Daya Vardhan, of Class 8, writes about a memorable day taking a walk around the lake with a group of fellow students and UK volunteers Colin Charlton and Jem King…
A typical day at Heal Paradise starts with the blare of the alarm at 5:30am. This is followed by a quiet doze until the next, more insistent, blare at 5:45am.
After hurriedly fitting 20 minutes of getting ready into 10 minutes, we stumble downstairs to join the students for morning yoga. Stretching ourselves awake as the sun rises.
After yoga, we head downstairs for a cup of ragi malt; a hot drink with a smoothie consistency and an almost-Weetabixy taste. It is made from ragi flour and milk. It is rich in calcium and fibre, whilst being low in saturated fat. Despite these added health benefits, it’s delicious! Most importantly, it’s a firm favourite with the children.
The cooler early mornings are the best time for a walk. Katherine and I stroll along the track to the small village of Thotapalli and back, enjoying the sites of paddy fields and grazing buffalos. The 15 minute round trip is not lengthy, but by this time the sun has risen higher. The red and green hues of the hilly terrain that surrounds Heal Paradise become more vibrant in the sun’s blaze. And we cool climate dwellers are happy to retreat back into the cool shadows of the dorm.
We join the children and staff in the dining hall at 8am. The children line up patiently with their silver trays, then wolf down their breakfast (and maybe some seconds), before racing off to their first lessons of the day.
The school congregates at 9:15am for assembly. A brief affair, starting with the singing of Jana Gana Mana (the Indian national anthem), followed by announcements and news updates, the daily recital of the Heal Paradise pledge, and culminating in the singing of a hymn.
The school day passes in a blur of classes, break bells and lunch.
At 4pm, the rushing around pauses and the school gathers in one of the school’s open air auditorium areas for snack time. On this occasion, one of the teachers, Syam, has been persuaded to put on an impromptu comedy showcase and is doing various impressions much to the delight of the students.
In the early evening the school divides. The younger children head to the playing field for some games. The older students continue with their studies. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and we wander between classes, chatting as we go.
The students tend to be more reflective at this time. They enjoy asking about our daily lives and families. They love to learn about different cultures and their customs. However, they always seem vaguely bemused that we cannot offer them a cultural tapestry as rich as theirs. They seem particularly baffled by our lack of traditional British dances. Their expectant faces make me wonder if I should have learnt some Morris dancing, or even an Irish jig, at some point in my life. But Heal students are more than graceful, and they accept our meagre offering of the Macarena as if it were a Foxtrot.
The few hours before dinner are reserved for bathing, chores and homework. We tend to make ourselves scarce to avoid distracting the students from their studies, and making extra work for the ever-patient housemothers supervising them.
At 8pm, it is time for dinner. The dining hall is alive with chatter and the aroma of delicious food. The PE teacher – lovingly referred to as PET by the students – is on the lookout, ready to blow his whistle at any student tomfoolery he witnesses. The blasts of the whistle echo round the large room. The noise is strikingly similar to primary school swimming lessons.
My Heal Experience
I’d wanted to visit one of the many Heal villages for a long time and, having known Dr Prasad since I was four and having attended the fabulously decorative India Night in Peterborough last year, I was determined to finally go.
My initial apprehensions were the remoteness of the village we were visiting; I’d never even heard of Vijayawada, and the nagging in the back of my mind that I wanted to experience other parts of India. I compromised and arranged a whistle-stop tour for my last week of the month around Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.
It’s safe to say my experience at Heal Paradise shrouded my previous angst.
My Heal experience in general was, above all, inspiring. I began to strip away my egoism and the desire for my own experience and discovered how we, in fact, were genuinely helping others. It was refreshing to distance myself from the privileged ‘gap year’ outlook and to realise the power we have to influence, even if that simply involves a ten-minute chat. Despite people’s initial confusion over my degree choice of modern European languages and thus the lack of relevance to teaching in a school in India, it was of no importance to me. You don’t need a degree in education in order to influence some excitable under-privileged kids and encourage them to expand their minds.
The Heal children have an incredibly structured routine. It starts with yoga at sunrise followed by Ragi Malt, which is best described as a milky cereal drink.
They then occupy themselves with morning classes of English, Maths, Telegu, Environmental Science, Physical Science, Hindi, Computing, Drawing and Games. With little appetite for lunch for me, afternoon lessons begin again, the occasional staff class, evening play, rest, dinner and sleep.
Yoga at quarter to six in the morning was an instant awakening, with PET (PE Teacher) sharply blowing his whistle for every position, quite different to my faddy gym classes in London. We discovered an array of positions from balancing artfully on one leg to the ‘problem diminishing’ Surya Namaskara where we were aggressively urged to ‘STRETCH YOUR BODIES’ by the Vice Principal. Clearly his forte. The children took part in prayer every morning and I was also immediately learning the importance of nature, peace and respecting your surroundings. Morning yoga amongst fields of green was a far cry from the persistent buzz of Euston Road. The rainy season often made the view misty, but the beauty of the location never went unnoticed: an eternal view of green, one of the colours of the India flag, again demonstrating its value.
Teaching was always a pleasure and what I looked forward to most each day. The brightness of the children’s expressions, their constant smiles, concentration and energy filled any room with joy. Our task was to improve their conversation English, which I feel we definitely achieved. Every single one of them greeted me throughout the day with a formal ‘good morning/afternoon/evening/ hi Katherine ma’am’ which I strangely got used to. We encouraged them with activities such as dialogues, poster creations, presentations on countries of the world, computer research, answering questions whilst catching a ball and asking others, songs, dictations, and many, many photos, occasionally rewarding them with hilariously worded stickers, my favourites being ‘Top Notch’ and ‘Way to Go!’
We even occupied ourselves with the odd Telegu class, never to be forgotten. Livvy and I now know the numbers, seasons, family members and couple of phrases such as, ‘Let’s have lunch together!’ This naturally brings me on to the topic of food.
In India, as we were frequently told, Guest is God, which almost puts you in an awkward position between appreciation of our host’s incredible hospitality and not wanting to let them down by rejecting something or saying no. Despite their worry that a few dishes or pickles they gave us would be too spicy, and that we weren’t eating enough, I loved the food and loved the spice. They make their own kurd (yoghurt), which was a perfect mouth-cooling dessert. Some of their specialities included idli, similar to dense rice cakes dipped in a light curry sauce for breakfast, a peanut pickle, lots of rice and dhal, and of course kurd.
There was even an opportunity to be dressed in traditional Indian dress, with which the housemothers occupied themselves meticulously, and this happened on the day of the opening of the health centre one Saturday. This was another occasion, after the first day arriving of course, when I felt like a curious, distant foreigner. After being strapped into a sari almost like a harness, and having my hair scraped into a clip (fortunately I missed out on the fake hair insertion to much dismay: ‘Why do you cut such beautiful long hair?!!), I looked the part, jewellery included. It was a stunning outfit, despite the length of time it took to assemble. The health day involved some sweet dances from the girls dressed in a plethora of colours, speeches from donors and doctors, and bizarrely constant requests for photos with guests whom I’d never met. I reluctantly obliged, reminding myself that I am a guest in this country and feeling like this is the appropriate response they desire from me as gratification.
All in all, three weeks at Heal Paradise Village felt like an out-of-body experience despite often feeling at home there. The hospitality was exceptional, as was every member of staff, the food was delightful and the location was a dream. But most importantly, the children were unforgettable, already drawing me back.
I cannot wait to return and be surrounded again by the richness of colour and the sparkle of young faces.