Shakuntala Devi's family on Maths whiz: 'She believed the human brain was capable of far more than a computer'
As a biopic on Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan, comes to our screens this Friday, a conversation with the Math whiz's daughter Anupama Banerji yields many anecdotes.
“Human computer” was the title Shakuntala Devi, Maths whiz extraordinaire, was widely known by. And yet, few know that she didn't care much for the moniker.
As a biopic on Shakuntala, starring Vidya Balan, comes to our screens this Friday, a conversation with her daughter Anupama Banerji (played by Sanya Malhotra in the film) yields this and many other anecdotes.
“Whenever we went to social gatherings, it was a given for people to discuss her mathematical skills among each other. Mommy used to find it funny. She’d corner me to ask if the chatter had gone past the ‘human computer stage’, or was it still stuck there?” Banerji recalled during a Zoom call with this correspondent. Shakuntala believed the human brain was capable of far more than any computer.
Banerji and her husband Ajay Abhaya Kumar, who live in London, provided extensive inputs to director Anu Menon in the making of the biopic. Kumar is portrayed by Amit Sadh in the film.
“When you think of geniuses, you think of boring people with grey hair, doing research all the time. My mother-in-law, who’d been compared with Marie Curie, was anything but boring,” says Kumar. “She was vivacious, lived every day as if it was her last. She partied, she had a thousand friends, she loved chatting — and oh god, could she dance!”
Kumar was so mesmerised by his mother-in-law that he never once quizzed her about her mathematical ability in the 15 years they were part of each other’s lives. Instead, he focuses on the individual she was off-stage — a side of her Shakuntala yearned for other people to see.
He recounts visits from his mother-in-law that provided ample opportunity for Shakuntala to flex her wit and humour. “She would pass hundreds of comments about me! Let’s just say that I would be as excited to welcome her and relieved to see her off. After spending two weeks with her, I’d need a month to recover from her hilarity and energy,” Kumar says, fondly.
For the world, Shakuntala was the genius who could multiply two 13-digit numbers within 28 seconds; she had never attended a formal school. She was an astrologer and also authored books of puzzles, recipes, and a murder mystery. Following her marriage to a gay man, she authored one of the first studies of homosexuality in India, in 1977. She forayed into politics.
However, beyond the success, Shakuntala was a struggling mother as well. In the biopic’s trailer, you see reel Banerji yelling at Shakuntala: “If only you loved me as much as you love Maths!” In a different scene, the latter accuses her daughter — “You made me give up my Maths!” Was this tension over Shakuntala’s career part of their real lives as well?
“It was a big sore point in our lives,” Banerji tells me. “We had conflicts. But I must say she was receptive to others’ problems. She took feedback constructively and made changes. She always heard me out and that’s why we could be friends. Of course, we fought over things but we could not carry on like that. I was her only family, and she was my only family.”
So just how much of a Maths whiz is Banerji herself? “I was good at it academically, but I went on to study Business Administration,” she says, smiling.
Her mother was her best friend, Banerji says, who always had a funny anecdote to amuse her with. She describes Shakuntala’s days as being “action-packed”, with people waiting to meet her by the time she was done with her morning routine: “She knew all of them – their lives, their deepest, darkest secrets. She could just look through people’s emotions. She had a strong sense of intuition. Like the first time, she met Ajay (Abhaya Kumar) at a party in Bengaluru, she knew he was the one for me. Sometimes I wondered how she did that.”
Kumar stresses on this power of intuition or sixth sense as well. “I met her in February 2013 and she told me she’d never be able to come back to London and see her beautiful daughter again. I assured her that we’ll visit her [in Bengaluru] in June. ‘I’ll pass on by that time,’ she replied. And by April 2013, she was gone,” he says. Another of Shakuntala’s predictions was that Narendra Modi would someday become the Prime Minister.
Unlike Shakuntala, Banerji lives a quiet life in London; she’s quite low key even on social media. Her daughters are 19 and 16 years old at present; the older one is studying medicine while her sister hopes to pursue Economics.
“We love to go to the movies. We go on holidays but we don’t travel as much as mommy did,” Banerji says, drawing out the contrasts between Shakuntala’s life and her family’s. “We are far more diplomatic than my mum-in-law was,” Kumar adds. “We don’t always say what we mean, but she would say exactly what she thought!”
Consulting with the makers of the biopic, which premieres on Amazon Prime Video on 31 July, has been an emotional journey for Banerji and Kumar. Director Menon recently hosted a (socially distanced) screening of the film for them, and Banerji, Kumar and their daughters were stunned. “After it got over, we didn’t say anything,” Banerji says. “We didn’t move... We just tried to absorb [her life]. It’s so gracefully done.”
— Featured image of Shakuntala Devi courtesy Anupama Banerji
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