Humour: The square root of fear
Numbers don’t lie, but they can inflict suffering in countless other ways.
My expectations about films to do with maths geniuses were set by A Beautiful Mind (2001). And so, watching the trailer of the Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi was a shock to the system I last encountered in my 10th standard trigonometry class. That memorably alienating feeling triggered by numbers speaking to each other in a language that seemed at once new and extinct. In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, such confounding matters are clubbed under the category P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated to Explain). Mathematics is perhaps my life’s biggest P2C2E. And here I see the eyes of a thousand readers light up and mist over, a Milky Way of maths survivors, banded together for billions of years to come.
The pain of mensuration
It’s not like we didn’t try. Those early hopeful years of long division triumphs and mixed fraction successes. We felt good. We felt in control. But nothing prepared us for what was to come. People we considered friends sat with a knowing, even bored, look on their faces as the teacher filled the board with unintelligible squiggles. They understood. And we felt betrayed. And then we felt a little dizzy. Some days, sitting with our maths homework, thoughts zigged and zagged like pollen particles in a petri dish. When it wasn’t Brownian Motion, it was something less haphazard. Our thoughts were trapped like the electrons orbiting the nucleus of an atom. And if this analogy doesn’t work, I blame my left brain.
Adolescence is often defined as the time when changes in the body’s chemistry are reflected in one’s temperamental behaviour. We right-brainers had not just the confusion and turmoil of puberty to contend with, we had mensuration, too – a geometry-related term that provoked plenty of puerile laughter at the time. (‘Mastication’ being every word nerd’s first dalliance with classroom humour.)
As an adult nearing 40, it’s hard to explain the sense of joy I still feel over being freed of any maths-related pressure. On the other hand, some of my recurring nightmares still feature alarm clocks and algebra exams. For a fear that is this universal, we’ve done a pretty bad job of fortifying a vast segment of humanity from it. I understand how the three ₹are the basis of education, but there is no need here for me to revisit the ridiculous reasoning that refuses to review redundant ’rithmetical rigmarole. Let’s all agree that phone calculators clinch the argument simply and elegantly.
Which is not to say the numerically challenged don’t have fun with numbers. We can be endlessly fascinated with noughts and crosses, or passionately pretend to understand what our earnest poker teachers are trying to explain to us. For logic – in that cool, calculating way – is not our strongest suit, either. Lastly, it’s awful to play into that horrid female stereotype about map reading, but I personally struggle with that, too. And so, navigating duties are happily handed over to the better suited. But evolution compensates, and my tribe has developed excellent skills in the area of fiddling with car stereos.
Two trains leave the station at the same time…
It is in the realm of music appreciation that I find this inadequacy to be particularly frustrating. Hearing friends casually discuss beats in a rhythm, for example, makes me envious. The Mozart Effect suggests that listening to classical music can boost spatial-temporal reasoning. Years of listening to Bach and Beethoven have yielded no results, in my case. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling a surge of emotion when the wide-ranging Brandenburg Concertos layer a film’s music score, or Ode to Joy erupts on my playlist.
It does get a bit complicated while dividing a staggering bill with inebriated friends, or speaking stone-cold sober to the CA. I’ve often wished I could guess the answer to numerical riddles, still heady from the Mathemagic volume of the Childcraft series that every ’80s school library stacked. But alas. They say emotions always trip you up in the end, but I think numbers do. They simply stand there on the keyboard – mockingly, ominously – keeping their secrets from some while revealing them to others. This might sound a bit disturbing to the clinically sane, but to them I quote John Nash, speaking in his biopic: “There’s no point in being nuts if you can’t have some fun with it.”
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From HT Brunch, August 9, 2020
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