Monday, June 29, 2009

The beating of his life


C.R. Rajesh, a Dalit, was picked up by the Kochi police, in place of his brother-in-law, a suspect in a bike robbery, and mercilessly hit

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 10 p.m. on April 26, 2007, a group of policemen came to C.R. Rajesh’s house in Paravur and called out the name of Deepesh. Rajesh came out and said his brother-in-law was not at home. One of the cops slapped him. Then another plainclothes policeman held him and pressed hard on a disc in the spine.

“It was very painful,” says the 21-year-old Dalit.

Then they grabbed Rajesh and took him inside the jeep. Only two people were in uniform: the driver and the then Koratty Sub Inspector K.J. Martin. For more than two hours the cops beat up Rajesh in the jeep, as they roamed around the town.

When the young man was brought to the station, at 1 a.m., he was asked to take off his shirt, sit on the floor, and stretch his legs. “A policeman hit my soles with a cane,” he says. “I felt a piercing pain.” There were beatings and kicks on the lower spine and the head.

Finally one of the officers said, “We are investigating the case of a stolen bike. We know Deepesh is involved and you are an accomplice.”

Rajesh pleaded his innocence. At 3 a.m. his chest expanded abnormally and he was unable to breathe. Rajesh heard Martin tell a constable, “Just check whether he has any pulse. If he dies we will be in deep trouble.”

He could feel a man hold his wrist and say, “Nothing seems to be wrong.” Nevertheless, he was rushed to the hospital.

Rajesh was administered oxygen and given an injection. “I lost consciousness,” he says. When he awoke, it was dawn and an additional sub inspector was watching him silently. He said, “How are you? Hope you are okay.”

Rajesh was brought back to the station, made to sign on a sheet of blank paper, and told to leave. “I asked them why I had beaten,” he says.

One of the constables said, “To know the answer come tonight to the station.”

For the next six months, Rajesh was in and out of hospital. Says Dr. S.D. Singh, specialist in torture medicine at the Sudheendra Medical Mission Hospital in Kochi: “Rajesh suffered from severe damage to the major muscles of the back and was unable to stand or walk. He had to endure excruciating pain.”

Meanwhile, a human rights activist, Anil Kumar, filed a complaint with the senior police authorities, the home minister and the chief minister. News features appeared in the newspapers and on television channels about Rajesh’s torture.

The cops tried to persuade Rajesh to withdraw his complaint but he refused. C.S. Murali, state secretary of the Kerala State Vettuva Maha Sabha upped the ante by staging a 12-day hunger strike outside the Deputy Inspector General of Police’s office in Kochi. Public pressure mounted and, finally, with the utmost reluctance, a six-month suspension was imposed on Martin.

“The police are using the same methods as the British,” says Murali. “For them, the word, ‘investigation’ means to beat people to the brink of death. We, Dalits, suffer all the time.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

‘Michael Jackson influenced me completely’

Says Usha Uthup, one of India ’s leading pop singers

Music and news televisions channels and the print media had been relentlessly ringing Usha Uthup up ever since the news broke out about singer Michael Jackson’s death. Usha, always fluent and expressive, spoke to the New Indian Express on the move: while travelling in her car in Kolkata from her home to the recording studio

By Shevlin Sebastian

Was Michael Jackson’s death a big shock for you?
I was devastated by the news. It was too much. He was the person whom [music composer] Quincy Jones said was the ‘consummate entertainer’. Whether it was song writing or composing or dancing or putting up a show, he could do everything brilliantly.

Did he influence you in any way?

He influenced me completely. I cannot imagine there is any musician in the world today who has not been touched by Michael. He inspires me even today. When I do a song for a cause, whether it was for the tsunami victims or for those affected by the ‘Aila’ cyclone in West Bengal, my reference point has always been Michael’s, ‘We are the world,’ or the ‘Earth’ song’.

Have you sung any Michael’s songs?
In 1980 I was the first Indian artiste to sing the Hindi version of his world famous, by now, legendary song, ‘Don’t stop till you get enough’. He was the first black artiste who had the ability to sing about racial issues and bring it to the forefront.

Did you enjoy watching the videos?
Yes, they were unbelievable, like ‘Black or White’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He was so powerful, yet so fragile on stage. There was something very innocent about him, which touched my heart. I can never forget the sadness in his eyes.

He had a big impact on the MTV generation?
I don’t agree with that. I feel he was a big influence on musicians in India long before MTV or the electronic media became so big. From the time he played as a member of the Jackson 5, to his first solo album, ‘Off The Wall’, in 1979, to ‘Thriller’ in 1982, we listened to him avidly. Then, when we started seeing the videos -- the stunning images and the powerful singing were an unbeatable combination.

Were you saddened by the child molestation charges?
I never believed he was a child molester and will not believe it now.
Yes, I was saddened by the numerous plastic surgeries he had done, but that has never taken away my love, admiration and awe of his work.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A man of many abilities

E.P. Antony took part in the first lathi-charge in Cochin State in 1942 when he was only 15 years old. He was also an Air Force officer, a college lecturer, a leader of the Christian community, and conducted a one man-commission investigating bonded labour

By Shevlin Sebastian

On August 8, 1942, when E.P. Antony arrived at the St Albert’s High School, he found the seniors, under the general captain, V.V. Joseph, shouting slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai’.

That afternoon, the students gathered at the Azad Maidan, which is now the Police Commissioner’s office. They were to be addressed by top political leaders like Panampilly Govinda Menon, Chowara Parameswaran, and P.K. Dewar.

As the students waited, they saw the Malabar Special Police blocking one side of the maidan, while the Cochin State Nair Brigade barricaded the other boundary. “The only side that was left open led to the backwaters,” says Antony.

Soon, a magistrate arrived and announced, “In the name of the Maharaja of Cochin State, I hereby command all of you to disperse.” The students shouted back, “We will not do so.”

Thereafter, there was a lathicharge and the students fled in all directions. “This was the first lathicharge and the beginning of the Quit India movement in the State of Cochin,” says Antony.

The next day there were severe consequences for the students. All those who had taken part in the meeting were expelled by the principal, Joseph Manjooran, and told to leave Cochin State.

“At that time, during the second World War, there was a call by Mahatma Gandhi that we should join the British armed forces and strengthen their hands,” says Antony. “If the Nazis triumphed, it would be detrimental to democracy.” So, all the expelled students joined the army, but Antony, who was 15 years old, was too young.

So, he was allowed to stay on in school, provided he gave a written apology and promised to leave the State after he completed his SSLC examinations in 1944.

Antony kept his word. The moment he finished his SSLC exam, he joined the Indian Air Force, at the age of 17, as a wireless operator. Antony went on to have a distinguished career as a radio officer.

He took part in the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese in 1961 and the war against the Chinese in 1962, and flew a total of 3000 hours. He left the Air Force in 1964. (In 2005 he was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement award by the Air Force).

In the intervening years, he secured a Master’s Degree in history and political science and a doctorate in history from Kerala University. His thesis was the ‘Origin and growth of the Latin Catholics in Kerala’.

He joined St Paul’s college at Kalamaserry in 1964 as a lecturer in political science and taught there for 10 years. But the high point of his life was when he took part in the education stir of 1972.

The Achutha Menon government wanted to take over the private colleges run by the minorities. “We opposed it took and nail,” says Antony. The agitation resulted in the closure of all private schools and colleges for three months.

Finally, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi intervened. She asked the leaders to meet her in Delhi. The group included Antony, Kalathil Velayudhan Nair, the president of the Nair Service Society, and Fr. John Valamattom, the secretary of the Private College Managers’ Association.

During the conversation Indira Gandhi was yawning a lot. Antony said, “Madam, you have yawned seven times. It seems to us that you are not interested in having a discussion. We will go back.”

Indira Gandhi said, “I am sorry, Mr. Antony. Last night I had only 45 minutes of sleep.”

Says Antony: “Her apology revealed what a great person she was.” Eventually, Indira Gandhi told the trio she did not want to offend the Christian community or the minorities. So, the state takeover over the educational institutions did not take place.

Later, Antony became a member of the Public Service Commission and spent three years in Kohima, Nagaland, at the invitation of the Catholic Bishops of North-east India, to establish a resource centre. In 1987, Antony was appointed by the Supreme Court to hold a one-man commission investigating cases of bonded labour in the state.

Today, at the age of 82, he is busy writing his memoirs and is the secretary of the Kerala History Association.

And like all old-timers he is appalled by the politics of today. “Democracy does not mean that you have the license to say anything you want about anybody in public,” he says. “The politicians of today are uncultured. In the newspapers, there are only reports of rape, murder, arson and looting. I am disappointed by the degeneration of society.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Oh Lord, my God!


For singer Usha Uthup, it is to Jesus Christ that she prays often for peace and solace

By Shevlin Sebastian

In July, 2005, singer Usha Uthup was in an elevator in the ‘New Yorker’ hotel in Manhattan when it stopped moving on the 22nd floor.

“I was all alone,” she says. Usha pressed all the buttons for the different floors, but there was no response. Then she tried the emergency button, but it was not working. Frantically, she took out her mobile phone, stood at different corners, before she finally got a signal. She called the receptionist and told her she was stuck.

The receptionist said, “We know.” Usha asked her what had happened.

The receptionist replied, “There’s been a problem, but we are sorting it out.”

“How long will it take?” said a worried Usha.

“I’ll get back to you,” she said, and the phone got disconnected.

In a state of panic, Usha began saying the prayer she uses all the time:

“Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy Will be done,
On earth as it is in Heaven...”

“The ‘Our Father’ is the universal prayer for me,” she says. “It goes beyond every religion, dogma and ritual. This may sound blasphemous for most people, but I could be in a temple, saying my mantras, like everybody else, but in my mind I am always saying the ‘Our Father’.”

When she is on a plane and because she is afraid of flying, she will put on the headphones, switch off the music and sing the ‘Our Father’ quietly. “People usually think that I am listening to some song and humming along,” she says, with a smile.

Usha, of course, is not a Christian. She belongs to a Tamil Brahmin family. When she was growing up in Mumbai, the family celebrated Diwali, Saraswati Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Ganesh Chaturthi and Navaratri Puja. Because she had Muslims as neighbours, she used to keep the Roza (fasting) with her friends Jameela and Shamim.

But Usha says her biggest religious influence came from her school, the Convent of Jesus and Mary.

“I was always going and lighting candles in the grotto,” she says.

And like most students, Usha tried to placate God. “Whenever there was an exam, I would pray to God and say, ‘Tomorrow I will bring five candles or ten candles’, depending on how strong or weak I was in the subject. Usually for English, it was one candle. But for Maths, I would promise twenty candles.”

Candles for God: so how does the famed singer visualise the divine force?

At the dining table in her daughter, Anjali’s home in Fort Kochi, Usha pauses, takes a few sips of coffee, and says, “Jesus Christ is the face I visualise whenever I think of God. I always see him as a handsome and powerful man, in his sixties, and never as a young person, even though Jesus died at the age of 33.”

And, unusually, for an extrovert personality like hers, Usha prays all the time. “When I get up in the morning, I say, ‘Thank you God for everything you have done for me yesterday’. As I say my thanks, I am also saying, ‘Do this for me’ or ‘Do that for me’.”

Meanwhile, inside the New York elevator, it took more than an hour before workmen broke down the side panelling and led her into a parallel elevator. She was taken down on a stretcher.

“When the door opened, the lobby was full of people and when they saw me, they started shouting and clapping,” she says. “Later, I came to know it was a short circuit that led to a small fire which stopped the elevator.”

Asked why God put her through such a traumatic experience, she says, “He gives you these knocks to remind you never to be complacent. God wants you to always remember Him.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

“God is intangible, but we can feel it”


Resul Pookutty journeyed from atheism to a belief in the spiritual

By Shevlin Sebastian

On June 15, 2009, Oscar Award winner Resul Pookutty was about to leave from the six-star Venetian-Macau Resort hotel to the airport, to take the flight to Mumbai, following the conclusion of the International Indian Film Academy awards ceremony.

Suddenly, he had an intuition. “I felt that I would lose my baggage,” he says. So, he pulled out a small bag, which contained his money and valuables and took it with him as a hand luggage.

“I was not shocked to be told at Mumbai that my bag was missing,” he says. “For me this is spirituality. This is guidance. This confirmed to me that God, or Allah or a super soul, to use Osho’s words, had warned me in advance this was going to happen.”

But Resul is not a staunch believer in formal religion. “I pray whenever I feel like,” he says. That means, unlike most Muslims, he does not do the namaaz five times a day.

More than formal prayer, for Resul, work is worship. “When you show truthfulness, commitment and genuineness towards your work, your friends, colleagues and family members, you are being spiritual,” he says.

Interestingly, when Resul prays, it is to his late parents. “I feel their presence,” he says. “I can see them on either side of my shoulders. People say that when you pray to God, you can sense He is close to you. But when I pray I can feel the presence of my parents. I am able to connect to them.”

So what does he ask them? “To show me the right path and to give me the strength to do good work.”

Resul says he has changed a lot. When he was a young man he was an atheist. “I would analyse and reason out every thing,” says this science graduate. “That was what physics taught me.” However, one day he went to see a seer in Kerala.

“I went with the mind-set that I would be able to negate him,” he says. The seer asked Resul to touch an alphabet in the Koran. Resul decided before hand which alphabet he would touch. “I closed my eyes and, unknowingly, touched another alphabet,” he says.

The prophet told Resul that he was a man who plays with energy that comes out of the throat. Resul said, “Sound?” And the holy man nodded. Then the seer said, “Your skill lies in your fingers.” So, indirectly, he told Resul he is a sound engineer.

“It was incidents like this which made me believe that I can’t apply reason to all aspects of life,” he says. “There are many things which cannot be explained.”

Resul now feels there is something enigmatic at the core of life; something which we cannot comprehend. “God is an intangible universal force, but we can feel it,” he says.

So, does Resul have a visual of this intangible universal force? “Imagine you are sitting under a tree and looking up at the sunlight streaming down through the leaves,” he says. “For me, that is the face of God.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Spinning a web

Prof. P.A. Sebastian and his team at Sacred Heart College, Kochi, have published a landmark book on Indian Spiders

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Delhi-based documentary filmmaker Preeti Chadha wanted to make a film on tiger spiders she came to Kochi to seek the help of Prof. P.A. Sebastian, the head of the department of arachnology, Sacred Heart College, Kochi.

One morning a team, which included Sebastian and his colleagues, A.V. Sudhikumar, M.J. Mathew and E. Suneesh, and a two-member camera crew set out for Thenmala in Kollam district.

Accompanied by Adivasi tribals, the group ventured into the forest. “Usually, tiger spiders make tunnels under the ground and stay there,” says Sebastian. Or they stay in holes in tree trunks.

To draw them come out, you need to place a burning cloth near the hole. But even though the group went to many tree trunks, no tiger spider came out.

They dug holes in many areas, but the spiders remained elusive. It was only at dusk that the team finally managed to locate a few tiger spiders underground and the cameramen worked feverishly to capture them on film, before the light faded.

“It was a time of great excitement for us,” says Sebastian, a smile breaking out on his face.

It is not every day that you meet a person who had spent the past 28 years of his life doing research on spiders, but Prof. Sebastian loves his job.

Because of his passion, the Department of Arachnology, the only one of its kind in South India was set up at Sacred Heart College in 1998.

“I have to give thanks to the principal Fr. A.J. Saviance for providing all the facilities,” he says.

This highly motivated group -- Sebastian, S. Pathummal Beevi, John Joseph, C.R. Biju, M.J. Mathew, A.V. Sudhikumar, Samson Davis and C.R. Biju -- recently brought out a 740 page book called, ‘Spiders of India’, published by Universities Press. It has been edited by Sebastian and K.V. Peter, the former Vice Chancellor of Kerala Agricultural University.

“It took eight years of field work and research,” says Sebastian. The last time a similar book was published was 35 years ago. ‘Spiders of India’ provides an in-depth understanding of the animal, including papers on evolution, ecology and biotechnology. The second part focuses on the spiders in India.

“There are more than 1500 varieties in India, while in Kerala, there are 450 different types of species,” says M.J. Mathew.

But the group feels sad about the widespread misconceptions about the animal.

For example, most people believe that all spiders are poisonous. However, those types of spiders are not seen in India. “If a tiger spider bites, there is a slight swelling,” says Mathew.

One reason for the negative mind-set is the physical features of the spider. “Its colour and body design are unattractive,” admits Sebastian. Also, children are told scary tales about spiders. This could be one reason why many people suffer from arachnophobia – the fear of spiders.

Sebastian says there is also a lack of awareness of the benefits of spiders. “In a paddy field, the spider can be the best friend for the farmer,” he says. “The insects get stuck in the web and the spiders eat the pests. This helps reduce the need to apply pesticides.”

And the best part is that the spiders do not feed on the plants.

“The spider is a carnivorous creature and consumes the body fluids of living insects,” says Mathew.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of a spider is its ability to produce silk. Spider silk, which is stronger than steel, is the toughest fibre known to man. This can be used in aircrafts, car racing machines and bulletproof jackets.

Scientists at Nexia Biotechnologies in Quebec have extracted the silk-producing gene from the spider and implanted it in the goat. “The silk is now being extracted from the milk,” says Mathew.

This ‘silk milk’ has been used to produce a web-like material called Biosteel, which is used for tissue repair, the healing of wounds and to make artificial tendons, ligaments and limbs,.

The spider’s venom contains a protein which can be used to prevent atrial fibrillation -- a heart disorder. And it can help patients who have suffered a stroke.

“In Mexico, people eat spiders so that they can get the protein,” says Sebastian.

So, the next time you see a spider blow it a kiss instead of trying to squash it under your foot.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Master of the Trade

Lal, who has won the Kerala State Film award for best actor, is also a noted director, producer, distributor and businessman

Photo: Lal (third from left) with the cast of 2 Harihar Nagar

By Shevlin Sebastian

When filmmaker Lal recently won the Kerala State Film award for best actor for his role as a police constable in the film, ‘Thalapavu’, he was inundated with calls by friends, colleagues, and well-wishers.

Celebratory parties were being planned, but Lal ignored them all and went to the Pullepady area in Kochi where he grew up, to be with his uncles and aunts, and acquaintances from his childhood.

“When they saw me they were moved,” he says. “They did not expect me to come during this exciting time in my life.”

Soon, there was bonhomie and banter, and passionate singing sessions. And when his uncle John gave him a prized crystal candlestick, Lal started crying.

“I returned home at 2 a.m.,” he says. “I realised it is important to stay in touch with my roots.”

When a person becomes affluent and successful, he usually goes out of touch with his relatives. He makes new friends, starts speaking differently, and develops new habits and modes of behaviour.

“One day, this polished look solidifies on the face and you lose touch with your soul,” says Lal. “For a while I suffered from this.”

It is to avoid this that Lal tries to stay in touch with his old friends. “With them we are constantly reminded of who we are, and where we come from,” he says. “Otherwise, we tend to float on the clouds of self-delusion, before reality intrudes with a lighting bolt, and you are defeated.”

Lal, on the other hand, has had many victories. Most of the movies he has produced or acted in, and his recently released first solo directorial venture, ‘2 Harihar Nagar’, have been stupendous hits.

So how does he get it right so often?

“When I listen to a story and look at the people involved in the project, I ask myself one question,” he says. “Do I want to go and see this film in the theatre? If the answer is yes, I take part in the project.”

He says that for a film to be successful it needs some essential elements. “In ever good film, the hero should be facing a villain,” he says. This could be in the form of a person --a criminal, politician or the police -- or it could be against society or a natural calamity.

There has to be several complications in the storyline, to ensure suspense and excitement, but, ultimately, the hero must win. “When the movie fulfills these expectations it will do well,” he says.

What is remarkable about the unassuming Lal are his multiple talents. He is a good actor, director, producer, distributor and a businessman. So how does he manage these myriad tasks?

“I tend to focus on one thing at a time,” he says. So, when the 50-day shooting schedule for ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ commenced, he switched off his mobile. “Even my family was not allowed to get in touch with me,” he says. I

n his absence his wife looked after the business. He also has the same single-mindedness when he is a producer, an actor or a distributor. But not all these tasks are easy to do.

“The director’s job is the hardest,” he says. “The 150 members of the unit are dependent on me to do a good job. If the film is a success then everybody gets other opportunities.”

He admits that he feels a great deal of pressure and spends days and nights agonising about the film: Have the scenes been shot well? Is there something more he could do? Has he missed out on anything?

Compared to direction, he finds acting a breeze. Unlike most actors, he does very little preparation for a role. “Once I hear the story I have a clear idea of how I will play the character,” he says.

He also has a clear idea on how to be a producer: hands-on presence. If the shoot is at 6 a.m., Lal will arrive on the set at that early hour and will only leave when the session is over.

Interestingly, for all these different jobs, Lal adopts a different mind-set. “As a producer I will never interfere in the director’s work,” he says.

He gives an example: when his friend and former directing partner Sidique was making ‘Hitler’, he never made any comments about the direction, unless he was specifically asked for an opinion.

“As an actor I obey the director at all times, even if he is a first-timer,” says Lal. In his role as the owner of Lal Media, a successful sound and visual studio, he says, “I hire good people, and delegate responsibility.”

And so the remarkable journey of Lal continues. At this moment he is basking in the success of ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ and his acting award, but future projects could include a Tamil and Hindi version of ‘2 Harihar Nagar’, as well as acting roles.

“I don’t plan anything in life,” he says. “By God’s grace, things happen at the right time.”

Darkness, light and Lal's gesture

In 2005 Lal acted in the hit Tamil film, ‘Shandakozhi’, as a local dada. During the climax, there was a fight in a corn field and somehow a thorn entered Lal’s eye. “It pierced the cornea,” says Lal.

He was rushed to the Aravind Eye Hospital at Madurai. The thorn was taken out, but, thereafter, a pain began in his eyes.

“I tried all sorts of treatments including Ayurveda,” he says. He went to all the hospitals in Kochi, but the pain persisted. “It came to such a stage where I could not step out into the sunlight,” he says. “I spent hours sitting in a darkened room.”

And he was assailed by fear and anxiety. ‘What could I do now?’ he remembers thinking. ‘I had no other skills, except to be in the film industry.’ He was in this state for more than two years.

Then, through a mutual friend, Lal met Dr. Sasi Kumar in Palakkad, who took him to Dr. J.K. Reddy in Coimbatore.

“It was a complicated surgery because if there was an error, Lal’s vision would have been affected,” says Reddy, who did the operation along with Kumar. Thankfully, it went off well and today Lal’s eye has healed completely.

And here is the twist. When Lal heard that Shashi Kumar, Reddy, and another eye specialist Dr.Anup Chirayath were planning to start an eye hospital, ‘I Vision’ at Kurkenjery, Trissur, he offered to become a partner.

“It was not a business proposition for me,” he says. “I felt that since my eye had been healed thanks to these brilliant doctors, I wanted others to have the benefit of a good eye hospital.”

Says Reddy: “It was unusual and surprising for a patient to offer help. We are very thankful.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The river of life


Moving to Delhi at the age of 21 and getting a job in the French embassy were the turning points in writer M. Mukundan’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was a child I suffered from various illnesses,” says M. Mukundan, writer and president of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. He would spend his days confined to a room in his home in Mayyazzhi at Mahe.

Once or twice Mukundan almost died. One day he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness. “I heard my mother shout, ‘My son is gone,’” he says. “I also thought I had died. But I survived. I can still hear the scream of my mother.”

Because of his illnesses, Mukundan frequently felt angry. “I would ask God why He was being cruel to me,” he says. But the one positive aspect was that he developed his imaginative powers. “I started dreaming a lot,” he says.

In the opposite house there lived a 14-year-old girl. Mukundan used to see this servant girl working from morning to night. “I felt that the girl had received the same divine injustice which had been meted out to me,” he says. Later, when Mukundan began writing, she became a character in his novel, ‘Akasathinte Chottil’.

It was only when he was 14 that Mukundan began going to school regularly. And he came across a French teacher called Jayaraman Master who was later immortalised as Kunhananthan Master in Mukundan’s magnus opus, 'Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil' (On the banks of the Mayyazhi).

Jayaram Master introduced Mukundan to the French writers Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Albert Camus. And like Mukundan, Jayaram was afflicted by health problems. In his case, it was a severe heart ailment.

One day Jayaram told Mukundan, “I will die without knowing the love of a woman.”

This sentence affected Mukundan a lot. “I felt that even an insect has been given the gift of enjoying sexual pleasure and companionship, but this was denied to my master who died without marrying. Once again I felt that God was cruel.”

In a state of mental turbulence, at age 21, Mukundan decided to follow in the footsteps of his brother, the well-known writer, M. Raghavan and go to Delhi.

“At that time, it was impossible to get employment in Kerala,” he says. And within a few months in the capital, Mukundan had a stroke of luck when he got a job in the French embassy.

“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “It opened up a whole new world for me.”

One day while he was walking down a long corridor in the embassy, he saw the famous French philosopher, Regis Debray, an associate of the Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara strolling towards him. “I was stunned,” he says.

By this time Mukundan had begun writing steadily. In Delhi, there was a literary magazine called ‘Thought’. In one issue it carried a review of Mukundan’s first book, ‘Veedu,’ a collection of short stories. “My boss, Francis Dore, read it and asked me, ‘Who is this Mukundan?’ I said, ‘It is me’. And it changed everything,” he says.

The next week Dore threw a party, invited Delhi’s prominent writers, painters and journalists, and introduced Mukundan to them.

“Throughout the evening I was in a state of extreme excitement,” he says. “I could not believe this was happening to me. I heard the guests talk about Mukundan and it seemed to me as if they were talking about somebody else. By the end of the party I was drunk.”

It was with the publication of the novel, ‘Delhi’ that Mukundan became famous in Kerala. But the world view that he described in his novels was bleak and nihilistic. And many young people were affected.

In the early 1980s, a young man from Kerala went to Mukundan’s house in Delhi and said, “You ruined my life. Because I read your books I started having hashish. I had a small job and left it. My parents are upset. I can no longer stay in my village.”

A shocked Mukundan said, “Suppose I was not born, you would still have taken drugs. It is not because of me, but because of the turbulent times in the sixties and seventies. You are the creation of that.” The man walked away without saying anything. Mukundan never saw him again.

By this time, because of his literary fame, Mukundan was regarded as a jewel of the French embassy. So, when the French ambassador, Claude Blanchemaison wanted to meet Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar at Thiruvananthapuram it was Mukundan, going against embassy protocol, who accompanied the diplomat.

At the Chief Minister’s office, Nayanar, instead of shaking hands with the ambassador, embraced Mukundan and said, “Oh it’s Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil.”

Mukundan was thrilled for himself but deeply embarrassed for the ambassador. But Blanchemaison took it in a sporting spirit. “When we returned to Delhi, he told everybody, ‘In Kerala Mukundan is more famous than me, and I felt that I was escorting him’,” he says.

It was no surprise then that Blanchemaison, on behalf of the French government, conferred the ‘Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres’ in 1998 on Mukundan for his contribution to literature. So far, the distinguished author has published 12 novels and ten collections of short stories and won numerous awards for his writing.

Asked about his philosophy of life, Mukundan says, “I don’t believe in morality, which is imposed by man. So I don’t follow the rules. But at the same time, my aim is to avoid inflicting pain on others.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tall tales

Tall men meet for their tenth anniversary celebrations of their association and speak about the joys and problems of being closer to the sky than other human beings

Photo: The 6' 10" tall Thumboor Shibu next to his vehicle

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 3, Suresh Kumar went to attend the annual Pooram festival at Thrissur. Somehow he ended up standing next to an elephant, Cherakkal Kalidasan. Suddenly, the elephant swung his tusks sideways and grazed Suresh on the ribs. He fell down. The mahout rushed forward and calmed down the elephant.

“Later, the mahout told me that when I stood next to Kalidasan, I had blocked his vision, because I was at the eye-level,” says Suresh, who is 6’ 6” tall. “So in a panic, he had attacked me.”

Anyway, the injury was not serious although Suresh suffered from intermittent pain for the next three weeks. “This is one of the disadvantages of being tall,” he says, with a smile.

It was when he was in Class eight at the Gurukulum high school at Alathur in Thrissur district that Suresh realised he was tall. In basketball matches he scored easily. In swimming competitions he came first.

But there were bad experiences also. “The students would call me a long tree or stick,” he says. “They would say this long stick is good for plucking mangoes. I used to get hurt.”

Once when the class was going on an excursion on a bus, it was difficult for Suresh to sit because of the low ceiling and the small seats. “The headmaster advised me not to go since it was going to be a long journey,” he says. “I felt very disappointed.”

Standing next to Suresh is the 6’ 10” Tumbur Shibu in a bright red T-shirt and designer goggles. He is the chief captain of the executive force of the Kerala Tall Men’s Association (KTMA).

“We provide security for mega events like fairs, concerts and weddings,” he says.

Their last major assignment was handling the huge crowds at the A.R Rehman concert held on May 3 at the Corporation stadium at Kozhikode.

“Tall men are better able to command the crowd, as compared to short people,” says Shibu.

So what are the disadvantages and advantages of being a tall man?

Shibu lists the plus points quickly. “Thanks to my height I was able to act as a tall man in the film, ‘Albutha Dweep’,” he says. “It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.” Later he acted in several other films including ‘Crazy Gopalan’ and television serials like ‘Kayamkulam Kochunni’.

Thanks to their height, they have a commanding presence. Zachariah Joseph, the founder of the KTMA, who is 6’ 3”, was walking down a street in Kunnumkalam when he saw two men fighting.

“I just went up to them and shouted, ‘What is going on?’ Stop it,’ and immediately the men disappeared,” he says. “They obeyed me only because of my height. If a short man spoke like that, they would have told him to get lost.”

But there are obvious disadvantages. Travel in public transport is extremely difficult. “In buses, I have to bend my head and stand,” says Suresh. “It is a torture. Even if I get a seat it is difficult to sit because the seats are so small. I need two seats to sit.” The best place to sit is at the back.

The situation is a bit better in trains. “However, when I sit down my knees will touch the legs of the passenger sitting on the opposite side,” says Shibhu. “When I sleep on the berth, my legs jut out. This is the case with hotel beds.”

It is impossible to travel in small cars and as for autorickshaws, Shibu had the mortification of sitting in one such vehicle and it tilted to one side because of his weight of 170 kgs.

Actor Unda Pakru, who is 2’ 6” tall, says, tongue-in-cheek: “I sympathise with my tall friends. But, for me, the main hurdle is to get onto the first step of the bus. Once I am able to do that, the seats are like a double-sized bed for me.”

Meanwhile, Shibu is searching hard for somebody to share his bed with. “It is not easy to get a tall woman for a wife,” he says. He has been searching vainly for the past two years. As for those who are married, they usually have tall wives. For example, Suresh’s wife is 6’ 1”.

“After a lot of difficulty I managed to find a tall girl,” says Suresh. “My wife had also been searching for two years for a tall man.”

The interesting thing about meeting the tall men was the sense of placidity that they exuded. “We rarely lose our temper,” admits Zachariah Joseph. “Somehow, tall people are calm and peaceful.” And it is also rare to find a tall person committing a crime. “One reason could be that we will be spotted easily,” he says, smiling.

Ten-year celebrations

On May 24, a humid but overcast Sunday morning, the tall men had gathered for the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Kerala Tall Men’s Association (KTMA) at Chalakudi.

The KTMA was started in Kunnumkulam, near Thrissur, in 1999 by P. Zachariah Joseph, along with his friends, Jimmy Iype and P.I. Jose. “We wanted an association for tall people,” says Joseph. Initially, there were 300 members. Now, there are more than a thousand. The minimum height required to become a member is 6 feet.

At the Lions Club hall there are more than 200 tall people present. Suresh Kumar, Palakkad zilla unit president says that one of the big advantages of being a member is that they don’t have to bend to talk to people. “Since people are tall, we can talk face to face,” he says. “And that is a big relief.”

At the meeting, KTMA state president Tigris Antony asks for a special quota for tall men in the police and the army. “We urge the government to utilise our advantage of height,” he says. “Sometimes when we see these short policemen we wonder how they are able to impose law and order especially during riots and disturbances.”

Titus says that in many instances where the police and the executive security force of the tall men had worked side by side, it was the tall men who were better able impose control over the crowd.

Tallest males

1. Robert Wadlow – 8' 11.1"
2. John Rogan – 8' 9 ½"
3. Don Koehler – 8' 2"
4. Zhao Liang - 8' 1.1"
5. Väinö Myllyrinne – 8'1"

Source: Wikipedia

Tall heroes in Hollywood

Clint Eastwood: 6’ 4”
Liam Neeson: 6’ 4”
Arnold Schwarzenegger: 6’ 2”
Will Smith: 6’ 2”
Jim Carrey: 6’ 2”
Keanu Reeves: 6’1”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

His Highness Siby!


A chance entry into Navodaya films and meeting script-writer Lohitadas were the turning points in film director Siby Malayil’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film, ‘Swayamvaram’ by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, in the last scene Seeta (played by actress Sharada) is standing behind a closed door in a slum late at night. Her husband, Vishwam, an aspiring writer had just died and Seeta was left with a baby girl to look after. Suddenly, there is a knock.

“When this scene was being shown, I felt that if the film ended here, it would be nice and that was exactly what happened,” says director Sibi Malayil. “The knock signifies the uncertainties in Seeta’s life. I felt a deep identification with the film.”

It engendered a passion for cinema for the young Siby. “Till Swayamvaram, I was just watching films,” he says. “But now I wanted to be part of the film world.” But Siby did not know anybody from the industry.

One evening, in his home town of Alleppey, Siby and his friend, Xavier James, were going towards the Indian Coffee House, discussing films, when another friend, Ignatius Abru, came up and told them, “Jijo (Navodaya Appachan’s son), is searching for new guys to participate in story discussions for films. I have given your names. If you are interested, please come.”

Xavier was not keen, but Siby accepted. “That decision to say yes was a turning point in my life.”

The next day Siby started taking part in story discussions and soon, he was roped in as an assistant director for the film, ‘Mamangam’, directed by Appachan.

In this film, Siby moved from last assistant to first assistant by the time the shooting was nearly over. For the last segment, and for editing and dubbing, Siby was the only assistant director who was asked to go to Chennai.

There, during a tea break, actor G.K. Pillai who was keenly observing Siby at work, called him over and said, “One day you will become a great director.” Siby was astonished. “I had no dreams like this,” he says. “But I was thrilled and excited when Pillai Sir said this.”

In the film, ‘Padayatoom’, the first 70mm to be made in India, and loosely based on the Alexandre Dumas novel, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, Siby began working with Jijo. The director told Siby to deal with Prem Nazir, who was playing the hero.

“It was a complicated role,” says Siby. “People were hesitant to ask Nazir Sir for one more take. But I started saying it.”

Siby was also bold enough to offer suggestions and Nazir was deeply impressed. “He started following my directions,” says Siby. “After each shot, even after the director said, ‘Okay’, Nazir Sir would look at me and say, ‘Siby, is it correct?’ It did wonders for my confidence. Nazir Sir was a humble and down-to-earth person.”

Siby left Navodaya in 1983, assisted his friend, Priyadarshan, for a couple of films, before branching out on his own with ‘Mutharamkunnu P.O.’ in 1985. Although it did not do well commercially, the industry sat up and took notice of this new talent.

Siby’s next turning point came when he met the scriptwriter A.K. Lohitadas. One day in Palakkad, the actor Tilakan said, “I know of a good writer who has plenty of ideas. I feel both of you will get along well.”

Siby met Lohitadas who narrated a few stories he had written. “I was impressed,” he says. Since Siby was already working on a film, he told Lohitadas they would work together in future.

Soon, Siby started preliminary work on a film with Mammooty. But he did not like the script. He told the producer Nanda Kumar that Lohitadas might be able to fix it. The duo, who were in Kochi, went in search of the scriptwriter. Siby only knew that Lohitadas stayed in Chalakudi.

Near Chalakudi Siby asked a shop-owner who happened to know the way to Lohitadas’s house. It was dusk. The white Ambassador stopped near a stone on which two men were sitting.

“Through the headlights I realised that one of them was Lohitadas,” says Siby. He was wearing a lungi and was bare-chested.

Lohitadas shouted, “Come on out!” Siby was surprised by his tone. When he stepped out, Lohitadas said, “I am sorry. A friend said he would be coming and I thought it was him.”

Anyway, Siby told him the problem and Lohitadas agreed to come to Kochi at once. They stayed at the Woodlands hotel. When Siby told Lohitadas the story he said he could not do anything to improve it. However, he promised to give another tale.

Lohitadas lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He remained like that, till the evening of the next day. Then they went out for a walk and reached the Subhash Park. There, Lohitadas told Siby the new story. The director liked it immediately and this became the superhit, ‘Thaniyavarthanam’.

“It was considered to be Lohitadas’s, Mamooty’s, and my best film,” says Siby.

Thereafter, in partnership with Lohitadas, he had many hits, including ‘Bharatham’, ‘His Highness Abdullah’, and ‘Kireedom’.

Asked to explain his filmmaking philosophy, Siby says, “I like to make movies with values. I want my audience to have new thoughts and experiences, so that they can become better human beings.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, June 05, 2009

The drinking epidemic

Kerala has more than one million alcoholics. The Emmanuel Love Community provides a seven-day programme that enables victims to get over their addiction

Photo: M.C. Bhupathi and wife Girija

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, labourer M.C. Bhupathi, 57, was so drunk he tried to hit his neighbour, a magistrate. The magistrate’s spouse called Girija, Bhupathi’s wife, and asked whether she would be able to control her husband in future.

Girija pleaded helplessness. “It is impossible to hold him down when he is drunk,” she said. So the magistrate gave a written complaint to the police. When Bhupathi heard about this, he got scared and went into hiding for two weeks.

Girija was at her wit’s end. Her husband had been an alcoholic for 30 years. They had tried several treatments before, but none had worked. Through a nun she got in touch with John Kutty, a long-time volunteer of the Emmanuel Love Community, which holds retreats at Kanjirapally to cure alcoholics.

John met up with Bhupathi and urged him to attend a retreat. Bhupathi agreed.

It was a seven-day programme, which consisted of counselling sessions, training programmes, group therapy and psychiatric treatments.

“The mental, physical, and psychological dangers of alcoholism were explained,” says John. “It was an eye-opener for most of the participants.”

For Bhupathi a video showing the ravaged bodies of those who had drunk for too many years had a powerful impact on him. “I realised that one day I could also become like that,” he says. “I had to stop drinking.”

In March, 2005, he took his last sip. Ever since then, on every Sunday, along with Girija and their son, Bhupathi attends a counselling session at the house of Varghese Kandathil, the state coordinator of Emmanuel Love Community at Vazhakala, Kochi. There, reformed alcoholics talk about their experiences.

“We went through hell for so many years,” Girija says.

Bhupathi would head for the bar at 6 a.m. to have his first peg. When he returned, after a couple of hours, he would be swaying from side to side. There were several occasions when he would fall into a roadside gutter and lie there for hours together. In his neighbourhood, Bhupathi was treated as a social pariah.

“There are several families living near our house in Palarivattom, but it seemed to us that we were staying all alone in the Lakshadweep islands,” says
Girija. “Bhupathi’s brother and sister live nearby, but they would not talk or offer any help.”

The family would have starved, but for Girija who had a job as a tailor and used her salary to make ends meet. Today, a chastened Bhupathi admits he has spent a few lakhs of rupees on liquor.

“There is an epidemic of drinking in Kerala,” says Varghese. “I know of doctors, bank officers and other professionals who have lost their jobs, because of their drinking and become bankrupt.”

Among the poor, there is a mistaken notion that if they drink after a hard day’s work, their tiredness will vanish. “This is not true,” says John. “If you work for eight hours and then start drinking, you will have the lethargy of a man who has worked for 16 hours.”

Apart from the poor, John says that 70 per cent of the youth are prone to liquor or drug addiction.

“The problem is that nowadays there is a social acceptance of drinking,” he says. “For any occasion, like a wedding or a birthday party, drinks are served. Boys start drinking by the time they are teenagers.”

When these youngsters grow up and become alcoholics it has a shattering impact on the family. Suddenly, there is no money to pay the rent or to buy food.

“Most wives told me they would have committed suicide, if they had no children,” says Varghese.

Apart from the mental and financial trauma, many women are also beaten up by their husbands in front of the children. “A wife once told me she did not have a single bone that had not been broken by her husband,” says John.

For Varghese, it has been his life’s mission to help these women by saving their husbands. But out of the 3000 people who have attended the programme over the past ten years, nearly 30 per cent have relapsed.

Most go back to the same drinking environment. Their friends force them to start drinking again. “Because of this, follow-up has become more important than the initial treatment,” says John.

Fast Facts

There are more than 1 million alcoholics in Kerala.

The per capita consumption of alcohol in India is four litres while it is 8.3 litres for Kerala.

The age at which youngsters consume alcohol for the first time in Kerala has gone down from 19 years in 1986 to 14 years in 1994.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)