Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Preserving mural art history

Mural artist Sasi Warrier has extracted several artworks from a wall of the now-demolished Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. He is carrying on the life project of his late father KK Warrier

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, mural artist Sasi Warrier, who runs the Indian School of Art at Ravipuram, Kochi, got a call. It was from his student, Meera Menon. She said, “Master, they have started demolishing the temple.” 

The temple in question is the 800-year-old Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. Sasi immediately got in touch with the temple committee. They had agreed earlier that Sasi could come and peel off the mural paintings. But it seemed they forgot about it, as the roof had just been demolished. 

But they made amends by quickly putting up a tarpaulin sheet over the wall on the second floor where the paintings had been etched. 

On the morning of October 22, Sasi stood in front of the works, accompanied by his student Shreekumar and Dr CP Unnikrishnan, a well-wisher of the school and Kathakali artist. Inches above them was a blue tarpaulin sheet. On the wall, in front, there was a 3 x 2 feet painting. It depicted a scene from the Mahabaratha. 

Krishna’s mother Devaki and Vasudevan had just got married. They are being escorted home by Devaki’s brother Kamsa. A celestial voice tells Kamsa, “This eighth child of this Devaki shall become your death!" Frightened and angry, Kamsa grabs hold of Devaki’s hair to kill her.

Sasi has a time-tested method, as perfected by his artist father KK Warrier, who died on August 6, 2018. He rubbed a chemical on the surface. Then he waited for about two hours. Once the chemical dried up, Sasi took a pocket knife and delicately began to lift the edges. A slight mistake would damage the painting. But his movements were sure-fire and confident. Within a matter of time, the entire painting had been taken off. 

He continued to work steadily. Soon, around 12 works of differing sizes had been taken off, without a blemish. They are all now stored at the school. “My next job is to clean the back of the paintings,” says Sasi. “There are bits of mud, the plaster of the wall and dust particles.” 

Sometimes, there will be damage at the edges of the work. “The appropriate colour will be added to match the rest of the painting so that people do not know this area has been torn,” says Sasi “After this, it will be framed.”

According to Sasi’s estimate, these works were done in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “This style can be seen in North Malabar temples, and is similar to the Thanjavur school of painting,” says Sasi. “Unlike most murals, the women are wearing a blouse and saree. This has probably been done by the disciples of a master named Pulakkat Raman, as the style seems to be the same.” 

This idea of preservation was KK Warrier’s life project. The first painting the duo saved was one in the Guruvayur Temple in 1986. So far, they have 140 paintings in their possession. And all of them have been registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. Apart from Guruvayur, there are paintings from eight temples across Kerala. These include the Kumaranalloor Devi temple at Kottayam, the Tahikkattusseri Vamanamoorthi temple in Thrissur and the Pallathankulangara Siva Temple at Vypeen, Kochi. The oldest painting -- at the Karivellur Puthoor Siva temple at Kannur -- is 400 years old.

Unfortunately, many works have been destroyed. “Sometimes, it is the handiwork of human beings,” says Sasi. “But there are natural causes, like fire or when rainwater seeps down the surface of the painting. Sometimes, the walls develop a crack. On other occasions, insects and birds, which dwell in the temple premises, make scratches.” 

Nevertheless, Sasi has not been deterred. He says that as and when he gets the opportunity, he will continue to save paintings. “And one day, I will be setting up a museum where I will showcase all the works,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sound perception

Audiographer Justin Jose talks about his experiences in Bollywood, Hollywood and other industries

Pics: Justin Jose. Photo by Arun Angela. From left: Justin Jose, Biswadeep Chatterjee, Raju Hirani, Jeetu Chowdhury and other technical crew members of the Bollywood film, 'Sanju' 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Audiographer Justin Jose is always aware of sound. While relaxing in a hotel room, in Kochi, he says, “There is the sound of the AC, my friend, sitting on the bed, is tapping on the laptop, there is the sound of our conversation and the muted sounds of the traffic outside.” Then he smiles and says, “If you listen, sound is everywhere.” 

Justin had come to attend the inaugural ceremony of the first national Clubby MiniMovie Festival last month. He is a member of the jury. And the audiographer says he had been working on a Malayalam film, Ranjit Shankar’s ‘Kamala’, which is releasing on November 29. “It was a challenging film, but Ranjit gave me a lot of freedom,” says Justin. “I enjoyed working with him.” 

The Mumbai-based Justin has a thriving career. He has worked in more than 300 films, spread across 15 languages: Hindi, Bengali, English, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Ladakhi, Latvian, Arabic, Urdu, Malayalam and Konkani. 

Asked how he understands films whose language he does not know, Justin says, “Because of my experience. When I see the rushes, without sound, I usually get an idea of what the story is all about,” he says. “However, many times the mixing engineer will narrate the story behind the scenes, so that I get an idea of what is happening.” 

He seems to get it right because many films that he has worked on have become hits. These include ‘Baahubali’, ‘Padmaavat’, ‘Bajirao Mastani’, ‘Kesari’ ‘Sanju’, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’, as well as regional language versions of ‘Spiderman2’ and ‘Karate Kid’. Justin won the National Award for the Best Re-recordist for ‘Bajirao Mastani’ in 2015 and for ‘Walking With The Wind’ in 2017. 

And the work has been fun and rewarding. When Justin was working on Raju Hirani’s biographical tale of actor Sanjay Dutt called ‘Sanju’, the film had two sound designers, Jeetu Chowdhury and Biswadeep Chatterjee. They were sitting on either side of Justin at the Rajkamal Studios and watched him work. “When I did some mixing, they would give me suggestions,” says Justin. “It was a hugely enriching experience from me. Both are top sound designers.” 

After an hour, Justin asked to take a break, went out and stood on the sidewalk. After a while, somebody came and stood beside him. It was Raju. He had bought two Coca Cola cans, from a beverage dispenser inside the studio, and gave one to Justin. “Enjoy,” Raju said, echoing the drink’s advertising tag line. 

They sipped in silence. Then they chatted about the film. Finally, Raju says, “The sound mixing is going well.” 

Thank you,” says Justin. 

Soon, they returned to the studio. On an average, Justin takes about 200 hours, spread over many days to do the sound for a two-hour Bollywood film. 

Asked to define his work, Justin says, “I do sound design and mixing. This means merging the background score, dialogues, special effects and songs. When there is a scene between two characters, the dialogue level is different for both, so I have to adjust the sound. As for the background score, I have to see the scenes between five to ten times to get it right. It is a creative process." 

Meanwhile, Justin says that directors are unique characters. “The story begins in their imagination,” he says. “So they know it inside out. The film is like a child to them. They have a tremendous passion and love for film-making. It consumes their day and night. They will forget their families. Till the movie releases, nobody exists for them. But even when the director is working with me, he is also doing the colour corrections, the VFX effects and checking the music at the same time. There are so many aspects to look into.” 

The Thrissur-born Justin is himself consumed by his work. “Yes, I love it,” he says, with a smile. “Last year, I worked on 23 films in a row, and enjoyed every moment.” 

His future projects include a couple of big-budget Bollywood projects, a Tamil film by Jeethu Joseph as well as the Kochi-based show director Manoj K Varghese’s debut film. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 11, 2019

One of Kerala’s great sons

During his 150th birth anniversary year, a look at the life of PS Varier, the founder of the 117-year-old Arya Vaidya Sala

Photos: PS Varier; PK Warrier; Arya Vaidya Sala

By Shevlin Sebastian 

In the late 1800s, in the Malabar region of Kerala, when people would consult with Ayurveda physicians, the latter would write their prescription on slips of paper. Thereafter, the patients and their relatives had to get the ingredients. Some they could buy from a shop while others like roots, herbs and leaves had to be plucked from the place where they grew by people who knew of them. Then the ingredients had to be mixed in the right proportion. Since these medicines did not have any preservatives, it lasted only for a few days. Following that, the entire process had to begin all over again. As a result, only the wealthy could afford this type of treatment. Many ordinary people began to take recourse to allopathic treatment, in which mass-produced tablets were readily available.  

This lacuna regarding medicines was felt keenly by Ayurveda physician PS Varier. He felt that like allopathy, medicines needed to be made systematically with added preservatives. So, on Vijayadashami Day, in October 1902, he started the Arya Vaidya Sala (AVS) in the village of Kottakkal (47 km from Kozhikode).  

It was a success story from the very beginning. The AVS has gone from strength to strength. Today, they have hospitals at Kottakkal, Kochi and Delhi. There are three modern medicine manufacturing units along with quality control labs. “These factories produce more than 550 classical and new-generation formulations which are made available to patients through 26 branches and 1800 authorised dealers spread across the country,” says PK Warrier, the managing trustee. 

And during the 150th birthday celebrations of Varier, on September 24, at Kottakkal, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu rightly said, “PS Varier was a representative of the Indian Renaissance. He was an effective clinician with a unique healing touch, an academician-cum-educator, a benevolent entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a man of letters, a promoter of fine arts and an institution-builder.” 

Yes, indeed, Varier was an institution builder. Apart from the AVS, Varier built an Ayurveda College, which is celebrating its centenary, a Vishwambhara temple, a herbal garden as well as a Kathakali Academy. In 1903, he also started an Ayurveda magazine called Dhanvanthari. Today the AVS has a publication department which has brought more than 200 books on Ayurveda. The Chief Editor is the well-known academician Dr KG Paulose. 

Early life 

Varier was born in 1869, the same year as Mahatma Gandhi. He belonged to a lower-middle-class family of Ayurveda physicians. Initially, Varier had a Sanskrit education. 

It was taught in the family,” says Paulose. “There were no schools at that time. Every child was taught at home by the elders. But at the age of 16, he was sent for Ayurveda education to Wadakancherry (65 km from Kottakkal) by the elders of the family.”  

He studied under Kuttanchery Vasudevan Mooss, a Namboodiri who belonged to one of the eight great families of Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala, the ashtavaidyans. It was a gurukul system. “That meant he stayed in the house of the guru and helped in the household works,” says Paulose. “He stayed there for four years and studied the higher branches of Ayurveda.” 

He also had the good fortune to learn the basics of allopathy from Dr V. Varghese, who was the chief of the government hospital at Manjeri, not far from Kottakkal. Varier had gone there to treat his eyes which had been damaged from constant reading. Varghese took a liking for Varier and invited him to stay and get an idea of Western medicine. Varier accepted and spent three years. “He realised the shortcomings of Ayurveda and the merits of allopathy,” says Warrier. “So he set about bringing changes to Ayurveda.” 

Varier, a devout Hindu, was also a secularist. During the Moplah rebellion of 1921 (Muslims revolted against the British for a heavy-handed crackdown by the latter on the Khilafat Movement, which was a campaign in defence of the Ottoman Caliphate. However, in the latter stages, it became a Hindu-Muslim conflict).

During that period every Hindu was an enemy of the Muslims and vice versa,” says PK Warrier. “But Varier stood with the Muslims. When a peace committee called the Bharati Seva Sangh came from Bombay, Varier told them, the rehabilitation works and distribution of food should be extended to the Muslims, too.” 

The committee members including their head GK Devadhar were shocked to hear this. “It was the first time a Hindu was speaking on behalf of Muslims,” says Warrier. “At that time, all the male Muslims were either killed or had absconded or deported to the Andaman Islands. There were only women and children left. And they were very frightened.” 

When Devadhar asked Varier why he was supporting the Muslims, he said, “Hunger is the same in the stomach of a Muslim as well as a Hindu.” 

In his home, at Kailasamandiram, in the centre of the archway above the main gate is an image of Lord Krishna. On either side, on two pillars are a Christian cross and the Muslim crescent. In an adjacent temple, which had an idol of Lord Vishvambharan, people of all castes were allowed to pray. 

As Vice President Naidu said, Varier was indeed a Renaissance man.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This 72-year-old man feeds stray dogs every morning at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 3.30 a.m., retired contractor CV Antony gets up at his house on Friends Lane in Vennala. He goes to the kitchen and boils several pieces of chicken, even as he adds some turmeric powder. On another burner, he puts the rice to boil in a steel vessel. By 4 a.m., he places both inside several small plastic packets along with glucose biscuit packets. Then Antony has his shave and bath.

At 4.45 a.m. he sets out from his house. As he reaches the Vennala-Janatha road, stray dogs step out at different places, from outside houses, or empty grassy plots.
He gives them the food. “For the dessert, I give the biscuits,” he says. “They like that a lot.” Many look at him gratefully and wag their tails. At 5.30 a.m., Antony reaches Alinchuvadu. He takes a bus and goes to the St. Anthony’s Shrine at Kaloor. After attending mass, he goes to the Kaloor market and gets a fresh stock of chicken pieces from meat seller Ravi.

He returns to Alinchuvadu and there is another set of dogs who are waiting to be fed. Finally, at 8 a.m., he returns home, under a large mango tree, a satisfied smile on his face.

Antony has been doing this for the past seven years. And it all began rather accidentally. One morning, he was standing at the bus stop on the Kochi bypass (National Highway 66) at Palarivattom, waiting to take a bus to Chalakudy. He saw a dog lying at the bus stop. “The dog looked very weak,” says Antony.

When Antony returned at 5 p.m., he got a shock. The dog was still there at the bus stop. So he bought a plate of omelette from a nearby roadside stall, cooled it and gave it to the dog. “The way he ate the omelette I realised he was very hungry,” says Antony. “And the look of gratefulness he gave me, I will never forget it.”

After a few days, he decided to take the dog home. But he already had two dogs, a Labrador and a stray as his pets. Both attacked the newcomer so ferociously that it ran away. “My pets did not want to share their master with another dog,” says Antony. “After one month, I saw it again at the Palarivattom bypass bus stop. But the locals gave me the good news that another man was feeding him. So I felt very happy.”

But there have been sad moments. Once one of the dogs was hit by a vehicle at Alinchuvadu. Antony immediately took it to a vet, got it treated — the body was cleaned, bandages were put, and an injection was given. He looked after it for two weeks but it died. “It was a grave injury,” he says in a sombre voice.

Apart from accidents, the biggest problem faced by strays is the lack of food. “Most are starving,” he says. “In olden times, the waste food would be placed outside the gate and the dogs would come and eat it. Now we put the excess food inside a packet, make a knot at the top and throw it away. As a result, the dogs are unable to access the food.”

Vennala Municipal Councillor MB Muraleedharan says, “Antony is doing a very good job. I appreciate it. But I would also like to say that stray dogs can be a danger. Recently, a dog bit a child in our area and the wound became quite serious.”

When Antony hears this, he says, “In my experience, dogs bite people only when they are hungry. At the Kaloor market, where dogs get scraps of food to eat, nobody has complained of dog bites.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Help begins with a click

When you make a purchase through the CharityMonk app, invented by the Kochi-based IT professional Stephen Sebastian, a percentage goes directly to an NGO

Photos: From left: Stephen Sebastian, Shyam Unnikrishnan and Sibin Joseph 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

IT professional Stephen Sebastian was working as an assistant manager in a firm at Chennai. On weekends, he was keen to spend it in a meaningful way. When he was studying in Kochi, he would do some charity work. But in Chennai, he did not know what to do. 

He fell into a reflective mood. Over a couple of weekends, an idea formed in his head. It was about an app. He put his plan into motion with the help of his friends Sibin Joseph and Shyam Unnikrishnan. The app is called CharityMonk. There is also a web site. Now back in Kochi, Stephen, along with the others did the incubation at the Adi Shankara Institute of Engineering and Technology at Kalady.  

This is how it works. You download the app, and register a name -- say it is Jimmy Mathew. When Jimmy buys anything from a major retailer like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra, Jabong, Swiggy, or Big Basket, among others, a percentage of the payment is sent to an NGO, which is selected by Jimmy. So, while Jimmy plays the full price, of, say, Rs 1000 for a pair of jeans, a retailer like Amazon will give away 2 to 3 percent to CharityMonk. “They are doing charity on Jimmy’s behalf,” says Stephen. 

When asked the benefit for a giant like Amazon, Stephen says, “Amazon gets regular business from Charity Monk. Apart from that, they would also like to contribute to charity.” 

The percentage cuts that CharityMonk receives vary from product to product. So, for electronics, the cut is between 2 to 3 percent. “Fashion is between 5 and 15 per cent,” says Stephen. “Grocery is from 1 to 2 per cent. In the travel industry, there is a flat rate. If a ticket is booked, we will get Rs 100. But we have separate tie-ups with Qatar Airlines and Emirates. They give around 1 to 2 per cent. So, if you buy tickets worth Rs 2 lakh, Charity Monk will get Rs 4000.” So far, they have also tied up with 400 stores and the money will go to 19 NGOs. 

Some of the NGOs include the National Youth Foundation, All Kerala Blood Donors Association, SAFE India, and the Environics Trust. 

On an average, the actual money which is transferred is in the range of Rs 15 to Rs 800. “Each user has a dashboard where he or she can monitor the amount of money that has gone to their favourite NGO,” says Stephen. 

When he was doing research, Stephen realised that the bigger NGOs, thanks to their marketing budgets were getting a major share of donor money. So, he decided to focus on the smaller ones. “They desperately need the money to survive,” says Stephen. (Incidentally, there are 32 lakh NGOs registered in India). 

Meanwhile, CharityMonk users are happy. Says Anjani Nagaraju, a Vijayawada-based entrepreneur: “In this era of e-commerce, we shop for no reason but CharityMonk allows us to make this compulsive buying worthwhile by enabling us to contribute to a charity without paying any extra money.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Power Lady

Singer Preety Bhalla brought the house down with a scintillating performance at Kochi recently. Married to a Malayali, the Mumbai singer talks about her life and career 

Photos: Preety Bhalla; Preety Bhalla with her husband Deepu Paul. Photos by Arun Angela. At the concert 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The lights go dim at the JT Pac hall at Kochi. Then a voice begins to rise in the silence. But the stage remains empty. Then a spotlight falls on the aisle at the back of the hall. And there stands the singer Preety Bhalla. She is wearing a black dress along with a transparent black jacket with ruffles. She begins with a Sufi song, ‘Teri Deewani’ in a husky and vibrant voice. Slowly, she walks down the steps, smiles at the guests on the left and the right and reaches the stage.

After the song, she says, “I feel so happy to be here. There are two reasons for this. I am from Mumbai, originally from Punjab, but I am married to a Malayali (Deepu Paul). So Kochi is my second home. The other reason is my daughter comes to this place every day (Kyra is a student of Class two at Choice School). It seems like I am in my own house. I am going to take you through different genres of music and in different languages.” 

And for the next two hours, Preethi indeed takes the audience on an exhilarating ride: hit songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Illiyaraja, RD Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, among many others. She sings in Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Spanish. The Spanish-Hindi song is called ‘Senorita’ from Zoya Akhtar’s film, ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’. For a Malayali touch, Preety sings ‘Appangal from ‘Ustad Hotel’ as well as ‘Meharuba’, composed by Gopi Sundar for Joshiy’s ‘Lailaa O Lailaa’.  
Later, when she sings a couple of Punjabi songs, the Punjabis in the audience are irresistibly pulled towards the front of the stage where they dance with the singer. Among them, in a white dress is Preety’s daughter Kyra. 

Amazingly, there is hardly any pause between songs. Preety has no lyric sheet in front of her or any song schedule. And there is no interval too. And for the climax, Preety sings her most famous number: a reworked version of ‘Damadam Mast Kalandar’ from the Album ‘Jalwa II’ that brings the house down. 

A day earlier, Preety, along with Deepu, looks relaxed and happy at their tastefully decorated apartment -- wooden furniture and muted ceiling lights -- near Marine Drive. From their sixth-floor apartment, you can see the setting sun across the Cochin Harbour. 

Living in Kochi is beautiful,” says Preety. “There is a peace of mind as compared to life in Mumbai. There is so much of greenery all around. The traffic, as compared to Mumbai, is much less. The people are very sweet. I love the food a lot.” 

But she can’t eat everything. To protect her voice, she avoids ice-creams. “But I melt it so that I can eat it,” she says with a laugh. “I also avoid pickles, as it irritates my throat and raw onions. But I like curd even though many singers avoid it. After all, I am a Punju and we love our curd.”  

And every day, after a morning walk, Preety does a two-hour practice of her vocal cords. “It is similar to a physical workout,” she says. “After that, I am ready to face the day.” 

Preety has been ready to face every day as a singer for the past two decades. She has performed in all the major cities and towns in India, in Dubai, Indonesia and Thailand, where she sang for a spiritual guru, Master Ruma. “I was representing Bollywood,” she says. “The audience consisted of Chinese, Thais and Vietnamese. So I had to explain what each song is all about. This was the first time that I have performed for a completely non-Indian audience. I did some love songs in Tamil and Master Ruma enjoyed it a lot. He told me he used to have a girlfriend in Chennai, where he lived for a few years.” 

Preety has also sung at high-profile destination weddings. A few years ago, she had done a two-hour concert during billionaire businessman Sajjan Jindal’s daughter Tanvi’s wedding in Florence, Italy. 

Asked whether audience reactions differ, Preety nods and says, “The people are a bit conservative in South India while in North India, they like to dance to the songs. Recently, for a dandiya concert at Surat, 20,000 people danced to my songs. But the most gregarious people are the Punjabis.”  

And after two decades, she no longer has any butterflies in the stomach before a show. “But, yes, I do feel a touch of nervousness regarding the sound system,” says Preety. “I pray that nothing goes wrong.” 

To ensure nothing goes wrong, Deepu accompanies her for all the shows. Before they met, they spoke on the phone, because Deepu’s partner was doing an album with Preety. “Our first conversation lasted 15 minutes, and we sort of clicked,” says Deepu. They met nine months later, and it was a slow falling-in-love. They got married three years after they met, in December, 2008. To please both sides of the family there was a Gurudwara as well as a Church wedding. 

Asked what he likes about Preety, Deepu says, “She is a nice human being, and very soft-hearted. I also like the way she is focused on her singing.” 

Preety says, “Deepu is a cool guy. And my in-laws are exceptionally sweet people.” 

At this moment, Kyra comes into the room. A beaming Preety says, “She is taking classes in singing. Thanks to God, she is naturally gifted and talented.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, November 01, 2019

In his 20th year as a social worker, S. Murugan, the founder of the NGO Theruvoram talks about his work with abandoned children, the poor, and the mentally ill 

Photos: Illustration by Tapash Ranjan; S Murugan  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Inside the dormitory of the Theruvoram shelter home, at Kochi, Govind sits on a bed. He smiles, even though his right arm had been amputated at the shoulder. Govind was working in a hotel in Trichy when he got electrocuted. Apart from his arm, his left leg was damaged. He walks with a limp. From Trichy, he came to Kochi. Then he started begging near the High Court. “I used to earn Rs 400 per day,” he says. 

But life on the streets finally got to him. He became mentally unhinged, was picked up by the police and brought to the Theruvoram shelter. At the shelter, after his hair and nails were cut, he was given a shave and a bath. “Thereafter, he was taken for treatment at a mental home at Thrissur,” says shelter founder S. Murugan. “Now he has improved and we have brought him back. We are trying to find a way to send him back home. But at this moment, there are no leads.”

On one side of the dormitory, there are two rooms. Inside one, three men are lying on a bed and look vacantly ahead. “They are all mentally disturbed,” says Murugan.  

More than 80 per cent of the inmates have come from states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Delhi. They are usually found near the Guruvayur or Chottanikkara temples or at railway stations at Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode or wandering about aimlessly on the roads. Many remain in Kerala for a long time.  

But there are happy outcomes. One 55-year-old woman, Rakhi fell in front of a train and got severely injured. She was taken to Kalamassery Medical College. The hospital authorities looked after her for six months and got her healed. Then the hospital informed the then Kochi Collector K Mohammed Y Safirulla, who called Murugan. “I went and collected Rakhi, looked after her for three months and sent her to a shelter home run by nuns,” says Murugan. “The nuns managed to find her relatives in Gujarat and she was sent back. So, this story had a happy ending.” 

Another happy ending happened for two elderly sisters. They had a fight with their family at Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. So, in a rage, they went to the railway station and took a train, which brought them to Kochi. When the police found them begging on the streets, they were brought to Theruvoram. “After two weeks, they gave us the contact numbers and their sons came and took them back,” says Murugan.   

Murugan clarifies that Theruvoram is a half-way home. The initial stay is at the shelter and thereafter, the affected people, be it children, the poor, or the mentally sick, are moved to different places. The two-storey building and land belong to the Social Justice Department. After Murugan presented a plan called the Streetlight Project the government gave the go-ahead. The partnership began on May 16, 2013.

But today, Murugan is celebrating 20 years as a social worker. He got the idea of social service when he began selling newspapers as a youngster at the Kerala State Road Transport bus terminus at Kochi. Murugan came across an array of people: beggars, drifters, pickpockets, mentally ill people and sex workers. “The sex workers told me how they were trying to earn money to pay for the school fees of their children, to take care of their aged parents, and to look after the needs of the family,” says Murugan. 

He felt the need to do something. By this time, he had bought a second-hand autorickshaw, with the help of loans from friends and a Catholic priest Brother Maurus. So, he would take the mentally-challenged to his home, get them cleaned up and take them on his auto-rickshaw to the various shelter homes.   

I felt empathy for another reason,” he says. “I also have come from a poor background” 

Of Tamilian origin, his parents were workers at a tea estate in Peermade, Idukki. Unfortunately, Murugan’s father, Shanmugham, was an alcoholic. One day when Murugan was in Class two his father left in search of another job. 

His mother earned Rs 10 as a daily-wage worker. “We had very little to eat,” says Murugan. “At lunch, I had kanji (rice gruel). Sometimes, in the evening I would share one vada with my sister.” 

He was studying in a school but when his mother could no longer pay the fees, he had to drop out. After a few years, Shanmugham suddenly returned and took the family to Kochi. 

But the hard times continued. Murugan began earning a living as a rag picker. But one day, in 1992, Brother Maurus befriended Murugan and took him to the Don Bosco Sneha Bhavan Orphanage at Palluruthy. Murugan lived there for eight years and learned to read and write in Malayalam. “I started reading books on Mother Teresa and Sree Narayana Guru,” says Murugan. “The nuns told me their life stories too. I decided that when I grow up I would be like them.”

And, in his own way, Murugan has done so.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

When a Malayalee gave a knock to the British Empire

Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat give a riveting account of how Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair stood up to the British following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919

Photos: Raghu and Pushpa Palat; the book cover; Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat were walking around the Jallianwala Bagh Museum at Amritsar, in December 2017. Suddenly, Pushpa pulled up short and said, “Hey Raghu look at this plaque. Your great-grandfather is being honoured.” 

Raghu stared at the words written in praise of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, and his eyes bulged in pride and happiness, even as he said, “It’s so wonderful.” 

Suddenly he thought, ‘Here was a man from Kerala, being honoured on the other side of India, in Punjab. People did not know about him, even in the South and especially in his home state of Kerala. Even I don’t know much about him.” 

Not surprisingly, a need arose in him, to know more about his ancestor. He also wanted to tell the story so that his daughters Nikhila and Divya (Bollywood actor) and  granddaughter Nivaya should know the family history.  

Soon, he began to do research. The more he read the more fascinated he came. Raghu then asked his wife to join him. “Both of us are writers,” says Raghu. “I have published 46 books in genres like management, shares, banking, investments and business communication, whereas my wife writes on luxury and lifestyle. We were both entering a new genre and we felt it would be better if we combined our different skills.” 

The end result has just been published. Brought out by Bloomsbury, the book is intriguingly titled, ‘The Case That Shook The Empire’ -- One Man’s Fight for the Truth about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Nair (1857-1934) was the President of the Indian National Congress, Advocate-General of the Madras Presidency, and a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council. “Being a member of the Council was a pinnacle for an Indian,” says Raghu. But when details of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which took place on April 13, 1919, began to seep out, Nair had no hesitation in resigning immediately in protest. 

This created ripples among the British establishment. 

Later, he wrote a book called ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’ where he held the Punjab Governor Michael O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre ordered by Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer at Jallianwala. Officially, around 400 unarmed civilians, including men, women and children died.   

When O’Dwyer read the book, he asked Nair to publicly withdraw the book from circulation and apologise along with paying 1000 pounds to charities specified by the former. Expectedly, Nair refused. Consequently, O’Dwyer filed a case for defamation in the Court of the King’s Bench in England in 1922. 

However, it was not an even playing field. As the authors write, ‘There were innumerable disadvantages for Nair, not least of which was a less-than-proficient legal practitioner. The trial was to be held in England, the jury would be English… Most significant of all was the fact that the English continued to believe themselves to be far superior to Indians, which is why the latter were rarely treated fairly.

English juries had acquitted Englishmen who had killed Indians (one was acquitted after killing a coolie and another after killing a washerman who had asked for his wages) and here was an Indian accusing an Englishman of atrocities in an English court. It was destined to be a case that made history. “Later, it gave a tremendous fillip to the freedom movement,” says Pushpa. 

The book is crisp and well-written. And the duo were keen to avoid just a bland recitation of facts and dates. “We wanted it to be a historical novel, as we wanted to reach a larger audience,” says Pushpa. And to a large extent, they have succeeded. 

In a chapter on the history of Punjab, here is an unforgettable description of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. ‘It has been said that in appearance Ranjit Singh looked like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye. He was also short and mean-looking, with a swollen stub for a nose and skinny lips. His head sunk on his broad shoulders that were too wide for his height. His neck was muscular, his limbs were thin and he had small hands. However, when he mounted a horse, his whole demeanour transformed and he assumed a natural grace. Additionally, he was known to be selfish, avaricious, superstitious and untrusting. He was often drunk and revelled in debauchery. His greatness lay in the fact that he was a military genius, a great strategist and a born ruler’. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Staying loyal till the end

The Muslim Thaha Ibrahim looked after the oldest Jew, Sarah Cohen at Mattancherry till she passed away last month 

Photos: Thaha Ibrahim. Photo by Albin Mathew. Sarah Cohen with Thaha

By Shevlin Sebastian  

Thaha Ibrahim stared at Sarah Cohen intently. He could see the eyelashes trembling. It unnerved him. He stepped out of the Cohen house in Jew Town, Mattancherry and rushed to the opposite building. He ran up the stairs to the first floor and told Dr David Hallegua, “Something’s going wrong with Sarah Aunty. Can you come quickly.” 

David nodded. He had come from the US to take his mother, Queenie, a neighbour and friend of Sarah, to Israel for a wedding, when he heard that the nonagenarian was not well. 

Thaha ran back to the house. He looked at Sarah and said, “Aunty, what has happened?”

Sarah said “Yes.” 

Then her eyes widened... 

When David came, moments later, he checked the pulse and did not get a response. He blew oxygen inside her mouth, but nothing happened. “Thaha, she is gone,” said David, in a sombre voice.

The time: 1.55 p.m. The date: August 30. Thus, one of the last surviving white Jews of Kochi, Sarah Cohen had passed away at the age of 96. Her husband, Jacob had passed away in 1999. The couple had no children.   

But they had one boy who seemed like one: Thaha. 

In 1982, Thaha’s uncle Ummer told the 12-year-old class six dropout to stand in the lane leading to the Paradesi synagogue at Mattancherry and sell postcards and spices in plastic pouches to foreigners, who came on ships. Thaha stood outside the Cohen household and did the job for months, selling the cards for $1 each. Jacob and Thaha would exchange pleasantries. By 5 p.m. Thaha would take his merchandise and place it in a godown belonging to his uncle, some distance away. 

But one Sunday morning, during a busy day in the tourist season the godown could not be opened. Apparently, the security guard had a tiff with Ummer and walked away with the keys. Ummer told Thaha to stand in the lane and he would bring the merchandise later. But Ummer could not locate the security guard. Jacob enquired from Thaha as to why he had no merchandise with him. And he nodded when he heard Thaha’s reply.  

The next day, after the key was procured, Thaha again stood with the goods. But at the end of the day, Jacob told Thaha he could store it in the house. But when Thaha entered the living room, Sarah opposed the idea vehemently. There was an argument between husband and wife which lasted for an hour. Finally, Sarah relented. 

And thus Thaha slowly became part of the household. Sometimes Jacob would send Thaha to the bank to collect money or he would ask him to buy bread. “When I was doing the errands Jacob Uncle would stand with the cards,” says Thaha. “He would sell more because he could speak English so well.” 

The years went by. One day, in 1999, Jacob told Thaha, “I am ageing. You know I have no children. I have brought up a lot of youngsters by paying for their education and other expenses. But they have all gone away. So you must look after Sarah till her death. She has nobody else.”

It was a momentous moment. Thaha felt overwhelmed. But a few moments later, he nodded. Less than two months later, on October 28, Jacob died, at age 86. 

And Thaha took his responsibility seriously. He was there every day at Sarah’s house. Sarah sold Jewish caps like the kippah, and embroidered handkerchiefs, tablecloths and children’s dresses. Thaha would help in the stitching, in the buying of materials and the selling of the goods. 

And thanks to international media coverage, Sarah had become famous all over the world, especially among the Jews. So there was always a string of visitors to her  home. And there were unusual reactions when they came to know that a Muslim, Thaha, was looking after a Jew. 

Many were very happy about this but there were a few who did not like it,” says Thaha. When some Jews expressed their apprehensions, Sarah would say, “I trust Thaha. I have no worries about it. Thaha looks after me very well. I have known him for decades.”  

As for Thaha, his community members would say, “You are looking after a Jew. What type of people are they?”

Thaha shakes his head exasperatedly, and says, “It is by mixing with each other that we understand each other’s faiths and beliefs. Sarah’s cook, Selin is a Christian. So the people of three faiths intermingled very peacefully. It is because of a lack of understanding that the Jews are fighting the Muslims, the Hindus with Muslims and Christians. We are all God’s children. Islam, Hinduism, and the Judaism are different paths to the same God. That’s what people need to understand.” 

Meanwhile, in his day-to-day life, Thaha, 49, who is married to Jasmine and has three grown-up sons, is keen on setting up a museum, in the memory of Jacob and Sarah, at the Cohen’s house.

He is a torch-bearer with a heart of gold.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Going Solo

Angamaly native Abin Joe travelled through 24 countries in Europe, on his Honda Deauville 650cc bike, over three months and reached the Arctic Circle. He talks about his experiences

Photos: Abin Joe at the Arctic Circle; the Great Atlantic Road. A view of Denmark   

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Angamaly native Abin Joe set out on the Great Atlantic Road in Norway on his 20-year-old Honda Deauville 650cc bike, he felt a sense of elation. On his left was the blue Atlantic Ocean, and on his right were grassy knolls. The sky was blue with specks of clouds here and there. Since the road was smooth and straight, he quickly reached the top speed of 140 km/hour. 

He crossed bridges as well as islands and archipelagos. At some sections, the road bifurcated the ocean and the waves would lash the sides, sending up showers of spray which fell on Abin. “It was quite exciting,” he says. 

Finally, he slowed down at a deserted archipelago. Abin saw a grassy section of land, beside the ocean. He decided to halt for the night. It took Abin half an hour to put up the tent. As night fell, he went to sleep. But at midnight, a storm broke. Lightning lit up the sky. A strong breeze blew. Waves hit the sides with great force. The ground began shaking. His tent almost fell on him. With a shock, Abin realised he was lying on a thick bed of seaweed. But it was too late to move. 

He closed his eyes and prayed hard. If the weeds got detached from the archipelago and drifted towards the ocean, his life would be in danger. As the storm raged, he went through a gamut of emotions: fear, sorrow and helplessness. He thought about his fiancee Geethu whom he is scheduled to marry in January. Three hours passed. The storm stopped as abruptly as it began. And Abin survived. “It was a close shave,” he says. 

Abin had been on a 24-country solo trek through Europe -- Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway...with a final destination in mind: the Arctic Circle. 

But the three-month journey had a disastrous beginning. At Barcelona, on July 8, pickpockets flicked a pouch which contained Abin’s passport, driving licence and international permit. Sadly, he would take ten days before he managed to get a new passport. There was no time to get another licence or permit.   

And when he embarked on the highway, towards France, he immediately faced problems. “All vehicles go at a minimum speed of 130 km per hour,” says Abin. “There is a crosswind especially when big trailers go past. As a result, the bike would sway from side to side. It was dangerous. So I decided to take the country roads.” 

That turned out to be the right decision. “I saw the unmatched beauty of the countryside,” he says. “My speed slowed to 60 km/hour and I enjoyed meeting the people who were kind and friendly.” 

Whenever Abin would approach a town, he would quickly log onto Since the members are all travellers, they speak in English and the food and stay are free. “All they wanted was to hear my travel stories,” says Abin. “I may be the first Indian bike rider to stay with them.” 

Meanwhile, drama was not very far away. 

In Kinderdijk, Holland, known for its windmills, he stood on a bridge next to one. Abin had just finished talking and put the phone into his jeans pocket. But it did not fall correctly, slipped out, fell on the bridge and rolled into the water. Abin was in shock. “I knew I would be paralysed without the phone,” he says. “No GPS, no couchsurfing, and no staying in touch with my host.” 

He asked the windmill owner about the depth of the lake. “Two metres (6.5 feet),” said the man. Abin nodded, removed his shirt and jacket and lowered himself into the chilly water. A cold wind was blowing. Soon, he discovered that it was full of mud. Since the water was not clear, he began searching for the phone with his feet. A crowd of curious onlookers gathered on the bridge. “They had come to see the windmill, but forgot all about it,” says Abin. “When they came to know that I was looking for a phone, they started betting on whether I would find it.” 

Abin did find a phone. But it was an Apple iPhone 8, encased in mud, while his was a Chinese one. Time passed but there was no luck for Abin. At 6 p.m., the owner said he was closing up. But when Abin tried to get out of the water, the mud held him back. “Finally, two men held my hands while a third grabbed my belt and managed to pull me up,” says the 28-year-old, who works in Infopark at Kakkanad. “It was an unforgettable experience.” Soon, with the help of a local’s phone, he managed to find the address of the host and was taken there. And the next day, he bought a new phone. “Thanks to all my data being saved on my cloud account, I could transfer it immediately to my new phone,” says Abin. 

The journey continued. Through Norway, which according to Abin, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its fjords and lakes, he managed to reach the Arctic Circle. “It was desolate,” he says. “The night sky was full of stars. I saw melting glaciers and large expanses of snow. The beauty was indescribable.” And thus, Abin brought his solo journey to an end. 

And for us Kochiites and Indians here is one incredible statistic: Abin traversed 15,200 km but did not come across a single pothole! 

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

Myriad Impressions

A group of American travel writers talk about their experiences in South India, while on a visit to Kochi 

Caption: From left: Cynthia W Dial, Janet Rae-Dupree, tour operators Nirmala and Deepika Sen, Veronica Rodriguez, Iona Brannon and Bea Broda  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On a cloudy morning, a group of American travel writers entered the Indian School of Art in Ravipuram, Kochi. And it did not take them long to express their wonder and appreciation at all the mural artworks on display along the walls. Many depicted scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. They were done by school owner Sasi Warrier and his late father KK Warrier. In the next room, a veena class was being conducted by Sasi’s wife Usha. The visitors watched with appreciative looks as student Geeta Jayarajan played a tune. 

All of them -- Cynthia W Dial, Iona Brannon, Bea Broda, Janet Rae-Dupree and Veronica Rodriguez --were on a fortnight’s tour of South India led by the California-based tour operator Debika Sen and her Chennai-based colleague Nirmala. 

Soon, they sat around a table. Sasi, along with his friend Prof R Sasidharan, gave a talk about the history of mural art in Kerala. And they listened attentively. 

It had been a good experience for them at Kochi. A day earlier, they also witnessed an act of honesty which gladdened their hearts. When the group had departed from the St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi, Janet had left her expensive camera behind. She only realised it two hours later. But when Debika, the tour operator called the church, they were informed the guide had kept it with him. Soon, calls were exchanged with the guide and he brought the camera to the Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry where the group was on a visit. “That was phenomenal,” says Janet. 

Like most first-time visitors to India, their initial experience was one of shock. “I was surprised how, at 3.30 a.m., the city of Chennai was alive,” says Janet. “Lights, sounds, honking, cars and people everywhere. The initial impression was one of chaos. But I was warmly welcomed everywhere, so that each step of the acclimatising process became smooth.”  

Adds Cynthia, “When we are on the road, I am thinking, ‘The traffic is crazy but in the end, everything gets sorted out’.” 

And they liked the people. “They are generous and friendly,” says Veronica. “Everywhere we went, everybody was so nice to us and curious. They would take photos of us and also come up and talk. Everybody wants to know more about you. And they were so eager to show their world.” 

Iona experienced this in Pondicherry. One evening the group was walking along the beach. Iona separated from the rest and sat down on a bench where she began talking to Prabha (name changed). “Prabha told me, ‘I have been praying to meet someone who is a writer so that I could tell my life story’.” 

Iona replied that she is a writer. “I can write your life story,” she said. 

Prabha replied, “To do that, you have to see where I live.” 

Iona agreed. And Prabha took her on a bike to a slum, where on the terrace of a government-made house, she was running a school. “She is doing great work,” says Iona. “I established a connection with Prabha. It was a cool experience.”  

As for Bea, she loved the live-and-let-live culture of the country. “I don’t think anybody was trying to convert me to any belief system,” she says. 

As for the big difference from the US, Iona says, “Family values. In India, a lot of decisions are based on the interactions between the father and mother as well as the extended family. There is also an intermingling of different generations and different age groups. But in the US it is all about the nuclear family. The youngsters do not have conversations with the elders. And so they miss out on the wisdom that is passed down from generation to generation.”  
Janet, on the other hand, discovered something unique. “In India, people live their spiritual life out in the open,” she says. “It is a huge part of their daily life. In the US, this does not happen.”  

As for Veronica, she found the concept of arranged marriages mind-boggling. 
That is so foreign to America,” she exclaims. “But I did meet a bunch of Indians who had arranged marriages and were happy. We Americans would have too much to process if we had to meet somebody on our wedding day without hardly knowing the person.”  

As for Bea, she gained a unique insight. “Sometimes when I go to a country which has the poverty levels that India has, you see groups of miserable people standing around,” she says. “But in India, poor people hold hands with each other, they smile and laugh, they are so curious about you. There is happiness all around. There is something about the country that exudes peace. That is why all of us find it so welcoming.”  

However, no place is perfect. When asked about the negative aspects, Veronica says, “The thing that bothered me the most about India was the trash. I come from California and we are so much into recycling and moving away from plastic. I feel more effort should be made regarding conservation and trash disposal.” 

Adds Janet: “The debris is everywhere, between shops and homes. There is a beautiful oasis, when you are in somebody’s home, but when you step out into the main road you are immediately surrounded by concrete slabs, trash or something else.”

Adds Bea, “Getting rid of the trash should be a national priority.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Maximum Impact

The Bengaluru-based Nivedha M has just won the 2019 Impact Maker Awards in Norway for her waste management system and took home prize money worth Rs 40 lakh

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was cold inside the Skur13 hall in Oslo, Norway during the evening of October 10. A group of 35 entrepreneurs stood on a stage in pin-drop silence. They were from all over the world: UK, USA, Kenya, Botswana and India. Among them was the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Nivedha M. She is the founder of the Trashbot machine that can automatically separate bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste.

Nivedha was wearing a black coat and shiny black boots. The Norwegian Trade Minister Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, Torbjørn Røe said, “And the winner is” … there was a pause and then he shouted, “TrashCon (the name of the company).”

Nivedha felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit her. Then, breaking out into a never-ending smile, she stepped forward and received a plaque and a large cardboard cheque from the minister. The plaque identified her as the winner of the 2019 Impact Maker Awards. This is a global competition for entrepreneurs who can provide unconventional solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. And the prize money is a cool Rs 40 lakh.

The Impact Maker Awards has been instituted by the Norway-based group Xynteo, and consists of major companies like Unilever, Mastercard, General Electric and Tatas. These firms are looking for innovative solutions for the world’s problems.

And through a vote of the 500 plus delegates in the hall, which consisted of people like the CEO of Ikea Jesper Brodin and the co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, they voted for TrashCon as having made the most impact.

Nivedha had never expected to get the award. The earlier winners were mostly Europeans and Americans. “This was the first time an Indian was winning,” says Nivedha.

When asked on stage what she would do with the money, Nivedha said, “Each of these digits will impact a thousand lives. We can create an end-to-end waste management system which includes segregation and recycling. According to my calculations, for each digit, we can prevent 300 tonnes of waste going to a landfill every month, through the use of Trashbot.” Incidentally, the recycled waste from the Trashbot can be used to make biogas and plywood-type boards. So there is no waste whatsoever.

Xynteo has also extended support to Nivedha to help her scale up the production. “We are making 10 machines a month,” she says. “Now they will help us to make 100 machines and later there will be a global outreach.”

A chemical engineer who graduated from the Rashtreeya Vidyalaya College of Engineering, the 24-year-old says, “I have found my life’s purpose. I want to create a time where there is no trash anywhere in the world.” 

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