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Well, it’s been nearly a month since we set out for home. The journey back was very pleasant, the plane had one of those systems where you can choose what to watch from 200 films. All three of the children sat still and silent for the entire 10 hours- George slid down in his chair a little bit when he fell asleep, but apart from that- so we arrived home without really noticing the journey.
I had expected to be amazed by how different London was from India but in fact it just felt the same- not the same as India, but the same as it was before we left. Our house was the same- more or less- it was lovely to see friends and family and find they were just the same, which was, after all, how we liked them.
We had about a fortnight of Easter Holidays before school started during which the children ate baked beans every day and their own body weight several times over in Easter Eggs. Despite having lived on such a bizarre and limited Indian diet for four months they all seemed to have grown improbably taller and Alfie only owned two pairs of trousers which went any lower than his ankles. Maybe I should set myself up as a child nutritionist with a patented “Indian Lengthening Diet” based on Aruveydic Princlples and a daily bar of 30 rupee Dairy Milk.
Everybody seemed happy to go back to school and I can announce with no small degree of maternal pride that Alfie and George received gold certificates in this Friday’s assembly for “settling in well” and in George’s case, also for “special effort with skipping”. Martha was ten yesterday. My Mum gave her some speakers for her iPod so now she can dance to Tamil Pop at top volume in her own bedroom rather than in the kitchen, where it tended to get in the way of cooking the baked beans.Elverybody is off, all day doing their own things- except me, who is at home, still unpacking and trying to reorganize life- and get a proper, grown up job for September. There’s swimming, gymnastics, piano, karate, Quaker meeting, tea dates, homework, skateboarding, committee meetings, school uniform to wash, packed lunches to pack, PE kit to forget- in short, it’s all just as it was, and I can’t say that’s a bad thing.

As far as the children are concerned it’s hard to say whether the changes in them are down to India- or to the passage of four months and more or less unbroken exposure to family life. I have noticed that they all tell people their favourite thing about India was “riding on an elephant” which I imagine gets a simpler and more satisfactory response than ” being allowed to drive the SEED Jeep across the dual carriageway” (Alfie)/”fiddling about with feral livestock” (Martha)/ “watching Indian children’s tv” (George).- the more truthful answers. We talk about SEED everyday and have introduced a Quaker Grace before family meals, including an Om Shanti at the end, just like at SEED.
I have learnt so much, on my travels, it’s hard to know where to begin. In fact, it’d be even harder to know where to end- so with that in mind it might be safer to embark on trying to explain over a cup of tea so I can judge from your glazed expression when I need to stop. When a new difficulty presents itself for me to worry about I ask myself what Hema, Anakili and Maya, the ladies at SEED, would make of it- I didn’t think they would worry about whether Martha was REALLY pleased with her birthday celebrations, so I stopped worrying about it too.
I think they probably would be quite worried by the state of our house- so I should get a move on with that. I remembered the other day, as I walked home through Shepherd’s Bush Market, how Mr Dilibob had asked, incredulously whether it was really true that in England women didn’t wear flowers in their hair. Oh dear, how sad that it really is true. I find I don’t have the nerve to jangle about London in belled anklets or wear a bindi in day to day life but obviously, I never take off my gold bangles, for fear of losing them- might we call that a 10% improvement?
One change that is certainly Indian in it’s origin, is in our perception of what constitutes a “long journey”. It’s three hours from our home to the Dorset Coast: too far for a weekend, even a bank holiday weekend, we’ve always felt. But after driving for 6 hours to cover 4cms on our map of the Western Ghats, three hours feels quite managable. So here I am now, bringing you right up to the minute- on the beach at West Bay, sitting in the sun after a lunch of fish and chips. So far from where we last sat by the ocean, but mindful that it’s still the same sea, just about twenty degrees colder.

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Chamundi Hill

Chamundi Hill

After we left the jungle, we spent three days in Mysore. We admired Maharaja’s palace and his art collection. We went up Chamundi hill in an auto rickshaw which broke down leading us to hop on to , what I am slightly ashamed to say was our first Indian bus and we bought most of the tourist trinkets in the city to give to you when we get back, so you can give them to a jumble sale in a few months: all grist to the mill of the global economy.

Mysore was very pleasant, eerily traffic jam fee- with the main streets arranged in wide tree lined avenues. I imagine that this is due in a large part to the Maharajas who struck me, on the evidence of their palace and art collections, to have been an interesting bunch- especially the recent one, Krishnaraja: I like to imagine him, dressed like he was in his portraits with head to toe silk and jewels, drinking tea in his hareem from the porcelein tea set with hand painted scenes of County Donegal.

The current palace is splendid. It was rebuilt by the British Architecht, Henry Irwin after the previous one, which was made of wood, burnt down after a birthday feast. It is the same age as our house, with very similar floor and wall tiles- though the similarity ends there. Having said that, I was impressed by the freize on the walls down stairs in the palace which showed in beautiful and minute detail, the Dussera Festival parade through the streets of Mysore. The paintings were done from photographs, some of which had keys beneath so you could identify the individual soldiers and horse/elephant riders. I did think that the Uxbridge Road would make an excellent wall frieze for the corridors of our house. I could people it with my friends in ceremonial dress- though I’d need to learn to paint first so you have some time to work out your costume. Martha, Alfie and George liked the palace very much and solemnly made their way through the audio guide with great thoroughness.

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We left Mysore on the night train to Chennai and then paid about four times the actual rate for a taxi from the station to Mahabalapuram. On the way Ben bought me two gold bangles from a big jewellery shop, so he need no longer feel ashamed of me. I am ashamed to admit how pleased I am with my gold bangles and how much I am enjoying hearing them clink about on my wrist.

Yesterday we went to pay our farewell visit to SEED which didn’t turn out quite as planned. We had imagined we would turn up, sort out the bags of books we were leaving for the library, explain and hand over the other things we had for them, distribute gifts, chat, drink tea, say good bye to our friends and then come back to Ideal Beach for an early night, ready for packing and getting ready to fly home. When we got to SEED it turned out we were actually off to Chennai Central Jail to perform the Cultural Programme.

Initially just Ben was going to go, but then it turned out that most of the Harlan children’s friends were in the cultural programme so we all squished into the small bus leaving our driver from the hotel here sitting under a tree, with assurances that we would be back by 6.30p.m.: because the prisoners would be locked up at 4.30, so the programme would have to end then.

We only left SEED at 2.20 and by the time we arrived, very hot and thristy, at the prison, it was 4p.m. Mr Palinasamy disappeared inside the jail and we waited in the shade outside, Ben and I expecting him to come out, as happened at Vellore Jail, and say that we were too late and we’d have to go home- but no! I don’t know if they made a special exception for us but at 4.45p.m. we went into the Jail to prepare for the cultural programme.

The jail was really very nice. We sat under and embroidered awning in a shady encalve which had “Civil Debtor’s Prison” written on the wall, but was also the prisons’ newly opened bakery. The bakery produces bread in packets which say, (oddly) “FREEDOM” and miraculously to relate, taste like English Bread. The children from SEED were not pleased with the Freedom Bread which I imagine they found unusually unsugary but Martha, Alfie and George were delighted and ate nearly a whole packet each. A large crowd of prisoners collected around George and Alfie to watch them eat these ludicrous quantities of bread- Alfie told all the prisoners that his name was Raja Killi and answered questions about cricket with impressive bravado. George was, as ever, the star turn and had woken up from a refreshing snooze on the sweltering bus in an entertaining frame of mind. There was quite a long period during which the prisoners milled about and massed in large gangs around the children- I have never been in a prison before so I don’t know if this is normal, I rather imagine not.

The cultural programme was a triumph. Ben’s choir performed beautifully, the children did lovely dancing- though I still can’t get my head around the karikal dance, which involves balancing a gold thing with a plasitc parrot on your head and picking up 100rupees with your eyelid- but the highlight was the performance of Martha’s play of Little Red Riding Hood. The prisoners loved little Red Riding Hood- they particulaly like the wood cutter, complete with cardboard axe made by Paramasvilli, and the wolf. Marth said to Ben afterwards that she thought they liked the wolf because he was bad and they were bad: an interesting reflection, I thought. When the play was over Mr Palinasamy brought the authoress out on stage and everybody applauded her. George, who was watching the show on my knee, turned to me and said “Now can I write a play so that I can go on the stage too?” I suggested that he go and play London Bridge on the keyboard, but just as he was heading off to do it the show was over. All the prisoners wanted to pick George up and pass him about but he held on to me very tight and confided in my ear that he was concerned that they might get put back in their cells and he would be swept off with them for a life of imprisonment, by mistake, whilst we went home. I pointed out to him that they were wearing white shorts and polo shirts and he was wearing a blue t-shirt with a velociraptor on it- so there was no way they could get confused, but I don’t blame him for not relaxing his grip on me.

The prisoners cooked us Sambar and Chappati for tiffin and Ben chatted to a man about the glories of Southern India, who told him he was only there because of an “accidental murder”. The prison seemed, on the strength of the three hours we spent there, to be a lovely clean, civilised place and I couldn’t help thinking it looked a lot nicer than living under a tarpaulin next to a road, as many people seem to here- perhaps I am missing the point.

The way home to SEED was much cooler than the way there and the bus had a festive atmosphere. We sang all the English songs the children knew as loud as we could and they sang some Tamil ones too. We arrived back at SEED at 9p.m. but our hotel driver seemed good humoured about our lateness- I imagine he had had a nice afternoon under the tree with the ladies from SEED bringing him chai and boiled chickpeas.

We failed to do any of the sorting out we had intended to do and we handed out the presents to a grave faced assembly of staff and children. None of the things we had bought seemed quite the right thing- but it may just have been that we were all feeling sad and tired. Martha sobbed and sobbed as we drove away, and I cried a bit and so did some of the children. There seemed to be no proper way of saying goodbye and thank you to so many people who had been so kind to us and looked after us so well for two whole months. I have been telling myself that it’s ok because we will go back, so it wasn’t really a goodbye anyway, more of a “see you later” – “later” is not going to be any time soon though. I feel like I am really going to miss the staff and the children from SEED, like I have missed my friends from home, whilst I’ve been here. I think it will just take a bit of distance and time to get it all in perspective again.

So today we pack, one last time and get ready to come home. I wish I was feeling more joyful about it. I’m looking forward to being at home and of course, I’m really looking forward to seeing all my family and my chums and I’m looking forward to the Easter Weekend- but at the moment I can’t really see beyond feeling sad about not being here any more and not being on our adventure any more. I know that the answer is to live normal life as an adventure…I know that….I’ll do my best…I really will…but it has all been such fun, so interesting, so rich.

I will do one last post, next week, for friends we have met here, with pictures of George’s first day at school, but apart from that this is farewell for now from Bushchild. Thank you so much for reading, it’s been great fun to write and lovely to get your comments and feel we hadn’t been forgotten about. I apologise for boring and opinionated bits and I promise not to ask comprehension questions to check that you have read it all.

Think of us on an aeroplane all day tomorrow, with George shouting “I just want to get off!” every twenty minutes, if it’s anything like the way here.

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I am writing this at the table outside the house where we have spent the last nine days in the hills of Coorg. I will not be able to upload it until we reach Mysore tomorrow evening because there is no internet access- or indeed phone access or indeed mains electiricity here. It is quarter to four and the late afternoon sun is warming my back. There is a constant background hum, which we at first assumed must come from some sort of pylon until we realised that it stopped in the evening and in fact- there are no pylons about- so it has to bees. From the volume of the hum there must be thousands of them but they must be high up in the forest canopy because I can only see butterflies and the occasional dragonfly. As well as the bees there is the sound of the little stream that Martha is dangling her feet in whilst she reads a book. Alfie and George have gone off wth a couple of little boys they have met to look at the chickens and the goats.

We have been staying on an organic coffee and spice plantation called The Rainforest Retreat, which has a few cottages and tents for visitors to stay in: we have a cottage. The father of one of the little boys who Alfie and George have gone off with comes in the morning and the afternoon to set a fire under a big copper urn in the bathroom to heat the water for washing. We spend a lot of time in London making anti-social (perhaps even illegal) bonfires in our garden, so to have one as an essential part of the household routine has been a daily delight to Ben abd the children- who have made the most of the opportunity to fiddle about with it and poke it wth sticks. In fact the climate here is so mild that for a couple of evenings- after it had rained, quite hard- we even made a fire in the cottage. It has rained around tea time almost every day, which has been lovely. The coffee was just starting to blossom when we arrived and it has bloomed and finished whilst we have been here. After a couple of days Ben and I woke up before the children and went to sit outside to enjoy the early morning calm- Ben pointed out that it sounded just like the “Soothing Sounds of Nature” cd that I once experimented with playing the children over breakfast in the futile hope that it might make getting them to school in the morning less stressful, and I had been thinking that it smelt just like an expensive candle: you know you are having a quality experience when you realise that it’s something that can be packaged and bought for money.

We have been on several long walks into the surrounding countryside, which is everything you could hope for from a jungle: gigantic trees, enormous hairy spiders, woodlice the size of toy cars, dragonflies in sports car shades of red, blue and green, tropicla flowers and epiphitic orchids festooning the trees. One walk took us to a sacred grove with an ancient temple painted in purple and orange emulsion and covered in the kind of monsters Alfie draws. Another walk ended at a little river full of tadpoles and little fishes where the children paddled and made little hillocks of sand.

Coorg is home to several settlements of Tibetan refugees. There are peopled by monks in robes of burgundy and orange- drinking cocoa cola and sending emails from internet cafes. We visited a complex of buddhist temples, just as impressive in many ways as the Dravidian temples we have seen so much of throughout Tamil Nadu. Certainly their blood thirsty demons were just as appalling and their Gods and Godesseses just as nubile, all depicted in marvelous technicolour paintings all over the walls.

 The burden of trying to feed the children things they will eat using only what you can buy in a remote rural town was admirably shouldered by a kind lady called Anu, which was a tremendous relief for me. Everything else was organised by a lovely French lady called Ingrid, leaving us free to sit about reading and chatting. The cottage was also supplied with a Monopoly set- a game we have never played at home, in fact I can’t imagine us ever having time to play it in London- but we have had three or four games of it in the jungle. It turns out I am rather brilliant at Monopoly- ruthless and valliant in my investments- Martha and Alfie were still keen to play despite the discovery of my unforseen talent. George was less keen though he often joined my team just as the game ended so as to be one of the victors- probably making him the best and most strategic player of all of us.

Tomorrow is the first of April and just a week until we come home. I am excited to see Mysore and its famous palace and really looking forward to returning to SEED to say goodbye to our friends. When we leave Mysore we will return to Mahaballapurum to revisit the things we were too baffled by the newness of it all to really take in when we first arrived. I am so glad we have had this last nine days of shade and calm to contemplate what we have done, and think about how to continue our journey when we get back home.

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.

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.

 We are just about to set off for the Beautiful Feast element of Alfie’s birthday celebrations, which turns out to be: a visit to 3 temples, a jail and a forest. “A Full Day” said Mr P, with meaning. Pictures to follow…

 

Activity Based Learning

Activity Based Learning is the new happening thing in Tamil Schools, apparently. It was introduced at SEED a couple of years ago. I have spent some time pondering what Inactivity Based Learning might have been like. Activity Based Learning is, as far as I can tell, a series of work sheets. The great virtue of the worksheets (I hesitate to say their greatest virtue) is that that the children can all be working on different exercises without the need for a class set of books. There is a variety of types of card. We have engaged slightly with the English cards. Ben’s least favourite are the ones with a triangle in the middle and three English words around the edge- something like “Cracking/ Refinery/ Carpet” or “Slender/Ignite/Dog”. – sometimes we have been handed one of these cards and asked to “teach it” -for a couple of hours. We have never quite worked out what the children are supposed to be doing with the three unrelated words, but since seeing the High School exam I have lost any sense that it’s a mystery I will ever be able to fathom. I certainly prefer the surreal triangle cards to the ones with a single grammatical point, like “Perfect Tense” and then a series of disconnected sentences where you have to fill in the gaps.

I have spent several afternoons sitting on the floor writing down the answers to the later cards, which no children have got to yet in a special book for the teachers, as far as I was able- often not very far. One of the cards had a series of pictures of children with their names underneath, all industriously engaged with various craft activities. You had to write a question: “What is Prabu doing?” and then an answer “ Prabu is colouring in” or “Prabu is making a horse out of Papier Mache”. There was one picture where two girls seemed to be shooting sparks out of their hands at each other but this was actually, according to the teacher “Playing Pebble Game”. Several of them were totally impentetrable to me and the teacher, memorably, a boy who appeared to be painting a small model of the Buddah turquoise.

Some of the cards feature Traditional English Rhymes like “Solomon Grundy” and the one about “cloudy weather” and the “old man all dressed in leather”- you know that one? The teachers know tunes to all of these rhymes- rather good Tamil tunes. In amongst these rhymes are some modern additions like “I have little cell phone”, which everyone is disappointed that we don’t already know.

As far as I can see there is no opportunity anywhere in the Activity Based learning scheme for any sort of creative writing or “expressive” work of any kind. Every exercise has a right answer which is not up for negotiation. That may be because I am only able to look at the English and Maths cards and when I come to think about it, I don’t think there was much creative writing when I The learning is “outcome focused” -if you will excuse the education speak- rather than “process led”, it’s about getting the answer right not meandering about on the way enjoying the view. I may be reading it all wrong though, and in fact the picture of the boy painting the Buddha turquoise is meant to be the spring board for a really remarkable intellectual journey. In fact now I come to think of it, it makes much more sense that way.

 

Ben’s Choir: by Ben

There is quite a lot of singing in the daily life of SEED. Prayers are sung several times a day, thanksgiving is sung before lunch and if it is a feast day- paid for by a benefactor celebrating a birthday- we sing happy birthday.

In addition to this, there is a fair amount of singing involved in Activity Based Learning. One man went to Moe is a favourite,although the actual tune of it is fairly lost and the rhythm (as also in Happy Birthday) has got some tricksy bits to it – tricksy to us westerners who are used to just 3 and 4 time. About 3 weeks into being here I realised that what with telling stories, smashing through I’m a little teapot and ‘doing’ past and present tense, I wasn’t really doing anything pr properly musical

for the children. So I started an official choir – 4.30 -5.30 every day. Discipline has been a bit of struggle, partly because the children are like any children, but also I think because they think that Ben + singing = hilarity and tomfoolery. I soon put this to rights as hilarity + tomfoolery = no songs learned.

I have chosen some traditional songs – All things bright and beautiful, Give me joy in my heart, As I went down in the River to Pray, Molly Malone, and a couple of others. I thought that religious ones would go down well as they can use them in ‘cultural pro grammes’ (Paramishvilli, one of the teachers has already said that she could use some of them in the future), they have good tunes and the children respond to a spiritual theme. Actually they loved the ghost bit of Molly Malone, it took a while to explain what was going on, but once they got it they went all shivery, which was fantastic. They generally respond to the moods of the songs well and have risen to the challenge of singing English music, in English very well indeed. I am proud of them.

I have them all ready for a performance, with solo and trio bits, all of them looking up and smiling and knowing where to stand, but I don’t have a venue and have been hoping that Palanisamy’s friend will have us in his bank one afternoon- he offered a while back. However a really great gig opportunity has turned up for this weekend – to perform for the inmates of Vellore Jail. This is part of our trip for Alfie’s birthday and is in fact a wonderful opportunity for some of the children from SEED to see their parents some of whom are serving life sentences there. I hope the children sing well. I have often chatted to music educators about what it is like to do music projects in prisons but I have never been involved in one. I never thought my first experience of this kind would be in India.

On Saturday we went on a jaunt to Kishkinta- a theme park just outside Chennai. We got rather lost on the way so the 45min journey took 2hours but it was all worth it when we arrived as it was thoroughly fun and just what was needed.

That evening we stayed in Kanchipuram, which is famous for its Silk Looms and its temples. Everybody was horrified to hear that we only intended to visit one temple. I hope one day to visit the other five, but Martha, Alfie and George are on the brink of terminal temple fatigue- so I didn’t want to push my luck.

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