Tuesday, September 28, 2010

‘God is closer to you than your jugular vein’


Businessman Akbar Shetranjiwala prays directly to God. He says that Prophet Mohammad is only a messenger

By Shevlin Sebastian

Five months ago, Pune-based shoe shop-owner Akbar Shetranjiwala had such a severe back pain that he had to be hospitalised. An MRI scan revealed that Akbar’s lumbar nerves, which lead to the vertebrae, were 95 per cent damaged. Doctors suggested a surgery on the spine; otherwise, there was a chance of a permanent paralysis.

“When I was given the news I fainted, and my blood pressure shot up,” says Akbar. “Operating on the spine is a very risky affair.”

Afraid of a surgery, Akbar consulted many doctors, but to no avail. Bed-ridden for three months, he prayed hard for a solution. One day, a customer, who wore a plaster cast on his leg, came into the shop. Akbar’s brother, Mansoor, told the man about the back problems of his sibling. The customer said, “I beg of you to go and see my doctor, Dr. Vilas Jog.”

Akbar went and met Jog. The doctor told him that if he did one exercise regularly, there was every chance of improvement. It was a simple one. Akbar had to lie on his back and pull one knee up to his chest. Thereafter, he had to do the same with the other knee. A couple of months later, Akbar improved so much that there was no need for an operation. “I regard my meeting with Dr. Jog as God’s intervention in my life,” says Akbar.

So, was he angry with God over all what had happened? Akbar smiles, takes out his mobile phone, and says, “I got an interesting SMS recently. It is a quote in Urdu by the saint Hazrat Ali.” He reads it aloud: “Question: Kaise maloom kare ki insaan par aane wali museebhat saaza hai ki aazmaish? (How do you know whether a misfortune that has befallen you is a curse or a blessing?) Answer: Jo museebaat Allah se door kare, woh saaza hai. Jo Allah se kareeb kare, woh aazmaish hai. (If a misfortune draws you away from God, it is a curse. If it brings you closer, it is a blessing.)”

Akbar admits that the adversity has brought him nearer to God. “I have started reading the Koran daily,” he says. “It has made me more spiritual and helped me to counter the temptations of wine, women and song.”

When Akbar closes his eyes, like any true Muslim, he does not see any image of God. “All religions, including Hinduism, say that God is omnipotent and has no form,” he says. “The moment you embody Him in an idol or a statue he cannot be called a God.”

And it is also for this reason that he prefers to pray to God, rather than Prophet Mohammad. “The word ‘prophet’ means a messenger of God,” says Akbar. “God has asked that we pray directly to Him. He said, ‘I am closer to you than your jugular vein.’”

Asked to prove that God exists, he says, “I cannot do that. On the other hand, can you prove to me that He does not exist?”

He says that the problem with the Charles Darwin theory of evolution is that the naturalist did not explain who made the first amoeba or molecule. “Somebody has to create it,” he says. “For me, that 'somebody' is God.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Serving the Lord eternally


The nuns of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration have never left their convent in Kerala for decades. They spend their days praying to Jesus Christ on behalf of troubled people all over the world
By Shevlin Sebastian

Fr. Prakash Raj (name changed) had left the priesthood a couple of years after he was ordained. He fell in love with a widow, Martha, who had two small children. They married and lived for several years in Bangalore. The children grew up, and settled in the United States of America. Life was going along comfortably, when Martha died suddenly of a heart attack. Prakash felt lonely.

Throughout all these years, he had an intermittent longing to go back to the priesthood. Prakash sent a petition asking for permission to rejoin to the late Pope John Paul 11, but it was kept pending. Thereafter, he sent several letters, but there was no reply.

A dejected Prakash came to the Adoration Monastery at Nedumkunnam, in Kottayam district, 120 kms from Kochi. He requested the Catholic nuns, belonging to the Poor Clares of Perpertual Adoration (see box), to pray to God on his behalf.

The nuns did so fervently. And a few months later the miracle took place. The Pope gave his assent. Prakash became a priest once again. “This shows the grace and power of Jesus Christ,” says Mother Superior Maria Bertha, 54. In gratefulness, Fr. Prakash came and celebrated Holy Mass for the nuns.

The monastery is a magnet for the troubled. “People from all over Kerala come to meet us,” says Sr. Bertha. “Husbands and wives who don’t get along, parents and children who have trouble understanding each other, those with financial and physical hardships, and siblings who have fought fiercely with each other over property claims. Some shed tears and say, 'There is no peace in our family.'”

The nuns also receive letters from distressed people in Europe and America. Some call up from the Middle East and ask for prayers.

“There is no happiness in the world,” says Bertha. “Within the family, there is no humility. Husbands and wives have such big egos. Both don't want to submit to each other. This is disturbing.”

The nuns also feel pained when they read about wars, riots, random killings, and massacres in the newspaper. “We tell each other so many terrible incidents are taking place,” says Bertha. “I ask my sisters to pray harder. We have to be more ardent. We should offer more sacrifices.”

Bertha says that it is the lack of faith in God that is causing all this turmoil. “People have become very money-minded,” she says. “They have shifted their focus from God to materialism. And that can only lead to suffering.”

Bertha has a serene look on her face. Not many people know that, she, along with 23 other nuns, ranging in age from 30 to 88 have taken a Vow of Enclosure. When a nun takes this vow, it means that she will never leave the convent, except for medical emergencies. It stipulates that she can never spend time with her family. It implies that she can never visit new places. It is like a prison, but Bertha laughs when this allusion is made.

“Not at all,” she says. “I chose this life out of my free will. I felt that this was the only way I could get closer to Jesus Christ.” For 34 years, Bertha has been happily living in the Nedumkunnam convent.

Sitting next to her is Sr. Mary Tancy. “I had a longing to be a nun from my childhood,” she says. Initially, she joined a congregation, the Daughters of the Church, where the nuns were actively involved in public activities.

But a desire grew within her to lead a contemplative life. “So I joined the Poor Clares several years ago,” she says. “I have no regrets about my decision.” Tancy says that she does not miss her family, or a husband or children. “Jesus Christ is everything to me,” she says.

Tancy remembers her day of Profession, on June 23, 2001, when she officially joined the Adoration Monastery, as the happiest day of her life.

“At one moment during the Mass, I lay prostrate on the floor,” she says. Four nuns stepped forward holding a violet shroud. They covered Tancy with it.

“This meant that I was now dead to the world, and alive to God,” says Tancy. “It was a thrilling and joyful experience.”

However, Tancy is candid enough to admit that there are differences of opinion among the nuns. “We come from diverse family backgrounds,” she says. “There are minor disagreements. We might argue a bit, but it is never serious. Frankly speaking, there is no time. We are busy from morning to night.”

Indeed, the nuns have a hectic schedule. They begin their day at 4.30 a.m., with meditation and prayers at the chapel. This is followed by Mass at 6.30 a.m. Thereafter, a few go to the kitchen to cut the vegetables for the mid-day meal. After breakfast at 8.30 a.m., a couple of nuns are assigned to look after aged and sick nuns, while the others do the laundry, and the cleaning of the convent.

At 11 a.m., it is back to the chapel for the recitation of the rosary, singing of psalms, and the reading of the Bible. After lunch there is a rest period of 45 minutes. Some nuns read the newspapers, while others spend their time sewing or taking a nap. At 2.30 p.m., it is back to the chapel for more prayers.
And this pattern of devotion interspersed with various duties carries on till they go to sleep at 10.p.m.

But running parallel alongside all their activities is their adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – this is the host which has been consecrated in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is placed on a high altar in the chapel. The nuns pray uninterruptedly to the Blessed Sacrament for 24 hours. During the day, a single nun is assigned to pray for an hour. Then another nun takes her place.

At night, the nuns do two-hour shifts in front of the Blessed Eucharist. This begins at 9 p.m., and finishes at 5 a.m. “If a particular nun's shift is at 3 a.m., she will sleep till then,” says Bertha. The one who is in the chapel will alert her, and the other nun will then take her place.

“We remember the many troubled people who have asked us to pray for them,” says Sr. Mary Victoria. “We pray to Jesus Christ for world peace, and for people to come closer to God.”

Among the nuns, there are three who have not taken the Vow of Enclosure: Sr. Mary Jacintha, 78, Sr. Dominica, 76, and Sr. Mary Marina, 54.

“Our duty is to deal with the outside world,” says Marina. So Marina, Jacintha, and Dominica will go to the local market to do the weekly shopping. They will take the sisters who are unwell to the hospital, and greet the visitors who drop in every day.

Incidentally, in the reception room, the nuns speak to the visitors through a large window which has a wire mesh. “The idea is to create a sense of separation,” says Bertha. In earlier times, there was a curtain. Both visitor and nun could not see each other. Now, it has been made more accessible.

Asked whether the nuns on the inside are missing out, Marina says, “They don’t like to go out. You must remember that unless you have a strong vocation, you cannot lead a life like this. This is something they have chosen. Nobody forced them to take this decision.”

And so, in sylvan surroundings, surrounded by tall, willowy, rubber trees and flowering plants, in silence so deep, the rustle of leaves is like a shout, a group of nuns have devoted their life to prayer.

Perpetual prayers

The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration are a part of the Poor Clares. This is a contemplative group in the Franciscan tradition. It was founded in 1854, at Paris, by Marie Claire Bouilleayaux.

Their sole aim is to pray to the Blessed Sacrament. “We pray in a spirit of thanksgiving,” says Mother Superior Sr. Bertha. “Our life is dedicated to an uninterrupted day-and-night adoration of the most Blessed Sacrament.”

The Poor Clares have four monasteries in Kerala, and 12 all over India.

In earlier times, there were a few foreigners in the monasteries, but now there are none. In Nedunkunnam the Mother Superior for many years was a German, Mary Michaeline. She came to India in 1933 and never went back. She died in 1999 at the age of 92. “She was so loving and caring,” says Sr. Marina. “Just like a mother.”

(A shorter version was published in The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Black magic in the Congo


Sr. Marie Stella, the elder sibling of Prof. T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, spent many years fighting the effects of witchcraft in this blighted African nation

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the early 1990s, Sr. Marie Stella was the principal in St. Joseph’s College at Kibounde in the Republic of the Congo. She used to get up every morning at 4 a.m. for prayers and would spot an owl on the window sill. She was told that this same owl used to sit outside the room of another nun, Sr. Marie Agnes, and had a malevolent effect. “Agnes would fall sick often and vomited black fluid,” she says.

So, Stella decided to take remedial action. She asked a boy, who worked in the convent, to kill the owl. He did so, early one morning. “Although it is difficult to believe, not a drop of blood could be seen,” she says. In the Congo, the majority of the people practiced witchcraft and devil-worship.

A week earlier, Malonga, one of the teachers in the college, who could not get along with the nuns, had brought a tray which contained rice and fruits. “I did not accept the gift, but Malonga left it outside our door,” she says.

According to the rules of witchcraft when a magic is aimed at someone, and if he or she touches a gift, that person will fall sick immediately. So, the food given by Malonga was set ablaze.

“However, many Congolese warned us that if we did the same thing to the owl, somebody would die,” says Stella. The victim was usually the person who has done the witchcraft. “We never wanted this to happen,” says Stella, who belongs to the Paris-based Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. “So we held a prayer service, before burning the owl.”

However, the impact was immediate. When Stella reached the college, she saw that Malonga was walking about stark naked. “He had lost his mind completely,” she says. “It was clear that he had done the magic spell on us.” Sometime later, he died. The nuns were shocked.

Life was never easy for them. Often the nuns had to travel to the capital, Brazzaville, to buy provisions. It was only 45 kms away, but it took five hours, because there were no roads.

“The people used to put nails on the mud tracks, so that our truck would have a puncture, and they could rob our weekly provisions,” she says. “They did this because they were very poor.”

The country had a ruined economy. There had been civil wars for decades, because different claimants had vied to become president. When Stella was living there, it was Denis Sassou Nguesso who was the leader.

“People would disappear mysteriously, because Sassou used to bathe in human blood,” says Stella. “He did this because he believed in black magic.”

For the presidential elections, in 1992, three rival aspirants, including Sassou, fought against each other. In the ensuing civil war, thousands of people died. Eventually, a leader called Pascal Lissouba was appointed the president. (Meanwhile, in December, 1993, Stella was transferred to the Philippines.)

The next flashpoint was the 1997 presidential elections. As the date drew near, tension mounted between Lissouba and Sassou. Soon, war broke out between the two camps. This lasted for four months. Again, thousands of civilians died.

“There was a complete breakdown of law and order,” says Stella. “Schools and colleges were shut for weeks together. As soon as the shooting began every day, the nuns would hid inside a cupboard, or under the bed.” Finally, Sassou assumed power once again.

In 2005, Stella returned to Brazzaville and got a shock. “After the wars, the roads, buildings, water pipes and the electric grid had been destroyed,” she says. “People had deteriorated morally, physically, and psychologically.”

She remembers a man who had been killed, but there was no place to bury him. “The wife took the body and placed it temporarily in a big freezer in the house,” says Stella. “One day, the eight-year-old daughter opened it and saw her dead father. She was traumatised.”

Stella says that many people had lost their sanity, owing to the endless violence. It was a living hell. In July, 2008, Stella moved to the Cook Islands, near New Zealand, and has been working there ever since.

In May, this year, Stella came for a visit to her home in Muvattupuzha, but, unfortunately, violence continued to haunt her life. On July 4, she was standing right next to her brother, Professor T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, when his right hand was hacked off by Muslim fundamentalists, because he named a lunatic as Muhammad in an examination paper.

“Human beings have the same violent tendencies all over the world,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

‘The supreme power: you can call it Jesus, Allah or Ganapathy’


The actor, T.P. Madhavan, has no doubts about the existence of God, and prays to Him all the time

By Shevlin Sebastian

Actor T.P. Madhavan gets up at 4.30 a.m., has a bath and immediately sets out to the Ernakulathappan temple at Kochi. He participates in the Nirmalaya puja to Lord Shiva.

Standing before the deity, Madhavan says, “I submit to you, Lord Shiva, at every second of my life. Let the day pass safely. Let there be no hurdles. Let everything work out fine.” Thereafter, he says several shlokas in praise of Shiva and Ganapathy.

“Lord Ganapathy is also called Vigneshwara, the God who can remove obstacles,” says Madhavan. “I always pray to Him. He is a powerful God.”

After walking three times around the temple, Madhavan returns home. In his prayer room, he closes his eyes and again chants mantras in praise of goddesses like Laksmi and Saraswati, as well as Murugan, the god of finance.

“I don’t believe in godmen, but there are certain God-realised human beings whom I respect and pray to,” he says. They include the saint Ramana Maharshi, and spiritual leaders like Swami Chinmayananda, and Sree Narayana Guru.

“Narayana Guru’s great philosophy of ‘one caste, one religion, one God for man’ should be adopted by all,” says Madhavan. “God created us as human beings, but it is man who has made divisions like Christians, Muslims and Hindus.”

Like Narayana Guru, the actor is a staunch believer in God. Whenever he does any long-distance driving, throughout the journey, he will murmur the Sahashranama mantra, ‘Om Namah Shiva’. “I reach my destination safely only because of God,” he says. “In a way, I pray to God throughout the day in my innermost mind.”

Madhavan says that he has no doubts about the existence of God. “There is a supreme power in the universe,” he says. “You can call it Jesus Christ, Allah or Ganapathy. It is all the same.”

The actor says that all the major happenings in his life took place, thanks to the intervention of God. In the 1970s, he was working in a film distribution company in Kolkata, and acting in plays organised by the cultural organisation Kala Parishad.

The Malayalam film star Madhu came to Kolkata to look for an actress to play a role in his directorial debut, ‘Priya’. Madhavan had a chance meeting with the star at a friend’s place. “I introduced Madhu to Bengali stalwarts like Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee,” he says. Eventually Madhu selected the actress Lily Chakraborty.

Later, Madhavan moved to Bangalore, following his marriage. In 1975, for the first time, the Karnataka government announced that it would provide a subsidy to make films. It was Rs 2 lakh for Kannada films and Rs 1 lakh for other south Indian languages.

One day, there was a note pasted on Madhavan’s door. ‘Please meet me—Madhu.’ And the name of the hotel was given. The actor had come to Bangalore to secure the government subsidy so that he could make a film. Madhavan helped Madhu to get the money. A grateful Madhu gave the younger man the role of a manager of a company in his film, ‘Kamam Krodham Moham.’ Thereafter, there was no looking back.

“My meeting with Madhu was a divine help,” says Madhavan.

Asked whether he gets angry with God when bad things happen, Madhavan laughs and says, “Yes, I get upset and tell God to go to hell. I say, ‘I have been praying to You for so many years and now You are doing this to me?!’ But at the end of the day, I tell Him I am sorry. I realise it is for my good. God always knows what is best for my life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Torn apart by religious strife

Fr. Joseph Palayoor, who has spent fifteen years in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, talks about the 'before' and 'after' of the anti-Christian riots of 2008

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the day I met Fr. Joseph Palayoor, at Kochi, I showed him a newspaper report that appeared that morning. It stated that 12 men had got rigorous imprisonment for five years for participating in the anti-Christian riots at Kandhamal, Orissa, in 2008, while 75 others were acquitted.

Joseph, who has spent 45 years in Orissa, and 15 in the Kandhamal district, gives a sad smile and says, “This is just a drop in the ocean, in terms of justice. There were thousands of people involved. It was a pre-planned attack. There was a simultaneous looting, arson, and killing in five villages of Kandhamal. More than 100 Christians died.”

As is well known, the riots were triggered by the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananda Saraswati, 80, by unknown assailants in August 2008. Joseph remembers Saraswati well. In 1989, he held a rally in Padangi village, in Kandhamal district, where Joseph was the parish priest.

“Addressing the audience, Laxmananda said, ‘Go and destroy the church. Kill the priest. We are with you,’” says Joseph. “It was terrible that an Indian citizen was saying this about another. He had been running this hate campaign for over 20 years.”

Laxmananda would often tell the villagers that India is for Hindus, and nobody else should live here. “He promised the villagers they would receive government and police support if they attacked the Christians,” says Joseph. “These innocent, poor, and uneducated people were brain-washed.”

And the inevitable happened. In 1989, 17 churches were burnt. The Christians, along with Raphael Cheenath, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, made a representation to the Governor S. Nurul Hasan. He promptly sent security forces to the affected areas.

“It was a long-term agenda of the VHP to target the Christians,” says Joseph. “So, I was not surprised when the riots took place in 2008.”

More than 25,000 people were displaced and their houses burnt down. “Many Christians have tried to come back, but the Hindus have resisted,” says Joseph. “They have been told that unless they reconvert, they will not be allowed to regain possession of their land.”

Joseph remembers the case of his friend, Sisiro Digal, 55, a farmer. A Christian, Sisiro had half an acre of land in Kathingia village, where the majority of the residents are Hindus.

“During the riots, his house was demolished,” says Joseph. It was a cement structure, with a roof made of asbestos sheets. Sisiro had to flee with his family. He has not been allowed to return. Instead, he has been forced to purchase a small patch of land in another village, and is trying to build a house.

In tribal-dominated Kandhamal district, more than 60 per cent are Christians. Joseph has an explanation about why so many tribals have embraced Christianity.

“The high caste people have been exploiting the poor for hundreds of years,” he says. “There was so much of injustice. When these people became Christians they experienced a sense of liberation, after centuries of feudalism.”

What has also helped was the good work done by the priests. “The tribals are aware that we will never exploit or cheat them,” says Joseph, a member of the Congregation of the Mission, St. Vincent De Paul. “They know that we are working for their good. That is why they have accepted us wholeheartedly. They are now able to lead dignified lives and their children are able to get a good education.”

At this moment, it is peaceful in Kandhamal. But Joseph is not sure whether the VHP and other Hindutva organizations are planning another attack. “It might happen again,” he says.

Interestingly, for Joseph, the most distressing aspect of the riots was the way the priests and nuns fled before the rioters arrived. “It was a moral failure on their part,” he says. “Except for the nuns of one convent, Daughters of Charity, all the rest ran away. They should have stood with the tribals. When the priests and nuns left, the people felt let-down. They had lost their leaders.”

Joseph was also disappointed by the leadership shown by Orissa Chief Minister Navin Patnaik. “Patnaik was indifferent when the riots were taking place,” he says. “He should have been proactive. Instead, he did nothing to stop the violence.”

When asked for a suggestion to heal the rift between Hindus and Christians, Fr. Joseph says a cultural exchange would be a good idea. “A group of Hindu leaders from Kandhamal could be brought to Kerala so that they can see for themselves the prevalent religious amity,” he says. “They will be able to see how a temple, a church, and the mosque can operate side by side peacefully. Hopefully, they will understand that communal harmony is the best way forward for our diverse country.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, September 13, 2010

‘Problems are a reminder by God to remember Him’


Actor Bhamaa says that when there are no troubles in life, we tend to forget God. She always asks for God’s grace to flow through her life

By Shevlin Sebastian

When actor Bhamaa was looking for a place to stay, at Kochi, the most important criteria for her was that the flat should be near a temple. Eventually, she bought an apartment near the Thrikkakara temple at Kochi. “I like to awaken in the mornings hearing the devotional songs from the temple,” says Bhamaa.

At 6 a.m., she goes to the temple. “This is the time when the mind is fresh,” she says. Unusually, Bhamaa does not pray. “I just want to feel the presence of God,” she says. “In all temples there is an abundance of positive energy.”

Bhamaa admits that when she was younger she would have a long list of wants that she would express to God. But all that changed when she met the late director A.K. Lohitadas, who gave Bhamaa her first break in the film ‘Nivedyam’ in 2007.

“Lohitadas Sir said that God knows everything about you -- all your dreams and desires,” she says. “So there is no need to tell Him what you want. You should just ask for a good life. In fact, Sir gave me this prayer: ‘In my thinking and attitude, the grace of God should shine through me.’”

When Bhamaa closes her eyes to pray she sees the word ‘Om’. It is in bright yellow and surrounded by flames. On other occasions, she sees the image of her favourite God, Lord Ganapathi.

“He is brown in colour and has a long trunk,” she says. “Unlike Lord Krishna, who has the look of a naughty young boy, there is no expression on Lord Ganapathi’s face. I don’t know whether he is happy or angry. I have a respect and fear for all the gods, but I have always felt comfortable with Lord Ganapathi. I regard him as a friend.”

Another deity, whom she regards as a friend, is the Goddess Mookambika, whose temple is located at Kollur in Karnataka. It is said that Advaita philosopher Adi Shankara had himself installed the idol 1200 years ago.

“Mookambika Devi is regarded as the goddess of the arts,” says Bhamaa. “Most of the artistes go there to pray. And ever since I joined the film industry, I have always sought the help of Mookambika.”

In fact, just before shooting begins, she touches a locket of Mookambika, which is placed in her handbag.

So, does she get angry with the goddess or with Lord Ganapathi when bad things happen? “Not at all,” says Bhamaa. “I know that it is because of my negative actions that bad events have taken place. But on rare occasions I do question God about why a particular incident took place. But later I realise that it is for my good. If life is smooth and there are no troubles, then we tend to forget God. So, problems are God's way to remind us that we should remember Him.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Words to soothe a wounded soul

The students of Sanjo CMI Public School at Koduvely made a 300-page book, with their letters of consolation, and presented it to Newman College Professor T.J. Joseph. It was a gesture of love and solidarity

Photos: The poster made by the kindergarten students.

The students with the poster at Prof. Joseph's house in Muvattupuzha. Joseph's wife, Salomi, is holding the book

By Shevlin Sebastian

On July 4, when Muslims fundamentalists chopped off the hand of Prof. T.J. Joseph of Newman College, Thodupuzha, for naming a lunatic Muhammad in a Malayalam question paper, Fr. Johnson Palappally, the principal of the Sanjo CMI Public School, at Koduvely, near Thodupuzha, held a meeting with the students and the teachers.

“We decided we should protest in some way against this brutal act,” he says. “Of course, the usual method is to hold a rally, or a public meeting. I asked my students to think in a different way.”

One of the students suggested that they could write something. “I liked the idea,” says Johnson. The next day, during the morning Assembly he asked all the students to write a letter. “I told them that it is a very sensitive issue, and they should write very carefully,” he says. Within three days there were 315 contributions. “To my surprise, most of the students showed a great deal of maturity,” he says.

Wrote Milan Shavin of Class 3: “The attack is against our culture and civilisation. A belief in God and all religions is very essential. It makes one a good human being.”

Says Robin Sajee of Class 8: “I am very sad to know that you are a victim of terrorism in Kerala. I offer my prayers and wish you a speedy recovery. May the merciful God bless you and your family.”

All the writings were collected together and made into a book. On the cover is a photo of Joseph, with the word, 'Kayyoppu' (Signature) under it. “There is an underlying meaning to this word,” says Johnson. “We wanted to tell Prof. Joseph that we are providing him with the hand he had lost.”

In the book, the entries are written, with a mix of pen and pencil, in diverse writing styles. They were mostly in Malayalam, with a few English letters. On the top of every page there is a small photo of the professor with the words: 'With love and compassion to Prof. Joseph from Sanjo CMI Public School'.

The kindergarten children placed painted palms on a poster, with the words, “We all are behind you.”

Finally, one day, a group of 15 students, of Classes 7 to 10, led by Johnson went to Joseph's house in Muvattupuzha. The children read out a few letters and then presented him with the poster.

One of the students, Anita Mathew, told Joseph, “We feel sorry for what has happened. In future we will try our best to prevent such brutal acts.” Says Jibin T. Jenson, 14, the general secretary of the school: “The state government should take stern action, so that such incidents do not happen again.”

Sr. Stella, Joseph's sister, says that the children were shocked when they saw the injuries. “Some of them looked away, while a few had tears in their eyes,” she says. “I was also touched by the concern of the children and the dynamism shown by Fr. Johnson.”

Joseph, as expected, was deeply moved. “Thank you for your compassion,” he told the students.

After the schoolchildren left, Joseph began weeping. For a few days after that, whenever he could not sleep at night, Stella would read out the letters. “It was the best medicine for my brother,” she says. “He would have a peaceful sleep after that.”

Joseph has told Stella that the poster should be mounted on the wall and the book kept safely. “He speaks often about this precious gift,” she says.

Meanwhile, for Johnson, the most wonderful memory was to see the look of happiness in Joseph's eyes. “I cannot find the words to describe it,” he says. “The children were very happy. They felt that they had done a great deed.”

And indeed they had! After all, no other school did what they did.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Father of four ties the knot again


By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. Thomas Sebastian's life was shattered on March 5, 1992, when his wife Thresiamma died of breast cancer. He had four teenage daughters. Thereafter, for the next three years, the anaesthetist, based at Kochi, managed the household on his own. “The thought of remarriage never entered my mind,” he says. But in 1995, he received a proposal.

Mariamma Ambooken, 47, was a widow. Would Thomas be interested in marrying her? He pondered over it and broached the matter to his five brothers. “They all felt I should remarry because I would need the help of a wife to look after the children,” says Thomas. He then announced his decision to his daughters.

“I told them that they would all get married and move away,” he says. “I would be alone after that.” The children accepted his line of reasoning.

Mariamma became a widow in 1989 after 22 years of marriage. She was not keen to get married again, even though she had no children, but her mother told her it would be very lonely if she remained a widow.

“This turned out to be true,” says Mariamma. “Whenever I went for public functions I would end up standing at one corner, all alone. I felt that society did not accept me.”

So Thomas and Mariamma got married on January 2, 1995. “Initially, there were a few adjustments problems, but there was nothing major,” says Thomas, 75. But for Mariamma, 62, it was a bit more difficult. She is 13 years younger to Thomas. “Thomas was fixed in his ways and so was I,” she says. “But after a period time, we developed an understanding.”

Mariamma also had to learn to become a mother. “It took some time, but I was gradually able to learn to deal with the girls in a responsible manner,” she says, with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sexual power to the fore


Dr. K.C. Abraham, managing director of Kunnath Pharmaceuticals, talks about how Musli Power X-Tra is the fastest selling aphrodisiac in Kerala. It also has numerous other medicinal benefits

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Friday evening, Dr. K.C. Abraham, the managing director of Kunnath Pharmaceuticals, is busyness personified. An assistant comes with a series of contracts that need to be signed. Abraham is hiring marketing managers and salesmen all over India.

He is also checking through the daily mail, as well as answering phone calls, meeting visitors, and arranging his flight tickets to Johannesburg, where he will attend the Champions League T20 tournament.

“We are sponsoring the Wayamba Elevens, of Sri Lanka,” he says. The words, ‘Musli Power X-tra’ will be printed on the back and the front of the T-shirt, as well as the caps of the players. “This deal has cost me a few crores of rupees,” he says.

For those who don’t know, Musli Power X-tra is the fastest selling aphrodisiac in Kerala and in urban centres like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. The company had a turnover of Rs 45 lakh in 2005. Today it is Rs 45 crore and Abraham is aiming for Rs 400 crore this year.

Essentially, the product has an ayurveda ingredient called safed musli which increases sexual prowess. “After taking the prescribed dosage you will feel very energetic,” he says. “You will last longer and enjoy sex more.”

Abraham says that he has been using the product for the past seven years. “Unlike Viagra, there are no side-effects,” he says. “This is taken from plants.”

He says he was motivated to make an aphrodisiac when he read newspaper reports that when people used Viagra, over a long period of time, they suffered from health problems. A few men even died.

Not surprisingly, when Musli Power X-tra was launched in the Delhi market, Pfizer, the manufacturers of Viagra, took him to court saying that the product contains steroids and is harmful. “But it has been tested by many state and central agencies,” says Abraham. He showed certificates from the Drug Control Laboratory in Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat, which confirmed that there were no steroids present in Musli capsules.

Later, at a medicine shop at Kadavanthra, Kochi, where I had gone to buy an eye-drop solution, I spotted the distinctive gold coloured Musli X-Tra packets. When asked about the sale, the shopkeeper says, “Very good movement. Lots of men are buying it.”

It is not easy on the pocket, though. A packet, which contains 30 capsules, cost Rs 750, for 60, it is Rs 1400, while for 90 capsules it is a whopping Rs 2000. Abraham suggests that a person should take two capsules every day for 45 days and the effects will last for a few years. He says that from 18 to 80, people have been taking it with great results.

So who are the buyers? “Youngsters say that they feel very weak after masturbation and hence they want to regain their strength,” he says. “After taking it, they are so happy they will tell their friends, and the name of Musli is spreading by word of mouth.” Some men buy it a week before their marriage, so that they can perform on their marriage night.

There are some who have failed on their wedding night. “So they have the capsules and call me to say they are saved,” says Abraham.

Then there are men who have reached middle age and have lost their sexual prowess. “When they have Musli they become ten years younger,” he says. He guarantees that the same impact is there for women also. “The ladies become interested in sex once again,” says Abraham. “So this is good for a couple.”

Recently, Krishna Prasad, a customer from Mumbai sent a mail to Abraham: “I got your medicine through a friend of mine in Kochi. The result is tremendous.”

One reason for the high sales is because of the widespread sexual problems afflicting man. “More than 60 per cent of the men in the world suffer from partial or complete impotence, and premature ejaculation,” says Abraham. The pill also helps those who have a low sperm count, heart and kidney problems and Aids patients. “It brightens their chances for survival,” he says.

However, Abraham also had to fight a hard battle to survive. “In any field, if you are successful, you will have enemies,” says the businessman. “Too many people have attacked me.”

But he said that the main obstacle have been the bureaucrats. “When I tell them I am paying so much of tax and the government is earning so much of revenue, they said, ‘What do we gain if the government earns tax?’ Unfortunately, they are asking for bribes in crores of rupees.”

Anyway, thanks to Musli power, Abraham has been able to surmount all obstacles and is laughing all the way to the bank.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

'Grave injustice' say students

By Shevlin Sebastian

The students of Newman College, Thodupuzha, are deeply upset over the decision by the management to dismiss Prof T.J. Joseph from service. “It is a grave injustice,” says Ajishmon P. Sasi, a B.Com student, who used to study Malayalam under Joseph.

Ajishmon had sat for the fateful Malayalam examination, on March 23, in which Joseph had named a lunatic as Muhammad. “I did not feel he had done anything wrong,” he says. “I am certain he did not add the name deliberately.”

Ajishmon says that Joseph is a fine teacher. “He has a wide knowledge of literature,” he says. “Frequently, he went far beyond the syllabus so that we could learn new things. I enjoyed his expertise on Malayalam films.” In his spare time, Joseph has written a couple of television scripts.

Abin Jose, another student of Joseph, is reeling from the shock dismissal. He says that the students had boycotted classes on Monday in protest.

“It is an injustice,” says Abin. “The management showed a lack of sympathy by dismissing him when the professor has not completely recovered [from the attack by Muslim fundamentalists in July. They had cut off his right palm]. He is the sole bread-winner of his family.”

What Abin liked about Joseph was his sense of humour. He remembers a joke that the teacher had told them before Joseph’s life went horribly wrong. When an affluent man wanted to set up an A class cinema hall at Mundakkayam, the B class theatre owners launched a protest. They went to court and obtained several injunctions. But a C class theatre owner did not react. Eventually the A class hall came up.

On the day of the inauguration, the A class theatre showed the film, ‘Jayikkaanaay Janichavan’ (Born to Win). The B class cinema hall showed ‘Tholkan Enikke Manassilla’ (I have no desire to lose), while the C class theatre showed, ‘Ollathu Mathi’ (What we have is enough). Incidentally, these are the titles of actual Malayalam films.

However, when asked why the students did not launch a public protest when Joseph was attacked, they remained quiet. Unlike the teachers, the students did not make a financial contribution to help Joseph meet his hospital expenses. “We did not know he had any financial difficulties,” said Abin. “But, looking back, I feel bad that we students did not do enough for our teacher.”

Says Akhilesh K.P.: “There are no unions in our college and hence we lacked proper leadership.” Adds commerce professor Joy Mathew: “The power of the students to stage protests has become weaker over the years. There are restrictions placed by most college managements to set up unions. But it is only through unions that students can learn the principles of democracy.”

Meanwhile, the parishioners of the Catholic churches of Kaliyar and Vannappuram, near Thodupuzha, reacted negatively. On Sunday night, at 11 p.m., they staged a protest outside the Bishop’s house at Kothamangalam, 25 kms away. This is because the Newman College is run by the Kothamangalam diocese. Fr. Thomas Malekudy, Newman College manager, also lives there.

Says Mathew: “The management has made a disastrous decision. Public opinion is against them. They must show justice and compassion to Joseph by withdrawing the dismissal letter.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The sun goes down

An award-winning documentary, 'The Sun Behind the Clouds', highlights the dilemma in the Tibetan community. While the young want to fight for independence from China, the Dalai Lama wants only some degree of autonomy

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, director Ritu Sarin calls Sethu Das, the founder of ‘Friends of Tibet’, and says, “There is good as well as bad news.”

“Tell me the good news first,” says Sethu.

“We won the Silver Conch Award at the 11thMumbai International Film Festival,” says Ritu. Then, with tongue-in-cheek, she adds, “The bad news is that there was no Chinese around to create a controversy.”

Sethu laughs.

During the Palm Springs Film Festival, at California, in January, China protested the screening of the documentary, ‘The Sun Behind The Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,’ directed by Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. When the festival organisers refused to withdraw the film, China pulled out two of its films in anger.

‘The Sun’ eventually won the ‘Best Of The Fest’ award at Palm Springs, apart from the Vaclav Havel Award, for contributing to human rights, at the One World Film Festival at Prague in March. It also won the Best Long Documentary award at the 3rd Kerala International Documentary and Short Film Festival at Thiruvananthapuram in June.

The film, 79 minutes long, is a riveting look at the life of the Dalai Lama as he spends his time in meditation at his headquarters at Dharamsala and follows him on his travels all over the world, including stops at Seattle, for an interaction with Chinese journalists, to London, where he has an enjoyable meeting with Prince Charles, to Berlin, where he meets German legislators at the Parliament, and Paris.

In the French capital, the Dalai Lama meets with the members of the expatriate Tibetan community and elucidates on his Middle Way approach. “We are not seeking independence,” he says. “We are very much happy to remain within the People’s Republic of China. We only want to preserve our culture and religion.”

But, increasingly, young Tibetans feel that this approach has yielded little benefits. “There is a division among Tibetans between total devotion to His Holiness as our religious and political leader, and at the same time wanting independence,” says Lhadon Tethong, Director of Students for a Free Tibet.

Says a young Tibetan: “Since China has ignored the Middle Way, the time has come for the Dalai Lama to change his policy.”

Writer Jamyang Norbu says that the Dalai Lama is on the horns of a dilemma. “It is difficult to be a political and spiritual leader at the same time,” he says. “But it is time that His Holiness led the protests of the youth.”

But even as the people are talking, the scene shifts to Lhasa, where young monks holding aloft Tibetan flags are staging the biggest-ever protest, since 1949, when the country was annexed by the Chinese. This was in March 2008, before the Olympic Games at Beijing.

“We want freedom! We want independence!” shouts a monk, as groups of men burn cars and try to pull down shop shutters, followed inevitably by Chinese policemen wielding the baton with great force. Soon, tanks are rumbling on the streets. Many Tibetans are killed, even as the uprising is quelled.

Later, at a public meeting at Dharamsala, a woman leader, Dolma Gyari, says, “You cannot kill everyone with your guns! More will rise up behind them.”

As the protests continue in Tibet, young India-based Tibetans, led by activist and writer, Tenzin Tsundue, begins a march from Dharamsala to Tibet. (Tsundue gained international fame when he unfurled a long, ‘Free Tibet” banner alongside the Indian Institute of Science building, at Bangalore, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit in 2005).

Says Tsundue: “This march will link the struggle in exile with the struggle which is happening inside Tibet.” The group walked for four months through the Himalayas, but at Dharchula, which is 60 kms from the Indo-Tibetan border, the Indian police forcibly closed down the march.

Meanwhile, at a rally in New York, a young Tibetan rap singer, Namgyal Yeshi, sings, “If you are Tibetan, it’s time to regain independence.” The camera cuts to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Yang, who says vehemently, “The Dalai Lama should give up his position on independence.”

In the end the film leaves one with a poignant feeling for a people, 6 million strong, who have lost their country and are gradually losing their culture, especially in Tibet, where Han Chinese have moved en masse into the country. They now number 7.5 million. The Tibetans, tragically, are becoming a minority in their homeland. The future, in the face of China's political and economic might, looks bleak.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

'Lord Buddha is a great soul'


Japanese tourist Michiko Yamagishi is a firm believer in the Jodoshu branch of Buddhism

By Shevlin Sebastian

Tourist Michiko Yamagishi, 74, who came to Kochi recently, lives in Ashiya, near Osaka in Japan. One of the first things she does when she gets up at her home is to go to the altar in the living room. There, she kneels in front of an idol of Lord Buddha.

“I ask God to make the day safe for me,” she says. “I also pray that my son and daughter and their families do well in life and enjoy good health.” She also prays for her husband's soul. A retired engineer, he died in May this year.

Apart from that, as an ardent Buddhist, she chants the scriptures and offer flowers, water, and food to the idol. The Japanese regard the family altar as a miniature temple.

Thereafter, Michiko does not do any formal prayers, except late at night, just before going to sleep. “I thank Lord Buddha for the safe day and express my gratitude for all the good things that have happened,” she says. “I also appeal for world peace.”

Michiko believes that God lives inside her. “There is no need for formal prayers,” she says. “You can pray to God at any time. He is always listening.”

Once a year she goes to her favourite temple: the Chionin Jodoshu temple in Kyotu, 50 kms from her home. “I attend a memorial service for souls who have passed away,” says Michiko. “I like the temple because it is very peaceful and silent. Even though it is quite crowded, there is an abundance of positive energy.” Several types of services are held there: sunrise, family, memorial, wedding, and funeral services.

The temple has some unusual aspects. Built in 1234, an umbrella was found placed in the rafters outside the main temple. One of the architects had deliberately placed it there to help bring rain (and ward off fire).

Secondly, the wooden boards were made in such a way that it would rub against the metal joints. So when anybody stepped on them, it created a loud noise. This was intentionally done so that intruders could be nabbed.

Michiko belongs to the Jodoshu branch of Buddhism. Founded by religious reformer Honen Shonin in 1175, he did not discriminate against anybody and simplified complicated rituals. This was a revolutionary act, because in the 11th century, Buddhism was reserved for the social and political elite.

When Michiko closes her eyes to pray, she sees a clear image of Lord Buddha. “He is sitting cross-legged,” she says. “He has slanting eyes and is looking downwards.” Asked whether she is sure God exists, Michiko says, “He might or might not exist, but to me Lord Buddha is a great soul.”

So, does she get angry with God when bad things happen? “Never,” she says, emphatically. “It has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with our actions. Look inwards and purify yourself. Then negative events will not happen.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, September 06, 2010

'The power of truth will triumph over the gun'

The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on a visit to Kochi, expressed hope that his country, under Chinese rule, will get autonomy one day

Photo: The Dalai Lama wearing the Kerala thalapavu (headgear)

By Shevlin Sebastian

When one of Kerala's well-known cartoonists K.J. Yesudasan placed a thalapavu (headgear) on the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader smiled, and said, “I received a similar one two days ago in Bylakuppe (Karnataka). I will soon have a collection. Thank you very much.”

The Dalai Lama came to Kochi yesterday for his first-ever visit to the coastal city. In his opening engagement, he met with an audience of about a hundred people, comprising academicians, intellectuals, journalists, politicians, and cultural figures at the Gateway Hotel, at a meeting organised by the 'Friends of Tibet'.

The Dalai Lama was clad in his familiar maroon tunic and yellow shawl and looked a decade younger than the 75 he actually is. Thereafter, he proceeded to give a remarkable 40-minute talk on the history and background of the Tibet struggle.

“Since 1959 the basic policy of the Chinese has remained the same,” he said. “The suppression and destruction of Tibetan culture. But our spirit remains strong. We believe in non-violence and compassion.”

But his impish humour, which was on display throughout the speech, came to the fore. “But that does not mean that the Tibetans don't fight with each other, but they are in a minority,” he said. Later, the Dalai Lama added, “Some people regard me as a living Buddha. But in China, they regard me as a living demon.” He bursts out laughing at this point.

But His Holiness looked worried when he spoke about the ecological destruction of the Tibetan Plateau, the third 'pole' after the North and South Poles. “Thanks to the endless cutting of trees, global warming is much faster now,” he says. All the major rivers, like the Brahmaputra and the Indus river, originate in the plateau. “A billion people in many countries in Asia, including India, who depend on these rivers will be affected,” he said.

But the Dalai Lama's message, ultimately, was one of hope. “The power of the gun is decisive in the short run,” he said. “But to implement it, you need many people. For the power of the truth to succeed, you need only one person.”

He gave the example of Mahatma Gandhi and how he triumphed over the might of the British Empire. “I am convinced that the power of truth will win, one day, in Tibet,” he said.

The Dalai Lama said that when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire disintegrated, nobody could have predicted these events. “This can happen in China also,” he said. Incidentally, more than 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed so far, and thousands remain in prison in Tibet.

The Dalai Lama said that he had met many young Chinese students who told him that they had been brainwashed by the distorted propaganda about Tibet meted out by the Communist party.

“When they went to Tibet, they were amazed to see the goodness of the Tibetan people,” he told the spell-bound audience at Kochi. “As more and more Chinese students study abroad and meet young Tibetans, they will understand us better and bring about a change in our country.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Teaching English in Libya


M.T Thomas, a former professor of English at Bharat Mata College, Kochi, has been teaching Libyan students the intricacies of the global language

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day Prof. M. T. Thomas, a former professor of English at Bharat Mata College, Kochi, went into a shop in Kekele, 196 kms from Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The owner said, “How are you?” After a while, the owner’s eight-year-old daughter told her father in Arabic, “This is ‘how are you’. He wants to buy something. Please give it to ‘how are you?’” Thomas smiles and says, “She thought that ‘how are you’ is my name.”

Thomas was astonished at the complete ignorance of English in Libya. He went there to teach the subject at a university two years ago. “I did not know Arabic and the students did not know English,” he says. “When I could not understand something, I would say, 'What?’” and they would reply with ‘Shini’. It was later I realised that ‘Shini’ meant ‘what’ in Arabic.”

The students also found it difficult to pronounce particular letters. For example, they cannot say the letter ‘p’. Instead, they use ‘b’. “So for the word, ‘problem’, they would pronounce it as broblem,” he says. “For past, it is bast. For person, they will say berson. This could be the influence of the Arabian language.”

The reason for this poor knowledge of English is historical. In 1986, believing that Libya was behind several terrorist attacks, the USA bombed the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyan leader Muammar-al-Gadhaffi was furious. He did not want anything to do with the West, and banned the English language.

“So, there is one generation which has no idea of English,” says Thomas. “I am teaching the children of that generation.” But now there is a rising desire on the part of the young to learn English.

Surprisingly, 95 per cent of the students are girls. “The boys are not interested in academics,” says Thomas. “They will buy a car and drive it as a taxi. The girls are the ones who like to go for higher education.”

For the students, the government provides free board and lodging. When a girl goes abroad to study, she is allowed to take her husband and children along. “The government will pay the fees, as well as the living expenses for the family,” says Thomas. “Gadhaffi realises that the country is backward, when it comes to education, and needs to improve.”

Thomas says that Indians are much respected because those who work in Libya are white-collar workers like teachers, doctors, computer experts, or engineers. “The salary is very good,” he says. Thomas earns more than Rs 2 lakh a month, and gets free to-and-fro airline tickets every year. “The tax is only 3 per cent,” he says. Libya wants Indian teachers, but their knowledge of the country is gained only by watching Hindi movies.

“They love the films of Amitabh Bachchan,” he says. “They admire the beauty of actor Aishwarya Rai. They think that all the Indian women are as gorgeous as Aishwarya. They say that the Libyan women are not as pretty as the Indians. But, in reality, their women are beautiful also.” Incidentally, Hindi films are aired by the Zee TV network on the Zee-Aflam channel.

Of course, Libya is under the firm control of Gaddhafi who has been ruling the country with an iron fist for over 40 years. His photo adorns every building and road in the country. “There is a widespread assumption that Libya is a rogue country,” says Thomas. “But there are no crime or law and order problems. It is very peaceful and quiet.”

It is quiet because there is very little chance of showing dissent. And there are few avenues for entertainment. “The people spend their time interacting with their extended families,” says Thomas.

At the university, once a year, patriotic songs are sung by the girls.
“The women wear a black gown, along with the hijab (headgear), but their faces are uncovered,” says Thomas. There is segregation of the sexes, but it is not as strict as in other Islamic countries.

Other aspects of Libya: it has a population of only 6.2 million. It is a Sunni Muslim country. The diet is heavily meat-oriented. Sheep, camel, and cow, except pork, are eaten with all meals. There is no public transport. People travel either in their own cars or take a ‘shared taxi’. The average speed on the highways is 120 km/hour.

Asked to identify the major difference between Libya and Kerala, Thomas says, “In Libya, the people suffer because of limited freedom. In Kerala we suffer because we have excessive freedom. Nobody can control anybody. So, it is a difficult choice. Democracy or dictatorship: which is the best for a society?”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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