Friday, January 31, 2020

Questions at a funeral

By Shevlin Sebastian

Five years ago, when Rita Thomas died, at the age of 82, it was her daughter-in-law, Liza who rushed about ensuring that there was a scarf on the head, the saree was white and crisp, and the socks were placed properly on the feet. She also ensured that her mother-in-law clasped a small wooden crucifix in her gloved hands. 

The body was placed in an air-conditioned coffin at their home at Kochi. People trooped into the living room. Prayers were said; a few shed tears; there was the singing of a hymn. Later, a priest, wearing a white cassock, said a prayer in a sombre voice. A widow, Rita had seven children: three boys and four girls. Now they had all married and the family had grown large. But Rita lived with her son James, Liza and their two children. 

On January 20, this year, another body was placed in the living room. This time, to the shock of many, it was Liza who was in the coffin. A victim of cancer, her last few months had been painful and hard. Now, at 58, God had taken her. Her two children, a boy and a girl, both married, were bereft. Liza’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Anna was deeply affected. To console her, James said, “Ammama is sleeping.” Anna shook her head and said, “No, she is gone.” James nodded and said, “Permanently.” And the word hung in the air. 

As Liza was lowered into the grave, one could not help but wonder: where do the dead go? How far away is the place where spirits reside? Could it be ten or 100 million kilometres away? How long does it take to reach there? Is it in the blink of an eye? And without a body, are the dead like morning mist? Will they be able to recognise their relatives, friends and...why not… enemies? How do they talk without a tongue? 

And how do they pass the time, without the preoccupations of work, books, films, music, art, and stimulating conversations with friends in coffee shops? Without a body, how can a man appreciate the beauty of a woman? Does flirting take place? And what about the bad people of history like the dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin? Can the good see the bad? Or do they go to a different place, like, maybe, a black hole? 

All these questions swirled around in the mind, as the coffin containing Liza was laid to rest in the six-feet deep hole. Soon, two gravediggers, using spades, began shovelling mud onto the coffin…

(Published as a middle in New Indian Express, South Indian editions)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Indian students at Wuhan University to be evacuated within two days

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Faizal Nazar

On Wednesday morning, Faizal Nazar, a fifth-year medical student at Wuhan University School of Medicine got a call from the Indian Embassy in Beijing. The Karunagappally native was asked to send the details of the 56 Indian students who are still at the university. Faizal quickly did so. The embassy wants to evacuate the students as quickly as possible. “There is a chance we might leave by Thursday afternoon,” says Faizal. “But nothing is confirmed yet. The embassy people told me a Boeing 747 is getting prepared.”

All the students are feeling scared and nervous. And they have ensured they have not stepped out of the 20-acre campus at all. But they are all grateful to the Chinese government. The university, which is government-run is providing free meals at all times. “They are trying their best,” says Faizal.

He says the students were amazed that the government built a 1000 bed hospital in six days at Wuhan. “We cannot imagine a hospital being built so fast in India,” says Faizal. “The reason is that they want to place all the coronavirus patients in one place. Otherwise, there is a risk of the virus mutating.”

The university has announced that classes will begin only on March 1. But Faizal feels that this break will last till April. “It is a grave crisis,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Use and eat it

Dr Suchitra R is trying to spread the awareness of edible spoons

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, after doing a Lasik eye operation, at a centre in Kochi, ophthalmologist Dr Suchitra R took a tea break. As she read through the newspaper, she came to know that the Kerala government had announced the ban of single-use plastic. Suchitra felt that she should do something to find an alternative. In her spare time, she began to do research on the Net. And then she came across a company in Gujarat that makes edible spoons. That is, these are spoons you can use and eat afterwards. 

She wrote to the company. They sent her Food Safety certificates. Convinced that they are genuine, she began ordering the products. 

At her home in Vennala, she showed a variety of table and dessert spoons. “Table spoons come in many flavours like classic salt, black pepper, peri peri which is chilly-based and the chocolate-based dessert spoon,” she says. All of them have individual paper wrappers. 

And they are made of oats, corn, chickpeas, wheat and rice flour. “The spoons have a short life because there are no preservatives,” says Suchithra. “And having used it, I can say that it does not crumble. And there is no waste since we are eating them.” 

Suchitra is going around and talking to her friends and relatives. And she gives apt examples. “Suppose you are holding a birthday for 30 children,” she says. “A lot of plastic cups and spoons are used. I tell parents they can start by replacing spoons. And they are receptive. The children like chocolate spoons. So I am happy about that.” 

The ophthalmologist is also meeting event planners to urge them to avoid using plastic spoons for large events like weddings and birthday parties. Some have promised Suchitra that they will switch to edible spoons. 

With the help of her husband Dr Satish Bhat S, she wants to create a market for these spoons. “It is not about profits but my way of doing something for the environment,” says Suchitra.   

Satish also spoke about it on his YouTube channel and ate a couple of spoons -- peppercorn and chocolate -- on camera. “There was a good response,” he says. “Many people wanted these spoons.” Viewer Radhakrishnan Vadakkepat says, “This should be used in every eatery.”   

Suchitra believes that in Kerala, there will be a market, more in the urban rather than rural areas. 

But the couple is happy there is an ecological awareness among people now. “They know that plastic is no longer good for the environment,” says Satish. “In the clinic that I am running, there are seven staff members. Earlier, when they would order from online food apps, it would come with plastic straws and cups. Now, they take the option of ‘no plastic cutlery’.” 

Suchitra says, “Edible spoons is an easy solution for these apps.” 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Unity in diversity

The choir of the Asian University for Women, representing 14 countries, sang a wide variety of Asian and European songs. It has helped the women to develop their talents and self-confidence 

Pics: The choir of the Asian University for Women; Dr. Selvam Thorez. Photos by A. Sanesh  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the Pastoral Orientation Centre in Kochi, a 40 member all-women choir sings, 
Give me the nay (flute) and sing/ for singing is the secret of existence/And the sound of the nay remains/After the end of existence.’

This is an English translation of a Lebanese song, ‘Aatini al nay’ (Give me the flute), which had been sung by one of West Asia’s greatest singers Fairuz. And the audience laps it up. All the women on stage are dressed in black. In front of them are French musicians Camille Aubret, Martin Bauer, Jean-Luc Tamby, Stephane Tamby and Keyvan Chemirani, who are playing the baroque guitar, flute, bassoon, and percussion instruments. And standing on a stool and directing the choir is the Pondicherry-born Frenchman Dr Selvam Thorez, who is Director of the Alliance Française in Chittagong, Bangladesh. 

The singers belong to the Chittagong-based Asian University for Women (AUW). And they belong to four religions, Hindu Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist, and come from 14 countries: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Syria, Indonesia, China, America, Vietnam, Pakistan and India. 

India is represented by Mercy Kikon from Nagaland. “It is a privilege for me to sing on behalf of my country,” she says. Later, the choir sings a Naga song called Zayele (Protect us). This is a Gospel song, says Mercy. In fact, because of the Christmas season, most of the songs are spiritual ones. But it is a mix of Eastern as well as French baroque music from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Interestingly, the Bangladeshi singers opt for a Rabindranath Tagore song, ‘Anondodhara’. There are songs from Syria and Cambodia, too. 
The concert, ‘Earth to Heart’, with performances at Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi (on December 19) had been arranged by the Alliance Française de Trivandrum in association with Alliance Française de Chittagong and the Kochi-based Chavara Culture Centre, along with the French embassies in Delhi and Dhaka. 

Conductor Selvam, who trains the choir three times a week, says that the girls were selected through a stringent test. Out of 80 applicants, only 20 were selected. 
When asked about his job, Selvam says, “A good conductor should be friendly, kind and as helpful as possible, to give the proper direction and provide meaning for the song. I try to give freedom to the singer to express herself. so that they can get better.” 

Interestingly, all of them come from poor and lower middle-class families in small towns and cities across Asia. “They are all studying on scholarships provided by the AUW,” says Selvam. “We want to give opportunities to the disadvantaged. There are a few Rohingya girls, too.” 

Says Cherie Blair, University Chancellor and former UK First Lady: “At a time when there is so much strife in the world based on our inherited identities, AUW shows that yet another world is possible where young women from different upbringings can come together – first in solidarity with each other, and secondly in supporting a wider vision of changing their communities together.”

Sidrah, a Muslim, who comes from Pakistan shares a room with a Bhutanese, who is Buddhist. “When we are together we forget about our stress and have fun,” she says. “We teach each other about our religions and cultural traditions, and we respect each other.” 

The AUW is funded by entrepreneurs Jack and Beth Myer, who has given $10 million, as well as the Ikea Foundation, which has given a similar amount, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given $5 million, apart from 45 other foundations and individuals. 

Meanwhile, Naga singer Mercy is enjoying herself in Kochi. “This is my first visit to South India,” she says. “I like the food -- rice, sambhar, and uttapam, the culture, and the ambience. The people are very kind and hospitable..”  

The choir is now getting ready for a tour of Myanmar in February, this time with a repertoire of popular songs and baroque Italian music. 

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

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Malayalee residents in Beijing feel tense as cases increase

Pic: Suresh Varma and his family during happier times
By Shevlin Sebastian 
On most mornings, these days, when entrepreneur Suresh Varma wakes up at his home in Beijing and checks his mobile phone, he is sure to see three messages. They are from the Indian Embassy, the local municipality and mobile service providers. They all have one plea: about the need to take precautions ever since the fatal coronavirus erupted in Wuhan, which is 1150 km from Beijing on December 31. So, Suresh is told, like lakhs of Beijing residents that he should wear facemasks if he is planning to go out especially towards crowded places, and drink water all the time.
The virus thrives if the throat is dry,” says Suresh, by phone from Beijing. “There is a need to keep the throat hydrated all the time. So, we are told to carry water bottles all the time.”
There are about 40 Malayalee families in Beijing, for a total of 120 people. They are mostly working for multinational firms, banks, newspapers, schools as well as embassy staffers. At Wuhan University, there are a few Malayalee students. “But till now, it looks like not a single Malayalee has been infected,” says Suresh, who is the president of the Beijing Malayalees Association. “As you know, Wuhan and four other towns (total population: 22 million) have been locked down. No one can go in and no one can come out. The railways and the airports are closed. It is a tense situation. But the government is on a war footing.”
But the odds are stacked against them. One major reason is the timing of the outbreak. On January 25th is the Chinese New Year. One week before, all offices had closed. Schools were shut two weeks earlier. “What is going on in China is a mass internal migration,” says Danny Geevarghese, a Beijing-based freelance writer. “Millions of people are travelling back to their hometowns.”
So, it is no surprise that cases have been reported in 27 provinces, with 41 deaths so far. And numerous people have already travelled abroad for vacations. So nobody knows who has taken the virus outside.
Cases have already been reported in Taiwan, USA, South Korea, Thailand and Japan.
To prevent further outbreaks, at Beijing airport, the authorities have put up large temperature-scanners. “You just walk past the scanners,” says Suresh. “If you have a slight temperature, they will take you aside and check you.”
As to whether there are fears in China of this becoming a national as well as a global epidemic, Suresh says, “They are hoping it is not. Scientists worldwide are working very hard to discover a vaccine. Let’s hope they make a breakthrough quickly.”
(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The world of ghosts

Veteran Mollywood director Suresh Unnithan is putting the final touches to his film, ‘Kshanam’, which will be released next month

Pics: Suresh Unnithan. Photo by BP Deepu; Anu Sonara 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the Film Employees Federation of Kerala office at Kochi, director Suresh Unnithan met scriptwriter Sreekumar Arookutty who said, “Sir, I want to narrate a story to you.” 

So they stepped to one side. And Sreekumar quickly narrated the gist. It is the story of two girls. One girl has been murdered but she had always wanted to live. The other does not want to live, moves around with a petrol can, and wants to kill herself. “The first one is a ghost,” says Suresh. “The other girl lives in the present.” 

Suresh was intrigued. He believes in spirits, ghosts and the afterlife. That’s because he had a personal experience. A few years ago, when he was going through a bad time, his mother appeared in a dream and told him, “You will get work. Don’t worry.” 

This turned out to be true. After 12 years, in 2013, Suresh made a comeback with ‘Ayaal’. Director Lal and Iniya played the leads. Suresh won the Kerala State Film Award (Special Mention) in Direction (2014) while Lal won the Best Actor Award.

Meanwhile, after mulling over what Sreekumar said, Suresh decided to make the film, which is called ‘Kshanam’. The male leads are Ajmal and Bharath while the heroine is Sneha Ajith, a newcomer who stays in Bahrain. Actor Anusithara’s younger sister, Anu Sonara also has a role. And so also has Lal who plays a parapsychologist. 

I have a very good understanding with Lal,” says Suresh. “We know each other for more than three decades. And we have many shared memories.”  

The shooting, in places like Kuttikanam and Peermade, has been completed. And the final mix is taking place. The film will be released next month. 

During the shoot, Suresh felt the presence of his mother. He had planned a shoot on a hill at Peermade. But each time they went to do the scene, it was raining heavily. A crew member suggested that they could complete the rest of the shooting. “So we did that,” says Suresh. “But I got a feeling that I could get a similar shot elsewhere.  I believe it was my mother speaking to me.” 

This intuition proved to be correct. When he returned to Thiruvananthapuram, he did the shoot on a nearby mountain. “The effect was the same,” he says. “There was a lot of mist. And it worked out fine.” 

But he did find it difficult to find a producer for the film. Right through his career, this has been the case. “That’s because I don’t work with superstars,” he says. But for ‘Kshanam’, Reji Thampi has agreed to co-produce with Suresh under the banner of Roshan Pictures. “I loved the script,” says Reji. 
Suresh began his career by working with the late director Padmarajan. He was an associate director for 12 films. This experience helped immeasurably. His debut film, ‘Jaathakam’ (1989), has been one of his most popular films. 

Asked the secret to making successful films, Suresh says, “A good script. Padmarajan always used to tell me that. And I believe Kunchacko Boban’s latest film, ‘Anjaam Pathiraa’ is doing very well because of its excellent script. People come to theatres to see stories told well. All the youngsters should remember this.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Don’t say cheers, say Adipoli

Drinks entrepreneur Gautom Menon is all set to launch the ‘Adipoli’ drink, which is aimed for the millennial crowd

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Three years ago, Gautom Menon, the founder & owner of Wild Tiger Rum was bar-hopping in Thrissur to talk about the newly-launched liquor brand. A few customers told him that they had already bought it from the duty-free shops at Dubai and Muscat airports. “It’s adipoli,” was the remark. Gautom is a Malayali, who grew up in Coimbatore. “At first, I thought they meant Adi puli (which means, hit the tiger),” he says. “But it was only later I came to know that it is a slang word which means ‘awesome’.”  

He liked the word so much, and instinctively realising its marketing potential, he registered it as a trademark for his company. And come March, Gautam is launching the ‘Adipoli’ dark and white rum. It has an attractive design which is already drawing rave views on Gautom’s Linkedin page and has gone viral. Says wine writer Ravi Joshi, “The bottle looks awesome!” 

The design is in yellow, red and blue. There are a couple of hashtags, squares, rectangles, and circles, two coconut trees, a black driverless auto-rickshaw, and the Adipoli sign: the thumb and forefinger meeting at a point, with the three fingers upraised. Incidentally, the design has been done in-house, by talented designer Paul George. 

At the back of the bottle, there are details for two cocktails. One is called the  
Adipoli Machaan’. The instructions are simple: Add 50 ml Adipoli rum, 60 ml of orange juice, and 15 ml of lime juice. Mix all the ingredients with ice. Stir and pour into a tall glass. Garnish with a fresh orange slice, and say “Adipoli Machaan” before you take a sip.  

Another cocktail is the Adipoli Libre. “There is a legendary cocktail called Cuba Libre, which is a mix of rum, cola and lime,” says Gautom. “We wanted to do something similar, with a fun spin, of course.”    

The brand is aimed for the millennial crowd, says Gautom. “And so far, no one has dared to market Kerala along with a drink. Through ‘Adipoli’ we wanted to do that. I have noticed that Malayalis all over the world have a lot of pride in their state. So I wanted to give them a reason to embrace something from their neck of the woods and be proud of it. In other words, I want them to forget the word ‘Cheers’ and say ‘Adipoli’ instead.” 

Made of dark rum, ‘Adipoli’ is 100 percent molasses-based and uses pristine Indian sugarcane. The flavours are vanilla and toffee. The 750ml bottle is priced at Rs 910 and will be launched in the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and a few African countries. This will be the main market, apart from Kerala. 

Gautom has another ambition. “A lot of brands have made their towns famous,” he says. “For example, Absolut Vodka is made in Ahus in Southern Sweden. The company employs almost everybody in the town. As for Johnny Walker whisky, it is from a town called Kilmarnock in Scotland. Jack Daniels whisky is from Tennessee, USA. My long-term goal is that when people say ‘Wild Tiger’ or ‘Adipoli’, they will say it is from our distillery situated in Pampadi, Thrissur.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Wide Open

Ramesh Menon, a BSNL customer, finds no watchman at the gate, doors open, and counters unmanned when he visited the company office at Tripunithara 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Entrepreneur Ramesh Menon was working on his laptop early on Wednesday morning at his home in Tripunithara. Realising that the line was a bit slow, he decided he would go to the BSNL office and change his digital plan. But when he reached the building, he found that the gate was open, with no watchmen present. 

And nobody was manning the counters on the ground floor. A few rooms which had technical equipment were empty. He went to the first floor to look for some senior staff. Again, he walked about and did not see anybody. All the rooms were in darkness but the doors were wide open. Soon, a few more customers had gathered around. “Everybody looked puzzled,” says Ramesh. 

As he stepped out of the building he met a man. “He identified himself as an electrician who looked after the electrical room at the back of the building,” says Ramesh. “He told me that out of a staff of approximately 35, around 19 had applied for VRS. In fact, I read recently, 68.9 per cent of the eligible staff in Kerala have applied for VRS, the highest among all the states.” 

Asked the lack of a security guard at the gate, the electrician told Ramesh that he was an employee of an agency which had been contracted to provide security. But because of non-payment of dues, they withdrew the guard. 

When Ramesh stepped out, he saw a board which stated, in Hindi, English and Malayalam ‘Today Holiday’. “I missed seeing it,” says Ramesh. “It was at an inconspicuous place. Later, a friend told me that they were closed because of Pongal.” 

Meanwhile, an official of the Sanchar Nigam Executives’ Association, Kerala, on condition of anonymity said that on holidays, one person is always deputed to keep an eye on the equipment. “Maybe, at Tripunithara, he might have stepped out to have tea,” he says. 

Whatever may be the reason, Ramesh feels pained at the state of BSNL. “It has the best infrastructure when compared to the private mobile companies,” he says. “For my dad, who is 86, and my mom, who is 78, BSNL is their lifeline. They don’t use mobile phones. And for years, I lived outside and stayed in touch with them through BSNL only. What I fear most about the decline of BSNL is that landlines will become redundant. And elderly people will be left without phones.” 

Ramesh also questioned this idea of giving VRS to technicians who have two to three decades of experience. “These veterans know where the cable is, and how it connects under the ground,” he says. “Tomorrow, you will have to bring temporary staff by paying higher salaries but who have only three to four years of experience. They will not have much technical knowledge. It will weaken the company.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The life and death of Jesus Christ

Mural artist Sasi K Warier has done a series of paintings on the incidents in the Holy Rosary 

Pics: Sasi K Warier. Photo by A Sanesh. The Last Supper. Jesus Christ and his disciples sit on the floor  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The Bangalore-based IT expert Chad Voss came across an article in a newspaper on mural artist Sasi K Warier who had done a series of paintings on the life of Jesus Christ. Intrigued, he did a Google search and managed to get in touch with Sasi. Thereafter, he gave Sasi a commission to do a series on the Mysteries of the Rosary. 

These are meditations about episodes from the life and death of Jesus Christ. It begins with the Annunciation and concludes with the Ascension into Heaven by Jesus. It comes under the headings of the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Glorious Mysteries and the Luminous mysteries. Each Mystery has five sub-themes, for a total of 20 scenes. 

After doing some research, Sasi got down to work. But it took a year before he could complete the project. Initially, he sent rough drafts by mail and Chad approved them. And all these works, measuring 2 ½ feet x 7 feet, were on display at a recent exhibition called ‘Rosary’ at the Indian School of Arts in Kochi. 

Expectedly, Sasi gives the images an Indian touch. So Jesus Christ has black hair, moustache and beard instead of the traditional blond colour. And he wears a shawl. His disciples are also black-haired. In the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples are usually depicted sitting behind a long table, but Sasi has done something different. He has placed Jesus sitting cross-legged on the floor, behind a small circular table. And so are the other disciples. “I wanted to remain true to the Kerala mural style and the Indian habit of sitting on the floor,” he says. In the image, one disciple is looking away. And that is Judas Iscariot who betrays Jesus to the Romans later. 

And since the scenes are sombre, Sasi has not given bright coloured clothes to the women. So, he has avoided using necklaces, earrings, rings or bracelets. In fact, he has made dresses as they wear in the Gulf (West Asia) where Jesus lived. Mary has been shown wearing a veil. 

And in the Crucifixion scene, where Jesus is nailed to a cross, very little dripping blood is shown. “Again, that is in the Kerala mural style,” says Sasi. Across the top of the frame, above different images, he has drawn angels, pigeons and bells, and musical instruments like the harp, violin and shenai. 

Gallery visitor Shreya says, “It is nice, interesting and colourful.” Today, the paintings are hanging in Chad’s house, but he has relocated to the USA. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Acing it on the ice

The Kottayam-born and Toronto-based photographer Thomas Vijayan has just won the Bird Photographer of the Year contest with his shot of penguins in Antarctica. He also says that global warming is irreversible

Pics: The prize-winning photograph; Thomas Vijayan

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is a November morning. Photographer Thomas Vijayan is lying on the ice in a penguin colony in Antarctica. Several feet away, an Emperor Penguin and his wife stand behind a baby penguin. They have almost joined their beaks together, as they look down on their newly-hatched baby. The scene lasts a few seconds but Thomas is able to take several shots. “I knew these are rare shots,” he says, via phone from Mexico, where the Toronto-based photographer was on a holiday. 

When the female penguin lays an egg, she immediately leaves and goes looking for food for the next two months. During that period, the male balances the egg on its feet and covers it with its brood pouch, a layer of feathered skin. He stands still even when the temperatures go down, and there are icy winds and powerful storms. When the mother returns, she feeds the chick by regurgitating the food stored in the stomach. Soon,.the father goes out for food. “So, it is rare to get all three of them together,” says Thomas, who uses a Nikon D5 camera. “It turned out to be a unique shot.” 

The judges at the Bird Photographer of the Year contest conducted by the Society of International Nature and Wildlife Photographers concurred. Last month, out of 2000 entries worldwide, they said the shot taken by Thomas was the best. Incidentally, this is not his first win. Over the course of his two-decade career, Thomas has won over a thousand medals.     

But the Antarctica assignment was not an easy one. He flew from southern Chile to the Union Glacier Camp, a distance 2500 km. From there he took a Twin-Otter plane and landed on a sea ice in the Weddell Sea. “Going to the penguin colony was difficult,” says the Kottayam-born photographer. “To cover 14 km, it took me eight hours of walking in soft snow. The leg sinks till the knee.” 

But when he reached the colony, the penguins showed no fear. “They had not seen human beings before, so they were curious and friendly,” says Thomas. “Many tried to come close but I kept my distance, as I felt that my germs would be fatal for them.” 

This is his third visit to Antarctica. And tragically, he is seeing the effects of global warming first-hand. “Each time I go to a glacier, about 300 to 500m have melted,” says Thomas. “Many of the ice sheets have vanished. So, I do not doubt that it is leading to a disaster.” 

He says that in places like Alaska, Brazil and Australia, forest fires are happening because of the increase in temperature. “Last summer, I was in Alaska, and there were 60 incidents of forest fires,” says Thomas. “The whole sky was filled with smoke.” 

Thomas pauses and says, “We have destroyed the planet. It is too late for any course correction. What we can do is to slow down the process. I am 110 percent sure the planet will reach a stage where it will be impossible for humans and animals to live, because of the extreme temperatures.” 

Nevertheless, Thomas, an architect, feels he must do his bit to preserve the beauty of the earth through his photographs. He has travelled to the Arctic, Tanzania, Kenya, Japan, Russia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Indonesia. 

Some time ago, he had gone to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, where he took photos of the critically endangered crested black macaque. He also spent months in Siberia to take shots of the rarest cat in the world called the Amur leopard. “They are critically endangered and believed to be less than 40 in the world,” he says. 

Thomas says he feels recharged after each trip. “There is no luxury in wildlife photography,” he says. “It makes a man very simple.” 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Preserving culinary knowledge

Art curator Tanya Abraham’s engaging recipe book, ‘Eating with History’ has recipes of Kerala which are hundreds of years old  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

As a child, art curator Tanya Abraham would often go into the kitchen of the family house at Fort Kochi. There she would see her grandmother, Annie Burleigh, in a white chatta and mundu, preparing dishes. “Her skills never ceased to amaze me,” she says. “She formed cutlets in one palm, throwing them in hot fat in a continuous rhythm and stirring curry with the other, while simultaneously monitoring the cooking for at least forty people.” 

Thanks to her grandmother’s culinary skills, Tanya always retained an interest in food. “There were so many communities, like the Christians, Jews, Anglo-Indians, and Muslims, who lived next to each other in Fort Kochi and the food would come from all these homes to my home during their festivals,” she says. 

Tanya’s turning point happened when her grandmother passed away at the age of 104 a few years ago. “A storehouse of culinary delights went with her,” she says. “It made me think of all the women, like her, who ran households and brought to life recipes passed down generations in their kitchens.” 

So, she decided she would bring out a cookbook, but with a specific angle. It should be the ancient trade-influenced cuisines of Kerala. After three years of research, the recipe book, ‘Eating With History’, has just been published by Niyogi Books, in an elegant, easy-to-hold edition, at 202 pages and priced at Rs 550. 

It starts with a bit of personal history: the impact of the different cuisines on her Kurishingal family’s household, and in another chapter titled ‘Kerala and Food’, Tanya delves into the history of food in Kerala during the past several centuries. 

The recipes have been neatly divided under different chapter headings: Vegetables, Breads, Rice and Appams with Chutneys, Meats and Fish, Sweets and Desserts, and Squashes and Wines (with a dash of spice). For Malayali readers, there is a distinct advantage. All the dishes have been identified with their Malayali names. So fish curry in coconut milk is written as meel pal curry while dry red chilli chutney is called unaka mulagu chamandi. 

What came as a surprise for Tanya was to discover how one dish was cooked differently by the various communities. So, for the meen pollichathu, the Syrian Christians used red chillies, onions and shallots. But the Latin Catholics mostly used black pepper, green chillies, garlic, and coconut milk. “The Latins have a vindaloo which is very specific to Fort Kochi and neighbouring areas,” says Tanya. “Then I realised that the Anglo Indians have a vindaloo but it is so different. And they live just two streets away from the Latins.”  

Thanks to her research, Tanya discovered that Malayalis developed new eating habits following the intermingling with the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and the British. So, when the Portuguese came in the 15th century, they introduced potatoes, tomatoes, and papaya. But the biggest impact of the Portuguese was their introduction of red chillies. 

Fish and meat curries tasted different when red chillies were added,” says Tanya. “The Portuguese also invented the puttu (the steamed rice cake), which is one of the most popular dishes in Kerala today.” As for the Dutch, they left behind the Brudher (a sweet cake with dried plums), which is still baked in one bakery at Fort Kochi. And the British gave the spiced shepherd’s pie and the cardamom flavoured caramel pudding.  

All in all, this is a highly engaging book. Tanya has done an enormous service by collating all these recipes, which would have slipped into history and been lost forever. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Sweet solutions for fallow fields

Sugarcane cultivation is being tried, after decades, in the Kizhakkambalam panchayat, near Kochi

Pics: A drone's view of the sugarcane fields; farmer Suresh Kumaran   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Suresh Kumaran wakes up one morning at his home in Kizhakkambalam and shakes his head. A year ago, he had been a dental technician in Goa. Now, he is a farmer, not of paddy, but sugarcane. He had returned home, because his father had been a farmer and Suresh could not resist the pull of the land. And, for the first time in decades, a new crop is being tried on fallow paddy fields. 

It is 7.30 a.m. when Suresh steps out towards the fields. “This place was bought by a few doctors to start a hospital but because these are paddy fields, they were not given permission,” he says. He walks between the stalks. It has reached a height of 10 feet. “In a couple of months, it should reach 14 feet,” he says.  

He points to the ground beneath the stalks and water can be seen. “Since these paddy fields are next to a stream, there is always water beneath,” says Suresh. “Sugarcane needs a lot of water.” 

Soon, a few workers come. They sprinkle organic pesticide, a mix of urea, potassium and neem oil, and use spades to mix it with the mud. A specific variety called Madhuri is being used. “This variety is known for its sweetness and sturdiness,” says Suresh. “We got the plants from Pathanamthitta.”  

They are expecting about 40,000 kgs from a single acre. And if all goes well, from that, 4000 kgs of jaggery will be made by a four-member Kudumbasree team. They have taken a government loan of Rs 1 lakh through the ‘Joint Liability Groups for farming’ scheme. Suresh has contributed Rs 70,000 while the rest has been given by the Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam Department of Kitex Textiles Limited. The company is also providing manpower, machinery, fertilisers and expert advice. 
As to why it was decided to try sugarcane cultivation, in an area of 10 acres, Sabu M Jacob, the managing director of Kitex says, “Because of its potential as a cash crop, and for its suitability to the Kerala climate. Sugarcane can remain in the water for up to three weeks without rotting – this could be a plus when you consider the recent flooding.”  

Sabu also says that there is a huge demand for pesticide-free jaggery in Kerala. “There are also plans to make biodegradable plates and cutlery from the waste,” he says. “Later, we might go in for the cultivation of jasmine flowers because of its high demand and profitability. I believe this is a good way to generate self-employment.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The meaning of existence

Singer Vyaasa M, a Mumbai-based Malayali, talks about his well-received new single Wajood-e-Sabab and his musical journey  

Youtube link:

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On an idle morning, the Mumbai-based singer/songwriter Vyaasa M was flipping through videos on YouTube when he came across a commencement speech by American talk show host Oprah Winfrey at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2014. At one point she said, “Once your personality meets your purpose in life, nobody can stop you.” 

It sent a jolt through Vyaasa and he immediately said to himself, “How true.” Quickly, he got in touch with a lyricist friend Shamsher Singh Beniyaaz and they wrote the lyrics. The song, made with the help of producer Himonshu Parikh, is called Wajood-e-Sabab. “Wajood means existence and Sabab is reason,” says Vyaasa. “So the Urdu words stand for ‘the reason for existence’.” 

The video begins with a long-haired bearded young man running down a dark street with a troubled look on his face. Then he enters his house, goes to the bathroom and looks at the mirror and does not like what he sees. He rushes out and flips through his mobile phone.  

Then he is shown writing lyrics and singing. “But then he does not sing in public because he is unsure,” says Vyaasa. Meanwhile, he is an underperformer in his office and his boss castigates him. But, over a period of time, he reaches a stage when he wants to bring out the talent inside him. So, he decides to leave his job and start singing. But when he approaches music companies they reject him. One said, “You are good but not great.” 

Then he decides to put out his song and asked, on Facebook, for a team to shoot the video. The finale happens when he releases the song. 

But what is captivating and hypnotic is the singing and some excellent electronic music. The song, like all good ones, grows on you the more you listen to it. Apart from Vyaasa, his friend Vivek Hariharan, a professional singer, also lends his voice.   

Listeners are enthralled. Vijesh Divakaran says, “Great picturisation. The music gets deeper because of the video. It was motivational.” Devesh Agrawal says, “Awesome song... Awesome lyrics... Awesome topic... Wajood-e-sabab... Reason for existence... Awesome job guys.” Pavithra Nair says, “Very catchy tune. Loved it.” 

Vyaasa wanted to tell a story that would resonate with everybody. “There are many comments on YouTube and Instagram where people say they have a friend like the man in the video or seen a guy like him,” he says. “So I am happy with the response.”  

Vyaasa, a Malayali, grew up in Dombivli, a suburb of Mumbai, where he studied at the St. Therese Convent School. Throughout his schooling, the thought of music never came to his mind. “I lived in an environment where education was regarded is all-important,” he says. 

Later, he got admission into the Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology at Kovalam. It was during this time that he began to take part in festivals and realised that he had a talent for music. After he graduated in 2012, he returned home and told his parents he wanted to be a musician. “They thought I was joking,” says Vyaasa.

But Vyaasa remained steadfast. He worked for a couple of years, to clear off his student loan, and then started his full-time music career. He has worked as an assistant keys arranger, played keyboard and became a music arranger. “It is a competitive industry,” he says. “But I am glad I am on the journey.” 

Asked the prospects for independent music, Vyaasa says, “After the 1990s, this is the best time. There is a digital space to show your work without the need to get approval from anybody. We can now create content in parallel with the mainstream.” 

Vyaasa’s next single, ‘Kyu Tumne? (Why have you?)’ will be released soon. “It is about a heartbreak, but sounds like a love song,” he says. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Giving when it matters

Through her NGO, Healing Lives, corporate professional Jani Viswanath has changed the lives of blind football players, villagers in Bundelkhand as well as medical students in Kenya

Pics: Jani Viswanath; photo by Arun Angela. With the Indian football team 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The rain was pelting down, looking like little icicles, as it hit the floodlit football pitch of the Jogo ground in Kochi. But in the enclosed parking area, a group of footballers, of the Blind Football Academy, stood around, as a petite woman, clad in a maroon T-shirt and white slacks, bent low, towards a stool, and cut a chocolate cake inscribed with the words, ‘Best Wishes to Team India’.

The boys sang ‘Happy Birthday to you’. Soon, Indian team coach Sunil Mathew and MC Roy, head of projects at the Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged made Jani bite into a piece of cake. 

The Dubai-based Jani had come to Kochi to encourage the players a few days before they jetted off to Thailand to take part in the IBSA Asian Championships held at Pattaya, Thailand in early October. Jani, a co-founder of the Healing Lives Foundation is a major sponsor. And she had come to inspire the team.  

However, when they lost their first two matches, against the higher-ranked China and Thailand, Jani called them and said, “Look, boys, this is your first international tournament. I don’t care if you win or lose. But I do care that you lose in a way that makes us all proud.” 

It had the desired effect. The next day, the Indian team beat the higher-ranked Malaysia team and ended up in fifth place overall. 

It was serendipity that brought Jani to support blind football. One day, while chatting with some of her Mumbai-based friends, they informed her that a national award-winning filmmaker from Assam, Bidyut Kotoky had run out of funds while making a film, ‘Xoixobote Dhemalite’ (Rainbow Fields).

So Jani stepped in as producer. While doing so, she came in contact with noted thespian Victor Banerjee who was acting in the film. Victor told Jani that he ran the Moran residential blind school at Moranhat, in Dibrugarh, Assam. “I was very intrigued and told him that I would like to see it,” she says. 

When Jani finally saw it, she was very impressed. “It was a beautiful and well-maintained school,” she says. “It was there that I saw blind football for the first time.” 

Jani also attended the North-East Blind football tournament in Shillong in January this year. “From then on I have been backing every tournament that the blind players have been playing,” says Jani She also ending up supporting Victor’s school and is a member of the board of trustees. 

The funds for the NGO comes from her family. Her husband Jonathan Jagtiani is the founder of Home Center, a part of the Landmark Group, which is one of the largest retail groups in West Asia. 

And after 18 years as a corporate professional, Jani also wanted to do something more. “Money gives you the luxury of choice, but it is not everything,” she says. “Giving back to the community was something that was taught to me by my late father, Dr T. K. Viswanath [an educationist and a former diplomat].” 

Thanks to her father’s posting, Jani grew up in Kabul. She studied in an Italian school called Michaelangelo where they had to attend Sunday mass and learn the Bible. “I also enjoyed the culture of my Muslim friends,” she says. “At home, I was reciting the Gayatri Mantra. I was lucky to have the influence of three religions simultaneously. It changed my perspective. Today, my religion is humanity. I don’t care what colour, language, religion or physical shape a person is, as long as I can help in some way.”  

So the NGO helps medical students in Kenya. These are brilliant kids who have got admission to the first year but do not have the resources to continue. So Healing Lives pays the tuition fees for the remainder of their medical degree. They also conduct free medical camps in villages and slums twice a year. In India, they have also adopted five villages at Bundelkhand.

They used to suffer from drought every year,” says Jani. “We built dams, ponds and wells so that they became self-sufficient. We supply sweet water for drinking every day to each village, provide free seeds from our seed bank and give farmer's training on smart irrigation.” 

And these interactions have been an enriching experience for Jani. “It is easy to send money to an NGO and assuage my conscience,” she says. “But I prefer to go there physically and see what is happening. These are the discarded places on the planet. The poor have a purer heart than the rich. When you have lots of money, you have so many distractions. It dilutes your personality. So you are not able to retain that purity and simplicity that you are born with. But through my charitable work, I have found myself.” 

Monday, January 06, 2020

In step with the times

During a recent visit to Kochi, Revathi Kant, the Chief Design Officer of Titan, talks about how the company stays relevant and how design plays a key role   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On the stage at the Kochi Design Week, at the Bolgatty Palace, for a panel discussion on ‘Design for Startups and Innovation’ Titan’s Chief Design Officer (CDO) Revathi Kant cuts an elegant figure in a cream saree with a lemon border. And not surprisingly, she has a gleaming Titan watch on her left wrist. She said, “Since disruption is the only way forward, we are going beyond manufacturing watches to wearables.” 

As the CDO, Revathi has a team of 70 designers to make new designs for watches, jewellery and eyewear. “Our watch brands like Titan, Sonata, Raga and Fasttrack are aimed at specific consumer segments,” she says. “And based on the market and customer requirements, we keep building new products.”  

For Diwali this year, the company focused on retro and vintage designs for men and launched a collection called Maritime, which has boat-shaped as well as 3D sea wave pattern dials. “For women, we have launched Raga Facets, which highlights different aspects of today’s modern woman,” says Revathi. “In Sonata, we target value-conscious customers, while Fastrack is trendy and youthful.” 

To produce designs that have a resonance with consumers, the designers try to understand the lifestyle and behaviour of the consumer. “They spend time at the stores,” says Revathi. “Sometimes, they go into the market. They analyse the consumer research. The reasoning is that if you can understand the customer, only then can you do a suitable design.”

But even if the design is successful, it still goes through endless changes, so that it remains relevant for the consumers. The first Edge watch, which came out 15 years ago, had a simple, sleek and classic look. Then after a few years, the Edge was made larger, and a lot more contemporary. A date was introduced and it was made water-resistant.  

The latest is called the Edge Ceramic. “It is a sleek product,” says Revathi. “The case and strap are ceramic. It is a beautiful collection and is doing very well (the prices range from Rs 19,000 to Rs 24,000). What the customer wanted years ago is not what the customer wants now. The designers go on a journey with the watch.” 

But has the watch lost its importance since people use the mobile phone to check the time? Revathi smiles and says, “Nowadays, people don’t wear watches to see time any longer. It is an extension of your personality, to complete your dressing.” 

Revathi has completed 29 years with Titan. She joined the company as a trainee, straight from college. But she gives credit to Titan because they gave her a lot of freedom to innovate, to come up with new things, and to grow. “I also took risks in my career, by jumping from marketing to design and realising that the latter is what I want to do,” she says.   

Asked to give tips for young women who are starting out, Revathi says, “You should enjoy what you do. Try new things. Take risks. Because you don’t know what is best for you, until you try many things. It is important to be open to learning all the time irrespective of your level and age. You have to learn and contribute quickly.” 

Finally, Revathi is very clear about the type of leader one should be. “It is very important to be a good human being,” she says. “It is also necessary to build good relationships at your workplace, with your seniors, peers, and juniors. People love to work for leaders who care. Being empathetic and a good mentor are vital attributes.” 

Friday, January 03, 2020

Harith Noah, from Kerala, is all set to take part in the Dakar Rally 2020

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is 9 a.m. on a weekday in the town of Sauve in Southern France. Two young men set out on cycles. Harith Noah and Michael Metge chat as they ride on and on… more than 100 kms. They return, break for lunch, take a nap and in the evening they go to the gym. 

Both men have been in strenuous training for the past several months. And the reason is simple. They are going to take part in one of the most demanding races on the planet: The Dakar Rally. The 13-day event begins on January 5. The distance to be traversed is 7800 kms. Despite the name ‘Dakar’ (which is in Senegal), the rally is taking place in Saudi Arabia, albeit for the first time. 

In the bike category, more than 250 riders are expected to participate. From India, there are two Indians: one is the Shoranur-native Noah and the other is CS Santosh from Bengaluru. Noah is a member of TVS Racing which is in partnership with French motorcycle manufacturer Sherco. And the team is called Sherco TVS Rally Factory Team. Noah will be riding the company-built RTR 450, which can attain speeds of over 170 km per hour.   

A few days ago, Noah returned to Shoranur to spend Christmas with his parents, Mohammed Rafi KV, a businessman, and Susanne, an artist and farmer. Noah is a lean muscular man with not an ounce of fat anywhere on his body. 

Their house is set in a sylvan setting of 12 acres, where there are numerous trees as well as a few paddy fields. Two dogs run around happily. A cat stretches his body on the verandah and enjoys a lazy yawn. Noah looks relaxed but he does admit he is feeling nervous. “It is one of the biggest races of my career,” he says. “My target is to perform well and finish the race. I am keen to get the experience, so that I can do well in future.”

It was his father who unwittingly ignited the passion in him. On Noah’s 16th birthday, Rafi gifted him a motorbike. Within a week, Noah learned to ride and took part in a local race and came last. That was the only time he has come last. Today, in his house, there are more than one hundred trophies. He has been a National Supercross Champion several times in the SX1, SX2 and Class 2 categories. 

Noah's international rally debut was in the 2018 Rallye du Maroc in Morocco which he completed even though he sustained an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament tear) and meniscus injury during the second stage of the race. He took everyone by surprise when he finished seventh in his comeback race, the 2019 Baja Aragon. In between all this, he secured a degree in sports science from Manchester Metropolitan University. 

Meanwhile, Rafi brings out the gear. There is a helmet, gloves, goggles, earplugs, to cancel out the noise, a body armour jacket, knee braces and riding boots. “It does not mean that when you fall, you cannot get injured, but it protects you a bit,” says Noah. “The trick is to try to roll when you hit the ground, but it is not a foolproof method.” Thus far, the 26-year-old has undergone two collar bone as well as knee surgeries. “This is part and parcel of racing,” he says, with a smile. “But I am ready now, to do my best.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)