Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Celebrating a magnificent talent

Scriptwriter John Paul’s book on the late actor Bharat Gopi analyses the impact of his work, and the complex nature of the brilliant artiste

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: John Paul

It was six months after Bharat Gopi died -- on January 29, 2008 -- that scriptwriter John Paul felt the urge to write about his friend. “It seemed to me as if the soul of Gopi wanted me to do it,” he says. But when he began to work John Paul felt that he needed to do some research.

“Writing about a person who is alive is very different from chronicling a person’s life after he has died,” says John Paul. “I realised that I was writing for posterity. That meant I had to do a lot of research.”

John Paul had discussions with many people who knew Gopi well, including actors Madhu and Nedumudi Venu. Thereafter he started writing. At his Palarivattom flat, he would get up at 3 a.m. every day and work for four hours.

“What helped was that the book was being serialised in a Malayalam magazine, and hence I had to work hard to meet the deadlines,” he says. Four months later, the book was complete.

Called ‘Adayala Nakshatramayi Gopi’, and published by Green Books recently, the book is a voyage into the mind and soul of an actor. “It is my observations about Gopi, as well as insights from others, like director Adoor Gopalakrishnan,” says John Paul. “It is an inner and outer look of the actor. I try to explain his creativity.”

John Paul says that Gopi immersed himself so deeply into the character that he became that person. In ‘Sandhya Mayangum Neram’, a film by Bharatan, Gopi was playing an eccentric judge.

During the shoot, Bharathan, Gopi and John Paul were staying at the Prem Nazir cottage in Udaya Studio, at Alleppey. Instead of a staircase, there was a ramp.

“While we used the ramp, Gopi climbed over the railing and jumped down,” says John Paul. “Whenever we entered or left the cottage he always did this. Gopi lived his character 24 hours a day.”

Gopi’s theory of acting confirms this: "The character does not go inside me. Instead, I go into the character. If an actor takes the character inside him, what you see is the actor, and not the character."

As a result, Gopi did some remarkable roles and is regarded as one of India’s greatest actors. He won the National Award for Best Actor for his role of Sankarankutty in ‘Kodiyettam’. He also played memorable roles in ‘Yavanika’, ‘Palangal’, ‘Kattathe Kilikoodu’, ‘Panchavadi Palam’, ‘Ormakkayi’, ‘Adaminte Variyellu’ and ‘Chidambaram’.

However, this intensity took a physical toll. Once on the sets of a film of G. Aravindan, Gopi fainted. He was taken to a doctor who examined him and told him that he was suffering from low blood pressure.

The doctor said, “I have seen your films, and you take too much of the pain of the character inside you and that can have a physical toll. The character does not have a body, but you have.” The doctor suggested that Gopi should act without strain, the way Prem Nazir did. Gopi replied, “That is his style. My method is to be intense.”

John Paul says, “This is good for the art as well as the audience, but not for the actor. But Gopi could not do it in any other way.” In fact, this intense physical strain must have contributed to his paralytic stroke which he suffered in 1986, at the peak of his powers.

Gopi was immobilised for a long time. John Paul was a regular visitor. “He was angry that he could no longer play the roles he wanted,” he says. “He was also bitter that so few people from the film industry visited him.”

One reason was that Gopi was a prickly person. He had swift changes of mood, and could be rude and insulting. “So people stayed away,” says John Paul.

When John Paul would tell him about the films he was working on or a book he was reading, Gopi would shed tears. “His passion for acting had remained undimmed,” says John Paul. “He wanted to do more. He acted in a couple of films, but he told me he could not do his best.”

Gopi’s body had let him down. He had involuntary facial movements. And so, he was afraid to watch himself on screen. Despite this, Gopi’s colleagues were in admiration. Mohanlal told John Paul that when they acted together in Sathyan Anthikad’s blockbuster, ‘Rasathanthram’ (2006), the superstar was taken aback by the power in Gopi’s eyes.

“I miss him,” says John Paul. They had met on the sets of the film, ‘Palangal’, at Shoranur, where John Paul was the scriptwriter, and had clicked immediately.

“One evening we went to the bank of the Bharatapuzha and spoke non-stop on numerous subjects till dawn,” says John Paul. “Gopi’s deepest desire was to start an acting school and impart his knowledge to the next generation. But, unfortunately, God willed otherwise.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Taking off into the blue skies


Dr. C. G. Krishnadas Nair, the MD of the Cochin International Airport Limited, is on an expansion drive. Some projects have moved forward with speed, while others await private investors

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. C.G. Krishnadas Nair, the managing director of the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL), has an unusual hobby. At 6.30 a.m., on some days, he rows a boat on the Periyar river, near his home at Nedumbasserry. Sometimes, his wife, Tara, accompanies him. “It is a good form of exercise,” he says.

He also has a stint of meditation. “When I close my eyes, I can visualise the majesty of the Universe, with its billions of galaxies,” says Nair. “I feel humbled. Yet I am also happy that I am part of the divine force that animates the Universe. I can draw upon it. The purpose of the meditation is to destroy the ego.”

Nair reaches the CIAL office at Nedumbasserry by 9 a.m. After replying to e-mails, and reviewing work done by various departments, the day is spent in meetings. So Nair will meet MPs and MLAs, employees with grievances, union leaders, businessmen, airline representatives, officials from state and central government undertakings, as well as the Airports Authority of India Limited.

He returns home at 6.30 p.m., works on ideas for new projects, or writes articles for various professional journals. He calls it a day at 11 p.m.

Nair, who was appointed on May 5, 2008, has a list of achievements to his name. One was the modification of the international terminal. “There were not enough check-in and immigration counters,” says Nair.

On most days, there would be a huge queue in front of the counters. Some people filed complaints with the State Human Rights Commission because they had to wait for more than two hours. Now, 37 counters have been set up. There are separate queues for senior citizens, families, ladies, Indian and foreign passport holders.

“It takes only about 20 to 30 minutes to get through immigration now,” says Nair. However, seasoned international traveller, Joseph Antony, the managing director of Galilee Travels, says, “Yes, the situation has improved, but it can become even better.”

The second major project was the upgradation of the runway. “The ten-year-old runway was in very bad shape,” says Nair. “There were a lot of cracks, because it was built on paddy fields, and pilots were finding it difficult to use it.” The three-month long effort which took place last year, cost Rs 60 crore. Remarkably, this was done without cancelling any flights.

Nair has also set up the CIAL Academy in September, 2009, which offers courses like Aviation Business Management, Airport Operations, and Ramp Handling. There are 60 MBA students, and 90 certificate and diploma holder students.

A nine-hole golf course will be inaugurated on May 2. Buildings cannot be constructed on the land, since it is in the flight path. “So we felt that a golf course would be the best way to utilise the vacant area and generate an income,” says Nair. Despite a fee of Rs 2 lakh, 800 people availed of the Early Bird Scheme to join the club.

Nair is also hoping to establish an Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR) system soon, which will allow for faster and safer landing of the aircraft. “Today, it takes about 12 minutes for the aircraft to land,” says Nair. But that time will be reduced to three minutes once the Rs 50 crore ASR is set up.

However, not everything is moving forward smoothly. The Rs 160 crore hotel and convention centre, as well as a shopping mall, multiplexes, and amusement parks are on hold because of the lack of investors. “I am hoping things will change once the economy picks up steam,” he says.

Nair is also hoping for a change in the mind-set of the unions across all industries in Kerala. “Most of the unions have external leaders, with party affiliations,” he says. “This results in political rivalry and mud slinging, which causes disharmony. If a union has internal leaders, the management is able to develop a working relationship with them.”

Nevertheless, Nair says he has no problems with the CIAL union and that is why he is busy with implementing his vision. His future plans include trying to make the airport an international hub, like Dubai and Singapore, and improve the attractiveness of the airport.

“We need to market the airport to tourists, exporters, airlines, and passengers,” says Nair. For that, he has set up a marketing and public relations department.

Still, Nair -- who has won the Prime Minister’s award for Best CEO among Public Sector Enterprises in 2001 -- has plenty to smile about. The profit for last year was Rs 102 crore, while passenger traffic increased by 15 per cent. “However, in these competitive times, there is no room for complacency,” says this Padma Shri winner of 2001.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, April 19, 2010

The medicine man

Ayurvedic physician E.T. Narayanan Mooss, of the famed Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala in Kerala, has won the Padma Bhushan for his exemplary years of service

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Ayurveda physician E.T. Narayanan Mooss, then 25, received a distress call from a girl, Hema, who was suffering from haemophilia (a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to control blood clotting).

When Mooss reached the home, he saw the stunning sight of blood all over the floor. Apparently, Hema had struck her leg against a glass placed on the floor of the kitchen and developed a cut. The blood did not stop flowing.

Immediately, Mooss prescribed some medicines and managed to stop the flow. Later, he got her admitted to a hospital and after careful treatment, was able to cure her. “This case gave me a lot of self-confidence,” he says.

The years have gone past and Mooss has treated thousands of people. Nevertheless, every morning, Mooss, 76, continues to receive patients in a clinic near his house at Ollur, (8 kms from Thrissur). He listens to them carefully and asks numerous questions about their daily routine and lifestyle, as well as the diseases they suffer from.

“The Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala is the place of last resort for most people,” says Narayanan. “So I have to know the history of the patient before I prescribe anything.”

Incidentally, the most common complaint is rheumatism. “There are 80 types of rheumatic diseases,” says Narayanan. Other complaints include skin diseases, intestinal problems, piles and insomnia.

“Insomnia is brought about by worry and stress and an inability to control the mind,” he says.

Thanks to its high rate of success, the Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala has a sterling reputation. Vayalar Ravi, the Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, was hurt in a car accident on a recent trip to Liberia. He is on a 21-day massage recovery programme at the Vaidyaratnam.

“We have patients from all over the world,” says Narayanan. “At present, there are a few from the Netherlands and England.”

Does the presence of foreign patients imply that Ayurveda is better than allopathy?

“In allopathy, the root of the disease is not removed,” says Narayanan. “Instead, it is suppressed. After some time, when the medicines are stopped, the disease might return. In Ayurveda, the factors causing the disease are removed.”

And, of course, one of the great advantages of Ayurveda is that there are fewer side-effects, as compared to allopathy.

The Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala has been a landmark in Ollur for decades. They run a nursing home, an herbal garden, an ayurveda college, a charitable foundation, a research and development lab, as well as a manufacturing unit.

“We ensure that the highest quality is maintained in the medicines we make,” says Narayanan. “To do that we have people who have been working for us for decades. They have been imparting the knowledge to assistants in order to maintain the purity of the products.”

The medicines include a mix of fermented products (asavas), oil-based herbal extracts (thailams), ghee-based herbal extracts (ghrithams) and gulikas (herbal pills).

The company has more than a thousand retail outlets all over Kerala and in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore.

The family has been Ayurvedic physicians for decades. Narayanan belongs to the third generation. His grandfather, E.T. Narayanan Mooss was conferred the title of ‘Vaidyaratnam’ (a doctor who is a jewel) by Lord Reading, the Viceroy of India, in 1924. Narayanan’s own father Neelakandan Mooss was awarded the Padma Shri in 1992, while he has gone one better and won the Padma Bhushan a few weeks ago.

“Of course I am elated, but I never asked for it,” ” says Narayanan. “Suddenly I was told that I have been honoured.”

Narayanan has had a long and brilliant career. So what are the qualities needed to be an excellent doctor?

“A good physician needs a lot of patience,” says Narayanan. “He should identify the ailments accurately. He should have a deep knowledge of Ayurveda, so that he can prescribe the right medicines. He should be calm of mind, and healthy of body. He should treat patients with respect, and not think of exploiting them.”

The continued success of Narayanan and the Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala proves that he is on the right path.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The rule of the superstars

Director Vinayan, veteran actor Thilakan, as well as others tell about how Mammooty and Mohanlal call the shots in the Malayalam film industry, a power they use unscrupulously

Photo: Mammooty (left) and Mohanlal

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in 2002, director Vinayan was shooting the film ‘Dada Saheb’ with superstar Mammooty at Ottapallam in Kerala. Numerous action sequences were that day and the crew was tired. Nevertheless, Vinayan decided to shoot a scene at 6 p.m. and asked Mammooty to appear on time.

Everything was ready. But despite repeated reminders by the production controller the superstar did not step out of his hotel room. When Mammooty finally arrived at 9 p.m., an irate Vinayan told him it was pack-up time.

Late at night, Mammooty met Vinayan in his room and said, “Why did you behave like this?”

Vinayan said, “I am a director, and a team captain. You have to understand that my crew and I have been working non-stop from morning. You should have informed me that you would be late. That is why even though you are a senior artiste I gave a small punishment.”

The star smiled and said, “That’s too bad.”

Vinayan says, “Mammooty kept the resentment inside him forever.”

Mammooty and Mohanlal have been the reigning superstars of the Malayalam film industry for the past thirty years. And Vinayan has been their outspoken critic.

“The superstars have a Mafia-like grip on the industry,” he says. “Nothing can happen without their approval. They select the directors, actors, music composers, and the technicians of their films and of other projects, also. And this is where they play favourites”

This has resulted in an abiding resentment against the duo. “But nobody is willing to speak out for fear of damaging their careers,” says Vinayan.

A rare exception is veteran actor Thilakan. In January, he said publicly that a superstar, whom he did not identify, had him thrown out of a film. He said the industry is concentrated in the “hands of a few”. Thilakan’s problems deepened because he had dared to act in a Vinayan film, 'Yakshiyum Njanum'

In March, Thilakan received public support from veteran literary critic, Sukumar Azhikode, who lashed out at the superstars. Mohanlal immediately retorted, “He has no idea about the industry.”

This spat caused a controversy in the state, with calls to the government to intervene. But the chances of the Left Democratic Front government doing something, is remote, as Mammooty is the chairman of the CPI(M)-backed Malayalam Communicated Ltd., which owns Kairali TV.

On April 4, Thilakan was expelled from Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) on grounds of indiscipline.

“AMMA is just a mouthpiece of the superstars,” says Thilakan. “Because I acted in a Vinayan film they turned against me. The executive committee is toothless. They just follow the bidding of Mammooty and Mohanlal.”

And they are rewarded for their servility. “If you look at the cast of the majority of Malayalam films, it has been peopled by the members of the executive committee,” says Thilakan. “Others do not get a chance.”

Vinayan says the superstars have not allowed any new talent to come up. Prithviraj, the son of the late actor Sukumaran, who has been in the industry for the past nine years, is yet to become a star, although he has the talent and the good looks.

“When a Prithviraj film is released the members of the fans association of the
superstars will go to the hall and make such a noise that patrons are unable to enjoy the film,” he says. “The film fails at the box office because of these tactics.”

When Prithviraj starred in one of Vinayan’s films, ‘Meerayude Dukhavum Muthuvinte Swapnavum’ in 2003, the director could not get the film magazines to do an article on the young man.

“I told the editors that for 20 years we have been seeing Mammooty and Mohanlal,” he says. “Why don’t you promote a fresh new face?”

One editor replied, “If I publish a feature on this young man, the superstars will ban my reporters from their sets.”

However, in the earlier years, superstars did not suffer from this sort of insecurity and jealousy. “Prem Nazir, who was a superstar for 30 years, promoted Jayan,” says Vinayan.

The director recalls how Mammooty also received help. There was an established actor called Ratheesh. One day, Vinayan was present at a discussion between director Sreekumaran Thampy and Ratheesh about the film, ‘Munnettam’.

In the movie, Ratheesh had been given a big role, while a smaller one had been set aside for Mammooty. But Ratheesh was pressed for time. “So he said, ‘Thampy Sir, I am extremely busy now. However, there is a big new talent in Malayalam films. His name is Mammooty,” says Vinayan. “If you give him the bigger role and let me do the smaller one, I will be able to find the time to act in the film.’”

Vinayan says, “I cannot imagine Mohanlal or Mammooty doing the same thing. They are so insecure that they just don’t want anybody else to come up.”

Vinayan says that a superstar like Mammooty -- who earns Rs 1.5 crore per film -- can easily pay Rs 25 lakhs so that fans can yell at every show of an upcoming actor for a fortnight at 40 main centers and disturb the audience’s concentration.

On the other hand, the superstars have various methods to ensure that their films do well. “Firstly, there will be no commotion inside the hall,” says producer P.A. Harris. “Secondly, the superstars will ask the members of the fans associations to throng the theatres in which their films are being screened for two weeks, to give the impression that the film is a hit.”

Newspapers and magazines help the duo by providing the maximum publicity for their films. “The television channels do the same thing,” says Vinayan. “In the Thilakan case, except for one or two channels, nobody else elaborated on the controversy between the actor and AMMA, because the superstars have warned them that they will not get access to people from the film industry.”

Another captive group is the theatre owners who tend to give hefty advances to producers of Mammooty and Mohanlal starrers, so that they are able to screen them. So, they have no option but to block large segments of time to show the superstar films. As a result, small producers suffer a lot.

O.V. Prasannan, who produced the campus-based movie, ‘SMS’, says that he was allowed one week in cinema halls, because, following that, a superstar’s film was going to be shown. “So although ‘SMS’ did well, it was removed,” he says. “The chances of a non-superstar film becoming a hit are impossible.”

Prasannan adds that for important festivals and holidays, the superstars book the theatres in advance so that only their films are shown. Theatre owners are unable to say no.

They are also browbeaten in other ways. “Mammooty and Mohanlal will insist that the films of those whom they do not like cannot be released,” says Prasannan.

In such a situation, there is only one option left. You have to be in either Mammooty or Mohanlal’s camp to survive. “Both Vinayan and I have spoken out because we cannot tolerate this sort of dictatorship,” says Thilakan.

The veteran actor of more than 500 films says that frequently he would be appalled on the sets when he would hear the superstars tell the cinematographer where the camera has to be placed and give commands to the directors. “This gross misuse of power by the superstars is terrible,” says Thilakan.

In a bid to fight back, Vinayan set up the Malayalam Cine Technicians Association Federation (MACTA) in 2006. However, soon, a crisis cropped up.

Actor Dileep took an advance of Rs 40 lakh from Ullathil Films to act in a film directed by Thulasi Das. But when one of Das’s films flopped, Dileep asked for a change of director. MACTA opposed this, saying there was a legal agreement, and asked Dileep to pay back the money, within three months, which he refused.

MACTA told Dileep that they would take action against him. That was when AMMA came out in support of the actor. Apart from Dileep, Mammooty and Mohanlal are members of AMMA.

“The two superstars and Dileep joined hands,” says Vinayan. “Mammooty and Mohanlal realised that if this problem was not nipped in the bud, the next attack would be launched on them.”

For example, today, a producer might meet Mammooty and give him a Rs 20 lakh advance to get shooting dates for December, 2010. If tomorrow somebody gives him Rs 50 lakhs, Mammooty will push back the dates of the first producer by two years. “Then the producer will have to run behind the superstar to get new dates,” says Vinayan. “That is what is happening now. There is no professional ethics.”

In 2008, over the issue of Dileep, and other points of contention, MACTA split up. Several prominent directors, led by Sidique, have set up the Film Employees Federation of Kerala. “This is one more organisation which follows the bidding of the superstars,” says Vinayan.

Meanwhile, amidst all this infighting, 90 per cent of the films have flopped this year, as compared to Tamil Nadu where there is a plethora of hits, thanks to new stories, actors, and directors.

“The superstars will not allow such films to be made in Kerala, because the heroes will have to be youngsters,” says Thilakan. “Instead, they want movies to be made in which they can act, and it is usually old wine in new bottles.”

So, clearly, new wine in new bottles is the need of the hour, but who is going to unseat the superstars is the moot question. (Incidentally, Mammooty and Mohanlal, through their representatives, declined to be interviewed for this article).

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Top quality education


Dr. G.P.C. Nayar, the chairman of the School of Communication and Management Studies Group, at Kochi, runs one of the best business institutions in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. G.P.C. Nayar, the chairman of the School of Communication and Management Studies (SCMS), gets up at the unearthly hour of 4 a.m. to indulge in his passion for reading. So, he will read international magazines like Time, Newsweek and Forbes, as well as major local newspapers.

“It is through this extensive reading that I get many creative ideas which I use for my institution’s growth,” he says. In between, Nayar will also send replies to e-mails, as well as go for an hour-long morning walk.

At 9 a.m. Nayar sets off to his campus office at Kalamaserry. He has the trappings of success: Nayar moves around in a chauffer-driven S Class Mercedes Benz. At 9.30 a.m., he holds the management committee meeting.

“All decisions concerning our seven institutions are taken during this daily interaction,” says Nayar. Participants include his two sons, Pradeep and Pramod Thevannoor, and daughter-in-laws, Radha and Indu.

Thereafter, he has a series of visitors. “The majority are those who are seeking admission,” says Nayar. Most of them bring recommendation letters from powerful politicians and other influential people.

“Since I have to live in society, I have to agree to a few deserving candidates,” admits Nayar. “However, it is less than 10 per cent.” (Incidentally, the SCMS, which is regarded as one of the best business schools in Kerala, is also one among a few private institutions that do not take capitation fees).

Apart from people seeking recommendations, Nayar meets professors and lecturers who have come from abroad. The SCMS has tie-ups with universities in Australia, Switzerland, South Korea, England, and America. Foreign faculty, who come for a long duration, end up teaching the full course. “Thus, the students get global exposure and are benefited,” says Nayar.

At 5 p.m., Nayar returns home. A 45 minute swim in his backyard pool, followed by two pegs of whisky, and the stress is out of the system. Nayar again reads national newspapers like the Times of India, before he calls it a day at 9 p.m.

His life seems uneventful, but there has been plenty of drama in it. Nayar remembers the time when he decided to start an engineering college in 2000. He sent an application to the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). After an interval, the AICTE replied asking Nayar to show, within five days, the proof that he had the minimum 25 acres that is needed to start a college.

Nayar had identified the land, near Karukutty, but did not have the Rs 3 crore needed to buy it. He rushed to his long-time bankers, the State Bank of India and, with his potent persuasive skills, he convinced them to lend him the money within one day.

With Pradeep, he went to Karukutty, bought the land, got the documents, and left the same evening to Bangalore where the AICTE official was waiting. However, there were many more ups and downs, and Nayar had to make more than 50 trips to New Delhi, before the approval was finally granted.

“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “Before we started the engineering college, we had an asset base of Rs 20 crore. But now that has gone up to Rs 786 crore.”

Asked how SCMS has stayed ahead of the rest, Nayar says, “I have always insisted on quality from the very beginning. So we have very good courses, an efficient delivery system, and top class mentors. I get good people by paying very high salaries. We also maintain absolute discipline on the campus. Without discipline, you cannot have quality education.”

So what does this doyen have to say about the state of education in Kochi?

“Ten years ago, there were only two professional institutes: the Cochin University's School of Engineering and the Model Engineering College at Thrikakara,” he says. “Today, there are more than 60 institutes and they include medical and engineering colleges, management and nursing institutes. This is a very good sign.”

The signs are good, but the state has a discouraging culture. “Kerala is the most hostile place for an entrepreneur,” says Nayar. “Both the UDF and the LDF governments have always been against self-financing professional institutions. I feel frustrated.”

To continue to grow, Nayar has shifted his focus to Bangalore, where he is planning to establish a couple of management institutes. Future plans include setting up a university.

“The Karnataka government will enact laws so that universities can be begun by private organisations,” says Nayar. Wipro already has a university, while Nayar has identified 140 acres, 35 kms away from Bangalore, to start his own university. So Karnataka’s gain is Kerala’s loss.

“The Kerala government has been against its own people for decades,” says Nayar.

(This column traces the daily life of leading personalities in Kerala)
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

“For me, the Dalai Lama is God”


Says Tibetan Buddhist Thupten Yamphel

By Shevlin Sebastian

On December 26, 1992, 13-year-old Thupten Yamphel, along with his parents, and a couple of other Tibetan families traveled from Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram to meet the Dalai Lama, who was on a two-day visit to Kerala. They stood in a line, as the Dalai Lama walked about shaking hands and greeting people.

Soon, the Dalai Lama stopped in front of Thupten, and asked him about his studies. The boy replied that he was a pupil of Breeks Memorial School in Ooty. A curious Dalai Lama asked whether any Tibetans lived in Ooty. “Very few,” replied Thupten.

The youngster was wearing an earring, and the Dalai Lama enquired about it. “I told Him that all my friends wore one and that was why I did so,” says Thupten. “He gave me a bright smile.”

The moment the Dalai Lama moved away, tears sprang from Thupten’s eyes. Soon, he had goose-bumps. “I realised there is a divine force in Him,” says Thupten. “That is why millions of Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama as God. We believe he is a reincarnation of Lord Buddha.”

Since Thupten studied in Tibetan schools only till Class five, he did not have a deep knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. “Since I was enrolled in a Christian institution, and used to go to church, I was confused about who God is,” says Thupten. “But that brief meeting with the Dalai Lama was a turning point in my life. I began to regard Him as God.”

Every morning, at his home in Kochi, which Thupten, 31, shares with his wife and one-year-old son, he stands in front of a photo of the Dalai Lama, and prays.

“I ask Him to give me the strength to face all the problems during the day, and to keep us free from worries and diseases,” says Thupten.

So, does he find it difficult to regard a human being as God? “Not at all,” says Thupten. “Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Lord Buddha, and Lord Mahavira were all human beings, even though they are regarded as divine. The only difference for us Tibetan Buddhists is our God is alive now.”

Sometimes, Thupten, a B.Com graduate from Sacred Heart College, Thevara, takes time off from his daily job of selling clothes at the Mullassery Canal Road area, and goes to the Sera Monastery at Bylakuppe village, 85 kms from Mysore.

The monastery has three main temples, and the central statue of Lord Buddha has a height of 60 ft.

“It looks like a palace,” he says. “I feel a sense of peace when I watch all the monks praying. It is only there that I feel that I am part of a community.”

Asked whether man needs God, Thupten says, “Unless you have the fear that somebody is watching you, you might end up doing many bad things. If I am planning to do something wrong, I will think of the Dalai Lama and restrain myself. Man needs God to guide him. Otherwise, he will go astray.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The danger zone


Several mobile towers placed on the terrace of a building at Kochi has become a health hazard, say neighbouring residents

By Shevlin Sebastian

Britisher David Smith, 49, the CEO of an IT firm, has been regularly falling ill for the past five months. “I have a disturbed sleep and suffer often from headaches,” he says. “My immune system seems to have been affected.”

A.P. Chandran, a chartered accountant has been experiencing a physical discomfort for several months. “My body is getting heated up,” he says. “I feel unwell.”

Journalist Reena Mathen says that the apartments in their building have become very hot. “Earlier, it was very cool since there was ample air circulation.” She says her television frequently displays flickering images.

For all of them the problems began when several mobile towers were put up on the terrace of a building in front of their ten-stored building.

“Since the terrace is lower than the surrounding buildings, it is a health hazard, because of the radiation emitted by the towers,” says a councillor of the Cochin Corporation. “Hence, it is dangerous for the people staying nearby.”

In a paper, titled, ‘Health Effects from Cell Phone Tower Radiation’, American researcher Karen J. Rogers writes, ‘Studies have shown that radiation can cause brain tumors, cancer, depression, miscarriage and Alzheimer's disease, apart from damage to cell tissue and DNA.’

Dr. Joe Thomas, who lives in the same building as Reena, is worried about the effect on his children. “These radio waves have a strong impact on organ development,” he says. “A particular study said that radiation damages the reproductive organs of girl children.”

Recently, over 100 physicians and scientists at the Harvard and Boston University Schools of Public Health have said that cellular towers are a radiation hazard.

However, Rajan Nair, the owner of the building, where the towers are placed, disagrees. “Till now there is no documentary proof of radiation,” he says. “In fact, the handset has more radiation than a mobile tower.”

A mobile company official, R.K. Suman says that in 2007, a division Bench of the Kerala High Court has stated that there was no proof of any health hazard.

Cochin Corporation Mayor Mercy Williams also feels that there is no evidence to suggest that the radiation is harmful.

However, sensing the rising disquiet in India, the Centre has announced that new regulations will come into force, which will make it mandatory for telecom companies to seek the approval of resident associations before installing a base station in a residential area.

In September, 2009, the Maharashtra Human Rights Commission stated that mobile towers should not be placed near hospitals, schools, and residential buildings because of the risk to people.

Dr. Joe says the one way to minimise the risk is to place the towers at a height of 40 to 50m, above the highest point of the neighbouring building, as it is done in foreign countries.

Also, the minimum distance between the towers and the nearby buildings should be 100m, and not 10 metres, as is the case with their building and the one where the towers are placed.

Meanwhile, the distressed residents have lodged complaints with the Mayor, the deputy Mayor, the Town Planning section, the Pollution Control Board, the Corporation health department, the district medical office, and the high court.

As the rickety wheels of the bureaucracy grind along, the path ahead is long and arduous, but the residents are not giving up hope.

“We are fighting to safeguard the health of our families,” says Reena.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Steering calmly through a turbulent sea


The Cochin Port Trust Chairman, N. Ramachandran has his hands full dealing with irate people and huge mega projects

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 9 a.m., N. Ramachandran, the chairman of the Cochin Port Trust, arrives at his sixth floor office at Willingdon Island and begins a series of meetings. His visitors include shippers and businessmen.

Owing to the many difficult decisions he has taken on roads, bridges, and land acquisition, because of mega projects like the International Container Transhipment Terminal at Vallarpadom, and the LNG Gas Terminal, it has affected many people in the island towns of Mulavukad, Puthu Vypeen, and Vypeen.

So, MLAs and MPs, gram panchayat delegations, as well as local politicians will come to meet him. All of them have various grievances to resolve. Sometimes, tempers get frayed, but Ramachandran remains calm. “I try to solve the problems in an amicable manner,” he says.

Recently, owing to security reasons, fishermen were no longer allowed to ply in the waters, within 300m of the transshipment terminal, and were shooed away by the members of the Central Industrial Security Force. “Understandably, they are upset about it,” says Ramachandran.

Apart from pacifying public ire, there are review meetings of the various projects that are going on, while staff members meet him to complain about job-related problems. “I am accessible to all the employees, from the lowest to the highest,” says Ramachandran.

He works till 8 p.m., then goes home, to a bungalow nearby, and continues working for another hour. Ramachandran stays with his wife, Girija, a mathematics teacher at the Kendriya Vidyalaya, while their children, son, Unni, 29, and daughter, Lakshmi, 26, work as lawyers in Delhi and Chennai respectively. Following dinner, Ramachandran watches TV or reads a book. His latest is Amartya Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’.

“Reading is a form of relaxation for me,” he says. “When you are focused, your mind does not stray and become prone to stress. Reading also refreshes the mind and body.”

Ramachandran is less than seven months away from the end of an eventful five-year term. And he is happy that one of his biggest achievements has been the removal of organized extortion rackets at the port.

“When I was appointed as chairman, I saw trucks being stopped regularly by a union leader, accompanied by musclemen,” he says. “They were collecting ‘kettukoolli’.” In earlier times, trucks used to be covered with tarpaulin by workers. They were paid Rs 100 per truck and this was known as ‘kettukoolli’.

With the advent of containers that job became redundant. So, as compensation, a few union workers decided to charge Rs 100 from every truck. In a year they would collect Rs 3 crore.

Then the workers levied a charge of Rs 1500 on every truck that came to Willingdon Island. “Annually, about 8 lakh trucks come to the island,” says Ramachandran. “So, we are talking about Rs 120 crore. Then for every cargo, there was a charge per ton. It was a huge extortion racket that was taking place.”

With the support of the police, the district administration, the state government, and co-operative employees, the menace was ended in two years. “There was powerful opposition,” admits Ramachandran. “I received threats by phone and letter, but I ignored them.”

To modernize the operations of the port, Ramachandran, with the help of the Tata Consultancy Services, and his officers and staff, set up the Rs 13 crore Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) programme.

“All operations, including the handling of the marine and cargo traffic, finance, procurements and sanctions are done through the ERP system,” he says. “For any action, there is a fixed method.”

For example if a ship has to come to the port, unless e-payment is made, the programme will not give permission for the vessel to pass through.

“Corruption and discretionary powers can be eliminated by having a transparent system,” says Ramachandran. “The ERP improves efficiency and accountability.”

The chairman has also installed the Vessel Traffic Management System. “The VTMS does an electronic scanning for a distance of 50 nautical miles,” he says. He points to a computer screen beside his desk and says, “Whenever a ship moves, I can see it here.”

He zooms closer with his mouse and reads out the name of a ship from Dubai. “This is for the safety of navigation, but there is also a security aspect,” he says.

At his office, Ramachandran is a beehive of activity. In between answering questions, he holds a board meeting, meets visitors, answers calls on his mobile and land line, and has a short interaction with his personal assistant. It is clear that he is enjoying the responsibility of meeting tough deadlines for mega projects.

Ramachandran says his biggest achievement will be when the Rs 2118 crore project at Vallarpadam starts functioning in June. “I will leave with a deep sense of satisfaction,” he says.

(This column traces the daily life of leading personalities)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The changing of the guard

Singer Elizabeth Raju has made a remarkable debut with the film, ‘Bodyguard’

By Shevlin Sebastian

When you watch the song ‘Pular Manju’ in the film ‘Bodyguard’, the scene focuses on a lush green meadow and the flirtatious interplay between actors Dileep and Nayantara. But it does not take long before the song makes its impact: a duet sung by Karthik and Elizabeth Raju, with melodious music by Ousepachan.

It is a remarkable debut for Elizabeth. Ousepachan initially had not planned to give the main song, ‘Pular Manju’ to Elizabeth, but he liked her performance so much in another song, ‘Arikathayaro’, a duet with the Dubai-based singer Yasir, that he selected her. Both songs have soared up the popularity charts, getting lots of play in radio and music channels.

Elizabeth’s voice is clear, sweet, and soaring. Sometimes, especially in ‘Arikathayaro’, you feel you are on a roller coaster, listening to Elizabeth, going up and up, when she raises the pitch, and then you get the chance to get your breath back when she returns to a lower register.

“Elizabeth is a very talented singer,” says Ousepachan. “She sings with a lot of feeling. She knows how to improvise. She takes the song to her heart when she performs.”

So, did Elizabeth have an inkling that the songs in the film would do so well? She nods, and says, “The lyrics and the music were very good. People said my voice suited Nayantara.” It helped that the picturisation of the song was done so wonderfully, and the film did reasonably well at the box office. So, Elizabeth has impressed on her debut.

In fact, she has been impressing people right from her childhood. At the age of four, when she sang a hymn, her father, Michael Raju, a retired general manager of the Kerala State Warehousing Corporation, was so amazed he took her to the Kala Bhavan cultural academy.

They asked him to bring Elizabeth when she was older, but were taken aback when she started singing and gave her admission immediately. Elizabeth began learning Carnatic vocals. At the age of eleven, she sang for a Christian devotional album. This carried on, as she moved on to new teachers, including the late Principal Lalita Varma of the Tripunithara RLV College of Music. Later, Elizabeth went on to do her MA in music from the same college.

Today, she has sung more than 1500 devotional songs, taken part in numerous stage performances and won awards galore. In her home at Pullepady, on several glass shelves, there are row after row of trophies that she has won in her career. And it seems that Elizabeth has a bright future in playback singing, but she is not sure.

“It is very difficult to get a break, because there are so many talented singers, and fewer opportunities,” she says. It is only when somebody strongly recommends a singer that the music director will take the time out to hold a trial.

Ousepachan agrees. “There are a lot of talented singers today, and selection has become difficult,” he says.

So, it is an uncertain profession, but Elizabeth is keeping herself busy as a teacher of music at Sacred Heart School, Thevara. “I teach students of Class eight and nine,” she says. And times, indeed, have changed.

She says that out of a class of 45, there are about 20 good singers. “Among them, ten are excellent,” says Elizabeth. “This is because parents are ensuring that they are getting professional training. They feel there are a lot of opportunities for singers these days.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, who has recently married an IT professional, Revin George, says she will continue with her teaching, her Christian devotional songs, her concert performances, and hope that another break, like ‘Bodyguard’, will come her way one day.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

“God always wants the best for you,” says Bishop Bosco Puthur


By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5.15 p.m. on May 13, 1981, Fr. Bosco Puthur was in the square outside the St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican. “I was just 10 metres away from Pope John Paul 11,” he says. As the Pope shook hands and blessed people, there was the sound of shots. “Immediately, the doves in the nearby buildings began flying helter-skelter and I wondered what had happened,” says Puthur.

Then Puthur saw the Pope put his hand over his heart and fall down slowly. Instantly, the Pope’s secretary, Fr. StanisÅ‚aw Dziwisz, placed the Pope on the seat of the Popemobile. The vehicle sped to the back of the Basilica where the Pope was shifted to an ambulance which took him to the Agostino Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome.

Meanwhile, the people in the square looked dazed, even as the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was apprehended by bystanders. Suddenly, a woman standing nearby, took out her rosary from her pocket, raised it high, and said, “This is our weapon. Let us start praying for the Pope.” A crowd of 20,000 began praying.

“Even as we were doing so, I was doubtful that the Pope would survive,” says Puthur. “But, later, I realised it was God’s intervention that saved the Pope’s life. It was indisputable proof to me that He exists.”

Every morning, Fr. Puthur, the newly-appointed Curia Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church goes to the chapel at the St. Thomas Mount at Kakkanad, Kochi, where he stays. “I pray to find out the will of God,” he says. “Any decision I make, I am trying to find out whether it is pleasing to Him or not.”

Puthur also takes part in daily common prayers with the other priests, which includes the mass, as well as the reciting of the Rosary. Ever since he witnessed the attack on the Pope, he always carries a Rosary in his pocket.

Despite his deep belief, Puthur admits that when bad things happen, he gets angry with God. “My reaction is like a son who, sometimes, gets irritated with his parents,” he says. “So, I say, ‘God, why did You do this to me?’ Sometimes he keeps silent. On other occasions, He tells me that it is for my good, and that I will understand everything later.”

Puthur then recalls a story about Justice Cyriac Joseph. The latter was going to attend a meeting in Mexico. However, because the connecting flight from Singapore to Los Angeles was delayed, Cyriac could not get the connecting flight to Mexico City.

A day later, Cyriac explained to the woman at the ticket counter why he had missed the earlier flight. The lady heard him out calmly and then gave Cyriac the stunning news that the particular flight had crashed, and everybody on board had died.

So, what is Puthur’s concept of this caring God? “He is father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter,” says Puthur. “Every religion, whether explicitly or otherwise, declares that God has both male and female attributes. I believe in that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)