Did you know that the Ice House was once both home and school for young widows?

The Ice House (now Vivekanandar Illam) opposite the Marina was a place where young widows learned to read, write and do math, some 100 years ago. The girls hoped that education would give them a shot at a better life. Who were they? What was the ‘all widows school’ about? Who were the people behind it? The illustrated presentation ‘Girls Of Ice House’ by Nithya Balaji and Kaveri Bharath had the answers. The event held recently was part of Madras Week celebrations.

The long journey

The presentation traced the journey of R.S. Subbalakshmi, who started it all. ‘Akka’ (Sister) as she was better known was born in 1886. She was married off when she was 11 years old — her boy-husband passed away two months later. The stigma a young widow faced is unimaginable. But, thanks to her supportive father, Subbalakshmi studied hard and went on to become the first Hindu woman to graduate from the Madras Presidency College.

Subbalakshmi wanted to become a teacher so she could educate more women — she knew what it took for a young Hindu widow to survive in a world of mindless orthodoxy. Education, she believed, was the way out. With the support of Christina Lynch, an Irish educational inspectress who “was an ideal partner who shared her vision”, Subbalakshmi went on to educate several child widows through her home ‘Saradha Illam’.

Nithya, Subbalakshmi’s grandniece and Kaveri, her great-grand niece, narrated the story of the home that started with one pupil in Subbalakshmi’s house. The home relocated twice before it arrived at the Ice House in 1914.

“The girls used to go for walks by the Marina in the evenings when they stayed at a rented place in Triplicane,” said Nithya. The beach, those days, was deserted. The strolls lulled the girls into dreaming of a life near the beach, where they could splash about and lounge on the sand endlessly.

Freedom of movement

As luck would have it, the zamindar who owned the Ice House then, came forward to rent it out to them! And so, the girls moved into the Ice House with ‘akka’ and ‘chithi’, their confidante, cook and care-taker. The Ice House, with a spacious basement and many doors and windows looking out into the sea was ideal for a hostel. Soon, more widows joined them — there was a time when the place housed nearly 100 women.

On a typical day at the home, explained Kaveri, the girls woke up at 6 a.m., had coffee, got dressed to study and spent the afternoon indoors. But studying in the evenings was a strict no-no — they either played a game or went to the beach. “After supper, they studied in groups,” she added.

Saradha Illam existed in the Ice House till 1928. It merged with Saradha Vidyalaya, also started by sister, and was later taken over by Ramakrishna Mission. Sister has empowered hundreds of women through education — a lot of her pupils went on to head educational institutions. Thanks to her, countless success stories unfolded within the walls of the Ice House.

Nithya and Kaveri also narrated some interesting anecdotes. “On the first night at the Ice House, two girls went missing,” said Kaveri. The entire building was searched and the two were found in the basement. “They went looking for ice.” Only there wasn’t any!