Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Touch of Spain in Kochi

Spanish couple, José Pérez Datas and Carmen Ospino, have been teaching their native language, as well as French to local adults, and spoken English and yoga to children for the past three years

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

Roy Mathew got friendly with Adriana Miranda on Facebook. Very soon, he fell in love. But there was a problem. Roy lived in the Vypeen islands, near Kochi, while Adriana was in El Salvador. But an infatuated Roy decided that if he wanted to impress Adriana he needed to learn Spanish. 

A quick Google search and that was how Roy landed up at a large bungalow nearby called 'La Arcadia' in Ayyampilly. The Spanish couple, José Pérez Datas and Carmen Ospino have been teaching Spanish and French to professionals, apart from spoken English and yoga to children, for the past three years.

It was the most unusual reason we received for learning Spanish,” says José, with a smile. “Roy told us he is going to bring his friends along so that they can also get friendly with girls in El Salvador.”

Others who come to learn include nurses, many of whom are migrating to Canada. Some are planning to go to French-speaking countries like Gabon and the Ivory Coast in Africa. “Sometimes, women have to learn Spanish to join their husbands who are already working abroad,” says Carmen.

Since trade links between India and Latin America is increasing, there are lots of exporters who want to learn Spanish to do business. Then there are professionals from the IT industry and university professors, too. Recently, one teacher won a scholarship to France and was keen to learn French.

José and Carmen offer basic and advanced courses. “To learn basic French or Spanish, it takes two to three months,” says José. “It all depends on the students and how keenly they do their homework.” An advanced course can last up to a year. And the rates are simple: Rs 100 per hour.

The couple also conducts classes for children in spoken English and yoga twice a week. “We do this for free, because this is our contribution to the local society,” says Carmen. Both husband and wife are amazed at the pressure that children are under these days. They know of children who get up at 6 a.m. to go for tuition.

Now, during the summer holidays, there are 30 children who come to us for classes,” says Carmen. “But when the school opens in June, the numbers will go down drastically. The children tell me they would like to continue but their parents will not allow them. They want their children to go for tuitions. It is study, study, study all the time.”

When they are not teaching, the couple are busy tending to their large garden, which has mango and guava trees, as well as ducks, hens, and a couple of cats. At one side, there is a large man-made pond. They use it for water harvesting. “We don't get much hired help,” says José. “So, we have to do all the repair works in the house by ourselves. We also bake our own bread.”

In between they have unusual experiences. The other day, José was sitting on the verandah and reading the newspaper. Suddenly he heard a whining sound from the backyard. When he went to investigate, he saw that a rat snake, about ten feet in length, had a big frog in its mouth. Quickly, José picked up a bamboo stick and beat the snake. At once, the snake released the frog. Within moments, the snake went one way and the frog the other. “I felt happy that I could save the frog's life,” he says.

José and Carmen were teachers in the fishing village of Estepona in southern Spain. They came to India in 2003 when they got a job teaching Spanish at the Kodaikanal International School. They worked there for two years but found the cold weather unsuitable, especially for José, who fell sick often. So they moved to Pune where they worked at the Mahindra United World College for six years.

But in December 2004, during the Christmas vacation they went on a south India tour and came to Vypeen and fell in love with the place. And so, it was that in June, 2009, they settled down in La Arcadia. Asked to explain the meaning of the name, Carmen says, “Arcadia was a mythological valley in Greece. The inhabitants were shepherds who lived happily with nature.”
They also feel very happy at Ayampilly. “We have been welcomed with warmth and joy,” says José. “The people are very friendly and energetic too.”
This is in sharp contrast to the scene in Europe. When José returns to Spain once a year, he is amazed at how depressed the economy and the people are. “Too many years of wealthy living has made everybody lazy,” he says. “In Kerala, people are rushing about and doing so many things with passion and energy. It makes us feel young.” 
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dancing To Her Tune

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Dr. M. Sajish talks about life with singer Sithara

Photo by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

M. Sajish first noticed Sithara Krishnakumar during the B Zone inter-college competitions of Calicut University at Koyilandy in 2004. Sithara, a student of Farook College, was taking part in the light music competition.

She was wearing a green paavada and blouse and looked cute,” says Sajish, who was the chairman of the university union. “I liked her. Sithara sang Vidyadharan Master's ‘Alakananda Theeram’ very well.”

Sajish continued to come across Sithara during inter-college competitions. By this time, he had become a member of the university syndicate. So, he would also meet up with Sithara’s father, Dr. KM Krishnakumar, an assistant register at the university, who handled examinations. Since the Krishnakumars lived near the university, Sajish became friendly with them. “Sithara’s mother, Saly, an excellent cook, and a committed homemaker, impressed me a lot,” says Sajish.

When Sajish was doing his house surgeoncy in medicine he began thinking about marriage. “I was keen to select a girl on my own,” he says. “I did not want to look at caste, creed, religion or financial background. Since I had an interest in the arts, especially in music, I wanted to marry a girl who had a similar inclination. And the one person who fulfilled this criterion was Sithara.”

Sajish gave a marriage proposal to Krishnakumar and Saly and they accepted, as did his own parents. The marriage took place on August 31, 2008, at a hall in Kozhikode. “There was only an exchange of garlands, and a veena concert by the great artist, Ananthapadmanabham Sir,” says Sajish.  

He also gave Sithara a nice wedding gift. They went on a one-week trip to Singapore where they stayed, with Sajish’s friend, Satyen and his family. “There were many beautiful moments, but the one we enjoyed the most was a night safari at the Singapore Zoo,” says Sajish.

Asked about his wife’s qualities, Sajish says, “When she sees people going through a hard time, she melts and really feels for them. She tries to help in whatever way she can.”

However, this can be a negative also. “Sometimes, people have tried to take advantage of her goodness, but being more practical than her, I managed to intervene and save her from tricky situations.”  

But Sithara has an unusual trait. If somebody says something negative about her, she reacts very aggressively. “She cannot tolerate a character assassination,” says Sajish.

Again, in a surprising paradox, if somebody criticises her songs, Sithara has no problems. “She is willing to correct herself,” says Sajish. “That’s because Sithara is intensely dedicated to her singing.  She trains for hours at a stretch. Since she has taken part in competitions from an early age she has learnt to practise a lot. When she is concentrating on her music she forgets the outer world and is completely focused.”

Interestingly, over five years of their marriage, both have corrected each other. “Now I have become more sensitive to people's feelings, while she has become a little tougher inside and has learnt to say no, if she does not want to do something,” says Sajish.

Like any couple, they have their ups and downs. But their happiest moment occurred when Sithara did a pregnancy test and tested positive. “Sithara is going to give birth next month and both of us are thrilled about it,” says Sajish, a clinical cardiologist at Little Flower Hospital, Angamaly.

Sajish is equally thrilled that Sithara has made a name in playback singing. “Unlike most husbands, I don't suffer from an inferiority complex,” he says. “Instead, I admire and respect her talent. I want to help Sithara develop it as much as possible.”

Asked for tips on having a successful marriage, Sajish says, “All spouses have good and bad qualities. We have to accept both. A husband and wife should be frank and open with each other. You should discuss your problems openly and not keep it within yourself. Lastly, it is very important to have mutual understanding and respect.”

About Sithara
Sithara has won several musical talent shows, like Asianet Saptha Swarangal, Kairali TV Gandharva Sangeetham (Seniors) and Jeevan TV Voice 2004, apart from Jeevan TV's 2 Crore Apple Megastars in 2008. She has worked with noted composers like Ouseppachan, M. Jayachandran and Berny Ignatius. So far she has sung 65 songs. Sithara won the Kerala State Award for Playback Singing (2012) for her song, 'Enundodi Ambili Chantham' in the film, 'Celluloid'. She is also a noted ghazal singer and has performed in India and abroad. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, May 27, 2013

A 21st century Thief

Kollam Ajith, who has acted in more than 500 films, makes his debut as a director, with 'Calling Bell', a story about a crook

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the first scene of 'Calling Bell, a thief, Qasim Bhai, played by Kollam Ajith, breaks open a locker of a private bank, takes the money and flees. But alarms are triggered and the police are able to track him down through the cyber cell. They give chase.

Qasim runs into a building, in which there are several apartments. He checks door after door, but they are all locked. Finally, one is open and he enters and shuts the door. There seems to be nobody inside, but there is a sound of water falling in the bathroom. Qasim tiptoes in and sees that the tap is, indeed, open, but the bathroom is empty. Suddenly, the action stops and there is a message on the screen: 'Some people are dying because of a lack of one drop of water. Water is precious. Do not waste it.'

Throughout the film, I have placed similar messages,” says director Ajith. The subjects include the wastage of electricity, the dangers of alcohol and smoking, and the evils of dowry and casteism. “This is the first time in a mainstream film that such a method has been used,” says Ajith. “Of course, it is a risky move. There is always the danger of the audience rejecting it.”

Asked why the film is called 'Calling Bell', Ajith says, “When Qasim enters any place, the thing which alerts him is the calling bell. He is very afraid of it. It means that there is danger. In one scene, he is inside a house, which has a shrill calling bell. Somebody keeps on ringing it. Thinking that it is the police, he opens the door, holding a pistol, and is ready to use it, but sees that it is a child who had come to give birthday sweets.”

Ajith is a veteran of the Malayalam film industry, having acted, mostly as a villain, in more than 500 films. But all along he nourished a dream to be a director. So, one day, he got the idea of a do-gooder thief who steals from banks, and helps the poor. The script took six months to write. But when he found it difficult to get a producer, he decided to make the film himself, with the help of a friend, Rinoi Rajan, under the banner of Rans Entertainers.

The problem with Malayalam films these days is that they are blindly following the glitz and glamour of Tamil and Telugu films,” he says. “A huge amount of money is spent to make grandiose sets. Despite this, most films flop.”

Ajith decided to make his debut work, in the style of his guru, the late Padmarajan, and current directors, Satyan Anthikad and Kamal. “They make simple films, and yet there is a moving message,” he says. “My film aims to be in the same mould.”

Ajith has been deeply influenced by Padmarajan. It was when he saw one of the director's films in 1981 that he decided to join the industry. He went and met Padmarajan, who hired him as an assistant. “But after a while, Padmarajan told me that I should try my luck as an actor because I had expressive eyes,” says Ajith. 

To encourage him, Padmarajan also gave Ajith a role in his film, 'Paranu, Paranu, Paranu'. “That is how my career began,” says Ajith. “But today, I want to take a new step by becoming a director.” 

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

Friday, May 24, 2013

Man For The Masses

Swami Agnivesh has spent the past 30 years fighting for the landless, bonded labourers, poor farmers and against female foeticide, among many other campaigns

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the International Interfaith Dialogue India office in Kochi, there is a sense of expectation. They are all waiting for one of India’s well-known social activists, Swami Agnivesh. And when Agnivesh comes in, he is wearing a striking saffron kurtha and dhoti, along with a turban. His smile is shy, but friendly. The swami looks keen to make friends.

Agnivesh had come on a visit to Kerala to talk about alcoholism. “It is a major problem, not only in Kerala, but all over India,” he says. “The central government is promoting alcohol because of the massive revenue it can earn. But in a survey conducted nationwide, it has been found that while the income from alcohol is 85 paise while the expenditure on alcohol-related problems, like accidents or diseases is Rs. 1.25. So, promoting alcohol is counter-productive.”

Not surprisingly, at the Interfaith office, Agnivesh spoke about communal harmony. “In Kerala, Hindus and Muslims are living in harmony, along with the Catholics and the Protestants,” he says. In Belfast, Ireland, there is a wall which cuts through the city. One side is Catholic and the other side is Protestant. 

“It is called a peace wall,” says Agnivesh. “I told the people there, ‘How can you call it a peace wall?’ The cemeteries are divided. We can take pride in the fact that India has been the home of all the world religions. And, because of this, the people have become richer spiritually.”

Agnivesh has been in the public spotlight for more than 30 years. Born as Shyam Vepa Rao in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, his father died when he was only four. Thereafter, the family went to stay with his maternal grandfather who was a diwan in the princely state of Sakti in Chhattisgarh. 

After his plus two exams in Sakti, Agnivesh decided to go to Kolkata to do his graduate studies. It was while in Kolkata that Swamiji came across the teachings of Dayanand Saraswati of the Arya Samaj.

His teachings shook me to the core,” he says. “The basic teachings go back to the Vedas and the Upanishads. It is about imbibing the universal spiritual values. It is the acceptance of all human beings. God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. He is present in every particle in the Universe.”

Agnivesh, a Brahmin, gave up idol worship, practising the caste system, treating people in an unequal manner and looking warily at other religions.

After studying and working in Kolkata for a few years, Agnivesh went to an Arya Samaj gurukal in Jajjhar in Rohtak district in Haryana. There, he shaved his head, wore two pieces of unstitched cloth, and became a lifelong celibate. “I selected the name, Agnivesh, which means an embodiment of fire,” he says. Thereafter, for two years, he travelled through all the villages in Haryana, and got a clear understanding of how the poor were exploited.

Over the course of the next few years, Agnivesh launched the first-ever farmer's movement called Kisan Andolan. He also started an anti-liquor movement, as well as a campaign for landless labourers, and female foeticide and, later, took part in anti-corruption movements.

But Agnivesh's biggest achievement was when he took up the cause of the bonded labourers. “It was a big shock for me when I saw them for the first time in Haryana,” he says. “They were not in chains, but these migrant labourers stayed in shanties and worked round the clock. Anybody who tried to escape would be killed by guards. When I saw this, I decided to do something for their liberation.”

In 1979, he set up the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labourer Liberation Front). And till today he continues to work for them, but the situation has not improved much. 

“Today, around 45 crore people can be classified as bonded labourers,” says Agnivesh. This definition is based on the landmark Supreme Court judgement of December 16, 1983, by Justice P.N. Bhagawati, who described bonded labour in a precise manner: ‘Whoever does not get the minimum wages, as set by the government, is a bonded labourer’.

Meanwhile, as the fight for the powerless continued, Agnivesh's work was recognised internationally. He won the Anti-Slavery international award in London, the Freedom and Human Rights award in Berne, Switzerland, and, along with the late social activist, Asghar Ali Engineer, Agnivesh won the Right Livelihood Award from Sweden, in 2004, which is regarded as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

When asked about the state of the country, he says, “It is not in good shape. Corruption aside, casteism is still going strong. There is a lack of gender equality. Alcoholism is rampant. There is too much of aggression and violence in society, apart from intense competition and the consequent lack of co-operation between people. The future looks troubled.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Her Days and Nights

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Seema talks about life with veteran director I. V. Sasi

Photo by Satish Babu

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1977, Seema went to the Vijaya Gardens in Chennai to oversee the shooting of a dance sequence. Seema [original name: Shanthi] and a dancer Manisha had to wait a long time, since shooting had not begun. So they decided to have their tiffin. Suddenly, both of them heard somebody snapping his fingers.
When Seema turned to identify the sound she realised it was the director of the film, IV Sasi. Manisha said, “Why is the director calling us by snapping his fingers? Why can't he use our names?”

Seema remained silent. Then as she was going towards the dustbin to throw away a plastic packet, Sasi said, “Hey, come here.”

Seema said, “Santhi is my name. I am not a dog that you call me by snapping your fingers.”

You are a chatterbox,” said Sasi. “There is a dance in my film, ‘Ee Manohara Theeram’. Will you do it?”

Seema said, “I don't want to do a song. I am already acting as a heroine in [Baby’s] ‘Nizhalae Nee Sakshi.’”

Sasi did not say anything. The next day, the dance master Vaikom Murthy went to Seema’s house and requested her to dance in Sasi’s film. “I decided to ask for a huge sum of money,” says Seema. “But Sasi agreed. I then asked for more. And again Sasi agreed. I said, ‘Give the money first’. And, amazingly, he sent it.”

So Seema had no option but to dance in the film. And it was after the shoot was completed that Sasi fell in love with her.

In the meantime, Sasi had begun work on ‘Avalude Ravukal’ (Her Nights). Not surprisingly, all the established heroines refused to act in it because the role was that of a prostitute. Sasi did make-up tests and took photo stills of Seema. He liked what he saw, and selected Seema for the role. Of course, it was a path-breaking movie and established Seema as a sexy siren in Malayalam films. By now, both of them were in a relationship.

A couple of years went by. In July, 1980, Seema’s mother, who bought her a diamond, showed it to an astrologer. He said, “It is good that you have bought the diamond now. By September, the girl should get married, otherwise she will have to wait for three years.”

When Seema heard this, she immediately went to Sasi’s house, in Chennai, and said, “If you want to get married to me, it should be before September, otherwise, forget it.” Sasi looked stunned. Then Seema left for the shoot of the film, 'Chaghara', near Thrissur.

A couple of days later, there was a phone call. Sasi told Seema the marriage had been fixed for August 28, at the Mangad temple, near Chennai.

And on schedule the marriage took place. But there was no chance for a honeymoon, as Seema had to return to the shoot. Today, 33 years later, Seema is happy. “I am grateful to Sasi Chettan for being with me for so many years and for never abandoning me,” she says. “My husband is a good person and a great director.”

In fact, cinema is Sasi’s first love or as Seema says, “It is his first wife. I have no problems with that. It is through films that we have earned our bread and butter. So I am happy he is so passionate about it.”

In fact, so intense is Sasi's commitment that when the film’s release day nears, Sasi goes through an enormous tension. And, irrespective of whether it is a hit or a flop, the director goes through severe loose motions for a week. “That will give you an indication of his commitment,” says Seema.

But both are like chalk and cheese. While Sasi never talks, Seema is loud and voluble. “I think in 33 years we must have spoken to each other for 15 days,” she says.

Nevertheless, this taciturn man has been good to his children. “For my daughter, Anu, he is her life,” says Seema. “He is more like a friend, than a father.” 

Anu is married to Milan Nair, who works for the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney, while she has a job as an academic coordinator in a college. Son Ani Sasi has been working as an assistant to director Priyadarshan for the past three years.

Today, Sasi, a veteran of over 150 films, is planning to make a new film, based on a script by Sanjay and Bobby. And Seema is there to offer moral support.

Asked for tips to have a good marriage, she says, “It is wrong to give advice. Because nobody, not even your own parents, can understand a marriage from outside. It is only the husband and wife who can make or break a marriage.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Tales from a Writing Machine

After years of struggle, Anees Salim, a Kochi-based advertising professional, has published two novels by top publishers. Two more are in the pipeline

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Anees Salim was 16 years old he did the unthinkable for a middle-class boy in India : he dropped out of college. “My parents were shattered, especially my Abu Dhabi-based father,” he says.

Thereafter, Anees shut himself in a room in his home at the beach town of Varkala in southern Kerala and began non-stop reading. He also wanted to be a writer. So he bought a 'Brother' typewriter and began writing. “Later, my relatives told me that the only sound that came out of my room was the tap-tap of the typewriter keys,” he says. “They wondered what I was typing all day.”

This period lasted for three years. Not surprisingly, his family thought that Anees had lost his mind. Then he decided to travel. “I thought that what was standing between me and good writing was a lack of experience,” he says. So, at 19, Anees embarked on an All-India tour which lasted for several months.

When I returned, I started writing again and my family became very cautious with me,” says Anees, at his third-floor apartment in Kochi. “They were scared I would disappear again.”

Soon, Anees realised that he needed a job. “I joined advertising, because it is the only industry that will accept a college dropout,” he says. And it has worked out fine. Today Anees is the Kochi-based Creative Head of Draft FCB Ulka Advertising.

In his spare time and in the early mornings, Anees was busy writing novels. “My first readable book was 'Vicks Mango Tree',” he says. “The first draft was completed when I was 28, but I did not have the courage to send it out. I knew that a rejection letter was on the way. So I parked the book for some time in my drawer. Then, one day, I sent a query to an American agent and got a rejection letter.”

Anees wrote 'The Blind Lady's Descendants', which took two years to complete. He sent a query letter to 50 American and English agents and got rejections. Then the tenacious Anees wrote a third novel, 'Tales from the Vending Machine', in 2009. This time he decided to send it to an Indian agent and selected Kanishka Gupta. “I tried a trick,” says Anees. “I sent the query letter in the name of Hasina Mansoor, the 21-year-old Muslim heroine of my novel. She is a fan of Osama Bin Laden, hates Americans and Jews, and is a Muslim fundamentalist.”

Kanishka liked what he read and accepted the novel immediately.

Anees is a literary ventriloquist,” says Kanishka. “He gets under the skin of his characters, which makes them very real. He also has a wry sense of humour and unusual settings. In fact, it is hard to believe that a man could capture the voice of a young Muslim girl so effortlessly.”

Meanwhile, the tireless Anees banged out his fourth novel, 'Vanity Bagh'. “It is about the Hindu-Muslim divide,” he says. “I have seen people supporting Pakistan during cricket matches. I believe that there is a small Pakistan in every big Indian city. Essentially, a minority of the minority may support Pakistan, while a minority of the majority thinks that all Muslims are refugees.”

Today, all four novels have been accepted by reputed publishers. The 'Vicks Mango Tree' and 'Tales from a Vending Machine' have been taken up by HarperCollins, the 'The Blind Lady's Descendants' by Tranquebar, while 'Vanity Bagh' is by Picador. 'Vicks Mango Tree' and 'Vanity Bagh' have been published, the latter, in the last week of April. In ‘Vanity Bagh’, the writing is simple, lucid, bright and imaginative. So, it is no surprise that the published books are selling steadily.

More importantly, they have been well received by the media and discerning readers,” says Kanishka. 

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

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Building Bridges of Friendship

The International Interfaith Dialogue India is propagating love and respect for all religions in society

Photo: Swami Shankaracharya Onkaranand Saraswathi at the Cheraman Mosque

By Shevlin Sebastian

When NR Pillai, a retired assistant general manager of the Reserve Bank of India, was accompanying His Holiness Swami Shankaracharya Onkaranand Saraswathi, the head of the Prayag Peeth, on a visit to the Lord Krishna temple in Guruvayur, he received a call on his mobile. Dr. Mohammed Syed, a trustee of the Cheraman Mosque, asked whether Swami Saraswathi would drop in at the mosque on the way back to Kochi. The Swamiji readily agreed.

And so, on a sunny afternoon, there were several people present, including the imam, VM Sulaiman Maulavi, to welcome the Swamiji when he arrived. “He was taken all over the mosque,” says Pillai. “Thankfully, there was one person present who could speak fluent Hindi and hence he was able to explain to Swamiji about the various aspects.” Thereafter, the Imam presented the Swamiji with an English version of the Quran.

This is the first time I am visiting a mosque,” said the Swamiji. “I am honoured to know that it is the oldest one in India .” The mosque was established in 629 AD in Kodungaloor.

The Delhi-based Swami Saraswathi had come to Kochi to attend a seminar on 'Religion and Human Values', organised by the International Interfaith Dialogue India (IIDI). The organisation was set up in April 2010. “Unless there is peace among the followers of different religions, there cannot be peace in the world,” says P.K. Shamsuddin, a former judge of the Kerala High Court, and a patron of IIDI. “Unfortunately, in the name of religion, many wars have been fought and much blood has been shed throughout history. Hence, there is a need to educate people about the common values shared by all the religions. That is the main purpose of the IIDI.”

So the IIDI conducts seminars and workshops and tries to sensitise the people to accept and respect all religions. “We invite people of various religions to come and speak,” says Shamsuddin. 

For the last meet, speakers included Prasanna Venkatachariar Chaturvedi Swamy, the founder of the Sri Ramanuja Mission Trust, Tamil Nadu, Fr. Albert Nambiaparambil, the Secretary General of the World Fellowship of Inter-Religious Councils, and Maulawi Jamaludeen Mankada, the Imam of the Palayam mosque, Thiruvanantapuram.

Holding a seminar makes a difference,” says Shamsuddin. “It builds bridges among the different religious groups. There is a lot of misunderstanding. People think that Islam propagates terror. On the other hand, Islam means peace. As a result, there is a lot of mistrust.”

Asked whether there is a rising mood of communalism in Indian society, Shamsuddin says, “I don't think so. Undoubtedly, there are extremists who are propagating division and are trying to mislead the people, but India 's soul is different. The country has always welcomed all types of people.”

In AD 52, when St. Thomas came to Kerala, he was received with open arms. As a result, many people embraced Christianity. Islam arrived through Malik Ibn Dinar, and a team of believers, who came from Saudi Arabia in the seventh century and set up the Cheraman Mosque. 

“The people of Kerala received them warmly and provided them with all facilities, to spread the message of Islam,” says Shamsuddin. “Throughout our history, people have always wanted peace, tolerance, and communal amity. That is our great heritage.”

KJ Yesudas, who is an Ambassador of Peace for the IIDI, since its inception, says, “Endeavors, like the IIDI, are the need of the hour. That is why I have given my full support to them.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tying a New Knot

After a divorce from film star Kavya Madhavan, two years ago, Nishal Chandra has married Remya Nath, a Civil Services aspirant

By Shevlin Sebastian  

On May 29, 2011, Nishal Chandra had reached the lowest point of his life. He had been granted a divorce from Kavya Madhavan, one of Mollywood’s top actresses, from a court in Kochi, following a brief marriage. For months, Nishal had endured a trial by media.

There were reports which suggested that Nishal and his family had ill-treated Kavya. On the other hand, there were allegations that Kavya had remained in touch with an actor with whom she has been reportedly close for many years.

So, it was with relief that Nishal went back to Kuwait. And the last two years have been quiet for him. “I concentrated on my job as a Technical Advisor for a bank in Kuwait,” he says.

In January, this year, his life began to change once again. A relative brought a proposal. The horoscopes were checked and it matched. So, Nishal met Remya Nath, a post-graduate in microbiology, at her home in Mavelikara. “What attracted me the most was Remya’s simplicity,” he says. “And we had a heart-to-heart discussion about what we both wanted from the marriage.” At that time, Remya had just sat for the civil service examinations.

Meanwhile, Nishal has learnt a couple of lessons from his previous marriage.  
There is a strong co-relation between one’s upbringing and how successful a marriage can be,” he says. “Also, a marriage cannot work based on one’s person’s wishes. It is an adjustment between two people who are coming from different backgrounds. What makes it successful is the desire and the will to work it out by the husband as well as the wife.”

In this second marriage, Nishal will have to do a lot of adjustments. For one, just recently, Remya cleared the initial round for the Civil Services examinations, and she aspires to make it to the Indian Administrative Service. If that happens, she will be spending long periods in India. “The easy way out for me would be to say she should give up her dreams once she gets married,” says Nishal. “But that would be unfair to Remya because she has put in a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication to get through. And I respect that.”

Nishal has a solution: he plans to come to India often so that he could be with Remya.

The marriage took place on May 13 on the lawns of Remya’s family’s sprawling 23-acre farmhouse in Mavelikara. Remya's father, Surendra Nath, is a businessman. There were more than 5000 people present.

Later, the couple will embark on a honeymoon. “Most probably, we will be going to Barcelona and Madrid on a 12-day trip,” says Nishal, with a laugh. “Spain is a romantic place and I am sure we will have a good time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Treated Like a Queen

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Actress Menaka talks about life with producer Suresh Kumar

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When producer Suresh Kumar saw the actress Menaka, she was not even aware of it. Suresh, along with the director, Priyadarshan, had gone to Menaka’s house in Chennai to get her to commit for the Tamil film, ‘Karaiyai Thodathe Alaigal’. “My father told them I was unwell,” says Menaka. “Suresh told me later he saw me lying in the bedroom, wearing a pink chiffon nightgown. He said that since he was a big fan, he had wanted to see me. That was why he had come to the house with Priyadarshan.”

But they spoke often on the sets of the 1984 film, ‘Poochakkoru Mookkuthi’, in which Suresh was the producer. During the shoot, Menaka realised that Suresh was very finicky about what he ate. One day, after pack-up time, they returned to the Amrita Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, where they were staying. While going up in the elevator, Menaka said, “Suresh, it is very dangerous to be so particular about the food. Before you marry you should take the girl to your home and get her taught by your mum, otherwise it is going to be very difficult for her.”

Suresh smiled and said, “So, when are you coming to my home to have a practice?”

That was when Menaka realised that Suresh had feelings for her. “I called my mum, told her what happened, and confessed my own love for Suresh,” says Menaka. “I liked him very much.”

But it was not going to be an easy match. While Menaka belongs to a conservative Tamil Brahmin Iyengar family, who are strictly vegetarian, Suresh is a Nair who eats non-vegetarian food. Anyway, it took four years before the marriage took place, at the Lord Krishna temple, at Guruvayur, on October 27, 1987.

For their honeymoon, Suresh had dramatically opened a world map and placed it on the floor. He pointed at several places in Europe and America, but in the end they went to Kanyakumari. In the car, there was Suresh, his brother, wife and son, apart from Menaka. 

Along the way, people from the film industry, like director Vijayan, Sanal Kumar, and P. Radhakrishnan joined in. The group reached Kanyakumari at 2 a.m. There were no rooms at the Ayyappa lodge that they went to. “Eventually, we got a servants’ dormitory on the terrace,” says Menaka. “Later, when we told this to Priyadarshan he showcased this scene in ‘Mithunam’, which stars Mohan Lal.”

For Menaka, Suresh is her star. “He cares a lot about me and the children, and my family,” she says. “He has a helping tendency. If a friend and I are facing some problems, he will solve the issues of the friend first. He knows that I will wait and understand.”

And, she says, Suresh treats her like a queen. “I have no work in the house at all,” she says. “I have maids hence I don’t need to suffer in the kitchen. Even for buying vegetables, I have people. But I would tell him that every 15 days we should go out together and buy some household things.”

They did it only once in a while because Suresh is very active in his career. There are times when he has his food, while Menaka serves him.  “But when I start having my dinner, he will leave,” she says. “So, nowadays, I lock the dining room door and keep the key with me. I tell him, ‘Please wait till I finish my dinner. I am alone. [Their two daughters, Revathi, 24, and Keerthi, 20, are working and studying respectively]. Please look at my face and go’. He laughs, but is helpless at the same time. He is just too busy.”

But there were times when they were together constantly. That was when they went on a four-month trip to the USA in 1988, as part of an All Stars programme.

The other members included Shankar, Shahnawaz, Prem Nazir, Kuthiravattam Pappu and Nadia Moidu. “The programmes would be held on Saturday and Sunday,” says Menaka. “During the week we went sight-seeing in places like New York, Chicago, Michigan, Los Angeles, and Dallas.”

But since Menaka only ate vegetarian food, there was a constant quest for it in non-vegetarian America. But many times Suresh would forget about it. “I was crying because I could not get my type of food,” says Menaka. “Finally, it was Prem Nazir who bought me many dishes. He said, ‘Suresh is a nice person, but he is only four years older than you, and that is why he is forgets. Whatever you want, I will get it.’” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

An e-mail to a human being

Dear Thomas,

I am your wisdom tooth. I am writing on behalf of the others: the molars, the pre-molars, the incisors, and canine teeth. Just to remind you: we live inside your mouth, but you have ignored us for years. When we were born we were milk white. Now we are mostly yellow.

Nights, to be frank, are a hell. Since, dear Thomas, you don’t brush your teeth, after dinner, there are food particles stuck in many crevices. These include strands of meat and vegetables, a thin piece of noodle, a bit of apple, and a dab of chocolate. We don’t possess arms to get rid of them. These fragments fester and let off a bad stink because they tend to burrow into the tiny gaps between the teeth. They affect the gums. They make us feel weak and tired. We lose the energy and when you have food we are unable to chew as best as we can.

During some nights, we feel like dying. Only when you wake up the next morning and yawn that we get the breath of fresh air that we desperately need.

These particles are the enemy within. But what do you know about that? You lead such a distracted life. Do you have any idea of the reaction of people who talk to you? They twitch their noses, they look away or step back, sometimes with a look of horror on their faces. And do you know why? Because you have BAD BREATH! But you are so engrossed with what you are saying, you have no idea.

Sometimes, we feel ashamed that we belong to you. You are cold and uncaring. If we had a chance we would have got out and found a hospitable mouth. We want someone who cares for us. We want someone who brushes his teeth twice a day, and uses dental floss.

I just want to tell you that you need to brush at night. It is more important than the morning. If you get rid of all the particles we will feel clean, fresh, strong and in a positive frame of mind. Use Colgate toothpaste: they are the best in the world to fight tooth decay. My grandfather and father told me that.

And for God’s sake, use a tongue cleaner. Since, at 18, you are girl-crazy, let me give you a tip: you will enjoy kissing more. And so will your girlfriend.

Think about it!

I look forward to hearing from you.
Wise Guy

(Also known as Wisdom Tooth) 

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Free but Dangerous World of the Internet

Children, as young as 10 years of age, are watching porn sites. It has a disturbing impact on them

By Shevlin Sebastian

Anil George was in Class 7 in a co-educational school in Kochi. One morning, before classes began, he rubbed his body against Seena Das. Seena complained to Miss Fatima, the class teacher. Fatima took Anil aside and asked him what had happened. It took some time before Anil told the teacher that he saw this action on a porn site on the Internet.

Fatima told Anil she would be informing his parents. “This is a serious issue,” she said. Anil immediately said, “My parents will get very angry. I don't know how I will be able to enter the house.”

When the parents came to know, Anil’s father, Mathew, understandably got angry and upset. However, he decided it would be best for his son to talk to a counsellor. That is how psychiatrist Dr. Janaki Sankaran came into the picture. “I had three sessions with Anil where he spoke about peer pressure about watching porn sites and the impact it had on him on seeing these images,” she says.

A patient Janaki explained to Anil that not everything that one sees on the Internet is good. She also made him understand why his parents were so upset.

During the third session, Anil felt comfortable enough to allow his father to come inside. As soon as Mathew sat down, Anil just flung his arms around his father's neck and started crying.

Appa,” he said. “I am sorry. It will never happen again.”

Janaki says, “This was one case which had a happy ending.”

Not many parents are aware, but children as young as 10 are able to access pornographic sites on the Internet. “If the parent has a smart phone, the child will take it, go to another room and access porn sites,” says psychiatrist Sitalakshmi George. “It is difficult to monitor them. They will say that they are talking to a friend.”

Unfortunately, it is very easy to go to a porn site. “Even when you move from one cartoon site to another, you might end up at a porn site,” says Sitalakshmi.

Another way is to go to Internet cafes under the excuse of doing class project work. “Children might go singly or in a group, to check out the forbidden sites,” says Sitalakshmi. “At school, there is a lot of discussion between the children themselves about the various porn sites.”

However Janaki says that nowadays some café owners have become cautious. “If children are wearing uniforms and especially if it is after school hours, they will insist that there is an adult present,” she says. But there are also many who look the other way.”

So what is the impact of seeing these images on a child? “It is variable,” says Sitalakshmi. “For some children it is very disturbing. They get very upset. Then there are some who get curious. They want to see more. For others, their studies get affected. Those images keep coming to their mind and it becomes like an obsession. They are unable to concentrate.”

There are instances when boys develop sexual feelings for their mothers and sisters. “They might try touching their mother or sister,” says Sitalakshmi. “Even in their interactions with their female classmates they take liberties and try to touch them.”

Another impact is a sense of guilt. “This could be lifelong,” says Janaki. “The feeling of ‘I am doing something wrong’ will always be associated with sex, even when they have grown up and married.”

So what is the way to ensure that children do not access pornography at a vulnerable age? “I tell parents that they have to keep an eye on the child,” says Sitalakshmi. “They should be aware of who their friends are. They should know where the child is going, at all times. Parents and children should be talking to each other frequently.”

Parents and counsellors also have to explain to children that what they are watching on the net is not what happens in daily life. Children do not know that the actors in the films are doing it for the money or maybe they are being forced to do it,” says Janaki. “Children have to be told that the sexual violence that is shown is morally wrong.”

The practical suggestions include keeping the computer in a public area of the house where everybody can see the screen. “Parents should insist that the children can use the computer only when there is an adult around,” says Janaki. “Also, parents should encourage their children to do outdoor activities, instead of being cooped up in front of the computer whenever they have free time.”

A frank discussion about sex will also help. “Children have a lot of doubts,” says Sitalakshmi. “So, parents should encourage the child to voice their opinions and explain everything honestly and sincerely.” 

Some parents do find it difficult to talk about these topics. “Then they should consult a child psychologist or psychiatrist who can easily explain these matters to the youngsters,” says Sitalakshmi.

But perhaps the most important is the need for sex education in the schools. “Classes should be given where not just scientific facts are presented but the children are encouraged to look at societal norms, gender issues, clarify their own attitudes and values and learn how to stand up to peer pressure and have the confidence to report abuse,” says Janaki. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

“George was obsessed with films”

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Selma talks about life with noted film director KG George 
Photo by Manu R. Mavelil  
By Shevlin Sebastian

After Selma completed her four-year course in Carnatic music from the RLV College 
of Music and Fine Arts, at Tripunithara, her father, the famed singer, Pappukutty Bhagavathar,
also known as Kerala Saigal, took Selma to Chennai, so that she could try her luck in 
playback singing. Selma spent a year there, and then her mother Baby came to stay with her. 
When she saw Selma struggling to get assignments, her mother told her about 
a young director by the name of KG George. He hailed from Tiruvalla, the 
same home town as Baby. “We should ask him for an opportunity to sing in his 
films,” said Baby. One day, in Ashok Nagar, they saw him accidentally.

George wore a rose-coloured shirt and tight jeans. He had Afro-style hair, like 
the late guru, Sathya Sai Baba, and a thick black beard. “I did not find him 
particularly attractive,” says Selma. “He seemed like an odd character.” When
Selma told him she was a singer, George immediately said he had cut out 
three songs from his debut film, ‘Swapnadanam’. “In my films, there are 
hardly any songs,” he said. “In case I put in some, then I will call you.”

Next to Selma’s house lived the famous producer Shobhana Parameswaran Nair.
A month later, Selma had gone to Shobhana’s house, for some work, and met 
George there. “Later he told me that on the second meeting he decided he
wanted to marry me,” says Selma. “I was thin, had long hair and looked 
beautiful and demure.”

Soon, George came to Selma’s house and told Baby he wanted to marry her 
daughter. “My mother said that her elder son Mohan Jose, who lived in Mumbai,
made all the decisions in the family,” says Selma.

The producer of ‘Swanpakoodam’, Mohammed Bapu, lived in Mumbai. 
So George went to see Bapu, and ended up meeting Mohan. “I told my mother 
I was not agreeable to this proposal because George was a director and they are 
always having affairs with girls,” says Selma “I knew this from personal
experience. Whenever I would approach a director for a song, he would say, 
‘I will give you a chance, but we will have to do other things also’. I felt George
would be like that.”

But Mohan liked George and said yes. So, despite her apprehensions, the couple
tied the knot on February 7, 1977, at the St. Mathias Church in Chennai.

Today, when asked about her husband’s plus points, Selma says, “George’s only 
aim in life was to make good films. He was always reading, writing scripts, and 
remained obsessed about films. He lived in a different world and had no
interest in anything else. I had to run the household on my own. He is a great
director. Unfortunately, I cannot call him a good husband because he has never 
been one.”

Two aspects deeply affected Selma. One was his propensity to get angry with 
her during the early years, when he was going through intense stress while 
making his films. “He would shout at me a lot,” she says. “When my daughter 
Tara was in LKG [Lower Kindergarten] on a greeting card she wrote, ‘Today, 
my father got angry with my mother. I was very upset when I read that.”

The second aspect was George’s penchant for ignoring her completely for 
months together. “That hurt me a lot,” says Selma. “I stayed with him because 
I had two children, [actor-son Arun, now 34, and daughter Tara, 29, a 
Dubai-based flight purser].”

Not surprisingly, Selma thought of divorce many times, but could never take the
plunge because of the lack of financial independence.

The loss of a singing career has also been one of Selma’s biggest regrets. She 
sang in 40 films, and her most popular song was 'Saradindu Malardeepa' from 
the 1979 film, ‘Ulkadal’. “People have asked me why I did not continue,” says
Selma. “It is very difficult to have a career and look after the house and the
children at the same time.” 

At their home in Vennala, Kochi, George, 69, moves around slowly and 
unsteadily, after suffering a couple of strokes three years ago. Selma looks at him 
with a mix of affection and anger. When asked for tips to give youngsters who 
are about to get married, Selma says, “You have to learn to adjust. One person 
should compromise. If both people stick to their egos, there is little hope. 
You also need money to have a good marriage.
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)