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Birthdays and bad mathematics

  • Published at 12:00 am October 3rd, 2019
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

It is important to correctly count anniversaries and birthdays

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong and his fellow communist revolutionaries stood at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to proclaim the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. A couple of days ago, the Chinese duly informed the world that they were commemorating the 70th anniversary of that momentous event in global history.

No one in Beijing, not its leaders, not its media, made any mistake in mathematical calculation. No one said China was observing the 51st anniversary of its October Revolution. 

Earlier this year, people all over the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the walk on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin in July 1969. No one at Nasa, no one in the American or any other media enlightened us with the thought that the world was celebrating the 51st anniversary of man’s first walk on the lunar surface. Everyone remembered the simple arithmetic learned in school, remembered in light of that lesson that the anniversary of an event commences a year after the act has taken place.

But that was not the principle or the arithmetic followed in Bangladesh last week when citizens were drenched with news reports that on September 28 it was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s 73rd birthday. The media said it. The ruling Awami League proclaimed it. Nearly every discussion and every tribute paid to the head of government was a drumbeat of the idea that Sheikh Hasina was born 73 years ago. No one had the time or a mathematical sense of inquiry to note that she opened her eyes to the world 72 years ago, on September 28, 1947.

This is not the first time that we in this country, thanks to the practitioners of bad arithmetic, have been getting our sums wrong. And it is a mistake, indeed a blunder, which has been creeping not just into birthday celebrations, but in other observances as well. 

It is a shame when people do not know how to count, when in an outrageous manner they even go to the scandalous extent of defending their mistakes.

And how do they do that?

They go into sophistry, a process through which they try to differentiate between days of birth and birthdays. This writer has been glibly informed by the know-all that September 28, 1947 was Sheikh Hasina’s first birthday. But she was not born on September 28, 1946, was she?

That is sheer folly, this mathematical imprecision. There is a difference between one’s day of birth and one’s birthday. Birthdays are about the years an individual covers in life.

Now, if the Chinese get their calculations about the anniversary of their revolution right, if no one questions the years added to the annual observances of the Apollo 11 landing on the lunar surface in 1969, why do our brilliant minds swiftly turn an individual’s day of birth into an improbable year? 

Earlier this year, on the occasion of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth anniversary, a good number of people cheerfully put it about that it was his 100th birthday the nation was observing. They were making the same mistake. 

One tends to wonder why we keep making these mistakes. On Sheikh Hasina’s birthday this year, it was the ruling Awami League which informed the media and the nation that she was 73. There was hardly any newspaper which questioned this figure. Almost, or perhaps, every media outlet went ahead and agreed with the party. 

After all, the special supplement the party brought out on the day had the number 73 boldly inscribed at the top. Who would have the gall to challenge it? Seriously, though, when a party like the Awami League commits this sort of blunder, you tend to go back to March 1975, when every newspaper correctly noted that March 17 that year happened to be Bangabandhu’s 55th birthday. In those days, people’s sense of mathematics was without blemish. No one said Bangabandhu was 56.

All this playing around with dates has been causing us quite a good degree of irritation, even embarrassment. For some reason or the other, by some stratagem during the Ershad era, the authorities determined that Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year, actually corresponded to April 14. The decision would have made sense had it taken West Bengal on board. 

That was not done and so what we have now is the curious spectacle of Pohela Boishakh being observed in Bangladesh on April 14 and in West Bengal a day later, on April 15. Well, Bengal was partitioned in August 1947.

In Ershad’s times, even the Bengali calendar was split in two, with the result that Bengalis on both sides of the old Bengal observe the death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore on two different days. 

For us, it is Shraban 22 on December 6. For them across the border, Shraban 22 is on December 7. The truth? Tagore died on Shraban 22, 1348, corresponding to December 7, 1941. How did we bring the Bengali calendar forward by a day? Obviously, the Bard could not have died on two days!

But there we are, pushed into this state of confusion by some bizarre arithmetic here in Bangladesh. Wrong arithmetic has even had a good number of our people getting confused, or creating confusion, about Independence Day and Victory Day. 

You can be pretty sure that in December this year, loud voices will be heard about the nation’s 49th Victory Day, when in truth it will be the 48th. In March this year, it was painful noting, per courtesy of some mathematics aficionados, that Bangladesh had observed its 49th Independence Day. 

If we have already done that, what do we do in March 2021 when we plan to celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence? On December 16, 2021, should we uphold false mathematical calculations and tell ourselves that the nation is happily commemorating its 51st anniversary of victory over Pakistan?

We need to get our facts right. We must get our figures right. We will be engaging in intellectual dishonesty, plain and simple, if we stay silent in the face of such a peddling of bad figures. We will be turning the rules of mathematics, taught by our teachers in school, on their head.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.