Updated: Oct 21
From an older blog post
That I have a way with numbers would be an understatement. I do not wish to blow my own trumpet, but considering that my father is a mathematician, and his father too was no rabbit with the subject, I would say that some of those genes have passed down to me. I can see traces of it in my brother also, and the lineage continues with my son, who has amply demonstrated his penchant for numbers.
This incident relates to the time when I was in class 4. Now those were the days when you would get thrashed for so much as raising your hand in the class. Or, if the teacher did not like your face, she could turn you out of the class, for seemingly no reason.
A bit of background is important here. Throughout my educational career, I was the archetypal “bright but lazy” and “the wandering mind” with a bit of a “mischievous character” kind of a “good boy” thrown together. I was considered bright, apparently because I could conjure solutions that no one else considered, though this was more viewed as a “spanner in the works”. I suppose the “but lazy” part is self-explanatory. “The Wandering Mind” was my teacher’s favorite. I never took pride in this fact, but I think I was a cause for consternation for many (well almost all) of my teachers. I still think that of all the people in this world, I have let down my teachers the most, just mention my name and they will go in a “what could have been rhetoric”. The “mischievous character” was more of an effect rather cause. Bear in mind I was lazy by nature, and being mischievous requires one to be active. So, I played more of a passive role in mischief, often with disastrous consequences.
Back to class 4. The teacher was teaching us that any number, when divided by itself, yields the number 1. Now I also have this habit of taking nothing at face value. So, the moment the teacher uttered those words, my mind was racing to find an inconsistency in the teacher’s statement. It was not that I was nitpicking, but something did not sound right. You know the feeling when you feel that something is inconsistent, it keeps on playing at the back of your mind until you find out what it is. My mind had gone into the same train of thought, trying to bring out an inconsistency into the teacher’s statement, before it was rudely interrupted.
The slap on the cheek was unexpected, but by now I had grown so much used to them that humiliation was a thing of the past. And anger was an emotion that I was becoming more used to.
“Rupinder Singh. Are you listening? Or is the outside scenery more interesting?”, the teacher asked.
Now I have always been fascinated by airplanes, and I was watching one of them fly, while contemplating what was wrong with the teacher’s assertion, when the teacher decided that the contours of my chubby cheeks come into violent contact with her rather rough fingers, well they felt rough at that time.
“Huh?”, She was pulling my delicate ears now, “What was I just saying?”
“You were saying that a number when divided by itself, yields the same number”, I said. I should have stopped there, but then I am not known for keeping quiet at crucial moments.
“But I think that it is not always right.”
I don’t know what upset her more, the fact that I recounted what she was teaching or the fact that I challenged her assertion. Whatever it was, I was dragged out of my chair and while being thrashed, was sent to the back of my class to stand.
“That will teach you to pay attention in the class”, my teacher said and started to return to her teaching.
“What happens when you divide zero by zero?” I shot back.
She froze in her steps. “What?” She asked.
I repeated the question. She repeated her slap.
“You cannot ask a question when you are punished.” She reasoned. And that was the end of the discussion, at least from my side. I did not want any more than the number of slaps I already had.
Years later, I visited the same school in Dehradun. Sadly, that teacher had passed away in the meantime. I never got to know whether she knew the answer or not, but by then I had learned that zero divided by zero can be any number.
PS: I also learned that Ramanujan asked this question when he was in class 2.