Posted by: cochinblogger | November 24, 2012

Opal Crush (A College Reunion Story): Chapter 9

Chapter 9

The Reunion At Last!

December 22, 2012

In the time I was wooing Poo on the phone, Muthu and Jean had made their entrance. An urgent call from a colleague occupied me for another 15 minutes. When I entered the hall, the party was on in full swing. The noise was deafening. Uniformed waiters rushed to and fro. Groups formed and re-formed. I moved along, trying to circulate and meet as many of those gathered there as I could. Near the drinks table, I noticed something out of the ordinary. A stall manned by a uniformed crew had been set up. They were hard at work at the counter, mixing strange ingredients and decanting exotic-looking liquids. A curious crowd gathered to watch them.

I spotted Ganesan near-by and asked him what this was all about. He said this was the brainchild of Gunasekharan, the SC juice shop owner, whom he’d met on one of his pre-reunion preparatory campus visits. As soon as Gunasekharan learned that the reunion was for the 1983–1987 batch, he exclaimed: “That batch has a special place in my heart!”

“Why?” inquired Ganesan.

“Sir, 1983 was the year the girls flocked to the campus in large numbers. Opal was built for them. My juice shop business really took off with their arrival! In a few years I was able to start juice shops in many towns, and later I diversified into bars. But I still come here whenever I can, because it was here that it all began. I have a sentimental attachment to this shop.”

Ganesan was baffled: “But what did the girls have to do with your business taking off?”

Gunasekharan’s eyes had a far-away look. “Sir, the culvert couples used to come to my shop in droves! They would sit here for hours and order juice after juice. Often the boy would hand over a large-denomination note and forget about the change. And when I tried to hand over the balance, he would airily say “Oh, keep the change,” just to impress the girl he was with. And the boys used to come to check out the girls at the shop. They too used to order juice after juice, just to be able to sit there and ogle. Sir, my business quadrupled that year, and it only got better and better after that.”

Gunasekharan told Ganesan that he’d like to make a contribution to the reunion as a mark of gratitude to the batch that was responsible for his financial success. He would design a special drink for the reunion. And he’d call it Opal Crush, in honor of the girls of the inaugural Opal batch who’d given his juice shop business that all-important, timely, initial financial boost. Ganesan readily agreed, making a mental note to tell the event manager not to bother about the drinks for the reunion.

Even as Ganesan was narrating this, I could see the drink take shape before my eyes. It wasn’t long before the table groaned under the weight of row upon row of tall-stemmed glasses of the reunion cocktail. And what a splendid-looking cocktail it was! I’d seen nothing like it before. It was a floater cocktail, with shimmering, bubbly, translucent, opalescent rainbow layers, seven of them all in all. And on top floated purple-red sprigs and leaves of opal basil, which gave off a clove-like fragrance. There were two tables, one for the alcohol-based cocktail and the other for the non-alcohol-based drink. The tumult and noise in the hall had died down by now, and everyone gathered around the tables to admire the liquid works of art that glittered under the lights like a 21st century soma. A hush descended on the hall.

Gunasekharan seized this moment to make a speech. He strode behind the tables and surveyed the assembly, smiled, cleared his throat, and explained the special affection he had for the 1983–1987 batch, especially the Opalites. He essentially repeated the same story he’d told Ganesan, which elicited smiles and titters from the listeners. As he spoke, his workers placed placards bearing the multicolored words Opal Crush on the drinks table. At the end of his little speech, Gunasekharan said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1987, please go ahead and have your fill of Opal Crush, a drink that I’ve crafted especially for you!” And he raised a glass of Opal Crush and took a few sips. Thunderous applause filled the hall, and everyone rushed to the tables for their glass of Opal Crush.

A glass of Opal Crush in hand, I looked around the hall, trying to spot Poo. She was nowhere to be seen, which was not surprising, given the crush of people in the hall. I counted myself fortunate that I’d been able to get in a few words with Muthu earlier in the evening. And just as I’d given up, I saw her at the drinks table, picking up a glass of Opal Crush. I approached her and flashed my warmest smile, but she was in a somber mood. Taking a sip from her glass, she murmured softly: “Opal Crush is an appropriate drink for a crushed Opalite,” and floated away from me.

It was an hour before I saw her again. She was in a corner of the room, glass of Opal Crush in hand. In animated conversation with her was none other than Muthu, also sipping from a glass of Opal Crush. Now, this was a surprise! I stared at them for a full minute; they were chattering away like old friends. As I gaped at the sight, a heady perfume enveloped me, and when I turned around, I saw it was Jean, whom Muthu had introduced me to earlier. As she said hello to me, her eyes dwelled briefly on the corner where Muthu and Poo were talking. But her face betrayed nothing. Glasses of Opal Crush in hand, we talked: she about her life in Florida, where she’d been raised, and I about Kerala, where I currently lived. She had read a lot about Kerala, was fascinated by Ayurveda, the snake boats, temple festivals, and backwaters, and wanted to visit Kerala after the reunion. I don’t know how long we talked, but with glass after glass of Opal Crush having gone down the hatch, my memories of the evening are hazy.

Eventually, dinner was served, after which people began to leave, and the hall looked strangely empty. I was discussing the next day’s program with Ganesan, Muruganandam, and Ashwin (who ran his own financial services company in Mumbai and was one of the few bachelors in the batch besides myself), when Jean came up to us. Her face was flushed. She looked agitated, and her fingers on her handbag kept twisting and untwisting. “Muthu has vanished! There’s no trace of him. And he’s not picking up when I call him!” I asked her to calm down, telling her Muthu knew his way around the campus and the town, and called Muthu. His phone rang, but there was no answer. We looked around the hall. No, he was not present. Muruganandam then remembered that there was a small conference room attached to the main hall. We rushed there, and switched on the lights. The room was empty.

We were about to leave when I happened to look at a whiteboard in a corner. There was something scrawled on it, and I went to take a closer look. The rest followed. Somebody had recently written on the whiteboard, for the ink looked fresh. But they were not sentences but some kind of code. The first line was Cbwmta in black, followed by Ykic in red. Then came Bily, again in black; followed by Ik, again in red; then Iycfafwh in black and Tisntfafihnctly in red; and finally, Tlgooh in black. We stared at the board for some time in puzzlement. A sudden flicker of recognition dawned on me. The black letters were in Muthu’s handwriting! Even after the interval of so many years, I could recognize his handwriting, which was familiar to me from his writing on chess score sheets. He had written the letters in black, and the letters in red seemed to be written in an elegant feminine hand. Just then Jean whispered, almost to herself: “That’s Muthu’s handwriting!”

And then suddenly, I’d cracked the code! This was a scene straight from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where Levin and Kitty play a game of Secretaire, a classic word game. Player 1 writes out the initial letters of the words of his sentence, which Player 2 tries to decipher. Then Player 2 replies similarly with the initial letters of his response. It’s an intimate game, to be played by those who know each other well; in Tolstoy’s novel, Levin and Kitty are lovers. A couple of the lines on the board were straight from the novel, which I could only put down to an astonishing coincidence.

I went up to the whiteboard, picked up a green pen, and wrote out the full sentences one below the other: Cbwmta = Come back with me to America,  Ykic = You know I can’t; Bily = But I love you, Ik = I know; Cyfafwh = Can you forgive and forget what happened, Tisntfafihnsly = There is nothing to forgive and forget; I have never stopped loving you; Tlgooh = Then let’s get out of here.

Behind me, Jean uttered a stricken cry. Good lord, in the heat of the moment I’d forgotten she was there! We turned around to see her set off for the hall door at a run. “Stop!” I cried, as we set off in pursuit. By the time we reached the door, she’d disappeared into the night. We debated whether to go in search of her, but Ganesan said she’d come to her senses in the coolness of the night air. We were disturbed by what had happened, but the next day’s program had to go on, and there were still some loose ends that had to be taken care of.

We were in the middle of our deliberations when Ganesan’s phone rang. After a few minutes, his face blanched and he stood up. “That was a security guard. Jean has climbed up a service ladder and is on the clock tower, threatening to throw herself down. Let’s go!” A surreal scene unfolded before us at the admin block. Jean was up on the clock tower, clutching on to a hand of the clock. She was screaming away. Snatches of her words came down to us: “I want to turn the clock back! I want to turn the clock back! I wish we’d never come here!”

Ganesan was on the verge of calling the police and fire brigade, when Ashwin’s presence of mind came to the fore. He calmly said “Hold on a minute,” kicked off his shoes and socks, and loped like a panther to the service ladder Jean had used. Ashwin still retained the boyish face and lithe frame of his youth (one wonders if his bachelorhood had anything to do with this). He quickly climbed up the service ladder, with Ganesan holding onto it, while I kept Jean occupied. In a couple of minutes, Ashwin was on the ledge in the shadows next to the clock, holding on with one hand to an overhead pipe. Just then, Jean’s hand slipped from the clock hand, and she would have toppled down to the ground but for Ashwin’s hand, which shot out and grasped her wrist, pulling her to himself. For a few minutes, they stayed like that on the ledge, close together. The fight seemed to have gone out of Jean. She clung to Ashwin and wept, while he patted her on the back to comfort her.

Ashwin led the way down, and they descended the ladder hand in hand. Without a glance in our direction, Ashwin led Jean to his car, unlocked the front passenger door, got in and slid into the driver’s seat, pulling Jean in with his hand. She shut the door, and Ashwin, still holding Jean’s hand, started the car with his other hand. The car moved towards the campus front gates.

We later learned (when he returned to retrieve his shoes the next day, which the ever-vigilant Ganesan had taken into safe custody) that he had driven to his hotel in the town, a distance of 20 km, entirely one-handed.

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