Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Making clean dirty water

My School’ from Tirur wins the second prize in the entrepreneurial category at the Roborave International competition in California. It was a learning experience for the students

(From left): Robotics teacher Sunil Paul, Ameesh Roshan, a NASA scientist, Aiza Noura, Manha Ziyaan, Vasudev Hari and Sherrin Mathew, Director-Academics of My School, Tirur 

(From left): Ameesh Roshan, Vasudev Hari, Aiza Noura, Sherrin Mathew, Director-Academics and Manha Ziyaan at California 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The moment the team from ‘My School’, Tirur entered the hall of the Santa Clara Convention Centre at California, for the Roborave International competition held recently there was an intake of breath. That’s because the group was wearing traditional Kerala attire. 

While the boys, Amish Roshan Chirakkal and Vasudev P Hari wore brightly coloured shirts and white mundus, the girls, Aiza Noura and Manha Ziyaan wore the dhavani (half saree in off-white) and colourful blouses. As for the Director-Academics Sherrin Mathew, she wore an orange saree with a beaded green necklace. 

The participants as well as the visitors had never seen an attire like this before,” says Sherrin. “They found it unique. They came and touched our clothes. A few said, ‘How many metres is the saree? How do you wear it? Are you comfortable having so much of cloth covering your body? How does it hold up?’ They also wanted to know about the handloom material.” 

The ‘My School’ team had come to participate in the entrepreneurial category. And they brought a very simple project. Says Class 7 student Aiza, “Our project was about water harvesting. In Kerala, we get a lot of excess rainfall, yet we face drought when summer comes around. That’s because we are not storing the water, purifying it, so that we can use it. Instead, we allow it to flow back to the sea.” 

With the help of their robotics teacher Sunil Paul, who accompanied them to California, they made a prototype in which the water is collected in one section in an enclosure. The dirt particles are allowed to settle down. Then it is moved to the next section which has bits of charcoal. When the water goes through that, it is purified, and in the third section, the water is stored. 

It was a very simple project, and very cheap,” says Sherrin. 

Meanwhile, the group was in for a shock. Some of the other projects were so sophisticated, especially the type of robots that had been made. “We realised we are way behind in terms of our knowledge of robotics,” said Aiza. 

Students in the age group of 12-14 took part. And they came from seven countries -- the USA, China, Poland, Mexico, India, New Mexico and Spain. Overall, there were 42 participants. The judging was done by visitors. 

And the winners were Indians Sri N and Sahasra C, who represented the USA. Sri is only in Class three but he had made a sophisticated robot. “He is so advanced in his knowledge,” says Sunil. “Sri has a bright future ahead of him.” 

But the good news was that the ‘My School’ team won the second prize in their category. 

Among the visitors, there were a few scientists from the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), which is just 10 kms away from the venue. The next day the children were invited to come to NASA. Which they did. “It was very interesting to see the different exhibits,” says Sherrin. 

One lesson the group learnt was the importance of robotics. “The knowledge displayed by the children of other countries was amazing,” says Sherrin. “We need to upgrade our studies, otherwise, internationally, we stand no chance.” 

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The princess and the elk

A group of performing artists from Sweden staged a play at the Kerala Museum recently and held workshops for schoolchildren in Kochi

Photos by A. Sanesh. Petra-Eleonora Näslund (in white) and Susanne Olsson 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Swedish actor Petra-Eleonora Näslund is wearing a white skirt, over a green jumper. But what catches the eye are the white gloves, from which her fingers extend for over a foot. She also wears an exaggerated amount of rouge on her cheeks.

On the grassy lawns of the Kerala Museum, Kochi, recently, as guitarists Lars Svedberg and William Larsen Naslund strum a Swedish folk tune, Petra, who plays the Princess Tuvstarr, from a Swedish fairytale, says, “Once upon a time, in a land far far away, where the wind was blowing so hard, and the snow was dancing all day. Brrr...” Petra starts shivering.

Then actor Lindy Larsson, who plays a big elk with antlers jutting out from the top of his head says, “Hoo Hoo.” Several children who are watching the play start giggling. Then the duo dance next to each other, again accompanied by the guitar sounds.

The actors had adapted a short story called ‘The Tale of the Elk and the Little Princess Tuvstarr’ by Swedish painter and illustrator John Bauer and writer Helge Kjellin. It is a simple story of the Princess Tuvstarr who falls in love with the elk but he walks away and breaks her heart.

But in our story, the elk returns with a red heart,” says Petra.

Petra and her colleagues had come on a cultural exchange visit to Kochi. Apart from their performances, they held hour-long workshops on mime and music. “More than 400 students between the age of 2 and 14 from private as well as government schools took part,” says Kerala Museum Director Aditi Zacharias. “The Swedish Arts Council and the Museum sponsored the event.”

In their workshops, Petra and her colleague Susanne Olsson focused on physical movements. So children swung their arms as if they were the branches of trees or stamped their feet like the way bears walk. And they also encouraged the children to paint the elk.

It did not take long for the Swedish duo to get impressed. “The students started to paint the elk in different colours and it was fantastic to see their talents,” says Susanne. “They also made beautiful sculptures, using their bodies and I believe they got the inspiration from the many statues in India. The youngsters have a certain advantage because of India’s ancient and deep-rooted culture.”  

And for Petra and Susanne, on their first visit, there were many eye-openers. Asked how Indian children are different from their Swede counterparts, Susanne says, “They are much more polite and respectful to the teacher. When we asked them to dance they first looked at the teacher. Only when the teacher nodded, did they start dancing. In Sweden, children are more relaxed in front of authority. Indian children are also very curious. So, it is easy to get their attention. In Sweden, the children are easily distracted.”

Susanne noted the different ways of raising children. “In India, the parents have much more control over the children,” she says. “On the other hand, in Sweden, the parents are more like friends.”

However, there are many commonalities. “All children are natural, spontaneous, and joyful, whether in India or Sweden,” says Petra. “During some segments of the performance, the smaller children laughed very loudly but the older children did
not. Then in other sections, the older children found it funny and not the younger ones.”

They smile and Susanne says, “We are so keen to come again next year.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ajith Krishnan Nair, owner of the Krishnan Nair studio, has contributed several photos of an earlier Kochi for the walls of the Mahatma Gandhi road station of Kochi Metro

Photos: Ajith Krishnan Nair, pic by Albin Mathew; Rajendra Maidan; Indira Gandhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Mahatma Gandhi Road station of the Kochi Metro, Ajith Krishnan Nair, owner of the Krishnan Nair studio, points at a photo taken in 1950, of a large open area, beside Foreshore Road, in Kochi, and facing the backwaters. “Most of the political meetings during the pre and post-Independence era took place at the Rajendra Maidan,” says the 68-year-old. “But I have a family story linked to the maidan.”

Ajith’s father MP Krishna Pillai was the secretary of the All India Students Congress. A meeting had been planned in 1947 to protest against British Rule in India. But it had been banned by the Cochin administration, which was under the control of the British. Police Commissioner Pappali had his office just opposite Krishna’s studio on TD Road. Pappali sent two policemen across to inform Krishna not to take part in the meeting; otherwise, he would be beaten up.

Many of the student protesters from Travancore had come a day earlier and were staying in a room above the studio,” says Ajith. “The police were aware of that. Krishna was banned from stepping out by an uncle. But on the pretext on buying something, he stepped out and went to the Maidan.”   

Expectedly, the protestors were lathi-charged. Krishna was beaten on his leg and a knee cap broke. He was hospitalised and later taken to the Viyyur Central Jail in Thrissur. He spent several months there. Soon, India gained independence and Krishna was released in early 1948.

The black-and-white photos are on display at the entrance, in the station concourse and also on the platforms. These include images of the iconic Hotel Sealord, which had been the only building at the present-day Marine Drive, the Assembly building which is now the Law College, the Ernakulam Town railway station, the High Court boat jetty, Maharaja’s College, as well as the Rama Varma club. Beside each photo, there is one showing the present-day building. Most of the prints are of a width of 9 ft or 12 feet and at a height of 3 ½ feet.

It all began when the Kochi Metro put out an advertisement in all the leading newspapers and magazines asking for photos of the old Kochi. “The idea was that by looking at earlier photos, we will get an idea of the progress of Kochi over the years,” says APM Mohammed Hanish, Managing Director of the Kochi Metro Rail Limited. “Also, these photos showcase our glorious past.”.

Many applied but they had taken images from the Internet. On the other hand, Ajith had actual negatives. “So, mine would print much better,” he says. Ajith submitted 75 prints but the Metro authorities decided they would only put up buildings. Hence, the number came down to 25. Incidentally, this is a gift by Ajith to his beloved town of Kochi. All the photos have been given for free. “I felt that these are important visuals for future generations,” he says.

Ajith’s studio was set up by his grand uncle in 1910. But it was his uncle Krishnan Nair, who began running the studio in 1930 and made it a success. Soon, there were branches in Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram. Ajith’s father began working at the studio in the 1950s. The studio would print postcards of Kochi with an image of the town on one side and a space for an address and a writing area on the other.

"These cards were very popular, especially among tourists,” says Ajith.

Today, Ajith has a collection of over 200 photos. There are photos of Mahatma Gandhi who had come to Vaikom in 1925, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on a visit to Kochi, a dapper Jawaharlal Nehru at the railway station and a smiling Indira Gandhi on her first-ever visit in 1956. A group photo of the Cochin State Police was taken in 1940.   

Meanwhile, Hanish says there are plans to put up more old photos in the other stations. And Ajith says he is, once again, ready to share his treasure trove...for free.  

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Malay Palate

At the Monsoon Empress hotel, in Kochi, Executive Chef Shihab P Kareem provides Malaysian dishes for local as well as international guests

Photos: Executive Chef Shihab P Kareem. Pic by A. Sanesh. The various dishes

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Shihab P Kareem had gone to Kuala Lumpur to work in the Menara International five-star hotel. One day, he stepped out to have some local food. At a restaurant, he decided to have vegetarian food. So, he ordered a sayur champaur. But when the dish arrived, Shihab was shocked. Apart from carrots, cauliflower and beans, there were prawns, squid, chicken and fish.

But it does not mean there are no vegetarian dishes in Malaysian cuisine. “It is usually made of beans, sprouts and tofu,” says Shihab. “In fact, they use spinach in almost all their meals including fried rice and noodles.”

All these thoughts came to Shihab’s mind when he joined the Monsoon Empress in Kochi in May last year as its Executive Chef. He realised that there were guests from Malaysia staying at the hotel. They had come mostly for medical tourism. That was when he decided to introduce a few dishes on the menu.

On a recent afternoon, Shihab got started with the Laksa soup. This is a popular soup in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. “It has a bit of coconut milk and yellow curry paste, apart from ginger, garlic, lemongrass and Pandan leaves,” says Shihab. “These leaves are very nutritious and have a distinct flavour.” But the main ingredient is seafood: prawns or squid. Expectedly, with the mix of so many flavours, it is tasty, with the juicy prawn being a welcome value addition.  

Interestingly, there are 90 per cent spices in all the curries, noodles and rice. At the same time, the Malaysians add a bit of sugar. So the taste is unique. “Nevertheless, despite the sugar, you can end up crying after a meal, because of the chillies,” he says.

And in a 360-degree turn, in all the sweet items like pastries and desserts, they will add a bit of salt. “That creates a different experience,” says Shihab. “And any drinks which are hot, like tea or coffee, they will fill only half the glass with the liquid, and add scrapings of ice. As for juices which are taken cold in India, like lime, they will warm it.”

Shihab now moves on to showcasing the Ikan Sambal dish. “Ikan means fish, while sambal is a popular sauce in Malaysia,” says Shihab. “It is made of shallots, small onions, and chillies. You can use small fish like the anchovy or the snapper. But it has to be presented as a single piece.”

Again the spices create a tangy feeling but the inside of the fish (sea bass) is white and looks baked, very similar to a Western style, even though it has been fried. And this can be eaten along with rice or noodles.

Interestingly, noodles are one of Malaysia’s most popular dishes. For 2-minute noodles, similar to the Maggie noodles in India, there are more than 25 different varieties. “Malaysians will eat noodles 25 days a month,” says Shihab. In the Mee Hailam noodle dish, Shihab has added prawns, squids, slices of carrots, beans, cauliflower, baby corn and capsicum. The overall effect is simply awesome, with the noodles floating in a spicy gruel.

And like all Indians, the Malaysians like their rice. So, in Nasi Goreng Kampong, there is a garnish of a fried egg single side up placed on top of the fried rice, apart from long beans, prawns and shrimp paste.

Asked whether there are similarities between Malaysian and Kerala cuisine, Shihab says, “In both, coconut milk is used for a few preparations. The locals like the Malaysian dishes because there is not too much of a difference, and yet, the taste seems unique.”   

The Aluva-born Shihab has worked in Thiruvananthapuram, Dubai, Kovalam, Kumarakom, and spent five years on the international cruise liner Carnival. Asked his working philosophy, Shihab says, “I would like my guests to be physically as well as mentally satisfied after they have my food.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

‘Stranded Abroad’ provides free assistance to Malayalis who fall into legal trouble in Dubai

Photos: Illustration by Soumyadip Sinha; Arun Abraham 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a Monday morning in Dubai. But Shreya, 16, and Anil, 14, are sitting at home and watching TV, instead of being in school. That’s because their father does not have the money to pay their school fees. Jacob George was working in an insurance company as a senior accountant for a few years. “But I wanted to earn more,” he says.

So, he quit the company, took a bank loan and started a travel company. But his timing was wrong. Dubai has been in an economic downturn for the past few years. “The firm did not do well,” he says. And soon Jacob found himself in financial trouble. Creditors came knocking at his door.

Kochi native and Dubai-based lawyer Arun Abraham is the founder of ‘Stranded Abroad’, a not-for-profit firm. He set it up in May, last year, to help Malayalis who are in legal trouble. Jacob approached Arun and, somehow, the latter managed to keep him out of jail. But because he is under a travel ban, Jacob is stuck in Dubai.  

It was because of cases like Jacob that Arun felt an urge to help these people who are in limbo. “I have lived in Dubai for many years,” he says. “During the course of my work, many Malayalis have approached me. In most cases, the breadwinner is in jail. His family back home in Kerala is the one who actually suffers. They have no clue about what to do. There was a lacuna. They needed someone to guide and assist them. So, through my organisation, I provide the advice and link them to lawyers.”

Arun has set up a network of fifteen Arab lawyers who provide their services for free. “They are friends and people of a similar mindset,” he says. He also links them to community leaders who provide moral support.     

As for the different offences that Malayalis are charged with, they include financial misappropriation, unpaid debt, drunk driving, visa violations, overstay issues, and drug-related offences.

Junaid Malik, 20, who was working in an IT firm, was having grass (cannabis) in his home. The police arrested him and did a medical test. Usually, drugs stay in the system for two weeks. They got his name from a friend, Mani, who was arrested earlier. They forced Mani to give up the names of his friends who took drugs with him.

He received a ten month sentence, because he is a first-time offender. Following the completion, Junaid was deported.  

All these problems put the family under severe financial stress. For drunk driving, the fine is a steep 30,000 dirhams (Rs 5.7 lakh). “Sadly, it may lead to loss of employment and a steep drop in income,” says Arun.  

The only silver lining is that the Dubai government has introduced a new rule regarding bounced cheques a couple of years ago. “Now if the amount is below 200,000 dirhams, you only have to pay a fine,” says Arun.

So what is the way forward? Arun suggests that the Indian associations in Dubai should hold refresher classes for Malayalis so they know the legal hurdles they might have to face if something goes wrong. “Too many Malayalis are unaware of the dangers,” says Arun. “They take loans casually. They give cheques without enough balance in their accounts. They drink and drive. They succumb to the greed of wanting more money. All this can cause immense damage. You have to be cautious if you want to live a hassle-free life in Dubai.”  

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Little-known, ignored and forgotten

In his solo exhibition, photographer Praveen Rengaraj has focused on the lives of fishermen in and around Kochi

Photos: Praveen Rengaraj by Albin Mathew. Image of fisherman by Praveen Rengaraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photographer Praveen Rengaraj stood on Mandapam beach in Tamil Nadu. It was a tranquil setting. A clean beach, the roar of the waves, wisps of cloud in the sky on a December morning. Soon, the fishing boats returned. There were loud cries of joy. It had been a good day’s catch. Praveen approached them. They readily agreed to be photographed. One later took him for a ride. When he returned, a fisherman by the name of Guruswamy requested him to come to his home for lunch.

It was a two-room thatched hut near the beach. Praveen sat on the floor and had a meal of rice, rasam and the choicest fish. In the end, he offered Rs 500 because he felt happy. Guruswamy said, “How can I take any money? You are my guest.” Praveen was moved. “This behaviour of theirs, so friendly and large-hearted is what drew me towards them,” he says.

Praveen returned to Kochi and began taking photographs of fishermen. It helped that his apartment overlooked the backwaters. Later, he shot in different parts of Kerala, in Bengal, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the US. Today, his first-ever solo exhibition called ‘Beyond Fishermen’, is taking place at the Kashi Art Gallery at Fort Kochi (April 6 - May 31). Interestingly, he decided to put up the photos only of the fishermen in and around Kochi.    

Praveen has taken images of the boatmen, sometimes in the early morning, as the sun is rising, when they embarked for fishing, or when they returned, at twilight, with the sunlight like a single ray just lighting up the fisherman’s body as well as a portion of the boat, or when they sat on the river’s edge with an introspective look on their faces. Looking at the images, viewers become aware of the solitary nature of the job.  

For me, a fisherman is an extension of nature,” says Praveen. “I have not viewed him as a person in physical form. Instead, he is faceless, almost like a shadow. For me, God is the ultimate artist, and a fisherman steps in from one side and adds a new perspective to the water body.”

Praveen has gained a new perspective about fishermen thanks to his constant interactions. “They have a deep belief in nature,” he says. “Many have the conviction that nature will not disappoint. If not today you will get something tomorrow. So, even if he does not get fish on any particular day, the fisherman is not disappointed. All fishermen have a positive attitude. You wave at them. They will wave back.”

Another reason for their joy could be the close proximity to water. “It is a calming medium,” says Praveen. “The sound of a waterfall, the dribble of rainwater falling from a roof to the ground, or the slap of the oar against the water, you tend to fall into a meditative mood..”  

A constant interaction with Nature leads to humility, too. “A fisherman’s material possessions is very limited,” says Praveen. “In this age of voracious consumerism, you can only drive only one car at a time. Yet people want two or three cars. People have 30 pairs of shoes but can only wear one pair at a time. Does happiness arise from owning things? I have no idea. In many ways, the fisherman’s simple existence is a life lesson for all of us in the middle class: less is more.”  

Praveen’s ardent desire, through the exhibition, is to make people aware of the fishermen. “They have been the mainstay of Kerala for centuries but we have not given him the respect that he deserves,” he says. “He has always been an unsung hero. During the floods last year it was the fishermen who saved so many lives. And without their tireless work, you cannot enjoy fish in your cuisine.”

Praveen also enjoys photography with a passion. His life turned when his mother gave him an Agfa camera when he was only seven years old. The son of an Army officer, photography, however, has not been a full-time career. Instead, he worked in the tea industry, first as a planter and later as a taster. Then he shifted professions and began developing high-end boutique hotels. But through it all, photography remained a constant. “I hope one day to bring out a coffee table book on the fishermen,” says the 47-year-old.  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exposing the underbelly

The late Dalit Christian author Paul Chirakkarode’s ‘Pulayathara’, which is regarded as a masterpiece, focuses on the oppression of the marginalised communities. It has just been published in an English translation

Photos: Paul Chirakkarode illustration by Amit Bandre; Catherina Thankamma

By Shevlin Sebastian

Songs resonated within the Church as the dark-skinned womenfolk sat in a row and sang…
Were these women unaware of the truth? The Church that was blessed by their vital music was filled with caste prejudice. Did they not know it? There was no light here. No spirituality A place wholly darkened by superstition and the elitism of caste. O people, who come here hoping for light, go back! This is an organisation built by rich men who have made God a witness for the prosecution. In this religion which has turned into an organisation, there is no virtue, no spirituality. It is now a dark place, where good people cannot see their way at all.’
This is an extract from ‘Pulayathara’, a novel written by Dalit human rights activist and author Paul Chirakkarode (1939-2008). Published by Oxford University Press, in a superb English translation by the Kochi-based English teacher Catherine Thankamma, it is a mesmerising read. Incidentally, the Malayalam version was published in 1962. And it is now regarded as the first Dalit Christian novel in Malayalam literature.

It tells the story of how the low-caste Pulayar and Parayar communities were exploited mercilessly by the landowners -- upper-caste Hindus and wealthy Christians -- of the Kuttanad region in central Kerala. They worked long hours on the paddy fields and got a few sheaves of paddy as payment.

It would be about 250 grams of grain per day, to feed the entire family,” says Catherine. And in the non-harvesting season, they usually starved. Apart from this, the marginalised communities did not have a proper place which they could call their home since they were not allowed to own land.

But there was hope at hand. At the Hilltop Church, if you converted, you were given a Christian name, as well as a tiny patch of land where you could build a house. And so, many of the lower castes adopted Christianity in the hope of ending a life of discrimination.

Unfortunately, that hope turned out to be false. Because the upper-caste Christians refused to accept the new entrants on an equal footing. So, while the former sat on benches and chairs at the back of the church, the members of the lower castes sat on the floor in front. Not surprisingly, there was anger and a rising need to protest against this injustice.

All this has been described with passion and skill by Chirakkarode as he looks deeply into the characters: non-convert Thevan Pulayan, new converts Kandankoran and his wife Anna, Pallithara Pathros, church stalwart Custodian Thomas, landowner Narayanan Nair, and tea-stall owner Pillaichan, among many others.

This is not Chirakkarode’s only book. In fact, he published eight more novels, two collections of short stories, several critical studies and a well-received biography of B.R.Ambedkar. “But ‘Pulayathara’ is regarded as his masterpiece,” says Catherine.

Interestingly, he could not get a publisher. Most probably, it was because he was a Dalit Christian, says Catherine. So, Chirakkarode self-published the novel with a print run of 500 copies. Today, just a couple of copies exist, one of which is in the Public Library at Thiruvananthapuram. “He was an under-rated writer,” says Catherine. “And that is a pity.”

Chirakkarode lived in the era of literary icons like Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P. Kesava Dev, S.K. Pottekkatt and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. “Except for Basheer, these writers have addressed caste-related atrocities, but it was peripheral to the thematic concerns of their novels,” says Catherine. “They were members of privileged castes. Hence, no amount of sympathy can replace an actual felt experience.”

And Chirakkarode did have a felt experience. He was the son of a first-generation Dalit convert Rev LT Daniel, who was a preacher of the Christian Missionary Society. But, unlike other converts, Paul had access to education. He ended up getting a master’s degree in economics, law, sociology, English and Malayalam literature.

Thanks to his education, Chirakkarode became deeply aware about the humiliations and sufferings of the poor, especially of the members of his own community,” says Catherine. “As a result, he developed an evangelical zeal for justice.”

For many Malayalis who have grown up outside Kerala and have only a rudimentary knowledge of Malayalam, this novel is a must-read. It gives a picture of the inequality, prejudice, class divisions, and the heartless exploitation of the lower castes that took place for centuries in God’s Own Country. 

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Yap, yap….these biscuits are good for you

Home-baker Jayalakshmi Deepak discovered that when she gave her dogs processed food they would feel distressed. Now she has made home-made natural biscuits that the dogs can eat without having any side-effects

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Albin Mathew 

On a recent Saturday evening, a few friends had gathered at home-baker Jayalakshmi Deepak’s house at Kochi. Soon, the topic drifted to whether having dogs as pets are a bane or a boon. Jayalakshmi’s entrepreneur husband Deepak is a dog lover. As he spoke intensely on the subject, suddenly, there was a blur of movement. It was their boxer dog Hooch. The dog put a paw on Deepak’s arms and started licking his hand. “On hearing Deepak’s loud voice, Hooch wanted to calm him down,” says Jayalakshmi.

Not surprisingly, the group burst into laughter. “Later, my husband tried to fool Hooch by deliberately raising his voice,” says Jayalakshmi. “But Hooch did not react because he could detect the difference in tone.”

Apart from Hooch, Jayalakshmi has a female boxer called Bailey and a Basset Hound called Toddy. While Hooch and Bailey live inside their first-floor apartment, Toddy stays in the compound. “They are our children,” says Jayalakshmi, who has a 17-year-old daughter Diya, who also loves dogs
However, all was hunky dory with her dogs, but a few months ago Jayalakshmi came to realise that the processed food that she gave her dogs was having a negative impact on them. They would have stomach pains and looked distressed.

A research on Google confirmed Jayalakshmi’s suspicions. In fact, this is a worldwide problem. Many vets have stated that it is better to avoid giving processed foods to dogs. Most processed foods, like biscuits, grapes, and corn have a lot of artificial preservatives, colours, chemicals, additives and fillers.

That was when Jayalakshmi got the idea of making nutritious and natural biscuits. After careful research, she has made flavours like chicken cranberry, beef pumpkin spinach, fish-carrot-beetroot, banana and peanut butter. But she quickly adds, “I make the peanut butter myself. As for the oil, it is home-milled coconut oil. The latest studies show that this is good for the skin and hair of dogs.” She also adds natural flours like ragi, oats and wheat. The end result is that the biscuits are free of artificial preservatives.   

The biscuits, marketed under the brand name of Hooch and Bailey’s Barkery, have been packed in 100-gram packets and are being sold at rates ranging from Rs 150 to Rs 170 per packet. The impact on her dogs has been immediate. They no longer have any stomach problems. And their appetite has increased.

Meanwhile, when asked about the home-made meals that she gives Hooch and Bailey, Jayalakshmi says, “It is predominantly proteins.” So, at 10 a.m., she gives around 200 grams of chicken each with broth, and a dash of turmeric. Sometimes, she gives biscuits with yoghurt. For lunch, at 3 p.m., it is 250 grams of fish and rice. “They love anchovies or sardines, which have the maximum omega-3 fats,” says Jayalakshmi, who has loved dogs since her childhood and played with many of them in her grandfather’s house at Chendamangalam. “At 9 p.m., for dinner, it is a combination of almost raw beef. I place it in boiling water, just to kill off the bacteria. I also add carrots and spinach.”

At the end, she gives bones. “Dogs have a natural urge to bite so if you give them bones they will stop destroying the furniture,” says Jayalakshmi. “It also strengthens the jaws.”

As to why she goes through so much effort, Jayalakshmi says, “Dogs have an unconditional love for you. In the morning when I open the door of the balcony where they sleep, they show so much excitement. They do a boxer shake called the kidney bean dance. It's like as if they have not seen me for two months. I must say it is a beautiful sight. It makes my day.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad) 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mollywood Director Blessy’s film on Mar Chrysostom wins Guinness World Records Award for longest documentary

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On the evening of May 9, director Blessy got an e-mail which sent his heart aflutter. The Guinness World Records Award told him he had set the world record for the longest documentary. The film, ‘100 Years of Chrysostum’, is about the life of the 102-year-old senior Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan. At 48 hours 10 minutes, it easily defeated the earlier record of 21 hours.

But there was a long process to apply for the award. Blessy had to send the details about the film, the number of shots and rushes, and how long it was. He also needed a certificate from the Censor Board. Interestingly, online, they could only issue a certificate which is 999 minutes long. But Blesssy’s film is 2880 minutes long. So they had to upgrade their site.

Then for seven days, at Thiruvananthapuram, the Board Members saw the film before they issued the certificate,” says Blessy. “This is the longest film that they had ever seen. A premiere show had to take place. I had to do a public screening for five consecutive days before it could be eligible for the award.”

The shooting began on May 1, 2015, and it took two years to finish. Asked why he decided to make a film, Blessy says, “We live in an era where religion is narrow-minded and divisive, and people do not accept the believers of other faiths. So, we need the Bishop's attitude of being able to see the face of God in all human beings, whatever religion he belongs to.”

In the documentary, Mar Chrysostom is also seen interacting with celebrities like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, actors Mammootty, Mohanlal and Suesh Gopi, singers KJ Yesudas and KS Chithra, former sportspersons PT Usha and IM Vijayan and writers like the late ONV Kurup and MT Vasudevan Nair.

Interestingly, Blessy found Mar Chrysostom a natural in front of the camera. There is a scene where an old woman has to proffer a mug filled with coffee. But since her hands shook, she was given an empty mug. “But we did not inform the Bishop about that,” says Blessy. “But very naturally he took the cup and pretended to drink from it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Bridging the religious divide

Saleena Musthafa, a Muslim, one of Kerala’s senior woman trainers of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living course, talks about her experiences 

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is 6 a.m., but Kochi remains dark on this February morning. There are several stars scattered across the sky. But inside a brightly-lit convention hall, Art of Living trainer Saleena Musthafa waits patiently as the people trickle in: businessmen, teachers doctors, engineers, and IT professionals, an even mix of men and women.

The programme begins. “Many people are stressed-out, angry and tense,” says Saleena. “But life is a gift. It is supposed to be celebrated. We should be happy. That is what I am going to teach you.”

Saleena pauses and asks, “What is the first thing a new-born baby does?”

A couple of members says, “Cry.” But one says, “Breath.”

Saleena gets excited and says, “Exactly. The baby takes a breath before it cries. And when a person dies, it is the breath that stops. Breath is at the core of life. Unfortunately, we pay little attention to it even though it is so important. But we get a deeper understanding of its importance when we use the Sudarshan Kriya breathing technique, as taught to us by Guruji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Through controlled breathing, you can become relaxed and calm.”

Whatever Saleena says sounds fine, except when you look at her. She is a Muslim who wears a hijab to cover her hair. Her religion has not hampered her teaching at all.  

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has said that the Sudarshan Kriya is beyond religion,” she says. “So Guruji wants Christians to remain Christians, Hindus to be Hindus, and Muslims should be Muslims.”

However, her relatives are not very appreciative. “Some of them are very orthodox,” she says. “They ask me why I am following a swami. You have the Quran, they tell me. But I have told them many times that I have not given up my religion. I am still praying regularly and doing all the observances of a devout Muslim.”

What brings solace to Saleena is that her immediate family is fully behind her. They include her husband Muhammad Mustapha, her two children, as well as her 70-year-old businessman father EK Kunju Mohammad.

In fact, she says, her father has a progressive attitude. When Saleena was in class five, he gave her books by Swami Vivekananda, Osho and Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati to read.

Saleena’s life changed in 2001 when a close relative died. She went into an emotional turmoil. Seeing her in this state, her father’s close friend, CRP Mohammed asked her to attend an Art of Living course. “He had done one and liked it a lot,” says Saleena. So she attended her first course at Payyoli, Kozhikode in May, 2001.

Saleena felt an immediate change when she did the Sudarshan Kriya. “I developed a positive attitude,” she says. She attended two more courses in quick succession. Thereafter, Saleena went to the International Centre of Art of Living in Bangalore to do more courses and harboured a desire to meet Sri Sri.

One day she was standing in a queue outside a hall to get a darshan. Soon,  Sri Sri arrived. When he saw Saleena, he came up to her, smiled and said, “You should do the TTC [Teacher Training Course] soon.”

Saleena was stunned when he said this. But she nodded and after a year, Saleena became a qualified teacher.

Incidentally, whenever Sri Sri comes to Kerala, Saleena tries to meet him. “I feel happy and humbled to be in the presence of such a great person,” she says. As for Sri Sri, he
always recognises her and says, “Hi Saleena, how are you?” Recently, at a public function, he introduced her to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.  

And there are many who look happy when they see a Muslim take a class. “I think it is a confirmation to them that India’s syncretic culture, which has lasted for thousands of years, is still going strong,” says Saleena, who also takes classes for children, youth as well as corporates.

One corporate who came out of curiosity was Girija Sreekumar, the managing director of an IT firm. One day, she was passing through the Padivattom suburb in Kochi, when she saw a banner. It showed the images of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Saleena next to each other. “It really attracted me,” she says. “And when I saw Saleena I realised her presence gave out a message that there was nothing religious about the programme. Later, thanks to her excellent teaching of the Sudarshan Kriya, I felt very energetic and positive-minded. She is doing a very good job.”  

Adds the Tokyo-based Swami Sadyojatah, International Director, Art of Living: “Saleena constantly updates herself on all aspects of the teaching. She has been able to motivate hundreds of people to lead a happy, healthy and stress-free life. Her dedication and enthusiasm have been a constant inspiration for other trainers.”

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Goodbye darkness, hello sunshine

On the eve of Mother’s Day (May 12), single mother Jince Mary Johns talks about her life experiences

Photos: Jince Mary Johns; Jince and Eldo on their wedding day 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Eldo Suresh Mathew was feeling low. He was returning from Kothamanagalam following the funeral of his cousin Saji, who, along with his young son, died in a car accident. In the car sat his wife Jince Mary Johns, his seven-month-old son Tarun and his father Mathew. Eldo dropped his wife and son at her home at Kuruppampady. Then he took his bike and decided to drop his father at his own home nearby.

On the way, at 3 p.m., on June 1, 1996, there was a dip in the road at Pookattupadi, on the Perumbavoor-Kakkanad route. As Eldo approached from one side, a private bus approached from the other side. Both were speeding.

Suddenly, the driver Manu (name changed) recognised Eldo. The latter would pick up Manu at a bus stop at the end of the day, whenever he saw the driver. They stayed in the same area. To show recognition, Manu quickly flicked on his headlights and switched it off. That distracted Eldo. He lost his focus and hit the bus with full force.

Eldo was rushed to the Ernakulam Medical Centre but was declared ‘brought dead on arrival’. An engineer with the Hindustan Organic Chemicals (HOC), he was only 30 years old. His father died three days later at the Medical Trust Hospital. Eldo’s mother had died much earlier.

Jince went into shock when she heard the news. She was 23 and had been married to Eldo for only two years.

I would run out of the house and go towards the St. Mary’s Church at Thengode where Eldo was buried,” she says. “Finally, I was taken to a doctor and put on tranquilisers.” She took them for six months.

Jince found it difficult to recover because she missed Eldo. “He was very loving and caring,” she says. “Because he was a few years older, he treated me almost like a daughter. Eldo showed a lot of affection towards me.”

But, thanks to her parents’ support, Jince slowly picked up the pieces of her life. She got a compensatory job at HOC.

But, very soon, relatives began putting pressure on her to remarry. “Many would come to me with proposals,” she says. “But I kept saying no. I was scared about how my son would be treated. There were many instances where stepfathers treated their stepchildren badly. Yet, at the same time, there were other men who adopted their wife’s child as their own. But I did not want to take the risk.”

Jince began working in HOC. One day, she had a surprise visitor. It was Manu the driver. After the accident, he had stopped driving buses. And moved to driving trucks. He had come to deliver some material to the factory. “He met me and apologised profusely,” says Jince. “I said, ‘Let it be’.”

After 12 years, Jince developed asthma, because the chemical phenol is the main product in the factory while cumene and benzene are the by-products. “I became allergic to cumene,” she says. “At one time I had to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.” So she quit and joined the HR department of an equity firm.

There were other health issues, too. In 2002, she had a tumour in her pancreas. She was admitted to Amrita Hospital for surgery. While there, she had a strange experience. During the surgery, when she was unconscious, she saw Eldo. He was sitting beside her wearing a white shirt and mundu. Unlike in real life, he was wearing spectacles. “He was holding my hand,” says Jince. “But he did not say anything. He looked calm and peaceful.”

Later, doctors told Jince that the moment she regained consciousness, following the surgery, her first words were, “Eldo, don’t leave me.”

Another health emergency occurred when Tarun had Cushing’s Disease in 2009. This is a tumour of the pituitary gland, but it is not cancerous. However, it can cause blindness and hormonal ill-effects. Treatment is through surgery. It was done at the CMC Hospital at Vellore. The tumour was cut off but the disease returned in 2011. Because of Tarun’s recurring health problems, Jince had to quit her job. “The medical expenses were high,” she says. “I had to sell a bit of property which I inherited from Eldo to pay the bills.”

After a five-year break, in May, 2017, Jince, along with a partner, started the L3 Design Studio on Convent Road. L3 means Look Love Live. She sells salwar kameez, sarees, skirts, trousers and blouses. There is also a tailoring unit.

At 47, life is going on. Asked how she has managed to handle the ups and downs of her life, she says, “God gave me the strength. I also learnt to develop my own emotional resources.”

One side-effect of being single is she had to ward off men. “Some of them misunderstood my friendliness and got other ideas,” she says.

There were financial setbacks, too. She invested in a chit fund but it failed. “A friend’s husband borrowed money from me and did not pay it back,” says Jince. “But I am soldiering on.”

So, on Mother’s Day, on May 12, what is the message she wants to give other women? “Cherish motherhood, cherish your husband, and enjoy family life as much as possible,” she says. “It can all be lost in a moment.” 

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

Monday, May 06, 2019

What do women think?

At the ‘She’ exhibition held at Kochi recently, women artists have their say about  different aspects of life

Photos: Some of the participating artists; work by Anu Zafaran, Uthara Remesh and Devu GR. Pics by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most days, by habit, artist Anu Zafaran looks out of the window of her 15th floor apartment in Kochi. Sometimes, she sees a blue sky, sometimes it is grey. The sight puts her in a reflective mood. Soon, she turns to her canvas and begins to paint.  The resulting works have been displayed at the ‘She’ exhibition which was held at the Kerala History Museum recently. 

In one, there is a sad-looking woman with reflective eyes, but with red sensuous lips. In front of her are large banana leaves. At one side there are flower petals, a bird standing still on a leaf, branches, and a silhouette of a woman who seems to be screaming. At the bottom, there is a girl who is looking upwards with curiosity at the pair of women. “I am trying to portray the relationship between nature and people,” she says.

Many people who know Anu told her that the portrait of the sad woman is that of her mother. “I don’t know,” says Anu. “My mother played a very big role in my life, but she died of stomach cancer in 2010. I do miss her. When I was 16, my father also passed away owing to a sudden heart attack. So my mother had a difficult time bringing me up and my brother.”

Anu is also a fan of the late Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Among his novels, she likes ‘Love in the time of cholera’. “That is why there is a lushness in the canvas, apart from the fact that Kerala is lush too,” says Anu.

Young artist Uthara Remesh has a different kind of lushness. Her work, an acrylic on plywood,  called ‘The Birth’, from a distance, seems to indicate a woman’s vagina. Red coloured fish is flowing down the channel. On all sides, trees abound along the thighs.  

Every aspect of the painting represents a woman,” says Uthara. “I see myself as a fish, who is flowing through the water. I fell in love with a man when I was painting this. The work represents my feeling of being a complete woman and maybe a subconscious desire to have a child.”

Uthara met Mahin at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, at Kochi. After graduating, the pair got married on December 18, 2016. In another work, ‘Hug’, Uthara drew a semi-naked version of herself resting her face against Mahin’s chest, a look of bliss on her face, despite the shut eyes.

This is a night scene,” says Uthara. “Mahin cares a lot about me and my family. That makes me feel wanted.” She used watercolours, beads, gum and different types of ink.
The works of 21 artists, a mix of established as well as upcoming artists had been on display. Says senior artist O Sundar who came up with the concept, “In the word, ‘She’, there is a He. Just as in a man’s success there is a woman, it is vice versa too. This was a message to the feminists. I feel there is an unnecessary fight between the sexes.”

There are works of varying themes. In Devu GR’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Agony and Ecstasy’, there is an image of cactus plants in a desert against a backdrop of pink coloured clouds. In the middle cactus, there is a bird which has come to peck at the flower called a bromeliad. “The cactus has a lot of thorns and yet it also has a beautiful flower,” says Devu. “Because of the thorns we usually tend to avoid touching the cactus. This is similar to human beings. Somebody may look tough, but if you approach him or her, you might find something sweet in them.”  

Young Soumya VN has also painted a sweet image. A girl is lying sideways on a mattress wearing a Kerala-style blouse and skirt. There are a few hibiscus flowers in the four corners. But what is prominent is the mobile phone which is placed next to her. “I wanted to show my connection with the phone, but not in a negative way,” says Soumya, who is doing her third year Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Sree Sankaracharya University at Kalady. “I am staying in the hostel. Thanks to the phone, I am able to stay in touch with my family and friends.”

Participating artists

Sara Hussain, Bindhi Rajagopal, Babita Rajiv, Jiji Ajith, Anju Acharya, Sreeja Pallam, Minimol MN, Reshmi Sreedhar, Meera Krishna, Celin Jacob, Biji KC, Smija Vijayan, Kripa Lalu, Gopika S Nair, Aswathy Rathish, Minnubabu P, and Yamini Mohan