How I Got My Bronze Medal at the (Maths) Olympiad

(From an old Facebook post. Reminded of it by the national obsession after every Olympiad about the importance of systematic support vs. individual initiative)

I was in XI standard in Kendriya Vidyalaya #1, Bhopal. It was called KV Maida Mill, because it was next to the Central Flour Mills. Our maths teacher, Dubey Sir, had enrolled some folks in the XI standard for some maths competition. He kept enrolling us for competitions. We asked why we should sacrifice the weekend. The response would always be something like “अच्छी practice हो जाएगी”. We had stopped asking what exactly we were practising and went along.

On that Sunday, we arrived at a govt school, which was the venue for the exam. The classrooms were in thatched rooms. There was a pond nearby. Buffaloes and the occasional child lolled about contentedly.

We arrived and asked to be seated for the exam. The folks conducting the exam didn’t have our names on record. They literally had no paper saying that we were enrolled for the exam.

So…20 or so 14-year olds all ready to write an exam and suddenly told they did not have to write it. The immediate response of Indian boys to any available free time is to find a ball and a plank of wood and start playing cricket. Luckily, there were some kids already playing in the school grounds. We chatted with them and inveigled ourselves into the game.

Our teacher, Mr Dubey ,was furious with the organisers and rushed off in a jeep to the office of the gent in charge.

Two wicketkeepers

I dont know what he said but he brought the guy to the school and got the local guys to let us in. Then he spent about 10 minutes convincing us students we should write a 3 hour exam of which 2 hours had already elapsed (in cricket).

Three of us made it at state level from this 1 hour of work. Then, we went to Jabalpur to write the national level exams, the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad, where this whole series of random events was topped by a question on the paper, which was

  • x^n + y^n = z^n
  • x, y, z, n are whole numbers. Prove that n <= 2.

That is Fermat’s last theorem! As one question among a set of 10. Only after I had gotten through that exam and landed at the national training camp in Bangalore at the “Tata Institute”, the affectionate local name for the Indian Institute of Science, was the whole thing explained. This series of exams were not just “for practice” but to select the Indian team to the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

I ended up representing India once in Beijing and once in Sigtuna, Sweden, where I won the Bronze Medal. Today I got a friend request on Facebook from a 69-year old gentleman. I actually had to think a moment which 69 year old might want to befriend me.

This is because we never knew Dubey Sir’s first name! Today I learnt it. Always good to learn, always good to learn.