As it turned out, however, she was another Neena Gupta, whose passion seemed to extend only to commutative algebra. And although I was saddened to lose a great quiz, I was glad to know that she had graduated in Mathematics from Bethune College, Kolkata, the oldest women’s college in India, before moving on to the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.
Because I have a guilty secret. Long before sports and television, I had an undergraduate degree in mathematics. It was a carefully considered choice, my grades weren’t good enough to get into physics, and chemistry and geology involved a lot of hands-on lessons. I may not have learned much in my 11-12 class, but I understood that theory lessons could be blocked with impunity, while practical lessons had to be taken to get a passing grade.
That, and the fact that the first math list had five more daughters than chemistry, and way more than geology, were the data points on which I made this life-changing decision.
It turned out that I chose well. While math classes were as tough as any, math seemed to attract more eccentrics than any other class. There was Vinay Rao who played the violin and wanted to derive every theorem from first principles in the examination room. Siddhartha, who should have represented the country in football but was studying math instead. Niranjan who loved Mohammed Rafi and kuchipudi in equal measure. Roger, who played bass like a dream, when he wasn’t spending his days at the Regional Computing Center. And somehow they all got along like a house on fire, reluctantly accepting that it was their collective responsibility to make sure I learned what I needed to erase my paper crashing into the hostel three days before the semester exams. It was my first experience with what Americans called “social security”.
Of all those we met, there was only one course that I was really interested in – set theory and topology – and the professor, HS, had an interesting story. Radical communist in the 1970s at the same university, he was forced to flee to the United States and was stranded at the University of Rochester. He was considered one of the brightest and best before things stabilized in India in the early 1980s. He couldn’t stand another winter in New York and returned straight to teaching in his alma mater. HS immediately piqued our interest by letting it be known that if we really wanted to understand the sets and topology the best way was to spend some time in the local burning ghat after soaking up a fair amount of psychedelics. And although we tried it once or twice – and I’m not sure it worked – it had done enough to make sure that at least some of us were trying to figure out a subject that we didn’t. we would never be concerned otherwise.
To come back to Neena Gupta. His favorite subject seems to be commutative algebra and commutative rings. The only explanation I can offer is that the property of commutativity is something that we all deal with on a daily basis. A commutative action is an action in which the order of the elements in an operation does not matter. So, addition and multiplication are commutative because 2 + 5 and 5 + 2 give you the same result, but subtraction is not commutative because 2 -5 and 5-2 give you different results.
That’s about as much math as I could cram into my consciousness between the canteen, table tennis, basketball and quizzes. I hope you understand. And well done Neena!