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What will it be today?
Xerox or xenophobia… ?
Neither. It is x.
Ex? Whose ex are you writing about?!
Not e-x ex, it is x, x.
Wow, things are crystal clear now. Not.
It will be when I start writing.

*****

I don’t remember too well whether it was when I was ten, or eleven, that teachers – not all of them, but a section of the fraternity, teaching Math – started insisting we find x. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t do it themselves. If they were so keen to meet up with x, they should have done it themselves. But would they? No. They set us little girls in pigtails – already burdened by stuff like what was grown where, who won some godforsaken battle in the fourteenth century, what some poet in faraway England said about daffodils (and this without even showing us a picture of what daffodils looked like) and more – on the task.

It all started so innocuously. If x plus y equals this number, they said, giving us a random number, and y was that number, throwing in another, find out what x is. Eh? Now x has become a ‘what’?! I thought x was a ‘who’ that the teachers wanted us to find for them. Excuse me, Miss. I know what x is. It is an alphabet. I had almost raised my hand to set things right with the particular one among the section who taught Math and had put the question to us.

When I looked up though and saw her eyes boring into mine from above her spectacles which had slipped down to the tip of her formidable looking nose, I lost my nerve and quickly bent down to peer into my notebook as if looking for the lost x. Now she wouldn’t know the truth. Serves her right for scaring me. I could have easily have shared what I knew, that x was the twenty-fourth alphabet (and also that y was the twenty-fifth). It was taught to me way back when I was a tiny tot. Hadn’t she ever gone to kindergarten like the rest of us?

Good thing though I held my tongue. It turned out that I was wrong. Not the first time that was happening, nor would it be the last. I had been wrong about a lot of things before, and would be in the future too. Sigh. On that particular day I found out much to my chagrin that the x and y in math class were quite a different species from the ones I encountered in kindergarten. In Math class, x and y were assumed aliases (to confound the clueless like yours truly) and we had to try our hand at unmasking them and revealing all.

Initially it was all straightforward and simple. But as time passed and we had to vacate our seats in each class in favor of those in a different and higher class, things started getting complicated. Slowly and insidiously, parentheses, brackets and braces started entering the picture confusing the hell out of the whole issue. What’s more, plus on some occasions decided to become minus, and minus changed over to become plus, everything depending on whether they were in or out of brackets, in the soup together or at each other’s throat.

There was no let up. Things only started getting more complicated from then on because apparently more of them x and y gangs had heard what was happening and decided to join the fun. Some fun! Not for me, though I cannot say the same of some of my friends. Masochists, that’s what I’d call them. Why else would they want to study Math even after it stopped being compulsory!

This is where we part ways, I told them firmly. But… but, it is so much fun. How can you not want to be part of Mission Find x? they asked me in amazement. Come with us, they urged. I pitied them their innocence. Little did they know it would never end. When they’d find one x, they’d start looking for another. I smiled at them, a trifle sadly, for I’d miss them, though definitely not x. I turned and without a backward glance, walked to the History Department.

© Shail Mohan 2020