Monday, February 13, 2012

Life Algebras

The reason for this post is another post by a friend.

Till you learn algebra, you are always in a world of constants.  Then you get introduced to "variables" , which are things that take on different values.

Life is a kind of algebra too.  Some things in life are constant, some take on various values throughout their tenure,  you build equations, look for solutions, add acquaintances, subtract bad experiences, multiply resources, and divide stuff with your near and dear ones. Sometimes you are calculating, and sometimes you exceed "limits".......

When I went to school , writing instruments were introduced and remained constant for fixed unchangeable periods. "Slate pencils" in kindergaarten.  We used pencils to do classwork and homework, till class 6. I do not ever recall being flooded with pencil ads, sharpener ads or eraser ads. I cannot recall insisting on a particular pencil brand or color. There were these fixed pencils everyone always bought, and they were taken to class in a rattling metal box.

Somewhere in class 7, we started using precursors to the fountain pen. These were long reed things, with disposable nibs that you attached. Our school desks ( we each had one desk) , boasted an inkwell on the top right hand side. We spent 2-3 years, writing our lessons and homework with these nib-pens, and I distinctly remember the class monitor walking around with a giant ink bottle, filling everyone ink wells. Fountain pens were simply banned. And ball point pens were persona non grata.

The graduation to fountain pens was like an achievement, once we reached class 9. Or maybe , it was 10.   Suddenly, the desks had no ink wells,  We all thought we looked really smart with pens clipped on to the uniform down the front. Even then,  we used the same fountain pen for years. Spare nibs were  carried  always. We even carried blotting papers.  This being a girls' school, we possibly escaped the sport of shaking the pen and squirting ink drops on the back of some one's uniform frock.

By this time "compass boxes", later referred to by modern folks as "geometry boxes"  were a part of the school bag.  It was possible, traditional and expected, that once bought, we use the same compass box throughout our school years, and possibly even later. I remember using the same compass box, a green and orange tin affair, with possibly brass instruments  inside, throughout school and college. And the banged up , color-scratched, slightly rusted , terribly aged look gave it a kind of seniority.  For some reason we never lost set squares and protractors.

Watches were not "accessories". I remember my mother giving me her old simple watch to use as my own, in standard 9, because she thought I might get carried away answering a particular exam question, at the cost of all other questions. I proudly wore it,  learnt how to allocate time to a question paper, and not be surprised or upset when there were only 10 minutes left. I used this watch right till my 2nd year in college.   My parents then gave me a new watch,  as a special reward for doing well academically, and I used this for years, till the early seventies after I started working in Mumbai after post graduation.

And then there were phones. We got our first telephone connection (and our first ceiling fan; don't ask what the connection was) , when I was in the 8th grade. We tended to shout over the telephone initially, since we had an idea where our friends lived. Our time on the phone was minutely monitored, and  bills were scrutinized, not because  we made spurious calls, but because  folks were convinced that billing types made mistakes, that totals  needed to be rechecked. Calls to other cities had to be booked, urgent life situations called for lightening calls that cost the earth, and we made a list of points to be spoken; no unnecessary niceties and comments; you paid through your nose.

Another constant in our lives was that of no pocket money.  Our parents gave us whatever was required after a lot of thought.  We asked , and were never really upset when we were denied things. For some reason, I always had whatever I wanted, and remember more of what I got than what I was denied.  Till I went to college and lived in the hostel, I had never had reason to wilfully buy anything; and when I did,  reasoning out with self and planning had become second nature.

Today,  buying stuff in stationery shops has become like a hobby.  Ball point pens, which were banned in school in our time, now come in versions, and technologies. Children in middle school use them and handwriting suffers. Everything that was a more or less constant in our time, is now a massively changing variable. The old style compass box is extinct, and we now have plastic boxes, with fancy implements. Every time a new style  appears, the old ones are discarded. Watches are changed depending on outfits.  The old rotary black phone is almost extinct, and every child now sports a cell phone, with  ring tones from movies , the types of which were simply banned for us in our childhood.  I don't really remember things like toy shops from my childhood, though I do remember cycle shops that sold ordinary utility style tricycles and bicycles which we extensively used in hand me down fashion.   Language abilities today, are going for a toss, with the abbreviated  messaging on phones and on things like Twitter.  Friends , even good friends, now tend to be variables rather than constants.

I often wonder , if this tendency to live in variables  is good.   The ideal situation is where you have a nice mix of constants and variables,  a lot of it having to do with concern and respect, and very little of it having to do with money.  For that matter Facebook.

Variables also invariably lead to the concept of use and throw.  So we have use and throw plates, use and throw bags, use and throw pens, use and throw electronic unrepairable cheap Chinese items.

I wonder if we are leading up now , to,  use and throw friends, use and throw parents, use and throw employees, use and throw utensils,  and for an avaricious government, use and throw voters.

Algebra was all about finding the value of an unknown, called X.  Or Y . Or Z.  And determining its value, a constant for the situation in question.  

Far from it,  we have ended up adding more unknowns in our lives.  So much of giving in to peer pressure, working parents,  the interchangeable status of money and time , one for  the other,  and such an overflow of  unnecessary information, that at the end of the day,  that at the end of the day, we tend to forget, if you excuse the expression, the ABC's  of life ......         


  1. Another lovely stroll down memory lane, Suranga!

    Variables leading to a 'use and throw' mentality? So true, so true....

    1. Thank you, Manju ! Use and throw is being now refined to an art , methinks....

  2. Thoughtful blog Ma'm. Came through your blog from Twitter and it is certainly quite interesting. Well, I wouldn't disagree with what you say, but well, things do change I guess. Although the simplicity might be lost, there are so many new contraptions which have indeed made our lives so much easier. Be it the video conferencing that enables parents to talk their children across shores as though they had never left, or even the ubiquitous mobile phones which have made it so much more easier to communicate at any time. I wouldn't have known your writing if it were not for the blogosphere and twitter or unless you had been a celebrated published writer in a leading newspaper. For getting to the good things, perhaps other things do get redundant and go out of our lives.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Richa ! I have nothing against the progress of technology or the new contraptions. It's about keeping pespectives. A phone is a communication medium. Its being misused a as an entertainment medium now. And young folks waste so much time and money on this. There was something very sensible about how things were back then. We seem to be following everything with a herd mentality. It is very shocking to see wastage like this ....

    2. Well, why shouldn't a phone be used as an entertainment medium and medium to access a lot of information? If folks have the time and the money, I would say why not. I have realized after several blogs on the good ol' days, that though old things have a fantastic nostalgia value, moving on makes sense - like the Kindle made sense over real physical books (though that is a entire debate!). I would rather live in the fast paced tech age of today rather than the contented age of yesterday with so little exposure to the outside world.