The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

May 20, 2010

Juvenile Humour

In the 1970s, there used to be a humorous magazine for kids in the USSR. It was called Yeralash (детский юмористический журнал "Eралаш"), and was so popular that I don't remember ever seeing a copy of it - either on newsstands or with my classmates. Luckily for those of us without contacts in the publishing industry, Soviet TV would occasionally produce short episodes - half-hour to an hour-long - based on stories in the magazine. There must have been a fair number of these aired, but I recall only one set.

A little old lady turns out to have magic powers that she uses for the benefit of her favourites, who are invariably hapless students struggling academically, although some of them fancy themselves geniuses. There was one involved episode in which a kid who obtained a grade in science of 2 (as shameful a grade as can be imagined, when 'passable' is 3, and everybody aspired to 'excellent', or 5) and wanted to improve his prospects.

The fairy godmother offers him enhanced skills in science, and that prompts him to set up an elaborate experimental apparatus in the chemistry lab. After much bubbling and boiling, and (I'm sure) changes in colour (which eluded me as I watched on a black-and-white TV), the set was pronounced ready for operation. Evidently, what the boy wanted to do with his new superb chemical skills was to dissolve that grade 2 written in his record and imprint a 5 instead. Instead there is an explosion and the debris clears to show the chap stuck to ceiling with the grade 2 transplanted onto his forehead. He woefully remarks, "Again we over-chemistrified!" which I have to say sounds a lot funnier in Russian ("опять перехимичели!") than in translation.

But the episode that always brought out the math geek in me was the one involving yet another poor student who is stuck with a problem in arithmetic. He sits glumly at his desk with his textbook open and his pen a-twiddle.

A senior student (who has been the recipient of the fairy godmother's favours) scoffs at his inability to solve it.

The problem was something like this: There are 28 oranges to be equally distributed among seven kids. How many oranges does each kid receive?

The poor student knows he has to divide 28 into 7. He does:

7 | 28
21 | 3
7 | 1
And obtains the answer 13.

The older boys says, "So each kid gets 13 oranges?"

"Yes," says the younger boy.

They look at each other in faint disbelief.

"How do you verify a division?" says the older boy.

"With multiplication," says the younger boy.

"Well then, multiply," says the older boy.

The little chap proceeds as follows:

"Addition," says the older boy. "That's what we need. It's the most accurate procedure."

The younger fellow is dubious. How do you verify division with addition, he wonders.

The older chap write seven 13s on the blackboard:
And proceeds loudly to add up the threes: 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21; and then he adds the ones: 22, 23, 24, 25, ...,

And sinks to floor in utter confusion when he arrives at 28.

We loved this episode in school because it appeared at first sight to be correct and had just that bit of thumbing one's nose at officialdom. Our second or third grade teachers loved it as well because they could use it as a teaching tool, and it seemed to help even those of us with less than stellar math skills to grasp these essential arithmetic operations. Even better, it very subtly explicated to us the wonders of the place-value in numbers, something we had only recognised in a very superficial sense.

What amazes me to this day is this intellectual and pedagogical quality of Soviet humour. The adults may have led lives of colourlessness and paranoia, but the kids had a lovely time growing up. These occasional diversions from the usual stultifying fare of agricultural statistics that were purveyed on TV were, for us, the icing on the cake.


Gandaragolaka said...

Apparently, there is an old American version as well, though I dont know if thats adopted, the original or unrelated... have a look:


Lalit S Chowdhary said...

It used to be a delhi cabbi driver dilemma joke in our time, where he ends up taking 13 bucks from 7 passengers for Rs 28 fare.

Post a Comment