Friday, July 30, 2010

The day the sun stopped shining

Prof. T. J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, and his sister, Stella, a nun describes the day the teacher was brutally attacked by Muslim extremists. He also describes his life as a fugitive moving from place to place because of his fear of being arrested by the police as a criminal

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of July 4, Professor T.J. Joseph, 53, of Newman College, Thodupuzha, accompanied by his sister, Stella, a nun of the St. Joseph of Cluny order, and their 83-year-old mother, Aleykutty, were returning home in a Maruti Wagonr car. They had attended morning mass at the Nirmala Matha church at Muvattupuzha.
About 20 metres from their home, an Omni van came at high speed, and braked in front of their car. Around eight men jumped out carrying long knives and axes.
“Immediately we knew that something was very wrong,” says Sr. Stella. “They rushed towards the car, and tried to open the door. My brother and I held it with all our strength. With an axe they smashed the front windshield, and the windowpanes.”
Joseph was pulled out from one door and Stella from the other. “I was pushed against a wall,” says Stella. “One man held my throat and choked me. I tried to call out, but no sound came from my throat. I could see the bystanders watching silently from a distance.”
Stella then saw the men chop her brother's “hands and legs like as if it was firewood.” Joseph shouted, “Don’t kill me…don’t kill me.” Aleykutty, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease, stood between the men and hit them ineffectually on their backs with her umbrella. She also shouted, “Don’t kill my son...don’t kill my son.”
Meanwhile, Joseph’s right hand was chopped off. One of the assailants flung it into a neighbour's garden. “Their faces looked so cruel,” says Stella, with a shudder.

Abruptly, a bomb was burst, and there was a lot of smoke. “Using it as a cover, all the men got into the car and fled, but I just about had the time to mentally note down the number: AD 7201,” says Stella.
Joseph's son, Mithun, ran out of the house and fell over his father, crying, “Acha, acha.” Joseph, who returned to consciousness at that time, told Mithun, “Collect the hand and take me to the hospital.” He was drenched in blood and it was spattered all over the road.
The hand was collected by a neighbour, Prof. M.C. Joseph, who put the appendage in a plastic packet, filled it with ice cubes and gave it to the police, who later passed it on to Stella.
Meanwhile, a neighbour rushed Joseph and Stella to Nirmala hospital. There, first aid was administered, but the doctors said that the best chance of saving the hand was at the Specialists' Hospital in Kochi, which had one of the top micro-surgery departments in the state.

In the ambulance, there was Stella, a nurse and Joseph. “With my one hand, I was holding up my brother's right hand, to prevent more blood loss, and in the other, I was holding the plastic packet which contained his palm,” says Stella. “Despite the bandages, he was bleeding profusely. I was drenched in blood within a matter of minutes. The miscreants had chopped his arm so many times, the flesh had gone completely.”
Within a mere 35 minutes, the van reached the Specialists’ Hospital, 40 kms away. Joseph was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit, for an operation that lasted sixteen hours. “It was an agonising wait,” says Stella. “I did not know whether he was going to survive. He is my only brother.”
During the time, the doctors asked Stella for fifteen bottles of blood which was provided. In the evening, an astonishing development took place. A group of Muslims, belonging to a group called ‘Solidarity’ donated blood. “We want to save the professor’s life,” they said.
Later Joseph said, “It was an ironical situation. One group of Muslims chopped off my hand, and nearly killed me, while another group was trying to save me.”
Anyway, in the end, Joseph’s hand was stitched back. Dr. R. Jayakumar, the head of the department of plastic, microvascular, and cosmetic surgery, says, “I am confident the hand will function reasonably in a few months time, but Joseph will have to undergo vigorous physiotherapy.”

It is 9.30 p.m. on a Monday. Joseph is sitting propped up, in an air-conditioned room, his arms and legs in plaster. There are dots of perspiration on his chest and forehead. “Because of the strong antibiotics, he is perspiring a lot,” says Stella, as she uses a napkin on him. Joseph’s wife, Salomi, and nephew, Joby, gaze silently. Salomi has a distressed look on her face.
The cause behind the attack

All this terrible trouble for this law-abiding middle-class family came from the slightest of errors. In an internal exam on punctuation in Malayalam at Newman College on March 23, Prof. Joseph named a lunatic, Mohammed.

“It is a common Muslim name,” he says. “The writer of the article from where I took the extract is politician P.T. Kunhumohammed. One of Kerala’s greatest writers is Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. I never imagined that the name Mohammed would be misconstrued to mean the Prophet.”
Unfortunately, some Muslim students took offence, and one of them took the question paper outside and showed it to the fundamentalists. On March 25, there were widespread protests in Thodupuzha. The college apologised for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, and suspended Joseph.
The lecturer’s colleagues and friends advised him to stay away from the college. When it was announced in the Assembly that a criminal case would be registered against him, Joseph decided to go underground. Friends promised that, in the interim, they would file a bail petition in the high court. 
Life on the run
On the morning of Friday, March 26, Prof. T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, went to a friend’s home at Kochi. He stayed there for a while. At 10 a.m., the television channels began airing the news about the public disturbances at Thodupuzha. 
Joseph called a cousin, Antony, and borrowed Rs 2000. At 2 p.m.  Antony dropped Joseph at Vytilla and said, “Whereever you are going, don’t tell me, because in case the police catch me I can truthfully say I don’t know where you have gone.”
Joseph switched off his mobile and got onto a bus that was going to Chertala. After a few minutes he decided he did not want to go there since he did not know anybody. Joseph got down and took a bus to the Town Hall at Kochi. From there went to Aluva and onwards to Chalakudy.
“I was in a daze,” he says. “I had a fear that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.” And he was also starving. He had not had any food that day, just a cup of tea.
From Chalakudy, Joseph set out for Palakkad. It was 8.30 p.m. when he reached there. After a meal at the Indian Coffee House, a waiter directed him to a lodge nearby. He checked in and spent the night there.
The next morning he went to a public telephone booth and called Reena, the wife of a teacher Raphael George. Raphael had promised to fix up a lawyer, who would file the bail application. Reena said her husband had not come home the previous night. Joseph spent the day at the lodge incessantly watching the television.
At 8 p.m., he called Reena again and she replied that the papers were getting ready and it would be filed by Tuesday. Joseph asked about his family and was told that they had gone to Salomi’s parents’ home in Murickassery in Idukki district. “I felt relieved when I heard this,” he says. Meanwhile, Reena asked him not to call again.
Immediately Joseph felt nervous. He wondered whether the police would be able to identify his location from the call he had just made. So he checked out of the hotel and left for Guruvayur at 9 p.m.
“I reached there at midnight,” he says. “I went to several lodges, but all of them wanted me to show an identity card. So I wandered till 3 a.m. and took the first bus to Thrissur.”
From there he returned to Palakkad and back to the same lodge. When he switched on the television, he was taken aback when his photograph was flashed on all the channels. “Now I had to fear the police as well as the fundamentalists,” he says. “And that made me very sad. The police had so casually put my life at risk. It seemed that I was a person with no value. Without a proper investigation, they had already labelled me as an accused.”
Joseph would come to know much later that his brother-in-law Saju and Mithun had been taken into unauthorised custody at Thodupuzha station. There, the police harassed them physically and mentally, in order to find out the whereabouts of the professor.
Meanwhile, Joseph waited for two days at the lodge, constantly watching the TV channels, to hear about the bail plea application, but there was no news. He called Reena, but the mobile was switched off.
It was at this moment that he discovered another irony: he was staying in a Muslim lodge. Most of the waiters had Muslim names.
He called a friend, Michael, in Kattappana and asked him to check whether anything was being done about the bail application. Michael called, but Joseph’s colleagues gave vague replies.
Joseph had a look of sadness on his face as he says, “Nobody had taken the responsibility of filing the bail application, nor had anybody stood up for me. I had been cast aside. People lacked courage. I realised that I had no option but to surrender.”
Michael asked Joseph to come to Kattappana and surrender there. So Joseph went there. However, the Kattappana Circle Inspector said that a lot of paperwork would have to be done, so it was better for Joseph to surrender at Thodupuzha itself.
On April 1, the Thodupuzha Deputy Superintendent of Police, K.G. Simon, was informed. Joseph set out from Kattappana in a taxi. Simultaneously, a police team left from Thodupuzha. Joseph was arrested near Painavu.
After spending a night at the Thodupuzha police station, Joseph was produced in court and remanded to custody. He was taken to the Muvattupuzha sub jail.

In jail for the first time

Joseph was put in a cell with murderers and thieves. They had all heard about his case by reading the newspapers. Normally, when a new person enters a cell, he gets a couple of beatings from the others. “But because I was a teacher they left me alone,” he says. “Since I had come in after the 5 p.m. dinner, they asked me whether I wanted ‘kanji’ (rice gruel) and I said yes.”
Later, a thief shared a part of his meal. The warden was supposed to give some clothes to Joseph, which had been given by his relatives, but he did not bring it, till the next morning.
“Thanks to the insistence of the other inmates, a thief gave me an old 'mundu' to wear,” he says. “It was a nice experience. The convicts behaved well with me. I had entered the jail on April 2, Good Friday, and secured bail only on April 7.”
Immediately on his release, through the media, Joseph apologised to the Muslims, the college management and the people of Kerala.
In the hospital room, Joseph pauses, and says, “When the fundamentalists pounced on me, I knew in my heart that I had not done anything wrong. I knew that they had not attacked me, but had assaulted the liberal ethos which has existed in Kerala for thousands of years.
“The edifice of liberalism is crumbling, unless the people can stand up and take a united stand against fundamentalism. Once Basheer had written a short story called, 'Bhagwad Gita and the Kuremulakalum’ Do you think he will be allowed to write a story like that now?”
It is 10.45 p.m. and Joseph had been speaking non-stop for more than an hour. He looks tired and is gasping for breath. Suddenly, I commit a gaffe. I present him with my visiting card. He stares at me, points with his eyes at his damaged and immobile arms, and gives a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

‘The ways of God are incomprehensible’


Says Lakshmi Ramachandran, the dean of the Global Public School

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Lakshmi Ramachandran, the dean of the Global Public School, gets up in the morning the first thing she says is, 'Thank you, God, for giving me this day.' She adds, “I genuinely believe every day is a present.”

Thereafter, after a bath, she stands in front of an alcove which contains the photos of Guruvayurappan, Lord Krishna, Shiva, Devi and Saraswati and recites a few shlokas, including the Sarasawti Vandana.

Here is a translation from the Sanskrit: "May Goddess Saraswati, who is fair like the jasmine-coloured moon, and whose pure white garland is like frosty dew drops; who is adorned in radiant white attire, on whose beautiful arm rests the veena, and whose throne is a white lotus; who is surrounded and respected by the Gods, protect me. May you fully remove my lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance."

Sometimes, Lakshmi speaks to God. “The minute I connect with Him, I feel an energy come into me,” she says. “It is this energy that lubricates all my relationships. I also feel that my happiness gene comes from God.”

Thereafter, the ever-smiling Lakshmi reads a book of daily thoughts and prayers brought out by the Ramakrishna Math. And one of the phrases she read recently was about how all human beings are connected with one another. “If we look inward, we will be able to see the divine spark within oneself, and the divinity in others,” she says.

To get in touch with this divine power, Lakshmi goes to the Ernakulathappan Shiva Temple often, usually in the evenings. “I am enchanted by the numerous lights,” she says. “There is a special aura of stillness and tranquility.” These visits remind Lakshmi of her childhood and the numerous occasions when her mother would take her to the temple. “She would hold my hand, and teach me how to pray and acknowledge the presence of God,” says Lakshmi.

Unfortunately, her mother, Saraswati, died of ovarian cancer in 1978, when she was only 52. “I asked God why He took her away at such a young age?” she says. “I was consumed by pain.”

Years later, she read a book, “Autobiography of a Yogi' by Paramahansa Yogananda. “He spoke about the different realms that exist, where the souls reside,” says Lakshmi. “After reading it I was convinced that there is a life after death and my mother is alive.”

But death continued to haunt Lakshmi. Her two brothers died prematurely, under different circumstances. “I was traumatised,” she says. “But it did not make me bitter. And that is God's gift to me. There are many things in life which we will never understand. The ways of God are incomprehensible.”

So what is her image of this incomprehensible God when she closes her eyes? “It is a beautiful white light,” she says. “When I see it, I am filled with joy and peace.”

Asked to explain how God plays a role in her life, she tells a story. She had been working as the founder-principal of the Millennium School in Dubai. After a few years, she decided to return to Kochi. So, she put in her resignation papers. “I had no plans to work again,” she says. “My husband was badgering me to be footloose and fancy-free, so that we could travel.”

But it was at this moment that she got a call from the promoters of the Global School, offering her the position of dean. “This was clearly the intervention of God,” says Lakshmi. Incidentally, the Global School, which began, five years ago, with 60 children, now has 1200 students.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An eagle eye


The Ombudsman for Local Self-Government Institutions, M.R. Hariharan Nair, corrects wrong-doings by municipal bodies and panchayats

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 10.30 a.m. on a Thursday, there is a sizeable crowd at the PWD Rest House, near NGO Quarters, Kakkanad. The Ombudsman for Local Self-Government Institutions, M.R. Hariharan Nair, is holding a sitting.

Beeran, a resident of Kalamassery had filed a case stating that a contractor K.K. Biju who had been asked to remove 2,500 cubic metres of earth, near a stretch of land near his house, took away 7,500 cubic metres, in collusion with municipal officers.

The Kalamaserry municipality, represented by Chairperson A.M. Arifa and Secretary Raghuraman argue that Biju took away 3,500, instead of 7,500 cubic metres. Biju admits that excess mud had been removed, but, nevertheless, asks the municipality to pay the Rs 5 lakh due to him.

The adversaries state their arguments in front of Nair, who listens, with an impassive face, asks for certain papers, inspects them, makes jottings in his dairy, and finally states, “I will issue an order in this case.”

The post of Ombudsman was set up in 2000 to monitor the activities of the local bodies. “The functions are four-fold,” says Nair. “On receiving complaints, I have to check whether, ‘inaction’, ‘excessive action’, ‘corruption’ or ‘maladministration’ has taken place.”

He gives an example of maladministration. Last year, owing to political and religious overtones, a certain chapter in a Class 8 social science text book was banned from being taught by two panchayats. “They do not have the power to pass this resolution,” says Nair. “So I intervened. The Ombudsman is the only person who has the power to cancel this decision.”

However, most of the complaints are in regard to inaction by municipal bodies and panchayats.

“A marriage or birth certificate has not been issued,” says Nair. “A person had applied for a building permit six months ago, but it is yet to be granted. A building has been complete, but the number has not been given. The inaction usually happens because the complainant has not paid a bribe.”

For Nair, the job satisfaction comes when he is able to provide justice for the poor. “Hundreds of people in the past few months were able to get houses, to which they were entitled, under the EMS Housing Scheme,” says Nair.

Most of the time, the allotments were diverted to affluent and well-connected persons. So the poor had no option but to file a case. (This is very easy, because all you need to do is to fill an application form that costs only Rs 10).

“When I ensured that justice was done, the beneficiaries shed tears of joy,” says Nair. Also, unlike a High Court Judge who does not follow up once an order is issued, an Ombudsman ensures that his orders are implemented. “Recently I imposed a liability of Rs 1000 on a Municipal Secretary for non-compliance of an order,” he says.

Since Nair is the only Ombudsman for the whole of Kerala, he is constantly travelling from place to place to hold sittings: Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Palakkad, Kochi, Kozhikode and Kannur. Usually, he lists 40 cases a day, but at the recent hearing at Kochi, 47 cases were posted, which meant that he had less than ten minutes to deal with each case.

A lawyer, Pratap Abraham Varghese, who was present at the Kochi sitting, suggested that the government should appoint a few more ombudsmen, so that cases can be resolved quickly. “The burden on one man is too much,” says Pratap.

Meanwhile, Nair says that while many problems can be solved, some are insurmountable, like the disposal of waste. He says that the Thrikakkara panchayat had acquired 40 cents of land several years ago to build a waste treatment plant, but the local people had not even allowed a boundary wall to be constructed.

“Kerala is such a small and densely populated state, that it is impossible to find a suitable location where there are no people around for a safe distance,” he says. “And it does not help that the people have a NIMBY attitude: ‘Not In My Backyard.’”

But Nair is candid enough to admit that the residents who live near the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant are going through hell. “The stink is unbearable,” says Nair. “Can you eat food sitting next to a lavatory? The water is polluted, while diseases are rampant.”

He says that the way forward is for every building to have a waste treatment plant. “This is the only method by which we can solve the crisis of waste disposal,” says Nair, whose three-year term will end on March 16, 2011.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

‘Sathya Sai Baba is an avatar of God’


By Shevlin Sebastian

I meet S. Balasai, a Commander of the Indian Navy, at his friend, Rajasekharan’s office on Willingdon Island. There is a large photo of Sathya Sai Baba on one wall, and it is nearly covered by vibhuti (sacred ash). At the centre of the photograph, there are drops of honey. There is a sweet fragrance in the room.

“All photos of Sathya Sai Baba sprout vibhuti and honey,” says Balasai. “He has a supernatural power. My friend, Shivaprasad’s sister, who lives in Dubai, has a photo of Sai Baba in her living room. The same thing happens there and all over the world.”

In fact, later, a colleague from Thiruvananthapuram, a skeptic in the beginning, but a devotee now confirms that the mysterious phenomena can be seen at his home also.

“Sathya Sai Baba is an avatar of God,” says Balasai. “I cannot prove this to you, just as I cannot show that air exists. I just feel it. He has been my favourite God ever since my parents introduced me to his teachings during my childhood. Sai Baba is all-knowing.”

Balasai gives an example. He took a friend, Rajeev, to Bangalore since he wanted to have a darshan of Sai Baba. But Balasai was not sure whether Sai Baba was at his ashram in Whitefield, near Bangalore or at his base at Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh. When they reached Bangalore, by bus, it was late at night.

“I prayed to Swamiji and asked him where I should go now,” says Balasai. “Suddenly an auto-rickshaw driver came up and, without me speaking a word, said, ‘Sir, come with me, Swamiji is at Whitefield.’”

Balasai was shocked. “The driver took us to the ashram,” he says. “The next day we had the darshan of Swamiji.” They were able to listen to his famous principles:

There is only one religion, the religion of Love.
There is only one language, the language of the Heart.
There is only one caste, the caste of Humanity.
There is only one law, the law of Karma.
There is only one God, He is Omnipresent.

On January 26, 2003, Balasai had the most unforgettable experience of his life. He had a personal meeting with Sai Baba at Puttaparthi. Balasai had gone there with three other friends: a Muslim, a Jain and a Christian. Sai Baba selected the quartet from the thousands of people present.

“We were taken into a small room,” he says. “Sai Baba was seated on a chair, while we sat on the floor in front of him. He created diamond rings and gave it to two of my friends.” Sai Baba then asked Balasai a few details of his life, even as he produced vibhuti.

During the conversation, Balasai had a mystical experience. “I was in a state of bliss,” he says. “I became unaware of my surroundings. I lost consciousness of myself as a person. Whenever I recollect the meeting, the hairs stand up on my arms.”

When Balasai closes his eyes to pray, he sees the feet of Sai Baba. “It is like the pink petals of the lotus. When I see this image I am ready to surrender to him.”

But despite his intense devotion, when bad things happen, Balasai gets very angry with Sai Baba. “I tell him, 'Why you are doing this to me?' Sometimes, I say that I will never talk to him again. But after a while I prostrate myself in front of his image.”

Interestingly, when Balasai looks back, a few weeks after the negative incident, he realises that it was for his good. “There is nothing bad in this universe which has been created by the Supreme God,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Boom in China, lessons for India


A Kerala-born Australian professor, who lectures in China several times a year, compares the rising superpower with India

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the city of Hangzhou, 180 kms from Shanghai, there were four universities comprising engineering, medicine, agriculture, and a graduate course. One day, in 1998, the Chinese government decided to amalgamate all four and construct one big institution: the Zhejiang university. It would have been a difficult task since there were farm lands all round.

“However, all the land in China belongs to the government,” says Kodungallur-born Dr. Kadambot Siddique, who is Chair in Agriculture and the Director of the UWA Institute of Agriculture at the University of Western Australia. He is also a visiting professor at Zhejiang and four other universities in China.

Firstly, the Government built two-storeyed terraced houses for all the displaced farmers. Then they were promised jobs in the university and other institutions. The university was built in less than a year, in an area of 1000 acres, and cost $300 million. Today, there are 42,000 students. It is now one of the leading universities in China, with a growing international reputation.

“That is China for you,” says Siddique. “If the government wants to make a university, a highway or a dam, they will do it. Nobody can resist, but they will always compensate the people.”

On May 4, 1998, the then President Jiang Zemin announced that China will set up a ‘number of top-class universities at the international level’. Thus was born the C9 League. “These are the top nine universities in China,” he says. The government managed to secure the best Chinese talent internationally by offering attractive salaries and world-class facilities.

Apart from education China has built the most modern airports and the best highways in the world. “There are three, four, six, and eight-lane highways,” says Siddique. “And these quality highways are there all over China, including the rural areas. They have a fantastic telecommunication system. The hotels are world class. The capital, Beijing, is such a beautiful city. There are 14 ring roads and a wonderful subway system. They are miles ahead in infrastructure, space, nuclear and bio-technology, and the health sectors.”

Incidentally, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year is $4909 billion.

What helps is that the people are well disciplined, hard-working and punctual. “If they say a programme will start at 10 a.m., it begins on the dot,” says Siddique.

He gives another example. “In China, official dinners start at 6.30 p.m.,” says Siddique. “There will be a ten-course meal, but at exactly 8.30 p.m., the dinner will stop and the people will say goodbye and go home.”

Siddique says that India, with its GDP of $1285 billion, is lagging far behind. “The higher education sector is in poor shape,” he says. “There is no university which has reached the international benchmark of Harvard or Stanford. The curriculum is old and out-dated.

“Everybody is spoon-fed. Overall, the education system does not foster independent thinking, creativity and leadership. If there are 50 students in a class, we should regard them as 50 individuals, and not collectively as a batch.”

What has caused this mediocrity is the non-emphasis on merit in Indian society. “In India, the Vice Chancellor of any university is a political appointment,” says Siddique. “It is time to use talent as the basis for selection.”

Siddique says that in India the priorities are different. “We waste so much time and money on gold, clothes and marriage ceremonies. We don't work as hard as the Chinese. As a result, our productivity is low. We lose so many days due to hartals and bandhs. I have lived 30 years in Australia and not a single day has been lost to a bandh or hartal. The same is the case in Communist China also.”

When Siddique came for a week to Kerala, recently, he lost two days because of hartals. “People abroad have strong political views, but that does not mean that they will close down society for a day,” he says.

He is disappointed by the state of Kerala society. “I observed a lot of environmental problems,” he says. “Everybody is dumping garbage all over the place. The disposal of waste products is not done properly. The municipal services are poor. The roads are in bad shape.”

Siddique is worried about the impact of climate change. “Kerala has such a long coast,” he says. “We could suffer from rising sea levels. But nobody is talking about it. It is time for the people of all political parties to sit together and chalk up urgent strategies and a long-term vision.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A long journey comes to an end


By Shevlin Sebastian

One of Kolkata's oldest Malayalis, Joseph Chiramal, died last week at the age of 101. “He passed away peacefully in his sleep,” says daughter Grace, from Kolkata.

Chiramal was born on January 25, 1909, at Konthuruthy, Kochi. Following his matriculation, where he got the first rank, he went to Kolkata in 1929 to pursue employment opportunities. He was forced to do this because his family was going through financial difficulties.
After doing odd jobs for a couple of years, he joined consumer goods major, Reckitt & Colman. The company produces, among other things, the best-selling anti-septic liquid, Dettol, Cherry Blossom shoe polish, and Harpic toilet cleaner.

Chiramal rose to become the Company Secretary and retired in 1964, after 33 years of service. Then, for the next 46 years, longer than his years of employment, Chiramal drew a pension from the company. “Undoubtedly, he was the only employee to draw a pension for such a long time,” says Grace.

In his last years, Chiramal kept good health, except for a lung infection in 2008, for which he was hospitalised. If the weather was good he would go for Mass regularly at the Christ The King church in Park Circus near his home. On Wednesdays and Saturdays Chiramal would go to the barber shop for a shave. “He would always walk to and fro,” says Grace. “Dad also enjoyed going for long car drives and we would take him as often as we could.”
Chiramal married Rebeka on July 5, 1937, at St Mary's Basilica, Kochi. The couple had eight children: Mathew, Frederick, 19, (who died in 1959), Grace, Lily, Joe, Liz, John, and Julie. They range in age from 50 to 72. In 2003, Rebeka died.
In his last years, Chiramal would spend his time reading newspapers, books and magazines, as well as the large-print books of his grand-daughters. He would also count the weekly cash collection at the church.
“Dad would keep his mind sharp by totalling the dates of the calendar, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally,” says son Joe. Sometimes, he would check his bank passbook and ask questions about some of the figures he could not understand.

Asked why Chiramal had never returned to Kerala, following his retirement, Joe says, “We children lived in Kolkata, so our parents wanted to be near us. My father was involved in a lot of activities: he was a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as well as the Kerala Catholic Social Service Centre. And they had so many friends, so they stayed on.”
But Chiramal did come to Kerala, accompanied by Grace, in December, 2004, to see his only remaining sister, Cecilia, 90, and Rebeka's brother, T.N. Mathew, 94. “Both of them passed away in mid-2005, so the visit was timely,” says Grace.
Chiramal, as expected, found Konthuruthy, his birth-place, completely changed. However, they met an old lady who recognised Chiramal and took him to his home. But it was no longer there. Instead, there were a lot of new buildings and bungalows. “The paddy fields had vanished,” says Grace. “However, Dad’s memories of the place were accurate!”

Asked about the secret of his father's long life, Joe says, “He led a simple and disciplined life. He took meals at regular times, exercised regularly, and was a calm and relaxed person.”

Au revoir, Mr. Chiramal!

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Affordable care for all


P.V. Antony, managing director, heads The Medical Trust Hospital. This landmark at Kochi is a magnet for patients from all strata of society

By Shevlin Sebastian

In March, 2000, a six-year-old girl Lekha (name changed) was caught in a grinding machine in a rice mill at Haripad. Both her arms were ripped off.

She was rushed to the Medical Trust Hospital at Kochi. “Somebody had the good sense to salvage and bring the arms along,” says P.V. Antony, the managing director.

In a 12-hour operation the surgical team was able to re-implant the hands back on. A few days after the operation, Antony was walking past the out-patient room when he came across an astonishing sight.

“I saw Lekha doing a drawing with crayons on a piece of paper,” he says. “Somehow, I experienced a tremendous joy when I saw that scene. It made me realise that the work we are rendering at the hospital is worthwhile. I also understood that when we save a patient, we also bring joy and relief to the family.”

Recently, Lekha completed her Class 10 exams and came to the hospital. “She has turned out to be a beautiful girl,” says Antony, with a smile.

The Medical Trust Hospital, a landmark at Kochi, was founded by the late Dr P.A. Varghese in 1973. Antony, the eldest son, became executive director in 1990.

“My father told me that we should provide treatment to anybody who comes to the hospital, whether rich or poor,” says Antony. “He also insisted that health care should not be a totally business module. There should be compassion for the patients. I have tried to follow both these rules.”

Maybe, that is the reason for the hospital's continued success. Interestingly, most of the patients belong to the poor and the middle class. “When you enter, you don't have to check your purse,” says Antony. The majority of the patients who come for treatment are critically ill, with multiple problems. There are also accident victims, who are not carrying any money with them.

“They tend to be the ordinary person on the street,” says Antony. “We provide discounts to deserving patients, and in the process write off bills to the extent of Rs 50,000 per day.”

The hospital, which has a turnover of Rs 80 crore, has 1500 employees. There are 750 beds, and the occupancy rate is more than 90 percent. The number of outpatients is around 1300 a day.

Antony says the hospital is constantly striving to improve its services. “Recently, we introduced out-patient consultation from 7 to 8 p.m.,” he says. This is for the convenience of people who are working. “We discovered that when the husband and wife are both working, they find it difficult to come in for routine check-ups during the course of the working day. So, this particular time is convenient for them.”

The suggestions to increase efficiency and services come from the 3.30 p.m. meeting that Antony holds every day with different departments. “Management is all about improvement,” he says. “Once you build a hospital, put people there, and then don't bother, it is not going to work.”

Antony, who sees different types of people at his hospital every day, is worried about the direction of society.

“We are living in a deeply materialistic culture,” he says. “People are over-ambitious. They spend more than they earn, and eat too much of junk food. Most people lead sedentary lives and do not do any exercise. This inactivity contributes to illnesses.”

He says people suffer from diabetes, hypertension, heart problems and obesity, apart from infectious disease like diarrhoea, malaria and viral fever.

“The viral fevers are more virulent now,” he says. “The virus has mutated and is resistant to drugs.” Also, Malayalis are travelling a lot more. “So diseases like malaria have been brought in from outside.”

Meanwhile, to keep Medical Trust healthy, the company is on a trajectory of growth. A medical college, a 550-bed corporate hospital, a 650-bed general hospital, and an Ayurveda centre are being built at Irumpanam, on the outskirts of Kochi, on an investment of Rs 750 crore.

“The growth of the city is towards the Kakkanad side,” says Antony. “A person from Kottayam can come directly to our hospital, without coming into the city,” says Antony. The first phase is scheduled to be completed by 2012.

It is a big responsibility. Sometimes when the pressure gets too much, Antony goes to his father’s grave, at Ambikapuram, places a candle, and speaks to him. “I feel very relaxed after this,” he says. “I get the inner strength to carry on.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, July 12, 2010

'If we take God's help, we will never go wrong'


By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1989, when Lakshmi Menon's mother, Meena, was three months pregnant with her, she began suffering from a gynaecological problem. The doctor told Meena she would have to go in for an abortion. “I am the first child of my generation and all the family members started crying,” says Lakshmi. Her uncle, Raghunath, immediately went to the Lord Ganapathi temple at Edapally and offered a lamp: a Kedavilakku.

The peculiarity of this ritual is that if the lamp is placed at 6 p.m., it has to be checked at 6 a.m. the next day. “If the flame remains steady throughout the night, the matter will end in a good way,” says Lakshmi.

The next morning, when Raghunath inquired, the priest confirmed that the flame had remained constant. “There is no need to worry,” said the priest. “Everything will be fine.”

When Meena went to the hospital, a scan was done, and there was nothing wrong. “The day before my mother had so many problems, but suddenly she became all right. It was a miracle,” says Lakshmi. “I came to this world thanks to Lord Ganapathi's blessings.”

So, it is no surprise that Lakshmi's favourite god is Lord Ganapathi. Every morning, when she awakens, she lights a lamp and recites a Sanskrit mantra to the Elephant God.

"Vakratunda Mahakarya,
Suryakoti smamprabaha.
Nirvighnam kurumedeva,
Sarvakaryeshu sarvada."

(May the God of a million radiance give success in life and the fulfillment of all goals and dreams.)

When asked to prove that God exists, Lakshmi, a student of St. Teresa's College, Kochi, says, with a smile, “Isn't my birth the best proof that God exists?”

She says that one of her cousin sisters, Asha, had jaundice, which resulted in a damaged liver. “The doctor said her situation was grave,” says Lakshmi.

One day, Asha's husband, Sajeev, went to a Lord Shiva temple and prayed fervently. “Sajeev told me that he felt Lord Shiva had come down from the inner sanctum and stood next to him,” says Lakshmi. “However, when he opened his eyes, there was nobody there. But Asha recovered and became all right.”

So, does man need God? “God is man's father who can guide him throughout his life,” she says. “If you take guidance from a person it may not be right because he is a human being and prone to mistakes. But if we take God's help, we will never go wrong.”

But like any young person, Lakshmi gets angry with Lord Ganapathi when bad things happen. “I will scold Him and say, 'I will never pray to you.'”

She remembers being very upset when she could not secure admission to the B.Com course in 2007. “I became very sad,” she says. “I felt that my life was ruined. I came home, went to the puja room, and shouted at the Lord. But, looking back, I am glad I did not take the commerce stream, because I like literature a lot. I want to be a writer and a journalist.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

A dazzling journey into outer space

‘Zaia’ is a dance cum acrobatic show performed by the world-famous Cirque Du Soleil troupe. An international audience at Macau was left speechless by the breathtaking skills on display

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few minutes before the show, 'Zaia,' is about to start, a clown, held up by wires, can be seen high up near the ceiling of the large theatre at the Venetian Macau hotel. Then he floats down till he lands on the aisle.

He runs down, reaches the stage, picks up a big tub of popcorn, turns around, and begins sprinkling it all over the audience. The people laugh aloud nervously, taken aback by this sudden act of aggression. Then the clown, who has spiky red hair, oversized trousers and shoes, a cherry red nose and wide ears, jumps on to the hand-rest of a seat, steadies himself, and runs all the way, without losing his balance, to the other end.

He shouts, raises his hands triumphantly, like a modern-day Tarzan, and jumps to the ground. The crowd exhales in surprise and shock, and breaks into sustained applause. ‘How did he do it?’ is the thought in most people’s minds.

Moments after this interlude, a huge globe floats down from the back of the theatre, and lands gently on the stage. This is when 'Zaia' begins.

“Zaia is the story of a young girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut and discover the mysteries of space,” says Flora Tong, public relations executive of the Cirque Du Soleil, the parent company (see box). “In her travels, she is able to look at the Earth with a fresh eye and also falls in love.”

The boy is none other than Romeo. He is enamoured by the innocence of Zaia (a Greek word, which means ‘life’). They meet briefly at the beginning and go out of touch. And throughout the 90-miniute show, he goes in search of her, and meets up with her only at the end.

In her journey, Zaia is accompanied by clowns and Adam and Eve. “They represent eternal love,” says Flora. “It is through Adam and Eve that Zaia understands what love is, which she displays to Romeo when she meets him.”

She also meets up with the Aristos, beings from another era, who represent high society, and a sage: “The Sage is regarded as the wise old man who embodies the different eras of humanity,” says Flora.

Then there are acrobats who balance themselves on poles shaped like weathervanes. “What makes this act special is the fact that the poles are held by boys who are standing on globes,” says Flora. There is also an African shaman, who is joined by others, all dancing, frenziedly, in the suddenly-dark hall, with sticks that has flames of fire at both ends.

The dance and the acrobatics shown by these different characters are simply stunning. They perform the tango and the gypsy dance. They jump through rings of fire, and float all over the huge theatre, held up by wires. There is a high-jumping trampoline skit, as well as a trapeze act, reminiscent of our circus shows in India, but done with better skill and finesse.

Says choreographer Martino Muller: “It is emotional energy that connects the dancers to the acrobats. In turn this energy also connects with the audience, linking human emotions in an inspiring way.”

Says director Gilles Maheau: “The stage is the centre of a hurricane, where dangerous forces confront each other.”

Indeed, he is right about it being a hurricane. The 1800-member audience often goes “Oooh” and “Aaah”. And it is a truly international crowd: Japanese, Australians, Americans, Europeans, Indians, and so many Chinese. (Both Hongkong and mainland China are only 40 minutes away by high-speed catamarans).

The most amazing part is how one act seamlessly moves into another, even though the props are completely different.

However, to create this brilliance, it needs a lot of preparation. “The troupe trains for hours every day, but there are also specific timings for different dancers,” says Gilles.

Incidentally, the 75 dancers come from 22 countries, and they include people from Canada, China, America, Australia, Holland, Russia, and Ukraine. “Auditions were done and the best were selected,” says Gilles.

In Macau, the ‘Zaia’ is performed 380 times a year. Usually, there is a single show at 8 p.m. on weekdays, two shows on the weekend, and during public holidays like the Chinese New Year there are three shows a day.

Flora says that the Cirque is very interested to come to India. “When we held the IIFA (International Indian Film Academy Awards) at the Venetian Macau, in 2009, a lot of Indians came to see our show and loved it,” says Flora. “So India, along with China is one of our focus markets.”

Undoubtedly, the Cirque team is expert at marketing their show. As I approach the entrance, with my ticket, before the start of the performance, a young man, wearing a black and red uniform, persuades me to pose in front of a large painting of Zaia and Romeo, at one side.

A photo is taken, and a token is given. At the end of the event, when I present the ticket, I am given a large photo of myself, and two key-chains which contain the same photo of me standing in front of the Zaia painting.

Back in India, each time I see the keychain, I am reminded of one of my most memorable experiences in recent times.

Magical displays

The Cirque Du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) is an entertainment company based in Montreal, Canada. It was founded in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier. It traveled around Quebec as a performing troupe.

Their turning point came when they performed the Le Grand Tour du Cirque du Soleil , as part of the 450th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of Canada, and became an instant success. It then developed a repertoire by adopting circus styles from all over the world.

Today, the Cirque, with an annual turnover of $800 million and 4000 employees, performs in many cities in the world. It has a permanent base in Las Vegas, where its shows are viewed by 9000 people every night. Some of the names of the shows are ‘Varekai’,. ‘Zumanity’, ‘Love’, and ‘Zaia’.

Last year, when the late singer Michael Jackson wanted to give a special surprise at the birthday of his daughter Paris, then 11, he hired the Cirque to perform in his Neverland mansion. Now, there are plans for the Cirque to bring out a show based on Jackson’s songs.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

War, minus the shooting!

World Cup football as a metaphor for life

Photo: Germans celebrating their country's win over Argentina in the quarter final of the World Cup football tournament in South Africa, 2010

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Uruguay, the last South American side, went out of the World Cup, our hearts were truly broken. It is going to be an all-European final on Sunday. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, and Ghana: by losing they made us bleed. Why do we Indians root for these countries? It is primarily because their football is free-flowing and magical.

When Lionel Messi of Argentina is given the space to move around, his ball control is dazzling. The 'zero angle' goal that Brazilian right-back Maicon scored against North Korea was breathtaking.

There is a joy which one experiences in the face of such wonderful skills, shown especially by the South Americans. Then you remember the tough backgrounds that most of them came from. Argentine forward, Carlos Tevez, like the great Diego Maradona, grew up in a crime-ridden neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. Both surmounted formidable hurdles to make a mark on the international stage.

On the other hand, look at the Europeans. They are born in wealthy countries. They have access to good playgrounds and quality equipment from their childhood. They eat the best food and learn from top-quality coaches. They play in the richest leagues in the world. But, unfortunately, when it comes to mesmerising God-given talent, somehow, it is lacking. Sure, there are exceptions like Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Holland’s Arjen Robben. But, by and large, Europeans have a workmanlike quality. To win, therefore, they have to use other methods.

During the quarter-final between Argentina and Germany, at Cape Town, we saw how the free-flowing creative skill of the South Americans was stymied by clever strategy, indomitable will power, and bloodlust of the Europeans.

Yes, there was an unmistakable bloodlust on the face of the injured former German captain Michael Ballack, who raised his arms to the sky and shouted from the sidelines, when Germany scored the fourth goal against Argentina.

You saw it on the face of the manager Joachim Loew, as well as the dainty Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel who danced with glee in the VIP enclosure, as she viewed the clinical destruction of Argentina.

This match created a moment of introspection. Should we follow the Eastern way, of treating life like a river and going along with the flow, which is what the late spiritual leader Osho had suggested, or should we follow the European method: have aims and goals, plan your strategies, and be ruthless. Kill to win!

This approach allowed the Europeans to pillage the world for the past millennium and it kept our nation in shackles for more than two hundred years. They looted and mauled our country, destroyed home-grown industries, and impoverished the people. More than sixty years after Independence we are still struggling to recover our self-esteem.

A football match is also a metaphor for our daily lives. You are moving in society, showing good skills, but there are people lurking about, at the side, in front, and at the back, who are ready to trip you. You dribble past one, two, and even three oppressors, but it is inevitable that you will get tripped, and fall. But you stand up again, but the attempts at tripping continue. Sometimes, those who do the ‘paara’(Malayalam word, for tripping) are exposed. They are shown the red card, and asked to leave the field.

But the dilemma continues: what does one do when faced with non-stop aggression? Keep calm and work your way around the antagonist? Or kick back at the foe and risk the danger of getting a yellow or a red card?

There are no clear-cut answers because life is messy, just as when a player moves forward with the ball, he faces messy situations. But here is how writer George Orwell analysed the game of football, and, in an indirect way, life: “Sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is War Minus The Shooting!”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A refined approach


E. Nandakumar, executive director, has ensured that the Kochi Refinery is a top-class facility

By Shevlin Sebastian

Here are some facts about the Kochi Refinery: It has a capacity to refine 9.5 million tons of oil a year. This works out to 2 lakh barrels a day. The annual turnover is Rs 26,000 crore. The number of employees is 1950. And the total area is 1200 acres at Ambalamugal.

The man who presides over this is E. Nandakumar, executive director. And he answers with cordiality the one worry that those passing by the refinery have: atmospheric pollution. “Around 2000 tons of fuel is burnt every day,” he says. “The refinery emits 14 times that much into the atmosphere as exhaust. But look at the smokestacks.”

He points through the large glass-paned windows of his first-floor office at the smokestacks. Indeed, there does not seem to be much smoke being emitted. “It is clean,” says Nandakumar. “The company has spent a large sum of money to ensure that the burning of the oil is perfect. It goes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or water.”

However, about 20 per cent are greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. Nandakumar says that energy conservation measures are being implemented continuously for its reduction.

The executive director is a man who cares for the environment. At one corner of the campus, there was a scrap yard. “The scrap had piled up so much over the years that we could not see the neighbouring FACT premsies,” says Nandakumar. One day, he decided to sell off the scrap.

Today, unbelievably, in its place there is a nine-acre Eco Park. All types of trees grow there: eucalyptus, tamarind, coconut and the jackfruit. Plants and flowers are in abundance. The chirping of birds is unmistakable. And saplings have been planted by visitors, like the Collector M. Beena and the chairman of the Post Trust. N. Ramachandran.

“As soon as a person joins our company, he also plants a sapling,” says Nandakumar. “So there is a lot of emotional connection with the park.” And there is an economic benefit also. “We make Rs 8 crore a year selling scrap,” says Nandakumar, who visits the park regularly.

Nandakumar has also set up a rain harvesting system. There was a low-lying area in the refinery which was unused. “The idea came to me that we can store rainwater,” he says. A large lake has been formed. “We have dug 21 wells, so that the water percolates to the earth and the groundwater is replenished,” he says.

The refinery is a remarkable place. There are rows and rows of pipes running along for hundreds of metres. There are storage tanks, the size of football fields, apart from cooling towers, crude distillation units, and effluent treatment plants.

Because the product is oil, there is the ever-present danger of fire. “To offset it, there is a fire station and three layers of checks and balances,” says Nandakumar. “If one employee makes a mistake, there are others who can correct it.”

Since December, 2005, there has been 17.2 million accident-free hours. A frank Nandakumar says, “There have been narrow escapes, but thanks to luck and God, nothing untoward has happened. It is a big achievement.”

However, Nandakumar’s biggest achievement has been to set up a single-point mooring system. Earlier, small ships used to come right up to the city, near Rajendra Maidan, to unload 70,000 tons of crude oil every month at the Cochin Oil Terminal.

“It was a safety hazard,” says Nandakumar. “Secondly, it took a lot of time. Since large ships could not come close, the crude had to be unloaded onto small ships. The costs went up.”

But now, carriers unload the oil directly at a tank farm at Puthuvypeen. There are four tanks which can hold 70,000 tons each. From there, the oil is taken by pipes through Vypeen, Mulavukkad, Bolghatty, on to Rajendra Maidan.

From there, the pipe snakes its way, 22 feet underground, through Hospital Road, MG Road, to Ernakulam Junction railway station, and goes all the way to the refinery, a distance of 19.2 kms.

The project, which cost Rs 756 crore, was commissioned in December, 2007. “We have an annual operating savings of Rs 80 crore,” says Nandakumar. He is at present busy with the Rs 3500 crore modernisation project to meet Euro 111 and IV standards for auto fuels.

Asked on his tips on leadership, Nandakumar says, “I take decisions quickly. A subordinate is looking for that all the time.” He says it is important to put the right man in the right job, have a sense of transparency, and keep the door open. “Anybody who has a problem can meet me,” says Nandakumar.

Thanks to this, he is popular and successful.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, July 05, 2010

'I feel I am part of the cosmos'


By Shevlin Sebastian

On some weekends, Ajmal Abacker, 24, the CEO of the Kochi-based I-Met Academy, a media education institute, goes home to Kozhikode. He remembers a conversation he had with his mother recently. “I asked her, 'Why is Islam the No. 1 religion?'” says Ajmal. His mother replied, “Islam is the only religion through which you can reach heaven.”

Ajmal has a Hindu friend, Reneesh. His mother told him that Hinduism is the only way to achieve salvation. “So, what is the difference between Reneesh and I?” says Ajmal. “If there is a God, and if He is looking at both of us, whom will He choose? Reneesh has not done anything wrong. Neither have I. He is born a Hindu and I am a Muslim. So how can God put Reneesh in hell and me in heaven?”

Ajmal, who studied in madrasas till he finished his Class 10, says that when he asked a maulvi about this, the man replied, “Your family is blessed, and that is why you are born in a Muslim family.” Ajmal could not accept this explanation.

His life changed when he met the spiritual leader Mumtaz Ali, who is based in Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh ( Ali has written a book called 'The Essence of Hinduism'.

Soon, Ajmal became a follower and would travel once a week from Bangalore, where he was doing his BA, to meet Mumtaz. The teacher told Ajmal to meditate and go inward.

Ali also told the youngster to recite the Gayatri Mantra. “A lot of positive energy is released after you say the mantra,” says Ajmal, as he effortlessly chants the sacred hymn.

Like most intelligent young men, Ajmal is on a spiritual search. He was deeply affected after reading 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho and the 'Dhammapada' by Osho. In the Dhammapada, Osho says, “If there is a God, who, then, is the father of this God? If you are looking for an answer, there are no answers.” This created a lot of doubts in Ajmal's mind.

Sometimes, at 9 p.m., Ajmal steps out on the balcony of his 14th floor apartment and stares at the sky. He asks himself a lot of questions: 'Is there a God? Is He the person who is controlling everything? Who created the moon, the stars, the trees and the flowers? Why are so many human beings sad and miserable? Why do some people get the best things in life, while others live in poverty?'

After a while Ajmal closes his eyes and begins meditating. And slowly, after a period of time, he senses an energy flowing through him. “I feel that I am one with the moon and the stars,” he says. “I feel as part of the cosmos. Human beings, animals, and birds, we are all one.”

He pauses, smiles, and says, “Man can transform his life if he believes in his own divinity.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Bringing judgements to the public

George Johnson brings out two journals highlighting the latest Kerala High Court and Supreme Court judgements. He is also a publisher of law books

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day Justice S.S. Satheesachandran called George Johnson, the editor-owner of 'Complete Kerala High Court Cases' and 'Kerala Law Decision'. “He told me that I had not published the correct version of a recent judgement by him,” says Johnson.

Johnson replied that he had downloaded the judgement from the Kerala High Court website. Later, it was discovered that the judge’s stenographer had uploaded the uncorrected version.

“Because of this incident, I always check the online judgement with the printed copy that I get from the High Court,” says Johnson.

Johnson's two journals – a weekly and a fortnightly of 100 pages each -- are avidly read by lawyers, litigants, judges, district magistrates, munsifs, clerks, and members of law firms and legal cells of companies. The magazines publish the latest judgements of the Kerala High Court as well as the Supreme Court.

It is not an easy task. On an average, there are about 40 judgements every week. Some can be 600 pages long, while others are between 100 to 150 pages. “I go through every judgement and decide whether we should publish or not,” he says. "It can be a strain, at times, because I am simultaneously bringing out two journals. But some of the cases are very interesting."

Recently, there was a suit regarding the custody of the child, belonging to divorced parents, during the vacation. “No court had given a definition of a vacation, in the context of custody,” says Johnson. “Justice R. Basant said that if there is a holiday for seven or more days, it can be defined as a vacation.”

But Johnson says the most far-reaching judgement of recent times was the one by Justice V.K. Bali on the Professional Colleges Institutions Act, 2006.

Soon after the LDF government came into power, they made a law regulating the fees structure and admission procedures of self-financing colleges.

“The Act had many provisions which went against the Constitution,” says Johnson. “The legislators probably knew about this. But since they gave a promise to the people, they passed the law.”

Predictably enough, the private college managements filed a suit. Eventually, the Kerala High Court struck down the key provisions. “It created a lot of controversy,” says Johnson. “The LDF said that the judge was taking the side of the management and was against the people. But Judge Bali had made a great judgement.”

It is, indeed, a great judgement, but it takes so much time for cases to get settled, thanks to the huge backlog. “The main reason for this is because a large number of new cases are filed every year,” says Johnson.

In 2000, it was only 18,000. In 2009, it was 70,000. “Sadly, despite this, the number of judges and courts have not increased at all,” says Johnson.

In recent times, what has upset Johnson is the constant attacks on the judiciary by the people, especially when the judgement goes against them. “In the ruling on regulating roadside meetings, CPI(M) leader M.V. Jayarajan attacked the division bench of the Kerala High Court, calling the judges ‘idiots’, even before reading the judgement,” he says.

Meanwhile, when he is not bringing out his journals, Johnson is busy publishing law books.

“So far, my brother, Dominic and I have brought out 60 titles,” he says. They include books like ‘Manual of Electricity Laws in Kerala’, ‘Protection of Women from Domestic Violence’, and ‘Rent Control Laws’.

This is an inheritance. His father, the late M.V. Johnson, was a publisher who started three book shops in Kochi: Law Books Centre, Law Book Shop, and Law Books Avenue. “Advocates need to be up to date, because the laws keep changing,” says Johnson. “So, they have to keep reading all the time. Most of them express their appreciation to me.”

Once, Johnson had gone to meet Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer. He wanted the judge to write a forward for the book, ‘Code of Civil Procedure’. When the justice heard that Johnson was a qualified lawyer, he said, “There is no point in crowding the Bar. What you are doing is far more worthwhile.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lifestyle diseases afflict Malayalis


Dr. Philip Augustine, the managing director of Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, says too many Malayalis suffer from diabetes, heart disease, obesity and alcoholism. According to him, medical tourism is the new growth area

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. Philip Augustine, the managing director of Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, is about to speak to me when he gets a call. A man from Chengannur wants to know whether his friend, an Omani national, could come across to do a liver transplant. “He has to bring along with a donor,” says Augustine. “We cannot provide donors.”

Following the conversation, Augustine says, “Medical tourism is one of the big growth areas for us.” According to a McKinskey report commissioned by the Confederation of Indian Industry, there is a potential business earning of more than $1 billion annually.

“When you compare the costs between India and America we are 90 per cent cheaper,” says Augustine. He gives an example: A lady in Florida did her knee replacement operation in the USA and it cost her $40,000.

“For the second operation on the other knee, she had no insurance money,” says Augustine. By searching the Internet, she located the Lakeshore Hospital. The 10-day package cost her only $4000.

As more foreigners show interest, the Lakeshore Hospital, which has 350 beds, has plans to build a 250 bed hospital, costing Rs 50 crore, in the same campus. “Fifty beds will be set aside for foreign patients,” says Augustine.

Another cause for expansion is that that the hospital, which gets about 700 out-patients daily, is unable to admit around 15 patients because of the lack of beds.

One reason for the large number of patients is because it is a major treatment centre for critical accidents, kidney and liver failure, septicemia and brain haemorrhage. It is also a referral hospital for smaller hospitals and nursing homes.

The hospital’s success, says Augustine, is because they have kept up to date with the latest methods available abroad, including key and pin-hole surgeries. Through key-hole surgery, the appendix, the gall bladder, the kidney and even certain cancers can be removed with the least amount of pain and time.

“There may be a narrowing of the blood vessels in the neck which could lead to a stroke,” he says. “Through pin-hole surgery, you can enlarge the blood vessels by putting a stent.”

Augustine says that the best part of his job is the interaction with patients. Sometimes, there are some amazing moments. He remembers the case of a 40-year-old Malaysian, of Indian origin, called Prem, who came to get his liver replaced. The donor was his wife, Hema.

Despite extensive tests, when the liver transplant was about to be done, it was found that there were some problems with a blood vessel in Hema’s liver. So, if her liver was removed, it would endanger her life. The doctors wondered what to do next.

At this moment, a 25-year-old man was brought to the hospital. He was a victim of a car accident and was declared brain-dead. When tests were done, the youth had the same blood group as Prem, so the transplant could be done easily. But the doctors were in a dilemma: how to ask the mother, Teresa, for an organ donation during this tragic moment?

Then a series of coincidences took place. The authorities came to know that Teresa was a follower of a Christian preacher based in Kolencherry. By luck, the preacher had been a patient in Lakeshore a few months earlier.

The man was contacted. He came to the hospital and was able to persuade Teresa to give permission so that her son’s liver could be taken. “And that was how a Malayali boy from Muvattupuzha saved the life of a Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur,” says Augustine. “I felt good about it.”

Augustine also felt good, when a few months ago he was bestowed with the Padma Shri for his contributions to medicine. Asked for his views on the state of Kerala society, he says, “Too many Malayalis suffer from lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cholesterol problems, heart diseases and obesity. This is because of erratic eating habits and excessive drinking.”

He bemoans the culture of alcoholism that is prevailing in the state. “If you drink, you should enjoy it,” says Augustine. “Instead, people gulp down the liquor and get drunk as fast as they can. It is senseless. There are too many alcoholics in the state and it is having a devastating impact on many families.”

Augustine’s advice to people is simple: Eat and drink in moderation and do exercises regularly. “Health is wealth,” he says.

(Some names have been changed)
(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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