Monday, October 26, 2009

The money-order economy goes bust

As lakhs of Malayalis return from the Middle East because of no jobs, the spectre of financial collapse haunts many

Photo: John Lazar (left) and Yesudasan James at Shaktikulangara fishing harbour, Kollam

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Shaktikulangara fishing harbour, near Kollam, the smell of fish is so overpowering that the urge to retch is intense for visitors. But for workers John Lazar, 48, and Yesudasan James, 39, they look unfazed as they haul plastic crates of fish onto the back of trucks. Both are wearing dirty shirts and lungis.

Among their friends they are known as the ‘Gulf returnees’, having returned early this year from Dubai. The sky is a translucent blue, the sun is shining brightly, seagulls fly about lazily, and a nice breeze is blowing, but their eyes are downcast and their shoulders are stooped.

And there is a reason for this: John is neck deep in debt. In October, 2008, he was summarily sacked as the foreman in a company as the effects of the global recession began to be felt in Dubai. He hung on for three months looking desperately for another job but ran out of luck and money. He returned in January.

He had been earning Rs 35,000. Because of this, he took a loan of Rs 3 lakh from the local bank and bought a small house and property. The monthly repayment is Rs 7000 per month, which he has been unable to pay for the past few months.

Since he had used up his savings, he has taken further loans to meet the expenses of his family, which consists of his wife, a 17-year old son and a 15-year old daughter. “In effect I am Rs 7 lakh in debt,” he says. This job in the harbour gives him a daily income of Rs 250, but it is irregular.

At home he feels pained when his son asks for money to go for a college excursion or for a film and he is unable to give it. “But he does not complain at all,” says John. “He understands the problems I am going through.” But his daughter is different. She throws a tantrum when her needs are not met.

“To be frank, we have reached a stage where all four of us could commit suicide,” he says. “That is how bad the situation is.”

Yesudasan looks as depressed as his colleague. He was working in a marine company in Dubai for a monthly salary of Rs 23,000 when he also lost his job. Like John, he had taken a loan of Rs 7 lakh from the bank and put up a house. “The repayment is Rs 10,000 a month,” he says.

In the initial months, after his return, he had pawned off his wife’s jewellery and other valuables to make the payments. But now, for the past six months he has not paid anything. Yesudasan has to clear another sum of Rs 1.4 lakh which he took to pay the agent who took him to Dubai.

Yesudasan has a work visa which expires in September, 2010. So he went in July to try his luck again but did not get anything. “The situation is grim in Dubai,” he says. Incidentally, according to Morgan Stanley, a global financial services firm, the stalled real estate projects in the Middle East adds up to a stupendous $263 billion.

Meanwhile, like John, Yesudasan gets a daily wage of Rs 250. “I try not to think about the problems I am facing,” says this father of three small children. “I live from moment to moment. If you think too hard, you might want to commit suicide.”

A few streets from the harbour, in a cream coloured house, called ‘Joyland’ lives labour agent Joy Thomas. In the courtyard, there is a Mercedes Benz E-270, a Toyota Innova, and a Scorpio. Joy also doubles up as a film producer having brought out the 2007 Malayalam hit, ‘Hello’, which starred superstar Mohanlal.

A broad-shouldered man, in his late thirties, Joy has sent around 800 workers from Shaktikulangara in the past few years to the United Arab Emirates and other countries.

“Most of these labourers want an easy life,” he says. “Their biggest drawback is that they do not want to look for other jobs. They are only comfortable working for a marine company or a dredger.”

But he says jobs are available as electrical fitters and plumbers in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, but they are not willing to learn a new skill. “They have only themselves to blame,” he says.

Around a thousand people have returned to Shaktikulangara in the past several months. “The job in the harbour finishes by 10 a.m. and till the next day at 5 a.m., they just idle around, smoking and drinking,” says Joy.

One reason for their indolence, says retired businessman Naithil Vincent is their lack of skills in other jobs. “They also don’t know how to run a business,” he says.

What has caused frustration is that the fishing business is not doing well, because there are fewer export orders. “Many of the boat owners are from outside the area and bring their own workers,” he says. So the gulf returnees don’t get much of a chance and suffer in silence.

This suffering is taking place in other districts of Kerala, like Kannur, Wayanad, Malappuram and Palakkad.

In Manayankod, in Palakkad district, T. Harichandran has returned after 28 years in Dubai. He was working in the electricity department when the government slashed his salary to one-third. “It was not possible for me to survive,” he says.

It is the end of the Gulf dream for him, as he is 50 years old and will not get a visa again because of his age. “I have a little bit of savings,” says this father of two college-going children. “I plan to start a business.”

Junaid, 43, was working in Dubai for 23 years. Last year, he joined the ‘Sun and Sky’ jewellery shop as the manager. When the recession hit, he lost his job. He returned to Chettuva, near Chavakad in central Kerala four months ago.

“I am struggling to find something to do,” says Junaid, who has two teenage sons. “It is also not easy to adjust to life here.”

In Malappuram, 90 per cent of the families have one member who has returned from the Middle East. One of them is P.K. Nissam, 25, who has come back from Dubai. He was working as a labourer loading and unloading containers near the port. “I was sacked suddenly,” he says. He tried hard to get another job, but to no avail.

Nissam had gone to Dubai in order to clear the debts incurred by the family following the marriage of his younger sister, Zubeila. “It came to Rs 1.5 lakh,” he says. However, Nissam had to pay the agent Rs 1.1 lakh to get the work visa. And now, his debts have not been cleared. “I am looking for work,” he says. “But jobs are so difficult to find in Kerala.”

However, P.K. Jayachandran, joint secretary of the Pravasi Malayali Welfare Association, says that jobs are available in the construction industry. But young people will not do hard labour work, because society looks down on it. “Nevertheless, they have no problem doing similar work in the Gulf,” he says with a laugh.

In this situation everybody looks towards the state government for help. Says John of Shaktikulangara: “We read in the newspapers that certain schemes have been planned for us, but so far no government official has come to see us.”

Sheela Jacob, the secretary of the state government’s Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department says that they have unveiled two programmes.

One is the Entrepreneur Development Scheme. This is to enable people to start a small business, with assistance from the Kerala Financial Corporation (KFC) at a reduced rate of interest. The state government had given a loan of Rs 100 crore to the KFC to implement this scheme. “However, the response has not been encouraging,” she says.

The second scheme is to provide assistance to people who have returned within two years of going to the Middle East. A sum of Rs 10 crore has been earmarked for this. “We are making efforts to help the people,” she says.

However, the government’s efforts have not had much of an impact. Says Jayachandran: “These schemes are only on paper and are rarely implemented.”

The effect of joblessness is being felt throughout the length and breadth of Kerala, which, for long, had been known as the ‘money order economy’, thanks to postal remittances.

So many families had been able to raise their standard of living, over several decades, thanks to high wages in the Middle East. Now, as that labour market dries up, lakhs of Malayalis watch in fear as they edge closer and closer to the abyss of poverty.


‘Reverse migration has begun’
Says Dr. S. Irudaya Rajan of the Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram

What type of workers have come back?
Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers have returned. But the extent has varied. For instance, unskilled workers like housemaids may not be affected, as you need their service even in times of crisis.

In which districts has the impact been the most severe?
North Kerala has been more affected than the south.

What is the financial impact of migration for workers?
Migrants generate the money to pay for the ticket, visa and other expenses from their own savings, or the savings of the parents, or by selling or mortgaging property or borrowing money from money lenders. One of the migrants whom I met in a worker’s camp in the Middle East said, “We borrow money to migrate to the Gulf and there we borrow money to send back as remittances.”

What is the psychological cost of losing a job?
Every migrant goes with a dream. It could be to own a piece of land or a house or to pay for the dowry for a daughter or sister, provide for the higher education of children, or pay for the medical treatment of elderly parents. When this does not happen, the family is psychologically devastated.

However, there are positive aspects also. I met an elderly couple recently in Thiruvananthapuram and the man said, “My son lost his job and came back. The crisis has united our family. He had never visited us for the last four years.”

What should the state government do?
If the government can provide a livelihood option for a permanent stay in Kerala, it will be helpful for the workers.

Is there a possibility of reverse migration taking place in the near future?
My preliminary assessment indicates that the worst of the economic crisis is over and almost all countries are on the recovery path, thanks to several stimulus packages by their governments. There is the beginning of a trend of reverse migration. However, instead of the United Arab Emirates, it will be Saudi Arabia which may emerge as the number one destination for workers from Kerala.


Life in the Middle East for Malayali workers

Average working hours: 12

Income: between Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000 a month

Number of workers: 22 lakh

Remittances in 2008 = Rs 43,288 crore.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Peeling off falsehoods


Leaving a job in Doordarshan and meeting remarkable people like novelist O.V. Vijayan and architect Laurie Baker were the turning points in director Shyamaprasad’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In an air-conditioned room at the YMCA guest house at Thiruvananthapuram, film director Shyamaprasad is overseeing the editing of his short film, ‘Off Season’ starring the comedian Suraj Venjaramoodu. Watching him intently is his associate director, the Australia-based Bobby Mana.

A call comes on his mobile: Shyamaprasad is asked to appear for a programme for a television channel. He gives his assent after checking his I-Phone Organiser. Dressed in jeans and a white shirt, and frequently running his hands through his hair, it takes Shyamaprasad quite a while to delve into his memories. But, eventually, the stories come out.

One day in 1977, Shyamaprasad and his childhood friend Ananthakrishnan went with a group of friends for a picnic to a hill station called Dhoni in Palakkad. There was a big waterfall. All the boys jumped into the water.

However, there was a strong undercurrent. Soon, Shyamaprasad and Ananthakrishnan started to drown. Both did not know swimming.

“We were holding each other and struggling to stay afloat,” says Shyamaprasad. Somebody reached out with a towel. Shyamaprasad grabbed it and then lost consciousness. Later, he was saved. But, unfortunately, Ananthakrishnan drowned.

“We were close family friends,” says Shyamaprasad. “I was unable to look at his parents in the eye. From that day onwards I became aware of the pain of others.”

Because of this incident Shyamaprasad became a recluse for a while. He stayed at home, studied hard, and passed his pre-degree exams from Victoria College. He had an urgent desire to leave Palakkad. Luckily, at that time a school of drama was being started by Calicut University, at Thrissur, with a degree in Theatre Arts on offer. Shyamaprasad applied and was selected.

He spent the next three years studying under the playwright G. Shankara Pillai. “Today whatever choices I make, in terms of content, actors, style and décor, it goes back to what I learned from Pillai Sir,” he says.

Shyamaprasad joined Doordarshan and in 1985 won a two-year Commonwealth scholarship to do his Masters in Theatre and Media Production from Hull University.
But when he returned he discovered that Doordarshan had cut his seniority and professional benefits due to him.

“It was a demoralising experience,” he says. “My stay abroad was regarded as a break in service, when the information and broadcasting ministry had approved of my stint in the first place.”

At this time Shyamaprasad had made a film called ‘Uyirthezhunnelpu’, which was based on an Albert Camus play. It won the state award for best film on television, as well as best director, actress and cameraman. The station director of Doordarshan told Shyamaprasad that he should not accept the award because Doordarshan is a central government organisation, while the award was of the state.

Shyamaprasad found the directive illogical and went ahead and attended the award ceremony. Thereafter he was suspended. The inevitable happened: Shyamaprasad put in his papers.

“It was tough to leave a cushy central government job,” he says. “I had a wife and two children to support.” But his family stood steadfast behind his resolve to quit. “Looking back it was the right decision, otherwise I would have vegetated creatively,” he says.

Shyamaprasad immediately began making movies: ‘Kallu Kondoru Pennu’ (1998), ‘Agnisakshi’ (1999), ‘Bokshu the Myth’ (2002), ‘Akale’ (2004) and ‘Ore Kadal’ (2007).

‘Ore Kadal’, based on a novel by Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay, won over 50 state, national and international awards, including the prestigious Audience Prize at ‘Bollywood and Beyond,’ a festival of Indian cinema at Stuttgart, Germany, in 2008.

Shyamaprasad’s latest film, ‘Rithu’, with several fresh faces, was released a few months ago, to critical acclaim and has done well at the box office.

The man who has such an impact on audiences was himself impacted by two remarkable men. The first was novelist O.V. Vijayan, a friend of his father, the BJP leader O. Rajagopal.

“I read the ‘Legends of Khasak’ when I was 12,” he says. “I grew up in Palakkad where the novel was set. It was a slice of society that Vijayan captured perfectly and I realised this was a genius at work.”

However, when ‘Dharmapuram’ was published in 1985, Shyamaprasad was confused on how to read it. “There were a lot of scatological descriptions in the novel,” he says. When he accidentally met Vijayan at a medical shop he said, “The book has an offensive tone. Is this art?”

Vijayan looked at Shyamaprasad silently and understood the boyish reaction. “He tried to tell me that each work needs its own idiom,” he says. “It was a lifelong lesson for me.”

The next person who influenced Shyamaprasad was the architect Laurie Baker whom he had met to do a documentary.

“The reason why Laurie Baker avoided plaster and paint in his buildings was because he felt that that the colour, texture and the little imperfections of a brick are beautiful by itself,” says Shyamaprasad. This has become his artistic philosophy.

“If we can bring out the truth through rawness it will create the highest aesthetic experience,” he says. “If a dialogue you write or a scene you make does not reach the level of truth, it is not beautiful. Beauty is not something that is applied afterwards. Beauty is inherent. It is something you discover when you peel off the falsehoods.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fulfilling his dreams step by step

Bobby John Mana went to Australia for higher studies and, thereafter, worked there for several years. But he had a secret desire to be a film director…

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, while on holiday in Kochi, Australian citizen Bobby John Mana saw an item in the newspaper. A documentary film workshop was going to be held at the Amrita School of Communication. Among the speakers on the last day was director Shyamaprasad. Bobby’s ears pricked up when he read this.

Just a few days earlier Bobby had seen Shyamaprasad’s ‘Ore Kadal’ on DVD and had been deeply impressed. In it, Mammooty plays Dr. S.R. Nathan, a professor of economics who lives on the top floor of a building, while on the ground floor is a financially strapped couple, Deepthi (Meera Jasmine) and Jayakumar (Narein) with a son.

“I was wondering why the director had allowed people from different strata to live in the same building,” he says. “It seemed foolish.”

But halfway through the film, Jayakumar tells Deepthi that the builder initially sold the top floor apartments at a high price. Later, because of some problems, the rest of the units were sold at a cheaper rate. “I realised that Shyamaprasad had deftly answered my doubts,” he says.

Bobby was also impressed by the open-ended conclusion. “So many people liked the ending,” he says. “I realised that Shyamaprasad was a top quality film-maker.”

So Bobby googled Shyamaprasad, secured the mobile number, but felt hesitant to call. That was when he read about the workshop. So he enrolled with alacrity.

When Bobby met Shyamaprasad they clicked instantaneously. “Maybe it was because Shyam had also trained in Britain, so we could find a mutual wavelength,” says Bobby.

It was while he was dropping the Thiruvananthapuram-based Shyamaprasad to the North railway station, following the conclusion of the workshop that Bobby told the director about his background.

Born in Kochi, Bobby did his schooling at Rajagiri Public School. It was when he was a teenager that he developed a passion for films. “I saw many movies, especially English films at Sridhar and Little Shenoys,” he says. His favourite film was ‘Jaws’, because of its superb direction and special effects.

At that time, his parents would give him Rs 7 as pocket money and Bobby used it to see films. “Rs 2 was for samosas and coffee, while the rest went for the ticket,” he says.

After doing his graduation from St. Albert’s College, Bobby worked in the Kelachandra Group of Companies, before he went for his MBA at the University of Newcastle, near Sydney. Thereafter, Bobby worked in the IT industry at Sydney for ten years. However, all along, he harboured a dream about becoming a director.

In 2005, thanks to the prompting of a friend in a bar at Sydney, Bobby quit his comfortable job, became a cab driver in the evenings and did a directing course at the Metro Screen School in Sydney during the day. Following that he did a stint at the prestigious Australian Film Television and Radio School and took classes on the Stanislavsky method of acting.

Then he flew to Kerala for the Christmas holidays. That was when he saw ‘Ore Kadal’ and fate played its card by making him meet Shyamaprasad.

The award-winning director offered Bobby the job of assistant director for the film, ‘Ritu’. Bobby accepted and got a chance to see a master craftsman at work. “Shyamaprasad does not use a story board,” he says. “He is a gifted person, who has a vision. He can see things beyond the camera.”

But Bobby took some time to adjust to the chaos of film-making in Kerala. “A shoot is like a wedding here, where the bridegroom will also be running around, doing the last-minute arrangements,” he says.” Whereas overseas his only job is to play his role.”

Eventually, the film was completed and it did well at the box office. Later, Bobby, now promoted to associate director, worked on a short film by Shyamaprasad called, “Off Season.”

At his eighth floor study in an apartment at Kochi, he has a computer, a TV and a DVD system. A book of short stories by Anton Chekhov lies on the table. He has plans to write a screenplay based on one of Chekhov’s stories.

Meanwhile, he has started pre-production work on Shyamaprasad’s next film, ‘Electra’, which will begin shooting in December,” he says. “I am fulfilling my dream of being in films, step by step.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Frankfurt was a wonderful experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Sr. Jesme during the reading at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Sr. Jesme, the author of the best-selling autobiography, ‘Amen’ has returned after participating in the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is regarded as the world’s largest and most prestigious book festival.

She stayed at the Hotel Reuterhof at Darmstadt and commuted every day by train to Frankfurt, a distance of 21 kms. At the fair, India had 42 stalls, while DC Books were the only representative from Kerala. In all 95 countries took part.

For the reading of ‘Amen’, Sr. Jesme began with a brief segment in Malayalam, before reading several extracts from the English version.

“There was a good gathering,” says DC Books Publisher Ravi Deecee. The audience comprised mostly French and German people, apart from a sprinkling of Indians. There was a café nearby and all the patrons were listening in.

“The most unusual aspect about the fair was how people seem to want to drink and eat and listen at the same time,” says Sr. Jesme.

Following the reading, the questions began: why didn’t Sr. Jesme leave the convent earlier? Will her book encourage other nuns to leave? What was the reaction of the church?

An Indian priest, who did not identify himself, said, “When you join the military or the police, you have to obey the rules. The same is the case with the convent. Why are you against the law?”

Sr. Jesme replied, “I respect law and order. However, I am against the interpretation of the rules that go against the spirit of the Bible and Jesus Christ.”

At the conclusion, a group of women came up to Sr. Jesme and shook her hand. Among them was Prof. Dr. Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt, who teaches comparative religion at Philipps University, Marburg.

“I liked the reading,” she says. “Sr. Jesme is a powerful and courageous woman. I hope she will be able to carry on telling the truth about what is wrong in the Church. It is admirable that she has not lost her religious faith despite all her troubles.”

Later, Sr. Jesme was able to visit Heidelberg, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. "Overall, it was a wonderful experience," she says.

The publisher was also very happy. “All the copies of ‘Amen’, which we had brought to the fair, were sold out,” says Ravi Deecee. “Several European publishers have expressed an interest in the book.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

From the hills of Tripura


Poet Chandrakanta Murasingh talks about writing in a much neglected language, Kokborok, which belongs to the indigenous tribes of the north-eastern state

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sitting on a lounge chair beside the swimming pool of the Taj Green Cove at Kovalam, Tripura poet Chandrakanta Murasingh launches into a poem in Kokborok, the language of the indigenous tribes of the state.

Here are a few lines, translated into English:

‘The haunting madhavi fragrance
Escapes the rustle of spring air
It is acrid with the smell of gunpowder.’

The word, ‘gunpowder’ is slightly jarring. So why has Chandrakanta used it? “There has been so much of violence in Tripura between the extremists and the Army,” he says. “The extremists want independence because of decades of neglect.”

What is peculiar about Tripura is the domination of the Bengalis in all aspects of life. “The indigenous tribes have no say,” he says. In fact, the Bengali influence is so pervasive that the Kokborok language uses the Bengali script.

Chandrakanta blames the former kings of Tripura who allowed the language to fall into disrepute, even as they adopted Bengali as the official language.

“The great Bengali writer Rabindrananth Tagore who had visited Tripura seven times never once spoke about the neglect of Kokborok,” says Chandrakanta.

Because of this, for years, the indigenous tribes suffered from an inferiority complex and never spoke the language in public. However, there was some redemption when the state government made Kokborok an official language, on par with Bengali, in 1979.

Chandrakanta’s poems deal with the social, political, cultural and psychological problems of the people. “I also write about the wonder of nature,” he says.

There is a reason for this. Chandrakanta grew up in a village called Twiwandal, which had mountains on all sides. Near the village there were jungles and streams. “It was beautiful,” he says.

When he was a youngster he would help his parents, both of whom were farmers, in tilling the land and taking the cows out to graze.

The urge to write poems arose when he was in high school. “I would get emotional and a poem would come out of me,” he says. He continued writing over the years and has published six books of poetry, even as he goes about his job as an officer of the Tripura Gramin Bank.

The highlight of his writing career occurred when he won the Bhasha Samman Award given by the Sahitya Akademi in 1996 for his contribution to Kokborok literature.

“It was a big moment for me, as well as for the language,” he says with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Coming together

First-ever Indian Mission Congress held in Mumbai

Photo: (From left) Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo, Mar Baselious Cleemis, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, and Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil at the inauguration ceremony of the Indian Mission Congress

By Shevlin Sebastian

Prabhu Yesu Mahotsav (Lord Jesus’ Festival): that was the name of the first- ever Indian Mission Congress which took place in Mumbai (October 14-18). More than 1500 delegates representing the 180 dioceses all over India were in attendance. Also present were 116 Bishops, representing the three rites of the Catholic church: The Latin, the Syro-Malabar, and the Syro-Malankara rite.

Apart from the Major Archbishop of the Syro Malankara church, Mar Baselious Cleemis, the nation’s three Cardinals were present: Oswald Gracias from Mumbai, Telesphore P. Toppo of Ranchi and Varkey Vithayathil, the major-archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church.

Cardinal Vithayathil, who delivered the presidential address, says, “The theme is ‘Let Your Light Shine’, which means we want to propagate the teachings of Jesus Christ to the people of India.”

He says that it is important for Jesus that nobody is forced to accept his message, and get converted. It is also important that all that is true and good and lovable in all the different religions of India should be respected.

“We want people to listen to the message of Jesus Christ and his doctrine of love, humility and service,” says Cardinal Vithayathil. “Acceptance of this message is each person’s freedom.”

Earlier, the meet was inaugurated by Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana,
the Vatican Ambassador to India and the representative of Pope Benedict XVI.

In fact, it was the earlier Pope, John Paul 11, who, at the seventh mission congress at Guatemala in 2003 suggested that each year a mission congress should be held in one of the five continents. Thus, the Asian Mission Congress was held at Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2006.

At that Congress it was decided that the Mission Congress should be held in different countries of Asia. “That is how it has come to India,” says Cardinal Vithayathil.

Apart from key-note speeches by eminent representatives of the church, there were discussions, exhibitions, cultural programmes and ‘sharing the faith’ workshops.

In these workshops people described how their faith in Jesus brought them peace and happiness, despite problems and trials. “It has been an enriching experience for me,” says Cardinal Vithayathil.

The aim now is to hold this event once every five years in Asia.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, October 19, 2009

A first for Kerala


The festival has established itself as an event of significance

Photo: Organiser Binoo K. John

By Shevlin Sebastian

Three years ago, the Delhi-based author cum journalist Binoo K. John decided to start an annual memorial lecture in honour of his late father, the distinguished journalist K.C. John. The first lecture was delivered by Tehelka magazine editor Tarun Tejpal. It was followed by William Dalrymple, award-winning author.

However, Binoo was finding it difficult to get sponsors. They told him it was easier to provide money if there was a literary festival.

And thus, the Kovalam Literary Festival was set up in 2008. But that was not the only reason for setting up the event. “Kerala does not have a festival like this,” he says. “Book readings don’t happen here; there are no literary sessions.”

In Kerala of course, there is very little engagement with outside writing. “The reason is because Malayalam literature is so powerful and rich,” he says. “I wanted to break that with a national festival, with an international flavour. After the festival at Jaipur this is the second-best in India.”

Last year there were top-notch authors like the V.S. Naipaul biographer, Patrick French and eminent poet Gulzar, backed up by the CEO of Penguin Mike Bryan and of HarperCollins, V.K. Karthika. But this year the star power was missing.

“There are only about ten top quality writers in India,” says Binoo. “Last year, five had come.” He was referring to authors who sell more than 20,000 copies like William Dalrymple, Amitav Ghosh, Shobhaa De, Shashi Tharoor and Vikram Seth. “However, five of India’s top young writers participated in this edition,” he says.

Others had been invited but did not arrive: Shobhaa De and the South African anti-apartheid writer Rozena Maart. This year Binoo had wanted the festival to be a showcase for Pakistani writing.

But all the top three Pakistani writers -- Daniyall Mueenuddin, Hanif Mohammed, and Kamila Shamsie -- pulled out at the last minute. “This happens at every festival,” he says. “But the ones who took part, like the art historian Christopher Pinney and sociologist Sanjay Srivastava are the top guys in their respective fields.”

Clearly the festival has made its mark. However, the location at Kovalam has been a hindrance for those who stay at Thiruvananthapuram. “But the ambience is so wonderful,” says Binoo. “All successful festivals are held in highly picturesque places. Think of The Hay on Wye in Wales and Ubud in Bali.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Creative and compulsive


Myanmar dissident Ma Thida is fearful of the Army authorities, while chick-lit author Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan shakes the conservative Mallu crowd

Photo: Ma Thida

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the first evening of the Kovalam Literary Festival, a frail and pensive woman stands in the lobby of the Taj Green Cove. It is the Myanmarese dissident and writer Ma Thida. When a scribe approaches her for an interview, she says, “I have one request. Please do not put up the article on the Internet. Otherwise, the Army authorities will cause trouble for me.”

It is an unusual request, since there are several articles on Ma Thida on the web. But it gives an indication of the fear and torment she has gone through, including spells of solitary confinement during her six-year imprisonment in Myanmar. She was released only when she nearly died.

When the academician, Mukul Kesavan hears that Ma Thida had actually been given a 20-year sentence, he puts his hand over his heart and his eyes bulge out. “I can’t believe it,” he says.

Actor Om Puri is present with his wife Nandita. She has read extracts from an upcoming biography, written by her, on her husband. Later, Om is invited to have an interaction with management students. As he answers the numerous questions with wit and precision, a female voice from the back says, “Why are the people of the north-east always portrayed as tribals? Why is there no shooting of films there?”

Om says, “Yes, there is a stereotypical representation. And we must change that. As for the second question, like in Kashmir, film-makers are afraid to go to the North-east because of the fear of violence.”

After the interaction Om walks all the way to the back and shakes the woman’s hand.
“It was a very interesting question,” he says. And the lady, who is from the north-east, has a beatific smile on her face.

Chick lit author Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan also has a beatific smile on her face at the dinner on the beach, where the liquor is in never-ending supply. She lights a cigarette with aplomb and it has an unintended consequence: it shakes the conservative Malayali guests present right to the bottom of their hearts.

“Look at her audacity,” says one.

“And to think she is a Malayali,” says a woman. “Her mother is sitting right next to her!”

When Delhi University professor Sanjay Srivastava is retold this conversation he bursts out laughing. “In our childhood, parents were powerful figures, who had to be obeyed at all costs,” he says. “Not any more. We can only advise our children, but they will do what they want.”

On another day, at a lunch beneath coconut trees and a grassy lawn, a mini golf course on one side, and a lake on the other, a visitor from Delhi points at a group of young Indian woman writers sitting around a table, displaying plunging cleavages and smooth thighs.

“What is the literary worth of these writers?” he says. “Do they have any writing skills? Are their stories written from the soul? Is there any powerful characterisation?”

The people around his table is silent. Then he says, “I have my doubts. They have good contacts in the media, they spend their own money to have splashy cocktail party book launches, but they will last for only a season. Next year, another group of writers will take over and these books will be forgotten. They cannot withstand the test of time.”

Tamil publisher S.R. Sundaram (a.k.a. Kannan) of Kalachuvadu Publications publishes books that have stood the test of time. An interesting difference: all the best-sellers have been written by his late father, the noted writer Sundara Ramaswamy. “Thanks to his books, I am surviving as a publisher,” he says, with a smile.

Tripura poet Chandrakanta Murasingh writes in Kokborok, a language that has not survived. Instead, he has to use the Bengali script to write his poems. “I envy you Malayalis,” he says. “You have your own language, a vibrant culture, and a strong political ethos.”

When Chandrakanta meets a Malayali who can speak Bengali, he is amazed. “I have many Malayali friends but no one can speak Bengali,” he says, as he rushes to embrace the poor fellow. “I feel at home now.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

‘Pornography has gone mainstream’


Says Prof. Sanjay Srivastava, as he presented a paper on ‘The History of Pornography in India’

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of sociology at Delhi University was about to begin his lecture on the ‘History of Pornography in India’, he said, “I just want to warn you that some photographs may be offensive. They are semi-pornographic in nature.” Of course, when he said this, it had the opposite effect: nobody left the hall. Prof. Srivastava spoke passionately and at length on this interesting subject.

Here are excerpts from an interview:

Is there a culture of pornographic writings in India?
From the beginning of the 19th century, print-pornography was circulated widely in many parts of India. In Kolkata there were specific localities that were famous for publishing pornographic materials. This was popular among the middle and upper middle classes.
However, when the colonial government enacted obscenity laws, pornography began to be published under the guise of medical advice for various sexual problems.

What was the situation in Kerala?
In Kerala there is a history of filmed pornography. Even though films were more expensive to purchase, there were a large number of people who could afford to buy it. Films were easier to transport, without being detected, and thanks to the large Malayali diaspora in West Asia and other places, it became a lucrative market.

How is pornography represented in books and magazines?
Most of the English-language glossy publications tend to be 'soft-porn'. They carry extremely explicit articles on sex, different forms of sexual pleasure, women's sexuality, single women and sex, and homosexuality, besides articles on etiquette and other issues.
Then there is ‘footpath-pornography'. These booklets show photographs of European women in raptures.

Does footpath pornography sell well?
Yes, they have the widest circulation. They are cheap to purchase, and are sold at places frequented by poor people: railways stations, bus stands, slums, and resettlement colonies.

Apart from the poor, who else reads pornography in India?
Men of ALL age groups in ALL classes buy it, especially in the 18-40 category. But women have also become avid readers. This is part of a new culture of sexual freedom. So what is available to men is also regarded as a woman's right. Also, an increasing number of couples are able to access different kinds of pornography, thanks to the Internet and movies on hire.

In which language are pornographic sales the highest?
Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil books and magazines have some of the highest circulations.

What are the themes?
The danger of the modern woman: she cannot be trusted to be a good wife because she has very strong sexual desires. But one can have fun with her, unlike a traditional woman. Having forbidden sexual relationships: with a sister-in-law or an aunt. There are tales of sexual encounters with strangers in trains or planes. Finally, there is the avenging woman who sets out to trap a man who might have raped her and punish him in some way.

What are the changes that you have detected over the years?
We have moved from an era of Nehruvian sexuality -- where sex could only be discussed in the context of family planning -- to one of the free-market, where sexuality has been de-linked from reproduction and is increasingly discussed in the context of recreation.

Which is the period in history when pornography in India was at its peak?
Right now!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Her story


A documentary on Kamala Das is evocative and poignant

Photo: The late Kamala Das with Suresh Kohli

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Poets are snails without shells,” says Kamala Das. “They can be crushed so easily. It’s a sad occupation, but I would not choose another.”

Thus spoke the writer in ‘Kamala Das: An Introduction’, a 28 minute documentary, commissioned by the Sahitya Akademi, and directed by documentary film-maker and publisher Suresh Kohli.

In the film Kamala Das came across as a physically frail person. A diabetic, she leaned on companions to walk. Frequently, she had to press a handkerchief to her eyes, which watered easily.

Apart from reading some of her poems, Kamala talked about the genesis of her most famous book, ‘My Story’. The autobiography describes her multiple affairs and the strained relationship with her husband, K. Madhava Das.

When Kamala was 42, she was lying bed-ridden in Room 565 at a Mumbai hospital, suffering from a grave heart ailment. “My husband asked me to write my autobiography,” she says. So a typewriter was brought into the room and since she could not sleep at night, Kamala began writing. “That’s how it began,” she says.

But in the film Kamala expresses misgivings about the book. “By itself, my story would not fill a book, so I had added quite a bit of fiction,” she says. “I feel a regret about it.”

Delhi-based writer Namita Gokhale has no regrets being a fan. “A whole generation of writers took sustenance from her,” she says. But she did feel bad that because of Kamala’s explicit sexual descriptions, the press sensationalised it and refused to regard her as a serious literary figure.

Apart from Namita, the others who weighed in on her work included Malayali writer K. Satchidanandan, Indian English poets, Keki Daruwala and Rukhmini Bhayya Nair, critic Dr. V. C. Harris and research scholar Purendu Chatterjee.

There are beautiful shots of Kamala’s 400-year old ancestral home at Punnayurkulam, in south Malabar, pictures of book covers, and hand-written pages of poems.

The film was shot mostly at Kamala’s Kochi apartment in late 2005 and early 2006. Says Kohli: “We had to shoot indoors because she was not well.”

She may have been unwell, but she still had the spirit to express strong opinions. “The feminism that is on show today annoys me,” says Kamala. “It shows too much hostility towards men. I can’t understand it. You need to love. Love means to surrender. A woman is more attractive when she surrenders to a man.”

The small audience at the Kovalam Literary Festival watched avidly. As always Kamala held one spellbound whenever she spoke and it became all the more poignant because she is no more.

Kamala Das passed away at Pune, on May 31, 2009, at the age of 75.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sr. Jesme is off to the Frankfurt Book Fair

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sr. Jesme, the author of ‘Amen: The Autobiography of a nun’ is very excited. She is taking part in the Frankfurt Book Fair, which begins on October 14. It is the largest fair in the world, with participants from around 100 countries. Around 3 lakh visitors are expected to attend the five-day fair.

This is Sr. Jesme’s first international trip. “I want to convey the message that the entire Catholic church, especially in Kerala, has to be brought back to the spirit of the Bible and Jesus Christ.” She says that Pope Benedict XVI has been doing the same thing. “He has been apologising for the numerous sins committed by the religious, like the sexual abuse of boys,” she says.

At Frankfurt, during the ‘Meet India’ programme, Sr. Jesme will have reading sessions in English and Malayalam. “There are quite a few Malayalis living in Germany,” she says. Apart from that there will be print and television interviews.

Publisher Ravi Deecee of DC Books, who is taking her, says there is a strong possibility of selling the French and German rights of ‘Amen’. “Europeans know that India is a conservative place, so they will be keen to read the life story of a nun,” he says. “What has also provoked interest is that nuns as a group have always remained silent in India.”

He says he had earlier sold the rights in Europe for the ‘Autobiography of a sex worker’ by Nalini Jamila. “Somehow, personal histories do very well in Europe,” he says.

And it seems to be doing well in India. In Malayalam, the 10th reprint of ‘Amen’ has been published within eight months of its release. In English, 10,000 copies have been sold in two and a half months. “It will be released in Marathi soon,” says Sr. Jesme.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A star on the ascendant

Comedian Suraj Venjaramoodu struts around on the sets of ‘Happy Husbands’. Heroes Indrajith and Jayasuriya provide bonhomie and banter

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Suraj Venjaramoodu (extreme right) with actors Karthik Prasad and Pramod Kumar during the shooting of 'Happy Husbands'at Kochi

During mid-morning on a Sunday, Suraj Venjaramoodu is standing at the outdoor restaurant of the Cochin Gymkhana. He is wearing a black wig, a reddish kurta and black trousers. It is the shooting of ‘Happy Husbands’, in which the heroes are Jayaram, Indrajith and Jayasuriya.

“It is similar to the Hindi film, ‘No Entry,’” says Indrajith, who has come to see his fellow actors performing. His own shoot is scheduled for a few days later.

In Scene No 17, Shot 11, Suraj plays a reporter who gets the facts wrong and is beaten up often. Two youngsters, played by actors Karthik Prasad and Pramod Kumar, are angered by one of his inaccurate reports and have come to confront him.

As they come near, Suraj sticks his face out and Karthik, on cue, gives him a slap.

“Cut,” shouts the director, Saji Surendran.

Immediately Suraj rushes to the monitor to see the rushes. His makeup man hovers nearby, gently touching his hair, to make sure everything is in place. But the comedian is oblivious as he intently watches the scene. A few unit hands laugh when Suraj gets slapped.

When you watch it in real life, the slap does not look funny at all, but on screen it has a magically comic effect. “Good,” says Suraj and gets up. A waiter proffers a glass of lime juice, which he drinks in one gulp.

Suraj staggers out to the narrow bridge, which connects the restaurant to the lawn. A group of youngsters ask for a photograph to be taken with him. Suraj nods and expands his already expanded chest. One gets the suspicion that the bulge in his chest comes from a bulge in his ego. Suraj is a star on the ascendant and it’s making him heady.

Soon, he is called for the next shot, a scene with Jayasuriya, who plays a photographer. Jayasuriya looks at a report, which Suraj has written and lets out a snort, as he points out errors.

After the shot is canned, Indrajith, Sooraj, Jayasuriya and director Saji sit around for some banter. Jayasuriya impersonates a woman’s voice so perfectly that the others laugh aloud, especially Saji.

The director is in a happy mood and why should he not be? His debut film, ‘Ivar Vivahitharayal’, with Jayasuriya in the lead, has completed a hundred days. However, that is no guarantee that ‘Happy Husbands’ will be a hit. Such is the fickle nature of movie success.

On the lawn the unit accountant is peeling out several fifty-rupee notes from a bundle, to pay a young man whose cabs had been used. As the youngster is about to take the money, a crow drops its morning ablutions on his right arm. “Chee, Chee,” he says, and rushes towards a tap to clean himself. A slight smile is playing on the accountant’s face.

Meanwhile, a group of waiters sit around on plastic chairs under a tree. One of them says, “The only truly talented people in the industry are Mohanlal, Mammooty, Dileep and Nedumudi Venu. Among the women, who is there to match Manju Warrier?”

“Urvashi,” says another.

“Okay, maybe, but I still feel Manju has the better range,” says the first waiter.

Meanwhile, as Suraj acts in yet another scene, Indrajith watches intently on the monitor. When somebody asks him about his family, Indrajith says, “A beautiful daughter was born to me in June. We have named her Nakshatra.”

Suraj’s take is over and the cameras and lights are moved to another side of the restaurant, for a different scene.

When you watch a shoot, you experience a mix of excitement and ennui. It is fun when the shoot is going on, but extremely boring when nothing is happening. But it is clearly an addictive profession. No wonder few actors ever retire. And star comedian Suraj Venjaramoodu is set to go a long way, bloated ego or not.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

The sound of silence

For autism, hearing loss and other problems that beset children, the Ephphatha Speech and Hearing Centre at Kochi offers solutions

By Shevlin Sebastian

Illustration: anatomy of an ear

At the Ephphatha Speech and Hearing Centre, at Palarivattom, teacher Sruthi Krishna is showing a picture of an elephant, a cat and a dog to four-year-old Renuka (name changed). Her whole body is shaking uncontrollably, because she is suffering from cerebral palsy. The home nurse, Meena, has to hold her tightly.

Shruti says, “Point out the elephant to me.”

Renuka smiles, nods her head, even as her legs and hands continue to tremble. After several moments, Renuka reaches out and touches the picture of the elephant with her left wrist.

“Very good,” says Shruti. “Renuka understands everything, but she is unable to express what she has learnt.” Renuka’s father is a lawyer, while her mother is a doctor. So, it is Meena who brings Renuka to the centre every day so that she can learn words and images.

At the centre they deal with children who suffer from autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Down’s Syndrome and hearing problems.

A hearing loss for children can take place at any time till the age of 12. A child can have a respiratory illness, mumps, or meningitis and that can affect the ears. Children who are born before the seventh month could also be affected. Hereditary factors also play a role

When a child is brought for a check-up tests are done to locate the damage: whether it is in the middle or inner ears. If there is a problem with the middle ears, medicines are given. However, if nerve damage has been identified, hearing aids are provided and there are intensive speech therapy sessions.

In the cases of children who have suffered permanent nerve damage, the only alternative is a cochlear implant. (This is a surgically implanted electronic device that stimulates functioning auditory nerves inside the cochlea.)

However, a cochlear implant surgery costs a whopping Rs 6 lakh. “It is beyond the reach of the middle class, let alone the poor,” says Thomas J. Poonolil, CEO of Ephphatha.

A year ago, Ramesh, a labourer realised that his one-and-a half-year-old son, Abhimanyu, had a severe hearing loss. He came to Ephphatha for help. When told about the cost, he sold his house, but got only Rs 4 lakh for it. “A few sponsors came forward and paid the remaining amount,” says Thomas.

On May last year the operation was done at Sunrise Hospital, Kochi. “It was a success,” says Thomas. “Abhimanyu is learning to speak now.”

Unlike Abhimanyu who was afflicted at birth, Shailaja suffered from a profound hearing loss when she contracted meningitis at the age of eight.

“A happy, outgoing child, overnight she withdrew socially,” says chief speech pathologist Manju Thomas. Her father sold his house and again with the help of sponsors a cochlear implant was done. “It is only now after a year of speech therapy that she has started speaking again,” says Manju.

At Ephphatha they have discovered an illness which is happening often to children. There is a delay in being expressive. “Since the family is small, and when both parents go to work, children spend most of the time watching TV,” says Manju. They are unable to talk back to the TV and there is nobody around to communicate to them. Hence, there is no speech stimulation for the children.

“It is urgently necessary that a person, like a grandparent, should always be there to interact with the child,” says Manju. However, the good news is that it is curable. After a few months of speech therapy they become normal.

Meanwhile, parents go through a sense of devastation when they realise that there is something wrong with their child. What does not help is the lack of acceptance by society.

“When there is a problem of sight you can wear spectacles, and nobody says anything,” says Thomas. “But as soon as a child wears a hearing impaired device, the attitude of people is that there is something wrong with the infant.”

So, at Ephphatha there are counseling sessions for parents also. “We explain to parents that the situation is not hopeless,” says Thomas. “We motivate them to think in a positive manner.”

And so every day, mothers come with their children to the centre, some wearing hearing aids while some unable to hear or walk, each hoping their child will get cured. But no matter how positive you are supposed to be, for an onlooker it is a painful sight to see such innocent souls being blighted so early in life by a handicap.

(Some names have been changed)

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Switzerland of the East


A group of engineering students were left spellbound by the natural beauty of Valparai in Tamil Nadu

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 p.m., a group of engineering students set out in a Scorpio from Kochi towards the hill station of Valparai in Tamil Nadu, 160 kms away. A few hours later, they see a herd of elephants on a deserted road. On either side there is dense jungle: thick trees with overhanging branches. The shrill cry of crickets can be heard.

They stop, and following a tip from their Valparai-based friend and guide, Bennett, who is in the vehicle, they keep the engine idling and the headlights switched on.

A few moments pass in silence, as the elephants gaze unblinkingly at them. There is a pin-drop silence in the car. “As soon as there is a gap between the elephants, just press the accelerator,” says Bennett, in a whisper to T. Raghil who is driving the Scorpio.

Raghil nods. A couple of minutes later, he spots an opening and steps on the accelerator. They are safely through. Whoops of joy are let loose by the students as they continue on their way to Valparai. It was a tense moment. One error of judgment and the elephants could have trampled on the vehicle.

When the group reached Valparai, at 11 p.m., it was raining and had become cold. The students were tired and sleepy. The next morning, when they set out to see the Sholayar Dam, the students were in for a surprise.

As soon as they crossed the town limits, they saw porcupines and bison on the road, unmindful of their presence. George Vadakkel, a bird lover, sighted the lion-tailed macaque, the hornbill, as well as the rare Malabar Whistling thrush.

“The Sholayar dam was big,” says Nitin Prabhakaran. From there, Bennett took them to see a 14 km- long tunnel, with a height of 50 feet. A stream flows from one end to the other. Built when the British ruled the country, it cuts through a mountain, to channelise the water to the other side. When the boys stepped inside they were hit by flying bats. But after a while they got used to it. Later, a couple of them drank the pure, cool waters and felt refreshed.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Grass Hills, which is part of the Indira Gandhi wildlife sanctuary and national park. Fondly referred by the British as the ‘Switzerland of the East’, the Grass Hills is a biologically fragile area. “There are pockets of forests which have existed from the Jurassic period,” says Bennett.

At an altitude of 1800m there is a bungalow, which had been built for King Edward VII, who wanted to go hunting in the hills. Since it was deep in the jungle, the group, before setting out, had to buy lamps, salt, rice, chicken and vegetables.

It was while going there that the students encountered a hazard, which is inescapable in the hills: leeches. All of them received several bites. Unlike a mosquito bite, you don’t feel anything. The leeches just suck your blood and fall off when they are full.

To counter them you need to apply Dettol all over the body or put salt on it. You are not supposed to pluck them because the jaws can remain in the skin and that can turn infectious.

It was eerie and silent by the time they arrived at the bungalow in the evening. The forest rangers cooked an excellent chicken curry and rice. But when the temperature dropped to 14 degrees centigrade the boys started shivering. It was only when the rangers provided the group with sleeping bags that they were able to sleep.

At night when Bennett got up he was hesitant to use the toilet, which was in the backyard. So he took an empty bottle and did the needful. When he stepped out to get rid of it, two rangers saw him and said, “Hey man, share the liquor with us also.” Bennett gave a sheepish smile and stepped back into the room.

The next morning they set out to explore the hills. “It was so beautiful that it was indescribable,” says George.

There were grassy hillocks for miles together. It was similar to the African savannah. They spotted elephants, langurs, the Indian Gaur and the bison.

One of the rangers, Rajan, said a bison had gored one of his colleagues on the back. The injured man needed 40 stitches. Apparently, a bison is hot-tempered and more dangerous than a tiger.

“A tiger usually attacks when it is under threat or hungry,” says Roshan Joby. “A bison is very unpredictable. One moment it is grazing and the next moment it is charging at you.”

As they watched the bison the weather changed suddenly and it became very misty. Soon, there was zero visibility and the winds began blowing at 60 km per hour. The group was left with no option but to go back.

On other days, they went to see Top Slip, a national park in the Anamalai Hills, the forests of Chinnakalar, the Balaji Temple and the Aliyar Park

“The charm of Valparai is that it is unspoilt,” says George. “Outside the town you cannot see a single piece of plastic or paper. There are very few hotels or resorts. I am sure Munnar must have looked like this, fifty years ago, before tourism destroyed its beauty.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Melody unlimited


An opportunity to sing in childhood friend, Priyadarshan’s film, ‘Chithram’ was the biggest turning point in singer M.G. Sreekumar’s life

Photo: M.G. Sreekumar with wife Lekha

By Shevlin Sebastian

When M.G. Sreekumar’s father, the musician Malabar Gopalan Nair fell into hard times, the family moved from Haripad to Thiruvananthapuram, so that the children could get better opportunities. As a child Sreekumar studied in Model School.

During the lunch break, ice-cream sticks would be sold at 5 paise. “When other children would buy it I would stand and stare,” says Sreekumar. “I would ask my well-to-do friends if one of them could buy me a stick.” Sometimes they would oblige and at other times they ignored him.

Sreekumar’s classmate was the future film director Priyadarshan. With Priyadarshan, he would catch small fish from lakes, put it inside Horlicks bottles, and put it for sale for 5 or 10 paise. Once they managed to pass water through a pen and made a small fountain.

“We would hold a sale in our houses and charge an entrance fee,” says Sreekumar. The money they earned -- Rs 2 or 3 -- they would use to see films.

Sreekumar’s brother, the accomplished classical singer and music director M.G. Radhakrishnan, older by 18 years, would take him for concerts. The youngster’s job was to spread the sheets on the stage and play the tanpura. Sreekumar would be paid Rs 5 for each programme.

“At that time, my biggest desire was to eat paratha and mutton from a hotel in Kollam,” he says. Radhakrishnan would always oblige. Eventually, Sreekumar performed with Radhakrishnan in over a thousand stage performances in all the temples in Kerala for a period of 14 years.

It was only in Class 10 that he began formal music training from Cherthala Gopalan Nair, and later from Neyyattinkara Vasudevan. “But my biggest guru was my brother,” he says.

For Sreekumar music came naturally. “The moment I heard a raga I knew the tune. This knowledge was a gift from God.”

The gifted Sreekumar passed with a first class in B.Com in 1977 and spent two years working as an accountant in Libya. “It was very dull,” he says “There were no cultural activities.”

He returned in 1981, got a job in the State Bank of Travancore, and began singing in ganamelas with other groups. He was paid Rs 10 for a song. It was in 1983 that he got an opportunity to sing in a film, ‘Coolie’, directed by Ashok Kumar. Thereafter, he sang for another 15 films, but none of the songs made an impact.

Sreekumar’s turning point came when Priyadarshan asked him to sing three songs for the film, ‘Chithram’ in 1988. The other three songs were meant for K.J. Yesudas, but he could not find the time. “So I got the opportunity to sing all the songs,” he says.

This film became a superhit -- it ran for 366 days -- and the catchy songs were composed by Kannur Rajan. Sreekumar was paid Rs 26,000. “This was the first time I was earning such a large sum of money,” he says.

He bought a second-hand Ambassador car, which is still with him. “When I drove it for the first time there was a deep feeling of satisfaction,” he says.

Thereafter, his career took off and Sreekumar sang numerous hits in films like ‘His Highness Abdullah’, ‘Vandanam’, ‘Thenkasipattanam’, ‘Thenmavan Kombathu’, ‘Kilukkam’ and Kiridom’. Today, he has sung over 3000 songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu and won numerous awards.

Sreekumar’s next turning point came in 1994 when he had gone to Chennai for the recording of a song. At the airport, on his way back, he met the then Asianet owner, Shashi Kumar. At that time, Asianet had been on air for about six months. He asked Shashi whether he could do a musical programme on TV.

Shashi Kumar said he would give a response later. After a month, an official from Asianet met Sreekumar and suggested a project, similar to the present-day Star Singer, but at that time it was called, ‘Voice Of The Week’.

For the past fifteen years Sreekumar has been appearing regularly on TV, now anchoring the popular ‘Sarigama Padanisa’ programme on Sunday evenings. “I don’t prepare before the show,” he says. “I try to be as natural as possible, but I also tend to improvise.”

It was also in 1994 that he met his wife Lekha during a concert in Los Angeles. She was holidaying in the United States with her parents.

“It was an instant attraction,” he says. The families were against the marriage. So the couple lived together for six years and eventually got married in 2000 at the Mookambika Temple in Kollur, Karnataka.

“Lekha changed me as a person,” he says. “When you become a famous singer people praise you all the time. But she knows how to critically analyse my singing. Moreover, she looks after me very well. For an artist to perform well he needs to be at peace. Thanks to Lekha I am relaxed these days, even on the day I have to give a performance.”

Asked to explain his philosophy of life, Sreekumar looks out of the window of his plush apartment at Abad Marine Plaza, Kochi. Then he says, “There is a force in the universe. Whether it is defined as Hindu, Muslim or Christian, this power controls every living thing on earth, including my life, which has been a lucky and blessed one.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Cardinal Vithayathil attends first-ever meeting of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs in Rome

Cardinal Vithayathil attends first-ever meeting of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs in Rome

Photo: Eastern Catholic Patriarchs with Pope Benedict XVI and other senior Vatican officials

By Shevlin Sebastian

For the first time in the history of the Catholic church a meeting took place of all the Patriarchs of the Eastern Church at Castelgandolfo, the summer residence of Pope Benedict XIV recently. (The Eastern churches comprise mostly those from India, Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East).

“The Pope wanted to listen to the problems in the Middle East,” says Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil. There has been a lot of migration of Catholics in that area to Australia and New Zealand. As a result, the number of Catholics is going down.

According to Church sources, most of the Catholics fled, unable to bear the religious oppression they faced in Islamic countries. Some have even lost their lives. On February 29, 2008, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho and three companions belonging to the Chaldean church were abducted and killed in Mosul, Iraq.

Vithayathil said the Syro Malabar church has a special connection with the Chaldean church. “We received their bishops from the 4th to the 15th century,” he says. “It is their liturgy that we are still using. So we empathise deeply with their sufferings.”

Among the leaders present were representatives from Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Ukraine and Romania. Apart from Vithayathil, the other Indian representative was Cleemis Thottunkal, Major Archbishop of Thiruvananthapuram of the Syro-Malankars.

The Patriarchs from the Middle East spoke frankly about the problems they faced. A deeply affected Pope announced the holding of a two-week long Eastern Synod for the first time ever on October, 2010.

“This will be a historic event,” says Vithayathil. “The Pope wants to have an in-depth discussion about the situation in the Middle East.”

Incidentally, the Eastern Churches comprise only 2 per cent of the world population of Catholics. The Ukrainian church has the largest number of followers, at 60 lakh, followed by the 40 lakh strong Syro Malabar church in Kerala.

Meanwhile, in a separate ceremony, Cardinal Vithayathil presented the stamps and coins issued in the name of Saint Alphonsa to Pope Benedict.

“The Pope was delighted that the Indian government, a secular one, had released these stamps and coins,” says Vithayathil. “He said that very few governments around the world honour their saints like this. This shows the deep respect given to different religions in our country. We are deeply proud of this.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Making people wholesome once again

Plastic surgeon Dr. R. Jayakumar of Specialists Hospital enjoys correcting babies who are born with cleft lips or those who have lost their thumbs or injured their hands. He also makes people look beautiful

Photos: Laxmi before the operation

Laxmi 12 years later

Dr. R. Jayakumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

Twelve years ago, Laxmi (name changed) was waiting at a bus stop in Kottayam. Suddenly, the thirteen-year-old decided to cross the road. As she did so, an Ambassador car hit her. As it went over her, Laxmi’s hair got caught in the central shaft underneath the car.

The entire scalp below the eyebrow was pulled off. Thankfully, passers-by stopped the car and retrieved the scalp, which was in two pieces. Laxmi was then rushed to the Specialists’ hospital at Kochi, her head bleeding, along with the scalp.

In a ten-hour operation Dr. R. Jayakumar, head of the plastic, micro-vascular and cosmetic surgery department, and his colleague, Dr. Augustine Guild, first connected the blood vessels of one part of the scalp to another. “After that, we put the scalp back and connected all the blood vessels,” says Jayakumar.

Last month Laxmi, now a young woman, went to see Jayakumar. “Her hair has grown fully back,” says the plastic surgeon. “There is a thin scar just below the eyebrows. It is not instantly noticeable. Otherwise, she is fine. When I saw her I experienced a great happiness.”

Jayakumar has done more than 2000 operations in his career. His work is divided into reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. Reconstructive surgery occurs when there are physical defects. Like, if a baby is born with a cleft lip. Or, because of an accident, the blood flow to a particular limb is blocked. Or when a thumb gets cut off in an accident.

When a thumb is lost, a toe is transferred to the hand. In the West, the big toe is used. But in Asia, where people wear slippers and sandals, the second toe is used. When you remove it, the gap between the big toe and the other toes can be closed easily. “At first glance you will not notice the missing toe,” says Jayakumar.

This is a complicated operation, which involves micro-vascular surgery and lasts eight hours. “You need a high degree of skill to do this,” he says. Jayakumar has trained in the Chang Gung Memorial hospital at Taiwan, which is regarded as one of the best plastic surgery centres in the world.

Jayakumar loves the challenge of reconstructive surgery, although it is not lucrative, as compared to cosmetic surgery. Most of the patients are poor people who have lost their thumbs or injured their hands while working in a saw-mill or a factory. Usually, they do not have insurance. The factory rarely provides financial support.

“If you want to do this type of surgery in India, you have to accept the fact that the fees will be low,” he says. “But the professional satisfaction is enormous.”

But Jayakumar also admits he enjoys doing cosmetic surgery. In cosmetic surgery, the most common operations for women in Kerala are a rhinoplasty (nose job), face rejuvenation or a.tummy tuck.

Tummy tuck occurs because when women have children, the muscles get loose and the skin stretches out. “You have to tighten the muscles, remove the excessive fat, and shape it through a combination of liposuction and abdominoplasty,” says Jayakumar.

For men, the usual operation is for enlarged breasts. They also come for rhinoplasty, liposuction and facial rejuvenation.

“As you get older, people tend to say, ‘You look tired? Are you unwell?’” says Jayakumar. “This is because you have developed bags under your eyes, there is a double chin, and the jawline has become lax. You tend to look fatigued all the time. In today’s workplace, dominated by young people, this can be a setback.”

The older procedure was to pull the skin back firmly. Now plastic surgeons tighten the muscles inside the face. “This is a much better procedure because it gives off a natural look,” he says. “That is why it is called a facial rejuvenation, rather than a face-lift.”

Incidentally, 60 per cent of Jayakumar’s clients are males. “For cosmetic surgery, Kerala is perhaps the only place in the world where the men outnumber the women,” he says. The average age for patients is between the late twenties and forties.

So, as people opt for plastic surgery in large numbers, is there a risk involved in undergoing such operations? “Things can go wrong, but it is rare,” he says. “We do a thorough check-up of the patient before surgery is done.”

In Specialists, the team of six plastic surgeons has a success rate of 98 per cent for micro-vascular surgery. “Most plastic surgeries are far safer than travelling on the streets of Kochi,” says Jayakumar.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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