Published: 30th July 2020
She believed she was better than any computer: The incredible life and times of Shakuntala Devi
We recently caught up with Anupama Banerji, the daughter of mathematician Shakuntala Devi, on whom a recent film starring Vidya Balan is made
If I could trade my mightiest possession in exchange of one thing, I'd choose Shakuntala Devi's brain. At least, my 16-year-old self who struggled to find square roots and cube roots of four-digit-long numbers would have definitely done that. While a lot of us struggled with basic mathematics problems (rightly termed), all that Devi saw were solutions.
After all, here was a woman, who in the 1940s, and decades after that, exhibited an unbelievable grip in mental mathematics. We kid you not, she once mentally multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds, which got her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. In another instance, she found the 23rd root of a 201 digit number, without the help of even a pen! In an earlier interview, she is heard saying how she wouldn't do square roots since they're too simple for her. Instead, she concentrates on cube roots - of numbers as large as 61,629,875.
Vidya Balan with Anupama Banerji and her husband Abhaya Kumar
So, it wouldn't be surprising that at a time when computers were alien to most Indians, we called her the 'Human Computer'. Now here's something that may surprise you - in real life, Shakuntala Devi rarely used a computer, her daughter Anupama Banerji tells us.
It has been seven years since Devi bid adieu to the world of numbers - and humans, but her biopic starring Vidya Balan, soon to be out on Amazon Prime has brought her story squarely into focus. From what we know of Devi through her old interviews, newspaper clippings and anecdotes shared by people close to her, she was someone who lived her life to the fullest. She lived her life her own way, had a great sense of humour, was fiercely independent and was far ahead of time. Picture this. In 1977, she wrote a book on homosexuality, which was in fact the first study on homosexuality in India. To put things into perspective, India decriminalised homosexuality only 41 years later, in 2018.
We caught up with Banerji, Devi's only daughter, a few days prior to the release of the film on Devi's life to know more about her mother's extraordinary life.
Growing up, what was it like to be the daughter of Shakuntala Devi?
Having Shakuntala Devi as your mother meant there was never a dull moment! She had an amazing zest for life and lived it to the fullest and on her own terms. She had versatile interests, including her love for travel and meeting interesting people. In summary, I would describe it as extremely action-packed. You must understand that up until I got married, she was my entire family and my best friend too.
We have heard about Shakuntala Devi the mathematician and the author. How was she as a mother?
She was a very affectionate mother and also very possessive and extremely caring at the same time. We were always invited to various functions, social gatherings and her diary was always full. She loved to cook and we would often go to theatres, musicals and the cinema.
Little Anupama Banerji with her parents Paritosh Banerji and Shakuntala Devi
Did she teach mathematics to you? Is that a subject that interests you?
She did teach me to love numbers. I was a good student in maths but obviously not as great as her.
In the 70s and 80s, when computers were alien to most Indians, Shakuntala Devi was called a 'Human Computer'. Was it fascinating? How was she with computers later? Did she adapt well?
Yes, it was truly fascinating for me to have my mother known as the Human-Computer by the world at large. She believed she was far superior to any computer and she rarely used one!
Shakuntala Devi in the 1950s
In the 70s, when homosexuality was not a much-discussed topic, your mother was forward thinking enough to write a book around it. What impact did it have on you and the people around you?
I was always amazed at how progressive she was in her thought process. As I grew older, I could see the need for such a book, especially during those times in India. I am a strong supporter of the LGBTQ movement.
Did she have to face a lot of backlash?
My mother never believed in the term backlash. She frankly did not let negative comments or views which were different from her own, impact her.
The on-screen Shakuntala Devi and Anupama Banerji
It's been seven years since the world lost her. What do you miss the most about her?
Everything…. from her small quirks to her larger than life personality, her amazing sense of humour, her food, especially her love for living life to the fullest. She was my friend and my partner in crime
Are you surprised, excited or emotional to watch an on-screen Shakuntala Devi?
Yes indeed, especially to see Vidya’s portrayal of mummy, which is positively astounding! Especially how she got mummy’s mannerisms, style, wit, and intelligence spot on. No one else could have played the role.
Here's why Anu Menon chose to make a film on Devi
Anu Menon, the director of the Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi, tells us a story. It goes like this. "How does it feel like to be a female mathematician?" a journalist once asked Shakuntala Devi. Without wasting a second, Devi asked him, "How does it feel like to be a male journalist?" Menon burst out laughing as she ends this anecdote.
She wasn't a witness to this incident. Chances are that Menon may have not been born at the time when this occurred. But this was one of those many anecdotes that she came across during her three-year-long research about Devi, to make a film about her. "I loved her razor-sharp humour and one-liners," Menon tells us, sitting in her house in London. The film's release was a few days away when we spoke. But she wasn't stressed or tense. Instead, she was excited to recall those anecdotes. "She would have these interesting repartees," says Menon. "Her interviews are always fun, just like Vidya Balan's. You would usually expect a mathematician to be serious, introverted and withdrawn. But she was just the opposite. No one who's met her would forget that experience. She would have said something politically incorrect or have made them laugh. In fact, if she was on Twitter, she would have given people a run for their money," laughs Menon, adding that no one other than Vidya Balan could have essayed the part better than Vidya Balan.
The director who's previously made films like London, Paris, New York and Waiting, started working on the project in 2016 and the first leg of research happened when she met Devi's daughter Anupama Banerji, who also lives in London. "I always wanted to talk about different types of women on screen. My daughter once told me that boys like maths and girls like English. That stung so me. I thought we should show that women like Math as much as men do and Shakuntala Devi's was the first name that came to my mind," she says.
Four years later, she believes that there's no time more relevant than today's to tell Devi's story. "Devi lived her life to the fullest. She had her ups and downs, successes and failures. She embraced it all. Her life sends out an important message that things may not be perfect all the time, but put your best foot forward. That's exactly what she did," says Menon. "She woke up, wore her lipstick, her best sari and did something or the other. I think it's a beautiful message," she adds.