Friday, October 30, 2015

Freeze Frames

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Sindhu talks about life with the Mollywood screenwriter S. Suresh Babu

Photos by Rajeev Prasad 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At her home in Vallamkulam, near Thiruvala, Sindhu would sometimes catch a glimpse of her neighbour, S. Suresh Babu. At that time, he was studying at the NSS College in Changanacherry, while Sindhu was doing her pre-degree in Mar Thoma College, Tiruvalla. Soon, her friends, who studied at NSS College, spoke about the artistic talent of Suresh, who was the editor of the college magazine.

For some reason, I developed a strong affection for Suresh, because he was an artist,” says Sindhu. After a while, whenever they saw each other, they would smile. Since there were no mobile phones, they could not speak to each other.

After a year or so, Sindhu stopped seeing Suresh. When she enquired from her friends, they told her that Suresh was now studying at the Fine Arts College at Thiruvananthapuram. After a long interval of not seeing him, a desperate Sindhu wrote a letter to him saying that she liked him. Thereafter, Suresh came back home the following weekend, but they could not meet. Soon, he began returning every weekend.

Finally, one morning, when Sindhu was going to the bus stop on her way to college, Suresh met her and asked whether what she wrote in the letter was true. “I said that I meant what I had written,” says Sindhu. They discussed the matter in detail. And both agreed that they wanted to get married to each other.

But since Sindhu's father, Gopalakrishnan Nair was very strict, there was no way he would agree to a love marriage. So they decided to wait three years, till Sindhu finished her degree. 
In the meantime, on every Wednesday, a letter would come from Suresh to the college for Sindhu. And she would reply also.

On the morning of March 9, 1992, Sindhu told her parents she was going to college and walked out of the house with just a notebook. She took a bus and got down at Tiruvalla. Suresh was waiting in a car with his friends, Dileep, film director, Shiva Prasad and his wife Sudakshana.

They immediately went to the registry office in Kottayam, where Suresh and Sindhu got married. From there, the group went to Dileep’s house in Mallapuram.

On the same evening, an elderly person of their locality, called Prasannan, after being briefed earlier by Suresh, went and informed both sets of parents about the marriage. Predictably, an incensed Gopalakrishnan Nair went to Suresh’s house and told his elder brother Ramesh that his daughter should be brought home within 24 hours.

But later, Sindhu’s mother, Lalitha, persuaded her husband to accept the marriage. However, for five years, the parents had no contact with Sindhu, because her father was angry and upset. “It was a painful time for me,” says Sindhu.

Meanwhile, soon after the marriage, Suresh got a job in a newspaper, as an illustrator, and the couple settled in Kottayam. Today, they live in Kumaranelloor and Suresh is enjoying a successful screenwriting career in Mollywood. His latest film is ‘Kanal’, which was released a few days ago, with Mohanlal in the lead. Some of the other films he has written include ‘Naadan’, ‘Shikaar’, ‘Thandavan’ and ‘Dada Sahib’.

Asked about her husband’s plus points, Sindhu says, “Suresh is a loving person. He has always cared for me. He does not have any vices like drinking or smoking. We are more like friends rather than husband and wife.”

His only negative is that he is short-tempered. “But that is momentary and he never keeps any resentment in his heart,” says Sindhu. “So I don’t get upset when he loses his cool.”

Like most artistic people, the work comes first. “I always tell Suresh that, instead of blood, he has cinema in his veins,” says Sindhu, with a smile. “It is his passion. And I don't have a problem with that.”

In fact, Sindhu is an active collaborator. After Suresh writes his scripts by long-hand, it is Sindhu who keys it into the laptop. “Whatever he writes, he will show it to me and I will give my opinion,” says Sindhu. “I try to react like an ordinary person. If I am working in the kitchen, he will suddenly come and ask me to read something. Unlike most wives, I will not say that I will complete my work and come. Instead, I will stop whatever I am doing and read what he has written.”

But Suresh’s soul mate is his daughter, Aparna, 23, who is a writer like him. “Sometimes, he asks Aparna for her opinion,” says Sindhu. The couple also has a son named Apoo, 14.

As a father, Suresh is very lenient. “He never scolds them and gives them whatever they want,” says Sindhu. “I tell him that there is no need to fulfill all their wishes. They might get spoiled. They should learn to accept a no.”

Finally, Sindhu has tips for those who want to enter Mollywood. “I always tell young people to get a job and follow their passion for cinema on the side,” says Sindhu. “Or, at least, get a spouse who has a job. The problem is that if you don't have talent you will not be able to survive. After a few years, there will be a painful realization that you are going nowhere. By then you may find it difficult to find another career.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cooking Food The Natural Way

Tribal chef Baiju Vasudevan uses bamboo stems and firewood to make his dishes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Albin Mathew 

At 1.30 p.m., on a rainy Monday, tribal chef Baiju Vasudevan is standing on a rock, with a dead fish in his hand. The monsoon rain is falling steadily. In the background is the gushing Athirapally waterfalls in Kerala. The roar can be heard all around. Just next to him is the fast-moving and swollen Chalakudy river.

Baiju takes a knife, gets down on his haunches, and swiftly takes the scales off. Thereafter, he rubs the masala – a mix of coriander, turmeric and chilli powder – all over the fish. He chops up the fish, as well as the tapioca, onions and tomato into small pieces.

Then Baiju runs towards a bamboo grove nearby. Quickly, he pulls down a bamboo, and cuts it into three smaller ones. All the food material is stuffed into the hollow stem of the bamboo. A couple of leaves are used to cover the open ends. Since the rain has not ceased, Baiju hangs up a tarpaulin sheet by tying the ends to the branches of a nearby tree. Then he puts pieces of wood and coal in a circle, pours a bit of coconut oil, and lights it. Once the fire starts burning, he places the bamboo tubes in it.

It is at this moment that the Adivasi tribals sing a song,” says Baiju. “When the song ends five to seven minutes later, the food is cooked.”

Tribal food hit the media spotlight during the shooting of Mani Ratnam’s 'Raavan' in August, 2009, at the Athirapally Waterfalls. The stars of the film, Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan, were staying at the nearby Rainforest resort, where Baiju was providing the tribal food.

I removed all the bones and made a fish preparation,” says Baiju. “Aishwarya liked it. Then Abhishek also tasted the food, which included chicken, and he also enjoyed it. For the next few nights, they continued to eat my food, at dinner-time. After a while, they began to call me ‘Bamboo Baiju’.”

Later, when the celebrity couple left, Aishwarya wrote in the visitors' book: ‘Thank you Baiju. Wonderful dinners. Will never forget.’

It has been an astonishing and improbable journey for Baiju, who looks like a cross between a rock star and a prophet: shoulder-length hair, a long beard, bare-bodied, with a rudraksha necklace, and a black scarf, as well as sandal paste on his forehead. He grew up in the hills near  the Athirapally waterfalls. From a young age, he would wander about in the forests. He learnt cooking by watching his father, who would cook for weddings and family celebrations.

But he got the best tips about tribal cooking from an elder called Kunchu Isho of the Kadar community. “He told me that you can make a hole in the ground, place the food inside leaves, cover the hole and then put a fire on it,” says Baiju. “After a few minutes, the food is ready.” It usually consists of tapioca, honey and fish.

Baiju’s life changed, when, one day, in 2005, he saw a car parked near a forest. So he walked up to the driver and asked whether he needed any help. “Yes,” said OC Thomas, the owner of Rainforest. “I want to see the jungle.” So Baiju took him on a tour, and impressed Thomas with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the trees, birds and animals. Later, Thomas hired him as a guide for the hotel guests.

And it was on another trip with Thomas and his wife that Baiju cooked a meal for them, using ingredients which he collected from a nearby tribal colony. “There was a unique taste,” says Thomas. “I believe that some of the bamboo flavour seeps into the food.” Later, Thomas asked Baiju to provide tribal food for the resorts' guests. And that led to the fateful meeting with the Bachchans.

Today, Baiju is part of a resort called Chedi Spring Valley. He is also a competent snake-catcher, and an actor. He has finished the shoot for a Malayalam film, called '168 Hours'. “But cooking is my first love,” he says, with a smile. 

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Home Away From Home

Neema Veliyath's homestay, 'The Bungalow', on the Vypeen islands, near Kochi, is a hit among travellers

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m., on a cool December day, Dianne Robertshaw, 63, got up from her bed at 'The Bungalow', a homestay on the Vypeen islands, near Kochi, feeling groggy. She had yet to shake off the jetlag, after the long flight from London. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. When Dianne opened the door, she saw that it was the owner, Neema Veliyath. “What would you like for breakfast: Continental or Indian?” said an earnest Neema.

With a wry smile, Dianne said, “Neema, if we wanted a continental breakfast, we would have stayed at home. We have come all the way to taste your food."

It was a lesson that Neema never forget. “Thereafter, I have always served Kerala or Indian food to my foreign guests,” she says.

Neema's guests come from countries like Britain, France, Spain, Germany, USA and Canada. The foreigners come to enjoy the experience of living with an Indian family. At Neema's house, there is her husband, Francis, her 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her parents, PJ Johnson, a retired company executive, and mother Mariyamma.

The big attraction for the guests is the house. It is 85 years old and was built by Neema's great-grandfather PV Joseph Puthenpurackal. “He built it just before the wedding of his daughter, Mary,” says Neema. While the ground floor is in the colonial Portuguese type, with half-glass wooden windows, the first floor is in Dutch style, with large windows and a wooden landing. As for the attic, it is in Kerala style, with a slanting roof and Mangalore tiles. The beds, windows and floors are made of teak and rosewood. And on the stairs, you can see cast-iron grilles.

The idea to start a homestay came to Neema in 2007, when visitors, on the way to Fort Kochi, would stop and ask for permission to take photographs of the house. “Many of them asked me to start a homestay,” says Neema.

She had just returned, after a decade of sailing all over the world with Francis, a captain. They decided to settle down at their ancestral home, when Francis got a job as a pilot in the Cochin Port.

So it is no surprise that the homestay has a touch of the sea. The two bedrooms, on the first floor, which are let out to guests, are called the 'Sao Gabriel' and the 'Santa Maria'. While the 'Sao Gabriel' is the name of the ship used by Vasco De Gama on his first visit to India, 'Santa Maria' was the name of Christopher Columbus' ship when he set out for America.

The bedrooms are airy and cool, while the wooden beds are strong and comfortable.

What usually happens is after breakfast, the guests venture out and return in the evenings. A few of the women are interested in learning how to cook Kerala food. So Neema conducts classes in the evenings. “I make vegetarian, as well as non-vegetarian dishes, but my speciality is seafood like prawns, mussels and crabs,” says Neema. “The guests help me cook the food and we eat it together.”

For many guests, staying at a homestay is a welcome change. “They want to know our culture and lifestyle,” says Neema. “They are hugely surprised that my parents are living with us.”

Another charm of staying in a homestay is the sense of novelty. “Guests have told me that wherever they go in the world the hotel rooms look the same,” says Neema. “Only the skin colour of the people is different. So, they yearn for the personal touch.”

Indeed, thanks to Neema's personal touch, she has been getting rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Says teacher Martin William Campbell from London: “From the moment we arrived at 'The Bungalow', we were overwhelmed by Neema's generous and incredibly warm hospitality. She insisted that our children treat her home like their own and even stocked the fridge with treats for them.”

As for Boon-Mee Son Chai, a Bangkok-based lawyer, he had intended to take his family out to eat on most nights. “But the food at the Bungalow was so good that we never went out,” he says. “It was the best we had anywhere in India.”

Incidentally, “The Bungalow' has won the Trip Advisor Travellers Choice Award for the past three years, as well as the Certificate of Excellence for the past five years. “I enjoy making my guests feel happy,” says Neema. 

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

Monday, October 26, 2015

Friendly, Peaceful and Successful

The small Dawoodi Bohra community in Kochi has integrated well in society, despite their distinctive dress and culture

Photo of the Bohra community by Albin Mathew; Syedna Maulana Abu Jaffar Sadiq Mufaddal Saifuddin 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

One day, in April, 2014, just before he set out for the Badri mosque at Thoppumpady, Fort Kochi, Shabbir Cochinwala, 37, looked at himself carefully in the mirror. After a while, he felt satisfied. His gleaming white cap (topi) was in place, as well as his kurta, a jacket (saya), and pyjamas.

It was a momentous day, because the Supreme Leader of the Dawoodi Bohras, Syedna Maulana Abu Jaffar Sadiq Mufaddal Saifuddin, had come for a visit. The 35 families, which comprise about 135 people, were present in all their finery. This was just three months after Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin's father, Sydena Mohammed Burhanuddin, had died at the age of 99 in Mumbai.

“Syedna blessed us and said that he was very happy to be in Kochi, and to meet all of us,” says Shabbir. Senior community member Shireen Fakrudhin calls it an extraordinary event. “In just 45 minutes, Sydena detailed the entire history of the community, beginning from Prophet Mohammed,” she says. “We felt so happy.”

The Bohras, like the Jews, are one of the tiniest communities in Kochi. According to the history, there were two migrations from Gujarat 150 years ago.

One group, who went looking for business opportunities, came from the town of Sidhpur in Mehsana district. “Another section came from Jamnagar and Kathiawad,” says Sadiq H Kapasi, the secretary of the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat. “They had migrated due to a severe famine.”

And all of them set up businesses in timber and hardware. “Today, most of us remain entrepreneurs,” says Sadiq. So strong is the instinct for being an entrepreneur that Shabbir, an engineer, who had successful stints in the IT industry, in Chennai, Singapore and Bournemouth, Britain, gave it all up in 2004, and became a hardware businessman in Kochi.

I felt the urge to come back because, at heart, I am a businessman,” says Shabbir. “Of course, as my own boss, there is a lot more pressure and tension. But because we are in business, our belief in God becomes all the more, because we don't know when or where our next rupee is going to come from.”

Incidentally, his father's hardware firm, Abdul Hussain Abdul Kader & Company, is more than 100 years old.

As a second-generation Bohra Muslim, Shabbir knows to read, write and speak in Malayalam. “However, because of our attire and diction, the local people know that we are not Malayalis,” he says. “But they also know we are part and parcel of Kerala.”

Says Sadiq, “The people treat us with a lot of respect especially because of the way we conduct ourselves. We are also a peace-loving community. In fact, the Syedna won a Global Peace Award recently.”

Even the women in the community are treated well. Most of them can be seen in Kochi, in their colourful burqas (rida), with printed flowers and embroidery. “The women are well educated,” says Shireen. “There are doctors, teachers, engineers, and architects. But there are also quite a few who run home-based outfits like catering, stitching, and online businesses. This ensures a good work-life balance.” In fact, Shabbir’s wife, Zainab, runs an online travel agency.

Because of their small number, the community has to look outside for marriage alliances. Parents usually send their children’s bio-data to the online portal of the Mumbai-based Taiseer-un-Nikah Committee. Then a meeting is arranged where the boys and girls meet. “There are counsellors to help them find the right person,” says Sadiq.

And unlike most communities, the Bohras do not have a dowry system. “In fact, the bridegroom’s family gives gold ornaments to the girl, according to their financial status,” says Sadiq.

And although they have lived in Kochi for decades, they remain in touch with their roots. Once a year, Shireen goes to Sidhpur, where her ancestral house remains in good condition, and meets up with relatives. “It’s good to have two homes,” says Shireen. “My heart beats with affection for both places.” 

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Before the whistle blows....

The energy and enthusiasm shown by the crowd before the start of an Indian Super League match at Kochi is infectious

By Shevlin Sebastian

Am I the only girl who has come to see the match?” says 14-year-old Sneha, as she walks on the road just outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium at Kochi on Sunday. This is an hour before the start of the Indian Super League (ISL) match between Kerala Blasters (KB) and the Delhi Dynamos. Indeed, for a moment, she seems to be right.

There is a swarm of youngsters, all males, wearing yellow KB T-shirts and headbands. Many are carrying pennants. Some are blowing bugles, while one, wearing a white-haired wig, is using a vuvuzela (a plastic horn). But Sneha’s apprehensions are soon becalmed, as she spots two middle-aged couples, as well as a young girl, in a white top and blue jeans.

Inside the stadium, she gets a seat next to two girls who have painted the letters, 'KB', on their cheeks. The atmosphere is electric. Apart from a constant noise of the drums, people are shouting and screaming.

The players step on to the pitch for their warm-up. A KB trainer places red, white, blue and green markers on the ground.

In the middle of the ground, a group of workers are pulling away huge tarpaulin sheets which had been placed on the pitch earlier because of a steady drizzle.

Another group places drink coolers on the sidelines. Meanwhile, a few youngsters stand on their seats and crane their necks towards the VIP box. “Has Sachin Tendulkar come?” asks one. “Not yet,” says another.

Soon, the KB players begin a practice session at one side of the field. They run between the markers, twisting and turning. Then they have heading-the-ball practice, and kicking back the ball to a player who throws it at them. KB midfielder Victor Herrero Forcada takes a corner kick and swerves the ball into the net. He has one advantage: there is no goalkeeper.

At the other end, Dynamos player/manager Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian legend, gently lobs the ball up and down on his feet, the ball seemingly an extension of his body. Since the stadium is awash in yellow, somebody quipped, “We could be in Brazil.”

In the stands, mineral water bottles and Pepsi drinks are selling quickly. People are feeling thirsty. Though there is a slight drizzle, it is still humid.

Meanwhile, as the players come out for the start of the match, at 6.50 p.m., there is a huge roar. But it is not for the KB team. Instead, Sachin has arrived. And the entire stadium waves at him. The legendary batsman’s hold on the Indian public remains rock-solid and unbreakable.

Suddenly announcer Anjali Uthup Kurian shouts, “Kochi, are you ready?”

Yes,” is the collective scream.

All sorts of placards are put up. But Sneha is rightly puzzled by one of Che Guevara. Indeed, what is the legendary Argentine Marxist revolutionary doing at a football match at Kochi? It looks like borrowed heroes have always been the Malayali’s weakness.

Over-enthusiastic youths crowd the aisles. But, for a change, a firm Assistant Sub-Inspector Abdul Khader sends them all packing to the back. So it becomes easy for bona-fide ticket-holders to walk up and down.  

At 6.55 p.m., an extraordinary thing happens: there is a pin-drop silence in the crowd. That's because the national anthem is being played. It feels surreal, this sudden quiet. But the deep respect and love for the country is palpable. Everybody stands at attention. But the moment the anthem is over, there is a huge roar from 62,000 people.

Watching a match live is so much better than seeing it on TV,” says Sneha. Indeed, she is surprised at how crowded the pitch is, the players so close to each other, unlike on TV, where you feel there are large spaces, thanks to the distortion of the camera lens. Then she looks to the right, and says, “I can spot a student from my school. Three of my friends said that they would be coming today. This is so much fun.”

Yes, indeed, the action before the game is riveting.  

And, on the dot, at 7 p.m., the match begins. Or, as the theme song of the ISL says, ‘C’mon India, let’s football’.

Monday, October 19, 2015

I Am Always Yours

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Niju talks about life with the film director RS Vimal

Photos by Manu R. Mavelil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first time Niju met Vimal was when he came to her house, in August, 2006, at Karakonam, for an ‘arranged marriage meeting’. Vimal was wearing a green shirt and blue jeans, and she liked him immediately.

That was because Niju had an image in her mind of a prospective husband. He should be fair and mature. In both aspects, Vimal fitted the bill. The feeling was mutual. Even before he reached his home, at Thiruvananthapuram, Vimal called and said yes. Within a week, the marriage was fixed.

During the fixing ceremony, Vimal gave Niju three photographs of himself. In one, he had inscribed the words, ‘From Me To You’. Niju was touched. Later, her sister, Shinu, pasted all the three photographs on the wall of their bedroom.

The pair got married on November 5, 2006 at the Gautham auditorium in Kunnathukal. And it seemed the Gods smiled at them. “There was heavy rain a day before, and rains after that,” says Niju. “But on our wedding day, there was no rain whatsoever.”

At that time Vimal was a producer in a television channel, while Niju worked as a teacher at a college in Manjalumoodu. Since she had only a few days of leave, they could not go for a honeymoon. Instead, they prayed at a few temples in Tamil Nadu.

However, within a month, Niju got pregnant. This turned out to be their only child, daughter Adhvaitha.

According to Niju, Vimal changed when he became a father. “Even though Adhvaitha is eight years old, he treats her as if she is five months old,” she says. “But then fathers always have a special closeness with their daughters.”

As for his other qualities, Niju says that Vimal is a caring person. “He looks after me very well,” she says. “In the early years, he would do everything for me, including shopping for vegetables.”

But the quality that Niju likes the most about Vimal is his kindness. “Vimal helps poor people a lot,” says Niju. “Once, while going for a wedding at Thiruvananthapuram, we met a man who belonged to Vimal's hometown. He did not look good, so Vimal gave him some money. He always buys food for beggars on the street.”

Perhaps the only negative is that Vimal gets angry very quickly. “He is a straight-forward person, but I always tell him that in order to survive in society, this may not be the right way,” says Niju. “But Vimal says that he cannot change.”

Today, the couple is basking in the huge success of Vimal’s debut film, ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen’. But it had not been easy. Six years ago, one day, when Niju was returning on a bus, after completing her M. Phil exams, Vimal called and said that he was quitting his job. “He said he had got a chance to do a film,” says Niju. “I told him to go ahead.”

Vimal got the idea to do a film when he did a television documentary on the forbidden love between a Muslim, Moideen, and a Hindu woman by the name of Kanchana Mala at Mukkom. Both families opposed the love. So, they could not marry. Unfortunately Moideen died, at age 44, on the Iruvanjipuzha River while trying to save passengers on a boat-wreck.

Vimal would discuss the outline of the story with me,” says Niju. “Whenever he asked for my opinion, I would give it. Otherwise, I did not interfere at all.”

But Niju never imagined that it would take five long years to complete the film. “There were various reasons for the delay,” says Niju. Not surprisingly, it was a time of great tension for Vimal. There were nights when he could not go to sleep. “I was also worried,” she says. Somehow, Niju remained busy in her job as an assistant professor of mathematics at a college in Parippally.

Finally, early this year, Niju saw parts of the film at Vismaya Studio in Thiruvananthapuram. And some scenes affected her deeply. “I thought: is it because it was my husband’s film that I was reacting so intensely?” she says. “I did wonder whether the audience would have a similar reaction.”

She got the answer during the first show, at the Kairali theatre, in Thiruvananthapuram, on September 19. “I kept getting text messages saying that it is a good film and felt thrilled about that,” she says. Later, Niju distributed laddoos to all the students, teachers and non-teaching staff of her college. And, today, she has a simple desire. “My deepest wish is that all of Vimal’s future films should also do as well,” she says.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Niju says, “There will be problems in every marriage, but you should adopt a positive attitude towards solving it. Spouses should offer support, and avoid interfering in each other's lives. When you learn to trust each other, then you will be able to give freedom to the other person.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Everything Spicy About It

The employees of the Spices Board, Kochi, have won several medals in arm-wrestling. They are also active members of the organisation's health club

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Albin MathewReshmi EG (left) and Nileena Boban testing their skills. Coach VJ Xavier (centre) watch​es keenly; Nileena Boban strengthening her arms

On a Wednesday afternoon, Nileena Boban and Reshmi EG stood on either side of an arm wrestling table and gripped each other's right hand. Suddenly, Reshmi pulls her hand off, as it is sweaty. She wipes her palm on her black salwar kameez. Then they grip hands once again. This time, Nileena and Reshmi hold steady for a while, both exerting matching pressure. The spectators watch silently. Then, suddenly, Nileena leans forward, uses a better technique, and downs Reshmi's hand on the padded cushion.

What is unusual about this event is that it is taking place in the Spices Board office at Kochi. Amazingly, many of the women employees are district, state and national-level winners in arm wrestling.

And it all happened rather accidentally. In January, the chairman, Dr. A. Jayathilak suggested that there could be a healthy competition among the staffers during the New Year day celebrations. So, an arm wrestling contest took place. Two weeks later, there was a news item in the newspaper: a district-level arm-wrestling competition was going to take place at Kochi.

The Chairman said that we should participate,” says staffer Ancy M. John. “When we took part we got a shock because we won many medals, even though we had only two days of training. One reason was because there were few women participants. Then we went to the state-level tournament at Kanhangad, in February, and won 15 medals there, while the men won seven.”

Immediately, Jayathilak okayed the purchase of an international-standard arm wrestling table, at a cost of Rs 13,000. “Then we got a former national champion, KS Nobi, to come and train our employees,” says Jayathilak. “The Kerala Arm Wrestling Federation officials also provided support.”

To ensure that they are in fine fettle, there are daily training sessions for the competitors. One period is from 9.30 to 10 a.m., while the other is from 3.30 to 4 p.m.

Thereafter, the Spices Board sent a team to the national championships at Bazpur, Uttarakhand, in June. And the women did reasonably well. There were three bronze medal winners: Stephy Antony (55-60 kgs category), G. Aparna (60-65 kgs), and N Thara (65-70 kgs).

For Jayathilak, there have been a few gains so far. “There is a good projection of the organisation in the media,” he says. “When they go for competitions, the employees, from different departments, mingle with each other and become friends. They also made friends with other competitors. In normal circumstances, they might not have done so.”

The wins have helped develop self-confidence. “Overnight, our women employees have become state and national-level medal winners,” says Jayathilak. “These achievements are something to tell their grandchildren about. What is clear is that if women are given opportunities, they will shine, like the men.”

Meanwhile, few know that the arm-wrestling practice sessions are taking place in the health club on the fifth floor. And the idea of starting a club also happened by accident.

In October, 2012, Jayathilak noticed that the medical reimbursement bills of the staff were high. “I told my colleagues that they should do regular exercises, and become healthy,” says Jayathilak. But the staffers replied that they did not have the time to practice at a health club. Because of traffic jams, they had to leave the house early, and it was the same situation in the evenings. “They could only manage some exercise on the weekends,” says Jayathilak.

That was when the chairman had a brainwave. He decided to start a health club at the office. And it is a state-of-the-art club, with all the latest machines, including a treadmill, bench press, and weight machines. “We spent Rs 10 lakh,” he says. “And, most probably, this is the first government organisation in India to have a health club like this.”

And the impact on the employees has been profound. Ancy was a diabetic, who had high blood pressure. She would take medicines regularly. “But when I began exercising regularly at the health club, my health improved. I have stopped taking tablets, my weight has stabilised, and I feel positive and happy.”

Standing next to Ancy is the visually-challenged AR Shibhu. He is an arm wrestler, as well as a power-lifter. “Last year I lifted 240 kgs,” he says. Shibu was the only visually-challenged competitor in the national arm-wrestling championships. “My competitors were very strong,” says Shibhu, who came fifth in his event. “Now I am doing a lot of weight training, to develop my forearms.”

Two years ago, when A Subramanyam entered the health club, he had not done any exercise in his life. But, thanks to the guidance from the coach, VJ Xavier, he started doing power lifting. And, at the state championships, he won a bronze in the 74 kgs category.

Before I began to do exercise, I used to feel tired at the end of the working day,” says Subramanyam. “But, today, after doing one hour of intense weightlifting, I feel rejuvenated and mentally relaxed. And I get a good night's sleep, too.”

And so does Jayathilak, because of the overall benefits. “There are an all-round positive attitude and an increase in productivity,” he says. “And I am also sure that there will be a long-term decline in the medical reimbursement bills.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Solicitors of Symphony

The 'Ragaaneethi' music band is perhaps the only group in the country that consists solely of lawyers

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Just before he stepped on stage, at the Fine Arts Hall in Kochi, last year, singer Vijay Yesudas told the 'Ragaaneethi' music band that he would sing four songs. Vijay was a special guest for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the band. But the moment he began singing, he realised that the music being played was 'live'. “Unlike most bands, we don't perform with recorded music,” says band leader KT Shyam Kumar. “Most singers love this because they can improvise and try out new things. Otherwise, it is a mechanical process.”

So excited was Vijay by this 'live' performance, that he ended up singing 12 songs and stayed for two hours. At the end, he told the audience, “There are so many professional orchestras which do not play as well. All the band members have such good talent. And they sound so wonderful in a live performance.”

The unusual thing about 'Ragaaneethi' is that the eleven-member team consists solely of lawyers who practice in the Kerala High Court. “I believe we may be the only lawyer band in India,” says a smiling Shyam.

Apart from playing in several events in the legal fraternity, like the South India Judges' Conference, they also do charity shows. “Since we are already earning a living, as lawyers, we play for free,” says Shyam. “This is a passion for us.”

Recently, at the invitation of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, they took part in its Arts And Medicine programme, which is held, once a week, at the General Hospital. “We opted to play only melodious songs, so that the patients and by-standers could feel soothed,” says percussionist Harish R Menon.

Indeed, they were. One bystander, a 60-year-old woman told Harish, “Your songs are wonderful. I come, on every Wednesday, to buy medicines, but also to listen to the music.”

On another occasion, the band played for the female inmates of a juvenile home. “The girls were so happy that they started dancing in an impromptu manner,” says lead guitarist George Johnson. “One girl even came on stage and sang a song. It was the first time they were listening to 'live' music. They did not have any contact with the outside world. There was a profound joy on their faces. We felt happy seeing that.”

Incidentally, the lawyers got together as a group when they decided to do an instrumental ensemble for the annual-day celebrations of the Kerala High Court Advocates’ Association. Since their performance was much appreciated, they decided to set up a full-fledged orchestra. The other members include percussionist Manoj Chandran, bass guitarist Anand Parathara, drummer John Didymos, Sunil Dutt on the tabla and singers, Vipin Das, Jai George, and Carol Alenchery.

Asked the meaning of the word, 'Raaganeethi', Harish says, “It was coined by our guitarist, PK Raveendran, who, sadly, passed away two years ago. While Raaga is a music term, Neethi means justice. So, in essence, we are doing justice to music.”

And in order to do justice to the audience, the band trains as often as possible. However, because of their legal commitments, they usually practice on the weekends.

This is usually at Shyam's home, where he has set up a music studio. Rehearsals usually begin at 7 p.m., and it can go on till midnight. The repertoire includes popular Malayalam songs, ghazals and fusion music. “That always goes down well with the audience,” says Vipin.

Interestingly, most said that if they came of age today, they would have opted for music as a career. “Today, there is an ocean of opportunities for musicians,” says Shyam. “There are so many television channels, Mollywood films, and so many entertainment programmes for corporates. It can be lucrative.”

Nevertheless, there are other gains. Band members say that they have become better lawyers. “Being a good lawyer means to be a good performer in front of the judge and the court,” says Shyam. “Our experience on the stage helps us to perform better in court. Our concentration levels are higher. We are also happier and positive-minded because we are doing what we like. It is a form of meditation.” 

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Touch of North India in the South

Dal Roti in Fort Kochi, which serves authentic north Indian food, is a popular stop for tourists as well as locals

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

One December morning, in 2012, a Portuguese woman, Carlota Alves, along with her husband and three children entered the Dal Roti restaurant on Lilly Road at Fort Kochi. They took a table near a wall. After a while, another family, a husband and wife and two children took a table against the opposite wall. The woman’s name was Emilia Coelho. Both families were speaking in Portuguese.

After a while, Carlota, 40, got up, went to the Coelho table, and asked Emilia, “Are you from Portugal?”

No,” said Emilia. “I am from Mexico.”

They started talking, exchanged names and got a shock. Both Carlota and Emilia were classmates in school in Mexico when they were four years old.
So excited were the two women to see each other, that Carlota, who was scheduled to fly out the next day, cancelled her ticket so that the two women could spend time with each other.

It was such an unforgettable experience,” says Dal Roti owner Ramesh Menon. “In fact, both of them thanked me for somehow engineering this meeting between the two.”

Dal Roti is an unusual place. It is the lone eatery in Fort Kochi that only serves North Indian food. Ramesh started this 3000 sq. ft. restaurant, which seats 60, on January 4, 2007, when his North Indian wife, Kalpana, complained of eating South Indian food all the time.

Like my wife, there are many north Indian tourists who come to the restaurant and beg me, ‘Sir, please make some dishes without curry leaves and coconut. We are tired of eating Malayali food’,” says Ramesh.

Expectedly, the cuisine is authentic North Indian stuff, like Mughlai parathas, paneer, kheema, biriyani and kofta, because the chief cook, Mumtaz Khan, as well as his assistants, are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

When Ramesh went searching for chefs he deliberately avoided those who worked for five-star hotels. “They tend to neutralise food because they are looking for consistency in flavour,” says Ramesh. “So the food lacks the punch of natural cooking. But whenever people cook for a wedding feast, they need to provide quality fare. Otherwise, they will not be called again. All my chefs used to cook for weddings.”

Apart from having authentic cooks, Ramesh’s USP is that he ensures there is very little spice in the food. “I have always felt that if you add chillies, you can no longer taste the cardamom or the cloves,” he says. “The taste should be subtle.”

Also, unlike most owners, Ramesh is a hands-on person. “It is unusual for an owner to talk to the customers,” he says. “But I have no such problems. I suggest food items, take the order, and serve the food myself. In India, where there is a strong separation between the white and blue collar, here is a white-collar guy doing a blue-collar work. But in this business, the personal touch makes a restaurant successful.” 

Indeed, Dal Roti is doing well. There are many patrons from Europe and America. Some are unpredictable. One man came in, wearing torn jeans and t-shirt, with bedraggled hair. At the end of the meal, when Ramesh exchanged visiting cards, the man turned out to be a scientist with NASA. Best-selling US-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni comes whenever she is in Kochi.
There are regular Malayali customers, too. Among them is a Muslim family who comes every week from Kodungallur, which is 43 kms away.
So how did Malayalis develop a taste for North Indian food? “Their children go for further studies in places like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, where they learn to eat North Indian food,” says Ramesh. “So when they come home for their vacations, they persuade their parents to try the same food.”  
Asked about the most popular item, customer Niranjana says, “The kati rolls are to die for. The chicken mughlai is another awesome dish. You might have to wait for a while to get a table but in the end it's worth it.”
In the end, Ramesh lets out his own surprise secret. His favourite food is not available at his restaurant. “I prefer rice, sambar, rasam and vegetables,” he says, with a broad grin. 

(Sunday Standard, New Delhi, and New Indian Express, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi)