THE GIFT OF CURIOSITY
Written and published on the web in October, 2005, in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.
Today, October 26, 2005, the newspapers say an arrest has been made in the apparent murder of my former student in introductory sociology, Chandrasegar Nagulasigamany.
Earlier press reports set down the facts of the tragedy, which occurred about 1:15 AM on September 23. Mr. Nagulasigamany (I always addressed him formally, as I do all my students; it was a special pleasure in his case, on account of his melodic Sri Lankan surname) had spent the evening with friends at a local nightspot called Revolution. There had been an argument. Somehow, my student and his younger brother Soumiyan ended up dead on a nearby street, run over by an SUV. The police say the deaths were not an accident but an intentional hit and run.
With what words could one express condolences to the two boys' parents? They moved with their sons to Canada from a Tamil region of Sri Lanka in 1994. They had lost one son already, their firstborn having died in infancy. Now, at the ages of twenty-one and nineteen, their two remaining sons have died. The unfairness of life is at times unspeakable.
Let the gift be remembered that Chandrasegar gave me last summer. Generically similar to other students' gifts, his was nonetheless as unique, authentic, and irreplaceable as any true gift has to be.
Chandrasegar was curious. I mean he was eager to learn and thereby become a person of his own. You could almost tell by looking at him that questions danced in his head: his questions, not anybody else's, questions formulated from the experience of his young life.
Many of my students lack such curiosity, or hide it well. They happily take notes from my lectures in anticipation of my tests, without having asked the questions my lectures are answers to.
Not Mr. Nagulasigamany. Here is the first email I received
from him, on May 30:
"I have a question. It is not of much importance but I'm curious. In many books, sci-fi and others, philosophers and characters who contemplate life are said to reside in the 'ivory tower.' On page 48 of your textbook, in the second last paragraph, you mention that 'fewer than 5 percent of Canadians or Americans at that time ever set foot in the ivory tower.' Can you please tell me what is the significance of the ivory tower, and why it is always connected to sociologists and philosophers? Sorry, this may have no relevance to the course, but I'm curious to know. Thank you."
I answered that the term generally refers in a mildly sarcastic way to the humanities side of the university, meaning an ideal world detached from the realities of life. I told him he was right, that it's not usually engineers or scientists who are said to live in an ivory tower, but folks in the liberal arts. I said I would "try hard to keep our course out of the ivory tower and in real life."
On a balmy evening in July, I chatted outside Arts Lecture Hall with Mr. Nagulasigamany and his friend, also Tamil, with whom he usually came to class. Their seriousness about life was exciting, enlivening. I told them I had read with interest an article in National Geographic about the great Chinese explorer, Zheng He, and how even six hundred years ago he had found conflict between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese on the island now called Sri Lanka. I asked the two young men about the intersection of ethnicity and religion there: what happens, for instance, if a Tamil converts to Islam or Christianity.
The next week there came an email from Mr. Nagulasigamany:
"I don't know if you remember the conversation we had outside before last class, sir, but you were asking me and Nirosan about the history of the civil war currently in Sri Lanka. If you're interested, I have a book that goes into some details quite far back in time. And if you are interested, I can drop off the book. Thank you for your time."
I had more than a hundred students in that introductory sociology class, and still more in another class during that same term. The volume of students inevitably meant a lot of drudgery, especially in marking tests and calculating final grades. But in the midst of bureaucratic structure, Mr. Nagulasigamany was among those dozens of students who gave me the gift of curiosity: asking questions of their own formulation and helping me answer my questions. In doing so, they demonstrated the grandeur of our species, and of the university as a place where people can indulge curiosity and meet on the common ground of questioning.
Mr. Nagulasigamany thanked me for my time. I thank him here for his time, with sorrow that his time was so short.