The Math Race

Saraswati Puja was celebrated last month, on February 5. I didn't even get to know about it. It was a subdued celebration because of the pandemic. Even otherwise, it has been many decades since I last attended the Saraswati Puja celebrations.

As children, however, we looked forward to the event. There were two reasons for this. The Puja was celebrated at the community level where we lived. Ma would send us to the Puja venue with our books.

"Place the books at the feet of Goddess Saraswati, and you will do well in your exams," Ma would say. I was not good at my studies; if I could pass the exams by just placing the books before Maa Saraswati, nothing like it!

The worship was held in the morning, and the organizers hosted cultural programs in the evening. Before the start of the cultural programs, prizes were distributed to the winners of sports events and games. That was the second reason why we loved to attend the celebrations. If not everybody, someone from our group always won a prize.

The sports events were held around a month ahead of the Saraswati Puja. There were various events for both children and adults like the 50-metre or 100-metre race, sack race, musical chairs, spoon and marble race, and slow cycling.

I especially remember the "math race" held once. I wish I could meet the smart alec who had thought of introducing that event! I must have been in the third or fourth grade when I participated in the math race. The participants had to line up at the start line. At the word "Go", they raced a short distance to where metal-seat chairs awaited them. No, they did not have to sit on the chairs. Placed on the seat of each chair would be a sheet of paper and a pencil. On turning over the sheet, the participants would find an arithmetic problem they had to solve. The participants had to kneel on the ground or keep standing if they wished and write down the answer using the metal-seat chair as a table. They, then, had to race back and hand over their answer sheet. The scholar who submitted the correct answer first would be the winner.

The first part of the race went smoothly. I think I was the first to reach my allotted chair. After that, I lost consciousness of everything around me. Honest! After turning over the sheet, I found a multiplication problem. I think it involved multiplying a four-digit number by another four-digit number. I got down to the task in earnest. I was so engrossed in solving it that I lost awareness of my surroundings until I felt a tap on my shoulders. It was my elder brother. He was four years older than me and was not eligible to participate in the math race; the race was for eight- to ten-year-old children. He was standing on the sidelines and watching my progress.

"Hey, go and hand over your paper. Never mind if you have not solved it. Everyone has submitted the answer sheet long ago."

I looked around for the first time and saw that the field was empty. Everyone had submitted their sheets; I was the only one who was still struggling to solve it. Of course, I didn't win a prize because I was the last one to hand over my sheet. But I am sure I must have got the answer correct or almost correct. One or two digits might have been wrong, but the rest of the digits must have matched the final answer. Even if my answer were wrong, you must appreciate my doggedness. I didn't give up, did I?

Anyway, after so many decades, I would still like to meet the smart alec who introduced the math race event in the competition!

Some useful links for
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  • Union Public Service Commission -
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  • Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad -
  • Indian Institute of Mass Commission -
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  • Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad -
  • Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi -
  • Central Institute of Fisheries Nautical and Engineering Training -
  • Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (Deemed University) -
  • Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi -
  • Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai -