The other day, my sister in law made an observation that disturbed me, though I hadn’t realized it at the time. She said, ‘Do you think different parts of the brains control different skills? Have you noticed how people who are good at languages fare very poorly in Math and vice versa?’ I had at the time, agreed that that was a general observation. Somehow, even as I agreed, it had left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt that I had betrayed myself by agreeing that I am a mathematical ignoramus because I am a language freak! Talk about the internet making the world a small place! I later came across a blogger, Amardeep Singh@ sepiamutiny.com , who has written about a ‘desi crossword puzzle afioconado’ named Kiran Kedlaya who came in second at the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Kedlaya is an MIT mathematics professor who specializes in polynomial equations. According to the interview on Cogito.org, he started competitive crossword solving in graduate school, and says the skill works the same part of the brain math does: Is there a connection between math and crosswords? Dr. Kedlaya thinks that math, music and computer science – popular professions among “solvers” – tap into a similar part of the brain. Wordplay, says Dr. Kedlaya, suggests that the link is using language in unique way. In a crossword, figuring out the word from the clue is not sufficient; decoding how the letters cross is vital, too. Ahhh! Victory, I gloat! In the film Wordplay , it’s pointed out that a disproportionate number of the top crossword puzzle-solvers are people with computer science and mathematics backgrounds. I want to mention this to my SIL. I hope she will eat her words…at least regurgitate and ruminate on those wild accusation she had made on the capabilities of my greycells! See, it requires the same section of the brain to do a crossword puzzle as well as solve a polynomial equation . So if a + b = b + a, if I am good at solving crossword puzzles, I should be good at maths too, right? Now I know why I enjoy doing the daily Sudokus after I finish the Easy and Cryptic puzzles in the newspaper, every morning. Since I am good at Crosswords, I am good at numbers! Simple Maths, my dear Watson! I want to scream from rooftops, if not to the whole world, at least to convince myself. My mathophobia can be traced back to the childhood years when I was subjected to sheer mental torture through the math sums set by my grandfather during the holidays: The one that used to give me nightmares for decades was worded like this: “ Kaale arakkaal kaasukku naale arakkaal vazhakkaynna, oru kaashukku ethra vazhakkay?” ( Sorry, the effect of the question will be lost in translation…. In other words, words fail me when I try to explain the question in a language used by laymen!) Now, if as a teacher, I pose such a question at my students, I shall definitely be reported to the ministry of education. If I asked my kids such a question, they will no doubt sue me later for mental abuse. I was expected to work out this fraction sum and arrive at the right answer ( which happens to be 11, though I don't know how!) or forgo the evening snacks! Years later I sympathised with Swaminathan, whom R.K. Narayanan put through a similar predicament about the price of mangoes. My aversion to anything mathematical increased in geometric progression till I abandoned Math for English after two torturous years of Integral and differential Calculus…( Oh! I love Calculus now…and Captain Haddock…and Snowy... and Tintin!) ‘My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense…’ I mumbled as I ran for cover into the world of words and there I found my niche and settled down to live happily and unmathematically ever after… till my twin sons started going to school. I couldn’t let my phobia of Math get into them. My mathematical prowess was a skeleton in my personal cupboard and I shut that Boggart inside and threw the key away. For the next 12 years I put on a fine act (deserving nothing less than an Oscar for my performance) while I supervised my sons’ studies and made them revise Math so that they score centum in their tests and exams. I had to use all my wits when it came to stuff like problems in Base 2 and Base 5 ( to tell the truth, even now, I don’t know what the heck they are…. Luckily my sons are engineers now and I can confess my ignorance without maiming their love for Math.) I would make both the boys sit far away from each other and later tally both their work to see if they had done the same thing! It used to work, most of the time! Now does that make me a whiz at Probabilities? No chance! I discovered my talent for mental math after I took up teaching! Maybe there is some truth in the adage, ‘Practice makes Perfect’. Totalling all those students’ test papers honed my addition skills… soon I started calculating percentages (To enter the column called Attendance in the report card, for each term!) Slowly fragments of what I had listened to in my math classes started making sense… ( Am I what they call a slow learner?) Today I have progressed to a stage when I can openly talk about my boggarts. I keep telling myself that I am not a total numerical moron, each time I finish a Sudoku or when I tally the scores during the family sessions of Rummy. That I can’t manage finances is another bloggable matter altogether! Like my father used to quip, ‘at the end of the money there’s always some month left!’ Of course, I barely glance at the Kakuro puzzles everyday…Trying to solve them is like ‘adding to my problems’- pun intended! In the meantime I revel in my verbosity and thank Amardeep Singh and Kiran Kedlaya for the glimmer of light that beckons me from the far end of this particular tunnel!