Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Struck down in the prime of life

Wives of stroke victims struggle to come to terms with their husbands' impaired physical and mental abilities

Photo: Fostin and Margaret

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 14, 2005, Lucy's life changed forever. Her husband, James, a surgeon, suffered a stroke. There was a huge clot on the right side of the brain. “His left arm was paralysed,” she says. Lucy did not realise it then, but her husband's career as a surgeon was over.

Six years later, Lucy says, “Initially, I thought James would recover completely. But as time passed, this did not happen. I tried to adjust to the situation, but there have been moments of anger and frustration.”

In her spare moments, she would hark back to the life they had before the stroke. “I would think about that many times a day,” says Lucy, who works as a nurse in a private hospital. “Now it is much less.” It was a happy carefree family. The couple had met in the Kottayam Medical College, fallen in love, and got married. They have two school-going girls. “We had a good life,” she says. “My mother-in-law stays with us and looks after the children. It enabled me to concentrate on my work.”

But now the rhythm of their lives has changed completely. They have to forsake family outings, or social get-togethers. “I feel angry with myself, because of my inability, sometimes, to accept the situation,” she says.

What has affected the family dynamics is the change in James's character, post-stroke. “He has become anxious about everything,” says Lucy. “James always feels a sense of doom, as if something is going to happen to our children and myself. So, he restricts us from going out.”

And when Lucy does go out, James will call her and say, insistently, “Where are you, where are you?'” Earlier, there would be more than a hundred calls a day. “Now it is much less,” she says. “I got angry with him often.”

Clearly, Lucy is under pressure now. “Yes, that is because I have to take the burden of shouldering the family now,” she says. But like most women, there are times when she becomes depressed. “My moods go up and down,” she says.

Meanwhile, P. Margaret is just recovering from a shattering experience. At 1 p.m. on May 25, her 50-year-old husband, Fostin, drove a motorbike to the medical laboratory in Njarakal, which he was running with the help of Margaret. A few minutes later, he suffered a paralysis of the hands and the legs. It was a stroke, although an initial MRI scan did not reveal any clot in the brain. “It takes about 48 to 72 hours for the clot to appear in a MRI scan,” says Dr. Sasikumar, of the Kumar Centre for Stroke and Neuro Rehabilitation, at Vaduthala, Kochi, where Fostin is undergoing treatment.

Initially, Fostin had a lapse of memory and could not recognise his wife and children, Noel, 18, and Niya, 15. “I wanted to die,” says Margaret. “I felt shattered. One moment, my husband was fine and the next moment, he did not know who we were.” But, over the past month, Fostin has gradually recovered the use of his arms and legs. But his memory is still fragile. So a therapist is showing him photos of apples and bananas, and saying, “A for Apple, B for Banana.” It is an unnerving sight. As Kumar says, “A stroke comes into the brain like a thief.”

Over the past few weeks, as her husband began to make steady progress, Margaret's hopes have soared. “I know that there will not be a full recovery, but I am happy at the improvement he has made so far,” she says. So far, the family has spent Rs 6 lakh. And Fostin has been lucky that his brothers in the UK and Canada have helped him financially.

At the rehabilitation centre, Fostin receives electrical stimulation which is directed at his brain and the legs. Apart from that, there is speech, physio, play and music therapy, apart from weight training. As she recalls the events, suddenly, it becomes overwhelming, and Margaret bursts into tears. Soon, her body is wracked by sobs. She cries for several minutes. Finally, she says, “I pray to God that such a calamity does not happen to another person.”

In today’s highly stressful world, unfortunately, there are many tragic stories of families getting devastated as bread-winners lose control of their minds and limbs and become a vegetable.

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Ghosh Chromosome


Amitav Ghosh's second novel of the Ibis trilogy, 'The River of Smoke' has just been released. He talks about the power of the imagination, the joys and pleasures of writing, and what it is to be a full-time author

By Shevlin Sebastian

There was something wet and cold plastered against his cheek. He [Bahram Modi] raised a hand to wipe it off, but just then the ship went into a steep roll and he ended up smearing the stuff on his lips and his mouth. Suddenly, in the pitching darkness, with chests and containers sliding and crashing around him, his head was filled with the giddying smell of opium.

This is an excerpt from Amitav Ghosh's just released ' River Of Smoke '. It is part two of his Ibis trilogy, the first one being the acclaimed ' Sea of Poppies ', which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

Set in September, 1838, it follows the lives of unforgettable characters like the Parsi, Seth Bahram Modi, who travels, on a ship, from Bombay to Canton in China to do business in opium. In Canton there lives his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt. Other interesting people include the plant-hunter Fitcher Penrose, amateur biologist Paulette Lambert and the painter Robin Chinnery.

Ghosh writes about events that led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China. Throughout the book, there are so many vivid scenes that a reader feels as if he is physically present at the various locations.

“When you write a novel, if it is not real to the author, it won’t seem real to the reader,” he says. “I have a technicolour image in my mind. But it does not come immediately. It is only in the process of doing draft after draft that the image becomes clear.”

At first, it is like a pencil sketch. “And then, I ask myself, 'What are they wearing?' Then I will go and do some research. Slowly, the colour gets filled in. And soon, there comes a time when I see the characters with the utmost clarity,” says Ghosh, who was on a one-day reading tour to Kochi. “In fact I can hear their voices clearly and see them move around. By the time I finished writing this book I knew a place like Canton intimately.”

Astonishingly, for a big novel like the River, which is 553 pages long and contains 1.95 lakh words, he had no structure planned beforehand. “The characters take a life of their own,” he says. “It sounds chaotic, but I am literally blundering my way through. Many times, I have moved in the wrong direction. Then I stop, go off on another track, but, thankfully, in the end it all works out.”

Ghosh, who splits his time between Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn, is a full-time writer. So he starts work at 9 a.m. and writes throughout the day, with a one-hour break for lunch. But the writing life is tough. “You don’t get a regular salary,” he says. “There are long periods when I don’t earn anything at all. But I don’t get stressed out by it.”

A few years ago, Ghosh was a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the City University of New York. He had a steady income, apart from an easy work schedule. “But that stressed me out,” he says. “To write you need the uncertainty. Otherwise, it takes away the edge. You have to feel you are on the brink of a precipice all the time.”

As a result, Ghosh has had a distinguished career so far, and won many international prizes, like the Prix Medicis, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke award. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Shri.

So what are the tips on writing that this master novelist can impart? “Anybody who wants to write should read a lot,” says Ghosh. “You should also write regularly. Writing is like music. To be a good musician, you have to do your riyaaz every day.”

And Ghosh is feeling out of sorts because he is unable to write while on this book promotion tour. “I am missing my riyaaz,” he says, with a smile. “When I get to my desk, it will take me two weeks to get back into the groove. I am like a musician who realises that he is working with an instrument that is out of tune.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Novelist Amitav Ghosh meets an old friend

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Amitav Ghosh (left) conversing with Cherian J. Punnathara
Credit: Manu R. Mavelil

When Cherian. J. Punnathara, a Kochi-based senior journalist hears that Amitav Ghosh is coming to Kochi, he feels that it is time to meet the famous author. At the Vivanta By Taj, he accosts Amitav and says, “I am Cherian.” Amitav immediately replies, “From the CDS (Centre for Development Studies).”

Cherian nods and the two shake hands. They are meeting after 28 years. In 1983, Amitav, a research scholar from Delhi University, had come to use the library facilities at the CDS in Thiruvananthapuram. There, he befriended Cherian, an M. Phil student, and Tirthankar Roy, who is now a professor at the London School of Economics.

And it was in Cherian’s room that Amitav used his friend’s Olivetti portable typewriter to type out the first draft of his critically-acclaimed novel, ‘The Circle of Reason’. Asked how his friend is, Cherian says, “Amitav is the same bubbly and chirpy person I knew so many years ago. The only change is that his hair is completely white.”

Cherian, of course, is an admirer of Amitav’s writing. “He has a wonderful narrative style, and there are so many plots and sub-plots in his novels,” he says. “Amitav captures the social milieu so well, and his focus on detail is admirable.”

As the friends begin chatting, Amitav says, “One of the most memorable experiences during my stay in Kerala was our trip to the waterfall in the Bonarccad forest, near Thiruvananthapuram.” Cherian, Tirthankar and Amitav had spent the night out in the open besides the waterfall.

“Those were good times,” says Cherian. “It was nice to meet Amitav after such a long time.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Intensive Uncaring Units

Elderly people have a bleak time, on the economic, social, and psychological fronts, says Helpage India CEO Mathew Cherian

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Mathew Cherian of Helpage

In the town of Virudhu Nagar, 40 kms from Madurai, the people have adopted a practice called Thalaikoothal. An elderly person is given an oil bath. Thereafter, he or she has to drink several glasses of coconut water. At night, they are forced to sleep outside in the open. Some suffer from thermal shock. Within a day or two, the person is dead.

“This is the method by which the people, in a few communities, in Virudhu Nagar get rid of their old parents,” says Mathew Cherian, the CEO of Helpage India. The District Collector was informed. Thereafter, the State Government has constituted a committee to enquire into the practice, which has been going on for decades.

For Cherian, this is no surprise. Helpage recently completed a survey, ‘Elder Abuse and Crime in India’ where they surveyed the lives of elderly people in nine cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bhopal, Chennai, Patna, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Some conclusions: among the poor, verbal abuse is the most common form of harassment, while for the upper classes, it was neglect. “The abuse goes up after a person crosses 70 years of age,” says Mathew.

Among the higher classes, property issues were the most common reason for friction between parents and children. “In earlier times, children waited for the parents to die, before inheriting the property,” he says. “Now they want it earlier. I would put the haste to the rampant materialism in the middle classes.”

There are cases of parents who were unwilling to sign away their property, and the children have retaliated by locking the couple up, and beating them. “There is an elderly couple in New Delhi who has spent many years in the balcony of their house because of ill-treatment by their son,” says Mathew. “There is a widespread decline of moral values.”

Surprisingly, 98 per cent of the parents did not file any complaint against the abuse. “There are various reasons for this,” says Mathew. “One is that the parents do not want to go against the children. Secondly, it would spoil the family name. So they absorb the humiliation in silence.”

On the rare times when they have complained, the police have been indifferent. “For them, this is a matter of low priority,” says Mathew. Also, unscrupulous policemen inform hoodlums who then rob the house of these vulnerable people.

The biggest problem facing the elderly, especially the poor, is the low pension given by the central government. “It is a paltry Rs 200 a month for those below the poverty line, and reaches only 1.6 million people,” says Mathew.

Last month, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa had increased it to Rs 1000. “This is more substantial,” he says. “The Kerala government has not made any announcements. Pension and provident fund money reach only 9 per cent of the population. The remaining 91 per cent do not have any statutory benefits.”

Apart from economic problems, old people suffer from loneliness. “The children are frequently living in other cities or are abroad,” says Mathew. “There is no support system. Some people call a helpline, just to hear a human voice.”

Helpage encourages schoolchildren to meet elderly people in their homes. “You can visit them in your own street,” says Mathew. Meanwhile, the scenario in Kerala is also bleak. “Increasingly, children are treating their parents with a lack of respect,” he says. “Verbal and emotional abuse has increased dramatically. The main cause is the breakdown of the joint family.”

However, in Kerala there are efforts to provide palliative care. But when people are terminally ill, they like to die with their relatives and friends near them. “Instead, the tendency of hospitals is to isolate them in the ICU,” says Mathew. “So death is not dignified at all. We are trying to set up an Indian protocol for elderly geriatric care.”

All those who are reading this should realize that one day they are also going to become old. “So treat your parents the way you want to be treated, when you become an elderly person,” says Mathew.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Giving blood for a good cause

June 14 is World Blood Donor’s Day. Regular donors speak about their experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Roy James Kappan receiving an outstanding donor medal from former Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan

One day, in 1980, Venkata Subramanian who works in the State Bank of Travancore, went to the Fort Kochi government hospital to consult a physician Dr. Rao. While there, he noticed a 75-year old man who needed blood. “His wife was crying because they could not find anybody to donate blood,” says Venkata. So the banker offered to give his blood, but he was O negative, while the patient needed B positive.

However, a few days later, Dr. Rao called him and asked whether he would be interested in being a donor. “Somebody needed O negative,” he says. And that was how Venkata started donating. Till now, for 31 years, after every three months Venkata donates blood.

He was recently transferred to Palakkad. “But whenever there is a need, I come to Kochi and give blood,” he says. Usually, each time 300 ml of blood is taken. After that, there has to be a gap of three months, so that the shortfall can be regained. Venkata says that it is a myth that you feel weak after giving blood. “I always feel fine,” he says. And the blood donated is just 1/20 of the body's total capacity of six litres.

Asked why he does this, Venkata says, “When a person can contribute without any loss to oneself and at the same time save the lives of others, what is wrong with that?”

On February 27, 2010, Roy James Kappan received a memento as well as an outstanding donor medal at a function organised by the IMA.

The citation read: 'We are pleased to inform you that the IMA Voluntary Blood Bank has decided to honour you for your dedicated efforts and for your enthusiasm to propagate the concept of voluntary blood donation. You have set an example which will be followed by many in the years to come.' Incidentally, this was the fifth time that Roy had received this medal.

Roy, 45, began donating blood in 1979. “When I came to know that my blood group, A negative, is rare I started giving my blood regularly,” he says.

Thus far, Roy has donated blood 47 times. Whenever he sees an advertisement on television or in a newspaper asking for blood, he goes at once. Once he went to the Lisie Hospital. There was a 22 year old college student, who was suffering from haemophilia -- the lack of clotting of the blood. “He had a cut and had lost a lot of blood,” says Roy. “I willingly gave my blood. The family was so grateful that they offered me money. But I refused. For me, it is a social service.”

Meanwhile, at the IMA blood bank, they distribute about 3000 units every month to 60 hospitals in and around Kochi. “There is always a shortfall,” says Dr Sachidananda Kamath, the president of the IMA Cochin branch and a trustee of the blood bank. “But we hold regular blood donation camps. Thanks to the media there is a widespread acceptance among the public about giving blood.”

Incidentally, the blood group, ‘O positive’, is the most in demand. “The majority of the population has this blood group,” says Kamath, The rare ones are A and B negative. When the blood is collected, thanks to advanced technology, it is divided into three components: red blood cells, plasma and platelets.

“If a person is anemic, we give red blood cells,” says Kamath. “For liver diseases, plasma is required, while for leukaemia or dengue fever, you need platelets. In essence, we can give one unit to three people.”

June 14 is World Blood Donor’s Day. “My appeal to the people is to donate blood,” says Kamath. “A life somewhere can be saved because of your generosity.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

The dark side of student life

Many children suffer from depression. Unfortunately, most parents and teachers are not aware of this. Timely treatment can ensure proper healing

By Shevlin Sebastian

Lakshmi (name changed) was a bright student. She regularly got the first rank in the exams in Class 5. One day, she had a headache and fever. For a few days, she could not go to school. When she returned, the teacher said, “Why were you absent? You missed some important chapters.” That casual remark had a devastating effect on Lakshmi.

For many days she complained of a headache and did not want to go to school. “The teacher will scold me,” she repeatedly told her parents. Lakshmi missed school for days together. Soon, weeks went past.

The desperate parents took her to psychologist Dr. Prakash Chandran. After regular counselling, Lakshmi returned to school and sat for her exams. She did well. Then the summer holidays came up. There was a gap of two months. “When school re-opened, she did not want to go back,” says Prakash. “No amount of persuasion could change her mind.”

In her family, an elder sister, who is studying in a degree course, has no problems.
“Lakshmi’s illness may be due to a chemical change in the brain,” says Prakash. “I don't think the parents can be blamed.” Unfortunately, for the past three years, Lakshmi is being tutored at home. The good news is that she is doing well in her exams, but going to school still holds terrors for her.

Not many people know that children, like Lakshmi, are suffering from depression. There are various causes for this. In kindergarten a child suffers from a separation anxiety. They are being moved physically from their parents and siblings and taken to a strange environment. So, the child becomes depressed.

Another cause is when a second child is born. “The parents show more love and affection to the baby,” says Prakash. “This affects the elder child.”

Thirdly, unknowingly, parents create a fear psychosis about school. “Sometimes, parents will tell their children that they can get away with all the mischief they do at home, but in school, the teacher is bound to scold them. So, children develop an anxiety about going to school.”

Stress can also cause depression. If class work is beyond the capability of the child, he or she can become depressed. “Parents in Kerala put too much pressure on children to do well in their studies,” says Prakash. “There are fathers and mothers who start teaching the syllabus of the next year before the summer holidays have finished.”

Since children are unable to verbally express their depression, they take it out through various actions. They will destroy toys or eat paper, pencil ends, erasers, or suck their thumbs. “They might suffer from psychosomatic illnesses like head and stomach aches, vomiting and fever,” says Prakash.

Unfortunately, parents and teachers are unaware of the mental fragility of the child. Teachers usually describe unruly behaviour as naughtiness.

“Ninety per cent of the parents as well as teachers have no idea that a child can suffer from depression,” says Prakash. “It can begin at the age of three. But depression is a disease and can be cured, provided the child receives timely counselling and treatment."

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, June 13, 2011

A great reporter has an untimely death

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ace crime reporter J. Dey was allegedly shot dead by underworld assailants in Mumbai. It has sent tremors of shock, outrage, and fear through the media community.

Dey was an authority of the crime world in Mumbai. He knew everything there was to know about the gangs. Who betrayed whom? Who had become friends once again? What was Dawood Ibrahim's future plans? What was Chhotta Rajan doing? Was Arun Gawli finished? He knew the cops who were compromised. He knew the law enforcers who were honest. Any conversation with him was a scintillating one, as he had so many interesting stories to tell – the dirt under the glitter of most of the prominent people in the city.

Dey was over 6' tall. His height was the first thing that one noticed about him. He was working in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai.

The inaugural edition, on July 14, 2005, began with a bang, with the telephonic transcripts of actor Salman Khan raging against Aishwarya Rai, when their relationship was breaking up. Salman's voice was slurred, but menacing at the same time, while Aishwarya sounded scared and frantic. It was an exclusive scoop by Dey.

One day, he said, “I am writing a book on the underworld. Rupa Publishers have been after me to do one. I am finding it difficult to get the time.”

Of course, Dey would find it difficult to find the time. Because, like a dedicated reporter, he was always scouring for news. He was constantly meeting up with criminals, pimps, sidekicks, and law enforcement people.

He was always having tea and vada pav in some restaurant or the other, trying to glean the latest information. And nearly every day, there would be a by-lined article by him on some aspect of crime or the other. It was no wonder he was called the father of crime reporting in Mumbai. Later, he moved from The Hindustan Times and joined MidDay as their crime editor when he was killed.

Incidentally, the book on crime did get written. It was called, 'Zero Dial: The Dangerous World of Informers' and is considered as a Bible on the underworld.

J. Dey, one of the great crime reporters. Rest in peace.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

The agony and joy of creation

By Lal

(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

In February, I met Mammooty and we decided to work together. We spoke about several possible story ideas and we decided on one. I started writing the screenplay on March 20. The film is called ‘Kobra’. It is the story of two friends who are as close as brothers. Kobra is a short form of Kottayam Brothers. It is a study of power and humour.

For one month, I worked hard to write the first draft. During this time, I fell sick once. This happened when I became stuck during the writing and was unable to move forward. I became restless. I would be sitting in the living room at my home in Kochi. Then I would suddenly get up and go outside to the garden. Then I went to the kitchen to talk to my wife. I could sense a fever rising up in me. My breath was hot. I felt tired.

I knew that only my unconscious would help me in this situation. So, just before I drifted off to sleep one night, I thought about some of the nagging problems in the script. When I awakened the next morning, the solutions had presented themselves. The ever-reliable subconscious mind had done the work for me.

When I read the screenplay by myself, I feel it was a great one. But the moment I read it aloud in front of others -- my associates, friends, and relatives -- I knew instinctively where the weak parts were. I could see it from the facial expressions and the body language of the people who were listening. But when I asked them whether they were bored or if the pace was flagging, they would reply immediately, “It is fine. It sounds good.” They thought that since I have directed so many hits, they should not judge my work at all. They felt I would know how to make a successful film.

The shooting will start in the first week of September. So I will have to finish the screenplay by August 31. I am sure I will be carrying on making changes till the last day.

As I work on the script, I am also organising the sound recordings, scouting for locations, thinking and planning about the costumes, having crew meetings, and getting the lyrics written.

Very soon, I will be meeting Mammooty to read out the screenplay to him. I am sure he will suggest some changes. Then we will decide on who will play the various roles.

There is always a fear of failure inside me. It is this fear that motivates me to work hard. We must never take the audience for granted. You must put in 120 per cent. Only then will the viewers appreciate the film.

(Lal, one of Kerala's most successful directors, had several hits like 'Ramji Rao Speaking', 'In Harihar Nagar', 'Godfather' and 'Vietnam Colony', when he teamed up with Sidique. On his own, he had hits like '2 Harihar Nagar' and 'In Ghost House Inn'. )

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

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

“The nightmare is over”

Says Nischal Chandra about his divorce from actress Kavya Madhavan

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was 5 p.m. on May 29 when Nischal Chandra emerged from the family court in Kochi after his marriage to actress Kavya Madhavan was annulled. Some people shook his hand and said, “Congratulations, we are really happy to know that you are a free man.” For Nischal it was a rare moment of happiness. “A few people have finally understood that there is another side to the story of what happened between me and Kavya,” he says.

Ever since Kavya returned from Kuwait, in June, 2009, after barely staying for three months with Nischal, citing spousal abuse, it has been a trial by media for Nischal. “All sorts of lies and distortions have been said,” he says. One example: repeatedly, it was stated that Nischal was uneducated.

“I was really surprised by this,” he says. In fact, Nischal has two master's degrees: one in telecommunication engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and the other in management science from Stanford University, California.

Nischal has worked in top investment firms like Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan, and Merrill Lynch in New York. “For the last six years, I have been the Technology Adviser of a leading bank in Kuwait,” he says.

When this erroneous information was being published and broadcast, there were few journalists who were willing to listen to Nischal's version. “As far as I know, there were no clarifications,” he says. “Even today, people suspect that I am jobless and lack educational qualifications.”

He says the visual media has a stake in the entertainment industry, so it was tough for them to take a stance opposing Kavya. “Because I am a non-celebrity, they were not interested in me,” he says.

Nischal says he is unable to talk about why the marriage broke down because of a legal agreement with his former spouse. “But I can tell you about the impact of Section 498 A, the domestic violence act,” he says. Kavya had filed a case under this act, whereupon a husband can be arrested, without a warrant, and put into jail.

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.'

Nischal was ready for a long drawn-out court battle with Kavya, but his lawyer said that under Section 498A, the entire family could be charged, including his elderly parents, and would consume a lot of time. So he opted for a mutual compromise.

He admits that his family, which includes an elder brother, his wife and child, went through a harrowing time. “It was a nightmare,” he says. “Thank God it is over.” But there was a final sting.

A day after the divorce came through a vernacular newspaper reported that Nischal had refused to return gold jewellery worth Rs 97 lakh. Through his lawyer, Nischal had to issue yet another clarification stating that no dowry or gold jewellery had been taken from Kavya. Thankfully, the newspaper published a retraction.

As to the lesson he has learned from this bitter experience, Nischal says, “Family is the most important institution for a man. When members come together and support you at a most crucial time, you don't need anything more. This experience has made us stronger and more loving towards each other.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, June 06, 2011

Serving tea and coffee with style and sincerity

Anthony Manickam has been serving tea and coffee to customers in offices and shops in Kochi for the past 30 years. In the process, he has been able to build a house and give a good education to his daughters

By Shevlin Sebastian

Antony Manickam, 59, arrives at the Sub-Registrar's office at Edapally on a red M80 moped. In a smooth movement, he takes out a tray and places paper cups on it. Thereafter, through a tap in the steel container tied at the back, he fills the cups with milk and adds tea powder or coffee. Then he walks inside and places cups on different tables.

The employees smile at him, some with relief, because they were yearning for their first refreshment of the morning. Then Manickam steps outside and goes to some shops on the opposite side. This includes a tailoring shop, a photocopying centre and a workshop.

Thereafter, he goes to the Edapally branch of the HDFC bank near Changampuzha Park. Again, he goes through the same motions and serves coffee to the 15 employees inside. “They like my coffee because I use Bru Instant,” he says. Incidentally, he charges Rs 5 for both tea and coffee.

Every morning, Manickam provides the beverages in several offices, stationary, and ration shops, workshops, and markets. “I serve 250 cups a day,” he says. “When I was younger, I would make a thousand cups, but now I have slowed down.”

Manickam has been doing this job for the past 33 years and has regular customers. One of them is Georfin Pettah, the owner of several supermarkets under the name of 'Jose Pettah and sons'.

“Manickam has been serving tea to us for the past three decades,” says Georfin. “There are many reasons for his success. First of all, he is dressed very well. Secondly, he serves the tea on a tray and it is very hygienic. The tea and coffee are always fresh.”

There is a reason behind the good quality. “I don't make the tea or coffee beforehand because it will have a stale taste after one hour,” he says. Since there are some places where he reaches two hours after he sets out from his home, he ensures that he makes it fresh each time he has to serve a customer.

On weekends, Manickam gets orders to provide refreshments for functions, baptisms, weddings and funerals. "He is very reliable," says Georfin. "You just have to give the order and forget about it."

Manickam, who is originally from Coimbatore, came to this business through misfortune. He had been working in the Sealord hotel as a waiter. But a year-long strike in the hotel in 1978 forced him to leave. He started a wayside hotel but it failed. He was in a penurious condition.

“I was finding it difficult to pay the rent and to buy the milk for my two-year-old daughter,” he says. In desperation, he began selling tea at night on the streets. Thanks to Georfin's cousin, Jose, he got his first assignment to give tea to the students of the Teacher's Training Course at the Edapally government high school.

Thanks to his sincerity, he got a lot of customers. In 1982, he bought five cents of land in Edapally and built a house. “I got a loan of Rs 1 lakh from the Edapally branch of the State Bank of Travancore, and repaid it by giving tea,” he says. He bought the cement, the sand, and the other building materials in a similar manner.

“The only time I had to actually pay money was to the labourers,” he says. “Can you believe that I was also able to marry off my two daughters, Mary and Maggie, apart from giving them a good education just by selling tea and coffee?”

Asked how long he would continue, Manickham says, "As long as my health permits. I just love this job and enjoy the look of expectation that comes on people's faces when they see me."

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, June 03, 2011

A Tibetan in Kochi

Thupten Yamphel talks about how he yearns to go to Tibet, a country he has never seen, and his experiences in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6.30 a.m., Thupten Yamphel opens his shop on Mullassery Canal Road in Kochi. His five employees have already arrived. They take out the merchandise from the boxes -- the imported leather shoes, sandals, and sneakers -- cleans them with feather dusters, and places them neatly on racks. The prices range from Rs 200 to Rs 1200. By 7 a.m., the first customer drifts in.

The unusual thing about Thupten, 31, dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, is that he is a Tibetan exile. Twenty-five years ago, his grandfather came to Kochi from the Tibetan enclave of Bylakuppe in Mysore and started the shop. Later, his father took over.

Meanwhile, Thupten studied till Class 5 in a Tibetan school in Bylakuppe and moved to the Breeks Memorial Anglo-Indian school in Ooty. During the summer vacations, he would come home to Kochi.

It was during these holidays that his grandfather, Tsering Thargyal, would talk about Tibet. “He said that it was so peaceful in Tibet,” says Thupten. “Nobody worried about tomorrow. They lived for today. They were very happy. He spoke about the beauty of Tibet: the mountains, the blue skies, and the cool weather. Sadly, I have only seen Tibet in videos.”

Thargyal found life in Kochi quite different. “My grandfather said that in Kochi everybody wants to make money,” says Thupten. “It is so competitive. Once that aim is fixed in the mind, many people do things which are not right.”

Unusually, his parents did not talk much about Tibet, but there was a reason for this. They left Lhasa for India when they were only three years old. “They have no memory of the place,” says Thupten. Here’s a brief recap of Tibet’s history: China annexed the country in 1951 and 2 lakh Tibetans have gone into exile ever since.

After he completed his Class 12, Thupten came to Kochi and did his B.Com from Sacred Heart College in Thevara. Thereafter, after a year's course in interior design, he went to Bangalore and joined a call centre.

It was there that he met Rievine, a Christian girl from the town of Senapati in Nagaland. After a courtship of two years, they got married on December 25, 2007, settled in Kochi, and now have a three-year-old son, Tenzin.

“I came back to Kochi because my father was unwell and I decided to look after the shop,” says Thupten. Subsequently, his father moved to Bylakuppe.

In Kochi, the people have been friendly and kind. “They respect ladies and children,” he says. “If I am traveling on a bus with my family, a man might get up and give his seat to my wife. In Mysore, they will make us stand and the conductor will double-check to see whether I have taken a full ticket for my son, even though he is an infant.”

However, there is one drawback about living in Kochi. “The weather is too humid,” he says. “So, I welcome the monsoon rains even though my business goes down.” The best time for the trade is during the festivals of Onam, Ramzan, and Christmas.

At his home, Thupten retains some links with Tibet. There are several photos of the Dalai Lama. “He is our God,” he says. “I pray to him every morning.” Sometimes, on weekends, Rievine cooks Tibetan dishes. So they have momos (dumplings), Thupka, a noodle soup, which is served with meat, and Tingmo, a steamed bread.

When son Tenzin grows older, Thupten plans to take him to Bylakuppe, so that he can be taught the Tibetan language, culture, and religious traditions. “It is very important that he knows who we are,” says Thupten.

And, despite his comfort in living in Kochi, the moment Tibet becomes free he will go back. “After all, everybody likes to stay in their own country,” says Thupten, with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Save Kochi, Take the Bus

A Bus Day programme by Transport Minister V.S. Sivakumar and others highlight the need to travel in public transport to ease traffic congestion and pollution in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I hope you had bought tickets,” says P. Rangadasa Prabhu, the president of the Ernakulam District Residents Association Apex Council, to a group of women councillors of the Cochin Corporation, as they step down from a private bus at Thoppumpady.

“Of course, we have,” says Councillor Soumini Jain, while her colleagues, Essy Joseph and Retnamma Raju, nod their heads. On the sidewalk, magician K.N. Kutty puts on a red bow-tie, a black waist-coast over a striped red and black shirt, and a top hat on his head. “I plan to show some tricks on the bus,” he says.

They had all gathered to take part in the 'Bus Day' programme, organised jointly by the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Center for Public Policy Research, FM Red, and Uninor.

A few minutes later, at 8.15 a.m., State Transport Minister V.S. Sivakumar gets into a low-floor air-conditioned bus. Behind him, there is a huge crush of people, including policemen, legislators, councillors, mediamen and workers of political parties. A wag says, “This is the first time that a low-floor a/c bus is so crowded.”

The bus goes all the way to the Fort Kochi bus stand, but poor Kutty is unable to perform his magic in the crush. At the public function, P. Prathap Chandran, the president of the Indian Chamber, says, “About 70 per cent of those who use public transport take up 15 per cent of the public space. On the other hand, 15 per cent of private vehicles use up 70 per cent of the space. That is why we want more and more people to use public transport.”

As Sivakumar steps forward to speak, magician Kutty proffers a gas lighter. The minister proceeds to light the wick of a candle, which is turned, by magic, into a colourful hand fan by Kutty. So the magician finally gets his few seconds in the limelight.

Sivakumar smiles and says, “Every day, in a rapidly growing city like Kochi, more than 200 vehicles are being registered. This will lead to an enormous increase in traffic jams, apart from pollution levels. That is why we want to encourage bus travel.”

He acknowledges that bus journeys have to be made smooth and comfortable, in order to attract those who travel by cars. “Eight new Thiru Kochi buses will be introduced soon,” says the minister, to widespread applause.

MLA Dominic Presentation bemoans the fact that despite crores of rupees being spent, the Fort Kochi bus stand is not operational. “We need to make this work,” he says. Mayor Tony Chhamany promised that the stand would start functioning soon.

The others who spoke include former Transport Minister Jose Thettayil, who had come up with the 'bus day' concept during his tenure. And he practises what he preaches.

On the 'Safar' private bus from Fort Kochi to Aluva, following the function, Thettayil is a passenger, en route to his home in Angamaly.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)