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?