Monday, November 30, 2009

A matter of fact

Dr. George Sleeba, after an illustrious career, retired on November 30 as the chairman and managing director of the The Fertilisers and Chemicals Ltd., Travancore

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. George Sleeba, 60, the chairman and managing director of The Fertilisers and Chemicals, Travancore Ltd. (FACT) is all excited. He is showing the new gate installed at the entrance to the unit at Udyogamandal on a Thursday morning.

“Isn’t it nice,” he says. “The inauguration will take place a few hours later.” Then Sleeba takes the visitors in his air-conditioned Tata Indigo towards a house made of phospho-gypsum, one of the waste products of the phosphoric acid plant.

“We constructed this building in just one month,” he says, with a proud smile. “Gypsum is cheaper than bricks, more durable, and earthquake-resistant.”

On the opposite side is the statue of M.K.K. Nair, the late and illustrious CMD. He points to it and says, “Nair was a visionary. We have to follow in his footsteps.”

When he is talking there is no indication in his voice, his bright smile, his evident sincerity and simplicity that on November 30, he is retiring, after 31 years in FACT.

His tenure as CMD began on July 31, 2007. In that year, FACT had a loss of Rs 124 crore. “When I took charge all the plants had been closed down,” he says. “The employees told me, ‘Sir, somehow, please re-start them’. The government was telling me to lay off the employees, while raw material suppliers backed off, because we did not have the money to pay them.”

But, by using vision and innovation, Sleeba, with the help of his work force was able to turn things around. In 2009, on the eve of his departure, the company has posted a profit of Rs 43 crore.

Sleeba is credited with two innovations, which has made FACT what it is today. In the mid-nineties, there was widespread disenchantment among the officer staff because the avenues of promotion were limited.

“It was a hierarchical organisation,” he says. “There was filtering at every level. For example, if the lowest level had 5000 people, the next level would only have 2000 posts.”

It was then that Sleeba came up with the idea of ‘delayering’. This was the subject of his doctoral thesis at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in 2006.

“We grouped the employees into three layers,” he says. He gives an example: the assistant engineer, engineer, and assistant manager were clubbed together. “We told them that each had the opportunity to perform any of the other roles,” he says. “So when the assistant manager was absent, instead of getting another assistant manager, we asked the engineer to take over.”

As a result, Sleeba was able to cut down on staff. From a high of 10,000 employees ten years ago, FACT, today, has 3300 employees, which will go down to 2800 in a couple of years. And promotions were guaranteed within four years if you did ‘outstanding’ work, five years for ‘good’ performance and six years for ‘satisfactory’ output. “Overnight, the morale shot up,” says Sleeba.

The other change was to diversify. So, instead of concentrating on fertilisers, whose market had stagnated, FACT entered into joint ventures with companies like Container Corporation of India, the Kerala State Industrial Corporation, and the Cochin Shipyard. Sleeba also found a market for phospho-gypsum. Last year, FACT sold three lakh tonnes to cement companies and earned Rs 21 crore.

But it has been a hard and difficult road to travel. “The people in power do not recognise hard work, sincerity, and genuineness,” says Sleeba. “That is why despite having top-quality managers we are not able to get the best out of them.”

The need to get plans approved from the higher-ups in the bureaucracy is another drawback. “So much time is wasted,” he says. “When I get the plans passed by one set of people, the government changes, and new officers come in.” Sleeba had to deal with three successive government secretaries. “We had to start afresh every time,” he says.

Nevertheless Sleeba has had a successful career. He attributes it to the deep impact of his father, the late Rev. Fr. Sleeba Cor-Episcopa.

“My father told me never to work for money, or to compromise on the quality of my effort,” says Sleeba. “Any designation that you are given is not one of privilege, but of responsibility. There will always be setbacks. Just take it in your stride and carry on.”

Dr. Sleeba is planning to carry on. He is about to start a second career as a director at the Albertian Institute of Management, Kochi.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Like a bird in the sky

Navy pilots of the INS Garuda, of the Southern Command, are involved in daring rescue missions, coastal patrolling, and helping civil authorities during natural calamities like earthquakes and floods.

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning Commander Sanjay Vaidya was flying in a Chetak helicopter over the Arabian Sea. Suddenly, there was an engine failure. Following strict procedure, he beached the helicopter into the sea.

“If we tried to jump out there was a danger of being sliced by the rotor blades,” says Sanjay. “So we have to remain in the helicopter.” The 2 tonne helicopter sank quickly to a depth of 10 metres. Then Vaidya un-strapped himself, broke open the door, and started swimming.

“Initially, there was a sense of panic, but then I calmed down,” he says. “It is not easy to hold your breath for about 20 seconds and find your way to the surface.”

But what helped was the regular training, done in a simulator, every three months, where pilots go down in a pool and learn to come up by holding their breath.

For the pilots of the helicopter squadron, INS Garuda, at the Southern Naval Command, this is a rare occurrence. Most of the time, they are doing daring rescue missions.

“We save people from drowning,” says Captain Vijesh K. Garg, Commanding Officer of INS Garuda. They have air-lifted pregnant ladies from merchant ships, people who have suffered head injuries in accidents, and passengers and fishermen, whose boats have capsized.

But what has been a feather in the cap was the squadron’s involvement in the rescue operations during the tragedy at Thekkady, Kerala, on September 30, where more than 40 tourists -- men, women and children -- died, following a boat sinking in a lake.

On that fateful night, Commander S.K. Dhawan flew in an Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) with a team of divers. “It was the first operation I was doing by night,” says Dhawan, who has 3900 hours of flying experience. It was a risky operation, as it was raining heavily, visibility was poor and there were a few hills around.

“The weather was hostile,” says Garg. “Usually, we don’t attempt a rescue mission at night, because we are not familiar with the terrain. There may be electric posts which we cannot see in the darkness.”

But Dhawan had one lucky break: when he arrived, the clouds parted, and for a couple of minutes, there was clear moonlight and he could see the lake.

Dhawan took a deep breath and landed. The divers began the rescue operations, which lasted for the next three days.

It is not always that the squadron collects dead bodies. Most of the time, they save people from drowning. When that happens, the squadron follows a set pattern. The helicopter goes down to a height of 25 feet above the sea. The diver jumps into the sea. A strop is lowered down. The drowning person is hooked on to it and is pulled up. Then the strop is lowered again for the diver to come up.

“In case the man is injured, then the diver holds the victim and both come up together,” says Vaidya.

If a boat has capsized and victims are trapped under the vessel, then the divers will wear goggles and flippers, and carry oxygen cylinders before they jump.

But there are times when the rescue mission is not successful. Captain Garg says that in 1988, when he was in a Sea King, a message came that a rig of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission was on fire 80 miles west of Mumbai.

“When I arrived I saw that the whole rig was on fire,” he says. “The helicopter could not get close because we were carrying fuel ourselves.” By this time, people had jumped into the sea and clung on to the oil pipes.

The Sea King hovered around for two hours, hoping that some people would swim away from the rig. When that did not happen, Garg organised smaller vessels of the ONGC, as well as boats to come and save the people. “We were able to give the precise directions,” he says.

For all of them, the most gratifying part of the job is when they do a successful rescue mission. “You make a difference to people’s lives when you rescue them,” says Commander A.S. Dhillon. “You are also saving their families who are dependent on this particular individual.”

He says the armed forces are trained to kill the enemy. “Kill or be killed is the motto,” says Dhillon. “Whereas, when we save lives, it is contrary to what we are trained for. That is a very satisfying feeling.”

Apart from rescue missions, the squadron is involved in anti-terrorist operations, transporting troops from place to place, coastal patrolling, and helping civil authorities during natural calamities like earthquakes and floods.

The INS Garuda has three types of helicopters: the Chetak, the ALH and the Sea King. The Sea King, commanded by Dhillon, is the most advanced. It is an anti-submarine vessel, and can fly a distance in excess of 350 miles one way.

In their daily schedule, commanders like Dhawan, Dhillon and Vaidya spent a lot of time imparting training to the younger pilots and the Air Crew Main Divers, even as they go on sorties nearly every day.

On the tarmac, at the Southern Command, when the commanders showcase their helicopters, you can see the joy on their faces.

For all of them, the helicopter is a special aircraft. “It can go left, right, forward, back, up and down, or stay in one place, which most birds cannot do,” says Dhillon. On the other hand, a fixed-wing aircraft can only move forward or up.

For the trio and for all pilots, flying is a thrill. “I would describe it as an addiction,” says Dhillon, with a smile. For Dhawan, flying is an escape from the mundane, everyday reality of life. “What you see from the sky is ethereal,” he says. “It is far better than sitting in an office.”

For Vaidya, it is the hyper excitement that is unforgettable. “When you fly, you have to be very alert,” he says. “You have to make decisions at high speed. The adrenalin is pumping. When you come down it is over. You relax. Tomorrow, you want the same kick.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It’s all about being Innocent


Acting in a film in which he spoke in the Thrissur dialect was the turning point in actor Innocent’s life

Photo: The author interviewing Innocent at his home in Irinjalakuda

By Shevlin Sebastian

When I first see the actor Innocent inside his sprawling bungalow in Irinjalakuda, he is holding a remote in his hand and staring at a television screen mounted high on the wall. His grandson, also named Innocent, is sitting beside him watching avidly. “He is a crazy Mohanlal fan,” says Innocent Senior. His wife Alice is a gracious host: a plate of cakes and a glass of fruit juice arrives immediately.

Innocent makes the journey into the past with a mix of wit and seriousness, and all sorts of funny facial expressions, just as you see him in the films.

Innocent stood on stage for the first time when he was in Class 1 of the Little Flower Convent High School at Irinjalakuda. “I wore a small towel and there was make-up on my face,” he says. “I played the drums.” Thereafter, he acted in several skits in the school.

By the time he was in Class six, he joined a cultural organisation which staged plays. The rehearsals began only at 10 p.m. It was held at some distance from the house. By the time Innocent returned, it was 2 a.m. “My mind would be full of the scenes that I had acted in,” he says.

However, as expected, the family had a negative reaction. “When I would get up in the morning, I would hear sentences like: ‘At what time did he come in the night? Who knows? He had not come till 1 a.m.’”

Sometimes, his father would say, “In a big family of eight children there will always be one bad apple. And there is nothing to be done about it.”

What made matters worse was that he was a poor student. He failed in Class six, seven and eight. “By the time classmates of mine were doing their MA, I was still in school,” he says. Finally, he stopped studying in Class eight.

But he remained a popular student throughout. “I would imitate people and make my friends laugh,” he says. “Nowadays when I meet old teachers they tell me they knew I was special because children always surrounded me.”

Following his failed academic stint, Innocent tried his hand at entrepreneurship – a shop and a matchbox factory -- but they failed. In 1969, he went to Chennai to try for bit roles.

The first film in which Innocent had dialogues to say was ‘Nrithashala’, which starred Prem Nazir and Jaya Bhaduri. He played a newspaperman, who goes to a carnival in a village and asks questions. “After I did the scene, producer Shobha Parameshwaran Nair called me and said I had done a good job,” he says. But the roles remained paltry and he returned to Irinjalakuda in 1971.

The municipal elections were taking place. At the urging of friends he stood as an independent and won. “But my heart was in acting,” he says. He produced a few films. Some did well, but most failed. The future looked bleak.

Innocent’s turning point came in 1985 with the film ‘Avidathepole Ivideyum’, which starred Mohanlal and Mammooty.

“Mammooty felt I was the best person to play the role of a character who speaks in the Thrissur dialect,” says Innocent.

In the film Innocent is an obsessed businessman who asks a man about the death of his mother. As the man narrates the incident, the businessman has a look on his face that shows his complete lack of interest. “So when the man is talking about the death, the audience laughs, seeing the expression on my face,” he says.

The film failed at the box office but many people called Innocent up and said they liked his acting. Thereafter, Innocent began to get roles regularly, but it was when Sidique Lal’s ‘Ramji Rao Speaking’ became a super-hit in 1989 that he became established as a comedian.

“When I came out of the hall after watching the film with my wife and son, the people surrounded me and cheered,” he says.

A similar experience occurred when he went to see ‘Kathodu Kathoram’ at a theatre at Thiruvananthapuram. During the interval he stepped out to have a soda with director Priyadarshan. “The patrons clapped,” says Innocent. “As we were leaving the hall, Priyardarshan laughed and said, ‘You have become a star.’”

Thereafter, many hits followed: ‘Mannar Mathai Speaking’, ‘Kilukkam’, ‘Godfather’, ‘Vietnam Colony’, ‘Nadodikattu’ and ‘Devaasuram’. Today, he has acted in over 600 films as a comedian, a character artiste, as well as a villain.

Asked the meaning of life, Innocent says fate is pre-ordained and tells a story.

Shiva and Parvati are sitting together. They see a man who had been praying ardently for several days. Their abode, Mount Kailash starts shaking. Parvati says, “He has been praying for so long. Give him a boon and let him go.”

Shiva says, “There is no point. He will not improve. He has a fate like that.”

Nevertheless, at Parvati’s insistence, Shiva puts a cloth bag full of gold coins on the road that the man is walking. It is completely deserted. He is sure to see the bag. But at that very moment, the man thinks, ‘If a man is blind, how does he manage to walk? Let me try to walk like a blind man.’

The man closes his eyes and walks past the bag. Shiva tells Parvathi, “Even if I wished, that man is not going to improve.”

(This column traces the turning points which make or mar a person’s life)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A spiritual odyssey

Acclaimed author William Dalrymple’s latest book, ‘Nine Lives’ is a remarkable look at individuals whose lives have been transformed by their religious beliefs

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in 1994, author William Dalrymple was on his way to Kedarnath. Along the way he met a Naga sadhu. On close interaction, Dalrymple was surprised to know that the man had an MBA and worked for the Kelvinator company.

“Immediately, all my preconceptions disappeared,” he says. “You assume that a sadhu is from a village, maybe, less educated and a simple man. But that was not the case.”

This was the starting point of the book, ‘Nine Lives -- In Search Of The Sacred in Modern India’, which was published a month ago, in India. It is a remarkable book because of the remarkable people portrayed in it.

So, there is a skull feeding tantric who has two sons who are opthalmologists in the USA and an idol maker who is an orthodox Tamil Brahmin. The others include a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a Baul singer, a devadasi, a goat herd from Rajasthan who knows an ancient 4000-line sacred epic by heart, and Hari Das, the Theyyam dancer from Kannur.

“Hari Das had the most impact on me,” says Dalrymple. “At 8.30 one night, I found myself walking along a muddy path between paddy fields in Kannur. The road had run out.” Dalrymple trudged for an hour before he reached a forest where there was a kavu (shrine). Around 400 people were present.

To quote from the book about Hari Das: ‘His eyes were wide, charged and staring and his whole personality seems to have been transformed. He made a series of spectacular leaps in the air as he circled the kavu, twirling and dancing, spraying the crowd with showers of rice offerings.’ (Incidentally, during Dalrymple’s book tour in Australia, next May, Hari Das will be performing at the Sydney Opera House).

It is remarkable how well Dalrymple has chronicled the nine lives, when you realise that the only Indian language he knows is Hindi. “This is a problem any Indian writer would have faced had he worked on the same geographical terrain,” he says. “Nobody can speak Tibetan, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam.”

So, Dalrymple had to depend on interpreters, but he was very careful in his choices. “They were people who deeply understood the culture I wanted to write about,” he says.

In Bengal he traveled with Mimlu Sen, the author of ‘Baulsphere’, one of the best books on the Baul singers. In Rajasthan he worked with Prakash Dan Detha, the nephew of the great writer of Rajasthan, Vijay Dan Detha.

“By the right selection, I turned what might have been an obscuring filter into an eye-opening asset,” he says.

Thanks to his best-seller status, Dalrymple is also an asset to his publisher, Penguin. He had come to Kochi a couple of days ago to do a reading. In person Dalrymple comes across as an affable and down-to earth person. But that did not detract from the fact that he is a heavyweight author.

All his previous books -- on history, travel, spirituality, and journalism -- have won major awards. These include the Wolfson Prize for History, the French Prix D’Astrolabe, the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature,’ as well as the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography.

Bear in mind that most of the books are on historical subjects. So it gives an indication of the power of the writing that he has got ordinary readers interested in these difficult topics.

“The option is simple,” he says. “Do you write in a dry scholarly way, or in literary English? It’s only in the last fifty years that there has arisen a belief that serious history should be dense and boring and written in jargon. But there is nothing in human experience that has to be written in jargon. You can do it in simple language. Clarity is something that I strive for.”

And the end result is there for all to see. ‘Nine Lives,’ has already sold 50,000 hardcover copies in India and is No 1 on the best-seller lists. “The most surprising aspect is that this book has done better in India than in England,” he says. “So I am very happy about that.”

Dalrymple is also very happy to be in India. Born a Scot, he has been living in Delhi for the past 25 years. He says the pluralism of India is its most alluring aspect. “I am amazed it exists,” he says. In Scotland, everybody has the same skin colour, culture, and religion. “In India, there are 50 religions and 70 languages,” he says. “There is so much of material to write about.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spending time with Sr. Regina


By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Sr. Regina

Two weeks ago, a friend called and told me that, following Sr. Jesme, a second former nun, Sr. Regina, had broken her silence and spoken in public about the reasons why she left the nunnery ten years ago. I quickly called Regina up and did a brief telephonic interview. But I was curious to know more about her.

Last Saturday, as I wait at the entrance of Thrissur railway station, Regina drives down in a red Spark. Inside the air-conditioned car, Club FM is playing at a high volume. “I love listening to melodious songs,” she says.

From the station we go to the Ramadas theatre where ‘Pazhassi Raja’ is showing. Regina is a professor of history at St. Aloysius College, and at her urging around 40 students had come to see this historical film. Regina goes to the reservation counter and arranges tickets for all. Thereafter, we go to her two-bedroom apartment at Unity Enclave.

It is neat and spacious, and, as expected, there is a statue of Jesus Christ, placed on a circular stand, at one corner of the living room. Soon, we start conversing.

Regina tells me the decision to leave the convent ten years ago was a right one. “I feel free and happy now,” she says. “I can live life the way I want to.”

This is also one reason why she has not got married. “I did not want to exchange a mother provincial for a husband,” she says. “In Kerala, husbands are too dominating, and only want obedient, docile wives. I am not like that.”

Indeed, Regina gives an impression of being a strong personality. She is 5’8” tall, wears earrings and a necklace, and can easily dominate a room.

“To leave the nunnery, I had the advantage of having a job, but you also need mental strength,” she says. “It is not easy to go against the wishes of family and society.”

One of the reasons she spoke out after so long was because of the impact of Sr. Jesme. “My friends and colleagues told me it was time that I also stepped forward,” she says.

When the 'New Indian Express' published the report of Regina breaking her silence, there was a mixed reaction. Her elder brother, a priest, was upset. An elder sister said, “Why rake up the past now?” But colleagues and friends expressed support.

Shaju, a former student wrote, “When you were teaching us, years ago, all of us felt that you were different, and your talents should not be restricted to the four walls of the convent. So, I am not surprised that you left.”

Regina has varied facets to her personality. She played a cameo as a driving teacher in Sathyan Anthikad’s ‘Innathe Chintha Vishayam’. “I got an opportunity to act and took it,” she says.

In a year, Regina, 54, will be retiring. And she is quite sure about what she is going to work on in future. “Women’s emancipation,” says the woman who set out into the unknown ten years ago and came up triumphant.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Meeting a great photographer

Sebastian D’Souza, who took the photos of Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab killing innocents at a station in Mumbai was a reluctant interviewee. But once he agreed to speak, it turned out to be a gratifying conversation

Photos: Sebastian D'Souza

Picture of the author taken by Sebastian D'Souza

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is rare for a news photographer to be questioned during a trial of a terrorist. But Sebastian D’Souza was summoned to testify, a few months ago, at the special sessions court at Mumbai during the trial of Pakistani gunman Ajmal Kasab.

Sebastian was the only lensman at Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus to take photographs of Kasab walking down a platform, AK 47 in hand, rucksack on his back, nonchalantly shooting down innocent people on 26/11. It was a scoop that made him world famous instantaneously.

When I read the news item about the trial, it triggered a few memories. Three years ago I had met Sebastian in Mumbai while I was doing an article on news photographers.
But, initially, he proved to be elusive. There was no response to my text messages. When I called his office – at that time he was working for the international photo agency, Agence France Presse -- I was told that he had gone out of town on assignment.

But when finally I got in touch he said that he was disappointed by the journalists of today. “They get the facts wrong and misquote people,” he said. “That was why I was not keen to talk.”

I promised I would do a better job and he agreed to the interview. During our conversation Sebastian said he had noticed a disturbing trend these days: the public readily beat up photographers and TV cameramen at the scene of a tragedy.

But he had an explanation for this. “As soon as these young photojournalists arrive at the site they whip out their cameras and start shooting,” he says. “That is why the public gets enraged.”

The correct method is to go in and mingle with the crowd. “You should enquire about what has happened,” he says. “You should also try to help. It is only after that you should start clicking.”

James Nachtwey, one of the world’s leading photographers on wars and disasters in the past twenty years, says the same thing.

“When I approach people I do it with respect and deference,” he says. “I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. I let them know I respect them and what they are going through. I could not take my pictures without their acceptance and participation.”

So, maybe, being unobtrusive was what enabled Sebastian to take those unforgettable pictures of Kasab.

When asked whether he was scared, Sebastian says, “I was so engrossed in documenting what was unfolding in front of me that there was no thought of being frightened. In fact I felt very calm since I have had so many years of experience in covering riots and bomb blasts.”

It was a nice answer. So, now, I had to ask the obvious question: “How do you take such good photographs?”

Sebastian smiled, and said, “It’s very simple. You just lift up the camera like this” -- he focused the lens on me sitting two feet away -- “and take a picture.”

This impromptu photograph became a prized possession long before Sebastian became famous. It catches me in a smile, as I actually wanted to laugh out aloud at the way he made it look so easy. I am also surprised that the serious-looking Sebastian has a sense of humour.

And it represents me perfectly: a fun-loving person under a sombre demeanour.

Great photographers are able to capture the truth in an instant.

And Sebastian was no different.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

At home with Mother Earth


Getting the permission to run a hotel in the Bangaram Islands was the biggest turning point for CGH Earth Group Managing Director Jose Dominic

By Shevlin Sebastian

Jose Dominic, the managing director of the CGH Earth group is dressed in all white. His office at the Casino Hotel at Willingdon Island, Kochi, is simple. There are no flourishes of luxury. A floor to ceiling bookcase contains coffee table books on various hotel properties around the world, and books on history, yoga, cuisine, management, and films.

Jose talks admiringly about the book he is reading at present: Gurucharan Das’ ‘The Difficulty Of Being Good: The Subtle Art of Dharma’.

Jose is a serious man, with an intense way of talking. And despite interruptions -- a waiter brought a glass of cool papaya juice, while former Indian wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer called from England to book rooms for a vacation in January -- he focused intently on the significant events of his life.

Jose’s father, the late Dominic Joseph Kuruvinakunnel took on lease the Malabar Hotel in 1954. As a result, whenever Jose returned home during the vacations from the Lawrence school at Lovedale, Ooty, he would, sometimes, stay with his father at the Malabar Hotel.

“I would watch the hotel in awe,” he says. Most of the areas were out of bounds for the children. “It was all stiff upper lip,” he says.

But Jose did get an opportunity to meet a group of Americans in an informal setting. They were going from the Malabar Hotel to Thekkady. Since the Dominic ancestral home was mid-way, at Pala, they stopped there.

“They brought a box of fruits, mostly apples and oranges from California,” says Jose. “It was wrapped in perfumed paper, and had a wonderful aroma. The packaging was wonderful.”

In return, the family gave bananas and pineapples. “They looked so delighted and I was amazed,” he says. “They had just given us such a magical gift, and all we did was to pluck some fruits from the backyard.”

It had a lifelong impact. “I subconsciously understood that what is of sustaining value is what we can call our own,” he says.

When Jose finished his B.Com from Loyola College in Chennai and was wondering what to do next, his mother said, “Good boys will not go for hotel management.” At that time, the hotel industry was not considered as a respectable profession. So, Jose qualified as a chartered accountant and joined one of the country’s top accountancy firms, A F. Ferguson and Co. at Mumbai in 1974.

“The job was challenging and I enjoyed myself hugely,” he says. In 1977, he had an arranged marriage with Anita, and things were going well. But his father, who was not keeping good health, pleaded with him to come back and take over the business. Jose is the eldest of six sons.

After much reflection, Jose decided to come back, but for only two years, to fulfill his filial duties. “But the two years turned out to be forever,” he says, with a smile.

Jose’s biggest turning point occurred in 1987 when the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, along with their families went to spend a Christmas vacation in the government-run hotel in the Bangaram Islands in the Lakshwadeep. After Rajiv returned to Delhi it was decided to rent out the island for private hotel chains to develop. Apart from big chains like the Oberois, the Taj, and the Leela, the Casino Hotel also received an invitation to send a proposal.

When Jose saw the island for the first time he was stunned. “It was spectacular,” he says. “My first thought was: ‘It would be such a misfortune if this island is spoiled by a hotel’.”

While the big hotel chains told government officials they were planning to spend between Rs 20-40 crores to build resorts, Jose said, “Whatever is there is enough. We will just clean up the place and make it ecologically friendly.”

Jose’s logic was simple. “If somebody is coming all the way from Europe and America to this island, he will want to experience what is unique,” he says. “And what this island offers is nature at its pristine and spectacular best.”

Amazingly, the government accepted his proposal and the Casino Group went in full blast to refurbish the hotel. “We redid the plumbing, put terracotta mud tiles, replaced the asbestos sheets, and put coconut thatches on the roofs,” he says.

In their advertising brochure, they wrote: ‘There are no telephones, TV, newspapers, air-conditioning, hot water, room services, multi-cuisine restaurants or swimming pools’.

The hotel was commissioned in December, 1988, but it took about two years to establish its reputation. Today it is world famous and has enabled the Casino Group, now renamed the CGH Earth Group, to establish its name internationally.

“It was a huge confident booster for me,” he says. In 1991, the group set up the Spice Village at Thekkady, and like in Bangaram Island, they depended on the local people, architecture, cuisine, and culture. “It was an instant success,” says Jose. In 1993, the Coconut Lagoon was set up at Kumarakom and now they have nine highly successful properties all over Kerala.

Asked the philosophy of his life, Jose says, “God made man in his own likeness. Thus, it is up to man to make something of himself. You cannot blame karma or destiny. You are your own creator.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Beware of processed food

Eating processed foods can lead to toxins forming in the body which can cause harmful diseases in the long run, says corporate chef Jose Varkey

Photo: Corporate chef Jose Varkey

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7.30 a.m., just before he leaves for work, Jose Varkey, the corporate chef of the CGH Earth group is about to watch his 84-year-old mother cut a cake on her birthday when a visitor drops in. The moment the discussion veers towards his current interest, the dangers of processed food, Jose requests his mother to delay the cake-cutting for a few minutes. And with passion he vents forth on the subject.

“Eating noodles is very harmful,” he begins. Firstly, it does not have any fibre. Secondly it is loaded with monosodium glutamate (Ajinomoto), to make it tasty. “It is a chemical that settles into your body and gives you all kinds of diseases,” he says. “It is not wanted by the body, except by your taste buds.”

He says the problem with most of the processed foods is that the salt content is very high. “That is because sodium is used to preserve the food and it can have an adverse effect on the body,” he says. “The companies are adding preservatives as per the chemical norms, but not according to the requirements of the human being.”

When preservatives are added to the food, they become toxins in the body. “The body spends a lot of energy to eliminate it,” he says. Because of a fibre-less diet, it is an uphill task. Invariably, the toxins remain in the body and develop into cancer, joint pains, and arthritis.

Another problem of processed food is the lack of nutritional value. “All the vitamins, minerals and fibres are eliminated through the refining process,” says Jose. “Now these have been put into the food by nature. It is meant to go directly to our bloodstream without denaturing.”

Jose says that even red rice, which is one of our staple foods, is now sold as a refined package, unlike in earlier times when people would eat it with bran. “When bran goes into the body, it purifies it,” says Jose.

Some of the examples of refined food are white flour, salt, sugar and bread.
“Since bread contains only white flour, and the bran has been removed, so that it will last longer, it is useless in terms of nutrition,” says Jose.

The chef suggests that whole wheat bread is best, but it is hardly available. “At CGH Earth resorts we sell whole wheat or multi grain bread, but when we put it in our pastry shops there are hardly any takers,” says Jose. “I don’t blame the customers because most people are not aware of the dangers of processed food.”

Jose says that it has become imperative to develop an organic food movement in Kerala. “In Europe, everybody is buying organic food, even though it is costlier,” he says. “In fact, there are many markets which only sell organic food.

The second solution is to eat healthy food. “Have idlis and dosas,” he says. The amount of fruits that are eaten should be increased. Rough cereals or muesli for breakfast is another suggestion. “For lunch, try eating raw rice, with bran, along with plenty of green vegetables,” says Jose. As for fish, he suggests that we should not fry it.

“When you fry at high heat, the oil turns into transfat,” says Jose. “When we eat the fish, it could lead to high levels of cholesterol.”

Most fish do not require oil because it has got its own oil. But it may not be as tasty, as when it is fried. He says wrapping the fish in a banana leaf and cooking it on a tawa is a good method.

Jose also suggests putting two or three drops of unrefined oil in dishes like the avial. “This will takes care of all the viral and fungal attacks,” he says.

For meat, he suggests slow cooking. Apply 75 to 80 degrees and cook for a longer period of time. “This will prevent the loss of its natural properties,” he says. “But who has the time today to cook for three hours?”

In Europe they use slow cooker (trade name: crock pots) with set timers. “They put the meat in the pot and go to work,” he says. “When they come in the evening, it is ready. Such systems have to come here.”

Meanwhile, back at his home, the chocolate cake, comprising ground coco nibs, is cut and pieces are distributed. It is soft and sweet, and slips down the throat without a murmur.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A window into another world

A family unearths a diary written in 1932 by their grandmother, a member of the Cochin Royal Family, who had died young. Thanks to the entries they were able to have an idea of the life and times of that period

Photo: Devaki Varma

By Shevlin Sebastian

Entry from a 1932 diary: a) Mahatma Gandhi arrested. There is a complete hartal in the town. The account of the arrest is very sad. Tears came to my eyes when I read it. India is in mourning. The tears of the oppressed undermine the thrones of kings. This is the death knell of the British empire.

b) Things are going from bad to worse. We are having martial law throughout India. The official terrorism is increasing. Oh God have you forgotten us, poor Indians?

c) Finished the novel ‘A Passage to India’ by E.M. Forster. A book in which the arrogance of the English people in India is fully shown.

d) Temple entry for other castes has begun at Guruvayur. When will caste Hindus become wise? At this time higher caste people should get the depressed classes with them. Instead, they are trying to eliminate them.

All these entries were found in a diary, which was written by Devaki, the wife of Ravi Varma, the first prince of the Cochin Royal Family, while she was staying at Ernakulam in 1932. So far, only one diary has been discovered. It is now with Devaki’s fourth child, Padmaja Nayar, 74, a widow, who lives in an apartment in Kochi.

The diary is written in English. The sentences, in black ink, are clear and concise. “Most of the entries are about daily life, the family, about her brother looking for a job,” says Padmaja. “One of her sisters needed to have a toe operation. In between she wrote about the political situation in the country.”

Devaki’s anti-British stance was clear. Confirms daughter Leila Varmah: “My mother had a lot of beautiful silk blouses. But when she became anti-English she did not touch a single one of them and started using khadi.”

Through the diary Padmaja got a chance to get acquainted with her mother, who passed away in 1939, when she was 40. “I was only four years old when she died,” she says, as she looks with moist eyes at the diary. “When I read it I felt very happy.”

The unusual aspect of the diary was that it was written in English. Padmaja feels that her mother felt more at home in the language. “She may also have been influenced by my father who was a Sanskrit and English scholar,” she says.

Some entries were poignant. The 4th March entry went like this: ‘Today is Tampuran’s 55th birthday. May God bless me so that I can celebrate at least 25 years more with him and may the choicest blessings of the Almighty fall upon my dear husband.’ Unfortunately, Devaki died within seven years, following a uterus operation.

Daughter Leila, who was 12 when her mother died, says Devaki was an outgoing person. “Amma had a large circle of friends,” she says. “An affectionate and capable person, she was involved in a host of social activities.”

For Padmaja, even though her mother died so young, she did not miss her much. “Meenakshi, my eldest sister, was like a mother to me,” she says.

But when Padmaja turned 40, this mother of two children started missing her own mother. “I would hear everybody say, ‘Amma, Amma’, and I would think, ‘Why did not God allow my mother to live long?’ But after a while the feeling passed away.”

For the younger generation reading the diary was an enthralling experience. Great granddaughter, Shailaja Prashanth, a senior copywriter in an advertising agency in Kochi, says, “I felt an incredible pride over how opinionated and articulate she was, and how much she enjoyed life! She was very idealistic in the way she looked at India and was influenced so much by Gandhiji. As a fellow writer I also admired her simple, easy style.”

Shailaja was surprised by the life of women at that time. “I thought they led a very circumscribed existence, but that was clearly not the case with her,” she says. “It was a window into a different world, but, surprisingly, it was not so different from mine - the way she thought is very much like how I think.”

Shailaja also had a surreal experience. “My great-grandmother mentions meeting a lady from a prominent family, and I happen to be a friend of her grand-daughter. What a strange coincidence!”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Oh Maria, my Maria

When a park falls into disuse because it has been sold, it breaks a few hearts along the way

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, on most weekends, my children would say, “Baba, let’s go to Maria Park.” And so, we would head for this sylvan setting in the suburb of Padivattom in Kochi.

Maria Park was set in five acres of greenery. There were large doll-statues near the entrance, apart from figures of Vishnu, Krishna and Jesus Christ. Inside, on the right, there was a badminton court. For the children, there were numerous slides, see-saws, swings, and open grassy lawns to run about. There was a pond which had several fishes in it. An attraction was a stupa-like structure at one end. We could climb up and look around.

The park catered to people of all ages. “In the early mornings, a lot of elderly people would come for walks,” says M.G. Radhakrishnan, who lives opposite the park. “During the day there were a lot of ‘lovebirds’.” It took me quite some time to realise that he meant romantic couples.

So imagine my surprise when I revisited Maria Park last week. There is a signboard stating that the ‘property belongs to Unique Estates Development Co. Ltd. Trespassers will be prosecuted.’ A forbidding message, indeed. The statues have all been torn down. All the equipment has been removed. The gate is locked. The watchman refuses entrance. And the park has been overrun by grass and weeds. There is no sign of life.

Locals say that a Mumbai-based company has brought the property and plans to make buildings there. Owing to the recession, the work has not begun.

Meenakshi Nair, who also lives nearby says the silence in the park is unnerving. “Earlier, there were always the cries of children laughing and playing,” she says.

As Kochi develops rapidly, the loss of open spaces like Maria Park is happening all over the city. Rapacious developers, in collusion with corrupt government officials have been taking over open spaces wherever it is available. It will have a telling effect on children who will soon discover that they have no place to play.

Says Dr. C.P. Somanath, consultant psychiatrist at Lakeshore Hospital: “Children need adequate sensory and motor stimulation to develop their physical, emotional and mental capabilities. Parks and playgrounds are adequate places to provide this.”

He says that it is only through playing that children develop social and inter-personal skills. When this is missing, owing to the lesser number of parks, children tend to stay indoors. “They watch a lot of TV, which gives them a distorted view of reality, and tend to become ego-centric,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fighting on behalf of the defenceless

The Janakeeya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam takes up the cudgels for tenants evicted from their lands, illegal jail detainees, and migrant workers

Photo: Thushar Sarathy

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Palakkad, there was a series of thefts of gold ornaments in 2008. Finally, a group of Tamilians were nabbed. When asked where the ornaments were, they said they had given it to several people, including a goldsmith Sunil Kumar.

On August 19, last year, Sunil was told to come to the Ottapallam station and was illegally detained for 9 days. He says that he did know it was stolen property when he made rings and necklaces for the customers. The police told Sunil’s family that he could be released only if gold was deposited in the station. With great difficulty, the family bought gold valued at Rs 2.3 lakh, and gave it to the police, but, despite that, Sunil was slapped with ten cases. One case was for ‘habitually receiving stolen property’.

Sunil finally secured bail and was free. Then, in July, this year, another group of Tamilian thieves were caught. On July 30, Sunil was told to come to the Cherpulasserry police station, although he had no business dealings with this group. He was again detained.

This time, the Kochi-based human rights organisation, Janakeeya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam (JMP) got into the picture. As the JMP were about to file a habeas corpus petition in the high court, the police released Sunil abruptly on August 14.

However, sometime later, the Circle Inspector M.V. Manikandan called Sunil and told him to give 20 sovereigns of gold, or he would be arrested. This conversation was secretly taped by JMP activists. Subsequently, it was broadcast on a news channel and reports appeared in several newspapers.

Thereafter, Manikandan was suspended. “Thanks to the help of the JMP I was able to fight the police,” says Sunil. Thushar Sarathy, the general secretary of the JMP, says the aim of the organisation is to uphold human rights. “Both the state and the police tramples on human rights all the time,” he says.

What is frightening is the violence that is meted out on those who are taken into custody. “In 90 per cent of the cases, there is torture by the police,” says Thushar. These include electric shocks to the genitals and the soles, slapping of the ears, denial of sleep, and abuse of family members.

The JMP fights for those who have been illegally detained in jail, for former Naxalites who are jailed on flimsy reasons, for people who have been forcibly evicted from their lands, and migrant labourers who are harshly treated.

Thushar cites the case of two workers who died when they fell off a building in Kakkanad. “There were no safety measures,” he says. “Migrant labourers are always risking their lives.” They get lower wages, as compared to Malayalis, and work longer hours. There are no proper facilities for food and stay. The JMP did a thorough investigation and sent the report to the government.

Recently, the JMP, with the help of the Right To Information Act, proved that there is far too much overcrowding in all the jails of the state. They also discovered that the majority of the police cases are slapped against Dalits and Adivasis. “I don’t deny that there are Dalits who resort to crime, but many innocent people have been framed,” says Thushar.

The idea is to force people to confess to crimes even though they are blameless. “The police are too lazy to do a proper investigation,” says Thushar. “So, they prefer to slap false cases on people.” However, in court, these cases fall apart. “The conviction rate is only 27 per cent,” he says.

Knowing that most charges are cooked up, the JMP has been involved in several programmes:

It launched a campaign against the illegal arrest and torture of two political activists by Agali police. The State Human Rights Commission ordered Rs 10,000 to be paid to each of the victims and proposed action against the errant police officers.

The organisation conducted signature campaigns, protest meetings, and a seminar to publicise the illegal detention of Dr. Binayak Sen, the national Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

The JMP filed a petition before the Kerala State Human Rights Commission asking for compensation for the victims of the Moolampally eviction drive.

“Unless we fight for human rights, our freedoms will be taken away,” says Thushar. “Whichever political group comes to power, be it the UDF or the LDF, they have no qualms on trampling on our rights. Without human rights, there cannot be a free society.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Another former nun breaks her silence

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Sr. Regina

A few days ago, Sr. Regina spoke in public for the first time about why she left the Franciscan Claris Congregation at Irinjalakuda ten years ago. This was at a symposium on the problems faced by nuns, organised by the Kerala Catholic Federation at Thrissur.

She says the primary reason was the vow of obedience that she had taken when she became a nun. “The superiors demanded blind loyalty,” she says. “They felt that they had been appointed by God and had to be obeyed all the time. I did not agree to that.”

Regina says that the superiors failed to respect a person’s individuality and feelings and did not encourage the development of a person’s God-given talents. “Everybody should be equal before God,” she says.

She says the lack of freedom was soul-sapping. “We are unable to take an individual initiative to help the people,” she says.

After 20 years as a nun, Sr. Regina could not take it any more. She got permission from the superiors and walked out in 1999. And, like in the case of Sr. Jesme, Regina’s family, the Valiyaveetils from Thrissur, tried to discourage her.

“They said that if I had any difficulty I should resolve it through discussion with my superiors,” she says. “But I tried that for so many years and it did not work.”

Thankfully, because she is a professor of history at St. Aloysius College, Thrissur, she had a good salary. With that she was able to rent a house near the college campus. Incidentally, Regina holds a doctorate on ‘the origin and development of Kerala Catholics’.

V.K. Joy, the secretary of the federation says that Regina was asked by the audience whether she faced any sexual harassment from priests and nuns, similar to those faced by Sr. Jesme. “I did not experience anything like that,” she says. “In fact, I did not come across anybody who was sexually harassed.”

However, Regina says, she admired the courage shown by Sr. Jesme. “It was good that Sr. Jesme spoke out,” she says. “I support what she has done. People have different experiences.”

Asked why she decided to speak out after so many years, Regina says, “People have asked me to talk about it only now. I want the church to reform itself. I don’t want the nuns to leave the convents. Instead, the conditions inside should improve.”

But there has already been a negative fall-out. “Less and less girls are opting to become a nun these days,” says Regina.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

If it's Friday, it must be tension

Actors, directors, producers, and singers go through a wrenching time when their films are released on a Friday. Some follow rituals, while others pray hard for the most elusive thing on the planet: a box office hit

Photo: Director Lal Jose

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the early morning on a Friday if director Lal Jose is in Thiruvananthapuram he will go for a long walk on Shanmugham beach. Sometimes, he goes with friends, but most of the time he is alone. At other times he might step into a church when it is empty. “I go there for peace of mind,” he says.

Meanwhile, as the time gets closer for the first show of his new film on Friday afternoon, Lal Jose experiences an intense discomfort and unease. Unable to bear the tension, on a few occasions, he watches the film with the audience. By the end of the screening, the reactions come in: from friends, members of the audience, and acquaintances in the industry.

“When I get a positive feedback I feel a tremendous sense of relief,” he says. “However, if there is a negative reaction, I feel very tense. Immediately, I set out for my home in Kochi. I am able to bear this disappointment only when I am in the company of my wife and children.”

Actor Mukesh has a less intense reaction on the day of a film’s release. “I don’t have much anxiety,” he says. “Of course in films where I play the hero I do feel nervous. Sometimes, when I have played a role differently, I will be curious to know what the audience reaction is going to be.”

For Mukesh, it is only by Monday that he will judge whether a film has done well or not. “I don’t take into account Saturday or Sunday, because people usually go to see films on the weekend, but on Monday I will know for certain whether the film has succeeded or failed,” he says.

Singer M.G. Sreekumar does not follow any rituals for the success of a song that he has rendered for a film. “For a song to be a hit, a lot depends on the picturisation, the music, and the lyrics,” he says. “There also has to be good direction, powerful acting, and a strong script.”

However, if the song becomes popular, Sreekumar is euphoric. “It is similar to the delivery of a baby,” he says. “After nine months when a woman gives birth, she feels a sense of achievement and satisfaction. That is the same feeling I get when a song becomes a hit.”

If the song is not appreciated, Sreekumar puts the blame on fate. “Sometimes, the song is very good, but the picturisation is poor,” he says. “Or the film is a flop. Then the song might not do well.”

Of course, the industry, in every language, all over the world is looking for three letters to be attached to every film: HIT! But, unfortunately, nobody has any idea of what works, and what does not.

Mukesh tells a story. He had acted in a film called ‘Kouthuka Varthakal’. When he saw the preview in Chennai, he realised it was going to be a flop. So he decided to stay back a few days more in Chennai because he did not want to face the people after a failure.

“However, three days later I got calls from several friends in Kerala asking me why I was not coming to celebrate,” he says. The film had become a huge hit.

So, there is no guarantee which film will do well or not. “The reason is simple,” says Mukesh. “The evaluation is done by ordinary people.”

Director Siby Malayil agrees: “The audience, a mass of people, is doing the judging. We are unable to know their tastes, interests, likes or dislikes. We can only hope that they will enjoy watching the films we make. If they do, you have a hit. Otherwise, it is a flop.”

Suresh Kumar, who has produced more than 30 films, says that in his career the hit to flop ratio is 50-50. “Sometimes, despite the presence of superstars and a good script, the film will fail,” he says.

Actor Jagadish says there are several reasons why a film does not do well. “If four good films are released at the same time, only two will succeed,” he says. “The others will become failures even if they are good.” Sometimes, a spell of bad weather can damage a film’s prospects. Or school examinations, a sudden bandh, or the season when the temple at Sabarimala is open for devotees.

Because of this highly unpredictable reaction, the industry depends a lot on superstitions to ensure success. “For many years, an entire film would not be shot at Munnar because it was considered to be bad luck,” says Jagadish. But that myth got shattered when Siby Malayil’s ‘Summer in Bethlehem’, which was shot exclusively in Munnar, became a blockbuster hit.

The scenic location of Thodupuzha was a no-no for a long time. But it got a thumbs-up, when director Sathyan Anthikad shot his hit, ‘Rasathanthram’, starring Mohanlal and Meera Jasmine, there.

But no matter where a film is made, in Kerala, every morning, before the day’s shoot, everybody takes part in one ritual. “A coconut is broken and a prayer is said, and everybody participates, whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians,” says Jagadish. “It creates a good mood, and gives a chance for everybody to get in touch with God.”

And pray for a hit also.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

The full truth


When Om Puri acted as a policeman in ‘Ardh Satya’, it was the biggest turning point in his life

Photo: Om Puri with the Order of the British Empire that he received in 2004

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a windy moonlit night on the beach at Kovalam, actor Om Puri is dressed casually in a bright orange T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts. He has come to attend a literary festival where his wife Nandita read extracts from an upcoming biography of him.

Om is at ease, as guests mill around him, as he talks about his mentor, the director Shyam Benegal. “Have you seen Shyam’s ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur?’” he says. “It is such a wonderful comedy.” Seeing his down-to-earth manner it is difficult to believe that he is, as veteran American film critic Michael Sragow says, ‘the greatest living actor today.’

A day later, at poolside of the Taj Green Cove, smoking a Benson and Hedges cigarette with relish, Om talks at length about his life.

In the early seventies, at the Khalsa College, in Patiala, Om was acting in a Punjabi play called ‘Anhonee’. He played the role of a poor girl’s father. The landlord was trying to seduce her. Eventually, she was killed and Om has a fight with the landlord. “It was very dramatic,” he says. “I tore open my shirt.”

The judges were a couple from the National School of Drama (NSD): Harpal and Nina Tiwana. “They gave me the best actor award,” says Om. The Tiwanas invited him to join their troupe, the Punjab Kala Manch. But he did not have any free time. During the day he worked as a lab assistant in the college, while he attended classes in the evening. Harpal said, “How much do you get paid for your job?”

When Om replied that his salary was Rs 125, Harpal said he would give Rs 150. Om joined at once. “Acting was my passion, so I had no problem in saying yes,” he says.

Om remained with the troupe for three years, acting in plays all over Punjab. Thereafter, following a stint at the NSD at Delhi, he wanted to join the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune, but he had no money to pay the fees.

During this time he was acting in ‘Hamlet’ in Delhi. A junior student from the NSD, Neelam Man Singh, came to see the play along with her boyfriend, Jugnu, who was an industrialist. When Jugnu expressed admiration for Om’s talent, Neelam told him that the actor wanted to join the FTII, but had no money. Jugnu agreed to sponsor Om at Rs 300 a month.

Om managed to get into the FTII in 1974. After a month he wrote a letter to Jugnu, but no money was forthcoming. Om was in a fix. He did not have the financial resources to pay the course fees, as well as the hostel and canteen bills.

For one year he did not pay anything. Then the director of the FTII, Girish Karnad, who had heard of Om’s financial problems, offered him a role in a children’s film, ‘Chor Chor Chup Jha’, which was directed by B.V. Karanth.

Om accepted and was paid Rs 3000 for his role. With this he cleared off his debts.

Following the conclusion of the course, Om moved to Mumbai in 1976 and played bit roles, before Govind Nihalini cast him in ‘Aakrosh’ in 1981. Then came Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sadgati’, before he got the role of Sub-Inspector Anant Velankar in ‘Ardh Satya’ in 1983.

“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “When I read the script by [Marathi playwright] Vijay Tendulkar, I said, ‘Wow’. I could totally identify with the character. This is the story of not only a police officer, but of anybody who works in a government institution. The political interference, the pervasive corruption, and the way it damages the soul.”

When the film was released it was a hit. “I came into the national limelight in full force,” he says. “The film industry took immediate notice.” Several movies followed.

Om’s next big break came when he was cast as Hasari Pal, the rickshaw-puller in the Roland Joffe film, ‘City of Joy’ in 1990. Following the release, he received worldwide critical acclaim.

“It opened a big window of opportunity for me in the West,” he says. He acted in several Western films, including ‘My Son the Fanatic’, ‘East is East,’ and ‘Wolf’.

Om has won numerous awards, like the Padma Shree, the Karlovy Vary award from Czeckoslovakia, and the Order of the British Empire, which he received from Queen Elizabeth in 2004. His filmography runs to over 200 films.

Asked to explain his philosophy of life he says, “The other day a dear friend of mine passed away. As I stared at his body, a thought came to me: ‘He has two hands, two eyes, two legs, a nose, a brain, and hair. He has everything, and yet something was missing. Why is he not moving? Why is he not talking?”

Om becomes silent and stares into the distance. Then he finally says, “The spirit is missing. What is life? It is so fragile. We are at the mercy of a power in the universe. So let us stop boasting, and become humble.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, November 06, 2009

A new voice in Parliament

Charles Dias is the first Anglo-Indian from Kerala to be nominated as a Member of Parliament. Even as the community celebrates his appointment, he worries about how to meet their high expectations

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the reception accorded to the newly appointed Anglo-Indian MP Charles Dias at Kochi recently, the president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, Ramesh Chennithala, said, “There were so many applications for the post. [Congress President] Sonia Gandhi scrutinised them all and selected Dias, because he was the most meritorious candidate.”

The man in question is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who smiles easily, and has an engaging personality. Unlike most politicians, Dias holds a doctorate in history. A member of the middle class, he retired, in 2005, from the Kerala State Electricity Board as a liaison officer. Married to Gloria, a school teacher, the couple has two children: Tina, 28, and Aaron Francis, 24.

Following his retirement Dias worked on his doctoral thesis on ‘the social history of the Portuguese descendants in Kerala’. He presented it successfully at Calicut University in May, this year.

In his research he discovered that 90 per cent of the present-day Anglo-Indians are descendants of the Portuguese. From the early 16th century, the Portuguese married Indian women and this continued for 163 years.

“The Eurasians were doing well and had a high financial status,” he says. But in 1663, tragedy struck, when the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and captured Kochi.

“The Dutch confiscated the belongings and the properties of the Eurasians,” says Dias. “Many people were killed and the rest were asked to leave one night with whatever they could carry. Overnight, they became poor.”

The Eurasians fled to interior villages like Elamkunnapuzha, Moolampilly, Vallarpadom, and Mulavukad. “These were places where there were no facilities for education or a decent profession,” says Dias. “So the Eurasians degenerated.”

He has a look of pain on his face, even though this event took place more than 400 years ago. “The descendants still live there and I want to work for their uplift,” says Dias, the acting president-in-chief of the Union of Anglo-Indian Associations.

Apart from Dias, 59, there is only one other nominated Anglo-Indian MP: Ingrid McCleod, 42, from Chhattisgarh. “Between the two of us, we will have to look after the needs of 4.5 lakh Anglo Indians all over India,” says Dias. In Kerala, there are 1.5 lakh community members.

During the function when Chennithala announced that Dias will be able to spend Rs 2 crore annually from the MP’s Local Area Development scheme, there was sustained applause.

“What most people did not realise is that the money is not to be used only in Kerala,” says Dias. “It has to be spent for development works in several states. So, in that sense the amount is meagre.”

Dias is already feeling the pressure because many people have approached him with requests for jobs and various proposals for projects. “I worry about how I will be able to fulfill the expectations of all the people,” he says.

What has made things more difficult is that it is a community riven by dissension and conflict. A chairman of a school board that oversees the functioning of the 13 educational institutions run by the community refuses to leave his post after nine years, even though it was supposed to be a one-year term.

“Our disunity has brought a bad name to the community,” says Dias. It will need high leadership skills on his part to unite the warring factions. But Dias says his immediate objective is to do an overall survey on the unemployment situation within the community.

One solution, he suggests, is if the Centre can implement a reservation policy. “This has happened before,” he says. “During the first decade after Independence, there was a quota for Anglo-Indians in the Railways, the Post and Telegraphs, the Customs and Central Excise.” However, to achieve this is not going to be easy, but an access to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress supremo, will surely be of help.

Last month, thanks to his elevation, Dias was able to meet Sonia at her residence at 10 Janpath, New Delhi. “Mrs. Gandhi said, ‘Welcome to Parliament,’” says Dias. “She was serious and formal, but smiled often.” Sonia glanced with interest through the two publications Dias presented: an Anglo Indian souvenir and a 400-page book of history which he had edited: ‘Kerala Spectrum’.

The new MP’s deep knowledge of history should help him avoid the pitfalls of the past and enable the community to make its way into the sunlight.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 02, 2009

The German version of Sr. Jesme

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Majella Lenzen

The cover of the book, 'God Forbid: why I cannot be a nun any longer’

Prof. Dr. Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt, a scholar of Comparative Religion from Marburg University, was walking around the Frankfurt Book Fair when she came to the India section and saw large photographers of Sr. Jesme, the author of the best-selling autobiography, ‘Amen’. In it, the nun had chronicled her trials and tribulations as a member of the Congregation of Mother of Carmel.

“I immediately realised that there is a nun in Germany with a similar experience,” says Prof. Adelheid. “Her name is Majella Lenzen.”

Majella, a nun in the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, was based in Tanzania for several years. When the Aids disease became a full-blown epidemic, she started the Rainbow Centre. As part of its work, the Centre's vehicle transported condoms to prostitutes. Soon, the African press labelled her, ‘The Condom Sister’.

This action of hers raised the ire of her superiors and the Church, which is against the use of condoms. “When I matured as a person I began to think for myself,” says Majella, who was known as Sr. Maria-Lauda. “I realised that I was in the right. This brought me into conflict with my superiors.”

Soon, colleagues criticised and ill-treated her. “Most of us are unable to leave the congregation, because we have no financial backing,” she says. “For those who remain, the convent is like a prison.”

Even though Majella was not asked to leave, she decided to move on in 1995. “I did not want to go against my innermost feelings,” she says.

Majella, 71, came to public attention in Germany recently because she has written a book called ‘God Forbid: why I cannot be a nun any longer’. Released in August, by Dumont Publishing, it has become a bestseller.

“The response has been very positive,” she says. Adds Prof. Adelheid: “In the book, Majella lays the blame on the rapid spread of Aids in East Africa on the Church’s resistance to the use of condoms.”

Adelheid says that Majella’s story has many parallels with Sr. Jesme. “Even the duration of her stay in Africa was the same as Sr Jesme’s stay in her own order: 33 years,” she says.

Meanwhile, Sr Jesme feels happy and relieved when she heard about Majella. “I want many more nuns to speak out about their experiences, so that there will be a renewal of the church,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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