A household name throughout our country, Shakuntala Devi – famously known as “the human computer” was someone who carved a name for herself in Indian history as a mathematical genius and writer, in a country where women in STEM research fields are underrepresented even today. She took people across the world by storm in the 70s and 80s with her astounding ability to mentally calculate equations involving numbers of the highest order and broke calculation world records. One can find various puzzle books authored by her in bookstores across the nation even today. This article seeks to put forth an overview of her life and her contributions to various fields, including writing, although she is remembered mainly as a mathematical prodigy.
Shakuntala Devi: Early Life And Mathematical Career
Devi was born on November 4, 1929, to a traditional Kannada Brahmin family living in Bangalore. Her father, however, unlike the rest of the family who were priests worked in a circus as a tightrope walker, trapeze artist, lion tamer, and stage magician. Her father discovered her extraordinary abilities one day when she was three years old and they were playing a game of cards together. He noticed that she was able to win by memorizing all the cards. Her father took her on performances on the road where she displayed her talents. She had to drop out of school in class one due to her family not being able to afford the fees, however, this did not hinder her destiny as she was a child prodigy who was able to solve sums without any formal education. By the time she was six, she was touring different universities such as the University of Mysore, Annamalai University, Osmania University, etc. giving out public performances. Thus she was able to capitalize on her talents, and despite being the youngest member of her family and only a child, she became its breadwinner.
A few years later, she moved to London along with her father and in 1950, embarked on a tour around Europe and amazed academics and the public everywhere she went, as her answers would turn out to be different but right when checked. It was around this time during a BBC appearance that she was conferred the title of “Human Computer”; however, she stated that she disliked the name and that it was unfair to compare computers with the human mind. Her fame was not all rosy as she also had the responsibility of being her family’s sole earner and thus sent all her money to them.
Devi gained recognition not for her ability to calculate large sums alone but also the astounding speed at which she was able to calculate them. In 1976, The New York Times wrote about her that
“She could give you the cube root of 188,132,517 — or almost any other number — in the time it took to ask the question. If you gave her any date in the last century, she would tell you what day of the week it fell on.”
A year later, when at Southern Methodist College in Dallas, she calculated the 23rd root of a 201 digit long number in less than a minute whereas a UNIVAC 1101 computer took 12 seconds longer than her to do the same. Programmers then wrote a special code solely for confirming her answer. In a 2007 interview, Devi stated that this calculation had been the most difficult one she had faced – and yet it took her only 50 seconds. In 1980, she also earned a spot on the Guinness Book of Records for multiplying two 13 digit numbers in 28 seconds. Noted educational psychologist and researcher had the opportunity to study Shakuntala Devi in 1988, and made her undertake a series of tasks and tests. While publishing his observations and findings from the same, he stated that “Devi solved most of the problems faster than I was able to copy them in my notebook.” (Telegraph, 2013)
Source: India Today
Beyond the Numbers – Her Various Accomplishments:
Shakuntala Devi was a multi-faceted personality, which reflects itself in her life’s events as she went on to dabble in various fields rather than stick to just mathematics. Unlike the general perception of mathematical geniuses and the like, people described her as a warm, outgoing and engaging person, adept at holding conversations and having a good stage presence. She was not someone who touted her skills or wanted to pursue math exclusively; rather, she said that what the world needed was more humanity.
Devi was a prolific writer, dabbling in various topics. Books written by her include a thriller novel titled “Perfect Murder,” cookbooks, and various others on numbers and puzzles, meant to help both children and adults. Her thirst for learning knew no bounds – she was interested in the arts and also studied astrology, and wrote a book titled “Astrology For You.” In 1980 she even tried her hand at politics, contesting in the Lok Sabha elections from two different constituencies as an independent candidate – Mumbai South and Medak (Andhra Pradesh). In the latter, she stood against Indira Gandhi and ended up not getting many votes in both areas.
She was progressive and forward-thinking– she firmly believed in living life independently. She declined to take up her husband’s name, even going so far as getting into fights with clerks over the same, stating that “I want the ration card to be made out in my own name, taking me as a full-fledged individual, a complete person in my own right” (Srinivasan, 2020). After her husband Paritosh Banerji – an IAS officer, came out of the closet leading to their divorce, in an unexpected response she began campaigning for LGBTQIA+ rights.
In 1977, she published a book titled ‘The World of Homosexuals’, widely regarded as the first Indian book on homosexuality. It was a work ahead of its time. In it, she included interviews with gay men both within and outside India, advocated for complete acceptance and decriminalization of same-sex relationships, and wrote about how sexuality is fluid and not limited to a binary. Though the book did not receive much attention back then due to its subject matter, it remains a book praised till date for its sensitive handling. Devi established herself as a passionate and consistent LGBTQIA+ ally decades before most public figures in India, even appearing in the 2001 documentary For Straights Only to talk about what led her there.
Read: LGBTQ MOVEMENTS
Death and Legacy:
On April 21, 2013, Shakuntala Devi passed away at the age of 83 in her hometown after being hospitalized for respiratory problems. She is survived by Anupama Banerji, her daughter, and two grandchildren. She left a lasting impact in people’s minds, not only for her genius abilities but also as an empathetic person who cared deeply for others.
In May 2019, a biopic about her life was announced, helmed by director Anu Menon and with Vidya Balan in the role of Shakuntala Devi. The film has been getting a lot of hype, with Devi’s daughter stating that she was extremely happy with the film and its portrayal. Due to the pandemic, its release was delayed a little, but now it is slated to be out by July 31 for streaming. This adaptation will hopefully serve to remind us, especially the younger generation of the extraordinary Shakuntala Devi, whose life and actions serve as a role model for all of us.
Deccan Herald. (2019, May 9). Shakuntala Devi is getting a biopic but who is she? https://www.deccanherald.com/specials/shakuntala-devi-is-getting-a-biopic-but-who-is-she-732970.html
India Today. (2019, September 17). Shakuntala Devi, the ‘human computer’ and author of India’s first study on homosexuality. https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/shakuntala-devi-the-human-computer-and-author-of-india-s-first-study-on-homosexuality-1600045-2019-09-17
Kumar, P. (2007, June 20). In the Wonderland of numbers. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi/in-the-wonderland-of-numbers/story-6g59TrPZJAaBIG8cNvT7MN.html
Mubarak, S. (2020, May 13). Who is Shakuntala Devi, the woman called the ‘Human computer’? | VOGUE India. Vogue India. https://www.vogue.in/content/who-is-shakuntala-devi-the-woman-called-the-human-computer-vidya-balan-bollywood-biopic-real-story
Pandya, H. (2013, April 24). Shakuntala Devi, ‘Human computer’ who bested the machines, dies at 83. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/asia/shakuntala-devi-human-computer-dies-in-india-at-83.html
Quint Entertainment. (2020, July 16). A peek into Shakuntala Devi’s life before the film releases. The Quint. https://www.thequint.com/entertainment/celebrities/a-peek-into-shakuntala-devis-life-before-the-film-releases
Ramnath, N. (2020, July 25). More than maths: Shakuntala Devi biopic aims to reveal the woman who ‘lived life to the fullest’. Scroll.in. https://scroll.in/reel/968328/more-than-maths-shakuntala-devi-biopic-aims-to-reveal-the-woman-who-lived-life-to-the-fullest
Shakuntala Devi. (2013, April 22). Telegraph.co.uk. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10011281/Shakuntala-Devi.html
Srinivasan, A. (2020, May 30). Remembering Shakuntala Devi, who did much more than solve math problems. The Wire Science. https://science.thewire.in/the-sciences/shakuntala-devi-arithmetic-world-of-homosexuals-humanity/
- by SWATI D, Student at Flame University