Friday, January 27, 2006

Memoirs of a Last Bench Romeo-II

I came to 11th, full of anticipation, for I was now free from the shackles of History, Hindi and the like. Except for English, of course, but I didn't mind English. I mean, you can't have everything, now, can you? Nothing stood between us now. Biology was always there, but the teacher gave up after we were thrown out of three consecutive classes for fooling around with T-functions while she was telling us all about how bacteria ate and drank. Yup, while the others read Penthouse and Playboy in Bio class, we flirted with number theory. Of course, not that we didn't read porn, we saved it for the English classes. We paid attention only in one Bio class, and that, obviously, was the class on reproduction. We even asked doubts.

My obsession really peaked around the middle of that year; for like moths to a flame, all the maths freaks in our class were drawn to the last two benches. It was easily one of the best periods of my life, for it was the first time that I was truly consumed by a passion. In the best traditions of Coca-Cola, I ate, drank and slept maths. And best of all, I was surrounded by similar-minded people, guys who truly understood and more importantly, shared my passion. We really went crazy around this time. We used to trawl the Net for interesting questions and email them to one another. The challenge was to solve them as fast as possible and email the solutions before anyone else did. We never cheated on one another, it was unthinkable on our part to do so. And this wasn't during the vacations when we'd rarely meet, but every single day after class.

Although we scarcely knew it then, all was not well, for we were soon corrupted by the power which comes with the knowledge of one's own competence. I think our teacher actually felt intimidated by us, for in our arrogance, we looked down upon her. She couldn't touch us, because our credentials were impeccable. We were the principal's Golden Boys, the ones who stood her school the best chance of getting a decent result. We turned into major show-offs; we would actually time each other when given a problem in class, and announce, instead of the answer, the best time to the whole class. We rarely let her complete a problem in class, because one of us would almost invariably come up with an easier method and then browbeat her with it until she'd admit, almost apologetically, that it was the better method. Homework would be dismissed contemptuously, and we'd finish it before class ended. Ah, but we were young then, and the blood ran hot in our veins.....

And then, in 12th, the last year of school, came calculus. There was an irresistible aura, that of advanced mathematics, about the word itself. Hell, we were talking about whole new operators here. It opened a whole new world for us, an exciting world with limitless (pardon the pun) possibilities where anything could happen. Some of my friends who attended private tuitions had already glimpsed some of her delights, and they spoke, in hushed tones of awed reverence, of hitherto unimaginable feats that could be accomplished with ease in her domain.

I had an amazing time with limits, but was slightly disappointed by differential calculus. But it was with applications of differentiation that I could really get a measure of Newton's genius; it was then that I understood how powerful a tool calculus was. However, it was integral calculus that I truly loved, and always will. Integration is something that really tests the limits of your imagination; you have to reduce the given function to a known form. And you can pretty much do anything to make that happen. And the integral sign: ah, it is the most beautiful symbol in all of mathematics, as I know it, of course. No wonder Newton (supposedly) died a virgin.

Finally, Physics, that lone seductress among the other pure-as-distilled-water goddesses began to make her presence felt. She was quite literally forced on me, as I was in real danger of failing her. And the all-important entrance exams were coming up, weren't they? First it was kinematics, which I had ealier cursorily (and wrongly) dismissed as mere manipulation, and I was fuckin' good at that, now, wasn't I? I had experienced her before, but I had barely scratched the surface then. This time it was different. However, it was with dynamics that the rot really began to set in, and a new madness, less intense but somehow more complete, took hold of me. She toyed with us, tantalizing us with glimpses of the sheer rush that comes with imaginative manipulation, but never letting us, not once, really soar beyond the boundaries that she had so carefully, so lovingly marked out. Soon, I couldn't get enough of her. But this time I was wiser, and I took my time with her, exploring her intimately, before letting myself go completely. And when I did, for the first time in my life, I experienced pure, unadulterated bliss.

I'm sorry, my love. But we were on a break.

And now? Ah, now. Somewhere along the line, over the last three years, the ardor has abated and the passion quietened, no longer the all-consuming flame it once was. I don't know how, or why, but there it is. But I still feel the same way about this queen of sciences, and I suppose I always will, because I don't really see myself doing anything else. It has become part of my existence, like breathing, or fantasizing about Salma Hayek. I may no longer drop everything when given an interesting problem, but I still spend boring theory classes trying to perfect that integral sign. That is why, my dear mother, that T-shirt with the surface integral will always be my favourite, no matter how old, or how faded it becomes. Dammit, I should have bought two.

Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. "Immortality" may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.

-G.H. Hardy in "A Mathematician's Apology"