Shakuntala Devi – A Remembrance

By Samar K. Saha


I first met Shakuntala Devi ‘Banerji’ in 1988 at her Manhattan apartment. She remained an enigma to me all these years. In normal conversations, appearance, and discussions, she was full of life — an extrovert, witty, very social, simple, down-to-earth, comfortable in any setting, and a Sakuntala Deviloving person. She treated me like her younger brother in distress during later meets. I could feel that whiff of affection each time I saw her. She passionately talked about her love for Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movies, cooking, and reading. Nothing showed any trace of a supernatural mind. She simply described her ability as a ‘God’s Gift’ when asked — just as another great Indian mathematician Ramanujan had once remarked about himself.

The Beginning and the Fame:  Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore, India, to an orthodox Kannada Brahmin family on November 4, 1929. Her father chose to be a circus acrobat. Devi’s mathematical gift first demonstrated itself while she was doing card tricks with her father when she was three. Those present noticed that she “beat” them by memorizing the cards rather than by sleight of hand. Devi was quoted as saying. “At the age of 6, I gave my first major show at the University of Mysore (India).” The word spread quickly of her supernatural capability.

Shakuntala Devi went on tours around the world starting in the ‘50s and performed in a number of institutions, theaters and on television up to the early 80’s. During one such trip in the early 50’s, she met Albert Einstein. A reporter recounted the meet from Einstein’s note to Devi. Albert Einstein says in the note, “I asked this woman a question which I take three hours to solve because I have to follow a whole method …. I know that nobody can do it in less time than I can… And the whole procedure has to be followed. The figures were so big that it took the whole board for her to write the answer. And before I had even finished the question, she started writing the answer.” Einstein was absolutely puzzled. He asked, “How do you do it?” Devi said, “I don’t know … — it simply happens. You ask me and figures start appearing before my eyes, somewhere inside. I can see 1, 2, 3, and I just go on writing…..”

Live Demonstrations – Some Exceptional Examples:

Guinness Book of Records contains many other recorded feats of Devi. Here are some:

• In January 1977, Devi received a standing ovation from an audience of erudite mathematicians at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, when she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number, at the fifty-second mark, with the correct answer being ’546372891′. She was faster than the fastest computer, UNIVAC’s time of 62 seconds.

• In June, 1980, Devi demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers: (7,686,369,774,870) X (2,465,099,745,779), picked randomly by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. This event is mentioned in the 1995 Guinness Book of Records. Her correct answer of 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 came in just 28 seconds.

• In 1988 Devi visited Stanford University at the invitation of Professor Arthur Jensen. Jensen, an educational psychologist, tried to understand the source of Devi’s abilities. According to Jensen, ‘’Devi solved most of the problems faster than I was able to copy them in my notebook.’’ Jensen could only suggest that Devi perceived large numbers differently from others. ‘’For a calculating prodigy like Devi, the manipulation of numbers is apparently like a native language, whereas for most of us, arithmetic calculation is at best like the foreign language we learnt at school,’’ he wrote.

Family Life: Shakuntala Devi married Paritosh Banerji, a senior IAS officer from Kolkata in the mid-1960s. They had a daughter, Anupama Banerji, from this marriage. The marriage ended in divorce in 1979. In the 1980’s Shakuntala Devi returned to Bangalore with her daughter, where she continued with book writing. During this period she entered the mystic world of astrology, offering astrological advices to people, including celebrities and politicians. She also set up an ‘Educational Foundation Public Trust’ to promote mathematical, astrological and philosophical studies.

With severe respiratory problems, she was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore on April 3, 2013. Her health began to deteriorate rapidly after her kidneys failed and she breathed her last on April 21, 2013.

I often wonder who was she?

Major Writings:

Critically appraised Puzzles to Puzzle You is one of Shakuntala Devi’s best works for aspiring and budding mathematicians.

Perfect Murder is the tale of a successful lawyer-turned-killer and is regarded as a fine work of fiction.

The World of Homosexuals, published in 1977, considered a courageous work on a controversial issue and was included in the ‘Top 100 Books by Indian Authors’ in 2005.

The Wonderland of Numbers published by Orient paperbacks in 2006 is a fictional story of a girl, Neha and her fascination with numbers.



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