Monday, April 29, 2013

From Kashmir to Kerala

Altaf Chapri, a Kashmiri, has built a luxury houseboat in North Kerala, apart from an exclusive beach resort called the Neeleshwar Hermitage

Photo by A. Sanesh

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is 8.30 a.m., on a sunny day in March. Altaf Chapri has dots of perspiration on his forehead, as he sits on a wooden armchair, with red and purple cushions, in his houseboat, the Lotus, in Neeleshwar, in north Kerala. The fan is whirring above him, but it makes no difference. “It may not be that hot but you can't blame me,” he says. “I grew up in Srinagar where the weather is always cool and there is no humidity.”

He taps the space bar on his laptop, placed on a low wooden table, in front of him, and says, “I am in the lap of nature, in Kerala, and yet, at the same time, I am connected to the world.”

The boat moves off from the bank as a gentle breeze starts blowing. The six-member crew is solicitous. Breakfast is a glass of watermelon juice, slices of brown bread, and omelettes, bowls of jam and honey to dip into, and a cup of thick coffee. Interestingly, the owner of the Lotus is a Kashmiri.

So what has been the reaction of the local people when they come to know that Altaf is a Kashmiri? “Initially, they get surprised,” he says. “But I never ever felt, not even once, that they don't like me. The acceptance has been immediate and complete.”

One reason why Altaf came to Neeleshwar was because there are more than a thousand houseboats in Alleppey, the Venice of the East. “I was looking for an area where there were a few houseboats and realised that Neeleshwar would be an ideal place,” he says. The Lotus, all gleaming wood and coir matting, and 104 feet long, took ten months to build.  

But hiring the Lotus is not cheap. It costs Rs 23,500 per room per night. And there are only two bedrooms, for a total of four people. “We are looking at the high-end travellers,” he says.

They are also welcome at his Neeleshwar Hermitage, 16 cottages, with thatched roofs, by the side of the Arabian Sea, with a pristine beach, set amidst 10 acres of coconut trees and plants and grass. And the big attraction is the open-air infinity pool. Everything is natural: there are no televisions, phones or plastic bottles. The bathrooms have coconut trees at one side and when you look up you can see the blue sky.

The guests are looking for a break from the hectic pace of their lives,” says Altaf. Among the visitors who came recently, there was Lord Heseltine, the former British Deputy Prime Minister, singer Natalie Imbruglia, and the travel writer Mark Shand.

It has been a difficult task for Altaf to make people aware of Neeleshwar Hermitage, since it is far away from well-known tourist destinations like Munnar, Kovalam Thekkady, and Fort Kochi. 

But Altaf went to London and persuaded writers and photographers from reputed magazines like the ‘Tatler’ and the ‘National Geographic’ to come for a visit. The ensuing media coverage gave his resort a big boost.

Today, the Neeleshwar Hermitage is listed in the prestigious 'Relais & Chataeux', a directory which lists the top 400 hotels in the world. It has also been voted as one of the Top Ten Eco Hotels by Vogue Magazine, as well as being the 'Best Health Resort in India' by CNBC TV. In short, Altaf has put Neeleshwar on the world tourist map. And he already has plans to start a backwater resort in the same area. This is not surprising, since tourism is in his blood.   

Altaf's father, Yousuf, is a doyen of the travel industry in Srinagar, while his grandfather, Gaffar, would accompany British explorers on mountain treks.

In 1989, when the troubles broke out in Kashmir, Altaf, who was studying History in Amar Singh College in Srinagar, on the advice of his father, moved to Delhi. His younger brother, Bilal, was already studying there.

We worked as travel guides for many companies,” he says. Then, in 1995, the duo started ‘Discovery Journeys’, catering mainly to Western tourists, and it was a success from the start. Today, the company has offices in Kochi, Ladakh, Manali, Udaipur, and Srinagar. Since they had regularly sent many Westerners to leading hotels and resorts in Kerala, one day, they got the idea of starting a hotel there. An extensive search resulted in the beach resort coming up in Neeleshwar.

But Altaf has not forgotten his home state. He has just set up a new houseboat called 'Sukoon' on the Dal Lake and has plans to start small hotels throughout Kashmir. “I have been incredibly lucky and, now, I want to help my friends and relatives by offering employment,” he says. “Many families lost everything. One day they had property and businesses and the next day they were paupers. So I feel pained about what has happened. But, at the same time, it is important that I offer my support.” 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Actor Jayaram goes back to nursery school

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sometime ago, actor Jayaram got a call. It was from the Mahila Mandapam Society in Perumbavoor. They asked whether he could come and visit his old nursery class. Very soon, the building would be demolished. Jayaram accepted and went to the school. And immediately he was flooded with memories.

Classes would start at 10 a.m., and finish at 12.30 p.m.,” saysJayaram. “After that the students, boys as well as girls, would have lunch in small lunch boxes. Thereafter by 1 p.m., all the students went home.” Except for Jayaram.

His mother, Thangam Subramaniam, had specifically told the teachers that Jayaram should stay till 4 p.m., so that his elder brother, by four years, Venkit, could come from a nearby school, where he studied, collect him, and take him home. “So, for three hours, I was all alone in the class,” says Jayaram.

To entertain him, his teacher, Eliyamma John, borrowed a plastic bucket from a neighbouring house. “She would give me two sticks and I would beat on it, like a chenda,” says Jayaram. “Sometimes, I would walk around, imitating an elephant, and make all sorts of animal noises. I had forgotten all of this till Eliyamma mentioned it in her speech.”

Long retired, she had specifically come, along with other teachers, like Tulasi Bhai, to meet the star. And then they gaveJayaram more surprises.

They took him to the office and showed him old black and white photographs of him in his nursery class. “I immediately asked for copies,” says Jayaram. Thereafter, with a touch of humour, they gifted him the tiny green-coloured chair that he would sit on, while he was in the nursery. 

Says the Padmi Shri award winner: “I have won many awards in my life, but this gift moved me the most. When I saw the chair, it took me back so many years. Childhood memories are priceless.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A sparkling love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Jolly talks about life with jewellery business magnate Joy Alukkas

By Shevlin Sebastian

Jolly saw Joy Alukkas during an arranged marriage meeting at her home in Koratty in July, 1984. “I liked him from the beginning,” she says. “He was handsome.” Joy was wearing a brown shirt and a white mundu. They spoke little since there were relatives all around. But they both liked each other.

The marriage took place at the St. Joseph’s church at Kuriachira on September 16, 1984. For their honeymoon, the couple went to the then not-so-well-known resort of Ponmudi. “It was beautiful and I saw fog for the first time,” says Jolly. “I enjoyed the cold. In those days, people would go to Ooty or Kodaikanal and that was why we decided to go to Ponmudi.”

Thereafter, the couple went on many travels all over the world. In fact, Jolly’s most exciting moment was when she went to New York in 1989. “I could not imagine that one day I will be able to see this big city with its tall buildings,” she says. “Till then, I had only seen Abu Dhabi and thought it was a big city, but it looked small as compared to New York.”

The couple also went to the Niagara Falls and later took a 45-minute flight on a small four-seater plane to see the Grand Canyon from top. “It was such a magnificent spectacle,” she says. “But when I tried to look down, Joy told me to sit still. He was very nervous and told me, 'I am not sure this flight will land safely.' Even today, I tease him about how tense he was.”

When Joy is at home, in Thrissur, he gets up at 5.45 a.m. Thereafter, he will have a glass of warm water. Then the couple will go for a morning walk, which lasts for 45 minutes. Following their return, their physical trainer, Justin, supervises the freehand exercises which they do for 20 minutes. After that, Joy has a cup of tea and, later, a bowl of fruits. He also reads the newspapers, has his bath, and gets ready. He leaves for office at 10.30 a.m.

In the evening, he returns at 6, 8 or 10 p.m. “Nothing is fixed, because he is so busy,” says Jolly. When Joy comes home, there is a family prayer, which lasts for half an hour. Now, only their youngest child, their 18-year-old daughter, Elsa, lives with them.

The couple has two more children: John Paul, 27, who lives in Dubai, with his wife, Sonia, and is looking after his father's jewellery business in many countries of the Middle East, and Mary, 25, who is married to Anthony, lives in Dubai, and is learning the ropes of the money exchange business.

As the chairman, he is very firm in the office,” says Jolly. “But at home, he is very relaxed with them. When they were growing up, he was friendly and easy-going. I was the strict parent.”

When asked about his other qualities, Jolly says, “Joy is very direct. I like that about him. Once he promises to do something, he will do it. His word has a lot of value. He is also a humorous person and cracks jokes all the time. His great quality is that he can tell something funny with a straight face. As a result, I end up laughing a lot.”

But Joy can have a hot temper and is a perfectionist. Recently, at their home, a worker tried to put a nail between the tiles in the bathroom. As a result, several tiles broke. “He got upset about it,” says Jolly. “In places like Dubai, they have special equipment to do this.”

The one negative for Jolly is that, like most successful businessmen, Joy is on the mobile phone a lot. “I always worry about the radiation,” she says. “I tell him he should use the land-line more.” 

On days when Joy comes home looking tense, Jolly will immediately ask him about what is troubling him. “But, generally, he does not show much stress,” she says. “He keeps it inside him. I try to look bright and positive. Joy says that his best stress-reliever is when he has a bath and the water falls on his head and body.”

Not surprisingly, the biggest advantage of being the wife of a man, who has a large jewellery business, is that Jolly has access to all the best diamond and gold jewellery. “In the early days, Joy used to give me a lot of jewellery,” says Jolly. “Now, because of his busy schedule, he asks me to go to the shop and select what I want. All women like gold and diamonds, but they like the gift of love the most.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maid For Each Other?

For the smooth running of a household a maid plays an important role. Women talk about their experiences with them

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Reena Mathew, 40, was pregnant when an 18-year-old Bengali maid, Sunita, came to work for her at her home near the Ernakulam Town railway station. “She did not know much about our way of cooking, but showed a willingness to learn,” says Reena. “It took her about six months to settle down.”

Soon, Sunita became adept. She kept the house clean, did the cooking, washed the utensils and the clothes. “Not even a pin would be out of place,” says Reena. “I was very happy with her.”

A grateful Reena treated Sunita like a member of the family, which included husband, Joshy, 42, and sons, Melvin, 15, and Joseph, 9. “I would take her everywhere,” says Reena. “Like, when we went out for dinner, or for shopping and movies. We would see Hindi films, just for her. Later, I would give her CDs to watch Hindi movies when her work was over.”

Four blissful years went past. But soon, Sunita’s parents started pressuring her to come back, so that she could get married. “Sunita told me that I should call up her parents and tell them she could not come, because she had been caught stealing and there was a police investigation going on,” says Reena, with a laugh. “I did not want to do that. I told Sunita that she belongs to her family and if they want her to get married, she should obey them.”

Eventually, Sunita returned to her home town of Digha, in West Bengal, got married to a carpenter, and has settled down. Now and then she calls Reena up. “Sunita sounds happy on the phone,” says Reena. “But she says, ‘Who knows what the future is going to be like?’”
Today, Reena, who works in an office, after several maids who came and went, now has a part-time servant, Latha, who comes for an hour in the morning and evening. “I pay Rs 120,” says Reena. “The reason why I pay Latha on a daily basis is because of all the hartals and bandhs we have. They take a lot of leave. But I am satisfied with her work although I do miss Sunita.”
Asked whether these house workers are honest, Reena says, “I have always been a careless person. I leave cash and gold all over the place. But in my experience, the poor are far more honest than the rich.”

Vandana Rao is also happy about the honesty of her 60-year-old maid, Omana. “She is sincere, nice, and very neat in her work,” says Vandana. Omana has been working with her for the past four years. Vandana had maids earlier whose performance was not satisfactory. “I would quickly part ways with them,” she says. “I don't want to have altercations and spoil my day.”

Since Vandana and Omana spend long hours together, sometimes, they discuss family matters. “Omana tells me how upset she gets when she has differences of opinion with her family members, especially her daughter-in-law,” says Vandana. “But, later, she will tell me, it will take some time for them to get a better understanding with each other.”

Janaki lives with her son. Her husband died early and she brought up her son and three girls all on her own.

Unlike Reena, who gives daily wages, Vandana is paying a good monthly salary. “I want her to feel happy,” says Vandana. Omana comes at 9 a.m. and goes at 2.30 p.m. Her job is to sweep and swab the house, wash the dishes and cut vegetables.

Asked how the relationship breaks down, Vandana says, “It is usually on the issue of salary. The cost of living is going up. Everybody works to get money. Like all of us, they also want to satisfy their and their children's needs.”

Maid Baby Amma is working for Lakshmi Mahajankatti for the same reason. She wants to pay for the education of her children. The maid goes to Lakshmi’s house in Ravipuram, at 11 a.m., when Lakshmi, a manager with a training organisation, is not at home. 

“Baby Amma is responsible for the household in my absence,” says Lakshmi. “She washes the dishes and the clothes, grates coconuts, cuts vegetables, and makes chappatis. When my son and daughter return from school, she gives them milk and snacks to eat. She leaves at 4.45 p.m.” Baby Amma has been working for the past five years and Lakshmi finally got a servant that suited her after many maids came and went.

Meanwhile, when asked about the absence of their men in the kitchen, Lakshmi says, “Husbands don't exist. They are never a part of the family. All husbands in Kerala should go to the US once. The Indian women, who have gone there, have learnt from their American counterparts about how to bring the husband into the kitchen and help out in the chores.”

Reena has a different perspective. “In India, we have a better support system,” she says. “We have maids and in-laws. This is absent abroad. Therefore, husbands have to help the wives at home. There is no choice. If they don't do so, they will probably have no clothes to wear or food to eat. However, in the end, men are from Mars, while women are from Venus. We are wired so differently and, by nature, men prefer to go out and work, rather than help out in the kitchen.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)  

Monday, April 15, 2013

Remembering Papa

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every Sunday morning, after attending Mass at the Little Flower church at Kochi, my daughter, Sneha, goes to pray at the grave of her grandfather. I am always surprised when I see this. Sneha is ten years old. My father-in-law (Papa) died when she was two-and-a-half. How does she remember him? I cannot recall any memory before five years of age. After she prays, Sneha touches the grave with the tip of her fingers and then we go home.

Sometimes, when Sneha prays, I visualise Papa lying in his coffin. What is left now? A few bones and the skull, perhaps. The person no longer exists, except in our hearts.

But what was most unforgettable, for me, was the day Papa died: July 25, 2003. He was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. At 8.30 a.m., in his bedroom, he suddenly sat up, his eyes bulged out, his frail body shook, and it seemed as if he was about to die. Mummy said, “Please don’t go.” My wife begged him to stay.

As for me, I was tongue-tied because I sensed a power in the room. It pressed against all of us. It seemed to be kind-hearted, and was observing us very carefully Was this God who had come to take Papa away?

Time stopped. Finally, there seemed to be a resolution. And, looking back, I have no idea whether it was Papa or God who felt that he should live, so that he could meet all the family members. Suddenly, the energy vanished. I started breathing again, and Papa came back to life. Immediately, we rushed him to the hospital.

By this time his children – four daughters and a son – arrived, he lay, with moist eyes, on a bed and gently held their fingers. It was his way of saying goodbye.

At 9.30 p.m., Papa breathed his last.

In life, Papa was a banker. And like most middle class people he was an honest man, devoted to work and family, and always tried to help the less fortunate. 

And in his many years of service at the bank, he observed one law which played out in family after family. The first generation struggled and made the money. The second generation took it easy and had a lavish style. By the time the third generation came along, they were lazy and spoiled and destroyed the wealth. When he told this to me, a journalist, I said, “Papa, I have good news for you! I have no money to pass on to any generation – second, third or fourth.” Papa laughed heartily by what I said.

He was a man who smiled easily, even though he had a hard life. His own father died when he was 16 and as the eldest child, he assumed the burden of looking after his three sisters. He built his career from scratch, made a nice house in posh Panampilly Nagar, and ensured that all his children were well-settled. And he always told me, “Be honest and sincere, and God will do the rest.” 

Thanks to my daughter, on Sunday mornings I think of Papa and my own mortality. I know that in a few decades, unless God wills an earlier exit, I will also lie six feet under, like Papa, in some corner of a cemetery. 

I wonder: will my grandchild, if I have one, do the same thing which Sneha does – touch my grave and ask for my blessings on a sunny Sunday morning?

To be remembered after we die – isn’t this every human being’s deepest desire?

(The New Indian Express, South India) 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

“She loves me like crazy”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Ram Nair talks about his life with singer Ranjini Jose

Photos by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first time Ram Nair met Ranjini Jose, it was when he was the disc jockey at a friend's party in Thattekad. “As soon as I saw her, I told myself, 'Wow, she looks beautiful,'” says Ram. Ranjini was wearing a green top and blue jeans. However, they did not exchange any words. But later, on Facebook, they became friends. When Ram mentioned that he was hosting a Bacardi party at the Le Meridien in Kochi, Ranjini expressed an interest to attend it. So he gave her passes.

At the Meridien party, Ram's friend, Joseph Chakola told Ranjini, in front of both of them, “Hey, this is Ram, he is one of the best guys in town. I think both of you will make a good pair.”

When Joseph said that, both Ram and Ranjini squirmed in embarrassment. “But later, we realised that what Joseph said was right,” says Ram.

As Ram conversed with Ranjini, she said, “I am not game for any flings.”
Ram said, “I agree with you. I will talk to your dad.” It had been less than a month since Ram had met Ranjini, but he had fallen deeply in love.

So Ram called Ranjini's father, Babu Jose, a film producer as well as financier. “I told him, 'My name is Ram and I love your daughter and want to marry her. I spoke to Ranjini and she said she is willing also. I just wanted to let you know.' Uncle was like, 'Whaaat?', but he was okay with the idea because, as he told me later, he appreciated my courage.”

Ram and Ranjini spent the next few years dating, going to places like Bangalore and Chennai where Ram would do gigs as a DJ. “I remember when I was at the Speed nightclub, at the Grand Orient, in Chennai,” says Ram. “I introduced her to my friends, with whom I had studied at the School of Audio Engineering. She got along well with them. We had a great time. Slowly, our relationship deepened.”

Finally, on January 27, 2013, the wedding took place. And there were three events. Initially, there was a registered marriage. Thereafter, there was a Nair wedding at the Ramada Resort. Finally, there was a beach wedding at Mararikulam beach for their close friends. “It was magical,” says Ram. “After the ceremony, I gave a full kiss to Ranjini.”

At this moment, during his reminiscences, Ranjini barges in, at their home in Kochi, and tells Ram that she has to go for the wedding preparations of her friend, Tanya. “So we need to cut the cake, darling,” she says. It was Ranjini's birthday.

And so, at the dining table, a praline cake is placed. Candles and a couple of sparklers are lit. Ranjini cuts the cake. Both husband and wife exchange bits of cake and kisses on the cheeks. Then Ranjini kisses her mother and father and gives a big hug and kiss for her mother-in-law, as well as her friend Neha. 

Then, for lunch, it is delicious Kozhikode-style chicken biriyani, along with salad, made by Ram's mum in celebration of the birthday. Then Ranjini gives a quick hug to Ram and the high-energy singer was gone, accompanied by Neha.

Asked what he likes most about Ranjini, Ram says, “She is very loving. She keeps track of everything I do. Even if she is busy, Ranjini will still call me and find out whether I had lunch on time. If I went for a business meeting, she would ask whether it was successful.” (Ram is the head of sales and marketing in Kerala for Red Bull energy drink).

Since Ranjini sings at home all the time, there are many days when he awakens to her voice. “My favourite is 'Kadhal Rojave' from Roja [which was originally sung by Sujatha Mohan] and 'Naiyn Tere' from the Hindi film, 'Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey'. [This was Ranjini's debut in Bollywood]. She has a super voice. Ranjini is a talented and dedicated professional and committed to her work. And she is very punctual.”

About Ranjini's negative qualities, Ram says, “She can get possessive at times. Since she is an only child, she is used to getting attention. Plus, we are both short-tempered. So, we have blazing rows. But after our marriage we decided we would resolve our problems before we go to sleep. The next day we want to have a nice and fresh start.”

Since Ranjini has a busy career, there are times when she gets stressed out. “When that happens, I will hug her and give a peck on her forehead,” says Ram. “That calms her down. Once she is with me, she feels relaxed. She loves me like crazy. Nobody has loved me like that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, April 08, 2013

Helping the mentally damaged

The Mehac Foundation has tied up with institutions like Sneha Bhavan in Kalavoor, and panchayats to help those suffering from severe mental illness

Photo:  Dr Chitra Venkateswaran (centre), the clinical director of the Mehac Foundation with the nuns of Sneha Bhavan

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Sneha Bhavan in Kalavoor, in Alleppey district, the only sound is of sparrows chirping interrupted now and then by the occasional cawing of a crow. The world seems at peace but inside, in a room, an inmate is banging her head against a door. “She is suffering from schizophrenia,” says Sr. Mary Caroline, the Mother in Charge. The Bhavan is a house for mentally ill women. “There are 29 inmates,” says Sr. Mary. They range in age from 20 to 85.

Asked why the home was established in 2010, Sr. Caroline says, “We wanted to do something for people who are rejected by society because of their mental illness.”

The majority of the inmates come from poor families. “They suffer from schizophrenia and bi-polar mood disorders,” says Dr Chitra Venkateswaran, the clinical director of Mehac (Mental Health Care and Research) Foundation, which has a tie-up with Sneha Bhavan.

One effect of a severe mental illness is that the patients lose their zest for life. “Many of them just don't want to do anything,” says Sr. Caroline. “They eat and sleep all the time. Some live in the past and suffer from hallucinations. Sometimes, they become violent and throw things at us.”

It is then that the sisters place the woman in a room and lock the door. “When an inmate becomes uncontrollable, we will call Dr Chitra on the phone and she will suggest the appropriate medication. That brings relief to the patient.”

Asked for the reasons for their mental illness, Sr. Caroline says, “Sometimes, it is the family environment. Or it could be because of hereditary reasons. Some women have had fits in their childhood which has damaged their brains. There are some who are the victims of sexual abuse. There was one girl who went to work in a house as a servant and the master exploited her. And she became mentally disturbed.”

Usually mental illness is triggered off by biological factors. “So, we provide drugs which redresses this, although if the mental illness is severe a full cure may be difficult,” says Dr. Chitra.

But there have been some good incidents. When Dr. Chitra saw Rajan Varghese (name changed) at a home in Mararikulam, he was chained. There was a metal bucket in the room which was used for morning ablutions. Rajan was suffering from a severe psychosis and was being looked after by his brother and wife, who was herself suffering from a bi-polar disorder. Rajan’s family had abandoned him.

One reason he was chained was because he would run outside and throw himself into a nearby pond,” says Dr. Chitra. Rajan’s brother, Peter, was a fisherman, who left for work early in the morning and came back late. “When I met him for the first time, he was talking nonsense,” says Dr. Chitra. “With the help of some volunteers, I decided to do away with the chain.” Then the medications began. Soon, the symptoms began to lessen. Later, Rajan was shifted to Maria Sadan, in Alleppey, which is a home for the mentally disturbed.

He stayed there for five months and his symptoms went down to a great extent,” says Dr. Chitra. In April, 2012, he returned to live with his brother once again. They don’t chain him any more. “He has not yet returned to a normal thought process but has learnt to have a shave and a bath on his own,” says Dr. Chitra. “Nowadays, when I meet him, he offers me tea. So, this is an example of medicines helping to improve a person’s mind.”   

Like Rajan, to enable a similar assimilation back to society, the inmates at Sneha Bhavan are taught skills like making coir ropes. “Some of them also make the host, which is used in the Holy Communion at mass in the churches,” says Sr. Caroline.

In order to help the vulnerable sections of society, the Mehac Foundation was set up in December, 2008 (see box). Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness runs deep in Indian society. “In one village, there were a couple of members in one family who were suffering from mental illness,” says Dr. Chitra. “Unfortunately, the other families ostracised them and the family was left to fend on its own.”

Even among the affluent classes, there is a trauma of being isolated.  “I know of families who refuse to treat their relatives who are ill because of the fear that society will come to know,” says Dr. Chitra. “As a result, the illness becomes even more severe.”

In Kerala, about 25 per cent of the population suffers from diseases like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders. “It is important that the people understand that mental illness is like any other disease,” says Dr. Chitra. “A person can be cured if the right medication and advice can be given at the right time.”   

About Mehac
The primary motivation of setting up Mehac (Mental Health Care and Research) was because of the pitiable state of mental health care in the country. The World Heath Organisation has pointed out that 7 per cent of Indians suffer from mental diseases.

Mehac has projects in Ernakulam, Alleppey, Kannur and Palakkad. “We have a clinic running in Muhamma panchayat where the panchayat takes an active role,” says Dr. Chitra Venkateswaran, the clinical director. “It is like a government-run programme where the panchayat gives the money for medications and we do home care visits using their vehicle.”

Mehac has also associated itself with organizations like Sir Dhorabji Desai Tata Trust, the Sree Vivekananda Foundation and the Sanjeevani Pain and Palliative Care Society.   

Some of the eminent people associated with Mehac include author MT Vasudevan Nair, cartoonist EP Unny, MK Das, Former Resident Editor of the New Indian Express and Ashok Kumar (a pioneer of the palliative care movement in Kerala). 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Many Hues Of Motherhood

'Of Mothers and Others' is a collection of stories, essays, and poems

By Shevlin Sebastian

On December 7, 1992, one day after the Babri Masjid was demolished, New-Delhi based journalist Humra Quraishi told her children Sarah and Mustafa that they would have to stay at home, for their safety. After a while, the bell rang. When Humra opened the door, it was her children's school friend, Radhika Subberwal, who had come to spend the day. 

“Her mother had made it a point to drop her at our place on this crucial and tense day,” writes Humra. “Although she was well aware that it was a Muslim home and so could have been attacked in the aftermath of the demolition and the rioting.”

And this act by a Hindu mother left a big impact on Humra. “I can't describe what great hope her gesture held out,” says Humra. “It is because of people like the Subberwals that the fabric of our country is still intact. Yes, there is hope that human beings will not be further divided and they will see through divisive political games and the havoc they unleash.”

In her moving essay, 'The State Can't Snatch Away Our Children', Humra also talks about the plight of Kashmiri mothers whose sons have been missing for years. In 1990, Parveena Ahangar's son, Javed, was snatched by the security forces. Many mothers went through similar appearances. In response, Parveena set up The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, one of the longest, ongoing non-violent movement in the state. Incidentally, Parveena is still searching for her son.

This write-up is part of the collection. 'Of Mothers and others', which is ably edited by best-selling novelist Jaishree Misra, and consists of essays, stories and poems, about the good, happy, and traumatic experiences of motherhood.

In Smriti Lamech's work, 'Determination', she talks about her intense desire to have a girl, because her mother and grandmother were such strong women. And when it turned out to be a son, Smriti writes, “I wish I could say I put him to my breast and fell in love but I didn't.” 

Days went past with this indifference on the part of Smriti. And then one day, when she awoke, she reached out for her son instinctively. “I held him with the early rays of the sun streaming in, and the emotion hit me with the force of a ten-tonne truck,” she says. “My son. My precious, precious baby.”

Unfortunately, award-winning author Manju Kapur lost her precious daughter, Amba, when she was only 21 years old. “I remember a frantic burning itch unfurling beneath my skin,” says Manju. “For weeks, no salve, no ointment, no ice, no heat made any difference.” And she writes of how she tried to cope with the tragedy, by going for a ten-day retreat to do Vipassana meditation, at Dehradun, and searching for peace and inner healing at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry.

Noted publisher Urvashi Butalia's essay, 'Childless Naturally', is about how she deliberately stayed single and childless in a society where being barren is worse than being a widow. Writer Jahnavi Barua, on the other hand, writes about her experience of being pregnant for the first time in 'On The Other Side'. 

“Motherhood changes all of us,” says Jahnavi. “Timid, tentative girls are transformed into assertive fierce women when they assume this new role.”

There are poems by Meena Alexander and Tishani Doshi, fiction by Mridula Koshy, Kishwar Desai, Shinie Antony, and Sarita Mandanna, whose striking tale, 'The Gardener's Daughter', reveals how a woman, of a prominent family, who, through intermediaries, kills off a servant's daughter, made pregnant by her son, so that he could have a political career.

An unusual essay is of mothers in Bollywood films by Jai Arjun Singh as well as one about surrogate motherhood by Sarojini N and Vrindah Marwah. And who can forget Shalini Sinha's touching 'Amma and her Beta', a story about living with a son who has Down's Syndrome.

'Of mothers and Others' is an engaging and perceptive collection. For men, it gives an insight about the women's psyche and, for females, many of the experiences will ring true.

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

Bull's eye!

US-based professional, George Philip George, who has represented the United States of America in cricket, had a big achievement in another sport recently: he scored a hole in one in golf

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 11 a.m. on March 12, George Philip George was at the Delhi Golf Club. It was a bright and sunny day: blue skies, with an occasional white cloud passing by. The US-based professional, who has his home in Kochi, stood at the tee to take a shot. He decided to use a seven iron because the distance was over 160 yards. “I wanted the ball to land at 150 yards and let it roll on,” he says. There was a slight breeze, from left to right.

As George stood looking at the green, he noticed a large tree on one side. “I knew it was imperative that I did not hit the tree,” he says. George stood still. Then he swung the iron, and hit the ball cleanly. “I saw the ball heading towards the tree, and thought, 'I have goofed it',” he says. “But at the last moment, it curved away and went in a straight line and landed on the edge of the green.... and kept rolling.”

The caddie Shiv Kumar said, “Sir, it looks like a hole in one!”

George said, “No. It is impossible!” But the ball just rolled on and on and, suddenly, it disappeared into the hole. The golfer and the caddie jumped up, yelled at the top of their voices, and embraced each other. For many golfers, it is a lifelong pursuit to score a hole in one. For a non-professional the statistical ratio is 1 in 12,500 attempts.

I was shocked,” says George. “Shiv was even more excited. He had been playing for years and had never scored a hole in one.”

Later, the club president presented George with a hole-in-one trophy. What was most remarkable was that George started playing golf only two years ago. Before that, he played tennis and cricket. In fact, so good was George at being a fast bowler that he was selected to play for the United States cricket team.

The cool thing about American cricket is that people from different countries come to play together,” he says. “So, in our team, there were West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans.”

It was a multi-cultural group and each player had his own style, which he had developed by playing in his home country. For example, the West Indian style is free and spirited, while the Pakistanis are aggressive and natural players. "Like the Indians, they don’t play textbook cricket,” he says. 

George played for the USA when it toured the West Indies for friendly matches in the early 2000s.

But now, in his forties, George was looking for a sport which did not place too many physical demands on him. And, thanks to a friend, he stumbled on to golf.

Golf is an obsession,” says George. “The right technique and constant practice makes you a good player. You are also competing against yourself. The calmer your mind, the better you play.”

George believes strongly in the mind-body balance. “I work a lot and anytime I get a chance to unwind I play tennis or golf,” he says. “I believe in balance. I don't think one should just work and work. Life is a journey and you get one chance to live it.”

Not surprisingly, George is a mix of brain and brawn. He did his MBA at the University of North Carolina as well as from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thereafter, he worked for several years in the healthcare and pharmaceuticals industry. Today, he is the CEO of, a firm that stimulates high-performance growth in many companies with the help of world-renowned scholars, through an online presence. “We offer training and teamwork solutions to people in 72 countries,” says George.

George, who has a keen sense of international business, says that the USA and China have become superpowers due to an enormous capacity for hard work and a pride in their country. In contrast, we lack a pan Indian attitude. "When two Indians meet abroad, they invariably ask from which part of India one is," he says. "So, one is classified either as a north or a south Indian. This can be a drawback. But an Indian’s great gift is that he is enterprising, hard-working and creative. Because of this, Indians will become world-beaters one day.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)