Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cut Down In His Prime

Rema talks about her late husband, the politician TP Chandrasekharan

By Shevlin Sebastian

KK Rema was in Class 10 when she saw TP Chandrasekharan for the first time. He had come to their home in Naduvannur in Kozhikode district with Rema's elder sister Prema. Both of them were members of the Students Federation of India (SFI). A year later, in 1989, when Rema secured admission to the pre-degree course at the Guruvayurappan College in Kozhikode, she also joined the SFI. Politics ran in the family. Her father, K K Madhavan was a former area committee secretary of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) as well as the president of the Naduvannur panchayat.

Rema and Chandrasekharan would meet each other at rallies and protests. By this time, Chandrasekharan had become a state committee member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI).

Initially, I was not attracted to Chandretten,” says Rema. “He seemed like a tough person. I never felt free when I was with him.”

But they became close when they met at a woman's camp in Kottayam organised by the DYFI. Sometime later, KP Chandran, (DYFI Zilla Committee member at Kozhikode), told Rema that Chandrasekharan wanted to marry her. Rema asked for some time. Later, the CPM party members spoke to Rema's parents. “They, along with my sisters, were happy about it,” says Rema. “But my relatives were apprehensive since Chandretten did not have a job.”

Anyway, the marriage took place at the Vadakara Town Hall on October 16, 1994. There was a significant age-difference between the couple. While Chadrasekharan was 33, Rema was 23.

It was a simple wedding: just an exchange of garlands. Thereafter, guests were given a piece of cake and a cup of tea. They did not have a chance to go for a honeymoon, because, on November 25, the Koothuparamba firing took place. Five DYFI activists died due to police firing because of their protest against former CPI(M) leader MV Raghavan. “So Chandretten had to go underground,” says Rema. “But much later he took me to Ooty and Kodaikanal.”

Asked about her husband's qualities, Rema says, “It was only after my marriage that I felt so free and happy. He gave me respect and freedom. I did not have to ask his permission to do anything. Chandretten was so caring.”

Six months after their marriage, Rema was alone at home, when she began to have severe stomach pains. It was late at night. Chandrasekharan had gone to another town, 10 kms away, for a function. There was no phone at home. So Rema went to the neighbour’s house and called him. Chandrasekahan said he would come immediately. But because it was so late, he could not get a vehicle. So he walked the entire distance so that he could be with Rema. “I have never forgotten that incident,” she says.

Whenever Chandrasekharan would be at home, he helped in the kitchen. “He could make tasty chicken, fish, squid and crab curries,” says Rema. “During Vishu and Onam, he would do all the cooking. Chandretten was also good at making milk payasam, which he would distribute to the children near our house.”

Perhaps his only drawback was that he had a short temper. “He would get angry suddenly,” says Rema. “But we made up quickly.”

The couple's most thrilling moment occurred when their son, Nandu, was born on January 13, 1996. “Chandretten told me he wanted children as soon as we got married,” says Rema. “That was why he was so happy. I remember when I stepped out of the room at the Kozhikode Medical College, since there were many people present, he could not show his excitement. So, he pressed my hand very hard.”

The years began to go past. In 2009, Chandrasekharan decided to float his own political outfit, the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), because he felt that the CPM had moved away from its ideology. But Rema was apprehensive. “I felt a certainty within me that the CPM would harm him,” says Rema. She expressed her worries to Chandrasekharan, but he was determined to go ahead. “Once he makes a decision he goes ahead, irrespective of the consequences,” says Rema. It seemed to be the right move, because, in 2010, the RMP won the panchayat elections in Onchiyam and neighbouring villages.

But it all came crashing down on May 4, 2012. At 7 p.m., Rema called Chandrasekharan, 52, who was at the place called Vallikad. “I spoke to him about getting the keys of a bank safety locker,” says Rema. “Chandretten then told me he would be late.”

At 11 p.m., Chandrasekharan's close friend Jaffer called and asked for the number of the motorbike. “Immediately I suspected that something was wrong,” says Rema. “I called Chandretten, but got an engaged tone. I called many times but could not get through. I felt that he was involved in an accident. I never imagined that he would be murdered. There were no fights with the CPM at that time. Everything was peaceful. So the murder came as a shock.”

The brutal killing shocked Kerala. Chandrasekharan had been accosted by a group of men, and had received more than 50 stab wounds. He died instantly. The verdict of the murder case will be pronounced on January 22. Today, Rema works at the Vadakara Co-operative Bank, while Nandu is a first-year mechanical engineering student at the TKM College of Engineering at Kollam. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Passion for Invention

The Kerala-based Viswanath Shet has 79 patented innovations to his name, ranging from medicines to talismans to ward off evil

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian  

Rajesh Pillai, 67, had twin problems. He was an alcoholic and suffered from diabetes. Not surprisingly, he was a flop in the bedroom. He confided in his friend, the inventor ViswanathShet.

Viswanath did some research. Suddenly, he had an ‘Aha’ moment when he realised that goats and cows have potent sex lives because they chew the chlorophyll in plants. So he took an extract, and blended it with traditional indigenous herbs. All this was immersed in sesame oil. Then he told Rajesh to rub it on his manhood, just before the sexual act. “It helps to boost up the energy, and stimulates the organ,” says Viswanath.

A few days later, the Kochi-based Rajesh met Viswanath. He had a box of jalebis, and a happy smile on his face.

This was Viswanath's 79th patented invention in a 30-year career as an inventor. Some of the other inventions include a talcum powder to ward off mosquito bites, anti-ageing herbal drops, a preparation of herbal saffron and sandalwood oil which can cure, among other things, cholera, ulcers, stomach pains and dysentery.

Some of his innovations have nothing to do with health. They include a talisman to keep away evil spirits, a method to inculcate self discipline among youth through the study of Buddhism, as well as a way to ascertain the genuineness of gold. “This is an important discovery, especially in Kerala, where there is a craze for gold,” says Viswanath. 

But Viswanath says his first and most important discovery is a cure for leucoderma. “But so far, I have not been able to market it,” he says.

What is astonishing is that the inventor had studied upto Class five only. “When I was 11 years old, my father died and I had to get into the family business of handicrafts,” he says. “The education in our country does not help you to be creative. All the great inventors, like Alfred Nobel and Thomas Alva Edision, spent very little time in school.”

Viswanath made up for it by reading voraciously. “I loved to read old Ayurveda texts,” he says. “I became an inventor by accident. Or I would call it a miracle. God has gifted me with a heightened sense of intelligence and intuition. That has helped me to discover many new things.”

Meanwhile, Viswanath has ensured that all his inventions have been patented with The Controller of Patent and Designs at Chennai. “Patenting is the only safeguard in India, because there are people all over the country who are ready to steal your formulas, and pass it off as their own,” he says.

To earn money for his research, Viswanath, through his firm, Mysore Sandal Products, makes perfumes from jasmine, rose and sandalwood. “These are natural perfumes,” he says. “I have taken the extracts from flowers and orange oil.” He sells them to state emporiums, like the the Kerala Khadi and Village Industries Board.

As he talks, there is a beeping sound on his mobile: an email has arrived. It is from Mr. Arunachalam from Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. “My hair is growing back, thanks to your Genus Hair Oil. Please send four bottles to my friend in Singapore.” 

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

At the Feet of The Master

Film-maker Rinku Kalsy has done a 90-minute documentary on the fans of Rajnikanth

Photo by A. Raja Chidambaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

Film-maker Rinku Kalsy went to Sholinghur, 110 kms from Chennai, along with a seven-member crew to interview N. Ravi, the president of the Rajnikanth Fan Club. While there, she stayed at a guest house opposite Ravi 's house. “Since I was not sure whether an ATM would be available, I took a lot of currency notes,” saysRinku.

On the morning after she arrived, she paid off, in advance, the hotel charges for four days to the receptionist. However, this had an unforeseen effect. When Ravi and the owner of the guest house came to know about this they sacked the receptionist. “You have come all the way from Holland to our small town to hear our stories about Thalaivar (‘Our Leader’),” said Ravi. “How dare this man take money from you?” Ultimately, a compromise was reached. Rinku took back the money, but the receptionist was re-instated.

Rinku got the idea to interview Ravi when she read about him in a newspaper in Chennai. Apparently, the 500 members of the Sholinghur fan club, including Ravi, climbed 1200 steps on their knees to the town's famous Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple. Their aim: to pray for the success of Rajnikanth's film, 'Enthiran', which was released on October 1, 2010.

I was expecting somebody who was flamboyant,” says Rinku. “But I was taken aback to see that he was a simple person.” Ravi is a local politician who runs a successful sweetmeats shop.

Thereafter, Rinku met numerous fans and got an idea of their psyche. “Rajnikanth is their role model,” she says. “They constantly talk about his humbleness. They respect the charity work that he does. When they talk about his films, it is always about his style and punchy dialogues. And they admire the fact that, away from the camera, Rajnikanth is always himself. In other words, he has the guts to come out in public with his bald head and white beard.”

Rinku did shoot some astonishing scenes, including those of fans who were queuing outside a theatre in Chennai. All of them touched the feet of a life-size poster of Rajnikanth placed outside the hall.

Apparently, there are 60,000 clubs, worldwide, with an average membership of a few hundred in each unit. Thanks to this large number, when a Rajnikanth film releases on a Friday, especially in Tamil Nadu, ordinary people can hope to see it only on Monday. “All the initial shows are booked by his fans,” says Rinku, who went from Mumbai to study at a film school in Amsterdam in 2004, and has remained there ever since.

Incidentally, the idea for the 90-minute documentary came from Rinku's childhood friend, Joyojeet Pal, who has since become the film's producer. In 2009, Joyojeet was working in Tamil Nadu on a research project on computer use in schools. “I discovered that when I asked children about computers, they kept talking about the laptop they saw in the film 'Shivaji',” says Joyojeet. “And because Rajnikanth played a computer engineer all of them wanted to be one. It made me aware of the enormous influence of the superstar throughout the state.”

At present, the film is at the post-production stage. “Once it is ready I am planning to show it in film festivals all over the world,” says Rinku. “Fans in Chennai are also eagerly waiting to see it.”

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

From Croatia, with Love

When Nikolina Nikoleski was 13, she saw a Bharatanatyam dance and was smitten. Years later, the Delhi-basedNikolina is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer herself

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, in 2010, Croatian dancer Nikolina Nikoleski was doing a Bharatanatyam recital on a stage at the banks of the river in Varanasi during the Ganga Mahotsav festival. To one side she could see small boats in which sat people, holding urns, that contained the ashes of their beloved ones.

A little strip of water separated me and the boats with the grieving relatives,” says Nikolina, at the conclusion of a dance recital at the JT Performing Arts Centre, Kochi. “In India, death and life lie next to each other. I would not have this experience in Europe, because I would be performing in an enclosed environment like a theatre hall. In Europe, we do not see pictures of death, nor do we talk about it. But in India you are constantly reminded about it. And that is why I like India so much. It is emotionally so intense.”

Nikolina was only 13 when, as a student of the High School for Dancing and Rhythmics, she had an interaction with classical dancer Sonal Mansingh at Zagreb. “Sonal explained to us the how and why of Bharatanatyam, and the meaning of the mudras,” says Nikolina. “She had an aura around her.” Fascinated, Nikolina did extensive research on Indian dance and mythology.

After further stints of Western dance training in Austria and Germany, Nikolina came to India in 2004 and spent six months at the now-defunct Bhaskara College of Fine Arts in Payannur in Kerala. 

Thereafter, in 2005, she secured a five-year scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. So she re-located to Delhi and trained under her guru, Padmabhushan Dr. Saroja Vaidyanathan at the Ganesa Natyalaya Dance Institute.

She says that it was not tough to learn Bharatanayam. “The only difficult part was that I had to learn to have an expressive face,” she says. “In western dance we are introverted and the hand movements are simple and subtle. What helped me was that I was living in India. So I could see, 24x7, the way people shook their heads and used their hands so expressively.”

Asked the difference between Western and Indian dance, Nikolina says, “In contemporary Western dance it is all about fighting gravity. So there are lots of leaps and pirouettes. Also, there are duets and we hold each other's bodies often.”

On the other hand, Indian dance forms are all about the individual, even though the performance takes place in groups. “There is no physical contact or partnering,” says Nikolina. “Even if it is Shiva-Parvati, he is never lifting Parvati up in the air and pirouetting. I think this has got a lot to do with Indian culture, where a rigid caste system has discouraged physical interaction between people.”

Despite this, India, with its multicultural and multi-religious society, reminds her constantly of what her country had been. After the 1991-95 War of Independence, Yugoslavia broke up into several countries like Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. “It was a difficult time, although personally I did not suffer much,” she says. “The families are mixed. My mom is Croatian, while my father is Macedonian. But my family decided to stay together, no matter what happened.”
Now many people are nostalgic for the old Yugoslavia. “There was no need for a break-up,” she says. “All of us speak the same language, eat the same food and have the same culture and climate.”

But, at this moment, all this is far away for Nikolina. She is enjoying her career as a classical dancer as well as a teacher in India.

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

Friday, December 20, 2013

Jewish cemetery in Mala set to be destroyed

By Shevlin Sebastian

The members of the Mala Paithruka Samrakshana Samithy (MPSS) held a protest march yesterday against the efforts of the Mala Panchayat to build a sports academy on two-and-a-half acres belonging to a Jewish cemetery, which has a total area of 4 acres. “We are against the destruction of the cemetery, which is one thousand years old and part of our cultural heritage,” says Prof. C. Karmachandran, the president of MPSS. The money for the Rs 2 crore K. Karunakaran Sports Academy has been given by the sports and youth affairs department of the state government.

Karmachandran points out that the construction is illegal. On January 4, 1955, the members of the Jewish community gave the custodianship of the cemetery to the Mala panchayat. A clause in the title deed says, 'There will be no trespass or molestation of the tombs. Nor shall any portion of the cemetery be dug or unearthed. The compound wall bounding the cemetery on all sides and the gate in it shall be preserved. “The panchayat is supposed to maintain the cemetery, without doing any construction, but they have not done so,” says Karmachandran. In 2005, a stadium was built at one side. 

Documentary film-maker KB Bobinson, who has filmed in the cemetery, says, “I think there are four tombs left. The rest [30] have been destroyed.”

Dan Elias and Aby Abraham, two descendants of Mala Jews, who are settled in Kochi, along with the MPSS, have filed a suit against the construction at the sub-court at Irinjalakuda. The case is going on. “Work on the academy began in March,” says Karmachandran.

Indira Sivaramam, the president of the Mala Panchayat, says, “I don't know what the fuss is all about. The academy is being made besides the stadium and it will be constructed by the National Games Agency. The cemetery will remain untouched.”

Says Karmachandran, “The stadium itself is a violation of the agreement with the Jews. So, to say that by renovating and expanding it, there is nothing wrong is a fallacy.”

TN Prathapan, the local MLA says that these are political protests. Karmachandran says that there is nothing political in this. “In fact, it is a cultural protest,” he says. We are a group of scholars and academicians.”

The march was inaugurated by film director and social activist Priyanandan. “We beg the public to step forward to save one of the oldest Jewish monuments in India,” says Karmachandran. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala) 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Making The World Laugh

Stand-up comedian Anuvab Pal, one of the best in India, gave a rousing performance at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last year, the Mumbai-based stand-up comedian Anuvab Pal received an offer to perform for a group of spare parts dealers in Baroda. The man who met him, Harish Parekh, said that the previous year a starlet had done an item number. Thereafter, she jumped into the crowd. “I don’t know much about stand-up comedy,” said Harish. “But would you be able to jump into the crowd?” With his tongue in his cheek, Anuvab said, “Do you want me to jump, before, during or after the show?” A serious Harish said, “Let me check with my seniors.” Anuvab bursts out laughing as he recounts the incident.

The Mumbai-based stand-up comedian was in Kochi recently to give a performance, ‘The Nation Wants To Know’, at the JT Performing Arts Theatre. He says, “If you are a Nepali and live in India, it does not matter whether you cured Aids or done something similar,” says Anuvab. “Someone will look at you and say, ‘Gaadi park karna (please park the car)’. And even if the Nepali says, ‘I am Dr. Shresthta, the people will say, ‘Oh lovely, gate bi band karna (please close the gate also).’”

Anuvab talks about his visit to the Gir Forest in Gujarat, which is the largest Asiatic lion reserve in the world. “I am on this jeep along with an elderly uncle,” he says. “We did not see a lion. Everybody said, ‘It is a big forest. Let us go back to the hotel.’ But this uncle said, ‘I am going to complain. I paid the full money and did not see a lion’.”

So, the group go to the office of the forest reserve officer. “I was thinking, ‘This is so embarrassing,'” says Anuvab. “In any other country can you do that? If you go to a whale-sighting trip in the US, and don’t see a whale, you cannot go to [President Barack] Obama and say, 'Why didn’t I see a whale?' But not in India. I expected the forest officer to say, ‘Get out of my office. It is a bloody jungle. What can I do if you cannot see a lion?’”
Instead, the officer said, “You did not see a lion. Come with me.”

They get back on the jeep and go to a clearing. The officer stands up and shouts, “Hey, lion, come out.”

And, astonishingly, the lion comes out. “Because only in India, the lion is thinking, ‘I don’t who he knows. Maybe he has connections. Maybe he might put me in jail. Maybe he knows somebody in the Aam Aadmi party. I could be eating a deer right now, but chalo I will make a roar’.”

The audience is in splits now. It is no surprise that Anuvab is regarded as one of the the best stand-up comedians in India. So far, he has done over a thousand shows in places like London, San Francisco, New York, Dubai, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.

The job of a stand-up is not just to make people laugh but also make them think,” he says. “To do that, you need to think in terms of stories. However, your observation about a situation should be funny. My jokes are mostly about what I see in life.”

At Kochi, Anuvab spoke for 100 minutes, at a frenetic pace, the stories coming out one after the other, on subjects as varied as real estate, fashion, politics, teenagers, technology, the sexy figures on the outer wall of the Khajuraho temple and how customs officers played such an important role in the 1980s. “At the end, I feel physically and mentally exhausted,” says Anuvab.

Asked about the qualities needed to be a stand-up comedian, Anuvab says, “There has to be fearlessness. There can be so many ramifications to what you say. People may not find it funny, or get offended. They might not understand irony, wit or sarcasm.”

You also need sharp observation. “You have to perceive the world around you,” he says. “When you tell a story, people should think, 'I have been through that'.” Lastly, you need a 
sense of humour.”

Anuvab is multi-talented. He has written scripts for films like 'The President Is Coming' and 'Loins Of Punjab Presents', as well as articles and a book called '1-888-Dial-India'. He is also the first Indian to become a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.
Not surprisingly, the joke-teller also comes across people who crack jokes. Once, at a party, Anuvab met a safari-suited man, who said, “What did Bill Gates say to Monica Lewinsky?” His friends, who are standing around him are silent. So the man gives the punch line, “Baby, I want it Microsoft.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Everlasting Memories

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Fasila talks about life with the late film actor Cochin Haneefa

Photo by Suresh Napoothiri

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When Fasila first heard of the proposal to meet actor Cochin Haneefa she told her brother-in-law, Mustafa, “There is little chance that he will like me.”

But Mustafa said, “That does not matter. At least you can tell your friends you met Haneefa.”

So, it was that on March, 1994, Fasila met Haneefa at her aunt's house in Kozhikode. Haneefa was wearing a black shirt and trousers. 

My first impression was that he looked thinner than in the films,” says Fasila. “Haneefa also seemed a simple person.”

Haneefa liked Fasila immediately. In fact his first question to Fasila was whether she liked him. When Fasila said yes, it was decided that they would go, at once, to her home in Thalaserry. While Haneefa set out by car with his long-time friends, Prasannan and Raju, Fasila went by train.

That night, the wedding was finalised. And it was on March 28, 1994, that the couple tied the knot at Thalaserry. Haneefa and Fasila then returned to Kochi where there was a reception for the film industry. “It was the first time that I was seeing so many stars like Mammooty in the flesh,” she says. “I was in a daze. I met Mohanlal who joked that if Haneefa got such a beautiful wife after waiting for so long, maybe he should have done the same.” Haneefa was 45 when he married the 19-year-old Fasila.

Asked about her late husband's plus points, Fasila says, “Haneefa was the most loving person I have ever met. This love was directed not at me only, but to our relatives, friends, neighbours, strangers, and colleagues. He loved everybody in the same manner.”

And despite being a celebrity Haneefa would go with Fasila and meet her friends. “Before we entered the house, he would say, 'You should call me when we have to leave. I cannot do that on my own, because it will look bad. They will think I am a big shot.'” 

But Haneefa never behaved like a big shot. In fact, he was known for his hospitality. Whenever a guest, including this reporter, went to his house, Haneefa would set up a feast, perhaps the only one from Mollywood to do so. “It was very important for him that a lot of items were served for the visitors,” says Fasila. “Haneefa wanted to treat his guests in the best way possible.”

Of course, he had his negative qualities. “Haneefa could get angry quickly,” says Fasila. “I tend to be a bit slow in doing things, while he was very fast. His job as an actor was to deliver quickly. So, naturally, he would get irritated.”

After 12 years of marriage, Fasila gave birth to twins, Safa, and Marwa, 7. “Earlier when he would return home after shooting he would call out to me,” says Fasilia. “But later, he would call out the children’s names.”

Meanwhile, Fasila would always be surprised when she saw her husband on screen. “He was so funny,” she says. “But in real life, at home, he was very serious. He rarely cracked a joke. Sometimes when I would observe him at home, I would be amazed how he could do all those zany antics, especially in the film, ‘Meesa Madhavan’.”

Everything was going fine, till one day, in 2000, Haneefa vomited blood. He did not tell Fasila about it. “In fact, he did not want anybody to know, because he feared that his career would come to an end,” she says. It was diagnosed as cirrhosis of the liver which in the end became liver cancer. 

It was a surprise because Haneefa was a teetotaler, but you can get the disease through food also. “He was taking treatment, but the doctors said he should take adequate rest, and be careful about the diet,” says Fasila. “But Haneefa did not follow it much. If I had known about it, I would have prepared the right food for him.” 

In October 2009, Dr. Priya of the Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre in Chennai informed Fasila that her husband had a few months to live. “I put my hands together and begged Dr. Priya to find some cure. If necessary we were willing to send Haneefa abroad for specialised treatment. But Dr. Priya said it was too late for that.”

During one of their last conversations, Haneefa talked about his daughters. “He said that they should be educated in Ernakulam.” Fasila has done that. The children are studying at Bhavan’s Vidya Mandir, Giri Nagar. Fasila is staying with her mother and children in a ground-floor apartment near the school.

One day, on the hospital bed Haneefa told me he wanted to come back home so that he could start acting again,” says Fasila. “If I remain here, I will not get any roles. And there will be no films.”

Tragically, what he said turned out to be true: there were no more films. Cochin Haneefa, one of the great comic actors of Mollywood, died on February 2, 2010, at the age of 59. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)    

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sanoop and the Magic Acting

The child actor, Sanoop Santhosh, gives a stunning debut performance in the Mollywood hit film, ‘Philips and The Monkey Pen’

Photo by Suresh Napoothiri

By Shevlin Sebastian

When [superstar] Mohanlal Sir called me up, the hair on my arms stood up,” says child actor Sanoop Santhosh. “He praised my acting and told me that he would get me a role in his next film.”

As Sanoop sits in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Kochi, a fan asks for an autograph. With √©lan, the nine-year-old writes on the last page of a notepad: ‘All the best with love and happiness’. And he signs 'Sanoop', in a slanting manner, by the side of the inscription.

Sanoop has given a stellar performance as student Ryan Philips in the hit Mollywood film, ‘Philips And The Monkey Pen’. “There is a feeling that it will reach 50 days,” says Sanoop.

Essentially, the story is of a young boy, who has experiences that all children face: a dislike of maths, a teacher who uses the cane, the complicated interaction with parents, friends and classmates, a crush on a girl and the passing of notes to her and receiving them. However, thanks to the monkey pen, all his issues, especially those in maths, are solved miraculously.

The youngster is in the middle of a media storm: newspapers, magazines and television channels are talking and writing about his stunning debut.

Undoubtedly, acting does come naturally to him. For many years he would accompany his parents, Santhosh and Usha, to watch Sanusha, his elder sister, by nine years, act in films. “So I did not feel nervous when I bagged this role, after an audition,” says Sanoop. In fact, Sanusha challenged him that if he could cry without using glycerine, she would give him a top quality mobile phone. “Here it is,” he says, pointing at a white Samsung mobile. 

What helped was the relaxed atmosphere on the set. “I thought that both the [debut] directors, Rojin Thomas and Shanil Muhammed, would be strict, but they were friendly and encouraging,” says Sanoop. “It seemed as if we were on a picnic. They took all my improvisations and put it in the film.”

Director Rojin says that Sanoop is a born talent. “Before the shoot began he was shy and reserved, but once he immersed himself in the character of Ryan, he became smart and outgoing,” he says. “The success of the film depended on Sanoop's performance and he delivered superbly.”

Sanoop acted alongside stars Jayasurya and Remya Nambeesan, who play his parents, and veteran actor Mukesh who is the school principal. “They were all very helpful,” says Sanoop. “Jayasurya Sir was very patient and explained to me how each scene should be done.”

Sanoop enjoyed every aspect of the 42-day shoot except the last scene when it was shot on Varkala Beach during the monsoon season. He was sitting on a log facing the sea. Suddenly, a huge wave came and hit the log as well as Sanoop. “I was swept off, but not very far,” he says. “For a few minutes I was in shock.”

But now his life is less a shock and more like a pleasant dream. “If I get another good role like Ryan Philips, I will act again,” he says. “My idol is Kamal Hassan. What a great actor he is.” 

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Love is Destiny

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn   

Manoj Nair talks about life with the actress Beena Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

Actor Manoj Nair had gone to Mumbai to take part in a cultural programme in 2000. Even though he was the compere, he sang a KJ Yesudas song, 'Nee Madhu Pagaroo', accompanied by an orchestra. That evening, during a group dinner, the actress Beena Antony complimented him on his singing. “I never imagined you could sing so well,” she said. “In fact, you sang better than most singers.” In turn, Manoj complimented Beena on her dance item. Then they began chatting with each other.

Beena asked me whether I do stage shows in Kerala and I said yes,” says Manoj. “So I told her the next time I did one I would invite her. And that was how we exchanged mobile numbers.”

Thereafter, for several months there was a silence. Then Manoj's friend, Sunil, asked whether Beena could be a chief guest at a club function in Paravur. So Manoj contacted Beena and she agreed. They met once again when he went to collect her. And this time they remained in touch.

We would speak for hours on the phone,” says Manoj. “There was no love talk. Instead, we just opened our hearts to each other. After six months, we realised that there was something going on.”

One day, Beena sent a text message, 'Do you like me?' He replied in the affirmative, but in a teasing sort of way. So they decided they would get married. 

Since it was an inter-caste marriage, Manoj was apprehensive. But both sets of parents agreed easily. “In fact, my late father-in-law Antony did the Sabarimala pilgrimage three times,” he says. “My own father respected all religions.”

And the members of the film industry also expressed support. “Many came up, and told me that I was making the right choice,” says Manoj. “They said 
Beena is a good woman. Some mentioned that too many had spoken badly about her.”

The marriage took place on April 24, 2003. But they did not have an official honeymoon, since they were travelling a lot, taking part in programmes all over the country and in the Middle East.

Asked about her qualities, Manoj says, “Beena is a true professional. She works as sincerely as possible. Unlike others, Beena never talks ill about people. I also trust her implicitly.”

Manoj is happy that she is a dedicated wife. “As soon as I get up, she provides the morning tea, apart from all my meals,” he says. “I don't need to ask for it. It is always ready. And she cares for our seven-year-old son, Aromal, in the same way.”

But it is not all smooth sailing. “Beena gets angry quickly,” says Manoj. “I am also short-tempered. So you can imagine how it is. Beena also gets impatient when she is teaching Aromal. So I always try to calm her down. I feel a woman should be patient and steady.”

Another drawback is that Beena gets tense over the smallest of matters. “This affects her health,” says Manoj. 

In fact, Beena has had some difficult health issues. When she was one-and-a-half months pregnant, her father died in a road accident. Beena went into shock. Later, during her third month of pregnancy, when they were performing in Goa, Beena had a miscarriage. “The doctor said that the shock Beena experienced at her father's death had a direct impact on the foetus,” says Manoj. “It stopped growing, and the heartbeat became faint, till it stopped finally in Goa. So, an abortion was done.”

But, thereafter, there was good news. 16 months later, on March 20, 2003, Aromal was born.

The next morning, as Manoj held the healthy baby in his arms, he told Beena, “I was not sad when our first child died. I knew God would give me another baby. I believe God will never harm you. So, we must never lose our faith in Him even when sad things happen.”

Meanwhile, as Manoj talks at his villa, near the Vytilla Mobility Hub, Beena has gone for a shoot for the television serial, ‘Amala’, at Thiruvananthapuram, apart from being a guest on the show, ‘Sishu Samrakshanam’ on Surya TV. “That is the artiste's life,” says Manoj. “The hours are long and non-stop. You can finish shooting at 11 p.m. And the production controller will say that he will be sending the car the next morning at 6 a.m. And you have to be ready.” 

When asked for tips for a good marriage, Manoj says, “Love your life partner with your heart and mind. Not just the body, but love the person. Try to avoid talk or behaviour which irritates the spouse.”

And then Manoj talks about a subject that is rarely discussed in private or public: the spectre of domestic violence. “I know of many instances where the husband hits the wife,” he says. “I tell them they are cowards to pick on somebody who is weaker. No wife could have done anything so bad that you need to hit her. A wife will cut you off in her heart if you use physical violence. Later, the husband might forget about the violence, but not the wife.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, December 09, 2013

A Pioneer in Her Own Way

Bishop Pushpa Lalitha is the first woman Bishop of the Church of South India, following 2000 years of Christianity in India

Photo by A. Raja Chidamabaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Bishop Eggoni Pushpa Lalitha, 57, of the Church of South India, was asked by the people of a village in Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh to pray for rain. The district was reeling under a drought.

Initially, she was reluctant and told the villagers, “When a doctor gives an injection are you healed immediately? So, to pray for rain, and then to expect it to fall at once is not right.” But the people begged her. So Pushpa, along with the villagers, who brought along their starving cows and buffaloes, went to a nearby hill. The prayers, as well as fasting, began at 11.30 a.m. and lasted till 5.30 p.m. But there was no sign of rain.

However, when Pushpa reached her home at 6.30 p.m., it began raining heavily, even though there were no clouds in the sky. “The entire village witnessed this miracle,” says Pushpa. “It was the most moving experience of my life. The villagers told me, ‘God is great’. That year, they got a lot of paddy.”

Pushpa Lalitha hit the national headlines recently when she became the first woman to be appointed as a Bishop of the Church of South India, following 2000 years of Christianity in India. “God had done great things in my life,” she says. “I never expected to become a priest, but it happened. I never dreamt that I would become a Bishop but it has happened.”

Pushpa is the Bishop of Nandyal province in Andhra Pradesh where there are 1 lakh  adherents. And she has clear priorities. “Apart from providing good health facilities, education for children is going to be my primary focus, especially for the girl child,” she says.  “Education can transform a girl’s life. My own life is an example.”

The daughter of a farmer, Ratna Swamy, Pushpa was born in Diguvapadu village in Kurnool district. Two sons had died earlier, so Pushpa was always going to be a precious child. But her destiny seemed to be pre-ordained. When her mother, Danamma, was five months pregnant, she had a dream in which a priest, wearing a white cassock, gave a Bible to her. Her parents vowed that their next child would be dedicated in the service of God, not knowing that it would be a daughter.

My mother told me about this dream many years later when I began my college studies,” says Pushpa, who received a bachelor of divinity degree from the Andhra Christian Theological College in Hyderabad. On July 15, 1983, she was ordained as a deacon. “Unfortunately my mother died, at age 42, a year earlier,” says Pushpa. “So she never saw me become a priest.”

Pushpa also did further studies at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, Britain, in Jamaica, and from the Pacific Lutheran Theological College in Berkeley, USA. Interestingly, she could easily detect the difference in the levels of faith. “In the West, there is too much of materialism, and less belief in God,” she says. “But in India, you can sense the presence of God within people. Indians are naturally spiritual.” And broad-minded, too. “The people in the villages respect all religions,” she says.

Meanwhile, at this moment, there are 110 women priests in the Church of South India. “I hope more women will be appointed to senior positions,” she says. “That is because women have particular advantages, as compared to men. When a woman priest visits a family, she can go all the way to the kitchen and learn about the troubles facing the family from the wife. This is not possible for a man. Women also have enormous emotional stamina and empathy.”

Armed with these qualities, Bishop Pushpa Lalitha is determined to make a mark. 

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

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Abiding Light

The Jewish community in Kochi celebrates the Hanukkah festival

Photo by 
Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few minutes after 6 p.m. on a recent Sunday, two seniors of the Jewish community, Elias Josephhai and Josephhai Abraham, wearing skull caps, begin reading verses in Hebrew from the Torah at the Kadavumbhagom synagogue in Kochi. Then one by one the members light the wicks placed on a brass plate which hangs on a wall. They are celebrating the Hanukkah or The Festival of Lights, which commemorates the Holy Temple at Jerusalem.

In 2013, at the 800-year-old synagogue at Kochi, there are only fifteen men, women and children present. As is well known, the Jewish community is getting smaller and smaller.  

The conversation is muted, the future looks bleak. For the function, ideally, there should be a rabbi. “But we have no one,” says Elias. “I end up doing the duties.” But since there has to be a minimum of 10 men present, for a holy service to take place that is also not possible.         
A surprising presence is Klara Trenecseny, a documentary film-maker from Budapest in Hungary. A Jew herself, she is making a trailer to show television channels in Europe in order to get funding. “If I get the money, then I will come back and do a full-length documentary,” she says.

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

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

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvanathapuram) 

Friday, December 06, 2013

A deep love of Kerala makes young Jewish man to marry a Hindu

By Shevlin Sebastian

Divya Pillai and Sunil Elson 

Sunil Elson, 29, is in a happy mood. It is just a couple of days for his marriage. But it is an unusual one in every respect. Sunil is a Jew, while the girl that he is marrying, is a Hindu, Divya B. Pillai. And Sunil's reasons are simple. There are no eligible girls in the Jewish community. In total, there are 27 people who stay at Kochi, Aluva, and Paravur. All the rest have migrated to Israel. “But I am deeply attached to Kerala and do not want to leave for Israel,” he says. In fact, when Sunil went to Israel in September, 2011, he was taken aback. “The culture was so different,” he says. “It is a lot like Europe. I also noticed that the family ties are not close. But, for me, the family is very important.”

Sunil and Divya fell in love when they were studying together at the Amrita Vidyalaya in Perumbavur. But it was only in 2007 that things got serious. When Sunil told his community members they were understandably sad. “But they understood my justifications for marrying outside the community,” he says.

Divya's parents were against it, and it took six years for them to change their mind. And now a beaming Sunil says that they are getting married, through a registered marriage on December 6, followed by a reception on December 8 at his home-town of Aluva. While Sunil runs textile shops in Aluva and Kochi, Divya is an Ayurveda doctor at the Paalana Hospital in Palakkad.

Incidentally, this is the second marriage among Jewish males in Kochi. On July 21, 2009, Mordokkayi Shafeer, who works in a media organisation, got married to a Christian, Jaimol Fernandez (now Sarah), who later converted to Judaism. They have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Menahim Ryan. “I was mentally prepared,” says Sarah. “So the adjustment was not that difficult. I only took some time to adjust to the food, in which some items like prawns and crabs are not eaten.”

Meanwhile, Sunil continues to remain in touch with his Jewish roots. On a recent Sunday evening, he was present at the Kadavumbhagom synagogue in Kochi to take part in the Hanukkah or The Festival of Lights. “It was a wonderful time,” says Sunil. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala) 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Smooth Sailing

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Payal Arora talks about life with Vice Admiral Satish Soni, Flag Officer Commanding in Chief, Southern Naval Command

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Payal Arora met Satish Soni for the first time at her parents’ home in New Delhi she was a bit disappointed. At that time, she was reading a lot of Mills & Boon romances with their tall, dark and handsome heroes. “That was what I had in mind,” she says. “He was fair but, at 5’8”, not tall.”

Soon, they started talking. Payal was doing her final year of law at Delhi University. And unlike most girls, she was interested in outdoor activities like trekking and playing basketball. In fact, Payal had represented Meerut University, where she did her graduation, in basketball.

“Two things were very important for me,” she says. “Satish should not have any objection to me pursuing my outdoor activities. Secondly, I was an avid fan of [American writer] Ayn Rand and her books, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘Fountainhead’. Dagny Taggart [of Atlas Shrugged] was my heroine. I believe in capitalism, rather than communism or socialism, and the will of the individual to make his way through life.”

Satish said that he was interested in sporting activities himself. And, yes, he had read ‘The Fountainhead’. “I don’t know whether he had actually read the book or just a synopsis, but I was so happy that he knew of Ayn Rand,” says Payal, in her office at the INS Venduruthy, Kochi. “That was a big plus. I gave a mental tick.” In the end, she said yes.

Within a month of that nod, the marriage took place on April 24, 1983, at Delhi. For their honeymoon, the couple flew to Kathmandu. There, Payal’s most interesting experience was a visit to the Pashupatinath temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “It was grand,” she says. “There were these beautifully carved idols of gods and goddesses above the entrance.”

The couple returned and began their married life at Kochi, where they initially stayed at a friend’s bungalow in the now posh area of Panampilly Nagar. “At that time, Kochi was sparsely populated,” says Payal. “In Panampilly Nagar, there were not many houses. What struck me were the greenery and the cleanliness. The people were very warm.” Now and then the couple would go to the Sea Lord Hotel on Marine Drive and listen to a band perform. “Those were nice times,” she says.

Payal also has nice things to say about her husband. “Satish is very sincere about everything,” she says. “He is upright and honest. But this keeps the family [son Karan, an investment banker in Hongkong, and daughter, Kanica, who is a Delhi-based teacher] on the straight and the narrow path. In fact, our children have imbibed the same values. They are honest and upright, too.”

A big plus regarding Satish’s character is that he is an extrovert and enjoys meeting people, be they children, youngsters, adults or seniors. “Satish is down- to-earth, and never thinks that he is a notch above anybody” says Payal. “In other words, he can relate well to people, especially to his own children.”

But now and then they did correct him. “They would tell him, ‘Papa, you are ordering us around. We are not officers or cadets. We are your children’,” says Payal. “But he cared for them deeply.” 

A few years ago, Satish, Payal, and their daughter, Kanica, had gone for a holiday to Bhutan. “Kanica had sprained her ankle before the holiday,” says Payal. But when a trekking opportunity to climb a sacred mountain called Tiger’s Nest, in the Paro Valley, came up, Kanica insisted that she wanted to come. “I just walked up to the top in one-and-a-half hours,” says Payal. “But Satish helped Kanica along, and, slowly and steadily, they came up. It took three hours. I really appreciated his care and concern.”

Of course, Satish has his drawbacks. “He tends to be a perfectionist,” says Payal. “And he can get angry at times. But he never shouts, instead he becomes very quiet.”

Asked how her husband had changed over the years, Payal says, “In the early years, he was soft, sensitive and idealistic. But now it has been tempered by reality. He is tough, physically as well as mentally, a good speaker, and has become practical.” 

Payal is also practical. At one point of time, she was working as an assistant company secretary in a private firm. But the hours were long and irregular. “I realised that it would not be possible for both Satish and I to have careers,” she says. “I quit for the sake of the children. These are trade-offs in life, but I have no regrets, because everything has turned out well. Today, my work as president of the Navy Wives Welfare Association keeps me busy and happy."

And Payal has simple tips for a happily married life. “You have to be mentally prepared when you are entering matrimony because it is a sacred relationship with the other person,” she says. “You should not have unrealistic expectations. Your marriage will last if you have one thought at the back of your mind all the time: 'I have to make it work'.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)