Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Portugal’s Day Out

A programme at the St. Albert's College showcases the beauty of the capital, Lisbon, as well as the country's art and culture

Photos: 'Fadu' singer Mariza; Prof. Jose Carlos Seabra Pereira

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Portuguese singer, Mariza, steps onto the stage, during the outdoor concert, held on the outskirts of Lisbon. In the distance, the iconic Belem Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage site, by the bank of the Tagus river can be seen. It was from here that explorer Vasco Da Gama set out for India in the 15th century.

Marisa starts singing: her voice is a deep baritone and, immediately, it has an arresting effect on the listeners. A blonde-haired woman in her thirties, wearing a floor-length blue gown, and with a dazzling smile, she is singing a fadu. “This is a traditional Portuguese ballad,” says Jose Carlos Seabra Pereira, a literature professor at the University of Coimbra. “'Fadu' means destiny. The songs mostly evoke 'saudade', or nostalgia for the past.”

As Mariza continues to sing, accompanied by musicians playing a Portuguese guitar, and drums, as well as an orchestra, the English literature students of St. Albert's College at Kochi watch with rapt attention at the concert being shown on the screen.

“It takes time to appreciate her music,” says Nisha Susan Zachariah, the Asst. Prof. of English at St. Albert's. “Indian singers have sweeter voices and there is a rich accompaniment of music. In fadu, the emphasis seems to be on the lyrics.” But Mariza clearly had an impact on student Rony Peter Jacob. “She sings straight from the heart,” he says. “I loved the brilliant guitar-playing.” Incidentally, the college had organised a one-day celebration of Portuguese art and culture. Prof. Jose was a special invitee.

Earlier, a one-hour documentary on the country's capital, Lisbon, as seen through a guidebook written by Fernando Pessoa, was shown. Pessoa is regarded as one of the foremost writers of Portugal in the 20th century. “He was a modernist like English poet T.S. Eliot,” says Prof. Jose. “Until his death, in 1935, he was a discredited writer. But the succeeding generations discovered that he was a genius who wrote thousands of books, which included poetry, novels, essays, philosophy, jokes, and guide books.”

The guidebook, which was written in English, in 1925, was discovered long after he died, and was published only in 1992.

In the documentary, the camera pans through the elegant cobblestone streets of Lisbon. We get to see historical monuments, museums, government buildings, statues of Portuguese war heroes, railways stations, towers, squares, and avenues. The one which catches the eye is the Liberty Avenue or The Avenida da Liberdade. Made in 1882, the avenue is 1.5 kms long, with a width of 90 metres. There are numerous trees, gardens, and ponds on either side.

Another eye-catching sight is of the Rotunda, where five avenues meet. At the centre, a 36m high statue of the great Portuguese statesman, Marquez de Pombal, has been set up. The Cathedral of old Lisbon, where St. Antony was baptised in 1195, is also impressive. A chalice glowed because it has 420 diamonds, emeralds and rubies.

At an interactive session, Prof. Jose tells the students that many words like verandah and mesha (Malayalam for table) have Portuguese origins. Later, he says, “I feel very happy that the students showed so much of interest in Portuguese culture.”

Regarding his first visit to Kerala, Prof. Jose says, “It is a strange world for me. But I am delighted to be here. The culture is rich, with so many different religions. Kochi is a city with a strong presence in our historical memory.” This is not surprising, since the Portuguese were in Kerala from 1498 to 1660.

Prof. Jose readily admits that Portugal is in economic decline. “The future belongs to the BRIC countries (BRIC = Brazil, Russia, India and China),” he says. “When we compare the present situation in Portugal, to that in the 15th and 16th centuries, we are in decline. We don't have the same empire any more. But we hope to rise once again.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, August 29, 2011

“Corruption is in the minds of the people”

A round-table discussion on 'Anna Hazare and his relevance' was conducted by the Wednesday Club

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: (From left) M.K. Das, C.J. George, Kurian Abraham, P C Cyriac and P Rajan

“One unfortunate development of the Anna Hazare movement is a contempt for politicians, which is being translated into a contempt for democratic institutions,” says C.J. George, the managing director of Geojit BNP Paribas. “How can Hazare ask Parliament to pass the Lokpal Bill in a few days time? I am against the way he has gone about his campaign.”

In the past three years George has tried to buy an apartment in Delhi through a cheque payment, but there were no takers. “And these same people have rushed to the Ramlila grounds to support Hazare’s movement,” he says.

The largest amount of corruption takes place in the private and corporate sector. “Corruption is in the minds of the people,” he says.

George was a featured speaker at the round-table discussion on ‘Anna Hazare’s movement and its relevance’, organized by the Wednesday Club, a forum which helps develop communication skills. The moderator was club president Kurian Abraham.

Columnist P. Rajan spoke about a concerted attempt by the government authorities to malign Hazare. “It is not necessary that we have to support all the clauses of the Lokpal Bill,” he says.

Recently, Leftist intellectuals and writers like Arundhati Roy have stated that Parliament is being undermined. “Nobody is trying to replace Parliament, as some people are suggesting,” says Rajan. “All what Hazare and his team want is the introduction of their bill. Whatever happens, the momentum created by the Hazare agitation should not slacken.”

Senior journalist M.K. Das spoke about how for the first time after Independence, the middle classes have got involved. “It is the colossal scale of the corruption nowadays that has forced them to take a stand,” says Das. “The problem with Parliament today is, to quote [sociologist] Andre Beteille, ‘A great institution has fallen into the hands of small people’”

Das spoke about the lack of generosity shown by the government towards the Hazare campaign in the initial stages. “The government was so apathetic,” he says. “I support this mass movement because it helps us to safeguard democracy.”

Former senior civil servant and Chairman, Federal Bank, P.C. Cyriac agreed with Das regarding the attitude of the government. “The administration should have been reasonable and sympathetic to the people’s demands and try to solve them, instead of attacking the petitioners,” he says.

To curb corruption, deterrent punishment has to be meted out to the offenders. “A combination of the Lok Ayukta and the Lokpal Bill would be the most effective,” says Cyriac.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Taxing time for the stars and their fans

Malayalis are coming to terms with the Income Tax raids on superstars Mammooty and Mohanlal

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last month, Keralites got a big surprise when 80 Income Tax officials raided the offices and houses of Malayalam superstars Mammootty and Mohanlal in Kochi, Chennai, Bangalore, and Thiruvananthapuram. More than Rs 30 crore in undeclared assets has been unearthed. In the past few weeks, there has been a varied reaction to this news.

Bangalore-based professional Deepak Thomas who is on holiday in Kochi says that he was not surprised by the news. “Mammooty and Mohanlal are like most rich people,” he says. “They want to evade taxes as much as possible.”

However, he says that will not prevent him from watching a movie featuring the superstars. “I admire their talent as actors,” he says. “Regarding their problems, it is an issue between them and the IT department.”

Film buff Meena Menon says that she is disappointed that the stars do not lead ethical lives. “They are already so lucky,” she says. “They have fame, talent, wealth, and the love of the public. It is greed that has made them behave the way they did.”

Meena is not sure whether she would like to see a new Mohanlal or Mammooty starrer. “I am conflicted about it,” she says.

Nisam Vallakkavadu has no such conflicts. The state general secretary of the All Kerala Mammootty Fans Welfare Association says that raids on Bollywood stars happen all the time. “So what is the big fuss?” he asks. “Has the media focused on the fact that last year Mammooty paid Rs 1.3 crore as taxes? They are just sensationalising the issue. Why cannot the IT department focus on the politicians who hoard crores of rupees in Swiss banks and are never caught?”

Nissam laughs when asked about whether there will be an impact on the box office. “On the day the news about the raids was flashed on all the television channels, Mammooty was shooting for 'Venicile Vyaapaari' in Alleppey,” he says. “The crowd just showered their affection on him. You must remember that he has been a superstar for 30 years now. A few raids are not going to dent his image at all.”

Girish Lal, who has been in the film industry for the past 30 years as a distributor, agrees that there will be no impact on the box office. “Public memory is short,” he says. “After a couple of months, when a new Mammooty or Mohanlal film is released, the people will flock to the theatres.”

Within the industry, the surprise was that only Rs 30 crore was unearthed. “We expected Rs 300 crore,” says Girish, with a naughty smile. “As superstars, it was inevitable that one day both would be subject to income tax raids.”

Meanwhile, Raju George, a veteran film director, says that there might be an impact if punishment is meted out to the two stars. “At this moment investigations are going on,” he says. “So, they cannot be pronounced guilty.” But he feels that even if there is a negative outcome, the public will not stop seeing their films. “They are great artistes and the people admire them,” he says. “Mammooty and Mohanlal will continue to flourish. There is no stopping them.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Freedom takes its first steps in Libya

Malayalis, who had worked in Libya, react to the rebel takeover of Tripoli

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Prof. M.T. Thomas and Dr. P.P. Jageer in Libya

When Kochi-based M.T. Thomas heard that the rebels had taken over Tripoli, he had a mixed reaction. “Because of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, those Indians who lived in Libya were safe, secure, and prosperous,” says Thomas, who had worked, till March this year, as an English professor in the University of Gharyan, at Kekela village, 200 kms from Tripoli. “Gaddafi, like the Libyan people, loved Indians.”

In fact, Thomas remembers seeing a photo of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Gaddafi sitting next to each other in the Indian embassy in Tripoli. This was during the former's visit to Libya in 1984.

Thomas's friend and Gharyan University colleague, Dr. P.P. Jageer, also of Kochi, says that the Libyans have a great respect for Indians and love to watch Hindi films. “They are fans of Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, and Aishwarya Rai,” says Jageer.

But there is no doubt that it was a brutal dictatorship. According to Human Rights Watch, 1270 prisoners were shot in one day in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996.

However, Jageer describes Gaddafi as an “enlightened despot. I don't think it is right of the Western media to call it a murderous regime. If Gaddafi had to survive, he had to kill his opponents. There was no other way. The idea was to keep everything under his control.”

One palpable result was that the people were scared. “The students were forbidden from talking about politics or the government,” says Thomas.

But Jageer says that there was a relative freedom in Libya. “I have heard people talk about politics, and criticise the leaders,” he says. “Because from every family there was at least one member who belonged to the police forces. They would talk to the policemen about the political situation.”

But what struck Jageer was the lack of general knowledge among the Libyans, thanks to their international isolation for many years. “They do not know anything about India and its many religions,” he says. “Sometimes, I would tell my students, 'You are frogs in a well.'” Of course, in the past few years, Internet connections had been set up in the country.”

But after more than 40 years of dictatorship, both are not sure whether Libyans are ready to handle democracy. Thomas recalls an incident: In July, last year, when he was preparing to return to Kochi for his annual vacation, the agency which was supposed to issue the tickets kept delaying it. After several futile visits to the office, a group of Indians staged a protest. “The staff got so scared, they immediately shut the door, and was about to call the police,” says Thomas. “Thankfully, other Libyans, who knew us, defused the situation.”

So, it is not going to be easy for a new government to assume power. “If you look at the history of North Africa, eventually, the military will take over and assume dictatorial powers,” says Thomas. “However, the good news is that, in the last decade, we have become a global village, thanks to the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. So, maybe, democracy will take root in Libya.”

Jageer says that the rebels have been making the right moves. “When they captured Saif Al-Islam, the son of Gaddafi, they could have killed him immediately,” he says. “Instead, he has been arrested and will face trial. They are doing it to show the world that they are a law-abiding people. But the question is: how long will they able to exercise their self-control?”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hearing the message of God clearly

The Little Flower Church at Elamkulam has solved the acoustic problem which had bedeviled the parishioners for the past several years

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: The new altar

When the new building of the Little Flower church was set up in October, 2004, at Elamkulam, Kochi, the parishioners were happy. Over the years, the number of parishioners had grown, and there was need for more space. Now, with its 13,000 sq. ft. area, there was enough and more area. Plus, its sloping tiled roof had made the church a landmark in the city.

But it was not long before the problem with the acoustics could be detected. “When the priest spoke, we found it difficult to hear him,” says Molly Issac, a long-time parishioner. What aggravated the situation was that during the monsoon season, when the raindrops beat hard on the roof, it became impossible to hear what the priest said.

Church trustee, Prof. George Philip, of Sacred Heart College, says, “If the dimensions of a hall are more than 17metres in its length, breadth and width, there will always be an echo.”

The pressure grew to solve the sound problem. In 2006, the Parish Council passed a resolution that the acoustics had to be repaired. But there was no money to do it. In the following years, as Kochi grew, and job opportunities became plentiful, more and more people joined the church. Contributions were solicited again. And this time, the money started pouring in steadily into the church's coffers. “The people responded whole-heartedly,” says Fr. Kuriakose Puthenmanayil, the parish priest. Today, there are 1100 families.

To ensure that this time they got the sound right, the Parish Council worked closely with sound engineer Fr. Paul Alengatukaran, CMI. “A polyethylene sheet has been pasted to the roof with glue,” says Fr. Paul. “This prevents water from leaking in. These sheets are also heat-resistant.”

Underneath it, at a gap of three feet, boards, made of a mix of cement and fibre, has been put up. “To suspend the boards, we set up trusses,” says Fr. Paul. “These boards formed the ceiling. So, there is a cushion of air between the roof and the ceiling. This ensures that the church is cool.”

Then glass wool was put on the side of the ceiling, which faced the floor. “This absorbs sound,” says Fr. Paul. “This can be found in theatres and air-conditioned halls. Over that, full tone sheets have been put. These have small holes and it takes in the sounds.”

To further increase the absorption of sound, the altar has been enlarged. Now, there are six new pillars made of wood, which has glass wool inside it. “It is well-known that wood absorbs sound very well,” says Prof. Philip.

To achieve all this took eight months of work, in which 25 workers worked six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The total cost: Rs 52 lakh.

On August 15, the new hall was inaugurated by Syro-Malabar Major Archbishop George Alencherry. And in the packed church, there were a lot of happy smiles, because the acoustics was perfect. “It has rained several times since, and we have faced no problems,” says a beaming Fr. Kuriakose. “Everybody can hear my voice clearly. And I can hear the responses of the faithful also.”
The Little Flower Church has been a magnet for people, who come in at all times of the day to pray for a little while. “There is a sense of peace inside the church,” says Fr. Kuriakose.

One morning the cleaning lady brought a piece of paper which had been placed on the altar. It was an appointment letter of a well-known bank. “It was a girl from another community who had put it on the altar, out of gratitude,” says Fr. Kuriakose. “People of all faiths come to pray.”

Many youngsters who come for interviews in the nearby Dream Hotel first drop in to the church to pray. “Some tell me later they have secured jobs,” says the parish priest.

The Little Flower is blooming again.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tackling piracy in the high seas

On August 15, Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran of the Indian Coast Guard was awarded the Tatrakshak Medal (Gallantary) by President Pratibha Patil for apprehending Somali pirates. Chandran talks about the incident off the coast of Lakshwadeep Islands

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran; The Somali prisoners on the deck of the 'Samar'

On August 16, in his spacious office of the Indian Coast Guard in Fort Kochi, Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran has a smile on his face. He has every reason to be happy. A day earlier, it had been announced that he had been awarded the Tatrakshak Medal (Gallantary) by President Pratibha Patel, on the occasion of Independence Day.

A section of the citation ran as follows: 'The officer exhibited an astute sense of aggressive tactics, with correct evaluation and solutions in a highly volatile and developing situation.'

This was what happened: Chandran received a message on the evening of February 5 that there were pirate ships in the area. This was around 90 miles from Lakshadweep.

“The sun was setting, when we went in search of this ship,” he says. Chandran was the commander of the Advance Offshore Patrol Vessel, ‘Samar’, which had a crew of 110.

“I devised a plan that we would pretend to be a merchant ship,” he says. “The pirates generally look at a ship that is going at a speed of 10 to 12 knots in the merchant ship lanes. I kept a steady course to give the impression that I am heading towards a particular country, with all the lights on.”

At 3.45 a.m., the lookout reported that something was closing in at a fast speed. It turned out to be a small boat. “The Somali pirates attacked us from the back,” says Chandran. “We returned fire.” But it was when they came very close that the pirates realised that it was not a merchant vessel. They started shouting, “Warship, warship,” and hurriedly turned back. The ‘Samar’ gave chase.

“We tracked them on the radar,” says Chandran The pirates returned to the mother ship and started moving away. It was a Thai fishing trawler, called Prantalay-II, which had been captured a year ago by these pirates.

Meanwhile, the crew gradually increased the use of force. “Initially, we flashed a light, to indicate to them to stop,” says Chandran. When that did not work, light and heavy machine guns were used, aimed at the bridge and the control room.

Finally, at 7 a.m., the Carl Gustav rocket launcher was used. “It makes a lot of noise,” says Chandran. “We aimed it 10 feet from the ship, and the water rose up in huge waves. We shot again. The Somalis realised the ship was going to be sunk. After that, all the people came on deck, holding white flags and waving shirts.”

There were 28 Somalis and 24 members of a crew, who had been held hostage.

Chandran asked the men to jump into the water. It was from a height of 40 feet. Most did so without any life jackets. A few held rubber tubes and pieces of thermocole. “They were excellent swimmers,” says Chandran.

The men were rescued one by one. Only 11 Somalis remained on the deck because they did not know how to swim. “They were arrested later by a boarding party,” says Chandran. “The Somalis were just robbers. When they encountered a stronger force, they wilted.”

The Thai crew was in bad shape. “The Somalis had been extremely cruel, and adequate food or water had not been given to them,” says Chandran. “Only the captain and the chief engineer were treated well, because they knew how to navigate the ship. The others were psychologically damaged.”

It was decided to take the group to Mumbai. But the journey turned out to be hazardous, as the ‘Samar’ had to tow the engine-damaged trawler. The tow rope, 64mm thick, broke four times. “The trawler would drift off,” says Chandran. “We had to go around and make another approach, before attaching it again. Ship handling is the toughest test for any captain. This happened in the middle of the night, in rough seas.”

Today, the Somalis languish in jail in Mumbai, while the crew, after a month's rest in Bangkok, flew to Mumbai and took the ship back to Thailand.

Eventually, it was an enriching experience for Chandran as a leader. “There were many doubts in my mind about whether I was making the right decisions or not,” he says. “In a fast-developing situation, things keep changing all the time. Luckily for me, that day, I made all the right moves. My 14 years of experience in command of ships helped me a lot. Nevertheless, in the end, it was touch and go.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Remembering India's Master Painter

A group of Kerala artistes hold an exhibition in tribute of the late M.F. Husain

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Painting of Husain by Dr. M. Sunil

When renowned painter M.F. Husain passed away in London on June 9, at the age of 95, Sasi K. Warier, the director of the Indian Art Gallery in Kochi felt that there should be a tribute. So, he gathered a group of 12 artistes, for two days, last month, to produce a series of paintings on the master. “The brief was simple,” says Warrier. “Each artist should produce a mental image or a personal memory of Husain.”

Among the 12, only P.J. James had an interaction with Husain. That was in August 2001, when Husain was invited by the Kerala State Tourism department to do a series of paintings highlighting the state’s natural and cultural assets. James was asked to assist Husain, who was staying at a five-star hotel in the city.

“Husain would do the sketches in black and instruct me to fill it in with the colours of his choice,” says James. “His style, experience and speed were astonishing. Husain could sketch a six-foot high canvas within fifteen minutes.” Apart from lissome Kerala lasses, Husain drew a lot of elephants.

So, it was no surprise that when James did a painting in tribute of Husain, he drew an acrylic on canvas with brightly-coloured elephants, with flapping ears, running around in all directions, with coconut trees placed in the background.

Sajith Puthukkalavattom had seen a photo of Husain in a local newspaper a few years ago. In that picture, Husain was sitting on the top of a series of steps, wearing goggles, a shiny black waist coat and trousers and shoes.

“I liked the showmanship of Husain in the photo,” says Sajith. “So I drew him like that, quite realistically, but I placed a long black brush resting on his upper thigh and a couple of barbed wires in front of him to indicate that he was unable to come to India.” Religious fundamentalists had vehemently protested when Husain drew Hindu goddesses in the nude, thereby putting his life at risk. Husain left India in 2006.

Balakrishnan Kadiroor has painted a running Husain, holding a long brush in his hands, but with no face. “I drew Husain without a face, to indicate that he is no more,” says Balakrishnan. “I also wanted to show that he was forced to run away from India.” Done in abstract style, on the left of the painting are two frightened eyes gazing into the future, while just below it is the Indian tricolour. Husain’s favourite motif, horses, with elongated faces, fill the other side of the painting.

Like Balakrishnan, Sasi K. Warrier also did not draw a face of Husain. Instead, he has placed footprints going from the bottom to the top of the canvas. “Husain is famous all over the world for going barefoot everywhere,” says Sasi. At the top there is the crescent of a moon, a Muslim religious symbol. “This was to give a hint that he had gone to a Muslim country,” says Sasi. Husain, as is well known, had settled down in Qatar and took that country’s citizenship in February, 2010.

Joby Ravindran has done an Impressionist painting of Husain sitting next to a dark-skinned woman, clad in a red salwar kameez, her hair covered by a white scarf. “Husain had a lot of women friends, including the actress Madhuri Dixit,” says Joby. “Without identifying anybody in particular, I wanted to show this friendship.” Meanwhile, Dr. M. Sunil has drawn a white-haired Husain in caricature mode, with an elongated nose and sitting on top of planet earth, to indicate his world class status.

The other contributors include T.N. Subodh Kumar, T.N. Raju, Dinesh Shenoy, A.A. Ajith Kumar, and P.J. Seemon. All in all, it was a remarkable look at the life of Husain through the eyes of a few talented painters in Kerala.

Protect your mom, please

The Dubai-based Premi Mathew has launched a campaign on Facebook, 'Protect Your Mom', asking children to pester their mothers to have a self-examination for breast cancer every week. Early detection can lead to a cure, she says.

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Dr. James George (name changed), who works in a hospital in Dubai noticed a lump on his wife's breast. A mammogram followed and Shirley was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. It was a shock for her. Months of chemotherapy and radiation followed. Her beautiful flowing shoulder-length black hair vanished, as did her eyelashes. She lost her job in a multi-national as a sales manager, and fell into a deep depression.

A year later, Shirley has recovered, although one breast had to be cut away. She wears a wig, since her hair has not grown sufficiently. And she has to go for check-ups every three months. When Premi Mathew saw first-hand what had happened to her friend, she decided to do something about it.

On October 2, 2010, she launched a 'Protect Your Mom' campaign on Facebook, from Dubai. With the help of her daughter, who is studying at the Rajagiri School of Engineering, at Kochi, she got 300 members within two days. Then Premi launched a SMS campaign: 'Cancer kills and early detection is the key. Join 'Protect your Mom Campaign' on Facebook. Let us save a few lives.' Thankfully, the message was highlighted in the media in Dubai and the campaign picked up speed.

The idea is simple. Children should pester their moms to do a self-examination once a week. Premi encourages this, because a mammogram is controversial, because of the danger of radiation.

A woman should inspect both breasts to see if there are any lumps or a discharge from the nipples, puckering, dimpling, or scaling of the skin. Special attention should be given to the area from the breast to the armpit and the armpit also.

“I am sure this way we can save lives,” says Premi. “You can get breast cancer, at any time, after the age of 20. And it may not be hereditary.”

On a brief holiday in Kochi, where her parents stay, Premi wants to create an awareness of breast cancer in Kerala. She is going to schools and colleges, urging youngsters to join her Facebook campaign. “I would request principals and teachers to encourage their students to join our group,” she says.

Worldwide, one out of eight women is susceptible to breast cancer. “Early detection is very important, because cancer treatment is prohibitively expensive,” she says. “Your family finances can get wiped out.” In Kochi, one chemotherapy session in a good hospital can cost Rs 65,000.

Meanwhile, Julie, a breast cancer survivor, addressed the scourge in a letter, on Premi’s Facebook page, and it epitomises what ‘Protect your Mum’ is trying to do:

Dear Breast Cancer,
We always knew you were out there.
Wreaking havoc in people’s lives.
You came into our lives at our weakest point.
We fought you!
Here’s a news flash for you:
You caught us off guard.
It won’t happen again.
Our new life’s mission is to ensure you can’t do the same to others.
We will educate as many women as we can to eradicate you!
Watch your back! We are coming for you!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A tryst with tinseltown

For the past 30 years, Pradeep Gopalan has been pasting cinema posters on walls and lampposts in Kochi and all over Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a weekday morning, Pradeep Gopalan stands near a wall in Padivattom. From a bag, he takes out a large 'Salt and Pepper' poster, which announces that the film has completed 35 days. He flips it over, scoops up glue with his hands, from a small container, and rubs the edges on all four sides. Then he pastes it neatly on the wall.

“At Padivattom, I was coming to the end of my work,” he says. Pradeep's work had begun the previous night. He had travelled all over Kalamaserry, Kakkanad and Padivattom, pasting posters on walls and lamp posts. “If the wall is easily accessible, it takes me about ten minutes to put up a poster,” says Pradeep, who hires an auto-rickshaw to move around.

But there are places, in Kalamaserry, beside a pond, on slushy ground, when he takes a longer time. “Of course, it is much more difficult during the monsoon season, but at the same time, because of the cool weather, I feel less tired,” he says. In summer, the humidity gets to him and Pradeep becomes tired when morning arrives. “I am not getting any younger,” says the 54-year-old.

When he was 19, Pradeep secured a job as a peon in the office of a cinema in Chalakudy. Soon, he was given the job of pasting posters in the town. “Later, I would travel from Kasaragod to Kanyakumari putting up posters all over the place,” he says. “Film producers would provide a van for the job.” In eight days, he would paste 15,000 posters. And he would sleep in cinema theatres along the way.

“In those days, I would be paid Rs 2 per poster,” he says. But over the years the rates have not gone up much. “I am getting Rs 2.15 per poster now,” he says. But Pradeep has to pay for the transport charges as well as the cost of buying the raw materials, to make the glue.

In the backyard of Pradeep’s house, near the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium at Kaloor, a container has been placed on a mud stove. It contains a milky white liquid. Pradeep is making the glue.

“It has a mix of flour, water, and a chemical powder,” he says, as he stirs the mixture with a ladle. “This powder prevents ants from walking all over the posters when they are pasted on the walls.” At the side, there are four plastic containers, all filled with glue. “Costs are going up,” he says. “I have to buy firewood also.”

Of course, putting posters on walls is unlawful. But Jose Mundadan, the secretary of the Film Distributors’ Association, which oversees the work of pasting posters, says, “Political parties do it. The Cochin Corporation does it, apart from various unions. So we see nothing wrong in what we are doing.”

As for Pradeep, he says, “I am talking to you very politely, but I don't know where you live. Tonight, who knows, I may be putting up a poster on your wall.” Then he gives a sly grin.

In Kochi, Pradeep usually pastes the posters of films shown in nine theatres: Padma, Shenoys, Little Shenoys, Sridhar, Savitha, Sangeetha, Saritha, Kavitha, and Kanoos. The busiest days are on Wednesday and Thursday, before the Friday release of the film. Interestingly, Pradeep does not see any of the films, despite seeing the posters all the time. “I am not interested in movies,” he says. “If I get a pass, I give it to my daughter.”

Meanwhile, he has had bad experiences. In 1998, Pradeep was getting ready to paste the posters of the Mohanlal-Mammooty film, 'Hariskrishnans' in Kodungaloor. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a group of young men emerged, with sticks in their hands. They pounced on Pradeep and beat him up. He pleaded with them to take some posters, which they did, and departed. “They were drunk,” he says. “So what could I do?” He pauses and says, “There is always a risk to work at night.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

In praise of Gods and Goddesses

Ganesh Sundaram who has sung the 'Himakanam' hit song in 'Violin', is also a Hindu devotional singer, who has sung over 2000 songs

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ganesh Sundaram's hit song, 'Himakanam' from the Malayalam film, 'Violin' is having an impact on listeners. There is something about his dulcet voice, plaintive, sincere, and intense, that touches the listener. 'Where had this talent been hiding for so long?' is the thought in the mind.

“The voice should hit the hearts of the listeners, otherwise, there will be no impact," says Ganesh. "But to have that sort of voice is a gift from God.” Nevertheless, the man is modest. “My talent is nowhere near that of Yesudas and S.P. Balasubramanim,” he says. “But I try to do something with what I have been given by God.”

Music director Bijibal, who composed the ‘Himakanam’ song for 'Violin', is an admirer. “I chose Ganesh because he has a genuine voice,” he says. “That is his best quality. And although he has not sung many film songs, he is a seasoned professional.”

Not many people know that Ganesh has been a successful Hindu devotional singer for the past twenty years. So far he has sung 2000 songs, which have been recorded in 800 cassettes.

His turning point came when his 1999 album, 'Guruthipooja', became a hit.
“The songs are in praise of Bhagawathy Devi of the Chottanikkara temple,” says Ganesh. “It has good lyrics and catchy tunes, and the public liked it a lot. The album is still selling. People still give me praise. They feel a sense of peace when they listen to the songs.”

That is true. When you do listen to 'Guruthipooja', there is a soothing tone to Ganesh's voice, offering balm to wounded souls, and indirectly giving the option to pray to Bhagawathy Devi to get over the troubles that one is facing in life.

Ganesh lives beside the Devi temple at Tripunithara. On a weekday morning, he is the only one in the house. His wife, Smitha, has gone to work as a teacher, while his sons, Shankar, 14, and Shridhar, 10, are at school. Since Ganesh is a professional singer, he can be home on some mornings. But he keeps himself busy by taking part in ganamelas, and concerts during the festival season.

But it has not been easy. There have been times when his income has dipped. “During those periods, I had to rely on my wife, my brother who lives in Muscat and my mother, a former schoolteacher, who gets a pension.”

Sometimes, the stress has got to him. Once he was doing cover tracks for another singer for noted music director Raveendranath. The lyrics were written by the late Girish Puthencherry. It is about Kujelan [a character from the Puranas] who is starving and goes to meet Lord Krishna. Kujelan is sure to get a meal with the Lord. “When I sang the song, I was reminded of the hardships I faced in my life,” says Ganesh. “After the song was recorded, I burst into tears.”

The music director was stunned. All the musicians stopped playing. There was a pin-drop silence. Finally, Raveendranath said, “Son, don't worry, things will work out.”

Things do work out, and there have been happy moments. In 2006, he won the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award for the best song in a drama.

But it is in playback singing for films that he is struggling to make a mark. “You cannot blame music directors,” he says. “For one song, there are 50 singers from whom he can choose.” Ganesh pauses and says, simply, “To succeed, you need a godfather.”

Nevertheless, Ganesh has got some good assignments. He has sung in 'Loudspeaker', 'Minnaminni Kootam', 'Kudumbasree Travels' and 'Bombay, March 12', where he shares space with Sonu Nigam on a song. He has also sung a couple of Tamil songs and continues with his bread and butter: devotional songs.

As for the future, he says, "I want to sing many more film songs and become as good as it is possible to be."

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

'An Express' Way to master English

A school in Koduvely uses 'The New Indian Express' newspaper to improve the English language skills of the students

Photo: Students of the Sanjo CMI Public School holding aloft a copy of 'The New Indian Express'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On July 1, Fr. Johnson Palappally, the headmaster of the Sanjo CMI Public School at Koduvely, near Thodupuzha instituted 'An Express Way to Master English'. In this programme, every student from Class 4 to 10 has to read an edition of 'The New Indian Express' daily. The next morning, at Assembly, Fr. Johnson will select students at random, and they will talk about the news reports that interested them the most.

“The aim is to enable the students to develop the habit of reading,” says Fr. Johnson. “They will also become familiar with current topics.” Many of the students are fearful about reading English newspapers. So Fr. Johnson wanted to help them get over their apprehensions.

“The advantage of 'The New Indian Express' is that the newspaper has a simple style and is easy to read,” says Ginesh George, the head of the English department. “We want the students to fall in love with the English language.”

Another benefit is that the students are able to learn new words and phrases. “Yes, my vocabulary has become better,” says Maria S. Padathil, a Class 9 student. “By constantly reading the newspaper, my language has also improved. I have been able to do well in my exams.” What she enjoys to read the most is current affairs. “I also like the attractive layout,” she adds.

Another Class 9 student, Jibin P. Jenson says that he has learned many new words. “This is a good programme,” he says. “Initially, I never used to read the newspaper, but now I am developing the habit of reading daily.”

In order to ensure that the students are actually reading the English newspaper, the students have to declare on which page and in which column the news item has appeared. “In this way, students will not take the easy way out and read a Malayalam newspaper and get the news,” says the principal.

Asked what is the news the students most like to read, the librarian, Mrs. Sony Thomas, says, “The local news comes first. Thereafter, they are keen to read about current affairs, education, and sports.”

Fr. Johnson is being assisted by Sony, who is the chief architect of the programme, and Ginesh, the captain of 'EYE' (Empower Your English).

“Both of them have ensured that 'An Express Way to Master English,' has become a success,” says Fr. Johnson.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, August 08, 2011

A helping hand for prisoners

The Jesus Fraternity, run by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, offers counselling to prisoners all over Kerala

Photos: Fr. Yesudas Kodiveetil; the logo of Jesus Fraternity

By Shevlin Sebastian

On December 8, 1981, Varghese Karippery and Francis Kodiyan, who were studying at the St Thomas apostolic Seminary, at Vadavathoor, Kottayam, were given the task of attending phone calls. One was from a prisoner. That was how both of them got up the idea to do something for prisoners. The end result: an organisation called Jesus Fraternity. And there is an explanation behind the name.

“Not many people know that Jesus was a prisoner of Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judaea,” says Fr. Yesudas Kodiveetil, the director of the Jesus Fraternity group. In the Gospel of St. Mathew, the following line was attributed to Jesus: 'I was a prisoner and you came to visit me.'

Says Fr. Yesudas: “The Jesus Fraternity sees in each and every prisoner the face of Jesus.”

Now run by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, the group has 13 centres all over Kerala. And once a week, members go to jails, sub-jails and central prisons, around 62 in total, and offer counselling to the prisoners.

“We ask the prisoners to give up their anti-social activities,” says Fraternity secretary Sr. Sheeba Kaitharathu. “Most are in jail for stealing, murder, drug-peddling, cyber and financial frauds,” she says.

Owing to their crimes, prisoners are ostracised by society. “Nobody goes to see them,” says Sr. Sheeba. “People will not like to say, 'I have a friend who is a murderer'. Because of their isolation, some prisoners feel the need to be re-integrated into society.”

So, when they are released, they take up the invitation by Jesus Fraternity to stay at their centres, and learn skills like carpentry and masonry. “After a year, we try to get them jobs, so that they can be weaned away from a life of crime,” says Sr. Sheeba.

But there is a group of hardened prisoners. “Because of peer pressure, and since people outside are waiting to use their services, they are much sought-after,” says Fr. Yesudas. “They say that since they will always be branded as criminals by society, they prefer to remain crooks. So when they are released, they go back to their gangs.”

The average relapse rate is 60 per cent. “But we never give up,” says Fr. Yesudas. “We will meet these people and try to persuade them to change their minds.”

Meanwhile, their families go through a tough time. “When a man goes to prison, the family is ostracised by the people in the locality,” says Sr. Sheeba. “Many neighbours make hurtful comments.”

The man is regarded as a criminal forever. “The Kerala mentality is such that the son will always be branded as a criminal's son,” says Fr. Yesudas. “They will tell him, 'We know who you are'. Even if a criminal reforms himself and goes up in society, the labelling is permanent. As a people we are censorious and not mature enough to understand that people can make mistakes in life.”

The reaction of the family members to these mistakes is also unpredictable. “Some wives accept their husband's flaws,” says Sr. Sheeba. “But there are many who opt for a divorce. What we try to do is to reconcile the couple. Sometimes, we have succeeded, on other occasions, the family has broken up.” As for the children, some accept and love their father, while others reject the parent.

Nowadays, the members of Jesus Fraternity are worried by the rising number of young criminals. “Most of them are in the age group of 18 and 35,” says Fr. Yesudas. “I know of youngsters who join quotation gangs, because, by just being a member, they get paid Rs 1000 per day. So, it is easy money for them.”

He says that parents are so busy these days they don't spend much time with their children. “Hence, children become susceptible to negative influences outside the home,” says Fr. Yesudas. What is also worrying is the rising number of drinkers. “Many crimes have been committed under the influence of alcohol,” says the priest. “These are disturbing times.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, August 05, 2011

Gigo on the go!

Gigo Joseph, the CEO of Infoparks Kerala, talks about drawing investors to the Kochi IT hub, especially for Phase 2, which has 160 acres

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6.30 p.m. on a Monday, Gigo Joseph, the CEO of Infoparks Kerala, has just concluded a meeting with the District Collector P.I. Sheik Pareeth about an alignment of an electricity cable that is passing through Smart City as well as Info Park. It had been a hectic day. It began with a public function at a school in Kochi, followed by a staff meeting, and other engagements.

Appointed around two months ago by the State Government, his brief is simple. “The government wants to improve the IT footprint in the state,” he says. “We need to become competitive with other states.” At the moment Kerala lags far behind. While the IT industry in Kerala is worth Rs 3000 crore, in Karnataka it is Rs 80,000 crore.

Joseph explains the reasons behind Karnataka's success. “Bangalore had become established as an IT hub earlier,” he says. “There is a good pool of talent available, and there is still scope for growth. Senior executives at multinationals say they keep getting good people, they are growing, so why move out?”

Nevertheless, Joseph is trying hard to woo investors, by travelling to other states. And in the process, he is learning about how others perceive God's Own Country. “There is a fear that Kerala is not an investment-friendly state,” says Joseph. “I have told the investors that those who have set up shop in the park have not lost a single day to labour problems or strikes. I encourage them to talk to the clients who are already here, like US Technology International, Cognizant, and Wipro.” At present, there are 75 companies, which employ 15,000 people.

He cites other advantages. “Electricity-wise, we are stable, as compared to a state like Karnataka, where there are power cuts of five hours or more,” he says. “The tariff is half that of Bangalore. In rentals, in Bangalore, premium places will go for Rs 50 to 60 per sq. feet. In Kochi, you can get it for Rs 25 sq. ft.”

But, for most employers, the big worry is the lack of entertainment. For IT professionals, the weekend is a time to unwind, after a five-day week where an employee spends more than nine hours daily at work. “Most of the outsiders feel that Kochi is a sleepy town and there is nothing to do in the evenings,” he says.

Joseph talks about the presence of malls like the Oberon, the Gold Souk, and the upcoming Lulu. “I tell them that there are many good restaurants, and classy hotels like the Vivanta by Taj and the Ramada resort,” he says. “There are many scenic places to visit, where professionals can unwind on the weekends. Kerala has an unique charm of its own.”

Of course, another complaint is that the local talent is not as good as those found in Bangalore, Chennai or Hyderabad. “Definitely, the talent in Kerala needs exposure to reach the levels of Bangalore,” he says. “Hence, they need to be given training by the various companies who come here.”

Joseph's former company, Infosys, has a six-month training programme for beginners. “When Infosys hires 35,000 people per year, there is an urgent need to give training so that the freshers can reach the level the company desires,” he says. “I am sure the Malayalis in Kerala, if given similar training, will do well. One must remember that there are many successful Malayalis working in the IT industry in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, and all over the world.”

Meanwhile, Joseph's immediate priority is to develop the 160 acres available in Phase-2 of the Info Park, Kochi, in the next eight years. “If I can do this, 80,000 jobs will become available,” he says. “When Smart City also comes up, a similar number of openings will materialise. So, we are talking about 2 lakh jobs.” And not to forget the Info Parks at Cherthala and Koratty, which are also Joseph’s responsibility. “I am excited that I can contribute in some way to the development of the state,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Don't worry, be positive!

The Positive Thinking movement is trying to change the negative mind-set of the people of Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Anto Varkey

On October 25, 2008, educationist John Joseph published a supplement in the New Indian Express newspaper. “It explained the concept of positive thinking,” says Joseph. There were articles on how countries like the United States, Japan and Europe became successful because they are positive-thinking people. “I decided to publish because I noticed that the people of Kerala have a negative mind-set,” says Joseph.

The articles struck a chord. Several readers called him up. Among them was Anto Varkey, the former General Manager of the BPCL Kochi Refineries Limited. “When I read the supplement, I realised that this is something that is needed for Kerala,” he says. “I told Joseph this is a good movement.” Soon, a meeting was arranged, and thus was born the Positive Thinking Movement.

“In Kerala, if you put forth a proposal, several people will trot out excuses about why it will not work out,” says Varkey, who is the vice-chairman of the movement. “In the end, the project is killed.”

This is going on at all levels of society. “This happens between children and parents, students and teachers, managers and subordinates,” says Varkey. “At every stage, there is a negative discussion going on. In fact, there is an over-analysis of everything. It leads to paralysis.”

Suppose a person is asked to cut a tree. “He will say the axe is not sharp, the weather is not good, the tree will block the road, or it will fall on the electricity wires,” says Varkey. “This is the mind-set of most Keralities.”

The Positive Thinking Movement has more than 120 members. There are doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, academicians, and businessmen. Chapters have been established at Tripunithara, Fort Kochi, Aluva, Vypeen, and Alleppey. And they have started courses in positive thinking. “So far, we have covered 30 schools in Ernakulam district,” says Peter Fernandes, a vice-chairman. “The participants have been principals and teachers.”

In one module, teachers are asked to find out, within a few hours, the total number of teachers, students and schools in Ernakulam district. “The immediate reaction is that it is not possible to get the information so quickly,” says Fernandes. “Then I will tell them about the principles of Benjamin Franklin, the great American polymath.”

According to Franklin, to programme the mind there are only four steps. In the first step one should say, “It can be done.” Second statement: “It will be done.” Third: “It should be done.” Fourth: “Find the ways and means.”

“When a teacher says it is not possible, the doors of the mind become shut,” says Fernandes. “Your creativity, ingenuity and openness are suppressed. But suppose you tell yourself it can be done, it will be done, it should be done, and I must find ways and means, the mind will immediately look for solutions.”

Soon, one teacher will say the e-mail can be used. Another will suggest a telephone directory or to get in touch with the education directorate's office. “In the end, by 5 p.m., the information can be got,” says Varkey. “The fight in the mind is between possible and impossible. Our minds are always tuned towards the impossible. On the other hand, if we are positive-minded, we will start looking at possibilities, and solutions.”

Asked how this negative mind-set has developed among Malayalis, Varkey says, “One possible reason could be the impact of Communism. It is an ideology that is against new ideas and projects. It is against growth and capitalism. Communists oppose for the sake of opposing. However, psychological studies have to be done to confirm this.”

Meanwhile, the Positive Thinking Movement is planning to spread its message all over Kerala. “We want to create an atmosphere where if somebody comes up with a new idea, there will be applause and receptiveness, instead of derision and inertia, as is the case now,” says Varkey.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Spoiling a river

Members of the Voice of Nature group try their best to prevent the environmental degradation of the Kodoor river near Kottayam

Photos: Dr. Praveen George Ittycheria, the president of the 'Voice of Nature' group, with the captured lorry; A train going on a bridge over the Kodoor river

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is always a sense of elation when you see a river for the first time. The Kodoor river, near Kottayam, evokes the same reaction, especially when you come to it through congested roads. But your mood can get quickly spoiled when you have to haggle with the boatman, a lean and wiry man, over charges for a journey. Ultimately, following delicate thrusts and counter-thrusts, a rate is fixed.

As you set out, with the diesel engine making a throbbing sound, a closer look at the water evokes a grimace. It is chocolate-brown, in colour, like slush, and thick. On one bank, there are car workshops and a vegetable and fish market. As we go past, an unbearable stench rises up.

“They are throwing the waste into the water,” says Dr. Praveen George Ittycheria, the president of the 'Voice of Nature' group. “I have seen chicken sellers come at midnight, to a nearby bridge and throw the remains into the river. We have alerted the municipal authorities about this.”

Recently, the group had cleaned both sides of the bank, near a bridge, which was choked with garbage: construction material, sand, mud, bricks, slippers, and plastic bottles, all of which would inevitably find its way into the river. In its place, plants and grass have been planted. “But garbage was still being thrown,” he says.

So one, night, the group kept vigil. Suddenly, a lorry with the words, 'Drinking Water' written in bold letters at the front and the back, drew up silently. The driver went to the back, and aimed a pipe into the water. On closer investigation, it turned out to be human excreta. When confronted, the driver jumped into the lorry and fled. The members of the Voice of Nature group, led by Praveen, chased him in their car. Ultimately, the driver was apprehended, taken to the police station, and a FIR was lodged.

Says Mary Roy, the principal of Pallikoodam school, “Heavy fines should be imposed on anybody dumping garbage into the river.Today it is Rs. 300. It should be Rs. 1 lakh, with imprisonment. The rules must be changed.”

Praveen says that a constant degradation of the Kodoor river is taking place. Incidentally, the river is 20 kms long and has a width of 80 feet. At the boat chugs along, and goes further away from the town, the river begins to shake off the depredations it has suffered. The waters begin to get clearer and there is a swifter flow now. Soon, the slap of waves hitting the banks can be heard.

On one side, there are small houses, with asbestos roofs. Behind them are several paddy fields: a lush-green carpet, broken now and then by small mud partitions. In the distance, there are tree-laden hills. A gentle breeze is blowing. The boat picks up speed. The flow becomes faster now.

Surprisingly, as the driver approaches a railway bridge, the boat moves to one side, towards the bank. “More than 15 years ago, a goods train derailed,” says Praveen, by way of explanation. “Two bogies, containing oil, fell into the water. The Railways have yet to remove it. So, if we go straight, the underside of the boat will scrape against the wagons.”

If you stare hard, you can barely make out the outlines of a wagon, just below the surface. And so, the boat is carefully manoeuvred and goes past the bridge.

About half a kilometre from Puthupally town, there was a huge mound of garbage in the middle of the river. Fishermen had put up nets to trap fish, but a lot of waste also got stuck. Over the years, this had become an obstruction. “With the help of a local group, the Ericadu Club, we have got rid of a lot of garbage and created a passageway,” says Praveen. “However, more work has to be done.”

A dentist by profession, Praveen has a close connection with theriver. “I grew up beside it,” he says. “I remember in my childhood, the waters were crystal clear and we would often swim in it and have so much fun catching fish. That is why to see the river in this condition pains me. So, I am trying to do something.”

The Voice of Nature group consists of dentists, engineers, doctors, politicians, religious leaders and social workers. “We are a group of middle class people who want to stop the degradation of the environment,” says Vice President Aleyamma Cheriyan. “And we also want to spread a message to people that they should love and respect Nature.”

(The New Indian Express, south India and Delhi)