Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Assaults in modern life

P. Surendran's exhibition highlights the devastation of nature and the violent experiences of women

By Shevlin Sebastian

In P. Surendran's acrylic on canvas, there is a black bull, with its head bent aggressively. Standing in its path is a man who resembles the common man. Just beneath the bull is a fox. On the right side is a priest staring at what is happening. A woman has been drawn upside down. A few youths look on in a daze. It seems that they are disparate elements, having no link with each other.

“Not so,” says Surendran. “The bull resembles the stock exchange. There is now an obsession in making money. The priest at the side indicates the mix of religion and politics in society. The fox is an indication of how people need to be cunning, in order to survive. And the inverted lady is to show the deplorable status of women, faced with constant violence meted out by man.”

Surendran shows other forms of assault. A tree with flowing green leaves has some branches chopped off. Those parts have been marked in red. A human head placed in the trunk of a tree indicates the role played by man in ravaging nature. Another painting is that of a tree with several leafless branches. But all the crows are stationed on the ground. A similar canvas shows a tiny sparrow, sitting on a single tree, with buildings on all sides.

“The situation is become grave,” says Surendran. “So many structures are coming up. Kerala is becoming like a concrete jungle. Soon, the birds and sparrows will vanish. Man is thinking only about his habitation, and oblivious of the damage to nature.”

Thus, it is no surprise that the exhibition is called 'Assault on women and nature'. In an untitled work, Surendran has shown a woman who has been beheaded, the head placed at one side. “I read about such an incident in the papers recently,” says Surendran. “It disturbed me a lot.” The case was of a man, Rineesh, riding pillion behind his paramour, Sreelatha, on a scooter one night at Kadavantha, Kochi. He sliced her throat from behind with a kitchen knife.

Another composition is of a map which shows several countries, with camels in certain areas. In other sections, there is a mosque, a church and a temple. Right in the middle is the figure of Jesus Christ. “Malayalis have gone to so many countries including the Gulf,” he says. “The camels and mosques represent Dubai and other places. People are also settled in America, a Christian country, represented by Jesus Christ.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

“He has been a calming influence”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Lissy talks about life with superhit film director Priyadarshan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Lissy was only 16 when she first met director Priyadarshan on the sets of his 1984 film, ‘Odaruthammava Alariyam’ at Thiruvananthapuram. “There was no instant love,” she says. “We had a director-heroine relationship. I asked some questions and he gave me the answers and cleared my doubts.”

But over the course of the shoot Priyadarshan declared his love for the beautiful actress. “I also said I loved him,” she says. “I did not have the maturity to understand whether Priyan said it seriously or whether I meant what I said.”

Ten years older than Lissy, Priyadarshan bought chocolates and ice-creams for his teenage heroine. In the next six years Lissy acted in 22 films of Priyadarshan. She remembers during this time that the director had gone for a shoot in the Maldives. “When he returned he brought me a beige silk saree,” she says. “I was very happy. In fact, I have never forgotten that gift.”

The couple eventually got married on December 13, 1990. And in over twenty years of marriage, Lissy cherishes the freedom that Priyadarshan has always given her. “I don’t have to ask permission to do anything,” she says. “Whatever money he earns, he gives it to me. Recently, he received a payment of Rs. 15,000 for writing an article in a Malayalam newspaper. Immediately, he gave me the cheque. In fact, when he wants money, he comes to me.”

Lissy also admires Priyadarshan’s down-to-earth nature. “I have never seen behave in an arrogant manner, despite enjoying so much of success,” she says. “Very rarely does he lose his cool. He has been a calming factor in my life because I have a tendency to get angry quickly.”

Interestingly, the only time Priyadarshan gets upset is when something happens to the children. “Whatever said and done, the children are his life,” she says. “To a certain extent, he spoils them, but that is allowed for a father who is not around all the time. He is a family man, and values my opinion, when it comes to our children.”

Daughter, Kalyani, 19, is studying in the Parsons New School for Design in New York, while son Siddharth, 17, is doing his Plus Two at the United World College in Singapore.

Meanwhile, what Lissy also likes about Priyardarshan is that he has never taken his success for granted. “Even today, he feels very insecure about his life and career,” she says. “When Priyan starts a film today, it is with the same spirit and fear with which he began his first movie. He knows that nothing is permanent. In the film industry we have seen people change their behaviour towards us the moment there are two flops in a row.”

So far, Priyadarshan has made 65 films, many of them superhits. One day, Lissy told him, “Don't you get tired or bored, doing film after film, over so many years? Don't you think you need to take a break?” Priyadarshan smiled, and said, “I don't get tired because making films is a passion for me. My work is my holiday. So why should I take a break?”

But there are drawbacks, too. “Priyan is not a good businessman,” says Lissy. “He will not talk in a blunt manner to a producer regarding remuneration for his work and for his actors.”

He has irregular food and sleeping habits. “I wish Priyan would be more disciplined,” says Lissy. “He stays awake late into the night and does not eat healthy food or do any workouts.” She has also heard that Priyadarshan is very strict on the sets. “Heroines call and tell me that. But I don't know much about it since I don't go to locations any more.”

As a result, Lissy spends a lot of time alone. Each shoot can last for two months or so. “People ask me how I can live for so long without my husband,” says Lissy. “During those moments, when I feel low, I try to count my blessings. At this moment, [actor] Jagathy is in hospital because of an accident. Mohanlal's mother is unwell. I read that the son of the Ernakulam Collector [P.I. Sheikh Pareeth] died in an accident. There are many tragedies taking place in many families. In comparison to that, what is my suffering? It is nothing.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, March 26, 2012

The long and the short of it!

Guinness Pakru, just 2'6” tall, is an enduring star in Mollywood and has an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. A biography was released recently

Photo: Guinness Pakru with Jayaram in 'My Big Father'

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first sight of Guinness Pakru is always a shock. He is standing next to a sofa, and barely reaches above the cushion level. Then he places his arms on the sofa, and with a swift and easy movement, he pulls himself up. A red cushion, which is next to Pakru, looks larger. Pakru is only 2’ 6” tall and is dressed in a dynamic manner: a shimmering blue shirt over black trousers, a thick gold necklace around his neck and several rings on his fingers. People, at a studio in Kochi, come up and shake hands with him. There is a request for photographs, so Pakru stands on the sofa, and snaps are taken.

Pakru is a Malayalam film star, who has acted in 50 films in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu. In 'My Big Father', released in 2009, he was one of the heroes, along with Jayaram.

Recently, a biography was released. ‘Cheriya Chuvadugalum, Valiya Jeevithavum’ (Small steps, Big Life’), by writer-journalist Tony Chittettukalam, details Pakru's struggles to have a good education – he is a post-graduate in economics – and to live in dignity in a society where people look down on short people. And it concludes with his career in Mollywood.

Pakru made his mark in Mollywood, when one of the industry’s seasoned directors, Vinayan, selected him as a hero for his film, ‘Albutha Dweep’ (Wonder Island). Based loosely on Gulliver’s Travels, the story is set in an island called Vamanapuri, where the men are 3 feet tall. Around 300 short people acted in the film. Amazingly, Pakru did all the stunts, including horse riding, on his own.

Interestingly, Vinayan says that it was Pakru who provided the impetus. “He approached me one day to make a film on short people,” says Vinayan. “Pakru said, ‘Sir, I am tired of straining my neck and looking up. Can I do something where I can look straight at people?' And that made me decide to do this film.”

'Albutha Dweep' went on to become a box-office hit, and is the first film where a short person is the hero. It resulted in a Special Jury Mention in the Kerala State film awards in 2005 and also an unexpected international award: Pakru merited an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest hero playing an adult role in a commercial film. He has not looked back ever since. “This is my 25th year in Mollywood,” says Pakru, who has put up a new website:

Pakru also has a new house, 'Akshaya', in Kottayam and moves around in a Dzire, sitting on several cushions in the back seat. But the icing on the cake was his arranged marriage with Gayatri, who is 5’2” tall, on March 8, 2006

Asked about the type of person he is, Gayatri says, “Ajayan [Pakru] has his own individuality. He is very strong mentally. I admire that quality the most in him. He has come so far only because of his strong will.” Today, the couple has a three-year-old daughter, Deepthakeerthi.

And one who is not surprised at his success is Vinayan. “Pakru is hard-working, dedicated, sincere and has a natural talent, especially in mimicry,” he says.

A tall man, indeed!

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

‘There are so many sides to success’

M. Beena, the MD of the Vytilla Mobility Hub, talks about the meaning of success, and the joys of an administrative career at a speech at the Wednesday Club

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I took charge as Ernakulam District Collector [2008-11], one of the first questions that people asked me was I felt to be the first lady Collector,” says M. Beena, the Managing Director of the Vytilla Mobility Hub. “I was not prepared for such a question because I never felt that being a woman is a limiting factor. In our family we are two sisters. The differentiation between boys and girls was not there. My parents never said, ‘You are a girl, so you are not supposed to do this or that’. So that concept never entered my mind.”

Beena was talking at the Wednesday Club, Kochi, a forum that helps develop leadership and communication skills. “So I was taken aback by the question of being the first Lady Collector,” she says. “A profession is about people, rather than gender. There are good male as well as female officers. Ultimately, dealing with your professional challenges is more of a personal, rather than a gender attribute.”

Nevertheless, being a woman helps. “When labour unions leaders would come to the office, they would tell each other, ‘Madam has to leave on time in the evenings. She has two children to look after. So let us not take too much time.’ So the problems -- very tough issues -- would be settled over a cup of coffee. Both sides would be determined to solve the problem.”

When asked whether she is successful, Beena says, “I really don’t have an answer to that, because there are so many sides to success. Regarding my academics, you can give me ten out of ten: I was a rank-holder in my SSLC, pre-degree, engineering, medical, and civil service examinations. You could give me high marks for my career. But sometimes, I say, ‘Am I successful as a mother?’ and then I have to give myself minus points. Right now, as I am talking to you, at 8 p.m., my children are waiting for me. So, it is about pluses and minuses. There is never a perfect kind of life, especially when you are a woman, and have to balance so many different roles. But I try to make the best out of it.”

When pressed to talk about one of her successful projects -- the land acquisition programme for the Vallarpadom International Container Terminal project -- Beena recounts an incident. “After taking charge, as Collector, within a month, in May, 2008, I lost my mother,” she says. While the ceremonies were going on, at Thiruvananthapuram, a senior government official dropped in, paid his condolences, and said, “Please don't forget the Vallarpadom project, because it is at a very critical stage.”

When Beena returned to Kochi, she held a meeting with the evictees. “I called them, along with their families, and had frank discussions,” she says. “A friendly approach helped a lot.” By August 5, the land had been acquired, and the project could go ahead.

Beena further elaborated on the definition of success. “I might not be successful in terms of bank balances and other assets,” she says. “I don’t even have a two-wheeler in my name. But I love my job and it has given me so much of happiness and enjoyment. When people come to meet me at 6 p.m., they expect to see a tired person. Instead, they find me brimming with energy and enthusiasm for the simple reason that I am passionate about my work. So, one definition of success is to be in a job that you love. And that makes you feel successful every day.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A First-Class Showing

Unusual marketing strategies led to a successful launch of superstar Mammooty’s son, Dulquer Salman, in the film, ‘Second Show’. It is the first sleeper hit of 2012

Photo: (From left) Vivek Ramadevan and Prasanth Narayanan of AOPL Entertainment standing next to the 51st day poster of 'Second Show'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in October, 2011, Prasanth Narayanan, the managing director of AOPL Entertainment Pvt. Ltd., which was producing the film, 'Second Show', was watching the shoot in Kozhikode. In a particular scene, the hero, Dulquer Salman, and a friend had been caught by the police for drunken driving and were being beaten. An elderly passer-by asked Prasanth, “What is happening here?” Prasanth said that it was a film shoot. The man pointed at Dulquer and said, “Who is that boy? I have not seen him.”

At his office in Kochi, Prasanth says, “That was the level of comfort and anonymity the crew was enjoying. It was a young team, and we wanted them to work in peace. If anybody had come to know it was [superstar] Mammooty's son, Dulquer, there would have been a huge crowd present.”

Both Prasanth and Vivek Ramadevan, the CEO - Content & Marketing, purposely adopted the marketing strategy of not hyping Dulquer at all. “We felt that toning down the expectations would be the right way,” says Vivek. Says Rajesh Pillai, the director of ‘Traffic’: “The hype of a star son was missing, which turned out to be the right decision.” There was a fear that if Dulquer was projected too much, people would come to the hall expecting to see another Mammooty. And that would have doomed the film.

In fact, Dulquer and the crew were carefully kept under wraps. It was only on November 10, at a colourful function at the Ramada Resort, the crew was introduced, one by one, led by fashion models dressed in yellow and red mini skirts and black and silver stiletto heels. And the climax was the appearance of Dulquer in an open black coat and blue jeans.

Thereafter, Dulquer began appearing in the media in dribs and drabs. There was an occasional radio, magazine and newspaper interview. Says Dulquer: ‘This was my first film and I wanted a low-key introduction.”

However, AOPL used the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and trailers on You Tube to publicise the film. But all along, the marketing was focused on the team of actors rather than Dulquer alone. “To this day, Dulquer has not appeared on TV,” says Prasanth. “We did not want the audience to lose the novelty of seeing him in a film. We wanted them to come to the hall. It was a risky strategy, but it worked for us.”

On December 25, the music launch took place at a function held at the Gold Souk. The rock band 'Avial' gave a live performance, while there was a flash mob dance, apart from live coverage on Kiran TV.

The accent on the marketing was clearly on the young. “Our target audience was the 18-35 year age group,” says Vivek. “The content would appeal more to the young. But in most Malayalam films the marketing strategy is to try to get all the people and you end up nowhere.”

Clearly, Mollywood's weakness is poor marketing. “Marketing starts post-release,” says Vivek. “On the other hand, in Bollywood, the publicity campaign concludes on the day the film is released. In the contract with the actors, in Hindi films, there is a clause which states that the actor has to actively get involved in the publicity.”

Milan Jaleel, the president of the Kerala Film Producers' Association, says that in Mollywood, as soon as a film is complete, the actor moves off to another set and does not spare any time for the film’s publicity. “Whereas in Bollywood, even a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan works so hard to market a film,” he says. “It is time Mollywood actors did the same thing.”

Meanwhile, AOPL is getting ready to celebrate the 51st day of ‘Second Show’ which falls on March 24. The movie, released in 65 theatres, is the first sleeper hit of 2012.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“I believe in love”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

A chance meeting in a television studio led Manju Haridas to marry actor Narain. She talks about her love story

Photo: Manju Narian. Taken by Martin Louis

By Shevlin Sebastian

Manju Haridas met Narain in real and reel life on the same day in February, 2005. At that time, she was working as an online producer in a private television channel. “Narain had come to the studio in Kochi to do an interview for 'Achuvinthe Amma',” says Manju, who also saw the promotional rushes from the film. “We met, but there were no fireworks. It was a professional interaction.”

But thanks to a mutual friend, they began seeing each other and discovered that they had a lot of things to talk about, be it work or friends. “Looking back, it seemed that we were destined to be together,” she says.

A few months later, Narain officially proposed. It was a time when Manju's parents were looking out for a suitable boy, and that was the case with Narain's also. “So we told them about our intention to marry and they agreed,” says Manju.

But Manju's parents – her father is a retired professor of history at Malabar Christian College, while her mother is a former principal of Zamorin’s Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode – insisted she complete her studies. So Manju went ahead and did her masters in mass communication and journalism from Calicut University. “I also felt it was important to complete my education before marriage,” she says. “After tying the knot, it would be difficult to find the time.”

Once, during this period, Manju had gone to Chennai for some official work and met up with Narain. They went to the Lifestyle Mall. She saw a beautiful crystal curio in a store. “It was so beautiful that I was tempted to touch it,” she says. Anyway, the inevitable happened and it slipped from her hands, fell to the floor, and splintered into a thousand pieces. “I was in tears and wanted to run away, since no one had noticed what had happened,” says Manju. “But Narain held my hand, and said, ‘We have to take responsibility and pay for the damage. Otherwise, the sales people will suffer.’”

This was a time when Narain was not yet on a strong financial footing, and the curio was prohibitively expensive. “Anyway, we told the sales people that we had broken it,” says Manju. The couple waited an hour, but the shop employees finally concluded that it was their fault. The crystal was not placed properly and hence there was no need to pay. A relieved Manju and Narain left the mall.

“I felt so proud of Narain and realised he is a nice guy,” she says. “It is only in critical situations that you really understand a person’s character. I knew I had made the right choice in selecting Narain as my husband.”

The wedding took place in Kozhikode on August 26, 2007. And what strikes Manju about Narain are his patience, determination, and ambition. “Narain is a balanced person who only gets angry when there are problems at work. Otherwise, it is very difficult to provoke him into a fight.” But she gets upset over a small matter. “In his heart, Narain still believes that he is a bachelor and lets his things lie all over the place. On the other hand, I like to keep my house spotlessly clean,” says Manju.

Meanwhile, unlike many wives of actors, she enjoys basking in the spotlight caused by Narain's success. Even in Chennai, where they stay, he is well known because he acts in many Tamil films.

“One plus point is that our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Tanmaya, receives a lot of love and affection from people,” she says. “I don’t think the spotlight is an invasion. My husband has chosen this public career. So, we have to accept the good and the bad. And the best part is that well-wishers tell Narain that they are praying for his continued success. Isn't that a wonderful boon?”

Asked whether she feels nervous because Narain is always around beautiful women, Manju says, “Narain has got used to it. They are a part of his life. I don't feel insecure at all, because I believe in love.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, March 19, 2012

‘Bollywood prefers high-pitched voices’

By Usha Uthup

(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

It was a complete surprise when I won the Filmfare Award, last month, the mother of all prizes, for my song ‘Darling’ in ‘7 Khoon Maaf’. In fact when [actress] Urmila Matondkar announced that I had won, I went numb, and felt like a zombie. When I went up to the stage, initially, I could not speak.

It took me 42 years to get my first Filmfare Award. And I spoke whatever came to my mind, even as my eyes filled up with tears. That was why it was so moving for everybody and they gave me a standing ovation. Because the audience knew that it was not a prepared speech. It was straight from the heart.

‘Darling’ had an impact because it was fresh and new. Composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, it was based on an 1860 Russian song, ‘Kalinka’, so it had an unusual melody, and the treatment of the song, as well as the chorus, was very different.

I never got frustrated that I did not win the award earlier. But I did feel sad that every time I was nominated -- for ‘One Two Cha-Cha-Cha’, ‘Hari Om Hari’, and ‘Rambha Ho’ – I got passed over.

Bollywood did not give me many chances to do playback singing because there is a preconceived notion that a heroine should have a high-pitched voice. So, singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, K.S. Chitra, Sujatha Mohan or P. Susheela were preferred, instead of Begum Akhtar, Reshma and I, who have low bass voices.

It is strange: for example, [the late actress] Meena Kumari had a low bass voice, when you listened to her dialogues, but when she sang it was in the high-pitched voice of Lata Mangeshkar.

The secret of my long career is because I regard every show as a new one. I don’t take the musicians or the audience for granted. The song is always above you, even if you have sung it a million times. You have to approach it with a new sense of love and respect.

Every time I got a chance to do a concert or appear live, which was almost every second day it was a wonderful experience. Honestly, performing live is an addiction for me. And added to this, if I got a film song, whether it was in Tamil, Hindi or Malayalam, it was like a cherry on the icing of a cake.

Many people have asked me about the qualities needed to be successful. I reply that, firstly, you require a God-given talent. Thereafter, you have to train hard, whether you are doing Western vocals, Hindusthani or Carnatic music. You have to dedicate your life to music. You are not going to get a chance every day of your life to do something great or creative. So, it is important to hang in there, with a positive attitude, and know that the breaks will come some day.

Another question I am asked often is how has music changed over the years. Well, digital technology has made a big difference. It has made a lot of things easy, yet, at the same time, it has become mechanical. It is not warm as the old analog recordings. Some find the adaptations good, while many say it is bad. As far as I am concerned, change is inevitable. Without change, you cannot move forward.

(Usha Uthup is one of India’s most popular singers)

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

A true hero of our times

Anjan Satheesh, born with cerebral palsy, has never let it hamper his dreams and activities

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Adarsh Charitable Trust, a school for the physically challenged at Kureekkad, on the outskirts of Kochi, Anjan Satheesh, switches on the computer, a gleam of excitement in his eye. And he quickly shows slides of his art work: watercolour paintings of houses in the countryside, a boat rolling on the waves of a rough sea, and a young couple -- the boy holding an umbrella and standing behind the girl, protecting her from the rain.

Then Anjan shows a 3D animation which he has made of the school. So now we are in the main hall, then it is off to the first floor, the second, going inside and outside rooms. Thereafter, he displays his cartoons: sharp, black, felt pen drawings of Osama Bin Laden, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and Sachin Tendulkar, among many others.

It all seems fine, but what makes it astounding is that he has cerebral palsy. This means he is brain-damaged. He cannot hear properly nor speak. His left eye is cloudy and lacking sight. He holds himself up on wooden crutches, both his crippled legs bent from the knees in different directions.

Looking at him navigate the mouse is S. Aswinkumar, executive secretary of Adarsh. “Anjan is an expert,” he says. “When a computer goes wrong, he is the one who solves the problems.” His father, N. Satheeshkumar, a manager of the Federal Bank, smiles proudly.

It has been a long and harrowing journey for the family. Within hours of Anjan being born, on September 29, 1987, Satheesh and his wife Lethika, knew that something was wrong. “When my wife tried to breast-feed him, he was unable to suck properly,” says Satheesh.

Soon, it was discovered that he had problems with his eyesight. Tests at the Little Flower Eye Hospital revealed that he had glaucoma in both eyes. Immediately, two surgeries were done. There were further problems. Anjan's neck would roll around. He was not able to turn over; he lay on his back all the time. His legs remained stiff and unstretchable. And he was not responding to any sounds.

The family began to agonise. “Yes, there was a time when we felt shattered,” says Lethika. “Would our child remain like this forever?”

What aggravated the pain was the presence of son, Aswin, older by two years, a healthy child, who was running around all over the place.

In 1989, Sateesh and Lethika took Anjan to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences at New Delhi. A full check-up was done and that was when they heard the dreaded words which described their son’s condition: Cerebral palsy.

They brought Anjan back and admitted him to the Raksha Institute of Special Education at Kochi, run by the Spastics Society. “It was the only one in Kerala at that time which catered to cerebral palsy victims,” says Lethika. They hired an apartment in Kochi, while Lethika took a five-year break from the Kerala High Court, where she had a job. Anjan underwent regular physiotherapy sessions. Thereafter, there were classes at the Dr. Mukundan Memorial Speech and Hearing Centre.

At age five Anjan was admitted into a normal school, but found it difficult to follow the lessons, since he could not hear at all. His parents helped him at home, and Anjan managed to finish his Class 10 exams. Thereafter, he did an animation course at the Toon's Academy in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Anjan is a confident person,” says brother Aswin, a software engineer. “He is able to adapt to all sorts of situations. I did not feel any guilt that I was okay, because we always regarded him as a normal person.”

Meanwhile, all along, Anjan had shown a talent for drawing. “We did not take it seriously,” says Satheesh. “We were more focused on him getting an education.” But today, this young man is a member of the Kerala Cartoon Academy (KCA) and is invited for functions and camps.

“His drawings are superb, when you think about his physical and mental disabilities,” says Sajjive Balakrishnan, the secretary of KCA. “I am always amazed at his high output.”

Anjan appeared in the public spotlight when he gifted drawings to former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Oscar winner Resul Pookutty and Dr. C. Rangarajan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. “He had done caricatures of them,” says Satheesh.

Today, Anjan, 24, is busy with his new career at Adarsh where he is teaching children -- who have Down's Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy and learning disorders – drawing, painting, and computer skills.

“Anjan cannot speak, but, somehow, he is able to communicate with the students,” says Ciya George, the chief administrative manager.

Anjan Sateesh: A true hero of our times!

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

In a state of bliss

COLUMN: Cross Connection

When Austrian Mike Mayer met Shalu Simpson in Kochi, he fell instantly in love. They talk about their life after marriage

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the 1990s, Anetta Simpson was doing a job in Heidelberg, Germany. There she happened to meet an Austrian Mike Mayer. They became friendly. After a few months, Anetta invited Michael to visit her home town of Kochi.

In 1997, Michael took up the offer and came and met Anetta's family, including her sister, Shalu, and brother Heinz. “We clicked very well,” says Shalu. At that time, she was doing her B.A. at St Teresa's College. Soon, Michael started courting her. Then he returned to Europe and they began writing letters to each other. “Michael would come once a year to see me,” says Shalu.

Finally, in 2000, Michael came with his sister, mother, and brother and met Shalu's father K.P. Simpson. “Michael had a long talk with my dad and said he was interested in marrying me,” says Shalu. “It was only after he got the green signal that Michael asked me. And I said yes.”

Michael says that he decided to marry Shalu because “she is very authentic. I did not find anything fake about her. Shalu is also very beautiful. I experienced a mysterious attraction. It is something which I cannot describe in words.”

Michael and Shalu got married on September 8, 2001 at Feldkirch, on the Swiss-Austria border. And a gallant Michael did what no newly-wed husband would do. For their honeymoon, he took along his in-laws and sister-in-law to tourist places in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. “We also went to the Vatican and saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” says Shalu. “Michael was very sporting about it, but we all had a good time.”

But it took some time for Shalu to get used to life in Switzerland , where Michael was working. “Because of the language problem, initially it was a challenge to make friends,” she says. Shalu also had to get used to the potato, pasta, and cheese diet.

Once, when her parents were visiting her, Shalu's mother-in-law served cheese fondue. “The cheese is placed in a big pot placed on a burner,” she says. You can then dip into this and have it with bread or potatoes, or grilled items like egg plants and capsicum, apart from salads and white wine. “My parents thought it was an appetisier and my mother-in-law started panicking, because this is the main course,” says a smiling Shalu. “It is actually quite filling. Later, they learnt to enjoy the fondue.”

For Shalu, initially, the cold weather was enjoyable, because she had come from a tropical country. “But over time, when it became chilly, you don't enjoy it so much,” she says. “The activities are limited. When you go out for walks, you have to layer yourself with several clothes. In Ontario , Canada, where we now stay, the temperatures can be as low as minus 20 or 40 degrees [Centigrade]. When you look out of the window, it is always dark and gloomy. Your mood becomes like that. So, during winters, I prefer to go to sunny destinations. That is the time when I miss India the most.”

But Shalu would not miss a Malayali husband at all. Because Michael -- an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo -- is always helping her in the kitchen, be it by washing dishes or peeling vegetables.

“He sets aside time for me and our three-year-old son,” says the now-pregnant Shalu. Asked whether she is scared because of Europe 's soaring divorce rates, Shalu says, “Michael has accepted me as I am. And he sincerely loves me. Things have worked out very well between us.”

And things are changing in Europe, too. “The big difference is that they are having more children,” says Shalu. “Earlier, there would be one or two, but now couples are opting for more. The mind-set has changed. Initially, they were obsessed with the careers, but now they value the importance of children and families.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, March 16, 2012

The green green grass of home

The Mathers, one of Kerala's top builders, recreated gardens in their penthouse apartment for their children to enjoy

By Shevlin Sebastian

Raffi Mather, one of Kerala’s most well-known builders, wanted to build a villa in the heart of Kochi, but it was beyond him. “Even for a builder, a small area would cost Rs 22 crore and that is too expensive,” he says. “Ultimately, we opted for an apartment for two reasons: one is for security. I travel a lot. Secondly, I needed a place which is close to my children’s school and my wife’s place of work.”

Reshma Mather is an English literature lecturer at St. Teresa’s College, while their two daughters study in Choice school. And so it was that the Mathers ended up staying in a custom-built 14th floor penthouse apartment, measuring 5500 sq. ft., in posh Panampilly Nagar.

The door is nondescript, like any other apartment. But when you step in through the foyer, you are immediately confronted by a living room which is about 30 ft in height. There are 20 ft. high curtains and drapes.

The curtains have been bought from ‘Atmosphere’ in Dubai and is operable with the use of a remote control device. “Once every few months, employees from Dubai will come to see that everything is all right,” says Reshma. She plans to change the drapes, because it has been torn thanks to strong winds.

Meanwhile, what catches the eye is a pair of pistols placed in a tray on a low wooden table. So, are these to be used when guests get on your nerves? Reshma laughs, and says, “These are replicas of the pistols used by King Louis XVI. We bought it at the Versailles Palace in Paris.”

The floor is made of rustic wood. “We wanted a place where people can come in freely and go,” says Reshma. “We did not want guests to get awed and take off their slippers. Marble is something that both of us don’t like, because of the extreme shine.”

On the ceiling of the dining room, there are a row of lights, but it gives off a muted look, suggesting an air of intimacy. There are bedrooms on either side, with large glass-paned windows, apart from a sitting area with sofas placed in front of a television set.

Near the dining room is a pantry, with the obligatory microwave with a hood, an oven, and a large refrigerator. And beyond that is a verandah with a table and chairs. “This is where my two daughters and I have breakfast,” says Reshma. “Raffi joins in, when he is in town.”

The view is simply stunning: a vast expanse of sky when you look upwards, and downwards, so many coconut trees, interspersed with buildings and roads.

Then it is up gleaming wooden stairs to the next floor. And then comes the piece de resistance of the Mather house: two 500 sq. ft. gardens, separated by a wall. The gardens have thick grass and plants growing wildly on the perimeter.

“The idea of the gardens was to get in more air into the house and make it look bigger,” says Reshma. “Both Raffi and I love greens and lived in houses which had large compounds. We wanted the children to have the feeling of being in a house and in touch with the grass.”

Just beside one garden is a dining area, again made of wood, but with a translucent glass roof. “At night, it is beautiful to stare at the moon and the stars,” says Raffi. “Our children hold their parties here.”

Next to that is a large home theatre, superbly sound-proofed, with red leather recliners and sofas, as well as a white screen placed against one wall. “We see a lot of films during the monsoons, as it is too much of a bother to travel anywhere, what with the slush and the traffic,” says Reshma.

However, for Raffi, the monsoon is the best time of the year. “Since we have a 360 degree view from the apartment, we can see the clouds appearing from a distance and then the rain falls in torrents,” he says. “It is wonderful to look at. Kerala is God’s Own Country.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bharat darshan, Kochi-style

A businessman, a retired Indian Navy sailor, a photographer, and a mechanic travel from Kochi to New Delhi, on two bikes, propagating the 100th anniversary of the National Anthem, penned by Rabindranath Tagore

Photo: The adventurous team: (From left) P.S. Vipin Kumar Palluruthy, K.D. Babu, P.S. Surendran and M.B. Simlesh

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 26, V.K. Krishna Iyer, a former judge of the Supreme Court, flagged off four men, who set out on two motorbikes -- a 220cc Pulsar and a 125cc Glamour -- from Kochi for a 35-day long trip to Delhi. The men included a retired Indian Navy sailor, P.S. Surendran, businessman P.S. Vipin Kumar Palluruthy, photographer M.B. Simlesh, and mechanic K.D. Babu.

The aim of the trip: “We wanted to celebrate the 100th year of the Jana Gana Mana, which was first sung, on December 27, 1911, at a session of the Indian National Congress at Kolkata,” says Vipin. Penned by poet Rabindranath Tagore, it was officially adopted as the national anthem by the Constituent Assembly on January 24, 1950.

During the journey, the group would set out every day at 7 a.m. “We would stop after every 50 kms,” says Surendran. “After four such stops, we would have a long run of about 90 kms.” They would travel between 290 and 310 kms a day. Usually, by sunset, they would stop. “There was no fixed plan,” says Surendran. “We would look out for schools, temples, churches, villages, or clubs to stay the night. Whenever we stopped, the young people would congregate around us.”

The group would take out small Indian flags and ask the youngsters to sing the national anthem. “Many would shake their heads,” says Simlesh. “They only knew the 'Vande Mataram'.” The elders, however, would know the anthem. After they sang it, they would feel inspired and offer board and lodging. The team always opted for the same type of food: chappatis, dal, and onions. “It was the safest,” says Simlish, with a smile. “We ate so many onions that our cholesterol would have vanished by now.”

Meanwhile, those stays in the villages were eye-openers. “We saw many poor people, and houses in bad condition,” says Vipin. “The people burned cow dung to cook their food. The roads are very bad. The children do not go to school. Instead they work in the fields. So they are missing out on education. There is a desperate need for water in states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The villagers take a small mug of water, go to an empty field, and do their ablutions. In many places the plants and trees have dried up because of the fierce sun. We felt very bad about this.”

Vipin proffers some advice. “The MLAs and MPs should take cycles and travel through all the villages and get an idea of the problems faced by the people,” he says. “India is only a superpower in the towns. But it is true that when you travel on national highways, you will feel you are in a European country.”

In fact, among the highways that impressed them the most were the ones from Coimbatore to Nagpur (1430 kms), and from Jaipur to Ahmedabad (700 kms). The group travelled through several states: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Goa, and the Union Territory of Delhi.

And soon, the quartet realised that Kerala is, indeed, God's Own Country. “Kerala is heaven,” says Babu. “People have a good standard of living. There is food to eat, good houses to stay in, and a proper education system. The only problem is the bad roads.”

Eventually, they travelled a distance of 6320 kilometres and experienced one tyre puncture and a minor accident. Surprisingly, they only had one sponsor: the fruit drinks company Mona Vie. “They provided us with thick tracksuits for the cold weather and bags,” says Surendran. “At various stops they also provided us with drinks.”

The team returned to Kochi on March 1, to a rousing welcome by the members of the Youth Hostel, Kakkanad, followed by receptions hosted by the District Collector P.I. Sheik Pareeth and Mayor Tony Chammany of the Cochin Corporation, and it ended with a public meeting at Palluruthy, where they stay. “All in all, it was a wonderful trip,” says Vipin.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

An instant connection

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

When singer Vijay Yesudas met Darshana for the first time he immediately fell in love. Darshana recounts the experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

On February 14, 2002, Darshana Yesudas was backstage at a music concert in Dubai. She had been asked by a family friend, Mala, who was the organiser, that she should light the inaugural lamp, along with playback singer K.J. Yesudas. There, she was introduced to Vijay Yesudas and they began chatting immediately.

The next day, Darshana went to Mala’s house, where Vijay was present. “He told me that he had a dream where we would meet again,” says Darshana. “So when he actually saw me, he got very excited.” Darshana was wearing a white top and blue jeans. “How old are you?” he said. Darshana replied that she was 16. Vijay stared thoughtfully at her.

Vijay was supposed to leave that night, but missed the flight. “He called me the next day at 5 a.m. and said that he had reached India,” says Darshana. “I was thinking, 'So why are you calling me?' Then he said, 'Actually I am in town. So why don’t we meet?'”

When they met, Vijay astonished Darshana by saying, “I don’t want to first fall in love and then ask the permission of our parents. So, I will straightaway tell my mom and you go tell your parents and we will start off in the right way. Maybe you are not in love with me and I may not be with you but we will see where this relationship goes. Right now I am in the shadow of my father. So I need to create my own name. So give me that space too.”

Darshana, not surprisingly, got zapped. “I was thinking, ‘What should I go and tell my mom?'”

Nevertheless, she told her all what had happened. For Darshana's mom, Tara, it was history repeating itself. “My dad, Balagopal, met my mom when she was 16 and he was 22,” says Darshana. Balagopal immediately told Tara, “Let’s go and tell your parents about this. So that they know about what is happening.” But when it came to Darshana, Balagopal told her to wait five years, till she had finished her graduation. “My father said that would be enough time to know Vijay properly,” says Darshana. “Then we will think about marriage.”

And nearly five years later, on January 21, 2007, Darshana and Vijay tied the knot. So, after half a decade of marriage, what sort of a person is Vijay? “He is a loving and giving person,” says Darshana “Vijay is very emotional, like any artiste, and has his own mind. He does not keep any resentment in his heart. He is open and will bluntly say things, but I like that. ”

Vijay shares some traits with his mother. “Most of us think we have limitations, but for Vijay and my mother-in-law, they think anything is possible in life and will move forward accordingly.”

But the one drawback about Vijay is that, like his father, he loses his temper quickly. “But the good thing is that just, as quickly, he cools down,” says Darshana.

Meanwhile, because of Vijay, Darshana is learning to live in the spotlight. “I am trying to get used to people staring at us when we step out in public,” she says. “For Vijay, he has been accustomed to it since his childhood and knows how to deal with it, just like our three-year-old daughter, Ameya.”

But, when she travels with Vijay, she has interesting experiences. “Recently, Vijay had a show in Wayanad and the audience went berserk,” says Darshana. “I love people in north Kerala because they let out their emotions. In Kochi, people become formal. In Thiruvananthapuram, they are inwardly tight. They are worried about the fact that if they come up to talk, whether they will get snubbed.”

Before Ameya was born, Darshana would attend all her husband’s shows. “I feel a sense of pride and happiness when I see Vijay on stage,” she says. “He is a bundle of energy. Vijay is the happiest then and is completely natural. It is the same Vijay I see at home.”

At the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Kochi, both share an easy camaraderie and affection, as they pose for photographs. When asked for advice on relationships, Darshana says, “Trust, trust, and more trust. More than love, it is trust in a relationship that gets you through. Love is always there. Before marriage, it is a crush, later, it becomes an understanding. And when I see my in-laws now, it is a divine love.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

'Why do Malayalis treat their women badly?'

Finnish journalist Mikko Zenger has come to God's Own Country several times. He is fond of the place, but is shocked at the way the women are treated

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1992, Mikko Zenger, a freelance journalist from Finland, had come to Kerala. He wanted to do an interview with EMS Namboodiripad, the former Chief Minister. But at the AKG Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, the CPI(M) party leader Thomas Isaac shooed him away, saying that Namoodiripad was very busy. But Mikko saw that Namboodiripad was sitting at one corner.

“So I went up and whispered in his ears that I lived in the same building that Vladimir Lenin [great Russian Communist leader] stayed during his visit to Helsinki, Finland, in 1910,” says Mikko. Lenin was on his way to Copenhagen in Denmark to attend the Russian Socialist Democratic Worker’s Party meeting. When Namboodiripad heard this, he immediately granted Mikko an interview.

The Finnish journalist has been coming to India since 1977. “Kerala is my favourite state,” he says, as he stands, in the afternoon sunshine, wearing a cotton shirt and brown shorts, near the Parade Ground in Fort Kochi. “The gap between the rich and the poor is much less in Kerala, as compared to other parts of India. Also, there is some semblance of democratic politics, although I know that there are many problems.”

He admires the multicultural society where Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians live side by side, which is so evident in Fort Kochi.

In fact, in a celebration of this multi-culturalism, a few years ago, when Mikko bought two cows from a farmer in Vaikom, he called one of them 'Agni' and the other, 'Urdu'. “If I had bought a third cow, I would have given it a Christian name,” says Mikko.

For this trip, Mikko has brought along a group of 16 children, along with their parents. “About 13 of them are of Indian origin, adopted from orphanages in north India and Tamil Nadu,” he says. Mikko arranged a programme, at Mattancherry, where there were Muslim dancing groups, followed by a Brahmin who sang Carnatic songs, accompanied by the harmonium, and Bollywood dances. “The Finnish children found it very exciting,” says Mikko. “They met other Indian children for the first time.”

Mikko finds the openness of the Keralite very alluring. “They are very interested to know about happenings all over the world,” he says. “Malayalis are ready to have a debate at any time. Whenever I enter a coffee shop or hotel, I will just say, ‘UDF’, ‘LDF’, ‘Mohanlal’ or ‘Mammooty’, and immediately an animated discussion will begin.”

But a candid Mikko says that he is disappointed by the position of women in Malayali society. “I say this, despite the fact that their status in Kerala is far better than in other parts of India,” he says. “My question is this: why do Malayalis treat their women so badly?”

He spoke of instances when men made fun of their spouses in front of him. “A man told me, 'Just look at how fat my wife is?'” says Mikko. “Kerala women are educated and admired all over the world for their nursing skills. And what do the men do? They drink too much, come home, and start criticising their wives.”

Asked to compare Finland with Kerala, Mikko surprised by saying there are, indeed, a few similarities. “In both places, the government invested first in setting up the social sector,” he says. “It was much later that the emphasis was placed on the economy. In Kerala, as well as Finland, there is a strong labour movement.”

And, till recently, both Finland in Europe and Kerala in India topped the highest annual suicide rates. Mikko then cracked a melancholy joke: “In some countries, they use the right side. In other countries, they use the left side, but in Kerala they use three sides: the left side, the right side, and suicide.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A worried look at nature

At ‘Confluence’, at the David Hall, Kochi, several artistes express their anxiety about life and economic developments

Photos: Work by Anto George; Sanam Narayanan's painting

By Shevlin Sebastian

Visual artist Anto George has placed paper-cut drawings of butterflies, all flying away from a central point. And at the middle, in bold black capital letters, are the words, 'They will fly away from the hell we create'. “We make a wonderful world in our imagination,” says Anto. “But to others, including nature, it might be a hell.” Anton has followed the Japanese origami style. This means, from a square sheet of paper, he has folded it a few times to make the butterflies.

Unlike Anto, K.V. Suvitha shows a gentle world. In her 'Earths and Clouds', an acrylic on canvas, there are different earths floating about, between white clouds. And the scenes on each planet are soothing. In one there is a series of hills, in another, there is a drawing of a house with a pointed red roof and in a third, ducks stand in a green field. The Thrissur-based Suvitha, who has worked in The Guild Art gallery in Mumbai, says, “Many believe that the earth can be defined by one image. I just wanted to show that there are many visuals when we talk about the planet.”

Upendranath has put up several scans of his own brain. It seems amusing, till the caption tells a stellar truth: ‘They scanned my brain, but could not figure out my multiple selves’. Deep down, he says, every person is a mystery to the other, no matter how close.

Sanam Narayanan's impressive charcoal and watercolour on paper is a picture of a few islands separated by the sea. The water looks still and tranquil. But on the islands, the trees have withered up, and there are occasional explosions, which is represented by gusts of bright red smoke.

“Yes, I am worried about the development that is taking place in the Vypeen Islands where I stay,” he says. “There is a loss of privacy and the people lack mental peace.” Above two islands is a bridge, resting on four cylindrical pillars. On flatbed trucks, Jesus Christ, Lords Shiva, Hanuman and Ganapati, and Buddha are being transported. “Nowadays, instead of relying on gods, people turn to guns for protection,” says Sanam.

Meanwhile, Bara Bhaskaran has been directly inspired by the eye-catching sculpture, 'Yakshi' made by artist Kanayi Kunhiraman at Mallampuzha. Bhaskaran has drawn, with pen and ink, a similar woman with full breasts and prominent nipples, her legs spread about and gazing skywards. “‘Yakshi’ is the female personification of nature,” he says. “She is beautiful, as well as dangerous. I also wanted to show the importance and relevance of Kunhiraman’s work.” Between the feet, is a curved, throbbing penis. “This is to represent Man,” he says, with a smile.

Sebastian Varghese has drawn a pond, which has pristine blue water, but there are a couple of pipes taking water away from it. At one side are abandoned machine parts, rusted springs and pipes, although a certain type of plant is growing over them. “Nature is cleaning up the mess,” says Sebastian.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Up close and personal

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sreevalsan talks about his marriage to actress Shwetha Menon, who, he says, is a lively and interesting personality

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2006, journalist Sreevalsan Menon was working in Mumbai for a leading Malayalam media group. For the woman's magazine, he had to co-ordinate a fashion shoot with actress Shwetha Menon. So he called up Shwetha, they got talking, and on the day of the shoot, Sreevalsan picked her up from her home. “My initial impression was that Shwetha was relaxed, funny, and humourous,” says Sreevalsan. “She laughed a lot. Basically, she was a lively person.”

Sreevalsan did an interview with Shwetha, although he did not know anything about the Malayalam film industry or what she was doing there. “But she patiently told me about her career,” he says. They met briefly again when the media group invited Shwetha as a chief guest for the Onam celebrations at a function in Matunga, Mumbai. Thereafter they went out of touch.

A couple of months later, Sreevalsan received a call. A woman started chatting animatedly. “I heard her for two minutes, and then said, 'Who's this?'” he says. “And that was it. Shwetha was so furious that I had not saved her number. She told me, 'When we met, you spoke so nicely. But this is not the way to behave.'”

Sreevalsan apologised and said that he had lost his old mobile and as a result did not have her number. Thereafter, they started exchanging SMSs and began speaking to each other on the phone. “We met a few times,” says Sreevalsan, who is the grandson of the noted poet Vallathol Narayana Menon. Slowly, the relationship developed.

Finally, in January, 2011, Sreevalsan proposed. And his reasons were simple. “We had a lot in common,” he says. “We are both Taureans. We rarely get angry but when we do, it can be explosive. And we are homebodies.”

Shwetha accepted and they tied the knot on June 18, 2011, at Shwetha's ancestral home in Valancherry, Malappuram. And he discovered new traits after marriage. “Shwetha is very organized, and systematic,” he says. “And when there is a crisis, she has the confidence to tackle it. This might be because she is an only child.”

Of course, it is an unusual marriage, because they spend a lot of time apart. While Sreevalsan is the Vice President of Institutional Research of the Mumbai-based Edelweiss Financial Services Limited, Shwetha is busy with her career as an actress in the Malayalam film industry. “Recently, she went for an American tour and I did not see her for three months,” he says. “But when she is in Kerala, I make it a point to come once in every three weeks.”

When he is in God's Own Country, he is mostly identified as 'Shwetha Menon's husband'. “I don't have any insecurities about that,” he says. “In fact, I feel nice to know that my wife is famous.” However, the couple made a decision not to appear in the limelight together. “I feel she should enjoy the spotlight on her own,” says Sreevalsan.

Meanwhile, on most Saturday mornings, which is Sreevalsan's off-day, Shwetha will wake him up with a telephone call. “She will ask me to go to the gym,” he says. “Shwetha will then speak to the maid about what vegetables to buy and what food to make for me.” Thereafter, she will call in the afternoon, and a couple of times in the evening.

When they are together in Mumbai, they spend their free time by going out for dinner or watching movies. "Funnily enough, we usually discuss the films that I like," he says. "One of my favourite actors is George Clooney and we analysed his performance in 'The Descendants'." Clooney, unfortunately, missed out on the Oscar Awards Best Actor category, which was won by Frenchman Jean Dujardin for ‘The Artist’.

Meanwhile, when Sreevalsan has to make career decisions, he will confide in his wife. “Shwetha will calmly dissect the issue and state the long-term benefits and the short-term problems,” he says. “Her advice is very helpful.” And even though it is early days in the marriage, Sreevalsan is happy. “Shwetha does not give me any stress,” he says. “I enjoy being in her company.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, March 05, 2012

Everything natural about it

The Aruvi Nature Food restaurant avoids oil, masalas, and artificial preservatives. Patrons are pleased with the food they eat

By Shevlin Sebastian

Just before you enter Aruvi Nature Food Restaurant at Iyattinmukku, off Chitoor Road, Kochi, a board catches your attention. Some points: 'Artificial colours, essence, preservatives, ajinamoto which causes illness are avoided. We also avoid red chillies, sugar, maida, tea, coffee, fried items, and pickles. We serve “jappy”, instead of tea and coffee.'

At lunchtime, there is a reasonable crowd present. And the meal begins with a glass of carrot juice. This is followed by a plate, which has a mound of very dark brown rice. “This is raw rice,” says Aruvi owner Jacob Vaddakancherri. “We have not removed the bran or the husk. Boiled rice is unhealthy because the bran which helps in digestion has been removed. Eating this type of rice taxes the pancreas, and weakens it in the long run.”

Thereafter, a plate with four mounds of vegetables is brought. One contains peas and pumpkin. Then there is avial, beans, strips of carrot and cucumber, and a coconut chutney. “We place a lot of emphasis on green vegetables like ash gourd, papaya, and snake gourd,” says Jacob. Apart from that, there is sambhar with brinjals, carrots, and tomatoes. A container with rasam is also placed on the table. At the end, a glass of payasam is given. The meal costs Rs 50.

Of course, no oil or preservatives have been used. “When you put artificial colours, it forms toxins in the body,” says Jacob. “Sometimes, it also causes constipation, piles, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as liver cancer.”

Because of the lack of masala and oil, the taste is different. “You have to get used to it,” says regular patron, M.Y. Shajan, an accountant. “The food here is more reliable, as compared to other hotels. And the best part is the light feeling in the stomach after having a meal.”

Says Jacob: “This type of food is digestive-friendly and enables you to have easy morning ablutions.”

A. Rajesh, who is the company secretary of Muthoot Finance, is also a fan. “The food makes me feel good in terms of health,” he says. “I experience a rise in energy levels. Oil and masala have an aggressive impact on the body.”

Meanwhile, Jacob propagates avoiding sugar, tea, and coffee. “These cause irritation in the mucosa of the stomach walls,” he says. Instead, he proposes having 'jappy', a drink which consists of coriander, dried ginger, fenugreek and cumin seeds. “Jappy neutralises the toxicity inside the body and is good for fighting diabetes,” says Jacob.

And as for the fear that the food will be the same day after day, he says that they make changes in the menu from time to time. “For starters, we provide beetroot, carrot and the juices of other vegetables, on various days,” he says. “We also make changes in the main course, as well as the payasam.”

The cook does not heat the food twice. So, it is always fresh food that the patrons are eating. And the reason is simple: “Reheating spoils the food and causes toxins to be formed,” says Jacob.

So, for a pure, nature-rich meal, step into the Aruvi restaurant.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Back in their native land

America-returned Malayalis speak about their experiences in Kerala and what they miss most about their former life in the USA

Photo: Shaji Radhakrishnan and his children in Chicago

By Shevlin Sebastian

At midnight, Shaji Radhakrishnan was returning with a friend, after dropping a relative at Chicago ’s O’Hare airport. “It was extremely cold,” he says. “There was snow piled up on the sidewalks.”

Suddenly a car overtook Shaji’s Toyota Corolla and took a sharp left turn. “We hit the other car,” says Shaji. The front was completely damaged. In the shake-up, Shaji found that he could not breathe properly. Somehow, he managed to open the door and get out. “When I tried to walk, I felt a pain in my lower back,” he says. So, he lay down on the snow.

But within seconds, the police had arrived, with an ambulance. “Inside, there was plenty of equipment, and the technician kept asking me a lot of questions to see whether I had a brain injury,” says Shaji. “I gave the right answers. Within 20 minutes I was taken to a hospital where ten doctors inspected me.”

All along, Shaji was thinking: ‘What would have happened if I had a similar accident in Kerala? I would have remained on the ground for several hours’.

“That is the beauty of America,” says Shaji. “It is a super-efficient place. Good roads and polite people. Life is very easy. There are no irritations and they apply a lot of common sense in daily life.”

So when the roads are tarred, it is done in a scientific way, and always at night, so that the travellers are not affected. “There is very little corruption,” he says. “If you need a certificate, and if your application is okay, you will get it within seconds.”

However, in June, 2008, Shaji returned to Kerala for two reasons. One was because his son Madhav, 11, suffered from a skin disease, eczema, because of a lack of sunlight in Chicago. Secondly, his company, Cisco Systems, had moved to India and opened an office in Bangalore. Shaji runs a small team for the company based in Aluva.

And in the past four years, Shaji had a chance to compare his life in Kerala and earlier. “In America , when they do a shift of eight hours, they work full-time, and are self-managed,” he says. “In Kerala, a lot of time is wasted in small talk and having tea or coffee. There is a lack of professionalism, apart from less passion and commitment. Hence, there is a fall in productivity. That is why we need to hire more people.”

He also bemoaned an environment where the inhabitants are not punctual, and promises not kept. “In queues, people are always cutting in, be it on the road or at the supermarket,” he says. “In America, from a very young age, children are taught the proper social behaviour. Once they learn how to behave in public, there are no problems. So, if there is a line, or a queue, they will never jump it.”

But despite all the problems, there are many pluses in Kerala. “There is a rich family and social life,” says Shaji. “My children can enjoy the company of their grandparents.”

Meanwhile, Anand Xavier is happy to be back, after 12 years in the USA. He works for an IT firm at Info Park, Kochi .

“My wife and children are now able to be in constant touch with relatives and family members,” he says. “They attend a lot of cultural events, and my children have got an idea of our Indian culture.”

But certain things do irritate him. “On the road, people can be so rude and angry,” he says. “There is a lack of awareness that there are other travellers.”

Anand admires American society, because of its emphasis on individuality, and the freedom to do what you want. “Yet at the same time, it is difficult for us Indians to completely adapt to American ways, because of our conservative upbringing,” he says.

However, Anand finds some habits of Americans unusual. “When we go out for dinner with friends in Kochi, the person who is inviting us will pay the bill,” he says. “But in America, each person will pay for what he has eaten. I found it strange. But that has been their custom all along.”

Anand and his wife may have no regrets about coming back, but his sons, Kenneth, 9, and Nicholas, 8, do miss America. “What they like the most is the fast food,” says Anand, with a smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)