Sunday, October 31, 2010

The write stuff


Dr. George Jacob, a surgeon, suffered a stroke, at age 40, which rendered his left arm immobile. Today, he works as the doctor-in-charge of the surgical Intensive Care Unit at Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, but has found creative fulfillment through writing

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 14, 2005, Dr. George Jacob had just finished a surgery at PVS Memorial Hospital in Kochi. He walked into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and fell down suddenly. A doctor was called immediately. He realised that George had suffered a stroke.

He was swiftly taken to Lisie Hospital. A CT scan showed that an area on the right side of the brain had been devoid of blood supply, because of a thrombosis. As his condition deteriorated rapidly, the doctors decided to do a craniotomy (this is a surgical operation in which a part of the skull is removed, to relieve the pressure on the brain).

Thereafter, George was put on a ventilator for a few days. From Lisie, he went to the CMC hospital in Vellore to do physiotherapy for a fortnight. This was followed by an ayurveda treatment course in Coimbatore for a month. Then he returned to Kochi.

“I was devastated,” he says. “Because of my immovable left arm, I knew my career in surgery had come to an abrupt end. I was only 40 years old. But I realised that the only way forward was to look for silver linings.”

George was lucky. Since he suffered the stroke in the ICU of a hospital he received expert medical care at once. “If it had been at home or in a car, I would have probably died,” he says.

There were other blessings also. Because the stroke damaged the right brain, George was able to retain his speech, memory, and body movements, which is controlled by the left brain. “I did not get angry with God or fate,” he says. “I have seen many young people who have died from cancers and other such diseases. But God has allowed me to live.”

George received another dose of good fortune. He was hired by Lakeshore Hospital as an intensivist (a physician who specialises in the care and treatment of patients in intensive care). “Any other hospital would have asked me to go away,” he says. Before his stroke, apart from PVS Memorial Hospital, George had also been working in Lakeshore.

Philip Augustine, the managing director of Lakeshore Hospital felt that a “surgeon who is unable to operate needed resettlement in a honourable way. So we made him in-charge of the surgical ICU. This job is best suited for George, as he knows the intricacies of post-operative problems and care.”

Says George: “Apart from Dr. Augustine, my colleagues, and my boss, Dr. H. Ramesh, have given me unstinted support.”

The only hint that there is something wrong with George is when he walks. He has a pronounced limp and needs the help of somebody to maintain his balance. Patients are shocked when he tells them he has had a stroke. “Most of them are suffering from terminal diseases, so I am an inspiration for them,” he says.

Of course, not all are positive-minded. One morose patient, suffering from cancer of the stomach told George, “In one year’s time, you are going to be paralysed on the right side also.” That hurt the doctor a lot. “But it is the rare patient who says something like this,” he says.

At his Venalla home, his wife, Mallie, an anaesthetist at Lakeshore Hospital, offers emotional sustenance and encouragement. “I have accepted the fact that he will not recover completely,” she says. “Since George needs physical help, I worry about him all the time.” The couple has two girls, Anju and Aleena.

George returns home every day from the Lakeshore hospital by 5.30 p.m. One day, while reading the Expresso supplement of the New Indian Express, he noticed that the paper had asked for opinions from readers regarding private buses. “I wrote a letter and it was published,” he says. “It was a major boost for me. I began writing letters to the editor regularly.” Several were published.

Now writing has become a passion for him. Every morning, when he gets up, he hurries to the gate to collect the newspaper. With trepidation and excitement, he opens the newspaper to see whether his letter has been published. “If my letter is there I feel exhilarated,” he says. Subsequently, George reads the newspaper from end to end and sends a letter to the newspaper every day before leaving for the hospital.

“Since I am unable to enjoy a creative expression through surgery, I have turned to writing,” he says. “It gives me a lot of happiness.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Down, but not out

First-time Independents in the Cochin Corporation election learn some lessons from their loss

Photo: P.C. Cyriac

By Shevlin Sebastian

“My initial reaction, when I realised that I had lost, was one of disappointment,” says P.C. Cyriac. “I had hoped to win because the response had been positive on the part of the voters I met.”

But Cyriac, the Independent candidate for the Elamkulam division, and a former chief secretary of the Tamil Nadu government, discovered some unforeseen hurdles. “There was a massive manipulation of the voters’ list,” he says. “Several genuine people were omitted, while new names were added. Many of them were ineligible. You might ask why I did not keep an eye, but at that time I was not in the fray.”

Another problem was bogus voting. “Many people came into the polling both, and voted in the name of others,” he says. “When the genuine voters came, they discovered that their vote had already been cast. The problem was that the state government did not insist on showing identity cards. The instruction was that the cards should be checked only if there is any doubt. This opened the way for false voting.”

But Cyriac performed creditably. He got 1017 votes, while the winner Sojan Antony of the LDF got 1283 votes. The UDF candidate, A.V. Xavier, came third, with 566 votes. And it has been a learning experience for the retired bureaucrat.

“On the last day of the campaign there was a big drama by the rivals,” says Cyriac. They took out a procession with motorbikes and jeeps, and proclaimed the qualities of their candidate through a loudspeaker mounted on the roof of an auto-rickshaw.

“People like to see a show,” he says. “Some of them need a reassurance that you are going to win and their vote will not be wasted.” Cyriac realised that making house calls on voters was not enough.

He says that the result might have been different if he had taken up the offer of the UDF, in the form of T.M. Jacob of the Kerala Congress, who asked the bureaucrat to represent them. “But I did not want to stand for any party,” he says. “I wanted to be an Independent.”

Cyriac says he will continue to show his independence by pointing out the inadequacies in the civic amenities of the city through his newspaper, 'Kochi Vartha'.

A Gujarati debacle

Deepak Pujara, who claimed that he was the first Gujarati to stand for the Cochin Corporation elections in more than 50 years, was wiped out in the Cheralai division. While Shyamala Prabhu of the BJP, who won for the fifth consecutive time, received 2062 votes, Deepak got only 50. He had hoped that the 1400 strong Gujarati community would vote for him.

But on the day of the voting, Shyamala played a master stroke. “In the polling booth all the senior and well-known people in the Gujarati community stood with Shyamala, sending out a message that the Gujaratis should support her,” says Deepak.

But Gujarati businessman Kamlesh Khona gives another viewpoint. “Nobody knew about Deepak before he stood for the elections,” he says. “So how can people vote for him when they don’t know his capabilities?”

Meanwhile, looking back, Deepak says that the lack of planning was a drawback. “I filed the nomination papers at the last minute,” he says. The novice also realised the importance of money power. His rivals spent a lot more to put up posters, flex boards and banners all over the division, while Deepak’s expenses were only Rs 9000.

Like in Cyriac's case, Deepak was taken aback when Shyamala organised a procession of hundreds of people on the last day of campaigning. “That had a big impact on the voters,” he says. “Unfortunately, I did not know about these gimmicks.”

But he says that his main motive was to create a perception among the Gujaritis and the political parties that a person from the community should represent them in the Cochin Corporation, instead of a Konkani like Shyamala. “I think I have succeeded in creating that awareness,” he says.

Incidentally, the political bug has bitten Deepak. “In the next few months, before the Assembly elections I will be joining a political party,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Lord Shiva is the ultimate, modern God'


Best-selling author Amish Tripathi is a devotee of Lord Shiva, but also believes in the gods of other religions

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is raining in Thiruvananthapuram. Author Amish Tripathi is at the Kanakakunnu Palace to give a reading from his best-selling book, ‘The Immortals of Meluha’.

He points at a drop of water on a leaf in the garden, and says, “This drop rose from the sea as water vapour, then the winds blew it, and it hit the Western Ghats. Then it reached here as rain. Sadly, this drop has forgotten that it is part of the sea. Instead, the drop thinks it is part of the garden. This is true from one perspective, but from another angle, the sea lives within that drop.”

Amish takes a sip from a cup of coffee and says, “We human beings have forgotten that we belong to the ocean of universal energy. Instead, we feel that we are only part of this earth.”

Amish, on the other hand, believes he is a part of the universe. So, he has a broad-minded attitude. In his puja room at Mumbai, there are idols of Lord Shiva, Lord Hanuman, and other Hindu gods. He also has photos of the Kaaba in Mecca, Mother Mary, Jesus Christ, and the Parsi prophet, Zoaraster.

“I start my daily prayers by saying ' Om ' to all of them, and then I alternate between 'Om Namah Shivaya' and a shloka to Lord Ganesh,” says Amish. “I conclude my puja with the Mahamritunjaya Jab of Lord Shiva.”

Here are the lines from the shloka:

Tryambakam yajāmahe
Sugandhim pushti-vardhanam
Urvārukam iva bandhanān
Mrtyor muksīya māmrtāt

(We meditate on the three-eyed reality which nourishes and increases the sweet fullness of life. Like a cucumber from its stem, may we be liberated, not from immortality, but from death).

Despite his respect for all Gods, Amish has a favourite: Lord Shiva. And this is his explanation. “Among most divine couples, in every religion, the goddess is always shown as slightly inferior,” he says. “She would be sitting slightly lower than her husband, or she may be sitting at His feet. The message is made abundantly clear: 'Lady, you may be a goddess, but don't forget your place. You are inferior to your husband.'”

In contrast, Lord Shiva and Lady Parvati sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, as an equal. He holds their children on His lap - something which even modern Indian men don't do. There are many times when Lady Parvati opposes him and does what She thinks is right. “But Lord Shiva does not punish her for disobeying Him,” says Amish. “In fact, He continues to love her. In my mind, Shiva is the ultimate modern God.”

Asked to describe an image of Lord Shiva, when he closes his eyes Amish says, “He is sitting cross-legged, the way yogis do, with a golden trishul in his hand. His body is fair, but His throat is blue. He is wearing a tiger-skin skirt, and His hair is matted. Lord Shiva wears a rudraksha mala and a cobra is coiled around his neck. He has a welcoming smile that says, 'Don't worry, I am here.'”

Interestingly, Amish's favourite place of worship is the Sankat Mochan Temple in Benaras, which is dedicated to Lord Hanuman. “There is a lot of divine energy there,” he says. He also likes the St. Peter’s Church at Bandra, Mumbai. “There is a lovely statue of Jesus Christ, with his arms spread out, with the word, ‘Come’ written underneath it,” he says. “You can call God as Shiva, Jesus, or Allah, you can call Him whatever you want, but He lives within you.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Serving God, Mammon, and Sex

Shibu Kalamparambil, a former priest, belonging to the Vincentian congregation, has written a book detailing homosexuality in seminaries and rampant sexual escapades with cash-strapped women, widows, and nuns. Financial contributions made by parishioners to help the poor usually end up in the pockets of the priests

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was midnight. The Catholic priest, Fr. Jose George, could not sleep because there was no fan in the room. Jose knocked on Anna Jacob’s door. When she opened it, he told her he could not sleep. She invited him inside, because there was a fan in her room.

Jose met Anna while conducting a retreat at Kottayam. “Why don't you come home, have dinner, and stay for the night?” Anna said. She lived with her mother-in-law, while her husband worked in Dubai. Jose accepted.

When Jose entered the bedroom, it was seen by Anna’s mother-in-law. “She prayed till morning,” says Fr. K.P. Shibu Kalamparambil. “She cannot reveal this incident to her son, because that will destroy the marriage. Then the society will ask questions about why the marriage came to an end. That would affect the social standing of the family.” So she kept quiet.

But the secret came out when, feeling disturbed, she told Shibu at the confessional. (On every Sunday Catholics can confess their sins to the priest before Mass. The priest and the penitent speak to each other through a grid or lattice).

The advantage of priests is that when they go to the house of a woman, society does not look askance. “He has the social sanction,” says Shibu. “And priests take advantage of that.”

Shibu was a priest with the Vincentian congregation till March. Like Sr Jesme, Shibu has quit the priesthood and written a 160 page book: ‘Here is the heart of a priest’, in which he talks about his numerous experiences during his 24 years in the congregation. The most stunning revelations are the incidents of sexual misconduct.

“If a woman has financial problems and is desperate, she will approach the priest,” says Shibu. “He will help her, but will ask for sex in exchange. She will give in, because she has no option.” Similarly, priests take advantage of widows, troubled women, and nuns.

“Most nuns are sexually frustrated,” says Shibu. “To lead a celibate life is unnatural.” Initially, they will try to leave. But the older nuns will persuade them that there is no need to take this extreme step because things will get better in the future. “Since the elder nuns are trapped, they want to ensure that others also remain stuck like them,” says Shibu. “Nobody is allowed to escape.”

So, the young nuns look for safe ways to have sex. “It is either through priests, servants, drivers, or the milkman,” says Shibu. “There have been cases when the nuns have been caught red-handed, but the matter is quickly hushed up. And the nun is transferred immediately.”

In the priestly life, sexual misconduct starts early. “Homosexuality is rampant in the seminaries,” says Shibu. Since it is a dormitory system, it is easy for a boy with sexual desires to manipulate or exploit another boy. Because the students lead an isolated life, it is only through homosexuality that they can get a sexual release. “They have no other forms of entertainment, like watching films,” he says. “Neither do they have any contact with the opposite sex.”

Shibu, who was a prefect in a seminary, has caught students in the act many times. “They are immediately sent off,” he says. “Sometimes, a few boys escape being caught and carry on their activities long after they have become priests.”

Apart from sex, money is the big attraction. “Nobody knows how much donation a priest receives in the name of helping the poor,” says Shibu. “The priest also gets cash gifts from parishioners after he blesses a new car or a home. The money he gets varies from Rs 500 to Rs 1 lakh.”

He remembers the case of a businessman who gave Rs 1 lakh to a priest, because he conducted the baptism ceremony of his son. “The priest has kept the money, instead of giving it to the congregation,” says Shibu. Usually, they buy electronic goods, or a car, insurance policies, or do investments in shares and real estate.

“Priests are so busy making money, that being a priest has become a secondary role,” he says. “But I heard allegations that the same thing is happening among the pujaris and the maulvis. I feel disheartened.”

But there were other reasons why Fr. Shibu decided to quit. He had a MA in Sociology from the University of Pune, and an M. Ed from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, but was not given jobs commensurate to his qualifications. “The authorities wanted loyalists,” he says. “They will not promote the meritorious person, because they are afraid their positions could get shaky.”

So he had to face the humiliation of seeing juniors being appointed as principals, while he was given a job as a teacher.

The priests in his congregation are aware of what is happening, but are afraid to speak out. “I thought to myself, ‘Why should I remain silent?’” he says. “I joined the priesthood because I wanted to serve God and humanity. But I was unable to do so. If I wanted I could have made a lot of money and led a comfortable life. But I know that these compromises will prick my conscience. So I thought it was better to quit.”

But Shibu also admits that there are blessings in the priestly life. “The vocation does give peace of mind, provided one is working in a spiritual environment,” he says. “Then a person is inspired to work for the betterment of society. Priests in many congregations lead dedicated lives, but there is a certain section, very large in number, which is spoiling the name of the priesthood.”

Asked whether celibacy should be abolished, he nods. “In order to serve God, there is no need to remain unmarried,” he says. “The disciples of Jesus Christ, except John, were married. The first Pope was married and had three children. My suggestion is that the Pope and the priests should marry. Celibacy forces priests to succumb to temptations.”

He said that the Christians sects like the Mar Thomites and the Jacobites allow priests to marry. “They are respected by society,” he says. “So why cannot the Catholic church do the same thing?”

But this insistence on celibacy by the Catholic church could be based on economic considerations. “If there is a married priest, the church would need to give more salary and accommodation,” says Shibu. “The senior clergy will not have the money to live the pompous lifestyles they have now.”

Meanwhile, Fr. Paul Puthuva, one of the Provincial Superiors of the Vincentian Congregation, says, “The book is full of baseless allegations. Any person who leaves the congregation can level all sorts of unfounded charges. So, we prefer not to respond to what Shibu has said or written.”

In person, Shibu comes across as straight-forward and intense, but under mental strain. Max Philips, a friend, says that he is under a lot of pressure from the Vincentian community as well as his own family, who are die-hard Catholics. They are angry with him for writing the book and talking to the media. So Shibu has gone away.

He is now working as a teacher of social science in an Indian school at Doha, Qatar. Shibu himself admits that the road ahead is tough. “But I have courage, determination, and the will to succeed,” he says.

His future plans include marriage and the setting up of a short-stay home for priests who want to leave the priesthood. “Initially, when they leave, they are not accepted by the family or society,” says Shibu. “So they go through a tough time. I will provide them with a room, with an attached bath, as well as a kitchen. A job will also be arranged.”

Asked whether Sr. Jesme served as an inspiration, Shibu says, “Yes, her example was an impetus to reveal what is going on. What Jesme has said is the truth, but it has not been accepted by the church. But there is one thing I can say with certainty: truth cannot be concealed forever. One day it will come out.”
(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aspiring councillors are a disappointment


By Shevlin Sebastian

When I am about to reach N.S. Soumya’s house on Kunjan Bawa Road, at Kochi, I see her poster. I am taken aback by her youth. Soumya, 24, is the youngest candidate in the Cochin Corporation elections; she is standing from the Ponnurruni division for the Scheduled Caste seat.

I have a sudden crisis of confidence. I call up my wife and say, “I have my doubts about meeting this girl.” She asks me why. “She is so young, I am not sure she will be able to answer my questions,” I say.

“You are being prejudiced,” my wife replies. “Be a professional and do the interview.”

And thus, reluctantly, I go in to speak to her. Eventually, Soumya gives intelligent replies. But when I step out I feel depressed. If she wins, the responsibility of solving the problems of the division -- choked drains, bad roads, water-logging and the mosquito menace – will be in her inexperienced hands. What can she do? Probably nothing, because the job is far too big for her.

The previous councillor was Deputy Mayor Mani Shanker, a seasoned politician. But you have to drive on Subhash Chandra Bose Road, like I did, to know what a horrible mess it is in. If somebody like Shanker is unable to solve the problems, what can young Soumya do?

And to think that in the nearby Panchavadi Colony, and other affluent areas, there are so many talented, well-qualified and competent people of the upper middle class who live there. They run top-flight companies and businesses with efficiency and aplomb. But none are bothered when it comes to improving the civic facilities. They have left the responsibility to this kid, even as the UDF is happy to play the caste card.

What about Jeemon Thomas, a candidate in another division? He has not seen the inside of a college. When I ask him for his e-mail id, he gives a blank look. So there is every probability that he does not know how to use a computer. And if he wins, can this person with no managerial expertise be able to improve the infrastructure? The chances are not very bright, I fear.

And then there is Meena Jacob, who has only studied till Class 10. A beautician, she is the UDF candidate for yet another division in Kochi. When I ask her about her experience, she says that she has been on several resident and Parent-Teacher association committees. So, once again, a person with near-zero experience in management will be trying to solve the very serious problems of her division.

Of course, there are competent and educated people, with lots of experience, who are contesting, like P.C. Cyriac, the former Chief Secretary of the Tamil Nadu government. But they are in a minority. And Cyriac is standing as an independent. Can he convince voters to think out of the box, and not as members of UDF and LDF vote banks? Cyriac would definitely hope they do so.

My contention is that the middle class should stop mercilessly criticising the sorry state of the civic facilities in the city and the state. Because it is quite clear that they have abdicated their social responsibilities, and allowed people of questionable calibre to occupy powerful positions in the municipal corporations in the state.

It is time that the brightest talents in the middle class ventured into electoral politics, both at the corporation and the state level. It is only then that we will be able to achieve the Kochi and India of our dreams.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Planning a clean-up


Gracy Joseph, the UDF candidate for the Kaloor South division, promises to clean up the Perandoor Canal, if she is elected

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Gracy Joseph entered the home of a 75-year old woman on Manattiparamabil Road. When the old lady saw Gracy, who is the UDF candidate for the Kaloor South division, she began shouting, “I will not give my vote to either the UDF or the LDF.” Soon, a crowd gathered outside. “I felt scared that the people would think we were having a quarrel,” says Gracy. But a patient Gracy was finally able to calm the woman down.

Eventually, the reason for her anger became evident. She had tenants who were not moving out or paying the rent. The case was going on in the High Court. The woman had called the political party offices to ask for help, but nobody had responded.

“There is a lot of anger among the voters,” says Grace. “Issues like choked drains and poor waste removal are upsetting them.” She says that in the many houses she visited, at one corner near the kitchen there were several plastic packets containing non-biodegradable waste.

“They don’t know how to dispose of it,” says Gracy. “The Kudumbasree waste removal women said they would only take the bio-degradable waste.” In some houses, families stored the bio-degradable waste in the refrigerator, to prevent a stink, because the waste collection was irregular.

But, of course, the big issue in the division is the waterlogging that occurs during every rainy season along the houses that line the Perandoor Canal. “Last month, water entered the homes till it reached the height of the dining table,” says Gracy. “Scorpions and cockroaches floated about.”

In her own house, Gracy has raised the level of the ground floor to such a height that she can no longer use a ceiling fan. “Instead, our family has to use a table fan,” says this mother of two sons. Her husband is working in Saudi Arabia.

Gracy says that if she wins, her priority will be to clean the canal. “It has not been cleaned for years,” she says. “The canal is filled with plastic waste and garbage.” The PVS culvert on the main road also has to be widened, so that there is a good flow of water from the canal to the other side of the road.

Gracy has been on a relentless campaign for the past two weeks: she has visited all the 1600 houses in the division. All this is new to her. Gracy has been a member of the Congress Party for only two years. “I am thankful the party seniors have given me the opportunity to stand for the councillor’s post,” she says.

Since Kaloor South is a woman’s seat, Gracy is having a contest with Neethi Raghunath of the LDF and Sharika Ajith of the BJP.

In person, Gracy comes across as intense and committed. Now the voters will have to decide whether they want to repose their faith in her.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Youth to the fore


N.S. Soumya is the youngest candidate in the Cochin Corporation municipal elections. She is standing as the UDF candidate from Ponnurruni, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a modest house in the upmarket Kunjan Bawa Road, at Kochi. N.S. Soumya, clad in a white cotton saree, waits patiently at the door. At 24, she is the youngest candidate in the Cochin Corporation municipal elections. Soumya is the UDF representative for the Scheduled Caste seat allotted to Ponnurruni.

Soumya has some experience of politics. She is the president of the Kerala Students Union unit at the RLV College in Tripunithara, where she is doing her post-graduation in painting. M.A. Sebastian, block Congress Committee secretary says that Soumya, on her own initiative, had set up the KSU unit in the college four years ago. “She is a capable girl, even though she is young,” he says. “We found no drawbacks in fielding her.”

He added that the opposing candidate, Bindu Sivadasan of the LDF, who is in her thirties now, had become the president of the Thiruvankulam panchayat at the age of 21.

Nevertheless, when Soumya went out for campaigning, she was inevitably questioned about her youth. “But the people’s attitude changed when I told them I was doing my post-graduation,” she says. “Nobody comes to a job fully trained. I will learn as I go along.”

Of course, like all divisions, there are drawbacks galore. Bad roads are a major issue among the residents. Those who travel on Subhash Chandra Bose Road, as I did, will testify that the roads are in horrible shape.

“Two riders got injured when in order to avoid a speeding Kottayam-bound private bus, they fell into a large pothole,” says Soumya. The other problems include a drinking water shortage, a mosquito menace, and water-logging.

Soumya remembers going into a house in the interior and talking to a family in knee-deep water inside the house. “They were CPI(M) supporters,” she says. “I found this ironical. The area has been a LDF stronghold for the past 30 years, and nothing has been done to alleviate the sufferings of the people.” The previous councillor was none other the Deputy Mayor Mani Shankar.

Soumya was deeply affected when she met old people living alone, without any pension, struggling to get money to pay for medicines, and vegetables. “The cost of living has gone up so much,” she says. “Several were turned away by officials of the Cochin Corporation when they approached them for help. I felt very bad about it. Whether I win or lose, I will be helping them.”

The Ponnurruni division is a study in contrasts. Following my conversation with Soumya, when I step out, onto the road, I hear music blaring from the nearby 'Nirmal Gardens' bungalow. It is the evergreen Boney M hit, 'By the rivers of Babylon'.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wake up friends!


Deepak Pujara is the first Gujarati in over 50 years to stand for the Cochin Corporation elections. He is trying his luck as an Independent from Cheralai

By Shevlin Sebastian

Deepak Kumar Pujara got inspired when he saw a Tata Tea advertisement with the catch-line 'Jaago Re' (Wake up!). “My symbol is a cup and saucer,” he says. “I am telling the voters, as well as the elected councillors to wake up and do something for the good of the city.”

Deepak, who is standing for the councillor’s seat from Cheralai, Kochi, is the first Gujarati to do so in more than 50 years. He was inspired by Hansa Jayanth, his former class teacher at the Gujarati school in Kozhikode. “Hansa Teacher stood as an Independent backed by the LDF,” he says. Now she is the chairperson of the Standing Committee (Public Works) in the Kozhikode Corporation.

An avid newspaper reader, Deepak noticed that every community was putting up their own members for Corporation and state elections. “So I felt that I should try, on behalf of the Gujaratis,” he says.

In his division, out of 6000 votes, 1400 belong to Gujaratis. He is hoping they will throw their weight behind his candidature. But it is an uphill task. The sitting councillor, Shyamala S. Prabhu of the BJP has been holding the seat for 20 years.

“Most of the Gujaratis have supported Shyamala, a Konkani,” says Deepak. But there is a growing feeling among the community that Shyamala has not done much. “People are looking for a new face,” says Deepak.

Sensing the changed mood among the electorate, eight independents have thrown in their hats, apart from P. Radhakrishnan of the UDF and M. Murali Master, the LDF-backed Independent.

“Because of the presence of so many candidates, there is a strong chance of the votes being split,” says Vipin Patel, a local resident. But Deepak is keeping his fingers crossed. “If I get around one thousand of the Gujarati votes, I stand a good chance,” he says.

During his campaigning, Deepak has listened patiently to the people’s complaints. In Lalan Road, because of the lack of streetlights, women are afraid to walk on the street after 7 p.m. What increases the insecurity is the presence of a bar nearby.

In Bhatia Wadia, a Gujarati colony, the voters told Deepak that man has gone to the moon, but water has still not come to the locality in the past five decades. “When they complained to the councillor, they were told that the pipes were narrow and the water pressure was low,” says Deepak. However, like all candidates, Deepak has promised he will resolve all the problems.

In Kochi, where he has been living since his twenties, Deepak runs a travel agency near the South Railway station. Asked what he would do if he lost, he says, “I will carry on with my life, but I will definitely make another attempt in future.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A retired bureaucrat enters the fray


P.C. Cyriac, after a distinguished career, is standing as an Independent in the Elamkulam division

By Shevlin Sebastian

For seven years, P.C. Cyriac, the retired Chief Secretary of the Tamil Nadu government, has been bringing out a weekly newspaper, ‘Kochi Vartha’, highlighting the civic problems in the city, especially in the Elamkulam area. The newspaper has a circulation of 10,000 copies.

“I noticed that despite writing so much, the public did not pay any attention,” he says. “You are taken seriously only if you hold a position.”

So Cyriac has decided to contest the Cochin Corporation elections for the first time. He is standing as an Independent candidate in the Elamkulam division. And he feels he has a good chance to emerge victorious. “In local body elections, belonging to the LDF or the UDF is not very important,” says Cyriac. “People weigh the merits and demerits of the individual candidates.”

In fact, in the Corporation, there is no concept of ruling and Opposition parties. Every councillor, irrespective of whether he is a party member or an Independent, is elected to some committee or the other, like Taxation, Health, Works, Education, etc. The administration is conducted through these committees.

In Kerala many educated people retire at the age of 55, even though they have many useful years ahead of them. “Instead of using their expertise in a forum like this, for the betterment of society, they resort to non-stop criticism,” says Cyriac. “It is a waste of time. I am hoping my entry will inspire a few such people to do something similar.”

Cyriac has been on the campaign trail for the past fortnight. And it has been a revelation for him. Apart from posh localities like Kumaranasan Nagar and Jawahar Nagar, there are places like Ikya Nagar and Kudumbi colony, where he went for the first time.

“When it is raining, these areas get waterlogged,” he says. “Garbage lies strewn about and the drains are blocked. It is an unhygienic situation. Honestly, it is an eye-opener. I never knew such places existed in Kerala.”

In such an environment, the voters are looking for somebody who can solve their problems. “Promises have been broken too many times in the past,” says Cyriac. The previous councillor was Mary George of the LDF. Cyriac’s opponents include A.V. Xavier of the UDF, Sojan Antony of the LDF, as well as Jerson Elamkulam of the BJP.

So far, Cyriac has been receiving positive responses from the voters, numbering 6000, when they hear about his credentials: a chairman of the Cochin Stock Exchange, a director of the Federal Bank, apart from an illustrious career in the senior levels of government administration.

So, at the age of 66, a tall, silver-haired man is trudging, in the heat and the rain, through the lanes and bylanes of Elamkulam, canvassing for votes, even though he can easily put up his feet and relax in his elegant river-facing bungalow.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A service mentality


C.D. Valsala Kumari, an Independent, supported by the LDF, has a deep desire to serve the people in the Vennala division

By Shevlin Sebastian

C.D. Valsala Kumari entered the colony at Thalliparambu in the Vennala division for the first time and received a shock. There was a stretch of water which surrounded all the houses. It was only after talking with the people that she understood the reason why.

“Earlier, there were paddy fields all around,” says Valsala. “They were flattened and raised to a higher level. Following that, multi-storied buildings were constructed.”

As a result, whenever it rained, the water gushed down like a torrent from the higher land into the colony. “The people are surrounded by water, but, unfortunately, there is a lack of drinking water in the area,” she says.

A tank had been built more than ten years ago, to supply water to the colony, but rarely does it filled. The residents have to use wells, but the water is hard and unclean.

She felt very bad to see their situation. “Here I was, leading a comfortable life, in a nice house, in the same division,” says Valsala. “It was only when I went out campaigning that I was able to see the lives of people at first hand.”

Valsala has been working as a secretary in the LDF-controlled Vennala Service Co-operative Bank for the past 23 years. “Because of this job, a lot of people know me,” she says. “They have promised to vote for me.”

It was the late C.A. Madhav Master, a president of the bank, who served as an inspiration to Valsala. “He was a former Mayor who did a lot of good things for Vennala,” she says. “So I want to contribute to society in a similar manner.”

Valsala is standing as an Independent, supported by the LDF. The Vennala division has 4937 votes. There is a mix of the middle, upper middle class and poor people. Wherever she has gone, she has received complaints about the lack of action by the previous councillor M.B. Muralidharan.

“The drains, the roads, and the waste disposal system are all in bad shape,” says Valsala. “The garbage, in some areas, is collected once a week. By then, the food gets putrefied and become a health hazard.”

This time, because it is a woman’s seat, N.N. Girija of the UDF is standing instead of Muralidharan. She had been a councillor in 2000. “We were neighbours once, so we know each other well,” says Valsala.

Incidentally, Valsala’s election symbol is a television set. “You get the news through the TV immediately and all the time,” she says. “Similarly, I will be on the alert and work for the welfare of the people at all times.”

Asked whether she will win, Valsala smiles and says, “I am hundred per cent sure. The people are looking for a new face this time.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A middle-class attempt


Lalitha Unnikrishnan, a post-graduate in economics, is standing as an independent candidate, supported by the LDF, from the Ravipuram division for the Cochin Corporation elections

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of weeks ago, when Kochi was lashed by heavy rains, Lalitha Unnikrishnan received a call from a Communist Party worker near the Atlantis area. When she went there she was astonished to find several houses under water.

“I remember entering the home of a 54-year-old woman,” says Lalitha. “All the equipment had been spoiled.” These included the computer, refrigerator, sofa, cupboards, and plywood shelves. “They would have to spend a lot of money to buy the appliances once again,” says Lalitha. “The woman was crying uncontrollably.” As expected, the residents vented their anger at the councillor, David Parambithara, for not solving the problem.

But David defends himself. “There was so much rain this year, there was nothing I could do,” he says. “Apart from Ravipuram, water entered the houses in many places, like Fort Kochi, and throughout Kerala.” However, in an earlier interview to Express, David had waxed eloquent about how he had solved the drainage problem in the Ravipuram division. Maybe, it is time for Lalitha to provide a permanent solution.

A quiet, soft-spoken woman, Lalitha is a post-graduate in economics. However, in Maharaja’s college, she had some experience of politics. She is a former Vice-Chairman of the college. Today, she runs an English-training institute on Chittoor Road. In her spare time, she has been a volunteer at eye and medical camps, conducted by voluntary organisations like the Rotary Club. Since she is well-known in Ravipuram, when the seat became reserved for women, the LDF approached her to stand on their behalf. Well-wishers and friends also urged her.

“My husband was also very supportive and told me that this would be a great chance for me to serve society, and I agreed,” she says. Lalitha is contesting as an Independent, but supported by the LDF. As a first timer, is she nervous? “Not at all,” she replies. “On the other hand, I am getting an opportunity to meet so many people. I have a better idea about the many problems that affect the area.”

Apart from the usual problems, like bad roads, that afflict all divisions, Lalitha says that the crematorium is in bad shape. “I will definitely refurbish it if I win,” she says.

Long-time resident, Parvathy Menon, who lives on Old Thevara Road, spoke about the presence of too many stray dogs. “The waste disposal system is in bad shape,” she says. “I wish many more trees are planted.”

Parvathy says she is happy that somebody like Lalitha, well-educated and from the middle class, is contesting the elections. “We need such type of candidates in politics,” says Parvathy. “My only request to the winner: she should understand the problems that we are facing.”

The Ravipuram division has 3300 votes. It is flanked by Pallimukku in the north, Thevara in the south, the railway line in the east and Foreshore Road on the west.

And Lalitha has been campaigning in the area for the past three weeks. Many people know her well because she is the daughter of the late K.P. Anandaraman Master, who had set up the popular Wisdom College, a private tutorial institution in the 1950s on Chittoor Road.

“Several residents are my father’s former students and they treat me with respect,” she says. “They have the conviction that I can bring about a significant improvement.”

But there are opponents to overcome along the way. The UDF is represented by Saumini Jane, while the BJP has put up Baby (Lakshmi Teacher). Interestingly, Saumini and Lalitha are friends, and live on the same road. “In the previous election, the UDF won by a wafer-thin margin,” says Lalitha. “But this time, I am very optimistic.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, October 15, 2010

All set for a maiden win


After 15 years in the Congress Party, Jaison Nediyathara has been selected to contest the Cochin Corporation polls from Palarivattom

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Congress leader Jaison Nediyathara’s house on Chaithanya Lane, Palarivattom, there are posters and leaflets piled up at one corner of the living room. On October 2, he was selected as the Congress candidate for the Palarivattom division for the upcoming elections to the Cochin Corporation.

There were 12 aspirants. But since the party wanted to select a young person, Jaison, 36, got the nod. “This is the first time I have got the chance to contest an important election,” he says. “I am excited about it.” Is he nervous? “Not at all,” he says, with a smile.

Naturally, the other candidates who missed out are unhappy. “That is expected,” says Jaison. “It is human nature to feel disappointed, but I hope to win them over in the next few days.” However, at this moment, this group has stayed away from the campaigning.

But Jaison has been on a hectic programme every day, visiting families. After all, there are 7000 votes at stake. “The common complaint is that the people want the roads to be repaired, and the drainage system to be improved,” he says. In some houses, the people have a lot of questions to ask. So Jaison has to sit down and explain the improvements he will bring about if he is elected.

Of course, not all voters are accommodating. Some are so angry that they have not allowed Jaison to meet them. This happened at a multi-storeyed building at Thammanam.

“A resident told me that they are not interested in voting for either the LDF or the UDF,” says Jaison. The reason for their grievance: every time it rains heavily, the car parking area gets flooded. Numerous requests had been filed to set up a proper drainage system, but it was met with no response from the standing councillor, Mini Joseph of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

In some houses, the people are curt and unfriendly. Most cannot avoid making the dig that voters aim at all politicians: “We see you only once in every five years.”

Despite the frustrations of the voters, what tilts the balance in Jaison’s favour is the demography of the area. More than 60 per cent are Christians and Jaison is one.
Also, this has been a UDF bastion, but last time, thanks to a Congress rebel, who took away 700 votes, Mini Joseph won. So, indeed, his chances are bright.

Local resident P.A. Stanley, a tailor, says, “Mini has done some good work, including setting up a few houses for the poor. I am in a dilemma on who to vote for, because both Jaison and Mini are my friends.”

But Mini is not standing for election this time. Since it has become a general, from
a woman’s seat, her colleague, Jojy Kurikott, is the candidate. Says Jojy, “Although it is a UDF stronghold, I am confident of winning.”

Mini says she has done a lot of good work, including solving water-logging problems in Pallichambel and Kalavath roads, and changing all the GI pipes to PVC. “I am sure the voters will repose faith in the CPI,” she says.

But Jaison says that the voting will be predictable. “Those who traditionally vote for the LDF will continue to do so, while the same will be the case with the UDF supporters,” he says. “It will be difficult to persuade a LDF supporter to vote for me.”

Despite this, Jaison exudes energy and optimism. The only time he looks fazed is when I ask him about the prospect of losing. “I am hundred per cent sure we will win,” he says. “I am not even thinking about losing. But in case it happens, I will carry on with the party activities. I have been a member for 15 years.”

Jaison’s wife, Jiji Rose, sitting nearby, a former teacher, and a mother of two small children, says firmly, “I am sure Jaison will win.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love ain't easy!

Parents encourage their children to opt for divorce when there are problems during the initial months. There is no attempt at adjustment or compromise. As a result, divorce rates have skyrocketed in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Soon after her marriage, Menaka Rao, 22, realised that her husband, Raghu, 25, was under the complete dominance of the mother. “She spoiled him,” says Menaka. Raghu would work for a few months, then say he is not well and resign and stay at home for months together. “Because I had a job in the bank, I was able to pay the bills,” she says. But after a year, Menaka could not take it any more and walked out. “I don't want to spoil my life,” she says. Menaka has just filed for divorce.

At psychologist Dr Prakash Chandran’s clinic, at Kochi, Dilip and Meera have come for counselling. They are in their late twenties. At first glance they look like a successful middle-class couple. Dilip is wearing a blue shirt and trousers, while Meera is in a green salwar kameez. He works in a multinational company and earns Rs 60,000 a month. She is a housewife.

The problem is that, despite being married for one and a half years, they are unable to consummate their marriage. “When he was in college, a girl told Dilip that he was not good at love-making,” says Prakash “It affected him deeply.” Whenever Dilip attempts sex with his wife, those old fears crop up and he is unable to perform.

“There are very few young people in Kerala who know how to go about the sex act from the beginning,” says Prakash. “Most girls have a rudimentary knowledge. So they feel tense and nervous and are unable to enjoy it. Some girls think that sex is just hugging and kissing. Sometimes, a man suffers from temporary impotency, owing to various psychological and physical reasons. So, he is not able to perform satisfactorily.”

But the couple feels a pressure, because the family and society keep asking whether the girl has become pregnant. One day, unable to bear the trauma alone, the girl will tell her parents, “My husband is impotent.” Immediately, the parents will ask her to leave the marriage. No opportunity is provided to the husband to cure his problem. “Psychological or partial impotency can always be healed through counselling,” says Prakash.

Meanwhile, the boy's family will refuse to accept that there is a problem with their son. The battle-lines between the two families are drawn. And it is a matter of time before a petition for divorce is filed.

Sometimes, when the girl experiences pain she will hesitate to participate in the sex act. Then the man will feel frustrated and ask for a divorce. “Men have been put off by something as minor as mouth odour and broken their marriages,” says Prakash.

Interestingly, the psychologist blames the parents for the rapid rise in divorce among young people today. “The parents only discuss educational topics with their children,” he says. “They don’t teach the children about how to overcome troubles and setbacks. They are not taught how to get along with each other, and how important it is to adopt an attitude of ‘give and take’, so that a relationship can flourish.”

Instead, the children are pampered and are given whatever they ask for. As a result, they become egoistic and selfish. Whenever they encounter problems in their marriage, they are unwilling to resolve it. Instead, they walk away. What gives young women the confidence to leave is that they are all financially independent, thanks to well-paying jobs.

Lilly James, a High Court lawyer in Kochi, says, “If you compare the trends over the past twenty years many more women are initiating divorce these days. Undoubtedly, economic independence is allowing them to take this extreme step.”

The increasing confidence of women is also a threat to the men. These days, daughters receive as much exposure as sons, especially in nuclear families. By the time she is 24 and ready for marriage, a young woman has a pronounced individuality.

“But when she gets married she suddenly loses this freedom,” says Lilly. “This surrender is very difficult to adjust to. This is one of the major reasons in the breakdown of the marriages. Women want a 50-50 sharing of the work at home which the husbands are unwilling to do.”

Another reason is that divorce is no longer a stigma in society. “Nowadays, parents tell their daughters that if they cannot get along with their husbands, they should walk away,” says Prakash. The thinking is: why waste your life. Since their daughter is financially independent they are confident she can get another husband.

Many people are influenced by stories in the media about people who have had successful second marriages. “There is a widespread perception that, if the first marriage has failed, you can get it right the second time around,” says Prakash.

Breaking up is hard to do

The road to divorce is never easy, especially if there is no joint petition. Prakash remembers the case of a 26-year-old woman who was unhappy at the way she was treated by her in-laws. She walked out within weeks of the wedding and filed for divorce.

She also wanted the gold jewellery back. The boy refused. He filed a counter petition stating that his wife suffers from mental instability. The case has been going on for seven years. “They are bitter, but refuse to compromise,” says Prakash. As a result, both are unable to remarry. Their life is stalled.

In this type of situation, to overcome their loneliness, several women have affairs, usually with married men. “But this usually leads to frustration for the woman, because eventually the man does not want to leave his wife,” says Prakash.

So what is the way forward? Prakash says that young people should not confide everything to their parents. Instead, they should seek expert advice. “It is easier to solve marital difficulties when only two people are involved, instead of the entire family,” he says. “Most of the times the reasons for the strife are very minor and it can be solved. Many marriages can be saved.”

Lilly says that when a person wants to become a priest he has to spend years to qualify. So is the case if you want to be a lawyer or a chartered accountant.

“Similarly, there should be training for marriage for youngsters,” she says. “They should be taught on how to handle the financial, emotional, psychological and physical aspects of marriage. Young people should have an idea of what they will encounter when they get married.”

Lilly says that parents should teach the children about all aspects of life. “They have an erroneous thinking that if a child is economically sound, he or she will have no problems,” she says. “But this is not true at all. I know of many young people who have successful professional lives, but a miserable marriage because they don’t know how to balance a career and family life.”

What also causes unhappiness in marriage is the lack of joy in work. “Many parents force their children to become doctors and engineers,” says Lilly. “Some children do not have the talent for it. They find it difficult to cope and suffer from enormous stress. They become very unhappy and this affects the marriage.”

What is clear is that in an India of rapid social and economic changes, marriage as an institution is being rocked like never before. Young people have no idea of how to lead a happy married life. The result: a wreckage of hopes and dreams.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

'We are all travelling on the same road towards God'


South African writer and social activist Zubeida Jaffer says that religions are like different vehicles all moving in the same direction

Photo: Zubeida Jaffer (left) with Chinese writer Lijia Zhang at Kovalam

By Shevlin Sebastian

When South African author and social activist Zubeida Jaffer was arrested by white policemen in 1985, during the apartheid era, and taken to jail in Cape Town, she asked for a copy of the Quran. “Initially they told me it was a privilege, and refused,” she says. But, eventually, they relented, and her parents gave her the Quran in English as well as Arabic.

“I had a deep belief that once I finished reading the Quran in both languages, I would be freed,” says Zubeida. So, she read the books from cover to cover and it took six weeks. “I waited to get released, but nothing happened,” says Zubeida. A few days went past.

But one morning Zubeida decided to pack her clothes. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she says. “Because one of the rules of survival is that when you are imprisoned, you must never think about your release. You have to prepare to be there for a long time. But I was so convinced that I would be leaving.”

As she waited in her cell, the door opened suddenly. “In came this policewoman and she was smiling at me,” says Zubeida. “She said, ‘I have good news for you. You are going home. So pack your clothes.’ I told her, ‘I have already packed. I am ready to go.’”

Zubeida pauses and says, “This incident proved to me that God exists, and He had kept me safe.”

But there are times when God does not keep her safe and bad events take place. So, does she get angry with Him? “I don't know whether I get angry or not, but I do say, ‘Why me, God? Why must I go through all this again?'” says Zubeida. “I have been through two spells in jail and two marriages.”

But her brother’s words of advice have been a source of comfort. “He told me, ‘You don't know why God deals you certain cards,’” says Zubeida. “‘The important thing is not to ask for other cards, but to work with the cards you have been given.’”

When Zubeida gets up every morning, she usually says a prayer of gratitude. “I say, ‘Thank you God for the fact that I am here and I am alive,’” she says. “I also thank Him for the wonderful relationship I have with my daughter, Ruschka.”

But at the same time, she is worried about her 24-year old daughter. “Ruschka is in love with a Christian boy and I hope this inter-religious marriage works out well,” says Zubeida. “I say, 'Dear God, guide her properly.’”

Asked whether she is convinced God exists, Zubeida shakes her head. “You can believe in God, but you cannot be sure He exists, since there is no proof,” she says. But Zubeida says that when she visited the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, a few years ago, she had an incandescent experience. “I felt that I was in the presence of a strong energy, a divine power,” she says.

Nevertheless, Zubeida is a liberal. In her travels all over the world, she has prayed in mosques, temples, churches and synagogues.

“It is the same God, but with different names,” she says. “You can call him Jesus Christ, Allah, or Buddha. There are several vehicles to reach God, but we are all traveling on the same road.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An American Muslim in Pakistan


Photo: Deborah Baker
Credit: Julienne Schaer

Maryam Jameelah, born a Jew in New York, converted to Islam, and migrated to Pakistan in 1962. Deborah Baker has written a book about her life and career as a writer

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 2007, Deborah Baker, the wife of the acclaimed novelist, Amitav Ghosh, was browsing through the catalogue in the Archives and Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library. Suddenly, she came across the name of Maryam Jameelah. She was taken aback to see a Muslim name among a list of Christian and Jewish names.

“I wondered how a Muslim's papers ended up in a New York library,” she says. So she asked to see the boxes containing Jameelah's papers.

And this is what she discovered. Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus, the daughter of a Jew, who grew up in Rochelle, a New York city suburb. As a child, she became interested in Arab culture, when she heard Arabic music on the radio and liked it.

As she grew older, she read books like Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Road to Mecca ’, which described his conversion from Judaism to Islam. Thereafter, she read many other books on Islam and began correspondence with religious leaders around the world, including Seyyed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The one who replied and encouraged her interest in Islam was Mawlana Abul A’la Mawdudi, the founder of the fundamentalist Jama’at-I-Islami party in Lahore. Convinced that only Islam had the answers to the great questions of human existence, on May 24, 1961, the American converted and took the name of Maryam Jameelah. The following year, at the age of 27, Maryam travelled to Pakistan to live as Mawdudi's adopted daughter.

And she began to write a series of letters to her parents over the next thirty years describing her life in detail. “It was the voice of the letters that gripped me,” says Deborah. “It was ingenuous and chatty, and filled with detailed descriptions of her life in purdah, and Mawdudi’s activities.”

Maryam also wrote a series of books that was a harsh indictment of the Western way of life. One book had the title, ‘Western Materialism Menaces Muslims’.

These writings had a powerful effect in the Middle East. “Earlier, the criticism was not very sophisticated, because the Muslim thinkers, scholars, and writers did not have a direct experience of the West,” she says. “But here was Maryam, coming from the bosom of the West, New York, and providing this detailed critique from an Islamic point of view. She was able to give ammunition to those within the Islamic world who wanted to reject the West.”

Asked why she had such an antipathy, Deborah says, “Maryam felt that the West was very materialistic, superficial, and tawdry. She hated Hollywood, Broadway musicals, and commercialised sex.”

She also was upset at the tribal warfare between Catholics and Jews, blacks and whites, and the various kinds of social inequities that were prevalent. On the other hand, she found that Islam was the perfect religion for her. “It was an answer to her innermost needs,” says Deborah.

Deborah spent three and a half years to write the book, ‘The Convert: A Fable of Islam and America.’ The forthcoming book has numerous letters written by Maryam, interspersed with commentary and background information by Deborah, who had gone to Lahore in 2007 to do detailed research.

Meanwhile, a year after she went to Pakistan, Maryam fell out with Maulana Mahdudi. “It could have been a jealous wife of Mahdudi,” says Deborah. “It could have been the Jamaat-i-Islami, which may have wanted to protect the Maulana from Maryam.”

After all, since she was a former Jew from America, they felt that Maryam could have been a spy. Or it could have been that the Maulana no longer trusted her. “He might have become wary of having this woman in his house, with all the problems that entails,” says Deborah.

Anyway, Maryam moved out, and a year later, she got married to Muhammad Yusuf Khan, a leader of the party, and had five children. Two sons ended up joining the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And all along, Maryam continued to write books, essays, and articles, with most of them being diatribes against the West.

But in the end, the author rejects Maryam’s way of thinking. “I don't agree with her claim that Western and Islamic civilisations are irreconcilable,” says Deborah. “It is an abstract view. You don't live a civlisation. Are Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Hindus essentially antagonistic? The answer is no. All of them are human beings, and if they try they can get along with each other.”

Notes from the festival

Having heard the former BBC correspondent Satish Jacob over the radio for several years and read his books, it was a pleasure to meet the silver-haired journalist in the flesh. He had come to deliver the fifth K.C. John Memorial lecture at the Kovalam Literary Festival. But Satish shocked the audience, including me, when he said that he was not a Malayali.

At the tea break I rushed to find out the true story behind his name. Satish tells me that he was born in Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh. His father, Manilal, was a member of the Bhumihar community. “Do you remember Kalpnath Rai?” says Satish. Rai, a former Union Minister, is also a Bhumihar.

So what happened was that Manilal fell in love with a Christian woman, Monica. He wanted to marry her, but she said, “I cannot marry a Hindu.” Manilal said, “No problems, I will become a Christian.” And that is how Satish Jacob got his name. Interesting, the after-effects of love: An UPite ends up with a Mallu name.

Less SPG please!

Thanks to the presence of Daman Singh, the daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Special Protection Group was in full force. But frequently, they displayed an irritating ‘in your face’ security. Exasperated, I went across to a SPG personnel and asked him why this was so. “You have to understand that we are trained to treat every person as a threat,” he said. “Madam Daman is the daughter of the Prime Minister. If anything happens, we will be blamed.”

But I do remember watching the televised funeral of US Senator Edward Kennedy at a church in Boston, and the most powerful people in America, including presidents and senators, were in attendance. But you could not see a single security person in sight. Perhaps, the SPG needs to learn a few tricks from their American counterparts about unobtrusive security.

Friendly ants

While talking to Chinese author Lijia Zhang under a large, overhanging tree, on the grounds of the Kanakakunnu Palace at Thiruvananthapuram, a few red ants began to crawl down her neck and arms. Incredibly, they did not bite her. Instead, they were peacefully wandering around. I wondered to myself: are they re-incarnated Chinese ants with a belief in Buddhism?


(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Coming of age in China


Lijia Zhang talks about her memoir, 'Socialism is Great!' It is about the time in the 1980's when the Communist nation was about to open up to the global economy and transform its fortunes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Chinese author Lijia Zhang spent many years as a teenager working in a missile factory at Nanjing. “When people hear that, they say, 'Wow, that must be fascinating,'” says Lijia. “I can only describe those years as mind-numbing and soul-destroying.”

There were many rules. Wearing lipstick and high heels were not allowed. “I have naturally curly hair,” she says. “I never got any promotion because my bosses felt that only those with bourgeois tendencies wore a perm.”

What galled Lijia was the lack of privacy. “Nothing was personal,” she says. “Not even one’s period. Every month, we had to show a blood-stained sanitary towel to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant.” She also had to go to cinemas to watch revolutionary films and attend political meetings.

It was in the factory that she started to write. She also began to study English. It opened her mind to the wide world outside. A few years later, she embarked on a career as a journalist. And one day, she happened to meet Peter Hessler, an American author and journalist. They became friends.

“Once, during lunch, I accidentally mentioned to Peter that I had worked in a missile factory,” says Lijia. “He looked surprised. Peter probably thought that I came from a wealthier background, and was better educated.”

Peter asked Lijia whether she could write a piece for the 'Asian Wall Street Journal', for which he contributed. She did so and the piece was published in December, 2000. “When my friends read it, they said, 'Why don’t you write a book?'” says Lijia. She did some research and discovered that there were very few books set in the 1980’s.

“Yet to me and many Chinese, the 80's was a fascinating period,” says Lijia. “China was gingerly unbuttoning Mao's strait jacket. There were so many changes, hopes, passions and dreams. It was the beginning of what China has become today.”

It took five years but eventually the book, 'Socialism is great – A worker's memoir of the New China' was published by the US-based Anchor Books. “The story is about a girl coming of age,” she says. “It details my political and sexual awakening. It is also a quest for personal and political freedom.”

Of course, the title has a sarcastic ring to it. “Yes, it’s tongue and cheek,” admits Lijia. “It is the name of a song sung by a famous revolutionary, Shi Hui Zhu Yi Hao.”

And in the ensuing extract, you can get some idea of her playful wit: “‘Revolution is not a dinner party,’ our great leader Chairman Mao once warned. But today’s revolution seemed to be all about dinner parties. Most business deals, official or private, were concluded at a banquet table crowed with expensive items – shark-fin or turtle soup, and drinks with medicinal benefits like bear-paw wine (considered generally good), snake-penis wine (a manhood enhancer) or snake-gallbladder wine (for improving eyesight).”

The book, expectedly, has not been published in China, but it has come out in Australia, India, Italy, France, Holland, Brazil and South Korea.

Asked how difficult it is to be a writer in China, Lijia says, “To be a writer is difficult anywhere in the world. But in China there is censorship. In contrast, India has such a vibrant literary and intellectual atmosphere. Last year, I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival and was so impressed by the lively debates. This is something we don’t have.”

Despite this, Lijia says that China has changed enormously. “Not many people know that the ordinary citizen now enjoys so much personal freedom,” she says. “They can choose their hair and life styles, and select where they want to live. However, there is still a cage. But for many, the cage has grown so big that many simply don’t feel the limit. Nevertheless, I don’t see any major democracy movement coming up in the near future.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mamma Mia, look at this!

At the MICAM international footwear exhibition at Milan, Italy, Shevlin Sebastian watches in wonder at the exquisite styles on display

At the Artioli stall at the international footwear exhibition at Milan, Italy, there is a large poster of the late Hollywood director Billy Wilder. On it he had scrawled the following lines: ‘To my friend Vito Artioli: My gratitude for making me walk comfortably from here to eternity.’

“Billy introduced me to many leading Hollywood actors,” says Vito. “He would tell them, ‘You should wear Artioli, because he believes that shoes are the mirror of the soul of a man.’”

An Indian businessman, Amirali Jaffer, standing nearby, lifts up his shoe, points, and says, “You don’t mean the sole?” Vito laughs aloud, repeats the word, 'soul', and says, “I have a bit of advice for Indian women: ‘If you find a man wearing Artioli shoes, marry him at once!’”

It is sensible advice. Because Artioli shoes sell at 1000 euros (Rs. 60,000) and go all the way to 3000 euros (Rs. 1.8 lakh). So, only the well-heeled can afford his shoes. And that includes Indians also.

“There are a lot of Indians in Dubai who buy my shoes,” he says. “It is cheaper there, because it is duty-free.” Nevertheless, despite the high import duty of 60 per cent, he has plans to open a boutique in Mumbai, because of the rising number of millionaires in India .

Apart from millionaires, Vito also deals with the rich and the famous. He has made shoes for President Barack Obama and the late Pope John Paul 11. “The Pope is sleeping in eternity with my shoes,” he says. Another of his customers is one of the the richest men in the world: the Sultan of Brunei, Hassan al Bolkiah. Then, with a grin, he adds, “There are many actors from Bollywood who are my customers, but, unfortunately, I cannot reveal their names.”

Asked for the reason why Italian shoes are the best in the world, he says, “It is a mix of a long history, technical know-how, and enormous passion. But what is most important is that we live in a free society. We have the freedom to be creative.”

Akbar Shetranjiwala, who owns a high-end shoe boutique in Pune, says, “The artistry and the quality of the leather are mind-blowing. The level of creativity is very high. Here, the consumer readily accepts the new styles, and it becomes a commercial success. In India, the buyers are still very conservative when it comes to designs, but, hopefully, through regular international exposure, things will change.”

Says Rossini Soldini, another shoe manufacturer: “If you look at the map, you will discover that Italy is shaped like a boot. So, maybe, we are destined to make shoes.”

The MICAM exhibition at Milan, Italy, organised by the Italian Footwear Manufacturers’ Association of Italy, is spread over an area of 2 lakh square feet. It is the largest and most-well-known exhibition of footwear in the world. There are more than 1500 stalls displaying footwear for men and women, teenagers and children. Participants have come from 34 countries, while the buyers represent more than 100 countries.

Each stall is designed in a unique style, but what is unusual is that, at most stalls, there is a locked door, with a gorgeous-looking woman sitting in front on a high stool.

First you have to present your visiting card to her. She will take it inside to show it to the owner and only when he gives his assent are you allowed to enter.

“There are people who want to steal our designs,” says shoe manufacturer Andrea Brue. “So, we want to keep a control on the people who visit our shop. We are looking for genuine buyers and visitors. We like references. That is why we examine the visiting cards before we let in the people.”

Once you go inside, they treat you with gushing hospitality. Soft drinks, wine and champagne are on offer, while chocolate nuggets on trays can be nibbled at, while you go about the serious job of looking at world-class shoes.

Of course, there are Indians at the fair. Ajay Bhatia works for the children's company, Ciao Bimbi Shoes. “I came to Italy more than 20 years ago,” he says. “I have an Italian wife and children. I like it here.” He says that the Asian markets, including India, have to mature some more before they will be able to accept Italian shoes. “But I am sure, that in the near future, India and China are going to be big markets for us,” he says.

For that to happen, Jaffer, who owns shops catering to the affluent in Mumbai, Bangalore and Indore, says that the Indian government should reduce the import tax from 60 per cent.

“The buyers of Italian shoes belong to the elite, and they are small in number,” he says. “I don't think reducing the duty will affect the overall market.” Italian shoe manufacturer Marco Nesti says that because of the high taxes, the selling price of an Italian shoe in India becomes too steep. “The Indian government should do something,” he pleads.

But some Italians are undeterred. Flaminio Fabi, who owns the world-famous Fabi brand, is about to establish a tie-up with designer Ritu Kumar. “My shoes will be on display at her outlet in Gurgaon,” he says.

Fabi, a short, bespectacled man, who radiates energy and dynamism, says, “The unusual aspect of the Indian market is that the women prefer the shoes to match the clothes. So we will be making shoes that blend with the clothing. Ritu will be sending us different types of textiles to us.”

When asked why he is interested in India , Fabi gives a broad smile and says, “In India, today, there are a lot of people with plenty of money in their pockets. They want good quality shoes from Italy . The price is secondary. You must remember that Jimmy Choo shoes are selling in India at 1000 euros (Rs 60,000). So, the market is very promising.”

The interesting thing to observe is how the attitude towards India has changed. It is no longer regarded as a poverty-stricken country with low standards. On the other hand, Italian shoe-makers salivate at the size of the market. But even then, sometimes, it becomes difficult to conclude a deal.

Jaffer enters the Cerutti shop and sees ladies sandals, flip-flops, flat shoes and stiletto heels priced between 10 and 12 euros (Around Rs 600). He gets excited by this and negotiates to buy 24 pairs, for a start. But the owner, Mario Cerutti, raises his hands in helplessness and says. “24 is too little for us. We have a conveyor belt that makes 120 pairs at a time. So I am unable to do a deal with you.”

Meanwhile, the best exhibition of Italian shoes are those worn by the women as they walk around, eyeing the shoes in the various stalls. More than 90 per cent wear six inch stiletto heels, as they walk elegantly and gracefully and with a practiced ease. Thanks to mini skirts and hot pants, the shoes, as well as the legs, are on display, to magnificent effect.

“The women look so nice,” says Akbar. “Of course, it would be difficult for our Indian women to walk on these high heels, what with our broken pavements and rough surfaces.”

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, it felt good to be an Indian in Italy.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Off to a bright start


By Shevlin Sebastian

Caption: (From left): Minister M.A. Baby, and authors O.N.V. Kurup and Paul Zacharia

Mouths opened in surprise when M.A. Baby, the minister for education and culture appeared five minutes before the stated 10 a.m. inauguration of the Kovalam Literary Festival at Thiruvananthapuram. In his inaugural speech, he explains the reason why. “There is a bit of an adventure in inviting a minister to a literary festival,” he says.” There is always the possibility of the programme being delayed, owing to his late arrival. So, I took abundant precautions.” Thank you, Minister, for breaking the mould.

When poet O.N.V. Kurup arrives, everybody stands up in respect. He has made Keralites proud by winning the prestigious Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award. Baby shows courtesy by holding the 79-year-old’s hand, and helping him on to the stage.

Kurup spoke about the dying art of poetry, and says, “Poetry is kept in the hothouse under the artificial lights of the Indian Coffee House.” Kurup presented the Emerging Writers’ Award to Sahira Thangal.

Sahira, a mix of prettiness and homeliness, her dupatta draped demurely over her head, gives a dazzling smile, as she accepts the award. Later, when asked about how it is to live and work in Dubai, Sahira says, “The peeping mind of the Malayali is missing, and that is a big relief.”

A woman photographer, Smitha, sitting next to me bursts out laughing and nods her head vigorously.

Outside, as a photographer takes a picture, The New Indian Express columnist, Paul Zacharia, says, “What is the Kerala Sahitya Akademi doing? Such a big organization and it has never been able to organize a festival like this, where national and international writers are present. Instead, one individual, Binoo K. John, his wife, and a few friends and relatives have set up this show, and they are doing a commendable job.” Incidentally, this is the third edition.

A little further away two women writers are admiring each other’s costumes. Chinese writer Lijia Zhang holds the black blouse of South African writer Zubeida Jaffer, between her fingers, and says, “So pretty.” Zubeda says, “It’s the right dress for this kind of hot weather.” Lijia smiles and says, “I am a colourful person, so I like to dress brightly.” And she is indeed looking splendid in a black and red knee-length gown, with plastic flowers pinned in her hair.

Here is a quiz question: who is the only writer in India to get a police escort, and breathless plainclothesmen standing at the entrance of the venue, the Kanakakunnu Palace? Answer: Well, it is none other than Daman Singh, the daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She has come to talk about her book, ‘The Sacred Grove’.

When I am about to go to the toilet, a plainclothes security officer raises his hand to forbid me, and says, “Daman Madam is using the toilet.” I reply, “I want to use the men’s toilet,” but he refuses to see the humour in it. To paraphrase the title of Manu Joseph’s internationally acclaimed novel: ‘A Serious Man’ indeed.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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