Author’s Note: This is a fictional story revolving around the class of 1987 of an engineering college located in South India (name withheld to maintain the fast-crumbling fig leaf of this blogger’s anonymity) that I wrote for the Facebook page dedicated to our upcoming silver jubilee reunion. The story exploits a historical fact: the first girls hostel our college built, Opal, was for the girls of the class of 1987. The culverts outside the hostel were used as improvised seats for socializing. All the characters and events presented here are either figments of the author’s imagination or have been fictionalized; they are not intended to portray actual persons or depict actual events. Any such resemblance is purely coincidental.
Midst exams and labs and introspection,
Couples fed their culvert predilection.
And if you missed out,
You can no doubt
Take reunion pics with your missed connection!
An Invitation to Culvert Chess
December 22, 2012
It was cocktail time at the silver jubilee reunion of the class of 1987. A bunch of us had stolen out, drinks in hand, to enjoy the cool evening breeze. Sounds of revelry could be heard from the open windows of the brightly lit hall. A few dark clouds in the sky hinted at rain. A cigarette that glowed in the swiftly gathering darkness passed from hand to hand, and our giggly laughter at Sridhar’s expert mimicry of our professors instantly banished 25 years of painstakingly acquired middle-age pomposity and gravitas.
Drawn from the four corners of the country, we had assembled here 29 years ago, eyeing one another appraisingly. We were strangers, and went on to become acquaintances, friends, partners, chums, mates – and yes, rivals. But today we were brothers. Balding, paunchy, graying middle-aged brothers. Then we had the boundless optimism of youth; today, we’d come squarely to terms with our limitations. Old friendships had been renewed, new connections forged, campus stories swapped, shoulders slapped, the departed mourned, and the absentees remembered. Here and now, we could let our guard down, rip off our adult masks, and be ourselves. Tomorrow, in another world, the masks would be firmly back in place.
Setting foot on the campus after 25 years had been an intensely emotional experience. It was like entering a time warp where the shortest distance between two points was remembrance. Ghosts of the past rose up like wispy wraiths with every step we took. The trees whispered long-forgotten secrets. The buildings remembered and welcomed us wordlessly with unseen arms. It was as though we’d left a part of ourselves here when we departed, a part that had subdivided and spread and percolated into all our familiar haunts, and whose spirit now recognized us as its own and called out to us in joy. A turn of the road here, a glance there triggered potent buried memories with a sharp immediacy: here I’d left the skin of my nose on the road in a bicycle accident, there we’d peed together in a line after getting staggeringly drunk.
Pramod was the first to speak: “I didn’t see Poonam. Hasn’t she come? She lives close by, doesn’t she?” There was a pause, during which we were thinking about Poo’s checkered life. Finally, local lad Rajkumar said, “Oh, she’s in town alright, but she knows Muthu and Jean are here. It’ll be awkward for her. She’s been a bit of a recluse since she moved here. She’s bound to be home now.” Muthu was our junior by two years, but so remarkable were his achievements, so singular his history, so deep his bonds with many of our batch mates, and so infrequent his trips to India that he had been invited as a special guest.
We digested Rajkumar’s information over a few sips of our drinks. The turnout had been exceptionally good, with over a hundred batch mates coming from far-flung corners of the country as well as from outside. The United States, Canada, Botswana, Australia, and Finland were some of the countries represented. It seemed such a pity that Poo was not with us. We all had our private griefs; who among us had not slipped on life’s many banana peels? We came to the reunion to feel eighteen again, and what better balm for festering wounds of the spirit than to spend a few happy hours living in the past with the companions of our youth? Draining my mug with a flourish, I shared these thoughts with the group.
There was a murmur of agreement. The aids to consciousness expansion had worked their magic, and the atmosphere was one of convivial comradeship. Yes, we really did feel eighteen again! And we just had to persuade Poo to come. Ganesan, the reunion organizer, suggested that I talk to Poo. I’d gotten to know her well as I’d been Muthu’s campus friend, philosopher, and guide, and had in a way been instrumental in bringing about their union.
I hadn’t spoken to her since leaving the campus. But it was worth a try. So, I got her number from Ganesan and called her. She was surprised but pleased that I’d called. After catching up (she was intrigued by my single status and asked if I still played chess; her voice choked when she spoke about her split with Muthu), I got to the point and asked her to come down. But it was as Rajkumar had said. She didn’t want to come for fear of running into Muthu and Jean. I told there were over a hundred people in there, and she could easily avoid them. But she dug her heels in and refused to budge. I had to up the ante.
“Look, Poo, why are you moping at home? We want you here. Twenty-five years! Be a good girl and come.”
“We’re on the phone talking, aren’t we? And anyone else who’s dying for my company has only to pick up the phone and call me.”
This rebuff called for radical measures. I essayed my first gambit.
“I don’t do disembodied voices, Poo. I prefer my voices with bodies attached to them. Especially when the owner of the voice happens to be a beautiful woman.”
There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end. The missile had found its mark. But had I overplayed my hand?
“Oooh, you have changed!”
She’d taken the bait.
“You wouldn’t have dared said something like that twenty-five years ago! You didn’t visit Opal even once. Why, you avoided us girls, yes?”
It was now time to press home the advantage. From my stock of light verse I compose in my spare time, I picked one from memory and recited it fluently over the phone:
Yes, ’tis true, I couldn’t say boo to an Opalite,
But now I’ve learned to woo, I’ve seen the light.
Twenty-five years is a quarter century,
Now it’s a completely different story,
So come to the reunion, Poo, we’ll put the years to flight.
My companions were staring at me open-mouthed. There was a gasp at the other end of the line, and then pin drop silence. The silence was unnerving. Had I gone too far? Had she hung up? No. I could hear her heavy breathing. Time to reel in the fish while she was still off-balance. Time to go for broke. All or nothing. I now all but sang this over the phone:
Mate is the aim of the game that I play,
Adolescent inhibitions I’ve managed to slay.
Who, who, who, who is the dame,
Who’ll help me achieve my aim:
Culvert chess with a fair Opalite on Reunion Day!
Peals of laughter now tinkled musically over the phone.
“This new avatar I must see. I’ll be right over!”
“Thank you, Poo. You won’t regret coming. Hang on a sec. Ganesan wants to talk to you.”
I handed the phone to Ganesan, who asked if he should send a car. No, she’d drive down. Ganesan then explained where she should come.
I flashed a V sign to the group. I’d swung it! Mission accomplished. Poo was on her way.