Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When death came calling


By Shevlin Sebastian

When the ‘I Witness’ Sunday magazine was planning a cover story on the grave-diggers of three faiths, I decided to get in touch with N.K. Mohandas, who worked in the Ravipuram crematorium at Kochi. When I called his mobile phone, a voice message said the number was ‘temporarily out of service’. So I called his assistant, Ajith, and received the astonishing news that Mohandas had passed away on August 14, 2008. He was only 48.

Immediately I recalled my meeting with him two years ago. We had sat on a cemented platform under a tree with overhanging branches. Since there were no cremations that day, Mohandas was in a relaxed mood and spoke easily.

"My father did this job for 30 years as a salaried worker of the Cochin Corporation," he said. "When he died in July, 1994, I decided to take up the job."

It was not an easy occupation. The constant stress of dealing with the dead resulted in Mohandas drinking hard. A father of four, Mohandas told me that when he sat down for a meal, sometimes, the image of a dead child would appear in his mind. “I would feel very sad and could not eat after that,” he says.

P.K. Ramachandran, of the Kerala Brahmana Sabha, had interacted with Mohandas for several years. “Mohandas was very sincere in his work,” he says. “You could call him at any time of the day or the night and he would be ready to do a cremation.”

Another quality of Mohandas was that he never quibbled about payment. “Whatever money was given to him he would accept with a smile,” he says.

Ramachandran was with Mohandas on his last day. The father of a Pullepady-based businessman had been brought for a cremation. “Mohandas went about his work with his usual dedication,” says Ramachandran. After the pyre was lit, it took two and a half hours for the body to turn to ashes. Mohandas waited patiently.

It was 1 p.m. when the work was over. Then Ramachandran bid goodbye to Mohandas and went home. Two hours later, there was a call. “Mohandas had a heart attack,” said Ajith. “He has passed away.”

Ramachandran was stunned by the suddenness of it all. The body was brought to the same Ravipuram crematorium where Mohandas had himself cremated around 5000 people over the years. His friends arranged for a dignified cremation. There was a large crowd present.

“Mohandas was popular and well-regarded,” says Ramachandran.

For me, it was a poignant feeling. On that sunny, tranquil evening when Mohandas pondered over death and the difficulties of his job, neither he nor I could have imagined that he would be gone within a year.

Death roams around the living like an invisible spirit. And who is going to die next, only it knows, leaving all of us to live with the mixed emotions of terror and sadness.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gatekeepers to the afterlife

Gravediggers of three faiths – Hindu, Christian and Muslim – talk about the emotional travails of doing a job like this, for years together

Photo: Gravedigger T.J. Martin at the cemetery of the St. George's Church, Edapally, Kochi

By Shwvlin Sebastian

Caretaker N.N. Ajit, 40, puts sand on the floor beneath the pyre at the Ravipuram crematorium at Kochi. Then coconut husks are placed over it. Wooden logs are arranged in rows on one side. Everything is now ready.

Within a few minutes, the body of a seventy-year-old man arrives in an ambulance. It is covered by a cream sheet, and placed on the floor near the pyre. A pujari intones the prayers. The son, bare-bodied and in a white dhoti, repeats the prayers in a low voice.

When the prayers are over, Ajit places the wooden logs all around the body till a tiny hillock is made. Then, with a small piece of wood, the son lights the pyre.

On the street outside, cars horns are blaring, while pedestrians rush about, as an individual -- a husband, father, brother, cousin, friend and a grandfather -- slowly turns into ashes. "I treat this as a job," says Ajit. "But since I am a human being, I am affected by what I see.”

He says the most difficult cremation to do is those of small children. “The sorrow shown by the parents is heart-rending,” he says. “Even relatives are very sad.”

For this difficult job Ajit charges Rs 1500 for a cremation. If the body is coming directly from the mortuary, he takes Rs 100 extra. "We need more wood to burn a cold body, since it is full of water," he says. "After deducting all the expenses, for firewood and coconut husks, I earn around Rs 365."

The average number of deaths works out to 30 a month or one a day. And Ajit does the job for several communities. “There are Brahmins, Nairs, Pulayars, a few Ezhavas and the Kudumbis,” he says.

Even Christians sometimes resort to cremation. Two years ago, just before Dominic Joseph of the CGH Earth Group died, he had requested that he be cremated. The family acceded to his wishes and the cremation was done at Ravipuram.

Jose Dominic, the son of Dominic Joseph and the managing director of CGH Earth, says, “All communities should resort to cremation. It is a wise way of addressing the issues of social equality and ecological concerns.”

Digging deep

Every morning, the parents of Thomas George (name changed) place a candle on his grave at the St. George’s church in the suburb of Edapally, Kochi. They have been doing this unfailingly since March 29, 2007. Thomas, 25, died of a gas cylinder blast in Dubai.

“He was their only son,” says grave-digger T.J. Martin, 42. “Whenever I see them I feel a pang of sorrow. Parents can never recover from the death of a child.”

Martin has been a grave-digger for the past 24 years. He has a fixed method for work. The moment the parish priest identifies the spot where the grave has to be made, he starts work.

He digs to a length and depth of six feet and a width of four feet. “The Bible says that we should bury a person six feet deep,” he says. But during the rainy season he stops at five feet because beyond that water will seep into the grave.

Unlike in most churches, Martin is a one-man show. When the coffin has to be placed inside the grave, it is lowered by ropes. “I ask the relatives present to help me,” he says. Then following the ritual throwing of small stones onto the coffin, Martin fills up the grave with mud and puts a stone slab on top. This takes about forty-five minutes.

For his labours, Martin is paid Rs 400. “Of course, families do give me an extra tip,” he says. This could range from Rs 200 to Rs 1000.

On an average, there are two to three burials a month. So how does Martin manage to live in the midst of so much sorrow? “When there is too much of crying, I just step away and stand at a distance,” he says.

But what he cannot bear is the death of a child. “When a life is snuffed out so early, anybody will feel sad,” he says. “I am also a father. So I can understand the feelings of other parents. The sadness that is displayed is overwhelming.”

Martin says that of late he has been burying a lot of young people. “Most of them have died because of bike accidents,” he says.

In person Martin, who seems an introvert, says, “One day my turn will come to die. But when that event will occur, no one can say. Here we are, speaking to each other on a bench outside the church. We can step outside on to the busy road and one of us can die immediately in an accident.”

Back to the earth

P.P. Yousuf has been a grave digger at the Ponurunni Juma Masjid for eighteen years. Like the Christians, the Muslims also make a grave of six feet length and depth, and a width of four feet.

But there is one vital difference. The coffin, made of wooden slats, has no bottom and is placed inside the grave. When the body is brought for burial, three men have to step inside the grave and insert the body into the coffin.

“Our belief is that the body should be in touch with the mud,” he says. “We come from the earth and we have to go back to the earth.”

Listening to Yousuf is Koya Kutty, the vice-president of the mosque committee, who says, “We first throw a handful of mud and say that from the mud God has created us. When we throw the second handful, we will say, we are returning to the mud. Then we will throw a third handful and say, we will again come back from the mud through your help. This is our ritual.”

Yousuf has done about a thousand burials so far. And he vividly remembers the incident of a boy, whose father died in the early hours of the morning. The son had his last paper of his SSLC exams. “The family told him to do the exam,” says Yousuf. “Imagine his mental state. When he came for the burial in the evening, the sadness and grief on his face was indescribable. My heart broke just seeing him.”

But Muslims are forbidden to cry or wail at a funeral. “So we feel the sorrow very deeply inside ourselves,” says Koya Kutty. When a person dies, it is the duty, not only of the family, but of the community to bury him. So, there are no charges for those who do the grave-digger’s job.

“But, sometimes, the family gives money, as a gift,” says Yousuf. “It ranges from Rs 300 to Rs 1000. I have no expectations. If they give I accept.”

So what is Yousuf’s feeling about his voluntary job? “When I step into the grave, I feel sad that one day it will be my turn to be buried like this,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lord Ayyappa beckons all!

One of the great pilgrimages of Kerala, the ritual trek to the Sabarimala Hills, to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa, is a journey of suffering and elation

By Shevlin Sebastian

At five a.m., on the Chennai-Thiruvananthapuram superfast express, a group of Lord Ayyappa devotees from Andhra Pradesh get down at Changanacherry railway station. A couple of minutes later, when the train starts moving, they jump back in again. There are remonstrations between the men about the error. They were supposed to get down at Chengannur, two stations away.

Outside Chengannur station, there are several Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses. In an unusual sight, Rajendran, the conductor of a bus welcomes passengers with folded hands. Several pilgrims clamber on. Amidst loud shouts of ‘Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam,’ we are off.

Among the passengers is K. Mani, 47, a businessman from Chennai, who has been coming to Sabarimala for the past 12 years. His friend, S. Balan, 54, from Kanchipuram is on his fourth trip. As we talk, the sun comes out from behind thick grey clouds. The view is stunning: lush, green hills and mist-laden valleys.

Two hours later, we reach the town of Pampa, which is at the base of the Sabarimala hills. There is a massive crowd present. And immediately I notice that there are no class distinctions. Everybody looks the same: bearded faces, bare chests and feet, necklaces around the neck, black dhotis and an irumudi kettu (rucksack) placed carefully on the head.

The loudspeaker is blaring instructions. In between, songs in praise of Lord Ayyappa are being played. There are shops selling souvenirs, cassettes, newspapers and food. Young children and elderly women are wandering about. As it is well known, women between 10 and 50 -- the fertility period -- are not allowed at Sabarimala.

Most of the devotees have prepared for the pilgrimage by going through a 41-day penance: no drinking, smoking, sex, shaving, and non-vegetarian food. “I know of people who stay away from the home, during this period, to avoid temptations, and go straight for the pilgrimage,” says Mani.

Before setting out towards the temple, the pilgrims need to take a ritual bath in the Pampa river. The water is cold to the touch. The river has a depth of two to four feet. Then it is off to the Ganapathy temple to break a coconut.

Soon, it is time to take the trek to the top of the hill, known as Neelimala. The first section is extremely steep. You have to hold on to a railing to make some headway. There is a dense crowd, all pushing forward. And within half an hour, I am panting. Owing to the bright sunlight, I can see perspiration flowing like rivulets down the exposed backs of several men.

One grey-haired woman looks back in anxiety. His son says, “Amma, don’t worry, I am right behind you.” An old man, with an open mouth, and drooping eyes, sits by the side of the path. He does not look well at all. Soon he is placed on a cane chair, tied between two long wooden poles, which is held up by four bare-bodied men.

I make slow progress. I can feel my calf muscles tightening up. Halfway up, there is a cardiology unit on the left and an oxygen parlour at the right, as well as a tea stall. Following a brief flattening of the hill, there is another hard ascent.

There are large notice boards, which state, ‘Next 500m, steep climb. Please slow down. Stop for a while. Relax and climb.’ And, of course, there is the usual, ‘Beware of pickpockets’.

It takes me one and a half hours to do the 5 km trek to Sannidhanam, where the temples are located. There I meet up with a local friend Ramesh Menon (name changed). Staring at my tired face, he says, “The climb is not easy. In the last month, 26 people died of heart ailments. The problem is that people do not take a proper rest during the trek.”

Ramesh shows me the main temple at the centre of the quadrangle, which is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. It has a gold roof. “Vijay Mallya [the chairman of the United Breweries Group] sponsored this and it was refurbished by Kumaran Silks, the Chennai-based silk company,” he says.

Near the main temple, there are smaller shrines devoted to Ganapati and the serpeant God, Nagar. At a little distance away is the Malikappurathamma temple.

To offer blessings to Lord Ayyappa you have to climb the 18 steps leading towards the temple. Only those pilgrims who have the irumudi kettu are allowed to do so. (Incidentally, the kettu contains coconuts, ghee, camphor, beetel leaves and nuts, among other things).

For others, they can take a darshan at a side entrance. As I am about to do this, Ramesh pulls me aside and says, “Lord Ayyappa knows about all your dreams and desires. There is no need to ask him about them. Instead, just seek his blessings.”

I found it sensible advice. I stand near the steps, gaze at the idol, close my eyes, and ask for blessings. The priest gives me the prasad and I leave, feeling elated.

Immediately, one of the sayings of the great saint, Ramakrishna, comes to my mind: ‘Wherever I look I see men quarreling in the name of religion — Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaishnavas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Shiva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well.’

I go across to the large hall, called the Nadappanthal, just before the main temple. Four donkeys are wandering about. There are overflowing trash bins at one side. A restaurant at the side is crammed with hungry patrons. People are lying spread-eagled on the floor, looking weary and tired. Several are sleeping, even as pilgrims pick their way through them. Ramesh looks at them with a sad look in his eyes.

“They are exhausted,” he says. “Because of the huge crowds some had to wait for hours in the queue. I know of a young couple, with a small daughter who took 12 hours to do the trek.”

K. Jayakumar, the chief commissioner of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which oversees the shrine, says, “The problem is that the 18 steps is narrow and can accommodate about 100 persons in a minute. So, when a large number of people arrive, the queue swells. We cannot obviously widen the steps.”

He says that in a new master plan there are provisions to create better facilities, like a ‘queue complex’ for the pilgrims to wait in comfort. “A few will be ready before next year’s season,” he says.

K. Ravi, a pilgrim from Bangalore, says that because of the lack of toilets, people tended to urinate at the sides. The smell, at certain sections of the trek, is intense and overwhelming, despite the regular use of bleaching powder.

“We have set up more than 30 free urinals, on Chandranandan Road, on the trekking path, where, earlier, there was none,” says Jayakumar. “On Neelimala a new block of toilets has started functioning. Despite this, some pilgrims do urinate in the open.”

Meanwhile, other pilgrims spoke about the rising air pollution and the lack of proper cleaning by the sweepers. Again Jayakumar says, “The cleaning is done round the clock. The Sabarimala Sanitation Society has brought in workers from Tamil Nadu who are doing an excellent job. It would be harsh and incorrect to conclude that the cleaning is not up to the mark.”

Ramesh also spoke about the poor crowd management. “The Kerala Police did a disastrous job,” he says. The TDB then entrusted the job to the National Disaster Response Force. “They are much better,” he says.

By now, I am feeling famished. Ramesh takes me to the annadhana (free food) hall. People are sitting on long benches, and eating from steel plates. The menu is simple: white rice, cabbage and brinjal, sambhar, rasam, pappad and pickle. The food is tasty.

M. Sridar, a member of the central working committee of the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, says, “More than 20,000 people are fed every day.” There are fifteen cooks, who begin work at 2 a.m. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is on offer.

After lunch, Ramesh takes me to meet the melsanthi (chief priest), G. Vishnu Nampoothiri (see box), who stays in a nearby building. He is a pleasant man, and as we talk, a long queue of men are waiting patiently outside his room to receive his blessings.

What is the striking feature about the temple area is the presence of a vast number of devotees. A total of 2 crore people are expected to come, when the temple closes in January. “The majority will be from the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh,” says Ramesh.

Soon, it is time for me to leave. And the feeling I have is of being completely overwhelmed: by the crowds, the devotional atmosphere, the physical struggle followed by a spiritual high.

Whatever be the faults and difficulties, the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is one of the most remarkable that anybody can undertake.


God’s custodian

The melsanthi is the chief priest of the Lord Ayyappa temple. Since it is a prestigious post, there are many aspirants. In order to lessen the number, the Travancore Devaswom Board came up with new rules.

Aspirants should be between 35 and 60 years of age. He should have served for ten years in a major temple which holds three pujas a day. He should be a full-time melsanthi elsewhere. In the previous year, the melsanthi was working in a Central Government undertaking.

Nevertheless, there were 56 candidates, but, after a careful scrutiny, only 10 were short-listed. And the selection was done by a draw of lots. G. Vishnu Nampoothiri, 45, was the lucky one. “It proves that only by the grace of God you can become a melsanthi,” he says.

Vishnu says it is the dream of every priest to be a melsanthi at the Lord Ayyappa temple. However, the term is for one year. The idea was mooted by Vishnu’s father, Ganapathi Nampoothiri, who was the melsanthi in 1981. “My father felt that by limiting the term, others would get an opportunity,” says Vishnu.

Vishnu Nampoothiri’s daily job includes opening the sanctum sanctorum at 4 a.m., doing the Usha puja at 7.30 a.m. and the uchcha puja at 12.30 p.m. He closes the sanctorum at 11 p.m., after leading other priests in the rendition of the harivarasanam song. He also conducts a puja at the nearby Ganapathy temple.

Asked why the numbers of pilgrims are going up, Vishnu says, “Lord Ayyappa is fulfilling the needs of the people. That is why they keep coming back.”


Sabarimala Temple: some facts

According to legend, Parasurama, who pulled Kerala from the sea, installed the Lord Ayyappa idol at Sabarimala. The season begins in November and ends in January. The Makara Jyothi held usually on January 14 is one of the biggest events.

During the Makara Jyothi, the Thiruvabharanam or the sacred jewels of the Lord – a diamond crown, golden bracelets, necklaces and a sword -- is brought to Sabarimala in three boxes.

At the Sannidhanam, where the temple is located, the Melsanthi (chief priest) and Thantri (head priest) adorn the jewels across Lord Ayyappa. Then the priests perform arati.

At this moment a flashing light appears on the opposite mountain, at a place called Kantamala. There is a belief that this is the arati performed by devas and rishis. This marks the culmination of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala.

The temple remains closed for the rest of the year, but it opens for the first five days of every Malayalam month and during Vishu (April).

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

A man of many parts


Being a member of Kavalam Narayana Pannikar’s troupe was a big turning point for actor Nedumudi Venu

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Nedumudi Venu was in class six, at the Nair Service Society School, he got a role in P.K. Veeraraghavan Nair’s play Industree (Industry). He acted opposite Gopi, an experienced artiste, who had a habit of improvising.

“Gopi had a knife, as a prop, and would pretend to cut his nails or scratch his back with it,” says Venu. “The audience clapped when he did this.”

Venu realised that if he wanted to avoid being overshadowed, he had to do something similar. His costume included a large moustache and a huge mop of hair. Suddenly, he pretended to pluck a lice from his hair and killed it. “The audience laughed,” he says.

Gopi retaliated by using his knife to take out a bit of imaginary food stuck in his teeth. Immediately, Venu took out another lice, this time, from his thick moustache. “I received a lot of claps,” he says. “That was how I learnt to improvise.”

Venu continued to act in many plays during his school years. Once he played the role of a woman in a drama competition and won the ‘best actress’ award.

In 1969, at the S.D. College in Alleppey, there was a ‘serious’ and ‘humourous’ acting competition. “The winner was [future director] Fazil in the serious role while I bagged the prize for the humourous role,” says Venu. “That was how we became friends.”

Venu stayed with Fazil at his home in Alleppey and collaborated on plays and mimicry skits. During another college competition, Fazil got the best director award, while Venu became the best actor. This time, one of the judges was the well-known theatre personality Kavalam Narayana Pannikar. Following the prize distribution ceremony, Kavalam invited Fazil and Venu to join his troupe.

They accepted. One of Venu’s first roles was that of an astrologer, Kalan Kanian. “He had an instrument called the Udukku and would sing songs,” he says. “There were several choreographic movements.”

Some of Kerala’s well-known cultural figures -- G. Sankara Pillai, Ayyappa Paniker, and CN Sreekandan Nair -- had come to watch the play. “All these eminent people complimented me on my performance,” he says. “It was a huge encouragement for me.”

When Kavalam moved to Thiruvananthapuram, Venu went along. There, Venu befriended the director G. Aravindan.

Because the income from plays were irregular, Kavalam and Aravindan got him a job as a reporter in the ‘Kalakaumudi’ weekly magazine.

Venu wrote feature articles on stalwart musicians M.D. Ramanathan and Chitti Babu, theatre greats like Thoppil Bhasi and eminent writers like Prof. N. Krishna Pillai.

Pillai was a formidable interviewee. “If you wrote an article on him, Pillai would insist on reading it before it was printed,” says Venu. “He said that if one made a small change, the meaning would change completely.”

Unfortunately, because of a short deadline, Venu was unable to show the piece. When the article was published Venu avoided Pillai. But one day at a meeting Pillai suddenly spotted Venu. “Pillai said, ‘Have you learnt shorthand?’” recalls Venu. “I replied in the negative. Then he said, ‘How did you manage to quote me so accurately?’”

Venu says, “It was a great moment for me. Pillai embraced me and told everybody,
‘He is going to become a big journalist.’”

One day, Venu went to interview the Chennai-based director Bharathan at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. After the interview, Bharathan invited Venu to spend time with him in the evenings. “I started going regularly,” says Venu. “We became close, but Bharatan did not know I was an actor.”

But the truth came out when Bharathan’s friend, Padmarajan, said, “Venu is a prominent actor in Kavalam’s troupe.”

This was a turning point for Venu. “Immediately Bharathan gave me the hero’s role in his next film, ‘Aaravam,’” he says. But by then Venu had started shooting for Aravindan’s ‘Thambu’. Both films did not make an impact at the box office.

The big moment for Venu came when he acted as ‘Chellapan Aashari’ in Bharathan’s ‘Thakara’ in 1980. Because the cast had unknown actors like Pratap Pothen, Surekha and Venu, no distributor was willing to take on the film. It took two years for the film to be released, but it became an unexpected hit.

“The story and the actors were new,” says Venu. “The audience accepted me.” Thereafter, there was no looking back. Today, Venu, in a 30-year-career, has acted in more than 350 films.

At the Navodaya studio at Kakkanad, Venu, with grey hair and a stubble, is dressed in the brown cassock of a priest, with a cross hanging from his neck. He is playing the role of a priest in Lal’s ‘In Ghost House Inn’.

In the midst of the hectic shooting he shows gratefulness for his career.

“In one life I am having a thousand births as an actor,” he says. “It is a blessing. But there is a negative side to it also. I am so immersed in the roles that I sometimes lost touch with who I am. So I am on an inward search to know the real Nedumudi Venu.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 18, 2009


Too much construction spoiling Kerala, says Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of America’s great writers, Alice Walker, was in Kerala for a brief visit. The Pulitzer Prize winner, who wrote the best-selling novel, ‘The Colour Purple’, touched down at Kochi, had an Ayurvedic massage, spent time with Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, met a few local dignitaries and was off to spend a day in a houseboat at Alleppey.

“There was such a feeling of serenity in the backwaters,” says Alice. “The people may be poorer, than in the cities, but they seem to have more tranquility, self-respect and patience.”

On her road trips with her partner, Garrett Larson, a long-haired South Korean, Alice was amazed to observe a building construction boom. “I am concerned about it,” she says. “Development can be so fast and unplanned, that it could damage the landscape, the animals, and the forests permanently. There is a clear difference between the cities of Kerala where so much construction is going on, and the backwaters where things have remained the same for thousands of years.”

At the invitation of Arundhati, Alice spent a day at the Pallikoodam school, at Kottayam, which is run by Arundhati’s mother, Mary Roy.

“It is, probably, the most beautiful school I have ever seen,” says Alice. “It is artistically inspiring and beautifully maintained. Everything is imbued with colour, spirit and thought. Mary Roy has done an amazing job. The children are happy, smart, and glad to be in school.”

June Jose, the Vice Principal, says the students put up a play to show the evils of dowry. “In ‘The Colour Purple’, the heroine, Celie, gets raped by a person whom she regarded as her father,” says June. “We wanted to show the plight of the girl child in the Indian context.”

As expected, Alice enjoyed the play. “The question of dowry must be brought alive in the minds of younger people so that they know what the situation is,” she says.

Alice spoke to the students about how she stumbled across the horrific practice of female genital mutilation on a visit to Africa. “She said that she had spent several years publicising and fighting this social torture,” says June.

Meanwhile, at Kochi, when Alice was asked about the striking difference between the people of Kerala and America, she says, “Keralites are more friendly, open, and humane. Americans are materialistic, closed, and afraid. They have a fear of strangers.”

Alice was also much taken up by the easy smiles of the populace. “The people understand that a smile is a gift easily given, and why not? [Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hanh said, ‘A smile is yoga for the face’. In America, people feel that a smile may get you in trouble.”

Alice had come to Kerala on the Distinguished Visitor’s Programme of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “Alice’s first stop is Kerala, on her 15-day visit to India,” says M.R. Krishnamoorthy, Regional Officer of the ICCR. “Thereafter, she will be going to Delhi, Dharamshala and Bangalore.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Oommen Chandy: Life in the fast lane


By Shevlin Sebastian

When former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy arrives forty-five minutes late for a 3 p.m. interview at the Ernakulam MLA’s Guest House, he has the decency to apologise. “I got stuck on the South overbridge,” he says. “Road repairs are going on and the police were releasing vehicles a few at a time from both sides.”

Chandy turns to K. Babu, the Tripunithara MLA and asks, “Why is work being done on a Sunday?” Babu replies, “The roads have to be repaired.” Chandy says, “It could have done it at night, instead of inconveniencing the people.”

Chandy heads for the dining room, splashes his face with water at the wash basin and sits down for lunch at 4 p.m. As he tucks into rice, sambhar and avial, the interview begins. Twenty minutes later, lunch is over and Chandy has to rush off, to Koratty, for a felicitation function in honour of Congress worker Augustine Paul who has spent more than 30 years at the panchayat level.

My interview is only half complete. Babu says, “Why don’t you come along to Koratty? You can do the interview in the car. Anyway, I am returning to Ernakulam.”

And so I take up the offer, and sit wedged between Chandy and Babu in the backseat of a Mitsubishi Lancer. But this former Chief Minister does not use a police escort nor is the red beacon on the roof of the car been switched on. So, in essence, we are traveling incognito.

Soon, Chandy tells me a story. He had gone to Dubai in 2005 and asked to see some of the worst labour camps. “I saw the living conditions and felt devastated,” he says. “Our cows lived in a better way. That was how bad it was. I could not go into the bathroom. And these Malayali boys who lived there were so smart and intelligent.”

His face looks sad as he says, “I realised I was at fault. I was a public figure. I was a chief minister and I just could not do anything to prevent this people from working in this situation. I took the blame for it.” Chandy got in touch with the Dubai government and ensured a marked improvement in the situation.

When we reach the United Club at Managalassery, Chandy is soon surrounded by white-shirted Congressmen as he is led to the stage.

Incidentally, Chandy’s schedule for the day went like this: A 9.30 a.m. start from his home at Puthupally. First stop: Changanacherry. Then to Kottayam, back to Puthupally for a condolence call, on to Poonjar, Ernakulam, Koratty, and onwards to Kodungalloor. From there he would be going to the Nedumbassery airport to take the night flight to Thiruvananthapuram.

Babu says, “A politician has no family life. On holidays they work harder, because there are so many functions to attend.”

It’s a high price to pay for power, prestige and privilege.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The double life

In Kerala, there are a significant number of gays who have married in order to conceal their sexual orientation in a conservative society

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Rasheed Khan, 36, makes love to his wife, Hameeda, he has to imagine that it is his gay lover, Sunil, otherwise he is unable to get a hard-on. “Can you blame me?” he says. “I am a gay who got married because I live in a conservative society. This is the only way to conceal my sexual orientation.”

He is candid enough to say that he does not enjoy sex with Hameeda. “We do it rarely,” he says. Nevertheless he has five children, the eldest being 10 years old, while the youngest is only one.

Rasheed was 11 when he discovered that he liked boys. He seduced a close friend and had sex. Thereafter he had many lovers. But he was always discreet. When he was 25 years old, his parents pressured him to marry. His gay friends told him to go ahead. “They said it might change my orientation,” he says. “So I decided to get married.”

The marriage took place in 1999 and Hameeda came from a village, while Rasheed lived in Calicut. She had studied only till Class seven and had little exposure to the world.

A couple of years after his marriage, Rasheed met Sunil and fell deeply in love. “He is so loving and caring,” says Rasheed. “He is always buying me presents.” They live in different areas, outside Calicut, and try to meet a few times a week.

“For me, the sex is not the primary element in the relationship,” he says. “Love is.”

However, twice or thrice a month, they hire a room in a lodge to have sex. Rasheed sometimes takes on other lovers, but they are just brief flings. He is able to meet a lot of gays, because he works in a NGO that distributes condoms to sexual minorities.

He says he is unsure about whether Hameeda suspects that he is gay. “She has not told me anything,” he says. “Maybe she has guessed it. Who knows?”

During the course of the past ten years, Rasheed has developed a liking for his wife. “Of course, I don’t have the same intensity of feeling that I have for Sunil,” he says. And this creates a feeling of guilt. “I know I am doing wrong,” he says. “I love another person, while I live with my wife. But I am compelled to do this. If we were living in an open society I would have flaunted my sexuality.”

Despite his gayness and the intensity of his feelings for Sunil, Rasheed says that he will never leave Hameeda, because he is a father. “I find it difficult to abandon the tiny tots,” he says. “I have a responsibility as a parent.”

The Thrissur-based Thommen, 34, has also become a parent of two boys. He says he got married to Susan in 2000 ‘because it is dangerous to say you are gay in Kerala society.”

Thommen says that Susan has a suspicion regarding his sexual orientation “but she has not told me anything directly.” Unlike most gays, Thommen has no problem in making love to Susan. “I like sex with men and women, but I do enjoy sex with men more,” he says. “The emotional satisfaction is deeper.” He works in a firm where he does embroidery work. “I have lovers among my female colleagues also,” he says.

Thommen is recovering from a six-year affair with a 42-year old man, George. “He suffered from an inferiority complex,” he says. While Thommen was an extrovert and gregarious, and had many friends, George was a loner. Where Thommen was fair and good-looking, George was dark and morose.

“He was always jealous,” says Thommen.

Thommen’s friends urged him to get a better-looking lover. “But what to do?” he says. “I was in love with him but, one day, he suddenly broke off the relationship. It devastated me. I think of him all the time. ”

Nevertheless, on most evenings, Thommen picks up a lot of gay lovers and has fun in broken-down buildings and deserted gardens. When he reaches home, by 9 p.m., he tells Susan he was delayed at work.

Unlike most people, Thommen does not suffer from any sense of guilt about being unfaithful to Susan. “I don’t regard having sex with somebody else as a betrayal,” he says. “I am fulfilling my duty of looking after my wife and children. But I am also gay, and so there is a necessity to lead this double life.”

But it has not been easy. Thommen has been suffering from misgivings about being married. “I had yearned for freedom a lot in the past, but now that I have become a parent, leaving Susan is out of the question,” he says.

(Names have been changed)

‘Gays suffer from hetero-aversion’
Says the Thiruvananthapuram-based sexologist, Dr. P.B. S. Chand

What are the problems that gays face in a marriage?
The man wants to distance himself from the wife in terms of romance, intimacy and sex. The wife finds it difficult to live with that. She will attempt to get closer to him by various means. This will terrify him, and he usually reacts with anger and distress, which the woman does not understand.

What is the sexual relationship between a gay and his wife?
Usually, they are unable to have intercourse. His penis will deflate partially or totally when he attempts to have sex. However, for some men, if they imagine that they are making love to their gay lover, it is possible to get a hard-on.

Most gays have lovers. Do the wives suspect anything?
Most wives think he has got another woman as a lover. She will rarely suspect that he is gay.

Why do gays get married?
They are terrified to live as gays in a society like Kerala, where homosexuality is despised by everybody.

What advice do you give married gays?
I tell them they have a hetero-aversion, which is not changeable with medication, injections, or operations. They have to live with it. To enjoy their lives they will have to indulge in sex with a homosexual partner.

If they do this, how can they stay married?
The man can be taught to behave well with the wife. He can learn to give gifts to her from time to time, pay attention to her concerns and care for the children. If he thinks it is better to come clean we have a joint meeting.

What is the reaction of the wives?
Some wives are shocked. Most are relieved, because they have this closure of their marital problems. Many women continue to live with their husbands, even though they know they are homosexual. But they are glad he is not going to another woman, and so they feel safe.

Do gay men have a sense of guilt that they are leading a double life?
Most gays do not. They say that they got married because it is what society has demanded of them. They put the blame on society. Their conscience is clear. At least that is what they fool themselves into believing.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Man of the masses


Winning the Puthupally Assembly seat in 1970 was a big turning point for former chief Minister Oommen Chandy

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the 1957 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to Puthupally to campaign for Congress candidate P.T. Thomas. There was high excitement in the town. At that time there was only one two storey-building in Puthupally. Passes to stand on the terrace were issued to a few people, including the 14-year-old Oommen Chandy and his father.

“In those days, the Prime Minister travelled by car, instead of a helicopter as it is today,” says Chandy. “Panditji spoke a few words in English. He was handsome and fair and had a rose in his lapel.”

After the speech was over Nehru stood in the car and flung a garland towards a group of children who were standing by the side of the road. The children pulled at the garland from opposite ends, and it split into two.

“Pandit Nehru put a finger on his lips expressing disappointment,” says Chandy. “I have never forgotten this memory.” Incidentally, Thomas won the election.

Chandy was interested in politics from a young age. It could have been a hereditary trait. His grandfather, V.J. Oommen, was a Member of the Travancore Legislative Council. In school, Chandy was the unit president of the Kerala Students Union (KSU). At 18, Chandy became the President of All Kerala Balajana Sakhyam.

The highlight of his tenure was when Anita Bose, the daughter of Subhash Chandra Bose came to the Balajana Sakhyam office at Kottayam in 1961.

“I gave her a honorary membership which she accepted,” says Chandy. “It became the big event in the newspapers the next day.”

By the time Chandy was doing his pre-degree at CMS College, Kottayam, he was in the forefront in the agitation by the KSU for ticket concessions for students travelling on buses. The principal P.C. Joseph was unhappy with Chandy’s union activities. When Chandy applied for admission for the degree course in history, Joseph refused to give admission.

“There were only four applicants in all,” says Chandy. “I was desperate to get in, because Kottayam was my political base.” But Joseph refused to budge.

At this time, his parents suggested that he join the Kothamangalam Engineering College, since he was good in mathematics. The principal, O.A. Mathew, who was his uncle agreed to admit him.

“I felt demoralised,” he says. “If I had gone for the engineering course my life would have taken a totally different direction.”

Instead, with his local guardian, the MLA, Pala K. Mathew, Chandy sought admission at St. Berchman’s College in Chanaganacherry.

But he was told the principal, Fr Francis Kalassery, was also against Chandy’s selection, because of his political activities. But Chandy had a stroke of luck. The day he went to seek admission, Fr. Kalassery was unwell and in hospital.

The Vice Principal, Fr. Kuriakose Aenekatt was told that Pala K. Mathew had recommended the admission of a young man. “My name was not mentioned at all,” he says. “Soon, I was taken in.”

A quiet student in college, Chandy continued to be involved in various political agitations outside. Following his graduation he joined the Government Law College in Ernakulam in 1967 and came into contact with Youth Congress leaders Vayalar Ravi and A.K. Antony.

Chandy’s biggest turning point came when he was selected as the Congress (Indira Gandhi) candidate for the Puthupally seat for the 1970 Assembly elections. It was going to be an uphill battle because Puthupally was in the control of P.C. Cherian of the old Congress, which was opposed to Indira..

But Chandy campaigned extensively. “With the help of the students and public support I slowly began to make headway,” he says. Soon, there was a mass movement to unseat the Marxists. The sitting MLA, E.M. George of the CPM was unpopular.

Sensing the change in public support, Cherian withdrew from the campaign, although his name remained on the ticket. “This was the turning point for me,” says Chandy. “My chances of winning improved.”

Then another incident took place, which brightened his prospects even further. At a meeting at Vakathanam panchayat, Chandy saw a group of men coming towards the venue with Congress flags. At the forefront was a leader of the old Congress, Kalapara Thommachen.

“I thought they had come to disrupt the meeting,” he says. “But when they came close, to my astonishment they were shouting ‘Zindabad, Zindabad’ in support of me.” Later, he came to know that Thommachen’s son, a KSU activist, forced his father to switch sides.

Eventually, Chandy won by a margin of 7288 votes. And he has held the seat continuously for the past 39 years. Along the way he became the Minister for Labour, Home and Finance, in various ministries, reached the pinnacle of his career when he became the Chief Minister, from September 2004 to May 2006 and is now the leader of the opposition in the current Assembly.

In person Chandy comes across as simple and humane. Asked to explain his philosophy of life, he says, “I am a believer in God. If we do good God will be with us. If we do wrong, He will punish us. It is as simple as that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Paradise on earth

A cultural festival focuses attention on a place that is just a dot on the map: the Minicoy Island

Photos: Minicoy Island; Tuna fishing; Minicoy women in traditional attire

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the garden of the David Hall at Fort Kochi, a group of women dressed in flowing gowns and white head scarves are busy preparing dishes on a round black tawa. A few young girls hover around watching intently.

There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. This is the first time that the people from the tiny island of Minicoy in the Lakshadweep Islands are holding a festival displaying their cuisine, culture, handicrafts, and games at Kochi

“We wanted to bring them into the spotlight, so that they could build up their confidence and self-esteem,” says Vineeta Hoon, founder cum managing trustee of the Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society, (CARESS), a Chennai-based NGO.

Apart from CARESS, the other organisers included the Maliku Development Society, Maliku Hikimas Producers Society, as well as the CGH Earth Group. Incidentally, Maliku is the name by which the islanders call Minicoy.

“Minicoyans, with a population of 9000, is one of the smallest ethnic communities in India,” says Vineeta. “The island has a radius of only 4.4 sq. km.”

The focus of the festival is on the food. And the surprising discovery is that the Minicoyans eat only one type of fish: the skipjack tuna. But there is a reason for this. “Tuna can be preserved for a long time, provided it is cooked in the right ratio of salt and sweet water,” says K. Mohammed, a member of the Maliku Development Society. There is also a big market for tuna in India, as well as abroad. “So, most of the fish is exported,” he says.

Vineeta says this focus on tuna, which is a migratory fish, is a blessing, in ecological terms. Minicoy is a coral reef island. In these reefs, there are more than 400 varieties of fish. “But each variety is of a small quantity,” she says. “So, if you target reef fish like the sturgeons or the snappers, then one part of the food chain is permanently damaged.”

What is another plus point is the way the Minicoyans go fishing. They never use a net. Instead, they use the pole and line method. Bait fish is thrown into the water, near the boat and the tuna approach it in droves. During the frenzied feeding, several hooks, at the end of long lines, are put into the water.

“Somehow, the tuna mistakes the hook to be a fish and is pulled up,” says Mohammed. In half an hour, more than a thousand fish are caught by the 10-member crew. This is an ecologically friendly method. “If we use a net many small fish which we don’t need are trapped and killed inadvertently,” he says.

This method of fishing is ancient, just like their religion, Islam, which came to Minicoy more than 800 years ago.

“But it is a liberal form of Islam,” says Vineetha. “One reason is because most of the Minicoyans are seamen who have travelled all over the world. So they are broad-minded.”

But the community took a conservative turn in the late 1950s, when a holy man, Husain Didi, came from the Maldives and told the people that too much attention was being paid to folk dances and celebration of festivals. Instead, they should say their prayers strictly.

“The people reacted by getting rid of all the folk dances,” says Mohammed. “Not all people agreed with this trend. After all, festivals bring the people closer.”

However, Havva Mamaugothi, 58, a woman who belongs to a self-help group says it was a good development. “There was too much intermingling between boys and girls,” she says.
So now the only festival that is celebrated is Id, but there are no dances. “However, recently, there has been a move to revive the Lava folk dance,” says Mohammed.

Apart from the Muslim influence, the people of Kerala have had an impact on the Minicoyans. “There has been trade links for several hundred years between Minicoy and Cannanore (present-day Kannur),” says Mohammed. And there has been a positive fallout: in Minicoy the women have access to education and jobs, like in Kerala.

But Vineeta breaks out into a bright smile and says, “The Minicoyans are also learning how to do strikes and hartals, so that the government gives what is due to them. That is definitely a Kerala influence.”

At 7 p.m., the food is ready at the festival and the visitors make a beeline for it. There are several varieties of fish dishes, rice, brinjal, and a cabbage concoction, followed by sweets.

“It is all based on coconut milk,” says Dalekha, 45, who did some of the cooking. “Our most popular dish is rairiha. This is tuna fish simmered in a red curry.” This is eaten at every meal. The Minicoyans have fish in the morning with parathas, at lunch and dinner with rice. The food is tasty and simple and not spicy at all.

“Come to Minicoy and have the time of your life,” says a smiling Mohammad.

Fast Facts

Occupations of Minicoyans
Seamen; coconut climbing; fishing; octopus hunting; cowry and shingle collection; government staff; Navy personnel and labourers.

Octopus hunting
This takes place between August and March. The octopuses are caught in the low tide from the crevices and bottoms among the coral boulders. A 1.5 m rod is used to catch it.

Octopuses usually live alone. When they are caught, another octopus will occupy the same place. They cover the cavity with small flat stones. This is the identifying feature to locate octopus habitats.

Women on top
It is a matrilineal society. 98 per cent of the men lived in the house that belonged to their mother or their wives. Gender equality is represented by the fact that each village has a headman and headwoman. Women take part in all aspects of the economy.

An unofficial caste system
The Manikfans form the aristocracy.
The Thakrus are the boat builders and sailors, followed by the Raveris (coconut climbers). The Raveris were dependent on the Manikfans for work.
However, thanks to affirmative action by the Indian government, people from lower castes have been able to go for higher education and government jobs.

Saving a fragile ecosystem

Coral reefs are ecologically threatened owing to climate change and other man-made factors. In the case of Minicoy it is even more in need of protection because of its isolation from other islands. The Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society, a Chennai-based NGO, and the Minicoy fishing community are working together to protect Minicoy reef resources.

With this aim in mind, a Joint Coastal Resource Management Council was set up in July, 2009. The first task of the council was to identify areas for marine conservation and conservation. Posters have been made to sensitise the local public about the need for marine conservation and protecting shipwrecks.

On the poster one of the no-fishing areas is the shipwreck site. A ship sank more than 150 years ago. It is now a part of the ecosystem and it was felt that it would be better not to disturb it.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What God means to me


Why do we pray? What do we pray for? Who is the favourite God? A leading dancer gives some answers

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2005, noted Mohiniyattom dancer Pallavi Krishnan was planning to go for the Toronto International Dance Festival in Canada for a group recital. One week before her departure, Pallavi got her visa, but her four disciples were denied it. “They were going abroad for the first time,” says Pallavi. “Maybe, that was the reason.”

Pallavi became desperate. She went into her prayer room at her home in Thrissur. “I prayed and prayed,” she says. “I asked God not to abandon us. If we did not go, I would have to pay a substantial compensation.”

Through a friend, Pallavi got in touch with an official in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, who was a dance aficionado. The visas were issued a day before they were leaving. “There are many situations like this where God has saved me at the last moment,” she says.

Pallavi prays every evening for half an hour. “When I am in front of God, I say, ‘Please protect my family and friends.’ I pray that they don’t have any difficulties in life. I feel that God has given me more than what I wanted. So, I don’t ask for anything.”

For Pallavi, her favourite deity is Shiva. “When I close my eyes, I see the image of Shiva sitting in a meditative pose,” she says. “From my childhood I had special feelings for Shiva.” Pallavi may have been influenced by her father, a devotee of Shiva, while her mother prays to Goddess Kali.

Pallavi has prayed in many temples – the Guruvayur Krishna and Mammiyur Shiva, the Kuttankulangara Vishnu, close to her house, as well as the Vadakkunnathan Shiva in Thrissur. But her favourite is the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu.

Pallavi had gone there to dance for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Natyanjali festival. “I saw the deity during the arati,” she says. “The ambience was so powerful, no doubt helped by the sound of the big bell. There was a strong sense of spirituality.”

Not many people know that Pallavi is a Bengali. At the Vishwa-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, she became fascinated with Mohiniyattom. In 1992, she came to learn the dance form at the Kerala Kalamandalam. But the initial years were difficult. “I faced a lot of opposition,” she says. “I had to depend a lot on God to see me through.”

So who is God? “God is a power, an energy, an intangible shakti,” she says. “When I close my eyes and meditate, I see a huge ball of light. I believe God exists.”

However, sometimes, Pallavi, like all human beings, does get disappointed with God. “If I am suffering a lot or if nothing has happened despite an intense effort, I tend to get angry with God. Then I tell myself that you cannot always expect the good things in life.”

But she will always be grateful to God for a priceless blessing. “I had ardently prayed for a daughter,” she says. “Priyamvada was born eleven years ago. It was the best gift I received.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Resul Pookutty: sound designer as celebrity


By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Resul Pookutty (right) with Chief Priest R K Nampoothiri of the Chakkulathukavu Sree Bhagavathy Temple

When I meet Resul Pookutty at the lobby of The Raj Residency, Kochi, recently, he is on his way for an interview with a television channel. “My schedule is packed,” he says. “But if you could come with me in the car in the afternoon to a function near Tiruvalla, we can talk.” I immediately balk at the idea of taking this long trip, but later I call his manager, Byju, and say yes.

We leave Ernakulam at 4 p.m. In the Toyota Innova, apart from Resul, there are a few friends. There is a Tata Indica following us. In it are two beefy security guards that Resul has brought from Mumbai: S.K. Thakur, 40, and Sandeep Jadhav, 28, from the Ace Security Agency.

Soon Resul starts talking about his life. “Can you imagine a boy who studied in a Malayalam medium village school in Kerala landing up at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles and giving an Academy Award acceptance speech in English?” he says. “NBC TV described it as the most eloquent of the evening!”

We are headed for the Chakkulathukavu Sree Bhagavathy Temple, where Resul is being conferred with the Chakkulathamma Swaravarsha Puraskaram for 2009. Somewhere, after Alleppey, there is a police escort.

There is a huge crowd waiting at the temple. Thakur and Jadhav and a team of policemen form a cordon, as Resul is led to the stage. There is sustained applause. Numerous pictures are taken on mobile cameras. Men and women jostle around.

A 15-year old girl, standing near the stage, has a smile of such dazzling innocence that I am struck numb. Despite the tumult, Resul spots the same quality. In her autograph book, he writes, ‘Dear Chippi, you have a most beautiful smile.’

The award is presented, and felicitation speeches begin. Resul chats with Chief Priest R K Nampoothiri. Then he lights the base of a tower-like structure, which bursts into fire. Following that Resul is led to a house, where he is introduced to the members of Nampoothiri’s family. Photographs are taken. A glass of tea is given to him.

As I write notes in a diary a woman rushes up to me. “Please give me a paper,” she says, looking desperate. I oblige, and she grabs my pen and rushes to Resul. As he signs, I shout, “Hey Resul that is my pen and paper.”

He laughs aloud. He is clearly enjoying the rush of adrenalin that you feel when you are at the centre of so much adulation. It is, indeed, a first for Indian cinema: a sound designer as celebrity. When Resul steps outside, the Edathua Sub Inspector K.I. Shamsudeen and his team take a photograph with him. Then Resul is off, to meet a relative who lives near Haripad.

When Resul enters the house, there is a buzz of excitement. He goes into a bedroom and holds the hands of his aunt and speaks gently to her. But she shows no sign of recognition of a man who is now famous all over India. You cannot blame her. Sadly and unfortunately, she is suffering from Alzhemeir’s Disease.

At 11.30 p.m., on our way back to Kochi, we stop to have dinner at a thattukada on National Highway 47.

“Can you imagine this?” says his friend. “An Oscar Award winner eating at a roadside shack!”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

A park for all seasons and moods


The Changampuzha Park at Kochi is a cultural force in the state

Photo: The bust of the poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, at Changampuzha Park, at Edapally, Kochi, Sindhu Pramod is sitting with her daughter Shreya on a bench. Shreya, who is studying in Class 7 at Campion School, says, “This park is wonderful, because of the many cultural activities that take place. Recently, we listened to Cochin Mansoor sing so many old hits. It was very exciting.”

The park was in the news recently when Mansoor tried to set a world record by singing non-stop for 24 hours. He lasted for 19 hours and 20 minutes before his voice broke.

In the evening the park is a microcosm of human activity. At one side, children are playing on swings, slides, and see-saws. On the open ground, in the middle, are elderly people sitting on plastic chairs, donated by the Cochin Corporation, reminiscing about life.

On the walkway, which runs all along the perimeter, middle-aged couples are taking a stroll. At one side, inside a small one-room conical structure, groups of men are playing carrom and chess.

The park, set in 1.85 acres of land, has been a Kochi landmark for years. The most striking feature is an actual Sea Hawk aircraft mounted on a pedestal.

According to the inscription, it ‘caused crippling damage to the Pakistani armed forces’ during the 1971 Bangladesh war. The Navy presented it to the park on December 4, 1999.

But what many people may not know is that the Changampuzha Park is a cultural force in the state. Says K. Balachandran, the president of the Changampuzha Samskarika Kendram: “Out of 365 days there is some cultural activity taking place on 250 days.”

There are Kathakali performances, dramas, dances, ganamelas, poetry readings, the recitation of shlokas, cinema premieres, and public meetings. There is a night dedicated to the songs of Mohammed Rafi and a nine-day celebration during Navaratri.

There are programmes held in honour of the late Kathakali exponent Kalamandalam Keshavan, music composer Muthuswamy Deekshitar and Carnatic vocalist Neyyanttinkara Vasudevan. “Some of the biggest artistes of Kerala have performed here,” says Balachandran.

And the most unusual aspect is that it is free, both for the participants and the audience. “The infrastructure, as well as the electricity, can be used without any payment,” says Balachandran. “I don’t think there is anything similar anywhere else in the state.”

But it was not always like this. Twelve years ago, it was overrun by bushes, grass and garbage, and became the haunt of anti-socials. Then Balachandran, with a group of like-minded individuals, set about changing things.

Thanks to generous donations from MLAs Simon Britto Rodrigues, George Eden, and K. Babu, and from the Local Area Development Fund of MP A.K. Antony, a new stage was built, a roof was installed, so that programmes could take place during the monsoon, while the walls were repaired. The ‘Fashion Marble and Granite Company’ sponsored another stage.

The park is the centre-point for a few organisations. The Edapally Senior Citizens Forum, which has 600 members, meets every Tuesday evening for an hour.

“Sometimes, a well-known personality will give a talk,” says president T.P. Antony. “On other occasions members relate their life experiences.”

Meanwhile, the Edapally Sangeetha Sadhas holds at least one classical music programme every month. Participants have included the Hyderabad Sisters, noted Carnatic vocalists.

Another organisation, the Kathakali Aaswadaka Sadas, organises Kathakali programmes. “Some members celebrate their marriages with a Kathakali recital,” says Balachandran. “Last year, there were eight programmes.”

All in all, the park, named in honour of the great poet, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai, is a most remarkable place, and a cultural asset to the state.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Sound Of Success


Seeing an advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India was a turning point for sound designer Resul Pookutty

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Resul Pookutty was in Class five, he had jaundice. “It became so serious that I became like a mad person,” he says. “I started biting people.” He was rushed to the nearest hospital at his hometown of Vilakkupara, 58 kms from Kollam.

When his condition worsened, the hospital authorities told the distraught parents to take Resul away. As he lay on the bed, at home, his aunt put a few drops of milk in his mouth. Resul’s throat moved as he swallowed. “The boy is alive,” she exclaimed. He was rushed to the Medical College Hospital at Thiruvananthapuram. An emergency blood transfusion was done. Resul was unconscious for nine days.

When he awoke, one of the first sights he saw was of the fan above his head. “I could hear its whirring sound,” he says. “I knew immediately I was not at home, because this was a fan I had not seen before.”

The sound of the fan remained etched in his mind. Many years later, when he was working as a sound designer for Rajat Kapoor’s ‘Mixed Doubles’, there is a scene at the climax which shows a fan moving.

“I wanted to put the sound of a fan,” he says. His assistants made him hear various kinds of fan sounds, but he kept rejecting them. Then Resul went to a friend’s house. “He had a very old fan, and I said this is the sound that I want,” he says. “In every movie there are some sounds that trigger memories in me.”

When Resul was growing up, he wanted to be a detective, after reading many detective novels. Then, at the insistence of his mother, he decided to become a doctor, but he failed in his MBBS entrance exams.

Then he studied for B Sc at MSM College at Kayamkulam and had aspirations to become a physicist. But he was unable to get admission for the M. Sc course because the seats were few and his family did not have the money to pay a donation. So, he opted for law at Trivandrum Law College.

One day, in 1990, two classmates told Resul that a newspaper advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) had appeared. They were looking for applications for a course in sound engineering. The minimum qualification was a B.Sc in physics. “So I decided to apply,” says Resul.

He got through the written examination and the FTII conducted an orientation course for cinema for the short-listed candidates. “This was where I first became aware of cinema as an art medium,” he says. “I was instantly attracted.”

Resul did not win final selection, but when he returned to Thiruvananthapuram, he began reading everything he could about cinema. “Every day of the week I was watching films,” he says. Resul saw movies at the Chalachitra Film Society, Soorya Film Society, the Tagore theatre, Gorky Bhavan, and the Film Society run by the journalism students of Kerala University.

“Not getting admitted was a turning point in my life,” he says. “It gave me a chance to immerse myself in films.” The next year, a determined Resul wrote the exam again, and secured the first rank. This enabled him to get Central and Kerala state government scholarships totalling Rs 800 a month.

After an eventful three years, Resul graduated, in 1995 and came to Thiruvananthapuram to look for work. But nothing happened. Then he moved to Chennai. Again he drew a blank. “I decided I would leave films and try something else,” he says. But before that Resul decided to attend a film festival at Mumbai.

Once there, when he was about to watch a film, there was an announcement: “Resul Pookutty, please come out.” When he stepped outside, he saw a friend, Prakash, who studied with him at FTII, with another person.

“This is Aravind Dave, our senior,” said Prakash. “He is an associate director in a television serial which is going to be shot in Uran in Raigad district and they want you to do the sound.”

So that was how Resul got his first assignment. He stayed on Mumbai and began getting jobs regularly. His turning point came when he did the sound for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’ in 2005. “I did ‘Black’ because I wanted to reach out to a wider audience,” he says. The sound was recorded while the film was being shot.

“I remember a letter-reading sequence,” he says. “Amitabh Bachchan was reading it out loud. The only sound I created was of the actor speaking. It had a good impact”

Following ‘Black’, Resul did work on ‘Musafir’, ‘Zinda’, ‘Gandhi, My Father’ and ‘Saawariya’.

And then came his momentous meeting with Danny Boyle, the director of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ in 2008. At the interview Danny was holding a piece of paper. It was Resul’s resume. He looked at it and said, “Which of these movies of yours I should watch?” Resul said, “You can see any film. You will find me in all of them one way or the other.”

Resul was selected and told to get the sounds of the city into the film. The rest, of course, is cinematic history. ‘Slumdog’ became a huge hit, won eight Academy Awards in 2009, including Best Sound Mixing for Resul.

“It was the greatest moment of my life,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

‘Hit-and-run Western evangelism should stop’


Says the Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Marthoma, the Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma church

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is not every day that one has lunch with a supreme head of a religious order. But I got this opportunity when I went to interview the Most Rev Dr. Joseph Marthoma, the Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church. We met at the palatial Vennala bungalow of Dubai-based businessman P.P.G. Mathew. Since the interview concluded at 1 p.m., it led to lunch with the Metropolitan. And the Mathew family had pulled out all the stops. Course after course of delicious vegetarian and non-vegetarian food followed.

Dr. Joseph Marthoma had come to Kochi to inaugurate a new church at Palarivattom. At 79, the only concession to advancing age is a walking stick. And, like any religious leader, he is a widely travelled man. One of his recent trips was to the riot-ravaged district of Khandamal in Orissa.

“The situation has improved a lot,” he says. “The churches are being reconstructed. However, the old wounds are still there.”

Dr. Joseph puts the blame on the vitiated atmosphere on western evangelism. “The drawback is that they denounce other faiths and cultures,” he says. “Theirs is a hit-and-run evangelism. They have no long-standing presence. They do great damage and the sufferers are the local, established churches, as well as the poor people.”

Dr. Joseph says that these groups should change. “They have the attitude that they are bringing the torch of light to the dark continents of Asia and Africa,” he says. “But times have changed. They must understand that the only way forward is mutual respect. Because of their aggressiveness, the riots took place in Orissa.”

He says the Mar Thoma church has a mission at Khariar Road, in Nuapada district, just 150 km from Kandhamal. “We had no problems during the riots,” he says. “The local people, comprising mostly Hindus, were the protectors of our mission.”

Dr. Joseph proudly asserts that the 10-lakh strong Mar Thoma church is an independent entity. “We do not take funds from foreign agencies for our maintenance and programmes,” he says. “We are self-sufficient.”

The church runs more than 150 educational institutions, destitute homes, social welfare organisations, technical institutions, study centres, and hospitals in various parts of the country.

But Dr. Joseph bemoans the loss of value-based democracy and nationalism, as propagated by Mahatma Gandhi. “In the sixty years, since Independence, there has been a shocking degradation of values,” he says. “Earlier, politicians wanted to serve society, but now all they want to do is grab and grab.”

This rampant materialism and greed has afflicted the whole of society. When asked whether this has affected the religious instinct of people, he says no. “At every sacred place, year by year, the worshippers are increasing. And the offerings are also going up.”

However, he says, this is a sign of fear. “People have financial, emotional, and security worries, as well as an uncertainty about the future,” says Dr. Joseph. “Before 9/11, many Americans were not so religious. But following it, the churches were full. This has also happened in Mumbai, post 26/11.”

Besides the scourge of terrorism, there are other problems also. Like global warming, which has become a life-threatening crisis, as well as the tampering of food and genes.

“Our unscientific exploitation has disfigured the world,” says Dr. Joseph. “To make the people aware about these dangers is the biggest challenge of the 21st century.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Author William Dalrymple loves Kerala to bits


By Shevlin Sebastian

Acclaimed author William Dalrymple surprises me with his powers of recall. Last week when I meet him at the Taj Malabar in Kochi, he says, “Haven’t we met before? At the Kovalam Literary Festival?”

Indeed, he is right. Last year, at the festival, held at the Taj Green Cove, I spotted Dalrymple, standing all alone, at the back of the hall, sipping a glass of water. I walked up to him and asked whether we could have a talk. He agreed and said he would meet me outside in a few minutes.

While I was waiting near the restaurant, Mike Bryan, the CEO of Penguin Books India came up to me and said, “I am ready to talk now.” An earlier scheduled interview had fallen through. So, rather than wait for Dalrymple, I began the interview with Mike.

After 15 minutes, Dalrymple came out and saw me talking with Mike. He raised his hand, as if to indicate, “Continue, continue.” And, because it was the last day, I never got another chance to speak with him.

At the Taj Malabar, Dalrymple is sitting at a table in the garden facing the backwaters. “Kerala is my most beautiful place in the world,” he says. “I love Kochi the most. Just look at it.”

He turns and points at the water and the floating hyacinths. “Look at those marvellous buildings of Mattancherry, there is so much of history there.”

Dalrymple says he is so enamoured about Kerala food that on the night flight from Delhi to Kochi he avoided eating anything. “I wanted to be sufficiently hungry when I landed,” he says. The moment he reached his room he ordered prawn and fish thali, and sambhar. “I just loved it,” he says. And as he talks to me, he is munching on pappadams.

Dalrymple came to Kochi for a reading of his latest book, ‘Nine Lives -- In Search Of The Sacred in Modern India’. Within a month of its release it has become a bestseller. So I ask him about his next book. “I have three subjects on my short-list – the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, Lord Clive of the East India Company, and Kerala.”

Dalrymple admires the way the different religions co-exist with each other in Kerala. “The syncretism is remarkable,” he says. “I have also toyed with the idea of writing about St. Thomas. But to write I need a house in the backwaters. Who will give me this?”

And suddenly he bursts out laughing. Dalrymple is in a good mood. And he has every right to be. All his seven books – on history, spirituality, travel, and journalism – have sold well, and have won major international awards.

So I ask him for some tips about writing. “Revise, revise, revise,” he says. “I have not come across any brilliant writer who does not revise.” He himself rewrites every chapter between 40 to 50 times.

“Just hearing that makes me feel tired,” I say, as I shake his hand, and wish him goodbye.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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