Sunday, May 31, 2009

The revolutionary in twilight mode

Naxalite N. Somadethan spent 15 years in prison for his beliefs and actions. Today, he lives a quiet life with his family

By Shevlin Sebastian

In April, 1970, Naxalite Somadethan took shelter in a house in Mavelikara. However, following a tip-off, the police raided the house and he was arrested and charged with murder, conspiracy and stealing guns.

“The police wanted me to reveal the place where the five guns were hidden,” says Somadethan. When he refused to respond, he was subjected to torture.

He was made to lie on a bench, with his hands and feet handcuffed.

Two constables used the long mace, which is used to pound flour, and rolled it from the knees upwards.

“I experienced a tremendous pain,” he says. “It was so intense that I found it difficult to breathe, and lost consciousness. Later I was told that one of the possible side-effects is suffocation and death.”

The next day his thighs swelled up. The police used a nail to poke the muscles. The pain was again unbearable.

Somadethan says that in the infamous case of engineering student P. Rajan, he probably died in police custody because of this method of torture.

Later Somadethan was forced to lie down inside an ice-box which contained several cubes. “My body became frozen within half an hour,” he says. On other occasions he received electrocution. A plug was connected to a socket and the open wire was applied to the soles of his feet.

“It was excruciating,” he says.

Frequently, rifle butts were used to hit him on the ribs.

Somadethan vomited blood a few times. During this period, he was rarely given any food. Once he was given two sweet flour balls to eat after three days of torture.

Eventually, Somadethan revealed a few secrets. He was part of a Naxalite team that murdered two landlords. “But I was not directly involved in the killings,” he says.

He admitted that Naxalites resorted to violence to achieve their aims. “We believed in the annihilation of class enemies,” he says. The Naxalites realised that the law-enforcement forces were concentrated in the cities and towns. So, they wanted to draw the police into the interiors, and attack them. “The idea was to develop a civil war,” he says.

Somadethan speaks about all this in a serene environment. His house, on one and a half acres of property, in the village of Karukachal, fifteen kilometres from Changanacherry, is surrounded by rubber trees, banana and tapioca plants.

On a late Saturday afternoon the sunlight is glinting off the leaves, which looks a stunning green, thanks to recent monsoon rains which have washed away the dust. A cow moos in a nearby shed, while hens cackle in the courtyard.

Somadethan continues with his tale. After three months of torture he was finally produced before the magistrate at Devikulam. Eventually, he was jailed for life and spent 16 years in various jails in Kerala.

He came out in 1985, at the age of 43, married a 30-year old woman, Shailaja, and has two children, Suryajyoti, 22, and Sumesh, 20. He has spent the last 20 years being a trade union leader, a teacher, a farmer, and even owned a motor vehicle repair shop.

Asked whether he has any regrets, Somadethan says, “None at all. There is no prescribed way to achieve anything. I won’t say violence should be condemned. Life is like the flow of a river. It depends on each person how he wants to live it.”

(The Indian Express, Chennai)

Fear, anger, and hatred

This is the reaction of wives and children when the bread-winner of the family is imprisoned for a crime

By Shevlin Sebastian

Suresh was a taxi driver. One day two men hired his vehicle telling him that they were taking some oil from Idukki to Kochi. On the way, thanks to a tip-off, the police intercepted the taxi. The passengers fled.

When the police inspected the luggage hold, they found several packets of hashish. Suresh was arrested and sent to the Muvattuzhapuzha sub jail.

The Kottayam-based counsellor Kunjumon Chacko had gone to the jail to give a talk. He noticed that Suresh was sobbing uncontrollably. “He told me he had been framed and was worried sick about his family,” says Chacko, who offered to help.

He runs an orphanage for children and got the two daughters to stay there. He sent money every month to his wife, Annie.

Annie was beautiful and a healthy person. But very soon, she began to suffer from high blood pressure. She used to have fainting spells. She had pain in different parts of her body. “She became a sick person,” says Chacko. The family went through a traumatic time.”

Suresh was imprisoned for six years and then found guilty. He has gone on appeal and is out on bail. And Chacko noticed that the glow had left Annie’s face forever.

Asked to describe her experience, Annie says, “I cursed the people who did this to my husband. Later, I realised there is no point in doing that. It is God who will save us. So I must pray to Him.”

But Annie has a tremendous anger at the criminal justice system. Not only was her husband jailed, but it took six years for the case to come up for hearing.

Chacko says this delay is a violation of human rights. The children have missed the protection of the father while the wife has missed the affection and care of her husband.

So what happens to a woman when a husband is arrested?

“The wife suffers from a social humiliation,” says Chacko. “Wherever she goes people point at her and talk in whispers about her jailed husband. Slowly, she will no longer be invited for social functions. Even if she is invited she will not go.”

Unlike the case of Annie, a wife has a tremendous anger against the husband for putting her into this situation. “He is responsible for her state of affairs,” says Chacko. “She thinks, ‘I did not get married so that I would land up in this mess.’”

Some will feel like committing suicide. Some will focus on the children, while a few will try to swim against the current. Several become depressed.

And if the family’s finances are precarious the woman is under tremendous pressure to earn a living, to feed the children. Nearly half the women in this situation will resort to using their bodies.

Distant cousins and well-to-do people will take advantage. “The women do not want to give up their chastity, but circumstances force them to do so,” says Chacko.

And, slowly, as the years go by, the relationship with the husband undergoes a change. While there are many women who remain loyal and devoted, for most, the relationship becomes brittle.

Chacko remembers meeting a woman, Renuka, who needed to sign a document giving permission so that her imprisoned husband could undergo a surgery.

Renuka said, “I don’t have a husband. If he needs to have an operation or even if he dies, it is none of my concern. If he comes here again, he will bring his friends and there will be drinking and all sorts of chaos. Then the police will come. I don’t want to go through that again. I am enjoying some peace and would like things to remain as they are.”

When a man returns after five or ten years in jail, this is the question the wife asks herself: ‘Is my husband an absolute necessity at home now? I have lived without him for so many years.’ This attitude is also reflected in the children.

Take the case of Peters, who, in a drunken fit, kicked at his wife, and she fell down and died. Subsequently he was caught, convicted, and imprisoned. After 11 years when he was about to be released Chacko met the three sons to request them to take him in, because he had nowhere else to go.

The elder son said, “This is the man who killed our mother. It is not possible for us to call him father.” Another sibling said, “To be born you need a father, but otherwise you can live without him. He is not an essential person. This is how we have lived so many years.”

None of the children had met the father when he was in prison.

However, when Chacko told them about the possibility of their father committing suicide or losing his sanity, or acting in such a way that would humiliate them socially, the children relented, but very reluctantly. It was an awkward reunion in a prison near Thiruvananthapuram.

Later, Chacko accompanied Peters to his home. Soon, relatives and neighbours crowded the living room. Everybody was crying.

Chacko said, “In the end, Peters, everything has worked out. Your children have grown up, and are educated and smart, the house is there, there is a cow in the backyard, but only the lamp has gone out.”

Peters said, “The lamp did not go out. I blew it out.”

This story ended in a positive manner but there are many families where there is no acceptance and the man leaves the house. He becomes a nomad, wandering from place to place. “He has no skills to survive in a changed world,” says Chacko. “He suffers from low confidence and is unable to face society.”

And the crime remains a blight on the children’s lives. They are unable to get good marriage proposals, and whenever a background check is done on them when they apply for jobs, they are rejected when the father’s criminal background is discovered.

“The crime is like a huge shadow in their lives,” says Chacko.

(Some names have been changed)

‘Let undertrials go to work’

Kunjumon Chacko, 68, has been counselling prisoners for the past thirty-five years in Kerala. Apart from this he has traveled to 61 countries to see the conditions of prisons first-hand and learn about new methods.

“In most of the developed countries there is a scientific classification of criminals,” he says. “If a first offender for theft is arrested he is kept alone.”

However, in Kerala, a first offender is housed in a prison with habituals who are experts in crime. So a youngster who is an adept pickpocket will get the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from the experts.

“Our prisons have become a breeding ground for criminals,” says Chacko.

A major drawback is that the prison authorities in India are only concerned that the prisoners do not escape. There is almost no emphasis on rehabilitation.

In Thiruvananthapuram’s central jail there are only two welfare officers for nearly 2000 prisoners. “In western countries there are more officers for correction rather than security,” he says.

Another problem is that, thanks to an antiquated British law, undertrial prisoners are not allowed to work. So, till his case comes up an undertrial eats and sleeps most of the time.

“It kills his spirit and he loses the skills to survive in life,” says Chacko.

He says that these men can be used to work on bridges, roads, multi-storeyed buildings, or community-development projects. They can be sent to work in the morning and return in the evening.

“Pay them the market rate and deduct all the expenses for security and food,” says Chacko. “The remaining money can be put in a saving account and some part of it can be sent to the family.”

In this way there is less chance of the man resorting to crime to earn a living when he is finally released from prison.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

In the service of God


Mar Joseph Powathil, the Archbishop Emeritus of Changanacherry, wanted to be a priest from his childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was in Class two at the Holy Family school at Kurumpanadom, the teacher asked whether any of us wanted to become a priest,” says Mar Joseph Powathil, 79, the Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Chanaganacherry. “I raised my hand.”

He says there was a religious atmosphere at home, where prayers were important, and the priests who visited the family were given a lot of respect. “I may have got the idea by seeing this,” says Powathil.

When he was 13 his parents shifted him to the St. Berchman’s boarding so that he would have more time to study. Once, the bishop of Nellore, William Bouther, came for a visit and exhorted the students to serve in the missions and spread the message of God.

“The Bishop’s speech affected me a lot,” he says. “My desire to become a priest was rekindled.”

But his parents were opposed the idea. Powathil was the eldest and his father, an agriculturist, was keen that his son study further. So Powathil carried on with his education. He did his BA from St. Berchman’s College, Changanacherry, and his post-graduation in economics from the Jesuit-run Loyola College at Chennai.

When he returned to Kurumpanadom, he sent an application to the principal of Loyola College, Fr. Gordon, asking to join the Jesuits. Fr. Gordon told Powathil he could join, but at Madurai.

“When I told my father about my decision to become a priest he fainted,” says Powathil. “He was also unhappy that I would be going far away.” Eventually, thanks to an uncle, Scaria, who spoke to Bishop Mathew Kavukatt, Powathil joined the St. Thomas seminary, at Changanacherry in June, 1953.

Sometime later, there was an announcement in the seminary that Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, the secretary for the Congregation of the Oriental churches at the Vatican would be coming for a visit.

The rector of the seminary, Fr. Thomas Porukara, told Powathil to write an article on the Synod of Diamper, which was held in 1599.

“This was the first time I got an idea of the history of the church and the domination of the Latin rite over the Syro Malabar one,” says Powathil. “I felt very upset. I thought it was an injustice. I wrote stating that the Synod made changes which went against the traditional practices of the St. Thomas Christians.”

Thanks to the article Powathil developed a life-long desire to undo the injustice of the Synod of Diamper. “It was a turning point for me,” he says.

After he was ordained a priest on October 3, 1962, Powathil was appointed as a lecturer in economics at St. Berchman’s College and remembers having former chief minister Oommen Chandy as one of his students.

“He was quiet in class,” says Powathil. “I remember that for one political science exam, nearly all the students failed, but Oommen passed.” Thereafter, Powathil moved steadily up the hierarchy, from Auxiliary Bishop to bishop, to Archbishop of Chanaganacherry in 1985.

When he became the archbishop, Powathil insisted that the Syro-Malabar church should follow the Divine Liturgy of the St. Thomas Christians, that was Latinised during the Synod of Diamper. This resulted in protests and demonstrations by the laity, as well as the priests.

“Yes, it was opposed tooth and nail by a few,” admits Powathil. “I felt unhappy that the people had misunderstood me. The protests created an impression that the church was divided. A couple of newspapers even predicted a split in the church. That was indeed journalistic sensationalism!”

Nevertheless, Powathil is glad he has remained resolute like the person who had the most impact on him: Pope John Paul 11. He has fond memories of the Pontiff.
Powathil was in Manila in 1995 where Pope John Paul 11 held a World Youth Day rally for four million people.

Owing to jam-packed roads, the Pontiff was an hour late for the ceremony. “The young people were shouting, ‘John Paul, we love you,’” says Powathil. “But when he did not arrive, despite a long wait, they shouted, ‘John Paul, where are you?’ It was an unforgettable moment and I was glad I was present to see the Pope’s popularity at first hand.”

Powathil also remembers the late Pontiff’s sense of humour. Once they had been talking about a certain person in authority who was deciding matters for the Syro-Malabar church. Powathil said they were facing problems with the man.

“But he is an Indian,” said the Pope, in a joking voice.

Powathil was silent.

The Pope said, “Oh yes, but he is also a Latin.”

Powathil recounts this with a smile in his book-filled study at the Archbishop’s House at Changanacherry, his voice overshadowed by monsoon rain lashing the town on a Saturday afternoon.

At 79, even though he uses a walking stick he is still leading an active life. Asked to sum up his experiences, the Archbishop says, “The Lord has led me to places where I never expected to be.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Getting a second chance

Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, Joseph George was told he had two months to live. But a timely liver transplant has enabled him to come back from the brink of death

Photo: Joseph and Lucy George

By Shevlin Sebastian

In early 2004 Joseph George went for a routine check-up. In the blood test, the nurse said she spotted a yellowish colour. “The moment I heard this I knew it must be cirrhosis of the liver since I was drinking so much,” says Joseph.

A doctor in Kochi confirmed the diagnosis and said it was irreversible. Joseph refused to accept the conclusion and went to St. John’s hospital in Bangalore. Unfortunately, the doctors there reconfirmed the grim findings and said he had only two months to live.

Joseph was only 61. Cirrhosis was incurable. The only option was a liver transplant.

A desperate Joseph flew to Texas where his son, Abraham, was working in the IT industry. However, in America it was difficult to get a liver since there was a long waiting list. So he flew to Britain, but drew a blank there.

Abraham did research on the Internet and discovered that livers could be procured in Malaysia. Apparently prisoners on death row from China were taken to Malaysia and killed, and their vital organs were taken out and sold.

“It seemed like a shady operation,” says Joseph.

Eventually, he opted for the Apollo Hospital in Delhi and traveled to the capital in November, 2004.

There he had to undergo various tests to prepare him for the transplant. The costs were staggering. One injection to combat urinary infection cost Rs 5000. “I had to take 15 of them,” he says. The surgeon’s fee was a steep Rs 10 lakh.

By the middle of December he was ready for the transplant, but no liver was available. The doctors told him to wait.

Joseph befriended an Iranian who had been staying for six months in the hospital waiting for a liver. Joseph wondered whether he would have to remain that long.

On January 4, 2005, a young man had a motorbike accident in Delhi and was brought to the Apollo Hospital. Within hours, he was declared brain-dead. When the doctors approached the parents for a liver transplant they agreed.

Dr. Theresa George, Joseph’s sister, who had come from Canada to look after him, also spoke with them.

“The donor’s parents were educated and cultured Punjabis,” says Theresa. “Despite the shock of losing their son so suddenly they were able to take the decision of donating the liver.”

The transplant was done and it was a success. “There were numerous tubes sticking out of my body taking out all the fluids,” says Joseph. After 25 days of closely monitoring his progress, Joseph was allowed to stay in a sterile house near the hospital, as minor treatment continued.

It was only in February that he was allowed to return to Kochi.

Back home, Joseph felt weak for several months. But slowly and steadily he began to regain his health.

Throughout the treatment, Joseph’s mind was also on his wife Lucy who had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and had begun chemotherapy. The two sons, Abraham and Varkey, and a daughter, Mia, went through a harrowing time.

However, thankfully, it all ended well. Lucy was cured in 2005, but the cancer returned in 2009. Thanks to chemotherapy, Lucy has again become cancer-free, but in the process has temporarily lost all her hair. Joseph has to regularly take immunosuppressant drugs, but, otherwise, is leading a normal life.

As a result of both of them being sick, Joseph, a businessman, took a financial blow. He had to sell a house in Coimbatore and an apartment in Kochi to pay the bills.

Joseph, of course, has no one else to blame, but himself for his cirrhosis. For more than three decades he was a heavy drinker and smoker.

“Just before I had cirrhosis, I was smoking 60 cigarettes and drinking several pegs of whisky a day,” he says. “I have no regrets, because I enjoyed doing it.”

Lucy stares silently at Joseph at their Kairali apartment in Panampilly Nagar, Kochi, when he says this.

Asked how he has changed, post-operation, she says, “Since he is not drinking, he is a different man. When he had cirrhosis it made him irrational, irresponsible, angry, almost like a mad man.”

Joseph says he has matured as a person. “I have realised that running after money is a foolish thing. You can die at any moment.”

Cirrhosis of the liver

Cirrhosis is caused by heavy alcohol consumption, chronic hepatitis C and even obesity.

The average survival time for a person, following liver failure, is two years.

Cirrhosis is an incurable disease. Liver transplant is the only solution. If a patient survives the first year after a transplant, there is a good chance he will have normal life expectancy.

Monthly expenses on medicines is around Rs 12,000 following a transplant

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 25, 2009

God’s Little Soldiers

Students in Christian, Hindu and Muslim seminaries want to serve the people, spiritually and materially, once they pass out

Photos: The students of Thanthra Vidyapeedham and the chapel at the St. Joseph's Pontifical Seminary

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Friday evening, several youngsters are milling about in the courtyard of the St. Mary’s Basilica church in Kochi. Parents, friends and relatives are busy congratulating the young men. After completing three years of philosophy at the St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, Aluva (28 kms from Kochi), there is a ceremony where they are officially handed over the white cassock which the Catholic priests wear.

“That does not mean they are qualified priests,” says Fr. Antony Nariculam, a professor at the seminary. “They will have to complete another three years of theology studies before they are eligible.”

Running around with a visible joy on his face is Varghese Moonjely, 22. “You cannot imagine how excited I am now,” he says, placing his palm on his chest. “My heart is overflowing with happiness. It’s a fantastic feeling to wear this white cassock.”

The son of an autorickshaw driver, Varghese wanted to be a priest right from his childhood, when he served as an altar boy during the mass. “I saw the religious and social activities of the priests and wanted to be like them,” he says.

Asked what he hoped to achieve as a priest Varghese says, “I want to help the poor, be the voice of the voiceless and be of service to God.”

Varghese sounds enthusiastic, but veteran teacher Fr. Antony is disappointed with the seminarians of today.

“They want more material comforts and conveniences like a mobile phone, as compared to the frugal mind-set of previous generations,” he says. “There is far less intensity in their prayers and meditation and a lack of focus.”

The sprawling campus at Aluva has beautiful flowering trees and manicured lawns. “There are about four hundred students,” says Fr. Mathew Illathuparampil, a teacher. “It takes around ten years to become a priest.”

Tanthra is the way

There is a pin-drop silence at the Thanthra Vidyapeedham (the Centre for Vedic and Tantric Studies and Research) in Aluva. It is located beside the Cheriyathu Narasimhaswami temple on the banks of the Periyar river.

Only a few students are present. All of them are bare-bodied, and wear a white dhoti. Several have gone home for the summer vacation. Those who have stayed behind have to perform certain essential rituals in the temple.

Established in 1972 by the late Madhavji, a senior pracharak of the RSS, the vidyapeedham teaches ancient Tantric rituals, which is used in all Kerala temples.

“Earlier, the teachings were passed on by word of mouth but now we have a formal method of training,” says C. Sukumara Varma, the manager.

It is a seven-year course and the subjects include English, Tantra Shastram, Vedas, Astrology, Sanskrit, Vaastu shashtra and the Puranas.

There are 45 students ranging in age from 16 to 23. Among them is eighteen-year-old Krishnajith. “I joined the school because I wanted to learn the rituals,” he says. Once he completes the course, Krishnajith plans to become a Sanskrit teacher or a priest. “I am still undecided about this,” he says.

P.K. Sriraj, 18, had been interested in Tantric rituals from his childhood since his father, uncles, and cousins are priests. “So I had a natural inclination,” he says.

He joined the Vidyapeedham after he had completed his Class ten exams.
Sriraj and the other students exchange smiles. They seem to have an easy camaraderie. But the secretary, Mullappilly Krishnan Namboodiri feels the pupils of today are different from the past. “The intensity and the dedication is less,” he says.

God is great!

New admissions are taking place at the Azhar-ul-Uloom seminary at Aluva on a Sunday morning. Helping the youngsters to fill their admission forms are Mohammad Jalees, 20, and Sajid Khan, 22.

Sajid has just completed the six-year course. It was through a former student, Hassainar Alathur that Sajid had heard about the seminary. Sajid decided to join, once his parents in Vadakkancherry gave the go-ahead.

“But my friends were skeptical and asked whether there would be any tangible benefits by doing this course,” he says.

They also felt that the seminary is a strict place and it would be difficult for Sajid to live there. “But they did not know that when you live in a disciplined system it is good for one’s character,” he says.

Sajid says he would like to attach himself to a mosque and serve the people. “There is a breakdown of morals in society,” he says. “I would like to show people the right way.” He said he would also like to teach the Koran to youngsters.

Final year student Mohammed Jalees, 20, wants to study further. “When I get the chance I would like to give a talk to the faithful on Fridays,” he says.

There are 100 students whose age ranges from 16 to 23. However, the dropout rate is high. In Sajid’s class of 40 in the first year, only 11 managed to reach the end. In Jalees’ section only 5 out of 45 have stayed the distance.

Some leave because of their inability to stay in a hostel, some find the discipline too much, while others simply lose interest, says Jalees.

But for those who stay on, M.M. Shahjahan, teacher of Islamic studies is all praise. “The students are hard-working and confident,” he says. “Unlike earlier batches, they have no hesitation to ask questions whenever they have any doubts.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Running like the wind


Winning the first race she took part in and meeting coach O.M. Nambiar changed the course of athlete P.T. Usha’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

When P.T. Usha was in Class four she took part in a race in a school in Thrikkottu, near Payolli, and defeated the sub-zilla champion Baby Sarala, who was in Class seven. “That was when Balakrishna Master, the physical education teacher realised I had the talent,” says Usha. She began training under him.

Soon Usha won the sub zilla championships and districts meets. When she was in Class 7, there was an advertisement in the newspaper asking for applicants for the G.V. Raja Sports school, which was starting a girl’s section at Kannur.

Thanks to the initiative taken by an uncle, Usha took part in the selection trials and got the first rank. It was at Kannur that Usha came under the tutelage of coach O.M. Nambiar.

But Usha had seen Nambiar earlier, at a meet at Payolli. “He was wearing a suit, a cap and sneakers and walked about with an air of self-importance,” she says. “He stood out because people in our village usually wore a shirt and mundu.”

During the training Usha stood out, among the 80 students, for her sincerity and dedication. “I always followed Nambiar Sir’s instructions and did the many exercises he asked us to do,” says Usha. “I never took it easy.”

As a result, Usha began to improve. She took part in the Under 14 state level competition at Kollam and won the 100m and 60m hurdles, as well as the 200m in the Under 16 section.

Usha’s turning point came when she defeated the national 100m champion, Rita Sen of West Bengal at the Ajmer Nationals. “I was only 16, while Rita was 28,” she says.

Subsequently, Usha was selected to be part of the Indian team that went for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. “I was very happy, but when Nambiar Sir was not allowed to accompany me it was a big blow,” she says. “I felt very nervous.”

This is understandable because here was a girl from a small village in Kerala, who was travelling on a plane for the first time and taking part in one of the biggest events in an athlete’s career.

Out of anxiety Usha vomited several times in Moscow. “I was so skinny that the thighs of the women athletes were the size of my body,” says Usha, with a smile, as she sits in the stadium at the Maharaja’s College ground watching her trainees take part in state selection trials. Not surprisingly, Usha came nowhere in the 100 and 200m at Moscow.

However, Usha made amends when she won her first international medals during a meet at Karachi in 1980. But she will never forget the train journey from India to Karachi. “I was travelling in the unreserved compartment,” she says. When the train was passing through the Pakistani countryside, some mischievous youngsters flung cow dung and it hit Usha smack on the face.

She took it in her stride and won golds in the 100, 200m, 4 x 400m and 4 x 100m relay. “It was a big moment for me,” she says. “I developed the confidence to do well in international meets.”

Thereafter, Usha won numerous medals at Asian meets in the next few years. When she won five golds and one bronze at the Asian Track and Field Championship at Jakarta in 1985 she set a world record for the maximum number of golds won by a female athlete in a single international meet.

For the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles, the 400m hurdles for women was introduced for the first time. A shrewd Nambiar asked Usha to begin training for this event.

“Nambiar Sir felt that I had a good chance to win a medal,” says Usha. During the selection trials for the Olympics at Delhi Usha clocked 55.7 seconds, which was one of the best timings in the world at that time. Journalists from America came to interview her.

At the Games Usha came first in the semi final by beating American champion Judy Brown. However, in the final there was a false start and that upset Usha. When the race re-started, Usha was last. “At the fourth hurdle I began accelerating,” she says. By the eighth hurdle she was in second place. But at the tenth hurdle, through the corner of her eyes, Usha saw Judy striding ahead.

Eventually, Judy came second, Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco won the gold medal, while the Rumanian Cristina Cojocaru won the bronze, beating Usha by one hundredth of a second.

“Of course, it was the biggest disappointment in my life, but at the same time it was a turning point,” she says. Because of that loss the seeds were planted within her which would sprout years later when she started the Usha School of Athletics at Koyilandy in 2002, with the help of husband Sreenivasan and the present general secretary, P.A. Ajanachandran.

“I realised I missed out on an Olympic medal because I lacked the exposure and the experience,” says Usha, who eventually won 102 international medals, as well as the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri. “I wanted to give others the benefits and the facilities which I never had. Who knows one day one of my students will fulfill my dream by winning an Olympic medal?”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Baywatch, Kochi style!

The lifeguards at Fort Kochi beach are constantly on the alert. Hence, many lives have been saved

Photo: Lifeguards P.A. Rinold, K. Serjan K, C. Mahesan and Suresh Joseph at the Fort Kochi beach

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, after drinking liquor, Dr. Farooq Usman (name changed), came to the Fort Kochi beach. After standing idly for a while, he walked into the sea and kept moving forward. Soon, Farooq was no longer seen.

Two lifeguards, P.A. Rinold, 37, and Suresh Joseph, 34, of the department of tourism, immediately noticed his disappearance. Armed with a lifebuoy, they ran in and grabbed the doctor.

Farooq shouted, “Allow me to die.”

Rinold said, “If you die we will lose our jobs.”

They brought the struggling doctor back to the shore. Slowly the doctor recovered his composure and said that although he was doing well in his career and had plenty of money he was having problems in the family. “I just can’t manage,” he said.

Rinold questioned his hasty decision to commit suicide. “How will your family survive?” he said. Farooq remained silent. Finally the doctor called his home on Rinold’s mobile phone. Soon, a group of relatives arrived in several cars and took the doctor home.

One month later, Farooq came to the beach with his wife, Ameena. She thanked all the lifeguards and kissed their hands. “You saved my husband’s life,” she said.

Sometime later, Farooq called and asked for Rinold’s bank account number. Later, he deposited Rs 2500 to show his appreciation.

This was one of the rare occasions when a rescued victim actually showed his gratitude. “Most people are in a daze when they are rescued and taken to the hospital,” says Suresh. “They rarely come back later to say thanks.”

Two years ago, the department of tourism hired 24 lifeguards to patrol the beaches in Ernakulam district, like Fort Kochi, Cherai and on Marine Drive.

“This was primarily set up for the safety of the tourists,” says A. Indira, Tourist Information Officer. “The lifeguards have been doing a good job.” So far, no case of drowning has been reported under their watch.

On a windy afternoon, Rinold, Suresh, Serjan K, 31, and C. Mahesan, 38, are watching children and teenagers frolicking in the sea. They are wearing the blue uniform that identifies them as lifeguards. There are a couple of red lifebuoys hanging on a nail near where they sit.

Asked their method of saving people who are drowning, Mahesan says, “I come from the back and hold the hair. If I come from the front, the person will grab me, because he is in a panicky state, and we will both go down.”

So far they have saved about 14 people from sure death and have tackled numerous minor emergencies. Unfortunately, those who come to swim have no idea about how the sea behaves.

“In Fort Kochi the undercurrents are very strong,” says Rinold. “Even good swimmers find it difficult.” Sirjan says the best way to swim is to use the freestyle method. “The kick propels you forward,” he says.

Here is a tip from the lifeguards: whenever you are in trouble you should flow with the current and not against it. Even if the tide seems to take you out to sea, after a while you will be able to turn back and head towards the beach. But it will not be the same area from where you had started swimming.

The job calls for a constant alertness, but it comes at a price. “When we stare at the water for hours together, with the sunlight glinting off it, and because we are lashed by salty winds, we get a headache at the end of the day,” says Mahesan. Now they wear sunshades during the duration of the shift.

It is a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. routine. “The next day we get off,” says Sirjan. There are eight lifeguards at Fort Kochi and they work four to a shift. Most of them are former fishermen, who have lived near the sea all their lives. Hence they have an intuitive understanding of the sea.

“With one glance I know which way the current is moving, and whether it is safe or not,” says Sirjan.

All the lifeguards say they love their job, but there are small hindrances. There is no proper place to sit. “We have tied these wooden logs together to make a bench,” says Rinold. “A lifeguard tower would be ideal.”

Since there are no toilet facilities, when they save somebody they are unable to have a wash. “The salt water sticks to our body,” says Suresh. “It is only when we return home at night that we are able to have a bath.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The reel show

Cinema ticket ushers have to handle drunks, rude youngsters, and an occasional death, while on the job

Photo: Sridhar theatre manager V.R. Ramkumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film ‘The Mountains of the Cannibal God’, there is a disturbing scene where a python swallows a live monkey. Soon after the event was shown, a 35-year old man sitting in the audience at Sridhar theatre at Kochi started shaking. Within moments his body became stiff. The people around him rushed out and informed ticket usher M.V. Sebastian, 50.

“When I arrived the man had become unconscious,” says Sebastian. With the help of another usher Xavier, they carried the body to the lobby. The police were informed and he was rushed to the general hospital.

“Unfortunately the man was declared dead on arrival,” he says. “When the doctors inspected the wallet they found a medical prescription for a heart ailment.” The family members were informed.

By a strange coincidence, the man’s father-in-law was being treated for an illness in the same hospital. “Suddenly the mother-in-law came into the room, hugged the body, burst into tears, and said, ‘This is my son Varghese!’” says Sebastian.

In 27 years as an usher this was the only death that Sebastian has encountered on the job. But he has had mixed experiences while dealing with patrons.

“Nowadays young people behave badly,” he says. “If they don’t like a film they take their frustrations out of me. They make comments like, ‘Chetta, this was a bad film’. I am just an usher. From their talk they give me the impression that I am responsible if a film is good or bad.”

Says usher Ramachandra Pai: “They may be educated but lack manners. They have Pan Parag and spit it all over the place.”

Theatre manager V.R. Ramkumar says the audience comprises local North Indians, as well as those from the Naval Base, construction workers, and locals. “There are also a lot of teenagers who come to see Hindi films,” he says.

Of course, in a state where drinking is the number one entertainment, drunks are a major problem, too. Usually the ticket seller will not issue the ticket if he notices that the man is in an inebriated condition.

“If somehow he manages to enter the hall, and creates a disturbance, I have no qualms in calling security or the police,” says Sebastian. Ramachandra says the drinking is high during festivals like Onam, Easter and Christmas.

On a hot afternoon between the noon and the matinee shows Sebastian sits and reads a magazine in the manager’s room. Ramachandra is sitting in the lobby while Varghese is having lunch in the canteen. Sebastian says, “We come in half an hour before the start of the noon show and stay till the night show concludes.”

In the course of his career Sebastian has seen over a thousand films and has a good idea of which film will be a hit or not. “I have an 80 per cent accuracy,” he says.

But Ramachandra is not so sure. “The audience reaction nowadays is unpredictable,” he says. “The film, ‘International’, which was shown recently, was a good one, but there was not much of a crowd probably because of the telecast of the matches of the Indian Premier League.”

He says that by intently looking at the faces of the people as they come out after the first show he gets an idea of whether the film will do well or not.

Unlike Sebastian he hardly sees a film. “In fact, in my twenty-five years on the job
I have never seen a movie from beginning to end,” says Ramachandra. That has also been the case with usher M.C. Varghese, 44. “The film I liked best was ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ even though I did not see the entire film,” says Varghese. “Whenever the song ‘Jai Ho’ was screened I would watch it.”

But not many people are happy that Sridhar is showing Hindi films. “Sridhar has been showing English films since 1964,” admits Ramkumar. “We have a dedicated clientele.”

But it was only when Sridhar started showing Hindi films a few years ago that the box office receipts increased significantly. The last big hit was Ghajini. “Young and old liked the film,” says Ramkumar.

No matter how a film does, the ushers and the manager enjoy the job. Ramkumar tries to analyse the reasons why: “The beauty of this job is that you are seeing new people every day. And if you are a film buff like me you are able watch movies all the time. That makes the job very interesting.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 18, 2009

All about a subjugated Eve

A riveting documentary focuses on the numerous problems that women face in Kerala, including domestic violence, dowry demands, child sex abuse, rape, molestation, sex rackets and sex tourism

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The body of the woman was like a burnt fish,” says R. Sreelekha, the first women IPS officer in Kerala who was doing an inquest following a post-mortem. “Later I saw that she was pregnant and the foetus was half way out of the body. It was a traumatic sight.”

Sreelekha shakes her head and says, “The perpetrators should see the results of their actions. Then only will they understand how terrible it is. It is sad, but the atrocities against women are on the increase.”

Sreelekha was giving her views in the documentary, ‘Real women’, produced by Carving Minds, which focuses on the problems women face in Kerala.

There is Parvathy, the television anchor who recounts the experiment she conducted with the help of journalists. When she told a group of scribes she had to reach home before it got dark, because of the danger of sexual harassment, they mocked her fears.

So, at 7 p.m. Parvathy walked alone on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram and within minutes, two young men on a motorbike came close and passed lewd comments. Then as she carried on walking a man came up, grabbed her hand and tried to pull her away. It was at this moment the other journalists intervened.

“I shivered in fear,” she says. “Women are so unsafe in Kerala.”

Right from the beginning of the documentary, when farm labourers talk about the discrepancy in daily wages, as compared to the men, the film traces the problems faced by women in different areas: schools, colleges, the work place, and as auto rickshaw and bus drivers, and conductors.

Bus conductor Lekha talks about how men try to press their bodies against her when she is trying to do her job. “They will not obey me when I tell them to move to the back just because I am a woman,” she says.

Sandhya, the auto-rickshaw driver says she is unable to work beyond 6 p.m. because of fears for her physical safety.

In between there are interviews with notable personalities like poet Sugatha Kumari, Justice D. Sreedevi social activist K. Ajitha, politicians, Savitri Lekshmanan and K.R. Gowriamma, as well as film directors, Kamal and Sathyan Anthikad who talk about the problems faced by women.

Anthikad spoke ruefully about the complete absence of women on the technical side in the film industry. He described the hesitation on the part of distributors when he told them he was making a film with women as heroines: ‘Achuvinte Amma’. This movie went on to become a super-hit.

“It shows that viewers are interested in women’s issues,” he says.

The documentary also focuses on the numerous social ills afflicting Kerala: domestic violence, female foeticide, excessive dowry demands, molestation in public transport, sexual harassment, being forced into sex rackets, sex tourism, girls being raped and murdered, and child sex abuse.

There is an interview with a young girl, her face obscured, who talked about how her father made sexual advances on her. “I was touched when, after the shoot, she told me she trusted me that I would blur her face,” says director Binu Krishnan.

But, sadly, most men cannot be trusted. Even somebody as confident as actress Padmapriya says, “I travel only in the daytime. Unfortunately, there is always a sexual perspective to a woman’s life.”

The scene suddenly shifts to Mumbai and shows, in stark contrast, the freedom that women enjoy there. There are shots of women travelling alone at midnight on suburban trains and a visual of a Malayali woman, Usha R. Pillai, a government employee, having a snack by herself in a restaurant at 8.45 p.m. “Can you imagine a woman doing something like this in Kerala?” she says.

‘Real Women’ is an intense, sincere film, made possible by the desire of US-based producer Gilbert Georgekutty. Speaking on the phone from New Jersey, he says, “I have met a lot of Malayali women in the USA, Canada, and Britain who don’t want to come back to Kerala because of the sexual harassment and the low status of women there. They love the freedom they enjoy in Western countries.”

Georgekutty says that this subjugation is the biggest social problem in Kerala. “It is a bigger issue than alcoholism,” he says. “I know I will not recoup my investment of Rs 8.5 lakh, but this is something I wanted to do for a long time.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making people laugh

Toms and K. J. Yesudasan have been the premier cartoonists in Kerala in the last 50 years. They talk about their lives and careers

Photos: Toms and Yesudasan

By Shevlin Sebastian

When cartoonist Toms was a young man, thanks to unseasonal rain in Kuttanad, around 40 acres of his family’s paddy cultivation was destroyed. Devastated and dejected, he read in the newspaper that the government was providing compensation for those who had been affected. So Toms went to the government office in Alleppey.

At that time the writer N.V. Chellapan Nair was the special officer who was distributing the money. But on the day Toms went, Nair had not yet arrived in the office.

“Around seven people were waiting under a tree,” says Tom. This included Tom’s former classmate, Eashwar Pillai. “He knew I had sent cartoons to newspapers and had got rejected. In order to make fun of me he said, ‘What’s happened to all your drawings?’”

Tom replied, “Whatever talent I have, it makes no difference unless you have godfathers in newspaper offices. That is the only way our creations can appear in print. Otherwise, I will have to go and mollycoddle them which I am incapable of doing.”

Standing under a nearby tree, holding an umbrella was a thin man. “I assumed he was a farmer like me,” says Tom. “After a while he came up to me and said, ‘I heard you abusing newspaper people. Do you write poetry?’”

“No, I do very good cartoons,” said Toms. “But nobody is giving me the opportunity.”

The man said, “I will give you an address and you can send the cartoons there.”

Then he took out a pen and wrote, ‘Varghese Kalathil, Editor, Malayala Manorama, Kottayam.’

Toms said, “Who are you to tell me this?”

In a low voice, the man said, “You can call me Varghese Kalathil.” The editor of the Manorama Weekly, Varghese had come to collect an article from Chellapan Nair.

So Toms sent his cartoons, they were accepted for publication by Varghese and soon he was given a regular column. For the next 30 years he contributed to the Malayala Manorama newspaper and in 1961, he also became a staffer. And his cartoons revolved around the antics of ten-year-old twins, Boban and Molly.

They lived near Tom’s house and would go through his garden because it was a short cut. One day he befriended them and when they went into Tom’s room, they saw a lot of drawings lying around. One day Molly said, “Can you draw me?”

Tom told her to sit down and did a sketch. “She liked it a lot,” he says. “She took it to school and the children appreciated it also.” Boban got jealous and asked Tom to do a drawing of him.

“So I did it,” he says. “Thereafter, instead of drawing elephants and other animals, I started drawing their faces and the little antics they would have done.”

This strip of Boban and Molly became immensely popular and captured the imagination of Malayalis everywhere. “The Malayala Manorama made me what I am,” he says. “I will never forget that.”

However, when he retired in 1987, Toms brought out a book on Boban and Molly which became very popular. This led to a court case with the Malayala Manorama about who owned the copyright. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court and Toms won.

“Relations were strained for quite a while but now I am on good terms with them,” he says. Toms then started ‘Toms publications’ which continues to bring out Boban and Molly (circulation: 1.5 lakh), Unni Kuttan, Mandoos, and Tom’s Chitra Katha.

In his home at Kottayam there are a couple of vans parked in the courtyard. The name ‘Toms Publications’ is written in bold letters at the back of the vehicles.

Toms is a sprightly 81, who is still drawing cartoons. “I get up at 3 a.m. and work for a few hours,” he says. Asked the secret of his long career, he says, “Hard work and passion for the job. I also do a lot of reading and traveling.”

The pen is mightier than the politician

In his air-conditioned office at the 'Metro Vaartha' newspaper in Kochi, C.J. Yesudasan, 71, looks relaxed and is all smiles. He is in his 55th year as one of Kerala’s best known political cartoonists

He started his career with the Communist Party of India newspaper ‘Janayugam. “I began a column with the character 'Kittumman', which became the first pocket cartoon in Malayalam,” he says. But it was when he went to Delhi and started working in Shankar’s weekly in 1963 that his world view changed and his work became better.

“Shankar was a perfectionist,” he says. “When you did a drawing, all the features had to be correct, otherwise, he would get angry. He would always tell me, ‘From the top of the head to the nails on the feet, everything should be right’.”

This included the way a person stood, how the mundu was tied around the waist, the physical oddities, and the type of footwear that is worn by the subjects. He gives the example of the late Tamil politician G.K. Moopanar.

“He was a millionaire,” says Yesudasan. “But Moopanar would always wear rubber slippers because he suffered from an allergic reaction to leather. So if you thought that since he was a rich man, he must be wearing shoes, it would be wrong. Shankar was insistent we should know all these details.”

In 1969 Yesudasan returned to Kerala because the Janayugam newspaper wanted to start a magazine for children, 'Balayugam’. Following that, he started a magazine called ‘Asadhu’, on the line of Shankar’s Weekly. This lasted for 12 years, but because of financial difficulties he had to close it down. Eventually he joined Malayala Manorama and was the staff cartoonist for 23 years.

Because he did political cartoons, he received abusive mail and threatening phone calls. Once when E.K. Nayanar was chief minister, Yesudasan drew a cartoon where a worker sat in a police station, his legs up on the table, nonchalantly smoking a beedi. In front of him, an obedient-looking Nayanar, who was also the Home Minister, was saluting him. This was during the general elections of 1987.

“On my way home, by sheer coincidence, near the Ernakulam railway station, there was an election rally,” he says. “I could hear Nayanar attacking me. If I stayed there I would have been lynched. I hurried on home.”

After many years Yesudasan met Nayanar to invite him for his son’s wedding. “When I told him about the speech, he said he did not remember it, but did remember the cartoon,” says Yesudasan. “He told me it was excellent.”

Yesudasan says that contrary to popular view, most leaders liked to be featured in cartoons. “Even [former prime minister] Morarji Desai who did not like cartoons, liked to appear in one. In Kerala, it was Nayanar who loved cartoons and tried to uplift the lives of cartoonists.”

Yesudasan says he meets ministers today who always ask him why they are not being featured in his cartoons.

Asked the secret of his creative process, he says, “I don’t try too hard. I have learnt to be relaxed. And then, suddenly, the idea will come.”

Non-stop productivity

Raju Nair has been the cartoonist for the 'Deepika' newspaper for the past 30 years. In his small office at Kottayam, the striking sight is of numerous letters that are piled up on his table. “I get 50 to 60 letters a day,” he says.

Nair has a half page called Cartoonscope in the evening newspaper 'Rashtra Deepika' where, apart from his own cartoons, he publishes the work of upcoming talents.

“Deepika is the best place for those who have the talent and are willing to work hard,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities here.” In the beginning he used to do social cartoons. Now there is a mix of political and social cartoons.

Nair, who has done more 20,000 cartoons in his career says, “A good cartoonist should be honest and have the gift for humour. He needs a good imagination, talent, hard work and common sense. I also feel he should be a good human being.”

A keen eye

When E. Suresh started drawing for ‘Balabhankthi’, the children’s page of ‘Mathrubhumi’, he interacted closely with the editor Kunjunni Masha.

“He told me a cartoon should be like a good milk payasam, which has the correct amount of rice, milk and sugar,” says Suresh. “Similarly, a cartoon should have the right number of lines and words, and should communicate effectively.”

After drawing for several local publications, Suresh moved to Delhi, where within a couple of years he became the staff cartoonist for 'The Statesman' in 1997.

“I would do three to five cartoons a week,” he says. “I used to work for hours on a cartoon. It was a good experience for me. The editor Ravindra Kumar gave me a lot of tips.”

After a six-year stint Suresh has returned to Kerala and is now working as a freelancer for various newspapers like the CPI mouthpiece, 'Janayugam'. “Thanks to my experience it is easier now to draw cartoons,” says Suresh, who is planning to bring out a book on his work.

Is there editorial freedom?

Toms: There is no freedom for cartoonists in a daily newspaper. He has to toe the stand taken by the owners. Essentially, there is no freedom of the press.

Yesudasan: If a newspaper supports the Congress, it is very difficult to do a critical cartoon of Sonia Gandhi. I have 600 cartoons that have not been published for various reasons. I am planning to bring out a book.

Raju Nair: I have had very few rejections because I am aware of what the newspaper stands for. However, the 'Deepika' has given me a lot of freedom. And I am very careful in using this freedom.

E. Suresh: In 'The Statesman', about 30 cartoons were rejected over six years. After a while I knew what would be accepted and what would not. All newspapers have a stand and cartoonists should know this. You can get an idea of the paper’s stance by carefully reading editorials.

Famous national cartoonists of Malayali origin

Shankar: He is regarded as the doyen of political cartooning in India. Based in Delhi, he started 'Shankar's Weekly', which was the Indian version of Punch. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a fan. He also founded the Children's Book Trust. In 1991, the government of India released two postal stamps, which had two of his cartoons.

O.V. Vijayan: One of Kerala’s greatest writers he was also a cartoonist for 35 years for ‘The Statesman’ and other publications. As a reviewer wrote about his book, ‘A Cartoonist Remembers’: “Even when the contours of Vijayan's unique strokes tickle your imagination, the laughter, when it comes, comes salted with the inevitable sadness that their biting sarcasm evokes.”

Abu Abraham: In a 40-year long career, Abu Abraham worked for ‘The Bombay Chronicle’, ‘Shankar’s Weekly’, ‘ Blitz’, ‘Tribune’, British newspapers, ‘Observer’ and ‘The Guardian’, as well as ‘The Indian Express’.

Abu’s focus has always been corruption in politics, which he nailed with powerful punch lines. A member of the Rajya Sabha, the house observed a two-minute silence when he died in 2002.

Kutty: He was regarded as one of India’s premier political cartoonists. He began his career with the ‘National Herald’ but spent most of his career with the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazar publications.

Interestingly, Kutty did not know Bengali. He would write the captions in English and it would be translated into Bengali. It is a testament to his drawing skills that readers still understood his cartoons. His work also appeared in many Malayalam periodicals. He lives in the US with his son and an extended family.

E.P. Unny: Began his career with ‘The Hindu’ in 1977, then worked in the ‘Sunday Mail’ and ‘The Economic Times’. Today he is the Chief Political Cartoonist of ‘The Indian Express’. With a mix of commentary and sketches he has brought out a travel book on Kerala - 'Spices and Souls - A doodler's journey through Kerala'.

Ajit Ninan: The creator of Detective Moochwala, a fictional series which used to appear in the now-defunct children’s magazine, ‘Target’. He worked in the ‘India Today’ group for several years but now works for the ‘Times of India’.

Along with senior journalist Jug Suraiya he creates bi-weekly cartoons for the newspaper. They have brought out a book, ‘Like That Only’. Ninan says his favourite characters are Jayalalitha and Sonia Gandhi, but he also likes to draw Laloo Prasad Yadav because of his appearance.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

The school of hard knocks


A failed marriage and buying a five-acre hilly plot for a school were the events that shaped educationist Mary Roy’s life

Photo: Mary Roy with her son Lalith and daughter Arundhati

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was four years old I remember seeing my mother standing in the living room of our house in Kottayam bleeding from her head,” says educationist Mary Roy, 75. “My father had beaten her with a curtain rod.”

Her father, an Imperial entomologist, was a wife-beater by nature. “He did not drink or smoke, but womanised in a frenzied manner,” she says.

The beatings continued right through Mary’s childhood. However, one day, when Mary was 16 years old and her father was beating her mother and her, Mary’s elder brother, George intervened. He held both his father’s hands and shouted, “No! You will never again beat your wife or the children.”

Says Mary: “Father could not believe what he had heard. He ran out of the house and out of our lives. I never saw him again.”

Following her graduation from Queen Mary’s College in Chennai, Mary went to Kolkata where her brother had secured a job and worked as a secretary in Metal Box Limited. “I was lousy at the job,” she says. “I could not take dictation or type.”

At that time she met a senior executive, Rajib Roy, who was employed in a jute mill. “He had a lot of money to throw around and that impressed me,” she says. “I said, ‘Yes’ to his proposal although I did not love him.”

The wedding took place in 1958. During the next seven years, Mary had two children, Lalith and Arundhati, who, years later, would gain international fame when she won the Booker Prize for ‘The God of Small Things’.

“The marriage did not work,” says Mary. “Rajib was an alcoholic, but he was a good man. He never beat or troubled me. But I knew I had to run. The mistake I made was to have two children with him. With children it is difficult to run. What do you do next?”

In 1969, Mary decided to settle down in a house in Ooty, which belonged to her father, who had passed away by then. Suddenly, her brother, George, and her mother appeared, accompanied by some goondas. She was told to vacate the house.

“I was devastated,” she says. “My brother said that under the Travancore Christian Succession Act a woman is entitled to receive a quarter of the share of a son or Rs 5000, whichever was less.” This rule applies when the father dies intestate, that is, without leaving a legal will.

Mary ran out of the house and remembered seeing a board stating ‘E.R.C. Davidar, attorney’. Davidar said, “Nobody can push you out of the house. For the next year I will ensure that you can stay.” He gave a letter addressed to the local police station and Mary returned to the house accompanied by two policemen. George and her mother left.

Mary visited Lushington school which was exclusively for British children, where Lalit was admitted to Standard 1. “It was a turning point for me,” says the principal of the Kottayam-based Pallikoodam school. “It was there that I learnt new methods of teaching, like using flash cards and phonetics, that we still use in our school.”

Eventually, Mary tired of Ooty and returned to Kottayam. There, she started a school for kindergarten children by renting out a hall in the Rotary Club. “I decided to get a proper place,” she says.

In 1974, while driving past the suburb of Kalathipady, she saw a bare hill. She enquired whether it was for sale and was told that it would cost Rs 1 lakh for five acres. “There was no road,” she says. “But I bought the land with the help of a bank loan of Rs 1 lakh.”

Then she asked architect Laurie Baker to build low-cost buildings. “Initially, he said ‘no’, but when he saw the place he liked it,” she says. Mary told Laurie she only had Rs 25,000 to spare. Laurie said, “Anything will do for a start!” So he built a block of five classrooms with half-walls and a huge thatched roof.

“Buying the property was a big turning point in my life,” says Mary. “The school was a success from the very beginning.”

Vice Principal June Jose says: “Several generations of students still thank Mrs. Roy for her vision and determination, her ability to think independently and to fight against injustice. This is evident from the fact that many alumni continue to admit their children into Pallikoodam."

By 1984 Mary was financially independent. Keenly remembering the humiliation she suffered in Ooty, she approached the Supreme Court though a public interest litigation to strike down the Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916. The court agreed in a landmark decision in 1986, which sent shocks waves through the Syrian Christian community.

“I just wanted to establish the fact that I am as good as any man,” says Mary. “The law was very unfair.”

At her home in the Pallikoodam campus, with its large glass-paned windows, and trees all around, Mary asks her maid to do acupressure on her palms as she is feeling a persistent ache. An asthmatic, who also suffers from arthritis, she says, “My life has been a painful, as well as a joyous journey in every sense of the word.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wanted: organs to save lives

An organisation in Kochi tries very hard to promote organ transplants, but the public is indifferent

Photo: Joseph Varghese with his wife and a baby born one year after the kidney transplant

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 27, 2009, a 72-year old woman died in Kochi. A few months earlier, she, along with her 78-year-old husband, had pledged their bodies for medical research with the Society for Organ Retrieval and Transplantation (SORT). Following the death, the body was taken away.

The next day when SORT Joint Secretary A. Vasanth Shenoy went to pay a courtesy call, the daughter said, “Since my mother died first, her wish was fulfilled. If it had been the other way around, my relatives would not have allowed it. My mother would have been unable to oppose them.”

This is one of the major problems that SORT had faced ever since its inception in 2000.

”There is an indifferent attitude on the part of the public,” says Shenoy. “Even though there is an awareness of transplantation, people do not want to donate the organs. If you ask for the reasons they will remain silent.”

Shenoy says that even in cases where a person has expressed his desire that his organs be donated after his death, the relatives will not fulfill the wish. “As a result, SORT has averaged one transplant per year in the past three years,” he says.

When you consider that 25 lakh people in India need urgent organ transplants, the situation is alarming. There are about 1 one lakh brain-dead patients in India every year, but less than 100 organ transplants to take place.

Incidentally, organ transplants can only be done on brain-dead people. Which means that the person is kept alive with the help of a ventilator.

“We need hearts and livers that are functioning,” says Shenoy. “A heart and a liver can be preserved for only four hours, while a kidney can be preserved for 72 hours.”

In western countries, once a person becomes brain dead, the body comes under the control of the government, which ensures that the vital organs are taken from the body for transplantation.

“Our government should adopt the same method,” says Shenoy. “Unless pressure is put, families will not allow transplants to take place.”

SORT did its first transplant on July 27, 2004, when a sixty-two-year-old man, Ramachandran Nair, became brain-dead. Immediately, his son, a doctor based in the US, said he was willing to donate the organs of his father. “Do you have the expertise, the infrastructure and the recipients,” he said.

Thankfully, the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences is well equipped and the transplant took place. The recipient for the liver was a Ramdas of Anandapuram, in Thrissur who was suffering from cirrhosis.

One kidney was given to Hemalatha from Paravur and the other to Joseph Varghese from Alleppey. The operation on Joseph was done at PVSM hospital. Both are leading healthy lives at present. However, Ramdas passed away three years ago because of an infection.

In 2007, K. Sidique, 21, received a kidney transplant at Lakeshore hospital, thanks to SORT. “I feel perfectly fine,” he says. “I just have to go for regular check ups. And have medicines.”

The monthly medical bill is Rs 12,000 but it is less than the Rs 30,000 Sidique had to pay for the thrice-weekly dialysis he had to do before he got his replacement kidney.

“I am grateful to SORT for doing the transplant for free,” he says. “I wish that the government subsidises our medical expenses. It is a financial burden on my family.”

The organs that are usually transplanted are the kidneys and the liver. But in western countries about 12 different organs are transplanted and they include the pancreas, eyes, skin, bones, intestines, tendons, heart valves and veins.

However, any transplant is an expensive procedure. In Kerala, for a liver transplant, it costs about Rs 8 lakh. “Sadly, it is beyond the reach of the common man,” says Shenoy.

So, are there any dangers of a recipient having psychological changes when a heart or a liver is transplanted?

Gary Schwartz, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, says that in 70 cases of people who got organ transplants, he noticed they had inherited the personalities of their donors. Schwartz gives an example of a health-conscious woman who craved fast food and became aggressive. She had received the heart and lungs of a young biker.

The professor said he knew of a seven-year-old girl who had nightmares of being killed. Investigations revealed that she had been given the heart of a girl who had been murdered.

“It is an ethical question,” says Schwartz. “Transplant patients should be told there is a possibility that they will take on a donor's characteristics. I don't want to frighten people, but to make it more acceptable so that they are able to share what is happening to them.”

However, most scientists have rejected this notion. Says Dr. John Schroder of the Stanford Medical Centre: "The idea that transplanting organs transfers life experiences is unimaginable."

Apart from psychological changes, recipients have physical side effects. Says Dr. Georgy K. Nainan, president of the Nephrology Association of Kerala: “An organ transplant is not a bed of roses. Sometimes, the body rejects it. All kinds of infections can come up: urinary, respiratory, bacterial, viral and tuberculosis.”

He says the way to tackle it is to use newer and efficient immunosuppressive medications. “Ideally, infections should be detected early and treated aggressively.”

But, thanks to SORT, at least, the sufferers are able to get the much-needed organs. All operations through SORT are done free of cost, and there are other philanthropic organisations like the Cochin Kidney Foundation who help defray the expenses of poor recipients.

It is now up to us, the public, to render all possible help so that more and more transplants can take place.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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