Monday, May 30, 2011

A rocky road called life

From childhood all the way to marriage, there are many problems in life that seem insurmountable. What aggravates the situation is the rapid social changes that are taking place in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Dr. Varghese Pudussery

Dr. Varghese Pudussery, the director of the Kochi-based Santhwana Institute of Counselling and Psychotherapy rarely receives patients as young as three years of age. But this happened recently, when the parents told him that their child was not speaking.

“All babies have a socialisation process which is done through the mother,” he says. “In this case, the mother was depressed, and so there was no bonding between her and the child.”

If proper parenting does not take place, the problems with children continue. They can suffer from learning disability (LD) or dyslexia. “This can happen at any age,” he says. “It could be in kindergarten, in Class 3 or even in Class 9.”

Essentially, as the load in the curriculum increases, some children find it difficult to cope. What exacerbates the situation is the pressure imposed by parents.

“When parents place too much stress, there is a physical breakdown,” says Pudussery. “Children may suffer from headache, vomiting sensations, and stomach ache. Later, the teenager becomes depressed. They feel a tension, both in school and at home.”

Then a teenager will turn to things that will bring him pleasure, like sex, drugs, liquor, and the company of bad people. “In a gang, nobody asks about their studies,” says Pudussery. “Soon, they start drinking. By the time the parents realise what is happening, it is too late.”

Recently, a teenager, Roy George, was brought for counselling. The father worked in Dubai. The mother, who had fallen ill, had sent her son to stay in the boarding. “At that time the parents did not realise that he was suffering from a learning disability,” says Pudussery. “When a child has LD, individual attention should be given to help him cope with the studies.”

This was not available in the boarding. Roy began to do badly in class. In frustration, he joined some bad elements among the boarders and began drinking, smoking and stealing. Now the father has given up his job and returned because of the son.

In college, youngsters face other problems. Nearly all of them, boys and girls, have love affairs. “There are infatuations and crushes,” says Pudussery. “Some get rejected, and become depressed. This happens to both sexes. Girls have additional traumas like unwanted pregnancies.”

One reason for their promiscuous behaviour is the pervasive influence of the media. “Pre- and extra-marital incidents are shown often on TV,” says Pudussery. “Online pornography has a great impact on the youngsters.”

So what is the way forward for parents? “They should maintain lines of communication with their children from young,” says Pudussery. “Usually, both parents are working and do not have the time.”

Parents and their children are living on the surface level. Once the progeny become teenagers they do not want to talk to their parents. Because when they were children, the parents did not listen or play with them.

“Parents find it silly when the son or the daughter wants to talk about dragonflies,” says Pudussery. “So the children feel discouraged. Then they stop talking. When parents want to converse, it is too late. You have to start conversing and listening to your children from very young.”

Meanwhile, middle-aged parents are themselves in a rocky terrain. “A lot of married women suffer from frigidity,” says Pudussery. “In Kerala, after two children, a woman loses interest in sex. In fact, they have an abhorrence for it.”

One reason is that there are constant quarrels with the husband and because he drinks too much. “Women are afraid to walk out of the marriage because of social stigma,” he says. “So even though they dislike their husband, they will continue to live with him.”

But the public will not know that there is anything wrong in the marriage. The couple lives together and goes out for functions, both smiling happily. When friends and relatives come home, the husband and wife will talk to each other. “But as soon as they are alone, they become aloof and cold towards each other,” says Pudussery.

The complaint of the wives is that their husbands do not care about them or show any interest in them as persons. “My husband only comes to me for sex,” says Rekha Nair, a 38-year-old housewife. “I am not that interested in it. I can have sex once or twice a week, not every day.”

Pudussery puts this lack of interest to religion. “In most religions, sex has a negative connotation,” he says. “It is regarded like a sin if you enjoy it. This has gone deep into the subconscious of a woman. Hence, their inability to gain pleasure from it.”

As the society in Kerala changes, at a dizzying speed, more and more people are going to have a traumatic time, on the professional, the social, the home, and the parental fronts.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Floating in style down the backwaters

Interior designers Benny and Lucy Zachariah make luxurious houseboats, which ply in the scenic backwaters of Kerala's Alleppey district

By Shevlin Sebastian

From the outside, the ‘Rajdhani’ looks like any other houseboat in Alleppey. But when you step inside, you will draw your breath in surprise. The wooden floor is honey brown in colour and is gleaming.

“We have imported Merbau wood from Brazil,” says interior designer Benny Zachariah. “Merbau lasts a long time and is a strong wood.” The 450 sq. ft. living room has a bar, with a curved top at one end. Liquor bottles are placed on a glass shelf behind it. Below the bar, there is space for a mini fridge.

At the centre, there are four armchairs placed around a table. “The table is made of teak and has intricate designs,” says Benny. “These have been custom-made.”

The ceiling has a teakwood veneer and several brass buttons pasted all over. The lights, bunched together, to give the impression it is a chandelier, has been imported from Kuwait. At one end of the living room, it opens out onto a sun deck.

“Foreigners like to strip down to their bikinis and do some sunbathing, especially those who come from cold countries like England and Norway,” says Benny.

The houseboat has a length of 105 feet and a width of 17 feet. “Most houseboats have a width of 14 feet,” says Benny, who has designed eight of them. The height is 9 ft, two feet more than the norm. And so, the ‘Rajdhani’ is one of the largest boats plying on the backwaters of Alleppey.

In order to get more space, Benny did some innovations. “Usually the hull tapers from the centre to the tip,” he says. “But for this particular boat, I made the sides run parallel, like in an Airbus plane, till it suddenly meets at the tip.”

There are two bedrooms, of 150 sq. feet each, with attached bathrooms. The bedrooms are luxurious, with Victorian style beds, wood panelling all over, and a writing table at one side, with a LCD TV at the other end. Interestingly, despite it being air-conditioned, a fan has been mounted on the wall.

“Many foreigners are tired of air-conditioning, and prefer natural breezes,” says Benny’s wife Lucy, an interior designer, who assists him. “So they open the windows and switch on the fan.”

The door of the bedroom is in the Kerala tharavad style with a brass latch made of an intricate design, which is known as a Manichithrathazhu.

At the end of the boat is a kitchen with modern appliances like a hob and a hood. There are several cabinets, and a granite kitchen top. “Sometimes, foreigners prefer to do the cooking themselves,” says Lucy. “At other times, there is a cook who makes Kerala-style dishes.”

Incidentally, the boat is owned by Thomas Chandy, an MLA. “My brief to Benny was to make a boat that looked like the inside of a five-star hotel, and he has succeeded in doing that,” says Thomas. “Many of my guests have shown their appreciation.”

His visitors include members of the royal family in Kuwait, where Thomas runs several schools, Saudi princes, and many state ministers. “In fact, former Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden spent a night, and expressed his delight,” says Benny.

Since Thomas also owns the high-end Lake Palace resort, at Alleppey, which is also designed by Benny, residents can hire the boat at Rs 25,000 for a night.

For those who have not been on a houseboat plying in the tranquil waters of Alleppey, this is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai, Delhi and Kerala)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Watch your back!

Lower back pain is the most common ailment among the middle-aged across all classes of people. Timely precautions can enable one to avoid debilitating pain

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr Jacob Kani, a senior journalist based in Delhi, is lying on his back at the Kumar International Specialty Centre for back and neck pain at Thammanam, Kochi. Above his head is a television set where a Malayalam film song is being shown. Suitably distracted, he is not aware that a disk in his spine is being pulled, with the help of the 'DaVinci X10', a decompression system, worth Rs 55 lakh. Two things happen when the disc is pulled.

“A negative pressure is created,” says back pain specialist Dr. Sasikumar. “This will help the disc to recede into the spine.” When that happens water fills up inside the disc. This is possible since the spine is surrounded by body fluids. One immediate result: the cushioning effect in the disc will become better.

Meanwhile, there is a smile on Jacob's face. “I feel much better,” he says. “This is my fourth visit to the centre. Whenever I come to Kerala, I undergo a treatment because I have a chronic back problem.”

On another bed is a nun, Sr. Arpita, who stays in Bhagalpur in Bihar. She is on her annual visit to her parents' home in Kochi and is being treated for lower back pain.

So what exactly is a lower back pain? There are 24 pairs of moving vertebrae in the spine. Between each of them, there is a disc, which acts as a shock absorber. This disc has two parts.

“There is a fluid inside which is encased in a hard, outer covering,” says Sasikumar. “When the fluid oozes out, it touches the nerves. This causes a radiating pain, which starts from the back to the legs and from the neck to the fingers of the hands.”

Lower back pain is the most common complaint among the middle aged, and it cuts across all classes of people. “You will be surprised to know that many headload workers come for treatment,” says Sasikumar. “The problem is that they rarely use the right technique to lift things.”

To lift heavy objects, the ideal way is to do it close to your body. “If it is a sack of cement, most workers lean forward and try to lift it, a couple of feet away from where they are standing,” says the doctor. “That is when the lower back is subjected to a lot of pressure. Sometimes, the discs, as well as the spine, are injured.”

People who work in the IT industry also have perennial back problems. “IT workers sit on the edge of a chair for hours together,” says Sasikumar. “Instead, they should sit with their back resting at the base of the chair. When you sit at a 100 degree angle, there is the least amount of strain.”

Another reason for back pain is stress. “There is a lot of anxiety in the workplace and at home,” he says. “All your muscles are under tension and there is a possibility of spasms taking place.”

Meanwhile, at the specialty centre, various methods like electrical stimulation, laser rays, acu-pressure massage, application of heat, and prolotherapy injections are used to relieve the pain. “The treatment is surgery-free,” says the specialist.

As for preventive measures, Sasikumar suggests a protein-rich diet. “Avoid sweets and fried foods as they produce only carbohydrates,” he says. “This increases the size of the tummy and puts a strain on the spine.” He also suggests regular exercises and a straight posture while standing or sitting.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Into the heart of darkness

In many villages of Kasaragod district, in Kerala, there are numerous children and adults who have been afflicted by life-destroying diseases like cerebral palsy and blood cancer. Locals say that this is the result of the spraying of the endosulfan chemical in the cashew plantations in the area

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Abhilash, 12, is suffering from hydrocephalus (swollen head)

The mud road is rutted. But the driver of the jeep, Ravindra Rai, goes over the humps and crevices with a practiced ease. On either side, there are numerous trees: coconut, banana, cocoa, mango, jackfruit, guava and cashew. A soothing summer breeze is blowing, accompanied by the 'crick-crick' sound of crickets.

The house in Vani Nagar has a red tiled roof. Near the entrance, there is a baby calf, a rope tied around its neck, chewing on green leaves. It is so all pleasant till we see Harshith sitting on a wheelchair in the veranda. He is 18, but looks 12. His legs are pencil-thin. His head hangs loosely over his chest, while spittle is seen at the corner of his mouth. Sometimes, Harshith sticks out his tongue, as he stares blankly into space.

“He was born like this,” says his mother, Jayanthi. Harshith has cerebral palsy. “The medicines are very costly,” she says. “My husband works as a labourer in the cashew plantations. We are in financial difficulty.” But there is a ray of sunshine in this darkness: Harshith's younger sister, Chitra, 12, stands nearby. She is in blooming, perfect health.

In a nearby home, there is Ashika, 10. She has shoulder-length black hair and a sweet smile, but her mother, Kusuma, is holding her in a tight, but warm embrace. The reason is because Ashika is trembling uncontrollably.

“She suffers constantly from epileptic fits,” says Kusuma. “This has happened ever since she was born. I have taken her to many hospitals, but there has been no improvement.” She is a teacher, while her husband works in a hotel in Mangalore.

In the Buds school at Perla, there are 27 students: 12 boys and 15 girls. On a straw mat lies seven-year-old Ayesh, who suffers from cerebral palsy. The most striking feature is the way his eyeballs roll from side to side.

It seems he is unable to control its movement. His mother, Hemlata, says simply, “He is blind. Operations have been done to try to restore the sight, but it has not worked.” On a nearby bench sits Padmaraj, who is 18. He has a paralysed lower body, “but his brain is fine,” says the teacher Mariam Jyothi.

All the students are in varying stages of deformity. “They suffer from mental retardation, epilepsy, asthma, psychiatric problems, and different types of cancers,” says Mariam. There are no classes in the school. Instead, Mariam teaches songs and the students play games. But some of the children have done drawings also.

On small strips of white paper, they have drawn houses and ponds, trees and plants. It has been put up on a board in the dining room.

Meanwhile, Avimash, 25, of Padra village, is also mentally challenged. “He suffers from occasional fits also,” says Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, a physician who has been practicing in the area for the past 29 years. Recently, a self-help group, Solidarity Youth Movement arranged for surgery on his knee joints. “He is able walk a little,” says Kumar.

Then there is Abhilash, 12, of Karabka village who is suffering from hydrocephalus (swollen head). “From birth he has been like this,” says Dr. Kumar. “He is mentally challenged and is unable to do anything.”

There are so many victims like this in the various villages of Kasaragod district of Kerala. Asked the reason why, the villagers, most of whom are illiterate, say one English word with repeated emphasis: endosulfan.

Here is the history. The government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) owns 4696 hectares of cashew plantations spread over 20 villages. From 1976 onwards, the PCK employed aerial spraying of the chemical, endosulfan, to combat the tea mosquito which was damaging the cashew tree.

Unfortunately, within a few years, health problems were reported among the villagers. “I was alarmed by the rise of psychiatric and neurological problems,” says Mohan Kumar. “Several people had congenital abnormalities, mental and physical retardation, and cancers. These cases were very high in number. I realised that there was something abnormal about this.”

When the local farmers staged a protest because numerous honey colonies were destroyed following the aerial spraying that Mohan Kumar and his friend, the journalist Sreepadre realized that the health complaints could be caused by the spraying of endosulfan.

Sreepadre did research and discovered that in the World Health Organisation literature on endosulfan, it is stated clearly that there are health hazards in exposure to the chemical. People can suffer from neurological problems and all forms of cancer. Endosulfan can enter the human body through water or the food chain.

Sreepadre published an article in a Kannada newspaper. It provoked public interest in the issue. Incidentally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies endosulfan as a highly hazardous pesticide. Later, research by the National Institute of Occupational Health confirmed high levels of endosulfan in the people, water, soil, and vegetation at Kasaragod.

In 1998, following the filing of a suit by M.K. Leelakumari Amma, a government employee, whose brother died because of the possible effects of endosulfan, the High Court banned the aerial spraying of the chemical in Kasaragod, as well as the entire state. The PCK stopped aerial spraying on December 26, 2000.

Meanwhile, till now, there have been 16 government-sponsored studies. Some are by well-known organizations like the Indian Council of Medical Research. But the conclusions have been mixed. While several have stated that endosulfan is the cause, others have said that there is no connection.

“We suspect that those who say there is no link are in the pay of the pesticide companies,” says Narayanan Periya, the chairman of the Endosulphan Viruddha Samaran Samiti (The Committee against endosulfan), an umbrella organization of several groups which are fighting for the cause of the victims.

Narayanan is happy with the recent Stockholm Convention of Persistent Organic Pollutants which has agreed to a worldwide ban of endosulfan by 2012, although India has asked for a grace period of 11 years to enforce it.

Says Narayanan: “I have to be cynical here. This period of 11 years was sought by India to enable the pesticide companies to get rid of their stocks. Meanwhile, more lives are going to be damaged.” And deaths are also taking place (see box).

And there is social damage. “Young girls are unable to get married,” says T.C. Madhava Panicker, president of the Kasaragod People’s Forum. “People are scared that when these girls get pregnant, they might have children with congenital defects.” As media coverage causes fear and alarm, divorces are also on the increase.

“There is a case of a wife who did not explain why she was having fits,” says Panicker. “But when the husband read about the endosulfan issue in the newspapers, he had no qualms about filing for divorce.” Nowadays, when wives get pregnant in Kasaragod, husbands insist on numerous scans. “If there is a slight trace of abnormality in the foetus, they will immediately go for an abortion,” says Panicker.

It is a benighted area. House after house reveals an endless cycle of tragedy. On our way back, driver Ravindra suddenly stops near a cashew tree by the side of the road. He shakes the branches and several cashew fruits fall to the ground. He picks up one and sucks the juice and eats it heartily. Then he gives us a couple. But, numbed by the human devastation we have just witnessed, we are unable to summon up the carefree courage needed to bite into the succulent-looking fruit.

When the bell tolls

According to Madhav Nambiar, the coordinator of the Endosulfan Victims Relief and Remediation cell, at Kasaragod, till 2008, 486 people have died. In 2006, Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan gave Rs 50,000 to the relatives of 133 people. Till 2008, the kin of another 45 people received the same amount.

So who are the people who died?

Santosh, 15, is the son of Chukra Padre. He died of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His house is a few metres away from the cashew plantation. He drank the water that came from a pond that flows through the plantation. “You can get ill by drinking the water or through the food chain,” says Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar, a physician who works in the area. “He survived for one year after the diagnosis.”

Vasanth Kumar is the son of Kunhappa Naik, Vani Nagar. He had mental retardation and epilepsy from birth. He died at 18. A year later, his father died out of sorrow.

Chaniya Naik, 58, died of liver cancer. He was a labourer and left behind three children. .

Kumaran Master, a school teacher, was the spirit behind the endosulfan agitation. He was 58 when he died of liver cancer. He had been to Mangalore, Bangalore, and Vellore for treatment. “He spent Rs 5 lakh in a bid to get cured,” says Kumar. The family received a compensation of Rs 50,000 from the state government.

Sheenappa Gowda, 55, died of esophageal cancer. He was a non-alcoholic, and did not smoke. “He also spent a lot of money for his treatment in Mangalore and Puttur,” says Dr. Kumar.

Govindan Naik, 32, died of leukaemia at the village of Padre .

Malinga Madival, 60, died of skin allergy problems. He was misdiagnosed, and eventually died of renal failure complications.

What is endosulfan?

Endosulfan is an organochlorine insecticide and acaricide. It has become controversial because of its acute toxicity. By 2011, more than 80 countries have banned it. However, it is still being used in India and China. In fact, India is one of the largest consumers.

Today, endosulfan is regarded as one of the most toxic pesticides. It copies or heightens the effect of estrogens and can be an endocrine disruptor. It causes reproductive problems in both animals and humans. “Genetic mutation is the dreaded complication of endosulfan,” says local physician Dr. Y.S. Mohan Kumar. “It will be carried to the next generation. There are cases where the second generation has also been damaged.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai, Delhi and Kerala)

Protecting the rights of women

The Kothamanglam taluk aims to eradicate domestic violence

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the open adalat conducted for victims of domestic violence by the Taluk Legal Service Committee at Kothamangalam, there were several people present. In the crowd, Dr. Lissy Jose, a social worker, noticed a 14-year old girl, Meena, (name changed) who was accompanied by her mother.

“I knew from Meena's body language that there was something wrong,” she says. At an opportune moment Lissy asked Meena, “What has happened?” In response, Meena burst into tears, and ran out of the hall.

The mother is a victim of domestic violence. “Her husband has a tremendous suspicion about her character,” says C.K. George, a lawyer, who is familiar with the case. “He throws her out of the house, and forces her to spend the night outside the door. Meena, an only child, seeing all this, has become traumatised.”

Realising that there are several such incidents, the leaders of three organisations -- the Taluk Legal Service Committee, Kothamangalam Bar Association (KBA), and Liss India, a social service group – stepped forward.

“All of us felt that when the harassed women entered the legal process, it takes a long time and there may be no solution to the danger of the family breaking up,” says T.J. Paul, KBA president.

On March 23, 2010, they set up the Domestic Violence Eradication Mission (DOVE). Through DOVE, they want to create an awareness that it is not right for a man to hit a woman. DOVE also provides legal support and counselling for distressed women. “We also conduct public adalats to solve disputes and grievances,” says Paul Varghese, KBA secretary.

This type of initiative became imperative because in Kothamangalam taluk, out of every 100 families, in more than 50 per cent there are instances of domestic violence. “I blame the rampant alcoholism among the men,” says Lissy. “Most of them are uneducated also. They take out their frustrations on the wife.”

The DOVE Mission project report had been sent to the National Legal Service Authority in New Delhi. The executive chairperson, Justice Altamas Kabir, commended it, and sanctioned Rs 5 lakh as financial assistance.

Meanwhile, there are plans by the legal service committee, under the chairmanship of Dinesh. M. PIllai, Judicial Magistrate, Kothamangalam, to start a ‘KUTTI-DOVE Mission’ to eradicate domestic violence among children.

“The aim of both these programmes is to have a domestic violence-free taluk,” says T.J Paul. “I know it is a difficult task.” To paraphrase what a leading Kerala politician once said, “Where there is a family, there will always be domestic violence.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

No smooth ride this

When the boats are late, on the ferry route between Ernakulam and the Vypeen islands, the lascars are at the receiving end of passengers' ire

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: (From left) Lascars M.K. Sulaiman and K.R. Rajan

M.K. Sulaiman, a helper (lascar) on the ferry between Ernakulam and the Vypeen Islands remembers his colleague, Ajayan, doing a rescue act. “A woman, in a bid to commit suicide, jumped off the boat,” says Sulaiman. “Ajayan immediately leapt from the boat and saved her.”

Usually, people fall when they are embarking or disembarking. “I throw a lifebuoy at them,” says Sulaiman. “But if the passenger finds it difficult to hold on to it, I will jump into the water.”

Sulaiman also jumps in for other reasons. Frequently, weeds and plastic packets get stuck in the propellers. It is the lascar’s job to remove it.

“We do not have any goggles or an oxygen cylinder,” says K.R. Rajan, another lascar. “We have been asking for this equipment for a long time.” So the lascar wears a white towel, takes a deep breath, and goes down. “The river is deep and, sometimes, we have to do this job at night,” says Rajan. “So, it is risky.”

However, recently, the state inland water transport department, which runs the ferry service, has started giving the lascars a ‘risk allowance’.

Indeed, the job is not easy, and the working hours are long. One shift begins at 1 p.m. and ends at 9.30 p.m. Thereafter, the lascars spend the night at the jetty. They sleep on cardboard packets or sacks, and begin work at 6 a.m. the next day. The shift lasts till 1 p.m. and then they go home. “It is, in essence, a 24 hour job,” says Rajan. Then they come to work the next day at 1 p.m.

The lascar’s job is to keep the boat clean and to tie and untie the rope around the pillars of the jetty when the boat arrives and leaves. It is a routine job, but, frequently, they are at the receiving end of the ire of passengers.

When the boat is late in arriving, the people will shout at the lascar. “Many passengers, especially from Fort Kochi, behave badly with us,” says Rajen. “Many are drunk or high on drugs.”

If there is an engine breakdown while travelling between the islands, the boat will float for a while before help comes. “This is another occasion when passengers get angry,” he says. “However, because of mobile phones, we can contact other boats and get help quickly.”

Another area of contention occurs when tickets are being issued. The moment one hundred tickets are sold, the counter is closed. This rule was implemented in the aftermath of the boat tragedy at Thekkady in 2009, when 45 tourists drowned when a boat capsized, because of overcrowding. But when the passengers are denied tickets, some of them have broken the grill of the counters, and the police have to be called. “That is part and parcel of our job,” says Sulaiman. “Whatever happens we have been told not to react.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Mochana Yatra carries on

It is a sunny Thursday in February. Oommen Chandy is on one of his campaign stops at Kanjirapally during the Kerala Mochana Yatra. One by one, the leaders from the panchayat, zilla, and the state level step forward with garlands. Somebody places a shawl over his head. Another person gives a bouquet. A lady garlands him with ten rupee notes. The adulation is astonishing to see.

A couple of kilometres outside Kanjirapally, the car is stopped by a few people. A woman in a blue nightgown rushes up holding a green coconut with a white straw sticking out of it. “Very nice to see you, Sir,” she says.

In the village of Pinnakkanadu a group of schoolchildren, in blue uniforms, shout and whoop with joy, as they throw orange flower petals at him. A nun presents Chandy with a bouquet.

At Erattupetta, the reception is rapturous. Congress (M) leader K.M. Mani, splotches of red on his face, thanks to the afternoon heat, still has the energy to shout, “Oommen Chandy is going to change the face of Kerala.”

This is just a small glimpse of what Chandy’s life is like every day. But, somehow, the man has remained simple and humble, despite his constant dance with power and sycophancy and its corrupting effects on the soul. Yet, there is also no doubt that Chandy is shrewd and ambitious, because, otherwise, he would not be chief minister.

And it is also a day when Chandy is at his most candid. “One of the most poignant experiences of my life was when I went to Dubai ,” he says. “I was taken to the quarters where the Malayali construction workers stayed. And I was shocked. It was worse than the way our cows lived.”

Chandy pauses for a few moments and says, “I felt a tremendous guilt. I realized that it was our government policies, whether of the LDF or the UDF that forced these men to go and look for work in places like Dubai. We were not able to create enough jobs for our youth.”

It is a stunning admission by a politician, and, more so, for one who is such a seasoned handler of the media. But there is no doubting the sincerity in his voice.

He makes another interesting observation: “If you look at the talent and educational qualities of Malayalis our state should have been No. 1 in the IT industry. Instead, Karnataka has an IT industry worth Rs 76,000 crore, Tamil Nadu has Rs 40,000 crore, and Andhra Pradesh, Rs 30,000 crore, while in Kerala it is only Rs 2,360 crore. In all these states so many Malayalis are working in the IT industry. We have to ensure that this migration of talent stops.”

But, today, Chandy knows keenly that the path ahead to create jobs is going to be even more difficult because in the 140-member Assembly, the Communist-led LDF has 68 members in the opposition.

“The problem with the Marxists is that they are clinging on to an ideology which is impractical and out-dated in today’s fast-paced world,” says Chandy. “They always have a negative attitude towards changes. They were against computers and tractors when it was first introduced. That same outlook persists.”

His frustration overflows. “The Marxists will resist all moves to improve the investment climate when they are in the opposition, and when they come to power, they will not do anything at all,” he says. “Overall, it is a total loss for the state.”

Now, the people will have to wait and see whether the 21st chief minister of Kerala can convert this total loss into a total profit. If it is the latter, the youth will stay. Otherwise, the devastating exodus of talent to other states and countries will continue.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The ingredients for a box office hit


(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

Just after the release of my latest film, ‘Chinatown’, I met a US-based Malayali, Valsan, in Kochi, He said, “I have a lot of tension in my life. So I go to see a film to relax. That is why I liked your film, because I could laugh to my heart's content.” For me, hearing something like this is not something new. Over the years, many people have told me that they watch a film to laugh out aloud.

So, a comic touch is vital for a film to do well. But that does not mean that if a film does not have any funny moments, it will not be a hit. The second element is a family drama. The attachments and conflicts between family members can bring tears to the eyes of the audience. One reason why my film, ‘Punjabi House’ became a big hit was because of the melodrama inherent in it.

Other attributes for a hit film: every scene should look good and be interesting. A love scene should be done in a beautiful setting, like on the top of a hill, surrounded by greenery. However, a romantic moment can also be shot in a vegetable market, provided the location looks good.

I find it strange that nearly all conspiracy scenes in Malayalam films are shot in a godown. Two criminals plotting a murder can be shown doing that in a rubber estate or a farmhouse.

Good colour is also vital. In my hit film, ‘Thenkasipattanam’, in every scene, I used the colour yellow. As a result, the viewer felt a sense of continuity. Of course, for a film to do well, there are other important components, like good music and songs, and the presence of superstars.

But I have a secret way on how to identify whether a film will be a hit or not.

There are many glands in the human body. These include the pituitary, the adrenal, and the tear glands. When viewing a film, it is imperative that one or two glands must work. Most probably, it will be the adrenal or the tear glands. If a gland is inactive, the film will not be a hit. After I finish a script and read it, if none of my glands work, I have to go back and rework it.

This might sound fanciful, but, believe me, it is a foolproof method.

(Malayalam film director Mecartin, in collaboration with Rafi, has had several blockbuster hits under the name of Rafi-Mecartin)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai and Delhi)

Psycho-analysis of UDF performance

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: The former Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan

A couple of months ago, when the UDF launched their campaign for the Kerala Assembly elections, there was a sense of overconfidence on their part. “They were too sure they would win handsomely,” says psychologist Prakash Chandra. “The electorate could sense this.”

But what really impacted the people was the in-fighting among the UDF constituents over seat-sharing. “The mind-set of the voters is that they crave stability,” says Prakash. “They felt that if they voted the UDF to power, they will not provide a strong government.”

The people were also taken aback when Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee President Ramesh Chennithala was suddenly touted as a possible chief minister, instead of Oommen Chandy. “The electorate were not sure about Chennithala’s qualities as a leader,” says Prakash. “It took some time before Chandy regained his position as Chief Ministerial aspirant. But by then the damage was done.”

Even the LDF sowed confusion when there was talk that Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan would not be fielded for the elections. “They lost a few seats because of this,” says Prakash.

Apart from a stable government, the voters are looking for a strong leader. The psychologist says that Achuthanandan impressed the people with his principled stand on many issues. One example: he reopened the investigation into the ice-cream parlour scandal, in which Indian Union Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikutty was implicated. “They admired his decisiveness,” says Prakash. “People are like children, who want a strong father to lead them.”

In this election, there has been a change in attitude on the part of the voters. “For the first time, young people have won,” says Prakash. “The voters feel that the youth can provide new ideas and energy to spur development in the state. It is a sign of confidence among the populace.”

So what should the UDF do to change the negative mind-set against them, now that they have managed to wrest power from the LDF?

“Provide a stable government,” says Prakash. “Secondly, Oommen Chandy should lead boldly from the front.”

(The New Indian express, Kerala)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Variety is the spice of life

A Pan-Asian food festival at the Thai Pavilion, Vivanta, Taj Malabar Cochin, provides dishes from countries like Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Korea, and Vietnam

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Oriental Chef Cham Hun Chakhap

One day, Jayanta Das, Executive Assistant Manager -- Food and Beverages, at the Vivanta, Taj Malabar Cochin, wanted to come up with a different set of dishes for their Thai Pavilion restaurant. So he sat, with Oriental chef Cham Hun Chakhap, and executive chef Rasheed and they came up with the idea of providing cuisine from pan-Asian countries.

“At a single meal, a guest can have a soup from Malaysia, a main course from Thailand, and a Chinese dessert,” says Jayanta. You could also have food from Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Korea.

Says Sales Manager Venugopal: “Nowadays, our guests travel abroad a lot, so they eat different types of food. That is why we wanted to give them something different.”

To ensure that the best food is on display, Chef Cham made more than 70 dishes, before the final 30 was selected. Now, all this can be had at the Pan Asian food festival at the Thai Pavilion.

At the festival, you could start with a Lumpia roll from Indonesia. “It is a spring roll with fresh lettuce, vegetables, beans, flavoured with mint leaves and green chillies,” says Cham. It is a bit bland, but you can spice it up with a dash of chilly sauce.

Another appetizer is Kai Phad Pik Kappraw from Thailand. This is a spicy chicken with a mix of basil leaves. This is suitable for the Malayali palate, as it has a sharp tang to it. Thereafter, you can try a soup from Japan called the miso shiru. “This contains fermented beans with seaweed and dashi – a fish stock,” says Cham.

To provide authenticity, many of the ingredients have been imported from abroad. “Some of the mushrooms have been brought from Shanghai,” says Cham. “The water chestnut fruit has been got from Thailand, while for the miso shiru dish, the fermented beans have been brought from Japan.”

For the main course, you can start with Malacca fried rice from Malaysia. It is a spice flavoured dish accompanied by chilly sauce. And in case you feel you are missing out on your usual Chinese cuisine, try the Sui-ju prawns.

These are stir-fried prawns made with Sichuan peppercorn and celery sauce. This is juicy and superb and makes a wonderful impact on the taste buds. But it does not come cheap at Rs 900 a plate.

Thereafter, you can nip off to South Korea and have a Buldak, a chicken drumstick cooked in chilly sauce. Incidentally, ‘bul’ means ‘fire’ in Korean, while ‘dak’ means ‘chicken’, so it can be a fiery dish. Cham laughs, and says, “I have toned down the chilly part, so that patrons in Kochi can enjoy it.” This again is very suitable for Keralites because of its hot and spicy feel. Apparently, this dish is becoming popular among young South Koreans.

Following this, you can have the Char Kway Teow dish from Malaysia. This is stir-fried rice noodles, with scrambled eggs, chillies, and a soy sauce. The noodles are in the form of strips, about 1 centimetre in width, and has an okay taste. It is sold at roadside stalls in the Malaysian city of Penanag , and is popular in Singapore and Indonesia. The last item for the main course can be Kao Qie, a grilled and spicy Chinese eggplant.

By this time, your stomach is ready to burst, but you still have to find the space to dip into some mouth-watering desserts. Try the lemon grass flavoured Sago with mango pudding. “It is made of fresh mango pulp, coconut milk, and sago flavoured with lemon grass,” says Cham. Another superb dessert is banana fritters, dusted with cinnamon and eaten along with vanilla ice cream.

All in all, for visitors to the Thai Pavilion, they are in for an unusual, but in the end, a deeply satisfying culinary treat.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Where form and function meet

Architect Joseph’s John’s house in Kochi has a forbidding exterior, but a warm interior

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Architect Joseph John and his wife in their garden

The first sight of architect Joseph John’s house at Kochi is intimidating. The courtyard is filled with black, chipped, gravel stones. Apart from a door, all you see is a large blank wall with no windows at all.

“I realised that there is no point in looking at the main road, because there is nothing there,” he says. “So I decided the back of the house should be my front. It is something like a desert. There is no vegetation. It is an unfriendly exterior. But when you come inside, things are different.”

Yes, indeed, the moment the wooden door is opened, you are immediately confronted by a green plant growing in a brass vase. On the right there is a five-foot high fingerpalm tree and an abstract painting, next to it, on the wall, in thick red, white, blue and yellow streaks, drawn by John himself.

The living room is spacious, with wooden sofas and chairs, while the floor is made of polished wood. On a side table there is a striking statue of an African Masai couple wearing red tunics and colourful bead necklaces, the man holding a thin, long spear. At one end of the room, there is a foot-high pool, with several frogs, made of porcelain placed in the water, as well as on the side.

“The aim is to keep the room cool,” says John. “And the frogs give the impression that it is an actual pool.”

John has a collection of frogs from all over the world. He has stored them in a bookcase. One is lying on its back, its four legs spread out, as if he is sleeping off a hangover. Another is massaging another frog, presumably a female. “I cannot explain my fascination for frogs,” he says, with a laugh.

From the living room, it leads off to a semi-circular verandah.

At one corner there is a reclining chair, made of black rexine leather, with a low foot stool. “This is where I read my morning newspaper with a cup of tea,” he says, and points with his hand. “Look at the scene.”

The scene: a small pond filled with water plants and Oscar fishes. Beyond that is a large grassy patch, filled with several coconut and frangipani trees. “Can you believe that this is a house in Kochi?” he says. “I have recreated a village scene in my backyard.”

Interestingly, John has painted the exterior of the 3000 sq. ft. house in a muted tone. “It is the colour of dried leaf or cowdung,” he says. “I was looking for a natural colour, which is soothing to the eye. I also wanted to give the impression that I am living in nature.”

Upstairs, he has made small bedrooms for his son, Shreyes, 17, and daughter Diya, 13. Both have only a cot and a study table. And he has an unusual explanation. “When my children grow up they will leave and go away,” he says. “So there is no need for large rooms.”

He gives an intriguing reason as to why the master bedroom is also small. “It is a space where you go to sleep, which means you are dead to the world,” says John. “But my clients have said, ‘We spend one-third of our life in the bedroom.’ But I tell them, ‘You are mostly sleeping, so you don’t need a big area.’”

Interesting perceptions by a gifted architect has resulted in an atypical, but alluring home.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai and Delhi)

Monday, May 02, 2011

IPL Jeeteyenge Kochi Tuskers

A peppy song by Malayalam playback singer Anitha Shaiq has been a hit on You Tube

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Ah, ah, IPL Jeeteyenge Kochi Tuskers Kerala,” sings Anitha Shaiq, as she dances in the sunlight, wearing sunshades, jeans and bright red sneakers, and is backed by a group of male dancers.

It is a peppy number and, mimicking the trademark MTV style, the images flash by in seconds. A double-decker bus goes past, a Kings XI Punjab batsman hits a ball, S. Sreesanth bowls a yorker, while a group of young motorcycle riders hold aloft orange Kochi Tusker team flags.

Anita has uploaded this video on You Tube and in the past few days it has received a few thousand hits. Type ‘IPL Jeeteyenge Kochi Tuskers + Anitha’ to see it.

The idea came to her when Anitha, a keen cricket fan, went to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium at Kochi for the Tuskers’ first match on April 9 and was disappointed by the meagre turnout. “That was when I decided to do a song, to encourage the team,” she says. Anitha came home, wrote the lyrics, in a mix of Hindi, English, and Malayalam words, so that the song could be appreciated by a wider audience, and set the music.

“It has a fast beat, and I have incorporated the chenda (Kerala drums), Western instruments, like the guitar, and rap music,” she says.

Incidentally, Anitha is no rookie. She is an established Malayalam playback singer with numerous hits like ‘Oh Mama Chandamama’ in the movie, ‘Rock 'n Roll’, and ‘When I am with you, I lose my heart’ from ‘2 Harihar Nagar’. So far, she has sung in 40 films.

But she might continue to sing songs of her own. “In the Tuskers song I was able to express my creativity,” she says. “In playback singing, we have to follow what the music director says.”

(The New Indian Express, Cheenai and Delhi)

Oye, oye, it’s oysters!

Oyster-eating is a rare habit among Malayalis. Chef Jose Varkey of the five-star Casino Hotel is trying to popularise it.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Chef Jose Varkey

Chef Jose Varkey picks up an oyster from a bunch placed on a table. He takes a special steel knife and slides it through the gap in the shell and turns the knife upwards. The shell cracks open. Inside is a milky-white jelly.

Jose slides it out with the knife and places the jelly on a plate. Thereafter, he puts a few drops of lime juice and Tabasco sauce on the meat. Then he picks up the meat, puts it in his mouth, and swallows it raw. A few onlookers at the Fort Cochin restaurant of the five-star Casino Hotel in Kochi flinch, even as he says, “Oyster meat is tasty, and contains a lot of vitamins and minerals, including Omega-3 fatty acid, which is good for the heart.”

He enumerates other benefits: it has elements like magnesium and potassium, and provides lustre to the skin. “You can have glowing skin like Aishwarya Rai,” says Jose. “Because of the high amount of proteins, it is an aphrodisiac.”

However, there is resistance. “Malayalis do not have a habit of eating anything raw,” he says. Another deterrent: there is a perception that oysters are not clean, because the rivers are polluted. “This is a misconception,” says Jose.

The waters around the oyster reefs in the nearby Satara Island are being constantly monitored by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI). The moment it crosses the danger limit, like during the monsoon season, the harvesting of oysters is stopped.

Jose, who has travelled abroad extensively, says that there are polluted rivers in Europe also. “When this happens, oysters are not served, till the waters become clean again,” he says.

Nevertheless, to increase the confidence among the patrons, the hotel has set up a depuration plant in the restaurant. There, in plain sight of everybody, the oysters are placed in sterile water. Soon, the animals open up their shells, and the purified water passes through. “All the dirt, if there is any gets removed, and the gills are cleaned,” says Jose.

One who is convinced is regular customer, George Merlo, a lawyer. “I had my first raw oyster on New Year’s Eve last year at the hotel and loved it,” he says. “It’s got a wonderful taste.” He says that he had a fear that oysters from the backwaters of Kochi would be contaminated. “But I trust the cleansing process at Fort Cochin and take it often. Oyster eating will become popular if people become aware that there is such a dish.”

Erin Louis, the general manager, says, “George is right. That is why we are trying to spread awareness about oysters. This is part of our business opportunity, as well as a social responsibility.”

Not many people know that in Kerala oysters are freely available all along the coast, from Kochi to Kollam. “A few self-help groups were growing oysters, and they were about to stop since there were no takers, till we stepped in,” says Dr. K. Sunil Mohamed, a Principal Scientist of the CMFRI. “We met Jose who agreed to promote it.”

Oyster reefs have an ecological advantage. More than 100 organisms live around the reef. The oysters cluster one above the other, and there are a lot of pockets in between. These are the breeding grounds for many fishes. “The oysters filter 12 to 20 litres of water per hour and makes the murky water clean,” says Mohamed. “What more should this animal do for nature?”

Chef Jose says that oysters can be easily exported. “It is selling at $2 per piece abroad,” he exclaims. “You will not believe this, but the farmers have been selling it at Rs 1 per oyster. If they can get higher rates, an entire community can be sustained.”

But there may not be a need to look abroad for sales. Many IT professionals in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai have developed a taste for eating oysters when they worked in Europe.

“Now, when they are back in India, they want to continue eating oysters,” says T.N. Venugopal, a leading exporter of seafood. “Once the Smart City [IT Park] is commissioned, there will be a major market for oysters in Kochi also.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai and Delhi)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hartal or no hartal, we will go to work

Despite the threat of violence, many women venture out to work on a hartal day, April 30, to keep the home fires burning and the economy humming

Photo: This is a representative picture

By Shevlin Sebastian

In earlier times, whenever a hartal would be announced by a political party, Lakshmi Rao would have beads of perspiration on her face. She worked in an office near the Town Hall and hated to miss work. But Lakshmi stayed near the market in Kadavanthra, Kochi. The distance was too far to walk, especially during the summer.

But one day, a couple of years ago, a neighbour, who worked at Kacheripady, offered a simple solution. “Follow me,” she said. And the duo walked a short distance to reach the Ernakulam Junction railway station. There they waited for the Venad Express. When the train arrived, they hopped on and reached the Town station.

“No tension at all,” says Lakshmi, as she reached her office easily. However, it was not easy on the purse. “The train ticket cost Rs 14, while the bus fare is only Rs 4,” says Lakshmi. She pauses, and says, with a look of worry, “When will political parties stop giving hartal calls?”

Nirmala Lilly has no such worries. The Head of Sales and Marketing at a five-start deluxe resort in Kochi, she drives her I 20 Santro car boldly to work. “I am in the hospitality industry,” she says. “The guest is God. He or she needs round the clock service. How can I sit at home peacefully?”

Once or twice, Nirmala has been stopped by hoodlums but she has smiled sweetly at them, and said, “A close relative of mine is sick in the hospital and I have to go and give food.” They have allowed her through. Only once she was stopped and told to go back. “That was because I was only 300 metres away from my home and the boys knew me,” says Prema. But the spirited professional just turned around and took another road to work.

Malini U, a travel executive, is also a bold woman. She has gone to office on her two-wheeler on every hartal day. “I love working, and hate to stay at home,” she says. “On the road I have seen many goondas. But they tend to stare rather than scare me.”

Once, she was stopped and Malini blithely said, “I have to go to the doctor.” And they let her go.

At 11 a.m. at Palarivattom, yesterday, Mary Varghese, 54, is on her way back home to Chakkaraprambil Road, near Vytilla. “I left at 7 a.m. and it took me 45 minutes by walking to reach my place of work.” She is a cleaner at physician Benny Thomas' clinic. “The doctor let me off early because of the hartal,” she says.

And so, despite the goondas and thugs who enforce a hartal though the threat of violence, there are a few women, by train, car, two-wheeler and on foot, who are willing to go to work, to keep the home fires burning. Pity, the octogenarian Chief Minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, who allows the state to suffer losses of crores of rupees because he still uses an outmoded form of protest: the hartal.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

The joy of giving

Dr. Kurian Melamparambil, who runs Melam Charities, has won the Padma Shri for social work in 2010. So far, he has helped 1.25 lakh people and spent Rs 15 crore

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 28, 1978, Dr. Kurian Melamparambil got the shock of his life when his father, M.V. John, died suddenly of a heart attack. “It shook me to the core,” he says. As it was a Sunday, Kurian was not able to get the proper treatment which could have saved his father. “Later, I thought I could do nothing to stop his death, but, maybe, I could help others from dying prematurely,” he says.

On September 10, 1986, Kurian started the Melamparambil Varghese John Memorial Charities in memory of his father. But very soon, he discovered that he was running short of money. At that time, he was working as a senior executive in a newspaper company. So he decided to quit and become an industrialist.

In 1992, he started the Melam group, which makes all types of curry powders, spices, pickles, breakfast items, sauces and pickles. It has been doing well from the very beginning. The company has two factories in Aluva, and operates through distributors all over Kerala.

“We also send our products to other parts of India and to the Gulf countries, Europe, USA, Russia, Australia and New Zealand,” says Kurian. “In fact, wherever there is a Malayali, Melam is present.”

Thankfully, because of the company’s success, Kurian has been able to set aside a considerable portion of his income for charity. About 1.25 lakh people have received treatment through 1357 doctors in 899 hospitals. So far, he has spent Rs 15 crore.

“I remember my friends advised me to accumulate wealth and later give it to charity,” says Kurian. “But I thought that a man who is ill needs the money today and not ten years later.”

Kurian has a standard operating procedure for his charity. On the second Saturday of every month, at his home town of Tiruvalla, he holds a meeting where sick people can approach him. They have to fill a form which is counter-signed by the hospital authorities, the local panchayat member, and the MLA. “I want to ensure that genuine people receive treatment,” he says.

Only those who have life-threatening diseases like cancer, diabetes, kidney failure and heart problems are eligible. The hospital, where the patient is receiving treatment, will provide an estimate of the monthly expenses and Melam charities will pay 75 per cent.

“The basic principle of social work is to make people self-dependent,” says Kurian. “That is why I don't give the full amount. I want them to earn the rest.”

Meanwhile, through his many years of social work, Kurian made an astonishing discovery: around 90 per cent of the patients rarely express any gratitude. He remembers a patient whom he met on the streets of Panampilly Nagar. The man ignored Kurian completely. On another occasion when Kurian met him, the man said, “I am sorry but I did not want the people in my area to know that you have helped me.”

Kurian recalls the case of a financially-strapped professional to whom he had offered assistance. “He was able to give a good education to his children,” says Kurian. “One son earned a high salary in the IT industry. But neither he nor his son met me or offered to contribute some money to the charity.”

But there are others who have invited him and his wife for dinner because the husband or the wife has been cured. “This is human nature,” says Kurian. “Only a few are grateful. The only way you can do social work is to expect nothing in return.”

However, Kurian has received many awards for his charity work, and for excellence in business. This was topped by the Padma Shri which he won in 2010 for social service.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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