Shakuntala Devi: The Mathemagician

On her birthday, we hope that people not only cherish her as a ‘œhuman computer’ but also as a great lady who had the courage to face every problem she came across.

Google is celebrating Shakuntala Devi’s birthday. It today posted a doodle that features her and a calculator showing six letters of Google in digit form.

India’s very own “computer woman” died on April 21 this year. She turns 84 today in the loving memory of all math lovers.
To call Shakuntala Devi a mathematician will be an understatement. On June 18, 1980 she demonstrated the multiplication of two numbers picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She multiplied them in 28 seconds flat. You think, well, that’s easy. What’s the big deal in multiplying 12 and 20? Only, the numbers she got were slightly larger: 7,686,369,774,870, and 2,465,099,745,779.

She was mathemagician.

She found a slot in the Guiness Book of World Record for her outstanding ability and wrote numerous books like ‘Fun with Numbers’, ‘Astrology for You’, ‘Puzzles to Puzzle You’, and ‘Mathablit’. She had the ability to tell the day of the week of any given date in the last century in a jiffy.

Coming from a humble family, Shakuntala Devi’s father was a circus performer who did trapeze, tightrope and cannonball shows.

It was while she was playing cards with her father at the tender age of three that he found his daughter’s calculation abilities. It turned out that she beat him not by sleight of hand, but by memorising the cards. At the age of six, she demonstrated her calculation skills in her first major public performance at the University of Mysore and two years later, she again proved herself successful as a child prodigy at Annamalai University.

However, despite apprehensions in some quarters, Devi did not lose her calculating ability when she turned adult like other prodigies such as Truman Henry Safford. In 1977, Devi extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number mentally.

But she did not confine herself to personal glory. It was her mission to get people, especially students, familiar with mathematics. The skill of numbers is a quite hard task for all of us, but she made it look so easy.
Her list of reasons to take an interest in math, enumerated in her book Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child, were surprising. Here are just three:
1) “It gives you a purpose, an aim, a focus that insures you against restlessness.”
2) “It makes you regard yourself with greater respect and in turn invokes respect from others around you.”
3) “It makes you more aware, more alert, more keen because it is a constant source of inspiration.”

Interestingly, Shakuntala’s marriage crumbled in 1979 as her husband turned out to be homosexual. Most of us would have gone into depression or had bitter memories of a failed marriage. But she tried to understand homosexuality.

The result was her book The World of Homosexuals. As she confessed: “My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being.” It argued for an entirely different way of considering gays—really, as just human beings: “Nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve—not tolerance and not sympathy.”

Her sentence from the same book says, “Immorality does not consist in being different. It consists in not allowing others to be so.”

On her birthday, we hope that people not only cherish her as a “human computer” but also as a great lady who had the courage to face every problem she came across.

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