Tuesday, October 29, 2019

When a Malayalee gave a knock to the British Empire

Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat give a riveting account of how Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair stood up to the British following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919

Photos: Raghu and Pushpa Palat; the book cover; Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat were walking around the Jallianwala Bagh Museum at Amritsar, in December 2017. Suddenly, Pushpa pulled up short and said, “Hey Raghu look at this plaque. Your great-grandfather is being honoured.” 

Raghu stared at the words written in praise of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, and his eyes bulged in pride and happiness, even as he said, “It’s so wonderful.” 

Suddenly he thought, ‘Here was a man from Kerala, being honoured on the other side of India, in Punjab. People did not know about him, even in the South and especially in his home state of Kerala. Even I don’t know much about him.” 

Not surprisingly, a need arose in him, to know more about his ancestor. He also wanted to tell the story so that his daughters Nikhila and Divya (Bollywood actor) and  granddaughter Nivaya should know the family history.  

Soon, he began to do research. The more he read the more fascinated he came. Raghu then asked his wife to join him. “Both of us are writers,” says Raghu. “I have published 46 books in genres like management, shares, banking, investments and business communication, whereas my wife writes on luxury and lifestyle. We were both entering a new genre and we felt it would be better if we combined our different skills.” 

The end result has just been published. Brought out by Bloomsbury, the book is intriguingly titled, ‘The Case That Shook The Empire’ -- One Man’s Fight for the Truth about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Nair (1857-1934) was the President of the Indian National Congress, Advocate-General of the Madras Presidency, and a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council. “Being a member of the Council was a pinnacle for an Indian,” says Raghu. But when details of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which took place on April 13, 1919, began to seep out, Nair had no hesitation in resigning immediately in protest. 

This created ripples among the British establishment. 

Later, he wrote a book called ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’ where he held the Punjab Governor Michael O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre ordered by Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer at Jallianwala. Officially, around 400 unarmed civilians, including men, women and children died.   

When O’Dwyer read the book, he asked Nair to publicly withdraw the book from circulation and apologise along with paying 1000 pounds to charities specified by the former. Expectedly, Nair refused. Consequently, O’Dwyer filed a case for defamation in the Court of the King’s Bench in England in 1922. 

However, it was not an even playing field. As the authors write, ‘There were innumerable disadvantages for Nair, not least of which was a less-than-proficient legal practitioner. The trial was to be held in England, the jury would be English… Most significant of all was the fact that the English continued to believe themselves to be far superior to Indians, which is why the latter were rarely treated fairly.

English juries had acquitted Englishmen who had killed Indians (one was acquitted after killing a coolie and another after killing a washerman who had asked for his wages) and here was an Indian accusing an Englishman of atrocities in an English court. It was destined to be a case that made history. “Later, it gave a tremendous fillip to the freedom movement,” says Pushpa. 

The book is crisp and well-written. And the duo were keen to avoid just a bland recitation of facts and dates. “We wanted it to be a historical novel, as we wanted to reach a larger audience,” says Pushpa. And to a large extent, they have succeeded. 

In a chapter on the history of Punjab, here is an unforgettable description of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. ‘It has been said that in appearance Ranjit Singh looked like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye. He was also short and mean-looking, with a swollen stub for a nose and skinny lips. His head sunk on his broad shoulders that were too wide for his height. His neck was muscular, his limbs were thin and he had small hands. However, when he mounted a horse, his whole demeanour transformed and he assumed a natural grace. Additionally, he was known to be selfish, avaricious, superstitious and untrusting. He was often drunk and revelled in debauchery. His greatness lay in the fact that he was a military genius, a great strategist and a born ruler’. 

Monday, October 28, 2019

Staying loyal till the end

The Muslim Thaha Ibrahim looked after the oldest Jew, Sarah Cohen at Mattancherry till she passed away last month 

Photos: Thaha Ibrahim. Photo by Albin Mathew. Sarah Cohen with Thaha

By Shevlin Sebastian  

Thaha Ibrahim stared at Sarah Cohen intently. He could see the eyelashes trembling. It unnerved him. He stepped out of the Cohen house in Jew Town, Mattancherry and rushed to the opposite building. He ran up the stairs to the first floor and told Dr David Hallegua, “Something’s going wrong with Sarah Aunty. Can you come quickly.” 

David nodded. He had come from the US to take his mother, Queenie, a neighbour and friend of Sarah, to Israel for a wedding, when he heard that the nonagenarian was not well. 

Thaha ran back to the house. He looked at Sarah and said, “Aunty, what has happened?”

Sarah said “Yes.” 

Then her eyes widened... 

When David came, moments later, he checked the pulse and did not get a response. He blew oxygen inside her mouth, but nothing happened. “Thaha, she is gone,” said David, in a sombre voice.

The time: 1.55 p.m. The date: August 30. Thus, one of the last surviving white Jews of Kochi, Sarah Cohen had passed away at the age of 96. Her husband, Jacob had passed away in 1999. The couple had no children.   

But they had one boy who seemed like one: Thaha. 

In 1982, Thaha’s uncle Ummer told the 12-year-old class six dropout to stand in the lane leading to the Paradesi synagogue at Mattancherry and sell postcards and spices in plastic pouches to foreigners, who came on ships. Thaha stood outside the Cohen household and did the job for months, selling the cards for $1 each. Jacob and Thaha would exchange pleasantries. By 5 p.m. Thaha would take his merchandise and place it in a godown belonging to his uncle, some distance away. 

But one Sunday morning, during a busy day in the tourist season the godown could not be opened. Apparently, the security guard had a tiff with Ummer and walked away with the keys. Ummer told Thaha to stand in the lane and he would bring the merchandise later. But Ummer could not locate the security guard. Jacob enquired from Thaha as to why he had no merchandise with him. And he nodded when he heard Thaha’s reply.  

The next day, after the key was procured, Thaha again stood with the goods. But at the end of the day, Jacob told Thaha he could store it in the house. But when Thaha entered the living room, Sarah opposed the idea vehemently. There was an argument between husband and wife which lasted for an hour. Finally, Sarah relented. 

And thus Thaha slowly became part of the household. Sometimes Jacob would send Thaha to the bank to collect money or he would ask him to buy bread. “When I was doing the errands Jacob Uncle would stand with the cards,” says Thaha. “He would sell more because he could speak English so well.” 

The years went by. One day, in 1999, Jacob told Thaha, “I am ageing. You know I have no children. I have brought up a lot of youngsters by paying for their education and other expenses. But they have all gone away. So you must look after Sarah till her death. She has nobody else.”

It was a momentous moment. Thaha felt overwhelmed. But a few moments later, he nodded. Less than two months later, on October 28, Jacob died, at age 86. 

And Thaha took his responsibility seriously. He was there every day at Sarah’s house. Sarah sold Jewish caps like the kippah, and embroidered handkerchiefs, tablecloths and children’s dresses. Thaha would help in the stitching, in the buying of materials and the selling of the goods. 

And thanks to international media coverage, Sarah had become famous all over the world, especially among the Jews. So there was always a string of visitors to her  home. And there were unusual reactions when they came to know that a Muslim, Thaha, was looking after a Jew. 

Many were very happy about this but there were a few who did not like it,” says Thaha. When some Jews expressed their apprehensions, Sarah would say, “I trust Thaha. I have no worries about it. Thaha looks after me very well. I have known him for decades.”  

As for Thaha, his community members would say, “You are looking after a Jew. What type of people are they?”

Thaha shakes his head exasperatedly, and says, “It is by mixing with each other that we understand each other’s faiths and beliefs. Sarah’s cook, Selin is a Christian. So the people of three faiths intermingled very peacefully. It is because of a lack of understanding that the Jews are fighting the Muslims, the Hindus with Muslims and Christians. We are all God’s children. Islam, Hinduism, and the Judaism are different paths to the same God. That’s what people need to understand.” 

Meanwhile, in his day-to-day life, Thaha, 49, who is married to Jasmine and has three grown-up sons, is keen on setting up a museum, in the memory of Jacob and Sarah, at the Cohen’s house.

He is a torch-bearer with a heart of gold.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Going Solo

Angamaly native Abin Joe travelled through 24 countries in Europe, on his Honda Deauville 650cc bike, over three months and reached the Arctic Circle. He talks about his experiences

Photos: Abin Joe at the Arctic Circle; the Great Atlantic Road. A view of Denmark   

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Angamaly native Abin Joe set out on the Great Atlantic Road in Norway on his 20-year-old Honda Deauville 650cc bike, he felt a sense of elation. On his left was the blue Atlantic Ocean, and on his right were grassy knolls. The sky was blue with specks of clouds here and there. Since the road was smooth and straight, he quickly reached the top speed of 140 km/hour. 

He crossed bridges as well as islands and archipelagos. At some sections, the road bifurcated the ocean and the waves would lash the sides, sending up showers of spray which fell on Abin. “It was quite exciting,” he says. 

Finally, he slowed down at a deserted archipelago. Abin saw a grassy section of land, beside the ocean. He decided to halt for the night. It took Abin half an hour to put up the tent. As night fell, he went to sleep. But at midnight, a storm broke. Lightning lit up the sky. A strong breeze blew. Waves hit the sides with great force. The ground began shaking. His tent almost fell on him. With a shock, Abin realised he was lying on a thick bed of seaweed. But it was too late to move. 

He closed his eyes and prayed hard. If the weeds got detached from the archipelago and drifted towards the ocean, his life would be in danger. As the storm raged, he went through a gamut of emotions: fear, sorrow and helplessness. He thought about his fiancee Geethu whom he is scheduled to marry in January. Three hours passed. The storm stopped as abruptly as it began. And Abin survived. “It was a close shave,” he says. 

Abin had been on a 24-country solo trek through Europe -- Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway...with a final destination in mind: the Arctic Circle. 

But the three-month journey had a disastrous beginning. At Barcelona, on July 8, pickpockets flicked a pouch which contained Abin’s passport, driving licence and international permit. Sadly, he would take ten days before he managed to get a new passport. There was no time to get another licence or permit.   

And when he embarked on the highway, towards France, he immediately faced problems. “All vehicles go at a minimum speed of 130 km per hour,” says Abin. “There is a crosswind especially when big trailers go past. As a result, the bike would sway from side to side. It was dangerous. So I decided to take the country roads.” 

That turned out to be the right decision. “I saw the unmatched beauty of the countryside,” he says. “My speed slowed to 60 km/hour and I enjoyed meeting the people who were kind and friendly.” 

Whenever Abin would approach a town, he would quickly log onto couchsurfing.com. Since the members are all travellers, they speak in English and the food and stay are free. “All they wanted was to hear my travel stories,” says Abin. “I may be the first Indian bike rider to stay with them.” 

Meanwhile, drama was not very far away. 

In Kinderdijk, Holland, known for its windmills, he stood on a bridge next to one. Abin had just finished talking and put the phone into his jeans pocket. But it did not fall correctly, slipped out, fell on the bridge and rolled into the water. Abin was in shock. “I knew I would be paralysed without the phone,” he says. “No GPS, no couchsurfing, and no staying in touch with my host.” 

He asked the windmill owner about the depth of the lake. “Two metres (6.5 feet),” said the man. Abin nodded, removed his shirt and jacket and lowered himself into the chilly water. A cold wind was blowing. Soon, he discovered that it was full of mud. Since the water was not clear, he began searching for the phone with his feet. A crowd of curious onlookers gathered on the bridge. “They had come to see the windmill, but forgot all about it,” says Abin. “When they came to know that I was looking for a phone, they started betting on whether I would find it.” 

Abin did find a phone. But it was an Apple iPhone 8, encased in mud, while his was a Chinese one. Time passed but there was no luck for Abin. At 6 p.m., the owner said he was closing up. But when Abin tried to get out of the water, the mud held him back. “Finally, two men held my hands while a third grabbed my belt and managed to pull me up,” says the 28-year-old, who works in Infopark at Kakkanad. “It was an unforgettable experience.” Soon, with the help of a local’s phone, he managed to find the address of the host and was taken there. And the next day, he bought a new phone. “Thanks to all my data being saved on my cloud account, I could transfer it immediately to my new phone,” says Abin. 

The journey continued. Through Norway, which according to Abin, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, with its fjords and lakes, he managed to reach the Arctic Circle. “It was desolate,” he says. “The night sky was full of stars. I saw melting glaciers and large expanses of snow. The beauty was indescribable.” And thus, Abin brought his solo journey to an end. 

And for us Kochiites and Indians here is one incredible statistic: Abin traversed 15,200 km but did not come across a single pothole! 

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

Myriad Impressions

A group of American travel writers talk about their experiences in South India, while on a visit to Kochi 

Caption: From left: Cynthia W Dial, Janet Rae-Dupree, tour operators Nirmala and Deepika Sen, Veronica Rodriguez, Iona Brannon and Bea Broda  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On a cloudy morning, a group of American travel writers entered the Indian School of Art in Ravipuram, Kochi. And it did not take them long to express their wonder and appreciation at all the mural artworks on display along the walls. Many depicted scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. They were done by school owner Sasi Warrier and his late father KK Warrier. In the next room, a veena class was being conducted by Sasi’s wife Usha. The visitors watched with appreciative looks as student Geeta Jayarajan played a tune. 

All of them -- Cynthia W Dial, Iona Brannon, Bea Broda, Janet Rae-Dupree and Veronica Rodriguez --were on a fortnight’s tour of South India led by the California-based tour operator Debika Sen and her Chennai-based colleague Nirmala. 

Soon, they sat around a table. Sasi, along with his friend Prof R Sasidharan, gave a talk about the history of mural art in Kerala. And they listened attentively. 

It had been a good experience for them at Kochi. A day earlier, they also witnessed an act of honesty which gladdened their hearts. When the group had departed from the St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi, Janet had left her expensive camera behind. She only realised it two hours later. But when Debika, the tour operator called the church, they were informed the guide had kept it with him. Soon, calls were exchanged with the guide and he brought the camera to the Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry where the group was on a visit. “That was phenomenal,” says Janet. 

Like most first-time visitors to India, their initial experience was one of shock. “I was surprised how, at 3.30 a.m., the city of Chennai was alive,” says Janet. “Lights, sounds, honking, cars and people everywhere. The initial impression was one of chaos. But I was warmly welcomed everywhere, so that each step of the acclimatising process became smooth.”  

Adds Cynthia, “When we are on the road, I am thinking, ‘The traffic is crazy but in the end, everything gets sorted out’.” 

And they liked the people. “They are generous and friendly,” says Veronica. “Everywhere we went, everybody was so nice to us and curious. They would take photos of us and also come up and talk. Everybody wants to know more about you. And they were so eager to show their world.” 

Iona experienced this in Pondicherry. One evening the group was walking along the beach. Iona separated from the rest and sat down on a bench where she began talking to Prabha (name changed). “Prabha told me, ‘I have been praying to meet someone who is a writer so that I could tell my life story’.” 

Iona replied that she is a writer. “I can write your life story,” she said. 

Prabha replied, “To do that, you have to see where I live.” 

Iona agreed. And Prabha took her on a bike to a slum, where on the terrace of a government-made house, she was running a school. “She is doing great work,” says Iona. “I established a connection with Prabha. It was a cool experience.”  

As for Bea, she loved the live-and-let-live culture of the country. “I don’t think anybody was trying to convert me to any belief system,” she says. 

As for the big difference from the US, Iona says, “Family values. In India, a lot of decisions are based on the interactions between the father and mother as well as the extended family. There is also an intermingling of different generations and different age groups. But in the US it is all about the nuclear family. The youngsters do not have conversations with the elders. And so they miss out on the wisdom that is passed down from generation to generation.”  
Janet, on the other hand, discovered something unique. “In India, people live their spiritual life out in the open,” she says. “It is a huge part of their daily life. In the US, this does not happen.”  

As for Veronica, she found the concept of arranged marriages mind-boggling. 
That is so foreign to America,” she exclaims. “But I did meet a bunch of Indians who had arranged marriages and were happy. We Americans would have too much to process if we had to meet somebody on our wedding day without hardly knowing the person.”  

As for Bea, she gained a unique insight. “Sometimes when I go to a country which has the poverty levels that India has, you see groups of miserable people standing around,” she says. “But in India, poor people hold hands with each other, they smile and laugh, they are so curious about you. There is happiness all around. There is something about the country that exudes peace. That is why all of us find it so welcoming.”  

However, no place is perfect. When asked about the negative aspects, Veronica says, “The thing that bothered me the most about India was the trash. I come from California and we are so much into recycling and moving away from plastic. I feel more effort should be made regarding conservation and trash disposal.” 

Adds Janet: “The debris is everywhere, between shops and homes. There is a beautiful oasis, when you are in somebody’s home, but when you step out into the main road you are immediately surrounded by concrete slabs, trash or something else.”

Adds Bea, “Getting rid of the trash should be a national priority.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Maximum Impact

The Bengaluru-based Nivedha M has just won the 2019 Impact Maker Awards in Norway for her waste management system and took home prize money worth Rs 40 lakh

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was cold inside the Skur13 hall in Oslo, Norway during the evening of October 10. A group of 35 entrepreneurs stood on a stage in pin-drop silence. They were from all over the world: UK, USA, Kenya, Botswana and India. Among them was the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Nivedha M. She is the founder of the Trashbot machine that can automatically separate bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste.

Nivedha was wearing a black coat and shiny black boots. The Norwegian Trade Minister Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, Torbjørn Røe said, “And the winner is” … there was a pause and then he shouted, “TrashCon (the name of the company).”

Nivedha felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit her. Then, breaking out into a never-ending smile, she stepped forward and received a plaque and a large cardboard cheque from the minister. The plaque identified her as the winner of the 2019 Impact Maker Awards. This is a global competition for entrepreneurs who can provide unconventional solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. And the prize money is a cool Rs 40 lakh.

The Impact Maker Awards has been instituted by the Norway-based group Xynteo, and consists of major companies like Unilever, Mastercard, General Electric and Tatas. These firms are looking for innovative solutions for the world’s problems.

And through a vote of the 500 plus delegates in the hall, which consisted of people like the CEO of Ikea Jesper Brodin and the co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, they voted for TrashCon as having made the most impact.

Nivedha had never expected to get the award. The earlier winners were mostly Europeans and Americans. “This was the first time an Indian was winning,” says Nivedha.

When asked on stage what she would do with the money, Nivedha said, “Each of these digits will impact a thousand lives. We can create an end-to-end waste management system which includes segregation and recycling. According to my calculations, for each digit, we can prevent 300 tonnes of waste going to a landfill every month, through the use of Trashbot.” Incidentally, the recycled waste from the Trashbot can be used to make biogas and plywood-type boards. So there is no waste whatsoever.

Xynteo has also extended support to Nivedha to help her scale up the production. “We are making 10 machines a month,” she says. “Now they will help us to make 100 machines and later there will be a global outreach.”

A chemical engineer who graduated from the Rashtreeya Vidyalaya College of Engineering, the 24-year-old says, “I have found my life’s purpose. I want to create a time where there is no trash anywhere in the world.” 

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Meeting the daughter of a legend

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Debika Sen (extreme left); Mihir Sen 

One day, at artist Sasi Warrier’s studio, I met a group of lively American women travel writers who were on a tour of South India. Shepherding the group was Debika Sen, a California-based tour manager. When I heard the surname, I correctly assumed Debika of being a Bengali. We started chatting in Bengali. I am a Malayali who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in Kochi as a journalist. 

As for Debika, she is of mixed parentage. While her father was Bengali her mother, Bella, was of British-Jewish origin. “They met and fell in love when my father went to study in England,” she said. 

During our conversation, Debika suddenly said, “You might have heard of my father.” 

Then she paused and said, “His name is Mihir Sen.” 

I got a shock when she said that. Sen was one of India’s greatest long-distance swimmers. He was the first Indian to swim across the English Channel in 1958, and also set a world record by swimming in oceans in five continents during a calendar year (1966). These included the Palk Straits, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles and the length of the Panama Canal. He had famously said, “I wanted to prove to the world that Indians are not afraid.” In 1967, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan. 

At that time, while working for a national sports magazine, at Kolkata, I had written articles about Sen. One was a seven-page feature called ‘Marathon Man’ in 1988. Then, in 1991, when he suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, and lost his memory, I had written another one called ‘Man Without A Past’. 

I told Debika about how I had spent time with Sen, at his office, home and during a photo shoot at the National Library. Her eyes filled up and she said, “It’s such a small world.”

But Debika also told me something that I had long forgotten. Sen had a flourishing garment factory and was wealthy. However, one day, in 1977, politician Jyoti Basu called him and asked him to campaign on behalf of the Communist party for the Assembly elections. Sen declined by saying he was a capitalist. That did not go down well with Basu. 

Soon, labour problems began to crop up in his factory. It eventually devastated Sen’s business. He became bankrupt. The stress became too much to bear. Sen developed dementia. And on June 11, 1997, he died at the age of 66. As for Bella, according to Debika, she died of a ‘broken heart’ five years later.

It was all so sad to hear. What to make of life? So many tragedies take place all the time. And, mostly, all this happens to good people, while the bad go karma-free. Does God exist? Or is He maya (an illusion)?

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South Indian editions and The Morning Standard, New Delhi)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Taking her first steps

Debutant actress Melissa Raju Thomas talks about her experiences in the upcoming ‘Moothon’ and her future plans  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Sometime ago, inside a dance bar at Malad, Mumbai, Poonam is gyrating her hips. She has kohl-rimmed eyes, red lipstick, hoop earrings, long hair, and is dressed in a bluish-green lehenga-choli. She is dancing to ‘One Two Three Four’ from the Shah Rukh Khan film ‘Chennai Express’. She swirls her hair from side to side. The strobe lights on the ceiling are going clockwise and anti-clockwise. The mostly-male audience claps and shouts. A few throw hundred rupee notes at Poonam.

At one side of the bar, two women are watching intently but silently. One is the Mollywood director Geetu Mohandas, while the other is the debutant actress Melissa Raju Thomas. The reason is simple: in Geetu’s bilingual film, ‘Moothon’, Melissa plays a bar dancer. 

As she watches Poonam, Melissa is struck by the lack of expression on her face. “There was no happiness or sadness,” says Melissa. “I got the feeling she was just doing a job. Even her smile was mechanical.” 

Later Melissa met Poonam and the latter confirmed that it was only a means to earn a living. “Poonam thought that I wanted to get into it, so she told me to stay away,” says Melissa. “That moment stayed with me.” 

In the film, Melissa is also a village girl based in Lakshadweep. And because of an  element of magic realism in the film, she also plays a mermaid. But the shoot was a tough one. “I put a fishtail, so my legs were restricted,” says Melissa. The shoot was done 15 feet below the surface of a pool in Mumbai. There were divers nearby who would give Melissa the oxygen mask. But a few moments before the shooting began, they would take it away. “I managed for about 45 seconds or so to hold my breath,” she says. When Melissa could no longer do so, she would make a sign and the divers would come and reattach the oxygen tube. 

The film stars Nivin Pauly and Roshan Mathews. And the tale is of a boy who goes in search of his elder brother in Mumbai. As for Melissa, it has been a learning experience. “One day, seeing me looking tense, Nivin told me to relax,” she says. “I realised that taking it easy is better than getting immersed in my lines and doing too much thinking. Instead, it was important to be in the present and react naturally to what was happening in the scene.” 

Early life

Melissa is the daughter of an Army officer Raju Onattu Thomas. Thanks to her father’s transferable job, she grew up in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi and Nagaland. But at age 13, the family relocated to Thiruvananthapuram and Melissa won selection at the Asianet Plus VJ Hunt Reality Show. She anchored the popular show, ‘Valkannadi’ for two years. Thereafter, after her class ten, she got a scholarship to study in Singapore, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS). 

Studying in Singapore changed me as a person,” she says. “The society is very competitive. To stand out, you had to work hard. And there is a culture of meritocracy that I liked very much. If you are good, you are rewarded.” 

Melissa also liked the emphasis on physical education and fitness. “So you tend to go for a workout or a run every other day,” says Melissa. “That is something that our Indians schools should focus on, especially with our rising stress levels.” 

It was in NUS that she studied theatre, acted in a few plays and got hooked onto acting. 

And now, she feels happy about her decision to concentrate on acting. ‘Moothon’ has received appreciation when it was screened, last month, at the Toronto Film Festival. The film, which is produced by noted Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap, who also wrote the Hindi dialogues, is slated for a November release. Now Melissa is halfway through a shoot for Bejoy Nambiar’s next film, ‘Taish’. 

Asked whether she was settling in for a career in Bollywood, Melissa says, “It depends on how things work out. It is a complicated industry and since I am an outsider, without any godfathers, it is not going to be easy.” 

She says she also has a keen interest in scriptwriting as well as direction. She may have a talent in that direction. Melissa wrote the script for a short film called ‘Faded’, which was released on HumaraMovie, a leading YouTube channel and garnered more than two million views. “Story-telling is what I love the most,” says Melissa, who has acted in numerous TV commercials. 

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

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

To unite a divided India

Entrepreneur-filmmaker Shailendra Singh has embarked on an all-India journey to celebrate the country, and to felicitate unsung heroes, accompanied by a powerful anthem, ‘One India My India’ which he has created and directed

Pics: Shailendra Singh. Photo by Albin Mathew. A rousing welcome at Kanyakumari 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Convent Junction, Kochi, when entrepreneur Shailendra Singh steps out of his jeep, he is a sight to behold. A black T-shirt with the words ‘Made in India’ in front and ‘Shailendra Singh’ at the back. A lower garment, in green, is a mix between a lungi and the kimono. On his arms are etched two statements: One is in Sanskrit saying ‘Ahimsam Yodha’ (‘I am a warrior’). Then there is ‘Mangal Da Puttur’. His father’s name is Mangal Singh while in the astrology charts, his planet is Mars. Near the wrists, there is the Om as well as a peace symbol. 

This multi-dimensional personality -- film-maker, entrepreneur, advertising star, music promoter and best-selling author -- is on an all-India rally called ‘One India My India’. He started on October 2, from the Gandhi Ashram at Kanyakumari, touched Kochi and is on his way to Srinagar via Coimbatore-Bangalore-Humpi-Kolhapur-Goa-Pune…..a total of 15 cities across 11 states, a distance of 7170 km in 18 days. 

For the rally, he has created and directed a hypnotic and moving anthem called ‘One India My India’ featuring singers Mithoon, Sukhwinder, Jubin Nautiyal and Godswill, with lyrics in Hindi, English and Punjabi by Sayeed Quadri. Shot in 20 cities of India, the highlight image is of an elephant in Kerala raising the Indian flag skyward with its trunk. With over 30 lakh hits and counting, it is well on its way to make a mark like AR Rahman’s ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’. 

Shailendra was inspired by producer Quincy Jones’ blockbuster song, ‘We are the world’, released in 1985, in which a host of stars like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross and Lionel Richie lent their voices. “That was the only anthem that wanted to unite humanity,” says Shailendra. “I wanted to do something similar for India.”  

Meanwhile, when asked the reasons behind the rally, Shailendra says, “All of us are different from the outside. One is a Bengali, Malayalee, Punjabi or a Tamilian. But inside everybody is the same. The blood is red. The heart beats in the same way. All our organs are the same. My message on this trip is that everything divides us -- caste, religion, politics, money but the one thing that can unite us is love. And that is what I am propagating -- love.” 

At each stop, Shailendra is also meeting ‘Unsung Heroes’. In Kerala, he felicitated Mesh Manoharan, a trained scuba diver, who rescued 70 people on his kayak during the 2018 Kerala floods. At Hampi, he commended the muscular Shiva, in blue T-shirt and jeans, who has cremated more than 10,000 unclaimed bodies. Another hero is Padma Shree awardee Dr Ramana Rao of Bengaluru who has treated more than 20 lakh people free of cost. “In India, the true achievers are not felicitated or recognised for some strange and unknown reason,” he says. 

Shailendra, who has travelled to many countries, is an unabashed India lover. “It is the greatest country on the planet,” he says. “We are the world’s largest democracy. India lets you be who you want to be. Of course, we have a lot of problems. That’s because 1.4 billion people are trying to live together. But India is the only country in the world where you can go to a stranger’s house and ask for a cup of coffee and he will provide it with a smile and without asking any questions. In Germany, if you go to a house unannounced, they will call the cops. A couple of hours before Kochi, late at night, we stopped for idlis and the lady did not even charge us.” Incidentally, the entire journey is being streamlined live on Facebook and YouTube. 

And for this trip, Shailendra has not taken on any sponsors. “I don’t want to propagate the thought process of anybody who has commerce, politics, or power in mind,” he says. “I want to be pure.” 

This desire for purity has come after an immensely successful career. Here are a few statistics: 23 start-ups in 23 years. 500 multinational clients. Shailendra built the third-largest youth festival, ‘Sunburn’ in the world. He has made 72 films and is a National Award winner. He was also the first to launch a talent management agency, Percept and is a successful author. 

Asked for tips on success, he says, “You have to follow your passion. Sachin [Tendulkar] fell in love with batting at the age of eight. There is a theory [expanded upon in American writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling ‘Outliers’] that if you practise something for 10,000 hours you will become great.” 

But today, Shailendra is looking for a higher purpose in life. “Every sunrise, I ask the Universe to allow me to share all of myself before I die,” he says, and adds, “Too many people are living but they are not alive. I want to be alive at every single moment for the rest of my life.” 

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

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

A nursing place for animals

At the Koovapadam Animal Shelter, in Mattancherry, Gujarati couple Dinesh and Ushma Shah provide timely treatment for injured animals and birds

Pics: Dinesh and Ushma Shah; Ushma Shah. Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At 4 a.m., Ushma Shah seemed to hear barking at the edge of her consciousness. She was in a deep sleep at her home in Mattancherry, Kochi. She turned to one side, hoping the sound would go away. Her husband Dinesh let out a soft snore. But the barking persisted. Soon, Ushma shook her head, got up and realised it was coming from outside. So, she stepped out, walked down a long passage, and opened the gate. A brown dog was standing there, with a wound on its back. It had large sorrowful eyes. 

Ushma took the dog in, gave it medication and provided milk and dry dog food. She recognised the dog. It had been brought in a few days earlier, after being hit by a car. But after treatment, Ushma had sent it back to its original area of Panayapally, because there was no space in the shelter. But now the dog had found its way back. 

So Ushma tended to it till the wound healed and again sent it back. 

At the shelter, there are 35 big and small dogs, seven cows and calves, one pigeon, and three cats. Sadly, one cat became paralysed when it was hit by a vehicle. 

In fact, more than 90 per cent of the injuries is due to the animals being hit by vehicles. “For street dogs as well as abandoned pets, for some reason, both are unable to judge the proper distance at which a bike or car is moving,” says Dinesh. “That’s why they get hit so often.” 

One dog was hit so hard that his eyeballs popped out. By the time, he was taken to the doctor, it was too late. “He is blind now,” says Dinesh, with a sad shake of his head. Apart from accidents, dogs also suffer from skin diseases, cancers, paralysis, tumours, nerve and kidney problems. 

Their constitution is no different from ours,” says Ushma. “They feel pain in the same way as humans. They get emotionally upset. But we have not been taught to observe this. We eat animals, so how can we have any feelings for them?” 

On the other hand, animals have feelings for their caregiver. “They show more love than human beings,” says Ushma. “Their love is unconditional.”   

In 2018, the shelter, which is part of the Delhi-based Dhyan Foundation, received a grant from the Jeanne Marchig Animal Welfare Award in Scotland to improve their infrastructure. The award was given through the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations at their ‘India For Animals’ event at Hyderabad. 

As for the Foundation, among the various works it is doing, animal welfare is at the core of their activities. “We have centres all over India as well as 30 cow shelters or gaushalas, where cattle are taken care of,” says cardiologist Dr Prasan Prabhakar, the head of the Kochi chapter. The spiritual guru is Yogi Ashwini, who is a well-known proponent of the Sanatan Kriya. 

Meanwhile, at Kochi, in the front courtyard, there are three cows and assorted calves. When a cow gets injured or sick, there is no place in Kochi, apart from this shelter, where it can receive prolonged treatment. “Cows suffer from skin problems, rashes and infections in the hooves,” says Dinesh. “Maggots will eat the flesh around the hooves. Soon, it can go deeper and deeper. They can even enter the bloodstream. Once they do that, the cow will die. So we provide timely treatment.”  

Apart from animals, Dinesh and Ushma look after birds like owls, pigeons, kites and crows. Surprisingly, most crows get injured when they graze against the strings of kites that have been cut during friendly fights in the sky. Sometimes, these strings, which are usually coated with powdered glass or plastic, stretch across two branches of a tree. “They are not able to see it, and fly through, hit the string, and damage their necks or wings,” says Dinesh. “Even pigeons and kites get injured.” 

The normal treatment for a bird is to give it medication and rub pain-relieving cream on the injured part. “Most of the time the birds don’t survive because the stress they go through while struggling to free themselves from the string becomes too much for them to handle,” says Ushma. “Out of 10 injured birds, only two survive.”  

Different birds have different characters. A crow is emotionally sturdier than a pigeon. “If we put a crow in a cage it does not like it at all,” says Dinesh. “It conveys the message by flapping its wings. The pigeon, on the other hand, is soft-hearted and sensitive and remains silent when going through the treatment.”  

The couple is consumed by their passion for the work. So, it is no surprise that Dinesh, a businessman and Ushma, a chartered accountant have given up their careers. “This is our life mission now,” they say, in unison.

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

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Staring into the void

Saleena Musthafa, who lives on the eighth floor of the Holy Faith H2O building at Maradu talks about her emotional roller-coaster ride of the past few days

Photos: Saleena Musthafa; The Holy Faith apartment building  

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the early morning of October 2, while the country celebrated Gandhi Jayanti day, Saleena Musthafa stood in the verandah of her eight-floor apartment of the H20 Holy Faith building at Maradu and stared at the backwaters. In the distance, she could see numerous trees while the slanting rays of the sun lit up the eastern sky. “This sight always gave me a sense of peace,” she says. “I would stand here most mornings for the past 11 years ever since my husband and I moved in.”

But now the situation has irrevocably changed. Suitcases and cardboard boxes are lying about in the apartment. Most of the furniture and the beds have been taken away. The state government had given the deadline of October 3, to the owners to leave the building.

The Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of Holy Faith and three other buildings -- Jain Coral Cove, Alpha Serene, and Golden Kayaloram. All the buildings have been constructed within the High Tide Line of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). The No-Development Zone is 200 metres from the coastline while the Holy Faith is at 13 metres.

When the tehsildar officers, as well as the police, entered our apartment on Monday to know about our Aaadhar card and other details that was when it sank in,” she says. “Our beloved building is indeed going to demolished.”

On Monday night many flat owners and their families gathered together and everybody was crying. “All of us have a pain in our hearts that the court never listened to what we had to say,” she says. “They never studied the petitions that we had submitted.”

The children are also traumatised. “When they go to school, their classmates ask them, ‘Is your house getting demolished?’” says Saleena “And that makes them feel so sad and upset.”
However, Saleena’s children Tarique Ahmed, 23, and Fadaya, 22, are living outside Kerala. While Tarique is doing a photography course at the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad, Fadaya is doing an architecture course in Bengaluru.

Saleena says that if some people have done wrong, they should be punished. “But why take away our homes?” says Saleena. “When we bought the flat, all the papers were in order. How are we to know that there was a violation of the CRZ? We bought this with our hard-earned money. We are not crooks. We have been tax-paying citizens all our lives. What will society gain by demolishing these buildings? There are so many other problems like bad roads, poverty, and environmental degradation that need to be solved.”

Seleena lives with her husband Muhammad Musthafa in this 2200 sq. ft. flat with a drawing cum dining room, a large kitchen, and three bedrooms with attached bathrooms. The couple bought the flat for Rs 85 lakhs. “It's resale value is Rs 1 crore,” she says. “And now we are left with nothing. We are not even sure when we will receive the Rs 25 lakh interim relief proposed by the court.”

However, the crisis has brought the people together. A few days ago, when Saleena put a message in the group WhatsApp saying she was not well, within a few minutes, there was a knock on her door. Her neighbour Krishna had bought a breakfast of idlis and sambar.

We have always been like a family and celebrated Onam, Christmas and other festivals with a lot of enthusiasm,” says Saleena. “We have gone to movies also.”

Meanwhile, Saleena, who is a certified Art Of Living teacher (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), has not given up. “I am praying hard,” she says. “In fact, all of us are hoping for a miracle, and God will save our building at the last moment.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Standing up to be counted

Former journalist KSR Menon talks about the reasons behind the setting up of the ‘Democratic Social Justice Party’, a party for the Forward castes  

Pics: KSR Menon; Photo by Arun Angela; KSR Menon (extreme right) with office-bearers and party members of the Democratic Social Justice Party 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One night, former journalist KSR Menon stood at the living room window of his seventh-floor apartment in Aluva and stared at the Periyar River. He had just returned from a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram with his friend, Prof Konni Gopakumar and felt upbeat but physically tired. So, he was enjoying the summer breeze blowing through the window. Later, as his wife Radhika laid the dishes on the dining table, Menon said, “A group of us are planning to start a political party for the Forward castes.” 

This statement expectedly received a middle-class reaction. “What?” she said, her eyes widening. “Are you guys crazy?”  

No,” Menon said. “We are serious.” 

Then he explained the reasons why. “If we have a political presence, those of our community members who are below the poverty line could get government benefits,” he said. “Because we are categorised as being a forward caste, we don’t get any benefits. We have to fight this. And we also need a political voice.” 

Radhika pondered over her husband’s remarks. Then she said, “Okay, but please don’t bring the party to the house.”   

Menon nodded, while Gopakumar gave a smile. When Menon called his children, son Ashwin in Seattle and Aishwarya, a lawyer in Delhi, both said, “Go for it Dad.” 

That was two years ago. Recently, after a lot of to-and-fro e-mails, the Election Commission of India has registered the ‘Democratic Social Justice Party’ (DSJP). “It took time because the guidelines are very strict,” says Menon. “You must have 100 founding members, an office and a constitution that adheres to the Indian Constitution. You cannot have objectives contrary to it. The office-bearers have to declare their assets.”

The office bearers include Menon as president, Gopakumar (who was a leader of the defunct National Democratic Party [NDP]) as the general secretary and businessman Mallelil Sreedharan Nair as the treasurer. The Chief Patron is Manjery Bhaskara Pillai, who heads over 100 Malabar Nair Samajam units in north Kerala and is also a director of the Global Nair Sewa Samaj. “He is very well known in the Nair community,” says Menon. 

As for a permanent symbol, it will be granted by the Election Commission only after the DSJP has participated in a few elections. 

Meanwhile, when asked about the definition of the Forward communities, Menon says, “The Nairs comprise about 80 per cent. Then there are the related communities like the Namboodiris, Nambiars, Marars, Poduvals, and Pisharodies.” 

For a while now, the DSJP leaders have been going all over the state giving speeches to community members. “The idea is gaining traction,” says Menon. “In the first meeting, we could see the people could not understand the concept of a political party. Our party, the NDP had been disbanded in 1996. Then the people said, ‘Why should we have a party?’ We replied that this will help us to fight our marginalisation in state politics.”  

Later, Menon, as well as the other DSJP leaders met G. Sukumaran Nair, the general secretary of the Nair Service Society, the leading community organisation and the latter said he would support the good work of the party.  

The people are also offering their support. After the speeches during a meeting at Kalamassery, an elderly woman came to the podium and said, “This is something we should have done a long time ago. Nobody cares for us. If there is an unjustified government transfer, we cannot appeal to anybody. I will work for the party till my last breath.” 

Another woman also came up. During the Sabarimala stir against women of a certain age being allowed to enter the temple, the 30-year-old poured kerosene on her body and was prevented from lighting up, in the nick of time, by the people nearby. “She also told us that she will work for the party till her last breath,” says Menon.  

The party is planning to contest the panchayat elections, next year, in segments where they are strong. “In Kollam, we are 30 per cent, Kannur 24 per cent, in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode, the Nairs and other related communities are 18 per cent, Ernakulam is 10 percent while in Thrissur it is 8 percent,” says Menon. “If we do tactical voting we can make a big difference. And that is also the situation in 28 Assembly constituencies, which was won by a margin of less than 5000 votes during the last Assembly elections.” 

The party is willing to stitch useful alliances, with the BJP, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, the constituents of the LDF, UDF, or the Kerala Congress. “We met [party supremo] KM Mani before he passed away,” says Menon. “He was very keen. He said that whenever the Kerala Congress aligned with the Nairs, both did very well, especially during the time of [NSS founder] Mannathu Padmanabhan (1878-1970).”


A writing life 

KSR Menon grew up in Aluva, the son of a senior government official. He did his masters from Union Christian College at Aluva, and went to Delhi to do a one-year course on journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Following that, he joined the Press Trust of India and worked there for 18 years. Thereafter, he was transferred to West Asia, where he covered the region based in Dubai. He worked in PTI for nine years. Then he quit and worked for a local newspaper followed by a freelance career that lasted nine years. He returned to Kerala in 2013.

In 2014, he published a novel, ‘Desert Hunt’. This was a gripping and fast-paced thriller about terrorists and security agents playing cat-and-mouse games in Dubai. 

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