Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eyes Wide Open

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Yvonne talks about life with the noted ophthalmologist and Padma Shri winner Dr. Tony Fernandes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony

One day, Mabel Fernandes was talking to her neighbour Dr. George Joseph. She told George that her son, Tony, an ophthalmologist, had returned from London and was working in the Madurai Medical College. “He has a house to stay, and a boy to cook his meals, but he is all alone,” she said. “I think it is time for him to get married.”

George immediately suggested a girl he knew, Yvonne Collis, who was studying in the Medical College at Kozhikode.

Can you tell me something about the family?” said Mabel.

I don’t know much, but her father is the owner of ships in Ernakulam,” said George.

Oh, I know him, that's Freddy Collis,” said Mabel. “He is a distant relative.”

And so, after sending feelers, it was arranged for Tony to see Yvonne at her home in Ernakulam. When they met, Yvonne’s first impression was positive. “Tony was handsome and had curly black hair,” she says. “But I was worried about his height. He was just a little taller than me.”

Tony also liked her and so the families agreed to the marriage. It took place on July 6, 1966, at the St. Joseph's church in Thiruvananthapuram. After the wedding mass, Tony, 32, did something which Yvonne, 23, has never forgotten. “When we had to go to the office to sign the wedding register, Tony told me to lead the way,” says Yvonne. “That was so rare. It is always the boy who walks ahead, especially in our patriarchal society. I was impressed and thought, 'He is a nice man.'”

Yvonne joined Tony at Madurai a few months later, after she completed her house surgency at Ernakulam General Hospital. At Madurai, Tony had made a name through his cataract surgeries, plastic surgery on the cornea,   and the corrections of squints. “Many girls would come and get their squint corrected,” says Yvonne. “As a result, they could get married easily. Their parents were very grateful.”

After three years, Tony got a job at the Little Flower Hospital in Angamaly. He worked there for more than 40 years, established his name, did pioneering surgery, and won numerous prizes, including the BC Roy Award from the Medical Council of India, as well as the Padma Shri in 2008.

When asked to list her husband’s qualities, Yvonne says, “Tony considered me as his equal and always had a discussion before taking any decision. He is a good mentor for young doctors. He is a soft-spoken man who has a lot of sympathy for the poor. If any patient is in need, he would go even if it is in the middle of the night.”

In those times, it was difficult to get eyes. It was got from Colombo via Thiruvananthapuram. As soon as the eye arrived, Tony would do the operation, whatever be the time. “He told me that this is going to give sight to a patient,” says Yvonne. “So, there is no need to wait. I would tell him, 'Your first, second and third love is ophthalmology. It is only after that I come into the picture.'” Incidentally, Yvonne had been an anesthesiologist for several years, before she retired in 2008.

Sometimes, Yvonne would ask Tony to take their family – three daughters and two sons – out once in a while. “Once he agreed and asked us to get ready to go for a film at Angamaly,” says Yvonne. “At 5.30 p.m., we were ready. But he did not come. Then 6.30 came. Then 7.30 p.m. Then when he came at 8.30 p.m., he looked at us and said, 'I am so sorry. There were so many patients that I forgot.'”

Indeed, Tony's biggest drawback has been his absent-mindedness. On their second wedding anniversary, Yvonne bought a black briefcase and placed a letter inside it. When Tony rushed home and said he had to go for a free eye camp, at Rameswaram, Yvonne gave him the gift. Later, at night, when he opened the briefcase, and saw the card, he realised that it was their wedding anniversary. “The next day he sent me a telegram wishing me,” says Yvonne, with a smile.

For Yvonne, her most trying period came when Tony had a heart attack on October 1, 1989, at their home, near Aluva. And it was Yvonne, along with a neighbour, Gopinath, who rushed Tony to the Little Flower Hospital at 2 a.m.

After a while, the physician came out of the Intensive Care Unit and told Yvonne that the first four hours were very important. “You should pray,” he said.

Tony was 55, at that time, and at the prime of his life and the height of his fame. Yvonne was thinking, 'If my husband died now how will I manage? All my five children are studying.”

The eldest one, Sylvie, was doing her final year in dentistry. The second one, Freddy, was in his third year in medicine. The third, Sonia, had joined an architecture course. The last two, Tony and Sabina, were in school.

Anyway, Tony survived, but had to spend 22 days in hospital. And both spouses changed after that. “The heart attack deepened our faith in God,” says Yvonne. “We had many trying times, but we overcame it through prayers. My advice to all young couples is this: ‘A family that prays together stays together.’”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Man Of Many Parts

The multi-faceted KL Sreekrishna Dass has brought out a moving short film, 'The Miracle'. He is also a novelist, lyricist, script-writer and director. Dass spent many years in the senior echelons of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

Many years ago, KL Sreekrishna Dass read an article about a true incident in America. A family has two children. The girl is six years old, while the boy is a two-year-old. The boy suffers from a brain tumour. One night the parents are talking to each other. “We have gone to so many hospitals,” says the father. “We met so many doctors and given so many medicines. And now, only a miracle can save him.”

This conversation is overheard by the daughter. She mistakes the word, 'miracle', as the name of a medicine. So she takes her pocket money and, without informing her parents, she goes to a nearby medical shop and asks for a medicine called 'miracle' to treat her brother. The chemist says that there is no such medicine. A man is standing there. She says, “Uncle, do you have a 'miracle' with you?”

He says, “I don't have it. But let me come to your house and see your younger brother.”

Then she takes him to the house. He is the topmost neurosurgeon in America, who has come to a nearby hospital to attend to some complicated cases. He examines the child, and asks the parents to bring him to the hospital where he is working.

The child is operated upon and is saved. The doctor does not take any money. But the girl gives her pocket money and says, “Uncle, at last, we got the miracle.”

Dass has set this incident in a Thiruvananthapuram setting in his film called 'The Miracle' (9 min 57 secs). It is a film that is bound to move you, because of its simplicity and emotional sincerity. There are two settings: the house and the medicine shop. The people who acted in it are seasoned stage actors like Dr. Ambi, Arun Nayar and Aswathy Attingal. The girl, played by Meri Ann DS, in a debut performance, is a revelation because of her utter naturalness in front of the camera.

When the film was screened at Thiruvananthapuram recently, several notables expressed their appreciation. “'The Miracle' is a beautiful film which will inspire children and elders alike to think positively in the most adverse of situations, when people tend to lose hope,” says director Adoor Gopalakrishnan. 

Director Shaji N Karun says, “Only very few creations can bring out such values that touch our insights.” Director TV Chandran says, “It is a moving film that brings out the innocence of childhood. The performance of the child protagonist and the doctor are worth mentioning.”

In a short film competition conducted by a Malayalam television channel, out of 140 films, 'The Miracle' is one, among the top 10, which will be screened soon.

Dass, the younger brother of the acclaimed writer, KL Mohana Varma, is a creative person in his own right. He has written dramas, short stories, novels, a biography, and a collection of essays and songs in Malayalam. He has also written lyrics for films, Doordarshan, Akashvani and devotional CDs.

One devotional CD, on Lord Guruvayoorappan, sung by KJ Yesudas, with music by Perumbavoor G. Ravindranath, is still popular 25 years after its release.

A script-wrtiter for many telefilms, Dass has scripted and directed a 26-episode documentary serial on prominent social, cultural, religious and political leaders like Thunchath Ezhuthachchan, Kunchan Nambiar, Sreenarayana Guru, Raja Ravi Varma, and EMS Namboodiripad.

Apart from all this, Dass had been a senior functionary in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for more than three decades and retired as Director (Public Relations), Press Information Bureau, at Thiruvananthapuram.

But perhaps his most interesting job was as head of the Regional Office of the Central Board of Film Certification (Censor Board) of Kerala, based at Thiruvananthapuram. “I would watch the films along with a committee,” says Dass. “Then we would issue the certificate. Sometimes, when we suggested cuts and deletions, usually because of too much sex or violence against human beings or animals, the directors and producers would get angry. But they did not take it personally. They knew it was the decision of the committee.”

After cuts were made, the group would view the film again, to see whether the deletions have been done. All cuts were based on clear-cut guidelines highlighted in The Cinematograph Act of 1952.

Das and the committee would watch 300 to 400 films a year, in Malayalam, English and other languages. He smiles and says, “Watching films as part of my work was a very pleasant experience.”

Dass's future plans include making short films and writing more books. And he continues to get inspiration from his brother. “Even though our styles are different, the encouragement given to me by KL Mohana Varma in my literary and professional activities has always been a source of strength to me,” he says. 

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sharing the Same Goal

COLUMN: Spouse'sTurn

Aneeshya talks about life with the Indian hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh 

By Shevlin Sebastian

By 2 p.m., on October 2, neighbours, friends and relatives begin to troop into the house of hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, at Erumeli, near Kochi. Soon, print, as well as TV journalists, arrived. They have come to watch the telecast of the Asian Games final between India and Pakistan at Incheon, South Korea, along with the family. At home is Sreejesh's wife, Aneeshya, 26, their four-month-old daughter, Anusree, and Sreejesh's parents.

The telecast begins. Soon, there are cheers and groans. It is a closely-fought match. At the end of regulation time, the score is 1-1. During the tie-breaker, Sreejesh saves the first, while the second one is a goal. For the third penalty, the Pakistan forward Muhammad Umar Butta sets out from the 23 metre-line and heads towards the goal. A confident Sreejesh, in a bright red jersey, and thick blue pads, runs out to block Umar.

And it is at this moment that Anusree lets out a loud wail. So Aneeshya has to run towards the bedroom. As a result, she could not see the action unfolding on the screen. “But when I heard the claps, cheers and shouts, I knew Sreejesh had saved the shot,” she says. “I felt my heart beat so fast. He had become the hero of the team.” And of the village and country, also.

As you approach Erumeli, you can see numerous placards and posters on walls and trees congratulating him. But for Aneeshya the most moving felicitation took place when she accompanied Sreejesh to the St. Joseph's Higher Secondary school at Kizhakambalam, where he had been a student.

The students were between the ages of 5 to 12,” says Aneeshya. “They were saying, 'Chetta, Chetta', and asking Sreejesh for autographs. All the children had big smiles. I could see from their eyes that they all wanted to be like Sreejesh. They were thinking, 'If Sreejesh chettan can do it, then we can'. So his presence was an inspiring one.”

Sreejesh has also been an inspiration for Aneeshya. They met for the first time at the GV Raja Sports School in Thiruvananthapuram where they were students in Class nine. While Aneeshya was good at sprints and the long jump, Sreejesh was concentrating on hockey.

We began speaking to each four months after classes began,” says Aneeshya. “Sreejesh would often go for national camps. When he returned I would share my notes with him. Slowly, we developed an affection for each other, although we never expressed it.”

After she finished her Class 10 exams, Aneeshya decided to concentrate on her studies and joined the Sree Narayana Vilasam Higher Secondary School in Idukki district. For three years, they did not see each other. 

Instead, they communicated through letters, since there were no mobile phones in those days. “Both of us would motivate each other,” says Aneeshya. “I would tell him to do well in his goalkeeping and he would say the same thing about my studies. At that time, our primary aim was to get a job.”

One day, they arranged to meet at the Thodupuzha bus stand. “When we met we realised that we loved each other,” says Aneeshya. Since they belonged to the same caste, both sets of parents did not raise any objections. “My father felt that since the relationship had continued for such a long time, there must be a genuine love on both sides,” says Aneeshya.

The couple got married on May 12, 2013, at the Maha Vishnu Temple at Kizhakambalam. By this time, Aneeshya had qualified as an Ayurveda doctor.

When asked to list her husband's qualities, Aneeshya says, “He is a dedicated professional. Whenever he plays, he does it with focus and determination. He always gives attention to me, because we spend so little time together. Ever since we got married, he had to go for long training camps to take part in the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.”

Aneeshya has not seen Sreejesh in training, but has watched him play in a tournament in Chennai in September, 2013. “On the field, his eyes are always focused on the player who has the ball,” she says. “I was looking at him and thinking, 'Is he under tension?' When there was a lull in the play, he would quickly look at me.”

However, like most top-class performers, Sreejesh has a short temper. “I have realised that the best way to get him to relax is to let him be alone for a while,” says Aneeshya.

When Sreejesh is at home, they go to see films at the Lulu Mall, and have lunch or dinner outside. Sometimes, they visit friends and relatives. But Sreejesh does not stay away from training, even while on a break. “He goes to the local gym in the early mornings,” says Aneeshya.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a good marriage, Aneeshya says, “If you love somebody, and if that person is not able to do certain things, you will not take it in a negative way. If the husband is feeling stressed out, there is a reason for it, and the wife must try to understand it. One should also share everything with your spouse: moments of joy as well as sadness.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Visionary Eye

Dr. Reshmi Pramod lost her eyesight when she was 26 years old. But that has not deterred her. She has just opened her ayurveda hospital and research centre at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

On a sunny September morning, Dr Reshmi Pramod gives a sweet smile as Dominic Presentation, Kochi MLA, cuts the ribbon to inaugurate the Jeevaniyam Ayurveda Hospital and Research Centre at Kochi. The 37-year-old Reshmi is wearing a bright red saree, along with a pearl necklace and earrings. Everything is fine about Reshmi, except when you look at her bespectacled eyes. They are not focused anywhere. Yes, Reshmi is visually challenged.

And it happened in 2005. One evening, when she was standing at the gate of the ayurveda clinic at Wayanad where she was working as a doctor, she could not spot out her husband as he arrived in his car. Later, at home, when she was looking at her notes, while studying for the Public Service Commission examination, it was blurred. Tests revealed that she was suffering from macular degeneration (loss of vision because of damage to the retina).

The doctors said it was too late,” says Reshmi. “All the cells had died.” Within months, Reshmi lost her sight. She felt panicky. It had been her dream to have a career like her father, Dr. M. Bhaskaran, who runs a hospital and maternity centre at Koyilandy. So, it was no surprise that she went into a depression. “To be visually challenged from birth is acceptable,” she says. “But to lose my eyesight, at age 26, was too much to bear.”

However, the good news was that she had become pregnant, following two miscarriages, and gave birth to Diya on June 19, 2005. Then, a few weeks later, her father read out an article in a Malayalam newspaper about Habib, a visually challenged man, from birth, who was studying for his degree. “That was very inspiring,” says Reshmi. “I called Habib, and asked him about the way he read and wrote.” Habib told her about the different types of software available: Jaws, Talx and Kurzweil.

Another person who influenced her was a software engineer, Sudheer, 49, who works for an IT firm. He had lost his sight when he was 34. “Sudheer said I should continue in the medical profession,” says Reshmi. “He told me there are visually challenged doctors in the US who are able to do surgeries.”

On August 21, 2006, Reshmi, along with her husband and child, moved to Kochi, to avail of better job opportunities. While in Kochi, she met MC Roy, the Project Head for the Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged. It was through Roy that she got a job in a firm at Bolghatty Palace. “I had to look after their Ayurveda centre and give consultations,” she says.

Reshmi dealt mostly with foreigners. And she was struck by their attitude. “Foreigners did not have a problem in accepting me even though I have a disability,” she says. “But that is not the case with Malayalis. They always look at me with sympathy. And they find it difficult to treat me on par with a sighted doctor.”  

Nevertheless, Reshmi grew in confidence, and later, she was given the responsibility of handling the Ayurveda Centre of a few hotels of the Taj and Oberoi groups.

MC Roy says, “Reshmi is an enterprising and determined person. She has a pleasing nature and always stays in touch to get the right advice.”

Meanwhile, at her new hospital, Reshmi has come up with an innovative concept: marrying Ayurveda with psychology. So, Jeevaniyam has a tie-up with the Institute of Psychological Empowerment and Research Training. “The aim is to help corporates de-stress and get relaxed,” she says. There is also a Centre for Learning Disability, a vocational training and yoga centre.

At the inauguration, Reshmi's daughter Diya sang a beautiful shloka. Of course, Reshmi has never seen her. “It was painful initially, but I have got used to it,” she says. “But I can see her in my mind.”

When asked to describe Diya, she says, “She has a dimple in her chin, like my husband. Her nose is slightly blunt, while her hair is wavy like mine. Diya told me she has my brown eyes.”

Reshmi pauses, smiles, and says, “You don’t need eyes to see, do you?” 

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Getting The Right Beat

Ranjit Barot talks about the joy of drumming and the importance of remaining true to yourself 

Photos: Ranjit Barot performing at Kochi; with his mother Sithara Devi

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of the first things that drummer Ranjit Barot said when he stepped on stage for a show at the JT Pac, Kochi, was, “The food here is incredible, maan. Fish and prawn curry. I am being very well fed.”

He looks prosperous: broad-shouldered, and dressed in a black T-shirt, brown trousers and white sneakers. His drum set is gleaming. The drums have been supplied by Sonor and the cymbals by Meinl, both German companies which are world leaders in their respective fields.

At Kochi, Ranjit begins with a song called T=O (Time = Big Bang). It starts with a section on the electric mandolin by U. Rajesh, alongside a riff by John McLaughlin, who is regarded as one of the legends on the guitar.

This is from Ranjit's debut album, 'Bada Boom'. Some of the top musicians of the world have taken part. Apart from McLaughlin, they include luminaries like Zakir Hussain on the tabla, Wayne Krantz on the guitar, the late U. Srinivas and brother Rajesh on the mandolin.

The theme of the album is eternity. “I was fascinated by the birth of our universe and how we take everything for granted,” he says. “Each song is a stage in the birth of the universe.”

And before he plays the next song, 'Singularity', Ranjit says, “I want to capture this tidal wave of beauty. Everything and nothing. The complete unknown.”

But music was never an unknown to him. It was right there in his house in Mumbai from the time he was born. Ranjit is the only child of the great Kathak dancer Sitara Devi, now aged 94. 

When he was a youngster, great musicians like Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, Ustad Rais Khan, Mehdi Hasan, and Kalyanji-Anandji would come to their house and have impromptu jamming sessions. When Ranjit was 14, he was attracted to drums, and told his mother about it. 

My mother was very supportive,” says Ranjit. “But like all middle-class parents, she wanted me to do academics and become a doctor or an engineer. What is the security of a life in the arts? My mother, being an artist herself, knew what a struggle it is. You are at the whim of audiences and organisers. And the truer you are to your art form, the harder it will be for you.” 

Some artists find the pressure a bit difficult to handle. “So they sell out,” says Ranjit, with a smile. “But there have been people who have remained true to their inner selves and became stars, like the great Ustad Alla Rakha, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussein. They showed people you don't need to compromise to be successful. They are my heroes.” 

Ranjit is a hero himself and of international stature. The musician has performed in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, Finland, Russia, United Kingdon, Slovenia, Serbia and USA. One reason is because he plays for John McLaughlin's 'Fourth Dimension Band'. “It is my knowledge of Indian rhythms which seeps into my playing that John is attracted to,” says Ranjit. 

He is also a composer, and music arranger for Bollywood composers like Laxmikant Pyarelal, Anu Malik and AR Rahman. “The first song I worked on with Rahman was 'Humma Humma [from the film 'Bombay']'” he says. Ranjit has also been the music director on several of Rahman's live shows and is working on a new song with him for a Rajnikant film.

Rahman is a wonderful human being, very spiritual and gentle,” says Ranjit. “He has the gift of finding the meeting point between ordinary people as well as connoisseurs. In other words, he has mass appeal, but has remained true to himself.”

Even though Ranjit has worked closely in Bollywood, he feels disappointed that it has ended up as the only cultural export to the world. “Bollywood is entertainment and that's fine,” says Ranjit. “But to use Bollywood at important functions and cultural events abroad is wrong. There is a lot of culture and music in India that is untapped and ignored. We need to nurture it.”

Meanwhile, on the Kochi stage, even as Ranjit interacts with the audience, he is out of breath now and then. His shirt is drenched with perspiration and he frequently wipes his face with a white towel. Occasionally, he takes a sip of water.

Drumming is a physically demanding profession,” he says. “I am digging deep and finding the strength to execute a certain idea that is coming to my mind, but it is pushing me to the physical limits. However, I always feel a joy inside and am completely alive.”

Backstage, he is surrounded by young drummers, all excited by the performance that they had seen. And he offered words of advice. “Stick with your art and do something so spectacular and beautiful that people have no choice but to contact you and give you work,” says Ranjit. “It is a challenge. You have to practise a lot. Find a vision. Find something that works across all genres.”

Suddenly, he says, “I am feeling low on sugar. Can somebody get me a drink?” And a young man rushes out and returns a few minutes later with a can of Coca Cola.

Drumming is all about connecting,” he says, as he takes a swig. “Always try to have a conversation with the audience.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Golden Couple

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sushama talks about life with the business entrepreneur VP Nandakumar

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ajesh Madhav 

One day, in 1974, Sushama received a letter. It was from her close friend Geetha's brother VP Nandakumar. In the letter Nandakumar had written, “I like you and your nature. And if you like me, please tell me. I would like to marry you. Please don't mention anything to Geetha now.”

Sushama was shocked, because she had looked upon Nandakumar as a friend. “I thought somebody was playing a trick on me by writing in Nandakumar's name, because we had many mutual acquaintances,” she says.

Sushama would meet Nandakumar whenever he would come to meet Geetha. Both Geetha and Sushama were students of the Vimala College in Thrissur. Earlier, all three had studied together at the Sree Narayana College in Nattika, Thirssur.

Sushama did not reply to the first letter. So Nandakumar sent another one. This time Sushama was convinced that it was Nandakumar who had actually written the letters. But she had apprehensions regarding the proposal. Sushama did not belong to a financially strong family, while Nandakumar's father, VC Padmanabhan, ran a successful money-lending business. “We lived just one and a half kilometres away from each other in Valapad,” she says.

When Sushama told her father, he said, “It is better to marry somebody of our economic standard.” An undeterred Nandakumar went to Chennai, where he met Sushama's eldest brother, Vyasa Babu, who was working as an engineer. Nandakumar was able to persuade Vyasa that he was serious about wanting to marry Sushama.

So, Sushama's family gradually made a turnaround. The wedding took place on June 21, 1978. Thereafter, the couple left for Chennai where Nandakumar was working with the Nedungadi Bank.

Sushama has fond memories of that time. The couple stayed near the Chetput station in Chennai. Every morning, when Nandakumar would go to work, Sushama would stand at the window and watch him walk to the station and take the train.

But during the day she felt lonely. So, Sushama would pass the time by cooking and sweeping the house. In the evenings, she would stand expectantly at the window and watch her husband come home.

The couple would spend their free time at the Marina Beach and go for films and outings. “It was a carefree and relaxing time,” says Sushama. “We enjoyed ourselves.”

But a few years later, Padmanabhan was afflicted with stomach cancer. He called his son home and said, “You can carry on with your job. The only problem with a bank job is that there will be transfers. It will be difficult for the family to stay together. Otherwise, you can resign and enter the business. The choice is yours.”

As the only son, Nandakumar decided to enter the business. This happened in 1986, the year his father passed away. In the past two decades, the Manappuram Finance Limited has grown by leaps and bounds. At present, the company has 3180 branches across 26 states and union territories, and employs more than 15,000 people. It has an annual turnover of Rs 8500 crore.

Asked about her husband's strong points, Sushama says, “Nandakumar has a strong will power and determination. No one can change his mind once he has decided to do something.”

He also has a constant striving to improve himself. “Since Nandakumar specialised in zoology in college, he began reading a lot of books on management, business and self-help to become better,” says Sushama.

Away from the business, Nandakumar has an innate love of animals and nature. At their sprawling bungalow in Valapad, there are dogs, cats, rabbits, emus, ducks, ostriches, doves, pigeons, parrots, goats and cows. “Every day he will spend time with them,” says Sushama. “He also likes plants and we have plantain, mango, nutmeg and coconut trees.”

His negative traits include a short temper. “But he cools down quickly,” says Sushama. However, Nandakumar's obsession with making the business a success did have an impact on the family. “For many years, Nandakumar would go to office at 8 a.m., and come home by 10 or 11 p.m.,” says Sushama “When the children were small they would miss him a lot. So I became the hands-on parent and looked after their studies and their daily needs.”

The couple have three children. Dr. Sumitha, 34, is a gynaecologist at the Kims Hospital, Kochi. She is married and has two children. Son Sooraj, 32, is working with his father. He is also married and has two children. The third child, Suhas Nandan, 26, is studying in the United Kingdom.

And despite being a busy mother, Sushama also had a career of her own. She was a teacher for 25 years and retired as headmistress of the Nattika Government Fisheries higher secondary school on March 31, 2011. Today, she is the managing director of Manappuram Jewellery. “Now when I attend office, I have a better understanding of the business,” she says.

Asked for tips to have a successful marriage, Sushama says, “Your spouse will have plus and minus points. You must learn to accept both. Be transparent and communicate all the time with each other. A lot of misunderstandings happen because of poor communication. Finally, both should have love for each other.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Quest For Excellence

Prof. J. Philip runs the reputed Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship at Bangalore and Kochi. He talks about the qualities needed to be a good leader and the students of today

Photos: Prof. J. Philip; the Kochi campus of the Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the evening of September 30, 1986, Maria Philip was hurrying back after a day’s work on the summer project she was doing at the Indian Airlines office in Meenambakkam airport, Chennai. She reached the railway station, and, like most commuters, she jumped onto the tracks to get to another platform.

As she did so, a shunting engine came into view. Maria almost climbed up to the platform. However, the engine gave a glancing blow and she was thrown over to the platform. Death was instantaneous. Maria was only 22. She was doing her final year Master’s in Personnel Management at the Madras School of Social Work.

One week earlier, her father, Prof. J. Philip, had gone from Bangalore to attend a function at the British Council at Chennai. Maria was also present. When Philip was dropping Maria to the hostel after the event, she said, “Dad, you should start a business school.” At that time, Philip was the Director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, which was affected by labour strife.

Philip replied, “Will do it when the time comes.”

And the next time Philip saw Maria was to identify her dead body. "Maria's death was a turning point in my life," he says. "I decided to implement her wish."

On July 3, 1991, inside a shed at the St. Martha’s hospital compound, at Bangalore, he started the Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship (XIME). It was a slow beginning and took 11 years before a full-fledged campus was set up at Electronics City, with the help of corporates, like the Oberoi Group, the Tata Trust and Biocon. All the classrooms have been donated by corporates or families. Today, there are 180 students.

In 2012, Philip turned his gaze homewards and opened a branch of XIME at the KINFRA Hi-Tech Park at Kalamassery, Kochi. There are 120 students, a mix of boys and girls. Today, Philip is the president of XIME. And, on September 30, Philip had come to Kochi to conduct an All Kerala Debate Competition in honour of Maria.

A professor, who teaches time management and public speaking, Philip has a keen idea of the present-day students. “They are laptop and Internet-driven,” he says. “They are ambitious to succeed, and well-informed. They know what happens all over the world.”

Like any generation, they have a few drawbacks. “They are reluctant to read newspapers, books or journals,” says Philip. “The utilisation of library facilities is somewhat low. Anytime they want something they go to Google. They want instant success and big salaries. They become impatient and tend to leave companies quickly.”

In contrast, Philip has had a slow and steady climb to the top. After graduation from St. Berchman’s College, Changanacherry, he did his law from Maharaja’s Law College in Kochi. Then he went to do a management course in the Xavier Labour Research Institute (XLRI) at Jamshedpur. Later, he became a faculty member and one of the founders of the MBA (PGDM) programme. In 1970 he became the dean.

His later career included being the principal of the management college of the Steel Authority of India Limited at Ranchi, Vice President (HR) of Oberoi Group, as well as the director of the government-run IIM (Bangalore).

When he went to the IIM, he got a shock. There were far too many employees. For 240 students, apart from faculty, there were 450 employees, including 63 peons. “All our governmental institutions are over-staffed,” says Philip. “This places an enormous burden on the institution. You have to worry about food, housing and roads.”

But Philip turned it around. “Today, things are much better at all the IIMs,” he says.

Incidentally, apart from Maria, Philip has a daughter, Sheeba, who is a paediatrician, and lives in Atlanta, USA. His son, Anil, an engineer and MBA, is a vice-president in IBM, Bangalore.

Like his son, Philip has been holding senior leaderships positions for a long time now. When asked for tips on leadership, he says, “I always wanted the institutions I headed to be places of excellence. So there is a quest to set a high standard.”

Other tips: you have to be conscientious in your work, and maintain ethical values. “You should have a vision which you can articulate to the team and work to make it a reality,” he says.

Philip quotes the management guru Peter Drucker (1909-2005) who said that leaders need to have a helicopter view. “If you don’t know what is happening in your industry and the world, you are missing out,” he says. “When I go to America, I visit the Harvard Business School to see how things are. In France, I go to the top three best B-schools and soon, I will be travelling to Singapore to see the performance of business schools there.”

Even though he is in his seventies, Prof. Philip’s quest for excellence continues...

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, October 06, 2014


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Jaimy talks about life with heart surgeon and Padma Shri award winner Dr. Jose Chacko Periappuram 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

Dr. Jose Chacko Periappuram and his wife Jaimy were standing outside the Colosseum in Rome. They were looking at a map. Suddenly, a 10-year-old boy, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, came up. The boy showed a newspaper to Jose and said something in Italian. Jose was wearing a jacket, with a pocket on his sleeves, where he kept his wallet and credit cards.

While they were talking, the boy tried to open the zip of the pocket. Thankfully, the doctor noticed it, pushed his hand away, and shouted, “Police police.” The boy fled. “It was a close escape,” says Jaimy. “Otherwise, we would have lost all our money. For a while we felt shocked. And I have never forgotten the incident.”

Both husband and wife were on a tour of Europe in the early 1990s. “We went on a boat on the River Seine in Paris, and it was beautiful,” says Jaimy. “We also saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa and travelled to Switzerland.”

At that time, Jose was working at the University Hospital of Wales at Cardiff and had sat for the examination for being a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

I loved Cardiff,” says Jaimy. “The people were very friendly. The city centre was very nice. There were a lot of shops. On weekends, we would meet up with other Malayali friends and spend time with each other. There would be card games and parties.”

For Jaimy she was living as if in a dream. She grew up in Muvattupuzha, and had done her B.Com from Nirmala College. Suddenly, this marriage proposal came. She saw Jose for the first time in early December, 1989. “My first impression was that he is a soft person,” says Jaimy. “I liked him.” Because of a limited leave, for Jose, the marriage took place on December 17 at the Christ The King church at Ettumanoor. Jose’s father, Prof. P.M. Chacko, was the principal of St. Thomas College, Pala, and lived in Ettumanoor at that time.

However, there was no time to go for a honeymoon. The very next day, the couple came to Kochi to file the documents to get the passport and visa. Jose left within a week. Eventually, Jaimy went in April, 1990. They spent six years in Wales before they returned to Kochi, where, today, Jose, a Padma Shri Award winner, is the Head of Cardiac Surgery at Lisie Hospital.

Asked to list her husband's plus points, Jaimy says, “Jose is hard-working and dedicated to his profession. He goes to work at 8 a.m., and returns at 11 p.m. During the day, he does five surgeries. He is positive-minded, and remains calm most of the time.”

Jaimy says that when Jose is at home he gives a helping hand in the kitchen, or with the studies of his sons, Joseph, 17, and John, 6. “Sometimes, he gives John a bath,” she says. The couple have one other son, Jacob, 22, a mechanical engineer. “As a father, Jose is soft with the children,” says Jaimy. “He buys them whatever they want.”

But the one drawback for Jaimy and the children is that Jose is not at home for long periods. In the earlier years she would feel upset, because he would not be able to attend many family functions. “But now I have become mature, and got used to it,” she says.

Another drawback is that, on the road, Jose can get angry with other drivers, because they don't follow the rules. “Having driven in many foreign countries, Jose knows that we have to observe discipline on the streets,” she says.

To feel relaxed, Jose goes to his farm near the UC College in Aluva. He has a helper and theygrow bananas, jackfruit and vegetables. “Jose feels peaceful when he is in nature,” says Jaimy. “He also feels happy when he is working for the Heart Care Foundation [a trust which offers financial assistance to poor heart patients. This was started by Jose and a few others].”

For Jaimy, her happiest moment occurred when the couple, along with their children, went to Delhi to participate in the Padma Shri award ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2011. However, only their eldest son could enter the hall, because nobody below 18 was allowed. So the other boys remained in the hotel and watched the proceedings on TV.

When President Pratibha Patil pinned the medal on Jose's chest, I felt so proud,” says Jaimy. “I realised that all the dedication and hard work by my husband had been rewarded.” She also had the chance to meet fellow awardees like the actors Jayaram and Tabu, cricketer VVS Laxman, poet ONV Kurup and health care specialist Dr. Azad Moopen.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Jaimy says, “Both spouses should learn to adjust to each other. Usually, it is the wife who does the adjustment, but the husband should also do so. Spouses should be loving, loyal, and respectful of each other. Even though there may be fights and quarrels, you should be forgiving and move ahead.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Vignettes of Indian life

RM Rajgopal has written a remarkable book, ‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’. It is a debut of a naturally-gifted writer

By Shevlin Sebastian

A winter party is in progress in a bungalow at New Delhi. The guests, a mix of Punjabi and Anglicised upper class people, are bragging about various international cities. One guest says that Singapore has become too expensive. Another says, “Dubai is excellent. Real place to go. Especially, yaar, the shopping festival.” A Punjabi guest says, “I was in New Yorkjee. Kiran was delivering. A healthy baby boy. And a citizenjee, from day one. He can contest even for President’s post, you know.”

But what is astonishing is what happens after the party is over. All the leftover food is taken in containers and poured into a hole, in the garden, specially made that afternoon, which is then covered up.  

Author RM Rajgopal writes, “And as Mr. Sawhney walks he nods to himself, satisfied. No, no point in distributing the stuff among the retinue as many do, it will only end up spoiling them, create uncalled for cravings upon taste buds used to dal and subzi and doesn’t Mrs. Sawhney provide them with as many rotis at each meal as they would like to eat?”

This extract is from a short story, ‘The Burial’ from Rajgopal’s remarkable collection, ‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’. “The spark for ‘The Burial’ came from an anecdote told by a friend of mine,” says Rajgopal. “There was, indeed, a wealthy man in Delhi who actually buried the leftover food.”

The title story, ‘Empty Pedestal’, is about a firebrand union leader Dhani Ram who wages a strike to get higher wages for workers at a factory. Dhani Ram tells a new management recruit, “Do you know what it is like keeping awake all night when it is natural for the rest of the world to sleep? Not merely keeping awake, but labouring hard? Do you know how much heat these machines generate? Have you any idea of how hot it is there?”

Unfortunately, Dhani Ram is mysteriously killed and soon a statue is put up in his honour. The local MLA and other dignitaries pay homage. Just next to the statue is a large blob of cement left by the masons in their hurry to finish the statue. The new union leader points at it and tells the young recruit, “That is the empty pedestal. For the next one who creates trouble. And is turned into a statue of stone. I have a wife and three children to look after, sahib.”  
So, it is no surprise the union leader quickly strikes a peace deal with the management and the strike is over.  

All the 21 stories, written with fluency and charm, highlight the different facets of life in India. So there are tales about the life of a honest Travelling Ticket Examiner in the Railways, an old and jaded piano player at a restaurant, a boy who is a star in school but grows up to be a nonentity.  Of a mid-winter bird shoot that goes wrong. Of a man who feels insulted when his girlfriend gets a promotion, while he misses out, in the same Delhi-based company that they work in. Of hard-core Communists in their youth who live a plush capitalist life in their middle age.  

What is remarkable to know is that Rajgopal is not a writer, but a senior corporate professional. He worked for several years for the DCM Group and remains a Bangalore-based adviser, at the age of 63, with the SRF Limited.

Asked how he got interested in writing, Rajgopal says, “My father TRK Marar was a professor of English at Maharaja's college, Kochi. I grew up amongst books. So writing and reading was part of the daily habit.”

The urge to write was always within Rajgopal. Sometime in the mid-1980s, he began contributing middles to a national newspaper. Then, in 1995-96, he began writing a column for a national magazine called ‘Business Travelogue’. “I travelled abroad a lot,” says Rajgopal, who was general manager of SRM Limited at that time. “Any country that I travelled to, I would do an article on the business climate, apart from the food and culture.”

Some of the countries he visited included South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. Again, during this time he began writing short stories in his spare time. “Most of the stories of ‘The Empty Pedestal’ are more than 20 years old,” he says.

Now, he has finished his autobiography, tentatively titled ‘Retro’. There are 70 vignettes of his life in Kochi, Kota in Rajasthan, Delhi and Chennai. It takes the reader back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

God has given me a natural writing gift,” he says. “I write very easily. I take five days to write a story and another five to ponder over it and polish it. I don't rewrite a lot.”

His family offers moral support. Rajgopal’s wife, Viju, a home-maker, also edits all his stories. His son Arjun, a New Delhi-based lawyer, as well as daughter Uttara, who runs a music management company in Mumbai, love their father’s stories.  

And Rajgopal is upbeat about his debut book because the reviews have all been positive. With a little bit of luck, and a good publisher, Rajgopal could become an important voice in the Indian English literary canon. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Seeing The World on Four Wheels

Corporate Consultant Suresh Joseph recounts his experiences of his 27-country journey on his Ford Endeavour from Kochi

Photos: Suresh Joseph (left) with the film director Lal Jose; Suresh Joseph

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Lhasa, Tibet, Corporate Consultant Suresh Joseph encountered the hotpot meal. At a table for four, with a recess in front of each seat, a big bowl is placed. In the bowl, there is a frozen stick. There are a few knobs at the edge of the table to operate the burner. When you turn up the knob, the flame comes on, and slowly the stick, which is actually frozen soup, melts. Then you go to the counter where there are different types of raw fish, meat (shark, beef, octopus, lamb, chicken or pork), and vegetables.

You take your pick and put it into the bowl of soup at your table. Then it will get cooked. “You can make your own sauce, from various ingredients like olive oil, soya, different types of chillies, and pepper,” says Suresh. “Once the food is cooked you dip it into the sauce and have it. It was one of the tastiest meals I have ever had.”

On June 16, Suresh had embarked, from Kochi, along with director Lal Jose and journalist Baiju Nair, on a Ford Endeavour on a 24,000 km journey, across 27 countries (see box). On August 29, Suresh and Lal Jose completed the journey on schedule when they arrived in front of the Gandhi statue at Tavistock Square in London.

We did an average of 400 kms per day,” says Suresh. “But on certain days we covered as little as 80 kms when we travelled from Vienna to Bratislava.” But they also did 1300 kms when the team travelled from Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan to Astana the new one.

Meanwhile, every day, Suresh would get up between 3.30 a.m. and 4.30 a.m. “I would write my blogs and update my documentation,” he says. Thereafter, he would get the car ready by cleaning and hosing it down. At night, after the sight-seeing was over, he would update the expense accounts, and reconfirm the route for the next day.

All along the route they received affection and hospitality from many Malayalis. “Out of the 75 days, we only spent 31 days in hotels,” says Suresh. “Many friends allowed us to stay with them. At many Indian restaurants, we did not have to pay the bill. People took us for sight-seeing and bore the cost of the tickets. We also got a lot of help from the Indian missions abroad.”

Interestingly, the place which had the most impact on Suresh and the group was Tibet. “The bare mountains, lush vegetation, blue skies, and the waterfalls, it was wonderful,” says Suresh. “I was much taken up by the mysticism and humility of the people.”

At the border between Tibet and China, a local Tibetan came up with a white prayer flag. He bowed before them, tied the flag on the bumper, and then took leave. “We did not exchange a word since we did not know each other's languages,” says Suresh. “But he knew that we were on a tough ride and wanted to wish us well.”

Many people wished them well, although they belonged to different races and cultures. And looked so different. “In China, you saw Mongoloid features,” says Suresh. “In Russia, the men are tall and handsome, while the women are beautiful. Then when you reach Europe, you see Caucasian features.”

The country which impressed him the most is China. “They are a century ahead,” says Suresh. “They can build infrastructure in the blink of an eye because they have the money and a huge population.”

Unfortunately, there is a restriction on the media. Suresh got the shock of his life when he discovered that he could no longer access Twitter, G-mail or his blog during the 15 days he was in China. “In China, if you ask the people whether they will support a dictator, they will say, 'what is wrong?',” says Suresh. “But we will say, no, it is not right. We are a democracy.”

Meanwhile, the trio faced an unexpected crisis, when Baiju fell out with Suresh, and opted out of the trip at St. Petersburg in Russia. But Suresh has no regrets. “I had made it clear from the beginning that I was the team leader and my decisions would be final and binding on the group,” he says. 

Suresh had planned this journey - a dream for 17 years - into which Lal Jose and Baiju had asked to be included. “In the end, I felt that a dysfunctional team member would affect the team's morale,” he says.

But there was good news for the group, also. On July 25, when they were in Helsinki, the news came that Lal's film, 'Vikramadityan', which had just been released, had been declared a hit. “From there on, Lal relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the trip,” says Suresh. “He had taken a big risk because it was his first home production.”

Back in Kochi Suresh is already already planning his next trips. One is a three-month drive across 49 states of the USA in 2015. The other is a coast-to-coast drive in Australia. He will go to Perth, buy a car there and travel around. “This is going to be fun, because travelling is a passion for me,” he says.  

The 27 countries
India, Nepal, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Finland,
Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Slovenia,
Slovakia, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France, Holland,
Belgium, Ireland and United Kingdom. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)