Neela's abilities had first manifested themselves when she was ten and her brother, Navi, was twelve. Navi was the smart child, known throughout the neighbourhood for his ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide faster and better than any other twelve-year-old, and probably better than anyone else in Marasaw. He would pace around his grandmother's rickety wooden house in grey school shorts and an undershirt, using whatever he came upon to test his mathematical speed and accuracy. Twenty-seven and twelve tin cup is thirty-nine tin cup! A hundred and three by six tea towel is six hundred and eighteen tea towel!
Neela's grandmother, only in her early forties when Neela and Navi were near puberty, encouraged her grandson's domestic calculation rampages. She challenged him to problem-solve questions: "If I throw seventy-seven black-eye pea in dis pot and boil it for forty-nine days, and spill two quart-a water straining de peas out, but forget de fire on and almost burn down de town by eleven o'clock, how much peas left?"
In his younger days, Navi would stare at the sandy floorboards and, after some reflection, whisper, Seventy-five?
But these days he had learned better. "De same amount you start with, Granny."
"Ah Navi-boy," she sighed, with an artificial old-lady voice, "you too quick for your old granny."
While the whole neighbourhood prophesied about Navi's future as a banker or engineer, thrilled that their modest town should possess a boy of such talent, Neela's prospects were rarely discussed. They were hardly noticed in light of her brother and this manifested itself in bodily form – she grew skinnier, shorter and more awkward than he. She tried to do mathematics like her brother, but she would pass household objects and forget to put them into equations. Even when she made a painful effort to do so, she was never as daring, as acrobatic, as Navi. Nine and four channa is twelve… no, thirteen channa…
She was aware of how silly she sounded coming up with those lacklustre sums. "Alright girl, dat's good," was as much of a confirmation as Granny could muster, flipping and oiling roti on the stove. "Must follow your brother's example when he wins de contest."
The famous Children's Mathematical Challenge, or the CMC, as the students had nicknamed it, had been initiated by a foreign diplomat who had come to the country. Dismayed at the lack of competitions between schools, he had originally founded the Student Spelling Challenge. He had laboured to get headmasters from towns all over the country to send their most talented spellers to the competition, but his excitement hadn't ignited the country's imagination. It was only years later that the diplomat's son, convinced that arithmetic, not English, was the world's common language, transformed it into a popular math competition.
Navi was Marasaw Elementary School's natural choice. After the headmaster announced that Navi would attend the CMC in the capital city, adult townsfolk took credit for the boy's brilliance. I taught de boy for four years,
his teacher told the other teachers. He takes after my family, you know,
his grandmother informed her neighbours. It's his name we raise to heaven in prayer, man,
his Sunday school teacher confirmed. But deep down, they knew Navi's uncanny skills didn't come from any of them – it wasn't clear how he achieved his spectacular sums, but they knew full well that he didn't need anything from them to know that three by six hundred and seven papaw is one thousand eight hundred and twenty-one papaw.
Still, Navi was generous in his acceptance of the honour. "It's my family, my neighbours, my school and all de good citizens of Marasaw dat made dis happen. Without them teaching and guiding me, I would not even be able to spell seee-emmm-seee," he declared in a speech to the whole school, for which he received applause made insincere by his classmates' secret jealousy and overly sincere by his teachers' delight. "Will you join me now, fine students and teachers of Marasaw Elementary," he said in conclusion, "to sing our school's most beautiful anthem? For I am going to dis Challenge only for you." More than two hundred children, sweating in uniforms cuffed by green and orange bands, stood up noisily.
But Neela didn't sing. She had no choice in attending the assembly, but she had the choice of whether or not to sing. As the others belted out the school' s anthem in that off-key, half-shouting way they always did, Neela mouthed the words, pretending to take heaving breaths between stanzas. She had started such little feats of rebellion the afternoon her granny and brother sat at the kitchen table to write his acceptance speech. Her anger had begun to seethe against Navi's lofty accomplishments, and she knew that the time had come for her to act. I done with being his copycat, done being his hand-puppet.
Her underground revolt might go unnoticed, but she didn' t need anyone's attentions. She would still strive to poison the enthusiasm swirling around Navi and his mathematics. He gon' be sorry, real sorry
"Hey, girl," a classmate with puffy ponytails whispered from behind her, between verses three and four, "you so lucky
to have a brother like dat!" Neela pretended to be too absorbed in her singing to hear the compliment.
Neela attempted to throw a tantrum, whining to continue playing outside with her friends, but her grandmother would have none of it. "Get your tail in here and help you brother finish packing de bags!" Granny commanded. So Neela kept silent when the three of them took a taxi to the dock at the edge of town. She sucked in her Look over there!
when, as their ferry started across the river, a large orange bird that had captured a squirmy fish in its beak perched on a post and stretched out its wings. She held her tongue and clamped her teeth when they arrived on the other side and descended from the boat along wobbling wood planks, dizzy with noontime sun and confused by shouts of family meeting family, Eh boy, eh girl, we over here!
Navi's vocal calculations extended to their surroundings while they awaited a minibus – palm trees and expansive bushes, taxi drivers bullying customers, a girl selling ginger beer, stacks of bleached crates acting as chairs. Passengers packed into a lime green van and held tight as it whipped down crowded city streets, blasting everything in its path with a horn rigged to sound like a siren. But, wedged between old women and their plastic bags, Neela refused to affirm her grandmother' s reflection: "Dis driver a madman, I tell you…"
It was the first time that Neela had visited the capital and stayed as a hotel guest. Even though her Marasaw hometown of aged houses and elderly neighbours was only a mile across the river, it seemed terribly unsophisticated in comparison to the city. Never again would she be as mesmerized as she was this time – all the colourfully dressed ladies, shops constructed with bricks, humming mopeds and taxis, poor children jumping in puddles of brown water. It was so animated, so celebratory, even in its most mundane elements. As they walked by the sprawling outdoor market, Neela envisioned the Big Top described in her Royal English Reader for Students
textbook. Mighty lions jump through flaming hoops while seals balance balls and clowns tickle everyone's fancy,
she recalled when they passed a crowd cheering a jester; he manoeuvred his homemade marionette to flirt with bashful little girls.
That evening, Navi applied arithmetic to everything in the hotel room, more impressive than ever dividing and multiplying the pillows and sheets. "Neel babylove," Granny said, "whole day you quiet. What happen, ba-ba, you sleepy? Go to sleep."
"Yes, Granny," she answered, too genuinely tired to go through her nightly Ow Granny, a little longer, nah
Granny rubbed her hand over a folded blanket on the bed. "See how nice these hotels does be? Watch how pretty dis blanket is. You must enjoy de place while you here – feel it, nah?" she asked, hoping to engage Neela's interest. "Now hear, children, both-a you," Granny said, over twelve hundred and sixty beds minus four hundred and thirty beds,
"must call me ‘Mommy' when we out tomorrow, you understand? Nav? Hear, Neela?"
"Yes, Mommy," they replied with equally distracted voices. As Navi became more lavish in his calculations, Neela sank lower into the despair of her brother's sure victory at the contest. Grudgingly, she acknowledged that her silent campaign had made no impact on his spirits or abilities. He spent the night dreaming of stars and planets and moons to add and subtract – he had the strange gift of calm. Although she had seen no results, Neela was too stubborn to abandon her protest. She brought the soundless demonstration into the bustling hotel auditorium the next morning. Navi and dozens of other uniformed children were lined up on stage in velvet-backed chairs, restlessly awaiting the opening speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, students and educators, thank you for being with us today as we mark our thirty-seventh annual Children's Mathematical Challenge. This is a truly marvellous event of higher learning that I look forward to every year," the diplomat's son said, cloaked in a woollen suit at the polished wood podium. "As you are well aware, the fifty fine boys and girls before you have been selected as your country's most promising young mathematicians."
"Shhh, boy, hear de man, nah?" a man sitting behind Neela and her grandmother whispered to his whimpering toddler son. "Watch your sister up there, she over there, you see? Dat man talking about her when he say ‘mathematician,' eh? Aw, she bright bad, yes? Hummm?"
Neela frowned to herself. She knew that the man's attempt to console the boy on the basis of his sister's overbearing accomplishments would make the child more upset, more impatient in his own ordinariness.
"There is nothing more satisfying than seeing children carry the torch of mathematics into the future," the diplomat's son continued, wiping moisture from his forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. "You should be proud of your sons and daughters. Many of them will take what they discover here and, no doubt, will grow to forge a noteworthy legacy for your country. They will bring their childhood success into adult excellence."
"You hear dat?" a woman a few seats away said in a scathing growl toward her two shrinking daughters. "Y'all play-playing whole time at school, and look where your brother is." One girl stared at her shoes while the other concentrated on smoothing her skirt over her knees. "You hear me, you ungrateful pickney?"
A current of warmth rose through Neela, vicarious anger and shame accumulating under her cheeks and ears.
"Y'all think life is easy but it ain't so. Your brother work hard and if you keep play-playing, he gon' leave you behind. See how quick y'all become nothing." Neela watched the girls avoid eye contact with their mother, knowing that she would interpret it as encouragement to continue.
"It's one thing if y'all was succeeding in your classes. Then you could do all your wicked heart desires. You could run all over de square and I'd let you go along your way. I'd keep my mouth shut. But how you girls carry on, must ready yourself for failure. Don't come to me, ‘Mommy, why you didn't tell us how hard it would be? Why you didn't show us de way?' Because I done tell you, I done show you . . ."
Applause drowned her out, forcing Neela's attention back to the diplomat' s son. "I expect your very best today, boys and girls, as we begin our Challenge. As you know, our rules are simple – contestants who provide correct answers will move forward. The contestant who completes the competition without an error will be declared the winner. I wish you the best of luck, children, we all do." More applause rang through the auditorium. "And good luck in all your future endeavours."
The Children's Mathematical Challenge started with simple arithmetic questions posed to each competitor by a panel of judges. Although instructed to hold their applause until the end of each round, family members of children who answered correctly – De answer is four hundred and eighteen, Honourable Judges
– responded with infectious clapping and commentary. Yes! Dat's right, child, correct!
But by eleven o'clock, after the first of three rounds had closed and errors had purged more than half of the competitors, the audience was edgy. The judges' questions became more compounded – Contestant, what is four thousand and thirty-seven by sixty-two minus five hundred and nine?
Answers no longer snapped out immediately, and delay tactics emerged. Some children asked for questions to be repeated – and other children stopped in the middle of their calculations to fulfill an urgent need to buckle loose shoes. Contenders no longer approached the podium bouncy and self-assured, hoping that humbled steps would translate into more cautious calculations.
Yet Navi didn't share this hesitation. Although his grandmother sat stiffly in her seat, squeezing Neela's hand whenever the words Navi Keetham, please address de Honourable Panel
were sounded, Navi himself was just fine.
"Ah, your brother's something else, Neela." Granny sighed as her grandson, the strongest competitor in the CMC, strolled back to his chair after a particularly complex sum. "You hear what he say, love? You hear your brother give de correct answer? And he didn't break a sweat!" Only now aware that Neela had been silent the whole morning, Granny bent her neck so her eyes would meet her granddaughter' s.
"Yes, Mommy, I hear."
"Oh, Neela," Granny said, straightening herself and wrapping an arm around Neela's shoulders, "you nervous for Navi, nah? Ow, don't worry yourself, he gon' do good."
Neela grasped onto the misguided comfort, knowing that it was fleeting. She pressed her ear to her grandmother's chest, into the heavily flowered material of her best and least- worn dress. "Mommy, if all these people praying for they own children to win, but only one is to win, how come everybody think their prayer gon' be answered?"
Her grandmother grinned. "Well, Neela, you asking a hard thing now, girl! Why you want to get trap up in dis kind-a hard question? You mus' -ee need some senna to move your belly and pass it away…"
"No, Granny!" Neela said, having difficulty restraining laughter whenever her grandmother reduced all ills to the need to take laxatives. "I mean, Mommy."
"Looks like I gon' got to get you some good castor oil when we reach home, nah?"
"No! Answer me! Please?"
Granny drew a large, thoughtful breath. "Baby, I can't really tell you," she said, fingering two skinny gold bangles on her wrist, twisting them to reveal their patterned sides. Neela watched how they glided over a well-known streak of dark scars on her arm, scars and gold looking as shiny as each other in the auditorium's lighting. "Maybe it's wrong for them to pray for they own children. Maybe they should pray for de right one to win and be at peace with it. Or maybe it ain't right to pray for dis kind-a thing at all. I don't know, Neela."
"You praying for Navi?" she probed, passing her forefinger over the texture of her grandmother's bangles and watching them slide back down over the scars.
"Well, all dat being said, of course I'm praying for your brother. I can't help but pray with all my heart dat he'll win."
Neela looked to the podium and a lanky, unsteady girl. Her school uniform was similar to Neela's, only it included a white hat with a neat navy blue bow to the side.
"Contestant, what is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three?"
Body motionless, the girl's eyes flickered to her father and little brother, right behind Neela and her grandmother.
"It's okay, girl, take your time and think it through," the father whispered in his daughter's direction. Neela found herself thinking that perhaps this tall girl was the right child to win, even though Granny was praying so earnestly for Navi. You can get it, you can get dis answer, girl,
she thought to herself, on an impulse.
The girl shifted her weight from one elongated leg to another. "Can you please repeat de question, Honourable Judge?" she requested.
"What is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three, contestant?"
She scratched the back of her neck, causing her hat's front rim to bob up and down at the audience. "Come on, you know dis!" her father whispered urgently. The girl watched him, fear of elimination distorting her expression into a grimace. Don't worry with your daddy,
Neela silently consoled, just think carefully. Think about de numbers, don't worry with anybody else.
The girl opened her mouth rashly but snapped it shut again, letting her sightline pause at her shoes. She straightened her back. "Please answer de question, contestant," a judge instructed unsympathetically. Don't worry with him, either,
Neela thought, you gon' be fine.
"Oh no, looks like she gon' lose dis one," Granny murmured, feeling uneasy for the girl's father. Uh-uh, I think you can get dis answer, girl, I know you gon' get it,
confirmed Neela. You close, I can see you close….
"Answer de question, please," another judge ordered, irritated, and the girl lifted her head. She squinted. You can do it, girl, you might be de right one to win!
The girl opened her eyes wide with knowledge. Yes! You got it!
"De answer is eighty-three thousand, four hundred and twenty-one, Honourable Judges."
"Very good, contestant. You may take your seat."
Everyone cheered for the tall girl, her father most of all; he leaped to his feet and clapped his hands high above his chest – Dat's my child, my daughter!
– while she skipped to her seat and enjoyed back-patting from contestants around her. Neela smiled without reservation for the first time that day.
Neela started to encourage every contestant in the same way, save one. She spoke to them with growing confidence as they took their place at the podium, inwardly telling them, You could be de one to win, you can get de correct answer, your family too-too frightened you gon' lose but I believe you can win.
And they were thirsty for it, soaking in her bountiful support while struggling through increasingly difficult questions. She prompted the others not in panic of their failures, but in apprehension about her brother's success. Her faith was certain in a way that those children had never known from wishful parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. It was safe, lavished equally upon them all.
But, unbeknownst to him, Navi was at a severe disadvantage at the end of the third and final round, when only he and one contestant remained in the challenge. A sharp scratch of doubt ran through his body as he was called to the front of the stage. He noticed that his grandmother and sister had come forward on their seats and were staring at him. He pushed aside his uncertainty and recomposed himself on the way to the podium, legs straight and eyes fixed on the judges' platform.
You was sure of yourself till now, nah?
He heard himself think. "Contestant, what is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five?" Navi suspended his senses to process the numbers.
Alright, let's see if you can get dis one,
he thought. Twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty five is twelve thousand nine hundred and seven. Subtract six hundred and seventy-seven? Were those de right numbers?
Yes. You sure?
Yes… I think… You ain't sure. Don't tell me you forgetting de question so fast.
Twelve thousand and forty-two, add eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven. Yes. Dat does sound right. Or is it six thousand and seventy-seven? Or seven thousand and sixty-six? They barely read de thing and it's slipping from you.
No, I'm alright, I got de right numbers. Twelve thousand and forty-two. Eight thousand and sixty-five. Six hundred and seventy-seven . . . wait. Something don't seem right. Twelve thousand and forty-two… eight thousand and… or is it eight hundred… It's all starting to get mix up, boy.
"Honourable Judge," Navi asked, "would you please repeat de question?"
The judge observed him over spectacles that rested low on the tip of his nose. By this point in the day, he was tired of repeating himself. "What is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five," he replied.
Alright, dat's it – twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and sixty-five, six hundred and seventy-seven. You a-hundred percent sure?
Um-hum, de first piece equals twelve thousand nine hundred and seven; dat number minus six hundred and seventy-seven is twelve thousand two hundred and thirty. And dat's divisible by five, so… But dat can't be right.
Yes, it is, twelve thousand and forty-two minus eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six thousand and seventy-five… is six thousand eight hundred and thirty. So how did I get twelve thousand two hundred and thirty de first time? Hum. Getting confused again.
First I'm to subtract, then add, then divide. Or add, then subtract… or subtract both times and divide? You mean dis simple question's too hard for you to calculate? Come nah, man. What a disappointment you turning out to be.
He looked to the judges with artificial hope that they might speak his question once more, but the judge with the spectacles gave him nothing. "Please answer promptly, contestant," he said flatly when their gazes met. Navi was aware that bewilderment had infested his expression. Amongst the layers of auditorium seats, he located his family again. One of them had predictably anxious eyes and furrowed brows. The other had a face of pure stone.
I thought you was better than dis.
Six thousand eight hundred and thirty… Dat calculation just don't sound right.
Is it adding both times and dividing by five? Or adding and subtracting, and then dividing? You can't remember de numbers or what to do. Looks like you ain't as clever as you thought.
Twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and seventy-seven… six hundred and sixty-five?
"Answer de question now." You hear de judge, you can't stall no more.
Six thousand eight hundred and thirty divided by five is one thousand three-hundred and sixty-six. Time run out.
Dat must be de answer. It's all you can offer them now…
"Contestant, answer de question."
"One thousand three-hundred and sixty-six, Honourable Judges," Navi answered, as if his grandmother had tricked him with a math problem about peas in a pot.
"Incorrect. De answer is two thousand four hundred and forty-six. You have been eliminated from de competition."
Granny remained rigid, unable to let go of Neela's hand. Navi returned to his chair robotically, too numb to perceive the audience excitedly applauding the winner – they had fused into a mass of disjointed faces. He could hardly comprehend that he had gotten so far and lost. That's why he didn't expect to tell himself such a thing when he sat down, a thought so contrary to what he had blindly assumed ever since he had been chosen to compete – Maybe I was wrong all along, maybe I wasn't de right one to win.
The tall girl accepted the first place cash prize and a large trophy for her headmaster to display at her school, while Navi accepted a bronze plaque emblazoned with Second Place.
Granny proudly positioned the plaque in her rickety cabinet, between the Her Majesty's collector plate and a yellowing regal dolly with a lavender ball gown. She would point to it every time visitors came by – rather than impressing them, it led to a further question. What happen, Sugee, why de boy didn't win first place?
Even when visitors fought the temptation to pose such a thing aloud, Navi was guarded against their flash of puzzlement over his second-place status, the very confusion he felt when he glanced at the plaque himself.
He didn't take it with him years later when he left the country, and he certainly didn't reply to the part of his grandmother's letters that read, I polish your award every week, when I open the cabinet to dust the plates…
He completely disregarded the plaque when he became the first from his country to fill an impressive overseas government position. But he would never forget that look on his sister's face before he made an inexplicable error at the Children's Mathematical Challenge.
Excerpted from The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.