In the early 1960s, John L Kelley, the head of the mathematics department of the University of California, was visiting the Patna Science College. He was in the principal’s room when a mathematics teacher rushed in with a complaint about a student who was disturbing his class. The youngster’s fault was that he had asked difficult questions. Kelley’s curiosity was aroused and in the meeting that followed, the student, Vashishtha Narayan Singh, had impressed the American scholar into inviting him to the UCB. There is more than one version of this story. Many stories of Singh’s brilliance are apocryphal. However, his 1969 PhD dissertation, “Reproducing Kernels and Operators with Cyclic Vector,” is one of the most referred works in the field. But in less than a decade, this brilliant mind was lost to academia. His troubled life came to an end on Thursday.
Born to a family of modest means in Vasantpur village in Bihar’s Ara district, Singh acquired a reputation for quizzing his mathematics teachers at school. Patna University decided to bend its rulers when it was felt that the syllabus system was holding the prodigy back. Singh was allowed to appear for the final year BSc examination when he was still in his first year. He topped. The American sojourn followed soon after.
After his PhD, Singh worked at NASA for about three years. His research has applications in areas ranging from computer graphics to quantum mechanics. Singh chose to return to India at the height of his scholastic prowess and worked at the IIT Kanpur, TIFR, Mumbai and the ISI, Kolkata. But his mind had also begun wandering into realms unknown. In 1976, not yet 35, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is known to have scribbled equations in notebooks that admirers would get for him, which would be kept under lock and key. Are there traces of his erudition waiting to be uncovered?