19 X 19 =?

The Sunday Express - EYE - January 16, 2011


At boot camp, you woke up at 5 am and sat cross-legged on the floor, doing sums from a workbook. Break for breakfast, lunch and afternoon play to refresh your mind (what on earth did body have to do with anything?) and in the evening you did more sums, after which you gratefully crawled into bed. He then sat and erased all the answers that you wrote in the workbook, so that the sums could be recycled a few days later. My brother, who was a bit older, was also an inmate at the boot camp. I can't remember what maths he did, but he has always maintained that he was burnt out at 10 because he was made to solve simultaneous equations at seven. After boot camp my mark soared, but that only egged my father on. We graduated to multiplication tables. You had to stand with your fingers visible, so that he could catch you counting on them instead of in your head, and start at 20x20, reciting backwards until you go to 1x1. He never asked, "Did you have fun at play?" He would ask instead "19x19s are?" and look really pleased if you got it right.

The next step was physics. He would sit at the dining table, gaze intently at the ceiling fan and ask, "How can you tell whether this fan is running on alternating or direct current?" I would look at it blankly, murderously. He would then, through a painful process of Socratic enquiry, make you realize that if the pot and vanes moved together, it was one kind of current, and if the vanes alone moved it was another. I dare not tell you which one is which – though dead, I am pretty sure he is waiting with bated breath for me to get it wrong so that he can start a 101 on electricity in my dreams tonight.

He studied with me for my school final exam when I was in danger of barely passing and augmented the stick with a carrot. If I got above 90 percent, he would let me go to the swankiest college in Delhi, "where bad girls go and learn to smoke"; if I got less, I would have to go to a college of his choice, where boring, well brought up girls went. I don't know if it was his superior teaching or the threat of becoming the person he wanted me to be, but the 90 percent mark was crossed, and I went to the "wrong" college – but had to study physics while my friends studied glamorous subjects like sociology.

When I got into IIM (I did the exam without his knowledge, with my mother's support), he was most disapproving. What kind of family life would an "executive" have? He did a complicated calculation; the earning per hour of a college lecturer was exactly the same as that of an executive. You earned more, but you worked more hours, and didn't get vacations. He would be astonished in later years at the work I did, and say dismissively "marketing blah blah blah-does it use any science?"

He tried to teach me Vedic mathematics when I was 35, and solved my daughter's geometry riders when I gave up. "How could you forget that radius and tangent form a right angle?" he would ask with deep disappointment. But as a saying in Telugu goes, for everyone who climbs a toddy tree, there is someone above him, kicking him on the head. His grandchildren rebelled fairly early at his maths teaching. The unkindest cut came from my then nine-year-old, when he told her that in maths even a hundred on hundred could be improved upon. He said he used to get 120 on 100 in his school days, because he answered all the choice questions and got them right. She looked at him sternly and asked, "Didn't your mummy tell you to always read the question paper properly?"

Sadly, I seem to have inherited it all from him. My daughter says she has her own "moon-obsessed-with maths-and-physics" emotional scars; and I dream of grandchildren who will say. "Can we do some calculus just for fun?" My husband shudders and says, "Please never leave me alone with those grandchildren." I made a recipe book for my daughter when she went to college, and it is replete with references to how things will not boil over if the surface tension is increased thus, how latent heat will keep the gravy bubbling even when the flame is lowered, and how to calculate the size of the stirring spoon so that the tip of the handle stays cool. It's like the line from Friends, when Rachel says, "Oh my God, I was trying so hard not to become like my mother, that becoming like my father sneaked up on me!"