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Finally,Bihar looks up forgotten maths genius

Vashistha Narayan Singh,67,could pass off as any other villager at Basantpur in Bhojpur. He scarcely speaks these days

Written by Santosh Singh | Patna |
April 30, 2013 12:59:14 am

Vashistha Narayan Singh,67,could pass off as any other villager at Basantpur in Bhojpur. He scarcely speaks these days. And when he scribbles formulas and trigonometric symbols in the blank spaces of a newspaper,he betrays only his interest in the subject,not the fact that he was once a celebrated mathematician,one who worked with NASA,IIT Kanpur,and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

A paper he wrote,“Reproducing Kernels and Operators with a Cyclic Vector”,was published in the Pacific Journal of Mathematics 43 years ago and caught the attention of mathematicians worldwide. Then a schizophrenia attack in 1977 ended up turning him into a forgotten genius. Since then,he has been living a life of loneliness and struggle with his brothers and nephews,though his presence did help Basantpur earn the title “the village of Vashistha babu”.

The government has now remembered him,apparently because of a campaign by a local Hindi newspaper. Madhepura’s B N Mandal University last fortnight offered him a job as a visiting professor,arranging accommodation and promising an unspecified honorarium besides travel expenses. He will interact with postgraduate students in rooms set aside by the university’s geography department.

“Finally,there is an acknowledgment of my brother,who was in need of monetary support and recognition,” says younger brother Ayodhya Prasad Singh.

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Vashistha was born on April 2,1946,son of a constable. Ayodhya retired as a subedar in the Army in 2005.

When Vashistha does speak,it is usually with his two brothers and their families,communicating with short sentences in Bhojpuri. The family took him to doctors in Delhi,Bangalore and Ranchi but could not afford to to go abroad.

He still likes to talk about when he went to the US to present his papers,says his nephew Mithilesh. “He dwells in the past but still loves teaching village children mathematics. It depends on his mood. And he is very fond of reading the newspapers,” Mithilesh says.

Ayodhya remembers his elder brother as a precocious child who liked to juggle numbers. After his primary education from a village school,he topped the matriculation examination from a school in Netarhat,now in Jharkhand,and then went to Patna Science College.

His talents were on show at the World Mathematics Congress in the early 1960s at the Bihar College of Engineering,where he impressed Prof John L Kelley of University of California,Berkley,with his solutions for five problems. Kelley invited him to Berkley with an assurance of whatever help he needed. Singh was then in his graduate course but Patna University made special arrangements to allow him to take the postgraduate examination directly. He did exceptionally,became a postgraduate at age 20,and left for the US,with travel and accommodation arranged for by Prof Kelley.

“Bhaiya talks about Kelley as if they met just yesterday,” says brother Ayodhya.

His paper on cyclic vectors won him a NASA job in 1969. But he was homesick. He returned in 1972,joined IIT Kanpur and married the daughter of an Army officer. He stayed at work and she at his village; it eventually ended in divorce.

Singh moved to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,Mumbai,and then to Indian Statistical Institute at Kolkata,where the schizophrenia attack came in 1977. Treatment brought little improvement and he quit his job in 1978 and started living at his village.

The family says successive governments assured him medical support but few kept their promises. “That was tokenism. He was soon forgotten,” says brother Ayodhya.

Today,a B N Mandal University official calls the appointment “a matter of great pride”. “Even if he does not take regular classes,it doesn’t matter,” says a university teacher. “It is important that students know who Vashistha Narayan Singh is.”

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