Wednesday, November 30, 2011

We are like this only

Eunuchs and members of the transgender community explain their point of view

Photo: This is a representative picture of transgenders

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a bit disconcerting to see Nawaz. He is wearing a green blouse and a cream-coloured Kerala saree with a gold border. His face is plastered white with make-up. And he is wearing a long-haired wig. However, his hands are hairy and muscular.

“When I was a child I liked the company of girls,” he says. “I would go with them to school and play games like hopscotch. My relatives would tease me and ask me why I was behaving so effeminately. Because of the taunts, I wanted to commit suicide many times. I had even placed a blade against my wrists. I felt so humiliated and cried many times at night.”

It was when he was 18 that Nawaz became a member of the Partnership for Sexual Help Project. “There I met others like me and no longer felt isolated,” he says. “I finally understood why I was behaving the way I did.”

But society treats transgenders with a lack of respect. Just the other day Nawaz was strolling in Subhash Park, at Kochi, which is a meeting-place of the community. Suddenly, a policeman swooped down and asked Nawaz what he was doing. “Before I could reply, he pulled at my bag,” says Nawaz. “I shouted back and he understood that I could not be bullied.”

However, ten minutes later, another policeman just put his hand inside Nawaz’s shirt pocket and took Rs 200. “Our body language gives us away all the time,” he says, with a sad smile.

Nawaz was talking at the 'Probodhini-11' seminar organised by Marvell Pehchan Project at Kochi recently. “It is a sensitisation programme for law students about the eunuch and transgender community,” says Marvell Project Officer Manu J. Krishnan.

Dilfaraz, the Advocacy Officer of the Bangalore-based Sangama, a sexual minority group, says, “According to a survey, the maximum number of homosexuals in India are in Kerala. Sexual activity usually takes place between young men and also with husbands.”

He pleaded with the audience -- boys and girls who are interns with the Human Rights Law Network -- to treat gays with respect. “If you know of any gays in your family, among relatives, and in the college, please don't neglect them. Do take them to the doctor when they are ill.”

Dilfaraz says that from the time they are children, gays and transgenders have a tough time. “Parents conduct pujas to cure the boy,” he says. “Please understand that they are born like this. We would be grateful if you can refer them to organisations like Sangama or Marvell. We are there to help them.”

What was astonishing to know was that in India transgenders have no property rights. “So a lot of them are unable to own anything,” he says.

Among the gays and transgenders present, there were feminine as well as muscular men, as well as a man who wore red lipstick and had hair growing all the way down his back.

Meanwhile, for the law students, it was an eye-opening experience. “Initially, it was a bit weird because Nawaz was wearing a shirt and trousers and then, suddenly, he changed into a saree,” says Radha Nair (name changed), an intern. “But it was clear to us that they are suffering a lot. It is difficult to live on the margins of society.”

For Seetha Bose, it was an unusual event. “I never knew there are so many sub-divisions among the sexual minority groups,” she says. “Society is unwilling to accept them, but I will always support them.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Living with a comic genius

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Vimala Sreenivasan says that her husband, film star Sreenivasan, is a child at heart, but a tough person on the sets

Photo: Sreenivasan and his wife Vimala on their 25th wedding anniversary

By Shevlin Sebastian

Vimala Mandodi would walk down a road to catch a bus to go to the Nirmalagiri College in Kuthuparambu, in Kannur district. Often, she would see a short, dark man who would be heading in the same direction. Every now and then the man would ask, ‘Is the bus on time?’ or ‘How are your studies?” Vimala would reply in monosyllables. It was only after a year that they began talking to each other. At that time, in 1974, film star Sreenivasan was a teacher in a tutorial college. “We liked each other from the beginning,” she says.

Very soon, Vimala realized that cinema was Sreenivasan’s passion. One day, he told her that he was going to the Film Institute in Chennai to do a course. Thereafter, he would send an occasional letter to Vimala stating his financial difficulties.

“Since his father did not accept his choice of career, he would not send much money,” says Vimala. “Sreenivasan's father wanted him to do his B.Ed and become a teacher. However, one of his uncles sent him a little bit of money and he managed to complete the course.”

In the meanwhile, Vimala qualified to become a teacher. When marriage proposals came, Vimala had to finally tell her own father that she had fallen in love with Sreenivasan. He was aghast. “My father felt that my husband would go after actresses and ruin my life,” she says.

But Vimala was adamant. Nevertheless, it took ten years before the couple could tie the knot, on January 13, 1984. All along, Sreenivasan was struggling to make a mark in the film industry. Meanwhile, within months of the marriage, Vimala became pregnant with son Vineeth. And it was just after he was born, that Sreenivasan starred in the first film he wrote, Oodarathuammava Aalariyam.

“Thereafter, there was no looking back,” says Vimala. Sreenivasan has acted in many popular films like ‘T. P. Balagopalan M.A.’, ‘Sanmanassullavarkku Samadhanam’, ‘Gandhinagar 2nd Street, ‘Nadodikkattu’, ‘Mukunthetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu’, ‘Varavelpu’, and ‘Thalayanamanthram’.

So what are the plus points of Sreenivasan as a husband? “Sreeni Chettan has always given me complete freedom,” says Vimala. “He has never said no to my personal wishes. If I want a new saree he will always say yes. If I wanted to go somewhere, it is a yes. On the other hand, I can see so many restrictions placed by the husbands of my friends.”

Vimala says that she always likes to wear salwar kameez, although people have told her she looks better in a saree. “Once I said, ‘Chettan, everybody tells me that I look nice in a saree. What is your opinion?’”

Sreenivasan said, “There is no doubt you look good in a saree.” But he has never insisted that his wife should wear one.

Vimala considers her husband’s spendthrift ways as a plus point. “Sreeni Chettan spends a lot when he has money,” she says. “I believe that if you have money, you should spend it. On this matter, we are both alike. If there is little money, he will say this is all what I have, and we have to control our spending.”

Vimala also admires her husband’s humility. “His character has not changed at all from the time I knew him during my college days,” she says. “In fact, the more successful he has become, the more humble he is in his personal life. Please don’t think I am praising him just because he is my husband. He is an innocent man inside. But if there is any mistake in his professional career, Sreeni Chettan can get very tough and angry.”

Because her husband is a creative artist, Vimala stays away from that aspect of his life. So when he is writing a script, Sreenivasan will live for three weeks at a stretch in a hotel. “Most of the time the mobile phone is switched off,” she says. “Only when Sreeni Chettan has finished his day’s work, will he call me.”

In fact, Vimala is so careful not to disturb Sreenivasan that when her two sons, Vineeth and Dhyan were children and they would fall sick, she took them to the doctor herself. “I would only inform Sreeni Chettan when the illness was over,” she says. “It is very important for an artist to have a happy atmosphere at home and that is what I have strived to do all the time.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

'There are more Indian best-sellers now'

Says Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India

Photo: Ravi Deecee of DC Books, (left) with Andrew Phillips at the newly opened Penguin book store in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India, is upbeat about the market in India. “We are growing by 10 per cent every year,” he says. “However, the Indian market has the lowest prices in the world, because buyers are very price-conscious. The average price for the top 500 titles is Rs 270.”

Despite that, Penguin took a risk by placing Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’, the second book in his Ibis trilogy, at a steep Rs 699. “Nevertheless, the novel has been the highest-selling in the literary fiction genre this year,” he says. ”We are happy about that and realized that there is a niche audience who is willing to spend money to read high-quality fiction.”

Non-fiction is also doing well. “One of our best-selling titles this year is ‘The TCS Story…and beyond' by S Ramadorai, the vice-chairman of the company,” says Andrew. “It is about the great success story of the Tata Consultancy Services. There is an appetite among people to read Indian authors who write well and, secondly, to hear about local success stories from the business world.” Incidentally, the No. 1 on the non-fiction best-seller list today is Vinod Mehta's 'Lucknow Boy', which is also published by Penguin.

Unlike in the past, many more Indian authors are writing best-sellers. “The reason is simple,” says Andrew. “Firstly, there are more books by Indians. Secondly, there are more book shops, more publishers, and more readers.” However, Western writers continue to make a mark. Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel, ‘Only Time Will Tell’, has also sold very well, apart from the Harry Potter books, which has been a phenomenon in India.

But does Penguin India miss a writer like Chetan Bhagat, who is published by Rupa, and is selling millions of copies? Andrew is unfazed, and says, “We have Ravinder Singh, whose debut novel, ‘I Too Have a Love Story’ has done very well. His new book, ‘Can Love Happen Twice?’ will be released soon. Ravinder has been the biggest-selling mass-market author after Chetan.”

But the market is changing. E-books are rapidly making inroads, especially in the US. “Yes, the growth in the US has been relentless,” says Andrew. “Everything else increases by 10 percent, but e-books have been growing by 100 per cent every year. However, it is much slower in every other country, including the UK, but, recently, I am told, sales have begun to take off in England as well.”

In India, one of the keys for a digital revolution will be to have a cheap e-book device. “In the US the e-book took off, because of the sale of Kindle devices,” says Andrew. “More recently, the Nook, as well as the I Pad has also come up. Between them, millions of units have been sold. In India, if a cheaper gadget arrives, and sells a lot, then Indian publishing will be changed.”

But Andrew is not worried. “In the US we have started digital publishing,” he says. “Most authors realise that there is still a valuable place for the publisher even in the digital format. You need somebody to edit the copy, to make it look presentable, and, more importantly, for marketing, distribution and sales. Without a publisher’s reach, it is difficult for an author to make a mark.”

Penguin opens a bookstore in Kochi

As soon you enter the Bay Pride mall, on Marine Drive, Kochi, there are plastic footprints, in the familiar orange of the Penguin book jacket, placed on the floor. It leads us to the first floor, where a 2700 sq. ft. store has been inaugurated by Andrew Phillips, the CEO and President of Penguin India recently. It is a spacious store, and, perhaps, its USP is that one side, glass-paned, with an elevated stage, faces the sea; the sight is soothing and elevating.

So, why a book store in Kochi, and not in Delhi, Chennai, or Mumbai? Says Andrew: “In Kerala, you have a high literacy rate. We have been working with [CEO] Ravi Deecee of DC Books. And we felt that it would be a great partnership to bring the Penguin imprint to the biggest book chain in Kerala.”

Chiki Sarkar, the publisher, gives another reason: “We want to be in places where there are not too many book stores. Then you can immediately carve out a niche.” And of course, it helps that Kerala has two major book shows: the Kovalam and the Hay festivals. “It is a book-loving state,” says Chiki.

Hemali Sodhi, vice-president, marketing and corporate communications, says, “We are going to launch merchandise like caps, mugs and stationery. Our aim is to project the Penguin brand.” Meanwhile, Ravi Deecee has plans to make it a cultural hot-spot. “There will be monthly author readings, contests, and readings for children,” he says.

(The new Indian Express. Kochi)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Going back to our mathematical roots

Premanand Keeriyat is propagating Vedic Maths, which can be used without pen and paper, and takes a fraction of the time of Western maths

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Premanand Keeriyat was sitting for his Common Admission Test in the 1990s, he found it difficult to crack it. He felt there was something wrong with Western mathematics. Thereafter, he came across German Jew Jakow Trachtenberg's method of speed maths. “But I was not completely happy with this system,” he says.

One day, he read an article in 'The New Indian Express' by the former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In it, he wrote that he had gone on a visit to Liverpool University and was astonished to discover that Indian maths was being taught there.

“In fact, the principal introduced me as a person who came from the land of Vedic maths,” wrote the prime minister. Thereafter, Rao described the wonder of Vedic maths, and mentioned the name of Swami Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, a scholar and the head of the Govardhan Math at Puri, Orissa.

Premanand began researching about Tirthaji. “Swamiji wrote 16 volumes on mathematics, but only one book is available to the world,” he says. “Many mathematicians from England and Germany stayed with him and learned Vedic techniques.”

So Premanand began learning the methods himself. “There are 13 sutras and 16 sub sutras,” he says. “A sutra is an oral formula. These sutras, when applied correctly, will enable the user to solve many types of maths problems mentally without using pen and paper, and in the fraction of the time it would take in Western mathematics.”

A desire arose in Premanand to pass this knowledge to students. “Once you learn the techniques, it is so easy,” he says. “Children will grow to love it.” So he has spent four years in making a multi-media kit of 9 DVDs, tackling multiplication, division, subtraction, addition, finding the square root, etc.

He inserts a CD into his Dell laptop. And soon we are in a forest where a river is flowing smoothly by, as a white-haired sage, with a top knot, is sitting below a tree and passing knowledge to a bright-eyed student. There are trees all around, and the chirping of birds can be heard. “I have made it completely interactive, so that children can enjoy, even as they are learning new techniques,” he says.

But Premanand is facing an uphill battle. “Since very few know about Vedic maths, they are unwilling to accept these innovative methods, which are thousands of years old,” he says. “Many school principals and teachers express interest, but, somehow, only a few have started teaching it.” But he is unfazed, because he is convinced about the greatness of the subject.

“I want to increase the numerical ability of the students,” he says. “Once they start using it, they will understand the beauty and power of Vedic maths. I am hoping one day the government will start using Vedic maths in our curriculum, research applications, and daily life.”

Meanwhile, notables of the past have endorsed it. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his book, 'Discovery of India', wrote: 'The astonishing progress that the Indians had made in mathematics is now well known and it is recognised that the foundations of modern arithmetic and algebra were laid long ago in India. The ten Indian numerals, including the zero sign, liberated the human mind. They are common enough today and we take them for granted. But it took many centuries for them to travel from India, via Baghdad, to the western world.'

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Having wine and enjoying art

In the 'Art and Wine' exhibition, the works of veterans shared spared space with young talents

Photo: Radha Gomathi's sculpture, 'Hymavathi'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the 'Art and Wine' exhibition, held at the Ramada Resort, Kochi, a fibreglass sculpture by Radha Gomathi catches the eye. It is the face of Hymavathi [another name for Shiva's consort, Parvati], and is painted in a deep chocolate brown. Hymavathi looks serene, with deep-set closed eyes, soft cheeks, a sharp nose and pouting lips. Just above the ears, there are two horns sticking out. And right in the middle of the forehead, there is a mountain peak rising up towards the sky.

The inspiration behind the sculpture is interesting. Radha had gone to Gaumukh, the mountain glacier from where the River Ganga begins. But just before the peak, she stopped beside a river and saw a pair of weathered horns floating on the surface. “It belonged to mountain goats who seemed to have perished in the icy torrents,” says Radha. “The image of the horns merged with Hymavathi's quest for Lord Shiva.”

Radha made the mountain to indicate that the desire to reach the peak and find God is within all of us. “We are all seeking an union with the Great Self,” she says. Onlookers who know Radha say the features of Hymavati resemble the Kochi-based artist herself. Radha laughs and says, “That was an unconscious effect.”

Radha's acrylic on canvas, 'Presence', is about a spiritual search. Drawn from the side, a nude woman stands, with long brown hair flowing down her back. She has a half-open mouth, and upraised hands, but interestingly, has closed eyes, and is searching for something. To accentuate the nudity, a part of the left breast, as well as a brown nipple can be seen. “She is searching for God, or the universal energy,” says Radha. “In other words, she is a spiritual aspirant.”

Veteran artist V.B. Venu's painting, 'Contemplative Bridges', is an examination of life. A bare-chested man is sitting on the ground. A cream-coloured face has been half-imposed on a darker one.

“Everybody has two faces: an inner and outer,” says Venu. A ladder is placed against the body and the top end rests on the left shoulder. There are figures of men going up the steps. Some are falling off, with flailing arms and legs. “The ladder signifies the path of success,” he says. “Everybody is trying to go up. Not all succeed. Some fail.”

C. N. Karunakaran's work is of a tribal settlement, with a husband and wife standing next to each other and discussing family matters, while children are sitting on the forest floor, including a teenage girl, wearing an orange necklace and with exposed breasts.

“There were times when painting camps would be held near tribal areas in Wayanad,” says Karunakaran, a former chairman of the Kerala Lalitakala Academy. “I saw their lives from a distance and wanted to portray them. I also wanted to express my sympathy for the marginalised people.”

As for senior artist T. Kaladharan, his glass painting is called 'Orma' (Memory). Green faces float about in a sea of red: he is remembering old friends during the sunset of life.

The other participants included Biju Kumar V.K. as well as bright young talents like Linu John and Nimmy Melvin.

Earlier, the show was inaugurated by K. Ramachandran Nair, the MD of Chitram Art Gallery, who said, “Art and wine can go together provided there is self control. We have seen many artistes and painters who have succumbed to wine. So self-discipline is very important.” However, thanks to free-flowing wines from Sula, self-discipline became an alien concept on a pleasant evening.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Getting too close and paying the price

Teenage sex is on the increase, in Kochi, with disturbing consequences for young girls

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Ma, Reema is celebrating her birthday at the Oberon Mall,” says Manisha, to her mother, Sheela, a bank officer at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, a year ago. “Will have lunch and come back.”

“Okay,” says Sheela, as she hurriedly dabs lipstick, before she sets out for the MG Road branch at Kochi.

But Manisha, 15, has no birthday party to attend to. Instead, she is meeting Rahul, all of 25. Firstly, they are planning on seeing a film at the Cinemax, then lunch, and, thereafter, it is off to Rahul's parents' apartment. His father and mother lives in Dubai. Rahul is working in an IT firm in Kakkanad, and his weekends are free. Rahul has told the watchman that Manisha is his cousin sister, and so his suspicions have been allayed.

The sex has been going on for a while. “I always used the I-pill,” Manisha later tells psychologist Prakash Chandran. “But on days I forget, Rahul had no problem in using a condom. We have been careful.”

But what Manisha has not been careful about is her emotional reaction. She soon falls in love with Rahul and in her idle moments at home would slip into a reverie about marriage and children. Unfortunately, Rahul does not think along the same lines.

A couple of months ago, he breaks up with Manisha and is now friendly with another girl. Manisha has slipped into a deep depression. Very soon, her performance goes down in school. Her worried parents take her to the psychologist.

“Teenage sex is alarmingly on the increase,” says Prakash. “I know of a girl, Deepa, who is just 13 and is having sex with an eighteen-year-old.” It happened by accident. The elder sister, Prema, 18, had got friendly with Ramesh, 22. So, she took her younger sister along, for dates, so that their parents would not suspect.

Ramesh then introduced another friend, Soman to Deepa and they began an affair, which led to a sexual involvement for the teenager. As time went on, Prema broke up with Ramesh, but Deepa is still going strong.

“For the men it is just fun,” says Prakash. “When they get another girl, they will abandon the first. Slowly, girls will also develop the same attitude and that will be damaging in the long run, especially when they get married.”

At Prakash's clinic, a call comes on his mobile. It is yet another teenager, Rekha, 15, who wants to have a chat. In the course of the conversation, Rekha speaks about a pub in a well-known restaurant, where boys and girls get together to have drinks.
“There is drug-taking also,” she says. “My friends are regulars and there is a lot of kissing and hugging. Some of them later find places where they can have sex.”

On another day, the watchman at the entrance to the Gold Souk mall confirms that many youngsters, boys and girls, frequent the ‘Q’ multiplex, especially for the morning shows. “They seem to be romantically involved,” he says.

For all the romantic problems the teenagers are facing, Prakash blames the parents. “Most of them have blind belief,” he says. “You have to trust your children, but at the same time, you need to be vigilant. When your daughter goes to the mall, follow her and see what is happening. Is she really meeting her girlfriends or is it a boy? Even if your daughter gets upset, if she sees you, do remember you are trying to protect her life.”

One such father did follow his daughter and got a shock when he saw her holding hands with a man. He intervened. “We don't know how to be strict with the children,” says Prakash.

To top that, parents send out confused signals about values. “The father will say one thing and the mother will say the opposite,” says Prakash. “So, the children cannot distinguish between right and wrong.”

But what is also deeply affecting the behaviour of youngsters is the pervasive influence of the media, and the easy access to Internet porn. “We no longer value our traditional culture,” says Prakash. “We are adopting Western ways which is bad for us.”

Prakash counsels parents to get far more involved in their children's lives. “They should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “Children should feel that there is love. Parents assume that by giving material gifts it is love. But that is not enough. Showing and giving love is far more important. It will prevent children from going down self-destructive paths.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wine = bottled poetry

Rajeev Samant talks about why Sula Vineyards is the leading wine company in India and how from Silicon Valley he ended up growing wine in Nasik

By Shevlin Sebastian

Rajeev Samant, the CEO of the Nasik-based Sula Vineyards is trying to get used to the unusual ways of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC). The company gets paid only after shops and hotels, which buy the consignment from the KSBC, have sold the last bottle.

“All out-of-state beverages have to be sold through the KSBC,” he says. “Kerala is not the most remunerative of markets, but our sale has been doubling every year now. So clearly, wine drinking is catching on in Kerala.”

Top five-star hotels like The Taj and the Casino Group stock the wines. Not surprisingly, 70 per cent of the sales in Kerala are Sula wines and that is the position all over India . “This year we have had nation-wide sales of 5 lakh cases,” he says. “We expect a 20 per cent growth for the next decade.”

At the Holiday Inn in Kochi, Rajeev comes across as intense, focused, and passionate about wines. And his life has panned out in a way that he could not have imagined.

Rajeev grew up in Mumbai, where he studied in Cathedral & John Cannon, one of the best schools in the country. Later, he went to Stanford University where he got a master’s degree in engineering management and joined Oracle Corporation in Silicon Valley. Soon, he got himself a nice car and house.

“It was a great life, and there were no complaints,” he says. “But after a few years, I felt an inner dissatisfaction. I wanted to go back and do something in India.”

In 1992, a few months after his return, his father, a shipping entrepreneur took him to Nasik and showed him a 25 acre plot that he was trying to sell. Only wild grass grew on it. “I told my dad not to sell it,” he says. “The place looks so beautiful. I wanted to try something new.’”

Rajeev began with mangoes. But when he told his friends in wine-growing California that he was doing farming, they assumed it was grapes. “I thought, ‘ Nasik is full of grapes’”, says Rajeev. “If grapes are being grown for eating, surely it can be used to make wine. I am the right guy in the right place.’”

Nasik, at 600 metres above sea level, is, indeed, the right place. It has a cool and dry climate. All through the year, except for April and May, the evenings are cool. “Warm days and cool nights are what grapes love,” he says. “They like a big difference between day and night. That is what gives them the complexity. The night cool allows the flavours to come out, while the day heat allows the ripening to happen. And the two things together are an unbeatable combination.”

He produced the first wines in 1999, but there were no takers. “There was no wine culture in India then,” he says. “People asked me why they should buy my fairly expensive Indian wine, at Rs 450 a bottle, when they were getting cheap bootlegged French wine, at Rs 300. I had to go door to door and say, 'Taste my wine versus the French wine, and see which is better'.”

He got his breakthrough when Rahul Akerkar, the owner of Indigo, one of Mumbai's finest restaurants, said, “I like your wine and will support you.” And he put it on the list.

Says Rahul, “It was important for me to help homegrown entrepreneurs." Regarding the plus points of Sula wines, Rahul says, "Sula wines are well-made and quality driven wines and can hold their own against similar wines produced anywhere in the world.”

Then Mr. Lam, who was in charge of the Food and Beverages for the entire Taj hotel group, also put it on the list. The Oberoi hotel chain followed soon. “Thereafter, there was no looking back,” says Rajeev.

Today, Sula makes red, white, rose and sparkling wines, under different brand names (see But Indians prefer the fresher, fruitier red wines with a slightly stronger taste, because they are used to spices in the diet and the heat.

Meanwhile, Rajeev is traveling all around the country to create a wine culture. “We will do 1500 tastings this year,” he says. “That is the only way to create a widespread awareness of wine.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Becoming the nucleus in Maradu

The Abad Nucleus mall, at Maradu, Kochi, celebrated its first anniversary recently. A look at the its attractions

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most weekends, the Thevara-based Sheela Abraham goes to the Abad Nucleus Mall in Maradu, Kochi. She is accompanied by her two children, Beena, 10, and Roshan, 8. “It takes me only ten minutes to reach the mall,” says Sheela, whose husband spends six months on a ship. “The Nucleus is much less crowded and frenetic, as compared to other malls in the city. There is ample space to walk around, and it is clean and fresh inside.”

Dr. Najeeb Zacharia, the MD of Abad Builders will be pleased to hear this. The mall completed one year on November 5. It has a leasable area of 1.25 lakh sq. ft., spread over four floors. Ninety per cent of the space has been rented out. Among the places that Sheela frequents are the Food Bazaar, the Food Court, DC Books, and the Max clothing shop.

Dinesh N.R., Operations Manager of Max, says that nearly half of the people who come to the mall end up visiting their shop. “We are happy about it,” he says. “But we expect a larger number, when more retailers come in.” At present, 48 shops have been rented out, out of a total of 60.

They include well-known brands like Peter England, Lee, Navigator, Levis, Wrangler, Music World, Fab India, Adidas, Archies, John Miller, and Jockey. “Five more will become operational soon,” says Najeeb. “Usually, it takes two years for a mall to reach full occupancy.”

Looking back, it seemed a risky and unusual move to set up a mall at Maradu, quite far away from the city centre. “But there are advantages,” says Riaz Ahmed, the MD of Abad Hotels. “The most essential attribute for the success of a mall is its accessibility.”

There are three easy ways to reach Abad Nucleus: from National Highway 49, from Pettah, and through the new Tripunithara bypass. “The majority of our customers come from Thevara, Tripunithara, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, Aroor, Kolencherry and Chotannikara,” says Riaz. “They find Nucleus an ideal location.”

The mall gets about 10,000 visitors on the weekends. And most of them come on cars and two-wheelers. “There is a parking facility for 320 cars and 150 two-wheelers,” says Najeeb. This is available in the front, at the side, in the basement and the terrace, for which there are two car lifts.

But what the Abad management is most proud of is that the Nucleus is a green mall, the first in India to get a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate from the USA.

“During the construction we used materials which are environment-friendly like low Volatile Organic Compound paints,” says Riaz. “It is a non-pollutant. All water is recycled and there is a 40 per cent decrease in the consumption of energy. We also maintain high indoor air quality. It translates into a better atmosphere inside the mall.”

To create an even better atmosphere, the management is planning to come up with innovations, like a new 6D cinema. When you view a 6D film, you will actually experience events like rains or storms, similar to what the onscreen characters are going through.

“It is far more advanced than 3D, and will be a stunning experience for the viewer,” says Najeeb. “We expect it to be a big crowd-puller.”

To control the crowds, the mall has set up a secure environment. There are over 100 cameras in all the common areas, the parking facilities and the elevators. Recently, one woman lost her purse. It slipped out of the cloth bag that she was carrying. Thanks to surveillance cameras, the security personnel were able to locate the precise location where the wallet had fallen, and was able to return it to the owner.

Meanwhile, linked with the anniversary, a two-month long carnival has begun, with variety entertainment and activities, apart from weekly prizes and a bumper prize of a car.

These are all moments of happiness, but for the management their proudest feeling is that, thanks to the mall, more than 500 people have got direct employment. And the presence of Nucleus is having a spill-over effect in the area. New buildings and shops are coming up.

“The Nucleus is becoming the nucleus of Maradu,” says Riaz.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Scenes from a marriage

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Poornima talks about what it is like to be married to popular actor Indrajith Sukumaran

By Shevlin Sebastian

In August, 1999, Poornima Indrajith was coming down the stairs of a bungalow in Thiruvananthapuram. “I had just finished shooting an emotional scene [for K.K. Rajeev’s 'Peythozhiyathe'] and I had put too much of glycerine in my eyes,” she says. So, she had bloodshot eyes, and a swollen face, and was wiping away the tears. She felt a boy gaze at her. Soon, her colleague, Mallika Sukumaran, told her, “Poornima, this is my son Indrajith.”

She said, “Hello.” Indrajith was wearing a dark blue t-shirt and jeans, and had square-rimmed spectacles. “He had neatly combed air, and looked like a well-behaved schoolboy,” she says.

At that time Indrajith was doing his studies at the Nagercoil Engineering College and had come to collect his mother.

What stimulated Poornima's liking was that although Indrajith looked very much like Mallika, he had a prominent cleft. “That reminded me of his father, the late superstar Sukumaran,” she says. “My mother and I are such big fans.”

They got talking and began a courtship. “It was not love at first sight,” she says. “In fact, it was very casual, as we were both just 20 years old.” But, evidently, the couple clicked as a pair, and they got married on December 13, 2002. “You might wonder why the marriage date is the ‘unlucky 13th’, and the answer is that it is my birthday, and I have been very lucky,” says Poornima.

Nine years later, they have two girls, Praarthana, 7, and Nakshatra, 2. And while Indrajith is busy with his career as an actor, Poornima plays the dual roles of mother and TV anchor.

So what is it like to be married to a celebrity? “I am there in the limelight, along with my husband, but he has to work very hard,” she says. “Many times he is out there in the sun and the rain, during filming, and it is not easy at all.” But what is not surprising is the loss of privacy that the couple feels keenly about. “Whenever I go on the set, we become very conscious because people are staring at us and aiming their mobile cameras,” she says. “It is very uncomfortable.”

They are unable to take the children for long walks, or play in the park and eat roadside snacks. “How do we do it, without getting disturbed or stared at?” says Poornima.

But sometimes, they do find a way out. Like when they go for the late night show at the multiplexes. “We enter just after the film begins and rush out when the credits are rolling,” says Poornima, with a laugh. “Having said all this, there are more advantages than disadvantages of being a celebrity.”

They are also glad that they are in jobs for which they have a liking. “When your profession becomes your passion, life becomes superb,” she says. “You just enjoy what you are doing.”

And Poornima is all praise for Indrajith, the human being, who rarely loses his calm, even under the most difficult of circumstances. “He is very patient,” says Poornima. “Indrajith will go to an extent where you will ask, ' Why is this guy not reacting?'. It is a great plus point regarding a man, but it can also be a negative trait. Because when he has to talk back, he does not.”

But when it comes to children, Indrajith can react strongly. Around two months ago, Poornima, her mum, and Mallika, were sitting and chatting at home. Suddenly, one of their daughters, Nakshatra, ate a nut and it got stuck in the throat.

Before Poornima could react, Indrajith rushed out from another room, held Nakshatra upside down, and tapped the back very hard. “Thankfully, the nut came out,” she says. “Thereafter, he fired all of us. He said, 'Up to a certain age, whatever happens to children is your responsibility. As a mom, you should always be aware of your children at all times.'”

But, sometimes, Poornima also gets angry with Indrajith, because of his habit of smoking. “My husband accepts that smoking is a bad habit,” she says. “Still, he has four or five every day. Chain smokers might laugh, but from a wife's perspective, this is a high number.”

Asked whether she misses acting, Poornima says, “I am happy with what I have, and I try to enjoy every moment of my life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Dulquer Salman steps into the spotlight

Mammooty's son is acting as the hero in his debut film, 'Second Show', which is releasing in January, 2012

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dulquer Salman, the son of superstar Mammooty, has been launched into the public spotlight at an elaborate function at the Le Meridien hotel in Kochi on Thursday night. The occasion was the market launch of the film, ‘Second Show’, in which Dulquer makes his debut as a hero, paired with another newcomer, Gauthami Nair.

The audience comprised members of the Malayalam film industry, which included superstar Dileep, veteran film director, Sibi Malayil, and young actress Rima Kallingal, politicians like State Excise Minister K. Babu and former Transport Minister Jose Thettayil, apart from corporate professionals.

The crew was introduced through a catwalk demonstration led by models wearing tight yellow and red skirts and long black and silver stiletto heels. What was astonishing to see was that the team, including director Srinath Rajendran, is in their twenties. “80 per cent of the crew comprises first-timers,” says Srinath.

When Dulquer stepped onto the stage, many were seeing him for the first time. He has nice cheekbones, a sharp nose, soft red lips and a laid-back presence. He wore an open black jacket, with a blue handkerchief sticking out of the pocket, blue jeans and gleaming black leather shoes.

“There is no doubt that Dulquer is handsome,” says Rima. “But as the son of Mammooty, he will have to bear the burden of high expectations.”

Off stage, Dulquer smiled easily, as people came up to shake his hand. One bespectacled man simply said, “Pappi Appacha.” It was the film's director, Mamas Chandran. “Oh hello,” Dulquer said, with an amused grin.

Earlier, a teaser clip from 'Second Show' gave no indication of whether Dulquer has screen presence, charisma, or talent. But Dileep said, “The reports that we have received so far indicate that Dulquer has given a good performance. I wish him all the best. And I entreat the audience to not only see the second show, but also the morning, noon, matinee, and evening shows.”

‘Second Show’ has been made by AOPL Entertainment on a budget of Rs 3.5 crore. “The film is about getting second chances in life, in romance, and even in revenge,” says director Srinath. “Dulquer plays Lalu, who is willing to do any kind of job to survive. The story is inspired by real-life events.”

‘Second Show’ is slated to be released in January 2012.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Friday, November 11, 2011

A feast of biryani

The Spice Route restaurant in the Oberon Mall is having a 'Biryani Galore' festival

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Sunday night, chef N. Shrikantan is having a busy time. There are several patrons who have come to take part in the 'Biryani Galore' Fest at the Spice Route restaurant at the Oberon Mall. “Since biryani eating is getting popular, we decided to have the festival,” he says. And the restaurant has pulled out all the stops.

On the buffet table, there are 12 varieties of biryani. And you can start with the Peshawar mutton biryani. “In the Pakistan style, they use a lot of oil,” says Shrikantan. “I have used much less corn oil and ghee.” Thanks to the ghee, the meat is succulent and tasty. There is also a hint of mint and coriander leaves, apart from spring onions.

After that, you could still remain in the neighbouring country by trying the Pakistani Kheema Biryani with its standout minced beef. Thereafter, there is a stylishly named Nawabi biryani. “It is usually made for Eid ul Fitr,” says Shrikantan. There is a hint of sweetness in it. “I have added apple pieces and mixed vegetables,” he says. The most popular in India is the Nawabi biryani made in Lucknow .

Other delights include the Hyderabadi Full-Chicken, the Andhra kitchen shrimp, and the dum beef biryani.

In case you want to return to Kerala, you can try the Travancore Spicy Fish, the Malabar Egg or the kappa biryani. Different types of rice have been used: long, short and thick grains. For example, for the Peshawar biryani, long grains have been used, because that is the style in Pakistan .

And the festival also caters to the vegetarian palate. There is the Idiappam, Tikka Paneer and the Kashmiri biryani, among others. “It is mostly North Indians who prefer to have vegetarian food,” says the chef. “On the other hand, Malayalis love to eat chicken or mutton biryani. So, this is a chance for them to try different styles.”

Patron Priya Menon liked the Nawabi biriyani the best because of its taste. “Overall, it was a nice culinary experience eating so many different types of biryani.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

‘The persistence of inflation is worrying’

Dr. C. Rangarajan delivers the 12th Commemorative Lecture organized by the Fedbank Hormis Memorial Foundation

By Shevlin Sebastian

“The one disturbing element in recent years is the persistence of inflation,” says Dr. C. Rangarjan, the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. “The other problem is the recent decline in industrial production.”

In July and August industrial production has been below 5 percent. “Even if the rate of growth picks up in the second half of the year, the overall rate may be well below the projected 7 per cent,” said Rangarajan. “The world economic situation is also not very encouraging.”

Dr. C. Rangarajan was the featured speaker for the 12th Commemorative Lecture organized by the Fedbank Hormis Memorial Foundation. The subject: ‘The Indian Economy – Prospects and Constraints’.

In 2010-11, inflation was triggered by the rise in the prices of vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and meat. “The increase in vegetable prices has been significant,” he said. “The late rains had a severe impact on the supply of some vegetables, including onions.” The persistence of food inflation has led to the spread of inflation in other sectors.

Rangarajan said that there is an urgent need to expand employment opportunities and improve productivity across all sectors of the economy. “It is important to narrow the economic disparities across and within states,” he said.

Rangarajan’s voice sounded pained when he said that India was still in the bottom league of nations when it came to the UNDP’s Human Development Index.

The Indian economy is also being hampered by the low yields in major cereal crops, as compared to countries like China. “We have large science and technology establishments for agricultural research, but the results in terms of productivity leave much to be desired,” he said. It was a polite way of saying that they were white elephants.

Another major problem is the shortage of infrastructure especially in electricity. “A shortage of electric power leads not only to production losses, but also impacts profitability and competitiveness,” he said.

To give an idea of our lack of competitiveness, Rangarajan said that China adds to its capacity in power in one year what India takes five years. “That is how big the gulf is between us and China,” he said.

Nevertheless, his overall message is positive: If India grows at 9 per cent per annum, the per capita GDP will increase from $1600 to $10,000 by 2025. “Then we will become part of the middle group of countries,” he said. “It is necessary to have a strong growth to provide employment to the growing numbers of young people who will join the labour force.”

Earlier, in a welcome speech, Shyam Srinivasan, the MD and CEO of Federal Bank, praised the visionary qualities of the founder, K.P. Hormis. “Today, the bank does over Rs 80,000 crore in business, has 825 branches, 867 ATM’s and an employee strength of 8500.”

The hall at the Gateway Hotel was expectedly packed, and consisted of, what P.C. Cyriac, the Chairman of Federal Bank described, “as the cream of the intelligentsia in Kochi.”

And on the dais, there was one trustee of the foundation who would have the fondest memories of the founder: K.P. Hormis’ son Raju Hormis.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

No porters in sight... all the time

At Ernakulam Town railway station, passengers complain about the lack of porters. The elderly and pregnant women have a tough time

Photo: A few porters at Ernakulam Town railway station

By Shevlin Sebastian

When educationist B.S. Warrier returns from Bangalore to Kochi every two months, he has the same experience each time at the Ernakulam Town [North] station. There is no porter to help him take the luggage from the station to the car park. “I am 75 years old,” he says. “It is very difficult for me to take it myself.”

Since the Island Express arrives at Platform No. 2, Warrier and his 65-year-old wife have to climb up the over-bridge and make their way, lugging their luggage along. “This happened at 10 a.m., and not late at night,” he says. “I have seen pregnant women and sick passengers carry their own baggage. The Railway officials are doing nothing about this.”

Station Manager K.V. Mathew clarifies that the porters are not on the payroll of the Railways. “We cannot insist on them being present,” he says. “If they are absent for ten days in a row, all I can ask for is a medical certificate.” The only emoluments given by the Railways are an annual complimentary pass for free travel and some medicines from the health unit.

Mathew is frank enough to say that if passengers complain about a shortage of porters, to a certain extent, they are right. “Out of 12 porters, who are supposed to be on a 24 hour shift, at least six of them may be on leave,” he says.

There is a reason for this. There is no demand for porters for all trains. It is only for specific long-distance trains like expresses that people have luggage to carry. “There are only 12 trains originating from North station,” says Mathew. “Whereas in the South [Ernakulam Junction], there are many more trains starting from there as well as passengers. So business is better for the porters there.”

Meanwhile, the porters at the Town station talk about the poor income. “We earn between Rs 160-180 per shift of 24 hours,” says Ashraf. “That is meagre. On Platform 2, there are two entrances. Auto-rickshaw drivers canvass for customers and offer to take the suitcases themselves. So, we lose the business.”

Regarding aged people and pregnant women not getting help, Prasad, another porter, says, “Most of the time, they are accompanied by people who carry the luggage. Otherwise, those who come to pick them up do so. Our biggest problem is that most luggage pieces have trolley wheels, and hence people do not need the help of porters. Of course, there are difficulties in carrying the baggage up the stairs, but that problem is absent when the train arrives on Platform No. 1.”

As a result of fewer customers and depleted earnings, a few porters go outside for casual work. This includes painting of houses, doing an electrician's job, and unloading material at a nearby godown.

“This is how we make ends meet,” says Ashraf. “In case, there are a lot of passengers who need their luggage to be taken, my colleagues will call us on the mobile, and we will come quickly to the station.”

The porters say that they make good money when people from North India come for a holiday in large groups. “Their baggage is put on a trolley and taken outside,” says Prasad. But apparently, this year, the takings have been poor because it has been a lean tourist season.

However, Warrier has stated that the porters are more interested in carrying commercial items, rather than the luggage of passengers. Mathew categorically denies it. “Those are different porters,” he says. “The ones who take the passengers' luggage are not allowed to pick up commercial items. You can distinguish them because they wear green uniforms, while the luggage-carrying porters have red shirts.”

What is clear is that unless the Railways take these porters on as employees, the problems for passengers will continue.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Style and panache

In the Hairomax Miss South India 2011 event, a Bangalore girl lifts the crown, while the pageant made history when a differently-able girl took part for the first time

Photo: (From left): The second runner-up, Yamini Chander, Miss South India, Laxmi Anand and Elizabeth Thadikaran, first runner-up

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the end, Laxmi Anand of Bangalore pipped Kochi lass Elizabath Thadikaran, the reigning Miss Kerala, to win the Hairomax Miss South India 2011 title at a function in Kochi. After she was crowned, Laxmi said, “I had come here to win and achieved it.” Yamini Chander was the second runner-up. In total, there were 16 participants, with three girls from Kerala while the rest were from Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. The pageant also made history: actress Abhinaya was the first participant who has hearing and speech impediments.

Not surprisingly, she got the loudest applause from the audience. And it would be the presence of Abhinaya which would provide the first hiccup in the show.

After being eliminated before the semi final round, judge Srikant, a Tamil film star, suddenly announced that Abhinaya should be brought back and be the seventh participant. Compere Ranjini Haridas, flustered by this sudden addition, said, “There is more mirchi here than a reality show.” Ajit Ravi, the chairman of Pegasus, the organizers, said, “It was unexpected, but we accepted the judges’ decision.”

Not everybody in the audience appreciated the gesture, since it was a competition, and Abhinaya had been eliminated fair and square. In promotional material for the contest, Abhinaya had said, “Please don’t show sympathy for anyone’s disability, as they are trying to be as normal as others.” So, maybe, she could have practiced what she preached, and refused the nomination.

Meanwhile, Srikant enjoyed some fan support himself. Singer Ranjini Jose announced from the stage that she had a huge crush on Srikant ‘Sir’. So, was it in his honour that she only sang Tamil and Telugu songs for the Malayali audience?

The programme had contestants modeling designer sarees: red, green, blue, shimmering and not so shimmering, with silver, gold, and black stiletto heels, and with their hair tied up or flowing down their shoulders. It was followed by a self-introduction. As expected, there was clever word play. Here’s one from Elizabeth: ‘The purpose of life is to have a purpose’. What was surprising was how tall most of the girls were. Said Ranjini, “This must be the tallest batch I have come across. I feel like a dwarf next to them”

There was a linen design-wear round, in black and white gowns and skirts. But, after the ‘common question round’, it ended up in a tie between Laxmi and Yamini. So, all the seven contestants had to do the round again, before Laxmi was declared the winner, while Elizabeth squeezed past Yamini to get the first runner-up slot.

The show, which was supposed to start at 6.30 p.m., began at 7 p.m., and was still going strong at 11.30 p.m. Meanwhile, throats were parched, apart from growling stomachs. A frank Ranjini Haridas said, “I am pooped. This show is going on and on.”

The cultural programme in between the rounds was interminable, with a never-ending succession of songs and dances. Maybe Pegasus could break the monotony by bringing in a mimicry artist or have a comedy skit about fashion pageants. The clapping was lukewarm throughout, but intensified when Ravi of Pegasus gave a cheque to Parveena Hafeez, the MD of Sunrise Hospital, to sponsor a free heart surgery for a child.

For the girls, it must have been a wonderful experience, and for those who did well, a great boost for their self-confidence.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Letting down her guard

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sheela Kochuouseph talks about life with her husband, Kochuouseph Chittilappilly, the managing director of the Rs 700 crore V-Guard Industries Ltd

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last month, when Kochuouseph Chittilappilly, the managing director of the Rs 700 crore V-Guard Industries Ltd., returned from a business trip to China he gave a gift to his wife, Sheela. It was a Swarovski set of a pendant, earrings, and necklace.

“I was stunned,” says Sheela. “I asked him how long he took to select it. He replied that the moment he saw it, he liked it and decided to buy it. It was something special and it is these types of thoughtful gestures that can refresh a marriage.”

At 9 a.m., on a Monday morning, Sheela is looking refreshed herself. Earlier, she had returned from a session of playing badminton at the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium, had a quick bath and an even quicker breakfast. Inside the bungalow, beside the National Highway 47 at Kochi, it is silent except for the occasional squawk of a parrot.

Sheela met Kochuouseph for the first time in August, 1977. “He was smiling easily and dressed simply,” she says. “I liked him.” Since her father had died when Sheela was 15, her elder brother and mother made the decision of accepting the marriage proposal. The wedding took place on August 28. Within months she became pregnant and gave birth to son Arun, on their first wedding anniversary. Son Mithun arrived a couple of years later.

So what is it like to be married to a business magnate? “He was not a rich man when I married him,” she says. “We lived in an apartment, near Shenoy’s theatre, for which the monthly rent was Rs 450.” Kochuouseph had five employees then and was making 50 stabilisers a month.

“Yes, today, it is nice to live in a large house, travel all over the world, and to lead a comfortable life,” says Sheela. “But I was much happier when we lived in a small house, and moved around on a scooter. It was a simple life. He would spend a lot of time with me. Now we have a lot of public commitments. Both my husband and I have become very busy.”

Sheela is the managing director of V-Star Creations, a firm which deals in innerwear for men and women. “Even though I am a businesswoman, when I come home, I become a housewife once again,” she says. “I do the cooking, and wash the dishes. There are women who when they suddenly get a good income, forget their past, and behave in a high-handed manner with their husbands. That is wrong. And, anyway, I believe that men are superior to women. God has made it that way.”

So what are the qualities that she admires in this superior man? “My husband is systematic, hard-working, frank and considerate to his employees,” says Sheela. “He is a simple man and not crazy about money, plus he is not finicky about food.”

However, what Sheela found difficult to adjust to was the insistence on punctuality by Kochuouseph. “If he says we have to leave at 8 p.m., it has to be 8 p.m.,” she says. “Five minutes late is too much. It is like five hours to him. Even when we go on a holiday, he keeps to a schedule. I would like to laze about and get up late in the mornings. But he always insists that we keep the same discipline.”

Sheela admits it has been stressful to live with a successful man. “The more mentally strong a man is, the more difficult it is for the wife,” says Sheela. “In the earlier years, he would be hot-tempered with me. But I have managed by confiding in my friends, and having hobbies like painting, gardening, and interior decoration.”

As for Kochuouseph as a father, he has given a lot of freedom to his sons, as well as guidance. “My husband has given them a big business,” says Sheela. “For any child this is a blessing. They just have to look after what he has made. Although I feel that it is also good for children to start from scratch. Then you are able to appreciate more what you have.”

Like all marriages it has been a bitter-sweet experience, but what shines through is Sheela’s commitment. “I cannot live without my husband,” she says. “So, at any cost, I will be by his side. I want to always be with him. It is not because he is a rich and successful man. It is just that emotionally I am attached to him. Ultimately, I am his wife.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, November 07, 2011

'Youthful India is the big bull of the world'

Says A.P. Kurian, the former Executive Trustee of the Unit Trust of India, and the chairman of Geojit BNP Paribas, in the ‘Thought Leadership’ lecture series at the Wednesday Club

Photos: Young people; A.P. Kurian

By Shevlin Sebastian

In his speech, titled ‘India’s Ongoing Growth Story’, in the ‘Thought Leadership’ lecture series at the Wednesday Club, a forum which helps develop communication skills, A.P. Kurian, a former Executive Trustee of the Unit Trust of India and the chairman of Geojit BNP Paribas, said, “The greatest advantage the people of India have is a high rate of savings: about 34 per cent.”

It is savings that converts into investment, which leads to development. According to American economist Kenneth Kurihara, investment is to the economy what an accelerator is to the automobile. “Today, we are the second largest growing economy in the world, with an annual rate of 8 per cent,” said Kurian.

India also has a productive demographic advantage, with the average age being 25 years. In the West, the average age is 45 or 60. “We have a young and energetic group of people who have lots of aspirations,” said Kurian. It also helps that we have the largest number of engineers, doctors, nurses, and drivers.

“If the Malayali work force in the Middle East returns to India , there will be problems in those countries,” said Kurian. “The same will be the case in European hospitals, if all the Malayali nurses come back. Manpower is our greatest strength.”

We also have other advantages. The government debt is only 44 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the USA, it is as high as 78 per cent, while in Italy it is a whopping 180 per cent.

Kurian asked a rhetorical question to the audience: has anybody ever come across a bank that has failed in the past three decades? The last one was the Pala Central Bank in the 1950s. “It is rare,” said Kurian. “We have strong institutions and safeguards in place.”

In 2008, when the sub-prime lending crisis hit the USA , there was very little impact in India . “There was a fall of 50 per cent of the share value in the market, but it bounced back within nine months,” said Kurian. “We are a resilient people. In America, 90 per cent of the people are in debt, but in India it is only 10 per cent.”

Nevertheless, there have been scams in the financial sector, including the big one by Harshad Mehta in the 1990s and Ketan Parekh in 2001. “As a result, the securities market has been completely revamped,” he said. “A National Stock Exchange has come up, apart from the National Securities Depository Ltd.”

On the social side, there have been changes. India was a feudal society. Then it became a socialist republic, and now it is more or less a market-driven economy.

“The licence raj has all but been abolished,” he said. “The welcome development is the public-private participation in all sectors of the Indian economy. One example: we have world class airports at Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.”

As for the political system, it has always been stable, from 1947 till Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. “Now, despite coalition rule, we still have a well-functioning democracy, and a strong and effective judiciary,” said Kurian.

Having said many things in praise, Kurian admitted that one third of the population was below the poverty line. “This works out to about 300 million people, which is more than the population of the United States of America,” he said. “It has been a drag on the economy and on society.”

Another drawback has been the misuse and wasteful expenditure of public money. “This is more so in the public sector,” said Kurian. “At a national airline, there are allegedly 100 people to look after one passenger, while in other international airlines, it is only 10.”

However, the world thinks India is a country with a long-term growth. At this moment, the Foreign Institutional Investment in India is Rs 1.3 lakh crore ($28 billion).

“Today, India is the investment destination of the world,” said Kurian. “The pension funds of many countries in Europe have been invested in India. Believe me when I say that India will continue to grow non-stop till 2060. Youthful India is the big bull of the world.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, November 04, 2011

A plea for ramps everywhere

Suffering from muscular dystrophy, consumer activist P.J. Simon is waging a lone battle in Kochi for ramps to be put up in banks, churches, government buildings, railway stations, and bus stops

Photo: Activist P.J. Simon (left)

By Shevlin Sebastian

At his eighth-floor apartment, at Kaloor, the door has been left unlocked so that the visitor can have easy access. P.J. Simon suffers from muscular dystrophy, which is a degeneration of the muscles. So, he is unable to move about on his own. And this consumer activist is on a campaign to get facilities for people like him.

“Everywhere I go, in Kochi, or in Kerala, I experience so many obstacles,” he says. “In buses, it is difficult to get on or off. The way the drivers stop and suddenly leave, there is hardly any time for the disabled people.”

In the railway stations, accessibility to the platforms is difficult. “And in most of the stations, you expect the train to come on Platform No. 1,” he says. “Suddenly there will be an announcement that the train is arriving on Platform 2 or 3. We will have to take a staircase. That is very difficult for many elderly people and impossible for a person like me.”

Another problem is that the platform is not parallel to the bogie’s entrance. “Without help, it is impossible to travel on a train,” he says.

As for the plane, when Simon goes to the Cochin international airport, at Nedumbassery, on his periodic trips to Canada and the USA , where his son stays, he cannot stand for long, so he looks for a wheelchair.

“But the wheelchair supply is poor,” he says. “They will have a few and it will be used to transport many passengers. So you have to sit on a chair. But if I stay at one place for a long time, it is difficult for me to get up. I would then have to take the help of others.”

In order to get his election ID card, a photograph had to be taken, at the Elamkulam village office, opposite the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium. But this was done on the first floor. “I struggled to reach there,” he says. “Unfortunately, this sort of insensitivity is common among public servants.”

Going to banks is also difficult, because there are no ramps. The same is the case with ATM's. On July 9, a frustrated Simon sent an e-mail to Chanda Kochchar, the CEO and MD of ICICI Bank. After four days, he received a response from her office.

“I was told that the construction of ramps would be initiated and completed before August 31, at the Kaloor branch,” he says. To his surprise, on July 19, the cluster manager of ICICI, Binu Joseph, informed Simon that ramps and railings had already been put up. “Based on my feedback, they were looking into the possibility of constructing ramps at other branches, as well as ATM's,” he says.

Simon has sent a similar letter to the CEO and MD of Axis Bank, Shikha Sharma, which was also well-received. The bank is planning similar measures as taken by ICICI Bank.

On another day, he spoke to Sanjay Gopal, one of the partners of textile shop, Jayalakshmi Silks, about the lack of ramps. Gopal responded at once and a short ramp has been built at the back, leading from the car park.

However, one group which has not shown any sensitivity to the physically challenged is the Catholic church. “Whereever I go for Sunday Mass, it is so difficult to access any church,” he says.

Simon wrote a letter to one of the senior bishops. The bishop promised that whenever new churches are built ramps will be made. “I told him I am not worried about the new churches which will come up when I won't be around,” says Simon, 73. “But what about the existing churches where these facilities are not available and can be provided at a nominal cost?” Within the next decade, the geriatric population is set to increase manifold in the state.

When Simon went to Canada and the USA , he experienced no problems at all. “Everywhere, there is easy access,” he says. “Ramps and facilities are a must in all buildings and car parks. Without them, nobody gets the license.”

Says Javed Abidi, Executive Director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People: “70 million disabled people in India cannot step out of their homes because of an inaccessible physical infrastructure and transport system, thus reducing them to an 'invisible minority.' They are dependent on their families for sustenance and are a burden on society. Accessible infrastructure will enable disabled people to get education, employment, and dignity.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Getting back into the groove

Musician Emile Isaacs, who was part of singer Usha Uthup's troupe for 38 years, suffered a stroke two years ago. He is making a slow but steady recovery

By Shevlin Sebastian

Musician Emile Isaacs blames himself for the stroke that he suffered in January, 2009. A few months earlier, he had gone on a month-long concert trip to the USA with Malayalam film stars like Jayaram, Parvathy, Padmapriya and mimic, Kottayam Nazir, apart from singer Usha Uthup. “On that trip I forgot to take the medicines to control my high blood pressure,” he says. “I am supposed to take my tablets every day. But for one month I did not do so.”

However, there were warning signs. One of his doctor friends told Emile that he did not look good. “But I replied that I felt fine,” he says. Following the trip to the USA, Emile went with Usha to Kolkata. “During a concert, I could feel my hand becoming numb,” he says. It was the beginning of a stroke.

It affected the movement of his left arm and leg. But by the grace of God, his memory and voice is intact, as well as his sight and hearing. One month later, Emile flew to Kerala and underwent physiotherapy treatment in the Medical Trust as well as the Lourdes Hospital in Kochi. The progress had been slow, but ever since a manual therapist, Sugha Prasad, began to massage him every day at his home, a few months ago, Emile has made a remarkable improvement. “Now the sessions have become very painful for me, which is good news,” he says. “It means the nerves are coming back to life in my arms and legs.”

Emile had been the bass guitarist for 'The Sound' band, which accompanies Usha in all her performances. “I had been with Usha for 38 years,” he says. They have performed all over the world, including offbeat places like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Thus far, they had played in over a thousand concerts. “I was so busy with shows and shows and shows,” he says. “24 hours a day was not enough for me.”

So, it has come as a shock for Emile that he has been grounded after such a hectic career. “I believe that God wanted me to take a rest,” he says. “In all these activities I had no time for Him. The stroke has now brought me closer to God. I am praying a lot. One day I will bounce back.”

But when he bounces back, Emile no longer wants to play commercial music. Instead, he wants to do spiritual songs. “I want to play for Jesus,” he says. He has plans to go to the Divine Retreat Centre at Muringoor and team up with his brother Antony.

As for Usha, she is all praise for her colleague. “Emile has been a fine musician for very long,” she says. “But for me his greatest quality has been the way he has looked after his family all these years.”

Emile, the son of a prominent violinist, Joe Isaacs, started playing the guitar at 15. Because of his natural talent, he was hired as a member of playback singer K.J. Yesudas' band. They performed all over Kerala and in the Middle East. “Yesudas made me,” Emile says simply. “I was with the band for eight years.”

Later, Emile started a band called the Elite Aces, which consisted of his brothers, Eugene, Rex, and cousin Pinson Correia. They began playing at Volga, Sealord, and the Casino hotels at Kochi. Soon, they became popular.

When Usha came down from Mumbai, at the invitation of the Kottayam Arts Society, the Elite Aces performed for her. “This was our first concert with Usha,” says Emile. They clicked together and played for a number of years. Usha also helped the band to get a contract at the Oberoi Sheraton in Mumbai during the Christmas season. “We were the first Malayali band to perform there,” he says. Later, they played with Usha at Kolkata's top club, Trincas.

However, in 1979, the Elite Aces broke up and the band members went their different ways, while Emile stayed on with Usha, at Kolkata, and continued to play with 'The Sound'. Today, this band comprises of Bengali musicians and is still performing for Usha, even though Emile is no longer there.

“The show has to go on,” says Emile. “The music should never stop.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Staying anchored with the sailor

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Letha Sushil talks about what it is to be married to Vice Admiral KN Sushil, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command

By Shevlin Sebastian

Letha Sushil remembers the first sight of her husband, Vice Admiral KN Sushil, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command. It was February, 1984. He was coming to see Letha, in a typical arranged marriage scenario, at her parents’ home in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Sushil wore sunglasses and a striped T-shirt, and looked physically fit,” she says. “He reminded me of [West Indian cricketer] Viv Richards.” Letha was impressed. It also helped that Sushil's sister had been Letha's classmate at the Trivandrum's Women's College. So Letha said yes, but not before asking Sushil this question: “Hope you are doing this out of your free will?” Sushil laughed, and said, “Yes.”

The marriage took place on August 17, 1984. “It has been a beautiful innings, so far,” she says, at Navy House in Katari Bagh, Kochi. “I have two wonderful daughters, a grandson, and a good husband. The Navy life is nice. There is security, we have nice friends, and a strong support system.”

So, does she get overwhelmed that Sushil is the boss of the Southern Command, and the second senior-most Navy person in the country? Letha smiles, and says, “My husband is holding a big post and I am happy about that. But I don't wear the Navy stripes on my shoulders. I try to be a down-to-earth person.”

Of course, there are the unavoidable duties of being the wife of the Commanding-in-Chief. “I have to attend many official functions,” Letha says. “Even if I am not well, I can rarely skip these events. But I enjoy the responsibility of being the president of the Navy Wives Welfare Association. We do a lot of social work.”

The Navy life is hard for a wife because the husband spends several weeks at a stretch at sea. “We have to tackle difficult situations alone,” she says. “In some ways, I had to bring up the children all by myself. Those days were not easy. But, later on, when everything worked out well, it made me more a stronger person.”

Of course, in the Navy, service always comes before family. “Even if the wife is ill, and has to be hospitalised, the husband would still have to go out to sea if duty beckons,” says Letha. “That is the way it is. These men are defending our country.”

Letha remembers the case of an officer who accidentally dropped his child from a height. She suffered a head injury and had to be rushed to the intensive care unit of a hospital. “But the father still had to go sailing,” says Letha. “These kinds of situations will be there in every Navy wife’s life.”

She remembers one such instance from her own life. “Sushil was commanding a submarine and had been gone for 45 days,” she says. “We were very happy when he came back.” But before the family could celebrate, within an hour of his return, Sushil received orders to sail again. “I was very upset, and felt depressed and helpless,” says Letha. “To regain my composure, I went for a long walk around the campus in Mumbai. When I returned, I told Sushil, 'All right, if you have to go, please go.'” Her husband was gone for a further 25 days.

In person, Letha looks trim and fit. She credits her super-fit spouse for introducing her to exercise. They go for long walks, either in the morning or the evening, with their two Labrador dogs, a mother-daughter team of 'Dee Dee' and 'Cleo'. “I used to go for swimming earlier,” she says. “But now I am an avid golfer, along with Sushil.”

Asked for tips on making a marriage last, in these days of rising divorce rates, Letha says, “You need patience. People have less of it these days. Avoid blowing up small issues. Finally, instead of taking rash decisions, wait one or two weeks. You will cool down, and be more forgiving.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Trivandrum)