy it was for attractive women to fast-forward their careers, if they slept with the boss.

Naturally I said, “When a woman approached Akbar, she had to do so vertically.”

A perceptive Anna said, “Not vertically, Shevlin, but horizontally!”

But I could not miss having the last word: “Sometimes, you have to be vertical also.”

Ha! Ha!

Wonder what Sneha made of all this. Mother and daughter had come to Kochi, on a flying visit, to clear the house, so that it could be given for rent.

As we talked, here was Siva taking shots so well and catching us off guard. God, I never knew I laughed with my eyes closed.

And, guess what, we spoke little about our time in The Week. Now of us feel weak. In fact, we feel quite strong.

Litta, young at heart, talked about her embarrassment, when Sarah’s friend, who is working with her, called out loudly, “Auntie!”

Chips and jalebis from Mattancherry were munched. Mirinda and Pepsi were drunk. Litta offered home-made sweet wine and whisky, but, alas, we are all boring teetotalers.

The rain fell in torrents; there was the usual half-an-hour power-cut. The inverter worked for 20 minutes and packed up. We sat in darkness for 10 minutes.

What else???

Those who were freelancing complained about the TDS. Jacob, the freelance master, professed surprise. He was only deducted 2.1 per cent for his assignments, while Sivaram and Anna spoke about 10 to 11 per cent. Arguments went back and forth, till Jacob called a tax consultant, who confirmed that those were on a contract were charged 2.1 per cent, while the rest were axed a minimum of 10 per cent. I hope I got the figures right, guys. I am writing this from memory.

But the good thing about this meeting was that we laughed a lot. We wished you guys were here: Sam, Sujit, and, of course, our dream girl, Sumi. Others said they would come but didn’t: Sreedevi the second, heavily pregnant, like Sreedevi the first, and Anandan. What happened guys?

Anyway, we should do this once in a while.

It was good fun!!!!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Memories of a bygone era

(A series on childhood memories)

As a child, M.K. Sanoo, writer and critic, heard the fiery speeches of political leader C. Kesavan and helped families during a famine in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was studying in Class six at the Leo 13 school at Allapuzha, my father died suddenly,” says M.K. Sanoo, 80, retired professor, writer and critic. Because of the need to perform certain rituals, Sanoo was absent from school for several days.

When he rejoined, the teacher noticed that the boy had not done his homework. He beat Sanoo with a cane and made him stand on a bench for one period.

“It was a painful memory,” says Sanoo, who was a brilliant student. “I had never been punished like this before.” Everybody was terrified of the teacher, but he had hoped that one of his classmates could have told the master about his father’s death.

Sanoo was very close to his father, M.C. Kesavan, who owned a textile shop at Allapuzha town. This shop was the meeting place for all the leading politicians of the era. Sanoo remembers seeing Communist Party leaders, T.V. Thomas and R. Sugathan, and Congress leader, T.M. Varghese.

One day, in 1935, his father took him to a political meeting where C. Kesavan, state Congress leader, spoke out against the autocratic rule of Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the Diwan of Travancore. There were lakhs of people in attendance.

“I sat on the shoulders of my father,” says Sanoo. “Kesavan delivered a fiery speech. I cannot recollect what he spoke, but he kept repeating the word, ‘swathanthryam’ (freedom),” he says.

Hearing these speeches seemed to have a positive effect on Sanoo. In Class six, he took part in a debate on the topic: ‘War is good for the people’. “I did not agree with the motion, but my teacher told me to speak for it,” he says. “So I said if a small country wanted to become a big country, war was the only way it could expand its territory.” This was the first speech in his life and his usually unruly classmates listened to him in spellbound silence.

Every night, Sanoo would wait for his father to return from work. After dinner, his father would tell him stories from the Ramayana, Puranas and foreign books.

“One of the stories he narrated to me was Leo Tolstoy’s ‘How much land does a man need?’” says Sanoo. Later, his father gave him a book, ‘Twenty-Three Tales’ by Tolstoy. “It was a much-treasured gift and I can still remember all the tales in it,” he says.

His father, a kind and generous man, always gave him gifts. Once he had gone to Mumbai to sell a consignment of tea. When he returned, he bought several toys for all the children in their joint family at Thumpolly.

Sanoo got a German-make mouth organ. “I preserved it for many years and gave it to my children,” he says. “I also received a fountain pen called Blackbird. Sadly, somebody took it away.”

It was not that his father was generous only to his family. In fact, he cared for the society at large. After the Second World War, there was a famine in Kerala. Sanoo’s father bought a huge sack of rice from a wholesale merchant at Chungam. “We went from house to house distributing rice,” says Sanoo. “The people were so grateful.”

When soldiers sent inland letters, Sanoo would read it out to relatives, who could not read, and would write replies for them also.

Sanoo inherited his father’s charitable disposition. As a result, people liked him a lot.

On Chingam 1, there was a belief that if a particular person entered the house, it would bring blessings and good luck. “I was always in demand on that day,” says a smiling Sanoo. “I would get up at 5 a.m., have a bath and be ready.”

At that time, Sanoo belonged to the leading land-owning family at Thumpolly -- Mangalath -- which owned hundreds of acres of land. Every season, the family would sell around 50,000 coconuts. So, pocket money was not a problem. He used it to see dramas and films. He remembers the first talking film he saw at the Vani Vilasam theatre at Allapuzha: ‘Shaakuntalam,’ starring M.S. Subbalakshmi.

“I can still recall the scene when a pregnant Shakuntala comes in front of King Dushyantha and he says, ‘I don’t know who you are.’ And she leaves the palace with tears in her eyes.”

But all good times come to an end. “My father’s death was the turning point in my life,” says Sanoo, teary-eyed, while sitting next to a bust of Sree Narayana Guru at his house near Monastery Road.

With his mother, he moved to another house. An only child -- two brothers and a sister died early -- mother and son endured several years of financial hardships.

“At that time I did not know what a struggle my mother went through, to earn money,” he says. “I was only able to appreciate her courage when I grew up.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Preparing them for the future

Nita Simon of Rajagari Public School attended the Future World Leaders Summit at Washington and came away enlightened

By Shevlin Sebastian

Erika Eckstut lived in Czeckoslovakia during the Second World War, when Germany annexed the country. Every day she used to go out to look for bread. “As a Jew, it was illegal to do so, but since I was blonde, blue-eyed, and spoke German fluently, I could pass unnoticed,” she says.

However, one day, a suspicious German policeman said, “Take me to your home.” A terrified Erika, who lived in the Czernowitz ghetto, knew that her whole family would be killed if she led him there.

Thinking quickly, she took the policeman to the house of an opera singer who lived nearby. “When we rang the bell a beautiful lady opened the door, and I said, ‘Mama,’” says Erika. “The policeman said, ‘Is this your daughter, Madam?’”

The lady slapped Erika and told her she should have been home earlier to do her homework. “The policeman said, ‘Please don’t hit her,’ and left,” says Erika. “The lady then gave me a hug, and said, ‘Are you from the ghetto?’”

It was this testimony by Erika, 80, about her experiences during the World War that deeply moved all the participants at the Future World Leaders Summit, organised by Presidential Classroom, at Washington recently. “By the end of the talk I was in tears,” says Nita Simon, 17, of Rajagiri Public School.

Nita, the sole representative from Kerala, was one of 23 students from all over India who went for the Leaders Summit. The school’s Parent-Teacher Association had sponsored the trip of this Class 12 student.

The Presidential Classroom, started by the late US President, John F. Kennedy, prepares young students, from the ages of 14 to 18, as future leaders in public service and private enterprise.

There were participants from 20 countries, including the USA, the European Union, Africa and Asia. The students were divided into nine groups of 40 students each and had to present a communique on different subjects.

Nita’s team focussed on world hunger. “To remove it, we suggested land reallocation in the poorer parts of the world,” says Nita. “We also suggested that food should be collected from all over the world.”

For example, in five-star hotels, according to its norms, leftover food is not supposed to be served the next day. This food could be collected and transported to poor countries. “However, a few students felt it was impractical,” says Nita, who presented the communiqué on behalf of her team. Eventually, eight topics were put to the vote and only three, including the one on hunger, were selected.

Later, the participants attended a seminar at the World Bank and learnt how loans were distributed to various countries. There were visits to different embassies, like Saudi Arabia. “Most of us wanted to know what would happen to Saudi Arabia’s economy once the oil ran out,” says Nita.

The embassy’s reply: The country had developed its trade to such an extent that it did not depend on oil any more. The country also has a vast potential to develop solar energy.

Apart from these formal meetings, Nita enjoyed her interaction with other students. “The Ethiopians said the economic situation in their country was grave,” she says. “The participants were from affluent families, but even they needed a scholarship to come to the summit.”

Nita was struck by how inhibited the Americans and the Europeans were. “They did not mix easily,” she says. “The Indians, the Sri Lankans and the Taiwanese went out of their way to meet people.”

Nita feels it may have something to do with the Asian upbringing. “Because we have so many relatives, we have learnt to interact with different types of people,” she says. “Most of the people in the West live in nuclear families.”

Another aspect that made her uneasy was the lack of respect given to elders by the Westerners. “We always addressed the seniors as Sir or Mr.,” she says. But the Western girls always used first names. “For them, whether old or young, everybody is equal,” she says. “It seemed fine, but I prefer that we show some respect. We need to know where to draw the line.”

Meanwhile, it was not all work and no play. The organisers had fitted in some leisure time. Nita marveled at the hugeness of the Pentagon Mall and enjoyed visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson memorial, the Air Force Memorial and, of course, the Capitol. “The monuments are so neat and clean, unlike those in India, which are dirty and there is graffiti on the walls,” she says.

Asked about the difference between Washington and Kochi, Nita says, “The striking difference is the cleanliness. Washington is a picture-perfect city. There, everything is orderly and there are no traffic jams. But, despite all the problems here, I am proud to be a Kochiite.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

‘This was a man’

(A tribute to Justice George Vadakkel, of the Kerala High Court, whose 10th death anniversary was on August 23, 2008)

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of my most vivid memories of the late Justice George Vadakkel (or Kuttapan Uncle to me) was when I was eight years old. I was playing badminton with my cousins, Joseph and Rita, in the backyard of their house, near Ernakulam General Hospital.

We heard the sound of an Ambassador car enter the garage, which was beside the backyard. Through a gap in the garage door, I saw the future judge, clad in typical lawyer’s attire – black cloak over white shirt and trousers – step out of the car and stride briskly into the house. Even at that young age, I could sense the urgency and purposefulness of the man.

Joseph said, with a raised eyebrow, “Has Appan come?”

“Yes,” I said.

We continued to play, but our voices had become subdued. The only sound was of the racket hitting the shuttle with a ‘twack twack’ sound.

Within minutes, Kuttapan Uncle had finished his tea and was at work at his first-floor office. He worked like a beaver: non-stop, with immense dedication and sincerity to his calling.

I lived in Calcutta at that time. But whenever I came to Kerala, during the many holidays in my teenage years, an enduring image is that of my uncle working relentlessly. I have never seen a man work so hard in my life. His children and I were in awe and we kept our distance because of our respect for him.

Many years would pass before I had a free-flowing conversation with him. By then he had retired and obviously had more time at his disposal. A near-fatal heart attack in 1993 had slowed him down. He was constantly on medicines now and had lost some of the pace that had characterised his earlier years.

But what I noticed was how profoundly religious he was. He went to church every day – a habit he developed from his student days – and sustained till the end of his life. He was also humility personified. He never gave any airs because he was a judge. He took it as a job given to him by God and performed it to the best of his ability. He had an impregnable integrity. As a result, he had a blemish-less career in the judiciary. No one could point an accusing finger at him.

The Chief Justice of Kerala, Om Prakash, while mourning his death on August 23, 1998, said: “Sensitive to the finer nuances of the law, Justice Vadakkel was able to rise above the technicalities of the law and render substantial justice. He was unconventional and unassuming, absolutely free and natural and devoid of official egoism, when moving with others.” In legal circles, his judgements were known for its precision and clarity.

There was no doubt that, because of his career, the family had to go through a tough time. A judge’s income, during those days, was not high. To make things difficult, the family was large. But they managed. In the end, all three sons and four daughters are well-placed and leading successful lives.

Here we should not forget the immense contribution of his wife, Rosy, constantly talking, unafraid to take a stand, efficient in running a big household, as strong a personality as her husband, who stood like a rock behind the family.

As a writer and journalist, there arose in me a desire to capture the essence of this noble man in words. After all, he was one of the most illustrious members of our family.

Every time I came to Kerala for a holiday, I had a keen desire to ask him about his life: how did he get this calling for law? What was the influence of his parents? Who framed his philosophy of life? What sort of a society was Muvattupuzha 60 years ago? What were the high and low points of his career? What was the secret behind a long-lasting marriage? (He had just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary.)

There were so many questions. But, somehow, I never got down to asking him anything. Maybe, there was in me that lingering childhood awe. Maybe, there was a shyness. For so long it had been a formal relationship. Now to become close needed a leap of faith and courage from me. I was not sure I could handle such an intimacy.

Inevitably, on the train to Calcutta, I would tell my wife that on our next visit I would make sure that I would ask my uncle all these questions. But, sadly, life does not wait for anybody who hesitates. On August 23, 1998, soon after attending the Sunday mass at a nearby chapel, my uncle had a massive heart attack and died on the way to Lisie Hospital.

When I heard the news, I felt deep loss and anguish. I realised I had delayed too long. There was an unforgettable lesson that I learnt: time and life does not stop for anybody. So, try to live each day as if it is your last. Be friends with people sooner than later. Do things today, rather than tomorrow. Never put off anything for the future.

I would like to end with the famous quote by Mark Antony at Brutus’ death in Sheakespeare’s Julius Caeser:

‘His life was gentle and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to the world
This was a man!’

(This was written in 1998)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chilling out at Kochi

Sailors from the Chilean sail ship, Esmeralda, had an enjoyable experience in the city

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sailors Cristobal Luchinger, 21, and Braulio Garces, 23, from the Chilean navy ship, ‘Esmeralda’, went on a rowing expedition on a river near Kochi. They rowed for an hour and reached an island where there were a group of houses. The people saluted them, as they docked at the jetty.

“When we stepped on shore, we told the people we had been sailing for three days and had not eaten during this time,” says Cristobal. Immediately, a family welcomed them home and served the men a sumptuous lunch. A crowd of people had gathered outside.

“The people were kind and hospitable,” says Braulio. Soon, it was time to go. A grateful Cristobal leaned forward and gave a peck on the cheek to the woman of the house. The crowd let out a collective ‘Aaaah’ and looked shocked.

“I did not know we were not allowed to kiss women in Kerala,” says Cristobal, with a smile. “In Chile, we greet women by giving them a peck on the cheek.”

For most of the crew, their most stunning experience was seeing elephants. “In Chile, we only see elephants in a circus,” says Carlos Goody, 23. He says he went on a ride and felt nervous all the time.

The Esmeralda is a training ship and has a total of 345 sailors. It set sail on May 4 from Chile and arrived at Kochi last week for a couple of days. So far, it has touched ports in Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Morocco, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt, before it reached Kochi. Future points of call include South Africa and Argentina, before it will dock at Chile on December 7, after covering a distance of 45,000 kms.

“If the weather is pleasant, we use the sails and can get a top speed of 10 knots an hour,” says Cristobal. “This is a very economical way to travel, as we do not need to use fuel.”

However, if the weather is bad, the sails are brought down and the engines are switched on. “But there is not much difference in the speed,” he says. “The ship moves at 11 knots an hour.”

When they are at sea, the sailors, most of whom are in their early twenties, get up at 6 a.m., do exercises, have breakfast and attend classes from 9 to 12 p.m. “It is on basic stuff like how to stop a fire on a ship, and use a compass,” says Carlos. “We learn of methods to protect the environment and what our responsibilities will be when we become officers.”

At 12, there is a lunch break, following which there is a period of rest. Classes continue from 3 p.m. There are practical lessons on how to manouevre the ship and hoist the sails.

From 7 p.m. to midnight, it is leisure time again. “Some of us study,” says Braulio. “Others watch television or read newspapers, play cards or a popular dice game known as cacho.”

But it has not always been smooth sailing. “We had received several wireless messages from our home base warning us that pirates were attacking ships almost every day in the Gulf of Aden,” says Carlos. “We were very scared, since we are not a warship, just a training ship. Thankfully, nothing happened.”

Thereafter, most of the crew members looked forward to the time when the ship halted at ports. For all of them, seeing the Pyramids was the most fascinating experience. “It was unbelievable,” says Braulio.

In Casablanca, they saw the tallest mosque in the world: the Hassan 11 mosque, built at a cost of $800 million. “We also went to Tangiers and experienced temperatures of 50 degrees Centigrade for the first time,” says Carlos. “The Arabian headgear was very useful.”

For Cristobal, it was at Istanbul that he first experienced the concept of ‘bargaining’. “You can bring down the price of a product to a large extent,” he says. “The shopkeepers don’t give up. If we say, ‘No, thank you’, the salesmen would follow us out of the shop, trying to persuade us to change our minds. In Chile, prices are fixed for all items.”

So, what has been the learning experience of the trip so far? “By experiencing so many cultures, it has made me broad-minded,” says Cristobal. For Carlos, he was happy to develop a sense of camaraderie with his fellow sailors, all new to the profession, like him. Says Captain Victor Zanelli: “This training will strengthen their mind and spirit.”

But all the sailors had one singular experience. As Cristobal says, “The long absence from my family has enabled me to appreciate them all the more.”

As to whether they would like to come to Kochi again, Carlos says, “Definitely, 100 per cent. But I would like to come on a holiday, and not in an official capacity.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Here’s to a bright new Day

Rapper Billy Day delights fans with his thumping beats and energetic performances

By Shevlin Sebastian

Billy Day was in Chennai when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004. "I saw Ambassador cars floating about and people clinging to trees on Marine Drive," he says. "It had a huge impact on me."

A few days later, when Billy was walking towards a restaurant for lunch, the words, 'Maybe we cannot bring back the lost lives, maybe it's easier to die than cry' came to his mind.

He thought to himself, 'Oh man, a song is coming!' Billy started working on the lyrics and, within two months, the song, 'Waves of compassion' was released, to critical and popular acclaim. It was ranked No. 1 for four weeks on and received airplay all over the world.

Here are a couple of stanzas:

Where do we turn when the tide has spoken?
What do ya say when the silence is broken?
The day the waves became a watery grave
The sun went black and our lives turned gray.

The weeping, the wailing, the terror, the screaming,
Tsunami hit ... and we all come crashing down.
We really need another wave - a wave of compassion,
Sweeping across every tongue, colour and nation.

Billy also sings songs of love and happiness. "I make positive music, because there is a lot of negative stuff going on," he says. "Music can change people's moods. I try to inspire hope, goodwill, and compassion."

Billy, who sings a repertoire of hip-hop/rock and pop, was in Kochi recently to give a concert to numerous youngsters. Asked why he mixes up the genres, he says, "It increases my creativity and gets me a wider audience."

IT consultant, Santosh John, 29, who attended the concert, says, "Billy's performance was electrifying. Since he was singing hip-hop, we could relate to what he was singing."

Chartered accountant, Ruth Susan Stanley, 22, found that the words of the songs were very meaningful. “I liked 'I Found Love' the most," she says.

Most of Billy's songs are popular with young people and he has a keen insight into their psychological make-up. "What I have noticed among youngsters these days is that there is a lot of hype about being false, or trying to act cool, so that you are accepted," he says. "I always tell them to be authentic."

Billy grew up in Nagercoil, Chennai and Bangalore, the son of Prakash Yesudian, who has composed Tamil songs. However, he only started learning the guitar when he was in Class five.

"I started late, but I developed a deep passion for music," he says. "My parents encouraged me. I had a personal tutor to teach me." After graduating in English from Madras Christian College, he struggled for many years. "There was a lot of frustration," he says. "However, the bottom-line is to be faithful to your talent and follow your dreams."

His first break came when his song, 'I Found Love' was featured in the album 'WoW India' in 2002 ( Thereafter, in the next few years, Billy did numerous concerts across the length and breadth of India.

Billy experienced a creative turning point when he met John Schlitt, the lead singer of the multi-Grammy award-winning group, Petra, who had come on a tour of India in May this year. Billy was supposed to be the master of ceremonies; however, when there was a delay during a concert at Kohima, the organisers requested him to play. "I did a couple of songs and John was listening in the green room," says Billy. "He immediately said, 'I want this guy to open at every concert.'"

Thereafter, Billy travelled with John all over India and imbibed songwriting wisdom from the master. "John said that when you write, you should keep your target audience in mind," he says. "If a song has to be a hit, the lyrics should complement the music, and vice versa. The song also has to connect with the listener."

Billy is excited about the craft of writing. "You can bang wood together and make a chair," he says. "Or you can do it in a calm way, and concentrate on style and texture. I really work hard on my lyrics." He is now working on bringing out his first album, which will contain 15 of his best songs.

Surprisingly, for a rapper, Billy is based in Kodaikanal, where he is the web master of the Kodaikanal International School and lives there with his wife, Beth, and six-year-old son, Micah.

Asked why he changed his surname from Yesudian to Day, he smiles and says, "Two reasons. Firstly, I was born on May Day. Secondly, people found it difficult to pronounce Yesudian. The new surname is easy to remember - like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Billy Day."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, September 08, 2008


Snake catchers risk their lives every day to do their job, but the public is indifferent to their skills.

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the courtyard of V. Suresh’s house, at Cheruvackal, in Thiruvananthapuram, there are several plastic drums placed side by side, with gunny sacks placed over it. It looks innocuous enough, except when Suresh lifts the gunny sack over one drum. Through a wire-mesh door, you can see numerous hissing cobras. “There are 25 cobras in this drum,” says Suresh, 36, calmly.

He opens the lock, and with an iron rod, which is curved at one end, he prods the snakes. The hissing grows even louder. At this moment, a rat, with terrified eyes, jumps through the entrance. Immediately, Suresh lunges for the rat, but it manages to scamper away.

Suresh pulls out a cobra with the rod and flings it to the ground. With his eyes fixed on the cobra, he closes the door shut. This particular cobra is 10 feet long, and has raised its hood, its tongue darting in and out.

Suresh steps behind, grabs the tail and holds up the snake at some distance from the body. The cobra tries to raise its head, but all Suresh does is to shake the tail and it slides back again.

For a king cobra, he says, it is better to hold the head down with a hook before catching the tail, because it is at least 14 feet long. “For the other snakes, which are five or six feet long, we can hold it first by the tail,” he says.

Last month, Suresh caught 170 snakes. “There were several rat snakes, flying snakes, an 8 ft long krait and 114 cobras, of which 60 were baby cobras,” he says.

Ever since his mobile number was published in a local newspaper and announced on a programme on FM radio, he has been getting calls every day from people from all over the city. As soon as he gets a call, Suresh sets out on his Honda Activa scooter.

“I rush quickly because I am scared the people will try to kill the snake,” he says. After he catches a snake, he brings it home in a sack and stores it in the drums.

“At this moment, I have 45 snakes, the majority of them cobras, while there are some vipers and rat snakes,” he says. He opens a plastic bottle and points at a baby cobra, which has a red wound on its back. “A group of people had tried to kill it and I arrived in the nick of time,” he says. “I am treating it with medicine.”

Meanwhile, he has put rat cages in several houses in the neighbourhood. Every morning, he goes around, collects the rats and feeds it to the snakes. “Once a snake eats a rat, it can survive for 10 weeks without any food.”

At the end of the month, Suresh puts the snakes in sacks and delivers it to the Forest Department whose employees release it in nearby jungles.

Suresh has been doing this job for twenty years and has caught over 10,000 snakes. But, as is usually the case, catching the first snake was the most thrilling.

One day when he was 12 years old, Suresh was walking through a forest in Cheruvackal, when he spotted a rat snake. “I instinctively caught the tail and held up the snake,” he says. He was so excited he did not go to school. Instead, he roamed around the whole day with the snake.

“When I had to return home in the evening, I released it,” he says. “That night, I could not sleep. I was thinking, ‘I caught a snake, I caught a snake.’ After that, whenever I saw a snake, I would catch it.” Today, Suresh, who lives with his parents and sister, is a full-time snake catcher.

But this job has its dangers. Suresh has been bitten four times, three times by cobras and once by a viper. At all times, it happened through carelessness. He had caught a cobra in a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram and put it in the sack. An onlooker wanted to see it. So, he took it out and showed it and then began having a conversation with the man. “I completely forgot about the snake,” he says. Suddenly, it bit him on the wrist. But he remained calm. He took the snake back home, stored it, and went to the Medical College hospital.

At the hospital, he was put on a ventilator and administered an anti-venom injection. “I remained in the hospital for 32 days,” he says. “This is part of the risks involved in this job.”

Byju Kumar, 32, knows a thing or two about risks. This snake catcher works in the reptile house at the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo. “Every day, I feed rat snakes for the king cobras,” he says. When the king cobra is busy eating, he steps inside to clean the cage. “You can imagine how dangerous it is,” he says.

Once, when the cobra was swallowing a rat snake, it spat it out and lunged at Byju who managed to escape and closed the door. “We don’t have any life insurance,” says this father of a baby son. “If a king cobra bites me, since no anti-venom is available in India, I will be dead within a minute.”

And yet, even though his daily wages is low, he continues to risk his life every day. But what galls him is the lack of respect given to snake catchers. “Whenever I am called to catch a snake from a house, the people are near tears,” he says. “But the moment I catch it, they lose interest and make fun of me. When I put the snake in the sack, they want to kill it. Sometimes, I have to give money, so that I can take the snake away.”

Still Byju continues to do the job, because, like Suresh, he loves snakes. “I know snakes look at every animal or human being as either food or foe,” he says. “But somehow, I still love it. I can’t explain the reason why.” Says Suresh: “I love snakes for this reason: God has created it in such a way that it is unable to distinguish between friend and foe.”

But Suresh’s friend, Vishal Kumar, 43, who listens intently, says, “The king cobra has the capacity to distinguish between friend and foe,” he says.

When he was a child, he caught a king cobra and put it in a cage. Vishal would feed it diligently. Finally, his parents pressured him to free it. He went several kilometres away and released it in a forest.

“A few days later, it had found its way back to my house,” he says. “If you have a python as a pet, you can use it as a pillow at night. It will not bite you.”

Vishal has been catching snakes for the past 27 years and has a unique record: he has never been bitten once. “I am very cautious when I approach a snake,” he says. “And thanks to God’s grace, nothing has happened to me till now.”

All of them talk about their fascination with snakes. But it is Suresh, who speaks aloud about the thought that surely crosses the minds of these snake catchers once in a while.

“I know one day I will die of a snake-bite,” he says. “This is my passion and it is going to kill me. I have no doubts about it. But I am not worried about my fate.”

Fast facts about snakes
Cobras and the Russel’s viper kill more than 20,000 people annually in India. Most of the time, cobras, in search of rats, enter houses. If a human accidentally steps on it, the bite proves fatal.

The King Cobra is the world’s largest and most dangerous snake. It can kill an elephant in less than three hours.

The King Cobra is the largest of all poisonous snakes. It is usually about 15 feet long, and is a snake eater. It has pythons and other cobras. The King Cobra is the most intelligent among the snakes. When erect, it can stand up to 6 feet in height.

A snake’s venom is a mixture of proteins and toxins. When a snake releases the venom, it affects the lungs, the heart, the muscles or the red blood cells. If a serum is not administered on time, death is the result.

Myths about snakes
Snakes bites cannot be cured by magic spells or mantras, roots or herbs. Anti-Venom is the only cure for the snake bite!
Snakes takes revenge: A snake's brain is not developed enough to retain memories. There is a myth that if you kill a snake, another, its mate will take revenge. This is not true, but this is what happens: A snake gives out a musk smell from the anal opening when it is killed. A nearby snake may come to investigate the smell and end up killing any human being present

Snakes sway to the music of the flute:
While playing the flute, the snake charmer moves it from side to side. It is the natural instinct of the snake to closely watch a moving object. Hence, it gives an impression of swaying to the music.
Snakes hypnotise: Snakes stare fixedly because it does not have eyelids and cannot blink.
Snakes guard wealth: This is not true. Old crumbling houses are ideal for snakes, as there are plenty of rats and mice. In ancient days, people buried their wealth and there was a possibility a snake and the hidden wealth were unearthed at the same time, giving this impression.

The village of Le Mat in Vietnam serves snake as a delicacy. Several local families are employed as snake catchers to provide an 11-course meal, all made from snake, for visitors and tourists from nearby Hanoi.
On the first Thursday in May every year, the town of Cocullo in Italy celebrates snakes in a big way. What they are actually celebrating is their patron saint, St Dominick.

San Domenico Abate (as he is known locally) lived in the 10th century. He had miraculous healing powers, especially over snakebite.

The Festa Dei Serpari (`serpari' means `snake-catchers') begins with a church service, followed by a procession through the streets of Cocullo.

The serpari capture dozens of snakes in the weeks before the festival. The fangs are removed, and on the day of the festival the serpari cover themselves as well as the saint's statue with the reptiles.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

When distance creates pain

(A series on childhood memories)

Watching a robbery at close quarters, and missing his parents, who lived elsewhere, were some of the childhood memories of oncologist Dr. V.P. Gangadharan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One summer, we had gone to the Tirupati temple,” says Dr. V.P. Gangadharan, well-known oncologist at Lakeshore Hospital. The family consisted of Gangadharan’s parents, two older brothers, and a sister. On the way back, when the train halted at Chittoor station in Andhra Pradesh, at 7 p.m., the children wanted to eat vadas, dipped in curd.

Gangadharan’s father stepped out to buy it, but when he put his hand in the trouser pocket, the purse was missing. “Thankfully, the tickets were in the shirt pocket,” says Gangadharan. “We had no money, except Rs 1.50, which one of my brothers had.”

When dinner-time came, the family sat silently, even though they were assailed by hunger pangs. “I have never forgotten the look on my father’s face,” says Gangadharan. “He was feeling so bad, because he could not buy us anything.”

At Jollarpettai, they got into the jam-packed Blue Mountain Express, which would take them to their home at Tirupur. For the next ten hours, the family stood, without food or sleep, till they reached Tirupur at 11 a.m.

“That was the day I understood the value of food and comfortable train journeys,” he says.

Despite the hassles of travel, trains held a deep fascination for Gangadharan. Every evening, at 6.30 p.m., he would go with his elder brother, Balachandran, to the railway tracks.

“We would wait to see the Blue Mountain Express, which would come from Mettupallayam via Coimbatore, on its way to Chennai,” he says. “I felt a tremendous excitement when I saw the train.”

It was an idyllic life, till his parents decided that in order to get a better education the children should study in Kerala. So, his elder sister, Padmaja, and he moved to Irinjalakuda where they stayed with their grandmother and went to a government school. Gangadharan was in Class four at that time. A few years later, as his grandmother aged some more, the children were again shifted to Vaikom, where they stayed with their aunt.

Once every two months, Gangadharan’s parents would come for a short visit. “When they would leave, we would feel very sad,” he says. “It was a very painful period. There were many occasions when my sister and I have cried in our sleep.” (This absence had such a profound impact on him that, years later, when he became a parent he ensured that his sons – Gokul, 24, and Govind, 21 – lived with him throughout their school and college years.)

Meanwhile, there were moments of tension, also. One evening, when Gangadharan’s uncle and aunt had come on a visit, a robber entered the house, pushed his aunt to the floor, grabbed the gold necklace around her neck, and ran away.

“I started trembling,” says Gangadharan. “Thereafter, for the next few days, when evening came, Padmaja and I would start shaking. We were terrified that, when my uncle and aunt left, the thief would come again.”

However, there were good times, also. Next to their house, on Peshkar Road, was the Vettiyattil House. The family was the trustees of the Koodalmanikyam Temple at Irinjalakuda.

Every evening, all the boys in the locality would gather at this house. “We would play badminton, football, cricket, or go swimming in the pond,” he says. “But the best part was that the elders would also play with us.” Later, the children were given tea and snacks.

“The Vettiyattils treated all of us like their own children,” he says. “I have never come across another family which showed so much of generosity and love.”

One advantage of the boys playing together was that it fostered a deep sense of unity. “We would take part in local tournaments and be known as the Peshkar Road club team,” he says.

Gangadharan also secured an advantage in school. “Even though I was the smallest boy in the class, once the bullies came to know I was from Peshkar Road, they did not harass me,” he says.

Meanwhile, despite his parents’ physical absence, Gangadharan loved them very much. “My mother showed so much of love,” he says. Whenever he would go home for the holidays, and studied late, his mother would provide tea or coffee. “It was only after I went to bed that she would go to sleep,” he says.

His father exhibited sincerity and dedication in his job as a dyeing master in the textile industry. “He would set off at 8 a.m. and return at 9 p.m.,” says Gangadharan. “My father was a man of principles. I have never heard him tell a lie.”

His father was keen that his son did not pick up any bad habits. So, he would say, “You can spend any amount of money on food, but none on drinking or smoking.”

The message hit home. Today, Gangadharan does not drink or smoke.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Charming Chetan

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat came for a book reading to Kochi recently. And the youthful audience enjoyed its interaction with the author

By Shevlin Sebastian

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, 34, gets a thousand e-mails a week. And he remembers a mail he got recently.

“Priyanka (name changed) told me her parents had divorced when she was six,” says Chetan. When she was in Class eight, she used to maintain a diary about her romantic crushes. One day when she went to school, somebody saw the diary and showed it to one of the boys she liked.

“Priyanka told me she felt so embarrassed she came home and burnt herself,” says Chetan. “Today, she is completely disfigured. She is 20 now and relates to men over the Internet, but does not tell them she is disfigured.”

Priyanka told Chetan she found solace in his books. “She likes the characters, because they are young and suffering like her,” he says. “She says nobody understands her. I want to give her time, but I get so many mails like this. I am helpless, and it drains me.”

Chetan meets and interacts with young people all the time. The biggest problem is that, despite the booming economy, there are not enough opportunities, especially for young people in small towns.

“They lack access to good colleges,” he says. “There is a lot of ambition, but I fear it will turn to frustration soon. These things are affecting me a lot.”

But at the Bay Pride Mall at Kochi on Sunday, where he had come for a reading, organised by DC Books, he smiles easily, which deepens his boyishness, and gives an impression of laid-back casualness: he is wearing a black T-shirt and track pants and carries a rucksack.

Following the reading, he has an interactive session. “The most common question I get from all over India is about the characters,” he says. “So many readers feel the characters are real people and are keen to find out what they are doing today. I am very happy about this. It means my stories have transcended fiction.”

The Mumbai-based Chetan has come with his family – wife Anusha and twins, Ishaan and Shyam – on their first visit to Kerala. And, like any first-time visitor, he has been enthralled by the natural beauty.

“The tag line, God Own’s Country, is not over-hyped at all,” he says. However, he feels, the state is under-marketed in another way. “I am staying at Fort Kochi, where there is so much of culture, history, and heritage. This is not being emphasised at all. Kerala is not only about the coconut trees and the backwaters.”

He also says the book market in Kerala is large. “There are a lot of readers here,” he says. “English is very prevalent. It is one of the bigger markets in south India. No author can ignore Kerala.”

His first book, ‘Five Point Someone,’ published by Rupa in 2004, had become an unexpected bestseller, thanks to word of mouth publicity. Thereafter, his next two novels, ‘One Night At The Call Center’ (2005) and ‘The Three Mistakes Of My Life’ (May, 2008) also became bestsellers.

“He is our company’s most successful author,” says Kapish Mehra, publisher of Rupa. “His first two books have sold over a million copies, while the third, Three Mistakes, has already notched up sales of half a million in just three and a half months. His stories have become a part of the lives of young people.”

Asked how his books do well, while so many others fall by the wayside, Chetan says, “My books have touched a chord with people.”

Says author Shinie Antony, who has edited all three of his novels: “Chetan is the voice of the youth: its pain and passion. In his latest book, ‘Three Mistakes’, he writes about cricket, religion and politics - a very brave move for any author. But what he has done with these subjects has been very moving. His USP is his language, which is as anti-literary as you can get.”

Agrees English language trainer, Lakshmi Mahajankatti: “Chetan’s plus points are the simple language that he uses and he writes about people that the students can identify with. Thanks to him, young people have started reading novels these days.”

As a result of his popularity, Chetan is now regarded as a youth icon, but he is uncomfortable with the tag. “Just because you have written three popular novels does not make you an icon,” he says. “So, I don’t take it seriously.”

But what he is taking seriously is the October 10 release of the movie, ‘Hello’, which stars Salman Khan and Amrita Arora, among others, and is based on ‘One Night At The Call Center’. “The promos will be starting soon, and I am hoping the film will do well,” says Chetan, who wrote the screenplay.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express,Kochi)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

When Hari met Chethana…

The couple, who are devoted to dance and to each other, gave a performance at Kochi recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

In November, 2004, Hari and Chethana had gone to Kuala Lumpur to do a dance performance. There, they met Swami Shantananda Saraswati, the founder-guru of the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA). Shantananda asked the couple to perform for him, but they were unable to do so, since they had to stick to a schedule fixed by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

On July 27, 2005, Shantananda passed away at the TFA centre at Coimbatore. A close associate of the Swamiji asked the duo whether they would perform during the aradhana ceremony and they agreed.

During the performance at Coimbatore, as they stared straight ahead, at the audience, they suddenly saw the physical form of Swamiji.

"He was wearing a khadi kurta and dhoti," says Hari. "We did not get scared. But we could see love streaming out from him. He was saying, 'Don't worry, I am here. Do it.'"

It was the turning point for the couple. "Before that vision, we looked at life in a materialistic way," says Chethana. "We were unable to connect with audiences. From that day onwards, we became enlightened. Now we try to make the divine force flow through us into the dance."

Hari says that, earlier, they would dance from the mind. Now they do it through the soul. "It was also the day when Chethana and I developed a deep connection," he says. "Earlier, we were working partners. Then we became emotionally involved with each other."

On February 8, 2008, the couple tied the knot. So what did Hari like in Chethana? "She is a mature person and has a lot of inner fire. She wanted to be somebody in life," he says.

Chethana says she admires Hari's creativity. "He has unique thoughts and ideas," she says. "And he has the talent to implement these ideas in a beautiful manner. Only a few people can do that. He is an extraordinary artist."

Hari and Chethana met in 1996, in Bangalore, during an advanced course in Bharat Natyam. Both had become dancers from their childhood, thanks to the encouragement given by their families. Later, they shifted to Kathak and, today, they have given over 500 performances in India the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

Asked about the differences between audiences outside and in India, Hari says, "Abroad, there is no art form which links the people directly to God. There, the body speaks, while in India, it is the mind and the soul. So, they are very attracted to our dance forms."

Chethana says that in India, audiences have a deep knowledge of the art forms. "Hence, to stand out, you have to be exceptional," she says.

Hari and Chethana had come to Kochi recently to perform at the ‘Rubber Asia’ seminar held at the Taj Residency, Kochi. They did two short dances, each, a mix of various folk dances. "For a corporate audience, you need to be precise," says Hari. "We tried to show the flavours of India in a short time."

Hari wore a green shirt and yellow trousers, while Chethana was resplendent in a green paavada and blouse, with a yellow scarf. The music had a peppy beat and Hari developed a connection with the audience. He shook his anklets and said, "Dintha dintha tha dintha," and the tutored audience responded with, "Tak, Tak Tak."

It is Kathak with a modern face. Says corporate trainer Lalitha Menon: "There was a lot of synergy. The music and the dance steps merged beautifully, because Hari and Chethana have a natural flow. It was a wonderful experience."

Magazine artist Sunil Pankaj also enjoyed their performance. "They were concentrating on getting a good rhythm," he says. "However, because of the short time allotted, they seem to be doing it very fast."

Chethana agrees and says they had made two capsules of five minutes duration. "Nowadays, when there is no time for anything, we have to give just enough, so that it can be digested easily," she says.

To give back something to dance, which has given them everything, Hari and Chethana established the Noopur Art Centre in Bangalore in 1996. "Our parents suggested that instead of starting something individually, we should do something together," says Chethana. Today, there are about 20 students at the centre.

Both want their students to portray beauty through dance. "Whenever a college student sees a Bharat Natyam dance, he gets bored," says Chethana. "We want to avoid that. We want to provide exciting music and choreography."

And, interestingly, the couple has a creative link with Kerala, too: they have done compositions based on the songs of Swati Tirunal.

"We have also choreographed dances from the Ramayana," says Hari. "Recently, we did a dance based on Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib's Hazaaron Khwaishein aisi. There were seven dancers who show-cased the various aspects of the Mughal era."

The couple is on a unique creative and emotional journey…

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)