Frankly, in a book store this one would not have caught my attention despite the fact I have a degree in Pure Mathematics from Madras University obtained decades ago. My journalist friends often wonder why on earth with such a degree I chose a profession where two plus two was often six or eight! Around 45 years in the profession, I never encountered Integral or Differential Calculus, stayed away from Limits and Binomial Theorem and only vaguely recollected that Trigonometry was about Sine, Cosine and so on.
But then you live and learn. At B.A., no one taught me that mathematics was connected to locks and Mahabharata, though for solving difficult problems, I often sought divine help without which the Pandavas would not have won the 18-day war. But the title aroused my curiosity and I thanked the author for explaining in the preface itself that this was a fun book, offered no profound thoughts except providing us an inkling of how completely unrelated things may have some commonalities. Add to this the fact that I knew my Mahabharata, was supposed to know some Maths and these two would cover up my lack of knowledge of locks which obviously meant something more than locking and unlocking. Yet, after finishing the book, I was left with a sense of wonderment.
The author Raghunathan had a huge collection of locks, was a national level chess player and ‘cartooned’ for a national daily. Only such a person could write books like ‘Ganesha on the Dashboard’ or ‘Don’t Sprint the Marathon’. What did we have here? A James Thurber who knew his Maths?
I had no problem with the Mahabharata section or the one on locks, but will go easy on the mathematics part of the book where some of the calculations went on and on and made me feel like a slow moving fieldsman chasing a shot from Shikhar Dhawan! I knew how Draupadi came to acquire five husbands (narrated with delicious tongue-in-cheek style by the author). Mistaking Draupadi for some sort of alms brought home by her five sons, Kunti told prince Yudhishtir to share the booty and the obedient sons of that ‘yuga’ took her word literally.
Raghunathan skirts playfully with the puzzle who among the five was the favourite husband of Draupadi and who the least (this was before the days of the Gallup and other polls!) Then comes the poser, what if Draupadi had been born as a padlock? ‘Just as the five husbands of Draupadi represented one meta-spouse, the five keys of this lock represented one meta-key.
With suitable illustrations, the author explains the existence of such a lock in Rajasthan which was still manufactured regularly and passed off as ‘antique’ to tourists. Such locks were used in joint families where no one trusted anyone, particularly in business. The lock would not be opened until the five family members were present. If the families were smaller, they used locks with fewer keys!
From the mathematical point of view, the problem of five husbands could be used to discover the rather indelicate issue of the most favourite and least favourite husband of Draupadi. In a playful yet ‘calculating’ mood, the Princess could have clarified this issue to her friend and presented the friend with a table on the number of nights spent with each of the five husbands.
Using further complicated mathematical equations (to me at least), the author ‘proves’ that Draupadi favoured Arjuna the most and poor Nakula, the least. Perhaps, some of our Mahabharata experts would challenge this finding.
The book goes on analysing 10 episodes from the epic, focusing on the war, the locks and some relevant mathematical equations. King Jarasanda could only be killed if his body was torn apart and one of the two pieces thrown upside down. It was a question of symmetry and asymmetry which had ready references in maths.
The author explains the presence of unusual locks with two shackles to explain the problem of symmetry and uses Binomial coefficients for the mathematical part. Hero Abhimanyu’s inability to break and come out of the “Chakravyuha” after entering it led to his death and the existence of the one-way lock provided a suitable example. Another fascinating though slightly modern comparison was how Karna suffered the scorpion bite while his guru slept on his lap and was cursed for not revealing the fact about his birth. This was connected to the locks which resembled the scorpion and how mathematics was used to search and find the USS Scorpion, the nuclear submarine of the US navy which was lost in the sea in 1968.
Well, Mahabharata and Maths can handle difficult problems. But thanks to the author, we know how locks can join this illustrious club. A great Time Passer of a book.
(V. Gangadhar is a journalist based in Mumbai)