Thursday, May 02, 2019

When the words come tumbling out

VJ Mathews, a former Air Force staffer, has just published an English version of his Malayalam novel, ‘Mithya’. Thus far, he has published 26 novels. He is also a successful entrepreneur 

Illustration by Tapas Ranjan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Flying from Jorhat to Dibrugarh was very pleasant. When returning, the take-off from Dibrugarh was also very smooth. But after fifteen minutes of flying, while crossing the Naga Hills, the engine developed some problem and started to produce unusual sounds which made Enasu and the other passengers feel panicky. Slowly, that sound increased and turned into a very high-pitched roar, like a Sten gun firing. Fut…...fut…...fut.

Suddenly, the aircraft engine stopped and the propeller became still. The plane started to descend with its nose down. Enasu could see the forest approaching. The death bell started to ring in his ears...’

This is an extract from entrepreneur VJ Mathew’s book, ‘Devil and Deity’, a just-released English translation of his Malayalam novel, ‘Mithya’. Priced at Rs 300, it is a fast-paced story about the trials and tribulations of Air Force pilot VD Enasu, who was one of the heroes of the Indo-Pak war of 1971.

Mathew has written the novel based on his own experiences. He had worked as a radar mechanic during the 1965 and ‘71 India-Pakistan wars. “Our job was to observe and track our flight movements as well as those of the enemy,” says Mathews. “There were sixty of us in an air-conditioned underground bunker, at Barnala in Punjab. Pakistan launched four bombing and three strafing attacks on the bunker, but nothing happened because we were 30 feet below the ground.”  

Following 16 years of service, Mathews opted for premature retirement. His reasoning was simple. “The salary was very low in the Air Force,” says Mathews. “It was only much later that the Pay Commission increased the pay. Now my pension is much more than the salary I received.”

Thereafter, in 1979, Mathews started his own business of making printed cartons. The Letha Group of Industries was a success from the very beginning. In 2000, when the then Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav banned the use of plastic cups, Mathews swiftly moved to develop paper ones.

And the business boomed even more. Helped by his sons Jackson and Don, they began supplying cups to Americans troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, they are supplying to coffee chains, tea houses and airlines like Indigo and Vistara as well as many other companies. But their focus is primarily on exports to countries like Australia, Britain and Germany.

We are the No 1 paper cup manufacturer in India,” says Jackson. “We make about 20 lakh cups a day.”

And they have made some innovations. About 95 per cent of the paper cups worldwide have a plastic lining. But Leetha has been the first to adopt a bio-degradable and compostable product. “We have received certification from the leading international body Intertek,” says Don.  

But despite his success story, Mathews cannot forget his poverty-stricken childhood. Memories bubble up as if the events just took place yesterday.

When he was studying at the St. Thomas school in Pala, the family was too poor to even provide him with a meal. “My classmates would bring lunch and eat it in class because there was no separate dining room,” says Mathews. “When I would get the aroma of the food, I would feel a pain in my jaws. I know that very few people have experienced this level of hunger.”

In Class nine, one afternoon, owing to an empty stomach, he could not concentrate and dozed off. The teacher Sunny noticed it, came up and tapped Mathews with a scale. The latter fell to the floor in a faint. Sunny panicked. Quickly he carried Mathews to the staff room.   

Mathews was perspiring heavily. Sunny quickly took off the shirt. Then he saw the flat stomach. He said, “Mathew, did you not take any food today?”

The boy wept. So Sunny called a student, gave him four annas and said, “Go and bring a dosa.” The dosa was brought and Mathews ate it with relish. At his air-conditioned office, at South Kalamassery, a few days ago, the 75-year-old Mathews says, “The taste of the dosa is still there in my mouth.”

Meanwhile, during his days in the Air Force, whenever he had some free time, he would start writing. Soon, he began publishing articles in Malayalam magazines and newspapers. A few months after he started his factory, Mathews wrote his first novel 'Adiyozhukkukal'. This was serialised in the Kerala Times newspaper and was well received when it was published. Well-known journalist cum media owner MP Veerendra Kumar wrote, ‘There is a flood of novels, but 'Adiyozhukkukal'. has come like a Noah’s Ark.’ The book went into three editions.

Thus far, Mathews has written 26 books. Asked when he writes, he says, “Whenever I get free time. Sometimes I get up at midnight and write for an hour. Writing comes very easily to me.”   
Finally, on asked to give some tips for young people at the beginning of their careers, Mathews says, “Be 100 percent submissive to God. Consult Him before taking any decisions. To hear his voice, you have to meditate and think. Then you will make the right decisions. And you should also work very hard because nothing comes easy in life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

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