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Shakuntala Devi’s literary legacy went beyond numbers—homosexuality, caste, murder, astrology

New Delhi: Shakuntala Devi, or the ‘human computer’, dazzled everyone with her ability to calculate faster than machines. In a Doordarshan episode televised in 1977, she challenged her audience to compete with her using a calculator. The gentleman who asked her to find the eighth square root of 5764801 quickly gave up.

Born in Bengaluru on 4 November 1929, Devi stunned her family with her knack for numbers when she was barely three years old. But the name ‘human computer’ reduces her to her stage tricks—in truth, she should be identified as a polymath.

She was a vibrant author whose written works painted a colourful tapestry that extended far beyond the confines of numbers, delving into cookery, astrology, numerology, fiction, rural life, caste issues – and homosexuality.

Even today, Devi’s more popular books are a ticket to a world where numbers are transformed into delightful puzzles. In Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, and Puzzles to Puzzle You, she transformed the intimidating world of mathematics into an accessible playground, sharing captivating tricks and puzzles that showcased her extraordinary skills.

But Devi’s literary journey started out with a murder mystery, written in 1976. Perfect Murder, a first-person account of a successful lawyer scheming to kill his wife, delves into the psyche of a killer.

A queer ally

In public appearances, Devi was a clear and confident communicator. But beyond crunching numbers, she used her prolific communication skills to boldly venture into writing The World of Homosexuals – at a time when such conversations were whispered.

The book almost went unnoticed when it was first published in the 1970s, but most scholars agree that it is the first educational book in the area of homosexuality in post-colonial India. Devi later acknowledged in an interview, which was part of the 2001 documentary For Straights only, that her failed marriage to a gay man motivated her to write the book.

Today, the book is seen as one of the earliest voices of empathy for the LGBTQ community in India—and Devi is seen as one of the early queer allies.

Unafraid to be herself

Beyond her more famous works, Shakuntala Devi also penned books that explored the intricacies of rural life and the complex caste system in India. She delved into the very heart of Indian society, aiming to raise awareness and foster understanding of these profound issues.

Some of her titles include Planning and Rural Development (2006), Women’s Status and Social Change (1999), and Caste System in India (1999).

The mathematical genius also had a secret ingredient—her love for cooking. She shared her culinary prowess with a pocket book quite cheekily titled Cookery Book for Men: And Other Beginners. The book was a collection of easy-to-follow recipes for vegetarians.

However, it was not like Devi’s mind was confined to the tangible and logical. It extended well into the mystical – and pseudoscientific – realms of astrology and numerology. Her Astrology For You was a compass for beginners, leading them through the constellations and horoscopes. The book discusses zodiacs, planets, asterisms, the rising signs – along with Vedic astrology. In fact, the math geniuses’ primary profession was reported to be astrology.

Shakuntala Devi’s literary legacy is a message of curiosity and fearlessness. She was not afraid to truly be herself.

(Edited by Prashant)

Source: The Print

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