After Michael Phelps refused to interview with homolog.us blog, we signed up an ex-Olympic participant from an insignificant ‘sports’ called mathematics. His previous two interviews are posted here and here.
Q. Please tell us about the Olympic training camp in Bangalore.
Around mid-May of 1989, I headed to Bangalore to attend the maths summer camp of Dr. Shirali. My parents helped me board a train at Calcutta, and after being alone in trains for two days and nights, I finally reached Bangalore.
At the training camp, I met many kids from Delhi event, but there were also few new faces. Interestingly, all new people appeared even smarter than the ones I met in Delhi. Soon I learned that they were one year older than us, and went through summer camp in 1988. 1989 was the first time India was sending team to maths Olympiad. So, the plan was to pick three guys from 1988 summer camp and three from 1989 camp. Those new faces were actually the older ones selected from the summer camp of previous year.
The summer camp ran for almost a month. It was fun, but very intensive. We had maths classes and discussion every other day, and math exam in the Olympiad format every other day. In each day’s exam, we got exactly three problems and were supposed to solve as many as possible in three hours. On first look, the problems looked innocuously simple, but they were very difficult to solve.
Q. Could you give us few examples?
Sure, here are two examples from International Maths Olympiad of year previous to us. They were the most difficult problems of 1988.
Q. They indeed look simple. Ok, let us hear more about the summer camp.
The intensive mathematics sessions continued. We were immersed in mathematics all days and night. On exam days, we continued discussing the days’ problems after hours to check who got them and who did not. I always felt like being the only one, who never managed to solve any problem correctly. The exams were not graded and returned to us, because the team selection was supposed to be based on them.
The summer camp was a humbling experience for me. By the end of second week, I made a decision not to become a mathematician. I figured I could not take talking about mathematics all day and night. I also found out that my biggest weakness was in number’s theory, which I never learned before. So, during the evenings, I tried to catch up by reading number theory books.
On Sundays, we were free and had time to go around the town, but I did not get much opportunity to do sight-seeing. Bangalore of 1989 was not a cosmopolitan town like today, and language was often a problem.
Finally the summer camp came to an end, and I was ready to go home. The biggest surprise came on the day before leaving, when Dr. Shirali announced the Indian team based on the graded tests over the course of summer camp. A very smart guy named Arvind Rajaraman topped our group, and then surprise, surprise, I came in second !! I was selected to represent India at the IMO in Germany.