Jaipur Diary – Alex’s Adventure with Zero
Hanging out in the Lit Fest.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He was unlucky. At 10 am, Alex Bellos, the author of Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, was one of the first writers to have a session in the Jaipur Literature Festival, being hosted in Diggi Palace, a 18th century mansion. Unfortunately, at the same time, Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and Hindi film lyricist Gulzar too were having sessions. “Who’s he?” Mr Bellos asked The Delhi Walla in the almost empty Durbar Hall, the venue of his session. On being told of Gulzar’s star status, Mr Bellos said, “If I get more than 10 people, I’ll be a success.”
A former foreign correspondent for the UK-based Guardian, Mr Bellos has travelled all around the ‘Numberland’. He has attended an abacus competition in Japan and a mental calculation competition in Germany. He once chatted Vedic Maths with the Shankaracharya of Puri, and met a numerologist in Arizona.
Ironically, Mr Belos’s talk was on numbers, which, in Durbal hall was so low that the session’s moderator Jerry Pinto was stationed outside, shouting for people to come in. “You can always found Gulzar and Pamuk on YouTube. But you can’t easily find a place to enjoy maths,” he was heard saying. Three girls, students from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, trooped inside. Gradually, the number increased to 84 people. 26 were dressed in school uniforms. Five of them were studious-looking children wearing glasses. When I asked Satyajit Sarna, a lawyer from Delhi who was sitting on the second row, that what pulled him from the temptations of Pamuk and Gulzar, he said, “Oh, where’s Pamuk happening?”
Initially, Mr Bellos was nervous. He hemmed and hawed. Finally — thanks to a PowerPoint slide that included clips of chimpanzees and Japanese children playing with numbers — he got his audience hooked. After that, Mr Bellos didn’t stop. He stood up, asked questions, scrolled numbers on a white board, talked about ‘Maths, philosophy and life’, and every few minutes looked at moderator Pinto to say, “We’re coming to the end… after this.”
The audience laughed when he said, “When I asked a Japanese abacus teacher on why abacus when you have a calculator, he said, “Why run for 27 miles when you have a car?””
An hour later, Mr Bellos said, “To conclude, the message is that the abacus is the most ancient form of calculation and yet it remains the most mysterious.” Later, a few number-munching students followed their new hero. As he opened an autograph book, Orhan Pamuk came and sat at the table next to him. The attention shifted and Mr Bellos was left with zero.
The number game
Not so unlucky, after all
Alex’s adventures in Jaipur