Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Love Aaj Kal

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Subodh Maskara talks about life with the actor Nandita Das

By Shevlin Sebastian

On August 11, 2009, Subodh Maskara waited, with a mix of tenseness and expectation, at the coffee shop of the Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai. His friend, the well-known model, Milind Soman, had set up a blind date.

Suddenly, the woman walked in. “She was wearing a simple salwar and kurta, but had a radiant smile and a sparkle in her eyes,” says Subodh. “I felt that she was special.”

The woman was none other than Nandita Das, the famed actor, who has acted in Malayalam films like ‘Kanaki’ and ‘Naalu Pennungal’. Subodh and Nandita got along well immediately. While Nandita spoke about her career and her new job as the chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, Subodh talked about his business activities and life.

Soon, they felt comfortable enough to go for a movie, ‘Love Aaj Kal’, which starred Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone. “We met the next day and the next, and the next,” says Subodh. “Within a week we became attached to each other. We felt that there was something special between us.”

And within months they agreed to get married. It took place, on January 2, 2010, in front of a small group of family and friends, at Subodh’s home. And it was conducted in the way that Mahatma Gandhi would do so, at his Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. In fact, a Gandhian had come all the way from the ashram to oversee the ceremony.

The difference is that the girl is not given to the boy, as is usually the case in most weddings,” says Subodh. “There is equality between man and woman. This is unlike in Hinduism where they say a woman will serve her husband and make him happy. This was Nandita’s idea and I liked it.”

As for the honeymoon, it happened two weeks before the wedding. In December, 2009, Nandita had been selected to become a member of the jury of the Marrakesh Film Festival (December 4 -12).

So they left a week earlier and travelled around. They arrived in Casablanca and had meals at the famous Rick’s CafĂ©. Inside, there were large photographs, apart from tables and chairs, used by screen legends, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, during the shooting of the classic, ‘Casablanca’. Of course, it is another matter that the film was shot entirely in a studio at Hollywood.

When they had to leave for Marrakesh, 244 kms away, they got a shock. There were no train tickets. In the end they managed to get standing-room in a third-class compartment. “The organisers were surprised when we stepped out from a third-class bogie,” says Subodh. “They had arranged for a big limousine to take us to the festival centre. It was an awkward situation.”

Asked about his wife’s plus points, Subodh says, “She is a down-to-earth person. I never feel that she is Nandita Das the celebrity. She is always Nandita for me. She is very attached to her family [her father is the great artist Jatin Das]. She is also very engaged with social issues and meets so many interesting people. Her exposure is far greater than mine as a businessman. We have a lot of meaningful conversations and that has helped me to grow as a person.”

Subodh also appreciates Nandita's integrity. “She will never endorse a gold or diamond brand because she does not wear it,” says Subodh. “In fact, Nandita has received big offers to do so, but she has always said no. I believe 99 per cent of the people would have compromised and opted for the money, but she belongs to that 1 per cent.”

Thanks to this special woman, Subodh has had many memorable experiences. One of them was to see Nandita, with their son Vihaan, at the Breach Candy hospital on August 11, 2010. “This was exactly one year after we met,” says Subodh. “It became an unforgettable date for me.” Incidentally, 'Vihaan' is a Sanskrit word which means the rays of the morning sun.

And the birth changed Nandita. “She is an amazing mother,” says Subodh. “However, I had to convince Nandita to have a child in the first place. She told me motherhood is overrated. So I said, 'If you don't become a mother, you may regret it later. But if you become a mother, you will never regret it'. In fact, she tells me now that it was the best thing that has happened to her. It opened a part of her self which is unconditional love. You have a special attachment to your child. And your priorities change. You think of the child most of the time.”

Finally, regarding tips for a successful marriage, Subodh says, “The cause of hundred percent of divorces is marriage. Jokes apart, it is up to you to make the marriage work. And if it does not work, you are to blame. You have to take individual responsibility. Most marriages break up when one spouse blames the other. The challenge is to get along with the other person. There is no happily-ever-after. There are many problems. And you have to work hard to make your marriage a success.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sailing In the Backwaters

Joe Nejedly makes boats and, through the Ernakulam Sailing Club, is trying to inculcate a culture of sailing in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Joe Nejedly by Mithun Vinod; Joe Nejedly and his wife Karen with the Samudra Cup; a GO catamaran

For the Samudra Cup boat race, Joe Nejedly decided to take part with his wife, Karen. It was the first time he was doing so. The boat was a catamaran. There were six other competitors. The event took place on a sunny March afternoon in Panangad, 12 kms from Kochi. A swift breeze was blowing. They set out. While Joe as the helmsman, handled the outrigger, Karen kept an eye on the sail.

A catamaran is a difficult boat. Since it has two hulls, it does not turn easily. “You have to adjust the sail at the right time to make it turn,” says Joe. “If you don't do it correctly, you can get stuck. But Karen did everything right.”

In the end, the couple won the cup. On the shore the people clapped. They included several members of the Ernakalum Sailing Club (ESC), of which Joe is the President.

At the courtyard of the backwaters-facing club, one can see different types of boats with their multi-coloured sails. These include the Topper, Enterprise, the Laser, and the Optimist which costs Rs 70,000. Through his company, Praga Marine, Joe makes cheaper versions of the Optimist for Rs 30,000 for the children to learn sailing. Joe also makes catamarans called the GO-Cats. “GO stands for my sons Gregory and Oliver,” he says. “They are very easy to sail. Catamarans do not capsize easily.”

Joe also imported second-hand Toppers, the most popular class in the world, from Britain at Rs 1 lakh each. “It is ideal for India where we cannot afford to use expensive boats,” says Joe. Unfortunately, he had to pay a steep duty of 80 per cent. “These are sailing boats for kids,” says Joe, with a pained smile. “I am trying to develop a culture of sailing. But the taxes made it a huge investment for me. This became a discouragement for me.”

Nevertheless, things are happening at the sailing club. About 60 children have been trained so far in the past few years. Two of them, Prince Noble and Manu Francis, represented Kerala at the recent National Games held in the state.

They did pretty well,” says Joe. “They are the sons of the local fishermen and come from poor backgrounds. But they have shown a keenness to learn. Middle-class children have many options, like cricket, badminton and tennis.”

Also, education is the primary focus for children in India. “For sailing you have to spend between four to five hours at the weekend,” he says. “Parents are unwilling to spare so much time for sailing. But it is such a beautiful sport.”

Asked to describe its charms, Joe says, “You are essentially harnessing the power of the wind, to make you move forward. And that is so exciting. You are one with nature. And there is nobody around to disturb you. I always encourage people to leave their mobile phones behind on the shore.”

Sometimes, the weather can get very rough. Joe attended the world championships in Wales in 2014. The competitors were sailing in 30 knots of wind, two miles out at sea, with huge breakers. “It was incredible to watch the skills of the sailors,” says Joe. “Frequently, the boats capsised, but they would right it and get on once again.”

There has been action in Kochi, too. The Ernakulam Sailing Club has hosted three national championships. During the last championships, held in December, 2012, there were 62 participants from all over India. Future plans include a Topper Grand Prix in May, as well as an invitation regatta where all the boating clubs in Kerala will be invited.

Joe, incidentally, is of Czech origin. His father, Josef, came to India before the second world war, settled in Coimbatore, and became a successful businessman. Josef got married to a British woman called Audrey whom he met at Lahore.

Joe was born at Coimbatore, but did his schooling and college in the UK, where he developed an interest in boats. “I love India,” he says. “I cannot imagine staying in any other place. And thanks to the backwaters, there is immense opportunities for sailing here.” 

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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Unbelievable Vir

The stand-up comedian Vir Das enthrals an audience at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At stand-up comedian Vir Das's recent show, 'Unbelievablish', at the JT Pac, Kochi, there is a touch of the Indian Premier League. A screen clock winds down from five minutes and at the end, there are shouts of five, four, three, two, one ….and on cue, the comedian appears on stage.

Vir is of slight build, in a blue shirt and black trousers, but looks confident. One woman shouts, “Vir, I love you.” Another says, “The tickets are pricey.” And a quick-thinking Vir says, “I agree with you on that.”

Vir begins the show with a song and then says, “This is my first-ever stand-up show in Kochi. So happy to be here in God's Own Country. You are the most educated people in India, and yet you call your state a country? What are you? Kashmir?”

Thereafter, Vir sets out on a story-telling spree, talking about events from his own life, which included his first kiss in childhood, how he got his chance in Bollywood, his experiences in an American clinic, and being ditched by his girlfriend on Skype. But he began with an anecdote about how he performed for the “last great President of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and the 16th most powerful person in India.” And as he talks about Kalam, it is expletive-ridden, but funny. But, suddenly, Vir says, “All you older people, be prepared, it is going to get much dirtier than this.”

And it does. But Vir says all his jokes in such a good-humoured way that it is difficult not to enjoy it: “The inside of your mouth is like a Ramgopal Varma movie,” he says. “There is no lighting or content.”

It is no surprise that screams and laughter resound often from the audience, among whom was the Mollywood star Prithviraj. And in the end, the Twitter reviews are great: 'Killer show in Kochi.' 'Fantastic two hours of stand-up comedy'. 'Vir Das was amazing.'

Like most good things in life, Vir came to stand-up by accident. For his final thesis programme in theatre at the Knox College at Illinois, USA, he decided to do a stand-up show. It was a 90-minute show, called 'Brown Men Can't Hump', in front of an audience of 800.

One joke went like this: “Americans don't understand how important Indians are. We drive your taxis, we are your gynaecologists, we sell you condoms late at night, we sell you petrol, we sell you newspapers and books. Without Indians, you would be starving, stranded, sexless, sterile and stupid.”

And the positive audience reaction was the reason that made Vir take up stand-up as a career option. Today, he has done more than a thousand shows. “You find your voice in stand-up once you have done about 10 years,” he says. “By this time, you are done with cricket, airline, Bollywood and other generic jokes.” That was when Vir started writing original material, taken mostly from his own life. “I felt that if I don't do that I would not be honest,” he says. “Every comedian has a distinct voice. It is not about the punch line. It is about being the punch line.”

Some of his recent shows include 'History of India', 'Politriks' and 'Battle of the Da Sexes'. Interestingly, before a show, Vir does something unusual. He peeks at the audience from backstage. “I want to catch their vibes,” he says. “And I also want to see the composition. Are they mostly young or mixed?”

Even as he is busy with his shows, his Bollywood career is taking off. Just before he came to Kochi, he finished the shoot for the sex comedy, 'Mastizaade', where he is playing opposite Sunny Leone and Tusshar Kapoor. “Bollywood is taking 70 per cent of my time,” he says. “I am doing four films a year. But in my contract I ensure that I don't shoot on Saturdays, after 6 pm, and Sundays. So I manage to do my stand-up shows on the weekend.”

His most unforgettable show was at Dubai in front of a large crowd. Suddenly, Vir fell off the stage.“The people then carried me all the way back to the stage,” he says. “This lasted for seven minutes and as I crowd-surfed, I managed to crack three jokes.”

Asked whether the audience has changed over the years, Vir says, “They are more open to edgy material now: sexual, adult, religious and political humour.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Plea for Humanity

Prof. TM Paily, in his book, ‘Human Religion’, urges people to develop tolerance and love for all faiths

By Shevlin Sebastian

Like most Indians, Professor TM Paily, the now-retired principal of Mar Athanasius College in Kothamangalam, was anguished when the Babri Masjid was demolished on December 6, 1992, and it resulted in communal riots all over the country. “That was when I began thinking about the destructive effects of religion,” says Paily. “Religion is meant for the good of mankind, yet it does so much of harm.”

But he was not surprised. “Most religions create animosity and hatred towards other faiths,” he says. “This is to serve the selfish interests of the leaders. The more followers they have, the more they are able to amass wealth and gather power for themselves.”

Paily says that if religions propagate brotherhood, it will create peace between people. It is to this end that he has written his book, called ‘Human Religion - my conscience is my God’. It is a translation of his Malayalam book, ‘Manushyamatham’, which was published in 2006. “Well-wishers and friends had told me that it would be worthwhile to publish it in English,” he says.

The 70-page book, published by DC Books, is priced at Rs 60. There is an eye-catching cover: two hands clasped in prayer and around it is the outline of a head drawn with white lines.

And it has been written in a simple and easy style. Here are some thoughts which Paily has expressed: ‘An excess of importance given to religion may lead man to communalism which is a curse of the present-day world’. ‘If a religion can ensure that all its followers are essentially good and their acts are conducive to the welfare of humanity in general, then that religion is a blessing in all respects’. ‘One need not go to the temple, church or mosque in search of God. God is within us and all that we need to do is to kindle the divine power that is already within us.’

Poignantly, there is an undercurrent of anguish in the work. “I want to tell everybody that they should accept all religions and get along with people of all faiths,” he says.

One way is to teach tolerance to children. “The religious teachers should tell youngsters that they should love and respect all faiths,” says Paily. “So, from childhood, they will be able to develop positive thoughts and a broad-minded attitude towards others.”

For adults, one way to develop this mind-set is through meditation. “The main purpose of meditation, according to Swami Vivekananda, is to escape from the cosmic illusion or what is known as ‘maya’, the cause of all suffering in the world, and to bring peace and bliss to the mind of man,” says Paily.

Another way is through prayer. “It is the only way to experience God fully,” says Paily. “But prayer should not be aimed at personal gain only. Every individual should pray for the well-being of his fellow beings all over the world. We have to ensure that the mind is free from evil thoughts like hatred, jealousy and revenge. It is only then that prayer can be effective and meaningful.”

The third way is through fasting. “All religions have prescribed fasting as a way of life to make people aware of the hardship of others,” says Paily.

This work, with well-meaning suggestions throughout, is a soothing balm, in these times of fierce religious fundamentalism, and offers a way out of the fanaticism that is gripping the planet. 

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sound Track

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Ashley talks about life with the singer Sayanora

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, at the City Centre gym, Kannur, the singer Sayanora Philip approached the trainer Ashley D'Cruze, and said, “My parents are looking for a boy that I could get married to. I like you as a person. Would you be interested?”

For a moment, Ashley was taken aback. Then he said, “Let's see.”

Ashley was already impressed by Sayanora. She was the only woman in his batch of 18 students. “I admired her self-confidence,” he says.

On the next Sunday, after Mass, Sayanora and her parents dropped into the D'Cruze household, which was less than 100 metres from the church. Sayanora introduced Ashley to her parents as her trainer. Later, when things became clear, to both sets of parents, they agreed to the marriage. But the date was fixed eight months hence. The reason: Sayanora was going on a world tour with AR Rahman and his troupe.

It was while she was on this tour that Ashley began to learn new words. “Sayanora would call me up and talk about tracks, recordings, and stage shows,” says Ashley. “She recounted to me all her experiences. It was a new world for me. Most of the time, I was just listening.”

Eventually, Sayanora came back. The wedding took place at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Burnacherry, on May 18, 2009.

It was supposed to start at 4 p.m. But there was an unscheduled power cut.
It was a tense moment for me,” says Ashley. “So many people had come. And it was quite hot.” In the end, the ceremony began at 4.30 p.m.

After the Mass, when the couple were waiting for the car to take them to the reception hall, they got a shock. A vintage Baby Austin came up, covered with red balloons. “When the car had to be started, the driver went in front and turned a large handle,” says Ashley. “It was a novel experience for us.” The car was arranged by Sayanora's brother, Swarag Philip, and sister Sruthi. The guests at the reception included Vineeth Srinivasan, Rimi Tomy, Afsal, George Peters, and music director Alphons.

For their honeymoon, they flew to London because Sayanora was performing in a few shows for actor Jayaram and his troupe, which included stars like Kottayam Nazeer, Samvrutha Sunil, Meera Nandan, Bala Bhaskar and Stephen Devassey.

And it was at Birmingham that Ashley and Sayanora got a big surprise. At a farmhouse the troupe organised a party for the newly-wedded couple.

There was singing and dancing,” says Ashley. “Jayaram toasted us and said, 'May you live forever and be happy, like now'. My eyes filled with tears. I will never forget it ever.”

Asked to list the plus points of Sayanora, Ashley says, “She cannot keep a grudge with anybody. Five minutes later, she will forget and hug the person. She loves pets. I am so happy about that. For me, my dog, a Labrador called Rambo, is like a family member.”

Sayanora is also generous. “When we go out for dinner, after it is over, Sayanora will ensure that she takes two to three packets of food from the restaurant. Then she makes me give it to the homeless near the Kannur railway station.”

Birthdays are also celebrated with the same feeling of generosity. The second birthday party of their daughter, Zena, was held at the Santhwana Bhavan orphanage at Echoor, Kannur. “Sayanora took the measurement of all the 38 girls and bought dresses for everybody,” says Ashley. “A birthday cake, made in the form of Zena's favourite animation character, Dora, was cut, and lunch was served for all. We ate with them.”

Meanwhile, when asked to list his wife's negative traits, Ashley says, “Sayanora becomes angry very fast. But she also cools down quickly. Sometimes, I do get upset by this. But she makes up by being such a sweet mother to Zena. When she goes for shows, she misses her daughter very much. There have been times when Sayanora has cried on the phone.”

And so life goes on for the Kannur-based couple. Ashley tries to be with Sayanora as much as possible. Six months ago, he flew with her to London where she had a performance. And he was much impressed by her.

On stage, Sayanora is like a lioness,” says Ashley. “She is a powerful and dominating singer. Sayanora sings western songs so well, as if she has been born and brought up outside. But she also has a knack to sing in any language perfectly. I never get bored listening to Sayanora.”

Once Kottayam Nazeer told Sayanora, “You singers are lucky. You can sing a song for an entire lifetime. People never get tired of listening to good songs. On the other hand, I have to come up with new skits all the time.”

Finally, regarding tips for a successful marriage, Ashley says, “There should be a transparency with each other. Be open and honest. I have also never hindered Sayanora's freedom. She can go anywhere she wants. I have never asked her to change her personality. I want her to remain just the way she was, before her marriage. I think this has made her happy. She always tells me, 'I don't feel that I am married at all'.”

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

All people should be Free and Equal

Lawyer K.K. Saratchandra Bose has served a mandatory notice to the Centre to ban the caste system. He has been on an all-India yatra talking about the ills of casteism

Photo of Bose by Pattabi Raman

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, 2001, the Dubai-based lawyer K.K. Saratchandra Bose went to Gujarat following the massive earthquake. “I was a one-man NRI commission who had gone to investigate what had happened and how we could help,” says Bose. While there, Bose observed that the relief distribution was based on caste and religious lines.

A group of Dalits told Bose, “Sir, dogs and cats can enter the house, but not us. We are untouchables. For earthquake relief, there are two queues: one for upper castes and a separate line for us. The upper castes have been getting all the help and support from the local people, as well as the state government.”

In 2008, Bose went to Satna in Madhya Pradesh, as a member of a group that belonged to the World Hunger Project. There were people from Australia, Canada, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other countries. Bose was the only Indian representative.

At a village, the locals asked the foreigners, “Is there untouchability in your countries? We have a well in the village which we cannot use. It belongs to the upper castes. We have to walk five kilometres to get access to drinking water. When we don’t have drinking water, how can we have a bath? We have been sidelined from society.”

The people said that members of the upper castes would go to the houses of the lower castes in a jeep, grab the girls and rape them. The foreigners could not believe this. They looked at Bose, who said, “This wretched system exists only in my country and nowhere else in the world.”

Later, Bose organised a borewell to be dug, so that the Dalits could have access to water. Then he began to do extensive research on the caste system.

Bose's conclusion: the caste system was originally based on colour. "Those who were fair and white were called Brahmins,” says Bose. “The hot-blooded warriors were identified by the colour red, the Vaishyas were yellow or brown, while the Sudras were black. In the end, the Aryans and the Dravidians got together to get rid of the Adivasis, who were the original landlords in Kerala, and grabbed their lands.”

Based on his research, Bose wrote a 208-page book called 'Caste Away! India, Hinduism & Untouchability'.

On November 30, 2013, Bose served a mandatory legal notice to the Union Government asking the Centre to ban the caste system within 13 months. He also sent the notice to all the MLAs, MPs and Supreme Court judges. It was also sent to member countries of the United Nations.

I have two demands,” says Bose. “The Centre should amend the constitution and remove the categories of scheduled caste, untouchables and Dalits. There should be no caste-based reservations. Instead, it should be based on economic considerations. All people should be
treated as equal.”

On these demands, Bose received support from an unexpected quarter. On February 4, 2014, senior Congress leader Janardhan Dwivedi said that caste-based reservations should be stopped. “This has never happened before in the Congress,” says Bose. However, the next day Congress President Sonia Gandhi refuted Dwivedi by saying, “The empowerment of the scheduled castes has been an article of faith of the Congress.”

Meanwhile, when the government did not respond to Bose's notice, in June, 2014, he embarked on an all-India Bharat Yatra from Thiruvananthapuram. Accompanied by 34 volunteers, Bose held several meetings all over the country, where he spoke about the ills of casteism. “Not one person spoke in favour of the caste system,” says Bose. “Even the Brahmins are fed up with the system.”

In Tripura, Bose spoke at a Buddhist Sangha. “After listening to me, they told me that they were with me,” says Bose. “They also want a casteless society.”

Finally, after a journey of 18,000 kms, Bose reached Delhi in end-July.

Many people do not know that the use of the term ‘caste’ goes against the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Bose.

In fact, in February, this year, Pope Francis, at a meeting with newly-appointed Cardinals in Rome, asked them to shed their 'caste' mentality.

Bose is now going to embark on a second Bharat Yatra from Padoli in Kannur district on May 9. This time, he has a specific agenda: anybody who wants to wear the sacred thread, according to pre-Vedic rites, will be able to do, in the presence of a five-headed idol of
Lord Brahma, which is 9 feet tall, and weighs 500 kg.

Bose is being accompanied by a team of priests who will perform the rites.  “I will not give up till the caste system is eradicated from our society,” says Bose, 63, who belongs to Mezhuveli in Pathanamthitta district. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Eating cooked raw jackfruit reduces insulin dependency

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Jackfruit being sold in Kerala; a traditional raw jackfruit meal; James Joseph 

One day, at Koothattukulam, Fr. Thomas Brahmanavelil had invited a fellow priest for dinner. The dinner consisted of cooked unripe jackfruit. It was after one hour, after his friend left, that the diabetic priest took his insulin injection.

Within minutes he collapsed to the floor. Fr. Thomas had become hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar). He somehow managed to reach a sugar sachet lying on a bedside table and had it. After two hours, he regained some strength. When Fr. Thomas checked his sugar level it was 50 mg/dl (milligrams per decilite). The normal is 82 to 110 mg/dl.

Fr. Thomas was puzzled. He did not know why this had happened to him. At this time he met businessman James Joseph, who runs the company Jackfruit365, which sells freeze-dried jackfruit. “I got worried by what happened to Fr. Thomas,” says James. “Because I am selling raw jackfruit. Will it be a health problem for a diabetic patient? I had once read that jackfruit can regulate sugar levels.”

James got in touch with the Delhi-based scientist Dr. Vivek Garg, who is an expert on diabetes. The doctor, confirmed through a paper, which appeared in the Ceylon Medical Journal, that after taking a raw jackfruit meal, the sugar levels drop shortly, as compared to a standard meal.

So then what happened to Fr. Thomas? “When you take a normal meal, the sugar will go up, and gradually it tapers down,” says James. “But when you take the jackfruit meal, it goes up and drops suddenly within 30 minutes. Fr. Thomas took his insulin one hour later which means his sugar was already on a downward spiral. At that moment, if you inject insulin, it will further accelerate the decline of the sugar levels.”

Incidentally, raw jackfruit has only one-fifth of the sugar of the ripe jackfruit. “For dried raw jackfruit the sugar is 10.2 mg/dl for 100 grams, while for the ripe ones it is 57.6mg/dl,” says
James, who confirmed this result through a lab test at Kochi.

The conclusion: When you eat the high-fibre raw jackfruit, it transfers less sugar to the body, as compared to a meal with rice or wheat. So you need less insulin.

The father of Dr. Johny J. Kannampilly, Consulant Diabetologist of Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, would use 38 units of insulin at night, after his chappati or rice meal, to get the sugar at 120mg/dl. “When he began having raw jackfruit, his insulin dose was reduced to 18 units,” says Dr. Johny.

The evidence seems to suggest that if you are a person with a low insulin dosage, you can avoid taking it on the days that you have raw jackfruit for dinner. Which is what Fr. Thomas is doing. “In the past two months, he has skipped insulin 20 times,” says James.

Says Dr. Johny, “There is a benefit when you have a raw jackfruit meal. But this needs further research and study. However, since diabetes cases are increasing in large numbers, we need to encourage food which has high-fibre and low sugar.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions) 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Best Friends Forever

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Prerna Sharma talks about life with the artist Gigi Scaria

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos by Ravi Choudhary

One day, in May, 1995, Prerna Sharma was standing near the Art Faculty section of the MS University in Baroda. She had come to give the entrance examinations for the arts course.

Gigi Scaria, whom Prerna had met the day before, with a group of Trivandrum College of Art students, saw her. He invited Prerna to have lunch with him. She accepted. They went to a small Malayali hotel inside the campus. Communication was difficult between the two, since Gigi did not know Hindi, while Prerna did not know Malayalam. They used a few English words.

It was the first time I saw somebody eat so much of rice and curry,” says Peerna. “In Chandigarh, where I grew up, we ate chappatis.” But during the meal, Prerna had a strange feeling. “I noticed that we felt happy together,” she says. “Gigi was intelligent and charming.”

In the end, Prerna did not get admission at Baroda. So, she tried her luck at the Jamia Millia Islamia at New Delhi and got through. Gigi and Prerna went out of touch. When Gigi also did not secure admission, at Baroda, he came to Delhi, with his artist friend, PS Josh, and got admission in Jamia, a year later, in 1996.

One day, both of them came to see me,” says Prerna. “Gigi had brought a cake, and a bottle of mango pickle which his mother had made. Thereafter, we would meet often at the Lalitkala Akademi at Mandi house. We would talk for hours together at the library. I enjoyed the friendship so much. It was so natural.”

But marriage was not going to be easy. While Prerna is a Punjabi Hindu, Gigi is a Malayali Christian. But this was how they worked it out: Gigi took Prerna's parents to Kerala, where they stayed at his parents' house at Kothanalloor for ten days. After a fortnight, Gigi's parents went to Chandigarh and stayed with the Sharmas for five days. “Both families liked each other,” says Prerna. “So, in the end, it became a love-cum-arranged marriage.”

There were two marriages. The first one, on April 26, 1999, took place at the Sanatan Dharam Mandir at Chandigarh. The next evening, a Christian wedding took place at the St. Francis De Sales church in New Delhi.

I will never forget how I got ready for the church wedding in Gigi's house,” says Prerna. “It may be the first time a bride and groom got ready in the same house.”

Unfortunately, the couple did not have any money to go for a honeymoon. Instead, they went to an aided school at Bhiwadi in Haryana. Both Gigi and Prerna held a fortnight-long workshop for art students, at the invitation of the principal, Vijay Bhandari, who was known to Prerna. “We taught during the day and in the evenings we would wander about,” says Prerna. “I remember we talked a lot about art.”

When they were leaving, to show their appreciation, Gigi made a Shiva statue for the servant who cooked for them, and a bust of Buddha for Vijay.

Asked about his plus points, Prerna says, “Gigi is always laughing. He makes the atmosphere charged and happy. He is very helpful. If a relative wants to construct a roof or a toilet, Gigi will provide the money. All the workers, our neighbours, family members and relatives love him. He is the most marvellous person I have met.”

Like all creative people, art is his first and permanent love. Not all women can adjust to that. “I don't have a problem with that,” says Prerna. “For me, it is his creativity that comes first. I married him because I admired his talent. I wanted a man like that. The moment an idea comes to Gigi he will immediately tell me. I always feel that I am participating in his creations.”

Before making the stainless steel bell, Gigi's popular work at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, he kept telling Prerna, “What to make, what to make? I want to make something very big.”

Then one day, it suddenly clicked: what about a bell? “I said it is a superb idea,” says Prerna. “Then he started doing the drawings. Then we did research together on the Net.”

Watching all this was their 13-year-old son Aviral. “As a father Gigi is really close to Aviral,” says Prerna. “They crack jokes and laugh all the time. Both are foodies. It is a great relationship. We are like three friends who are living together, all positive-minded.”

But Gigi has an unusual negative attribute. “The moment he comes home, from the studio, he will switch on the TV,” says Prerna. “Gigi watches Malayalam movies for hours together. Even when my son's exams are going on, he is unwilling to switch off the TV. That is the only time I get angry with him. The reason is that he has a passion to make films. I am sure he will become a director one day.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Prerna says, “You should always be friends with each other. It is the friendship that keeps the spouses together. You should also give space to your husband. Lastly, you must know your spouse's aspirations and offer full support for that.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Touching on all Aspects of Life

The Malayalam superstar's posts have been collected in the book, 'Mohanlal – An Actor's Blog Book'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On March 15, 2010, Mohanlal went to Mumbai, along with Mollywood film director, Major Ravi, to meet Amitabh Bachchan. As soon as the Bollywood legend saw Mohanlal, he said, “You are a Padma Shri, a Lieutenant Colonel and now a D.Litt as well. What else do you wish?”

Mohanlal did have a simple wish. He wanted Bachchan to act in a Malayalam film, 'Kandahar', which he was producing. After hearing the script, Bachchan agreed. When Mohanlal took out a cheque to give to Bachchan, the latter said, “Mohanlal, I am acting in this film for you, and not for any money. I like the actor in you so much.”

This is part of a post from the blog, 'Complete Actor', which Mohanlal has been writing for the past four years. Several of these posts were collected and brought out in a Malayalam book, 'Hridayathinte Kayyoppu' (The Heart's Signature) in June, 2012. Not surprisingly, it became a best-seller.

Now, an English version, 'Mohanlal – An Actor's Blog Book', with an introduction by writer Anita Nair, has been brought out by Mathrubhumi Books. The 104-page book, which is translated by Dr. KP Premkumar, has 38 posts, written between 2009 and 2012.

Most of the posts are only two to three pages long. However, the subjects are varied: God, the Indian Army, theatre, the Malayali psyche, mobile phones, the trauma of old age, death, road safety, denuded forests, blood donation, schooldays, friendship, terrorism, and the loss of privacy.

The lack of privacy is something the superstar endures all the time. During a trip to north Kerala, Mohanlal estimates that more than a thousand photos of his were taken, mostly on cell phone cameras. “Each and every moment is being recorded,” writes Mohanlal. “That too, unmindful of all courtesies. Some guys dash towards us, put their arms around our shoulders, click their own cameras, with the left hand, check the preview, and dash out.”

This is a rare post that reveals Mohanlal's irritation. Most of the time, like a true artiste, he writes with a mix of sensitivity and toughness. Here is an example: “We emerge when our father merges with our mother. We toddle within the halo of their love and care. By the time we grow up, as high as the skies, they are exhausted and dream of relaxing in our shade. But what do we do? We shove them into lonely old-age homes. What else is crueller than this?”

The posts make clear that Mohanlal has a rich inner life. And this is a remarkable feat, considering that he has been lionised by Malayalis for three decades now. He could have easily become arrogant and pompous, and lost his equilibrium.

After reading this book, we could try to live life the way Mohanlal does: “I too have a mind that reaches out and relates with the world around me. Like a piece of blotting paper, it absorbs and keeps abreast of every pleasing scene, every marvellous move. In a language with no sounds, I talk with rivers, flowers, fluttering winds, rippling waters, surging seas, setting suns....it renews and rejuvenates me; turns me creative. It keeps me never far from love.” 

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

Monday, April 13, 2015

Going Nuts over Nuts

Rajani BT talks about her experiences as a coconut tree climber

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

As Rajani BT takes her tree-climbing contraption and approaches a coconut tree, in a wooded area at Kochi, she says, “Just listen to the crows.” And, indeed, they are cawing incessantly. “They know that I am about to climb a tree,” she says. “They are scared that when I reach the top I will remove their nest.”

In fact, she says, at the top there are also nests made by pigeons and rats. “The landlord will tell me to destroy them,” says Rajani. “But I never do that. I don't want to get the curses of these creatures. I live in a rented house. So I know the feeling of being uprooted.”

Ranjani adjusts the contraption, and places it on the trunk. But because she is a woman, she attracts a lot of curious onlookers. They include men, women and children. One man says, “Are you scared?” Rajani shakes her head, as she adjusts her work uniform of a shirt and blue track pants.

Soon Rajani gets going. Her movement is similar to that of a physically challenged man who is using leg braces to walk. The only difference is that Rajani is going upwards. “If the trunk is straight, then I will take two minutes to reach the top,” says Rajani. “But if it is bent, then I have to stop, adjust the settings on the contraption, and then move on.”

When Rajani gets to the top, the first thing she does is to look around. At a single glance, she can say whether there is a good crop or not. And if it is not, she speaks to the tree. “I say, 'Why are you behaving like this? The people in the area will talk badly about you. Isn't it shameful? If there are fewer coconuts, the house-owner will want to cut you. So please produce a lot',” says Rajani.

Her admonition usually works. Because the next time Rajani comes, after an interval of 45 days, there is a healthy crop. “I know it is difficult to believe this, but trees respond to what we humans say,” she says. “Like us, they also crave love and affection. If the coconuts have not been plucked for three to four months, the tree feels sad.

Apart from cutting the coconuts, Rajani removes old branches, diseased fibres, and unhealthy coconuts. “If there is one bad coconut, it will affect the health of the others,” she says. “That is why it is important to take it out.”

On a good day, Rajani climbs anywhere between 12 to 20 trees. There are some trees which reach a height of 30 feet. “From the top of one tree [in the Kadavanthra suburb], I could see the High Court, which is 4 kms away,” says Rajani.

During the monsoon season, when winds and rains lash the state, the tree sways from side to side. Once it swayed so much, Rajani inadvertently peeped into a bedroom of a nearby building where a woman was brushing her hair. “Thankfully, she did not see me,” says Rajani. “All this is part of my daily work.”

But the work is physically demanding. “You need courage and plenty of energy,” says this mother-of-two. “I lost 10 kgs over the past two years. It is healthy, too. I don't suffer from sugar, cholesterol or high blood pressure. I always thank God that I have this job.”

Rajani's life changed when she saw an advertisement in a vernacular newspaper: the Coconut Development Board (CDB) was offering a seven-day training programme, called 'Friends of Coconut Trees', at Thrissur.

The aim was to address the acute shortage of tree climbers,” says Mini Mathew, Publicity Officer of CDB. “Owing to the hardship and the risk involved, the younger generation has been reluctant to do this traditional job. However, in four years, we have been able to train 42,385 people. We need a lot of climbers, because the annual production of coconuts is several million.”

Thanks to the training, Rajani is earning well. “I hope other women will feel inspired to follow me,” she says. 

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The charms of God's Own Country

The Kerala Blog Express consists of 30 bloggers from 21 countries. After their recent tour across the state, arranged by the State Tourism Department, they talk about their experiences, the power of the social media and their work

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The entire group before the tour bus; a smaller group relaxing at Kochi; Andras Jokuti from Hungary 

At the Spices Village at Thekkady, Andras Jokuti from Hungary was keen to taste everything. So, he had the cloves, pepper and cardamom seeeds. Then he saw the Bird's Eye Chillie. The guide told Andras it was better to avoid it. But Andras was in the mood to experiment. So he bit into one. Soon, he started crying and perspiring, and became red in the face. “Then I got a hiccup which lasted for a long time,” he says, with a laugh.

The chillies might have not been suitable for him, but he loved the red fish curry with coccum in it. “I enjoyed all the food in Kerala,” he says. “The amazing combination of flavours and spices are unique. In Europe, they use similar spices to make a dish. But in India they use opposing spices. Hence, there are interesting sensations in the mouth.”

Andras was part of the Kerala Blog Express, which was organised by Kerala Tourism. Around 30 bloggers and photographers from 21 countries were taken on a two-week tour of the state. The aim was to highlight the state through blogs, videos, You Tube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Asked about the impact of blogs, the Malaysia-based Zuzanna Chmielewska, who blogs atzuzachmielewska.wix.com, says, “Blogs are influential. If people see passion in your blog posts and a genuine interest in a place, then they will follow.”

In Prague, Andras highlighted a little-known restaurant called Laci Konhya in his blog, vilagevo.blog.hu. Soon, there was a long queue outside the restaurant every day. “Now I am told that it has received a Michelin Highly Recommended Award,” he says.

Alexandra Kovacova from Slovakia has a blog in English called crazysexyfuntraveler. com. Alexandra, who has travelled to 46 countries, gets an average of 50,000 visitors and 2.5 lakh page views on her blog every month. “I write about adventure, sports, luxury travelling, spa treatments and a healthy lifestyle,” says Alexandra.

And all of them are busy highlighting the varied aspects of God's Own Country. The London-based Pedro Richardson (travelwithpedro.com) says, “Kerala is the best place for beginners to India. It is not chaotic. In fact, it is an easy-going place.”

Zuzanna has been to North India thrice. And this is her first visit to the South. “I am amazed at the way the tourists are treated here,” she says. “People are made to feel welcome. As a white, blonde solo traveller, in the north, I would get a lot of unwanted attention. While here, I can walk anywhere. I can talk to anybody. This is a big plus. I will come back again and again.”

The Delhi-based Preeti Hoon, one of only two Indians in the team, says, “This is my first visit. The place is fascinating and mind-blowing. There is no state like Kerala in India.” 

Unlike Preeti, Deepti Asthana from Mumbai has come to Kerala multiple times. “Kerala has beaches, backwaters, and hills,” she says. “There are different type of landscapes. And that is its biggest attraction.”

The Amsterdam-based blogger Arnaud Wiehe heard about Kerala only when he was invited to be part of the Blog express. “However, through my videos I have been able to show my readers my experiences in Kerala in a very tangible way,” he says. “My audience is in Holland, South Africa, UK and USA. They have not heard of Kerala. But through me, they are able to see and experience it. This can create a brand awareness.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the improvements that need to be done, Zuzanna says, “There should be cleanliness on the beaches of Fort Kochi. People throw garbage. And there is too much of plastic. In such a beautiful place, it looks bad.” And then, with tongue-in-cheek, she says, “If possible, it would be nice if you can get rid of the mosquitoes.” Says Andras: “There can be improvements in the infrastructure and the roads.”

And as the days goes by, the coverage of Kerala continues. Blogger Adriana Vassilkova has recounted her experiences on Bulgarian National TV, BNT-2. Then another participant, Maria Kofou from Greece, spoke about her preparations for her Kerala trip on Skai TV, a Greek channel.

What we have noticed is that first-person accounts has far more impact than placing advertisements in the international media,” says Anupama TV, Additional Director (General), Kerala Tourism. “Thanks to the bloggers, our reach has increased. They have put up a lot of posts, photographs and videos on social media and blogs. It feels great to learn that they enjoyed every moment spent in Kerala.”

And Kerala Tourism is also planning to use this material for their own promotion. “We brought out a book and a calendar with the work done by the first Kerala Blog Express participants,” says Anupama. “We may do the same with this group also.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)