I was saddened to hear about the death of Shakuntala Devi, the maths genius, earlier this week. Her feats were many but what astounded me was the fact that she multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. That would be the amount of time it would take me to read out a 13-digit number. (And I’d probably get even that wrong). But Shakuntala Devi was no ordinary genius. She was so passionate about her subject that she was ready to share her techniques for simplifying it. She was sure that children could learn to love mathematics (or “max”, as we liked to call it). I sure could’ve used some of those techniques in school.
Now, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who get all nostalgic about school, and those who feel a shiver run up their spine at the mention of the word. I belong to the second category. I was so traumatised by the experience that even now I have nightmares about having to sit for my 12th standard exams. Research shows that I am not alone in this. Apparently, tests and schools do figure quite high in the list of common nightmares, along with nightmares about all your teeth falling out, being naked in a supermarket, and being chased by Rajnikanth (not all at the same time).
For me, the nightmare is specifically about the maths exam. Here’s how it goes. I am trying to solve a complex maths equation. Now, in one level of my dream, I am sitting at a table, writing a solution. In the second level of the dream, the equation is inscribed on my Co-optex blanket. In fact, the equation is my Co-optex blanket. I now have to be very careful because even the slightest movement in Level 2 can jeopardise the situation in Level 1. A twitch of my elbow can send the addition sign spinning into a multiplication sign. If I adjust my pillow, two brackets fall down into the equation and take up bizarre positions. And a sneeze in level two sends Pi flying from one side of the equation to the other in Level 1. It’s like Inception for tambrahms.
The nightmare usually ends with me waking up in a cold sweat. I then remind myself that I’m now an adult and I don’t have to worry any more about maths in my life.
The farmer problem was one I particularly hated. An ailing farmer (I always imagined him to be Ashok Kumar) would own an oddly shaped piece of farmland. He would, declare, on his deathbed, that he was leaving 1/3rds of his land to the first son, 1/4ths to the second son, and 1/9ths to the third son. The resulting maths problem, he was generously bequeathing to the youth of India. From solving this particular problem in class, I learnt two valuable life lessons:Â (a) Never underestimate fractions and (b) If you’re going to have more than two children, don’t become a farmer.
Or take those man-hour problems, which went like this: If 10 men can build a house in 20 days, how many days will 15 men take to build a house? Now in the real world, answering this question requires more than just number-crunching. The realisation came to me after I spent some time observing the construction work in my street. At the flats labelled “Purple Pranav”, the pace of construction is frenetic. Supervisors hold meetings each morning with eager workers, and new walls spring up almost overnight. On the other hand, at “Gajalakshmi Glacial”, the approach is more laidback. It took them all of Monday to install exhaust fans on the groundfloor. On Tuesday, the chaiwallah made the observation it was perhaps a bit unorthodox to have a fan that sucked in air from the outside, instead of the other way around. Wednesday was spent discussing who would take the blame. By Thursday, the supervisor had offered up his assistant for sacrifice, and they started their work again. Now, where were we with that problem?
But by far, the worst maths problem was the word riddle. For those who haven’t encountered this vile problem, let me give a sample:
Gita is taller than Sita and Amar. Akbar is shorter than Amar, but is less annoying than Gita. Given these facts, deduce what circus act was Sita most partial to.
Dear readers, if any of you can answer this in 28 seconds, I swear to you, I will become a farmer.