As the bell rings, cacophony fills the stone-floored corridors of the 132-year-old Sourashtra Boys Higher Secondary School in Madurai. Children spill out of classrooms and head to the Ramachari Hall, which has been the humble lunch room for many students for over a century. The aroma of sambar and rasam laces the afternoon air and there’s visible excitement among the 500-odd boys sitting cross-legged on the floor. It’s the inaugural day of the noon-meal scheme for this academic year, “There’s payasam and appalam on the menu!” a little one from Class V announces to his friends. As the clapping subsides, the clanging of utensils takes over. Circular aluminium plates are distributed and the children fold their hands for the customary prayer.
The hand that stirs
Meanwhile, in the soot-filled kitchen in the backyard of the school building, 65-year-old TV Viswanathan stirs a steaming cauldron of sambar for one last time with a huge iron ladle. His wife Vyjayanthi Mala checks on the boiling rice and removes the colossal pot from the flame. As the firewood simmers in the earthen stove, Viswanathan loads steel buckets of kootu, poriyal, pulikozhambu, rasam and vadais on to a small trolley to be transported to the hall. The couple is the third generation of the family to cook a massive daily lunch for the students.
“It was my grandfather Paramsamy Iyengar who offered to cook for the students when the scheme was introduced, which was later continued by my father TP Vasudevan. We have been cooking for students for whom a decent meal is a distant dream, and we consider it a godly service. We derive only satisfaction and not profit out of it,” says Viswanathan. The tradition was started in 1911 by a few trustees and philanthropists, and is probably the oldest noon-meal scheme in the country, says MN Sankaran, president of Sourashtra High School Council. “And it was from here that the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Kamaraj was inspired to introduce the scheme for the entire State.”
Tamil Nadu is a pioneer in midday meal programmes encouraging children to attend school. K Kamaraj introduced it first in the 1960s, across all districts of the State. Today, the programme is implemented across States, and is a Government of India scheme.
“There was a time when 2,000 students used to eat a day and now the numbers have come down to a fourth of it. It’s like preparing a wedding feast every single day and it involves a lot of work,” says Viswanathan.
“Cooking is no rocket science. I believe, with the right amount of salt and spices, and a liberal dosage of love, one can cook a good meal. All it takes is dedication. I have never failed to wake up at 5 am, so that lunch is ready by noon,” says Mala, who has been cooking the meals for 43 years now. She learnt it from her mother-in-law V Kamala. “To wash the used vessels is a big task too, and consumes much of the evening, after which I cut vegetables for the next day’s cooking.”
The menu changes daily, and includes healthy foods such as spinach and tomato soup, as well as sweets such as payasam and kesari on special days. “We serve a three-course meal on all working days,” she adds. “When Kamaraj visited the school in 1954, he was impressed by the idea and sent Dr ND Sundaravadivelu, the then Director of Public Instruction, to take a look at the service in our school; he later recommended the scheme to the Government. That’s why Sundaravadivelu is hailed as the architect of the midday meal scheme for school children,” adds Sankaran.
All for inclusivity
“In the beginning, a corpus fund was created so that the scheme could run continuously and it cost 25 paise per day per student. Gradually, the cost rose to 50 paise and later to ₹1. Currently, the cost is ₹12 per student,” he says. “There has been no break in the century-old service. The idea was to encourage poor parents to send their children to school. Our aim was to bring people who can’t even afford one square meal a day into the ambit of education.”
“As the strength of the school grew, we got students from the outskirts and neighbouring districts as well. That’s when we also introduced free breakfast two decades ago, as many of them had to start early from home to reach the school on time,” says AR Jagannath, the correspondent. “The breakfast is also a variety fare with a menu of idli, pongal and poori . It’s with the help of nearly 100 voluntary donors that we have been able to run the schemes successfully. Our work shall continue as long as there are good hearts to provide and hungry stomachs to be filled.”