It is a small gesture. But for the shy 10 year-old still new to the class — he’s joined the school just months before — it means a lot. They had had a math test a few days before. That afternoon, the teacher, a tall Tamil lady with a ready smile and a large red “pottu” on her forehead, brings in the corrected papers.
“Who do you think,” she asks, “got the highest marks?”
Several guesses from the kids. Was it Ajay, admired already for his aptitude for science and math, later a pathbreaking biologist who never loses a wide-eyed joy-filled curiosity about the world? No. Perhaps Dhanashree, the diligent bright spark, later a renowned Hindustani classical singer also known for a fascinating TEDx talk? No. Was it Raj, good at everything he touches, and goes on to become the first non-American President of the Harvard Law Review, a couple of years before Barack Obama held the same post? Not him. Could it be Dipti, envied for both her athleticism and her grades long before she turns into a respected art educator at work on a book on women artists? Nope. Perhaps it’s sharp and funny Rahul, still to show any sign of becoming the eclectic chef and successful restaurateur? No again.
A few more guesses, a few more “No”s, the teacher’s smile widening steadily. Through it all, the shy 10-year-old sits in his last row near the door, silent. No guesses from him, but not just because he still feels new. No, he knew he had done well in the test, and he owed that to her, and somehow he knows as soon as she asks her question: she means him.
Yes, she does. She interrupts the guesswork and announces his name. She calls him to the blackboard. She hands him his paper. “He got 96/100,” she tells the startled class. The other kids applaud. Years later, he remembers that moment as the one he started feeling like he belonged in this group of kids.
He stands there looking at them, shy but proud. Grateful for this little recognition from her and them, but grateful already, and forever after that, for making numbers fascinating. This is her lifelong gift to him.
Vasanta Subramanian died a few years ago. She must have legions of students who remember her with respect and affection. I know one of them well: on that day with the math papers and the guesses, the shy kid in the last row was me.
So when I read her obituary one morning, I cannot help my sudden tears. Of course I was sad. But I still have her gift.
The fascination with numbers was underlined three years later by a teacher I suspect my friends never found quite as inspiring as I did. Gorakh Ranade taught us mathematics in the 9th and 10th. In one of his earliest classes, he played a number game with us on the blackboard, the winner the person who reached 100. Of course he kept winning — hint of a smile on his poker face — but he kept urging us to think of what he was doing and deduce why he was winning. Eventually, it struck us. The lesson stayed, far more surely than if he had simply told us. I play that game sometimes now, with my kids and friends, and I invariably think of Mr Ranade and that little smile.
Meaning no disrespect at all, Mr Ranade might have personified the word “nondescript”. He spoke in a monotone, he rarely made us laugh, he wore the drabbest clothes. But it was that very blandness — only an apparent blandness, I later realized — that I found impressive. It was simple: Mr Ranade knew his stuff down pat. And more importantly, he taught it with a no-nonsense air that was somehow intensely appealing. Cut to the core, leave out the frills and frippery, get things done: that was Mr Ranade’s message.
Mathematics via a certain yearning for the straightforward, a certain impatience with excessive verbosity and showiness: all via this man with his grey pants and white shirt that was never tucked in. I remember.
In my fourth year at engineering college in Rajasthan, I found myself in a constant struggle with electronics courses I had zero interest in. (Confession: I have a degree in the subject, but I never managed better than a “C” in even one of those courses). Feeling desperate, and with plenty of memories of Mrs Subramanian and Mr Ranade, I signed up for a mathematics elective.
I remembered well the verve and passion that Prof V Krishnamurthy — “VK” to all — put into teaching us basic algebra in our first year. So it was his fourth-year course, “Permutations and Combinations”, that I chose.
That semester, VK took us on a tour through plenty of esoteric ideas. He always did it with that same verve and passion. While I was constantly fascinated, I still found the course a constant struggle — but a struggle, to my amazement, that I relished. I ended with a “B”, but the hardest-earned “B” of my college years, a grade I remain inordinately proud of. Besides, I somehow also managed to earn VK’s respect and friendship. Applying to a well-known university soon after, I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation. Whatever he wrote was crucial in getting me admission, because my other grades were — as already confessed above — pathetic.
The reward is in the struggle to understand. That’s really what VK gave me.