The Mathematical Puzzles

The Mathematical Puzzles

Two out of Fifty; BHASKAR, I need to see your parents on Saturday.” My 7th grade Math teacher rolled her pupils in disgust as she handed over my answer sheet.

“Wonder why on earth your parents named you Bhaskar maligning the very image of the renowned entity in the field of mathematics?” She jeered. The boys guffawed, and the girls giggled.

My head hanging low, I tottered towards my seat, when the hammer fell; “Shyamu has scored 50 out of 50.” A thunderous applause followed. I could do nothing but envy his highfalutin walk as he proceeded towards the teacher’s desk.

My destiny for the evening had been sealed with a sound spanking. 

Of all the boys in the class, this cursed Shyamu should be the whiz kid of Math!

Unfortunately, we were neighbors. A fence that divided our houses bore testimony to our mothers’ chatting sessions that largely revolved around school, exams, and marks.

Light travels faster than sound, but Shyamu’s parents’ bulletin traveled faster than anything in this universe. The news of my dismal performance in Math and their son’s admirable feat always reached my mother before me. 

The alacrity with which Shyamu’s parents handled the situation only piqued my mother’s anger towards me. I watched helplessly wondering why she never came up with a riposte. Why she never discussed my marks in English?

But then he had an upper hand at mathematics, which I painfully learned, had carved a niche for itself as the most important subject to help people deal with anything and everything in life!!!

Shyamu, Ramu, Victor, or Rahim, whoever would have been my neighbour, my destiny was sealed, and spanking invariably fell into my kitty, and mathematics was solely responsible for that. 

I was somehow able to scrap through in Math till my 4th grade; though I kept begging my friend to lend his fingers too for counting.  The trick however did not work from the 5th grade. Math got different and beyond the realm of my perception. 

There was music every time in my house on the day of the result as I got a good thrashing.

It was my best friend, Pralhad, who gave me this mind-blowing idea, during my latter half in 6th grade when he heard my predicament.

“Make sure you hide somewhere at least for an hour after school, on the day of the result. Your parents, especially your mother will get panicky about not finding you home on time, and then the joy of having found you intact will lessen her wrath on the Math issue. You may have to put up with some scoldings but I can assure you that you would escape the corporal punishment.”

Being rather unproven in such tricks, I had chosen a place that was hardly 250 meters away from my house, to hide, when I had flunked in Mathematics in the second unit test in 6th grade.  The den proved ineffective as mother’s keen sight brought her to the field where I was hiding in between fully grown corns, within minutes after I had comfortably settled. The proximity of the lair to my house gave me away. 

“You have flunked in Arithmetic again?”  She gave an agonizing twist to my ears, more vexed for having spotted a sardonic smile pass my lips. That comes as an involuntary action every time she calls it Arithmetic. It was mathematics for us in school.

“Come home and I will take ‘care’ of you,” she had pulled me all along as I tried hard to suppress my sobs. We passed through Shyamu’s house. No words in the English vocabulary could describe my embarrassment. 

My hiding plan thus got sabotaged and Pralhad’s prophecy was outdone.

Having learned from my previous experience; I hid among the rubbles of an under-construction structure a little away from home, upon failing in Math again during the final exams. In a few minutes, I came out wailing as some creature feasted on my hands. I was caught and this time whacked with much intensity because Shyamu had scored 90.

The teacher called for my parents and gave a sound sermon before promoting me to the 7th grade. “You are indeed fortunate because of extremely flexible rules. No child is detained till 8th grade, but the way your son is doing his Math, I am afraid he will spend the rest of his life in the 8th grade only.”

Did she have to be so blatant? My poor mother cried as if her heart would break. She had nurtured some extraordinary ambitions. It was through me that she wanted to realize her dream of having an engineer in the family. Engineering seemingly needed Math as a subject. 

It was apparently a long cherished dream of my maternal grandfather to have an engineer in the family. The dream could never find the light of the day since my mother was his only child and girls were never allowed to proceed with their studies after schooling.

 ‘Why cannot Chotu be that progeny with an engineering degree?’ I often began wondering from the time I got a sibling nine months ago. 

I stood there in front of my teacher as if I was an accused in a criminal case. 

My mother was trying to wipe her tears with the pallu of her saree, and my father sat wearing a stifled look. I could guess that he was getting thoroughly bored by the teacher’s jeremiad.

Seeing both his parents perturbed; Chotu, began wailing, probably assuming that some great catastrophe had befallen our family. His calliopean cries forced us to disperse.

 Chotu was like succor to me.  He would start crying whenever mom tried to hit me over this Mathematics issue, shrewdly diverting her attention towards him. This gave me a breather to run away. 

What followed was a diatribe as we walked out of school that day. “This boy is never going to clear his Matric*. Forget about further studies. I am unnecessarily dreaming of making him an engineer,” mom sighed.

Dad, asserted in a soft tone, “Maybe he is not very much inclined towards Mathematics. If I recollect, I too was not a great student of Math. I may have passed on those genes to him. And then people without a Math background too have different arenas to prove their mettle and survive.  As you see our son has a special affinity towards English.” This only infuriated my mother and she went on and on about how important learning Mathematics is, in life.

It was my little brother again who came to our rescue, but his time around I doubted that dad had deliberately pinched him without mom noticing.

We are a small family of four living in an upscale town in Maharashtra, which has a blend of both rural and urban lifestyles.  The school in which I study was selected as the one to be upgraded, by the government. It had all the paraphernalia; one computer for two students, a well-equipped library, and a vast laboratory with refurbished types of equipment. It was the best English medium school, in the vicinity; that people here could brag of. 

Dad was the chief clerk in the postal department and did his best to provide everything for the family.  

Other than the days when results were declared, my mother was the most lovable person. She would keep serving me food insisting that I eat more even when my stomach was near to bursting.  Hugging me with affection, she would always make sure that even the smallest of my needs were attended to. If there was no Math in our life, she probably would have been the best mother on earth.

On the unfortunate result days too she served me the same food, but either murmured something or cried. I often wondered why she failed to appreciate me for my scoring well in other subjects, English; to be very precise.  

It was very rare for a kid with a vernacular background, to speak and write English as fluently as I did. Being a voracious reader, I regularly borrowed English books from our school library.  The poems and essays that I wrote were always appreciated by my English teacher. I was one of her favorite students, but then, I could never bask in the glory of this virtue. Math denied me that privilege.

“What are you going to achieve by writing poems and essays?” my mother grumbled. “Pay attention to your Math. The base has to be strong if you want to be a good engineer.”

She had often mooted the idea of my going over to Shyamu’s place and taking help, but my ‘ego’ wouldn’t let me do that.

My father never interfered with my schoolwork. He believed that our performances now cannot be taken as a yardstick for our accomplishments in life later. This only elicited mom’s anger and she accused dad of corrupting my mind with such weird ideas.

Despondency reached its zenith in my life in the 7th grade.

The alphabet was introduced differently. 

If ‘x’ was there ‘y’ would get lost. If ‘b’ was an obedient kid, then ‘a’ became the spoilsport and hid somewhere. My poor head had to rack itself to find the lost x or y or a or b. 

When the school reopened this June and the a,b, x, and y came into my life, I knew trouble was looming. Exactly six weeks after that, we had our first unit test. Today the results came out. 

I threw an apathetic glance at my paper. I could find only crosses everywhere. The two marks came because my friend, Govind who was in the 8th grade had given me a piece of sound advice; “Remember if you multiply anything by zero, the answer would be zero.” That is how I scored the two marks.  It said, ‘If y=3 and y x x= 0 then x=?’ Imagine I had cracked it. 

He also cautioned me about more disastrous things that would happen in the 8th grade. Alphabets that were getting lost in pairs started playing tricks forming a merry triad.

One or two out of a, b, and c would be lost along with some d, e, and f. Then with just two of them available, we had to go round hunting for the remaining.  ‘r’ was the chief vagabond according to him. It got associated with p, q to get invisible or sometimes with s, t, to play similar tricks. 

My head was already aching after I had heard such devastating stuff in the morning and to supplement my headache, our Math teacher had come up with new issues. The age of the mother was given and then some weird statistics were also given. We had to find the son’s age or the father’s age or the grandfather’s age that was ever and ever called ‘x.’

‘Why can’t we directly go and ask them their ages? Life would have been so simple,’ I moaned. 

And then she introduced something called integers. There came impossible things like subtracting a big number from a small number. How on earth could someone subtract 25 from 20? When I argued with the teacher asking her how we can take 25 chocolates from a box of 20 chocolates, I was awarded a tight slap. 

“Who asked you to remove 25 chocolates from a box of 20 chocolates? I asked you to subtract 25 from 20.” 

This genuinely did not enhance my knowledge, it only added to the confusion. The more the teacher averred the more my head began aching.

And then as a top-up for my murkiness, these papers were distributed. I knew a serious mess would ensue once I reach home. That is when I decided to take shelter in the partially broken house of Naathuram nearly 2 km away from home. So that I could further delay my reaching home Pralhad’s logic said, a further delay means intense agony for mom and that would equal to double love from her on finding me intact. He had been blabbering something like direct proportion, inverse proportion, which I did not comprehend.

Naathuram had fled the village after his wife committed suicide last month. Some said he had tortured her so the cops would catch him and that is why he ran away. He was anyway absconding and I think he was a nice guy to have left this house door ajar for a poor soul like me to take refuge. 

Everything seemed perfect for a while, but slowly I began missing my mother and my home. Tears welled up in my eyes as I envisaged my poor mother frantically trying to locate me, holding Chotu in her arms. 

Darkness engulfed the area. Panic waves surged within me because Pralhad had mentioned the ghost of Naathuram’s wife loitering in the house. 

Concluding that getting pounded by my mother, would be much better than having to perish miserably at the hands of a ghost; I slowly got out of the hideout and walked with heavy steps towards home.

On entering my house, apprehensively, I could see Doctor Uncle examining my brother Chotu. Along with some other neighbors; Shyamu’s parents were also there, adding to my agony. I ran towards my mother, feeling an intense urge to hug her and cry. I was taken by surprise when she hugged me and lovingly chided me. “I know you did not do well in Math and would be hiding somewhere. I sent Rajan maama to look out for you. Did you see him?” I shook my head bewildered at her behavior. 

“The paper was very tough, even Shyamu has just scraped through it seems,” she said.

I was mystified by this and looked at Shyamu’s parents with awe writ large in my eyes. They blinked, gesturing me to play along with the lie.

I felt a sense of self-remorse for having unnecessarily assassinated their character, subconsciously. Given the situation of Chotu being sick, Shyamu’s parents had acted wisely by not adding to my mother’s anguish and lied about their son’s marks. 

“Where is Baaba?” I asked wiping my moist eyes.

“Your father has gone to get ladoos, he has some good news for you,” mom said and I was baffled, while everyone present there grinned in appreciation.

Something was concocting, perhaps, unaware to me.

“Does father know Chotu is sick?” I asked wondering why he went to buy sweets when Chotu was ill. 

“Of course, he knows,” said the doctor patting my cheeks. “He left just now after I came, asking me to wait for the sweets.” The Doctor was chuckling, adding to my inquisitiveness.

 Turning towards my mother, Doctor said, “I have given him an injection. He will sleep for another couple of hours. Upon his waking up, give him something warm to drink.”

My father came in at that moment and started distributing sweets. I looked askance at him as he stuffed a huge ladoo into my mouth.

 “Congratulations Bhaskar,  your essay on ‘Upliftment of farmers,’ and your poetry, ’On Getting Wings,’ have got the first prize on a National Level.  Your submission has been selected over entries from various well-known schools from all over the town and city too. Your English teacher stressed the fact that it is no mean achievement.”

I was bestowed upon by a shower of congratulatory notes.

I realized that all present there were already aware of this. The tinge of a smile behind mother’s otherwise weary countenance due to Chotu’s ailment; was because I won the first prize. It was indeed a rare feat!

“Baaba but I fared badly in my Math,” I said fighting back my tears. 

“Oh, doesn’t matter. My colleague’s daughter will guide you from now on and Shyamu has promised to help you with maths homework every evening. I looked gratefully at Shyamu and his parents. I secretly asked God to forgive me for naming them, kibitzers.

“All you need is to get the pass marks in Math.” My father patted me.

“On the behest of your teacher, I have decided to enroll you for further guidance in English.” He smiled. “She says you have a bright future in literature. You need to go to the main town every weekend for classes conducted by the literary association. It seems that once you clear some exams conducted by them; you will be eligible for getting sponsorship from the association for your further studies in literature from the city college after your high school.”

 Surprisingly mom did not refute his statement. On the contrary, she nodded with full assertion.

“Your mother has understood today that only Math is not life,” my father looked at mom and winked playfully.

Later my mother served me food that tasted more delicious than ever. There was a smile on her face; something that I had never seen on any ill-fated result day. Suddenly the world seemed a very amiable place to live in. 

The missing ‘a,’ ‘b,’’x,’ and ‘y,’ appeared no longer threatening. 

I caressed Chotu’s head. “You need not cry off and on now to save me,” I said wishing for his speedy recovery.

Matric* Final year of school.

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Sudha Vishwanathan
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