Friday, June 28, 2013

A Visible Darkness

Mahesh Dattani's play, '30 Days in September', focuses on the lifelong damage of child sex abuse

By Shevlin Sebastian

Eminent playwright Mahesh Dattani's play, '30 Days in September', at the JT Pac, Kochi, begins with 26-year-old Mala Khatri, (played by Ira Dubey) staring at an empty chair, where, presumably, her counsellor would be sitting. “Today is February 29, 2004," she says. "And my name is Mala Khatri. Why not? Why shouldn't I use my real name? I want people to know. It is he who should be changing his name, not me. It is he who should be hiding. It is he who should be ashamed to show his face anywhere on this planet. I know I can only make it happen if I use my real name.”

The tone is set. This is a play about child sex abuse and the terrible lifelong damage it inflicts on those who are victims.

Thereafter, a single spotlight is fixed on a small doll placed on a chair. It has a black cap, blonde hair, a black dress and tiny shoes. And a voiceover, in Mala's tone, says, “I know it is my fault. It must have been. I must have asked for it. Maybe, I was born that way. Maybe this is what I am meant for. Sometimes, I wish that my mother had just done something.”

Shanta, Mala's mother, played by Lillette Dubey, has been abandoned by her husband years ago. So, she turns to Lord Krishna for solace and mental peace. But Mala has a seething rage towards her mother, for not doing anything about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle, which is reflected in several angry scenes between the two.
I am talking about all those times that he would do things to me,” says Mala. “First when I was seven, then eight, then nine. You would always be busy with your puja or the kitchen. I would go to daddy crying, and before I could tell him why I was crying he would send me to you. And without saying anything you would say I should just eat and sleep and all the pain would go away. And it did go away. But it comes back. It keeps coming back. It never goes away.”

To overcome the pain, Mala becomes promiscuous and has affairs. And she marks it on the calendar because every relationship has to end within 30 days. After that she has to move on. “They are usually older men,” says Mala. “I like it when they use me.”

Her latest boyfriend, Deepak (Joy Sengupta) is determined to hang on. He talks to Mala's counsellor, has a chat with the mother and suspects that there is something wrong with Mala. Despite that, he loves and wants to marry her.

In one stunning scene Deepak is trying to coax Mala to forget her past, while her uncle stands behind them and mouths the thoughts that are residing in Mala's subconscious mind. “Did you feel that?” says the uncle. “That means I love you. Your Mamu loves you. Don't cry. You are ready for your present for your seventh birthday. Now lie down. This is our secret. Pull your frock up over your face. Sssh... don't cry. Don't tell Mummy and Daddy. Don't stop until I tell you. You are fit only for this.”

Later, at the invitation of Shanta, the uncle stays at their house, while on an official visit to Delhi. There is a confrontation between Mala, Deepak, Shanta and the uncle. And, once more, in a heart-stopping climax, Shanta's horrific childhood abuse is revealed, done by her own brother, the uncle in Mala's life.
And a despairing Shanta shouts, “I am the one to blame. Because my tongue was cut off years ago. How could I save her, when I could not save myself? Have you seen the pain in my eyes? Nobody saw anything, not my cousins, not my brothers, not my parents.”

'30 Days in September' is a bleak but riveting play, and all the actors were up to the mark, but Lillette and Darshan Jariwala, who played the uncle, were a few notches above the youngsters. And for a lot of people in the audience, they could see, artistically and visibly, the impact of child sex abuse.

Says businesswoman Anita Goyal: “This is one play I just could not stop thinking about since the day I watched it. There is so much food for thought. So much to ponder on. So much to debate about. Although the main subject was child sex abuse, there was also the complicated relationship between mother and daughter. And the psychological help extended by the boyfriend towards his partner's woes was intertwined in the most harmonious way.

Meanwhile, there was one amusing moment at Kochi. During one period, lightning and rain could be heard on the soundtrack. But to Lillette's visible surprise – she kept looking upwards – the rain did not stop on cue. Instead, it continued for several minutes. But it was not the sound technician's fault. It was actually raining outside: Kerala's monsoon was making its presence felt. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“He is Cute”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Says Shahina about her husband, the stage artist and actor Nadir Shah

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, the stage show artiste and actor Nadir Shah and his wife Shahina were in Chennai. They were on their way to Kuala Lumpur because Nadir had a stage show. The others in the group included Kalabhavan Mani and his wife, actress Suchitra, comedian Kottayam Nazir, dancers, musicians, and support staff.

On the flight Shahina wore a white shirt with red stripes, and a red pant with a red belt, and red shoes. It was eye-catching. As they were walking through the duty-free section of the airport, suddenly, through a shop window, the group saw the same clothes that Shahina was dressed in. The only problem was that a chimpanzee was wearing it.

For a few seconds everybody was frozen by the sight,” says Shahina. “Then Kalabhavan stepped forward to check whether it was the same material.”

And it was. The group burst out laughing. As for Kalabhavan, he laughed so much that he fell to the ground. “Even today I get teased about it by all those who were there,” says Shahina, with a smile.

Shahina is chirpy, vivacious and lively. And it is this quality that attracted Nadir Shah when he first went to meet her at her home in Kochi in February, 1998. “I did not come from a good financial background,” says Shahina. “And I told this openly to him. I did not want him to think that I was well off. I wanted to tell the truth. I said, ‘If you are willing to accept this, then I am willing to marry. Otherwise, we can drop it on the spot.’ This statement of mine impressed him a lot.”

Shahina also was physically attracted to Nadir Shah. “He looked cute, and had a smooth face,” she says.

Nadir Shah also liked her and the marriage took place on April 12, 1998. A week later they went to Dubai where Nadir Shah had a programme. It was also their honeymoon.

When they reached the hotel room, Shahina discovered, to her horror, that she had, absent-mindedly, given the keys of the luggage to her mother-in-law when they were leaving Kochi. When Nadir Shah realised this he immediately lost his temper. “He shouted and yelled at me,” says Shahina, with a smile. “That was when I realised that he has a quick temper.” Anyway, eventually, he broke open the locks himself.

One reason why Nadir Shah is quick to get angry is because he is a perfectionist. “It is his search for perfection that makes him lose his cool,” says Shahina. “During a stage show, there will be thousands of people in the audience and each person has his own mind. You need to keep them entertained for three hours. So, a small glitch can spoil the entire performance.”

Nevertheless, Shahina is a big fan of her husband. “From the age of 16, Nadir Shah has been looking after his large family,” says Shahina. “His father told him on his deathbed that it was his duty to look after everybody. And till today, as the eldest, he has continued to do so.”

Nadir Shah is also a man who encourages people all the time. “If he sees somebody who has a little bit of talent, he will go out of his way to provide opportunities,” says Shahina. “For most of us, our role models are our parents, but I have learnt a lot from Nadir Shah: How we should not think about ourselves all the time. How we should help others and be generous and kind.”

And he is good at fulfilling his duties in his own family. “The way he looks after us, I have never seen anybody else do it with the same intensity,” says Shahina. “I feel safe in his hands. This is not a love marriage. Yet, somehow, we are deeply in love. It is our destiny to be together. Praise God for that.”

Of course, one of the drawbacks is that Nadir Shah is away from home for weeks at a time. “Our children [Aysha, 12, and Khadeeja, 8] miss him a lot,” says Shahina. “There have been times when Aysha has gone to a corner and wept silently. Khadeeja shows her feelings through her eyes. I also miss him, like any wife anywhere in the world.”

But Shahina says that the moment he returns, all the sadness is quickly forgotten. “We enjoy being in his company,” says Shahina. “We love the togetherness.” And in order to make her husband happy, she cooks his favourite karimeen curry. In fact, she makes it the night before, so that there is the right taste.

Asked for tips for youngsters who are about to tie the knot, Shahina says, “Don't interfere too much. Space is important between husband and wife. Most husbands don't like nagging wives. You should have patience and tolerance of the negative side of a person. You should also love with all your heart and show your genuine self all the time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Search for The Real India

Akram Feroze has been travelling by cycle through the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala for the past one-and-a-half years

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

On March 22, 2012, Akram Feroze, 24, was cycling in a hilly area, near Diglipur, in the Andaman Islands. He rode fast, so that he could get the momentum downhill to go uphill in the next section. However, suddenly, he came across a sharp bend. “I saw it very late,” he says. Akram went straight ahead, and hit a bank of dry leaves. Unfortunately, behind it was a slope, and he went down 20 feet. “I was lucky not to be seriously injured, but the cycle was permanently damaged,” he says.

A quick-thinking Akram called up journalist Zubair Ahmed, the editor of the 'Light of Andaman' newspaper in Port Blair, 290 kms away, for help. Zubair put up a post on Facebook. D J Venkatesh, who runs a travel agency, in the area, saw the message and immediately sent a vehicle to rescue Akram.

He was taken to the nearby Community Health Centre, but was released, after receiving first aid. Realising that his cycle was beyond repair Akram posted a message on his Facebook site, 'The Cycle Natak', that his cycle was damaged. “There are many people who are following my page,” says Akram. Soon contributions came in. Some donated Rs 100, while others went as high as Rs 5,000. In the end he got Rs 25,000 and bought a brand-new GT Transeo cycle.

One-and-a-half years ago, Akram set out on an all-India tour. “I wanted to see first-hand what is there beyond the borders of my town,” says the youth, who grew up in the small town of Jagtial in Karim Nagar district in Andhra Pradesh. Not surprisingly, it took Akram two months to persuade his father, MA Shukoor, a building contractor, and his mother, Shiraz Sultana, a principal in a government school, to give permission.

And thus Akram set out, with only Rs 300 in his pocket. He has no fixed plans. When he reaches a village, he will go to the tea shop. There he will befriend the locals. “They will check out the cycle and ask me a lot of questions,” says Akram. “They want to ensure that I am not a dangerous person.”

Once he is accepted, the villagers invite him to stay. Most of the time, he goes to the houses of the poor. He remembers living with Manickam, 60, a manual scavenger, near Trichy. There was just one plastic chair in the room. “It took me an hour to convince him that he was elder to me and needed to sit on the chair, while I should sit on the floor,” says Akram.

Sadly, Akram confirms that the caste system is still going strong. “I have not seen the upper castes treating the Dalits with dignity anywhere in Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh,” he says. “But in Kerala, the situation is much better.”

Interestingly, when people realise that Akram is on an all-India journey they will give him Rs 30 or Rs 50 and say that in case he is going to the Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah at Ajmer or the Tirupati temple, he should give a donation and pray for them.

People are quite religious,” says Akram. “In every house that I visited, there were religious symbols – pictures or idols of gods and goddesses – no matter how shattered the structure was. People live on hope, even though their lives are very difficult. Praying to God provides mental relief.”

In some villages, Akram would stay for a couple of days and then set out for the next village. He travels light: three T-shirts and a couple of tracksuits. “I have to tell you frankly that I stink most of the time,” he says. “I wash my clothes in streams and ponds, so you can imagine how clean it can be.”

Sometimes, he gets gifts out of the blue. The GoGreen GoCycling organisation saw Akram's Facebook page and couriered a T-shirt for him at Madurai with a message, 'This is a token of appreciation from us'.

As Akram travels around, he is getting a deeper understanding of India . “Poverty still exists,” he says. “The upper classes are improving rapidly, but the process is much slower for the lower castes. There are too many dropouts at the primary school level. It is going to be a huge problem for the country.”

As of now, Akram has no problems and plans to carry on, with no time limit, till his wanderlust is satiated. “I have no idea when I am going to stop,” he says, while on a brief stop-over in Kochi , on his way to the Lakshadweep islands. “I am enjoying myself enormously.” 

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

Wise, Witty, and Winsome

Pope Francis's life, as revealed through conversations, shows a man who has interesting insights about life

By Shevlin Sebastian

Pope Francis has a touch of humour. When asked whether celibacy should be abolished for priests, he says, “I once heard a priest say that, without celibacy, he would have a wife, but also a mother-in-law.”

When his mother became temporarily paralysed after giving birth to her fifth child, she would direct the children while seated on a chair in the kitchen. “Now put this in the pot and that in the pan,” she would say. As a result, Francis, the eldest child, learned to cook. So, is he good at it? “So far, no one has died,” was the impish reply.

These anecdotes are recounted in the book, ‘Pope Francis (His Life In His Own Words)' by Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. This 2010 best-seller, published in Spanish, in Argentina, is based on a series of interviews that the Pontiff gave the journalists over a period of two years. So, it was not surprising that when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, an English translation has been put out, aimed at the estimated worldwide audience of 1.2 billion Catholics.

Francis’ family migrated from Italy to Argentina in 1929 and his father, Mario José Bergoglio,began his career as an accountant. The family was reasonably well-off, so when Mario asked Francis, who was 13 then, to start working, he was shocked. Nevertheless, Francis joined a hosiery plant as a cleaner and the experience gave him a lifelong lesson on the importance of work.

Work anoints a person with dignity,” says Francis. “Dignity is not conferred by one’s ancestry, family life or education. Dignity comes solely from work. We eat and support our families through work. We can own a fortune, but if we don’t work, our dignity plummets.”  

Francis speaks on an array on topics, including the qualities needed to be a good priest, the benefits of forgiveness, and the explosive subject of sexual abuse of children by priests.

If a priest is a paedophile, then this perversion existed within him, before he was ordained,” says Francis. “Celibacy does not cure that perversion. They either have it or they don’t. Therefore, we must be very careful whom we admit into the priesthood.”

Francis has also been careful while refuting allegations that the Catholic Church, and Francis, who was head of the Jesuit order, did not do enough during the years of the military dictatorship, (1976-83), in Argentina, when thousands of people disappeared, and their bodies were never found.

At the beginning, nothing was known,” says Francis. “As a priest I knew that something serious was happening, but I realised it was much more only later. Society, as a whole, became fully aware of events during the trial of the military commanders.”

But Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer of the respected 'New Yorker' magazine, says, “The key allegation against Francis is that he pointed out left-leaning priests to the military, as dissidents, leaving them exposed, and that he did not defend two kidnapped clerics or ask for their release. He has denied this, and says that he protected priests and others, but, quietly, in secret.”

Gabriel Pasquini, an Argentine writer and editor, contends that Francis did not do enough. “He was not at the level required during those dramatic times,” he says.

Meanwhile, there are two surprises in the book. The foreword has been written by an Argentine rabbi, Abraham Skorka. “As far as I know, this has to be the first time in two thousand years that a rabbi has written the foreword for a book about the thoughts of a Catholic priest,” says Abraham. 

And he explains why he did it. “Some will disagree with Francis' assessments, but everyone will accept the humility and compassion with which he confronts every one of the topics,” says Abraham.

The second surprise was to know that, in the previous election, in April, 2005, in the second round Francis received an unprecedented 40 votes, and was tied with eventual winner Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). To avoid a protracted contest, Francis stepped aside and asked that his votes be transferred to Ratzinger. However, destiny did not step aside. Instead, it beckoned him eight years later.

Pope Francis
(His Life in His Own Words)

By Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti

Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons

Pages 265.

Price: Rs 799.

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

The Butt Of Ire and Frustration

Politicians in Kerala are at the receiving end of public dissatisfaction. A look at the reasons why

Photo: The Kerala State Assembly 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Thomas George was standing on the pavement near Subhash Park, Kochi, when he saw a procession of mourners following a coffin. While going past, in a white Ambassador car, Rajesh Kurup (name changed), the local MLA, also noticed the crowd. “He immediately asked the driver to stop,” says Thomas.
Clad in his trademark white shirt and mundu, Kurup got down, made his face look suitably sad, and joined the queue as it went down the road. After ten minutes, the crowd entered Rajendra Maidan. And it was then that Kurup got a shock: it was a film shoot that was taking place and not an actual funeral.
That’s a Kerala politician for you,” says Thomas, with a laugh. “He will attend all funerals, including mock ones, weddings, and other ceremonies, but will rarely have any time for development work, or do something for the betterment of society.”

Agrees music composer Jerry Amaldev: “The majority of the politicians talk about doing something, but they are hardly doing anything. I have met many politicians but they have not made a positive impression on me. I come away with a sense of emptiness.”

Amaldev bemoans the poor civic facilities. “When you walk on the road, there are no footpaths, no proper drainage system, and the government hospitals are dirty,” says Amaldev. “If you give this entire state to a Singapore company, they will do a better job, and with less money also.” 
One reason for the lack of performance is that there is not enough time. “There is a change in the government every five years, so there is very little opportunity for one group to do something concrete,” says businessman Deepak Aswani, a former chairman of the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Plus, there are too many groups within parties, working at cross-purposes.”

There is also a lack of money. “87 per cent of the state budget goes towards salaries and other such payments,” says Aswani. “The balance 13 per cent is used for education, health and everything else. So the government has very little cash. They are dependent on central funds.”

But the biggest impediment is the polarisation of society into the Communist and Congress camps. “The public cannot think in any other terms except from the political angle,” says C. J. Chacko, the former deputy general manager of Syndicate Bank. “This has created a lot of problems for the development of the state. When one party comes to power, the other party will oppose them, because they think their role is only to oppose.”

Sometimes, this opposition comes in the form of destroying public property. “They feel that the property belongs to the ruling class,” says Chacko. “But this is not true.”

But there was a time when politicians did do something for society. “In the 1950s, the Left politicians initiated the land reform bill,” says Chacko. “Tenants became owners of the land. Then there was the Kerala Education and Kerala Agrarian Relations Bills which caused far-reaching changes.

Art gallery owner Latha Kurien Rajeev says politicians, like the late AK Gopalan and EMS Namboodiripad, of the CPI(M), transformed Kerala society. “They made it a welfare society,” she says.

But Chacko argues that the current-day politicians also care about the people's welfare. “People like Oommen Chandy, KM Mani, and VS Achuthanandan are mass politicians and are always accessible,” he says. “They are always moving with the people.”

The good news is that when compared to politicians of other states the Kerala leaders are far better. “They are humble and approachable,” says Aswani. “In a neighbouring state, if you want to meet the chief minister you have to pay money for the privilege.”

The only problem of meeting politicians in Kerala is that there is no privacy. “They conduct everything like a sabha,” says Aswani. “All the visitors listen in to your conversation. Suppose you have a good project in mind. Obviously you will not want everybody to hear about it. But the politicians want to show that they are above corruption. What actually happens is they are not listening to you.”

Of course, there are exceptions like Finance Minister KM Mani. “Mani's grasp is amazing,” says Aswani. “And, for his age [80 plus], he is able to able to understand each and everything. He would be an ideal chief minister, but his party is small. But he could be like [former Chief Minister] Achutha Menon who belonged to a small party but ruled for a long time.”

However, one disturbing trend is the dynastic nature of politics these days: sons of leaders are groomed to become leaders. “Politics has become a lucrative profession,” says Latha. “But that should not be the case. It should be a service to the people. We have not put politicians in power so that they can make money for several generations of their family to live comfortably.”

What is adding to the problem is the absence of creditable and educated people in public life. “The intellectuals and professionals are leaving everything to the politicians, who come up through student union politics and, sometimes, from criminal backgrounds,” says Chacko. “Qualified people should come into politics and make a change.”

But that is going to be a difficult task. “Unfortunately, good people treat politics with contempt,” says Aswani. “I know of a friend of mine who was a topper in college. But the guy who was on the backbench and never came to class became a minister. The academic qualifications of most of the ministers are not good enough for them to be a MLA or a Minister.”

So, the only hope is of the young taking to politics. But when Latha tells her 15-year-old son, Mrinal, that when he grows up, he should be a politician, the boy is shocked. “Amma, are you crazy?” he says. “Who wants to be a politician?”

Latha's reply is idealistic: “Mrinal, if young people like you don't go into politics and save our country, there will be nothing left for your children.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Easy Pickings

Shops in malls constantly face the threat of theft from professional thieves and amateurs

By Shevlin Sebastian

During a crowded weekend, an employee of Graffiti Clothing at the Oberon Mall, Kochi, just about managed to see a 35-year-old woman slip in a folded silk garment into her own saree. He confronted her. She denied it. A group of salesgirls discreetly took her to the store room. On a closer inspection, it was discovered that she was wearing a pyjama under her saree. There were other items from neighbouring shops.

As they were deciding on whether to call the police, there was a call on the landline. “The associates of the thief said that a woman had come into the shop and has gone missing, so they would have to call the police,” says Aftab Kareem, the owner of Graffiti. “It was a smart move. They could easily charge us for sexual harassment. So we let the woman go.”

These are professional thieves, who go from shop to shop, in the malls, especially on weekends and festive seasons to steal goods. Most of the time they get away, and even if they are caught, the danger of the woman accusing the male staff of sexual harassment is ever present. “But now I have made it mandatory that only female employees should deal with woman thieves,” says Aftab.

The thieves are smart. “Whenever we replay the tape of the surveillance cameras, their faces cannot be seen,” says Aftab. “They know their precise location. So they stand looking away.”

Apart from these skillful robbers, there are amateur thieves, in the 18-30 year age group. “They do it because they think, ‘Why pay for it when I can get it for free?’” says Aftab. “Boys will take a couple of shirts and go inside the trial room. They will put the new shirt on and over it, they will wear their original shirt. And then they will walk out.”

But some have unlucky experiences. One young man put a new shirt, and forgot that his own shirt was a see-through. The store manager was at the billing counter. The salesman whispered to him about the hidden shirt.

The manager gestured to him, and when the youth arrived at the counter, he said, “Are you through?”

He said, “Yes.”

I am making out a bill for you,” said the manager.

For what?” the man said.

For what you are wearing under your shirt,” said the manager.

The youth quietly paid the money and went away.

Our aim was not to humiliate him in public,” says Aftab. “He was not a career thief. He was someone who was taking a chance.”

Meanwhile, what has amazed Aparna Menon, the owner of a shoe and apparel shop, was how young the thieves can be. “Rajesh was only 11 years old,” she says. “He used to come to the store regularly and pick up stuff with his parents.”

Since he lived near the mall, he would come alone sometimes. “He was very friendly with the staff,” says Aparna. “But the moment other customers came and the staff would get busy, he would put caps and balls in a bag and quietly walk away. When we tracked the movements on the close-circuit TV we understood what he was doing.”

The video was shown to the affluent parents, who were, understandably, shocked. “Rajesh's father literally cried in front of the sales staff,” says Aparna. “I think it was a thrill for Rajesh. He does not need all these things. He already has enough.”

Aparna says that most of the thefts in her shop has been done by youngsters. “We don't complain to the police, as we do not want to spoil their lives,” she says. “We will warn the boy and ask him to buy the product. Even if he does not want it, he has to take it. That is the punishment.”

Young women try a bit of thieving, also. “They tend to steal cosmetics or ladies accessories,” says MT Raghu, a store manager in a shop at a mall, near Vytilla. “They will put the products in their handbags. When the anti-theft tag gives a beep, while they are passing through the exit, we will just ask them to pay for it. Then we make them write a confession letter stating that they had taken this. All this will be done quietly.”

But the most astonishing theft in Raghu's store was when a 25-year-old youth coolly placed a 14” LCD, costing Rs 15,000, under his large jacket and walked away. “Nobody noticed anything,” says Raghu. “The theft was discovered days later when we replayed the surveillance tape.”

In most shops, there are about three to five thefts or attempted ones every month. And they can be divided into three types: internal, external and break-ins. “The last one is rare,” says Raghu. “About 80 per cent of the thefts are done by customers. But what we fear the most are internal thefts.”

That is when an employee colludes with an outsider. “He will ask the friends to come and do shopping,” says Raghu. “At the counter, he can remove the magnetic anti-theft tag, and pass the clothes without doing the billing. Or he will put a Rs 200 tag for a Rs 1500 jeans.” To avoid this, the store does a background check on the tellers, and places surveillance cameras at the cash counters.

What has made things difficult for the retailers is that thieves have found their way around the anti-theft tags. “They will use a blade to take it off,” says Aftab. “Since it is a magnetic tag, there is something called a magnetic detacher, which costs Rs 2000. The professional thieves use this.”

Most retailers in the malls accept that such thefts take place all the time. Says Aparna, “The annual industry loss is 5 per cent of the stock. It becomes worrying when it goes above that.”

As for any solutions to this menace, Aftab says, “Unless all retailers get together and ensure that the photographs of the thieves are displayed prominently outside every mall, this will not stop. A strong body, headed by a retired police officer, should ensure that the thieves are locked up for a long time.” 

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

'She Has no Airs'

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Santhosh Menon talks about life with actress Navya Nair

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Santhosh Menon received the marriage proposal of film star, Navya Nair, he was hesitant. “I had the impression that film stars had a lot of 'head weight',” he says. Nevertheless, out of a mix of curiosity and interest, he decided to see Navya. The meeting took place in March, 2009, at Navya's house in Muthukulam, near Haripad. “She was a normal girl,” says Santhosh. “There were no airs about her.”

They had a 'getting to know each other' conversation. “Navya was worried about my busy life,” says Santhosh. At that time he was working as a CEO in a Mumbai-based multinational firm, dealing with spices, and travelled a lot. In fact, Santhosh has been to 54 countries during the course of his work.

Santhosh also asked Navya about her priorities. “I knew it would be difficult to have a film career as well as a family life,” he says. But, to his relief, Navya told him that her priority was to have a happy family.

Santhosh enjoyed talking with Navya. That evening when he returned home to Changanacherry, he asked his driver, Binesh, to collect all the CDs about Navya in the market. The next morning, he flew back to Mumbai and watched all the films.

I liked her the best in 'Nandanam',” he says. “Mostly, she seemed to play homely characters. Her combination with Dileep in 'Ishtham' was good. She told me later that she rarely worried about the remuneration, but more about the type of role she had to play.”

Eventually, Santhosh said yes and the marriage took place on January 21, 2010, at the Christ King High School ground at Cheppad. More than 5000 people were present, including superstars Mammooty and Mohanlal, as well as Kavya Madhavan and Bhavana, and the who's who of the political establishment.

Thereafter, for their honeymoon, they flew to Dubai. While there, they went to the Global Village, which is regarded as one of the world's largest tourism, leisure and entertainment festivals. The Malayalis present there mobbed Navya. People were constantly taking photos on their mobiles. “My driver and friends had a tough time protecting us,” says Santhosh. “This was the first time I got an indication of Navya's star status.”

A few days later, they settled down in Mumbai. And Santhosh smiles as he remembers Navya's initial attempts at cooking. “Every morning, she would call her aunt, Sudha, who lives in Muthukulam, and would ask her what to make,” says Santhosh. “This talk would go on throughout the day.”

But the end result is that, today, Navya has become a good cook. “She makes a very good chicken curry as well as other non-vegetarian dishes,” says Santhosh. “Earlier, when guests would come, we would go out for dinner, but, now, thanks to Navya's skills, we are eating at home.”

Santhosh also encouraged Navya to try her hand on TV, because it is less time-consuming than a film shoot. “A month's programme can be shot in three days,” says Santhosh. Navya has been the judge of ‘Munch Dance Dance’, and is the anchor of ‘Bharthakkanmarude Sradakku’ which is shown on a private TV channel.

And her film career has not been ruled out entirely. “I told Navya that once in a while she will be able to act, because she has a dream to win a national award for acting,” says Santhosh. After her marriage, Navya has acted in one film: 'Scene Onnu Nammude Veedu', directed by Shiju Anthikad.

Santhosh is also encouraging her to develop her other talents. In their plush apartment at the exclusive Palm Beach Road in Navi Mumbai, Navya has just finished writing a book. “It is about her experiences in the film industry,” says Santhosh. “The book will be published in July.”

As her life moves forward, Navya is slowly changing. “Her friends tell me that, thanks to me, Navya has become softer, and more realistic and practical,” says Santhosh. “Earlier, she was tough.”

About her negative points, Santhosh says, “When she gets angry with somebody she will not talk to that person again. Sometimes, she tries to speak against them. I always tell Navya that because of certain circumstances they might have said something negative. It does not mean that they are against her for the entire life.”

Thanks to Navya's encouragement, Santhosh started a business in exporting spices and it has been doing well. “I give all my thanks to the Almighty,” says Santhosh. “He also gave me a child.” The couple have a two-and-a-half-year-old son named Sai Krishna.

Asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Santhosh says, “Stay cool and try to understand each other. All married couples fight with each other, but you should aim to solve your problems. If an argument gets too intense, go away for an hour, and come back when things have cooled down.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Charm Offensive

Actor Jayaram celebrates his 25th year in Mollywood
By Shevlin Sebastian

In the early 1980s, Jayaram was the star at the Sree Sankara College in Kalady. He was good at mimicry, mono act, and had won the best actor and best comedian awards at inter-collegiate festivals. But his throne was shaky. 

For an upcoming college festival, the top comics of the Kala Bhavan had been invited to perform. “I realised that if they came, they would completely overshadow me,” says Jayaram. So he went to Kochi and watched one of their shows intently. On the evening of the day they were supposed to perform, Jayaram played a masterstroke. He enacted their entire programme in the morning itself.   

So, when the troupe arrived, the students informed them that they had already seen the show. “They became extremely angry with me,” says Jayaram. “They returned to Kala Bhavan and told the director, Fr. Abel, that a criminal case should be initiated against me.”

But the legendary Fr. Abel had a different reaction. “Fr. Abel said that if a person, who saw our programme once, could enact it perfectly then he is a person of talent,” says Jayaram. “Instead of initiating a criminal case, we should invite him to join our troupe.”

As a result, Jayaram joined the Kala Bhavan troupe in September, 1983. He was with them for four years. “I did more than 3000 performances in Kerala, all over India and abroad,” says Jayaram.

The group would bring out videocassettes of their performances which were extremely popular and sold well.

Meanwhile, well-known director Padmarajan was searching for a new hero for his film, ‘Aparan’. His son, Anantha Padmanabhan, gave his father a video cassette and said that there was a mimicry artiste worth looking at. Immediately Padmarajan said, “Mimicry is not a good art. It is a copy of what other people do. I don't want such a person in my film.”

But Anantha finally persuaded his father to have a look. And the director liked what he saw. “Padmarajan Sir called and offered me a role,” says Jayaram. “It was a turning point in my life.” Shooting began on February 18, 1988.

Jayaram played a dual character. “The actions taken by a criminal is borne by another, who looks like him,” says Jayaram. The film was a box office hit and established Jayaram as a bright star of Mollywood. Today, Jayaram is celebrating his 25th year in the industry, having acted in more than 250 Malayalam and Tamil films.

Asked the reasons for his enduring success and popularity, Jayaram says, “Work as sincerely as possible. Give more than 100 per cent in your job. That is probably the reason why, so far, no producer or director, who has been associated with me, has ever said they will not work with me again.”

Another reason had been the extraordinary talent in Mollywood working together at the same time during the 1980s and 90s. They included Sankaradi, Tilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Mamukoya, Innocent, Jagathy Sreekumar, Kuthiravattam Pappu and Cochin Haneefa. “They were exceptional people,” says Jayaram. “When you were pitted against them, you had to perform better. So, you improved automatically.”

And the improved Jayaram is as busy as ever. His latest film is ‘Bharya Athra Pora’ (My wife is not that good). “It is one of the best roles I have played,” he says. “Women will be able to identify with the characters.” Jayaram is also busy shooting for veteran director Joshy’s film, ‘ Kashmir ’.

So, a quarter century later, the mimicry artist has become a true original.  

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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Cut-throat Corporate World

The Interview’ is a play that pushes the border of realism, with witty dialogues and deft acting

By Shevlin Sebastian

'The Interview' opens with a nervous young man (Karan Pandit), clutching a resume, and sitting on a bench outside an office. A secretary (Prerna Chawla), in a tight black skirt and white top and stiletto heels sits behind a table at one side. Soon, the young man is called in. And what should have been a straight-forward interview becomes a bizarre experience for Karan, thanks to the questions posed by the boss (Kashin Shetty).

Asked what he would like to drink, Kashin induces Karan to have a glass of whisky, instead of the usual tea or coffee. “Won't you have some?” says Karan. And Kashin says, with a straight face, “Not before an interview. I need to stay sharp and precise.”

When he looks at the resume, Kashin says, “Very impressive. Born in June, excellent.” And he proceeds to say how Geminis are honest people and good for the company. “In fact, there are a lot of Twins [symbol of Gemini] in management,” says Kashin. “It looks favourable to you.”

Next, Karan is forced to sign a confidentiality agreement, regarding the interview, and made to put on headphones for a lie detector test. And a series of one-line questions are hurled at him, like his age and preferred colour. Asked about his favourite number, Karan says, “4308.” Which provokes guffaws from the audience at the JT Pac, Kochi.

To curry favour, Karan says, “This company has a lot of vision.”

Kashin says, “What kind? Myopic?”

And so it went, with many unusual twists and turns. Kashin is having an affair with his secretary, and wants Karan to ask Prerna to quit and move on, so that the relationship can come to an end. If he convinces her, assures Kashin, Karan will get the job.
But Prerna is not willing to quit. “The fear of his wife has caught up with the boss,” she says. “And he sends you to tell me the news. That's middle management for you. I could file for sexual abuse and inform his wife.”

Meanwhile, Kashin's hysterical and uptight subordinate Keith (Adhir Bhat), is called in to do some additional questioning of Karan. During the few times when nobody is present in the office, Karan calls up his girlfriend on the mobile and appraises her of the situation. Later, amazingly, a murder takes place.

The 80-minute long play has been a success since its launch three years ago. “This is our 84th performance,” says director Akarsh Khurana, of the Mumbai-based Akvarious Productions. The group has performed in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Coimbatore and in Muscat, Oman.

Clearly the play has struck a chord. “Everybody can relate to the characters, because it is set in the corporate world,” says Akarsh.

Incidentally, playwright Siddharth Kumar and Akarsh have a corporate background. “We used to attend meetings at a Mumbai-based company,” says Akarsh. “The boss would not speak a word till the dictaphone was switched on. Because everything he said had to be recorded. It was put into a data base, so that people could access whatever he had said. There were a lot of strange rules and diktats.”

Siddharth then got the idea to do something with an interview. “He wanted to push the boundaries of realism,” says Akarsh. “So, a straight-forward job interview enters into a bizarre space.”

And the audience have had varied reactions. During a question and answer session, after a recent theatre festival, some members said that people in the corporate world do not use bad language. “Immediately, other audience members disagreed,” says Akarsh. “A woman said, 'You are showing a lady as an object.' Then another woman stood up, and said, 'Secretaries are objectified in work places. We should accept the truth.'”

Akarsh was not upset by the salvos and rejoinders. “If the play leads to a certain amount of argument, that means it is succeeding,” he says.
'The Interview’ is a gripping play, that deals with human emotions, and the steps, moral or otherwise, people will take to advance their careers. Following the conclusion, in the lobby, a bespectacled man told one of the organisers, “I have come to see a play, after ten long years. I am glad I came for this one.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'I know His Authentic Self'

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Shoba talks about her life with the actor Jagathy Sreekumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

During a trip to America, in 2007, Shoba lost her suitcase in transit. “I just had the salwar kameez I was wearing,” she says. Shoba felt depressed. In order to show solidarity, her husband, the actor Jagathy Sreekumar did not change his clothes. For a couple of days they attended functions in the same dress. “Jagathy felt that I would get upset if he kept changing his clothes, as any performer does, during a performance,” she says.

Finally, friends of Jagathy provided clothes, and they also went to a Pakistani shop, in New York, and bought sets of traditional salwar kameez. “I do not wear jeans and T-shirts,” she says, with a smile.

The first time Shoba saw Jagathy in the flesh was when he came to see her at her home in Kanjirapally for an official marriage meeting in 1979. She was only 18 at that time, while Jagathy was 28.

Jagathy was wearing a brick-red coloured shirt. “I remember he had a moustache and a pair of sunglasses in his pocket,” says Shoba.

In a brief conversation, Jagathy told her she should put on weight, as Shoba was very thin at that time. “I liked him,” she says. And so did her parents.

The marriage took place on September 13, 1979. They did not go for a honeymoon, but in later years Jagathy did take Shoba for several trips abroad. “I have been to America, Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and many other places,” she says. “We have gone as a family, with [son] Ramkumar and [daughter] Parvathy, sometimes, just the two of us, and, on other occasions, along with members of the troupe, when they go to perform in different countries.”

Apart from his talent as an actor, Jagathy is a good cook. When he returns home from shooting, he will buy a packet of fish and cook it himself. “He makes a very good Naadan fish curry,” says Shoba. Apparently, Jagathy learned to cook because his mother would be ill, with asthma, during his childhood.

As for his negative qualities, Jagathy has a short-temper. “It can be triggered off by the smallest of incidents,” says Shoba. “At the same time, he cools down quickly. He can also get angry when fans approach him while he is having dinner with the family.”

Till recently, Jagathy's family used to have some regular activities. As soon as a film would be released, they, along with Jagathy, would go and see the first show at one of the theatres in Thiruvanthapuram. Later, over dinner at a restaurant nearby, they would give Jagathy a feedback. 

“If he has acted well, I will praise him,” says Shoba. “Otherwise, I will say it was not that good. My children are more direct and will sometimes say, 'Papa, there was no need for you to have acted in this film. The role was not good enough for you.'”

For Shoba, although it is a thrill to see him on screen, she is always aware of a different Jagathy at home. “I know his true self,” he says. “At home, he is a mix of being very serious and loving. But he is always in a happy mood. He is not a person who becomes tense easily. For Jagathy, it is very important that I remain happy. He does not like me to look depressed or sad. So I try to be joyous, all the time, because he is the most important person in my life.”

Interestingly, this most important person practices his art regularly at home. “He has a mirror in his office room,” says Shoba. “Jagathy will make several facial expressions and observe himself closely. There have been times when he has spoken out aloud the dialogues of an upcoming movie. Sometimes, he will get angry and shout at me. Then he will go to his room, and stare at his face, and makes the same facial expressions he made at me and repeat the same sentences.”

The end result of all this practice has been a brilliant career for three decades in which Jagathy has acted in over a thousand films. Unfortunately, that vocation has come to a shuddering and tragic halt because of the near-fatal accident Jagathy was involved in, at Panambra in Malappuram district, on March 12, 2012. “He is making a slow recovery,” says Shoba in a sombre voice.

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Shoba says, “One must have trust. You should be frank, honest, and respect each other. It is also very important to forgive each other.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Green Revolution, of a Different Kind

A former industrial engineer, Shubhendu Sharma, is planting forests all over the country to combat the degradation of the environment
By Shevlin Sebastian

In December, 2008, Dr. Akira Miyawaki came to give a talk to the staff of the Toyota car company at Bangalore. He is famous for creating natural forests in degraded environments in numerous countries. According to estimates, the 87-year-old Miyawaki has planted 4 crore trees in his lifetime.
In the audience, on that fateful day, was a young industrial engineer named Shubhendu Sharma. He was inspired by what he heard. “I realised that this is something which has to be done all over our country,” he says. It took Shubhendu two-and-a-half years to take the plunge, abandoning a brilliant career at Toyota, and heading in a direction which is rare for any middle-class boy in India.
His company, Afforestt Environmental Conservation Services, follows the Miyawaki method, with some minor modifications, to suit the Indian environment. So when Shubhendu comes across a barren land, one of the first things he does is to take samples of the top soil and from one metre deep.

This is taken to a laboratory where tests are done to find out the nutrients which are lacking. “If the soil does not have nitrogen I will look for a nutrient which is rich in nitrogen,” says Shubhendu. “This could be chicken manure from a poultry farm.”

He also checks the electrical conductivity which is a measure of how much water the soil can hold. Thereafter, a survey will be done to identify the native trees. Then orders will be placed with nurseries nearby to grow the saplings. 

“After that we will ensure availability of water,” says Shubhendu. “There has to be a boundary, like a barbed wire fence, on all sides, to prevent the saplings being eaten by cattle or taken away by people.”

An earth-mover is used to churn up the soil, and nutrients like herbs and organic manure are added. When this is done, the soil becomes very soft. 

“Once you provide such a soft medium, the penetration becomes very easy,” says Shubhendu. Within three months the roots of saplings will reach a depth of three feet. With such rapid growth a robust forest is created within three years. Incidentally, in an acre of land, 6000 trees can sprout up.

Thus far, Afforest has put up 17 forests – a total of 36,000 trees – in places like Nainital, Indore, Pune and Bangalore. “I feel a sense of urgency,” says Shubhendu. “According to worldwide statistics, every minute, forests the size of 36 football fields are being lost.” The maximum damage is being done in Indonesia and Latin America. Incidentally, his former company, Toyota, asked his help when it wanted to green its Pune plant. “I ended up making a forest of 10,000 trees on the perimeter,” he says.

Asked the advantage of having a forest in an urban area, Shubhendu says, “It adds 30 times more greenery to the area,” he says. “There is 30 times more carbon dioxide absorption and protection against noise pollution. If we start converting our lawns into forests we can save a lot of water because forests do not require water after three years. They also retain a lot of water. Every single tree contributes 60,000 gallons of water annually to the water table.”

In forests, you can also observe how nature behaves. “Nature will decide which tree will survive and which will not,” he says. “While there is continuous harmony, among the trees, there is also a ceaseless competition. The trees which are light-loving tend to grow tall, while those which are shade-oriented will stay shorter. So, a teak will shoot up, while a mango tree will flourish in its shade.”

For Shubhendu, his most moving experience occurred when he was planting trees for an IT company in Bangalore. Most of the employees came with their families to render help. He noticed a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who was planting the saplings all by herself. “She did it better than some grown-ups,” he says. “Even this small child knew how to plant saplings. This is something which is there in our genes that we have lost track of.”

He says that each and every person has a latent love of nature within them. “I have seen people get so deeply moved when they plant saplings that they become silent,” says Shubhendu. “For the next three hours, they get their connection back with nature. Many first-timers ask for more opportunities to plant saplings.”

And so, a former Toyota engineer is trying to spearhead a green revolution, of a different kind, in India. 

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