Posted by: cochinblogger | November 24, 2012

Opal Crush (A College Reunion Story): Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Mess Hall Intrigues

1983

The hostel construction went smoothly. The principal’s special interest ensured that it was fast-tracked, and Meenakshi was the unofficial consultant on the welfare of the girls, whom she constantly worried about. Childless herself, she came to think of her charges as her brood. Her husband was a professor of medieval Indian history who specialized in the Mughal period. In his mid-fifties, distinguished-looking, tall, silver-haired, with striking features, he was a popular and dynamic classroom lecturer. He had recently taken a salary cut to join the faculty of a local women’s college. He now spent more time in front of the mirror, bought more clothes than he ever had before, and there was a jaunty spring to his step. He also came home late sometimes, explaining to Meenakshi that he had been resolving his lassies’ doubts. If Meenakshi had any doubts about these doubt-clearing sessions, she kept them to herself; in any case, she was preoccupied with the Opal construction.

She did unburden herself once to her husband over her anxieties about the design of the hostel, especially the security aspects. Her husband thought for some time, and then began a lecture on the salient security features of Mughal harems and zenanas, stopping only when she begged him to stop. She had wanted high glass-pieces-topped walls with an additional layer of barbed wire for maximal security. The principal had been resistant, citing budget concerns; he also remarked acidly that they were building a girls hostel, not a maximum security prison. That was all very well, but what if something happened? In whose direction would the accusing fingers point? They would all blame her for not being careful enough.

At any rate, she had managed to shoot down the principal’s idea of having a parlor where guests could be received. Meenakshi managed to convince the principal that this could lead to incalculable consequences. The principal, however, had had the last laugh: behind her back he plotted to ensure a plentiful supply of comfortable culverts where the girls could socialize with visitors. In fact, since most of these culverts had no drain pipes (or any other kind of pipe) under them, their purpose was transparent. Most of these culverts were in plain view and designed for general platonic socializing; however, the sporting principal also ensured a sprinkling of covert, cloistered culverts in shady nooks for more purposeful and intense explorations. By the time Meenakshi realized what had happened, it was too late; the culverts were there to stay. But it was thanks to Meenakshi that Opal was the only hostel on the campus to have 24-hour patrolling by the most uncompromising and hard-bitten watchmen that money could buy.

In no time it seemed Opal was ready, and the girls moved in. The novelty of the new residence soon wore off in the whirl of classes and the hectic after-class socializing. The rooms were comfortable. Implementation of Laloo’s Loo Law ensured that there were never any queues at the loo. Opal, of course, was a magnet for much of the male student population, as attested to by the rows and rows of parked bicycles outside. The culverts were kept busy. Most males feigned indifference while watching this frenzied activity with an envious eye, and a minority claimed that they had no interest whatsoever in Opal or its denizens; they had better things to do and think about.

One evening after dinner, five girls were gathered in Maya’s room. Neetu and Arpana lolled in bed, Jaya occupied the lone chair, and Maya and Poonam sat on a paya on the floor. Neetu was examining her nails and wondering if the time was ripe for a fresh coat of paint. Yes, definitely, she decided, but the color? Decisions, decisions! Arpana was humming a song under her breath. Jaya was thinking about a particular pesky problem in the textbook and wondering how soon she could get back to her room. Maya was pondering what to wear for the next day’s Seakings date with a punky hunk. Not the racy top, she decided. Too early in the game, and it might scare him off. It might also send the wrong signals. Poonam’s thoughts were about her native state, Kashmir, and her family so far away.

“Music practice tonight,” Neetu said meditatively.

“Oh, bother!” interjected Arpana.

“Why?” interrogated Neetu, raising her eyebrows. “You love to practice.”

“Yes, but I hate to have to dress up again. Look how comfortable I am!”

She had a point. For music practice, one had to venture outside to the music room, and that meant putting on decent clothes and powdering one’s face at a bare minimum, which was a botheration at times like this, when a good dinner induced a hard-to-fight lassitude.

Jaya piped up: “Hey, I have an idea. Remember when Muthu dropped the plates tonight at dinner? I could tell from the way the sound reverberated throughout the hall that the acoustics there are terrific. You could practice there after the mess boys leave for the day after dinner.”

Poonam sprang to her feet, eyes shining: “Let’s try it tonight!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious. Poonam was a flaxen-haired, emerald-eyed porcelain beauty, a true daughter of Kashmir. She had merry eyes that sparkled with mischief, and she tossed her head when she laughed, which was often. She was the campus belle, and the campus Romeos had pursued her assiduously, but without success. Poo (as she was called) was just not interested in boys.

And so that night, as Poo had suggested, the girls stole up to the mess hall, which was shrouded in darkness. A push, and the door opened. Someone flicked the light switch on. The tables and chairs were lined up in neat rows against the wall, and the empty central area almost looked like an amphitheater awaiting a performance. Neetu cleared her throat and began singing. The acoustics were marvelous, just as Jaya had said! Before long, a practice session was on in right earnest. These music practice sessions in the mess hall became a regular fixture, and sometimes Jaya practiced her dance steps there. These were lively, noisy affairs; the girls could let themselves go and be themselves. On full moon nights, the moonlight flooded the mess hall, and that was enough light to sing and dance by.

Now, one night, a few months later, Muthu, a mess boy, was on the bus home after the day’s work when he remembered he’d left behind in the mess hall a cassette he’d promised to buy his mother. A conscientious son, he caught the next bus back. As he approached the back door of the mess hall, he could hear singing overlaying a cacophony that sounded very much like a handful of girls talking at once. Mystified, he stepped cautiously into the kitchen, and made for the doorway to the mess hall.

What he saw stunned him into paralysis. The hall was lit by the silvery moonlight streaming in through the open windows. A gaggle of girls, all dressed for the bed, occupied the floor in comfortable positions; some sat, some lay sprawled on cushions, and one girl had even wrapped her legs good-naturedly around the neck of her companion. They were all talking nineteen to the dozen. Muthu gaped. Presently, he stopped gaping, and slowly crawled under the table closest to the door. From there he made his way to the best vantage point under a table that was in a part of the hall that was dark, and settled down to watch.

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