Tuesday, 16 February 2010


My final weeks at the school flashed by.  A final spurt of academic activity leading to exam week was followed by Sports Day, and then suddenly it was all over.

Sports Day was a real event.  Somewhere between a military parade and the Olympics.  I was delighted to be chosen as the Guest of Honour, along with Erin.  Our duties included opening the games by raising the school flag, inspecting the teams and scoring a choreographed march past. A unique and wonderful experience.  The games were varied, and included shirt buttoning races, slow bicycle races, formation cycling, lime ‘n’ spoon races, as well as all of the usual athletic events.  Prize giving was a delight.  A truckload of fluffy toys were handed out to the winners.  In true Indian style I was put on the spot to make a speech.

 After an emotional farewell from the staff and children I enjoyed a final supper with the kids, and waited for my 3am pick-up.  After long, blurred journey I arrived in the Andaman Islands for a few weeks of diving and relaxation.   Wonderful, but in light of my experiences at the school,  time spent snoozing in hammocks felt very self indulgent.

I’ve been in the UK for a month and already my days at the school seem long ago and far away. How can I hold onto my memories more tightly so that they don’t fade?

My time at Shanti Bhavan was full of love, laughter and learning. My only regret is that I didn’t give more. Something that I hope to address in time.

If you’re a prospective donor or volunteer, my only advice would be: do not hesitate, dive in headfirst.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

Exam week

Exam week is upon us.  Normal lessons have been replaced with mocks in all subjects for grades 6 and above.

The American volunteers refer to the exam invigilator as the proctor.  Somehow proctor better conveys the experience of sitting in a room full of scribbling children for 3 hours.  The conversation is limited. More paper please.  Can I go to the toilet please?   Knowing that all of the those scribbling pens are churning out marking makes it worse.  Mile upon mile of wiggly blue lines to be deciphered, corrected and scored.

The kids here all have 'autograph books' which departing volunteers leave notes in. As with everything else, the kids are very competitive with their books, so a quick 'work hard, be good' doesn't cut it.  It has to be original and witty. So many children, so many books.  

I caught the kids arguing over which magazine cut-out Blackberry had better features.  This on has a bigger screen, better for games!  Mine has 5 meg camera! 

I gave the boys in question a good talking to, pointing out that it was ridiculous and childish to argue over which was better.  Everyone knows that the cut-out iPhone beats beats the Blackberry hands down.

 I think that these two are on the phone to each other.

Speaking of technology, a friend posted a lovely surprise to the school, a tiny Polaroid printer which prints directly from my digital camera.  The kids are love it.  I've taken portraits of a number of the younger grades so that they can take them home to show their families.  Cheers Ludwig.  As you can see, photographing the kids here is easy work; they're a  photogenic bunch.

Despite growing up in the smelliest country on earth, the kids have very sensitive noses, sensitive enough to distinguish between volunteers as it turns out. They can identify us by our smell before they can see us.  Each of us has a unique pong.  Our smells include: like a salty biscuit (no bad), cheesy (not good), like a goat (ouch).  I'm delighted with my signature odour - soapy.  Or was that soupy?

A surprise screening of the latest Harry Potter movie is planned for Sunday night. The kids are going to go bananas.  They shake their heads in disgust when they learn that I haven't read the books, especially as I dressed-up as Harry for Halloween.  

When I first arrived I was a bit mystified by the children's requests for me to speak to them - 'just say anything Mr Peter'.  Then I twigged.  To their ears I sound just like Harry.

Last weekend I escaped to Hampi with my compadre Min-ho.  We took the Hampi Express sleeper service from Bangalore.  As it was dark during both our outward and return journeys, we didn't see a great deal.  I do remember waking as we passed an enormous power station.  Alongside was the longest train I've ever seen. In keeping with Indian bureaucracy every wagon was plastered with labels identifying the contents as 'Imported Australian Coking Coal'.  Aussie dinosaurs are being dug up, shipped half way around the world and burnt to power India tv's and air conditioners.

Hampi, in the state of Karnataka, was once Vijayanagar, a great 15th century city.  At its height the city's 500,000 inhabitants traded gems and spices with merchants from far off lands.  The city's enormous wealth was used to build a complex of temples and palaces which cover an enormous area. Deccan sultans sacked the city in 1565, but most of the monuments remain very good condition. If you plan to build a monument to your greatness, I recommend using granite.  The landscape is dramatic. Enormous granite boulders are scattered across broad domes of smooth rock.  Paddy field and banana plantation bring a bit of green to the red and orange of the granite.  We hired a couple of old school Indian bikes; they look great, but as they're built to a 1930's design they're not the best rides. No gears, no brakes, damned heavy.  

The experts don't seem to mind.

Mmm...nice hot pouris, "cheap and best!"

We stayed outside the main town in the village of Kamalapuram, a short boatride across the Tungabhandra River.  The village is a major stop on the India backpacking circuit. Hundreds of Israeli kids spend their days here, chilling out and playing guitars in cool caf├ęs. Nice.  

After a very relaxing weekend we had to haul ourselves back onto the train. Time is running short. Sadly, just a week from now, I'll be leaving the school for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  I'm trying not to think about it too much.  What will I do without my little friends?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Killer chickens...

What was terrifying at first is now routine. Up at 7am, breakfast, into class at 8.30am, blink, and it's dinner time. Two more weeks have been swallowed up.

At one point a couple of weeks ago 96 of the 210 children were taken ill with a flu like virus. Kids get colds, and in a school like this they inevitably spread faster than rumours of rice pudding for afternoon snack, but this seemed more serious. Thankfully it wasn't what we feared it might be and all of the kids are much better.

Classes are progressing well. As we're approaching 'exam week' I've concluded my 'Scratch' programming courses. Having started with very little computing knowledge the children are now writing their own games; we've had great fun and the kids are now proud to call themselves programmers. One of my favourites is 'Sponge Bob', an addictive game written by a couple of 7th Graders (11 year olds); eat the cheesy puffs, avoid the killer chickens.

My older English literature students have been working hard towards term exams which I have set and will mark. Quite a responsibility as the marks will be sent to Delhi and count towards their final grades. It's hard to judge where teaching stops and spoon-feeding begins. I want my kids to do well, but making things too easy isn't going to ready them for the big board exams at the end of March.

As a change from the usual slog into Bangalore, a few of my fellow volunteers joined me on a trip to Pondicherry last weekend.

En route we stopped at a massive temple complex in Tiruvannamali, built on the spot where Shiva appeared as a column of fire, giving rise to the original 'lingam' symbol of the Hindu religion.

Pondicherry, on the East Coast, 100km south of Chennai (Madras), is a former French colony. A little Gallic charm endures and the Indo/Franco cuisine is delicious; superb, delicately spiced fish curries. (Yes, it's true, the seafood was too good to miss so the veggie experiment is over.) The wide boulevards, with their colonnaded houses are pretty; it helps if you squint slightly and hold your nose. This is India after all, so you often catch a whiff of worse things than frying garlic. The long promenade besides the Bay of Bengal is more Blackpool/Coney Island than St. Tropez, but the local tourists were having a great time. Their first glimpse of the ocean.

Most interesting for me was Auroville, a community 20km outside of Pondy. Conceived by 'The Mother' in the late 60's, Auroville is 'an experiment in international living where people could live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, politics and nationalities'. 2000 people from all over the world live with no personal possessions, each with their own role in farming, maintenance, the arts, etc. The centre of Auroville is marked with an enormous golden structure, the 'Matrimandir'. Within this weird alien structure, hidden from the eyes of visitors, is a meditation chamber lined with white marble at the centre of which stands an enormous sphere of the quartz crystal. Mirrors direct the sun's rays onto the crystal to light the chamber. Far out man.

A wonderful concept, that really appeals to my inner hippy. I'd move if only my inner cynic didn't feel that it's all just a little too good to be true.

The drive to Pondy, 7.5hrs each way, was both fascinating and terrifying. It's all very well visiting the sights, but the people live in the in-between places; you see the real India on the road. The worst poverty is on the fringes of the big towns. So many pitiful sights. People lying like corpses on the fringes of the highway as lorries roar past, just a couple of metres away. Perhaps they would welcome a quick end. Life certainly looks harder in the cities than in the towns and villages, but then I'm the lucky one on the inside of the car looking out.
The Gods have smiled on our children at Shanti Bhavan, that's for sure.

Next weekend I'm off to Hampi on an overnight train. I leave Bangalore at 10pm and will be woken in my sleeper compartment with a cup of chai as we arrive in Hampi at 7am. Much more civilised.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Shanti Bhavan celebrates Children's Day every year on 14 November, Neru's birthday. 
Our day started with a special breakfast of fried puri and spicy sambar.  "Oh yes Mr Peter, breakfast was so tasty, so nice and oily!" Oily isn't an adjective that's often used to extol the virtues of a dish but I must admit that I felt the same way.  Greasy, salty puri...mmm. 

After breakfast we welcomed the children into the school building under a shower of petals and escorted them to their seats.  Every child received a little handmade card and a sweet.

The show kicked-off with a telling of 'Peter Pan and the lost children of Shanti Bhavan'.  Every teacher and volunteer had their part. I played the boy who never grows up for the first, and almost certainly, the last time.

Peter, Wendy and Michaela set off to find the lost children...

Peter finds his missing shadow and tries it on for size.

The evil Hook, played by the headmistress, Mrs. Law.

Yes, yes, I asked myself the same question.  Why is Peter Pan dressed-up as a cabaret Leprechaun?  More Blackpool panto than Broadway musical but the kids loved it.   Take a look at their faces and you'll get the idea. 

Peter Pan was followed by dance numbers, songs and sketches performed by the volunteers, teachers and aunties. Have I mentioned the aunties before? They are the backbone of Shanti Bhavan. Eight big hearted women who keep all 210 children clean, clothed, fed and loved. 
All in all we kept the kids entertained for two and a half hours.  I had to memorise a few lines of Tamil for a sketches i which i was being treated for dodgy guts by a singing doctor.  You had to be there. The finale was a big Bollywood dance number. A couple of volunteers from Artists Striving to End Poverty choreographed a dance to 'Jai Ho', as seen during the closing credits of Slumdog Millionaire.  The day was a great success, and most importantly, the children knew that it had all been put together just for them.

It's not all play.  Lessons are going well.  I'm really helping the kids get to grips with programming; they've come up with some pretty good games.

Less technical, but more fun, I've been teaching a few of the little ones to ride bikes.  There are no stabilizers, so you have to hold the handle bars and run along with them  'Promise that you won't let go Mr Peter!'   I'm also holding a weekly bicycle mechanics workshop.  This week we're fixing punctures.

A beautiful visitor inspects my washing line.



Saturday, 7 November 2009


I'm sitting in a Starbucks clone in Bangalore drinking a masala chai. I've stepped out of India and have been teleported to a culture neutral zone. Looking out at the chaos and colour outside my air conditioned bubble is like viewing a far away land on a plasma screen. These places exist in every city from Boston to Bangalore. Globalisation and caramel cappuccinos. So sad. But who am I to talk? High speed wifi and chocolate brownies. I love it!

All's well at Shanti Bhavan. I've had a month of new experiences, so on one level I feel that I've been at the school for a long time. All of the smiling faces are familiar and I feel at home. On the other hand, the weeks are racing by all too quickly.

The American volunteers take Halloween very seriously. A pagan bunch. We had great fun with the kids. They performed a couple of spooky Halloween dances including a very cute versions of the Monster Mash and Thriller. We put together a few fun activities including the telling of some scary stories by a strange Englishman dressed up as Harry Potter. Expeleratum! I had hoards of little'uns huddled around and hanging off me. They're so cute, but I didn't realise that they could generate so much heat. After an hour I was drenched and exhausted Great fun.

The snake-o-meter now reads '7'. My latest encounter was nearly my last. I came across this snake on my way back the teachers quarters on Tuesday evening. Such a beautiful, docile creature, dressed all in black for a night out . I spend about 5 minutes crouched down watching him, close enough to touch. The local teachers were rather shocked when I showed them the photos. 'This is krait Mr Peter. Most deadly snake in India!'. A snake hunt ensued. I'm glad to say that my beautiful friend had slithered to safety. A lucky escape for both of us, but I can think of worse ways to go. It would have been an interesting story at least.

There's one fellow that i wouldn't want to meet. I'll let my little friend will tell you...

The photo below shows me reading the news at morning assembly. Every day a different teacher reads the news in Tamil, Hindi or English. Given the schools ambition to gain representation for the dalit (untouchable) caste in Ieadership roles in India, this is taken rather seriously and the kids get an unsensored view of world events. I chose to steer away from news of war, death and destruction to focus on climate change, environmental and science news, cut with breaking news of the world's largest rubber-band ball. No prizes for guessing which story created most excitement. Note my two little map-holding assistants hiding behind the easel and my map pointer who I challenged with my stories which included references to Libya, the Philippines, Antartica, Ethiopia and the planet Mercury. There's never a shortage of labour in India.

The next big event on the calendar is 'Children's Day' when the teachers and volunteers put on a two hour production for the kids, When I tell you that most of the other volunteers are New Yorkers from ASTEP (Artists Striving Against Poverty) you'll understand that this is no casual affair. The budding directors and choreographers in our midst lead nightly rehearsals. Some of the teachers will perform some traditional Indian dance numbers. There are a number skits, including one in which I'll be speaking Tamil! If you've seen Slumdog Millionaire you'll remember the big BollyWood dance number at the very end of the film. Well, we're perfroming that! Most terrifying of all is the main event of the evening, a perfromance of Peter Pan and the lost children of Shanti Bhavan. And yes, I am. I take comfort in the fact that the more ridiculous my performance, the more the kids will enjoy it. Gulp!

My pals in 6th grade.

Until next time.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Mr Peter's adventures continue...

All’s well in Shanti Bhavan ‘haven of peace’. The more I get to know them, the more I realise how wonderful these kids are. They’re all so happy. This is truly a noble and worthwhile project.

Diwali was a blast, literally. Diwali, ‘Festival of Light’, means fireworks, and lots of them. The children of Shanti Bhavan weren’t disappointed. The staff had amassed an impressive arsenal. Now, there are two things you should know about Indian fireworks: 1. the fuses burn for about one millisecond, 2. there’s only a 50:50 chance that they’ll go off. As far as the kids are concerned, both characteristics are a plus . When they do detonate, they are loud and violently explosive. Did you see footage of white phosphorous being used in the West Bank? Another thing that you learn is that Indian firework safety standards differ to those in the west, in that there aren’t any. Picture 200 children of running around with pockets full of assorted incendiaries. The movie below says it all. Warning: Parents with small children may find the following images disturbing :-)

I wandered through the chaos, dazed by the explosion as the palm trees faded into the smoke. The horror...the horror. All we needed was a Jimmy Hendrix soundtrack.

All this being said, the kids had a wonderful time and there wasn’t a single injury. All’s well that ends well.

The school is located in a very rural area. I went for a run to discover fields of rice, flowers and even grape vines. The occasional villages are clearly very poor but have a simple charm. Easy to say when viewed from the comfort of $100 running shoes. Unfortunately the headmistress has asked me not to leave the school again. It seems there's is a bit friction between the school and the local villagers. Clearly I must respect my host’s wishes, so I'm confined to the school grounds except for occasional weekend trips to the nearest town, Hosur, or into Bangalore.

I have a delightful room mate. Meet Vladimir, faithful companion and devourer of mosquitos. But Vlad and I are not alone. Each night we are visited by ‘the beast’. At around 3am I am woken (Vlad works nights) by load sniffing at a the wire mesh that separates me from the warm Indian night. Long, deep inhalations. I swear that the beast is smelling me. By the time I reach the window with my torch it has vanished into the scrubland that surrounds the school, snapping large branches as it makes its escape. This is no goat. The locals suggest two equally sinister possibilities “yes Mr Peter, this is most certainly wolf or jackal”. My neighbours have received no visitations. Has it tasted Englishman before?

A beautiful black snake, longer than a child, sped across the path in front of me this morning.

The academic lobe of my noodle is slowly coming back to life. Working through maths exercises I feel sure that I’ve already covered questions. I look through my notes and find nothing. As it turns out, I have worked through the problems, not last week but twenty years ago! As I haul knowledge up from the depths, memories of my school days are caught up in its wake. Interesting thing, memory. Now where was I....err....um.....ah yes, teaching. As the days pass I’m becoming a better teacher. Having found my rhythm, I’m able to observe the children more, allowing me to change tack when I see that I’m not getting through. The children are bright and diligent. I’d say that their knowledge is on a par with a good UK grammar school, although development is skewed. The children here may be more familiar with Shakespeare’s works than their UK counterparts, but they haven’t ever sent an email or used the internet. As there are no calculators, the kid’s mental arithmetic is excellent. They use logarithmic tables and mysterious longhand methods to calculate square roots. Voodoo magic. I have purchased a scientific calculator.

Nearly dinner time, so I’m off for veg curry and rice. The food it delicious, but more of that in the next time.


P.S. The identity of that vile and ferocious beast has been discovered. Meet ‘Peepers’, head of school security. My offering of a chapati with peanut butter was accepted, so now we’re pals.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Shanti Bhavan Week 1. In at the deep end...


Happy Diwali! Today we celebrate Rama’s victory of good over evil, or  Krishna's victory over a demon. The story's different depending on whether you’re at the top of India, or somewhere near the bottom. Either way, the ‘Festival of Light’ is big. Despite the school's financial problems we’re still going to ‘burst some crackers’ and enjoy a special meal.

I enjoyed a very special birthday yesterday. Birthdays are taken very seriously here. Picture me standing on a chair dancing as more than 200 children sing happy birthday. After the song you shout your age and the children clap once for each year. I’m not sure that all of them could count as high as 38! In the evening a few of us had a car drive us into Hosur, a town about 40 minutes drive from the school, for a special birthday curry. Delicious paneer masala, veg dopiaza, tarkha dhal, mango ice cream...all washed down with fresh sweet lime ‘musambi juice’. I‘m still resolutely vegetarian and chai total.

My Birthday Meal

The pupils here bright and charming. Despite desperately poor backgrounds, the children remain just that, loveable kids, and although they are growing up away from their families, they all seem happy. I haven’t seen any tears or heard anyone saying that they miss home, not even the really little ones. Perhaps this says as much about their home lives as it does about their love for their Shanti Bhavan family. A brigade of ‘Aunties’ preside over the children’s non academic lives. An Auntie travelled with me to hospital, accompanying a boy who’d broken a finger playing football. It was clear that the children get all of the love and affection that they need. I was pleased to see this as the kids have a very heavy academic workload. I’d like to see the kids working less and playing more, but in a land of a billion souls, when you’re starting at the bottom of the heap, you need to emerge into the world prepared for a tough fight.

The school grounds are patrolled by a million dragon flies which circle the bottle palms that line well kept paths. Massive crows, flying in gangs of 25 move around the school, hoping over to snatch any forgotten morsel. They’re magnificent, sinister fellows with their glossy blue-black feathers, jet black beaks and grey hoods.

The ground is alive with lizards, insects and frogs. Two close encounters with snakes already!

We start each day with the school prayer:

God, Creator of the Universe, help us to remember that you are present in each one of us. May we respect each other, and be tolerant of our differences. May we be good and caring towards each other. May the teachings of all the great world religions direct our thoughts and actions. Grant that we may be spiritual in our interactions and zealous in our work and play. Help us to discover different ways to serve our fellow humanity. Guide us to discover the treasure hidden in each one of us, and to uphold what is right, cherish what is beautiful and revere what is divine. As we journey through each day of our lives, give us the grace to accept whatever you have in store for us. Be with us in our joy and sorrow. Help us build Shanti Bhavan into a haven of peace and let this peace touch the lives of all we meet. We salute the divine in each other. Namaste.

I was thrown into the deep end when I walked into my classes at the beginning of the week. Having survived the initial shock, I’m getting into my rhythm. I teach Grade 9 and Grade 10 (15 & 16 year olds) mathematics, Grades 6 & 7 computing and a new programming language for kids that i brought along called ‘Scratch’, Grade 9 and Grade 10 English Literature (As You Like It and Julius Caesar), plus nightly maths tutorials for some of the older children. Preparation, preparation, preparation. I’ve discovered that it’s not as easy to wing-it in front of a class of 15 year olds as it is in a boardroom full of 40 year olds. With all of the preparation, teaching and marking I’m working long hours. Luckily there aren’t too many distraction here. I’m trying to find the ‘Zen’ approach to studying. So far, so good.

Oh, I shaved the beard off this morning. Given the tropical heat, there seemed little point in keeping it.

I hope to find time to update this blog weekly. However, if after some weeks these are the last words to appear in this blog, what can I say? Sorry, talk is cheap.