Sunday, November 30, 2008

Illusion or reality?

(A series on childhood memories)

Seeing a ghost, (or was it his imagination?) and standing for class elections were some of the unforgettable memories of film director Rafi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Sometimes when I lay down to go to sleep, at night, a woman would appear at the window,” says film director Rafi. “She was wearing a white saree and had long curly hair which covered half the face.”

The woman would glide into the room, sit on Rafi’s chest and press his throat. “I was unable to speak,” he says. After several moments she flew out of the window. A perspiring Rafi would finally call out to his family members and they would bring a glass of water for him to drink.

“This has happened many times over the years,” he says. In desperation he consulted a doctor who told him that when he was extremely tired his mind might have produced this image.

So Rafi was advised to drink a lot of water and to go to bed only when he felt really sleepy. Things improved but the woman would occasionally come, always at night. “Despite this, I have to say I don’t believe in ghosts,” he says.

Rafi’s encounter with the macabre might have fuelled by the images from the film which had the most impact on him when he was a teenager: 'Lisa', starring Prem Nazir.

“It was a horror film,” he says. “Each time I saw the movie and returned home I would be scared. Then the effect would wear off and I would have a desire to see it again. I saw 'Lisa' many times.”

The most frightening scene was when the ghost, a woman, screamed and the face collapsed dramatically. “The lips would crinkle up, and there would be ruptures on the skin,” he says. “At that moment the audience would get really scared.”

But this thrill of seeing films, like Lisa, came at a price. Rafi usually saw the movies, at matinee shows at the Shree Ayyappas theatre at Nettoor, after classes finished at the S.V. Upper Primary school.

When he returned home at 5 p.m., his mother, who knew he had gone to see a film, would be silent. “She would make me eat,” he says. “After I finished, she would take a cane and beat me. She always hit me after I finished the food, because she knew I would not eat if she punished me first.”

But despite these transgressions, Rafi was a good student. Surprisingly, because of this, in Class 8 at the Marad Mangayal high school, he was forced to stand for elections for the class representative post.

The Kerala Students Union (KSU) came up with the idea that if the best students stood for elections, their classmates, especially the girls, would vote for them. So, while Rafi stood for the KSU, his classmate, Udayan, who shared the same bench, represented the Students Federation of India.

Since Udayan was a trouble-maker, the class teacher Purushothaman Pillai supported Rafi. Soon, it was time to count the votes. “Purushothaman Master counted the votes and I could see that he had put one extra vote in my name, so that I could get 21 and Udayan got 20,” says Rafi. By this time the KSU had started celebrating the result.

But a suspicious Udayan asked for a recount. “I could see the teacher’s hands shaking as Udayan said, ‘Master, keep this vote here, and that vote there.’ In the end, Udayan won, and I have never forgotten the look of embarrassment on Purushothaman Master’s face.”

And Rafi also cannot forget the day he was caught red-handed for bunking classes by a principal. For a brief while he had studied at the Darul Uloom school at Pullepady where Hassan Master was the principal. Thereafter Rafi moved to the Kaloor Government High School while Hassan Master became the principal of a school near Rafi’s house.

One day Rafi had left classes early and was on his way home when Hassan Master spotted him. He said, “Is there no school today?” Rafi replied that, indeed, there were no classes that day. Hassan Master said, “Come with me,” and took Rafi back to his school.

“He did not scold me,” he says. “But what was most amazing was that he had such a sharp memory and remembered me. I don’t think you get teachers like that today.”

And you don’t get friends like A.B. Kunjomon who unwittingly gave Rafi a lesson on what good writing is all about. “Kunjomon wrote short stories,” he says. “Since he was shy, he was hesitant to show his work to a writer.”

Rafi took the initiative and took it to writer C. Radhakrishnan. “When he read it, he pointed at one section and said, ‘What did you mean by this?’” says Rafi. “Then Radhakrishnan Sir said, ‘I can understand what you are trying to say, but my son who is studying in Class 10 will not. A story should be written in such a way that readers are able to understand what you are trying to say. Otherwise, it will not achieve its aim.”

This piece of advice had a lifelong impact on Rafi, who always wrote his scripts with this principle in mind.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Learning lessons in a new country

Ten students from Singapore, along with their teacher, spent a week in Kochi. They found the people warm, the students intelligent, and the sight of nature spell-binding

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Johnny Yan, 14, of the Hwa Chong Institution of Singapore took a Chinese language class at the Rajagiri Public School at Kalamaserry, he was taken aback by the enthusiasm shown by the students.

"They learnt fast and were appreciative," says the Grade 8 student. He realised that in Singapore the students don't show the same enjoyment. "During lessons some of them just fall asleep," he says. "They don't really appreciate the opportunity to study. Most belong to affluent families and have got things easily."

Ten students from the institution accompanied by Chinese teacher Dennis Ong had come to spend a week in Kochi and interact with the Rajagiri students.

For Joel Tan the striking discovery is that Rajagiri is a co-educational school. "There is a belief in Singapore that in order to avoid distractions it is better to study in an all-boys or all-girls school. I am not sure I agree with this," he says, to loud laughter from his classmates.

The students were struck by another difference. "There was so much of guidance by the teachers in the classes," says Chang Hui. "In Singapore students are expected to be independent. It would be far better for us if the teachers help us more."

Meanwhile, for teacher Dennis Ong, what was a revelation was the keen desire on the part of the students In Kochi to serve the nation. "There is a rise of a powerful national identity that is happening unknowingly among the youngsters," he says. He feels that when these pupils grow up, they will serve the country.

"India has the potential to outshine countries like China," he says. "The Chinese youth, like those of Singapore, want to enjoy life rather than dedicate themselves to the cause of the nation."

However, he is also keenly aware that when a young Indian goes abroad, and sees the luxury and comforts, he might not want to come back. "Nevertheless, to have the inclination to serve in the first place is highly commendable," says Dennis, who had studied the impact of the diaspora on the Chinese and the Indian economies for his master's thesis.

Of course, all the students were amazed at the chaotic traffic. "I found it difficult to adjust to the incessant horn blowing, the dust and the potholes," says Johnny. "In Singapore nobody blows the horns and there are smooth roads everywhere." Adds Joel, "I realised I live in a privileged society."
But despite their own country's high standard of living, and its myriad parks, they were awestruck by the natural beauty of Kerala.

"Singapore is a concrete jungle," says Chang. "True, there are several parks, but the presentation is very artificial. In Kerala I was able to appreciate the beauty of nature, the backwaters and also the many historical buildings, like the Jewish Synagogue."

And even though Keralites are always critical about their own behaviour, these students were much taken up by the warmth and hospitality shown to them.

"The people are open, friendly and approachable," says Joel. Dennis noticed that at a traffic junction, when people got down from a bus, they smiled at the group. "It was very heart-warming," he says.

In contrast, Dennis says, his own countrymen tend to be reserved. "Singaporeans normally do not smile or say hello to strangers," he says. "It may be because we are too busy or self-absorbed. We usually take time to warm up, but after that we can be pretty fun-loving too."

But things are very serious at the Hwa Chong Institution, one of the premier schools in the island nation. The monthly fees are $250 and there are 5000 students on its rolls. Classes start at 7.20 a.m. and finish at 1.20 p.m. Each period lasts 40 minutes and there are 33 students in a class.

The annual examination is in October-November. "These exams are based on a total of 50 marks," says Dennis. "The remaining 50 marks constitute the continual assessments, tests, and assignments done throughout the year." Following a six-week break, after the year-end exams, the academic session begins in January.

The school also has a Gifted Education Programme (GEP). After the national examination, at the age of 12 years, students who perform exceedingly well in maths, science or the arts, are invited to join the GEP. "They will receive advanced learning," says Dennis. "This enables the country to develop a pool of scientific and artistic talent."

However, some students opt out because they prefer the slower pace of the regular classes. "But this is less than 2 per cent," says Dennis.

Meanwhile, this break in India has been good for the students. "It has given us valuable exposure," says Chang, 14. "I was able to experience first-hand a completely different culture and society."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunset blues

The Sainik Ashram at Kochi caters to the Army veterans who took part in World War II. Abandoned for the most part by their families, staying in the ashram allows them to live lives of dignity. But the lack of a government pension is galling to all of them

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ravindran Nair, a soldier in the British Army, was stationed in Baghdad, in 1945, during the Second World War. One day while he was standing guard, with two other soldiers, at a roadblock, he saw a trio of Iraqi soldiers, with guns, crawling stealthily towards them.

Ravindran took aim with his .303 rifle and shot dead one soldier, the bullet piercing the forehead. The other Iraqis got up and ran away.

"I did not feel bad about killing the soldier because they were planning to attack us," he says.

Mark David saw action on the Burma front. "I killed two Japanese with my .303 rifle," he says. He was shot at and a bullet was lodged in his back for several decades. It was only last year that it was finally removed.

Suresh Prasad was a dispatch rider based in Rangoon, Burma. "One day while I was on my way to deliver messages on my motorcycle I saw Japanese soldiers at a distance firing away," says Suresh.

He hid the motorcycle by the side of a hill and jumped into a trench. "The bullets flew over me," he says. He stayed the night and at dawn, escaped on his vehicle.

More than 60 years later Ravindran, Mark and Suresh are colleagues at the Sainik Ashram in Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi. There are 17 other inmates and they share a large dormitory. The men range in age from 60 to 89 years. All of them were members of the British Army during World War II. Once the war got over, they were demobilised and spent several years doing small jobs and raising their families.

But now at the sunset of their lives, their families have turned their backs on them. Ravindran's older son is an alcoholic who harassed him regularly. Unable to take it any more, he took shelter in the ashram. "My wife stays with my younger son," he says.

Mark, who, at 89, is the oldest in the ashram, has four daughters. But they don't want to look after him. "My wife lives with my daughter, Susan," he says. "I don't get along with her. She tried to poison me once." So he came to the ashram in order to live in dignity.

Suresh, 84, has six middle-aged children -- four boys and two girls -- and 13 grandchildren. "All my children are financially well-off, but they do not want me to live with them," he says, as his eyes fill up with tears. "So I have come here."

Administrator K.N. Sivaram is not surprised. "Around 70 per cent have not been treated well by their children and have taken refuge at the ashram," he says. "The concept of children looking after ageing parents has disappeared, thanks to the breakdown of the joint family. Nowadays, the younger generation only thinks of themselves."

On a sunny Tuesday morning in November, the men sit around a long dining table watching television. A couple of them read newspapers. Two men are sleeping in the dormitory.

Astonishingly, for the benefit of visitors, Mark, notwithstanding his advanced age, sings a rock and roll song, 'I love you', and shakes his hands and legs vigorously. Most of them do yoga and body-stretching exercises in a roofed enclosure in the early mornings.

The ashram is the brainchild of Col. (Retd.) K.B.R. Pillai. One day, in the early nineties, he saw a group of men holding a satyagraha in front of the Naval Base. "They were World War II veterans who wanted to get a pension for their services to the country," he says. "I did not know there was a group like this. So I thought, 'Let me do something for them.'"

When, as a founder-president, he suggested the idea of an ashram to the Kerala Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association, the members were enthusiastic. In 1997, the association hired a building at Palarivattom and started the ashram. Initially, there were eight inmates.

At this time, an article on the ashram, written by noted journalist, Leela Menon, appeared in the New Indian Express. Colonel S. Pope, the secretary-general of the British Commonwealth Ex Services League, who was visiting India, read it, while in Bangalore. "He expressed a desire to visit the ashram," says Pillai.

At Kochi Pope told Pillai that even though he had visited many Commonwealth countries, this was the first time he had seen such a venture. He went back to England and collected 10,000 pounds from ex-British officers in the Indian Army and sent it. "At that time, it came to Rs 6 lakh," says Pillai. "It was the turning point."

Then a certain Major M. Parameshwaran died and his children donated Rs 50,000. So the association suddenly had Rs 6.5 lakh, where, before, it had nothing. The members used the money to buy the land and construct the building at Kakkanad.

Thereafter, the association has generated its own funds. "We earn money by employing servicemen in various self-employment schemes," says Pillai. "We run security and taxi services. In the ashram we sell fish that we breed in aquariums. All the profits are ploughed back into the ashram."

Most of the inmates say they are happy, but all of them have one grouse: the lack of a government pension. Says Ravindran: "Nowadays, even the personal assistant of a minister gets a pension. What has he done for the country? We have braved storms and heat and bullets. Why are we being denied a pension?"

Pillai says it is true the veterans served the imperialist British army, but at that time it was the government in power. "So why should they be faulted for that?" he says. Numerous representations have been made, at the state and the centre, but since these veterans do not represent a powerful vote bank, nobody is interested.

(Some names have been changed)

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Loss and despair

(A series on childhood memories)

Her father’s untimely death and the damage to her eye were some of the experiences of R. Sreelekha, the first woman from Kerala to be a member of the Indian Police Service

By Shevlin Sebastian

“My father used to make beautiful kites,” says R. Sreelekha, the first woman from Kerala to join the Indian Police Service. It was during Onam that Prof. N. Velayudhan Nair would buy the paper, glue and the sticks. “Then he would go to the terrace of our house in Thiruvananthapuram and fly the kite,” she says.

One day, while he was handling the string he realised he needed to put some glue. He asked Sreelekha to bring a bottle of glue. As he was applying it, his hand slipped backwards and his elbow hit Sreelekha just above her eyelids with great force. Blood sprouted out and Sreelekha, in a daze, pressed her hand over the right eye. “It seemed as if my eyeball had come out,” she says.

Sreelekha’s father rushed her to an opthalmologist, Dr. Subramaniam, who lived nearby. The doctor pressed the eye back but there was one lifelong impact: “I have a squint,” says Sreelekha. “However, whenever I look into the mirror I feel proud because it was something given to me by my father.”

Sreelekha has other memories of her father. On weekends the family -- which included her elder sisters Geetha, Kala and younger brother Sunil – would play the card game, rummy, with their parents. “We played with money,” she says.

The children noticed something odd: their mother would keep losing, but she would never run out of cash. “Later, we understood the reason why,” says Sreelekha, with a smile. “My father would pass the money under the table to my mother.”

Her father, a softie at home, was a tough man in the outer world. Once, as the principal of Sree Chinmaya College at Thiruvananthapuram, he slapped a boy who was eve-teasing a lady teacher.

The next day the students came in front of the house and began shouting, “Principal, go back!” and threw stones. “My father said, ‘Ignore them’ but we were very scared,” says Sreelekha. “For three days we did not go out, but Acchan coolly went to work.” Finally the students gave up.

Peace returned to the family but not for long. On November 11, 1977, Prof. Nair, only 56, suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died. “It was like being on a boat in the middle of the sea and suddenly being abandoned,” says Sreelekha, who was 16 years old then.

At the cremation Sreelekha saw a young man crying loudly. “We came to know he was the boy my father had slapped for eve-teasing,” she says. Later, he told the family, “The headmaster was right in hitting me, because I had done something wrong.”

Following her father’s demise life became a struggle for the family. “Suddenly there was no income,” she says. “My father’s pension was meagre.”

There were many days when the children would go to bed hungry. “We would hope there would be some food to eat the next day,” she says. “It was very traumatic.”

Her mother, Radhamma, would collect coins and put it in a Cuticura powder tin. “Frequently, she would have to empty it, to buy certain things, and it was a painful sight for us,” she says. “My mother sold the utensils, the jewellery and, finally, she would take out the kasavu (golden threads) from her Kanjeeveram sarees and and sell it.”

There were many times when Sreelekha would come across her mother crying silently in the kitchen.

Apart from the day-to-day struggle to keep body and soul together, Sreelekha suffered from several painful incidents because of her dusky complexion.

“I had a classmate called Durga who was fair and pretty,” she says. “Once when the class photograph was being taken, she said, ‘Sreelekha looks like a Negro, while I am so fair.’” Durga continued to pass snide remarks at Sreelekha whenever she got the opportunity.

Her aunt also showed similar discrimination. One day Sreelekha was standing with a cousin, whom her aunt called, “Pungi Mole.” When Sreelekha asked whether she was also a ‘pungi mole’, her aunt said, “You are a monkey.”

Her grandmother was also biased. When Sreelekha wrote a short story about love, her grandmother read it and said, “Is this what young girls think about?” and tore the pages into small pieces. “It was a big shock for me,” she says.

But there were some pleasant moments too. “I met my husband, Unni (Dr. S. Sethu Nath), when we were classmates in nursery class at Model school,” she says. Sreelekha’s father and Unni’s parents were professional colleagues. “For games and other activities, the class teacher would make small groups,” she says. “And I would always go and sit next to Unni and start talking.”

She remembers one day when her father could not take her to school, Sethu’s mother, Kanakam, took them to school. “She held both our hands as we walked to school,” says Sreelekha.

She was in Model School for a year and, thereafter, she moved to the Cotton Hill Girls School. It would be years later, in college, that Unni and Sreelekha would meet again, fall in love and marry.

Today, Unni is a professor of paediatrics at Allapuzha Medical College, while Sreelekha, an inspector-general of police, is the managing director of the Bridges and Roads Development Corporation. The couple have a son, Gokul, 17, who is studying in Class 12 at Toch-H school.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Helping others in times of trouble

The Ramakrishna Math runs free dispensaries, tuition classes and personality development programmes for students, as well as courses in spirituality. Serving God through human beings is the math's motto

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, Swami Atmaswarupananda, 61, the president of the Ramakrishna Math at Vytilla was going for a walk. Some children came rushing towards him. "Please come to our house," they said. So he accompanied them. It was in a remote area, near Thykoodam; there was no road, just a mud path.

He entered one house: a woman lived there with two children. "I enquired about the husband and she replied that he had committed suicide," says the Swamiji. Apparently, he had a small shop near the Town Hall, had taken too many loans, and was unable to pay it back.

The woman said she was a typist and earned Rs 2000 a month, but the rent itself was Rs 1200 a month. "So I asked how she survived," he says. "She just shook her head."

The Swamiji asked her to send the children to the Math for free meals, tuitions, uniforms and books. "The problem with most Malayalis is that they will never ask for help," he says. "They keep everything bottled up, and one day when the burden becomes too much, they commit suicide."

The Ramakrishna Math runs free tuition classes, from 4.30 to 6 p.m., for students of Classes five to ten every day. Most of the children come from financially disadvantaged families.

The Math also runs a free dispensary, on alternative days, in homeopathy and allopathy. There is an ayurvedic consultation, by Swami Nirmalananda Giri, but that happens once a month. "There were 334 patients on his last visit," he says.

Allopathic doctor T.K. Karunakaran says that most of the patients are elderly women who have been abandoned by their husbands or have been divorced. "All have financial hardships," he says.

Swami Sutapananda, who is responsible for the smooth functioning of the dispensary, bemoans the culture of selfishness in Indian society. "Even sons have abandoned their mothers," he says. "There is a need to develop one's spirituality."

With this aim in mind, the Math conducts personality development classes for high school students. The speakers include Swami Atmaswarupananda and Jayashree Sukumaran, former Deputy Director of Collegiate Education.

"The students are made to realise that what they learn at school is not the ultimate truth," says Jayashree. "Science is only concerned with the objective world and does not answer the fundamental questions of life: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?"

In feedback essays by students, Gowri Gopakumar says, "The course has helped me to find the answer to the question, 'Who am I?'" Says Minju Mary Raj: "I understood that there is no difference between a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian."

On Sundays, there are classes on the Upanishads. Among the regulars is Dr. Sarala Somasundaram. "I am looking for spiritual fulfillment," she says. "It is only through the Upanishads you can get an idea of the essence of existence. And the way the Swamiji speaks, he makes it so interesting and impressive."

What is also impressive are the new buildings which have come up in the past two years. There is a conference hall, an administrative office, and a building which constitutes the living quarters for monks, as well as for visitors.

"We were able to construct all this, thanks to the donation of Rs 12 lakh from the Life Insurance Corporation of India, Rs 10 lakh from the Cochin Refineries Ltd., as well as numerous individual donors," says Swami Atmaswarupananda.

In one of the new buildings, there is a splendid exhibition on the life and times of Sri Ramakrishna. Opposite the entrance, there is a store which sells books on Sri Ramakrishna, as well as the numerous books written by his most famous disciple, Swami Vivekananda.

Monks in saffron clothes move around with serene faces and easy smiles. All of them opted to the spiritual life at a young age. When Swami Atmaswarupananda was 20 years old he read an article in Sree Ayyappan magazine about a speech given in New York in 1896 by Swami Vivekananda called 'My Master'. In the magazine, there was an advertisement of the Ramakrishna Math. He ordered a book by Swami Vivekananda.

"When I read that Sri Ramakrishna had seen God there arose in me a desire to see the Supreme Being myself," he says. He told his parents about his intention to join the Math but they were against the idea. But within six months he had joined the Math. Later, his parents reconciled with him.

Swami Sutapananda, who is from Tamil Nadu, says, "Nobody can compel you to become a monk. It has to come from within. I joined the Math because it was my destiny."

And the monks are dedicated in their desire to serve society. "The joy I get in helping people cannot be quantified," says Swami Sutapananda. "Most people see only the physical form of human beings. But inside every person there is a God. So, when you help a person you are showing your love for God."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Act 1, Scene 1

(A series on childhood memories)

The grave illness of his sister and meeting K.P. Ummer in the flesh were some of the memorable events in actor Sidhique’s childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Sidhique was growing up, a lot of men would drop in at the house in Edavanakkad, Vypeen Island. “They would say they were going to some far-away mosque and would ask us for money to place as a donation, on behalf of the family,” he says. “Sometimes, we would give Rs 10. We have no idea whether the men actually went to the mosque. Most probably they just pocketed the money.”

Realising this, one day Sidhique’s father, Mamathua, told a man he wanted to give an offering. “My eldest son had fallen ill and I promised that I would give something if he became well,” he said. The man readily agreed to accept the donation. “Then my father brought an amikallu (a stone roller) from the kitchen,” says Sidhique. “The man said, ‘Are you making fun?’ My father replied, “I am serious, but if you can’t take it, no problem.’”

Sidhique laughs at the memory, as he relaxes during a break in the shooting of the Shaji Kailas film, ‘Red Chillies’ at Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT), Eloor.

Like in any family there were good and bad times. When Sidhique was in Class 7 his elder sister Arifa, 17, contracted typhoid and was taken to the St Vincent De Paul hospital at Kuzhuppilly.

“This was the first time that somebody in our family was being hospitalised,” says Sidhique. “At the hospital I experienced new smells and saw the strange sight of nuns as nurses.”

As the days went by, Arifa’s condition declined alarmingly. One evening when Sidhique went to the hospital he saw that his sister’s long and curly hair had been shaved off and two tubes had been inserted into her nose. “My mother said, ‘Please pray for Arifa,’” he says.

Just next to the hospital was a church. Sidhique went and sat on the steps and began crying. “I feared my sister would die,” says Sidhique. Some time later a nun took him back to the hospital.

However, unknown to him, the intravenous feeding had kick-started the healing process. The next day when Sidhique went to see Arifa, the tubes had been removed and she was sitting up and talking. “I burst into tears of relief,” he says.

It was a close-knit family. Apart from his sister, Sidhique has an elder brother, Majid. His father had a small plot which abounded in coconut trees, while his mother, Biwi, a talented story-teller cum singer, looked after the children and the house.

Sidhique inherited his mother’s creative bent. When he was ten years old he made a film projector. It was a box with a lens in it. Then he placed a cardboard, which had a hole, on the window sill. “With the help of a mirror, I directed the sunlight into the hole and it would hit the lens,” he says. “Behind it were some film strips.”

Sidhique and his friends had collected these discarded bits of film from near the projection room of cinema theatres. Sometimes they would ask the projectionist and he would give some pieces.

The image which was beamed on the wall was the equivalent of a 42” TV image. “It was a thrilling experience,” he says. However, his exasperated mother would always say, “You are always watching films. Be careful or your eyes will get bad.”

Indeed, a few months later, Sidhique’s eyes started watering. His father took him to an eye specialist, Dr. C.I. Mathew. “He said that a white spot had appeared on the retina of my left eye,” says Sidhique. “He asked me whether too much light has fallen on that eye.”

Sidhique had to admit that he was always looking through the lens with one eye closed. “The doctor prescribed an ointment and, fearing for my eyesight, I stopped using the projector,” he says.

One day, Sidhique had a wonderful surprise. He was sleeping when Arifa woke him up and said, “K.P. Ummer has come.” It was 11 p.m. Sidhique sprang out of the bed and went to the living room.

Since the family was not certain that the actor, who had been befriended by Majid, would come to the house, they had not told Sidhique.

“I was staring at him not knowing whether this was a dream or not,” he says. “He was handsome and fair. He asked me my name and in which class I was studying. The next day I still could not believe that I had met Ummukka in the flesh.”

Another excitement for Sidhique was when he saw a gramophone player for the first time. During the summer holidays he spent a few days at his businessman-uncle, Abdul Rahman’s house in Aluva.

One morning, his cousins said, “Today our father will be bringing a Chemmeen plate.” Sidhique was puzzled. “I could not understand what they were saying,” he says. “Was it a plate on which you ate chemmeen?”

In the evening, the mystery was solved. It was a 45 rpm record of the film, ‘Chemmeen’. He remembers vividly the His Master’s Voice (HMV) logo with the dog peering into the trumpet-like horn of the gramophone player.

The first song that was played was Puthan Purakkare. “I kept asking my cousins to replay the record till I knew all the songs by heart,” he says.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chronicling a saint’s life

The Kochi-based Thomas Mundakel has just published an English translation of his Malayalam biography of Saint Alphonsa

Photo of Thomas Mundakel; cover of the book

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 26, 1984, Thomas Mundakel and his wife Mary went to the tomb of St. Alphonsa at Bharananganam. For long Mary had suffered from an eye ailment. In desperation she had prayed to Sr. Alphonsa and had been miraculously cured. The couple had gone to pay homage to the saint.

“I saw so many people who had come to pray,” says Mundakel. “Apart from Indians, there were several foreigners.”

Curious at this steady stream of believers, Mundakel told Mary, “I want to see more. Let us stay here for a day.” Mary agreed and their room where they stayed overlooked the cemetery. The couple noticed that till 9 p.m. people were coming and going.

Mundakel, himself, went thrice to pray at the tomb. And he was surprised that despite other well-decorated graves, people always made a beeline to Sr. Alphonsa’s simple grave. “The question, ‘Why?’ was like an atom bomb inside me,” he says. “I wanted to know the answer.”

Mundakel bought all the books about Sr. Alphonsa in Hindi, English and Malayalam. After reading it, one day, he claims, he received a message from the nun: “You write as I say.” So he sat with pen and paper and the first question she gave him was, ‘How do you know me?’ “I felt inspired,” says Mundakel.

Unlike a biography written in a chronological manner, Mundakel wrote it as if Sr. Alphonsa was penning it, in the first person. “I would write something and then would go to Bharananganam,” he says. There, he would meet nuns who knew her well and they would provide all the information he needed. He would come back and write it down. “I went twice or thrice a month,” he says. “I was following the instructions given by Sr. Alphonsa.”

The book took six months to write. When it was completed Mundakel went to Fr. Antony, of the now-defunct Mar Louis Memorial Press, to get it published. But there were objections.

“Antony asked me whether it was right on my part to write in the name of Sr. Alphonsa,” says Mundakel. “He said that if he published the book it might lessen the chances of Sr. Alphonsa being declared a saint.”

The publisher asked Mundakel to get the permission from the Vice Postulator (a vice-postulator pleads for a candidate’s beatification or canonisation).

Mundakel felt disappointed. He took the manuscript and went to the tomb of the saint. “I said, ‘Sr. Alphonsa, you know how much of trouble I went through to write the book. I am going to burn it after reaching home. There is nobody to publish it.’ But she consoled me,” he says.

When Mundakel returned to Enakulam he met the Vice Postulator, Fr. M. Moothedan, and said, “I have written a book on Sr. Alphonsa. Do you have any objections to it being published?”

Moothedan said, “Please go ahead.” The book, ‘Alphonsamma Katha Paranjal’, published by Fr. T.A. Anthony, of the Janatha Press, came out in 1985, just after Sr. Alphonsa was declared a Blessed by the Vatican. The first 2000 copies were sold out within two months, and it has been in print ever since.

Recently, the English version, ‘Saint Alphonsa,’ was brought out by the Kochi-based Sargadooth Publications. Unlike the Malayalam text, this is a chronological version.

“It is a highly readable book,” says engineer Sebastian K. Joseph. “Mundakel has done an immense amount of research. You get a deep understanding of Sr. Alphonsa’s life.”

Asked about the most notable quality of Sr. Alphonsa, Mundakel says, “It was her ability to forgive.” Apparently, this was a trait which she showed right from childhood.

One day she was climbing a stile with her friend, Lakshmi Kutty, now 98 years old. A boy came from behind and pushed her. Sr. Alphonsa fell, and her hands and legs were bruised. “Lakshmi wanted to punish the boy,” says Mundakel. “But Alphonsa said, ‘Please don’t bother. Let us forgive him. God will bless us.’”

Fr. Francis Vadakel, the current vice postulator, says, “Sr. Alphonsa was also humility personified and had a loving nature.”

Apart from her sweet behaviour, Sr. Alphonsa is also known for causing miracles. So, as her biographer, did Mundakel experience one himself? He tells a story: several years ago his daughter Tessy Rani lost a brand-new cycle near their home at Thevara. Mundakel informed the police and a few local boys.

Tessy Rani told her father she would pray to Sr. Alphonsa. Mundakel did the same. “I did not have much hope,” he says. But within a day, he received a telephone call from a boy at Kadavanthra saying a cycle had been found. Mundakel went and investigated and saw that it was Tessy Rani’s cycle.

“It was a miracle that we got it back,” he says. “It deepened my faith in the saint.” Incidentally, Mundakel attended Sr. Alphonsa’s canonisation ceremony in Rome last month.

Apart from his biography of Sr. Alphonsa, Mundakel, 76, a former English teacher at Rajagiri Public School, has written 40 books, the most notable being ‘Blessed Mother Teresa-Her Journey to Your Heart’. This was published by Simon and Schuster, one of America’s leading publishers, and has been translated into German, Korean and Chinese.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Glimpses of Nehru

(A series on childhood memories)

Seeing former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru face to face and watching three films in a row were some of the unforgettable memories of politician-businessman K.M.I. Mather

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6.15 p.m. on January 30, 1948 K.M.I. Mather, who was playing in the courtyard of his house at Chowara, near Aluva, saw his uncle rush into the house. “It seems Mahatma Gandhi has died,” he said.

The Mathers had one of the few radios in the locality and his mother, Sohra, immediately switched it on. “The announcement in English confirmed that Gandhiji had been shot dead,” says Mather. Apparently, his uncle was at the railway station when the news was passed through the phone between stations.

“We all felt very sad,” says Mather. Sohra had a worried look on her face. “At that time numerous Hindu-Muslim riots were taking place and my mother was fearful about whether the killer was a Muslim,” he says. “If it had been, the country would have been on fire.”

The next day, the radio was attached, through a long wire, to a loudspeaker placed on the wall of an adjoining house. Numerous people listened to the commentary on the funeral. “People were crying outside,” says Mather. “We could also hear weeping on the radio.”

Mather’s father, K.C.M. Mather, a well-to-do businessman, was a senior Congress leader. Mather remembers the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to Kerala to address campaign rallies just before the 1952 general elections.

Nehru flew in a Dakota aircraft from Bangalore and landed at the Navy airport at Kochi. In the small reception hall, leaders like K.P. Madhavan Nair, Ikanda Warrier and Panampilly Govinda Menon waited to receive the Prime Minister. Standing next to them was 12-year old Mather, who wore a stiff Gandhi cap. “On it I had stitched two small Congress flags,” he says.

When Nehru arrived, he saw Mather, touched him on the shoulders, smiled, and moved ahead. “He was very handsome,” says Mather. “He had the red cheeks of the Kashmiri.” Nehru was accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi, “who looked very shy and reserved.”

From the airport Nehru went to Bolghatty Palace to freshen up. At the meeting at the Durbar Hall grounds, Mather remembers vividly a sentence that Nehru spoke: “I am the proud son of the greatest nation on earth.”

Later, along with his father, he sat in a car behind Nehru, who travelled in an open Buick, to Chalakudy. “People lined the streets and threw garlands and rose petals at him,” says Mather. “Sometimes, he would throw it back, in playfulness.”

Mather has more political memories. On August 15, 1947 he took part in an Independence Day procession, along with his father and other people at Chowara.

“My father was carrying the national flag,” he says. “He was wearing a khadi shirt and dhoti. I felt very proud of him. Later, my father told me to go home since it was getting late.”

Soon, Mather had a change of home. When he was in Class three, in order to get a better education, his father told him to stay at a family-owned house opposite the Ernakulam Town railway station. He lived there with his elder brother, Abdul Rahman, and cousin, Mayinkutty Mather and started studying at St. Augustine’s school.

“I missed my mother a lot,” he says. But his pain was compensated by the fact that the trio was seeing a movie once a week. And, on one unforgettable Saturday, they saw three in a row.

For the matinee show, at Padma theatre, they saw a Tamil film, 'Maya Khudira'. Then it was another Tamil film, 'Nam Naadu' at Laxman Theatre, followed by the Hindi film, 'Shabnam' at Menaka theatre.

To see a film, each ‘chair’ ticket cost 9 annas. Hence, for three films, it cost 27 annas per person or one rupee and 11 annas for the three of them. “We had been given the money by our father’s office cashier,” says Mather, a politician-businessman, in his firm opposite the Town railway station.

His father, who was mostly in Thiruvananthapuram at that time, because he had become an MLA, had one condition: the children should get permission from an elderly person in the family before they went for a film.

“Usually, my grandfather was a regular visitor to the house,” says Mather. “So we would say, ‘Give us money or allow us to go for a film.’ So, naturally, he would give permission.”

Out of the numerous films he saw, it was 'Shaheed', which starred Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal, that he liked the most. Released in 1948, it was a film about a revolutionary who was caught by the British and hanged.

“I remember the last scene where a dead Dilip Kumar is lying on a cot and a garland is put around his neck by Kamini,” he says. Then the body is draped with the national flag, more garlands are put and flower petals are strewn all over, while the haunting hit song by Mohammed Rafi is played: ‘Watan ki raah mein watan ke naujawan shaheed ho.’

Apart from films, Mather was passionate about football. A district-level player, he would buy a season ticket and watch all the matches of the Rama Varma All India tournament at the Maharaja’s College grounds.

“I remember the final in 1951 between Bangalore Blues and Young Challengers from Calicut,” he says. “The Blues won by one goal.” He says that even though the Kerala team lost, the crowd clapped for the winners. “We don’t see that sort of polite behaviour at football grounds any more,” he says.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Hot and happening

Subi Samuel is one of Bollywood’s brightest young photographers. His list of clients includes the Who’s Who of the industry

By Shevlin Sebastian

Subi Samuel wanted to shoot a frozen image of a well-known Bollywood actress, Ritu (name changed). “There was a sheet of ice on the floor,” he says. “And we got Ritu to lie on it. It was supposed to be a face shot with the eyes closed.”

To get the chilled look, salt had been put on the upper part of her body. Once the shot was taken Subi told Ritu to get up. But she was unable to do so because her hair was stuck into the ice. “She started screaming,” says Subi.

In this panicky situation the stylist ran outside and managed to get some hot water. He poured it onto the ice so that it would melt. Part of the warm water flowed towards Ritu. Because of the effect of the salt and Ritu’s low body temperature, the skin peeled off her back.

“Ritu still has a scar on the upper back,” he says. “She can cover it with make-up, but she has never forgiven me.”

Subi Samuel is one of the rising young stars in Bollywood and fashion photography. He has shot unusual and candid photos of stars like Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Akshaye Khanna, Aishwarya Rai, Diya Mirza, Esha Deol, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Hrithik Roshan, Bipasha Basu, Priyanka Chopra and Preity Zinta, among others.

He explains his modus operandi. “If a star knows how the picture will turn out they tend to be a bit more confident,” he says. Earlier, during the analog age he would do sketches and show them how the frame would be cut.

However, in today’s digital era they can check it on the computer immediately. “If they like the picture they develop a confidence in you,” he says.

For models who are always insecure about their looks, he follows a different procedure. “I never tell a model she has put on weight,” he says. “Nor do I ask her age. These are small matters, but they have a big impact on the final image.”

Interestingly, he says, all these established stars and models have one common character trait. “They are go-getters,” he says. “That means they will go the extra mile to see to it that they achieve the goals. That is the difference between the successful and the not so successful.”

Subi belongs to the successful breed. His photographs can be seen in magazines, calendars, film posters, books and catalogues. Asked the secret of a good photograph he says, “Nowadays, a photograph is not about just shooting it. You do extensive changes in photoshop. So what you are seeing is not reality but an illusion.”

Subi’s USP is his unusual depiction of film celebrities. For example, the cover photo in his coffee table book ‘Subi’, shows an unusual Sushmita Sen. “At that time all images of Sushmita were that of a beautiful diva,” he says. “I wanted to break that. So I did a picture of her screaming.”

Subi, the son of a Malayali businessman, grew up in Mumbai. In 1983 he came across an encyclopaedia of photography called the Camera Book. It sparked his interest but it would be several years later, after graduation from Mithibai College and a management degree from Narsee Monjee Institute that he would get serious about photography. “I hated my MBA course,” he says.

In 1995 he became an assistant to one of the country’s leading fashion and Bollywood photographers, Rakesh Sreshtha. “In terms of lighting a subject Rakesh is the best,” he says.

He remembers a turning point in his life during his association with Rakesh. One day Rakesh was shooting Sushmita. He suddenly got a call and because the music was blaring inside the Andheri studio he went outside to speak.

Subi began to look at Sushmita through the lens and she caught him doing that. Since the lights were on she asked him to start shooting. Subi did not want to offend Rakesh so he said no. But Sushmita insisted.

“I literally shied away from the situation,” he says. “But she said, ‘Now I will pose only if you shoot.’ So I had to take a couple of frames. That was for me a memorable experience. One of my ambitions at Rakesh’s studio was to use his lights. And then there was this God-given chance to shoot with an ex Miss Universe. The whole thing was like a dream come true for me.”

After a few years Subi branched out on his own, and established his reputation fairly quickly. “To be frank I did not have much of a struggle,” he says. Rakesh says by working with him Subi understood that a lot of people -- the make-up man, the stylist and the light person -- are needed to get a good shot. “You also need to know the mind-set of the person who is being photographed, so that he or she is able to relax,” he says. “What Subi needs to do now is maintain consistency and quality.”

Apart from celebrities Subi also takes pictures of ordinary people. Asked the difference between the two he says, “Celebrities come with pre-conceived notions of how they should look. It is difficult to break that. For ordinary people they are always thinking they are not good enough to be photographed.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Showing a little Mercy

(A series on childhood memories)

Seeing the roof of her home in flames and watching The Ten Commandments were some of the vivid memories of Cochin Corporation Mayor Mercy Williams

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day when Mercy Williams was in Class 4 at the Edward Memorial school at Fort Kochi, she was told her house was on fire.

“I immediately rushed home,” says Mercy. “The roof was burning.” The family lived in a thatched house. There was no time to call a fire engine. Instead, the neighbours threw buckets of water. Another group managed to take out a cupboard which contained all their clothes.

Eventually, the fire was doused, but one side of the roof was gutted. Thankfully, both her parents were away at work: her mother was a ‘Birth and Death Registrar’ in the municipal corporation at Fort Kochi, while her father worked in a private firm at Ernakulam.

Unfortunately, this was not the only encounter with fire for Mercy. A few years later the fence around their house caught fire one night. She awoke suddenly and saw the flames through the window. But Mercy did not panic.

Instead she ran outside, drew water from the well, and poured it on the blaze a few times. Thanks to her quick response the fire was doused. “Later, my mother complimented me on my presence of mind,” she says.

Mercy admired her mother, Teresa, a lot. “She had a sacrificial nature and cared deeply for the family,” says the mayor of the Cochin Corporation.

“I remember when I was very small, I was sleeping when I suddenly opened my eyes,” she says. Mercy saw her mother standing in front of the cupboard arranging the clothes on the various shelves. “It must have been past midnight,” she says. “She always stayed awake late, doing some chore or the other.”

When Mercy was three years old, her mother was transferred to Malabar for a two-year stint. “In those times the salary was paid only after three months,” she says. So the family had to buy everything on credit. It was then that she realised there was not enough money in the house.

When she was a little older she overheard a conversation between her parents: they were discussing the future marriages of the children – two girls and a boy – and wondered how they would raise the money for it. “I felt very bad,” she says. “As the eldest, I realised I had to study hard, and get a good job, so that I could help my parents.”

Still, despite the hardships, it was a happy family. On weekends the family, along with cousins, uncles and aunts, would go to the beach at Fort Kochi. “We would walk from one end to the other,” says Mercy.

However, because there were so many children, her aunt Lissy would carry a stick. “She wanted to make sure none of us entered the water,” says Mercy.

But as she grew older Mercy felt embarrassed, as onlookers stared at Lissy. “I would walk behind her and say, ‘Ammai, please throw the stick away,’ but she would not listen,” she says.

Apart from beach trips, Mercy remembers seeing films at the Patel Talkies at Fort Kochi. The most striking was ‘The Ten Commandments’. “I remember vividly the scene where Moses parted the Red Sea,” she says.

There were other memorable scenes: when the tablets of the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God and the large-scale migration of thousands of people towards the Promised Land.

“Years later when I read about the mass movement of Muslims and Hindus during the 1947 partition of India I would always recall this scene,” says Mercy, who lives in Thammanam, with husband, Williams, lawyer-son Anup Joachim, his wife Mridula and their son, David.

Mercy had a vivid imagination, which was stoked by her habit of reading. She would read articles in newspapers and magazines, short stories and poems. One of her favourite poems was Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

“I remember a scene where a king asked for alms from a beggar,” she says. “But the beggar gave him only a tiny grain of corn.” But, later, the beggar got a jolt. To quote from the poem: ‘How great my surprise when at the day's end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a gram of gold among the poor heap. I bitterly wept and wished that I had had the heart to give thee my all.’

In school, Mercy was an above-average student. She says most of the teachers were nice, but she especially remembers her Hindi teacher, Mother Theresa of the Canossian Convent.

“When she had to scold the children all she could say was, ‘There are two horns sticking out from the top of your head,’” says Mercy. “That was how mild she was. She was a loving teacher and very beautiful. Her peacefulness had a big impact on my life.”

Today, as Mercy struggles to improve the functioning of the much-criticised municipal corporation, she would be looking to recapture the sense of peace that Mother Theresa exuded.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)