On April 21, 2013, math prodigy, astrologer, and philanthropist Shakuntala Devi breathed her last at 83 in Bengaluru. The dailies were abuzz, grieving the loss of this math whiz, better known to the world as the “fastest human computer”.
On one occasion, she had beaten a computer in deriving the cube root of 188138517. Another time, at Imperial College in London, she multiplied two randomly picked 13-digit number and answered accurately in flat 28 seconds and earned a mention in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records. And there were many times, Shakuntala left TV show hosts and audiences enthralled with her lightning-speed calculations and pointing out the wrongs in the question presented to her.
The extraordinary ability that she called “a god’s gift, a divine quality” lent her astrology skills as well. Give any date from the past century, she could come back with what day of the week it fell on in a jiffy. She would also provide remedial solutions according to one’s date and time of birth, and many people consulted her to have their future told.
Today is 88th birth anniv of mathematics wizard Shakuntala Devi, known as the "Human Calculator". pic.twitter.com/4JucehHe2z— Mumbai Heritage (@mumbaiheritage) November 4, 2017
It was her father, who rejected the life of a priest and became trapeze artist, lion tamer, and magician at a circus, who first noticed was Shakuntala’s extraordinary talent when she was three years old. He then left the circus and went on to demonstrate her calculation skills on road shows and later to universities.
Hailing from Karnataka, Shakuntala had, in her lifetime, authored 10 books sharing her views on the beauty and relevance of numbers in everyday life, astrology, and homosexuality.
Math, an Everyday Affair
Not everybody can make sense of numbers. In fact, those who cannot often harbour a rather strong stance: one absolutely loves crunching numbers or they dread it. Neutrality does not seem like a possibility. Hence, the conversational question: are you a math person?
Shakuntala was not one to buy such conversations and strove to help students overcome the math phobia. She was of the belief that math should be approached only in the spirit of curiosity and discovery.
She also emphasised that fear comes from the wrong approach of treating it as a subject. “Mathematics is life, you have math in everything, right from time to your date of birth to the food you eat and the air you breathe,” she had told The Hindu.
The author of Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child (2005) tried to make students overcome math phobia through workshops, the Shakuntala Devi Education Foundation Public Trust that makes education accessible for poor, and her many other books.
Sadly, the techniques she applied in simplifying math were not used in the curriculums of educational institution and died with her, according to DC Shivdev, a trustee of the foundation.
Shakuntala: the Globe-trotter
The math genius had travelled to many countries across the world, and she reflected openness and truly progressive ideas and opinions, a particularly striking one being with regards to homosexuality.
While India in 2019 battles stereotypes and laws that threatens basic rights of LGBTQ+ community, Shakuntala had laid down the clear idea that all must be looked upon as equal humans in her book, The World of Homosexuals, in 1977.
“Immorality does not consist in being different. It consists in not allowing others to be so. It is not the individual whose sexual relations depart from the social custom who is immoral – but those are immoral who would penalise him for being different,” reads a paragraph from the book. Despite being the first published study in India on homosexuality, more notable is the fact that it remains relevant till date.
However, the quest to understand homosexuality closely started after her failed marriage to Paritosh Banerjee, who was gay. Towards the end, she stressed that only “full and complete acceptance” would work, and neither tolerance nor sympathy would.
India was then emerging from the Emergency period and her book went largely unnoticed. But thankfully, Shakuntala’s larger-than-life personality will be brought alive on the silver screen, played by actor Vidya Balan, in 2020. And we’re looking forward to this cinematic tribute!