As I suspected, when Mr Palanisamy says “it will be a full day” he means it in every conceivable sense.



We were told that we would be leaving at 5. Alicja said she’s come too. After the trip to Pondicherry Ben said he felt we should just wait until someone came to pick us up, rather than setting the alarm for half past four. Alica and I weren’t quite bold enough to do that but we both felt we could set the alarm for 5a.m. and be fairly confident that no car would be waiting for us. 5 now seems like quite a reasonable time to set out on a day trip- which is proof that travel can change your outlook.

We set the alarm, we woke up the children, we fed them breakfast- now it was half five. I asked Alicja if she thought there would be time for me to make and drink some tea, she said she thought probably, there would be- there was no sign of the car on the horizon of the field. So I made the tea, and drank the tea…and then made some more and drank that too. The children went out into the misty morning field to fly paper aeroplanes. After about three quarters of an hour the joy of the paper aeroplanes was starting to wane. Several of them had gone over the fence back into the garden where Vicky Vicky had painstakingly ripped them into tiny shreds. It’s hard to deal with such setbacks when you are only little and you’re not used to being woken up at 5. At half past seven the children were wailing and squabbling in the field and then, thank goodness, the car came.

I'm sure he really beleived he was joining in the game.

I'm sure he really beleived he was joining in the game.

George in the morning mist, in the field.

George in the morning mist, in the field.


When we arrived at SEED all the primary children were on the bus already. Apparently Mr Dilibob, the driver had been late to come to SEED and so nobody had been able to drive to get us, and that was the cause of the three hour delay. Maybe he felt, like us, after the trip to Pondicherry that he could be pretty late without anybody really noticing. We set off.

Alfie, George and Martha have sometimes passed idle moments, whilst Ben and I were struggling with ABL cards, watching Spiderman cartoons on my ipod. Soon the other boys realised that this was possible and joined them. The screen of my ipod is quite big, for an ipod- but it isn’t designed to be watched by 25 small boys in a sweaty huddle in a tropical playground. I sucked Spiderman off the ipod and put it on to my laptop where the screen is about 4 times bigger than the ipod- but still tiny. The boys wanted to watch Spiderman every free moment. Alfie and Martha begged me not to put it on because when they did there was no-one to play chase or badminton with. A few weeks ago the government gave SEED a DVD player, so I bought them the animated adventures of Spiderman, which was the cause of such ecstatic rejoicing that it then seemed clear that the feature films were needed. I discovered that you could order such things on line from Landmark Books so I bought a box set of the Spiderman films, Batman and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in Tamil. I had never seen a real life “dance of glee” until the day the parcel arrived and we unwrapped it together. Raja Killi stood on a raised platform and declared to the jubilant crowd, the order in which the films would be watched over the next few Saturdays- starting with the first one: on the bus.

Well, sadly, Spiderman wouldn’t work on the bus…but Harry Potter, in Tamil did! It was an enormous hit, despite being film four in a series of seven. The children watched with total absorption, it was lovely to see. In fact they are watching Spiderman 3 on the government DVD player in the classroom as I write this now on Sunday afternoon, it’s in English so the Mary Jane bits- in fact all the dialogue bits- are not popular, we’ve been fast forwarding them (much to Martha’s annoyance). I can hear them cheering whenever Spiderman does anything “wery super”.

So we watched Harry Potter all the way to the first temple, which was a hill temple to the Tamil’s favourite God Murugan. It was beautifully painted, but it’s most striking feature in my view was that, whilst we have grown used to temple elephants and cows- this temple had temple bees, high up on the forty foot ceiling.


temple bees

temple bees

We watched more Harry Potter and got to the Vellore fort temple. This is a truly beautiful building, intricately carved. Of all the temples we’ve been to it was the one which reminded me most strongly of an English Cathedral. It was constructed in the fifteenth century and then appropriated by various invading forces, including a Muslim king who fortified it with a moat and drawbridge and the British. Its religious significance was restored after independence. George was unusually enthusiastic about the Jalakandeswarar temple and went through pooja queue several times, laughing and shouting “I goed through four times now” – which fortunately everybody seemed to find endearing rather than sacrilegious. He has become positively keen on having ash or sandalwood paste on his forehead and often applies it to himself, of his own accord from the little office altar at SEED. I’m afraid he views it as face paint.

Incredible pillars

Incredible pillars

It transpired, whilst we were at the fort temple, that the English Master and some of the boys from the High School had been left behind at the hill temple, but they seemed to magically re-appear before we left the fort. I have no idea how as the hill temple was really very remote. As we waited outside the temple, Marth was accosted by a Nun, who wanted to know what her name was, where she was from and whether she loved Jesus. Marth said she was called Martha, she was from England and she was keen on Jesus. Then the Nun wanted to know if Marth wanted to be a Nun. I think she was quite taken aback by the vehemence of Martha’s “NO!”.

After the fort temple we attempted to visit a museum, but it turned out to be shut on the second Saturday of each month. We walked past some splendid banyans on the long hot walk to it, so the effort was not wasted.

After the museum we got back in the bus and drove to central Vellore where Mr Palanisamy’s former colleagues from the Canara Bank had prepared us lunches in little newspaper packages, which we loaded on to the bus and set out for the forest. The forest was quite a long way from Central Vellore and Harry Potter was finished now, so we watched some Tamil “Comedy”. We knew it was comedy because a message popped up between each scene telling us it was. The central comic device was gratuitous violence with cartoon sound effects, creating the impression that you could smash a man’s head, hard against a wall for ten seconds with the only ill effect being a comedy cross eyed look. I no longer felt worried about having exposed them to the violence in Harry Potter.

Our eventual destination turned out to be a “Mini Zoo”.

By the time we arrived at the Mini Zoo George was profoundly asleep and remained asleep even when carried off the bus, bare chested and laid on a concrete slab at the bottom of a tree, on plastic bags. The zoo was unusual, in my experience of zoos because although it had a mini selection of animals in cages it had almost as wide a selection- though of less various types- out of cages. Probably fifty dogs and monkeys watched us ravenously whilst we unwrapped our little packages and ate them under the trees. Several monkeys snatched the cellophane packets of banana chips and ate them above us. The dogs fared less well and glared at the monkeys, agrieved. When we had finished our lunch we put the rubbish in a big cylindrical bin and a few moments later someone from the zoo came along and set it alight to prevent the monkeys disemboweling it- putting an end to the dog’s hopes.

I didn’t trust the monkeys at all so I sat next to George on the concrete slab whilst Ben and all the children went to see the zoo. The SEED children kept popping back to keep me abreast of their progress through the zoo: “you..sister…you..ood dog….”, “you….wery wery biiiiiig snake”, “Sister, wery wery super peacock.” Which was nice. Ben said that some cages had the same sort of monkeys in that were also in the trees around the cages- like a cage of pigeons in London Zoo. I wonder which group of monkeys considers itself to have the better deal: if they are anything like people, then they both probably feel it’s the other lot.

After lunch and the zoo we set out for Vellore Jail. Some of the children had prepared a “Cultural Programme” to perform to the prisoners. Paramasvilli said they had been rehearsing until one in the morning. Ben was also hoping that his choir might do their first performance. Sadly, because we didn’t get to the jail until 5, the prisoners had reached the end of the time when they are allowed to wander about and were just about to be locked up in their cells for the night- so there was no time for the cultural programme. If you have read my previous posts abut the children at SEED it will not surprise you to hear that they greeted this disappointment with cheerful stoicism, except for one little girl whose father is a life prisoner in the jail, who was taken in to see him for half an hour. She was apparently to have been a butterfly in the dance routine, which she might have found easier than the face to face interview, during which she just wept. She held my hand very tight in the temple we visited afterwards, I hope it helped a little bit. It was touching to see how the other children went out of their way to be kind to her and the big girls carried her when she fell asleep, exhausted.

Whilst we waited for the little girl to come out of the Jail, the prison bought us out sweet tea and rich tea biscuits -not that they are called rich tea biscuits here, and all the tea is sweet so it’s hardly a descriptive feature. The biscuits and the tea seemed to be all the consolation the children needed and they thoroughly enjoyed them, sitting on the sand under the shade of the trees. George and Martha were very pleased with the tea too- Alfie doesn’t drink tea. One of George’s beautiful lady friends cooled the first cup down for him but then he helped himself to a second cup, when nobody was looking, burnt his hand on it and dropped it over himself and the prison director. The prison director was braver than George about it. George sat at the centre of a concerned crowd and lamented that now he would be unable to use either of his hands because of the “wound” on one of them (a microscopic scratch) and the terrible burn to the other. Alfie’s broken arm from the summer has clearly lodged deeply in his consciousness as he had a comprehensive list to hand of all the things he would now be unable to do and all the things I would have to do to compensate for his disability. After a while someone gave him a toffee and he forgot all about it.

After this drama we got back on the bus and drove back into Vellore to visit the Golden Temple and another smaller temple across the road. I am afraid, and I apologise in advance for any offense I may cause by being so outspoken, that neither Ben, nor I liked the golden temple at all. It was founded by a Tamil man, known as Amma, who used to pray in a small shrine at that site. Mr Palanisamy told us the story of how he had had a vision, and then there was something about Americans and the long and short of it was that he has built a temple out of gold. The children insisted it was solid gold, which I can’t believe is possible, but it was certainly very golden and looked to me like something you might not buy in Harrods. To get into the temple you had to check in your camera and mobile phone, as well as your shoes and then walk through scanners and have your bag x-rayed. Each of these “services” cost money and the people at the gates were curt and officious. I was sent round to queue twice because I hadn’t realised I had to physically leave my camera behind rather than just undertake not to take pictures with it, as one usually does in a temple. I was delighted when I eventually caught up with the rest of the party from SEED and Ben whispered to me that despite all the scanning and body searches he still had his iphone and the little video camera in his pocket. Ha.

The temple is approached via a very long star shaped path which made Alfie complain that his legs were aching. It also apparently resonated the positive energy of the universe. I know this because it was punctuated by boards featuring the wisdom of Amma. One of these boards said something along the lines of “people ask me “why build a temple out of gold and not a school or a hospital?”, and I say “Because the wisdom generated by the temple will lead to the building of hundreds of schools and hospitals”. I am afraid, I disagree. I don’t think that a temple you have to have your bag x-rayed to visit, which is patrolled by men in khaki with Doberman dogs (Dobermans….in India?) is anticipating the generation of a lot of wisdom- it seems to be anticipating the generation of avarice and the desire to steal the gold. I felt, particularly acutely, walking round with a gang of the high school boys that the gold would be serving God better if it was given to Mr Palanisamy or one of the other organisations like his which give shelter to the vulnerable- of whom there seem to be so many. I suppose I would say all this: Quakers don’t build golden temples.There was a big concrete image of Amma- I think Mr Palanisamy, with his enormous grin would be much more inspiring. I fact I would certainly take him a garland of flowers.

After we left the golden temple (past the ranks of donation desks with international credit card facilities and through the gift shop) we set out for home, stopping on the way at Mr Palanisamy’s brother in law’s house for a spot of dinner. Mr Palanisamy explained that when he realised we were likely to be home very late, sometime in the afternoon, he had rung his brother in law, who is a jeweler in Vellore and asked if it would be OK for him to pop in for dinner on the way home, with 80 or so children. His brother in law seemed utterly unphased, perhaps it’s not the first time it’s happened. Some of us squished around the edges of the main room of the flat and I think another party went up to eat on the roof. We had Sambar and Pongal for dinner and it was only with difficulty that we prevented him from cooking a whole lot of new things to try and tempt the Harlan children. It was half past ten by the time we set out for home, George was recovered from his dramatic tea trauma and was on rather good form after his long afternoon snooze. Alfie and Martha were beside themselves with exhaustion- too tired to eat even biscuits.

When we got back on the bus everybody went to sleep. I slept a little bit but I was mainly mesmerized by the Tamil film which was put on for the sleeping children. It featured a Tamil Star called Vijay, I know because I asked today, who bore a great resemblance to our auto driver from Madurai, Thangapandy. In fact I’m sure the resemblance was not just accidental because Thangapandy played tunes from Vijay’s film on the sound system of his auto rickshaw, so he is clearly a fan. Thangapandy, or Vijay, seemed to be playing a kind of a secret agent equipped with all kinds of deadly and unexpected gadgets. I have no idea what his mission was but there was a lot of bloodshed involved in its execution. There was also a comedy character who initially appeared driving a bullock cart and then got the horn of a gramophone stuck on his head, from which point on he was distinguished by several inches of conical comedy hair, which George, before he too fell asleep, found hilarious. Part of the secret mission also involved winning the affections of a lovely and thoroughly modern young lady who mainly seemed to wear little frills of Lycra. I asked one of the teachers if she liked this woman and she said yes, she did, she was very beautiful, but when I asked if she would ever dress like that she just laughed and then translated my question into to Tamil so everyone else could laugh too.

Thangapandy won the heart of this beauty by a series of cheeky stunts, like pretending to be unwell and in need of nursing, and some very vigorous dance routines. When he had done something especially winning he would nibble gently on the corner of his shirt collar and gaze up at the girl, and the adoring audience, limpidly from beneath his eyelashes. These scenes were interspersed with others where he wrought bloody destruction on whole troops of what I imagine must have been baddies. I thought it was a rather odd combination but maybe I missed something when I was dozing. Certainly the film still seemed to be in full swing when we arrived back in Sriperumbedur at half past midnight. The kind bus driver drove us back to Alicja’s house in the Jan and Maria Harlan Jeep and we collapsed, very gratefully into our beds. I haven’t seen Mr Palanisamy since, I don’t know where he went today, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he decided to make a night of it and get on with his emails until breakfast at 5a.m. He seems to do that quite often. He is a truly extraordinary man and he organises a truly extraordinary day trip.


We have less than a week now until we leave SEED to go to Coorg, via Bangalore. We will come back for one day in April before spending our last three days back at Ideal Beach in Mahaballapuram. Although I am excited to be going to Coorg and even more excited to be coming home, it will be a real wrench to leave SEED and all the staff and children there. We have had such a fantastic time here, people have been so kind to us, we have learnt so much as well as making real friends. Our plan is to come back as soon as we have saved up enough money for the plane fares.

 I am feeling like I feel at the start of a busy week at home, baffled by all the things that we need to get done and the shortness of the time left to do them. It’s Alfie’s birthday on Tuesday and Mr Palanisamy asked if I could make a cake. In fact there is nothing I would like to do more than to make a cake but then I started to consider the logistics of making cake for 200+ in Alicja’s grill oven with her 6′ tin and had to recognise that I was beaten. I have made two cakes in moments of acute homesickness whilst staying here, a chocolate cake and a lemon drizzle cake, but neither of them were fit to grace a birthday feast- though Marth, Alie and George ate them up happily enough in one sitting. Then I thought maybe I would make 200 pancakes- but then I thought I could also not, and that seemed, on reflection to be the better option. We will go into Sriperumbedur tomorrow and see if one of the sweet/fly shops will make Alfie a cake. We are also contemplating pass the parcel, just for the primary school- maybe 8 groups of 8, and we’ll play it the middle class London way with a present in every layer as a representation of our cultural heritage.

Vicky Vicky contemplating gymnastics through the gate which separates him from his dreams.

Vicky Vicky contemplating gymnastics through the gate which separates him from his dreams.