Thursday, February 21, 2013

Polymath amma

Life at IISER is clearly so busy that I haven't found time to blog in over a month! Trying to start again. The occasion this time is the 11th death anniversary of my mother, last Monday. I've blogged several times about my father (here, here, here, here and here) but only once about my mother (here). That is not for any lack of interesting things to say about her, though.

Since Monday I've been recalling how many diverse subjects she knew something about, and how little she advertised the fact. Some anecdotes come to mind that are quite revealing. My mother was a graduate in the humanities and had an education degree as well. Her specialisation was history and child psychology. So I usually enlisted her help with my history lessons, and this was always forthcoming. What she didn't know about Parthians, Corinthians, Bactrians, Mauryas and Guptas wasn't worth knowing. She was also helpful with other humanities subjects like Geography and Literature. But it never struck me that her knowledge went beyond that.

Now when I was in the 4th standard (age 9) our teacher tried to explain how to carry out multiplications where one number was expressed in hours, minutes and seconds. But this teacher was not very bright and got it all wrong. With her method she would have got ordinary multiplication wrong too (she would add the "carry-over" to the digit in the next column before, rather than after, multiplying that digit - if you don't follow, just trust me that it doesn't work). I complained about it to my mother, who immediately understood and solved the problem diplomatically. She contacted another teacher in our school with a request to gently explain the fine points of multiplication to my teacher. This worked very well. Of course the problem in question was rather simple and it didn't occur to me that my mother had any great mathematical ability.

But this changed four years later. For various reasons I had switched schools abruptly and missed half a term in the process. During this term we were supposed to learn "long division" where you divide, say, an 11-digit number by a 5-digit number. I had missed the classes in which the method was explained, and one night I got panicky when attempting  a homework problem since I had no clue how to approach it. This time, unusually, my mother suggested I go to bed and think about it the next day. When I awoke, I found her sitting in the living room with sheets of paper covered with scribbles in front of her. She had actually figured out how to do long-division on her own in the early morning and was now ready to teach it to me. When I looked surprised she said something like: "didn't you know I once came first in my class in mathematics and got a special prize?". She was usually modest about her abilities but enjoyed a little victory once in a while.

The other incident that comes to mind started with a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on our door. They wanted to convince us that the end of the world was near or some such thing. Instead of turning them away (my father would have done that and flung something at them too!) she called them in and offered them tea. I was doing something else but an hour later when I peeked into the living room they were still there, and my mother was patiently telling them something. Presently they left, looking rather disappointed, and my mother revealed that she had challenged their understanding of the Bible. Beyond teaching at a college attached to the Convent of Jesus and Mary, I had no idea my mother knew or cared anything about the Bible. Again I looked surprised and again she gave me a "didn't you know" response. It turned out she had studied Scripture as an optional subject in college and was mighty confident about her detailed knowledge of Christianity.

Years later, she became the first Principal of her college who was not a nun, and not even a Catholic.


QEDPhysicist said...

Absolutely wonderful!

Neelima said...

She also made tremendous chocolate mousse, took enormous trouble over her children's friends, and looked like Romila Thapar.

Some of us will always think of food first!

Anant said...

I left a comment yesterday but was not sure you got it.

Wanted to say that perhaps the resemblance to Romila Thapar probably explains the knowledge or history.

Also, it is good to see personal anecdotes in the blog of normally impersonal particle physicists and string theorists.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Anant: I don't know any "normally impersonal" particle physicists/string theorists, the ones I know would be better described as "abnormally personal". ;-)

Prahlad Epili said...

its a pleasure to read ad re-read this blog and stopping by at each thing that got me very interested is the "the modest did not you know attitude".

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Belatedly commenting: very nice post. (I visited your blog after a while yesterday, but somehow got mixed up between this post and your previous post about your mother!)

It strikes me that the historical lack of access of women to "thinking" jobs is a huge waste, and the one thing we can do to boost our universities and other learning institutions is to make it as easy as possible for women with families to work there. Of course, I'm not the first to say this.