Anthropology 101

9:43 AM

Suhas Nayak couldn’t believe he had overslept. He cursed his jet lag and looked at his phone incredulously. He sprung to his feet and headed to the corner of his room where his suitcase lay open. He pulled out an acceptable t-shirt and slipped into it. It rested loosely on his narrow shoulders, but clung to his arms and stomach. His stoutness had the charm of youth, as though it knew it could disappear with a little effort. He parted the drapes of his window briefly, hoping he would find the young light of dawn. But it was a bright and piercing light that shot through the slit.

Suhas rushed to the bathroom on his floor to complete his morning duties, not all of them, but just the ones he absolutely had to perform. He couldn’t afford to miss his first lecture; he couldn’t afford to miss any of Dr. Ahlgren’s sessions, he had been told. On his way back to his room, he noticed that the house was empty; all the other students had left. He had taken the only bedroom with single occupancy in the cooperative residence. It was a small house on Wait Avenue run by the students’ community. As was the case with all prior occupants of that room, Suhas too had been welcomed with envious and reluctant smiles. Brian, Farhan, Trevor, Ngala, Carlos, Kaarthikeyan, Isthvan, Lawrence and four others, whose names he had forgotten, were his fellow residents. They had introduced themselves and asked where he was from; the polite ones had asked what discipline he had chosen to study.

‘Anthropology?’ Kaarthikeyan had shrieked. He then developed a disappointed look, as though something precious had been wantonly wasted.

10:01 AM

Suhas stepped out of the house with a sleek shoulder bag strapped across his torso. If he hurried, he thought, he could at least catch the last fifteen minutes of Dr. Ahlgren’s lecture. The man had been hailed as the best in his field, and even featured in Cornell University’s promotional video. Suhas made his way down Wait Avenue in an uncultured sprint.

It was the end of summer and the trees had begun to reveal their wonderful fall colours. Little blots of amber, orange and yellow were strewn across the foliage. He turned left on Thurston Avenue and onto the little bridge that stood over Fall Creek. Here, his legs slowed down as if being controlled by a higher power. The shallow water below crackled in a hypnotic manner, demanding his attention. It fell down large rocks, thrashed against a few others, bubbled in patches of white, and finally disappeared behind a bend.

A young woman walked past Suhas with a fashionable lethargy. She wore a Cornell University t-shirt; her golden hair shimmered under the Sun; she was tall, taller than Suhas.

‘Excuse me,’ he said taking a few paces towards her. She stopped and turned. ‘Could you help me get to McGraw Hall?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Head down East Avenue, and in a few minutes you’ll find the College of Arts and Sciences building on your right. Take a right there… you should be able to see McGraw Hall across the lawn.’

‘Thank you,’ said Suhas and resumed his jog; this time he tried to be more graceful. Soon he spotted the College of Arts and Sciences building, and took the right immediately after it. He found himself on a paved walkway that cut through a vast, grassy lawn. It didn’t lead to the opposite side, but rather branched off into a crisscross of pathways. The pattern was maddeningly asymmetric. Eventually, he ran across the lawn to the building at the opposite end.

10:17 AM

Suhas slipped into the large room with his head bowed and eyes averted. He was too distracted to register the professor’s lecture; he only heard fragments:

remarkable behavioural patterns

truly obsessed about going viral

not symbiotic, but dependent on the environment

Suhas tried to remain unnoticed. He found an empty seat at the back and settled down swiftly, quietly, avoiding the few judging eyes around him.

‘We are talking about a species that has been around for several millennia, but has thrived prolifically in the last few centuries. Why do you think that is?’

Now Suhas heard the professor’s voice clearly, loudly, through the speakers on the nearby wall. As the students started answering, he pulled out his notebook and pen. He wanted to salvage whatever was left of the session.

‘Exactly,’ said the professor pointing to one of the students, ‘medical science. And today we have the capability to create it all in a lab… from scratch. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?’

More answers were blurted out, but Suhas was distracted by the screen — it was blank; the projector had been turned off. The white board, too, was empty; it bore a faint bluish hue, a remnant of something written and erased. Suhas felt disappointed that he couldn’t retrieve anything from the hour and twenty minutes he had missed.

‘Now consider a question — I’ve been asked this often — and give me your honest opinion. What is the dominant species on this planet? Remember, the answer need not necessarily be the topic of this session. It could, but it’s not a must. More importantly, I would require the rationale behind your answer.’

The entire room descended into a tense silence. Those who had prepared to give the obvious answer were discouraged by the professor’s instruction. It seemed very difficult to justify their answers, and even more difficult to voice the few justifications they had conjured up. A few feeble voices said, ‘Humans.’ A few others said, ‘Cockroaches.’ One student said, ‘Killer whales,’ with great confidence.

The professor smiled. ‘That’s quite a spectrum of answers. But let’s get back to the species we’ve been discussing for the last hour. Let us consider some parameters. Firstly, resources. Wouldn’t you agree they have access to abundant resources?’

The students nodded. Suhas, too, nodded, but with an insolent smile. How conceited is he, thought Suhas, to use the word “they,” as though the professor was somehow above the rest. But Suhas granted the man his arrogance; he thought it was something that accompanied all celebrated men.

‘Next… survival and evolution. I think they are unparalleled, have existed for thousands of years, and can reproduce at an alarming rate.’ His voice simultaneously bore undertones of loathing and admiration. ‘As we speak, the population count is increasing drastically, growing and consuming everything possible, oblivious to the destruction caused. Yet somehow we know there is no question of extinction; their lifespan and resistance has only increased over the years; the real threat is only to the surroundings, to every other organism around. From our studies, I must admit that cockroaches have proven to be more persistent and comparable in terms of evolutionary capabilities. Still, they are no match. Yes, we’ve all heard — they may survive nuclear explosions — but even you can stomp the life out of a cockroach.’

The students remained pensive; some nodded in approval as though they had understood something profound.

‘Finally, consider living conditions. They can survive in almost every Earthly climate. I doubt if there is a corner on this planet where they don’t exist.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he said and paused dramatically, ‘this is a species so tenacious that they will proliferate as long as life exists on this planet, and will remain the dominant species.’

With a little nod he conveyed the end of his session, and then thanked his students for coming. Hands were raised, questions were asked, and answers were given. But Suhas had not paid attention; he had packed his bags and was ready to leave.

10:32 AM

Suhas walked out of the hall with the other students. He walked slowly, trying to glean from the whispers of his classmates. Most of it was not regarding the class and the rest didn’t make much sense. Suhas found himself again on the discordant mesh of pathways. As he looked around, he saw a building to his left; it was titled McGraw Hall. Befuddled, he turned around, and saw the title of the building he had just exited — Morrill Hall. He then frantically turned towards the College of Arts and Sciences building; there were two paths on either side, both requiring a right turn from East Avenue, each leading to a different building.

Suhas accosted one of the students, and asked, ‘Wasn't that the anthropology class?’

‘Anthropology?’ the student repeated with derision. ‘That was Dr. Fitzgerald… Virology 101.’

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