Unrequited Math Love — A Pakistani Woman’s Numerical Autobiography

by: Sara Rezvi

“What is at issue is the performative nature of differential identities: the regulation and negotiation of those spaces that are continually, contingently, “opening out,” remaking the boundaries, exposing the limits of any claim to a singular or autonomous sign of difference — be it class, gender or race. Such assignations of social differences — where difference is neither One nor the Other but something else besides, in between — find their agency in a form of the future where the past is not originary, where the present is not simply transitory. It is, if I may stretch a point, an interstitial future, that emerges in-between the claims of the past and the needs of the present.” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 45)

I. Age 7

It begins with a fridge. This is my earliest memory of numbers. I am four. Put them in order, make a sequence, and make sure to memorize them correctly. My grandmother counts in Urdu quietly in the background while I play with magnetized numeracy.

- My daadi (paternal grandmother) and I pictured here learning our numbers, 1987

It continues with inductive reasoning, patterns and skip counting, in the back of our 1989 Chevy station wagon as he drives down Seeley Avenue. It has fashionable wood panels on the sides, and enough room to contain our curiosity. Two one two, two two four, two three six, two four eight….My father makes it a game. Who can reach the tenth count the fastest, my younger sister or myself? Controversy ensues when both of us claim that we’ve won. To take our minds off how unreasonable we each insist the other is being, he takes us to his local taxi-cab joint on Devon Street — Ghareeb Nawaz. We feast on samosas and mango lassis — all trivial arguments forgotten. She is four and I am seven. Throughout primary school we learn that affection, similar to those cheap bouquets you see in supermarkets, is most long-lasting and fresh when bought with medals, awards, and honor roll bumper stickers.

- Author (left) and sister (right) at a school awards ceremony. Chicago, 1991

The last item carefully, and with much fanfare is always placed on my mother’s aging four-door sedan. This is our first introduction to emotional capitalism. Little do we know that this is the currency we will be paying with for the rest of our adolescent lives.

— bumper sticker says “Proud Parent of Hayt Elementary School”. Author (left). Sister on Right.

II. Age 8 x 13

Fast forward a few years. I am eleven now; he has started treating me differently. Perhaps I am to blame. I know it has something to do with the appearance of monthly blood on my bedsheets that I discretely wash away in the middle of the night. Or, perhaps, the shame lies in the promise of curves on my changing form. In spite of my demands that this indecency cease and desist at once, my body is willful and does not obey.

Math is not so fun anymore — not like it once was, when we played ‘ginti[1]’ games and took apart VCRs and vacuums just to see how they make their parts move. Mine are moving too, but they are unwelcome, it seems. Now, math is work. So is believing in God.

I am in sixth grade and seated at our dinner table with my father. There in front of me is an old, slightly moldy college algebra textbook that stares back at me with unfettered scorn. Tears are coursing down my cheeks, where they drop quietly onto my hands. Waste not, want not. The saltwater coats my palms and evaporates back into my skin, where it will reside until necessity demands that it be poured out once again. “Why can’t you get this? It’s not that difficult.” He grabs the pencil from my hand, and proceeds to angrily write out the solution.

I am translucent — made of glass and ice. I want so desperately for him to be proud, but I cannot make the letters on the page mutate/change/transform the way he wants them to be. He slaps me, hard, and walks away frustrated at how incompetent I am. While he’s cooling off, my mother discretely comforts me by offering a soft smile, and says, “There, there, you’ll get it tomorrow.” The heavy weight settling comfortably on my throat is impossible to loosen. I am unable to tell her that I never asked for this or wanted to ‘get it tomorrow’.

Later, over mint chocolate chip ice cream and apologies, my father tries to show me once more the inner workings of the quadratic formula. I am resilient — fortified by sugar and childish hope that this time, this time, I’ll make him proud. I move the numbers and letters easily, like a fine paintbrush on canvas, like a song, like a story. One that has a main protagonist ‘x’, the villain ‘formula’, and an enamored lady on the other side of equality just begging ‘x’ to move mountains and inverse operations for her. I am transfixed. What is a square root, and how is it equivalent to a fractional exponent? What kind of sorcery is this that gives birth to elegance from chaos? Like a dream created by fevers, I am finally hopelessly, and irrevocably in love.

- an example of elegance in mathematics [image from: onlinemath]

III. Age 14x18

I am a junior in high-school now. Awkward, defiant and full of longing for a world that can never be mine. It is no wonder I identify so strongly with Ariel: that red-haired, impudent, copyrighted mermaid — what does it mean to be a part of your (White) world? I am envious of Julie’s mini-skirts and boldness, awed by Annie’s perfectly painted face, and aching for a boyfriend that flirts with me just like Jessica’s does in A.P. Chemistry.

- “Fair and Lovely” Facial Bleaching Cream : an example of South Asian internalized whiteness in product form

Sure, I have my short-lived rebellions; elaborate schemes co-constructed with my younger and more daring sister. But, ultimately my parents’ expectations overpower our own. They have a full hand and unsurprisingly, as dependents, we hold only spades.

We take turns covering for one another. We are fortunate that no handy electronic gadgets existed in 1999, as they do now, mA[2]. The technology for Orwellian levels of monitoring by nervous mothers and brittle fathers has not yet been invented. We shape words like asymptotes to approximate truths. We vigorously maintain that we have been studying at the library. We engage in conversations with our parents that thinly disguise our anger and fear with submissive docility. ‘No Abu[3], that is not my dress, Julie let me borrow it for a sewing project; yes, we are coming right home after this study session; no Ami[4], I didn’t break my fast before it was time; yes, I did better than Uncle Kamran’s son on the ACT with a thirty-two. I know I should have gotten a perfect score. I am sorry. I forgot to pray tonight. I am sorry. I can only recite part of Surah Al-Fatiha[5] from memory. I am sorry. I received a B+ on that last physics midterm; I should have done better. I am sorry. You can see the shape of my legs through the fabric of this skirt. I’ll go change lest I burn in hell. I am sorry.’ And on and on it goes. When I am fifteen, I recognize that the only means of escape is through two very visibly clear options: books or suicide. I choose books.

It is early morning in my senior year at Generic Suburban Midwestern High School, long before the ‘regulars’ arrive to tilt at windmills in their average classes. How quixotic. Jeremy Calvin and I are struggling through a particularly tough integral today, while the rest of our high school math team attempts to comprehend Riemann sums. We are preparing for our school district’s state competition, and terrified of what is at stake. Our school pride must prevail, or we are finished! Our partially developed orbits revolve around a form of miniature nationalism we’ve zealously cultivated.

We are mathletes and elites, all of us in this room. We have been taught to wield our intelligence like fencers battling with finely wrought rapiers. We overcome foes through powerful overconfidence and cutting condescension. In this world, we are unparalleled. We are something. We are winners. We matter.

- author’s name, four rows from the bottom up under Hoffman Estates high School

But, I am smarter than the rest. I know winning doesn’t mean a whole lot really — it’s going to look good on my college applications, regardless right? And so, with cynical optimism permeating my brain, I spend my teenage years creating a World-Class transcript to build up a case for just how World-Class I am.

I am so very proud. I think, primarily because I am allowed and encouraged to be- by school, by family, by the greater Pakistani community that we are somehow disproportionately obligated to pay lip-service to[6]; by some of my White friends who seem to be strangely envious of me — whole social institutions that exist seemingly to laud my success.

About this, at least. I have not been given permission to examine, confront, question, or foment pride in so many other things: my body, my sexuality, my fractured humanity, my conflicting American and South Asian identities, and my crumbling belief in Islam and God. So, I take what I can get. I have Many Accomplishments. I am not mature or self-reflective enough to recognize that I am no different than Ozymandias lost in the sands of time.

There is a silence in our home that can be heard for miles. I barter straight A’s and honor rolls for the right to spend as little time there as possible. If I keep myself occupied, I reason, I will not notice my mother’s increasingly crumpled face and my father’s rage. Thick letters of acceptance start arriving in the mail. Harvard wants me to attend. So does Northwestern and (oh my god!) the University of Chicago, my first choice, as well.

Arguments ensue — it seems that neither my father nor mother planned this far, when they laid out the bricks for the pathway they wanted me to walk upon so many lifetimes ago. ‘No, you will absolutely not be allowed to live on campus. You’re going to have to commute. You can study on the Metra; doesn’t that sound like a nice idea? You won’t even have to fight traffic on I-90! Besides, if I allow you to live on campus, how do I know you will not turn into a ‘randhi’[7] like all your ‘goray’[8] American friends? I know what happens in dormitories.’ says my father, with exasperation and anger. ‘No, I don’t want you to go out-of-state. I would miss you too much, and you know we can’t afford it. I am proud of your accomplishments, but that is as far as this conversation is going to go,’ replies my mother as she chops onions into yet another simmering curry.

I am so close to freedom.

I can taste it.

It tastes

like sea-salt and victory

like hot chutney and rage

like lychees and oxygen.

So, it is not surprising (to me at least) that my response to their stale arguments is an outpouring of verbs. I cry, whine, appeal, manipulate, scream, and beg. They are taken aback by my audacity. After weeks of this unfolding drama, we are able to reach across the aisles, and negotiate a bipartisan agreement. We trade my purity for my freedom. I make impassioned promises to stay a virginal and chaste Muslim girl and superficially agree to an arranged marriage after I have completed my education. An informal contract is quickly drawn up, and signed by all parties. Before they can change their minds, I leave for orientation week.

My father drops me off on campus. His parting words on my first day of college are: “If you do anything to shame me or the rest of your family, you will be disowned.”[9]

Naturally, I decide to major in mathematics and rebellion.

Author’s Note:

To the reader: This is my story. One of many Muslim experiences. Do not make the mistake of essentializing my experiences with Islam, sexuality, and identity as the narrative of all Muslim girls’ stories. I have a deep and abiding respect for my religion. My story is not representative, per se, of the millions of practicing Muslims who experienced their childhoods so differently than my own. As Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie so brilliantly points out in her TedTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Please do not devalue the beauty, nobility and majesty that is my culture, my religion, and the spaces in between we must all navigate when we walk simultaneously in grief and joy. If you are still confused, please consider reading Fatimah Asghar’s beautiful poem“If they should come for us”.

In Part Two of this series, I will explore how mathematics and identity ricocheted within and through whiteness at the University of Chicago. Stay tuned and thank you for reading this work.

With love and respect always, ~ Sara


[1] Counting in Urdu

[2] Shorthand abbreviation for Masha’Allah (thanks be to God) in Arabic — common saying to express gratitude

[3] Abu = father in Urdu

[4] Ami = mother in Urdu

[5] In order to perform prayer, surahs (verses) from the Qur’an are required to be memorized. Children begin reading and memorizing Arabic at a very early age in order to do this correctly

[6] I suspect this has something to do with our class and socio-economic position relative to other ‘family friends’. We were much less well off.

[7] ‘Prostitute/slut/whore’ in Urdu

[8] ‘White’ in Urdu

[9] The implicit parenthetical to this is (or worse). In other words, violence.




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