At Work and Play in India

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November 28th 2007
Published: December 22nd 2007
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Chillies DryingChillies DryingChillies Drying

Red chillies drying in the sun outside a house in Hampi Bazaar. © L. Birch 2007
After five days in Hampi Bazaar, we packed up our bags and moved across to the village of Virupapurgadi on the other side of the Tungabhadra River. The river was almost low enough to wade across in places and huge rounded boulders stood like stranded hippos in midstream. Many of these boulders had intricate carvings decorating their flanks that were only visible in the dry season. During the monsoon, in August and September, the Tungabhadra became a raging monster when most of these rocks and their carvings were submerged under 15 feet of water.

Up until this point, we had spent our days scrambling over rocky hillsides and exploring secret temples littered with fallen columns. We delighted in each new discovery, almost falling to our knees in awe when we came across a cave temple with richly carved walls. The carvings were so fresh and alive that they looked as if they had been carved only years before our arrival. Many of course, were more than 200 years old and spoke of an artistic civilisation that was now long dead. And where Hampi was bustling with local life; with pilgrims, beggars, fruit sellers, sadhus and local businesses - Virupapurgadi was
Cactus Country Cactus Country Cactus Country

Spiny cactus plants cover the rocky hillsides around Hampi. © L. Birch 2007
a much more recent addition to the local scenery and catered to a quite different clientele.

There had always been a small village across the river that consisted of a handful of squat houses roofed with palm leaves, their walls liberally daubed with cow dung. But in the last 10 years, a string of low budget resorts had sprung up along the road overlooking the river. Among the travellers fraternity, Virupapurgadi had gained a certain reputation. It was said that the place was so laid- back that it was almost horizontal, and after the long journey down from Bombay, it sounded like the ideal place to unpack our bags, sit and watch the rice grow and relax for a few days.

It was also in VPG (as we came to call Virupapurgadi for short) that both of us went down with the 'Hampi Virus': everybody seemed to have it. It was heralded by a tearingly sore throat and was then followed by fever, cold-like symptoms and diarrhoea. At its height, I could eat very little, anything I did try and consume passing quickly and painfully straight through. I slept, almost solidly, for one 24-hour period - waking only
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One of many galleries of carved figures, this one hidden beneath an overhang close to the Tungabhadra River. © L. Birch 2007
to drink water and read before falling into delirious dreams again. On one occasion, I woke to hear someone playing a guitar in the garden outside - a rendition of "American Pie", so perfect it could have been Don Maclean himself singing:

"...Those good old boys were
Drinking whiskey and rye singing;
this'll be the day that I die,
this'll be the day that I die..."

Somehow, it seemed rather appropriate. We were both thankful that the virus had waited until we had settled in VPG for there was no pressure to do anything but let it pass and gradually build up our strength again. It was very hot by day but cool - almost to the point of being cold - during the nights and early mornings. Early morning, shortly after sunrise, was when we chose to do our walking - out into the surrounding rocky hills with their cactus bushes and acacia trees or alongside the Tungabhadra River. We often saw hoopoes, kingfishers and hornbills, but there were also bul-buls, black Indian robins and parakeets - as shockingly green as the first flush of newly sown rice in the paddy-fields. There were monkeys too; macaques and
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A black faced langur looks out upon his kingdom among the ruins of a Hampi Temple. © L. Birch 2007
black-faced langurs but of the legendary crocodiles that still lurked in the river, we saw almost no sign. We knew they were there because we sometimes found the imprint of their clawed feet in the soft mud by the river's edge. We could follow the keel marks left by their heavy tails as they had hauled themselves over a sandbank and into a neighbouring pool.

VPG lived up to its reputation but it had one drawback: it didn't feel like we were in India anymore. The place was filled with young Israelis who seemed to want nothing more than to sit around smoking dope all day. They didn't want to mix with other nationalities, nor were they particularly interested in the cultural experiences that India offered them. Many would stay for months and the sum total of their experience would be of this completely artificial existence.

Rested, we began to pine for life back on the other side of the river. And so, after a sufficiently protracted bout of relaxation, we moved back to Hampi Bazaar to take up posts as voluntary workers on a children’s project.

Life Back on the 'Other Side'

The project
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Ploughing a rice paddy with an ox-drawn plough in preparation for sowing. © L. Birch 2007
was based in a two-storey building in the heart of Hampi's crowded backstreets. Its aims were fairly simple: to provide street children with the kind of life and opportunities that would otherwise be denied them. Many came from poor families that lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Some of the children had lost a parent and were being brought up in large families whose income rarely exceeded 6-700 Rps a month (about 7- 8 pounds sterling). Under such circumstances, the young became old quite soon. Schooling was too costly and out of the question, and many of the children were sent out to earn money from begging to help augment the family's meagre income. You saw them everywhere in India; snotty-nosed little children of 4 and 5, barefoot in filthy, ragged clothes handed down by older siblings. They would trot along beside you in crowded places persistently begging for whatever they thought you could give them. Their lives would be pretty miserable and there would be all the attendant problems of parental alcoholism and abuse: little of the money they earned would ever benefit them. But in Hampi at least, the Children's Trust was working to alleviate some of these problems.
Newly Sown RiceNewly Sown RiceNewly Sown Rice

The 'shocking' emerald green of a freshly germinated rice field, Virupapurgadi. © L. Birch 2007

The Trust we were working for had between 16 - 18 children on its books and undertook to feed them three meals a day, provide them with uniforms and to pay for their schooling. The day began shortly after 8am when the children started to arrive at "Harmony House". Our job, initially, was to greet them all (it was quite a challenge learning the many names with their unfamiliar sounds), get them settled, help any who had not finished homework and entertain them until Marika, the Indian cook, had prepared their breakfast.

When it was ready, the children were encouraged to wash their hands and sit patiently together on the ground while we served their meals. After breakfast, they would wash and brush their teeth - many of the little ones bringing us their toothbrushes and asking for their teeth to be brushed for them. Then they were dressed in their uniforms and packed off to school with their satchels for a 10 o'clock start. They returned at mid-day for lunch and again at 4.30pm when the morning's procedure was repeated, but in reverse: school uniforms removed and hung up, old clothes back on, homework and games, encouraging them
As Easy as ABCAs Easy as ABCAs Easy as ABC

Lalitha takes me through my paces during English practice. © L. Birch 2007
to wash their hands before they sat down to a meal of rice and curried vegetables. Food was eaten with the right hand (for us too if we ate with them) and afterward, with darkness falling, the children would wash and slip away to their homes with "Goodbyes", kisses and handshakes. In between, there were the mundane chores; the washing and ironing of uniforms, the sowing on of lost buttons and the behind-the-scenes admin tasks and general maintenance jobs. It was exhausting work but satisfying too, though we often wondered how Celia - the Trust's English administrator - managed to keep going day after day.

Viv formed a relationship with a deaf boy of about 5 years old. Sai Kumar also had ADHD and could be disruptive to his classmates, often because he was simply unable to express his wishes. Viv devoted quite a bit of time to Sai Kumar and found a way to reach him on a purely visual level. By accident she discovered that he loved to go through picture books and that he 'talked' with his hands. I would sit and watch them with wonder as they communicated with hand gestures - Sai Kumar animated
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English, Kannada and maths were just some of the subjects the children brought back as homework from their day at school. © L. Birch 2007
and absorbed in a way I had not seen before. At that moment, one of the other children - 5 year old Hampamma perhaps, would climb up onto my knee to recite her English homework to me. There were many times like this when I was both touched and delighted by the trust the children displayed in us.

Somehow, we also found time to forge bonds with Piru, a local stallholder whose persistent entreaties for us to visit his home in a nearby village, finally wore us down. Delighted by our acceptance, Piru collected us after our morning shift at "Harmony House" one Friday morning. An auto rickshaw took us to Kandipuram, an impoverished village of dusty unpaved streets and simple buildings. Pigs nuzzled through the rubbish that lay alongside narrow pathways as Piru led us to his house. There was something quite refreshing about Kandipuram. People were genuinely pleased to see us and most noticeably of all, it lacked that grasping greediness that was gradually transforming Hampi. This was 'real India' and we felt a privelleged thrill at being able to see it.

Piru's house was a simple affair with an earthen courtyard smeared with dry cowdung
With Sai KumarWith Sai KumarWith Sai Kumar

Deaf from birth, Sai Kumar had nevertheless mastered the art of communicating with his hands and loved picture books. © V. Birch 2007
( in India, even the dung of cows was considered sacred and is often used to coat the floors and walls of village houses). We were introduced to a growing crowd of curious relatives and neighbours before being ushered inside the house through a low 'hobbit' doorway. Piru's mother, a dark skinned Lamani woman, greeted us as if we were long lost family members - holding onto our hands and smiling warmly into our eyes. A meal was quickly prepared and served despite our polite protestations. Piru looked at us with mock severity as the food was placed before us and our eyes widened at the size of the portions: however could we eat all this food we wondered?
"It is our custom," Piru admonished us. "You come my village, I must preparing food for you."
And so, not wishing to offend, we tucked into plates piled with home-made pastries filled with a sweetened lentil paste. Water appeared in two cups and was placed beside our plates. "Do not worry for the water," Piru said, noticing the brief questioning glance that passed between us. "Is like Bisleri." (Bisleri is a local brand of bottled water). All the while, a curious
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Children and volunteers enjoy a Sunday afternoon outing among the ruins. © L. Birch 2007
crowd of village children and neighbours peered through the grille-like window or stood staring at us from the doorway, Piru answering their many questions in Lamani. There were so many different languages spoken in southern India that it was difficult for us to learn more than a handful of words in any language. The people in Piru's village spoke Lamani but, just 4kms down the road in Hampi, most people spoke the language of Karnataka - Kannada. Malayalam, Telugu, Konkani, Tamil and Hindi were also spoken in the south... it was all a bit confusing.

When finally we could eat no more, we were taken from house to house where - to our consternation - the whole process was repeated. Out would come the home-made snacks and cups of hot, sweet tea would be pressed into our hands. It was the first time we had experienced such genuine and overwhelming generosity in India. Everyone wanted to host us and to look through our small album of photographs from home. In the house of Piru's friend, Asha, we were shown pictures of her Father's business achievements, her friends and family and of her trip to Delhi - which to most
Child's PlayChild's PlayChild's Play

An innocent moment of play among the ruins of Hampi's Achuteraya Temple. © L. Birch 2007
villagers was impossibly far away in terms of distance and cost. And in Hemli's house we sat on the floor - there was no furniture - and at her insistence, drank bottled cokes that she and her husband could barely afford to buy. We laughed and, more than once, wiped secretly at brimming eyes when we were overcome by the kindness of these wonderful people.

No one wanted us to leave but I was taking two children from the Trust into town for a visit to the dentist and reluctantly, we had to take our leave. And so we left Kandipuram in an auto rickshaw, clutching a bag of pastries that were pressed upon us and promising to return as we waved 'goodbye.'

A Trip to the Dentist

Back later to Hampi than intended, there was no time to wash and change. My two charges, Oblamma 10 and Bhuneshwari 8, were the oldest and most willful of all the girls who attended "Harmony House". Both of them needed fillings and it had fallen to me to take them to Hospet for their treatments.

We set off in high spirits, the pair of them demanding fruit
Photo Call in KandipuramPhoto Call in KandipuramPhoto Call in Kandipuram

Family, neighbours and various friends pose for a picture in Asha's house, Kandipuram. © V. Birch 2007
or ice cream at every step. They were real 'street kids' these two and though other volunteers found them somewhat challenging, I couldn't help feeling a sneaking sense of admiration for their tough and spirited nature's. I marvelled too at their sense of wonder as we made the 45 minute bus journey to town, the pair of them hanging excitedly out of the window as they pointed things out to each other. For these children, a trip anywhere was a rare event, so a visit to the 'Big Town' must have seemed quite an occasion. But I was finally won over when, having arrived at Hospet's chaotic bus station, the two girls gently slipped their hands into mine as we disembarked from the bus and went in search of the dental clinic.

The 'clinic' was a corridor squeezed between two busy shops on the main road. One end of the corridor served as the waiting room, the other - screened by a grubby curtain - was the business end where the dentist carried out his treatments. Bhuni went first while Obla and I peeped around the curtain to see how she was doing. That was when I had my
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With Piru and friends, outside a village house in Kandipuram. © V. Birch 2007
first shock, when the dentist got straight to work with the drill... without any anesthetic. Bhuni held up bravely but Obla became more and more agitated. When her turn came and she replaced Bhuni reluctantly in the scarred-looking chair, it was with a look of terror on her face. The dentist managed to drill out two teeth but hit the nerve on the second. That was when Obla went through the roof. Neither the dentist nor his bored looking assistant (dressed in jeans and an Hawaiian shirt) could hold her in the chair. The next thing we knew, she had wriggled out of the chair and bolted past us out onto the street.

The dentist grabbed my arm as I made to follow. "Give her 5 minutes to calm down." He said. "But you must get her back. She will be in much pain tomorrow if we do not finish the job." It was the beginning of a long evening. I ended up chasing Obla around a busy market using all my powers of charm and persuasion to get her back into the clinic. It took a good half an hour and then we had to wait in the
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Piru never stopped joking... even while his photo was being taken! © V. Birch 2007
corridor until the dentist was free again (there were no appointments. Treatments were delivered on a first come, first served basis). By the time he was free, Obla's panic had grown and she bolted again. This time she simply stood outside and refused to go back in, convinced that the dentist intended to pull her tooth out. Passersby must have wondered what was going on. There we were, an Englishman and a ragged little Indian girl; me pleading and cajoling, Obla stamping her feet and saying "No, no, no!" in her loudest voice. She did finally relent and go back inside but would not sit in the dentist's chair. Instead, she stood on the threshold of the room, squeezing my hand with all her strength while the dentist administered the filling there and then. Outside, Obla had made me promise that if the dentist tried to pull her tooth, I was to forcibly stop him. "You must be hitting that man, promise?" She had said. I had promised, hoping it wouldn't come to that and fortunately, it hadn't. But if I had thought the evening's entertainment was over, I was wrong.

The whole messy business had taken much too
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Bullock carts were just one of the hazards of a foray into Hospet's busy streets. © V. Birch 2007
long and back at the bus station, we waited half an hour for a bus that didn't turn up. At the busy enquiry office, a man in a green uniform told me rather gruffly that there was a final bus at 9:30pm. I looked at my watch, it was 7:50. I couldn't make the girls wait an hour and forty minutes for a bus that I was not confident would even show up. Our only option, were the auto rickshaws but my heart sank at the prospect. The rickshaw drivers had formed a little mafia cartel and were notorious for overcharging foreigners. I knew that locals paid 60 Rps for the rickshaw journey to Hampi but when I approached a group of them outside the bus station, they predictably demanded 300 Rps from me. Sometimes, you could bargain the cost down but they knew they had me and refused to budge on the price. Up and down the rank, every man I asked said the same as the first - a surly individual who followed me and spoke over my shoulder to any driver I approached, "He pays 300, no less." He said.

Exasperated, I walked away from the
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A look back across the Tungabhadra River where Hampi's Virupaksha temple rises above the palms. © L. Birch 2007
stand with Obla and Bhuni still clutching either hand. A group of drivers - arms crossed resolutely - watched me go. I reached the market and was on the verge of going back to accept the outrageous fare when a rickshaw pulled up beside us.
"Want rickshaw?" the driver enquired.
"Yes," I said, ignoring his invitation to get in. "How much?"
"150 Rupees." He said. This seemed hopeful, so I pitched him a lower price.
"Can you do it for 100?"
"120 minimum." He replied. Better, I thought, and launched into the kind of forlorn entreaty that Indians often gave me when I tried to bargain them down.
"But Sir," I said, "I have just paid for medical treatments for these two girls and only have 100 Rupees left." It was not true and he probably knew it but he sighed heavily and motioned for us to get in.

We clambered excitedly into the back. With Obla and Bhuni seated on either side of me, the driver set off confidently into the chaos of Hospet's night time streets. Periodically, we would be held up by bullock carts - heavily laden with sugar cane but these rarely stopped the driver
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The setting sun casts a golden path across the surface of the Tungabhadra River at Hampi. © L. Birch 2007
who would swing out into the flow of traffic - regardless of what was coming - defiantly sounding his horn, which squawked like an ailing duck.

The girls meanwhile, hung out either side of the rickshaw, entranced by everything that was going on; the traffic, the passers-by, the brightly lit shops and posters for Bollywood movies. At one point, Bhuni turned to me in wonder. "This still Hospet?" she asked. "Yeah." I replied, struck again by the realisation that, to them, this small provincial town must have seemed like a wonderous metropolis - the 'Big City.' Eventually, we left Hospet's lighted shops behind and, with the total absence of any street lights, were enveloped by the darkness. With cold air rushing in upon us through the rickshaw's open sides, it was not long before Bhuni turned to me. "Cold." She said simply, hugging herself with skinny arms. Without another word, she curled up on the seat beside me and lay her head in my lap. Seconds later, Obla had done the same and looking down at their tousled heads, a lump formed in my throat. That these children - whom I had only met for the first time a few days before - should show me such innocent trust, was almost overwhelming. Putting an arm around either shoulder, trying to fend off the chill as best I could, we endured the cold, bumpy ride back to Hampi.

Finally, after what seemed ages, the little rickshaw topped the last hill and the lights of Hampi swam into view below.
"Hampi," I said, "We're home!" With that, both girls sat up and began chattering excitedly. Home; it seemed strange to be thinking of this place as home but for that moment, Hampi - and these wonderful children - were home. Turning towards me once more, dark eyes shining, Bhuni smiled up at me. "Hampi." She whispered, as if it were a secret we both shared. 'Yes,' I thought. 'Hampi: it felt good to be home.'

Hampi Children's Trust is always looking for volunteers to help out with various aspects of its work. Volunteers are expected to provide a minimum 2-week commitment. A limited amount of (free) accommodation is also available.

Volunteers and visitors should bear in mind that the trust survives entirely on charitable donations and is always grateful for any financial support that can be provided.


7th March 2008

really lovely to see that you met and worked with the children of Hampi.. please visit our myspace website too and join up love miss mia
7th March 2009

Dentist !
Hi, love to hear your experience with the dentist! Ha ha ha... If in Bangalore try - a completely different experience.!
18th March 2009

Re: Dentist!
Thanks for your comments David & glad you enjoyed the entry. In retrospect, it was a great experience tho' I probably didn't think so at the time! Thanks too for the suggestion, will try and check it out sometime. LB
23rd March 2010

Wonderful. I grew up in Hospet & now I live in the US. Someday I would love to volunteer at the Hampi Children's Trust.
25th March 2011

you of done a great job
thanks for having done the best travel information . hope u remember hoblamma but noww she has left the hct and she sales coconuts for tourist. hct has 34 kids now and doing well . hope u are fine there .best wishes from kali co-founder of hct
17th May 2011

Thank You Kali...
Great to hear from you and so glad you liked the article - particularly as it was intended as a tribute to all the hard work you and the other members of HCT have put in over the years. Thanks too for the update on what's happening. I was especially delighted to hear Obla's news, sounds like she has fallen on her feet! Keep up the good work. Love and best wishes to all. Laurie & Viv

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