A Shared Helplessness

Darren Tapp News & Views

At Purdue I graduated under the direction of Uli Walther. Uli, is of East German origin. He has fair complexion, and speaks English with very little accent . He guided my studies since my arrival at Purdue, only three years into my studies was he officially my adviser. Unfortunately this story is not about Uli.

This story is about my first adviser. His name was Shreeram Shankar Abhyankar from Pune, India. His complexion was brown, he spoke with a distinguished Indian accent. His normal voice had a gravelly feel to it. He appreciated and shared his original culture. To this day, I remember the story of Vishnu copying the wise words of Ganesh, a character Abhyankar described as the god of knowledge or learning. He had grey, almost blue, eyes. He often seemed to be frustrated. A frustration I always assumed was caused by the inability of others to see the truths that he saw and considered simple. He walked slowly and with a limp, which was a result of a automobile accident that he suffered in his earlier days. I met Abhyankar at his 65th birthday conference, which I attended before I was a student at Purdue.

One summer, Abhayankar had planned to attend a conference in Taiwan, and I felt incredibly honored that I was asked to join him. He was basically a visiting professor we had both maxed out our visiting visa at one month. At that time I was scared to fly alone, and especially to a different country. Abhyankar told me which flight he was on, so I could book a flight on the same plane.

One memory that stands out about the flight was walking along a concourse to the plane. Abhyankar was “randomly selected” to suffer another screening. I was surprised to see this and, perhaps out of fear, I kept walking towards our plane as if I didn’t know this randomly selected individual. I remember seeing people walk around him as an obstacle as he struggled to remove his shoes to convince the agent that there was not a bomb in them.

I learned something very disturbing while taking that flight. I learned that it didn’t matter that Abhyankar was a world renowned mathematician. I learned it didn’t matter that Abhyankar was traveling for a “legitimate” purpose. I learned it didn’t matter that he literally wrote the book on resolution of singularities in three dimensions in any characteristic. I learned that it didn’t matter that his shoes had been already been screened. It didn’t matter that he was traveling with his wife he met while teaching during his graduate study at Harvard. It didn’t matter that Abhayankar generally demanded the respect that comes with age. It didn’t matter that there were more able bodied people to “randomly select.”

That flight made a real impression on me. I felt that Abhyankar’s rank should exempt him from such treatment. Why was he selected? Was it because he was brown? I learned that whatever height I achieved that I could still be subject to being treated like a criminal. I thought that Abhyankar should be in a separate class. What if I were selected? I thought that Ph.Ds should be in a separate class. Then I felt guilty because it’s not fair to treat other people poorly simply based on status.

Today I read an article from the Washington Post expressing a similar helplessness. The article explains a greater injustice than what I witnessed. Thank you for taking the time to read about my memory.