My meeting with temperamental math genius Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi was a brutally honest, temperamental genius passionate about numbers, recollects Kamala Thiagarajan.

Kamala Thiagarajan November 05, 2013 10:45:48 IST
My meeting with temperamental math genius Shakuntala Devi

by Kamala Thiagarajan

It was the summer of 1998 and I was beginning my career by freelancing for Madras Plus, a popular city supplement for The Times of India. That afternoon, the editor of the features page handed me an assignment.

I was to interview Shakuntala Devi, the mathematical genius that journalists were so fond of referring to as the 'human computer'. I'd always admired her and followed her progress, so the prospect of meeting her in person excited me. She had booked herself into a suite at the Taj Connemara and was meeting journalists from her hotel room.

My meeting with temperamental math genius Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi. Agencies.

The local papers hailed her as not just a mathematical genius but also a world famous astrologer. There were claims that astrology was of course a matter of numbers and that she could read the numbers in your chart that foretold your future with precision, just as as she could compute complex fifty digit problems with ease.

After calling her secretary to confirm the interview, in a couple of hours, I found myself seated across from the woman whose intelligence the world was raving about. It's been fifteen years, but there are details of that interview that play themselves out in technicolor in my mind. There were plenty of people milling about--- journalists, members of her staff, people who had come for an astrological reading, armed with their date and time of birth, which was all she'd needed to make a 'prediction'.

She was wearing a black cotton saree, bright red lipstick and a perpetual frown on her face. And there was no getting around the fact that she was irritable and short tempered. She snapped at the attendant who brought her a glass of water, was rude to a photographer, raised her voice when someone reminded her that people had queued up to have their charts read.

'Can't you see I'm BUSY? Let them wait!' she roared. And five minutes into our interview, she interrupted me abruptly mid-sentence, rapping her knuckles sharply on the gleaming polished wood of the oval table between us. "Your paper MUST publish my interview on the front page. They MUST. Tell your editor, tell her NOW."

Taken aback though I was, I knew that if we were to progress any further, I had to soothe ruffled feathers and quickly. I reassured her that we would give her top billing and that she deserved it.

Then when she'd calmed down, she resumed answering my questions as though nothing was amiss. Two things struck me: her passion for mathematics (there was no mistaking that) and her curious honesty. She had no qualms in admitting that she had an unusual childhood. Her father was a circus artist, often a performing magician who was well-versed with card tricks; she was the daughter of his third wife. He would take her on road shows and people would marvel at her ability to solve complex sums and guess the card that they'd picked up from the pack. In reality, she had memorized the arrangement of the entire deck. Her memory, just as her mathematical ability, was photographic and phenomenal.

When she spoke of mathematics, her eyes lit up. She told me that mathematics was everywhere, in every symmetric petal, in the stalks of wild flowers, even in the rhythmic chirping of birds. "We're surrounded by mathematics and yet we fail to recognize it," she rued. "It's all a kind of conditioning."

She said that her future dreams involved setting up an institute for poor children to realize their potential and that she hadn't decided the venue yet. Her books had always focused on getting the younger generation interested in maths. She steadfastly refused to answer any questions on her astrological ability.

The next day, my aunt decided that she wanted her future told. She set up an appointment to see Ms Devi. When I asked how the reading went, I realized that it was all about mathematics too. Five hundred rupees in ten minutes!

Editors note: This article was originally published on 22 April 2013, shortly after the death of Shakuntala Devi. 

Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

Google doodle fetes Shakuntala Devi, India's 'human computer'
News & Analysis

Google doodle fetes Shakuntala Devi, India's 'human computer'

Visitors to the search page of Google are treated to what looks like a calculator screen that forms the word 'Google' along with an image of Devi.

Google doodle fetes Shakuntala Devi, India's 'human computer'
Tech

Google doodle fetes Shakuntala Devi, India's 'human computer'

Visitors to the search page of Google are treated to what looks like a calculator screen that forms the word 'Google' along with an image of Devi.

Vidya Balan to play 'human computer' Shakuntala Devi in Anu Menon's directorial; film to release in 2020
Entertainment

Vidya Balan to play 'human computer' Shakuntala Devi in Anu Menon's directorial; film to release in 2020

The dramatic adaptation Shakuntala Devi's life, starring Vidya Balan in the lead, will go on floors later this year