Sunday, October 26, 2008

Up close and personal

(A series on childhood memories)

A ruler broken by a friend and listening to Pankaj Mallick when he was only three years old were the unforgettable events in singer K.J. Yesudas’ childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day my father gave me a ruler,” says singer K.J. Yesudas, 68. “I had never seen such a beautiful one before.” Yesudas was studying in Class I at the St. John De Brito school at Fort Kochi.

His classmate, Peters (name changed) looked at the ruler and exclaimed, “Ha, it is very good!” And then with one smooth movement Peters picked it up and snapped it into two. “It broke my heart,” he says. “And a rage erupted in me.”

He went and hid near the entrance. As soon as Peters came into view Yesudas stepped out and gave a powerful blow to his face. “His nose started bleeding,” says Yesudas. “And I ran away.”

And Yesudas never went back to the Brito school. Instead he got admission in the Santa Cruz school where his father, Augustine Joseph, was once a student.

But Yesudas was a poor student. “I never looked at the text-books,” he says. “When I would read about Tipu Sultan killing this person or that, I would think to myself, What do I gain by learning about what this man did or did not do?’. Inside me, there was only music.”

Yesudas still remembers the first song he had heard in his life, at the age of three. He had an aunt, a Navy officer’s wife, who owned a gramophone record.

“One day she played a song by Pankaj Mallick called ‘Chale Pavan Ki Chaal,’” he says, and hums the tune. “I was enraptured” (for those who are curious, this song, from the 1941 film ‘Doctor’ can be heard on You Tube).

One day when Yesudas was ten years old he fell ill and was lying in bed. He cleared his throat and spat through the window. To his horror his father was passing by and the phlegm fell on his shoulder.

“My father wiped it away but seeing the tears in my eyes he came running in, hugged me and said, ‘Son it is nothing. Why are you so upset?’” says Yesudas. “That was how affectionate he was.”

His father, an accomplished singer and actor with the P.J. Cherian drama troupe, would hardly be at home because of his professional commitments. But when a show was over and if he were close by he would rush home.

On the way he would buy grapes or oranges. “Sometimes he would come at 3 or 4 a.m. and would awaken us children and give the fruits,” says Yesudas. “We would be in deep sleep but he would put us on his lap and feed us. I still cannot forget the sweet taste of those fruits because it was given to us by a loving father.”

The legendary singer hero-worshipped his father. “On the stage he looked so handsome,” he says. “Do you remember Raj Kapoor in his prime? My father was very fair and there was a look of the Kashmiri about him. We are four brothers, but none of us have his looks except, maybe, my sister, Jayamma.”

Yesudas says a woman admirer of his father came many years later to the house and told his mother, “I still remember how handsome Augustine was. None of your children are like him.” His mother, Elizabath, did not respond at all.

Yesudas was also very close to his mother. “One day she was making chips and I was standing next to her and eating it hot off the stove,” he says. As expected, like any mother, she warned him not to eat too much because he would get a stomach ache. But like any naughty boy he ignored her warnings.

“In the end my stomach bulged out and I could not breathe properly,” says Yesudas. “Soon I had an intense stomach pain.”

His mother came up with an instant solution: she took a slice of soap and slid it into that ‘delicate space’. Immediately, Yesudas rushed to the toilet. “All the stock came out and I felt some relief,” he says, with a big laugh.

He needed his mother for other reasons. At their house in Mattacherry there were no attached bathrooms. Instead, it was at some distance from the house. On most nights he would get up to have a piss. There was a coconut tree near the entrance and on the trunk there hung a bulb.

“I would stand on the other side of the tree and do my business,” he says. “But with one hand I held my mother’s hand because I was so scared of the dark.”

It was a decidedly lower middle-class family which slipped into poverty when Augustine was afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease in 1960 and could no longer work.

One day, as things became more and more difficult, his younger brother, Justin, said, “Amma, there are a lot of women who are going to pluck chemeen. Why don’t you go and earn some money so that we can eat?”

For food it was rice and dal all the time. “Now I am sitting in this big palace (he gestures at the large air-conditioned lobby of the Le Meridien) but I always remind myself that I must not forget the early days of my struggle,” he says. “And I have not forgotten. Once you come through you become fearless. You are ready to face anything in life.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Eternally vigilant

Dr Thomas Sebastian, the oldest practicing anaesthetist in Kerala, was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Society of Anaesthesiologists

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1985, a two-year-old girl Abida (name changed) was brought for a cleft lip surgery at the Specialists’ hospital at Ernakulam. At that time the anaesthetist was Dr. Thomas Sebastian. The operation was done successfully and the girl was able to lead a normal life.

She grew up, got married and had a baby girl. Surprisingly, the baby also had a cleft lip. In 2005, Abida brought her daughter to the hospital for a similar operation. The anaesthetist? It was Thomas once again.

Today, at 73, Thomas is the oldest practicing anaesthetist in Kerala. So far he has done a few thousand operations in his 38-year career. And in view of this the Cochin branch of the Indian Society of Anaesthesiologists (ISA), conferred on Thomas a Lifetime Achievement Award on October 16, World Anaesthesia Day at a well-attended function at the Grand Hotel.

Thomas, who was born in Changanassery, is the fifth child of the late P.J. Sebastian, Pullamkalam, the freedom fighter cum socio-political leader.

After college he did his medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. However, the initial days at Padua were not easy since he did not know Italian. But thanks to a few senior Malayali students who were already there, he was able to pick up the language soon.

It was while in Padua that Thomas was able to solve a problem that would have affected his career.

“For several years I had been suffering from hyperhidrosis,” he says. “This is an ailment where my hands and palms would sweat profusely. I realised this would be a handicap especially if I had to interact with patients and needed to touch them.”

So he consulted a neurosurgeon in Padua who, in an operation, cut the nerves in the spinal cord that led to the hands. “As a result the sweat glands did not receive any nervous energy and stopped sweating,” says Thomas. “This saved my career.”

From Italy, Thomas went to England and did his house surgency at Maelor General Hospital, North Wales. It was while working at the anesthetist unit that he decided to become one.

In 1971, contrary to all expectations Thomas returned to Kerala and joined the Malankara Medical Mission Hospital at Kolencherry as a consultant anaesthetist.

“I always wanted to come back and serve my countrymen,” says Thomas. “And I have no regrets about it. I have had a good life and career.”

Interestingly, his younger brother Jacob, who also studied in Padua and became a gynaecologist, settled in Chicago, USA.

In 1984 Thomas moved to Ernakulam as a freelance anaesthetist and has been working with several hospitals, including the Specialists’ Hospital, since then.

“An anesthetist is known as an artificial doctor,” he says. “We provide artificial sleep, respiration and relaxation. Our motto is ‘Eternal Vigilance’. We are the first to come to the theatre and the last to leave.”

He says the anaesthetist provides a serene atmosphere for a surgeon to work in because it is an ‘apparently dead’ person that the latter is dealing with.

To make a patient, ‘apparently dead’, anesthesia is given intravenously. “It takes five seconds for a person to lose consciousness,” he says. “Once he or she sleeps we administer all the other medicines necessary for a safe surgery.”

The end result is that the patient has a painless experience in the operation theatre. “When he opens his eyes and says, ‘Is the operation over, doctor?’ I know the anaesthesia has worked perfectly,” says Thomas.

As a result of doing a good job for so many years he has earned the respect of his peers and juniors. “Some people find job satisfaction as a means to avoid burnout in life,” says ISA Cochin branch President, Dr. Mohan Mathew. “Thomas is one of them.”

He lauded Thomas’s honesty and his friendliness with staff and colleagues as the primary reasons for his long and enduring career.

Says anaesthetist Dr. V. Chandra Bhanu of Specialists’ Hospital: “Thomas can be trusted 100 per cent to do the job perfectly,” he says. “For my own wife’s operation I preferred that he be there rather than me.”

Nowadays, Bhanu says, Thomas is offering his services for free especially for those who come from financially-strapped families.

It has been a blemish-free career but in his personal life Thomas experienced tragedy when his wife Kochamma died of breast cancer on March 5, 1992, leaving him to look after four daughters on his own.

However, the pressure was relieved to a great extent when he got married to Mariamma Ambooken on January 2, 1995. Now all the children are married and well-settled in life and Thomas has seven grandchildren. But he continues his job as an anaesthetist.

“He loves his job and I don’t think he will call it a day,” says Bhanu. Thomas has a slightly different view. “I want to carry on as long as my health permits,” says the doctor who listens to Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven during his spare time.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Battling hate and fear

Civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad has been battling majority and minority communalism for several years now.

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the 1992-93 riots at Mumbai, Teesta Setalvad, who was working a journalist, along with a few others ran an unofficial police control room. “We were getting distress calls till 4 a.m.,” she says. “The callers would say, ‘This place is burning, or that place is burning,’ but when we informed the cops they would not respond. That was how biased they were.”

When the unrest ended Teesta wanted to do several follow-up articles but as memories of the riots faded, the editors provided less and less space for her stories.

“I felt I should use my journalistic skills to combat all this hate and anger,” she says. So, in August 1993, she, along with her husband, Javed Anand, started a journal, ‘Communalism Combat’ (

“The aim of the magazine is to promote dialogue,” says Teesta. “In a multi-religious pluralistic society there is going to be disagreement. But how do you settle it?” she says. “Instead of violence we should have discussions.”

The magazine also wanted to expose the machinations of communal politics. “We are against majority and minority communalism,” says Teesta. “It is two sides of the same coin.”

And both threaten Indian democracy. “If you have a Bal Thackeray or a Narendra Modi who indulge in hate speeches, then there will be minority leaders like Syed Abdullah Bukhari (the former Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid) or Abu Asim Azmi (Samajwadi party leader) who will do the same thing,” says Teesta.

Because of this freedom to spew hate, communalism has infected the whole county. “The Sangh Parivar is very organised and systematic,” she says. “It has plenty of resources.”

The sad thing, Teesta says, is that right through the history of mankind a vicious ideology always spreads faster than something good. “People get excited when others are targeted,” she says. “The Parivar people say, ‘Hai, those Muslims have so many wives’. There is a sexual angle to it, and they use it to demean the other side.”

She says the tactics are similar to the one used by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels during Hitler’s rule in Germany. “We need to understand that an in-built bias against Muslims already exists within people,” she says. “Hence when Muslims are attacked, there is a quick acceptance.”

This not only happens with ordinary people but also with the custodians of law and order.

“In Maharashtra, 30 per cent of the police force is biased,” says Teesta. “The rest go along with the herd.” However, she says, the constabulary is less prejudiced than the officers.

Teesta says this pattern is reflected in society also. “The poorer sections are less communal,” she says. “During the 1992-93 riots at Mumbai, at cocktail parties people were justifying the riots by saying that the Muslims deserved to be taught a lesson.”

The Muslims were also taught a bloody lesson during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Six years later Gujarat has the peace of the graveyard. “There is a lot of flourishing economic development at one level, I don’t want to deny that,” she says. “But the Muslim community has been told how to behave.”

Teesta talks about the shrewdness of chief minister Narendra Modi. When the Nano car project came to Gujarat every television picture of Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata with Modi had Muslims, with their distinctive white topis, standing in front.

“Modi is consciously projecting an image he is a friend of the Muslims so that he can isolate people like us who are fighting for their cause,” she says.

So what is the mood inside the Muslim community after a state-sponsored genocide and years of hate propaganda, riots and bomb blasts?

“There is a deep feeling of alienation and fear,” says Teesta. She says Muslins feel estranged because of state discrimination in terms of jobs and other opportunities.

Then they experience police brutality first-hand. When riots or bomb blasts take place the maximum pick-ups are from Muslim areas. “This has been going on for 20 years,” says Teesta. “Now, because of the bomb blasts, there is an increase in extra-judicial killings, and that has created a lot of fear.”

Teesta talked about all this when she came to Kochi recently at the invitation of the Forum for Faith and Fraternity.

Says V.A. Mohammed Ashraf, joint secretary of the forum: “We are against all forms of communalism and terrorism. That is why we invited Teesta, an acclaimed campaigner against communalism.”

At the Maharaja’s College hall, the audience, which has a smattering of women, claps enthusiastically as Teesta says, “I have not read much of the Scriptures but I know the Constitution of India and it is as good a guide for any Indian to follow.”

Says businessman Ibrahim Kutty: “In her speech she voiced the feelings of a neutral person. She is a person without any prejudice.” Says I.K. Jayadev, lecturer in Islamic History at Maharaja’s College: “She came across as a person of deep humanism. Her speech was very truthful.”

And it is this truthfulness that is ruffling a lot of feathers, especially those of the extreme right. “I receive threats several times a week, either through e-mails, SMS or phone calls,” says the 2007 Padma Shri awardee. “Most of the time it is filthy sexual abuse. The problem with a fascist mind-set is that they don’t want to talk about the issues. Instead, they will only launch deeply personal attacks.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Joy to the world

(A series on childhood memories)

A youthful trip to Kashmir was the turning point in businessman Joy Alukkas’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day when Joy Alukkas was in Class 1 at St. Joseph’s school at Thrissur the school principal Sr. Fatima came into the class and said, “Who has come to class without having breakfast? Please raise your hand.”

The reason she said this was because there was a food shortage raging through Kerala in the early sixties and many families were going through a hard time. Joy, who came from a well-to-do business family, raised his hand because he had actually forgotten to have breakfast.

“Apart from me, another boy raised his hand,” says Joy. Sr. Fatima took them to Class 2 and asked the same question. “Nobody raised their hands,” says Joy. “My sister was in that class and she gestured to me that she would box my ears after school was over. I also gestured that I would do the same to her.”

Joy had ten sisters and in each class there was a sister present when the principal swept into the various classes asking for hungry students. “By the time we reached Class ten, there were ten hungry students and all my sisters were very angry to see me in that group,” he says.

Thereafter Sr. Fatima took them to the convent and gave them something to eat. When school got over Joy usually walked home with his sisters. But that evening they all ran ahead of him.

“I shouted at them, ‘Why are you running away? I got a banana, an egg, and a glass of milk,” he says.

At home the sisters said, “Amma, Joy has embarrassed us by saying he has nothing to eat at home. We cannot show our face in school again.”

As expected, his mother took a stick and began beating him. “Even then I had no idea why I was being hit,” he says. “I ran into the fields as my mother chased me. Her anger lasted till the next day.”

Here is another memory: when Joy was in Class six he remembers how he bunked classes to attend the inauguration of the Ramdas theatre at Thrissur. A Hindi movie, ‘Purab Aur Paschim’ was being shown. The ticket cost 50 paise and Joy sat on the ground right in front of the screen.

Suddenly somebody called out to him. When he turned back he saw that it was his elder brother Paul. “He was studying in Class 8,” says Joy. “He shouted, ‘I am going to fix you.’ I got stunned. Then I recovered my wits and shouted back, ‘You have also bunked class, chettan. I will tell our parents if you open your mouth.’ He had no option but to keep quiet.”

When he was in Class 10 he got permission from his father, who had a shop selling umbrellas, apart from other businesses, to go to Kashmir along with two friends. “We wanted to experience the winter there,” he says.

So, one December day in 1970 they got onto a train at Thrissur and went to Delhi. From there they took the Jamu Tawi Express.

“When we arrived at Srinagar there was ice all over and it was bitterly cold,” he says. “We went to the Dal Lake and hired a house boat.” But within a day they fell into a crisis. Somebody stole their bags which contained Rs. 4000. “At that time, it was a lot of money,” he says. “We were penniless now.”

They managed to hitch a ride back on a truck to Delhi. There the group went to the Madras Café and begged the Malayali owner for some money. “He said we would have to work there to get some money,” he says. “We begged on the streets, to keep hunger pangs away. Finally, we got on to a Kerala-bound train and told passengers about our plight but nobody believed us.”

They ate leftover food. Twice, the Ticket Travelling Examiner threw them out. They would then get on to the next train. “We were so foolish that it never occurred to us that we could make a telephone call to our homes and ask them to send a money order,” he says.

Finally Joy reached Thrissur and went home. “I was so hungry I just ate and ate, had a long bath and slept for 24 hours,” he says.

It was the turning point in his life. “I understood how difficult it is to survive if you don’t have any money,” says the chairman of the Rs. 4000 crore company as he sits in his elegantly furnished first-floor office on Marine Drive.

Joy also felt confident that he could go to any place and even if he did not know the language and the social norms he could survive. So he had no hesitation to go to Dubai as a young man and start his own business. “I became fearless after the Kashmir fiasco,” he says. “I also learnt to be successful.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The world of books and writers

For a writer stuck at his desk for years, a literary festival is an opportunity to meet fellow authors, publishers and readers. But there are downsides too

(Photo of Patrick French)

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1990 when writer Patrick French was just out of college, he attended the world-famous Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales. However, he got a shock when he realised that to attend a talk he would have to pay 12 pounds. But that did not prove a deterrent to the quick-thinking French.

“I noticed that if you walked in through the exit nobody asked you for a ticket,” he says, with a grin, at the Kovalam literary festival. “So I was able to attend several talks.”

In 1991, former diplomat and author Shashi Tharoor was attending the same festival. “The programme advertised a dialogue between the Israeli writer David Grossman and British author Martin Amis,” says Tharoor.

What he found interesting and odd was that numerous policemen and Special Branch agents were hovering around. Everybody assumed it was because of the presence of Grossman.

Suddenly Salman Rushdie appeared on stage. He had been in hiding because of the fatwa issued against him in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’.

“That was extraordinarily exciting,” says Tharoor. “I was in the front row and had a chance to ask him a question and have a chat afterwards. At that time many of us wondered whether we would ever see Rushdie again.”

For French and Tharoor, who have attended dozens of festivals over the years, they have had exciting and not-so-exciting experiences. So what are the pros and cons of attending a festival? Says author Jaishree Mishra: “Since writing is a solitary occupation, you sort of lose touch with what is going on. So it is useful to talk to other writers and feel a sense of camaraderie. It is also a good place to meet publishers.”

At some events, like at the Jaipur festival, last year, agents landed up and authors had a chance to promote their work, she says.

V.K. Karthika, chief editor, HarperCollins, says she enjoys the intellectual stimulation that occurs at festivals. “As a publisher I am usually concentrating on what my company is doing and am involved with our writers,” she says. “But at a festival I get a chance to meet other writers and publishers. It gives me a new perspective, and I am able to see the big picture.”

For Jnanpith Award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair, a festival is a place where you can meet a writer you admire. “It is the best place for an interaction,” he says.

Tharoor feels the biggest plus point is in seeing writers in the flesh. “They are not just bylines in newspapers or names on the covers of books,” he says.

Of course there are negatives, too. Karthika says there is a tendency on the part of organisers to focus on a writer’s body of work. “What I mean is that the spotlight is on the bigger writers and not on those who are coming up,” she says. “There should be an equal focus on emerging and established writers.”

Tharoor says that talking about writing does not make one a better writer. “It is taking away from what it is that has brought you here,” he says. French has similar views. “You become a performing writer, rather than a writing writer,” he says.

Meanwhile, Malayalam writer K. Satchidanandan repeats an oft-stated complaint: the alleged bias against regional writers at English festivals. “At the Kovalam festival only Malayalam and Urdu writers were represented,” he says. “However, this is just a beginning.”

Yes, indeed, this is the inaugural festival in Kerala and south India. Festivals are slowly catching on in India while in countries like the UK, USA, Japan and Australia it has been around for decades. And it seems Indian festivals are quite different from those abroad.

Says French: “Festivals here tend to be more official. They have felicitation ceremonies. They propagate the idea that the writer, especially those in the regional languages, is a major cultural figure.”

This can have a stifling effect on writers. “It can stop people from producing good work,” he says. “At the same time it is nice to give writers this elevated status, which we don’t enjoy in Britain.”

Karthika agrees: “In India the spotlight is always on the writers while abroad, it is on the public.”

However, the public at huge international festivals, like the Hay-on-Wey rarely get a chance to interact with writers one-on-one. “In Hay there is one entrance for writers and another one for the audience,” says Jaishree Mishra. “You need a security pass to get through.”

In stark contrast there is a homely atmosphere at Indian festivals where readers are able to have off-the-cuff conversations with writers.

Jaishree says British author, Ian McEwan, a 1998 Booker Prize winner, told her how enjoyable it was for him when readers came up to him at the Jaipur festival and said they loved ‘Atonement’. “You don’t get this sort of buzz at other international festivals,” he said.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, October 17, 2008

"If communalism wins, India dies"

Tehelka magazine editor and author Tarun Tejpal talks about the fissures that are tearing the country apart.

By Shevlin Sebastian

(Photo: The author with Tarun Tejpal (right) at the Taj Green Cove, Kovalam)

Tehelka magazine editor and author Tarun Tejpal came to the Kovalam literary festival to give a talk on new trends in journalism and to read extracts from his upcoming novel, 'The Story of My Assassins', which will be published by HarperCollins in December. Barely had he sat down at the outdoor café at the Taj Green Grove to have a conversation that a young woman came up with a paperback edition of Tejpal's best-selling novel, 'The Alchemy of Desire'. "Please, Mr Tejpal, can you sign it?" she says. The author obliged, as she says, with deep feeling, "I loved the book. I feel very close to the characters."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Any idea why Alchemy has had such a strong impact?
If you write about emotions and human experiences it has a resonance. People love and suffer in the same way everywhere in the world. I get emails every week from people who have been moved by the book. And it keeps getting published in more and more languages. Right now, it is doing well in Romania, so I am getting mails from there.

Which role do you like more: writer or editor?
Journalism is what I do day in and day out. It is the priority of my life. So, I have to struggle very hard to find the time to write the literary fiction. There is no fixed schedule, time or place. I take my laptop along with me and whenever I find time I write. Being an editor in India and to do the kind of journalism Tehelka does is very challenging.

How is Tehelka doing?
The magazine is losing a lot of money. I have to keep finding investors. It's a daily struggle. But, on the positive side, Tehelka's work garners global acclaim. In fact, former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown, when she was inducted into the Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in the US, named Tehelka as among her five favourite magazines. There is acclaim in India also. Those who count, from the Prime Minister’s Office downwards, read it. We do the best we can to uphold public interest journalism.

How is Indian journalism doing these days?
There is too much of an obsession with Bollywood, business and cricket. There is a fixation with the trivial and the decorative end of journalism, and very little with the genuine, societal, deep end of journalism. We need journalism of empathy. Journalists must fight for the fundamental virtues – the values of liberal thought, tolerance, equality and justice. It is sad, but I don't think the Indian media is living up to its enormous challenges.

What about the middle class? Is it living up to the challenges?
The middle class is just too self-serving. It fails to see it needs a commitment and engagement with the idea of India. It should think outside of itself. When the house collapses it takes everybody along -- not just the poor, but also the rich. So, it is in the self-interest of middle class and elite India to start giving back to society, to start constructing a society that is unbiased.

Your comment on the attacks on the Christian communities in Karnataka and Orissa?
It is shameful. All bigotry and hate should be curtailed. It is time for India to enact hate laws. No hate in speech, writing or education. Mahatma Gandhi was a great believer in individual liberty but there was one thing which he believed in strongly: The state must be absolutely firm in imposing laws to prevent the creation of any kind of enmity in schools and colleges.

Today, there are thousands of educational institutions of the right wing and the minorities, which are creating a culture of hate. If you sow hate, you will reap hate. And that is what is happening now. In Karnataka and Orissa we are seeing the absence of empathy. We cannot imagine the other's lives, that they are as human as you and I.

Apparently, private surveys suggest that the support for the BJP has increased after these attacks.
If it is true, it is frightening and tragic. If the idea is to polarise the country and thereby win elections, it is the worst thing that can happen to India. We need to fight it. The very idea of India is under threat. We have regional wars, caste wars, language wars, religious wars – we are in real trouble. To put it simply, if communalism wins, India dies.

Does that mean India will break up?
Anything is possible. We always think the world is what it is. But things are changing all the time. Sixty years ago there were 550 principalities and kingdoms in India, but all that was yoked together to create the idea of India. Remember, East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. If we do not protect the idea of India in the way the founding fathers had envisioned, anything can happen.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

‘There is a thirst for non-fiction in India’

Interview: Mike Bryan, CEO and President, Penguin Books India

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mike Bryan, 52, the CEO and President of Penguin Books India sits down at the outdoor café at the Taj Green Cove, at Kovalam, and stares out at the beach, he exclaims, “Isn’t this paradise?” Moments later author William Dalrymple stops by, and Bryan says, “Pirated copies of your books are being sold at major traffic signals in Delhi and Mumbai.”
“What are you doing about it?” says Dalrymple.
“We have been conducting raids,” says Bryan. “But these guys are always one step ahead of us. The one way to counter them is to sell at traffic signals ourselves but that is, of course, illegal.”
“Play it dirty, Mike,” says Dalrymple.
“I could get arrested for it,” says Bryan, and they both laugh.

Excerpts from the interview:

What sells more these days in India: fiction or non-fiction?
There is a thirst for non-fiction. There is an aspiration in most Indians to get on in their lives and careers.

In non-fiction, which genre sells the most?
Self-help books. If you read interviews of Bollywood stars or Page 3 personalities they are reading books by Paulo Coelho, Richard Bach’s ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ and Antoine de Saint Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince’. These are the perennial classics in this genre.

Management self-help books also do well. One example is Subroto Bagchi, the COO of MindTree Consulting. His latest, ‘Go kiss the world’, is a wisdom book. It is emotional, enthusiastic and written well. If you are looking for a book that touches the Indian nerve, it is Bagchi’s book.

What about literary fiction?
There is a market for that also. So you have books like ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga and ‘Sea Of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh, both nominated for the 2008 Booker Prize short-list, and selling in prodigious amounts.

How has been your foray into local languages like Hindi and Malayalam?
We are about to launch in Malayalam. Between Hindi and Malayalam, we will be publishing 60 titles. Hindi is growing at the same rate as the English division.

How serious is the threat from audio and e-books like Amazon’s Kindle? Audio and Kindle are opportunities. Audio books have been with us for a long time. It is a small part of the market and will continue to remain so. As for e-books Penguin is selling quite a number of them. According to Amazon, it has sold 2.5lakh units of Kindle, so that is potentially a huge market. While e-books are the quick, easy, almost ephemeral way of reading, there is a move in the other direction.

What is that?
Producing books as art. These books have high quality binding, illustrations and paper. Recently, we published ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel in this format and it sold well. We brought out Penguin classics, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gustave Flaubert, created by major designers, priced at 100 pounds and it was a success. We just published the latest James Bond book, ‘Devil May Care’ in a limited edition with [car manufacturer] Bentley at 750 pounds and it sold out immediately. There is a community of bibliophiles who want top quality stuff. And I think it is bigger than we think.

Is this a surprise for you?
Not at all. I am a bibliophile myself and love beautiful books. What surprised me was the size of the market for these books.

You have announced that Penguin is planning an entry in Pakistan and the Middle East countries. How big is the market in these countries? There is a big English-reading population in Pakistan and they are interested in Indian writing because of a shared history. There is also an avid interest in India for Pakistani writers. This is potentially a huge growth area for Penguin India and its authors.

How good is Pakistani writing?
There is a great new wave of Pakistani writers coming up: Mohsin Hamid, the author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and Mohammed Hanif, of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ are examples of this.

What about the Middle East?
We are opening shops in Dubai because we expect Indians and Pakistanis as well as the expatriate population to buy our books.

Who is your most successful author?
I am not prepared to answer that. There are far too many, to mention any single one.

In terms of sales somebody must be No. 1.
I can’t possibly say it. It will be unfair to the other authors. But this is what I can say: mass market titles sell more than literary fiction.

What is the new development in Indian writing?
There is a wave of commercial authors coming up. Writers like Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan, Anuja Chauhan and Chetan Bhagat. Earlier, there was only Shobhaa De.

Rupa’s Chetan Bhagat has sold lakhs of copies of his novels. Any idea why he is so successful?
Chetan Bhagat writes very well. It’s not literature, but he strikes a chord with readers.

Is Penguin looking for somebody similar?
Definitely. Of course Chetan could publish with Penguin if he wants. We would love that. However, I can’t do that to R.K. Mehra (publisher of Rupa). He is a good friend of mine.

What does Penguin hope to gain from the Kovalam literary festival?
It’s a great way to publicise writing of different genres and getting people together. There is nothing quite like an author talking about his book. Listening to Jaishree Mishra talk about her book, ‘Rani’, was very illuminating. For the public here in Kerala it is a great opportunity. I wish more local people were involved because they are missing out. The public needs to understand this is for them. It’s better than watching some awful quiz show on television.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sea, sand and a cocktail of ideas

The Kovalam literary festival, the first of its kind in Kerala, has been well received. Authors, publishers and readers enjoy the close interaction with each other

By Shevlin Sebastian

"You didn't know that Jaishree Misra is the grand-daughter of the great Malayali writer, Thakazhi," says one visitor, with arched eyebrows, to his friend at the first Kovalam Literary Festival.

"You learn something new every day," says the friend. Yes, indeed, the Kovalam literary festival is a place where writers, readers and publishers get a chance to know each other better and learn something new.

"The crowd is a little sparse today." But even as she speaks several students of the Arya Central School stream in.

Outside, near the aquamarine swimming pool television journalist Sunil Sethi is hustling his crew to set up things for an interview with poet Gulzar, who looks resplendent in a starched white kurta-pyjama.

Earlier, Gulzar had told the audience about his excitement when former diplomat Shashi Tharoor, raised in Kolkata, had spoken a few words in Bengali to him. "Rabindranath Tagore is my guru," he says, by way of explanation.

The view is splendid: coconut trees and flowering plants all over. And in the distance there is the soothing sight of waves hitting the beach in a relentless flow.

"It's probably one of the most beautiful places to hold a festival," says Patrick French, the author of 'The World Is What It Is', the biography of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who has already attended 12 books festivals all over the world this year to promote the book.

Jaishree Misra, who had given a talk on her book, Rani (of Jhansi) spoke of her chance opportunity to travel with Malayalam writer, K. Satchidanandan in a cab.

"In 15 minutes I learnt more about translations by talking to Satchidanandan than in my entire life," she says.

There is an enthralling conversation between Patrick French and William Dalrymple about the pros and cons of writing a biography on an irascible subject as Naipaul. "But he never interfered with my work," says French. "For Naipaul the truth was paramount."

French gives some statistics behind the 500 plus page biography. "I must have read around 50,000 documents, more than 400 letters of correspondence and did hundreds of interviews across three countries," he says. The audience exhales a collective breath.

Jnanpith Award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair spoke about the great impact of the poem, 'Ramanan', written by Changampuzha and how, as a child, he was deputed to race to the next village to obtain a copy.

On the sidelines, chick-lit author Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan, of 'You are Here' fame tells a photographer, "Oh my God, I am not properly dressed for a photo shoot."
But he is a personable guy and is able to persuade Meenakshi that she looks just fine.

In the discussion of 'Writing in a globalised world', Satchidanandan speaks at length about the philosophical impact of the theme. When it is the turn of Mike Bryan, the CEO of Penguin Books, he says, "The only thing similar between me and Satchidanandan is that we are both wearing black shirts. Otherwise, our views differ. And I have a decidedly commercial attitude."

Karthika speaks about how frustrating it is that just a few writers, who have been published abroad, receive all the attention. "It is very sad," she says. She adds that in 11 years of visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair she has changed her attitude. "Now I don't give a damn about whether I can sell the rights of Indian authors abroad. The market in India is huge."

The Kovalam literary festival is a cosy affair and the atmosphere is informal. So, you have the pleasant sight of William Dalrymple and Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal sitting on the steps and having a chat. "It's great that a festival like this is finally taking place in Kerala," says M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Naughty as ever

(A series on childhood memories)

Blowing air into his teacher’s eye and playacting following an injury were some of actor Cochin Haneefa’s memorable experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

When actor Cochin Haneefa was in Class eight at St. Augustine’s school, Kochi his class teacher Govindan (name changed) had a peculiar habit. Every morning at 11 a.m. he would disappear for ten minutes.

There was a wooden partition on one side of the class. Beyond it was the school laboratory. It seemed the teacher went there. “Or maybe he went to the toilet,” says Haneefa. “We were not sure.”

One day Haneefa decided to investigate. So he ran to the back of the class and peeped through a hole in the partition. And that was when the mystery was solved. He saw Govindan having a plate of dosa and chutney.

“Apparently he did not eat his breakfast at home and took it at 11 a.m.,” he says. Suddenly Haneefa got a shock. He saw another eye peering back at him through the hole. Both the eyes continued to stare at each other, with not a centimetre between them.

“I immediately realised if I took my eye away the master would know it is me,” says Haneefa. So he stared back and wondered how to solve the problem. Then he got a brainwave: he blew into the master’s eye and ran back to the seat.

A few minutes later Govindan returned to the classroom, looking flushed and angry. He asked who had peeped. The class remained quiet.

“I was sitting in the front row while his eyes were on the students at the back,” says Haneefa. “I knew I was safe.”

Govindan saw a boy, Steven, slouched over his desk on the last row. “What happened, feeling weak? Did you forget to have breakfast?”

“No, Sir, I had a dosa,” the boy said, as Haneefa laughed out aloud. So, Govindan said, “What is so funny?” Involuntarily, Haneefa said, “Sir, you also had dosa today.” And that was how Govindan caught the culprit and gave three strong whacks with his cane on the open palm of the future actor.

In school Haneefa was crazy about football. So every evening, since he lived just next to the school he would go to play. However, all the other players were older than him and inevitably he would get a lot of bruises. One day when his father, A.B. Mohammed, a businessman, saw a cut on his forehead he said, “Don’t ever play football again.” Haneefa nodded.

The next evening a friend called and Haneefa could not resist. He went to play. “As I was running with the ball I stepped on it and lost my balance,” he says. “The toes of my right foot got twisted. I was under tremendous pain. I could not walk.”

Near the school lived a bone-setter, Kipson. He massaged the toes and said it would take two days to heal. A limping Haneefa went home, terrified of his father’s reaction.

When he reached the gate of his house he saw his mother standing near the door. An idea struck him. “I pretended to fall over the step and groaned loudly,” he says. “My mother came running out and said, ‘What has happened?’ I told her I had sprained my ankle.” She helped him inside.

Every night the five sons, including Haneefa, would sleep together under a mosquito net. Haneefa’s father had an unusual habit. After dinner he would light a candle, lift up the net and look for mosquitoes.

That night he saw Haneefa’s swollen feet. The son was awake but his eyes were closed. “He called my mother and asked whether I had gone to play football,” he says. “My mother said, ‘No, I saw him fall near the gate with my own eyes.’ My father kept quiet and I breathed a sigh of relief.”

The next morning when Haneefa went to the living room, with a cup of tea, he saw Kipson the bone-setter near the gate explaining to his father what had happened.

“You won’t believe this but I vanished for three days,” says this spell-binding storyteller, with a laugh, at his home at Pullepady. Haneefa has just returned from Pondicherry after a shoot for Shankar’s Enthiran – The Robot and looks relaxed and happy as he sits cross-legged on the sofa.

After a pause, he points at his feet and says, “These legs have a different story to tell.”

When Haneefa was born, he had crooked legs. Both feet were pointed at each other. “A close friend of my father, Dr. G.D. Mohammed said the problem can be solved,” says Haneefa. He forcibly straightened the baby’s legs and encased it in plaster.

However, after three months when the plaster was taken off, the legs remained in the same position. “Everybody began crying when the doctor said, ‘This is his destiny and there is nothing we can do about it,’” says Haneefa.

But his father never lost hope. Every night he would massage Haneefa’s legs with oil till 1 a.m. He would be crying when he did this, but in a remarkable show of tenacity he did it non-stop for three years. “When it was time for me to go to school, my feet were perfect,” says Haneefa. “I have no memory of crooked legs.”

For years Haneefa did not know about the full extent of his disability and his father’s role in curing him. One day after he had become a famous actor he met Dr. Muhammad who told him the full story. “I wept in gratitude,” he says. “I realised there was no way I could repay my beloved father.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Getting her sums right

(A series on childhood memories)

Shoba Koshy, postmaster-general, Kochi, remembers an elderly maths teacher who imparted a love for the subject and the wars India fought against China and Pakistan

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When my grandmother died nobody could locate her jewellery,” says Shoba Koshy, postmaster general, Kochi, and central region. “The family wondered what had happened to it. Did somebody steal it?”

It remained a mystery for years. One day, when Shoba was 12 years old, the family was invited by the head of the Mar Thoma Church to celebrate the silver jubilee of a social service centre near Neyyattinkara, Thiruvananthapuram.

During the function the priest said, “Years ago I made a promise to somebody never to tell a secret, but I must reveal a part of it today.”

He said the centre would not have been established but for the donation of a woman who had handed over her entire collection of jewellery to the church just before she died. She had said, “Use this to promote education and to give people a second chance in life.”

The priest never mentioned the name but the family understood. “We were startled and relieved to know what had happened to the jewellery,” she says.

Shoba grew up in Thiruvananthapuram, the daughter of an engineer. When she was three years old she was given a tutor, Ram Iyer (name changed), a former principal of Model School.

“After his retirement Sir did not have any occupation to keep him busy,” she says. “Since he was my dad’s colleague’s father, he agreed to teach me Maths.”

And Ram was a wizard at it. He taught her the relationship between figures, and the two of them played games with numbers. “I grew to love maths,” she says.

Ram had a reward system. Every day if Shoba got all her sums right he would tell her a story from the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana or the Puranas. “I remember all the stories,” she says. “This helped me to have a deeper understanding of Indian culture.”

However, at the Holy Angels’ school she was steeped in Western culture. From the age of three she was taking part in Western dances and plays. “The nuns would turn my hair into ringlets,” she says.

At that time Indian dances and Malayalam plays were unheard of at Holy Angels’. Nevertheless, when she was in Class seven Shoba started learning Indian dance at home. When the school announced a youth festival she decided to present a Kerala folk dance.

“I still remember the look of horror on the faces of the nuns when I came in a fisherwoman’s outfit,” she says. “They kept following me and saying, ‘We can’t believe it is you.’”

Eventually Shoba won the first prize. Later on, of course, the festival evolved, till it became a showcase for Indian plays and dances.

When Shoba was growing up, one of the big events was the Indo-Chinese war of 1962. “All of India was convulsed in tension and excitement,” she says. Since there was no TV in those days, newspapers reports were followed avidly.

In the Holy Angels’ school there was a fund-raiser, for the war, where children were encouraged to contribute money as well as a small quantity of gold. “All of us students begged our parents for some gold,” she says. “And quite a few obliged.”

During the 1965 war against Pakistan the nation took the slogan, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to heart.

“The Prime Minister said that since there was a rice shortage all Indians should avoid eating it for one day,” says Shoba. “Today people will say, ‘What the hell?’ but in those days we took it seriously.”

So in Kerala the idea arose on how to make wheat a part of the diet on the day of abstinence. “Godambu dosa came into being at that time,” she says. “We also learnt to eat chappatis.”

One night, a helicopter was sighted in the sky above Thiruvananthapuram. “It may not have been an enemy plane, but I remember the excitement with which we looked at it,” she says.

During less exciting times, Shoba would accompany her father, a former University-level sportsman, to watch Santosh Trophy football matches. “I remember seeing Chuni Goswami in action for Bengal,” she says. “He was very good.”

At basketball games she enjoyed the dazzling dribbling of Ghulam Abbas Moontasir, one of the greatest players India has produced. “He was not a tall man but he easily dominated the game,” she says.

Her parents also had a dominating influence on Shoba. “My mother, a go-getting person, was full of enterprise and creative ideas,” she says, in her office on Banerji Road.

One day her father told Shoba, “There are two things you can never take back. One is age and the other is what you speak. Don’t say anything that might hurt people. That was his motto but I have to admit it is very difficult to put this into daily practice.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Man on the move

K.R. Malik, the CMD of the SRK Group, is all excited about building one of the largest townships in Kerala: the Skywings project at Kakkanad

By Shevlin Sebastian

K. Rasheed Malik, 47, the chairman and managing director of the SRK Group, had a close friend, Naushad (name changed). “We were closer than brothers,” he says. “We slept on the same mat, ate the same food, and held no secrets from each other.”

When they finished their class 10 exams, at Ezhuvamthala, Ottapalam, the friends decided to go to Pune, where there were other relatives, to earn a living. After doing a few jobs, they stumbled onto the photocopying business.

“We would import the parts from abroad, assemble it, and sell the machines at a handsome profit,” says Malik. “We worked 20 hours a day, and the business did well.”

Thanks to advice from a Marathi business associate, Gaikwad, both of them entered the lucrative real estate market. Soon, they started building projects. In a span of ten years, they became wealthy.

“Naushad and I were amazed at the way things worked out for us,” he says. However, there was no formal agreement between the partners. It was based on mutual trust.

One day, in 1991, however, a misunderstanding arose between the two men. As a result, Naushad walked out of the partnership, taking control of all the assets, worth crores of rupees.

“I could have fought with my friend to get what was my due,” he says. “But, for me, the relationship was more important than the money. So, I remained his friend and started from scratch once again.”

Today, he is once again wealthy beyond his dreams. And he has learnt some valuable lessons from that experience. “Because I did not fight with Naushad, God protected me,” he says.

In his travels, in India and abroad, Malik has observed that 95 per cent of the quarrels between people are over money. “So I tell people that relationships are more important than money,” he says. “When you take the ‘I won’t fight’ option, God will support you. Today, thanks to God’s grace, I am doing well.”

The source of Malik’s wealth, the SRK Group, has executed building projects in Pune, Bangalore, Kochi and Guruvayoor. “So far, our company has completed 40 projects, and has more than 10,000 satisfied customers,” says Malik.

The company makes villas, apartments, service apartments and townships. At present, a township, Sky Wings is coming up at Kakkanad.

Sky Wings hit the headlines, in October, 2007, when Malik gifted flats to seven Indian cricketers: Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, S. Sreesanth, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Irfan Pathan, Yuvraj Singh, and Sourav Ganguly.

Following that, there were calls from people in America, London and the Middle East, expressing interest in the project. “To be frank, the day I gave the flats to the players I earned my money back,” he says. The price went up by Rs 300 per sq. ft. and Malik was able to sell a lot of flats.

However, the turning point in the public awareness of the SRK Group – which began operations in Kerala in 2006 – occurred when singer K.J. Yesudas signed on as brand ambassador in January, 2007.

“Initially, Yesudas was reluctant,” says Malik. “But I convinced him about the high quality of our projects. Today, thanks to him, we have a lot of clients.”

One of them is businessman, Krishna Das, 38. “I was very much influenced by Yesudas becoming a brand ambassador, and decided to invest in the Skywings project,” he says.

Playschool owner, Swayam Prabha, had different reasons. “After going through the brochure, I felt Skywings would be the best township in Kerala,” she says. She liked the beautiful location and the amenities available: three-level parking, proper garbage disposal, a beauty parlour, swimming pool, gym, library, market, ATM centres and coffee shops.

“If there is a bandh, nobody will be affected within the township,” she says. “I was also impressed by Mr. Malik. He is a simple and humble man.”

Malik invested in Kerala because, as he says, “Despite being away for several years, I have always retained a love and affection for my state.” In his travels, he would meet Malayalis who were keen to invest in real estate in Kerala. Malik also realised that Kochi was fast becoming a metro, like Bangalore, Pune, and Mumbai. “The business climate is very good now, and it is the right time to start something here,” he says.

Malik has ambitious plans: three projects in every district. “Initially, buildings will be coming up at Kannur, Palakkad, Calicut, Kottayam, Tiruvalla, Thiruvananthapuram and Guruvayoor,” he says.

As the business expands, Malik has to travel, non-stop, to keep track of all the projects. “Today, I am in Kochi, tomorrow I am going to Mumbai, later to Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai,” he says. However, he always ensures that he spends Sunday, at home, in Bangalore, with his family: wife Khadija, daughters, Sajana, 20, and Shamna, 16, and son, Shah Rukh, 14.

“Business is important, but family is equally important to me,” he says.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)