Monday, April 27, 2009

Resurrecting a lost art

Chavittu Natakam, a 500-year-old dance form of the Christian community in Kerala, is set for a revival, thanks to the tireless efforts of a handful of priests

Photos: Boys from the Kreupasanam Chavittu Natakam Academy

Mammooty (right) in a scene from the film, 'Kutty Shranku'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 30, a Chavittu Natakam troupe from the Nitya Sahaya Matha Church from the Vypeen Islands was performing at the St. Joseph’s church in Ernakulam. “Since we were performing in the city, we did not expect a crowd,” says asan or master Lionel Vennatt Sebastian. “However, the parish priest had distributed leaflets all over the place, and there were a lot of people present.”

At the conclusion of the play, a forty-year-old woman appeared in the green room and shook hands with all the artistes.

“It was my life’s ambition to see a Chavittu Natakam because I had heard so much about it,” she said. “I did not know it was possible to compress a long Biblical story and convey the message so well.”

Says scriptwriter Francis Chammani: “Her reaction was the best moment we had in recent times.”

Not many people know that in Kerala, in response to the Kathakali dance form, the Christian community came up with the Chavittu Natakam in the 16th century.

“Unlike in Kathakali, in Chavittu Natakam the dancers sing and speak aloud and stamp their feet on the stage, accompanied by the beating of drums,” says Fr. Joseph Thattarassery, the parish priest of the Nithya Sahaya Matha church. “There is an influence of Kalaripayattu in the fighting scenes.”

Scriptwriter Francis says that in earlier times the drama was performed on open stages, and even inside the church. “The language spoken is a mix of Tamil and Malayalam,” he says.

Francis says that Chavittu Natakam developed in the coastal areas of Kerala, like Cochin, Alleppey and Kodungallur. The themes are from the lives of Christian saints, the history of Christianity and Biblical themes.

“The costumes have a Portuguese influence and include brocade dresses, headgear and crowns,” says Fr. Thattarassery. “The soldiers wear hats with quills.”

For many years, the Chavittu Natakam dance form fell into disuse. Fr. Thattarassery came across many artistes of the dance form who were languishing in his parish.

“This is one of the cultural riches of the Catholic church and I wanted to revive it in some way,” he says. So, on October 1, 2007, a Chavittu Natakam troupe was set up in the church. And so far, they have given more than a hundred performances in various places.

“In earlier times, the duration of a play was six hours long and a performance lasted right through the night,” says asan Sebastian. “But nowadays, people are rushed for time and so we have reduced the length to one and a half hours. The response has been positive so far.”

On a Sunday afternoon I go across to Kalavoor in Alleppey district. There, another Catholic priest, Fr. V.P. Joseph, is spearheading the revival of Chavittu Natakam in that area. And his reasons are similar to Fr. Thattarassery.

“In my childhood, at Pallithodu, I saw several performances of Chavittu Natakam and enjoyed it,” he says. “Then it began to disappear right in front of my eyes. So, I decided to rejuvenate it.”

Fr. Joseph set up a school for Chavittu Natakam, called the Kreupasanam Chavittu Natakam Academy in 2005. It is a neat series of buildings, besides National Highway 47. There is an auditorium, a small hall for the boys to practice and a museum highlighting the mudras, the costumes and the choreography of Chavittu Natakam. There are five rooms for visiting scholars, a library and a dormitory where more than 50 boys can stay.

Outside, in the quadrangle, a few boys are conversing with each other.

“In the morning there are theory classes, followed by practicals,” says Anoop Lawrence, 17. “I like Chavittu Natakam because of the leg movements. It is an energetic dance form.”

His friend, Hedwin Jose, 19, says, “I want to take it up as a full-time career, but there is not much of an income. So I am in a dilemma about what to do.” Jobin George, 17, says that his parents have told to concentrate on his studies at the same time.

The academy has staged more than 200 shows all over Kerala and in Mumbai also.

“In Mumbai the group performed in front of an audience of one and a half lakhs,” says Fr. Joseph. The priest had also accompanied the troupe on its road show all over Kerala. “The idea was to make people aware of this dance form,” he says. “We also wanted to show that it is simple and easy to learn.”

But Fr. Joseph realised that in order to secure the future of Chavittu Natakam, it would help if it was included as a competitive item in the popular government-sponsored Youth Festivals which take place all over the state. “Then, in order to take part in the competition, schools will have to start teaching Chavittu Natakam.”

The academy gave presentations at the 2008 and 2009 Youth Festivals at Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram respectively. “It was well received,” says Fr. Joseph. Government sources have now indicated that Chavittu Natakam will be included as a competitive item in 2010. To demonstrate its sincerity, the government is now giving a Rs 200 monthly stipend to 29 boys in the academy.

And Fr. Joseph has managed other concessions. After a 17 year campaign, 12 retired asans have also started receiving pensions recently. “They were having financial troubles and I wanted to help them,” he says.

Incidentally, a film, 'Kutty Shranku', by director Shaji N. Karun, will feature superstar Mammootty as a Chavittu Natakam artist.

“We enacted the scenes with the help of the asans who work at the Kreupasanam Academy,” says Shaji Karun. “Chavittu Natakam is unique and is perhaps the only Christian dance form in India. Unfortunately, it has become defunct.”

However, Karun feels that when the movie is released during Onam this year, it could revive interest in the dance form. “But we have to wait and see,” he says.

But the priests are not waiting. They are going full steam ahead to ensure that a prized asset of the Catholic church becomes an integral part of the cultural fabric of God’s Own Country.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In the thick of action


Writing was politician and diplomat Shashi Tharoor’s first love. But a chance meeting with a top UN diplomat changed his life

By Shevlin Sebastian

Shashi Tharoor was only ten years old when his short story, ‘Henry’s Last Battle’ was published in Bharat Jyothi, the Sunday edition of the ‘Free Press Journal’ in Mumbai.

“It was set during the American Civil War,” says the Congress politician and the former UN Under Secretary-General. “A father, a Yankee, and the son, a Confederate go to battle against each other. In the end, the father kills the son.”

When the story was published it was a turning point for Tharoor. “There is nothing more addictive than seeing your name in print,” he says. “You keep wanting to see it again and again. It is like the first kiss.”

Tharoor continued to publish his fiction in several English-language publications – ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’, ‘Eve’s Weekly’, ‘Chandamama’, ‘Youth Times’ and ‘Junior Statesman’.

However, his parents told him that it was impossible to earn a living in India by writing alone. “They said I had to study hard and do well in my exams and have a conventional career,” says Tharoor, whose parents moved from Mumbai to Kolkata when he was 13.

But as he grew into his late teens it was writing that would provide the opportunities to have a regular career. Virendra Dayal, a senior official in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva happened to be on holiday in Kolkata in 1975.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had just declared the Emergency. For the Independence Day issue of ‘The Statesman’, Tharoor had written an article called ‘A sense of belonging’.

“It was a thinly veiled criticism of the feeling of alienation that the Emergency had brought on,” he says. Dayal read the article and was impressed. “He commended it to his relatives around the breakfast table,” says Tharoor. “One of them said, ‘Would you like to meet the author? Shashi and I are acting together in a play.” It was ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie.

So Tharoor met Dayal and had a wonderful conversation. “He said I should look him up if I came to New York,” he says. “And the way he said it, I knew he was being sincere.”

Thereafter, in 1978, when Tharoor went to study at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, USA, on a scholarship, he did meet up with Dayal at New York. The senior diplomat encouraged Tharoor to apply to the UNHCR.

“I did so and I have no doubt that it was Viru’s recommendation that earned me an interview,” he says. “But he was very ethical and scrupulous, and refused to participate in the selection process.” Nevertheless, Tharoor impressed and gained entry into the UNHCR.

“When I joined it was a small organisation,” he says. “Then, suddenly, the Vietnamese boat people crisis erupted, the Soviets marched into Afghanistan, there was a coup in Nicaragua, and a deadly famine in Ethiopia.” Tharoor, who was assigned to head the Singapore office at the age of 25, had to handle the Vietnamese boat people and set up a refugee camp.

“The refugees were leaving in tiny boats from Vietnam and were being rescued by big ships and brought into the port in Singapore,” he says. Tharoor has never forgotten the sight of a family, with two babies, who arrived, barely able to stand on their feet. “They had run out of food and water,” he says. “To enable their children to survive, the parents had made several small nicks on their fingers, so that the babies could suck the blood.”

A few months later Tharoor was able to relocate them to the US and enabled them to begin new lives. “It was an amazing experience,” he says. “Every night when I went to sleep I knew I had made a difference to so many lives. It matured me as a person.”

After 11 years Tharoor was planning to leave when he got a job in peacekeeping in the UN. “When I joined the UN, I intended to work for a couple of years and return to India,” he says.

Instead, he worked for 29 years, reaching the post of Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information. Along the way, writing on nights and weekends, he has published 11 well-received books of fiction and non-fiction.

In 2006, Tharoor decided to stand for the post of Secretary-General. “It was Asia’s turn,” he says. “I felt that if I did not seek this opportunity another one might not come my way.” Initially, he did receive a lot of support from many Asian countries. However, in the end, he lost to South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon.

Tharoor quit the UN on March 31, 2007. He felt that having contested and lost, it was unworthy to remain. “It meant I had to rethink my life,” he says. He started spending more time in India, became chairman of a Dubai-based business enterprise, Afras Ventures, but when an opportunity arose to join electoral politics, Tharoor took it with both hands. “This has led to a complete re-booting of the operating system,” he says, with a wry grin.

So Tharoor continues in his new avatar as politician. A few weeks from now he will know whether he will represent the people of Thiruvanthapuram in Parliament. If he loses, another fork in the road of life awaits him.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Malayali in Bangkok

Kalayil Thomas Varghese, who has lived in Thailand for 21 years, talks about his professional and social experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Kalayail Thomas Varghese was working as a manager in G. Premjee Limited in Bangkok. One day the operations manager, a Thai by the name of Damri, received a call. His father had died of a heart attack. “He did not show any emotion and I was surprised by this,” says Varghese, 57.

Varghese went to pay a condolence visit to the house. “I was stunned to see that there was a big celebration going on,” he says. “People were laughing, eating, and drinking Scotch whisky and the local drink, Mekong.” The body was embalmed and the coffin was decorated with flowers.

Thai colleagues told him that according to Buddhist beliefs there should be celebrations to send positive vibrations to the soul who has departed. Usually, after seven days of partying and praying the body is cremated. “Thai culture is quite different,” says Varghese.

Born in Changanaserry, Varghese has lived in Thailand for the past 21 years. A first rank holder in rubber technology from the University of Cochin, he began his career in 1976 with the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK).

He worked in Kottayam for 11 years and then felt he was in a rut. “There was no opportunity for career growth,” he says. “My friends, in private companies, had gone higher up in the ladder.”

He applied for jobs in Africa, but got his break with the Bangkok-based G. Premjee and Co, owned by a Gujarati. “Premjee wanted to open a rubber factory in south Thailand,” says Varghese. “He was looking for somebody with experience and thus I was selected.”

Varghese did well and later when Premjee set up a latex, gloves, condom and a rubber-band making factory, the Keralite was involved in the setting up and running of all the units. “I got a lot of experience working there,” he says.

Following Premjee, Varghese worked in an American company called Safeskin, where he set up a latex plant and became the managing director. In 2005, Varghese moved to Reynolds Polymer Technology (RPT) Asia, as regional managing director, looking after Asia Pacific and Europe.

Today, he is one of Thailand’s leading Indian professionals.

So what has been his experience working for American companies? “They are never satisfied with the status quo,” he says. “Change is the motto. In an American company, what is done this month is changed the next month. Thus, they are able to improve their efficiency.”

Interestingly, he says, American employers don’t show any racial bias. “I have never experienced any feeling of inferiority in front of them,” he says. “We call each other by first names. There is no Sir and no hierarchy.”

On the other hand, in Premjee, there was the Indian North-South divide. “People made fun of me because I did not know to speak Hindi,” he says.

Varghese says another plus point of Americans is that they tend to trust their employees. When Varghese was setting up the latex plant, he was able to sign cheques upto 20 million baht (Rs. 2.8 crore) and hire and sack staff.

“I don’t think any Indian company will give that sort of freedom to an employee,” he says.

Roger R Reynolds, the CEO of RPT Asia says, “I have complete trust in Varghese. Ever since he joined our company, we have raised our productivity, improved our quality and increased our profits without sacrificing safety or devaluing the human element.”

Reynolds also admires his subordinate's leadership skills. “Varghese has a good sense of humour to go along with a decisive personality. He makes decisions quickly and gets the employees involved in the decision-making process.”

So, for Varghese, what is the striking difference about Indian companies? “They love the status quo,” he says. “I see the same work systems in place as it was 25 years ago. There is no change whatsoever.”

The second difference is labour problems. “The fun of working in Thailand is that I don’t waste time on labour issues,” he says. “You can sack people and they will not fight with you or indulge in violence.”

In the Plantation Corporation, at that time, there were about 18 unions. “I saw managers spending hours every day trying to sort out problems like suspensions, indiscipline and strikes,” says Varghese.

Incidentally, in Kimberly Clark, a $14 billion company, which took over Safeskin in 1999, there are 7,000 employees and not a single union.

But Varghese, on his annual visit to Kerala, is optimistic. “Things are changing very rapidly here,” he says. “I agree with former President Abdul Kalam that one day India will become an economic superpower.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hurt, humiliated, and silent

That’s Shashi Tharoor for you today

Photo: Shashi Tharoor campaigning with actress Sharada

By Shevlin Sebastian

On April 18, in the court of the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate A Krishnankutty, at Kochi, former UN Under Secretary-General and Congress politician, Shashi Tharoor sits at the back, in his trademark white kurta and dhoti, waiting for his case of ‘disrespect to the national anthem’ to come up (On December 16, 2008, Tharoor had allegedly interrupted the national anthem after a public lecture at Kochi, but he denies this).

The fan above him is not working, a metaphor for the state of the judiciary. Onlookers crowd the corridor outside, while black-gowned lawyers are present in large numbers inside the court. Tharoor does not look up. He sits motionless and silent.

Suddenly, after a few petty cases have been disposed off, his name is called. He appears in the dock. There is no emotion on his face. His lawyer Ram Kumar gets bail by stating Tharoor will post a personal bond of Rs 10,000 and two solvent sureties for the same.

The next hearing has been posted for July 9.

And Tharoor is on his way out. On the steps, microphones are thrust at him, but restricted by the sub-judice nature of the case he gives a terse sound bite and is gone in a white Scorpio.

It is at his uncle, Shashi Kumar’s eighth-floor apartment at Panampilly Nagar, that the distress becomes very evident. He sits down on the sofa, rubs his hand through his hair, shakes his head from side to side and stares into the distance. His aunt kisses him on the forehead, while his cousin’s wife brings a glass of cool sugarless lime juice. But Tharoor remains silent.

I have met Tharoor on a few occasions, in Mumbai, Kovalam, and at Kochi. I have heard him speak several times on public stages, in one-on-one interviews, and on television from around the world. And he has always been articulate, intelligent and sharp.

But this was the first time I was encountering a Tharoor who is unable to speak. “The court appearance has affectedly him deeply,” says Shashi Kumar. “It is not easy for a law-abiding person to appear in the dock.”

This is what a public interest litigation can to do to one of India’s brightest sons. And Tharoor is learning the hard way that in the hurly burly of Indian politics, anybody from anywhere can throw a stone at you.

And draw blood.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sex as solutions to life's problems

Poor housewives become sex workers to keep the family afloat, while rich housewives pay men because they miss regular sex

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Oh no you have come at the wrong time,” says Lata, 39, as she stared at Anita and I. “My husband has just come from Muscat. You will have to go now. Till he is here all activities are off.”

So Anita and I step out of her house at Edapally, a suburb of Kochi, and as we walk towards the bus stop, she tells me Lata’s story. “I met her because my in-laws live nearby,” says Anita.

Lata’s husband, Mani, works as an electrician. He comes home once a year for a month. A few years ago, Mani had bought a house on loan. But his income was not enough to pay off the debts.

“Lata is also a healthy woman with strong sexual desires,” says Anita. “Having sex once a year is not enough.” So Lata decided to become a sex worker for two reasons: to pay off the debts and to satisfy her sexual urges. And for this she took Anita’s help.

“I would go to her house in the morning, when Lata met her clients,” says Anita. “My job was to look after Lata’s five-year-old son Appu. If the milkman, postman or relatives came, I would say Lata is not at home.”

For her labours Anita was paid Rs 200 a day. “Lata told me she earned about Rs 500 a day,” says Anita. “I suspect she got more, but I was happy with what I got.” This partnership continued for a few years, till a cigarette shop opened near Lata’s house. “Men started hanging around near the shop and it became risky,” says Anita.

With the help of another friend Lata has developed a rich clientele, and meets them mostly at Kochi’s five-star hotels. “She always takes Appu along, to give a sense of respectability,” says Anita.

One smitten business magnate would hire two rooms. In one room Appu would watch TV or read a book, while an associate of the businessman kept an eye on the boy. Lata would be paid Rs 2000 for her efforts. “As you saw she is beautiful and sexy,” says Anita. “So she is always paid high rates.”

Anita does not get as much, even though at 48, she has maintained a voluptuous figure: big breasts and narrow hips. “I have two sons who are useless,” she says. “One is a drug addict and the other is chronically unwell. They are unemployed even though they are married and have families. So I have to earn money to look after them.”

Anita was married at 15 when her husband was 20. Unfortunately, her husband was an alcoholic and whatever he earned as a house painter was spent on drink. So she had no option but to work as a maid. Once she was employed at a businessman, Prakash Menon’s house.

As expected, Prakash pounced on her when his wife went out for shopping. “I shouted and screamed and told him not to touch me,” she says. The other maid in the house, Mini, advised Anita to have sex. “I said I am not interested,” says Anita. “Mini replied, ‘He will give you Rs 500 and that is a lot of money.’”

Anita had a re-think over several weeks and finally decided to go ahead. “After the first time, Prakash gave me a gold necklace and Rs 500,” she says. “I felt very sad I had betrayed my husband. This feeling remained with me for a long time although I continued sleeping with Prakash, who gave me Rs 500 each time.”

She was terrified that if her husband discovered the Rs 500, he would get suspicious. So she deposited the money with local shopkeepers and took small amounts of goods against it. Later, through a chance acquaintance with a sex worker, she became a full-time professional.

Today, twenty years later, she is a widow whose husband passed away a few years ago. And she has become a veteran in the trade. So how do clients behave in the intimacy of a room?

“Most of the men are sweet-natured and behave well,” she says. “But there are some who are cruel. They bite on the nipples and pinch my body. On many occasions clients insist on anal sex and that is very painful.”

When Anita says no, frenzied clients offer to pay Rs 1000 or Rs 2000. “During those times I would yearn to leave this profession,” she says. “I would have been happier sitting at home, cooking or watching TV, instead of interacting with these terrible men. I am only doing this, because there is no money in the house.”

Ironically, there are women who have plenty of money but they crave for sex. She talks about Deepa whose husband works in Dubai. “She has everything, except regular sex.”

So, one day, she made signs through the window at her married neighbour, Rajan, and they met up and began having regular sex. “After every session she would pay him handsomely,” says Anita. “Eventually Rajan’s wife came to know and she raised a ruckus, but he has not stopped.”

Sometimes, things can backfire. “I know of a woman, Tessy, who lives near my house whose husband is in Jeddah,” she says. One day, feeling frustrated, Tessy pushed something inside her and it broke.

“She found it difficult to breathe and was rushed to hospital,” says Anita. “Anyway, the doctors took it out and for several weeks Tessy was ashamed to go out because everybody knew what she had done.”

Anita shakes her head, smiles, and says, “Sir, it is a very complicated world!”

(Names have been changed)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

In Jagadish Nagar


Showing an early aptitude for acting and mimicry, the actor got his breaks easily and has acted in more than 300 films now

Photo: Jagadish with Meera Vasudevan during a location shoot for the film, 'Decent Parties'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Government Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, Jagadish remembers playing Nabeesa, a female character in ‘Vairoopyangal’, a play written by Salam Karasheri. The story is about Babu, a boy born with a facial deformity, who is passed on to a doctor. He, in turn, entrusts the child to a Muslim, whose daughter is Nabeesa.

“I got the best actor award (female),” says Jagadish.

The next year he essayed the role of Babu and got the best actor (male). Innately talented, he took part in several cultural activities in the college.

Because he belonged to an academically inclined family, Jagadish decided to do his post-graduation. “I got an interview call from two colleges for the M.Com course on the same day,” he says. The first was at 9.30 a.m. for the Mar Ivanios College and the second was at 2 p.m. for M.G. College. “Had it been the other way around my life would have been completely different,” he says.

Instead, Jagadish secured admission to Mar Ivanious College, which gives a lot of importance to the arts, unlike M.G. College, which has been plagued by student union problems for a long time.

Within a matter of time Jagadish came first in mimicry, mono act, tableau and drama acting, apart from being the college union chairman. Soon, he became very popular. Once, the B.A. English literature and economics students were going for an excursion to Bangalore. Even though Jagadish was a senior, he was invited.

He told them he had no money. Immediately, the students put up a collection box in the canteen. “Soon, there were contributions of 10 paise, 50 paise and, eventually, the amount reached Rs 100,” he says. “That was enough for me to go for the holiday.”

Because of his brilliant performances in inter-college competitions Jagadish got an opportunity to present a programme on Akashvani radio. Around this time, following the success of ‘Manjil Vrinja Pookal’, Navodaya studio advertised for new actors for their first 3D film, ‘My Dear Kuttichathan’.

“I applied, got a call and I thought I was going to be the next Mohanlal,” he says. When Jagadish reached the Navodaya office, in Kochi, armed with photos and a resume, he saw two friends waiting there.

“K. Shekhar and Rajeev Kumar used to present programmes on All India Radio,” says Jagadish. “They had not seen my application, but had called me because a cabaret announcer’s role was available.”

In his role Jagadish said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have nothing to lose but Rs 2, while the cabaret artistes have also nothing to lose but their clothes,” he says.

When the show begins, Kuttichathan does his magic. “Soon, the cabaret dancers are fully clad, while the audience has no clothes,” says Jagadish. “As the crowd runs out, I ask, ‘Has the cabaret moved out?’” The film became a huge hit and Jagadish’s performance was noticed.

In 1984, Priyadarshan was about to shoot for a movie, ‘Oodarathuammava Aalariyam’ and Jagadish got a small role. The heroes included Mukesh, Sreenivasan and Jagathy Sreekumar.

However, on the first day of the shooting Jagathy called to say he could not come because of date problems. “Priyadarshan and producer Suresh Kumar had the courage to cast me as a hero,” says Jagadish. “This was a turning point in my life.”

The movie became a hit and Jagadish’s career took off. He acted in many films -- ‘Nandi Veendum Varika’, ‘Vellanakalude Naadu’ and ‘Kireedam’. In 1990 Jagadish started shooting for ‘In Harihar Nagar’. “We knew it was going to be a hit because the unit members kept laughing when the scenes were being filmed.”

Because of the success of ‘In Harihar Nagar’, Jagadish began to get ‘hero’ roles regularly. Today, he has acted in more than 300 films.

During a lunch break in the shooting of ‘Decent Parties’, in which he is the hero, at the Anjumana Devi temple, Edapally, Jagadish sits in the verandah of a house. As autorickshaws and cars surge past, he launches into an impersonation of Manna Dey singing ‘Maanasamaine Varu’ from Chemeen. Of course, it is pitch-perfect.

“Now I am going to do it in the style of Kundal Lal Sehgal,” he says and begins singing in a nasal voice. This is followed by the voices of S. Janaki, Yesudas, and finally, he makes the unit members burst into laughter by impersonating Usha Uthup with her husky voice and Westernised pronunciation.

What an amazing talent!

So where did he get this gift from? “My mother was a talented singer, but would only sing in the pooja room,” he says. And for the first and only time in the 90-minute conversation Jagadish’s face has a sombre look.

“The enduring sadness for me is that my mother, Bhasurangi Amma, has not been able to see my success,” he says. She passed away in 1984, aged 64, from a heart ailment, before Jagadish’s first film was released.

“I was very close to my mother,” he says. Bhasurangi Amma would always enquire about her son’s acting performances in college. “I felt shy to perform those items in front of her,” he says. “I feel a deep regret about this. If my mother had been able to see ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ it would have brought the greatest happiness to me.”

At this moment Jagadish is called to act in a wedding scene with actress Meera Vasudevan. As he gets up, he says, “Unfortunately, the rule of life is that God does not grant all your wishes.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Leading from the front

After a 52-year career, Xavier Sebastian recently retired as the MD of the Indo-American hospital at Vaikom. Earlier, he was MD of Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited and executive director of Lisie Hospital

By Shevlin Sebastian

A 50-year old man, Varghese Chacko (name changed), met with an accident in Aluva and was rushed to the Indo-American Hospital at Vaikom. While he was being treated, Chacko suffered from a massive heart attack and died.

Within hours, his relatives and the local people came to the hospital and staged a protest. “They were about to assault the doctor when I stepped forward,” says Xavier Sebastian, 79, who was the managing director.

The protestors demanded compensation. Sebastian said that if the post-mortem proved that the patient did not die of a heart attack, the hospital would pay damages. “Till then I cannot release the body,” he said.

Eventually, the relatives decided to avoid the post mortem and wrote a ‘no claim’ letter. “This was one of the many emergencies I had to face during my seven-year stint,” says Sebastian, with a smile.

Last month, Sebastian retired after a 52-year-long distinguished career in the public, private, joint and healthcare sectors. Earlier, he was the executive director of Lisie Hospital, the managing director of the Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited, and the general manager (marketing) of the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL).

It has been a long journey for him. In 1951, Sebastian went to Kolkata in search of a job. ”Kolkata was a beautiful city in those days,” he says. “Seeing Howrah station, with its numerous platforms for the first time was an extraordinary experience. At that time, Ernakulam had only one platform.”

As he was searching for a job, he had a stroke of luck. He met a Malayali, Ramachandran, from Kollam, who knew Sebastian’s father, the political leader, P.J. Sebastian. Ramachandran recommended Sebastian’s name to his boss, Brij Mohan Lal, an agent for Binny and Co. “I started as an assistant,” he says. And Sebastian was much impressed by Lal.

“He looked like an European, in his suit and tie,” he says. “He was very punctual. You could correct your watch when he came in. I inculcated that from Mr. Lal.”

Sebastian worked there for a few years and moved on to other jobs. Then, in 1962, Sebastian befriended the late K.J. Cleetus, a Malayali, who was the first commercial director of SAIL. “Cleetus hired me as a sales officer,” says Sebastian. After that, his career took off.

He went to Chennai in 1963 and started the first stockyard of the company. For the next few years, Sebastian opened several stockyards all over the country. In 1968, Sebastian returned to Kolkata and was made in charge of all the branches nationwide. Today, more than 8 million tons of steel are sold through these outlets.

Later, as head of the steel import division Sebastian went to the US and numerous countries in Asia and Europe. He was also a member of the Indian trade delegation, under Commerce Secretary P.C. Alexander, that went to Moscow in 1975.

Through regular promotions, Sebastian reached the post of General Manager (Marketing) in 1978. During this time, the chairman of SAIL, K.T. Chandy had resigned to join the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC).

At the farewell party given to Chandy he said, “Sebastian, would you be interested in coming to Kerala?’” (The KSIDC was setting up the first Indo-Japanese joint venture: Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited [KCPL]). Sebastian replied, “I would be happy to do so.”

Following approval from Japanese shareholders, Sebastian was appointed as the managing director. However, he was apprehensive because at that time labour militancy was at its peak in Kerala.

His fears proved correct. “One day the Japanese director and I were held in a room by workers till 3 a.m.,” says Sebastian. “Finally, the police rescued us. I was in two minds on whether to stay or go back.”

But family considerations played a role. “My wife, Thankamma, felt that our three daughters, Alphy, Anne and Anju, should be educated in Kerala,” he says.

So Sebastian stayed on and won over the union. Eventually, he worked for 14 years in KCPL, a record for a public sector company.

Following a stint as managing director in Sijmak Oils Limited, he became the executive director of Lisie Hospital. He was also on the boards of Travancore-Cochin Chemicals and Travancore Rayons, among many others, as a government nominee.

Says Indo-American hospital founder Kumaran Bahuleyan: “Sebastian is one of the most honest persons I have ever met. What impressed me was his ability to face political, social and financial problems with courage and determination. At the same time he was a friend of the employees and safeguarded their interests.” Adds Medical Director Ajay Kumar Kalipurayath: “Sebastian is a gentleman and a good team leader.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The world of comics

Comic art expert, Dr. John A Lent talks about the power of comics all over the world. However, its future is being impacted by television and the Internet

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the summer of 1993, while interviewing cartoonists in Asia, Dr. John A. Lent, one of the foremost authorities on comic art in the world, entered the tiny, cramped office of Ramesh Chande, a cartoonist of the Janmabhoomi newspaper at Mumbai. It was his last day at work.

“Ramesh asked me if I wanted an original of his work,” says Lent. “I replied, ‘Sure.’”

The cartoonist reached into feet-high stacks of original artwork and pulled out three and gave them to Lent. Then he said, "Do you want all of these?"

Lent replied, “I cannot take them. They are your life's work.” Ramesh said, "It will be thrown out tomorrow when I am gone."

His remarks left an indelible impression on Lent who has been on a mission to
preserve Asian cartoonists' works. The founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Comic Art, Lent has set up the Asian Research Center on Animation and Comic Art in Beijing, and plans are afoot to set up a library and archive in Guiyang, China.

Recently, Lent, 73, who is also a professor of communications at Temple University, Philadelphia, had come to Thrissur to take part in a private function. He speaks in a soft voice, although he is a broad-shouldered hunk of a man, with a straggly grey beard and resembles Count Leo Tolstoy in his old age.

Comics, he says, have flourished in most countries, but it first developed a mass circulation in the United States, in the early 20th century, thanks to the newspaper strip.

“The mix of words and pictures proved popular, and spread throughout the world,” says Lent. However, the most fanatical readership of comics is in the Philippines and Japan.

In Japan, ‘manga’ comics have sold in the millions. Manga means ‘playful images’. The comics are usually in black-and-white and have to be read, Japanese-style, from right to left.

“No country in Asia, or the world, for that matter, has a comic book industry the size of Japan,” says Lent. “Around 2 billion comic books and magazines are sold yearly. This represents 45 per cent of all published materials in this highly literate culture.”

Lent says the one possible reason why the Japanese have a fascination for comics is because they live in a repressed culture.

“Reading comics gives the reader a chance to act out all these characters in their various guises,” he says. Some of the subjects include the Lolita complex, gay love, love stories and women’s sexual fantasies.

Surprisingly, Japanese comics have found a market in Europe, also. “It’s unexplainable,” says Lent. “Some say it is because of the fast action and the easy-to-read format. Also, the French, Germans and the Italians may have got tired of reading about superheroes and Disney characters.”

Interestingly, different countries have varied popular themes. “In Sri Lanka and the Philippines, it is love and romance,” says Lent. “It is humour in Myanmar and Thailand, fighting and kung fu in Hong Kong, adventure in Bangladesh, and historical or warrior adventures in Malaysia.”

While most people read their comics at home, in Japan, they have invented the comics cafes. You can go in, have a cup of coffee along with eatables, and read comics. There is Internet access also and it is open 24 hours a day.

“Other countries have followed suit,” says Lent. “There are comics cafés in China, Indonesia and India.”

In Delhi, cartoonist Sharad Sharma has set up one in 2006. Says Sharad: “I wanted to open up an alternative space for media persons, activists and youths. Visitors can read comics, draw one, write stories, screen documentaries and organise book reading sessions. Of course, all this is done over a cup of coffee.”

As for comics in India, Lent says, it has been around for the past 60 years and the nation-wide circulation is 100 million annually.

“Diamond Comics and India Book House are the main publishers,” says Lent. India Book House has been bringing out the Amar Chitra Katha series since 1967. Chacha Choudhury, created by Pran Kumar Sharma, first appeared in the Hindi magazine, ‘Lotpot’ in 1971, and has been immensely popular.

“Pran told me there are more than 600 TV episodes based on Chacha,” says Lent. “There are language comics in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal which have been very successful. Recently, graphic novels in English have also done well.”

The first graphic novel, Sarnath Banerjee’s ‘Corridor’, the story about a ‘brilliant and banal bookseller and his bunkum customers’; was published by Penguin in 2004.

Two years later, Sarnath’s publishing firm, Phantomville, published ‘The Believers’, which is about an Edinburgh University anthropologist who returns to his village in Kerala and finds everything changed.

However, cartoonist Sharma says that nothing has changed in Indian comics. “It is stuck in the traditional mould, in terms of graphics and stories,” he says. “Most of the artists are afraid of trying new experimental styles, while publishers are unwilling to take the risk to publish such attempts.”

Cutting-edge creativity could become a necessity, because the future for comics in India and worldwide may not be that bright.

“The TV and the Internet have taken away readership all over the world,” says Lent. “In Sri Lanka, the number of comics has dwindled from 13 to seven. Circulation has also dropped considerably: the largest, ‘Sittara’, has gone from 250,000 to 50,000.”

However, in the US, there has been a reverse trend. When comics, like Superman, were adapted to television or films, and became box office hits, it revived interest in the print editions. “So, that has been good for comics,” says Lent.

There have been other positive changes. “In the past 15 years, the comic book has been elevated from a child-only medium to an art form, educational tool, and money-making engine,” he says.

Now there are several comic-art programmes in universities and colleges, new museums, research institutes, libraries, the infusion of government funding, and the conferral of honours on comic creators.

And in these times of growing repression in many countries, thanks to invasive electronic surveillance, one of the biggest attractions of comics is that it is usually a weapon for the defenceless against the powerful.

“By the defenceless, I mean, the poor and those who are disqualified to have a voice,” says Lent. “And, thankfully, most of them can afford to buy comics.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

The hit machine!


A letter written to director P. Balakrishnan enabled Sathyan Anthikad to get his break in films. Thereafter, he has become a director of numerous hits

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1973, when Sathyan Anthikad finished his Class 10 he wanted to join the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune. But he was told that he could apply only after his graduation.

“That meant I had to wait five years,” he says. At that time he came across an interview with director and producer Dr. P. Balakrishnan in the film weekly, Cinemarama.

“I read that Dr. Balakrishnan had introduced several new talents in Malayalam films, like musician A.T. Ummer and director I.V. Sasi,” says Sathyan.

So Sathyan wrote a letter to the Chennai-based Balakrishnan. He was surprised to receive a hand-written reply within a week asking the youngster to come for an interview at a hotel in Kochi.

The meeting went off well, and Sathyan was hired as an assistant director for Balakrishnan’s next film, ‘College Girl’.

“Later, Dr. Balakrishnan told me my letter was very striking,” says Sathyan. “I do remember writing, ‘Cinema is not a craze for me. It is a dream. If it is possible I would request you to give me an opportunity.’ Normally people write begging letters, but I did not.”

Once he got his entry into films he impressed everybody with his sincerity and dedication. “Dr. Balakrishnan was very happy with me,” he says. At that time Sathyan used to write poems. One of them was published in Chandrika, a weekly from Kozhikode.

“A copy was sent to the studio,” says Sathyan. “Dr. Balakrishnan used to receive a lot of magazines. So the Chandrika magazine was delivered to the doctor’s table.”

As fate would have it, Balakrishnan read the poem. “He called me and said, ‘It is a nice poem. For my next film you must write a song.’” Sathyan replied, “I have never written a song.” Balakrishnan said, “A man who can write a poem can also write a song.”

Satyan wrote two songs for ‘Love Letter’. But when he wrote the lyrics for a song for ‘Sindhooram’, it became a bumper hit. Sung by Yesudas, the first part went like this:

Oru nimisham tharoo
Oru yugam tharoo

“It was a love song,” he says. “The inspiration was my feelings for a girl, Nirmala, who eventually became my wife.” He went on to write the lyrics for more than a hundred films, but his job as assistant director continued unabated.

By this time he was getting offers from producers to become a director. Finally, in 1981, he accepted an offer from producer K. Majeendran to direct a film.

So he sat with scriptwriter John Paul and wrote a script based on Kala Mandalam, with Nedumudi Venu as the hero. “We did a small schedule,” he says. Thereafter, Satyan waited for Kamal Haasan who also had a hero’s part.

He was acting in another film for which he had to wear a moustache. “Since Kathakali students cannot have a moustache, I decided to wait till Haasan finished shooting for his film,” he says.

During that enforced break, Sathyan’s life went topsy-turvy. One morning, a man knocked on Majeendran’s door at his house in Kochi. When the producer opened it, he was shot dead. “Apparently it was a business enmity, but my film collapsed after that,” he says. “I went into shock.”

It would take more than a year before he would attempt another film. P.H. Rasheed, an acquaintance of Balakrishnan, offered to produce a film. “It was a comedy called ‘Kurukkante Kalyanam’,” he says. When the film was released it became a hit.

”This was a turning point for me because I had been accepted by the public,” he says. Thereafter Sathyan made several films, all of which did well at the box office.

Then in 1986, Sathyan’s next turning point came when he met actor Sreenivasan and gave him the idea of ‘T.P. Balagopalan M.A’.

“I had a concept of a middle class man who earned Rs 700 a month, who meets a girl in the same situation,” he says. “Sreenivasan liked the idea a lot.” Thereafter, Sreenivasan wrote the script and the film became a hit.

“When Sreeni and I were working on the film we realised we had many things in common,” says Sathyan. “We both came from middle class families and had a similar outlook and a sense of humour.”

After ‘Balagopalan’, the duo worked on ‘Gandhi Nagar 2nd street’ which became a bumper hit. Thereafter, they worked for numerous films together and all of them did well at the box office.

By this time, Sreenivasan’s career as an actor hotted up and he was unable to find the time to write scripts. Other script writers like Lohitadas and Ranjan Pramod had become director.

Sathyan realised that if he wanted to continue to make films, he needed to start writing himself. “So I took the plunge and wrote the script for ‘Rasathantram’,” he says. This turned out to be a successful film and, thereafter, he wrote the scripts for ‘Vinodayatra’ and ‘Innathe Chinte Vishayam’. His next film, the 47th, ‘Bhagayadevata’, starring Jayaram is releasing on April 23.

Looking back, he says that when his first film collapsed, it was a blessing in disguise. “It was an art film, like those made by Bharathan or K.G. George,” he says. “If that film had been completed I might have gone down that route. But, instead, I turned towards comedy and realistic films and that has been good for my career.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The message from God’s messengers


The religious representatives of three communities talk about their disappointments and hopes for this election

Photo: Swami Atmaswarupananda

Bava Maulvi

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Ramakrishna Math was building a hall at its ashram in Vytilla. When 15 lorries with mud arrived at the site, the local village officer appeared and said permission was needed.

“I did not know you needed permission to unload mud,” says Swami Atmaswarupananda, 61, the president of the Math.

Things reached an impasse. A desperate Swamiji tried to contact the District Collector, but could not get through. Suddenly, he remembered that he had briefly interacted with the local MLA, K. Babu at a cultural function in Ponurunni. He called up Babu and told him about the problem. Babu asked that the mobile be passed to the village officer.

The end result: the mud was unloaded from the lorries.

“Whenever I have asked for help, politicians, of all religions, have been very co-operative,” says the Swamiji.

But despite this, Swami Atmaswarupananda is disappointed by the politics of today. “It is a mobocracy, rather than a democracy,” he says. “The UDF and the LDF oppose each other for the sake of opposing.” He says that when the LDF comes up with a scheme that may be good for the state, the UDF will reject it simply because they are in the opposition. “That is not right,” he says.

‘Learn to disagree without violence’

On a hot afternoon, Catholic Bishop Thomas Chakiath, 71, is typing on the computer in the cool confines of his high-ceilinged office at Archbishop’s House, Kochi. A keen observer of the political scene, he says, “I am disappointed by the majority of the politicians. They enter politics for selfish and personal motives. I don’t think they are interested in serving society.”

Chakiath says politicians don’t focus on life-threatening issues like the shaky economy, global warming, air and water pollution and rural poverty. “These are things which affect the day-to-day life of the people,” he says. “In the remote areas of the country, people are starving because of a lack of money.”

Despite this, he says, politicians have no qualms in spending lakhs of rupees to put up posters, banners, flex boards, and printing leaflets and flags for the elections. “It is such a terrible waste of money,” says Chakiath.

He is also deeply disturbed by the rising violence all round. “Political parties should learn to disagree with opponents without resorting to violence,” he says. “They should learn to respect each other.”

'We are Indians first'

At his home in Purayar, a few kilometres from Aluva, Bava Maulvi, 49, the Imam of the Angamaly mosque looks relaxed on a Sunday morning.

“Drink this mango juice,” he says, as he proffers a glass. Then he points at a mango tree in the courtyard and says, “No chemicals, no pesticides, the juice is pure.”

However, Bava Maulvi says, the politics of the state is far from pure. “The recent rule by the government that all marriages should be registered with local bodies is disturbing,” he says. “It is an interference in the working of all religions.”

So what advice would he give to the winners?

“Do follow up on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report which states that the Muslim community is at the bottom, in terms of jobs and educational opportunities,” he says. “I see a lot of schemes for Muslims announced by politicians in the newspapers but rarely does anything happen on the ground.”

The soft-spoken Maulvi says that politicians continue to treat the followers of each religion as vote banks. “They seem unable to rise above it and look at all of us as Indians,” he says. “That is very disappointing.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

'Please tell me what is love'

In Kerala the parent-child relationship is fraught with rebellion, misunderstandings and anger. Counsellor V.J. Antony provides solutions, but the primary one is simple: always show physical love to your child

Photo: Counsellor V.J. Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

Radhika and Soman have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Shalini. Till Class 10, Shalini was a good student. In Class 11, she stopped going to school for a fortnight and said she did not want to continue her studies.

She lay on the bed for hours together and did not eat food or watch television. Worried, Radhika, who is a bank officer, took her to V.J. Antony, a counsellor with 28 years of experience. She says, "I don't know what the problem is with Shalini. I am afraid she might commit suicide."

Antony asks her point-blank: "Do you love your daughter?"

Tears well up in Radhika's eyes. "Can I bring up my daughter without loving her?" she says.

Antony speaks to Shalini in private. This is her story: her father works on a ship and is away for months together. Her mother goes to work at 8.30 a.m. and comes back at 6.30 p.m.

"When my mother returns home, she does not even look at me and goes straight to the kitchen," she says.

Sometimes, Shalini follows her mother into the kitchen. But Radhika would get angry and shout, "Go and study. Why are you bothering me like this?"

After a while, Shalini stopped going to the kitchen. "She is not a mother to me," she says. "She is just a lady who provides food and sends me to school. That is all. Now people say I have a father. But is this true?"

When Soman returns, after eight months at sea, the first thing he does before he greets his family is to check the bank passbook. If the cash balance is not to his liking he shouts at Radhika for spending so lavishly.

"This shouting match lasts for half an hour," said Shalini. Throughout the two months Soman is at home he is always quarrelling with Radhika. “My father never speaks to me,” says Shalini. “My parents don't like each other and they don’t love me."

At this moment in her narration Shalini raises her left arm to Antony and shows a thin red line across her wrist. "I tried to kill myself with a blade, but lacked the courage to press deeper," she said. "But I am sure there will come a time when I will be able to do it."

Later, when Antony tells Radhika about the suicide attempt she breaks down. "I am living for Shalini," she says. "I get up at 5 a.m. and work non-stop till 11 p.m., 365 days a year. After all this, if she says I don't love her, please tell me what is love?"

Like Shalini, Rajan is a brilliant student, but in Class ten he failed in five subjects. “I did it deliberately,” he says. “I wanted to spite my parents.” His father, a doctor goes to work at 8 a.m. and comes back at 11 p.m. His mother is a teacher.

“My father has never taken me out anywhere,” he says. “As for my mother, the only thing she has ever told me, from the time I have been in kindergarten, is to ‘Study, Study, Study’. They don’t love me.”

Antony says that parents have the mistaken notion that if they worry about their children or plan for their future that is love.

"That is liking and it remains in the parents' mind," he says. "Children must get physical affection to know that they are loved."

He compares this love to a plant in the garden. "If you look through the window and say that is a good plant, it is of no use," he says. "You need to water it and provide manure. When you do this, the plant will grow well."

The same, he says, is the case with children. Parents have to show affection and praise the child as often as they can. This will produce positive feelings.

"It is only then that children can understand that their parents love them," he says. "Otherwise, no matter how many gifts parents buy their children, and despite love in the parents’ hearts, there will be no emotional connection."

When there is no emotional connection, by the time they are in class eight the children begin to go astray. "Either, they begin to do poorly in school or they fall into bad company and indulge in drugs, drinks, and criminal activities," says Antony. The girls have love affairs with men of dubious character.

He cites the case of a family which received a Rs. 15,000 telephone bill. Investigations revealed that their 16-year-old daughter had been making hundreds of calls to one particular number. It turned out that she was having an affair with a hoodlum.

And, of course, there is the powerful negative impact of watching pornography on the Internet. “The boys assume erroneously that all girls are crazy for sex,” he says.

What has exacerbated the problem is the impact of the mass media. "Youngsters see these love stories on TV and don't realise it does not work in real life," he says. "In the films, the hero is abusive and violent. Drinking is shown as a fun thing.” Children are confused and are unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

Today, for most children, it is their friends, and not the parents, who are the centre of their lives. “Parents don’t realise this until their child falls into trouble,” says Antony. “But by then it is too late.”

He says that about 70 percent of children are emotionally troubled these days.

The solution, Antony suggests, is to maintain communication links with the children all the time. "Children should feel that the home is a happy place," says Antony. "They don't mind if they are scolded once in a while, provided there are positive vibrations the rest of the time."

(Some names have been changed)

Childhood abuse leads to adult violence

At his trial in Sankt Pölten, Austria, over incest and murder, retired electrician Josef Fritzl talked about the physical beatings he had received from his mother when he was a child. "My mother did not want me,” said Fritzl to the judge. “She was 42 when I was born.”

Fritzl’s father, according to him, was a scoundrel whom his mother threw out of the house when he was five. It was this unhappy childhood that sowed the seeds of his 24-year long incestuous relationship with his imprisoned daughter, Elisabeth, in a cellar of his home at Amstetten.

Traumatised childhoods have been part and parcel of the lives of many men, especially despotic dictators and leaders. Take the case of Joseph Stalin. Born to a cobbler, Vissarion Jughashvili, and Ekaterina Geladze, his father, who was often drunk, beat Stalin and his mother regularly.

One of Stalin's friends said, "Those fearful beatings made the boy as heartless as his father."

Adolf Hitler’s father, Alois Schickelgruber, also beat his mother and him often. Hitler once told his secretary that during one of the beatings, he was able to stop crying, and count the thirty-two blows he received.

Says psychologist Alice Miller: “Humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal and sexual exploitation injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away. However, as adults, most abused children will make others suffer.”

Talking about Hitler, she said, “By denying his pain, powerlessness, and despair, Hitler made himself into a master of violence. He was incapable of empathy for others.”

Hitler, Stalin and Saddam went on to reach positions of absolute power where they killed lakhs of people, either through war, or concentration camps. “These cases show that the mistreatment of children is an immeasurable danger to society,” says Miller.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Urbane views in a rural segment


Photo: Retired gynaecologist Dr. Sebastian P. Jacob

By Shevlin Sebastian

When a lorry, with marble slabs, came to a stop in front of C.V. Joseph’s house recently, about 25 men, belonging to various unions, appeared at his door. “Only four men were needed for unloading, and it would have cost me Rs 2000,” he says. Instead, after long, drawn-out negotiations, Joseph had to pay Rs 7,500.

“It was daylight robbery,” he says, at his spacious bungalow, at Nadakapadam, 10 kms from Changanacherry.

He has also been appalled by the rudeness shown by auto-rickshaw and bus drivers when he travels on public transport to places like Mamood, Karukachal and Changanacherry.

“They feel they can behave any way they want because the LDF is in power,” he says. “I have never seen such rudeness anywhere in the world.”

Joseph spent 30 years in Abu Dhabi, working as a senior manager at Unilever. “In the United Arab Emirates, the police and the government support private enterprise,” he says. “On the other hand, the LDF government lacks the will to enforce discipline on the trade unions and the work force. Investors are scared to come to the state.”

In this gloomy scenario, Joseph is excited by former UN Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor’s candidature. “I will be thrilled if Tharoor wins at Thiruvananthapuram,” he says. “He is well-educated and has vast international experience. There is an acute shortage of educated people in politics. Most of the politicians I have met are narrow-minded and mediocre.”

Nevertheless, Joseph, 60, is going to vote for the UDF, because of his admiration for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

A couple of kilometres away, at Perumpanachy lives James Chacko (name changed). A former teacher in Malaysia and Brunei, he returned in 1986. For the next 14 years he worked for a political party, before ill health forced him to quit.

“Around 70 per cent are in politics to make money,” says Chacko, 69. “They have no other agenda.” But he says he has never seen any overt corruption. “The bribe-taking is always done in the shadows, away from prying eyes.”

What has particularly distressed him is the apathy shown by party members towards the downtrodden. “I have never seen any of them doing something for the poor,” he says. “Neither have they visited a slum to know about conditions first-hand.”

Retired gynaecologist Dr. Sebastian P. Jacob, 71, at Nadakapadam, is not surprised. “When politicians reach a position of power, they want to ensure that they amass money to last a couple of generations,” he says.

Jacob, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, says he supports the UDF. “I don’t believe in Communism,” he says.

The doctor has a suggestion: Eighty-year-old politicians should retire from the game. “Fresh, young blood should be inducted,” he says. “And I hope these young people will do something for the state, instead of helping their families and their son-in-laws, like the previous generations have done.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Being gay is not gay at all

Ranjit fixes up an older man on a train and goes on a rollercoaster ride. A look at his life and troubles

By Shevlin Sebastian

Accountant Ranjit, 25, meets Mohan, 45, while traveling on the Sabari Express.

Mohan, a doctor, is going to Thiruvananthapuram for a conference.

Ranjit has a passion for men above 40. “So, I smile at him,” he says.

Mohan says, “Do you know of any gays?”

Ranjit replies, “I am one.”

They start talking. Mohan tells Ranjit he is married and has a son. Then he starts crying.

“My wife, the sun in my life, has thrown me out because of my gay tendencies,” he says. “Society is too conventional.”

Ranjit says, “The only way is to get out of Kerala or go abroad.”

Suddenly, Mohan smiles and says, “I want to hug you. Your cheeks are moon-like. Can I enjoy it tonight?”

Ranjit says, “You have a sun in your life, so why are you reaching out for the moon?”

Mohan says, “I don’t know. I am confused.”

They reach Thirivanathapuram at 7 p.m. and head for a hotel. Mohan does not want to stay at Tampanoor, near the station, because he fears somebody might recognise him. “If people come to know I am gay they will condemn me,” he says.

In the hotel room Ranjit waits for the promised hug, but Mohan says, “Let’s have dinner first.” When they finish eating, Ranjit says, “Let’s start.” But Mohan goes to the balcony to smoke a cigarette.

After a while, he returns and says, “Let the city sleep. Then we will start.” Ranjit gets angry and says, “The city will not sleep. Instead, it will peep.”

They finally make love. But Mohan keeps looking through the window, even though the room is on the third floor. Then he begins to cry. An exasperated Ranjit shouts, “What is wrong with you?”

Mohan shakes his head from side to side and emits a series of low groans.
“I feel so afraid,” he says. “I think I am going to have a nervous breakdown. I cannot live this double life. It is eating into me.”

They try to make love again, but Mohan is too disturbed. They stay awake the whole night. Non-smoker Ranjit watches as Mohan finishes four packets of cigarettes.

“Do you know what my eight-year-old son told me recently,” says Mohan. “‘Papa, please smoke 12 packets a day so that you will die fast’. He hates me. I am sure his mother has brainwashed him.”

Mohan and Ranjit check out of the hotel at 5.30 a.m. and go their separate ways.

Like Mohan, Ranjit is trying to find a way to survive in homophobic Kerala. He discovered he had homosexual tendencies when he was in Class 6.

“I was getting attracted to boys,” he says. “Most of my friends said they found girls exciting. But I did not have any infatuation for the opposite sex.”

At 12, he starts masturbating and has fantasies of sleeping with boys. At 14, he seduces his older cousin, Prem.

“I told him I was desperate to have my first sexual experience,” says Ranjit. “Finally, Prem agrees to sleep with me, but tells me to keep it a secret. We make love for a short while. Then Prem gets up and goes away, feeling disturbed.”

A year later, a frustrated Ranjit begins to make passes at his classmates. They complain to his parents who take him to a psychiatrist. Thereafter, he has several hormonal treatments to alter his orientation, but does not change.

He is also disappointed to discover he has a small penis. “It is only two inches long,” he says. “My testicles are small, and there is hardly any semen.”

His parents spent Rs 5 lakh on the treatments, but have finally given up. “Thank God for that,” says Ranjit.

But like all conventional middle-class parents they are urging him to get married, even though they know he will be unable to father a child. “I don’t want to ruin a girl’s life,” says Ranjit. “I am willing to have a marriage of convenience with a lesbian.”

Marriage or not, Ranjit has been sexually voracious. So far, he has slept with more than 100 men. “The unusual thing is that I have rarely slept with gays,” he says. “The men are usually straight or bisexual.”

He remembers being invited by a film producer to his house. “He took me straight to the bedroom and made love,” he says. “His wife was in the kitchen and I have a feeling she knows about his bisexual orientation.”

Even as he talks, a lover calls on the mobile. “We will meet next week,” says Ranjit. The caller is a senior manager in an IT firm, married, with two children.

“He told me he has a happy life with his family,” says Ranjit. “So, I don’t know why he is crazy about me. He likes to take me out on dates. He talks a lot about his life and enjoys sex with me.”

Despite the good times, being gay has been a torture for Ranjit. “I have to act like a normal person in society when all the time I have sexual desires for men, and I am unable to express it openly,” he says. “There is an emotional and physical toll when you live a secret life.”

Ranjit pauses, wipes away a tear and says, “When will Kerala society accept me?”

(Names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Like father, like son


Indrajith wanted to have a career in the Army but his father, actor Sukumaran’s unexpected death at 49 changed the course of his life

By Shevlin Sebastian

When he was in Class 12, in Thiruvananthapuram, actor Indrajith, who was fascinated by the army, sat for the Union Public Service Commission examination. He did well and was invited for the Service Selection Board interview at Bangalore. Indrajith impressed the officers during the interaction, but the only hiccup was the medical test.

“I had an infection in my right eye,” says Indrajith. “During the eye test I could not read properly.” He showed the medical certificate to the authorities. “They told me that when the eye had healed I could do the medical test again,” he says. So he was ‘temporarily rejected’. “I was happy because I knew I was going to the Army,” he says. “Everything was moving according to plan.”

Back home his parents, actor, Sukumaran, and actress Mallika, were going to Munnar for a brief holiday and took him along. At that time, Indrajith’s younger brother, Prithviraj was studying in Class 10 and so he had to stay behind to attend school.

At Munnar, Sukumaran complained of a back pain. So, the family decided to return home. At Kochi, a check-up revealed that Sukumaran had a mild heart attack. He was immediately admitted to the Indira Gandhi hospital at Kadavanthra.

When Indrajith entered the ICU, a day later, his father was much improved, and was reading the newspaper. Suddenly, Sukumaran said, “Son, sing a song.” Indrajith, at that time, used to sing a lot, at home, with friends, and at school. So he sang a Hindi song, ‘Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaoon’.

When he finished a tear rolled down Sukumaran’s face. “This was the only time I saw my father cry,” says Indrajith. “He was such a powerful person, a human dynamo.”

Two days later, Sukumaran passed away, unexpectedly, on June 16, 1997, at the age of 49. “My father’s death was a turning point in my life,” he says. “I decided I could not join the Army, as my mother would be alone at home.”

Instead, Indrajith joined Rajas Engineering College at Nagercoil, 60 kms from Thiruvananthapuram, to do a degree in computer science.

In 1999, Indrajith got an offer to act in a tele-serial from director Viji Thampy. “Since the shooting was going to be held during the Onam holidays I accepted,” he says. The serial, ‘Annie’ was to be telecast on Kairali TV during Christmas.

During the shooting of ‘Annie’, director Lal Jose came to the same location to see whether it would be suitable for his movie, ‘Randaam Bhavam’. And accidentally he saw a scene in which Indrajith was acting.

“It was in front of a fireplace,” says Lal Jose. “Indrajith took a sip of a drink, and threw the rest into the fire.” The director immediately noticed the perfect timing. “For a first-timer Indrajith acted very well,” says Lal Jose. He decided to keep Indrajith in mind when he was casting for a villain for ‘Meesa Madhavan’.

Meanwhile, during this period Indrajith fell in love. “My mum was doing her first television serial after a long time - ‘Peythozhiyathe’,” he says. During weekends he used to go to the location in Thiruvananthapuram to pick her up.

“One day my Mum and I were waiting in the living room of a particular house,” says Indrajith. “I saw a girl, in a red salwar kameez, walk down the stairs. A thought immediately struck me, ‘A danger sign is coming.’”

She was actress Poornima Mohan, who was acting in the same serial. They became friends and fell in love. A couple of years went past. By this time, Indrajith was working for a software company, Nexage, in Chennai. Indrajith and Poornima eventually tied the knot on December 13, (Poornima’s birthday) in 2002.

Since the shooting of ‘Meesa Madhavan’ was getting delayed, Lal Jose told Indrajith to get in touch with director Vinayan who was bringing out a film with new faces. Indrajith did so and bagged the role of the villain.

The film, ‘Ooomappenninu Uriyadappayyan’ was a hit. This gave Indrajith the confidence to chuck up his software job. In 2002, Indrajith acted in Meesa Madhavan as sub inspector Eapen Pappachi. “I was only 21, but I looked 35,” he says. “People remembered my role, thanks to the film becoming such a huge hit. After that there was no looking back.” So far, he has acted in 44 films, including hits like ‘Chanthupottu’, and ‘Classmates’.

After ‘Classmates’, Indrajith was in a film called ‘Oruvan’. Between shoots, he was relaxing in a house at Ottappalam, when through the window he saw a group of old men waiting outside.

When he met them, one of them, Kesavan, said, “We are fans of your father. When your father’s films were released we would go in a group to see it first day, first show.”

Then Kesavan paused and said, “You are doing well and we are sure that one day you will become like your father. We give you our blessings.”

For Indrajith, this was one of the most moving experiences of his life. “I felt so happy,” he says. Then he falls silent, in his home at Maradu, a pregnant Poornima sitting opposite him, with their four-year-old daughter, Prarthana.

Finally, Indrajith says, “I miss my father!”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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