Saturday, November 30, 2019

Tokyo, here we come!

Three people -- Clifin Francis, Dona Jacob and Haseeb Ahsan -- will set out on an eight-month journey on cycles from Kochi, across eight countries, to reach Japan in time for the Olympics 

Photos: (From left): Clifin Francis, Dona Jacob and Haseeb Ahsan; Dona Jacob; Clifin Francis  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On most mornings, at 9 a.m. when Haseeb Ahsan stepped out of his house in Indira Nagar in Bengaluru, he pulls out a Bergamont Endurance 6 cycle. He used to travel by the metro. Now it is a cycle. He is on his way to the Amazon office at Yeshwantpur, a distance of 15 km. One day a neighbour asked him the reason why he had begun cycling to work. 

I am in training,” said Haseeb. “I will be going on an eight-country, 10,000 km journey spread over eight months, along with two friends of mine. We aim to reach the Olympics Village in Tokyo.” The Olympics is from July 24 to August 9. 

Apart from cycling, Haseeb gets up at dawn and goes for a long-distance run. And in the evening it is gym work. His colleagues are also in training. They include the Kochi-based Clifin Francis and the Mumbai-based Dona Jacob. While Clifin is a teacher, Dona is in the IT industry. 

Both have done long-distance cycle rides earlier. Last year, Clifin rode from Dubai to Moscow to attend the football World Cup. That was where he met Haseeb who had come to watch the tournament from Bengaluru. In 2015, Clifin hitchhiked across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. As for Dona, she had been stationed as Technical Head of a leading Indian software company in Mexico. As a result, she was able to cycle around Cuba, which was a 1000 km journey. She also backpacked across Mexico and Guatemala. 

For Haseeb, this is his maiden adventure. “In life, there is always a first time,” he says, with a smile. “I am going on this journey because I want to take a break. I want to know whether I want to do something else, maybe a change in career. I have an MBA but I like writing. I want to ask myself what are my priorities. In short, I want to clear my head.” 

Clifin and Dona plan to start from Kochi on December 15, while Haseeb will join them a month later. They are starting from Kochi and will go to Bengaluru, Vishakapatnam, Bhubaneshwar, Kolkata, Mizoram, Meghalaya, on to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China and then on to Japan. 

Every day we are planning to ride 100 km,” says Clifin. “Three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. After a day of cycling, we will take a day off and see the tourist sights.” 

On the journey, they will gather wishes for the Indian Olympics team. “For that, we will be carrying an Olympic poster which will be signed by people through all the countries we are going through,” says Dona. “When we reach Tokyo we would like to hand it over to the Indian team.”

The trio will be holding a photo exhibition in Tokyo with pictures and videos from their trip. And there will be daily updates on their Instagram page, ‘Snails.On.Wheels’. They will also work with NGOs to give talks on mental health, the importance of gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the importance of girls’ education in rural India. Other subjects include breast cancer and the need for regular check-ups.  

As for the type of weather they will face, Haseeb says, “We are travelling through Asian countries. So, it will mostly be sunny, humid and rainy. Japan is expected to have a hot summer.” 

As for the underlying message to the public says, Haseeb says, “I was an athlete as well as the captain of my college football team in Kochi. I gave up everything in the past few years. That is something which happens to us Indians. We stop physical activities altogether. I want to tell people that they should restart exercises as it is closely connected to our mental make-up. It relaxes and calms the mind. We perform much better, as a result.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)   

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Lone Ranger

90-year-old PS John was the only athlete in his age group at All Kerala Senior Athletics Meet in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

The sun was shining brightly at noon on Saturday morning. The sky was blue with wisps of white clouds floating by. On the synthetic track of the Maharaja’s College, Kochi, the 100m event of the All Kerala Senior Athletics Meet was taking place. But what was unusual was that there was only one competitor. His name is PS John. And he was taking part in the 90 plus age category. Not surprisingly, there was nobody else running at that age.

To the cheers of the sparse crowd watching the race, John breasted the tape easily. A group of volunteers from the Sacred Heart College at Thevara got so excited by this feat that they lifted John on to the shoulders of a couple of the students, and the whole group yelled and shouted. “I had a great time,” says John.

In the afternoon, he won the 200m gold as well as the long jump. “I was a bit tired during the 200m, as it was hot and humid,” says John.

John’s athletic career had ground to a halt when he had heart surgery in 2017. But his love for running remained undiminished. Thanks to the encouragement of his cardiac surgeon, Dr Rajesh Raman Kutty, John started training again.

Last year, for the same meet at Maharaja’s college, he told his family he had been chosen to distribute prizes. But instead, he took part in the 100m and won. He called his daughter from the stadium and told the news. “I remember shivering with fear,” says Sindhu. “But my anxieties have proved unfounded. Dad has got better and better.”

Says Dr Raman Kutty, “It is a feat of confidence, determination, perseverance and hard work.”

In love with athletics

Asked how he got interested in athletics, John says that it was his joining the National Cadet Corps (first batch of the Travancore Battalion) in 1948 that made all the difference. At Thiruvananthapuram, he saw a group of Army men doing the hurdles. “I was immediately attracted to the sport,” says John. “Slowly, I began training with them. They taught me the right techniques. I began to practise regularly. Soon, I began winning medals.”

He has won, state, national and international medals -- more than 140 gold, silver and bronze medals.

In his daily life, John is a farmer at Kanjirapally. He grows rubber, cocoa, bananas, jackfruit and organic vegetables. “I get pure milk straight from the cow,” says John. “There is a peaceful feeling when you work in Nature. Walking around enables me to keep fit. My aim is not to be bedridden for a single day.”

Before farming, John had a 33-year-long career as a teacher of Malayalam at the Gracey Memorial High School in Parathode, Kottayam. “I studied Sanskrit, but ended up teaching Malayalam,” says this father of two. While son Roy, an electronics engineer, runs his own business in Kochi, daughter Sindhu is a French teacher at Salem.

When asked about his future plans, John says, “I want to take part in the senior world athletics championships in Toronto in 2020 in the 90 plus category. If God allows it, my dream will come true.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A smooth separation

Nivedha RM, who founded the Trashbot, a machine that separates bio-degradable and non-biodegradable waste without the need for segregation, has won the 2019 Impact Maker Award  

Photos: Nivedha with the cheque; the Trashbot machine; At Kochi. Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On October 10, in Oslo, the Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen took to the stage. He was given a red envelope. The announcer said, “In this envelope, there is the name of somebody who will win a cash award of 50,000 euros (Rs 40 lakh).”

On another stage, stood the 35 short-listed participants 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. Isaksen said, “The winner is..” He paused, opened the envelope and shouted, “Trashcon!” There were whoops of delight among a few members of the audience as Nivedha RM, the founder of the Bengaluru-based Trashcon, wearing a black business suit, stepped forward and accepted a large cardboard cheque.

When asked how she was feeling, Nivedha said, “It’s a dream come true.” 

Nivedha had invented the TrashBot, arguably, the world’s first machine that automatically separates bio-degradable and non-bio-degradable waste, without the need for segregation at the house, office or factory.       

At the Municipal Corporation ward at Basavangudi in Bengaluru, the Trashbot machine has been placed at one side. It is made of black and red panels. A worker dumps a load of garbage at the entry area of the machine. It contains beans, potatoes, rice, shampoo bottles, a shaving brush, diapers, and yellow plastic packets. Soon, a man, wearing gloves, presses two red buttons at the same time. 

The waste moves forward and enters a magnetic shoot first. This will remove the screws and nuts. Then it goes into a second level where the batteries are removed. An arm pushes all the metals to one side. The rest of the waste moves to a loading conveyor. The food packets are cut into several slits.

By this method, we can dislodge the bio-degradable waste that was sticking to the packet,” says Nivedha. Then it hits a blast of air. The biodegradable waste falls, even as the plastic and other materials are carried into another chamber. “That’s how the segregation takes place between non-biodegradable and bio-degradable waste,” says Nivedha.  

A worker collects the bio-degradable waste and puts it into another machine, placed nearby, where it is converted to compost, biogas or biofuel. And, thanks to a new technology invented by Nivedha and her team, the non-biodegradable waste is being converted into boards. “It looks like plywood but these are very strong,” says Nivedha. “The boards are very compact. It is water-resistant, as well as termite and rot-resistant. And it is one-fifth the price of plywood.” 

Nivedha pauses and then says, “This could become a very successful business. Many companies have shown interest.” 

At Kochi, to give a talk, Nivedha breaks out into a broad smile. So consumed is she by this passion to do something about the waste that she speaks non-stop, lunch forgotten, a woman on a mission. 

And this mission began accidentally. A couple of years ago, when Nivedha would go to attend classes at the Rashtreeya Vidyalaya College of Engineering, she would notice that the streets were strewn with garbage. “I thought that instead of doing rallies or campaigns, I would clear the one-and-a-half km long stretch,” she says. So, on January 26, 2016, a group, using gloves and led by Nivedha, physically cleaned it. 

However, within a week, the waste accumulated once again. When she spoke to the chief engineer of the Bangalore corporation, he said that unless the waste is segregated, there is no chance of recycling. He said there are no more landfills in Bengaluru. “So, indirectly he was telling me the waste would remain on the streets,” says Nivedha. 

So, she decided to make a machine which would automatically segregate the waste. Her mother encouraged her by putting in Rs 2 lakhs. As she started work, she also applied for a grant to Elevate 100, an initiative of the Karnataka State Department of Information Technology and Biotechnology to provide a comprehensive entrepreneurship platform for startups. Out of 3000 applications, 100 were chosen. And Nivedha got selected and got a grant of Rs 10 lakhs. 

Through numerous trial and error methods, over two years, and with the help of a friend Saurabh Jain, a chemical engineer as well as a chartered accountant, who later joined her company, as Co-Founder, the TrashBot was made. Now Nivedha wants to spread the word so that many more municipal corporations can use it and avoid the necessity of piling up garbage in landfills. “By using Trashbot, one day, there will be no waste at all,” says the 24-year-old.

Monday, November 25, 2019

All for the tiger

After a 27,500 km trip through 25 countries, championing the cause of the animal, entrepreneur Gautom Menon talks about his experiences, while on a recent visit to Kochi

Pics: Paul George Vedanayagam (left) and Gautom Menon beside their vehicle; Gautom Menon. Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a highway in Kyrgyzstan, entrepreneur Gautom Menon was cruising along, with his friend Paul George Vedanayagam. Music was being played over the speaker system. The air-conditioner purred silently. It was an Indian Tata Hexa. They were feeling good.
However, in the distance, a sight made Gautom frown a bit. A policeman in a navy blue uniform with a large blue cap was waving them down. He slowed down.

Through Google Translate, the policeman said, “You are over-speeding -- 100 km per hour.”

Gautom said, “We never do more than 90 km/hour.”

The speed limit is 80 km/hr,” said the policeman.

Gautom said, “Where is the evidence?”

The policeman smiled, looked at the sponsor logos on the car, took out a small tin box, with a slit and said, “You have a lot of resources to do such a long journey. So give us something.”

Gautom then took out a cash donation box and said, “We are also asking for donations.”

Then he told the policeman that the duo was on a 27,500 km journey, from India, across 25 countries to create awareness of the plight of tigers. Gautom is the founder and chief brand owner of the Wild Tiger Indian rum. And he also has a White Tiger Foundation called WTF with the tagline ‘Roar for our tigers’.

The policeman was still not convinced. Then Gautom hit the punchline: “We are in contact with your Ministry of Tourism. We will be in your main news tonight.”

Reluctantly, the policeman allowed them to go.

The duo set out on July 4 from the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. From there, they went to Coimbatore, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Pance, Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar, Kolkata, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Guwahati, Shillong, Imphal and Myanmar.
From Myanmar, we went to Thailand, Laos, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Italy and France,” says Gautom.
Along the way, they held meetings, did Powerpoint presentations, and media interviews to highlight the fact that there are only 4000 tigers worldwide.

Out of this, 70 percent can be found in India,” says Gautom. “Which is why India is the land of the tiger. We need to act now. I always say, ‘Take a moment and look at the person on the left and right. We are the generation that is going to see the tiger being wiped out. So we should act now.’ Do remember the one-horned rhino has become extinct because of our apathy. So, we must make a difference.”

Everywhere they went the duo got a good reception. Except in China, where they eat tigers. “In China, they said just said, ‘Nice car. Can I take a selfie?’” says Gautom. “They showed no interest in the fate of the tiger.”

Incidentally, out of 50 tiger reserves in India, three have no tigers left, and they are all in the North-East. “They have been wiped out there, owing to the demand in China,” says Gautom.

The duo reached Cannes on October 4 in time for the annual convention of the Tax Free World Association. Around 35,000 people, including many CEOs, were present from all over the world. “We wanted to make it a big cause,” says Gautom. “And we wanted people to talk about it.”

And people did. Unfortunately, corporates in India are not talking about it. “Indian corporates always think of building a legacy by naming a school, hospital, or a sporting facility in their name,” says Gautom. “Very few of them think of adopting a tiger or doing something for the environment. But what we are trying to do is to ask firms who use animal images as their company’s logo to do something.”

Esso Corporation, which was the world’s largest company until a few years ago, has a tiger mascot. “After much pressure by [Padma Shree awardee] Dr K. Ullas Karanth, the No 1 tiger expert arguably in the world, they finally gave a paltry $10,000. It is a $45 billion company and their tagline is ‘put a tiger in the tank’. There is an urgent need for a mindset change.”

Gautom gives another example. “There is a billion-dollar company in Denmark called Flying Tiger,” he says. “Lennart Lajboschitz, one of the richest people in Denmark owns it. But the company wants to do something for education. That is important. But the link between the name of the company and the animal is not there.”

But there are exceptions. The owner of the Mumbai-headquartered DSP Black Rock Hemendra Kothari gives Rs 5-10 crore to his company’s Wildlife Conservation Trust. “He has single-handedly done so much for the wild cats,” says Gautom.

Meanwhile, Gautom, while on a recent visit to Kochi, was still assimilating his experiences. “I had such a wide variety of food, encountered so many different cultures, especially in the North-East and seen all types of weather -- desert storms, hail storms, landslides and floods. And everywhere I noticed that once people realised we were genuine travellers, they were willing to help us. We never felt threatened. The vast majority of people are good-hearted.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Animal instincts

Artist Diana Joseph’s exhibition focuses on the character traits of tigers, lions, zebras, stags, deer, wolves and elephants  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the David Hall art gallery, artist Diana Joseph shows her hands. It’s small and compact and looks fine. But Diana is suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. That means it is difficult for her to hold a pen or a brush. “It is an irreversible degeneration of the nerves,” she says. “This happens when you use a computer too often. Many in the IT industry suffers from it.” 

As a result, Diana uses her fingers to paint. She mixes colours directly on the painting, or sometimes she uses reverse painting. In this method, to remove bits of the paint, she uses a razor or knife if it is acrylic. When it is oil it is turpentine and cloth. She says she uses three mediums interchangeably in a single canvas -- acrylic, pastel and aqua oil.

The works are large -- 5’ x 4’ or 5’ or 6’. The exhibition, titled, ‘Manimal’ features tigers, lions, zebras, stags, deer, wolves and one elephant. This elephant has two gleaming ivory tusks, flapping ears and a piercing eye. 

Diana has been a fan of elephants since her childhood. She would come from Bangalore, for her summer vacations to her grandparents’ home, beside the Koodalmanikyam Temple, in Chellur, Irinjalakuda. “In May, it would be the pooram season, and the elephants would stay in our courtyard,” says Diana. “I would spend an entire day just watching the movements of the animal. It was fascinating. Maybe, I was meant to love elephants. My name Diana has an ‘ana’ (elephant) in it.” 

In almost all the paintings, the eyes are the most powerful feature. So, a tiger has a luminous green pair of eyes. “In real life, their eyes glow in the dark,” she says. “It takes me a bit of time to fix the eye. It is the most challenging to create. Like in humans, the eyes are like a window to the soul of the painting.”
In a work called ‘Linger’, two lions are cuddling each other. Their eyes are warm. Diana seems to say that even in the toughest of animals, they have tender moments.

In another image, two wolves hold their faces next to each other. Unusually, for the animal world, wolves have a monogamous attitude. And when a wolf loses his partner he will never go in search of another mate. “This is a singular trait in wolves,” she says. “That’s why their numbers have dwindled.” 

Another image is of a gorilla, semi-angry, who has striking red eyes. All animals have coloured sclera (the white outer layer of the eyeball). A crocodile has yellow scleras, a turtle green, while a wolf has blue eyes. Only man has a white sclera. “Because of this white background, one can easily gauge the emotions of a man,” she says. “But you can’t do that with animals. You cannot know what they are thinking because of their coloured scleras.”   

Then there is the image of a stag and doe with their antlers entwined. But in a gap between the two antlers, Diana has drawn a setting sun. “Sunset is a very important moment for animals,” she says. “This is the time when they communicate with each other. Sunset is the time when they realise that the day is coming to an end. It is time to settle down for the night. Actually, we can learn a lot from the animal world.”

Says visitor Shelton Pinheiro, a creative director of an advertising agency, “Diana’s paintings draw us into a dizzying whirlpool of detail. Every hair, highlight and texture stand out in stark relief. Most of the canvases loom large over the viewer.”   

In her daily life, Diana runs the Kochi-based NGO ‘Venda’ (Say No To Drugs). “Every day, there is a crisis,” she says. “So, painting is a refuge for me.” She re-started her hobby two years ago, after a 20-year-hiatus. From childhood, Diana had loved painting. But for various reasons, she was not able to continue. But when she began, Diana made a quick impact. A few collectors in Germany own her works as well as the Bangalore-based Ashok Soota, the founder of MindTree. He has a painting of a lion called ‘Caterwaul’. 

He told Diana, “You work is mesmerising. I had a party recently and the painting stole the show. The immense detailing is unbelievable.” In the ongoing exhibition, a foreign collector has expressed his interest in owning one. “Yes, there are others too who want to acquire my works,” says Diana. “I am lucky.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Truly alone but standing strong

As Sr. Jesme turns 63, she recollects the joys and tribulations of her life

Pics: Sr. Jesme (second from left) with the family of Rajesh Raj PR; Sr. Jesme 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On November 1, when Sr. Jesme went to the Treasury office at Thrissur, to find out about her pension, the Sub Treasury Officer Rajesh Raj PR said, “Sister, I can see that your birthday is on November 6. So, can I get a treat?” 

Rajesh had always been helpful to Sr. Jesme. So, Sr. Jesme said, “Sure, but you must bring your family along.” Rajesh nodded. 

So, on the night of November 6, Rajesh came in his car to collect Sr. Jesme at her home. He was accompanied by his wife, Ayurveda doctor Preethy, daughter Jyotilakshmy and son Jyotis. The group went to one of the newer restaurants called Round -- The Global Diner and had an enjoyable meal. Otherwise, on that day, no one dropped it to see the former nun. And she did not cut any cake. 

Sr, Jesme, who has turned 63, lives in an 1100 sq ft flat on the third floor of an apartment complex. She has a living-cum-dining room, a kitchen, two bedrooms with attached bathrooms along with two verandahs. “But for this privilege, I am paying a steep EMI,” she says with a smile. “However, I am grateful for my pension from the UGC (University Grants Commission)” [Sr Jesme had been principal of St. Mary’s College, Thrissur, from 2005-8].  

It’s been 11 years since Sr. Jesme left the Congregation of the Carmelities of Mary Carmelite for reasons of emotional torment. Asked about her feelings, she says, “I feel relieved and happy. I am leading my own life. Freedom is a pivot of my life. For example, I can get up whenever I want. And go wherever I want. I can read whatever and whenever I want. In the convent, our freedom was curtailed. There was a constant infringement of human rights.”

This also happens to ordinary women in our society. “The majority of women don’t know what it is like to be a human being, to have the freedom to make their own decisions,” she says. 

Nevertheless, it is not all hunky-dory for Sr. Jesme. “In our society, a single woman is always singled out and attacked,” she says. “If a woman is ill-treated, she can complain to her husband or a brother or a male relative. People assume that I have no one to defend me. And they are right. I have to fight my battles all alone. I get phone calls where men speak of what they want to do with me sexually. I have been fighting back all these years but at the same time, I try to ensure that I also enjoy life. I don’t want to lapse into bitterness and anger.” 

What has been heartening for her is that the attitude of the Catholic laity has changed a lot. “I have a neighbour who is a Catholic,” says Sr. Jesme. “They are very loving towards me. I go and spend time with them. I am so happy that I am no longer ostracised.”  

Interestingly, her former colleagues also welcome her. “When I see them in a public place, many come and hug me,” she says. “They ask me whether I am suffering. I reply that I am not suffering at all. They start sharing their problems. And it is the same issues that I had written about in my autobiography, ‘Amen’ (2009).”

Nothing has changed, she says. “Many are fed up with convent life and want to leave. But none can do so because, firstly, they don’t have the money to survive on their own. Secondly, the fear of their family and society holds them back.” 

Asked her opinion of Sr. Lucy Kalappurakkal who was expelled recently from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation for speaking against rape accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal and other misdemeanours, Sr. Jesme says, “I have two ways of looking at her. Because Sr Lucy was part of an institution and had taken a vow of obedience, I cannot defend her because she broke the vow. But the second way to look at her is that Sr Lucy is trying to redefine the definition of obedience in the 21st century. Regarding this aspect, she has done a great thing. I don’t think ‘blind obedience’ works anymore. It should be ‘responsible obedience’.”  
Finally, when asked whether she is lonely, Sr Jesme says, “I don’t think so. I would define it as solitude and I enjoy it. I am working on my eighth book. I listen to music, watch TV, and check my Whatsapp and Facebook accounts. Many women call and tell me about their problems. I listen and offer advice. I also share my problems with my close friends. I do a little gardening. I have learned to stitch and now I can repair clothes.” 

Sr. Jesme pauses and says, “Life is a gift from God. You must learn to relish every moment.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions) 

Friday, November 15, 2019

An easy way of disposal

Lijisha CK’s sanitary pad incinerator Vomera has brought a lot of relief to women, both at home and the workplace

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Lijisha CK expected a tough sell when she met the elderly president of a private sector bank. She wanted to persuade the senior executive to buy a sanitary pad incinerator called Vomera. This is a product made by her with the help of her husband Krishna Ram. So, her surprise was genuine when the president agreed to buy it almost at once.  

And then he explained the reason why. “Just last week, a few girls had come for training in the bank,” he said. “Since they had no place to stay I asked them to stay at my home. Only my wife and I are there. They stayed for two days and left. But after a week, the bathroom pipe became blocked. When the plumber investigated, the cause was the napkins which had been flushed down the toilet by these girls.” 

Even in buildings which have large pipes, it gets clogged. Like in the civilians quarters of the Central Reserve Police Force Force at Thiruvananthapuram. “When an investigation was done, the pipes were clogged with baby diapers and sanitary pads,” says Lijisha. “Now they have installed one of our incinerators there.” 

Lijisha says that this is also an issue in many multi-storeyed buildings at Kochi. “The problem is that the corporation will not accept these pads,” she says. “Secondly, it is difficult to burn. So installing an incinerator is the best solution.” 

It comes in different sizes. For homes, you can buy one for Rs 11,000. 15 napkins can be burnt in a day. “The most popular is one which burns 250 napkins,” says Lijisha. “It is priced at Rs 30,000. And there is a one-year warranty.” 

This is how it works. Plug it in. Put the pad through an opening. It falls onto a bed of electric coils. Thus burns up the pad. The ash falls into a tray. There is a bit of smoke which goes out through a pipe which leads outside the window. The ash can be easily thrown away. So far, these have been sold in schools, colleges, hostels, offices and apartment buildings.  

The company has had a soft launch some time ago. “It’s just the two of us, and we are expanding very slowly,” says Lijisha. “My husband and I were working for other people. This is the first business we are doing. So we want to move forward cautiously.” 

Initially, it was not easy. “When we would say we are doing a sanitary napkin incinerator business, people would say, ‘Could you not have found another business to do?’” says Lijisha. “But now attitudes have changed. People have become more accepting.” 

And Lijisha says that she is gratified when she explains the product to small groups of women and sees the relieved looks on their faces. “I am glad to offer a solution,” she says.  

One very happy customer is Shaifa A Rawther who works in the HR department of a paint company in Kayamkulam. “There are 10 women in our office,” she says. “Getting rid of sanitary napkins is such a major problem. So we are so happy that there is a product like Vomera. Using it is also very easy. I am so happy about it that I am telling my friends and relatives about it. One day, I even called Lijisha and thanked her for making this product.”   

Lijisha also provides a vending machine for napkins. Push a coin into a slot and a sanitary napkin will come out. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Preserving mural art history

Mural artist Sasi Warrier has extracted several artworks from a wall of the now-demolished Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. He is carrying on the life project of his late father KK Warrier

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, mural artist Sasi Warrier, who runs the Indian School of Art at Ravipuram, Kochi, got a call. It was from his student, Meera Menon. She said, “Master, they have started demolishing the temple.” 

The temple in question is the 800-year-old Vishnu Narasimha Swami Temple at Elamkulam. Sasi immediately got in touch with the temple committee. They had agreed earlier that Sasi could come and peel off the mural paintings. But it seemed they forgot about it, as the roof had just been demolished. 

But they made amends by quickly putting up a tarpaulin sheet over the wall on the second floor where the paintings had been etched. 

On the morning of October 22, Sasi stood in front of the works, accompanied by his student Shreekumar and Dr CP Unnikrishnan, a well-wisher of the school and Kathakali artist. Inches above them was a blue tarpaulin sheet. On the wall, in front, there was a 3 x 2 feet painting. It depicted a scene from the Mahabaratha. 

Krishna’s mother Devaki and Vasudevan had just got married. They are being escorted home by Devaki’s brother Kamsa. A celestial voice tells Kamsa, “This eighth child of this Devaki shall become your death!" Frightened and angry, Kamsa grabs hold of Devaki’s hair to kill her.

Sasi has a time-tested method, as perfected by his artist father KK Warrier, who died on August 6, 2018. He rubbed a chemical on the surface. Then he waited for about two hours. Once the chemical dried up, Sasi took a pocket knife and delicately began to lift the edges. A slight mistake would damage the painting. But his movements were sure-fire and confident. Within a matter of time, the entire painting had been taken off. 

He continued to work steadily. Soon, around 12 works of differing sizes had been taken off, without a blemish. They are all now stored at the school. “My next job is to clean the back of the paintings,” says Sasi. “There are bits of mud, the plaster of the wall and dust particles.” 

Sometimes, there will be damage at the edges of the work. “The appropriate colour will be added to match the rest of the painting so that people do not know this area has been torn,” says Sasi “After this, it will be framed.”

According to Sasi’s estimate, these works were done in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “This style can be seen in North Malabar temples, and is similar to the Thanjavur school of painting,” says Sasi. “Unlike most murals, the women are wearing a blouse and saree. This has probably been done by the disciples of a master named Pulakkat Raman, as the style seems to be the same.” 

This idea of preservation was KK Warrier’s life project. The first painting the duo saved was one in the Guruvayur Temple in 1986. So far, they have 140 paintings in their possession. And all of them have been registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. Apart from Guruvayur, there are paintings from eight temples across Kerala. These include the Kumaranalloor Devi temple at Kottayam, the Tahikkattusseri Vamanamoorthi temple in Thrissur and the Pallathankulangara Siva Temple at Vypeen, Kochi. The oldest painting -- at the Karivellur Puthoor Siva temple at Kannur -- is 400 years old.

Unfortunately, many works have been destroyed. “Sometimes, it is the handiwork of human beings,” says Sasi. “But there are natural causes, like fire or when rainwater seeps down the surface of the painting. Sometimes, the walls develop a crack. On other occasions, insects and birds, which dwell in the temple premises, make scratches.” 

Nevertheless, Sasi has not been deterred. He says that as and when he gets the opportunity, he will continue to save paintings. “And one day, I will be setting up a museum where I will showcase all the works,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)  

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sound perception

Audiographer Justin Jose talks about his experiences in Bollywood, Hollywood and other industries

Pics: Justin Jose. Photo by Arun Angela. From left: Justin Jose, Biswadeep Chatterjee, Raju Hirani, Jeetu Chowdhury and other technical crew members of the Bollywood film, 'Sanju' 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Audiographer Justin Jose is always aware of sound. While relaxing in a hotel room, in Kochi, he says, “There is the sound of the AC, my friend, sitting on the bed, is tapping on the laptop, there is the sound of our conversation and the muted sounds of the traffic outside.” Then he smiles and says, “If you listen, sound is everywhere.” 

Justin had come to attend the inaugural ceremony of the first national Clubby MiniMovie Festival last month. He is a member of the jury. And the audiographer says he had been working on a Malayalam film, Ranjit Shankar’s ‘Kamala’, which is releasing on November 29. “It was a challenging film, but Ranjit gave me a lot of freedom,” says Justin. “I enjoyed working with him.” 

The Mumbai-based Justin has a thriving career. He has worked in more than 300 films, spread across 15 languages: Hindi, Bengali, English, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bhojpuri, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Ladakhi, Latvian, Arabic, Urdu, Malayalam and Konkani. 

Asked how he understands films whose language he does not know, Justin says, “Because of my experience. When I see the rushes, without sound, I usually get an idea of what the story is all about,” he says. “However, many times the mixing engineer will narrate the story behind the scenes, so that I get an idea of what is happening.” 

He seems to get it right because many films that he has worked on have become hits. These include ‘Baahubali’, ‘Padmaavat’, ‘Bajirao Mastani’, ‘Kesari’ ‘Sanju’, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’, as well as regional language versions of ‘Spiderman2’ and ‘Karate Kid’. Justin won the National Award for the Best Re-recordist for ‘Bajirao Mastani’ in 2015 and for ‘Walking With The Wind’ in 2017. 

And the work has been fun and rewarding. When Justin was working on Raju Hirani’s biographical tale of actor Sanjay Dutt called ‘Sanju’, the film had two sound designers, Jeetu Chowdhury and Biswadeep Chatterjee. They were sitting on either side of Justin at the Rajkamal Studios and watched him work. “When I did some mixing, they would give me suggestions,” says Justin. “It was a hugely enriching experience from me. Both are top sound designers.” 

After an hour, Justin asked to take a break, went out and stood on the sidewalk. After a while, somebody came and stood beside him. It was Raju. He had bought two Coca Cola cans, from a beverage dispenser inside the studio, and gave one to Justin. “Enjoy,” Raju said, echoing the drink’s advertising tag line. 

They sipped in silence. Then they chatted about the film. Finally, Raju says, “The sound mixing is going well.” 

Thank you,” says Justin. 

Soon, they returned to the studio. On an average, Justin takes about 200 hours, spread over many days to do the sound for a two-hour Bollywood film. 

Asked to define his work, Justin says, “I do sound design and mixing. This means merging the background score, dialogues, special effects and songs. When there is a scene between two characters, the dialogue level is different for both, so I have to adjust the sound. As for the background score, I have to see the scenes between five to ten times to get it right. It is a creative process." 

Meanwhile, Justin says that directors are unique characters. “The story begins in their imagination,” he says. “So they know it inside out. The film is like a child to them. They have a tremendous passion and love for film-making. It consumes their day and night. They will forget their families. Till the movie releases, nobody exists for them. But even when the director is working with me, he is also doing the colour corrections, the VFX effects and checking the music at the same time. There are so many aspects to look into.” 

The Thrissur-born Justin is himself consumed by his work. “Yes, I love it,” he says, with a smile. “Last year, I worked on 23 films in a row, and enjoyed every moment.” 

His future projects include a couple of big-budget Bollywood projects, a Tamil film by Jeethu Joseph as well as the Kochi-based show director Manoj K Varghese’s debut film. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 11, 2019

One of Kerala’s great sons

During his 150th birth anniversary year, a look at the life of PS Varier, the founder of the 117-year-old Arya Vaidya Sala

Photos: PS Varier; PK Warrier; Arya Vaidya Sala

By Shevlin Sebastian 

In the late 1800s, in the Malabar region of Kerala, when people would consult with Ayurveda physicians, the latter would write their prescription on slips of paper. Thereafter, the patients and their relatives had to get the ingredients. Some they could buy from a shop while others like roots, herbs and leaves had to be plucked from the place where they grew by people who knew of them. Then the ingredients had to be mixed in the right proportion. Since these medicines did not have any preservatives, it lasted only for a few days. Following that, the entire process had to begin all over again. As a result, only the wealthy could afford this type of treatment. Many ordinary people began to take recourse to allopathic treatment, in which mass-produced tablets were readily available.  

This lacuna regarding medicines was felt keenly by Ayurveda physician PS Varier. He felt that like allopathy, medicines needed to be made systematically with added preservatives. So, on Vijayadashami Day, in October 1902, he started the Arya Vaidya Sala (AVS) in the village of Kottakkal (47 km from Kozhikode).  

It was a success story from the very beginning. The AVS has gone from strength to strength. Today, they have hospitals at Kottakkal, Kochi and Delhi. There are three modern medicine manufacturing units along with quality control labs. “These factories produce more than 550 classical and new-generation formulations which are made available to patients through 26 branches and 1800 authorised dealers spread across the country,” says PK Warrier, the managing trustee. 

And during the 150th birthday celebrations of Varier, on September 24, at Kottakkal, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu rightly said, “PS Varier was a representative of the Indian Renaissance. He was an effective clinician with a unique healing touch, an academician-cum-educator, a benevolent entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a man of letters, a promoter of fine arts and an institution-builder.” 

Yes, indeed, Varier was an institution builder. Apart from the AVS, Varier built an Ayurveda College, which is celebrating its centenary, a Vishwambhara temple, a herbal garden as well as a Kathakali Academy. In 1903, he also started an Ayurveda magazine called Dhanvanthari. Today the AVS has a publication department which has brought more than 200 books on Ayurveda. The Chief Editor is the well-known academician Dr KG Paulose. 

Early life 

Varier was born in 1869, the same year as Mahatma Gandhi. He belonged to a lower-middle-class family of Ayurveda physicians. Initially, Varier had a Sanskrit education. 

It was taught in the family,” says Paulose. “There were no schools at that time. Every child was taught at home by the elders. But at the age of 16, he was sent for Ayurveda education to Wadakancherry (65 km from Kottakkal) by the elders of the family.”  

He studied under Kuttanchery Vasudevan Mooss, a Namboodiri who belonged to one of the eight great families of Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala, the ashtavaidyans. It was a gurukul system. “That meant he stayed in the house of the guru and helped in the household works,” says Paulose. “He stayed there for four years and studied the higher branches of Ayurveda.” 

He also had the good fortune to learn the basics of allopathy from Dr V. Varghese, who was the chief of the government hospital at Manjeri, not far from Kottakkal. Varier had gone there to treat his eyes which had been damaged from constant reading. Varghese took a liking for Varier and invited him to stay and get an idea of Western medicine. Varier accepted and spent three years. “He realised the shortcomings of Ayurveda and the merits of allopathy,” says Warrier. “So he set about bringing changes to Ayurveda.” 

Varier, a devout Hindu, was also a secularist. During the Moplah rebellion of 1921 (Muslims revolted against the British for a heavy-handed crackdown by the latter on the Khilafat Movement, which was a campaign in defence of the Ottoman Caliphate. However, in the latter stages, it became a Hindu-Muslim conflict).

During that period every Hindu was an enemy of the Muslims and vice versa,” says PK Warrier. “But Varier stood with the Muslims. When a peace committee called the Bharati Seva Sangh came from Bombay, Varier told them, the rehabilitation works and distribution of food should be extended to the Muslims, too.” 

The committee members including their head GK Devadhar were shocked to hear this. “It was the first time a Hindu was speaking on behalf of Muslims,” says Warrier. “At that time, all the male Muslims were either killed or had absconded or deported to the Andaman Islands. There were only women and children left. And they were very frightened.” 

When Devadhar asked Varier why he was supporting the Muslims, he said, “Hunger is the same in the stomach of a Muslim as well as a Hindu.” 

In his home, at Kailasamandiram, in the centre of the archway above the main gate is an image of Lord Krishna. On either side, on two pillars are a Christian cross and the Muslim crescent. In an adjacent temple, which had an idol of Lord Vishvambharan, people of all castes were allowed to pray. 

As Vice President Naidu said, Varier was indeed a Renaissance man.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This 72-year-old man feeds stray dogs every morning at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 3.30 a.m., retired contractor CV Antony gets up at his house on Friends Lane in Vennala. He goes to the kitchen and boils several pieces of chicken, even as he adds some turmeric powder. On another burner, he puts the rice to boil in a steel vessel. By 4 a.m., he places both inside several small plastic packets along with glucose biscuit packets. Then Antony has his shave and bath.

At 4.45 a.m. he sets out from his house. As he reaches the Vennala-Janatha road, stray dogs step out at different places, from outside houses, or empty grassy plots.
He gives them the food. “For the dessert, I give the biscuits,” he says. “They like that a lot.” Many look at him gratefully and wag their tails. At 5.30 a.m., Antony reaches Alinchuvadu. He takes a bus and goes to the St. Anthony’s Shrine at Kaloor. After attending mass, he goes to the Kaloor market and gets a fresh stock of chicken pieces from meat seller Ravi.

He returns to Alinchuvadu and there is another set of dogs who are waiting to be fed. Finally, at 8 a.m., he returns home, under a large mango tree, a satisfied smile on his face.

Antony has been doing this for the past seven years. And it all began rather accidentally. One morning, he was standing at the bus stop on the Kochi bypass (National Highway 66) at Palarivattom, waiting to take a bus to Chalakudy. He saw a dog lying at the bus stop. “The dog looked very weak,” says Antony.

When Antony returned at 5 p.m., he got a shock. The dog was still there at the bus stop. So he bought a plate of omelette from a nearby roadside stall, cooled it and gave it to the dog. “The way he ate the omelette I realised he was very hungry,” says Antony. “And the look of gratefulness he gave me, I will never forget it.”

After a few days, he decided to take the dog home. But he already had two dogs, a Labrador and a stray as his pets. Both attacked the newcomer so ferociously that it ran away. “My pets did not want to share their master with another dog,” says Antony. “After one month, I saw it again at the Palarivattom bypass bus stop. But the locals gave me the good news that another man was feeding him. So I felt very happy.”

But there have been sad moments. Once one of the dogs was hit by a vehicle at Alinchuvadu. Antony immediately took it to a vet, got it treated — the body was cleaned, bandages were put, and an injection was given. He looked after it for two weeks but it died. “It was a grave injury,” he says in a sombre voice.

Apart from accidents, the biggest problem faced by strays is the lack of food. “Most are starving,” he says. “In olden times, the waste food would be placed outside the gate and the dogs would come and eat it. Now we put the excess food inside a packet, make a knot at the top and throw it away. As a result, the dogs are unable to access the food.”

Vennala Municipal Councillor MB Muraleedharan says, “Antony is doing a very good job. I appreciate it. But I would also like to say that stray dogs can be a danger. Recently, a dog bit a child in our area and the wound became quite serious.”

When Antony hears this, he says, “In my experience, dogs bite people only when they are hungry. At the Kaloor market, where dogs get scraps of food to eat, nobody has complained of dog bites.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Help begins with a click

When you make a purchase through the CharityMonk app, invented by the Kochi-based IT professional Stephen Sebastian, a percentage goes directly to an NGO

Photos: From left: Stephen Sebastian, Shyam Unnikrishnan and Sibin Joseph 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

IT professional Stephen Sebastian was working as an assistant manager in a firm at Chennai. On weekends, he was keen to spend it in a meaningful way. When he was studying in Kochi, he would do some charity work. But in Chennai, he did not know what to do. 

He fell into a reflective mood. Over a couple of weekends, an idea formed in his head. It was about an app. He put his plan into motion with the help of his friends Sibin Joseph and Shyam Unnikrishnan. The app is called CharityMonk. There is also a web site. Now back in Kochi, Stephen, along with the others did the incubation at the Adi Shankara Institute of Engineering and Technology at Kalady.  

This is how it works. You download the app, and register a name -- say it is Jimmy Mathew. When Jimmy buys anything from a major retailer like Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra, Jabong, Swiggy, or Big Basket, among others, a percentage of the payment is sent to an NGO, which is selected by Jimmy. So, while Jimmy plays the full price, of, say, Rs 1000 for a pair of jeans, a retailer like Amazon will give away 2 to 3 percent to CharityMonk. “They are doing charity on Jimmy’s behalf,” says Stephen. 

When asked the benefit for a giant like Amazon, Stephen says, “Amazon gets regular business from Charity Monk. Apart from that, they would also like to contribute to charity.” 

The percentage cuts that CharityMonk receives vary from product to product. So, for electronics, the cut is between 2 to 3 percent. “Fashion is between 5 and 15 per cent,” says Stephen. “Grocery is from 1 to 2 per cent. In the travel industry, there is a flat rate. If a ticket is booked, we will get Rs 100. But we have separate tie-ups with Qatar Airlines and Emirates. They give around 1 to 2 per cent. So, if you buy tickets worth Rs 2 lakh, Charity Monk will get Rs 4000.” So far, they have also tied up with 400 stores and the money will go to 19 NGOs. 

Some of the NGOs include the National Youth Foundation, All Kerala Blood Donors Association, SAFE India, and the Environics Trust. 

On an average, the actual money which is transferred is in the range of Rs 15 to Rs 800. “Each user has a dashboard where he or she can monitor the amount of money that has gone to their favourite NGO,” says Stephen. 

When he was doing research, Stephen realised that the bigger NGOs, thanks to their marketing budgets were getting a major share of donor money. So, he decided to focus on the smaller ones. “They desperately need the money to survive,” says Stephen. (Incidentally, there are 32 lakh NGOs registered in India). 

Meanwhile, CharityMonk users are happy. Says Anjani Nagaraju, a Vijayawada-based entrepreneur: “In this era of e-commerce, we shop for no reason but CharityMonk allows us to make this compulsive buying worthwhile by enabling us to contribute to a charity without paying any extra money.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Power Lady

Singer Preety Bhalla brought the house down with a scintillating performance at Kochi recently. Married to a Malayali, the Mumbai singer talks about her life and career 

Photos: Preety Bhalla; Preety Bhalla with her husband Deepu Paul. Photos by Arun Angela. At the concert 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The lights go dim at the JT Pac hall at Kochi. Then a voice begins to rise in the silence. But the stage remains empty. Then a spotlight falls on the aisle at the back of the hall. And there stands the singer Preety Bhalla. She is wearing a black dress along with a transparent black jacket with ruffles. She begins with a Sufi song, ‘Teri Deewani’ in a husky and vibrant voice. Slowly, she walks down the steps, smiles at the guests on the left and the right and reaches the stage.

After the song, she says, “I feel so happy to be here. There are two reasons for this. I am from Mumbai, originally from Punjab, but I am married to a Malayali (Deepu Paul). So Kochi is my second home. The other reason is my daughter comes to this place every day (Kyra is a student of Class two at Choice School). It seems like I am in my own house. I am going to take you through different genres of music and in different languages.” 

And for the next two hours, Preethi indeed takes the audience on an exhilarating ride: hit songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Illiyaraja, RD Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, among many others. She sings in Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Tamil and Spanish. The Spanish-Hindi song is called ‘Senorita’ from Zoya Akhtar’s film, ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’. For a Malayali touch, Preety sings ‘Appangal from ‘Ustad Hotel’ as well as ‘Meharuba’, composed by Gopi Sundar for Joshiy’s ‘Lailaa O Lailaa’.  
Later, when she sings a couple of Punjabi songs, the Punjabis in the audience are irresistibly pulled towards the front of the stage where they dance with the singer. Among them, in a white dress is Preety’s daughter Kyra. 

Amazingly, there is hardly any pause between songs. Preety has no lyric sheet in front of her or any song schedule. And there is no interval too. And for the climax, Preety sings her most famous number: a reworked version of ‘Damadam Mast Kalandar’ from the Album ‘Jalwa II’ that brings the house down. 

A day earlier, Preety, along with Deepu, looks relaxed and happy at their tastefully decorated apartment -- wooden furniture and muted ceiling lights -- near Marine Drive. From their sixth-floor apartment, you can see the setting sun across the Cochin Harbour. 

Living in Kochi is beautiful,” says Preety. “There is a peace of mind as compared to life in Mumbai. There is so much of greenery all around. The traffic, as compared to Mumbai, is much less. The people are very sweet. I love the food a lot.” 

But she can’t eat everything. To protect her voice, she avoids ice-creams. “But I melt it so that I can eat it,” she says with a laugh. “I also avoid pickles, as it irritates my throat and raw onions. But I like curd even though many singers avoid it. After all, I am a Punju and we love our curd.”  

And every day, after a morning walk, Preety does a two-hour practice of her vocal cords. “It is similar to a physical workout,” she says. “After that, I am ready to face the day.” 

Preety has been ready to face every day as a singer for the past two decades. She has performed in all the major cities and towns in India, in Dubai, Indonesia and Thailand, where she sang for a spiritual guru, Master Ruma. “I was representing Bollywood,” she says. “The audience consisted of Chinese, Thais and Vietnamese. So I had to explain what each song is all about. This was the first time that I have performed for a completely non-Indian audience. I did some love songs in Tamil and Master Ruma enjoyed it a lot. He told me he used to have a girlfriend in Chennai, where he lived for a few years.” 

Preety has also sung at high-profile destination weddings. A few years ago, she had done a two-hour concert during billionaire businessman Sajjan Jindal’s daughter Tanvi’s wedding in Florence, Italy. 

Asked whether audience reactions differ, Preety nods and says, “The people are a bit conservative in South India while in North India, they like to dance to the songs. Recently, for a dandiya concert at Surat, 20,000 people danced to my songs. But the most gregarious people are the Punjabis.”  

And after two decades, she no longer has any butterflies in the stomach before a show. “But, yes, I do feel a touch of nervousness regarding the sound system,” says Preety. “I pray that nothing goes wrong.” 

To ensure nothing goes wrong, Deepu accompanies her for all the shows. Before they met, they spoke on the phone, because Deepu’s partner was doing an album with Preety. “Our first conversation lasted 15 minutes, and we sort of clicked,” says Deepu. They met nine months later, and it was a slow falling-in-love. They got married three years after they met, in December, 2008. To please both sides of the family there was a Gurudwara as well as a Church wedding. 

Asked what he likes about Preety, Deepu says, “She is a nice human being, and very soft-hearted. I also like the way she is focused on her singing.” 

Preety says, “Deepu is a cool guy. And my in-laws are exceptionally sweet people.” 

At this moment, Kyra comes into the room. A beaming Preety says, “She is taking classes in singing. Thanks to God, she is naturally gifted and talented.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)