So I'm now in Varkala, Kerala, the tourist beach side resort filled with hippy clothes stalls, overpriced restaurants, pushy shop keepers skilled in the art of ripping off tourists 'yes please madam' 'just take a look my beautiful shop', the usual sneaky rickshaw drivers on the prowl and constantly spitting out reams of bullshit, the beautifully bronzed and slim yoga experts on the beach all doing their poses in perfect unison, the Bob Marley & Jack Johnson music pumping out of every cafe, the aroma of incense, the dreadlocks, the bangles, the tourists, the sleaze ball waiters trying to either sell me drugs or get into my knickers 'would you like a Special dessert maddam'. This place is a bit cliche to say the least but the beach……. is something else. Steep steps lead off the main drag down the side of the cliff to the beach where the water is clear and the sand is white. I spend a lot of time down here swimming as far out into the sea as I dare and then swimming back again in a panic, and then doing it again and going further and further each time. Once I spotted a group of around 20 dolphins not too far away from me and one of them jumped up into the air and did a somersault type move. When paddling at the edges you can see lots of little conical shaped shells being washed up and then a translucent creature sticks out it’s little flaps and starts burying itself under the sand. I spend a long time looking at them in mixture of amazement and disgust.
I feel like so much has happened since I’ve been in India and where I am now can’t be more of a contrast to where I came from in Bangalore. Here the pace is slow and tourists wonder around drinking chai and ‘living the dream’, in Bangalore I was the only white woman for miles around and chaos is happening all around me all the time. The Art School and Hostel are in a town far south of Bangalore, Avallahallil. It’s one of the dodgiest, male-dominated places I’ve been to where strange men with no teeth hobble around, dogs fight in the street, pavements and roads don’t exist, people shout at one another, bikes, rickshaws, cars and motorbikes weave in and out of each other at high speeds, and muslim men stare at me for uncomfortably long periods of time.
The man who set up the school is called Jon Dervaj. He’s a large and friendly Indian man who often wears a beret style hat with a hammer and sickle on the side. He’s an artist, musican, poet and dancer and has great respect from all the children at Born Free. I like him instantly and he makes me feel at ease, cracking jokes, singing songs, talking about alliterations and tongue twister poems and speaking a strange, high pitched Indian English that takes me a little while to adjust to. I first met him and a few of the older kids (well young adults aged between 16 – 24), Srinivas, Gowri and Frida, at Born Free’s gallery Art 9, where they were making stencils and using a loud, pumping compressor to spray paint until it got dark. The gallery/studio was filled with giant papier mache elephant heads, work benches, pieces of wood , giant 4 piece painting called 1 million crusifixions, posters and articles about the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, pots of paint, brushes, stone scrulptures and wood carvings. I like the place instantly and the young people are very friendly.
Srinivas took me to where Mioi lives in JP Nagar. She’s a dancer from Hiroshima who co-runs the school. He prefers to walk in the road with the busy traffic as most people here do, carrying my heavy rucksack for me even though I tried to say no. Srinivas is a really friendly and playful 16 year old, who at first tries to convince me that he’s 20, and it’s obvious that he has a really sweet heart. Later on I found out that the woman he thought was his mother had admitted one day that she wasn’t his real mother but she found him lying in the bins as a baby. It messed him up quite a lot and he now lives in the hostel. In fact all the children here have stories that will break your heart, and there are some things that I can’t even write about here.
I went to a film screening of a film they made called ‘Anand an Ode to Joy’ and was dedicated to Iqbal Masih, a child liberator from Pakistan who was murdered at the age of 13 for escaping from a carpet factory and then came back to liberate 3000 more children. This boy would now be the same age as me, 28, if he had not been assassinated. All the children at Born Free are child liberators. They find children who are working or on the streets and convince them to move into the hostel and go to school, although it is very difficult for some children to move away from their family, or they’ve been told by cruel bosses that bad things will happen if they escape, and sometimes they go back to working, begging, stealing, living on the street type lives. In the film the children tell their individual stories. Gowri was born on the 4th floor of a construction site as her mother worked up to the very moment she was born and then died after birth. She was brought up by the construction supervisor and forced to work from an early age. In India people who work on construction sites also live in them and it’s frequent that you see women and children there working. Lekshme used to sell balloons on the street. Another used to work in a bar and was forced to drink and smoke by the drunken adults, another worked for his father on a coconut street stall and was frequently beaten, other children used to run around in gangs and have witnessed people stabbing others for money.
There are many children going to school now and living at the hostel. Ranjita and Lekshme - two sweet young girls, Reshma and Gowri – two older girls who look after the younger ones, a big gabble of rowdy boys of various ages, Marrappa, Santosh, Suman, Jonny, Srinivas, Ventosh, Ravi, Jillalli and Subromony. Jonny and Srinivas don’t want to go to school and just want to do art so they are around in the daytime and I teach English and do Art classes and Kitty, the other other volunteer from China does Maths lessons and Cha Cha dancing with them. The day before I left the school to come to Kerala a new boy came along called Rajeesh. He is a big thief and I catch him twice with his hand in Kitty’s bag trying to steal and Jonny was working together with him as a distraction. I was so angry and started shouting and pointing at Rajeesh and Jonny, and putting on my best stern look of disapproval. Rajeesh was at the hostel because he’s on the run from police. He only seemed about 12. I contemplated not coming back again but then reminded myself that they’re only children.
While I was here I saw so much. On the way to the film screening the children were all cycling and we rode in Jon’s beat up old jeep and the youngest one, Ranjita, got her foot caught in the wheel of the bike she was being carried on. Every day there seems to be an accident or a drama of some sort. We drove along to meet them at the doctors surgery where Ranjita had her foot bandaged and I sat her on my lap in the front. She was crying and asking for her mum and dad so later on, after the film screening, we drove into J Nagar where her parents live. We pulled up on the side of the rode and Jon points to the pavement, under a tree, next to a construction site, and says that’s where they live. He asked me to go and wake them up so I wonder over carrying Ranjita and Lekshme comes with me. I can’t see anyone, only a few bits of cardboard, but Lekshme calls out and the cardboard starts to shake and I realise there is someone asleep under there. He was a very thin, friendly looking man with a piece of material wrapped around his head as a turban, and bloodshot eyes with serious bruising around both of them. When he wakes up and sees his daughter a huge smile breaks out on his face and he takes my hand and puts it to his head like a kind of blessing. Her mother then appears from behind the broken concrete wall. She is very pretty and looks a lot from Ranjita. She also takes my hand and puts it to her head to say thank you.
We leave the girls there while we go to the town so I can buy a bus ticket to Trivandrum and Kitty can change some money. On the way we bump into two ex Born Free students who are running after the jeep excitedly. When we stop Jon makes them empty there pockets and then I realise they’re both high on solvents as they pull out bottles of tipex and other solvents. Their eyes are wide and rolling back in the sockets and they are hyperactive and giggling. Jon has a laugh and joke with them, pretends to confiscate the solvents, and then gives them back. Once we got what we needed we drove back to where Ranjita’s parents live to pick them up. We parked on the opposite side of road this time as it was quite busy street and Jon and I crossed the road to meet them. As the mum was passing Ranjita to me to carry back I heard a huge crash and then span round quickly to see what looked like a motorbike crash into the back of Jon’s jeep, where Kitty was sitting. My heart stopped as I thought she’d been hurt. So I gave back Ranjita, ran to the over side of the road dodging the traffic and the hit and run driver as he nearly hit me when he was escaping, to discover Kitty was OK but a man standing behind the jeep had blood pouring from his mouth and covering his shirt. A crowd quickly gathered, as it does in India, and the police turned up by chance and we give him the parts of the motorbike that snapped off the vehicle that crashed into us. I watched the injured man pull a huge tooth out of his bloody mouth and toss it onto the floor next to the food wrappers, vegetable peelings and cow shit.
So much happens here it’s unbelievable and I wish I had time to write about it all. I did discover why people use they’re horns so much while driving. They sound the horn when they are about to make a dangerous maneuver to say ‘I’m here’. When driving in a rickshaw once I thought the horn had got stuck like that hilarious scene in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and I started laughing to myself, but then I realised he was just doing a long succession of one hand on the steering wheel, swerving in and out of oncoming cars, buses and other rickshaws, deaf defying type moves. They don’t do any of that health and safety shit here.
I go back to Bangalore in mid January to work in the school and we will be working towards having a group exhibition, but in the meantime I am having a bit of me time in Kerala, going to an Ashram for Christmas, Goa for New Year and then meeting old friends and new ones too. I feel very privileged.