My sojourn with mathematics

Journey with Surajit Borkotokey through time and space to his Indian childhood spiced with passionate and terrorizing teachers and the memorable peer-group discussions from his Delhi University days.

I describe my experience as a student of math- ematics in my early childhood, recount how and why I still remember a few influential teachers in those days of my primary education, and fi- nally, recall how I learned my lessons of life, career, and beyond through peer-group interac- tions at university. Through this short memoir, I draw a picture of my childhood education in India. My mathematical sojourn started at an un- usual stage of my life. When I was in the eighth grade, the last year before high school, sudden- ly, the Pandora’s Box of mathematical surprises opened in front of me. It was if I was walking on a dark trail, and with every leap I made, a firefly popped up to light up the next leap!

During my childhood I was never comforta- ble with arithmetic and geometry. I was prone to making silly mistakes in arithmetic, the mul- tiplication table was never an ally, and when it came to large numbers to multiply, I stumbled. In geometry, I was taught to memorize the axioms of Euclid, the theorems of the circle, triangle, and other geometrical objects, without any valid

reason why I should do that! I wanted to break the learning rules. My idea of a wise man during those days was of one who could do all types of mental maths without memorizing any table. I wanted to be a wise man, and therefore, never liked to memorize any mathematical jargon! By the time my classmates had developed a strong mathematical base, my conviction of becoming a wise man established me as the dumbest student in my class. But then I discovered the algebraic expressions. The binomial theorem, the symbol- ic operations, the linear equations in unknowns opened a new world for me. I fell in love with the unknowns x, y, z, their additions, multiplications, modeling equations from real-life problems, and solving them. These were the real heroes in my life. Geometry was still there to haunt me. But arithmetic started disappearing from my life. After graduation, I realized what mistake I had made during those early parts of my life when I did not take the two very important branches of mathematics seriously enough. This is why I still don’t feel comfortable with number theory and algebraic geometry. 

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Was I influenced by people shaping my career? Yes! There were two teachers in my primary school days whose contributions I still remember. The one teacher was like a mother. She took me to school every day, holding my hand. She was passionate about her profession, and everybody loved her. The other teacher, by contrast, was the most insensitive teacher I have ever encountered. Most people, including our parents, believed that learning took place through the stick. We were beaten by our teachers for no or little reason. Growing up in India, we were made to believe that this was the norm. We were frightened.

This teacher once punished all of us for not being able to do a multiplication sum with three rows! Perhaps this could be the reason for my dislike of numbers and arithmetic. Fortunately, my experience with other teachers was always very warm and healthy. I believe that learning mathematics needs a teacher: a Guru! I have been fortunate enough to have Gurus in every phase of my mathematical sojourn. My career as

a mathematics professor started after I graduated from the University of Delhi, one of India’s best universities. Today what I cherish the most from my university days are my peer learning exercises. The never-ending gossip from morning till evening on the university lawns with my friends featured all sorts of discussions – from world politics to Indian free-market economics to the hardest theory of Galois extension.

Those discussions helped build a strong persona in me, and make me believe in myself, through which I could build my career in mathematics. The journey still goes on! My research areas include game theory and aggregation. They make an organic connection with two apparently distinct disciplines, namely the social sciences and information science. Whenever I meet young people asking me for tips to master mathematics, the only advice I give them is that they should never want to be wise by not following the learning rules.

Dr Surajit Borkotokey,

Professor of Mathematics, Dibrugarh University, India

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