Sunday, December 28, 2008

The twilight zone

Many retired sex workers in Kochi have been abandoned by their families. With no savings, and no proper place to stay, they are leading bleak lives

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, several years ago Revathi was looking for clients near the KSRTC bus stand at Kochi. Two men approached her, gave her Rs 500 and said they wanted to have sex with her. She agreed and asked to go to the toilet. On the way she slipped the money to a shopkeeper inside the terminal.

The men took her to a half-constructed building. “I had sex with the two men, when suddenly another six men materialised,” says Revathi. All of them raped her and then the man who gave her Rs 500 asked for the money back.

“I told him I did not have it with me,” she says. The men got angry and rained her with blows. She began bleeding from the nose. Finally, she was thrown into a roadside drain.

“It was a terrible moment,” she says. “At that time my father was suffering from cancer. I had to buy medicines. How could I return the Rs 500? And why should I?”

Revathi got married at 16 and by the time her husband abandoned her at 22, she had three children: two boys and a girl. Money was hard to come by and she decided to become a sex worker.

“During the early years I would have ten to twelve clients a day,” she says. Revathi would get paid between Rs 50 to Rs 100 per client. “I was young and good-looking,” she says. As the years went by the rates went up. A few years ago, she was getting between Rs 300 to Rs 500.

The money was much needed to run the family, but there were drawbacks. Because she was working in a public place like a bus stand, several people saw her, including her neighbours. “They would come and tell my sons, ‘Hey, I saw your mother at the bus stand selling her body,’” she says.

The sons felt ashamed and said, “Amma don’t spoil the family name. Please do some other work.” But it was too late to find another job which provided the same income.

“All the money I earned I spent it on the family,” says Revathi. However, when the children got married and started families of their own, the relationship with their mother broke down and the inevitable happened: Revathi was asked to leave.

Today, she lives on the streets in Aluva with another woman. “I have my bath in the Periyar river and do my ablutions in the toilet at the bus stand,” she says.

And even now, in her late fifties, with two front teeth missing, drunken men, who are unable to find a younger sex worker, jump on her.

“It is rape,” she says. “But what can I do? I cannot complain to the police because they will harass me even more.” On rare occasions, a man might fling a hundred rupee note at her.

There are many ageing sex workers in their fifties and sixties who face untold hardships now that their careers have come to an end.

Take the case of Bindu, 65. Today her two sons are married, but Bindu is unable to get along with her daughters-in-law. “I used to scold them when they made some mistakes and they did not like it,” she says. “So I walked out.”

She stays in a single room in Athani, about 25 kms from Kochi.

Bindu became a sex worker when her husband abandoned her when the sons were small. “What option did I have?” she says.

At that time she met some friends who were in the trade. “They said, ‘Do you want to starve or look after your family?” And so Bindu started work and did it for more than 30 years.

Today, she earns her living by selling pickles, door to door, but earns only Rs 50 per day. The monthly rent for her room is Rs 750.

“I am unable to make ends meet,” she says. “Some nights I just drink warm water and go to sleep. Nobody is there to care for me. I am all alone in the world.”

Parvathy is also alone. Her mother, who was her only companion, died recently. Her brothers broke ties with her a couple of decades ago. She is 54, but is HIV positive.

“I stopped having sex because I don’t want to spread the disease,” she says. She works as a maid for a bachelor who is aware she is a former sex worker. “But I have not told him about my HIV status,” she says. “The pay is low but, at least, I have a roof over my head.”

Parvathy’s husband had abandoned her, but she has no children. “I got into the trade because my mother was unwell and there was no money to pay for medicines,” she says. “But I have no regrets. At that time it was the right decision although I might die sooner than later.”

Saroja is more resilient. She is 62 and works as a field worker for an NGO distributing condoms to sex workers and gives talks about the dangers of Aids.

“I became a sex worker at 28,” she says. “I had a lover but he abandoned me. I had more than 10 clients a day. In those days we would get Rs 50 per session. And that was enough. It is only now that money has no value and hence you need a lot to satisfy your basic needs.”

A carefree Saroja blew up the money on clothes, lipstick, watching movies and buying gifts for friends. “Now I have only my body left,” she says. “And nobody wants that now.”

So what advice would they give to those who are keen to enter the trade? “I would discourage girls from entering the profession because you meet all sorts of cruel and horrible men,” says Revathi. “I have been gang-raped many times. And don’t forget the harassment from the police.”

Says Bindu: “Nowadays you can earn as well as a labourer or a maid.”

But Saroja is cynical. “There is no point giving any advice because they will do it anyway,” she says. “Can you earn Rs 1500 a day by doing a regular job? So there is no comparison. If I tell them to stay away, they will say, ‘Look who is giving advice. Why don’t you mind your own business? And let us lead our lives the way we want to.’”

But for those elderly women who are unable to lead lives on their own terms, help is at hand. Maniamma is a tall, slender woman with a loud voice and a forceful temperament. She is the coordinator for the Swantham Service Society, an organisation for sex workers. Now the society is planning to set up a dormitory for retired sex workers.

“The idea came up because these women have no money or a place to stay,” she says. “There is nobody to look after them.” The society is preparing a proposal to submit to the state government.

“We are keen to render assistance,” says Dr. Usha Titus, secretary, social welfare, of the state government. “But I will need to study the proposal first and see whether it fits in with our rules.”

Maniamma does not know it but there is already an international precedent.

In November, 2006, the Mexican government started ‘Casa Xochiquetzal’, a home for retired sex workers, at Mexico City. This is the first such facility in Latin America, and to get admission an applicant must be at least 65 and living in penury.

“Previously, we would say, ‘In the end, we will end up in jail,’” says Carmen Munoz, former sex worker and the home’s director. “Today I say, ‘In the end, we will end up in peace,’ because this house is a place of peace.”

Maniamma is hoping to set up a similar ‘place of peace’ in Kochi.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Good times and bad times

(A series on childhood memories)

Losing his younger brother in childhood and discovering a treasure trove of detective novels were some of film director K.G. George’s unforgettable memories

By Shevlin Sebastian

Director K.G. George had a younger brother Babu who was suffering from dysentery.
One night the disease got aggravated and his mother rushed him to the nearby government hospital at Kulakkad, Tiruvalla. George, who was 11 at that time, was in deep sleep.

“The next morning I saw my mother coming across the paddy fields carrying Babu on her shoulders,” he says. It was only when they reached home that George realised that his brother was dead.

His mother was crying. “I felt very bad that I had not helped in any way,” he says. “Then my mother said, in an accusing tone, ‘You were sleeping when your brother died.’ That hurt me very much.”

Because of poor medical facilities early deaths were a regular occurrence in their village. George remembers a cousin who died unexpectedly when he was 12.

When his mother and George went to the house they saw the body being washed in preparation for the burial. “My cousin was just skin and bones,” he says. “It was an unforgettable image.”

George, himself, escaped death twice. His father, a signboard painter, would bring home large steel trunks which belonged to rich people that needed to be painted.

“One day a few cousins and I were playing hide and seek,” says George. “I got into a trunk and closed the lid.” Unfortunately, the latch slid into the socket.

George sat in complete darkness and tried to open the truck. But nothing happened. Minutes passed. He was assailed by fear and desperation.

“Finally, I balanced myself on my arms and knees and with great force pushed upwards with my back,” says George. “That broke the latch and I was able to come out.”

On another occasion George fell into a stream near his house. He came up for air four times. “By this time I was about to lose consciousness,” he says. But, providentially, a pappadam seller, Kamalakshi, was walking past and she rushed into the water and saved George.

But his childhood was not only about escaping death. Sometimes his father would take him for a film. He remembers seeing the super-hit Tamil film ‘Chandralekha’.

“There was one segment where a man was tied up and brought in front of a cave,” says the 63-year-old director. “Then a rock was removed and the man was thrown in and the stone was placed back. Later the man died. For some reason I have never forgotten this scene.”

Because of financial hardships, he did not see films often and the family would move from place to place, staying in ramshackle dwellings. “I used to suffer from an inferiority complex because of this,” he says.

Once when his friend Kurien Varghese asked to see his house, George took him to another locality, pointed at a stylish middle-class house and said, “That is my home.”

He remembers another humiliation. “When we went on a family visit to my uncle, Daniel’s house in Ernakulam, my mother hired clothes from the washerwoman so that I could look presentable,” says George. “It was a cream silk shirt and shorts.”

Despite life being an uphill struggle, good things also happened to George. This was when the family had moved to yet another house where he befriended the landlord’s son Raju Thomas. “He was older than me,” says George.

One day when nobody was around George went up to the loft. “I found a treasure trove of books which belonged to Raju,” says George, a voracious reader. They were detective novels and short stories which were published from a place called Champakalam.

“I spent many happy hours reading these stories,” he says. “I have continued to read detective books ever since.” In his house at Vennala, amongst numerous books lined up on wooden shelves, ‘Great Cases of Scotland Yard’ holds pride of place. In his career this interest reached its climax in the classic detective-thriller, ‘Yavanika’.

Meanwhile, Raju was having a love affair with his cousin, Marykutty. “Occasionally he would write on an inland letter and give it to me to deliver to Marykutty, who lived nearby,” says George. “But when I looked at the letter I just could not understand what was written.”

One day George saw that after Raju wrote the letter he used a mirror to read what he had written. “Apparently he wrote from right to left,” says George. “So it was very difficult for anybody to read it unless you used a mirror.”

Thereafter whenever George would get the letter he would also read it with the help of a mirror before delivering it. “They were simple love letters,” he says, with a smile.

George’s delivery work paid off!

Raju ended up marrying Marykutty.

But George could not forget Raju for other reasons. The older boy weighed 75 kgs and every now and then he would call George and sit on his back. “I am testing your stamina,” he would say, as George would gasp for much-needed air.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saving lives through swimming

The Thoppan’s Swimming Academy, besides the Meenachil River, is the only functioning pool in Pala in Kottayam district, Kerala. Youths, from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, have secured jobs through their swimming exploits

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Ravi Menon (name changed) went to the bathroom at the hostel of the St. Thomas College at Pala, Kerala, he saw that there was no water. Taking a towel, a bar of soap and a mug, he went to the nearby Meenachil river to have a bath. But he was so scared of going into the river he sat on the steps and poured water on his body with a mug.

A little later his friend, Suresh, ran down the steps, placed both his hands on Ravi’s shoulders, somersaulted into the river and started swimming.

After twenty minutes when he returned he did not see Ravi. Assuming he had gone back, Suresh dried himself and returned to the hostel. But, unfortunately, Ravi had slipped into the river and had drowned.

This incident had a profound impact on Thomas Thoppan, 56, the swimming coach of the Mahatma Gandhi University; his older brother Cyriac retrieved the body. “I felt that as a coach I needed to do something,” he says.

He asked his brother Joy, who owned property in Velliappally, near the Meenachil river, whether he could construct a pool on his plot. Joy, a swimming coach at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation at Tamil Nadu, agreed.

Thomas hired a JCB excavator to make a hole in the ground. Thereafter, he built a 25m pool, thanks to a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from the bank and with the help of his younger brother, Mathew.

“We took the water from the river,” says Mathew. “It took 25 hours to fill the pool. We needed 5.5 lakh litres.” So, in 1997, the Thoppan’s Swimming Academy was set up.

The classes began, but within a week, because of the absence of a filteration unit, the water got muddied. It was released into a culvert, which led to the river. Water was again pumped in from the Meenachil. It would take a couple of years before a filteration unit was installed.

On a sunny Friday evening, last month, the children come in at 4 p.m. for the evening session. They range in age from 5 to 18 years. They strip down to their swimming gear, and run a few rounds around the edge of the pool. Then they dive into the pool and Thomas starts issuing instructions.

“Unlike in the metros where the swimmers usually come from middle-class families, most of our trainees are the children of labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers,” says Thomas.

There is five-year-old Vineet K.S., the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, rolling smoothly in the outside lane. In the middle lane, Divya Kuriakose, 15, the daughter of a policeman, is doing the backstroke. Next to her is Anne Mary, 14, the daughter of a tailor. The older ones do an average of 5000m per day.

For the poor the charges are Rs 100 a month. “Earlier, entry was free,” says Mathew. “But they got lazy. But when parents started paying the fees they ensured the children came every day.” For those who can afford it, the rate is Rs 3000 per year.

One parent who is keenly watching the proceedings is businessman Unni Harinath. “My son, Hari Shankar, is only five years old but I want him to become a champion swimmer. In this sport, you can reach a world class level at an early age.”

Standing on the other side, and keeping a sharp eye on the swimmers, is K. Aloysius, the secretary of the Kottayam District Aquatic Association. The association selects promising youngsters who are given training at the academy.

“Later, we take them to district and state level championships,” he says. “A lot of them have got jobs through swimming.”

Jobs are the key to the great attraction the pool holds for parents in the area. The list of swimmers who won state and national meets and then got employed is long: There is Rajeev K.K. and Sumi Cyriac, who works for the Railways, Akhil Joseph, Kannan P.R., Alex Lewis, and Rahul Raj secured employment with the Military Engineering Service of the Indian Army, while Joy Thomas joined the Army.

All Thomas’s five brothers –national and international swimmers -- have got jobs through the sport.

It is one reason why Betsy Maria Mathew, 17, has been swimming at the academy for the past six years. A state-level 200m breaststroke champion, and the daughter of a poor labourer, she says, “I want to become a national champion so that I can get a good job.”

Meanwhile, the Thoppan brothers are struggling to stay afloat. Monthly expenses of the pool hover around the Rs 30,000 mark; the income is far below that. When Thomas approached local schools to send their children to his pool, he was accused of “trying to make a profit.”

He says that no school in Pala has a pool. “If 90 per cent of the school children fall into the river they will drown,” he says.

The Academy has also not received any financial support from the panchayat or the government. “The local MLA, K.M. Mani promised a Rs 1 lakh grant, but it never materialised,” says Mathew.

Thomas Kunnapally, president of the Kottayam zilla panchayat, sanctioned Rs 5 lakh, but there was immediate opposition. “People asked why public money should be given to a private enterprise,” says Mathew.

Despite these obstacles, the academy has made a name for itself. The Kottayam district championship, the inter-school championships and the coaching camp of MG University have been held at the pool.

Kripakar Reddy, a Naval Commander, based in Kochi, stayed a fortnight with Thomas, so that his son, Vicky could learn swimming. A summer camp has drawn more than 300 children. Youngsters, who are keen to join the aviation industry, as well as the Navy, come to the academy to learn swimming.

Despite the financial problems, the Thoppan brothers want to move ahead. They are keen to put up a roof, since it is difficult to swim in the daytime because of the blazing sun. “It will cost Rs 15 lakh,” says Thomas. “We are looking for sponsors.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dance, lady, dance!

(A series on childhood memories)

A heel injury which could have become permanent and a surprise on her birthday were some of dancer Padma Menon’s unforgettable memories

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Padma Menon was eight years old she experienced an excruciating pain in her heels during dance practice at Chennai. When she went to the doctor he told her there were some problems with her ankles and she would have to stop dancing.

“I was devastated,” she says. “I told my mother I could not stop dancing. There had to be a solution.”

Most mothers might have said, “It does not matter. You can do something else, like play an instrument.” But Padma’s mother, Asha, took her daughter’s desire to be a dancer very seriously.

She procured large sheets, made of small plastic bubbles, which are usually used to wrap furniture. Asha placed it on the floor and covered it with a piece of cloth. When Padma danced on it she did not feel any pain. “I danced on this bubble cloth for more than a year,” she says.

Thereafter, she went to Thrissur and received Ayurvedic treatment from Kunju Vaidyan. “He gave me a regimen of oils and massages,” says Padma. “For the next two years my mother had to rub oil every day on my legs and give me a massage.”

One day, to see whether there was any improvement, Padma danced on a hard floor and got a surprise: there was no pain. And she has been free of the ailment ever since.

At that time Padma was training under Vempati Chinna Satyam of the Kuchipudi Art Academy. And she showed an aptitude from the very beginning. Once she was performing with the troupe in a village in Andhra Pradesh.

“After the performance my guru dabbed the perspiration on my forehead with his towel,” she says. “I understood that I had given the best performance of my life. He would never say, ‘You did well or you were fantastic.’ These little gestures were his way of showing his appreciation.”

But like any human being Padma also suffered from vanity. She remembers a rehearsal for a dance drama, ‘Padmavati Shrinivasam’. Apart from a big orchestra, a large crowd was present and Padma felt she was performing very well.

“Suddenly in the middle of my solo recital, Guruji got up and left,” she says. There was a stunned silence in the hall. When some dancers went out and enquired from the master, he said, “Padma’s dancing was so dreadful I could not bear to watch it.”

Years later, a chastened Padma, 42, says, “He was right. Guruji said to dance well you had to shatter the ego. But because I was thinking how wonderful I was, probably I was not performing very well.”

But even when she performed well there were setbacks. Once, the troupe was preparing to go for a trip to the United States to perform a dance drama, ‘Krishnaparijatam’.

“I was in Class 8 and this would have been a great opportunity for me,” she says. Padma seemed a certainty for the main role but, suddenly, at the last moment, her guru selected another girl.

“I felt very hurt,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why is this happening?’ But my parents reacted differently. They did not say, ‘Oh, this is so unjust!’ Instead, my father said, ‘There will be other opportunities. Just take it in your stride.’”

Padma took it in her stride and never showed her disappointment. “I learned how to deal with setbacks and put on a brave face,” she says “Life is not fair. You have to accept that and move on. I am grateful to my parents.”

But there was a time when she was disappointed in her parents. One day before her 16th birthday she had gone to Coimbatore to perform at the anniversary celebrations of the PSG College of Technology.

“When I left, my parents did not say anything about my birthday,” she says. “I felt upset that they had forgotten.’”

But on the morning of May 26, Padma had just finished her bath when Vempati Chinna Satyam told her somebody had come to see her. She was mystified because she knew nobody in Coimbatore. When she went down to the lobby she got the shock of her life: it was her parents.

“They had driven all the way from Chennai to wish me on my birthday,” says Padma. “I was in tears. They gave me my presents and took me out.” When her guru came to know about it he gave her a silk saree. “I still have it even though it is crumbling,” she says. “It was the best birthday of my life.”

The happy birthday girl was also the best student at the Good Shepherd school. Except for one occasion when she came second to her close friend, Bela Luthria in Class 7, she always topped the class.

But there was one chink in her armour. Padma was terrible in sports but it was compulsory to take part. So she felt that netball was the easiest game to play.

“I don’t know how it happened but I held the centre position,” she says. “I was a bad player. On the sidelines students would shout, ‘Are you dancing or playing?’ Everybody would be booing and making mocking sounds like ‘Takadimi, Takajhenu’.”

At her parents’ house in Thrissur, she smiles and says, “That was a nice way to shatter the ego, wasn’t it?”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

At home down under

Divers, trained by the Navy Diving School, at Kochi, learn to repair ships, place mines on the hull of enemy ships and recover bodies from the sea bed. But for all them diving is also a sublime experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September, 2004, Lieutenant R.S. Kumar, of the Navy Diving School at Kochi, received a call from the district collector of Kollam, B. Srinivas. A trawler had capsized at Sakthikulangara, one of the major fishing harbours of Kerala. Six men were trapped underneath. A few fishermen had attempted a rescue, but gave up because the bodies were at a depth of 180 ft.

Kumar arrived with a team of 15 divers. "It was raining," he says. "The current, at five kilometers per hour, was very fast and there were huge swells."

One diver went down, and even though the visibility was poor, he managed to locate the trawler. "However, the bodies were inside, hence, it could not be taken out," he says.

So, the diver came up and another took his place, taking an iron rod with him. He smashed open the cabin door and was able to go inside.

"The bodies were pulled out, tied with ropes, and taken up," says Kumar. "The people and the district administration were grateful. They realised it was a difficult operation."

It is not only the rescue of civilians that Navy divers are involved in. They are also trained to do salvage works and undertake major underwater repairs of ships and crafts. They provide aid to civil society in times of natural calamities, like floods.

"Divers also learn how to carry out clandestine attacks on enemy ships and crafts by placing mines on their hulls," says Commander A.K. Sharma, officer-in-charge of the diving school.

But to develop these skills they have to come to the diving school. It is the only school in South-East Asia, which is recognised by the International Marine Contractors' Association.

"At present there are 100 trainees," says Sharma. They come from the Coast Guard, the Navy, Army and from countries like the Maldives, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Kazakhstan.

The physical training is hard. Every morning, at 7.30 a.m., the trainees, including 14 soldiers from the Army Para Commandoes, do 80 push ups and sit ups, and set out on a 8 km jog. They are dressed in black T-shirts and shorts and wear sneakers. They run in an easy loping manner, holding black flippers, weighing 3 kg, in their hands.

45 minutes later, they reach the Thevara Bridge. They climb the railings, four at a time, put on the flippers, pause for a moment on the edge, 27 feet up, and jump, shouting, “Jai Hind.” Their legs are straight, and their arms are by the side, as they slice through the water.

As they come up, they turn around and swim backwards. "This is known as the combat stroke,” says Commander D.S. Gahlot, 41, chief instructor. “It causes the minimum disturbance of the water, especially when you are using flippers and are in enemy waters.”

The men swim easily and don't look tired at all. After a 3 km swim, they reach the Navy Technical Unit. They take off their flippers, and walk, waist-deep, through 300m long mud flats on the edge of the river.

"This is to strengthen their thigh muscles and to enable them to walk on mud when they reach an enemy shore," says Commander Pankaj Kumar, training coordinator.

Following this, there is a break for breakfast. Later, there are three hours of diving, which includes an astonishing seven-minute session in a swimming pool. The hands and legs of the divers are tied with ropes, behind their backs, and they jump in.

“This is to instill a sense of supreme confidence,” says Sharma. “If they can stay afloat, tied like this, they know they can survive anything.” And indeed, Jai Bhagwan and R. S. Rathore, both 22, look calm, as they go down and come up again. Finally, the duo has to pick up swimming goggles from the pool floor with their teeth.

In the afternoon, after a 90 minute break, they begin with physical exercises and then have to confront an obstacle course, with 21 barriers. The soldiers have to climb walls, walk across a rope bridge, clamber through pipes, and crawl under a network of ropes.

The group seems to be in good physical condition and is able to tackle the obstacles easily. Says First Para Commander Shiv Kumar, "The course is tough, but we are managing." Lance Naik Deepak Singh says, with a wry smile, “We have never trained so hard before."

Commander Sharma says in the initial two-week screening process, 70 per cent fall off. "They lack the will power and the physical fitness," he says.

Following the obstacle course, there are cooling down exercises. It is only by 7 p.m. the divers are free. And since most of them prefer to eat food they have cooked, a gas stove is lit, just outside their quarters.

On a frying pan, astonishingly, they pour dollops of pure ghee, followed by a cup of masoor dal, tomato slices, with sprinklings of salt and chillies. This simple dish, to be eaten, with slices of bread, is so tasty that it has become famous all over the Naval Base. "My wife always asks me to bring some home," says Gahlot, with a laugh.

After dinner, the trainees look relaxed and all of them say diving is a sublime experience. But it takes the experienced divers to articulate what they feel. "When I am on the sea bed and look up, I can see this column of sheer blue water above me," says Sharma. "It is an unforgettable sight. Marine life, with its myriad colours, is stunning."

For Lieutenant Vikas Phogat, when he is under water, he feels connected to the rest of the earth. "It is so peaceful and quiet," he says. "You are far away from the hassles of daily life. When I come up, it is from heaven to hell."

So, is there any danger from marine life? "The rule under sea is very simple," says Commander Pankaj Kumar. "If you don't disturb the creatures, it will not disturb you."

He says there are several crocodiles in the harbour at Port Blair, where Navy divers go for regular training. But, so far, it has never attacked the divers.

"The crocodiles are friendlier than human beings," says Gahlot. "If you do not trouble them, they will not trouble you. The only creature who does the most damage on the planet is man."

Lieutenant R.S. Kumar highlights another experience. "At the bottom of the sea you realise how important every single breath is," he says. "We have to take slow breaths, so that the oxygen can last longer. Most people take breathing for granted, but we never do."

Dangers of diving

a) The sudden loss of oxygen is the biggest danger. This can happen if the oxygen tank loses pressure, or gets damaged. When this happens, the diver has to immediately surface or risk drowning. So, it is a must to check the tank before going underwater.

b) Another danger is decompression. If you submerge or come up too fast, higher-than-normal levels of oxygen enter into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the circulatory system. These can become life-threatening if the person is not put into a decompression chamber. It is always safer to go down with another diver.

c) Sharks are the most dangerous creatures underwater. They can attack and dismember divers. Avoid known feedings grounds. Keep an eye out for the stings of eels and jellyfish.

d) Change in pressure underwater can cause the middle ear to suddenly ache. Though this happens all the time and is not dangerous, a diver should be aware of it.

e) After diving, a diver should clear his ears of water. Otherwise, he might he afflicted inflicted with inner ear barotrauma that can cause hearing impairment.

Nitrogen bubbles can kill you

In diving, if you abide by the rules, it is one of the safest sports. The rules are like this: whenever you make an ascent, it is mandatory to have a 5-minute stop at 3 metres. By breathing in a regular manner, at this juncture, the body is slowly able to adjust as it comes up to the surface.

Sometimes, when this stop does not take place and you go up too fast, a diver could suffer from decompression sickness. Like what happened to Subin J. Kalarikkal, 27, a diving instructor in the Lakshadweep islands.

On April 30 he was with a client, Rukhmini (name changed), at 18 metres below sea-level. When they were going back up Rukhmini started moving very fast. "You should always go up in a ‘controlled ascent,’" says Subin.

So he swam rapidly, and reached Rukhmini and slowed her down. But by doing this, in three seconds, he covered 10 metres. Hours later, when he was at home, Subin experienced a pain in his hip area. He realised that in hurrying up to Rukhmini, he might have aggravated decompression sickness.

So the next day he went to the general hospital at the nearby island of Agathi and inhaled oxygen. However, the pain persisted. On May 2, as a safety precaution, he was airlifted to the Navy Diving School in Kochi. There he entered a decompression chamber for four and a half hours.

"I was taken down to 18 metres and oxygen was administered," he says. "Soon, I felt fresh and energetic once again."

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

When death comes calling

(A series on childhood memories)

Losing his mother at 13 and scoring goals as a footballer were some of politician K. Babu’s unforgettable memories

By Shevlin Sebastian

When politician K. Babu was a child he wrote short stories. A few were published in the ‘Thozhilali’ newspaper. He remembers writing a story about a soldier who was killed during the India-China war of 1962.

“A fellow soldier collected the belongings and took the responsibility of returning it to his wife,” says Babu.

When he arrived at the house the soldier saw numerous photographs of his colleague hanging on the walls. The wife had loved her husband deeply. “I described the feelings of the young wife, who had a small son, and was now suddenly a widow,” he says.

The inspiration for this story came from a real-life incident. Babu’s uncle, Bose, a captain in the Indian Army died in a jeep accident in the district of 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

“His wife was about to give birth to a daughter,” says Babu. “I felt sad when I heard about Captain Bose’s death and decided to write a story.”

Death was not far away during Babu’s childhood at Angamaly. One day his mother Ponnamma fell sick and was admitted to the Ernakulam General Hospital.

“My mother had high blood pressure but the doctors failed to monitor it,” he says. “Suddenly, she started bleeding through the nose and died suddenly.”

His father complained to the former MLA M.A. Antony who raised the issue about the hospital’s negligence in the Assembly.

Babu was only 13 at that time. Thereafter he began living with his uncle, Sreedharan, and aunt, Valliyamma. Barely had he recovered from his mother’s death when one evening, Sreedharan’s son, Salim, was standing at the door of their house at Angamaly when lightning struck. The bolt hit Salim’s face and he was killed instantly.

“I was devastated by these deaths,” he says.

But Babu busied himself so that he could forget these tragedies. He became a member of a children’s arts club. The members met in a room above the sub-registrar’s office at Angamaly.

“When we entered the room we noticed that there was a small door which led to a hall in the next building. Inside, there were numerous empty pots, which had been used to store toddy.”

During the rainy season, because there was no bathroom, the children would piss in these pots. No one would have discovered it except that the old pots leaked and the floor had small gaps.

On the ground floor lived a middle-aged bachelor, on whose face the drops fell when he lay down on his bed. Curious, the man investigated and when he discovered what the drops were, he raised a hullabaloo. “The club was closed down,” says Babu, with a smile.

Apart from the arts, Babu was fascinated with football. He represented his school, St. Joseph’s high school in many tournaments. A stopper-back, he was renowned for scoring goals with his head.

“I cannot forget the time when I headed in a goal at a match in Aluva in the presence of the principal M.L. Paul,” he says. A strict man, Paul used a cane to instill discipline among the students.

“So it was astonishing when this stern man came and rubbed my forehead during the interval,” he says. “He was trying to say that I should score more goals through headers.”

Babu was so passionate about football that when the All India Catholic University Federation organised a football tournament for Christian students, Babu took part by wearing a scapular around his neck.

“Nobody knew I was a Hindu,” says Babu, the Tripunithara MLA, who is also the president of the Ernakulam District Football Association.

Watching films was another form of entertainment, he says. Usually, he would see them with his father’s cousin, Kuttan and his wife, Kaarthu. “Even though I was about seven years old, just to avoid buying a ticket Kaarthu used to carry me like I was a baby,” he says.

When he grew older he would go for night shows. “My aunt, Valliyamma, knew about this but did not say anything,” he says. “I would put several pillows under the sheet to convey the impression that somebody was sleeping on the bed and sneak away. My uncle was always fooled by this.”

But there was a time when he handled a sheet and fell in trouble. In 1966, he had gone on an excursion with his classmates to Bangalore. “We stayed at the Dharmaram College,” says Babu. One morning, as Mass was taking place at the chapel, a nonchalant Babu picked up a sheet and shook it.

In the pin-drop silence the sound echoed throughout the building. “The Rector came running,” says Babu. “The priest could not believe, and neither could I, that I had made the noise just by shaking a sheet. Nevertheless the Rector scolded me.”

Babu pauses and says, “In those days it was so quiet and peaceful unlike the noisy atmosphere in which we live now.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Living on the edge

As Gustav Morin, media member of the Ericcson 3, files reports and photographs he has to contend with huge waves and biting cold

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Sailing through the Southern Ocean was the most interesting experience so far,” says Gustav Morin, 24, media crew member of the Ericcson 3, which is taking part in the Volvo Ocean race.

The temperature varied from 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Huge waves hit the crew with great force. “The boat was rocking from side to side,” he says. “We were under water all the time and had to do this for days together.”

All the men wore harnesses with hooks which were inserted at different sections of the boat. “This prevented us from getting blown away,” he says. “The power of the waves was awesome. The boat was moving at 30 knots and when the waves hit us, it was like getting punched by a rock.”

During one such moment, sailor Martin Krite went flying from the bow and hit his head on the mast. “He was dizzy for a few days even though he was wearing a helmet,” says Gustav.

In the midst of all this, the crew was able to keep up its competitive instincts. Suddenly, on the horizon, in the Southern Ocean, they saw the Telefonica Blue.

“They had a smaller sail and were not pushing hard,” he says. “We put up a big sail immediately because we wanted to catch up with them.”

The Ericcson 3 was going two knots faster than the Telefonica. And within an hour it passed the other boat at a distance of 100m.

“We waved enthusiastically although it must have been a tough moment for them to watch us go past,” says Gustav, with a broad smile.

But there were moments of frustration too. Earlier, near the Equator the boat encountered the Doldrums.

“This meant that there was no wind at all,” says Gustav. “We were in the fastest monohull boat in the world but were unable to move forward.” Eventually the wind started blowing after three days.

Gustav, as an embedded reporter, writes about the highs and lows, accompanied by video and photographs. His articles are published in publications all over the world including the ‘Dagens Nyheter’, one of the largest newspapers in Sweden.

In Kochi, Gustav was taken aback by the huge media contingent. “The interest was so intense,” he says. “I saw two photographers coming to fisticuffs as they tried to get a vantage point. We have not experienced anything like this before. It was fantastic.”

What was not fantastic was the chaotic traffic. “It was like being on a race-track,” says Gustav. “I saw signs which said, ‘Please follow the rules’, but nobody seems to be doing that.”

From the noisy traffic when Gustav stepped into a restaurant, he was surprised by the silence. “People were very relaxed and spoke softly,” he says. “I had to strain myself to understand what they were saying. It was such a big contrast to the world on the streets.”

As he talks a young woman comes up and says, “You are so handsome! Can I take a photograph with you?” A smiling Gustav says, “Yes,” while an acquaintance of the woman takes the pictures.

“Thanks to sailing I am able to meet so many different people from different cultures,” he says.

Asked about the attraction of sailing, he says, “Though we spend hours and weeks without land in sight and live an intense life, physically and mentally, a lot of the guys dream about yachting, about another race they want to take part or a boat they want to buy when they get home. This proves that sailing is not just something you do, it gets into your mind and stays in your spirit.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Going, going…..gone?

The Jews of Kochi, their numbers rapidly dwindling, have been deeply affected by the killing of their ilk at the hands of terrorists at Mumbai

Photo: The Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry

By Shevlin Sebastian

The foreigners who throng the Jewish Synagogue at Mattancherry offer their commiserations to Sammy Hallegua, the warden and leader of the community. Thanks to 24/7 television coverage, everybody is aware about the deaths of the Jewish hostages by terrorists at Nariman House, where a branch of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement was functioning.

“It’s terrible,” says Hallegua. "Our friends and relatives have called us from all over the world. Many of our neighbours have left for Israel, but that does not mean they were not shattered by the tragedy."

The Jewish community in Kochi is small: just a few families are left. The majority have migrated to Israel and settled in the Negev, in south Israel and Yuval in the north. There are an estimated 60,000 Indian Jews in Israel; they comprise the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel Jews from Maharashtra and from other parts of India.

In India the earliest Jews had settled on the Malabar coast around 700 BC. A charter, written in Tamil and engraved on two copper plates, is preserved in the Jewish synagogue.

It describes the privileges granted to a certain Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the Hindu ruler of Malabar. The Jews were given the village of Anjuvannam, and it could remain in their possession, ‘so long as the world and moon exists.’

Incidentally, there were two types of Jews. The local converts and those who came from Israel were known as the black Jews, while those who came from Europe were called the white Jews. These Jews settled down in Cranganore (modern name: Kodungallur in Thrissur district) and were given a principality by the Chera Emperor of Kerala, Bhaskara Ravivarman II.

White Jews were full members of the synagogue, while black Jews could pray there but were not eligible for membership. Just like in temples and mosques, worshippers take their shoes off before entering the synagogue.

For the Jews in Kochi, instead of rabbis, they have community elders. The prayer books are hand-written in Hebrew and Malayalam. Today, only the synagogue at Mattancherry is still functioning.

The Jews lived peacefully till the 15th century when the Rabban lineage became extinct. Soon, there was a fight between two brothers about who would become the chieftain of Anjuvannam. The community divided into two groups.

Sensing the disunity among the Jews, in 1524, the Moors (Arabs who had settled in Calicut) attacked the community in order to eliminate them from the pepper trade. Most of the Jews fled to Cochin and received protection from the Hindu Raja there. He was gracious enough to provide land, which later became known as ‘Jew Town’.

When the Portuguese came to India, around this time, they persecuted the Jews. Things were bad till the Dutch arrived in 1660. They were tolerant and the Jews did well. In 1795 Cochin came under the control of the British. The Jews were then living in Ernakulam, Aluva and North Paravur. They prospered under the British and became a successful trading community.

Following India’s Independence in 1947, the princely states of Cochin, Travancore, and Calicut merged into the state of Kerala. One of the central government's first policies was to ban the import of luxury goods.

Many Jews, who were traders, used to import clothes, chandeliers, and alcohol from Europe which they sold to the local British elite. This decision caused economic hardships for the community. The coconut estates were nationalised and the Jews lost a valuable source of income. The mass migration to Israel weakened the community further. Apart from this, there were several conversions to Christianity. These Jews were known as Nasrani or St. Thomas Christians.

Despite the loss of numbers, the Jews were treated with respect and affection by the society, at large. In 1968, on the 400th anniversary of the Jewish Synagogue, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the chief guest. Mrs. Gandhi said, “Mazel Tov (a Yiddish phrase, which means Congratulations’).” The Jews said, “How did you know this?” A smiling Mrs Gandhi replied, “I saw the musical, ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’” A stamp was issued to commemorate the event.

Today, the six families, comprising 50 people, that live on in Mattancherry, Ernakulam and Aluva are limping along. When sunset arrives, as it has to in every human life, one day, not far off into the future, sadly, there will be no Jews left in Kochi.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Scenes from the past

(A series on childhood memories)

Watching Carnatic music legend M.S. Subbulakshmi in performance and becoming a heroine in a play at the age of 13 are some of actor Kaviyoor Ponnamma’s memorable experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every evening Gauri Amma would rub oil on the bodies of her three daughters, Ponnamma, Jagatha and Sarasamma. Then she would send them to a well, at some distance from the house to take a bath.

One day, as Sarasamma sat on the edge of the well, she slipped and fell into the water. “I started screaming,” says Ponnamma. “Thankfully, my mother heard me. Looking back I don’t know whether she ran or flew.”

Gauri Amma jumped straight into the well. Surprisingly Sarasamma had not sunk. “Somehow she had remained bobbing on the surface, even though she was only three years old,” she says. “My mother, who did not know swimming, grabbed her and held on to some plants that were growing along the wall.”

Ponnamma continued to shout. The neighbours saw that she was peering into the well and quickly realised somebody had fallen in. “So they came running with a ladder,” she says. “And that was how my mother and sister were saved.”

But this incident had a lifelong impact on Ponnamma. “Ever since that time I have never stepped into water, be it at a pond, river or a beach,” she says.

Even though Ponnamma was born in Kaviyoor she spent her childhood in Ponkunnam, where her father, T.P. Damodaran had a business. One day as Damodaran took Ponnamma to the town on a Sunday evening through a rubber plantation they heard a girl singing, to the sound of an instrument.

“I told my father we should find out from where the sound was coming,” says Ponnamma. They reached a clearing where a man was playing the harmonium. A fascinated Ponnamma immediately told her father she wanted the same instrument. Damodaran said no.

However, a week later, he bought her the harmonium. Then Ponnamma expressed an interest to learn singing. “Somehow, my father managed to find a guru and I began taking lessons from the age of five,” she says.

One day Damodaran took Ponnamma, who was eight years old, to a concert by M.S. Subbhulakshmi at the Thirunakkara Maidan at Kottayam.

“I stared at Subbhulakshmi in wonder,” she says. “My only thought, as I listened to her perform, was that when I grew up I wanted to sing and look like her: the diamond nose ring and earrings, the big red bindi in the middle of the forehead, and the jasmine flowers pinned in the hair.”

Ponnamma’s own singing debut took place at Kaviyoor when she was 11 years old. It was at this ‘arangettam’ that she got her name.

At that time there was a senior music artiste called Kaviyoor Revamma. The announcer said, “After Revamma it is our little own Ponnamma who will bring glory to our village. And I am sure one day she will be known all over the world as Kaviyoor Ponnamma.”

Ponnamma got her break in acting rather accidentally. In 1958 the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC), with its close ties to the Communist Party, was looking for a young girl who could sing well to act in their drama, ‘Mooladhanam’. A teacher, who belonged to the party, and knew Ponnamma, mentioned her name.

One day when Ponnamma was returning home from school, an Ambassador car followed her. “I ran up the steps of my house and told my mother that some people were coming after me,” she says.

As she spoke, the men entered the house. Damodaran recognised them immediately as KPAC stalwarts -- Thoppil Bhasi, Devarajan Master, Kesavan Kutty and Shankaradi. Since Ponnamma had not seen a film or a drama she had no idea who they were.

They told Damodaran they were looking for a young singer. So Ponnamma was asked to sing a ‘kirtanam’. “They must have liked my singing because they gave me the role in ‘Mooladhanam’,” she says.

Ponnamma learnt the songs and sang it well. However, there was a crisis. The organisers could not find a girl to play the heroine’s part. “I saw people whispering to each other,” says Ponnamma.

Little did she realise that they were planning to make her the heroine even though she was only 13. When Damodaran informed Ponnamma about the decision she began crying. “I felt it would be an enormously difficult task for me,” she says.

However director Thoppil Bhasi told her, “There is nothing to fear. Just follow what I say and you will have no problems.”

And, indeed, she did not have any problems because she showed a natural flair for acting from the very beginning. But away from the public eye, Ponnamma, was, by nature, a loner and an introvert.

And she would think about things that children normally did not. “I would ponder over the meaning of life,” she says. “Where do we come from? Where do we go after death? Why are we here? Why has God created the earth, the animals and the birds? Why did God create us?”

Sitting on the steps of her new bungalow, on the edge of the Periyar river, near Aluva, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, 63, pauses, smiles, and says, “So many questions and, so far, I have not received any answers.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 05, 2008

All about Asin

This popular South Indian actress hopes to make a mark in Bollywood with three upcoming films

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004 Asin Thottumkal was shooting for the Telugu film ‘Gharshana’ at a lake in Nuwara Eliya, a popular hill station in Sri Lanka. Shooting was proceeding on two boats.

Because of fading light in the evening, pack-up time was announced. Asin was sitting at one corner of the boat when she suddenly saw water pouring in. “I am thinking, ‘Hey, this is slightly odd, but, maybe, it is no big deal,’” she says.

The next moment, Asin, who does not know swimming, along with 17 other people, fell into the water as the boat sank. The lake has a depth of 60 feet.

“It was a Titanic moment,” she says. “I remember an assistant director shouting, ‘Somebody please save Asin.’”

As Asin sank, she held her nerve, flailed her arms and legs and managed to come up for breath. It was when she sputtered for breath for the third time that she began to feel traumatised.

“I felt I had reached the limit,” she says. “Suddenly I felt a tug. Somebody was pulling my shirt collar.” The person dragged Asin and pushed her towards the back of the upturned boat.

Asin clambered on and when she looked back, she was surprised to see that it was her own father who had rescued her. “He is a good swimmer,” she says. “When he had seen me go under, he had jumped in. Thanks to him, I have a second life.”

And, thankfully, everybody else was saved. Most had minor injuries, except for cameraman, Raj Shekhar, who, in a bid to save Asin, had jumped in and his shirt got hooked onto a nail of a plank of the boat. He lost balance and, later, consciousness and remained under water for several seconds before he was rescued. “Even now he suffers from a back ailment,” says Asin.

At the restaurant at Allapuzha’s Punnamada Backwater Resort, Asin laughs easily. She is intelligent and articulate, and at 8 p.m. she does not give an impression of tiredness even though she had been awake since 3 a.m. shooting a commercial for Tanishq Jewellery. Asin is the brand ambassador.

Sitting next to her is Alpana Parida, Head-Marketing & Merchandising, Tanishq. “Asin is like a flower,” she says. “She conveys absolute freshness. Through Asin we would like to appeal to a younger generation of women.”

Incidentally, the diamond jewellery market in India is worth an estimated Rs 80,000 crore.

Asin, the diamond from Kerala, was born in Kochi, the daughter of a businessman, Joseph, and a doctor, Seline. She studied in the Naval Public School and graduated in English from St. Teresa’s College.

By the time she was 15, thanks to her photogenic face, she began getting modeling offers. Very soon she plunged in and did about 70 campaigns. Inevitably, she came to the attention of filmmakers and her first role was in Sathyan Anthikad’s ‘Narendaran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka’.

Thereafter she ventured into Tamil and Telugu films and her first hit was the Telegu film, ‘Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi’ in 2003. Later, she won a Filmfare Award for the Best Telugu Actress for her role in this film.

In 2004, she had two more hits in Telugu, ‘Lakshmi Narasimha’ and ‘Gharshana’. In Tamil, she acted in ‘M. Kumaran son of Mahalakshmi’. This became one of the big hits in 2004.

The good run in Tamil continued in 2005 when she starred in of the biggest hits, ‘Ghajini’, with Surya. When ‘Ghajini’ was released Asin went to Satyam cinema in Chennai on the first day to see the first show with the audience.

“It was very exciting,” she says. “Instead of watching the film, I observed the reactions of the audience. The audience laughed wherever they had to laugh and cried at the right places. It was then I was able to understand what worked for me and what didn’t.”

In 2006, Asin got a chance to act with Kamal Haasan in ‘Dasavathaaram’ where the star played ten roles. So what is the singular impression that she has of Kamal Haasan?

“It is his passion for cinema,” she says. “He is so knowledgeable about all aspects of filming. What I learned from him is how to have the intensity to go on and on. Look how much he has achieved. And he is pushing the limits all the time.”

Now Asin has moved to Bollywood and has just bought a flat in the upmarket Bandra area. Three films will be released soon: the Hindi remake of ‘Ghajini’, with Aamir Khan, a film produced by Walt Disney, called the ‘19th Step’ and ‘London Dreams’, whose hero is the controversial Salman Khan.

“I found Salman simple and down-to-earth,” she says. “He speaks straight from the heart and that may have caused a negative perception to arise about him in the media.” For ‘London Dreams’, Asin was reportedly paid a fee of Rs 1.5 crore.

Not bad for a 23-year-old from Kochi, with an unusual name. So, what does Asin mean?

“It means purity,” she says. “My parents wanted to give me a name that could not be classified on the basis of caste, creed, sex or religion. And they are right! You have to keep guessing: maybe Asin is a Muslim or a Christian.”

To know more about this bubbly and upcoming actress, check out

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

On call 24 hours a day

Porters at the Ernakulam railway stations unload goods throughout the day and the night. The job has its financial compensations, but sleep is elusive

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few weeks ago, at 3 a.m., a goods train left Ernakulam North station. Barely had it gone a few metres that it ran over a man who had laid across the track a few minutes earlier. Since there was hardly anybody on the platform, except for a few porters, who were at the far end, nobody had seen him step down from the platform.

"The neck and the legs were sliced off," says porter Raghu Nair, 27. "It was a terrible sight." From the railway police Raghu learned that the deceased was 45 years old and used to work in the Army.

The next morning there was more tragedy. At 10 a.m., a 35-year-old woman stood on top of the bridge near the North station and jumped onto the path of the Venad Express. "Instead of being run over, she was struck by the engine and thrown to one side," says Raghu. "She died on the way to the hospital."

Her lover was getting married the next day. On her palm, she had written his name and mobile number. Apparently, the woman lived close to the station and hence the local people were able to identity her. "We were dumbfounded by what we saw," he says.

These are some of the sights that Raghu sees in his daily job as a porter who unloads goods from the numerous mail and express trains that pass through the station. It is a 24 hour shift: he comes in at 8 a.m. and gets off the next morning. Sometimes, thanks to pending work, the shift extends to 9.30 a.m.

"Every day, we have a busy schedule till 5 p.m.," he says. The job, which has been leased to a private agency, by the Railways, has about 40 men working in alternative shifts. As the train enters the station, six men in the front and six at the back take their places in front of the brake van.

"Usually we have ten minutes to take out all the goods," says Divakaran. "In case we cannot finish, we ask the guard or the driver to give us two minutes more."

The reason for the delay, says Divakaran, is that the goods, for places like Ernakulam, Kottayam, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram are stored in a jumble.

"Nothing has been demarcated," he says. "We have to get in and search for the items that have to be downloaded at Ernakulam."

Before it was privatised, some of the porters had submitted petitions to the Railways, asking for the goods to be stored in a systematic manner, but to no avail.

A Railway official, who did not want to be named, says, “Instructions have been given to the porters at the originating station to place the goods, which are going to the furthest destination, deep inside, while the material which has to be taken out earlier, should be kept closer to the entrance. But, it seems, the instructions are rarely followed.”

When the goods are unloaded on to the platform, the businessmen will arrive to collect it, in their Matador vans and trucks.

"We get paid according to the particular weight and size of the goods," says Azhar. The income varies from season to season. "During Onam, we earn about Rs 30,000 per month," he says. "This month, we will earn about Rs 9000." Christmas will be a good time, they say.

The goods that are unloaded include clothes, fish, eggs, beef, vegetables, bikes, scooters and newspapers.

The men get a breathing space once the Chennai Mail leaves at 7.30 p.m. Then, apart from a train, which arrives at 10 p.m., they are free till midnight.

"This is the time we try to grab some sleep," says Azhar. "Unfortunately, the menace of mosquitoes is there." And there is also the stink brought on by urine and excreta lying uncollected for hours on the track. "We sleep in snatches," he says.

At midnight, the Malabar Express will arrive. "Following that, there is the Amrita Express and the Chennai Superfast at 1.30 a.m.," says Divakaran. "Then there is another Malabar train, then the Bombay Jayanthi at 4.30 a.m. From midnight, we are working regularly till about 9.30 a.m."

When Divakaran reaches home at Thrissur it is lunchtime and he has a bath, a meal, and then slips off into a long sleep. He awakens in the evening, steps out of the house to meet up with friends, but is back home by 8.30 p.m., has dinner and goes off to sleep. "Half the time at home is spent sleeping," he says.

In order to reach the station next morning on time, he has to catch the 6 a.m. passenger

So, what are the problems of the job? "It's physically tiring, otherwise, there are no hassles," says Divakaran.

Plus, the porters have to contend with the vagaries of the weather. "The monsoon season is the most difficult because we get wet often," he says. "There is no roof near where the brake van stops."

Roof or no roof, the porters carry on, because the battle of survival never stops.

"In an earlier generation, because of this steady income some of the porters have been able to send their children to medical and engineering colleges," says Raghu. "If we are careful with our income, who knows, we could do the same thing for our children."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)