Sunday, September 30, 2012

“One of the great moments of my life”

Director Blessy talks about his experience of shooting the delivery of his lead actress, Shwetha Menon, in Mumbai

By Shevlin Sebastian

“This is one of the most moving experiences of my life,” says director Blessy, about the shooting of the delivery of actress Shwetha Menon at Nanavati Hospital, Mumbai, on Thursday evening. “Even though I am a father of two sons [Adith, 17, and Akhil, 14], I did not see first-hand the birth of my own children.”

On Friday afternoon, a relieved Blessy was on his way to the airport in Mumbai to fly to Chennai. “It is one of God's greatest gifts that a woman is able to give birth to a child,” he said. “We talk about man's creativity but yesterday I realised that one of the most stunning creations on earth is the birth of a child. I understood the magnitude of the event only when I actually saw it taking place.”

Blessy was shooting these scenes as part of a film on motherhood called 'Kalimannu'. When Shwetha became pregnant, Blessy asked her whether she could be part of the project. Later, Shwetha and husband, Sreevalsan Menon, gave permission to shoot the delivery. But Blessey and his team had to ensure that everything went smoothly.

“A film-maker can re-shoot a scene many times,” says the director. “He can edit it in the editing room. But during the delivery, if you blink your eyes you will miss the actual moment of birth. There are no second chances or rehearsals.”

Blessy had camped in the hospital for a week, spending days and nights. And there was a reason for this. “The doctor told us that Shwetha could deliver at any time during the two weeks before the delivery date,” says Blessy. In fact, the birth of the baby girl took place ten days earlier than scheduled.

The team also spent two days in the labour room, to ensure that they placed the three cameras in the right place and the lighting was perfect. “The doctor will not move his position to suit the cameras,” says Blessy. “He is concentrating on ensuring a safe delivery.”

In the labour room there is an anaesthetist, a paediatrician, a gynaecologist and a couple of nurses. Apart from them, there was Blessy and his four-member crew. “Yes, it was quite crowded,” he says. “But, in the end, everything turned out fine.”

The shooting of the film will continue, once Shwetha is ready to face the cameras. “I have not spoken to her about when this will happen,” says Blessy. “I am sure father and mother are enjoying the precious moments with their new-born.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Going fast, going slow

Ace singer Swetha Mohan sang a mix of ghazals and peppy songs to keep an audience happy at the JT Pac

By Shevlin Sebastian

"My big thanks to Jose Thomas Sir [MD of Choice Group]," said Shweta Mohan, at the start of her two-hour concert at the JT Pac, Kochi, recently. "'He just called me and said, ‘Swetha, we want your show here.’ And there was no interference after that. So I decided to compile a list of songs that I love." 

Shweta was wearing a pink 'lacha', with glittering earrings and necklace, and looked attractive with her shoulder-length black hair and easy smiles. She began with 'Krishna Mukunda' and her voice was rich and soaring. What was amazing to see was the presence of 12 musicians, playing instruments like the drums, flute, cello, keyboard, saxophone, guitars and the tabla. 

She moved easily into 'Shyam Hari' from the Shyamaprasad film, 'Arike' and 'Nee korinaal' from the Tamil film, '180',  whose music was composed by Shareth of Idea Star Singer fame. This had a big impact on the youngsters, who burst into sustained applause, even before the song ended.

Meanwhile, moving things along was the compere, upcoming singer Anand Narayan, who anchors the 'Josco Indian Voice', a music reality show. He jumped down from the stage and urged the audience to sing along, as he launched into 'Chikku bukku rayile from 'Rock On'. And Anand was generous with his adjectives, calling Shweta, “a great, great singer.”  

Soon, Shweta was back and sang a Lata Mangeshkar song from ‘Dastak’ followed by a ghazal by Asha Bhonsle: 'Bheeni bheeni bhor'.

The secret of this list of songs is my parents,” said Shweta. “They made me listen to many Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam songs.”

In the audience was Shweta’s family: her mother Sujatha, father Dr. Krishna Mohan, businessman-husband Ashwin Shashi, and other relatives.   

Thereafter, Shweta talked about a song by the great Tamil poet Subramanya Bharati. “It is about a mother singing praises of her child,” she said. Then the singer translated a few lines:

'When you come running towards me, my heart chills,
When I see you dancing with merriness, my soul hugs you.
When I smell the top of your head, I feel strongly proud,
If I hear someone praise you with sincerity, my skin tingles with excitement.'

My singing teacher Binni Chechi taught me this,” said Swetha. “And this is dedicated to all the mothers of Choice School.”

It was a series of slow songs, one after the other, but it came as a surprise when Swetha suddenly said, “Am I boring you?”

There was a silence, except for one cheeky youth at the back, who let out a drawn-out “Yessssss.” Of course, it was done tongue-in-cheek. 

But Swetha explained her selection: “I was not looking at doing the usual commercial show,” she said. “Instead, I chose to experiment. Because in the other shows, we don't get an opportunity to do something like this. In fact, this selection is a true representation of the kind of music that has influenced me over the years.”

But Swetha also did sing fast numbers like 'y this kolaveri' and 'kuttanaadan punjayile' which kept the audience happy and spell-bound. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Women should promote themselves”

Dr. Tanvi Gautam, an international HR consultant, based in Singapore, talks about how networking and mentors can enable women to become a success at the workplace

By Shevlin Sebastian

The workplace of today is being managed by using the models of the traditional and agrarian industries,” says Dr. Tanvi Gautam, an international HR consultant, based in Singapore. “You went to the field when the sun rose and returned when the sun set. Being on the field was the only way work got done. But now we are living in a knowledge economy, where my sunset is somebody's sunrise.”

Tanvi says the model of 9 to 5 has broken down. “But the way we are managing people it is as though we are working in the fields,” she says. “We expect somebody to show up at 9 a.m., even though they might have a conference call with a client at 11 p.m. If the work is happening, 24 x 7, then evaluating somebody according to the 9 to 5 clock does not help. While work has changed, the way we think, manage and evaluate performance has not changed. We still think that people who work late in office, who are putting in long hours, are more committed than those who work from home.”

But research has shown that some of the virtual workers are more committed and engaged, because they realise that if they want to prove how good they are, they have to work extra hard. “The reason is they are not seen in the way people in office are,” says Tanvi.

But managers have not developed the expertise to monitor the work of people who are in virtual space. “They have no idea of what real output looks like,” says Tanvi. “So managers are still paying for the TIME, and not the VALUE of the worker.”

The HR consultant is a proponent of high-engagement work places. “This means you are in a job where you get up and don't dread that it is a Monday morning,” she says. “You love your work and have the opportunity to be yourself. Most of all, you are highly engaged in what you are doing, because it has some meaning for you.”

One such company is Facebook. “It has a wonderful work culture,” says Tanvi. “It is not a company with 40,000 employees. In fact, they have less than 3000 but the employees are passionate about what they do. One of the rules they have in HR is that when an employee asks for something, they never throw the rule book at them.”

Also, certain companies, like Apple, have a specific work culture. “For someone who is uncomfortable with speaking up and brainstorming, and who feels offended if his ideas are rejected, that kind of person will never survive in Apple,” says Tanvi.

But Facebook and Apple are the exceptions. In most companies, there is a lack of an environment that generates passion and commitment. “In fact, disengagement has become a major problem in the work place,” says Tanvi. “People are showing up, but not doing any worthwhile work. A CEO was asked how many people work for him, and he replied, 'About 50 per cent.'”

Tanvi had come to Kochi to address the annual conference of the National Institute of Personnel Management. She also gave a talk to the Women’s Forum, of the Kerala Management Association, on the subject, 'Your Network is your Net Worth: Some Strategies for Success'.

At the Forum, she focused on the careers of women. “They do not promote themselves at the work place,” she says. “For example: when a woman is present at a meeting, she might have an interesting idea, but will not speak up. She does not want to look foolish or come across as aggressive. But some male colleague will come out with a similar idea and everybody will applaud him.”

Women believe that if they do sincere and hard work, they will be recognised and rewarded. “But that does not happen,” says Tanvi. “You have to make sure that the people who are taking decisions are in the know of what you are doing. You have to be seen as leadership material. You need a network, as well as mentors, who will guide you. These are things you have to work on, over and above the work you are doing.”

Audience member, Dr. Lalitha Mathew, says, “I especially liked Tanvi’s concept of mentoring. She said that one should not depend on one person. Instead, there should be different mentors for different needs, like financial, emotional, and in one's career. Overall, she was an impressive speaker.”   

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Timely advice that changed Thilakan's life

News: Thilakan, one of Malayalam cinema's great actors, died on Monday, September 24, at the age of 77, following a cardiac arrest. He had acted in over 200 films

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1955, Thilakan joined S.N. College in Kollam. For a college function, he enacted the role of a doctor in a play called, ‘Two plus two is five’, by T.N. Gopinathan.

After the audience left, there was one man who remained in the hall. Thilakan went close and noticed that it was Professor Shivaprasad, the president of the Arts Club. The man said, “You are a good actor, and must join the Arts Club. This year we must do something great together.”

Thereafter, Thilakan got the role of Mark Antony in the play, ‘Julius Caeser’. But he was not confident about whether he could essay such a role. But Shivaprasad urged him to take it, and said, “It is easy to eat a banana, but to have sugarcane juice, you need to squeeze it out of the cane.”

By coincidence, the film, ‘Julius Caeser’ with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, was showing at Kollam. The Arts Club paid the money so that Thilakan could see every show for three days.

“Marlon Brando was muscular, good-looking, and had a powerful delivery,” said Thilakan, during an interaction with this reporter at the Lal Media office in Kochi three years ago. “How could I match that?”

Fortunately, Thilakan had a photographic memory and remembered every nuance and gesture of Brando’s. Meanwhile, when students came to know that Thilakan had gone to see 'Julius Caeser' for nine shows in a row, they were keen to see the rehearsals. A few of them were planning to boo him.

Thilakan stepped forward and shouted:

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them,

The good is oft interred with their bones.’

The audience became silent. Soon, they were held spellbound by Thilakan’s acting. When he finished, the students clapped loudly.

But when Thilakan looked at Shivaprasad, the teacher had no expression on his face. Finally, Shivaprasad said, “You have impersonated Marlon Brando. All the people of Kollam have seen his acting. Don’t mimic anybody. You are Thilakan. So, give an original version of Mark Antony.”

It was a life-changing moment. And for the first time in the 90-minute conversation, Thilakan became silent. As he pressed strands of tobacco into the bowl of a black pipe, Thilakan had a far-away look on his face.
After several moments he said, “I have acted in numerous plays and films. Can anyone say I have imitated anybody? Every character has come from within. I became a good actor only because of this great bit of advice.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An enduring love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn
Nisha talks about life with Jose K Mani, the Member of Parliament from Kottayam

Photo by K. Shijith 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was September, 1993. Nisha was waiting in a room in the house of her grandfather, NJ Chandy, in Alleppey. Suddenly, there was the sound of cars arriving in the courtyard. When Nisha peeped in from the window, she saw a cream Ambassador car, with the number plate, 1616. A young man stepped out. “He wore a yellow and white striped shirt and blue trousers,” says Nisha. “He looked smart and business-like.”

The young man, Jose K Mani, was the son of veteran politician, KM Mani. Jose had come to see Nisha during an 'arranged marriage meeting'. But the Chandys had already done their homework on Jose's character.  

“Whoever we asked told us that Jose was a caring, well-educated, and God-fearing person,” says Nisha. “So I thought this guy sounds nice. I liked the character before I saw the person.” Jose also liked Nisha. Apparently, he had seen her win the Miss Kerala beauty contest title (in association with Femina) in 1991.

The couple got married at the St. Thomas Cathedral in Pala on February 6, 1994. And after 18 years of marriage, Nisha only has praise for her husband. “Jose is warm and caring,” she says. “When I come out of the bathroom after a bath, he will immediately ask me whether I have dried my hair properly. However late he comes, sometimes, he will tell me he had his dinner, even though he has not. I don't think any husband in Kerala will allow this. They expect food on the table all the time.”

Nisha knows that Jose has not had his dinner when he starts nibbling chocolate from the refrigerator. “So, I always keep aside something in the fridge for him,” she says. “All I have to do is to heat it up.”

Nearly every day, the Member of Parliament from Kottayam comes home after midnight. “Then Jose does a lot of work on government files,” says Nisha. “He reads a lot, including articles and books. I keep away, because I don't want to disturb him. I give him a lot of space. Jose goes to sleep at 2 a.m., and awakens at 6.15 a.m. But I have a habit of getting up late. He leaves the room without making a noise.”

Nisha is amazed that sometimes, at 1 a.m. when she goes to him with a problem, Jose pays attention intently. “To listen to me, after such a long day, you need to have immense patience,” says Nisha. “Sometimes, we discuss our children.”

The couple has three children: Priyanka, 16, Ritika, 14, and KM Mani (Junior), 9.

Another plus point of Jose: “There are many politicians who preach that the women should be educated and empowered, but my husband practices what he preaches,” says Nisha.

Thanks to Jose’s encouragement, Nisha did her cost accountancy from the Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram chapters of the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants of India and got a Masters of Human Resource Management degree through long-distance study from the Symbiosis Institute in Pune. “Today, I work as a freelance HR consultant,” she says.

But the one negative point about Jose is his intense desire for cleanliness in their bungalow at Kottayam at all times. “Jose expects the house to be spic and span,” says Nisha “Everything has to be in its proper place. A pillow, by mistake, cannot be on the floor. If we return from a journey, the clothes have to be immediately unpacked, and the bags put back in the cupboard where they are usually kept.”

Nisha pauses and says, “We only have arguments about this.”

But there are no arguments for Nisha regarding her most unforgettable experience. Jose had contested the 2004 elections for the Muvattupuzha constituency. “We were watching TV and it was clear that Jose was losing,” says Nisha. “It was the first time I was experiencing something like this. I went to my room and began crying. Jose walked in. He had a look of peace on his face. He told me, 'Come, let us go out.'”

Outside in the garden, several party workers were milling about. They were crestfallen and there was a gloomy silence all around. Jose pointed at the workers and said, “Nisha, the people are sad and dejected. If we don’t remain calm and composed, they will be totally shattered.” Thereafter, he left Nisha and began mingling with the workers. “I just fell in love with him once again,” says Nisha. “It was amazing to see the way he handled the defeat, and the strength with which he moved forward. My love for him doubled.” 

About Jose K Mani

Jose K Mani belongs to the Kerala Congress (Mani). In 2007, he became the general secretary of the party. He won the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 from the Kottayam constituency by defeating Suresh Kurup of the CPI(M) by over 70,000 votes.

He is one of the youngest members of Parliament and is a member of the Lok Sabha Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture.

Jose graduated from Loyola College, Chennai, and got a MBA degree from the PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, September 21, 2012

All About Houses

38 artists from six nations give their impressions about dwelling places

Photos: Self-portrait by Hayan Lee; ‘The All-Purpose Room,’by Kavita Singh Kale

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the ‘Eco Strokes’ painting exhibition, there are 37 paintings and just one photograph. This is a self-portrait by South Korean artist Hayan Lee. It has the narrowed eyes of a South Korean woman, looking unblinkingly at the viewer, with sensuous red lips, the head covered by a flamboyant red turban and a hibiscus tucked at one corner, just above the ear.

This painting was done at the week-long ‘Speaking House’ camp, held at the Marari Beach Resort, belonging to the CGH Earth Group at Alleppey. Around 26 artists from six nations took part in the camp. Hayan’s untitled work was to be exhibited, but, unfortunately, for her, the painting was attacked by fungus and could not be shown. Hence, the photograph was displayed. Under it, curator Radha Gomaty wrote: “I am forced now to place this photograph with a bereaved feeling. It is like replacing someone who was so vibrantly alive amongst us. The red hibiscus is Korea ‘s national flower, even if it not so common in Kerala.”

When Radha asked Hayan at the end of a discussion if she knew what the red hibiscus tucked behind the ear meant in Kerala, she said, “Of course I do! It means you are crazy, right? I put it there deliberately because of that.”

Incidentally, the exhibition was organised by the Building Association of India. It is a prelude to the 40th Convention of the International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors’ Associations being held in Kochi.

Filipino artist Ambie Abano’s work, ‘My Home Resides Within’, shows a middle-aged woman with eyes closed. The eyelashes are thick and arched, the nose is long and patrician, and the red lips, like Hayan’s painting, sensuous. It could be an Indian or a Filipino woman. “But it is actually a self-portrait,” says Ambie. “Home is not just about a physical space, but a spiritual state.”

 Ambie, of course, was deeply influenced by her encounter with Kerala. “It is a paradise,” she says. “It was nice meeting people who are deeply grounded, warm and sensitive. It made me aware of the ‘other’ and my connectedness with them.”

The Chennai-based Benitha Percyal’s striking work could be about a woman, with nice curves. But it looks like a tree. And in the middle, there are several seeds, pasted on the paper, but the whole thing is shaped like a uterus or is it a vagina? The materials Benitha has used include seeds, torn paper, and tea on paper. “Of course, seed is a metaphor for life,” says Benitha. “I wanted to portray womanhood. Indirectly, the image is a self-portrait.”

On the other hand, Kavita Singh Kale of Mumbai has done several portraits. Titled, ‘The All-Purpose Room,’ which is an acrylic on canvas, she has drawn several square panels in which men and women are standing. The women are wearing sarees, salwar kameezes, skirts, housecoats and jumpers, with names, written in Hindi, like Ameesha, Amala, Shivani and Nina. The men are wearing trousers, dhotis and Bermuda shorts, having names like Tapan, Hari and Ram.

 “I wanted to reveal life in the chawls of Mumbai,” says Kavita, who lives in the city. “Many families live in one room where they live, sleep, and worship their gods. This work shows a morning scene where people are getting ready to go to work or to schools while the women are setting out to do the daily cleaning and washing.”

 Meanwhile, CB Bahuleyan shows a nest of bird’s eggs growing around the thin rods between two concrete beams. In the distance can be seen several multi-storeyed buildings.

This is an indication that even though development, in the form of buildings, seems to smash through Nature, life still goes on: eggs hatch, babies are born, and they will grow up into adults. “I have been inspired by the works of Rene Magritte [a Belgian surrealist painter],” says Bahuleyan.

All in all, it is a remarkable exhibition, which grips and holds the viewer.

Those who took part include Anjum Chaturvedi, Saami Atmaja, Sosa Joseph, Dedy Sufriadi, Gayatri Gamuz, T.K. Harindran, Kim Seola, Lalitha Lajmi, Lavanya Mani, Madhu Venugopal, Maneesha Doshi, Rashmi Trivedi, Rathidevi Panikker, Ritu Kamath, Radha Gomaty, Sajitha Shankar, Satyanand Mohan, Sayaka Arase, Shivani Aggarwal, V. Ramesh and Veer Munshi.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lord Ganesha in all his magnificence!

The Gujaratis of Matancherry are celebrating 'Ganeshotsav' with a ten-day festival

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 p.m. on a recent Thursday evening, brothers Tapan and Jyotirmoy Jana are busy spraying paint on a pot-bellied idol with a long trunk and wide flapping ears, and small tusks. The idol of Lord Ganesha is resting on a platform in the garden of businessman Bharat Rasiklal Shah’s house in Mattancherry. This is the first time that an idol, of a height of 10 ft., has been made. And the men responsible – Tapan and Jyotirmoy – have come all the way from Midnapore in West Bengal to make it.

Since they could not get the particular alluvium mud that is needed to make the idol, they brought 50 kgs in large sacks by train. But before they place the mud, first a bamboo structure is made. This is then wrapped in grass and tied firmly with ropes. Thereafter, the local mud is applied, before there is a final coat of Bengal mud.

Tapan has been making idols for the past 25 years. So far, he has made more than 10,000. He learnt the skill from his own father in the village. But a commission to make Ganesha idols is rare, simply because Bengalis do not worship Ganesha, like the Marathis. “Most of the time I make Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati idols,” he says. “But when I am called to Orissa, it is usually to make Ganesha statues.”

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of hard work and effort involved. “Even though I love making statues, there are bad moments,” he says.  

Many a time, despite adequate protection, there will be a sudden gust of wind which will fling the tarpaulin away and the idol gets damaged in the rain. “The people who have commissioned the work get very angry,” says Tapan. “Sometimes, it is very close to the festival inauguration. We are forced to make a new one, by working day and night, but we are not compensated for the damage to the old one. So we lose a lot of money.”

But in Mattacherry there are no such fears. Even though it is the rainy season, the statue is safely ensconced in a makeshift pandal, and nearing completion. The members of the Cochin Ganesh Mandal stand in the garden, talking to each other, as they eagerly watch Jyotirmoy give the finishing touches. Meanwhile, Tapan shows the headgear, arm bands, rings and necklaces which the idol will wear. “These have been made by my daughter, Shitilekha,” says Tapan. His daughter and wife have also come along to help Tapan in his assignment in Kochi.

It is not the only idol he is making. Tapan has received a commission from the Bengali community in Kochi to make three Durga idols and one of Vishwakarma. Thereafter, he will go to Thrivananthapuram to make two statues there. “I will be leaving only at the end of October,” says Tapan. Incidentally, he is on his fourth visit to Kerala. He first came in 2004.  

But despite this familiarity, Tapan and his family are trying to get used to life in Kochi. “In West Bengal, we use mustard oil with our food, while in Kerala it is coconut or palmolein oil,” says Tapan. “So, we cook our own food, instead of eating from hotels.” But in Mattancherry, they befriended Dilip, an Oriya, who works as a security guard at a nearby office. “He makes the food in the way we like,” says Tapan.

Of course, the biggest problem is the language. “Many times, we ask for something and get something different,” says Tapan, with a smile.

Despite the constraints Tapan and Jyotirmoy finished the idol on time. One week later, it has been placed at the Haathi Talav Grounds on Gujarati street. “There are hundreds of smaller Ganeshas which have been brought from places like Mumbai and Ahmedabad,” says Bharat. All this is for the Ganeshotsav 2012 organised by the 3000-strong Gujarati community. It will be inaugurated today (September 19) by Swami Purnamritananda Puri, general secretary of the Mata Amrithanandamayi Math. On September 29, when the festival concludes, Tapan’s Lord Ganesha, along with the other idols, will be immersed in the sea at the beach of Fort Kochi. At that moment, all the Gujaratis will chant, “Ganapati Bappa Moriya Pudhchya Varshi Laukar ya (Oh Ganapati My Lord return next year)”.   

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Engineering a romance

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Annie Constantine married Labour Minister Shibu Baby John after their friendship turned to love when they were students at TKM Engineering College, Kollam

Photo by Aneesh M Das

By Shevlin Sebastian

Annie Constantine remembers the first time she saw Shibu Baby John. She was ten years old and he was 11 1/2. The Kollam-based Annie went to Shibu's house in Thiruvananthapuram for a get-together. “We were family friends,” she says. Annie's grandfather, A. V. Fernandez, a pioneer in the sea-food industry, was close to Shibu's father and noted politician, the late Baby John.

When Annie saw Shibu, he was playing football with his cousins in the garden. “All of us girls were watching the game,” she says. At that time, they did not talk to each other.

Years later, they met at the TKM Engineering College at Kollam. While Shibu was studying mechanical, Annie was in civil engineering. “We became friends once again,” she says. But because of the conservative nature of society at that time, they spoke mostly on the phone. “And that too, in secret, because we did not want our parents to know,” says Annie. Another constraint was that Annie's uncle, Dr. F. V. Alvin, was the head of department of civil engineering. “He was quite strict,” she says. “So we had to have a low-key romance.”

And that included giving simple gifts like chocolates for each other's birthdays. But Shibu had made his feelings clear from the beginning. “In the first year itself, he told me that he loved me,” says Annie. “I also liked him.”

After completing her engineering degree, Annie enrolled in the management course of Cochin University. It was during this period that both of them informed their parents about their desire to get married to each other.

There were no hitches and the couple tied the knot on January 17, 1988. And after all these years, Annie still finds Shibu charming. “There is an innocence about him,” she says. “I like his smile.”

Other qualities: “He is an open person,” she says. “There is nothing secretive about him. He is what you see. Shibu is also fun to be with, especially when friends drop in. He is jovial and cracks a lot of jokes. There is a lot of noise when he is around. He is spontaneous and laid-back.”

However, at home, the laid-back Shibu is particular about one thing: good food. “He likes naadan food and I have to ensure it is of good taste and quality,” says Annie. “Shibu has a lot of expectations, and I try to live up to them.”

And Shibu also lives up to Annie's notions of romance. One day, before their 20th anniversary, she received her passport and ticket. “It was a trip to Dubai,” says Annie. Shibu was already there. “It was a complete surprise,” she says. “We had a very good time there and enjoyed our anniversary with close friends.”

The couple has two sons. Achu is doing his final-year law degree at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune, while Amar, like his father, is doing mechanical engineering in TKM Engineering College.
So what sort of a father is Shibu? “He is like a friend to his sons,” says Annie. “Shibu is not strict at all. So I have become the strict parent.”

It is a close-knit family but there are drawbacks. Like the wives of most politicians, Annie bemoans the lack of time with Shibu. “As a minister [of Labour] he is very busy,” says Annie. “Shibu spends very little time at home. I am based in Kollam, but I go to Thiruvananthapuram whenever he is there.” But on weekends, Shibu does come home because Chavara is his constituency. “But there are a lot of people who come to the house to meet him, and so he continues to be busy,” says Annie. “Over the years I have got used to it.”

Meanwhile, Annie keeps herself occupied by teaching Communicative English at John and Mary International.

When asked about the qualities needed to have a good marriage, Annie says, “If you love each other, you can surmount any problem within the marriage. Honesty and loyalty are also important.”

About Shibu Baby John

Labour Minister Shibu Baby John is the general secretary of theRevolutionary Socialist Party (Baby John), which was set up in 2005. He is the son of the late Baby John, who once led the Revolutionary Socialist Party. Shibu’s party belongs to the Congress-led United Democratic Front. Incidentally, Shibu, the MLA from Chavara, is the only engineer in the Kerala cabinet. He graduated from the TKM Engineering College in Kollam.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Following Dad, but in her own way

Ahlam Khan, the daughter of the late Bollywood icon Amjad Khan, loves acting. But it is in theatre and not in films

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the play ‘Rafta Rafta’, there is a scene in the kitchen of a middle-aged Punjabi couple, Vishu and Suman Malhotra, in London. Suman, her new Muslim daughter-in-law Tasneem and her mother Fatima are having a chat.

Fatima tells Suman, “I used to go to sleep and wake up the next morning and think, ‘Raat Ko Ho Gaya’ (It happened during the night).”

Tasneem says, “Ma, I won't have that problem. I have read all about the theory of sex.”

Fatima says, “Is that enough? Men are guided by what is between their legs. But without love, marriage is a long, slow death.”

Very few people in the audience at the JT Performing Arts Centre at Kochi would have known that Fatima is being played by Ahlam Khan, the 30-something daughter of the late Amjad Khan (Gabbar Singh of ‘Sholay’ fame).

And unlike her father, Ahlam has stayed away from Bollywood. Instead, her first and last love is theatre. It all began when she was doing her master’s in English literature at Mumbai University in 2000. “We were put in touch by our lecturer Dr. Nilufer Bharucha with playwright Ramu Ramanathan,” says Ahlam. “He used to come once a week and read plays with us.” 

Soon, Ramanathan put up a production for the English department. Based on a short story by Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer called, ‘Me Grandad ‘ad an elephant’, it was well received. “We took the play outside and did a lot of shows at Prithvi theatre,” she says.

In the past 12 years, Ahlam has acted in several English, Gujarati and Hindi plays. Interestingly, for the Hindi plays, she has performed in smaller towns like Gorakhpur and Rae Bareilly. “In these places, the auditoriums are small, the stages are makeshift, the green rooms and toilets may not be up to the mark but the people are so welcoming and enthusiastic that we easily forget all the drawbacks,” says Ahlam. Some of the plays in which she has acted in include ‘Miss Beautiful’, ‘Poha Gone Wrong’, ‘Shakespeare and She’, ‘Grey Elephants in Denmark’ and ‘Pereira’s Bakery at 76 Chapel Road’.

Asked why the daughter of a Bollywood icon did not go into films, Ahlam says, “A lot of people choose a career in Bollywood because of the glamour. But I have seen it from the inside. There is a bad side too. When my father died, a lot of his filmi friends just disappeared. You are as good as your last film. Equations keep changing all the time. I was put off by that.”

Nevertheless, a few years ago, Alam took a break from theatre and decided to write scripts for Bollywood. But it was not a good experience. “A lot of projects which I wrote, when it came to the financial or production stage, it would get stalled,” she says. “My sensibility was never mainstream or commercial cinema. I always believed in a parallel cinema. It was bizarre to meet producers and directors who wanted absolute rubbish that I finally gave up.”

But Ahlam has had some good experiences in film also. For her friend Bijoy Nambiar’s short film, ‘Reflections’, she played one half of a romantic couple. The hero was Malayalam actor Mohanlal, who was playing a lonely 60-year-old man.  

I was intimidated by Mohanlal’s presence on the set [at the Borivili National Park, Mumbai],” she says. “But despite being a superstar he was so humble and down-to earth. He knew my dad well. He said, ‘Your father was a great man. His goodwill and his name live on after so many years.’ When Mohanlal said that it made me feel so proud of my father.”

Ahlam was 15 when Amjad Khan died at the age of 51. “I was always Daddy’s little girl,” she says. Asked what she learnt from her father, she says, “My father was an intensely honest person. I got that from him. I was too young to get any acting tips. But my deepest regret is that I will never be able to share a theatre stage with him. Many people don’t remember that he started his career in theatre.”

Ahlam sounds poignant when she says this, but good things have happened in her life. In January, 2010, she met actor Zafar Karachiwala. “I fell really hard,” she says. “We got married in September. We were old enough to know that it was the real thing.”

Ahlam is a bit dazed by how quickly it happened. “In all these years I never fancied anybody, be it an actor or a director,” she says. “It is rare in theatre, because, inevitably, you develop feelings for somebody. And I would keep bragging to my friends about how I kept a clean slate.”

She bursts out laughing, and says, “That’s how life is. It is so unpredictable.”

Her future plans include working with her husband in his theatre company ‘Orchid Room Experiment’, and continuing to act in plays. “Acting is in my blood,” says Ahlam, with a smile.

(The Sunday Magazine, New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Down, but not out

Ramesh Kartha, who runs marathons, was a victim of a hit-and-run accident. He talks about his experience 
By Shevlin Sebastian 
At 5.30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, Ramesh Kartha set out on a run from his apartment in Kakkanad. It was raining heavily and there was darkness all around, except for the street lights. Ramesh was wearing a white singlet and blue shorts and running barefoot. The IT professional was in training to take part in a few marathons in the USA in October. In his running career, Ramesh had taken part in the prestigious Boston marathon, and has raced in  Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok, Mumbai, Pondicherry and Mysore. In total, he has participated in 30 marathons.
 As he ran in front of the Youth Hostel, near NGO Quarters, suddenly, from a pocket road, a car appeared. Before Ramesh could realise what was happening he had been hit on his left side by the vehicle. The panicky driver did not stop. Instead, he accelerated away.    
 The runner fell forward and landed on his face. When he sat up he saw that his leg was broken. “I held my leg and tried to stand up, to go to the junction, and find help, but I could not do it,” he says. A desperate Ramesh tried to wave down a few people in their cars. “Some slowed down, but they were not sure whether I was a drunk or somebody like that,” he says. “So the people sped away.”
 Ramesh was not surprised by this reaction. “One of the reasons why people do not help, both in Kerala and India is that you can get charged,” says Ramesh. “The case goes on for years. The driver would have to go to the court multiple times. I feel that 60 per cent of drivers who cause accidents and speed away have the fear of getting embroiled in a legal tangle.”
 But, as always, there will be somebody who will respond. In this case, it was Rockey Roger, a BPO professional, who works at Muthoot Technopolis, Kakkanad. He had just finished the night shift and was on his way home. Suddenly, he saw a man lying on the ground and waving his hand. “I was thinking that in the Bible it is always mentioned that we should help people in distress,” he says. “So I stopped the car.” It was raining heavily and Ramesh was drenched. “When I lifted Ramesh, I noticed that his leg was dangling,” he says. “I knew that it was broken.” He placed the injured runner on the backseat and took him to the Sunrise Hospital.
 X rays revealed multiple bones fractures. Orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. D.S. Manjunath decided to put a steel rod through the bone. But Seema, Ramesh’s wife, who had arrived within minutes, at the hospital, following a phone call from Rockey, told him that her husband was a runner. So, instead of a steel rod, Dr Manjunath inserted a titanium rod in a four-hour operation. And the reasons were simple. “With steel, there is wear and tear,” says Ramesh. “There could be mineral deposits on it. In extreme heat, it could expand and contract. Titanium does not have these issues and it heals faster.” 
 Today, a month later, Ramesh is, indeed, healing well. He says that by November he will start  training once again. “I don’t think I will feel nervous or scared,” he says. “But I might start off in a stadium first.”
 The fact is that Ramesh loves running too much. “I go into a Zen state halfway into the run,” he says. “There is no other experience that gives me the thrill and joy which running gives me.” 
 But Seema is worried. “I told him not to run on roads, but to do it in parks and stadiums. In the USA, where we lived for many years, there were runners’ trails which were safe. But Ramesh tells me that in Kochi you can stroll to a shop to buy something and get hit.”
 In fact, Ramesh almost got hit a few months ago. One day he was running on the right side of the road, near the Info Park. A car which was coming from the opposite direction suddenly veered towards him and brushed past. The driver braked suddenly. He rolled down the window, poked his head out, and told Ramesh, “Sorry, I dozed off.”
So, what is the lesson he has learned from this hit-and-run incident? “Anything can happen at any time,” says Ramesh. “I will try to run with all my senses in an alert state. Never take life for granted. It is a gift that one must enjoy to the fullest.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Long-distance admiration

 COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

 Betty Louise talks about life with the former minister MA Baby

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Betty Louise saw M.A. Baby for the first time in December, 1977, during a Students' Federation of India (SFI) meeting, at Kochi, she was impressed. “He was the state president and conducted himself with
dignity,” says Betty, who attended as a delegate from Malappuram. Baby, who had been arrested during the 1975 Emergency, had just been released. During a discussion, Betty asked Baby about his experiences
in jail. “I admired him as a leader rather than imagining being his life partner,” she says.

At that time Betty was studying for her economics degree in MES College, Ponnani. A few college students, including Betty, started a film club called Sprout. “We showed a lot of good films, like ‘Battleship Potemkin’ [by Sergei Eisenstein], and those by Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen,” says Betty. “It was shaping up well, but suddenly there was a suspicion that some Left extremists had infiltrated the the group. The CPI(M) leadership asked us to close the club. I was worried and upset because we had worked so hard to make the club a success.”

Betty was not a party member at that time. Feeling confused about what to do, she felt that Baby would be the right person to turn to, for advice. So, she went and met him at a SFI conference in Punalur. “Baby
said that I should consult the local unit of the party and follow their instructions,” says Betty. Later, at another conference in Kozhikode, Baby expressed a desire to see Betty at the party office.

“So I went and met him,” says Betty. “Baby told me he wanted to marry me. I think he suspected that I liked him. So I said, fine, but I would have to get the permission of my parents.”

Her parents agreed but they had worries, especially her mother. “She was not sure whether I could live the hard life as the wife of a Communist leader,” says Betty. “She knew that there would be a lot of material sacrifices.” But once they met him, both her parents were convinced that Baby would be able to take care of their daughter.

Anyway, Baby and Betty had a marriage, without any rituals, on March 18, 1982, in the presence of party stalwarts like EMS Namboodiripad, M. Basavapunnaiah, E.K. Nayanar, K. R. Gowri Amma, Susheela Gopalan and many others.

And after 30 years of marriage, Betty is all praise for her husband. “Baby is the gentlest person I have known,” she says. “He has always been sincere and honest with me. A simple and ordinary man he reads a
lot of books, like biographies, fiction, non-fiction and sports. N. Ram [owner of the Hindu group] sends him the Sportstar magazine regularly and Baby reads it from cover to cover.”

Baby is an ardent fan of sporting greats like Roger Federer, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. “Twice he went to Kolkata to see Maradona and Messi play exhibition matches,” says Betty.  In his spare time
Baby likes to listen to classical music: Carnatic, Hindustani and Western.

Other plus points: “We have fights, but he never uses abusive language, nor has he ill-treated me,” says Betty. “Those who know him will believe what I say. The rest will say it is nonsense.”

But the one complaint Betty has is regarding his reading. “Baby puts his books on the dining table and that irritates me a lot,” she says. “When I got married and went to Delhi, we lived in a small flat. In the kitchen he kept a library. That was too much for me.”

Another drawback is that Baby does not respond when people hurl abuses and charges of financial misdemeanour against him. “Baby’s silence is a drawback,” says Betty. “But he says that people have the freedom to say what they want. It is not necessary to respond to each and every accusation.”

But the charge of financial wrongdoing affects Betty the most. “Even after so many years we are living in a rented flat,” she says. “So how can he be accused of misconduct? It is so disturbing.”

Another disturbing moment was a life-threatening one. On July 8, 1988, Betty and her four-year-old son Ashok were travelling on the Island Express. On the Perumon Bridge in Kollam, the train derailed, and
several bogies fell into the Asthamudi Lake.

“When our bogie went under the water, I ensured that I held my son's hand tightly,” says Betty. Thankfully she knew how to swim, and somehow, made her way to the surface, where they were rescued by the
local people. “Baby came to the accident site  and saw the bodies been taken away,” says Betty. 105 people perished in Kerala’s worst railway accident. “However, when he came to know that both of us were safe he
immediately plunged in and tried to help the rescue workers,” says Betty.

Betty pauses and says, “My husband’s heart is in the right place.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hardscrabble days in the desert

‘Goat Days’, a best-selling novel by Benyamin, highlights the life of a Malayali worker in Saudi Arabia. An English translation has just been published by Penguin Books 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, Malayalam author Benyamin received a phone call. It was from an acquaintance of his, Saji Markose. He was calling from the duty-free bookshop at Frankfurt’s international airport.

“Saji informed me that in the entire bookshop there was only one book in Malayalam,” says Benyamin. “That was ‘Goat Days’.”

Sometime ago, the Bahrain-based Benyamin had gone to Dubai. There he met a woman who told him that her 19-year-old son had died in a bike accident in Kerala. “But it was only after reading ‘Goat Days’ that I could get over the sorrow,” she told Benyamin. “It was a catharsis for me.” Another 70-year-old man from the USA wrote and told Benyamin that he wanted to touch the hand that wrote the book and have coffee with the author.

In the small world of Malayalam publishing, ‘Goat Days’ has sold a boggling 40,000 copies, and has won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. It is also a prescribed text in schools and colleges. Recently, Penguin brought out an English translation by Dr. Joseph Koyippally, an associate professor of the Central University of Kerala.      

The spark for the novel was an accidental meeting by Benyamin with a man called Najib Mohammed. “Najib was working in a farm located in a desert in Saudi Arabia,” says Benyamin. “The owner treated him brutally, and hardly gave him food and water to drink. He was like a slave and Najib began to relate to the goats he was looking after.”

Here is an extract: 'Without any mercy, the arbab dragged Nabeel [name of goat] out and commanded me to raise his hind legs. Then, in the blink of an eye my Nabeel’s manhood also fell on the ground, soaked in blood like that of many other goats… the day Nabeel lost his manliness, I too lost mine. I haven’t yet figured out that mystery — of how my virility vanished with that of a goat’s.'

After speaking at length with Najib, Benyamin immersed himself in the character that he had invented in his mind. “I tried to imagine the thought process of a person who lives all alone and has no contact with other human beings,” says Benyamin. “There is a danger of losing one’s language.”

Benyamin says that the majority of Malayalis working in the Middle East have bad experiences. “In the labour camps, located near construction sites, they are treated inhumanly,” he says. “But nobody will speak it aloud.” So Benyamin decided to write about Nabeel’s experience.

After his job as a coordinator in an electro-mechanical company in Manama, Bahrain, would end at 6 p.m., he would go home and work from 7 to 11 p.m. Then, if his wife, Asha, a nurse, was on the night shift, he would have to look after the children, Rohan, 8, and Kezia, 5. But he plugged on steadily and finished the novel in two years.
When it was released Benyamin was worried about the reaction. “I had a fear that people would say that the book is an exaggeration,” he says. “But in the end the novel was embraced whole-heartedly by readers in large numbers.”

Asked for the reason behind its success, translator Koyippally says, “It is a simple and honest narrative. ‘Goat Days’ offers a fresh perspective of the Malayalis working in the Middle East. This issue has never been addressed before in such depth. The few earlier books were sob stories. But Benyamin reveals the true grit of the Malayali worker.”  

Adds Benyamin: “Anybody living anywhere will be able to empathise with Najeeb. He is able to escape from the farm after nearly four years and ends up triumphant. In the end, it is a novel of hope.”

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi)