Thursday, March 28, 2019

One of the most important Biennales

Glenn D Lowry, the Director of Museum of Modern Art in New York talks about the impact of the Kochi Muziris Biennale on the international art world and the artists making a mark 

Photos: Glenn D Lowry; work of Priya Ravish Mehra 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The afternoon sun is blazing. So, it’s no surprise that even though Glenn D Lowry, the director of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is sitting in the shade of a shore-side restaurant, at Jew Town, he is wearing sunglasses. The reflection of the water can get a bit overwhelming, especially if you are not used to such tropical heat. But he is also smiling because he’s had a good time at the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

Asked how the art festival has evolved, Glenn says, “It is better organised and easier to navigate. There's more information for visitors. The mediators are doing a fantastic job of introducing artists and ideas to a public that might otherwise find it hard to access some of this.”

And the man who has travelled to all the major Biennales in the world several times over has some good news for the locals. “The Kochi Biennale has emerged very quickly as one of the most important biennials in the world,” he says. “If you think about it, it's only in its fourth edition and it has already become one of the key points in a network of major exhibitions like the Venice, Sydney, Sao Paulo and Sharjah Biennales. Anyone interested in understanding contemporary art has to come here.”

Not surprisingly, he is very excited by the Indian talent that he has seen. He opens his notebook, looks up and says, “I will mention a few names but these are just some among so many.”

The names he mentions includes Bapi Das, Shubigi Rao, and Priya Ravish Mehra (1961-2018). “The work by Priya was particularly moving because one of the issues this Biennale deals with is the is the fragility of our planet, and the political, social, and economic ruptures that we are experiencing,” he says. “Priya’s work is all about suture, it's all about repair, it's all about healing damage, taking things that have been broken, ripped and torn and helping to knit them back together. It was extremely poetic and beautiful.”

At the Kochi edition, Glenn was very happy to see large numbers of people wandering around the various exhibits. “These are ordinary people who had brought along their children,” he says. “And that's an incredible achievement. India does not have as many museums of modern and contemporary art as she deserves to have. So the Biennale is playing an important role in providing access to top class art for people from all over India.”

MoMA in New York also provides access to top class art for all types of people. They have an astonishing 30 lakh visitors annually. But, interestingly, there are a few works that people see time and time again. These include Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’, Vincent Van Gogh's ‘Starry Night’, Jackson Pollock’s ‘One: Number 31’, 1950’ and Henri Matisse's ‘Dance’.

Asked the reasons behind their popularity, Glenn says, “These are great works of art. Great works speak to different people across different times and places. Two, because of the media, they have become famous so people know about them. Third, often the story of the artist is more interesting. Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear and later committed suicide. All of these things lead to curiosity. Artists are interesting people.”

Asked how they are different from ordinary people, Glenn says, “They are both like us and unlike us. Like us, they live in the real world. They have families, buy groceries, and vote in elections. Yet, at the same time, they have a certain kind of fearlessness. They are willing to talk about issues in ways that many of us, out of politeness or habit are afraid to talk about. And they are often able to talk about them in ways that help the rest of us see things in new and different ways. It’s a gift.”

But is this gift being hampered by the digital revolution where there are all types of tools to make art? “Yes, the digital revolution has allowed artists to use a new set of tools,” says Glenn. “But the works remain original and exciting. There are so many benefits: access to ideas and art has exploded. Now you can be in a village in Africa, a city in India or in the countryside in Canada and have access to the same information through the Internet. What it means is that artists can engage in conversations with each other more rapidly across more geographies than ever before.”  

And keeping tab of all this is Glenn, who has been the director of MoMA for the past 24 years, a very long time to be at the top of one of the best museums in the world. But, he says, the reasons behind his success are simple. “I love what I do,” he says. “I am surrounded by extraordinarily talented curators, educators, conservators and archivists, so when I go to work every day I feel like a student learning from my colleagues and that makes it exciting. I love to look at art. I love to meet artists And so, for me every day is a new day.” 

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Here’s to woman power

Kalaripayattu exponent Mereena Aswani, with the help of her husband, has started a kalari exclusively for girls and women at Fort Kochi. She talks about how the art form can transform a woman’s life

Photos: Mereena (right) at the kalari; with her husband Aswani. Pics by Vikas Ramdas

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7.30 a.m., on a recent Saturday, inside the large shed of the Dakshina Bharatha Kalari, at Fort Kochi, Mereena Aswani gazes at the women standing in front of them. All of them are wearing black: T-shirts, track pants or salwar kameez, with a red sash tied around their waists. Soon, they raise their hands upwards, move forward, kick their legs up, turn around, move forward, and kick their legs up again. Later, they sit cross-legged on their floor and Mereena guides them through a series of arm-stretching exercises.

For years, Mereena had been assisting her husband, kalaripayattu exponent Aswani Kumar, but on March 8, Kochi Mayor Soumini Jain inaugurated classes exclusively for women. “It was a desire of my teacher, Sreedharan Gurukal to start a Kalari exclusively for women and I have achieved that dream, with the help of Aswani,” says Mereena.

In fact, the duo got a shed constructed, with a mud-pressed floor, while spears and shields hang on the walls, which have been painted in red. At 1200 sq. feet, it is a spacious area.

Once the local women came to know about the classes, they have stepped forward enthusiastically. There are Gujarati working women, ladies from the Muslim community, professional dancers, who want to strengthen their legs, homemakers and yoga trainers who want to learn a martial art. “The flexibility in yoga is different from the flexibility that you gain from kalaripayattu ,” says Mereena.  

The women range in age from 25 to 50 years. The training is different for newcomers. Mereena looks at them and evaluates their level of fitness. “How flexible are they? Are they willing to work hard?” she says. “I start them off very slowly, with just a few steps. After about eight classes, I will introduce leg techniques.”

One who has been a regular is 38-year-old Thanuja Rauf, an Ayurveda doctor. “I had been learning kalaripayattu under Mereena even before the classes began officially,” she says. “She is a very good teacher. My flexibility has increased. There is a lot of stress relief. And you get a lot of energy. So you are able to be much more active than before. It has also boosted my self-confidence.”

But it is not easy. “Definitely, in the beginning, there will be body aches and pains, but you have to practise continuously,” says Mereena. “There is a saying, ‘no pain, no gain’. The biggest advantage is that you will be able to burn away negative energy.”

Interestingly, Mereena has been burning away this negative energy for decades.
It all began when she was only ten years old. Because of weak legs, she would fall down often. So, the doctor who treated her told her parents that one of the ways to develop strength in the legs was by practising a martial art.

For the family, this was an easy choice. Just two houses away, at Fort Kochi, was the master Sreedharan Gurukal who used to hold kalaripayattu classes. So Mereena was enrolled. Usually, she would come to the courtyard every day at 5 p.m., after school was over, for training along with a few ladies and girls. “I was the youngest in the group,” she says. And over time, as she practised regularly, her legs became stronger and the pains went away.  

But Mereena never stopped. “I was hooked to kalaripayattu,” she says. Asked the advantages of practising the art form, Mereena says, “Your body becomes very flexible. Secondly, in my case, I have developed so much of courage that I feel confident that I can tackle a man bare-handed. Also, through kalaripayattu, I am connecting with our ancient traditions, which are steadily being lost. We are blindly following the West which is not a good thing.”

Kalaripayattu has other benefits, too. Before entering the kalari (ring), the kalaripayattu artist touches the ground with his hand. Thereafter, he or she touches the feet of deities like Ganapati and Bhadrakali, at the different corners of the kalari. Then you have to touch the feet of the guru. “Through these acts, you become humble,” says Mereena.  

Apart from kalaripayattu, Mereena also teaches yoga. Last year, she had gone to Germany to teach yoga. At the kalari, Mereena gives a body massage for those who have body aches and pains.

Through all this Aswani is right next to her. The couple, who tied the knot on April 30, 2005, has two school-going daughters.

And they have a mission: to make Malayali women get fit. “They are unfit because they are giving up their lives to serve the family and don’t look after themselves at all,” says Mereena. “So I ask them to take out one hour a week only for themselves. And when they come to the kalari and exercise for an hour, they experience a lot of stress relief. So, they end up becoming better women, wives and mothers.” 

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

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Two-stroke is better than four

Joseph Patric is a bike-repair expert with a difference. He only deals with two-stroke Yamaha bikes which ceased production in 2004

Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was 11 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. At Willingdon Island, near Kochi, three youths were revving up their RD 350 Yamaha bikes. One of their friends shouted, ‘Go.”
Immediately, the trio set off at full speed, their bikes creating a ‘Vrooooom’ sound, which reverberated in the silence all around.

One of the riders, Radhakrishnan looked sideways at the others. They were all riding neck-to-neck. So he turned the accelerator some more. As he zoomed past, he looked up and saw, to his shock that there was a barrier across the road. It was a single circular rod. Thinking about the dangers of braking at high speed, he suddenly got an idea. Radhakrishnan bent his body backwards till he was lying flat on the seat. And amazingly, he went under the rod unscathed. “This is the beauty of the 350,” says Radhakrishnan, who won the race easily. “It maintained its balance, till I got up again.”

Bike repair expert Joseph Patric smiles when he hears the anecdote. “The Yamaha two-stroke is one of the best bikes ever made,” he says. “It is sad they stopped production in 2004.”

The primary reason was because of the high degree of polluting emissions. But there are many die-hard fans of the two-stroke, and Patric is perhaps the only mechanic in Kochi who repairs them exclusively.

Patric said he first began working on the two-stroke when he was working as a foreman in a Yamaha company service centre in 1983. Asked the difference between the two-stroke and four-stroke, Patric says, “Two-stroke engines fire once every revolution, while the four-stroke fires every other revolution. The advantage of a two-stroke is that it has far more power. And that’s why it is used for dirt bike racing, rallies and other similar activities.”
At his house, on one side, inside a long shed, there are several two-stroke Yamaha bikes in the 100 and 135 cc range. “Because of the lack of spares, there are very few 350 cc bikes,” he says.

Patric can listen to the engine and tell immediately about what is wrong with the bike. He also looks to see whether there is a noise in the piston or the clutch. Usually, he says, problems arise, when the 2T oil is not put regularly and in the correct measure. “It is 35 ml per litre,” he says. “If this is not done, there will be complaints.”

His work includes overhauling the engine, repairing the carburettor, resetting the crank, fixing the clutch and changing the cable wires and tyres.  

In Kochi, many youngsters are using two-stroke. Says 26-year-old Subin Mathew, who is a regular customer at Patric’s repair shop, “I love the power, the initial pick-up as well as the sound. And I come to Patric Uncle’s workshop because he always uses genuine spare parts.”

There is a two-stroke bike team called ‘Team 135’, whose members come regularly for repairs. Since they take part in rallies, often their bikes get damaged. Now, they are planning a journey from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. “So I am getting all their bikes ready,” says Patric.

Not surprisingly, the 62-year-old also uses a two-stroke bike. He bought one in 1991 and did a complete overhaul only in 2016. “This bike does not need much maintenance,” he says.

And the biggest advantage for two-stroke owners is the resale value. “A well-maintained bike goes for Rs 60,000,” says Patric. “There are some bikes which have five gears. These sell for Rs 90,000. On the other hand, a four-stroke bike, like a Hero Honda, of four years goes for only Rs 35,000.”  

Like a white-collar worker, Patric starts work at 10 a.m. and finishes by 5 p.m. He takes a nap in the afternoon. “People make appointments on the phone and come,” he says. “Repairing the two-stroke is a passion for me. I never get tired when I am in my workshop.” 

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

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Life at the New Delhi railway station

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

Photos: At The New Delhi railway station; Vicky Roy 

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The New Indian Express, Kozhikode)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Up above the world so high

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

Pic by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When women are easy game

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

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

When the chef connects with his guests

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

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Sea, sun and sand

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

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Kerala women politicians bemoan the lack of opportunities

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Saturday, March 09, 2019

It’s all bright and shining

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

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

People without a country

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

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

By Shevlin Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Helping the distressed

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

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

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

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