Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oh what a paradise it seems!

Well-heeled tourists find the backwaters in Kerala’s Allapuzha district as one of the most enchanting on earth, while locals fret over their economic difficulties

Photos: (From left) Rajiv Shah, Shiraz Sabah, Jonathan Lenihan and Sander van Loosbroek on their houseboat; Fisherman P. Dhananjay next to his upturned canoe

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a lazy afternoon in the backwaters of Alleppey on Kerala’s coast. Trees with thick leaves abound. Flowering plants grow wildly. The still waters have a greenish tinge. However, in the midst of serenely floating water hyacinths, there bobs up an occasional plastic soft drink bottle and pieces of debris.

A houseboat is tethered to a coconut trunk with thick ropes. In the living area are four young men, all in their early twenties. They are wearing Bermuda shorts and T-shirts and laughing loudly.

Sander van Loosbroek is an IT professional from Holland, while Jonathan Lenihan, Rajiv Shah and Shiraz Sabah -- two boys of Indian origin -- are medical students from London: All of them had taken part in an international auto-rickshaw race from Pokhara in Nepal, to Kochi, a distance of over 3000 kms.

Following the race’s conclusion, they discovered that they had a few days of their holiday left. So, they arrived at Allapuzha, to go cruising on a houseboat, which, in local parlance, is known as a ‘Kettuvallam’.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” says Sander. “The greenery is stunning, the silence is beautiful, and the people are nice.”

Rajiv says, “In the last two weeks, we have driven through the whole of India, but this is the place with the most natural beauty.”

Says Jonathan, with a broad smile: “The food is great. I have been having fish pollichathu and curry for the past two days non-stop.” The others laugh, while Shiraz claps Jonathan on the back.

When I ask them whether this is their idea of paradise, Sander says, “It is difficult to say. The backwaters are nice and peaceful, while life in Europe is hectic. But Europe is a very convenient place to live. We have all the amenities.”

Rajiv says that, like in Europe, life is tough in India in a different way. “You guys have to work a lot harder than we do,” he says. “You have to pay much more from your wages for essential services like gas, water, and electricity. And it is physically exhausting to live here, because of the heat and the humidity.”

Jonathan says that there are pros and cons of living anywhere. “I like the fast pace of life in England. So I would not like to stay here, but definitely would come back for a vacation.”

The Muscat-based Indians, Sandeep V. Kulkarni and Pankaj S. Parekh have not come for a vacation. Instead, having finished their work earlier than schedule at Kochi they came to spend the day in the backwaters with a senior Omani official, Ali Al-Mahrooqi. They are cruising on the unusually named ‘Lake & Zephyr’.

For Pankaj who grew up in the concrete jungle of Mumbai, the greenery is stunning. “This is my first visit to Kerala,” he says. “I am enjoying it.”

Ali Al-Mahrooqi likes the people very much. “They are very friendly and I felt accepted immediately,” he says. “As for the food, it is spicy and crispy. I have been to Indian restaurants before, but the food is not as fresh as what I ate today. Finally, all the cruising has been very soothing for the mind.”

Sandeep is stunned to discover that people live alongside the backwaters. “To be honest, I never knew that there are villages on the several islands,” he says. “I am jealous of them. There is no noise or air pollution. And they are leading such a peaceful life. We moved around some areas and stopped at a paddy field. It is so quiet and pleasant. I would like to stay here during my retirement years.”

Ali Al-Mahrooqi adds, “This is paradise.”

I am now curious to know the reaction of the people who live on these islands. So I stop at a narrow sliver of land. And I immediately spot P. Dhananjay, a portly fifty-six-year old man, who is leaning against an upturned canoe.

A fisherman, he had not gone for work for the past two weeks. “The number of fish is going down,” he says. “I am wasting my time. So I am staying at home.”

The water-fowl has been eating all the fish. The people had plans to shoot them. “But the bird lovers raised such a hue and cry that the proposal was shelved,” says Dhananjay. “So, while the birds can eat merrily and survive, we are going through a tough time.”

Dhananjay has lived in the backwaters all his life. His wife, Lakshmi, wearing a white blouse and a lungi steps out of the house, and says, “There is so much of pollution in the waters. People throw bottles and packets. The diesel fumes from the houseboats spoil the water. The fish are dying. And if you swim here you can get a skin disease.”

Adds Dhananjay: “During the monsoons, the water sometimes overflows the bund and enters our houses.”

When I tell them that the outsiders regard the backwaters as a paradise, they laugh in unison. “If you have lots of money, then this place can be considered as one,” says Dhananjay. “But it is not so for us.”

So what do they think of the tourists as they float past in their air-conditioned houseboats, with their wallets, crammed with American dollars or euros, and with the women sun-bathing in their skimpy bikinis?

“We don’t care much about them,” says Dhananjay. In the early years, the villagers would get excited when they saw the foreigners. Sometimes, the Westerners would stop and talk and give small gifts. Boys and girls would run on the bank and shout and laugh and wave at them. “Nothing like that happens now,” says Dhananjay. “We stare at them, they stare back at us. That is all.”

Does he feel envious? “Yes I do,” says Dhananjay. “Who would not be? I wish I had a life like them. When you have plenty of money, you can go for holidays to all parts of the world. All of them have jobs. Just like any human being I also want a good life. But even if I struggle hard, I cannot earn a proper living here.”

It sounds depressing, but like most people who live in close contact with nature, they are generous and kind. So, Dhananjay slices up a watermelon, with a knife and serves up fresh slices. Later, after a wash, I bid goodbye and move to another island.

There I step in, uninvited, into a one-room shack, whose door is open. It is neatly kept. There is a bed at one corner and a kitchen on the opposite side. Sheeba, 26, the mother of two small children, is alone at home.

“My husband has gone off to work,” she says. “He is a labourer. We earn just about enough to make ends meet. If there are any financial emergencies, we have nothing to fall back on.”

She says life is tough on the island. “The government should start some development schemes for the local people,” says Sheeba.

And she is candid enough to admit that she suffers from envy when she sees the tourists. “I wish that I have lots of money like them,” says Sheeba. “Then I could escape from this place and buy a nice house and a car. I would also like to travel all over the world.”

Sheeba pauses and says, “This is the thought that passes through the minds of all the islanders. You cannot avoid thinking it.”

As I leave, an old proverb suddenly pops up in my mind: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’.


Trying to keep afloat

K. Vijayan is a hands-on boat owner. When his vessel, the 'Lake and Zephyr' arrives at the finishing point, after a one-day trip, his workers have no hesitation in throwing him the rope. Deftly, he ties it around the base of a lamp-post. Then he grabs a ladder and places it against the edge of the boat.

“Come on,” he says, and leads me inside. The first stop is the living cum dining room. Following that, there are three air-conditioned bedrooms, with small, attached bathrooms. At the back is a modern kitchen, where a cook is making some tea.

There are different types of boats. “They range from one to six bedrooms and there are vessels which can seat around 100 people for a conference,” says Vijayan. “The boats are divided into premium and luxury categories.”

The ‘Lake and Zephyr’ is in the luxury category. And the rates for this season are not very high. “We get Rs 5000 per room for 22 hours,” he says.

He bemoans a broker racket that prevents them from getting customers directly.

“The moment a tourist arrives in an auto-rickshaw or a taxi, they are stopped by the brokers,” he says. “The tourists are forced to deal with them. And these men take a major cut.”

What has aggravated the problem is that the supply outstrips the demand. "There are around 500 houseboats in Allapuzha," says Vijayan. "The government should put a limit on the number."

Vijayan says there is a lack of support from the authorities. “We do not receive any tourism subsidy or financial help,” he says. “We don’t get bank loans, because there is no provision to give one. At the same time we are paying luxury, canal, irrigation, and pollution taxes.”


(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

‘God looks at the goodness within you’


Says June Jose, Vice-Principal at Pallikoodam, Kottayam

By Shevlin Sebastian

“One day St Augustine was walking along a beach trying to fathom out God,” says June Jose, Vice Principal of Pallikoodam, a school at Kottayam. “After a while, he saw a little boy who had made a small hole in the sand.”

The boy was running towards the sea, collecting the water in his cupped hands, and pouring it into the hole. St. Augustine watched for a long time. Then he asked the boy what he was doing.

The child said, “I am trying to empty the ocean into this hole.” St. Augustine said, “How can you do that? The ocean is so big and this hole is so small.”

So the child, who was actually an angel in disguise, said, “Aren’t you trying to do the same thing? Trying to fathom the Almighty God with that small head of yours?”

Says June: “This was God’s way of saying that the human mind has a limited vision. We are only small holes in the ground. So how can man understand the immensity of God?”

June, a practicing Christian, goes for Mass every morning at a church, near her house.
So what does she pray for?

“I pray for the welfare of others and for my family,” she says. “I ask God to help me be a good teacher always. I also pray that my children and my students do well in their exams.” Many friends and colleagues tell June to pray for them. “If a friend’s daughter is pregnant, she will ask me to say a prayer for a safe delivery,” she says.

When June closes her eyes, to pray, she sees the image of the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and The Holy Spirit.

“For the Father, I have the picture of an old man with a flowing white beard, just like Santa Claus,” says June. “For Jesus Christ, I see a very serene face, with eyes that are very powerful, drawing me in. My image of the Holy Spirit is of a dove.”

There are Gods and doves, but no goddesses in Christianity. As a woman, does this rankle? “It does not matter to me whether God is male or female,” she says. “God is love and love has no gender."

June has the same love and respect towards other religions like Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Buddhism.

“Whatever religion you belong to, when you come in front of God, He is not going to say, ‘You are a Hindu or a Muslim or a Buddhist,’” says June. “He is going to look at the goodness within you. And He will ask you one question: have you lived by the values of your religion? Your answer will determine His attitude.”

June says her prayerful attitude has resulted in God blessing her in many small and big ways. One day she was idly thinking, ‘It has been quite a while since I have travelled on a plane.’ One week later, June was flying to Singapore on an official trip.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kerala under the microscope

An interesting anthology focuses on the myriad aspects – political, economic, social, cultural and literary – of God’s Own Country

By Shevlin Sebastian

‘The Malayali, who boasts of being intellectually superior to others, has made some of the biggest historical blunders. I remember a strike against tractors when they were introduced in paddy fields. Almost all political parties opposed it, saying that it would make the labourers jobless and lead to more unemployment and poverty. Now when paddy fields are being converted for purposes other than farming and there is a shortage of farm labourers, the Malayali looks at Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh for rice’. Thus wrote D. Vijayamohan, a senior Malayala Manorama journalist about some of the follies committed by Malayali politicians.

Vijayamohan also writes about the opposition to the modernisation of the coir industry, which led to its collapse, and the angry response when computers were first introduced. This attitude resulted in a moribund economy for decades and forced lakhs of Malayalis to migrate to other states or abroad in search of jobs.

This essay, ‘The Argumentative Malayali’ was published in ‘Kerala Kerala, quite contrary,’ an anthology ably edited by author Shinie Antony and published by Rupa & Co.

It is a mix of fiction, essays on literature, analysis of the people and the state, reminiscences by senior police officers and politicians, a look at the rich cultural heritage, an introduction to the low-profile Anglo-Indian community, and a moral analysis by the leader of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil.

The Cardinal, known for his honesty, says, “The recent crisis in priestly celibacy cannot be considered in isolation. The ills are symptomatic of serious sexual indiscipline and moral chaos in general.”

Hormis Tharakan, a former Director-General of Police writes about the law and order chaos that rocked Kerala in the seventies and eighties. He details the murder by Naxalites of landlord Kongad Narayanan Nair, the infamous Rajan case, when the engineering student died in police custody, and the killing of Naxalite leader Varghese. Tharakan writes lucidly, looking at these events from the police’s point of view.

In contrast, K.R. Gowri Amma, the veteran Communist leader and the only woman in the first Communist government in Kerala in 1957, talks about her torture at the hands of the police. While being taken from one ward to another, in Central Jail, Gowriamma heard cries from the ward where her male comrades were locked up.

“When out of curiosity I ran towards that cell, the policemen beat me up badly,” she writes. “I bit a policewoman’s wrist and they all climbed on my stomach and stamped on it with boots. I fought back till all went black.”

Most of the pieces are only a few pages long, including the short stories, and it makes for an easy read. The fiction provides glimpses of the inner life of Malayalis.

‘The Countryside’ by M. Mukundan showcases the clash of cultures, when a young Westerner comes to a village in Kerala, impregnates a girl and leaves without a care in the world. The father and the daughter are devastated by this development, and the girl waits vainly for the man to come back and marry her.

Meanwhile, William Dalrymple’s ‘The Strange Sisters of Mannarkad’ is about spirituality. He writes about a village where the inhabitants have been worshipping the Goddess Bhagavati as well as the Virgin Mary for a few hundred years. Says the head priest of the temple, “Yes, yes, the Virgin Mary is Bhagavati’s younger sister.”

While women are deified in Mannarkad, in the play, ‘Silent Cats’, writer Omchery brilliantly depicts what many people may not know takes place often in Kerala: female foeticide.

The anthology has notable contributions by K. Satchitanandan, Paul Zacharia, Anita Nair, Yusuf Arakkal, Sara Joseph, Rama Varma, and Shashi Tharoor.

Overall, it is an interesting anthology, which will be unputdownable for Malayalis who live in and outside Kerala.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sunshine during the sunset years

Members of the Senior Christians Association refuse to wallow in self-pity and reminiscence. Instead, they are busy trying to help the poor and the weak

Photo: Chief Guest Dr. K.S. Radhakrishnan, former Vice-Chancellor of Sanskrit University cutting the cake during the Christmas and New Year Celebrations of the Senior Christians Association. Others include (from left) retired bureaucrat P.C. Cyriac, educationalist M.V. Pylee, SCA President Xavier Sebastian and literary critic M. Thomas Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Senior citizens constitute about 20 per cent of the population in the country,” says M.V. Pylee, former Vice Chancellor of Cochin University of Science and Technology. “But only a small number are engaged in useful activities. As a result, their talent and long years of experience are unutilised and lost to society.”

Bearing this in mind, in Kochi, a few years ago, a group of eminent citizens, under the leadership of Retd.. Justice Varghese Kalliath, started the Senior Christians Association (SCA).

“Since there is a Young Men Christian Association, we felt that we should have an organisation for the senior Christians who have attained 55 year of age,” says SCA President Xavier Sebastian.

At present the SCA has over 500 members, which includes spouses. “They are drawn from all walks of life,” says Sebastian. They include retired high court judges, vice chancellors, educationists, writers, members of the defence forces, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bureaucrats, and senior management heads.

Says Pylee: “Though the SCA is managed by members of the Christian community, we have extended facilities to members of other communities without any discrimination or reserve. We also want to help the lonely, the aged and the poor.”

At its Christmas and New Year celebrations on January 9, the SCA presented cash donations to five needy people. It was also the day that they honoured four of their eminent members: Dr. Pylee, retired senior bureaucrat P.C. Cyriac, literary critic M. Thomas Mathew and ophthalmologist Dr. Tony Fernandes.

Chief Guest Dr. K.S. Radhakrishnan, former Vice-Chencellor of Sanskrit University at Kalady extolled the notable contributions of the four to society. He also said that everybody should follow Christ’s teaching of sharing one’s wealth with the poor.

Apart from an absorbing variety entertainment programme, one of the highlights was a talk by overseas member and a former gynaecologist, Sebastian P. Jacob, based in Chicago.

He spoke about how he migrated as a young man from Kerala to the USA, the settling down in a new country, starting a family and making his way in the world. It was an inspiring tale. Now in retirement, Jacob spends a few months every year in Kerala.

The meeting was held at the SCA Centre, a three storey building, which was built last year. Located beside the Cochin Special Export Zone, at Kakkanad, the Centre has an area of 12,000 sq. ft.

“Apart from a health club, a library, an indoor games section and a large hall, there is a room where ladies can hold meetings,” says secretary George Varghese.

However, because of old age and infirmity, the members meet only once in three months at the Centre. But to make it convenient, the people have been divided into six zones: Thrikkakara, Edapally, Padivattom, Kaloor, Ernakulam and Vytilla.

“Those who are in the zones meet once in a month,” says Sebastian. “There is a secret collection and the money, collected over a period of time, is given to charity.”

The SCA has given Rs 30,000 to Lourdes Hospital to defray the expenses of needy patients. Sebastian says they will continue with this scheme. The SCA also has plans to hold classes in spoken English, counselling sessions, medical camps, as well as tutorials for IAS aspirants.

To get a regular income, the basement where about 20 cars can be parked, will now be converted into an office or a godown and given out for rent.

All in all, at the sunset of their lives, instead of wallowing in self-pity and passivity, this group of old people want to contribute to society in every way they can.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Frozen images

In every Malayalam film, a photographer is there to record every scene. These pictures enable directors to follow the continuity of a film. They are also used as publicity material for the print and television media, as well as flexi board posters

Photo: Paul Bathery

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, movie stills photographer Paul Bathery was on the sets of the Malayalam film, ‘Kaazcha,’ directed by Blessey. The shooting was taking place on the edge of a pond in the town of Edathua in south Kerala. Blessey had placed a camera on the steps leading to the water, while Paul stood behind him.

More than a hundred curious onlookers were sitting on a nearby wall to watch the scene. Suddenly the wall collapsed and the people fell down in a melee. Some of them rolled down the steps. The movie camera fell into the water, and Blessey’s assistant broke his leg. Paul was also pushed into the water, but somehow he managed to keep his camera above his head.

“It was a traumatic moment for all of us,” says Paul. “Blessey started crying. It was his first film. If there had been a tragedy the shooting would have been stopped permanently.”

But eventually the people recovered their composure, the shooting resumed, and Paul carried on with this work.

Accidents and unexpected disasters are part and parcel of the movie still photographer’s job. But he carries on gamely.

One of Paul’s primary tasks is to provide continuity in the film. Usually when a shoot takes place at a particular location, the next segment at the same spot might take place after a week.

“The director and the crew will look at my photographs so that they have an idea of the clothes worn by the actors, how the scene looks like, and identify the last shot before the shooting was suspended.”

Photos are also given as publicity material, to be used by newspapers, magazines and web sites. Sometimes, the stills are used in TV programmes, and for flex board and paper posters.

On a good day Paul will take a few hundred photographs. When he returns to the hotel room, he will transfer it to a laptop, select the best photos, copy it on a CD and give it to the director and other unit members.

The speed and the huge number of photographs that he takes, around 15,000 for a film, has been made possible, thanks to digital photography. “My laptop has a memory of 320 GB,” says Paul.

Veteran photographer M.K. Mohanan says the process took much longer in the past. When he started out three decades ago it was the era of black and white photography. Whenever he went to a shoot, he would carry the chemicals, the enlarger and all the paraphernalia necessary to set up a dark room in the hotel.

“I had to work many hours into the night to develop the pictures, so that I could show them to the director and the actors the next day,” he says. And since there was only colour laboratory in Chennai, an assistant had to take the rolls by train and get it developed there. “We were able to see the colour prints only after the shooting was over,” he says.

But Mohanan has slipped easily into the digital era, and continues to maintain his high standards. So, what is the secret behind a good photograph? “I follow only one method,” he says. “I take photographs as the shooting is taking place. So I am able to get good and dramatic photographs. I rarely make the artistes pose for me.” Paul also follows the same method.

Of course, thanks to the nature of the shooting, there is no fixed working hours. Sunil Guruvayoor remembers that for the film, ‘Passenger’ which was shot nearly entirely inside a train, he once reached the shooting location at 5 a.m. and left the next day at 5 a.m., only to return at 8.30 a.m. to resume work. “That is how it goes,” he says.

For ‘Passenger’, the train had been hired for a brief period and hence the shooting had to be completed before it was returned to the Railways.

The trio works in five to six films a year. And each film has a shooting schedule from about 40 to 60 days. So, in effect, for several months in a year they live away from their families. “My wife has got used to my long absences,” says Paul, who stays in Wayanad, and has two teenage sons.

For Sunil, 54, when the children were younger, coming home was like a festival for them. “They always looked forward to my arrival,” he says. Today, his son is a software engineer in Qatar, while his daughter is a married housewife. “But I did ensure I was present at all major functions, or emergencies, even though I may have been on a shoot far-away.”

All three have taken photographs in hundreds of locations in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and a few locations in north India. For Paul, the most beautiful places are Pollachi and Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, and Hampi in Karnataka.

Sunil and Mohanan feel that there is no place more beautiful than Kerala. Mohanan says that Paris is also a stunning place, where he had gone to shoot for a Sathyan Anthikad film.

Today, they are as busy as ever. Paul is taking photographs for a Lenin Rajendran film, ‘Makara Manju’ in Gundalpet, Karnataka, while Mohanan is in Munnar working on a Harikumar film, which has Suresh Gopi and Navya Nair in the lead roles. Sunil is in Vandi-Periyar, a town in Idukki, shooting stills for a movie called ‘Mummy and Me’, which stars Mukesh and Urvashi.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The all-powerful sun

The Mithradham Renewal Energy Center, near Aluva, Kerala, has been running entirely on solar power for the past ten years

Photo: Dr. George Peter Pittappillil standing between solar panels on the terrace of Mithradham

By Shevlin Sebastian

At first glance, the red-brick dominated Mithradham Renewal Energy Center, near Aluva town, in Kerala looks like just another well-designed building in the Laurie Baker style. But it is when you step inside and move around that you see unusual things. In the garden, there is a black screen placed on top of a rod. A wire from it connects to a fountain.

“When the sunlight falls on the panel the fountain will work at once,” says Director Dr. George Peter Pittappillil.

On the edge of the property are several lamps, embedded in the ground, at an equidistance from each other. “These lamps absorb solar energy during the day and when it becomes dark, it gives off light,” he says.

On the terrace there are 49 solar panels. They direct electricity towards batteries, which are stored in the basement. This solar electricity is used for lights, fans, washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators, electric irons, toasters, computers, and TV sets.

Even in Kerala’s heavy monsoon months of June to September, the solar panels continue to function smoothly. “If we get 20 per cent light it is enough to make the panels work,” says George.

However, even if the light is very poor, the centre has a strong battery bank, which can work for a week without any problems. So far, the centre has functioned for ten years without a hitch.

George says the future lies with solar energy. “Within the next fifty years we will run out of fossilised fuels,” he says. “So, we will have to look at renewable energy sources like the sun, wind, water power, wave energy, geo-thermal energy, nuclear fusion energy, and bio-mass. These are inexhaustible sources of energy and will not pollute the environment.”

However, like with all new technologies, the prices are prohibitive today. Each solar panel costs Rs 13,000. If you want to set up a solar energy system for a four-member household you would need at least 30 panels. Total cost: Rs 3.9 lakh.

“When more people start using it, the prices will come down, till it becomes cheap,” says George. “I expect solar energy to gain in popularity within the next fifteen years.”

In Germany farmers are encouraged to put up solar panels on their property. The electricity that is generated is sold to the government and thus is an income provider for the farming community. Scientists in Japan, America, and Europe are toying with the concept of printed solar panels.

“We can buy this, like a plastic roll, at supermarkets, and each will have an electric socket,” says George. So you can insert the switch of the computer into the socket, but the panel has to be placed on the roof. “You can start work at once,” he says.

At Mithradham, apart from solar panels, there are wind energy systems, a parabolic solar concentrator, which concentrates solar rays to generate high temperature at the focal point, various waste water purification methods and rain water harvesting systems.

Incidentally, Mithradham is the first solar educational institution in India. It holds week-long workshops on renewable energy. Usually, an expert from Germany delivers the lectures. “I have a close association with many German institutions, because I did my post-doctoral studies in nuclear physics at the Max Planck Institute at Stuttgart,” says George.

He says that Indian engineers have plenty of theoretical knowledge, but lag behind in practical experience and are unable to come up with innovative applications. “There were quite a few occasions when the German expert has asked questions and the local engineers were unable to answer them,” he says.

Apart from workshops, students from all over Kerala and Tamil Nadu also come for a sensitising process on the benefits of solar energy. There is a ninety-minute audio-visual presentation, followed by a tour around the campus, to show how the various equipments worked.

Set in eight acres of land, Mithradham is surrounded by greenery: tall fig trees, oleander, pomegranate, flowering plants, grass and groves.

“Man loses something when he does not live in close contact with nature,” says George. “It disturbs him on the physical and the psychic level. Apart from that, we live with severe air, water, and food pollution. If we continue like this for another hundred years it is going to be dangerous for the whole of humanity. We have to stop this trend.”

George has taken the first step. And it is clear that for our own good we should also follow him down the solar energy path.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, January 15, 2010

All about writing

Acclaimed author Jaishree Misra gives a master class to students of St. Teresa's College

By Shevlin Sebastian

Noted author Jaishree Misra comes to her alma mater, St Teresa’s College, Kochi, for the first time, recently, after her graduation more than two decades ago. Accompanied by English lecturer Tessy Antony, she meets teachers, nuns, and students.

“I am overwhelmed by the warmth,” she says. “It is so nice to meet teachers who had inspired me so much.”

When she left, years ago, she had painful memories. “I was fleeing from Kochi,” she says. “If you read my novel ‘Ancient Promises’, you will understand what I mean.”

But Jaishree has come for a specific purpose: to give a master class in creative writing to the students of the English department.

The hall is nearly full when she began speaking. After her opening remarks, she surprises everybody with an unusual statement. “Writing cannot be taught,” she says. “What I mean by that is that you cannot teach someone to love writing. Unless you care for it enough, you cannot continue to do it in the face of numerous rejections from publishers.”

She says that this passion for writing is something you have or do not have. “But if you have it, you will need a set of technical skills which I will impart to you.”

Jaishree tells the students to use a simple and spare style. “This is the current trend in publishing, especially in Britain,” she says. “They prefer that you avoid adjectives and adverbs. You should also concentrate on place and atmosphere.”

To get an idea of this, she tells the students to read the first few pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald’. “It is masterly writing,” she says.

Then from a white sheet of paper, she reads off other bits of advice: Don’t mix up tenses. Avoid grammatical and punctuation errors. Beware of using clich├ęs. Avoid repeat words. Don’t have characters disappearing from the narrative after barely introducing them. Don’t change the point of view by which the book is written. It will confuse the reader.

Later, Jaishree speaks about the different genres of fiction: literary and commercial fiction, as well as the niche segments: crime, historical, science fiction, or chick-lit.

“Select what is appropriate for you,” she says. To have a publishable manuscript, you need a good story, fluid and original prose, convincing characters, and an ability to bring pen pictures to life. “Don’t over-describe,” she warns. “You need to find the right balance. There also has to be an emotional punch, so that the reader is drawn into the book.”

Jaishree elaborates at length on the need to do research if one is writing about an historical era. She says that she spent hours at the British Library in London, as well as the National Archives in Delhi while writing a novel on Rani Lakshmibhai of Jhansi (1828-58).

“But once you begin writing you should forget the archival material and use your imagination,” she says.

Jaishree concludes by urging the students to write every day. “Get the wordage done,” she says. “There is nothing more terrifying than a blank page.” And just as the students feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, Jaishree gives an encouraging smile and says, “You hear irresistible stories all the time. A convent or a college has so many irresistible stories. Each of you has an irresistible story. So find out the story and write it to the best of your ability.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Darkness at noon


By Shevlin Sebastian

My former colleague, B. Krishnakumar, 51, an assistant editor at The Week died last week after a prolonged illness at Kochi.

On the morning of the cremation, Krishna’s body was placed in an air-conditioned coffin in the living room of his first-floor apartment at Panampilly Nagar. His eyes were half-open. The iris had a ring of white. The lips were parted a bit: you could see the teeth.

Krishna gave me the impression that he had gone through a struggle before he passed away. Maybe he did not want to die, but God willed it otherwise.

Who knows what happens in the soul during the last minutes of life?

Krishna’s wife, Rani, had a tear-stained face. His father, Bhaskaran Pillai, was bereft. He got into the ambulance, along with the body, to go for the cremation, but could not bear it. Trembling visibly, his face looking devastated, Bhaskaran stepped out and went back to the house. He did not attend the funeral. Is there a worse agony on earth than to see the death of your child?

Since the Ravipuram crematorium was nearby, we walked it there. The body was placed inside a shed. Soon, the pyre was lit by one of the nephews. Thick white smoke spiralled upwards. Several minutes later, the shutter was pulled down.

Krishna had truly left.

Later, while talking with former colleagues, they said that Krishna had actually begun to decline soon after his son’s demise. His only child, Arun, 18, died in a car accident at Munnar. And this volcanic shock probably caused Krishna’s death eighteen months later.

As we were talking, I was suddenly reminded of an earlier meeting with him. A few days after Arun’s demise I went to pay a condolence visit. Krishna was not well and was lying on the sofa.

We talked less about the tragedy and more about the state of the media. He reminisced about his years as the Mumbai bureau chief. He smiled a bit and talked with energy. Those who are in creative professions tend to be passionate. And Krishna was no different. I thought he was taking the death well.

Rani entered the room with a plate of masala dosa, and small steel bowls of sambhar and chutney. “Please eat, please eat,” she pleaded with him, as I sipped a cup of tea. It was 10.30 a.m. and Krishna had still not had his breakfast.

Rani’s voice was suffused with love and solicitousness. Now this forlorn lady will have to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and move on. Two tragedies in less than two years: how many people have the strength to bear that?

Thankfully, Rani’s job as a research assistant in The Week will provide some distraction. But I am sure when she is alone, at night, her heart drenched in sorrow she will look skywards, through the window, and ask God a simple question: WHY?

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, January 11, 2010

‘My belief in God is absolute’


Says actor Jagadish about his religious beliefs

By Shevlin Sebastian

For his M.Com admission, actor Jagadish got interview calls from two colleges, both on the same day. The first was at 9.30 a.m. for the Mar Ivanios College and the second was at 2 p.m. for M.G. College. “Had it been the other way around my life would have been completely different,” he says.

Instead, Jagadish secured admission to Mar Ivanious College, which gives a lot of importance to the arts, unlike M.G. College, which has been plagued by student union problems for a long time.

“This was God playing a decisive role in my life,” he says. Later, thanks to his artistic excellence in college, Jagadish got a break in films and has had a brilliant career till now.

Whenever Jagadish is in Thiruvananthapuram he heads for the Ganapathy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. “There is no particular reason why I go to this temple,” he says. “It just happened that when I embarked on a journey or returned from one I would go to this temple. Now it has become a habit.”

But Jagadish also does darshan at Gurvayur temple, as well as the Moogambika Temple, at Kollur, Karnataka.

He also prays at the holy places of other faiths. “If there is a film shooting near a church, I will go inside and pray,” he says. “I get peace of mind when I do this.”

Jagadish has prayed at the Velankkani church in Tamil Nadu, as well as the Malayatoor church, near Kalady. He has also been to the Nagoor mosque in Tamil Nadu.

So what does he pray for? “If I read about a tragedy in the newspaper I pray for the victims,” he says. “But on most days I pray for prosperity and ask that bad things do not happen to me.”

But he says that he does not think too hard about the questions of life: What is true or a myth in any religion? Is God’s kingdom upstairs or somewhere else? Is religion just a belief system that enables us to remain on the straight path? “I have not searched deep and hard for these answers,” he says.

Jagadish says that he does not have the desire to go on a spiritual journey like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda or Kalady Shankaracharya.

“I am not looking for proof about the existence of God,” he says. “I only know, from the different experiences in my life, that God exists.”

But does he get angry with God when bad things happen?

“Not at all,” he says. “I attribute it to some negativity within me. In fact, I ask God for help to correct my mistakes.”

But, sometimes, Jagadish is puzzled by God’s nature. “When I see good people suffer, despite their meritorious actions, I think, ‘Why does God allow this to happen?’” he says. “I asked a few people and they told me it was the result of the sins of the previous life. I am not entirely satisfied by this answer, but, otherwise, my belief in God is absolute.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

The myriad colours of Alice Walker

The distinguished author of ‘The Colour Purple’, on a brief visit to India, spoke about female genital mutilation, racism, the ill-treatment of children, her unconditional love for President Barack Obama and – of course -- her writing

Photo: The author with Alice Walker

By Shevlin Sebastian

Alice Walker is still stunned by the continual success of her most popular novel, ‘The Colour Purple’. “It is so enormous and unexpected,” she says.

The book, released in 1982, has sold millions of copies. In 1995, it was made into a critically acclaimed movie, with Whoopi Goldberg playing the lead role of Celie Harris. In 2005 it was staged as a musical. “It was on Broadway for three years and is now touring,” she says. “Wherever it goes there has been a popular reaction.”

She tries to analyse the reasons behind the success.

“There is a need in people to know that someone sees their silent suffering and endurance,” she says. “And in each of them, just like in the novel, there is an inner voice which says, ‘I don’t care how you grind me down, but I refuse to be destroyed.’”

The book has had a resonance across cultures. In China, ‘The Colour Purple’ was a bestseller. “When I went there they were afraid to tell me it sold well,” she says. “When I asked why, they said, ‘You might ask for royalties.’”

Alice bursts out laughing at this point, as she reclines on a sofa in the lobby of the Taj Malabar at Kochi. She was in India recently on a 15-day trip, as a member of the Distinguished Visitors Programme of the Indian Council For Cultural Relations. Her first stop was Kerala, after which she went to Delhi, Dharamsala, and Bangalore.

In person, she is full of light, but her themes are dark. They include rape, violence, troubled relationships, child abuse, and racism. When asked why, Alice says, “I come across people suffering from this all the time. It is a planetary problem. People are sexist and mean. In India, too, there is domestic violence and child abuse.”

She blames the ill-treatment of children as the root-cause of all the problems. “Hitler was beaten terribly by his father as was Saddam Hussain by his step-father,” she says. “What do we learn from this? Parents should treat children well. Because, later, it swings right round again and hits society on the face.”

However, she says that society in America has been changing for the better following the election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2009. “Relations between blacks and whites are less strained,” says Alice. “Many white people have felt bad because they knew that black people had never been given a chance to come up. Their guilt has been assuaged. The mental block is gone.”

Of course Alice has been an Obama fan right from the early days of his presidential campaign. “He is an incredibly intelligent, charismatic, thoughtful, well-spoken, philosophical and handsome person. I love him unconditionally, although I don’t agree with him on some major issues.”

War is one subject. “Any war, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan, is a dead-end,” she says. “It is stupid and represents a huge waste of money and lives.”

Apart from wars, Alice has been waging a single-minded campaign against the brutal practice of female genital mutilation, which takes place throughout Africa. “It has been going on for 7000 years,” she says. “But consciousness is changing.” Recently, the practice was stopped in Uganda.

Two years ago, Imams of several African countries met during a conference in Egypt and banned it. But the problem in Africa is that villages are so far apart that people rarely hear the news. “So, it will take a long time for the practice to be fully eradicated,” she says.

When things get too painful, Alice retreats into her writing. “Creativity is magical,” she says. “There is nothing like it.” Like most gifted writers, for Alice, the characters come alive and take over the narrative.

“I can see them clearly in my mind,” she says. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I awaken, I can hear them talking. When you work with them all the time, they grow up, right in front of your eyes, just like children.”

Interestingly, this major writer does not rewrite at all. And the reason is rooted in her childhood.

“When I was little I had terrible brothers,” she says. “They would tear up anything I wrote. So I learnt to do all the corrections in the head. I could not understand how other writers would write something, and throw the paper away. It was only much later that I realised I was doing the editing mentally.”

One result is that Alice has been extremely prolific: more than thirty books of prose, poetry, and non-fiction. And she is charmed by the different genres.

“Poetry is not something you choose,” she says. “It chooses you. I love writing novels because you can live in a whole other reality for a couple of years. Non-fiction is challenging because you have to get your facts right and there is a limited number of words. They are like short stories. You need to say so much in a small space.”

Her deft skills have been much appreciated. She has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as a National Book Award.

Whenever she takes a break from writing, Alice is busy traveling, with her partner, the long-haired South Korean, Garret Larson. Recently, she had been to Burma and to the Gaza strip.

“I wrote that what Israel has done in Gaza is similar to the genocide committed by the Hutus over the Tutsis in Rwanda,” she says. “The only difference is that the Israelis do the killing in a high-tech way.”

Alice Walker, a conscience of the world, we salute you!

A doctorate holder meets Alice Walker

“My son used to say, ‘Mom, you are Alice Walker,’” says Sobhana Kurien, an English lecturer at CMS College, Kottayam. “Indeed, my family speaks of Alice as if she is a member of the family. There are so many books by her on my bookshelf.”

Sobhana first came across Alice’s writings in the 80s when ‘The Colour Purple’ was prescribed for the post-graduate course and she had to teach it.

“When I read the novel I became fascinated,” she says. Thereafter, Sobhana did her M. Phil as well as her Ph. D., which she received from Mahatma Gandhi University in 2006, on the writings of Alice.

Apart from ‘The Colour Purple’, Sobhana was moved by ‘Possessing the secret of Joy’, a novel about female genital mutilation in a tribal village in Africa.

“Not many people know that genital mutilation can induce severe haemorrhage and can be the cause of AIDS in some cases,” says Sobhana. “Alice wrote this novel as a plea against this horrible practice.”

When Sobhana heard the news that Alice was coming to a school in Kottayam, she became very excited. She ensured that she was able to meet the distinguished writer. “It was one of the great moments of my life,” she says. “Alice is a sweet, warm and affectionate person.”

When Sobhana told Alice about her 15-year-long study of her works, the African-American said, “Amazing!” Shobhana replied, “I just cannot believe that I am holding the hands of my favourite writer.”

Alice smiled and autographed the dissertation. “Apart from being a superb writer, Alice is also a great human being,” says Sobhana.


(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, January 08, 2010

'Indian democracy is flawed'


Says Dr. George Mathew, founder-director of the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

In December, 1996, Murugesan, a Dalit, contested for the post of president of Melavalavu panchayat, near Madurai, and won. The members of the dominant community, the Kallars, were aghast and angry. “They told Murugesan he would be taught a lesson,” says Dr. George Mathew, the founder-director of the Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences.

On June 30, 1997, Murugesan and a few Dalits were traveling on a bus from Madurai. About 2 kms from Melavalavu, the bus was forcibly stopped. More than 20 people attacked Murugesan and his companions. All were killed instantly.

“In many parts of India, people refuse to accept the empowerment of Dalits, women and marginalised people,” says Mathew. “They say, ‘My father, a high caste, sat on this chair. I will not allow anybody else to sit on it.’

Because of this feudalistic attitude, many suffer from harassment at the grassroots level. Scores of people have also been killed.”

Most state governments also want to kill off the panchayati raj system. According to the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution, 29 subjects like agriculture, irrigation, fishing, housing, roads and water, have to be transferred to the panchayats, but so far only lip service has been done.

“The fault lies with the politicians, the bureaucracy, the upper castes, landlords and middlemen, like contractors,” says Mathew. “How can a few thousand powerful people manage this crowd of 30 lakh elected representatives? They prefer to deal with a single MLA or the bureaucracy. So, they will not allow the panchayats to flourish.”

But Mathew is all praise for Kerala, which has allowed decentralisation to take place. “There is a culture of local government here, thanks to forward-thinking leaders like EMS Namboodiripad, and social reformers like Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru,” he says. “Many government departments have to work through the panchayats.”

Mathew is also happy with the infrastructure. “There are proper buildings and the offices are equipped with computers and all the modern facilities,” he says.

In other states, the panchayat offices are usually located in the homes of landlords. People from lower castes are not allowed to enter. There is no office equipment.

Despite this, Mathew and the institute have been propagating the need to develop local government. “If power is not decentralised, it will lead to alienation,” says Mathew. “When that happens, people will resort to violence.”

Mathew says that this is already happening. More than 200 districts in India are under the control of the Naxalites. “Where are we heading?” he says. “The people in the cities are going one way, while the rest of the country is going somewhere else. We must ensure that the other India also becomes developed.”

Mathew was in Kerala recently to deliver the Dr. N. Parameswaran Nair Memorial Lecture at the Sree Narayana Guru Institute of Science and Technology at North Paravur. He spoke on ‘Power to the people: where are we?’ and sounded pessimistic.

“There are 150 MPs who have criminal antecedents,” he says. “Out of that, more than 100 are crorepatis. Initially, these people did not have a fortune. After two terms as MLA or MP, they become crorepatis. Can we call it a democracy? The world might respect us because of our system, but, fundamentally, our democracy is flawed.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Of loneliness and ennui


By Shevlin Sebastian

For Christmas I went for a brief holiday to Bangalore. There I met a few friends of my parents, in their seventies and eighties.

They had grown up in Kerala and when they had passed out, with post-graduate and management degrees, they went to cities like Mumbai or Kolkata to try their luck since jobs were not available at home.

Once there they were able to secure employment and over the years made their way up the corporate ladder. Some reached the very top.

Thomas George, 75, was the general manager of a public sector undertaking. Based in Kolkata and later, in Delhi, he had friends in high places. But once his career ended, he suffered two blows. His wife died suddenly of a heart ailment at the age of 65. His Chennai-based son’s marriage ended in divorce, with an eight-year-old son shuttling between two homes.

Thomas, who is originally from Tiruvalla, stays in Bangalore because he finds the climate suitable. A photo of his wife hangs on the wall in the living room. “A marriage is such a beautiful thing,” he says. “Most people take it casually when actually you should treat it with the utmost seriousness.”

Thomas is experiencing the agony of losing a woman he had loved deeply. And as expected, he is thinking of death also. “You will have to leave your body one day,” he says. “Only the soul is immortal, all the rest just fades away.”

Neena has a beauty that has also faded away. In her marriage photo, she had flowing black hair, smooth cheeks, and a luminous smile. Now Neena, in her seventies, is fat, has grey hair, and is blind in one eye. Owing to severe arthritis she is unable to walk now. Neena is married to Simon, who, at 78, shuffles from room to room.

N. Radhakrishnan, 82, also has a halting gait. His wife says that he falls down often. He is hard of hearing. Radhakrishnan retired from the private sector 22 years ago. The couple is lonely. So they keep telling visitors, “Please stay.” They enjoy the sound of youthful voices, carefree laughter, and the sweet sight of children playing with each other.

Their son lives in America. “Ravi will not come back,” says Radhakrishnan, with a sense of finality. “He has to lead his own life now.”

Parents struggle to bring up their children, give them a good education, and then they fly out of the nest and go far away. But this is inevitable. The cycle of life has to go on. Nobody can stop it.

Nearly all the elderly people I met are going through a tough time. Their bodies are breaking down and they have to cope with ennui and an unbearable loneliness. Many have been shunted to old age homes by their children.

The last few years on earth are the most difficult to endure.

It is also a chilling reminder of what is in store for all of us.

(Names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

“Lord Ayyappa looks after everything”


By Shevlin Sebastian

When M. Sridar was growing up in Trichy, he would go across to his neighbour Vasudevan’s house. “I would listen to the bhajans in praise of Lord Ayyappa,” he says. One day he told his father, Mahadevan, that he wanted to go to Sabarimala. His father replied that he was too young to do the 48-day vruthum (penance).

But that night, Mahadevan had a dream. He had come to Sabarimala with some people. “Suddenly, a wild elephant started chasing the group,” says Sridar. “My father was filled with fear.” The next morning Mahadevan told his son that they could go to Sabarimala. “Looking back, I know Lord Ayyappa changed my father’s mind,” he says.

Sridar made his first trip in 1980 and has returned every year since then. Now he is in charge of the Sabarimala Annadhana (free food) committee. He sits behind a desk supervising a team of cooks and labourers. “I will be here for two months, till January 20,” he says.

At Trichy, he has a photo studio, with a staff of 20. “My assistants are honest and reliable and look after the day-to-day running of the studio,” he says. “I keep track by going through the accounts every evening by phone. I am serving Lord Ayyappa and he, in turn, is looking after my shop in Trichy.”

For Sridar, the temple at Sabarimala is his favourite. “It is only at Sabarimala that pilgrims, whether rich or poor, call each other by the name of Swami,” he says. “There is a great sense of equality in this.”

His deep love for Lord Ayyappa is reciprocated. Whenever Sridar asks for something from the Lord, he usually gets it. Last year, on December 4, he became the father of a son, Shabbriesh, after 13 years. He already has a daughter, Subhasree, who is studying in Class 10. But he yearned for a son.

“The doctor said that my 38-year-old wife could not conceive because she was in the pre-menopausal stage,” says Sridar. “I pleaded fervently to Lord Ayyappa. And He gave us a child, despite the odds.”

Sometimes, Sridar receives a gift immediately. “I had prayed for a large sum of money,” he says. A little later, the ancestral property was sold and Sridar got Rs 25 lakhs as his share. “I deposited it in the bank and came straight to Sabarimala,” he says.
Like many people, the image of God that he sees, when he closes his eyes during prayer is that of a bright jyothi (light) “I feel very happy when I see it,” he says. “For me, God is male, as well as female: Ayyappa, Shiva, Vishnu, Durga and Parashakthi.”

So what is his reaction when bad things happen? “I don’t get angry with God,” he says. “I regard it as a test. I remain steadfast and continue to walk on the right path.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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