Monday, August 30, 2010

‘Divine energy is always accessible to us’


Dancer Lakshmi Gopalaswamy says that worries and negativity prevent one from getting close to God

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, dancer Lakshmi Gopalaswamy wanted to buy a Palio car. For that she needed to take a loan. “I was not sure I could pay the monthly installments,” she says. She was a freelance artiste and did not have a fixed, monthly income. Her father offered to help her, but she was apprehensive about this idea of a loan. So, she went and prayed at the Lakshmi temple at Jayanagar in Bangalore. “I said, ‘Goddess, please help me out,’” she says.

A few days later, she received an offer to act as Goddess Lakshmi in a long-running mythological serial on Eenadu TV. “I began to get a regular income and was able to pay off the loan effortlessly,” she says. “That is why Goddess Lakshmi is one of my favourites.”

In fact, the temple at Jayanagar is also a favourite. “Lakshmi looks so beautiful and strong,” she says. “It is a big idol made of black stone. But I don’t actually pray. I just soak in the ambience and the positive vibrations that emanate all around the temple.” Incidentally, because the dancer was born on a Friday, an auspicious day for the goddess, she was named after her.

When Lakshmi comes to Kerala she occasionally goes to the Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram. Some years ago, when she came to take part in her first Soorya Festival, it was raining heavily on the day of the programme. “I just prayed to Padmanabhaswamy that the concert should go off well,” she says. At 4.30 p.m. the rain stopped. Lakshmi’s recital took place at this time, in front of a huge audience, and it was a success. Following her event, the rains began again.

Before a dance recital, Lakshmi says shlokas in praise of her gurus, Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesha.

Here is the shloka to Ganesha:

Shuklaambara Dharam Vishnum,
Shashi Varnam Chatur Bhujam,
Prasanna Vadanam Dhyaayet,
Sarva Vighna Upashaanthaye

(We meditate on Lord Ganesha, who is clad in white, who is all pervading, whose complexion is gray like that of ash, who has four arms, who has a bright countenance, and who can destroy all obstacles).

“A prayer gives you focus,” she says. “It also humbles you. I am appealing for blessings. I also ask for the necessary stamina and a good audience response.”

Lakshmi tries to get in touch with God as often as she can. “Divine energy is accessible to us during every minute of our life,” she says. “But the problem is that we have a lot of worries and negativity. This acts as a block.”

However, when she is dancing, there are no blocks. “You have to be in a state of readiness,” she says. “I get so many beautiful ideas, and implement them. I am, sometimes, surprised by what I am doing. I know I am in touch with God.”

She says that if you worship life, you are revering God. “And that includes nature in all its variety,” says Lakshmi. “When I also look at beautiful architecture or temples, or hear music, and see a dance performance, I experience the presence of God.”

When bad events happen, Lakshmi reacts calmly. “I don’t question it,” she says. “I surrender to the highly intricate and complex intelligence that animates the universe. I am just a minuscule part of it. I don’t think a bad event harms me. When I look back, I discover that it was always for my good.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bridging the racial divide at Mother Teresa’s Home

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 4 p.m., on November 9, 1991, I am present with a group of South Africans at the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity on AJC Bose Road in Kolkata. They are the senior officials of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA).

After a few minutes of waiting, Mother Teresa, 81, suddenly walks in. The South Africans, as well as I, who are sitting on benches, instinctively stand up. She is a short, stooping figure, in her familiar white and blue striped saree, with a wonderful and innocent smile on her face. “Thank you very much for coming,” she says. “If I remember right a group of South Africans had come here this morning.”

Geoff Dakin, the president of the UBSCA, says, “Yes, Mother. They are the cricketers.” (South Africa, after being banned from international cricket for twenty years for its anti-apartheid policy, is going to play its first-ever one day international against India at the Eden Gardens the next day).

Dakin pauses and says, “We have come to give you a donation.”

Mother Teresa says, “Thank you very much for your concern for the poor.”

The venerable nun speaks so softly that all the visitors, including the 6’ 2” Dakin have to bend to hear her. And then the magic and power of her personality hits me. Ambition, pride, greed, lust, anger and rage – all this is swept away, and in its place I experience a tranquil feeling. It is clear that I am in the presence of somebody holy, with a powerful sense of integrity.

Dakin gives her a paper bundle.

“My, what a big packet you have given me,” she says.

“There is one hundred thousand rupees there,” says Krish Mackerdhuj, the vice-president of the UCBSA.

“A hundred thousand,” exclaims Mother. “Thank you very much. We need the money. We can open a children’s home at Cape Town.”

Before the meeting, Mackherdhuj had told me that the UCBSA had not initially planned to give a contribution. “But when we saw the work she is doing, we felt compelled to help in some way,” he says.

Meanwhile, Gerald Debock, a white, asks Carl Bongi, a black, “Where do you live?” Both are journalists belonging to the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Carl says, “I live in Soweto, but I am planning to move out. There is too much of violence there.”

“Oh, okay,” says Gerald. It is quite remarkable that these two people, working in the same organisation, are only just getting to know each other.

Suddenly Gerald says, “Hey Carl, do you want to take a baby tiger back home?”

“Where can you get them?” asks Carl.

"At any street corner of Calcutta,” says Gerald. “It’s not very expensive.”

It takes a few seconds before realisation sinks in.

“Hey man,” Carl says, with a smile. “You are pulling my leg.”

Is this the impact of Mother Teresa? Two men, both in their thirties, thousands of kilometres away from home, seem to be taking the first steps to bridge the racial divide that had scarred South Africa for generations. In the process they unknowingly affirm Mother Teresa’s lifelong philosophy: love always triumphs in the end.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The long and winding road

After a successful career as an Army brigadier and as the managing trustee of the Museum of Kerala History, Brigadier R.B. Nayar, 91, looks back on his life and the difficulties of tackling old age

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6 a.m., on February 14, 2010, Maheshwari Nayar, 90, who had been unwell for a few days, asked for a glass of water from the maid. Her husband, retired Brigadier R.B. Nayar, 91, was in the bathroom. When he returned, she had passed away. “It was a terrible feeling,” says Nayar. They had been married for 65 years. So, for Nayar, it was a body blow. “We were so close to each other,” he says. “Now I feel very lonely at home.”

His flat at Panampilly Nagar is tastefully decorated. There are numerous paintings done by the brigadier himself. There are bookcases containing encyclopaedias and books on philosophy. 'The Autobiography of a Yogi' by Paramahansa Yogananda is lying on a coffee table.

Asked about his attitude towards death, Nayar says, “It is inevitable, whether you like it or not. And you don't know when you are going to die. After my wife’s death, I have been thinking about it more often.” He pauses and adds, “It is only when you are old that you find it difficult to overcome these morbid and depressing thoughts.”

People of his generation, especially those who are living in straitened circumstances are going through a difficult time. “Most of the elderly people know that they are not wanted by their children or society,” he says. There are so many who are stricken by various diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Some suffer from amnesia. Nearly all are dependent on other people.

“It is a sad state of affairs,” says Nayar. “The ideal way to experience old age is to be financially self-sufficient, have reasonably good health, and enjoy companionship.”

Nayar is among the lucky few. At his advanced age, he is physically and mentally alert. It helps that he has hobbies like reading and painting.

“I began doing oil paintings in 1971,” he says. “Later, I shifted to acrylic and tend to focus on abstract subjects.” But a realistic painting of a horse peeping out of a stable door, which hangs in a bedroom, catches the eye for its keen sense for detail.

Among his many admirers is Dr. A.K. Abraham, chief cardiologist, Indira Gandhi hospital: “Nayar's paintings, in the vibrant colours and frames, reveal the artist as a soldier.”

Nayar also has a keen interest in Carnatic music. “I am a student and admirer of the music of Swati Thirunal,” he says. Thirunal (1813-1846), the former Maharaja of the State of Travancore has composed over 300 Carnatic songs. Nayar also contributes articles on Carnatic music to ‘Shruti’ magazine, and has written tillas (rhythm-based compositions), which have been aired over All India Radio.

It is clear Nayar is a multifaceted personality. He was in the first batch of 21 students at the Travancore Engineering College in 1939.

On December 7, 1941, when Nayar was having lunch with the Principal, T.H. Mathewmen, the news came that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour. “Young chap, you must get into the act,” said the principal.

Nayar followed Mathewmen’s advice, and got admission into the Army. However, by the time his training was complete, in August, 1945, the war was over. Nayar spent the next several years, working as an engineer, and steadily rose up the ladder till he became a Brigadier. In 1969, at the age of 50, he retired.

His unmarried elder brother, Madhavan Nayar, a pioneer in the sea-food industry and a well-known personality in Kochi, needed help. So Nayar joined his brother's business and worked for 18 years in Delhi, representing the company.

Thereafter, he returned and, following the death of his brother in 1996, became the managing trustee of the Madhavan Nayar Foundation, which runs the Museum of Kerala History at Edapally. “The museum is going through a major renovation,” says Nayar. “It will be ready by mid-September.”

Even as he is busy, Nayar keeps track of social trends. He is disturbed at the increasing rate of divorce these days in Kerala. “We have to learn to adjust,” he says. “A husband and a wife cannot be moulded into one. Each person has their own individuality. So, a view of a certain event may not be the same. This will result in clashes. Don't let contrary opinions upset you. Accept each other and move on.”

Asked about what advice he would give to young people, Nayar, a father of two sons, says, “Be honest. Try and respect the feelings of others. Don't get into acrimonious arguments. Learn to give and take. Unfortunately, every Malayali has an ego. But we need to tone it down. Then only can you experience happiness.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

In the garden of Eden


Hibi Eden, the president of the National Students Union of India, talks about the nation-wide drive to get new members and the powerful role played by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of weeks ago, the All India Congress Committee General Secretary Rahul Gandhi had gone to Dharwad in Karnataka to meet students and to encourage them to join the National Students Union of India (NSUI). Accompanying him was NSUI President, Hibi Eden, from Kochi.

At 10.30 p.m., after the day's interactions were over, they set out by car and travelled 45 kms into the interior. Then they had to get down and walk down a narrow path in the darkness for several minutes before they reached a school of music. All the huts were made of mud.

There were 116 students and they belonged to the poorest families in Karnataka. “But they all had an aptitude towards music,” says Hibi. There were eight foreigners helping out. The children were learning the sitar, veena, tabla, and the violin. “They were proficient in Carnatic and Hindustani music,” says Hibi. “When they played, it was brilliant.”

They recognised Rahul, but were shy in front of him. But for both the young politicians, it was an eye-opener. “Throughout India, wherever we go, we are struck by the talents and the deep aspirations of the young people, especially among the poorer sections of society,” says Hibi.

On another day, they had a meeting at the National College, Bangalore. A student complained that more than 50 per cent of the seats were reserved for the scheduled castes.

But when the question was put forth about how many had come through reservation, only a few hands went up. “So Rahul said that there is a need for reservation,” says Hibi. “The Dalits have not got what they should be getting. He asked the youngsters to join politics and make a change in society.”

The Congress Party strategy is simple: they want to attract young talent to the Congress party through an intense membership drive and free and fair elections.

“Rahul said that it was only through transparent elections that new and ordinary people as well as meritorious candidates could come through the system,” says Hibi. So, from the college to the national level, the NSUI is looking for more members and holding elections.

In Kerala, 95,000 youths have joined the Kerala Students Union, the Kerala branch of the NSUI. In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, there are 1 lakh members. So far, elections have been conducted in 16 states and the NSUI has 5.5 lakh members.

“We expect many more members, because elections have not yet been conducted in large states like Bihar and Maharashtra,” says Hibi.

Unlike in the past, there is an age limit. Anybody over 27 cannot take part. This is a far cry from the past when most leaders of the NSUI were over 30 years old.

To ensure that the elections are free and fair, it is monitored by an NGO called the Foundation for the Advanced Management of Elections. This is headed by former Chief Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, and has, as its members, former Election Commissioners, K.J. Rao and T.S. Krishnamurthy.

As expected, many seniors in the Congress Party are against the concept of elections. Earlier, powerful state leaders would appoint the people they liked. Usually, they were loyalists. Now, anybody can contest an election and win, too. “It has become a merit-based system,” says Hibi. “We are effecting a drastic transformation.”

Based in Delhi, Hibi is travelling the length and breadth of India, meeting with students from all types of backgrounds. “Society has undergone a massive change,” he says. “Students are not joining political organisations on the basis of ideology. They are looking at what is there in it for them. They have a low social commitment. It is a disturbing trend.”

Hibi says that even in a politically active place like Kerala, youngsters are no longer flocking to the Students Federation of India or the Kerala Students Union. “They feel that there is not much scope in politics,” he says.

But Hibi admits that quite a few young people have joined the NSUI because of the personal magnetism of Rahul. “The youth want young leaders,” says Hibi. “That is why Rahul has so much of appeal.” In other political parties, there is no young leader in the first or second line of leadership. Hence, in an electorate where 75 per cent of the voters are below 25, the Congress has a huge advantage.

Aware of his appeal, Rahul wants the Youth Congress and the NSUI to play a major role in reviving the Congress nation-wide. “I am helping him to achieve this,” says Hibi. “The senior leaders I have seen at close quarters have a short-term strategy and no long-term vision. Rahul is putting a plan in place where the youth will change the face of India.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

'Jesus is closer to you than you think'


Sr. Jesme says that Jesus Christ has been the guiding force in her life

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning, when Sr. Jesme gets up, she says a small prayer that she learnt in her childhood. “Jesus, lead me according to Your will on this particular day. Don’t make me commit any sin.”

Thereafter, she gets out of bed. She does not have any formal prayers after that. “But I can pray at any moment,” she says. “Whatever decision I have to make, I do so after talking to Jesus. I listen to what He has to say.”

For Jesme, Jesus is her favourite person. “He is full of love and forgiveness and understanding,” she says. The nun says that she can also show her love towards Prophet Mohammad, Lord Krishna or Buddha, because they are all manifestations of God. “I am not a fanatic,” she says. “I don’t mind going to a temple or a mosque to pray.”

Asked to prove that God exists, she says, “How can I prove my hunger, my thirst, or the existence of electricity that passes through a wire? Questions about the existence of God are a waste of time. It is all about faith and belief.”

The nun, who wrote the best-selling autobiography, ‘Amen’, says that there is a divine nature in every man. But most people ignore this aspect. As a result, they go astray.

“If you pray with 100 per cent faith, Jesus will reply,” says Jesme. “He loves you. He is closer to you than you think. After all, He created you. Those who want to get in touch with God I tell them He is always there for you. You can share your joys and sorrows with Jesus.”

At major turning points in her life, Jesme has sought Jesus' guidance. In 1971, during a retreat at St. Mary's College, Thrissur, she asked Jesus whether she should become a nun. As she prayed fervently, she heard a query: 'Can you give your whole heart to me?' “Jesus was repeatedly asking this question,” she says. “In the end I surrendered and accepted Him.”

In 2007, Sr. Jesme was in a crisis. Because of her straight-talking nature, she fell afoul of her superiors. They retaliated by labelling her as insane. There was talk of taking her to a psychiatrist in order to administer mind-numbing drugs. Jesme went for a ten-day silent prayer at Kalady. “I asked Jesus, 'Why should I go on suffering? Should I remain in the convent?'” says Jesme.

When Jesus inquired as to how many years Jesme had been in the convent, she was astonished to discover that it was 33 years, the age that Jesus died and left the earth. “Jesus told me that I should not be in the convent in the 34th year,” says Jesme. “Because I heard His voice so clearly, I was able to get up the courage to leave. I have been happy ever since.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Making a person whole again


Dr. K.R. Rajappan is the first plastic surgeon in Kochi. He talks about how the Specialists’ Hospital, which he established in 1983, continues to serve the people

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1975, a fish exporter, M.A. Suresh (name changed) approached the only plastic surgeon in Kochi, Dr. K.R. Rajappan, to do a hair transplant. He agreed.
The method used was the split-skin graft. “That means, you take a root of the hair, as well as the skin, from one side of the head and transplant it to the bald area,” says Rajappan.

However, the news about the successful operation was leaked to the media. Suresh's name was published. His family got upset. “I told them that I had not passed the information,” says Rajappan. “It was given out by the hospital where the operation took place.”

At that time, Rajappan was a freelance plastic surgeon operating in hospitals like the Medical Trust and the Sree Sudheendra Medical Mission. The operation on Suresh was the first cosmetic surgery done in Kochi and probably in south India.

After Rajappan completed his MBBS in 1960, he joined the orthopaedics department at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. “It was then that I got the idea of becoming a plastic surgeon, because there was nobody in Kerala who knew how to do it,” says Rajappan. “In those days, people had no idea about it. Somebody asked me whether I pasted plastic on the body.”

Rajappan did his MS (Plastic Surgery) at the Prince of Wales medical college at Patna. In the initial years, it was reconstruction surgery that was being done. “I would correct deformities caused by accidents,” he says.

But he remembers doing a touch of cosmetic surgery. An actor, who played character roles, had a drooping eyelid. It made one eye look narrower than the other. “I did the surgery, and corrected it, but looking back, it was not as beautiful as the surgeries that we do today,” says Rajappan.

Following his stint at Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut, Rajappan spent seven years in Kottayam Medical College, where he set up a plastic surgery unit. But feeling that he could do better in the private sector, Rajappan came to Kochi in 1975 and became a freelance plastic surgeon. Slowly, he built his reputation.

Meanwhile, on every Friday evening, Rajappan would travel to all parts of Kerala, from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram, doing operations to correct facial defects and deformities. “I did it for free, because most of the patients were poor,” says Rajappan.

One reason for his social service was because when he was selected for a government seat, at Cuttack Medical College, by the then Chief Minister of Travancore-Cochin, Panampilly Govinda Menon, he asked the young man, “What are you going to do after your studies?” Rajappan remained silent. Menon said, “You should serve the people.”

Then Rajappan's own father, K. Raman, said, “After you complete the course, you must help the poor people. And for those who live in the villages, you should provide free treatment.” Says Rajappan: “I took these principles to my heart and implemented them.”

In order to serve the people better, Rajappan decided to set up the Specialists’ Hospital in 1983 at Palarivattom. It became the first private plastic surgery hospital in Kerala.

“The initial years were difficult, because I was the only plastic surgeon in the city,” he says. “I had to take all the decisions on my own.”

As the number of patients grew rapidly, Rajappan felt the need to expand. So, in 1992, he moved to a new building near the North railway station. “Today, there are 21 departments, but plastic surgery, especially cosmetic surgery has become the most popular,” says Rajappan.

There are six plastic surgeons, led by his son-in-law, Dr. R. Jayakumar. Two other sons-in laws, Dr. R. Vijayan, an urologist, and Dr. Sabin Vishwanath, an orthopaedic surgeon, also work at the hospital. Rajappan’s three daughters, Mini, Beena, and Reena also help out. Today, the hospital does over a thousand free surgeries every year.

The patriarch, who turned 80 on August 6, has come a long way. Rajappan, the son of a landlord, grew up in Meloor, a small village in Thrissur district. To go to school, he walked several kilometres through forests and had to cross a river. He frequently saw squirrels, monkeys and wild boar. “There was a special charm to live so close to nature,” he says. “It also strengthened me as a person.”

Rajappan says a lack of ego, perseverance, and physical endurance are the reasons behind his successful career. In 2009, thanks to these qualities, Rajappan was able to set up the Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences at Kuthiyathodu, at a cost of Rs 100 crore. “It was a dream come true,” he says.

And yes, this unassuming doctor has been able to make many dreams come true, not only in his own life, but in countless other lives, thanks to his pioneering work in plastic surgery.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 16, 2010

'You gain spiritually when you suffer'


Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil says that mankind should suffer with Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1971, Justice Joseph Vithayathil was travelling from Thiruvananthapuram to Tellicherry as the one-man commission to investigate the riots between Hindus and Muslims there. As they were going past the Mangalapuzha seminary, at Aluva, Joseph's aide, P. Subramaniam Potty, asked whether they could have a look at the seminary. So they stopped and went in.

The priests told Joseph that his son, Varkey, was preaching in the nearby Carmelgiri seminary. So Justice Joseph went across and met his son.

It was a rare meeting in Kerala. Varkey was a member of the Redemptorist congregation, which forbids members from visiting their homes to see their parents, unless they are ill or have died. “But like any son, I yearned to see them,” says Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil. “This meeting was arranged by God.”

Vithayathil says that God has always been there, offering solace and protection throughout his life.

A few years ago, he had gone to the Redemptorist-run college, Sadupadesa Vidyalaya, in Hennore, Karnataka. Vithayathil was talking to an aged gardener in the garden. A few students were standing nearby. Suddenly one of them said, “Cardinal, there is a snake near you!”

When Vithayathil looked down he got a shock: there was a krait between his feet. “This most poisonous of snakes lay unmoving,” he says. “If I had accidentally stepped on it, I would have received a fatal bite. But God saved my life. This was divine protection.”

Every day, when the Cardinal gets up at 6 a.m., he thanks God for the safe night and the arrival of the new day. “I then consecrate all my activities for the glory of God on this day,” says Vithayathil. “I say three 'Hail Mary’s', dedicated to Our Blessed Virgin Mary, an 'Our Father' and a 'Hail Mary' in honour of St. Joseph or any one of the other saints.”

Vithayathil then proceeds to the chapel to say the Holy Mass at 6.45 a.m. “The Mass is the central prayer of the church,” he says. “I want to glorify God and thank Him for his graces. I will say a prayer for the Pope, the Syro-Malabar church, the Bishops, my late parents and relatives, the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the suffering.”

Nowadays, a persistent back pain has made it difficult for him to have a public life, so Vithayathil prays a lot during the day. “I have become even closer to God,” he says.

Asked whether he gets angry with God when bad things happen, Vithayathil says, “Jesus Christ said that if we wanted to follow Him, we have to take up the cross. The death of parents and financial and physical hardships are all crosses. We can suffer with Jesus for the salvation of the world. It is very painful, no doubt, but we have to accept bad events with love.”

Vithayathil says that because of Adam’s sin of deliberately disobeying God, mankind has suffered. “It has made humanity weak,” he says. “Jesus Christ made amends for all the sins by dying for us. But he also wants us to share in that suffering for the salvation of the world. You gain spiritually when you suffer. The life of St. Alphonsa is a good example.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bridging the infrastructure gap


T.K. Jose, the managing director of the Roads and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala, says that many rail overbridges and highways are on the anvil

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is not easy to build a rail overbridge (ROB) in Kerala. There are so many agencies that are involved. For the ROB planned at the Atlantis crossing in Kochi, firstly, the opinions of the local people, the elected officials, and the traders had to be sought.

Then the representatives of the Roads and Bridges Development Corporation of Kerala (RBDCK), the Indian Railways, the Cochin Corporation and politicians had to do a joint inspection.

“We have selected a location which is at some distance from the present one,” says T.K. Jose, managing director of the RBDCK. Now a drawing of the project has to be done. “This has to be approved by the Railways,” he says.

Once that is done, the Corporation will ask the state government to start the land acquisition process. Then the inertia-laden wheels of the bureaucracy will have to be set in motion.

Earlier, most of the projects of the RBDCK were delayed because of the problems regarding land acquisition. Land owners frequently went to court because of antagonism to the project or for the low prices that were offered. Now, a new fast-track mechanism has been initiated. A purchase committee headed by the District Collector has been set up.

“The owners are taken into confidence,” says Jose. “There are transparent negotiations and a price, which is close to the market rate, is fixed up.”

Out of 48 ROBs, entrusted to RBDCK, 18 have been completed, the latest being the one at Pullepaddy in Kochi, while another three -- at Koratty, Athani and Bakel -- are nearing completion. The remaining ROBs are in various stages of progress. Incidentally, the ROB at Edapally is handled by the National Highway Authority of India.

At his office in Palarivattom, Jose clicks on his mouse and shows the company website. “There is a weekly monitoring of the work, and the findings are published on our site,” says Jose. “This enables the public to ascertain the progress of the project.” If there is a delay in the week’s target, the contractor is asked to give an explanation. “We don’t want to get stuck,” says Jose.

However, the RBDCK was stuck in 2009, with unpayable loans and incomplete projects. But a timely offer of Rs 234 crores by the state government enabled the corporation to clear its dues, especially to the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited. Today, there is a share capital of Rs 50 crore. “We are all set to complete our projects on time,” says Jose.

Apart from bridges, the RBDCK is also involved in highway projects. “Because of heavy traffic, we will be converting the Airport-Seaport Road, from Irumpanam to Kalamaserry, from two to four lanes,” says Jose. A 14.9 km long road will be built from HMT Junction to Kariyadu.

“We are planning a West Coast Highway, from Ponnani to Elathur, which will reduce the distance from Kochi to Kozhikode by 40 kms,” he says. Other projects include the Thankalam (near Kothamangalam)-Kakkanadu, and the Cherthala-Kottayam highways.

Of course, for the public, the major ire is the poor condition of the roads all over the state. “The majority of the roads are handled by the municipal corporations and the Public Works Department (PWD),” clarifies Jose. “In Kochi, our only responsibility is the Airport-Seaport Road, which is in good condition.”

RBDCK engineer Abdul Salam explains that you need five layers to build a good and durable road. “There has to be a sub base of good quality earth,” he says. The second layer should have a granular sub-base of earth and small stones. Over it there should be a wet mix macadam. On top of that, thick bituminous macadam, as well as bituminous concrete has to be applied.

“We need to build strong roads, because the number of vehicles has increased manifold,” he says. “Also, container vehicles weigh as much as 40 tons. It puts a lot of pressure on the roads.”

Unfortunately, the PWD uses only 150mm of water-borne macadam and a 20mm of chipping carpet layer. “As a result, the roads break up easily,” says Salam.

Meanwhile, in order to create a better class of infrastructure, Jose is keen that the academic and research community develop a tie-up with government agencies.

“In the West, the design for good roads and bridges are supplied by the universities and engineering colleges,” he says. “A similar partnership should be established in Kerala.”

Recently, there was a welcome initiative. The SCMS College of Engineering at Kochi studied the traffic congestion of the city and gave a report to the government. “Hopefully, we will get more such inputs,” says Jose.

Input or no input, Jose is determined that the RBCDK finishes its pending projects on time. “I feel very proud of playing a role in improving the infrastructure in Kerala,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Dripping perspiration in God’s Own Country

Thousands of workers from job-strapped West Bengal throng the construction sites in Kerala. They are drawn by the good wages and regular work

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the third floor of Tower 1, Block C, at the DLF New Town Heights work site at Kakkanad, a group of Bengali workers are hammering a piece of plywood onto to a concrete slab. At one corner, Dipu Das is doing some drilling. Kaushik Mondal is bending a rod to fit it around a concrete slab.
Sushanta Biswas is carrying some planks.

Keeping a sharp eye is Dhrendra Mahajankatti, of Shrihari Associates, a sub-contractor, who has provided the labourers for the work. “We have 168 workers and all of them are Bengalis,” says Dherendra. “They work hard and for many hours.”

The average age of the Bengali labourers is between 20 and 30. They send money home once a fortnight. “There is a lack of jobs in West Bengal,” says Dherendra. “That is why they have come here.”

A few minutes later, near the site office, Sanjiv Kumar Mishra, Manager (Safety Department), who is from Jharkhand, is giving a talk to 11 Bengalis who have just joined work.

“Safety means that one should always wear the helmet, the shoes, and the belt,” he says. “Because you are the sole breadwinner, the future of your family depends on the precautions you take. If there is an accident, your family will suffer. Please remember this.”

The men listen silently, and wait patiently for the session to end.

Later Dipu Das says that most of the accidents have taken place because the workers did not put safety belts while working on the higher floors. “Some are careless,” he says.

He remembers a youngster, Chandan, who was working on a site at Aluva. “He was an only child,” says Dipu. “Chandan fell from the eighth floor, because he had not worn a belt.”

Dipu is only 22 years old. He is from the West Dinajpur district in West Bengal. He stopped studying when he was in Class 9 because the financial situation at home was bad. “My father has a small paddy farm, but does not earn much,” he says.

Dipu went to Delhi, where he worked for three years on various construction sites. Thereafter, he proceeded to Shimla. “I had a friend, Gautam, who was working in Kochi,” says Dipu. “Whenever I talked to him, I would say that Shimla is very cold. And he would reply that Kochi is very hot. I decided that it is better to work in a hot place rather than a cold one.”

Dipu met up with Gautam at their village when they had both come home for a holiday, and accompanied him back to Kerala. Dipu has been working in and around Kochi for the past three years.

“The wages are better than in North India,” says Dipu. “I am getting Rs 280 per day plus overtime at the rate of Rs 30 an hour.” As expected, the Bengalis work long hours: from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., to earn more money.

Back home, Dipu has a younger brother, Barun, and sister, Jharna, who are students. To ensure that they do well in school, he has organised private tutors for them. With a bright smile, Dipu says, “Barun passed his Class 10 exams recently with 87 per cent marks, while Jharna is in Class 8.” Dipu sends Rs 10,000 every month to his mother.

Unlike Dipu, Kaushik, 32, another Bengali colleague, is married, with two children. He also came from Delhi, attracted by the higher wages.

“The people are nice, but we are unable to communicate with them,” he says. “We cannot speak Malayalam and they don’t know Hindi.”

Nevertheless, through sign language, they are able to buy essentials, like rice, fish, vegetables, and oil from the Kakkanad market. “Now the shopkeepers are learning a few words of Hindi,” says a smiling Kaushik. “Hopefully, we will also be able to speak a bit of Malayalam.”

He says there will be more workers coming from West Bengal, because there is a construction boom in Kerala. “Whereever I go, I see buildings coming up, unlike in West Bengal,” he says. “There is a drawback to this. All the paddy fields are being converted. As a result, Kerala has to buy the food it requires from outside.”

Asked why there are so few Malayalis on the work site, Kaushik says, “Maybe, they have better jobs to do.”

But Dherendra states that the problem with Malayali labourers is that they all belong to unions, and put down their tools exactly at 5 p.m. “They don’t work as hard as the Bengalis,” he says. “They are very conscious of their rights, but not their responsibilities.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

'God is not an extra-cosmic personality'


By Shevlin Sebastian

Former Justice K. Narayana Kurup recounts an incident from history. The great 18th century French philosopher, Voltaire, an atheist, was on his deathbed. A priest entered the room. Volatire said, “Who asked you to be here?” The priest replied, “God.” Volatire asked, “What is the proof of His existence?” The priest gave no reply.

“If you ask me to prove the reality of God, there is no answer,” says Justice Kurup. “He exists, otherwise how do you explain the phenomena of the cosmos? There are billions of planets and stars, all of them massive in size. The sun, the moon, and the earth are just dots in the universe. What is space? Where does it begin and end? These are questions nobody can answer. It is mysterious and strange.”

The judge asks whether man can make a drop of water, a blade of grass or a leaf. “Of course, we are trying to play God by making test-tube babies,” he says. “But you still need a sperm and ovum, which is made by God. All that the scientists do is to fertilise the egg. Even in cloning, you need a cell created by God.”

Justice Kurup says that the divine exists within all of us. “God is not an extra-cosmic personality sitting somewhere in the universe, like a magistrate, putting us on trial for our sins and misdeeds and passing a sentence,” he says. “He is inside every human being. It is up to us to realise God.”

But Kurup says that mankind is living in darkness. He tells a story told by Advaita philosopher Adi Shankaracharya. “In the twilight, a man is walking down a road,” says Justice Kurup. There is a rope in front of him. The man concludes that it is a snake and fearfully steps back. But when a candle is brought close, he realises it is a rope. “Similarly, most of us don't know what God is, because we are in darkness,” he says. “There is a barrier between us and the soul. This can be removed through meditation, and benevolent acts. Then you will be able to know God.”

The judge, however, does not have an image of God. “God cannot be seen,” he says. “A great scientist once said, 'I have dissected the body, and scanned the skies, but I have not seen God or the soul.' Of course you will not see it. There is a Sanskrit saying: 'Tatwa masi' (God is a spirit within us).”

Kurup says that the God inside him has intervened many times in his life, so that he did not come to any harm. During his teenage years at Chalakudy, Kurup used to sleep in the drawing room of an old bungalow.

“One night I was about to go to sleep,” says Kurup. “Just then, my late brother-in-law, Raghavan Nair, came with a torch and flashed a light at all corners of the room. Suddenly we saw a viper on the bed. For me, this was a clear intercession of God through Raghavan.”

Despite his reverence for God, Kurup has no fixed times for prayer. “I pray when I am in the mood,” he says. “I ask God to protect me from illnesses, shield my family from bad events, and humanity from disasters.”

Sometimes, in his travels, when Kurup crosses the bridge over the river Periyar, at Aluva, he closes his eyes and says a prayer. “For me, the river is sacrosanct,” he says. “It is where the mortal remains of my forefathers have been immersed.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, August 06, 2010

All that glitters….. is gold, as well as diamonds


The Geeri Pais, famed jewellers in Kochi for more than hundred years, is going as strong as ever, led by the fourth-generation scion, Ramesh Pai

Photo: Ramesh Pai with a diamond necklace which costs Rs 9 lakh

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, a Pala-based rubber planter, James Mathew (name changed) and his wife came to the Geeri Pai showroom on M.G. Road. They were browsing around in the diamond jewellery section, but it was clear they had no knowledge. In stepped young Ramesh Pai.

“At the counter itself I gave them a class for three hours,” says Ramesh. “I made them understand the concepts of cut, colour, clarity, and carat, which are used to evaluate diamonds. I also informed them about the enhanced re-sale value of diamonds.”

The enthused couple was faced with an option: should they buy a small diamond or a solitaire? “A solitaire is more expensive, but when your wife wears it, she will stand out in society,” Ramesh told the planter. “Taking me at my word, James bought a solitaire worth Rs 3 lakh.”

Recently, James came to the shop and asked Ramesh about the re-sale value of the solitaire. Ramesh inspected it, and said the value had gone up to Rs. 5.6 lakh. James was taken aback. “I made a big mistake,” he said. “When I bought the solitaire, I had also bought a car worth Rs 6 lakh, but I re-sold it for only Rs 1.5 lakh a month ago.”

Ramesh laughs when he recounts the incident, and says, “I told James that a car has a different use and value.” For his 29th wedding anniversary, in June, James bought solitaires worth Rs 12 lakh. “James became a valuable customer, thanks to a class I gave so many years ago,” says Ramesh.

The shop gets customers from all segments of society. The elite -- the wives of planters, business magnates, top professionals, and non-resident Indians -- are looking for custom-made jewellery in diamonds. “For gold jewellery, we have customers from the working, as well as the upper middle class,” says Ramesh.

The majority are looking to buy jewellery for investment purposes. It is a sensible option, because the price of gold has shot up by 60 per cent in the last two years. “That kind of returns is not available for any other product,” says Ramesh.

As he talks, a staff member enters his office with a few pieces of gold jewellery placed on a tray. Ramesh immediately takes out a 10X Loupe, a magnifying glass, which he has bought from Antwerp, Belgium, for Rs. 15,000.

“This is like a doctor’s stethoscope,” says Ramesh, as he squints and inspects the jewellery through the lens. “I want to check that the gold is of the right weight and price, as mentioned on the label, before it is sold.”

The inspection is soon over because the items are few. But the price is steep. “It is Rs 5 lakh worth of jewellery,” says Ramesh.

Incidentally, the Geeri Pais are not Malayalis. They are Konkani Brahmins from Goa. Ramesh’s great-grandfather M. Madhav Pai fled from Mormugao district in Goa, because the Portuguese were doing forced conversions.

Madhav Pai landed up at Mattancherry, and later moved to Kochi. Initially, he began dealing in ayurveda medicines, before branching out into gems, stones, and gold jewellery. “He used to supply jewellery to the Royal family at Tripunithara and other members of the elite,” says Ramesh.

Today, the business, more than 100 years old, is thriving. Ramesh is a member of the fourth generation. He says the most popular jewellery is an antique type, called Chettinad, which is sourced from Karaikudi in Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu.

A fan and regular customer is Saritha, the wife of actor Jayasuriya. “The designs of their antique jewellery are superb,” she says. “In fact, it is unique. And what I most like about Geeri Pai is their personalised customer care.”

Not only do they look after customers well, but the company takes good care of their jewellery. For that, they have an elaborate security system. At night, ultra-violet rays will continuously sweep across particular areas in the shop. “If someone touches one of the rays, which cannot be seen, an alarm will go off,” says Ramesh.

After closing time, every single piece of jewellery, which is on display in the shop, is put into a box, and stored in two 100 sq. ft. safe rooms, which have 12” concrete walls, and costs Rs 9 lakh each. “It is foolproof,” says Ramesh.

The jewellery business is also recession-proof. That is because of the deeply entrenched gold culture among Malayalis. “In Kerala, among women, there is no greater happiness than buying gold,” says Ramesh. “That is why there are more than 3000 jewellery shops all over the state.”

Because of this popular demand, the future is bright for Ramesh and succeeding generations of the Geeri Pais.

Fact File

India was the predominant source of diamonds for over 2,000 years, until the mid-eighteenth century.

916 Hallmark jewellery is a rating given by the Bureau of Indian Standards guaranteeing the quality of 22 carat gold

Keralites prefer 22 carat gold because of the high re-sale value.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The reality behind ‘reality shows’

Features editor Suresh Mathew’s award-winning television programme on reality shows reveals how children are exploited, while judges are encouraged to be rude and mean

By Shevlin Sebastian

When you watch six-year-old Anshal Kapoor do a handstand and then swirl around, balanced on his head, his legs pointed towards the ceiling, you draw your breath in admiration. The boy is from Karnal, and has been taking part in dance classes from the time he was two years old.

“Anshal’s father, Parveen, had been pushing him into dance competitions and talent hunts,” says CNN-IBN features editor, Suresh Mathew. “Later, Parveen admitted that he had tried to be an actor, but failed to fulfill his dreams. So he was now superimposing his desires and ambitions on his son.”

Interestingly, when Anshal was asked in a separate interview what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “I wish to be a doctor or a pilot.” Suresh adds, “Because his father was so consumed by his desire to make his son a star, Anshal played along, even though this is not what he actually wants to do as an adult.”

This segment on Anshal and Parveen was featured on '30 Minutes –Making Reality', a programme which focused on the burgeoning popularity of reality shows on television. Recently, it won for Suresh and his colleague, Rohit Khanna, the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in the Film and Television category.

“It was a big, but welcome surprise,” says the Mumbai-based Suresh, whose parents were originally from Pathanamthitta, but are now settled in New Delhi.

The show was an eye-opener for Suresh. “Our correspondent Priya Krishnamoorthy found two sisters in Bihar who were part of a talent search show,” he says. “They had been selected and brought to Mumbai to take part in the first round.”

The channel cameramen began shooting them the moment they arrived in Mumbai for the first time. The producer told the girls, “Look with amazement at the hotel you are going to stay. Then say, ‘Wow, this is the first time we have been inside a place like this. I have never seen such a luxurious hotel before.’”

Suresh says that the viewers will assume that these are the authentic reactions of the girls. “But it is fake,” he says. “The dialogues and mannerisms are created by the producers.”

Children end up being exploited, and put under a lot of stress. “The way the producers keep the results in suspense, during competitions, it puts a lot of pressure on the youngsters,” says Suresh. Sometimes, there is psychological damage.

On May 19, 2008, during the shooting of a dance competition at Kolkata, Shinjini Sengupta, 16, was scolded by one of the judges. “She went into shock, and was unable to speak and walk for several weeks,” says Suresh.

Even professional artistes don’t find it easy. TV personality Cyrus Broacha, who was performing on a dance programme, ‘Jhalak Dhiklaa Jao’ on the Sony channel, told CNN-IBN, “The producers keep telling me, ‘Can you a bit more emotional? Can you show more excitement?’”

However, some judges, like music composer, Anu Malik, are made for reality television. “He knows how to offend and humiliate people, and pick up fights with co-judges,” says Suresh. “Anu is keenly aware that if he maintains this abrasive personality onscreen, it will grab eyeballs, please producers, and give him a better chance to be called as a judge for the next season.” As it is well known, judges on reality shows are paid handsomely.

However, it is not all negative on reality shows. “We have shown good things like the creation of a star like Abhijeet Sawant,” says Suresh.

Abhijeet was a lower middle-class boy who used to sing in marriage bands. Thanks to his win in the Indian Idol (Season 1) competition in 2005, he became popular, and has cut two best-selling records -- 'Aapka Abhijeet Sawant' and 'Junoon - Abhijeet Swwant'.

Today, he lives with his wife, Shilpa, in a three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, which costs Rs 1 crore. In a clip, Abhijeet is shown marvelling at the luxurious sofa he has just bought.

“Abhijeet could never have dreamt that his life would turn out like this,” says Suresh. “These reality shows are giving splendid opportunities to many talented youngsters.”

However, despite the success of these shows, Suresh feels that there is a dumbing down of the audience. “Today, people do not want to think or understand more than what they really need to,” he says. “They want entertainment, rather than information. Anything that teases the brain is a no-no. But that which satisfies the senses is a yes-yes. This is disturbing. It sort of begs the question: what is going to happen to future generations?”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

'Sometimes, I doubt the existence of God'


V.A. Mohamad Ashrof, writer and social activist, veers from belief to disbelief in God, and back to belief again

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Recently, my son, Hafiz, had an accident,” says V.A. Mohamad Ashrof, a writer and social activist. The eighteen-year-old was travelling pillion on a bike, which hit a scooter, at Edapally. He fell down and his face was bloodied. Hafiz was rushed to a hospital, but remained unconscious for several hours.

“I asked God why did this happen?” says Ashrof. “I told Him I am following Your teachings, so why are You going against me? I am also striving for peace, justice, and the betterment of humanity.'”

It is at these moments that Ashrof doubts the existence of God. “Then I become an agnostic,” he says. “After a while I realise it is a folly on my part. No one can ever know the ultimate truth or the reason behind a son’s accident.”

Ashrof is consoled by the fact that even great personalities have expressed misgivings. In the Qur’an, Chapter 2, Verse 260, Abraham expressed doubts about the resurrection of human beings. “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead?" he said.

God said, “Take four birds, kill them and put a portion each on four hills.”

Accordingly, Abraham slaughtered the birds and dispersed the remains. Then God gathered it all together and made it whole. “God is a life-giver,” says Ashrof. “However, if you doubt the existence of God it does not mean you are anti-God or anti-religion. God allows us to question His very existence. That is why He has given man free will.”

On Fridays, on his own free will, Ashrof goes to the Palarivattom mosque. “I pray for that time when the people of all religions will have a peaceful co-existence,” he says. “I ask God to build a society based on justice.”

But Ashrof is devastated that women are not allowed to enter a mosque. “Every woman, according to the Qur’an, has the right to pray at any mosque,” he says. “But unfortunately, in our male-dominated society, they are not given permission.”

Ashrof says that the Qur’an clearly states that from one soul, God made a man and a woman. “And from this first couple all of humanity has emerged,” he says. “At the dawn of creation, there was egalitarianism. But man did not allow this concept to flourish. So, I am fighting for gender equality and justice.”

Asked whether we need God, Ashrof says, “Only a belief in God can enable one to lead an exemplary life. God is the only moral authority in the world. Therefore, we need religion to guide us, so that we can remain on the right path. If you stray, you will invite God's wrath.”

Ashrof admits that God will be enraged at the men who chopped off Newman College Professor T.J. Joseph’s hand because he named a character, Mohammed in a question paper.

“Those assailants did an evil act,” he says. “God is not communal. He wants us to show benevolence. He has asked us to pardon those who sin against us. Those men should have forgiven Prof. Joseph, instead of inflicting violence on him.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Aim, shoot and tranquilise!

Dr. K. C. Panicker has subdued around 700 elephants in his nearly five-decade long career. He talks abut the highs and the lows of the job

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of May 2, 1995, Dr. K.C. Panicker was sitting in the staff room of the Veterinary College in Thrissur when he received a call. An elephant, Paramakavvu Rajendran, had gone amok in a paddy field at Kaiparambil, about seven kilometres from Thrissur.

“He was not listening to his mahout,” says Panicker. As he was about to go out, with his dart gun, to tranquilise the elephant, he asked his colleague Dr. T. Prabhakaran whether he was interested in coming. Prabhakaran agreed. On earlier occasions, he had accompanied Panicker and helped him to make the right dosage.

When they arrived at the spot, Panicker saw that the elephant was running around in the field, while the mahout stood on a higher ground. “I felt it would be unsafe to shoot in the open,” says Panicker. So he asked the mahout to call the elephant towards the higher side. The mahout did so.

As Rajendran stood on the higher ground, Panicker took out his dart gun, placed the required dosage of drugs, fixed by Prabhakaran, inside a cartridge, and shot at the buttocks of the elephant.

The moment the dart hit the target, the elephant turned around and spotted the men. He gave chase immediately. Panicker and Prabhakaran ran for their lives. While Panicker fled into a clump of trees at the side, Prabhakaran went in a straight direction.

The elephant chased Prabhakaran. The sixty-year old professor ran into a series of small thorny bushes by the side of the paddy field, lost his balance, and fell. When Rajendran came up, he tried to scoop up Prabhakaran with his tusk. In the process, he made a deep gash on the chest. At this precise moment the sedative effect of the drug kicked in. Rajendran became immobile and gradually lost consciousness.

In the meantime, Panicker came back, and, with the help of onlookers, he carried Prabhakaran, who was bleeding profusely, to his car and went to the hospital. When they reached the entrance, Prabhakaran, who was lying on Panicker's lap, looked up and said, “I am unable to breathe.”

Moments later, he died.

“It was the worst moment in my life,” says Panicker, years later, at the office of the Elephant Welfare Association at Thrissur. “I felt terribly guilty and shocked. Prabhakaran was just two months away from retirement. For months I did not go out for any tranquilising work.” (In 1996, Panicker set up an Elephant Museum and named it in honour of Prabhakaran).

Incidentally, the elephant, Rajendran, is still alive and lives in Thrissur. “I meet him now and then,” says Panicker. “Rajendran recognises me easily, but won't allow me to touch him, nor will he lie down in my presence. He knows that I am the person who gives injections.

"Rajendran does not regard me as a friend, but I don't blame him for killing Prabhakaran because the animal was in musth (a periodic condition in elephants, when the testosterone levels rises up to 60 times the normal and causes highly aggressive behavior).”

Panicker, 74, an expert on elephants, has tranquilised around 700 elephants in his 48-year career. But it was only in two instances that when the dart hit the elephant, it looked back. “Usually, the moment the dart strikes, the elephant runs forward,” says Panicker.

The academic uses the Xylazine Hydrochloride drug. The dosage depends on the size, age, and health of the elephant. “The calculation is 100 milligrams for 1000 kgs of body weight,” he says. “By observing the elephant I know how much dosage to give. The average weight is between four to five tons. If it is 4 tons, I give 4 ml.”

Panicker stands 40 feet away and usually aims the dart gun at the buttocks. “This is a thickly muscled area, and when the syringe hits, it has the effect of an intra-muscular injection,” says Panicker. “It takes about 10 minutes for the sedation to take effect.”

When that happens, an elephant will stop running. If the mammal is standing against a tree, it will lean against it. Soon, it will lose consciousness. After 45 minutes, the mammal will be in deep sleep. There will be no movement of the legs or the ears. “To confirm if the elephant is fully sedated or not, a mahout will touch the body with a stick,” says Panicker. “If the animal is not unconscious, it might attack the mahout.”

Under sedation the elephant is taken to a safe area, tied with chains, and kept under observation.

Nowadays, increasingly, more and more elephants are running amok. And the prime reason is the callousness shown by the owners and mahouts, especially when the elephant is in musth. The right way of treatment is to make the elephant rest for three months.

“A few mahouts and owners are eager to make money,” says Panicker. “So they will ensure that the elephant continues to work during this period. There is always the danger of it going out of control.”

R.K. Kaimal, an elephant consultant, says that elephants also get disturbed by the sound of car horns, thunder, and lightning. “Recently, an elephant became violent when a football hit it,’ says Kaimal.

Another problem is the ignorance about the psychology of elephants. “In earlier days, the owners were experts who knew everything about the elephant,” says Panicker. “Nowadays, if people have some money, they can buy an elephant, but he may not know anything about the animal. The mahout is also ignorant. Earlier, mahouts would receive a three-year training. But now, with barely a year's training they are handling the animal.”

Mahouts also have a tendency to move from elephant to elephant, says Kaimal. “The times have changed,” he says. “In the past mahouts remained with one elephant for a long time. Now, mahouts and elephants are unable to develop a relationship.” Because they don't understand the elephant, they tend to ill-treat it. The elephant gets very angry and at the opportune moment, it wreaks vengeance.

It does not help that the mahouts have developed bad habits like excessive drinking, thanks to temple organisers who give them free drinks. “The mahouts say they need liquor to get up the courage to handle an elephant,” says Panicker. “It is imperative that the government should set up regular and proper training for the mahouts.”


‘An elephant is like a child’
Says Balakrishna Shenoy, long-time owner of the elephant Chandrasekaran

Tell us something about elephants?
It is a social animal. In forests, they follow the joint family system. Every individual group will be having brothers and sisters and cousins. Their culture is to follow a dominant elephant.

When they are in captivity, they follow the same system. If we can prove our dominance over them, they will follow us.

Do elephants get angry when you punish them?
If it has done wrong, the elephant will accept the punishment. If we castigate the elephant when it is innocent, he gets very angry. He is not a slave. You have to treat him with equality. We should regard him the way we treat our children. The elephant has the brain of an eleven-year-old. Love and punishment has to go together.

What else angers an elephant?
If somebody touches his tusk, he does not like it. For example, if my wife touches my moustache, I will not get angry. But if a stranger comes and does the same thing, I will be furious. That is the case with elephants.

The tusk is an important symbol of his vanity and he hates it when people touch it without his permission. When an elephant is sleeping, if the mahout goes and touches it, the animal will become enraged.

What is their psychology?
Like human beings they have all types of moods. They laugh, they cry, they get angry, they feel depressed or jealous. They have the capacity to read our mind because they have a keen sense of smell. They can smell out the enzymes and the hormones. According to my experience, they know what we are thinking. Their voice is not in our hearing range. It is above the human capacity. We cannot hear them, but they can listen and communicate with each other.

Facts about elephants

Elephants sleep when standing.

They eat 450 kgs of fodder, every day, apart from 250 litres of water.

Their favourite food includes coconut leaves, palm leaves, bananas, mangoes, coconut, sugarcane and bamboo.

They spend 16 hours a day eating.

Elephants give birth after a gestation period of 18 to 22 months.

A baby elephant weights about 90 kgs.

Elephants can live up to 70 years

An elephant's trunk, which has no bones, contains 50,000 muscles.

One tusk is usually shorter than the other. Just like people are either right or left-handed it is believed that these animals rely upon a dominant tusk. The tusk can grow up to 10 feet in length.

The captive elephant population in Kerala is about 700.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

The centre for epochal events

The Udayanperoor church, near Kochi, is celebrating its 1500th year. The Synod, which took place in the church in 1599, forever altered the history of Kerala Christians

By Shevlin Sebastian

Buses, cars, and trucks whiz past on the road in front of the Udayanperoor church, 16 kms from Kochi. And not many people who stare at the white-washed church through car windows can imagine that the church is celebrating its 1500th year, making it one of the oldest churches in Kerala.

The year-long festivities were inaugurated on January 17 by Prof. K.V. Thomas, Union Minister of State for Agriculture, and several programmes have been planned for the year. These include a get-together of old parishioners, a retreat for children, a Bible quiz, an inter-religious, as well as an ecumenical meet, and a jubilee rally planned for December. A stamp will also be released by the postal department.

But not all parishioners are happy. Says writer K.P. Joseph, “In 500 AD, one of the kings -- Mar Thoma Villalvattam -- was attracted to Christianity, and became a Christian. He then decided to build the Udayanperoor church. The Hindu kings did not oppose him. This church is a symbol of the secularism inherent in Hindu culture.”

Joseph says that this feature, instead of the religious and spiritual aspects, should have been highlighted. “Secularism is the corner-stone of Indian democracy,” he says. “However, this concept was not taken from the west. Instead, it has been in India for thousands of years.”

Meanwhile, it was inside this church that one of the most significant events of the early Christians in Kerala took place: the Synod of Diamper held in 1599.

The five-day Synod, which began on June 20, was held under the leadership of Aleixo de Menezes, the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa. Around 832 people attended, and this included 153 local priests, 660 laity, and a few others.

At the Synod, the Archbishop forced the St. Thomas Christians to adopt Western ways of worship. As a result, the Christians were forced to break away from the Chaldean Patriarch, and came under the control of the Latin Archbishopric of Goa. But there was a lot of heartburn over this.

Before the Synod there was little difference in the appearance between the Christians and the Hindus. For example, both wore long hair and carried swords. But Archbishop Menezies insisted that the Christians should keep their hair short, so that they would look different. “He made the women wear chatta (a white blouse) and mundu (dhoti),” says Joseph.

Many historical records, preserved on palm leaves, which highlighted the ancient traditions of the Christians, were burnt by the Archbishop. “Bishop Menezies inflicted a lasting damage, the effects of which are still felt,” says Joseph

On January 3, 1653, another major event occurred. This was known as the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Satyam). Several thousand St. Thomas Christians, under the leadership of Archdeacon George, jointly held a long rope which was tied to a bent cross (Koonan Kurishu) embedded in the mud at Mattancherry, a suburb of present-day Kochi.

The Christians took an oath saying that they would no longer be under the domination of the Portuguese. This led to a permanent split in the Christian community. The rebels later formed the Malankara Syrian Orthodox, the Mar Thoma, and the Jacobite churches. However, the majority of the St. Thomas Christians continued to recognise the authority of the Portuguese and later, the papal authority at Rome and became known as the Syro-Malabar church.

But on a sunny and humid Monday morning, all this is in the past. The church is silent and empty. It has been converted into a museum. The sacristan K.M. Joseph shows the altar, which is placed three steps higher than where the men sat; and this area is one step higher than the women’s section.

“It showed the hierarchy of power in those days, although nothing has changed much in the present,” says K.P. Joseph, with a smile.

Because there were no loudspeakers in those days, the wooden pulpit is in the middle, placed alongside one wall, so that everybody could hear the priest talking. There are wax figures of the participants at the Synod of Diamper, as well as the Coonan Cross Oath.

Apart from the model of the church placed at one side, there are gold chalices on display, and various books written about the Synod. The tiled roof is held up by teak girders with intricate carvings on it.

It is easy to close one’s eyes and visualise the setting of the Synod, with all the dignitaries present, and the people listening in breathless silence to the stunning proposals put forth by the Archbishop.

Little did the gathering realise that the decisions taken there would reverberate through the centuries.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Newer Posts Older Posts Home