Tuesday, March 30, 2010

‘Indian Muslims live peacefully with people of other religions’


German Professor of Comparative Religions Dr. Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt talks about the attractions and defects of various faiths

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The co-existence of different religions exists in other countries, but India has a much longer tradition,” says Prof. Dr. Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt, a scholar of Comparative Religions and Indology at Marburg, Germany. “Muslims have been living in Germany for the last 50 years only. So there is not much of experience of how to get along with each other.”

Adelheid says that some Muslims living in Germany are fundamentalists. “They don’t believe in the idea of living peacefully with other religions,” she says. “Their aim is to make Germany a Muslim country. They feel that in the West Islam is in some kind of danger.”

In contrast, over the years Adelheid has met many Muslims in India, including some on her recent trip to Kerala, who are comfortable in their religion. “The vast majority of Indian Muslims live peacefully with the people of other faiths,” she says. “In India, Islam is a normal religion, like any other.”

Adelheid is also amazed at the mix of science and religion that Indians have adopted. “In fact, there is no demarcation,” she says. “Several of my Indian friends are very religious and have a puja room in their homes. So, after a day of intense intellectual study, they have no problems in praying to God in the evenings.”

On the other hand, Western scholars believe that one should rely on reason, and not have blind faith. What has deepened the skepticism about religion is the great discoveries made by scientists. “People feel doubtful when the Bible states that God has created man,” says Adelheid. “Everybody knows that it happened through evolution.”

So, people are looking for something else. Adelheid says that in Germany there are many converts to Buddhism. “They are attracted to its rationalist structure,” she says. “The Buddha said, ‘Don’t believe in me, but look inside yourself. If you find that what I have said is right, then accept it.’”

There are also admirers of Osho, one of India’s great philosophers. “I don’t know whether, as Osho has encouraged, it is good to shatter normal rules of sexual conduct,” says Adelheid. “People lose their balance, especially emotionally weak people, when this happens. Osho was talking to the strong people, those who can overcome the breaking of beliefs. Even if they do something wrong they are able to find their way out of it. But the weak people might feel lost.”

Quite a few of her students also feel lost. “They don’t feel at home in Christianity,” says Adelheid. “They are on a spiritual search. And they are very interested in India.”

Adelheid has told her pupils that India is very creative when it comes to religions. “Some of the world’s great religions were founded here: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism,” she says.

It is this deep spirituality that makes Indians a warm people, she says. And this has helped Adelheid when she has problems coping with the intense heat, getting a rail ticket or a visa, or dealing with an obstinate bureaucracy.

“In every difficult situation, there will always be somebody who will lend a helping hand,” she says. “I enjoy this warmth, which is quite unlike the West where people react in a cold manner when you have a problem.”

In the West, if a man who is old and friendless, dies, his body may lie undiscovered for weeks together. “In India, with its close inter-personal relationships, that would be impossible,” says Adelheid. “So many people would see this person. So they would try to find out what had happened.”

Meanwhile, Adelheid has just developed a deeper connection to India. Her daughter is marrying an Indian living in Germany. “I am happy for her,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Voices that want to be heard

There are regular writers to the Letters to the Editor and the Timeout columns in The New Indian Express. A few of them talk about why they write, and the subjects that interest them

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: (From left:) Dr. Titus Sankaramangalam, Thomas Matthew Parackel, and Nebu George

One day Dr. Titus Sankaramangalam was chatting with a friend, Joseph Antony (name changed) in Kochi. Joseph told him a story: his servant girl would disappear every now and then for a day or two. Investigations revealed that whenever a well-known faith healer would hold a meeting in Kochi she would go and become a member of the audience.

“When the faith-healer would announce a name and say that the person has been healed, she would step forward and say she is the one,” says Titus. “For this, she was given some money.”

When Titus returned home to Tiruvalla, he wrote a short article, which was published in the Timeout column of The New Indian Express. Titus has published several articles like this in Timeout, but he is known mostly as a letter writer. “I have published around 300 letters in the newspaper,” he says.

A doctor with the National Rural Health Mission, he gets up at 4.30 a.m. and starts reading newspapers on the net. But he also subscribes to four newspapers. When the newspapers arrive, in the early morning, he glances through all of them before he goes out to play a game of tennis.

When he returns, if he is in the mood, he writes a letter. “It takes about half an hour,” he says. “I write on anything that comes to my mind, but I try to take a different angle.”

He says that around 80 per cent of his letters are published in the Express. And he gets reactions from readers. “Some disagree, while others accept my viewpoint,” he says. He is happy that his mother is an ardent reader of his letters.

Thomas Matthew Parackel’s wife may also be an ardent reader, but she complains that he spends too much time reading and writing. Thomas, a retired teacher, who lives in Muvattupuzha, about 40 kms from Kochi, published his first letter in 1981.

“I wanted to express my opinions on certain topics,” he says. Initially, he wrote about the sporting exploits of tennis players like Ramanathan Krishnan and Naresh Kumar.

But nowadays his letters are on a variety of topics. “But my main focus is on Kerala politics,” he says. On an average he writes two letters a week.

Like Dr. Titus, Thomas began contributing ‘middles’ to the New Indian Express newspaper since 1987. When it metamorphosed into the Timeout column, he began writing for that also.

Among his 35 Timeout pieces, the one he enjoyed writing the most was about his memories of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

They studied together at Kirori Mal College in Delhi. “Amitabh was an excellent tennis player,” he says. “He was also very handsome, well-behaved and gentle.” Both Amitabh and Thomas were members of a group called ‘Smart Fellows’.

While Amitabh’s destiny took him to films, Thomas spent 20 years in Africa as a teacher in Ethiopia and Nigeria. He returned in the eighties and began his hobby of writing letters to the editor. Till now, he has published a few hundred. “I am a critic of Marxism,” he says.

Like Thomas, the Kottayam-based Nebu George is a Communist basher. “I have a visceral hatred towards the ideology,” he says. “In fact, I am a monarchist.”

Nebu published his first letter ten years ago and he has been at it steadily. Last month six of his letters were published. Some of the topics that he has written on include the Mullaperiyar Dam issue, the Chinese stance on Arunachal Pradesh, a comment on tennis player Serena William’s nude photo and Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Cowgate’ controversy.

“As I read the newspaper, suddenly, the urge to write comes,” he says. “I run to my computer at once.”

The first draft takes about 15 minutes, but Nebu spends quite a bit of time editing it, before he sends it off by e-mail. “I enjoy writing these letters, but the intention is not to change the world or be a crusader of social issues,” he says. “I just want my views to be heard.”

An estate owner, and regarded as charismatic by his friends, Nebu decided to get in touch with other letter writers. And last year, three of them, Titus, Thomas, and Nebu met at a hotel in Kottayam for dinner. A bottle of Chivas Regal provided the fuel for an intense two-hour conversation.

“It was destiny that got us together,” says Nebu. “The dinner cemented our friendship.”

So what tips can these close friends give to aspiring letter writers? “They should be frank and fearless,” says Thomas. Titus says, “Letters should be crisp and witty. There should not be any blah-blah.” And Nebu says, “Be precise in what you want to say.”

And so the next time you read the letters to the editor column, ponder sometime on the names of the writers that appear regularly and remember that for most of them this is a passionate hobby.

(Some names have been changed)

The man from the UAE

Dr. N. Harimohan is a doctor who works in the Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. In his spare time he writes letters to the editor in The New Indian Express. “Before coming to Abu Dhabi I lived in Kochi for many years and had been a regular letter-writer,” he says. In the past 15 years he has published numerous letters.

He would write a letter whenever a news item irked him. “I have written on corruption, extravagant spending, and the chicanery of some of our leaders,” he says. He has also written on the beauty of the monsoon in Kerala.

From Abu Dhabi he continues to write, although the volume has gone down. “The best thing about India is the freedom of the media and the chance for readers to air their views,” he says. “If we use this constructively it will do a lot of good for our country.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The quality of Mercy is not strained


In her eventful five-year stint as Mayor, which ends in September, Mercy Williams has been proud of her achievements, even as she has been hurt by the media criticism

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning Kochi Mayor Mercy Williams sets out with her husband to attend Mass, usually at the St. Francis Assisi church, near Marine Drive. But along the way she does a round of the city.

“I want to see whether there is any garbage lying around,” she says. When she notices something, she will note the time and the place. After Mass, when she returns home, she will call up the Health Inspector and inform him.

“The city should be cleared of all garbage,” says Mercy. “There are some areas which are overlooked by the inspectors.”

Thereafter, Mercy sits with her husband and reads several newspapers. “Invariably, there will be some reports about the Cochin Corporation,” she says. Mercy has mixed feelings about the press. “In 2007, when the garbage disposal problem was at its peak, there were a lot of negative articles about me,” she says. “I felt bad about it.”

Following the reading, she meets people who come to her with various complaints. Usually, they are representatives of the resident associations. They have problems regarding the drainage, poor lighting in the streets and the collection of garbage. After breakfast, she sets out for the office at 9.40 a.m.

Once she reaches there, a series of meetings take place. On any given day, there are review meetings on various projects, interactions with ministers, and co-ordination meetings with organizations like the Kerala Water Authority. Sometimes, senior bureaucrats will come from Delhi to hold review meetings of Central-funded projects.

At 2.15 p.m., Mercy goes home to Thammanam for lunch. “It is only in the car that I am able to close my eyes and think about all the decisions I have taken,” she says. “Till then I don’t have the time. With most people I can barely spend a couple of minutes, because there is another person with a file standing right behind him.”

At home, she has a simple meal of rice, fish curry, and vegetables. Thereafter, she rests for a brief while before she returns to the office by 3.30 p.m. There are more meetings, sometimes she has a public function to attend, and Mercy works till 8.30 p.m.

When she reaches home she has dinner with her family -- husband, Williams, lawyer-son Anup Joachim, his wife Mridula and their four-year-old son David. Later, she works on official files till midnight.

So what part of the job does she like the best? “The joy of meeting so many different types of people from all walks of life,” says Mercy. “People are so talented. Senior citizens who have contributed to the city in the past come up and tell me about their ideas on how to improve things.”

She listens intently and gives her views also. Mercy relishes the freedom of expression. “For women, the opportunities to speak in a male-dominated society are few,” she says. “When a woman is in power, she is able to talk fearlessly about on what is on her mind.”

And this former lecturer hopes she has been a role model for women, especially students. “Like me, I want women to serve society,” says Mercy.

Unfortunately, the desire to serve is lessening by the day. “People have become very selfish,” says Mercy. “Relationships are based on profit and loss: what can I gain from my friendship with a particular person? People no longer want to contribute to society.”

Indeed, this selfishness has fuelled an appalling corruption, not only in the Cochin Corporation but in institutions all over India. “Corruption has become deeply entrenched,” says Mercy. The Mayor admits she has tried, with some success, to contain it within the premises of the Corporation.

But now the battle for a clean administration for Mercy is about to be over. Her five-year stint as Mayor will end in September. So what are her achievements?

“After I took over, South India’s largest waste treatment plant has been set up at Brahmapuram and the Rs 19 crore HUDCO water supply project has been completed,” she says. There are numerous other projects, like houses for the poor, a new sewerage treatment plant at Mundamveli, and the introduction of low floor a/c and non a/c buses.

Mercy spoke about the expansion of Sahodaran Ayyappan Road and the development of the Thammanam-Pullepady road.

“The rail overbridges at Pullepady and Edapally will be coming up soon, apart from the Vytilla mobility hub and the Rs 22 crore Broadway Market Renewal project,” she says.

Recently, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission selected Kochi as the Best Solid Waste Management City from among 63 cities in India.

There is plenty to smile about for Mercy. So will she try to renew her public career post September?

“My fate is in the hands of God,” says Mercy. “He will decide.”

(This column traces the daily life of leading personalities)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Writing is a form of prayer"


Says U.R. Anantha Murthy, one of Karnataka's great writers and Jnanpith Award winner

By Shevlin Sebastian

When one of Karnataka’s great writers, U.R. Anantha Murthy was a child, his mother had become seriously ill, following the delivery of a son. “We were living in a village where there were no proper facilities,” he says. “I prayed under a tree for her recovery. And she survived. Looking back, I know that God saved her life.”

As a child, Murthy had a favourite temple. It was a Shiva temple located on the banks of the Tunga river in Shimoga district in Karnataka. Since there was no electricity, a small lamp was lit in the evenings inside the shrine.

“When I looked intently at the flame, I was also able to see inside my soul,” says Murthy, a Jnanpith Award winner, who is on a brief visit to Kerala.

Murthy experiences the presence of God when he hears a bird sing a song on a tree. “Or when a bird looks at me, I feel I have made a connection with nature,” he says. “When you meet an old friend and it brings back the time we spent together years ago, it is a moment of ecstatic joy.”

At this moment, Murthy says, his heart prays to God. “But whenever the rational process dominates, I have problems with my faith,” he says. “Only when I am silenced by ecstasy or grief, then something mysterious opens out. Otherwise, my mind is that of a skeptic.”

Owing to this collision between rationality and belief, Murthy does not pray every day. “I don’t want to do it mechanically,” he says. “But when I begin writing, I empty myself of all opinions, goals, notions and prejudices. Then slowly, I get filled up with a mysterious power. So writing is a form of prayer for me.”

Listening to music is also a form of prayer. “I feel moved by the great bhajans of Kabir sung by Kumar Gandharva,” he says.

Despite this, he has been assailed by doubts. “If I was very sure that God exists, I will not rely on a bank balance,” he says. “Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Earlier, I believed that God is truth. Now I believe that Truth is God.’ What a sublime jump from one great idea to another.”

Nevertheless, the writer who uses his imagination so much has many visuals of God when he closes his eyes to meditate. “Since I am a Hindu, at any moment, my God may be a tree, a bird, a human being or Lord Hanuman. I also see the images of Lord Krishna, Shiva, and Lord Rama.”

When Murthy was young, he picturised Lord Rama on a famous film actor of that time. “Even now I am not free of that image,” he says. “Sometimes, I wonder whether I will ever be able to see the true image of God.”

When asked whether God is male or female, Murthy says, “Like Shiva, God is a hermaphrodite: half male and half female.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Children of an absent God

The boarders at the Precious Children International Village are mostly the sons and daughters of criminals. They have a difficult time to adjust because of a broken family life and the stigma attached to their father’s name

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Children at the Precious Children International Village, near Kottayam. Dr. Kunjumon Chacko is at extreme left

One day Dr. Kunjumon Chacko was talking to a group of boys and girls at the Precious Children International Village, at Areeparambu, 14 kilomtres from Kottayam. Suddenly, a seven-year-old girl, Maya, got up and started combing Chacko’s hair.

Chacko said, “Maya, do you want me to look more handsome?”

Maya replied, “I never had the opportunity to comb the hair of my father.”

On another occasion, Radha, 10, showed her answer sheet in mathematics. She had got full marks. Chacko gave her a hug and said, “Well done, keep it up.”

Radha began crying. When Chacko asked why, she said, “My father has never given me an embrace.”

A teary-eyed Chacko said, “A hug is nothing when you receive it all the time. But when nobody gives you one, then it becomes a big event.”

He says that in India the family plays a very important part in the life of every individual. “So when somebody is excluded, especially a child, they feel it very keenly,” he says. “They are always yearning for a family atmosphere.”

At the international village, there are 54 boys and 64 girls. “We admit more girls, because they are vulnerable to exploitation,” says Chacko. The youngsters range in age from six to sixteen years. Many of them are the children of long-term prisoners: a mix of murderers, burglars, drug traffickers, and other convicts.

There are also a dozen children who have lost their parents in the anti-Christian riots which rocked Kandhamal in Orissa, in 2008, while a few have come from the north-east, the victims of tribal clashes, in which their fathers were killed.

For most of the children, especially, those who know that their father is in prison, it is a traumatic feeling.

“Some get very angry with their father,” says Chacko. “A few are against the police. They say, ‘Why did the police arrest my dad? He is innocent.’ Usually mothers and relatives, in order to pacify the child, will insist that the father is innocent.”

Some children want to take revenge against the people who created this situation. “Others are angry at the community that has labelled their father a criminal,” says Chacko.

And there are many children who become sad. They realize that their future is bleak. They suffer from an intense loneliness. “I see many children sitting alone and crying to themselves,” says Chacko. Some are convinced they have reached the end of the road. A small number get obsessed with their fathers.

In ordinary circumstances, there is a strong possibility of the son following in the father’s footsteps. “If he is in an environment, where everybody constantly tells him he is the son of a criminal, he will turn to crime,” says Chacko. “But if people approach him with love and acceptance, it is easy to correct the boy.”

The staffers at the hostel have been using love, acceptance and counselling to tackle the troubled children, ever since the institution was set up in 1987.

The idea of starting a home occurred to Chacko when, as a counsellor, he met prisoners in various prisons all over Kerala.

“When I asked them about their children, they would start crying,” says Chacko. “The prisoners worried constantly about how their children would be able to eat and go to school. They felt helpless. These men can be cold-blooded killers, but all of them have a caring father alive in their hearts.”

One day, a prisoner told Chacko, “We get food in prison, and are looked after, but what about our children? Who will look after them? Can you help?”

Chacko pondered over this and finally took the plunge. “Initially, we had seven children,” he says. One woman, Beena, whose husband was serving a life sentence for murder, brought her son along, because there was nobody to look after them. “I asked Beena whether she could cook for the children and she agreed,” says Chacko. “So, she was the first employee.”

Beena is an exception. Faced with starvation, most of the wives of criminals enter the flesh trade. “They have no other option,” says Chacko. Men are always around to exploit them. The woman will rarely get the chance to work as a maid servant because of the stigma attached to her husband.

“I know of several women who sell their bodies for food,” says Chacko. Suffering from a bad reputation, a few women have brought their children to the international village in the hopes of providing a better life for the youngsters.

On a hot Wednesday afternoon, the children have just returned from school. Several are playing on the swings and the slides. A few older ones are stacking firewood inside an open shed. Two boys are washing their clothes. Some are hanging around in the dormitory. Children being children, they smile easily at the visitor.

“Try not to ask them about their parents,” says Chacko. “Then they will realize I told you about their life stories. Instead, ask them about their dreams.”

So, when eight-year-old Rohit is asked what he wanted to be, when he grew up, he says, without hesitation, “A policeman. I want to catch all the robbers.”

David, 12, wants to be a teacher. And his logic is simple. “My teacher beats me a lot,” he says. “So when I grow up and become a teacher and when my teacher’s children become my students, I will also hit them.”

Neha, on the other hand, has noble aspirations. “I want to be like Mother Teresa,” she says, and explains why. “I want to help people. Uncle (Chacko) has helped me, and that is why I am able to go to school. Many people are helping us. So I want to do the same.”

The village is set in 3.5 acres surrounded by trees and plants. There are five dormitories, a large canteen, several bathrooms, and open areas. It is spacious and strikingly clean. “Children should be treated royally,” says Chacko. “That is my attitude.” Indeed, the village looks more like a tourist resort rather than the home of the children of criminals.

And because of the children’s traumatic family backgrounds Chacko tells positive stories, to keep their spirits up. One is the oft-familiar story of the endless failures of Abraham Lincoln before he became the president of the United States .

Thanks to this positive atmosphere, there are heart-warming stories in the institution.

When Riya was in Class one she awoke one morning and found that her mother, Sandhya was not at home. She started crying. When Riya’s grandfather realized that Sandhya had eloped with a man, he brought Riya to the village. Riya’s father, Mukesh, was serving a long jail sentence for robbery.

Three years later, Sandhya came to see Riya, but the daughter did not want to meet her. “I told Riya, ‘She is your mother,’” says Chacko. “There is no replacement for a mother.”

Eventually, they met, and slowly mended their relationship. A couple of years later, Chacko received the news that Mukesh had been killed in a fight with another man. When Riya was informed, she cried bitterly for days. She hardly knew her father and now she would never know. “All the children felt sad for Riya,” says Chacko.

Then after another two years, Sandhya also died, aged 50. Now Riya was all alone in the world, but Chacko and his wife assured her that they were now her parents.

Emboldened, Riya carried on studying. When she finished her class 12, Chacko arranged a marriage for her with a local carpenter. Today, they have a three-year-old son, and five orphans.

“Riya said that she wanted to help others because she had received so much help herself,” he says. “Hence, she has adopted the children. She is very happy. And I also feel glad for her.”

This story is a ray of sunlight in this environment of tragedy. Of course, the obvious questions that come to mind when one sees the children are these: why do terrible things happen to innocent children? What wrong have they done? Why should they suffer like this?

Chacko shrugs his shoulders and says, “Who knows the ways of God? There are many questions for which we have no answers.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A time of excitement


Director Lal is busy with the post-production work on ‘In Ghost House Inn’, which will be released soon. He talks about his daily schedule, as well as some secrets of his trade

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a busy time for director Lal. Post-production work is going on for his new film, ‘In Ghost House Inn’. The film is slated for release on March 25.

At present the sound mixing is being done and Lal did not like the sound at a particular section in the film. But one recent morning when he got up, at 6.30 a.m., his unconscious mind had supplied the solution. Excitedly, he called the sound engineer and passed the news.

At 8.30 a.m. the director was in his Lal Media studio at Padivattom with the engineers and they had started tinkering with the sound. Every now and then Lal would listen in on the earphones and make a suggestion.

This went on till 1.30 p.m. Then Lal went home for lunch, had a small nap and returned to the studio at 4 p.m. He worked till 6 p.m., came home for a game of badminton in the backyard of his bungalow with friends. “This is my way of keeping fit,” he says. After a bath and dinner, he was back at the studio and worked till 1 a.m.

When he returns, without fail, every night, he will watch a film in his home theatre. One of the recent films he liked was ‘The Terminal’, starring Tom Hanks.

For Lal, it is a time of great excitement. ‘In Ghost House Inn’ is taking its final shape. There is a strong possibility that the film will be a hit. Lal has been a successful director for long. Some of his hits include ‘Ramji Rao Speaking’, ‘In Harihar Nagar’, ‘Godfather’, and ‘Vietnam Colony’.

He has a foolproof method to make a good film: he repeatedly shows it to his family. By studying their reactions, he is able to eliminate mistakes, poor characterisation, and flagging pace.

“A couple of weeks ago, I showed my family a rough cut of ‘In Ghost House Inn’, with only the dialogue and picture, but no sound or music,” he says. “They laughed a lot.” But when the sound was added, they were a lot less merry. Lal was puzzled. He spoke to each member individually and concluded that, at certain sections, the music had become too heavy.

So Lal instructed music director Alex Paul to make it light-hearted, like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon film. “The audience was able to relax and enjoy the scene,” he says.

Lal’s family is his best audience, because they are honest. “They know that the success or failure of my film will have a direct bearing on the fortunes of the family,” he says. “If I asked for your reaction, you will think, ‘Why should I tell the truth and hurt Lal?’”

Meanwhile, Lal, unwittingly, hurts his family. Once the shooting begins his behaviour changes dramatically. “Where normally I am friendly and jovial with my wife, son and daughter, I get irritated quickly,” he says. “When we travel in the car, I don’t want to hear music. I am always pre-occupied. They do get upset by the change in my attitude.”

But everything changes when the film is released and it has become a success. Last year, when ‘2 Harihar Nagar’ had a superb box office collection in the first three days, Lal switched off his cell phone and took his family for a 10-day holiday to China. “I had a great time and so did the family,” he says, with a bright smile. But he is always happy to come back home to Kochi, his birthplace.

So what has he to say about the benefits of the city for the film industry?

“Kochi has good locations for shooting,” he says. “There is the airport, shipyard, railway stations, and good beaches. There are forests, hills, and scenic villages nearby.” There are dubbing and DTS mixing studios. “The only drawback is that we don’t have a colour lab,” he says.

His other complaint is about the theatres. “Theatre owners rarely take the trouble to upgrade their facilities,” he says. He is also put off by the rude way the staff behaves with the patrons -- the shouting and the lack of courtesy.

Lal says, “What further devalues the viewing experience are the cramped seats, the poor sound, and the bad state of the toilets.”

(This column looks at the daily life of leading personalities)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

‘Have plans, work hard, then leave the rest to God,”


By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, in 1997, after having dinner with London-based friends, Dr. Najeeb Zackeria, the managing director of Abad Builders was speeding down a motorway towards his home in Milton Keynes, 70 kms away.

He had just finished a double shift in a hospital and was feeling tired. So he pulled the windows down, and played some music to stay awake. But, without realising it, he dozed off. He veered off the expressway onto a grassy patch of land. “A few seconds later, I awoke,” he says.

Najeeb saw, with rising alarm, that he was heading towards a parapet, at high speed. He slammed the brakes, and the car spun around 360 degrees and came to a stop in the middle of the two-lane motorway. “By the grace of God, there was no traffic,” he says. “Usually, there are heavy trailers and cars that zoom past.”

Looking back, Najeeb feels that it was his destiny to stay alive. “This incident confirmed to me that man is never in control of things,” he says. “In fact, God is firmly in charge.”

Like any devout Muslim, Najeeb prays five times a day. “I ask the Almighty to show me the right path,” he says. “I pray for good health and for protection from evil, bad thoughts, and wrong deeds.” Further, Najeeb appeals to God on behalf of his joint family, the neighbourhood, and the community at large.

He also asks the Lord for forgiveness. “As human beings we commit many sins, sometimes, unknowingly, and so I plead that mercy be granted to me,” says Najeeb.

He says that these daily prayers, which are of 15 minutes duration, deepen the sense of humility. “You stand, then you bow to the Almighty, you prostrate yourself, then you get up,” he says. And all this is done after performing the ablution -- the ritual of washing parts of the body with water.

Like any well-to-do Muslim, Najeeb has done the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “The experience was most enriching,” he says. “The moment I looked at the Holy Kaaba or the black stone, at Mecca, I had goose bumps all over,” he says. “This is one of the holiest places in Islam. And there is such a deep connection to all the prophets. So I experienced a tremendous reverence.”

Najeeb says that this reverence increases when he goes through tough times. “I don’t get angry with God when bad things happen,” he says. “I have realised that you cannot change anything, even if you work very hard, unless the Almighty decides so. Sometimes, when you don’t wish for anything, certain favourable events occur, just because the Lord wants it to happen.”

So Najeeb’s philosophy of life is very simple: “Have plans, work hard to implement it, then leave the rest to God.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The fight for sobriety

The Rhima Deaddiction Centre tries hard to wean people away from alcohol. But it is an uphill struggle

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Dr. Sushil Daniel and P.R. Mohandas

In the backyard of the Rhima De-addiction and Rehabilitation Society at Kaithavalli, near Thoppumpady, there are several hens and chicks running around. On another side, there is a group of ducks waddling down the slope of a small pond into the water. Sitting on plastic chairs and staring at this tranquil setting are Paul Thomas, 50, and A. Rajesh, 34. Both have reddish eyes and stiff bodies.

Rajesh, a tax consultant, has been at Rhima for the past several days. “I had a relapse,” he says. An alcoholic for the past six years, Rajesh had checked into Rhima earlier, got clean, and stayed sober for three months, before he slipped again.

Since almost all his earnings were spent on alcohol, he could not look after his family, which included his wife, mother, and three-year-old daughter. So he was desperate to break his addiction.

Paul, on the other hand, has been an alcoholic for the past fifteen years. A Government employee, he has a monthly salary of Rs. 17,000, but takes home only Rs. 1000. The rest of the money is used to pay installments of various loans.

“All the loans were taken so that I could get money for drinking,” says Paul. “I have spent lakhs of rupees on my addiction.” As a result, the family is destitute. “But this time when I go out I plan to remain sober,” says Paul, although he does not sound confident at all.

Both stay at the 17-bed facility, which is run by the Rotary Club of Cochin Harbour (Rh) and Indian Medical Association (IMA) of Cochin West. Rhima’s resident counsellor P.R. Mohandas says that only 40 per cent of the patients come on their own will.

“The rest are brought by desperate friends, relatives or family members,” he says. “When they arrive more than 50 per cent are drunk.”

A doctor administers a sedative and the patient spends the first day in a deep sleep. When he awakens, he usually experiences withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, nausea, vomiting, headache or tremors.

Immediately, tranquilisers and multivitamin tablets are given. The patient is kept in a moderately sedated state for a week until the need for alcohol is eliminated.

Thereafter, Mohandas holds classes. “Initially, the men will deny that they are alcoholics,” he says. “But through logic and reasoning, I convince them that they have a problem. Once this happens, the recovery is quick.”

However, the permanent recovery rate is only 25 per cent. “The problem is that they go back to the same friends and environment which had caused the addiction,” says Rhima Director Dr. Sushil Daniel.

But he is happy that Rhima has been able to make a difference. Set up on June 26, 2004, more than 1200 people have used the facilities. But the outfit is hard-pressed for funds. The monthly expenses come to Rs. 80,000 and the facility runs solely on the donations of people.

“Surprisingly, it is the people of the lower and middle classes who give more,” says Daniel. “The higher you go, the less generous people become.”

And the patients don’t help much. They are supposed to pay Rs 100 per day for food. But many of them will give Rs. 500 after staying for 30 days. “So we have to subsidise the food, apart from the medicines, which are extremely costly,” says Daniel.

To mitigate the pressure, Daniel tried hard for Central funds. “But without giving bribes, it is difficult to get a sanction,” he says, with a rueful smile.

These are tough times, indeed, but Daniel feels gratified when there are positive results. Recently, at a meeting at the centre, a middle-aged woman spoke of how things had changed when her husband stopped drinking.

“Now we have more resources, we were able to buy a house, and provide an education for the children,” she said. “My husband shares his problems with me, which he never did before. He has become kind and caring.”

A caring Rhima is also acting as a bulwark, although a frail one, against the wave of alcoholism that has engulfed Kerala in recent times. Incidentally, it is the state with the highest per capita consumption of liquor in India.

(Some names have been changed)

All praise is due to Allah

Duff Muttu, a Muslim art form, is popular in the Malabar region of Kerala. The songs are sung in honour of Allah

Photo: Koya Kappad

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in 2008 tabla maestro Zakir Hussain invited Koya Kappad to perform with his Duff Muttu troupe at his father, the legendary Alla Rakha’s eighth death anniversary function. So Koya and his singers travelled to Mumbai from Kappad, 28 kilometres from Kozhikode.

Koya led the singing, which is accompanied by powerful beats on the Duff, a percussion instrument.

When the programme was over, an emotional Zakir Hussain hugged and kissed Koya. “Zakir Saab told me that this art form was a gift from Allah and I should continue to uphold it,” says Koya. “He also mentioned that he had never heard of Duff Muttu till we played before him.”

The audience was also enamoured. There were many Malayalis who came up after the performance and asked the meaning of several lines of the songs. “I realised that they had really appreciated our recital,” he says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Duff Muttu is a Muslim art form, which originated in Medina, Saudi Arabia several centuries ago. “The songs, sung in Arabic, are mostly in praise of Allah,” says Koya. Most of the poems are Sufi in origin. “We use the songs written by Sheikh Rifayi, a great Sufi sage, who lived around eight hundred years ago,” he says.

According to Koya, Sufi singers from Arabia brought the Duff Muttu to the Lakshadweep Islands and from there it reached the Malabar region in Kerala, where it is very popular among the Muslims. It is performed during religious rituals, as well as festivals and weddings.

Koya’s family has been propagating the Duff Muttu since 1855. “I am the fourth generation,” he says, with a proud smile. But mainstream acceptance occurred thanks to Koya’s father, the venerable 90-year-old Ustad Ahmed Kutty Musalier who performed in public for the first time in 1977.

Because of his tireless efforts to popularise the art, Ahmed Kutty was bestowed with the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Award as well as a National Integration Award from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983.

The father’s passion for the art has been passed to the son. Koya says that when he sings, he experiences an affinity to God. “There are many times when I feel depressed,” he says. “But when I sing, tears of joy come to my eyes.”

On a hot summer afternoon, Koya is listening to a group of students as they go through a rehearsal at the Madrasthul Muhammadiya school in Kozhikode. Sitting on benches, placed around the sides of the classroom, are several students who are watching the performance. The Duff Muttu singers have come to the city to take part in ‘Keraloltsavam’ – a state-level youth festival competition.

Ten boys stand in a semi-circle. They are wearing a white juba and mundu, and a headgear (thalapavu). Soon, a youngster at one end starts singing. This is followed by quick beats on the Duff. Soon, the boys bend their heads and roll their waists.

The song rises to a crescendo. The beats, caused by hard thumps of the hand, rock the room. The audience listens in rapt silence, as a plaintive cry to Allah is heard. Koya is all concentration: his eyes are closed.

When the song is over there is sustained clapping: the onlookers admire the heartfelt singing. But Koya does not see the excellence. Instead he points out the mistakes, but does so in a gentle voice.

Among the participants is A. Anees, 15, who is a student of the C.H. Memorial Higher Secondary School at Kannur. One day there was an announcement in school that those who are interested to play the Duff Muttu could go to the music room.

“I had always been interested in this art form,” he says. “So I volunteered. Now I am keen to take this up as a career.”

It is becoming easier now. The mainstream public is becoming increasingly aware of this art form. At close quarters, the duff is an unusual instrument. It has a thickness of 2” and a width of 8”. It is made of goatskin. The skin is dried out and stretched tightly over a wooden base.

“These instruments have been passed down from generation to generation,” says Koya. “We have about 30.” A performer usually holds the instrument in his left hand, and uses the right hand to bang on the surface, to create a deep and rhythmic beat.

Today, Koya’s 40-member Kappad Kala Kendram performs throughout Kerala. In the last three years, they have also performed on the weekends for the government-initiated cultural programme, ‘Utsavam’ aimed at tourists. “We have sung at Kozhikode, Bekal, Mallapuram, Tirur, and Kapad,” says Koya. “The response has been very positive.”

Yes, indeed, listening to a Duff Muttu performance makes an audience feel positive towards the performers, as well as God. The reason is simple: the rhythmic chants and beats are mesmerising.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

God’s Own Cinematographer

Rajeev Ravi made Malayalis proud by winning the Filmfare Award for Best Cinematographer for ‘Dev D’

By Shevlin Sebastian

The reclusive Rajeev Ravi was not present at the start-studded Filmfare awards ceremony held in Mumbai on February 27. Instead, Rajeev was in Kochi. “I did not find it important enough to attend,” he says. It was an unusual decision. He was one among five who were in the running for the best cinematographer award.

In the end, Rajeev won for his work on ‘Dev D’. Actors Purab Kohli and Udita Goswami presented the award to the film’s director Anurag Kashyap, who accepted on Rajeev’s behalf.

Regarding the film, Rajeev says, “The narrative, the characters, and the situations are new to Indian cinema. I was inspired by the vision of Anurag.”

‘Dev D’ is a modern-day version of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel, ‘Devdas’.

The unusual aspect of Rajeev’s work in ‘Dev D’ is that he used very little artificial light. “In fact, more than half the film was filmed in natural light,” he says. “The street shots, the ATM counters that were shown - we shot it with whatever natural light that was available.”

Despite this big win, Rajeev has been on the periphery of Bollywood for the past several years. And it is a deliberate decision on his part. “I don’t do films where there are superstars,” he says. “You are not allowed to implement your creative vision. The director, the stars and the producers all have their say. They don’t care nor do they want to know your ideas.”

So Rajeev has been selective. Being comfortable with Anurag and allowed creative freedom he has worked in most of the director’s films, including his latest, ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’, which is in the post-production stage. The rest include ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Gulaal’.

Some of the other films Rajeev worked on include the critically-acclaimed, ‘Chandni Bar’, ‘Jana’ in Tamil, and several films in Malayalam, including ‘Rasikan’, ‘Shesham’, ‘Chakram’ and Lal Jose’s superhit, ‘Classmates’.

“Rajeev is up-to-date with the latest technology,” says Jose. “He is a sweet person. You need somebody with whom you can get along, because, in the end, a cameraman is a director’s better half.”

Asked to comment on the state of the Malayalam industry, Rajeev says, “One or two superstars are controlling the show. They don’t want to take creative risks any more. They are just trying to stay on top. And at that level, the aim is just money-making -- only a hit counts, nothing else.”

For Rajeev, creative fulfillment is more important than money. And he got interested in a film career when he watched the films of K.G. George, Ritwik Ghatak, and Jean-Luc Godard, while doing his B. Sc. from Maharaja’s College, Kochi.

In 1994, he gained admission to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune. “It was one of the best experiences of my life,” he says. “The FTII has one of the most excellent facilities in Asia.”

And Rajeev has been imparting the knowledge that he has gained. Last week, he conducted a five-day course in cinematography at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata.

His tips for beginners: A cinematographer has to make real the vision of the director. To do this well, he should have a keen imagination. He should also be a good observer of life. Apart from that, he must be a good human being and have loads of self-belief.

Self-belief is what Rajeev has, in plenty. It is this quality that has enabled him to be one of the few Malayalis to win the prestigious Filmfare Award -- India’s version of the Oscars.

Well done, Rajeev!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

A one-man crusade against Lavalin

Activist C.R. Neelankandan’s book on the Lavalin deal has brought the focus back on the controversial deal

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) announced that the SNC Lavalin deal, to modernise three plants of the Kerala State Electricity Board, had caused a loss of Rs 274 crore to the public exchequer. It was signed by signed by then Electricity Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in 1997.

Earlier, in 1996, a 26-member committee, chaired by the late E. Balanandan, had recommended that Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited do the renovation at a cost of Rs 100 crore, but it was overlooked by the state government.

Following the CAG report, social activist C.R. Neelankandan got interested in the case. He studied papers and documents and over the years wrote several articles in various newspapers and magazines and spoke in public meetings denouncing the deal.

Last year, Neelakandan brought out a book in Malayalam called ‘SNC-Lavalin - The Real Picture’. Released by Olive Publishers, it did not make much of an impact. But later, when the English version came out Neelakandan, who is also a member of the CPI (M), took it to Delhi and gave copies to all the members of the Politburo.

“The Politburo had assumed it was a feud between the Pinarayi and [Chief Minister] Achuthanandan factions,” says Neelakandan. “They never believed there was any corruption in the Lavalin deal. My book opened their eyes.”

Most of the members who go to Delhi from Kerala for the Politburo meeting are supporters of Vijayan, says Neelakandan. “They would say, ‘The old fellow (Achuthanandan) is making trouble for the government and the party. The party should stand by Vijayan.”

At Delhi, there were other people who showed interest in the book. Communist Party of India General Secretary A.B. Bardhan spent one and a half hours with Neelakandan to learn the intricacies of the case. The national media began detailing the material in Neelakandan’s book. As a result, things began to get hot for Vijayan back in Kerala.

So, the party retaliated by launching an attack on Neelakandan. There were articles in ‘Deshabhimani’, the party organ, which stated that Neelakandan was using foreign funds to destroy the party.

“They said I was working in partnership with the United Democratic Front,” he says. “Interestingly, till now, they have never said that the official documents, which have been published in the book, and which prove there is corruption, are forged.”

Meanwhile, there was more trouble in store. Neelankandan, who is a deputy general manager of the state-owned undertaking, Keltron was summarily transferred to Hyderabad. He obtained a stay order. But now that has been vacated and he is on long leave without pay.

“I have had to curtail my expenses to a great degree, since I don’t have any income now,” says this father of two college-going daughters. “I am dependent on my wife, poet V.M. Girija who works in All India Radio. But I don’t have any regrets. I am doing this for a good cause.”

So, is he scared about the future? “Not at all,” he says. “The media has been a source of great protection for me.”

The party also needs some protection. “There is a perception among the people that the government is corrupt,” says Neelakandan. “Talk to the local workers and they will confirm this. The message from the top is: ‘You can be corrupt, but the party will support you.’ The party is not built on ideological bricks. It is made whole by the adhesive of corruption, just like any other party.”

And one of the biggest power centres in the party stands accused of ill-gotten gains. In December, 2009, Vijayan appeared before the CBI special court, where he is an accused, and obtained bail. He is the first Politburo member to be prosecuted for corruption.

But Neelakandan says that Vijayan is not an exception. “About ninety percent of the ministers are dishonest,” he says. “So I will have to continue with my crusade.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Giving her all


Ernakulam District Collector M. Beena has a strenuous schedule, which affects her family life, but at the end of the day she feels she could do better

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ernakulam District Collector Dr M. Beena gets up at 6 a.m. every day. Thereafter, it is a mad rush to get her two children ready for school, at Chinmaya Vidyalaya at Vaduthala. Once they leave at 7.15 a.m., she sits down to read the daily newspapers.
“Newspapers give me a good opportunity to gauge public opinion,” she says. “It also helps me keep abreast of what is happening in the world.”

At 8.30 a.m., she begins work. For the next half hour, she clears up all the pending files of the previous day. By 9 a.m., the morning durbar begins. The petitions are usually about problems with the local panchayat, the water authority, or the Cochin Corporation.

“It is not under my jurisdiction, but the people want an endorsement from the Collector,” she says. “They feel that it will help resolve their problems.”

At 11 a.m., after Beena has seen a hundred people, she sets out for the Collectorate, at Kakkannad. There, she spends the day meeting more petitioners and having numerous meetings. Lunch is at 2.30 p.m. At 6.30 p.m., she is back at the camp office, for another round of meetings. This lasts for one and a half hours. Then she goes home.

By this time daughter, Vishnupriya, 8, and son, Vignesh, 6, have had their dinner. She puts them to sleep. On any given day, she barely spends an hour with them. “I feel very guilty about this,” she says.

After dinner, and a chat with her husband, senior police officer P. Vijayan, Beena returns to the office and clears files till about 11.30 p.m. Then it is off to bed.
This is her schedule for six days of the week.

On Sundays, it is ‘public function’ day, and Beena is invariably invited to inaugurate or give a speech. So, she hardly has any time for herself.

“I don’t think I have gone shopping, except during Onam and Vishu,” says Beena. After coming to Kochi, nearly two years ago, she has seen only one film: ‘Pazhassi Raja’.

So, for the District Collector, it has been work, work, and more work.

So, what are her achievements?

“I am proud of the efforts I have taken for the Vallarpadom land acquisition programme,” she says. Beena has also been associated with the Metro Rail project and thanks to her initiative, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam declared Kochi as the first child-friendly city.

Then she started a programme, with social organisations ‘Maithri’ and ‘Childline’ to deal with suicidal tendencies in children. “The Safe-I Hospital project, to ensure that hospitals provide a clean environment for patients, has been a success,” she says.

But Beena feels keenly that she has not been able to reduce traffic congestion. “That had been one of my initial goals,” she says, although traffic is not strictly in her portfolio. “Like most commuters, I waste two hours a day being stuck in traffic.”

But she brightens up when she talks about the upcoming Vytilla mobility hub. “Thanks to this project, long-distance buses will no longer have to enter the city,” she says. “It will reduce traffic jams to a great extent.”

Having said all this, Beena feels she has not done enough. “It is my fault,” she says. “I am not using my time in a more productive manner. I attend a lot of meetings, which are mandatory, but nothing fruitful occurs.”

And because the Collector’s job is high-profile, there are a lot of people who readily point fingers at her. So, does she enjoy the job? “Yes,” she says. “I love the interaction with people. More than the power, for me, the deepest satisfaction comes when I am able to make a difference to people’s lives.”

But as Beena becomes aware of numerous life stories, she is stunned to see so much of suffering. “I don’t know why this happens,” she says. “It seems most of it is God-given. So, why does He inflict so much of pain? This is a question I have asked myself a thousand times.”

5 Rules For Being a Good Collector

Be a team leader.

Be accessible to people.

Be thorough with the laws before taking on the job.

Don’t be put off by negative coverage.

Be aware of the district’s sensitivities and peculiarities

(This column looks at the lives of leading personalities)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

'God is above all religions'


Says Kochi Police Commissioner Manoj Abraham

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, Kochi Police Commissioner Manoj Abraham attended a Christian convention at Thiruvananthapuram. During the course of his preaching, Rev. Sundar Singh said, “God has spoken to me. He says that the person sitting on the extreme right, on the last row, will have a child soon.”

When Manoj, who was sitting on that particular chair, heard this, he knew he was going to become a father.

And indeed, that month, after five long years, his wife, Shyno, became pregnant.

Manoj’s first-born is a son, Johann. In 2008, he had another son, Nihan.

The police commissioner prays to God several times a day. “Prayer is the medium by which you can have an intense relationship with God,” he says. “God is above all religions. In fact, religion limits God to something earthly, but He is far above that.”

Keenly aware of the divine force, Manoj consults God before taking a decision. When Johann had to be admitted to kindergarten for the first time, Manoj short-listed three schools, but then did not know which one to choose finally. He says, “I asked God to give me a hint.”

Shyno, who was on the first floor of their bungalow, suddenly said that she was going downstairs. If she spotted a red rose in the house, they would select a particular school. And, indeed, when Shyno went downstairs, she saw three red roses in a vase.

“Generally, people do not give roses as a gift to a Police Commissioner,” says Manoj, with a smile. “But thanks to those flowers we were able to take the right decision.”

Even in his job, Manoj prays for help. “Suppose a VVIP is coming for a visit,” he says. “I will ask God to help me, so that I am able to solve the problems, and the visit goes off smoothly.” As a police commissioner, the ultimate responsibility of a VVIP’s security lies with him.

A candid Manoj says that he got the job, not because of any great qualities or abilities. “God has given me this post,” he says. “And because it is a big task to look after a city, I always ask Him to be a guide.”

Manoj, sometimes, makes unusual requests to the guide. Every night, before he goes to sleep he asks God to protect the city. “There are 2000 policemen on patrol,” he says. “But that alone will not help. I am not a superhuman. I am doing what any other police officer in this post will do. But when I place my trust in God, I discovered that you get supernatural results.”

Incidentally, on his office table, there is a brass bowl, which is filled with water. On the surface are red and white petals. At the middle, in a cup, filled with oil, there is a small wick, which is burning brightly. “Most people come to see the police only when they have a problem,” he says. “With this small light, I want to convey a ray of hope to them.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Friday, March 05, 2010

From Russia, with mixed feelings


Fr. Paul Chemparathy talks about his missionary experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The Russian people are cold and distant,” says Fr. Paul Chemparathy, who has been living there for the past five years. “A Belgian friend of mine, who had come on a visit, said that people in India and Nepal are poor, but they are smiling all the time. But in Russia the people never smile.”

Fr. Paul told the friend that the Russians had suffered enormously during 70 years of brutal Communist rule. “Millions of men were killed during the second World War and during the collectivisation drive by dictator Joseph Stalin,” he says. Many women could not marry because of this, and as a result fewer children were born. The effects are still being felt.

On a brief vacation in Kerala, Fr. Paul says, “Another problem besetting most families is alcoholism. Vodka is cheap. So, numerous men have become drunkards. Consequently, many marriages have broken up.”

He remembered befriending seven-year-old Paulo, who lived with his divorced mother and grandparents. “Paulo missed his father very much,” says Fr. Paul. “In fact, he treated me like one.”

The family belonged to the Orthodox Christian denomination, but had not gone to church for decades, thanks to the clampdown on religion during the Communist rule. One day Fr. Paul invited them to a function in the Catholic church. They came and had a good time. Thereafter, they began attending Mass regularly and even said their confession during one Christmas.

Later, the grandfather, Petrova, said, “Fr. Paul, before we met you we were living like animals. Now there is a meaning in our lives. Thank you very much.”

In fact, during the years of enforced atheism, there was only one church which functioned in Moscow. “It was used by the French embassy personnel,” says Fr. Paul. “However, the secret police always kept an eye on the people who attended mass.”

But in the privacy of their homes, it was the ‘babushkas’ (elderly Russian women) who kept the faith. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, they were the ones who came to the forefront and brought about a country-wide religious revival. “Now the churches are full,” says Fr. Paul. “But there are not enough priests. And that was why we Jesuits have been invited to serve in Russia.”

During his years of service, Fr. Paul was taken aback by the Russian people’s hatred for Americans. “They were anti-capitalists for a long time,” he says. “This had been taught to them in the schools. They did not realise that capitalism can be a good thing. But Vladimir Putin, the former president, had brought in a healthy dose of capitalism.”

Today, the economy is growing rapidly. And life is getting better. “But it will take time for the wounds to heal, and for Russian society to rebuild itself,” he says.

When asked to describe the vivid difference between Malayalis and Russians, Fr. Paul says, “I am amazed at the deep religiousness shown by Malayalis of all faiths. No wonder Kerala is called God’s Own Country.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

‘God does not exist’ says actor Thilakan


By Shevlin Sebastian

From the time he was a youngster, actor Thilakan had been skeptical about God. “I don’t think He exists,” he says. “Poet Vayalar Rama Varma said that man invented God.”

As a result, Thilakan never visited temples, except when he had to perform in a play. “It is not god which is all-powerful, but our mind,” he says. “My left hip is in bad shape. I find it painful to walk, but I continue to lead a normal life, because of my will power.”

Having extolled the mind, Thilakan also admits that when good acting takes place, there is a sense of mystery in it. “Sometimes, I am amazed when I see myself on screen. I wonder how did I act like that?” he says. “Definitely, a power has come into me.”

He remembers the time when he flew to Chennai with the singer K.J. Yesudas. During the conversation, Thilakan said, “You speak with a Fort Kochi accent, but when you sing, you use Carnatic phrases and religious shlokas in such a beautiful manner. How does this happen?”

Yesudas laughed and said, “When I sing, somebody enters my throat and does something.”

Thilakan says that Yesudas might describe it as a spiritual power. “Most people will say it is God, but I say it is mental power,” he says. “I may be wrong in my conclusions. At the same time, those who say that it is God can also be making a mistake. Who knows the truth?”

He gives an example. “Is your house on the left or the right?” he says. “It depends on where you are standing. At certain spots, your house may be on the left or on the right. The same is the case with God. You can say He exists, but at the same time He might not be there.”

Thilakan might wish He is there, because he is at the centre of a controversy for saying that he was denied a chance to act in the film, ‘Christian Brothers’. It forced AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes) to ask for an explanation.
So, should he pray to God during these stressful times?

Thilakan laughs loudly and says, “Not at all. I am glad the public is hearing some truths about the film industry. When people attack me, I relish the battle. I am not afraid at all.”

He pauses, sips a cup of tea at director Vinayan’s palatial home at Kochi, and says, “The people who are attacking me are all believers in God. In their homes, they have several images of God. In the morning, after their bath they will pray in front of all these Gods. Then they will come to the film set and say, “This Thilakan, he is getting too big for his boots. How can we do a ‘para’ on him?”

The thespian smiles and says, “As an atheist, I feel I am better off than the believers. At least I act and speak according to my conscience.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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