“The human being is a sexual being,” mathematical prodigy Shakuntala Devi begins the second chapter of her 1976 book, The World Of Homosexuals.
The first rigorous analysis of homosexuality in India, this book came out of heartbreak, when she found out her husband was gay. Instead of reacting with sustained rage, she reacted with curiosity, and compassion, interviewing people in the closet and couples abroad, writing this book that looked at what it means to be sexual, and to be homosexual in India.
It was quite an extensive study for its time, dealing with venereal disease (this was before the AIDS crisis), the law, homosexuality in prison, religion, and even cinema. (She notes how Raj Kapoor’s Sangam and Satyen Bose’s Dosti were both about masculine companionship that felt like erotic love.)
The fact is that Devi in popular culture is mostly known for her gilded moment in the Guinness Book of World Records for multiplying two 13 digit numbers in 28 seconds (this includes the time it took to recite the 23 digit number- 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730). This was a feat that deserves remembrance, and if every human being was to be condensed to one fact, for her, it would probably be this.
But Anu Menon’s biopic, Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan as the titular character is given both the opportunity and time to be more than that just one feat. So here are a few things we hope the movie brings out, without a check-box like narrative tone.
The World She Came From
Devi was born in Bangalore in 1929. Her father was a trapeze artist and a lion tamer at a circus, and after discovering her prodigal ability to conjure and memorize numbers at the age of 3 during a game of cards, he quit the company to give road shows exhibiting Devi’s talent.
At the green-age of 6, she gave her first major show at the University of Mysore, and this began her marathon of public performances. One can imagine such brouhaha might unsettle a child. She didn’t even get to have a formal education (While admitted to St Theresa’s Convent for class I, she had to drop out for her parents couldn’t afford the 2 Rupee monthly). What does the childhood of someone so gifted and so gazed feel like?
She would go abroad with her father, first to London, then across Europe and finally America, touring with her talent. Did she ever just want to be by herself?
Shakuntala Devi was also a renowned astrologer, following in the footsteps of her maternal grandfather. According to her, astrology requires mathematical thinking too. This might seem odd to most people- how does one use the cold and rational logic of mathematics to defend astrology, something that is so intuitive and questionable.
That is the tension in Devi’s conception of Math: For her, math was magic, not logic. When, in the opening of the film’s trailer, Balan says “Maths mein rules nahin hai. Sirf jadoo hai,” I was a bit put off as someone who has studied math as a rigorous logical exercise. I hope the film tackles this tension. Because, in fact, it is this very tension that made a lot of people doubt her Guinness moment as one of magic, and not genius.
A Believer Of God, And A Communist Skeptic
God was a huge part of her intellectual endeavours. When asked how Devi does what she does, she simply said, “From the age of three I do it in my mind … I don’t have an explanation for that… God gave me that gift.”
She could name the day of the week if you gave her any date within 2000 years. “Her skill with numbers were like those of a writer who did not think of the location of typewriter keys,” Arthur R. Jensen, an educational psychologist wrote after studying here.
But her belief in God was stronger than just lip-service. When she was asked about her rigorous touring she mentioned she hadn’t visited China, Russia or Eastern Europe (before the break up of the Soviet Union), “I am spreading the gift of God, and I would not know how to do that in a communist country because they don’t believe in God.” I really hope this moment makes it to the movie. It seems that the movie will touch upon her loss in the 1980 Lok Sabha Elections. (She contested two seats as an independent candidate from South Mumbai and Medak in Andhra Pradesh, against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi). This disdain for communism will add a nice layer to her politics.
The Stage Presence Of A Seasoned Performer
Devi was not just a mathematician but also a performing artist from a really young age. Her stage presence was not incidental but imperative. Menon too noted that “[h]er maths was not about sitting in a room and solving theorems, her maths belonged with the people. There was showmanship in the way she performed.”
When Jensen was studying her, he also noted how she was “alert, extraverted, affable, and articulate. Her English is excellent, and she also speaks several other languages. She has the stage presence of a seasoned performer, and maintains close rapport with her audience. At an informal reception after her Stanford performance …among strangers she was entirely at ease… a perfectly normal and charming lady.”
Even while she was aware of her genius, she was never haughty about it in her performances. In her magenta sari with red zari border, when she asks the jury if they want the answer of the math question posed from left to right, or right to left, you don’t sense hubris, but excitable, almost endearing immodesty.
Cookbooks, Commas, and Compassion
But beyond the broad brush-strokes, she had specific quirks and talents that I hope the film finds a way to bring out, for they are quite unique and add colour to a character about whom so much is already said and read. She hated commas in numbers because they slowed her down. She played the flute. She used to drink soups of hot water mixed with ketchup to save money, and send the rest home. She wrote a crime novel, Perfect Murder, based on a real murder that took place in Patna- an IAS Officer murdering his wife. She wrote a cookbook for “Men and Other Beginners”, and another book on the Caste System (she herself was a Brahmin).
She was always worried about her checks bouncing because of the difference in signatures, and so she always paid in DDs. She was very careful about her reputation, knowing fully well that all it would take was one bad moment to pull down a woman from the pedestal.
The World Of Homosexuals begins with an interview with a closeted gay man, Venkata Subramaniam (she changed his name to protect the privacy). In it Devi is trying to convince the man, who is going to get married soon, to call off the wedding, or at least reconsider it. She calls his decision to get married “cruel”, without calling the man himself cruel. Therein lies Devi’s spirit, an expansive awareness and openness to the universe, with prejudice and cynicism at bay. This is the Devi I wish to see on screen.
Shakuntala Devi releases on July 31st on Amazon Prime.