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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A math genius crippled by mental illness — the mystery behind Vashishtha Narayan’s world

He was the maths genius who, in the ’60s, streaked a path from Bihar to Berkeley. Sometime soon after, Vashishtha Narayan Singh slipped into mental illness, leaving behind a thesis, a few letters, some scribbles on the wall, and a million questions. The Indian Express travels to his home to find out what adds up and what doesn’t.

Written by Uma Vishnu | Updated: December 1, 2019 8:28:28 pm
Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Mathematician Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Vashishtha Narayan Singh Mathematician, India news, Indian Express Vashishtha Narayan Singh passed away at 73.

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A careless sequence of numbers? A hidden matrix? A child’s number game? There they lay scribbled on the pink wall of his ancestral home, the way Vashishtha Narayan Singh had written them some day. Much like the man who had written them, the numbers spoke little.

But on November 14, when the 73-year-old died, the numbers came to life for the first time. Visitors walked into the windowless room by the courtyard, peered at the wall by his bed and tilted their heads this way and that to look at the digits — these and others. “What are they?” “Don’t know. But has to be the work of a genius,” they all agreed.

“Genius” hangs heavy over Basantpur, the small village of mostly brick homes in Bihar’s Bhojpur district from where Singh started off on a remarkable journey in the 1960s, the kind few in these parts had made before him, or have since. The eldest of a police constable’s five children, Singh, who was far ahead of his BSc First Year class at Patna Science College, held a PhD in mathematics by age 23 from the University of California, Berkeley.

It was, however, a journey that sputtered early, ending with Singh being diagnosed with schizophrenia, forcing him into a shell of his own, a world where few had access to and from where he rarely emerged.

This is where his story begins — also where Vashishtha Narayan Singh ceases to tell his story and those around him take over. In their version of things, he is at times John Nash, the American mathematician who won the Nobel for his work on game theory but who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia and whose life inspired the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind. At other times, he is the “NASA scientist” who fixed a glitch in the space agency’s computers that had packed up “moments before” the launch of the Apollo human spaceflight mission in 1969. Mostly, he is all of this, “adbhut insaan”, “jaane-mane ganithagya (well-known mathematician)” and more.

But this is not a story of a ‘gifted mind’ or his ‘achievements’, but of what could have been.

***

Sitting on a small mound outside the family home in Basantpur, a gaggle of nephews interrupting constantly to offer their version of the man, Ayodhya Prasad Singh narrates his elder brother’s magical journey. “He was different from all of us. I could only study up to Intermediate and my youngest brother did his graduation. Bhai sahib toh alag hi the. Kya kahen unke baare mein (He was different. What do I say about him),” says Ayodhya, 63, who retired as a subedar in the Army and with whose family Singh spent his last six years at a flat in Patna. “I was 10 years younger. So all through my childhood, he was in Netarhat.”

After Class 6 at the village middle school, Singh had cracked the entrance exams for Netarhat, a residential school near Ranchi, in what was then unified Bihar, that has produced some of Bihar’s most illustrious bureaucrats, academics and professionals — former DGP and two-time BJP MP V D Ram, former chief vigilance commissioner Pratyush Sinha and former chief secretary S K Sinha, among others.

Singh’s friends at Netarhat remember him as the boy who spent most of his time studying. “Netarhat put a lot of emphasis on extra-curricular activities and sports. The students were divided into A, B, C and D teams, with those in A the most sporty and D filled with nerds. Vashishthaji was in Team D. I remember, during the hockey class, those in Team D would all be sitting, hockey sticks resting by them, discussing books, theorems and philosophy,” says Dr Ajay Kumar, Director of Urology at Patna’s Paras Hospital, who was three years Singh’s junior at Netarhat.

After higher secondary (10+1 in those days) at Netarhat in 1963, Singh joined Patna Science College for his BSc First Part. It’s here that the story of Singh the mathematician takes shape, with minor variations in each telling.

In college, he is said to have often been too good for his maths teachers, once even telling one of them that there were other ways to solve a sum than how the teacher had just done. That ‘defiance’ led to Singh being dragged to then principal and mathematician Professor Nagendra Nath’s room, who was so impressed that he got Singh to skip two years of BSc and sit straightaway for his BSc Final Year exam, which he cleared in 1964. The following year, Professor John L Kelley of the University of California, who was visiting Professor Nath, heard of the teenager’s talent and asked if he could take him to the US.

That’s how the Bhojpuri-speaking boy from Basantpur ended up on the Berkeley campus at age 19, where he did his MSc and later his PhD. This was the Berkeley of the Sixties, when the campus erupted in demonstrations that were part of the larger Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests. There’s little known of Singh’s days in Berkeley or if any of the events on campus influenced him — despite emails sent by The Sunday Express to professors in the mathematics department at Berkeley, and to Singh’s contemporaries, who had the same supervisor in Kelley, little was known about the man. Kelley himself died in 1999.

But in the letters Singh wrote there are glimpses of the man, the life he left behind and the one he had walked into.

In a letter to his friend Ram Prasad, at IIT Kharagpur, Singh says he was happy to read his letter in Hindi, “koi asuvidha nahin hui (it was no trouble)”. He goes on to say that he is in his fourth year at Berkeley and making “good progress”. The air mail dated October 31, 1968, with a John F Kennedy stamp, was sent from 301, Campbell Hall, which houses Berkeley’s programmes in astronomy, astrophysics and experimental physics.

Coming from a family with limited means, Singh, in these letters, appears struck by the West’s prosperity that opened doors to education. “Yahan ke madhyamvargiya parivar dhani hain. Zaroorat ki cheezein unke paas hain aur apne bachchon ki shiksha-diksha par dhyan dete hain (The middle class here is rich. They have everything they need and ensure their children are educated),” he says.

Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Mathematician Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Vashishtha Narayan Singh Mathematician, India news, Indian Express Former JD(U) MP Meena Singh at Vashishtha Narayan Singh’s family home

In another letter, dated February 10, 1968, this time to father Lal Bahadur Singh, Singh is the concerned elder brother, asking for his sister Sita Babbi’s wedding plans to be put off. Upset that Sita’s education was being discontinued — “badi galti (big mistake)”, he calls it — he says the money kept aside for her marriage would have been better utilised on studies instead. “Aap Sita Babbi ko angrezi padhne ko kahiye aur meri kitabon ko padkar ganit seekhne ko kahiye (Please tell her to learn English, and to learn maths from my books),” he says, adding that he can even arrange for her to be brought to the US. Before he signs off, asking his father to take care of his health, Singh instructs his siblings to concentrate on their English and science.

Singh’s nephew Mukesh, Ayodhya’s elder son, says that following the letter, Sita’s wedding was called off and she went on to do her graduation. She now lives in Patna.

There is no hint in any of his letters of a mind in turmoil. Yet, by some accounts, it was around this time that the mental illness crept in. Some say it began soon after his PhD paper, others that it was after he returned to India in 1971, and still others blame his state of mind on his failed marriage. “He got married in 1973, to a girl from Chapra, but the relationship lasted two years. That left him in a shock from which he never quite recovered,” says Ayodhya. The family says they did not keep in touch with her.

Back in India, Singh worked short stints in IIT-Kanpur, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata and Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, but he could never hold these jobs.

C V Rao, who was on the ISI, Kolkata, faculty for decades starting the early 1970s, around the time Singh joined, remembers the quiet man in the mathematics department who rarely said anything beyond a “hello”. “He came with a formidable reputation as this young, promising mathematician. He stayed on campus with his parents. But soon, his illness showed up and the family left. If I remember correctly, the ISI even got him admitted to Lumbini Park Mental Hospital,” says Rao, who is now Adjunct Professor at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

As a final-year M.Stat student on the ISI campus in 1972, Shashi Mohan Srivastava remembers Singh teaching him a course on topology. “But he was very unwell, not fit to teach. He had forgotten even the basic definitions of topology. Most of the time, he would tell my wife Haimanti Sarbadhikary, who was a research scholar then, to take the class,” says Srivastava, who is now a visiting faculty at Kolkata’s Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science.

As his condition worsened, Singh spent 11 years, from 1976 until his father’s death in 1987, at the Central Institute of Psychiatry in Kanke, Ranchi.

In 1989, says Ayodhya, he decided to take Singh along when he was posted to Pune. The two were on a train, along with a niece, when, around 3.30 am, Ayodhya woke up to realise Singh wasn’t around. “We later found he had got off at Gadarwara station, between Jabalpur and Itarsi. We searched for him everywhere, but couldn’t find him,” says Ayodhya.

Four years later, in 1993, two men from Basantpur who had gone shopping for their sister’s wedding found Singh at Doriganj, Chapra. A friend of Singh’s points to the “little known coincidence” that Doriganj is close to where Singh’s ex-wife comes from.

“Nobody knows how he got there, but there he was, picking something out of a garbage dump,” says Ayodhya, who was then posted in Leh.

The news of the disheveled “mathematical genius”, his clothes in tatters and with matted hair and beard, was splashed across newspapers. Politicians and the media lamented the neglect of “Bihar’s son of the soil”. Then chief minister Lalu Prasad got Singh admitted to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bengaluru on February 15, 1993, while then defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav ensured Ayodhya got a posting in the city to be able to stay closer to his brother.

When he was next posted to Jalandhar, Ayodhya brought Singh to their village, where he spent the following six years.

It was around this time that some members of the Netarhat Old Boys Association (NOBA), a close-knit alumni group, got in touch with the family and suggested that they move Singh to Patna to ensure he received good medical care. As NOBA chipped in with financial aid, some of his old friends, seniors and juniors at Netarhat called on him, hoping their presence would light a spark in his mind.

Dr Birendra Kumar, Singh’s batchmate and among those closest to him in his last few days, says, “After school, we went our separate ways — he enrolled for his BSc and I for medicine. After I got to know of his condition, around September 2013, I visited him at his flat in Kulhariya complex, Patna. I asked him in Bhojpuri, ‘Vashishtha bhai, remember you were in Vikramshila and I in Takshashila’. Those were the names of our hostels in Netarhat. But he didn’t respond. I sat there for an hour. After a while, when I again tried to remind him of our Netarhat days, he said, ‘Haan, haan. Theek ba’.”

Kumar says he then promised himself that he would visit Singh more often. During these weekly visits, Singh spoke little, but more than he had ever spoken before, once even calling up Kumar.

Often, Kumar gave Singh what he cherished the most — a notebook and a pen. “There was nothing that made him happier,” says Kumar.

Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Mathematician Vashishtha Narayan Singh, Vashishtha Narayan Singh Mathematician, India news, Indian Express Letters Singh wrote from Berkeley to his friend, father.

Other NOBA members, such as Professor Prabhat Ranjan, now Vice-Chancellor of D Y Patil International University in Pune, took it upon themselves to help Singh reclaim a bit of his past. His books were brought from the ancestral home and kept in three steel book shelves in his room. A study table was set up with his books, paper and pens near at hand.

There, says Ayodhya, Singh spent all his time writing. Nobody knew what he wrote, but he wrote — on walls, in foolscap notebooks, on the glossy pages of magazines, on his brother’s back. The pen held between his swollen fingers, these were mostly unintelligible scrawls in a loopy handwriting — four lines on the Ramayana, a reference to food on another page, his signature on another. And then, the numbers. “Often at night, I would find him sleeping with the pen between his fingers. He would also wake up at night to read a book and, having read some pages, put it back neatly on the shelf,” says Ayodhya.

He would also occasionally try his hand at the flute or the tabla — something that first-year students at Netarhat were mandatorily taught.

“I will live with a big regret. I can’t help feeling that if we had intervened earlier, if all of us at NOBA, the government, the society had reached out to him earlier, he probably wouldn’t have slipped away the way he did,” says Kumar, who retired as Director, Health Services, Jharkhand government.

“He spoke little, hardly complained. He didn’t recognise most of us, would simply call everyone ‘babua’. But he was one of the calmest people I have known. Na faltu bolna, kiya toh theek, nahin kiya toh bhi theek (No needless talk, happy if you did something for him, and fine if you didn’t). I wonder what was going on inside him, how he dealt with all that pain,” says Ayodhya, his face wracked by grief.

***

At the ancestral home in Basantpur, the plastic chairs on the mound are pushed back and everybody is on their feet. Former Ara MP Meena Singh of the JD(U) is visiting, and the chairs are placed in the central courtyard for her. As neighbours and other family members stand around, Meena Singh speaks with practised pauses, mourning the death of “itne vidwan aadmi (such a knowledgeable man)”.

The NASA reference comes up again. “Kehte hain NASA ke space programme ka jab computer fail ho gaya, toh Vahishthaji ne apna dimag lagaya, jo machine se bhi tez hai, aur use theek kar diya tha.”

Those standing around the court-yard nod.

Mukesh, Ayodhya’s elder son, who is observing a strict vidhi (mourning period), says the family has a few “demands” — a Bharat Ratna, “nothing less than that”, for Singh; naming a Central university after him; and state-organised celebrations of Singh’s birthday on April 2.

“Ghumnami mein zindagi jee hai, ab kam se kam jaane ke bad log unhein yaad rakhen (He lived a life of anonymity. At least in his death, people should remember him),” says Mukesh, a graduate, who in 2015 quit his job as nodal officer with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to “look after the family”.

Before she leaves, the ex-MP, enthused by the idea of celebrations to mark Singh’s birthday, promises she will ensure their demands reach Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

***

Dr Sachchidanand Singh, Assistant Professor at Patna Medical College Hospital’s Psychiatry Department, recalls the day in 2016 Singh came to see him — past Gate No. 2, past the transformer, past the Devi Mandir, holding his flute and two books. “He had come with his brother. He was lost in his own world, kept muttering to himself, he was hearing voices in his head. He had something we call undifferentiated schizophrenia, a kind of psychosis with hallucination, delusion etc as symptoms. His condition improved significantly after treatment, but the life expectancy of such patients usually comes down by 10 years,” the doctor says.

“His story can be compared to another great mathematician,” the doctor adds. “Have you seen A Beautiful Mind? John Nash. Two brilliant minds, but two very different endings to their story.”

Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash’s wife Alicia in the movie, says: “You can’t come up with a formula to change the way you experience the world.” Had Singh come up with that formula? Was it 20 22 23? Or just a careless sequence of numbers?

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