Now being memorialized on the big screen in a biopic that has Vidya Balan playing the lead, Shakuntala Devi was a woman with capabilities that one can only marvel at.
Born into an orthodox Kannada brahmin family, Shankuntala figured out her extraordinary talent for numbers at the mere age of 3 when her father was trying to teach her a card trick and discovered that she was a prodigy with an ability to memorize numbers. Her father was someone who rebelled from becoming a temple priest and joined the circus as a trapeze artist, lion tamer, tight rope walker, and magician. Soon after this, her father took her on road shows that showcased little Shakuntala’s incredible abilities with numbers.
She was able to do full-fledged math problems by the age of five and became the sole breadwinner of the house at the age of six without any formal education. She did one of her first biggest show when she was 6 at the University of Mysore. In 1944, she moved to London with her father and toured the world showcasing her arithmetic abilities.
She turned out to be so good at mathematics that back in 1977, at the University of Southern Methodist in Dallas, for a competition between her and a computer, she calculated the 23rd root of a 201 digit number in 50 seconds beating a Univac computer that took 62 seconds. And hence she was rightly named the human-computer. If you were to give her any date in the last century she could tell you which day it would fall on. She could also give the cube root of any number ever. She had made it to the Guinness Book Of World Records for correctly multiplying 13 digit numbers in 28 seconds. And she took those 28 seconds only because she had to recite the 26 digit solution.
She returned to India in the 1960s and got married to Paritosh Banerji an IAS officer from Kolkata. But the couple divorced in 1979. She also participated in politics by contesting in the Lok Sabha elections independently from Mumbai South and from Medak in Telegana against Indira Gandhi. But she didn’t win.
What’s interesting is that in her later years she also put her hands into things other than math. In 1977 she wrote a book on homosexuality called The World Of Homosexuals. It is considered to be the first study of homosexuality in India. She had revealed back then that her interest in the subject came from being married to a homosexual man. The book didn’t receive much attention back then, but looking back you can see Shakuntala Devi was a woman beyond her time. Her book had called for the decriminalization of homosexuality back then. She has written various other books as well mostly on math but she has also written a book on Astrology as she was into that as well.
It is only the trailer of her upcoming biopic that we come to know that she was often at loggerheads with her daughter due to her undying love for math.
Shakuntala Devi breathed her last on 21st April 2013 in Bangalore. She was admitted to the hospital due to breathing problems following which she suffered complications in the heart and kidney. She is survived by her daughter Anupama Banerjee and two grandchildren. It was reported that Anupama was on sets of the biopic while the cast and crew were shooting in London and got emotional after seeing Vidya Balan‘s portrayal. To find out more about the math wizard of our times, we will have to catch Shakuntala Devi on 31st July.