21.

This originally started off as an ode to someone who turned 21 the past year. But, I soon realized, that although my admiration is immense, and my love great, there is very little I have to say beyond a certain point, which can be done within limits of decency. A show of cards is not possible on this particular table, some will always be kept close to my chest.

However, 21 is important in the game of cards, blackjack or teen patti. A classic example of probability theory, I first learnt of this in the 90’s along with a bunch of other confused 12th graders. Confused because, for some reason, we had all opted for maths, despite hating it to the core. I couldn’t even hate it. I didn’t get it.  I remember a teacher laughing out of sheer mirth, since the answer to a question I provided back in 4th grade was so ludicrous. I guess, she also realized I would say anything to get the ordeal over with. Kindly, she suggested ways to increase my mathematical abilities. Do puzzles, count stones, play around with number quizzes, etc, so on and so forth. Basically, face the fear of the math and vanquish that numerical demon.

Easier said than done.  I continued in denial mode, relying on the kindness of vegetable vendors, sundry strangers and my own stubbornness to resolve petty maths problems, only to land up in Maths 103 taught by Prof. Moogat in Wadia College. It was the kind of class that had wooden rafters on the ceiling. The classroom itself was the entire size of my 2 BHK house. I was humbled. Why would a maths class need such a roomy lecture hall? All the interesting and popular guys and girls never attended a lecture except to sign the roster and move out while the professor had his back turned.

Later, that same room resembled a tin can of sardines. Prof. Moogat began his class, and we had kids sitting on the big French window panes, which could seat 4 skinny boys very comfortably. And well, they were all pretty skinny, back then. So was Prof Moogat, skinny, but vital, in a suit and tie in mid March. I wondered why he bothered to dress up, but that was clear when he began to speak. The man meant business. He didn’t care, if you were here to please your unbelieveably difficult to please parents, to get out of language studies, or to make up for attendance. He was here to teach and he would do a bloody good gaandphat job of it, while cussing like a sailor’s parrot (he sounded like one). Apart from his cussing with ease and ability, which I adored, he looked extremely weird, but intelligent with hawk eyes that you didn’t want glaring at you in anger. And anyway, he made the subject so awesome, you even ended up in the improbable position of enjoying probability theory.

So, what is the theory about? Simple. Say, you’ve got 3 cards. You want to get the total of 21 with the value of the cards, combined. You can get it by in various permutations and combinations. It could be 10 plus 10 plus 1, 3 sevens, 4 times 5 plus 1.

Basically, there are many ways to a particular destination. You can get there in many ways, all of  which are dictated by the cards you get, the ones you choose to let go, and the ones the other players let go of or that come from the deck and you choose to keep.

I sat in the lecture hall for a good 15 minutes, after everyone dispersed. Just basking in the glow of having understood it all, for once. Savoring the fact that, there was some element of choice. 2 plus 2 is not the only way to get to 4! You can add 3 plus 1! Of course, there is a limited range of  probabilities, but that is what is interesting. It’s all probable. As in, within the realm of being done. After years of trying to understand possibilities in terms of life, career, education, it was nice to know, there are probabilities and they are all up to one’s choice. Again, you may find the longest or shortest way to get that elusive 21. You may delay things by choosing the wrong card at the wrong time, letting go of the right one at the wrong time and the probability that you can get it back again depends on whether it’s chosen by another or not or emerges for you, later. There, I think, gut instinct and standing by your choice is what matters.

I will now fast forward to a last lecture in the same lecture hall. The entire class was in tears. We had just finished our final prelims, and were headed for the final frontier. Prof. Moogat’s last class was legend and you didn’t miss it. If you did, you knew there was no probability of getting back to it.  He spoke not of math, but of life and somehow the old hawk had a unique take on it, too.

Priceless pears of wisdom like, “I have great faith in the bureaucracy, they will always **** things up.” “When people give up in life, they decide to change the young.” But, the one I really loved was his unabashed admission that Indians didn’t value hard work or encourage it. In his view, our greatest deficiency was being unable to work on a level of personal integrity and give the job it’s due. After seeing a year of thrilling maths lectures delivered in spiffy suits and fantastic ties, I knew he meant every word.