“I TELL YOU” – Life at 90 ** Father C.G.Valles,s.j.
[This is what I spoke the other day at the celebration of the 90th birthday of a friend.]
I am qualified to speak as I too am approaching the figure, and also because I organized in its day the celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday, so that I already have some experience in the matter. I was then in India, and my mother wrote to me saying that few people reach 100, and so we should celebrate her 90 just in case. Then, of course, she went on and lived till the age of 102. So get ready, Mari Ros, because you still have a long way to go. This feast today will be the rehearsal for your feast of 100 years!
You have been a professor, Mari Ros, as I’ve been, and so I know the blessings of our profession as you do. The first is the memory, affection, recognition our students manifest, directly or indirectly, along so many years. Many anecdotes remain in our memory, and I’m just going to give a couple of them to make the point.
I was teaching a class of 110 students, which is quite a number. The classroom was an amphitheater, and the girls traditionally occupied the first rows, with the boys seated behind. In front of me, right in the middle of the first row, used to seat a bright girl, Ila Shah, who was the first to register understanding in her alert face. She went through her mathematics gloriously year by year, and left the college at the end. Not very long after that, I received in the mail an invitation card. Her wedding. I always did my best to attend old students’ weddings as I knew how much they appreciated the presence of an old teacher and his blessing. There she was, resplendent in her bride’s attire. She touched my feet and bent her head while I gently touched it in blessing. Then I teased her in jest. “Let’s revise some trigonometry. Can you tell me what sine square of theta plus cosine square of theta is? She laughed my question away. I remonstrated: “So you have forgotten all the mathematics I taught you?” To which she answered at once: “Yes, I have forgotten all of mathematics. But the mathematics teacher I’ll never forget!” I haven’t forgotten her either.
The day the new course began I made it a point to stand at the gate of the college to welcome the students, greeting back the old ones and making a first acquaintance with the new. I would ask them their manes, the place they were coming from, the courses and subjects they wanted to take, and sometimes I added a more loaded question at the end: “What is your aim in coming now to college after school?” Most answers were commonplace, but once a boy got serious on hearing my question, and answered with another question: “Shall I tell you?” – “Yes, if you like to.” He began his story: “My mother died when I was very small, only two years old. No picture of her had been kept, and so I don’t even know her face. And her sickness was not so serious, it was TB, which could have been cured, but there was no doctor in my village, they were late in realizing the seriousness of the case, they took her in a bullock-cart to the nearest town, but by then they could do nothing and she died. That has given me great pain which is always with me. Now I’ve worked hard at school, I’ve come to a good college for my Pre-Science course so that I can get admission into medical college and become a doctor. And then, if my mother died because there was no good doctor in our village, I’ll see to it that small children do not lose their mothers in the village where I am.
Another boy, with problems at home, would come often to unburden himself with me, and once he told me: “I don’t understand it, but I feel greater confidence and affection with you than with my own father.” And he added to my surprise: “Of course, in the last incarnation you must have been my father, and I your son.”
Apart from the students’ recognition and affection, another great blessing of the teacher is just the pleasure of teaching. To prove an important mathematical theorem to a large class of gifted students is a privilege few can enjoy. I just mention one such experience. The theorem on “The necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of the inverse function of a complex variable function” is a theorem that takes a full hour to explain on the blackboard to a class. Equation after equation, blackboard after blackboard, step after step the theorem goes on taking shape with the suspense of an Agatha Christie novel. I had left the result to be obtained written on the upper corner of the blackboard to the left, and at the end I wrote the final result we had obtained and pointed at the first I had left in the upper corner. They were identical. At that moment the bell rung for the end of the class, and the students broke into applause. Those days are never forgotten.
G. H. Hardy was the best know English mathematician of the last century, and the Gujarat University commissioned me to translate into Gujarati his famous treatise “A Course of Pure Mathematics”, which was quite a job for me as I had written nothing in the language so far, but which precisely introduced me into the ways or writing in Gujarati and led me to a writing career, which in time became more important to me than my mathematical work. Hardy established rigor in mathematical proofs and worked for the cause “with the zeal of a missionary preaching the Bible to cannibals” as he wrote. He was an atheist and called himself “God’s personal enemy”, which is not quite denying God’s existence, and he used to say wryly that, “It’s rather unfortunate that some of the happiest hours of my life should have been spent within sound of a Roman Catholic Church”. That lack of religious belief did cast a shadow on his otherwise inspiring life, and he ended his autobiography “A Mathematician’s Apology” with these sad words: “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created something is undeniable; the question is about its value.” That unjustified pessimism led him to attempt suicide, and to comment, as he did not succeed in his attempt, that he had not been good even at that. Sad episode that reminds us that mathematics by themselves are not enough. Something else is needed to give value to life, and this is the point I wanted to make.
I’ll tell you, Mari Ros, the best anecdote of my life as a teacher, which also reflects yours, even if your students may not have expressly told you that, but your influence did remain with them and you know it. Some of my students went on to become mathematics teachers themselves. The matric exam to join college those days was very tough. It was a written exam and the examiner did not know who had written the paper he was correcting, neither did the student know who was correcting his paper. Everything went by numbers without names. But there were ways and means, and an old student of mine, who was an examiner for the matric exam, received one day the visit of a man who told him he was the father of a student who knew that his paper had come to him for its valuation. His son, he explained, was quite bright, but had been confused at the exam and had written badly. So he requested the examiner to give passing marks to his son… for a consideration. The examiner answered him: “How do you propose to me such an indignity? Don’t you know that I am Fr Valles’ student?”
Life goes on, Mari Ros, and we with it. There are three things we, at our age, can do to keep in good shape. First: walking. A while every day, with or without a stick, with or without a companion, far or near, but every day without fail. Second: reading, keeping abreast of news, commenting them, discussing them. Third: social relations. Family, friends, meetings, visits. Contact with those who love us keeps us alive and joyful.
These are my memories. Mari Ros, parallel to yours. They have been your life all these 90 years and they bring you now the joy and satisfaction to have lived them out. When I saw your photograph in the program for today’s function, I mentioned to others what a fine portrait of yours it was, but they told me it was no special photograph, but just a passport photo of yours enlarged. Everybody comes out badly in a passport photo, but yours is the best passport photo I’ve seen in my life. Keep that smile forever.