Saturday, March 23, 2019

Life at the New Delhi railway station

At his photography exhibit, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Vicky Roy focuses on rag-pickers at the New Delhi railway station. Once upon a time, he was one of them

Photos: At The New Delhi railway station; Vicky Roy 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In a photograph, at an exhibition titled ‘Street Dreams’, by the New Delhi-based photographer Vicky Roy, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, a nude six-year-old boy is about to have a bath, holding a bar of soap in his right hand. Behind him, on the wet platform, at the New Delhi railway station, two boys are sitting on their haunches, and washing clothes. On a cement ledge, a twelve-year-old girl, with twin ponytails, appears to be smoking a beedi. Next to her, two workmen are using wet mops to clean the outside of an air-conditioned bogie. But one of them has turned around to look at the camera. The image has been taken from the railway yard.   

This is usually where all the street children, who loiter near the station, have their bath,” says Vicky, who uses a Sony a7R II camera. “As for the morning ablutions, they jump into a toilet in an empty bogie and do the needful.”

In other images, you can see children begging, playing with each other, having a nap on the platform floor or selling helium balloons.  

This was a world to which the 32-year-old Vicky belonged once upon a time. In the late 1990s, he was staying with his uncle and grandmother at their home in Purulia, West Bengal. One day when his uncle slapped him, Vicky got incensed. He ran to the railway station. There, he jumped into the unreserved compartment of the Purushottam Express, which came daily at 8.25 a.m. Nineteen hours later, he reached Delhi. Vicky had nowhere to go. So, he sat at one corner of the platform and cried.    

In the morning a few children approached him. “They gave me rice and dal, to eat,” says Vicky, “After that, I explained to them why I had run away from home. The children said, ‘Don't worry you can be with us’. I spent the next two days watching what they were doing.”
Whenever a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi Express terminated at the platform the children would go to the pantry car to get food. Soon, he started working with them as a rag picker. At night they went to a shelter near the railway station where they got a blanket for Rs 1.

It was not an easy life. On the platform, there were criminals who were mostly pickpockets. “Sometimes, they would steal the money which we got through begging,” says Vicky. “If a passenger lost any luggage, they would give us a beating, even though we may be innocent.”  

Five months later, Vicky got a job of washing dishes at a roadside eatery. One day, Sanjay Srivastava, a volunteer from an NGO, Salaam Balaak Trust (SBT), met Vicky and said, “You should be in school.”

Vicky agreed and was taken to the SBT. Soon, he was enrolled in Class six of the Government Boys’ Middle school at Paharganj. The years went by. But in the Class 10 public exams, he got poor marks. “My teacher told me that since I am not very good in studies, I should opt for something else,” he says.  

Vicky expressed an interest in photography. Initially, through the Trust, he worked as an assistant to a British photographer Dixie Benjamin. Thereafter, Vicky studied photography at the Triveni Kala Sangam and attached himself to a portrait photographer Anay Mann, with whom he is still working on particular assignments.

In 2007, Vicky held his first solo exhibition, ‘Street Dreams’, with the support of the British High Commission. The exhibition was well-received and travelled to Britain, South Africa and Vietnam.

It was a turning point for Vicky. For the first time, he was treated with respect. “As a rag picker, I had seen the worst side of human behaviour,” he says, with a smile.   

In 2008 the Maybach Foundation selected him to shoot the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. As part of the programme, he undertook a six-month course in documentary photography at the International Centre for Photography, at New York. 

In 2013, Vicky’s monograph, ‘Home Street.Home’ was published by Nazar Foundation at the second edition of Delhi Photo Festival. He received a fellowship in 2014 from MIT Media Lab, Boston to study technology in photography. In 2016, he was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Asia and in 2018, he was in Vogue Magazine’s 40 under 40.

Vicky finally went back home in 2004. “A lot of people gathered near our home,” he says. “Many were crying. My family went through a lot of worry and stress. But they were so happy that I had come back. They did not have enough money to go in search of me. And they never imagined I would go all the way to Delhi.”

Meanwhile, in the past few years, Vicky has gone all over the country giving talks about his life and career to colleges and corporates. Thanks to this steady income, he has brought his mother a three-bedroom house. Sadly, his father passed away in 2008. “I am helping my brothers and sisters,” says Vicky, who goes often to Purulia. “Two of my sisters are studying in college. The economic situation in my family has steadily improved. I have to give thanks to the trustees of the SBT and my mentor Anay.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kozhikode)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Up above the world so high

Santy Sajan’s turning point occurred when her father died when she was only seven years old. Starting her career as a nurse, she spent several years abroad. Today, she is Chief Executive Officer at Aster MIMS-Calicut 

Pic by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, when Santy Sajan was seven years old, she was taken to the Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode. Her father was unwell. When she saw him, his head was covered with a beige bandage. Santy was lifted up and placed on the bed. Her father started caressing her face. “I understood that my father could not see me,” says Santy, the Chief Executive Officer at Aster MIMS-Calicut, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “Because of a brain tumour, he had lost his eyesight.”

After a while, her father started checking her nails, to see whether it had grown. Then he said, “I will cut your nails later.”

George Mathew Komath was a loving father. “I remember Chachan giving me a bath,” says Santy. He would comb my hair and dress me. And, however late he came, after his work as a farmer, the family would pray together. Chachan would also tell me stories. One day he told me he wanted to send me to the best school.”

A few days later, at their home, in the village of Chakkittapara relatives carried a cot and placed it in the living room. “And then I saw Chachan covered in white,” says Santy. “I went and hugged him. But his body was cold. But I thought, ‘Chachan is smiling, and his eyes are partially open’.”

But it was only when the body was taken to the cemetery, placed in a coffin and then put in the ground that Santy finally understood that her father had died. George was only 28 when he passed away. It would be a turning point in her life.

As the eldest of four siblings, two brothers and a sister, Santy developed a drive very early on. “My mother and grandmother constantly spoke to me about the importance of education and the need to get a job,” says Santy.  

Later, Santy did her BSc nursing at the SNDT Women's University at Mumbai, and worked briefly in the Hinduja hospital as a staff nurse. The chief of nursing was a Janet Walker from the UK. “During a meeting, she began talking about our mission,” says Santy. “And I wondered how long would it take me to get to Janet’s position. What are my strengths and weaknesses? So I always had goals.”

From Mumbai, Santy moved to the Sulaimania Children’s Hospital in Riyadh where she worked for six years. Following that, she did another stint of six years at the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital in Oman.    

But her thirst for education remained strong. She returned to India in 2000 and did her M Sc in nursing from Manipal University. Thereafter she joined Columbia Asia Hospital in Bengaluru as the head of nursing. After only 14 months, she went to the US. While there, she did a PhD from the Catholic University of America. Her thesis was on pain management of extreme preterm babies. Thereafter, she did her MBA--Business of Medicine from the Carey Business School, John Hopkins University as well as a Master’s in Health Informatics from the University of Maryland (2007-10). She also worked in different hospitals. 

Santy is a rare mix of the intellect and the heart. And over the course of her career, she developed a deep love for the health profession. “It's about taking care of people with love and compassion,” she says. “I see myself in their shoes. When they come to a hospital, they are at their most vulnerable. So I, as well as the team members, try to make them feel as much at home as possible.” 

But, unknowingly, Santy also felt the tug of home herself. Despite a highly successful career abroad, she never felt that she truly belonged. “Wherever I worked, I always felt that I was living in a foreign society, even though it was inclusive and I had the best job,” says Santy. “I just felt I could be my true self only in my own country.” 

Santy returned to India in 2013 and became General Manager, Columbia Asia Hospital in Bengaluru. After three-and-a-half years, she moved to Kochi where she became the Chief Operating Officer of Aster Medcity, Kochi. “I am extremely grateful to Dr Azad Moopen, the chairman and managing director of Aster DM Healthcare who saw the potential in me,” she says. And from January 2018, Santy has been stationed at Kozhikode. The Aster unit is a 535-bed hospital with 2100 employees. “It is the best in North Kerala and we want to retain that position,” says Santy. 

On the personal front, Santy feels at peace. “I love the mud, rains, jackfruit, as well as my own language,” she says. “My roots have finally pulled me back.” 

And she has somebody to share her joy with: her husband Sajan. She met him in Class 10 at the St George’s High School at Kulathuvayal, and fell in love immediately. Subsequently, they got married on May 8, 1994. “Sajan, who has a health business, has been my pillar of strength through all these years,” says Santy, who has a son, Tyan, who is studying in Class 12. “Without them both, I would not have been able to achieve all that I have done so far.” 

But her father’s influence remains undiminished. “I pray to him every day,” says Santy. “And Chachan has protected me throughout.” 

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When women are easy game

Artist Probir Gupta’s installations at the Kochi Muziris Biennale focuses on the violence meted out to women in zones of conflict, and the destruction of world heritage sites

Photos: artist Probir Gupta; the installation, 'Witness To Turbuelence'. Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

As you step into the TKM Warehouse at Mattancherry, Kochi, a stand-alone brick wall catches the eye. That’s because the top is covered by black upholstery, from which hangs several strands of black hair. It looks benign, but Probir Gupta, a featured artist of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, is implying an act of extreme brutality.   

This is a reference to the Muzaffarnagar communal riots of 2013 when several women were raped inside their own houses,” says Probir, who has titled the installation, ‘Witness to Turbulence’. “Finally, seven women decided to speak out about what had happened.”

On the bricks are engraved ECG reports of those who are paranoid. “Paranoia, in this case, happens when you are assaulted, or when you are fearful or being threatened,” says Probir.  

In any area of conflict, it is the women who are first attacked. This has happened throughout human history. “At present, the Rohingya women are being gang-raped and tortured by Myanmarese soldiers,” says Probir. “This is happening in Syria’s ongoing civil war. It happened in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Korean women, who were called ‘Comfort Women’, were raped by the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. I wanted to symbolise this ‘comfort’ by the fleshy upholstery. As for the hair, it is to remember the women.”

Probir’s second installation, ‘Time is a rider’ is also about women in distress.  
There is a saddle which is placed on a mound that looks like a horse’s back. But if you look closely you will see the casts of hundreds of feet of women.

These are the actual footprints of women who fled Bangladesh during the partition of India in 1947. From a middle-class life, they went tumbling down the social ladder and spent years working as domestic helps in Kolkata households. And every evening the women would meet at a temple dedicated to the snake goddess Manasa in the suburb of Sursuna. 

They would sing and cry, thinking about the past, and shared each other’s pain and sorrow,” says Probir. “And they always prayed to the Devi for protection.”

In another installation, there is a bust of Lord Buddha, whose face has been defaced. He is looking through a large metallic lens at a sculpture which has multiple feet. There is also a brass plate with the date April, 2003. “This is a reference to the time when the Iraqi museum in Baghdad was vandalised by American soldiers during the war,” says Probir. “It had housed some of the most important and sophisticated items of the Mesopotamian civilisation. As a citizen of this world, I wanted to express my outrage.”

The Buddha is also a reference to the to the huge sixth-century Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan which were destroyed by the Taliban in March, 2001.  

Probir has also done abstract paintings, one of which is called ‘What If?’ Probir asks the viewer to imagine American President George W Bush taking oath as the President of the United States from legendary black rights activist Dr Martin Luther King. What if, indeed!

Probir is a Delhi-based artist. He grew up in Kolkata, and while in college in the 1970s he was keenly observing, through the media, the many armed struggles all over the world as well as closer to home. “In Bengal, there was a movement against zamindars or landlords who were ruthlessly snatching land from the people,” says the 59-year-old. “It was about inequality and the use of brutal force. My work is about people and situations. I don't claim myself to be from the left or the right. I'm basically for human rights.”

Probir’s works are inspired by actual events. “In English, when you say black and white, like I have black and white evidence, it is full proof about something,” he says. “My works are all based on situations which are not fictional, but actual stories and actual happenings.” 

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

When the chef connects with his guests

The Make Your Own Meal programme for guests of the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty is an unqualified success

Photos: Executive Chef Hermann Grossbichler; Air India Captain BS Parmar with his wife, Wing Commander Navdeep and daughter Risham 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.30 a.m., on a recent Thursday, Hermann Grossbichler strides into the fish market at the Vypeen Harbour, Kochi. A muscular, broad-shouldered man, the executive chef of the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, inspects a wide variety of seafood: kingfish, tiger prawns, lobsters, squid, mackerel, sardine, and tuna.

Accompanying him is Air India Captain BS Parmar who is taking part in the ‘Make Your Own Meal’ (MYOM) programme. Earlier, when Hermann asked Parmar what he wanted to eat, the latter said, “Whatever you would like to make.” And that is how they ended up at the fish market.

Hermann looks intently at a red snapper and says, “This looks ideal.” Two snappers are selected. And the skin is scraped off by a stall assistant.

Back at the hotel, Hermann goes to the open kitchen where assistant chefs are already waiting. He gives instruction quickly. Soon, tomatoes and onions are sliced, at high speed, into small pieces, using gleaming steel knives, while coriander, chillies, garlic, basil leaves, and salt are also added. Then Hermann pours olive oil and cooking wine into the pan.

Hermann presses the skin of the fish and says, “The quality of this fish is outstanding. You cannot get it any fresher than this. When the raw material is so good anybody can cook a good fish. Of course, the right ingredients are also important.” Soon, the fish is put into the oven, and baked at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, Hermann quickly makes a Spaghetti Al Pesto because it goes well with the fish. Black Rice Risotto and a grilled vegetable salad with coconut oil and lemon dressing are made, too.

After a few minutes, Parmar’s wife, Wing Commander Navdeep and daughter Risham join in. They watch keenly as Hermann goes about his work. Finally at about 12.30 p.m. it is time to have lunch. The meal is served and the family eat attentively, but with evident enjoyment.  

Says Parmar:  “What I found amazing was the way Chef Hermann retained the natural taste of the fish. He did not overpower it with spices. Hence, the dish was unique.”

Parmar also enjoyed the morning visit to the fish market. “The chef carefully checked the different types of fishes before he decided that the red sapper would be the best,” he says.  

MYOM is part of the global philosophy of Grand Hyatt: food thoughtfully sourced, and carefully served. “Through this programme, we want to serve the community,” says Hermann. “In other words we want the local farmers and fishermen to become stakeholders in our business.”

The international hotel chain strives to be environmentally conscious. That means, it will not import fish from another part of the country or from another part of the world when they can get it locally, even though it may not be of the same variety. “Why waste fossil fuel?” says Hermann. “So, we don’t import butter from Denmark, which is very good, when we have very good butter in India too.”

Anyway, foreign guests do not appreciate imported food. “If I am a tourist to Kerala, I don't want to eat Danish butter,” says Hermann. “Once, a guest told me, ‘Don’t give me Norwegian sausages because I can get it in the airport at Dubai’.”  

But Kerala’s overdependence on states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh for food items is clear even to Hermann. “Yes, I would like to see a lot more of local produce,” he says. “The number of farmers who grow vegetables is far lower than what is needed.”  

Meanwhile, the hotel plans to continue with its popular programme. “There is no better way to connect with our guests,” says Hermann with a smile. 

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Sea, sun and sand

Frenchman Djillali Zaknoun and Patrycja Lukasiewicz, from Poland, have been sailing around the world in their yacht for the past four years. At a halt in Kochi, they talk about their experiences

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian   

At the International Marina near the Bolgatty Palace resort, Frenchman Djillali Zaknoun is placing diesel cans on a small cart on the bank and then pushing it on the gangplank to his 44-feet long yacht ‘Donazita’ (Portuguese, for a lady). His partner and friend Patrycja Lukasiewicz, who is from Poland is folding dried clothes on the deck.

The sunlight is so strong that the bare-bodied Djillali has patches of red all over. The couple is mounting preparations for their onward trip to Djibouti (2047 nautical miles) in Africa. It is a straight line on the map, across the Indian Ocean.

The duo have been on a world trip for the past four years. They started at Deauville in Northern France and went to Buenos Aires. Some of the other places they visited included, Chile, Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Palau, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and now, India.

We have stayed away from big places and visited all these small islands,” says Patrycja.
When the people see us, they feel an attraction, because, in these places, only three to four boats arrive in a year. So they are really happy when new people arrive. They give you bananas, coconuts and papayas as gifts.” 

Initially, the pair will have to go and meet the tribal chief and get his permission to stay. Patricia will never forget her stay on a tiny island Woleai in Micronesia in 2016. Somehow, the women came to know that her birthday was on November 15. So they gave her a surprise party. They made a dish called the coconut crab, as well as cassava, fried bananas and a papaya salad. “They made flower garlands for me and presented a striped sarong called the lava lava,” says Patrycja, who used to work in a publishing house. “The women sang songs in my honour. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Asked about her learning experience on the trip, Patrycja says, “People may have different traditions, clothes or behaviour, but underneath, they have the same preoccupations. Some want to get married, a few want to start a family, some are happy with their spouses, others are not. They worry about their teenage children and the future. And they have happy moments when the husband gets a good job or they are able to buy a new house, or their child has done well in school. I realised that people are the same wherever they are in the world.”

Meanwhile, Djillali has finished hauling up all the cans to the yacht, and then he puts  on a blue T-shirt and settles down for a chat sipping a coke. Asked about the plastic menace in the oceans, he says, “I am sorry to say this but the problem is most severe in Asia, off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and India. We stopped fishing, because we would only catch plastic packets on our hooks.”

Adds Patrycja, “A few days before we reached Kochi, we were sailing and there was a big group of dolphins. They usually like to race with the boat. They swim and jump in front of us. It is a beautiful sight. But in the Arabian Sea, they were swimming in a large field of plastic.” 

Djillali, who has a family business which is now run by his son, suggests a solution but it is not immediate. “Only education can change this,” he says. “So, you have to start with the children. At the same time, you have to be patient because the plastic will not go away soon.”

To break a feeling of sombreness, the couple invites me to check out their quarters. As you go down the wooden stairs, you step into a room which has a dining table with a circular sofa on the left and a kitchen on the right. Right next to it is the communication apparatus, including the wireless. Behind that, through a very narrow entrance is the guest bedroom. The bed is shaped like a triangle.

In the evenings, Djillali sits in this room and watches films on the laptop,” says Patrycja.

Beyond the kitchen is the main bedroom which again is very narrow. At one side is the washroom. “It is a bit cramped,” says Patrycja, as she leans against the kitchen sink.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of fish on the menu. “We catch different types, like tuna, marlin, shellfish, and the mahi-mahi (common dolphin fish),” says Djillali.   “One marlin we caught was six feet long. We ate it for almost three weeks for lunch and dinner.”

Incidentally, they travel at 5 knots (less than 10 km hour) and usually depend on the sails to travel. It is only when there is no wind or they have to enter a harbour that they use the engine. On the open ocean, they keep sailing for 24 hours, because of the presence of many ships and fishing boats. So they have to be careful. “At night we take turns,” says Patrycja. “I sleep for three hours, then Djillali wakes me up and then he goes to sleep.”

But when the couple is wide awake they are having the time of their lives. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Kerala women politicians bemoan the lack of opportunities

By Shevlin Sebastian

Pics: Veena George; Savithri Lakshmanan, the last woman Congress MP. Her term ended in 1991

On March 9, when Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, secretary of the CPM announced the list of candidates for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, there was a collective groan from the women politicians of the state. Once again, the woman representation in the LDF is dismal. They have got only two out of 20 seats: Sreemathi Teacher and Veena George.

“We are not surprised,” says a woman politician, on condition of anonymity. “This is a patriarchal society.”

Now the top leaders of the Congress Party have had parleys over different names. One woman Congress politician says, “I have presented my case.” So, does she stand a chance? “Not sure,” she says. “Our party has not had a woman MP for the last 25 years, since Savithri Lakshmanan. Hope we will get a chance to break the trend.”

Another Congress politician says, “Even if we get seats, we are usually allotted the losing ones. In 2014, we got Alathur and Attingal. There are rumours this will be the case this year.”   

The names will be sent to the High Command and the final decision will be made in Delhi. The announcement will be made on Monday. The BJP is also expected to announce their list soon.

In 70 years of electoral politics, Kerala has had only eight women MPs: Annie Mascarene, Susheela Gopalan, Bhargavi Thankappan, Savithri Lakshmanan, AK Premajam, P Sathidevi, CS Sujatha and Sreemathi Teacher. “This is sad especially because the women voters outnumber the men,” says politician Beena Menon (name changed). “And how are we inferior to men? We work as hard and are as dedicated.”

On March 8, when Beena was travelling in a car from Kollam to Thiruvananthapuram she was flipping through the Woman’s Day supplements of various newspapers, extolling the achievements of women and felt nice. But soon, she reflected on her own career in a political party and began to feel depressed.

“When a woman joins politics at the grassroots level, she is not given any respect by their male colleagues,” she says. “The men think that if she is coming to politics, she is not morally upright. As a result, there have been moments where women have been in uncomfortable situations. But they keep quiet about it. That’s because, in a male-dominated society, it is difficult to get justice.”

And even if she works as hard as her male counterpart it is the latter who gets most of the posts. “Till now, no woman has become the president of the party,” says Beena. “At the most, they become the president of a district committee. But the numbers are very low. Out of 100 district committees, say, there will be only or two women leaders.”

Beena says that this should change. “We desperately need a change in the mindset of society,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Saturday, March 09, 2019

It’s all bright and shining

A few weeks after they moved into their well-made houses, residents of the ‘God’s Villa’ of the Kizhakkambalam Panchayat talk about their experiences

Photos: The colony before the change; Sabu M jacob, Chairman and Managing Director of the Kitex Group; the colony today 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The sun is beating down fiercely at noon on a day in March at ‘God’s Villa’ of the Kizhakkambalam Panchayat. Nobody seems to be around. The tiled road between the houses is deserted. It would have been completely silent except for a few voices that are emanating from a TV set at widow Subhadra P’s house. The seventy-year-old, wearing a maroon nightgown, is indeed relaxing by watching a show. Her daughter, who is staying with her, has gone to work as a teacher in a nearby school, while Subhadra’s 13-year-old grandson is also at school.

And Subhadra is in a happy mood. “At this moment we are living in paradise,” she says. Subhadra and her family moved into a brand-new house three months ago. It has been built by ‘Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam’, a CSR initiative of the Kitex Group, along with the Kizhakkambalam Panchayat.

We were shocked when we saw the finished house,” says Subhadra. “It is so well-made. We never thought that one day we would have the luck to stay in such a beautiful house.”

The 750 sq. ft. house is set on four cents of land. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living-cum-dining room and a kitchen. There is a small work area at the back. Outside, there is a car parking facility. Earlier, water connections had also been provided. There is a storage tank of 1000 litres.
Subhadra has also bought a dining table, beds, TV, sofa, and a mixer/grinder at half the price, Rs 1 lakh, from Twenty20.

It is no surprise that Subhadra calls her house a paradise. She had been living in a 240 sq. ft house which she got through the Laksham Veedu Colony (One-Lakh Housing Scheme) which was initiated by the State government in 1972 to help the landless. “But we had to share the house with another family. So we had only 120 sq. ft. A single wall was the divider,” says Subhadra. “We lived in two rooms and had a small kitchen. The houses were not maintained properly.”

As Subhadra busies herself filling glasses with ginger juice, neighbour PP Murali drops in. The 56-year-old painter has been living in the area for decades. “In my childhood, eight people -- my parents, my sister, two cousins and my two grandmothers lived in a tiny space.”

He is deeply grateful to the chairman & managing director of the Kitex Group Sabu M Jacob. “Their family has been doing good work in our village for generations,” he says. “They have set up a mall where we can buy essential items at only 50 per cent of the selling price.”

And other types of help are also being rendered. Recently, one of their neighbours, a forty-year-old woman was suffering from cancer. “Sabu Sir paid almost the entire cost of the treatment and now the lady is well and has gone back to work,” says Murali.

There has been a change in the psyche of the people. Says one resident, “Today, my identity has been changed from Peter Abraham, Laksham Veedu Colony to Peter Abraham, God’s Villa, 2037- Central Drive. This has increased our confidence, our standard of living and will have an impact on future generations.”

Peter is also happy that the crime rate has gone down drastically. “Earlier, it was a hotspot of criminals, drunkards and drug addicts,” he says. “Many fights would take place.”  

Incidentally, the cost of rebuilding 38 houses of this colony is Rs 6 crores, out of which Twenty 20 has spent Rs 5.26 crore while the panchayat gave Rs 74 lakhs.

The biggest impact of the panchayat’s work has been the loss of image for the political parties. “The Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam’ has shown us that what political parties were not able to do in 71 years, they did it in four years,” says Murali, who was once a CPI party worker. “This is the only panchayat where all the political parties -- be it the CPI(M), Congress or the BJP  -- have joined hands to oppose the panchayat. But the people are firmly behind Sabu Sir.” Murali says that he is certain Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam will sweep the next elections in 2020.

Sitting at his dining table on the ground floor of the spacious Kitex headquarters, moments after lunch, Sabu Jacob is nursing a sore throat. So he sips a cup of hot green tea. Asked why the company has been so generous, Sabu says, “Right from my grandfather’s time we have always been helping the people. My father always told me that when the business grows, the locality should also grow. That is sustainable growth.”

Once his father told Sabu, “Look at Mumbai. Somebody lands at the airport, he will say, ‘what an excellent place’. But when they come out what they are seeing on both sides is the Dharavi slum, the largest in Asia. So that should be changed.”

Sabu pauses and says, “Every year we are growing, and our resources are increasing. So, we are pumping in more money into the community.” (Kitex, which has 10,000 employees, is the third largest producer of children's apparel in the world).  

Sabu acknowledges that the political parties have ganged up against him. And recently, when work had begun to make a rubberised road, there was opposition from the politicians and the work has come to a standstill. “The matter is in the court now,” he says.

Unlike most roads which have a thickness of 2 cms officially, but actually is less than 1 cm, these rubberised roads will have a thickness of 45 cms. “If the drainage is done scientifically, these roads will last for 25 years,” says Sabu. “So, you can understand why they would not want a road like this to be built in our panchayat.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

People without a country

Malappuram native Nipin Gangadharan talks about his experiences of dealing with the Rohingyas at camps in Bangladesh. He is the country head of a French NGO

Photos: Nipin Gangadharan; a girl at the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, at Cox’s Bazaar. Pics taken by Jean Sebastien Duijndam/Action Against Hunger 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September 2017, the Malappuram native Nipin Gangadharan stood at the entrance of the Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, at Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, as a stream of Rohingya refugees arrived on the back of trucks. They were fleeing the violence meted out by Myanmar soldiers who allegedly burnt their houses, raped their women and shot dead protestors.

Nipin noticed a 40-year-old man. He was standing immobile. “This person looked completely lost,” says Nipin, who is the Country Director of ‘Action Against Hunger’,  a French non-profit humanitarian organisation. “He had this look of horror in his eyes. There was no light on his face. And he was not comprehending what we were saying.”

Nipin immediately understood that more than food and shelter, the man needed psychological help. So he got a counsellor to talk to the man so that the refugee could articulate the trauma he went through and start healing in some way.

This camp is spread over 4000 acres but that is clearly not enough because there are 6.2 lakh people present. “In total, there are nearly 10 lakh Rohingyas in Bangladesh now,” says Nipin.

A lot of the forest land has been denuded because wood had to be cut for cooking. “There has been a lot of damage to the environment,” says Nipin. So now, aid agencies are rushing to provide gas cylinders and solar equipment.   

YouTube videos reveal bamboo huts with thatched roofing. Sometimes, tarpaulins have been used. A child collected water in a plastic bottle from a ditch. The colour, not surprisingly, was yellow. A woman, in a hijab, holding a small child was crying. Another woman, in a long gown, but with a tired looking face, was sleeping on the mud floor of a hut in which the walls had not yet been put up.

And when they do come up, there is a danger that it could come down again. That’s because Cox’s Bazaar is a cyclone-prone area. There is heavy rainfall period between June and September. So the chances of cyclones occurring every year or every other year are very high.

As for the Rohingyas, it has been a time of distress and uncertainty. “They are trying to get used to this new life in the camps,” says Nipin. “The transition has been hard to bear.”

These were people who were living in individual houses, had their own farms and could walk around their homesteads freely and without fear in the state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Now they are living in slum-like conditions, with few social services, and not enough policing. “So that makes it very stressful,” says Nipin. “The people are not comfortable. It’s not nice to be living in a camp-like situation. All of them want to go back to Rakhine. But they want their rights, and to be treated with respect and dignity.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the attitude of the people of Bangladesh, Nipin says, “They feel overwhelmed. When the influx started, there was a deep empathy. The Bangladeshis provided food and water and opened up their homes. But as this influx  continues, tensions are rising.”

One reason is because the Rohingyas are now competing for resources with the local people in an area which is traditionally not very well off. Since the refugees have not been given the right to work, and earn a living, they work in informal economies, doing manual work, which brings down the cost of labour and the locals lose out.

But there is a silver lining. “Because this has become a major humanitarian operation, there are a lot of employment opportunities,” says Nipin. “This benefits the local people. And because of construction activities, a lot of new businesses have come up.”  

Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government do not want the Rohingyas to stay too long. “They want them to go back from where they came from,” says Nipin. “That is the crux of the negotiations that are going on between Myanmar, Bangladesh, regional as well as global powers.”

But Nipin is pessimistic because when you look at the history of forced migration, people don’t go back soon. “The Rohingya crisis has lasted for three decades,” he says. “I believe it will take another two to three decades before the people can start going back.”

Which means that many refugees will probably die in the camps. And the future of the children seems to be bleak.

As for whether any education is being provided, Nipin says, “Education is a bit tough. There is a lack of space. Congestion is quite high. People are crammed in a very small area. But there are many organisations, including UNICEF, which have set up learning spaces where children can come and learn.”

The children have spoken about their dreams of becoming doctors and engineers. But Nipin, with a sad shake of his head says, “They are stateless. So they cannot go anywhere. At the most, they can become teachers in the camps.”

Meanwhile, the question now arises as to whether Myanmar has committed genocide.  “The Canadian Parliament called it a genocide and so did the Americans,” says Nipin. “Genocide is defined as the intent to eliminate a person or a group because of their identity.”

And this has been the case with the Rohingyas. They have been persecuted for decades. And in this recent instance, which triggered the influx into Bangladesh, they were deliberately targeted. “There is a historical background to the hostility between the Rohingyas and the Myanmarese,” says Nipin. “The military junta exacerbated some of these social tensions and converted it into animosity and hatred for the Rohingyas. It is a tragedy because once upon a time, all the communities used to live peacefully together.”


Helping the distressed

Before arriving at Bangladesh in January, 2016, as the country head of the French NGO, ‘Action Against Hunger’, Nipin Gangadharan worked in South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and the New York offices of the NGO in various capacities.

He has also worked with national and international charity organisations as well as the United States in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, on reconstruction efforts after the Gujarat Earthquake (2001), and relief and rehabilitation following the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004).

Nipin, who is from Tirur, Malappuram, holds a MA in International Affairs with specialisation in conflict and security issues from the New School University in New York. 

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

Friday, March 01, 2019

On an endless run

The Aluva-born Nixon Joseph, is the oldest marathon runner among the 2.7 lakh employees of the State Bank of India as well as the first Indian banker to complete 30 marathons.

By Shevlin Sebastian

On February 4, Rajnish Kumar, the chairman of the State Bank of India stood on an open-air stage in Mumbai and said, “I congratulate Nixon Joseph for his inspiring achievement. Doing things differently inspires everyone and he is a good example.”

Nixon, who is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the SBI Foundation, was being felicitated for completing 25 full marathons. At 57, he is the oldest marathon runner among the 2.7 lakh employees of the bank as well as the first Indian banker to complete 30 marathons.

Some of the places he has run include Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, Hokkaido, Phuket (Thailand), Singapore, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Shillong, Cherrapunji, Delhi, Gurugram, Satara (Maharashtra), Pune and Mumbai.

And it all began rather accidentally. One day, when he was 44 years old, he realised that all bankers did more or less the same job. “From the top to the junior-most all are career bankers,” says Nixon. “I could not find anything different. I always felt that someone should look at you and say that you are inspiring. I wondered how I could be different.”

That was when he saw an advertisement in a newspaper asking for entries for the Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon. So, he decided to participate. “Even though it was 42.195 kms, I could not comprehend the distance,” he says.

Nevertheless, Nixon bought canvas shoes worth Rs 300 and set out. After seven kms, the soles came off.  His feet started paining. Blisters added to the discomfort. “It was like being in hell,” says Nixon. But he decided he would not give up. But when Nixon reached 30 kms, he thought, ‘Why am I doing this? I should stop now’. But somehow, he felt he had to complete the race. In the end, it took him seven hours and fifteen minutes to finish.

Following that, Nixon was awarded a finisher’s medal. The next day when he took the medal to the office, many people congratulated him. “That was when I realised that 42 kms is a long distance,” says Nixon.

He began training in earnest. But his turning point came when he was posted to Japan in 2008. “In Tokyo, there is an environment that encourages all kinds of physical activities,” says Nixon. “I saw 85-year-old men and women doing jogging, swimming, cycling, and working out in the gym. There were numerous running and jogging tracks, as well as many playgrounds. Another advantage was the pleasant weather. I felt very motivated. I was thinking, ‘If an 80-year-old man can jog, why cannot I?’

Even workaholics looked after their bodies. “My colleague used to leave office at 10 p.m., and go to the gym. He would work out for an hour before going home,” says Nixon. “I felt that age should not be a barrier to achieve our dreams.”

Soon, Nixon began participating in marathons. And when he returned to India, after his four-year stint, he continued to do so. “The Indian attitude is, ‘You are getting old, relax, don’t do anything’,” says Nixon. “But what most people don’t understand is that running energises me. I don’t feel that I am aged. I have always felt young,” says Nixon.

He added that running made him determined, bold, and sharpened his brain. “You tend to carry this behaviour to the office, and end up performing better,” he says.

When the SBI launched green marathons (21 kms, 10 kms and 5 kms) in October, last year, to promote sustainability Nixon volunteered to run, to inspire the bankers. “I have taken part in eleven races, so far,” he says.

And people are aware of his achievements. “Whenever I go to a SBI branch and am introduced, many tell me that I inspire them,” says Nixon, who is a regular motivational speaker at colleges and institutions.

Asked how he prepares for marathons, Nixon says, “Since I am running a marathon once every three months, I am always in training.” He runs one hour a day and three hours on the weekend. Nixon leads a disciplined life. He goes to sleep early. He does not smoke and is only a social drinker. He avoids using the elevator. The corporate headquarters in Mumbai has 19 floors. Nixon used to work on the sixth floor. Whenever he had to meet the top executives on the 18th floor he would walk up the stairs. “It increases your endurance levels and stamina,” says Nixon, who was born in Aluva.  

His father worked in the Life Corporation of India while his mother was a homemaker. Nixon did his graduation from UC College and got the third rank. He also studied at Government Law College, before he got selected in SBI as a probationary officer. He is married to Rose, a homemaker, and has two daughters, Priya, 23, and Swapna, 21.

Asked about his future plans, Nixon says, “My immediate aim is to run 50 marathons.” 

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

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Here are all the answers…

Gastroenterologist Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, in his book, ‘Think Like Your Doctor’ analyses, in simple language, the common health and social problems that affect most people   

By Shevlin Sebastian

Manju, a 26-year-old IT professional working long hours in Kochi, developed a nagging pain in the centre of her chest. She didn’t have the time to consult a doctor, and so did what many people do in such situations -- search the internet for a solution. Her Google search left her convinced that all of her symptoms pointed to terminal heart disease and that her days were numbered.

She was no longer able to focus on her project, became irritable and frequently showed up for work tired from lack of sleep. She was already worried about how her dependents would cope with her absence.

Alarmed at her change in demeanour, Manju's colleagues took her to a doctor. After taking a detailed history including questions on her lifestyle, her doctor ordered a couple of blood tests and told her that she had acidity from irregular meal timings and excess consumption of cola. Within two weeks, Manju was back to her cheerful, healthy self.

Manju’s story is a typical case of 'cyberchondria', defined as the excessive use of internet health sites that fuel health anxiety. The difference between Google and doctor, in this case, was that while the internet provided Manju with a long list of the possible diagnoses, the doctor was able to dig out pertinent lifestyle clues from her history using medical knowledge, correlate with the past experience of similar patients, and arrive at a single diagnosis.’

This is an excerpt from the article, ‘Who is better: doctor or Google?’ from the book, ‘Think Like Your Doctor’. It has been written by the gastroenterologist, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, the deputy medical director of Sunrise Hospital. The book, which has been published recently,  has been received well. The writing is simple and accessible, and the book makes for an easy read.

It is a compilation of articles that Jayadevan had written for a vernacular online platform. The subjects include memory loss in old age, a user’s guide on painkillers, information overload, the truth about cooking oils, and first-aid tips.

Meanwhile, in his job as a gastroenterologist, Jayadevan sees a lot of liver disease. And he is not surprised. Because a significant number of Malayali men are heavy drinkers. “About 50 percent of liver cirrhosis cases in Kerala are caused by drinking,” he says. “Many of them are unable to stop drinking because they are addicted.”   

And the amount of money and effort that goes into the treatment, it ends up devastating a family's finances. “It is a self-inflicted blow,” he says.

When he came to know that most had started drinking in their teens, he started going to schools and colleges to urge them to stay away from alcohol and drugs. This is what he tells the students: “I am not here to tell you what to do. I am here to give you precise information from my personal experience as a doctor about what happens when you drink too much or take drugs. Now you can look at this information and decide what you want to do.”

Through his interactions, Jayadevan discovered the astonishing fact that the average age when men start drinking is 13. “According to published data, 25% of our high school boys are using alcohol,” he says. “It is a major issue.”

Another issue is the lack of exercise. Jayadevan knows of elite sportsmen in college, who once they finished their studies, stopped exercising, and became obese. “Their mothers want them to be fat,” he says. “Society, too, wants them to become fat. As a result, by the time they are 30, they have been diagnosed with diseases A, B, C and D. These used to be diagnosed earlier at 50 and 60.”

Another problem is that online users tend to believe everything that is published on the Internet. “There are articles which state that having garlic or ginger juice is good for health,” says Jayadevan. “It might sound plausible, but there is no hard evidence to prove it. People can be very gullible, but it can have devastating consequences.”

Once, there was a widespread rumour that the juice from the bilimbi (chemeen pulli), which grows widely in Kerala, is good at reducing cholesterol. Many people put a large quantity in the blender, made a juice and drank it. Unfortunately, it was full of oxalate. “All the oxalate clogged the kidneys and it shut down irreversibly,” says Jayadevan. “Some were lucky to get a transplant, while others had to go into dialysis for the rest of their lives.”   

The Kochi-born Jayadevan did his MBBS and MD from Christian Medical College, Vellore in 1995. He went on to study Clinical Epidemiology and Public Health at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Later, he was awarded the MRCP  from the UK in 1996. He also obtained Medicine and Gastroenterology (Fellowship) from New York Medical College. Thereafter, he spent three years in the UK and 10 years in the US. As he wanted to take care of his ageing parents, he returned to Kochi ten years ago.

Asked whether he likes his medical job or writing, Jayadevan smiles and says, “Both bring me joy.” 

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The wonder that is Cochin

City historian Balagopal CK, in association with Sahapedia, an encyclopedia on Indian arts and culture, organised a Heritage Walk about the coastal city to make people aware of its cultural legacy

Photos: Balagopal CK; the Abdicated Highness King Rama Varma XV

By Shevlin Sebastian

City historian Balagopal CK stood in front of the Durbar Hall in Kochi on a recent afternoon accompanied by a group of people, which included architects, writers, students and hoteliers. Balagopal, in association with Sahapedia, an encyclopedia on Indian arts and culture, was organising a Heritage Walk titled, ‘Tracing the Journey of Ernakulam Town in Modern Times’. The walk highlights the period from the early 1800s to the time of Independence.

For a long while, the Darbar Hall was the administrative centre of ‘Cochin’, as it was known then,” says Balagopal. “And how it happened is an interesting story by itself.”

In 1808, the Dewan of Travancore, Velu Thampi, and the Chief Minister of Cochin, Paliyath Achan Govinda Menon hatched a plan to kill the British Resident Colin Campbell Macaulay (1760-1836), who was staying at the Bolgatty Palace island. Both felt that the British control of India was coming to an end. So they thought it would be the right time to kill Macaulay. The King of Cochin, in whose territory the attempt was made, remained a mute spectator.    

The attack was led by Chempil Arayan, who was the Admiral of the fleet of the Travancore King Balarama Varma,” says Balagopal. “The latter had also fallen out with Macaulay.”  

The attackers arrived in boats, at night. More than 300 muskets were fired. But Macaulay fled through an underground tunnel and escaped on a boat. Soon after, the British were able to arrest Chempil. Thereafter, they moved the administrative seat from Mattancherry to the Durbar Hall in Cochin and appointed new people in positions of power. They were called the Diwans. The Kings became constitutional heads.

Then Balagopal moved a few hundred metres away, towards a temple, and says, “This is the Ernakulathappan Siva Temple, which is part of the Durbar Hall grounds.” Ernakulathappan is the Lord Of Ernakulam (older name of Kochi). It was believed to have been built under the patronage of a local chieftain called Cheranellur Kartha but it was renovated and raised to the level of a royal temple by Diwan Sri Edakkunni Sankara Warrier in 1846.  

At the General Hospital, Balagopal says, “This hospital provided very good health care. In 1898, King Rama Varma XV (1852-1932) imported an X-ray machine from Britain to treat his mother. However, the British Medical Officer said it was too much of a luxury for the people and refused to pay for it. In the end, the King had to foot the bill himself.”

Rama Varma XV was also known as the Abdicated Highness. That’s because he abdicated the throne in 1914. “He had his disagreements with the Resident,” says Balagopal. “He was shaking up the system. The British establishment was not happy.”

However, the seeds of modern Cochin were sowed during his reign, as he introduced the Shoranur-Cochin railway line, a distance of 96 km, established the Sanskrit College at Tripunithura, and brought in a village panchayat bill and the Tenancy Act. “In fact, when the Viceroy Lord Curzon came to Cochin on a visit, he called it the most progressive state in India,” says Balagopal.   

At the Maharaja’s College, Balagopal says, “The college was started by the Cochin government as an English-medium school in 1875. The first principal was a British gentleman called A F Sealy. It was rechristened as Maharaja’s College in the 1920s. It did have the patronage of the Maharajas. The princes of Cochin and Kodungallur studied here. However, they sat at one side, away from the commoners. In a way it was elitist.”

Very few people had access to education. “In the 1900s, the literacy rate was 14 per cent for men and 4 per cent for women, which is abysmal by today’s standards,” says Balagopal. “However, in those times, it was the highest in South India, after the Madras district, and way above the national average.”
Some of the other places he showed include the TDM Hall, the Cochin Corporation, and the Harbour.

Finally, Balagopal took the group to the Mahatma Gandhi statue on Foreshore Road, near the Harbour. “Cochin was the first Princely state, of the 565 states, to join the Indian Union in 1946,” says Balagopal. “When the first Constituent Assembly met in 1946, Cochin was the only princely state to sent elected representatives. It was a precursor to democracy.”  
Interestingly, Balagopal was a Mysuru-based engineer. But he relocated to Kochi in 2016 and saw, to his dismay, many large historical buildings being torn down. “It was disheartening,” he says. “There was so much of heritage that was being destroyed. So I wanted to start a conversation about our history and create an ethos of conservation. In a way, I am trying to do my bit to preserve our cultural riches.”


A statue for a king
At the Subhash Park, Kochi, there is a statue of Rama Varma XV. The Diwan of Cochin AR Banerjee saw the statue of Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner and wanted to make a similar statue in the name of Rama Varma XV. “But by this time World War 1 broke out,” says Balagopal. “Metal became very dear. If you wanted to use metal for anything, apart from armaments, you needed special permission. So, nothing happened. It was later made at 1300 pounds, way above the original estimate of 500 pounds. But by then, the King had abdicated.” 

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