Tuesday, December 28, 2010

“God listens to my prayers”


Says newly-crowned Navy Queen, Elizabeth Thadikaran

By Shevlin Sebastian

At night, just before she goes to sleep, Elizabath Thadikaran, all of 19, says a prayer to God. “I tell Him about my day,” she says. “It is a one-way conversation. Although He does not speak, I know that He is listening to me. I thank Him for keeping my family disease and accident-free. I ask God to look after my parents and grandparents. I pray that I am able to do well in my studies and make them proud.”

The newly-crowned Navy Queen also cares about others. “I pray for all the poor people,” says Elizabeth. “That they get enough food to eat. That the sick will get well soon. I know of a few friends whose fathers have passed away. I ask God to give them the strength to bear the loss. I also urge God to protect all those young girls who have been forced into prostitution.”

When she closes her eyes to pray, Elizabeth has an unusual image of God. “I see an empty wooden chair with a high backrest,” she says. “This is because I don't know how God looks like. But to me, he is huge, like a giant Gulliver.”

Standing next to the chair is Jesus Christ. He has black eyes, pink lips, a beard and shoulder-length brown hair. “There is a smile on his face,” she says. “Jesus always gives me the impression that He is listening keenly to whatever I am saying.”

Interestingly, Elizabeth says that while Jesus resides in her heart, God remains outside. “I have no idea why this is so,” she says.

For the Navy Queen contest, Elizabeth had prepared meticulously. Her Toronto-based sisters, Sonya and Tanya, called her up four to five times every day providing tips on how to answer questions, how to avoid walking in a hunched manner and to keep smiling. But three days before the competition, Elizabeth panicked when, during the training session, she was told that she did not have a good walking style.

Elizabeth came home, slipped on a pair of high heels, and practised for hours, trying to improve her walk. And just before she went on stage, for the final, at Kochi, a fortnight ago, she prayed fervently. “I said, ‘God, let me do this well,’” she says. “I prepared so hard. Let me not fumble.”

Elizabeth clarifies that she never asked God for a win. Her theory of success is simple. “You have to do 85 per cent of the work and if He thinks you deserve it, God will provide the remaining 15 per cent that you need to succeed,” she says.

Asked whether she gets angry with God when a negative event takes place, Elizabeth says, “I have noticed that when a bad thing happens, something good will follow soon.”

The youngster feels that man will always need God. “He has given us the air that we breathe,” says Elizabeth. “It is He who has provided the seeds for everything to grow in Nature. Because He created us, God will always take care of us. To me, He is the supreme power in the universe.”

Elizabeth has a morning ritual to please this supreme power. Before she leaves the house, she stands in front of a photo of Jesus Christ and prays for a safe journey.
“When I do this, I know that God will protect me from harm,” she says. But Elizabeth does agree that accidents do take place and people die. “Sometimes, God allows tragedies to happen for reasons we cannot understand,” she says. “His ways are mysterious.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Egyptian feast of culture

The El-Sharkeia troupe performed numerous traditional dances which enthralled an audience in Kochi recently

Photos: The Tanoura and The Horse dances

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the Tanoura dance, a broad-shouldered man, Tarek, comes onto the stage wearing a long multi-coloured skirt. He starts whirling around, at high speed, like a spinning top, and soon the skirt is swirling about. Tarek increases his speed and the skirt rises higher and higher. Behind him, standing in a semi circle, a few feet apart, are other dancers, in white gowns and green sashes, shaking doufs (Egyptian-style tambourines).

It is an amazing dance and requires plenty of physical strength. “The skirt weighs 30 kgs,” says Azza. The Tanoura dance, which is Sufi in origin, has an underlying meaning. “The universe is moving in a circle,” says Azza. “The dance shows that we start at one point and return to the beginning.”

After a while, a dancer presents Tarek with a folded Egyptian flag. The dancer unfurls it and spins around his head. Then he is given the Indian flag and he places it over the Egyptian flag and goes round and round, like a wild dervish. The audience claps enthusiastically.

“We did this to show the close relations between India and Egypt,” says Azza Abdelhafeez Mohamad, the director of the El Sharkeih troupe. “The Egyptians have a great affection for India,” says M.R. Krishnamoorthy, the regional officer of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), which organised the show at the Fine Arts hall in Kochi.

All the dances are accompanied by Arabic folk songs. A group of three men in grey gowns and white caps stand at one side of the stage. They play the tabla, the accordion, and the mezmar (an Arabic instrument, similar to a flute). Sayed, the lead singer, has a resonant voice, made powerful by its depth and clarity.

In the Al Hawaya dance, women, in orange gowns and red veils, fold a piece of cloth, called the Al Hawaya, and place it on their heads. Then they put a water pot on top of it, and balance it perfectly, as they sway their hips, hands and legs sensuously. “Through this dance, the women learn how to keep their balance,” says Azza. The dancers are fabulous-looking, and that adds to the charm.

In an item, called The Horse, two men wear the guise of a horse. Only the feet of the dancers are seen. They are brought in by the lead dancer, Naglaa, who acts like a trainer. Deftly, the horse moves forward, then it steps back. After a while, it lies down and the dancers raise their feet ceiling-wards. It gets up and staggers about. Naglaa kisses the nose. The horse shows its excitement by prancing about.

The troupe comes from Sharkia, which is a region famous throughout Egypt for its breeding of Arabian horses. “We wanted to show the dancing skills of the Arabian horse,” says Azza.

Interestingly, in all the dances the men and women wear long gowns. Unlike in modern Western dance, like in AXN’s popular television show, ‘So You Think You Can dance’, very little flesh is on display. Somehow, it looks sexier than when everything is exposed.

The El-Sharkeia troupe has come to India on a cultural exchange visit and has performed in Delhi, Kozhikode, Mallapuram, and Kochi.

Author K.P. Joseph, 80, who was in the Kochi audience, says, “There is a lot of similarity between Egyptian and Indian cultures. The rhythms and the body movements are similar to our dance styles. The show brought us closer to Egyptian traditions.”

Meanwhile, Azza was thrilled by the crowd’s response in Kochi. “The people instinctively caught the rhythms of the music and applauded in harmony with the beat,” she says. “Our dancers were encouraged to give off their best.”

A gregarious personality, Azza sat in the front row and laughed and clapped to show her appreciation at the dancers. They are a seasoned group, having performed all over the world. There are 17 dancers, comprising 11 men and six women. They range in age from 18 to 41. For all of them, including Azza, it is their first visit to Kerala.

“The hospitality shown by the people has been marvellous,” says Azza. “We feel at home. Egypt and India are ancient civilizations with similar traditions.”

And so, thanks to the ICCR, Kochiites were able to enjoy Egyptian culture first-hand and, for most, it was a memorable experience.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The magic vitamin


The little-known Vitamin B 12 deficiency can create all sorts of problems like dizziness, hair loss, ulcers, and, more dangerously, multiple sclerosis. The Britain-based Dr. Joseph Chandy has been administering B 12 injections which has led to a dramatic improvement in the health of his patients

Photos: Catherine Iceton; Dr. Joseph Chandy

By Shevlin Sebastian

In a BBC One documentary, ‘Inside Out’, which can be seen on You Tube, Catherine Iceton, of Horden, Britain, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I could not see or walk properly,” says the mother of two. “My life had come to a standstill.” Seven years went past.

In August, 2006, she came under the care of the Pala-born Dr. Joseph Chandy Kayalackakom, the general physician in the National Health Service (NHS) at Horden. “As soon as I saw her I knew she had a Vitamin B 12 deficiency,” he says.

A blood test revealed that Catherine had a B 12 level of 175 nanograms per litre (ng/l). This was far lower than the normal 500 to 1000 ng/l. Immediately Dr. Chandy put her on 1000 mg injections every day. Within a matter of weeks, there was an unbelievable impact. Catherine was able to walk, and her eyesight was restored. “The nightmare was over,” she says.

The Vitamin B 12 deficiency is little known. And Dr. Chandy stumbled over it by accident. At the Medical College in Alleppey, in 1966, he came across patients who suffered from multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders. On a sudden inspiration, he checked their Vitamin B 12 levels and discovered that it was very low. He began giving injections and the patients improved quickly. Interestingly, all the patients were vegetarians, but that did not surprise Dr. Chandy.

The B 12 vitamin can only be obtained from red and white meat, milk, eggs, and fish,” says Dr. Chandy, while on a brief visit to Kochi. “So, there is a strong likelihood that vegetarians could have this deficiency.”

Apart from the drawbacks of a vegetarian diet, many people lack an enzyme in the stomach which helps to absorb the B 12. “It is for this reason that among meat-eating Caucasians, 20 to 40 per cent of the population suffers from a B 12 deficiency,” says Dr. Chandy. The absence of this enzyme can be a genetic trait. “That means that if a mother lacks it, there is a strong possibility that her children will also be B 12 deficient,” he says.

So what are the symptoms of this deficiency? “Tiredness, extreme fatigue, depression, and low moods,” says Dr. Chandy. Other signs include dizziness, hair loss, numbness in the hands and feet, mouth ulcers, palpitations of the heart, diarrhoea and burred vision. “It affects every gland and system,” he says.

Incidentally, 80 per cent of Dr. Chandy’s patients are women. “They have more glands than men,” he says. “They have breasts, ovaries, and the uterus. Women have menstrual periods and menopause, and they go through childbirth. All these adjustments causes disturbance to the metabolism. So they are more vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, not everybody was convinced about this diagnosis of Dr. Chandy. In the NHS the rule is that Vitamin B 12 treatment can be prescribed only if the deficiency is 150 ng/l, but the doctor was treating patients even with a count of 300 ng/l. So, he was barred from administering the B 12 by the Primary Care Trust (which is a part of the NHS). Immediately, some patients, who were suffering from multiple sclerosis, went back to their wheelchairs, because of the lack of the vitamin.

“I would have been sacked a long time ago, but I had kept meticulous records of my patients over the years,” he says. Now, the Primary Care Trust has allowed Dr. Chandy to continue, having realised that there is nothing wrong in the treatment. The doctor says that it is a lack of awareness in the medical fraternity that has caused so much of problems for him. “But my best witnesses are my patients,” he says. “Talk to them and they will vouch for the effectiveness of my treatment.”

In Kochi, Thomas George (name changed) had suffered from a debilitating nerve condition. Thomas had an accidental meeting with Dr. Chandy on a previous visit a few months ago. A blood test revealed a figure of 175 ng/l for B 12. The doctor immediately recommended injections.

“I was skeptical,” says Thomas. But he did a lot of research on the Internet and was finally convinced. After two months of injections, the tremors have stopped. “My health has improved remarkably,” says Thomas.

Now, after 30 years, Dr. Chandy is finally receiving recognition for his work. In September, the India International Friendship Society conferred their 'Glory of India' award to Dr. Chandy for his outstanding contribution to Britain.

On November 19, Prime Minister David Cameron invited Dr. Chandy, along with several other prominent Asians, to celebrate Diwali at 10 Downing Street. Dr. Chandy took the opportunity to tell Cameron about the miracle vitamin.

To know more about Vitamin B12, check out Dr. Chandy’s web site: www.b12d.org.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Remember God at all times'


Says the acclaimed preacher of Hinduism, Prema Pandurang 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Once a month, Prema Pandurang, the renowned preacher of Hinduism, goes to the Sri Venkateswara temple at Tirupati. 

One day, while she was standing in the queue, she noticed that the chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam was sitting in the VIP enclosure, which is placed very near the Lord. 

“I told myself, ‘You have to be a chairman to sit in that place,’” says Premaji. “I am just a preacher.” 

 Ten minutes after the chairman left, suddenly a priest held Premaji’s hand, pulled her from the queue, and made her sit exactly where the chairman had sat. “It was a miracle,” she says. “Lord Ventakeswara had heard my thoughts. I tell my devotees, ‘Send a SMS to the Lord and if you don't get a reply, I will give up preaching.’ The Lord is not like a telephone operator busy with other lines. He is always there for you.” 

 At the temple, she says, one can experience powerful positive vibrations, which grips you. “You forget your wife, husband, children, friends, and relatives,” says Premaji. “You are just moving towards the Lord and you can feel that He is pulling you towards Him. This is the experience of everybody.” 

When asked for a proof of God’s existence, Premaji says that once Mahatma Gandhi was questioned by a reporter about whether he believed in God. When he replied in the affirmative, the reporter said, “Can you prove His existence?” The Mahatma replied, “No, I cannot prove it. But to me, He is more present in this room than you.” 

Premaji smiles and continues: “Just ask God to give you evidence and he will do so. But the thirst to know God should be there. Soon, you will see miracles taking place in your life.” 

She recounts one such occurrence. On May 23, 1991, at Sriperumbadur, two days after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated a Guruvayurappa temple was going to be inaugurated. The Namboodiri priest had come all the way from Guruvayur to conduct the puja. To begin the prayers he needed flowers. “I said, ‘Swamiji, where can I get flowers now?'” recalls Premaji. “There is a curfew in the city. All the shops are closed. The army is patrolling the streets.” The priest said that he could not begin without flowers. 

Suddenly, Premaji’s close friend, Krishnakumar Warrier of Ayurveda Pharmacy, said, “Why don't you pray to the Lord?” Premaji followed Krishnakumar’s advice, and sat in front of an idol of Lord Krishna. She told the Lord, “I am a very small person. This is the first temple I have built. Is there not a single flower that I can offer to you?” 

A few minutes later, when Premaji stepped out of the puja room, a villager came up and said, “Amma, do you want flowers?” Two staff members went with him in a jeep and returned with 500 lotuses. The Namboodiri priest said, “I have not seen so many flowers in Guruvayur itself.” 

Premaji pauses and says, “How can you not believe in God? In my speeches, I want people to realise that this mighty power is within us and yet we are not making use of it. You are not able to access God because you don’t desire it. You are running after worldly pleasures. There is nothing wrong with that, but always remember that these are the gifts from God. People tend to focus on the gift, and not the giver.” 

Premaji gives an example. “A mother buys a doll for her child,” she says. “The daughter is so busy hugging the doll that she has forgotten to thank the mother for the gift. So please remember God at all times.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Masterly evocation of the Sreemad Bhagavatha


Prema Pandurang, renowned preacher of Hinduism, talks about timeless truths

Photo: Prema Pandurang (second from left) with the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court J. Chelameswar (third from left) at the inauguration of the week-long lecture programme on the Sreemad Bhagavatha

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the flower-bedecked stage of the Vinayaka Hall at Kochi there is a replica of the front of a temple. In the doorway of the temple there is an idol of Lord Krishna.

Prema Pandurang, a renowned preacher of Hinduism, has come to Kerala to give a week-long lecture on the Sreemad Bhagavatha (this is regarded as the 19th Purana, and contains 18,000 verses). She sits on a chair behind a small table strewn with flower petals. The Bhagavatha takes pride of place.

Premaji begins with a hymn and her mellifluous voice, accompanied by musicians on the flute, harmonium, tabla and the electronic synthesiser, fills the auditorium.

“When we walk together we may fight, but when we sing together, we are always in tune,” she says. Premaji tells a story. Emperor Akbar is praying. Birbal waits, but Akbar goes on praying. So Birbal walks away. Later Akbar asks him, “What did you want?” Birbal replies, “I came to beg something from you. But I saw that you were begging something from Allah. So, I thought let me beg directly from God.”

Premaji reads a shloka from the Bhagavatha and explains its meaning in English. Sometimes, she breaks into song. Frequently, she receives applause from a receptive audience.

“In newspapers and on TV, you only see villains and more villains,” she says. “Why are we highlighting the villains of the world? What a bad impact this will have on children. Why can’t the focus be on good people? Satya (truth) is a forgotten word these days.”

While talking about the Pandavas, she says, “The more they suffered, the more they believed in Lord Krishna. As for us, the more we suffer, the less we believe in God. We want joy for 365 days of the year.”

Premaji says that Kunthi, the mother of the Pandava brothers, asked Lord Krishna to give her suffering, instead of joy. “When I have sorrow, I will always think of you,” said Kunthi. Premaji says, “In sorrow, we are humble, while in joy we are proud.” On the floor, at one side, sits a young Brahmin priest, Pandit Sreekandath, who looks up with admiring eyes at Premaji.

The preacher is up to date with what is happening in the world. “At four years, two brothers can share a chocolate,” she says. “So, why can’t they share a factory when they are forty?” This is an oblique reference to the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, India's richest businessmen, who had a feud for a long time.

And on the powerful theme of death, Premaji says, “We see people die and think we are immortal. Life is a sentence; death is a full stop. One day we will have to go, whether rich or poor, strong or weak.”

It is a mesmerising performance by Premaji: songs, stories, scripture readings and body movements blend together perfectly to leave the audience spellbound. Thanks to Premaji, many people are reminded of the timeless truths in the Bhagavatha, which they have forgotten in their mad chase for money, status, and power.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Shiva Loco, an expert of dances like the tango, the salsa, hiphop, and ballroom dancing, has opened a studio in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 11.30 a.m. on a Saturday, Pappammal Arumurgam has an expectant look on her face. Wearing tight blue jeans, a black top, and stiletto heels, she waits for Shiva Loco to start the dance session in a first floor studio at Panampilly Nagar.

Shiva is a most unlikely dancer. He weighs 92 kgs and has thickset shoulders, a prominent paunch and a bald pate. He switches on the music and it is Puerto Rican singer Tito El Bambino’s ‘La Busco’, a slow reggaeton – a type of music from Latin America.

Pappammal and Shiva face a wall-length mirror. On Shiva’s right is the tongue-tied V. Anand who worked for costume designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee in the Hindi film, ‘Guzaarish’.

As the music flows through the speakers, they move forward and come back. Then forward and back again. There is a sensual shake of the hips and the legs. Shiva surprises with his deft movements, despite his size. They carry on dancing for several minutes.

Later, he says, “We were doing the bachata. This dance originated in the Dominican Republic. The proper hip movement is crucial for good communication between the dancers.”

Pappammal smiles and says, “I love this dance. It is so beautiful.” A trained Bharat Natyam dancer, she works in Info Park at Kakkanad. “The job is stressful,” she says. “So I come here to unwind.”

In his Kochi studio, Shiva teaches 36 types of dances, depending on the customer’s preferences. They include the salsa, hiphop, merengue, belly dancing, Argentine tango, contemporary, ballet, jazz and ballroom dancing. In ball room dancing, he can teach you the quick step, foxtrot, tango, samba, Viennese waltz, and the cha cha.

Dance is clearly a passion for him and Shiva, 30, has been doing it all his life. At the age of five, while staying in Abu Dhabi, he was a hyperactive child. Teachers advised his mother to teach him dance or karate.

His mother chose dance and Shiva was enrolled in Meena Nair’s dance school where he learned Bharat Natyam for five years. At the age of 17, Shiva went to study pre-medicine and computer information at Ohio State University.

“One of the university coaches, Igor Valeryvich Ishakhov, saw me dancing and told me that I had something special inside me,” says Shiva. “Igor asked me to join the university dance team.”

Shiva practiced three hours a day. Competitions were held every fortnight in places like Massachusetts and California. It began at 8 a.m. and lasted till 9 p.m. “I was Midwest US champion in ballroom and salsa for five years,” he says.

Thereafter, Shiva went on an odyssey. He has danced and taught different dance forms for people in France, Bulgaria, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg, and Austria. “I have been to Japan for three months, to teach people dance,” he says. Other places include Kenya, South Africa, and Russia. He also went to Argentina and spent six months there so that he could learn the tango.

So does he have a favourite dance form? Shiva shakes his head and says, “In the morning, if I am in a vibrant mood, I might do the samba. If the setting is very romantic, then I will go for a bolero. If it is very intense, I will do the tango. If there is a celebration it will be the salsa. Finally, if I am a flirtatious mood, I will try the Zouk (a Caribbean dance).”

After all his travels, Shiva has now come to Kerala. “The weather is perfect for a guy who has lived from plus 60 degrees Celsius to minus 45 degrees,” he says. “And for a guy who was born in the desert, I just love to walk in the rain.”

But can Keralites be adept at dancing? “They are good,” Shiva says, emphatically. “During the Thrissur Pooram festival, guys get drunk, and start dancing. They might not know each other, but as a group they synchronise so well. Malayalis have a special feel for music. You will not find anybody else in the world listening to the radio as much as Malayalis.”

So, with kudos to the Malayalis, how did this Malayali -- Shailesh Nediyeadeath Mama Karunakaran -- get the unusual name of Shiva Loco?

“The people in Puerto Rico began calling me Chiva Loco,” he says. “Chiva means addiction, while loco is crazy. So, it means a crazy addiction for dance.”

That is indeed clear when you see Shiva Loco in action.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

A nose for news


Nik Gowing, of the British Broadcasting Corporation, talks about the qualities needed to be a good television journalist

By Shevlin Sebastian

Nik Gowing, the anchor for the popular South Asian news programme, The Hub, of the British Broadcasting Corporation, landed from Doha at Thiruvanthapuram, at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. Then he managed a couple of hours of sleep before he arrived at the Kanakakunnu Palace, the venue of the Hay Festival, at 9.30 a.m. Thereafter, he proceeded to prepare for his 11.15 a.m. lecture, titled, ‘Skyful of lies’.

Gowing has reported from more than 100 countries, about epochal events like the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He was the only journalist in Afghanistan when Russian forces began to withdraw from the country in 1989.

“They had shut the whole place down, but I managed to get in,” he says. “I was able to show the planes taking off. This upset the Russians a lot. The moments in my career which mattered to me a lot were the times when governments did not want information to be made known to the public.”

Gowing has a high reputation, but there is a lot of hard work behind the glamour. “One of my guiding principles is that I am always fearful of what I don’t know,” he says. “That means, I get up early, listen to the radio, do as much of reading as possible. It is a constant process of listening, of reading, of making judgments, of meeting people. You can’t just drive to work, sit at a desk for a few hours and leave. It is a 24 hour job, although I do sleep sometimes.”

Gowing is excited by the media scene in India. “What is fantastic is the number of English news channels,” he says. “I think there are 37 now. Percentage wise, the BBC has a lower number, but in absolute numbers we are doing well, because, more people are watching TV. People now have options, and we are part of that choice.”

Asked for tips on how to be a good anchor, he says, “Learn to treat a piece of glass as your friend. I am talking to you as a human being, but normally I have to look at a camera lens and do most of my talking. It is like staring into darkness, but I always imagine I am talking to my friends around the world.”

He says that the anchor should know the answers to the questions before he asks them. “Sometimes, the answers may not be clear,” says Gowing. “So you say, 'I don’t understand that.' Sometimes, it helps to play ignorant. Secondly, you have to know everything about the person you are interviewing and the subject.”

Asked whether he gets stressed out by the pressure, Gowing says, “I love my job. In fact, my heartbeat is actually lower when I am on air than off.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 13, 2010

The dark side of life


When Dhanalakshmi's marriage ended, she felt bereft and alone. But future events confirmed to her that Goddess Devi was keeping an eye on her welfare

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dhanalakshmi's marriage began to crumble, she lost her faith in Goddess Devi. “I stopped praying,” she says. “I got very angry with Devi for making me go through this terrible time. I no longer went to the temple.”

Her husband, Satish (name changed) was fifteen years older to her and the marriage, in 2000, got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. “He mocked my looks, my cooking and my competence as a dentist,” she says. Years of harassment followed.

“In Indian society, a woman who is having a troubled marriage receives so little support,” says Dhanalakshmi, who lives in Thalassery. “I felt suicidal. I just wanted to end my life.” At that moment a friend stepped in and said, “Hey, over a divorce, you cannot just give up. One day, life will become sweet and nice.”

That was the time when Dhanalakshmi's belief in Devi began to revive. “I realised that Devi, through my friend, was helping me in some way,” she says. Then she had an accidental meeting with a competent lawyer. With his help, Dhanalakshmi was able to file for divorce in 2006. Again her husband harassed her by refusing to return her professional certificates and other possessions.

But the divorce finally came through in 2008, at Kannur. The very next day she received an award from Kannikonna Publications at Kottayam for having the best blog – www.dhanak-dhim-dhim.blogspot.com, which contains many of her poems that she writes in her spare time.

“When Devi saw that I was shattered, she immediately gave me something to rejoice the very next day,” she says. Later, when Satish, who also lives in Thalassery, began casting aspersions on her character to all and sundry, it was her faith in the goddess that enabled her to weather the storm.

So why do bad things happen? “It is because of my past karma,” says Dhanalakshmi. “There is no other way to explain it. I believe in reincarnation. The problems that I went through was because of some action in my previous life. So I try not to get upset by it.”

Today, when Dhanalakshmi gets up in the morning, the first thing she does is to say the Lalitha Sahasarama hymn in praise of Devi. And despite all the difficulties, she is convinced God exists.

In the Indira Gandhi Co-operative hospital, at Thalassery, where Dhanalakshmi works, her colleagues tell her about many incidents where the divine power had interceded to save lives.

“Just the other day, a doctor was telling me that certain patients whom he thought would die in the next few moments, survived for years,” she says. “It is in these extreme situations, when medicines become useless, that the miracles take place.”

Once, Dhanalakshmi’s friend was travelling on a bike on the national highway when a lorry hit him. “He flew up high in the air,” she says. “But he landed on a large pile of hay, which had been stacked by the side of the road only that morning. My friend escaped unscathed. This is a direct intervention of God.”

Every month, Dhanalakshmi goes to her favourite temple: the Mookambika Temple at Kollur. “Since I studied in Mangalore, I have been going there since my childhood,” she says. “I always feel that I am going back home whenever I visit the temple. The ambience, the serenity, and the devotion shown by people are so wonderful.”

When Dhanalakshmi stares at the idol, and if her mind is full of worries, she immediately begins to relax. “Devi looks so pretty in her red saree and gold ornaments,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

One of Kerala’s greatest sons

K.P. Joseph’s biography of Sree Narayana Guru, the powerful religious and social reformer, will be re-issued next month

Photos: The cover of the book; author K.P. Joseph

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1888, Sree Narayana Guru had come to the beautiful spot of Aruvippuram, 24 kms from Thiruvananthapuram. There were forests all around. The river Neyyar flowed nearby. As the people came to meet the guru in large numbers, a need arose for a temple to worship Lord Shiva.

During the festival of Mahasivarathri, Sree Narayana Guru meditated till midnight. Then he got up and went into the river. Thousands of village folk watched in silence. He submerged himself. Then after a few moments, he came up with a piece of rock.

An altar, with flowers, camphor and incense sticks, had been built nearby. He placed the rock on it. The crowd began to pray in front of it. “It was a blasphemy,” says K.P. Joseph, the author of the ‘Gospel of Guru Sree Narayana’. “Only Brahmins were allowed to install idols.”

The next day, a group of irate Brahmins came and shouted at Sree Narayana Guru. He replied, “This is not a Brahmin Shiva, but an Ezhava Shiva.” The Brahmins became tongue-tied by his reply.

Sree Narayana Guru belonged to the lower-caste Ezhava community. For centuries they were oppressed by the higher castes. “The Ezhavas suffered terribly in a feudal set-up,” says Joseph. “For example, there was a breast tax for women.”

A government official would measure the size of the breasts. The bigger the breasts, the higher the tax. A poor woman at Chertala got so angry that she cut off her breasts and threw it in front of the official. The men also had to pay tax according to the size of their heads.

But it was Sree Narayana Guru who brought dignity back to the Ezhavas. He established several temples throughout Kerala. “The reason behind his great impact in Kerala is that he gave the one and only formula for development for the lower castes: get educated,” says Joseph. “The way forward is not by receiving free rations and sops. It is knowledge that liberates the human being.”

Sree Narayana Guru opened many schools and colleges. “He followed the path laid out by the Christian missionaries,” says Joseph. More than 30 per cent of the population of Kerala belongs to the Ezhava community, and they have been transformed.

At his home in Panampilly Nagar Joseph is in an animated mood. “I have been an admirer of Sree Narayana Guru for long,” he says. A publisher-friend Vijayan Pandala asked him to write a book about Sree Narayana Guru and Joseph decided to go ahead. Of course, he consulted many books, including the seminal work on Sree Narayana Guru by the literary critic, M.K. Sanu. But Joseph was keen that he did not want to write just another book on the Guru, when there are already so many accounts.

“Once, while going for a morning walk, I was struck by an idea,” he says. “I could write it in the way the Bible has been composed.” Which is exactly how he wrote the book. It is written in numbered paragraphs, and throughout, 'he' is used with a capital 'H'.

“My Christian friends were very upset by this,” he says. “Like Sree Narayana Guru, I believe that human beings are created in the image of God. Those who partake of God become godly. So, in order to indicate that Sree Narayana Guru is a godly man, I used the letter 'H'. I felt it would draw attention to his likeness to Jesus Christ for whom 'H' has been used.”

When the book came out, Joseph presented a copy to the Library of Congress in Washington and received the astonishing news that it was the first book on the Guru that they had received.

Joseph, a former international consultant to the United Nations, is the brother of K.P. Fabian, the retired Ambassador. He has lived abroad for many years. So far, Joseph has published five books, among which there is a memoir of K.P. Hormis, the founder of Federal Bank. Joseph's future plans include biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Buddha. “Gandhi, Buddha, and Sree Narayana Guru are the three greats of India,” he says.

Now the book on Sree Narayana Guru, which was published in 2003, is going to be re-issued next month, in a revised edition. Justice K. Sukumaran, who is writing an introduction to the new edition, says, “Joseph explains clearly the message, career, and the social relevance of Sree Narayana Guru. The readability and accuracy are admirable. Because of the beautiful style, this book will appeal greatly to Western readers.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

'I believe in Shirdi Sai Baba'


Bhadra Sateesh, the Deputy Mayor of the Cochin Corporation, says that Sai Baba is guiding every moment of her life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In June, 1995, Bhadra Sateesh was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. Suddenly, she gave birth prematurely. The baby girl died within two days. “I went into a deep shock,” says the Deputy Mayor of the Cochin Corporation.

A few days later, she began reading the 'Shri Sai Satcharita' written by Shirdi Sai Baba. In it, she came across a story. A woman who had lost her child days after it was born met Sai Baba. She told him about the tragedy.

“Sai Baba gave a coconut and said, ‘Within 12 months you will have a child,’” says Bhadra. “This turned out to be true.” When Bhadra read the story she felt hopeful. She prayed hard for a child. And, surprisingly, she got pregnant within three months, following her miscarriage. In 1996, a boy, Krishnan, was born.

“This miracle was caused by Sai Baba,” says Bhadra. She became interested in Sai Baba when, several years ago, she had visited the temple at Shirdi, along with her sister, Nirmala, who lives in Pune, 174 kms away.

“When I first prayed at the temple, I could feel a divine energy rushing into me,” she says. “I felt very happy and shed tears of joy.” She was amazed by Sai Baba’s life story. “He was a fakir who wore a tattered kafni (long robe) and begged for alms till his last day,” she says. “He did not found any religion or sect, had no spiritual philosophy or system of practices, did not initiate a single disciple, and left behind no apostles.”

And yet, Bhadra says, Sai Baba has caused extraordinary events to happen in her life. She was a teacher of computer science in various colleges. “I had never been interested in politics,” she says. One day, Bhadra was asked to stand for election for the councillor’s post. She accepted the opportunity, won the election and has now become the Deputy Mayor.

“It is a miracle,” she says, her eyes enlarged in shock, at her office at the Cochin Corporation. “This has been done by Sai Baba. There is no other explanation for it. I think Sai Baba wants me to serve the people and society. I have placed my life in his hands.”

Every day, at 7.30 a.m., Bhadra enters her pooja room in her home and sits in front of a small marble statue of Sai Baba. She closes her eyes and starts meditating. Immediately, she sees an image of Sai Baba. “It is of Baba, sitting on a rock, the right leg resting on the thigh of the left, and wearing a head scarf,” says Bhadra.
“He is gazing serenely into the distance.”

Initially, her mind would be filled with restless thoughts, but now she is able to remain silent for long periods of time. “Only thoughts of Baba come to my mind,” she says. “I feel calm and peaceful.”

So does she remain tranquil when bad things happen to her? “Earlier, when unfortunate events occurred, I used to get angry with Baba,” she says. “I would say, 'Why are you doing this to me? I pray to you often. I am a good person. Why are you harming me?’ In protest I would stop praying for a couple of days.'

But life has given Bhadra a different perspective. “Nowadays, when a bad thing happens, I don’t get angry at all,” she says. “In retrospect, I have observed that all the negative occurrences in my life were for my good. It has made me stronger and bolder.”

Bhadra says that when I first called her for an interview about her faith, she was reading ‘Stories of faith: the Chicken soup for the soul’. “Thanks to Baba, my life is full of these coincidences,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 06, 2010

The 'eye' of a cyclone

There are 5 billion mobile phones on the planet and most have a tiny camera embedded in it. As a result, any person can take a photo of an event and upload it, much faster than the traditional media, like TV and newspapers. This power of the individual is unnerving governments and corporations all over the world, says Nik Gowing, a long-standing anchor of the BBC.

By Shevlin Sebastian

On September 16, 2007, the guards of the Blackwater private security agency, who were escorting a convoy of US State Department officials, shot dead 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children in Nissour Square at Baghdad, Iraq. Unfortunately, for Blackwater, the shooting was captured on a mobile camera and posted on the Internet.

“This 20-second video dealt a savage blow to Blackwater,” says Nik Gowing, the distinguished BBC journalist, during a lecture, titled, ‘Skyful of lies,’ at the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram.

“This most secretive of companies was forced into accountability by the US Congress,” he says. The reclusive CEO, Erik Prince, had to explain how and why the incident took place. The next day, the US government revoked the company's license to operate in Iraq. Blackwater had no option, but to change its name. It is now Xe Services.

In 2007, when there was an extraordinary demonstration by Buddhist monks on the streets of Burma, much of it was captured on mobile phone cameras, and uploaded, at great personal risk on to You Tube. “The Burmese government rejected what was being reported, as a 'skyful of lies',” says Gowing. “They were in denial mode.”

Just after the July, 2005 bomb blasts in London, the police cordoned off a street in North Kensington, to nab a couple of suspects, Muktar Said Ibrahim, and Ramzi Mohammed. “This was less than three miles from the headquarters of the BBC where I work,” says Gowing. “But we could not get our cameras inside the lane.”

But a resident living in the house, opposite to the suspects, took photos of Muktar and Ramzi, unarmed and bare-chested, with their arms upraised in surrender, on his mobile phone. “He sold the images for 80,000 pounds,” says Gowing.

In fact, minutes after the bomb blasts, the BBC was inundated with e-mails, videos and photographs. The corporation was overwhelmed by the material. “Later, we had to create a User Generated Content department,” says Gowing.

But the BBC does not put everything on the air instantaneously. There are experts to authenticate and moderate the material. “Sometimes, they say, ‘That picture does not look right, or this video looks odd,’” says Gowing. “It is only after their clearance that the material is uploaded.”

The mobile phone with the tiny camera embedded in it is having a profound impact on power, particularly in times of crisis. “All of us can bear witness now,” says Gowing. “In the most remote and hostile locations, hundreds of millions of electronic eyes and ears are creating new demands for accountability. It is way beyond the power and influence of the traditional media. This global electronic reach is catching institutions unawares.”

It has unnerved chief executives, prime ministers, senior government officials, security organisations, the defence and the police. They are discovering that they have less and less time to respond to what is happening. “I see a new vulnerability, fragility and brittleness on their part,” says Gowing. “A few seconds or a few minutes after an event has taken place, it is being uploaded and broadcast. All you need is a laptop and a broadband connection. As a result, during a crisis the public know much more about what is taking place than those who are in power.”

Meanwhile, traditional media, like newspapers, is trying to adjust to the new realities. In 2008, the mass circulation German newspaper, Bild, had a tie-up with supermarket giant, Lidl, to sell a digital camera for 70 Euros. “They wanted to develop their volksjournalismus (people’s journalism) project,” says Gowing. “The result is a staff increase of 82 million!”

US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton says that there are more ways to spread more ideas than in any moment in history. “Information networks are helping people discover new facts and forcing governments to become more responsible and accountable,” she says.

But some governments refuse to be accountable. In March, 2009, towards the end of the battle against the Tamil Tigers, the BBC received a video taken from a mobile phone which showed that naked and blind-folded Tamil rebels were being summarily executed by the soldiers of the Sri Lankan army. This stunning video can be seen on You Tube.

“The government claimed that the video was doctored,” says Gowing. But the United Nations hired three American experts, Daniel Spitz, a forensic pathologist, Peter Diaczuk, a firearm evidence expert, and Jeff Spivack, a forensic video analyst to examine the video. They confirmed its authenticity. “But the Sri Lankan government refused to accept the findings,” says Gowing. “Their credibility was damaged.”

Realising the danger of these small digital and mobile cameras, people in authority, especially on the battlefield, are reacting with violence.

On April 17, 2008, Fadal Shana, a cameraman of the Reuters news agency, was killed by a tank shell, because he was filming Israeli tanks in Gaza. This, despite the fact that he was wearing a blue flak jacket with the word, ‘Press’ marked out in large letters, apart from large ‘Press’ and ‘TV” stickers on his vehicle.

After a four-month inquiry, the Israeli military’s advocate-general concluded that in the tank crew’s view, Shana held a hostile weapon in his hands. These findings were roundly condemned by Reuters and the Foreign Press Association.

At present, there are 5 billion mobile phone users on the planet. In India, there are 670 million users and 12 million new connections are being added every month. In China, the world’s most populous country, there are 800 million users. “Many millions of these users are members of the new media,” says Gowing. “They can upload material on their own within seconds on blogs, e-mails and social media sites like Facebook.”

The only way is for governments and other institutions of power to react quickly. Gowing recounts that the Chinese government invited him to Beijing to learn on how to respond to events that unfold on the Internet in seconds.

“As a result, when the massive Sichuan earthquake took place, on May 12, 2008, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane and reached the affected spot within five hours,” he says.

Wen was seen kneeling amongst the quake rubble in a hard hat using a bull horn to shout reassurances to victims trapped under collapsed buildings. He was caught on camera, shouting, “Every second lost could mean lives lost.”

Says Gowing: “The remarkable decision of China’s Prime Minister to fill and then dominate the information space immediately after the quake should be viewed as inspired and wise. Given the predominant official instincts of denial during moments of crisis, it was a sharp lesson to others in positions of high power and responsibility around the world.”

Gowing pauses, breaks out into a smile, and says, “The Indian government also needs to set up a quick response unit. Otherwise, in times of crisis, they will be caught flat-footed.”


The Saddam Hussein execution

By Nik Gowing

During interviews immediately after the execution of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on December 2006, the Iraq National Security Advisor Mowaffak Al-Rubai said the process of carrying out the death sentence had been ‘calm, orderly and respectful’. There had been ‘no taunting, no humiliation, no shouting match.’ He added that all respect was shown to the condemned man, and there had been ‘full respect’ for international standards.

But the official version stood for a few hours only. Its accuracy was challenged by a shaky mobile phone video which quickly appeared on website and DVDs in the Baghdad bazaar. It told a dramatically different story. It showed that the National Security Adviser’s version had to be both disinformation and probably a deceit. In reality, there had been taunting, humiliation and shouting.

It emerged that the government had allowed representatives of Saddam’s Shiite enemies to be part of the execution team. Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr taunted Saddam and hurled abuse. Guards shouted, “Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada.”

Saddam was heard repeating the name sarcastically before shouting scathingly, “Do you call this bravery?” Some in the room reinforced the insults for Saddam, who was a Sunni. They recited the Shia version of an Islamic prayer. Then one yelled, “Go to hell.” A male voice said, “Please stop. This man is facing an execution.”

But to no avail. The video showed the trap door open. The crack of Saddam’s snapping spine could be heard and the former dictator was dead.

The issue is not the execution itself. It is the profound asymmetrical impact of what the unauthorized ‘one eye’ on someone’s mobile phone recorded during Saddam’s final moments, then what it revealed.

The European Union’s Foreign Policy Coordinator Javier Solana said, “That person who took that picture on the mobile phone and was transmitted to the Arab world, created an impact on the Arab world that he does not know. A picture can change the world much more than many images. It is a good lesson that we politicians have to draw.”

(Excerpted from ‘A Skyful of Lies and Black Swans’)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

The wonder that is Milan

The Cathedral at the Italian city is one of the great monuments of the world. But the city offers a lot more, in terms of history and architecture

Photos: The Cathedral at Milan; the author with pigeons on his arm

By Shevlin Sebastian

In a Milan Underground Metro train, I get a reminder of India. A Romanian man, wearing a suit and tie, but carrying a harmonium walks around, playing songs. He is accompanied by his wife and a eight-year-old daughter, with red cheeks. She holds a red plastic cup in her hand. As is usual in Indian trains, most of the commuters ignore them, but a few are generous. A man sitting next to me drops a 2 Euro coin in the cup. The musician acknowledges it with a nod of his head.

Opposite me sits a Slovakian couple. The wife is very angry. She is yelling at her husband, but the man adopts a ‘no response' attitude. Soon, her voice grows louder. In the end, he responds with a few soothing words of apology, and she is suddenly mollified. It seems that wherever you go in the world, the relationship between man and woman is always a conflict-ridden enterprise.

At Duomo station, I get off. I am accompanied by regular Milan visitor Anil Mulchandani. As we climb up the steps and reach the surface, Anil says, “Look behind.” I do so and immediately my mouth opens in awe. Right in front of me is the sparkling white marble-faced edifice of the Milan Cathedral. It is several hundred feet high and is the second largest cathedral in the world. I have to crane my neck to see the top. There are numerous spires and towers.

The Cathedral is 500 years old and has been constructed in the neo-Gothic style. Astonishingly, there are no entrance fees. You can just walk in. And again I can only draw in my breath in shock. The area above the altar is a few stories high.

There are huge pillars and naves. Large paintings of events from the Bible hang from the balustrade of the balcony. There are massive windows on all sides. To give an idea of the size, 40,000 people can easily fit inside and listen to Mass.

It is one of the great monuments of the world. The great American writer, Mark Twain said: “They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”

Outside is the large Duomo Square, which is off-limits to traffic, and is ringed by shops on all sides. As I gaze at a statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy, sitting astride a horse at the centre, an Algerian man, with crinkly black hair, comes up. In a swift movement, he pulls back my fingers and places bird seeds on my palm.

Within seconds, several pigeons land on my arm and some begin pecking at the seeds at once. The Algerian grabs for my camera, but I manage to give it to Anil, who takes several shots. Once the seeds have been eaten, the pigeons fly away. “That will be five Euros,” says the unsmiling Algerian. I offer two Euros, which he quietly accepts.

If you walk straight from the Duomo Square, for half a kilometre, you will reach the 500-year-old Castello Sforzesco, the seat and residence of the Duchy of Milan. It has several museums and art collections.

What I like most is to gaze at the moat, which is no longer filled with water, but it reminds me of the many stories I have read as a child, of the drawbridge being drawn up, and the moat filled with water, so that it could act as a defence against enemies.

I enjoy walking on the smooth sidewalks of Milan. One sight reminds me immediately of the city of Kolkata. Milan also has functioning trams but they move past, with much less noise and clatter.

As is the habit in the West, motorists never honk. The only sound is the hum of smooth-running engines. So, when an ambulance whizzes past, with sirens blaring, a woman finds the noise so deafening, she bends her body and places two fingers in her ears. I think to myself: what will happen to her if she came to India and experienced the cacophony of our traffic? Perhaps, a nervous breakdown!

But on the roads and in the shops, restaurants, museums, malls, exhibitions, and in public transport, it is the women that send heartbeats thudding in the rib cage. Dressed in sexy mini skirts and hot pants, with six-inch stiletto heels, with long, shapely legs, and glowing skin and proud breasts, they are, to be honest, the best sights in Milan. You could spend a few lifetimes staring in admiration.

But, of course, there are non-human sights which are also worthwhile: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a shopping gallery, the Brera art gallery, the Pirelli tower, and the San Siro stadium, which is the home of the famous football club, AC Milan.

In several shops, you can see T-shirts and shorts with the AC Milan logo on sale. Milan also houses one of the world's most famous paintings: Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. It is also where the La Scala, one of the best opera houses in the world is located.

I have the good fortune to attend an opera at the Teatro Dal Verme. A 100-member orchestra, apart from 75 choir singers, uses a variety of instruments, like violins, cellos, guitars, brass flutes, trombones, drums and harps to make some striking sounds.

Unfortunately, to enjoy opera is an acquired taste, just as it would be for an Italian to enjoy Indian classical music. Nevertheless, the experience was worthwhile, especially with the 6' black compere, Ainette Stephens, the Venezuelan-born television personality, looking absolutely stunning in a micro-mini black dress.

Mamma Mia, am I going to have a heart attack?

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

A profusion of holy beads

Sabu Caiter has a collection of more than 16,000 rosaries. These include rosaries used by Mother Teresa and blessed by Pope John Paul II

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sabu Caiter was 13 when his grandfather died. As he was about to be buried, Sabu grabbed the rosary that was placed on his grandfather's chest. “I wanted to have something that would remind me of my grandfather,” says Sabu. Little did he realise that it would engender a passion for rosaries. Of course, it helped that both his parents were avid rosary collectors. Soon, Sabu became one.

When relatives and friends who lived abroad asked him what he wanted, he always said, “Please bring me a rosary.” As a result, after 30 years of persistent effort, Sabu, 44, has a collection of more than 16,000 rosaries.

At Sabu’s rosary exhibition at the Our Lady of Ransom church, at Vallarpadam, recently, more than a thousand rosaries are on display. They are made of gold, silver, ruby and emeralds. Some are made of tulsi leaves, coir, and olive wood.

His most astonishing rosary is one in which there are a thousand beads. “A friend made it especially for me,” he says. Sabu is an ardent devotee of Mother Mary and has prayed more than a lakh times using this rosary. “Mother Mary means everything for me,” he says.

This rosary is not on display at the exhibition. Instead, it is kept inside a box. Sabu carefully takes it out and shows it. After a few moments, his eleven-year-old son, Aghil, takes it from him and places it back in the box. Sabu smiles and says, “This rosary is very precious for our family.”

Perhaps, the most unusual rosary is the one made in the USA. It is called, ‘Unborn child’. “Each bead represents Mother Mary’s tears for aborted children,” says Sabu.

There are rosaries named after saints and continental rosaries: with this rosary you can pray for the people in all the five continents. There are wedding rosaries in which two rows of beads run parallel to each other. “This is to suggest that two hearts are beating as one,” says Sabu.

These rosaries have been sourced from many countries worldwide, including Brazil, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Finland, France, and Ecuador. But he says that more than 90 per cent of the rosaries in his collection have been made in Italy. “For centuries, rosaries were made there and it continues to be exported all over the world,” says Sabu.

Some of his rosaries were in the possession of notables. “I have a rosary that has been used by Mother Teresa,” he says. When Pope John Paul II visited Kerala in 1986, Sabu was able to get a rosary blessed by the Pontiff. Later, he got one from Pope Benedict XVI. “I also have rosaries blessed by 130 Bishops,” he says.

At his house in North Paravur, he has set aside one room to store the rosaries. They are kept in small plastic boxes. Some are placed in wooden containers. In the past year, Sabu has conducted more than 10 exhibitions. The parish priest at the St. Don Bosco church at North Paravur, Fr. Francis Kaithathara was the one who encouraged him to display it for the public. “He told me I should share the rosaries with others,” he says.

Sabu says that people feel very happy when they view the rosaries. At the Vallarpadam exhibition, most have a wonder-struck look on their faces. Nayana Roy, a visitor, says, “I am fortunate to see such a wide variety of rosaries. I wish Sabu all the best and he should conduct more exhibitions like this.”

Fr. Dominic Kanappilly, the assistant parish priest of the Vallarpadam church, says, “The response from the people has been overwhelming.”

As his name becomes well-known, people come up to him and donate their rosaries. Sometimes, they send it through the post. “In the last one year, I have received 1500 rosaries,” says Sabu.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A heroine of our times!


Philomina Mary was afflicted by polio at the age of five. But that did not prevent her from getting two Master’s degrees as well as a M. Phil. Later, she served as a librarian in the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore for 27 years

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1950, when Philomina Mary returned from school in Tirunelveli she began suffering from fever. When she awoke after a small nap, she saw that her body had become stiff. “My mother called a doctor, who gave an injection,” says Philomina.

At night, when her mother tried to lift her up to take to the toilet, she could not do so. Philomina’s body had become very heavy. The next morning, when the doctor examined Philomina again, he pronounced the dreaded words: “She is paralysed.”

It was then that Philomina was told that she had become a victim of polio. “At that time there was no awareness of the anti-polio vaccine,” she says. Philomina was only five years old. Thereafter, the family tried all sorts of treatments for her, but to no avail.

In Tirunelveli there was a school close to the house which she would attend once in a while. “I was determined to study,” she says.

At the age of 12, Philomina underwent surgeries on her legs and spine, at the Trivandrum Medical College. “Dr. K.I. George discovered that I had a curved spine,” she says. She had to put on steel braces to prop up her chest and calipers on her legs.

Philomina continued to study and sat for her SSLC examinations in 1963. But she did go through a traumatic time. On the morning of the mathematics exam, she was waiting with Lakshmi, her friend and neighbour, on the road for a taxi.

Suddenly a horse cart came up, hit Philomina, and dragged her for several feet. Eventually, she fell into a narrow ditch full of dirty water. “I had to be taken home, given a bath and wear fresh clothes,” she says. By the time she reached the exam hall, she was late by half an hour.

“I felt panic-stricken and exhausted by anxiety,” she says. She put her head on the table and went off to sleep. She got up half an hour later, and hurriedly finished the paper. “I did not achieve the 100 per cent that I hoped to,” she says. Nevertheless, Philomina passed the exam.

Thereafter, for the next seven years, Philomina stayed at home because there were no correspondence courses at that time. Then in 1970, luck turned in her favour. In the colony where she was residing, Meenakshi, the principal of the nearby Rani Annadurai Government Arts and Science College, came to stay. Through Meenakshi, Philomina was able to get admission in the pre-degree course.

She was 25 years old. Soon, she passed her examinations and gained entry into the Sarah Tucker College in Palayamkottai. Philomina did her BA in history. She stayed in the hostel.

In the final year, there was a function in the college. The famous Tamil writer Dr. Mu Varadarajan, the vice-chancellor of the Madurai Kamaraj University, was the chief guest. When Philomina expressed her desire to become a librarian, Varadarajan said they did not have a library science course, but had plans to start one. If they did, he promised her a seat. The next year, the university did, indeed, start a course and Varadarajan kept his word.

Following her graduation, in 1975, Philomena got a job as an assistant librarian at the College of Nursing in the Christian Medical College Hospital (CMCH) in Vellore. She worked there for 27 years. During this period, she did her masters in library science and history and a M. Phil on labour studies from the Madurai Kamaraj University.

Dr. Ravi Jacob Korula, Orthopaedics professor in CMCH, says, “Philomina was given accommodation very close to the library. In spite of this, she used to take a long time to cover this short distance. It was a struggle and she was obviously in pain. However, she always had a smile on her face.”

When Philomina retired in 2002, an old friend from Vellore, Sr. Mariella, invited her to stay at the Mercy Home at Kurisumood, on the outskirts of Changanacherry, which is run by the Sisters of the Destitute. It is a home where disabled children are provided treatment and given an education.

“I keep reminding the children that their lives are not hopeless, and they can get jobs and lead a fulfilling life,” she says. “I want to serve as an inspiration.” At the home, she teaches sociology and maintains the library.

In September, the Malayalam version of Philomina's autobiography, ‘Countable blessings in my physically challenged life’ was published. A fortnight ago, she was given the ‘Vocational Excellency Award’ from the District Rotary Club of Changanacherry.

In her room, I ask her to stand near the window so that I could take a photograph. Philomina grips the edge of a table and pushes herself forward, inch by inch. It takes five minutes for her to cross three feet. She turns, looks at me, and says, “I may be a disabled person, but I don’t lack courage.”

Yes, indeed, Philomina is a heroine of our times!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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