“Ramu needs five shirts.
He has got two. How many more will
he need?”

With drooping eyes, the answer comes “Three”

“Very good, how did you do it?”

“I added two and three”

“That’s fine, but that is not the question. What are you supposed to do?”

“Add”

“Add what?”

“Add two and three”

“Look, three is not mentioned anywhere in the question. Read the question and tell me what you should
do to get the answer”

A long silence. Then
comes the answer with trepidation, “addition”.
His eyelids are almost closed now.

Patience wears down. “Okay,
I will put it in a different way. Ramu
HAS five shirts. He gives away two. How many will he have now?”

Pat comes the answer, “three!”.

“How did you do it?”

“Subtract”.

“Subtract what?”

“Two from five”

“Good, now go back the original question. It is the same question, asked in a different
way. Tell me what you should do”.

“Add”

“How?!”

“only by adding three to two you get five”

“but that is not what is asked – look at the question. How many
more will he need. Where did you get
three in the question?”

No answer. The next
15 minutes go in explaining the question.
“Have you understood it now”

A good, circular shake of the head to tell he has. “Ok, tell
me me what you should do”

“Subtract”.

“Why?”

“Just now you told!”

Imagine the frustration my wife gets in getting the boy to
understand simple sums like this. “ok,
it’s over for today, come tomorrow”.

The next day.

“The class starts 9.15 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m. for lunch
break. What is the duration of the
class? Tell me how you will do this.”

A long pause. Half-closed eyes again. “Mul..
tip.. lica….” come out the words slowly and hesitantly out of his mouth,
his gaze shifting between the book, the sofa and the dog.

“What?” screams my wife. “where does multiplication come
here? Look at the question and answer me
Akaash!” she utters in a slightly louder voice.

Immediately he answers “addition”, a little more confidently
now. “What did you add?” asks my
wife. He ponders over the question for
some time and says, “no, sub…trac…tion”.
“Come on, Akaash, first you said multiplication, then addition, now
subtraction. Do you understand the
question?” He replies in the affirmative and explains what is being asked. His understanding is perfect.

“Then, what should you do now?” asks my wife again. “Subtract”, he answers correctly, somehow sensing
that is the right answer.

“Ok, what will you subtract from what, what have I told you?”

“Subtract the small number from the big number”

“Good, do it correctly now.”

Akaash is a nice boy, cheerful, talkative and loving, especially of
pets. It was at my wife’s request, to beat the boredom of having nothing to do
in the evenings after her return from work, that he was sent in for getting tuition
in math. We learned that he needed
tuition more in English first than math, and slowly my wife changed her style
to teach the meaning of the question first, and then the approach to the
problem.

Another day, it is a different sum now. “Gopal buys 12 apples at Rs.6 each and six
oranges at Rs.3.50 each. He gave Rs.100
to the shopkeeper. How much will the
shopkeeper return?”

“Akash, tell me what you should do”. After the usual round of multiplication,
addition and subtraction, he finally settles to do it the right way, but in his
practice of meddling with his pen and playing with the dog in between attending
to the problem, makes mistakes in transferring the totals and gets to face my
wife’s anger again.

I chip in to add some help now and then, but I tend give him
some distraction too, by straying from the subject.

“Akaash, if you don’t concentrate, I am going to beat you!”
yells my wife.

He coolly responds, “you can’t! Periasamy will curse you!”

We all get confused. “Who
is Periasamy?” we ask in a chorus.

He tells it is his other name, after the powerful deity in his native
village who would severely punish wrongdoers. And continues to open up and
narrate in a flurry incidents that happened in his village, his eyes suddenly
opening and shining bright, all traces of ennui completely gone! He loves to
talk and talk and talk, and he has so much to share – about what happened in
his class, what he did in his village, how his grandparents take care of him,
everything.

After a month of struggling to get him to understand the
math questions, and getting him to sit and study with some concentration for at
least an hour a day, the fruit of the labor was slowly visible when he started
showing some progress in his understanding.

And then came the quarterly examinations. After the math examination, he promptly came
home and presented the question paper for my wife’s perusal. My wife was happy to see the apple and oranges
question, and asked him if he did it right, hoping it would have straightaway
fetched him 8 marks. To her dismay, “no”,
he said, “I did not do this, but opted another question out of choice!” There was no way of knowing whether he did
the other sum right. She made a
guesstimate of 42 out 60 as to how he would fare in the examination.

Boredom returned, as he shot away to his native place the
moment his examinations were over. More
than him, my wife was eagerly expecting the reopening of his school, so she
could learn how much he had scored in the math exam. His father was full of smiles the day the
answer papers were shared – he had scored 40 out of 60, something they never
expected him to score! And gave us a
huge, fresh drumstick that had grown in their garden, as compliment for my wife’s
efforts.

Akaash was back at home yesterday evening. The new syllabus completely does away with
what you learned the last quarter, and his text book contained new chapters
now. I was teasing him, “but Periasamy
should know everything, even portions of the last syllabus!” I certainly did not expect his quick-witted
response.

“No, this is Periasamy-2!”