Thursday, February 27, 2014

Food that is Fit to Eat

Jews all over the world eat food that has passed through certain processes, as laid down by the Torah. Dr. Avrom Pollak, President of the US-based Star K certification company, talks about it

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Dr. Avrom Pollak, the President of the US-based Star-K, one of the foremost kosher food certification agencies in the world, went to inspect a company in China which made caffeine. He was accompanied by an interpreter. At the factory, Pollak inspected the set-up. “I saw how everything was made,” he says. “The employees were respectful and well-mannered.”

Pollak was getting ready to leave, but he could see that the workers were waiting for something to happen. They finally asked the interpreter, “Where is the rabbit?”

They had received a message that a rabbi was coming. So, the staff looked up the English-Chinese dictionary and the closest word to a rabbi was a rabbit. “So they were expecting a rabbit,” says Pollak with a smile. The American rabbi had come to Kochi to take part in the World Spice Congress and to inspect the newly-opened Star K office in the city.

The Spice Congress is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the companies that we certify,” says Pollak. “We were also interested in getting in touch with manufacturers who want to make kosher food.”

The word, 'kosher' is the Hebrew word for 'fit'. It is a set of rules for the Jewish people, as represented in the Torah, the Holy teachings of God, about the kinds of food that they can eat and the methods to prepare them.

So Jews can eat the meat of any animal that chews its cud, and has split hooves. This means that cows and sheep are fine. “The horse and camel are not kosher, because it does not have split hooves,” says Pollak.

Natural foods like bananas, apples, and legumes are regarded as kosher. Any fish that has scales is kosher. “A catfish or an eel is not kosher,” says Pollak. “Most of the fish I have seen in Kochi are kosher.”

One important rule is to not mix dairy and meat products. As a result, many Jewish homes in the USA have two sections in the kitchen. In fact, there is a separate sink, oven, and dishwasher for dairy items and a different one for meat.

During the Holy Festival of Passover, the rules are stricter. “Anything made from five varieties of grain – wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt – cannot be eaten, because if mixed with water, they will become leaven,” says Pollak

Many rules in the Torah have no explanation, but the Jews follow them blindly. One example is that they don't eat the meat of a pig. “The Torah does not tell us the reason,” says Pollak. “But today many people say that the pig has parasites, like tape worms, which are harmful for us.”

Interestingly, in India, there are more than 300 companies which make kosher food. All the items like pickles, spices, and chemicals that are used in the food industry, are exported to USA, Europe and Israel, where the kosher food industry is huge.

If you go into any supermarket in these countries, around half the items on the shelves will have kosher certification,” says Pollak. “Most of the buyers are non-Jews because when they see the certification they are confident that the product is genuine.”

Star K is operating in countries like India, China, and Israel, in Europe, South America and Africa. “It can take as little as a week for certification to be done,” says Polak. “Some companies take more time. We do inspections once or twice a year. For some companies in India, we go in once a month, especially if the manufacturing processes are complicated.”

So, what are the processes that they inspect? “If a company wants to make a kosher item in a pot that is used for non-kosher food, they are not allowed to do so, unless the utensil is purified by boiling water,” says Pollak. “In factories, we will ensure that there are two production lines: one for kosher and the other for non-kosher. We will train people in the factory and will ensure that all the ingredients are kosher.”

Meanwhile, so ubiquitous is kosher food in the West that the word has entered the language. “If a person does something wrong, people will say, 'That is not kosher,'” says Pollak.

However, not all Jews eat kosher food. “The liberal Jews might observe the rules only during the Passover season,” says Polak, who is an Orthodox Jew. “There are no fights. We just agree to disagree with them.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Notes of love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Zaira talks about life with the music composer Shaan Rahman

Photo by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The first meeting between Zaira and music composer Shaan Rahman took place on Marine Drive at Kochi in May, 2009. When Zaira saw Shaan, she was taken aback. He was wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, while Zaira was wearing a black salwar kameez. “We think alike,” she said, pointing at the colour of their clothes. Shaan smiled.

I was worried about whether he would be shorter than me,” says Zaira, who is 5' 5”. “But, thankfully, he is of my height. Then I noticed how handsome he is. However, once we started talking, looks and height did not matter.”

Zaira was aware that even though Shaan came from a well-to-do family -- his father has a thriving logistics business -- he had embarked on a career as a music composer. “I was not apprehensive at all, even though I was told it was a competitive profession,” she says.

Following that first meeting, which came through an official proposal, both realised that they liked each other. The wedding took place on October 11, 2009, at Kozhikode. “I cannot remember much of the day, because I was in a daze,” says Zaira. “But the first thing I did was to go to a beauty parlour to get my make-up done.”

However, the one moment that remained etched in her heart was stepping into her husband's house, for the first time, with her right foot. “I realised that this is also my home,” says Zaira. “The place where I will spend a lot of my time.”

And now, having spent a few years with Shaan, she has a good idea of his character. “All human beings have a selfish gene, but not Shaan,” she says. “He does not know what being selfish is. I keep thinking, 'How can he be so selfless?' For example, if I want to go out, and even if he is busy, he will immediately say yes, and come with me.”

One reason is because Shaan is a family-oriented person. “There is nothing beyond that,” says Zaira. That is why, despite his friends in Mollywood urging him to move to Kochi or Chennai, he has remained in Kozhikode. “They tell him that he should meet people and strike up a rapport, so that he can get good projects,” says Zaira. “However, Shaan finds that hard to do.”

But he finds it easy to read a woman's moods. “If I am feeling low, he will realise that just by looking at my face,” she says. “Shaan will ensure that I get the space I need. Or he will ask whether I would like to go to my parents' home at Kochi.”

When he has a project, Shaan works from midnight till dawn, at his studio on the ground floor of their house. “His creativity is at his best then,” says Zaira. And he ensures that there is no disturbance for his family by using headphones.

Zaira is amazed at Shaan's composing ability. “He has not studied music at all,” she says. “There is nobody in his family who has a music background. Yet Shaan is a good composer, thanks to his God-given talent.”

Shaan's turning point occurred when Vineeth Sreenivasan's film, 'Thattathin Marayathu', became a hit, and the songs, which Shaan composed, became popular. And now he is back in the spotlight thanks to his work in the latest hit, 'Om Shanti Oshana'. Zaira's favourite song in the film is 'Sneham Cherum Neram', which is sung by Rinu Rezak and Hisham. “It is melodious and soothing to the ears,” she says. “It transports me to a different time and makes me feel happy and romantic.”

Shaan keeps things romantic with Zaira by going for long drives in his Skoda Superb. “He loves driving and never gets tired,” she says. “Even after six hours in the car Shaan feels fresh.” His one unusual habit is to keep changing cars. “He must be the only person I know who upgrades every year,” she says, with a laugh. “Shaan is also crazy about the latest mobile phones.”

But the one person whom Shaan is most crazy about is their son Rayaan (Islamic meaning: 'Gateway to heaven'), who was born three years ago. “Shaan has all this love in his eyes when he smiles at Rayaan,” says Zaira. “Because he is so busy, whatever little time he gets, Shaan spends it with our son.”

Meanwhile, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Zaira says, “You must be ready to forgive. When you identify the negative traits of your husband, the wife should be tolerant about it. In most marriages, one spouse will repeat, 'You made the mistake, you made the mistake.' If you keep these thoughts in your mind, it will never work. Secondly, we need to take life in an easy manner. Don't let the troubles get to you. Then when you come home, you will feel relaxed, and the family will be happy.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

There's Something about Hair

French photographer Oriane Zerah focuses on the long tresses of Indian women

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

Just a few minutes before the inauguration of the 'Something About Hair' exhibition at the David Hall, Fort Kochi, by Kabul-based French photographer Oriane Zerah, she has a number of visitors. They are Ahmedabad-based art collectors who tell Oriane that they want to buy two photographs. Oriane quotes a price, and in typical Indian fashion, the buyers offer something less. A flustered Oriane slowly gets the hang of the thrust and feint of bargaining between buyer and seller. Finally, the deal is sealed, and Oriane promises to send the mounted photographs once the exhibition concluded on February 25.

It is not difficult to understand the interest of the collectors. Oriane's exhibition is an unusual one: it focuses on the hair of Indian women. And the idea occurred to Oriane as she travelled to conservative countries like Iran and Pakistan. She had to always cover her head with a scarf. “In Islam, all women have to use a scarf,” she says. “That is the case in Christianity when a woman has to go to church. The legend says that the angels feel shy in front of women's hair. In Judaism, women also use scarves. In every civilisation and society, the need for women's hair to be covered is paramount.”

At the same time, in striking contrast, Hindu gods and goddesses were proud to show off their flowing tresses. “Both Lord Shiva and Kali have long hair,” she says. “This had an impact on my imagination.”

But the tipping point occurred when she went to the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala. “I saw women getting their head shaved. Later, this hair was presented to God,” she says. “It was one way of giving up the ego. From Tirumala I came to Kochi. It was then that I decided to focus on the hair of Indian women.”

She asked a friend who was working in a hotel at Fort Kochi, whether he knew of any women who had long hair. He located Sindhi, a pretty 17-year-old girl, who is the daughter of a fisherman. Oriane took Sindhi to the terrace of the hotel. “I did not know what I was going to do,” says Oriane. “I asked her to turn this way and that. Sindhi was shy, but she had wonderful hair that went below the waist.”

And that was the start. Thereafter, Oriane went to Jaisalmer and shot a 50-year- old woman. But now she used a different technique. Oriane placed the model on a white sheet and overexposed, so that only the hair could be seen. Thereafter, she did a bit of editing on Photoshop.

Oriane also took a photo of a woman lying on a patch of grass, her hair spread out above her and rose petals were placed on it. “Indian hair is long, beautiful, clean and soft,” says Oriane, who has shoulder-length hair. “I feel envious at times.”

However, the effect of seeing these photographs can be disconcerting. Sometimes, the hair looks like an undulating black slope on a mountain. At the bottom, it breaks up into so many tendrils that it resembles the roots of trees. In another photograph, the hair looks brown. “I took it at sunset and allowed the light to play with the hair,” says Oriane. In yet another image, a woman has allowed the hair to fall in front. “She did not want to reveal her face,” says Oriane. “So I took a shot like that.”

Of course, long hair is becoming rare. Indian women, like those in the West, prefer to keep their hair short. “When I would ask around, some will say, 'Oh my late grandmother had such long hair,'” say Oriane.

The French photographer, who has travelled to many countries, lives in Kabul.
The security of the people is getting worse day after day,” she says. “But it is my choice to live in Afghanistan. The women are in the worst condition, when you compare with other nations. For women artists it is very difficult. They have to fight to exist as a person. Many girls study, but they know that when they get married, they will not be allowed to go for a job.”

In Kabul, Oriane earns her living by taking photographs for non-governmental organisations, the local press as well as a mobile company. “I am not afraid even though recently, there was a bomb blast in which a few foreigners were killed,” she says. “But unlike the Afghan people, thanks to my French passport, I can leave at any time I wish.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

“He has a Heart of Gold”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Snehalatha talks about life with the noted art designer Sabu Cyril

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Snehalatha Sebastian was feeling nervous. She had to take part in a science exhibition at her school in Chennai. She knew the only person who could help her was her relative Sabu Cyril. And he obliged. He took the cover of a biscuit tin and converted it into the face of a clock. The working mechanism could be seen at the back. Sabu also made a water heater by using pieces of metal and a wire. “I won prizes for this, thanks to Sabu, who was a brilliant student,” says Snehalatha.”

When Snehalatha was in Class 12 and Sabu was in his second-year in the government arts college, she was convinced that Sabu liked her. One day she said, “Sabu, I hope you are serious. I don't want to be taken for a ride.” Snehalatha expected Sabu to propose. Since he did not, Snehalatha decided to take the initiative. One day, while they were walking down a road, near her home, Snehalatha held Sabu's hand and said, “I know that you are serious about me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

But it was not going to be easy. They are first cousins: Snehalatha's father's sister is Sabu's mother. When Snehalatha told her father, he said no. But despite his opposition, Snehalatha and Sabu went ahead and had a church wedding on June 9, 1986. Thankfully, sometime later, her parents reconciled with her.

Asked about the qualities of her husband, who is one of India's leading art designer in films, Snehalatha says, “Sabu is a genius. His set designs are unmatched. His work on the sets of the films, 'Enthiran The Robot', 'Om Shanti Om' and 'Kalapani' are superb. He also has a heart of gold. Those who come across him have only good things to say about him. I have learnt so much about life from Sabu.”

Not surprisingly, for a creative and talented person like Sabu, work is everything. “It is his topmost priority,” says Snehalatha. “Family comes later. In the early years I would get upset about it, but when people praised his work, all my anger and frustration took a backseat. It is not easy to have a balance between career and family.”

Sabu's concentration on his work also made him absent-minded at times. “Throughout our marriage, Sabu must have remembered my birthday about five times,” she says, with a smile.

Once, Snehalatha was celebrating her birthday with family and friends at their home in Chennai. Sabu was out of town. The family was teasing her that Sabu had forgotten to wish her, when suddenly there was a telephone call. It was Sabu on the line. But when they spoke, Sabu asked his wife about work-related matters and did not mention the birthday at all. But after an hour he suddenly called, apologised and wished Snehalatha on her birthday.

A few days later Sabu told Snehalatha how it happened. “We had given our birthday dates to the Chola Sheraton hotel where we are patrons,” she says. “They only had Sabu's number and had called to wish me on my birthday. That was how Sabu realised it was my birthday.”

Just as Snehalata has accepted Sabu's absent-mindedness, she has got used to Sabu's short temper. “At work Sabu is cool and chilled-out,” says Snehalatha. “He never shouts at anybody. He handles the stress very well. But once he returns home, Sabu takes out the bottled-up pressure. I do get upset, because I am not an angel, but I understand why it happens.”

Undoubtedly, it has been tough to be the wife of a brilliant man. But in the past few years, Snehalatha has become relaxed. For one, she has a job as a part-time French teacher for Class 11 and 12 students at the KRMM Matriculation Higher Secondary school. “I enjoy my interaction with the students,” she says. “Thanks to the principal, I have found my calling.” Another reason is that her children, Shweta, 25, and Soumya, 21, have grown up and are busy with their lives.

As a Dad, Sabu was too busy to spend time with the girls,” she says. “For many years, I had to be the father as well as mother. Sometimes, I had to be firm with them.”

Meanwhile, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Snehalatha says, “Every marriage has its ups and downs. What is important is the respect and space that you give each other. There should be an understanding between the spouses. For God's sake, it should not only be the wife understanding the husband, but the other way around also.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

MY First E-Book

Dear Friends, 

I am embarking on the e-book road. 
My children's book, 'The Mystery Of The Midnight Murder', has been put up on Kindle. 

Price Rs 62. 

It is aimed for the 9-12 year age group. 

It can also be ready by adults. 

The story is set in Kolkata and is about the life of 11-year old Ayaz Hussein, a rag picker. 

It is also, as the title says, a mystery novel.

Here is the link:

If you can download I would be grateful.

As for the writers among you, please do write a small review, if possible, on Amazon.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Clothes that Breathe

Handloom clothes are the best for the Indian climate

Photos: A model wearing a handloom dress; Owner Neelima Chandran 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Six months after her son was born, Neelima Chandran was feeling out of sorts. She was doing nothing except look after her child. Neelima is a chartered accountant who had worked in companies like the Trident hotel and Federal Bank at Kochi and McMillan publishers in Bangalore. “Since I wanted flexible timings, I decided to do something on my own,” she says.

Her initial plan was to do an online business. So she travelled to Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram, which is the centre for handloom textiles. Thereafter, Neelima went to Pondicherry and saw some contemporary handloom styles.

That was when Neelima decided she would concentrate on handloom. “It is a fabric that breathes,” she says. “Once you wear handloom you will not wear anything else. It makes you feel so cool. For the Indian climate, handloom is the best. It is light on the body. It lasts longer than cotton clothes provided you take care of it.”

The best way is to wash the clothes by hand and dry it in the shade. “If you hang it to dry in the sunshine, the colours will fade fast,” says Neelima.

Apart from the online trade, Neelima opened a shop, 'Neelaambari', at Bangalore in 2010. But last year, Neelima relocated to Kochi and has opened an outlet at the DD Milestone in Kochi. She sells kurtas, short tops, skirts, trousers, kurthis and dupattas. “My clothes are a bit off-beat, and not the normal, jazzy, sequenced, button-wear kind,” she says. “We don't have party wear. We only have handloom clothes with a contemporary touch.” In fact, Neelima does the designing and has tailors to implement her ideas.

The most popular item is Ikkat, a handloom fabric from Andhra Pradesh. “It is a rage with everybody,” says Neelima. “These are contemporary designs and appeal to 80 per cent of the customers.”

Indeed, buyers are happy. “The selections are awesome, elegant and classy,” says Nashiya Salim. “And the prices are reasonable.” Yes, one of the attractive aspects are the affordable prices: from Rs 450 to Rs 1000.

Jeeva Jayadas is another satisfied customer. “I liked the clothes and would definitely recommend it to my friends,” she says. Buyer Reshma Rao says that Neelima has an awesome collection of kurthis.

Meanwhile, Neelima has an interesting observation to make about her customers. “Many of them, especially in the over-35 group, are conservative in their dressing,” says Neelima. “They are reluctant even to wear sleeveless blouses. Somehow, they lack the confidence. Maybe, it has got to do something with our patriarchal society.” However, the college-going generation is willing to try out anything, thanks to their exposure to the outside world, because of Facebook and the Internet.

Incidentally, Neelima started the business with a social aspect. She bought the fabrics from non-governmental organisations, self-help groups, tribal communities, and women associations. “In the beginning, I just wanted to help these people,” she says. “But then I realised that if I had to make my business a sustainable one, an income is necessary. Otherwise, the enterprise will die.”

So, with a mix of a social conscience and entrepreneurial spirit, Neelima is steaming ahead. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"He is good-looking"

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sindhu talks about life with the actor Krishna Kumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Sindhu wanted to make an international call to her Muscat-based parents, she would go to a communications centre in Thiruvananthapuram. Now and then, she noticed a handsome young man who worked there. The face seemed familiar. Then Sindhu realised that he was Krishna Kumar, a newsreader on Doordarshan. "He was good-looking and seemed a nice person," she says. Sometimes, they smiled at each other.

One day, Sindhu set out from her hostel at the All Saints College with her sister, Simi, and friend, Lakshmi to go shopping. They entered a shoe shop. Once again, she saw Krishna, who was speaking to the owner, the actor Appa Haja.

Sindhu spotted a pair of heels which she liked. But, at Rs 700, it was expensive, and she did not have the money. So she told Appa she would return the next week to buy it. "But Appa insisted that I take it and pay the money later," says Sindhu. When she came the next week, Appa told her that Krishna liked her and would like to marry her.

"I did have a crush, but I never thought of marriage," says Sindhu. Then Krishna came and they went out for lunch. "And we spoke for a long time," says Sindhu.

Following lunch, they exchanged phone numbers, and remained in touch. Sindhu was doing her MA, while Krishna had just finished his first film, 'Kashmeeram'.

One particular day Sindhu was returning by train with Simi from her parents' home at Kadakkavoor. But when they arrived at Thiruvananthapuram station, people said it was a hartal. It was the time when there were no mobile phones, so they did not know about this. They were wondering what to do. But suddenly they saw Krishna. He had been waiting for them. "He said, 'Come to my house, which is nearby, and you can meet my parents'," says Sindhu. She did so and ended up liking Krishna's parents.

Soon, Sindhu informed her father and mother. They flew down from Muscat, met Krishna's parents, and the marriage was finalised, despite the fact that Sindhu belongs to the Ezhava community while Krishna is a Nair.

"My family did not have any problems, but my relatives were upset," says Sindhu. "They asked my father why he said yes."

Nevertheless, her parents held firm and the marriage took place on December 12, 1994 at the Trivandrum club. But they were unable to go for a honeymoon because within a short while Sindhu got pregnant. The months went past. Then one day Sindhu went to the hospital for a check-up. Suddenly, the doctor said that Sindhu had to be admitted, since she could give birth at any time.

"I was scared and confused," she says. "I was young and did not know what to expect." In the labour room she felt panicky. So, she called out for Krishna. He came in, hugged her and gave her strength. Their first child, Ahaana, 18, is now acting in a Rajeev Ravi film. Then there is Diya, 15, Ishaani, 13, and Hansika, 8.

Sindhu says that Krishna is a devoted father. "He is more like a friend to them," says Sindhu. "But Krishna is also particular that the children lead a disciplined life. He insists that they sleep early, and get up early, even though the next day might be a holiday and the children would like to sleep late."

Asked about his character traits, Sindhu says, "Krishna is my best friend. People say that we talk like newly-weds, giggling and laughing. We discuss everything, including family and financial matters. In fact, our property and bank accounts are held jointly."

Other traits include Krishna giving all the money to Sindhu. "Krishna is perhaps the only husband in Kerala to do so," she says. "He never spends anything for himself. That's why I buy all his clothes. When he is going out he will not check his purse. He is sure that I have kept enough money in it. He never questions my spending even though I am a bit of a spendthrift. Krishna just wants us to be happy."

Krishna's negative trait is that he is short-tempered. "You cannot predict what will irritate him," says Sindhu. "Sometimes, on big issues, he will remain cool, while on small matters, he will get angry. For example, he might get irritated if the TV set is switched on and nobody is watching. Whenever he scolds me or the children, there is no doubt that what he is saying is right. But sometimes, I do get irritated."

But that is momentary. When asked for tips for marriage, Sindhu says, "The number of times Krishna and I have fought, we could have divorced a long time ago. When you get married, and have children, you must make your marriage work. It is easy for a husband and a wife to break up, but what will happen to the kids? They can never have a comfortable life after that. I have seen friends having second marriages, and the pain the children of the first marriage go through is sad to see. Whatever be the flaws of your partner, just forgive and forget." 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Playing around with images

Anubha Sinha has been converting Hollywood and Bollywood films from 2D to 3D, thanks to a software she invented

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

Two years ago, the Mumbai-based Anubha Sinha had gone to see a Bollywood director to talk about a 3D printing project. While waiting in the reception, she began talking to David Smith (name changed), the head of a major Hollywood studio. Anubha told David of how her company had been converting 2D posters into 3D. David asked whether she could do the same for films. Since she was not sure about it, Anubha just nodded. David gave her a pen drive, which had some test shots, and asked Anubha to convert it.

When Anubha returned to the office she wondered what to do. She began by converting a single image into 3D. “A movie is nothing but 24 images per second,” she says. Based on this concept, she took a man in a scene, and cut out his eyes, nose, lips, hair, and background settings like a sofa and made it into layers. From there she put it in her poster software, and managed to convert the images into 3D.

Three days later, Anubha showed the result to David, who was flabbergasted. “He told me that 50 people take 15 days to do this in Hollywood,” says Anubha. An excited David brought in high-powered lawyers, and signed a contract, by which Anubha would work for him for two years.

Among the Hollywood films which Anubha's company, 'Ultra Rays 3D', has converted include 'Piranha', 'Blackjack', 'Static', 'Vampire dog' 'Topcat', as well as Hindi films like 'Warning', 'Sholay', 'Vivah' and 'Iqbal'. She also worked on the Malayalam film, 'Dam 999'. As her business expanded, she began hiring a lot of people, which included many Malayalis. Over a period of time, she was impressed by their hard work and dedication. That was when she got the idea of starting a back office in Kochi.

Anubha came to Kochi a year ago and the experience has made her somewhat disillusioned. “There is too much of gossiping at work,” says Anubha. “The Malayalis in Kerala lack self-motivation. A few of them drink too much and have health issues, as a result. Malayalis are very much family-oriented. So, if there are deaths, marriages or birthdays, they will take leave. On an average, the staff works 4 to 5 days a week. Hartals only make it worse.”

But things have become far better in the past few months. “I have finally been able to impose a Mumbai-style work culture,” she says. “In fact, I need around 1000 people because I have got projects to keep us busy for the next three years.”

Meanwhile, Anubha is certain the future belongs to 3D. “Films were black and white four decades ago,” she says. “Then we moved to colour. From colour we will eventually go to 3D, although, at present, the costs are prohibitive.”

One of the attractions of 3D is that we view the world in the same way. Two eyes see different images and the brain makes it one 3D image. Soon, there will be glassless 3D television sets. “A special screen can be put on it which will make it 3D,” says Anubha. “There will also be glassless 3D theatres. This will be possible through a software which will calibrate the images on the screen.” The young entrepreneur’s future plans include setting up a 3D hall in a multiplex in Kochi.

Meanwhile, Anubha's most thrilling moment occurred when she invited America-based physicist, Mani Lal Bhaumik, a co-inventor of the Lasik technology, to her Mumbai office and explained the work she was doing. Impressed, Mani Lal gave her a copy of his book, 'Code Name God', and inscribed it, 'To the genius Anubha.' 

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

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Plenty to be Proud About

The Rajagiri Public school has built a Rs 12 crore indoor stadium, which is, probably, one of the best, among educational institutions in the country. Their I-share programme is also a success

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Rajagiri Public School has built a beautiful indoor stadium,” said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy while inaugurating the Rajagiri Sports and Cultural Centre (RSCC) at Kalamaserry on Saturday, February 1.

Undoubtedly, the RSCC is an awe-inspiring achievement. There are six badminton courts. The school has followed the World Badminton Federation specification of having maple wooden flooring. Apart from the badminton courts, there is a playing area for 12 table tennis games which can be held simultaneously. The total court area is 20,000 sq. ft. And to watch all the action, the gallery has 1385 seats, apart from the seats on the ground which number 2000.

The other amenities include changing rooms, dormitories, a gymnasium, and a room for coaches. There is also a training centre for Fine Arts and Performing Arts, mini auditoriums for soft-skill training and audio visual presentations, accommodation for guests and officials, a book and stationery shop, a cafeteria, and a medical clinic.

The school has adopted an eco-friendly approach. The overhead lights emit almost zero per cent heat, thus consuming far less energy. “To contain the heat and to arrest sound vibrations from the roof, rock wool bags have been placed above the false ceiling,” said Mathew. “As for the roof, we have used Space Frame Technology which is usually seen in airports.” The overall cost for all this: Rs 12 crore.

It was Fr. Austin Mulerickal, the former Director of the school, who came up with the idea in the first place. “Prior to this, Fr. Austin had set up the much acclaimed kindergarten, as well as the swimming academy,” says Mathew B. Kurian, former president of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). “When the history of the school is written, when our youngsters bring laurels to the school and, hopefully, to the state and country, Fr. Austin will get the recognition that he deserves.”

Undoubtedly, there has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes to bring it to reality.

It has taken five years to build this stadium,” said Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Provincial and school manager Fr. Jose Alex Oruthayapilly. “Many parents, as well as the management, worked day and night to make this one of the best indoor stadiums.”

Among the parents, there was a small group that worked tirelessly. “They are Jortin Antony, K.P. Roy, Sony Madathil, Sunny Varghese, Sam Thomas and Tanuja Omanakuttan,” said Susan Varghese Cherian, the principal. “Thanks to the guidance of the school director Fr. Jijo Kadavan, the dream became a reality.”

There was a reason to set up the stadium. “The school has always put an emphasis on the holistic development of the child – through academics, cultural and sports activities,” said Fr. Kadavan.

U Vimal Kumar, the former chief coach of the Indian badminton team, who represented the country for 12 years, said that it is one of the few schools in the country which has this facility. “The students are lucky to have such excellent amenities,” he said. “The RSCC can become a nursery for champions.”

Jortin Antony, PTA president, acknowledged that the aim is to produce world-class players. “We can easily earn revenue by hiring out this beautiful hall for meetings and film shootings, but we will not do that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the school has notched up other achievements, like the I-share programme, in which each student contributes Rs 1 per month to help the less fortunate. In five years, the I-Share concept has been adopted by 22 schools, totalling 25,000 students. Students have so far contributed Rs 96,28,842.

The I-Share fund has helped build science labs and libraries, bus stands, supported the education of Adivasi children, provided improved facilities for cancer and haemophilia-afflicted patients, helped aged people, and aided the education of deaf and mute people,” said school leader Arshad Mohammed in a rousing speech during the inauguration ceremony.

And he gave the reasons behind the idea. “Statistically, about 30% of our countrymen are below the poverty line,” said Arshad. “Malnourishment, lack of infrastructure and illiteracy hamper our nation’s progress. If someone tells us that one school can start a fire that would light up the lives of thousands of people, would you believe it? Today, we can, as the I-Share programme is living proof of that hope.”

When it was the time for famed playback singer MG Sreekumar to speak, he lauded Arshad's speech. Sreekumar also gave an entertaining talk about his struggles and triumphs and said that in the institution that he studied in, the Model school in Thiruvananthapuram had no such facilities. But he also had a telling point to make. “While the State sets aside a lot of money to encourage sports, they should also give money for the arts,” he said. “All students should learn a musical instrument or participate in the arts.”

Later, the packed audience of parents and students enjoyed the engrossing two-game badminton match between some of India's current and former players like Ajit Vijay Tilak, K. A. Aneesh, Jaseel P Ismail, Jaison Xavier and Joy T. Antony. In fact, in one rally, more than 40 shots were hit.

The evening ended with a well-choreographed two-hour cultural programme of song, dance and drama by the students. For Rajagiri School, there was plenty to be proud about.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Reminiscences on a Sunday afternoon

By Shevlin Sebastian

On Sunday afternoons, when the world slows down, when everything is quiet, the sky is blue, the sparrows are chirping in the trees, and a breeze is blowing, I usually lie down for a nap at my home in Kochi. And inevitably, without fail, I ask existential questions to myself.

Where will I be 100 years from now? Will I meet my parents, wife, children, friends and relatives in my next life? Is there something called a soul? Does it fly out of the body at the point of death? Where does it go? Will I meet God? Is he Krishna, Allah or Jesus Christ?

But on a recent Sunday afternoon, I thought about a particular person. His name was Ashok Kamath. An intense, bespectacled man, he was the sports editor of 'The Telegraph' at Kolkata. And years ago he published my first article in a mainstream newspaper.

This was how it happened. In August, 1983, the World Athletics Championships took place in Helsinki. A week before that I had gone to the American library and was going through the Sports Illustrated magazine.

In it, there was a story on the then unknown athlete Carl Lewis. The magazine predicted that he would make a big impact at the championships. Prodded by my intuition, I wrote an article. At the championships, Lewis won the 100m, long jump, and the 4x100m relay gold.

Ashok was looking for a write-up on Lewis when mine arrived through the post. And, amazingly, he took it across six columns of the sports page, with my byline in 12 point. I still remember the shock and exuberance I felt when I opened the paper the next day and saw it.

Thereafter, many articles of mine were published in 'The Telegraph'. With all these clippings in hand, it was easier for me to secure my first job in Sportsworld magazine and begin my journalistic career.

In 1990, Ashok and I went to Beijing to cover the Asian Games. He represented 'The Telegraph', while I went for 'Sportsworld'. And I remember our trip to the Great Wall.

It was a sunny day, but when you stood at the wall, at the Badaling section, a bracing wind blew about. So, to counter the chill, as an avid jogger, I set out on a run. Up and down the sloping paths I went. I ran up the steps, to the watch tower, and carried on to the other side. And when I returned, Ashok smiled and said, “Good run.”

We were both enjoying our experiences of being in China, watching sports, and interacting with the people of so many countries. The beauty and joy of life! But little did we know that dark clouds were beginning to gather on the horizon.

On September 2, 2001, Ashok died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 44 years old. By then, he had become the Resident Editor of ‘The Times of India’. He left behind his wife, Shampa Dhar, who is now the Managing Editor of ‘The New Indian Express’, and two sons, Raunaq, 14, and Vivan, 9.

Ashok had played a decisive role in my life by publishing those articles of a beginner. And as you become middle-aged, you tend to look back, and think of the people who impacted you. For a few moments I felt a sadness at Ashok’s untimely death. Suddenly, my 11-year-old son shook me, and said, “Baba, get up. Let's go out.”

(This appeared as a 'middle' in the New Indian Express, all editions)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

“Shaji is my Soul Mate”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Anasuya talks about life with the film director Shaji N. Karun

Photo by Kaviyoor Santosh 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1979, Anasuya Shaji was sitting with her in-laws in the living room of their home in Thiruvananthapuram. Her elder son, Anil, was playing with some toys on the floor. As was his habit, Anasuya's father-in- law, N. Karunakaran, switched on the radio to listen to the news. Suddenly, to their shock and surprise, the family heard the announcement that Shaji had won the National Award for cinematography for 'Thampu'.

We were so happy,” says Anasuya. “Shaji had not come home. There were no mobile phones in those days. When he came, we ran outside and congratulated him. Shaji did not expect it. He was at a loss for words.”

For Anasuya, 'Piravi' is her favourite film. “It was his debut film,” she says. “Shaji was like a toddler, trying to walk.” However, it won a total of 31 awards, including the 'Camera d'Or–Mention d'honneur' at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the National Award for Best Director and Best Feature Film in 1988.

Anasuya also likes 'Swapaanam', his latest film. “Shaji is a philosopher, psychologist and artist in the film,” she says. “He has put his heart and soul in it.”

Anasuya will know Shaji's heart and soul inside and out, because they have known each other since they were children. Both were neighbours and would play games like hide and seek. “We had a warm friendship,” says Anasuya. “My brother, Babu, and Shaji were fond of taking photographs, and reading books.”

So voracious was Shaji's reading that his friends would call him, 'That man from the British Council library'. Whenever he got some free time Shaji would be in the library. His reading included books on films, painting, arts and philosophy.

Love bloomed when Shaji went to Pune to do the cinematographer's course at the Film And Television Institute of India in 1971. “He missed his family and me also,” says Anasuya. “That was when he realised he loved me. He began writing letters to me.”

When he returned, he proposed. Anasuya trusted and liked Shaji a lot. “Our parents also knew we liked each other,” she says. “So they were happy to marry us off.” Unusually, Babu also fell in love with Shaji's sister, Sheela and they, too, got married.

Anasuya and Shaji tied the knot on January 1, 1975, and they went for a one-day trip to Neyyar Dam. Then Shaji rushed off to Chennai where he was working as a freelance cinematographer. At that time, Anasuya was working in the telephone department and managed to go to Chennai after three months following a transfer.

But life was not easy. There were financial problems in the beginning, because Shaji had very little income. So, Anasuya's job as a telephone operator helped a lot. However, in 1976, Shaji secured a job an an officer in the Kerala State Film Development Corporation at Thiruvananthapuram, so the family relocated from Chennai.

Back in Kerala, Anasuya continued with her job. But when her second son, Appu, was born, in 1981, Anasuya felt insecure about leaving the children at home. So she quit, after working for ten years.

Regarding his qualities, Anasuya says, “Shaji is a simple and honest person. He communicates well with people who have talent. If he gets upset, he will never show it. We are ordinary people, even though Shaji is part of the film world. He likes everything old. Our house, which was constructed in 2005, is in a traditional style, with a tiled roof, and a L-shaped design.”

Like all artists Shaji has unusual traits. When Shaji is working, he cannot be disturbed. “As far as possible, Anil, Appu and I will not disturb him,” says Anasuya. “We understood his need for isolation. The house would be silent when he was reading or working.”

Film, of course, is of primary importance for Shaji. “I don't have a problem with that,” says Anasuya. “I have seen him grow in front of my eyes. Shaji is my soul mate. And I am proud of all that he has achieved in his career.” Incidentally, Shaji won the Padma Shri award in 2011.

But it has not been easy to live next to an artistic person. There have been moments when Anasuya has wished that he would spend more time with her. “But if he has to grow, Shaji has to be obsessed with his art,” says Anasuya. “After all, he is a creator.”

To write a story and direct a film takes three to four years. After all the arrangements are made, Shaji will start filming. “Shaji is lucky to have a strong team for all his films,” says Anasuya.

Anasuya and Shaji have also been a strong team for 39 years. “Spouses should understand each other,” says Anasuya. “If the man has talent, the woman should understand and nurture it. And vice versa. Life is sweet and beautiful. Live it in that way. After all, you have only one life and it is very short.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Diva In Her Own Right

A Diva In Her Own Right
Former banker Neena Jhanjee runs Diva Odysseys which caters only to women

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Neena Jhanjee enters the cottage where faith healer Ketut Liyer lives in a village at Bali. Ketut is nearly 100 years old and became famous when he was mentioned in Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega bestseller, ‘Eat, Pray and Love.’ Ketut looks at Neena’s palm and says, “You are a lucky girl. But you have to be careful when you are driving. You go too fast.” Neena nods and thinks, ‘That is so true. How does he know?’

The members of the all-women group take their turns to get their future read by Ketut. “The visit with Ketut was the ‘Diva Surprise’ of the five-day trip to Bali,” says the Goa-based Neena, who runs Diva Odysseys, a travel venture catering exclusively for women.
I called it Diva because the name denotes that it is for women,” she says. “Odyssey is a term for travel. Of course it will not be as long as the travels of Ulysses (the hero of Homer’s epic poem, ‘Odyssey’), but just as memorable.”

Neena’s target group could be a female suffering from the 'empty nest syndrome', or a career woman or a busy mom who wants to take time off with the girls. But Neena is operating in the high-end segment. The five-day trip to Bali, with a stay at a five-star hotel, cost Rs 1.05 lakh, excluding airfare.

But those who went were happy. Lucie Masson, a French woman who lives in Goa, says, “Being a spiritual person, the Bali trip involved not only seeing temples, but actually experiencing cleansing rituals with local priests and meeting medicine men.”

Overall, the response to Diva Odysseys has been good, because Neena is targeting a niche segment. “Most travel companies don’t cater to the single traveller, particularly women,” she says. “Instead, they prefer to take families or corporate clients.”  But Neena also offers one vital difference. She does not do destination trips. Instead, they are theme-based.

So, for an upcoming trip to the Amalfi coast in south Italy, she is offering a gastronomical tour. “This involves trying out the wine and the food from that area, having cooking classes, exploring the vineyards, and enjoying the pastas, pizzas as well as the mozarella cheeses, which are the best in the world,” she says. “Of course, we will do other things like sight-seeing in the town of Pompeii and driving through the scenic Amalfi coast, which has one of the most beautiful drives in the world. But the focus will be on gastronomy.”

The aim is to get like-minded women on board. “If it is destination-based, when people come together they want to do different things,” says Neena. “But when they understand that there is a theme to the trip, you get a close-knit group.”

Interestingly, her clients are from the older age group – from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties. “What happens with the younger woman is that she tends to travel with her boyfriend,” saysNeena. “But the older women like female-only trips.” Says Lucie, “Girlfriend getaways are special. You get some alone-time, as well as the fun of girl-bonding sessions.” 

Interestingly, Neena had spent 13 years in finance, working in companies like HDFC Bank, IndusInd Bank and the Zurich-based Capvent India Advisors. “I had been working for long with numbers, but what has always fascinated me was travel,” she says. So, last year, on March 8, (International Women’s Day), she took the plunge, to start Diva Odysseys, and has been having a gala time ever since. A Diva to cater to other Divas. 

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