Sunday, July 26, 2009

‘Oh Captain, My Captain’


Captain Raju’s first role as the devil in N.N. Pillai’s ‘Easwaran Arastil’ was the chance for him to make his dream of an actor come true

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Captain Raju was in Class 8 he joined the Chuttipara Government High School in Pathanamthitta. There he became close friends with Rajendra Prasad, whose family owned the ‘Venugopal’ cinema hall. Thanks to his closeness with Prasad, Raju would see films regularly. “My love for the cinema began there,” he says.

It was an old-style theatre with an asbestos roof and for sound proofing sacks had been placed in piles near the ceiling.

“When I used to walk in, nobody would stop me,” he says. “I would only sit if there were empty seats. Usually, because it was so crowded, I saw the films while standing.”

For Raju the most unforgettable film he saw was ‘Jnana Sundari’, which starred Prem Nazir and Jaishree. In the film, the queen, who is also a stepmother, and the wife of the prince, played by Nazir, can never get along.

One day Nazir’s wife gives birth to twin boys. The queen calls two soldiers and says, “Take the two boys and the mother into the forest and kill them.” The soldiers go into the forest with the trio, but they are unable to do their task. Instead, they chop off the hands of the mother, and show it to the queen. She is convinced that all of them are dead.

“The scene which I will never forget is of the twins lying on the ground with their mother standing watch,” says Raju. “Suddenly, a huge scorpion approaches them.”

The mother sees the danger. Since she has no hands, she uses her feet to send the scorpion flying through the air. “Then the mother kneels down, and with tears in her eyes, she sings, ‘Appan Ippo Varum, Ningal Orangalle Makkale (Your father will be coming soon, don’t go to sleep, children)’” says Raju. “The whole audience was crying.”

When Captain Raju finished his B. Sc. in zoology from Catholicate College he decided to go to Mumbai to try his luck. One day, he saw an advertisement in the newspaper: The Army was looking for graduates in their Short Service Commission. Raju applied and was selected.

“I spent six years in the Army and became a captain,” he says. During this period, he had an arranged marriage with Premila Varghese who grew up in Mumbai. But Raju felt restless. “My heart was in acting,” he says. So he quit and came to Mumbai and managed to get a marketing job in Laxmi Starch Limited.

Raju’s turning point came when his father-in-law, Jacob Varghese, introduced him to a friend, Meesha Kunjukutty, who said, “You are more than 6’ tall and could be a hero. Would you be interested in acting?” Replied Raju: “Very much.”

Subsequently, Meesha took him to meet Venu who ran Pratibha Theatres. Venu, who was about to start the rehearsals for N.N. Pillai’s ‘Easwaran Arastil’, gave him the role of the devil.

“God and I are sitting side by side on the stage wearing barrister suits,” says Raju. “When people died their souls would come to us. The devil is more handsome-looking, and so all the souls come to me thinking I am God and say, ‘Oh Creator, please help us.’ I laugh at God and say, “Nobody is coming to see you.”

The play was a hit and Raju gave many performances in different auditoriums in the city. Soon, he acted in several other plays, all of which did well. Later, through some relatives of his wife he got in touch with Appachen of Jagan Pictures who got him a role in the film, ‘Raktham’, in 1982.

Unlike most beginners Raju never felt nervous. “I came from the Army,” he says. “A man who is trained to face bullets has no fear. I told myself, ‘Even Prem Nazir and Madhu had a first day.’”

The movie turned out to be a hit. “People in the industry asked, when they saw me on screen, ‘Who is that?’” says Raju. “When that happens your career is made. That was a turning point.”

Raju never looked back and has acted in over 400 films in all languages in South India, apart from the prestigious Merchant-Ivory English film, ‘Cotton Mary’.

Of course, his most famous role is of Kalarippayattu master Aringodar in ‘Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha’ (1989), which was scripted by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by T. Hariharan. “I don’t think Malayalis will ever forget my portrayal of Aringodar,” he says.

Raju’s next major turning point took place on October 12, 2003. He was travelling by night in a car, with a driver and an assistant, from Thiruvananthapuram to Salem to take part in the shooting of Vinayan’s ‘War and Love’.

Just after Thrissur, the car hit a culvert, went over the wall and fell 40 feet. “There was no tree in sight to stop the vehicle,” he says. “The car had another fall of 100 feet.”

Raju had multiple fractures on the leg, damaged his ribs, and had a severe head injury. “Even now I suffer from lapses of memory,” he says, looking sad for the first time in the conversation at his Pan Jos apartment at Padivattom.

Owing to the accident, he has slowed down. “This is what I have learnt from that incident,” he says. “In life anything can happen. Be prepared at all times.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Inflicting pain on the common man

In Kerala, the police and government officials readily use torture to try to solve cases. Dr. S.D. Singh, through his Torture Prevention Centre, has been trying to create an awareness about how torture devastates the lives of victims and their families

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1970 psychiatrist S.D. Singh was working in a hospital belonging to the Plantation Corporation of Kerala at Kalady. One morning he was looking at the X-ray of a patient by the name of Varghese.

“I told him he had a very old fracture,” says Singh.

Varghese replied that many years ago a 6’ tall forest ranger by the name of Shivadas in Kalady had hit him on the ribs.

“I stared at him, speechless, because he was referring to my father,” says Singh. He prescribed some medicines and, feeling disturbed, he immediately went home.

Thereafter, he went to Thiruvananthapuram to meet his bed-ridden father.

“I asked him about Varghese,” says Singh. His father burst into laughter, and said, “In those days Varghese was a well-known ruffian. Thanks to me he was straightened out.”

Singh stared at his father in silence. “I realised my father did not have any feelings of guilt,” he says. “Instead, he was proud about what he had done, while I felt he was wrong in inflicting pain.”

It was this incident that sparked a lifelong interest in torture and for the past several years Singh has been spearheading a campaign to bring greater awareness of the cruelty inflicted by the police and government officials on the common man.

His turning point came when he attended a two-week training programme on torture medicine in New Delhi in 1995, which was conducted by the Indian Medical Association, in partnership with the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT). Singh also attended a course conducted by the IRCT in Denmark.

Thereafter, Singh set up the Torture Prevention Centre, India Trust, at Kochi.

In Kerala, police and government officials often resort to torture to try to solve cases. Singh remembers a case of a 32-year old man in Marayur, Munnar. In 2007, he was picked up by forest officials from Chandni Bar on suspicion of sandalwood smuggling. He was taken straight to the forest station and beaten up. Passers-by could hear his cries for help.

Eventually at midnight, there was a silence in the station. By this time a crowd had gathered outside. At 1 a.m., the officials brought out the dead body with the aim of disposing it, but the people forced them to take it to the Tata Hospital.

“The next day the police lodged a criminal case against the forest officials,” says Singh. “This case is still going on.”

Singh says that for those for survive the injuries to the mind are far more severe than the damage to the body.

“Torture can trigger severe anxiety, insomnia, distressing dreams, panic attacks, depression, and even suicide,” he says. “It can be arrested through regular counselling and medication. But, unfortunately, the damage to the psyche can never be healed permanently.”

One reason is that the methods used are terrifying. The physical methods include
slapping on both ears at the same time, submerging the face in the water, applying electrical shock to the genitals, and making the person hang upside down.

The psychological methods include denying water or sleep for several hours, and forcing the person to stand for a long time. Sometimes, the prisoner is given false information. The officer will say, “Did you know that your wife had an accident and died?”

When a man hears this, his mental equilibrium is shattered and he is desperate to go home and find out what has happened. So he agrees to whatever crime the officer says he has committed, although he may be innocent.

“But when he finally reaches home he realises that nothing has happened to his wife,” says Singh. “That is another shock.”

Singh blames a lack of training for the widespread use of torture. “The middle and lower rung officers have not been taught to get information by scientific interrogation methods,” he says. “The only method they know is of inflicting pain.”

Another problem is that most doctors are not trained to detect the effects of physical and mental violence. An accurate medical testimonial is of immense support to the victims in the court of law.

“Doctors usually classify torture as a human rights violation,” says Singh. “The terminology is different. A violation is only a violation. But a torture is a much stronger and potent word.”

Through the Torture Prevention Centre, Singh teaches government officials and doctors about the terrible effects of harming people. “So far 300 doctors have gone through a training programme,” he says. “If torture continues, it will destroy our democracy one day.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

First time lucky


Sending the first story he wrote to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the editor of the Mathrubhumi weekly and getting it published was the major turning point in author Sethu’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1966, when the writer Sethu wrote the Union Public Service Examination for the Assistant’s Grade exam, he could never have imagined the result. He secured the first rank in the All-India exam.

“For a person who came from a small village, Chendamangalam, and suffered from an inferiority complex it was a huge shot in the arm,” he says.

Thereafter, Sethu joined the Railway Board in New Delhi and stayed at Mahadevan Mess in Karol Bagh. It was there that he heard about the Kerala Club, which met every Friday.

“It was a place where young writers would meet and talk literature,” he says. Somebody would read a poem. Or a writer would present his new story, followed by discussions.

“Nearly everybody was young,” says Sethu. Among the members were O.V. Vijayan, Kakkanadan, M. Mukundan and Jayadevan. “Sometimes, VKN (Vadakke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair) would come,” he says.

After attending a few sessions, Sethu wondered whether he could write a story or not.
“I realized that the other guys were human beings like me,” he says. “So why could I also not try to write?”

Soon, he started writing and finished his first story. Instead of showing it to anybody, in an audacious move, he sent it to M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the editor of the Mathrubhumi weekly at Kozhikode. The story, ‘Dahikinnu Bhoomi’ (Parched Land), was about a severe drought in Bihar in 1966. Sethu had gone with his Bihari colleagues to have a look.

“It was a shock for a person who grew up in the midst of so much of greenery in Kerala to come across a land that was brown, where the wells and the rivers had dried up, and the people were in such misery,” he says.

Two weeks later, Sethu received a postcard from M.T. who wrote: ‘The story is nice and has been selected for publication’.

“I was on the top of the world,” he says. “This was a huge turning point for me. To be published in Mathrubhumi was the ultimate dream for a writer. I knew I had the creative gift in me.” Soon, Sethu was launched on his literary career.

By this time he had tired of the Railway job, and appeared for the probationary officers’ exam of the State Bank of India. He was selected and assigned to the Faridkot branch, on the India-Pakistan border.

“It was a God-forsaken place,” he says. After several months, Sethu felt restless and wanted to leave. He met the managing director, K. Subramanium at his home in Patiala on a Sunday morning to plead for a transfer back to Delhi or any other metropolitan city.

“Subramaniam was hesitant,” says Sethu. “He knew that if he succumbed to such demands from a probationary officer, then everybody would be asking him the same thing.” But his wife, who was overhearing the conversation, suddenly said, “Help this young man.”

Subramaniam reflected for a while and said, “Will you accept a transfer to the State Bank of Travancore at Thiruvananthapuram?” For Sethu it was unbelievable. From Faridkot, back home to Thiruvananthapuram -- who could have imagined it? “This is how life turns in your favour,” he says.

In Thiruvananthapuram, sometime later, Sethu became a member of an informal group of writers and artists, which included film directors G. Aravindan, Padmarajan, Bharathan and actor Nedumudi Venu. “We used to meet at a hotel called Nikunjam, which was opposite to the Tagore theatre and discuss art, literature, films and politics.”

Meanwhile, Sethu’s novels and short story collections came out regularly. They included ‘Nangal Adimakal’ and ‘Nananja Mannu’.

One day, in 1977, M.T. suddenly called and said, “Sethu, do you have any novel with you?”

Sethu was shocked, because Mathrubhumi never asked for novels from younger writers. “Only Thakazhi, Basheer, Uroob, and other senior writers used to write,” he says.

When asked the reason why he was told that the serialisation of Lalithambika Antharjanam’s ‘Agnisakshi’, a landmark novel in Malayalam was about to end and Mathrubhumi did not have another good book.

Sethu did not have any novel, but he was toying with some ideas. “One of the themes was about a strange woman, rejected by her husband, who is thrown into the wilderness, and tries to create a past and justify her estrangement. It was a mix of realism and fantasy.”

MT said it was a good idea. Sethu started working on it but one day he got a shock when he opened the weekly: Mathrubhumi had put out an announcement, with a photograph of his, stating that his novel would be serialised soon.

“That was the kind of confidence MT had in me,” he says. Of course, Sethu rose up to the challenge and, later, this novel, ‘Pandavapuram’ became a landmark in Malayalam literature. It fetched Sethu the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1982. So far, it has been reprinted 15 times.

Meanwhile, Sethu’s banking career was as successful: In 1999, he became the chairman and CEO of South Indian Bank. He was the rare man who could straddle the practical and creative worlds, and be successful in both.

“But when I look back all I can say is that I have been blessed with immense luck,” says Sethu at his beautiful home at West Kadungalloor, near Aluva.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

For the love of the language

Prema Jayakumar, one of India’s top translators, loves her job of rendering Malayalam works into English

By Shevlin Sebastian

‘Vaidehi has gone quiet and I am drowning in a well of loneliness.’ So wrote the late author Malayatoor Ramakrishnan to his English translator Prema Jayakumar.

His children had come with their families to spend the vacation at Malayatoor’s home, ‘Vaidehi’ in Thiruvananthapuram and now they had gone back.

“Malayatoor and I used to exchange letters often,” says Prema. “He would draw tiny sketches of leaves and flowers all over the sheets and write about the people he met and the happenings in his life. I looked forward to receiving them.”

Prema has translated two of Malayatoor’s books, ‘Yakshi’ and ‘Doorways to Death’, both published by Penguin Books. So far she has adapted 12 books, which includes the work of well-known authors like M. Mukundan, Matampu Kunhukuttan, and Sethu.

In fact, for the Sethu novel, ‘Niyogam’ (The Wind from the Hills), she has been short-listed in the Indian language fiction translation category of the prestigious Vodafone-Crossword Award of 2008. The translation of ‘Yakshi’ was picked by up by the BBC for their ‘Off the Bookshelf’ radio programme.

So how did she become a translator? “By sheer accident,” says Prema. In 1975, she read a book which she liked very much – ‘Aswathama’ by Matampu Kunhukuttan. “I spoke about it to friends who were not able to read Malayalam,” she says. “They told me they would like to read it in English.”

During her spare time, she translated the novel. Soon, it was passed around. A family friend, the writer, N.N. Kakkad, saw it and told Kunhukuttan. “We met and made a few changes to the manuscript,” says Prema. Eventually, Vikas published it.

Prema selects the books she wants to translate, based on one criterion. “I have to like it,” she says, “There has to be an emotional involvement.”

Once Prema takes the plunge she reads and re-reads the book, till she has understood it completely “When I start working, I do it para by para,” she says. “I don’t have a fixed time to finish a page. It comes naturally. Sometimes, things move fast. Sometimes, it is slow, depending on the language.”

She remembers she had a hard time translating ‘Rama Raja Bahadur’ by C.V. Raman Pillai. “The language was very difficult and I had to take the help of a lot of people,” she says. “It took me two years to finish the work.”

Incidentally, she does not make major changes to the narrative. “I try to stick as closely as possible to what the writer has done,” she says. But despite all the pains that she takes, translation is not a paying profession.

“In fact, those who do translations in offices are better paid,” says Prema, who worked in the State Bank of India for 20 years. “It would be foolish for anybody to take this up as a full-time profession. I am doing it because I love the work.”

Also, Prema feels, Malayalam literature can hold its own against the best in the world. “It is through English that the worth of Malayalam literature can be widely known.”

She gives an example: Sethu’s ‘Pandavapuram’ used magical realism in the early 1970s, long before Latin Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez made it popular in India, but nobody knew about it.

Thanks to her job, she has to interact closely with authors. But they have all been supportive and have rarely suggested any major changes in her work.

However, once, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan rewrote the translation of the first chapter of ‘Yakshi’ and sent it to Prema. Very soon a letter followed asking her to ignore the rewrite. “Whenever I read my work again, I don’t like it and want to make changes,” he said.

Author Sethu says that Prema has a flair to translate different types of fiction. “It is difficult to translate my work, which has elements of realism and fantasy,” he says. “For example, ‘Pandavapuram’ is not a straight narration, but she did it well.”

M. Mukundan admires Prema’s creativity as a translator. “That is why when you read her work in English it seems like the original,” he says. “She has a smooth and spontaneous style, and pays a lot of attention to the language and the syntax.”

Meanwhile, even as she is busy at work on ‘Oru Desathinte Katha’ by S.K. Pottekkat, which is to be published by the Sahitya Akademi, she waits, with crossed fingers, for July 23 when the Crossword awards will be announced.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pssst…. it’s all about snakes

A former Navy Commander in Kochi has eaten more than 150 snakes in the past two decades

By Shevlin Sebastian

When John Chacko was a teenager, he would spend his holidays with his aunt, Susan, in Manjapra, 30 kms from Kochi. It was an area that abounded in snakes. One day, Susan casually told John that if he caught a snake she would cook it for him.

Armed with a stick and accompanied by his younger cousins, John set out into the paddy fields and the adjoining jungle. Two hours later they had killed three snakes.

When John gave the snakes to Susan, she said, “Don’t be foolish. I was only joking.” So the group felt disappointed. Then John’s cousin, Anna, said that if he cut and cleaned the snake she would cook it.

So, John took a knife and cut off the head. “I remember studying in school that the venom is located in the sac in the head,” he says. When Anna cooked it, the group was worried whether any poison had spread to the rest of the snake's body.

Eventually, John took a small piece and placed it in the mouth, waiting to see what would happen. “But after two minutes, when I found that nothing was happening, I chewed it a little,” he says. “I found it was tastier than chicken and beef.” Soon, the others ate the snake and for the next three days they caught and ate several snakes.

That was the beginning of the snake-eating habit of John, and with experience he learned how to catch a snake efficiently.

“Try to hold the snake by the tail and simultaneously place a stick behind the neck and force the head to the ground,” says John. “Then you have to grip the neck from behind so that the snake does not bite you.” Astonishingly, in two decades, he has never been bitten by a snake.

John joined the Navy and, at one time, he was posted at INS Chilka at Balugaon in Orissa. Because the forest was being cleared to make way for a golf course, a lot of snakes were spotted. “I gave an order that any snake that has been killed should be sent to my house,” he says.

As soon as he received a snake, John would take off the skin. In the snake’s body there are two long transparent pouches. In one there is the heart, liver and globules of edible fat, while the other contains the stomach and the intestines, which are to be thrown away.

Since the flesh is hard, it has to be cooked in a pressure cooker, to soften it. “When you add onions, green chillies, garlic, curry leaves, and fry it in oil it is quite tasty,” says John, with a smile.

John’s neighbour at Balugaon was a Brahmin officer, Ravi Vishnu. His seven-year-old daughter, Anupama, would frequent the house. One day she saw John and his wife, Maya, cooking a snake. Anupama said, “John Uncle, please give me a small piece.”

Maya said, “She is a Brahmin.” So John said no, but Anupama pleaded so much that he was forced to give a piece. “She was very happy,” he says. When Anupama returned home, she told her parents, “I ate a snake in John Uncle’s house.”

Later, Vishnu told John, “I was shocked! Here I am, a Brahmin who has never eaten meat in my life, and my daughter had eaten a snake! In the night I used to watch her, to see if her tongue would stick out or not.”

Nobody’s tongue stuck out, but John was particular about what snakes he ate. “A snake has a thick bony skeletal system, so the meat is on the surface. If you kill a thin snake, like a krait, there is less meat to eat.”

The fat reptiles included the rat snake, the viper, and the python. “My favourite is the python,” he says. He has fond memories of a python, which he had caught near Willingdon Island.

“It was ten feet long and weighed more than ten kilos,” he says. There was so much of meat that his son and he were able to eat it continuously for ten days. Incidentally, Maya is a vegetarian and has never eaten a snake, although she has cooked it numerous times.

Today, John stays in Kochi, having taken premature retirement from the Navy. The chance of catching a snake is receding, as the city expands rapidly, but, despite having eaten more than 150 snakes, he is always on the lookout to have his next one.

(Names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cheap rice is beneficial

The Rs 2 per kg rice is feeding lakhs of people who are going through a bad time

Photo: Ration dealer M.K. Salam

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a rainy evening a steady stream of men and women are arriving at ration dealer M.K. Salam’s shop in Kochi to collect their weekly quota. Among them is A. Kalam, 26, who works as a security guard in a multi-storeyed building. “The rice is good,” he says. “I have been buying it ever since the Rs 2 per kg scheme has been launched. I have no complaints.”

Lakshmanan, 73, a former labourer, says, “Earlier, the rice was of bad quality. Now it has improved.”

Ration dealer Salam says several people have been availing of the scheme. For SC/ST people and fisherfolk they can avail up to 10 kgs a month, while those with a BPL card can get 18 kgs. When asked about the oft-repeated complaint that the rice is of poor quality, Salam scoops up a handful of grains and says, “Look at it. No dust, no stones. This is good rice.”

But Dr. K. Ramachandran Nair, a member of the Kerala State Planning Board says the quality is uneven. “Since Kerala does not produce enough rice, we depend on the central quota,” he says. “The Food Corporation of India should ensure the supply of good grains.”

Finance Minister Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac says the scheme has become popular with agricultural workers and the unorganised sector.

“At this moment it covers 25 lakh households, but we would like to extend it to 40 lakh households, irrespective of BPL and APL (below and above poverty line) status” he says. “We want to ensure that the minimum needs of the people are met during this time of recession and loss of jobs.”

(Incidentally, the Budget proposal of supplying 25 kgs at Rs 3 per kg to those with BPL status will apply to only 11 lakh families in Kerala).

When asked why the LDF government, which announced the Rs 2 per kg scheme in May, did not get reap any dividends during the Lok Sabha elections, a candid Isaac says, “The people were not satisfied with the overall governance.”

So, does Kerala, where a construction labourer can get Rs 300 per day as wages, need such a scheme?

“They may not need it,” says Dr. K. Narayanan Nair, the director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies. “However, large segments of the informal sector, like workers in agriculture, coir, cashew and the plantation industries have been badly hit by the recession, and need help,” he says. “In the coastal areas the fishermen are facing problems because of a poor income.”

Surprisingly, he says, there is a small section of the population who cannot afford to pay even Rs 2 to buy rice. “There are a lot of invalid and aged people who have no income,” he says. But Nair commends the excellent statewide public distribution network, which ensures that starvation deaths do not occur.

Meanwhile, back at the ration shop the people take all the goodies for granted. Says Salam: “In my 30 years as a ration dealer I have never met a single person who has expressed gratitude for what the government has done.”

Labour shortage

Here is an anomaly. Despite high wages and low prices for rice, there is an acute labour shortage in the state. “A large number of youngsters are getting educated,” says Narayanan of the CDS. “They do not want to enter the labour force.”

Isaac says that young people do not want to work in the fields with their bare hands but if there is an option of using a tractor, then they don’t mind using it. “Another reason is that the reserve price for Malayalis is very high,” he says, with a laugh. In other words, they want high wages.

And young people are willing to wait for the right job to come along. “They are not desperate for work,” says Nair of the Planning Board. “They know that even if they do not get a job their family will look after their material needs.”

Another reason for the labour shortage, says Narayanan, is that there are fewer children per family these days. “So, the proportion of young people entering the labour force is on the decline,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Master of mimicry


Mukesh’s first public performance as a mimicry artist at S.N. College, Kollam was a resounding success. It enabled him to find his destiny as an actor

Caption: Mukesh with his parents, the celebrated stage actors O. Madhavan and Vijayakumari

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mukesh saw mimicry artist Alleppey Ashraf perform at SN Women’s College, Kollam, he had a flash of intuition. “In mimicry you don’t have to depend on anybody,” he says. “To act in a play you have to touch the feet of a hundred people.”

Near his home there was a ‘B’ grade theatre called Jupiter. One day he took a Philips tape recorder from his home, placed it in the projection room, and started taping the dialogues. “I would listen to the voices for hours together,” he said. Then Mukesh would repeat the dialogues and tape it. He would compare the performances and correct the flaws.

After several months of practice he was ready. One day, in the college canteen, Mukesh was sitting with a few friends waiting for cups of tea that did not arrive. So he told the manager, “It looks like you will only deliver the tea if we ask in the voice of film stars.”

Everybody stared at him. Then he said, “Okay I will ask in the voice of Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair.” Then he did the impersonation and quickly moved on to imitate the voices of Govindan Kutty, Kamal Hasan, Sukumaran and Prem Nazir.

“I knew I had got it perfectly right,” he says. But not a single student smiled or said anything. The tea came and they drank it in silence.

When Mukesh stepped out, a friend, Thamban, put his arm across his shoulders and said, “You were brilliant.” When he suggested that Mukesh perform at the Hostel Day function, he was hesitant.

“The audience is too critical,” says Mukesh. “You make one mistake and you are pelted with eggs and booed.” But Thamban persuaded him to participate.

When D-day arrived, Mukesh developed cold feet. Thamban suggested he could stand on stage and say he was unwell. Mukesh agreed. In the meantime, Thamban placed his friends in the audience, and they got ready to throw eggs when Mukesh made his announcement.

Soon, his name was called. “As I was walking towards the mike, till halfway, I was planning to say I am sick,” he says. “But suddenly God interfered with my mind and body.”

Mukesh held the mike and said, “A film on Jesus Christ is being made. To act as Christ, many actors have come. The line they have to say is this: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’”

Mukesh said this in the voice of many stars and got a thunderous applause. “I felt a surge of enormous confidence,” he says. “Looking back it was the biggest turning point in my life.” Soon, Mukesh became a popular mimicry artist, and was invited to perform at many functions.

In 1982, Mukesh was studying at the Law Academy at Thiruvananthapuram. One evening when he returned home he saw that the noted producer and owner of Nana publications, R. Krishnaswamy Reddiar was having a chat with his parents, the celebrated stage actors O. Madhavan and Vijayakumari.

When Reddiar was told that Mukesh was a popular mimicry artist and had acted in plays in the family-owned troupe, Kalidasa Kala Kendram, he said, “Why did you not tell me this before? We produce so many films and need new people all the time.”

Two months later, Reddiar offered Mukesh the hero’s role in a film he was producing: ‘Balloon’. “My whole body shook,” he says. “People usually spend years hoping to get a scene in a film, and here I was being made the hero.”

Unfortunately, ‘Balloon’ flopped. And Mukesh immediately became a victim to the widespread superstition in the film industry. “The moment a film fails the hero is labelled as unlucky,” he says. “He never gets another chance.” Mukesh spent seven months in idleness, before luck turned in his favour.

Reddiar’s brother, Thiruvenkidam Muthalali was financing Priyadarshan’s second film, ‘Oodarathuammava Aalariyam’ in which Sreenivasan and Jagadish were acting. Thiruvenkidam ensured that Mukesh got a role, much to Priyardareshan’s irritation. When the shooting began Priyardarshan was unhappy with the newcomer’s acting.

However, there was one unavoidable scene.

The three of them were going to see the heroine, Lissy, but were hiding this fact from each other. When Sreenivasan asks Mukesh where he is going, he says, “I forgot to tell you that my father’s brother’s daughter’s aunty’s brother died.”

As Mukesh gave his dialogues and walked away, he noticed a perfume bottle, placed next to a mirror in the room. “I stopped and splashed the perfume on my body,” he says. Suddenly, Mukesh heard a high-pitched laughter. It was Priyadarshan who found the spontaneous action so funny he fell over backwards from his chair. The moment the scene was over he ran up and hugged Mukesh.

“You improvised in a way that even great actors are unable to do so,” he said. “I have to tell you the truth: I was taking out your dialogues and I am sorry about it. But there is no doubt you have a very bright future.”

Mukesh never looked back after that. Today, he has acted in more than 150 films, including hits like ‘Ramji Rao Speaking’, ‘In Harihar Nagar’, ‘Godfather’, ‘Hitler’, ‘Chronic Bachelor’, and ‘2 Harihar Nagar’. Relaxing on a sofa in his villa at Maradu, Kochi, he says, “You need the help of destiny to be successful.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

“We need to talk about our sexuality in public”

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I felt very happy and proud,” says Deepa Vasudevan, a founding member of Sahayatrika, the organisation for same-sex loving women in Kerala. She was referring to the ruling of the Delhi High Court decriminalising homosexuality.

“It is a great victory for sexual minorities. It prevents the state from policing sexuality. The fact that we can have consensual sex with a person of the same sex and not be looked upon as doing a criminal act is a huge plus.”

Sahayatrika and other groups are planning to hold public discussions on this matter. “This ruling is a big opportunity to speak out about our need for public acceptance,” she says.

Deepa lives in Thrissur, although she travels the length and breadth of Kerala doing work on behalf of sexual minorities. So what did she think would happen in the state following the ruling?

“In Kerala there is a big disparity between the law and popular attitudes,” she says. “I know of many lesbians who have to hide. Women in Kerala are not supposed to have a sexuality, and for same sex women it is worse. It makes it difficult to make a relationship work.”

She says the attitude towards sex in Kerala is less conservative and more hypocritical. “So many things happen here,” she says. “It is just that people do not talk about it. For example, people pretend that lesbianism does not exist, but it does.”

When asked whether there will ever be a social acceptance of the LGBT community in Kerala, Deepa laughs out aloud and says, "It will be a struggle. But when there is more openness about sexuality in society, we will gain acceptance too."

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Making the right choice


Jose Thomas, the chairman of the Choice Group, was only 17 years old when his father passed away. It marked a turning point in his life.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Jose Thomas, the chairman of the Choice group, was the 10th child of an 11-member family. “When I was growing up there were over 20 nephews and nieces staying in the house,” he says. “In my childhood, I received less attention from my parents and siblings.”

At the age of 13, Jose was admitted into the boarding at the Nirmala high school in Muvattupuzha. Even though he belonged to an affluent family, he was not given any pocket money. Jose says that since there were so many people in the house he was unable to tell his parents about his needs.

One day when Jose came out of the church in Muvattupuzha, he saw people doing a brisk business in selling hens, eggs and clothes. “I realised that if I could sell something I could make some money,” he says.

One weekend, when he went home, to Mattancherry, he met Hamsa Kunju, who dealt in foreign goods, like Gillette and Wilkinson blades and Yardley soaps. He managed to persuade Hamsa to give him a small batch of Gillette blades on credit. Jose sold those blades in Muvattupuzha at a handsome profit.

“I learnt two things from this,” he says. “One was how to get credit and the second was to make a profit.”

When Jose told his classmates that his father, O.C. Thomas, was a seafood exporter and the ‘Choice’ company owned many vehicles, they laughed out aloud and refused to believe him. “So I begged my father to send a company vehicle to the school,” he says.

One Sunday morning, when Jose came out of the church, he saw a Bedford lorry parked in the courtyard of the school, with the word ‘Choice’ written in bold letters across it.
His awestruck friends finally realised that there was, indeed, an establishment called Choice and Jose’s father was the owner.

“I have never forgotten the recognition I received from my friends,” he says. But Jose yearned to get noticed by his father. “I wanted to prove to him that I am a smart businessman and a go-getter,” he says. “This need for recognition has been the driving force of my life.”

One day Jose read in the newspaper that diesel vehicles were much cheaper than petrol ones. He realised it would make a big difference in running expenses if the 25 trucks of Choice were converted to diesel. When he told his father about this, Thomas gave permission to change one truck to diesel.

At a workshop in Thoppumpady the mechanic, Lawrence, told him he would be able to get a good second-hand diesel engine at Kunnumkalam. Jose went there and after much bargaining, bought one for Rs 7000. When Lawrence inspected it, he said there were problems with the crankshaft and the bore. So, repairs needed to be done.

Eventually, it took Jose nine months to get the vehicle ready. But on September 29, 1972, Jose's father, Thomas, was admitted to the hospital. Doctors said that they would need to do a thoracic surgery. “On September 30, the motor vehicle test for the vehicle was over,” says Jose. “Now all I had to do was to wait for the papers.”

Thomas asked to see him. Jose entered the room and said, “Appacha, the vehicle is ready. I will bring it to the hospital tomorrow.”

Thomas said, “Very good,” and asked his son to go down on his knees. Then he placed his hand on Jose’s head and said, “Son, I have a lot of expectations from you.” After the surgery Thomas went into a coma. When he would briefly return to consciousness, Jose would hear his father say, “What will happen to Choice and my children?”

On October 2, Thomas passed away. He was only 60 years old.

And here was the tragic part. It was on the diesel vehicle, KLE 5382 that the body was taken to the funeral.

“During the journey the only thought in my mind was that my father had been unable to see the vehicle that I had got ready after so much of hard work,” says Jose. “Even now I have not got over the disappointment.”

Meanwhile, following Thomas’s death, there was uncertainty about what to do with the business. The company came to a halt. Close relatives and friends suggested closing it down. But Jose, who was only 17 at that time, was unwilling to accept that. “My mother backed me completely,” he says.

One day, Jose re-started the seafood factory of Choice Canning at Kannamalli.

Today, the Choice group has a turnover of Rs 450 crore, with interests in marine products, exports, shipping, travel and tourism, real estate, property development and education.

But it is only when Jose started the Choice school in 1991 that he felt he had made an impact. “This is my lasting contribution to society,” he says. “When I die, people will remember me as the person who started Choice school, and not for my other business achievements.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, July 03, 2009

The twilight zone

At the cancer ward at the general hospital at Kochi several patients are fighting an uphill battle against death

Photo: Rani Baby with her mother

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 2 a.m. head nurse E. Sujatha was going on her rounds at the Ernakulam General Hospital. Suddenly, she heard the sound of clapping from a bed. When she came near she saw that it was Xavier, 68. Since he had a tube pushed through a hole in his throat to enable him to breathe, he could not talk properly.

“I discovered that he was gasping for breath,” says Sujatha. So she put him on oxygen, and called a doctor, who gave an injection. Sujatha awoke the wife, Teresa, who was sleeping on a nearby chair and told her the situation was grave. Xavier asked for some tea.

Sujatha went to the nurses’ rest room, made the tea on a heater, and gave it to him. “As he sipped it, he looked very happy,” she says. Then Xavier gestured to Teresa. When she came close, he embraced her. At that moment he died. “I can never forget Xavier and the beautiful way he passed away,” says Sujatha.

In the cancer ward there are 60 beds, but because there are far more patients, several are sleeping on the floor. According to Dr. K.A. Rosy, civil surgeon, the most common ailment among women is breast cancer. For men it is lung cancer.

Unfortunately, most of the patients come to the hospital only when they reach a terminal condition. Rosy remembers the case of a 28-year old woman, Jeena (name changed), who was in the early stages of breast cancer. “I told her she needed to have surgery to remove a breast,” she says.

But Jeena stayed with her husband in Dubai. She knew that if she did have the surgery, she would not be allowed to go back because she would fail the medical test. So she opted for homeo treatment and prayers.

After many months Jeena met Rosy but investigations revealed that the cancer had spread all over the body. “She was crying,” says Rosy. “She begged me to do the surgery, but it was too late.” A few weeks later, Jeena was dead.

Since most of the patients are poor, they try cheaper alternatives like homeopathy or ayurveda, when the cancer is in the initial stages. But when the disease spreads and the patient is on the verge of collapse, the desperate family rushes the victim to the general hospital, but it is beyond cure. “As a result, the mortality rate is very high,” says Rosy.

And the person who is afflicted is usually the bread-winner. “Their families are destroyed,” says Sujatha. She remembers a middle-aged man who died recently. The wife was looking after the husband for the past eight months.

“She was unable to work and there was no money in the house,” she says. “The children had to stop studying. When the man died, the family was mentally and physically shattered.”

The only good news is that the treatment is free, except for minor expenses. Since the state government provides a limited supply of medicines the cancer ward is dependent on sponsors.

The Ernakulam Karayogam gives medicines worth Rs 30,000 monthly, the Jeevan Raksha Charitable Trust gives Rs 12,000, the Sneha Charitable Trust Rs 10,000, and the St. Mary’s Orthodox church provides between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000.

“There are also a host of individuals who give donations ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 20,000,” says Rosy. “Thanks to them we are pulling along.”

On a Monday afternoon there is a power cut, but thanks to monsoon rains it is not hot. On one bed, Rani Baby, 43, is gasping for breath and her upper body is heaving with the effort. She has the still, staring eyes of someone who is on the verge of death.

“She is suffering from cancer of the uterus and now her brain has been affected,” says Sujatha. Rani’s mother sits beside her and holds her hands.

On another bed lies Mary, 54, who is suffering from throat cancer. Her husband, Francis, an unemployed mason, is sitting nearby.

The story was the same: unable to afford the initial treatment of Rs 75,000 at a private hospital, the couple opted for homeo medicines. The cancer spread rapidly, and Mary was brought to the general hospital, where the prognosis was grim.

For the doctors and the nurses each bed has a tragic tale to tell, but they carry on with a steadfast attitude.

“In the beginning it was painful to watch,” says Sujatha. “But thanks to meditation I have developed an inner peace and try to give as much of solace to the patients as possible.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)