I was studying in class 2 or 3 in the Government Lower Primary School, Veliyannoor, a small village in Kerala. There were about 30–40 pupils in the class. Our seats were arranged in the ‘C’ shape with the teacher’s table, chair and the blackboard kept at the open end of the ‘C’. The blackboard was kept on his left side. The most intelligent pupil used to be seated in the number one position on the teacher’s left side. He used to be the monitor (class leader). Monitor’s main responsibilities were (a) to write down the names of pupils who talk in teacher’s absence, (b) bring chalk from the staff room, (c) clean the black board after each class using a duster, (d) keep a stick ready use (corporal punishment was common then). Attaining the number one position was considered a great privilege and was everybody’s dream. The number one position used to be decided by the class teacher after each class test or terminal examination. The pupil who got the highest mark became number one and consequently the monitor.
I happened to be in the number one position for several months continuously. It was only exchanged at times with my best friend Balan (C.G. Balakrishnan). Both of us used to occupy the number one and two positions interchangeably.
Thomas Sir was our Mathematics teacher. He sometimes adopted cute methods to make us understand or remember things. One day he told us to revise all the Multiplication Tables from 1 to 10 and that he would give us a test the next day. Instead of giving a conventional test, however, he resorted to a new method. He said that any pupil could ask a question from any Table to any other pupil. If the latter could not answer, they would have to interchange their seats. This meant that if the student occupying the number one seat could not answer, he would have to exchange the seat with the pupil who asked the question, maybe occupying number 10 or 15 or 30. O! God! That was terrible.
Since everybody wanted to become number one, and consequently the monitor, I had to face the maximum number of questions. I answered each and every one of them. When it became clear that nobody was going to defeat me, Thomas Sir stood in front of me and looking sharply right into my eyes started asking me questions very rapidly, like the ‘rapid fire questions’ in quiz programmes. I answered each of them in the same tempo as the questions were shot. One line which always confused me was ‘three eights are?’ The first answer which came to my mind used to be ‘eighteen’, probably due to the rhyming. (In Malayalam eight is ‘ettu’ and eighteen ‘pathinettu’.) And I had to think again to get the correct answer.
The moment he asked me the question (three eights are?), in the same tempo I answered, ‘eighteen’. The next moment, before I realised the folly and could give him the correct answer, he signalled to Balan who said, ‘twenty four’. We had to exchange our seats. Fortunately, Thomas Sir only pointed at Balan and not some other pupil who was sitting at number 15 or 20! I think that was because he feared that by the time he located someone who could answer the question, I would have given the correct answer. He did not want to give me time to recover. Or, maybe he did not want to punish me severely.
Thank you Thomas Sir!
After that day I never ever forgot that three eights are twenty four.