When Sir William Jones translated Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, the first ever Indian drama to be translated into English, in 1789, he would have hardly predicted the rise of another Shakuntala who would fascinate the Westerners as much as the first one had. Interestingly, if the story of the first Shakuntala was about forgetfulness, the story of the second one was to be a tribute to human memory and skill.
Born in 1929 and raised in Bangalore, Shakuntala Devi came to be known as the Human Computer, owing to her extraordinary mathematical skills. It is said that her genius with numbers was discovered by her father when she was three years old. She did shows at the age of six, and finally moved to London when she was 15 years old. Her genius was soon recognised and she moved from one country to another solving some of the most complex arithmetic problems within seconds and stunning her audiences. The zenith of her career was the recognition by the 1982’s edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for multiplying two 13-digit numbers in record 28 seconds. This was also the time that she took to speak out the 26 digits of the answer.
The achievements of Shakuntala Devi are portrayed in a recent film by the same name, where the exuberant and talented Vidya Balan plays the role of the protagonist. The film has not been rated highly though Balan’s performance is.
Bollywood has not made many movies on its scientists and mathematical geniuses, though our own Shakuntala Devis and Ramanujans have often fascinated the West. Those that are made are charged with nationalism—John Abraham’s Paramanu, for instance. When I watched Shakuntala Devi, I expected the same storyline—mockery by the Westerners and revenge by our own desi hero. There were glimpses of it, but, thankfully, not much. The movie rather highlights the very human side of the genius. It is the story as witnessed by her daughter.
Shakuntala Devi was ahead of her times in many ways. She drinks alcohol liberally, is not bothered about getting married when it’s time to, romances a white man, marries a divorcee, supports homosexuality, rarely gives credit to god for her talent, does not believe in settling down in one place after marriage and has issues with her daughter—mathematical genius but a moral disaster, you say.
Shakuntala Devi is neither a sanskari beti nor a pativrata patni that society expects her to be. She believes human beings are not trees with roots, destined to be in one place for the rest of their lives. If not for her mathematical brilliance, Indian parents would never encourage their children to emulate her.
However, this invincible champion of freedom is not flawless. Many a time, she is haughty, possessive and self-centred. Like every Indian parent, she expects her daughter to be as intelligent as her. Her talent with numbers leads her to become a consultant in astrology. While the character of Shakuntala Devi may flaunt her independence, she is really free neither from her human fallibilities, nor from her questionable practices and motives.
These two sides of Shakuntala Devi highlight a complex relationship between a genius and her society. Could she achieve what she did had she remained behind the line drawn by the society for women in her days, is a hypothetical question, but an important one. A rigid society can raise fences around a genius that are too narrow for her to open her wings and fly.
This is exactly what philosopher of science Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has pointed out in answering why science could not blossom in India, despite the fact that it had the best scientific minds. Chattopadhyaya says it was the social condition of India that killed its science by stagnating people into their respective castes, thereby not allowing the free flow of knowledge. This was also the problem of the Greeks with their aristocratic despise for the manual labour and slaves, adds Chattopadhyaya.
Shakuntala Devi equally shatters our society’s idolisation of scientists and intellectuals as infallible guides and self-appointed standards of the commoner’s IQ levels. In this, the movie discloses the side of such geniuses that we are not yet ready to accept: scientists and mathematical virtuosos are fallible—sometimes with numbers, but often as human beings. Mathematical precision and scientific achievements, as important as they are, are not sole markers either of wisdom or wholly objective truth. Certainty has to be sought somewhere else.
The question then is not how Shakuntala Devi achieved those impossible coups, tempting as it is. The real question, I think, is twofold: What societal changes can provide a more fertile soil that can nurture talents like Shakuntala Devi? And, how do we seek together and where do we find a place of truth and wisdom, a ground of certainty that reserves a right even to challenge the likes of Shakuntala Devi? We should keep moving till we find that ground, because, after all, as Shakuntala Devi herself would say, we are not trees destined to be in one place for the rest of our lives.