Thursday, July 18, 2019

Law Breakers

US-based academician Dr Amy Ritterbusch, who was in Kochi recently, says the worst forms of oppression in any society are meted out by the police

Photos: Dr Amy Ritterbusch; transgenders in Colombia

By Shevlin Sebastian  

It is night in Bogota, Colombia. Marianna is standing on a sidewalk looking at the drivers of the cars as they drive past. She is dressed in a short mini skirt and high heels with mascara on her cheeks and red lipstick. Marianna is a trans sex worker. As she stands with a few others, a police van comes up silently. She is quickly bundled in, along with the others. They sit silently, as the van drives away, fear creating a firestorm in their hearts. 

At the outskirts of the city, the transgenders are told to get down. At the point of a gun, all their clothes are removed, despite their resistance. “Then they are told to run into a dark forest,” says Dr Amy Ritterbusch, Assistant Professor of Social Welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs, University of California, Los Angeles. “Soon, the police start shooting at the girls. And these transgenders have to run for their lives, falling and hurting themselves and hoping they are not killed.” 

Later, they had to find their way back, towards the city, using leaves and branches to cover their bodies. “So that's one example of police brutality,” says Amy, who is of Colombian origin. “There are homeless individuals, children and adolescents who use drugs and drug users in general, who are just murdered by the police and their bodies dumped far away. Another way to describe this is ‘state-sanctioned social cleansing’. They are getting rid of individuals who are ‘unwanted’ with the help of unofficial death squads.” 

Amy had come to Kochi, at the invitation of the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences to interact with students and to give a talk on police violence at the International Summer University in Social Work. At the campus when you look out of the window, you can see green lawns and blue skies, and students milling about, talking in a peaceful and animated manner. 

And Amy also likes what she sees. “Kochi is serene,” she says. “The people are so generous and hospitable and the food is delicious. There is a beautiful peace here. In Colombia, because I am working on so many difficult issues I feel sad and full of rage.” 

Soon, she continues her grim tale. At a particular area in Bogota, there was a police raid and they arrested several drug addicts. They were later thrown into a large canal nearby. The canal was located below a public transportation system. So when the system closed for the night, and there were no witnesses, the police came and shot at the men. A few addicts drowned.   

I was there personally and documented it and spoke to the survivors,” she says. 
Amy has also been doing something similar in Kampala, Uganda. 

With a sad shake of her head, she says, “Police brutality is the same all over the world. The state becomes a perpetrator. So, there is a need to condemn official violence. It is necessary to find mechanisms to fight against this. In Colombia, just in the last one year, hundreds of social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated.” 

But when Amy sent reports to international organisations about what had happened, her team began to be persecuted by the Colombian and Ugandan governments. “Sadly, the Colombian media took the side of the government,” she says. “The media discounted the interviews we did by saying, ‘It's not enough evidence, we need more’. But my attitude is: any human life that is lost, needs to be denounced, and remembered. And our aim was to highlight the deaths.” 

Asked how policemen resort to violence so easily, Amy says, “There is a culture of masculinity in police forces in general. Violence-mongering is part of the training. They are taught to regard as criminal those who belong to certain ethnic or racial groups. Even in the United States, police officers are racist and violence-prone. They will kill brown or black people on the flimsiest of reasons.”
And, Amy says, growing up as a Latina woman and moving around in white spaces, was particularly violent. “I've experienced it in my own life,” she says. “Overall, the worst forms of oppression in any society are meted out by the police.” 

And she is worried even more now for Columbia because there is a right-wing President Iván Duque Márquez, who is in power. “He is militarising and investing a lot in the National Police,” she says. “Marquez is setting up a security state that criminalises poverty. That means if you're poor, there is a strong likelihood you will be shot dead. The poor have no rights anywhere in the world. Their lives are always precarious.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A fragrant passion

Ria Ivan who owns the boutique, 'Soap and Hope', brings an artistic touch to soap-making  

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

When her aunt Mary walked into Ria Ivan’s ninth-floor flat, at Kochi, and glanced at the dining room table, she said, “Mole (Daughter), you have made such beautiful halva.” 

Ria laughed when she heard that. She said, “Aunty, it’s not halva, but soaps.” 

Mary did a double-take and came close and held one in her hand. Then she said, “Unbelievable, Ria. I have not seen a soap like this.” 

Indeed, not many people have. Because Ria has designed them in the form of mermaids, pastries, flowers, angels, and candles. 

Asked how she got the idea, Ria says, “All soaps look normal and ordinary in the markets in India. So I thought why not make some which are attractive to people? So I decided to mix art and soap. That's how it started.”  

Ria has made two types: body range as well as souvenir soaps. “The souvenir soaps will not get spoiled unless water falls on it,” she says. “It can stay intact for a long time.” 

Recently, she got an order for the birthday party of her friend Shobha’s child. “Shobha called up and said her son wanted an Avenger-theme soap,” says Ria. “So I made Thor and Captain America and embedded the models in the soap. The boy was very happy when he received it. It was as if his favourite characters had suddenly come alive.”  

The Avenger soaps can be used as a handwash till the toy comes out or it can be used as a showpiece. “Most people prefer to use it to get a feel of its organic nature,” says Ria. 

Another friend Tincy is going to have a Noah's Ark themed party. “So they wanted animals,” says Ria, who is planning to make hippos, lions, and bears.

Asked how she gets the design, Ria says there are moulds for that. There is also something called soap dough. “The advantage of this dough is that we can mould it into any shape we want,” she says.   

For each soap, there is a distinctive fragrance. These include rose, lavender, water lily, . mango, blueberry, cherry, sandalwood, cedarwood, coffee, and aloe vera. 

As for her usable soaps, she says they are sulphate and paraben-free. One has an organic loofah embedded in it. “It is very good for the exfoliation of our skin,” says Ria. In other soaps, there are oats, cloves, cinnamon, honey and clay. There is also a massage soap made of moringa leaves. “There is a moringa tree in my parents’ garden in Pala,” says Ria. “I dried and powdered the leaves. It also has a lot of skin benefits so I thought why not incorporate it in a soap?” 

What is unusual about Ria is that she has an M Tech in nutritional biotechnology from SRM University, Chennai. A university topper, she was working as a researcher in the Kuwait Institute For Scientific Research. “I didn't find any joy in the lab,” says Ria, who grew up in Kuwait. “Cooking, arts, counselling and motivational speaking are what makes me happy.”  

But she has no regrets about her education. “Information and knowledge are always useful,” she says. 

Her boutique is called ‘Soap and Hope’ and she is all excited to develop her new passion. 

Or as she says, “I really enjoy making soaps and I put my soul into it and it's made with a lot of love and happiness.”  

And she also has another aim. “I also hope that, through my example, other women will follow their passion and create self-employment opportunities for themselves.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, July 15, 2019

The women’s time has come

At an exhibition match, at Bengaluru, blind women footballers played an impressive game. Now the Indian Blind Football Federation is moving full steam ahead to set up women’s teams all over the country as well as conduct tournaments

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Denita Lyngdoh stepped onto the pitch at the Bull Ring Football and Sports Arena, at Bengaluru, she felt a rising excitement within her. She was part of the five-member Bengaluru Red blind women’s football team. On the front of her red T-shirt can be seen the words, ‘Healing Lives’, while at the back there is the logo of the Tata Trusts. Her eyes are covered by a red mask. On her feet are red boots.  

Her team is playing a demonstration match against Bengaluru Blue. This took place during the men’s national football championships in April. Soon, she gets a pass from her colleague Mohini. The ball has ball bearings inside it. When it moves, there is a ringing sound, so Denita can get an idea of where it is. She runs forward with the ball. The opposing defenders have to shout ‘Voy Voy’ so that Denita does not crash into them.

She swerves past one defender, then the next. As she approaches the goal, a guide from behind the goalpost gives instructions to Denita on where the goalkeeper is standing as well as the distance between the two posts. Denita takes a shot. But she does not know whether the ball has gone in. Till the announcer says, on the public address system, “No 6 Denita has scored.”

Then she runs back, raising her arms skyward. “I don’t know how I did it,” she says, on a cloudy evening at a coffee shop in a mall at Bengaluru. “But I felt so happy when the ball went in.” As the match continues, Denita manages to score another goal...

Denita has always loved football. When she was growing up in the village of Marshillong in Meghalaya, she would play football with her brothers and sisters. But when she broke her spectacles a couple of times, while playing, her parents advised her to stop playing. She had been suffering from glaucoma from age four onwards. Now after decades, she had got another chance.

And so has her friend Namita Haloi, who is originally from Guwahati, but both are now based in Bengaluru now. “When I first played football, I loved the experience,” she says. “I was always interested in sports and took part in athletic competitions in school.”

Meanwhile, the Kochi-based Sunil J Mathew, the Sporting Director of the Indian Blind Football Federation (IBBF) as well as the head coach of the national team, says there are plans to put together women’s teams in Delhi, Bengaluru and the North East. “We are hoping to hold a six-team women’s tournament by the end of the year,” he says. “Efforts are on to train women coaches and trainers too. We will be conducting mini camps, along with awareness tours all over India.”  

Sunil has another goal: to put together a national team so that they can participate in the first World Championships in February, 2020 at Nigeria, which will be conducted by the International Blind Sports Federation. “Of course, we will have to get sponsors,” he says. “If we manage to put up a team, we will be the second, in Asia, after Japan.”

But the girls in Bengaluru are not waiting for developments. On most weekends, Denita, Namita, Mohini, who is from Uttam Pradesh, and locals like Nagaratnam and Jyoti go to a ground in Yeshwantpur and play for an hour under the guidance of their friend Dominic Nido, a 23-year-old visually challenged graduate, who is from Arunachal Pradesh. An avid footballer, he is now studying computer training.

Dominic gained a lot when Sunil invited him to Kochi to attend a coaching camp conducted by Ulrich Pfisterer, the chairman of the International Blind Sports Federation in September, 2017. “Ulrich taught us how to dribble, and to cut in from the side to the centre, how to score from a penalty kick and take corner kicks,” says Dominic. “I am passing this knowledge to the girls. They are all very enthusiastic and want to play a lot. I think football gives them a chance to express their personalities. Hopefully, Sunil Sir will be able to put up teams and hold tournaments soon.”  


Rules for blind football

In five-a-side blind football four players should be B1 (fully blind), while the goalkeeper can be B3, which means he can have partial sight, or be fully sighted.

The area of play is 40 x 20 metres. There are cushioned boards placed on all sides so that the ball does not go out. It also prevents players from hurting themselves. “Before the match, the referee places eye patches on the players to create total darkness, as some may have a slight perception of light,” says Sunil J Mathew, the coach of the Indian team. “A protective blindfold ensures that the players are protected from head injuries.” A game lasts 50 minutes, with a break of 10 minutes. During a match, players can be substituted any number of times.

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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Pinning his hopes on the future

The Tokyo-based Tiby Kuruvilla who has started an IT office at Kochi talks about his hopes as well as the hardships faced by NRI entrepreneurs in the state 

Pics: Tiby Kuruvila; PT Thomas, MLA, inaugurating the office   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

In Tokyo, last month, when Malayali entrepreneur Tiby Kuruvila read about the suicide of Sajan Parayil, 49, an NRI who invested Rs 16 crore in a state-of-the-art auditorium, which did not get the clearance certificate from the Anthoor Municipality in Kannur, he felt a bit queasy. 

He remembered how once when he went to get a certificate from a government office in Kochi, the officer said, “If I want, I can delay the certificate by 15 days.”

The problem, says Tiby, is that they will ask to rectify one issue. “But when we do that, they will immediately bring up another issue,” he says. “And it goes on.”  

Somehow, he says, there is a negative attitude towards NRIs. “I always got the feeling that I am not welcome,” says Tiby, a Kothamangalam native who has lived in Tokyo for 20 years.

Nevertheless, Tiby has decided to plough ahead in Kerala. On July 8, on the 19th floor of TransAsia Cyber Park in Info Park Phase 2 in Kochi, PT Thomas, MLA, inaugurated a 10,000 st. ft office. This was for Tiby’s firm Pinmicro, where he is the CEO, and a sister firm, Innovature Labs. Around 150 people have been employed. “I felt confident about starting a firm in Kochi because I was dealing with the Park authority,” says Tiby. “They are very keen that people come.” 

In Japan, the company is doing well. “We have customers in Japan, and in some hospitals in India,” he says.  

Asked about their USP, he says, “There are many Japanese factories that have been set up in China, Taiwan and Indonesia. Earlier, the information they got was that an employee worked 160 hours a week or the time he came into work and the time he left. But with our RF (Radio Frequency) cameras and algorithms, the company can find out when he clocked in, where is he working, who are his co-workers, and how long was he in a particular area. “It helps to increase productivity,” he says.  

Meanwhile, when asked whether the Japanese face similar problems from the bureaucracy as well as political parties, Tiby says, “In Japan if there are any issues, the officials are very transparent and will help you solve the problem. If you follow the rules, the licence will be issued.” And except at the very highest level, there is no link between political parties and businessmen.  

But the Japanese are developing a link with South India and Kerala, too. “They like the state a lot and say it is completely different from North India,” he says. “Some told me that it is like Hawaii, because of the coconut trees. They say it is much cleaner than North India. And above all, they love the houseboat experience. They called it unbelievable.”  

And Tiby adds that when they go back, they enthusiastically urge all their friends and relatives to visit Kerala. “We can expect many more Japanese to come to our state in the years to come,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

103 and loving every minute of it

On his birthday, the Mulanthuruthy-born Kattumanghat Lazar George looks back on his life

Pics: Kattumanghat Lazar George; with daughter Anly  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

When Kattumanghat Lazar George woke up on the morning of July 4, at his home in Chennai, he saw an image in his mind. It was of a slim boy with black hair who had an easy smile. That was Philip Oommen, his classmate at UC College, Aluva, many decades ago. The image dissolved and he saw another one: this time Philip was wearing a black headgear and a pink cassock. He had white hair and beard and twinkling eyes. 

George smiles and says, “Philip Oommen is now better known as Philipose Mar Chrysostom.” He is the emeritus Metropolitan of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church and received the Padma Shri Award in 2018. At age 103, he is one of the legendary icons of the community.

George says, “I wish I could meet him but alas we are both too frail to travel to each other.” 

George was in a nostalgic mood because it was his 103rd birthday too. He was wrapped in a white shawl and wore a dhoti. His daughter Anly and grandson Anish flew in from Kochi to spend the day with him. A chocolate cake, with the words, ‘Happy Birthday Daddy’ in white icing was placed in front of him at the dining room. There were three candles. He blew them out with a smile while Anly helped him to cut the cake. 

One person was missing. This was George’s wife Lily, who died on January 15, this year, at the age of 92. They had been married for 74 years.  

Asked how he met Lily, George says, “At the time in Kerala (1945), the only way to meet a girl was through the arranged marriage route. My family received a proposal from the girl’s family.” 

And when George saw Lily for the first time, he was taken aback by her beauty. “I also noticed that she wore a saree that had a design of black dots,” he says. “I thought by wearing black she was subtly indicating to me that she wasn’t happy with the proposal. But she told me later that she liked the colour black. We had a wonderful marriage with the normal ups-and-downs. I miss her every day.” 

George misses other people, too. Although he was the fifth-youngest of seven children -- one sister and six brothers -- all of them have passed away.  

But their loss has been compensated by his own family. He has four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “My children are settled in different parts of South India while the grandkids are in different parts of the world,” he says.

George himself spent his life in India, mostly in Mumbai and Chennai. But he grew up in Mulanthuruthy, the son of a gazetted officer in the state engineering department, and studied in the Government High School until Class 10. “School was a very happy time,” he says. “In those days teachers were treated as Gods.” But sometimes they had to step down from their pedestals. Once when George didn’t study his lessons, the teacher twisted his ear so hard that it started to bleed. “He had to write an apology letter to my parents,” says George. 

He graduated with a BSc from Maharaja’s College,  Ernakulam. Thereafter, he became a teacher at the Arakunam School in Mulanthuruthy. After a few years, to improve his prospects, he decided to leave. “I remember all the students crying when I announced that I was moving to Mumbai,” says George. 

In Mumbai, George got a job at the Supply Department of the Government of India. They were recruiting heavily because of the Second World War. “I didn’t even have to take a test,” he says. “They seemed to have an ‘All trespassers will be recruited’ mindset.”

George received a monthly salary of Rs 50. “It felt like so much money, I had no idea how to spend it so I ended up saving a lot,” he says. “It was at this job that I saw money being exchanged for a contract to supply hammocks. This was my first sight of bribery.” 

Later, he moved to Kerala and joined pharmaceutical company Cipla as a medical representative. His salary jumped tenfold to Rs 500. “At the time medical reps had the highest-paid jobs,” he says. Later, he joined Bengal Chemicals. And in Chennai, he bought land in Nungambakkam and constructed a house.

The years have gone past steadily. Asked to compare India of the past to that of today, George says, “The country felt more peaceful earlier. I could trust the food I bought from the market knowing that it wasn't artificially processed. People were very cooperative. Everything wasn’t a competition. Over the years I’ve noticed how spaces in homes, roads, playgrounds and car parks has become a big topic of discussion. It wasn’t even a consideration at that time, because there was a lot of land available for us children to play and for people to construct homes.” 

But there are some things that he likes about the India of today. “I am envious of the ease of travel to foreign countries and exposure to other cultures,” he says. “Whenever I meet young people I always ask them where have they travelled. If I had this opportunity I would have seen every country in the world. But nevertheless, no regrets, God has given me a very good life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

In praise of Lord Vitthobha

Tangamani Suresh is the only woman teacher of abhangs (Marathi holy songs) in Kochi. She is preparing singers who are participating in the annual Akhand Saptaham (July 6-13) at the Shri Vitthoba Devasthan in Mattancherry

Pics: Tangamani Suresh; the black granite idol of Lord Vitthobha; founder Ambu Baliga

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 4 p.m. on a recent Saturday, at entrepreneur Mahesh Joshi’s house at Mattancherry, his wife Sonal and daughter-in-law Sandhya are laying out a multi-coloured sheet over the carpet. Then Sonal brings in two idols of Lord Vitthobha and his consort Rukmini, which had been specifically bought from Pandharpur in Maharashtra 15 years ago, and places it on a low table. On the wall above it, there is already a large framed photograph of Vitthobha. 

Soon, Tangamani Suresh, 73, comes in. She is the veteran singer/teacher of abhangs (holy songs sung in praise of Lord Vitthobha (who is Krishna in Marathi). Thereafter, several women -- Shyla Bhatt, Maya Giriraya, Geeta S Pai, and Vasumati Iyer, among others -- come in. They are all Konkanis and Tamilians except for Sonal who is a Gujarati. Some sit on the floor while the elderly sit on the sofa. 

At precisely 4.30 p.m., Tangamani starts playing the harmonium. Soon, the women start singing: “Shree Rama Krishna Hari/Ek Tatva Naam/Dradha Dhari Mana/Hari Si Karuna Yeila Tuji (Hold on with single pointed devotion to the chanting of the name of the Lord, which is the easiest and sure way to be the recipient of divine blessings and grace).

Apart from the harmonium, cymbals are also used. Soon, the singing is loud-throated and powerful. Not many know that Tangamani is the only woman teacher of abhangs in Kochi. She has been doing it for the past 50 years. And has trained generations of women. 

Tangamani herself learnt it from her grandmother at an early age. “I feel happiest when I am singing,” she says. 

The group meets at Sonal’s house twice a week. They are training to give a performance at the nearby Shri Vitthoba Devasthan. The annual Akhand Saptaham is taking place. “At 7.30 a.m., on July 6, the diya was lit,” says Sonal’s husband Mahesh. “It will remain lit till 7.30 a.m. on Saturday, July 13.” 

And abhangs will be sung non-stop throughout the day and the night, till Saturday. Groups of singers called mandalis will come and sing for one hour. Then another group will come and take their place. They are coming from different places. On Monday, groups came from North Parur, Kodungaloor, Kovai, Kalady, Vazhapuzha and Tripunithara, apart from local groups. “Every year, so many people are disappointed that they did not get a chance to sing,” says Naresh V Pai, who is a trustee of the Devasthan. 

Sonal’s group, coached by Tangamani, will be singing on Tuesday. As the training session continues, at the temple, at the same time, a group is singing the abhang in Kannada. Inside, there are numerous marigold garlands hanging on wires just below the ceiling. 

The black granite idol of Lord Vitthobha, about two feet high, has numerous garlands, as well as necklaces and a crown. He holds a conch in his left hand and a chipady, a musical instrument on the right hand. There are anklets on both feet. 

The idol was brought to Kochi from Pandharpur in 1909 (see next story). 

At the back of the temple, there is a canteen. After a performance, singers sit and enjoy dosa, idli or upma along with hot cups of tea. “This event has been going on for 68 years now, thanks to the cooperation of all the devotees,” says Mahesh.  

The miracle of the granite idol 

In 1909, there was a big businessman in Kerala called Ambu Baliga. He was an ardent Krishna devotee. Ambu had a companion called Laxmibhai. She was an ardent devotee of Vitthobha. She used to sing abhangs. But the businessman was not interested. But one day, at her insistence, they went to the main temple of Vitthobha at Pandharpur, Maharashtra. 

While there, one night Ambu had a dream. In it, there was a shilpi (craftsman) who said, “At 9 a.m., near the main door of the temple, you come to me and I will hand over an idol to you. Which you have to carry to your hometown.” 

But when Ambu got up he thought it was just a dream and did not give it any importance. But when he mentioned this to Laxmibhai, she told him she had the same dream. 

But by then, the time had passed. The next morning, Ambu had another dream where the same man said, “Why you did not come? I waited for you.” 

Now he took it seriously. At the right time, on the third day, both Ambu and Laxmibhai went to the gate where a man stood holding an idol. He handed it over. 

The moment they took the idol and turned, the man vanished. “They understood that God himself had handed over the idol,” says Mahesh Joshi, a trustee of the Shri Vithoba Devasthan.   

At Mattancherry, Ambu built a small temple and installed the idol. Since the Pandharpur temple allowed all castes and creeds to enter the premises, Ambu did the same thing in Mattancherry, even allowing non-Hindus. But there was an immediate repercussion.  

The orthodox Brahmins took offence. The pujari left the temple. “So Ambu did the puja himself but all the Brahmins stopped coming to the temple and ostracised him,” says Mahesh. “People started avoiding him. He got mentally disturbed. The  Brahmins immediately told the Travancore Maharajah if this practice spreads to other temples, there would be chaos.” 

The king agreed. One day a jeep came and Ambu was taken away on the pretext that he was a lunatic. “Nobody knew what happened to him after that,” says Mahesh. 

For many years the temple remained closed. There was no owner. Grass grew. Snakes were crawling everywhere. One day, in 1952, the neighbours, a few Gujaratis and Konkanis, felt that they should do something and reopened the temple. They performed an Akhand Bhajan Saptaham for the first time. “And the temple has been functioning ever since,” says Prem Kumar Bhatt, the present president of the Sree Rama Bhajana Mandali. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Tense and ease up

A workshop called ‘Unleash-release-ease’ will allow women to release their stress

Photo: Radha Gomati  

Shevlin Sebastian 

On a recent evening, artist Radha Gomati along with her friends Shaji Appukuttan, and web designer Thomas Augusti of Sparcs Studio were sitting around, having cups of tea and brainstorming about a meaningful event with which to inaugurate a creativity group they had founded called Eka Rasa -- ‘Art for all for art’. 

Soon, the discussion veered towards the situation of women. How nowadays they go through high-stress situations. “That’s because they are playing multiple roles,” says Radha. “At home, they are wife, mother, sister, daughter and neighbour. In the office, they have various official responsibilities.”   

The trio realised that women have not found a way to de-stress. “What makes it difficult is that many of them live in isolation, cut off from vibrant relationships and creative avenues,” says Radha.

The artist had recently attended a couple of theatre workshops. “What I discovered was that the body is an amazing instrument,” says Radha. “And when you stretch and use it, you feel calmer. The body has a lot of memory that is embedded in it. And all these sensations and feelings are released when we go through a process where we exert our physical selves.” 

Soon, the idea came up to hold a destressing workshop for women. “This workshop, therefore, is not for theatre aficionados only,” says Radha. “It is for teachers, doctors, counsellors, students, researchers homemakers and managers. Just any woman who thinks it's important to be in touch with the inner self.” To ensure there is a collective synergy, only a small intimate group of women from diverse backgrounds will be invited to take part in a peaceful, pristine natural setting.   

This natural setting is a homestay in North Paravur and the workshop, called ‘Unleash-release-ease -- a soul scrub therapy for women’ will be held on July 13-14. 
It will be conducted by theatre exponent Sruthy Karthika, who is currently working with healing and therapy for the aggrieved.  

Radha says, “Carry comfortable clothes for free body movements.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, July 04, 2019

No to cremation. Yes to donation

In the space of the last two months, two elderly Jain women, who passed away, insisted that their bodies be donated for research and organ transplantation

Photos: Bharti Maisheri and Jaswanti Ramesh  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Homemaker Anju Bakul Shah looked through the window of her house in Mattancherry. On the opposite side live the Maisheris. But Bharti Maisheri did something unusual. She lay down on the sofa. It was the time of the evening prayers: 6.30 p.m. on June 6. Anju wondered, ‘Why is Bharti lying down now? She has never done this before.’ 

Since the mesh door was open, she quickly went across. Bharti was lying with her eyes closed. She tried to awaken the 71-year-old but there was no response. There was nobody in the house. Bharti’s husband Raichand was outside. Quickly, she called  Bharti’s daughter, Sheetal Khona who lives less than a kilometre away. She came rushing. 

Anju immediately began to say the powerful Jain prayer ‘Uvasaggaharam Stotra’: ‘I bow to Lord Parshwanath, who is affected by the distress of removing the Parshwa deity, who is free from all types of karma, who is the destroyer of the poisonous defilements and who is the abode of bliss and well being.’

Sheetal arrived. An ambulance was called. As they waited, the prayers continued. There was a tiny movement. Bharti, whose arms were lying at the side, suddenly clasped her hands together in prayer. “That was when I realised that her subconscious was alert,” she says. “I felt so happy that she was responding to our prayers.” 

But Sheetal’s joy soon turned to sorrow when at the hospital her mother passed away quickly because of heart failure. And that was when Sheetal told community members that Bharti had specific plans. “She wanted her eyes to be donated,” she says. In a little over an hour, a team of doctors arrived from the Little Flower Hospital at Angamaly and took it away. 

Bharti also wanted to donate her body to the Amrita Institute. Some conservative members tried to change Sheetal’s mind by saying that the community has specific rituals following a death. But Sheetal, as well as Raichand, remained firm. 

Today, at least seven people should have gained,” says Sheetal. “Two people will receive the eyes. Two the kidneys. One each will get the liver, heart and gall-bladder. The skin can also be used. The students will be able to study the anatomy. This will enable them to become better doctors.”

After 48 hours, the body would be cremated. “I feel a lot of peace and contentment that I was able to fulfill my mother’s wish,” says Sheetal. “Why destroy such vital body parts when it can make such a big difference in people’s lives. I think body donation should become widespread.”  

In fact, Raichand, Sheetal and her husband Kamlesh will be donating their bodies when the time comes. Asked how they got the idea, Sheetal says, “My grandfather had only one eye but he asked that it be donated following his death. I had an uncle who donated his body 15 years ago.” 

And what stiffened Bharti’s desire was when community member Jaswanti Ramesh, 74 died on May 1, and her body was donated to the Amrita Institute. “Sheetal called me and asked me all the details of how it was done,” says Jaswanti’s businessman-son Dharmesh Nagda. “I gave her the information and passed the mobile number of doctors at the Amrita Institute.” 

Asked how his mother got the idea, Dharmesh says, “Two years ago, there was an awareness programme of body donation. My father Ramesh Bhai was much influenced and decided that when he died he would donate his body. My mother also agreed and they both registered their names at the Amrita Institute. That was how it happened.”

And Dharmesh, who is in the prime of life, says that he might also donate his body when he passes away. “I have not made a final decision as yet,” he says. “But I think it is a noble thing to do. Many community members asked me for more details about how it is done. I think this is an idea whose time has come.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)   

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Casting a timeless spell

Translator Venugopal Menon talks about SK Pottekkat’s ‘The story of the timepiece’, which has just been published in English

Pics: SK Pottekkat. Illustration by Tapas Ranjan. The book cover; Venugopal Menon   
By Shevlin Sebastian 

In 2014, retired engineer Venugopal Menon was travelling from Pune to Thrissur on a train. At Kannur, two youths got in. They took a seat next to Venugopal. Soon, the duo started discussing books. As a bibliophile, Venugopal could not help but listen in. 

While one mentioned that his favourite authors are Madhavi Kutty, Paulo Coelho and Amish Tripathi, the other youth said, “There is no one like SK Pottekkat. I will prostrate myself before this gentleman.” 

Venugopal was intrigued. At Kozhikode, their destination, they stepped out. At this moment, a bookseller entered the train. Venugopal asked him whether he had any books by Pottekkat. He had one: ‘Oru Theruvinte Katha’ (The Story of a Street). “I bought it and started reading it at once,” says Venugopal. “And I liked it very much.” 

Little did Venugopal realise that within a few years, his friend, veteran editor Mini Krishnan would give him the commission to translate Pottekkat’s short stories into English. 

And the book, ‘The Story of The Timepiece’ (A collection of short stories) has just been published by Niyogi Books, in an elegant edition, priced at Rs 395. 

And when you read the stories, you realise that Pottekkatt has a God-given gift to cast a spell. The moment you start reading a story, you have no option but to read till the end. The writing is simple, clear, and accessible.

Or as Venugopal says, “A boy in Class 10 will like his stories and so can a 90-year-old man. Anybody can identify with the characters. Secondly, there is always some kind of intrigue. And thirdly, there is a sense of pathos. People are attracted to that because, at the core of life, there is pathos.”  

For most readers, including Venugopal, the classic story is one about a character called ‘Ottakam’, a cart-puller of simple intelligence who is taken for the ride of his life by a cunning hotel owner. And pays the ultimate price. “It takes some time to understand the ending,” says Venugopal. “And then it is as if a light bulb has been switched on all of a sudden.” 

The other story which Venugopal considers as one of his favourites is set in Nigeria and is called ‘Quahe-Ri’ (this is Nigerian for goodbye). An Englishman Seles falls in love with a native woman called Kabeena. A scion of a wealthy family, he leaves, but then realises he actually loves Kabeena. So, he returns, marries her and settles down to live among the blacks. Much later, he was shot dead by members of the white community, who were angered by what he did. 

The English translation is a very competent one. And Venugopal has followed some simple tips given by Mini. “She told me the text should be simple and to the point,” says Venugopal. “It is important to omit unnecessary words and avoid long sentences. Make the words breathe.” 

Venugopal took eight months to finish the book. And, he says, translating has had a good impact on him. “It is a very creative activity,” says Venugopal, who stays in Irinjalakuda. “You are putting your brain to work. Every sentence you write has to be thought over. That itself is therapeutic. If you are down and out, do some translations and you will feel on top of the world.”  

As for Pottekkatt he was a prolific writer. He had an oeuvre of 60 books, which included a book about personal reminiscences, three poetry anthologies, four plays, 10 novels, 18 travelogues and 24 collections of short stories 

But his forte was in travel writing. He travelled to many countries in Africa and Europe, as well as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and wrote entrancing pieces about his many experiences. “He was a very sharp observer,” says Venugopal. “And initially he made his mark as a travel writer.” 

But today, he is among the pantheon of the greats of Malayalam literature and won many awards. These include the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award and the acme, the Jnanpith Award in 1980. His works have been translated into many Indian languages, as well as English, Italian, German, Czech and Russian. 

Married to homemaker Jayavalli, he had two sons and two daughters. For one term, (1962-67), he was the CPM Member of Parliament from Thalassery. He died of a paralytic stroke, on August 6, 1982, at the age of 69 in Kozhikode. By then he was famous and widely respected as a writer. “I remember [Jnanpith Award winner] MT Vasudevan Nair saying that the style of Pottekkat was worth emulating,” says Venugopal. 

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

Monday, July 01, 2019

Her own little patch of green

Supattra Boonsrang, Chef de Cuisine of the Thai Soul restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Bolgatty at Kochi talks about her herb garden which she has set up on her own. This enables her to provide pesticide-free produce for her guests 

Photos by A Sanesh      

By Shevlin Sebastian

An evening breeze is blowing. There are shouts of children as they frolic in the azure swimming pool of the Grand Hyatt Bolgatty at Kochi. A melodious song is playing over the sound system. People sit on low-slung chairs chatting and sipping glasses of juice. But oblivious to all this is Supattra Boonsrang, Chef de Cuisine of the Thai Soul restaurant.    

She is standing in a black outfit, with a black chef’s cap, holding a bamboo tray, and snipping leaves with a pair of scissors. This is her herb garden which she had set up one-and-a-half-years ago, just outside the poolside restaurant. In it, she has been growing lemongrass, basil, ginger, galangal, eggplant, papaya, and butter peas.

Asked how she got the idea, Supattra says, “I realised that the climate in Kochi is similar to that in Thailand. There is a hot summer, a rainy season, a not-very-cold winter and high humidity. I used to have a garden in my home country.”

Not surprisingly, it is pesticide-free. In its place, she uses an unusual type of manure. “We put chicken and fish bones in the oven,” says Supattra. “Then we roast it. After that, we put it in the grinder and make a powder. This is good for the soil.”

Helped by two young employees, Supattra removes overgrown grass and leaves.

Soon, she takes a batch of lemongrass, laksa leaves and basil and heads into the kitchen….

She is making a crab meat salad. The meat is put in a charcoal oven and has been smoked. Supattra puts the meat, now cut into small pieces, into a bowl, and adds lemongrass, laksa leaves (Vietnamese mint), coriander, shallots, chillies and fish sauce, along with thinly-diced mango and mixes it up.    

Soon, in quick succession, Supattra makes the Tom Yum Koong, a spicy prawn soup with kaffir lime, lemongrass and galangal (forest ginger), and a green curry called Kaeng Khiao Wan Gai, which has coconut, eggplant, and green chillies. This is to be eaten along with the long-grained Jasmine rice. This rice is available only in Thailand and has been imported.

As for the dessert, Supattra has made the Tab Tim Kromb. This consists of water chestnuts, in a red food colouring, dipped in coconut milk and crushed ice. To give a Kerala touch, she has put a slice of jackfruit on top. This is a cool concoction to have on a hot day. In fact, all the dishes have an intensity about it, and you cannot help but concentrate when having it.

When she is told this, Supattra smiles and says, “I use traditional methods. So, while most people these days chop vegetables, meat and fish by machine, I do it by hand. I still use the mortar and pestle. I feel that is the only way to give the food a human touch.”  

This is her 25th year in the Hyatt International group. Earlier, she had served in Bangkok, Taipei, Jordan, Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt), and the Park Hyatt Dubai (for 13 years).

Her journey towards cooking began when she was growing up in the town of Yasoton in northern Thailand. Her father Payad used to work in a small restaurant as a chef. Supattra would help him in cutting and cleaning vegetables. “From a young age, I felt a great passion for cooking,” she says. 

She began her career cutting vegetables in a hotel for one year. Then she washed them for another year. And from this low-key start, she is now one of the most enduring talents of the Hyatt group.

Asked about the changing trends she has observed over the decades, Supattra says, “People want food that can be made fast. Time is short for everybody. They prefer less garnish. Earlier, when you went out for dinner, there were many courses that were served. Now all the dishes have to be put out at once. But I am also happy to note that Thai food has gained a worldwide reputation. One reason is that it is steamed, so it is very healthy and light on the stomach. My own mother, at 88, is so fit she walks faster than me.” 

As for her aim today, she says, “I want to make Thai food popular among Malayalis.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Always under attack but never giving up

On a recent visit to Kochi, social activist Ngurang Reena, from Arunachal Pradesh, talks about the discrimination and harassment faced by the people of the North-East in cities like Delhi and Mumbai  

Photo by Arun Angela 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a winter’s day at Chandni Chowk, New Delhi in 2009. At 3 p.m., Ngurang Reena got onto a hand-pulled rickshaw. She was swaddled in warm clothes. As the rickshaw moved forward, it got caught in a traffic jam. Six men approached the rickshaw. Then with a sense of impunity, they began to molest her. Reena felt shocked. “I was so young I could not understand what was happening,” she says.   

Despite that, Reena retaliated. She hit one man but another grabbed her hand and said, “What can you do?” Says Reena, “I felt completely alone. Everybody was just watching. And nobody said anything.”

Reena rushed back to the hostel. She felt violated. She cried. And then she decided she would return to her village in Arunachal Pradesh. But when she called her father, Ngurang Pinch, a former MLA, he said, “If you leave now, you will run away for the rest of your life. You have to understand what's happening, and then face it.”

Reena listened to her father and stayed behind. “It was the right decision,” she says.

Reena looks sombre at a restaurant in Kochi on a recent afternoon. She had been invited by the NGO Raising Our Voices Foundation to give a talk about life in the North-East.

A former Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Delhi University, she says, “I don't think there is a single girl from the North-East who has not had a bad experience in Delhi. Whenever one of us walks down a street in the evening, somebody or the other will come up and grab our breasts or ass.”

And the experiences at the police station are morale-shattering. “The first question is usually, ‘Why were you walking alone?’ followed by ‘What were you wearing?’” says Reena. “So, it all comes down to moral policing. There is no agency for us to take the complaint forward.”

There is a stereotyping of the girls from the North-East that has remained consistent over the years. “Because we choose to dress differently or have coloured hair, there is a perception that we are loose characters who sleep around with everybody,” she says. “When we go to social gatherings or a party men just pounce on us. We face this often.”

The discrimination continues in other areas. When the girls look for apartments to rent, the landlord will look at them and say, “Are you sure you will be able to pay the rent? I hope you will not indulge in drinking, drug-taking, sexual activities, or prostitution.”

In Kochi, Reena had a different experience. While in a cab, the driver got curious on seeing her. “He was so excited to learn that I am from Arunachal,” says Reena. “He asked me whether Arunachal was part of China. And I had to tell him, it was part of India.”

This confusion continues when Reena goes abroad. She went to Germany and every day people asked her whether she was Chinese or Japanese. They refused to believe her when she said she is from India. “In fact, they told me I was lying,” says Reena.

So, she is in a perennial state of limbo; of not belonging anywhere. And back in Arunachal Pradesh, where she should feel at home, she has stirred a hornet's nest by launching a campaign against polygamy and other social evils with her sister Meena through their NGO The Ngurang Learning Institute. “People think that women are free in Arunachal,” says Reena. “But that is not the case. Most of the time, in our Nyishi tribe, they are the second or third wives of a man and have no status whatsoever.”

Of course, it is not legal. But the 200 tribes in the state have different traditions. “And in the case of polygamy, the state does not interfere, because it is a ‘tribal custom’,” says Reena.   

But some men are angry at her activism. One man, whose wife is a student at the institute, came armed with a dao (the local machete) and told Meena, “Stop teaching my wife. She is 40 years old. Is this the time to study? She is better where she belongs, in the kitchen.”

But thanks to the affirmative nature of the Indian Constitution, and her father’s support Reena was able to escape this fate. She got a good education and eventually began working in Miranda House, one of New Delhi’s elite colleges. “You have to understand from where I come from,” says Reena, who is at present a PhD research scholar in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “My mother never went to school, and my father failed in Class 10. I am one of the first from our family to enjoy a higher education.”

And despite the many upheavals in her life, including the murder of her father in 2017, for which she battled and failed to get a CBI probe, Reena, says, “I continue to move forward. Hard knocks only make you stronger.” 

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

"Yogi-San, we are going to vote for you”

The Pune-born Yogendra Puranik became the first Indian to win electoral office in Japan. He talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Through the corner of his eye, Yogendra (nickname: Yogi) Puranik notices a man in a wheelchair, who is hovering near the edge of the crowd in the area of Kasai in Tokyo. Yogi is campaigning to win a seat as a councillor in the Edogawa Ward assembly. The 35-year-old man stands up, and with the help of people next to him, manages to come near Yogi.

Then he says, “Yogi San, what are you going to do for the handicapped people?”
For a few moments, Yogi is flummoxed. He is a dynamic-looking 41-year-old, with an easy smile, wearing a black pinstripe suit, a green tie and shiny black shoes. On his lapel, Yogi had pinned two tiny flags next to each other: that of Japan and India. He also has a white sash across his chest which displays one word, in red Japanese letters, ‘Yogi’.

The candidate shakes his head and said, “Honestly speaking, I don't have a separate agenda for the physically-challenged people,” he says. “But if I am elected, I want to do something for everybody. So that will include the physically-challenged.”

The man says, “Yogi San, I like the way you acknowledged that you have not written about our concerns in your election manifesto. I believe you are a person I can trust. So I am going to vote for you.”

Yogi smiles and says simply, “Thank you.”

Wherever he goes, be it in parks, outside metro stations, office buildings or malls many people shake his hand and say, “We are going to vote for you.”

And they did. Because when the election results were announced on April 23, Yogi became the first Indian to win electoral office in Japan.

It was the culmination of a long journey. It began after he completed his Class 12 studies, and his father suggested that, apart from studying physics and IT, Yogi should study a foreign language. “My father told me Japanese could be a good option,” says Yogi. So, in July, 1994, he began a three-year degree course from the University of Pune, where the Puraniks lived.

He liked the language and was able to complete the course. In September, 1999, he got a scholarship for a one-year course. “We were given housing, and lived in a cosy environment,” says Yogi. “Everything was well taken care of.”

Following his return, he started working for an IT company in Pune. Then, in March, 2001, he got a job in an IBM company and returned to Japan. But this time he did not enjoy his stay. “I found the society to be very hard,” he says. “The Japanese are, on the surface, very receptive and polite, but actually, they keep a distance from you. Even among the Japanese, they keep a distance from each other. So when it came to a Japanese and a non-Japanese, the gap is quite large. So, I started feeling very lonely.”

He resigned after eight months and returned to Pune. But fate had other plans in store. When he joined Infosys in 2003, they sent him back to Japan once again. But this time, Yogi was determined to do something about his isolation.

He started participating in community gatherings, meetings, and the Parent Teacher Association in Nishi-Kasai, the area where he lived, in Tokyo. “I went to local festivals, not just to attend, but to participate, enjoy the food and help out in the preparations,” he says.  

The Japanese got very excited. In the next year, he was appointed as the director of the festival. They told him, “Yogi San, you should be our bridge with the foreigners living in our society.”

And Yogi did become an effective bridge. He also became very popular. But his turning point came during the massive earthquake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, followed by the tsunami. He, along with a couple of friends, set up a helpline for the Indian community. They received more than 300 calls daily. Apart from that, with Japanese friends, he went into hundreds of local homes and provided a helping hand. “That was when I became close to the Japanese,” he says. “I felt I belonged.” So, in October, 2011, Yogi applied for citizenship and got his papers a year later.

On the personal front, he was briefly married to a Chinese woman, Zhe Zhang, whom he had met at the University of Japan. The marriage did not work out, but they had a son Chinmay whom Yogi brought up on his own. He is studying in Class 12 in Britain.

“Zhe lives in China,” says Yogi. “My son visits her regularly.”

Asked about his future plans, Yogi says, “I want to become an MP one day. I also want to change Japanese society by making people show more emotion and attachment to each other, just like the Indian way. ”