Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Saving Pigeons On The Ninth Floor


Director Vishnu Narayan talks about his experiences in the films, 'Maradona', ‘Gangster’ and 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In a scene from the film, 'Maradona', Tovino Thomas, who plays the protagonist, wants to rescue baby pigeons sitting in a nest, in an opening in the wall of the 9th floor of a building by using bed sheets tied together to form a rope. He then has to sidle down outside the balcony, from the 10th floor, and all this was supposed to be done when it is raining heavily.

But the residents’ association of the block of buildings at Bengaluru which was the location for the shoot, refused to allow the use of artificial rain. “I felt very disappointed,” says debutant director Vishnu Narayan. “In the end, we decided we would shoot without the rain, and add it later, through computer graphics.”

But as the shoot was about to begin, amazingly, it started raining. “Immediately my eyes filled up with tears,” says Vishnu. “It came at the perfect time.”

Quickly, the director and his crew captured all the shots that they needed. Within half an hour, the rain stopped.

“The next scene did not need any rain,” says Vishnu. “In fact, we needed helicam shots. So, the rain stopped at the right time.”

Vishnu feels emotional when he recounts this incident. “I believe that our sincerity and honesty in making the film ensured that an Universal Power stepped in and helped us,” he says. “For the past two years, I have been working very hard on this film. After a lot of struggle, I could bring it to the screen.”  

But there have been moments of light-heartedness during his career. In the film, ‘Gangster’ (2014), Vishnu, along with a group of youngsters, had a chance to work with Mammootty for the first time. “He was a legend to us,” says Vishnu, who was an associate director in the film. “We watched his films from our childhood.”

Just before the shoot began, at Mangalore, Mammootty had a look around. “All of us were wearing T-shirts and shorts, including the director Aashique Abu,” says Vishnu.

But Mammootty called Aashique and in front of the crew, he said, “When these guys come tomorrow, ask them to wear jeans. So much of the new-generation style is enough.” Then he walked away.

“We were all stunned,” says Vishnu “We did not know whether he meant it or not.” But the crew carried on wearing shorts. After several days, again, during the middle of the shoot, Mammootty again spoke to Aashique, “I told you once before, everyone should wear jeans, instead of shorts.”

Once again, the youngsters carried on wearing shorts. But, on the last day of the shoot, in Goa, after 40 days, Mammootty suddenly appeared. “And he gave us all a shock,” says Vishnu. “He was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. When we looked at him, with our mouths open, he said, 'I am new-generation now'. That was when we realised that he was actually teasing us when he said we should all wear jeans. He showed that he is as young as all of us.”

Then, in another sequence for the same film, the location was at the port of Mangalore. “Actor Kunchan was standing on top of a pile of coal and was supposed to roll down,” says Vishnu. “Mammootty was sitting on the bonnet of a Range Rover at the bottom and was supposed to give a dialogue.”

There was coal dust everywhere. To get an overhead shot, the crew used a helicam which was imported from Ireland. “It was a big one, almost like a small helicopter,” says Vishnu.

The shoot began. But when the helicam came closer, dust began to rise up fiercely in the air. “Soon, there was a black mist all around,” says Vishnu. “We could not see anything in the shot. We felt scared. If all this dust fell on Mammootty the shooting would have to be stopped.”

Aashique, Vishnu and other crew members ran through the dust to see what had happened to the superstar. “But when we reached the vehicle, we saw that an assistant, who had seen the dust arise, managed to locate a sheet in the car and covered Mammooty entirely with it. So no dust fell on Mammootty and we felt so relieved. And since the shot had come through nearly perfectly, we decided not to go for a re-take.”

But there were imperfect moments during the shoot of 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' (2016). In one scene where the hero Fahadh Faasil is having a hand-to-hand fight with a character called Jimson on a ground near the Idukki dam, he sprained his ankle. “We had to put a bandage and the doctor advised two days of rest for Fahadh,” says Vishnu.

So, on the next day, the crew, including the director Dileesh Pothan, decided to play a game of cricket. The local boys also joined in. During the game, Dileesh had to chase a ball. But because of the rain, there were small wedges in the mud which had dried up in the sun.

“His foot got stuck in one of them and got sprained,” says Vishnu. “Dileesh was immediately rushed to the hospital and had to be put in plaster. It turned out to be far more serious than what had happened to Fahadh. “Thereafter, when the shooting resumed, we had to lift him on our shoulders when we had to climb steps or carry him on a chair,” says Vishnu. “So, two of the most important people in the film got injured at nearly the same time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, August 27, 2018

When My Writer-Friend Departed Silently

By Shevlin Sebastian

The other day, my friend Rudolph Vance called from Kolkata. During the course of the conversation, I asked him about our mutual friend Vernon Thomas. “Didn't you know?” he said. “He died sometime in January.” That sentence sent a jolt to me and a spreading feeling of pain through my body. 

How did it happen?” I said.

Nobody knows,” said Rudolph. “He was living with his adopted son Paresh at a village near Kolkata, and died suddenly.”

Vernon was a dear friend of mine. He was a bachelor who had published 140 books for children. They were mostly detective novels about theft and murder which were published by the Mumbai-based Pauline Publications. Since he was not published by mainstream publishers, the writing fraternity was not aware of him. But he was a stalwart of the Anglo-Indian community.

For 12 years, on every Thursday, at 6 p.m., I would go his house and have a two-hour long conversation about writing, literature, politics, spirituality, music and so on. It was fun-filled, exhilarating and unforgettable. However, in the late 1990s, I quit Kolkata for Kochi. But I remained in touch with Vernon by phone.

In his house, apart from Paresh, there was a man called Ranen, along with his wife and son. Around 25 years ago, Ranen, who used to work near Vernon's house, befriended the author. Later, Ranen asked Vernon whether he could stay at his home, because he was having financial difficulties. Vernon said yes. And it was not surprising why. All his relatives had migrated abroad, to the UK, USA and Australia. 

In 2014, Vernon's health began to fail. And his mind had also begun to fade away. When I called him at that time, he told me that his mother had died a week before. Vernon was 80 then.

Last year, a builder came and offered money so that he could demolish the house and make a multi-storeyed building. Vernon lived in a spacious Victorian-style house, with four bedrooms, a living room and a dining hall, which led out to a spacious courtyard, with a large mango tree. But he had resisted the temptation for decades. But this time, Ranen handled the discussions, made the feeble Vernon sign an agreement, and allegedly grabbed 90 per cent of the money.

Hence, Paresh had no option but to take Vernon to his ancestral home.

And now he has passed away. It was all so sad. What was sadder to know was that no obituary appeared in the newspapers. This was an undeserving fate for such a brilliant, good-hearted and kind individual.

Nevertheless, I am sure Vernon has found happiness in Heaven. And I am also sure, he will heal the heartache that I feel that I did not know of his death for so many months.

I miss you, my dear friend! 

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

Saturday, August 25, 2018

All's Well That Ends Well

Entrepreneur Peter Joseph has embarked on a project of cleaning 8000 wells in the Sreemulanagaram panchayat at Ernakulam district 

Photos: Workers of the J&P Group setting up a pump; entrepreneur Peter Joseph

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When entrepreneur Peter Joseph was travelling in Ernakulam district soon after the floods had receded, he saw, with a sense of shock that all the wells were in a sorry state. “They were filled with dirty water, slush and mud,” he says. “I also came to know that the water from the septic tanks had also leaked into the wells.”

Peter realised that when the people returned to their homes, the first thing they needed was clean water to wash and clean the house. So he decided he would clean up the wells. But Peter did not know where to start. So he met Aluva MLA Anwar Sadat who suggested the Sreemulanagaram panchayat. 

Thereafter, through his company, J&P Group, he bought 20 sludge pumps, pipes and generators, since most houses did not have any power supply. 

On Wednesday, August 22, at the inaugural function, Sadat said, “This is a voluntary contribution by Peter. I am very happy that he is doing this. It will be a great help to the panchayat.” 

Soon, the work began. At a middle-class house, the thick plastic pipe snakes out from the well through the courtyard towards the road. When the pump starts, there is a buzzing noise. Soon, a steady stream of water comes out of the pipe. The workers, consisting of plumbers and electricians, in orange jackets and yellow plastic caps, watch patiently. 

Amazingly, within 20 minutes, the well is drained of water. “This is a high-speed pump,” says Peter. Thereafter, bleaching powder is poured inside the well. Usually, in well cleaning, workers get down, balancing from ropes and physically clean the well. But that is no longer possible. “The walls are very weak because of the presence of water everywhere,” says Peter. “There is a danger that it might crumble.” 

After the work is over, within two hours, the well begins to fill with natural water. “One reason for the quick filling-up, is because, again, there is a lot of water underground,” says Peter. 

So far, Peter has spent Rs 12 lakhs to buy the pumps and other equipment. The other costs include labour and transportation. “It may come to about Rs 40 lakh, since we will be cleaning around 8000 wells in the panchayat,” he says. 

Incidentally, the daily target is 250 wells. To ensure that happens, there is a 50-member crew. Over the noise of the pump, Peter says, “I felt a clean well was an important need for returning families. So I am happy to make a contribution to society.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Helping Out During A Time Of Great Distress

Major Ravishankar HN, of the 120 Engineer Regiment from Pune, talks about his experiences during the floods in Kerala 

Photos: Major Ravishankar HN; Ravishankar (right) with subedar BS Jadhav and another colleague

By Shevlin Sebastian

The rain was falling in sheets as Major Ravishankar HN of the 120 Engineer Regiment from Pune set out in a metallic boat along with a few colleagues in other boats from Thottakkattukara in North Paravur to Aluva. He had been told that a few people were taking shelter in a mosque at Aluva. Local guides Anthony and I. Akbar were with him.

When they reached the mosque, he noticed that the ground floor was flooded. But on the first and second floor, there were 400 people, of different faiths, who were cramped together in a tiny area.

So the rescue began. “Firstly, we collected the disabled, old people, mothers, young children, and many who required medical attention,” says Ravishankar, at a Kochi hotel. “Those who took medicines regularly were not able to take them as it was all washed away in the water. So they were suffering the after-effects.”

The team did several trips. “In the end, we saved 75 people while people on private and fishermen boats also helped and got everybody to safety,” he says.

On one trip, when they were returning, Ravishankar received a call on his mobile. It was Major Vikas Kumar Shrivastava, his unit officer, who is now based in Delhi. “He told me that a few lecturers in a college that he had studied in Aluva were stranded at the same mosque,” says Ravishankar. “He asked me to rescue them.”

Ravishankar promised to do so. But when he checked he discovered that they had already been saved. Very soon, the lecturers called Vikas and expressed deep gratitude. Not surprisingly, Vikas quickly called Ravishankar and thanked him.

On another occasion when they approached a building which held a group of people, one of the members said, “Don’t rescue us, there is someone a little further away who needs more help.” This turned out to be a pregnant lady, in her eighth month, who was bleeding. “We rescued the 26-year-old,” says Ravishankar. “And she has been treated and is okay now.”

Interestingly, more than the desire to be evacuated, the people were looking for food parcels and water bottles. “Many of them were starving, especially in the remote areas,” says Ravishankar. “They were beyond the reach of Air Force helicopters who were air-dropping the packets.”

In fact, according to the Major's calculation, he was receiving anywhere between 300 to 600 calls every day, and all of them were for food. They came to know of his number because it had been flashed on one of the news channels. “As a result, we were always carrying food packets and water bottles in all our boats,” says Ravishankar.

Meanwhile, the Army team was impressed by the attitude of the people. “The people were not scared or worried,” says subedar BS Jadhav. “Nobody cried, whether it be an old person or a child. They remained calm and waited patiently. In fact, they were very confident we would come and rescue them.”

For Ravishankar, the eye-opener was the inherent sense of syncretism among the people. “It is only at moments of extreme distress that the essential human nature comes out,” he says. “And in Kerala, everybody had forgotten about their caste, creed or religion and came together.”

Even the administration came together. “There was such a high degree of coordination between the Inspector General of Police Vijay Sakre, Rahul Nair, Superintendent of Police, Aluva, District Collector K. Mohammed Y. Safirulla and myself. As a result, we were sent to places where no one had gone,” says Ravishankar.

And in one such journey, the team recovered six dead bodies. These people had been taking shelter in a building next to the St. Xavier’s church at Kuthiyathodu and it collapsed. “It was pitch-dark but we used searchlights for navigating,” says Ravishankar. “It was also raining heavily but we managed to get the job done.”

In fact, so focused was the team on rescue that they frequently missed having meals. “You will not believe this, but we worked for 72 hours at a stretch,” he says.

In between all this hectic work, Ravishankar would take two calls, in the morning and evening. It was from his wife Meghana, at Pune, who would inquire about his well-being while Ravishankar would ask about his 22-month-old son Aakarsh.

Apart from rescue work, he was specifically asked by A Kowsigan, the Managing Director of the Kerala Water Authority to help restore the main substation at the Aluva water treatment plant. “With the help of engine fitters, we were able to repair the pumps and transformers within four hours,” says Ravishankar. “I was happy to know that more than three lakh people received water at their homes soon after that.” Later, the team also repaired the pump houses at Choondi, Muppathadam and Ramamangalam.

Even though it is 10.30 p.m., Ravishankar shows no signs of tiredness. “It has been an enormous experience for me, as well as my team,” he says. “And this is what I have understood. Life hangs by a thread. Anything can happen at any time. So cherish each and every moment.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Making A Timely Contribution

Members of North Indian communities – the Agarwals, Sikhs and Gujaratis – are making hygienic and wholesome food for the flood victims in Kerala 

Photos: Women at the food kitchen run by the Jan Kalyan Society and the Agrawal Yuva Mandal (Kerala); Sikh men making chappatis at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara at Thevara, Kochi; the Gujarati community at Mattancherry flagging off flood relief materials  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Rotary Club member Simi Stephen has just arrived at lunch time outside the North Indian Charitable Trust building at Udaya Nagar, Kochi. She had come to collect 200 vegetable biriyani packets. They had been made by the members of the Jan Kalyan Society and the Agrawal Yuva Mandal (Kerala). Simi did not have to wait long. Soon, the packets were delivered and she was on her way. 

Meanwhile, in the courtyard, several ladies are sitting around a long table. They are pulling mounds from a long piece of dough. Then it is made into a circle and flattened with a rolling pin. Just ahead of them, there are several men who are making the dough. And the uncooked puris are fried in large pans containing oil. 

Inside the hall of the building, vegetable pulao and biriyani are being made. There is a hubbub of noise. There is also enthusiasm and energy swirling around, as the food is put inside cellophane packets. 

Each packet contains five puris and a pickle, along with a vegetable dish,” says

Hemant Baranwal, secretary, Jan Kalyan Society (JKS). 

The camp began on Friday, August 17 and we began with 5000 packets a day,” says NN Mittal, patron, JKS. “Now we are supplying around 20,000 packets a day.” 

They are being sent to the relief camps as well as flood-affected areas in North Parur, Varapuzha, Neriamangalam, Njarakkal, Kalamassery, Pukkattupadi, Kaloor and Vaduthala. “It has also been used by the Navy when they were dropping food packets,” says Hemant. 

Asked why they have decided to help, the bearded Parikshit Khandelwal, 40, a software engineer, says, “Kerala is our homeland now. I am a third-generation North Indian and my son has just been born,” he says. “We don't think about caste or community in helping people. The people of Kerala are our people.” 

Adds Mittal, “I have been living in Kochi for the past 30 years. I consider myself as a Keralite.” 

Rekha Bansal, who is making puris, says, “I was born and brought up in Kochi and did my graduation from Maharaja's College. I belong here one hundred percent. So I wanted to help when I saw the devastation on TV.” 

Industrialist SS Agarwal, a committee member, JKS, who is standing nearby, is helping in his own way. He has a flour mill at Binanipuram. And for the past few days, his factory doors are open to all. “I came to know that there is a flour shortage, so I decided to help,” he says. Approximately, 1000 bags of 50 kgs have been distributed so far to those who need it. 

Asked how long they will be doing this charity work, Hemant says, “As long as food is required for the flood relief victims.” 

Meanwhile, at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara at Thevara, women sit in a semi circle on the floor, and make chappatis using the rolling pin and wooden board. In the next room, there is a hissing sound, as a group of young Sikh men cook the chappatis on a broad dosa tawa. 

Like the Agarwals, the Sikhs are also making meals for those affected by the floods. “Apart from chappatis, rice and dal are also being made,” says a member of the community, under the aegis of the 'United Sikhs of Kochi', which is coordinating the relief work. “We are making 2300 meals a day. Some of it will be sent to Wayanad, too.” 

One who is very happy is Simi. “The gurudwara has been giving us 1500 packets every day,” she says. “Their families have come together and are making the food in a very hygienic manner.” 

The Gujaratis of Mattancherry are also doing their bit. The Shri Cochin Jain Temple, Mattancherry, in association with Vardhaman Sanskar Dham, Mumbai have also distributed items like cloths, mats, pillows, paper plates and food like chappati, dal, sambhar, rice and briyani to various relief camps in Ernakulam district. “On August 19, Kochi MLA K J Maxi visited our distribution centre and he was very happy to see what we had done,” says community member Paresh Chandulal Shah. “We want to do our bit for the people of Kerala.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fear And Panic In Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

George Mani raised his hands in helplessness. “The water has entered my home in Alappuzha,” says this staff member of a club in Kochi. “They called me frantically, my wife and mother. I told them to put one bed on top of the other and sit there. My son is working in the Gulf, and I am unable to go because there is no transport. ”

But what if the water rises? “I don't know,” he says, shaking his head. “All the people in the area are in the same position. They have all called for help and are waiting.”

Panic. Fear. Anger. These are the emotions that are swirling through the hearts of 3.5 crore Keralites as an unprecedented and non-stop rain has destroyed the State. There is only one conversation everywhere: What is the progress of the water, let loose by the opening of the shutters of 34 dams? Where is it going? Will it head in our direction? To our homes? To our workplaces? Will it destroy our livelihood and families?

So much has changed. When earlier, we would look with a beaming joy when it rained, now there is terror in our eyes at its fierce force. Where earlier, we would look at gushing water at the many waterfalls that dot the state with wonder, now there is horror.

The psychological impact is devastating, not to mention the financial calamity. As people come to terms with their dear ones lost to a sudden landslide, as houses, in which huge investments are done, vanish in a few seconds and businessmen ponder the loss of their valuable products, all swamped by water, more water and finally, too much water.

Will Kerala recover?

Only Time will tell. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Manipulating The Mind

The Vancouver-based Malayali director Ray Raghavan talks about his stunning debut sci-fi feature film, 'Violentia'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Very early on in the science fiction film, 'Violentia' (2018), a student is shown entering the foyer of a school. He is wearing a blue denim shirt and black trousers, a rucksack on his back and holds a guitar case in his hand. A group of youngsters, a mix of boys and girls enter.

One of the boys pushes against the guitar-toting student, who goes and hits a locker. The group gives mocking grins. The next scene you see is of the boy opening the guitar case, pulling out a hunting-gun and shooting the students, one by one. A girl's scream can be heard on the soundtrack. 

In a parallel screen, the girl's father Dr Adam Anderson is returning home in a car from work. As he enters the house, he senses something is wrong. When he climbs up the stairs and enters the bedroom, his weeping wife, wearing a blue miniskirt, is on her knees, her hands tied at her back. Suddenly a masked man lunges forward from behind a curtain with a knife and attacks Anderson, who fights back. 

The death of his daughter prompts Anderson, a pioneer in the field of nanobiotechnology, to look into a psychopath's memories to find reasons for violence and ways to treat it.

The film explore the reasons why people choose violence, and the extremes that governments go to, in order to prevent such violence from happening,” says the Vancouver-based Indo-Canadian director Ray Raghavan. “So, Anderson wants to reprogram violent people, including the one who killed his daughter.” 

It is a taut, riveting film but the many instances of random violence can be unnerving. Nevertheless, the film has received good reviews. In the prestigious Sight and Sound Magazine, of the British Film Institute, critic Anton Bitel placed Violentia in the top ten of the Sci-Fi-London fest 2018 held in end May.

Writes Bitel: 'Raghavan’s film is a twisty affair, playing out its morality drama (concerning the limits of free will and state control) on an ambiguous stage where people’s memories, real or manufactured, can be viewed “like a movie clip” – making them difficult, crucially, to distinguish from the texture of the film’s own constructed reality'.

And it seemed to have gone down well with the audience, too. After the screening, there was a line of people who wanted to take Ray's autograph. “I was blown away by the love that I received,” says Ray. 

Asked why he focused on violence in his debut feature film, Raghavan recalled a childhood memory. For a few years, he studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Jagdishpur, Uttar Pradesh because his father, an engineer, worked in a steel company in that area.

Some of my fellow students looked at me as an outsider,” says Ray. “They came from different backgrounds, the children of villagers, businessmen, farmers, and politicians. And they were very motivated in assaulting me. They felt I was a rich kid because I came to school in a car.” 

That got Ray interested in the subject of physical force: why do people get violent? Later, at Delhi University, Raghavan saw Stanley Kubrick's classic 'A Clockwork Orange'. “It was a tremendous film that deals with violence in great detail,” says Ray.

Then in recent years, he came across a TED talk where scientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology talked about their research on whether they could edit memory. The duo aims a laser beam into the brain of a living mouse to activate and manipulate its memory.

All these thoughts came into my mind when I began writing the script of 'Violentia',” says Ray, who migrated to Canada in 2005 and did a year's stint at the Vancouver Film School. He also worked for two years as an intern in a production house. 

And creative talent runs in the family. His late grandfather was the famous writer KG Raghavan Nair, based at Ottapalam, Kerala, while both his Kochi-based parents are avid film buffs.

Asked about his future plans, Ray says, “I want to continue writing and making films that are hard-hitting and gritty.” 

(A shorter version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Monday, August 13, 2018

When A Pen Becomes A Tree

To lessen environmental damage, social entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon has invented a paper pen which has a seed at one end. Instead of discarding the pen after use, if you plant it, it becomes a tree

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a studio in Mumbai, social entrepreneur Lakshmi Menon presented actor Amitabh Bachchan with a pen. He stared curiously at it. Then he looked up and said, “What is it? Lakshmi replied, “Sir, this is a paper pen. And they are environment-friendly. At one end, there is a seed. After you finish using the pen, it can be placed in a pot or on the ground. And it will grow to be a tree.” 

Amitabh nodded and said, “What a great idea, especially for India where we have an alarming plastic problem. I will publicise it.”

Lakshmi felt gratified and elated. 

A little over two years ago, in a blaze of publicity, Mollywood superstar Mammootty had planted a seed. “Now it has become a 16-foot high tree,” says Lakshmi 

Interestingly, she prefers to put the seed of the hummingbird tree in the pens, because it has a lot of medicinal benefits. The leaves and flowers are very good for thyroid treatment. It can also be put into curries and salads. “It is the main ingredient for many Ayurveda medicines,” says Lakshmi. “The tender portions can be used as cattle fodder, while the white bark can be made into corks.” 

The pen, priced at Rs 12, is hand-made by more than a dozen women at Lakshmi's home at Kanjiramattom (25 kms from Kochi). They make around 2500 pens every day. “It is being sent all over India,” says the 44-year-old. “And to foreign countries like the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, and Malaysia.” 

Lakshmi's regular customers include Wipro, National Thermal Power Corporation and the Tatas. “We are their CSR partners,” she says. “They have bought a few lakh pens in the last couple of years. The companies feel the pens give off a feel-good factor because it is about women empowerment, and saving the environment.”

Says Nithin Choudhari, Senior Executive-Operations, of the Tata Business Excellence Group, “This is a very good product. Since the 'seed pen' is always in demand, we are maintaining significant quantities in stock.”

Last year, a pharmaceutical company bought one lakh pens, which they distributed to 5000 doctors, at 200 pens each, as complimentary gifts.

The idea of inventing this pen came to Lakshmi when she came across a disturbing statistic. “There are 45 lakh school students in Kerala,” says Lakshmi. “If they are discarding two pens every month, one crore pens end up in the ground. These pens, especially those of Chinese mark, cannot be recycled.” 

Another reason for her environmental consciousness was her decade-long stay in the USA, till 2008 where she worked as a designer at an art gallery in San Francisco and stayed in the celebrity enclave (Sean Penn/Sylvester Stallone/Carlos Santana) of Marin County.

I was amazed at how caring of the environment the people were,” she says. “Even a small stream, they would try to beautify it by growing flowers along the banks. And then I would think how Kerala has so much natural beauty. We also have 44 rivers and we were just ruining it. I felt I had to do something.” 

Back in Kerala, Lakshmi has pushed hard for students to use ink pens. And thanks to her efforts, the Kerala State government has adopted a Green Protocol for schools. 

According to the protocol, schools cannot use disposable water bottles, paper, styrofoam, plastic cups, plates, and food packaging including aluminium and plastic bags. 
Many schools have been slow about adopting the protocol because all-around awareness has not happened,” she says.

To enable that, Lakshmi approached the organisers of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and asked them whether they could make a sculpture comprising discarded plastic pens. Founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu agreed. 

I needed 10,000 pens, but did not know how to get it,” says Lakshmi. “So I went and met Finance Minister Thomas Isaac. I asked him to put up a Facebook post asking for discarded pens which the people could send it to the Biennale office in Fort Kochi.”

The response was stupendous. In one month the office received seven-and-a half-lakh pens. In January, this year, 40 cyclists from Kozhikode brought along bags which contained one lakh pens. “The sculpture will be put up soon,” says Lakshmi.

Meanwhile, every now and then Lakshmi gets a request that gladdens her heart. “There is a family in Coimbatore who wanted to present my pens to relatives who were coming to take their daughter-in-law back home during the seventh month of her pregnancy,” she says. “So they bought 700 pens.” 

Another family had designed a wedding card like a tree. And they made a slot to put the paper pen, with the dialogue, 'Let love grow like a seed'.

One son had the name of Agastya,” says Laksmi. “So they wanted to place the agastya (hummingbird) seed in his birthday card.”

Says Lakshmi, “Life is good.” 

(A shorter version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Looking After Little Babies

For the past several years, home nurse Mini Thomas has looked after babies from the moment they are born till about three months. She talks about her experiences

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was the third child of Sona Das (name changed). She already had a boy and a girl. This one was a girl. Home nurse Mini Thomas had been hired, through the Red Cross, to look after the baby. Because of a Caesarean operation, Sona was going through a lot of pain. She was feeling angry and frustrated. “So when the one-month-old baby cried for too long, Sona would slap its wrists quite hard,” says Mini. “Then the baby would cry even louder.”

Mini told Sona not to do this. “Then I would take the baby away and say, 'Sona, what does the baby know? Why are you hitting her?'”

In Mini's 15-year career of looking after more than a hundred just-born babies, this was the only instance when a mother was cruel to her baby.

However, many mothers go through a post-partum depression. “They feel overwhelmed by the responsibility,” says Mini. “They are tired and in low spirits. Sometimes, a few mothers have told me, ‘Wish you could also breastfeed the baby’.”

It is not an easy job. In the first three months, mothers have to get up every two hours in the night to feed the baby. “They just don’t have the energy,” says Mini. “Throughout the day they feel sleepy. In fact, in the first three months, most of the time the baby is with me.”  
Says new mother Shwetha Vipin: “You are always feeding the child. It can be very tiring.”  

But Mini also faults the young generation of mothers. “Some of them are lazy. Most of the time, they are engrossed in their mobile phone, either talking to friends or checking Whatsapp messages. After they speak for a while, they end up getting a headache. They are not supposed to speak for a long time. They also watch TV a lot.”

Another drawback of the young generation is that they do not have any patience. “They want things to happen fast, but babies are not like that,” says Mini. “They take their time. Sometimes, they will cry a lot. You have to put the child on your lap, sing lullabies and make them feel calm and loved.”

The good news is that there is no change in pride, happiness and attitude on the parents’ part whether it is a boy or a girl. “After all, it is magical, the birth of a child,” says Mini. 

Most babies are born normal and healthy. But Mini remembers a boy who was prematurely born in the eighth month. “The baby weighed only 800 grams,” she says. “The mother hardly had any milk. Anyway, we fed it using small spoons.”

The boy had to be fed every hour. The mother had to physically take out the milk. All the utensils had to be boiled to get rid of germs. “We did this for two months,” says Mini. “I did not get any sleep at all. It was only in the third month that the baby had the strength to suck from a bottle.”

Thanks to her experience, Mini now gives specific tips to new mothers. “Whenever the baby is hungry, provide the milk,” says Mini. “Don't make the child cry too much.”

The mother should give toilet training to baby. “Just raise the legs, and immediately the child will pass the motion,” says Mini. “For 28 days, motion happens all the time. After that, it is about three times a day. The baby learns to do it every morning.”

Babies should be given a good feed at 9 or 10 p.m. Soon after that, it should be made to go to sleep. “The baby will probably sleep the whole night,” says Mini.
“I have taught these babies and their mothers would later tell me on the phone that their baby goes to sleep promptly after 9 p.m.”

Another tip: it is better to make the children have a bath at about 8 a.m. Children like the morning bath after a full feed.

When asked whether babies notice anything in the first month or so, Mini says, “They notice children who may be four or five years old. They also stare at the fan a lot of time. Then they will smile. Some babies will look at photos in magazines. But it is too early for them to recognise the father even if he carries the baby and kisses and cuddles it. That recognition comes later. Maybe, in the third or fourth month.”

Meanwhile, when asked what she likes about this exhausting job, Mini says, “When I look at the face of a baby, with its extraordinary innocence, I feel as if I am looking at the face of Baby Jesus. There is a divine light on their faces. It brings me a great joy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

An Authorial Partnership

Joseph Premal Austin and Manoj N Nair, two corporate professionals, one based in Kochi and the other in Dubai, have teamed up to write a novel 

Photos: Joseph Premal Austin and Manoj N Nair

By Shevlin Sebastian

Joseph Premal Austin met Manoj N. Nair when they were both studying at the SRM School of Management in Chennai. “We clicked,” says Premal. “So we became friends.” But after they graduated, they went on different career paths.

While Manoj is the general manager of an event management company in Dubai, Premal was, until recently, the CEO of a building firm in Kochi. But as the years went by, they felt that they had a dormant passion for writing. So, in 2009, they decided to write a book. While Manoj wrote some parts in Dubai Premal did the other sections in Kochi. “To discuss plot changes and character traits, we would call at night or exchange Whatsapp messages,” says Premal.

Then last year they finished the book but it was huge, at 535 pages. “Usually, for a first-time author, the manuscript should be about 250 pages,” says Premal. “So, we needed to cut down.”

This was done by the duo, along with the help of editors at the New Delhi-based Zorba Publications as well as Dr. Fr. Aniyil Tharakan, a professor of English at Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram and Sreedevi who runs an online journal.  And the author’s name on the cover is interesting: manojnpremal, with the ‘n’ standing for ‘and’.

The novel, 'The Rain That Touched The Sky' is of an 18-year-old boy called Akash who spent many years in Dubai and has come to Mumbai to do his college studies. “The book is all about his experiences in India, his relationship with his parents, friends and the society at large,” says Manoj.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a humorous incident. Akash, along with his uncle, take a crowded local train from Ghatkopar station in Mumbai. And to quote from the book: 'He was jolted when he suddenly felt a pair of soft yet tantalising mounds pressing against his back.'

“I am getting groped by a lady,” he thought. “What the hell? Which decent woman would be doing something like this? And why? Is she a hooker or something? Or is she is in so much heat? What an embarrassment!”

'It's not often that one gets groped by a woman, with her breasts pressed against his back while her tantalising fingers are playing delightful tunes of desires around his nether regions, and that too in a train.'

It is only much later, when Akash gets into an auto rickshaw, reaches his destination and attempts to pay the driver that he realises the woman who had pressed against him was a pickpocket and had taken his purse.

It is an intense novel, with many incidents described in detail. You get immersed in all what is happening, including how Akash falls in love. To give an idea, the duo has put up a trailer on YouTube. Already people from 25 countries have viewed it.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare writing to the corporate world, Premal says, “When you are working as a CEO you are working in a controlled environment. There are rules and regulations within and outside the organisation. And there is an intense competition with other companies.”

But when you are writing there are no rules. “You are the master of what you create,” says Manoj. “And you have the ability to make your protagonist do what you want. The liberty and freedom to create are unlimited and beautiful. When it results in a book, the joy is indescribable.”

Thanks to this joy, Premal now has some regrets about the course of his life. “I could have been a writer if I had not succumbed to the dictates of society,” he says. “I cannot blame anybody but myself. Society goes in a certain way. But we have the choice to follow them or go on another path. And if you go on your own path, you will feel free. To sum up, I want to be a full-time author, but it all depends on how this book fares in the market.”

So far the reviews have been good. “'The Rain That Touched The Sky has really touched my heart. It is an interesting story. The presentation and flow are amazing. The language is simple and easy to understand,” says one reviewer on Flipkart. Another wrote, “There is a good combination of gaffes, bromance and romance. The characters have several layers which are good.”

So, a corporate duo is venturing into the tumultuous and uncertain world of English writing and publishing, where the rewards are uncertain and the future can be tough, unless Lady Luck smiles on them.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Superstar Tales


Film editor Shameer Muhammed talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Grandmaster’, ‘Jawan of Vellimala’ and ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen’

Photo: Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mohanlal came into the location set at Ernakulam for the film, 'Grandmaster' (2012), all the people stood up. However, editor Shameer Muhammed was sitting down, with an Apple Mac Book Pro on his lap. But when he saw that everybody was standing, he felt flustered and got up suddenly. Unfortunately, the laptop, worth Rs 1.5 lakh, fell to the floor and became damaged at one side.

There is a warranty for every part, except for physical damage,” says Shameer. “I became very tense. Mohanlal saw this. He came up and spoke to me in a soothing voice, 'Let it be. Don't worry. No need to think about it'.”

Mohanlal would have long conversations with Shameer. “He asked me about my family, and who were the people at home,” says Shameer. “I told him I had only my mother. My father had passed away.”

One day, Shameer was talking to his mother Shareefa when Mohanlal came to the set. “He asked me who I was talking to,” says Shameer. “I said it is my mother.”

Mohanlal took the phone and said, “Hello Umma, this is Lal.” Shareefa immediately recognised Lal’s distinctive voice. He asked about her welfare and the family cat. “My mother felt very happy,” says Shameer.

At that time, in 2012, Facebook had taken off. Through the laptop camera, Shameer would post selfies with Mohanlal. “As a result, I would get 200 friend requests every day,” says Shameer. “Both of us would read all the comments.”

During this time, Shameer was seeing girls to get married. When he would go into orthodox Muslim households, the parents and the girl would show interest till Shameer mentioned that he worked as a spot editor in Mollywood. “They did not realise that it is a lucrative job,” says Shameer.

Because of the hectic shoot on ‘Grandmaster’, Shameer found it difficult to leave the sets. But one day, at Ernakulam, there was a gap of a few hours before the next shoot. Shameer rushed to Thrissur to meet a girl who worked in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a hospital. “When my colleagues asked me where I was, I said I was meeting a girl in the ICU for marriage purposes,” says Shameer. “That went around the set like wildfire.”

When he returned, Shameer was sitting next to director B Unnikrishnan and stars like Jagathy. “They all started teasing me,” says Shameer. “Suddenly, Mohanlal Sir said, 'Your marriage will take place before September (2012). I am not just saying this for the sake of it. It will actually happen. I have predicted many marriages.”

When Lal said this it was the month of February. It was at this time, Shameer innocuously accepted a friend request from a girl called Reshma. She was an avid Mohanlal fan. Reshma requested Shameer to arrange a meeting. So, during the audio launch of ‘Grandmaster’ at Ernakulam, Reshma came and was introduced to Mohanlal. Soon, sparks flew between Shameer and Reshma. “I briefly thought about marriage but dropped the idea because Reshma is a Christian,” says Shameer. “But I remained in a confused state.”

It was at this time that the English subtitling of ‘Grandmaster’ was taking place. Shameer was assisting Latha, cinematographer Madhu Ambat's wife, and a woman called Rekhs. 

Rekhs asked me whether I had a girlfriend,” says Shameer. “I said no but there was a girl called Reshma that I liked. Rekhs asked for our sun signs. I said I am a Capricorn while Reshma is a Virgo.”

Coincidentally, Rekhs and her husband are both Capricorns. So, they got along very well. She said that Capricorn and Virgo do get along well.

You will rarely fight with each other,” said Rekhs. As soon as Shameer heard this, he went outside, called Reshma and proposed marriage. In the end, they got married on June 11 and inadvertently fulfilled Mohanlal's prediction that he would be married before September.

Shameer has also worked with the superstar Mammootty. This was for a song in ‘Jawan of Vellimala’ but it was being shot during the Ramzan period. Shameer is a person who does not observe a fast at all. “But I was told that Mammootty Sir was very strict regarding taking fasts,” says Shameer. “He would get upset if community members did not observe it.”

So, for the first and only time in his life, Shameer began fasting. “But I managed for only five days before I began eating again,” says Shameer, with a smile.

Meanwhile, during the shoot of ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen’ (2015), at Ottapallam, it was all about eating. “On most sets, the food tastes the same,” says Shameer. “So, I would take off at lunchtime and go and eat in the local hotels. One day Jomon [T. Jomon, cinematographer] tagged along.”

There were many small hotels which were offering meals. “We would eat there,” says Shameer. “Soon, [director RS] Vimal also joined us. One day, we entered the kitchen of a hotel. Vimal is a very good cook. So, before the fish got fried, he put a lot of ginger and cumin seeds to increase the taste. Then once at a location, he got the local people to catch a few fish from a nearby river. Vimal cooked it on the bank and we ate it. It was delicious.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)