Mental maths

I never thought much of it till I came to Doha, and I definitely didn’t realise what an amazing ability it is till recently.

The first time it hit me was when I went to an expat-group bazaar, where folks were selling trinkets and snacks from their home countries. Even for the simplest addition and subtraction either the calculator was whipped out, or fingers were pressed into service. 

These were well-educated, well-placed men and women from around the world.

However, those from India and the Far East were doing complicated calculations mentally.

Shall we attribute it to our education system? Or is it **jingoism alert** the brilliance of the race?

How can we explain the ability of otherwise illiterate or semi-literate folks to do complicated mental calculations?

The kaikari-karan (vegetable vendor) on the streets of Madras, the milk lady, the domestic help, the puncture shop assistant, the waiters at the roadside dabbas…

Baalama is about 70 years old now. I’ve known her all my life, and her daughter, Anjalai, is the one who cared for me as a child, and subsequently my kids, and even now is the main support for my ageing parents.

They cannot even sign their names.

Baalama is the milk lady for the colony. She has about 20-30 clients. Milk accounts go into decimals, eg Rs 482.45.

At the beginning of the month she would calculate how much money each household owed her. If on certain days neighbours traded milk bottles (before the day of private milk producers, a common practice. When one household had guests they would borrow milk from another that had excess), she had to deduct and add accordingly. She did it all, to the last decimal point, without ever using pen and paper.

The same with Anjalai. She would go to the market and deal with the vendors who either like her never attended school or had the most basic education. But all her calculations, sometimes toting up purchases over a week, were done mentally.

I can give endless examples…

When I was living amongst these mathematically inclined brains, I hardly ever noticed how fantastic this was. Now I do.

One explanation could be skill driven by need. Because they cannot use pen and paper, do not have access to calculators, they are forced to use what they have?

10 thoughts on “Mental maths

  1. Ramya says:

    Noticed this in England some years ago- they all need the teller… we don’t. it’s def the ‘brilliance of the race”. 🙂

  2. Shyam says:

    I would say “the brilliance of the race” too… 🙂 even though I dont belong with the brilliant ones 😦 But yes, my ayah used to do lightning quick calculations in her head and say the total (of whatever) in Tamil to my grandmother… who was literate but still very good at maths! It took me longer to translate the total than it took for her to do the entire calculation! 😀

  3. Kamini says:

    And alas, I am not one of those who was or is any good at mental maths. I used to DREAD being called upon to do this kind of stuff in class!

  4. Navina says:

    I disagree with the race brilliance. It is sheer practice- if you do something out of sheer necessity and practice constantly, you will become an expert at it. That is what my thalaivar Malcolm Gladwell says and i believe that.

  5. UmmON says:

    @kamini: i feel it has a lot to do with what we are told we are good at, while in school. basic maths skill is a life skill. and teachers should stop focussing on the kids who find it easy, and focus on those who don’t.
    @navina: come on, a lil credit for the race? no? 🙂

  6. CY says:

    I have just finished reading William Dalrymple’s “Nine Lives” and in it he discusses some research that was done by Milam Perry in the 1930s by Milman Perry in Yugoslavia. Apparently he found that illiteracy was “one essential condition for preserving an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the taste of his audience, that osunded the death knell for the oral tradition…so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not.” Sorry for the long quote but your post made me think of it and a summary from me would undoubtedly have been less accurate.

      • CY says:

        There is a bit more in the specific chapter on the topic – it is really interesting and it certainly gave me pause for thought. I very much enjoyed the book – I have struggled with some of his other publications but dashed through this book in next to no time.

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