Tuesday, July 30, 2013

“My First Impression was ‘Wow’”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Vinod Sivaraman talks about life with singer Chitra Iyer

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Vinod Sivaraman saw Chitra Iyer for the first time, at a dinner, at the Chennai Gymkhana Club, he was smitten. “My first impression was 'Wow!'” he says. “She was a stunner. I was instantly attracted. I liked the way she talked. Her command over English was perfect. I was impressed. ”

Vinod's parents had arranged for them to meet. At that time, Chitra was an upcoming singer, while Vinod was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. The next day, he took her out on a date on his Suzuki bike. They sat on a bench in a cemetery, because it was peaceful and quiet. Not long after, the watchman shooed them away. So they went to a restaurant and kept talking to each other. After this interaction, Vinod was sure he wanted to marry Chitra, but Chitra took some time to say yes.

The marriage took place on July 12, 1989, at Chennai and the couple settled in Jodhpur, where Vinod was posted.

Asked about her positive qualities, Vinod says, “Chitra is intelligent, open-minded, and great fun to be around. She is an enthusiast of animal welfare. Chitra supports elephant rehabilitation in Kerala and looks after the causes of stray animals.” Amazingly, at their Bangalore home, they have 25 cats and 7 dogs.

Chitra's interest in elephant rehabilitation happened when she went home to Karunagapally and met the elephant, Mahadevan, after a 15-year gap. Mahadevan was gaunt and weak because he was starving. He belonged to the nearby temple. When elephants can no longer generate an income, they are not fed. Chitra fought to save Mahadevan, but to no avail.

That was the spark for Chitra to start a venture to rehabilitate older elephants,” says Vinod. “When Chitra takes a stand, she remains strong-willed about it.”

Vinod gives an example. In 1995, Vinod had got a transfer from Allahabad to Bangalore. So, he booked tickets in a single coupe, since they had two dogs to take along. But when the train arrived, the couple discovered that the coupe was occupied by Swami Prabhuananda (name changed).

During this time, Vinod was ill, running a temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and felt weak. So, he could not put up a fight. But Chitra did. She said the train will not start, till they got their coupe.

There was an impasse,” says Vinod. After an hour of three-way discussion, between the Black Cat commando, guarding the Swamiji, the Travelling Ticket Examiner, and Chitra, eventually, the commando and a Muslim traveller decided to give space in their four-berth coupe. As a result, Vinod and Chitra got their seats, while the dogs slept under the berths. 

The next morning, the train stopped at a station. Thousands of people came to greet Prabhuananda. After a while, the District Collector, a young woman, came and met Chitra. She gave the swamiji's personal card and said, “Swami Prabhuananda has invited you to visit the ashram. He was very impressed about the trouble you took over two dogs. He said you are a woman of conviction.” 

In this incident all the attention was on Chitra. But Vinod, who is now a pilot with a private airline, says he has no issues that everybody is aware of his wife, while he remains away from the spotlight. “I understood this very early,” he says.

Once the couple, who had just got married, were sitting on a bench at Kasaragod station. A young man approached them. He just shooed Vinod away with his hand and sat between them and began talking to Chitra. After a while, he asked Chitra for an autograph. “Clearly, he did not know who I was,” says Vinod, with a smile.

Interestingly, Vinod does not know much about music. “I am tone-deaf,” he says. So when he attends Chitra's concerts, it is their musically-trained daughters – Aditi, 20, and Anjali, 18 – who are able to spot mistakes.

Chitra has a large repertoire – Malayalam, English, Bollywood and Tamil, apart from Carnatic and Hindustani songs. “Chitra's only drawback is that she did not study music as long as she should have,” says Vinod. “She learnt Carnatic and Hindusthani music at home, but did not get the academic qualifications that some people said she should have got.”

The same thing happened with her MA in English literature from Calicut University. A week after she got married, the Viva exams were to be held. But Chitra forwent it, so that she could go with Vinod to Jodhpur. “It was a decision that I still regret,” says Vinod.

Nevertheless, what he likes most about Chitra is the way she dedicated herself to be a mother. “That took precedence over her career,” says Vinod. “But today, Chitra has some regrets. Because the music break was as long as ten years, Chitra is not finding it easy now. She is older and people have moved on.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the ingredients needed for a successful marriage, Vinod says, “Before getting married, be sure you are committed to each other. You should not be doing it for the sake of somebody else. With commitment, comes love. In the absence of love, a marriage has little meaning. Communication is very important. Otherwise, you will become alienated. You should be able to talk about anything.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Magical and Mesmerising Goa

The state is promoting 'raindrop tourism', to lure visitors to come during the rainy season

Photo: The traditional Cotti Fugdi folk dance 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Goan crooner Kevin Xavier began singing at a hotel in Kochi, a majority of the audience got up and drifted to the bar at the back of the hall. But that did not discourage Kevin one bit. He jumped down from the stage and went to the back and did his show - a mix of Konkani, classical Hindi and English songs.

The people showed their appreciation by smiling and clapping, even as the liquor went down appreciative throats. Kevin, wearing a colourful shirt, and a black cap, represents the carefree and fun-loving nature of Goans, who like to party every night.

Then there was the Corridinho folk dance, which is of Portuguese origin. The women wore colourful skirts and scarves, and the men were in black tuxedos and hats. There was a beautiful forward and backward movement, with dancers holding hands behind backs.

The other dances included the Cotti Fugdi, a traditional folk dance, where the women wore folded sarees and blouses, with flowers in their hair, apart from a dance of the Kunbi tribe.

All this was part of the ‘Go Goa’ campaign launched by Goa Tourism. “We have come to promote ‘Raindrop tourism’,” says Pamela Mascarenhas, the Deputy Director of Goa Tourism. “Although we are competitors with Kerala, we can also be friends. During November and December, our peak tourist season, the tariff is very high. But during the monsoon season the rates come down so much that it is affordable for all.”

And like the Kerala Tourism Department’s ‘God’s Own Country’, the Goans have come up with a catchy one-liner: ‘The Smallest State with the Largest Heart’. The state is blessed with 105 km of coastline, in which there are numerous beaches. 

“Some of the less well known beaches, which are of pristine beauty, include the Kerim and Arambol beaches of North Goa,” says Gavin Dias, the deputy general manager of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation. “Many people are unaware of this.”  

But perhaps the most interesting would be the Morjim and Agonda beaches, where the world famous Olive Ridley turtles come on shore to hatch eggs. “We have ensured that the beaches remain empty so that the turtles are not harassed,” says Dias. “Many people from all over the world come to see this.”   

Even though there is a recession in Europe, what has helped attract foreigners to Goa this year has been the devaluation of the rupee. “We expect the usual 4.5 lakh visitors this season also,” says Dias. Most of the people come from Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, and France. 

But Goa, like Kerala is also sustained by domestic tourism. “Last year, there were 22 lakh inbound tourists,” says Dias.   What was a revelation, in the audio-visual documentary, were the numerous places to see. “Most people think that Goa is only beach tourism,” says Dias. “But that is not true.”

In eco tourism, there is the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary which is very close to Panaji, the capital, apart from the Bondla forest, which is a wildlife sanctuary. Other places of interest include the Arvalem Caves, which were carved out by Buddhist monks in the 7th century AD, the scenic  Dudhsagar Waterfalls, and Chapora fort, 22 kms from Panaji, where several Bollywood films have been shot, including the Aamir Khan hit, ‘Dil Chahta Hain’.

In pilgrim tourism,  you can see the world famous Basilica of Bom Jesus (16th century), the Sree Bhagavati temple which is more than 500 years old, as well as the Safa Masjid at Ponda. “This was built in 1560 by Ibrahim Adilshah of Bijapur,” says Dias. 

The Goans also celebrate a carnival in February, with parades, dances and songs, the Shigmo festival, in February-March, which highlights the arrival of spring, and the Bonderam (feast of the harvest) on August 4. And a welcome new addition is white water rafting on the Mandovi River.         

Clearly, even though it is a tiny state, in terms of area, it is rich in art, culture, history and wonderful people. Definitely a state well worth a visit. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

“He has always been positive”

Spouse's Turn Column

Sreelatha talks about life with scriptwriter and actor P. Balachandran

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the School of Drama and Fine Arts in Thrissur, Sreelatha Nair was selected to act as a housewife in the Sanskrit play, ‘Urubhanga’, written by playwright Bhasa, (2nd century AD). Final-year drama student P. Balachandran was chosen to give training to Sreelatha.

He took her outside, and made her stand under a tree. Then he went some distance away and asked Sreelatha to speak the dialogues loudly. The aim was to teach voice modulation to the young actress and to speak clearly. 

Slowly I learnt how to control my voice,” says Sreelatha. “But Balachandran would scold me sometimes when I made mistakes.”

Sreelatha respected Balachandran a lot. Apart from the fact that he was a senior, she admired his dedication and sincerity to drama.

One day, Sreelatha went to do shopping in Thrissur and was standing outside a cinema theatre. The film, ‘Papillon’ was being shown. Balachandran saw her and asked whether she would be interested in seeing the film. She said yes and they went on their first date.

Inside the hall, Balachandran said, “Do you know why I invited you?”

Sreelatha said, “No.”

It is because I like you,” said Balachandran.

Sreelatha felt happy that Balachandran found her attractive. So she said, “I will have to think about it and then tell my parents.”

After a few months, when her parents began looking out for a boy, Sreelatha told them that Balachandran was interested in her.

They asked me whether Balachandran had a job,” says Sreelatha. At that time, he was busy with a project initiated by the Ford Foundation. There was a promise that he would be given a job at the School of Drama. The school had just been started and there were many vacant posts. Sreelatha told her parents all this.

Eventually, her father and mother agreed. The marriage took place on April 14, 1985, at the Vaikom temple. And it has been a topsy-turvy journey ever since.

Balachandran has gone through a lot of difficult times in theatre and cinema,” says Sreelatha. “But he never became desperate. He has always remained positive. Despite setbacks, he never gave up and  continued with his efforts. He is an honest and straightforward person. Balachandran also pays a lot of importance to friendships and relationships.” ”

Sreelatha loved the sense of freedom he gave her. “He allows me to travel alone,” she says. “Balachandran will never scold me or get angry if I come late or get delayed. I feel very secure because of this. I know a lot of women who do not have this sort of freedom.”

But, initially, Sreelatha took some time to get adjusted to living with a man with an artistic sensibility. “During the early years of our marriage I would feel upset that he was obsessed with drama,” she says.

Balachandran used to work as a lecturer of creative arts in Mahatma Gandhi University's School of Letters at Kottayam. On January 1 – the death anniversary of the former director, G. Sankara Pillai – there would be a staging of a drama. Usually, Balachandran was selected to stage it. He would get busy from November. Near the performance date, he would spend hours in rehearsals.

My children were small, and I was finding it difficult to manage everything,” says Sreelatha. “Sometimes, we would have quarrels. But after a few days, I would make up with him.”

Slowly, she began to develop a better understanding. “My husband's work is that of the mind,” she says. “When he is working, he becomes distracted. So I leave him alone and run the house on my own most of the time.”

Interestingly, when Balachandran had to write a script, he will take a room in the lodge to do so. So far, he has written scripts for 20 films, but only nine were actually made.

He did not get paid for some of the films which were not made,” says Sreelatha. “We had a tough time for a long period. I was a homemaker throughout. I would get job offers, but Balachandran would not let me work. He told me that since he was travelling so much, there would be nobody to look after the children.”

But in 1998, Sreelatha became a teacher for the Art of Living course, and began travelling all over Kerala. And today, she is the chairperson of the Vaikom municipality. “It became easier to work as the children were growing up,” she says.

The couple have two children: Sreekanth and Parvathy. Not surprisingly, Balachandran was liberal with the children. “They would feel free to talk anything to him,” says Sreelatha.
Asked for tips regarding marriage, Sreelatha says, “Be patient and have love for the spouse. Don’t expect the husband to do everything. Do things which will make him happy. Women should do more, because nature has made her a mother. She has to play the most important role of bringing up a child.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Into The Darkness

Qais Akbar Omar’s gripping autobiography, ‘A Fort of Nine Towers’, gives a glimpse of an Afghanistan that slid into chaos during the Taliban rule

Author photograph by Tom Fattori

By Shevlin Sebastian

Afghan author Qais Akbar Omar has a deceptive style. He begins a paragraph in the most innocuous manner and gives you a jolt by the end of it. Here is an extract: “In the centre of the courtyard where the platform for the musicians had been, there was now a ditch filled with the heads of men and women. Dozens of them. I looked at them with their eyes open, staring at me, with their shabby hair matted with blood. I started to vomit, but controlled myself.'

Another example: ' Berar did not answer. Then he nodded at the other two men. One man picked the commander up on his shoulders, and in one fast move carried him over to the edge of the roof and tossed him off. We listened to one long scream and then a thud.'

This event was the climax of a two-week period when Qais, then only 11, was imprisoned along with his father by one of the factions in Kabul and made to do forced labour. During that time, Qais watched the captors rape a woman repeatedly, while another woman gave birth.

He also saw a prisoner being shot to death at close quarters. “When they turned the victim on his back, there was a tiny hole where his heart was,” writes Qais. “The exit wound was bigger than the entrance. The exit wound is always bigger than the entrance; this is something children in Kabul had come to know.”

'A Fort Of Nine Towers' is a compelling and lucidly written autobiography of life in Afghanistan during the 1990s when fighting broke out between the various tribes – Panshiris, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Pashtuns, Hazaras and the Taliban. Eventually, it was the Taliban that took over and brought the country to its knees, with its puritanical and rigid laws and random killings.

Qais belonged to an upper middle-class family, which dealt in carpets. However, they sank into poverty when the Taliban raided their house and took over. The apple orchards were destroyed and 6000 carpets were stolen. Qaia's family fled to the Qala-e-Noborja (The Fort of Nine Towers), the title of the book, on the outskirts of Kabul. From there, they went to places like Kunduz, Tashkurghan, Bamiyan, and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Along the way they had strange experiences that resembled more a work of fiction than reality. When staying with the Kuchis in Samangan, Qais discovered an astonishing way the people caught fish. They took a generator to the river, switched it on, and placed the wire in the water. Soon, the electrocuted fish floated to the surface. On another occasion, a Kuchi threw a grenade into the river and dead fish fell on the shore, in large numbers.

In Bamiyan, the family lived for weeks inside the cave behind the 2000-year-old Buddha statues. They could peer outside through the eyes of the Buddha. This, incidentally, was a United Nations World Heritage site, which was blown up, with the use of dynamite, by the Taliban in March, 2011.

Meanwhile, there were horrifying experiences, too. His cousin, with whom he had been close, died of a rocket attack. He saw random murders and killings by trigger-happy youth. Finally, Qais watched, with growing dread, Taliban-staged amputations and public hangings at the football stadium in Kabul. His description of one such event is calm, clear-eyed and accurate. 

They stood the thief in the middle of the football field and opened his handcuffs,” says Qais. “The Taliban held his right hand down on a table. A doctor injected the man’s right arm with anaesthetic, then took a saw and cut off the man’s hand while he watched. One of the Taliban took the hand and waved it around to the crowd. The hand was still bleeding, and the pale fingers seemed to our horrified eyes to be moving very slowly.”

Despite focusing on these tragedies, what ultimately shines through in the book is the powerful and positive spirit of Qais and their family, as they passed through the numbing darkness to the hazy daylight of the post Taliban era.

And as we journeyed along with him, he kept throwing little nuggets of wisdom: ‘Those who carry a gun are the most cowardly because they cannot protect themselves without it’. ‘A woman can keep you warm like wine or cold as ice’. ‘The secret of survival is to open the eyes. Closed eyes can never see the path’.

Qais shows the path to the reader on how to survive in a society of such unpredictability and chaos. For Indians, there is a lesson to be learnt: divisive politics leads to horrors and destruction, while an inclusive one produces a harmonious and prosperous society. 

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

Never Say No

Anjaly Thomas, single, smart and savvy, has travelled the world on her own

Photo: Anjaly Thomas at Jinja, the source of the River Nile 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Dubai-based traveller Anjaly Thomas stepped on to the 'Kokoda Track' in Papua New Guinea, she knew what she was getting into. It is a 96-km trek through the thickest jungles, in a single foot trail, battling mosquitoes, leeches, heat and humidity. Quite a few people had died while trying to do the trek.

Nevertheless, she decided to push on, accompanied by two Papuan guides, Vico and Jones, who knew just a few words of English. “There were rivers which I had to cross, balancing myself on narrow bamboo bridges,” she says. “I had to walk up steep trails, over slippery rocks, and grab branches, to keep my balance.”

But she was courageous, and with the help of her guides, she trudged on for 11 days and completed the trek. “I am the first Indian, male or female, to do this journey,” says Anjaly.

This single woman traveller has had an enduring love affair with Africa. “The animals, the wildness, the rawness,” she says. “Everything is so strange. I have been to Tanzania three times. Africa is such a different continent from Asia. That is what makes travelling so interesting.”

But sometimes it can be life-threatening. In Nairobi she was waylaid by three rough-looking men who tried to rob her. “I have also been held at gunpoint, and chased by people with knives because they wanted my watch,” she says. But there are other moments, recounted, with a refreshing frankness, in her book, 'Almost Intrepid' (Konark Publishers), when she has romantic escapades with handsome-looking Europeans and South Africans.

Thus far, Anjaly has travelled to 29 countries. They include a trip to Jinja, in Uganda. This is where the River Nile begins its 6650 km journey, through ten countries, towards the Mediterranean Sea. In Uganda, she went to that part of the country, about 75 kms from the capital, Kampala, where the Equator passes through, dividing the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. In Thailand, she walked on the bridge made famous by director David Lean's classic film, 'Bridge Over The River Kwai'. In Cambodia, Anjaly was disturbed by the atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) and highlighted in the War Crimes Museum. 

She also had Sex On The Beach, which, in an anti-climax, is the name of a drink. In Tanzania, she became the first Indian woman to do a solo climb of the 5895m high Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa.

All this is quite daring when you consider that Anjaly is a single Indian woman, the daughter of a Malayali father and a mother who is from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. She spent many years in Bangalore, where she qualified as a lawyer, but worked as a journalist, before she moved to Dubai. Today, she works as an online editor for a radio station. “I save money and then go travelling during my vacations.” she says.

Interestingly, Anjaly has no fixed itinerary. When she arrives at the airport of a country, she will head towards the taxi stand and ask a driver to take her to the inexpensive places to stay. “When they see a backpack, they know what I am looking for,” says Anjaly. Sometimes, she will talk to other backpackers who will advise her on where to go.

Despite the risks, Anjaly has always lived in cheap hotels. “I have been lucky that rarely have I had bad moments,” she says. “In Turkey, for three weeks, I stayed in strangers' homes, and nothing untoward happened. You have to show people that you trust them. And they will trust you back.”
But the situation is different when Anjaly travels in India. “Indian men think that if a woman is travelling alone, she must be a slut,” she says. “They always think dirty. They can never look at me as just a traveller. This letching is a sub-continental problem.”

But letching has never been a deterrent for this lively woman, with a dazzling smile. And, thanks to her long experience, Anjaly is able to bust a few myths.

The world is not a safe place
Blame the media for making you believe that any place outside your mother's womb is not safe.”

Men are hostile towards female travellers
False. You can avoid that by not being too conspicuous.”

Never have sex with strangers
Heard of condoms? They are meant to be used.”

You can get raped
The odds of getting assaulted on the road are negligible when compared to it happening by someone you know.”

Anjaly's future plans include more travel and definitely no husband on the horizon. “There is no such thing as an understanding husband,” says Anjaly. "Instead, I have a husband in every port, but that is a different story altogether.” 

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Straight From The Heart

Ravinder Singh is one of the biggest mass-market selling authors in India now. His sincere and deeply-felt childhood memoir, 'Like It Happened Yesterday', has just been released

Photo: Ravinder Singh with his wife Khushboo on their wedding day

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 4 a.m., on February 9, 2007, Khushi was in a happy mood. She had just completed her last day of work at the IT company that she worked for, in Noida, and was returning home in a cab. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, she would be getting engaged to IT professional Ravinder Singh. They had met through the matrimonial website, shaadi.com., and had been going steady for a few months.

While she was sunk in these pleasant thoughts, a truck came and hit the cab at full speed. The car was damaged beyond repair. A greviously wounded Khushi was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit of Escorts hospital, Faridabad, and later, to Apollo, Delhi, where she remained for a fortnight.  

During that time, I was telling God that this is the time I needed Him badly,” says Ravinder. Unfortunately, God did not hear his pleas and Khushi died of her injuries. Not surprisingly, Ravinder lost his faith and walked away from God.
Three months passed. Ravinder was unable to come to terms with what had happened. “I could feel this pressure growing inside me,” he says. “I wanted to do something. At times, I would cry at night.”

During this period, he was living with a friend, in Bhubaneshwar, who happened to be reading a book. Ravinder flipped a few pages, and decided that he would try some writing himself.

"The idea was to share my grief,” he says.

Ravinder started writing... and never stopped. The end result was a book called ‘I Too Had a Love Story’, which took the youngsters in the country by storm, and sold lakhs of copies.
Ravinder is perceptive about the success of his first book. “Most probably it was because of the honesty with which it was written,” he says. “Readers tell me that they felt an emotional connect with the hero. They also felt his pain. My fans told me they don't read my books because of my literary skills or high standard of English. They like my writing because it is from the heart.”

His next two books – ‘Can Love Happen Twice?’ and ‘Love Stories that Touched my Heart (an anthology) did equally well.

His readership, which was initially young, has now moved to all age groups. “Lots of kids, who read my books, have made their parents read it,” says Ravinder. “I have received e-mails from grandmothers who told me that in this present world, a guy showing a commitment to somebody who is no longer alive touches them a lot. That pushed them to read the book.”

Amazingly, it has healed marital rifts. A woman, Snehalata Rajeev (name changed), said her husband, Surya, had gifted her, ‘I Too Had A Love Story’, but she never read it. She was having tensions with him, and was contemplating divorce. That was when a friend told her to read Ravinder’s book. Snehalata told her friend, “What is the connection between reading this book and saving my marriage?”

But eventually she read the book. “After I finished it, I imagined what if my better half was no more in this world,” says Snehalata. “You can never ever get in touch with him ever. By thinking about divorce, was I taking the right decision?” In the end, Snehalatha remained with Surya. And a gratified Ravinder says, “This is the best compliment that I have received. It is beyond the price of the book.”

Like Snehalatha, the fan base keeps growing. When Ravinder set up an e-mail id, itoohadalovestory@gmail.com, he received more than one lakh mails. He also has 6 lakh fans and readers on Facebook.

One woman who read his first book was the Delhi-based Khushboo Chauhan. “She was probably crying after she read it,” says Ravinder. Thereafter, she went to the Bangla Sahib gurudwara and prayed to God. “This guy deserves a nice girl,” she said. “So please, God, find him a nice girl.” And Khushboo probably could not have imagined that it would be she who would be the 'nice girl', who got married to Ravinder, on September, 23, 2012.

Ravinder was in Kochi recently to promote his latest book, ‘Like It Happened
Yesterday’. These are touching stories from his childhood, again written with intense feeling and sincerity. Asked why the move from romance to sentimental memories, Ravinder says, “I wanted to relive those childhood days one more time. Practically I can't, so theoretically I did.”

Observing the excited reaction, among the audience, comprising many youngsters, there is a strong likelihood that ‘Like It Happened Yesterday’ is also going to be a mega best-seller.

The son of a Sikh priest, Ravinder was born at Kolkata, brought up in a small town, Burla, in Orissa, did his engineering studies from Bidar, Karnataka and MBA from Hyderabad, and began his career in the IT industry from Pune.
From IT industry to best-selling writer is a leap that Ravinder would never have dreamt he would be doing one day. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

“My Husband is a Bold Person”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Neena talks about life with the director Vinayan

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Neena Nair saw Vinayan for the first time, for an arranged marriage meeting, she was struck by his eyes. “They were powerful and attractive,” she says. “Vinayan had a strong personality. He was dressed like an executive and looked handsome.”

At that time, in 1984, Vinayan was a sub-engineer at the Kerala State Electricity Board in Thiruvananthapuram. Since Neena's parents were government servants, they were happy to know that Vinayan also had a steady job.

The marriage took place on February 9, 1985 at the Sreemoolam Club at Thiruvananthapuram. In those times, the concept of a honeymoon had not set in, so they went nowhere.

As Neena gradually came to know her husband better, the quality she admired the most was his boldness.

Once Vinayan feels that his course of action is right, nobody can sway him, not even myself,” she says. “In other words, he is stubborn but I regard it as a plus point. When he decided to take the plunge and enter the film industry, there was opposition from his family, my family, all our relatives and friends. But he refused to change his mind.”

And it was this steadfastness that helped Vinayan when he single-handedly tried to end the domination of the big stars. “He was attacked from all sides,” says Neena. “And during that difficult period, only a few times did he feel low. Otherwise, he remained strong. The battle was fought from our home. I was a witness to many discussions, but I was not scared. Instead, I suffered a lot.”

But Neena was gratified by the public reaction. Whenever the couple stepped out, people would come and shake the director's hand. “They commended Vinayan for standing up to the might of the stars,” says Neena. “Some said, 'We saw you on TV, and what you said was correct. You should remain bold and strong. Now we know what is happening in the industry.'”

Incidentally, this bold man becomes very nervous on the Friday when his own film is being released. “Vinayan will remain in bed all the time,” says Neena. “He does not attend to phones. He will keep watching the news on all the channels. That is his way of tackling the tension. Otherwise, he will walk up and down the room.”

The family, consisting of son, Vishnu, 26, and Nikhila, 23, feel the same tension. “The film is like a baby to all of us,” says Neena. “When my son was in the US, doing his M. Tech, he would call frequently to know whether the film has done well or not.”

After the matinee show the result will be out: hit or flop. “If the film is liked by the people, his face changes and Vinayan feels very happy,” says Neena. “If the answer is negative, his mood becomes okay only in the evening. Vinayan will say it may be due to some fault of his.”

Like most creative people, Vinayan is soft towards his children. “If Nikhila is late, in coming home, Vinayan will get very tense,” says Neena. “He is like a friend to them, but, at the same time, Vinayan is not one to put his arm around them.”

Owing to Vinayan's hectic career, Neena ended up becoming the hands-on parent. “There were times when he made three to four films a year and I had to manage the house all by myself and look after the education of the children,” she says. “Vinayan has never been to school or college to meet the children's teachers.”

That may be so, but Vinayan does go out of his way to help people. “If anybody came to him with a problem he will try to help as much as possible,” says Neena. “There was one assistant who was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. He was hospitalised at Lakeshore Hospital and Vinayan met all the expenses. And when a senior writer had his leg amputated, he ran around to get contributions to help pay the hospital bills.”

About his negative points, Neena says, “Vinayan is hot tempered. I cannot predict when he will get angry. It may be over a small matter like if the shirt has not been properly ironed. On the set, he tends to get angry with his assistants. But, later, he will apologise to them.”

Meanwhile, after 28 years of marriage, Neena has simple tips to give. “We must learn to be patient,” she says. “When my husband loses his temper, and if I get angry at the same time, it will create a lot of problems. One person has to bend a bit. The woman should do it because she is a mother. She must always remember that if there are too many fights it will affect the children.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Best-selling author Ravinder Singh talks about his latest book

By Shevlin Sebastian

Best-selling author Ravinder Singh charmed a Kochi audience at a book reading session. His latest book, ‘Like It Happened Yesterday’, published by Penguin, has just been released.  “I wanted to write stories from my heart,” he said. “This book is all about my childhood.”  

Singh grew up in the small town of Burla in Odisha. “Those were the best days of my life, when life was simple,” said the 30-year-old. “There were no microwaves or mobile phones or ATM cards.”

In fact, Singh had a phone in his house only when he was in Class 12. “Before that, to pass any information I would have to cycle to my friend’s place,” he says. “During those days, when I had Rs 10 in my pocket, I would feel so rich. Today, with Rs 10 lakh in the bank, I feel I have to make a lot more money to feel rich.”

In the book, Singh compares present-day childhood to the one he had. “My wishes were limited and so were those of my friends,” he said. “I wanted Lakhani shoes. There were no Adidas or Nike sneakers.”

Singh also mentioned that many readers said that the book reflected their own childhood experiences. “A few men told me, ‘When you were writing about the ‘hot’ madam in school, I was thinking of my own ‘hot’ madam,” said Singh, to laughter from the gathering.

It was a rapt audience, bowled over by Singh’s charm, sincerity and verbal fluency. Home-maker Sumaiya Khalid, from Alappuzha, stood up and said, “I would like to thank my husband who stopped his work and brought me along. Please give him a standing ovation.” Khalid, an interior designer, standing at the back, gives an embarrassed smile. “I have read all your books and love it,” said Sumaiya. That summed up the reaction of the people who had turned up for the reading. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition)

Monday, July 15, 2013

In Kerala, Rehabilitated Killer Nurtures Mentally Challenged

Photo of Albin Mathew by Melton Antony 
By Shevlin Sebastian 
Vasudeva Panicker, 61, is a mild-mannered watchman of a shelter for the mentally challenged at Punnapra, in Alappuzha district in southern Kerala. In his youth, Mr. Panicker was a soldier in the Indian Army. One day he returned home from his battalion to discover that his wife had run away with a lover. Enraged, Mr. Panicker stabbed his mother-in-law to death. He served 14 years in prison for the murder.

I decided to hire him because he reminded me of myself,” said Albin Mathew, 62, the founder of the shelter Santhi Bhavan Sarvodaya. “I am a murderer as well.”

The shelter is located on a clearing by the railway tracks passing through Punnapra. In a large dormitory-style hall, a man lay on his face on the floor, his body twitching uncontrollably. Another man laughed suddenly. Many stared vacantly. A few had grizzled beards. A gray-haired woman cried. 

In a kitchen beside the hall, Mr. Mathew’s wife, Mary, who wore a blue sari, stirred rice in a large pot with a ladle. Outside, in a spacious courtyard, Mr. Matthew had built six huts with asbestos roofs and some bathrooms.

The shelter’s residents include Malayalis, but also men and women from other parts of India – Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi. Their families had abandoned most of them because of their mental illness. Many were offloaded after being found traveling without a ticket on a train that stopped at the town of Alappuzha, a few kilometers from the shelter. I bring them to Santhi Bhavan because it is a home for poor people,” said Mr. Mathew.

Isram, a resident of the shelter, used to live in New Delhi. One day, he slipped while crossing railway tracks and a train ran over his legs. His family threw him out. He began losing his mental equilibrium and climbed onto a train leaving Delhi. He ended up at Alappuzha. Mr. Mathew saw him at a bus stop and brought him to the shelter.

Over the years, some of the residents show signs of improvement. Mr. Matthew teaches the recovering men and women to make paper packets, which are sold to the nearby shops. The modest earnings support the shelter, as do donations from ordinary citizens.

People give whatever they can spare,” Mr. Matthew said. “At times, it is old clothes. At times, it is food. It is a miracle,” he added. “We have always been able to meet the daily expenses of 15,000 Rupees [$250].”

The expenditure includes food, medicines, electricity and water bills. Mr. Matthew remains thankful to the people of Alappuzha.

Alappuzha is a coastal town of lush paddy fields and coconut groves in southern Kerala, around 39 miles from the city of Kochi. Several canals and streams cross the town. Most people make a living farming and fishing. After several hours at the shelter, I walked with Mr. Mathew along a narrow road to a beach. 

On the shore, fishermen on a wooden boat sewed up holes in nets with long needles. They exchanged greetings with Mr. Mathew. We sat on the sand in a grove of eucalyptus trees, whose leaves moved in a soothing breeze.

Mr. Mathew recalled his long journey to becoming the man who managed the shelter for the mentally ill. In the early 1980s, Mr. Mathew worked as a muscleman for a political party, which he refused to name for the fear of retaliation. 

One evening in 1982, Mr. Mathew was drinking a glass of toddy, a local alcoholic drink, in a shop in Punnapra. He was gaining notoriety and influence as an enforcer for his party.

His rise rankled Kritav Podiyan, another enforcer of the party. Mr. Podiyan walked into the toddy shop to put Mr. Mathew in his place.

The two men had a heated exchange. Mr. Podiyan hit Mr. Mathew in his ribs with the wooden handle of a long, curved knife. Mr. Mathew took out his knife and drove it into Mr. Podiyan’s heart.

A crowd had gathered outside. Mr. Podiyan bled on the shop floor. A few men stepped forward to help the dying man.

If anybody takes another step, I will kill him,” Mr. Mathew threatened. The crowd stepped back. Mr. Podiyan pleaded for water. Mr. Mathew placed a glass of toddy next to his mouth. “He took three sips of toddy before he died,” Mr. Mathew recalled. “He would have killed me if I hadn’t killed him.”

The murder of Mr. Podiyan cemented Mr. Mathew’s reputation for violence and established his authority as an enforcer in Punnapra. He deployed violence against anyone if he was paid a few thousand rupees by a rival.

The party would ask me to get rid of people who were creating problems,” Mr. Mathew recalled. “Violence and threats seemed to be the way to settle disputes. The courts took years. People would lose patience and come to us.”

At a certain point, the villagers got tired of Mr. Mathew’s intimidation. One day, when Mr. Mathew was standing alone near a church, a mob encircled him. The villagers attacked him with iron rods, broke his hands, his legs, and smashed his face. They left him for dead.

The police arrived and took him to a hospital. He regained consciousness after three days and spat blood for weeks.

It was a time of great turmoil. I felt that there was no point to live,” said Mr. Mathew. “I had become a beast.”

A month later, Mr. Mathew returned home from the hospital. His wife, Mary, had been working as a maid for their neighbors to support their three children. The Alapuzzha area has a strong Christian community with an active church. Mr. Mathew was battling depression. Two nuns came to visit him and consoled him.

You are going to have a new life,” said one of the nuns. “You must confess your sins and go to the church.” Mr. Mathew felt the need for divine intervention. They called a priest.

Father Dhiraj, a priest from the Indian Mission Society church, arrived. Mr. Mathew confessed for an hour.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” Mr. Mathew said. He wanted to live again. The priest advised him to pray for the people he had harmed.

A few months later, Mr. Mathew had recovered from his injuries. But the law of the land caught up with him. In April 1984, he was imprisoned for 12 years for the murder of Mr. Podiyan and other assaults.

When I was convicted, my friends, my relatives and my party abandoned me,” Mr. Mathew recalled. “I was alone.”

In prison, Mr. Mathew renewed his allegiance to the church and became a devout Christian. The long prison years allowed him to examine his life. Mr. Mathew was just 11 years old when his father, a fisherman, was found murdered, having been killed by unknown people on a beach at Alappuzha. Ten years later, Mr. Mathew’s younger brother, Jacob Mathew, was killed by his in-laws. They accused the younger Mr. Mathew of beating up his pregnant wife.

Jacob’s death made me furious,” said Mr. Mathew. “That was when I took to violence.” One day in prison, Mr. Mathew made a decision. “When I am released, I will be a boon to society instead of being a curse,” he vowed.

On the Indian Republic Day on Jan. 26, 1997, Mr. Mathew was one of 446 offenders in Kerala released from a prison in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, after being pardoned by the then chief minister of the state, E.K. Nayanar. Mr. Mathew returned to Alappuzha. 

A few days after his return, he met a priest. 

The priest advised him to overcome his reputation as a violent man and a convicted murderer by changing the way the townsfolk saw him. He advised Mr. Mathew to wear the robes of a priest. He followed the priest’s advice and changed into a saffron kurta, a sarong, and wore a rosary around his neck. Mr. Mathew continues to wear the robes.

One morning in 1997, while Mr. Mathew was wandering about, he spotted a deranged man with unkempt hair, a thick beard and dirty clothes.

I decided to look after him, and took a house on rent,” he recalled. “I shaved his face, cut his hair, gave him a bath, and got him some clothes.” As days passed, Mr. Mathew found other abandoned, mentally ill men and women. He brought them to his shelter.

Mr. Mathew lives on the shelter premises with his wife in a thatched hut. He still wears the robes. His violent past is a distant memory, a lesson. “Those who live by the sword will die by it. There are no gains through violence,” said Mr. Mathew. “There is no peace of mind when you kill a person or cut off his limbs.” 

(The India Ink Blog, The New York Times, America)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The One and Only

Single children talk about the pros and cons of being one

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: A three-member family; Chitra Mohan 

When Malini Menon was five years old, she accompanied her Delhi-based parents, along with a group of relatives, on her first visit to the Guruvayur temple in Kerala. She was the only child among all of them. It was very crowded. “In the melee, I was supposed to be holding on to my mom's saree, but, somehow, I ended up catching the pallu of another lady,” she says. “When I looked up, I realised that it was not my mum.”

Malini experienced a moment of sheer terror. There was nobody around whom she knew. She ran here and there searching for her family. Finally, her mother spotted her, caught her hand, and said, “If there had been another child, it would not have been such a big issue.”

A smiling Malini says, “My mother said this half in anger and half in jest, but it remained in my mind forever. I guess, when you are an only child, parents tend to become over-possessive.”

As a result, the child gets the undivided attention of the parents. “You get your way all the time,” says Malini. “You don't need to make an adjustment of any sort with anybody.”

The Bangalore-based B. Tech student Melvin Mathew agrees. “You receive the 100 per cent love and affection of your parents,” he says. “It never goes down. It is always there.”

Chitra Mohan, 27, also received a lot of care and affection from her parents. Since her mother was the eldest Chitra was the first child in the clan. Till her childhood ended, no relative had a boy or girl. 

“I got the full love of my grandparents on both sides,” she says. “Whatever I asked for, I got, although I did not ask for much. I was a pampered child. I still think I am pampered by my mother, even though I am married and have two children.”

Sanjana Iyer, 18, an upcoming tennis player, also had good experiences. “My parents are my best friends,” she says. “I can share all my thoughts with them.”

Despite the pluses, very few have been able to avoid the feeling of loneliness that beset them throughout their childhood. “When I was in school, I would see my friend's brother dropping her to school and think to myself, ‘I don't have anybody to drop me,’” says Chitra. “I told my mother I wanted a sibling, but she said she only wanted one child, so that she can give her full care to me.”

Chitra’s mother was working as a teacher in Christ Nagar school at Thiruvananthapuram, while her father lived in Kuwait and came home for two months every year.

Interestingly, outsiders could not notice Chitra’s distress. When cousins and friends came to know that she was an only child, they would say how lucky Chitra was, since she did not have to share anything with anybody. “But I felt the opposite,” says Chitra.

Malini also felt lonely. There were times when she would feel the absence of a brother or sister and would tell her parents that it would have been nice if there was somebody a little closer to her age. But her parents did not respond to her request. “Later they told me that they had the resources to bring up one child only,” says Malini. “In fact, when there are too many children and not enough money, then it is not all that great. I have seen many dysfunctional families.”

Like Malini, Sanjana also wanted a companion. Her father worked in Dubai and when she was at home her mother would be busy in the kitchen. “She would not have the time to talk to me,” says Sanjana. “I would be in front of the TV all the time.”

In fact, so keen was Sanjana for a sibling, that when she was eight years old, she had heard that if a woman had green mangoes, she would get pregnant. So she made her mother eat a lot of green mangoes. “How na├»ve I was,” she says, with a smile. 
In a rare exception, Melvin had no such problems. “My parents were my friends,” he says. “They were my brothers and sisters. That is why I never felt lonely. My father would play often with me, and my mother offered emotional support.”

But today, he has a mixed reaction. “When I see families with two children, and see them fight over small things, I think, ‘Thank God I am a single child, and did not need to fight over stuff,’” he says. “But when they did something for each other I have felt that I could have had a similar experience, if I had a sibling.”

At 20, Melvin has many experiences that he cannot tell his parents. “There are events that I cannot even share with my friends, but could have done so with a brother or sister,” he says. “Now I have to keep it within myself.”

Meanwhile, there is an oft-repeated belief that single children tend to be self-centred and selfish. Agrees Melvin: “I have a tendency to think about myself more than the others. I don't have a sharing attitude. That is one of the drawbacks of being a single child. I did not learn how to share.”

Chitra also accepts that single children do become selfish. “After marriage, if my mother showed more support to my husband, Ajith, than to me, I would immediately feel bad about it,” she says. “I felt she should always support me, because, for so long, I have been the centre of attention. It indicates a lack of maturity on my part.”

Sanjana is also self-obsessed. “I don't know how to share things, since I was alone most of the time,” she says. “If I am playing computer games, my neighbour, a girl, might come and want to play. But I might not allow her to do so. I won't say no directly. I will say, 'A little later, a little later', till the girl leaves.”

On the other hand, Malini is not entirely certain about single children being selfish. “It all depends on the upbringing,” she says. “There are plenty of people on earth who have siblings and yet they are self-centred and selfish.”

And so life goes on for the single children. Some, like Chitra, are ensuring that the next generation does not go through the same problems. “Soon after my marriage, I told my husband that I wanted two children,” says Chitra. “I don't want my children to go through my experiences.” Her sons – Aditya Mohan, 9, and Aarush, 7 – are closer in age, so they can be companions to each other.

Melvin wants to be more active. “I am making an effort to be friendly with people,” he says. “But it does not come naturally. I have to push myself to become social.”

(Some names have been changed) 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

“I Like Her Personality”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev talks about life with the actress Manju Pillai

By Shevlin Sebastian

Cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev saw the actress Manju Pillai on the sets of a television serial, 'Chila Kudumba Chithrangal', in Thiruvananthapuram in 1997, and felt a sense of attraction. They started talking to each other. Soon, they became friends. “I liked her beauty and personality,” says Sujith. “Manju always stated her opinions frankly. I also respected her because she was the granddaughter of the great actor SP Pillai.”

The friendship continued. Sujith discussed the possibility of marriage with his friends. “They told me that marriage would be a weight which would be difficult to lift,” says Sujith. “And Manju is an actress while I am a technician.” So Sujith told Manju it would not work out; it was better to remain friends.

But one day in December, 2000, while staying in Thiruvananthapuram, Sujith had a change of mind. He called Manju and said, “I want to get married to you.” She accepted his proposal. He borrowed a friend's car, collected Manju from outside her home, and set off to his parents' house in Palakkad. On the way he called Manju's parents and said, “Please don't worry, your daughter is safe with me.”

The next day, the couple, along with Sujith's parents and brother, went to the Guruvayur temple where they were married. The date: December 23, 2000.

On the return journey, Sujith remembered his meeting with an astrologer, at Karunagapally, a few years ago. The man told Sujith, “You will marry from the entertainment industry when you are 29, and your wife will be a divorcee.” Immediately Sujith told the man he should try another line of work. But, in retrospect, the astrologer turned out to be right.

At their apartment, near Vytilla, Kochi, Sujith and Manju have an easy camaraderie. Both are between assignments. The TV set is on, and Sujith looks casual and relaxed in his T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, while Manju is busy in the kitchen.

Manju may be very busy, as a TV actress, but she always ensures the smooth running of the house,” says Sujith. “While on a shoot, she will call and remind me about paying a telephone bill. If I am gone for two months on an assignment,  Manju will never bother me about problems at home. She tackles it all on her own, including overseeing our 11-year-old daughter Daya's studies. Manju is also an excellent cook. She can make Continental, Indian and Kerala dishes.”

But Manju has a major negative. She likes to sleep a lot. “Manju and sleep are in love with each other,” says Sujith. “After our daughter goes to school at 7.30 a.m., till 3.30 p.m., when she returns, half the period goes for cooking and other activities. But the rest of the time, she is sleeping. It is her biggest joy.”

And then Sujith breaks into a smile and says, “The other day, Daya returned from school and lay on the bed. Then she sat up and said, 'I am exactly like Amma. I feel like sleeping all the time. I don't know what to do about it.'”

All this is said with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. In fact, for Sujith, it is fun to be with Manju, except when they go out in public, to malls like the Lulu or Oberon.

Manju will have no time to be with us,” says Sujith. “She will be answering questions non-stop from fans about her role, her co-actors and her future plans. The people will compliment her on her acting. This response is great and wonderful. There is no doubt that it is the people who make an actor successful. But for us, as a family, the loss of privacy is painful.”

Once, the couple had gone to the Guruvayur temple. Inside, Manju had closed her eyes and was praying fervently. Suddenly, a woman came up and whispered in her ears, ‘Manju, your acting is very good.  Keep it up.'” 

Manju's acting is good, and she is a hit as a bubbly, lively woman in the television serial, 'Thattiyum Muttiyum'. So, is she like that at home? “She is very low-key at home and does not talk much,” says Sujith. “Mammukoya is also like this. Actors show another side on the screen. They have the ability to throw themselves into any character.”

Meanwhile, when asked to give tips on marriage, Sujith says, “I have a theory called the second thought. Suppose you are going to say something angry. Just have a second opinion within your mind of whether the action you are going to do is right or not. If you have a second thought, you will be able to avoid a lot of bad events.”

Sujith knows of a woman who divorced her husband because he did not bring back a bottle of saffron after a trip to Kashmir. “If they had a second thought they could have saved the marriage,” he says. “You have to decide which is bigger: life or saffron.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Beauty of Hand-Drawn Letters

Thoufeek Zakriya is the only Muslim Hebrew calligrapher in South Asia. The Malayali talks about the art form 

Photo by TP Sooraj  

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Thoufeek Zakriya fixed a meeting with his friend, Srinath, at Fort Kochi. Srinath lived in Kannur, 295 kms from Kochi. Since Thoufeek had told Srinath about his interest in calligraphy and Jewish history, he brought his works along, among which was the Birkat Ha Bayit, the Jewish blessing for the home.

The words went like this:

Let no sadness come through this gate.
Let no trouble come to this dwelling.
Let no fear come through this door.
Let no conflict be in this place.
Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.

When Srinath saw it, he was much impressed. Thereafter, the friends went sightseeing and landed up in Jew Town. While there, the duo saw an old woman sitting outside her house and stitching a kippah (a cap). At the insistence of Srinath, Thoufeek showed the Hebrew calligraphy to her. “When she saw it, she became very excited,” says Thoufeek. “That was Sarah Cohen. She asked me how I had learnt the art. I said I was self-taught.”

Thereafter, Sarah invited Thoufeek and Srinath into her house. She gave them pastries and coffee. “Our friendship began and I would visit her whenever I come to Kochi,” says Thoufeek, who is now a management trainee at a Taj hotel in Bangalore. “She is like a grandmother to me.”

Apart from Hebrew, Toufeek is an expert in calligraphy in Samarian, Syrian, English, Sanskrit, Hindi and Aramic, the language used by Jesus Christ.

The printing of an alphabet has evolved from the calligraphic script,” says Thoufeek. But to do the art well, you need to have an idea of the language. “Since Arabic is the base for all the Semitic languages, it was easy to learn, since I know a little bit of Arabic,” says Thoufeek. The Semitic languages start from right to left. The first alphabet for all the languages is the Aleph.

The Syrian language is one of his favourites. A few years ago, Thoufeek went to the office of a Syrian Christian spice merchant. While there, he saw a picture of a cross placed against a floral background with a Syrian script underneath. “The merchant did not know how to read the language,” says Thoufeek.

Thereafter, Thoufeek, who was intrigued by the Syrian calligraphy, designed a similar one, based on the first verse in the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.

Incidentally, the equipment to make these eye-catching words is simple: a bamboo reed, to be used as a stylus, a Lamy calligraphic pen, which costs Rs 1500, and Indian ink.

Meanwhile, the reserved but excited Jews of Fort Kochi embraced Thoufeek to their hearts. “One day, Sarah took my parents, sisters and me for a visit to the Jewish synagogue on the festival day of Simchat Torah [a celebration marking the conclusion of the cycle of public readings of the Torah],” says Thoufeek. “This is a rare honour for a Muslim family.”

Along the way, Thoufeek has also gained international attention. “Thoufeek has made many calligraphic representations of the Torah by using the ancient Kufic Arabic script,” says Paul Rockover in an article in the popular Huffington Post. “Such work is a rarity in the calligraphic world, and his innovation has brought Thoufeek accolades from all over the world.” In fact, Thoufeek has been commissioned by Jews from as far away as Ukraine and the United States to create works that combine Arabic calligraphy with Jewish prayers. “Some people saw the different exhibits on my blog, got interested, and contacted me,” says Thoufeek.

Today, Thoufeek is regarded as the only Muslim Hebrew calligrapher in South Asia. “His work reminds us of the shared cultural and religious heritage of Jews and Muslims,” says Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Civilisation, at Gautam Buddha University, Noida, who has done extensive research on Indian Jews. “It will help overcome the disputes, conflicts and differences between the two groups.” In fact, while presenting a paper at a conference at the University of Sydney in February, Aafreedi spoke at length on Thoufeek's calligraphy.

The youngster accidentally discovered the art form. When he was a teenager, he brought a pen on which there were symbols in English done in the calligraphic style. “I decided to copy them and that was how my interest in calligraphy began,” he says. Brought up on the island of Mattancherry, near Kochi, he spent hours doing calligraphy. “It has become a passion and an obsession,” says Thoufeek. 

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