Thursday, February 25, 2010

The iron men

Kochi is full of Tamilian men who iron clothes for a living. They talk about the pressures and pleasures of their work

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Raju

It is a hot Tuesday morning. Perspiration dots the forehead of Raju as he lifts the heavy iron and moves it backward and forward over a white cotton shirt. Then he takes a wet cloth and rubs it on the shirt. Another round of ironing follows. Then Raju moves to the sleeves, collar, and the top. He takes about three minutes to press a long-sleeved shirt. “But if the cloth is starched, it takes longer,” he says. “The iron does not move freely over the cloth.”

On an average Raju irons about 100 clothes a day, at Rs 4 per item. “Most of them are shirts and trousers,” he says. He works from 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and uses the old-fashioned iron, in which you have to put pieces of coal. “I use up two kilos a day,” he says. The current price of coal is Rs 23 per kilo.

Raju’s table is placed near the entrance of a tailoring shop at Chembumukku and abuts a bylane. He pays a rent of Rs 1500 per month to use the space. As he converses, a man arrives with a large bundle of clothes. Raju looks at it, makes a mental estimate, and says, “I will give it to you tomorrow morning.”

At the end of the day, Raju goes back to a house on South Janatha Road, where 15 other dhobis stay. They are all from Tamil Nadu and are a close-knit group. On Sundays, they spend their time watching Tamil and Malayalam films on television or strolling down Marine drive. “Sometimes, we go to the Chottanikara temple,” says Raju.

One of Raju’s roommates is S. Kumar, 27, who came to Kochi in 2000. “My home town is in Tirunelveli,” he says. “I came here because there is not much work back home. I am able to earn more, but I have no plans to settle here.”

In fact, the regular complaint against the dhobis is that they take leaves of 10 days or more, after every two months or so, to go back home. “We miss our families,” says Kumar. “That is why we go back often. But we ensure that there is always a replacement, so the work does not suffer.”

They also do not suffer here at all. “Our Malayali customers are polite and well- mannered,” says Kumar. “They treat us well. I like Kochi and its climate.”

But Raju says that the rainy season makes a dent in his income. “Clothes take longer to dry, so customers don’t come so regularly.” Then he pauses and says, “Well, looking at it in another way, because of the monsoons, we get a chance to rest our hands.”

Yes, indeed, the iron weighs seven and a half kilos when filled with pieces of coal. These irons, brought from Madurai, at Rs 4500 a piece, are bigger and heavier than the ones made in Kerala. “When you work for hours together, your shoulder muscles begin to ache,” says Kumar.

Listening and nodding is Kumar’s uncle, Ayyappan, 42, who has been working in Kerala for the past 13 years.

When I tell him about the paucity of Malayali dhobis, because our society tends to look down on this type of work, Ayyappan says, with intensity, “Work is work. There is no high or low work. There is nothing wrong in being a dhobi. Malayalis can do the same job and earn well. Why is society against this type of occupation? I cannot understand this attitude.”

Apart from an attitude problem, Malayalis create a lot of problems. In Alinchuvadu, E.J. Sebastian has an ironing outlet, where he has hired two Tamilians. “I had employed Malayalis earlier,” he says. “But they were always demanding more money.” Sebastian pays Rs 300 per day to a dhobi.

But what was more galling, he says, was that the Malayalis were not professional enough. “There were persistent complaints by customers whenever a Malayali ironed a shirt or a trouser. They do not have the finesse of a Tamilian dhobi. That is why I prefer to hire Tamilians.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

‘God is indifferent’


By Shevlin Sebastian

Swami Sandeep Chaitanya, a popular preacher of the Bhagwad Gita, rarely goes inside a temple. “I prefer to pray on the beaches, rivers and hills,” he says. One of Sandeep’s favourite spots is Mount Kailash. “God is present everywhere, but more so in nature,” he says.

When he is not travelling, Sandeep gets up every morning at 5 a.m. and says the Prabatha Smaranam. Here are some lines: ‘Wherever you have come from/My words will always be there/For all living things.’

But he says that he is not very much into formal prayer. “Every moment is a prayer,” he says. “When I am speaking with you, it is a form of prayer. Whether it is a human being or an animal, they are praying all the time, although they don’t know it. That is what the sacred texts tell us.”

Unlike most people Sandeep does not believe that God plays any role in our lives. “God is indifferent,” he says. “This is what Vedanta says. God does not punish or reward anybody. That is man’s concept of God, but that is not God.”

He gives the example: when electricity comes through a fan, it becomes breezy. When it comes through a TV, it becomes an image. When it comes through an air-conditioner, it becomes cold. “Similarly, God is just flowing past all the time,” he says. “It depends on us how we are able to tap into this power and use it in our lives.”

Sandeep has tapped into this source, but he has never asked God for anything. “He will not heed our requests,” he says. “Suppose, you want a house, there is no point in asking God. He has given you hands and legs and a brain. You have to use that to get the house that you need.”

Suppose bad things happen, and you are unable to get the house. Sandeep says there is no use in getting angry with God. “That is foolishness,” he says. “God is not somebody who punishes those who commit bad actions and rewards those who are good. He does neither.”

Sandeep says bad things happen because of your past actions and karma. “So why bring God into the picture?” he asks. “The proper way is to accept the event and try to learn something from what has happened.”

Unlike people of other religions, when Sandeep closes his eyes, during prayer, he does not see any image of God. “God cannot be visualised,” he says. “Sometimes, people say that they can see a light when they close their eyes. I don’t believe that. This is just the imagination of man working overtime: an illusion.”

Stripping away the illusions has always been the goal of Swami Sandeep Chaitanya.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Entering the Jewish faith

Jaimol Fernandez, an Anglo-Indian got married to Mordokkayi Shafeer, a Kochi Jew. When she was six months pregnant, Jaimol converted to Judaism in an elaborate ceremony at the Magen Hassidim Synagogue, Mumbai

Photo: Mordokkayi Shafeer and Jaimol Fernandez

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mordokkayi Shafeer is a Jew who lives in Kochi. The community has only forty members, thanks to regular migration to Israel. So when Shafeer wanted to get married, he had to look outside the community. Through a matrimonial web site, he got in touch with Jaimol Fernandez, who is of mixed origin.

Her father is an Anglo-Indian while her mother is a Hindu. “Since I came from an inter-caste background I had no hesitation in marrying Shafeer,” says Jaimol. They tied the knot in a civil ceremony on June 21, 2009.

Shafeer’s parents are conservative. They insisted that Jaimol get converted to Judaism. But since there is no conversion provisions at the synagogue at Kochi, the couple made repeated appeals to the Magen Hassidim Synagogue, at Mumbai, but there was no response “They were not keen at all, because we had a registered marriage,” says Shafeer. “Thus, they did not recognise our union.”

Two months later, Jaimol got pregnant. This caused a turmoil in the family. “For the Jews the mother holds a very important position,” says Shafeer. “My parents were desperate that Jaimol becomes a Jew.”

Meanwhile, Shafeer managed to befriend a relative’s father-in-law, Abraham Moses, who is a member of the Mumbai synagogue. Thanks to Moses’ persistent appeals, permission was finally granted for a conversion ceremony, as well as a Jewish marriage.

On the evening of January 20, Shafeer and Jaimol arrive at the synagogue at Agripada. Then Jaimol enters a room where the 12-member committee is sitting. This is known as the Beit Din – the rabbinical court.

They ask her to recite the Jewish prayer: Shema Israel.

Jaimol had memorised it earlier, so she has no problem in saying, in clear Hebrew:

Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad,
Barukh sheim k'vod malkhuto l'olam va'ed.

(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.)

Several other questions follow: Why did Jaimol want to be a Jew? What is the last festival of the Jews in the year?

Jaimol replies that she wants to be a Jew because she is married to one. The last ceremony is Hanukkah, the festival of lights in late November.

Fifteen minutes later, Shafeer is called in. The committee secretary tells him that Jaimol had passed the examination. “She could now go through the conversion process,” says Shafeer. But before that, Shafeer has to deposit the necessary fees.

The next morning at 7 a.m. Jaimol steps nude into a tank, behind the synagogue. She dips herself seven times, which is considered a significant number in Judaism. This ceremony is known as the mikvah - a ritual bath for spiritual purification.

When Jaimol comes out, she drapes herself with a white cloth. Then Ariel Naugaukar, the hazzan (the person who leads the delegation in prayer) holds a cloth bag, which has 21 coins, and hits it gently against the back of Jaimol’s neck. Some prayers are said.

Later, Jaimol has to select a Jewish name. “I chose Serah, (‘Princess’), because I like the tone,” she says. She also had to adopt a Jewish father, and the couple selects Abraham Moses.

Following the conversion, an hour-long wedding ceremony also takes place (see box).

Two weeks later, at a hotel in Kochi, Jaimol has a wistful smile on her face when I ask her whether she will miss going to a church or a temple, since the Jewish religion forbids entry into other religious places. “I feel sad, but I have accepted it,” she says.

Shafeer also feels sad because his relatives, many of whom live in Israel, did not accept Jaimol initially because she was not a Jew. “But when I informed them about the conversion and the wedding, I got e-mails which said, ‘Jaimol, welcome to the family,’” he says. “This shows narrow-mindedness on their part.”

Quite unlike the broad-minded Jaimol, who is gradually getting used to Jewish customs.

Every Friday, after 7 p.m., the day of the Sabbath begins. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. The Jews try to follow this. The elderly Jews abstain from shaving, having a bath, or using the electric switches.

The rule is that no cooking can be done for the next 24 hours. However, they keep one kerosene stove working continuously. “We warm our food on it,” says Jaimol. “It is just a matter of getting used to. Anyway, my mother-in-law does all the cooking, since I am working in the BPO industry.”

Regarding food, the Jews are very particular about it being kosher. “That means the meat has to be cooked according to the rules of Judaism,” says Jaimol. Here is one guideline: All the blood has to be drained out from poultry and meat before it is eaten.

(Incidentally, only two Jews in Kochi have received the permission from the synagogue to slaughter approved animals. In Kochi, only chicken and ducks can be eaten).

“Because of kosher rules, we don’t eat non-vegetarian food from outside,” says Jaimol.

But she is not upset by this restriction. What Jaimol likes the most about the community is the helpful attitude of the members.

“If you are in trouble, people immediately come forward to offer assistance,” she says. “So we are never alone. This is one of the big advantages of being a member of a very small community.”

Jaimol pauses, sips a cup of tea and says, simply, “I am happy that my child is going to grow up as a Jew.”

Shafeer smiles brightly when she says this.



‘Behold, you are betrothed unto me’

For the wedding, Jaimol wears a white saree, while Shafeer is wearing a blue skull-cap, as well as a blue cloak.

The hazzan, Ariel Naugaukar, says several prayers. A few members of the Bene Israel community are present. For the wedding there has to be a minyan - a prayer quorum of 10 Jewish males.

Shafeer stands opposite Jaimol, holding a glass of wine, which has a silver ring dipped into it.

From the Torah, which Ariel is holding, Shafeer reads out the prayers in Hebrew. Jaimol watches him silently. Then he drinks half the glass. Thereafter, Jaimol finishes the rest.

Then Shafeer takes out the wedding ring and says, in Hebrew, to Jaimol, in the presence of two witnesses, "Behold, you are betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel." He places the ring on the forefinger of Jaimol’s right hand.

Then a glass wine, which is wrapped in a cloth, is hit against some stones. “This is to show our sadness at the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem,” says Ariel. “They are now linked with the spiritual and national destiny of the Jewish people.”

Then Shafeer ties a necklace around Jaimol.

The marriage ceremony is over.

Thereafter, they sign the ketubah -- the marriage contract. The ketubah explains the husband's obligations to the wife, the rules of inheritance, and the responsibilities regarding the support of children. It also provides for the wife's support in the event of divorce.


Major Jewish festivals

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It is usually celebrated in September. It starts at sundown as are all Jewish observances. It is commemorated by loud blasts of the shofar, the ram’s horn. Rosh Hashanah means, ‘the beginning of the year’.

Yom Kippur is celebrated eight days after Rosh Hashanah. It is the day of atonement, when Jews focus on their misdeeds and faults. The Jews are expected to pray for forgiveness. There are lengthy devotional services and a 24-hour fast. Israel comes to a complete halt.

Sukkot, also known as the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’, which begins five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot is celebrated with a mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. On Sukkot, Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not always cool and refreshing


Roadside tender coconut vendors in Kochi enjoy their work, but the recession has affected their sales

Photo: Coconut vendor P. Majeed

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 a.m., P. Majeed sets out towards a convent near the Assisi Vidyaniketan Public School, at Chembumukku, Kochi. There, he briskly climbs up the trees and cuts down the tender coconuts. He carries them to a spot near the bus stop of the Ernakulam Medical Centre (EMC), on National Highway 47.

Majeed has been a tender coconut seller for the past several years. Every time a customer arrives, he slices off the top of the coconut with several well-aimed swings of his curved knife. He sells at Rs 15 per coconut. His patrons include teenagers, doctors and patients of the EMC, and elderly people. Some of them have been regulars for years.

Among them is a government official, Ramakrishna Pillai (name changed). One day, Ramakrishna placed a packet on the cart, had his drink, and left.

Hours later he returned with a harried look on his face. When Majeed handed over the package, Ramakrishnan said, “Only an honest person like you would have returned this to me.” There was Rs 1 lakh in cash inside.

Despite regular customers, overall sales have gone down. “Nowadays I sell only about 100 to 150 coconuts a day, as compared to 300 to 400 earlier,” says Majeed. “Because of the recession, people have less money these days.”

At his age, 58, Majeed could take it easy, since he has three sons in their early twenties, two of whom are working, but he says, “I enjoy this work a lot, especially the interaction with customers.”

Over the years, several have confided their financial, marital, emotional and career problems to Majeed. His conclusion: “Very few people are happy.”

In the suburb of Padivattom, A.P. Vasudevan, 40, has been selling coconuts for the past ten years. He gets his coconuts by truck from Palakkad. “Sales have gone down,” he says. “But around 70 per cent of my customers are constant, so that is a big blessing.” Vasudevan has a daily income of Rs 400.

And during these tough times, are they victims of police harassment? “Not at all,” says Majeed. Antony Chandrasekharan, who sells coconuts near the JN International Stadium at Kaloor, asserts, “Neither Cochin Corporation officials or the police have troubled me.”

However, once while traveling to Changanacherry, I stopped to have a coconut and the vendor told me, “Every morning, a policeman comes and takes away 10 coconuts.”

When I tell this anecdote to Vasudevan he says that six months ago Cochin Corporation officials asked him to leave. He closed shop, but returned quietly after a week, to the same spot.

But working next to heavy-moving traffic can be unhealthy. “I inhale a lot of dust and petrol fumes,” says Vasudevan, “I suffer from a sore throat, and breathlessness, because of the pollution, but I have to earn a living also.” Majeed says that so far he is okay, but foresees health problems in future.

For all three, getting rid of the waste is a primary task. Chandrasekharan sends it by truck to Thodupuzha, while Vasudevan dispatches it to Palakkad. There it is used as firewood by villagers in the countryside.

Meanwhile, Majeed ferries them in an auto-rickshaw to local vendors at Vazhakala. They place the sliced pieces around the base of the coconut trees. During the hot season this has a cooling effect. Then when the rains come, it slowly dissolves into the mud and becomes a nutrient.

“Isn’t this a nice way to get rid of the waste?” says Majeed, with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, February 15, 2010

‘I can feel God in my heart’


By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning, at 5 a.m., N. Meherunissa Begum prays to God. Standing with her hands folded across her chest, and facing west, where the Holy Kaabah in Mecca, is located, she recites the first chapter of the Koran in Arabic: the Sura Al-Fatiha.

Here are a few lines: ‘In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful/ Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds/ Most Gracious, Most Merciful/ Master of the Day of Judgment/ Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek/ Show us the straight way.’

Thereafter, she recites a couple of other verses from the Quran. Then she raises her hands up, says, ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the greatest), goes down on her knees, and recites the ‘Subhana rabbiyal alheem wa bihamdihi’ (Glory be to my Lord Almighty) three times. Thereafter, she touches her forehead on the floor.

This is known as a rak'a (a unit of prayer). In the morning, she does two rak'as. When it is over, she prays for herself.

“I thank God for whatever he has given me: health, wealth, children, grandchildren,” she says. “I ask God to always show me the right way.”

Like any devout Muslim, Meherunissa prays five times a day. Apart from the Sura Al-Fatiha, which is recited at all times, she recites other verses.

“I know around five hundred verses by heart,” says Meherunissa. Incidentally, the Koran has more than 6,000 verses, spread across 114 chapters.

For Meherunissa, her close embrace of Islam has helped her to cope with a recent tragedy. Her husband, M.A. Abdul Khader, an engineer, died in 2003. Her two sons live in America, while a daughter stays in Bangalore.

On every Friday, Meherunissa, a secretary of the Ernakulam area of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an organisation which upholds Islamic values, goes to her favourite mosque: the Masjid-ul Da'awa in Kaloor, Kochi.

There is a belief among Muslims that those who come early and sit in the first row receive the most blessings from God. So, Meherunissa arrives at 12 noon for the 12.30 p.m. Juma prayers. These prayers last for only ten minutes. The main event is the 45-minute sermon by the maulvi.

“I like the sermons of Basheer Maulvi,” she says. “He is able to link daily life and currents events with the teachings of the Quran.”

Meherunissa reads the Quran every day, but does not have an image of God in her mind.

“Muslims pray with their eyes open,” she says. “We need to keep all our senses awake and concentrate on the words we are reciting during the prayers. This is one reason why I don’t have any visual of God.”

With no image, what is the proof for her that God exists? “Every day, without fail, the sun rises and sets,” says Meherunissa. “Then the moon comes up in the sky. This has been happening since time immemorial. How does all this happen, unless God is controlling it? I can feel Him in my heart. And that is enough evidence for me.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

‘Cochin Haneefa is irreplaceable’

Says superstar Mammooty about the death of his close friend, and one of the most popular comedians of the Malayalam film industry

Photo: Cochin Haneefa and Mammooty in the 2009 film, 'Loudspeaker'

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few days before Cochin Haneefa died, on February 2, Malayalam film superstar Mammooty visited him at the Sri Ramachandra Medical College Hospital at Chennai. By then the prognosis was grim.

The 59-year-old thespian was in the last stages of liver cancer. Initially, Haneefa had been suffering from malignant cirhossis of the liver. “How did this happen?” says Mammooty, shaking his head. “He was a teetotaler.”

But when Mammooty met him, Haneefa was doing what he has done all his life: laughing loudly. “This was one of the great qualities of Haneefa,” says Mammooty. “He was always jovial, smiling, and having a good time.”

So they cracked jokes and pretended that everything was fine. “But Haneefa knew that he was dying and he also knew that I knew,” says Mammooty, as he recounted the incident in an air-conditioned trailer during a pause in the shooting of ‘Pramaani’, at Panangad, Kochi.

In recent years Haneefa had become a close friend of Mammooty. Their families would meet each other often. So the passing away was a painful event for Mammooty. “A death is like a landslide,” he says. “Things can never the same again.”

Cochin Haneefa was one of the most popular comedians of the Malayalam film industry. Starting as a villain in 1972, he went on to act in more than 300 films in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. In mid-career he switched from villain to comic roles in Malayalam films and enjoyed an even greater popularity. Some of the films included ‘Punjabi House’, ‘Harikishnans’, ‘Kilichundan Mampazham’, ‘CID Moosa’, ‘Twenty Twenty’, and ‘Loudspeaker’.

He appeared regularly in Tamil films as a villain – ‘Chanakya’, ‘Sivaji The Boss’, ‘Kireedam’ -- and made his mark. So the news of Haneefa’s death was also greeted with grief by Tamil cine-goers.

Haneefa was adept at many roles: apart from being an actor, he was a story-writer as well as a director.

Haneefa directed Mammooty in a few films, including the critically acclaimed box office hit, ‘Valsalyam’.

So how was Haneefa as a director?

“He had one peculiarity,” says Mammooty with a smile. “He knew the script by heart. So when we would play opposite each other, he would silently mouth my lines of dialogue and then deliver his. It would always make me laugh.”

So following ‘Valsalyam’, Mammooty requested Haneefa not to act, as well as be a director in the films in which the superstar had a role.

Mammooty could say this candidly to the senior actor because they had known each other for a long time. “I was a fan from young,” says Mammooty. “Haneefa was the first film star I saw in the flesh.”

This happened when Mammooty was in college and an aspiring actor. He had heard that Haneefa was going to visit a shop on Kochi’s Jew Street, belonging to a man called Yousuf Khan, whom Mammooty knew. So, along with his friend, Mammooty rushed there and met Haneefa, who encouraged the youngster to fulfill his dreams.

Earlier, Mammooty had seen Haneefa’s mimicry performances at the Kerala State Youth Festival competitions.

“It was stunning,” he recalls. “The audience, including me, had goose bumps. The unique thing about Haneefa’s comic talent was that he looked very serious when he delivered his lines, but it always came across as comic.”

Later, thanks to Haneefa’s brilliant acting, the Kerala University added another category, ‘Mimicry’ for the inter-college youth festival competitions.

Haneefa also had a one-man show, called ‘Navarasa’. “It was dramatic, theatrical, and unforgettable,” says the superstar.

Mammooty had another reason not to forget Haneefa. In an incident during his early years, the director of the film, ‘Sphodanam’, told Mammooty that his voice was not good enough; so somebody else would have to do the dubbing. “I was devastated,” says Mammooty. He lay down on a bed near the set and closed his eyes.

Suddenly, Mammooty felt somebody tapping his legs. When he opened his eyes, he saw that it was a smiling Haneefa. When Mammooty sat up, Haneefa held his hands and said, “Don’t worry, one day people will praise you for your voice. It is that good!” This turned out to be a prophetic statement and Mammooty never forgot Haneefa’s words of encouragement.

This type of encouragement, compassion and kindness were some of the sterling qualities that Haneefa possessed. “He was one of the most generous persons I have ever met,” says Mammooty. “He used to help everybody, either with words, money, or his physical presence.”

Suddenly Mammooty places a palm over his heart and says, “I still feel an intense pain, especially when I think of his three-year-old twin daughters, Safa and Marwa. They have lost such a loving father.”

Reality intrudes when he is suddenly called for a shot.

“Life will go on,” says Mammooty, as he stands up, and slips a Blackberry inside his shirt pocket. “But there will never be another Cochin Haneefa.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The grand success of ‘Avatar’

James Cameron’s blockbuster has enjoyed an unprecedented run at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

When I came out of the noon show after watching ‘Avatar’ at Sridhar theatre, on a recent Sunday, I was stunned to see a queue going all the way to the main road. People were waiting patiently in the hot sun to buy tickets for the matinee performance. Two months have gone past and ‘Avatar’ is still running to full houses at Kochi.

Manager V.R. Ramkumar is very happy. “In the first five weeks, there was 100 per cent occupancy,” he says. “This is unprecedented.” Nowadays, because of films on television and DVDs, 50 per cent attendance at theatres for films in all languages is considered good. However, last week, the average at Sridhar had gone down to 80 per cent.

Ramkumar says the last time they experienced such a huge turnout was when ‘Titanic’, which was also directed by Cameron, was released in 1997. So what explains the tremendous success of ‘Avatar’ in Kochi?

“It is the 3D effect,” says Ramkumar. Cameron has used a 3D fusion camera allied with the latest technology called 2K Digital.

“The images are more vivid and alive,” he says. “Thanks to 3D, each scene has a lot of depth.”

Interestingly, when Avatar was shown as a 2D film in places like Palakkad and Thrissur, it lasted for two weeks only.

Another reason for the success was the widespread publicity in newspapers, magazines, and on television. “Nearly everybody knows that this is the highest-grossing film ever,” says Ramkumar. “Ticket sales have crossed $2 billion worldwide. So people were curious to see the movie.”

A further cause for the swelling crowds is that there are only three theatres -- one in Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram -- which have the technical facilities to show a 3D film. As a result, people from far-away places like Chanaganacherry, Tiruvalla and Thriprayar were coming to Kochi to see the film.

“There has been 100 per cent booking on our online site,” says Ramkumar.

The majority of the audience, especially on the weekends and on public holidays, comprises parents and their children. “Nowadays, children pressure their parents so much about seeing the film that the elders succumb,” says Ramkumar.

So, is the film that good? Ramkumar, who has been seeing English films for more than 30 years says, “The first half drags a bit. But after the interval it just takes off -- a thrilling, roller-coaster ride till the end.”

Ship captain Anuj Austin, who is on a six-month break at Kochi says that the movie did not match the hype. “Sure, there were some stunning visuals and graphics,” he says. “But otherwise there was nothing much.”

He says that there were more special effects in the pioneering Malayalam 3D film, ‘My Dear Kuttichattan’.

Ramkumar says that some people had hoped to see the same visual effects like in ‘Kuttichattan’ and felt disappointed. “They expected things to come and hit them, but those are out-dated concepts,” he says, with a laugh.

But clearly, seeing its success so far, those who did not like the film are in a minority. Nirmala Lilly, the head of Sales & Marketing, Ramada Resort & Riviera Suites, says she liked ‘Avatar’ because of its “imagination, creativity and photography. It is an outstanding and spectacular film.”

For nine-year-old Sneha Rita, the film was a beautiful mix of education and entertainment. “I got an idea of the way scientists work,” she says. “I loved the beautiful plants, trees and animals on the planet of Pandora. The Navi are very nice people.”

And so James Cameron can pat himself on the back. A vision, painstakingly converted into digital reality in Los Angeles over several years has had a resonance all over the world, including the mind and heart of a nine-year-old in far-away Kochi.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Only local dogs allowed!

By Shevlin Sebastian

News item: Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has said the government plans to include more dogs in the canine squad of the State Police.

When Kennel Minister Kay Bee announces that more dogs are needed for the Kerala police canine squad, there is great excitement among the dogs in the state.

“Here is our chance,” says Prem Alsatian to his wife Susheela. “During this worldwide recession, there is nothing better than a government job. You get a regular salary and good benefits.”

But little does Prem know that dogs from other states in India have also taken note of the announcement.

At the selection centre, at Thuiruvananthapuram, there are numerous dogs present. Prem immediately realises that the chances of getting selected are quite difficult.

He calls up Taj Barkbark of the Kerala Navnirman Sena. “All types of dogs have come,” he says. “We have to do something.”

Taj says, “Don’t worry. I am going to announce an agitation. Only Keralites should get selection. We are the local dogs. Why should dogs from outside the State get a chance?”

Taj tells his goondas to launch an attack on North Indian dogs. So, Bengali Dachshunds, Bihari Pomeranians, Punjabi Dobermans, and Rajasthani terriers are beaten up.

Several dogs are bleeding from the jaws, although all of them are gnashing their teeth. Television channels, ‘Dogs Now’, ‘Dogs Today’ and ‘Dog News Network’ (DNN) are repeatedly airing the images of the violence.

Former Union Dog Minister Palu Lasad goes on national TV and says, “Dogs from all over India should be allowed to take part. Doggone it, the best should be selected. We have to fight the terrorists.”

Taj replies, “No way. First we will fight the Northies, then the Pakis.”

Meanwhile, Delhi-based psychiatrist, Bow Wow, says, “Dogs from Kerala suffer from an inferiority complex. They don’t want competition, they just want a quota system, the cowardly bunch of Leftists!”

The Chief Dog in the Kerala Assembly, Veenarayi Peejan, says, “We take offence to that statement. Bow Wow is a mentally-deranged Rightist.”

Meanwhile, the Sena disrupts the selection process. All the dogs leave the centre. Kay Bee is at his wit’s end. Finally, he says, “There is only one option left. Men who behave like dogs will be eligible for selection.”

Veenarayi Peejan shakes Kay Bee’s hand and tells the Assembly, “In other words, only politicians will be selected.”

(A slightly different version appeared in The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Going down Down Under


Indians students in Australia have been attacked for the past several months. Long-term Indian residents says that robbery, not racism, is the reason

Photo: Lali Jacob (extreme right) with her family

By Shevlin Sebastian

In a restaurant at Sydney, Bobby John Mana is having dinner with a friend. Most of the patrons are Australians. There are six Indian students who are boisterous and talking loudly in Hindi, no doubt aided by the alcohol they are consuming. And it is becoming annoying. Soon, the waiter brings forth a cake on a trolley.

“So the people understood it is a birthday celebration and they are in a forgiving mood,” says Bobby. “But then the boys proceed to smear cake on each other’s faces. Pieces are falling all over the carpet. This is terrible behaviour.”

Finally, one of the patrons, a big-built Australian, who is having dinner with his wife, loses his patience. He goes up to the group and says, “Excuse me I would appreciate it if you behave because I am having dinner.”

The students become quiet at once. “If they had continued with their boorish behaviour, I am sure the Australian would have given them a good beating,” says Bobby, with a laugh.

Bobby, a film-maker, who has lived 13 years in Australia, has been staying in Kochi for work in the past one year.

Indian students lack an understating of Australian society. Lali Jacob, who works as a manager at the School of Medical Science at Sydney, says, “In Australia everybody says ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Hello, how are you, mate?’ to strangers.”

Lali remembers meeting a family who had migrated a few months ago. “They complained that everybody seems to be saying, ‘How are you?’” says Lali. “They said that they were getting annoyed by this, but I told them this is the way in Australia. For example, if I meet you on the road, I will say, ‘How are you?’ If I meet you again after two hours, I will still say, ‘How are you?’”

She gives another example. If you are in the checkout counter of a supermarket, the staffer, before making out your bill, will say. ‘How are you today?’”

Lali says the majority of Indian students do not respond to the greetings. “As a result, Australians think, ‘Indians are so rude,’” she says.

Bobby says that Indians make other mistakes while navigating through Australian society. They do a lot of odd jobs and then they use the money to buy the best mobile phones, I Pods, laptops and sneakers.

“When they finish work late at night, they will walk through deserted parks, or travel in empty train compartments flashing their latest gadgets,” he says. So, the drug addict, who is hard up for money, thinks, ‘Look at this, an Indian with an expensive mobile phone. He is not Lebanese or a Chinese, who will fight back. This is easy meat!’

Bobby says that Indians are physical cowards. “They will shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and throw stones at the police in India,” he says. “But in Australia a white has to just yell at him, and he will throw down the phone or the laptop and run away.”

What adds to the problem is the lack of unity among the Indians. “So, if one Indian student is being attacked, the others will look away. They will not even inform the police. Instead, they will pretend as if nothing has happened,” says Bobby. This is in stark contrast to the Lebanese, who always moves in gangs. If one is attacked, there is an immediate group response.

Meanwhile, Lali is puzzled over the brouhaha in the media over the attacks on Indians. “Mugging incidents occur in every country,” she says. “It happens in New York, Paris, New Delhi, or Mumbai. I fear that all this negative publicity will polarise the Australians and the Indian immigrants.”

So, does that mean these are not racist attacks? “Not at all,” says Bobby. “These are just opportunistic guys robbing vulnerable Indians. There is nothing more to it.”

However, he says, this is not to deny that racism exists in Australian society.

“Every country has an element of racism, but in Australia it has a good-humoured tinge,” says Bobby. “My Australian friends used to call me a ‘curry muncher’, because I am an Indian. But everybody loves curry in Australia and it is quite expensive. So, it is an indirect compliment. I would describe it as a light form of discrimination. I have never experienced brutal in-your-face racism.”

Not like what happened to Bobby’s relative, Chinnu, a doctor, who grew up in London. Once she was spat upon by a white, who shouted, “You Paki, go back!” She spent four months in Australia doing her house surgeoncy. “Chinnu never experienced a single incident of racism,” says Bobby. “She told me Australia is a great country.”

Lali says that she also has never experienced any form of racism in Australia. “It is a country where if you work hard you can go all the way to the top,” she says.

Incidentally, people from more than 50 nationalities live here. They include Italians, Brits, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Greeks, South Africans, Germans, and Malaysians.

And yet, despite this wide variety, in the recent past, Indians have been singled out for attacks. So what is the way out?

“They should take simple precautions like avoiding deserted parks or travel in empty trains late at night,” says Dr Soni Stephens, who works in the Sydney Dental Hospital.

Lali says the Indian High Commission should hold orientations sessions to teach students on how to behave in Australia. She gives an example of mixed signals.

“If you travel on a train, and if an Indian receives a call on the mobile, he tends to talk so loudly that it annoys everybody else in the compartment,” she says. “These are basic manners which are lacking in Indians.”

Bobby says that the new generation Indians should take some advice from their countrymen who have been there for decades.

“The earlier immigrants also had small issues here and there,” says Bobby. “But they knew how to work their way through. The solution is not to go to the media.” Sadly, some politicians and the media on both sides are happy to fish around in these waters, to get the maximum publicity possible.

They fear that if this media blitzkrieg continues, there will be a negative backlash from Australians. “Don’t forget that the tourism industry is already hit,” says Bobby. “The Australians are now wary about coming to India. They prefer to go to Sri Lanka, instead.”

In the end, both Lali and Bobby say, with deep feeling, “Australia is a great country and one of the best places to settle down. This is what we will tell the students: assimilate, and be a part of this wonderful society.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

'Build bridges with Australians'


INTERVIEW: PETER VARGHESE, Australian High Commissioner in India

By Shevlin Sebastian

Why is there a sudden spurt of attacks on Indians? Who is to blame?
There is no excuse for the crimes suffered by Indians in our community. And
such acts have been condemned by the Australian community and leaders. But it is important to recognise some of the underlying dynamics of the issue.

What is that?
The Indian student population in Australia has grown very quickly in recent years to almost 1,00,000. The vast majority have a good experience in Australia. Many choose to stay on to build a life for themselves and their families. They are hard-working and welcome additions to our diverse, multicultural society.

If that is so, why are the students being attacked?
Crime is never easy to dissect. But Australia is a relatively safe place, with homicide and assault rates well below the global average. But it is important to recognise that some students come to Australia under heavy financial stress and choose to take better-paid late-night work, and to live in cheaper suburbs.

There are, unfortunately, risks involved in such work. That is why we encourage students to bring sufficient funds to Australia so they can avoid some of the higher-risk professions.

The Australian government says the attacks are not all racist in origin. The Indian government says otherwise. What is the truth?
Right from the beginning, Australian authorities have acknowledged that some of the incidents appear to be racial in motivation - and have condemned such acts.

The then Australian High commissioner to India, John McCarthy, stressed this in numerous interviews. And since taking over as High Commissioner, in September, 2009, I have repeated this.

So, does that mean the attacks are racist in origin?
Not all attacks. It is important to differentiate between different acts of crime. Some appear to have been racist in motivation, most have not. Unfortunately, Indians, like all other groups, are victims of urban crime that afflicts all international cities. Undesirable and regrettable; yes. Automatically racist; no.

Australia has a zero-tolerance approach to racism. Modern Australia has been built on multiculturalism and immigration from all corners from the globe. In such a society there is no place for racism.

What is the advice you will give to Indians students who are planning to study in Australia as well as those students who are already there?

Firstly, Australia is a welcoming and safe place to study. But we concur with the Indian government's advice to students: prepare well, do your research before you come, take precautions to stay safe. Be assured that support structures are in place if you need assistance.

And a less formal piece of advice - take an interest in Australia. While Australia and India share many common values, Australia is a different society. Make an effort to understand 'what makes Australians tick'.

One example might be the game of Australian Rules Football played throughout southern Australia. Australians love cricket, but in cities like Melbourne, Australian Rules Football is like a religion. Taking an interest in the game can serve as a great tool to build bridges with Australians.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

‘God can never harm you’


By Shevlin Sebastian

When Kochi-based industrialist S.S. Agarwal enters his office, the first thing he does is to stand in front of a photo of Lord Ganapati hanging on a wall. His lips are moving visibly. A few minutes later, Agarwal turns around, and with a broad smile, he greets his visitor. So what did he pray for?

“I asked God to please give us enough so that we are able to feed ourselves, as well as others who come to our door,” he says. Agarwal also recites a few shlokas, including the Gayatri Mantra.

“God is great,” he continues. “You can ask Him for anything with a deep desire in your heart and He will provide.”

Agarwal gives some examples. Around 30 years ago, he had gone to see a possible bridegroom for his sister in Bangalore. “The boy lived in a beautiful house,” says Agarwal. “I remember the red brick walls, marble floors and the well-kept garden.” Agarwal whispered to himself, ‘Dear God, I want a house like this.’

A few years later, when he moved from Salem and settled down in Kochi, the first house that he rented was an exact replica of the house in Bangalore. Later, he also built a house in the same style.

In 1973, Agarwal had opened a flour mill in Mangalore. Looking through the sixth floor window of his office he could see a steel mill on the opposite side. “I was fascinated by the way the scrap was being unloaded, and how magnets and cranes were used to move things,” he says. “I told God that I wanted a similar steel mill.”

In 1995, Agarwal opened a steel mill in Binanipuram, a suburb of Kochi.

To invoke God’s power so that he can fulfill his dreams, Agarwal prays to Lord Ganapati, Satyanarayan, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga.

“Durga is also known as Aparajita,” he says. “She is the destroyer of evil.” And suddenly he puts his hands inside his shirt pocket and brings out a small plastic packet which contains dry flowers. “These are known as Aparijta flowers,” he says. “When you keep them with you, nobody can defeat you.”

He tells a story of how a businessman in Coimbatore owed him Rs 60 lakh and was not making the payment. But Agarwal prayed to Aparajita, touched the flowers of ten, and told himself, ‘I must not lose.’ Later, through fortuitous circumstances, he got the payment.

But life is not always fortuitous. Sometimes, bad things occur. So, does Agarwal get angry with God when that happens? “Not at all,” he says. “God can never harm you, because His nature is to be good.”

He says unfortunate events occur because of one’s negative actions. “It is the law of karma,” he says. “So why blame God?”

So who is God? “I believe in an Almighty God,” he says. “You can call it Bhagwan or Jesus Christ or Allah. All religions are different rivers which are flowing towards the same source: a spiritual power which animates the Universe.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Warm, captivating and unforgettable

That's actor Cochin Haneefa for you. He died of a liver ailment in Chennai a few days ago

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of years ago I was doing a column about the childhood memories of celebrities for the Kochi Expresso supplement. And one of the people I met, along with photographer Rajeev Prasad, was Cochin Haneefa. He lived in a simple house at Pullepady, Kochi, near the St. Augustine’s school. The moment I rang the bell, and he opened the door, he was a mesmerising host.

Firstly, he and his wife laid out a feast for us. There were cakes, jilebis, potato chips, cashew nuts, halwa, and piping hot coffee. Used to just a cup of tea at the homes of celebrities, with their puffed-up egos and unsubtle attitude – ‘Consider yourself lucky you are meeting me’ - this was a shock.

Cochin Haneefa had just returned from Pondicherry following a strenuous shoot for Shankar's 'Enthiran – The Robot'. He folded his legs on the sofa and began talking, his eyes twinkling all the time. And what followed were anecdotes, jokes, reminiscences, and juicy movie gossip. But the one story I never forgot was a poignant one.

Cochin Haneefa had pointed to his feet and said, "These legs have a story to tell."

When Haneefa was born, he had crooked legs. Both feet were pointed at each other. "A close friend of my father, Dr. G.D. Mohammed said the problem can be solved," said Haneefa. He forcibly straightened the baby's legs and encased it in plaster. However, after three months when the plaster was taken off, the legs remained in the same position.

"Everybody began crying when the doctor said, 'This is his destiny and there is nothing we can do about it,'" said Haneefa.

But his father never lost hope. Every night he would massage Haneefa's legs with oil till 1 a.m. He would be crying when he did this, but in a remarkable show of tenacity he did it non-stop for three years. "When it was time for me to go to school, my feet were perfect," says Haneefa. "I had no memory of crooked legs."

For years Haneefa did not know about the entire extent of his disability and his father's role in curing him. One day after he had become a famous actor he met Dr. Muhammad who told him the full story. "I wept in gratitude," he says. "I realised there was no way I could repay my beloved father."

But Cochin Haneefa does repay his beloved fans. When the interview was over, he accompanied us outside and suddenly explained the rationale of his sweet nature.

“I always behave well with people, especially fans, who come to meet me,” he said. “They love me a lot. The least I can do is to be friendly and kind to them. They will remember it with happiness forever.”

Cochin Haneefa, we will remember you with happiness forever!

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

The debt collector’s story

A former bank manager, S.M. Dherendra, relives his experiences of repossessing cars and other assets from clients who defaulted on loan payments

By Shevlin Sebastian

S.M. Dherendra, the former collection manager of a private bank went to a house in Kottayam. Thomas Chacko* had taken a loan to buy a Maruti Zen. But owing to a job loss, he no longer had the money to pay the equated monthly installments (EMIs). Now there were seven outstanding EMIs.

“When I entered the home, I asked politely for the car keys,” says Dherendra. Thomas resisted. “I raised my voice and became adamant,” he says.

Thomas was about to give the keys when his wife entered the living room. She was nine months pregnant and pleaded with Dherendra not to take the car. “I might give birth at any moment,” she said. Recalls Dherendra: “I am a human being. So I left without taking the car.”

On another occasion, Dherendra informed K. Santosh*, who stayed in Changanacherry that he would be arriving the next morning to repossess the car since he had fallen behind in his monthly EMIs.

However, when he reached the house he was stunned to discover that Santosh, 73, had died of a heart attack during the night. “I gave my condolences to the family and left immediately,” he says.

Dherendra’s job is to collect the car, or any other asset, which has been bought on a loan, once the customer misses out on his EMI repeatedly. It is, as expected, not a pleasant experience for both parties.

“When I reach the house and the family members realise the reason behind my visit, the door is shut on my face,” he says. “Then they will go to the balcony and shout, ‘Why do you come home? Who has authorised you? We are going to call the police. You are threatening us.’”

Soon, the local people will gather around. Dherendra has to make a quick judgement. If the public shows support for the family he knows he has little chance of taking away the car. So he leaves. But thereafter the family is put under constant surveillance.

“What the family did not realize, when they opposed us initially, is that we have an extensive network of agents and observers who are able to keep an eye on the man’s movement, especially when he is driving the car,” says Dherendra.

The moment the man goes out in the car and it is parked somewhere, the collection agents rush there, open the car with a duplicate key and drive it away. Immediately, the police are informed. The next call is to the customer. Usually, he becomes furious. “It is understandable because we are humiliating him in front of society,” says Dhirendra.

Sometimes, the client goes to the bank and shouts at the staffers. Or he goes to the police station to lodge a complaint. “What the man does not realise is that he is a defaulter and we are just following the rules,” says Dherendra.

Incidentally, taking the car like this is not an illegal act. The agreement states clearly that, when there is a default, the bank can repossess the car from the premises or any other location.

“Till the loan is cleared, the company is the owner of the car,” he says. “The client is regarded as a user till the last rupee is paid.”

Most of the defaulting customers realise this. So, they quietly give the car keys. But Dherendra, who has traveled the length and breadth of Kerala, says that people behave differently in various regions.

“In Malabar, a violent place, the people are tough,” says Dherendra. “They are unfazed by demands for payment. There is a fear in us when we approach the defaulting customers. So we always take the help of the police or powerful political contacts.”

In contrast, people in places like Tiruvalla, Changanacherry or Pathanamthitta are polite and well-mannered. “When we tell them that our jobs are at stake if we don’t collect the car, they just hand over the keys,” says Dherendra. But things are different in Pala, where the clients are mostly businessmen and are tough as nails. “They are mentally strong and are not intimidated at all,” he says.

Dherendra did this job for 12 years and gave up. “I was changing as a person,” says Dherendra, who is now happily working in the real estate industry. “I had become arrogant and adamant. Sometimes I behaved with my family in this manner. So I felt it was time to quit. It was the best decision I took.”

(*: Some names have been changed)
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Horn please, we are Kochiites!

Incessant horn-blowing by Kochi’s drivers jangles the nerves and shatters mental peace

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, while I was travelling along National Highway 47 on a Honda Activa scooter, at Kochi, a motorbike came up behind me and suddenly the driver pressed the horn so loudly that my whole body jerked forward and I almost lost my balance. Then the driver sped past me.

Usually a mild person, I became angry. I chased the motorbike, pushing my poor scooter beyond its limits. When I came near him, I pressed hard, so that my horn would startle him. Unfortunately, I pressed the starter button and no sound came. By then he had streaked forward again.

The reason why I missed the horn button is because I may be the only person in the whole of Kochi to never blow the horn, whether on the scooter or in the car. Is it a difficult thing to do?

Not at all, especially if you are on a two-wheeler. And yet all over the city, drivers in two, three and four-wheelers are incessantly blowing their horns.

It is the rudest act on the road. It bespeaks a lack of respect towards others and, most probably, a lack of self-respect. It is a display of crassness and contempt.

And it adds immeasurably to the difficulties of travelling. As it is, buses, tipper lorries, trucks, cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and barking dogs make such a cacophonic sound that it is the rare person who travels on Kochi’s roads and remains sane.

What adds to the aggravation is the lack of road discipline, the constant desire to cut corners, and to ‘show the finger’ to the drivers of the other vehicles: the ‘Me Superman you idiot’ attitude.

But, at least, they can go easy on the horn. Once on a deserted street, a car is coming from the opposite side. I am once again on a two-wheeler. It is broad daylight, and still the driver blows the horn incessantly.

“What is the reason?” I shout and gesture with my hands. “I can see you, you can see me.” But he just whizzes past without acknowledging my protest or frustration.

Why can’t we, of the middle class, supposedly cultured and aware, at least desist from blowing the horn? But I find that car owners are the most blatant in using the horn.

Nouveau riche owners, maybe, who want to show off their Honda Civics and BMWs. They also can’t feel the effects of their actions: they sit ensconced in air-conditioned comfort.

And what about those brash young bus drivers, who drive their vehicles, as if they are two-wheelers, hurtling the bus across lanes? It sends heartbeats soaring and sweat glands to work overtime. And the air horns that they use? Is there a more painful experience than to listen to an air horn in full blast in the midst of heavy traffic?

I am sure when we die, and the sinners among us go to hell, we will feel at home. Because Kochi’s traffic is already HELL on earth!

In desperation, I now travel on deserted lanes. But, unfortunately, there is always an ambush waiting in some leafy by-lane. A man will suddenly blow his horn for no reason.

Of course if a pretty woman is walking down the street, it is inevitable that he will make a noise, startling the poor lady and, yours truly, who is trying to appreciate her beauty in goggle-eyed wonder.

How times have changed! Fifteen years ago, Kochi was such a placid place to live. The traffic was far less, drivers were polite, nobody was trying to outmuscle each other on the road, and life was less taxing on the nerves. Unfortunately, things will never be the same again.

The city has irrevocably become an overcrowded metro.

So, what then is the solution for the chaos on the streets?

Green vehicles, please. At least, the noise of the engines can be cut down that way.

As for those maniac horn-blowing drivers, ‘shoot at sight’ orders to the police would be a welcome solution.

The fewer monsters in the world the better!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)