Monday, March 31, 2014

'Thomas' Accessibility is his Strength'

Says wife Sherly as she campaigns for her husband, KV Thomas

Photos: Sherly Thomas; Ninitha with her husband MB Rajesh and children

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a ritual that they have been doing before every general election for the past 30 years. A few days ago, Union Minister and Ernakulam MP KV Thomas and his wife, Sherly, took a train to Velankanni, where they prayed at the Basilica of Our Lady Of Good Health. “We have a lot of faith in Our Lady,” says Sherly.

In 1996, Thomas was charged with aiding a team of French nationals who were accused of spying on naval installations, off the coast of Kochi. But he could prove that on the day he was alleged to have helped the Frenchmen, Thomas and Sherly were at Velankanni. Subsequently, Thomas was exonerated.

On a recent Sunday morning, at their home in Fort Kochi, Sherly meets a group of visitors. “Some of them have not been able to see Thomas,” she says. “So I note down all their complaints.” Then, at about 10.30 a.m., Sherly embarks on her own campaign. “Most of the time I visit the churches and convents in places like Mattancherry and Fort Kochi,” she says. “I also go to places where my husband is unable to go.”

Sherly says that she has received a positive response from voters, thanks to the minister's easy accessibility. “Despite being an Union Minister, anybody can see him at home every morning,” says Sherly. “For the past five years, he has been trying to fulfill all the requests and needs of voters.”

In fact, in a book brought out by Thomas, 'Janasamaksham', there are several instances where he has helped people, including the case of Raghu Kumar (name changed). Owing to an accident at home, he suffered severe burns. Thomas arranged to pay the costs of the medical treatment at Lourdes Hospital. Thomas has also arranged to provide a mid-day meal for a few thousand students in 100 government schools. 

Sherly is confident that her husband will win again. However, she does not deny that there is an anti-incumbency mood among certain voters. “In some places, there is a drinking water shortage,” says Sherly. “I have told the people that Thomas will look into it, although it is actually the responsibility of the local [Cochin] Corporation councillor.”  

"He has done good work"
Says Ninitha R, the wife of sitting Palakkad MP MB Rajesh

A few days ago, Ninitha Rajesh, a teacher and the wife of sitting Palakkad Member of Parliament MB Rajesh (CPM) went to a student's home. There she met the 80-year-old grandmother, who was once a sports stalwart. When Ninitha was introduced to the old lady, the latter said, “I have always wanted to meet and thank Rajesh.”

The reason: in January, 2014, several students were going to Ranchi to take part in the national athletics meet. At that time, the sportsmen did not have confirmed tickets. 

However, when this large group entered the unreserved compartment, the other passengers objected. Subsequently, after a fracas and protests at Shoranur station, Rajesh arranged a sleeper bogie for the athletes, as well as the coaches. “I was very thrilled when the grandmother expressed her admiration for Rajesh,” says Ninitha.

In fact, once when Ninitha was travelling on a bus, she got into a casual conversation with a group of women. And at the end of the journey, one of the women said, “We are traditional Congress supporters, but this time, we will be voting for Rajesh,” says Ninitha. When she heard this, Ninitha revealed her identity. “They were very happy to meet me,” she says.

Ninitha says that Rajesh has done good work in the constituency. “So far, I have not received any complaints, either from UDF or LDF supporters,” she says.

Asked whether living in the spotlight is a burden, Ninitha says, “Not at all. I like to meet people. And both my husband I are committed to public service. We want to do good for society.” In fact, Ninitha has been in politics since her college days. She was a member of the central Secretariat of the Students Federation of India and former chairperson of Calicut University Students Union.

Each time they step out in public, people come forward to speak with them. “Sometimes, they will have a problem that needs to be solved,” says Ninitha. “And there are times when people show appreciation of my husband's work. When I hear that, I feel happy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     ​

She's a Noisy Mama all right!

Carola Grey, who is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world, plays Indian jazz rock with her 'Noisy Mama' band

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1996, legendary Carnatic musician TV Gopalakrishnan was performing in Frankfurt, Germany. One day, a friend presented him with a CD of the 'Noisy Mama' band. When he listened to it, there was one drum solo section which sounded a lot like Indian music. Gopalakrishnan met the band's founder, Carola Grey, and invited her to his music school in Chennai.

So Carola went to Chennai and, after some training, she joined Gopalakrishnan's troupe. “I found Carnatic music fascinating,” she says. “The rhythms, the calculations, and the mathematical construction behind it. And yet, it is so musical.”

But just as Carola was getting the hang of it, one day, just before a concert, Gopalakrishnan said, “I have a good idea. Why don't you do the beats in khanda gati (quintuplets).” Carola felt panicky. “In western music we play with sixteen notes and triplets and that's it,” she says. “As for quintuplets, only crazy people do it.” Seeing her stricken face, Gopalakrishnan said, “Don't worry, to a great artist, it will come by itself.”

On stage Carola was performing beside Kadri Gopalnath, the pioneer of Carnatic music on the saxophone. She started hitting the drums and, somewhere along the way, the magic happened. “I realised that I was playing quintuplets effortlessly,” she says. “This happened because I put my ego to one side. Great art occurs when you step out of yourself and allow the universal energy to flow through you. You tap into something that is higher than yourself. It gave me goosebumps.”

Today, Carola is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world. And there was no doubt about that during a recent performance, with her 'Noisy Mama' band, at the JT Pac, Kochi. She did a mesmerising solo that remained in the minds of the listeners for a few days. Says audience member Dr. Sunil Mathew: “The solo was unforgettable. Carola blended the western and the Indian styles of percussion seamlessly. The music was a treat.”

Of course, what helped was that Carola was accompanied by a talented group, which included John Anthony on lead guitar, Palaghat Sreeram on vocals and flute, Naveen Kumar on bass guitar, and Biju Poulose on the keyboards.

At the concert Carola sang a song called 'Mad Chicks Fly', from her album 'Drum Attack'. “Whenever people think you are mad, you can do anything you want,” Carola told the audience. And it seemed like an autobiographical statement. The song has a catchy, infectious sound.

And Carola herself exudes a charismatic stage presence. Brimming with energy, her hands move with intense speed on the drums, while her facial expressions keep changing: sometimes, she is smiling or grimacing or looking with narrowed eyes or nodding her head rhythmically. At other times, her eyes are closed. Then suddenly she places one stick across her mouth as she adjust the mike and belts out a song.

They love the music in Europe,” she says. “They have some things they can hold on to, like the familiar jazz sounds, and then there is this strange thing that they don't know anything about.” And in India too, the band has received a positive response. “The people told me it is a fusion that works out,” says Carola. “It took me years to combine it in a way that makes sense.”

Meanwhile, when asked why her band is called 'Noisy Mama', Carola smiles and says, “It is a nickname that was given to me when I was playing music in New York many years ago and I liked it.”

Yes, indeed, this Mama will not go silently into the night. 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On The Road

Wives of politicians talk about their experiences during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign 

(Part 1) 

Photo of Nisha Jose by K. Shijith and Betty Louis by BP Deepu

Wife Nisha follows in Jose K Mani's footsteps
By Shevlin Sebastian

Sometime ago, Nisha, the wife of Kottayam MLA Jose Mani, went to attend the annadhanam at the Pisharukovil Devi temple at Piravom. There, she met several womenfolk, including an 84-year-old lady who requested Nisha to come for the celebrations of her birthday in February.

It was a day when Nisha was heading towards Bangalore in her car with her daughter, Priyanka, who had to sit for the entrance exams for the National Institute of Fashion Technology. But, somehow, Nisha managed to make a stop at the temple and greet the old lady. “Her look of happiness made my day,” she says.

During the election campaign for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Nisha had campaigned extensively, and given her number to numerous women in the seven Assembly segments - Ettumanoor, Kottayam, Puthupally, Kaduthuruthy, Vaikom, Pala and Piravom - that comprise the Kottayam constituency. 

I told them to contact me in case they need something,” says Nisha. “And they have been calling me. And we have become friends.” 

Thus far, Nisha has 500 numbers saved on her mobile phone. And following in the footsteps of Jose, she has attended weddings, birthdays and death ceremonies. “Yes, definitely, I am doing this to help my husband,” she says. “But I am also a people-person and enjoy meeting women.”

In fact, once desperate to find a toilet, while travelling between Kaduthuruthy and Thalayolaparambu she stopped at a random house, knocked on the door, introduced herself, used the toilet and became friends with the family. “I have attended their birthdays and baptisms,” she says, with a smile.

Interestingly, Nisha says that she does not play politics. “In fact, I don't even know which party they belong to or have sympathies for,” she says. “I have a clear mind on this.”

Meanwhile, her day begins very early when people come to the house at Kottayam. “Many of them are well-wishers, who want to meet Jose,” she says. Nisha ensures they all have something to eat. However, if there is a woman accompanied by a child, she will provide breakfast.

Thus far, the feedback she is getting from voters about Jose for next month's Lok Sabha election is positive. “With God's grace, there is a good chance that Jose will win once again, although I have told my husband not to take anything for granted,” says Nisha. “He should keep working as hard as ever.” 

​“My gut feeling is that Baby will win” - wife Betty Louis

Betty Louis, the wife of MA Baby, the senior CPI(M) leader, had a laugh when Congress supporter Celine D'Cunha recounted the experience of her son Sheen. He had gone to a nearby pilgrimage centre in Kollam. As is usually the case, there were several beggars sitting outside. Feeling in a magnanimous mood, Sheen gave Rs 10 to a beggar. The man said, “I am grateful that you have given me the money, but you must do me one favour. Please cast a vote for MA Baby.”

It seems that even though he was a beggar, he was a Left sympathiser. “He was not only begging for money, but also for votes,” says Betty. “Just like what I am doing now.”

In Kollam town, Betty met a senior Congress leader and asked for his vote. The man said, “I will give it.” But suddenly Betty remembered seeing a photo of the leader with NK Premachandran, the UDF candidate on Facebook. So Betty said, “You are not being honest when you said that you will be giving my husband the vote.”

But the Congressman said, with a serious look, “I shall help you because Baby is my friend.”

Betty starts her campaign at 8 a.m. She is accompanied by her old Students Federation of India activists like Jaji Sunil, Vimala Teacher and Chintha Jerome. “The team gets expanded at times,” says Betty. Kollam Mayor Prasanna Earnest sometimes joins the house-to-house campaign.

Interestingly, Betty says that this time there are very few complaints. “Earlier, when we used to go to the town of Kundara, people would gives us a long list of complaints,” says Betty. “One reason could be that there is development, like the Techno Park, better roads and drinking water facilities.”

Since the LDF has always been strong in the labour-dominated constituency of Kollam, whose chief industry is cashew production, Betty's gut feeling is that Baby will win. “There is a 99 per cent possibility,” she says. “But 1 per cent has to be left open. Anything can happen at any time. The party should work hard. The opponent is a good one. And the voters should decide who they think is the better candidate.”

As for the All-India election, now that the right wing, led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has put in a strong thrust, Betty says, “In the elections just after the 1975 Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was voted out. The people of India are wise and will choose what is good for the country.” 

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When Old Age Comes Calling

This is a representative photo 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever I look at childhood albums, one photo always makes me squirm. It was of me standing three feet away from an Alsatian dog that belonged to George Thomas and his wife Molly. Standing right next to the animal, in a garden, was my bold childhood friend, Suresh. No matter how much the elders coaxed me, I was too scared to step close to the dog. And so Molly Aunty laughed and shouted, “Okay”, and the photo was taken. Looking back, I realise that I had unconsciously adopted my mother's irrational fear of dogs.

It was a time in the 1970s when my parents were young and energetic, with jet-black hair and pearly white teeth, in the bloom of health, enjoying life to the hilt. And we had gone from Kolkata with the Jacob family to spend a vacation in a small town in Orissa.

George Thomas was a senior manager in a private firm and lived in a large bungalow with his effervescent wife Molly. She was childless, but never seemed to mind it. And I remember all the laughter, jokes, the occasional teasing, and the imbibing of alcohol among the adults as we children played on the lawn. Undoubtedly, all of us had a good time.

Fast-forward more than 40 years: A couple of weeks ago, along with my parents, I meet Molly Aunty for the first time since that vacation. She has greyed, wears spectacles, and lives in a single room in an old people's home in Kochi. Her Chennai-based husband had died of a heart attack a few years ago. And the moment she sees me, she exclaims, “I still have that photo of you and Suresh standing next to our Alsatian dog. Both of you were sweet and well-behaved children.”

But soon her face falls as she ponders about her life. “I don't feel strong enough when I walk now,” she says. “I fell down sometime ago. It has affected my confidence.” She pauses and says, in a low voice, “Nobody comes to see me.”

But Molly Aunty quickly becomes magnanimous. “I can't blame people these days,” she says. “They are under so much pressure. We should not burden them with our problems.”
As she speaks, I am trying hard to recall the image of that jolly woman of a long time ago. As if sensing my thoughts, she suddenly clasps my mother's hands and says, with a youthful smile, “What wonderful times we had, isn't it?” And my mother smiles and presses her friend's hand in return.

What can both of them say? Everybody is given a youth. And when you have that, you live as if you will remain young forever. And then time comes and knocks it away, puts in middle age, then after a while it knocks that away and then you slide into into old age.

In his book, 'A World Growing Old', author Jeremy Seabrook writes, “Ageing seems to take most people by surprise. There are no rites of passage, no ceremonies, and no rituals to mark the entrance into old age. There is also little evidence that old age is a time of serenity.

In the middle stages of my own life, I am fearful that, one day, old age will creep onto me, like a thief in the night, and, most probably, leave me devastated. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India)  

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Rookie in Paradise

C. Balagopal writes about his experiences as a probationary IAS officer in Manipur thirty years ago

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Early one morning, in 1978, the Deputy Commissioner (DC) in the town of Tamenglong in Manipur turned to probationary officer C. Balagopal and said, “You will now witness a much-loved ritual of the frontier areas: the hoisting of the tricolour in the morning.”

On the lawn, outside the DC's bungalow, marched the dog Domingo, followed by a cat, a duck, a rooster and a goat. They stood at attention in front of the flagpole. Then a Nepali helper climbed up the pole with the Indian tricolour. He fixed the flag, with the help of metal hooks. It took the Nepali some time, after some gestures and shouting from the DC, to realise that he had placed the flag upside down. He corrected it, shimmied down, and gave a salute to the DC.

The DC nodded and headed back to the bungalow. Then Balagopal writes, “I saw Domingo turn to give an enquiring look. Someone, possibly the duck, appeared to say something and the troop dispersed in an orderly fashion, going off in different directions.”

This hilarious anecdote was recounted by Balagopal in his charming memoir, 'On a Clear Day You Can See India -- The Little World of the District Official'. In it Balagopal recounts his experiences as an IAS officer in Manipur more than 30 years ago. It was a brief stint: Balagopal quit the IAS, in 1983, after working for only six years to pursue a successful business career in Kerala.

Balagopal tells several tales in an engaging manner, and you get a picture of life in the north-east from a public servant's point of view – a much maligned group in India. Although what will not prepare the reader is the large number of abbreviations of government officers and posts, as well as rebel outfits which appear in the book: a total of 44. These names are displayed across two pages just before the narrative begins.

Balagopal had to quickly get used to the Byzantine ways of the government machinery. Within 29 days, he was handed down his first transfer. And the young officer had a strange experience: “that queer tug at the heart exerted by a place that till a few months earlier was totally unknown, just another name on the map. This quick dropping of roots in strange places is something the British officers of the East India company experienced.”

The other notable incidents included Malayali policemen of the Central Reserve Police Force trying to influence an inquiry report he was writing, the extraordinary paperwork involved in the filing of nominations for an election, and how a protest outside the Raj Bhavan by a group of teachers was diffused, thanks to a timely tip from a head constable.

Sir, it starts suddenly to get cold at this time of the year,” the policeman said. “The temperature drops in minutes as a chilly wind blows in from the hills.” And when that happened, right on schedule, at 4 p.m., the teachers dispersed and rushed off towards their homes, leaving the head constable to give an amused grin. 

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

The Simple Things of Life

Two artists, Francis Kodakandath and Sunil Poomangalath focuses on subjects like traffic jams, paper boats, and vignettes from village life

Captions: Francis Kodakandath with a painting of Jesus Christ; 'Summer Vacation' by Sunil Poomangalath. Photos by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, national award-winning artist Francis Kodakandath was assigned to do a 30-feet high painting inside a tower of the Our Lady of Dolours Basilica at Thrissur. He had done only 30 per cent of the work when the date of the inauguration when announced. Francis realised he could not complete the work on time.

One day, he worked late and feverishly. The next day, he came early to continue the work. But when he opened the door, he got a shock: the painting had been completed. “It was a miracle,” he says. “There is no explanation of how it happened.” One parishioner, a wealthy lady, got so excited by this event that she sponsored the entire cost of Rs 5 lakh.

In his ongoing exhibition, 'Art of Small Things', Francis has done a few works based on religious themes. One painting of Jesus Christ, shaped in the form of a tree, has been sold for Rs 2 lakh. Another painting called 'The First Supper' is of Jesus Christ and his disciples having dinner around a table. It looks similar to Leonardo Da Vinci's iconic 'The Last Supper', although Francis' lines are more abstract. “Jesus Christ had only three years of public life, before he was crucified,” says Francis. “That means, he had supper every night for 1095 days. I plan to a series on all these dinners.” So far, Francis has done 52.

He is also doing a series on the human heart. The one in the exhibition shows the four chambers of the heart, with good and bad blood. Francis has also drawn on the impact of traffic congestion. It shows vehicles moving in all directions and causing chaos everywhere. “There is a lack of self-discipline among the drivers,” he says.

Francis wanted to concentrate on the simple things in life. “Most of us do not pay attention to them,” he says. One painting is of the obituary pages in newspapers, with small photos and scribbled lines. But at the top right-hand corner, Francis has left it blank. “I wanted to indicate that one day the viewer will himself appear on the page, just as you and I will,” says Francis. “I wanted to put a mirror there, but felt that it would be too extreme.”

Another striking painting is called 'Application for a patent'. He has drawn a paper boat, beginning with a square piece of paper, going through various stages of folding, before it is eventually shaped like a boat. “The Americans are making patents for everything,” he says. “So even if you make a paper boat for your child, an American might come up and say, 'You cannot make this. There is a patent for this. So you need permission'.”

In his daily life, Francis works as a Customs Superintendent at Kozhikode airport. He works four days in a row, doing 12 and 24-hour shifts, and then gets three days off. “The first day I sleep it off,” he says. “Then, during the next two days, I will be painting full-time.”

Sometimes, his artistic passion has helped him in his career. Once he grew a beard, wore saffron clothes and stood next to a pharmacy and pretended to do a street painting. Thanks to a tip-off, he wanted to observe the people who were coming to the pharmacy. Soon, a group of men came, along with a pregnant woman. The moment they left, he informed the officers of the Directorate of Revenue Enforcement. They intercepted the vehicle, which was going to the airport, and 3 kgs of hashish was recovered from a basket tied around the woman's waist.

Meanwhile, participating in the exhibition, along with Francis is Sunil Poomangalath. His paintings are simple, clear, and true to life. One painting, called, 'Summer Vacation', shows a few boys swimming in the pond. A girl is plucking a flower on the bank. Another girl is walking towards the temple. Two boys are flying kites. A boy and a girl are sitting by the side of the pond, playing with paper boats, as they flirt with each other. “Nowadays, children rarely go out to play,” says Sunil. “They are in front of the computer screens or the TV. So they miss out on life. You cannot find this tranquil life in the villages also.”

Sunil focuses on rural life, because he grew up in Thiroor, a village in Trissur district. Other images include farmers taking their produce to the market on bullock carts on a mud road which cuts through paddy fields. “Today, people use tractors, and even in villages, there are no bullock carts,” says Sunil. “I wanted to evoke a sense of nostalgia.”

Sunil is self-taught. He was interested in drawing from his childhood. Today, he is a full-time artist. Six years ago, he began mixing a mural style with realistic work. As a result, his paintings have become attractive and soothing to the eye. One striking work, 'Radha-Madhav', has found a buyer. It shows the couple on a bed, flying through blue skies. “It took me two weeks to do it,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Smooth Ride

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Durga talks about life with Kerala State Transport Commissioner Rishiraj Singh

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 6 a.m., on a day in February, 1987, Durgeshwari Singh was woken up by her mother at her home in Jaipur. “Durga, you are not going to believe this, but the boy has come to see you,” she said. “So early?” said Durga, feeling shocked.

So, while her mother busied herself with talking with Rishiraj Singh, Durga got ready. It was at 8 a.m. when the two saw each other. “My first impression was that Rishiraj looked so strict, while I am just the opposite,” says Durga, who at 19, was six years younger than the prospective bridegroom.

Rishiraj was frank from the beginning. “He told me that even though I belonged to the royal family of Jaipur, I must not expect much in Kerala, where he was posted,” says Durga. Rishiraj said that as a police officer his pay was only Rs 3000 a month. “We will have to manage with that,” he said. “You will have to live in a small house. Are you sure you want to marry me?”

Durga had no doubts. “I realised that he had a mind of his own,” she says. Rishiraj also liked Durga and said yes immediately. When Durga's mother said that maybe Rishiraj could consult with his father, he replied in the negative. “It is I who is getting married, and not my father,” he said. And when asked about the dowry, Rishiraj asked for Rs 1. “He still has that note with him,” says Durga. Later, when Durga asked why he had come so early, he had replied, “I wanted to see you before you put on your make-up,” he said.

The marriage took place in Jaipur on November 1 (Kerala Day), 1987. In traditional Rajput fashion, Rishiraj wore a pink turban and came to the venue on a white horse. He was received by Durga's godfather, Colonel Bhawani Singh, the titular Maharaja of Jaipur.

For their honeymoon, the couple went to Kovalam. “I was seeing water and so much of greenery for the first time,” says Durga. “And when we walked on the beach, Rishiraj was always walking five feet ahead, so I was running to catch up with him. I still am.”

Regarding his plus points, Durga says, “Rishiraj is a good and honest human being. He is like Gandhiji, but I cannot be Kasturba. From the time I have been married to Rishiraj I have never been able to buy a pair of gold earrings, because we could not afford it. If a police officer says he can afford to buy gold, he is lying.”

Asked about how many officers are honest, Durga says, “Only 10 per cent. Dishonesty does not mean only money. It can be perks. Favours. Good postings. Free air tickets and holidays. Most of the time, the wives instigate their husbands to take bribes.”

In fact, when Rishiraj, as Joint-Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was investigating the Adarsh Housing Society scam in Mumbai, some people came to the house to meet Durga. “They did not dare approach Rishiraj, because he would have thrown them out,” she says. They offered Rs 50 crore if Rishiraj would go easy on the probe. “Only a person like Rishiraj could say no, and abide by the rules,” says Durga.

Rishiraj received his ethical values from his grandmother. “She played a very influential role,” says Durga. “She would tell him stories about the glorious exploits of Rana Pratap Singh [the Rajput ruler of Mewar].” Rishiraj's grandfather, Shiv Dhan Singh, as well as his father were in the police force. Both had a reputation for honesty.

Meanwhile Kerala's Transport Commissioner has been labelled a superstar by no less a star than Mohanlal for his ceaseless efforts in bringing down the alarming accident rates in Kerala. “It was very nice of Mohanlal to praise Rishiraj,” says Durga. “My husband knows what it is like for parents to lose a child. Thanks to his work we are receiving the blessings of so many people.”

Durga also feels blessed that Rishiraj is her spouse, but there are drawbacks.
One is that he is hardly ever at home. “He is a police officer 24/7,” says Durga. “The job is his passion.”

When the children, Chhatrasal, 24, and Yashodrara, 23, were younger they did miss his presence. When Rishiraj was Commissioner of Police, Thiruvananthapuram, he would come home late at night. By this time the children were sleeping. Then they would leave for school early in the morning when Rishiraj was fast asleep. “Sometimes, they would ask, 'Why doesn't Papa comes with us to Kovalam?” says Durga. “Why don't we have picnics? Why can't we go to the Taj hotel like the children of other officers? I tried to explain why he could not come. After a while, they got used to his absence.”

But today Rishiraj is very close to his progeny. “He cannot think beyond his children,”says Durga. “They joke around like friends. They are free to talk to him about everything under the sun.”

And the family loves the state. “Kerala is beautiful and green,” says Durga. “People are very nice to us. They are educated and intelligent and can identify who is the right and wrong officer.”

Meanwhile, Durga is proud of Rishiraj's achievements. “He made a mark as a DIG [Deputy Inspector-General] in the Special Protection Group looking after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” she says. “He excelled in the CBI. Our family has seen a lot of good times with him. I would like to get married to him for seven more lifetimes.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Singing Her Heart Out

12-year-old Jessie Hillel, of Malayali origin, is a singing star in New Zealand

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Jessie Hillel was a three-year-old growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, she would be taken to a creche by her Malayali parents, Rabi Hillel and Sigy Susan George, both of whom are IT professionals. On the way the family would listen to music on the car radio. Sometimes, a CD of Jim Reeves would be played. One day, Jessie suddenly sang a Reeves song, 'Waiting for a train', from beginning to end. That surprised her parents. They realised that their daughter had a natural talent, and arranged for music lessons when she turned five.

Jessie's turning point came when she decided to take part in the popular 'New Zealand's Got Talent' programme in 2012. It is a competition without any age limit. “I had to wait three hours in the pouring rain to audition for the event, because there was such a long queue,” says Jessie, whose audition song was 'Pie Jesu' by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Initially, there were over 5000 participants, but thanks to Jessie's unmistakable talent, she went past, round after round, even though she was the youngest participant, at 10 years of age. Eventually, she reached the final, where, through a mass SMS voting, she became the runner-up. “People said that when they listened to me sing, they found it difficult to think I am a child,” says Jessie. “They told me my voice is so strong.”

Says Julie, the 17-year-old sister of Jessie, who is a talented pianist: “Jessie is able to sing classical songs. Nowadays, children rarely sing them. So, maybe, that worked in Jessie's favour.”

Jessie's powerful voice was evident during a recent performance at the JT Pac in Kochi, where she belted out a Tina Turner song, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, as well as ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, from the musical, ‘Les Miserables’.

Those who were in the audience were impressed. Says Vice Admiral M.P. Muralidharan (Retd.): “At first look she is like any other teenager, but once she starts singing the transformation is terrific. Suddenly, she is all confidence and professional, like a seasoned stage performer. Jessie has a deep voice, a fine sense of rhythm, and good voice modulation. When she sang the Tina Turner number, if you listened with closed eyes you could be forgiven if you thought Tina was singing! Jessie is a child prodigy.”

And this child prodigy has notched up some notable achievements: She won several awards at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, has performed at the New Zealand Parliament, and represented the country at the International Children’s Concert in China. Thanks to her 'New Zealand’s Got Talent' performance, Sony New Zealand signed Jessie to bring out a record of classical songs.

The album, 'With Love', was released in April last year and reached No. 2 in The New Zealand Top 20 chart and No 3 in the New Zealand Top 40 (World Albums). Incidentally, it is also available in India on I-Tunes.

Meanwhile, Julie has some words of advice for her sibling. “I always tell Jessie that she should be humble and down-to-earth,” says Julie. “Jessie should keep thanking her parents, because she is what she is because of them.”

When she is not singing, Jessie is listening to a lot of music. “I like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce,” she says. “I also listen to Chitra and Yesudas.”

After a full day's study, as a Class 7 student, in Wellington, Jessie comes home and practises for more than an hour. “When I am singing I feel truly alive,” she says. “It is a gift from God. In fact, I am lucky to have found my talent and passion at such a young age.” 

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

Capturing Life In All its Variety

Razi Rozario's exhibition at the Lulu Mall has attracted celebrities like Mohanlal and Siddique, and ordinary people alike

Photos by Melton Meltony

By Shevlin Sebastian

'Van Gogh,
Of late, we've come to realise
That your sunflowers were
not mere flowers,
But were poignant symbols
of the despair of rejected love.

This poem has been placed next to a painting of Van Gogh (1853-90), a Dutchman, who is regarded as one of the greats of Western painting. In the work, Van Gogh, with a blue cap, a bandage placed over his ear, looks with sombre eyes at a bunch of wilting sunflowers. This is Kochi artist Razi Rozario's reference to the fact that Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear in a fit of madness, while sunflowers remained his signature image.

This painting is one of nine works on Van Gogh that Razi has put up in his exhibition, 'Let The Flowers Smile', at the Lulu Mall. And Razi has a specific reason for concentrating on Van Gogh. “When Van Gogh was alive, he was all but invisible to the public,” says Razi. 

“This was the case with other greats like Leonardo De Vinci and Raja Ravi Varma. Only when the artist dies is there interest in his work. There are so many talented painters today, but nobody recognises them. The Paris of Van Gogh's time is the Kerala of today.”
An artist like Razi is finding it difficult to survive. There are many who have to sell their paintings for a pittance. They will take part in a few exhibitions and then give up.

But Razi has not given up. For the past fifteen years he has been a full-time artist. “My desire has been to bring art to the masses,” he says. “Unlike music and literature, the visual arts has no base in Kerala. It remains only as a point of interest for a few people. Instead of exhibiting in galleries, I went to places where people would congregate so that I could display my art.”

So far, he has shown his work in college campuses, during church feasts, tourism fairs, shopping festivals, book fairs and at the Lulu Mall. As people step off the escalator, on the second floor, to go to PVR Cinemas, they are confronted by the paintings of Razi.

There are 65 works in total, done over a period of 18 years. Apart from Van Gogh, there are images of young girls, grandmothers, flowers, jackfruits, skies, streams, the Kaaba at Mecca, Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus Christ. Most people have liked what they have seen. In the visitor's book, Aswathy and Surya writes, “This is a reflection of the love which does not exist in today's world.” There are three notebooks filled with adulatory comments.

Razi's turning point came when, through the director Siddique, he met superstar Mohanlal, who has bought a painting, 'Creators Of The Shadow', for Rs 1 lakh. This is an image of Van Gogh, Jesus Christ and one of Russia's great authors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) sitting around a candle placed on a table.

When we light a candle, there is a shadow that forms behind us,” says Razi. “Society did say that these people had created a shadow and caused darkness among the people. So they had to be crucified. Through their works, Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky and Jesus wanted to bring light to the world, but the people did not accept them when they were alive.”

Thanks to Mohanlal's purchase, 47 people have also paid Rs 1 lakh to buy various paintings. They include Siddique, director Anwar Rasheed, actor Salim Kumar, gallery own Asif Komu, businessman Jiju Ramakrishnan and Class 7 student Marwan Munavvar, who, interestingly, owns a work called 'Stubborn Child'.

Razi draws from his experiences,” says Asif Komu. “There is a story behind each painting. And that is why people are drawn to his work.”

Razi has promised to sell the purchased paintings for Rs 2 lakh, by holding 12 exhibitions in India and 12 abroad, including Germany, Britain and the United Arab Emirates. He will share a part of the profits with the owners.

Razi's works are mostly oil on canvas. But he does not use a brush. Instead, he prefers a small knife. For a few days he will mentally visualise what he is going to draw. Then one day, he will get up early and start work. “I have to finish it in a day, otherwise, the oil will become dry,” he says. All his works are stored at the Rosario Art Gallery which he has opened in Aluva.

A tenacious Razi is carrying on, because of a simple reason. “Art is my life. There is nothing else I want to do,” says the artist, who is supported by his wife, Rakhi, who works as a sub-editor in a leading Malayalam magazine. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Love Duet

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Jisha talks about life with the actor Prem Kumar

Photo by BP Deepu 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in the late 1990s, Jisha was watching television at her home in Muscat. Suddenly, she came across an interview with the actor Prem Kumar. As she watched the show, a thought arose in her mind: 'What would it be like to marry this man?' It was an impromptu thought,” says Jisha. “It was not that I was attracted to him.” 

One week later, Jisha received a proposal. And she got a shock. It was from Prem Kumar's family. When Jisha saw Prem for the first time, at her uncle Francis' house in Thiruvananthapuram, he came across as an ordinary man. “He had no airs,” she says. “I liked him at once.” She remembers that Prem had worn a blue shirt and jeans. Both did not take long to say yes to the marriage.

The wedding took place on July 12, 2000, at the Church of South India at Kazhakuttam, in Thiruvananthapuram. Jisha's surprise happened the next day when their photo was splashed in all the newspapers. “That was when I realised that my husband was a famous person,” she says. “Overnight, without doing anything on my part, I appeared in the media. Many friends and strangers called me on the phone. This was one of my most memorable experiences.”

Asked about her husband's qualities, Jisha says, “Prem is a knowledgeable person. You can ask him a question on anything, be it politics, literature or religion, and he will have an answer. Prem reads a lot on all subjects, but his favourite is psychology.”

Prem also has his heart in the right place. “He helps many people who are going through financial difficulties,” says Jisha. “Many a time he does not even tell me about it.”

However, like most creative people, Prem has a short temper. “He gets angry about silly things,” says Jisha. “We will stop talking to each other for a while. Then I will make up with him. Prem also finds it difficult to forgive people who have harmed him.”

The couple had their only child, Jemima, eight years after their marriage, on October 17, 2008, at the Mother and Baby hospital at Thiruvananthapuram. A few moments after Jisha had given birth, a nurse went outside and told Prem that he had a baby boy. The actor was thrilled. He belonged to a family where he was one of three brothers. So he was keen to have a son. Meanwhile, inside the labour room, Jisha was excited that she had given birth to a baby girl.

After a while, the lady doctor came out with the baby and told Prem, “Congratulations, you are the father of a baby girl.”

A shocked Prem said, “Doctor, it is a boy!”

No,” said the doctor in a firm voice. “This is your baby. And it is a girl.”

Says Jisha, with a smile, “Poor Prem. The nurse had made a mistake.”

It was a blow for Prem. “But today he has no regrets and loves his daughter,” says Jisha. “Prem has changed his attitude.”

The actor has changed in other ways, too. “Earlier, he was shy and would never mingle with people,” says Jisha. “But now he has learnt to do that and I am happy about it.”

Meanwhile, Prem has got used to the ups and downs of an acting career in Mollywood. 

“Sometimes roles keep coming, and sometimes it does not,” says Jisha. “There have been periods when he did not have any work. Prem has been cool about it. Even I am not much bothered by this. I believe in Jesus Christ and I know that He will look after us.”

Even Jemima is not bothered. “She is happy to see Prem on the screen, but more than that, she tells her father she likes him in real life,” says Jisha. “Jemima is a fan of Mammooty and Mohanlal, but goes crazy over Shah Rukh Khan.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Jisha says, “Recently, when I went for a wedding reception, I told the bride, 'Pray, pray, and keep praying. Pray for good things to happen. Love each other. Trust each other. Forgive each other. Don't bring the ego into the marriage. Treat life casually. Don't take it as a burden. We have only one life. Please enjoy it. There is no point in keeping our resentments inside us.'” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

The Man Who Saw Too Much

Agni Sreedhar, a former underworld don in Bangalore, has written a gripping account of his career in crime

Photo by M. Jithindra

By Shevlin Sebastian

I hit Kotwal [Ramachandra] on the head with a machete,” said underworld thug Seetharam Shetty in a statement to the police. “Bachchan landed blows to the neck and head. [Author] Sreedhar struck with his nunchaku. Kowtal died without offering resistance.”

It was a famous murder because the man who was eliminated was Bangalore's numero uno don, Kotwal Ramachandra. And this event, which took place on March 22, 1986, has been recounted in detail by Agni Sreedhar in his gripping memoir, 'My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia'.

In the underworld, people commit murder so that it will bring fame which can then be translated into money. “When we killed him, Kotwal was notorious, more than the smuggler Veerapan was in his prime,” says Sreedhar.

Definitely, it established Sreedhar's credentials in the underworld. This book is the story of his life in crime: the fights, the extortions, money-making rackets, the big egos of rival gangsters, the constant anxiety and fear of being attacked and the need to counter-attack, and the topsy-turvy relationship with the police. This link is adversarial, for the most part, and friendly during mutually beneficial times.

Sreedhar also confirms what most people already know: the close tie-up between the underworld and politicians. In fact, there is a disturbing photo of current Karnataka chief minister, Siddaramiah, along with the late Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde sitting around a table with a notorious hoodlum, 'Dadi' Puttaswamy.

It is a strange network,” says Sreedhar. “The politicians pamper the underworld because they are of use during elections. The police play up to politicians because they can be used during transfers. The underworld controls the police through politicians and the politicians control the underworld through the police!”

In fact, this memoir is studded with insights: “Prison is a strange place,” says Sreedhar. “Nowhere else do clashes, plotting and gossip take on the proportions that they do here. The fearsome stone walls, the barracks, the faces and the names that count the hours behind the iron bars -- all these things kill a convict's sensitivity. A man who spends six months in jail will come away a hardened criminal even if he was innocent when he entered.”

Everybody suffers, including jailors. “In a way, even jailors are imprisoned,” says Sreedhar. “Their houses are close to the jail and even when an inmate is freed, the jailors are not. Their work continues. Their sole responsibility is to cope with notorious criminals and thugs. But when you meet these people every day they cease to become fearsome offenders; instead, they become nothing more than weathered men caged like animals behind bars.”

All these conclusions reveal that Sreedhar is sharp, intelligent, and a shrewd judge of people. So it was no surprise that he ended up becoming a don. But he had luck too. When a murder attempt was made, with several shots fired at the car that he usually travelled in, he was not in the vehicle. In the end, fed up with his life in crime, Sreedhar decided to quit. And he became the rare and lucky criminal who was able to walk away. Interestingly, throughout his career in crime, Sreedhar retained an interest in writing and literature.

'My Days' originally appeared in Kannada under the title of 'Dadagiriya Dindagalu'. It became a best-seller and won the Karnataka State Sahitya Akademi Award.

Today, Sreedhar runs a successful Kannada tabloid, 'Agni'. He has also written on his favourite subject of quantum philosophy, penned scripts and directed award-winning films. He is at the forefront in the agitation against mining in Karnataka. All in all, Sreedhar is a remarkable human being who could have easily been a success without having to venture into the world of crime.

Title: My Days In The Underworld – Rise of Bangalore Mafia

Author: Agni Sreedhar

Publisher: Tranquebar Press

Pages: 465.

Price: Rs 395 

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