Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Remembering Keshab Ghimire

I first met Keshab in my Introduction to Computer Science class in 2003 at Hamilton College.  Almost all of the seats were full and he would usually arrive a few minutes after the lecture started and sit in the back.  I asked him why he was always late he told me he had another class on the other side of campus.  We were given ten minutes to get from class to class which should have been long enough, considering Hamilton had a physical education requirement (run 400 meters in less than 80 seconds, also swim four laps in a pool).  I'm not sure Keshab ever managed to fulfill that requirement.

Keshab was clearly the brightest computer scientist in our class, an attribute my 18-year-old ego wanted.  I was working on a project in the computer science lab, hoping to find some sort of adrenaline induced inspiration to finish the program before the rapidly approaching deadline.  The teaching assistants were unable to help me, another student was there and said he'd call Keshab.  I was slightly concerned, not just with my ego but also with the school's honor code.  I was reassured that as long as we weren't using copy paste or looking at each other's monitors helping each other was acceptable.  We waited for Keshab to arrive for about ten minutes, within five minutes of arriving he'd helped us solve our problem and explained to us why the solution worked.

I decided to take the next course towards a CS major, Data Structures.  Our new class had only six students and was taught by the experienced and charismatic Professor 1.  We worked together in two person teams building basic data structures in C++, after one team built a data structure another would test it.  Though Keshab was still probably the brightest student there were two new students whose skills were impressive.  I discovered my talent for mathematical computer science (I was able to determine the computational complexity of several algorithms immediately after Professor 1 wrote them).  It was the best class I've taken throughout all my educational experience.  Even though we were all freshmen, we won the Sam Welsch Memorial Prize Scholarship in Computer Science.

I saw Keshab more in my second semester.  I had also befriended another student from his home country, Nepal.  I didn't socialize with Keshab too much, but I would always talk with him when I saw him.  He once told me that he did go out drinking with a fraternity, but after his parents called him when he was drunk, he followed their instructions to never drink again.  Keshab had secured a research position for the summer working on electronics with a Professor from the physics department.  I'd secured a research position with Professor 0, trying to use automated reasoning to find relations between genes and hopefully cure cancer.  My old desktop computer broke down and I decided since I was going to be staring at a computer for eight hours a day in the summer I wasn't going to immediately replace it.  Towards the end of the summer, after I finally decided on a laptop, I got in touch with Keshab for help installing Linux on it and recovering data from my old hard drive.  I told him I'd drive him to the airport in exchange for his services.  Afterwards I decided that I didn't want to (his flight was very late at night) but gave him information about a cab company as well as $60.00 to pay for it.

My next semester was horrible.  I had decided to take five classes because I wasn't sure if I wanted to major in CS and Mathematics or double major in Neuroscience and Chemistry.  I also decided to work for ITS as well as continuing research for Professor 0.  I managed to enjoy some parties on campus and one night wandering around I ran into Keshab who gave me back the $60.00 I'd given him.  Another time Keshab asked me if he could have the Linux CD I'd used back.  When I told him I wasn't sure where it was he told me not to worry.  In the midst of a stressful semester I received an email from the ITS employee listserv saying that Keshab was 'sick' and had gone back to Nepal.  I never signed the card they sent him, I was too busy with my own problems.

I ended up taking a leave of absence midway through that semester.  I returned to the snowy campus with a sense of practical cynicism.  Aside from courses necessary for my CS major, I took Introduction to Hinduism.  The most salient thing I learned in the class was that many Hindus don't believe in acquiring 'good karma' but in ending life with 'no karma'.  Keshab and I shared a class and had lunch together occasionally.  He complained that when he asked a Professor for help the Professor called him stupid.  I discussed some of my business ideas with him, hoping that he'd help me implement some of them.  He told me about how he'd been translating Nepali poetry into English.  I knew his father worked for the Nepali government, but I did not know the tremendous upheaval Nepal was going through at that time.

Keshab managed to get a research position with Professor 0, I gave him some tips on how to deal with him, feeling that they'd get along well because Keshab had more patience with computers than I did.  I had tried to find an internship with a high powered company (like Microsoft or Google) that summer, but failed.  I managed to have a relatively relaxing summer.  I visited my Dad in New Jersey, driving there and back for the first time on my own.  I remember hearing the song Right Back Where We Started From on the radio just as I was reaching home.  It was the first time I'd heard the song but by the end of it I was singing along to the chorus.  It fit my feelings of returning to being half way through college with optimism that the second half would be better than the first.  When I got home and checked my email, I saw that the President of the Hamilton College had sent an email with the title 'Keshab Ghimire'.  I knew what happened before I opened it...

Keshab had killed himself.  There was no suicide note but police ruled out foul play.  I was devastated and considered seeing a grievance counselor but ultimately decided against it.  I knew that the area was dominated by Christian Philosophy and that some of Keshab's suicide had to do with not embracing that philosophy.  There was an article published on Hamilton's website... I never knew Keshab had worked with impoverished children until I read this.  I still managed to enjoy myself at some moments during that summer.  But I was worried about how Keshab's death would resonate with the college, particularly within the CS classes I would take.  I had Professor 0 for a class and I knew I'd have to suppress my feelings that he was partly responsible for the suicide.  Aside from demanding hard work and not taking excuses, Professor 0 had three bibles on his desk and was very open about being a Christian.  I thought that he might take Keshab's suicide as motivation to be easier on his students and to put his bibles away but it wasn't.

Keshab's memorial service was about a month into the semester.  I was more motivated to give a good speech than to comple any academic assignment I'd ever received (though Professor 0 did tell me that I did the best in the class for the first assignment).  For some reason, it never occurred to me that Professor 0 would also speak and I only discovered that he would a few hours before the service.  I thought about the recommendations I might need and how Professor 0 might not like some of what I had planned to say.  I decided not to change anything.

I visited the college chaplain shortly before the service.  He gave me some reassurance as well as a copy of the Bhagavad Gita which I planned to read from (though it was a different translation than the one I'd used in my class).  I was scheduled to speak after one of Keshab's friends from another college and Professor 0.  My emotions raced as I heard the other speakers (especially when Professor 0 spoke about how Keshab was a great computer scientist, glanced at me, then proceded to list Keshab's flaws).  Shortly before I spoke I felt like some external force was squeezing on my brain and forcing tears out of it.  I considered refusing to speak, or changing what I had originally written.  I stood up and moved to the podium and looked out at the crowd for a while, hoping to see some sort of encouraging smile.  Instead, the brown furniture turned into the outline of Keshab's face.  The white faces became his teeth and the sclera of the eye of Keshab, the few darker people became his iris and pupil.  I knew I was going to say exactly what I wanted to, regardless of what anybody in the audience thought.

I wish I could remember what I said; unfortunately it's all in the past now, I doubt anybody in that audience remembers it.  I mentioned Keshab a few times to people who knew him, but nobody wanted to talk about suicide so I pushed his memory away.  I suppose I could blame my less than stellar career as a programmer on Keshab's suicide, but that's a pretty lame excuse.

Why then, did I bother writing this?  Is it because I'm a noble saint who reminds people of the forgotten and tries to extract feelings of guilt?  Not really, I can't say I really knew why I wrote this until I'd already written everything besides the conclusion.  I suppose I might get some sympathy from friends (or reconnect with people in college I haven't spoken with in years).  Though ultimately, I think death is a major taboo in society that eludes rational thought.  Atheists turn to religion when death occurs, empires have fallen after their leaders die, and sometimes leaders claim that certain dead people deserved to die.  Many so called 'rationalists' turn to discredited ideas of freezing their brains and living forever.  They forget that the world may not be around to wake them up and that this procedure costs more than what it costs to save multitudes of less fortunate people then.  What then is the rational approach to death?  I still don't know, but I have a much better idea than ten years ago when my friend decided to end his own life.