A Priest of Mathematics

A Priest of Mathematics

The year was 1971. I had just switched from a boys only Hans Raj College to a co-ed Kirori Mal College to complete the final year of my under graduate degree in Mathematics.

I knew but did not really understand the significance that like many more of my class fellows, I represent a new hope, a turning point and a new life. A new life for non-Muslim refugees, who suffered in the partition of Pakistan,

had to leave their home in West Punjab and move to an alien land of Delhi. My parents, like more than half of Delhi population of the time, had to uproot themselves from their native Punjabi speaking land (Punjabis) and move to and live among Hindi speakers (Hindustanis). I was oblivious to the fact that born six or so years after this ordeal, I represented my parents hope of finally growing new roots in an India free from religious bigotry. They had accepted their new fate, had stopped calling their neighbors Hindustanis and had themselves become proud Hindustanis. I was unaware of being a Punjabi.

The only knowledge I had of my parent’s horrendous past was some stories I heard from my grand mother. How she had to run for her life as a muslim mob had started gathering outside their mohalla. She had to leave the baking roti on the tawa, gather her children and run for her life to escape the Jihadists. Had her family dai (a mid-wife who had delivered all her nine children and breast fed some of them) not warned her a night before, she would have perished either by stabbing or burning in her house. Her boys would have been killed and her daughters would have been sold as sex slaves. My grand mother would often thank that muslim dai, Jijo bai, who had heard her son and his friends planning their attack and had sneaked in the darkness of night to forewarn us.

The other inkling of my family’s past was exhibited when my father and his brothers would gather in their warrandah in a Rajinder Nagar quarter. Breaking peanut shells while sun bathing a low winter sun on a cold Delhi morning, they would reminisce about their separated home land with the same intense longing that Kabuli wala stories of “O mere payare vatan” invoke in us all.

As a young impressionable child, I tried to make sense of it all. The world consisted of us versus them. For me, us were all the people of Delhi and India and them were those fanatic Muslims. I was unaware at that time that Delhi consists of refugees, native delhi city wallas, haryanavis, UP’ites, madrasis, villagers and various other communities. To me, Narinder, Narendra and Narendran were all Delhi wallas and I was also one of them.
First shock to my view of Delhi and my place in it came in Kirori Mal College. While in Hans Raj College, I was inspired by our college Principal and Maths author, Shanti Swaroop. His speeches in the class on how to master mathematics by thinking about it all the time, have lived with me for the rest of my life. My wonder and amazement to the power of abstract thinking was further fuelled by our Analysis teacher P K Jain. Even though I could have deciphered at that time that Shanti Swaroop is a Haryanvi and P K Jain is a UP’ite and I am a Punjabi, I never saw my Delhi that way. To me, they were both my teachers and heroes and I belonged to same mother India as them.

In Kirori Mal College, I was inspired by Asha Gupta (Mittal) who did not teach me but encouraged me toparticipate in college debates. In 1971, India was boiling in anger over the atrocities being committed by West Pakistani army over the Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan. Indian has decided to send its armies to liberate East Pakistan and help with the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh. Asha, had organized a debate in the college on whether India should send its military to liberate Bangladesh. Asha asked me if I would like to participate in the debate and speak in opposition. I agreed not realizing the
trouble I was going to get in. I agreed because I looked up to Asha as she was only a few years older than us.

College hall was full. Passions in favour of military intervention to liberate Bangladesh were running high. A speaker after speaker was raising their voices in support and the crowd was giving them standing ovation. The crowds were enjoying themselves until my name was announced as I was to speak against. There was a silence of disbelief in the crowd that someone could speak against the topic. As I approached the microphone, the silence turned into an uproar of hooting and shouting. Sweat broke on my forehead during my first debate, first attempt at public speaking and the crowd was yelling for my blood. What were perhaps a minute or so of public disapproval of my presence at the podium.

The crowd did not calm down even after the intervention of a teacher. I looked at Asha sitting in the first row. She indicated me to speak. I gathered the last ounce of strength in me and yelled at the top of my voice, “Has anyone of you been to a battlefield. Have you ever seen the barrel of Yahya Khan’s guns”. The crowd became less vocal and a little attentive. The crowd was hoping against hope that I may speak in favour after all. The interruption of crowd passion was a golden opportunity for me. I started dishing
out my prepared speech at hundred words a second. The murmurs in the crowd started growing again and I could sense that if I do not finish my speech, now, missiles may be thrown at me. I finished my speech as abruptly as I had started.

Off course, I did not get the first prize or the second prize or the third prize in the debate. Having returned back from the podium in one piece was a prize in itself. After all three prizes were announced, Asha came to the stage and announced a special prize for me. I did not understand the strength of my performance at that time and mentally dismissed the prize thinking that Asha has favoured her student, me. Many decades later, I can now appreciate that the prize was awarded to me because I deserved it and not because Asha had somehow favored me. To this day, that encouragement by her urging me to speak on, is the greatest education she has imparted to me. As I speak in front of large crowds some times and make them attentive to my speech, I am reminded of the that nod by Asha. Another great teacher I had that time was Mr Gupta. I remember making fun of him in the class once
when he suggested that the class does not have to go anywhere but can have its class picnic in the college lawns. It took me another forty years to realize that happiness does not depend on where you are but on your state of mind.

There was one teacher whom I did not like in the first go and it had to do with his name. His name was Qazi Zameerudin. He was teaching us mechanics, one of the most difficult subject in applied mathematics. I borrowed Synge and Griffith book from the library and started doing self study so that I do not have to learn from that teacher and yet be able to pass my examinations. When it was his class, I would leave the class room before he enters, except one day, when he entered the class before I could leave. A slightly balding man in his late forties, he had a serene demeanor and a peaceful disposition. The class room had only one door and I decided not to insult him by leaving the class, now that he had already started teaching. I was quite impressed by his simple style of teaching. He knew his subject and was able to teach the most difficult concepts with ease.

I was impressed by him until he looked at me. “I am seeing you for the first time in the class.” He asked. “You will not understand anything today, you might as well leave.”. I said, “I have studied what you have taught in previous classes, I am understanding what you are teaching.”. “OK, come on the board and prove this theorem”, he challenged me, thinking he will demolish my hollow claims. Of course, I had studied and mastered the subject, so I went on to the black board and wrote down a lengthy proof of the theorem. He was impressed by me and I was impressed by his gentleness. We developed a mutual respect for each other and I started attending his classes on a regular basis.

In our final class of the course, Qazi told us to solve all problems in the first fourteen chapters as the exam paper would be set out of them. Then we had a college break, a time to prepare for our exams. I sincerely followed Qazi’s instructions and set about solving all the problems. Some of them were extremely difficult, I was able to do most of them and made a list of those I needed help with. I spoke to other students in the class to see if someone can help me but found that most students needed my help only. Reluctantly, I decided to approach Qazi to seek help with the tough problems.

It was a hot summer day when I approached Qazi in the staff room and sought his help. He was surprised to learn that I had solved so many of the problems by myself and sat with me in solving the remaining difficult problems. We started at 10am in the morning and were both so engrossed in study that the clock struck 4pm and the staff room was emptying. Qazi looked at the watch and told me, don’t worry about the remaining problems, they won’t be a part of the exam. I have set the question paper. But I must solve all of them, I insisted, even if they will not be in exam, they are in my syllabus. Qazi gave me a bemused look and told me that he has a Roza (fasting) today and is very tired and thirsty. He can’t break his fast and must go home for prayers. I looked at him in awe and admiration. All built in prejudice that I had against Muslims, came crashing down on me. For the first time, I saw a human being so noble that his religious belief did not matter to me anymore. Come to my home tomorrow, we will solve the remaining problems then, he said to me with a sense of exhaustion.

I was on my way to Chandni chowk and Balli Maran next day. I have been to narrow lanes (gullies) of chandni chowk and kinari bazaar before. The lanes are narrow sometimes up to a meter wide with a crowd of hawkers and people trying to push their way through. Gali Ahate Wali as I approached it was different. There were no shops, only residences in long narrow winding streets with charpai, goats, running chickens and drying spices mixed in with small corner shops. Most houses were small and narrow like the lanes. Most houses had a door that gave you a full view of inside of the house. The lanes were winding and once inside the labyrinth, I had soon lost my orientation.

My wonder at this never before seen part of my city was rudely interrupted by two hefty and unfriendly men stopping in my path and demanding to explain my presence in the street. Scared, I told them I want to go to Gali Ahate Wali. What business do you have in the Gali, demanded the bigger of the two goons. I have to come meet Professor Qazi, he had asked me to come to his home today. “Master ji se milna hae (Oh, you want to meet Master ji)” said the other man in a less threatening tone. The goons turned into respectful hosts and escorted me through more narrow lanes and showed me a narrow, tow to three story tall old home.

Qazi was very pleased to see me. He offered me a seat in a room where two chairs that we sat on were the only furniture. We talked about so many things on that day as a student and a teacher and also as two grown up adults. A cup of tea came for me. Qazi offered me to have tea. I was in a real dilemma. Being from a pure vegetarian family, I had practiced not eating any food from a house or a restaurant that also cooked non-vegetarian food. I held the tea cup in saucer in my shaking hand trying to figure a decent way out. “Piyo!” (Drink) commanded Qazi. I made a quick decision of not to offend this man, I have so much respect for and started sipping the tea. In two days, my prejudice was shattered and I had
learnt to judge people by their human traits and not by their creed alone.

After exam results were declared and I scored maximum marks, I visited Gali Ahate wali with a box of RasGullas to thank a wonderful human being who had helped me shed my bigotry. I also visited Asha with another box of RasGullas at her home in Laxmi Bai nagar. As I progressed in my career, I kept in touch with Qazi through letters exchanged once every two years. That stopped in 1984. In year 2008, as I passed through the college to cross from Kamla Nagar to Maurice nagar, I saw a notice on the college wall about a Qazi Zameerudin Memorial lecture organized by Asha. I was saddened at my inability to keep in touch with Qazi and for never met him in person again after that cup of tea.