“Jis number ke piche jud jaye uski kimat badh jati hai, aur jo usse takrata hai wo khud bhi zero ho jata hai”Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)
This is one of my favourite movie quote. For those readers of this blog who does not understand Hindi, here’s a translation for you- “(Zero) is a very useful thing. If it is added after any number, it transforms people’s luck. If a number attacks it, the number itself becomes zero.“
I have been called a “Zero” quite a few times in my childhood. In fact a large section of my trauma with experiences of child abuse came from being repeatedly called a “Zero” in one of the most renowned boarding schools in India. But why? Well, because I was bad at Mathematics and Chemistry. In fact I scored zero in mathematics several times in exams. It was not until the tenth standard that I had a mathematics teacher with enough empathy and patience to logically explain each step to me. The result- a 75% score improvement in my school finals! Being called a “Zero” gave me a very low sense of self-esteem and it is only now I am actually able to face it and work on it through proper therapy.
But being called a “Zero” made me more resolute in life. It taught me to work with, and make the best of the tiniest of resources at my disposal. When I went to study in the UK the second time for my Doctoral degree at University of Exeter, it was made possible due to a studentship offered by the university. But much of the monthly allowance went to pay my rent, and also to send money home so that my parents could survive. Encouraged by a friend from Ramakrishna Mission, the bane of our lives, my dad had put all his life’s savings into a fraudulent investment fund that the friend’s wife managed and then he ended up losing all of that savings. So I was the bread winner for the family and it only left me £150 to work with each month, to pay for food and everything else. That wasn’t enough. Not at Exeter, at least. It was close to Zero. I had to plan my meals, and often would end up with days having just biscuits, or discounted cans of soup from Tesco or Iceland.
When I returned from the UK after PhD and left my academic job in Kerala to start Immersive Trails (then known as Heritage Walk Calcutta), my wife Chelsea and I started from absolute Zero. My dad had just passed away. He had a massive stroke, out of the blue, and probably due to constant bad mouthing, threat and pestering by his Ramakrishna Mission friends to pay back the debts he racked up from them, after becoming broke due to the bad investment. He had no savings, neither did we, as much of our money went to paying the debt back. We started from Zero. From scratch and built up the company to where it is today, and are super proud of what we achieved so far.
My point of writing all of this is that “Zero” is not necessarily a bad thing. Bullying someone by calling it, because of their disability in something, is bad. But beware- the one you called it might just come back and make you regret it one day. Being a “Zero” taught me a lot. Being a “Zero” gave me the courage to stand up and call out the systemic nature of bullying at my boarding school. Being a “Zero” helped me survive through acute financial strains. Being a “Zero”, helped Chelsea and I build something wonderful, from scratch. This post is for all of you out there who have been called “Zeros” in something or other in life. Do not worry. The invention of “Zero” was the most important innovation in the history of mathematics and the sciences. “Zero” is insanely valuable. Here’s to all of us “Zeros” and to the change we bring through our work in everyone’s lives.