Shakuntala Devi. Image: YouTube.
Shakuntala Devi could have told you in an instant that January 24, 1977, was a Monday. On that day, she was in an assembly room at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She was wearing a black and orange sari.
To warm up, she took questions from the audience – of the fifth roots of seven-digit numbers, the cube roots of ten-digit numbers, the day on May 3, 1943. She easily solved all of them. Soon, it was time for the grand finale, and a steely silence descended as she studied the imposing question on the chalkboard.
After fifty seconds, she pronounced the answer digit-by-digit: 5-4-6-3-7-2-8-9-1. The audience erupted with applause even before she had uttered the last digit. Words of disbelief and congratulations punctuated the room that had just witnessed the impossible. Shakuntala Devi had just calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number.
Devi (1929-2013), often called a ‘human computer’, was India’s most famous mental calculator. Today, smartphones have rendered the ability to perform arithmetic in our minds increasingly redundant, making the likes of Devi seem more exceptional with the passage of time.
However, Devi herself often grappled with making sense and use of her abilities, and her life is marked by a quest for discovering, and asserting, her own humanity.
She was a child prodigy. At three, her parents noticed her flair for calculation as she played with cards. By five, she could compute cube roots in her mind. Soon, she began to deliver public performances and appeared on radio shows as well.
But early fame exacted a heavy toll. “I wanted to improve my abilities, publish books on mathematics, and win fame,” she said in a 1950 interview to Times of India. But “fellow students in my college would not concede that I was gifted… I got very much disgusted with life … and sought refuge in the Vyasaraya Mutt. … I wanted to renounce the world and become a sanyasini.” However, her spiritual journey ended in only a week when she “left the mutt again to get entangled in this worldly bondage”.
She spent her youth crisscrossing India and showcasing her calculating abilities. By 1950, she was touring Europe. There, on October 5, 1950, the famous broadcast journalist Leslie Mitchell hosted a special programme with her at the BBC, where she solved mathematical and calendric problems on air. However, at one point, her answer was at odds with the BBC’s and she disputed the numbers. After some verification, Mitchell admitted that “she was right and the BBC wrong!”
Even this newfound celebrity, however, was a mixed bag. By 1952, her whirlwind tour landed her in the US. But media attention was sparse, and she felt the pressure of being her family’s sole breadwinner. She saved paltry sums from her ‘performances’ for herself and sent the rest home. Her meals at local cafeterias, she recalled later, were “soups” made of water mixed with free ketchup.
Mental calculators have existed at least since the 18th century. A popular misconception about them is that they are all autistic savants. As the book ‘The Great Mental Calculators‘ (1983) explains, such savants are the exception, not the rule. Another misconception is that these people are lightning fast. That’s also only partially true, since what usually distinguishes them is not speed.
In 1988, the American psychologist Arthur Jensen tested Devi’s speed of information processing. The tests were administered in part by John Kranzler, then Jensen’s research assistant.
“I recall her getting very average scores on the reaction time tasks for a normal adult woman,” Kranzler told The Wire Science. Jensen wrote that Devi had “rather unexceptional reaction times on a battery of elementary cognitive tasks.” He added that she was nothing like Dustin Hoffman’s “withdrawn, obsessive, autistic savant” character from the 1988 film Rain Man.
But when Devi tackled enormous problems, the speed resurfaced. To calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 1977, she needed only fifty seconds. A comparable problem – of calculating the 23rd root of a 200-digit number – had taken the Dutch mental calculator Willem Klein over ten minutes in 1975.
Even her Guinness Book of World Records entry, which she earned for multiplying two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds, carried a caveat: “Some experts on prodigies in calculation refuse to give credence to Mrs Devi on the grounds that her achievements are so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other invigilated prodigy that the invigilation must have been defective.” That is, Guinness couldn’t distinguish between a sufficiently advanced genius and magic.
But as with most child prodigies, Devi didn’t pick her forte; it chose her. “Of what practical use is it, really?” she asked of her own ability when speaking to the Boston Globe in 1976. “It has just a limited appeal… I’m not particularly interested in math. … What we need is more humanity.”
In the beginning, her escape was writing fiction, like the book Perfect Murder, published in 1976. Four years later, she contested in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections in Bombay South and Medak (the latter against Indira Gandhi). Then she dabbled in astrology. Finally, she wrote popular books on puzzles, human memory, and numbers.
This search for independence in her career found tidy parallels in her personal life. “Marriage would only mean another of life’s bondages,” she said in the same 1950 interview. “I do not want to give any man an opportunity to say that if I made a name it was because of his help.”
Nevertheless, shortly after returning to India in the 1960s, Devi was married. She refused to adopt her husband’s name, saying, “I believe in equality both ways. … I do not even wear the traditional symbols of marriage.”
In fact, she took this fight for a self-made name quite literally. In 1976 she got into a tussle with the Calcutta rationing department after refusing to volunteer her husband’s name for identification. “I want the ration card to be made out in my own name,” she argued, “taking me as a full-fledged individual, a complete person in my own right.”
Her progressive views extended to many topics. In 1977, she wrote a book called The World of Homosexuals. Though she considered it “the work of a layperson for lay people,” it was the first Indian study of homosexuality. “My only qualification for writing this book,” she wrote, “is that I am a human being.”
Salik Ansari, who reviewed the book for the Journal of Homosexuality, called it “scholarly with a feminist undertone.” People ought to know “how much ahead of its time the book was,” he told The Wire Science.
Ruth Vanita, a historian of gender and sexuality, agrees. “It’s the first book I know of that discussed the question [of homosexuality] in the Indian context.” She points to Devi’s interview with a Hindu priest in a temple in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu as an example of the book’s novelty. Devi was, she added, “the first to open up a very important field – that of same-sex relationships in the light of Hindu thought and doctrine.”
Devi wrote about homosexuality that “nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve.” The book ends urging society to reach “both inward to the homosexual minority and outward to the heterosexual public.” But for its courageous advocacy, the book was largely ignored at the time it was published.
In 2001, former filmmaker Vismita Gupta-Smith made a documentary about the gay and lesbian experience of South Asians called For Straights Only. In the film, Gupta-Smith says, “Shakuntala Devi is a celebrated mathematician and author. She wrote The World of Homosexuals after her marriage to her gay husband ended in a divorce.”
“It created havoc in my life and in my child’s life,” Devi says. “And then I needed to look into it – study it more thoroughly. And then I realised that if this is accepted by society, so many victims would not be there, suffering the way they are suffering. And that’s what prompted me to write that book.”
To Salik Ansari, Devi’s turn to inquiry on discovering her husband’s homosexuality “indicates a very scientific and empathetic mind.” Gupta-Smith, who had “grown up watching her on Doordarshan”, also thought Devi was “very science based; rooted in science, logic, mathematics.”
According to Vanita, Devi “should be remembered as a pioneer in this field of enquiry and [as] a deeply humane person.”
“The final puzzle,” Jensen, the psychologist, wrote, “is what produces a Shakuntala Devi.” Everyone who tried to answer that question referred only to Devi’s arithmetic ability. But her real genius lay in the fact that her analytical mind was backed by a deep-seated humanity.
To Jensen, Devi attributed her unusual career to her “love of numbers and [her] love of people.” But she quickly corrected herself: “Oh, I should say it the other way around – my love of people and my love of numbers.”