It is no reflection on the excellent credentials of my math teachers all through school that I did not learn the subject. It was me, alas. Have you heard of Numerophobia or Arithmophobia? They mean the pathological fear of numbers and yours truly suffered from those. Why, even Ramanujam couldn’t have taught me the subject! But my math teachers starting from primary school not only tried to din the subject into my unwilling head, but also tolerated me. This post is re-dedicated to each one of them to mark Teachers’ Day that falls on Sept 5.
In the days when ‘double promotions’ for very bright students was still the norm, I took a straight jump into the third standard, having been taught at home prior to that, due to the very frequent transfers my father’s job entailed. When my mother finally decided to settle down with us children in Nagpur, I was taken to Saraswati Vidyalaya for admission.
Mr.Ramamritham, the famous and dreaded maths teacher in the primary section took my test to see if I was eligible for his knuckle raps! (Old timers who remember him will remember the latter too!) He pleaded with my mother and uncle to get me admitted to the second standard, since he didn’t think too highly of my home ‘education’. But my mother was adamant that I would sit in the third, since I was already old enough to be in that class.
He finally agreed after seeing my proficiency in the languages and the marks I got in the ‘entrance test’ he set me, even though he was very very unhappy with my math, which I had barely managed to pass. I think he had seen my brother teaching me the answers! I went through the two years of primary school, somehow managing to scrape through math, always wondering how some regulars survived his knuckle-raps on their heads. He usually did not subject girls to physical punishment, except give a resounding ‘kuttu’ (knuckle hit on the head) but when he came to me he refrained even from that. You see, my uncle had warned him that I was a weakling and any physical punishment could be bad for my health! He made us write an entire lesson of social studies or some other subject FOUR TIMES! He never realised that it only served to improve my handwriting but never taught me addition and subtraction!
And so I went through the successive classes, always scoring well in the languages, social sciences and even science, not to speak of drawing, but barely managing to scrape through the dreaded math.
I had an excellent teacher at home: my older brother, the younger of two, who had graduated from the same school some years previously. He was a math whiz and his name is still there on the roll of honour in the school. So you can imagine his chagrin when I came home with pathetic marks — certainly not fit for the sister of such a genius. I must have driven him up the wall at times.
‘What should you do to find out the answer for this one?’ he would ask.
‘Add the two,’ I would instantly reply and then looking at his face, hastily change it to ‘Subtract them.’ His face would have turned red by now. So after two more guesses – one of which fortunately had to be correct, I would heave a sigh of relief, for his face would have turned a dangerous shade of purple by that point! I never wrote down the answers to the questions in the math paper after an exam finding new excuses for not doing it. Why invite nemesis on one’s head before it actually was due, eh?
So I bumbled along and finally came to middle school and had another dreaded maths teacher. Mr. Landge was a wonderful teacher and every other student but me understood his lessons perfectly. He was a stickler for homework and I obediently completed the sums. I was not afraid of him for two reasons: (a) he was angry only when one did not complete the homework, never mind if they were . all wrong (which mine always were) (b) he never hit a girl!
I could see that his palms itched every time he called my name to give back my homework copy scored heavily in red, but his restraint was admirable. He would shake his head in exasperation whenever he saw me in class. ‘Thangamani, tum bahut tang karte ho,‘ he would say. I salute you sir, for putting up with me all those years!
My fear of numbers dogged me every step of my life, not just in school. When my mother sent me to the market to buy vegetables at the fair price shop, I would stand apart and calculate in my head how much each vegetable would cost and how much money I would have to give the vendor. And finally when I thought I had got it right, I would approach the man and give the list of my requirement. And when it came to settling the account, all the calculations would have fled my head and I would dumbly bring back the change he gave me, hoping that he had not shortchanged me. I would drag my feet home, frantically trying to calculate the cost of the veggies. It was no mean feat as I was hopeless in mental math.
Once, it so happened that I had got back 20 paise less or so I thought. It was a moment of complete panic. That amount would have bought a kilo of some vegetables back in the 60s. I didn’t know what to do. My elder brother’s face loomed large in my mind. Finally I sat down by the side of road and hastily calculated the amounts on the mud and discovered that the change was correct after all. By then I was sweating profusely! Whew!
I’m sure you all remember the Time and Work and Time and Distance problems we did in middle school. Well, my brother would painstakingly coach me on those and I would be certain that I could crack it in the exam the next day. But come exam day and I would be frantic. All that would have happened would be a small change in the way the problem was worded and given a slight twist to make it more difficult. After a lot of scratching and scoring out, I would come up with the wrong answer! I hit the nadir when I failed in a term test. My brother refused to speak to me for a week and only when I promised to work so hard that I would never ever fail another test, did he relent. I am happy to say that I kept up that promise. But how!
Then I shifted to Mumbai to continue my studies in the eighth standard. During the two years I studied in the South Indian Association High School in Dombivali, my math teacher Mrs. Satyaraj was one exasperated woman. The subject had only got more complicated with trigonometry and theorems by the time I was in high school and were of no help at all.
Somehow, thanks to Landge sir, I had learnt Algebra well. I used to love the x and y problems and got them all correct! Don’t ask me how! I would complete that section first and then go on to the theorems. I knew all the diagrams that went with each theorem to the T, and neatly drew them, and copied what was required to be proved and then finally wrote ‘Proof:’ Now came the tricky part. I had no clue how to prove the darn theorem. So I just left it blank and went on to break my head over arithmetic. I remember once bending my head over the blank page and sobbing my heart out. I could vividly recall the daffodils swaying in the wind and the nightingale singing her heart out, but for the life of me couldn’t understand how I could solve the trigonometry problem staring at me!
Satyaraj ma’am would not have the heart to fail me in maths and so would somehow add a quarter mark here and a half mark there and even give a mark for ‘neatness’ and somehow pull me beyond the border. You see, I would have scored very high marks in all the other subjects, topping in the languages especially and had I failed in maths, I would have failed in the exams. I could never look her in the eye for my being so dumb in her favourite subject! Thank you ma’am. You helped me keep my promise to my brother and also my place in the class. I bow deep and low at your feet on this Teacher’s Day!
Math and I never saw eye to eye and I steered as far away from it as possible by electing to do my graduation in Humanities. To make a long story short, I finally lost my arithmophobia after marriage. No, the L&M didn’t coach me in the subject though he was another math wiz.
How then, do you ask? The humble milkman, kiranawala and paperwala managed to teach me to calculate faster than Chacha Choudhary (whose brain works faster than a computer) when I began running my home. So much so that I outdid even the L&M while calculating the monthly bills! And what was more, I didn’t need to prove any theorems to do these calculations!