Updated: August 1, 2020 7:38:59 pm
The day after, on June 26, 1977, the front page of a local newspaper, The Odessa American, splashed a photograph of her on its front page. She is sitting with her back to a blackboard, on which is scrawled a ginormous number, spilling across 10 rows, which a professor at South Methodist University, Dallas, Texas has taken four minutes to scribble. The task is to find the 23rd root of the 201-digit number. For a computer programmed to compute the same, it takes over a minute. Shakuntala Devi does it in 50 seconds.
To the world, she is the “human computer” with a mysterious internal algorithm that takes in giant numbers at a glance and turns them into playthings for her performances. But, as a new biopic that released on Friday on Amazon Video seeks to show, Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013) was greater than the sum of the numbers. “She was a hot-blooded, unapologetic woman who wanted it all,” says Anu Menon, who has directed Shakuntala Devi. “For her, maths was not about sitting in a room and solving problems, but about spreading its joy… She came out of nowhere and travelled the world — [and through her life] she had no boundaries,” says Anupama Banerji, 50, her daughter, who is based in London and who collaborated with Menon on the film.
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By 1977, Shakuntala Devi had been at least four decades into an extraordinary journey that took her out of a poor family in Guttahalli, Bengaluru, in pre-Independent India. Along the way, she became an auto-didact, teaching herself English and other languages, a woman who loved her saris, wine and dancing to Fred Astaire songs, a mother struggling to squeeze her fierce persona into the demands of motherhood, and a woman who wrote a book on homosexuality in 1977, when it was considered an abhorrent deviance. “…I wish to write about a… minority group, of my fellow human beings who have been very little understood, and forced to live in ‘half-hiding’ throughout their lives by a society that is merciless towards everything that differs from the statistical norm,” she wrote in the introduction to The World of Homosexuals, which released a few months after her Dallas feat. It remains a pioneering inquiry into homosexuality in India.
“My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being,” she had written, though she had revealed that her husband Paritosh Banerji, an IAS officer from Kolkata, was gay. The two had met in Bombay in the 1960s, “when my mother was giving a show, and my father was in the audience,” recalls Anupama, though the film shows their first encounter at a party.
It “created havoc in my life”, Shakuntala Devi had told filmmaker Vismita Gupta-Smith, when she interviewed her in Atlanta in 2000 for her film For Straights Only (2001). “It was a reflection of how scientific she was that she was able to study it dispassionately. In India of that time, there was no language for it. She did not want to talk about her husband but said, what other option did gay people have?” recalls Gupta-Smith. It is a version that Menon’s film surprisingly contests, showing her inventing the fact on the spur of the moment during an interview. “When the media repeatedly asked her why she was writing a book on homosexuality, Shakuntala Devi just said her husband was gay and, suddenly, her book was credible. As for her husband, he did not care,” says Menon.
That claim, though, can only lead to more questions. “I suppose only Shakuntala Devi and her husband could have confirmed the facts,” says Gupta-Smith. “When I interviewed her 20 years ago, she came across as a strong ally of the queer community. She strongly advocated for an open conversation, inclusion and sensitivity towards gay and lesbian family members. Her book had been out of circulation for decades at the time of the interview. It was courageous of her to write this book when she did. My hope is that this triggers a sensitive and empowering conversation for the LGBTQ community and their families who are often pushed back into the closet because of prejudice when a family member comes out,” she adds.
Shakuntala Devi was five or younger when her father discovered she was computing cube roots in her mind. He launched her on the stage, making her perform in schools, businesses and universities — a path she never really strayed from. Despite her wishes, young Shakuntala was not formally schooled, and became the primary earner for her impoverished family. “At the age of six, I gave my first major show at the University of Mysore, and this was the beginning of my marathon of public performances.” she told The New York Times. In a 2000 interview to Hinduism Today, a magazine run by a monastic community in Hawaii, she said, “When I was young, I didn’t want to do the shows, because I didn’t like them. My father would beat up my mother in anger, and my mother would beat me up. It was a very traumatic experience.”
It was a memory that she recounted in private to others, too. Journalist and author Gita Aravamudan recalls meeting the mathematician in Trivandrum while she was on a tour of schools in the early 1970s. “She was pregnant and invited herself to breakfast at my home because she was craving for some Kannadiga food. She told me how difficult her life was as a child and how exploited she felt,” says Aravamudan.
But eventually, she grew to relish the life of the itinerant, and the performer. “There is a line in the film where she says, ‘Hum ped thode hain, insaan hain.’ We are not trees meant to stay in one place,” says Menon. The director says the biopic is not about one woman making a little space for herself in a man’s world. “Shakuntala Devi had to own all the space. She never questioned herself, or spent time second-guessing others,” she says. Much of the film’s research came from conversations, spread over three years, with Anupama — and it depicts the intense but difficult relationship they shared. “It wasn’t easy for her to bring up a child alone. As I grew older, we grew into a friendship. A few issues also started creeping up. But the thing was: she was my whole family. It was just her and me in this wide world,” says Anupama.
When Shakuntala Devi was a toddler, a tussle was playing out in her hometown that is a part of the history of Indian women’s struggle in STEM. It was 1933, and Nobel winner CV Raman had refused to allow Bombay-University topper Kamala Bhagwat to carry out research in biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) — because she was a woman. Raman had to relent in the face of Bhagwat’s persistence, but allowed her in on the condition that she not distract his male students.
Shakuntala Devi’s singular journey — largely unburdened by gender prejudice — doesn’t map easily on to this struggle against conditioning, or institutional gender blindness. “She was an earning member for her family from a young age. So, she didn’t know the difference between men and women. She was instinctively feminist and instinctively progressive,” says Menon.
For someone who blazed a trail outside the academia, she captured popular imagination. Kaneenika Sinha, mathematician at IISER Pune, recalls being asked to speak on women in maths in her college years and choosing Shakuntala Devi, “even though several faculty members asked if she was a mathematician at all”. “To be a mathematician, do you have to write research papers only or do you have to be someone who understands maths, who discovers the patterns in it? The rules of maths were a part of her being,” says Sinha.
But the question persists. “What she did is extraordinary. But, as mathematicians, we are concerned with why things work with numbers, what is the absolute core theory on which things are based. She was doing manipulation of numbers in a very quick way, which is high-level arithmetic. It is not the kind of thing that excites mathematicians,” says Geetha Venkataraman, a mathematician from Ambedkar University, Delhi.
In 1988, American psychologist Arthur Jensen attended a show by the prodigy in San Francisco and invited her to be tested in his chronometric laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. In a paper he wrote later, he recalled the quirks of her relationship with numbers: she needed to “see” the numbers before computing them, and hated them being broken up into commas. He recounted how she read “the number 720 on a car’s license plate” and broke it down into a “6 factorial (i.e., 6! = 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 720). “And so it is for virtually every number she confronts.” “For a calculating prodigy such as Devi, the manipulation of numbers is apparently like a native language, whereas for most of us arithmetic calculation is at best like the foreign language we learned in school,” he wrote.
For Menon, though, Shakuntala Devi spoke more than that language. For her daughter, she was a woman “who never looked back” but stayed friends with her husband even after a divorce. “She had the guts to live a life that she wanted,” says Menon.
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