The child who could weave magic with numbers
For millennia, folklore abounds with witches of old have captured our imagination. For centuries, observing ancient mystics bewitch the common man with accurate prophecies surrounding invasions, natural phenomena or weather conditions, has felt like a feat out of the ordinary. 2000 years later, we’ve come to understand how the truth behind most of their ‘predictions’, ‘forecasts’ and prophecies, lies in their understanding and application simple mathematics, formulae, and natural sciences.
One such 20th century arithmetic wizard is believed to have outsmarted the primitive computer on numerous occasions. Born in 1929 to a Brahmin family in Bangalore, Shakuntala Devi, a modern mathematics mage, worked her magic with numbers, bedazzling individuals at her shows, conferences and lectures for decades.
The previous century’s most proficient human calculator and the country’s pride on the mathematical front, Devi dedicated her life to simplifying and demystifying arithmetic concepts, previously considered difficult. Many mental maths theories and manuals she propounded, remain relevant till date. A comer from humble beginnings, Devi’s fascination with numbers dates back to her childhood. Her father first bechanced upon Shakuntala’s innate skill with numbers, while playing a game of cards. Having mastered Vedic and western methods of mathematics from her grandfather, Shakuntala’s foray into solving complex arithmetic problems began once she turned 5, and would soon lead to her earning recognition as a true math savant.
Being fathered by a circus-magician cum trapeze performer, Shakuntala’s mathematical feats quickly found themselves a slot on her father’s performance roster. People would flock in large numbers to her nation-wide roadshows, where they could witness the whiz take a crack at the hardest mathematical problems live. One of her earliest performances, include her ground-breaking display at the University of Mysore, which she delivered at the wee age of 6. A decade later, in 1944, she moved to London with her father; hoping to augment her mathematical aptitude.
An Indisputable genius
Some of her early exploits included a tour spanning Europe in 1950, where she demonstrated her numeric prowess and her 1976 performance in New York. Even while her skills managed to vow audiences, there were critics who tried to discredit her competence on various occasions. The University of Rome and few others in the US back in the 50’s presented different answers compared to what she suggested, claiming her calculations were wrong. Secondary examinations however revealed that errors were made by the faculty in both presenting and solving those questions and Shakuntala’s solutions were undoubtedly correct.
One such spell-binding rendezvous where she baffled western science with her mathematical brilliance took place in 1988, when Professor Arthur Jensen of Berkeley University, California invited her to partake in a series of tests. Jensen tested her mathematical quotient on various fronts. Revelations from the test however came as a shock to many. Devi had correctly calculated, at the speed of light, the cube root of 61,629,875 as well as the seventh root of 170,859,375, to be 395 and 15 respectively. This incident quashed all doubts, modern science had raised against her ingenuity.
During a 1990 article of Mrs Devi’s Life, Arthur Jensen, also went on to remark that unlike the misunderstood geniuses and autistic savants portrayed in films “Devi was actually a very alert, extroverted and articulate person; with an unmistakable aura of positivity”
Shakuntala devi’s record-breaking calculations and induction into the Guiness book of world records
Another grand exhibit of her mental calculation abilities took place at the Southern Methodist college in 1977, when she swiftly deciphered the 23rd root of a 201-digit number within less than 50 seconds, beating a Univac computer which took 62 seconds. The answer being 546,372,89 .
Regardless of her previous mathematical achievements, great and small, the single sensational moment in her life that gathered worldwide acclaim, was her demonstration at imperial college, London in 1980. Devi multiplied with ease, two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779, chosen at random by the College’s computer faculty. Before the audience could even process the question, she’d already inferred the correct answer as 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 within less than 28 seconds, including the time she took to recite her answer. This act of dexterity saw the Indian math savant make history besides winning a feature in the 82’ edition of the Guinness book of world records.
Contribution to Literature
Having mastered nearly every field of basic mathematics, Shakuntala decided to simplify the subject and make the process of learning mathematics an enthralling experience for kids and adults alike. She did so using books, guides and literature as a medium. This aspiratio of hers to educate the masses, gave birth to a collection of golden publications including Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, In the wonderland of numbers, ‘Mathability : awaken the math genius in your child’.
She also devoted time to studying astrology, crime and understanding homosexuality. Astrology for you, Perfect murder and ‘World of homosexuals’ were a result of her pioneering work.
Devi as an activist who promoted the acceptance of homosexuality
Her marriage to a homosexual man sparked Devi’s curiosity; regarding the subject. She spent several years of her dysfunctional marriage, attempting to understand what caused same sex attraction and studying what life was life for individuals that identified as homosexuals.
Back in ‘post-emergency’ India, when homosexuality was still considered a taboo, she did what no activist, could even conceive doing. She published a comprehensive study titled ‘The world of homosexuals’ in 1977. Considered pioneering, the book featured interviews with two homosexual men, a male couple in Canada seeking legal marriage, a temple priest’s views on the subject as well as a detailed review of all existing literature on the subject.
The book had a bold voice, and called for complete ‘acceptance’ of homosexual individuals, not just ‘sympathy’ and ‘tolerance’ for them. Despite negative reviews from the mainstream media, the book which called for the decriminalization of homosexuality at the time has today become a source of inspiration for millions of individuals that identify as homosexual or bisexual.
Portrayal by modern cinema
Produced by Sony pictures, the eponymous film, documenting Shakuntala Devi’s Life released nation-wide on 31 July, 2020 and has been made available for streaming by Amazon prime’s online platform. Directed by Anu Menon, the film starring Vidya Balan in Devi’s role was initially slated for an earlier release. While owing to the pandemic, most production houses chose to delay the release of their films indefinitely, Sony pictures agreed to furnish the film’s rights to the streaming giant.
Set against the backdrop of a relatively backward, patriarchal society, the film captivates viewers with two intertwining stories. Both follow the life and times of the Math prodigy yet offer distinct perspective on the same. The first half is the story of a young girl who aspires to win the world with her prowess in mathematics, and toils to find her place in the world.
The second half is an unapologetic portrayal of a fearless feminist, activist and strong mother who struggles vehemently to assert her individuality amidst the era’s male-dominant social outlook. The second half of the plot documents the adversity faced by Shakuntala in her process of being a mother. A visceral portrayal of her conflicted personal life, reflect upon how despite her public perception as a superhuman mathematician, she was for most part an ordinary woman, struggling with insecurities and pressures of an orthodox society.
Vidya does justice to the role, in a manner, no other actress possibly could. Akin to Devi’s staunch fearless real-life persona, vidya’s depiction too has elements of confidence, self-belief and courage.
It’s safe to discern from Devi’s life-long tale of finessing her skills and fighting against injustice in her personal and social life; that with the right attitude no summit of human achievement is unfathomable. Her immense contributions and endless displays in the field of mathematics, serve as testimony of the fact that the Human brain truly is capable of accomplishing seemingly impossible feats. With an unflinching ethic and dedication towards one’s chosen discipline, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.
If Devi’s roller-coaster of a life-story interests you, you can find the film’s trailer here.
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