Sunday, August 30, 2009

Working for gays, but not caring for them

The majority of NGOs working for people with alternate sexuality in Kerala are manned by non-homosexuals. The gays say that these insensitive social workers are of no help to them

Photo: Members of the transgender community

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Sunil Menon received a telephone call. A group of people was coming from Thiruvananthapuram to observe the work of the Chennai-based ‘Sahodaran’, an NGO for gays established by him.

When Sunil’s assistant Rajesh, who was also from Thiruvanathapuram, came to know about this, he had a panic attack. “Who are these people?” he asked Sunil. “Do we know anything about them? Are they from the gay community? I don’t want outsiders to know about my sexuality.”

Sunil had no idea of the composition of the group. So Rajesh fled the office. “His fears were well founded,” says Sunil. “When the group arrived, out of eight people, only one was a member of the community.”

For Sunil this has been the biggest problem regarding the several NGOs operating in Kerala for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. “The people who work for these organisations are not gay,” he says. “In fact, nearly all the positions are held by heterosexual people.”

He remembers the time when he held a workshop in Aluva to sensitise a few NGO’s regarding gays. “Twenty people came and I was shocked to discover that none of them were from the community,” he says. “Later, I realised that one LGBT member is appointed in each of these NGOs, and that too, as a token representation.”

Soman Nair, 24, says that in the NGO that he works in, the director, staff and the office assistants are all heterosexuals. He says his colleagues have no idea of the gay mind-set.

“A good social worker should go to the place where the community congregates,” says Soman. He should reach out to people and talk to them about HIV/AIDS, and advocate safe sex methods like the use of condoms. He should understand the psyche of a gay person and remain in constant touch so that the condoms are used properly. “Most of them are incapable of doing this,” he says.

Community members like Soman are usually given the job of a peer educator. They come in once or twice a week to collect the condoms to distribute among gays. They also submit regular reports on their field work. Most of them are paid a paltry monthly salary of Rs 1500, while those who work in the offices have starting salaries of Rs 5000.

“There is no empowerment of the community,” says Sunil. “No input is taken on how the project can be run effectively.”

And nearly all the heterosexual workers reflect the usual prejudices against people with a different sexuality. K. Bhanu, a gay and a social worker remembers the time when he was standing next to a heterosexual counsellor, Raghu, in an NGO at Thiruvananthapuram. Raghu pointed at a gay person and sniggered, “Look at that flute (slang for gay).” Bhanu says, “When he said that I got very upset. He is earning a living working for gays and has no empathy for us.”

Community members say that they feel nervous when they enter an NGO office which is manned by outsiders. “We have a fear that there may be somebody present who knows our families and when they see us they will rush to inform our parents,” says Prakash Nair, a college student.

Another problem is the presence of religious groups. And this has puzzled the community even more. “For example, in the Bible it is stated that homosexuality is a sin, so why are religious groups working with the LGBT community?” says Sunil.

David Thomas, a member of a Christian group says that their aim is to combat HIV/AIDS. “We have no option but to work with gays,” he says.

Sometimes, these gays are encouraged to attend religious retreats. “They are told that sex between man and man is a sin,” says Bhanu. “They advise them to have a relationship with a woman. They teach them yoga and try to brainwash them.”

When some of the gays return they say, “My sins have been washed away. I don’t have any preferences for men. I am planning to get married and have children.”

Bhanu laughs and says, “Is this a genuine or a cosmetic change? I leave it to you to figure out.”

Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Recollections of a Vice Admiral

Sunil K. Damle, head of the Southern Command of the Navy looks back at his eventful career, which ends on August 31

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Sunil Damle talks to the writer at his office in the Naval Base, Kochi

On a hot afternoon in 1988, Sunil K. Damle of the Navy flew off in a Sea Harrier from the aircraft carrier INS Viraat during a joint exercise with the Army. Damle was cruising at 800 kms per hour at a height of only 200 feet above the beach near the nuclear installation at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu.

The Army controller gave the order, “Pull up.” As Damle initiated the pull-up, the fighter jet started shuddering and made a loud noise. Immediately Damle knew there was something wrong with the engine. The controller could see flames coming out from the rear of the jet. Following standard procedure, Damle switched off the engine, and then tried to restart. However the engine failed to come to life.

So Damle ejected from the aircraft and landed on the beach itself. Just eight seconds later, the Harrier crashed and blew up. When Damle arrived at the carrier, following a rescue by a helicopter, he was stunned to see the entire ship of 1200 officers and crew waving and cheering at him.

“They were all sharing in the joy of my escape from death,” he says. “That was when I understood the spirit of camaraderie in the Navy. I have never forgotten that moment.”

And he has also never forgotten the way he fell in love with aeroplanes. Damle grew up near a pottery factory in Nagpur, where his father was the Works Manager. He would accompany his father to welcome visitors from Delhi and Mumbai at Nagpur airport.

“I used to get excited by the noise of the propellers and the sight of pilots sitting in the cockpit,” he says. “I would think, ‘If I could be in their shoes, how nice it would be!’ I felt that only special people could become pilots.”

But when he grew up Damle enrolled for a bachelor’s degree at the Sir J.J. College of Architecture in Mumbai. However, one day, he came across an advertisement in the newspaper asking for naval aviation cadets. This notice triggered his old feelings of affection for aeroplanes.

So Damle applied, and was selected. Commissioned on December 19, 1970, he joined the fighter stream in the Fleet Air Arm (Naval Aviation). And he seemed a natural leader: He became the commander of the carrier-borne fighter squadron INAS 300 (White Tigers); the executive officer of missile frigate INS Talwar, commanding officer of missile corvette INS Hosdurg and missile frigate INS Gomati. Thereafter, he became the captain of the INS Viraat, Commander of the Eastern Fleet, and Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Southern Naval Command.

So what are Vice Admiral Damle’s notions of leadership?

“As a leader, you should try to put yourselves in the shoes of your subordinates,” he says. “That helps you make the right decisions. Secondly, since everybody is not good at everything you have to find out what is the strong point of a person and then entrust him with that job.”

His team worked well and it seemed like a charmed life, but it was not all smooth sailing. “The Navy personnel are separated from their families for long periods of time,” he says.

And this absence takes a toll on the wife and the children. For example: When the son is in Class 10, and there are complaints that the boy is not studying the father is helpless, because he is on a ship and cannot return for months. The wife has to look after the family and the house, handle the finances, and manage the education of the children for months together. “A Navy life is very hard,” admits Damle, the father of two children.

And this hard but eventful career is coming to an end on August 31, after 39 years of service. A Maharashtrian, Damle is retiring to Goa. “The quality of life is much better there than in Mumbai,” he says.

At his elegantly furnished office at the Naval Base, Kochi, Damle breaks out into a gentle smile. You will never guess from his face that the last two weeks has been a frenzy of farewell functions and all the hassles of packing belongings gathered over a lifetime.

When asked whether he will miss the Navy, Damle says, “I will miss it, but not the power and the status. It has become restrictive. I am glad to shed both. This is the beauty of a democracy. You are given a big responsibility and when that job is over, you have to go away.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A mirror to the ills of society

The 750th episode of Kannadi, the popular programme on Asianet will be aired on August 30. Group Editor and anchor T.N. Gopakumar explains the reasons behind its unprecedented success

Photo: T.N. Gopakumar (left) at a conference at Doha, Qatar

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Kasargod, a mother died suddenly. The family was living in a ramshackle hut. Thereafter, whenever the father went off to work, as a labourer, the eldest girl, who was only nine years old, began to look after her three younger siblings.

When the popular Asianet programme, Kannadi, highlighted the plight of this family, there was an immediate reaction from viewers. Around Rs 8 lakh was sent to T.N. Gopakumar, the anchor-person and currently the Group Editor of Asianet News.

In response to the telecast, the state government provided free land, a house was constructed with the donations and remaining amount was put in savings accounts for the children. “The house has been named after Kannadi,” says a smiling Gopakumar.

The silver-haired anchorman, with his distinctive beard is about to anchor the 750th episode, which will be aired on August 30.

“Kannadi is the longest running programme on Indian television,” he says. “The TRP’s over the past 16 years have been consistently high.”

The programme focuses on social issues like dowry harassment, cruelty to animals, the ill-treatment of parents in nuclear families, the suffering of disabled people, the plight of AIDS victims, the dying of the Periyar river and the activities of the sand mafia.

The popularity of Kannadi becomes obvious when one sees numerous letters from readers strewn all over Gopakumar’s table at his simply furnished office in the Asianet headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram.

“I get about 500 letters every week, apart from e-mails and phone calls from viewers,” he says. Most of the letters come from the USA, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of India. In many, there are story suggestions, while in others there are cheques.

Nowadays, Gopakumar gets about Rs 3 lakh every week. A separate account has been opened to disburse the funds. “What has been a revelation to me is the generosity of Malayalis towards those who are in need of help,” he says.

Asked to explain the reason behind the programme’s success, Gopakumar places an emphasis, with his deep voice, on one word: “Honesty!” The word ricochets around the room in the sudden silence. Then he adds, “We also have credibility and commitment. There is always something different in each programme.”

Indeed, the stories are quite unique. In a recent telecast there was a feature on former national football player C.V. Pappachen who is now trying to be a chenda player. And Pappachen’s explanation of the similarity between football and chenda was quite fascinating.

For Gopakumar the most pleasing aspect of Kannadi is the immediate remedial action, taken at the panchayat level or the state government.

“I am happy we are making a difference to people’s lives,” he says. “The government responds to the programme quite regularly.”

But much as Kannadi is a passion for him -- he calls it ‘my baby’ -- Gopakumar also focuses, because of his pre-eminent position, on the activities of the entire news channel, apart from Suvarna, the company-owned Kannada channel in Bangalore.

“There is a lot of work pressure,” he admits. “People know me because of the Kannadi programme but that is only five percent of the work that I do.”

In his spare time Gopakumar likes to write. So far, he has published 12 books in different genres: novels, short stories, essays, journalism, travelogues and an autobiography, ‘Suchindrum Rekhakal’. This book won him the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998.

He has also made a film, ‘Jeevan Mosai’ based on the novel 'Arogyaniketan' written by Bengali author Tarashankar Banerjee. The film starred Nedumudi Venu and the late Srividya, and was shown in film festivals in 2002. A man of many parts, he has traveled all over the world and made a mark in Delhi also.

He moved to the capital in 1983, and in the course of the next decade worked for 13 media organisations, including the BBC. A father of two daughters, he returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 1992 and has now made an indelible mark in Malayalam television journalism.

So what are his tips to aspiring journalists?

“When a young TV journalist makes a name, it goes to his head,” he says. “They should learn to keep their feet on the ground all the time.” He advises proper research before meeting somebody for an interview.

Nowadays, he says, there is a lot of corporate pressure on journalists. “Newcomers will have to learn to withstand it,” he says. “My advice is to learn to create your own space without resorting to any sort of compromise.”

An uncompromising Gopakumar is still going strong.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, August 21, 2009

The lost childhood

Too much TV watching and lack of communication with their parents are causing many children to feel stressed-out

Photo: This is a representative picture

By Shevlin Sebastian

Suresh studies in Class eight in a prominent school in Kochi. One day he came home and told his father, “Papa I feel ashamed to go to school in a Maruti. My classmates come in Skodas, Lancers or Scorpios. You have to buy me a Honda City.”

Suresh’s father has taken the demand so seriously that he is now looking out to buy a Honda City. “Nowadays children are dictating to parents what they want,” says paediatrician Dr. Abraham K. Paul. “Sometimes, parents are giving things even before the child asks for it. As a result children don’t value what they get.”

And neither do they value their parents. Most parents are working and in the evenings when they return from the office, both husband and wife are exhausted. Hence they are unable to spend quality time with their children. Eventually, the family will have dinner silently in front of the television.

“There is no conversation like in earlier times when the family would sit around the dining table,” says Paul.

So, children do not get a chance to express the excitements and disappointments that took place in school that day. Like if a new teacher had come to the school. Or the fight that took place between two boys.

“Children are unable to give vent to their feelings,” he says. “In the end there is no emotional connection between parents and children.”

If there are grandmothers, unlike in an earlier era, where they would tell stories from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata to the grandchildren, nowadays, they also sit in front of the TV.

“On holidays, along with the grandmother the child is in front of the TV from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by more viewing with the parents,” says Paul. So, in essence, a child is watching TV for 12 hours a day.

One immediate fall-out is warped values. “They see scenes of sex and murder and think it is okay,” says Paul. “They have a distorted view of reality.”

Another result is the rising number of children who are obese. There are 12 and 14-year-olds who weigh 60 kgs. They travel to school in a car, come back and watch TV or play games on the computer. And all the while they are munching junk food.

For students of Class 1 to 5, there are too many tuition classes. “Sometimes there is no need for this but the parents want their child to be at the top of the class,” says Paul. “These children feel very stressed-out.”

Apart from the home, in school, also, the children suffer from varying kinds of stress. “Teachers may pass negative comments when the student does not perform well,” says Dr. C.P. Somanath, consultant psychiatrist at LakeshoreHospital. Unfair comparisons with other students by the teacher can be stressful. Cruel remarks by another child can cause pain.

Homemaker Meenakshi Raghavan says that nowadays schools are in a frenzy to assign projects for the children. “Once my daughter, who is in Class 4, had to do three projects in one week,” she says. “The teachers are competing between themselves in giving these difficult assignments. As a result, children suffer from anxiety.”

This anxiety manifests itself in physical ailments like a headache, stomach pain, a bout of vomiting or bed-wetting. “Some children develop a school phobia,” says Paul.
Children will complain of a stomach ache minutes before the school bus will arrive. As soon as the bus goes off they are all right. On Saturdays and Sundays they have no problem. When they get up in the mornings the first thing they ask their mothers is, ‘Is it a holiday today?’ “Sadly, these children no longer enjoy going to school,” he says.

So what are the solutions to ease the crisis faced by children?

Paul suggests the curtailing of TV viewing. “On weekdays, it should not be more than one-and-a-half hours while on weekends, it should be four hours,” he says.

Children should be encouraged to play group games like football, cricket or hockey. “It is in group play that children learn to cope with defeats,” he says. “Nowadays children do not know how to handle failures and disappointments.”

Schools should also develop a curriculum where the overall development of a child can take place. “Each teacher should show sensitivity when they are dealing with an individual student,” says Somanath.

Finally and most importantly, says Paul, “Parents should show their love physically and emotionally, instead of monetarily.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’


Playing Mark Antony in the play ‘Julius Caeser’ was the life-changer for actor Thilakan

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Thilakan was in Class two in a school at Mundakayam he had a teacher by the name of Maria Kutty. “She had a face like the Virgin Mary,” he says. “She was beautiful and fair. She would go down on her knees and embrace us.”

One day Maria Kutty told Thilakan he was selected to act in a play, which she had written. “I told her I knew nothing about acting but she said she would teach me,” says Thilakan.

Following rehearsals, Thilakan made his stage debut during the annual school day festivities. “I had not seen any play or film before this,” he says. When he finished acting all the students gathered around him. “Some of them stared at me with bulging eyes,” he says. “I have never forgotten the look of admiration in their eyes.”

Suddenly, someone hugged Thilakan from behind and smothered him with kisses all over his face and neck. “When I turned back I saw that it was Maria Kutty,” he says. “Tears were flowing down her face.”

Thereafter Thilakan did not get another opportunity in primary school to express his talent. Instead, he expended his energy by having fights with other students. So it was not surprising that in Class eight he was expelled for disciplinary problems.

His father, P.S. Kesavan, a writer in the Mundakayam Travancore Rubber and Tea company sent him to his grandfather, Shankaran, who stayed at Kottayam.

Shankaran managed to get Thilakan admitted to the M.D. Seminary school. One of Thilakan’s classmates was future avant-garde film director John Abraham.

When Thilakan was in Class 10, each class had to stage a drama for the Youth Festival. During the rehearsal when Thilakan mispronounced a word, the secretary of the Arts Club said, “Get out, you can’t act.” John Abraham also walked out in protest and they went to the headmaster K.C. John to get permission to stage a play. Initially he said no.

Thilakan said, “The secretary said we cannot act and I want to prove that we can. We would like to stage a play outside the competition.”

Eventually the Principal relented. In a play by Thoppil Bhasi, Thilakan played an elderly man, who catches John Abraham whose pastime is to pretend to look for a marriage alliance but is more interested in having a good feast.

“Everybody liked my acting,” he says. “The headmaster placed his hand on my head and said, ‘Very good performance. Now you just need to improve your behaviour.’”

Later, Thilakan joined S.N. College in Kollam in 1955. For a cultural event in the college, Tilakan played the role of a doctor in the play, ‘Two plus two is five’, by T.N. Gopinathan.

After the performance was over, Thilakan was about to leave when he noticed a man sitting all alone in the hall. Curious, he came close and saw that it was Professor Shivaprasad, the president of the Arts Club. The man hugged Thilakan and said, “You have done well. You have to join the Arts Club. This year we have to do something great.”

Thereafter, Thilakan was selected to play Mark Antony in the play, ‘Julius Caeser’.
When Thilakan expressed reluctance, Shivaprasad said, “You should do the tough roles. That is the only way you will learn. It is easy to eat a banana, but to have sugarcane juice, you need to squeeze it out of the cane.”

By coincidence, the film, ‘Julius Caeser’ starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony was being shown at Kollam. The Arts Club paid the money so that Thilakan could see every show for three days.

“Marlon Brando had a magnificent body and handsome looks,” he says. “Added to that, there was his powerful delivery and movements. How could I match that?”

Fortunately, Thilakan was blessed with a photographic memory and registered every movement of Brando’s. Later, during rehearsals at the college, there was a small crowd of students in the audience. They had known that Thilakan had seen nine shows in a row and was keen to see his performance. A few were getting ready to boo him.

Thilakan stepped forward and shouted:

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones.’

The audience fell silent. Soon, they were held spellbound by Thilakan’s acting. When he finished the students clapped loudly. Some went and embraced the actor.

Thilakan looked at Shivaprasad, but there was no expression on his face. Finally, the professor said, “You have just mimicked Marlon Brando. The whole of Kollam has seen his acting. Don’t imitate anybody. You are Thilakan and should show an original version of Mark Antony.”

For Thilakan it was a life-changing moment. And for the first time in the 90-minute conversation with me, in a recording studio at Kochi, Thilakan became silent and pressed strands of tobacco into the bowl of a black pipe.

After several moments he said, “I have acted in numerous plays and films. Can anyone say I have imitated anybody? Every character has come from within. I became a good actor only because of this great bit of advice.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Love and longing in Kochi

Nearly all the inmates of a working women’s hostel are in a love relationship but that does not prevent them from having cat fights with each other

Photo: This is a representative picture

By Shevlin Sebastian

In ‘Sreekala’ working women’s hostel at Kochi the girls are all talking about the case of Mini, 24, who worked in a bank as a cashier. Over a period of time, she and her immediate senior, Roy, developed a friendship. “She was pretty and good-natured,” says her roommate Neeta, 25.

Every night, Roy and Mini would talk on the phone for hours together. She would lie on the bed, cover herself with a sheet, and speak softly.

“There were times when I would get up at 5 a.m. to have a bath and hear her whispering,” says Neeta.

To ensure that her parents at Kozhikode did not suspect anything, Mini would use a BSNL SIM card to talk to them every day at 9.30 p.m. Then she would take out the card and replace it with an Airtel card.

While all this was going on, Mini’s parents began to look for a suitable boy for marriage. When Roy came to know about this, he told Mini he wanted to marry her. When she informed her parents about Roy’s proposal they said no. Mini, who once confided in Neeta that she regarded Roy only as a friend, calmly told him it would not work out.

Soon, Mini’s marriage was fixed with Suresh, an IT engineer based in Bangalore. Somehow, Roy managed to locate the phone number of Suresh’s parents who lived in Kottayam. He told them he was in love with Mini. The shocked parents asked Mini about it, but she denied the relationship. However, the damage was done.

A few days later, the marriage was called off. Recently, her parents suddenly came to the hostel and took Mini home. That was the last her hostel mates heard from her.

In Sreekala there are 20 girls ranging in age from 20 to 35. Most of them work in the IT industry, in banks, in the travel and tourism industry and as teachers. They live four to a room, but the girls in two rooms have to share a single bathroom.

In the mornings, there is a fixed schedule of half an hour each for every inmate to use the bathroom. “Fights break out when some girls don’t adhere to the time,” says Neeta.

The hostel provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the monthly fees are Rs 2500.
The deadline to reach the hostel every day is 7.30 p.m. but those who work in private sector banks or the IT industry and have long working hours get special permission from the warden to return by 9 p.m.

For Neeta and Zahira, both of whom work in the travel industry, the biggest problem is the widespread use of mobile phones when the boarders return to the hostel.

“Till 1 or 2 a.m., most of the girls are talking to their boyfriends,” says Zahira. “Earlier, I had a difficult time to go to sleep but now I have got used to the noise.”

Nearly all the inmates have boyfriends. And the good news is that love transcends caste and religious barriers.

“A Muslim girl might fall in love with a Hindu boy or vice versa,” says Zahira. “Suddenly a girl who prays regularly at a temple will start going to a church because of a love affair.”

Zahira says the relationship goes smoothly till the couple decides to get married. Then the families oppose the relationship tooth and nail, especially if it is an inter-caste marriage.

“Old prejudices die hard,” she says. “Sometimes, I can hear a girl crying right through the night.” Occasionally, a couple takes the brave step to have a registered marriage, but the boarders have no idea whether the union is successful or not.

Meanwhile, the girls face other problems. One night, at 8 p.m., Prema, 25, a teacher, was standing in the balcony when she saw a young man climb clamber up a water pipe to peep into the first floor bathroom window. She screamed. The warden rushed out and nabbed the man.

He turned out to be the son of a doctor who stayed down the road. “So the warden let him off with a warning,” says Prema.

Neeta, who has stayed three years in the hostel, the longest among all the girls, says she has had twelve different roommates. “Girls come and go,” she says. “Usually they depart because of marriage. Once they leave, they rarely stay in touch. I feel sad about this.”

(Names have been changed)

Monday, August 10, 2009

A poet’s view of things

Australian poet Jayne Fenton Keane talks about the impact of technology in poetry, as well as the attacks on Indian students Down Under

By Shevlin Sebastian

‘Adam watches a beautiful,
yet appalling pair of buttocks,
Flap like canary wings,
Against a grille of customer laps’

In this excerpt from Jayne Fenton Keane’s poem, ‘Adam’, the adjective, ‘appalling’, seems unusual. “This is a deliberate use of a provocative word,” she says. “Imagine a caged bird. The fact that it is caged is tragic, though the bird itself is beautiful – hence it is ‘appalling’.”

The same, she says, is true of the lap dancers she saw on the Gold Coast in Queensland. They have a similarity of movement like that of a caged bird. “Those lovely girls behave as if they are half-drunk and are so scornful of the customers, 99 per cent of whom are male,” she says.

Jayne, who has written four books of poetry, focuses on human relationships, language, environment, politics and philosophy. She is known as a performance poet. “When I recite a poem, sometimes I shout and sing,” she says. “At other times I whisper. It is like a form of theatre.”

She also uses technology in her poetry. “I add visual elements and sound,” she says. Her poetry is available on CDs, the Internet, as well as the radio.

Till recently Jayne was the director of the National Poetry Week in Australia. “It was an attempt to bring poetry into public spaces,” she says. Poems were written on take-away containers, and with chalk on pavements. There were readings in vineyards, buses and ferries.

“In short, people were going about their business while poems were being read,” she says.

Jayne admits that nowadays very few people read poetry. “Most of them have been put off by it in school itself where teachers say, ‘This is a difficult poem,’” says Jayne, who is a tutor of creative writing at Griffith University. But thanks to performance and slam poetry a large new audience is coming into being.

Slam poetry has a competition format. At the American National Poetry Slam, each person gets three minutes to tell a poem. There are three to five judges in the audience who hold up a scorecard. “They score all the poets and the top few go into the next round,” she says.

But not everybody approves of this. Jayne says many traditional poets are aghast at these developments. “They want the page-reading experience to remain paramount,” she says.

The racism issue

Jayne is staying at the Brunton Boatyard in Kochi for rest and rejuvenation. Like any sensitive person, she is unnerved by the sounds of a couple of cats snarling viciously at each other besides the lounge. She runs to the side and claps her hands loudly. This sends one cat scurrying off in the opposite direction.

Recovering her breath in the sudden silence Jayne says that at Fort Kochi she has been intrigued by the sea. “There are clumps of weeds that go floating past the whole day,” she says. “And I think, ‘Where are they coming from?’ The water is gray, because of the pollution from the boats, unlike the blue it is in Australia.”

Jayne is much taken up by the dynamism and the energy shown by the people. “They are very intense,” she says. “I plan to come back because I like Kerala.”

But it has not been smooth sailing. At a party when Jayne was introduced as an Australian poet, a man said disdainfully, “I did not know they had such things as poets in Australia.” She recoiled from the remark. “It was a strange and unfriendly thing to say,” says Jayne.

Of course she is aware that this reaction might have been caused by the recent attacks on Indian students in Australia.

“There has been a media over-reaction here,” she says. “That does not mean there are no racist elements in Australian society. In fact, there is racism in every country on Planet Earth. That is human nature. However, the media is wrong in interpreting it only as a racist problem.”

She says Indian students often work late into the night and then commute on public transport. “It is risky,” she says. “Australia also has a high crime rate, unemployment and frustrated youth.”

But Jayne is convinced that it is not all bad news. “A friend told me there are 65,000 Malayalis in Melbourne and not a single one has said they had a bad experience,” she says. “So, Australia is actually a nice place to live.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Putting his best foot forward

Though visually challenged, Ansar has a thriving career as a foot reflexologist

By Shevlin Sebastian

In C.A. Ansar’s visitor’s notebook, the Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor wrote: “You are a remarkable human being and you do your work with great care, hard effort, and good knowledge of what you are doing.” Another entry is by Leslie Lewis, of Colonial Cousins fame: “You are very focused and dedicated to your work. God bless you!”

The man in question, Ansar, works at the five-star Gateway Hotel (formerly Taj Residency) in Kochi. His specialty: foot reflexology.

Some years ago, Ansar, 28, began suffering from redness in his eyes. Despite treatment there was a sudden deterioration. Soon, glaucoma set in, and Ansar lost sight in both his eyes in 2007.

By this time he had learnt foot reflexology but fell into a depression. Fortuitously, he met M.C. Roy, project head for Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged at Kochi. “I told Ansar he is young and there was no point staying at home,” says Roy. “There are many ways a disabled person can earn a living.”

Roy met the general manager of The Gateway Hotel, and told him that because the young man was visually challenged he could do the foot reflexology in a customer’s room. “The guest does not have to worry about his attire and could continue to enjoy his privacy,” he says. So, Ansar was hired.

Today, two years later, on an average he has about seven customers a day. He spends an hour with each person. “And all are satisfied,” says the hotel’s Health Club in-charge, K.S. Reejesh. “He is known as the man with the magic hands.”

Incidentally, foot reflexology has been practiced for centuries in China, Egypt and India. On one’s soles there are many nerve endings. When pressure is applied for a period of time it has a soothing effect on the organs, the glands and the brain.

Ansar’s future plans include setting up a training school for visually challenged people so that they can learn foot reflexology. “There is a big demand and there are not enough people for the job,” he says with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

From villain to comedian


Meeting producer S.K. Nair in a hotel at Thiruvananthapuram was a major break for actor Janardhanan

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1968, when Janardhanan Nair was studying for his second year in commerce in Neyyatinkara College, an English professor, Sreevaraham Balakrishnan, selected him to act in a play. “The professor saw some potential in me,” he says. “I was tall, fair and handsome.”

Janardhanan’s next chance came when the Vayanasala in Thiruvananthapuram staged a play in honour of Balarama Varma, the Maharaja of Travancore. Janardhanan played the role of a painter alongside stalwarts T.R. Sukumaran Nair and P.K. Venukuttan Nair.

After the play, the actors were introduced to the king. “The Maharaja told me, ‘You acted well’,” says Janardhanan. “This was a big boost for me. My attitude towards acting changed at that very moment. I began to take it seriously.”

In 1970, Janardhanan heard that the people connected with the film ‘Chembarathi’, were having discussions at the Magnet Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, where the aspiring actor was a regular.

At the insistence of the bartender Janaradhanan wrote a letter to the producer S.K. Nair. In it he said, “Outside, a Nair is waiting. If you have the time can you meet me?”

Janaradhanan sat in the lobby calmly drinking a glass of rum. After a while a man came out wearing a half-sleeve shirt and white mundu. He approached Janardhanan and said, “What are you doing?” Janardhanan said, “I am having a glass of rum.” When he heard this Nair burst out laughing.

They started talking. Then Nair said, “I wished I had met you earlier. Unfortunately, the casting is over.” Janardhanan replied, “No problems, I am glad to have made your acquaintance.”

Nair did not forget him. Sometime later he hired Janardhanan to work as a manager for the film. “Nair Sir told me I would understand what production was all about while doing the job,” says Janardhanan. “And he was right.”

In late 1971, Nair started an office in Chennai for his company, New India Films. And Janardhanan was once again appointed as the manager. For various reasons he would go regularly to the office of the Film Chamber of Commerce where, one day, the director Sethu Madhavan saw him. “He asked me whether I was interested in films,” says Janardhanan. “And here I was eagerly waiting for a chance.”

Janardhanan was given a role as Prem Nazir’s friend in ‘Aadhyathe Katha’. “My character was close to Prem Nazir and whenever he faced any problems I would try to help,” he says.

Janardhanan’s first scene was against the well-known villain at that time, N. Govindan Kutty. He had to stare intensely at Govindan Kutty and say, “If you have the courage step forward.”

When Janardhanan said this, he remembers that his whole body was trembling. “It was impossible to look at Govindan Kutty and not feel nervous,” he says. “He was a huge fellow with a thick moustache.” Fortunately, the scene was okayed in the first take itself.

Thereafter, Janardhanan began acting in many films. After a few years, there came a time when the reigning villains Jos Prakash, K.P. Ummer and Govindan Kutty opted for character roles. “I stepped into the gap and became a villain,” he says. And he acted as a villain for about 200 films. “All I did was beat up people and rape women,” he says.

In the film ‘Sathyam’ the actress Ambika was having a bath. Janardhanan was supposed to carry her, dripping wet, to the bed and rape her.

When Janardhanan jumped on top of Amibika the bed broke and both of them fell to the floor. “Thankfully, none of us were badly injured,” he says.

However, because of this negative image, at outdoor shoots women and girls would avoid talking to him. “Even though I was a married man with children the audience believed so deeply in the characters I played that they hated me,” he says.

Janardhanan’s career moved forward smoothly. In 1988 he got the role of Ousephachen in ‘Oru CBI Diary Kurippu’. Without realising it, a hidden talent was unearthed: that of a comedian.

“Thereafter, I began to play one comic role after another,” he says. Hundreds of films later, over several years, with his career going great guns, tragedy struck.

In 2004 Janardhanan’s wife, Vijaylakshmi, fell ill. When a doctor was consulted he suggested a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). “But Vijaylakshmi refused and opted for Ayurvedic treatment,” he says. After a while her condition worsened. When an MRI was eventually done she had cancer in the ovary, intestines and the uterus. It was too late. Soon, she died, leaving behind two married daughters, who live in Dubai and Sharjah.

In his large house at Vennala, where he stays with a grandson who is studying in Class 11 in Choice school, Janardhanan is supervising the cutting of the grass on his lawn. “I believe in God,” he says “I believe our destiny is already decided when we are born. What we plan never works out. We have no option but to follow our fate.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The road to nowhere

Residents of Old St. Augustine School Road, who live beside the railway tracks, near North station, have been using the road for more than 60 years. Suddenly, the Railways closed it down in the name of safety, putting the people to great hardship

Photo: P.N. Pankajakshan Pillai in front of his house on Old St. Augustine School road

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 2008 residents of Old St. Augustine School Road, who stay beside the tracks near North Railway station, got a shock. Without prior warning the road was closed by the Railways by installing iron beams.

“We could no longer drive our cars to our houses,” says businessman Joseph Vadakkel. Nowadays, the residents park their cars in adjoining roads, exposing the vehicles to inclement weather and thieves.

“Among the people who stay here, there are sick and aged people who need constant medical attention,” says Joseph. “If we are denied motorable access it will be impossible to get medical aid during an emergency.”

Joseph has a right to be worried. His mother, Rosy, who is 83, is a cardiac patient.

Near their house is the hostel of the Muslim Educational Society. When students fall ill they have to be physically carried to the main road, since no car and not even an auto-rickshaw can go past the barrier. “This has caused a great deal of hardship,” says Chairman P.A. Mamoo.

At night, owing to the absence of police patrols, because of the barrier, the road has become a haunt for drug peddlers and anti-social elements. “The Railways say they are worried about safety, but now the road has become dangerous, especially for our school-going children,” says Advocate Mathew Vadakkel.

In a twist of irony, P.N. Pankajakshan Pillai, a retired Divisional Commercial Manager of the Railways says his former organisation is not following the spirit of the law. “Section 16 of the 1989 Railway Act clearly states that no inconvenience should be caused to the occupiers and owners of adjoining lands,” he says.

The Railways have kept insisting there has been no road for long, say the residents. But through a tenacious search, they have managed to obtain the relevant records from the Cochin Corporation and the Village Office. “These documents prove that a road has been in existence for more than 60 years,” says Joseph.

Incidentally, among the 40 families who rented or owned property on the one kilometre-long road, there was a former Supreme Court Judge, (Late) K.K. Mathew, and three High Court judges: Justices K.P. Radhakrishna Menon, Chettur Sankaran Nair and the late George Vadakkel. “Surely they would not have stayed here if there was no road,” says Joseph.

A senior Railway official, who did not want to be identified, says that they were forced to take action because of the likelihood of a mishap taking place. “We are duty-bound to prevent that,” he says. The local people contend that in the past sixty years there has not been a single accident.

Their repeated plea to the Railways to re-open the road was met with anger and contempt, especially by the Assistant Divisional Engineer at Kochi.

When the people approached the local Cochin Corporation councillor K.V. Manoj and senior politicians there was no response.

In desperation the families took the legal route. In February, 2009, Rosy Vadakkel filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, pleading for maintenance of the status quo.

In April, the court, in an interim order, directed the Railways to “pass appropriate orders remedying the grievance of the petitioner.” In early July, the Railways responded.

“They said that if anybody wants to use the road they can apply for the use of one metre (3’ 3”) or three metres (9’ 10”),” says Pillai.

For one metre there is a one-time payment. If it is for three metres, the railways will measure the area required, and the rent would be calculated at 6 per cent of the market value of the land. Once the amount is fixed, the residents will have to make an advance payment for 10 years.

When Joseph inquired about the cost of using the road and putting up barricades near the tracks, outside his home, he was told it would come to a whopping Rs 17.5 lakh and it covers only five houses. “This sum is beyond our means,” he says. “I can well imagine the cost for the others.”

FACT engineer P. Subramoniam says that in 2007-8, the Railways made a profit of Rs 25,000 crore. “Surely, with such huge profits the Railways can afford to adopt a humanitarian approach towards us,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Thy will be done

Sr. Jesme is in the centre of a storm with her autobiography, ‘Amen’. For the first time ever, a nun talks about sexual happenings and mental harassment inside a convent

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Sr. Jesme’s autobiography, ‘Amen’ came out a few months ago, her colleagues in the Congregation of Mother of Carmel were busy trying to figure out the real nuns behind the pseudonyms.

“More than the content they wanted to find out who was who,” says Jesme. “They would call me and ask, ‘Did you mean this sister or that?’ To some, I told the correct names.”

Jesme says one of the nuns has written a letter to the editor of a weekly Catholic Church newspaper in which she said, “Don’t insult Sr. Jesme through your publication. There is a minority inside the convents who believe that every word she has written is true.”

Jesme says the nuns are afraid to speak out. “Those who speak out and question decisions are sidelined,” she says. “Only people who please the authorities get the high posts.”

But in her book Jesme talks about a disturbing trend to suppress rebellious priests and nuns. They are labeled as insane, taken to the mental asylum and given psychiatric drugs. “Soon, because of the powerful drugs, the person becomes docile, and loses the independent streak,” she says.

Jesme had also been called insane, and her Mother General wanted her to take the drugs. She realised the only way out was to escape from the convent. When she left, the church announced that she was mentally unstable.

“I wanted to tell the people I was not mad,” she says. “I wanted to show by logical argument what really happened.” So she wrote ‘Amen’ in a total of five weeks, spread over three months. But she was stunned that such a large number of people have read the book and responded positively.

“These are all miracles by Jesus,” she says. Incidentally, the word, ‘Jesme’, has been formed from two words: ‘Jesus’ and ‘Me’.

What has caused a storm and rocked the church was her description in a few pages of a 180 page book of the sexual happenings among the religious people. Nuns sleep with other nuns, while priests enjoy sex with nuns.

“The Church authorities deny that such things are not taking place, but I was a victim,” she says. Jesme was molested by a priest in Bangalore, as well as a nun.

She remembers the case of a nun who told her Superior that in the convent where she stays, no nun sleeps in her own bed at night. Everyone is going to different rooms, the nun had said.

“When two nuns spend all the time together, including hours behind closed doors there is a suspicion that they are lesbians, but there is no proof,” says Jesme.

Recently, Jesme met a priest in Kottayam who told her she had just touched the periphery. “Graver things are happening in the sexual field,” the priest said. “Nobody observes the vow of chastity. We cannot live without sex.”

Even though Jesme has received plenty of support from civil society and the media, some Catholics have been deeply offended. One man called her up and said, “You have spoiled the name of the church. We know evil things are happening inside, but what is the need to speak out? The church should be regarded as a powerful institution. Let things be.”

At her rented apartment in Kozhikode, just opposite the door, there is a large picture of Jesus Christ embossed on a bamboo mat hanging on a wall. It is a small apartment, with a living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. And in person Jesme is charming and smiles all the time.

“You can’t imagine the sense of freedom I am experiencing,” says Jesme, who had been a nun for 27 years. She left in August, 2008. “When I want to sleep I sleep. If I want to go out I can do so, without asking anybody’s permission. I can do whatever I want to do. I never look at the clock at all.”

She bustles around in the kitchen making tea. And when she finds that she does not have a large cup, she brings the tea in two small cups for the visitor. Of course, she no longer wears a habit. Instead, she wears a salwar kameez. “I find it difficult to wear a saree,” she says. However, she is yet to get used to being a former nun.

When she steps out she frequently touches her head to see whether she has worn the veil and realises she does not need to wear it any more. “What a strange feeling it is,” she says.

Thanks to her pension from the state government as a retired teacher, and her book royalties, Jesme is able to pay her bills. She had plans to be a guest lecturer, but has not received any suitable offers. So, she is taking the year off. But Jesme is invited all the time to attend seminars and functions.

“People are curious to see how I look like,” she says, with a smile. “They praise me for my bravery.” But her family does not show the same degree of appreciation.

“They did not want me to write the book,” she says. “They had wanted me to wear a white saree, remain at one corner, read the Bible, recite the Rosary and remain silent. If I did this they were willing to welcome me home.”

Recently, her 72-year-old mother wrote a letter asking Jesme not to give interviews about her life in the convent. “My youngest brother called me up and shouted at me for spoiling the family name,” she says.

But Jesme carries on resolutely, irrespective of what people say or don’t say. “It is Jesus who wanted me to join the convent and it is Jesus who told me to leave,” she says. “I have to obey Him at all times.”

The Church responds

By Fr Paul Thelakat

With sympathy and understanding to Sr. Jesme I feel that what she says is a romantic infatuation of a stagnated girl with Jesus. Let her think whether the Jesus she talks about is her own alter ego.

She says that she has been made insane by the church authorities. If any nun or priest has been compelled to take psychiatric drugs they must complain to the police. If a psychiatrist has prescribed such medicines Sr. Jesme should rethink about her mental sanity.

Sr. Jesme quotes an anonymous Kottayam-based priest with approval: “Nobody observes the vow of chastity. We cannot live without sex.” What a sweeping generalisation! How late you are to find the truth!

I remember a passage in her book, ‘Amen’ where she describes a sexual encounter with a priest at Bangalore. The narrative talks about their consensual fall. But she comes out accusing the priest. Both of them defaced the face of Christ and the church. She is part of the sin of the church. I would have much appreciated her if she gave a slap to the priest and told it to the world. I cannot laud Sr. Jesme for her bravery.

She remained in the prison for 27 years enjoying the pleasures and power of the convent and of a college lecturer as a slave. Perhaps she would have been a slave also in her own family. That is what she confirms by her statements about her mother and brothers.

(Thelakat is the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church)

Sr. Jesme replies:

My quoting of the Kottayam priest is not a generalisation. There are other priests who have derided me for my 'mild' narration of sex in the book, because they say even worse things have happened. There are some nuns who told me that even though they have taken the vow of chastity, they violate it often.

If I have partaken in the 'sin of the Church', the priest and nun who were my partners are still inside and in high positions. But Fr. Paul Thelakat is protecting them. After slapping the priest in Bangalore where should I run to? To be raped by many more? I was new to the city and in a state of panic.

My Mother General tried to force me to take medicines for insanity. The Archbishop also wanted me to obey the Mother General. We do not have the provision to approach the police in such cases. The vow of obedience that we take when we become nuns bans all such rights.

As for my mother and brothers, they are scared of the church. And I accept their stance, understanding their fears.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Back from the brink


A suicide attempt was the major turning point in Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam Gopi’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Mundur, near Thirissur, Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Gopi welcomes me warmly to his home, ‘Guru Kripa’. He is wearing a maroon shirt and white mundu.

We settle down on a sofa and soon the interview begins. About twenty minutes into the conversation I tell him I am unable to follow what he has just said. Irritated, Gopiyasan abruptly says, “There is nothing more I have to say. I have a sore throat and feel tired.”

It is at this delicate moment that I quickly mention the name of my friend, Suresh (name changed), a passionate Kathakali fan, who has known Gopiyasan from his childhood.

A few weeks ago, keen to introduce a neophyte like me to the power and magic of kathakali, Suresh sends me a wake-up SMS at 4.45 a.m. There is a Gopiyasan dance being telecast at 5 a.m. And so, with sleep-laden eyes and a stiff body, I switch on the television.

For the next one hour Suresh is on the mobile phone explaining every nuance, mudra, gesture and facial expression. Thanks to this class I am able to appreciate Gopiyasan’s genius.

When Gopiyasan hears this anecdote, he bursts out laughing. His equilibrium restored, the interview resumes once again. He talks with an infectious enthusiasm and joy, and poses for photographs, with his wide, dazzling smile. And so, it is with a grateful shake of his hand that I take his leave and return.

At Kochi I board an Aluva-bound bus to reach the office. However, later, when I open my bag I notice, with a deep sense of shock, that the dictaphone and the cassette, which contains the interview, has been stolen.

Think about it: the words of a man who has reached the pinnacle of his art is stolen by a man of low character and crooked motives. The worst of human nature has clawed at the best.

As for me I am left staring at emptiness. Nevertheless, I feel the brain had also recorded the conversation. The aim now is to recover what is there…

Gopiyasan's story

When Gopiyasan was ten years old he began learning Kathakali under Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair at Nagallassery, near Pattambi. From the very beginning he made a mark.

But one day, things went wrong. Ramunni Nair hit Gopi with several strokes of the cane. The child was deeply upset. The next morning he boarded a bus and instead of heading for his home, at Kothachira village, he went to Pattambi.

He had heard that the Army was holding a recruitment camp there. When Gopi reached Pattambi he saw that he had to cross a river by using a ferry. But he only had three-fourths of an anna, which was not enough.

As he stood irresolutely, a Muslim tea-shop owner saw him and asked what the problem was. “I said I did not have the money to travel on the ferry,” says Gopiyasan, who also told him the reason he wanted to go across. The shop owner told Gopi he was too young to join the Army.

The man gave Gopi a breakfast of puttu and kadala and a cup of tea, refused to take any money, and put him on the bus back home. “I will never forget the kindness of the man,” he says. Gopi returned to the house of Ramunni Nair and reconnected with his destiny.

Very soon, Gopiyasan started giving public recitals and received plaudits. In 1958, he was inducted into the Kerala Kalamandalam as a teacher.

One day, along with his gurus, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Kalamanadalam Padmanabhan Nair, Gopiyasan went to Ernakulam to meet the founder of the Kalamandalam, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon who was sick.

“In fact he was dying,” says Gopi. “And this great poet had only one thought in his mind: the Kalamandalam.” Vallathol said that he depended on them to carry the reputation of Kalamanadalam forward. “Somehow, I took this plea deep into my heart and for the next 34 years I served the institution with the utmost sincerity,” he says.

The next turning point came when as a staffer Gopiyasan received numerous invitations to do solo recitals. It sparked immense jealousy among the other staffers, students and teachers. Gopiyasan was wracked by anxiety and despair at this opposition.

One night, after dinner, he suddenly told his wife, Chandrika, that instead of sleeping in the bedroom, he would do so in the rehearsal area.

Once inside, he locked the door and swallowed 12 sleeping pills. He threw the tablet packets outside the window. An anxious Chandrika discovered them. Immediately she informed Padmanabhan Nair and the other residents.

When Padmanabhan called out from the window to open the door, Gopiyasan could not disobey. He managed to open it, before he collapsed to the floor. For the next three days he was unconscious, but thanks to timely medical treatment he survived. “It was as if I had received a second life,” says Gopiyasan. Thereafter, his career soared.

But at this time he also developed the habit of drinking which he would do non-stop for 40 years. He took his last sip in 2002.

“It never affected my performances,” says the Padma Shri awardee, whose dream now is to win a fellowship from the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Asked about the future the 72-year-old says, “The moment I can no longer dance I want my life to end.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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