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 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.