Shakuntala Devi: India’s Female Mathematician Who Became The Human Computer
Human Computer Shakuntala Devi was a mathematician, an astrologer, and the author of one of the earliest studies of homosexuality in India. A genius who could impress people right from the age of three, Devi is often credited with the moniker of the ‘Human Computer’ for her ability to solve complex equations in mere seconds. She solved mathematical and calendric problems live on the BBC. Her talents also earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. A tireless achiever, Shakuntala Devi’s life and accomplishments have continued to inspire millions around the world till this day.
Early Life of Human Computer Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala Devi was born in 1929 to a Hindu Brahmin family in Bangalore. Her parents discovered her amazing capacity to memorise numbers when she was three years old. By five, she could compute cube roots in her mind. Soon, she began to deliver public performances and appeared on radio shows as well. Devi wanted to study more on mathematics. Instead, her father took her on a trip across the country.
Devi performed in various cities. Her general performance would be warm-up questions from the audience, before she started to show her skills of multiplying large digit numbers. She would always answer in a matter of 10 to 30 seconds, and sometimes faster than a person could even write the answer. It’s said that the tours took such a toll on her, that she decided to become a nun. However, her spiritual journey ended in only a week, before she went back to crisscrossing India and showcasing her calculating abilities.
Europe, US, and Setting World Records
By 1950, Shakuntala Devi 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. In fact, it was this feature on BBC that bestowed her with the title of the ‘Human Computer’, when she and the computer had different answers to a complex math problem—and hers was right. However, she frequently dismissed the ‘human computer’ label conferred on her. Her point was that the human mind created computers, and hence will always remain superior to the machines.
By 1952, Devi’s whirlwind tour landed her in the US. One of her oft-quoted stints in the US was at the University of Dallas, where Devi was given to calculate the 23rd root of a 201-digit number. It’s said that a steely silence descended in the room as she studied the question on the chalkboard. After 50 seconds, to the surprise of each person present there, Devi started to pronounce the answer digit-by-digit. Words of disbelief and congratulations punctuated the room that had just witnessed the impossible. A New York Times report later marvelled at the woman “who has difficulty remembering her birth date” but could “give you the cube root of 188,132,517 – or almost any other number – in the time it took to ask the question”.
Shakuntala Devi’s talent also found a place in the Guinness book of world records in 1982. She earned her entry in it for being able to multiply two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds, without the help of any computer. In addition to her work as a mental calculator, Devi was a famous astrologer and an author of several books, including cookbooks and novels.
Married Life and Writing The World of Homosexuals
Shakuntala Devi was known for her fiercely independent spirit. Her search for independence in her career found many parallels in her personal life as well. In a 1950 interview, Devi declared that “I do not want to give any man an opportunity to say that if I made a name it was because of his help.” When she married, she refused to adopt her husband’s name. She instead told 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.”
Shakuntala Devi married the Kolkata-based IAS officer, Paritosh Bannerji, in 1960. She had a daughter with him named Anupama Bannerji, but the marriage soon fell apart when Bannerji’s homosexuality was revealed. But while for many it could have been a crushing revelation that would lead to resentment, for Devi, however, it worked as a catalyst that helped her delve deep into her humanity. And this time, she went ahead to make headlines not for her calculations, but for her compassion. She penned down a book The World of Homosexuals (1977), in which she challenged the notion that homosexuality is immoral. She added that those who disrespect, discriminate and mock people on the basis of their sexual preferences are, in fact, immoral and should look within themselves. The book, although never allowed to take the center stage in the list of Devi’s lifelong achievements, became the first Indian study of homosexuality. Devi died in Bangalore on April 21, 2013 at the age of 83 due to cardiac and respiratory problems.
Shakuntala Devi’s real genius perhaps laid in the fact that her analytical mind was backed by deep-seated humanity. She wholeheartedly believed both in the scientific as well as the empathetic capacity of the human mind. Her passion to expand the human capacity even made her develop the concept known as the ‘Mind Dynamics’. And now, with two days left for the world premiere of the biopic on Shakuntala Devi, which stars Vidya Balan, it remains to see if the film can discover the heart that ticked inside this great genius.
Picture Credits: beaninpirer.com
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.