“ See that today’s supply of vegetables are fresh and good” picking out a spoilt brinjal from the basket and throwing it out, Obulesu warned the vegetable vendor Ranganna.
For the last five years Obulesu had been managing to get the contract to supply vegetables to the welfare hostel and was making good money. That particular day he was extra careful about the quality of the vegetables.
He drove his cart direct to the welfare hostel located at the far end of the town.
He delivered all the baskets at the kitchen, and finished his breakfast and coffee supplied by the cook Ramanatham.
Four women were cleaning rice and lentils to be used for cooking lunch for the resident students.
“Be careful and make sure there are no black pellets and worms in the rice or my life would be at risk.” Ramanathan, the cook warned the women labourers.
“ We know it master. After all we love our jobs too.” Maddamma, one of the four women replied with a smile ,shifting the betel leaves she was chewing to the other cheek of her mouth.
Lokesam ,the man in-charge of the maintenance of the hostel , was alerting the servant Sunkamma by double checking :” Have you cleaned all the bathrooms with phenyl ? Are you sure the boys rooms are free of cob webs and dusted properly?”
Sunkamma who was not used to this kind of hard labour and frustrated by her gnawing back- ache, threw away the broom and murmured “ If you want, go and inspect every room sir. You should trust us.”
For the last two days sprucing up the hostel was going on. The building provided shelter to two hundred resident students.
The walls of the rooms that had not been white- washed for years showed cracks and loose flakes of of cement . The broken window panes, rain -soaked floors, cracked floor and bathrooms reeking of urine smell were the specialities of the building.
The bell rang indicating it was dinner time.
About ten children from each room exited like animals from cages and lined into the kitchen.
The boys were rushing into the dining room carrying their worn-out and shapeless dinner plates and glasses .
“ Hey! Why are you hurrying like you never ate proper food. Go in a line. If you open your mouths you will be thrashed. “ The manager growled.
The resident students who had no courage to say ‘if they went late, the vegetable soup and buttermilk would be more watery’ walked silently dragging their feet.
“ If you don’t get up and hurry you will starve this night.” Kanna babu pulled up Chandram who was lying down pressing his stomach with both his hands.
“ Since I ate that breakfast made of yesterday’s rice, I developed stomach- pain. I visited the toilet four times since then. I don’t want to eat anything. You go and have your dinner.” Chandram said in a weak tone.
“ whenever some rice is left over, they use it to prepare breakfast. May be they used putrefied rice which might have caused this stomach ache and diarrhoea . Okay I will get some buttermilk for you”said kannababu and joined the line.
After consuming the buttermilk brought by kannababu , Chandram went to bed but continued to moan till the next morning .
Next day morning the children were woken up earlier than usual.
“ Every one of you brush your teeth,take bath and wear clean clothes.” Ordered the manager.
The hostel compound usually littered with trash was swept with brooms and sprinkled with water and the women- servants beautified the area by drawing designs on the ground.
The trash bin situated outside the building usually overflowed with all kinds of waste and looked like a resting place for stray dogs and pigs was now emptied and clean.
Along with the open drainage there appeared two white lines of bleaching powder to ward off creatures like cockroaches.
The tempting smells of good breakfast wafted through the air, made the hungry boys feel the hunger all the more with the juices in their tummies getting active.
Ramanatham, the cook looked at them with disgust as though they were looting the government’s funds and asked “ How is the breakfast today? You are just gulping down without a word .”
“ It is very good” they said in chorus, hurriedly swallowing what they had in their mouths.
“That is how you should speak out.” Ramanatham left the place swinging the ladle he was holding.
Chandram who had the breakfast on an empty stomach threw it out, once he exited the dining hall.
When the children came back from school for lunch, the atmosphere in the residential hostel was ignited with excitement.
The boys saw the rarely seen warden standing in attention in the office. One higher official was sitting in the chair in front of him.
Usually the students would go in line to get their food served . That day they were made to sit and Ramanatham himself was serving all of them with the help of servants.
There appeared no dead creeping creatures and black pellets in the rice. They were served fresh and tender brinjal curry and savoury thick lentil vegetable soup .
Then the boys observed that the visiting officer, the warden and the manager were also served food in the same hall in three plantain leaves.
The officer observed that the children were eating with gusto.
There was no trace of the usual pervading urine smell that day in the hostel.
The inspecting official slept in the hostel that night.
The next day morning children had a good breakfast.
When the officer was leaving, all the boys stood in two rows in the front yard to bid him goodbye. Their faces showed the satisfaction of their being well-fed.
“ Boys! Hope every thing here is okay for you.” The officer asked in a routine way.
“Yes sir” they said in unison.
“ Sir! When will you visit us again?” Chandram who was standing there asked.
“ Some time I will visit you. I have so many responsibilities. Why do you have so much affection for me? “ The inspecting officer smiled.
“ We experience festive time when you visit us sir. “ Chandram replied shyly with his head bent.