Sunday, January 30, 2011

Watching a baby being born

For most pregnant women, the presence of a husband in the labour room has a powerful positive impact. And yet very few doctors or hospitals in Kochi encourage this

Photo: Abraham Nedumpallil and his wife Aneesha with their twin boys

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Aneesha was pregnant with twin boys, businessman Abraham Nedumpallil would frequently play one song on the mobile phone: the childlike 'Annarakanna Va' from the Malayalam film, 'Bhramaram'.

In the labour room of the PVS Memorial Hospital, Kochi, on September 19, 2009, when the children were born, Abraham saw that they were crying incessantly. Immediately, he switched on his mobile phone and played the song. Seconds after their birth, the boys looked towards the sound and fell silent.

“It was one of the most amazing moments of my life,” says Abraham. “What you must understand is that by 19 weeks, babies are tuned to the outside world. They had been hearing this song when they were in the womb.”

Abraham was one of a handful of husbands who have been present at their wife's delivery and helped cut the umbilical cord. He held the twins moments after they were born. His confidence came thanks to the Lamaze classes conducted by Priyanka Idicula, who runs BirthVillage, a childbirth education centre.

“I teach the men about the various stages of labour,” she says. Priyanka shows them many videos of birth taking place. And for most men it is a surprise. “In films and on television, whenever a woman is shown giving birth, they are shouting and screaming with the effort,” says Priyanka. “Most men have a terrified feeling about it.”

But when the men see these films, they realise that giving birth is not such a frightening experience at all. “In fact, it can be gentle,” says Priyanka. Strangely, women also have the same misconceptions. Recently, Priyanka gave a talk to 800 students of a women’s college. When asked how many wanted a natural delivery, only a few hands went up.

Priyanka teaches the men to identify and time the duration of a contraction. “The husband becomes confident, so that when contractions begin, he does not panic and rush his wife to the hospital,” says Priyanka. Since these contractions go on for a long while, the woman stays at home and is taken to the hospital only when she is in active labour.

Dr Georgy Joy Eralil, assistant professor of gynaecology at the Sree Narayana Institute of Medical Sciences at North Kuthiyathodu, near Kochi, is one of the few doctors who encourage husbands to be present at the birth of a child.

“The companionship of the husband has a calming effect on the wife,” says Eralil. “She feels that she is at home and is able to perform better. The result is a smooth delivery.”

The husband helps the wife to walk, gives her water when she is thirsty, and pacifies her when she has contractions. “Sometimes, he gives her a back massage to provide relief during her labour pains,” says Eralil. When the baby is born, it is he who cuts the umbilical cord with the help of a special type of scissors. And it is the father who takes the baby to the paediatric section.

For most husbands, it is a great experience. “One dad told me, 'I did not have a nurse telling me I had a baby boy or a girl. I took my girl myself. It is a different feeling together,'” says Priyanka. “There is a sense of empowerment because of this participation.”

Couples have fallen deeper in love as a result of sharing these precious moments. “I remember the loving look on a wife's face when she saw her husband standing nearby,” says Priyanka. “They started singing hymns as the contractions began. It was a deeply spiritual experience and deepened the relationship between the husband and the wife and their child.”

Men also develop a tremendous respect for their wives after watching the labour process. “She is a tigress,” said one husband to Priyanka with a look of admiration. “I never knew my wife could be so strong.”

But Eralil says that it is only those who have attended pre-natal classes who can behave with so much of confidence. Those who do not feel like a misfit. “There is a tendency to freak out,” says Priyanka. “Some rush out of the labour room.”

Priyanka says that very few hospitals in Kochi allow a husband to be present during the delivery. “In Tamil Nadu, a law has been passed where a woman can take a companion of her choice into the labour room,” says Priyanka. “In Kerala, attitudes have to change. Many frightened women can have smooth deliveries if their husbands are present in the labour room.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Kochi bus driver meets his karma


By Shevlin Sebastian

(News item) Dubai: Kerala Transport Minister Jose Thettayil has appealed to Indian motorists to change their attitude to match those prevailing in the Gulf countries regarding traffic rules. He referred to the excessive use of horns, driving through red lights, and failing to comply with traffic regulations

When bus driver Suresh Nair of Kochi read this news item he vowed to change his errant ways. But his resolve was immediately put to the test when he drove out from the garage in the early morning. In the middle of the road was a brown Alsatian dog sitting on its paws and gazing peacefully at the world.

In normal circumstances, Suresh would have blasted the horn and even driven over the dog. But this time, he got down, and rubbed the dog’s back. Then he gently led the animal to the side.

When the day’s service began, immediately, a rival bus driver, with a smirk on his face, sped past him, horn blowing, and cut into Suresh’s path. Suresh had to brake suddenly. The conductor, Mani, said, “Race on. Overtake the idiot.” But in his new avatar, Suresh shook his head, and drove the bus at a jogging speed.

At a red light, Suresh waited patiently. When it turned yellow, he did not blow the horn. Instead, he only moved at the green light.

Mani shouted, “What’s happened to you? Are you constipated today?”

Suresh smiled beatifically at him.

A couple of hours went past. But Suresh could feel the effect of all this bottling up. His nose twitched, his lips started trembling and his hands and legs began shaking.

Still he continued to drive without blowing the horn or trying to mow down pedestrians. The shaking began to increase.

A passenger shouted, “Do you have Parkinson’s Disease?”

Suresh continued to smile, but soon the pressure got to him. He stopped the bus, opened the door, jumped out, and ran around the bus three times. The passengers shouted, “He has gone mad. Give back our money.”

Mani rushed Suresh to the hospital. The neurologist said it was a problem of nerves, but there was a mental cause. He was taken to the psychiatrist, Dr. Roy Thomas. Mani explained Suresh’s behaviour and the unusual way he drove the bus.

“Why did you drive the bus like that?” said Roy.

Suresh took out the news clipping from his purse and showed it. The psychiatrist read it and said, “Are you mad? You are a Kochi bus driver, not somebody from the Gulf. Follow your karma.”

Suresh nodded, and went back to the bus. As soon as he sat on the seat, he blew the horn. He drove zigzag at full speed through the streets. He cut into another bus, grazed a Santro car, and got onto a pavement. He braked hard, then sped away. At bus stops, he rushed off even before the passengers had got on. Finally, he raced through a red light.

One immediate result: Suresh’s body calmed down and a gleeful smile broke out on his face. “Once a Kochi driver, always a Kochi driver,” he shouted, as he tore up the newspaper clipping. “Bye Bye Jose!”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A homecoming of sorts


Samson Pallivathikal, of Jewish ancestry, who lives in Israel, has built a house in North Paravur so that he and his family can come and stay for extended periods of time

Photo: (From left) Ron, Miriam Artzi, and Solomon Pallivathikal

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is a power-cut in the Samson Pallivathikal household at North Paravur. Ron, a scientist, 34, says, “I cannot understand. Kerala is a place where it rains so heavily. So why should there be an electricity shortage?”

But the answer becomes evident soon. Outside, three Kerala State Electricity Board men, in khaki uniforms, are pulling cables towards an electric pole. “Sir, the bulbs and fans will start working within five minutes,” says one worker. And Ron and his parents, Samson and Miriam Artzi give a wide smile. “We had been receiving electricity from an adjoining house,” says Samson.

He had a couple of reasons to build the bungalow. Since Samson, an Israeli citizen, has a Person of Indian Origin Card, he can buy and hold property. Secondly, he had been unhappy with the hotel facilities available in North Paravur. On January 20, the Samsons, of Jewish ancestry, held a house-warming ceremony. Friends and relatives dropped by for the function. But their 1800 sq. ft. bungalow in North Paravur took a year to get ready.

“I was astonished to see the workers take a nap in the afternoons,” says Artzi. “We cannot imagine such a thing happening in Israel. A job which can be finished in one day, they take three days here. In Israel the house would have been completed in two months.”

Says Ron: “If there are three workers, one will do the work, another will be watching, while the third will do nothing.”

Nevertheless, Ron's father, Samson, has a happy look on his face. He left Kerala for Israel in September, 1973. He had gone because he could not find a Jewish girl to marry in Kochi and he also believed deeply in Zionism – a political movement that believed in a sovereign Jewish homeland.

Two weeks after he arrived, Samson found himself in the middle of the Yom Kippur war between the Arabs and the Israelis. “I was in a state of shock,” he says. Anyway, the war ended in three weeks, Samson recovered, learned to speak Hebrew, did a six-month course in accountancy, and began working for a Scandinavian company at Ashdod Port. Two years later, he had an arranged marriage with Artzi, who was also from North Paravur. It was in 1978 that Samson joined El Al, the national airlines of Israel.

Today, Samson continues to work there. “The retirement age in Israel is 67,” says Samson, 64. “After that, I plan to spend many months in North Paravur where I have a lot of friends.”

In Israel, Samson lives in Rehovot, which is 20 kms from Tel Aviv. In the early years, there was a certain form of discrimination against the Cochin Jews. “But now all that is over,” says Samson. “There are a lot of marriages between people of different countries.” His own daughter, Noufar, 28, is married to a Jew of Hungarian-origin, and has four children.

So what is it about Israel that they like? “We enjoy a European standard of living,” says Samson. “The streets are clean, the houses are well-maintained, and the traffic is smooth.” But the cost of living is high. “A good meal for four costs Rs 8000 (1 shekel = Rs 13).”

And Israelis, even though they are far more efficient than Indians, are a tense, nervous people. “It is probably because we are surrounded by enemies on all sides,” says Ron. “That is why when we come to India we feel calm, because the people are friendly and kind, and in no hurry at all.”

Incidentally, throughout their years in Israel, Samson and Artzi yearned for Kerala a lot. “We missed the rain, the greenery, the people, and the culture,” says Artzi. On Republic and Independence Days, they would go to celebrate it at the Indian Embassy. Nevertheless, when asked whether they are Keralites first and Israelis second, the family says, in unison, “We are Israelis first, Jews second, and Keralites third.”

And then Samson clarifies. “Right from our childhood, we would always end our prayers by saying, 'See you in Jerusalem,'” he says. “We knew that the moment we had our own country, we would have to go there.” Says Ron: “The origin of the Jews is at Judea (modern-day Israel). Nevertheless I feel a part of me belongs here.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Prayers and bonhomie

The Sikh community in Kochi celebrated Guru Gobind Singh’s 344th birthday at their gurudwara with kirtans, prayers and a delicious lunch

Photos: The structure where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed

The kirtan singers from Pune

By Shevlin Sebastian

When I enter the Gurudwara Shri Gobind Singh Sabha in Kochi I am given a glass of chilled rose milk. Then I place my shoes on a counter which is manned by Kulwant Singh Allagh, a respectable-looking Sardarji and receive a token in return. Somebody ties a cloth around my head. Then I wash my hands and feet and place my forehead on a flagpole, which has the holy Nishan Sahib flag. This pole is put up at all gurudwaras, so that its location can be seen easily.

Up a flight of steps and I enter a large hall. At the centre there is a throne called the Takht on which the Sikh's holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed.

Everybody sits cross-legged on the floor, to signify the equality of people. On this particular Sunday in January, the Sikhs are belatedly celebrating the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh (born December 22, 1666). Says Manjit Singh Sethi, a businessman: “We are celebrating it on a Sunday, so that everybody can be present.”

Singers from Pune have been invited. It is a trio of brothers: Surinder, 32, Sukhwinder, 31, and Ajit Pal Singh, 29.

They sit next to each other on a small stage, with two harmoniums and a tabla in front of them. They are dressed identically in blue turbans and white shirts and pyjamas. The music begins and lead vocalist, Surinder, starts singing.

Soon, the men and women in the audience sway their bodies from side to side and nod in appreciation. The kirtan lasts for several minutes.

Thereafter, Surinder begins a commentary. “Guru Gobind Singh is a guru for everybody,” he says. “Sikhism is not only for Sikhs. Hindus, Muslims, and people from other religions are welcome. Do remember that in the Guru Granth Sahib, there are writings by [mystic poet] Kabir also.”

As he talks, a man steps forward and places an envelope on the stage. Says Manjit Singh: “The singers don't take any fees for their performance, but if you give a donation, they will accept it.”

Soon, the singers move on to the next kirtan. One and a half hours goes past in the blink of an eye, so mesmerising is the singing and the music. Thereafter, the head-priest, Kulwant Singh, a tall man, with a flowing white beard, stands behind a mike and conducts prayers. Clearly he is abreast of current events, because he says, “Let us pray for the victims of the Sabarimala tragedy.” 102 people had died in a stampede on January 15, the concluding day of the Sabarimala season.

Thereafter, volunteers distribute Kara Parshad, a type of halva, to all the members. This is regarded as food blessed by the guru. The session concludes and I get a chance to talk to the vocalist, Surinder.

“My parents were kirtan singers,” he says. “I started learning from the age of seven.” To ensure that he is suitably qualified, Surinder secured a master’s in vocal singing from the Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi. The group performs all over India and abroad.

“The aim of the kirtans is to create a link between the audience (sangat) and God,” says Surinder, who knows 3000 kirtans by heart.

The singer has a close link to Kochi. Surinder is married to Umeet Kaur, the daughter of businessman Kulbir Singh, who has been living in Kochi for the past 20 years. Incidentally, the Sikhs are a 120-member community in Kochi. Nearly all of them are doing business in automobiles, furniture and garments. But for the kirtan singing, the Sikhs who work at the Naval Base on Willingdon Island and in transferable jobs are also present.

Meanwhile, I move on to the langar hall where lunch is being served. Bunty Singh takes me to the kitchen where all the community members are placing food on steel plates. “We have no cooks,” he says. “The food is made by all of us.” At another side, other members are washing the dishes.

In the hall, once again, people sit on the floor to eat. “Everybody is equal,” says Bunty Singh. The food is simple, but delicious: dal makhani, chapatti, rice, vegetables, a salad of cucumber and onions and a rice-based payasam.

Not many Kochites know that there is a thriving gurudwara right in their midst, on Varghese Thattil Road. “We welcome everybody,” says a smiling Bunty Singh.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, January 24, 2011

'Be pure of heart'


Says businessman S. Balakrishna Bhat and you will be able to get in touch with God

By Shevlin Sebastian

Businessman S. Balakrishna Bhat, 74, recounts an incident that he read in a book, ‘Living with the Himalayan Masters’ by Swami Rama.

The swami was standing with his guru, Sri Madhavananda Bharati, on a railway station. The station master, Sukhdev (name changed), said, “Swami Rama, please give me some words of advice.”

Rama turned to his guru who said, “Be sincere. Don't ever tell a falsehood in your life.” The same day, there was an inquiry by a railway official regarding some allegations of corruption. Sukhdev confessed that the department took bribes, including himself. Everybody was suspended.

But soon, the others got together, denied any wrongdoing, and accused Sukhdev of being the culprit. Consequently, the station master was arrested. When he was presented in front of a magistrate, Sukhdev said, “I don’t need a lawyer. I will be telling the truth. You may punish me, but I am ready to face the consequences.”

During the lunch break, the magistrate called up Sukhdev and said, “I know that you are telling the truth. But what made you do so?” The station master told the story of how he met Swami Rama and his guru. The magistrate had heard of Swami Rama. After a drawn-out hearing, the magistrate set him free. It was exactly one month from the date Sukhdev was arrested. By this time, his wife and son had left him.

The next day Sukhdev received a telegram stating that his ancestral property was being taken over by the government. The compensation amount was Rs 1 lakh, which was a huge sum, 70 years ago, when this incident took place.

When Sukhdev received the cheque, he gave it to his family. They asked him to stay with them. Sukhdev shook his head, and said, “Within 30 days of truth telling, I got this huge reward. So, I don't want to be with you. I want to live with the truth.” And he left.

“Truth liberates you,” says Bhat. “When you tell the truth, you get closer to God. But unfortunately, these days, people are afraid of the truth. There is widespread dishonesty in public life, especially among politicians and businessmen, and in personal relationships.”

One major problem is that in most people, the ego dominates. “They are much too entangled in business and family affairs,” he says. “They do not have the time to get in touch with God.”

Bhat, a Konkani, has lived in Mattancherry island all his life. Every morning, he does a puja in a 160-year-old family temple. After the rituals, he always ends his prayers by saying, ‘Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu – Let all be happy in the world.’

“This is a most powerful phrase and I try to say it many times a day,” he says. “I also ask God to guide and bless me.”

Asked to prove that God exists, he says, “I am sure God is present, but I cannot prove it to you. When I encounter problems in my life, I have called on Him and He has come to my aid. An argument regarding the existence of God is useless. It is all about faith. Either you believe, or you don't.”

Bhat says that all religions are equal. “However, going to a temple, church, or mosque is a preliminary step,” he says. “Thereafter, if you are pure of heart, you can reach Him directly. If we follow God’s guidance we will never make a mistake.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Learning tough lessons in Fort Kochi

Kochi-born Joseph Killian, who lives in Cologne, Germany, narrates the difficulties of running the three-star Killians hotel

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1995, while reading a newspaper in Cologne, Germany, Joseph Killian read a one-line advertisement in English. It said: 'Seeking investors'. This was followed by a telephone number. Intrigued, the Kochi-born Joseph called and found himself connected to the office of Cardinal Vincentas Sladkeviciu of Lithuania.

The next day Joseph flew to the capital, Vilnius, to see first-hand the possibilities of doing business. The church had land in the centre of town, and the Cardinal wanted to lease out a few establishments like pubs. “This was impossible for a person like me, who did not know the language and had no local experience,” says Joseph. “It is like a foreigner coming to Kochi to start a bar.”

Joseph was preparing to return when he had an accidental meeting with an architect called Linas Pajeda. He told Joseph that the price of land in Lithuania was very cheap. The government was planning to demolish many dilapidated buildings and would provide subsidies for investors to build flats and loans to buyers at a paltry interest of 3 per cent. “This will create a boom,” said Linas.

Convinced by the proposal, Joseph and Linas set up a company called Modernus Namas (Modern Homes) and over the next few years they built an astonishing 333 flats and sold them all. “We made a fortune,” says Joseph, with a broad smile.

It was also in Lithuania that Joseph began a new habit. In the evenings, when he used to go to the pubs, the people would stare at him. At that time he had long hair and a thick beard. Joseph was puzzled. Later, Linas told him that the locals thought he was a member of the Taliban. An apprehensive Joseph immediately shaved off his beard and hair. “When I left, I carried on shaving my head every morning,” he says. “That is why I continue to remain bald today.”

In 2005, Joseph came for a vacation to his most favourite place on earth: Fort Kochi. There he met a real estate broker, Hamsa Koya, who pestered the German-Indian to buy land. “Hamsa said the price of land will go up,” says Joseph. When Joseph saw a plot of land, with an area of 45 cents, opposite the Vypeen jetty, he decided to buy it. He intended to sell it later when the price went up.

“But the moment I bought it, all my friends and local contacts told me I should set up a hotel,” he says. “It is in the prime tourist locality in Fort Kochi.” And that was how Joseph set up the Killians hotel on an investment of a few crores of rupees. It is a three-star hotel and has 22 rooms, a restaurant, a swimming pool and a bar. Killians became operative on July 8, 2009. Nearly all the customers are from Europe, USA, and the Far East.

But for Joseph, doing business in Kochi has been a difficult experience. “If people know you are from outside, they are bound to cheat you,” says Joseph. “The business people think that it is only through swindling that they can make money. I lost Rs 1 crore because of fraud by different contractors and agencies, while constructing the hotel.” He was also compelled to satisfy the influential people in the area.

Joseph came up with an interesting theory on why bribe-taking is so rampant in Kerala. “Many people have been appointed by the ruling party in various posts,” he says. “They are told that they would have to shell out a certain amount of money every month to the party from the bribes they get. So even if you want to be honest, it is impossible.”

This is a far cry from his life in Germany. “People are honest there,” he says. “When you go to a government office to renew an identity card or a passport it takes less than five minutes. No official will ask you to come another day, as they regularly do so in Kerala. It is regarded as an offence. An official can be sacked if he says this to a citizen.”

Initially, Joseph, 61, wanted one of his three daughters -- Kim, 32, Gim, 29, and Pamela, 20 -- to settle down in Fort Kochi and help him and his wife, Grace, run the hotel. Now he tells them to remain in Cologne. “If somebody wants to make money India is the place to be,” he says. “But if he or she wants to sleep peacefully at night, then they will have to do business somewhere else. It is as simple as that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spending time in Egypt


Kochi-born and London-raised, Sunita Rappai works as a freelance journalist in Cairo. She talks about life in Egypt and also gives her perceptions about Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of years ago, there were wild celebrations in Egypt when the country won a football match against Algeria. Groups of young men rushed out into the streets and began dancing and waving Egyptian flags. Kochi-born Sunita Rappai, who works as a freelance journalist in Cairo, was in the Downtown area with a friend. “Immediately we were surrounded by a group of youngsters,” she says. “They were in an excited mood.”

The men tried to grope them even though they were on a brightly-lit street. “We went through a panicky situation,” says Sunita. But, thankfully, other Egyptian men came to their rescue.

“There is a great deal of harassment, because of the sexual frustration among the men,” she says. “The more repressed a society is, the more pestering a women will experience. But at the same time there is a lot of respect for women. In a bus, a man will not sit next to a woman.”

Indeed, Egyptian men have a traditional attitude when it comes to marriage. “Everything is dictated by the man’s pride,” she says. “If a wife respects that, and is modest in appearance and behaviour, then it is fine.”

Sunita who has lived in Cairo for a few years says that Egypt reminds her often of Kerala and India. “The family is the backbone of society,” she says. “Young people follow the family’s dictates in terms of their career and marriage. It is a good thing, but it is restrictive. It eats up a person’s individuality. But Egyptian society is gradually changing.”

This can be seen by the increasing rates of divorce: 40 per cent of all marriages. There is a new law called the Khula that allows Muslim women to get a 'no-fault' divorce. “The divorce is easier, but the woman has to forfeit her financial rights,” says Sunita.

Like in India, there is a class divide. The super rich live in exclusive gated communities, wear the latest designer labels, travel abroad often, and move around in BMWs.

On the other hand, there are huge slums in Cairo. The largest is called Ezbet Kheirallah. “However, there is very little begging on the streets,” says Sunita. “Charity plays a big role in Islamic culture. There is a strong sense of community. People help each other.”

But what was a revelation to Sunita was how tolerant Egyptian society is. “More than 90 per cent of the Muslims I met are liberal and respect other religions,” she says. “So it is sad to see Islamophobia spreading all over the world.”

Sunita, of course, is a liberal herself. She was born in Kochi and, in her teenage years, went to London where her parents had settled. After her post-graduation in public relations, she worked in various jobs as a public relations manager and a journalist before she developed a wanderlust and travelled all over the world. In Cairo, she was drawn by the pulsating energy of the city and decided to stay on.

Sunita had recently come to Kochi to spend time with her mother. And she has many things to say about Kerala. “There is a parochial mentality,” says Sunita. “People look at me strangely because I am not married.”

She is also alarmed by the outward migration. “Whenever I have gone on family visits, I have noticed that all the children are abroad: either in the Gulf, the USA or Canada,” says Sunita. “This has happened time and time again. This brain drain is affecting the development of Kerala. It is difficult for a society to progress without the input of its talented youth.”

Sunita also feels strongly about the suppression of women. “They live under the dominance of the men,” she says. And they receive very little respect. As a result it is dangerous for a woman to walk alone on the streets after 7 p.m. “If you go to a nightclub or a disco, it is like a gay club,” she says. “More than 90 per cent of the people present are men. It is not a comfortable environment for a woman.”

And so thanks to her travels, Sunita is able to analyse societies with empathy and perception, but in the end, you feel sympathy for her when she states, “I am a person with no roots. I belong nowhere. I am like a BBCD (a British-born confused desi), but I am comfortable with that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011



By repeating this mantra, and following Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism, Vasuda Arora experienced a dramatic change in her life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, Vasuda Arora was feeling hopeless about all aspects of her life. “I was at a stage when I felt like a failure,” says Vasuda, who is married to a Mumbai-based television producer Suresh Mathew. “I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life.”

It was also a time when her parents were going through health and financial problems. “There were family conflicts,” she says. “When this happens, you feel like a victim and wonder why bad things happen to loved ones only?”

It was during this difficult period that her sister Nandini spoke to her about the power of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism. “She told me that if I kept repeating one mantra, ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo’, and followed the philosophy, there will be a big change in my life,” says Vasuda. “My first reaction was one of disbelief. I thought that by chanting one phrase you cannot change your life. It was silly.”

But for six months Vasuda read about the philosophy and asked many questions to Nandini. “One day I decided I would give it a try,” she says. And very soon, she started to notice a change within herself.

“I began to feel a lot of hope and courage which I had never experienced before,” she says. “The best thing about Daishonin's Buddhism is that you are not praying to an external force.”

In other religions, God is outside you. “One keeps praying to this entity and if that God is happy, good things will happen to you,” says Vasuda. “If He is unhappy bad events will take place.”

But in Daishonin's Buddhism, there is no God. “Instead, we try to bring forth the Buddha nature which is inherent in all of us,” she says. “Soon, you become aware of the limitless potential within you.”

'Nam-Myoho-Renge Kyo' is based on the Lotus Sutra which was propounded by Gautama Buddha. “It is the mystic law that governs life eternally throughout the universe,” says Vasuda. The mantra was invoked by a Japanese monk, Nichiren Daishonin, in the 13th century, and has spread all over the world.

Apart from chanting, Vasuda also recites sections of the Lotus Sutra daily. “I ask for happiness for myself and others, and to achieve my life goals,” she says. “I also pray to become a happier and better person.”

It seems to have changed Vasuda. “When I was in college I wanted to be a therapist but felt that I did not have the skills and the self-assurance to become one,” she says. “But after I began practising Daishonin's Buddhism, I became extremely positive and confident.” Vasuda did end up becoming a therapist. “And the best news is that we have achieved harmonious relations within the family,” she says.

Vasuda also took steps to repair a quarrel with a school friend, Meera (name changed), whom she had known for fifteen years. “Because of my ego and stubbornness I told myself, ‘Why should I try to solve it? If Meera does not care, let her go to hell,’” says Vasuda.

But after months of prayer Vasuda overcame her anger and was ready to forgive Meera, who had said many hateful things to her during the break-up. So, she got in touch with Meera, but her friend was reluctant to meet Vasuda. “But eventually we met, spoke our hearts out, and became friends once again,” says Vasuda. “We realised that we had wasted five years of our lives by not talking to each other.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shining bright in Silicon Valley


Ben Verghese was part of a research team at Stanford University which created a revolution in computers with the concept of virtualisation. He talks about his experiences and reflects on how the IT industry has changed in India

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Ben Verghese was working in the Hewlett Packard company in California, a group of Indians would go out for lunch. Once when they were returning to the campus, they realised, with a sense of surprise, that the guard at the gate was an Indian. One of Ben's friends said, “This is interesting. Not all Indians have a master’s in computer science.”

Yes, indeed, the brain drain towards the United States in the 1980s was like a flood. An IIT graduate from Chennai in 1985, Ben did his doctorate from Stanford University. He was part of a research group that came up with the concept of virtualization, which has created a worldwide revolution in computers.

“The virtualization software divides the physical machine into multiple virtual machines,” says Ben. “It enables you to run an operating system and applications in each of these divisions.”

The company that he works for, Vmware, of which his former mates at Stanford were the founders, pioneered this development. Today, Vmware has more than 8000 employees and enjoys worldwide sales of $2 billion. Ben is the vice-president, chief management architect, at Vmware.

On a recent visit to Kochi, where his mother lives, Ben says that he has no regrets about not working in India. “In the hi-tech industry, there is no better place in the world than Silicon Valley,” he says. “The concentration of talent and energy are unbelievable. It is a meritocracy. I fulfilled my potential because I work there. Would I have done so in India?” Ben ponders over the question for a while, and says, “I don't know.”

But he admits that there is a sea-change in the Indian IT industry in the past 25 years. “Almost every major IT company in the US has set up shop in India,” he says. “Some companies have invested significantly, while others have developed a back office.”

But Ben is disappointed that despite so much of software talent, there have not been many start-ups that have been outstanding. “Nevertheless, most big companies have realised that in order to have a successful branch here, you have to give responsibility to the employees,” he says. “Some of it is happening now, but not that much as yet.”

But Ben is confident that India is going to dominate the world economy in the coming decades. ““India has the advantage of a huge young population,” he says. “America will no longer be the sole superpower on the international stage.”

So, is America in decline? “I am not sure,” he says. “But at various levels, they are seeing the limitations to their strength. Apart from India, China, Brazil and Russia are also growing economic powers. America is still the largest market, and everybody wants to get in, but there are budget deficits which are being funded by selling bonds.”

Not surprisingly, many of these bonds are held by China. As a result, America is less able to act like a leader. “They realize that the world has changed because of globalisation," says Ben. "They know that there is a limit to military power, because of the setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these days, wars are non-conventional and so it is that much more difficult to win.”

As for Ben, living in America has not been a win-win situation. “The biggest minus for me is that we have no family there,” he says. “I miss the ties with relatives. But if I want to attend a marriage or any other event in Kerala, it will take me twenty hours by flight. It is not easy to come.”

But he is happy that thanks to technological innovations like Skype and E-mail, he feels less cut off. “Now I can talk and see my mother every day,” he says. Because of his two small sons, Ben now makes it a point to come at least once a year to Kochi, so that they can get in touch with their roots. “They also love coming to India,” he says.

But like most NRI’s, Ben is disappointed by the chaotic traffic in Kochi. “Every trip is a struggle,” he says. “So much time is wasted in traffic jams. In the long run, it will affect productivity.”

Ben feels that it is imperative that both Kerala and India invest heavily in infrastructure so that the economy can continue to grow at a fast pace. But he suddenly breaks into a smile, and says, “Despite all the problems, it is always good to be back home.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Lord Krishna is a multi-faceted God'


The Australia-based dancer Padma Menon says that Krishna does not regard spirituality as an other-worldly experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2001, dancer Padma Menon was living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband. “It was a new country,” she says. “I did not know the language. I was struggling with the idea of being a woman, a dancer, and a mother of two small children.” Eventually, Padma found it overwhelming and decided to give up dancing. So, she enrolled for a course in gender studies at the Institute of Social Sciences in The Hague.

Sometime later, at a party Padma met Danica Anderson, a psychotherapist from America. “I told Danica I was a dancer,” says Padma. “We spoke for a couple of minutes. Then I moved away.”

Five minutes later, Danica came up to Padma and suddenly said, with emphasis, “You should not give up your dancing.” For Padma it was a turning point in her life. “I immediately realised that this was a message from God,” she says. “These kinds of things happen to me all the time. It was a moment of serendipity.”

The Australia-based dancer, who was in her home town of Thrissur recently, had another moment of magic. “I was wondering whether people from diverse backgrounds such as a Muslim, Hindu or a Christian can all have the same ideas about human rights and justice,” she says. “But I could not find any book on this subject.”

Then, one day, by chance, Padma was in a small bookstore in Thrissur. They had only one book by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, called 'The Idea of Justice'. “I opened it and every question that I had in my mind, he was discussing it in the book,” she says. “It was God who guided me towards that book.”

Padma believes in the Vedantic concept of spirituality. “We are all part of the divine,” she says. “If we don't accept our divinity, then God will always remain outside of you and apart.”

For Padma, her favourite deity is Lord Krishna. “He is a multi-faceted God,” she says. “Krishna is a politician, philosopher, friend, son, and lover. I find him fascinating. He does not talk about spirituality as an other-worldly reality. Instead, he talks about it in the way that we experience it at every moment of our lives. It is about being a warrior when you need to be one, and knowing how to make the right decisions in the battle of existence.”

Padma says that when she prays she tries to find the Krishna within herself. “I know He exists inside me, even though he is a male God,” she says. “I don't think spirituality has anything to do with gender. These are just energies and capacities which all of us have.”

Meanwhile, whenever Padma is in Thrissur, she goes to the Devi temple near her house to pray. “It is like visiting my neighbour,” she says. “It is a small temple and not crowded.”

Her image of the Devi, when she closes her eyes, is that of a woman wearing a red saree and a gold necklace and having a loving and compassionate look. “I keep this image in my mind when I am in Australia,” says Padma, who does not visit any temple in her adopted land.

But she has one practice that she does unfailingly with her children. Every evening Padma lights a lamp in her house. “For children, the structure of a religion is very important,” she says. “We cannot always remain on the abstract level. That is why rituals play such an important role in people's lives. It connects us to God, and enables you to have a divine feeling.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, January 10, 2011

History’s brilliant raconteur

Simon Schama’s books, on art, American, British, Dutch and French history, are peopled with vivid characters and powerful conflicts. A best-selling author, his books are a far better read than most novels

By Shevlin Sebastian

British historian Simon Schama has a novelist's eye for vivid detail. This is how he describes the 16 km car ride from the Kovalam beach to the Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, where the Hay Festival was held.

“There are very loud CDs playing, by the side of the road, apart from the usual conceited-looking cows,” he says. “There is a very old man on a bicycle. He is wiry, but strong, and must have been in his mid-seventies. He has no sense of his own frailty. I feel the driver will knock him down any minute. The road is full of peril and passion. Kerala, even by Indian standards, is so full of saturated colour. The light is quite different from north India. It is also wetter.”

Simon made his mark on the general public with the broadcast of the 15 part ‘History of Britain’, which was aired on the BBC in 2000. The series began in 3100 BC and goes all the way to 1965.

“The reason why it did so well was because there was a great craving for narrative history, especially among families who wanted to watch it with their children,” he says. “They wanted to see old-fashioned story-telling, with a lot of questioning and analysis.”

In fact, the second episode, called the 'Conquest', which focused on the Battle of Hastings in 1066, one of the epochal moments in British history, had four million viewers.

During the research for this episode, Simon discovered that the soldiers did not wear any clothes or underwear when they put their armour on. “When their armour was pulled off, they were naked,” says Simon. “I told the producers that since we are doing a re-enactment, we could show a pile of naked dead men but they were horrified. After all, it was the BBC.” Simon bursts out laughing at this point.

Simon has also written a series of popular books on American, Dutch and French history. His 1989 book, ‘Citizens: Chronicle of The French Revolution’ received critical applause and became an international best-seller.

In a review in The New York Times, Eugene Webber, a professor of history at the University of California called the 948-page book, “monumental. 'Citizens’ is hard to put down. Provocative and stylish, Simon Schama's account of the first few years of the great Revolution in France is thoughtful and well-informed. Above all, he tells a story, and tells it well.’ Time magazine described it as one of the best books of the decade.

But Simon says that the best book he wrote was ‘Rough Crossings – Britain, The Slaves and the American Revolution’. Despite positive reviews, it did not sell well at all. Nevertheless, it won the 2006 US National Books Critics Award.

It is the story of how thousands of blacks crossed over to the British side during the American War of Independence (1775-83), on the promise that they would be granted freedom. When the British lost, the blacks were taken to Nova Scotia where they were treated with indifference and callousness. Eventually, with the help of a few enlightened whites, the blacks made a sea journey to Sierra Leone, in 1792, where they still live, several generations later.

Undoubtedly, his books are gripping and tell a crackling good story. Although at times, in certain sections, it is over-written. This could be in large part because of Simon’s effusive personality. Book critic Felipe Fernandez-Armesto lauded Simon’s “vivid historical imagination, and the strength and skill to wield language like a bright weapon. Historians don’t come much better than Simon.”

This historian also casts a perceptive eye on the present. At the Hay Festival, Simon says, “President Barack Obama is important for the rest of the world because he is the first person, since President John F. Kennedy, who is an internationalist. This most literary of presidents represents the confluence of many different cultures.”

And to the perennial question of whether America is in decline, he says, “It took the Roman Empire 500 years to decline, but the American downfall may be far faster than that. But it is a relative decline.” Simon felt that America clearly cannot be the hegemonic power that it once was, after the Second World War. China is the main issue, in terms of competition. “But America has a gigantic presence in the world economy, and is capable of reinventing itself,” says Simon.

Thanks to all these wonderful flashes of insight, dashed off with style and panache, Simon was a hit at the Hay Festival in Kerala.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Hurt, beaten, and humiliated

As social pressures and the pace of life increases, more and more parents in Kerala are at the receiving end of violence and abandonment by their children

Photo: Kochu Thresia at the Home for the Aged at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

A decade ago, when Kochu Thresia became paralysed on one side of her body, she was taken to the General Hospital in Kochi. “I called my son and asked him whether he could take care of me,” she says. Her son, Thomas, a painter of houses, said he would have to consult with his wife. Two days later he called and said, “My wife has to look after our two children. I have to go for work, so it would be difficult to look after you.”

Thankfully, after a few months, Thresia regained movement of her limbs. Thereafter, she started working as a maid in different houses. But as she grew older, she began losing her strength. She told one of her employers, a doctor couple, whether they could help. They agreed and brought her to the Home of the Aged run by the Sisters of Charity. “I have been living here for the past nine years now,” says Thresia, 74.

When she recounts her life, tears flow down her face. “My children, a son and two daughters, have never come to see me,” she says. “In my youth, we loved and respected our parents and cared for them in their old age. When my father was seated on a chair, I sat on the floor as a mark of respect.”

Thresia says that children these days are only interested in getting the money and property of their parents. “Like garbage, they throw us out on the streets,” she says. “With great difficulty we carry the child in our womb for nine months, and give birth. I breast-fed my children till they were two years old. We go through so much of anxiety when they fell ill. So, why don’t they look after us?”

Sitting next to her is A.R. Xavier, 72, whose wife died a few years ago. His son, James, had faked ownership papers over his father's property, which comprised one-third of an acre. When Xavier came to know about it he filed a suit in the High Court. A month ago, the judge ruled in his favour.

“Soon, I will be going back to my home,” says Xavier. “It is nice to stay in this old age home, the people are fine and the facilities are good. But I have a desire to breathe my last in my own house. I am going to ask my son and daughter-in-law to vacate. It is a house that I made with the sweat of my work. My son changed after he got married. He forgot his parents and thought only about his wife and children.”

Now it is Xavier’s turn to cry. His body shakes with the sobs.

Sr. Theresa Joseph Cherukunnel, the coordinator of programmes at the home, listens to Xavier with a stoic look on her face. She says, “Children no longer want to look after their parents. They are married and have families of their own. They find their parents a burden. Sometimes, children beat up their parents if the property is not transferred in their names.”

But is there a possibility that the parents have ill-treated the children? “I don't think so,” says Sr. Annrose Varkey, mother superior. “Children simply forget the love and affection shown by their parents. Sometimes, the daughter-in-law has a problem with the mother-in-law. Then she instigates the son to send the parents to an old age home.”

There are 103 boarders at the home, out of which 22 are men. They range in age from 45 to 93. The nuns run a laundry, and the inmates help out with the washing, and the ironing. “The inmates grow vegetables and help in the cooking and the cleaning of the utensils,” says Sr. Theresa. “They sweep the floors and feed those who are critically ill.”

Many of them suffer from diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart problems, asthma, Parkinson's Disease, osteoporosis and arthritis. “Their sadness at being abandoned has aggravated their illnesses,” says Sr. Theresa.

On another day, I go across to meet Biju Mathew, the Kerala state head of HelpAge India, an NGO which looks after elderly people. He says that men and women react differently when faced with abuse by their children.

“Women will take the abuse silently,” he says. “They will always look at their children with love in their hearts and will never complain to outsiders about their ill-treatment. On the other hand, it is the men who will call our helpline and ask for assistance.”

Recently, a 92-year old former Army Major, Rajan Nair called HelpAge and complained that his son does not allow him to go out or receive telephone calls from relatives. “When we talked to the son, he had a defensive attitude,” says Biju. “They don't want an outsider to interfere. They are not ready to accept that they are doing something wrong. But our counsellor will tell them about ways to treat their parents in a better manner.”

So what are the reasons behind the abuse? “The rise of the nuclear family is a major cause,” says Biju. “Earlier, in the joint family, there were enough members to look after the needs of elderly parents. Now, in most families there is only one son and daughter.”

Sometimes, both husband and wife are working. And the fast pace of life of present-day society is having an impact. “People don't have the time to talk to parents,” says Biju. “Neither do the grandchildren. Parents are not taken out for outings because children find it a cumbersome process. The elders feel neglected and suffer from loneliness.”

Soon they slip into depression. “This is followed by a deterioration of health,” says Biju

On many occasions, children get angry with their parents because of their reluctance to hand over the property to them. “They shower abuses on them,” says Biju.

A London-based professional called HelpAge and said that his brother, who lives in Kochi, was abusing the parents, because he wanted to sell the house and property since he needed the money. But the parents were not giving permission. “He had resorted to slapping and beating up the old people,” says Biju.

According to a recent HelpAge survey across eight cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bhopal, Chennai, Patna and Hyderabad – 36 per cent of the elders reported abuse of varying kinds.

So, how does one prevent abuse from taking place? “Parents should plan their lives in such a way, that through fixed deposits or other means, they are able to ensure a monthly cash flow,” says Biju. “Thus, they are not dependent on the children.”

Parents should never give their property to their children till they die. In case they have done so, there is a new law by which it can be taken back (see box below). Both parents and children should learn to adjust to each other. Elders should strive to be busy, by doing work linked to their expertise, or do community service. That way, they will remain mentally and physically alert.

Interestingly, there is a sea-change in attitude among the children when the parent dies. “They feel an enormous sense of guilt,” says John E. Daniel, Senior Manager (Programmes) at HelpAge. “They had taken their parents for granted. On many occasions, children have confessed to us that they had not treated their parents properly. It is only after the death that the children recall, with deep affection, the love of their parents. Sometimes, to over-compensate for their guilt, they will donate money in the name of their parents.”

Unfortunately, no amount of donations can wipe out a lifelong regret.

(Some names have been changed to protect privacy)

Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007

Salient Features:

Parents and grandparents who are unable to maintain themselves from their own income can demand maintenance from their children

Maintenance includes provision for food, clothing, residence, medical attendance and treatment. The maximum amount which may be ordered for maintenance of a senior citizen shall not exceed Rs 10,000 a month.

It is the obligation of the children and specified relatives with sufficient means to provide maintenance for parents

If children do not have sufficient means the state government may establish, in a phased manner, sufficient senior citizen homes and maintain the same for abandoned and neglected senior citizens

Under Section 23, if after the commencement of the act, any parents or senior citizens have transferred their property to the children or relatives on the condition that they would provide certain maintenance and amenities to the senior citizen, but subsequently neglect or refuse to do, the parents or senior citizens can get such transfers voided (cancelled) at their option by having such transfers treated as a fraudulent or coercive acquisition and seek return of their property so transferred.

Caring for a 103-year-old mother

When Jacob Varghese, a former deputy manager with the State Bank of India, got an opportunity to go to the United States of America, like his elder brothers, he said no. “I was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters,” says Jacob, who lives in Puthupally, near Kottayam. “I wanted to stay back to look after my parents.”

When his father died in 1981, he had no hesitation to look after his mother Mariamma, who is now 103. “My parents gave us so much of love, affection and care,” says Jacob.

Till 2003, his mother was in good health. Then she had a fall and broke her leg. “She has been bed-ridden ever since,” he says. But since Jacob's wife is working as a teacher, they hired a home nurse. “Otherwise, my mother's health is fine,” he says. When asked whether he had contemplated placing his mother in an old age home, he says, “Never.”

Jacob says that the problem with the present-day generation, who are willing to place their parents in old people's homes, is the high element of selfishness. “They don't care for others,” he says. “They are just obsessed with making money. It is a very disturbing trend.”


Helpage Elders Helpline: 1800-180-1253

(This is a national number, where calls will reach the respective state offices. These are manned by counsellors proficient in English as well as the regional language).

Number of elderly people in Kerala: 32 lakh

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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