Monday, July 10, 2017

Bend it like Lydia: B'luru girl kicks her way to US




Five years ago, Bhagyalakshmi suffered a bout of depression. Her newborn infant suddenly went into a coma and finally died three years later.

When the lines of reality started blurring for Bhagyalakshmi, her dear ones decided to send her to work, thinking it would do her some good.

Her search for a job landed her in an NGO called Magic Bus in Bengaluru, which uses an activity- based approach to bring children out of poverty.

It not only revived Bhagyalakshmi's spirits but she became aware of her long lost love for football.
But with a household to run with two children, a girl and a boy, she decided to enrol her daughter in the NGO.

Her efforts paid off as her little girl, Lydia, is all set to go to the United Sates for the second time to attend a football coaching camp for 15 days conducted by July Foudy Leadership Foundation.
She was picked up just because of her sheer talent. Last year, there were three girls from Bengaluru. This time, she is the sole participant.

I arrived at her place at Doddanagar a little late in the evening. Lydia, a tall 15-year-old girl was already waiting for me.

Since her place was a bit congested, she took me to a small hill nearby, on top of which is a Murugan temple.
A few feet underneath, a lot of little boys were playing football. The moment they saw us on the hill, they stopped playing and came running towards us.
There would be 10-12 children. "They are my best friends," says Lydia. Surrounded by a lot of surprised eyes, we started our tete-a-tete.

Lydia says she never thought she could play football.
She credits her love for the game to Kavitha, her Magic bus mentor, who introduced football to girls in their community, which was a privilege only accorded to boys until then.
Soon, she became one among the girls who played football in her community. Within a short span of time, she got opportunities to represent the organisation against many big teams.

"At the outset, our team lost in a match against Mysore team. We were new. But soon we acquired the skills and we started beating many other teams," Lydia says. Narrating her experience in America, she says, "When I went there last time, they talked about leadership qualities. How it changes lives. When I came back, I tried my best to inculcate the leadership qualities which I have learnt from there." Even before her trip to the US that quality might have been inherent in her, otherwise, she would not have gone door to door in her community asking parents to allow their girl children play football as parents did not want them to wear shorts while playing.

 "Some became ready to send their daughters and some remained unconvinced," Lydia says. The girl is hardly lured by the pomp and splendour she experienced in the US. Her focus is clear as a crystal. "It's my dream to be a football coach and I want to go to rural areas and teach children football," Lydia points out. One of the inspirational experiences she had was when she watching a video based on the life of July Foudy, an Olympic gold medalist and retired American football player. "It was touching to see the hardships she had to endure before she made it big.

 It instilled in me a lot of courage to seek what I really want," Lydia says. Though she is in awe of America, she says she prefers India. "There, everything looks the same - people, the places. But here, everything is different and I feel it is special. Most of the time, they eat green vegetables. It's good for health we are not used to it, right," she asks. But she is quick to add that she liked pizza. Lydia has already done her homework.

 One of them being concerns updates of a project which she had taken up during her coaching days. "We are asked to pick a community project. I chose a project of planting 10 trees. I have planted 15 tree saplings in my place and they are certainly going to ask me how my project is progressing," Lydia says. Lydia's best supporter has always been her mother. Though her father initially was wary of her playing football, it changed when she got selected to the Barcelona camp in Bengaluru. Lydia will leave for the US on July 7.

Natasha Ramarathnam, Magic Bus Regional Director, South, says, "Our children and youth complete their education and get sustainable and meaningful livelihoods, while successfully fending off destabilizers like child labour and child marriage. Lydia is perfect example of the impact that Magic Bus has on the children in its programme. A young girl from the community is now going to the US to represent Magic Bus India in a global programme devoted to developing young leaders. Far from being nervous about the responsibility, the only things she is concerned about is how she will make up for the classes that she will miss when she is abroad."

- Shalet Jimmy

Originally published here Bend it like Lydia: B'luru girl kicks her way to US




Monday, July 3, 2017

Murders in Maximum City

It began when a six-year-old girl from Kandewadi, a small slum near Andheri in Mumbai goes missing. Pinky was the first to go, then Jamila followed by Mary, Sindhu and Tara.

Panic grips the slum when these children are returned as mutilated and raped corpses. Lalli takes charge of the investigation with police officers Savio and Shukla and her niece Sita who is also her accomplice. Written from Sita's point of view, Kalpana Swaminathan's latest book slowly opens to an unimaginable cruel world of crime and put forth several questions to ponder upon.

The book has dealt with issues like brutal child abuse, politics that can sell and buy anything, the helplessness of the officials who are not corrupt, pseudo feminism, etc. Though crime fiction written especially by Indian authors highlight several issues and makes the reader ask pertinent questions, there’s often a tendency to dismiss fiction noir as mere 'pulp fiction'. It is unfortunate.

If you put down a list of serious crime novels, Kalpana Swaminathan's ' Greenlight' will be the first in the category. It is her sixth book in the Lalli series.

Let's see who Lalli is? She is a retired police detective who has ace shooting skills. She is in her sixties and is ruling the roost in a world dominated by men. If there is a murder, Lalli is the last resort even for the police.

The book is unputdownable and a great relief that Indian writers can create novels in this genre that can compete with the west.

To speak further on the book, it throws light on the bizarre mindset of the people. On one side, there is the world of the rich, who believe in committing horrendous crimes just for the sake of thrills. They brutalise slum children purely because they do not consider them worthy of living in this world. Then there are the slum dwellers, who refuse to empathise with Tara's mother, a sex worker, even after Tara is abducted and killed. They even pray for Tara's death just because her mother is a sex-worker; they think she deserves it.


What I also like about the book is the innuendoes on pseudo- feminism. In a meeting called by Seema, the journalist who is following the Kandewadi story, women easily forget the atrocities and rape and easily shift their attention to take it as a platform to indulge in their own selfish interests – some writes articles, poem, etc. One has killed her feotus and has written a poem on it justifying her actions that she aborted it to save the fetus from the world. She has taken the decision after reading the Kandewadi incidents.

Sita who could not bear this hypocrisy comes out of the meeting and thinks to herself that “ I had lacked the courage I might have had five years ago to tell those women what a misogynistic bunch of voyeurs, they were, what pathetic human beings they were, if their only response to the pain of others was to trot out sorry tales of their own. I wondered what they would have said, or done if they had seen Tara in her empty hut.”

Calling ' Lalli', a ' Desi Miss Marple' will not do any justification to the round character Kalpana Swaminathan has created. Even the author has clarified once that Lalli is not like Miss Marple. There are no similarities barring the fact that they love sleuthing. Like Miss Marple of Agatha Christie, Lalli has her own identity.

One thing that could have been avoided is the gory description of the brutalities committed to the children. It's horrendous. This reminds me of books written by a renowned Crime writer from the West, Tess Gerritsen. Perhaps it might be their background as medical doctors which enable them to write precise description though a bit gross.

When the story ends Swaminathan also puts across a question to ponder “ The Cry, How can I bear that someone should use my body like this? Is usually read as a woman's outrage. But isn't it equally a man's? It is men who should protest against rape and not women.”

- Shalet Jimmy

published here as Murders in Maximum City

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Filling a Gap in special education



Seven-year-old Tejas was confused when his father told him that an infinite number cannot be pinpointed. Nonetheless, he persisted with the question, but got the same answer. Finally, he relented, saying, “Fine, if the infinite number cannot be pointed out, tell me the number just before that.” A logical question indeed!

 Once, Tejas had written a mirror image of ‘6’ instead of six. Obviously, he did not get the expected ‘stars’ from his teachers. He was sad and couldn’t understand where he had gone wrong. When his parents pointed out to him that he had written the mirror image, he asked, “Why can’t the teacher hold the book upside down, then she could have read it as six.’’ The little boy, of course, sounded logical. But his mother had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

 When a child psychologist told them that he had learning disability, they could not fully comprehend what it exactly meant. The panic-stricken parents started searching for institutions that could help out their boy, which landed them at the Child Development Centre (CDC) of Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. There, they came to know that Tejas had dyslexia. “He knows the colours as red, blue, black etc. But he could not pinpoint which is which. We often dismissed such tendencies as laziness. But it was not,” said his mother, Sandhya Prajin.

 It is their frantic efforts to know more about their child’s problem that eventually led them to come up with a school for dyslexic children - Travancore National School - a first of its kind in the state. Within one year of its opening, they could make four dyslexic children pass their tenth standard examination through National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). Flattered by the rare feat achieved, the state government has also extended a helping hand to them.

 “These are good times. But there was a time when everything was topsy-turvy. His father was not ready to accept that he has dyslexia,” reminisced Sandhya.

 “How could you accept that? My daughter is highly competent and is first in everything and the fact did not sink in easily that he had learning disability,” said Prajin Babu, his father.


  What many parents fail to understand is that dyslexia is not a big problem as they think, he explained. “Yes, the child needs proper attention. But it is not something that could brandish their child for life. There are many such children. Once they understand it, their child could be saved,” said Prajin.

 To create awareness in this direction, they made Tejas a little goodwill ambassador. “Our boy has this problem. We are saying it aloud. That could make parents understand it well,” he said.  Singer G Venugopal is the ambassador of their organisation.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Samaritan for the Sightless - Padmashree Dr Tony Fernandez


For octogenarian ophthalmologist Tony Fernandez, age is just a number. The zest with which he has brought light to so many people’s lives in a career spanning half a century, Fernandez will never be past the prime of his life. For his selfless service, the Government of India bestowed upon him the Padmashree in 2008. His eyes still has the spark that glistened 44 years ago, when he took the initiative to set up an eye banking facility for the first time in a private hospital in Kerala.

It was in 1970 that he set up the facility in the Little Flower Hospital at Angamaly, 40 km from Kochi. The hospital then was a small dispensary. Fernandez had special training in corneal transplant and squint from England and was practising at Madurai Medical College when he decided to return to Angamaly.

“I saw a large number of people would be able to see, if corneal transplants were undertaken,” he says. “For some reason, majority of the patients belonged to the financially weaker section of the society. Since there were a few facilities for corneal transplant here, they were referred to an institute in Ahmedabad. Now, how could a financially weak person afford a treatment there?” Thus was born his facility.

However, there was not much of encouragement. “To bring in public involvement, an eye bank association was set up,” says Fernandez. “Corporates and institutions such as the Lions Club and Rotary extended their support, and we started awareness classes. Special equipment was brought from different parts of the world. Slowly, eye transplants began to take place here.”

Since there were no storage facilities initially, the eyes had to be brought from Sri Lanka. Majority of the population in Sri Lanka practice Buddhism; it exhorts them to donate eyes. For many years, Sri Lanka was the major contributor of eyes to many parts of the world, including India. To bring in the donor eyes, special permission had to be taken from the Government of India, apart from paying `2,000 as customs duty. “It was difficult for Angamaly, being a remote village, to get permission. Hence, the government decided to grant permission to set up eye banks at Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut medical colleges,” says Fernandez.

“Earlier, the entire eye had to be taken out; later, it was just the cornea,” he says. It had to be put in an ice box and brought to the state by flight. Then it was taken to Angamaly by bus. But hardly anybody came forward to do this job. It was then that the association for blind came forward to help.



Fernandez is also a pioneer in organising free community camps. Initially, after consultation, the surgery was performed in the camp. Now it has changed. “After consultations, the patients are referred to the hospitals,” he says. Nevertheless, the octogenarian is happy with the way things have turned out regarding organ donation. “But we still have a long way to go,” he says.

Not ready to rest on his laurels, Fernandez has launched another project, Kazhcha 2020, in collaboration with actor Mammootty. “The purpose is to wipe out cataract blindness,” says Fernandez. “Satellite centres will be set up in every part of the state. People can undertake treatment free of charge.”

- Shalet Jimmy

originally published here Filling a Gap in Special Education

Friday, June 23, 2017

Unexpected Delights - SHRAVANABELAGOLA, Karnataka

 The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes
 - Marcel Pronst



I was under the impression that travelling could be an experience only if I travel solo. I was completely fascinated by the tales of solo travelling. But my trip to Shravanabelagola in Hassan at Karnataka broke that myth.

Well! Solo travelling might work for many but for me, a trip with somebody who would just like to travel can work. I have cautiously and deliberately avoided the words ‘share the same passion’. After this trip, I firmly affirm the above-mentioned quotes. Travelling is not about seeking new places but new perspectives.

When I look back, this trip proved to be the most wonderful trip ever.

The experience and that ‘so good feeling which you feel from inside’ could not have happened if I had travelled solo. The 600 steps to reach the biggest monolithic statue would have been a big hurdle if I had travelled alone. I could not have managed them by myself.

Those hours, we spent under the shade of a rock after climbing majority of the steps chatting about personal, professional and worldly things made the experience more personal. A slight breeze that blew during those hours made it more memorable.

Neither am I against solo travelling nor am I making a sweeping generalisation. My point is: if you love travelling, grab any opportunity that comes on your way. Whether it is solo or group does not make a difference. It’s all about you and your personal experience.

We travelled to Hassan from Bangalore. As it was an unexpected trip, we started off a bit late. It took around four hours to reach Hassan. Once you are out of the chaos of city traffic, the rural landscape will make your drive a pleasant experience. When you reach Shravanabelagola, you can see the statue from afar.

As I am a person who does not love being amidst a crowd, the month of September proved to be the right time.

At the entrance, I saw her.


As footwear are not allowed, you can buy socks from the local vendors for Rs 60. After the visit, most of us discarded them in a dustbin kept there.

If you think you cannot handle the steps, there is chair - carrier like a palanquin.The views are different and mesmerizing after climbing each steps. It’s all about rocks.


This white pond and the view is majestic. 






When you think that you have finished the Herculean task of climbing the steps, this appears. You can sit for a while here and start the next phase of climbing.There is no doubt that you will get thirsty after climbing all those steps. There are big tanks set up for drinking water.


 Now let's get some facts about the statue

The 58 feet tall statue of Jain deity Gomateshwara is the tallest monolithic statue in the world.

Shravanabelagola has two hills Chandragiri and Vindhyagiri. The statue is located on the    Vindhyagiri.

The statue is one of the most important thirthas ( pilgrimage destinations ) in Jainism.

The base of the statue has inscriptions in Devnagari script, dating from 981 AD. The inscription praises the king who funded the effort and his general, Chavundaraya, who erected the statue for his mother.

Every 12 years, thousands of devotees come here to perform the Mahamastakabhisheka, a spectacular ceremony in which the statue is anointed with water, turmeric, rice flour, sugar cane juice, sandalwood paste, saffron, and gold and silver flowers. The next Mahamastakabhisheka will be held in 2018. It is called 'Statue of Gommateshvara' by Kannadigas, but the Jains refer to the same as "Bahubali".

A view of the city and the sky from the temple





The descent was much easier. We returned by around 6 pm.

- Shalet Jimmy

PS : All pics are copyrighted

published in bfirst as UNEXPECTED DELIGHTS

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Nightmare for a Lady Gatekeeper


Jhansi, the gatekeeper with the Indian Railways, was her usual self after closing the railway gate between Aralvaymoli and North Panakudi stations. The Nagercoil - Bengaluru Express was about to pass. Little did she know then that, what was about to happen to her. As the time passes, out of the blue, five miscreants arrived at the gate and started yelling at her to open it.

She was all alone with hardly any person around her. The place was also devoid of houses. Every moment was fraught with danger. If something goes wrong, the train would not pass safely. And she could not let that happen.


Risking her life, Jhansi took every blow inflicted on her by her attackers willingly and let the train pass safely. Balu Chandran, a Kanyakumari native who tried to save her, was also brutally assaulted. Their efforts bore fruit when Railways honoured them. The bravery certificate was handed over to them in April 2015 by the Governor at Thiruvananthapuram.

28-year-old Jhansi, a Nagercoil native, still reminisces about that night with a chill down her spine. I was alone. The train would come at any minute. I wanted to avoid a tussle, she says.
When the miscreants tried to open the gate by pulling the lever lock Jhansi told them that she would do it herself once the train passes. This irked them. “They started hurling abusive words. I ran to inform the Police Control Room and locked myself in my room. But, in no time they came after me and had beaten me black and blue. I was hit on my head, chest, abdomen and back,” she recollects.


There was hardly any public except one or two. Then, a small boy came and asked them to stop assaulting her. “They left me writhing in pain and chased that boy. By that time, two or three persons who turned up threw the miscreants’ bike key away. After coming back, thinking that I might have done that, they assaulted me again. I was phoning my Station Master then. They pulled my hair, dragged me and beat my head against the lever.

 It was then that Baluchandran arrived at the scene and tried his best to stop them from harming me,” she says with a gratitude in her eyes.
Even he too fell prey to the brutal attack of the miscreants. “They beat him so hard that he was lying in a pool of blood. They even rolled the bike on top of him. Then they ran and hid somewhere in the dark. Police arrived by then and took us to the hospital,” Jhansi says. By then, the train had passed safely.

Sadly, the assault affected Balu’s life, heavily. “I get acute head and back aches, frequently. Because of it, I could not go to work for months,” he says.
He used to work in a company that makes fishing net .”Earlier,I used to draw a salary of Rs 12,000. Now, every thing is topsy- turvy. I am literally struggling hard to earn my bread and butter. I have a wife and two kids to look after. My wife could not go to work as our first born could not walk and the second child is too small to leave her alone,” he said with helplessness reflecting in his voice.
Jhansi is now a gate keeper at Kaavalkinar. The shift is from 6 am to 2 pm and 2 pm to 10 am. “If I get a second shift, my husband would accompany me”. Inquiring, if she is still afraid to go to work, she replies “Yes, But I have to work.”

- Shalet Jimmy

originally published here http://www.newindianexpress.com/cities/thiruvananthapuram/2015/jun/17/A-Nightmare-for-Lady-Gatekeeper-770468.html

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Gandhi from India - Fr Davis Chiramel

On April 3, 2014, Father Davis Chiramel dived from 15,000 feet. He came down at a speed of 180 km per hour. Anything could have happened to a first-timer like him. He felt as if someone was pushing him down harder. But the risks and the fears of tandem skydiving (where the student is connected to a harness attached to the instructor) disappeared before the noble cause he has undertaken.





Fifty-four-years old, Fr Davis might be the first kidney donor from India who performed this daring act in Lancaster, United Kingdom, to create awareness among the public about kidney donation.

“Many tried to dissuade me from it and asked what if I get a heart attack when I am in the sky,” he says. “But I told them things are not certain even on the ground, so why the worry. But it was indeed a risky act, much more dangerous than donating a kidney.”

Come September and the philanthropist priest will embark on another brave mission—a journey called ‘Ma..Nishada’ which embodies the message—‘No violence, No rape, No alcohol and No suicide’.

Around 75,000 people have committed suicide in Kerala in the past 10 years. “In many places, the doors of those rooms where a suicide took place have been locked, giving way to several ghost stories,” says Fr Davis. “I will visit these places and will spend one night in the room. If there is a ghost lurking, let he or she find me.”

But then Fr Davis is just as famous for his acts of courage as he is for his compassion. Twenty-two days after he donated his kidney to a complete stranger in 2009, he travelled from Kasargode in the northern end of the state to Thiruvananthapuram at the southern end to visit hospitals and speak on kidney donations. The idea was to reach out to people personally and inspire them through his example—“If I can do it, so can you.”

Fr Davis believes that the tours he undertook have brought about a drastic change in the attitude of the people. “When it comes to organ donation, things were not as smooth as it is today,” he says. “But when I go in front of the people, they see a donor in flesh and blood. Above all, he is hail and healthy. It has worked well.” Thanks to his efforts, so far five-and-a-half lakh people have pledged their organs.

However, it was not a conscious decision on the part of Fr Davis to work towards this cause. A committee had been formed to collect money to help Gopinath of Vadanappally, Thrissur, who had a kidney ailment. “And they made me its patron,” says Fr Davis. “The money was collected, but there was no kidney to transplant. It was then I decided to donate mine. But everybody was against it. The awareness was scant then.”

Meanwhile, in 2009, Fr Davis set up the Kidney Federation of India (KFI) at Thrissur. In a matter of five years, his name, as well as the KFI, has become synonymous with organ donation in Kerala.

Acknowledging his contribution, the National Kidney Foundation, America, gave an honorary membership to Fr Davis, making him the first Indian to get it.

He has also travelled to the UK and US and spoke to the Malayalees there. “Many did not know that we could not use a foreign kidney for medical reasons,” says Fr Davis. “Hence if any ailments afflicted them, they could be helped only by their fellow people there.”

Prior to his donation campaign, Fr Davis had set up an institution in Thrissur called Accident Care and Transport Service. Today it has 15 ambulances, 30,000 volunteers, and 15 branches. To-date it has admitted and treated two-and-a-half lakh people.

Spreading light

■ In 2009, Father Davis set up the Kidney Federation of India at Thrissur

■ Thanks to his campaign across Kerala, so far five-and-a-half lakh people have pledged their organs

■ Acknowledging his contribution, the National Kidney Foundation, America, gave an honorary membership to Fr Davis, making him the first Indian to get it.

■ His Accident Care and Transport Service in Thrissur has 15 ambulances, 30,000 volunteers, and 15 branches. To-date it has treated two-and-a-half lakh people.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Want to Get Married in this Kerala Church? First Prove You Are Not Impotent!

by Shalet Jimmy
Published in the New Indian Express, Kerala





If you are a parishioner of the Santa Cruz Basilica, Fort Kochi, and wants to get married in the church, you have to prove you are not impotent. The vicar of the church has already issued a circular stating that this is a canonical requirement and has published it on the notice board.
However, the Church leadership rejected the claim that producing the potency certificate was a canonical requirement for marriage.

Kerala Catholic Bishops Council deputy secretary-general Fr Stephen Alathara said though such a suggestion had come up earlier, it was turned down.

“For the smooth functioning of marriages, there was a suggestion to collect such details before one enters into wedlock. But the Church has not cleared it,” he said.

And medical experts have said potency tests aren’t always reliable. Said noted psychiatrist Dr C J John: “Since such clinical tests are being conducted under artificially stimulated circumstances, chances are high that one clearing the potency test is likely to be impotent in an actual situation and vice versa. Some can’t stimulate themselves under artificial circumstances. Hence it would be wrong to label them as impotent. That could destroy their lives. Besides, psychological factors also play a pivotal role in defining one’s sexuality.”

A parishioner, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused the local vicar of “creating a mess” by coming up with such strange rules under the pretext of implementing canonical law. “My plea to renew my ancestor’s grave was rejected several times. The church has become a company. Only those priests who can garner more funds are able to climb up the hierarchy,” he said.
Another parishioner complained that the church had laid down a rule that only married women who had given birth could be a godmother at baptism.

Vicar Fr Francis Fernandez wasn’t available for comment despite repeated attempts to contact him.
Asked to comment on the issue, Cochin Bishop Joseph Kariyil said he wasn’t aware of the new rule. “I will soon look into it,” he said.

Francis Kallarakal, Archbishop of the Verapoly diocese, said the church had taken certain decisions based on consensus during emergencies. “But such a clause — to produce a potency certificate — hasn’t figured in any of our talks,” he added.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Words from a budding writer - Harsha Mohan



She was in love with Hindi and music once upon a time. Seated in a corner in her classroom, little Harsha Mohan Sajin waited for an opportunity to hum the Hindi poems in books to the tune of latest Bollywood numbers. Even her classmates at the convent school could not help lending their ears to it.

Never did she miss any light music competitions or any other singing contest. Her mellifluous voice bore the stamp of a singer in the making. Years flew by. But much to the surprise of many, her craze for music was short-lived, for her interest turned to writing.


Soon she came out with ‘Oru Manjukala Kavarcha’. Acknowledgments poured in from all quarters and her joy knew no bounds when the work was selected for the Basheer Memorial Award 2013 for the best short story by a new comer.

Before the joy of recognition could sink in Harsha won the US Malayali International short story award 2014 for her short story ‘UAEyile Aanjanmangal’. Surprisingly, Harsha never wrote a single word till the day she went to Doha to join her engineer husband four years ago. “It would not be wrong to say that hectic life in Doha spurred her to write.

Though she started writing late, the seeds were sown much earlier. “Life in Doha was of course a driving force. But I think I was attracted to words even when I was a little girl. But I didn’t know it then. My love for words grew under the  tutelage of my Malayalam teacher - Bhanumati.   I would not have become a writer, had it not been for her,” Harsha says. Perhaps, this must be the reason why she dedicated her blog to her late teacher.


 Ask her if she does any research for her work, and she says, “Definitely. I don’t have much experience to develop ideas into a story, so I do a lot of research on the subject. But one of my works, ‘Muyalcheviyanmar’ is purely based on emotion.”

Harsha’s ‘Agnes Dimitriyude Thiruseshippukal’ for which she bagged the second prize under Qatar Samskrithi Cheru Katha Puraskaram 2013 was applauded by the judges for its new style of narration. “I had to do a little bit of research to get the geography of Italy, right.” The work is about the relationship between Agnes Dmitri Monero an Italian writer and Draupathi Dutta, an Indian writer.

The story ends with the death of Agnes, a strong personality and a known feminist, who wanted her unpublished stories on love, passion and emotions to be published in Draupadi’s name so that, her feminist image would be intact. Harsha says that the story did not develop from the thread but from the  name-Agnes. “I came across the name accidentally and I wanted to give the name a character. I started thinking about it. What she should be doing and of her personality which eventually gave way to a story,” she says.

Her blog  ‘Mazhakkadukal’ (Rainforest) is replete with almost all of her works.

published in The New Indian Express

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Garden that heals - Meet Venugopal, a self - taught medicinal plant grower from Kochi, Kerala


Self -taught medicinal plant grower T K Venugopal has a garden that is visited by those looking for cures and botany enthusiasts alike

A higher official from Kochi corporation met his long-time acquaintance, T K Venugopal. The former was then suffering from severe knee pain. Venugopal soon handed over his ‘ Methiyadi’ (wooden sandals) and asked him to use it for a few days. Next time, when the official met Venugopal, the former was completely cured of his knee pain. “Methiyadi is made of wood and when one walks wearing it, it would tap the heels of the leg, frequently which increases the blood circulation. That’s how he was cured of his knee pain,” explains Venugopal.

Perhaps, it was to make us realise its importance that he was waiting for us, wearing it. And it hardly came as a surprise when he said that he had a garden full of medicinal plants.

The compound and terrace of this self-taught medicinal plat grower, who formerly served in the logistics department of the Navy, are full of medicinal plants - right from ‘Vayambu’, ‘Koovalam’, ‘Shatavari’ to ‘Nithyakalyani’. The ‘Amritu’ tree was tall and its long extended string-like roots are tangled in a knot. The garden would surely remind of a time when houses had plants and flowers which could be used as a single medicine therapy, in their backyards. In the garden, there is swing hanging from a tree.The number and varieties never seemed to confuse him for he could narrate the properties of each one.

Venugopal planted most of these medicinal plants in 2000. His experience with them are so plenty that he does not mind prescribing an ‘Ottamooli’ or single medicine therapy, occasionally.

While walking through the garden, we came across a plant which has small yellow flowers.   “It is called ‘Akrov’ in Malayalam and it is a good remedy for tooth ache.” But when we seemed a bit skeptical about it, he asked us to chew it. Surprisingly, after doing so, our mouth went numb.

He also told us the trick to identify the gender of certain trees. “There are trees like nutmeg which bear fruit only when male and female trees are planted together. In such cases, you have to hold a gold chain just above one of its leaves. But its tip should slightly touch the leaf. Then lift it a bit. There should only be a small gap between the chain and the leaf. If the tip of the chain oscillates back and forth, then it is a male and if it the motion is circular, then it is female. I usually give this tip to Botany students who often come here in groups to learn about plants,” he says.

Venugopal, then pointed to some leaves which were purple in colour. “These leaves are called ‘Murikootti’. This is usually found in Wayanad. Its juice can cure wounds or burns,” he explains. There is also a story behind it, he continues. “Lord Hanuman was returning with the ‘Maruthwamala’ from the Himalayas. But on his way, a part of the mountain fell to the ground. It contained many medicinal herbs and one among them was ‘ Murikkootti’”.

Asked to suggest some ‘Ottamoolies’, he says - “A mix of grounded ‘Moringa’ leaves and garlic is good to cure swelling. To get a good sleep, you can store water in a clay pot, put ‘Ramacham’ in it and drink two glasses of this water before sleep. A sound sleep will kiss on your brow,” assures Venugopal with a smile.

He lives with his wife Valsala Kumari at Elamakkara. Many people come to him, seeking medicinal plants and he is always happy to give them away. “Clay is also a good cure for many ailments,” he says. He has a stock of it which he gives to those in need. Venugopal has never charged a penny from anyone. “I grow these trees and plants out of sheer passion,” he says.


published in the New Indian Express

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Usha Nangiar- The Living Legend of Koodiyattom




It was noon when we reached the Sree Sankaracharya University at Kalady. On the bustling campus, some students were seen trying to get their Mudras perfect while a few young budding actors were seen brooding over something which only they knew about, a perfect set up for a conversation on art.

Usha Nangiar, who teaches ancient theatre, was waiting for us. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we soon got into our tete-tete.Within seconds, it was evident that the person sitting in front of us was not easy to fathom. 

‘Trance’ could well be her synonym.Not only she goes into a state of trance while speaking about her passion but also lures the listener along with her. And, it is this attribute of hers that has left many of her listeners to ponder over the characters she performed.

After one of her performance, an admirer commented: “Enthina Kanna Poothanaye Konne?” (Why did you kill Poothana, Kanna). None other than noted writer K B Sreedevi confided in her that her heart aches for Poothana’. Ask her how she does that, Usha, winner of ‘Kalashree’ Award for Koodiyattom by Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy, says:

“Perhaps, I can sense the ‘I’ in every person. And, I do not want to hurt them”. 


Perhaps, Usha Nagiar strongly felt that ‘I’ in Ahalya when she performed ‘Ahalyamoksham Nangiarkoothu’ for the first time during the last Kochi- Muziris Biennale. It drew a large audience. Immersed in deep thought, Usha says there is a life inside that rock. 

“Ahalya could sense her world around. But, could do nothing. I thought about her travails while being trapped in a rock.”

When Usha decided to delve deep into her passion, she first sought the answer for how Koodiyattom, described by UNESCO as the masterpiece of the intangible heritage of humanity could be retained for the posterity?

“There are hurdles as this is an art form dating back to more than 1500 years. This will be my sole focus. For the time being, I am shoving off yet another pertinent question on why this art form was pushed to the oblivion for many years. I thought I would research into it when I am old.”

This great connoisseur who never wants to budge from the set format of Koodiyattom has never been against any change but there are conditions.

“There are experiments in every field. It has started knocking on the doors of Koodiyattom too. I am not against it provided it retains the classical character and the set rules of Koodiyattom. otherwise, it would just be another contemporary dance and will have a transient life,” she clarifies. At the same time, she does not forget to point out the fact that there should be a change in accordance with the times. “If not, it would push the audience to monotony,” she says.

Her life as a Koodiyattom artist was natural. She was the daughter of noted Mizhavu artist Chathakudam Krishnan Nambiar. To be ordained as a Chakiar or Nangiar, arangetam had to be performed. She too did the same. And, in 1980, she joined Ammannoor Gurukulam.

“I was the first girl student and there was no competition. I did get a lot of stages to perform,” she reminiscences. On her favourite performance, she says: “The story of ‘Lalitha’ gave immense scope’. Besides, I am also thinking something differently about Draupadi.

Her story gives little scope to experiment. But, I was thinking of her emotions when it comes to her marriage with her five husbands.”

Usha Nangiar is married to eminent Mizhavu artist V K K Hariharan. When asked about honours and recognitions she says: “I have never bothered about it. But, I  always felt that if anybody needs a reference on Koodiyattom, put Ushan Nangiar on one side, that would weigh more than the other side. I don't know whether people call it as my audacity, but for me, that's  my strong faith.” 

Usha Nangiar recently, won the ‘Kalashree’ Award for Koodiyattom.

published in The New Indian Express

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mr Change of Heart - Dr Jose Chacko Periyappuram


As he wielded the scalpel, cardiac surgeon Jose Chacko Periappuram closed his eyes and said a prayer—let this patient not be among those unlucky souls whose heart hesitated to beat again. The prayer was intense this time, for Periappuram was going to perform the first heart re-transplant.

On March 6, 2014, Periappuram became the first cardiac surgeon to conduct the first successful heart re-transplant in the country.

 Periappuram calls it a miracle. Gireesh, a 39-year-old software professional from Palakkad in Kochi was suffering from a rare heart ailment called dilated cardiomayopathy. His heart was not pumping blood efficiently. The first heart transplant was done on June 4, 2013, but soon he developed fever which led to an infection in one of his valves.

On February 27, 2014, he had a cardiac arrest after being resuscitated. On March 2, he was put on a ventilator as his condition worsened. On March 5, he suffered a second cardiac arrest. There were only two options—either remove the transplanted heart or the infected valve. Re-transplant is usually done when an already transplanted heart fails. But it accelerates risk as another surgery on a patient who had undergone cardiac surgery is not advisable. For every transplant, the heart should start beating again within four hours after being moved from the donor to the recipients’ body. The operation was a success.

“However hard we try, a 10 per cent mortality rate cannot be ruled out,” he says. “Hence, it is not always in the doctor’s hands to save a life.” Periappuram is the only cardiac surgeon in Kerala who has undertaken nine successful heart transplants so far. He was the first in Kerala to conduct a heart transplant in 2003.

Ask him what goes through his mind when he is about to operate on a patient, Periappuram says, “Absolutely nothing. I am detached and indifferent. Hardly any emotion clutters my mind. I am a doctor who has nothing else to think, but saves the patient in front of me.” He had a strange reply when asked why he chose to be a surgeon. “I was always fascinated by the beauty of a beating heart,” he says.

Call it a coincidence, but the doctor always had brave patients who made his task much easier, whether it be Gireesh or Abraham on whom he had conducted the first heart transplantation surgery. “Abraham was young. When I told him that I have never done a transplant before, he clasped my hands and said, ‘I believe in you and you can do it,” says the 55-year-old surgeon. It was more or less the same with Gireesh. He says the re-transplant surgery would not have been successful if Gireesh had not shown tremendous will and determination.

Periappuram, who is the chief cardiac surgeon and head of the department, cardio-thoracic department, Lisie Hospital, has many other ‘firsts’. He initiated a beating heart surgery programme in Kerala. He is also credited with the first successful TAR (Total Arterial Revascularization) and first awake bypass surgery in Kerala. Recognising his achievements, the government of India conferred on him the Padma Shri in 2011.

Periappuram now dreams of giving artificial hearts to those who cannot undergo transplants for various reasons. “Some might not get a suitable heart at the right time and for others, they cannot undergo heart transplants owing to the failure of other organs. Western countries are big on artificial hearts. Now my effort will be to make low price artificial hearts,” he says.

He also runs the Heart Care Foundation which provides heart surgeries to poor people by helping them financially.

On the Top

■ First doctor to successfully conduct a heart transplant in Kerala

■ Sole cardiac surgeon in Kerala who has undertaken nine successful heart transplants

■ Awarded Padma Shri in 2011

■ Periapurram is also credited with the first successful TAR (Total Arterial Revascularization) and first awake bypass surgery in Kerala

published in the Sunday Standard, The New Indian Express