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Friday, August 30, 2013

"What If Our Dreams Come True!" - My forthcoming English Novel


80 year old Poornachandran - Poornam in short - was very sick, unable to speak and move freely due to a paralytic stroke he had a year ago. His daughter Chandrika, son-in-law Chandrasekar, and the only grand-daughter Uma Chandra, ten years old, all adored him so much and took care of him very well with all their love and affection. The only loss he could think of was his wife Ambika, who was a remarkable woman and a popular film playback singer. The sad part was, she died on the day Poornam had his stroke and she wasn’t there to serve him when he probably needed her most, for the first time in his life. Otherwise, he couldn’t complain of anything else in his life. His paralytic stroke and his immobility were, of course, an issue - but they too, stopped bothering him. Every now and then the thought that he shouldn’t burden Chandrika and her family surfaced. He wished to be sent away to Sharan, the old age home at Cheranmahadevi Poornam caused to establish, where any number of volunteers were ready to serve him. Chandrika and Chandrasekar vehemently turned down his request and accepted complete responsibility to take care of him. Strangely, Poornam was not responding to medicines and physiotherapy.

Everything was quiet until one day, an international television crew wanted to meet him for making a film on his life story. They had done some extensive research on his silent accomplishments and were proposing to name him the ‘Best Accomplisher of the Decade’, the conferment included a cash award of quarter million U.S dollars. They wanted to be the first to tell the rest of the world about his unique humanitarian social projects. They wanted him to be available for the ceremony that would be attended by the ‘Who is who!’ of the world’s dignitaries including the President of the United States of America.

Poornam shunned publicity, but this was one time when his non-verbal denial failed to impress Chandrika.

Appa, the world needs to know about you. Many more may feel motivated by your life. The Earth needs many more people like you.’

The television team landed at Chandrika’s small house at Cheranmahadevi. Poornam quietly acknowledged Welsch with whom he had worked earlier during his adventures at Brahmadesam. Poornam noticed tears in Welsch’s eyes as he was hugged. Though the TV team was sounded about his bad health, they didn’t expect it to be this bad.

“We need you and your active participation. Your health is very important to us. I can’t bear to see you lying immobilized.” Welsch chocked, as he said this. “I want you to agree to come with us for treatment in America. I want you back in action.”

The TV crew took about a week in travelling to places where Poornam had had his years spent and they were ready to pack off.

The very next week, the whole world knew about Poornachandran who made a silent appearance on the TV screen. Silence spoke more than words. His very appearance on the screen touched many hearts across the globe. His soul departed the very moment he, along with the rest of the world, saw himself on the television screen.


I was seventeen or so when that happened in mid 1940s. I was single, parentless and lived in a small village, somewhere closer to Shencottai, a prominent town at the foot of Podhigai hills that formed part of Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu in Southern India and a gateway to the adjacent State of Kerala. Thanks to the financial support from a Christian institution and the kind priest at the local church, I had just completed my school final examinations.

One day, I had acute stomach pain and a few friendly neighbors admitted me to the local hospital run by a missionary. Doctors were unable to diagnose my condition, in the poorly equipped facility. I held my stomach between my both hands and squeezed it. A dilute carbonate mixture that they gave me provided no relief. Besides, I ate nothing for the whole day and I was vomiting constantly. It was midnight. With unbearable pain, I said all the prayers that came to my mind and prayed intensely. I didn’t know when I slept.

I was jolted in the middle of sleep. I perspired and trembled. Was it a nightmare? I just had a dream where Lord Siva appeared before me. He looked so real to me like the one I always saw in pictures. He was seated in a deep meditative posture and opened his eyes briefly to look at me. He saw me suffering with pain. I saw myself standing up in great devotion and prostrating before him.

“I know you are suffering from pain. You will be relieved of this pain now.”

With folded hands, I fell flat again and prostrated, tears rolling down my eyes.

“But on one condition!”Lord Siva said.

I just wanted relief from my stomach pain. I was willing to do anything. I just nodded my head in acknowledgement that I was listening.

“You would meet with me in seven places!”

‘Oh, that won’t be a great deal’ I thought. He seemed to be reading my mind.

“But, it is not going to be easy for you. Are you ready? Your pain will go away now.” said Lord Siva.

Again I nodded in silence. At that moment, the only thing I wanted was relief from my pain.

“Okay! You have my blessing. Remember to meet with me in seven places. Don’t take it lightly.” Saying this, he disappeared into a cloud of thick white smoke which suddenly appeared from nowhere and I was woken up.

Everything looked very hazy. I noticed that my stomach pain had disappeared. I slowly rose from my bed. I prayed intently, “Oh, Lord Siva! Give me the strength to come and meet with you in seven places as you ordained. Give me the strength to maintain my commitment”

I called the duty nurse, a Christian nun, a kind lady. I told her of my dream and the relief I had from my pain. She was puzzled and didn’t know how to respond. Closing her eyes, she just touched my head and prayed. She asked me to stay on for the rest of the night and leave early morning. She asked me whether I would be meeting with the Christian Father and I answered positively.

The next morning, I left the hospital and walked to the Father’s place. He must have been in his morning prayers. I waited to see him outside his hostel. When I told him about the relief I had after I had my dream, he looked at me pensively for a moment and smiled. “May Jesus Bless You!” was all that he said to me. I took leave from him when it seemed he just remembered something and he asked me to wait for a moment. He went inside and brought a talisman. He tied it to me on my upper arm and said, “Remember to keep this safely with you all the time.”

I spent the next several weeks without a clue, but the thoughts kept returning back. “I must meet with Lord Siva in seven places.”

“What did he mean by that?’

I went to Thangasami, our village ‘karnam’ (the village chief) who was my well-wisher. I told him about my dream and sought his opinion. Thangasami was a very pious and god-fearing man. He took me to a local astrologer Muneeswaran. The astrologer drew some squares on the floor with a piece of chalk and threw a few small conches. He closed his eyes for several minutes and finally told me:

“Lord Siva wants you to visit him at seven places that are known for his temples. Courtallam, Tenkasi, Sivashailam, Ambasamudram, Papanasam, Brahmadesam, Thiruppudaimaruthoor and many more places in our Tirunelveli region are great ‘Sivasthals’ – abodes of Lord Siva. Many of these temples are very old, may be thousands of years and are very sacred places. You must visit seven Siva temples and have HIS ’darshan’. You shouldn’t be inviting the wrath of Lord Siva, lest he could become furious. But he is also a very kind god and a great benefactor. You know, you were relieved of your stomach pain instantly the moment He appeared before you…………………

It also appears to me that you are going to have great hardship going through these places. But, you seem to be destined for something very significant about which I am unable to speak or tell you right now. But you will have Lord Siva’s blessings all along. So, go!”

That was the beginning of my long story. I had no one at home to worry about me. My mother left for heaven when I was just born and my father too joined her a year ago, mourning over the death of his dear wife, all those years. Even when he was alive, it was a moot question whether he supported me or I supported him.

I left home on foot, realizing very little what life experiences were waiting for me. I never knew that my meetings with Lord Siva were going to be so long and arduous. Where did I find my energy during all those years – during those years of encounter with Lord Siva? Only HE knows!
I welcome comments on the Preamble to my new novel: "What If Our Dream Come True!"
Author: Short Stories for Young Readers - Book 1
               Short Stories for Success for Young Readers: A New Lexicon Unfolded

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

‘Sun Singer’ program of Tamil SUN TV – A review

I have stopped watching television on a regular basis for quite many years now. During the last seven years, whenever I had absolutely nothing else to do, I had tried to fiddle with my TV remote, only to switch the TV off soon getting frustrated at not able to watch a decent, interesting program except on a few rare occasions. My brother complains that I have now become aged and that my tastes have changed. In every TV channel, I see only stereotyped programs, heavily loaded with endless advertisements that pop up almost every five to ten minutes. I still wonder how these poorly conceived programs still continue to attract people and stay popular with viewers.

If there was one program that fixed me to the TV screen, it was the ‘AIREL Super Singer’ program – in Malayalam through Asianet TV a couple of years ago and subsequently over Vijay TV in Tamil. Though I didn’t understand Malayalam well, I always relished watching the Super Singer Malayalam program. The judges, Sharath and Sreekumar, particularly, were superb with their humorous and critical commentary over the singer’s performance and were nonchalant. Sharath was especially a tough judge, coming from Dr.Balamurali Krishna’s school of singing. The anchor, Ranjani, (if I am right with her name) with her giggles and mesmerizing voice did a fabulous job. The singers were of fairly very good standard. I always wondered, how the contestants could sing even a few sophisticated songs fairly well; but then, I read an article in The Hindu that there was a ‘Fast Food’ type of factory functioning in places like Cochin, where a few music professionals train people to sing select few songs – thoroughly and professionally for Super Singer competition - for fabulous fees. We need to keep in mind that the prize money for the winner was invariably a posh flat in Cochin/Ernakulam. I particularly liked the cine-classical rounds much more than others in these competitions and participants, regardless of their religion, sang traditional carnatic music based songs without any qualms about it. It was really amazing to know we have so much talent.
Then, I had watched the ‘Hariyudan Naan’ competition on Tamil Vijay TV. The legend Hariharan, the singer, was personally there during all the stages of the competition, as one of the judges. The young contestants performed superbly. The winners were to get an opportunity to sing along with Hariharan for a music album. The finals were held in Dubai. For all the tempos built up during the competition, the telecasting the finals was a damp squib, merely commercial, organizers dragging the telecasting over several weeks. The one solace was the ‘Bhavayami’ performance by Sharath. His rendering was a class of its own and only Sharath could do that. I lost interest in watching the finals that were mere pomp and show.

Then, I watched Airtel Super Singer in Tamil Vijay channel regularly during 2012. All the episodes were very captivating and the competition really, really tough. There was a young girl, Pragati, from U.S who had flown to India to participate in the program. She had a splendid voice and remarkable control over her breath and singing, songs flowing from her like cool, vibrant rivers. Sukhanya challenged her well, but still a notch below Pragathi. In the finals, during October, 2012 Aajeedh, a wild card, won the competition snatching away a Rs.60 lacs worth flat as prize money, given away by none other than A.R.Rahman. Like many viewers, I felt sorry for Pragathi.  Ananth Vaidyanathan, the musician, who had trained the contestants in voice modulation, song selection, and performance had now become the most sought after in music industry.
During February – July, 2013, I was in U.S and I came to know through my brother that a new singing competition program was going on in Sun TV. He talked about Sun Singer 1 and told me that the program was available in YouTube for viewing and that too without all the tiring advertisements. I immediately took interest and started watching the episodes. I think Sun Singer Format I is doubtlessly one of the most captivating programs among all those I watched. The participants were all quite young – in the age group of 7-12. I couldn’t believe we have so much talent among the young children. I could notice the refinement and progress among the contestants, episode after episode. The children were quite smart, thoroughly professional, serious and keenly contesting. Robin, one of the contestants, was my favorite all through. He was masterly with his singing. He used his original voice without probably trying to modulate it. But, I think he lacked training on ‘brigas’ and ‘kamakams’ while singing cine-classical songs where Janakan scored over him. Janakan too was brilliant and I am sure he is already a student of carnatic music. The third singer who appealed to me was Shivani, a cute little girl. She was a real angel and another P.Suseela in the making. Her singing was neat, flawless and her voice melodious. I surmised these three would be the top three in the competition. The others like Anushya, Aswathi Raj and Ritu gave real fight to the title, challenging everyone with more and more sophisticated and difficult songs. So, there was real tough competition to the top three positions and the program kept me on the edge of my seat.

When the final results were announced, my heart broke for Shivani as she lost out of the race. She sang, ‘Kelviyin nayagane’ from the movie ‘Apoorva Ragangal’. I believe her song selection was wrong. As expected, Janakan came first singing the famous ‘Madhavi Ponmayilal’ from ‘Iru Malargal’ followed by Aswathi Raj and then Robin.
Among all the songs sung by all the contestants throughout the entire program over the 28 episodes, Robin singing ‘Unnai Kaanathu naan ingu naan illaiye’ from the movie ‘Viswaroopam’ alone rings in my ears all the time. Probably, if he had chosen another sophisticated song than the ‘Isai kettal puvi asainthadum’ from the movie ‘Thavaputhalvan’ for the finals, he could have probably reached the second place. He is really capable of challenging himself more and more, but he settled for a much simpler song that cost him the title in the finals. Overall, I liked the entire contest. It is really amazing and heartening that small children could take the contest so seriously and sing so professionally. Gangai Amaran, as the master, has done an excellent job of preparing the children for each level.

Now, the Sun Singer II program has started a couple of weeks ago and the children are just into the introductory, familiarizing stages. It is once again very clear that our young children can take life’s challenges very seriously and meet them successfully, if given the right guidance and leadership. Even the first twenty or so contestants in Sun Singer II already look very serious and determined about the contests and they all sing very well. The judges, I am sure, are going to have a tough time in judging them. P.Suseela was there as a special invitee guest for one of these episodes and it was sad to see that her sweet melodious voice had disappeared, may be, due to her aging.
O dear singers and contestants, keep the spirit of contest high and sportive. It is not about winning alone, but the very process of participating is the real joy. Keep it up. Hats off to the parents! Keep encouraging your children. They have remarkable talents.

Watch for announcements regarding “Classic Singer Tenkasi” contest among school children at Tenkasi to be held in early Jan, 2014 under the auspices of our L.N.Charitable Trust.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Alaska: Our trip during July, 2013 - Final Part V

Thursday, the 18th July:

Talkeetna is basically a mountaineering town and was built by miners, prospectors, adventurers, and the railroad. It is at the junction of three rivers, the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna. The word ‘Talkeetna’ means ‘where the rivers join,’ in the local Athabascan language. Talkeetna is also a great place for flight-seeing trip around Denali. One can find any number of water-planes parked in the waters of innumerable lakes around the place.

At Talkeetna, Viji had booked a cabin house very close to the river. It was quite late at night when we reached there. The cabin house was located quite interior, ten miles away from the main Anchorage-Denali highway. The road to the cabin house was deserted. Without our GPS, we couldn’t have located the cabin house. Cell phones went dead. The place, initially, looked haunted and scared all of us.
There was a small board “Welcome to Neelakantan family’ in front of the cabin house and that was the only pleasant surprise. Here too, mosquitoes flew around freely everywhere. We quickly rushed inside the house, not only to escape from the mosquitoes, but also for fear of any bear suddenly emerging from the nearby woods. ‘I will get out of this place, first thing in the morning,’ was the terse pronouncement from Viji. All her earlier enthusiasm to stay in a cabin house vanished quite dramatically. After making sure that the front door was securely locked, we all went to sleep immediately.
Honestly, to be fair, the cabin house was really a great accommodation, as we discovered the next morning. It was neat, fully furnished, well equipped with a fridge, micro-wave, kitchen-range, dish-washer, utensils for cooking and so on. It offered plenty of open space to play or party around and a quiet stay away from the din and noise of towns.  Knowing that we could be arriving with our children late at night, the caretaker lady had left some milk and other ingredients for making coffee or tea. But, we were all so tired the previous night after a long drive and scared about the deserted location of the cabin-house that we had no enthusiasm to notice the nicer things about this place.

In the early morning, there were a few more surprises, though not pleasant.  Electric power went off and so, there was no water in the taps in the bathroom. We quickly prepared to leave, but before leaving we went to the caretaker’s place. We found some wonderful breakfast – some special bread, coffee, cereals, and yoghurt. The caretaker was a pleasing woman. She explained away the sudden power tripping as something totally unexpected and rare and the lack of water supply from one of their overhead water tanks resulting from some inmates inadvertently leaving the water tap open during the night. A few other guests sitting in the dining room too spoke highly about the place.  Though we weren’t fully satisfied with the explanations, we had sumptuous breakfast and left the cabin house around 11.30 AM towards Denali.

The drive to Denali took nearly 3 hours and we reached our hotel at around 4.00 PM. The front desk at the hotel was very elegant and impressive. A coffee shop functioned in one corner and a gift shop in another corner. However, the rooms were located in a number of smaller condo units spread out in a sprawling campus. No parking was there in front of our condo unit and we had a cumbersome walk over quite a distance carrying our heavy luggage to access our room. It was drizzling too at that time.
Once we lodged our luggage in our room, the first thing we wanted to do was to buy our tickets for the Denali National Park Shuttle Tour for the next day. So, we went to the Wilderness Access Center and bought our tickets for the 66 miles, 8 hours long, Eilson Visitor Center Tour scheduled for 9.00 AM on Friday. We had also planned to return to Anchorage Friday night and so, we decided to get off the shuttle at Toklat River Point to shorten the tour to six hours.

After buying our tickets, we went for some shopping. We couldn’t do any other activity for the rest of the evening since it rained intermittently. We went back to the hotel, prepared our dinner for the night and lunch for the next day, and went to sleep after finishing our dinner.

Friday, the 19th July:

The Athabascan, the indigenous people of North America, called the high mountain, ‘Denali’ to mean ‘the high one.’ The place is habitat for wild animals like grizzlies, caribou, wolves, moose, dall sheep and others. It is also a place for gold mining. The development of a National Park in Denali owes to a great extent to the dream of one Charles Sheldon, an early conservationist and gentleman hunter from Vermont along with Harry Karstens, a legendary outdoorsman and dog musher. By 1917, after almost a decade of hard work, Sheldon and others persuaded American Congress to create Mount McKinley National Park. Four years later, in 1921, Karstens was hired as its first superintendent. President Jimmy Carter, in December 1980, with only weeks left in his presidency, signed into law a legislation that established over 100 million acres of new national parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges in Alaska that included enlargement of Mount Mckinley National Park from two million acres to six million acres into the present Denali National Park and Preserve. Mount Mckinley or Denali is visible from both Anchorage and Fairbanks and lies between the two cities. The park is a six million acres of wild land bifurcated by a ribbon road. Visitors’ vehicles are not allowed beyond the first fifteen miles of this road up to the Savage River. Beyond this, one has to use only the shuttle bus service operated by the Wilderness Access Center.
Denali is a popular destination for hikers, mountaineers, campers and for those interested in winter sports. It also forms part of bear country and visitors are advised to avoid encountering with bears. Elaborate instructions are available on what is needed to be done when one sees a bear.
We reached the Wilderness Access Center well in time to catch our 9.00 AM shuttle for the Eilson Visitor Center tour. We had to carry the heavy baby-car-seats too, as this was mandatory for children to travel in a shuttle bus too. I think a lot of fuss is made in some places in America in the name of security and safety. It was very quite an onerous job carrying the heavy baby-car-seats everywhere you go. The tour operators could have as well provided a few baby seats in every shuttle bus. The baby seats can be easily fixed and removed. It was raining and drizzling intermittently. The driver was a lady and as she drove, she also functioned as the tour conductor describing the places, scenic spots, the mountains, the rivers, the history of the inhabitants of the terrain, and so on all the way. The shuttle passed through Savage River, Sanctuary River, Tehlenika River, Igloo Creek, Sable Park, and Polychrome Overlook before it reached Toklat River. One got fabulous views from Igloo Creek stopover.

The shuttle stopped once in every one-and-half hours for restroom facility. At other places, it just stopped for a few minutes for tourists to take pictures. Tourists were advised to bring their own lunch or snacks, as no facility was available on the way. Besides, we were not allowed to eat anything outside the shuttle bus to avoid attracting animals and birds. The rain was a real dampener and many of the scenic spots were covered by mists. Sun came out partially here and there, but mostly not seen.
We reached Toklak River at 1.00 PM. We got off from the shuttle to take another one for getting back to the Wilderness Access Centre. In Denali, there are tours go up to Kantishna after crossing Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond. We understand, on a clear day, one gets a view of 20320 feet high McKenly Mountain, the tallest in U.S.A, from many viewing points. In Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond, on a clear day, one can see a reflection of the McKenly Mountain in the waters of the lake. However, these trips could take anything about 11 hours. For a visitor to Denali, I think one would need at least three days to do full justice.
At Toklak River, there was a tented souvenir shop and a number of restrooms. Tourists were allowed to get down from and change into the shuttle bus anywhere, subject to availability of seats. We didn’t get proper seats in the 12.20 PM shuttle from Toklak River; I felt the driver could have been a little more accommodative to ask a few fellow tourists to move over to other seats to accommodate the small children with us, but he didn’t. So, we had to wait till 1.00 PM. In the meantime, as the rains stopped temporarily, we walked around a bit taking pictures.

We boarded the 1.00 PM shuttle. The driver was quite accommodative requesting a few other passengers to move to other seats to make room for us and for the kids, so the kids could sit by our side.
We returned back to Wilderness Access Center by around 3.00 PM. We went back to our hotel, did some shopping, packed our things, put them in our car and left Denali around 5.30 PM for Anchorage.
On the whole, I felt, if weather was better, we could have enjoyed the Denali tour much more.
We stopped over at Taco Bell at Wasila on the way, for dinner. We reached Embassy Suites Hotel in Anchorage by around 11.00 PM when it was still not dark. Viji and Sanjay went out to take pictures, after we checked into the hotel room.
Saturday, the 20th July:
We got up leisurely around 8.00 AM. The hotel offered cooked-to-order breakfast in addition to regular items. We had a rich breakfast. In the meantime, Viji and Balaji went to return the rented car. The hotel arranged an airport shuttle to take us to the airport. We were there at the airport around 12.45 PM. Viji and Balaji along with the children left by 3.00 PM flight to Phoenix via Seattle and we left by a 4.20 PM flight to Chicago via Seattle. We reached Chicago on 21st morning around 6.30 AM and our flight was delayed by an hour.
On the whole, our trip to Alaska was very satisfying. I am very happy that one of my long time passions was fulfilled during this year. I thank Viji and Balaji for that. I thank Sanjay and Sahana for their excellent cooperation for most part. They are small children and become restless when they are bound in a car seat for continuously long hours. That was understandable. They just want to be free. Only we lack the ability and innovation to keep them cheerful when they become restless.
A trip to Alaska is very costly too. The flight tickets, the hotels, the rented car, the groceries, the entrance tickets to various tours, facilities and shopping are all prohibitively costly. I thank Sri Amma Bhagawan for making this tour possible without any discomfort.
Now, Kailash and Manasarover in Himalayas seem to be my next target.
Alaska is a must see place in one’s life, if one can afford. It is in places like Alaska where one finds Nature’s play in full. The scenery, the serene and clean atmosphere, the quiet ambience, the whispering cool winds, gurgling rivers and waters, expansive land and space, frightening mountain heights, tantalizing lakes and most importantly the clean and smooth road systems of Alaska are something to be remembered for lifetime.