Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A view from the tip of Africa

Mansoor Jaffer and his wife Kay are amazed by the diversity of cultures in Kerala. They also talk about life in a post-racist South Africa

Photo: Mansoor Jaffer (centre) with Shevlin Sebastian (extreme right) and Mark Antony, a 'New Indian Express' colleague of Shevlin's

By Shevlin Sebastian

More than a hundred years ago, Jaffer Murtaza left his home in a village, Borli Panchatan, in Maharashtra to seek his fortune in South Africa. He arrived at Cape Town with a group of other Indians. They started working in small shops in Cape Town. Later, a lot of Indians owned corner shops in South Africa. In fact, there was a cruel joke which said that the reason why Indians don’t play football is that when they are awarded a corner, during a game, they will immediately set up a shop.

Today, his grandson, Mansoor Jaffer, a journalist, has come to India for the first time, along with his wife, Kay, a former professor of English at the University of the Western Cape. “I came to see my roots and meet a few relatives in my ancestral village,” says Mansoor. But before that, the couple is touring India and have come to Kochi.

“I heard about the beauty of Kerala from my sister Zubeida, who is a writer, and had attended the Kovalam Literary Festival a couple of years ago,” says Mansoor. And, of course, Mansoor and Kay have been moving around, going to Munnar and the border districts. “It was only when we came here that we heard about the Mullaperiyar Dam issue,” says Kay. “In Cape Town, we do get news about India on cable TV. And we are aware of Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill.”

The duo finds Kerala a fascinating place. “From outside India, you cannot imagine the mixing of communities that exists,” says Kay. “You feel it must be a Hindu country, since 82 per cent of the population belongs to that community. But in Kerala, the mix of Muslim, Christian and Hindus is wonderful to see. I have seen mosques, temples and churches next to each other, apart from a Jain temple, and not to forget the Jewish synagogue at Fort Kochi. It has been incredible to witness the melting pot of cultures and religions.”

Unfortunately, South Africa was never a melting pot. Till recently, it was a racist society, where whites, blacks, Asians and coloured lived in separate areas.

“When we grew up, my wife and I could not vote, or swim at the local beaches, or study in many schools in Cape Town,” says Mansoor. “Imagine if you were living in Fort Kochi and you are forcibly moved out and asked to stay in another place. Other people, usually whites, moved into your house. Twenty years later when you get freedom and you come to Fort Kochi and see other people living there, you will get angry and resentful. But you also have to understand that in the broader interests of society, you need to forget it. As [former President] Nelson Mandela said the conflict which has been going on between blacks and whites for three centuries, needs to be broken. We have to learn to heal and forgive.”

And, amazingly, the African National Congress (ANC), the party which rules South Africa now, always felt that whites belong to the country. “The freedom charter, which was formulated in 1955, by the ANC and its allies, makes it very clear that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it,” says Kay. “It was a non-racial document. And, for us, it was a struggle for democracy, and equality for all peoples.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mind and Matter

Artist Vipin K. Nair focuses on thoughts that exists in one’s mind and the miracle of nature

Photo: Vipin K. Nair standing next to 'Freedom from roots'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when Vipin K. Nair was eight years old, the class finished early. Whenever that happened his mother told him he should wait under the huge tree by the side of the road near the Shree Dharma Paripalana Yogam school at Palluruthy where he studied.

But while he was waiting, he suddenly felt sleepy. So, he went and lay down on the thick grass near the tree. Unfortunately, he could not be seen from the road. Soon, his parents and neighbours began to search frantically for him. At 6 p.m., Vipin got up and came to the road. It was getting dark; he began crying. But a neighbour who had gone to the school to do a check saw him and finally brought him home.

It was this memory that was a trigger for Vipin’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Freedom from roots’. Done in grey and black, it shows a huge overhanging tree with thick roots and foliage. At the bottom lies a boy, who is in a deep sleep, his right leg stretched out. In the undergrowth, a few mushrooms can be seen. There are roots that look like snakes.

If you step back, you can detect a face: cold eyes, a long nose, and a baleful grin. On the left is a woman, sitting with an upraised right leg and her long hair is flowing out onto the foliage. On the opposite side is another woman, her bare buttocks facing the viewer, with a side view of a protruding breast.

“The reason why I have shown the women is because they are motherly and offer protection and shade to those around them, including their husbands and children,” says Vipin. “That is the same function of the huge tree, which offers a home to so many small insects, apart from man.”

Nature has been the theme of many paintings. In one acrylic on canvas there are red-winged beetles moving around on green leaves and plants. Vipin has also drawn a volcano, before it has erupted, and has put in several embedded images. So there is a mountaintop that looks like two eyes staring back at you. The vent of the volcano gives the impression of it being a large eye or the entrance to a cave.

“Yes, I like to put several clues in a drawing,” says Vipin. “It is not just a volcano. There are people in it, and different moods have been expressed.”

So, in that sense, his paintings, a total of 16, even though they are abstract, can still be decoded with ease. He has also done a few paintings, which is a physical expression of thoughts. So there are lines which go left and right, up and down, some blood-red in colour, indicating the chaotic mind of modern man.

“I did this series on nature and the mind, because both are remarkable,” he says. “I would call them miracles of life. Nature keeps changing all the time, while the human mind, if its power is properly harnessed, can achieve anything.”

This is Vipin’s fourth solo exhibition. A graphic designer by day, he works late into the night on his paintings. “I am self-taught, but painting has been my passion for many years,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas is coming!

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Parimal Paul, the English teacher at Rajagiri Public School, Kochi, sees a Christmas star hanging in front of a house, she feels a pang of sadness. She is reminded of her late father, Advocate Joseph Katticaran, who passed away five years ago. "When I was a child, I would always help my father to hang up the stars," she says. "For a daughter, a father is always a hero and I dearly miss him."

Parimal's most memorable Christmas was when instead of making her mother make the food at home, her father brought food from Hotel International. “There were duck, rabbit, and chicken,” she says. “It was a wonderful spread.”

She also remembers going to midnight mass at the St. Mary’s Basilica with her family. “A family that celebrates festivals together is a happy family,” she says. After returning home, they would have chicken and vattayappan.

For Parimal, Christmas means Jesus Christ’s birth, cakes, Santa Claus, carols, and cookies. “Christmas always evokes a sense of nostalgia in me,” she says. “Frequently, I remember events from my childhood.”

For this year’s Christmas, Parimal is having a low-key celebration. “My daughter, Rosita, is having her Class 12 examinations and she is studying very hard,” she says. Nevertheless, she will be making a cake, chocolate, instead of the usual plum, because that is what she enjoys making. Parimal is also planning to do a fish bake. “After 25 days of fasting we will all be yearning for some non-vegetarian food,” she says, “My brothers and sisters will be coming with their families.”

For Mary George, her most memorable Christmas was when she went to Bangalore last year and spent the season with her uncle, Deepak, and his family. “I met my cousin, Ian, for the first time,” she says. “He was only five months old and was so cute.”

Her uncle took her to the big shopping malls like Central and Mantri. “There was such a large crowd,” she says.

On Christmas Day, there were gifts placed under the tree. “I got a board game, Word Scrabble, and I still play it,” she says.

Asked whether Santa Claus had brought the gifts down the chimney and placed it during the night of December 24, Mary laughs and says, “Uncle, could you point out to me where is the chimney? I am 10 years old, not two. It is a fairy tale.”

On what the word Christmas evokes in her, Mary says, “Christmas tree, gifts, singing, and cards.”

On December 25, she plans to meet up with friends and cousins and play badminton and party games. “But the bad news for me is that as soon as school re-opens, I have examinations,” she says. “So I will have to find some time to do my studies.”

For Mary’s brother, Robert, 8, Christmas means holidays. “I don’t have to go to school,” he says. “Isn’t that wonderful? I also think about the baby Jesus.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A mix of the sublime and the furious

'The MeiDhwani' programme by the Attakallari Centre for Movement Arts mesmerises an audience in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Artistic Director Jayachandran Palazhy of the Bangalore-based Attakallari Centre for Movement Arts steps on the stage at the Fine Arts Hall in Kochi on a Saturday evening. It is the start of ‘MeiDhwani (Echoes of the Body), a contemporary dance production.

Jayachandran is wearing a white tunic and loose white cotton trousers. He sits on the top of a gleaming steel pot, head resting on his hands, looking worried. He stands up and twirls around. Then he stretches out on the ground, his hands reaching out for something, a look of suffering on his face.

Soon, three female dancers – Diya Naidu, Hemabharathy Palani, and Keya Ann D'Souza – wearing white skirts, slit to the waist, with their hair tied up in a top knot join Jayachandran. They also swirl around, pirouetting, like in a ballet, and making powerful leaps and turns. They pick up the steel pots and dance around with it. Then they lie down and balance it between their legs. They get up and sit on top and do leg movements.

"The pots represent feminine energy,” says Jayachandran. And later when male dancers light lamps and place them on top of cylindrical metal stands, Jayachandran says, “Fire acts as a metaphor for male energy, and the destructive power within oneself.”

Indeed, when the male dancers – Ajeesh K B, Denny Paul, Lalit Khatana, Parth Bharadwaj, and Sumesh V M – appear on the scene, they swivel around with great speed, they jump up and dive to the floor. They go around the girls and in between them. They run from one side of the stage to the other, and, sometimes, they hop on their toes. All this is accompanied by the strange, hypnotic, electro-acoustic music of Israeli musicians, Patrick Sebag and Yotam Agam. “It has a Middle East flavour, but also has Indian melodies embedded in it,” says Jayachandran.

The most enthralling section is when Jayachandran does a duet with Hemabharathi, when they flirt and smile and hug each other. At one moment, he lifts her up and she returns the compliment, with the sexual chemistry clearly evident. It is a soothing segment in a programme that looks at the bleak side of life.

“I was concerned about the recent worldwide economic turbulence, as well as the unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere,” says Jayachandran. “In India we are going through a rapid, unplanned development and urbanisation. In cities like Bangalore or Mumbai or Delhi, in the time you blink your eyes, a new shopping mall comes up. If you map these changes, through dance, you can get the pulse of contemporary society.”

And, undoubtedly, the dance is mesmerizing and gripping, the sheer skill on display, a feast for the eyes and a balm for troubled souls. The movements are so sharp and energetic that, within minutes, beads of perspiration can be seen on the foreheads of the dancers, while hurried breathing emanates through clenched teeth.

But there are times when the tempo is so languid that there is time to observe a tattoo -- a star, as well as a creeper -- on the left ankle of Diya. In short, it was a mix of the sublime and the furious

And it is clear that a lot of hard work has gone into the production. “It takes about six months to get a dance ready,” says Jayachandran. “There is a lot of creative exchange and training between the dancers and myself. Then I have to work with the music composers, costume and light designers, to add to the visual impact.”

Yes, the one-hour programme had a powerful visual and emotional impact. To know more, check out Segments can also be seen on You Tube.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A lonely but devoted companion

Column: Spouse's Turn

Life has not been easy for Mariamma Chandy, because she is married to a 24/7 career politician, Oommen Chandy, who is now the chief minister of Kerala

Photo credit: Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

In January, 1977, Mariamma met Oommen Chandy for the first time at an aunt's home. “He was wearing a white shirt and dhoti, the typical politician's garb,” she says. “What I liked most was that he was a tall man. I also liked his protruding nose.”

Through relatives and friends, Mariamma had heard a lot of positive things about Chandy. “Most importantly, he was not hot-tempered, unlike my father and my brothers,” she says.

But still Mariamma was nervous, simply because Chandy is a politician. “I had the impression that all politicians are bad and corrupt,” she says. “I prayed to God to let the marriage take place only if the person is good. Otherwise, don't make it happen.”

In the end, Mariamma got married to Chandy on May 30, 1977. And like her father and uncles, Chandy turned out to be an upright person. “He does not drink or smoke or have any vices,” she says.

Later, Mariamma observed that Chandy had many other good qualities. “He is an honest and loving person,” she says. “He has never lost his temper in our marriage. No matter what happens, he never loses his cool. He has never shouted or raised his voice at me. This quality is a gift from God.”

So, what are his negative points? “He can never say no,” she says. “In certain situations, he should do so, but he does not.”

And of course, his biggest drawback is that he is hardly ever at home, thanks to an intense 24x7 political career. “Oommen never did his duty as a father,” says Mariamma. “He never held the children in his arms when they were babies. He hardly spoke or scolded them. He never offered advice on what to do in life. He would never say, 'Don't do this, it is not right.' He was always keen to make them happy. But I feel a father should be a bit strict and impose a discipline, coated with love. Eventually, I had to bring them up on my own.” Incidentally, the Chandys have three children: Mariakutty, Achamma, and Chandykunju.

Nevertheless, there must be benefits for the family in being married to a powerful man? “We can get things done quickly,” says Mariamma “Being the wife of Oommen Chandy, I receive a lot of affection from the common man. That is because he is so beloved of the people. When we travel anywhere we always get VIP treatment.”

But what is extraordinary is the financial difficulties that the family has gone through. “My husband is not corrupt,” says Mariamma. “Whatever money he gets he gives it to me, and I had to use it, as well as my salary as a Canara Bank employee to run the household. Sometimes, I was not able to meet the day-to-day expenses. I know people will not believe what I am saying. We have taken car, house, and education loans. We are still paying back some of them. After my retirement as an officer, in 2009, I am dependent on my pension, and the interest from provident and gratuity funds.”

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of her marriage to Chandy has been the many years that Mariamma has lived alone. “I yearned for his presence and to talk to him, but he is never at home,” she says. “I was looking for emotional support, but I was alone all the time. I know this has happened because of his love for the people. But, despite all the difficulties, I love him from the bottom of my heart.”

Asked whether this public figure has a different face at home, Mariamma smiles, and says, “Oommen is the same inside or outside. There is no change at all.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Indo-French collaboration

Jude Mathew fell in love and married Frenchwoman Sofie Debieve. The couple run a social service organisation in Fort Kochi and dwell upon life in France and Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, 1997, Jude Mathew met Sofie Debieve while working as an interpreter for the Alliance Francaise (AF) at Thiruvananthapuram. Sofie had come on the invitation of the AF Director, Jean Leturcq, to hold an exhibition of dried flowers. “It seemed as if Sofie was the person I was waiting for,” says Jude.

When Jude invited Sofie for a tea at a roadside shack, she got very excited. “It was my first direct experience of Indians and India,” she says. But no sparks flew between the couple. Soon, Sofie returned to France.

But, six months later, on the invitation of the AF, Jude went to France and eventually to La Rochelle, 500 kms from Paris, where Sofie stayed. They met and this time they fell in love. Jude stayed a couple of months before returning to Fort Kochi, his hometown. After a few months, Sofie came down and spent time with Jude. This went on, till they got married on July 9, 1999, at La Rochelle.

For the first seven years, the couple lived at La Rochelle, where Jude was the manager of a car park. And he was astonished to see French society at close quarters. “The family, which has been the unit of society for thousands of years, no longer exists,” he says. “There is a lack of relations between father, mother, brothers and sisters. People have become individualistic. The cultural festivals have become less. Things have changed because of modern life and the advances of technology.”

The spiritual emptiness is also troubling. “The churches are empty,” he says. “Religion has lost its importance. To fill their spiritual void, the French go to a psychiatrist. Or take sleeping and anti-depression pills like Prozac. For any emotional problem, they try to solve it by popping a pill. They might forget to take food, but they will not miss taking their medicines.”

And Jude is worried by the rising consumerism in Kerala and Indian society. “Once they start earning money, people want their own space, house, and car,” he says. “I can see that the people have no idea of the end result. You become alone and isolated, by following the consumerist way of the West.

Meanwhile, for Sofie, her immersion in Kerala culture has brought a lot of happiness. “Here, people live through the heart,” she says. “They are simple and caring. On the other hand, the French are very intellectual and tend to over-analyse. There is a lot of mental agitation and too much of thinking, thinking, thinking. There is very little emphasis on feelings. I learnt how to love only after I got married to Jude.”

For the past five years, they live six months of the year in Fort Kochi, and the other half in La Rochelle. Their son, Surya, 12, does his studies through the National Centre for Distance Education at a school in La Rochelle.

At Fort Kochi Jude runs a counselling centre, at their home, where he helps troubled people through advice, yoga, and meditation. Sofie runs a tailoring workshop where she gives training to poor women. They make bed sheets, pillow covers, purses, bags, and other accessories which they sell to foreigners. They also have a unit for the physically challenged where they make paper bags and envelopes, which are sent to France.

“We lead fulfilling lives,” says Sofie.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Statements about life

Children living in conflict zones and a woman with two faces are some of the themes that have been explored in the annual show at the Bindhi Art Gallery

Photos: 'The sound of firing' by N. Balamurali Krishnan and O. Sundar's 'Two Faces of Women'

By Shevlin Sebastian

When N. Balamurali Krishna would go to film festivals, he enjoyed seeing the movies of Palestinian and Iranian directors. “Frequently, I would be touched by the plight of children in these societies,” he says. “They are the victims of random violence, wars, and terrorism.”

And it is these images that have inspired him to do an acrylic on canvas, called 'Sound of firing', which catches the eye at the annual exhibition at the Bindhi Art Gallery, Kochi. It shows a young girl, wearing what seems to be a paavada and blouse, lying on a ledge, with her head resting on her right arm and in restful sleep.

Just behind her is a cement grille, which has numerous butterflies, designed in such a way that you can look through them to the outside. At certain sections, there are yellowish splotches, the result of gunfire. So while she is sleeping, there is darkness outside and conflicts are going on. “This is part of a series called 'Portrait of grilled eyes',” he says. To the viewer, there is an arresting aspect, because of the clear, simple strokes, and the sense of darkness that it conveys.

O. Sundar’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Two Faces of Women’, will have a resonance with men. ‘Only two faces,’ some men might think. ‘A woman has so many facets: straight-faced liars, great actresses, so vain about their looks, vicious, spiteful, jealous, perfectly capable of cool sexual betrayals, and endlessly secretive. And not to forget their sublime qualities: of kindness, love, great motherly instincts, sensitive, beautiful, funny, and a rock in times of crisis. No wonder women drive men to distraction, and even to madness.’

Done in a monochrome black and white, with a dab of blue, it gives a three dimensional effect. “I wanted to show the positive and negative sides of women,” says Sundar. “They are more complicated than men and have a lot of hidden aspects.”

Bindhi Rajagopal, in whose gallery the show is being held, has done an image of a nest, but it hangs by a single thread on an iron rod on the terrace of the building. It clearly indicates the fragility of the nest. At the distance, the congested city can be seen.

Right at the side, near the bottom of the nest, there is a tiny sparrow, its legs entwined around another cement rod, with a piece of straw in its mouth, still in the process of giving the finishing touches. It is a telling image of the state of Kochi, where rampant construction is destroying all traces of Nature. “Even birds are adjusting to the changes and building nests in unusual places,” says Bindhi.

Meanwhile, the Chennai-based Razia Tony’s portrait, 'Varsha', shows a woman with a bare back, looking towards the viewer. At the background, there are forests, while at the bottom of the painting are fresh, white flowers. An acrylic on canvas, it is an evocation of the rainy season. “Varsha represents nature,” says Razia. “I want to show the changing seasons.” Despite being painted in a smudged style, in blues and greens, the eyes of the woman hold you in an unblinking gaze.

Other paintings include those by veterans like C.N. Karunakaran, Rajan M. Krishnan, and Kaladharan, established artistes like Hochimin, Rathidevi, R. Venu, and Satyapal, and youngsters like Nimmy Melvin.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Non-stop insights about India

Renowned journalist, Mark Tully, in his book, 'Non Stop India', talks about the changes, or lack of it, in India, and why having a superpower ambition is the wrong one for the country

Photo: Mark Tully with TV personality Karan Thapar at the release of 'Non-stop India' in New Delhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Famed BBC reporter Mark Tully laughs when asked whether he enjoys the post-BBC period more, or his 30-year career as a journalist. Tully retired from the BBC in June, 1994. “When I left the BBC, I told myself the one thing I was really looking forward to, was that, on an evening, I can open a bottle of beer and know that nobody is going to ring me up and order me to do something,” says Tully, while on a brief visit to Kochi. “They might ask me, but I could always say, 'Get lost.'”

He admits that his post-retirement career has been fulfilling: giving talks, hosting the 'Something Understood' programme on BBC Radio 4, which has one million listeners, as well as writing books. His latest, 'Non-Stop India', is an update on what is happening in the country.

“In the government, nothing has changed in the past fifty years,” he says. “If you look at the attitude of the government servant, the word, 'servant' does not come into it. He does not have an attitude of, 'How may I help you, Sir?' Instead, it is a barked, 'What do you want?' There is a lot of arrogance. Treating people like muck. Deliberately making things complicated, to encourage corruption.”

In fact, in the rural areas, the bureaucrat is a more hated figure than the politician. “The poor know that they can boot out the politician every five years,” says Tully. “But the bureaucrat will sit on his seat for 30 years, whether he performs or not.”

And contrary to what we all think, the economic growth has not spread all over the country. “At the way things are going, I am not sure there are enough jobs for everybody,” says Tully. “When people talk about the 'demographic advantage' -- of having such a young population -- I have a fear that this advantage could become a disaster, and lead to violence.”

So this ambition of India wanting to become the next superpower, along with China, is it an illusion?

“Imagine what Mahatma Gandhi would have said if any Indian expressed a desire to become a citizen of a superpower,” says Tully. “He would have been appalled by that. India should aspire to be a country where everyone can enjoy a decent standard of living, education, and health. It should be a nation which should live by its ancient principles. Instead, India is borrowing all its ideas from the West.”

But the West, unfortunately, is in creative and economic decline. “You are right,” says Tully. “People in Europe and America need to remember that civilisations rise and fall. They will be overtaken by other nations.”

But what upsets Tully is the rampant materialism in Europe. “People believe that only material things bring happiness, but that is not true,” he says. “In Britain, there is now a widespread belief that religion is dangerous and bad. Something hugely important is lost when a nation adopts such an attitude.”

So, the veteran broadcaster feels happy when he comes to Kerala. “It has a deeply multi-religious culture, which is wonderful to see,” he says. “In North India, it is much less so. India is also full of talented Malayalis, but, unfortunately, none of them stay in Kerala. I am told trade unionism is still hampering the state's economic growth.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Making the guitar sing

Ace guitarist Baiju Dharmarajan is on a creative high, after his departure from Motherjane. His collaboration with international percussionist and composer Karshkale will be shown on Star World on Sunday, December 11

By Shevlin Sebastian .

Guitarist Baiju Dharmarajan is excited. At 8 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, on Star World his performance on the Dewarists show will be telecast. This show, sponsored by Dewars scotch whisky company, based in Scotland, is a collaboration of musicians of different genres. So Baiju has played with noted US-based percussionist and composer Karshkale, and Harigovind, a master of the edakka drum at Angadipuram, Malappuram district.

“Karshkale played electronic music, Harigovind hit the drums in his traditional style, while I played rock music,” says Baiju. The song is called ‘Sacred Science’.

Not many people may have heard of Baiju, but in the music world, he has a stellar reputation. On December 1, when the young rock band, ‘Evergreen’, staged a performance at the Children’s Park, opposite the Gold Souk, Kochi, highlighting the dangers of the Mullaperiyar Dam, it was the forty-something Baiju who stole the show.

Dressed casually in a blue T-shirt and jeans, he let rip chords that made the guitar weep, sing, laugh and cry out aloud. Sometimes, his face contorted with the effort. Sometimes, his body shook. And always, the tendons on his arms stood out, as his fingers ran up and down the frets. There was no doubting his extraordinary skill. The piercing sounds pierced the soul. There was a pin-drop silence in the motley crowd of youngsters, middle-aged parents, children, and idle bystanders. In the end, the ‘Evergreen’ kids got a master class in guitar-playing.

Baiju, of course, made his name as the lead guitarist of Motherjane, one of the top bands from Kerala, which had a nation-wide impact. Their original album, ‘Maktub’ became a hit and established the band’s reputation.

“We travelled all over India, doing shows in IIT and engineering colleges,” says Baiju. “There are thousands of professional colleges in the country. It is like a sub-continent.” And the band raked in the moolah. In two-and-a-half years, the five-member team earned Rs 42 lakh. “If you are a top class musician, you can survive easily,” says Baiju, with an easy smile.

But all good things have to come to an end. Differences about the creative direction of the band forced Baiju to opt out of Motherjane in November, 2010. “I have a lot of ambitions,” he says. “I want to move to the next level.”

He has now set up a new band, with a drummer called Sojan, vocalist, Richard Wilson, and bass guitarist Vivian verghese. He is now looking for a keyboard player. In this one year, Baiju has composed 12 songs. “I am in the recording stage,” he says. “Then there will be practice sessions, followed by live shows. It is time-consuming. If you start any business, it takes time to get it moving. It is the same with a band.” Along with this, Baiju is also helping new and upcoming bands like ‘Kaav’ to produce an album. He is like a guru to them.

At a restaurant in Kochi, Baiju looks happy, accompanied by Kaav band members Shyam n pai, and Arun s kumar. “I have no regrets about leaving Motherjane,” says Baiju. “In fact, I have become free. I am able to understand my strengths only after I left. I am a lot more creative now.”

Baiju is the son of Dharmajan, a government servant, who played the Hawaiian guitar as a hobby. Baiju learnt the guitar when he was 13. But his initial musical influences were all Indian. “Thanks to my father, I grew up listening to the ghazals of Mehdi Hasan. shamsad Begum, and Anup Jalota. I also listened to Tamil and Malayalam film music. My all-time favourite is Yesudas.”

And it would be the legendary singer, while giving an interview to the BBC, who would provide a tip that Baiju took to heart. “Music is like a lamp,” Yesudas said. “If you clean the lamp every day and put oil in it, it will glow. But if for a couple of days you do not do anything, immediately, dust will gather and the lamp will lose its glow. That is the same with music. Constant practice is the key to excellence.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 09, 2011

The dark side of society

At the Domain-0 art exhibition, senior artistes portray the after-effects of war, as well as the impact of development on nature

Photo: C.B. Bahuleyan in front of 'Camoulflage'. Credit: Mithun Vinod.

By Shevlin Sebastian

When artist C.B. Bahuleyan switches on the TV and watches international channels like the BBC, he sees several images of conflicts around the world. It triggered off many memories for him. In 1990, he was in Kuwait when Iraq overran the country. And he saw the effects of that war at close quarters. All these insights has been poured into his acrylic on canvas, ‘Camouflage’.

It is painted in a forbidding grey. At the front, there are the remnants of a crashed Apache helicopter. If you peer closely, you can also see a rusted tank. Bombed-out buildings are there in the background, but, at one side, there is an unusual image: the dome of a nuclear reactor. “Yes, this is the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan,” he says. Meanwhile, weeds and grass can be seen growing through the wreckage and making a so-called camouflage.

“There is so much of destruction in our lives,” he says. “And the painting is timely, what with the possible danger to the Mullaperiyar Dam.”

K. Narayanankutty is also looking at life in a bleak manner. His painting of a mangrove forest shows it being devastated, with the roots exposed, and there is a middle area that looks like a desert, with the mud cracked in several places. At the distance are the multi-storeyed buildings that one sees in all the cities of the world.

The most unusual aspect is a longish white object in the middle. One is not clear what it is, till Narayanankutty gives a tip: look at the image from the side of the painting. And suddenly it becomes clear: it is a human skull. Narayanankutty is candid enough to say that he had borrowed the idea from German artist Holbein. The painting is titled, ‘Notes from the Underground’. “It is a stance against rampant development,” he says. “If you look at our history, man is always exploiting and destroying nature.”

Santhoshlal P. M. has done an unusual oil painting. It shows a blue enclosure, with high walls placed on top of what seems to be a paddy field. From the blue sky above, which has numerous clouds, there are white strings that link it to the enclosure. So, what is it symbolic of? It is very difficult to figure out, till Santoshlal says, “It is the number zero -- India ’s contribution to the world and it rests on a field of Roman numerals,” he says. “This is my imaginative look at this great achievement by Indian mathematicians.”

Meanwhile, T.P. Premjee's series is called 'Animal Farm', in a direct allusion to George Orwell's classic book. In one oil painting, there are numerous brown pigs, done in a realistic style, which fill up the canvas. “The pigs resemble people,” he says. “There are too many of us, which causes tension, and fights.” Another work has what seems to be enlarged beans. “It could be fruits or a bomb, or even a large penis.” Finally, there are paintings by K. Sudheesh.

For the visitors, Bahuleyan's 'Camouflage' is the one which catches the eye. “I like the mood in it,” says Winston David, a photographer. Art lover Geeta Mathew says, “Bahuleyan explores many ideas, although destruction seems to be the dominant theme.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A whirlwind called Shashi

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sunanda talks about what it means to be married to Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, best-selling author, and a star on the lecture circuit

Photo: Courtesy, People Magazine

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was in August, 2008, that Sunanda Pushkar met Shashi Tharoor for the first time. There was a function at the Guruvar Awards in Delhi. “Shashi is a patron,” says Sunanda. “I was introduced through a mutual friend, Sanjay Bahal.”

And what struck Sunanda was how relaxed he looked. “Shashi was wearing a multi-coloured kurta,” she says. Thereafter, they remained in touch mostly through SMSs and e-mails. “He is big on e-mails and I am not,” she says. “I would give short replies, and he would laugh and say, 'Why can't you give a long reply'. And I would say, 'I don't have the time.'”

Meanwhile, a month later, they were in New York at the same time. And Sunanda took Shashi to the Cafe Spice restaurant, which serves dosas and thalis. “New York is Shashi’s city because of his 34-year stint in the United Nations,” she says. “So he would go to ‘high-funda’ restaurants, having meals with Presidents, Prime Ministers, ministers, ambassadors, and diplomats.”

They bonded over lunch. It was a time when Shashi was thinking about taking the plunge into politics. “I told him all intelligent people should join politics,” she says. “I was the only one who was encouraging him. Because everybody else was telling him that he was mad, to join Indian politics.”

They went their different ways. Sunanda was busy with her real estate work in Dubai, while Shashi was travelling incessantly. And it would be exactly two years after they met that they tied the knot: on August 22, 2010.

So what is it about Shashi that she likes the most? “His intelligence,” she says immediately. “He gives brilliant speeches, and is never at a loss for words. Afterwards, he takes questions from the audience and answers them easily. I have seen presidents and prime ministers speak. I have attended so many seminars and conferences. But I have never met a man who is so confident and at ease on the stage.”

Secondly, she likes his kind heart. “Shashi was in the UN peacekeeping mission and he would tell me about the genocide that he has witnessed in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo,” says Sunanda. “I have seen a lot of horrors myself, since I am from Kashmir, and I could see that it had really affected him.”

She feels that his one major drawback is his impatience. “But I think impatience can be good,” says Sunanda. “As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, ‘We have been voted to power by the youth, who are impatient for change’. Impatience is good, but maybe, at times, it is not so good.”

What has been a revelation for Sunanda is the intense traveling that she has to do.
“We are unable to have a normal, regular life,” she says. “We are always moving about, within and outside India. He is speaking for India in foreign countries so often. He is talking on the lecture circuit. Then when Parliament is functioning, he is busy with that, and don’t forget his work for the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.”

Astonishingly, in the past one-and-a-half years, they have had only one dinner alone, at a five-star hotel in Chennai. “But even then, there were people, like N. Ravi, the owner of ‘The Hindu’ group, who came up to have a chat,” says Sunanda. “My friends ask me how do I manage, but I knew that, by marrying Shashi, I would not be having a normal life. We are always invited to dinner or we invite people ourselves.”

But Sunanda also keeps herself busy, with her work on behalf of the Chandran Tharoor Foundation, named in honour of Shashi’s father. She is setting up numerous public toilets in Thiruvananthapuram.

Asked whether Shashi, the public figure, behaves differently at home, Sunanda laughs and says, “He is exactly the same, inside or out. I tell him that he will fall into problems if he is so open. You have to be very careful about what you say. You are in politics. But he will never listen. He is too much like himself outside, which is why he gets into trouble so often.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A rose that keeps blooming

The former and present faculty of St. Teresa's College will be celebrating Sr. Mary Rose's 90th birthday on December 2. The nun was head of the English department for many years

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of days ago, Seema Mohan came to see Sr. Mary Rose, the former head of the English department at St. Teresa's College. Sr. Mary Rose remembered her former student, because of one unforgettable incident, which happened 25 years ago.

As a student Seema was a good singer, and was about to go for a programme. Since she had a stomach pain, she took several Crocin tablets. Unfortunately, she suffered from a perforated intestine and had to be rushed to the hospital. “We talked about this and all the happy memories of those days,” says Sr. Mary Rose, who turns 90 on December 2.

On another occasion, she met another former student, Joanne Mathew (name changed). And the nun remembered how in college, Joanne was so bad in English that she could not write a single word properly. But Joanne persisted, with encouragement from Sr. Mary Rose. “Eventually she got a doctorate in English,” says the nun. “It was a proud moment for me.”

So what is the best part of teaching? “It is the heart-to-heart relationship between a student and a teacher which lasts for a lifetime.”

But there are times when Sr. Mary Rose feels bad. A few years ago, she read in the newspaper about a suicide by one of her students. “She stayed in the hostel when I was the warden,” says the nun. “I felt sad that she could not withstand the trials and tribulations of life. It seemed as if my own child had died.”

Sr. Mary Rose has a ramrod back and a sharp mind and can recall names and dates easily. And she remembers the day when she wanted to become a nun. She was in Class eight at the St. Joseph's Girls Higher Secondary School at Alleppey. It was during the Catechism class that Mother Linda casually said, “Jesus Christ has a special love for virgins.” Sr. Mary Rose felt something hit her heart. “I thought to myself, 'Why can't I have that special love?'” she says. “That was the day I developed my vocation to be a nun.”

But it would take years, including opposition from her family, before she became a Carmelite nun. She began her teaching career with stints at St. Joseph's, Alleppey, the Assumption College in Changanacherry, the Holy Cross College in Trichy, before she joined the English department of St. Teresa's College in 1955. She retired as Head of the Department (HOD) in 1982, and continued for another ten years in an unofficial capacity, because her successor had fallen ill. “I taught till I was 70,” she says.

And she has a circle of admirers. “Sr. Mary Rose was a strict disciplinarian,” says Betty Kuriyan, a former HOD. “To create fellowship among the teachers, she would hold monthly gatherings.” Adds Annie Jacob, another HOD, who retired in 2008: “We would be sure that Sr. Mary Rose would not take sides and would be impartial always.”

On December 2, the former and present faculty will be celebrating the ‘Navadi’ (Ninth decade) of Sr. Mary Rose at a function at St. Teresa’s. “There will be a Mass, the cutting of the cake, several felicitations, followed by lunch,” says Betty. “We want to show our appreciation to her.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Nailing the accused

Notables like Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer, poet Chemmanam Chacko, forensic surgeon, Dr. Sherly Vasu, and Special Prosecutor, A Sureshan, speak about the Soumya murder case

Photo: Govindachamy being led outside the Thrissur fast track court by policemen after receiving the death sentence

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the monthly meeting of writers and artists, 'Poomukham', organised by the Heart Light Association, at Kochi, Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer, 97, clad in spotless white and accompanied by a doctor, says, “The death sentence should not be allowed, except in the rarest of rare cases. Our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru rejected it. Half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. Life has been given by God and man has no right to take it.”

Justice Iyer was referring to the death sentence imposed by the Thrissur fast-track court on Govindachamy, the convicted killer of Soumya, a young girl who was travelling at night, on the Ernakulam-Shoranur passenger train, on February 1, and was raped and died a few days later.

However, poet Chemmanam Chacko says, “Govindachamy took a life in the most gruesome manner. How do we deal with such a man? Unless there is a strict punishment, people will not behave properly.”

Listening to the speakers is Dr. Sherly Vasu, the senior-most forensic surgeon in the state, who had done the post-mortem on Soumya. Having a daughter of a similar age and travelling regularly on the same route that Soumya travelled, Dr. Vasu could empathise with what happened to the young girl. “The court case is fought on what is written in the post-mortem report,” she says. “So, it is important to do the job in such a way that there is no controversy about it.”

However, controversy did hit the post-mortem team when one of the doctors, A.K. Unmesh, of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Government Medical College, stated in the court, on October 10, that he had done the post-mortem himself.

“In fact, six people, including Dr. Unmesh, took part, and their signatures are there on the report,” says Dr. Vasu. “So I am surprised by his statement. I have no idea why he kept quiet all these months.” The post-mortem had been done on February 7, and Dr. Vasu testified in court about it from July 12-15. Meanwhile, Dr. Unmesh has been suspended from service, and faces an investigation.

Special Prosecutor A. Sureshan says that there are 123 digital photographs of the post-mortem. “It will be difficult for Dr. Unmesh to prove that he did the post-mortem by himself,” he says. “It seems to me that he had wanted to save the accused. If these photographs would not have been there, Dr. Vasu would have been in trouble.”

Sureshan, on dwelling on the case, says that there were 154 witnesses. They included a tribal from Wayanad, an auto-rickshaw driver, commuters, as well as the local people. “It was a brutal assault,” he says. “By the buttons that were seen on the floor of the train, it was clear that Soumya had put up a struggle. Her skull was broken by banging her head against the door. There was massive internal bleeding and her lungs were full of blood. Her teeth had been broken and she inadvertently swallowed it. It was discovered later in her stomach.”

Soumya lay on the tracks, late at night, her clothes ripped off, and the local people discovered her because they heard the large gasping sounds of the young girl trying to breathe.

"In the end it was a great news for me that Govindachamy was convicted, eight-and-a-half months after the murder,” says Sureshan. “Some people called me up and said, 'For a long time we felt that there were no courts or justice in this country. But now our faith is re-affirmed.' This judgement will have a healing effect on society.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

We are like this only

Eunuchs and members of the transgender community explain their point of view

Photo: This is a representative picture of transgenders

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a bit disconcerting to see Nawaz. He is wearing a green blouse and a cream-coloured Kerala saree with a gold border. His face is plastered white with make-up. And he is wearing a long-haired wig. However, his hands are hairy and muscular.

“When I was a child I liked the company of girls,” he says. “I would go with them to school and play games like hopscotch. My relatives would tease me and ask me why I was behaving so effeminately. Because of the taunts, I wanted to commit suicide many times. I had even placed a blade against my wrists. I felt so humiliated and cried many times at night.”

It was when he was 18 that Nawaz became a member of the Partnership for Sexual Help Project. “There I met others like me and no longer felt isolated,” he says. “I finally understood why I was behaving the way I did.”

But society treats transgenders with a lack of respect. Just the other day Nawaz was strolling in Subhash Park, at Kochi, which is a meeting-place of the community. Suddenly, a policeman swooped down and asked Nawaz what he was doing. “Before I could reply, he pulled at my bag,” says Nawaz. “I shouted back and he understood that I could not be bullied.”

However, ten minutes later, another policeman just put his hand inside Nawaz’s shirt pocket and took Rs 200. “Our body language gives us away all the time,” he says, with a sad smile.

Nawaz was talking at the 'Probodhini-11' seminar organised by Marvell Pehchan Project at Kochi recently. “It is a sensitisation programme for law students about the eunuch and transgender community,” says Marvell Project Officer Manu J. Krishnan.

Dilfaraz, the Advocacy Officer of the Bangalore-based Sangama, a sexual minority group, says, “According to a survey, the maximum number of homosexuals in India are in Kerala. Sexual activity usually takes place between young men and also with husbands.”

He pleaded with the audience -- boys and girls who are interns with the Human Rights Law Network -- to treat gays with respect. “If you know of any gays in your family, among relatives, and in the college, please don't neglect them. Do take them to the doctor when they are ill.”

Dilfaraz says that from the time they are children, gays and transgenders have a tough time. “Parents conduct pujas to cure the boy,” he says. “Please understand that they are born like this. We would be grateful if you can refer them to organisations like Sangama or Marvell. We are there to help them.”

What was astonishing to know was that in India transgenders have no property rights. “So a lot of them are unable to own anything,” he says.

Among the gays and transgenders present, there were feminine as well as muscular men, as well as a man who wore red lipstick and had hair growing all the way down his back.

Meanwhile, for the law students, it was an eye-opening experience. “Initially, it was a bit weird because Nawaz was wearing a shirt and trousers and then, suddenly, he changed into a saree,” says Radha Nair (name changed), an intern. “But it was clear to us that they are suffering a lot. It is difficult to live on the margins of society.”

For Seetha Bose, it was an unusual event. “I never knew there are so many sub-divisions among the sexual minority groups,” she says. “Society is unwilling to accept them, but I will always support them.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Living with a comic genius

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Vimala Sreenivasan says that her husband, film star Sreenivasan, is a child at heart, but a tough person on the sets

Photo: Sreenivasan and his wife Vimala on their 25th wedding anniversary

By Shevlin Sebastian

Vimala Mandodi would walk down a road to catch a bus to go to the Nirmalagiri College in Kuthuparambu, in Kannur district. Often, she would see a short, dark man who would be heading in the same direction. Every now and then the man would ask, ‘Is the bus on time?’ or ‘How are your studies?” Vimala would reply in monosyllables. It was only after a year that they began talking to each other. At that time, in 1974, film star Sreenivasan was a teacher in a tutorial college. “We liked each other from the beginning,” she says.

Very soon, Vimala realized that cinema was Sreenivasan’s passion. One day, he told her that he was going to the Film Institute in Chennai to do a course. Thereafter, he would send an occasional letter to Vimala stating his financial difficulties.

“Since his father did not accept his choice of career, he would not send much money,” says Vimala. “Sreenivasan's father wanted him to do his B.Ed and become a teacher. However, one of his uncles sent him a little bit of money and he managed to complete the course.”

In the meanwhile, Vimala qualified to become a teacher. When marriage proposals came, Vimala had to finally tell her own father that she had fallen in love with Sreenivasan. He was aghast. “My father felt that my husband would go after actresses and ruin my life,” she says.

But Vimala was adamant. Nevertheless, it took ten years before the couple could tie the knot, on January 13, 1984. All along, Sreenivasan was struggling to make a mark in the film industry. Meanwhile, within months of the marriage, Vimala became pregnant with son Vineeth. And it was just after he was born, that Sreenivasan starred in the first film he wrote, Oodarathuammava Aalariyam.

“Thereafter, there was no looking back,” says Vimala. Sreenivasan has acted in many popular films like ‘T. P. Balagopalan M.A.’, ‘Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam’, ‘Gandhinagar 2nd Street, ‘Nadodikkattu’, ‘Mukunthetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu’, ‘Varavelpu’, and ‘Thalayanamanthram’.

So what are the plus points of Sreenivasan as a husband? “Sreeni Chettan has always given me complete freedom,” says Vimala. “He has never said no to my personal wishes. If I want a new saree he will always say yes. If I wanted to go somewhere, it is a yes. On the other hand, I can see so many restrictions placed by the husbands of my friends.”

Vimala says that she always likes to wear salwar kameez, although people have told her she looks better in a saree. “Once I said, ‘Chettan, everybody tells me that I look nice in a saree. What is your opinion?’”

Sreenivasan said, “There is no doubt you look good in a saree.” But he has never insisted that his wife should wear one.

Vimala considers her husband’s spendthrift ways as a plus point. “Sreeni Chettan spends a lot when he has money,” she says. “I believe that if you have money, you should spend it. On this matter, we are both alike. If there is little money, he will say this is all what I have, and we have to control our spending.”

Vimala also admires her husband’s humility. “His character has not changed at all from the time I knew him during my college days,” she says. “In fact, the more successful he has become, the more humble he is in his personal life. Please don’t think I am praising him just because he is my husband. He is an innocent man inside. But if there is any mistake in his professional career, Sreeni Chettan can get very tough and angry.”

Because her husband is a creative artist, Vimala stays away from that aspect of his life. So when he is writing a script, Sreenivasan will live for three weeks at a stretch in a hotel. “Most of the time the mobile phone is switched off,” she says. “Only when Sreeni Chettan has finished his day’s work, will he call me.”

In fact, Vimala is so careful not to disturb Sreenivasan that when her two sons, Vineeth and Dhyan were children and they would fall sick, she took them to the doctor herself. “I would only inform Sreeni Chettan when the illness was over,” she says. “It is very important for an artist to have a happy atmosphere at home and that is what I have strived to do all the time.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

'There are more Indian best-sellers now'

Says Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India

Photo: Ravi Deecee of DC Books, (left) with Andrew Phillips at the newly opened Penguin book store in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India, is upbeat about the market in India. “We are growing by 10 per cent every year,” he says. “However, the Indian market has the lowest prices in the world, because buyers are very price-conscious. The average price for the top 500 titles is Rs 270.”

Despite that, Penguin took a risk by placing Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’, the second book in his Ibis trilogy, at a steep Rs 699. “Nevertheless, the novel has been the highest-selling in the literary fiction genre this year,” he says. ”We are happy about that and realized that there is a niche audience who is willing to spend money to read high-quality fiction.”

Non-fiction is also doing well. “One of our best-selling titles this year is ‘The TCS Story…and beyond' by S Ramadorai, the vice-chairman of the company,” says Andrew. “It is about the great success story of the Tata Consultancy Services. There is an appetite among people to read Indian authors who write well and, secondly, to hear about local success stories from the business world.” Incidentally, the No. 1 on the non-fiction best-seller list today is Vinod Mehta's 'Lucknow Boy', which is also published by Penguin.

Unlike in the past, many more Indian authors are writing best-sellers. “The reason is simple,” says Andrew. “Firstly, there are more books by Indians. Secondly, there are more book shops, more publishers, and more readers.” However, Western writers continue to make a mark. Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel, ‘Only Time Will Tell’, has also sold very well, apart from the Harry Potter books, which has been a phenomenon in India.

But does Penguin India miss a writer like Chetan Bhagat, who is published by Rupa, and is selling millions of copies? Andrew is unfazed, and says, “We have Ravinder Singh, whose debut novel, ‘I Too Have a Love Story’ has done very well. His new book, ‘Can Love Happen Twice?’ will be released soon. Ravinder has been the biggest-selling mass-market author after Chetan.”

But the market is changing. E-books are rapidly making inroads, especially in the US. “Yes, the growth in the US has been relentless,” says Andrew. “Everything else increases by 10 percent, but e-books have been growing by 100 per cent every year. However, it is much slower in every other country, including the UK, but, recently, I am told, sales have begun to take off in England as well.”

In India, one of the keys for a digital revolution will be to have a cheap e-book device. “In the US the e-book took off, because of the sale of Kindle devices,” says Andrew. “More recently, the Nook, as well as the I Pad has also come up. Between them, millions of units have been sold. In India, if a cheaper gadget arrives, and sells a lot, then Indian publishing will be changed.”

But Andrew is not worried. “In the US we have started digital publishing,” he says. “Most authors realise that there is still a valuable place for the publisher even in the digital format. You need somebody to edit the copy, to make it look presentable, and, more importantly, for marketing, distribution and sales. Without a publisher’s reach, it is difficult for an author to make a mark.”

Penguin opens a bookstore in Kochi

As soon you enter the Bay Pride mall, on Marine Drive, Kochi, there are plastic footprints, in the familiar orange of the Penguin book jacket, placed on the floor. It leads us to the first floor, where a 2700 sq. ft. store has been inaugurated by Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India recently. It is a spacious store, and, perhaps, its USP is that one side, glass-paned, with an elevated stage, faces the sea; the sight is soothing and elevating.

So, why a book store in Kochi, and not in Delhi, Chennai, or Mumbai? Says Andrew: “In Kerala, you have a high literacy rate. We have been working with [CEO] Ravi Deecee of DC Books. And we felt that it would be a great partnership to bring the Penguin imprint to the biggest book chain in Kerala.”

Chiki Sarkar, the publisher, gives another reason: “We want to be in places where there are not too many book stores. Then you can immediately carve out a niche.” And of course, it helps that Kerala has two major book shows: the Kovalam and the Hay festivals. “It is a book-loving state,” says Chiki.

Hemali Sodhi, vice-president, marketing and corporate communications, says, “We are going to launch merchandise like caps, mugs and stationery. Our aim is to project the Penguin brand.” Meanwhile, Ravi Deecee has plans to make it a cultural hot-spot. “There will be monthly author readings, contests, and readings for children,” he says.

(The new Indian Express. Kochi)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Going back to our mathematical roots

Premanand Keeriyat is propagating Vedic Maths, which can be used without pen and paper, and takes a fraction of the time of Western maths

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Premanand Keeriyat was sitting for his Common Admission Test in the 1990s, he found it difficult to crack it. He felt there was something wrong with Western mathematics. Thereafter, he came across German Jew Jakow Trachtenberg's method of speed maths. “But I was not completely happy with this system,” he says.

One day, he read an article in 'The New Indian Express' by the former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In it, he wrote that he had gone on a visit to Liverpool University and was astonished to discover that Indian maths was being taught there.

“In fact, the principal introduced me as a person who came from the land of Vedic maths,” wrote the prime minister. Thereafter, Rao described the wonder of Vedic maths, and mentioned the name of Swami Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, a scholar and the head of the Govardhan Math at Puri, Orissa.

Premanand began researching about Tirthaji. “Swamiji wrote 16 volumes on mathematics, but only one book is available to the world,” he says. “Many mathematicians from England and Germany stayed with him and learned Vedic techniques.”

So Premanand began learning the methods himself. “There are 13 sutras and 16 sub sutras,” he says. “A sutra is an oral formula. These sutras, when applied correctly, will enable the user to solve many types of maths problems mentally without using pen and paper, and in the fraction of the time it would take in Western mathematics.”

A desire arose in Premanand to pass this knowledge to students. “Once you learn the techniques, it is so easy,” he says. “Children will grow to love it.” So he has spent four years in making a multi-media kit of 9 DVDs, tackling multiplication, division, subtraction, addition, finding the square root, etc.

He inserts a CD into his Dell laptop. And soon we are in a forest where a river is flowing smoothly by, as a white-haired sage, with a top knot, is sitting below a tree and passing knowledge to a bright-eyed student. There are trees all around, and the chirping of birds can be heard. “I have made it completely interactive, so that children can enjoy, even as they are learning new techniques,” he says.

But Premanand is facing an uphill battle. “Since very few know about Vedic maths, they are unwilling to accept these innovative methods, which are thousands of years old,” he says. “Many school principals and teachers express interest, but, somehow, only a few have started teaching it.” But he is unfazed, because he is convinced about the greatness of the subject.

“I want to increase the numerical ability of the students,” he says. “Once they start using it, they will understand the beauty and power of Vedic maths. I am hoping one day the government will start using Vedic maths in our curriculum, research applications, and daily life.”

Meanwhile, notables of the past have endorsed it. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his book, 'Discovery of India', wrote: 'The astonishing progress that the Indians had made in mathematics is now well known and it is recognised that the foundations of modern arithmetic and algebra were laid long ago in India. The ten Indian numerals, including the zero sign, liberated the human mind. They are common enough today and we take them for granted. But it took many centuries for them to travel from India, via Baghdad, to the western world.'

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Having wine and enjoying art

In the 'Art and Wine' exhibition, the works of veterans shared spared space with young talents

Photo: Radha Gomathi's sculpture, 'Hymavathi'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the 'Art and Wine' exhibition, held at the Ramada Resort, Kochi, a fibreglass sculpture by Radha Gomathi catches the eye. It is the face of Hymavathi [another name for Shiva's consort, Parvati], and is painted in a deep chocolate brown. Hymavathi looks serene, with deep-set closed eyes, soft cheeks, a sharp nose and pouting lips. Just above the ears, there are two horns sticking out. And right in the middle of the forehead, there is a mountain peak rising up towards the sky.

The inspiration behind the sculpture is interesting. Radha had gone to Gaumukh, the mountain glacier from where the River Ganga begins. But just before the peak, she stopped beside a river and saw a pair of weathered horns floating on the surface. “It belonged to mountain goats who seemed to have perished in the icy torrents,” says Radha. “The image of the horns merged with Hymavathi's quest for Lord Shiva.”

Radha made the mountain to indicate that the desire to reach the peak and find God is within all of us. “We are all seeking an union with the Great Self,” she says. Onlookers who know Radha say the features of Hymavati resemble the Kochi-based artist herself. Radha laughs and says, “That was an unconscious effect.”

Radha's acrylic on canvas, 'Presence', is about a spiritual search. Drawn from the side, a nude woman stands, with long brown hair flowing down her back. She has a half-open mouth, and upraised hands, but interestingly, has closed eyes, and is searching for something. To accentuate the nudity, a part of the left breast, as well as a brown nipple can be seen. “She is searching for God, or the universal energy,” says Radha. “In other words, she is a spiritual aspirant.”

Veteran artist V.B. Venu's painting, 'Contemplative Bridges', is an examination of life. A bare-chested man is sitting on the ground. A cream-coloured face has been half-imposed on a darker one.

“Everybody has two faces: an inner and outer,” says Venu. A ladder is placed against the body and the top end rests on the left shoulder. There are figures of men going up the steps. Some are falling off, with flailing arms and legs. “The ladder signifies the path of success,” he says. “Everybody is trying to go up. Not all succeed. Some fail.”

C. N. Karunakaran's work is of a tribal settlement, with a husband and wife standing next to each other and discussing family matters, while children are sitting on the forest floor, including a teenage girl, wearing an orange necklace and with exposed breasts.

“There were times when painting camps would be held near tribal areas in Wayanad,” says Karunakaran, a former chairman of the Kerala Lalitakala Academy. “I saw their lives from a distance and wanted to portray them. I also wanted to express my sympathy for the marginalised people.”

As for senior artist T. Kaladharan, his glass painting is called 'Orma' (Memory). Green faces float about in a sea of red: he is remembering old friends during the sunset of life.

The other participants included Biju Kumar V.K. as well as bright young talents like Linu John and Nimmy Melvin.

Earlier, the show was inaugurated by K. Ramachandran Nair, the MD of Chitram Art Gallery, who said, “Art and wine can go together provided there is self control. We have seen many artistes and painters who have succumbed to wine. So self-discipline is very important.” However, thanks to free-flowing wines from Sula, self-discipline became an alien concept on a pleasant evening.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Getting too close and paying the price

Teenage sex is on the increase, in Kochi, with disturbing consequences for young girls

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Ma, Reema is celebrating her birthday at the Oberon Mall,” says Manisha, to her mother, Sheela, a bank officer at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, a year ago. “Will have lunch and come back.”

“Okay,” says Sheela, as she hurriedly dabs lipstick, before she sets out for the MG Road branch at Kochi.

But Manisha, 15, has no birthday party to attend to. Instead, she is meeting Rahul, all of 25. Firstly, they are planning on seeing a film at the Cinemax, then lunch, and, thereafter, it is off to Rahul's parents' apartment. His father and mother lives in Dubai. Rahul is working in an IT firm in Kakkanad, and his weekends are free. Rahul has told the watchman that Manisha is his cousin sister, and so his suspicions have been allayed.

The sex has been going on for a while. “I always used the I-pill,” Manisha later tells psychologist Prakash Chandran. “But on days I forget, Rahul had no problem in using a condom. We have been careful.”

But what Manisha has not been careful about is her emotional reaction. She soon falls in love with Rahul and in her idle moments at home would slip into a reverie about marriage and children. Unfortunately, Rahul does not think along the same lines.

A couple of months ago, he breaks up with Manisha and is now friendly with another girl. Manisha has slipped into a deep depression. Very soon, her performance goes down in school. Her worried parents take her to the psychologist.

“Teenage sex is alarmingly on the increase,” says Prakash. “I know of a girl, Deepa, who is just 13 and is having sex with an eighteen-year-old.” It happened by accident. The elder sister, Prema, 18, had got friendly with Ramesh, 22. So, she took her younger sister along, for dates, so that their parents would not suspect.

Ramesh then introduced another friend, Soman to Deepa and they began an affair, which led to a sexual involvement for the teenager. As time went on, Prema broke up with Ramesh, but Deepa is still going strong.

“For the men it is just fun,” says Prakash. “When they get another girl, they will abandon the first. Slowly, girls will also develop the same attitude and that will be damaging in the long run, especially when they get married.”

At Prakash's clinic, a call comes on his mobile. It is yet another teenager, Rekha, 15, who wants to have a chat. In the course of the conversation, Rekha speaks about a pub in a well-known restaurant, where boys and girls get together to have drinks.
“There is drug-taking also,” she says. “My friends are regulars and there is a lot of kissing and hugging. Some of them later find places where they can have sex.”

On another day, the watchman at the entrance to the Gold Souk mall confirms that many youngsters, boys and girls, frequent the ‘Q’ multiplex, especially for the morning shows. “They seem to be romantically involved,” he says.

For all the romantic problems the teenagers are facing, Prakash blames the parents. “Most of them have blind belief,” he says. “You have to trust your children, but at the same time, you need to be vigilant. When your daughter goes to the mall, follow her and see what is happening. Is she really meeting her girlfriends or is it a boy? Even if your daughter gets upset, if she sees you, do remember you are trying to protect her life.”

One such father did follow his daughter and got a shock when he saw her holding hands with a man. He intervened. “We don't know how to be strict with the children,” says Prakash.

To top that, parents send out confused signals about values. “The father will say one thing and the mother will say the opposite,” says Prakash. “So, the children cannot distinguish between right and wrong.”

But what is also deeply affecting the behaviour of youngsters is the pervasive influence of the media, and the easy access to Internet porn. “We no longer value our traditional culture,” says Prakash. “We are adopting Western ways which is bad for us.”

Prakash counsels parents to get far more involved in their children's lives. “They should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “Children should feel that there is love. Parents assume that by giving material gifts it is love. But that is not enough. Showing and giving love is far more important. It will prevent children from going down self-destructive paths.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wine = bottled poetry

Rajeev Samant talks about why Sula Vineyards is the leading wine company in India and how from Silicon Valley he ended up growing wine in Nasik

By Shevlin Sebastian

Rajeev Samant, the CEO of the Nasik-based Sula Vineyards is trying to get used to the unusual ways of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC). The company gets paid only after shops and hotels, which buy the consignment from the KSBC, have sold the last bottle.

“All out-of-state beverages have to be sold through the KSBC,” he says. “Kerala is not the most remunerative of markets, but our sale has been doubling every year now. So clearly, wine drinking is catching on in Kerala.”

Top five-star hotels like The Taj and the Casino Group stock the wines. Not surprisingly, 70 per cent of the sales in Kerala are Sula wines and that is the position all over India . “This year we have had nation-wide sales of 5 lakh cases,” he says. “We expect a 20 per cent growth for the next decade.”

At the Holiday Inn in Kochi, Rajeev comes across as intense, focused, and passionate about wines. And his life has panned out in a way that he could not have imagined.

Rajeev grew up in Mumbai, where he studied in Cathedral & John Cannon, one of the best schools in the country. Later, he went to Stanford University where he got a master’s degree in engineering management and joined Oracle Corporation in Silicon Valley. Soon, he got himself a nice car and house.

“It was a great life, and there were no complaints,” he says. “But after a few years, I felt an inner dissatisfaction. I wanted to go back and do something in India.”

In 1992, a few months after his return, his father, a shipping entrepreneur took him to Nasik and showed him a 25 acre plot that he was trying to sell. Only wild grass grew on it. “I told my dad not to sell it,” he says. “The place looks so beautiful. I wanted to try something new.’”

Rajeev began with mangoes. But when he told his friends in wine-growing California that he was doing farming, they assumed it was grapes. “I thought, ‘ Nasik is full of grapes’”, says Rajeev. “If grapes are being grown for eating, surely it can be used to make wine. I am the right guy in the right place.’”

Nasik, at 600 metres above sea level, is, indeed, the right place. It has a cool and dry climate. All through the year, except for April and May, the evenings are cool. “Warm days and cool nights are what grapes love,” he says. “They like a big difference between day and night. That is what gives them the complexity. The night cool allows the flavours to come out, while the day heat allows the ripening to happen. And the two things together are an unbeatable combination.”

He produced the first wines in 1999, but there were no takers. “There was no wine culture in India then,” he says. “People asked me why they should buy my fairly expensive Indian wine, at Rs 450 a bottle, when they were getting cheap bootlegged French wine, at Rs 300. I had to go door to door and say, 'Taste my wine versus the French wine, and see which is better'.”

He got his breakthrough when Rahul Akerkar, the owner of Indigo, one of Mumbai's finest restaurants, said, “I like your wine and will support you.” And he put it on the list.

Says Rahul, “It was important for me to help homegrown entrepreneurs." Regarding the plus points of Sula wines, Rahul says, "Sula wines are well-made and quality driven wines and can hold their own against similar wines produced anywhere in the world.”

Then Mr. Lam, who was in charge of the Food and Beverages for the entire Taj hotel group, also put it on the list. The Oberoi hotel chain followed soon. “Thereafter, there was no looking back,” says Rajeev.

Today, Sula makes red, white, rose and sparkling wines, under different brand names (see But Indians prefer the fresher, fruitier red wines with a slightly stronger taste, because they are used to spices in the diet and the heat.

Meanwhile, Rajeev is traveling all around the country to create a wine culture. “We will do 1500 tastings this year,” he says. “That is the only way to create a widespread awareness of wine.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Becoming the nucleus in Maradu

The Abad Nucleus mall, at Maradu, Kochi, celebrated its first anniversary recently. A look at the its attractions

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most weekends, the Thevara-based Sheela Abraham goes to the Abad Nucleus Mall in Maradu, Kochi. She is accompanied by her two children, Beena, 10, and Roshan, 8. “It takes me only ten minutes to reach the mall,” says Sheela, whose husband spends six months on a ship. “The Nucleus is much less crowded and frenetic, as compared to other malls in the city. There is ample space to walk around, and it is clean and fresh inside.”

Dr. Najeeb Zacharia, the MD of Abad Builders will be pleased to hear this. The mall completed one year on November 5. It has a leasable area of 1.25 lakh sq. ft., spread over four floors. Ninety per cent of the space has been rented out. Among the places that Sheela frequents are the Food Bazaar, the Food Court, DC Books, and the Max clothing shop.

Dinesh N.R., Operations Manager of Max, says that nearly half of the people who come to the mall end up visiting their shop. “We are happy about it,” he says. “But we expect a larger number, when more retailers come in.” At present, 48 shops have been rented out, out of a total of 60.

They include well-known brands like Peter England, Lee, Navigator, Levis, Wrangler, Music World, Fab India, Adidas, Archies, John Miller, and Jockey. “Five more will become operational soon,” says Najeeb. “Usually, it takes two years for a mall to reach full occupancy.”

Looking back, it seemed a risky and unusual move to set up a mall at Maradu, quite far away from the city centre. “But there are advantages,” says Riaz Ahmed, the MD of Abad Hotels. “The most essential attribute for the success of a mall is its accessibility.”

There are three easy ways to reach Abad Nucleus: from National Highway 49, from Pettah, and through the new Tripunithara bypass. “The majority of our customers come from Thevara, Tripunithara, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, Aroor, Kolencherry and Chotannikara,” says Riaz. “They find Nucleus an ideal location.”

The mall gets about 10,000 visitors on the weekends. And most of them come on cars and two-wheelers. “There is a parking facility for 320 cars and 150 two-wheelers,” says Najeeb. This is available in the front, at the side, in the basement and the terrace, for which there are two car lifts.

But what the Abad management is most proud of is that the Nucleus is a green mall, the first in India to get a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate from the USA.

“During the construction we used materials which are environment-friendly like low Volatile Organic Compound paints,” says Riaz. “It is a non-pollutant. All water is recycled and there is a 40 per cent decrease in the consumption of energy. We also maintain high indoor air quality. It translates into a better atmosphere inside the mall.”

To create an even better atmosphere, the management is planning to come up with innovations, like a new 6D cinema. When you view a 6D film, you will actually experience events like rains or storms, similar to what the onscreen characters are going through.

“It is far more advanced than 3D, and will be a stunning experience for the viewer,” says Najeeb. “We expect it to be a big crowd-puller.”

To control the crowds, the mall has set up a secure environment. There are over 100 cameras in all the common areas, the parking facilities and the elevators. Recently, one woman lost her purse. It slipped out of the cloth bag that she was carrying. Thanks to surveillance cameras, the security personnel were able to locate the precise location where the wallet had fallen, and was able to return it to the owner.

Meanwhile, linked with the anniversary, a two-month long carnival has begun, with variety entertainment and activities, apart from weekly prizes and a bumper prize of a car.

These are all moments of happiness, but for the management their proudest feeling is that, thanks to the mall, more than 500 people have got direct employment. And the presence of Nucleus is having a spill-over effect in the area. New buildings and shops are coming up.

“The Nucleus is becoming the nucleus of Maradu,” says Riaz.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)