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My Affair With Shakuntala Devi

The first time I saw her, I was in junior school. There was this well-dressed, fetching lady on stage and she had succeeded in putting a weird expression on the face of Mr Vaidya, my math teacher — a look that I can gleefully describe as sheepish and inadequate.

 (Originally published in Explocity BangaloreMag in April 2013.)

Yesterday, on 21 April 2013, we lost another Bangalorean. Someone special.

As I have done a few times previously, I kicked myself, because, unlike most people outside my profession, I could have met her, interviewed her, got to know her. And I didn't.

Shakuntala Devi was connected to me through my first magazine, Bangalore This Fortnight (later called Explocity Guide). She advertised her astrology services in it.

But I never met her. Because I was lazy. And maybe because we take people in our backyard for granted. “She’s a Bangalorean, and so am I… well, I'll call her next week. Or better, next month.”

The first time I saw her, I was in junior school. There was this well-dressed, fetching lady on stage and she had succeeded in putting a weird expression on the face of Mr Vaidya, my math teacher — a look that I can gleefully describe as sheepish and inadequate.

Normally a tyrant — firm in his dogma that two and two always added up to four — he stood next to Shakuntala Devi at the blackboard in the school auditorium, with the same expression that Chris Gayle might have had, if he had been forced to be the 12th man and schlep out the drinks and towels in an RCB-SuperKings final at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.

The fact that Vaidya did his best to sound authoritative as he hurled math problem after math problem at the lovely Ms Devi only made him look worse in our eyes.

"What's 217,347,128 times 938,676,447?" he barked.

She scribbled the answer even as the echo of his last syllable trailed in the air.

And we applauded wildly.

Vaidya was puzzled at her response. He looked down at the sheet from which he called out the number. A tad unsure of himself, he asked her in the voice one reserves on stage when they want everyone to know it’s a not-for-the-audience question, “What was the first number I asked you?”

“217,347,128,” she replied without hesitation.

Vaidya giggled a little embarrassed, “Oh, I called out the wrong number. I need to verify your answer. Please give me a minute.”

I could have sworn Shakuntala Devi was thinking, “Only a ‘minute’, dude? Yeah, right.”

While he did the long multiplication to establish that her answer was correct — the Chinese weren’t mass producing personal calculators yet — Shakuntala Devi kept us, rowdy, sanguine, inattentive, duds-at-math schoolboys in her thrall with a show-and-tell involving, of all things, numbers.

First, we fell silent. Then we fell in love.

There was something about her that was masterfully entertaining.

It wasn’t as if she was talking to 500 school kids, it was as though she was speaking only to me. She made numbers seem sexy. And she made mathematical competence seem cool; or whatever word meant "cool" back when.

Devi’s performance was not a magic show. There were no props. There was no attractive assistant in a bikini (only a surly math teacher for company on stage and he did not participate in her joy of numbers). There was no stage lighting. 

There were no tricks, no sleight of hand, no misdirection and no suspension of disbelief. This was pure. Incontrovertible math. Numbers — like the hips of Shakira — that did not lie.

Whatever she was doing up on stage was real. And that was the magic.

But there was drama because Shakuntala Devi brought a hard-to-define showmanship to her act. It all added up when I learned many years later that she grew up in a circus, daughter of a Brahmin guy who chose to perform as a human cannonball, rather than become a priest. Maybe that’s why she had an understanding of audiences and could be dramatic without trying too hard.

I don’t know about my schoolmates, but that one encounter left with me a fascination for math, and that was valuable in all my formative years. It made me more logical and less emotional; it demystified the world and helped me become agnostic without bitterness.

And it made me learn Vedic mathematics from a book, giving me endless parlour tricks, which I employed gainfully; for example, to become attractive to girls (or did they only pretend to be impressed with my ability to mentally multiply 9997 by 9993 before you can bumble your way through a calculator?) Well, whatever. Shakuntala Devi had shown me that math was sexy-circus. I found a way to use it.

In 1977—an important year in her life—a university in the US challenged her to find the 23rd root of this 201-digit number: 916748676920039158098660927585380162483106680144308622407126516427934657040867096593279205767480806790022783016354924852380335745316935111903596577547340075681688305620821016129132845564805780158806771. She answered “546372891” in 50 seconds. The college computer took 60 seconds. And anyway, the professors had to initially program it with over 10,000 instructions, for it to work at all.

Also in 1977, she published two books. One was what I believe to be her most famous book, “Figuring: The Joy Of Numbers” (Harper & Row, New York). The other was titled, “The World of Homosexuals” (Vikas, New Delhi.)

The website, orinam.net, in a wonderfully written obituary, quotes a documentary, in which Devi revealed that her book was the result of her (failed) marriage to a gay man. They point out that rather than becoming bitter or homophobic, “…she felt the need to look at the subject of homosexuality more closely and try to understand it.” (A recent — and cheesy — biopic of her life, complete with a barf-worthy song and dance sequence, questioned but did not deny her husband's sexual orientation. This is relevant to mention for all the politics attached to it.)

It also quotes a passage from her book that I found to be as much a tribute to her foresight, inclusivity and intellect as her ability with numbers.

She wrote: “The time is overdue… rather than pretending that homosexuals don’t exist, or hoping to eradicate them by the sheer weight of disapproval or prison sentences, we face the facts squarely in the eye and find room for them so that they can live unfettered and unmolested… nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve – not tolerance and not sympathy.”

I gaped adoringly as she made her way out of the school auditorium, chatting with the principal. We all crowded around her.

Someone asked someone, “What time is it?” “Four thirty seven,” Shakuntala Devi offered, crisply.

As if someone had asked her for the cube root of 83,453,453.


(First published in Explocity BangaloreMag in April 2013)