Thursday, September 29, 2011

All of four and no less

There is a debate among parents, teachers, and psychologists about whether the minimum age for admission in kindergarten should be four years of age

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the admission process this year for the kindergarten section of a private school, principal Jeena Mohan (name changed) had a tough time. Ever since the State Government announced that a student has to complete six years of age on June 1 for admission to Class 1, the management had taken the decision that the minimum age for admission to Lower Kindergarten would be four.

“Many parents, who had children of three and three and a half years, were upset,” says Jeena. “They were keen to get the child off their hands. They feel that the responsibility of educating the child rests on the teachers.”

However Jeena agrees with this cut-off date. “There is a big difference between three and four years,” she says. “A child, at three, is unable to hold a pencil properly. There is a lack of clarity in speech. And there is also the problem of toilet training.”

Another person who agrees with Jeena is Annie Cherical, teacher in charge of the kindergarten at Vidyodaya school, Thevakkal. “It is good to have a cut-off date at four years,” she says. “Children are more ready when they are older. I know that parents say that children are smart at 3 ½ and earlier. But they are seeing that one child in front of them.”

On the other hand, the Vidyodaya teachers have noticed that when there are children between 3 ½ and 4 ½ in a class, usually those who are four plus perform much better. “This is very clear to us,” says Annie. “But, at the same time, I am not saying that there is something wrong with the 3 ½ year old child.”

Jeena bemoans the fact that even though going to kindergarten is not a must, it has gained a momentum of its own. “But we try to avoid teaching too much,” she says. “Definitely, writing is taught only in upper kindergarten.” She says that many schools have set up a heavy study schedule for the toddlers. “There are schools, where what is taught in Class 2 is being taught in kindergarten,” says Jeena. “Children will develop an aversion to studies.”

Annie says that formal learning like writing and reading should be avoided because it is far too early for children to assimilate these concepts.

The new thinking is that children should be allowed to play and enjoy their childhood, till they are four. “The later they come to school the more capable they are of understanding what is being taught,” says Jeena.

Some parents, of course, do not agree. Jiny Soney, a mother of two young girls, says, “My daughter, Veronica, joined kindergarten when she was three and a half. And she had no problems whatsoever.” Her younger child, Victoria, at 2 ½, is already in a playschool and has learnt songs, numbers and alphabets with ease. “Children are much smarter these days,” she says.

Dr. Siju Thottappilly, who deals with the behavioural problems of children, insists that the earlier a child goes to school, the better. “I don't think there is any problem of children going to a creche or play school,” he says. “It is better than being looked after a maid-servant, especially if the mother is working. Maid-servants will not give as much care. In school, children are able to develop their social skills.”

But there are drawbacks also. “Sometimes children feel pressured when they have to do compulsory studies in play school and nursery,” says Siju. “So, a younger child will find it difficult to cope. But in good schools children learn only through games and play and this should be encouraged.”

Overall, it is a matter of debate whether this cut-off date is necessary. “There have not been any scientific studies that have been referred to, regarding this,” says Annie.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tales of the Tiger

Mansur Ali Khan, also known as Tiger Pataudi, was as good a journalist as a cricketer

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: The Sportsworld team. (From left, front row): Andy O'Brien, Aveek Sarkar, Chief Editor of the Ananda Bazar Group, Tiger Pataudi, Robin Chatterjee, Suprakash Ghoshal, and Shevlin Sebastian.
Back row: Pradeep Paul, Rohit, Brijnath, K.O. Jacob, Avik Lee, and a waiter at Dalhousie Club, Kolkata

When Mansur Ali Khan, also known as ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, stepped inside the building of the Ananda Bazar office in Kolkata, one day, in the early nineties, there was a palpable excitement among the employees. This was the Delhi-based Tiger’s annual visit to see the staff of the magazine, Sportsworld, of which he was the editor.

Just prior to his arrival, women journalists had told Sportsworld staffers, with nervous excitement in their voices, “You must introduce us, you must introduce us.”

Assistant Editor David McMahon told his subordinates, of whom I was one, in preparation of the visit, “With Tiger, he appreciates it if you are relaxed. If you get uptight, then he clams up.” Later, this casual tip was used by most of us effectively whenever we met famous personalities during the course of our careers.

On that particular day, Tiger was dressed informally in a cream Safari shirt and matching trousers, Kolhapuri leather slippers, and sunshades. The most striking aspect, at first sight, was how handsome he was: the aquiline nose, and those red cheeks of his.

As he stepped into the glass-panelled office of Sportsworld, he did a familiar ritual:
He looked around to see some of the racier posters of sportswomen that we had pasted on the walls. Since the team members were all in their mid-twenties, such interests were expected. He glanced at a particularly striking photo of former Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, posing in a black bikini, and murmured, “Nice.” All of us relaxed immediately.

Naturally, we gathered around and spoke about sport, and a host of other topics. Tiger had a dry wit, a sharp mind, and a wonderful articulateness. It helped that he was educated at Oxford University .

Things got so laid-back that one colleague said, “Tiger, which eye of yours is blind?”

An unblinking Tiger said, “Take a guess?”

And of course, he said, “Left”, and got it wrong. But it was difficult to figure out that the right one was inactive. He damaged it permanently at the age of 20 in a car accident in England.

Another staffer piped up, “Do you have blue blood?” This was in reference to the fact that he was the Nawab of Pataudi, a person of royal lineage. Tiger laughed, and said, “Cut me up and see.”

Soon, a crowd had gathered outside. Finally, David opened the door and the girls trooped in, all giggly and red-faced and shook his hand. Afterward, we could hear them squealing in delight in the corridor outside. Undoubtedly, Tiger had charisma and charm. He was also rich, famous, and an achiever.

One of India’s youngest cricket captains, Tiger scored 2793 runs in 46 Tests. Thanks to his shrewd captaincy, India secured their first Test series win abroad, in New Zealand, in 1968. And to top all that, he was a classy writer. His editorials -- clear-eyed and lucid -- were much praised.

But here was the oddest part of this ‘Tiger’. For some reason he was afraid to fly. So every time, he came to Kolkata, he took the Rajdhani Express. One of us would be deputed to collect him from Howrah station.

But Tiger was much appreciated by his staff, because he led with a light touch. As a result, many of the staffers could unleash their creativity, and develop their potential. Some have gone on to stellar careers in international newspapers and magazines abroad. His death, at 70, has brought a numbing pain. But his legacy of fair and graceful leadership will live on inside us for the rest of our lives.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A door to one's memories

Kochuouseph Chittillapally talks about his autobiography, ‘Ormakilivaathil’, which was released recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: The cover of the book

On a recent Saturday morning, industrialist Kochuouseph Chittillapally is preparing for a fortnight-long business trip to China. As he talks about the tour, he remembers the aspirations of his father, which he has recounted in his just-released autobiography, ‘Ormakilivaathil’.

“My father said that after my studies I could return and work on the farm, in our village of Parappur , near Thrissur,” he says. “Or I could be a school teacher, or a bank clerk. Thrissur had so many banks: South Indian, Catholic Syrian, and Dhanalakshmi. My father's ambitions were limited to that area only.”

But now, 66 years after Independence, the aspirations of parents have changed. “They want the children to get the best education and the best jobs anywhere in the world,” says Kochuouseph.

When he was a child, he remembers seeing visible poverty among the people. “Many were starving, especially during the monsoon season,” he says. “Fortunately, I belonged to a well-to-do family. My mother would help by giving foodgrains to the poor.”

Help also came in the form of the American PL 480 programme, in which wheat, milk powder, and cereals were sent to poor countries like India . “In our village, the local church distributed the relief materials,” says Kochuouseph. “Apparently, the US would dump its excess production in the sea. But later, they began sending it to less-developed countries.”

In the sixties, food was needed in plenty, because the families were large. “In my house, there were six children,” he says. “My uncle, who lived nearby, had eight. Another relative had eight children. Attention to one child was at the minimum. We used to get beatings and cry a lot, but who bothered? As a result, I became mentally and emotionally strong. Whatever happens in life, I can face it.”

School also toughened up Kochuouseph. Contrary to what most people think, he was a mediocre student, and suffered from dyslexia. “When I want to write the number 93, it will come across as 39,” he says. “If you tell me a ten-digit number, and when I write it, one or two numbers will go missing. So, I have to check and re-check the number that I am writing down.”

Once, during the English class, at St. John’s school, he was asked to read a chapter and failed to do so. “The teacher felt that I was not serious about my studies, even though I was trying very hard at home,” he says. “I was forced to stand on the bench and all my classmates laughed at me. It was a humiliating incident, but in those days all the students went through similar experiences.”

Kochuouseph bemoans the fact that children have become soft these days. “In a family, there are only one or two children, and there is a lot of pampering,” he says. “We give special attention. We analyse their emotional feelings. But outside the home, society is ruthless. The rule is survival of the fittest. So, a pampered child finds it difficult to cope with life, especially when faced with setbacks.”

When he became a teenager, he would bunk classes, along with his friends, and go to watch films. “Hindi films were very popular because they were usually shot in foreign locales, and it was fascinating to see those countries,” he says.

Kochuouseph remembers going to see an English film, ‘Patton’, at Sridhar theatre. “It was the only cinema that showed 70mm films,” he says. He would also step into the Sealord hotel, which was the biggest those days in Kerala. “I paid 75 paise for a cup of tea, which cost 20 paise outside,” he says.

The autobiography, which spans the years from childhood till Kochuouseph is 22, happened by accident. Three years ago, M.A. Ravikumar, a senior manager at Wonderla Holidays Pvt Ltd., which is owned by Kochuouseph, approached him and asked whether he could write a biography. The industrialist agreed. Work began. But sometime later, Kochuouseph read an article by journalist Sajil Sreedhar in a magazine. He liked the style and got in touch. Sajil agreed to get on board.

For the next three years, Ravikumar, Sajil, and Kochuouseph met once a fortnight, where the industrialist spoke about his past. The end result is ‘Ormakilivaathil’, published by DC Books.

But, as writer T. Padmanabhan wrote in the foreword, 'This book is only a seed. Now the peepal tree has to come up.' Kochuouseph smiles, and says, “Yes, I will be starting work on Part 2 very soon.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

A one-man inspiration army

When Gopalji died of colon cancer at the age of 42, his numerous friends were left bereft. In order to honour him, they have started a foundation in his name

By Shevlin Sebastian

Media professional Jeret Venugopal remembers going to his cousin, Gopalji’s house at Vytilla one morning to collect documents for a consultation at Amrita Hospital. Gopalji had been diagnosed with colon cancer. As he stepped out, Gopalji called him back. “Please wait, I want to give you a paper,” he said.

But when Venugopal read the document, it was another person's health report. “Gopalji asked whether I could show it to a doctor at Amrita,” says Venugopal. “Even as he was dying, because he was at stage 4 of the disease, Gopalji was thinking about other people.”

For hundreds of people Gopalji was a legendary friend. Nearly all of them met him when they were doing their graduate courses at Maharaja’s College in the eighties. “Gopalji had the power to reach out and touch your heart,” says college lecturer Bindu M.K. “Even if you are meeting him for the first time, you never felt he was a stranger.”

His actual name is V.B. Gopalakrishnan. But when Meera Ramakrishnan, a Malayali, who grew up in North India, befriended Gopalakrishan, at Maharaja’s College, she began calling him ‘Gopalji’ and the name stuck.

Gopalji did not hold any college union post, but he was actively involved in cultural activities, youth festivals, and the nature club. “Many trees that were planted in Kochi were done under his leadership,” says Venugopal. “He practiced and preached blood donations long before it became fashionable. He also provided money to provide afternoon meals for students.”

Even as he helped people, Gopalji had a busy career as manager, projects, of Cochin Media City, a facilitator for the media, communication and entertainment industry.

But, unfortunately, this activity-filled life came to a sudden end on February 18, 2010. Gopalji was only 42. He left behind a wife, Sonia, an English teacher at Nalanda Public School, and two children, Krishnan, 6, and Gouri, 3. “His death created a vacuum in our lives,” says Bindu.

A few months after Gopalji’s death, a consensus arose among his friends that they should start an organisation in his name. “We wanted to follow in Gopalji's steps,” says Venugopal. “Instead of thinking about ourselves all the time, as most middle-class people do, we wanted to help others. Gopalji is our inspiration.”

The Gopalji Foundation was set up on September 29, 2010, with a membership base of 246 members. “Ninety percent are friends of Gopalji,” says D. Chandrasenan, the president of the foundation. “Many live abroad, but they are contributing money.”

But a few months ago, an outsider contributed money. Shruti Kamath, 18, who was part of the gold-medal winning Indian team in the Asian Rowing Championship held at Guangzhou in China, last year, gave the prize money of Rs 10,000 to the foundation. “I heard of Gopalji from my mother, who is a former student of Maharaja’s College,” she says.

And because Gopalji had died of cancer, the foundation has identified people who are cancer victims and need money for medical expenses. They also pay the educational bills of the children. One of them is Renuka, who is doing her higher secondary course at NSS Arts College at Tripunithara. The team has also conducted an ophthalmic camp on December 29, Gopalji’s birthday, at Ponnurunni. “Free spectacles were distributed,” says Bindu. “Around 150 people landed up and most of them were poor.”

A medical camp was conducted on August 14, while the foundation is gearing up for another one on October 9. They are also gathering funds to buy an ambulance for the Santhwanam Pain and Palliative Care Clinic, at Sulthan Bathery. “The doctors were taking the cancer patients to hospital in an auto-rickshaw,” says Chandrasenan. Thus far, all the money has been generated among the members. “We want to establish our credentials, before we can approach corporates for help,” he says.

But for all of them, they are in the process of discovering what Gopalji knew a long time ago. “When you help others you are filled with joy and a deep sense of satisfaction,” says Venugopal. “And we feel Gopalji’s presence with us all the time. We have faced hurdles, but somehow, they keep getting solved. I am sure Gopalji is keeping an eye on all of us.”

And so, thanks to one man’s gift for friendship, he has planted the seeds of social service in numerous professionals and they in turns will inspire others. The Circle of Life will go on.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Doctoring a win

Jeemol Jaibin, a dentist, who won the Mrs. Kerala crown, is now the winner of the Mrs. India Worldwide title

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the Mrs. India Worldwide competition held at Faridabad, on September 10, Jeemol Jaibin, a dentist from Kochi, never lost her cool, despite training sessions lasting till 2 a.m. “Most of the other participants would complain about the late timings,” she says. “They would cry over the slightest of problems.” Around 30 marks were being given for good behaviour. “During the ten days we were there, the judges were watching us closely,” she says. And Jeemol took it all in her stride.

Nevertheless, the competition was stiff. Several had won titles in their respective states, and there were girls who had come from South Africa. In the contest, organised by Shree Shai Entertainment, there were several rounds: saree, gown, shorts, and bikini.

“The bikini round was the most difficult,” she says. “I had never worn one before. Most of the other women had the same problem, because they were also coming from conventional backgrounds.”

But Jeemol did well, thanks to a good performance on the catwalk, on high heels. “The secret of a good walk is that you should have poise and be able to carry yourself well,” she says.

Jeemol also scored in the pivotal question and answer session. Asked the definition of a complete woman, Jeemol said, “She has to hold her family together, no matter what, she has to be a good professional, and must have spiritual values, which she can pass on to her children.”

In the end, it was the total package that enabled her to win. “The judges, which included Bollywood actress Aditi Govitrikar, were looking for intelligence, confidence, a good posture, and verbal skills,” says Jeemol.

Jeemol, who is 5' 7” tall, comes across as sleek and confident. She does regular exercises, like skipping and lifting dumbbells, and avoids foods that are rich in carbohydrates, like rice, chappatis and sugar. As a result, she has no paunch. Asked how to keep the skin glowing, she says, simply, “Try to be happy all the time. A positive attitude makes all the difference.”

It has been a good year for Jeemol. In June, she won the Mrs Kerala crown at a beauty pageant organised in Kochi by Bodycraft Multi International Health Club. When she stood on stage after more than a decade away from the spotlight, she had a mixed feeling. “It was like going back to my college days when I took part in several beauty pageants,” she says. “I was thrilled, but I also felt a sense of regret that so many years had gone past.”

The last time she took part in a beauty pageant was when she was doing her Bachelor of Dental Surgery at the Vinayaka Missions University at Salem. She ended up winning the Miss Vinayaka title. This led to offers to do advertisements and take part in other contests which she did. But her parents, especially her father did not know about this.

Jeemol grew up in Kalady. Her father, a contractor, had a conservative attitude. “One day I asked my father whether I could learn dancing,” she says. “He told me that it is not meant for people who belong to a certain class. So you can imagine what would have happened if I asked about modelling, which is what I actually wanted to do. He did not allow me to mingle with the other girls in the locality. So I was living in a cage. I wanted to do so many things, but did not get the opportunity.”

At Vinayaka, Jeemol met and fell in love with Jaibin. They got married in 2000 and settled in Kochi, where they run a dental clinic. She has a daughter, Anna, who is a Cl;ass 6 student at Rajagiri Public School, Kalamaserry. The years went past, but her yearning to take part in beauty contests persisted inside her like a dull ache. When the Mrs. Kerala contest came up, she begged her husband to allow her to take part. It took a while before he finally gave his consent.

Says Jibin: “It was my duty to support her. I know that other Malayali husbands would have said no, but that attitude is slowly changing.”

Meanwhile, Jeemol's future plans include taking part in beauty pageants and setting up an aesthetic dental clinic. “I did a six-month course on the subject from the Eastman Dental Institute in London,” she says. “I want to be a good dentist and also follow my passion of being a model.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Seeing the future wide-eyed

Babu Kalayil has foretold many events including the 2004 tsunami, as well as the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He talks about this gift of extra-sensory perception

By Shevlin Sebastian

On some nights, moments before he goes to sleep, Babu Kalayil feels his head become hot. Soon, he hears a buzzing sound in his ears. These are all precursors to a vision that he sees through his 'inner eye' or imagination. It lasts for a couple of minutes and then vanishes. “Thereafter, I can recall the image, and try to understand its meaning,” he says.

In September, 2004, Babu saw this visual of water receding from a shore and then coming back and hitting the banks with great force. “I could see people being swept away,” he says. “When I told the press about this, the Malayalam media did not pay any attention, but the Tamil newspapers did so." On December 26, the tsunami hit Japan and parts of south India also, including Kerala. "I was vindicated,” he says.

All India Radio journalist, Biju Mathew, who featured Babu in his documentary on predicting natural disasters for the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, says: “Babu told me of the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake one month before the event. He also predicted the earthquake, which measured 3.6 on the Richter scale that took place recently in the Kottayam and Idukki districts.” Babu also spoke about the 2002 earthquake in Gujarat, long before it happened.

Babu saw his first vision when he was 24 years old. “I felt that that I had lost my mind," he says. Puzzled and worried, Babu did research and discovered that he has extra-sensory perception. "When your sixth sense comes awake, you will be able to see visions, like I do," he says.

Babu is now predicting that the Mullaperiyar Dam is in trouble. “By 2015, there will be a strong earthquake where the dam is located,” he says. “A part of the structure will get damaged.”

Recently, Babu, who is based in Thiruvananthapuram, met Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and apprised him about his fears regarding the dam. He says that the government has set up a committee and Rs 3 crore has been allotted to find out about the likelihood of an earthquake.

Not surprisingly, many people call him a fraud. “But I have been vindicated many times,” he says. “Initially, my own friends spoke against me. But now things have changed and they have accepted my gift.”

One who was a skeptic before was Dr. Arul Prakash, a sociologist with the Tamil Nadu Open University at Nagercoil. “I got interested in Babu when Tamil newspapers published his predictions,” he says. “But what surprised me was that each time he turned out to be right.” Dr. Arul says that the government should take what Babu says seriously.

“Babu has the gift of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP),” he says. “Very few people possess this. In countries like Japan, Australia, and America, universities have set up special ESP departments, where they can study this phenomenon.”

The unusual thing about Babu's gift is that he can only predict natural disasters and what takes place in outer space. And although this will sound fantastic, he has brought out a book on a new planet that he has discovered.

It is called Demigo and is located 270 million kilometres from earth. “The trees and mountains are red or pink,” he says. “There are birds, but unlike on earth, they have four wings.” The animals are two-legged, while there are also beings, 4.5 ft. in height, who walk very fast, with their arms are held firmly by their sides. “When they talk, their lips move, but no sound comes out,” says Babu. “They wear gowns that cover their body from head to foot.” He also describes in details their habitat and mode of travel.

Is this far-fetched? Consider this news: Astronomers have discovered 50 new distant planets, including one that could be habitable. An extrasolar planet is outside the solar system. So far, 605 extrasolar planets in 508 systems had been identified.

Meanwhile, in order to prove that Demigo exists, Babu got in touch with the Washington-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Robert F. Rotella, senior patent attorney, wrote a letter asking Babu to “send a proposal to seek a grant for further development of your ideas.”

The most unusual aspect of Babu is his eyes. Black in colour, the eyes look strange and ethereal. They give the impression that Babu does not live on Planet earth; instead, he is travelling vast distances through his inner eye.

Only time, and a rigorous scientific examination, which Babu says he is willing to undergo, will confirm whether his gift of seeing the future is genuine or not.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bible scenes in a Kathakali play

Vignettes from the life of Jesus Christ were enacted in a Kathakali drama. It received an enthusiastic response

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Jesus Christ in Kathakali garb

One day, a year ago, in a burst of inspiration, Fr. Joy Chencheril wrote a long poem on the Christian Mass. While he was pondering over it, an idea struck him. 'Why not make this poem into a Kathakali drama?' he thought. “We Christians should promote Kathakali, which is a dying art,” says Fr. Joy, who belongs to the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. “Very few people care for it. Only foreigners come to see it. Not many temples organise Kathakali performances during their annual feasts.”

When he was a child growing up in Mannar, in Kottayam district, Fr. Joy had attended many Kathakali performances at nearby temples and had grown to love it. Hence, he decided he would do something about it.

He approached Radha Madhavan, who is a well-known attakatha writer. An atthakatha is a story running alongside aKathakali drama. “I was very enthusiastic,” says Radha. “I have a lot of respect for other religions.”

One of the reasons for the lack of popularity of Kathakali is because the shlokas are in Sanskrit. But Radha and Fr. Joy worked closely, over six months, to render the shlokas in Malayalam.

“The aim was that even if you do not understand the hand and leg movements and the facial expressions, you can still follow the drama,” says Fr. Joy. Incidentally, this is the eighth attakatha written by Radha.

The drama, called 'Divyakarunya Charitham', was staged recently at a packed hall in the Basilica of Our Lady of Dolours in Thrissur.

“The play begins with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judaea, asking his wife why she is gloomy,” says Radha. “She replies that she saw a dream in which God tells her that a man who has not done any sin should not be punished. Pilate replies, brusquely, 'Do not interfere in political matters.'”

There is also a scene between Pilate and Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus Christ, who agrees to betray him, by kissing him on the cheek, in exchange of 30 pieces of silver. This meeting does not take place in the Bible. “I used creative license,” says Fr. Joy.

After the Last Supper, in Jerusalem, where he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus sets out with them to the Garden of Gethsemane. At the garden, Judas betrays Jesus by kissing him. Soldiers then take Jesus to Pilate, who gives the order for Him to be crucified. Jesus then carries the cross on the road to Cavalry, where he is crucified, and resurrected three days later.

The audience has a rapt look on their faces as they watch Christian words and themes being enacted by artistes of an ancient Hindu dance form. In fact, apart from the role of Jesus Christ, which is played by Ebin Jose, all the other parts are played by Hindus. A few of the performers belong to the one of the well-known Kathakali schools in the state: the Kerala Kalamandalam. The choreography was done by Kalamandalam Sajan, who acts as Pilate's wife.

“We used the same costumes and instruments as in any other Kathakali play,” says Sajan. “It was only for the character of Jesus Christ that we had to add a wig and a beard. I did feel a bit apprehensive, because we needed to stick to the historical Jesus, as well as keep it in the Kathakali tradition.”

In the end, it is a superb programme, interrupted now and then by sustained applause. Dr. James Manimala, a Malayalam professor, who watched the play, says, “For centuries Christians had regarded the Kathakali as a Hindu art form, dedicated to the epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabarata and the Puranas. So, it is astonishing and wonderful that a Bible theme has been portrayed. I am sure there will be many more Kathakali plays, based on the Bible, after this.”

Says Kathakali fan N.G. R. Nair: “It is a welcome step in the Indianisation of Christianity. The cultural assimilation of different religions is the key to national integration.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Preserving the old

The 500-year-old St. Francis Xavier Church at Fort Kochi, the oldest in India, and a magnet for tourists, is undergoing a renovation under the direction of the Archaelogical Survey of India

By Shevlin Sebastian

Workmen are removing parts of the wooden staircase that leads up to the balcony of the St. Francis church at Fort Kochi. "This will be replaced by slices of teak wood," says Dr. M. Nambirajan, Superintending Archaeolgist of the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI), which is responsible for the upkeep of the church. "We are doing this work during the monsoon season when the number of visitors are less.” The estimated cost is Rs 20 lakh. The work has been going on for a couple of months now.

On an earlier visit, a few weeks ago, a drilling sound can be heard even before one enters the church. Just inside the door, a thick piece of wood, 12m long, lies on the floor. The upper-half is sturdy, but at the middle, there is a gaping hole. “It has been eaten by termites,” says Nambirajan.

Apart from this beam, which had formed the central part of the balcony, near the entrance, several wooden planks have been removed. They have now been replaced with high-quality teak.

According to archaelogical principles, only the part which has been damaged has to be replaced. “If we remove the entire beam, it will damage the antiquity of the church,” he says. The ASI also removed some damaged planks on the roof. These have been replaced with new ones and plastic sheets placed over it. Thereafter, red tiles have been installed.

The St. Francis Xavier Church, which was constructed in 1503, is one of the oldest churches in India. It was built by the Portuguese and the walls are more three feet wide. It is made of laterite stone mixed with lime. When you push against it, you can sense the massive strength. The roof is like the hull of a boat.

“There is no church like this in Kerala, or in India,” says Rev. Abraham Kuriakose, the parish priest, who belongs to the Church of South India. Unusually, there are ventilation windows at one side only. So, there are no reverberations. “No matter how loud the mike, there is no echo," says Kuriakose. "When the choir sings on the balcony, we can hear it effortlessly at the altar, thanks to the skill of those ancient engineers.”

The other attractions include the wooden altar, and the tombstone of Vasco Da Gama -- the Portuguese explorer who came to Cochin in 1502. He died in 1524 and his body was buried in the church. However, 14 years later, the remains were exhumed and taken back to Portugal. On the walls of both sides, there are Portuguese and Dutch gravestones. The Dutch took control of the church in 1663.

“Many of our visitors are Dutch,” says Kuriakose. There is a Dutch cemetery nearby, as well as a baptism and marriage register called the 'Doop Book' which has recorded entries between 1751 and 1804. A photostat copy of this can be accessed by visitors. “The Dutch are very interested in their roots,” says Kuriakose.

Incidentally, the church receives visitors from all over the world, including the USA, UK, Australia, and Europe. During the peak season, from September to March, the number of guests reaches upto 2000 a day. “Many foreigners want to get their marriage blessed in an old church,” he says.

The church has a special reputation. “What you pray for, that you get,” says Kuriakose. The vicar knows of many childless couples who have prayed for a baby and their wishes have been granted. As a result, apart from Christians, Hindus and Muslims also pray at the church.

For software professional, Rajiv Mondal, from Hyderabad, it has been an enjoyable experience. “I have been to the St. Francis Xavier church in Panjim,” he says. “But this church has an old-world atmosphere.” For Rohit Goyal, a professor of civic engineering from the Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, the building is a marvel. “I can only admire the way the arches have been built,” he says, gazing up at the structure.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An unsafe world for boys

Many boys have homosexual experiences, most of the time against their will. As a result, their sexual orientation changes. Counselling can help resolve some of the problems

By Shevlin Sebastian

Regi Chacko was 16 years old when he was brought for counselling by his worried parents. He was throwing temper tantrums and fighting with his classmates. When psychologist Dr. Prakash Chandra spoke with him, the truth was uncovered. Regi was tormented by his sexual desire for males. And it all began when he slept next to his grandfather, Thomas, when he was six years old. The old man molested Regi.

“This carried on for six years,” says Prakash. “The grandfather told him to be silent. A traumatised Regi did not tell his parents.” When the boy became a teenager, he began having a sexual relationship with other males, especially older men. “Regi developed a homosexual attitude,” says Prakash. “He would get into a bus and push against another man. If the man did not respond, he would try with another passenger.”

Through counselling Prakash has tried hard to re-orient the boy's fantasies from boys to girls. “It took quite a while before Regi stopped thinking about men,” says the counsellor. Of course, it was another matter that Regi's mother, whose father had done the damage, was profoundly shocked and hurt. But by the time the revelations came out, the old man had died.

Soman Chandrasekhar, 18, is from Allapuzha. When he was a child he was seduced by the car driver. When he became a teenager, he would bring young boys home and molest them. “When too many boys kept coming to the house, the parents got suspicious,” says Prakash. “During counselling, Soman confessed that he had homosexual tendencies. Sometimes, their mental conditioning can be changed, but there are many boys who become life-long homosexuals.”

Apart from molestations, teenagers also get curious about homosexuality when they see porn on the Internet. “By watching pornographic films, children try to imitate these perverse acts,” says Dr Gracy Thomas, Medical Officer of the Adolescent Reproductive Sexual Health (APSH) programme, Ernakulam district.

ARSH psychologist Divya Ajay says that older schoolchildren take younger boys, who are eight or nine years old, to an isolated area and force them to do oral sex. “Most of the time, the youngsters are not aware of what is happening,” she says. “But they know that they are doing something wrong.”

There is an immediate fallout to this: the children’s studies get affected. “They start doing poorly at school,” she says. “In counselling I explain to them what is right and wrong and how to resist when somebody is trying to make them do wrong.”

These are trying times. Parents have to be vigilant regarding their children. They need to take precautions. “If boys are allowed to sleep with other boys, be it their cousins or friends, there are chances of a homosexual experience,” says Prakash. “The elder boy might initiate the younger one. Sometimes, parents allow their boys to sleep with servants. That is a big mistake. Then they are allowed to sleep with elderly people. This is also an error.”

Children could sleep with the parents, but in these days of incest, that could be risky also. Says Divya: “Unfortunately, the home is not a safe place. I know of a man who molested his step-son.”

So, it seems the best way is for children to sleep alone. Parents should constantly monitor their children. “If there is any unusual behaviour like regular temper tantrums or poor results, the parents should intervene and try to find out what is wrong,” says Prakash. “The sooner you take the child to a counsellor, the better.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Predicting disasters naturally

In a radio documentary, 'When Time Stands Still', award-winning radio journalist Biju Mathew shows that watching the signs emitted by Nature can enable people to predict a disaster much in advance of scientific methods

By Shevlin Sebastian

Joseph Kurien, 70, is a farmer in the Idukki district of Kerala. For decades, he depended on the signs given by nature to predict the weather. Some of his tips are simple. “When dragonflies hover at three feet above the ground in a circular manner, it means that the monsoon season is about to start,” says Kurien. “When the same fly moves around in a group, about fifteen feet high, it means that the rainy season is over.”

Kurien was featured in the All India Radio documentary, 'When Time Stands Still', made by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Programme Executive Biju Mathew. This has been selected for a global broadcast by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) through a competition conducted by the Kuala-Lumpur-based Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union.

There are other signs which the farmers can observe. “If you notice round-shaped spider webs, just above the grass, while walking in a forest, it means that the rainy season is over,” says Mathew. “Because spiders will only make webs when they are sure the monsoon is over.”

But it is perhaps in detecting natural disasters that the farmers have the best knowledge. “Some trees start leaning, which, to an observant person, means that there is a possibility of a natural disaster taking place,” says Mathew. “Just before an earthquake, animals which live in holes, like rabbits, squirrels, and snakes will come out and move frantically from place to place. Dogs will also bark loudly and run about. If there is going to be a rainfall which will destroy crops, hawks will cry out in a loud voice.”

In Mathew's documentary, he also focuses on Babu Kalayil, who professes that he has Extra Sensory Perception. “Babu predicted the Asian tsunami in December, 2004, three months before it happened,” says Mathew. “He was aware of the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake one month before the event.” Unfortunately, when he went to media houses to inform them about this, nobody paid any attention. Babu also predicted the earthquake, which measured 3.6 on the Richter scale, which took place recently in the Kottayam and Idukki districts of Kerala.

“When I am about to see a vision, my brain and body gets extremely hot,” says Babu. “Thereafter I can see a series of images. They are as clear in my mind like scenes from a movie. That was how I saw the tsunami. And with the help of intuition, I can find out when and where the event is going to take place. My skill would be vital to take adequate precautions when a natural disaster does take place.”

UNESCAP has been looking for traditional ways to detect natural disasters. Says Salvano Bricero, the director of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR): “No matter how good the technology or how accurate the forecast and warnings, if the information does not reach people in danger in a timely and understandable manner, the warning system will fail.”

Early warning systems are a must in the Asia-Pacific region, where, according to the UNISDR, more than 50 percent of the world’s disasters take place. These include typhoons, tsunamis, floods, droughts, fires and other natural hazards.

“An early-warning system will give governments enough time to protect critical infrastructure, like power plants and dams, which can create further damage if they are not secured,” says Mathew, who has won European Union and Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union awards for his documentaries.

All these precautions are necessary for India also because it is a disaster-prone country. According to UNISDR, about 60% of the landmass is susceptible to earthquakes, while 8% of the total area is vulnerable to cyclones. Over 40 million hectares is subject to floods.

(The New Indian Express, South India)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Innovative versions of original songs

Abdul Khadar Kakkanad has made his name doing numerous parody songs, highlighting the ills of society. Many of these can be seen on You Tube. He also composes songs for politicians during the Assembly elections

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the ‘Kochi Tuskers Kerala, Mosquitoes’ video on You Tube, which is doing the rounds among Malayalis, actor Kochin Mimi is walking down a street in Kochi. Very soon, he is beset by mosquitoes. He slaps them away in a frenzy but it is a losing battle. Meanwhile, Mansoor Yuva sings about the sorry state of the city. A part of the lyrics, written by Abdul Khadar Kakkanad and Shiju Anjumana, goes like this:

Kunnollam kothukukal valam vechu parakkunna
Ee pradesham
Athannu Cochin Corporation
Sarkar chilavil
Kochukine valarthunna
Athannu Cochin Corporation

(Mosquitoes the size of a hill,
Surrounding this place
This is the Cochin Corporation
At the expense of the government,
Mosquitoes have been grown.
In coastal areas.
This is the Cochin Corporation)

This is, of course, a parody song from the album ‘Gana Nivedanam’. In fact, the music is lifted straight from the Berny-Ignatius hit, ‘Vellaram Kilikal’ from the 1994 film, ‘Mangaylasoothram’. “Somehow, the music matched the lyrics perfectly, so we chose this song,” says Khadar.

Regarding the mosquito song, Khadar says, “Shiju and I wrote about our sufferings because of mosquitoes, the pot-holed roads, and the randomly-thrown garbage. It was to remind the powers-that-be about the sorry state of Kochi. I want to create works that will contribute to the betterment of society.”

Khadar remembers a parody song he made on the vulnerability of young girls when they start using mobile phones. Based on a superhit Mapilla song, ‘Manasinte Maniyarayil’, the girl falls in love with a man she does not meet, refuses an arranged marriage, and when she finally sees him, he turns out to be an ugly ruffian, with frazzled hair and a rough voice, although in his conversations he had assured her he looks like Shah Rukh Khan.

Shocked, the girl becomes unbalanced and ends up in a mental asylum. He has also done songs on the futility of hartals, the exploits of Sachin Tendulkar, and mocked controversial songs like ‘Silsila Hai Silsila’.

Khadar has been producing parody albums for the past several years. He began with audio cassettes in 1990s, about 70 of them, and when the trend shifted to videos, he began composing albums on VCDs.

Interestingly, although his videos can be seen on You Tube, the buyers of the albums are from the lower middle and middle-class. “They have no access to the Internet,” he says. The listeners are between 15 and 35 years of age. He has put up these videos on You Tube in the hope that out of 100 listeners, at least 10 will be interested enough to buy the albums.

“You Tube is a wonderful medium,” he says. “It enables us to reach a very wide audience and that too free of cost.”

During the 2010 football World Cup, Khadar put up the ‘Laka Laka’ song, with vocals by Liji Francis, accompanied by the same music and visuals used by Shakira in her international hit, ‘Waka Waka’. “We wanted to make fun of the state of Kerala football,” he says. “In fact, during a review of Indian football NDTV showed clips of our video.”

When asked about copyright issues, since he is lifting tunes made by others, Khadar says, “So far, I have not been charged with any copyright violations. In fact, when people listen to my songs, they develop an interest in listening to the original. Actually, it increases the sales of the original.”

He remembers meeting composer Jassie Gift who complimented Khadar on the parody of the latter’s superhit song, ‘Lajjavathiye'. “It was called ‘Padmavathiye’ in my version,” says Khadar, with a smile.

Composer Berny has no problems of his music being lifted. “Mimicry songs have been part and parcel of Kerala culture for long,” he says. “So composers are used to the copying of tunes. But what upsets me deeply is the rampant piracy of films and CDs. It has become difficult for us to earn a living by composing music.”

Meanwhile, the resourceful Khadar has found other means of earning a living. He composes humourous songs for politicians during election time.

In the Kerala Assembly elections, held in April, he made about 200 five-minute songs for various politicians including Benny Behanan, K. Babu and Hibi Eden, all winning MLAs from Ernakulam district.

These are played through loudspeakers in election vehicles, as it moves through the localities. Sometimes, they stop at junctions. “I sing short verses, so that people can understand, as the car moves along,” he says.

Dynamic, energetic, and optimistic, Khadar is a star in his own right.

(The New Indian Express. Kerala)

Friday, September 02, 2011

Travelling to distant shores

American David Shore has travelled all over the world in the past 25 years. But now he is enamoured of Kerala and India

Photo: David Shore at the Tiger Temple in Thailand

By Shevlin Sebastian

When American traveller David Shore was at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, he was given an offer. He could enter the open-air cage of tigers and caress the animals.

“For that, I had to sign a waiver certificate which stated that the temple authorities were not responsible for my death,” he says. Before entering, David had to take other precautions. He could not wear bright colours like oranges, reds, yellows, or greens. “These excite the tigers," he says. "You must not make any sudden movements or show that you are fearful. Animals, like tigers and dogs, can sense if you are afraid of them. If anything went wrong, the tigers might scratch the visitor with their paws. You could get blinded or killed.”

Eventually, the interaction went off fine. There is a picture of David sitting on his haunches gently touching the furry back of a tiger, which is lying down. In other photos, he is muzzling the neck and smiling broadly for the camera. Apparently, you can also bottle-feed a cub and bathe a tiger.

Thanks to poachers, many tigers had been killed in that area. So the cubs were adopted by the Buddhist monks at the temple. Now, it has become a popular tourist destination.

David has been travelling around the world for more than 25 years now. But from 2005 onwards, David has become enamoured of Asia, especially China and India. “What I like best about Asia and India is the remarkable diversity, in terms of the culture, food, people, weather, colours and languages,” he says, at a home-stay in Fort Kochi. He takes out a Rs 10 currency note from his wallet, flips it over, and shows the 15 languages that are printed there. “This explains to you the diversity,” he says. “There are 22 official languages in India. Which other country has so many? Not one.”

This is his third trip to India and to Kerala also. “On most evenings, I go to the Fort Kochi beach, and buy fresh seafood like butter fish, red or white snappers, tuna and prawns,” he says. “I pay local prices, and get it cooked with lemon, garlic, and salt.”

For David, a lawyer, there are two types of Indians. “There are the educated Indians who speak and write in English and work with foreigners,” he says. “On the other hand, the local people don't speak English. When I go into a restaurant, I just look at what people are eating, and then point at it, and have the same.”

The locals, he says, are the real Indians. “I like to deal with the ordinary people,” he says “I go to the local markets, and do all my purchases. All over the world, if you want to have an authentic feel of that country, it is best to interact with the man on the street.”

Meanwhile, thanks to his companion, Chinese travel writer, Cloud, David has learnt a new way to travel. “Earlier, I would cram as much as possible, while visiting a country,” he says. “But you end up becoming too busy. You see a lot, but you do not remember everything. The best way is to not do too much. Spend more time in less places. One week in each city. You need time to absorb everything. It is just like having a meal. You would like to savour the flavours, which takes time.”

Not everybody will agree to this slow-motion way of travelling, because of the large amount of time that is needed. For most people, three weeks is the most they can get away from work. And some also don't enjoy travelling too much.

David gives an example. In August, 2008, he landed in Beijing and realised that the Olympic Games was taking place. So, he decided to see the various events. He called up his Filipino girlfriend in San Francisco, and asked her to come. “She said, 'Why should I fly 10,000 kms, when I can watch it on television?'” David now says, “To see Olympics live is so different. There is a three-dimensional effect. On TV you only see what the camera shows you. I never knew that at the gymnastics centre, several competitions takes place at the same time. I see the real world when I travel. All my senses come alive.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Going, going...... gone!

Elias Josephhai Elias, one of a handful of Jews in Kochi, talks about how he regards India as his motherland, while Israel is his fatherland

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2007, Elias Josephhai Elias was planning to build a house at Pullepady near the Railway tracks. But to do that he needed a No Objection Certificate from the Railways. When the Railway official in Thiruvananthapuram, Iqbal (name changed), saw the house plans, brought along by a friend of Josephhai, he realised that the applicant was a Jew. Iqbal said, “Jews are the enemies of the Muslims. I will make sure that he does not receive the permission.”

It took two years and a High Court ruling before Josephhai was allowed to build his home. “This is the first and only time I have faced discrimination in Kochi because I am a Jew,” he says. “Please remember we have been in Kerala for 2000 years. It was the great generosity of spirit of the Hindu kings that enabled us to settle down here. And their benevolence was due to the tolerant traditions that are inherent in Hinduism.”

Josephhai feels increasingly isolated as the community is reduced to 42 Jews, which includes a few members of the Mattancherry Jews. “The community is dead,” says Josephhai. “There is no point in using the past continuous tense and say, 'dying'.”

However, the Mattancherry and the Malabari Jews, of whom Josephhai is one, are apparently not that close. “We were always close,” counters Queenie Hallegua, a Mattancherry Jew. “There are no differences except for the colour of our skins. We have both adopted the same Indian culture.”

The white-skinned Jews from Mattancherry, came from Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition of 1478, when the Jews were persecuted during the reign of Queen Isabella, and were always wealthy. “On the other hand, our ancestors escaped from Babylonia , where they were slaves, and came to Kerala,” says Josephhai. “We were dark-skinned and poor.” But as the numbers dwindle, Josephhai says, both branches have no option, but to get closer to each other.

Interestingly, Josephhai is a shochet, a butcher, who cuts the chickens and the birds that have to be eaten. “I have an official certificate from the community to do this,” he says. “People approach me, and I do the job for them.”

And like all Jews, he religiously observes the Shabbat. It begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday, until three stars can be seen on Saturday night. “Although it is a day of rest, I do work on that day,” he says. Josephhai runs 'Cochin Blossoms', a 1200 sq. ft. shop on Market Road that sells flowers and ornamental fish. “But I do read the Torah and say the prayers,” he says.

Meanwhile, nearly all the members of the younger generation have migrated to Israel. In fact, Josephhai's elder daughter, Avital, is doing her M.Tech in the world-class 'Technion – Israel Institute of Technology' at Haifa , thanks to a scholarship from the Israeli government. Incidentally, Technion has produced 25 Nobel Laureates. His second daughter, Leah, is doing Communicative English at St Teresa's College. “I am sure she will also go to Israel,” he says. Josephhai's wife, Ofera, with whom he had an arranged marriage in 1988, is a Bene Israel Jew from Mumbai.

For Josephai, Israel is the fatherland, while India is the motherland. “Israel is the land of Jews,” he says. “I feel that strongly.” His brothers and sisters had migrated to the Holy Land several years ago, but Josephhai stayed behind to look after his mother. “It was my fate,” he says.

In 1997, Josephhai went to Israel for the first time and has mixed emotions regarding the visit. “The showcase is fascinating, but the godown is bad,” he says. “Israel is under the control of Europeans. Nobody cares for anybody. There are purely professional relationships, not like the close, emotional relationships which Indians have, with our emphasis on the family. Since I was born and brought up in India, the feeling and attachment to the family will always be there. So I will be more comfortable in Kochi, than in Israel.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)