It’s a new month, and the days I spent in Nallavagu already feel like a distant memory. At this point, I feel like I’ve forgotten more about the experience than what I remember. The more I get into my life, the more my time there feels like a blur. However, I think, Nallavagu will forever echo in my memory like the morning, afternoon and evening wishes of the students that never ceased throughout the fifteen days of our stay.
A narrow road to the four shops in the village stood between the residential complexes and the school. While the school was a residential school, students lived in the buildings outside campus and so, could always be found in the village; running, playing, and being children.
A short walk to one of the shops, the one which later became our equivalent to Central Perk, would have at least six students wish us “Good…” followed by whatever the time of the day was – morning, afternoon or evening. We’d return the wishes and laugh how they never seemed to forget saying it.
That and the simple question of “Did you eat food?” in any of the three languages they barely knew but could sign their names with. It will always be odd to me that as much as these students were literate on paper in statistics and data points where they are just one number among millions, they could barely get their message across in anything but Telugu.
That is, by all means, fine by me. However, it is essential that their questioning goes beyond whether someone has had food or not. Perhaps, that is why a whole module on our curriculum dealt with the five Ws and one H of questioning.
I think people often ask about things they want people to ask them in turn. A person who was looking for affection would often ask friends how they were doing. Similarly, I think, the students always wanted us to ask whether they had food or not. As soon as we’d do that, they’d give one of three answers – Yes, no and “no, sir, it’s not good.”
The second answer of just a no would often, upon further questioning, lead to answer three or the food had insects in it that particular day.
Perhaps, that was the students’ way of getting the word about unhealthy food out into the world. If it was an intention, it worked. However, the real testament to the quality of the food comes directly from the mess itself.
It was the first day when I, a clueless recent graduate, found myself staring at a printed meal schedule. To which, without any questioning by myself, I was explained by the in-charge, “We’ll follow the menu from Monday, we’re out of provisions to carry out the menu”. I think he thought we were comparing the menu to what was served.
It’s funny how we weren’t, but as soon as the thief’s hat started burning, it was clear as day that the menu was never followed accurately despite provisions being allocated in yet another poster. It became clear during our stay there that the promised Monday never came. Even if the menu got close, it was either incomplete or inedible. We’d still eat it though like most children we talked to during our stay there.
The food was what we’d jokingly call chilli water and pulses served with rice with the occasional curry that was more chilli water. If it wasn’t chilli water, it was just salt. There was a rare serving of boiled egg, served clearly with the spoken and reiterated message of “egg for some protein” every single time. The guaranteed addition was a banana, something the school was free about unlike everything else.
Every day, post-meal, we’d walk through the school grounds toward the gate and wish hundreds of children sitting on the same soil where they play and toil during sports hours. This time with plates filled with rice with splashes of pulses and curries.
As much as I had wanted to see the glass of promised “Milk with Boost” – chocolate flavoured health drink powder – in the hands of the students, I didn’t. I hoped, and I still do that they got that glass when we weren’t visiting. Perhaps, in the early morning before or after play-time. However, the consistent four packs of Boost in the pantry make the truth seem clear.
As we found ourselves shifting to the shop’s idli by the end of camp, the episodes of insects in food increased. That led to more children flocking to the shop, giggling, as we’d interact with them. They’d often warn us about a new six-legged ingredient found in the food that day.
A political leader came to school this one day during the last leg of the camp. It was a speech of sorts, and we never got into the details of it, but all of us enjoyed chicken that day. It was a nice reality-check to see what one visit from a member of legislative assembly would do to the food served. Perhaps, one of those leaders should start living in the village. They’d get chicken but so would three hundred others. The chicken was always better than some random, unexpected insect, right?
We’d find ourselves in a mall six days later, with other camp members, sharing experiences and realising it wasn’t so different in the other camps either. We’d also compare our respective weights courtesy the public weighing scale installed conveniently in the mall. The machine would tell us that we’d lost much weight during the fifteen days. The highest loss being eight kilograms.
We’d decide on how to gain the weight back and that we’d need to eat adequately. We’d recall that all we ate was salty/chilli water and rice throughout our stay there. Oh, and who could forget the bananas and the three eggs over the course of fifteen days. It is then that one of us would remark how most of the kids were extremely short for their age.
The discussion ended in the rhetorical question – why wouldn’t they be?