During my first visit to Puttaparthi I had enlisted the “help” of a taxi driver called Mohan, who had been recommended to me by my good friend Satyan, from Bath here in the UK. But as things turned out it became apparent that Mohan was probably not as honest as the day is long and I suspected that he’d ripped me off on a number of occasions. However, because I wanted our journey to be as smooth as possible, and I especially wanted Ciara and I to avoid the hassle I’d had on my previous visit, I decided that it was best to go along with the devil I knew. So I contacted Mohan via email and we arranged that he would meet us at Bangalore Airport. Many years ago the journey from the airport to Puttaparthi had been long and arduous. But these days with the more modern road system it’s now only about a two and a half hour drive.
We’d decided that we were going to do something for those less fortunate than ourselves and it appeared to be a toss up between orphans and the hungry. As we entered the outskirts of the village Mohan pointed to a building on our left and informed us that it was an orphanage. Ciara and I looked at each other and knew straight away that we wanted to do something for the kids. But I was a bit suspicious that we had not even reached our destination, yet Mohan appeared to be bringing up the subject of money already. Anyway to cut a long story short, we decided that we were going to buy rice for a village near Puttaparthi where, according to Mohan, there was a need, and we were also going to take some things to an orphanage. The plan was that Mohan would organise the food with a local restaurateur he knew. On the day he would pick up the food, then us; then we would drive to the village. From there he would take us to the orphanage. Ciara and I would pay for the food and all the stuff for the kids and Mohan, as his seva (service) would provide the transport. Sorted.
I had brought with me some cheap supermarket biros from the UK to give out to the kids because they go mad for them in India; the humble biro that we all take for granted. Ciara went into a shop in Puttaparthi and bought a load of books, pens and sweets; and try as she might, with all her Irish charm, wit and tenacity to haggle a discount from the shopkeeper, he would not budge.
The day arrived and Mohan picked us up with the food already loaded in the car. He then asked for 200 rupees so that he could go and buy paper plates and cups. I knew that the plates and cups cost nowhere near 200 rupees, but he did not offer me any change. I was starting to get a bit frustrated with him, because even though 200 rupees was less than £3.00, in India paper plates and cups cost literally pennies and he was blatantly taking liberties. He then said that we would go and buy a large container of drinking water. So, he pulled up at a kiosk in a side street where he obviously knew the vendor. There was a discrepancy here as well as he took twice as much from us as what the vendor appeared to say the actual cost was. Again, it was a small amount of money, but the fact that he was seemingly blatantly ripping us off was becoming a source of increasing frustration for both of us.
There was more to come though. We arrived at the village just a few killometres outside Puttaparthi and we were obviously expected. But what greeted us was not a mass of starving people. Indeed they all seemed rather healthy and not the least bit malnourished. But first things first. Before eating, the food had to be blessed and there was a priest on hand at the very tiny temple to do just that. Mohan said we had to make a donation too “only notes” he said “no coins, 100 rupees”. This again was ridiculous, even though 100 rupees was only about £1.15, nobody is expected to give that amount in these situations; I ended up putting 50 or 70 rupees in the temple. Once the ritual blessing was over we dished out the food which seemed to go down well and all concerned seemed happy. We did however have our concerns about the food and what Mohan had charged us for providing it. It was only rice with a bit of sauce after all, and even with the cost of the container hire taken into consideration, it would not have come to any where near the 1000 rupees he took from us.
When the food was done and dusted there was another unexpected turn of events. Ciara and I thought we were jumping in the car and heading back through Puttaparthi to the orphange we’d passed on the day of arrival. Wrong! Mohan informed us we were going to the village school. We were not happy about this but he told us that some of the kids were orphans, so we went along for the ride to see what the situation was. What followed next somehow made everything all right, but not before we had another disappointment. It was only a very short drive from the temple to the village school, probably less than a quarter of a mile along what was more like a dusty track than a road. We were very disappointed to see that along the way there were people who had not taken part in the feast, probably because they had been excluded. We also saw a fairly elderly woman laying down outside one of the ramshackle houses who was obviously lame; these were the very people that we wanted to help but it was apparent that they had not been invited to eat. Our opinion of Mohan dropped even further when just before returning to Puttaparthi, we were invited to take tea with him in one of the houses. It turned out that the man of the house was one of Mohan’s relatives; giving clarity to the fact that he had simply used us to feed people who were not really in that great a need, in a village where he had connections, in order that his own standing in the community would be raised.
Thankfully our experience with the kids made everything seem worthwhile. It was a very small school, just two classrooms that were very basic with plain stone floors, and none of the kids wore shoes. They were just adorable and so excited to see us. Seeing their huge beaming smiles and the looks in their eyes was absolutely priceless. We were greeted with equal excitement in both classrooms, and as we gave out the books, pens and sweets it served to remind me of how different the cultures are. The kids were absolutely over the moon in receiving these very, very basic books and pens and it emphasised to me how lucky we are in the West and how much we take the basics in life for granted. The excitement in their faces was quite something to behold. Below are a few photos of the temple, the villagers and one of Ciara with some of the kids (if you click on them they should enlarge). The conclusion to this story will follow shortly, in the meantime thanks for reading.