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Grandmoms in Their Thirties

In this Kerala district, you see pregnant daughters and their pregnant mothers in the same maternity ward


By K A Shaji


Early this January, Sainabha became a mother. She was 31, not an unusual age to conceive. A week earlier, she had, however, also become a grandmother. If you are in Kerala’s Malappuram district, 31 is not such an unusual age for that either. Sainabha had got married at 13 to a man in his late 40s. She had her first child two years later. Her eldest daughter Rahianath’s life followed an identical path. She delivered a child at 16. Soon, pregnant with her seventh child, Sainabha was admitted to the same maternity ward of the government hospital.

Jameelabi was 34 when she became both mother and grandmother at the same time. After the delivery at the local hospital, mother and daughter, who’s not yet 15, are staying in the same room for the post-delivery forty-day ritual confinement. Babies are breast-fed alternatively. “I was not the first in my village to conceive with her daughter,’’ she says. Jameelabi’s only regret is not giving complete attention to her teenaged daughter during her first delivery.

“Enter the maternity ward of any hospital here and you can see sons being breastfed by grandmothers and brothers breastfed by sisters,” says veteran theatre personality Nilambur Ayesha, a campaigner against obscurantist practices among Malappuram Muslims. A Union Health Ministry survey estimates 36 per cent of girls in the district marry before they are 18. “We have at least 18 deliveries of child-mothers a day. There are 500 such deliveries in a month,’’ says a medical officer. The Muslim clergy, primarily male, have little interest in reforming the situation.

For minor girls, marriage is often the beginning of a life of deprivation. For one, it immediately gets them out of schools. The state education department’s figures say 2,152 Muslim girls in the district dropped out in the tenth standard without appearing for the SSLC examination. In the eight standard, 1502 girls and in the seventh 1834 girls dropped out.

Then, husbands drop out. At the family court in Manjeri town, there are over 300 pending cases by ‘minor’ wives against estranged husbands. “The court can direct husbands to give Rs 500 as monthly maintenance and, if they don’t, imprison them for six months. Most men prefer jail to paying the money,’’ said VP Suhara, a social activist. Women age socially far beyond their years. “They feel young but are programmed to act old. Like other 30-plus women, there is life in them, but they have to mask it, creating immense mental issues,” says Kerala Women’s Commission member PK Sainaba.

Not surprisingly, sons are at a premium. “I am fortunate I have only one son,” says 20-year-old Shakeela who was married off when she was barely 11 to a man in his late 30s. At the time, marriage for her was an event to wear new dresses and gold ornaments. At 13, after she had a son, her husband abandoned Shakeela. She says, “I don’t want my destiny for any daughter. I will never marry again.”

Breaking Records, Making Movies

11 days, 23 hours, 45 minutes. That’s the time Suresh Joachin took to complete his movie in Tamil on the Sri Lankan situation


By K A Shaji

For the record, Suresh Joachin will possibly do anything. He has promised himself that his name will feature at least 500 times in the Guinness Book of World Records before he dies. And in his 51st successful attempt, he has actually managed to merge it with another subject that evokes equal, if not more, passion in him: the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. The Jaffna-born Joachin has just produced Sivappu Mazhai (Red Rain), a Tamil feature film in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan situation. From scripting and casting to editing and first screening, he completed the 140-minute film in 11 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes. A new world record.

“In 1990, a 75-minute thriller called The Fastest Forward was made by Russ Mallin in the UK in 13 days. That was the last record. Now it is being replaced by Sivappu Mazhai,” says Joachin with pride. The film, according to Joachin, was completed as per the strict parameters laid down by the Guinness authorities: it should be at least 75 minutes long; the process would begin with the first meeting between the producer and director to discuss the theme of the film; and the completed film should be screened for Censor Board officials.

Joachin, however, is enraged that people think the film is a mere gimmick. “This film is not being made solely for the sake of the record. These are false allegations,” he says, “By aiming for a Guinness entry, I was just canvassing for world attention. This film is my attempt to turn global attention towards the sad state of affairs in Tamil-dominated regions of Sri Lanka. I hope the Guinness entry, too, will help in this regard.”

Joachin left Sri Lanka as a teenager at a time when violence had escalated between the LTTE and the Simhala-majority government. Far from feeling despair over the extent of bloodshed in his homeland, he says he is not ready to be part of yet another round of the blame game over responsibility for the pathetic situation of his countrymen. He prefers corrective action in the place of extreme hate and mutual distrust. Above all, he says, he believes in peace, plurality and peaceful co-existence.

Presently settled in Canada, Joachin wanted to focus attention on the plight of children in Jaffna and its surrounding areas, which witnessed one of Asia’s longest-running wars. He also wanted to comment on the historical and social bonds between Tamils of Sri Lankan and Indian origins and promote interaction among them.

However, Joachin, who plays the lead in the film, makes it clear that Sivappu Mazhai is not propaganda cinema. Directed by V Krishnamurthy, the film, like all commercial ventures, has humour, action, romance and music. It also has Kollywood’s top film personalities—from actress Meera Jasmine, who plays female lead, to popular comedian Vivek, master lyricist Vairamuthu and music director Deva—lending their names to it.

“I am confident of the commercial viability of the film, as it promises the best of Vivek and Meera Jasmine. It will definitely be a rare experience for viewers. Vivek’s humour was at its best in the film. It was so difficult for me to suppress my laughter while he was doing his scenes. I had to be warned against laughing, since I was acting as the hero,” says Joachin.

On 3 June, the final day of the project, the film was screened for Censor Board members. Joachin was asked to snip certain sections which the Censor Board felt might adversely affect Indo-Sri Lankan relations. But he is confident that the cuts will in no way affect the flow of the story. The film will be screened in India in the first week of July. Joachin also plans to travel the world with the film to influence opinion against genocide and civil wars. “Peace alone will triumph. Racial discriminations must end. People must be allowed to live with dignity,’’ he says.

After the successful completion of Sivappu Mazhai, he is aiming for “another record breaking film”. “Twenty-five directors representing Hollywood, Bollywood, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries will join together for my next project, which will begin in September. I will act as three different characters in the film,’’ he says. And a third film project will begin in February next year in Hollywood. “Though a complete Hollywood film, it will have an Indian actress as the heroine. I myself will be the hero,’’ he adds.

Joachin is convinced that Guinness records are the way to go if he wants to make a difference. Having both Canadian and Australian citizenship, Joachin was eager to engage in social work right from his childhood. “When I was in Jaffna as a school-going kid, the need to help the suffering millions had started disturbing my conscience. Then I started exploring possibilities of getting funds. In 1991, I left for Australia, and that’s where my life took a turn,” he recalls. He was watching a TV show in which Michael Jackson was performing to raise $48 million for underprivileged children. “I reached the conclusion that only a celebrity can raise funds and help others in a big way. So I discontinued my studies to become a chartered accountant, and started my efforts to gain celebrity status,’’ he said.

“The celebrity status is now helping me raise funds to help the needy,’’ says Joachin, whose first world record was 1,000 consecutive hours of countryside running. He has also drummed continuously for 84 hours in Switzerland, as well as run on a treadmill for 168 hours to cover 659.27 km in France. Bowling for 100 hours in Canada, carrying a 4.5 kg brick in an ungloved hand in an uncradled downward position for 126.675 km, non-stop crawling for 56.62 km, 100 hours of continuous dancing, 24 hours of moonwalking—these are just few of his peculiar Guinness records. Most remarkable among them is his 6,000 km-long World Peace Marathon, which began in Jerusalem at midnight on 25 December 2007 and ended at 5 pm on 24 June 2008 in Sydney, Australia. During the marathon, he crossed 88 major cities in 54 countries, handing over symbolic peace torches to dignitaries at each place.

“I spend most of the money I get out of these projects on suffering people, especially displaced children. What else can a man who left his own country in search of peace look for? This is not charity, but an effort to pay back. My cinema, too, will play the same role,” says Joachin, convinced of it.

Prodigal Reruns

Madurai's strongman




A story of filial loyalty and political ambition in which ‘Hitler’ doles out biryani to counter Stalin


By K A Shaji


It happens every 30 January. Traffic in Madurai is thrown out of gear, and about 700 hoardings spring up, some of them in vain competition with the city’s temple shikhars for skyline domination. Nobody can miss the birthday of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s elder son Azhagiri. The comparisons range from melodious to odious. This year, he was variously depicted as US President Obama, legendary Tamil kings Raja Raja Cholan and Pandya Nedumchezhiyan, the Dravidian reformer Periyar and Adolf Hitler ‘who overcomes challenges’ in some supporter’s fervid mind.
But then again, that fervid mind might have had a point. Azhagiri, too, has been outmanoeuvred by a man named Stalin. In this case, it’s his younger brother, with whom he has had to forge a peace pact to boost his career. At 58, Azhagiri is at an age when most men retire, but he has just begun his electoral career in politics. He has been granted a Lok Sabha ticket, his first ever, from Madurai by his father.
Voters, going by past experience, are preparing for a feast of money, muscle power and chicken biryani. The Election Commission has already had to step in to put a halt to attempts by his followers to enroll 90,000 new names onto the voters’ list. The EC has also got complaints that Azhagiri forced a local TV channel to scroll his appeal for votes over the live telecast of the annual Kumbabishekam festival at Meenakshi temple, and is distributing cash coupons directly among women voters of the constituency, scraps of paper that can be exchanged for Rs 100 at any local DMK office later. CPM candidate P Mohan has submitted a petition along with these coupons and a video clip to substantiate the charge.
Such tactics have helped the DMK leader’s son ensure victories for the party in three successive assembly by-elections from Madurai Central, Madurai West and Thirumangalam—marginal seats once for the ruling party. “Those were not by-elections but ‘buy elections’,” alleges AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam, “Voters were lured with money and biryani. The state machinery was misused and poll officials remained helpless in the face of intimidation and false voting.”
Azhagiri’s backing by way of money and muscle is so strong that the CPM had even tried to slip away, asking its alliance partner Jayalalithaa (of the AIADMK) to allot it a safer seat to contest instead. Neither partner was keen to represent Madurai in the Lok Sabha, and not only because of shortcomings in appealing to the electorate’s culinary tastes.
It is hard to believe it now, but Azhagiri began his political career as a man noted for simple living. This was in the early 1980s, when he was deputed to look after the DMK mouthpiece Murasoli. “He was never allowed by the party to interfere in editorial matters of the publication,” recalls K Muthuramalingam, a former associate who’s now with the AIADMK, adding that his lifestyle was indeed Spartan, with a Lambretta scooter and a rented house.
That changed soon enough. By the end of the decade, he was a cash-rich Madurai entrepreneur, dishing out entertainment through Royal Video. Now, his business empire includes a TV channel, cable service provider, big wedding hall and huge showroom of silk textiles. Through all this, Karunanidhi kept his elder son at a distance.
It was in 1996, when the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu with a huge majority, that Azhagiri gave in to the temptation of throwing his father’s name around. This caught Karunanidhi unawares, and caused friction with Stalin, the favoured son and presumptive heir (both sons, though, are of Karunanidhi’s first wife Dayalu Ammal). The sibling rivalry began to spill on to the streets, with occasional clashes between their supporters. In 2000, an article by Karunanidhi in Murasoli urging party workers to stay away from Azhagiri provoked a fierce response from the latter’s followers, who vandalised government offices and set transport buses on fire. In 2001, Madurai was thrown into violent disorder when the DMK denied Azhagiri’s nominee C Kaverimanian a Rajya Sabha ticket, giving it to Stalin nominee Tiruchi Siva instead. In the Assembly election that followed, the slighted son’s forces worked against DMK candidates in a swathe large enough to give the AIADMK an edge. Prominent DMK leaders like Palanivelrajan and Velu Swamy lost, and Kiruttinan was allegedly murdered by his loyalists though a trial court exonerated the accused later.
By 2003, Azhagiri had his father’s attention. In a reconciliatory move, he organised a grand function to release Karunanidhi’s book Tholkappia Poonga (a critical study on the Tamil classic Tholkappiyam). Copies worth Rs 28 lakh were sold at the function. The father was pleased.
According to party insiders, it was Azhagiri’s mother who finally brokered peace between the father and prodigal son. But Stalin was a cabinet minister and DMK treasurer by then, and seen clearly as the successor. “Now, an aged Karunanidhi wants to see his family united. He is also ready to do anything to please his children,” says a top DMK leader, talking of Azhagiri’s candidature. There are rumours doing the rounds that the elder son had threatened suicide if he wasn’t allowed to contest at least a single election.
But within the DMK, the ticket is also an acknowledgement of Azhagiri’s ability to ‘inspire’ the cadres and ensure victory even in difficult terrains. After 40 years of shunting him around, the party finally had to make him its South Zone Organising Secretary after the series of by-election wins he pulled off. Ecstatic crowds now assemble outside his TVR Nagar house these days, where he lives with his wife Kanthi Azahagiri.
“There is no challenge to his hegemony over southern districts. Leaders like PTR Palanivel who can check on him have passed away, and he has succeeded in making the party leadership here a pack of his sycophants. Dissenters were either sidelined or expelled,” complains a senior DMK leader.
Tales around him are not about to die down anytime soon. Madurai traders accuse Azhagiri of sending goons to collect protection money from them. Others allege that he holds kangaroo courts, takes his own slice of real estate deals and runs other extortion rackets. “People fear him because he acts as an authoritarian local king,” says Vadivelu, an auto driver.
Meanwhile, CPM state secretary N Varadarajan puts up a brave front. His party, he says, is open to the challenge: “We will face the election without fear. And also write an obituary to all high-handed political activists, who dream of an easy Madurai win.”
For his part, Azhagiri boasts, “I will win by a margin of not less than 3.5 lakh.” It is only the ageing father who seems a little lost in all this: “I presume his life may be under threat. Why does the CPM fear my son so much?”

Amma's U turns

Reverse Swing

In yet another U-turn, Jayalalithaa has warped the electoral pitch in Tamil Nadu by declaring support for the Sri Lankan Tamil dream of an independent Eelam


By K A Shaji


The image is more than two decades old. But it refuses to fade from public memory, at least in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, then an out-of-work actress and a novice in Dravidian politics, was knocked off the bier when she tried to clamber on a gun carriage transporting the mortal remains of MG Ramachandran (MGR) for his funeral. She had been pushed by an enraged nephew of MGR’s wife Janaki, who had her own anger against Jayalalithaa. It was an event telecast live by Doordarshan, and it gave a fillip to the political career of Jayalalithaa, who cleverly manipulated MGR’s legacy to emerge as his heiress within the AIADMK, his party, and the wider political arena as well.

Heirdom can be burdensome. For her entire political career so far, Jayalalithaa had resisted adopting one aspect of MGR’s persona, his support for Eelam, a yearned-for Tamil homeland (in Sri Lanka). But on 25 April, in the midst of a Lok Sabha election campaign she finally gave in. This marks her most dramatic switch in stance ever. In a campaign speech at Erode, Tamil Nadu, aware of peaking public sympathy in the state for the suffering of Sri Lanka’s Tamil civilians, she declared herself in favour of Eelam.

The DMK Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, her archrival, had always been seen as the bigger Eelam supporter. By stealing the thunder, Jayalalithaa has suddenly raised the stakes in a way that could influence electoral outcomes.

It’s a story that goes back a long way, even before the 1987 funeral. To his fans, MGR was a matinee idol turned politician, a leader of the Dravidian movement for a vision of social justice espoused by the rationalist leader Periyar Ramaswamy. To Jayalalithaa, though, MGR was ‘everything’ as she put it; this was not a rational formulation, but then, neither was MGR’s deification by his cult followers.

That fan base was vast and varied enough to make or break electoral fortunes, as Jayalalithaa proved by posing such a stiff challenge for power to the only other big claimant to the Dravidian legacy, Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the original Dravidian party that MGR had split to form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

All these years, Jayalalithaa had seemed sensitive to Sonia Gandhi’s view of the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s Tamil rebels held guilty of the suicide-bomb assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, her former PM husband. Jayalalithaa retained this view despite being classified by the LTTE, which had habitually held MGR as its ‘favourite Indian politician’, as Eelam’s main enemy in India, next only to the late Rajiv Gandhi.

But wars have a way of turning sentiments. With the Sri Lankan army closing in on the rebel outfit, and civilian refugees washing ashore in Tamil Nadu, public emotion was sure to run high. And swaying or being swayed by public emotion has always been Jayalalithaa’s strong point.

“She has corrected a big mistake. Her change in stance echoes the sentiments of Tamils all over the world,” was the response of Tamil nationalist leader P Nedumaran. Yet, the fact that her call for Eelam took not only Nedumaran, but also other LTTE supporters like Vaiko, Ramadoss and Thol Thirumavalavan by surprise speaks volumes for how stunning her reversal of stance is.

As for her bid for inclusion in a central coalition, Jayalalithaa is now rooting more strongly for the Left-led Third Front than ever. Just where she stands in India’s complex party matrix has never been clear, nor where she sees herself on the Left-Right spectrum. During the last presidential election, she had aligned herself with a ‘third’ alliance formed by Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP and Mulayam Singh’s SP, but eventually threw her lot in with BJP candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhavat.

Jayalalithaa’s saffron relationship has had its own share of U-turns. When she was in power last in Chennai, her state government had enacted a controversial law to ban ‘religious conversions’, a move inspired by her spiritual adviser then, Swami Jayendra Saraswati of Kanchi Kamakodi Peeth. But, sensing minority disaffection, she suddenly snapped her political links with the BJP, flipped her position on conversions and even ordered the arrest of the Swami for the alleged murder of a temple priest. Now, she’s a Third front ally of the Marxists.

With such a track record, no one quite knows what to expect of her next. Not least the Congress. Rajiv-era nerves apart, the party would need an alliance partner in Tamil Nadu after the polls. So it was that the UPA Government claimed credit for Sri Lanka’s 27 April declaration that it was holding back its heavy weapons in the military offensive against the LTTE, which was supposed to sound like a reprieve for unarmed civilians at risk of classification as ‘collateral damage’.

The collateral benefit for the UPA was that it gave Karunanidhi, an alliance partner, the facesaver he needed to call off his protest fast after only about half a day’s self denial of food.

Just what all this means for the finer details of Tamil politics is still being worked out. As for AIADMK workers, they are relieved so see the party return to the MGR mould; he had donated Rs 6 crore of his own to the LTTE in the mid-1980s to buy arms. In return, the outfit’s chief V Prabhakaran gifted his benefactor an AK-47 assault rifle, hailing him as a fellow ‘social revolutionary’. MGR’s attempts to secure official backing for the LTTE, however, fell afoul of New Delhi.

Back then, Jayalalithaa’s view of the LTTE had not yet crystallised, though she was assumed to be in sympathy with the Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, as were most other state leaders. Only after the LTTE’s Sriperumbudur terror strike of 21 May 1991 did things change. In an Assembly election that followed, she attacked the outfit and rode the Rajiv sympathy wave to power in Chennai. Now, however, as tales of Sri Lankan atrocities against civilians do the rounds of Tamil Nadu, the horrors are hard for any politician to ignore.

Those who agreed with her earlier stance, such as Subramaniam Swamy and Cho Ramaswamy, term her switch a case of rank opportunism. “She has been vocal against the LTTE since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi,” says Cho, “Her alliance won all seats except one Assembly seat just after the assassination, and Karunanidhi was the only one who got elected to the opposition benches. Now, she is lampooning that history.”

Whatever she’s doing, observers suspect that the DMK is jealous of it. They secretly envy the freedom she has because she is not part of the ruling coalition at the Centre. Karunanidhi, in contrast, has to play his line with caution, calling Prabhakaran a personal friend (and no terrorist) one day, and retracting his description the next. t’s the sort of flipflop approach that irks Eelam sympathisers some of whom are disappointed with India’s alleged failure to defend Tamil interests in the neighbouring island country.

How deep does this feeling run? It’s a question on which election results in Tamil Nadu could turn. Karunanidhi has the burden of incumbency, and this is a state that seems to have made vote rotation between the DMK and AIADMK a habit. Jayalalithaa had the advantage of a broader local alliance this time round, with everyone alienated or snubbed by the CM rallying around her (last time round, she had been the focus of such a joint attack). Former friends of the DMK like MDMK and PMK, not to mention the Left, are now with the AIADMK.

“Amma will play the role of king maker at the national level,” predicts an AIADMK leader, “She has no ideological baggage and so she can easily become part of any formation that gets maximum seats.” It’s interesting, her politics. Notice how her manifesto for this election speaks of national issues more than local?

Confessions of a Social Worker

I cleverly manipulated facts and figures, won the confidence of donors and made my NGO a success


In the early 80s, with a first class post-graduate degree in social work, I came to this backward area in the Nilgiri hills to work among Adivasis. Their living conditions are still the same but mine have changed considerably. I cleverly manipulated facts and figures, won the confidence of donors and made my NGO a success. You see, I have to keep the Adivasis poor. What would happen to my business if all their problems get resolved?

Adivasis, Dalits, fishermen and every weak section of society are fodder to our business. Several NGO activists became rich after the tsunami struck. I was not able to get my share because I operate in the hills, far away from the Coromandel Coast.

I take the lion’s share of what I gather. My staff are underpaid and the beneficiaries of my projects get peanuts. This is not the case with my NGO alone. There are numerous such organisations in the country. I am just one among them. To me, it is business. Like any other venture, I am driven by profits. The values and ideals which appear in my brochures and pamphlets are only there to hoodwink funding agencies. A lasting solution to any problem is not a solution. Problems must exist, otherwise patronage will end.
I have no regrets. You can call it corruption of a kind. But even donors know where the money goes. A large number of them are as shady as me. The world would not change if I stop one day. I would be the only loser.

We are part and parcel of the system. Who says NGOs aim to change society? In fact, we help the system handle all voices of discord. We are engaged in a balancing act. The system needs us. The world needs us.
I liberally use ‘hallelujah’ during prayer services. It means ‘let us praise Yehova’. Some of my old colleagues have substituted it with ‘fundelujah’ when referring to me. There are people who accuse me of praying for more landslides, floods, droughts and epidemics so that there are more funds for rehabilitation work. That’s an exaggeration. Just because I love funds doesn’t mean I’m heartless and insensitive.

(The activist is the founder of an NGO working among tribals in Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu).

As told to K A Shaji

Confession of an anonymous murderer

Confessions of a Murderer


There were times when the face of the man I killed haunted me. But I no longer feel remorse. Now, I feel that was his destiny


Like everybody else, I too believe murder is one of the most heinous sins. But I had to kill a person—more accurately, an enemy of my political philosophy. I had nothing personal against him. But it happened. This was about two decades ago. I was part of the hit squad of a major political party in north Kerala. We were keen to retain my village and its surrounding ar­eas as a ‘party village’, where no one subscribed to any philosophy opposed to it. We never pardoned de­fectors. The party told me and other squad members to kill a man who had left the movement and joined another political formation. He was hacked to death. This was followed by more death and destruction. But the murder helped the party prevent any more defections in the region.

Those were the days when party diktats overruled my conscience. I never wanted to kill even a mos­quito. But being a com­mitted cadre, I was nev­er concerned about the merits and demerits of commands from the party. When the party asked me to set the house of an en­emy on fire, I did just that. When it told me to learn techniques of making country bombs, I had no option other than to obey.

I was sentenced to life imprisonment. Even inside the prison, there were party blocks. Prisoners belong­ing to my party were never allowed to enter the area set aside for rivals and vice versa. Plenty of party lit­erature was available in the jail, but I got bored of it after a few years. I got parole several times. Later, when I was released from jail, I refused all marriage proposals. I decided I wanted to remain a bachelor all my life.

There were times when the face of the man I killed haunted me. But I no longer feel remorse. I now feel that was his destiny. Destiny? Yes, I have started to believe in destiny too. Those years in jail have slowly made me a believer. Gone are the days of atheism.

The party’s doublespeak and double standards pained me a lot. They don’t have faith even in what they preach. Then why should I believe in it? I am no lon­ger part of the party. But even now, there are hit squads to kill opponents.

(He was part of a hit squad in Kannur, Kerala, and was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a political rival. He now runs a tea shop in a Chennai suburb)

As told to K A Shaji

Kozhikode's Coconut Tree Climbing College

How to Climb a Coconut Tree


Why high literacy levels in Kerala haven’t created a shortage of men who can climb the most daunting trees


By K A Shaji


It was about 15 years ago that Ramadasan Vaidyar, a noted satirist of Kerala, thought of the need to establish an exclusive col­lege to train youngsters to climb coconut trees. Vaidyar, who made headlines in the late 1970s by organising a contest for women with the ugliest face to scoff at beauty pageants, also decided that he wanted to inaugurate the col­lege in a unique way. The then district collector, UKS Chauhan, was invited to open the college by climbing a particularly intimidating coco­nut tree. He agreed.

Chauhan was given three days of rigorous training by the principal designate of the col­lege, Moothedathu Pradeep Kumar, who used to pluck coconuts in Vaidyar’s own grove. “It was a different experience training the collec­tor, who hailed from north India. I had to reach Chauhan’s office after midnight to give him the lessons. His wife and security personnel tried their best to stop him. But Chauhan was reso­lute,’’ says Kumar.

The collector was ready on the inaugural day. But he’d only gone up the tree a few feet when his wife clung on to both his legs, phys­ically preventing him from climbing further. Nevertheless, this very drama provided suffi­cient publicity to Vaidyar’s unconventional venture, aimed to poke fun at the hypocrisy of Malayalis who prefer white collar jobs.

The college stopped functioning a few years later, after Vaidyar’s death. But it succeeded in bringing dignity back to a profession that is crucial to Kerala’s fragile agricultural economy.

Taking inspiration from Vaidyar, self-help groups across the state have now started train­ing the youth in the mechanised form of co­conut plucking. In districts like Kasargod, Alappuzha and Thrissur, some groups have arranged loans from nationalised banks for trained climbers, so that they can buy mobile phones and motorbikes. The idea is for climb­ers to be made immediately available over the phone for any farmer in the region.

“Mobility and communication are chang­ing the scope of this profession. They are mak­ing it more profit­able as well. Better wages and less hard­ships are prompting many to think about this profession seri­ously now,’’ says PK Rajagopal, a climber from Bediadukka in Kasargod district.

But there are those like Kumar who still use the traditional mode of climbing coco­nut trees—with the help of a rope. He climbs more than 60 trees a day. “This is a skill learnt through training and dedication. I can fetch more coconuts than a person using the climb­ing machine,’’ he says, standing in front of the building that once housed the tree-climbing college. The coconut tree used by Kumar to train his students still stands in the compound.

“Only the formal college has ceased to func­tion. I am here to offer free training to anybody who wants to study the conventional mode of climbing. The training may be rigorous, but I can offer placement to all who pass,’’ he says.

Kozhikode's Coconut Tree Climbing College

How to Climb a Coconut Tree


Why high literacy levels in Kerala haven’t created a shortage of men who can climb the most daunting trees


By K A Shaji


It was about 15 years ago that Ramadasan Vaidyar, a noted satirist of Kerala, thought of the need to establish an exclusive col­lege to train youngsters to climb coconut trees. Vaidyar, who made headlines in the late 1970s by organising a contest for women with the ugliest face to scoff at beauty pageants, also decided that he wanted to inaugurate the col­lege in a unique way. The then district collector, UKS Chauhan, was invited to open the college by climbing a particularly intimidating coco­nut tree. He agreed.

Chauhan was given three days of rigorous training by the principal designate of the col­lege, Moothedathu Pradeep Kumar, who used to pluck coconuts in Vaidyar’s own grove. “It was a different experience training the collec­tor, who hailed from north India. I had to reach Chauhan’s office after midnight to give him the lessons. His wife and security personnel tried their best to stop him. But Chauhan was reso­lute,’’ says Kumar.

The collector was ready on the inaugural day. But he’d only gone up the tree a few feet when his wife clung on to both his legs, phys­ically preventing him from climbing further. Nevertheless, this very drama provided suffi­cient publicity to Vaidyar’s unconventional venture, aimed to poke fun at the hypocrisy of Malayalis who prefer white collar jobs.

The college stopped functioning a few years later, after Vaidyar’s death. But it succeeded in bringing dignity back to a profession that is crucial to Kerala’s fragile agricultural economy.

Taking inspiration from Vaidyar, self-help groups across the state have now started train­ing the youth in the mechanised form of co­conut plucking. In districts like Kasargod, Alappuzha and Thrissur, some groups have arranged loans from nationalised banks for trained climbers, so that they can buy mobile phones and motorbikes. The idea is for climb­ers to be made immediately available over the phone for any farmer in the region.

“Mobility and communication are chang­ing the scope of this profession. They are mak­ing it more profit­able as well. Better wages and less hard­ships are prompting many to think about this profession seri­ously now,’’ says PK Rajagopal, a climber from Bediadukka in Kasargod district.

But there are those like Kumar who still use the traditional mode of climbing coco­nut trees—with the help of a rope. He climbs more than 60 trees a day. “This is a skill learnt through training and dedication. I can fetch more coconuts than a person using the climb­ing machine,’’ he says, standing in front of the building that once housed the tree-climbing college. The coconut tree used by Kumar to train his students still stands in the compound.

“Only the formal college has ceased to func­tion. I am here to offer free training to anybody who wants to study the conventional mode of climbing. The training may be rigorous, but I can offer placement to all who pass,’’ he says.

The Cave Dwellers of Kerala

The world according to Cholanaikkans



The world discovered this endangered tribe in 1970. Soon after, the tribals discovered alcohol

By K A Shaji

Getting to the Cholanaikkans, the only remaining tribal community in Asia that lives in rock-cave shelters, is not easy. A highly endangered tribe, they live deep inside the evergreen deciduous jungles of Nilambur, in Kerala’s Malappuram district. Trekking through the slippery forest tracks on the banks of river Karimpuzha and braving wild elephants and leeches is risky, but you have no other option if you want to meet the members of the only surviving huntergatherer community in the country.

At Karulai, the entrance to the dark thickets of the jungle, forest department officials expressed doubt about the need for such an unsafe trip, that too with the sole aim of meeting the Cholanaikkans. “Wait at our office for a few hours. Some of them will come here around noon to sell minor forest produces to the local collection centre. Why are you so adamant about meeting them in their original forest settlement?” asked one official. Another official was more practical. “Why waste time here? Go to the tribal museum in Kozhikode. You’ll get enough literature on them, apart from seeing their photos with rock-cave shelters in the background,’’ he advised.

The visit to at least one cave settlement was eventually made possible with the intervention of a local tribal welfare officer. The officer generously volunteered his help as translator, and in deciphering the complex words and phrases of the primitive tribal language.

The total population of the Cholanaikkans is just 363, 161 of them women. They live in 11 cave settlements and have refused the state government’s lures of houses with tiled roofs and cultivable land outside the forests. “Traditionally, we are hunters. The severe forest laws are preventing us from hunting and so, our lifestyle has changed altogether,’’ says Ravi, the inhabitant of the first rock-cave we sighted, at Karimpuzha. He lives with his wife, mother and four children. In a neighbouring cave live Mathan and his wife Karikka. These caves look clean, and intriguingly, in one of them was a photograph of Malayalam superstar Mammooty.

“Ours is a small settlement with only two families. There are cave settlements far interior, where up to seven families live together,’’ says Mathan. He discourages us from venturing any further, saying urban types cannot withstand the challenge of climbing the slippery rocks.

The tribe is largely in a pre-agricultural stage of development. They collect roots, nuts, fruits, honey, ginger, wild pepper and soap seeds and sell them at government-controlled collection centres. The women also make bamboo baskets, which fetch them good money.

The tribe was discovered in 1970. And as contact between the tribals and the outside world increased, many of them became alcoholics.

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Hero Forever

When Mammooty speaks

Mammooty has been at the top of Malayalam cinema for nearly three decades, but says it’s not been easy


By K A Shaji


Q How long will you continue acting?

A As long as I can. I am crazy about cinema. No artiste wants to retire. I want to play the lead role as long as possible, whether as a master, servant, cook or thief.

Q You changed the image of the hero in Malayalam movies...

A I may have influenced the image of the hero, but it was not part of any conscious plan. It just happened. Our society is changing fast. Sathyan and Nazeer satisfied the tastes of viewers of their time. I arrived in another time, when people were demanding something different. It is as per the changing audience’s profiles—situations make the hero. In fact, a different hero concept prevails now. And I am not talking only about Mohan Lal. Artistes like Thilakan and Bharat Gopi have also influenced the image of the hero.

Q Your opinion on Mohan Lal, the rival to your throne in Malayalam cinema?

A I have a cordial relationship with him. He is a great actor. We only have professional competition. In fact, this healthy competition brings the best out of both of us.

Q The secret behind your success?

A Luck. From the very beginning, I got versatile roles. I’ve played so many memorable characters. This track record helps me grow. The credit must go to the makers of these excellent films. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MT Vasudevan Nair and Padmarajan need special mention. At a personal level, my readiness to work hard may be a reason. I am passionate about my craft, and get very involved in all my projects. There is no dearth of self-confidence. But it is not always easy to be on the top. After all, it is a small industry. Hard work, discipline, patience, sincerity and passion towards work are my success mantras.

Q Why don’t you direct a film?

A I would like to concentrate on acting. Offers to direct films came my way several times, especially when I was associated with a production company. But I’ve decided acting is my forte. There are too many gifted directors around.

Q You have taken both commercial and art cinema in your stride.

A As an artiste, I am not ready to differentiate between art cinema and commercial cinema. I am not ready to degrade any film. The so-called commercial films have made me what I am. That said, my forthcoming film, Pazhassi Raja, is a magnum opus by well-known Malayalam director Hariharan. Jnanpith award-winner MT Vasudevan Nair has written the screenplay. The film revolves around the life and times of Pazhassi Raja, who led guerilla forces against the British in the Wayanad jungles of north Kerala, and was killed at the hands of the enemy. It is a powerful episode from the history of our freedom struggle. Another project is Paleri Maanikkam—Oru Paathira Kolapathaka Kadha (Paleri Maanikkam—The Story of a Midnight Murder). It is based on a novel by Malayalam writer TP Rajeevan and is directed by Ranjith. The story is based on a real-life incident that took place in Kozhikode district of Kerala.

Q Great films happened whenever you associated yourself with MT Vasudevan Nair. Eighteen years have passed since Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (A Northern Ballad) rewrote the aesthetic sensibilities of Malayalam film viewers. Can we expect a similar experience with Pazhassi Raja?

A Great films happen with the right combination of direction, story, script and acting. I have been fortunate to work with a number of great directors and scriptwriters. The success of collective effort decides how well a film does. Let us hope for the best.

Q Which has been your best role so far?

A There are too many best roles. Each role is close to my heart. It was the role of a police officer in KG George’s investigative thriller Yavanika (Curtain) that cemented my position in Malayalam cinema. There are films like Padmarajan’s Koodevide (Where is the Cage?), MT’s Alkoottathil Thaniye (Alone in the Crowd), Sibi Malayail’s Thaniyavarthanam, K Madhu’s Oru CBI Diary Kurippu, Adoor’s Anantharam (Henceforth), Mathilukal (Walls) and Vidheyan, and TV Chandran’s Ponthanmada. But I like the character
in Vilkanundu Swapnangal (Dreams on Sale) very much because it was my first notable film. In a way, that is my most favourite film. I take full responsibility for my characters, whether they were done well or badly. Good characterisation means being perfect in a lot of things—especially gesticulation, body language, dialect and appearance.

Q How do you rate Malayalam cinema?

A There are a number of good scriptwriters and directors
here. I am happy with their ability to tap my potential. With regard to technology, though, Malayalam cinema lags behind both Bollywood and Kollywood. So the stress here is mainly on content. Even technologically-weak films are successful in Kerala because of the quality of their content. We have people who know how to make top-ranking films. Despite these limitations, Malayalam actors have won no less than 14 national awards for best actor.

Q Has your stature prevented filmmakers from experimenting with you?

A Definitely not. I am open to experiments. Directors like Adoor have experimented with me. It is a small industry. One thing is clear, no major Malayalam actors have stopped filmmakers from experimenting with them. We, in fact, force experiments on us.

Q What is your philosophy on acting?

A I am my most severe critic. After every shoot, I go through severe self-evaluation. Suggestions or criticism from outside may not be well-intended or authentic. There is nobody to correct or guide an artiste. Nobody to help him find the real path. Self-criticism is the most effective way to excel in this career. There is no lapse on my part in identifying weak points and reinventing my skills. It is a continuous process. And this is my philosophy. I have only one real challenge: how to communicate and convey.

Q You were recently criticised for your statements on certain political issues, especially the Gujarat carnage

A One thing I wish to clarify. The artiste in me has never taken any stand at any time. As a concerned citizen, I had made some comments on certain social issues. They were not aimed at hurting anybody. I do not endorse any political philosophy.

Q Have you done any films in other languages recently?

A A Tamil film—actually, it is bilingual—Aruvudai released recently. The Malayalam version is titled Vande Mataram. I am keen on acting in more Tamil and Telugu films. There is no new offer in Hindi though. The way I speak Hindi may be a problem. But I am hopeful.

Q How do you view Slumdog Millionaire?

A I have nothing against using poverty as the subject of a film. But there were far better films dealing with Indian poverty. Take Ray’s Pather Panchali and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, for instance.

Q You look exactly the same even after two and a half decades of acting.

A I work hard to look after myself, and to protect my health. I avoid junk food and carbohydrates. I spend about 20 to 30 minutes every day at my personal gym. I also restrict food intake.