Monday, September 16, 2019

Let’s be original

Anish Damodaran, of the Backwaters Collective on Metaphysics and Politics, talks about how we are still colonised by the West regarding how we think and act  

Pics: Anish Damodaran; the Malayalam Mandiram building of the Sree Narayana Guru Society of Sri Lanka, at Colombo 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When entrepreneur Anish Damodaran stood outside the Malayalam Mandiram building of the Sree Narayana Guru Society of Sri Lanka, at Colombo, he thought it looked like a mosque with a peaked top and vibrant yellow and green colours. But when he stepped inside it looked like a Christian chapel, with the high ceiling and wooden benches. But at one end, there was a statue of Sree Narayana Guru looking back benignly at him. (The Guru [1854-1928], as is well known, was a radical, who generated immense social change in Kerala and wrote extensively on philosophy as well as poems).  

Anish had come, along with his father and a few friends for a visit in October, 2010. It was while there he learnt that the organisation had come up through an Act of Parliament. “In the field of education. Narayana Guru had started 42 night schools and libraries in Colombo,” says Anish. “Because of these schools, many people got educated. So the country was grateful to Guru.” 

The civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese had come to an end. Anish and his group decided to hold a conference. “We felt it was important to bridge the gap between the Tamils and the Sinhalese,” says Anish. “Since there was talk about reconciliation, we felt we should add to the process.” 

But Anish did not want a seminar which espoused only the ideas and thought processes of the Guru. “The biggest gift the Guru gave the people of Kerala was the idea of original thinking,” says Anish. “Can you think for yourself and thereafter, act for self and society? Thinking by itself was an act for him. We decided to get scholars from outside who could generate original ideas. That’s how we got people like [eminent social scientist] Prof. Ashish Nandy to come across.” 

The seminar was a success. More than a thousand people attended. That became a trigger. A group was formed. It was called the Backwaters Collective on Metaphysics and Politics. And for the past several years, it has held an annual conference, at Kochi. The most recent one, which took place between July 12-15, was in association with the Kochi Biennale Foundation. 

Eminent scholars, writers and artists like Ashis Nandy, Gopal Guru, Julius Lipner, Ajay Skaria, Ganesh Devy, KR Meera, Riyas Komu, and Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna took part. The audience consisted of academicians, intellectuals, activists, historians, artists, anthropologists and social critics.

Apart from the Guru, we are also interested in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramana Maharishi, and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa,” says Anish. 

The Collective has a clear aim: to produce new ways of thinking. “That’s because there is a hegemony of knowledge by the West,” says Anish. “In a way, we are still captivated by their findings. So, we are blindly following then. The whole world is in thrall. We are always quoting Socrates and Plato. We should come up with Eastern or Indic concepts which can be used to resolve contemporary issues that the world faces.” 

Then Anish asks a rhetorical question: Why hasn’t Sree Narayana Guru or [social reformer] Chattambi Swamikal been taken seriously by academicians? “There are no studies on them,” he says. “These are individuals who have transformed society. They have come up with ideas that can become universal.” 

He says the Global South -- countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean -- has to be proactive. “Our societies need to find solutions ourselves instead of looking for ideas from the West,” says Anish. “Prof Nandy says that knowledge should come from the slums. That means, it should come from the margins.” 

Meanwhile, when he was told that most people are not interested in subjects like metaphysics and philosophy, Anish agreed. “Society is not reflective,” he says. “We live in a world where we accept Whatsapp messages, many of which are fake, without a critical filter.” 

This lack of interest has not proved a deterrence. “It takes time to change society,” he says. “We have brought out two books which consists of our radical ideas.” 

The first book, which contains a selection of papers from the first few conferences, was published by Oxford University Press under the title of ‘India and the Unthinkable: Backwaters Collective on Metaphysics and Politics 1’. The just-released Volume II is titled ‘India and Civilisational Futures’.  

Finally, Anish has a plea. He wants youngsters to study humanities, philosophy, literature along with science and information technology. “Because everything is human,” he says. “Fundamentally, today, technology is dehumanising us. We are losing our human faculties, like our memory. How many phone numbers can we remember today? Twenty years ago, we remembered a lot more. How do we remain sensitive to each other and nature? We are not alive. That’s why young people should study the humanities. But it should not be standardised. The syllabus should consist of hybrid courses.” 

Will young people and the universities listen to Anish’s plea is the moot question?

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

Saturday, September 14, 2019

‘I want to break free’

In Hari Krishnan G’s photo exhibition, ‘Secret Garden’, he focuses on the desire of women to fulfill their dreams and hopes

Pics: Jayanai A and Hari Krishnan G; a still  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

A few years ago, magazine photographer Hari Krishnan G went to the Pain and Palliative Care Centre in Thrissur to take photos of the founder Sheeba Ameer. Soon, he got talking to her and realised that Sheeba herself had gone through a tragedy. Her daughter Niloufa, who was 28, died on August 27, 2013, after a 16-year-battle with acute myeloid leukaemia. And Sheeba remembered that near the end, Niloufa said, 'Amma, will I survive or die? Please save me. I want to live'. 

When Sheeba was telling me all this, I was thinking, ‘How emotionally strong and courageous women are’,” says Hari. 

Later, he interacted with many women during photo shoots. Another woman he found unforgettable is designer Uma Haimavati Prajapati who lives in Pondicherry. “Uma, who is from Delhi, told me that for many years she had lived for her husband and children,” says Hari. “But when her children grew up, got married and moved away, she felt it was time to live for herself. I thought a lot about what she said. We men fulfill our dreams easily: having a career, buying a plot of land, building a house, and purchasing a car. But a woman does not have the same freedom, especially when she gets married. A lot of her dreams and desires are set aside because of the needs of her husband, children and in-laws. I feel every woman should have freedom. And the family should encourage her to grow and develop as a person.”  

So, it was no surprise that for his first solo exhibition, ‘Emotional Hardcore’ in October 2015, the focus was on woman, but with a difference: they were all dark-skinned. “I wanted to show how beautiful they are, while at the same time challenge the notion that only fair people can be stunning,” says Hari. 

In his second exhibition, in May 2016, he focused on transgenders, while the third, in March 2018, called ‘Alien’, portrayed women in solitude. Now, his fourth, called ‘Secret Garden’, at the Durbar Hall, Kochi, is again focused on women and their desire for freedom. 

It shows a young woman wearing a long white gown, almost like a wedding dress, in different moods. In one she holds a crown which is perched on her head, in another she bends her back and looks upwards, with eyes closed but with roses in her hand, urging the mood of freedom to flow into her. 

In another, she wears a wedding veil with red roses and green leaves pinned on it, but she is waist-deep in a stream. There is an image where she looks directly into the camera holding a green lovebird in her hand. And there is one of her floating face up in a stream, eyes closed, with a look of tranquillity on her face. The images, 11 of them, at 6’ x 4’ were shot, with a Canon 6D, inside a forest in Kollam district. Hari has added a soundtrack of birds twittering and it adds to the feeling that we are watching scenes from a forest. 

The model is Jayani A, who is doing her PhD in Special Education in the School of Behavioural Sciences at MG University, Kottayam. Hari had seen her photos on Instagram and liked her style and poise. Through a mutual friend, he approached her. And she was agreeable because she had seen Hari’s photos earlier. “Images from his earlier exhibitions had gone viral,” she says. 

The shoot lasted for a few hours. But months later, Jayani is still excited. “I never felt more liberated as I was during the shoot,” she says. “Especially when I was lying face-up in the water. At one moment I felt I was floating in space.”  

Later, Hari got a shock when a friend pointed out that it was similar to British artist Sir John Everett Millais’ iconic work ‘Ophelia’ (the character from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet). “I had not been aware of the artist’s image,” says Hari. “I was struck by how similar both are.”   

What is amazing about the photos is that they look like a mix of an actual photo as well as a painting, with diffuseness and splotches at certain places. But Hari says that these are photos and not a hybrid. “I did not use photoshop to improve or change the images,” says Hari, who graduated in Applied Art from Raja Ravi Varma College of Applied Arts, Mavelikara. But what he did differently was to use light in a new way. Apart from natural light, he used mirrors as well as filters. 

The exhibition will be an inspirational one for women visitors, as they make slow but confident steps to develop their personalities and talents. 

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

Monday, September 09, 2019

Serving the people

Tom Aditya, a Malayali, has just been elected as the Mayor of Bradley Stoke in Bristol, England. He talks about his experiences

Photos: Tom Aditya by Albin Mathew; the statue of Raja Rammohan Roy in Bristol  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When history buff Renjith Leen was introduced to Tom Aditya, the Mayor of Bradley Stoke in Bristol, England, at Kochi, the former immediately said, “Isn’t Bristol the place where [social reformer] Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) died and was buried?” Tom’s eyes widened in surprise and he says, “How did you know that?” 

Renjith smiles in return and says, “I learned it in my history book when I was in Class 5.” 

Tom nodded and said, “You will be happy to know that in the town’s square there is a statue of Rammohan, wearing a turban, and gown, and holding a book in his hand. It was made by Bengali artist Niranjan Sarkar in 1997. We also have a commemoration ceremony, every year, during his death anniversary on September 27,” says Tom. 

The Mayor, who was elected in May, is on a whirlwind visit to his home state of Kerala. And he has been felicitated by youth groups, churches, colleges and community organisations. After all, it is rare for a Malayali to go abroad, and then get into politics and make a mark.

Yes, I am different from the usual Malayali,” says Tom. “Usually, we are involved with their own needs, friendships and community. It is like living inside a well.” 

But Tom’s turning point occurred when he joined the Equality Commission of the South Gloucestershire Council in 2007. It gave him a chance to interact with LGBT groups, senior citizens, women’s guilds, youth clubs, disability forums, voluntary organisations, religious and ethnic groups, families, as well as representatives of the police, fire and rescue. “It was a good exposure and I was able to observe first-hand the problems people faced,” he says.  

In 2011, Tom stood for election and became a councillor. And he did some good work. Every morning, when he stepped out to go to work, he noticed an 80-year-old  widow who lived in the opposite house, with a dog. Later, he came to know she was depressed. So, Tom befriended her. 

She told Tom, “I have nobody. My children are working elsewhere. I have not seen my grandchildren for a long while.”

In Britain, Tom says, many elderly people live lives of isolation. “Their only companion is a dog,” he says. So Tom started ‘Coffee Mornings’. A group of elderly people would be invited to come to a cafe to have sandwiches and coffee, in the morning, which is funded by the Council. “As a result, they were able to have conversations with each other,” says Tom. “The widow overcome her depression through these meetings.” 

When an old skate park had to be demolished, Tom invited the youths in the area to design a new one. They got excited and presented drawings which were approved. “Today, this skate park, made at a cost of 350,000 pounds has more than 500 youngsters using it,” he says. Tom also conducted a successful campaign to increase the speed of Internet broadband in Bristol.  

So, despite a population which is 92% white, Tom was elected as Mayor. He is the first Asian to win in the South Gloucestershire County. A member of the Conservative Tom believes Britain should leave the European Union. “The people expressed this wish through a referendum,” he says. “A country like Norway, which is not part of the Union is doing so well. So we can also do well.” 

Tom was born in Pala, the son of a farmer, Thomas Mathew, who was a noted social worker. Following his BA (Economics) and a law degree, Tom went to do his MBA at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thereafter, he returned to Kerala and worked in the IndusInd Bank as a forex specialist. He was also a consultant for the Amal Jyothi Engineering College, at Kanjirapally, which is now regarded as one of the best in Kerala, apart from many other groups. But in 2002, he migrated to England to improve, as he says, ‘his economic opportunities’. When his wife Liny, a nurse, got a job in Bristol, Tom decided to settle there. Today, the couple have five children: Abhishek, 17, Aleena, 15, Albert, 12, Adona, 11 and Alphonse, 10. 

Asked his observations about Kerala, he says, “Kerala is progressing. There are a lot of roads, new bridges and buildings. But we have a problem with our attitude. We need to introduce values in our education system: how to be self-confident, follow rules, behave well with people, and manage situations. There should be critical thinking among the students. This faculty is not well developed. Our education system should be geared for the future and not the present. We have to think about what is going to happen ten or twenty years from now.” 

As for his career, Tom says, “I want to continue to work sincerely and do good works for the common welfare. This brings me the greatest happiness.”

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

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Hear my message

Former Australian cricketer Brett Lee is on a mission: to highlight the importance of newborn hearing screening to rectify deafness

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The baby girl is 11 months old. Born deaf, a cochlear implant has been put in her ear through surgery. Inside a room at a hospital in Kochi is former Australian cricketer Brett Lee, the doctor, a couple of nurses and a few onlookers. The doctor now switches on the implant. For a moment, there is pin-drop silence. Brett stares intently at the baby. Suddenly, the child starts crying. And Brett immediately breaks out into a wide smile. 

The reason the baby cries is because the sound she hears is overwhelming after so many months of complete silence. “I have seen quite a few switch-ons and it is such a happy moment,” says Brett. 

He had come on a visit to Kochi as the Global Hearing Ambassador for Cochlear India. “This has become a mission for me,” he says. “In India, there is a large number of children who suffer from deafness for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, even when parents are aware they do not do anything about it. They believe God will solve it, or some superstition will fix it and when their child reaches five years of age, he or she will be okay.” 

To ensure deafness is identified early so that an effective cure can be done, a universal newborn screening test for the hearing has been set up all over the world. And Brett is so happy with the situation in Kerala. “In government hospitals, it is almost 100 per cent,” he says. “And that’s great. In other states, it is only 2 per cent.” 

If there is early intervention, children can enjoy the sounds of everyday life. “It is also extremely important for the brain to be exposed to be sound from the very beginning for the overall development of the baby,” says Brett. He says he has met three girls who had been implanted when they were babies and now they are studying to be doctors, specialising in cochlear implants. “Isn’t that fantastic,” he says. 

At 42, Brett radiates energy, positive vibrations and an infectious smile. It’s been four years since he retired from top-class cricket. Asked when the feeling of retirement hit home, Brett says, “When the next season rolled in, I noticed that the gear did not come out of the garage, and I was no longer going for net practice. But I have played the odd game just for fun. However, I do miss the adrenal rush of walking out to the ground, where one lakh people are cheering. I don’t think I will ever be able to replicate that joy of representing one’s country. But that’s life. You have to move on.” 

Today, Brett is busy doing promotional activities, television commentary and taking part in charity work. And he keeps coming back to India because he has fallen in love with the country. “The people are very warm and hospitable,” he says. “They always make me feel welcome. Poor people at the front of a hotel or a village, they smile at you. And that makes your day. I have seen boys who use a piece of wood as a bat and play cricket but they look so happy. Those of us in affluent countries complain about little things, but the poor boy on the road who has nowhere to sleep can still smile so easily.” 

What is amazing to see as he speaks is to see how fit he is: strong biceps and a flat stomach. Brett works out in the gym and notches up the kilometres on the treadmill. But he is still adjusting to the after-effects of an intensely physical career as a fast bowler, who took 690 wickets in Tests and one-dayers and was a World Cup winner in 2003.  

I have a bulging disc in my neck,” he says. “My elbow will never straighten again because I snapped my arm twice. I have had six ankle operations and broke my back twice. Am I one hundred per cent pain-free? No. But I am not complaining. I ignore the pain and carry on.” 

On August 11, Brett did a 14 ½ km charity run in Sydney called City2Surf. What’s clear is that Brett is ensuring that his post-cricketing career is as fulfilling and successful.  

Asked the difference between success and failure, Brett says, “One word: hunger. I was not the most talented player. There were so many more gifted players, but I had a hunger to succeed, along with great training and a disciplined work ethic. I listened to my parents. And I respected the game and had a lot of fun.” 

Interestingly, Brett did not come from a sporting family. His father Bob is a metallurgist, while his mother Helen was a piano teacher. “But she was a 100m sprinter and won a few golds at the junior level,” he says. “I got my speed from her.”

Soon, Brett is ready to get up to speed once again for his cochlear campaign. The flight to Ahmedabad is just two hours away….

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

Monday, September 02, 2019

When the dentist has to step in

When people suffer persistently from headaches, back, neck and shoulder muscle pains, and nothing shows in X-Rays and MRI scans, it could be a little-known dental problem called temporomandibular joint disorder

Photos: Dr. Renju Jose; photo by Albin Mathew. Bobby John Mana (extreme right) with former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Businessman Bobby Mana sat in the dental chair of Dr Renju Jose at Kochi. He looked tense. Very casually, Dr Renju pressed his left shoulder. Bobby yelled in pain. 

The dentist looked surprised as Bobby said, “Doctor, I have been suffering from this pain for the past fifteen years. Whenever I move my right arm backwards, during a jog, I get shooting pains. I have consulted many orthopaedic doctors and neurologists, but no solution has been found.”  

Dr Renju nodded and then switched on a ‘Digital Bite Scan’ (T-Scan). This is a machine which is used, along with an electromyogram, to detect the pressure points when the upper teeth hit the lower ones.  

When Dr Renju scanned Bobby’s mouth, as he was chewing, he saw on the computer screen that the latter was using his left side to chew 80 per cent of the food while it was only 20 per cent on the right. “There was heavy pressure on Bobby’s last molar,” says Dr Renju. “He was unaware of it.”  

Dr Renju polished away the excessive ceramic on a bridge on the left side so that the upper and the lower teeth could smoothly hit each other. The next morning Dr Renju called Bobby. The latter said that he was now consciously using the right side of the mouth while chewing. And when Dr Renju asked about his shoulder pain, Bobby suddenly said, “Oh my God, it’s gone completely. I can stretch my arm back and forth without any problem.” 

Dr Renju smiles and says, “It took only 10 hours to solve Bobby’s problem, and that too, without any medications.” 

A large percentage of the world’s population tends to use one side of the teeth. But for most, there is no problem. “Normally people prefer to use both sides if given an option, but sometimes what happens is that they may not have teeth on one side,” says Dr Renju. “Or one tooth may have been removed, for some reason. Automatically the biting shifts to the other side.”  

Even without biting, the jaws and the teeth are under tremendous pressure. That’s because whenever we swallow our saliva, we are unconsciously biting our teeth together. This happens around 5000 times in the day, as well as the night. “So there is tremendous pressure on the chewing and biting muscles,” says Dr Renju. “But there is no time to rest and recover.” 

And so, these muscles end up getting fatigued. “As a result, the muscles produce lactic acid which is what causes the pain. This spreads to the head, neck, shoulders and back muscles,” says Dr Renju. 

Other ailments include migraine headache, neck pain, vertigo (falling down), numbness in the fingers and arms, pain behind the eyes, and tinnitus (buzzing in the ears). “When the pain continues, despite treatment by neurologists and orthopaedic doctors, and if there are no findings in X-Rays and MRI scans, then it means that it is a dental problem,” says Dr Renju.

However, he says, not many doctors are aware of this problem, which is called a temporomandibular joint disorder, and the treatments available. “In India, fewer than one hundred know about this machine,” says Dr Renju. “There is an urgent need to spread awareness among doctors and the public.” 

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

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The faces tell a story

At his recent exhibition, artist Girish Kalleli has focused on how spiritual enlightenment can change the human face  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Now and then, the artist Girish Kalleli would meet up with his neighbour Raghu at his hometown of Muvattupuzha. The latter is an anchor on a local TV channel. He writes skits and enacts it. But he is also facing some personal troubles.   

One day Girish got an idea. He would do a painting of Raghu. So he called 
him to his house, drew an outline on a piece of paper and took a photograph. Then Raghu left. Girish was planning a solo exhibition and was wondering about the theme. 

After a few days, he got an unusual idea. He would showcase some of the people in his area but would give them a spiritual look. “In other words, I wanted to imagine how they would look if they became spiritually enlightened,” says Girish. 

So, he drew Raghu with a pompadour hairstyle. There are small white flowers in the hair. The eyes are a striking blue-green. The ends of the moustache meet the beard through two thin lines. There is a small tuft of hair below the lower lip. On the left ear is an earring. The background of the work consists of tiny leaves.  

Raghu is a dynamic person, with lots of energy,” says Girish. “He has gone through difficult times but now things are getting better. I wanted to show his strength.” 

Girish’s next subject is a labourer, Pritam. “I found him interesting because he greets everybody the same way, whether rich or poor,” says Girish. “He is also honest and straight-forward.” Pritam, like Raghu, has a thick black beard and large piercing eyes. He is wearing a green banian along with a necklace which has a small amulet. Pritam’s maroon towel has been folded to make a turban. And on his head, Girish has drawn roots going all the way down to his shoulder. The background consists of several small fishes. “Pritam is rooted to the soil,” says Girish. “And whenever he has some spare time, he goes to the river and does fishing.”  

Another portrait, all mixed medium on paper, is of Girish’s eight-year-old daughter Arya. But she looks much older, almost as if she is in her early twenties, looking straight ahead, with thick hair and a bindi in the middle of her forehead. “My daughter is much more mature than her years and very confident,” says Girish. “I feel there is an older person inside her. Arya looks after her younger brother in the same way my wife looks after him.”

Others who have been portrayed include Gireesh’s wife, a local temple priest and a youth. All these portraits were on show in Girish’s first solo exhibition, ‘Lifetraits’, which was held a few days ago at the Durbar Hall, Kochi.   

During the time he worked on these images, he realised that everybody has a mask. 
We wear them at home, in the workplace, in front of our spouses, relatives, parents and children,” says Girish. “Where is the real Girish is the question I ask myself. This is the case with all the portraits. Where is the real Raghu? Or Pritam? No matter how close we are to people, we will not be able to know their innermost selves. In a way, we are actors in a drama. We have been trained to behave like this from childhood.”  

A full-time artist, Girish owns a paddy field and a few cows. So, it is no surprise that the only animal that has been featured in his show is a cow. “I would see this cow in the town,” he says. “It seemed to me that it was not happy because it had not been treated well.” The cow that he has drawn has deeply soulful eyes, which seem to have seen a lot of suffering. It is an eye-catching work, so it came as no surprise that a visitor had bought it following the conclusion of the show.  

Yes, thankfully, a few works did get sold,” says Girish, with a smile. 

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

To make India litter-free

On September 1, marathon runner Ripu Daman Bevli will be setting out from Kochi on a ‘plogging’ journey cleaning the trash in 50 cities all over India  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is a sunny Sunday morning at Leisure Valley Park in Gurgaon City. In the sprawling 25-acre park, there are fountains, slides, gardens, large flowering trees, and numerous cemented walking paths. A group of people have gathered -- a mix of children, youngsters, middle-aged professionals, and seniors with grey hair. In the middle of this group, is a tall man with an orange T-shirt with ‘Super Sikh’ embossed on it. He is Ripu Daman Bevli, the pioneer in India of ‘plogging’: collecting garbage as you go jogging. 

Soon, the group is handed reusable gloves and bags. Then Ripu says, “When you bend down to pick up the first piece of litter that’s where your journey begins. That's because the awareness that you get from picking up that first piece is an unmatched feeling. If you don’t do anything else, you will surely stop littering.” 

The group nods and Ripu says, “This is a pristine place. But you will be shocked at the amount of trash you will be able to collect.” 

Soon, the group spreads out all over the park….

One hour later, the group has collected over 400 kgs of trash: white plastic packets, wrappers, chips and biscuit packets, numerous Coca Cola and Pepsi plastic bottles, clothes, condoms and sanitary pads. 

The group was in disbelief because the place they thought was clean, was actually so dirty,” says Ripu. “Our normal eye is an ignorant one. We don’t see trash. We just walk past it because we are so busy in our day-to-day activities.” 

Ripu has so far organised and supported 312 drives across 21 cities to make people aware of how this casual throwing of trash damages the environment and spoils the beauty of our villages, towns and cities. 

And on September 1, he is embarking on his most ambitious project: a clean-up of 50 cities in different parts of India, spread over a distance of over 1000 km. The estimated time is two-and-a-half months. The starting point is Kochi. From there, he will go to Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, Puducherry, Chennai, several other cities in South India, then to Kolkata, Guwahati and cities in North India. 

He is being helped by three friends, Shresth Saha, Sanjay Karki and Siddharth Shankar, who will be taking turns to drive the crew car, and uploading the details of the journey on social media. Ripu is also accompanied by the sponsor R/Elan, a company which makes sustainable fabrics out of PET bottles. “They will take care of the waste management,” says Ripu. 

He plans to start at 4.30 a.m. and do cleaning till about 2.30 p.m. It will be tough on him physically and mentally. “One hour of plogging is equivalent to four hours of jogging,” says Ripu. “It’s exhausting because you are squatting every second or third step. You cannot build momentum. Also, seeing garbage all the time can be depressing.”  

But not everybody is a fan of what he is doing. “Some people asked why they should do a ragpicker’s job,” says Ripu. “My reply to them is that you never question people when they are throwing the trash. But you are questioning us when we are picking it up.” 

The Delhi-based Ripu began this programme two years ago. He was a marathon runner who would go for early morning training. “At that time, there are much less people and traffic,” he says. “That’s when I observed a lot of trash all over the place. All of us crib and complain, but no one does anything about it. So I decided to do something.” 

In December, 2017, Ripu started collecting garbage from the streets of Delhi and began posting pics on Facebook and Instagram via the page that he created: ‘My City, My Responsibility’. “Suddenly I saw a lot of people applauding and taking an interest,” he says. “Many wanted to join. So we organised our first clean-up. And we posted pics of ‘before’ and ‘after’.”  

Following this, Ripu decided to take it to the national level. So, he went to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata and launched drives. 

Meanwhile, in January 2018, Ripu came across a news item about Erik Ahlström, a Swedish runner who was doing the same thing in Stockholm. But he called it ‘plogging’: it’s a combination of the Swedish word ‘plocka upp’, which means ‘pick up’ and jogging. Finding it an attractive word, Ripu has renamed his group as ‘Ploggers of India’. “It’s a catchy word and will draw the millennials,” says Ripu, who has taken this as his life mission and does not have a regular job.  

I am doing this out of passion,” he says. “There is no financial gain. My family is giving me moral support, but they have apprehensions, especially on the financial side. However, for the long-term success of the mission, I will have to bring some financial self-sustainability. My aim is simple: I want to make India litter-free. I want to bring out a behavioural change in the people so that India will be as clean as any developed country.” 

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

Monday, August 26, 2019

Behind high walls

Fr. John Puthuva is celebrating 25 years as a priest as well as a prison counsellor all over Kerala and in Delhi. He talks about his experiences

Pics: Albin Mathew  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Harish Nair stared at the wedding card. For a moment, he felt that his heart had stopped. He could feel the blood rush to his head. He blinked, took a deep breath and stared hard at what was written. There was no doubt: his neighbour and childhood friend Monica Kumar, in a Delhi neighbourhood, was getting married to Shiva Prasad, an IT engineer working for a company. A spasm of rage swept through him. ‘Monica is mine,’ he thought. ‘Nobody else can marry her.’

He calmed himself and walked out. Some distance from the house, he googled Shiva’s company and called the office. He managed to secure the home address. When he asked at what time Shiva reported to work, he was told, “2 pm.” 

He looked at his watch. It was only 10.30 a.m. At 24, having just completed his MBA, along with Monica, in the same institution, he was on the lookout for a job. 

So, he was free now. He went to a wholesale market and bought a knife. Thereafter, he went to Shiva’s house, and called him out. As soon as Shiva stepped on the sidewalk, Harish stabbed him twice in the heart. Holding the blood-stained knife, he went to a nearby police station and told the shocked officer, “I killed a man who was supposed to marry my girlfriend. You can arrest me.” 

Not surprisingly, Harish was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail. “And it was at Tihar Jail that I met Harish,” says Fr. John Puthuva, who is celebrating 25 years as a priest as well as a prison counsellor. “He is a very nice boy. And he has experienced deep remorse at what he did several times.” 

The story did not end there. Two years after he was incarcerated, Harish secured parole for ten days. He met Monica and confessed his love. She reciprocated. On another visit, they had a registered marriage. And in later years Monica gave birth to their baby daughter. “Harish has a few more years to serve,” says Fr. John. “Monica has a good job. Their love is very strong.” 

Fr. John is recounting this story in the waiting shed for visitors just outside the Kakkanad District Jail in Kochi. The monsoon rain is beating down. In the distance the 20-foot high walls are getting a proper drenching. On the opposite bench sits a young woman with a sleeping baby, his head resting contentedly on her shoulder. But she looks morose. She has probably come to see her husband. 

Another woman in her fifties is holding a transparent plastic packet. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, a toothbrush and a couple of Liril soaps could be seen. Opposite, at some distance away, a small gate within a large gate opens. A policeman sticks his head out and hollers their names. They get up, open their umbrellas and walk towards the gate. 

As Fr. John watches them go, he says, “Sad, isn’t it? It’s such a social embarrassment for the family when a husband or a father is jailed. Relatives keep away. People whisper to each other when they are walking on the street. Children are told not to interact with the convict’s children. Money is short. The wife has to face harsh words from the local grocery store because the dues are mounting.”   

Dressed in a white cassock and with an easy smile, Fr. John provokes respect. A group of schoolboys and girls rush in to take shelter. “Good morning Father,” they say in unison. He smiles happily and greets them back.

He turns to me and says, “You will be surprised to know, like these schoolchildren,  there are many innocent people in jail.” 

Then he recounts an anecdote. A man, Suresh, committed a murder. Then pretending that everything is fine, he went to his friend Anil’s house. “Anil did not know that Suresh had just committed a murder,” says Fr. John. “As a friend, he invited Suresh to stay the night. The next morning Suresh left. But when he was caught by the police, Anil, as his friend, was also arrested. It’s three years now. The case is still going on. So, for no fault of his, Anil is in jail.” 

But, of course, there are hard-core career criminals who kill people for a living. It is to these men that Fr. John offers counselling. “I tell them that the taking of a human life is a grievous sin in any religion,” he tells them. “I ask them to take care of their families, have a belief in God, and learn to behave in a law-abiding way in society.”   

But the road to redemption is not easy. “There are many who belong to gangs and find it difficult to break away,” says the priest. “They feel trapped. Their group has a vice-like grip on them. Having said that there have been many who have managed to break free and lead straight lives once again. Through the support of the jail authorities, we give moral support so that they remain strong.” 

Asked the reasons behind their criminal activities, Fr. John says, “Many murderers come from disturbed family backgrounds. The father might hit the mother. Or he is an alcoholic and hits the boy. Sometimes, they think a murder is an easy way to make money.” 

Criminal activities spans all the classes. “Nowadays, even educated people also commit crimes,” he says. One day, a group of college students in Delhi, coming from good families, came up with the idea of robbing an ATM to make some money. So they selected one in which there was no security guard and no cameras. They managed to break the ATM and take away the money. But unknown to them there was a tiny camera. So they were caught and jailed.

And now three years have gone past as the case drags on. “They are doing their education in the jail,” says Fr. John. “But their parents are anguished. And their names will be permanently there in the police records. In their social circles, their names are forever tarnished.”  

Meanwhile, the rain has stopped. The woman with the baby steps out. She gets into an autorickshaw and is driven off. Soon, the elderly lady also moves away.  

As it become silent, Fr. John slips into a reminiscent mood. “When I was studying at the St. Joseph’s Seminary, at Aluva, once a week we would go and say prayers for the prisoners at the local jails. That’s how I got interested in prison counselling.” 

He has worked in many jails in Kerala, and had a three-year stint at Tihar Jail, from 2013-16. While there, to provide mental relief, he organised football and cricket matches. “[Former cricketers] Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh inaugurated the cricket tournament,” says Fr. John. “For a football match between India XI and Tihar XI [former Indian captain] Bhaichung Bhutia played.” Of course, India XI won 3-0.  

Sometimes he held variety entertainments. Once, there was a dance programme by boys and girls. While the show was going on, Fr. John noticed a man in his forties, who was sitting in the front row, with tears rolling down his face. “After the programme I asked him why he had cried,” says Fr. John. “He said that when he saw the boys and girls he was thinking about his own children. He missed them terribly. He said, ‘I spent my life trying to earn money and did not spend time with the family. Then I murdered somebody, got caught and now I am in jail’.” 

As our conversation meanders to a close, Fr. John, who is now the parish priest of St George’s Church at Kalady, stands up and says, “There is a special reason I came to this jail today. I want to meet the superintendent so that, during Onam, I want to sponsor a special lunch for the prisoners to celebrate my 25 years.” 

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

Thursday, August 22, 2019

In the middle of nowhere

The former principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Dr George Mathew talks about his experiences in Biru, a tribal village of Jharkhand

Pics: Dr. George Mathew; a community meeting taking place

By Shevlin Sebastian  

When the 45-year-old tribal, Majhi was brought to the Shanti Bhavan Medical Centre in Biru, Jharkhand, blood was spurting out from a gash in the neck. The nurses rushed to call Dr George Mathew, the general physician and gastrointestinal surgeon. When the doctor came, he was shocked. He pressed hard against the blood vessels to stop the flow, even as Majhi was wheeled into the operation theatre on a gurney. 

The gash had gone through his ear,” says Dr Mathew. “His nerves and muscles were cut. I worked through the night and managed to repair it. But I told the family Majhi may not be able to speak or hear again.” Apparently, Majhi was having a drink with his friend. Then a misunderstanding arose and the friend slashed him with an axe. They carry axes because they cut wood often. Majhi recovered slowly and then went home. 

Six months later, there was a visitor in the outpatient department. He was accompanied by his 20-year-old daughter. “He was smiling, but I could not recognise him,” says Mathew. “He pointed to his face and I could see a scar. And then I remembered.”  

Majhi had recovered well and could speak properly but could only hear a little. And he was back to farming. Majhi presented a paper packet to Mathew, which contained bananas, and said, “This is my first crop. Thanks to you, I am alive.” 

The daughter beamed. And Mathew felt a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. 

Mathew has been in Biru for the past one-and-a-half years. The former principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, he retired in 2011 and spent the next few years in Jakarta, Indonesia helping to develop a newly-begun medical college and to start a teaching hospital. But when his friend, Arwin Sushil, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Centre invited him to have a look, Mathew did so. “I saw that there was a need for senior doctors,” says Mathew, who has a doctorate in surgery from the Royal Adelaide Hospital, University of Adelaide. “So I decided to stay.” 

Asked about the health issues of the people, Mathew says that because of their poor living standards, many suffer from tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea and dehydration. “Owing to their illiteracy and ignorance, they come to the hospital only when the disease is at an advanced stage,” says Mathew. “For some, we can do something. But for the others, it is too late. We can only give a palliative.” 

Another problem is that because there are good roads, accidents have become very common. “High speed combined with alcohol is a dangerous combination,” says Mathew. “We get accident victims every day. Many of them come with severe head injuries because they don’t wear helmets. The mortality rate is 25 percent, which is very high.” 

Interestingly, the patients are getting subsidised treatment. “There is a government health insurance,” says Mathew. “So, we don’t charge the patient but the government reimburses us if the people are below the poverty line.” In 2017-18, the partially-free treatment was to the tune of Rs 1.9 crore.  

The Shanti Bhawan centre has 50 beds and sophisticated equipment. It has two Operating Theatres and X-Ray facilities. It plays an important role in the area because the nearest hospital is at Rourkela, 100 kms away.  

Backward and poor 

Biru is one of the most backward regions in Jharkhand. The majority of the people are tribals. And their primary occupation is farming. But they use the basic equipment of ox and plough. “Since they depend on the rain, they grow only one crop annually, mainly rice and vegetables like brinjals, ladies finger, tomatoes, chillies, and groundnuts,” says Mathew. “If the monsoon fails, their crops also fail.” 

They also collect forest produce like honey, wood and the mahua flower. “This flower is destroying the community because they make alcohol by fermenting it,” says Mathew. “Alcoholism is rampant. Both men, women and sometimes children drink it.” 

Interestingly, the terrain is very much like Kerala. It is full of forests with clearings in between and there are small hamlets. 

Asked to compare a village in Kerala with that in Biru, Mathew says, “It is like comparing the USA and Africa. The availability of health-care facilities is very low in Jharkhand as compared to Kerala. It is a world apart. The South of India is far ahead as compared to the North.”

Surprisingly, the locals have heard of Kerala because some of them had gone to work as labourers, because of the high daily wages. “They said they were treated well and felt happy,” says Mathew. 

Asked how long he would stay, the 69-year-old says, “As long as my health permits, and my family is okay with it.” 

The family includes his wife Alice, a gynaecologist, who is on a temporary assignment in Brunei, till December, while his son Sidharth, 35, is a Bengaluru-based lawyer. Another son, Anirudh, 32, is a neuropsychologist at CMC, Vellore. 

In conclusion, Mathew says, “This stint has provided me with a lot of happiness. I was able to provide medical care in an area where there is nothing. Also, I have experienced the joy of saving people who would have died otherwise.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Join the pyramid and get swindled

Aruna Ravikumar’s book, ‘Marauders of Hope’ focuses on the many multi-level marketing scams that are taking place in India

Pics: Illustration by Tapas Ranjan; Aruna Ravikumar 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The Hyderabad-based journalist Aruna Ravikumar would anchor a weekly TV programme on a regional channel where guests would discuss political and social issues. On one show the topic was Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) firms.

Participants included a representative from Amway, a multi-billion dollar company, a victim and a member of an NGO. “At that point of time, a lot of these MLM companies were being busted in Hyderabad,” says Aruna, while on a recent visit to Kochi. 

During the channel discussion, Aruna was intrigued by what she heard. The business had impacted a cross-section of society: rich, middle-class and poor, the educated and uneducated, urban as well as rural. And yet, it had not been a major subject of discussion. So, when the TV channel closed down last year, Aruna decided to do research on the subject. 

And this has resulted in a 166-page book called ‘Marauders of Hope’ (Rs 299), which has been brought out by the publishing arm of Crossword Bookstore called ‘The Write Place’. It is a clear and lucid look at the subject. The topics include beginnings, causes (liberalisation), the anatomy of the schemes, the ruined relationships of the victims, precedents, landmark court decisions, and the way ahead. 

What comes as a surprise is the companies that have been accused of exploiting people by Aruna include household names like Amway, Tupperware, Herbalife and Mary Kay.  

The modus operandi of the firms is very simple. “Investor No. 1 at the top of the pyramid recruits six new members at Rs 100 each earning a profit of Rs 600,” says Aruna. “These six recruits will then recruit six new members, each earning a profit of Rs 500 (minus the initial investment of Rs 100), and adding 36 people to the pyramid. Now, the 36 people, to earn any profit will have to recruit 216 people who subsequently must recruit 1296 people and so on. This pyramid quickly becomes unrealistic. Practically speaking, anyone below the fourth and fifth level is likely to lose 100 per cent of his investment.”      

In fact, the only investor who is guaranteed a return is the one at the top of the pyramid. Amway ‘Diamond Distributor’ Ashok Reddy, who is from Hyderabad, has over 2000 people below him. But the people above him are only two Americans Bill Britt and Dexter Yaeger.

They make commissions on all recruitments and purchases of Ashok,” says Aruna. “So these Americans are getting an income from India, without paying any tax.” At this moment, there are more than 4 lakh Amway distributors, like Ashok.  

Here is another example: In early 2000, a company called Frontier Trading started retailing Japan Life mattresses in India at Rs 1 lakh a piece when the actual price was less than Rs 5000. The company representatives said that if you sleep on it, a lot of your ailments would be cured. It was an MLM scheme where buyers had to recruit new buyers.

The company sold Rs 800 crore worth of beds. Astonishingly, in a small town, Hubli in Karnataka beds worth Rs 82 crore were sold in a single month, “Soon complaints began to pour in that the bed had no healing powers,” says Aruna. “And the scheme collapsed, but in the process, many people lost their money.” 

However, these companies argue that they are different from pyramid schemes because members can earn by selling their high-priced products. However, the odds are high when you start selling their products. Each member is expected to buy a certain number of products every month. For every purchase, you get 50 PVs (Point Value). On every PV, you get a bonus. But you get a bonus only after you reach 200 PVs. So, the lower the quantity you buy, the lower is the bonus. As a result, those who are at the bottom of the network, in terms of purchase, make no money at all. 

The argument that these are not pyramid schemes has been put forth time and again, to arm-twist the judiciary,” says Aruna. “No one is fooled by this argument but it is bandied about, helping the companies to win lawsuits and explore newer markets. And continue their exploitation. The result: too many victims.”

A Village Revenue Officer Chakradhar was induced to become an MLM distributor. So, to recruit people, he tried to cajole his friends, family and subordinates. Many did not join, so Chakradhar put up the money himself. But despite his investments, he did not get any bonus. People began to avoid him, as recruiting more to the network became an obsession. But eventually, the pressure got to Chakradhar and he committed suicide. 

Aruna says that stringent laws are in place, especially The Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978. “But nobody has acted on it, thanks to the deep pockets of the MLM firms, even though the losses are pegged at Rs 7 lakh crore,” she says. “The only way is to close the loopholes, but do governments have the will to do so?” 

In conclusion, Aruna gives some simple tips: “Do not trust schemes that promise you very high returns. Do not join projects promising enrollment as they are all pyramid schemes in disguise. Don’t fall prey to marketing techniques employed by close friends and relatives as the ‘quick money’ bug can become lethal. When you become aware, the less are the chances of becoming a victim.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Strokes of awareness

The Kochi-based artist G Prathapan’s works on plastic waste were displayed at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland recently

Pics: G. Prathapan; the works at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland; pen portrait   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On most evenings, G Prathapan cycles down to the David Hall Art Gallery in Fort Kochi, which is less than a kilometre from his home. He is dressed like an artist: a loose shirt, tight trousers, sandals and a satchel across his shoulders. It contains his work materials: micro-tipped pens, and A3 paper. 

There are visitors, both foreign and local, who come to see the artworks at the gallery. Later, they hang around at the restaurant in the back. When they are told that Prathapan does caricatures as well as portraits, some opt to sit in front of him. 

Prathapan smiles and says, “All of them want me to do it within five minutes. I could, but it won’t be a good job.” Instead, he takes half an hour. Sometimes, it can go up to an hour. By then the subjects are anxious. They scratch their nose, twist their lips to one side, crack a knuckle, roll their eyes, or shake one leg continuously. 

The people include a mix of single men and women, sometimes it is a couple, sometimes a family of three, sometimes two female friends, or teenagers, both boys and girls, as well as children. It is in black and white and looks remarkable. Most illustrations seem very alive, as if at any moment they could step out of the paper and become flesh and blood people.

Prathapan smiles when he hears that. “Thank you,” he says simply. There are other reasons for Prathapan to feel happy. He has just participated for the second time as an invited artist at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland (June 26-August 4). “Eight of my works were on display,” says Prathapan. Again, these are drawings done in black ink on A3 size paper, all part of a series titled, ‘Trapped Earth by Plastic’. 

In one of the images, there is a plastic globe near the bottom of the sea. “Somebody has thrown it away because it was broken,” says Prathapan. “We are now in the throwaway culture. If there is slight damage to anything, we tend to get rid of it. The globe is giving company to the numerous plastic bottles in the rivers, seas and oceans. There is also a plastic packet on the ocean floor.” 

In another image, Prathapan has drawn a plastic packet, with just the tip above the surface of the water. “It is like an iceberg,” says the artist. “Only 1/7th of an iceberg is above the surface. The people only see the surface of the oceans. They don’t see what is happening underneath. So they think there is not much pollution. But what I am trying to say is the opposite: there is too much of pollution below the surface. The oceans are a dumping place. We don’t realise that when we throw a plastic packet on the road, it eventually reaches the ocean.”  

In another striking drawing, Prathapan has drawn the earth inside a plastic packet. “The whole world is inundated with plastic,” he says. “As a result, none of us can breathe. There is a fish which has got stuck inside a plastic packet. On the seashore, I have drawn a large city, with fumes coming out of the factories. There is pollution in the seas as well as the land.”

In the earlier edition of the Biennale, Prathapan’s topic had remained plastic waste. But at that time, he showed the waste in and around Kochi. “Waste is a topic that I am deeply interested in,” he says. “That’s because environmental damage is the biggest threat facing mankind.”

Says Johanna Immeli, the curator of the Biennale, “The jury was very impressed by Prathapan's drawings. The subject matter of plastic waste is very important. It is a problem all over the world. This appears in the news often. Many visitors liked Prathapan's works. They stood and observed the drawings for a long time. It made them think, they told me later.”

Prathapan passed out with a BFA in painting from the RLV College in Tripunithara. He has been a full-time artist, since 2007, and has participated in state and national solo and group exhibitions over the years. He has won a few state awards.

Prathapan says he would now be focusing on the environmental damage caused by ships and tankers. “When a ship leaks oil as it happened with a Chinese ship, the oil spreads for kilometres together,” he says. “It will damage the sea for a long while.” 

He pauses and says, “As an artist, I must bring awareness. The people should awaken and so must our leaders.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)