On Mohali

One lazy winter evening, Priya happened to mention to me that she was going to attend a program on knot theory in IISER Mohali. She said the organisers were really nice people so I could probably still apply even though it was way past the deadline.

In a singularly uncharacteristic turn of events, I applied, and eventually was told with much gusto that I could attend. At this point I didn’t really think of the whole thing as “real”. I had booked a train ticket (now I know what all the class codes mean!) for Chandigarh but I never thought I’d use it. I had picked out the clothes but never thought I’d pack them. And so on.

But December the 9th came along. And my suitcase was packed (thanks to mother). Final farewells exchanged. Got on the metro to the station, found the train and sat in it. Five hours later, I’m in Chandigarh. A half hour (and one seriously overpriced auto ride) later, I’m in IISER Mohali. Everything is so different. I’m in the guest house. My name isn’t on the list. Priya’s phone is not reachable. I sit and wait for someone to come along and say I can go up. People come and go. And then Priya shows up. And then the guy I’d been emailing shows up. He says to the receptionist to put me in room 501. Priya tells me she’s next door. Happiness!

We go up to my room. Fancy. Big. We go to her room. We meet her roommate, Asha. It takes me a day to memorise her name. She’s from NIT Calicut. She’s very nice. She studied under Rama Mishra during the summer. Knot quandles. Fascinating stuff. Rama Mishra is one of the organisers. Priya had mentioned a bunch of times that she was awesome. We met her and I concurred immediately.

I don’t quite remember what we did that first day. I remember the restaurant. Zozen. What a funny name. What absolutely scrumptious food. (I later found out the food budget for this thing was 4.5 lakhs). For the first week or so, not one dish was repeated. There was always paneer in some new and exciting form. Ditto chicken, or fish, or mutton. Eight kinds of dal. A bunch of state-specific cuisines. Pickled carrots I enjoyed surprisingly a lot. And a different sweet everyday. Heaven. I don’t eat this regularly at home only.

Anyway. On to the program itself. The first day had a little introductory bit by Rama Mishra. She laid down a bunch of terminology and definitions and then introduced the next speaker, Louis Kauffman. He walked up to the board and starting talking in a booming American accent that I could follow without a glitch. After another introductory bit he started writing down some polynomials used in knot theory. The last thing he wrote down in a progression of these polynomials was something called the Kauffman Bracket.

It took a while for that to sink in. He’s teaching us about something named after him. Something that he invented. He’s, like, famous! And he was talking so gleefully about his Bracket polynomial. Talking us through very naturally about what he was thinking while he was developing this idea. I was amazed.

There were many speakers. Slavik Jablan, from Serbia (crystal clear accent), Jozef Pryztycky, from Poland (a bit unclear but understandable), V Bardakov, from Russia (with stereotypical Russian accent), Benjamin Audoux, from France (with stereotypical French accent) and loooooots of Japanese people with varying degrees of clarity in their English.

I’m not exaggerating when I say loooots. There were at least 10 of them. Our runaway favourite was the awesome Akio Kawauchi (河内 明夫, whose name means “a good husband in the middle of a big river”). He sat next to Priya one fine dinner and started philosophising at her about life and knots and how people’s lives are like knots and meeting other people is like performing a crossing change on those knots and so on and so forth. I joined them in a bit. He was a very nice old man. His English was clipped, but he still managed to express himself rather well. After a while he took out his phone and showed us this game called Region Select (search for it on the Google Play Store). He said it had to do with knots and that it was a fun and challenging game. Then he let us play it! Some ten minutes or so was then spent trying to figure out the rules by trial and error (the rules in the game were in Japanese). After a while, it dawned on us that he was one of the co-creators of the game! He must have mentioned it at the start but we didn’t understand. This was so cool! He said one of the others was also here, and she would give a presentation about the game and how it came about. So cool!

Angad. How did I get this far without mentioning him? Angad is Rama ma’am’s son. He’s 11. And much smarter than any other 11 year old I’ve seen before. He is a non stop talking machine. He must have spoken to everyone at the conference. He walked up to all the speakers and asked them something like the following:

Pick a number between 1 and 10. Multiply by 10. Add 5. Multiply by 20. Add 10. Your number is X!

He likes riddles. And tongue twisters. And Harry Potter. He’s in the school choir. He knows a lot of cool songs I didn’t think it was possible for an 11 year old to know. He is also utterly fascinated with gadgets and app stores. He went apeshit when he saw my phone. And Priya’s kindle. He kept telling me to download random apps and games. He didn’t know about angry birds for some reason so I showed it to him. He looooved it. Then he mentioned he liked Prince of Persia and I happened to have that, so we played that as well! He kept dying to the guys you have to sword-fight with though. Kept panicking and mashing all the buttons at once. Anyway.

He’s loads of fun. He’s on google+. You should add him.

His mother must have been so relieved that he took to us so well. Instant babysitters! He was with us a bunch of times and each time was very fun. He says the most surprising things sometimes. He really is quite clever. He also has a “temper” which is very cute and funny. And he knows karate (or at least can fake knowing it very well). I must have missed something or other. I shall update this whenever I remember more.

Class again. Kauffman was talking about rational knots. Very fascinating stuff. At the end of the talk, I went up to him and asked him why they were called “rational”. He had a sudden twinkle in his eye and he asked for a paper and pen. I took my book out and he then proceeded to explain in exquisite detail precisely why they’re called that. Not only that, he also then went on to talk about cool properties these things had. And then he ended it with one particular cool property that he himself discovered. So. Awesome. In the end he had written in about six or seven pages of my notebook. This is worth WAY more than an autograph would ever be, to me. (I later looked up some papers of his on rational knots, and was delighted to notice that all the stuff he explained to us in my notebook constituted 19 pages of a 40ish page paper he wrote).

There is so much more I can tell you. Slavik Jablan is the author (I think, or maybe founder) of LinKnot, a Mathematica package that does knot theory stuff on your computer so you don’t have to yourself. He mentioned it in his talks a lot, and I wanted to know more about it. So one day I asked him if he would demonstrate it to us students, so we would have a vague idea about it. He was so nice about it! He agreed immediately and he showed us the program the next morning, on a Sunday, before breakfast, right before an outing to Chandigarh for the day. His enthusiasm is positively contagious.

Even though I understood way less than even a quarter of what was talked about, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I shall more seriously read about things I don’t yet know but will need (topology!).

Oh! Sujoy! Last story, I promise. From the beginning:
Someone asked Kauffman something about Möbius strips. I was doodling away but Priya wanted to know what the question was. She went and stood near where Kauffman was telling the other guy something. Sujoy was also standing near there. After a few minutes they came back with this nugget: if you have a thrice-twisted Möbius strip that you cut in half, you get a trefoil knot. So to test this out she made the strip, stapled the ends together and cut it in half. Whaddaya know, trefoil knot! The stapler was Sujoy’s so we started talking a liiiitle bit after this.

The day before he left for home, he asked us if we would like to go out and walk around in Chandigarh. Maybe have dinner. We were like yeah, sure! At 7 we set out for sector 35. It was soooo much fun. He took us to a dollar store where we bought little presents for home. Then this bakery which smelled so perfectly of chocolate, where he ordered this sizzling brownie ice cream thing that was scalding and delicious. We walked around. Got some KFC chicken popcorn. Cotton candy. Walked in and out of a Burger Girl. Then eventually went to some punjabi restaurant and spent the rest of the time talking about raaandom things. Was so much fun.

But that’s not the end yet. After we got back to the campus, we walked to his hostel and got some tea and coffee. We were just sitting there and talking about random things again. I don’t quite remember how but we eventually started talking about maths. And studying. And stuff. I cannot summarise the discussion for you but let me tell you it was amazing. He was, for lack of better words and perspective, so wise! I knew someone like him back in Roorkee, but he would talk about physics like this. It was so nice to see someone talk about maths this way. So. Awesome.

Okay. That’s all for now! This is much less than a tenth of all the stuff that happened. I shall probably keep updating this as I remember more and more.

Thanks for reading! And for another point of view, check out Priya’s blog!


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