It is not what you would call a traditional Saturday activity. But the 15 children in this weekend classroom, all clad in bright yellow tees, are furiously totalling numbers. The worksheets before them have columns full of figures, to be added/subtracted by moving the beads up and down on their personal pencil box-sized abacus. And yes, they do this at amazing speed.

This is calculation done with the abacus. No longer is it an esoteric Chinese system. Abacus “technology" has been nicely corporatized. It is taught across the country, with the help of specially designed abacus kits, with practice worksheets

1-2-3-4-5: The students at UCMAS will eventually graduate from doing small calculations on the abacus to doing large ones mentally.

And parents are lining up. Across cities, franchisees for the different abacus arithmetic courses (most of which are headquartered in Malaysia) say business is booming. “Seven children to 75,000 in five years," says R.N. Hadpad, the Maharashtra franchisee for the Universal Concepts Mental Arithmetic System (UCMAS) course. Then there are Aloha India, Socially Intellectual Progressive Academy (SIP) and Smart Brain—all say their statewide student bases are growing by the thousands. The abacus programmes are all calculation-based, with none of the conceptual emphasis on problem solving that other math programmes, such as that of the Institute of Promotion of Maths (IPM), have. But their practitioners explain how the use of an abacus has many other benefits, such as improved memory and better concentration.

At a UCMAS class at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School held, like most such classes, on a weekend, area coordinator Barnali Choudhury is hosting an orientation for parents with their five-year-olds. There is a large abacus up on the board and Barnali takes the parents through a simple first lesson. Numbers are split logically; 6 is 5 and 1 and 4+6 is expressed through abacus beads as 5-1 added to 5+1.

Calculation is different with the abacus; unlike textbook maths, the abacus method means you begin with the highest place value and work your way downwards to units. Can this get confusing? “What difference does it make," declares K. Kumaran, managing director of Aloha India. “If you multiply 2x3 or 3x2 the answer is the same." Kumaran, who worked in film distribution before the abacus took over his life, tells me how it all began for him at a dinner in Malaysia. “I had just reached my friend’s house on a Sunday evening when I saw his daughter going out. She was going for her mental maths class, they told me and began to call out sums to her. I couldn’t believe it when she gave all the answers without a pen, paper or a calculator. She can visualize the abacus in her head, they said. That inspired me to bring this training to India (in 2002)."

Two hours of maths classes on weekends and practice every day, spread over two to three years, is a big investment of time and energy, yet parents whose kids have done the course seem happy. But to ace the course, it is important to ensure fairly intensive parent-supervised practice. Invariably this, more than anything else, leads to a high dropout rate.

Eight-year-old Sach, who began the course in senior KG, has completed seven of the 10 levels. Mother Sonal analyses why she eventually dropped out: “It’s great, but if you’re not practising it continuously, you can lose touch. Sach was practising and becoming very good, but when she stopped, she started sliding. Plus, the pressure was a bit too much." Nine-year-old Joshua Narde, on the other hand, has completed all 10 levels. “It’s helped Joshua in many ways," says mother Asha, “but don’t expect something miraculous; they don’t apply the same sort of maths as school." Despite Joshua’s achievement, Narde confesses that going through the entire programme was something of a challenge “for both of us".

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