Monday, November 29, 2010

‘Devi is my favourite goddess’


During the bleakest moments of her life, author Jaishree Misra says that Devi has offered solace and solutions

By Shevlin Sebastian

When author Jaishree Misra had just got married, her husband, Ashutosh said they should go for a small holiday. A friend suggested Vaishno Devi. “I thought it was a hill station, popular with tourists,” she says. But when they landed there, she got a shock to realise that it was a pilgrim town.

The Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu and Kashmir is at an altitude of 5200 feet. “We had to walk 14 kilometres to reach the temple,” says Jaishree. “My husband is not religious at all, but we did all the rituals. There was a powerful divine energy present in the temple.” Later, Jaishree’s mother told her, “Devi called, and you had to go.”

For Jaishree, her favourite goddess is, indeed, Devi. This was because when she was a child, there was a beautiful photograph of Devi in the puja room of her home at Delhi. “I still remember the picture so clearly,” says Jaishree. “Devi is wearing a pink saree, and is standing in a garden. Apart from sparkling earrings, she has a lot of gold jewellery, with gem stones embedded in them. As a child if I did something wrong, I would sit in front of her and ask for forgiveness. Devi always had a sweet smile on her face.”

Jaishree says that many coincidental events took place, thanks to Devi. She was supposed to get married at her in-law’s home in Delhi. But because of certain impediments, Jaishree ended up marrying Ashutosh at the Shanghumugham Devi Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. “I felt that Devi wanted me to get married there,” she says.

Jaishree says that Devi helped her when she was at the lowest point in her life. This was in 1989 and she was living in Kochi. “My daughter, Rohini, who is mentally challenged, was six at that time,” says Jaishree. “I was not able to get the right kind of schooling for her. I was deeply unhappy on many levels, and my first marriage was breaking up. It was then that Devi seemed to realise that I had reached the depths of despair, because life suddenly turned for the better.”

Jaishree got admission at the University of London and was able to get a good special school for Rohini, near where she lived. By then, she had met up with Ashutosh, an old school friend, and fell in love.

“The meeting was an accident, but I would prefer to use the word ‘serendipity,’” she says. “A divine force which plans our life, arranged this.” Later, she secured a good job and her writing career took off. “Things have been wonderful ever since,” says Jaishree

Like most people, Jaishree also has her favourite places of worship. “I like the Althara Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, which is near my mother’s home,” she says. “It is under a big, old tree, and the Devi there is very cute.” She also goes to the Shanghumugham Devi temple. “It is near the beach, and is very spacious,” she says. “I experience a lot of peace there.”

But Jaishree also believes in Lord Krishna and has frequented the Guruvayur temple. Two months ago, the family had conducted the udyasthamana puja, the most coveted and auspicious of all pujas. “My grandmother had booked this puja twenty-five years ago,” says Jaishree. “She passed away, but the entire family was present, as the event meant a lot to us.”

The puja, which comprises special prayers and illuminations, starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Incidentally, the next slot available for an Udayasthamana pooja at Guruvayur is in 2041!

So, for Jaishree, is God male or female? “God is androgynous, sometimes male, sometimes female,” she says. “I love both forms.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

'Thanks Kerala for a wonderful welcome'

Sanjoy K. Roy, the MD of Teamwork Productions, talks about the highs and lows of organising the Hay Festival at Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sanjoy K. Roy stood out with his shoulder-length silver hair and vibrant voice at the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram. The managing director of Teamwork Productions, which was organising the festival, was all over the place, greeting authors, visitors, and long-time friends. He shared a hug with author William Dalrymple.

During lunch, he would suddenly stand up and announce, “The next session will start at 2.30 p.m. And the speakers include...” He rattled out the names precisely.

Of course, it was all carefully planned. And the work began in May, 2009. “It took us a year to find the money, do the programming, get our authors on board, find our partners, get official permissions, and launch our marketing,” he says. “Nothing is easy, but as long as you have a plan and it is not done at the last minute, it is never difficult.”

Incidentally, the other places in contention were Goa, Pondicherry, and Chennai. “We finally zeroed in on Thiruvananthapuram, because of the location,” says Sanjoy. “The Kanakakunnu Palace gives you the option of having different sessions in different places at the same venue. It allows you to cordon off an area in the garden to organise a book exhibition and it also has an amphitheater, where cultural shows can be staged.”

However, what came as a shock for the organisers was how badly Thiruvananthapuram was connected to other parts of India. It was also prohibitively expensive. “There are so few direct flights,” says Sanjoy. “You will not believe this, but a one-way first-class ticket from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram cost Rs 70,000. It made a dent in our budget.”

The budget was around Rs 1.7 crore, and there was a shortfall of Rs 35 lakh. “But I am confident we will make a profit in three years,” says Sanjoy, with a smile. “The festival is definitely going to be an annual fixture at Thiruvananthapuram.”

Initially, the organisers were worried about crowd participation, because, during the Kovalam Festival held in October there were hardly two hundred people present. But in the end, there were around 4,000 registered participants for the Hay Festival. “There were three sessions, every hour on the hour,” says Sanjoy. “So we needed people to fill up all the halls, and that happened all the time.”

Sanjoy has an easy-going personality, and that probably helped him to deal with all kinds of writers. “You have the sulky writers who always have a problem with everything,” he says. “You have the writers who just love being part of the festival. And lastly, you have the cranky writers who will act rudely and refuse to answer questions.”

But the ones who behave well, like the best-selling British historian Simon Schama and Malayalam writer K. Satchidanandan are friendly, kind, and cooperative. “They will shine at any festival anywhere in the world,” says Sanjoy.

Teamwork Productions also handles the well-known Jaipur Literature festival, as well as an astonishing 16 book festivals worldwide. That includes shows in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hongkong, India, Italy, Israel, Indonesia, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Britain, South Africa, Canada, and North America.

Among the most interesting for Sanjoy is the Jaipur festival, as well as the festival in South Africa. “It has become the largest on the African continent,” he says. “There are thousands of visitors, and such a wide variety of authors.”

But Sanjoy will not easily forget the festival held in Indonesia in 2002. Bali was one of the venues. One evening, Sanjoy and a colleague, Rahul, decided to go to the Sari Club on Kuta Beach.

“The taxi driver, for some reason, instead of taking us to Kuta, led us to a restaurant in Denpasar, the capital, and said the suckling pig is famous,” says Sanjoy. So they ate that, and then got onto motorbike scooters and headed towards Kuta Beach. Halfway through the drivers stopped and asked for more money.

A frustrated Sanjoy decided to head back to the hotel. The next morning he took a flight to Melbourne. It was only when he landed there that he got a frantic call from his wife. She told him that there was a bomb blast at the Sari Club in Bali and 202 people had been killed.

“It was a miracle that I was alive,” says Sanjoy. “Because of that near escape, I have learnt to appreciate and enjoy moment of my life. I had a great deal of fun at the Hay Festival. It was a very successful event. Thanks Kerala for a wonderful welcome.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The agony that is Kashmir


A five-month agitation in which more than 100 young people were killed by security forces has come to an end. Author Basharat Peer talks about the pain of being a Kashmiri and why the people want independence

By Shevlin Sebastian

On August 2, a day curfew had been imposed in Srinagar by the security forces. But eight-year-old Sameer Rah stepped out to play, along with other children, in the lane outside his house in the Batamalloo neighbourhood. Imitating the adults, Sameer shouted separatist slogans. He did not realise that there was a group of Central Reserve Police Force soldiers standing nearby. Angered by what he was saying, they beat Sameer with bamboo sticks. Then they threw the boy on some poison-ivy bushes nearby.

Sameer was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. He had become a martyr, another addition to the growing number of deaths of young people this year. In the last three months, 106 youngsters have been killed by the security forces.

“His father, Fayaz Rah, was shattered,” says Basharat Peer, the author of 'Curfewed Night', a searing account of life in Kashmir. Fayaz, 39, is a fruit vendor. He has three sons. “The police said that my son died in a stampede,” Fayaz told Basharat. I ask Basharat whether the father has become radicalised.

“People make the wrong assumption that when something like this happens, the family becomes militant,” says Basharat. “The point is that you have to put food on the table. You have to buy medicines for a father who is old. There are sons whose school fees have to be paid. Living is more difficult. Fayaz will continue in his job as a fruit vendor.”

Today, Kashmir has become quiet after months of disturbances, when young people threw stones at the paramilitary forces, and the troops opened fire. “It is very difficult to sustain the intensity of an agitation for five months,” says Basharat. “So, things have petered out, but the questions remain.”

These include demilitarisation, the revoking of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, better governance, and accountability. So far, there has been no official investigation as to how Sameer was killed. This lack of justice triggers violent agitations. Unfortunately, the government has spectacularly failed, over the decades, to soothe the wounded psyche of the people.

“The youngsters are very angry,” says Basharat. “They have grown up seeing people being arrested, tortured or killed. And when they see somebody from their school, or the neighbourhood being shot, it makes them angrier. This is one generation which has grown up seeing nothing but death.”

But Basharat also says that because of the fragility of human life, people care a lot more for each other. “The bonds are stronger,” he says. “This year, when there was curfew for months, the poor had nothing to eat. But once it was lifted, everybody helped each other, whether rich or poor. It fostered an intense sense of community.”

But it is clear that the majority in the community want azaadi (independence). “Yes, the people desire freedom,” says Basharat.

At the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Basharat is a featured speaker. Even though he is articulate, Basharat looks tense and nervous. He is taken aback when a girl, a college student, comes up, with tears in her eyes, and sympathises with him over the recent killings in Kashmir.

A freelance journalist, Basharat writes for international newspapers, like the 'Financial Times' and 'The Guardian'. He is also a fellow of the Open Society Institute at New York, where he lives for six months. The rest of the time, he is in Kashmir or in other parts of India. As one who has travelled all over the country, I ask him the reaction of people when they come to know that he is a Kashmiri.

“It is different with me because I am a journalist,” he says. “So they talk to me as a reporter. But for other Kashmiris, there is a mixed reaction.”

Sometimes, when they want to rent a house and the landlord realises that they are Kashmiris, he will say no. This happens often in Mumbai, Delhi, and other parts of north India. “Things are much better when the Kashmiris go to Bangalore, Chennai, or Hyderabad,” he says. Basharat looks amazed when I tell him that there are a few hundred Kashmiris living in Fort Kochi. “That’s great,” he says, smiling for the first time.

Meanwhile, Basharat is busy at work on his next work. “My role is to tell the stories, so that people have a clear understanding of what is going on in Kashmir,” he says. From the audience reaction at Thiruvananthapuram, it is clear that he has succeeded admirably.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

‘It is God’s grace which protected me’


Hormis Tharakan, the former director-general of the Kerala Police says that in times of extreme danger, the divine force has saved him

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was March, 1983. Hormis Tharakan was in Rome. Suddenly he received a call from his Brussels-based brother, Mathew, who gave him grim news. Their youngest brother, Michael, 32, was in the Intensive Care Unit of the Sree Chitra Medical Centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Michael had two successive heart attacks.

“The odds of survival were low,” says Tharakan. Devastated, he got into his car and went to the house of the Sisters of Charity. “I had heard that Mother Teresa had come on a brief visit,” he says.

He met Mother Teresa in the garden and told her about Michael’s illness. She led him to a small chapel nearby. They both knelt down and prayed. “God listened to our pleas,” says Tharakan, the former director-general of the Kerala police. Michael survived, and in later years, became the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University.

Tharakan prays to God every morning when he gets up. He uses a prayer which his mother gave him when he was DIG of Police, Central Range, Ernakulam. It goes like this: ‘Please help me to serve our people, not to be impatient under any circumstance, to carry out every task to the best of my skills and to use my abilities to do good. Lord, guide me in my thoughts and let my conscience shine before You.” He also prays that his children are protected by God at all times.

Tharakan says that he has a few favourite places of worship. One of them is the Basilica at Sardana, 21 kms from Meerut. “It has an unusual history,” he says. The church was constructed by a Muslim woman, Begum Sumru, a nautch girl, who had been married to Walter Reinhardt, a German mercenary in India. When he died on May 4, 1778, she inherited his fiefdom. Thereafter, Begum Sumru became a Catholic.

In 1822, the Begum built a church at Sardana. “When I pray in this church, in the midst of a mangrove orchard, I feel peaceful,” says Tharakan.

He also likes the Eremo delle Carceri (the Hermitage of the Cells), located in a wooded area on Mount Subasio in Assisi, Italy. It was here that St. Francis lived in a cave and wrote the beautiful prayer, ‘Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace’. “It should be the prayer of every policeman,” he says.

Tharakan has, in his travels all over the world, prayed at temples and mosques, as well as churches. Some of the places include the St. Antony’s Church at Thycattussery, near Chertala, built by his forefathers, the Sabarimala temple, the Wailing Wall at Jerusalem, the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. “I feel comfortable praying anywhere, because God is present wherever good things are being done,” he says.

Despite being a tough cop, who took on the Naxalites in the 1970s, Tharakan says that there were many instances when he escaped despite being in grave danger. “It is God’s grace that saved me during those times,” he says.

When asked whether man needs God, he says,” I know of people who did not have a belief in God, but still behaved in an ethical manner. But for most people, a faith in God helps them to distinguish between right and wrong. It prevents them from behaving in whatever way they like.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, November 22, 2010

An illustrious Filipino

Writer Miguel Syjuco, who won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, talks about how the win changed his life

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Miguel Syjuco with the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize award

In 2007, Filipino author Miguel Syjuco submitted a manuscript for the Man Asian Literary Prize. “I was confident of doing well but, unfortunately, I did not even make it to the long list,” he says. So, he took the book apart, deleted characters, re-wrote it and made it into a different novel. In 2008, Miguel submitted it again, hoping that it would appear on the long list so that agents could get interested in his manuscript.

“I had already spent years looking for an agent,” he says. Thankfully, Miguel’s name did feature on the long list. “Then I thought it would be nice to get on the short list,” he says, with a smile. And when that happened, he was invited to go to Hongkong for the prize-giving ceremony.

“I thought I would have some dim sum, get drunk, and lose as gracefully as possible,” says Miguel. So imagine his surprise when he ending up winning the 2008 Man Asian Prize. “Everything changed for me after that,” he says. “I found an agent and an editor who spent a year making the manuscript better.”

This became the novel, ‘Ilustrado’. It traces the life of Crispin Salvador, a famous Filipino writer, who ends up being murdered and dumped into the Hudson river, near New York.

Another strand explores Crispin's writing class student at Colombia University, a character called Miguel Syjuco, who is on a search to find out what actually happened to Crispin. “The Miguel in the book is completely different from me,” says the author. Incidentally, it is not a novel in the conventional sense: there are Crispin's short stories, memoirs, letters, jokes, newspaper articles, e-mail messages, and blog entries.

Because of this, some critics described ‘Ilustrado’ as a post-modern novel. Miguel rejects the term and says, “Post-modernism is an easy way of explaining works that are unconventional. I don’t think my novel is post-modern at all. In fact, it is contemporary. Today, we perceive reality though different sources: the TV, mobile phone, internet, radio, Facebook and Twitter. This has not been reflected in literature, and I wanted to show that.”

By the way, the word ‘Ilustrado’ means 'enlightened' in Spanish. It refers to a group of young men, who, in the late 1800s, left the Philippines to study in Europe, mostly in Spain. With their European education, they returned, and played a key role in the Philippine revolution of 1896, which overthrew the Spanish.

Not surprisingly, the novel is a best-seller in the Philippines. “It has struck a chord among readers, because it articulates the anger and frustration that we often feel,” he says. “It is also a window into the privileged class. Nobody in the Philippines has written about them yet. It is also different from most Filipino writing, which is earnest and serious. My book has all that, and I like to think it is funny and entertaining, too.”

Today, Miguel lives in Montreal as a full-time writer. “It is like owning your own business,” he says. “You have to be disciplined and focused. It means that, unlike other jobs, you are always working, thinking, and letting the ideas for your next book develop in your head. It does stress me out, but working 9 to 5 is also tiring.”

But Miguel also admits that he misses the job of a journalist. Earlier, he had worked in newspapers in Australia and the USA, including as a fact-checker in the prestigious literary magazine, 'The Paris Review' at New York. “Journalism enabled me to meet all sorts of people,” he says. “Writing, by nature, is a solitary profession.”

At the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Miguel is dressed stylishly in a pinstripe blue suit, a bluish-red handkerchief tucked fashionably in his breast pocket, and white shoes. He is unfailingly polite and charming and the noonday heat leaves him undisturbed. He does not perspire at all, despite his formal clothes.

Miguel is excited, because this is his first visit to India. “As soon as I exited the airport, I experienced the same dynamic pace, and the same warmth in the people, as it is there in the Philippines,” he says. “We seem to have the same social problems and colonial history. I felt at home.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Making Hay while the sun shines

Some vignettes from the just concluded Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

A Kerala-based writer S.N. Sandhya presents a book of her poems to Vikram Seth during the Hay Festival. Vikram has the graciousness to ask that it to be inscribed in his name. Sandhya does so and then takes out another copy of her book and asks Vikram to sign on it. He says, “That would not be right. It is your book.”

Photographs of wildlife photographer Balan Madhavan are hanging in a corridor of the Kanakakunnu Palace, the venue. One photo shows a Niligiri Tal deer standing all alone on a rocky crag. “Look how lonely it is,” says Vikram. Balan asks the author to sign on a flex board and, astonishingly, Vikram does so in Malayalam. Watching him is DC Books Publisher, Ravi Deecee.

Ravi had met Vikram earlier. The author had asked Ravi to write his name in Malayalam. Vikram observed it carefully. Soon, he asked to see all the letters of the Malayalam alphabet. Two hours later, Seth wrote his name in Malayalam. “He is a genius,” says Ravi.

Celebrity through marriage

Meanwhile, the newly-minted celebrity Sunanda Pushkar is signing autographs for the students of the Institute of English, University of Kerala. One of them says, “Maam, we have read so much about you.” She replies, “Don’t believe a word of what you have read. There are too many factual errors.” As another journalist comes up, he hears her say, “He is so fabulous.” Immediately, he asks, “Are you talking about Shashi Tharoor?” An unfazed Sunanda says, “I should hope so. After all, he is my husband.”

Sitting on a chair nearby in a bright purple saree is Jesme. The former nun, who wrote the best-selling autobiography, ‘Amen’, laughs out loud when I tell her that an acquaintance told me that she had got married recently. “I am married to Jesus,” she says.

Jesme has bought a property, which has a hut in it. “Do you know what I am going to call my abode?” she asks. I shake my head. “Amen,” she says triumphantly.

Tamil double standards

Tamil writer Charu Nivedita looks smart in white sneakers, a green shirt, a necklace around his neck and dark sunshades. His ground-breaking novel, 'Zero', has graphic language and uninhibited sex scenes and language. “I wanted to expose the double standards in Tamil society regarding sexuality,” he says.

But he was taken aback when he was attacked by intellectuals and the mass who labelled his book as pornography. “They could not distinguish between porn and erotica,” he says. “The song sequences in our Tamil films are like a blue film, such is the vulgarity of the dresses and the provocative way that they dance. But there is no outrage about that.”

Focus on Kashmir

The most intense session during the festival is with Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer. Basharat re-states what Arundhati Roy said recently: “The people of Kashmir want azaadi (independence), no question about it.” But he is also self-critical. “Kashmir holds the record for the largest number of strikes anywhere,” he says. “But it has not led to any political solution. In fact, there is a bankruptcy of ideas.”

There are so many responses from the audience including one from Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, who says, “I am horrified that most of the killings of the young people in recent months were done by the Jammu and Kashmir police, rather than the Army.” Basharat quickly replies, “The CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] is also partly to blame.”

The long question-and-answer session seems to drain the young man. Later, a perspiring Basharat stands outside, holds his forehead in both his palms, and says, “I think my head is going to explode.”

A visitor tells Basharat that he seemed to be controlling himself when he wrote his book, ‘Curfewed Night’, about growing up in Kashmir. Basharat gives an interesting answer: “If I wrote the full truth the book would never have been published. So I held back. I will increase the truth by stages.”

Basharat’s friend, Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist, says, “At last, we are able to tell the true story of what is happening in Kashmir to an Indian audience. For too long, biased reports have been published in Indian newspapers.”

Author’s bane: critics

Best-selling British historian Simon Schama is smiling brightly while talking about the natural beauty of Kerala, when I make the mistake of asking an awkward question: ‘Critics says that your books are shallow.’

His face turns red, his eyes flashes with anger, and he says, through clenched teeth, “I keep hearing this criticism all the time. But none of these critics are able to point out which are the shallow part in my books. Most probably, they have not even read my books.”

Like Simon, young author Sonia Faleiro gets angry, but justifiably so. Sonia has written a book on the Mumbai dance bar girls and recalls the ban imposed by the state government on the girls in 2005. “It is so ridiculous that politicians are deciding on what is moral and immoral,” she says, looking livid. “How moral is it that by imposing the ban they have forced these girls to enter the sex trade?”

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

'Writers should not be harassed or imprisoned'


Photo: Malayalam film Superstar Mammooty arriving for the inauguration of the Hay Festival at Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

Peter Florence, the founding director of the Hay Fesival, who flew in straight from London in the early morning to Thiruvananthapuram still spoke with passion at the inauguration. “The festival is a place where writers can articulate their concerns,” he says. “We want them to challenge every assumption we have. They should not be harassed or imprisoned. They are not part of the political, but the human discourse.”

It seems he is referring to the recent verbal assault against writer Arundhati Roy who spoke about Kashmir not being an integral part of India .

Actor Mammooty is, of course, an integral part of the Kerala landscape. He is present at the Kannakakunnu Palace , and like the typical superstar, has two shirt buttons open, to reveal a hairy chest.

“I stumble to speak English in front of an English-speaking audience,” he says. Yet, he speaks well about how Malayalis are aware of literary trends all over the world. “We debate about this in our media while there is a silence in the national media.”

He suggests an interaction with international script-writers and ends by saying, “I am bringing my ‘senseless’ speech to an end.” Yes, indeed, the actor does stumble and uses the wrong English word.

Minister for Education and Culture M.A. Baby quotes from physicist Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design’. He says that in a particular Italian town they banned the use of curved bowls for fishes, because it would give them a distorted view of reality. Stephen Hawking writes, “How do we know whether we humans have an undistorted picture of reality? We may be in a giant goldfish bowl ourselves.” Nice, unexpected stuff - that too from a minister!

Meanwhile, Filipino author Miguel Syjuco, the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize has a deflating experience. When asked by the moderator Nilanjana Roy about how many people had read his novel, ‘Ilustrado’, only one raised hand could be seen in the audience.

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


The world is my playground


Ittira Antony has travelled to more than 100 countries in the past 30 years. He talks about the highs and the lows that he encountered in the many journeys he has made

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in a hotel room in Madrid a Moroccan, Said Mansour, barged into Ittira Antony's room, pushed him against the wall, and punched him on the face. Ittira lost consciousness. Six hours later, Ittira awoke to find that he had been robbed of his clothes and money.

As he looked around the hotel room, he came across a Spanish-Arabic dictionary lying on the floor. There was a name and phone number on it. Ittira showed it to the police and they traced the number to Astorga, 200 kms away.

At Astorga, as Ittira waited outside in a car, a local plainclothes policeman, Raul Alvares entered the first-floor apartment where Said stayed with an iron rod in his hand. “Within a few minutes Raul came to the balcony and beckoned to me,” says Ittira. “When I went in, a young woman was crying, while Said lay dead on the floor. His eyes had fallen out.”

Raul asked Ittira to check whether anything belonged to him. But the Indian was too upset over the thief’s death to search for anything. The policeman then asked Ittira how much money he had lost. “I told him 500 dollars and he gave the amount to me while Raul pocketed the rest of the cash that he had found,” says Ittira.

Ittira, a bachelor, is a nomadic traveller. In 30 years, he has been to more than 100 countries. “Being burgled, like the time in Madrid, is rare,” says the Bangalore-based Malayali, who had come to Kochi on a brief visit. “Most of the time I have had safe journeys.”

Incidentally, Ittira, the grandson of the late literary critic, M.P. Paul, grew up in Kuwait, worked there for several years, before spending 14 years in the USA. Thanks to a good exchange rate, because of the strong Kuwaiti dinar and the US dollar, he was able to go to Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle and Far East, Russia, China, and Antarctica.

Except for the Caribbean and Central America, he has been everywhere else. Not surprisingly, next month, he is going to the Central American countries of Honduras, Salvador and Nicaragua.

A keen observer of people, Ittira says that, till recently, most foreigners behaved in a condescending manner towards Indians. “They felt that we are desperate job hunters from a poverty-stricken nation,” he says. “There was a suspicion that we are dishonest, when it comes to doing business. But as our economy grows, the attitude towards us is slowly changing to one of admiration and respect.” It helps that more and more Indians are travelling abroad now.

But he says that when Indians go to foreign countries, they usually end up spending a lot of time in malls, instead of visiting places of cultural interest. “For most Indians, money came a little too late in life,” he says.

Asked to explain his passion for travel, Ittira says, “There is no greater form of education than travel. When you are in a new place, you experience the joy of seeing everything first-hand.” Interestingly, he says, many countries live in different centuries and provides an example.

“I was going from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia towards the Kenyan border in 2005,” says Ittira. It was a long bus journey. Suddenly, a Christ-like figure, with a long robe and a walking stick, with the name of Bekele, got on to the bus and began conversing with Ittira.

“Bekele was a well-educated person,” says Ittira. “We kept talking for hours but suddenly in the middle of nowhere, he said, 'Ittira, my stop has come and I have to get down.'”

Ittira looked astounded. The land was barren for miles all around. He said, “Will you be taking another bus?”

Bekele shook his head and said, “My house is two mountains away. I will only reach home only after walking for three days.”

In that split second, Ittira realised that time has a different connotation in various countries. “Bekele is not a dumb guy, but he is living in a world that is 300 years behind,” says Ittira. “He has to walk for a long time to reach home. That perspective on life will not come to you unless you take that bus journey from Addis Ababa. And that can only happen through travel.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Top 1 Per cent


Harsh Ketkar and Amrutanshu Mishra, two bright students of the Indian Institute of Management (Calcutta), talk about their experiences in the august institution, while on a brief visit to Kochi

Photo: Harsh Ketkar (left) and Amrutanshu Mishra

By Shevlin Sebastian

To get into an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) is tough. Here are the odds: out of 2.5 lakh candidates who sit for the Common Admission Test, only 1500 are selected. That is the top 1 per cent. Harsh Ketkar and Amrutanshu Mishra are two such students.

Today, they are in the second year in IIM (Calcutta) and had come to Kochi to take part in a national business quiz organised by the Rajagiri Centre for Business Studies.

“Of course, it was a feeling of elation, when I got through, knowing how tough the competition was,” says Harsh. Interestingly, the male-female ratio is lop-sided. There are only 10 per cent girls in IIM (Calcutta). “But the girls who have gained admission are really good,” he says.

For Harsh and Amrutanshu, studying in IIM was an eye-opener. “During the classes there are a lot of discussions,” says Amrutanshu. “Since most of the talk is based on cases, we are expected to study them beforehand, and express our opinions.”

Harsh remembers a case study that was taken up recently: the E-Chopal initiative by the blue-riband Indian Tobacco Company. “They eliminated the middle man between the farmer and the market for the procurement of soybeans, wheat, and coffee,” he says. “In this way, the company got a better quality of produce, while the farmers got a good price. It has been a great success and is a case study in Harvard Business School.”

Of course, like in all institutions of higher learning, the pressure to do well is enormous. “The academic stress is 15 times higher than when we were doing an engineering degree,” says Amrutanshu. “Each course requires hundreds of hours of preparation.”

In fact the typical daily ratio is 3: 7. That is three hours of classes followed by seven hours of preparation. “We spend a lot of time in the library and at our rooms where there is a Wi-Fi internet connection,” says Harsh. “We are able to get access to world-class databases through the IIM network and download a lot of research papers.” Usually they study late into the night. “It is quieter and the concentration levels are higher,” he says.

Both smile and shake their heads, when asked whether the atmosphere is as bad as described by author Chetan Bhagat in his book, 'Five Point Someone', about life in the Indian Institute of Technology.

“We have a co-operative environment,” says Harsh. “In the week before the exam, seniors who have done well in the subject conduct classes for us.” Says Amrutanshu: “Most of the students who come to IIM have already undergone numerous tests and stressful exams before. So, they know how to handle the pressure.”

One striking difference which they noticed that was that in the examinations, learning by memory would not work. “All questions are application-based,” says Amrutanshu. “You have to analyse and deduce, to get the answers.”

What compensates for the tough schedule are the interesting people they have met. For Harsh, it was India's leading car designer Dilip Chhabria, who had come to give a talk. Harsh had gone to collect Chhabria from the hotel. “I knew that he was an immensely talented designer,” says Harsh. “But what struck me was his business acumen.”

Auto design not only has to be aesthetically pleasing, it should be feasible in an engineering way. There are regulatory constraints, like a fixed length for a car.

“Chabria told me that these compulsions made auto design interesting and challenging,” says Harsh. “I gained a lot in my interaction with him.”

For Amrutanshu, it is faculty professor Rahul Mukerjee, one of India’s best statisticians, and the recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award in mathematical sciences in 2000.

“Whenever he comes to class, he gives the impression that it is a new day for him,” he says. “The sheer effort he puts in so that each and every student understands the lesson is amazing. And his greatest quality is his humility. It is a pleasure interacting with him.”

Asked for their plans, post-graduation, Amrutanshu wants to work for a company that will provide a good income and give scope for growth. Harsh says, “Learning is the single biggest parameter for me to join a company.”

Both came across as intelligent and intense, and undoubtedly, like so many of their colleagues, will become assets to the nation in the near future.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

'God's sense of justice is different'


Leela Manjooran, a former teacher, says that there is no explanation why bad events take place in our lives

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in March 2008, Leela Manjooran was flipping through a matrimonial booklet. She saw a photo of a boy who had done his Masters in Dental Science and came from a good family. But her daughter, Alka, was far away, in Besancon, France, doing a one-year course in French. “She had specifically told me not to look for any boy during this time,” says Leela.

March 20th was Alka's birthday. At midnight, she cut a cake and shared it with friends. Her wish on her birthday was simple: “I hope this year I can meet somebody whom I can love and marry.” At 6 a.m., Leela called and told her about the proposal. Alka was noncommittal, but gave permission for the boy, Manuel, to send an e-mail.

“But she warned me that she would not take a decision without seeing Manuel,” says Leela, a retired professor of political science at St Teresa's College, Kochi. However, two weeks later, after numerous e-mail and webcasts, Alka and Manuel agreed to marry.

“This was God's intervention in my life,” says Leela. “I had prayed to Him for help to get a suitable partner for my daughter and God replied immediately.”

Leela also feels that her mother, who died in February, 2008, lent a helping hand. “Alka was very close to my mother,” says Leela. “I think she extended a thread downwards and Alka took it.”

Leela feels that a lot of things can be achieved through prayer. So every morning, she attends the 7 a.m. Mass at the St. Joseph's Church at Thevara, where she stays. “I pray for health, happiness and peace,” she says. “I ask God to protect my family, so that they remain on the right path.” She also prays for her relatives and deceased parents.

When Leela closes her eyes to pray she sees an image of Jesus Christ. “He has shoulder-length hair, brown eyes, a long nose, and strong jaw,” she says. “The heart is visible. It is radiating a bright yellow ray of light.” On other occasions, she sees the picture of a crucified Jesus nailed to a wooden cross.

Leela's favourite church is the Our Lady of Ransom Basilica at Vallarpadam. “I have been going there since my childhood,” she says. “There is a certain power in that church. Whenever I have asked for something I have received it.”

For many years, Leela and a friend would park the car near the High Court and walk the two kilometres to the church as a sort of penance. But now, with the Vallarpadam International Container Terminal coming up, the road has become congested and it has become difficult to walk.

Leela, of course, has no doubts about the existence of God. “Look at the variety of nature,” she says. “Only God could have made it. I believe that an invisible power is controlling the world. I feel His Presence all the time. He is looking at you and me as we talk.”

Asked whether she gets upset when negative events takes place, Leela says, “Not at all. God's plan and sense of justice are different from man's. There is no logical way to explain why bad things happen. I feel that a bad event is usually followed by a good incident. In life, it is not possible that only good happenings will occur. Nevertheless, I have been lucky that not too many bad things have taken place in my life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Predators within the family

Father-daughter relationships and sex between sons and mothers shows that incest -- that terrible taboo -- exists in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Chitra was 12 years old when her father, Mohan, took her hand and placed it over his genitals. Thereafter, Mohan started having sex with her. Chitra was powerless to resist. “Mohan told his daughter that if she opened her mouth, he would kill her and her mother,” says psychologist Dr. Prakash Chandran. So the child remained quiet. As she grew older, whenever Chitra would ask for a new dress or shoes, Mohan would demand sex in exchange.

“Chitra looked at sex as a tool,” says Prakash. “She could satisfy her material wants through it.”

Mohan’s wife, Hema, stumbled on to the secret by accident. She woke up one night and saw that her husband was not lying next to her. Instead, she discovered, Mohan was having sex with their daughter in another room. Chitra was 14 then.

“It was a big shock for her,” says Prakash. “She wondered what to do. Hema contemplated killing her husband, but because she was a God-fearing person she could not take that extreme step.”

Instead, she felt paralysed. Hema felt that if she lodged a complaint at the police station, they would come to arrest Mohan and the neighbourhood would come to know. “She had to think about the future of their daughter,” says Prakash. “So she kept silent and did not tell anybody.”

By the time she was 19, Chitra had become pregnant twice, since Mohan was reluctant to use condoms. Both times it was aborted. Because of this long sexual relationship with Mohan, Chitra lost her moral bearings. “She felt that if she can have sex with her father, she could do it with anybody else,” says Prakash.

At 18, Chitra began to work as a salesgirl in a textile shop. She had three boyfriends, and with each, she had regular sex, but was unable to maintain a long-standing relationship. But, recently, at age 20, she fell in love with a young man, who worked in an IT firm, and wanted to marry him.

“Chitra knew that if she wanted to have a successful marriage, she had to stop her sexual relationship with her father,” says Prakash. But Mohan was opposed to this, because he was afraid that if Chitra got married, he would be unable to have sex with her. It was their constant fights over this issue that forced them to come to Prakash for counselling. And that was when the hidden secret of incest was uncovered.

Incidentally, Mohan does not suffer from guilt or remorse. “My daughter is to blame,” he told Prakash. “It was she who made all the moves. The desire to have sex was more in her than in me.”

Today, Chitra has been able to get married, but the relationship with her father has been destroyed forever. “There is no father-daughter or husband-wife ties in this family,” says Prakash.

Meanwhile, counsellor Mary Hazel Thomas of the Thiruvananthapuram-based NGO, Thrani, stumbled on to another case of incest. One day a girl, Lekha, 22, came to see her. She had been married for a month and had gone to live with her husband, Dilip, in Dubai. But Lekha got cold feet when it came to sex. So, Dilip sent her back. When Mary asked Lekha whether she had suffered from sexual abuse, she burst into tears.

“Both her parents lived and worked in Saudi Arabia,” says Mary. “So, Lekha was living with her grandparents. From the time she was two, she was taught to touch her grandfather's genitals. When she grew older, her uncle, who lived with her, used her sexually.”

It was this abuse spread over many years that damaged Lekha and she was unable to have sex with Dilip. It was through regular counselling that Lekha was able to get over her feelings of guilt and worthlessness. She returned to her husband and has proper sexual relations with him now.

Mother-son relationship

Meenakshi is 38 years old. She had a son when she was only 20. Her husband, who suffered from psychiatric problems, divorced her after two years of marriage. She worked as a clerk in an office. Even after her son, Hari, became a teenager, they continued to sleep together. He would always hug his mother and press the breasts. That was how his sexual feelings began.

Hari made the first move. “The boy said that he saw a dream of making love to his mother and decided to make it is a reality,” says Prakash.

One day he forced himself on her. Meenakshi resisted initially, and then fainted. “She cannot recollect what happened after that,” says Prakash. The sexual relationship lasted for three years. “When Hari turned 18 he developed a guilt feeling,” says the psychologist. “They came to me for counselling. Hari felt depressed. He felt that he had done something terribly wrong.”

Prakash tried to heal his wounded psyche. It helped that Meenakshi was tolerant. In fact, she was ready to forgive him. “Nevertheless, Hari has suffered psychological damage,” says Prakash.

The psychologist says that it is rare for a mother to have sexual feelings for his son. “This is the only mother-son incident I have encountered,” he says. “The rest of the cases are between father and daughter.”

Psychiatrist S.D. Singh has also encountered a mother-son relationship. Whenever the woman, Sujatha, went to have a bath, she would take her ten-year-old son, Mani. “The problem was that Sujatha suffered from schizophrenia,” says Singh. In the bathroom, she would show her breasts and genitals to her son.

By the time Mani was 15, he felt embarrassed and guilty. Later, he was sent to boarding school and onwards to hostels in college. Today, Sujatha suffers from a sense of guilt. “I feel very bad about it,” she says. However, Sujatha has not clarified to Singh about whether she had sex with Mani.

So how does one prevent incest from taking place? “Parents and children, especially girls, should not sleep together after a certain age,” says Prakash.

Singh says that, thankfully, India has a culture where mothers shield the daughters emotionally and physically from males, even if it is a father or brother. “They are not allowed to sleep next to each other,” says Singh. “But in nuclear families, this is becoming difficult.”

And there is cause for worry. In a survey by Singh of 10,000 children, between the ages of 12 and 17, spread across 13 schools in Kochi, 4 per cent of boys and 6 per cent of girls said they had suffered from sexual harassment, either at school or at home. “This is a high statistic,” says Singh. “Among these, there are bound to be a few cases of incest.”

Says Mary of helpine Thrani: “Incest happens often in society, but rarely does it come to the surface. Unless there is an open discussion about it, the victims will be afraid to come forward.”

Meanwhile, those tormented by incest, which includes victims in every country in the world, write poems, like Miriam Wandia Kaloki of Kenya:

Tears flow as I write this,

My own father,

Yes, my own father,

took away my innocence.


This is the question I ask every day.

My mouth is sealed.

As a first child,

I have to protect the image of the family,

I don’t know who to tell,

And how to tell,

Who will believe me?

My father stripped me of my innocence.

(Some names have been changed)


'Incest exists everywhere'

Seema Bhaskaran is a field project director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Kerala Mahila Samakhya Society, a programme under the Ministry of Human Resource Development. She has dealt with numerous cases of child abuse and incest in the past 15 years.

Excerpts from the interview:

How prevalent is incest?

Incest is prevalent among people of all economic backgrounds. The only difference is that when it happens in the poorer sections of society, the reporting is much faster. In the middle and the upper classes there is a tendency to hide it because of the stigma associated with it. It is only when the child develops a physical or psychological problem that it is reported.

What is the impact of incest on a child?

It is a much graver offence than abuse outside the family. The father is supposed to be a guardian, but he fails in this role. The child feels worthless. This feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness can last for a long time. However, through counselling a child can be helped to get over these negative emotions.

What is the reaction of the mother when she comes to know that her daughter has been abused?

Initially, the mother goes into denial. She will think that the child has imagined the abuse. However, some mothers will adjust to the situation and send the child away to a protective environment. Some of them will feel guilty. They realise that they should have taken the necessary precautions to prevent this from happening. They also feel that there is something wrong with them sexually which forced the husband to go towards the daughter.

What is the way to prevent incest?

In Kerala, the gender segregation is very high. Boys and girls are not allowed to mingle and play with each other. They should be allowed to do so. Girls should be taught not to be ashamed of their bodies. They should learn to react strongly when somebody touches them in an inappropriate manner.


To get help

CHILDLINE is a national 24-hour free phone emergency and outreach service for children, run under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development.
Phone number: 1098
THRANI Counselling Centre
NLRA 363,
Neerazhi Lane,
Phone: 9846135003

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

‘To live without a country is painful’


Activist Tenzin Tsundue talks about his never-ending fight to gain independence for Tibet from China. Meanwhile, he lives in India as a refugee

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao came to Bangalore on April 9, 2005, the Tibetans were planning a protest. “Our country is under Chinese occupation,” says activist Tenzin Tsundue. “If we did not complain against Jiabao we would be failing in our duty as refugees.”

Initially, they were given permission by the police to hold a sit-down demonstration in the city, but this was withdrawn a day before the Premier’s arrival. So, Tsundue came up with a daring plan.

Knowing that Jiabao would be going to the Indian Institute of Science, Tsundue went to the campus a day before. There he spotted a tall building, and went to the roof and spent the night there. “I did not want to get caught, so I lay motionless for 20 hours,” he says. “I took no food or water.”

The next day, at 2.30 p.m., Tsundue heard the sound of sirens wailing. He was in luck. Jiabao was coming to the opposite building. Tsundue stood up and saw that the police, the media and the guests were gathered outside. Quickly, he unfurled the Tibetan national flag as well as a long red banner, which said, ‘Free Tibet’.

Then he threw down hundreds of leaflets which explained the reasons behind the protest, and shouted, ‘China out of Tibet!’

“Through the international media I wanted to draw attention to the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the genocide that is taking place in our country,” he says. “There is a gross violation of human rights.”

The gamble worked. The protest was broadcast all over the world and Tibet’s trauma was publicised widely. Of course, it is another matter that the police rushed up to the terrace, grabbed Tsundue, and beat him up severely. “I don’t blame them,” he says. “They were embarrassed and angry by the breach of security.”

Tsundue is one of the leading lights of the Tibetan protest movement. On a brief visit to Kochi, he came across as intense, sensitive, and deeply committed to the independence of Tibet. This idea is contrary to what His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes in.

The Dalai Lama says that Tibetans are ready to live under Chinese rule, provided they are given genuine autonomy. “His Holiness has hundreds of reasons to promote his Middle Way policy,” says Tsundue. “For me and many young Tibetans, independence is the goal. So there is a difference of opinion. But we are united in our effort to keep the struggle non-violent. And our many thanks to India for providing us shelter so that we can continue with our battle.”

Tsundue was born in a roadside tent in the early seventies in Manali. His parents were working as road-repairing labourers. They had fled Tibet, along with the Dalai Lama in 1959.

Tsundue did his schooling at Dharamsala. “It was His Holiness’ wish that the children studied in Tibetan schools so that we could have an understanding of our religion, culture and history,” he says. Later, Tsundue graduated with a BA from Loyola College in Chennai. But Tibet was never far from his mind

In March 1997, Tsundue was teaching English in a school in Ladakh. One morning, he slipped across the border into Tibet. A nomad, whom he encountered along the way, informed the Chinese authorities. Tsundue was immediately arrested. He was taken to Lhasa and, as expected, beaten up and accused of being an Indian spy.

“Every day I had a fear that I would rot in prison or be tortured or killed,” he says. “I had no hope that one day I would be free.”

However, the school authorities had filed a Missing Persons Report. Immediately, the CID launched an investigation and discovered that Tsundue had crossed over. Thanks to an agreement between India and China, anybody who is arrested, on either side of the border, can be detained, but if the person has not done any wrong, he is sent back. As a result, three months later, Tsundue was released.

In Lhasa, he had a brief glance of the city and it shocked him. “It was full of Chinese people,” says Tsundue. “The signboards, hoardings, and name plates were all in Chinese. In my imagination Tibet was a land of snowy peaks and grasslands, but the reality was so different.” Tsundue’s commitment to the Tibetan cause became even deeper following this trip.

Meanwhile, in India, the 1.2 lakh Tibetans live a life of uncertainty. “We cannot own property, because we are foreigners,” says Tsundue. “We have a permit which has to be renewed annually. Now you know why we are so desperate to get Tibet back from the Chinese. To live without a country is extremely painful.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

'Why does God allow cruel things to happen?


Chinese author Lijia Zhang has doubts about the existence of God, even though she goes into a temple to pray now and then

Photo: Lijia Zhang with her daughters

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Chinese author Lijia Zhang feels troubled, she goes to the Rooster Crawling temple in Nanjing. “It is a Buddhist nunnery,” says Lijia, who was on a brief visit to Thiruvananthapuram. “I feel at peace there.” When Lijia closes her eyes to pray, the image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy comes to her mind.

“She is a graceful woman, full of compassion and kindness,” says Lijia. “She has an oval-shaped face and holds a pink lotus in her hand. Even though Buddhism was imported from India, the goddess looks Chinese.”

But despite these practices, Lijia does not believe in any religion. Like most skeptics, she asks where God was, when the most destructive earthquake in the 20th century took place, in Tangshan, China, on July 28, 1976. More than 2 lakh people died, including Lijia's cousin. “If there is a God how could He allow such things to happen?” she says. “Why is He so cruel? Why does He allow good people to die like this?”

Lijia says that when you look at the concept of God rationally, there is no evidence that He exists. One reason for Lijia’s doubts was because Communism was forced down the throat of the people for many decades. “As a result I am cautious about blindly believing in any organised religion,” she says. But thanks to her curiosity, she has read many religious books including the Bible. “I find it difficult to believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary,” she says. “It lacks logic.”

What gave an impetus to her disbelief was when she read Richard Dawkins' international best-seller, 'The God Delusion'. Dawkins says, “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning.”

However, Lijia says that if she finally accepts any religion it would most probably be Buddhism, thanks to the faith shown by her grandmother, Wan Huizhen. “She suffered so much in her life,” says Lijia. “She was orphaned as a child, and was forced into prostitution for many years.”

Wan was a victim of the Nanjing Massacre. In December 13, 1937, the Japanese overran the city, and killed lakhs of Chinese, and raped around 80,000 women.

“My grandmother saw it all,” says Lijia. “But throughout her life, she remained a Buddhist and always believed in the goodness of human beings. Her faith was the moral force in her life.”

Lijia admits that her lack of faith has made it difficult to face the misfortunes of life. “Five years ago, when my husband suddenly left me, I was devastated,” she says. “If I believed in God, it would have been easier for me to cope with the sorrow.” Instead, she had to rely on friends and on writing to get over her tragedy.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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