Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Why I left Mathematics

This article is a personal account of why I left mathematics to retrain as an anthropologist after being trained in Oxford and after having taught mathematics for more than 10 years at the Gauhati University and at IIT Guwahati. In another blog I will discuss some implications of this story on our education system and will also make some suggestions.

Why did I leave mathematics? There are quite a few reasons for that. But I wouldn’t have written this article but for the fact when I recently went to meet a retired principal of a college in Upper Assam to talk to him about ethnic communities in the area, all he could do for the greater part of our meeting was to repeatedly express first his disbelief and then his deep regret that I had left mathematics. He kept saying that while people working with ethnic communities would be easy to find, the world had lost a great mathematician with my decision to change subjects!

Although I was touched and humbled by his immense faith in me and my mathematical abilities, the intensity of his disappointment really took me by surprise, coming from a person who I had never met before, and whose only grounds for thinking I was good in mathematics were my college and university results, because honestly speaking, after standing first in college and university, I have not had very much to show to vindicate his opinion. The reasons for my choosing to do maths in the first place were completely accidental. It was by elimination. I chose science in my +2 level because I didn’t want to continue with history. And then I landed with maths for my graduation because I couldn’t manage any of the subjects involving lab work. And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was at Oxford doing my D.Phil. in pure mathematics.

But temperamentally I was not suited for mathematics. I liked being with people, I found mathematics too isolating, too ‘unsocial’. And although I liked the subject, mathematics was not an all-consuming passion for me. I had many other interests. And soon, very early on in my stay in Oxford, it became clear to me and to my supervisor, that although I was fairly good at my work, that spark of inspiration was missing in me. But he told me that I should finish what I had started, because besides everything else, an Oxford degree would help me get better jobs later. I followed his advice, and enjoyed it too, and learnt a lot and made many new friends in the process. My supervisor was right -- after I got back, thanks to my Oxford degree, there was not much trouble getting a job – first at the University and then at IIT. And I could have lived happily ever after. If it were not for all the doubts that were to follow.

I had already realised, during the course of my studies at Oxford and my initial years doing mathematics after coming back that I could not ever be a researcher at that international level which I had seen and had been trained for at Oxford. I found the idea of doing mathematics fascinating and very challenging, no doubt, but that rarified realm of pure abstract thought, when mathematics started to become exciting and beautiful, was simply beyond my reach. I simply did not understand the subject well enough, not even my own little exclusive corner of it. And as proof of that, if ever I needed it, came the news, a few years after I had returned from Oxford, that the problem on which I had worked for my doctoral work (but could answer only partially in my thesis) had been finally and completely resolved by two mathematicians using very different techniques. In that sense, even my thesis stood superseded very quickly.

My work atmosphere at IIT Guwahati was such that although we were given all the facilities we needed, I could not hope for further research guidance and intellectual support which implied that unless I had it in me to raise myself, nobody else was going to help me do it. We did not have anyone in our immediate surroundings to look up to for guidance. Of course there was Jyoti Medhi Sir in Guwahati but our disciplines were too far apart.

I could see that the best I would be able to do is to churn out routine uninspired stuff (both in my own work and in the work of my research students) which would not meet any high international standards. I have done some good work over the years but it was all done together with very able collaborators. On my own I would not be able to sustain that. I realised that my research output would serve no other real purpose than to lengthen my CV and help me to get promotions. I just could not cope with the idea of spending my whole life doing something at a level which was boringly mediocre, and where I would constantly fail to realise even my own expectations from myself.

What was even worse I knew that I could not dare to say all this aloud, given all the adulation and praise that was constantly being heaped on me. I was terrified of being put to the test and being found out someday but there was no way out -- the show had to go on. I was forced to pretend to be clever and knowledgeable and interested no matter how little I knew or cared; it all seemed wrong somehow. Not just wrong but also dishonest, to ask for and spend tax payers money to attend conferences and seminars, on the basis on my hollow credentials. I felt like an imposter, a fraud.

But still I felt obliged to continue with my job because I felt that since I had gone to Oxford on a scholarship, I owed it to whoever selected me to give back at least what it had given me before I quit. There was also another saving grace – while I was not sure of my research abilities I knew I was a reasonably good teacher of mathematics. Moreover I loved being with students. But I ran into trouble with that too. Those problems, however, had more with the system as well as with my colleagues who had other views on the duties and responsibilities of being a teacher.

When I first started teaching mathematics after returning from Oxford, I was certain that, regardless of how pathetic my future research output would be, I would be able to justify my being a teacher because I would be able to make a positive difference for my students. As a teacher of mathematics at the university I had imagined that I would have the freedom to introduce a few changes to the method of teaching at least in the courses I was offering, like introducing problem classes and giving assignments, but there I met with resistance from my colleagues since at that time the system expected teachers to only lecture to their students and do nothing else (the system has since changed, I am told, after the introduction of the semester system).

There was yet another dimension to my problem. From what I had seen from my own Oxford supervisor’s relations to his students I had understood that being a teacher had to become an organic component of the rest of my life, that there was nothing like a nine-to-five teacher, that as a teacher, I was supposed to be there not only to supervise how my students performed in their studies but also to help them cope with their own lives in a much more general sense. But soon after getting back, I found out that the culture back home was somewhat different – the teachers were expected to maintain hierarchies and not get too friendly with the students.

The system of teaching was thankfully much more to my liking at IIT. But the division of work rule was in place also there – as a faculty member I was required to just teach my courses but not really interact with the undergraduate students. But in those initial years of Guwahati IIT, with so many bright young students leaving home for the first time to come to the supposedly dangerous Indian northeast, one couldn’t help getting involved with the students and their personal problems. There were more than a couple of cases, where I felt the system had failed to respond and had been insensitive to the needs of the students. I realised that in an institution like IIT, one one needed besides medical care was also competent and trained counselling, and that was completely missing at that time. I saw a few bright students lose out and give up in front of my eyes simply because the system failed to help them when they needed it. One time I was even asked if I had any other personal reasons for supporting a student (who had failed to achieve the requisite marks by a whisker)! That student was not given admission, but he went on to do very well in another institution, vindicating my faith in him.

Slowly I realised that the system would carry on like a juggernaut, completely blind to all those who are crushed along the way, but seeing this happen and knowing that I am also part of the system, would drive me crazy with guilt. Almost all the youngsters who came to join our IIT, having made it in the tough and extremely competitive JEE, were clever and bright, but also very innocent, trusting and naive. I do not know what we did wrong but in the time they stayed with us, we managed to turn quite a few of them, in the worst cases, either into unstable and strange creatures or into bitter and angry young men who had very little respect or trust left for anyone. Since there was nothing I could do to change things, I thought it best to quit before the system devoured me too.

But what about repayment of the debt of my 3-year Ph.D. scholarship? I had spent nearly ten years already teaching and doing mathematics after getting back from Oxford, surely that was enough. But there was one last thing left for me to do – a couple of my colleagues and I got together and organised a 3-week long international workshop and conference in IIT Guwahati in my area of research to which I invited many of those mathematicians who I had met and whose work I admired. Many accepted my invitation and came, almost all of them for the first time to India’s north-east. It was a wonderful feeling to see that all the hard work we had put in had paid off – for due to the excellent quality of the mathematics and the interactions, we had also succeeded in putting the NE and IIT Guwahati on the international maths world map.

Strangely, this feeling of elation was also very liberating – I realised that I had paid back enough, there was no need for me to feel indebted anymore – I was free to leave. Once that came home to me it did not take me long to decide to resign and to start all over again – this time doing something that I felt suited my nature and my talents better – being with people, talking to them, trying to find out what makes them tick. More about why I chose to do anthropology instead some other time...

What all this has to say about our education system I will write up in another blog. But for now I want to end with the following thought. At some stage of our lives, we might find ourselves stuck in jobs which, even though they might seem to be best possible, do not make us happy anymore or with which we have some serious problem. While it is best not to make a mistake about one’s choice of career in the first place, it is never too late to start again. We should not allow the prestige or the security of our present jobs bind us if we feel that we are not really happy with what we are doing. Of course I am talking of a very thin section of the population who have the financial security to make these choices, but if one has them, then one should exercise them. One lives only once, and one must make the best of it. I gave up mathematics and started again at the ripe old age of 40 and have not regretted it. And if it is possible for me, it must be possible for others as well. You only have to take your fate in your hands and take the plunge – whatever you may or may not achieve in the end, at least you would have been true to yourself.


  1. On reading this blog, my mathematician friend Geetha, with whom I was together in Oxford, responded thus:

    A lovely piece! I think it puts into words all the doubts you were facing when we had the conference in Guwahati so many years ago.

    I think a large part in your leaving mathematics was played by two facts one that you set yourself standards which you felt you could not meet and the second the deep and abiding interest that you have in writing and in the humanities.

    I do not think you should ever feel that you had a debt to pay for having studied at Oxford. Such debts, if any, are not paid just by doing research at the highest levels but also by contributing to education in many different ways. I also think that possibly the IIT system also played its part.

    But the good part in all this is that you are pursuing something that fascinates you and makes you feel like learning more!

  2. An interesting account of a Mathematician turning humanities- social science research, connecting to peoples lives and society at large. Science and mathematics, a play with numbers can at times be alienating. However, you have turned to your interest, which is itself a significant change in your life. I feel you will make important contribution in your present engagement through your ethnographic engagement with the Tangsha's of Arunachal Pradesh.