The Incredible Mathematician Shakuntala Devi and her Unknown Stories

The world considers mathematics to be a dull, boring ‘masculine’ subject that cannot be correlated to a fun-loving woman who spread as much joy to the word as much she experienced while dealing with numbers. Shakuntala Devi broke the stereotypes even before she knew the meaning of the word.

“When Anu Menon came to me, all I knew about Shakuntala Devi was what all of us knew about her – that she was a maths genius,” Vidya Balan who will play the part of Shakuntala Devi in the biopic said.

Childhood ~ Since the age of three she showed signs of genius. She memorized the card numbers and sequences and calculated probability at the age of three while playing cards with her father. At six, she had already begun her display of amazing skills at mathematics.

Fame~ After the genius’ skills got nationwide appreciation; she went to London with her father. The opportunity that she got in London gained her the unimaginable recognition that she completely deserved. Shakuntala Devi could find out the answers to cube roots of 10 digit numbers and 5th roots of seven-digit numbers within seconds. From finding the day any date on the century would fall on to challenging computers, she did everything with poise and grandeur.

Incidents ~ Tales of her confidence and wit are remarkable. She even challenged a computer’s skill in 1950 when her answer was ‘wrong’ according to a computer’s calculation. But that is impossible and Shakuntala Devi was adamant about it! And rightly so, because the computer was eventually proved wrong!

Another incident her life was in 1977 at the Southern Methodist University of Dallas where she calculated the 23rd root of a 201 digit number in 50 seconds. Although she earned the title of Human-Computer in 1980, she was not fond of the title. She felt it was degrading to compare a human to a machine because humans will always be superior to machines.

Guinness ~ Despite her immense talent it was not until 1982 that she earned her name in Guinness Book of World Records. At Imperial College in London, she multiplied two 13 digit numbers in 28 seconds.

Politics~ She took her chances in politics too in 1980 when she contested in Lok Sabha elections in South Bombay and Medak in Telangana. Although she did not win, it did not put any dent on her vivacious personality.

Books and Astrology~ Although her expertise lay in mathematics she did not restrict herself to it. She took a keen interest in Astrology and said in ATN interview “In order to be a good astrologer, you have to have excellent mathematical knowledge. If you are good in mathematics, you will create a perfect horoscope.” She wrote books on puzzles and arithmetic but her greatest achievement as an author would be the ‘The World Of Homosexuals’ that she wrote because her marriage to a homosexual IAS officer Paritosh Banerji changed her life. In fact, her work is one of the earliest studies on homosexuality in India.

Unapologetically Herself~ The woman who earned respect and fame for her work was not someone to deny what he earned. She lives proudly with all her achievements and independence. India in those days often identified a woman by her husband’s surname and she was against it. One can call her on one of the earliest feminists of India. She refused to acknowledge any symbol of marriage and claimed her success as her own. Along with her role as a mathematician, astrologer and author, she was a strong mother. She enjoyed every aspect of her life with an infectious smile and sunshine personality. A bubble of happiness, she touched a million lives and left an impact on young girls who are often taught that mathematics is a man’s subject.

She was not afraid to live life on her own terms and she did so till the age of 83. Filmmaker Anu Menon needed to know more Shakuntala Devi than what the world knows through Wikipedia before making the movie. She approached Shakuntala Devi’s daughter and did an intense study on the legend so that showcase her in the truest sense. Her vivacity, over the top personality and the zest for life is evident in many such anecdotes.

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