Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Salt 'N Pepper


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Vani Viswanath talks about life with the actor Baburaj

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Albin Mathew 

One day, in October, 1998, Vani Viswanath got a call at her home in Chennai. The director J. Williams wanted to come and narrate a story. Vani said yes. But when Williams arrived, he was accompanied by Mollywood villain Baburaj.

Vani assumed that Williams would be narrating the story, but it turned out to be Baburaj who had written the script. Vani thought to herself, 'Does he have the capacity to narrate a story?'

But Vani got a surprise. “When he began speaking, I stopped listening to the story and was taken up by the way he was talking, the gestures he was making, and the smile on his face,” says Vani. “He was speaking in a much better way than most scriptwriters. I decided to say yes, just because of the way Baburaj was telling the story.”

The film was 'The Gang'. During the shoot, at Kochi, Vani suddenly panicked about whether she would get paid. So she sent a message to Baburaj, who was the producer. Immediately, he provided the payment.

But that same evening, Baburaj called Vani and said, “I need some money urgently. So can you give it back? I promise that I will pay it tomorrow morning.”

But Vani told him that she had already sent the money to her father at Thrissur. “Later, when we got close, he asked me whether I had actually given the money to my father. I said, 'Of course not,'” says Vani, with a laugh. “There was no way I would return money to a producer. Because I knew I would never get it back.”

Nevertheless, Vani and Baburaj acted in another film, a Tamil one called 'Jaya'. In this movie, the lovers, played by Vani and Baburaj, have a physical fight. “We were hitting each other and blood was coming out of our mouths,” says Vani.

However, in real life, the couple were falling in love. After two years of courtship, they decided to get married. There were objections from both families, because Vani is a Hindu while Baburaj is a Christian. Nevertheless, both stayed firm and the marriage took place on February 28, 2002, at the Tirupathi Temple.

When the rituals were going on, I was thinking about the many marriages that I had taken part in Tamil and Malayalam movies” says Vani. “The only difference was that this time it was for real. And I would become a mother in future.”

Yes, indeed, she did become a mother, to Aarcha, 11, and Adhri, 6. “Baburaj is a far better father than husband,” says a frank Vani. “He gives them a lot of care and affection. For his son, he has filled his bedroom with posters and figures of ‘Hulk, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Superman’, because Adhri likes them. For Aarcha, she likes small items like pens. So, Baburaj will buy expensive brands like Cross and Parker.”

Meanwhile, these 12 years have been a topsy-turvy ride for both of them. “Baburaj is a capable person,” says Vani. “Once we needed to put tiles on the floors of our house in Chennai, and he said, ‘What's so difficult about that? We can do it.’ If the TV set goes bad, he will repair it. Baburaj can do painting and electrical works. He is also a good cook and can make tasty chicken and fish curries.” So, it was no surprise that Baburaj’s breakout role was as a cook in the film, ‘Salt N’ Pepper’.

To Vani, Baburaj is a larger-than-life person. “When he gets angry, it is to the extreme,” she says. “But the next moment, he forgets everything. When I remind him, he will say, 'Did I say that? I don't remember'. When he is loving, he is overwhelming. And that is also the case when he is in a humourous mood.”

Incidentally, thanks to Baburaj, Vani has become a passionate cricket fan. One day, during their courtship, Vani asked Babu to rush her to the Chennai railway station. She needed to catch a train to Thrissur. Baburaj drove fast and furiously. After a while, he suddenly braked the car and went inside a shop, did not buy anything, and came back in a minute. Then he drove fast again. At the station Vani managed to get the train. Once the train left, a puzzled Vani called him on the mobile and asked him why he had stopped at the shop. He said, “Molle, India is playing a cricket match. I wanted to know the score.”

That was when Vani decided she had to know how the game is played. Once Baburaj explained the rules, Vani became a passionate fan. “I also love football and like Adriano the Brazilian footballer,” she says. “So I took the first half of the name, and named my son Adhri.”

Finally, when asked for tips on marriage, Vani says, “Between me and Baburaj, there were more than a thousand times when we could have divorced each other. We can divorce tomorrow, too. But the challenge is to remain together. It is not that everybody will get a good husband or wife. The wife might say my husband is a big problem. But maybe, the problem is with the wife. So you should learn to accept each other.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Art of Curating

Jitish Kallat, the artistic curator of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

In October, 2013, things were going well for artist Jitish Kallat. He had just returned after opening his own individual shows at the Galerie Templon in Paris, and the San Jose Museum of Art at California. Looking ahead, he had several plans for the next few months, including displaying his works at other places. As he was working in his studio at Byculla, Mumbai, he received a call.

The called asked him to switch on the speaker phone. And then the voices of eight people could be heard. They were the members of the Artistic Advisory Board of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF): Geeta Kapur, art historian, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, museum director, Feroze Gujral, Director, Gujral Foundation, Abhay Maskara, Curator and Gallerist, and artists Sheela Gowda and Balan Nambiar, Riyas Komu, Secretary, KBF, and Bose Krishnamachari, President, KBF.

They asked Jitish whether he would like to become the curator of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale. “Yes,” said Jitish. “But please give me some time to think over it.” There was a collective response, “Only one day. Otherwise, you will change your mind.” Just then the line went dead.

After a 24-hour reflection, and discussions with family and acquaintances, Jitish replied in the affirmative. “It was an instinctive decision and I always do everything on instinct,” he says, while sipping tea at a hotel in Fort Kochi.

And his life has been on a whirl, ever since, especially in the past six months. He has gone to Australia, Japan, Taiwan, many countries in the Middle East and south-east Asia, France, Germany, UK, USA, and the Netherlands in search of work that would be suitable for the Biennale.

Thus far, about 90 artistes from 30 countries have been selected. “Every artist represents something at a deeper level,” he says. “Collectively, it is not just a list, but an energy field of ideas.”

India will have a fair representation, with more than 30 artistes taking part. “I have somebody as old and senior as KG Subramanyan and Namboodiri and somebody as young as Unnikrishnan who is in his early twenties,” says Jitish. “That is the bandwidth. I don't think of age, person, community or country while selecting an art work.”

Asked about the theme, the cerebral Jitish says, “In the 15th century, there was great astronomical and mathematical activity in Kerala to locate the human being in the cosmos. It is now called the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy. Simultaneously, there took place the much known history of maritime trade and navigation. The shores of Kochi become protagonists in a certain moment of human change and evolution. To understand the present, one should reflect not on the historical, but the cosmological, as well.”

Incidentally, several sites of the inaugural edition will be used. They include Aspinwall House, David Hall, the Durbar Hall, and the Pepper House. “Some new sites will be added,” says Jitish. These include the Mohammed Ali Warehouse and a lived home, where the art work will be placed in a domestic environment. 

The Biennale will be inaugurated on December 12. “What you will see on that day is the result of everybody's efforts in the KBF, in terms of infrastructure, team work and resource mobilisation,” says Jitish. 

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

Exploring the Spiritual Realms


Yogi Ashwini talks about the need to have a guru to get enlightenment. He had come to Kochi to conduct a workshop

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Yogi Aswini by Melton Antony 

A few years ago, Seema Kalra, a Delhi-based trekker, along with her husband Rajesh went for a trip to Kailash Manasarovar. She took several pictures of Kailash and the mountains. When she returned, she decided to show them to her guru Yogi Ashwini and her friends, all of whom practised meditation at the Sree Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi.

So the group sat in the room and Seema switched on the projector. The first and second pictures were fine, and then, suddenly, in the third frame, there was this glowing face. “He had sharp features, a milk-white complexion and shoulder-length black hair,” says Yogi Ashwini. “He was looking straight into my eyes and I shivered.”

Immediately, Yogi Ashwini prostrated himself on the ground. “Later, when I drove back home I was crying throughout,” he says. “The energy which radiated from the photo was phenomenal.”

For the next session, Yogi Ashwini asked Seema to bring the CD again, so that he could show it to more people. But when the CD was shown, that image could no longer be seen. "Unfortunately, nobody else had seen what I saw,” he says.

Soon, the others started saying, “Yogi has seen Bhagwan Shiva.” And they were trying to visualise how he looked like.

Yogi Ashwini is the son of Iqbal Krishnan, one of the first advocates on record in the Supreme Court. He grew up in Delhi. Apart from doing a masters in economic management from the University of Delhi, he represented the Union Territory in athletics and rowing.

His turning point came when his mother died because of ovarian cancer at the age of 58. “I was very close to her,” he says. “Her passing away was a shock to me. I realised that this there is something beyond life.”

Thereafter, Yogi Ashwini went on a spiritual search. Apart from meeting Grand Master Choa Kok Sui, of the Pranic Healing Foundation, Yogi Ashwini wandered about in the Himalayas, befriending the sadhus. He even flew to the Philippines to meet an occult master who told him that in his past life he was a warrior in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.

I had lived a violent life,” he says. “When you have that kind of karma, killing people, and causing sorrow to so many, you have to pay the price. My mother’s death was karma playing out in my life. I have realised that the reason behind every good and bad event is karma."

Meanwhile, at some point in his search, Yogi Ashwini threw himself at the mercy of the divine within and met his Guru. He went into periods of silence and did intense sadhna. Finally, it led to a spiritual breakthrough.

He says that in this troubled world, there is a need for people to delve into their spirituality. “If you want to explore the realms which are beyond the physical, if you want to interact with yourself, if you want to experience the presence of gods and goddesses, if you want to manifest them, then you can come to me,” he says.

Yogi Ashwini says that it is important to get the right guru. “All genuine gurus have common traits,” he says “He collects nothing. A guru does not sit with the prominent industrialists only. The guru has no barrier between himself and the people. The guru exudes the glow which yoga is supposed to give you. What the guru says happens. In the presence of the guru you get elevated. The guru spends more time in causes, than in building institutions.”

He gives some examples. “Ramakrishna Paramahansa never built an ashram for himself,” says Yogi Ashwini. “That was the case with Guru Nanak, Raman Maharishi, Shirdi ke Sai Baba and Satyanand Paramahansa. The more you have, the more you get attached to it.”

Yogi Ashwini came to Kochi recently to hold a workshop on anti-ageing kriyas and healing mantras like the sanatan kriya.

The Sanatan Kriya consists of purification techniques which ensures the free flow of praan (life energy),” says Yogi Ashwini. “As a result, the practitioner radiates good health and glow. The Universe sustains because of a balance in nature. The smallest imbalance can be disastrous. The same is true for human beings. Any imbalance causes physical, mental, emotional or even financial distress. The purpose of the kriya is to bring the body in a state of balance.” 

Meanwhile, several devotees flew in, from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi to be part of Yogi Ashwini's workshop. They included journalist Shivan Chanana, film editor Simrandeep Kaur, marketing executive Nikhil Singh, country manager of IBM, Sandeep Sharma, and businesswoman Benu Malik. The local representative was Dr Prasan Prabhakar, the owner of the Laxmi Hospital at Mattancherry.

Yogiji has a spiritual aura about him,” says Benu Malik. “I came to experience that. I feel so peaceful and happy when I am in his presence.”

Simrandeep says that after she started doing the Sanatan Kriya, she stopped drinking and smoking. “I feel peaceful nowadays,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Healthy Mix

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

KP Wilson talks about life with the Ayurveda doctor Rosemary

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ajesh Madhav

When KP Wilson was a young man, he was not sure that it would be worthwhile going into the family business of Ayurveda treatment: the 150-year-old Kadamkulathy Vaidyasala. So he took a B.Com degree from Christ College Irinjalakuda.

However, in the 1980s, Ayurveda bloomed all over the world and suddenly he realised that he had an opportunity to develop his inheritance. So, when he was looking for a bride, he searched for a girl who was an Ayurveda doctor. 

One proposal was about a girl, named Rosemary, who was doing her house surgency at the Tripunithara Ayurveda Medical College. So Wilson met Rosemary, in November, 1986, at her home at Kaipattoor in Kalady. “When I saw her, for the first time, wearing a green saree, I got a good impression,” says Wilson. “I felt that she would be an able companion and would help me in my Ayurveda business.”

So Wilson said yes. Two days later, he met Rosemary at her sister, Annamma's home in Kochi. Not surprisingly, the subject of discussion was Ayurveda.

This also was the topic during their wedding, on January 11, 1987, at the St. Xavier's Church at South Thanissery, near Mala. “What was unforgettable for me was that the parish priest, Fr. Antony Irimban, spoke about ayurveda and its benefits during the sermon,” says Wilson. “Usually, priests talk about marriage, its importance and responsibilities. Maybe because Fr. Antony knew my family, he decided to talk about Ayurveda.”

 Soon after the marriage, the couple went for a honeymoon to Kanyakumari. At the Vivekananda Memorial, Wilson, an avid photographer, climbed a rock and was intently taking snaps, when he slipped and fell. “My camera was damaged, and I had a few bruises,” says Wilson. “That is the enduring memory of my honeymoon.”

When asked about his wife's plus points, Wilson says, “It was only because of my wife that I was able to make my father's business into a commercial success. She gave full support to me. Rosemary is completely dedicated to her job as a doctor. She has put in as much effort as I.”

Rosemary also has a gift of getting along with people. “Many patients have come back for return consultations,” says Wilson. “She knows how to maintain friendships. And despite her busy schedule, Rosemary has always run the home in a smooth manner. It has not been easy for her to be a chief physician, wife and mother, but she has managed everything well.”

The couple have three children: Pathrose, 26, an Ayurveda doctor, who is working at the Vaidyasala. Mary Anne Brigitte, 21, is doing her third-year MBBS at the Amala Institute of Medical Sciences, Thrissur, while 14-year-old Kuruvilla is a Class 8 student at the Holy Grace Academy in Mala.

Once a year, we would go for holidays to places like Ooty, Kodaikanal, Malaysia or Singapore,” says Wilson.

As for the drawbacks, Wilson says, “Once Rosemary makes a decision, she will not budge. And even if I am able to persuade her to change it, Rosemary will not be convinced that it is right. Sometimes, in different circumstances, this can be regarded as a plus point.”

Incidentally, the Vaidyasala employs 600 people and there are hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Mala, Chalakudy and an Ayurveda resort in Athirapally. “Once a week, Rosemary visits all the hospitals,” says Wilson, the Managing Director. “We have doctors and physicians who are running it, but Rosemary does the overall supervision.” 

Despite their busy schedule, Sundays are a day of rest at their home in Mala. “We go for morning mass,” says Wilson. “And after lunch, we often go to Kochi.” Sometimes, they spend time in the Lulu Mall and see a film. “The last movie we saw was 'Vellimoonga' and we enjoyed it,” says Wilson. “Rosemary also likes to do shopping. Usually, she buys clothes. She is not fashionable, but likes to dress well. We end up leaving the mall when it is closing time. It is a good stress-buster for both of us.” 

They are also a couple who get along well with each other. “We are both working people, but have developed a good understanding,” says Wilson. “I might have some positive traits which my wife may not have, and vice-versa. But we try to use all our positive qualities and work as a team. And we talk to each other all the time about all that is happening in our work and home. In many marriages, there is no sharing or communication. Spouses are living isolated lives.” 

Wilson has also ensured that his ego does not enter the picture. “I come from a long-standing family of physicians,” says Wilson. “I could have told Rosemary that I know more about Ayurveda than her, but I have never done that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Making People Smile

Theatre Director Leila Alvares has made Indian audiences enjoy feel-good Broadway musicals like 'Grease', 'My Fair Lady', 'Sound of Music' and 'Fiddler on the Roof'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

A Bangalore-based singer Joshua Prabhakar took his wife Jessica to see the musical, 'Fiddler on the Roof'. Jessica liked it very much. The next day was her birthday. Joshua was planning to have a party. But Jessica told her husband she did not want it. Instead, she wanted to take the entire family to see ‘Fiddler’ again. So her husband fulfilled her wish. “When Joshua told me this after the show, it brought tears to my eyes,” says the Coorg-based director Leila Alvares.

Indeed, Jessica is right. At a recent show at the JT Pac, Kochi, 'Fiddler' was performed with such gusto, charm and brio that the audience gave a standing ovation at the end.

It is unbelievable to know that Leila has had no training in drama. Her life changed when she went to do her Masters in Management Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology at Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. “Since the college was close to Manhattan, I used to watch a lot of shows on Broadway,” she says. One of them was Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat'. “When I saw it, I was so amazed,” she says. “I decided I would do it when I returned to India.”

And she kept her word. In 1997, she put up her first production in Bangalore, and it became a success. From then on, she has put up a musical every year. These include 'Grease', 'My Fair Lady', 'Hello Dolly', 'Sound of Music', 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers', and 'All Shook Up'.

Asked why she focused on musicals, Leila says, “I want people to laugh and have a good time. And when they leave they should hum happy tunes.”

But these musicals are expensive to put up. “Getting finance is a headache,” says Leila. “No corporate group will promote local talent, but they have no hesitation to spend a lot of money bringing people from New York or London. So we depend a lot on ticket sales and advertisements in our brochures to get the money for our shows.”

However, even the rights are costly. For 'Fiddler', the rights had to be obtained from the New York-based Music Theatre International (MTI), at $900 (Rs 55,000) per show. On top of that, MTI charged rental fees, as well as handling and shipping of scripts. Overall, it is about Rs 1 lakh.

Despite the difficulties, Leila has also done her bit to help the downtrodden. In April, 1996, she set up the CAUSE Foundation. CAUSE stands for Co-operation of the Arts for the Underprivileged in Society and Environment. It is a non-profit organisation that donates money to charities that are struggling. “Whatever money is left over, after all the expenses, we give away,” she says. So far, CAUSE has given Rs 11 lakh to orphanages, female HIV patients, destitute homes, and the mentally challenged.

Because of CAUSE, the 35 member-crew which came to Kochi worked for free. One reason is because most have well-paying jobs,” says Leila. While the lead actor Arvind Kasturi is a professor of community health at St John’s Medical College, Prem Koshy runs the popular restaurant, 'Koshy's', and the music conductor Vivek Menzel is an architect.

But you have to hand it to Leila for the deft way that she handles the team, which ranges in age from 7 to 60. “Leila is able to bring out the best in people,” says Prem. “She also knows how to work with the script. She reduced 'Fiddler' from three to two hours without missing anything.”

Says Arvind, “Leila is able to take a group of amateur talent from one level to the next. And she does that all the time.” 

Leila Alvares, take a bow! 

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Life In A Timeless Zone

A school dropout, VC Raju runs the Snehamandiram centre in Kerala that caters to the mentally-challenged people who have been abandoned

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

I have 15 husbands and thirty children,” says Thresiamma. “Indira Gandhi knew me. Mammooty is my father. In my house, there are 30 planes.”

Ebin comes to the mike and says, “I have a computer in my pocket.” Then he takes out a small metal case. James says, “I am ready to get married. Is there anybody willing to marry me?”

The audience, sitting on chairs, in a hall, smile and clap. All of them are inmates of the Snehamandiram (Home of Love) at Padamugham in the scenic district of Idukki in Kerala. They are mentally challenged, and range in age from 21 to 98. They are having an entertainment programme following their weekly prayer meeting.

These people have been abandoned by their families,” says Snehamandiram founder VC Raju. “Nobody is there to love and care for them.”

It is the local populace, police and social service organisations who have brought the men and women to the centre. One of them has come from as far away as Delhi. Somebody put the Hindi-speaking Nitesh on a train. He reached Kochi where the police sent him to Snehamanidram.

Nitesh has been with us for the past 12 years,” says Raju. As he talks, Murali, an inmate, with missing teeth, comes up. Playfully, Raju pulls out a one rupee coin from his shirt pocket. Murali looks glum and walks away. Then Raju takes out a ten rupee note and calls him. Murali is gleeful, runs back, and hugs Raju. “Even Murali knows that there is no value for a rupee coin these days,” says a smiling Raju.

At the centre, there are 280 men and women and 38 children. A few of the boys and girls are the children of mentally challenged mothers. Many women had been sexually abused, and became pregnant. “Traumatised, they lost their mental equilibrium,” says Raju. The rest are orphans and abandoned children. All of them receive an education in the nearby schools.

To pay the school fees and the other expenses, the centre depends on donations. “Several people in the district are working abroad as nurses,” says Raju. “They set aside some money every month for us. Many local people also provide funds.”

Raju, 52, was a person who did not have any funds. A Class 10 dropout, one day when he gave alms to a mentally-challenged man, he felt an inner calling to start a home for these people. At that time, he owned a small stationary shop in Padamugham and was struggling to look after his family: wife Shiny, and children Nibin, Neetu, and Nivya.

When Raju broached the idea of starting a home, Shiny vehemently opposed it. “I am a practical person and could not understand why he wanted to do this,” she says. “All I wanted to do was look after my family.” In the end, a compromise was reached. Shiny would run the stationary shop, while Raju followed his dream.

In March, 1995, Raju bought a small plot of land with a donation from his sister, Rosamma Thankachan, who was working as a nurse in Rome. He began with a shed, 7 kgs of rice and an aged inmate, Thomas. Later, more people arrived. Now the shed has been replaced by two buildings with dormitories, halls, bathrooms and canteens, apart from a playing ground.

To run the centre efficiently, there are about 20 hired staff and volunteers. One volunteer is a retired head nurse from Mumbai, who is a spinster. “Her aim is to spend the rest of her life here,” he says.

Raju will also be spending the rest of his life looking after the inmates, helped by his son, a MBA graduate, and Shiny. “Much later, I realised what a noble work Raju is doing and offered my support,” says Shiny.

Raju's noble work has been receiving appreciation. Recently, he won the 'Social Service Award-2013', instituted by the ‘Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika’, a sister publication of ‘The New Indian Express’, and received a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh. “He has been doing meritorious work and a jury of three eminent people selected Raju based on reader nominations,” says Saji James, the editor of 'Vaarika'.

(Published in The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Pushing the Envelope

The glamorous Mollywood actress Lena loves to play mother roles to test her mettle

By Shevlin Sebastian

The scene was set at a church in Thodupuzha, Kerala. The bridegroom, Mamachan (played by Biju Menon), was middle-aged and pot-bellied. The girl was slim and in her early twenties. The mother of the girl, Mollykutty (Lena), was standing beside her and did not know what to think or feel. Because Mamachan and Mollykutty had been childhood sweethearts. But through the twists and turns of the plot, the long-time bachelor Mamachan was getting married to Mollykutty's daughter.

The director [Jibu Jacob] told me he would pan the camera and Mamachan will look at me and there will be this awkward moment between the both of us,” says Lena. However, Biju, who was out of the camera range, instead of keeping a deadpan face, laughed. “I was struggling to keep a straight face, but after a while I could no longer control myself and burst out laughing,” says Lena. “After that, one or the other actors would start laughing. When everybody got their expressions right, the priest started laughing.”

But now, all of them now have quiet smiles of satisfaction, because the film, 'Velimoonga', has become a blockbuster hit.

And this is the third hit film in a row, in which Lena has played a significant role. The other two are 'RajadhiRaja' and 'Vikramadithyan'. Interestingly, in 'Vikramidithyan', 'Vellimoonga' and several other films, Lena, who is in her early thirties, had opted to play the mother role.

In 'Vikramadithyan', she is the mother of the hero. “The story begins with my character, Lakshmi Nair, when she is 25 and wants to get married,” says Lena “Then she gets married, and has a baby. So, she ages from 25 to 45. This age range is a challenge for any actor. If you are a model, you might not want to try this, but I am interested in testing my mettle as an actor. I don't want to stand in a corner in a scene and look glamourous.”

Some of the other non-glamourous roles which Lena has played include a woman drunkard in 'David and Goliath', a social activist in 'Left Right Left', and a police officer in 'Spirit'.

An impressed Lal Jose, director of 'Vikramadithyan', says, “Lena is naturally talented, a thorough professional and technically skilled. She has learnt from her many experiences and looks comfortable in front of the camera.”

In real life, too, Lena looks comfortable and glamourous, with her high cheekbones, a svelte figure and a cool confidence. She had studied to be a clinical psychologist, but realised that acting, which she did in school, was her first love. And her knowledge of psychology has helped her work. “After all, everything we do involves the mind,” she says. “It helps me to add depth to the character.” So far, she has acted in 60 films in her 15-year career.

But her turning point came when she acted in 'Traffic' in 2011. “'Traffic' was a new-generation film where the hero-heroine pattern was broken,” says Lena. “There were many characters. Any actor who did his role well got noticed.”

And Lena did get noticed. She played Shruthi, the wife of a superstar, Sidharth Shankar, whose 13-year-old daughter is sick and needs a heart transplant.

Now, she is branching out, into other languages. She has just finished acting in KV Anand's film, 'Anegan' (Tamil). The future, indeed, looks bright. 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Success Story

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Latha talks about life with the business entrepreneur VK Mathews

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, 2014, Latha and her husband VK Mathews went to the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec for a holiday. It was a beautiful place: blue skies, cool weather and snow-laden slopes. Their Canadian hosts asked the couple to use a sled. You sit on it, and go down the slope, using your legs as a brake. Latha was hesitant, but their friends said it was child’s play. So Mathews and Latha set out on separate sleds. After the first turn, which Latha navigated perfectly, the inevitable happened. She lost her balance and went tumbling down the hill.

Immediately, a few helpers arrived on a snowmobile to collect Latha. “I told Mathews that he should carry on, since he loves adventure sports,” says Latha. But Mathews shook his head and remained with Latha, applying an ice pack on her leg, as they went to the hospital. Scans revealed a cartilage tear.

A woman always wants a feeling of security,” says Latha. “That is her basic need. And Mathews has always provided that.”

In fact, on their wedding day, at the Jacobite church, at Perumbavoor, on July 11, 1982, Latha experienced this secure feeling for the first time. When she was stepping down from the stage, during the reception, on her three-inch heels, she slipped and Mathews quickly reached out. “I can never forget the way that he held me,” she says.

Indeed, Mathews has always been there for his wife and daughters – Hannah and Maria – despite his jet-setting lifestyle. Sometime ago, he flew to Australia and Germany on successive days for work and returned to Dubai where he has a house. Soon, Latha and the girls went there from Thiruvananthapuram. They spent a week together and enjoyed watching Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Happy New Year’ at a beach-side theatre. “At dinner, we had an avid discussion about the film,” says Latha. “Our conclusion: it was an absorbing though predictable film.”

Incidentally, it was in Dubai that Mathews established his career. He was in charge of the computerisation of the reservations system at Emirates Airlines. “He had to work for days at a stretch,” says Latha. “If there were any problems, he had to be present. Sometimes, I would go and spend time with him at the office at night. I always felt that work was his passion and the most important thing in the world for him.”

After 14 years in Dubai, Mathews told Latha that he was going to resign. “I did not say anything,” says Latha. “All my relatives asked me why I remained silent. I said that if this is what he wants, he should do it. I was confident that he would be successful.”

Mathews started the IBS Group in 1997. Initially, it was a joint venture with Swissair. But when Swissair went bankrupt in 2001, IBS had a crisis. “Despite the setback, Mathews did not get rid of a single employee,” says Latha. “He managed to have a makeover and made it a products company.”

And Latha also learned something from the experience. “When problems come up, if we face it positively, then things will work out,” she says.

Incidentally, the family is also involved in the business. Daughter Hannah is working in the administration, while Maria has just quit IBS to work in a firm in Dubai.

Today, the IBS Group is a 3000 strong company which provides new-generation solutions to over 200 clients, which includes airlines, airports, cruise lines, oil and gas companies, travel distributors and hotels. The company has offices at Atlanta, Boston, London, Japan, Sydney, Dubai, Bangalore, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.

When asked about Mathew's qualities, Latha says, “Mathews has a positive outlook, is full of life and a charismatic person who is able to get along with people from all walks of life.” 

And he had the determination to succeed. “Some people talk a lot about their plans, but it rarely becomes a reality,” says Latha. “But in Mathew's case, it came true. He is a visionary. He never spoke about making money or having a big business. He just wanted to do well in life.”

Interestingly, unlike most successful people, Mathews has been a hands-on father. “Mathews has attended all the functions at school and most of the Parent-Teacher meetings,” says Latha.

But Mathews has his drawbacks, too. “He has a short temper but it is usually about minor matters,” says Latha. “For example, if he comes home early and if I have gone out for a function, he might get irritated. If there is any problem regarding any member of his family, he will leave everything and go there. I guess it is fine. My reaction may be because of my selfishness. But then I am not a 100 per cent perfect person.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Latha says, “Everyone has a role to play in the family. As a homemaker and wife, I am the glue that keeps the house moving. So, play your role as husband and wife to perfection and love one another.”

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

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Memories of the Ancestral House

By Shevlin Sebastian

My grandmother lived in a large house that her husband had built. And in this house, in Muvattupuzha, Kerala, which once housed nine children and was a babble of noise and activity, there is now a silence.

The children had grown up, taken jobs, got married, had children of their own, and moved elsewhere. And my grandmother lived a life of going to church, being active in social service organisations, and hosting her children when they came home, with their growing families, for the holidays. I, for one, came all the way from Kolkata.

There were so many memories of that house. I would wander up and down the empty hall, on the first floor, occasionally throwing a ball against the walls. Sometimes, I climbed over the balcony and walked on the outside, holding the railing, just to get a thrill. Cousins would come over. I played cricket with Joseph in the rectangular courtyard. The bat was made of a coconut branch, stripped of all its leaves, and we whacked the rubber ball over the place.

I also remember my grandfather, Abraham Vadakel. He was a short, broad-shouldered man, with white hair, who wore a white shirt and mundu.

He sat on an armchair, facing the door, which was open throughout the day. But he could not see because he was blind. In his mid-sixties, my grandfather, who had been a lawyer, was afflicted with glaucoma and gradually lost his eyesight.

He had two round boxes on the table placed near his armchair. One contained cigarettes, while the other had sweets. He ate them throughout the day. 

When I was a child, I would try to steal the sweets. But my grandfather was very sharp. “Who is there?” he would say. Inevitably, I had to say, “It’s me.” And he would smile and say, “Take a sweet.” He did not mind me taking them, but I had to tell him first.  So it became a challenge for me to take it without him knowing. But I doubt I tasted success more than once or twice.

My grandmother was his second wife. With his first wife, he had four children and then she died at the age of 30. At that time, people died early. If you had tuberculosis, you ended up dying. If you had too many pregnancies, either the mother or the baby died at birth. It was not an easy time: people were struggling financially, and the hospital facilities, especially in small towns, were rudimentary. My grandmother was only 20 and my grandfather 40, when they were married. They had five children, my mother being the eldest.

And during those summer vacations, I remember my grandfather sitting at the head of the table, in the dining room, and having porridge. And sitting next to him were my brother, sister, mother, along with my grandmother and two aunts who lived nearby. And all of us would eat and talk and laugh and enjoy ourselves. A moment frozen in time: it would seem as if it will last forever. But death was fated to come in and take away my grandfather and grandmother. But all that was way off in the future.

Looking back, this is what I have realised. Nothing lasts. Every moment should be cherished and enjoyed, before it vanishes into nothingness. 

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eyes Wide Open

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Yvonne talks about life with the noted ophthalmologist and Padma Shri winner Dr. Tony Fernandes

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony

One day, Mabel Fernandes was talking to her neighbour Dr. George Joseph. She told George that her son, Tony, an ophthalmologist, had returned from London and was working in the Madurai Medical College. “He has a house to stay, and a boy to cook his meals, but he is all alone,” she said. “I think it is time for him to get married.”

George immediately suggested a girl he knew, Yvonne Collis, who was studying in the Medical College at Kozhikode.

Can you tell me something about the family?” said Mabel.

I don’t know much, but her father is the owner of ships in Ernakulam,” said George.

Oh, I know him, that's Freddy Collis,” said Mabel. “He is a distant relative.”

And so, after sending feelers, it was arranged for Tony to see Yvonne at her home in Ernakulam. When they met, Yvonne’s first impression was positive. “Tony was handsome and had curly black hair,” she says. “But I was worried about his height. He was just a little taller than me.”

Tony also liked her and so the families agreed to the marriage. It took place on July 6, 1966, at the St. Joseph's church in Thiruvananthapuram. After the wedding mass, Tony, 32, did something which Yvonne, 23, has never forgotten. “When we had to go to the office to sign the wedding register, Tony told me to lead the way,” says Yvonne. “That was so rare. It is always the boy who walks ahead, especially in our patriarchal society. I was impressed and thought, 'He is a nice man.'”

Yvonne joined Tony at Madurai a few months later, after she completed her house surgency at Ernakulam General Hospital. At Madurai, Tony had made a name through his cataract surgeries, plastic surgery on the cornea,   and the corrections of squints. “Many girls would come and get their squint corrected,” says Yvonne. “As a result, they could get married easily. Their parents were very grateful.”

After three years, Tony got a job at the Little Flower Hospital in Angamaly. He worked there for more than 40 years, established his name, did pioneering surgery, and won numerous prizes, including the BC Roy Award from the Medical Council of India, as well as the Padma Shri in 2008.

When asked to list her husband’s qualities, Yvonne says, “Tony considered me as his equal and always had a discussion before taking any decision. He is a good mentor for young doctors. He is a soft-spoken man who has a lot of sympathy for the poor. If any patient is in need, he would go even if it is in the middle of the night.”

In those times, it was difficult to get eyes. It was got from Colombo via Thiruvananthapuram. As soon as the eye arrived, Tony would do the operation, whatever be the time. “He told me that this is going to give sight to a patient,” says Yvonne. “So, there is no need to wait. I would tell him, 'Your first, second and third love is ophthalmology. It is only after that I come into the picture.'” Incidentally, Yvonne had been an anesthesiologist for several years, before she retired in 2008.

Sometimes, Yvonne would ask Tony to take their family – three daughters and two sons – out once in a while. “Once he agreed and asked us to get ready to go for a film at Angamaly,” says Yvonne. “At 5.30 p.m., we were ready. But he did not come. Then 6.30 came. Then 7.30 p.m. Then when he came at 8.30 p.m., he looked at us and said, 'I am so sorry. There were so many patients that I forgot.'”

Indeed, Tony's biggest drawback has been his absent-mindedness. On their second wedding anniversary, Yvonne bought a black briefcase and placed a letter inside it. When Tony rushed home and said he had to go for a free eye camp, at Rameswaram, Yvonne gave him the gift. Later, at night, when he opened the briefcase, and saw the card, he realised that it was their wedding anniversary. “The next day he sent me a telegram wishing me,” says Yvonne, with a smile.

For Yvonne, her most trying period came when Tony had a heart attack on October 1, 1989, at their home, near Aluva. And it was Yvonne, along with a neighbour, Gopinath, who rushed Tony to the Little Flower Hospital at 2 a.m.

After a while, the physician came out of the Intensive Care Unit and told Yvonne that the first four hours were very important. “You should pray,” he said.

Tony was 55, at that time, and at the prime of his life and the height of his fame. Yvonne was thinking, 'If my husband died now how will I manage? All my five children are studying.”

The eldest one, Sylvie, was doing her final year in dentistry. The second one, Freddy, was in his third year in medicine. The third, Sonia, had joined an architecture course. The last two, Tony and Sabina, were in school.

Anyway, Tony survived, but had to spend 22 days in hospital. And both spouses changed after that. “The heart attack deepened our faith in God,” says Yvonne. “We had many trying times, but we overcame it through prayers. My advice to all young couples is this: ‘A family that prays together stays together.’”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)