19 July 2014

Because my days are numbered…

Years ago, at a preliminary round of a junior best-speaker contest, Suresh De Mel spoke of his ambition. He wanted to be an accountant.  The reason was ‘fascination with numbers’.  He went on to enter university after studying in the Mathematics stream and later re-invented himself as an economist. He was and I believe still is teaching in the Economics Department at Peradeniya.

Numbers are fascinating things.  I have written this before; i.e. how my friend Ravi Arulnandy, when invited to watch a sunset from the Sports School of the Ministry at Independence Square, watched for a few seconds and muttered ‘I see beauty in other things.’ When asked to elaborate, he said ‘numbers’.  I suppose in any society there are number-fascinated individuals. They become mathematicians, accountants, engineers, economists, statisticians and others whose lives are made of numbers and equations. 

I like numbers. Always did.  I liked numbers so much that I believed at the age of 15 that I could not like anything more. So I opted to enter the maths-stream for my A/Ls.  It took me a year to realize that I liked other things more.  My mother, in her greater wisdom, told me to do the exam once and then switch to arts.  I passed, barely, but well enough to qualify for admission to read for a degree in the physical sciences, but fortunately or unfortunately had already decided to sit for the A/Ls the next year in arts.  So I entered the Arts Faculty, Peradeniya.  The interest in Mathematics did not subside, for I selected Pure Mathematics as a ‘Main Subject’ for the General Arts Qualifying Exam. It was a lonely time since I was the only student and unlike parallel students in Science Faculty (who had to sit the same paper) did not have access to the bright-sparks who would complete the tutorials and then tutor their fellow-students. 

I still like numbers.  Last night I wondered what the source of this interest was.  Several hours later, I don’t have a clear answer.  The exercise, however, yielded some unforgettable teachers. 

Being a second child helped, I think.  No one asked me to learn the multiplication tables.  No one asked much about anything, come to think of it.  I am not sure if that was good or bad.  I learnt the multiplication tables and began to see patterns. I picked up a lot of short cuts, not because I wanted to but because I was lazy and preferred play to study.  I just wanted to get books and school out of the way as quickly as possible. Everyday.  I went to school because ‘school’ meant ‘interval’. 

I still remember, though, how I learnt the multiplication tables.  I walked to the particular set of numbers.  If it was the 7-times table that I was working on, I would take one step and think ‘seven’ and would not keep the next unless I got ‘14’ right.  It was like that going up staircases and coming down, even if I was in a rush.  ‘Rush’ forced me to think quickly.  It must have been some variant of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  In later years I would try to calculate the digital root of number places, especially before we got ‘English Numbers’ and other such games. I’ve led a pretty boring life, I know.

Mrs. Rajapaksa and Mrs. Chandraratne (Grade 1 and 2 respectively) must have taught me to write numbers.  I owe them. Mrs. C. Liyanagama was a meticulously neat teacher. Grade 3. She made numbers look like beautiful pictures. I owe her.  Mrs. Palihawadana (Grade 4) was interested in speed. I owe her. Mrs. Tillakaratne (Grade 5) was obsessed with her class producing the best results at the Scholarship Exam. She succeeded. I owe her.  Mr. George Liyanage was strict. Too strict.  Terrified me. I floundered. Lost all interest in Mathematics.  I owe him too for I learnt how not to teach.  Mr. Cooray (Grade 7) had no chance, for by that time I had given up on Mathematics as well as education.  I got 17 in the mid-year test.  Mrs. Sita Weerasooriya who had marked the year-end papers of that class for some reason, and knowing I was the son of a fellow-teacher, checked my score. She was horrified to find I had scored ‘only’ 42. I remember grinning and telling her ‘Madam, that’s very good, I got just 17 in the mid-year test’. 

Mr. Upali Munasinghe changed it all.  He taught as though he was teaching a Grade 1 student.  Two years plus extra lessons at home (he used to stay with us on cricket-practice days; he was master-in-charge, Under 13 cricket) revived an interest and turned it into a fascination.  Mr. Nelson Fernando (Grade 10) had his own methods and was a very effective teacher. He ironed out the crumpled corners of the mind.  As did Mr. Appuhamy, a teacher at St. Anne’s, Kurunegala, who taught my brother and I when we spent our school vacations at our grandparents’ house in Malkaduwawa.  I am indebted beyond words to all three.

Mr. Dayaratne (Pure and Applied Maths) turned a sagging interest in the A/L exam into a more committed exercise that produced a ‘C’ out of a sure ‘F’.  Mrs. Munasinghe (tuition teacher) turned that ‘C’ into a ‘B’ the following year (I took Pure Mathematics along with 3 Arts subjects).  I owe them both for helping me enter university. My last formal mathematics teacher was Mr. Kasturiarachchi, who had just graduated from the Peradeniya Science Faculty and taught me GAQ Mathematics.  I tortured him because classes were at 1.30 every day of the week and he had to come all the way to Polgolla from Peradeniya and invariably teach a drowsy student whose fascination with numbers was considerably deadened by fascination with other things.  I owe him.

And now, totally out of ‘mathematics’, I am taught by my two little girls, 10 and 7 years of age. They teach me how to help them. I owe them too. 

My days are now numbered, I know this. I need to say my thank-yous  before it is too late.  And in these words of gratitude for making numbers please me in so many ways, I am tormented by one lack: the inability to quantify my thanks.  My older daughter asked me what ‘infinity’ is. I went into the etymology of the word. She was fascinated.  Some things are unquantifiable. That’s my last ‘mathematics’ lesson and everyone mentioned above contributed to this ‘learning’.  Mr. Munasinghe is no more.  So too Mr. Appuhamy. I’ve lost the addresses of all the others mentioned.  Makes me sad. 


First published in February 2011 in the 'Daily News'