Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Love bridges the age gap

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Hema talks about life with the musician Ramesh Narayan

Photo by Kaviyoor Santosh 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Hema was living with her aunt and uncle, while she was doing her pre-degree course at the Krishna Menon Memorial government women's college in Kannur.

My aunt and uncle were very interested in music,” says Hema. Both of them knew the musician Ramesh Narayan. “They would keep talking about how he was not getting any marriage proposals, because he was lame, and had no proper job as a musician,” says Hema. Ramesh, at that time, was earning his living by giving music classes.

I kept hearing about this,” says Hema, a singer herself. Over a period of time, Hema began to feel a sympathy for Ramesh, although she had not met him. One day, she told her aunt, “I am willing to get married to him.”

Her aunt and parents were happy with her decision, but her relatives were against the idea since Ramesh was physically challenged. Anyway, in August, 1990, Ramesh came and and met Hema at her home in the village of Kalliasseri in Kannur. He wore a coffee-coloured kurta and had shoulder-length hair, apart from a rudraksha around his neck. “He looked more like a swami,” says Hema.

Ramesh asked Hema to sing a song. She opted to sing a devotional song called 'Thiruvaranmula Krishna' from the album, 'Thulasi Theertham'.

Ramesh liked her singing and complimented Hema. Soon, they decided to tie the knot, even though Hema was only 17, while Ramesh was 30.

The marriage took place on December 30, 1990, at Ramesh's home town of Koothuparambu. There was no honeymoon, but the couple went to the Moogambika Temple and prayed there.

Ramesh's mother, Narayani, a widow, had one request. “She told me that the only thing she wanted from me was that I should look after her son, and she would do the rest,” says Hema.

Which Hema followed to the letter. “In the initial years, I would be with Ramesh all the time,” she says. “He would play the sitar a lot. I would carry his instrument to all the concerts. It was a nice time.”

But Hema had to make a lot of adjustments. Sometimes, students would come home late at night to learn music from Ramesh. Inevitably, they would sleep over. “I found it difficult to adjust to this loss of privacy,” says Hema. “But, as time passed, I got used to it.”

She also got used to Ramesh's absence because of his busy recording career. When family events, like a wedding, would come up, he would not be able to attend. “I would get upset about it,” says Hema. “But then I realised that it is not possible to stop a recording all of a sudden.”

Asked about her husband's qualities, Hema says, “Ramesh is always helping me, especially in the kitchen. He knows how to make rice, sambhar and vegetable curries. When I got married, I did not know cooking.”

In fact, much later, Ramesh told Hema he had three children to bring up. One was Hema and the other two were their daughters.

The couple's two children, Madhuvanthi, 21, and Madhusree, 14, are also singers, like their father and mother. Incidentally, Hema has done 15 years of training in Carnatic and Hindustani music, perhaps the only woman in Kerala to do so. The children received training from their parents from their early years.

In fact, whenever there is free time, we spend it by singing together as a family at home,” says Hema.

At heart, Ramesh is a homebody. “There are many artists who, after their work, will go to bars or spend time with friends,” says Hema. “But Ramesh comes home directly.”

One reason is that he does not like to eat or drink from outside, not even a cup of tea. “At home, he likes to eat dal and chappatis,” says Hema. “He takes very little rice. Chappatis are his favourite. He also eats lots of fruits. At night, it is usually dosas.”

Meanwhile, husband and wife sometimes have tiffs. But it is always Hema who steps forward to have a compromise. “Even when I feel that Ramesh is at fault, I cannot bear not to speak to him after a while,” she says.

Hema could also not bear the tension when, on October 8, 1994, Ramesh decided to set a record of singing non-stop for 30 hours during the Soorya Festival at Thiruvananthapuram. “I suffered a lot when he was singing,” says Hema. “He hardly drank or ate anything. I was scared about what would happen to his health, although a doctor was doing regular check-ups. At that time, my eldest daughter was only two years old.”

And yet when Ramesh set the record Hema was happy. “I was actually thrilled beyond words,” she says.

Then, on January 18, 2013, at the Film and Television Institute at Pune, to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema, Ramesh sang non-stop for 36 hours. This achievement was later included in the Limca Book Of Records. “This time I did not feel nervous at all,” says Hema, with a smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Mother passes on her love for reading

By Shevlin Sebastian

My mother was only 18 years old when she got married in Kerala and went to live with my father in Kolkata. Since it was a new place, it was not surprising that she was taken aback by the culture, food, language and customs. And she struggled to adjust.

During the day when my father went to work, my mother felt lonely. And that was when she picked up her first paperback from a shelf of books on my father’s table.

And my mother never stopped reading ever since.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was to see my mother with her nose in a book. I must have been five at that time. It seemed to me a pleasurable activity, because my mother had a peaceful look on her face.

But, recently, my mother, while reminiscing about my childhood, gave me another image. When I was a one-year-old baby, she would sit on an armchair, place me on her lap, and read the newspaper. So, as a tiny tot, I would stare at print for several minutes every day.

It would have been a soothing moment for me: leaning against my mother I could probably feel her heartbeat. And then there was this pleasant silence, punctuated now and then by the rustle of the pages as it was being turned.

My mother said, “You were the perfect baby. You never cried or made a fuss. In fact, once you went to sleep at 7 p.m., you would only awaken at 7 a.m. So I could safely leave you with the maid and go for a night show with your father.”

When I was seven or eight years old, we went for holidays to Kerala and spent time in my grandparents’ house at Muvattupuzha.

My grandfather suffered from glaucoma and could not see. But he was always keen to know the news. So my mother would sit next to him and read the entire newspaper: from snippets, to local news, editorials, national and international reports, and on to the sports pages.

I would sit next to my mother and listen to her. The entire exercise took about 50 minutes.

Is it any wonder that, with this sort of background, I became a voracious reader, as well as a print journalist?

I have spent many hours in libraries at Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Kochi. I enjoyed the meditative silence that was present in reading rooms. Nobody disturbed you. You sat alone, with the magazine and your thoughts. The cacophony that characterised life in India was kept outside the room, more so, if it was an air-conditioned hall like the United States Information Service library in Kolkata.

Perhaps this activity was also an unconscious reminder of the time I spent with my mother, enjoying her love and companionship.

Today, at 78, my mother no longer reads books, but is an avid reader of newspapers. I still devour magazines, newspapers, books, and do relentless reading on the Internet.

And my children, a boy and a girl, are picking up the habit. Both are keen readers, but my daughter prefers to read on the Kindle.

Time goes on, but I silently thank my mother for this wonderful gift of reading that she has passed on to me… and future generations.

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“I like to watch Navas on stage”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Rehna talks about life with the mimicry artist Kalabhavan Navas

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, when comedian Suraj Vejaramoodu called up mimicry artist Kalabhavan Navas, his wife Rehna picked up the phone. She has a husky voice. Sooraj thought that Navas was impersonating a boy. Immediately, he took on the voice of a girl and said that he wanted to talk to Navas.

Rehna said, “I am Navas's wife.”

Sooraj said, “Son, please pass the phone to Navas. I need to talk to him urgently.”
This went on for a couple of minutes.

An exasperated Rehna said, “I am going to put the phone down.”

Suddenly, Sooraj asked, in his own voice, “Are you really Navas's wife?”

Yes,” she said.

I am so sorry,” said Sooraj. “I thought that Navas was teasing me by talking in a boy's voice.”

This has happened earlier, also. When she was active as an actress, producers would call the house. When Rehna picked up the phone, they would immediately say, “Son, please pass the phone to Rehna.”

At her home at Choondy, near Aluva, Rehna smiles and says, “I have got used to it.”

The house is set in sylvan surroundings. There are coconut trees and jackfruit and all types of plants. The walls are made of mud, so there is a cooling effect inside. A small gap in the roof in the middle of the house ensures that rainfall falls in, creating a beautiful and cascading effect.

Navas and his family first saw Rehna at a dance programme in Changaramkulam in December, 1999. Soon after, Navas' brother, Niyas, came to the house with a marriage proposal. But Rehna's father, Hassanar, the stage actor, was reluctant to say yes, because his elder daughter, Swapna, was not yet married.

In the end, Navas waited for three years, till Swapna got married, before he tied the knot with Rehna on October 27, 2002, at Vadakanacherry.

It was a hectic time for Rehna. She had just finished shooting for the hit television serial, 'Sthree', on a Friday and had to set out early in the morning on Sunday to go to Vadakanacherry for the wedding. When they returned to her home at Aluva, at 10 p.m., Rehna was so tired that she went to sleep straightaway.

That was how I spent the wedding night,” she says. But at 4 a.m., Navas woke her up saying that he had a sore throat and asked for a cup of tea. “I was so dazed, that it took me some time to realise that there is a man sleeping next to me and he is my husband,” says Rehna.

Over the years, Rehna has developed an admiration for Navas. “Nothing affects him,” says Rehna. “He is super cool. But I am a hyper person, especially when I have to deal with the children.”

They are Naharin, 10, and sons, Rihan, 6, and Ridwan 1 ½). “Navas is not strict with the children,” she says. “He is more like a friend.”

Perhaps the one negative is that like all artistes Navas spends a lot of time thinking. “When he is alone, he is busy writing a script, for his stage shows, or studying his roles,” says Rehna. “So when I tell Navas something important he will just stare at me and nod. I assume that he has understood what I have said, but the next day when I ask him about him, he will have no memory of it.”

But when he is not working, every now and then, the family goes to see films at the PVR Cinema in Lulu Mall or the Oberon Mall in Kochi. Sometimes, they go for short vacations. And end up having unusual experiences.

A couple of years ago, they went to Wayanad for a short vacation in their Tata Innova. When they reached Kottakal, Navas discovered that he had forgotten to take his purse which contained the money, as well as the ATM cards. Rehna also did not have any money. So she suggested that they return home.

It was about 7 p.m. But Navas had no mood to turn back. They sat for several minutes wondering what to do. Then suddenly, Rehna showed him the gold rings that she was wearing.

Navas then came up with a creative solution. He took a couple of rings, went to a jewellery shop, sold it, got the money and they carried on with their vacation. “It was so funny that I laughed till I cried,” she says. “Navas is crazy, but a loving person.”

Rehna also loves to watch her husband perform. “I have a great affection for stage artistes, since my own father was one. My father would say a lot of dialogues, had a good voice and looked nice on stage. So I feel very happy when I see Navas perform.”

But she does not feel the same excitement when she sees him in films.

There is far less freedom while acting in a movie,” she says. “The area which you can move around is fixed, and you have to listen to the director. But on the stage you have the freedom to move around, and can exploit your talent to the maximum.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Throw Of The Dice

Writer-Director Geetu Mohandas' indie film, 'Liar's Dice', has made a mark on the international film festival circuit

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the first day of the shoot of the indie film, 'Liar's Dice', writer-director Geetu Mohandas took images of the heroine Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa), working as a sweeper at a homestay run by a Bengali in the remote village of Chitkul in Himachal Pradesh. After the shot was canned, angry villagers swarmed around Geetu and told her, “You cannot shoot this. Our women don't work for other people. They only work for themselves.”

Meanwhile, the production members told Geetu, “If you listen to them now, they will not allow you to complete the film on schedule. They will dictate terms all the time.”

Geetu had to take a split-second decision. She listened to her intuition, and said, I am going to take it off the script.” Then she told the villagers, “Tell me what this woman does. Write the first part for me.”

Thereafter, the excited villagers took Geetu and her crew to the most interesting spaces where the women worked. There was one particular spot, where they stacked hay, with leaves and sticks, before winter arrived, on a particular tree, high up on a mountain. “That became the opening shot of the film,” says Geetu.

'Liar's Dice' traces the journey of Kamala, along with her three-year-old daughter, Manya, as well as a goat, from Chitkul, via stops at Shimla and Chandigarh, in search of her missing husband at Delhi. Along the way, she is befriended by an Army deserter Nawazuddin (played ably by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and the film highlights the tension and distrust between the two. “It is also a love story,” says Geetu.

But, at bottom, it is a political film. “I got the idea while reading a newspaper item, a few years ago, about migrant labourers and their displacement,” says Geetu. “It was about men from the interior parts of the country who were shown the big dreams of city life, and how they were recruited and the terrible conditions that they lived in. And if a calamity occurred, they became nameless faces or a statistic. They were never identified by name or the place they belonged to.”

The film has made a mark on the international film festival circuit. This year, it has won the Special Jury Award at the Sophia International Film Festival, as well as Best Film and Best Actress at the New York Indian Film Festival. Then it won the Bronce Alhambra award at the Granada Cines del Sur Film Festivaland National Awards for Best Actress and Best Cinematography for Rajeev Ravi, one of Bollywood's leading cinematographers, as well as the spouse of Geetu.

Not surprisingly, the film has also received positive reviews. “Geetu makes an assured debut,” writes Dennis Harvey in 'Variety'. “This Indian road drama is interesting to look at, and nicely observed.” Thus far, it has been screened in 22 festivals, with acceptances from another 30.

It's overwhelming when your film is well-received,” says Geetu. “When you make a movie, you don't have awards in your mind. You just want to produce it within the allotted budget and make a good film.” 

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

All About A Nose

The Lokadharmi Theatre enacted a play, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku' (The World-Renowned Nose), based on a story by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. The group has staged more than 40 plays till now

Photo of Director Chadradasan by Suresh Nampoothiri 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the start of the play, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku' (The World-Renowned Nose), held recently at the JT Pac, Kochi, 14 men and women, dressed in black T-shirts and trousers glide on to the stage. The stage has very little props: a wooden door, a stool, and a few boxes.

The actors carry on making slow-motion movements. Then all of a sudden all of them wear masks which are placed on a low box on the stage. “The idea to wear the masks is to make the faces look exaggerated,” says director Chandradasan, of the Lokadharmi Theatre.

As for the reason behind all the actors wearing black costumes, he says, “To project the face, black is the best colour. That is why I avoided all the other colours. And I wanted to give the feeling that everybody is the same.”

Chandradasan also decided to do away with scenery, costumes, and music. “It was a challenge for the actors to sustain the interest of the audience, without such tools,” says Chandradasan. But they did succeed in holding the audience's attention with elaborate movements and gestures.

The script is based on Vaikom Mohammed Basheer's classic story, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku', which was published in 1954. In the play, it is about a chef who works in a hotel. On his 24th birthday, his nose starts to grow. And it only stops growing when it reaches the navel.

People flock to see him. The owner has no option but to sack him, since the commotion is hampering his business. Then for several days, the man and his mother are starving. Then slowly, the mother realises the value of the nose. She succumbs to the temptation of accepting money and allowing people to see her freak son. 

Meanwhile, political parties try to get him on their side. And the media has a field day covering all the brouhaha.

The story is relevant to our contemporary life,” says Chandradasan. “It reveals the manipulation of a person by politicians and the media. And how all this has an effect on the man.”

Three years later, the long-nosed man has become an important figure in society. “He becomes rich and famous,” says Chandradasan. “Then he acts in a film. At rock bottom the play is a social satire.”

Interestingly, it is a satire that uses a mix of Malayalam and gibberish. “Basheer has created a lot of gibberish in his work,” says Chandradasan. “It was an extension of what he has done.”

As for the cast, the highlight for them was the presence of superstar Mohanlal, who is the chairman of JT Pac. “Most of the cast members knew he was present, because he was sitting in the front row,” says Chandradasan. 

After the show, the actor came up on stage and publicly complimented the cast. “It was a well-choreographed play, and the actors gave a fine performance,” said Mohanlal. Some overwhelmed cast members went and touched Mohanlal's feet.

Chandradasan started the Lokadharmi Theatre in 1991, along with 25 other enthusiasts at Tripunithara. Today, there is a group of 150 actors and actresses, who come from all walks of life. So there are students, advocates, engineers, headload workers, painters and teachers.

Chandradasan, himself, is a teacher of chemistry at St. Albert's College, Kochi.

So far, Lokadharmi has staged more than 40 plays. They include 'Chattan Kattu' (an Indianised adaptation of 'The Tempest' by William Shakespeare), 'Poranadi' ('The Outcast' by KN Panicker), 'Medea' (the Indian adaptation of the Greek classic by Euripides), 'Macbeth' by Shakespeare and 'Karnabharam' (The Anguish of Karnna – a Sanskrit play by Bhasa).

In fact, 'Karnabharam' won best stage design, best costume design and best play in the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, 2008. When it was staged in Delhi, one of India's most popular playwrights, Habib Tanvir told Chandradasan, “I enjoyed every inch of the play.” Says a moved Chandradasan, “It was the best compliment that I have received in my career.”

Lokadharmi also runs 'Mazhavillu', a children's theatre at Changampuzha Park, Kochi. Boys and girls between 10 and 17 do improvisations, games, play readings and other theatre activities.

However, the team faces an uphill struggle because of the poor status of theatre in Kerala. “The audience does not have the habit of buying a ticket,” says Chandradasan. “They want to watch a play for free. In our society, people pay for everything, except for theatre. The group is finding it difficult because there are no sponsors, and no help from the government.”

Another problem is the lack of space to perform. So Chandradasan has invested his own money, around Rs 1 crore, to start a theatre in the Vypeen Islands. “It will be a place where research, training and performances will take place,” he says. 

And he is going to ensure it is a successful venture. In March, 2015, Chandradasan, who has won a six-month Fulbright Fellowship for Professional and Academic Excellence, will be going to the USA to study how theatre is managed there. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Lifelong Crush

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Preethi talks about life with the actor Shiju

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One weekend, when Preethi was in Class 12, she saw a CD of the film, 'Ishtamaanu Nooru Vattam' at her home in Kuwait City. And she noticed a tall and handsome actor who acted in the film. “I developed a crush,” she says. “He was so good-looking.”

A few years later, Preethi got a job as an air-hostess in Kuwait Airways. She was assigned to the Kuwait-Chennai sector. At the Chennai airport, on February 28, 2008, she spotted Shiju. He wore a yellow T-shirt and black jeans. The Chennai-based Shiju had flown in from Hyderabad, where he did regular work in Telugu films.

She approached Shiju and said, “Hi, my name is Preethi. I am a Malayali, and have seen your movies.”

After a few pleasantries, they exchanged mobile numbers.

One day later, Shiju called Preethi and said, “I like you.” She got excited. “I was thrilled to get a call from a celebrity,” says Preethi. “Clearly, he was interested in me.” For the next few days, they spoke a lot on the phone, usually late at night.

A week later, Shiju proposed marriage to Preethi. It was at that time that she discovered that Shiju is a Muslim while she is a Christian. When Preethi confided in her younger sister, Priya, the latter was apprehensive. “Priya told me to be careful, because Shiju is an actor, and because the religions are different,” says Preethi. “But I fell for his looks. After talking to him so often, I also realised that he was a 'paavam' guy.”

Preethi asked for some time from Shiju to make a decision. But that turned out to be very short. In three days, without seeking permission from her mother, Mariamma, a widow, who lived in Kuwait, she said yes. Later, when she told her mother about her decision, Mariamma disagreed. She decided to fly out, on December 6, 2008, to their home town of Thiruvananthapuram to find out what was happening.

But on December 4, Preethi left her grandparents' home, without telling anybody, and met up with Shiju at Kochi. On December 8, they had a registered marriage.

A few days later, Shiju called up Mariamma and said, “Aunty, Preethi is safe with me.” Mariamma had no choice but to accept the situation.

Preethi is a lively person, who smiles and talks easily at her apartment in Kochi. After getting an English literature degree from Mar Ivanios College in Thiruvananthapuram, she did a two-year course in legal studies at the George Washington University, USA. She is also an accomplished Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer. Today, she does business in polymer jewellery which she imports from the US, but her mind and heart are focused on her tall (6'2”) and handsome husband.

Shiju is enormously patient,” says Preethi. “I have a hot temper. I will shout and scream but he will listen calmly. He is a sweet and forgiving person.”

Other qualities: “He helps me a lot in the kitchen,” says Preethi. “Shiju is very good at cooking and can make a good fish curry as well as a chicken biriyani.”

As for his drawbacks, Preethi says, “Shiju is a forgetful person. I have to tell him to do one thing more than ten times. He is also a typical artist who lives in his own world most of the time. The other day, he returned from Hyderabad, and immediately put on a CD to watch a film, which will be re-made in Telugu. I was sitting next to him but he completely forgot my presence.”

The couple have a four-year-old daughter Muskan. “Father and daughter are very close,” says Preethi. “If he is not at home, every night Muskan will call and talk to her father. She misses him a lot. They will play games on the laptop and see animation films like 'How to train your dragon 2'.”

Incidentally, when Muskan was born on December 1, 2009, Preethi took a Muslim name. A nikaah took place at Shiju's home town of Kundara, 14 kms from Kollam. “It was a grand function where all the relatives were invited,” says Preethi. “So my daughter had a rare experience. She was able to attend her parents' wedding.”

During their free time, the family likes to see 'first day, night show' movies. The recent films they saw included 'Bangalore Days' and 'Angry Babies'. And when Preethi sees Shiju's films, she offers a critique. Her favourite is 'Polytechnic', in which Shiju acts as a villain. “There is a nice comic sequence in which he chases Bhavana,” she says.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Preethi says, “There should be an understanding between the spouses. Try to know the pluses and minuses of your spouse. 
The husband should also do the same. These days marriages are 50/50 sharing.”

Preethi agrees that most problems in today's marriages arise because the wife is also working. “A girl should have a career, but she should also take care of the responsibilities at home,” says Preethi. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Monday, July 14, 2014

Helping the cause of autism in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Kiran Bedi (left) with Simmi Santha 

Simmi Santha was taken aback by the visible stress on Reena Mathew's face at an interaction in Kochi. But the reasons were not far to seek. “Reena was desperate to get the right treatment for her eight-year-old autistic son, Vinu,” says Simmi, a behavioural therapist from Toronto, Canada. “Apart from that, her personal life is in a shambles.”

Reena had fallen in love with Roy Mathew and got married. But when their child was born, both got a shock when it was revealed that Vinu was autistic. After two years, Roy divorced Reena. Now he is married again and has a child.

Reena has been left alone to fend for her son,” says Simmi. “She is devastated and does not know what to do. In fact, she seems to be heading towards a deep depression.”

But help is at hand. Simmi is starting a clinic for autism at her mother's home town of Mallapally in Pathanamthitta district. “This is a humble beginning,” says Simmi. “Later, I hope to set up more clinics through the length and breadth of Kerala. The state needs an advanced health care for autistic children, as it is there in the West.”

The inauguration ceremony will take place on Monday at Kochi, in the presence of former IAS officer Kiran Bedi. The clinic is called the 'Reeta Peshawaria Centre for Autism'.”

Simmi, who grew up in Rourkela, did her bachelor’s in mental retardation at the National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped at Secunderabad, where one of her teachers was Dr Reeta Peshawaria-Menon. Unfortunately, Reeta passed away, of breast cancer on July 14, 2012. Not many people know that Reeta is Kiran Bedi's sister.

Kiran Bedi will also be releasing Simmi's ‘Manual for parents and caregivers’, which has been brought out with the help of the Rs 1 lakh Reeta Peshawaria Fellowship Award which Simmi won in 2014.

I want to create an awareness among parents in Kerala that their child is differently abled,” says Simmi. “He is not ready to meet you on your terms, but on his. An autistic child understands things in a different way and has different abilities. The best example is Sukesh Kuttan [of Idea Star Singer fame].”

(Some names have been changed) 

 (The New Indian Express, Kerala Edition)

Friday, July 11, 2014

​“Pakistan is not ready for peace with India”

Prof. TV Paul, of McGill University, Canada, has explored the country in depth in his engaging book, 'The Warrior State – Pakistan In The Contemporary World'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

“One of the major grudges that Pakistanis hold against Indians is the loss of Eastern Pakistan, which became the new country of Bangladesh, in 1971, with the help of India,” says TV Paul, a Malayali, who is the James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “They consider it as an act of perfidy that needs to be avenged.”

Paul says that there is a feeling of betrayal in Pakistan. “It is like two brothers dividing their ancestral property, and one not getting enough and feeling unhappy,” says Paul, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “Pakistanis feel that, during the 1947 Partition, they should have received more money, the whole of Kashmir, and more areas of Punjab and Bengal.”

Thanks to India's huge size, an insecure Pakistan wants to have strategic parity. “But that is difficult to achieve because they are economically unequal states,” says Paul. “So Pakistan has become friends with the USA and China to balance off India.”

The challenge for the Narendra Modi government will be to break down these barriers that have been created during the past 66 years. “It will take a lot of effort,” says Paul. “But I don't think Pakistan is ready for peace with India.”
And it does not help that Pakistan is one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world now. That's because the security services have created a monster called the Taliban, which they are unable to control. 

The insurgents have created an uncertainty of life in Pakistan by their bold attacks, like the one at the Karachi airport on June 8th,” says Paul. “So people are not able to enjoy any degree of security as well as support from the state. Their daily lives are a challenge.”

And the Taliban could wreak havoc if they could get access to any one of the 110 nuclear warheads that Pakistan has. “This is a major concern for the international community,” says Paul. “However, there are two things that prevent this possibility.”

One is the 'Permissive Action Links' technology which the US has given to Pakistan. This prevents unauthorised arming or use of a nuclear weapon.

The second attribute is that the weapons are not mated. This means the components are kept separately. “So the Army will need a bit of time to assemble them,” says Paul. “However, the militants will try to capture some of these facilities, with the possible help from the jihadists within the army or the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) who have an interest to put the weapons in the wrong hands.”

All these and more have been elaborated on in Paul's lucidly-written book, 'The Warrior State – Pakistan In The Contemporary World', published recently by Random House India.

And his book makes it clear that the military continues to call the shots in Pakistan. “For any major initiative, with respect to India, Afghanistan, or the Taliban, the military takes the final decision,” says Paul. “The civilian government has been trying to get some autonomy, especially in foreign affairs and defence, but with limited success.”

However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been able to appoint General Raheel Sharif, his choice, as chief of the army staff. But whether Sharif will be able to transform the administration is yet to be seen. “For that to happen, the military has to agree on many things,” says Paul.
Meanwhile, the silver lining has been the judiciary. “Earlier, the judiciary used to act as the third arm of the government, but now it has shown an activism, which has kindled hope,” says Paul.

But even even as it is trying to send [former President] Pervez Musharraf to jail, the likely possibility is that the government will send him into exile. “So, it is unclear whether the judiciary can bring about fundamental reforms,” says Paul. “The lawyers who were demanding Musharraf's ouster were the same ones who applauded Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer.”

Taseer had appealed for a pardon for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. “So there is a divisive tendency among the people,” says Paul.

The country is not only divided, but poor. This, despite getting $73.1 billion in aid from several international sources, between 1960 and 2012.

Unfortunately, most of the aid went for military purposes. “Pakistan bought several weapons, and a lot of the cash went into the coffers of the military and the civilian elite,” says Paul. “The funds were not used for education, economic development or poverty reduction. In the end the country has remained poor.”

Even being a one-religion country has not helped. “The use of Islam has failed to pacify the class and ethnic divisions,” says Paul. “Economic development has been uneven. Some ethnic groups are less successful than the others. Overall, it is a grim situation.” 
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Strokes of Love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Reena talks about life with the artist Jitish Kallat, who is the curator of the Kochi-Muziris 
Biennale, 2014

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day in February, 2005, artist Jitish Kallat went to the Khandelwal Nursing home in Bandra, Mumbai to see his wife, Reena. She was nine months pregnant.
When he entered the room, he saw that his wife was in deep pain. As he reached forward to console her, Jitish fainted and fell on the bed. It took a while for Jitish to be revived.

The pregnancy had been an overwhelming experience for him. “I remember how wonderstruck Jitish was when he saw the first sonography,” says Reena.

And despite the fainting fit, Jitish was present when Reena gave birth to a boy called Ahaan. “The birth of Ahaan was the high point of our lives,” says Reena.

Jitish and Reena had been classmates at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. But it was not a typical romance. “It was about sharing our interests and spending time, more in libraries than anywhere else,” says Reena. “We would visit galleries, and meet friends from the theatre and art worlds. There was a lot of learning, growth and mutual understanding.”

But Reena did not agree with all that Jitish said or did. Inspired by the classic manifesto on art by American sculptor Claes Oldenburgh, Jitish and a fellow student did a performance in the class, where they mocked the JJ School and insinuated that it was 20 years behind, in terms of creativity and outlook.

I disagreed with Jitish about how it was carried out,” says Reena. It was during their intense arguments about this that they realised that they had deep feelings for each other. But it was not going to be easy. While Jitish is a Malayali, Reena is a Punjabi. “Luckily, our families did not oppose us when we decided to get married,” says Reena.

It took place on September 12, 1999, three years after they graduated from the JJ School. Because Jitish's father had passed away, a year earlier, it was a low-key wedding, which was held at the Kochu Guruvayur temple at Matunga, Mumbai. “But my family was worried about our economic prospects,” says Reena. “In the 1990s, the art market was very small. In fact, we began staying in a one-room flat, and expected to make a modest living for a long time.”

But things have worked out well, thanks to a booming art market. Today, the couple live in a 2000 sq. ft. apartment in upmarket Bandra. Both Jitish and Reena have thriving careers and have exhibited all over the world.

So, they have been to places like Havana, New York, Venice, Gothenburg in Sweden and the Laurentian mountains of Southern Quebec, Canada.

Those mountains were special,” says Reena. “Spending time in nature was wonderful, because it is a rare experience when you live in a city like Mumbai. We are very grateful for the opportunities life has given to us.”

But, as is well known, it is not easy for two artists to live together. “A lot of people ask me whether there is an intense competition between us,” says Reena. “Honestly, we have our share of disagreements, but the fact is that we have learned so much from each other, shared so much, and wished the best for the other. And that has helped us to preserve the relationship.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Reena says, “Jitish is a sensitive person. He has been actively involved in the parenting of our child, Ahaan. For example, if our son is not eating, Jitish will invent a game and Ahaan will be so engrossed in playing it, that he is unaware that he is gobbling down the food. Jitish has the ability to make tasks very playful for Ahaan.”

Jitish has also been supportive of Reena. “In fact, he has been very respectful of my own career,” she says. “When I was focused on motherhood, Jitish would keep reminding me that I was far too talented, and that I should remain in touch with the art.”

Jitish, who is the curator of the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, is also a passionate man. “He invests his heart and soul in whatever he is doing,” says Reena. “What also helps is that Jitish has strong will power and determination. And that is why he has been successful.”

But Jitish is not very successful in keeping the house clean. “He is clumsy, and throws things about, but I have got used to it,” says Reena, with a smile.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Reena says, “Do not have too many expectations before a marriage. What you sow in the marriage that you will reap. If your attitude is to only take from a relationship it will not work Lastly, you should enjoy all the challenges that life throws at you.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Monday, July 07, 2014

'She' rules the Roads

The Kerala State Government's Gender Park has initiated She Taxis, a popular scheme where women own and drive their taxis. And the customers are women

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Suma K. Nair by Manu R. Mavelil

It is 10.30 p.m. An Ertiga car glides into the Info Park at Thiruvananthapuram and stops in front of the branch office of a US-based IT firm. Soon, a group of women, in their early twenties, get into the taxi which will take them to their homes after the evening shift.

Once inside the car, the women have a freewheeling conversation about office politics, love affairs, plans for the future, recipes and movies. Sometimes, the driver joins in. It would seem like an ordinary taxi ride back home, except for one important difference: the driver is a lady. Her name is Suma K. Nair. And the taxi, which she owns, is called a She Taxi.

This concept was initiated by the Gender Park, an institution which is promoted by the Department of Social Justice of the Kerala state government. The idea grew out of a murder of a 23-year-old girl, Sowmya, on February 1, 2011 by a man called Govindachamy, while she was travelling in an empty compartment of a train from Kochi to Shoranur. Not surprisingly, the killing rocked the state.

And provoked sombre reflection at the Gender Park. “We thought about how to provide safe transport for women at night,” says Dr. PTM Sunish, the CEO. “At night, even if a woman calls for a taxi in the hopes of enjoying a safe journey, she may not be able to do so, because the male driver is capable of violence.”

In She Taxis, as the name indicates, all the drivers are women. And they have been provided with adequate security. “The cab and the control room, which is run by a private firm, Rain Concert Technologies, are connected 24/7,” says Sunish. “The control room is also connected to the police and emergency services like the ambulance and fire force.”

An alarm has also been installed inside the car. In case of an attack, the driver can activate it, which will set off a siren, that will be relayed to the control room. “This will make clear that the driver is in danger,” says Sunish.

Ever since the scheme was unveiled in December, 2013, there have not been any untoward incidents. The 31-year-old MS Sari, a She Taxi driver, smiles when asked about the dangers of driving at night. “No, I have no fears whatsoever,” she says. “The security systems are good. I have travelled safely to Kottayam, Kochi and Alleppey.”

Thus far, 23 taxis are operating in Thiruvananthapuram and another eight in Kochi. “We get far too many calls than the number of cabs we have,” says MK Muneer, the Minister for Social Justice. “To fill the lacunae, we will need a lot more drivers.”

So how does one become a driver? “Advertisements are put in the newspapers,” says Muneer. “During the interviews what we look for is whether the woman has a passion for driving. Otherwise it is difficult to do the job.”

Suma loves driving and has been doing so for the past ten years. The wife of a lawyer and the mother of two teenage children, Suma, 44, took a loan from a bank, and bought the Ertiga for Rs 9.4 lakh. She began driving on February 18, and has been working 24/7 ever since.

I get five to six calls a day,” she says. “Most of the time, it is for trips in and around the city.” The charge is Rs 250 per hour for a maximum of 10 kms. Thereafter, it is Rs 14 per km.

As a woman, she bonds easily with her customers, who include doctors, engineers, advocates and housewives. Recently, an 80-year-old woman, Vijaylakshmi, arrived from Singapore, for Ayurvedic treatment. Suma took her all over the city, including temples and shops. “Vijaylakshmi was happy that I was there for her throughout her stay,” says Suma.

Meanwhile, the idea is catching on. In March, the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, in consultation with the Gender Park, introduced five She taxis in the city. Other cities which have expressed interest include Bhopal, Bangalore and Delhi.

A confident Dr. KM Abraham, Additional Chief Secretary, of the Social Justice Department, says that She Taxis will engender a social transformation among women.

Suma agrees. “I feel a sense of freedom and empowerment whenever I am behind the wheel,” she says. 

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