Issay, I was told, means a person with abundant hair, and it was a name our classmate abundantly justified. He did not have dreadlocks, but his long, dark hair flowed over his shoulders. That was not the only reason he looked different from other students. While we were moving to modern shell frames or rimless spectacles, he wore ancient granny glasses. While others wore white or pastel colors, he fancied clothes that put a rainbow to shame. Moreover, his clothes never seemed to have encountered starch or an iron; they were defiantly wrinkled and had a sleeped-in look.
I never saw him talking to a classmate. Rather, none of the classmates ever talked to him. Most Indians are born racists anyway. The idea of bonhomie with a jet-black African was abhorrent to them. For me, I was knee-deep in student politics and talked to every potential voter. Also, my mindset was different. My father’s work brought him in contact with foreigners. We have had Jamaicans, Nigerians and Ghanaians as dinner guests and I had greatly enjoyed an African American as a house guest. I initiated a conversation with Issay.
I knew these about Issay, but nobody else did. The reason was Issay did not take part in class discussions. He never voluntarily raised his hand. If asked, he gave the briefest response in the fewest words. Most professors took him to be uninterested in any exchange of ideas. Most students knew nothing of him, as he didn’t participate in seminars or student exchanges. His classmates didn’t invite him to informal discussions, and he didn’t join them on his own because he felt unwanted.
Our friendship, however, gradually developed. I took him home, where my parents treated him with affection, and, later, as they got to know him better, with deference. Mother would sometimes ask him to stay back for dinner; when he left, she would pack a sandwich and an apple ‘for breakfast.’ Issay tried to reciprocate by inviting me for a movie and a meal at a restaurant, but, with characteristic unconcern, bought expensive tickets and chose a fancy steak house. Given his meager scholarship, I realized that he was generous to the point of imprudence, and afterward I consistently resisted what he called a night on the town. I embroidered the truth and told Issay that I preferred him to come to our home because I wanted him to be better accustomed to Indian food. The kernel of truth was that my parents thought well of him and I had grown fond of his unique ways.
Issay graduated comfortably, though I felt peeved that his marksheet did not reflect his remarkable capacity for unusual thinking or unique ideas. We had a tea party in his tiny room in a boarding house with no more than five friends, which included a young emergency room doctor who had once attended to Issay and the old janitor of our college, who had possibly never received a moment’s attention from any other student. Then he was gone. Not a trace was left of the unusual Kenyan student who had quietly added color and vibrancy to our lives.
In one of his typically brief and blunt missives, he had written to me, “I have enjoyed a modest fame as the source of new ideas and the power to get a few of those ideas implemented. I know neither the fame nor the power will last. I want to work on getting others to generate ideas and equipping others to implement new ideas.” He was always a maverick, eager to make sure new ideas spring.
The great pity, in my view, was that my college, my friends and my professors never recognized a man who could have contributed so much to our lives and our work, perhaps even to our country. Prejudices die hard.