Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Need For Psychological Healing

Drama therapist Dr. Ravindra Ranasinha, of Sri Lanka, talks about his efforts to provide healing for the traumatised Tamil population, while on a recent visit to Kochi

Illustration by Amit Bandre; photo by Melton Antony 
By Shevlin Sebastian
For a few days, Vasantha Raman (name changed) sat silently and listened to the stories told by the people at a community hall in Kilinochchi (northern Sri Lanka). Then the thirty-five-year stood on the stage and said, “For fifteen years, every day I would stand at the gate of my house and wait for my husband,” she says. “But he never came. So I would spend the day mowing the garden.”
Vasantha has no children and lived with her parents. “Now I know that he will not return,” she said. “I have wasted my life waiting for him.”
This anecdote was recounted by Dr. Ravindra Ranasinha, a Sri Lankan drama therapist, who had come to Kochi to give a talk, titled, 'Post conflict reconciliation action as a social worker' at St. Albert's College.
Most of the Tamils are in a daze,” says Ravindra. “They cannot understand the trauma they had undergone during the civil war [between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, from 1983-2009]. They are the innocent farmers, fishermen and villagers who were caught in the crossfire. All the affluent and educated people escaped to Colombo.”
So, they sit silently and stare at the walls of their house. “The husband, wife and children do not talk,” says Ravindra. “Some children don't even go to school. Suddenly, there is violence between husband and wife because of the unbearable pain that they are carrying. Since they are unable to communicate verbally, they resort to physical violence, in frustration.”
These are the symptoms of severe trauma. “They cannot lead a normal life,” says Ravindra. “So, even if you provide instruments for a livelihood, like buckets or spades, or a place to stay, it will be of no help. What they need is psychological assistance to enable them to come out of the trauma.”
That was when Ravindra started drama therapy. “I encouraged the people to tell their stories and enact them,” says Ravindra. This proved to be beneficial. As they heard numerous stories of their fellow villagers and told their own, many became reconciled with their suffering.
Sadly, all this is coming a bit late in the day. During the rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-15), there were obstructions to do this sort of counselling. “The regime did not want people to get healed,” says Ravindra. “They were scared that once they returned to normal, the people might tell the world about their experiences. But, now, thankfully, some sort of healing has begun.”
The civil war, which ended eight years ago, claimed more than one lakh lives, both among the Tamils and the Sinhalas. Asked the mind-set of the Sinhalas today, Ravindra, a Sinhala himself, says, “The Sinhala people feel calm, because the conflict is over, and they are in the majority. However, there are extremists trying to create dissension between the communities. But the government [headed by President Maithripala Sirisena] is not supporting them, therefore, the possibility of another war is limited.”
Meanwhile, the Tamils, still frantic and fearful, are yearning for justice. “They have lost so many of their dear ones – husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings, relatives, apart from property. They want the perpetrators to be caught, so that justice can be meted out.”
But, so far, the government has proved to be a disappointment. “There are several mechanisms in place, but it is a very slow process,” says Ravindra. “It is imperative to build trust between the communities. It would be nice if Sri Lanka had something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then a true healing will take place in society.” 

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Devi Vs The Demons

S.V. Sujatha's 'The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara' is a gripping read

By Shevlin Sebastian

Devi turned the trident so its prongs faced downward, and then she stretched out her other hand. Her veins stood out prominently. She took aim at the three dark scars that still remained from the last sacrifice and she plunged the trident into herself in one swift motion—blood spurted out. She placed her open flesh over the mouth of the altar, pouring her blood into the sacrificial pyre, watching impassively as it dribbled onto the blazing wood. The chanting ceased.

I offer unto the stomach of our gods, of Agni, the fierce God of fire, my blood, my life force,” Devi cried. “And I ask in return for strength to protect my people from evil. To cure them from disease. To save them from demons.”

This is an extract from 'The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara' by debutant novelist S.V. Sujatha.

And as the title indicates, the Devi is the one whose job is to slay the demons. And while she does the job with ease, soon, there comes the news of a dangerous demon who would be more than a match for the Devi. The story then shows the various twists and turns in the battle between the two, along with a back story.

For the Tamilian Sujatha, who lived in Chennai for many years, a novel set in a temple in Kerala happened by accident. During a low point in her life, someone suggested that she could visit the Devi at Chottanikkara (16 kms from Kochi), because the goddess is extremely powerful. And so, eight years ago, Sujatha did go and spend three days at the temple. And it was an exorcism which she witnessed at the temple that had a profound impact on her.

A lot of people, who were possessed and had mental afflictions, sat in groups,” said Sujatha. “A strand of hair taken from the pilgrims was nailed to the trunk of a tree. The whole tree was covered with pieces of hair. The priest was chanting around them. A few were ranting and raving, while others were screaming. ”

But after a while, Sujatha noticed that the chants were working. People began calming down. “But at that age [21], it was frightening for me,” said Sujatha. “It stayed with me. When I wanted to write about folklore and Indian mythology, somehow, this temple came to my mind. I wanted to write about the Devi.”

Sujatha did a bit of research, by reading books and looking for material online, but mostly relied on her imagination. “I have personified the Devi,” said Sujatha. “She is an orphan child who is raised by a foster father called Kanappa, a reformed bandit. He has already lost his daughter, so he raises Devi as his own.”

The writing is assured, confident and gripping, thanks to Sujatha's natural story-telling gifts. These skills could have been developed at the one-year Writing Programme that Sujatha attended at Warwick University, UK, in 2010.

No course can teach you how to write,” said Sujatha. “But I learnt how to shape characters and tell a story. It was more about the craft of writing. The teachers pointed out what I was doing wrong, and the ways to use fewer words to say more.”

Meanwhile, Sujatha is busy looking for her next subject at her home in Seattle, USA, which she shares with her husband, an IT professional.

The writing bug has bit me,” she said and laughed, during a recent visit to India. 

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pigeons At The Jain Temple

At the Jain temple, at Mattancherry, at 12.15 p.m. pigeons arrive in large numbers. They are fed with grains of rice. You can throw the grains to the ground or place them in the palm. The pigeons will land on your hand, and they will peck so well, that your skin is not touched. This practice that has been going on for a long time. Took part when friends from the US came for a visit. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Breaking An Arm


Veteran stuntmaster Mafia Sasi talks about his experiences on the films, 'Ee Pattanathil Bhootham', 'Best Actor' and 'Ordinary'

Photo by K. Shijith

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, veteran stunt master Mafia Sasi was travelling by car from Kuttikanam to Thiruvananthapuram. On the way, he saw a lorry driver lose control, and hit an autorickshaw. Thereafter, the lorry ended up hitting the driver's door of the car Sasi was travelling in.

Sasi's left elbow was placed on the window sill, at the back, and because of the collision, his hand went back and hit the side of the car at great force. “The bone broke,” says Sasi.

At that time, Sasi was working on two films at the same time: one was for a Hindi film by director Murali Nagavally at Kuttikanam. The other was for the Prithviraj starrer, 'Vaasthavam', by M. Padmakumar at Thiruvananthapuram.

On the set, a bit earlier, Padmakumar had said, “Mafia Sasi will not come, since he is busy on the other set. I am sure he will send an assistant.” So when Sasi called and said he had an accident, Padmakumar laughed and said, “I am sure this is an excuse.” It took a while before Padmakumar was convinced that Sasi was injured.

For Johny Antony’s 'Ee Pattanathil Bhootham' (2009), Sasi was scared that Mammooty would get injured. The shoot was on the banks of the Periyar river, in front of the Shiva temple, at Aluva. Hundreds of people had assembled to watch Mammooty. A stunt scene regarding a motorcycle was planned.

So Sasi told Mammooty, “Sir, we can do this shot on a set and add the background later, on the computer. If some mishap takes place, then it will look bad.”

But Mammooty did not agree. “Let the people understand how difficult it is to do a scene like this,” he said. “They should see the effort that we put in.”

So, a rope was tied around Mammooty's waist as well as the bike. Then the superstar drove at high speed and went up a ramp and sailed through the air.

Soon, the shoot ended. “The audience began clapping and cheering loudly,” says Sasi. “Most stars would have avoided taking such a risk, but Mammooty has always been bold.”

And sensitive, too. In 'Best Actor' (2010) there is a fight sequence where Mammooty asks Sasi who he is. “I am Mafia Sasi,” says the veteran. Then Mammooty says, in a mocking tone, “Did your father give you that name?”

Much later, when Mammooty met Sasi on another film shoot, he said, “Did you mind that I said that dialogue about your father?”

Sasi said, “Sir, it is a film dialogue. So, I am not upset at all.”

Sasi was indeed surprised that a superstar like Mammooty kept it in his mind. “He has retained his sensitivity, despite so much success,” says Sasi.

Meanwhile, sometimes, things don't go according to plan on the sets. At the climax of 'Ordinary' (2012), there was a scene on a dam, at Gavi, where Asif Ali was supposed to run down, reach the middle, climb a railing and jump off, in an act of suicide. “Initially, Asif jumped a couple of feet and then we pulled him back, with our ropes,” says Sasi. “The rest of the fall was shown through graphics.” 

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Inculcating A New Mindset

When children reach Class 9 or 10, too many parents prevent their children from practising an art form, citing the need to concentrate on their studies. Dancer Priya Manoj is trying to change attitudes

Photos by K. Shijith 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when she was in Class 10, Priya Manoj was getting ready to go for her dance classes at Tavanur village in Malappuram district. But suddenly, her father KU Gangadharan came into the room and said she could no longer do so. Priya looked shocked. “You are in Class 10,” said Gangadharan, a teacher. “It is time to concentrate on your studies and do well in the exams.” For Priya, dance was her life. She began learning it when she was only six years old.

Not surprisingly, Priya began crying. She begged her father but he did not relent. But Priya never gave up on her dream.

While doing her MA and B. Ed, she did training under many gurus, including Padma Shri Kshemavathy and Kalakshetra Haripadman. Realising her commitment, thereafter, her parents offered an unstinted support.

Later, Priya got married and moved to Abu Dhabi in September, 2002. But thanks to her husband's encouragement, she began dancing again and teaching various art forms like Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattom to students at the Model Indian School. She also teaches at the Indian Social and Culture Centre, Kerala Social Centre and Malayalee Samajam.

But, inevitably, she would come across parents who would insist that their children stop dancing when they reached Class 9 or 10. Priya felt a natural empathy for the students since she had gone through a similar experience. “When you block children, their confidence gets shattered,” she says.

So, Priya decided to counsel parents. “They have a belief that if a child does dance or arts or sports, their performance in academics goes down,” says Priya. “But this is a wrong conclusion. On the other hand, these children tend to do much better if they are practising an art form. Their right brain, which consists of creativity and original thinking, becomes activated, apart from the logical left brain, which grows through studies. So this leads to an overall development.”

There are other benefits, too. “Children learn to bond with their peer group,” she says. “They feel mentally happy after doing physical exertion. In fact, one girl told me that after a session, she feels eager to go back to her studies.”

So, she has begun orientation classes for parents. “I talk to them regarding the importance of art and hobbies,” says Priya, while on a recent visit to Kochi. She had come to Kerala to give a solo Bharatanatyam performance on Lord Krishna at Guruvayur, even as she prepares a Mohinyattom performance on the same subject.

Meanwhile, apart from youngsters, Priya is also teaching women, from the early twenties till 45 years of age. Interestingly, the timing is from 8 to 9.30 p.m., so that the women can finish their household chores and then come. “All are married, but they feel a bit empty since they are unable to express themselves,” says Priya. “Dance is one of the best platforms to express yourself. They forget all their worries for one-and-a-half hours.”

And some have been transformed. There was a lady who suffered from an inferiority complex because of her weight. Priya encouraged her to take up dancing. And she began tentatively. Recently, she told Priya, “My husband tells me to dance all the time because he has not seen me so active in so many years.”

Meanwhile, other talented women have been able to put up public performances.

So, in her own way, Priya is trying to transform lives, both among the young and the middle-aged, through the medium of dance. “This is my way of doing something for society,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Heart-To-Heart Service

Joerg Drechsel, of German origin, talks about the Malabar House, at Fort Kochi, which recently won Lonely Planet's Heritage Hotel of The Year Award

Photos: Joerg Drechsel by Albin Mathew; Malabar House 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When David and Rebekah Benjamin checked in at the Malabar House hotel, at Fort Kochi, a few weeks ago, it was obvious that the latter was unwell. So, she was taken to a nearby hospital. After tests and a check-up, the doctor told the Swiss couple that Rebekah had dengue.

So, Rebekah stayed in the hospital for a few days. But every morning, the staff from the Malabar House would go and change the pillow and sheets. They would also provide all the meals.

Later, after Rebekah recovered, David wrote a mail to owner Joerg Drechsel (of German origin), in which he said, “We have never experienced such care and hospitality anywhere in the world.”

Drechsel has a reason to extend such help. “When you travel to a foreign country, you take along everything you need, but leave behind your social networks,” he says. “So, you have to depend on the people you interact with, like the taxi drivers, tourist guides and hotel staff. And we want to do our best.”

So, it is no surprise that, with this attitude, the Malabar House has won many awards. The latest, a few weeks ago, was the Lonely Planet's Heritage Hotel of The Year Award. In 2014 it won the World Travel Award for best boutique hotel in Asia, and became the first Indian member of Relais and Chateaux (a highly-respected global group of individually-owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants).

Asked the charms of the 17 room hotel-bungalow, CEO Saji Joseph says, “People come, not for a good night’s sleep but to have an experience. The ambience, the exposure of the restaurant to the tropical weather, while the cuisine is based on local flavours (you can have the seasonal catch of the day: fish with tempered tapioca and coconut milk gravy). Then there is the art collection, a blend of contemporary art and collectible old art. We also offer ayurveda treatment as well as yoga lessons.”

Guests are also encouraged to travel to the famed backwaters of Allapuzha, or take part in a beach picnic, and see how coir mats and carpets are made.

However, what greatly adds to the charm is the people-to-people experience. “The Malayali is a born host,” says Drechsel. “He is friendly, kind, warm and cordial. And intelligent, too.There was a waiter who studied philosophy and was happy to discuss French existentialism with a client. For the guests it is an unique experience.”

But, interestingly, the turnover of staff is very high. “In Kerala everybody has a passport in his pocket,” says Drechsel, with a smile. “I have people knocking on my door at 7 p.m., and saying, 'Sir, it was wonderful working with you, thank you very much. My flight to Dubai is at 3 a.m. So I am leaving'.”

Despite the hiccups, it is clear that Drechsel loves Fort Kochi. In the 1970s, he came to stay one night at Fort Kochi and ended up spending two weeks. Thereafter, he kept returning every two years. However, in 1994, when he came across Malabar House, a shuttered bungalow for sale, he decided to buy it. And stayed on. As he put it on the hotel website: 'Country of Birth: Germany. Motherland: India'. 

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Narration During A Car Ride


Photos: Scriptwriters Sanjay and Bobby; the poster of 'How Old Are You' 

Scriptwriters Bobby and Sanjay talk about their experiences in the films, 'Ente Veedu Appuvinteyum', 'How Old Are You?' and 'Traffic'

By Shevlin Sebastian

For their first film script, 'Ente Veedu Appuvinteyum' (2003), Bobb and Sanjay felt that Jayaram would be the best person to play the hero. So, one day, they got in touch with Jayaram, who said he was on his way to Kottayam, the home-town of the scriptwriters, for a function. But Jayaram also added that he had to leave immediately, because he had to attend another function at Allapuzha. So, Sanjay narrated the script in the car when Jayaram left Kottayam.

Following the hearing, Jayaram said, “There is a child in the film. Who will be playing that?”

Immediately Sanjay said, “Maybe Kalidas [Jayaram's son] can play it.”

Jayaram mulled over it and stopped the car at Changanacherry. Then he stepped out and called his wife Parvathy. Afterwards, he told Sanjay, Kalidas would act in the film.

This opportunity turned out to be very good, not only for Jayaram, because the film became a hit, but also for the youngster. For his performance, Kalidas won the Kerala State Film Award as well as the National Award for Best Child Artist.

A different type of narration took place when Bobby and Sanjay had readied the script of 'How Old Are You?' (2014). “When we were writing the story, we did not know who could play the heroine,” says Bobby.

Then came the news that Manju Warrier was making a comeback. So, Sanjay and Bobby went to Manju's parents' home in Pullu, Thrissur, and narrated the script. “Manju listened with rapt attention for the entire two hours,” says Bobby.

At the end, Manju said, “This is the challenging role that I was looking for. It suits me perfectly.”

When Manju accepted, the duo felt happy and tense at the same time. “Her comeback had generated a lot of attention in the media,” says Sanjay. “We were worried that if the film did not do well, it would reflect badly on us. However, Manju was confident that it would do well.” This belief was not misplaced; the film became a hit. And Manju made a resounding comeback.

For the Tamil version of 'How Old are you', ('36 Vayadhinile') , there is a scene where actor Jyothika goes to see the President of India. Bobby and Sanjay sent a list to the production controller in Chennai indicating that the number of extras needed to play the roles of Security and Protocol Officers, as well as the Black Cat commandoes.

After a week, there was a message from Chennai. Everybody had been readied, except for the black cats. “They told us they had managed two black cats, but the others were white and brown in colour. Was that okay?” says a smiling Bobby.

The scriptwriters had a different experience on the sets of 'Traffic'. In the film, there is an important character called Dr. Simon D'Souza. “We had a desire that our uncle Jose Prakash should play this role,” says Bobby. “He was 84 at that time, and not keeping good health.” Initially, Jose was not keen but agreed when his nephews urged him.

One week before the shoot, Jose asked for the script. Thereafter, he began rehearsing at home.

My uncle had acted in 300 films,” says Sanjay. “Despite this, it seemed to us, looking at the excited look on his face, that he was acting as if for the very first time.” In the end, the shoot, at Jose's home at Vaduthala, went off very well.

But, sadly, this turned out to be Jose's last film. He passed away on March 24, 2012. 

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

When Amitabh Bachchan Got Angry

Colleagues remember the qualities and achievements of the former Chief News Photographer of The New Indian Express Jeevan Jose who passed away on August 10

Photos: Jeevan Jose; the pics of an angry Amitabh Bachhchan taken by Jeevan Jose 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On January 6, 1988, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan had arrived at Kochi airport on a helicopter following his secret week-long vacation at Bangaram Island, in Lakshadweep, with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia. Thereafter, he got into an Ambassador car. As it was about to leave the airport, The New Indian Express photographer PK Jeevan Jose managed to click four frames.

An angry Amitabh stepped out out of his car and waved his finger at Jeevan and shouted, “No". But Jeevan remained unfazed. Amitabh turned to the security team, but they remain immobile. Eventually, a grim Amitabh entered the car and left. And Jeevan ended up with an exclusive scoop. (At that time the Centre was probing Ajitabh Bachchan's involvement in the Bofors scam. Opposition politicians asked how there could be an impartial scam when the elder brother was vacationing with the PM)

Memories of Jeevan and his many achievements flooded the minds of his former colleagues and friends as the big-hearted former Chief News photographer passed away at Kochi, on Thursday, at age 64, following a heart attack.

Among the people paying compliments was MK Das, former Resident Editor. “Jeevan had a good nose for news,” says Das. “He was ever willing to take risks and go into any type of situation, no matter how dangerous.”

In 1991, colleague Leela Menon and Jeevan went to a colony at Aruvacode, in Nilambur. In this area, because of poverty, prostitution was rampant. Nobody could enter because of the presence of criminals.

By taking the police into confidence, Leela and Jose posed as representatives of the Union Ministry of Social Welfare. “They showed remarkable courage, as they interviewed the women,” says Das. “And they returned with the story about the racket along with the photos.”

It was published in the Saturday supplement. Immediately, it aroused the interest of the national media. “Many newspapers and magazines followed up on our report,” says Das. “This was one of the numerous occasions when Jeevan rose to the occasion.”

Says Leela: “I feel a pain at his passing away. We had gone on many assignments together including the one which Das had mentioned. Jeevan Chettan was very caring and kept a protective eye on me. I always travelled with him on his scooter. He was a nice man, with no bad habits. Jeevan Chettan was very committed to his profession. And he took very good photographs.”

Apart from being a committed professional, Jeevan was also a mentor. “I had always noticed how good-heartedly he mentored newcomers and junior photographers,” says KA Antony, a former colleague. “He would teach them how to take good photos and encourage them. He would help reporters too, with excellent story ideas.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Empowered By The Spin

Manoj Thomas has an invented the 'Spin Power' wash, which has a brush, as well as shampoo, that can be used to wash cars effortlessly

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Four years ago, entrepreneur Manoj Thomas was laid low by a severe case of spondylitis. As a result, he found it difficult to wash his car at his home in Chakkampuzha, Pala. So he bought a high-speed hose. But after he washed his vehicle he did not feel satisfied. Then he had to use a piece of cloth to dry the vehicle. But that became difficult to do. So Manoj realised he needed a machine which would clean the car smoothly and not need a cloth to dry it. But there was no such product in the market.
That was when I decided to make one,” he says. Manoj set aside a room in his home, where he got himself a drilling and cutting machine. Thereafter, for the next years, he did numerous trial and error experiments. And finally, he has made the 'Spin Power' car wash equipment.

At his shop, on a recent evening, Manoj looks upbeat. Just outside is his dusty Santro. He immediately connects the Spin Power to an electric outlet as well as a water tap. And when it starts working, the first thing one notices is the way that the brush moves smoothly over the car body, moving clockwise, and anti-clockwise, with water dripping through it. If you turn a knob, drops of shampoo also mixes with the water.
The advantage of this brush, which is of American origin, is that when it comes in touch with water, it becomes smoother,” says Manoj. “So, it has a scratch-free effect.” Effortlessly, Manoj cleans the back, the bonnet, the tyres as well as the top.
The advantage is that after the wash you don't need to dry it,” says Manoj. “That's because we use clean water throughout. When you use a bucket and a piece of cloth, you carry on cleaning the car even when the water turns black. So, when the car dries, there are usually spots on it.”

But there are no such issues with Manoj's machine. The Spin Power weighs 1.8 kgs and is priced at Rs 6500. This is cheaper than the high-speed hoses in the market. The other attributes include and A/C as well as a D/C adaptor. The machine uses about 40 volts as compared to the 1500 volts of other products. The number of litres used is 20, which is far less than used by others.

In order to protect his discovery Manoj has applied for a patent. But in India, a patent can take five years to get cleared. “The risk is that when my product is in the market, others will copy it, since there is no patent,” says Manoj. “Unfortunately, I cannot wait so long to get a patent. So, I have decided to keep changing the model to stay one step ahead of the competition.”

Meanwhile, as of now, there are some satisfied customers. Recently, a 53-year-old central government employee James Abraham had gone to buy jackfruit seeds from Manoj's dad nursery. However, there were no seeds in stock. “My father suggested to James that he should have a look at my product,” says Manoj. So, James did so, liked what he he saw and bought it.

After a month of use, James says, “My car [Toyota Etios] can be washed quickly. Since the outer bristles do not rotate, the water does not splash. Sometimes, if there is no electricity slot, it can be used using the car heater. I like this product very much.”

A happy Manoj is keeping his fingers crossed. “I have spent Rs 50 lakh so far,” he says. “But I am confident that customers like James will make Spin Wash a success.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Mapping The Moods

Nitin Vasanth has invented an electrode that traces the mental state of a person, with the help of a smart phone

Photos: Nitin Vasanth by Albin Mathew; the Rajeev Circle Fellows; Nitin is fourth from right 

By Shevlin Sebastian

As his name was called, Nitin Vasanth felt a shiver of excitement as he strode on stage at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi on March 17.

The 23-year-old received The Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Award from Ramesh Mashelkar, a former Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Nitin’s prize-winning entry was called ‘NeuroBuds - Brain Wave Mapping Smart Earphones’.

Apart from the award, the Kozhikode-born Nitin received a grant of Rs 15 lakh to do further research.

While doing his B. Tech in electronics from the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), Nitin came up with the idea of tracking the mental state of any person through an app on the smartphone.

With that end in mind, Nitin put electrodes inside an earphone and then placed it in the ear. “These electrodes are similar to what we use to measure the heart,” says Nitin. “You have seen doctors placing them on the chest. But it is based on a different principle called the Electro-Encephalography.”

In this case, the electrodes help in tracking your mental state. “For example, when you do meditation, the brain emits a particular frequency, which is different from when you are angry or sad,” says Nitin. These messages will appear on the app.

When you find that your stress levels are too high, you can take steps to bring it down, by taking deep breaths, going for a walk, listening to music, or seeing a film,” says Nitin.

Nitin is targeting the stressed-out working professionals, from the ages of 25 to 45. “They are usually short of time and not aware of the stresses they are under,” says Nitin. “This device will make them realise they need to ease up. As a result, they can avoid health issues and save up of on medical costs.”

But Nitin is not yet ready for mass production, as he wants to fine-tune it some more. For that he is getting help from companies like Bosch and Intel.

In fact, in February, Nitin was selected for a five-month ‘accelerator’ programme, organised by Intel and the Department of Science and Technology. So Nitin and the members of his firm, ‘Neuro Tech’, were able to access the Intel Lab at Bangalore and interact with the engineers.

But his turning point came when he was selected for the Rajeev Circle Fellowship to spend the month of May in Silicon Valley, California. (Rajeev is the first name of the late Motwani, a professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, who was a mentor to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin).

I met a lot of entrepreneurs, investors, and venture capitalists,” says Nitin. “I got to know what works, what doesn't, and what I should focus on. Our group of 11 was allowed access to the R&D labs of Google and Facebook. We saw the frenzy of innovation first-hand. It was a huge learning experience.”

And Nitin was very much taken up by the work culture in the Valley. “People are ready to help each other, even among start-ups,” he says. “There is competition, but they believe that there is space for everybody. Failure is not seen as a disaster. If one thing does not work, they try something else.”

Today, the Bangalore-based Nitin is working hard to ensure that his ear plug becomes a world-class product.

Meanwhile, one who is sure of his success is Unni A M, Associate Professor, Electronics Engineering, CUSAT. “Nitin is extremely dedicated to his work,” he says. “Since 2013, he has been working on this project. He wants to ensure that it materialises and becomes useful for society. I am sure, in future, he will be someone to reckon with.” 

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

Monday, August 07, 2017

As Close To Real Life As Possible

Director Dileesh Pothan talks about his critically-acclaimed hit film, 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum'

Photos of Dileesh Pothan by Albin Mathew; the poster of 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent afternoon, Mollywood director Dileesh Pothan was relaxing in a production bungalow in Kochi with his crew members. Suddenly, he heard the 'Ping' sound of a message. Quickly, he picked up his mobile phone. It was a forward from actor Fahadh Faasil. The message read: 'Please congratulate the director for me. Wonderful to see such talent flourishing'.

The message was sent by the noted director Mani Ratnam. And the film he was referring to is Dileesh's second, the critically-acclaimed hit, 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum' (Material object and eye-witness).

The tale, based on a script by journalist Sajeev Pazhoor, is simple. A couple Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu) and Sreeja (newcomer Nimisha Sajayan) are travelling on a bus from Vaikom to Kasaragod in Kerala. Owing to family opposition, because they belong to different castes, they had got married hastily and are now eloping.

On the bus, a thief (Fahadh Faasil), who is sitting behind, managed to snip off Sreeja's gold necklace, using a cutter. Fahadh is spotted immediately by Sreeja, but he quickly swallows the item and denies the robbery. The bus is stopped, there is a hullabaloo by the passengers and the vehicle is eventually taken to the police station.

What follows is an intriguing and gripping drama at the police station. In order to provide authenticity, 23 actual policemen are acting, including the Sub Inspector, who is played by Sibi Thomas, a Circle Inspector in real life.

To provide even more authenticity, Dileesh did away with written dialogues. I told the actors the main points of the scene,” says Dileesh. “Then I would ask them to come up with suitable dialogues. But we would do a day's rehearsal. And we kept practising till the conversation was perfect. This enabled the actors to go deeper into their characters.”

Another game-changer was the presence of noted Bollywood/Mollywood cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, who shot most of the scenes with a hand-held camera. “When an actor moves, if the camera moves at the same time, you can catch him in a most natural manner,” says Dileesh, whose first film, 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' was also received well.

While everybody acted well, Fahadh took the prize for his portrayal as a thief. “To get a true feel of what it is like to be inside a police station, Fahadh would sit on a thin mattress on the floor in the 'arms room',” says Dileesh. “On most days, after lunch, he would also go and sit in the cell. Sometimes, he took a nap.”

All this hard work by everyone has paid off. 'Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum' is one of the best Mollywood films in recent times. 

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

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

So Many Gifted Voices

The two volumes of The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature showcases some of the best writing of the 20th century

Photos: Clockwise from front: M. Mukundan; AS Priya; Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Chandu Menon, OV Vijayan, MP Narayana Pillai, ONV Kurup (with spectacles) and Sarah Joseph. Collage by Amit Bandre; the book covers 

By Shevlin Sebastian

'The deep black of her locks, its length, abundance, and softness were most alluring. As for her lips, I wonder whether it is possible to see their likeness in women who are not Europeans. Her eyes - their length, their triple tone, their sparkle, the way she uses them on occasion, and the intense fire in them - can be described only by young men who have been subjected to their effect. In addition, she was at an age when her bosom was filling out. Is there a man invulnerable to the power of those growing breasts? Can anyone describe the bewitching beauty of this Indulekha!'

This is an extract from Chandu Menon's 'Indulekha' (1889). “This is the first novel in Malayalam that has the characteristics of a Western novel,” says PP Raveendran, Professor Emeritus at the School of Letters, Mahatma Gandhi University. “And it has been presented as a social narrative. One can say that it is a realistic presentation of society during those times where a feudal way of life was giving way to an industrialist-capitalist one.”

But it also had a powerful impact on society. “It led to a radical reform of the ways of the Namboodiris and Nairs, the two major communities featured in the novel,” says Raveendran. “No organised movement could have brought about a social transformation that this novel did.”

The Indulekha extract was featured in The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Malayalam Literature, which has been edited by Raveendran and Prof. GS Jayasree. There are two volumes: while the first deals with poetry, drama and prose, the second book focuses on fiction.

Expectedly, many greats are featured in the fiction volume. They include names like Ponkunnam Varkey, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, SK Pottekkatt, T. Padmanabhan, O.V. Vijayan, MT Vasudevan Nair and M. Mukundan.

One notable omission is Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. And the reason is because the editors could not get the required copyright permission.

Asked about the target audience, Raveendran says, “This will benefit ordinary readers, those who have specialised in literature as well as research scholars from outside Kerala, who want to read Malayalam literature. This is the first time that such a comprehensive anthology of Malayalam literature has been published in English.”

Not surprisingly, thanks to the patriarchal nature of Kerala, males dominate the list. “But, in recent times, more women writers have emerged,” says Jayasree, the Director of the Centre for Women's Studies, Kerala University. “They include AS Priya, KR Meera, Sarah Joseph, Gracy, Geetha Hiranyan, and S. Sithara.

This is a beautifully produced set. The Adobe Garamond font is a delight to read. Before each story or drama or prose, there is a biographical sketch, so the reader is fully aware of the author's career as well as a description of the story he or she is about to read.

And some are highly imaginative. In MP Narayana Pillai's 'The Court of King George The Sixth', he writes: 'As rain and sunshine fell on me, moss slowly covered me. The soles of my feet were eaten by termites. The tips of my toes put forth buds. My hair turned into upward-growing roots. My hands became branches.'

Adds Raveendran: “Pillai created a world of myth, magic and fantasy peopled with devas, asuras, yakshis, ghouls sorcerers, demons and other natural and supernatural beings.”

There is an equally vibrant writing in the Poetry, Drama and Prose volume thanks to the presence of well-known writers like N. Kumaran Asan, G. Sankara Kurup, K. Ayyappa Paniker, and the late ONV Kurup.

All in all, this is a sumptuous celebration of Malayalam literature. 

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