Thursday, October 31, 2013

Going To The Depths… Of Joy and Sadness

David Gallo, one of the world's leading oceanographers, gives a lecture, at the INK Talks in Kochi, on the beauty of the oceans, as well as the damage wrought by man

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the bottom of the ocean there are lakes,” says David Gallo, one of the world’s leading oceanographers. “Some biologists said that it is so salty it would not be possible for any animal to live there. We said that it is true except that there are many animals which live there who do not know about this rule.”
The crowd laughs, as they listen raptly to Gallo, a featured speaker at the annual INK (Innovation and Knowledge) Talks being held at Kochi for the first time.

Under the Atlantic Ocean, there is a mountain range which stretches all the way to the Indian Ocean and heads into the Red Sea as well as the Pacific Ocean,” says Gallo. “There are thousands of peaks which are higher than those in the Himalayas or the Alps, and the mountain range is 70,000 miles long.”
These mountains are cut by thousands of valleys, which are many times deeper and wider than some of the greatest valleys on earth. “All this is at a depth of 4000m,” says Gallo. “In fact, even though 70 per cent of the planet is covered by oceans, we have explored only 5 per cent of it. But now we have the technology to go to the depths for long periods.”
A pioneer underwater exploration took place, on March 25, 2012, when ‘Avatar’ film director, James Cameron, in a specially-built submarine, became the first man to go into the deepest part of the ocean: the Marina Trench, at 11 kms. “James trained very hard physically and mentally to accomplish this record-making dive,says Gallo. “A person with great curiosity and passion, James is one of the hardest working people I know.”  
Like Cameron, Gallo has also plumbed the depths of the ocean in a submarine. “We just float down into this amazing world,” says Gallo. “Initially, the colour is a deep blue. Then after half an hour it becomes pitch black. But when we switch on the lights, we see an incredible amount and variety of marine life. In every expedition you see something you have never seen before and perhaps no one will ever again.”
Not surprisingly, Gallo describes it as a spiritual experience. “There is a power in the universe,” he says. “I believe that this is God. I cannot help but believe that. You have to think outside the boundaries of science. You come away realising what a privilege it is to be alive.”
True, but man as a species does not realise that he is dependent on the oceans for his survival. “The pure air that we breathe, we can thank the ocean, which makes 50 per cent of the oxygen,” says Gallo. “More than 1.5 billion people depend on the ocean for food. About 90 per cent of the rainfall is controlled by the ocean. There is an intimate relationship between man and the oceans, but in the past 100 years, we have been damaging the ocean.”

The chemistry of the water, as well as the sediments on the ocean floor have been changing, because of human impact. “This is because of the things that we use every day, like plastics, fertilisers, and pesticides,” says Gallo. “It goes into the ground. From there it moves to the streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean.”

Gallo pauses and says, “The oceans are suffering from chemical pollution at all levels. But the good news is that we have become aware of this and preventive measures can be taken.”

Like most people Gallo got interested in oceanography by accident. In his mid-twenties, while being a shoe salesman, he read an article on ocean exploration by Robert Ballard, who would later discover ‘The Titanic’ wreck in 1985. “The article triggered my curiosity,” says Gallo. “I decided to study the oceans.”

So, in 1976, he joined the State University of New York in Albany and studied geology and physics. Following a master’s in geology, Gallo received a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. “Within two and a half years, I was in the same ‘Alvin’ submarine that I saw in the National Geographic magazine,” says Gallo. “That was how quickly my dream materialised.”

In 1987, Ballard invited Gallo to join the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is one of the largest private non-profit research organisations in the world where, today, Gallo is Director of Special Projects.
Apart from the ocean, Gallo has been involved with the investigation of wrecks like ‘The Titanic’, the ‘Bismark’ and the crashed Air France 447 plane. “When you investigate wrecks, they have a much more direct relation to humanity,” he says. “In wrecks, you are aware of the back story. When you are exploring the ocean, there is no back story. Anything can happen.”

Yes, indeed, at the INK Talks, Gallo shows an image of a clump of algae floating in shallow water. And then, suddenly, mind-bogglingly, it becomes a large octopus. And the audience lets out a gasp of surprise. “Animals learn to camouflage themselves effectively,” says Gallo, with a wide smile. “It has been an amazing journey for the past 25 years. Ever single day I have seen one stunning sight after another.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Her dear Black Cat

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Anita Nair talks about life with director and actor Major Ravi, a former commando

Photo by Shiba Sahu

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Anita Nair's father said it was time to get married, she was not  keen. Anita was only 23 years old and was doing her post-graduation in life sciences from the Regional Institute of Education in Bhubaneshwar. The boy, AK Ravindran, was a Black Cat Commando with the Delhi-based National Security Guard.

Reluctantly, Anita said yes to meeting Ravi at their home in Hyderabad. On a weekend, Ravi flew to Hyderabad and met Anita. But at their meeting, no sparks flew at all. “I was not carried away nor was he,” says Anita. “It was more of an okay from the parental side, rather than between us.”  The marriage took place on December 30, 1988, at Guruvayur temple.

And right from the beginning, Anita was taken aback by the fierce dedication and sincerity that Ravi had for his job. “Whenever any operational assignment would come up, the first person to volunteer was Ravi,” says Anita. “The other guys would give excuses like, 'Tomorrow is my wife's check up' or 'I have to take her for an injection.' But Ravi never gave a second opportunity to anybody else. I would think, 'Why is my husband so different?'”

The unusual thing about being a Black Cat commando was that Ravi would set out for work in the morning and instead of returning in the evening, he would be gone for several weeks. There was no advance notice. 

Once when Ravi had gone away, his colleague, Captain Hitesh Luv, told Anita that since she was six months pregnant, she should come and stay with him, his sister-in-law and mother. “I agreed,” says Anita. “We were good family friends.” But a few days later, at 10.30 p.m., there was a knock on the door. It was Ravi.

The then captain was wearing the famous Black Cat uniform. Five guards, with their guns, were sitting in an open jeep. “Ravi did not speak to me except to ask me to get onto the vehicle,” says Anita. “Thereafter, he drove from Hitesh's place to our home at top speed. I knew he was angry. Because when he came back, tired and hungry, he expected me to be at home and provide him with good home-cooked food.”

Asked about his qualities, Anita says, “Ravi is a person who will never say no to anything or anybody. In the middle of the night if you call him and say, 'Listen, buddy, I have a problem, can you come?', he will just go to help. The only problem is that Ravi does not show his affection. I tell him that when you love a person you should show it.”

Meanwhile Ravi has an enduring regret. Since he had been away so often from home, he could not see his only child, Arjun, much during his growing-up years. “Arjun would also miss his father a lot,” says Anita. “In fact, during his childhood Arjun would think that his father was an uncle. When Ravi would give him a chocolate, he would keep it, and say, 'Mama, after uncle goes, we will eat it'.”

Ravi’s absences became longer when he became the aide-de camp (security) to General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, the chief of the army staff. “He would be travelling with the general for months together,” says Anita.

The turning point for Major Ravi came when he quit the NSG, and joined the Research and Analysis Wing, and was posted in the Andaman Islands. He was doing duty at the airport. 

One day, Major Ravi noticed a commotion at one side. It was a crew of the film, 'Kalapani'. “One member was very sick and needed to be flown to hospital in Chennai,” says Anita. “But there was one flight per week and the man could not be accommodated. But Major Ravi knew that was one VIP seat which was always left vacant.”

The major intervened, met the officials and ensured that the patient took the flight. This was mentioned to the producer, Suresh Balaji who met him and said thank you. They got talking, and Major Ravi told him about his exploits as a Black Cat commando. Thereafter, Ravi met Mohanlal and director Priyadarshan. “Ravi was so thrilled that when he came back he said, 'Ani, you are not going to believe this but today I met Mohanlal and Priyadarshan,” says Anita.

Soon, the industry stalwarts asked Major Ravi to join the film industry. “He had always been interested in theatre from his childhood,” says Anita. “In school, college, and in the Army he had taken part in plays.” Around 14 years ago, the major took the plunge. “I did have apprehensions because it is an uncertain life in the film industry,” says Anita. “But Ravi had no doubts. What he make a decision it is final.”

Major Ravi’s first film was ‘Megham’, which was followed by ‘Raakilipattu’, ‘Aalavandhan’ and ‘Onnaman’. It was in 2002 that he turned director with ‘Punarjani’. Thereafter, he has brought out films like ‘Keerthi Chakra’, ‘Mission 90 Days’, ‘Kurukshetra’, and ‘Kandahar’, among other films.

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Anita, who is celebrating her silver wedding anniversary in December, says, “It is a mechanical world, where couples hardly have any time for each other. They should give half an hour every day as quality time for each other. Share your problems, your do's and don'ts. You need to voice the problems which you are facing in the marriage, otherwise it will accumulate. Then a third party will intrude and complicate the issue.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Standing Tall

Joby Mathew, who is 3'5” tall, won five gold medals at the World Dwarf Games recently. In total, he has won 16 international medals

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

I will always be grateful to 'The New Indian Express',” says Joby Mathew, the dwarf world champion. An article on Joby was published in the newspaper, in 2005, with a request for sponsorship, along with the sportsman’s phone number. Joby wanted to take part in the world arm wrestling championships held at Utsunomiya, Japan.

Many people called to provide support, but only one person offered concrete help. And that turned out to be the Tamil actor Sharath Kumar.

I found it difficult to believe that a superstar like Sharath Sir would call an ordinary person like me,” says Joby. Eventually, when Sharath came to Kochi for the shoot of the film, 'Khaki', they met, and the actor provided the Rs 1 lakh that was needed.

When Joby landed at Kuala Lumpur airport, on route to Tokyo, he went across the terminal to get his connecting flight. But when Joby walks, it is like a jump, and he uses his muscular left hand as a pivot. Joby, who has a height of 3’ 5”, was born with Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency. That means his feet are tiny while his upper body is like a normal adult’s. In fact, he has only four toes on either feet.  

Soon, he was followed by a group of two women and a man, pushing a wheelchair. Thinking that it was an emergency, he stepped to one side, so that they could go past. But they also stopped. When Joby started walking again, they followed him. Then one woman said, “Please get onto the wheelchair.”

Joby replied that he did not need one. Despite saying this, when he began walking again, they followed him. So, to mollify them, he got onto the wheelchair.

But at the world championships, Joby showed that he was not disabled at all. He won three bronze medals in the normal as well as the differently-abled category. Thereafter, till 2012, he won 11 gold, silver and bronze medals in world championships held in Spain and Egypt, including a silver at a paralympic badminton tournament in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2010.

Joby burst into the limelight recently when he won an unprecedented five golds – shot put, javelin, discus, and singles and doubles badminton – at the World Dwarf Games held at Michigan State University in August.

To achieve this extraordinary feat, Joby had been training non-stop for four years. Every morning, from his home in Aluva, 26 kms from Kochi, he goes to swim in the nearby Periyar River for 45 minutes. Interestingly, he can only use his upper body to swim, since there is no movement in his legs.  

Thereafter, I go to a nearby gym to train under K.V. Chitrangathan, a former Mr. Kerala,” says Joby, who also practises the shot-put, javelin and discus. Once a month, Joby will drive down to Bangalore in his specially-made Santro to get training from Ramesh Tikaram, a winner of the Arjuna Award for athletics and badminton. “Joby is determined, focused, and naturally talented,” says Ramesh. “What I like about him is his willingness to accept and correct his mistakes.”

Apart from all this, Joby holds a regular job. “During the day, I work in the legal wing of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd [BPCL],” says Joby, who has a MA, as well as a law degree. “It is the BPCL which has been sponsoring my participation in all international tournaments since 2008.”

And on the personal front, he is also happy. In 2007, he met the Mohiniyattam and Bharatanatyam dancer, as well as research scholar, Megha Pillai, who is 5’5”, at a seminar. Within months, they became friends. “I proposed to Megha and she accepted, although she is a Hindu, while I am a Christian,” says Joby. The couple tied the knot on November 16, 2008. Today, they are parents to four-year-old Jyothis.  

When asked the secret of success, Joby says, “We should understand and accept our strengths and weaknesses. That can only happen if we love ourselves. I told myself, ‘I don’t have legs, but I do have hands and can make use of that!’ However, to achieve anything, you also need the help of God.” 

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

Fighting For Calmness in a Violent World

Activist Dr. Michael Nagler, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, USA, talks about the need for peace and spirituality in these turbulent times
By Shevlin Sebastian
A Native American Indian tells his grandson, “I fear I have two wolves inside of me. One is an extremely gentle beast and the other is a vicious one.”

The child says, “Which of these wolves is going to win?”

The one that I feed,” said the grandfather.
This anecdote is recounted by Dr. Michael Nagler, Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. “It is a choice between two wolves,” says Nagler. “Do we continue to feed our materialistic and acquisitive nature, or are we going to try to discover our spiritual nature?”
Nagler got interested in spirituality when he met the Kerala-born spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran (1910-99) at Berkeley in 1966. “I was impressed by Easwaran's calm and wisdom, so I accepted him as my guru,” says Nagler, who had come to Kerala to visit Easwaran's ancestral home, near Palakkad. “Apart from meditation, Easwaran introduced me to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.”
Inspired, Nagler began a programme called Peace and Conflict Studies at the university, which is still going strong. However, the distressing news is that, today, peace remains elusive all over the world. Instead, there is widespread violence and wars.
And these wars have a high human cost. Around three years ago, America passed a point where more servicemen committed suicide than have been killed in combat. “When you listened to these men, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, before they took their lives, they said that they they had lost their souls,” says Nagler. “It is not easy to kill another human being. Their deepest selves says, 'Don't kill. But the people around them were saying, 'Kill', 'Kill', 'Kill'. And so they were torn apart. They could not live with themselves any more.”
That is why the British Navy gives rum to their sailors before a battle, so that they can kill. “They have to suppress a natural sense of connection, and unity with others,” says Nagler. “In the US, military psychologists learnt to overcome this inhibition by making the soldiers play war games on video, where they enjoyed destroying the 'other'.”
The idea that the 'other' is an enemy has been fed by materialism and the mass media. “The media has made powerful this idea that we are material beings, who are competing with each other for scarce resources,” says Nagler. “In fact, one of the main projects of the peace movement, in which I am involved, is to change that story. To get back to the old idea that we are spiritual beings encased in a body.”
But lacking spiritual resources, many people resort to violence, especially in the USA, where religion is in precipitous decline. “All my close friends say that when they leave the US, they breathe a sigh of relief,” says Nagler. “Because there is always an undercurrent of tension and violence in their daily lives.”
But there is violence in other countries, including India, as well. “The violence that happens in India is because of over-crowding and economic disparity,” says Nagler. “But, above all, what is doing the damage is Bollywood. Hindi films have a powerful access to people's consciousness. They show an image of human beings, which is trivialised, with violence being made light of. In many films, grotesque ludicrous violence is presented in a sanitised way so that you never see the pain.”
Nagler has had painful disappointments, too, especially when he embarked on a peace mission in the Middle East. “Israel is an oppressor in Palestine,” says Nagler, a Jew. “They are terrified of what happened to them during the second world war. So they are acting through a cloud of irrationality. To make your country into a fortress state and to kill every terrorist who tries to enter is not going to work.”
Israel should think of itself as a Middle Eastern country, and not an island of Europe planted in the middle of the Middle East. “That is how the Israelis think,” says Nagler. “I have relatives there, and can vouch for that. It gives them a sense of superiority, which infuriates their neighbours. The people of the Middle East wants respect for their religion and to be treated as brothers. But the Israelis will not do that.”
The way out, says Nagler, is for people on both sides, who are not living in this miasma, to contact one another and build up relationships and practise non-violence.
At heart, Nagler is a firm believer in non-violence and is the Founder-President of the Metta Center for Non-Violence. In fact, his 2002 American Book Award winner is called, 'The Search for a Non-Violent Future'. He has also conducted courses in non-violence. “I am very optimistic that there can be a non-violent future,” says Nagler. “I believe that it is the only kind of future we are going to have. If we don't turn non-violent then we are not going to have a future.”

One way to have a future is through spirituality. “Peace can be got through meditation,” he says. “We discover slowly and surely our deepest self. The more we discover this, the more we know it is in others. The deepest self is pure consciousness. You slow down the mind and the consciousness shines through.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, October 25, 2013

A New Beginning

Following a two-and-a-half-year break, Suresh Gopi is returning to the screen with a role in 'Salaam Kashmir'. He talks about this and a host of other topics

By Shevlin Sebastian

My role in 'Salaam Kashmir' is going to be a big surprise for the audience,” says actor Suresh Gopi, who plays Tomy Eppan Devassy. Tomy disrupts the life of a family whose head is Sreekumar (Jayaram). “It is a social drama,” says Gopi. “This is the first time I am playing such a character. I don't want to say anything more. I would prefer that people see the film.”

The shooting, as the title suggests, took place in Kashmir. And for Gopi, Kashmir has changed, following his last visit 20 years ago. “The physical beauty as well as the inner charm of the people has been spoiled,” he says. “Politicians in Kashmir are toying with the emotions of the people. When I was there, I had an ever-present feeling that at any time there could be a bomb blast.”

Asked whether he was scared, Gopi says, “I was prepared for anything, including giving up my life for the nation.”

This is Gopi's first film after a two-and-a-half-year gap. During that time, he had been the host of a popular television show, ‘Ningalkkumagam Kodeeswaran’ (You too can become a crorepati). But because of the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce rule which stated that he could not do both TV and films at the same time, Gopi had concentrated on his TV show.

I will not call it a show but a real-life event,” he says. “Thanks to it, I could understand the difficulties, pain and sufferings of so many people. It was then that I realised that my life is full of blessings. No doubt, there have been tough times, but God has always treated me well. I am happy for myself and my family.”

Today, Gopi has signed more than twenty films, including one with Manju Warrier, who is making a comeback after 14 years. This is 'Pathram-2', a sequel to 'Pathram', a hard-hitting drama, set in the media world. Like the first film, the sequel will also be directed by Renji Pannikar. “Shooting is slated to begin in December, 2014,” says Gopi. “I am looking forward to acting with Manju. She is one of the best. I am sure she will perform well.” Gopi has also been selected to play sub-inspector Harry in the fifth installment of 'Oru CBI Diary Kurippu'.

In the meantime, there has been a buzz about a falling-out between Gopi and Mammooty. A frank Gopi says, “There were some unpleasant situations which arose. It was not my fault. But I have been hurt. I can say clearly that I have, not ever, behaved disrespectfully towards Mammooty and will never.”

In fact, sometime ago, the duo did a film together, 'The King and The Commissioner'. “The rift has been healed,” says Gopi. “I was there for all the four ceremonies conducted in connection with [Mammooty's son] Dulquer's marriage. In fact, I was the only person from the industry to attend all the functions.”

Meanwhile, the news is that Gopi is planning to do action films. “That is not true,” he says. “If I was looking to do an action film I would have started off with a film which is being made by Major Ravi. But I told him that I would be willing to do a character role, with a good story, which explores life. If the story requires action, then I will do it, otherwise not.”

During his hiatus from films, several new-generation directors, like Rajesh Pillai, Aashique Abu, Arun Kumar Aravind, and Anwar Rasheed have made a mark. But Gopi has been impressed by a different film. “The best movie I have seen in recent times is 'Pranchiyettan And The Saint' by Renjith,” he says. “I regard it as a new-gen film because, through the plot, presentation, style and treatment, it has broken barriers.”

Gopi, who has watched 'Pranchiyettan’ 16 times, says that it will be liked even after two decades. “It is a film carrying several layers,” he says. “And each time you see it, you discover a new aspect.”

Then Gopi smiles and says that he did enjoy watching new-gen films like 'Traffic', 'Cocktail' and ‘Ustad Hotel’. “I must also mention Lal Jose’s wonderful ‘Diamond Necklace’,” he says.

The success of new-gen films seems to indicate that audience tastes have changed. But Gopi is not sure. “It is the director who should be aware of what the audience needs,” he says. “Each film-maker has a responsibility of adding to the growth of culture and the film industry. I can only follow them. Today, I am a fresh kid on the block. My only request to directors: please use me properly.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Being In Close touch With The People

Basking in the success of the recent mass contact programme, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy talks about the many lessons he has learnt while interacting with the public over the years

Photo: The author with Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian
At 8 a.m., on Saturday, one day after the highly successful mass contact programme (Jana Samparka Paripadi) at the Central Stadium, at Thiruvananthapuram, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s body looks tired, but his face is beaming. “It was a huge success,” he says, at his office at Cliff House, the CM’s official residence. Amazingly, he had met petitioners for 14 hours non-stop. The tiny breaks he took were to drink buttermilk and a bowl of oats, which was sent by his wife Mariamma.
In a mass contact programme, people think that those who get the benefits and the cash payments are the biggest beneficiaries,” he says. “But that is not true. I am the biggest beneficiary. I became aware of so many problems of the people which I did not know about earlier. This has been the biggest experience of my career. Earlier, I did this exercise in all the 14 districts of Kerala. The knowledge I got about life has been the equivalent of reading 100 books.”
At Cliff House, Chandy observes that most of the people had a particular kind of problem. “A large number had been involved in accidents and became paralysed,” says Chandy. “This time, the number is too large. A doctor told me that after a certain point, there is no treatment available in Kerala. Patients have to go to [ Christian Medical College Hospital ] Vellore . I do feel an urgent need to set up a hospital with advanced facilities to cater to these people.”
As for the oft-repeated charge by the Opposition that Chandy is doing the work of panchayat secretaries and village officers, he says, “That is correct. And the reason is because there are too many rules which have hamstrung their efficiency. And there is an urgent need to change them. So I cannot blame a panchayat secretary or a village officer. Sometimes, when the panchayat committee will take a decision to do something, the secretary is unable to act on it because of certain rules. As a result, the people get angry.”
But Chandy has always had a magic touch with people. Right from the beginning of his career more than four decades ago, Chandy has enjoyed interacting with the common man. “Their love and affection provides me with a tremendous amount of energy,” he says. “And I want to solve all the problems of people.”

Here's one which he resolved, to his satisfaction. Some time ago, he had gone to visit a friend in Kochi. An 18-year-old boy asked to meet the Chief Minister. When he met Chandy, he said that he had not received the death certificate of his mother, Sharada (name changed), although he had been trying for two years.

She had fallen sick while returning from Sabarimala. Sharada was then rushed by car to the Kottayam Medical Hospital, but had died along the way. “The boy does not know where exactly his mother died,” says Chandy. “The rule is that whereever a person dies, that particular panchayat has to be informed, and then they would issue the death certificate. So he was not able to get the certificate.”

So, at the next Cabinet meeting Chandy told his colleagues about this. “I said that this is an inhuman rule,” he says. “There must be many cases like this. The Cabinet then made a decision to change the rule.”

The new rule states that it does not matter where a person dies, but when the body is brought to a particular place for a burial or a cremation, that panchayat will issue the certificate. “I felt good that I was able to do something about this,” says Chandy.

The Chief Minister also reveals that he reads each and every letter that is addressed to him, the majority of which are written by ordinary people. “I learn a lot of things when I read the letters,” says Chandy. 

Once, during an inauguration, Chandy lit a lamp while holding the diya with one hand. A letter writer Ramesh Menon (name changed) said that it was a mistake. “It goes against the Indian ethos,” wrote Ramesh. “You are supposed to light a lamp with two hands. And in case, you use one hand, the left hand should be placed on the arm of the right.” A photo was attached showing the right way. Chandy was deeply affected. “Ramesh is right and, thereafter, I have always ensured that I have used two hands to light a lamp,” he says. “Every day I am learning something new.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Providing Succour to Broken People

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's mass contact programme provided relief to people who were in desperate need of it 

Photo: A  paralysed S. Pushparaj with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Pic by Manu R. Mavelil   

By Shevlin Sebastian

S.R. Lenin sticks a white flag, with the letters 'DYFI' (Democratic Youth Federation of India) in red, onto the police barricade, about half a kilometre from the Central Stadium at Thiruvananthapuram where the mass contact programme (Jana Samparka Paripadi) by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is taking place.

His colleagues, who are wearing T-shirts and jeans, shout slogans against the Chief Minister. “Chandy is corrupt,” says S. Mahesh, a DYFI member. “He should resign. This mass contact programme is a gimmick. The people are standing in the sun for so long and they will get nothing.”   

So what is your plan of action?” asks an onlooker.

The first step is to bring down this barricade,” says Mahesh,

Standing at some distance away is a complacent-looking N. Radhakrishnan, Assistant Sub Inspector, who says, “Everything is under control. We expect no 

And that turns out to be true. The Left Democratic Front protest against the Chief Minister fizzles out by noon.

Inside the stadium, a large shamiama has been put up and people wait patiently on red plastic chairs. On the stage sits Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, along with ministerial colleagues, KC Joseph, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, K. Babu, and V S Sivakumar. In a nice touch, there is a row of marigolds and sunflowers placed on the edge of the stage.

Please come, please come,” the Chief Minister says, beckoning to a line of petitioners. Immediately, B. Lalkumar, a grey-haired man, is carried forward by two men, on a plastic chair. “I used to work as a labourer,” he tells the chief minister. “Five years ago, I fell from a tree, while plucking pepper, and became paralysed from the waist down. Please help me.”

Chandy asks a few questions, nods silently, writes Rs 50,000 on the petition, and signs his name with a flourish. Away from the stage, Lalkumar smiles, and says, “This is a great programme for poor people like me. We get an immediate relief.” Yes, indeed, when Lalkumar's relatives go to a counter manned by the Collector's staff, they are handed over a cheque.

Soon, the crowd gasps when a stretcher – its four ends held by Kerala Police constables – is brought and placed on the table in front of Chandy. On it lies S. Pushparaj, 38, in a striped black and white shirt and white dhoti. Like Lalkumar, he has been paralysed following a fall from a coconut tree. His three sons, Sujith, 11, Ajit, 10, and Prajith, 8, stand next to their father. 

“We have no income,” says Pushparaj's wife Geeta. “We depend on relatives and neighbours to survive.” This time, Chandy is clearly moved. He writes Rs 1 lakh on the sheet, and a transfer of the ration card from Above to Below Poverty Line.

And so it goes, victim after victim, coming in front of a chief minister, who clearly has his heart in the right place, and immediate relief is granted to those whose lives have been blighted by misfortune, bad luck, and senseless tragedy.

Even the hardened police are moved. “I am shocked to see so many people face financial problems, and thus have an inability to avail of medical facilities,” says a woman sub-inspector, who does not wish to be identified. “There are so many poor people in Kerala. I feel sad at their plight, but this is a wonderful programme.”

So how does the system work? This particular programme is only for the people of Thiruvanthapuram district. “By early July, 14,957 petitions were received online,” says S. Gopakumar, Group Head (Technology), of the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology, which is handling the software. 

“Following recommendations from the taluk and district level, the most meritorious cases have been whittled down to about 500. Since Collectors can only clear a maximum of Rs 10,000, for financial assistance from the CM's Distress Relief Fund, and since these people need more help, they were recommended to meet the Chief Minister to get funds, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh. In total, Rs 1.53 crore has been disbursed today.”

A day later, at 8 a.m., on Saturday, at Cliff House, the Chief Minister's official residence, a beaming Oommen Chandy says, “Yesterday's programme was a grand success. In a mass contact programme, people think that those who get the benefits and the cash payments are the biggest beneficiaries. But that is not true. I am the biggest beneficiary. I became aware of so many problems of the people which I did not know about earlier. This has been the biggest experience of my career. Earlier, I did this exercise in all the 14 districts of Kerala. The knowledge I got about life has been the equivalent of reading 100 books.”

And Chandy is even more happy that the programme was a revelation to his fellow ministers. “Many of them told me that they did not know that so many people faced so many problems,” he says. “It is clear that this programme has to continue.” 

(The Sunday Standard, New Delhi)  

Lessons for Life

The play, 'Tuesdays With Morrie', is the story of Morrie Schwartz, a former sociology professor, who, even as he is dying of a degenerative disease, displays sparkling wit and wisdom

Photos: A scene from the play; the real-life Morrie Schwartz (centre) with Mitch Albom and his wife Janine

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, in 1995, famed American television anchor Ted Koppel read an article about death by Morrie Schwartz, a former sociology professor of Brandeis University, USA, in a newspaper. Morrie was dying of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which causes muscle weakness and wasting away of the body Touched and impressed, Ted got in touch with Morrie and decided to do an interview for his popular show, 'Nightline'.

One man who saw the programme, while channel surfing, was Morrie's old student, Mitch Albom, a sportswriter. He had promised to remain in touch, following his graduation. “But I did not,” he says. “I proceeded to break that promise every day, every week and every month for 16 years.”

After the telecast, Mitch felt guilty. So, one day, he flew 1200 kms, from Detroit to Newton, Massachusetts, to meet up with Morrie. And in that first meeting, Morrie spoke about the first signs of ALS. “It started with little things,” he says. “I would feel exhausted for no reason. Then I began to stumble. One night on the dance floor, I fell. And I have never fallen while dancing. So I did a lot of tests, but the answers were inconclusive. Finally, I went to see a neurologist.”

And it was this neurologist who confirmed to Morrie that he had ALS, with a limited time to live.

And then Morrie described his feeling when he came out of the hospital. “It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the children were laughing,” he says. “And I wanted the world to stop. Inside my head, I wanted to scream, 'Make the sun die, make the sky black. I am dying'. But the sun stayed there, the kids continued to laugh. The world did not change because it does not cater to me. I asked myself, 'Am I going to withdraw from the world as many people do?' No. I decided I am going to live for as long as I can and embrace the world.”

All these dramatic dialogues were spoken in a play, 'Tuesdays With Morrie', at the JT Pac, Kochi, recently. Produced by the Mumbai-based National Centre for the Performing Arts, in association with Akvarious Productions, the actors included Adhar Khurana (Mitch), Akash Khurana (Morrie) and Lucky Vakharia (Nurse Connie and Mitch's wife Janine).

And what can one say about the veteran Akash as Morrie? He was simply brilliant. Starting the play, wearing a cap, and a suit, with a red tie, and then showing the gradual disintegration of Morrie -- the loss of mobility, trembling hands, back pain, sudden crying -- and in the end, dressed in a brown sweater and pyjamas, seated in a wheelchair. It was irresistible.

In one scene, Morrie tries to water a plant on a window sill, holding a glass in his shaking hands and then it slips and falls to the floor. The tinkle of the breaking glass echoed through the hall.

And Akash as Morrie had so much of wisdom, with a dialogue delivery that was clear and fluent at all times. It was a voice that went on and on, refusing to give up on life, even as his body did. For the audience, it was a journey into that most terrifying event that awaits all of us at the end: our deaths.

Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live,” says Morrie. “I wish I had been more aware of death every day of my life. [The poet] Auden said, 'We must love one another or die'. I have got news for you, Mitch, my friend. You are dying too. Just a lot slower. ”

For Morrie, his most painful memory was the death of his sick mother when he was a child. “One morning, my father calls my brother and I for breakfast,” he says. “Just as we sit down, this telegram arrives announcing her death. I was eight years old. I wanted my mother back. I wanted her to hold me, to sing me the songs she would sing, but she was gone.”

And this crying need for love increases at the end. “When you are an infant coming into the world, you are held and caressed,” says Morrie. “When you are leaving the world, you need the same thing. The mystery is that in between the coming and the going we pretend we don't need it.”

However, even as the play was gripping, young Adhar as Mitch clearly needs some time to develop as an actor. His dialogue delivery sounded flat and emotionless at times, and he could not inhabit his character the way his real-life father did with Morrie. But these are early days for Adhar in his career. 

Meanwhile, as is well known, Mitch Albom visisted Morrie over several Tuesdays, till he died on November 4, 1995. Thereafter, Mitch wrote a book, 'Tuesdays With Morrie', that became a mega bestseller. Thanks to the book and the Nightline broadcast, Morrie lives on.

Or, as Mitch said, “If you lead your life like the way Morrie did, making people your priority, then when you die, you are not really gone. You live inside the hearts of everyone you touched.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Unflinching Look at Communal Carnage

Sudipto Das, the author of the best-selling 'The Ekkos Clan', talks about the sufferings of people on the Bangladesh side during the 1947 Partition of India.
By Shevlin Sebastian
Bhrigu fell at her feet. “Ma, don’t go,” he pleaded, crying softly. “Let us all die together. I don’t want to survive like this. Let them kill all of us. Don’t go.” Khubha raised Bhrigu and held him to her. “Remember the river? He never stops, he never gets lost. He has to flow, and he should flow. If there are mountains in the way, he goes around them. He jumps and leaps and makes waterfalls. Do whatever you like, but never die. Anything is better than death. Let me go now.” Kubha closed the door. Bhrigu heard the door of the other room slam shut. Soon, he heard hushed cries of pain.”

This is an extract from Sudipto Das’s remarkable novel, ‘The Ekkos Clan’, where, for the first time, the experience of Hindus in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) is meticulously described. These includes riots, rapes, stabbings, and communal carnage. 

“There was an equally horrific experience on the Bangladesh side, just as it was on the Punjab-Pakistan side,” says Sudipto, while on a brief reading visit to Kochi. “But not many people know about it. Even in Bengali literature, there is hardly any exploration of what had happened.”
And in his research Sudipto came across an interesting phenomenon. “The atrocities were not done by the local Muslims, but by the Bihari Muslims who came across the border and did mayhem,” he says. “In fact, the Bangla Muslims saved many Hindu families.”
Sudipto, himself, is of East Bengal origin. Like the two youngsters in the novel, his uncle, then 14, and father, only seven, made a daring escape, at the insistence of their mother, and made their way to Kolkata.
Many relatives followed suit. But despite living in Kolkata for fifty-odd years, home still meant Bangladesh. “They talked about Bangladesh all the time,” says Sudipto. “They always remembered their village and the people who lived there. The language we speak at home – Bangaal – is that which is spoken in Bangladesh. Their exile is a wound which has never healed. And it had impacted me even though I had a comfortable upbringing in Kolkata. That was one of the reasons I wrote on this subject.”
Not surprisingly, Khubha, the mother, is the most powerful character in the novel. A widow, she is strong, as well as practical. Khubha has an affair with her brother-in-law. “She is not a goddess, nor is she a vamp,” says Sudipto. “She is just a normal human being who succumbed to her desires.” And even as riots raged in East Bengal, and Hindus are being killed by Muslims, Khubha falls in love with a Muslim man.
But ‘The Ekkos Clan’ is not only about the 1947 Partition. The scene moves to present-day Stanford, in the USA, and to a place called Arkaim in Russia. It is a novel steeped in intellectual subjects: so there is linguistic paleontology, astrology, archaeology, music, maths, ancient history…the list goes on. And yet, all these subjects are dealt with, in an easy and simple style, so that the reader is never put off. And all these topics are pursued to understand the meaning of the stories that Khubha told her children when they were growing up.
Interestingly, Sudipto’s motivation to write his first book was unusual. “I am doing well in my profession,” says this Vice President of an electronic design services company in Bangalore. Sudipto is also an engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. “But I also felt that I was not doing anything unique. Whatever I was doing, anybody else could do.”
So he decided to write a novel. “This book is mine alone,” he says. “And nobody else can lay claim to it.”
But it was not an easy task. He began work every day after 10 p.m., and wrote till 2 a.m. But he would have to get up at 7 a.m., to get ready to go to work. On weekends, he carried on working on the book. “For the past five-and-a-half years, I have screwed up my personal life,” says Sudipto, who is married, and has a 10-year-old son. “Every six months I would fall sick because of lack of sleep, stress, and office pressures.”
And then when the book was complete, it was not easy to find a publisher. “The literary world is a closed group and does not entertain outsiders,” says Sudipto. “They have their own shell. They don't like engineers or IT guys writing books. They look down on Chetan Bhagat, even though he has superb sales.”
But Sudipto had a stroke of luck when the Delhi-based Niyogi Books accepted his manuscript. And ever since the book was published in July, it has steadily climbed up the literature and fiction best-seller list on Flipkart and is perched at No. 19 now.
I want more and more people to read it,” he says. “So I am going around the country holding book readings.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)