"I had this Astronomy class my freshman year at college. While I may not remember the workings of the Hubble telescope or why the opponents of the Big Bang Theory think it’s absolute bosh, I can never forget this particular incident.
There was this guy in my class. He was probably the same age I was, as was the rest of the class. We were all in this thing called ‘college’ together, trying to figure out exactly why we were in this Astronomy class when our degree sheet clearly stated our major as ‘undeclared’. I wish I could remember this particular fellow’s name, but let’s just call him Gary. I really don’t want to keep referring to him as the ‘boy’, ‘fellow’, ‘guy’, or any other nouns I might have to creatively come up with just because I forgot the bloke’s name.
Let me tell you what Gary looked like. He was a white boy of average height, very pale with the most curiously creepy light grayish-blue eyes I have ever seen. Remember, I’m from India where eyes besides the brown/black variety only rarely arise due to complicated genetic mutations. I’d noticed before that he was always dressed in black and that the friends he used to attend the class with were also always in black. Their hair was even blacker than mine! Sometimes they went ahead with the whole bondage theme and donned chains and other assorted metal devices. Once I noticed that Gary had black nail-polish on, which made me quite jealous because I had never been allowed to wear any sort of nail-polish myself. After my guttural reaction of envy, the fact that he was a male and that males traditionally don’t paint their nails occurred to me. Before I had time to get over that, I saw him come to class wearing a black cape. But it was not Halloween. Maybe some other American festival…?
Upon innocently asking one of my American friends about these strange new things I was seeing, I discovered that Gary and his friends were evil Goths, devil worshippers, spawns of Satan. Hey, I didn’t have anything personal against the guy.
So one day I showed up to my Astronomy class wearing shalwar qameez, a totally Indian outfit. It was no big deal, I wear those things quite a bit, and I was happily wrapped up in the feel of home. The class went ahead as usual, no surprises there. Fifty minutes passed by in a shot and as the professor dismissed the class with the promise of impending homework, the class ended as the students folded down those inconveniently tiny writing desks back down to our pseudo-movie-theater chairs. I had no idea what was about to happen in the next few minutes.
Gary raced and weaved through the swarm of clueless freshman like the Flash and tapped me on the shoulder. I can’t quite remember but I don’t think I’d really spoken to him before. He was in another class of mine that semester – Freshman Orientation (yes, that’s a real class they charge tuition for). In any case, I was pleasantly surprised when he stopped me at the end of that class.
“Hey, are you from India?”
My stomach went all aflutter the way it usually does when someone takes an interest in my ethnicity right out of the blue. It’s quite a matter of pride, really.
“Why, yes!” I chirped.
“Are you Muslim?”
My heart leapt!
“Yes, I am!”
I was totally not expecting what he said next.
“So is it true that when you’re fighting the enemies of Islam, like jihad, and if you’re doing good things for your religion, you keep collecting so many points from God, and once you die and get to Heaven, you get to have sex with so many virgins?”
That was one of the most traumatizing events in my life. How can I be so sure? The fact that I generally have a great memory but today, I cannot for the life of me recall what happened once he posed me that unforgettable question. All I can remember is that I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say. The next thing I remember is that I was back in my dorm room yammering away about the incident to my brother who’d been in the country since the early 90s.
Here I was, a fresh 18-year-old, looking at life with rose-tinted glasses, unbelievably naïve, thoroughly delighted that someone had recognized my ethnic background because of the clothes I was wearing, and expecting him to pose me a wonderfully intellectual question that I could answer with all of my innate wisdom and patience. Enlightenment is a wonderful thing. Buddha got enlightened, and look where that took him.
But despite all my interest in comparative religion, world philosophy, and a college education that had just begun, I was stunned. I don’t think my parents covered this aspect of my religious training. All I’d heard was that Heaven was overflowing with rivers of milk and honey, all the pets you could ever want (I’m a cat person myself), your friends and loved ones that you’d met in your lifetime, palaces made of gold and silver studded with gems, rainbows, even chocolate if that’s what I wanted. I don’t think anyone’d ever mentioned virgins to me before.
Collecting points from God, eh? That would make for a sweet video game. And just when you’d thought we’d left Gary behind…
The week after the episode from Astronomy class, I was busy trying to pay full-attention to the professor during the Freshman Orientation class. I think he was talking about the art facilities we had on campus. Gary noticed me sitting in the front row (I’m one of those front-row-benchers you’d love to hate), and he scooted up to the vacant chair right next to me.
Gary had a slithery quality, the way he talked and moved, you’d think he was sneaky. And his eyes didn’t help his case. There was always something about him that made me feel uncomfortable, maybe it was the way he’d talk, like as if he was telling you a secret, even if he was only telling you his name. Or maybe it was just the whole sex-and-virgin issue he wanted addressed the week before.
Anyway, I was usually very quiet during Freshman Orientation class, mostly because I was the only non-white person there and the other students that shared the class with me just didn’t know what to say to me. So they played safe, and decided never to say anything to me at all, except this one time when we were all supposed to interview someone from another country as part of an assignment, and guess who got asked.
But I digress. So Gary sat up next to me…nay, slithered up to me, splat in the middle of the professor’s lecture about our fine and diverse art resources. He (Gary, not the professor) shifted the chair closer up to me and leaned in to my side as I froze in recollection of the Gary-related episode from only the week before.
“Hey,” he hushed.
Oh crap, I thought.
“So why are Indian sculptures so erotic?” he asked.
“It’s art,” I stubbornly replied, neither one of us taking our eyes off of the professor who blissfully went on with his lecture. Dude, arts gratia artis. You don’t trivialize art. It is an insult to creative inspiration to trivialize it to something to simple as sex, drugs, or rock-and-roll (sorry, Buddy Holly, but you know it’s true).
“So what’s Indian music like?”
I decided to give myself the liberty of a second to adjust to this shift on conversation.
“I’m not musically trained,” I hissed, “but we have the same basic stuff as Western Music. You have do-re-mi, we have sa-re-ga.”
“Sing it for me.”
Alice once said, “curiouser and curiouser”. That day in 1999, Khadija thought “weirder and weirder”. I desperately wanted the conversation to end, and so I decided to forgo any protests and comply with his ‘request’. I mean, come on, we were in the middle of a lecture. Who belts out a tune in the middle of a lecture? This was Freshman Orientation, not Music 101. But I just wanted this encounter to be over, and anyway, I’ve long since forgiven myself for what I did next, and I don’t care for your judgment.
“Sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa”.
For the musically inclined amongst us, you may sing this in tune to ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’. You may sing it just to put yourself in my shoes as well.
That day I realized two things. One, that it is incredibly hard to whisper a tune. Two, Gary didn’t really bring out the best in me.""
Was this Gary, this tall dude standing next to me with the dusty dark brown hair with a generous mad flop of white? I mean, maybe he was too old? He had sideburns too. Wait, let me sneak a quick look at his eyes. I can never forget that diluted grey. I didn't bother. Not that I'd be able to look at them anyway. From what I remember, those eyes always scared me to death, their gaze just sleepily lingering too long.
So I turned and blabbed - "did you go to OSU?" He turned and gazed at me for a second just too long. It's not him, I thought. And then he said, "yeah". He had me going there for a second; I thought he was going to say no.
"Did you take an Astronomy class?" I asked. He paused for a second, and then rolled on with his forever sleepy drawl, "...yes."
That did it for me. "You were in my class!" I blurted. I'm sure Gary'd never had someone recognise him from random events 9 years ago. I know because he said so. He said I had a great memory.
We caught up over the next 10 minutes. As we struggled with our soggy sandwiches, I learned the following about Gary who looked like he had abandoned his curious ways for business-casual suburbia:
- his name is Brian (and now I remember him telling me his name during Freshman Orientation)
- he probably asked me all those weird questions because he'd been reading about Hinduism in those days
- he's a software engineer in downtown
- he is married and has two daughters, Mia age 2 years and 10 months and Gabriella aged 10 months
- he left OSU a long time ago and finished up at community college in 2007
Brian finished his sandwich and rose to say goodbye. Then, as if I needed more proof of his identity, he slithered away from the table and rode out on his bike. His slither had become less pronounced and heavier, like an older bear more firm in his step, but a quiet shadow-like movement all the same. Looking at him, you would've never thought that he'd once worn black nailpolish. He melted out of the restaurant, and with that, ended the weirdest encounter I've had since...well, since Astronomy class.