The Wizard of Numbers~Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi possessed an amazing ability – she solved complex mathematical problems in seconds without any mechanical aid. Because of her extraordinary talent she became known as ‘The Human Computer’.

India has given birth to some remarkable men and women. Among them one name that stands out is that of Shakuntala Devi, the mathematician. What is so surprising about it is that she never went  to school or college to learn the subject  and yet she holds numerous records of her extraordinary talent in solving complex mathematical problems without any mechanical help.

Here is one instance. 

How much time one takes to solve 7,686,369,774,870 X  2,465,099,745,779?

28 seconds?

Because that is how long it took for mastermind Shakuntala Devi to compute the correct answer – 18,947,668,177,995,426,773,730

She was born on November 4, 1929 in Bengaluru, a city in South Indian state of Karnataka. She grew up in a city slum. Her father was a circus performer and discovered his daughter’s ability to  memorise numbers while teaching her a card trick. She was only three years old at the time. 

In her early 20s she toured the world, visiting placed like America, Hong Kong, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy, Canada, Russia, France, Spain, Mauritius, Indonesia and Malaysia to show her skills. She was invited by several reputed universities, such as the University of Rome.

Shakuntala received the Most Distinguished Woman of the Year’ award by the University of Philippines in 1969, and in 1988 the Ramanujan Mathematical Genius’ award in Washington DC. She also holds a place of honour in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.  

She was such a great genius that she played a significant role in making mathematics an interesting subject for thousands of students due to her practical quick and efficient approach towards problem solving.

She has also authored several books on the subject like Figuring – the Joy of Numbers’, ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You,’ and others that help individuals enhance their analytical skills.

On the social front she started Shakuntala Devi Education Foundation Public Trust’ with a mission to provide quality education for children of deprived families.

At a time when mathematics was considered a man’s turf and India as nothing more than a British colony, she blazed a path of several young Indians, spreading global awareness about India’s contribution to the field of mathematics.

In 1980, she contested the Lok Sabha elections as an independent candidate from Mumbai South and from Medal from Telengana.  

In 1977 she wrote a book on the controversial topic of homosexuality. It was titled The World of Homosexuals’.   The first-ever study in India where she treated homosexuality in an understanding light when it was a still taboo in the country. Perhaps what prompted her to write the book was that she was married to a homosexual (a gay man), Paritosh Banerji, an officer in the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata. She divorced him in 1979. The couple had one daughter called Anupama.

Shakuntala Devi was a mental calculator, an astrologer, a social worker and a writer.

She died on April 21, 2013 from complications of heart and kidney.

Here are a couple of her quotes:

“Without mathematics there is nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.

“Nobody challenges me. I challenge myself.”

India would never have another Shakuntala Devi  -- never!

With inputs: by Ms. Abhivyakti Sengar, IIM Raipur

First Published: 09-Nov-2018- 08:33