The Indian love affair with maths

"I can't believe you're my daughter!" and "When I was your age, I could have answered these questions in my sleep!" - these soundbites or catchphrases are some of the earliest memories I have of studying maths with my dad. Now, two things you should know: (1) he is actually absolutely lovely and my hero and all the rest of it; and (2) I wasn't exactly bad at maths but, to be fair, I was no human calculator. My dad, on the other hand, was a mathemagician. He grew up in a small village in Goa, India, where he had learnt up to his 50 times table by the age of 8 (and yes, that includes the 49 times table, the 34 times table etc.). I studied in Britain where knowing your 13 times table was really going above and beyond the call of duty (apologies if that's changed since my time).

You might be tempted to dismiss this as typical Indian rote-learning nonsense but contemplate this: if you know up to your 50 times table inside out, there really isn't much that can faze you in the way of mental arithmetic. In the gold market in Dubai, they still use super-size calculators to (pretend to) work out their "best" price. I'd marvel at how my dad would have the whole thing down to 2 decimal places even before the guy had finished typing the numbers into the calculator. When I was preparing for the GMAT, I'd try and stump him with the toughest maths and data sufficiency questions I could find but the man was unstumpable.

Now, luckily for me, I was never ranked in any of my classes. My little Etonian brother, however, had no such luck. He'd get a decent enough place in maths - top 4 - but my dad's natural response was, of course, "but why can't you come 1st?". Sounds tyrannical but you have to see where he's coming from. Maths, he'd tell us, is a subject of objectively right-and-wrong answers - if you know your stuff, why should you get less than 100%? As I haven't yet come up with a good come-back to this, I might just park it and use it on my kids one day. I mean, it's true isn't it? Even at university, an 80% in politics or philosophy would be a bloody high first class score but you'd see all these maths undergrads swanning around with averages of 95+% despite having a couple of not-so-good papers (I'm not bitter - honest).

My poor brother. Whatever he did, he'd inevitably end up facing that eternal question: "Why didn't you come 1st?" And to be fair to my parents, it was posed out of genuine curiosity rather than anger or disappointment. My brother's answer still cracks me up to this very day. "But Daddy", he'd say sheepishly, "the top 3 kids are Chinese..."