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.