Friday, May 30, 2014

The World of Terror

KSR Menon's thriller, 'Desert Hunt' focuses on espionage and international intrigue in Dubai

Photo by K. Rajesh Kumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

'The window given for the execution [of Mohammed Amin] and escape was just 45 minutes, including the time taken at the reception desk to clear the bill and check out. The elder partner took out a syringe filled with one hundred milligrams of succinylcholine, which the Mossad has traditionally used to mask their killings, and injected it into Amin's limp body. The chemical would make the assassination look like a natural death. The younger man took a pillow and suffocated the man who for more than twenty years had been a thorn in the flesh of the Zionists.'

This is an extract from 'Desert Hunt', by KSR Menon, a gripping, fast-paced and highly readable thriller about terrorists and security agents playing cat and mouse games in the dazzling city of Dubai. The scene described above eerily follows the actual-life assassination of top Hamas commander, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, on January 19, 2010, at the five-star Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai. It was suspected to be a Mossad (Israeli) operation: 33 people, with fake passports, arrived at Dubai, did the killing, and fled. The murder has remained unsolved till today.

Menon knows Dubai well. He has worked there as a correspondent for more than 15 years, and was employed with the Press Trust of India, the United News of India, and for other newspapers. “I have an idea of the security apparatus,” he says.

In fact, one of the memorable characters in 'Desert Hunt' is Colonel Sheikh Sultan, the director of the Al-Khaleej Intelligence Directorate. And it is Sultan who keeps a track of all the espionage happenings taking place in Dubai and elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates.

There are many people like Sultan,” says Menon. “They like to go out in the field. In fact, Arabs are not inclined to be intellectual. The desert life has been tough. It is only less than 100 years that they have made so much money thanks to oil. For many decades, they lived without water or electricity.”

Menon says that the threat of terrorism remains high in the Middle East. “This is something that is waiting to happen,” he says. “The location of the Americans and the British diplomatic missions in Dubai make them very vulnerable. Al Qaeda can attack them easily.”

And they would want to do it, because of the worldwide impact. There is a growing perception among terrorists that attacking India has brought in diminishing returns.

In India, if you kill a hundred people nothing happens,” says Menon. “It is such a vast country with a huge population. The next day, for their livelihood, people will step out on the streets. But the terrorists will lose trained hands. If one terrorist dies, then they must have some returns from that. In America, the government is very alert. There is tight security everywhere. So they are now looking to target Americans outside America.”

Menon has been prescient about this. After he published the novel, which, incidentally is available on Amazon, the Islamist group Al-Shabaab killed several Westerners at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013.

An attack in Dubai is possible because it is home to people from more than 100 nationalities. And among this kaleidoscopic mix, there are trouble-makers like the members of the Taliban, the Lashkar E-Taiba, and Hamas.

Meanwhile, another interesting character in the book is the Director of RAW, K. Subba Rao. He was modelled on the late K. Subrahmanyam, who is regarded as the father of defence strategy in India.

Earlier, while based in Delhi, Menon had worked with Subrahmanyam at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for a year. “He was brilliant,” says Menon. “Subrahmanyam had a photographic memory. We would have regular meetings and he could remember what had exactly transpired after many months. The Americans hated him because he would quote what they had said earlier, and prove that they were contradicting themselves.”

Interestingly, Menon is also experiencing some contradictions, while he stays in Aluva, where he has settled down a few months ago. “It is a good place to stay,” he says. “But the power goes off 15 times a day. It indicates poor governance. Think of this: V-Guard stabilisers is one of the most successful businesses in Kerala. That shows the inefficiency of the system. You don't need stabilisers anywhere in the developed world.”

And the roads are so bad after the rains. “We are always comparing the roads with what it was like five months before,” he says. “If there are potholes, people live with that and are happy if the streets get a temporary repair.”

Menon faults the Communist mind-set of the people. “The Left mind-set glorifies poverty,” he says. “We are sitting on a gold mine, as Kerala can be a global trade hub, like Dubai, as well as a prominent tourist destination, but we are perpetuating poverty. Political parties have vested interests. They want people to remain economically backward. It is easy to control votebanks if they are poor.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

“He is Sincere and Honest”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Usha talks about life with the politician Mulappally Ramachandran

Photo by TP Sooraj 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When Usha was a young woman she never dreamt of marrying a politician. “I felt that most of them were uneducated and corrupt,” she says. So, when one of her uncles, Narayanan, brought a proposal about a full-time politician, naturally, Usha was hesitant. “But I was told that Mulappally Ramachandran was not a 'normal' politician,” says Usha. “He was an upright and educated person, who had done his MA and LLB.”

At that time, in 1984, Usha was based in Panjim, Goa, where she worked as a law officer in the Syndicate Bank. However, because her father had a mild heart attack, she returned to her home town of Kozhikode for a short visit. So, she agreed to meet Ramachandran.

They met on a sunny day in June. Being the typical politician that he was, Ramachandran was dressed in a white shirt and mundu. And one of the first things he told Usha was that he had called on her father at the hospital. Ramachandran said, “I think your daddy is out of danger.”

Usha was touched that Ramachandran took the trouble to meet her father.

Apart from being touched, Usha was also impressed. “I felt that he was a person who could take charge of me,” she says. “Ramachandran had a capacity for leadership. Many of the men I had met till then were not what I expected them to be, but he was different.”

The attraction was mutual. The marriage took place on September 13, 1984, at the Tagore Centenary Hall in Kozhikode. The most memorable event was the presence of Chief Minister K Karunakaran,” says Usha. “He was at loggerheads with my husband. So we thought he would not come.” But five minutes before the muhurtham began, there was a message that the chief minister was coming. The roads were cleared, and Karunakaran arrived just in time to give Usha the wedding garland, that was to be exchanged with Ramachandran.

I had promised your husband a long time ago that I would do this duty,” Karunakaran told Usha.

However, the couple had no time to go on a honeymoon. The next morning, Ramachandran had to rush off to Thiruvananthapuram because Congress President Rajiv Gandhi was arriving. “Later, Ramachandran told me that Rajiv pulled him up for leaving me behind,” says Usha.

On October 31, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Thereafter, the Lok Sabha elections were held. Ramachandran stood from Kannur and won and then had to go to Delhi. “All this happened within two months of our marriage,” says Usha.

Later, Usha got a transfer from Panjim to Mangalore and would meet her husband on weekends. And life went on.

Asked about his qualities, Usha says, “I admire his honesty, sincerity and his compassion for the marginalised sections of society. The people of his constituency always came first. Initially I would feel upset, but now I have accepted it as a politician's duty.”

Another quality is Ramachandran's desire to develop others. “There have been many people who were against him, but he has enabled them to grow, especially if he spotted a leadership quality,” says Usha. “It is something that I could not understand, but I regard it as a lovely trait.”

However, there have been times when Ramachandran has got irritated with Usha, because she has not been able to recognise the people in the constituency. “Unlike Ramachandran, I meet them once a year or so,” she says. “He knows everybody by name including his classmates and is close to them.”

Ramachandran is also close to their only child, daughter Parvathy, 21, who is doing her MA (Political science), following her BA Hons. (history) in Jesus and Mary College at New Delhi. “Ramachandran's subject is history and so is hers,” says Usha. “They have a lot in common. It is because of her that Ramachandran took us to visit countries like South Korea, Hongkong, Mozambique, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa.”

At Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, they saw the station where Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a first-class cabin, and the jail, at Johannesburg, where he spent a lot of time. “The jail was being maintained as it was, to show how the prisoners had suffered,” says Usha. “There were small dormitories where several people were confined. We were told that the toilets at the corner of the room overflowed often. And there were separate cooking facilities for blacks, coloureds and whites. There was so much of discrimination in those days.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Usha says, “There is a lot of give and take in a marriage. Don't expect everything to be a bed of roses. Learn to sacrifice for the happiness of your partner. And that joy will reflect on you also. You will get back from life what you give to it. That is the case with marriage also.”

But Usha is worried about the state of matrimony among young people. “There is too much of an ego fight among youngsters,” she says. “If you break up especially when you have children, it is such a sad sight. Where is the institution of marriage heading? We are taking the worst of western culture and adopting it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

For The Love Of Elephants

Dag Goering has spent the past several years trying to save elephants in India, many parts of Asia and Africa

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2007, Canadian veterinarian Dr. Dag Goering was in Jaipur, along with his wife, the writer Maria Coffey. They were visiting a NGO called ‘Help in Suffering’, which helps animals in distress. Suddenly, there was a telephone call. An elephant was about to give birth at the Amar Fort, 11 kms away. This was the first time in 50 years that such an event was happening in Rajasthan. The mahouts, understandably, were nervous. So Dag, along with another doctor, went to see the birthing process.

The calf was perfectly fine,” says Dag. “But it was helpless, like a human baby, and could not control the trunk, which kept rotating.” As he stared fascinated, one of the elephants gripped Dag's wrist with its trunk and pulled him up. “I suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of the elephant,” says Dag. “There was intelligence and all kinds of emotions in them. I could sense another world. It was a magical experience.” As the elephant set him down, Dag had an epiphany: he wanted to spend the rest of his life working with them.

The couple set up an organisation called Elephant Initiative. “The aim is to make the world a better place for captive as well as wild elephants,” he says. They have worked extensively in Kenya, Laos, Thailand and now India. At Kochi, sometime ago, Dag had set up a photographic exhibition, ‘Elephant Enigma: A Journey Into The World of Giants’. There are photos of the mammals drinking from a water source, playing with calves, going for a walk in the jungle, and washing themselves in the river, using their trunks.

The elephant's trunk is unusual. “It is a nose,” says Dag. “And it also feeds with it.” The trunk has 40,000 muscles. That is why it takes a long time to coordinate the muscles. The trunk is also used as a weapon, like a battering ram. It becomes a snorkel when swimming underwater. The elephant also uses it to make sounds, like a trumpet or a deep rumble.

Elephants are similar to humans because they also go on dates with each other. “In fact, smell plays a big role in dating,” says Dan. “They will put the tip of their trunks in the other one's mouth. That is because they have a tasting organ in the mouth. Or they will touch the body.” If there is a mutual understanding, the couple will wander off and spend days together. Interestingly, like humans, elephants a strong sense of family.”

In fact, elephants have a matriarchal society. The matriarch is the one who passes knowledge to the younger ones. And she has a long memory. If there is a drought somewhere in Africa, the chances are the oldest one will remember the last big drought thirty years ago. And she will know where to go to get water. In fact, a study has revealed that the herd with the oldest matriarch is likely to survive than one where the matriarch has been killed.

The poachers kill the matriarch because, among African elephants she has the biggest tusks,” says Dag. “Around 10 percent of the population is killed every year. So the future looks bleak.”

In India, also, there are many deaths due to human-elephant conflicts. “There is so much pressure of space, because of the huge human population,” says Dag. “The elephants do not have the land to move about. So they attack human habitats for food.”

Nevertheless, despite this, India has an elephant population of 20,000. “It is astounding that there are so many,” says Dag. “But the country has everything from bears to leopards. It just shows that the people care about animals and that is really heartening.”

However, what is not heartening is that, in order to gain control of these mammals, man has used brutality. In most parts of Asia, when an elephant is captured it is put in isolation. “This is akin to solitary confinement,” he says. “The elephant is deprived of sleep. Then loud music is played. In the end, beatings are administered, till the spirit of the animal is broken.”

But because they have been traumatised, elephants can become unpredictable and dangerous. “At some point, it can attack the mahout,” says Dag. “There are many cases like that in Kerala. The best way is to develop positive and loving methods of training, like operant conditioning, when they are initially captured. My aim is to introduce this in India.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Unique Take on Life

Photographer Dayanita Singh takes images that are original and thought-provoking

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dayanita Singh was a student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, in 1981, she was given an assignment to take photos, showing the different moods of a person. At that time, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain was performing in the city. So she decided to take photos of Zakir.

But when Dayanita went to the hall, the organisers refused to allow her to take photos. So, she waited outside. When Zakir came out, following the show, Dayanita approached him and said, “Mr. Hussain, I am a young student. Some day I might be an important photographer. Then we will see.”

Zakir burst out laughing. Then he explained why she had not been allowed to take pictures. “First of all, you need to take permission,” he said. “Secondly, Pandit Ravi Shankar had added a fret to his sitar, so that he could do some experimenting. So he did not want any photographs to be taken.” Zakir told Dayanita that she could come the next morning when he was having a rehearsal.

Thereafter, for the next six years, during the winter, Dayanita took photos of Zakir. And imbibed wisdom from the maestro. “Zakir talked to me about the need to focus,” says Dayanita. “That means, if you decide to do something, you have to give 100 per cent. If you cannot dedicate 18 hours a day, don't do it.” It was during this period that Dayanita decided to become a photographer.

But her decision came as no surprise because her mother, Nony Singh, was an avid photographer. In fact, Dayanita remembers a photo that her mother took of her when she was only six months old. I was lying on a chaise lounge in the Presidential Suite of the Oberoi Hotel at Srinagar,” she says.

When Dayanita's father, Mahenderpal, wanted to celebrate her birth, Nony said she wanted to stay in a luxury hotel. “You never went to a hotel in those days,” says Dayanita. But once there, Nony was keen to show proof to her friends that she had actually been inside the hotel. “That is why she took my photo,” says Dayanita.

And her mother's passion has been passed on to Dayanita. Today, Dayanita is regarded as one of the best photographers in India. She had come to Kochi to check out the sites of the upcoming Biennale (December, 2014) so that she could provide a work for it.

Fort Kochi is a great venue for a biennale,” she says. “There is so much of history. In Delhi and Mumbai, you would spend so much time commuting. But in Kochi, you can float from one exhibit to the other. The special thing about the Kochi biennale, is that it is artist-run, while the others are mostly run by corporates.”

Sitting on a chair on the lawn of a Fort Kochi hotel, on a sunny morning, Dayanita comes across as charming, witty and sharp. And she has a touch of the old-fashioned about her when you see the camera hanging around her neck.

It is a Haselblad 503. “It is the same model which [astronaut] Neil Armstrong took to the moon in 1969,” says Dayanita. “Haselblad is the king of the cameras. On the road, people come up just to look at it. It has a film roll which only has 12 shots. So I have to be careful about what I shoot.”

Asked why she has remained with an analog camera, when the world has gone digital, Dayanita says, “It slows me down. Photography is a language. It does not depend on what equipment you use. In the end, what only matters is what you do with that language.”

Dayanita has done a lot of things with this language. At this moment, her obsession is paper files. “I never set out to photograph files, but had been to paper factories, libraries, courts, municipal offices, state archives and factory record rooms,” she says.

So when noted author and friend, Sunil Khilnani, came to Delhi to have a look at Dayanita's work, she put out 200 prints on a table for him to see. “Sunil pulled out a few pictures and said, 'File room',” says Dayanita. “He asked me to do more and promised help on a book.” 

Later, an exhibition of these photos, 'Monuments of Knowledge', was held during the opening of the India Institute at King's College in London. And a 88-page book, called 'File Room' has also been brought out.

Some of the other subjects that Dayanita has tackled include the many moods of her transvestite friend, Mona Ahmed, an ashram in Benaras, upper-class family portraits, chairs, industrial spaces and the night.

Interestingly, Dayanita says that photography does not reveal any truths. “Photography is nothing more than a portrait of the time I have spent with a subject and my response to it,” she says. “A photograph is successful if it has evoked something more than what is visible in the frame.”

And because she has been good at evoking something more, her work has been exhibited in places like London, Rome, Madrid, Brussels, Milan, Zurich, Bogota, Berlin and Boston. She is the first Indian to have a solo show at the Hayward Gallery in London. And, in 2012, she represented Germany in the Venice Biennale. “That is because the Germans wanted to show that art is universal,” says Dayanita. Among the awards she has won are the Claus Award in 2008 from the Dutch government for 'artistic and intellectual quality', as well as the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government in 2014. 

Interestingly, Dayanita is a soloist. “I am a soloist not only in my relationships, but also in thought and practice,” she says. That's because I love solitude.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Indian Ulysses

After a successful corporate career, Suresh Joseph has travelled solo numerous times, by car, all over India, setting records and now he is headed towards Europe

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, in November, 2010, Suresh Joseph arrived at the border town of North East Khawdungsei, which is the link between Manipur and Mizoram. He had no place to stay. Being a border town there were no hotels. But soon he spotted a church. Just near it was a house which had the sign, 'Pastor Quarters'.

In front of the house, there were three men working in the yard. As a woman served them tea, Suresh asked her whether he could speak to the pastor.

Suddenly, one of the labourers stood up and said, 'I am the pastor'. 

Rev. R Lalsiamliana was wearing a torn banian and a pair of shorts. Suresh asked whether he could spend the night in the church. Immediately, Lalsiamliana  invited Suresh to stay with him.

"He never asked me who I was," says Suresh. "Later, I had dinner with him, his wife and child. I cannot imagine anyone in a big city doing something like this.”

Suresh had embarked on an all-India trip in a Swift car and was able to touch 28 state capitals and 17 Railway headquarters. The reason for the railway link was because Suresh had been a former Chief Commercial Manager of South Western Railways. Later, he was the CEO of Dubai Ports World, which set up the International Container Transhipment Terminal at Vallarpadam, Kochi.

The journey lasted four months and covered 23,500 kms. In the end, Suresh wrote a book called, ''Ek Swift Bharat Yatra: The Journal of a Railwayman's Journey Through India.' And the trip was an eye-opener for him.

"When you go to a new environment, and meet and stay with people, you become much more tolerant,” says Suresh. “It makes you a humble person."

There were other benefits too. "Since I was travelling alone, I had the chance to introspect about my life, and ponder about the people I had interacted with, over the years. I also had the opportunity to thank God for the tremendous blessings that I received.”

Thereafter, Suresh did several trips, which enabled him to set eight national solo records in the Limca Book of Records. He was the first and the fastest to drive a four-wheeler from Leh to Kanyakumari and back again (7659 kms), the first to complete an expedition from Koteshwar, Gujarat to Bakkhali, West Bengal (6996 kms), and the first to travel from Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh to Koteshwar (3799 kms).

To ensure that he has a successful drive, Suresh follows certain rules. "A driver has to respect the road," he says. "If you drive at breakneck speeds on bad roads, you will end up with accidents or having problems with your vehicle."

Interestingly, Suresh has a symbiotic relationship with the car. "My car is a living being," he says. "I talk to it, like I would, to a partner. I believe that my car has a soul. I have challenged it and it has always come good."

The people have been good, too. “Indians have a great heart," says Suresh. "They don't even want to know who you are before they offer hospitality. Secondly, despite the tremendous diversity, from Jammu and Kashmir, to Goa, to Tamil Nadu and the north-east, the people have a tremendous resilience and fighting spirit. They will do anything to ensure that their family is safe and comfortable.”

Suresh's next road trip, on June 16, is a 75-day 24,000 km journey from Kochi to London, through 27 countries, which includes nations like Nepal, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland and UK.

Suresh will be accompanied by noted Mollywood film director Lal Jose and journalist Baiju Nair. “The trip is expected to cost Rs 75 lakhs, but, thankfully, we have got some good sponsors,” says Suresh.

Asked about his insatiable thirst for travel, Suresh says, "There is a Ulysses in all of us. Unlike most middle-class people, I have been able to satisfy my wanderlust."

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Steadfast Presence

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Achamma Alex talks about her life with the former State Transport Minister Mathew T Thomas 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mr. and Mrs. T. Simon, the uncle and aunt of former State Transport Minister Mathew T Thomas, were looking for a bride from the teaching field for their nephew. They felt that since Mathew was a career politician, he will hardly get time to look after the family. So, if the wife is a teacher, she will have more time and lots of holidays.

When the word spread about this proposal, Annie Abraham and Lily Titus, teachers in the Christian College, at Chengannur, told their colleague, Achamma Alex.

But Achamma had four conditions that needed to be fulfilled before she could get married. “My husband has to be a teetotaller, a believer in God, a man who is not corrupt and will not bargain for dowry,” she says.

And when Achamma met Mathew, at a relative's house, at Kumbanad, in June, 1988, she realised that he fulfilled all the four conditions. “As we talked, I felt that we had similar temperaments and would be able to get along,” says Achamma. 

She was about to say yes, when her father, VJ Alexander, a member of the Janata Party, told her that being a wife of a politician required a lot of sacrifices on the personal front. “He said that I should think hard about it,” says Achamma. However, after much reflection, she eventually said yes.

The marriage took place on September 10, 1988, at the St. Thomas Mar Thoma Church at Tiruvalla. “There was a huge crowd, so we could only give one piece of cake and a cup of tea,” says Achamma.

Many eminent politicians came to the wedding including Baby John, KM Mani and the then chief minister EK Nayanar. “Nayanar Sir told me I should always be by the side of my husband,” says Achamma.

Which she has done for the past 25 years. But it took some time for Achamma to adjust to life as a politician's spouse. “When we got married, the first thing Mathew told me was that I should never wear gaudy sarees,” says Achamma. “He said that he is representing the people [Mathew is a three-time MLA of Tiruvalla] and had to be careful in the way I dressed.”

In the early years, they travelled on a LML Vespa scooter. “When I would get on, Mathew would tell me that I should never hold on to him, since people were watching us all the time,” says Achamma. “In a way we lost our freedom of expression.”

But the media did not lose their freedom of expression. Asked whether she would get upset if her husband was attacked in newspapers or TV channels, Achamma says, “Firstly, I know it is just a game. Secondly, I am confident about Mathew's upright character. We hear a lot of scandals about a lot of politicians, but you will never hear anything about my husband. There is nothing in our home that belongs to other people. It has all been bought with our hard-earned money."

Achamma believes that a politician and a teacher should never have moral lapses. "Because people look up to them," she says. "If you have vices, then I don't think you are the right person to become a leader.”

But Mathew, the State President of the Janatha Dal, seems to be the right leader. He has an unblemished reputation, and spends long hours at work.

Achamma confirms that Mathew is not a domestic-oriented person. “In fact, he is a servant of the people of Tiruvalla,” she says. “And so are we.”

This devotion to society is rare. “I know of many public servants who give more importance to their families,” says Achamma. “Some of them take leave for one or two months to help their children prepare for their class 10 and Plus Two exams.”

However, whenever he gets the opportunity, Mathew does spend time with Achamma and their two daughters, Achu Anna, who is doing her B. Ed., and Ammu Thankam, a Class 12 student. They go for films or take a stroll through the town. Incidentally, Mathew's parents also live with them.

Because of Mathew's focus on serving the people, the responsibility of running the household has fallen squarely on Achamma's shoulders. “When the children fell ill, when they were younger, I had to take them to the hospital,” she says. “And I have to be the hands-on parent to them. There have been moments when I felt a bit panicky. So I would pray to God to give me strength, wisdom and the ability to tackle the issues at home.”

And also at work. Presently, Achamma is the principal of the Christian College at Chengannur. And every now and then she gives advice to her students regarding life and marriage.

I always tell them that marriage is not a child's game,” says Achamma. “In fact, it is a serious affair. And they should never expect everything to be green and red. Sometimes, it can be grey and black. What I am trying to tell them is that they should expect wonderful as well as worse things. If they realise this, they will be able to start a marriage on the right foot. Secondly, they should always pray to God. He is the only one who will be able to guide them when times are bad.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Bureaucrat's Many Avatars

Government official KV Mohankumar moonlights as a novelist, script-writer, and actor

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 3 a.m., on December 8, 2012, the then Collector of Kozhikode KV Mohankumar, along with a team of policemen and revenue officials, stood under a canopy of trees by the side of a road in the town of Feroke. Mohankumar had received a tip that sand, mined illegally from rivers, was being taken away in tipper lorries.

Soon, a tipper lorry was seen in the distance. Mohankumar, along with two officials, stepped on the road and gestured for it to stop. In response, the driver pressed the accelerator. Immediately, Mohankumar and the squad got into an Innova car and gave chase.

The lorry driver sped ahead for a while, then turned suddenly into a bylane and braked. Thanks to the quick thinking of the Innova driver, he braked equally hard. All at once, the bed of the truck rose up and sand was deposited on the road. “We were lucky,” says Mohankumar. “Since we were a bit behind, the sand did not fall on the car and cause injury to us. That was the aim of the driver.” Thanks to the barricade caused by the sand, the lorry driver was able to flee easily.

This was one of Mohankumar's experiences during his day job. But, at night, he takes on another avatar. From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., he is a writer. So far, he has published 14 books, a mix of autobiographical sketches, short-story collections and novels.

The themes of his novels include political satire, social drama, Tantric Buddhism, and the Punnapra Vayalar Communist uprising in Travancore, in October, 1946.

However, the bureaucrat’s life took an interesting turn when Sivan, the father of director Santosh Sivan, asked Mohankumar to write a script based on a short story by Malayalam writer N. Mohanan.

It was about a deaf and dumb child,” says Mohankumar, who is now Commissioner for Rural Development. To know about script-writing, Mohankumar studied the scripts of Jnanpith Award winner MT Vasudevan Nair and acclaimed directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Padmarajan.

Mohankumar's script, which took one month to write, became ‘Keshu’, a children’s film, directed by Sivan. This won the Kerala state as well as National award in 2009 for the best children's film. It was also selected for the Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival in Goa.

Asked the difference between writing novels and scripts, Mohankumar says, “In novel writing, there is a lot of freedom and you have to cater to one reader. But when we write a script, we have to visualise the scenes from the point of view of a mass audience.”

Sometime ago, the noted Mollywood director VK Prakash called and said he wanted to make a film of Mohankumar's first novel, 'Shradha Shesham,’(Beyond salvation). So Mohankumar wrote the script. Just recently the shooting was completed. The film stars Narain and Meera Jasmine.

And, amazingly, the versatile Mohankumar also acted in the film as Meera Jasmine's father. “I love being an actor,” he says. One reason is that acting runs in the family. Mohankumar’s father, K. Velayudhan Pillai, had been an actor in the troupe of famed actor Sebastian Kunjukunnu Bhagavathar.

Meanwhile, Mohankumar has been amazed by the changes in Mollywood. “It has been taken over by the youngsters,” he says. “Earlier, one or two people would enter the industry once in a while. Now there are hundreds of new actors and technicians. It is highly competitive now, but I regard it as a positive change.” 

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

Touching the Soul

Dancer Shoma Kaikini, along with her troupe, 'Nrityanidhi', combines Sufi with Kathak movements to uplift an audience

By Shevlin Sebastian

When dancer Shoma Kaikini went to Nanning, China, to perform in the International Folk Song Art Festival, a few years ago, she felt arrogant. “Our culture was thousands of years old,” she says. “I felt we are the best.” But there were participants from 36 countries including Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Australia, Indonesia, France, Denmark and Argentina. “When I saw the performances of the other countries, I fell flat on my face,” she says. “That was when I realised that the world is filled with so much of art and culture.”

Nevertheless, her Mumbai-based troupe, 'Nrityanidhi', did impress. On the last day, when they stepped out on the stage, the participants of all the countries stood in the wings to watch them perform. “This happened only to us,” says Shoma. And their performance received the maximum applause.

One of the reasons was because of the colourful costumes. “The people loved the jewellery, make-up and hair,” she says. “The audience, which was mostly Chinese, would indicate, through sign language, that they loved our performance. There were tears in their eyes. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

The Nrityanidhi troupe plays a mix of Sufi, Bharatanatyam and Kathak dances, accompanied by soft, meditative and soulful songs.

When I listen to a song, I allow the movement to flow into the dance,” says Shoma, who is the troupe's choreographer. “I tell the dancers that choreography and dance are something that flows from the spirit.”

Shoma and her troupe had recently come to Kochi to give a performance called 'Asmi' ('I am' in Sanskrit) – A Voyage Towards The Self', in which they did dances with a mix of Sufi and Kathak.

The core of Sufism is a never-ending search of the truth, of divine energy,” says Shoma. “In Sufism, you experience a total surrender to God.”

But they danced to songs from contemporary films like 'Maula Mere' from the film, 'Anwar' and 'Iktara' from 'Wake up Sid'. And it turned out to be soulful and tranquility-inducing: the gentle movements of the arms, taking a few steps forward, then back, the pirouetting with other partners, and the playful looks on the faces.

People are under so much stress and strain that our performance gives some kind of peace to them,” says Shoma. Recently, when they performed at Bangalore, a woman came up to Shoma, and said, “It felt like as if your soul had come out of the body, and was travelling among the audience. That was the kind of energy we felt.”

At Kochi, audience member Dr. Puneet Dhar says, “It was a reinvention of Kathak. I have always watched Kathak dances along with live music. This was the first time recorded music was used, but since the acoustics was superb, nothing was missed. I also enjoyed the unusual combination of Sufi and Kathak. The secular mix was heart-warming.”

To have this kind of impact has taken Shoma years of training. She learnt dance from the time she was four years old, thanks to the prodding from her mother. Initially, she learnt Kathak, then Bharatnatyam, and then she returned to Kathak by the time she was 17. For a few years, she performed with her guru Nandita Puri, a Kathak exponent. It was in 2005 that she began Nrityanidhi. “It had been my dream to start something on my own,” she says. This has turned out to be the right move, as 'Nrityanidhi' continues to impact audiences all over. 

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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Unforgettable Pancham

A riveting two-hour performance, 'Pancham...the Immortal Note', highlighted the life and career of Rahul Dev Burman, the legendary Bollywood music composer

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1993, when director Vidhu Vinod Chopra was thinking about getting a music composer for his film, '1942 – A Love Story', he thought of Rahul Dev Burman (nickname: Pancham – the fifth musical note). At that time, Pancham had been in the wilderness for eight years. From the mid 1980s, he had 27 flops in a row. And he was short of confidence. He did not know why the people had rejected him. And it was then that Vidhu approached Pancham out of the blue. He told the film's story and after a week, he went to listen to the tunes.

Pancham began singing a song in the style of the mid 1980s, with a tabla providing the music. Then Pancham stopped and said, “What is your first reaction?”

A disappointed Vidhu said, “You are the finest music director alive today and is this what you are giving me?”

One by one the other musicians left the room. There was only Pancham and Vidhu in the room.

In the sudden silence, Pancham said, “Am I doing the film or not?”

Clearly, this was the lowest point of the legendary Bollywood composer's life.

Vidhu said, “Dada, don't give me this emotion. Give me the music I am seeking from you. And, of course, you are doing the film. You are the best.”

And, eventually, Pancham lived up to Vidhu's confidence. The songs of '1942 – A Love Story' were chart busters and are now regarded as classics. But unfortunately, Pancham was not there to enjoy his redemption. A few weeks before the audio release, Pancham died of a heart attack on January 4, 1994, aged 54.

This interview with Vidhu was shown during a riveting two-hour production, called 'Pancham...the immortal Note', which was staged by the Pune-based Niche Entertainment at the JT Pac, Kochi. It traced the life of the composer from his childhood days till the end.

Pancham spent his childhood in Kolkata under the care of his maternal grandmother,” said Milind Oak, the director and anchor of the show. “At that time, his father Sachin Dev Burman was making his mark in Mumbai as a music composer.”

When the boy had grown up a bit, he would go to Mumbai during the summer vacations and stay with his father. Once playback singer Asha Bhonsle was introduced to a thin fellow. “Pancham has come for his school holidays to Mumbai,” Sachin Dev told Asha. A few months later, Asha again saw Pancham. 

So Asha asked Sachin, “Are there more holidays now?”

Sachin Dev said, “He has failed.” And Pancham stayed on and became an assistant to his father and worked on many films.

Later, he began composing on his own. But it was his fifth (Pancham) film, 'Teesri Manzil' (1966), directed by Nasir Hussain which was a hit. He never looked back. Hit after hit followed. And it was a pleasure to hear the songs – from films like 'Kora Kagaz', 'Kati Patang', 'Amar Prem' and 'Aradhana' – sung with felicity and verve by singers Hrishikesh Ranade, Jitendra Abhyankar, Rama Kulkarni and Priyanka Barve. 

Sometimes, there were dances, done ably by Kunal Phadke and team. And every now and then, there would be video interviews with luminaries like Gulzar, Usha Uthup, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Shankar Mahadevan, Rishi Kapoor, Javed Akhtar Shammi Kapoor and Laxmikant Pyarelal.

And all had praise for Pancham “I have seen 'Padosan' more than 100 times,” says Pyarelal. “But even today if it is shown on any TV channel, I stop all my work and keep looking at the film and listen to the songs, because nobody, other than Pancham, could make music like this.” 

Not many people know that Pancham had a hugely talented orchestra to back him up. They included stars like Louis Banks on the synthesizer and piano, Hari Prasad Chaurasia on the flute, Sultan Khan on the sarangi, and, occasionally, Shiv Kumar Sharma on the santoor.

One reason they worked for him was because he was simple, humble and caring,” says Milind Oak. In fact, when Ranjeet Gazmer, one of Nepal's leading composers, who was nicknamed Kancha bhai by Pancham, had a slipped disc and was bedridden for six months, the latter visited his house every day with food and medicines. Incidentally, Kancha Bhai played the madal (a Nepalese hand drum).

Pancham's career went on and on. In the end, he scored the music for 331 films. These included 292 (Hindi) 31 (Bengali) and the rest in Telugu, Tamil, Oriya, and Marathi.
What was a revelation was that during the Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal, Pancham regularly brought out Bengali albums, in which he himself sang, that were hugely popular.

In his personal life, Pancham was briefly married to Rita Patel, a fan who had met him in Darjeeling. They split up and Pancham's unforgettable 'Musafir Hoon Yaaron' (Parichay), was composed by him, when he was staying at a hotel following the separation. Later, Pancham married Asha, who was six years older, in 1980, but the relationship went through troubled times.

In the end, Pancham's life and career were unforgettable and so was the stage show by Niche Entertainment. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

'A Book of The Times'

Ravi Shankar's 'Book Of Shiva' is a book of the times. The more technology invades our lives, the more dehumanised we are going to feel. And there will come a time when we will go on a desperate search to revive our inner spirituality so that we can feel alive again. In his novel, the main character Asananda is also in search of his inner spirituality. But it is shown outwardly as a search for the Book of Shiva. And as Asananda travels through the holy places of Benaras, Hardwar, Rishikesh and Badrinath, among other places in the Himalayas, he meets all types of people, many of whom have been wounded by life. They in turn tell their stories. So, in essence, this is a novel that abounds with stories within stories.

And Ravi's writing is rich and vivid in its description of people and places. This in-born gift comes as no surprise, since he is the nephew of OV Vijayan, one of Malayalam literature's great writers.

Here are a few insightful sentences:

'If you imagine the universe as a book, age is a paragraph'

'A great teacher is one who teaches nothing and the pupil understands everything.'

'Journeys without hope take you nowhere.'

'You get enlightened by forgetting everything.'

'Some memories are little miracles that light the way on dark and rainy nights.'

'The cremation ground is the only place where all egos end.'

And his descriptions are equally vivid: 

A ruby 'looked like a translucent spider, its belly filled with blood'.

'The sun had spent the day and the spreading fog was drawing its mystery over the garden and the hillside.'

'The opera of prayers from ashrams and temples'

What is remarkable is that apart from his writing skills – he is the author of three previous novels – the New-Delhi based Ravi is also a witty and satirical cartoonist of the New Indian Express, of which he is the Executive Editor. And he oversees the highly popular and readable Sunday magazine. 

So clearly, Ravi is a man of many parts, who is able to balance beautifully the temporal and the spiritual. 

(Ravi's book is available 
(Review posted on