Ever since I set my foot on this exciting land of opportunities way back in August 1969 I have been fascinated and intrigued by the oft-repeated phrase ‘Figure it out’. The enduring aspect of this phrase is that, unlike many other phrases, it has not faded out with time and what is more, there is no stopping- no kidding!
For instance, the phase, ‘I am fine’ in the 1970s is now replaced with ‘I am good’, when someone asks you ‘how are you?’ or ‘Howdee, in the big Lone State Texas, with appropriate, unmistakable drawl. Or, consider the phrase, ‘I am through. That, my good friend, was the correct response to ‘have you finished your dinner or lunch?’ in the good ole days. This is now replaced with, ‘I am done’.
The all-pervasive, omnipresent google defines the phrase as ‘solve a problem or discover the answer to a question’ – discover, as in ‘America was discovered by Amerigo Vespucci ?” Solving a problem conjures up a bunch of over-excited techies solving a complex problem, burning the candle at both ends. In reality, it is just a harmless, unpretentious phrase that can be thrown about in the unlikeliest circumstances. If you sneeze you have to figure out a way to reach for that tissue while the person likely to be affected by the blast of exhalation has to merely figure out to wish ‘bless you’. See? That is how simple it is.
By the way why do people in the vicinity of the sneezing guy have to wish ‘bless you’? Oh, it is an ancient custom that originated when people believed that one could possibly die while sneezing. I would let you ‘figure out’ other reasons.
The first time ever I heard the phrase was from my neighbour when the repeat moon-shot was reported to be in some danger. ‘They will figure it out’, he said gleefully, waving his hand off in disdain. ‘ I wouldn’t worry about it’. I did worry so he promptly offered his tiny TV set for a day to watch the astronauts maneuver.
Then there was this famed Professor Wilbur Nelson – the father of Petroleum Refining – at my Alma Mater, who looked and acted like the character Zorba the Greek – played brilliantly by the celebrated actor Anthony Quinn in the movie by the same name.
‘What’s the meaning of ‘True Boiling Point of a fraction of crude oil’ – I sheepishly posed a question to him.
‘Class,’ he turned towards me, piercing my eyes and patting my slender frame at the same time, ‘ I guess this genius from India knows the meaning of the words, ‘True’, ‘Boiling’, ‘Point’ and ‘crude oil’ , so now’, he added, with a wry smile that reminded me of Zorba the Greek, ‘he can surely figure out the meaning of the blessed series of words’.
The class, of about 10 graduate students, burst out laughing.
There were many a moments that sent me on the trail of holy grail before I could really figure out the meaning of that phrase.
The advent of calculators coincided with my first visit as a graduate student to the U.S. While the Indian students, who had been mercilessly badgered into memorising tables all the way up to perhaps the 29, the local students were spared the torture of memorising all that garbage.
He had a go at ‘figuring out’ the answer to 15 x 3, talking to himself, ‘Now, let’s see, fifteeeeeeen thimes treeeeeee…, oh well where’s my calculator; someone please hand me that gadget!’
Out came the answer, after punching a few keys on the brand new calculating marvel-the precursor to the Computers.
It was a stunning display of number crunching made possible by technology. Oh, the wasted months in memorizing the multiplication tables at our primary school! Why on earth the fragile, impressionable minds were forced to do the repetitive tasks – I just couldn’t ‘figure that out’ – the pun, not intended.
But look at the brighter side! All the Indian students went around with a halo of being clones of the legendary Shakuntala Devi.
Have you figured it out yourself ?
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