Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Condemned to die

A 146-year-old prison in Fort Kochi, which had been renovated, has become a magnet for tourists, especially foreigners

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The entrance to the cell; The signboard outside the jail

A few months after M. Beena took over as collector of Kochi, in 2008, she happened to visit the Revenue Divisional Office at Fort Kochi. This used to be a former jail complex. When she looked out from one of the windows, she saw several cells in a rundown condition, and the roof broken in many sections.

Since she was the secretary of the Cochin Heritage Zone Conservation Society (CHZCS), she asked the officers about the possibility of renovating it. They did a study and realised that they needed Rs 10 lakh. They approached various corporate entities and finally the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) gave the money.

“It is part of our corporate society responsibility,” says George Thomas, senior manager, public relations, BPCL. “We are keen to protect historical buildings.”

There are eight cells placed side by side. Designated for condemned prisoners, each cell has a length of 12 feet, a width of 9 feet, and a neck-craning height of 21 feet. Inside, it is cool and silent. There is a cement bed at one corner. At the other side is a small hole in the ground. It has the circumference of a coin. “This is the urinal,” says K.S. Srijith, liaison officer of the CHZCS. “Undoubtedly, there would have been a constant smell of urine in the cell.”

Interestingly, the lock is set in an alcove just beside the cast-iron door. From inside the cell, if you put your hand through the grille, you will not be able to reach the lock. “It is very cleverly located,” says K.E. Gafoor, CHZCS supervisor.

Beside each door a photo has been mounted on the wall. There are eight in total: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and the Malayali contingent of political leaders: A.K. Gopalan, Akkamma Cherian, and EMS Namboodiripad.

“They were all freedom fighters,” says present District Collector P.I. Sheik Pareeth. “All of them had spent time in jail during their careers.” Thus, the photos seemed appropriate in this setting.

Opposite the cells is a huge mango tree. “This is more than 200 years old,” says Pareeth. “The prisoners could have been hanged from the branches.”

As to the year when the jail was established, T. Rajeshwari, a special officer, (CHZCS), says that she has come across old roof tiles. “On it was engraved, 'Commonwealth Trust Ltd, Calicut, 1865’,” she says. So, the jail is 146 years old.

Outside, there is a board which says ‘Renovated Fort Kochi jail’. This has pricked the curiosity of many people. “We get visitors from all over the world,” says Pareeth. In the visitor's book, there are entries by tourists from France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Scotland, Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, Israel, and Australia.

“One Australian visitor said that he was amazed at the space given to one prisoner,” says Pareeth. “He said that cells in his country are cramped.” Locals also visit the jail, along with tourists from Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad.

Each cell contains the memories of so much grief and agony of men condemned to die. If only walls could talk…

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

'The Church wants a non-antagonistic government'

Says Catholic Bishop Bosco Puthur

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The relationship between the government and the church has been strained for the past few years,” says Catholic Bishop Bosco Puthur. “The government wanted us to sign an agreement where they would get 50 per cent of the seats in the various courses for all self-financing institutions.”

The Church had refused to sign because it was an infringement of minority rights. “The Supreme Court ruled in our favour,” says Puthur. “However, one minister said, ‘Even if you win the case, you should remember that you are in Kerala.’ It was a statement that was an affront to the Constitution of India. This sort of threat was not expected from a responsible government representative.”

So Puthur is hoping that the next government will have a friendly and co-operative relationship with the different communities in Kerala. “What we desire is a non-antagonistic government,” he says.

The church also wants a corruption-free and development-oriented government, which takes care of the poor and the downtrodden. Unfortunately, development projects are stymied by politicisation. “The question is not whether a project is good for the people or not, but whether it is beneficial for the party,” he says.

The party’s influence is palpable at all levels of society. “Suppose, somebody wants to start a small industry,” says Puthur. “Unless he has political connections, and pays bribes, he will not get a license. This corruption has become entrenched in Kerala.”

And Puthur is alarmed by it. “Whereever you go, be it the village, corporation, local bodies or government offices, people have to pay bribes to get their work done,” he says. “This corruption is a blight on our society. Something needs to be done.”

Asked to evaluate Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan's term, Puthur says, “Infighting harmed his effectiveness, but he did try to put a check on corruption within the government and the party. Inspite of his advanced age, Achuthanandan made an effort to start some projects.”

Overall, the bishop is worried by the state of society. “Owing to a lack of job opportunities and a merit-based system, most of our talented youngsters are studying and working outside Kerala,” says Puthur. “In the long run, this will have a negative impact on the state. And many homes will continue to be old-age homes, where parents stay all alone.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

The twilight zone

As society changes rapidly, the elderly tend to be neglected by children and relatives

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Ageing should be graceful,” says Philip Jackson Biveira, the former managing director of the Kerala State Handicapped Persons' Welfare Corporation. “It should not be 'ill'derly, but 'well'derly'. It is important for the elderly to develop a positive attitude and a loving heart.”

But even that may not be enough. More and more elderly people are being neglected by their children, and left to fend on their own. “Fifteen years ago, we could not imagine that such a situation would arise in Kerala,” says Fr. Mathew Kallinkal, the Director of the Ernakulam Social Service Society. “But can we blame the children? Nowadays, they live in a nuclear family, with both son and daughter-in-law working. It is very difficult for them to look after their parents.”

Both Biveira and Fr. Mathew were talking at the symposium on the 'The Problems Of The Aged and Geriatric Care in Kerala Society' at Kochi recently. This was organised by the House of Providence, which runs an old age home, in association with Helpage India.

But Advocate Sherry J. Thomas says there is a legal protection for neglected old people. He cited the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. “Not many people are aware of this act,” he says. “The state government should do more to propagate it through the media.”

The act began to be implemented in Kerala only in 2009. “Any person above 60 is entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medicines,” he says. “This should be provided by the children or close relatives.” Since parents are reluctant to file complaints against the children, NGOs and other groups should help the elderly in this regard. According to the Act, the Revenue Divisional Officer has to provide a solution within 90 days of filing the complaint.

One important provision is that in case of harassment or neglect, the parents can regain ownership of the property which has been bequeathed to the children. “This is a big protection for the parents,” says Sherry.

District Social Welfare Officer M.S. Vasanthakumari defended the role played by the government. “There have been many provisions granted to elderly people,” she says. “They get significant discounts on railway tickets. Special seats have been provided for them on buses. Each resident in an old age home should get 40 sq. ft of space. There should be one bathroom for 10 people.” The Social Welfare department is running 72 old age homes in Ernakulam district. “Nevertheless, the elderly are facing a grim situation,” says Vasanthakumari. “Many suffer from mental and physical problems.”

Some of the physical problems include hypertension, asthma, heart diseases, and diabetes. “If an elderly falls sick, he should be given treatment at once,” says Sr. Suma Kuttickal, principal, Lourdes College of Nursing.

“They should drink at least eight glasses of water every day. They should be well covered so that they do not catch pneumonia.” Other health suggestions include putting white onions in a glass of water overnight and drinking the liquid the next morning. “This enables one to control cholesterol,” she says. “Take calcium regularly to avoid osteoporosis. Use soft toothbrushes to brush the teeth. Regular exercise and yoga are good for the health.”

However, the speed at which society is changing, with values disintegrating at an even faster rate, the future for elderly people is indeed bleak.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Of campus politics and high vegetable prices


Photo: From left: M.N. Ramakrishnan, Sujatha Ramakrishnan, Rita Balchandran and R. Balachandran

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 p.m., on a Friday, Rita Balachandran returns to her Laurie-Baker style house in Edapally after attending post-graduate classes in a nearby college. “I am keen to do further studies,” says Rita, who retired from Canara Bank recently.

But what worries her today is the way campus politics has ruined the academic year. “We have had so few classes,” she says. “After a lull, politics has returned in full force in colleges during the current rule of the LDF (Left Democratic Front).”

She says that youngsters are lured into becoming members of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Kerala Students Union (KSU). “Many students have ruined their future by doing this,” she says.

Rita recounts the case of Jay Mohan (name changed), a KSU activist, who was beaten so badly by SFI activists that he is paralysed. “It brings tears to my eyes,” she says. “Jay Mohan belongs to a poor family in Idukki. His mother has to feed and look after him.”

Rita's husband, R. Balachandran, a retired bank officer, says that despite this, there have been quite a few achievements by the government. “The private bus monopoly in Kochi has been broken,” he says. “The bus workers would conduct flash strikes, and behave rudely with passengers.” Now, there are numerous Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission buses, apart from the Thiru Kochi buses.

During the past five years, the police have been able to solve many crimes quickly and efficiently. “Of course there have been blemishes like Sampath, a murder accused, who allegedly died in custody,” says Balachandran.

Rita nods, and says, “I don't have anything good to say about this government, except for one fact: the government allotted 50 per cent of the seats during the recent local body elections to women. This was a very good development. It has given a lot of confidence to women. Even in the home, women are now enjoying a heightened respect, especially from the mother-in-law.”

M.N. Ramakrishnan, a friend of the Balachandrans for more than 30 years, is a retired government servant. Because he married late, he has school-going children: a boy and a girl. “I worry for their future,” he says. “To enable your child to become a doctor or an engineer is beyond the scope of the middle class. You need lakhs of rupees to secure admission. And this is a government that is supposed to care for the common man.” Says his wife P.J. Sujatha: “The price of vegetables has gone up so much.”

So what do they want from the next government? “An end to vote bank politics,” says Ramakrishnan. “The Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Nairs, and Ezhavas are able to bully the government, and get what they want. But the tribals? There is nobody to talk for them.” Sujatha is afraid of the numerous attacks against girls and women. “There should be heightened security,” she says. Balachandran wants an end to the violence between party workers. And Rita has one plea: please bring down the price of vegetables.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stepping out from behind the walls

With the Mother Provincial's permission, Sisters Ancy and Mercy have stepped out of the convent and are living in a house in Kochi among ordinary people. This is the first time this has happened among the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

Photo: Sisters Mercy Vadakumchery and Ancy Mappilaparambil

By Shevlin Sebastian

More than 500 nuns belonging to the Ernakulam province of the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament were given an option: would they like to step out of the convent, and stay among the people, and help the poor? Only two responded.

They are Sisters Ancy Mappilaparambil and Mercy Vadakumchery. They live in a rented apartment at Elamakkara. “For the first time we have to learn to live on our own,” says Ancy.

At their home, the nuns lead an austere existence. They don't have a refrigerator, a television or a washing machine. “We try to lead as simple a life as possible,” says Mercy. Meals are usually kanji (rice gruel), curd, and pickle.

And they have started a programme, ‘Sannidhyam’, where a hundred children of parents who have been afflicted with Aids are given Rs 300 a month to pay for their education. The nuns have started joint accounts with the children to ensure that the money is not diverted for other purposes. And the duo have adopted a motto: ‘Being present among the marginalised’.

So far, they have got sponsors for the children. “The benefactors come from varying backgrounds,” says Mercy. “Some are business people, a few are professionals, while the others are entrepreneurs. People are willing to donate money if they know that you are genuinely helping troubled people.”

The troubled people include sex workers and Aids-stricken parents. First the man gets the disease though unprotected sexual contact with a woman, and passes it to his wife. As soon as the relatives come to know, the parents are ostracised. They are not allowed to eat the same food or use the family bathroom.

“The parents become depressed and lose the will to live,” says Mercy. “That is why we try to uplift their spirits. We tell them that we are there to help them in whatever way possible.”

Thankfully, out of 100 children, only 17 are HIV positive. Recently, the parents of two children died. The nuns helped to place the siblings, a boy and a girl, in different institutions. “Unfortunately, both are HIV positive also,” says Ancy.

The nuns also go often to the Swandham Service Society, which is an organisation for sex workers. “We provide moral support,” says Mercy. “Sometimes, when they want small loans or need money to buy a sewing machine or a small plot of land, we try to help.”

Meanwhile, once a fortnight, on a Sunday, Ancy and Mercy return to their convent at Kalamassery. They take along a written report on all what they have done, including the money that had been collected that month, and present it to the Mother Provincial Thecla.

The other sisters are keen to know about Ancy and Mercy’s experiences. “They have a desire to venture out, but are nervous about it,” says Ancy. Undoubtedly, it is a well-structured life within the convent. Each nun is assigned a specific job. So, they will do the cooking, the washing, the receiving of visitors and administrative jobs. “But now when we are on our own, we have to do everything by ourselves,” she says. Despite this, both nuns, who were teachers for many years, say that they lead far more fulfilling lives than when they were educating the children of well-off families.

“We are contributing something to the betterment of society,” says Ancy.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lots of space and light

Sherly Wilson's house in Kochi has large interiors and a skylight that provides ample circulation of air

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The reproduction of 'The Last Supper'; a mud vase

“There is a lot of construction going on in the neighbourhood,” says Sherly Wilson. “So there is plenty of dust. I have to keep the windows closed.” These are French windows, 14 feet high. “I just wanted to be different, so I got these windows made,” she says. The bungalow, in Venalla, a suburb of Kochi, is spread over an area of 3,800 sq. ft.

Inside, the living room also has a ceiling of 16 feet. “I wanted good air circulation,” says Sherly, whose husband works in the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. “And we wanted a lot of light.”

So a skylight has been made. Architect Saira Mathew says, “The varying quality of light, like at dawn or in the evening, creates different moods inside the house. Also, the aim is to create a smooth circulation of air. In the humid climate, the hot air rises up and goes out through the skylight."

Just next to the living room is a 'Nadumuttam', a replication of the inner courtyard, which is there in every traditional home in Kerala. On a wall, at the opposite end of the living room, there is a striking reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, ‘The Last Supper’.

An artist, John Zacharia, first recreated the images of Jesus Christ and the 12 disciples at home on plaster of paris and then came and pasted it on the wall. It has a golden sheen to it.

Right through the home, there are curios, sometimes embedded in walls, or placed in bookshelves, or on pedestals. Two striking objects are a Royal Enflield motorbike, made of wood, and a wrought-iron bicycle. “I got both of them from a market in Manali,” says Sherly. A wooden model of an old British ship, with billowing sails, was bought in Singapore, when the family had gone there for a holiday.

In a guest bedroom, on one wall there is a painting by John of bamboo plants with the leaves sticking out, and a cuckoo's nest. “When people look at it, they will get a soothing feeling,” says Sherly. It helps that the walls have been painted in a lemony colour. Another bedroom, for visiting in-laws, has a brick-red colour. “As you age, your eyesight weaken, so I felt bright colours would enliven their environment,” says Sherly.

On the first floor, apart from a foyer, there is another living area, with low-slung sofas and a television set. A door to one side leads to the children's bedroom. One bed is shaped in the form of a car, while the ceiling has been painted in blue, while glittering stars has been pasted on it. “At night, when the lights are switched off, my four boys will feel as if they are staring at heaven,” says Sherly.

Indeed, for Sherly and her family, this house is indeed a heaven on earth.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Exchanging notes over a calamity

Prof. T.J. Joseph and an auto-rickshaw owner, M.G. Radhakrishnan, experienced similar tragedies: each had a hand chopped off

Photo: Prof. T. J. Joseph (left) and M.G. Radhakrishnan

Photo by P.K. Jeevan Jose/Courtesy: The New Indian Express

By Shevlin Sebastian

Professor T. J. Joseph is standing outside the physiotherapy unit of the Specialists' Hospital in Kochi. He has come from Muvattupuzha for yet another session of healing.

The professor, whose right hand was chopped off by fundamentalists last year, because he named a lunatic as Mohammad in a question paper, greets a man, M.G. Radhakrishnan, who is standing nearby. The bespectacled Radhakrishnan is wearing a bright-red shirt, and his left hand is covered by a crepe bandage.

One month ago, when they had met for the first time, the professor had said, “What happened to you?”

Radhakrishnan said, “I have had the same experience as you.”

“What do you mean?” said Joseph.

He pointed at his left hand. “On December 16, last year, in Palluruthy, a youngster, Ratheesh used a blade to cut off my left hand,” he says. A former soldier, Radhakrishnan had retired from the Army a few years ago. At Kochi, he owned two auto-rickshaws. Both he hired out. On some days, he drove one.

One afternoon, he had gone to a shop at Palluruthy on his auto-rickshaw to collect a tyre. Ratheesh, an odd-jobs worker, was sitting nearby. He was high on alcohol and heroin. He asked Radhakrishnan whether he would take him to the bus stand.

Radhakrishnan said he would do so, but only after collecting the tyre. Incensed by the reply, Ratheesh picked up a blade, which is used to cut tyres, and stepped forward. In one swift movement, he gripped Radhakrishnan's wrist and sliced it through. The hand fell to the ground. Ratheesh calmly slung a bag on his shoulders and walked away.

Radhakrishnan collected the hand, and the tyre shop owner, Mathew, placed it in a plastic packet. Then Radhakrishnan pressed a towel at the end of the mutilated end of the arm, to stanch the flow of blood.

In the auto-rickshaw, Mathew and Radhakrishnan went to the nearby police station. There, the police rushed Radhakirshnan in a jeep to the Specialists' Hospital. Once, during the journey, the jeep fell into a pothole, the towel got dislodged, and a spray of blood hit the roof.

At the hospital, a team which consisted of Drs. Senthil Kumar, Girija Nair, Abhishek Gosh, and R. Jayakumar, the head of the department of plastic, microvascular, and cosmetic surgery, worked on Radhakrishnan. Eight hours later, they managed to attach the hand, in the same manner they did with Joseph. In the meanwhile, the police apprehended Ratheesh in a barber’s shop where he was having his head shaved. He is in jail now.

This particular evening, when I am present, Radhakrishnan unfolds the crepe bandage and shows his limb to Joseph.

“My hand is like a piece of concrete at the end of my arm,” says Radhakrishnan. “I don't feel anything.”

Joseph says, “That was the case with me. But after a few months of physiotherapy, the nerves will come back to life.” One method of treatment is to send bolts of electricity towards the nerves.

Joseph inspects Radhakrishnan’s hand and says, “I am sure you will get well soon. You are lucky, there are no bruises elsewhere.”

Then Radhakrishnan silently inspects Joseph's hands. “I was also injured in the leg,” says the professor, as he points at a bandage on his feet. “There were seven attackers.”

What is most astonishing to see is that both are smiling easily. I ask Radhakrishnan, “Are you angry with God over what has happened?”

Radhakrishnan shakes his head, and says, “On the contrary, I am grateful to God. Ratheesh could have slit my throat, instead of my hand. So how can I be angry? It is because of the kindness of God that I am alive today.”

Truly, it is only when a man goes through a mind-numbing tragedy that he develops a powerful sense of magnanimity. We should take Joseph and Radhakrishnan's positive attitude and willingness to forgive to heart.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Telling the bad news

When a patient dies, a doctor has the unenviable task of informing close relatives about it. Doctors recount how they go about this delicate task

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Relatives milling around a patient in the General Hospital, Kochi

A few years ago, a baby was brought to the neonatology department of the PVS Memorial Hospital at Kochi. The child was having convulsions and shortness of breath. The parents were anxious. This was their third child. The first two babies had died at childbirth.

“We did all sorts of investigations, but could not find anything wrong,” says Dr. Tonny Mampilli, senior consultant, paediatrics and neonatology. Then Mampilly decided to do a metabolic test. For that, the blood had to be taken to Bangalore. Four days later, the results came: the baby had a genetic disorder which prevented the body from manufacturing certain enzymes. This happens when there is a marriage between close relatives. The parents, who are Muslims, are second cousins.

“I told the parents we would be able to keep the child alive for some time, but the situation was hopeless,” says Mampilly.

Eventually, the disappointed parents allowed the ventilator to be switched off. “It was a painful incident,” says Mampilly, who has 30 years of experience, working in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and Kerala. “Even now, it is distressing to announce the bad news to the parents. Fortunately, neonatal deaths have become much less.”

The key to avoid angering parents is transparent communication. “By talking sincerely, I try to gain the parents' trust and confidence,” says Mampilly. “When the situation stabilises, I will inform the parents about the good news. But if, after a few hours, things take a sudden turn for the worse, I will give the disturbing information immediately.”

Dr. M.K.C. Nair, a paediatrician, who presented a paper – 'How to break the bad news' – at a neonatology seminar at Kochi, recently, gives some tips. “Explain everything in a simple manner to parents,” he says. “Encourage questions from them and be sympathetic. Research has shown that family members, who had been informed about likely events, found it easier to cope with a loss.”

Of course, when the death takes place, there is an emotional reaction, like loud crying. “Usually, the woman loses control, but that is understandable,” says Mampilly. People have to grieve in order to get over the death. But this type of reaction usually happens when the death is unexpected.

Of course, there are times when there is an over-reaction. V. Madhu, the Resident Medical Officer of the Ernakulam General Hospital, remembers an incident. A 24-year-old girl threw herself in front of a train at Ernakulam Town railway station. “She had a head injury,” he says. “There were severe cuts on the hands and legs.”

As the girl was being taken into the casualty department, she breathed her last. At that moment, one hand which was hanging by a sliver of skin slipped from the gurney. A nursing assistant put it back on the stretcher.

The police constable, who accompanied this girl, took this hand movement as a sign of life. “He said that it indicated that the girl was alive and the doctors had done little to save her,” says Madhu.

The incensed constable caused a commotion. “The bystanders felt that if a policeman was creating this ruckus, then he must be right,” he says. But when Madhu checked the electrocardiography, it remained as a flat line on the monitor. Later, when other policemen arrived, Madhu told them, “Your job is to protect us. Instead, you are attacking us.”

In the general hospital, there are about 50 deaths every month. So doctors are regularly informing close relatives about deaths. “Protests and violence can occur when there is a poor interaction between the doctor and the relatives,” he says. “It is vital for a doctor to be an effective communicator.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, March 07, 2011

Moving around on the ocean floor

Deep sea Navy divers based at Kochi recently set a national record when they went to a depth of 233m. A look at their lives and the risks and dangers of their profession

Photos: A National record-setting team. (From left)M.K. Prusty, Kamlesh Kumar Singh and Shrirom Singh, Abhijeet Sangle, and Narender Kumar; divers on the ocean floor

By Shevlin Sebastian

“It’s so great to be outside,” says deep sea diver Lieutenant Commander Abhijeet Sangle, as he stands on the deck of the INS Nireekshak. He looks upwards and says, “The sky looks beautiful.”

The sky is, indeed, a translucent blue. A gentle breeze is blowing, while grey-feathered pigeons fly about lazily on this sunny February morning.

Sangle has just stepped out after spending 11 days in a decompression chamber in the ship, which is docked at the Southern Naval Command base at Willingdon island, Kochi. The chamber is a narrow structure, with beds on either side, and a chair and a TV set at one corner.

There are four other crew members: chief petty officers Kamlesh Kumar Singh and Shrirom Singh, and leading seamen, M.K. Prusty and Narender Kumar. Among them, Abhishek, Kamlesh and Shrirom went to a depth of 233 metres, 70 kilometres off the coast ofKerala. “This is a new national record,” says Commanding Officer A.N. Golaya.

The earlier record of 217 metres was also set by members of the Nireekshak in March, 2007. After the previous record was set, the divers made a plaque commemorating the event. “At the bottom, they wrote, ‘We can do it again’”, says Golaya. “And they have kept their word.”

Deep sea or saturation diving is a complex and dangerous profession. “For every 10 metres that a diver goes down, the pressure increases by one atmosphere,” says Golaya. The pressure on the surface is one atmosphere. At 200 metres, a diver faces 21 times the pressure that is there on land. So, there are many steps to take before a diver descends to the ocean bed (see box).

But clearly, there are some unusual reactions that occur when one goes down. At a deeper level, you cannot breathe nitrogen. Normal air has 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. “Nitrogen becomes a narcotic in the depths of the sea,” says Golaya. “A person experiences the same symptoms as one who is drunk. So, we substitute nitrogen with helium. It is a mixture of helium and oxygen – heliox – which is given.”

Your voice also gets affected. “The vocal chords are designed for air,” says Golaya. “When you are in a compressed environment, and breathing helium, you experience the Donald Duck effect. The voice comes out as an odd twang and, actually, it takes some time to understand what the divers are saying.”

Saturation diving is needed for various jobs. “The oil industry would never have been possible if there had been no saturation diving,” says Commander Sharma. “The laying of the underwater pipelines, the repair, the welding and the cutting are done by civilian divers.” Meanwhile, the Navy divers save sailors who are trapped in submarines, do salvage operations, and retrieve material from sunken ships.

In 2003, responding to a request from the Archaeological Survey of India, the Navy divers salvaged coins and a cannon from a Portuguese ship, 'Princess Royal', which sank off the Lakshadweep islands two hundred years ago.

To do these jobs you have to be endowed with a particular kind of character. Nearly all of them have a love for adventure. “They like to test the limits,” says Golaya. “The divers are usually calm and have a lot of self-confidence. They have a high degree of team spirit, because a diver's life depends on others. If a diver goes down, and somebody on the ship adjusts the oxygen pressure wrongly, he could die.”

A diver has to be physically strong. The helmet itself weights 17 kgs. The current is at one and a half knots or 3 kms per hour. “When you are on the ocean floor, movement becomes very difficult,” says Sharma. “So you have to be physically fit. You would also need to have mental toughness because you have to spend long hours in a claustrophobic environment.”

But for the divers, it does not seem to be an issue. Says seaman M.K. Prusty, “I love every moment that I am on the ocean bed. It is one of the most magical experiences ever.”

The ABC of diving

Divers have to be pressurised to the required depth in the Deck Decompression Chamber (DDC) aboard the ship. This could take several hours, depending on the depth to which they intend to dive.

A diving capsule or a 'bell' is connected to the DDC and the interior of the capsule is pressurised to the same pressure to which the divers have already been subjected to.

The divers enter the bell, and they are lowered into the water. They wear a thick suit, a helmet and goggles, with lights fitted on them, and carry two tanks on their back. If they are going to a depth of 220 metres, there will be an eight-hour stop at 120m, so that they can get used to the pressure.

When they reach the desired depth, one or two divers will step out of the capsule and do the work that they have been assigned. They are attached to an umbilical cord which provides breathing gas, communications, and hot water that goes around their suits to keep them warm.

When the work is over, they enter the capsule, and the team is lifted up to the ship. Then they enter the decompression chamber, which is at the same pressure as the bell.

The divers spent around 10 days in the DDC as the pressure is slowly brought on par with the atmospheric pressure. In those ten days, they watch TV, read, and listen to lectures. Food, books and CDs are provided through a hatch. A water closet is also attached to the DDC.

‘A place of exceptional beauty’

Lieutenant Commander Abhijeet Sangle has completed about 15 dives so far. But, of course, the most memorable dive was the one in which he set the national record at 233 m on February 7.

“It is an area where few men have ventured before,” he says. “The ocean bed is a place of exceptional beauty. All I can see is this deep blue colour all around me. I am unable to define the blue. It is such a magical colour. I have not seen it anywhere else. I cannot take a crayon and recreate it on a piece of paper. I also have no words to describe it.”

As Sangle talks, he is staring into the distance, his mind far away. “I have to admit that I prefer to be on the ocean floor than on land,” he says, with a smile.

On an average two dives take place every month. And divers get their turns by rotation. “I have dived in many places in the Arabian Sea, as well as the Bay of Bengal,” says Sangle. “It is important to dive regularly. It is like your motorbike. If you don't use your bike for a long time, it will get rusty. So we have to keep diving in order to remain fresh and alert. We also learn how to act during an emergency. Which valves to operate? What are the oxygen levels? It is for our safety and well-being.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Northerners’ view of the South

North Indians living in Kerala give their impressions of the Malayali psyche
By Shevlin Sebastian

Manish Tripathi has a toy-making plant in Angamaly (40 kms from Kochi). There are 250 workers and four unions. “These unions cause problems all the time,” he says. “In essence, all 250 of them feel that they are a leader.”

There have been occasional shut-downs, but Manish is holding on. “The unions are against entrepreneurs like myself,” he says. “They have not been able to look at the larger picture. If they are practical, a lot more investment will come into the state and there will be more jobs and a higher standard of living.”

Manish blames it on the inward-looking nature of the Malayali. “He does not think that there is a world outside the state,” he says.

Last year, when Manish wanted to open another plant, he had no hesitation in doing so in Tamil Nadu. “It is much easier there,” he says. “I have no problems with the workers.”

Incidentally, Manish's parents came to Kochi from Ahmedabad in the 1960s. “I grew up in Kochi,” says Manish, 43. “But I am not fluent in speaking Malayalam. Nevertheless, I love living in Kerala.” But he says that he is taken aback by the rampant consumerism of the Malayalis and their obsession to keep up with their neighbours. “If a neighbour has a more expensive car they will try to buy it, even though they cannot afford it,” he says. “Most Malayalis are living beyond their means.”

But when a Malayali falls into a financial hole, he will not seek support, not even from his own brothers or sisters. “They do not want people to know about their shortcomings,” says industrialist S. S. Agarwal. “If there are financial problems, they will not ask anybody for help.”

There is a tragic fall-out to this suppression. “Eventually, the burden becomes too much to bear, and the Malayali commits suicide,” he says. “I am not surprised that the state has the highest rate of suicide in the country.”

Anita Sharma, 42, a senior IT manager, says that the people have a suspicious nature. “I find it difficult to be friends with them,” she says. “They are not transparent and open-hearted. And what is most disappointing is that despite being so highly educated, the dowry system exists in Kerala also.”

Nonetheless, there are many positive aspects. “Malayalis are neat and clean,” says Agarwal. “There is far less criminality here than in north India. We are safe in Kerala, than in any other place in India.”

Apart from being peace-loving, Malayalis are open-minded. “For centuries every race and religion has co-existed peacefully in Kerala,” says Manish. “Kerala must be the only place on earth where the Jews were not ill-treated. As a North-Indian I have never faced any discrimination.”

For most of them, being a north Indian in Kerala has its advantages. “When we seek help from the local administration or the state government, we are made to feel more welcome than the locals,” says Agarwal. “The reason is that we talk freely and frankly. They find this refreshing, and grant our requests easily.”

Of course, many North Indians are puzzled by the great mystery of why Malayalis do stupendously well when they go outside the state. “They have brain power and an enormous capacity for hard work,” says Agarwal. “That is the reason behind their success.”

Interestingly, Agarwal, who has factories in other states, always hires Malayalis outside. “They are an asset to my company,” he says.

Clearly, it is the environment in Kerala which has sapped the spirit of the people. “Malayalis have natural entrepreneurial talent, but it has been crushed in Kerala,” says Manish. Anita says that the dominance of unions in the economy has created a lasting damage. “The image of Kerala as a place where you cannot do business is well-known,” she says.

Eventually, it all boils down to the politicians. “They have been a failure,” says Manish. “In the past 25 years, none of them have shown a long-time vision for the state. Every time a government comes into power they spent four years of their tenure fighting among themselves.”

Agarwal is even more forthright. “The government makes a lot of statements in the press, but nothing really happens in the end,” he says.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, March 04, 2011

From Libya with love and sorrow

Prof. M.T. Thomas, who taught English at the University of Gharyan, has just returned to Kochi and recounts his experiences

Photos: M.T. Thomas; Colonel Moammer Gadaffi's Green Book

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, in the village of Kekela, in Libya, Professor M.T. Thomas heard the sound of firecrackers outside his home. He went to the gate to see what was happening. Immediately, his Egyptian colleague, Dr. Mohammad Al Samahi, shouted, “Come back, come back.”

When Thomas retreated inside, Al Samahi told him “That was the sound of firing.” Later, Thomas came to know that four people had been killed by the security forces during the only protest in the village. Incidentally, Kekela is 200 kms from the capital, Tripoli.

But the astonishing development was that, within 20 minutes of the incident, the news was broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV. “Thanks to modern technology, Colonel Moammer Gadaffi cannot do anything in Libya without the world knowing,” says Thomas. “Al Jazeera, with its non-stop coverage, will bring down the government in Libya, just as it did in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Thomas has been teaching English for the past three years at the University of Gharyan. And on the very first day of the protests, February 15, when he went to class, one of the students, Basma Sulaiman, 19, said, “Teacher, this is like a virus. It started in Tunisia, then it went to Egypt and now protests are taking place in Libya. Do you have such demonstrations in India?”

It was an awkward moment for Thomas. University authorities had expressly forbidden him to talk about politics. “This was the first time a student had asked a question like this,” he says. In order to avoid giving an answer Thomas excused himself and went outside the classroom. When he returned, a few minutes later, he began teaching.

“On that day, the students were excited about what was happening,” he says. “They felt that things would work to their advantage, in the way it did in the other countries.” Unfortunately, the next day the university was closed, and the students went home.

And Thomas had to grapple with the news of his close friend Ibrahim. A teacher of English, he was also an Imam of a nearby mosque, who dabbled in politics. “He was a kind and hospitable man,” says Thomas. “I went to his house a few times.”

One evening the security forces barged into Ibrahim's home. The imam was not there, but one son was shot dead, while the other was injured.

Thomas waited for two weeks in the hope that the situation would improve, but it got worse. Dr. Al Salahi told him, “In Libya, if the protests start, it will not stop.”
So Thomas decided to leave for Tripoli with his Indian colleague, Dr. Jagir and his wife, Sulekha, on March 1.

They travelled in a Mazda taxi on the highway. “There were frequent checkpoints,” says Thomas. “There were large battle tanks and anti-aircraft guns. Everybody was carrying weapons like AK-47s. It was frightening.”

But at most checkpoints when the security forces saw Sulekha, who was sitting on the front seat, they were waved through. “The Libyans are very fond of Indians,” he says. “I also liked them a lot. They are nice people. I really wanted to stay on.”

At the Indian Embassy, they were provided with free Air India tickets. Then an Embassy bus took them to the airport. When they landed in New Delhi, they stayed at the Kerala government guest house. On March 2, Thomas took the evening flight to Kochi. “All our expenses were paid for by the Indian government,” he says. “They did a good job.”

At his house in Kakannad, Kochi, Thomas, a former professor of the Bharat Mata College, looks relaxed. He shows me the 'Green Book, which contain the sayings of Gadaffi. In a recent speech, which was telecast worldwide, the Libyan leader had waved the book about and spoken at length from it.

Here are some quotes from the book: 'The family is first and foremost the basis of the life of individuals. Inequality of wealth is unacceptable. Natural law is the logical law for man.'

Asked to explain how Gadaffi managed to rule the country for 41 years, Thomas says, “Libyans wanted a leader who was a war hero – somebody who could take on the Americans and the Israelis. Gadaffi did both.” And, of course, he quashed any signs of opposition with brute force.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

The harassment of husbands

If a wife files a complaint under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, husbands can be arrested and jailed. Men say it is an unfair and biased law

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning when Anil Menon got up, he saw his wife, Meera in the kitchen. “She was facing the wall and whispering into the phone,” he says. “I felt there was something wrong about it.” Anil asked for the phone. Meera hurriedly cut the call. Within moments, the ping sound of a SMS message came through. Anil grabbed the phone, and looked at the message. It said, 'Okay, thanks.' Anil checked the 'Sent' messages folder and was able to locate Meera's message, which said, 'Good morning. Have a nice and fruitful day.'

“When I saw this message everything fell into place,” he says.

Anil called his and Meera's parents and told them about what was happening. Meera said the man, Ramesh, was just a friend. “It took her three hours to say that he lived in the same building,” says Anil. Ramesh was a divorcee.

Anil and Meera had fallen in love while they were studying in Maharaja’s College in Kochi. After a courtship of seven years they got married. Initially, things went well and the couple had a son in 2003.

But in 2005, Anil had gone to London to look for a job. “I was away from the family for two years,” he says. It was during this time that Meera fell in love with Ramesh. “She was a weak character,” says Anil. “When I was in London, I had many opportunities, but I never betrayed my wife.”

When Anil returned in January, 2007, Meera asked for a divorce. Anil refused and said they could work things out. In December 2007, Meera filed a case of harassment under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code against Anil and his parents.

The law goes like this: 'Whoever, being the husband or the relative of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall be liable to a fine. The offence is cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.'

“She realised that if she slapped this section on me, I would become vulnerable,” says Anil. Meera also stated that Anil had taken dowry and wanted the Rs 10 lakhs back. “That was laughable,” he says. “We had a love marriage and I did not take any money.” Finally, seeing his parents and son become emotionally upset, Anil compromised and had an out-of-court settlement for Rs 5.5 lakh.

“I had to sell some property to get the money,” he says. In December, 2008, they were divorced. But what burned Anil up was that Meera married Ramesh within six months. “It showed that she was lying all along,” he says. “Now she is pregnant.”

Looking back, more than two years after the events took place, Anil says, “Section 498 A is a tool that has been misused by women. It filled me with fear because I could be arrested and sent to jail. The law assumes that the man is guilty on the basis of a statement of a wife.”

Meanwhile, the Thiruvananthapuram-based Soman also had a bad time. Frequent verbal spats with his wife, Revathi, caused her to file for divorce. She filed a case under Section 498 A, citing cruelty by her husband and lodged a FIR.

One morning, at 6 a.m., the police came and arrested Soman. “In the area where I live, my reputation was destroyed,” he says. Soman spent a day in the lock-up before the bail application came through.

Soman, who works as a chartered accountant in a reputed firm, had bought an apartment in which his wife and he were the co-owners. “But the parents of Revathi insisted that the apartment should be given over to her. Eventually, to buy peace, I did so.” The couple has a seven-year-old daughter.

“Section 498A is blatantly unfair and against the man,” he says.

When asked for advice they could give to others, in the same predicament, Soman said it would be better to file a police complaint before the wife does, to negate the impact of Section 498A.

Anil, smiling for the first time, says, “It is better to take dowry. In case, the marriage does not work out, you can return the money which is hers, rather than give some of yours. Finally, always treat your wife as a stranger, when it comes to money.”

(To protect identities, names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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