The beautiful feast was the birthday party of a life time.

We had warned Alfie that he was only going to get little presents, except for the mysterious box which ‘granny had left for him, wrapped in a laundry bag when she left Kerala. He was pleased with his t-shirt saying “Rock Star” in glittery letters, and with his batman hot wheels motorbike and a packet of horribly stainy jelly felt tips- but the laundry bag package was the highlight of the birthday morning: it contained a new pair of “Heelys”- trainers with wheels in, for those of you who live in a cupboard or just didn’t notice that every child in London was on wheels about two years ago. Alfie had a previous pair which Grandma (Ben’s Mum) cleverly gave him and which he wore religiously until they were so small they had to be taken away from him to stop him doing some permanent damage to his feet. India is actually an excellent country for the careful wearing of Heelys, as where there is not sand- which is not good for people with wheels- there is concrete or marble which is optimum wheeling surface. The playground at SEED turned out to be a perfect wheeling platform and everybody was very impressed.

We went swimming and had festive lunch in a not very nice local hotel so we turned up at SEED in time to participate in the excitement of the “Beautiful Feast” without exhausting our novelty value before it began. I had to rush out to pick up the two 5kg cakes from Sriperumbedur which I had ordered the previous day. They were each about half a meter square and took up the entire back seat of the Jeep. By the time I got back Ben had already begun pass the parcel. We wrapped seven parcels each with ten layers. That was why we had to get on with it, because there were not enough layers for the high school girls if they came home from school at 5.30 and joined in. the first seven layers alternated between quite large chocolate bars and small chocolate bars with a lolly pop and larger chocolate bars. The next layer had felt tips, the next layer had a box of six pencils with a rubber and a ruler and the last layer had a Spider man pencil care. With the wisdom of hindsight I can see that the last three layers should also have contained a small chocolate bar- clearly having your own chocolate bar is particularly exciting for the children at SEED and there was quite a bit of “Sister, my pencils…no chocolate”- which I am sure you will be reassured to hear if you have been worrying whether the children at SEED were real children, after my descriptions of their virtuous behaviour. Would Mahatma Gandhi have approved of pass the parcel? Even with a present in every layer? I think probably not. It mirrors life in that it distributes good things on the basis of luck- or worse on the basis of “luck” which is really favouritism by the person controlling the music.

Having said that, the children of SEED obeyed without question the injunction to give up the parcel to someone who hadn’t had it if they got it twice and the Harlan children responded with equal good grace to the news that they were not allowed to win any of the three significant prizes- it would be nice to think that SEED has rubbed off on them….we shall see. I think over all pass the parcel created more joy than misery and so by that crude measure, let’s say it was a success.

After pass the parcel the high school girls got back and preparations for the feast began in earnest. Rajandran had gone, at 5am to the flower and vegetable market and bought back grapes, bananas, 400 apples, many many cauliflowers and bags of jasmine buds. The high school girls sat on the floor and helped break up the cauliflower into the right size pieces for deep frying for pakora. Some of them made garlands out of the jasmine with tying each bud to the next with white cotton thread. I had a go, but I suspected before I even sat down that I was not going to be able to do it, and I was absolutely right: much too fat fingered and impatient.

Some of the other high school girls made chalk rangouli- a kind of cholam- with a birthday message on it. They coloured it in with chalk, moistened to make the colours more vivid. Meanwhile George slept on a mat on the office floor, Marth practised dancing with her chums and Alfie wheeled about pausing occasionally only to receive the adulation of the birthday throng.

Eventually we were all garlanded and ready for the feast, this began with prayers, and ” happy birthday” followed by a presentation ceremony where all three of the children were given gifts. I had done a dry run with Alfie beforehand because he has been known to be ungracious when receiving gifts which he might not have selected if left to his own devices. This proved to be unnecessary as the gift contained a six inch silver model of Gandhi complete with removable staff and glasses and Alfie was truly thrilled.

After the presentation we lit the candles on the cake. The candles were housed in a pink plastic flower type of thing, which I think was meant to unfurl as the candles burnt. In fact it caught light and dripped burning plastic over the surface of the cake- but it was very exciting to watch, probably better than the unfurling would have been. Then we had to take part in a special birthday cake ritual where Ben and I had to be photographed feeding the birthday boy small pieces of his cake and after that the feast began. As the providers of the feast- in fact Ben’s Dad gave us the money for it, so technically the descendants of the providers of it- it was our privilege to serve the food. We each took a dish. Ben did chappati, I did channa, Alfie did noodles, George did pakora and Martha did apples. It was a really lovely evening without doubt the best birthday party I’ve ever been to.

The next day Ben went back to Vellore jail with his choir ad the cultural programme. Mr Palinasamy said that the prisoners were completely enraptured by the choir and he said he had never heard anything like it. So job done there: well done Ben. The children and I spent the day in the field and went to SEED at tea time. There was only one teacher left- another was doing politics training and almost everyone else had gone to Vellore- and she was in charge of all fifty children who had not gone to the jail. She was not feeling very well, so she was pleased when I showed up and suggested the children might like to watch Batman Returns whilst she had a lie down.

The day after that was our last day, we spent the morning in a panic trying to pack. In the evening Mr Palinasamy asked me to come to the boys’ high school to give “improving advices” to the boys about to take their public exams. Having seen the girls’ public exams a couple of weeks ago I was confident I had nothing at all to offer by way of “advices”, improving or otherwise but apparently my presence was necessary “to bless them”, anyway we’d be back by 8…..I did my best with the blessings and contributed some total gibberish about exams, which I can only hope they didn’t understand or they will think I am a complete fool. We got back to SEED at 9.30, we went home, packed and went to bed.

We didn’t sleep very well for several reasons, the most dramatic of which was that George was attacked by a small beetle, which bit or stung him on the back of the knee. The worst bit of the whole event was being woken by him screaming, out of nowhere “IT BIT ME!” and thinking immediately of the cobra Lakshmi Ama had seen in the garden the pervious day (we’ve left now Mum, so you don’t have to worry). I think it was a kind of waspy ant, but there were no lasting ill effects other than two little spots which have almost gone now. Ben killed the insect and we have carried it with us to Bangalore in case of a delayed adverse reaction, but there’s no sign of one- George and Alfie are jumping vigorously on the bed as I write. We are now referring to George as Beetle Man and I have tried to convince him that his beetle powers will allow him to eat any food stuff, even things he thinks he doesn’t like, even dahl…with limited success. He prefers the idea that they might allow him to walk upside down on the ceiling, when they kick in. He is adamant that he is not going to grow antennae though.

Leaving SEED was less traumatic than I had imagined as we are planning to return on April 6th for a farewell visit. We are already feeling a bit homesick for Alicja’s house in the field though. Alicja showed the patience and tolerance of a saint throughout her ordeal of living with five people who yelled, broke things, picked the fruit off her trees before it had a chance to ripen, put their hands on her whitewashed walls and left their belongings all over the place. I can’t actually think of a single immediate reward for her in letting us stay for seven weeks in her lovely home. I only hope the universe will send her some sort of cosmic reward. Mr Palanisamy suggested that maybe I will do her some marvellous service in a future life, maybe carrying her across a desert or rescuing her from a lion. Whatever it is, I hope I do it very well because she has been remarkably kind to us. In fact I am not sure we could have come at all if she had not let us stay in her home whilst we visited SEED.

We left for Bangalore on the 6am train from Chennai Central and the four hour journey was very pleasant. Bangalore is really cool in both senses, Ben wishes he had bough his jumper because the air conditioning makes him shiver. We spent this morning wandering around a shopping mall, which was fun after many happy weeks of small town life in Sriperumbedur. Tomorrow we shall take a train to Mysore, from where we shall travel by taxi into the mountains of Coorg. I think it is very unlikely that we shall have any internet connection until we leave and return to Mysore on the 31, so I shall do my best to prepare a post about jungle living to upload then . We fly home on the morning of the 8th of April, in time to hunt for Easter eggs amidst the late spring flowers.

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