Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Indo-French tie-up

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Kochiite Sherly has been married to Frenchman Daniel Frison for the past seventeen years. She talks about the joys of being married to a foreigner

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the 1990s, Frenchman Daniel Frison would come annually to Thiruvananthapuram because he loved Kerala and India. There he met a few friends from Kochi. One day he told them he wanted to marry an Indian girl. Back in Kochi, they informed their landlord, Lissie, who felt her unmarried sister Sherly would be a good choice. At that time, she was working in a firm in Chennai.

Daniel saw some photographs and liked Sherly. Then he went to Chennai and met her. They were immediately attracted to each other. Thereafter, armed with several photographs, Daniel went back to France and told his sister and father about his desire to marry an Indian woman. His mother had already passed away. They accepted his decision.

On February 13, 1995, Daniel and Sherly got married at the St. James church at Chambakara, Poonithara. “About 13 people came from France,” says Sherly.

Asked the reason why he married Sherly, Daniel says, “I found her trustworthy, loyal, tolerant and beautiful. In France, at that time, one in every three marriages was ending in divorce. Now it is one in two. I wanted to have only one marriage in my lifetime. So, I decided to tie the knot with an Indian woman.”

Two months after the marriage, Sherly went to France for the first time. Daniel's home town, Annecy, was just 45 kms from Geneva, Switzerland. “While I was amazed by their fair skin, the women said that they wanted my brown colour,” says Sherly. In fact, during the months of June to August, French women would spend hours sunbathing on the beach. They would also go to tanning salons to receive ultra-violet rays. “However, nowadays, because of that, a lot of people have got skin cancer,” says Sherly.

Sometimes, when Sherly would go to the town’s park, the people would come and talk with her. Within a year of her marriage, she had learnt to speak French fluently. “In those times, I was the only Asian there,” says Sherly. “My husband told me that even though his family had lived in the town for 40 years, so many people had never spoken to them, as they did with me.”

And this increased when they had a son, Anthony, who is now studying in Class 9 at Choice School . “Many residents had children who had grown up and left home,” says Sherly. “So they were lonely. They would invite us for tea or coffee, and play with Antony.”

Today, Sherly and Anthony stay at a riverside villa in Thykoodam, while Daniel, who is a mechanical engineer, works for a firm in Annecy. “He comes every four months,” says Sherly. “During the summer vacations we go there and spend two months.”

So, after 17 years of marriage, what does Sherly like about Daniel? “He is loving and caring,” she says. “Daniel is a wonderful cook. He knows how to make Italian, French, Thai, and Indian dishes. He can also cook Kerala-style curd rice, sambhar and meat curry. Every night he has kanji and pickle. When he returns to France, he takes along many packets of pickles.”

She remembers how, when she goes to France, her husband does the cooking most of the time. “In the morning, he will ask, 'What do you want to eat today?'” says Sherly. “Sometimes, my son and I will say, 'Pizza'. Then he will wear the apron, and go into the kitchen for two hours.”

Sherly and Anthony will watch TV. “Then just like a waiter in a hotel, he will place the pizza on a tray, come up to me and say, 'Madam, your meal is ready.' Can you imagine a Malayali husband behaving like this?”

She bemoans the male-dominated culture in Kerala. “Malayali men have big egos and never offer to help their wives at home,” she says. “With Daniel, he is keener to fulfill my wants rather than his.”

When asked about Daniel's negative traits, Sherly shakes her head and says, emphatically, “None.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 27, 2012

'My husband is like a teacher to me'

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Prabha talks about her 42-year marriage to the legendary singer K.J. Yesudas

Photo of Prabha Yesudas by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

By the time Prabha Abraham was in Class 9, she had become an avid fan of singer K.J. Yesudas. “I would listen to all his songs,” she says. When her uncle, V.K. Mathews, came to know about this, he dropped a bombshell: he was a friend of Yesudas. In Chennai, where he had gone to do his studies, he would meet Yesudas at a canteen where Kerala food was being served. Soon, they became friends.

“I kept pestering my uncle to bring him home,” she says.

And then, one day, in 1967, right in the middle of her Class 10 exams, Yesudas agreed to come to their hilltop home at Jagathi, Thiruvananthapuram. “I could see the white Ambassador car come up the hill,” she says. “The car turned right, to enter the driveway, and there was Chachen [Yesudas] sitting at the back, next to the window. Suddenly, he ran his hand through his thick black hair. I have never forgotten that image.”

Yesudas was clad in his trademark white shirt and trousers and white shoes. When he entered the house, Mathews told the singer, “Just for her, I brought you here.”

This, of course, turned out to be prophetic statement, although nobody could foresee it then. After the meeting, Prabha's father told her, “Despite being such a famous singer, Yesudas is so humble and down-to-earth.”

Soon, Yesudas and Prabha began speaking on the phone whenever the former had a programme in Thiruvananthapuram. They also met a couple of times. “Later, through a mutual friend, I heard that he liked my long hair,” says Prabha. Over a period of time, they fell in love.

However, marriage was not going to be easy since they belonged to different Christian denominations. But, eventually, love triumphed and they tied the knot on February 1, 1970.

So, after 42 years of marriage, what are the qualities that she admires the most in Yesudas? “He is very loving, but also very strict,” she says. “He is firm with everybody because Chachen has his principles. My father was very strict, so I did not feel anything unusual when my husband was also like that. He will always advise me on the way I should talk and behave. Chachen always emphasised that I should be polite with everybody. He is like a teacher to me.”

At this moment, Yesudas comes into the room, at the 16th floor suite of the Holiday Inn at Kochi, and a big, glorious smile breaks out on Prabha's face. Her eyes sparkle with love and affection.

Later, when he leaves, Prabha says, “Chachen is a straight-forward person. If he gets angry, he will show it. Many people have got hurt because of this. But he cools down equally fast. He has the temperament of a true artiste, which means swift mood changes.”

But all these qualities seem to fade as a look of awe comes on her face. “But what is the most amazing trait of my husband is his capacity for hard work,” says Prabha. “I have never seen an artiste who practices so much. From morning to night, his only thought is music. Now that our three sons -- Vinod, Vijay, and Vishal -- have grown up, and settled, [two in the US and one in Chennai], he has gone even deeper into the music. He keeps saying, 'I am a student of music'.”

Incidentally, Yesudas has sung 40,000 songs in Malayalam and other languages in a 50-year-long playback singing career.

Prabha says, “I always tell [singer] Vijay to follow the hard work and dedication shown by Chachen.”

Meanwhile, what is a surprise, in these times of feminist anger towards men, are Prabha's views on marriage. “In my view, and I am telling this to youngsters who are about to get married, the husband should be the boss of the house,” she says. “In a company, if there is no boss, how will it function properly? The same is the case with a family. Somebody has to listen to one person in authority. A woman should give respect and love to the husband and he will take care of you. Why do wives worry so much?”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

An illiterate in a land of literates

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Why can't you read the sign yourself?” says the silver-haired man in a rude voice. It is a valid point. I had asked him in Malayalam where the bus is going. He assumes that since I speak the language, I should know how to read and write. But unfortunately this is not true. I grew up in Kolkata and never learnt to read Malayalam. I speak the language because my parents always spoke Malayalam at home.

Living in Kochi for the past eight years, it has been a bitter-sweet experience. Sometimes, when I am doing interviews -- I work for the New Indian Express newspaper -- the subjects will proffer press releases which are written in Malayalam. I will stare at it, pretend that I am reading it, flip through the pages, nod my head sagely, and carry on with my questioning, even though some will insist, “It is all there in the release.” It is humiliating and embarrassing to say that I don't know to read Malayalam.

When to some, I do pluck up the courage and proclaim my ignorance, they look amazed. I am probably the first illiterate they are seeing in a state of nearly 100 per cent literacy. Summoning more courage, I request some to use simple words. Or sometimes, I will ask the meaning of the word straightaway.

And this inability to read has led to embarrassing incidents. Once, at a wedding reception, the toilets were placed on the outside of the building, but the signs for men and women were in Malayalam. Unluckily for me, there were no drawings to indicate which is which. And inevitably I entered the woman's toilet where a group of young women first looked stunned and then let out squeals. Unfortunately, it was not of delight, but of panic. A quick sprint enabled me to escape a couple of pot-bellied knights in shining armour advancing towards me. Not an amusing moment at all.

But my children find my predicament amusing. With an obvious sense of glee, my nine-year-old son reads out the name of films from posters pasted on walls which I point at. My 11-year-old daughter indicates to me, in an authoritative voice, which bus we need to take when we travel short distances. So, out of compassion, perhaps, both of them will always speak to me in English, while it is Malayalam with everybody else.

“There is one good result of your ignorance,” my wife tells me. “The children have learnt to speak English well.”

In this sort of environment, it is with a sense of relief that I meet an English-speaking person. And then I yap and yap, like an over-excited dog.

I am also the butt of misconceptions. Once while travelling on a local train, a group of Bengali college students, visiting the tourist sights in God's Own Country, assumed that I am a Malayali and made mocking references in Bengali to my [slight] paunch and [rapidly] receding hairline. Instead of getting angry, I found it amusing. The Bongs conclude that I am a Mallu, while I feel I am a half-Bong, while the Mallus think I am weird. To echo a super-hit Malayalam song, 'Confusion Theerkamane': when will all this confusion end?

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 24, 2012

A mirror to society

Final-year art students of the RLV College, Tripunithara, express their views of society and current trends through powerful works

Photos: Abraham Alex’s ‘Wasteland Chronicles: Miracles and Mysteries’; Anoop Kumar V.S.: 'Nostalgic feelings of a physical reality'

By Shevlin Sebastian

The body is of a scorpion with a long tail, and powerful claws, while where the head should be, there is a long-haired woman with four breasts and an equal number of hands, holding what seems to be a piece of fruit. She is unsmiling, while the muscular man who is receiving the gift has a wide smile on his face. Buses and vehicles on either side are in a state of rust and disrepair. There is a serpent, with a forked tongue, coiled around the woman’s body.

Abraham Alex’s ‘Wasteland Chronicles: Miracles and Mysteries’ is a remarkable painting that makes the viewer pause and stare. “I have created a fantasy world,” says Alex. “These figures have been taken from my imagination and I wanted to give the work an apocalyptic feel.” But the spark has been the many stories that he has read in the Puranas, as well as Greek myths. Alex is one of eleven final-year Masters of Fine Arts students of the RLV College of Music and Arts, Tripunithara, taking part in the ‘Fly Daily to Dreams’ exhibition at the Durbar Hall.

T.S. Prasanth’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Survival’ shows a crowded market scene. It is peopled with numerous characters: So there are people selling vegetables, fishes and bananas. A group of men and women stand around and have a discussion. A driver pushes a stalled auto-rickshaw. At one side, another man blows his nose. And, in a contemporary touch, there is a film poster of Mohanlal in ‘Casanova’. It is a wonderful representation of the teeming daily life in overpopulated Kerala. “I went to the market in Aroor and took a photo,” says Prasanth. “Thereafter I did many sketches and then did the painting.”

Amal Francis’ ‘Uncaptured’, a mixed-media work shows the inside of a temple, done in a remarkable 3D style. The pillars and the walls have intricate designs. And all around are several people wearing masks. On the top of one pillar, there are surveillance cameras. “Today, people wear masks when they step out in public,” says Amal. “They are afraid to show their true faces. The cameras indicate that there are others who are watching you all the time.”

T.R. Lasya has been doing some watching on her own. In her work, 'City Dreams' there is a barren landscape, with only lighted street lights. In the sky, several crows are flying about. While on a window sill, two leafless plants are growing. “I live on Willingdon Island,” she says. “This is a view from my room. There are no trees around. All I see are some plants. And that is disturbing to see.”

Anoop Kumar V.S. also focuses on a similar worry. In his 'Nostalgic feelings of a physical reality', there is a beautifully rendered front portion of a maroon Honda Activa with rusted wheels lying on a scrap heap. Whatever man makes is in a state of rust and decay, while at the bottom, there are three translucent green leaves, indicating ever-present and fecund Nature.

It is an impressive display of talent by these youngsters, which also include works by Anoop S. Kalarickal, Dileep K.U., Sajo Joseph, Soumya Thomas, Sreeju Radhakrishnan and Soumya N.S. Nearly all the paintings are striking and powerfully done. Says K. Sidharthan, head of the department of painting, RLV College: “This is a very talented group. What I like is their keen awareness of social trends, and the desire to produce work reflecting contemporary trends in art.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Rose will always be a rose

Rose Johny, a former vocalist for the 13 AD band in the nineties, is still going strong today

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim

I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway;
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
'This could be heaven or this could be hell?'

The timeless classic, 'Hotel California' by the group Eagles was rendered with stunning huskiness and energy, not by a man, but a middle-aged woman, Rose Johny, on a stage at the grassy lawns of the Century Club, Kochi, on Saturday night. She was accompanied by the band, Wings, which included Alex Puthumana on lead guitar, Sreeraj on the keyboard, Jairaj on the drums, Rajesh on bass, and Sylvian Louis, the lead singer and the rhythm guitarist.

It was a rousing performance by Rose that got youngsters and paunchy middle-aged men to shake their bodies in front of the stage. Rose wore a black floppy hat placed low over her head, and was dressed simply in a grey salwar-kameez, with the dupatta tied like a scarf around her neck.

More songs by Rose followed: ‘Shalalala’ by the Venga Boys and Shakira's ‘Whenever Whereever’. The Wings band members were probably fifteen years younger, but Rose matched them in energy and verve. “Rose sang very well,” says club member Jacob Mani. “But then the entire show was wonderful.”

Not many people will know that Rose was once a vocalist of the famed 13 AD rock band. In 1991, Rose, as well as her younger sister Sareena Sunny, heard that the band was looking for female crooners. They went for an audition at the Sealord Hotel and were selected.

For the next two years, they performed with 13 AD in places like Mangalore, Bangalore , Goa, Pondicherry , Chennai and Kolkata. “Usually we sang covers of Whitney Houston, Amy Grant, Janis Joplin and Diana Ross,” she says.

Rose remembers the rousing reception she got at the St. Xavier’s College ground in Kolkata when she sang Diana’s ‘When you tell me that you love me’. “People lit candles and held up their lighted lighters,” she says. “It was one of the highlights of my career.”

The sisters sang vocals on the remix of a few songs on 13 AD’s first album, ‘Ground Zero’, and did backup vocals on the second, ‘Tough on the street’. “However, the band members were hesitant to bring in a permanent female presence, because they felt that it was a male band,” says Rose.

So the sisters left and, under pressure from her family, on December 26, 1993, Rosy got married to Johny George, an advocate who practices in the court at Muvattupuzha, which is where she stays with her husband and two teenage children, George and Tresa.

Not surprisingly, her career slowed down after her marriage. However, in 1995, she sang an English song, ‘Here is a place where I can stay’, in director Lenin Rajendran’s film, ‘Anyar’, with music composed by Mohan Sithara.

Thereafter, Rose got involved in her job as an English teacher – today, she is the principal of the Vimalagiri International School -- but continued practicing, whether when cooking in the kitchen or going for a walk. And on and off, she got music assignments.

She sang on Asianet’s ‘Val Kannaddi’ programme and also did annual Christmas programmes on the same channel. In Muvattupuzha, she got a chance to belt a couple of songs during a Mohammad Rafi night.

“I also sing occasionally for a local ganamela troupe, called ‘Malayalam Orchestra’,” she says. “My love for singing has not diminished at all.”

In fact, Rose had always been interested in singing from her childhood. She grew up in Mumbai and Dubai , till Class 12, before she returned to Kerala. She remembers gratefully her Class 7 music teacher, a Parsi woman by the name of Evelyn Acharya.

“She was the one who told me to sing with my head,” says Rose. “Whenever you take a high note, you should sing with your mind and body and not only with your vocal chords. I did not understand it then. But when I grew up I realised that she was right.”

And she has been having the right effect on the audience all along. Alex of Wings says, “We were surprised and amazed at the reaction of the crowd to Rose at the Century Club. We are now thinking of taking her on a permanent basis.”

This Rose is not going to fade away in a hurry!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 20, 2012

All for one, and one for all

A Hundred Hands collective aims to help small artistes in urban and rural areas to find a platform to showcase their products

Photos: Artist Radhakrishna Bandagadde; a paper cutting of the temple at Vrindavan, Mathura

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Hundred Hands exhibition held at the David Hall in Kochi, Ram Soni stands behind a table and picks up a piece of paper. Deftly, he cuts small fragments of paper with a small pair of scissors. “I am giving the finishing touches,” he says. After a while, he holds up the paper. It is a paper cutting of a temple, with its high conical roof, thick pillars and narrow, conical arches.

“This is the temple at Vrindavan, Mathura,” he says. All around him are paper cuttings of tigers, plants, trees, birds, and of Lord Krishna. Ram is from Alwar in Rajasthan. “It took me 25 years to learn this skill,” he says. “My family may be the only one who is practising this Sanjhi paper art in India. I usually use handmade or recycled paper.”

Sitting on the floor at some distance away is artist Radhakrishna Bandagadde from the Shimoga district of Karnataka. He is a practitioner of the Hase Chitra mud paintings which are created to celebrate festivals and weddings.

“We place the mud in a pot of water in the night,” says Radhakrishna. “The next morning, the sand and stones have settled down at the bottom. We take out the 'cream', add glue or Fevicol, and then do the drawings on paper, using a blade or the fingertips.” The results are striking to see: ochre-coloured goats, and leaves and flowers.

At other areas of the hall, there are recycled paper products like notepads pens and bags on sale, apart from balms made of beeswax, cocoa and mango butter, carpets from Mizapur, clothes and cushion covers made by Adivasi and Dalit women in central India, crochet earrings, necklaces, and fashion accessories, apart from miniature Mughal and Gondh paintings.

All the participants are the members of the 'A Hundred Hands' initiative, a non-profit trust set up by the Bangalore-based Dhawan sisters, Mala and Sonia.

“We are trustees of a women's farmer group called Vanastree, which is based in the hill station of Sirsi in Karnataka,” says Mala. “They were struggling to sell their organic produce. So, five years ago, I asked them to display their wares in the garden of our house, off MG Road in Bangalore.”

The response was very encouraging. “Many people came and bought things,” says Mala. “Soon, individual artistes and groups came and met us. I realised that there was a need to provide a platform for small artistes to showcase their work. That was the catalyst.”

A Hundred Hands was set up as a non-profit trust in September, 2010. “We called it A Hundred Hands because it is a collective and also to signify that the products are all hand-made,” says Mala.

There is an interesting mix of craftspeople. “There are people living in a village who have no access to urban markets,” says Sonia. “On the other hand, there are contemporary urban artistes who need a platform. The criterion for membership is that the products have to be hand-made, with a contemporary edge.”

Even if it is a traditional art, there must be an evolution in the art, which is relevant in today's context. So, Mala told Hase Chitra artiste Radhakrishna to stop thinking of only doing wall paintings.

“There is a limit to how many people will give commissions to paint their walls,” she says. “I had an old trunk and asked him to paint it, so that we can use it as a coffee table. He has painted a few trunks and this can be placed in modern living rooms. But the essence of the art remains the same.”

Till date, there are 40 members in the collective. And they have held a few exhibitions in Bangalore. The latest, a couple of months ago, generated sales of Rs 26 lakh. “All the money goes to the artistes,” says Mala. “There are no middlemen or commissions in our collective.”

Thanks to the interest shown by the David Hall curator Padmini Krishnan, the exhibition was brought to Kochi for the first time. Says Padmini: “The response has been encouraging.”
Incidentally, the accommodation and travel of the artistes were sponsored by the owner of the David Hall, the CGH Earth Group.

Says Managing Director Jose Dominic, “The corporates are supposed to only make profits but we do have a social responsibility. When you fulfill that, it adds another dimension to the company. You are looked up by your customers, employees, and the wider community. All of them see you in a different light. And this increases our brand value.”

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

A corner of Tibet

A restaurant at Fort Kochi offers traditional momos and thukpas, apart from an ambiance steeped in Tibet

Photos: The Tibetan restaurant; a plate of vegetable momos

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, Jenny Lee, a medical student from Seoul, South Korea, went to attend a performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre at Fort Kochi. Just next to the centre, on the wall, there was a signboard advertising a Tibetan restaurant. Intrigued, since she had not eaten Tibetan food before, she appeared next afternoon at the restaurant.

Jenny began her lunch with meat momos. These are dumplings, made of wheat, and can be round or shaped like a half-moon. It is regarded as the national dish of Tibet. “You can put in vegetables, mushrooms, basil leaves, or meat: chicken or beef,” says chef Tenzin Jigme. “It can be boiled, fried or steamed.”

Jenny opted for the popular steamed variety. “It was delicious,” she says. “It had the right amount of spices, just like our South Korean cuisine, although it is far less than the masala found in Indian food.”

Tenzin says that momos are a lot like samosas. “The only difference is that in Indian food, there is a lot of masala and oil,” he says. “In Tibetan momos, we put a lot of vegetables like carrots, spring onion, ginger, garlic, and spinach. Then we boil it in water, and add white pepper and salt.”

Tenzing also provides a thick, red sauce. “It is made of ginger, garlic, red chillies, ajinamoto and salt,” he says.

Her appetite, whetted by the momos, Jenny opted for a meat thukpa. “This consists of a noodle soup and you can put in meat pieces or vegetables,” says Tenzin. “We put in a little bit of sunflower oil. Most of the time, we use butter or cheese.” Incidentally, Tibetan dishes start at Rs 120 for a vegetarian dish of 12 momos.

Jenny was a satisfied customer. “Yes, the thukpa was very tasty,” she says. “I will be having lots of Tibetan food in future. It is very light on the stomach.”

Tenzin gives a happy smile when he hears this. He grew up in Tibet, but fled to Ladakh, without any valid papers. From there he moved to India and worked in several top-flight restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Jaipur. But he always wanted to start something on his own. A chance invitation from a Ladakhi friend in Fort Kochi resulted in him coming here a few months ago.

He began the Tibetan restaurant on October 16, last year, with the help of his brother-in law, Losel, and the latter's wife-to-be, Rinchen Angmo.

“We are getting regular customers,” says Rinchen. “Many locals come, apart from foreigners. One reason is that we are next to the Kathakali centre. Many see our board and are curious to try Tibetan cuisine.”

The restaurant has been set in a courtyard of a house. There is a large black-and-white flex poster of the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, alongside one wall. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags hang on strings alongside another wall. These flags are said to bring happiness, long life and prosperity.

If things go the way it is, Tenzin is going to become prosperous soon.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Made in Japan

Chef Akinori Nishloka is busy training a team of chefs to make Japanese cuisine for the upcoming Tokyo Bay restaurant at the Hotel Presidency

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the kitchen of Japanese chef Akinori Nishloka’s apartment, at Kochi, M.V. Charles is busy chopping vegetables with a steel knife. For the past three months, he has been undergoing training under the Japanese chef. And this is in preparation for the new restaurant, 'Tokyo Bay', which will be opening at the Hotel Presidency very soon. Asked what are the common features in all Japanese dishes, Charles says, “There is frequent use of salt, tamarind, and sugar.”

Akinori is busy preparing different type of menus. In one, he starts with chicken cutlets. This is followed by a small dish called the kobachi. He rushes to the refrigerator and takes out a glass bowl. In it, there are radish, pickle, chillies, coriander, capsicum, carrot and basil leaves, all placed in a liquid of vinegar and salt. “Kobachi is an appetiser,” he says.

Thereafter, there is the Miso soup, which is the most famous in Japan. “It is made of soyabean paste and can consist of dried sardines or tuna.”

Then there are Japanese pickles, Chinese cabbage, and chicken cutlet with shredded vegetables. “You can have rice or steamed bread,” he says. “Japanese rice is thick and sticky. People in Kashmir eat the same type of rice, so we are getting it from there.”

Other items include prawn rolls in omelette, tuna in toasted sea plants, squid or egg rice balls. “You could also have a chawanmushi,” he says. “This looks like a pudding, but it is not sweet. Inside are chicken, vegetables, and mushrooms.” And finally, there is sushi.

“It is raw fish,” says Charles. “But when you mix it with the sauce, it is tasty.” So will the Malayali take to the Japanese cuisine? “Things like chicken cutlets will do very well,” says Charles. And will Akinori put in a bit of masala powder to satisfy the Mallu palate? He laughs and says, “No powder. Instead, I will give masala sauce separately. The patrons can mix it with the food any way they like.”

What Akinori is very proud about is that the Japanese can make several dishes from one vegetable. “From potatoes, we make 30 varieties,” he says. “From Chinese cabbage, we can make soup, salad, pickle and sushi rolls.”

But what is the most taxing work for him is when he goes to Broadway to buy vegetables. “Ladies fingers and beans are very hard,” he says. “Unlike in Japan, the good and the bad vegetables are put in the same basket. In Japan, they throw away the bad items. I have to observe carefully and take the best.”

Akinori, who has worked in Germany, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, has been in Kochi for the past three years. Earlier, he was making food for the employees of the Japanese company, IHI Corporation, which was involved in the setting up of the LNG gas terminal at Vallarpardom. When that work got over, he decided to stay on, because he loved the people. “They are nice and peaceful,” he says. “They have bigger hearts than the Japanese.”

So, watch executive chef Akinori in action at the Tokyo Bay in the near future.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The master of all he surveys

Anil D'Silva has been a master of ceremonies for the past several years. He talks about his experiences

Photo: Tessa and Sandy moments after their Jewish marriage. Anil D'Silva is standing behind them

By Shevlin Sebastian

The slim girl was wearing a crimson saree with an off-the-shoulder blouse, with red stiletto heels. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun, while a marigold garland was hanging around her neck. The boy, with gelled black hair, wore a striking-brown sherwani and white pyjamas, with a red rose in his lapel, apart from a garland around his neck.

She is a Jew, he is a Punjabi. Both lawyers, Tessa and Sandy had met in Kochi and got married in London. But now they wanted to recreate their Jewish marriage at the place where they had met for the first time. And that was how Anil D'Silva came into the picture.

“I was the celebrant who conducted the marriage,” he says. “They gave me a script to read.”

A special canopy, called a chuppah, which represents God's presence, shelter and protection, was made at the Taj by Vivanta hotel. “I went through the seven stages of the marriage, and declared them husband and wife,” says Anil. There were only 38 guests present, all of whom had flown in from abroad.

This was one of his most interesting experiences in ten years of being a Master of Ceremonies (MC) in hundreds of wedding receptions, corporate events, training programmes, and presentations all over Kerala and in Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore.

So what are the qualities needed to be a good MC? “You have to get involved with the event,” he says. “It is not enough that you come dressed up at the time of the programme and jump on to the stage. You have to understand the purpose of the event, who is the client, the participants, as well as the members of the audience.”

Anil always talks to the people beforehand. “For a marriage, I will meet the boy and the girl and their relatives a couple of times before the function,” he says. “I will take down notes to ensure that I get the names and other facts right.”

Later, just before he steps on to the stage, he will talk to the sound and video technicians, the photographers, and the light operators. “The MC is the master of the event,” he says. “So I have to ensure everything is in place.”

The other important quality is a proper voice modulation. “There are two places from where your voice comes from: One is from the throat, while the other is from the heart,” he says. “If the sound is not from your heart, you can never be successful.”

Anil has definitely made an impact. Paxson Rozario, who runs an event management company, says, “He has a different style as compared to other MCs. He knows how to keep the audience entertained, and keeps them involved all the time. My clients keep asking for his services all the time.”

Innovation also helps to keep Anil popular. “In an Anglo-Indian wedding, after the first dance, depending on how relaxed the couple is, I will give them a bar of chocolate,” he says. “I will ask them to bite it from both ends, without using their hands, and inevitably their lips will meet. The audience, including parents, has enjoyed this aspect.”

Another new idea is to ask the groom to give a piece to the girl's parents and vice-versa. “I don't like the word 'in-law',” he says. “It is a son going into a new family and a daughter doing the same. So I started this practice to cement the relationship.”

But not everybody takes these innovations in the right spirit. Once at a wedding, he noticed a husband trying to coax his wife to get up for a dance, but she remained in her chair. So Anil stepped down from the stage, and in full glare of the spotlight, he requested the woman for a dance. She accepted, but later, she said, with a naughty smile, “You are not a Master of Ceremonies, but a Master of Calamities.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The changing face of Kannur?

This North Kerala district was once the centre of violent murders and bloodbaths between the CPI(M) and the RSS. However, in the past few years, a tenuous peace is in place. But the rise of the National Democratic Front, a Muslim group, is threatening to plunge the region into another cycle of violence, this time, with communal overtones

Photos: P. Jayarajan, a senior CPI(M) leader. The late stalwarts of the CPI(M): A.K. Gopalan (left) and E.M.S. Namboodiripad

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 p.m. on August 20, 1999, P. Jayarajan, a senior CPI(M) leader, was resting at his home at Pattiam, a village in Kannur district in north Kerala. Because of the Onam holidays, there was a break in the campaigning for the 13th Lok Sabha general elections. Soon, there was the sound of bombs bursting.

Jayarajan rushed out of the house to enquire about what had happened. Suddenly, he saw a group of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers, wearing shirts and dhotis, advancing towards him. “I received a blow from a sickle across my neck,” he says. Jayarajan put up his left hand to defend himself and his thumb was sliced off.

Another blow to his right arm, at the elbow, nearly severed it. It hung by a sliver of skin. As he fell to the ground, there were blows to his legs and spine. In all, there were 17 wounds. Part of the cemented courtyard became drenched with Jayarajan's blood.

“I lay still and pretended to be dead,” he says. “The attackers thought they had killed me.”

They burst a final bomb and left. But that proved to be damaging too. Because it burst Jayarajan's left eardrum. After the assailants left, Jayarajan struggled to get up, but kept slipping because of the blood. Finally, his wife and neighbours arrived.

Initially, he was rushed to the Thalasserry Co-operative Hospital. From there, via a halt at the Kozhikode Medical College, he went to the Specialists’ Hospital at Kochi , 300 kms away, in a speeding ambulance.

“In those days, only the Specialists Hospital did micro-vascular surgery,” says Jayarajan. Dr. K.R. Rajappan and Dr. R. Jayakumar did the re-attachment of the arm to the elbow in a 13 ½ hour operation.

After two days, a nurse discovered an embedded nail on Jayarajan's skull, a remnant of the bomb blast. So, another surgery had to be done. “I was lucky that the nail did not touch my brain,” he says. After three months of treatment, Jayarajan returned home.

The attack was not a surprise. Jayarajan had addressed many public meetings in Kannur where he attacked 'the fascist ideology' of the RSS. “The RSS has been trying to infiltrate into the Kannur district,” he says. “I publicly spoke about their nefarious designs. They had already threatened me indirectly by saying, 'We will not destroy the bulb, but the transformer.'”

The police had provided two bodyguards for Jayarajan, but he found their intrusion into his privacy unbearable. They were sent away. The RSS came to know about that, and they looked for an opportune moment to kill him.

Jayarajan was one of the few people who survived a murderous attack in Kannur. K.T. Jayakrishnan Master, vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Mancha, and an active RSS worker, was not so lucky.

On the morning of December 1, 1999, he was teaching Malayalam to the Class 6 students of the Mokeri East Upper Primary school at Pathipalam.

Suddenly, a group of CPI(M) party members entered the classroom. They were dressed in white shirts and dhotis. One of them hit Jayakrishnan's head with an iron rod. When he fell down, the men hacked at his body several times with their sickles. The students watched in stunned silence.

Finally, one of the assailants took a white chalk and wrote calmly in Malayalam on the blackboard, 'If anybody steps forward as a witness, the Jayakrishnan incident will be repeated'.

Shinub M.V., 25, was a silent witness for years. Today, this mason is a strapping young man, with gleaming black hair, with a sacred white paste on his forehead. At that time, he was a student of Class five. They were learning English under Vijay Master, when Shinub saw the men enter the hall. “Soon, we heard a cry of agony,” he says. “I heard Jayakrishnan Master say, 'Amma, Amma'. Our class teacher said that it must be a snake that had bitten Jayakrishnan Master. But I knew that there was something wrong. And then with my own eyes, I saw the master being chopped up. I ran away with the rest of the students.”

Asked whether he was traumatised, Shinub shook his head. “I am fine, but I don't like to think about those events,” he says.

This murder had a searing effect on the people in Kannur. Even today, there are posters of Jayakrishnan -- with his thick black moustache and unblinking eyes – staring at you in many parts of Panur taluk.

And on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, I visited the school. Inside a large hall, there is a small wooden board at the middle, which acts as a partition. In effect, Classes five and six are in the same hall. There are entrances from both sides. The walls are made of exposed red brick and there is a sloping tiled roof.

It was recess time and students, both boys and girls, wearing white and blue uniforms, were running in and out. Above the infamous blackboard, a poster of Santa Claus had been put up. A butterfly flew in and settled on a wooden desk for a few moments before taking off again.

It was hard to believe that such a gruesome murder took place at this very spot several years ago. Later, inside the staff room, a teacher said, wearily, “We don't want to talk about the incident.”

In the courtyard, there was a flag pole which had numerous red CPI(M) flags. On the road, there were party flags hanging from trees. On lamp posts, the words, 'Red Fort' and 'Red Army' had been inscribed in white letters. Against one wall, flex boards in praise of a Communist leader I.V. Das had been put up. Clearly, it was a Red stronghold!

Earlier, when I had gone to another government school by mistake, the principal begged me with folded hands not to go to Pathipalam. “There is a lot of tension in the area,” he said. “Your life will be in danger. I would advise you not to disturb matters by writing about it.”

It was not a surprising statement. If you say 'Kannur' to anybody in Kerala, the words, 'political violence', 'murders', and 'bloodbath' will immediately arise. “According to the records at the Kannur District Court, 500 cases of political violence have been lodged since the 1970s,” says Ruchi Chaturvedi, an assistant professor of anthropology at Hunter College, New York, who spent several months in the area. “Around 4000 workers of various political parties have been charged with crimes that range from murder to attempted murder to criminal intimidation of political workers. However, 80 per cent of those charged have been acquitted due to lack of evidence.”

The CPI(M) held an unmitigated sway in Kannur for many decades. But what aggravated tensions was when the RSS began to make inroads in the 1970s. Soon, both parties were fighting for the same political space, and it was not long before it all descended into violence. “Attacks and counter-attacks followed, interspersed with the murders of party personnel,” says Ruchi. “The CPI(M) said that they were the defendants of the significant Muslim population of the region against the Hindu Right.”

Says P. Jayarajan: “In other parts of India , the agenda of the RSS is anti-Muslim and Christian. In Kerala, it is to attack the CPI(M). They know that it is only by defeating the CPI(M) they can hope to make inroads among the Hindus. It is a long-term project.”

P.P. Suresh Babu, the senior-most leader of the RSS in Kannur, counters that by saying, “We are nationalists. We want the country to move forward. Why should the CPI(M) only propagate their ideology? We want to tell people about Hindutva and about the future Hindu Rashtra. We are also rendering service to the people.”

This includes financial assistance for needy students, providing pension for old people, and assisting those who are in need of medical and financial help. “We also provide money to poor girls who are finding it difficult to get married,” says Suresh. “We help in the expenses of a wedding.” The RSS also run a fleet of ambulances, organise blood donation camps, distribute text-books, and micro-financing schemes. In Kannur, they run 33 schools and there are 125 Trusts rendering various schemes for the people.

The more inroads they made, the more violent was the response, till it reached its peak in 2000. Then, there was a slowing down. “There were a few reasons for this,” says K.K. Pavithran, CPI(M) Area Secretary in Panur, one of the hotspots. “The people had got tired of the war and so did the party workers. There has been a re-thinking on the part of both parties about the folly of continuing this conflict. We felt that too much of energy, effort, and time were being wasted. We could not concentrate on our party work. This abstinence from violence has increased in the past five years. Still, solitary incidents of stabbing on both sides take place. A few days ago, one of our party offices had been attacked by the RSS.”

Kannur District Superintendent of Police Anup Kuruvilla John is a personable young man, who looks more like a doctor or an engineer. At his large office, he gives another reason for the slowdown.

“You cannot kill somebody and assume that there will be no consequences,” he says. “In fact, the murder impacts not only particular individuals but the entire area. There will be constant raids by the police. The opposing party might launch a violent counter-attack. You have a situation where people cannot move around easily, and are unable to earn their livelihood.”

The assailants have to go underground for weeks together. This affects their earnings and causes problems for their families. The party has to divert its attention, money, and energy in defending the perpetrators. They have to set aside funds to look after the families of the workers. “It is a difficult time for everybody,” says Anup.

The police have also changed their modus operandi. Earlier, when a murder would take place, the parties or victims would provide the names of suspects and the police would arrest them. But it was during the time of N. Sankar Reddy, who was DIG of Kannur, and Manoj Abraham, who was Superintendent of Police from 2001-2004, that they decided to ignore the list and do their own investigations.

“As a result, the actual culprits began to get caught,” says veteran scribe R. Jayamohan (name changed). “This method is being followed now.”

Jayamohan gives another reason for the slowdown. “The judiciary became very strict,” he says. “The requests for bail from those charged with political murder or violence were usually rejected. Many leaders had to cool their heels in jail for a long time. The parties realized that violence was becoming counter-productive.”

He says that one day the RSS and the CPI(M) came to the realization that it was Hindus who were killing each other. Unlike in north India, where political conflicts occurred between high and low castes, in Kerala many workers came from the same economic background. “Most belong to the so-called low-caste community of Tiyyas,” says Ruchi. “Many make their living through blue-collar occupations such as masonry and carpentry or as daily-wage labourers in the construction industry. A few are also unemployed or partially employed.”

Another explanation for the ceasefire is the rise of a ‘new threat’: the National Democratic Front of the Muslims. “They are getting stronger in Kannur,” says Pavithran. “We have launched campaigns focusing on the danger posed by the NDF. We have warned the IUML [Indian Union Muslim League] that if something is not done to contain the NDF, there will be problems in Kanur.”

But Anup gives a different perspective of the relationship between the two Muslim outfits. “In Kannur, the NDF is trying to occupy the same space of the IUML,” he says. “This has led to tensions between the two groups. But the police are determined to nip all the problems in the bud.”

Suresh of the RSS is sure that in future there will be communal tensions because of the NDF. “I have no doubts about it,” he says. “They give an impression that they are peace-loving, but that is far from the truth.”

Overall, while travelling through Kannur, one got the impression that underneath the overall calm, there is a uneasiness in the air, and a reluctance to talk about political matters. It seemed fraught with risk for most people. “Small issues get magnified,” says Anup John. “The people are very excitable here.” So, although at present, bloodbaths no longer take place, unfortunately, there is always a danger of a tiny spark developing into a major conflagration.

Rest in peace, Kannur!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Saint Of The Gutters

Novelist M.K. Chandrasekharan's next novel is about Mother Teresa, the nun who spent her entire life among the poor in Kolkata

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1994, Mother Teresa had come to Kochi on a visit. Novelist M.K. Chandrasekharan saw her at close quarters on Banerjee Road. “I did a namaste, and shook her hand,” says Chandrasekharan. Mother Teresa had sunken eyes, a wrinkled forehead, and wore a white cotton saree, with blue stripes. “So many people gathered around this simple woman,” he says. “I realised that she had a spiritual strength. It sparked my interest in her. And I began reading articles and books about her.”

But it was eighteen years later that Chandrasekharan finally decided to write a book on Mother Teresa. But to get a better idea, in June, 2011, he went to the City of Joy to do some fact-finding.

In Kolkata, he had difficulty in locating the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity. Near a mosque, he asked a man, and the latter said, “Don't worry, I will take you there.” They got onto a bus. “He did not ask me my name, neither did I ask,” says Chandrasekharan. “He bought my ticket. And at the correct stop, the Muslim got down and showed me the way to the gate. This is the power of Mother Teresa. The people, irrespective of caste or creed, regard her as a saint.”

There the nuns allowed Chandrasekharan access to the library where he read many books on the saint. Thereafter, he visited the various institutions run by the Missionaries of Charity, including the Shishu Bhavan, an orphanage, and Nirmal Hriday, (The Home of the Pure Heart), where people, mostly aged beggars, who are about to die, are housed.

During the research, Chandrasekharan uncovered an incident that took place at Nirmal Hriday. “There was a rumour that the last rites of all the victims were done according to the Christian religion,” says Chandrasekharan. “Many Hindu fanatics gathered around one day in protest.”

But when they rushed inside the building, accompanied by a police officer, they saw that Mother Teresa was taking out maggots from the body of a sick man. “The people stared at her, but Mother Teresa was oblivious,” says Chandrasekharan. “After she finished, she turned around, and said, 'This man is dying. If I am doing anything wrong, please tell me.'”

The police officer looked at the crowd, and shouted, “Can you do this? Can your family members do this?” The people shook their heads. Later, Mother Teresa clarified that the last rites were done in accordance to the person's religion. “Thereafter, she was allowed to work in peace at Nirmal Hriday,” says Chandrasekharan. “The reason why Mother Teresa had such an impact was because to love the 'poorest of the poor' is the most difficult thing to do.”

The style that he has adopted for 'The Mother' is fictional, and written from a first-person point of view.

“The novel begins with Mother Teresa in her dying moments,” says Chandrasekharan. “She is hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness. When Jesus Christ approaches, she wards him off. 'You are a myth,' she told Jesus Christ. 'I did all this for You. The pain that You endured on the cross, You have passed it on to us.' As she was drifting closer to death, some angels appeared in front of her. Jesus Christ appeared again and said, in a firm voice, 'You and I are One.'”

Incidentally, the foreword has been written by Fr. Paul Thelakat, the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. As for Chandrasekharan, this novel, which will be published soon, is his 27th book. Thus far, he has written 11 novels, 10 short-story collections, and a few non-fiction books on cinema and travel. “It is tough financially, but I love writing,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Exploring their own spaces

Three painters dwell inside and outside themselves to produce moving works

Photos: The paintings of T.R. Sunil Laal

By Shevlin Sebastian

In T.R. Sunil Laal’s acrylic on canvas, a group of Muslim women are standing in black and blue burqas, but their faces are uncovered. They have sad-looking eyes and stiff postures. And standing next to them is a woman, in a bright green blouse and orange saree, wearing thick gold earrings and a necklace, offset by a bright yellow scarf, and with a smile on her face. The colours are deep and rich and very satisfying to see.

This painting gives a hint at the restrictions placed on Muslim women in Kerala, in terms of their dress and movement. And yet deep down they yearn for freedom… to wear what they want, to do what they want, to just be themselves.

“In Wayanad, where I grew up, there was a time when Muslim women wore colourful clothes and jewellery,” says Sunil. “But in recent times, there has been a rise of conservatism and the adoption of the dresses of Saudi Arabia. It is rare nowadays for them to go out alone. They are always accompanied by their male relatives.”

And unlike the women, these men have no sartorial restrictions. “They wear tight jeans and bright T-shirts,” he says. “I feel, deep down, Muslim women are yearning to express their individuality.”

This feeling is wonderfully expressed in another acrylic on canvas, titled ‘Passion'. It shows a Muslim woman, wearing a black chador, gazing longingly at a reddish-yellow paavada and blouse placed on a headless mannequin.

Another painting, called 'Generation Gap', shows a man, with a grey-black beard, wearing a white cap and white clothes, holding a Koran firmly against his chest. The star and the crescent can be seen clearly on the cover. He has a stern-looking face, while behind him is a young Muslim, with jet black hair and moustache, who is peering surreptitiously into a magazine, which is hanging on a string outside a magazine stall. “The younger generation is keen to gain new knowledge, but sometimes they are hampered by the diktats of their religion,” says Sunil.

Meanwhile, Purnima J Naga has specialised is doing paintings on an acrylic sheet. And nearly all of the 15 paintings are of a young woman, with straight-backed black hair, going through different moods.

In one, a girl is wearing a salwar kameez, and next to her is her shadow in black. It is drawn in thin, long strands. Another one has the girl sitting on a verandah railing and staring winsomely at the world. “These are all self-portraits,” says Purnima. “I live alone in Hyderabad and hence, I go through all sorts of moods. I am keen to capture the internal and external beauty of women.” The unusual thing about painting on acrylic sheets is that it is done at the back and the image seeps into the front.

Finally, there is Sudipta Das, who is worried about the relentless advance of digital images. So, her image of a goddess has a face pull of computer pixels, as well as her hands. Owls on both sides have pixels on the faces. “A computer transforms faces into an artificial emotionless state,” she says. “Pixels break down the structure of a face.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A taste of Spanish tapas

Chef Aitzol Alzibar made the famous finger food, dipped in olive oil, a hit with Malayalis

Photo: By Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a languid Friday afternoon, at the David Hall, Fort Kochi, a small group of people, foreigners as well as the locals, were sitting on wooden benches in an open-air restaurant. The lawn by the side had yellowing leaves nestling on green grass. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the branches of overhanging trees. It was an ideal setting to enjoy the Tapas festival by chef Aitzol Alzibar from the Basque region in Spain.

“Tapas is finger food,” says Aitzol, in accented English. “It is served in bars, and taken along with a glass of wine or beer. For each glass, you are supposed to take one tapas snack.”

Essentially, you spend 15 minutes in a bar, have wine and tapas and then go to another bar. You take another drink and a tapas. “This act of drinking and having tapas is called tapeo,” says Aitzol.

As expected, it was quite delicious. You could start with a gazpacho, a cold soup. An octopus placed on a slice of potato and dipped in olive oil simply rolled down the palate. Fried mussels with garlic mayonnaise was equally tasty. Then there was tuna fish on toast with garlic and red peppers. Other dishes include an omelette, called the Tortilla De Patata, the Pan Con Tomate Jamon (ham and tomato on bread), crab cakes, Escalibada (roasted onions, peppers, and aubergine), and vegetable croquettes.

A group of housewives sitting at one corner were having a ball. Says Kavita George: “The mussels are very good. The taste is as good as I have had in bars in Spain.” Added Mrinalini Bindra: “The presence of olive oil adds to the taste. It is less spicy. The flavours are different from our Kerala cuisine.”

Aitzol landed up in Kerala through a mutual friend, a Malayali named Sajith, who works in Spain. “So now I am teaching the chefs of the CGH Earth group on how to make tapas, while I learn how to make Kerala cuisine.” He says his favourite is red fish curry.

Meanwhile, executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan, who works in Brunton Boatyard, one of the premier hotels of the CGH Earth Group, says that they have plans to start a Kerala-style tapas. “We could make a coin-size appam with a bit of Kerala duck roast on top,” he says. “Or we could put some prawns over idiappams [string hoppers].”

Ajeeth says that they learned one very important aspect from Aitzol. “He made the food from his heart, with love and affection,” says Ajeeth. “We must do that all the time.”

Asked the major difference between Indian and Spanish cuisine, Aitzol says, “In Spain, we retain the flavour of the fish or the meat. But in India, the spices and the masala powders overwhelm the original taste.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

‘We rarely discuss films at home’

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Radhika speaks about life with actor Suresh Gopi, who likes to spend time with his four children whenever he gets the time

By Shevlin Sebastian

In December, 1989, actor Suresh Gopi went to see Radhika at a relative’s home in Tripunithara. He was accompanied by the actor M.S. Thrippunithara who was playing Suresh’s uncle in the film, ‘Orukkam’. MS asked Radhika to sing something, and the trained classical singer sang a keerthanam. Later, a smiling Suresh said, “I love children. They are my weakness.”

So, it was no surprise that within a year after her arranged marriage to Suresh -- on February 8, 1990 -- Radhika gave birth to a girl called Lakshmi. But, soon, tragedy struck the couple.

On June 6, 1992, they had gone to attend a marriage function at Kollam with their daughter. Following that, while Suresh went to Kochi for some work, Radhika and Lakshmi returned to Thiruvananthapuram with Suresh’s brother Sanil Gopinathan. They were traveling in a Maruti and at a place called Thonnakal, there was a head-on collision with an Ambassador car.

“My thigh bone broke and I had other injuries,” says Radhika. Unfortunately, Lakshmi had a head injury and died the following day. She was one-and-a-half years old. “I had a memory loss for one week so I cannot recall anything,” says Radhika. “And nobody has told me what had exactly happened.”

But like all bereaved parents, they miss Lakshmi as intensely as when the incident happened.

“We have never forgotten her,” says Radhika. “Lakshmi will always be there permanently in our hearts, even though we have four children now.” They include Gokul, 18, Bhagya, 15, Bhaavni, 13, and Madhav, 11.

And whenever Suresh gets some free time, he likes to spend time with his family. “He makes sure he is at home in Thiruvananthapuram during Onam and other festivals,” says Radhika. “We never go out on these occasions. Instead, we invite relatives and friends to come over.”

Interestingly, despite Suresh acting in more than 250 films, over a 25-year career, there is not much discussion about movies in the house. “Suresh might occasionally talk about a film, but it is not like an obsession. We are an ordinary family,” says Radhika.

So what sort of a man is Suresh? “He is a straightforward person,” says Radhika. “Whatever comes to his mind, he will speak it out, whether it is good or bad. It can be painful at times, but I look on it as a good quality because he does not keep any resentment in his heart.”

But there can be repercussions, too. “He behaves like this in the professional field,” says Radhika. “So there are people who get upset by what he says. As a result, Suresh has made a few enemies.” His other qualities include that of being a teetotaler. “At the most he will have a glass of wine,” she says.

Regarding his negative traits, Radhika says that Suresh has a short temper. “He can get upset over the smallest of things and again say whatever is on his mind,” she says. “I am used to it now, and my nature is to forget.”

And what does she do when Suresh gets stressed out? “I usually leave him alone,” says Radhika. “Or I may talk to Suresh regarding the children. As you can imagine, with four of them, there is a lot of commotion in the house.”

Another stress-buster is to attend the 4.30 a.m. Nirmalyam prayers at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. “It is a peaceful time at dawn,” she says. “There is a sense of togetherness and we feel spiritually refreshed when we return.”

So, after 22 years of marriage, what are the tips she would like to impart to youngsters getting hitched now? “Marriage is 99 per cent adjustment,” says Radhika. “We should consider the opinions of the spouse and make a mutually suitable decision. A woman should have freedom, but that does not mean that she imposes her views all the time. Finally, always remember that there are two families behind every marriage. You have to learn to get along with the other family members.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 06, 2012

Prabha Yesudas celebrated 60th birthday in style

Photo: The author interviewing Yesudas and his wife, Prabha. Pic by Mithun Vinod.

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I cannot feel she is 60,” says K.J. Yesudas. “Age is just a number. God has given me the connection to everybody and specially to my dear wife.” The legendary singer placed an arm around his wife's shoulders in the 16th floor suite of the Holiday Inn, at Kochi.

“Sometimes, Prabha becomes my mother,” says Yesudas. “Sometimes, she is my adviser. In the end, she is everything for me.” But for a singer, the art will always come first, isn't it? “True, the art will come first, so I always say, Prabha is my second wife,” says Yesudas. Prabha counters that by saying, "And we are both devoted to the first wife." Soon, both are convulsed in laughter.

Yes, Prabha Yesudas celebrated her 60th birthday in style yesterday. Her face is unlined, and she wore a rich green saree with a red border and emerald earrings. The clan had gathered together to felicitate her.

So, there were sons Vinod, and Vishal and his wife from the USA, Vijay and Darshana, with their daughter, Ammeya, from Chennai, Vijay's in-laws, S. Balagopal and his wife, Tara, from Dubai, Tara's parents from Thiruvanthapuram, apart from other relatives and close friends.

“This is the biggest celebration for me,” says Prabha. “All the family members and friends gathered together.”

In fact, even as Prabha spoke, calls kept coming on her mobile, from people who wanted to greet her.

Earlier in the day, a teacher and fan, K. Pisharady gave an embossed photo, of Yesudas and Prabha, enclosed in a golden frame, with a poem, which he had written. Here are a couple of lines: 'May Almighty give longevity to you. Your soothing smile has always inspired Dasettan.'

Prabha's daughter-in-law Darshana says, “She is not my mother-in-law, she is my mother. I go to her more than my own mother. She is a person who does not interfere and lets us be. And she is always there, whenever we call her, even at 3 a.m.”

Meanwhile, Yesudas tells his wife he has to go out for some work. Later, downstairs in the lobby, Vijay says, with a smile, “My dad has gone out to buy a surprise gift for my mother.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Say No to Google and Microsoft

Richard Stallman, one of the world’s leading activists for free software, speaks about the loss of freedom and privacy when you use the products of top-tech firms

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is 5.30 p.m., but Richard Stallman is walking around in his air-conditioned room in a multi-storeyed building at Panampilly Nagar, Kochi, holding a mosquito bat and swatting the insects as soon as he sees any of them. “If you keep the door open, they will swarm in,” he says. It seems that one of the world’s premier activists of free software is not happy with the freedom of mosquitoes to fly around anywhere.

“Free software means programming that respects the user's freedom,” says Stallman, as he finally settles down on a chair and has a cup of tea all by himself. “This includes the liberty to study the source code and change it, to make the programme do what you wish, and have the right to distribute copies."

Stallman says that all this is not possible when you use the software of tech giants like Microsoft, Apple or Amazon. “Firstly, they are all non-free,” says Stallman. “Secondly, they have malicious features. Some spy on the user. Microsoft Windows has features which restricts what users can do with the data on their computers. In fact, Windows allows Microsoft to forcibly install changes in the software, without the user's permission.”

As for Apple, users are not allowed to use programmes of their choice. Free software is a complete no-no. “Customers can only install programmes taken from the Apple applications store,” says Stallman, who, with his long flowing beard and straggly hair, looks like a modern-day Moses. “They practice a rather arbitrary censorship. This was [founder] Steve Job's evil genius. He figured out a way to convince people to buy computers that would restrict people more than ever. ”

As for Amazon's e-book, 'Kindle', it is also a malevolent device. “It forces users to identify themselves in order to buy books,” says Stallman. “This is tyranny. The names of people and what books they read should not be in anybody's database. In Kindle, you are unable to give the book to anybody else because there is no software to do that.”

Amazingly, in 2009, Amazon remotely deleted thousands of George Orwell's '1984' and ‘Animal Farm’ from user's Kindles. “They had a dispute with a publisher,” says Stallman. “They realised they were not supposed to sell these books. So, they deleted them.”

To paraphrase blogger Sojo Varughese who wrote on the website, TechnedIN: ‘This indicates that Amazon has the power to remotely control your Kindle. We have to be afraid of that. What about Microsoft? Do they have the power to control your laptops and PCs? And service providers like Google or Yahoo? Do they also have the ability to meddle with your emails and online documents?’

Meanwhile, Stallman says, with a smile, “The Kindle software is designed to burn your books. That is why it is called a Kindle. It means to start a fire.”

However, Stallman is happy that many people are using free software in Kerala. “There are businesses that use free software-based solutions. But, obviously, most Indian computer users are still using Windows.”

Essentially, what Stallman is trying to say is that one should opt out of the digital universe. “If you don't you will lose out more than if you stay inside,” he says. “The question is: 'Do you care about your freedom or your immediate pleasure or convenience?' So far, companies like Amazon have succeeded in taking away freedom because people don't care. I am trying to make them care.”

Stallman has felt so strongly about this, that, in 1984, he started a project to give users a free Operating System known as the GNU. “I did this so that users can have freedom,” he says. “It is linked with a programme called Linux. So, it is called GNU + Linux. We have to try to put an end to the tyranny of firms like Microsoft and Apple.”

(The New Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 03, 2012

'Every day is new and exciting'

Dulquer Salmaan talks about the joys of acting as well as the vagaries of a career in Mollywood

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dulquer Salmaan stands on the top of an escalator on the second floor of the Abad Nucleus Mall at Kochi. He is wearing a blue leather jacket, torn jeans, and has brownish, spiky hair. A pair of black headphones is placed around his neck. Soon, he steps on the elevator, holding a large green suitcase and waves to someone in the distance.

Dulquer’s debut film, ‘Second Show’ released on Friday, February 3, but he is already hard at work on his second film, ‘Ustad Hotel’ directed by Anwar Rasheed. The previous day, the shoot was supposed to end at 10 p.m., but it went on till 4 a.m. It is no surprise that Dulquer looks a bit groggy.

“I am fine,” says Dulquer, the son of superstar Mammootty, after the shot is okayed within two takes. “I am enjoying the process of film-making. Every day is new and exciting.” But he has his feet planted firmly on the ground and is keenly aware of the vagaries of a film career. “You can be a really good actor and, yet, things might not click at the box office,” says Dulquer. “Some films just fare badly. There are many hard-working actors who have done several films, but never made enough of money. This career could go anywhere... plus or minus.”

And here is more realism. “I know that I am getting featured in the media only because I am just part of a lucky gene pool,” he says. “Honestly, I feel it is too early. I would have been happy to do media interviews after I had done about ten films. But I know that nowadays marketing is very important for the success of a film.”

His straight-forwardness is refreshing. And it is clear that he has an unstinted admiration for Mammootty. “My father began his career as a lawyer,” says Dulquer. “He grew up in Chemb, near Vaikom, and came from a very humble background. It was hand to mouth, in terms of food. My father told me he had nobody to guide him. Everything he learnt, it was along the way. He asked me to figure out acting on my own. He has placed more emphasis on integrity and showing respect to elders.”

And he smiles as he analyses Mammootty as a parent. “My father always had this battle within himself about being a father or a friend,” says Dulquer. “There were times when he wanted to be strict, but he also wanted to be my buddy.”

On the other hand, his mother, Sulfath, had a different type of influence. “My mother was very strict about the amount of money that was spent,” he says. “During my growing-up years in Chennai -- it was not that we lived a fancy lifestyle. She was always worried about my father's career. It was not predictable. Even the biggest of stars have fallen.”

Yes, but Dulquer seems to be a rising star who will make a mark in Mollywood.

Feeling at home, away from home

The Kannadigas of Kochi have got used to the hot weather and enjoy the green environment

Photos: Sunanda Anavati (centre) with her children, Vivek and Deepthy at the Chottannikkara temple; the Karnataka state logo

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1980, Srikant Anavati was working in Bangalore when he got an opportunity to be a super stockist in Kochi for the Bangalore-based pharmaceuticals company, Micro Labs. He decided to take the plunge. And 31 years later, this former president of the Kannada Sangha Cochin has an office behind the Income Tax building on IS Press Road, where he runs a clearing and forwarding agency for pharmaceutical companies.

“I like it in Kochi,” he says. “First of all, it is a green environment. Compared to Bangalore, the pollution is much less. As far as business is concerned, this is a state where you can sell anything. In Karnataka, the individual purchasing power is less, especially in the rural areas. Kerala is a forest of consumers in the urban as well as the rural areas.”

At this moment, there are about 250 Kannadiga families residing in the city. But the vast majority belongs to a floating population of people who have come on transfers in bank jobs and private companies. “The number of permanent residents is only 20 families,” says Srikant.

Srikant, who is originally from Sirsi in north Canara, married Sunanda, from the same place in 1984. “I have adjusted to my life here, although it took me some to get used to the hot weather,” says Sunanda. “I like to watch the films of Mohanlal and have also learnt to read and speak Malayalam.”

The couple has two children, the son, Vivek, 24, is doing his M.Tech in Kozhikode, while the daughter, Deepthy, 20, is studying fashion designing in Chennai.

Like Vivek and Deepthy, Vijay Kumar V. Gudi, 30, a web designer, also grew up in Kerala. His family is originally from Bagalkot in North Karnataka. “I am half Malayali and half Kannadiga,” he says. “But I feel more at home in Kerala, because most of my friends are here.” However, Vijay does not know how to read and write in Malayalam or Kannada.

Srikant feels sad about this. “The second generation is unable to read the wonderful literature of Kerala or Karnataka,” he says. However, the parents ensured that they always spoke Kannada in the house, so that their children could become fluent talkers. “Otherwise, it would have been embarrassing when we meet our relatives and friends in Karnataka,” says Sunanda. “We go twice a year for our parents' ceremonies for a week or so.”

What they miss most about their life in Kerala is that they are unable to attend the numerous family functions and festivals that take place in their home state. But on a recent Sunday, there was a one-day cultural event at the Town Hall. “Once a year, artistes arrive to showcase our Kannada culture,” says Shivanath Kowdi, the president of the Kannada Sangha Cochin. “This is sponsored by the Karnataka state government. The aim is to create a better understanding of our culture in Kerala and to provide cultural entertainment for those Kannadigas who live outside the state.”

So what are the plus points of living in Kerala? “The people are very nice,” says Girish N. Phadke, vice president of the Sangha. “In the offices they work efficiently. They arrive punctually and know their responsibilities and discharge it efficiently.”

But there are negative aspects. “Here the mind-set is that once a business has been started by somebody, the profit should be shared by everybody, but the loss has to be borne only by the proprietor,” says Srikant. “So they will resort to strikes easily.”

But Srikant has many friends, thanks to his business contacts, and he relishes the relationships. “I have no regrets in settling down here,” he says. “I am enjoying my life. There is a lot of freedom here.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

'Shah Rukh Khan was a dynamic boy'

Kochiite Annie George recalls her memories of teaching the Hindi film superstar as a teacher in St. Columba's school at New Delhi

Photos: Shah Rukh Khan; Annie George

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a winter day in 1975, Shah Rukh Khan placed a basket on Annie George's table in St. Columba's school at New Delhi. It contained a German Spitz puppy. “Their family dog had given a litter,” says Annie, 82, at her Kochi home. “So Shah Rukh gave me one, because I was the class teacher.” He also gave two puppies to Mrs. Vanderholt, the elocution teacher, because she had many dogs at home.

During a break in classes, Annie went outside the school and brought a packet of milk from the Gol Market. “The puppies were hungry and I fed them some milk,” she says. When Annie took the puppy home, her daughter Shirley was the most excited. “She loved dogs,” says Annie. Eventually, the puppy, named Nunu, remained with them for 13 long years.

“Shah Rukh was a good student,” says Annie. “He would always be in the top ten. He was a well-behaved boy, who also excelled in sports like cricket, football and swimming. But he seemed like a leader. The boys would crowd around him and say, 'Shah Rukh, Shah Rukh'.”

What Annie liked most about Shah Rukh was the way he respected all the teachers. “He was also friendly with all the students,” she says. “Shah Rukh was dynamic. I could see that he had a lot of energy.”

Shah Rukh was interested in dramatics from a young age. “Brother Eric D'Souza, the vice-principal, seeing that he had talent, encouraged him a lot,” she says. Shah Rukh would take part in one-act plays, and, in fact, did a solo act in a play called 'Wiz'. Many years later, he would publicly hug Brother D'Souza and thank him for his encouragement.

When asked whether she felt that Shah Rukh would become a great actor, Annie shook her head. “But I remember one student came up to me one day, and said, 'Miss Annie, Shah Rukh wants to be an actor.'”

At the parent-teacher meetings, Shah Rukh's parents would be in attendance. “His father, Taj Mohammed Khan, was a man of few words,” she says. “I could see that Shah Rukh was a little afraid of him. On the other hand, his mother, Lateef Fatima, was very soft. She was a magistrate. I heard that while his father died of brain cancer, in 1981, his mother died in an accident a few years later.” In 1989, he went to Mumbai to become an actor.

Meanwhile, Shah Rukh Khan's high point in his school career was when he was awarded the Sword of Honour when he was in Class 12 for being the best all-round student.

Annie says that she did not have any contact with him once he left school. “But I remember seeing him once when he came to meet a teacher, Seetha Venkateshwaran, who was interested in dramatics,” says Annie. “He had become slim and angular.” At that time, Shah Rukh was doing his Economic Honours at Hansraj College.

Annie also did see the television serial, 'Fauji' in 1988, in which Shah Rukh played the hero, Lt. Abhimanyu Rai, and became an overnight celebrity. “I knew that he would become a big star just by seeing him in this serial,” says Annie. “There were others who felt the same.”

Today, Annie, a widow, lives alone in Kochi, after a fulfilling 33 years as a teacher in St. Columba's. And a few days ago, her Bangalore-based daughter Shirley called her up and asked her to see the telecast of the Asianet Film Awards show at Dubai . She quickly switched on the television set and saw her former student dancing brilliantly, as usual, with all the Mollywood stars. “I felt so proud to see him,” she says, with a wide smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)