Saturday, November 30, 2013

Lakeside Story

The focal point in in laid-back Kollam is the Asthamudi Lake. You can also watch coir ropes being made, as well as cashew nuts being processed, and spend time on an elephant farm.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Driver Biju sends the speedboat hurtling through the waters of the Asthamudi Lake, at 45 kms per hour, causing large foamy waves to be formed in its wake. Biju heads towards the nearby Monroe Islands. Named after a British resident, Colonel John Munro, the islands measures 13 square kilometres.

When I reach there I get onto a country boat, moved manually by a man, Raghu, using an oar, through the lagoons. It is soothing and refreshing. One who is also taking a ride, in another boat, is Gaiko, who has come from Tokyo. “I am enjoying myself,” she says, with a smile. “This is a novel experience for me.”

Raghu has a sense of fun. He leads the boat towards a narrow bridge, but there seems to be little place underneath for the boat to pass through. Just near the bridge, he stops and tells me, “Lie down.” I look at him puzzled and say, “Are you sure?” He smiles and says, “Please.” And so I lie down on the floor and watch, with a sense of amazement, as the boat passes through. When the next bridge comes up, I laugh and lie down. And Raghu also bends his head towards his knees, but not before giving a strong push with his oar. We pass four bridges like this and it brings a smile to my face.

And then suddenly, there is a stunning sight. A red and blue kingfisher swoops down, and, with unerring accuracy, spears a fish from the waters and flies away. Sadly, at one side, there are a few bobbing plastic bottles and empty tetra-packs. Raghu says that the District Tourism Promotion Council has specially appointed a man to collect these waste materials. “Looks like he is absconding,” he says.

We then step off on an island, where there are numerous coconut trees. Sreelakshmi Mohan, a thirty-year-old housewife, shows me how to make coir ropes, by using the husk of the coconut and a weaving wheel. Soon, a green coconut is cut open and the fresh juice provides a soothing feeling to the stomach.

Next on the itinerary is a visit to a cashew factory. Cashew is the economic mainstay of Kollam. And the factory owner, Raju Vasant Kumar, talks about how he began, nervously, with a bank loan of Rs 50 lakh a few years ago to start his first factory and now he is booming, with six factories. “I am exporting to the USA, UK and all the European countries,” he says.

In the factory, Kerala's labour irony becomes evident. While the Malayalis have gone to the Middle East to eke out a living, Raju's workforce comprises, apart from local women, a large batch of Assamese and Bengalis. “They are hard-working,” says Raju, with a satisfied smile, as the workers peel off the shells with quiet efficiency.

Thereafter, I set out to see an elephant farm. It abounds in wildly growing grass and plants, but the elephants are placed on a raised concrete platform, with chains tied around their legs. A hungry elephant, with pleading eyes, makes a trumpeting sound.

In response, a bare-bodied boy thrusts a coconut branch at him. The mammal pulls out the leaves, with the help of its trunk, and pokes it quickly into his mouth. “No masala, oil or spices needed,” says the mahout, with a sly grin.

Back at the five-star Hotel Raviz, where I am staying, the industrialist-owner Ravi Pillai is in a good mood. He has just been told that Rafia Sheikh from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia had made a miraculous recovery. Rafia had been in a wheelchair for the past three years. Apparently, she had been seeking treatment in many places. But thanks to the hotel’s Ayurvdea treatment – a mix of massage, medicines and a proper diet – Rafia has been able to walk. “Rafia was suffering from a compression of nerves,” says Pillai. “I feel good about what happened.”

Outside, at one side, is an ancient 250-year-old cottage, which has been translocated from a nearby village. Inside, the gleaming ceilings are low, and the walls, beds, floors and windows are all made of burnished wood. “Foreigners love to stay here,” says Pillai. “They want to live in touch with nature.” 

(The New Indian Express, Delhi and Kochi)

Off-beat Wedding Cards the norm these days

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Kochi-born Mukul Soman went to do his Masters in Fine Arts at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Following that, he settled in Seattle, where he met Mary Dee Mateo who is a Filipino. They fell in love. And now, two years later, on November 29, they are getting married in Kochi. And the wedding card is dramatic and different.

Apart from the usual card announcing the names of parents, time, date and location, there is a booklet in which there are individual photos of Mukul and Mary, details about their life, and images of the couple, together with the phrase, 'Love Is Destiny'. This is the brainchild of Mukul's father, SP Soman, the CEO of Skiltek Group of Institutions.

Seattle is a beautiful and romantic place,” says Soman. “It is easy to fall in love there. I wanted to convey something of that romanticism in the card. And the theme is that you are destined to fall in love with a person.”
Unusual cards are part of a growing new trend, among a certain segment of society, says C. Arabind, Managing Director of Tamarind Event Management Solutions, a Kochi-based wedding planner. His affluent clients opt for a decorated box, which contains a wedding invitation, 'Save the date' magnetic stickers for cars and refrigerators, sweets, chocolates and a route map to the venue. “This will cost around Rs 1500-2000 per card, depending on the contents,” says Arabind.

Theresa George, creative designer of the Thought Factory is making a card which looks like a sea shell. “I have embossed it in such a way that when you touch it, you will feel the ridges of an actual sea shell,” she says. Her client wanted to do something different. “The wedding is being held on the sea shore,” she says. “So they felt this card would be apt.”

People also opt for fragrant cards, says Raju Kannampuzha, Managing Director of Executive Events. “As soon as you open it, a smell of lavender, rose or sandal arises. Musical cards have sounds of flutes and violins.” They cost about Rs 500 per card.

But not everybody believes it is necessary to splurge. Media professional K Devarajan made a hand-written invitation, written on a torn page from a diary, took photocopies, and send it to his friends. “I enjoy writing in Malayalam, and often put down my thoughts in a diary,” he says. “This is also a reminder to everybody of the lost era of letter-writing and the importance of keeping things simple.” Cost per card: Rs 7.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala Edition)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Love is Blind

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Jisha Rahman talks about life with the music composer Afsal Yusuf

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, Jisha Rahman read an article on the visually challenged music composer Afzal Yusuf in a supplement of a Malayalam newspaper supplement. She was impressed and happy to know that Afzal had surmounted his drawbacks to embark on a career.

A few months later, when her family saw a matrimonial advertisement in the newspaper, regarding Afzal, Jisha told them to go ahead. At that time she was staying in Pattambi, where her father worked in the Public Works Department. In May, 2005, Afzal, along with his parents, Dr KK Mohammed and Fatima Yousuf, came to see Jisha.

At their first meeting Jisha liked Afzal, but the composer had a lot of apprehensions. “Afzal specifically asked me whether I had any problems because he was visually challenged,” says Jisha. “I said I had no issues about that. Then he asked me whether there was any pressure from my parents. Again I said no. Finally, he enquired about whether I was influenced by a feeling of sympathy. I smiled and said no.”

The marriage took place on August 20, 2005, at the Aluva town hall. Thereafter, the couple went for a brief honeymoon to Neliyampatty before they settled down in Thrikkakara, Kochi.

Asked about her husband’s plus points, Jisha says, “Afzal is peaceful most of the time. He cares a lot for the children – daughters Hena Fatima, 7, Fida Fatima, 6, and son, Abdul Rahman, 2 – and plays with them whenever he has the time. He also has learnt to adjust to all types of situations.”

Interestingly, Jisha does not listen to music. “I have no idea of Afzal’s songs, even the hits,” she says. “When he composes a new song, he makes his mother hear it. She is very interested in music.”

When Afzal is composing he goes through a lot of tension and does not like to be disturbed when he is working. “That is his only request,” says Jisha. “I am used to it, so I don't get upset.”

But Jisha does get upset because Afzal is on the phone all the time. A voice software enables him to identify the caller easily. “I would say that it is his only negative trait,” says Jisha.

Afzal has a room on the first floor of his house where he has a keyboard and other instruments. This is the place where he spends a lot of time. “Sometimes, he listens to music on the radio or on the TV,” says Jisha.

For Afzal, to function smoothly, everything has to be placed in the right place. So, in his cupboard, the shirts and the trousers to wear outside are placed on one shelf, and the clothes he wears at home are put on another shelf. “The towels are placed in another area,” says Jisha. “Afzal has a bath on his own, apart from his breakfast. At the dining table, there is a fixed place for him.”

Thanks to his childhood training by his parents, Afzal walks around the house as if he can see everything. “I don’t think he is any different from a sighted man,” says Jisha. But now and then Afzal does knock against a chair or a stool. That is because the children play inside the house and a chair gets pushed out of place. “But Afzal has got used to it now,” says Jisha. “If he goes to a friend’s home, he needs to be taken around the house only once to know the location of the furniture.” 

For the couple, the birth of the children was their most memorable event. “Afzal told me his happiest moment occurred when our first child Hena was born and he held her in his arms,” says Jisha.

When asked to give tips to youngsters who are about to get married, Jisha says, “Behave well with everybody. There are others in the family, apart from the spouse. I have three children and each has his own nature. That is the same with the adults in the house. They might say things which we might not like, but we have to learn to adjust. Also, you should marry only if you are sure of making it a success. Otherwise, it is better not to tie the knot.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Funny Side Of faith

Stand-up comedian Azeem Banatwalla cracks jokes about his community that is appreciated by Muslims also

Photo by Vinod Kumar T 

By Shevlin Sebastian

We Muslims eat biriyani,” says stand-up comedian Azeem Bantwalla. “Then because we feel bad that we have killed a goat, we don't eat for one month. Then again we eat biriyani.”

Azeem is performing at the 'Pant on Fire' stand-up comedy show at the JT Performing Arts Centre in Kochi. Earlier, comedian Sourabh Pant introduces Azeem, who is off-stage, by saying, “Azeem is a Muslim with a sense of humour. That's an oxymoron. It's like a Congress politician who says, 'Cheque payments.'”

And in walks a tall (6'3”) and gangly person, wearing spectacles and looking more like an eager college student rather than a comedian. And he swings the bat straightaway: “When Iran sent a rocket into space, they also sent a monkey along with it. We Indians would never do that. We know that a flying monkey is useful only if your wife is stuck in Sri Lanka,” says the 24-year-old.

As the crowd laughs, Azeem gets into the groove easily. But there is a small gasp when Azeem ventures into territory, which would have been considered forbidden because of its sensitivity. “As a Muslim, all you do on Eid is to eat biryani,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t even know why we call it Eid. We should just call it ‘lunch’!”

Azeem makes jokes about praying five times a day, on how an Eid festival means a Salman Khan film, and the pleasures that await a terrorist in Paradise. 

Away from the stage, a relaxed Azeem says, “In India, talking about Muslims and Islam are sensitive topics. But being a Muslim, I feel that I have a license to do so. If not me then who else?”

Of course, Azeem is careful about the way he tells his jokes. “I don't want to offend anybody,” says Azeem. “Basically, I am analysing the idiosyncrasies of the religion. Poking fun is one thing, and being insulting is another. And that is not my aim.”

He remembers how, during a show in Mumbai, he noticed a bearded Muslim, wearing a skull cap, and his burqa-clad wife, sitting on the front row. “They laughed the most at the Muslim jokes,” says Azeem. “In fact, they were enjoying the show as much as the rest of the audience.”

Interestingly, Azeem, a Gujarati, who was born and brought up in Mumbai, stumbled onto his passion in a convoluted way. He graduated, in engineering, from the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology in 2010. At that time, because of recession, he did not get a job. “I sat at home and did nothing for six months,” he says. 

It was during this period that Azeem got an opportunity to write humour for a show on UTV Bindaas. Soon, he began interning with them. After a few months, Azeem secured an opening as a writer for a Delhi-based magazine. In September, 2011, he did an interview with comedian Vir Das, one of India’s top comedians. “It was while talking to him that I got interested in stand-up comedy,” says Azeem.

In that same month, at the Comedy Store in Mumbai he got his first opportunity. And the joke which got an enthusiastic response went like this: “Facebook is a lot like Delhi. You can poke all the women you want, and get away with it.”

And when the crowd laughed and applauded, it was a giddy experience for Azeem. “There is no preparing you for the rush of energy that comes from the audience,” he says. “Your adrenalin starts pumping. It is like doing bungee jumping.”

A hooked Azeem has performed at places like Pune, Bangalore, Kochi, and Baroda, apart from several shows in Mumbai. And, recently, he quit his job as a features writer for the National Geographic Traveller India magazine to become a full-time stand-up comedian.

But it has been hard work being a comedian because audiences are unpredictable. “If you have a younger crowd, they will be more responsive to jokes about mobile phones and social networks,” says Azeem. “An older group will prefer current affairs and politics and all that kind of stuff. So, you have to find a balance in your material.”

Finding the right balance has been Azeem's forte. He is a rising star in an art form which is rapidly gaining in popularity all over India. 

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

In Touch with Mother Earth

Artist Paris Viswanadhan talks about his five-decade long career, after a visual presentation of his works in Kochi

Photo: Paris Viswanadhan with his partner, the French artist Nadine Tarbouriech

By Shevlin Sebastian

In May, 1976, artist Paris Viswanadhan drove out from the German city of Dortmund in his Renault car and headed towards Cuxhaven, 340 kms away, to meet a collector of his works. As usual, driving on the multi-laned autobahn was a pleasure. However, a few kilometres later, Viswanadhan had to slow down because some road repair work was going on. As he did so, he was slammed from behind by a speeding Mercedes Benz. The Renault was hurled towards the protection barriers and was crushed on both sides. Within minutes, police arranged for an ambulance to transport the stricken artist to a hospital in Dortmund.

Viswanadhan had several injuries, but had not lost consciousness. At the casualty ward, as the doctor pressed a needle into Viswanadhan’s arm, he let out a cry of pain.

The doctor said, “Oh, you are alive. Who are you? Where do you come from?” These became existential questions for Viswanadhan. For ten days while under treatment, he pondered over them. “Where do I come from?” says Viswanadhan. “If I say I am an Indian, I could visualise this huge nation with so many different cultures, religions and states.” (Incidentally, there was one good event which came out of the accident. After a court case, he received a huge pay-off from the insurance company.)

When Viswanadhan recovered, he felt the need to get in touch with his roots. So, he called his friend, the famed Thiruvananthapuram-based film-maker, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and they embarked on a tour of the beaches of India. These included the ones at Dwaraka, Porbundar, Somnath, Dandi, Mumbai, Goa, Kannur, Kanyakumari, Chennai and Pondicherry. 

While Adoor made a film, Viswanadhan collected sand. Thereafter, he made a work called 'Sand', which consisted of a panel of 17 squares. In each square, it contained the sand from a particular place. This work, which was reworked upon, was shown at the Kochi Muziris Biennale last year.

The accident was a turning point in my evolution as an artist,” he says. “I decided to get in touch with the earth. I focused on the water, fire, air and the sky. I came into my element through this project.”  

The Paris-based Viswanadhan was in Kochi recently to attend the presentation of 'Kadavoor-Chennai-Paris', which was organised by the Kochi Biennale. Essentially, these are photographs showing the evolution of Viswanadhan during his 50-year long career. After the screening, audience members suggested that he hold an actual retrospective of his work. “I am receptive to the idea, but I would need the help of others to set it up,” says Viswanadhan.

Accompanying him on his tour was his long-time partner, the French artist Nadine Tarbouriech. And, of course, it is an intense experience for two artists to live together. “There are beautiful as well as disturbing moments,” says Viswanadan. “Being artists, we can help each other. There is a common unity that makes us a community.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the state of art in Kerala, he says, “All the great Malayali artists – Raja Ravi Varma, KCS Paniker, Madhavan Menon, KG Subramaniam and A Ramachandran – had to go outside the state to make a mark. This is also the case with the new-generation artists like Bose Krishnamachari, Riyas Komu and others. The artists who have never left the womb of their mothers are against the pravasi Malayalis. They have no experience of the outside. They stare at their navels and think that this is the world.”

But Viswanadhan is hopeful that the huge success of the Kochi Biennale will help change the indifferent mindset to art that exists among the people. “It could be the start of a renaissance of art in Kerala,” he says. 

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Under His Spell

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Kavitha talks about life with the magician Gopinath Muthukad 

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil  

By Shevlin Sebastian

At their first meeting, at Kavitha’s home in Perinthalmanna, Malappuram district, Gopinath Muthukad asked her whether she was comfortable about marrying a magician. “I did have some apprehensions,” she says. But later that evening, Kavitha went to see Gopinath’s show. “Gopinath performed well,” she says. “So I felt confident enough to say yes.” 

The couple got married on August 20, 1994, at the Kalyani Kalyana Mandapam at Angadipuram. Today, after 19 years of marriage, Kavitha is all praise for her husband. “Gopinath is an open and transparent person,” she says. “He always tells me frankly about any problem that he is facing. Gopinath does not drink or smoke. I come from a family where nobody did either. So it made it easy for me to get along with him.”

Perhaps the quality Kavitha admires the most is her husband’s punctuality. “If Gopinath is supposed to attend a 5 p.m. programme, he will ensure that he reaches at 4.50 p.m.,” she says. “Even when we set out on outings from home, he will announce the time and we will leave exactly on schedule,” she says.

Kavitha also likes the fact that Gopinath is a good father to their only child, eight-year-old Vismay. “When our son was younger, he would read out stories to him,” says Kavitha. “They are like friends to each other.” And Gopinath has already influenced his son because Vismay has learnt to do a few magic tricks.

Perhaps the one drawback about Gopinath is that he is a perfectionist, when it comes to his work. “He always expects things to be done rightly by his [23-member] troupe,” says Kavitha. “If that does not happen, he can lose his cool.”

On stage, Gopinath is a different person. He is a man who is in the grip of a passion. “Gopinath has a good stage presence,” says Kavitha. “What I like is the sincerity and dedication that he brings to every performance.”

Kavitha likes to watch her husband’s shows while sitting in the audience. “When the people clap, I feel thrilled,” she says. Nevertheless, there are moments when Kavitha feels a tension within her. That is when he does escape acts, like from fire, or in the water, when he is tied up and has to escape. “There is always a risk to life,” she says. “It has to be done precisely. A lot of practice is needed. That is when I feel scared. By the grace of God, so far, nothing bad has happened.”

But not all shows go smoothly. Sometimes there is a power cut. “It disturbs Gopinath’s concentration and upsets the flow of a show,” she says.    

But that is rare. Gopinath is a consummate professional who practices all the time at his Magic Academy Research Centre (MARC) at Thiruvananthapuram. “And when he puts in new material, he has to practice for hours together, to perfect it,” says Kavitha.

Incidentally, whenever Gopinath goes abroad he tries to watch magic shows, so that he can learn new tricks. Sometimes, Kavitha and Vismay go with him. A couple of months ago, they had gone for a two-week tour of the United States of America. In the audience there was a mix of Malayalis as well as whites. 

The notable difference between the audiences there and in Kerala is that, abroad, people show their appreciation by clapping all the time,” says Kavitha. “In Kerala, it takes some time to get a clap. It seems to me that people forget to show their appreciation because they are so engrossed in the programme.” 

Gopinath has performed in many countries in the Middle East, Kenya, Uganda, Britain and Switzerland.

I love Switzerland,” says Kavitha. “It is a beautiful country. We went to an amusement park called Connyland. It was very interesting, with lots of rides. From Switzerland we went by car to Italy. That was very enjoyable. We liked the city of Milan a lot.”   

Back at home, on days when Gopinath does not have a show, he gets up at 4.30 a.m. From 5 a.m. to 6.15 a.m., he does yoga with the help of a teacher, Subhash. Then he goes for a walk for one hour. Thereafter, he returns, has breakfast, and leaves for the MARC at 9 a.m. “He spends several hours practicing,” says Kavitha. “Gopinath also looks after the administration.”

Most days, he comes home by 7 p.m. Sometimes, they go out to visit friends. Otherwise, Gopinath reads books. “Osho is his favourite author,” says Kavitha. “He likes the content, and the so many interesting stories that Osho tells.” Thereafter, dinner is at 8.30 p.m., with lights out at 10 p.m. “That’s because he likes to get up early,” says Kavitha.  

She admits that the magician’s life is an uncertain one. “It depends on getting shows regularly,” she says. “So there is tension for both of us, but now I have got used to it.”

Meanwhile, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Kavitha says, “Husband and wife should learn to adjust to each other. If the husband is travelling a lot, the wife has to take the responsibility of running the house and looking after the education of the children.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Looking Good and Stylish

The Le Meridien restaurant and bar has had a distinctive makeover

Photo: Executive chef JP Singh with a guest at the Spice Wall. Pic by K. Rajesh Kumar 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When one enters the newly-refurbished 'Latest Recipe' restaurant at the Le Meridien, Kochi, there are a few things that are eye-catching. The first is gleaming grey-coloured chandeliers, which hang from the ceiling, with steel balls around it in a long sheet. The second is three massive wooden pots, placed near a wooden pillar, which is filled with white onions. 

And the piece de resistance is a section called the Spice Wall, which has numerous bottles, as well as glass jars, in which all sorts of spices are stocked in see-through liquids. So, there are chillies, olives, dry ginger, cloves, cinnamon, pickled vegetables, and maize, among many others. “Kerala is the home of spices,” says executive chef JP Singh. “So this is our tribute.”

And at the restaurant, they are trying out new things. “So you can have a salmon pasta or quails with onions and mustard, and chicken dumplings with rasam,” says Singh. But it is not only exotic stuff they want to provide. “We want to give the customer whatever he wants, irrespective of the menu,” says Saji Joseph, general manager. “So, if a customer is missing home food and wants dal and rice, we will give it to him. In most hotels, they will only provide what is on the menu and we want to change that.” In fact, they are calling this request section as 'Ghar Ka Khana'. “And we provide fresh hotel-grown vegetables,” says Saji, as he points at the garden through a glass-paned window.

The motley group of celebrities who have been invited to partake of the salmon and the chocolates include fashion designer Shalini James, actress Cuckoo Pareshwaran, and businesswomen Jyoti Aswani and Parveen Hafeez. And they are in high spirits.

Meanwhile, the bar has been refurbished. It is now called 'Longitude 76', which is Kochi's position on the map. There is a black granite counter and fancy chairs. And there are international as well as an Indian selection of white and red wines. 

“The Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is a good way to start the evening,” says Chandan Thakur, Director – Food & Beverage. Other wines include Bird in Hand Merlot, Catena Malbec, Two Oceans Chadonnay, and a variety of single-malt whiskies like Macallan 18, Taliskar and Caol Ila from Scotland.

When the Caol Ila goes down the throat, you get a light and cool feeling, and a distinctive smoke comes out. 'Hoo-Ha' is the phrase that comes to mind, made famous by Al Pacino in 'Scent Of A Woman'.

And that's what the Le Meridien wants to be now: 'Hoo-Ha' or cool, light and smoky. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

An Inspiring duo

Krithi Karanth is trying desperately to increase the area designated as India’s wildlife from 4 to 10 per cent, while Aisha Chaudhary talks about life lessons
Photos: Krithi Karanth and Aisha Chaudhary

By Shevlin Sebastian 

I have had an extraordinary childhood,” says Krithi K. Karanth, a biological conservationist at the INK (Innovation and Knowledge) Conference, 2013, at Kochi. “My father K. Ullas Karath is one of India's well-known tigerologists. My grandfather was the renowned writer, thinker, and theatre personality Dr. Shivaram Karanth. And I grew up among these two incredible individuals, whose passion continues to inspire me even to this day.”
From her childhood, Krithi spent hours, along with her father, watching animals at the Nagarhole National Park , 218 kms from Bangalore. “I was a five-year-old kid, who was not allowed to bring any music or colouring books, but just given a pair of binoculars and told to sit still for six hours,” says Krithi. 
“Some days it was hard, but I ended up doing this for 16 years. Today, if I get one day like that, I will be the happiest person in this room.”
That is because India has an incredible variety of wildlife. The country has 40 per cent of the world's tigers and all of the Asian elephants. “If you don't think big charismatic mammals are good enough, then we have the Lion Tailed Macaque,” says Krithi. “There are only 500 left in the world today and they are only found in the Western Ghats.” There is also an incredible array of amphibians, apart from a thousand bird species.
But what is increasingly becoming a reality are the numerous conflicts between man and animal as the former encroaches into new areas all over the country, because of overpopulation. In a research study last year, Krithi and her team went to over 2000 villages in Karnataka. 

“What we discovered was that during a 10-year-old period, there have been one lakh conflicts between man and animal,” she says. “How do we solve this problem? I want to set up a conservation platform. The idea is that whenever any villager faces a conflict situation we will have field teams on the ground that will respond to this.”
Meanwhile, Krithi is responding to another burning issue. At this moment only 4 per cent of the country is designated as wildlife areas. “But that is not enough,” she says. “India is at a point in history where we have the money, resources and technology, and have no more excuses to say that 4 per cent is all what we can give for non-human life. In fact, 10 per cent is my dream. As a conservation biologist, nine out of ten times, I will lose the fight for wild India, but the one time that I win, I will celebrate joyously.”

Unfortunately, Aisha Chaudhary, all of 17, has nothing to celebrate. She suffers from a lung disorder called Pulmonary Fibrosis. It makes it difficult for her to breathe. Aisha begins her speech at the INK Conference by saying, “I was tossing and turning in my bed with this idea that soon I may be gone. If that is going to happen, what is the point of anything? I think about this for hours and get nowhere. But then it suddenly struck me that I am not really alone in all of this. Is it not true that not just me, but all of us are going to die one day? In the next 100 years, all of us sitting in this room today will be gone, just at different times, some sooner than the others.”
Expressing a perception far beyond her years Aisha says that happiness is a choice. “It is simply an attitude,” she says. “I can have an attitude to be happy and try to smile. Or I can choose to be miserable and get overwhelmed by it. However, it is not that by being miserable, I am going to get better. So I may as well choose to be happy. If I have to have pulmonary fibrosis I choose to have a happy pulmonary fibrosis.”
When she says this, the audience breaks out into a spontaneous applause. Sometime ago, Aisha had gone to London to do a sleep study. It was done to check whether her oxygen levels were okay when she slept. “I could not help but laugh at the man who was doing the study,” says Aisha. “He would put up his own feet on my bed and go off to sleep, snoring away. This made it difficult for me to sleep. Maybe, that was why my results were so bad.”

But what makes Aisha feel good is her two pets – a labrador and a black pup. “I find it so interesting that even though they cannot speak a word, dogs are our best friends and companions,” says Aisha. “I cannot help but get inspired. They are similar to humans. Yet they carry qualities that we humans struggle to achieve. Dogs can find happiness in the smallest of things. They are delighted with a walk, excited with a small treat, and are in heaven when you tickle their bellies.”

Aisha pauses and says, “I am determined to make the most of this wonderful gift of life that God has given me. As [writer Hans Christian] Anderson once said, 'Enjoy life, there's plenty of time to be dead.'” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Struck by Lightning

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Suresh Parambath talks about life with the best-selling writer Anita Nair

Photo by Nagesh Polali

By Shevlin Sebastian

Suresh Parambath met the writer Anita Nair when she was only 16 years old. “It seemed as if lightning had struck me,” he says. “I was attracted to her instantly. Anita was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. She was a city girl (Chennai), while I was a small-town guy from Kozhikode.”

The meeting took place at Shornur. Suresh had gone to see his sister Prema. Anita and Prema became friends when the former came to see her grandmother who lived nearby.

Thereafter, Suresh and Anita began writing to each other. Sometimes, they wrote poems too. Suresh remembers a couple of lines he had written: ‘Fourteen freckles on a frilly French nose/And curls and more curls to frame it all.’

Suresh went a couple of times to Chennai to see her. Anita did the same when Suresh re-located to Thiruvananthapuram for a job. Soon, it was clear to both that they liked each other. And with their parents’ blessings, they got married on May 28, 1986 at Shornur. Unfortunately, they had no money to go for a honeymoon, because both had just begun careers – Anita as a freelance writer and Suresh in advertising.

Not surprisingly, after 28 years of marriage, Suresh is still crazy over Anita. “She is very beautiful,” he says. “Anita has wonderful eyes. They are big and emotive. That may be because she is a trained Bharatnatyan dancer. Anita is also interested in Kathakali, in which strong feelings are expressed through the eyes. I like her hair, too.”

Suresh is equally enamoured of Anita’s character. “She is a remarkable person,” he says. “I am not talking about the writing part. She is a caring person. The grandchildren of our maid, Rajeshwari Amma, are being educated by Anita. There are others who have finished college, thanks to Anita's help.”

She is also a good mother. They have one son, Maitreya, who is doing his first-year post graduation in English. “He looks up to her,” says Suresh.

But like all creative people, Anita has her moods. “She can snap at me at times,” says Suresh. “But that happens in all marriages. Since 16, she has been on a wonderful journey of evolution. I have seen her blossom from a young girl into this great writer the world applauds.”

Yes, indeed, Anita is that rare phenomenon: a well-known writer whose books sell well. “In Bangalore, people run after her when we go out in public,” says Suresh. “They ask, ‘Are you Anita Nair?’ When she says yes, they will want an autograph or a picture taken.”

Sometimes, Suresh is also introduced, “The people nod politely but they are just not interested in knowing anything about me,” says Suresh with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Anita has a fan following abroad, mostly in Europe and Italy, where she is a household name. Suresh remembers a trip he made with Anita to a small Italian town, Vittorio Veneto, a few years ago. A reception had been hosted by the mayor for the Indian author. “We got lost and were running behind schedule,” says Suresh “The Mayor said he would send two police cars.”

Soon the police cars, with sirens blowing, escorted the couple. “When we reached the town hall, the mayor himself was waiting outside to receive Anita,” says Suresh. “There were about 200 people present, which, I assume, was the whole of the town. This was just after the release of ‘Ladies Coupe’. What I remember was that the event was conducted in Italian and Anita was the only person who spoke in English. And Anita’s Italian translator Francesco Diano did the translation. After the event, the Mayor took us to a tavern where we drank some wine.”

When asked why Anita’s books do well in Italy, Suresh says, “The family is central to life there, just like in India. And that is why Italians can relate to the characters in Anita’s novels.”

Anita has been prolific – 14 books till now – thanks to her daily writing habit. She wakes up at 5.30 a.m., and does a round of walking or swimming at their gated community in Hennore, a village, 18 kms from Bangalore. Thereafter, she starts work. During this time, Anita lives in a world of her own. “Nowadays I can detect easily when she is in a creative mood and I quickly give her the space she needs,” says Suresh.

What sets apart Anita is her passion and dedication. Writing clearly is the No. 1 priority. “I don’t have any problems with that,” says Suresh. “There was a time when I also had a great deal of passion and worked 18 hours a day, travelling and making TV commercials for J Walter Thompson, where I was Associate Vice-President and Senior Creative Director,” he says. “So I can understand what Anita is going through.”

Today, Suresh has slowed down and runs a consultancy firm called PaidPiper of Brands. And, in conversation, he comes across as a rare male; one who is a feminist at heart.

I don't think a woman's place should be in the kitchen,” he says. “They should be able to go out and do what they want. Why should they be sequestered in the house only? If you look at us, my name is Suresh Parambath, while Anita has kept her maiden surname. I agree with this. A lot of men expect their wife to adopt their surnames. A woman should never lose her identity. Why should she be somebody else's half?” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Indian in Sweden

Mumbai-born Rupesh Tillu, who has acted in the ‘Ship of Theseus’, has been a Stockholm-based artist for several years

By Shevlin Sebastian

Rupesh Tillu, who plays the character Ajay, in the ‘Ship Of Theseus’, is driving a car in Stockholm. In front of him, in another car, kneeling in the open luggage boot is the Director of Photography Pankaj Kumar carrying the camera, with his gaffer Nuthan holding his waist.

The traffic rules are strict in Sweden,” says Rupesh, an Indian artist based in the Swedish capital. “What Pankaj is doing would never be allowed.” Not surprisingly, a police car soon arrives. Rupesh calls his friend, Deepal Doshi, who is driving the first car, and says, “We are screwed. We should not tried to do things Mumbai-style. I am sure they will give us a fine of 5000 krona [Rs 48,000].” But Rupesh gets a shock. The cops observe that it is a shooting sequence and go away quietly. “That was a most amazing moment,” he says.

Rupesh’s role in ‘Ship of Theseus’ happened because the director Anand Gandhi and he had been friends in college. “So, in the script, the buyer of a kidney had to be from Europe,” says Rupesh. “But since Anand knew I was in Sweden and had the resources, he decided to set the foreign scenes there and gave me a role.”

But it is not films, but theatre which is Rupesh’s first love. Right from his days at KG Somaiyya College of Arts and Commerce at Mumbai, he has acted in plays. During his last year in college, he joined the Avikal Theatre Company. His turning point came when he saw a performance by the Swedish theatre company, Theatre Slava, at Mumbai. “It was physical theatre,” says Rupesh. “There was singing and dancing. I realised that this is something I want to do.”

Through the help of one of the Slava actors, Kefas Berlin, he got admission into an acting school called Vårdinge By Folkhögskola, which is 60 kms from Stockholm. In September, 2005, Rupesh left for Sweden. He studied there for a year. Thereafter, he got a chance to work with one of Slava's old directors Erik Norlin, who hired Rupesh as a member of his international drama troupe, called the Urban Company. Soon Rupesh was traveling all over Europe performing in plays.

In 2007, Rupesh came to Kerala to make a film, called ‘The Living Gods’,  on Theyyam, one of Kerala’s traditional ritual forms of worship. “It will be aired soon on Swedish TV,” says Rupesh, who took five years to make the film. In between, in 2009, he did a two-year master's programme in physical comedy at the National School of Dramatic Arts in Stockholm. He has also performed with ‘Clowns without Borders’ in Moldova, Palestine, Israel, India, Jordan and Egypt.

There was more drama in Rupesh’s life. He fell in love with a Swedish classical pianist, Emma Gill Jam Tillu and got married to her on March 24, 2012. With Emma’s help, he started his own theatre company called Theatreact. And they tasted success soon. Rupesh’s 60-minute play, ‘Ragulabuggla’, about climate change, won the outstanding artist award in the Stockholm fringe festival in 2012. 

“It was a thrilling moment,” he says. “There were 400 artistes participating from all over the world.” Thereafter, because of their win, they were selected to perform at the Prague fringe festival in May, this year, where they won the Special Jury award. And they have just finished performing in the Amsterdam fringe festival.

Now, Rupesh is on a national tour with his latest production, ‘Drömeställe’.

Asked the difference between art in Europe and India, Rupesh says, “In Europe, it is not about pleasing people, but about raising questions in your audience. That perspective has been missing in the art scene in India. But things are changing. The best example is ‘Ship of Theseus’ which asks a lot of questions.”

He is passionate about the artist’s role. “It is our responsibility towards society that we train people to look for certain kinds of cinema and theatre. We underestimate our audiences and give them things that have worked in the past. It is the artist's function to make that change happen. If you give [Salman Khan’s] 'Dabaang', they don't have options. But when you give them options, you can see what has happened with ‘Ship of Thesus’.”

An excited Rupesh is moving back to Mumbai in December with his family. “I have been fortunate to get all this education and experience,” he says. “Now, I want to contribute to the art scene in India.” 

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

Making An Impact

Pushpa Basnet looks after the children of prisoners, while Sunil Khandbahale makes dictionaries translating words from vernacular languages into English to benefit students

Photos: Pusha Basnet; Sunil Khandbahale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Some time ago, the local government authorities in Kathmandu called up Pushpa Basnet and said, “There is a small baby girl, would you like to have it? I said, 'Yes, why not.'”

A curious Pushpa asked the story behind the child. “They replied that the girl’s father got angry with the mother because she did not make an omelette,” says Pushpa, during a talk at the the Innovative and Knowledge Conference, 2013, at Kochi. “So he poured kerosene on his wife and burnt her.”

In Nepal, if a child does not have a local guardian, then the infant goes to jail, along with the parent. In 2005, while Pushpa was doing her masters in social work at St. Xavier's College, she happened to visit the Sundhara Jail and met one such infant - a nine-month-old baby girl.

“She held my hand,” says Pushpa. “It seemed as if she was telling me, 'This is not the place for me to stay.' Maybe, it must have been my imagination, but I replied, 'I will do something'. And that was how I set up a home for these children called 'The Early Childhood Development Centre'.”

In the past nine years Pushpa has been working with 18 different jails. And everyone has their own story. There is a girl named Meenakshi, who was born inside a prison and had never been outside. “The first time she came out, she ran non-stop,” says Pushpa. “She had always lived surrounded by walls and was so excited to be free. When she got a boiled egg, she threw it away thinking that it was an insect.”

There are 45 children who stay at the home. “There is a very special bond that we have,” she says. “What we are giving them is the freedom to be out of the prison.” Once or twice a month the children go and see their parents. “They need to understand that their parents have committed crimes because of a lack of education and opportunities,” says Pushpa.

However, the sad thing is that there are 80 children still living inside. But Pushpa says that she was unable to look after them all because of her limited resources. But help is at hand. Pushpa has won the CNN Heroes Award which carries a cash prize of $300,000.

Like Pushpa, Sunil Khandbahale is also making an impact on people’s lives. “My parents were poor and illiterate,” he says. “But they wanted their children to go to school.” And Sunil did so, in the town of  Mahiravani, in Maharashtra, and did well for many years. Thanks to his academic excellence, he was admitted into the Government Polytechnic at Ahmednagar to do engineering course.

“But the course was conducted in English,” he says. “I did not know the language. Everything was going over my head. I felt terrified. In the meanwhile, a couple of students ran away because of this. I also decided to quit and packed my bags. But something stopped me. I saw the innocent faces of my parents. They might be dreaming that their son was going to be an engineer. With that thought in mind, I confessed my agony to a professor.”

The professor asked Sunil whether he had a dictionary.

“I was hearing the word for the first time,” says Sunil. “Somehow, I got a dictionary and learnt how to use it. I started jotting down the words the professor wrote on the blackboard. On returning to the room, I turned the dictionary inside out trying to find out the meaning. But I practised sincerely.”

At the end of the year when the results were announced, only four out of 60 students had passed in all the subjects. “I lost all hope,” he says. “But to everyone’s surprise, and mine, I had topped the class.”

And Sunil came to some important conclusions. “I understood how powerfully my success was connected to my friendship with the dictionary,” he says. “At the same time I thought of those who ran away. Certainly they could have been engineers. And there are millions like them. I felt it was my duty to show them the way.”

Initially, he started distributing photocopy copies of his compiled dictionaries, from English to Marathi to English. Thereafter, he brought out CDs. “I then decided to set up a web site -- -- where all this software could be downloaded for free,” says Sunil. “And it has become popular.”

Now, there are 100 million users across 150 countries. He then decided to use the SMS service of mobile phones. Press a ten digit number, type the word you want and then sent it. And you will get the translation instantly. So far, with the help of associates, he has translated several vernacular languages into English.

“All this may sound awesome, but there is a huge digital divide,” he says. “I realised that my innovations should benefit those who do not have these devices.” So, now, Sunil is cycling to rural villages and remote areas and to the places where most of the technology has not reached. “I want to convert the language barrier into a language bridge,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Fighting To Save Blighted Lives

The US-born Robin Chaurasiya, a victim of abuse, spoke at the INK Conference at Kochi about her life, as well as Kranti, her NGO for the children of sex workers

Photos: Robin Chaurasiya; members of Kranti 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Innovation and Knowledge (INK) Conference, 2013, at Kochi, activist Robin Chaurasiya asks a series of questions. “What if you grew up with a mother who was busy battling schizophrenia? What if you are a victim of childhood incest? What if your father left behind a legacy of domestic violence? What if after surviving all this abuse and violence, you left your home at the age of 16, joined the US Air Force, which kicked you out the day they learnt you were a lesbian? What would you do in these situations?”

Robin took these circumstances as an opportunity to fight back. For one year, she campaigned to end the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, which prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military. Along with dozens of activists she handcuffed herself to the White House fence. “We stopped highway traffic in Las Vegas and staged demonstrations in New York ,” says Robin. The policy was finally changed by President Barack Obama on September 20, 2011, several months after Robin was kicked out.

Robin had no misgivings about being sacked. “I travelled all over the world — East Africa, Central and Latin America, the Middle East and India,” she says. “The more I travelled, the more I realised that I cannot bomb people. In the Air Force they brainwash you — ‘Oh there are terrorists everywhere, and we must kill them all’. Everybody was so excited about killing people. The aim was to destroy our enemies because America is so superior and perfect. Unfortunately, that is not true at all. It was a lonely time for me in the Air Force. As a lesbian too, I felt that I did not belong.”

However, Robin experienced a sense of alienation from the time she was a child. One summer, when she was three years old, she had come, from Seattle, USA, with her mother and father, an engineer with the Boeing Company to spend time with their extended family in a town called Sihora in Madhya Pradesh. While there, she was sexually abused by her uncle. “It changed everything,” she says. “You find it difficult to trust people. I did not tell this to anybody for years.”

Tragically, Robin says, 80 per cent of the abuse that Indian children suffer takes place within the family. “I hate large Indian families and what they do to the lives of children,” she says.

Meanwhile, when Robin was 12, she realised she liked girls more than boys. “I always felt that there was something different about me,” she says. “And that has been the case with all those who belong to the gay or transgender community. One day, I heard the word, ‘homosexual’. I looked it up in the dictionary and realised that it defined me correctly.” The years went by. Robin did her master’s in gender studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Then, in 2010, when her mother relocated to India, following the death of her father, Robin came to Mumbai and began working for a NGO, ‘Rescue Foundation.

 “They take girls out of brothels, keep them for six months, and did not provide any opportunity to attend school or undergo training, except maybe to do a course in papad-making, and then they were sent home,” says Robin. “It was a house of wasted potential. I felt that even if the girls were far behind in school, they could always play catch-up. I also knew that these girls were desperate to improve their lives.” So, in November, 2010, Robin started a NGO of her own called Kranti. 

“There are 10 girls, three staff members, three cats, and three turtles, all living in a small flat,” says Robin. The girls, aged from 12 to 19, are the children of sex workers, and grew up in red-light areas.

Naturally, all of them felt a shame about that. “Indian society is cruel,” says Robin. “They would be abused on the streets and called the ‘children of whores’.”

Many girls suffered from psychological problems because they had been raped many times by their own fathers, family members or their mother’s customers. “We have a psychologist who does therapy with them,” says Robin.

In order to speed up the healing process, the inmates do dance and art therapy, karate, kung-fu and singing. “We teach them to be proud of their moms, because they have made the ultimate sacrifice of being sex workers,” says Robin. After six months, the girls feel comfortable enough to talk about their origins. “But they do it only in safe spaces, like at our NGO, or in the homes of friends,” says Robin.

The girls are also encouraged to go to school. And the results have been exciting. Shwetha Katti became the first girl from a red-light district in India to secure a full scholarship to study at the prestigious Bard College in New York. Pinky went to St.Paul’s University at Minnesota to do a six-month programme on dance. Sheetal is now a motivational speaker who travels all over India and trains NGO leaders.

And Robin is happy that she is making a difference to lives that have been blighted by pain and suffering. Just like her own. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

'He Can Face Any Difficulty'

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Preethy talks about life with Vellappally Natesan, the president of the Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Vellappally Natesan came to see Preethy, he wore a violet shirt and a mundu that scraped the floor. “Some of my relatives wondered whether he was suffering from elephantiasis and had covered his legs,” says Preethy. “After all he was from the Cherthala area, where elephantiasis was prevalent.”

Anyway, that turned out to be false. Preethy's father liked Natesan and gave the go-ahead for the marriage. At that time, Preethy was doing her pre-degree in Mar Ivanios College in Thiruvananthapuram. And at 17, she was 13 years younger than Natesan. “In those times, we just obeyed our father,” she says. The marriage took place on July 13, 1967. And when Preethy went to Natesan's house at Kanichukulangara, for the first time, her mother-in-law brought a cup of milk which she was supposed to drink.

I am allergic to milk,” says Preethy, at her son Tushar's flat at Kochi. “If I drank it I would have vomited. So I said no. Thankfully, my mother-in-law did not take offence. In fact, she gave me her blessings. In today's world, my refusal would have caused an earthquake between two families. But my mother-in-law realised that I was innocent.”

A month after her marriage, rumours swirled in the town that Natesan had killed a CPI(M) worker by the name of Divakaran. “I felt a deep pain,” she says. “I did not know whether to believe this or not. His friends came and told me he is not a person who will kill anybody. Natesan was feeling bad about how to explain that such an event did not take place.”

Three days later, there was a call from the Sub-Inspector from the Muhamma police station. “Divakaran is in front of me,” said the police officer. “He had gone to Kottayam for some work and had not told anybody.” Thus, the controversy came to an end.

At that time, Natesan was president of the Devaswom Board at the Devi Kanichikulangara temple. There were two warring factions, with one group who had allied with Natesan. “It was a battlefield in those times,” says Preethy.

Some time later, when Natesan banned a ritual which involved the drinking of toddy at the temple, he angered a group of people. Not long after, in 1976, there was an assassination attempt.

Natesan, who had a business in arrack, had gone to the Excise Department at Cherthala to get some work done. On the way, he was waylaid by four men. “They were members of a quotation gang,” says Preethy. One raised a knife and Natesan blocked the blow with his hand. A second man also raised a dagger, but as he brought it down, towards Natesan’s neck, it got stuck on a banana branch. Natesan immediately stepped back. So, they threw an acid bulb at him and ran away.

Most of the liquid fell on his chest and arms,” says Preethy. “Just two drops fell on his face.” He had to do plastic surgery for four months, at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, but the scars are still visible. “That is why he usually wears full-sleeve shirts,” says Preethy.

A year later, on October 10, 1977, tragedy struck the family. Their one-and-a-half-year-old son, Vineeth, drowned in a pond behind their house in Kanichukulangara. “It was a pond which did not have much water,” says Preethy. “But because of heavy overnight rain, the pond became flooded. There was a goat tied near the edge. When my son went to catch it, he lost his balance and fell into the water. Unfortunately, nobody saw this. He was a quiet and well-behaved boy. God gave us this child and took him away too soon.”

Asked about Natesan’s qualities as a father to son Tushar and daughter, Vandana, Preethy says, “Because of his busy career as the president of the SNDP (Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam), Natesan was not present at home often. But he would take them out for outings, whenever he had the chance. He would never scold or punish them. Natesan was more like a friend, and they felt comfortable to talk to him. When I would be strict with the children, they would complain to their father.”

For Preethy she is proud that her husband set up a micro finance credit system that has benefited lakhs of poor Ezhavas, and transformed their life. “He also came up with the idea of family units, prayer meetings and even pre-marriage counselling,” says Preethy.

What she likes the most about him is his fearlessness. “Natesan can face any difficulty in life,” she says. “He has always told me that when a problem arises, we should immediately think about the worst thing that can happen. In the end, if the worst does not take place, then whatever happens is a plus. His strength comes from his deep faith in Devi Kanichukulangara.”

When asked about his negative traits, Preethy says, “When he gets angry, he tells what is on his mind. But, thereafter, he forgets what he has said. But those who have been at the receiving end never do so and become his enemies.” Not so, Preethy, who is a friend of her husband, and admires him, even after 46 years of marriage.

On the qualities needed for a successful marriage, she says, “At times, you should be willing to lose to your spouse,” she says. “There should be no ego tussles. Both husband and wife should be equal and stand together to make the family move forward. They should be like Shiva and Parvathy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)