Shakuntala Devi (4 November 1929 – 21 April 2013) was an Indian writer and mental calculator, popularly known as the "human computer". A child prodigy, her talents eventually earned her a place in the 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records. As a writer, Devi wrote a number of books, including novels and non-fiction texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. She also wrote what is considered the first study of homosexuality in India; it treated homosexuality in an understanding light and is considered pioneering.
She returned to India in the mid-1960s and married Paritosh Banerji, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata. They were divorced in 1979. In 1980 she contested in the Lok Sabha elections as an independent, from Bombay South and from Medak in Andhra Pradesh. In Medak she stood against Indira Gandhi, saying she wanted to "defend the people of Medak from being fooled by Mrs. Gandhi"; she stood ninth, with 6514 votes (1.47% of the votes). Devi returned to Bangalore in the early 1980s.
Devi travelled the world demonstrating her arithmetic talents, including a tour of Europe in 1950 and a performance in New York City in 1976. In 1988, she travelled to the US to have her abilities studied by Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Jensen tested her performance of several tasks, including the calculation of large numbers. Examples of the problems presented to Devi included calculating the cube root of 61,629,875, and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Jensen reported that Devi provided the solution to the aforementioned problems (395 and 15, respectively) before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. Jensen published his findings in the academic journal Intelligence in 1990.
In addition to her work as a mental calculator, Devi was an astrologer and an author of several books, including cookbooks and novels.
Death and legacy
In April 2013, Devi was admitted to a hospital in Bangalore with respiratory problems. Over the following two weeks she suffered from complications of the heart and kidneys. She died in the hospital on 21 April 2013. She was 83 years old. She is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerji.
On 4 November 2013, Devi was honoured with a Google Doodle for what would have been her 84th birthday.
In 1977, at Southern Methodist University, she was asked to give the 23rd root of a 201-digit number; she answered in 50 seconds. Her answer—546,372,891—was confirmed by calculations done at the US Bureau of Standards by the UNIVAC 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation.
On 18 June 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers—7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779—picked at random by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds. This event is mentioned in the 1982 Guinness Book of Records. Writer Steven Smith states that the result is "so far superior to anything previously reported that it can only be described as unbelievable".
Book on homosexuality
In 1977, she wrote The World of Homosexuals, the first study of homosexuality in India. In the documentary For Straights Only, she says that her interest in the topic came out of her marriage to a homosexual man and subsequent desire to look at homosexuality more closely to understand it.
The book, considered "pioneering", features interviews with two young Indian homosexual men, a male couple in Canada seeking legal marriage, a temple priest who explains his views on homosexuality, and a review of the existing literature on homosexuality. It ends with a call for decriminalising homosexuality, and "full and complete acceptance—not tolerance and not sympathy". The book, however, went mostly unnoticed at the time.
^The Election Archives, Volumes 65–70, Shiv Lal, 1982, pp. 111,64, "Two other prominent independents were film comedian I. S. Johar and the mathematician, Mrs Shakuntala Devi. I. S. Johar contested from Bombay south and New Delhi and Mrs Shakuntala Devi from Bombay south and Medak in Andhra Pradesh."
^"Bombay's Women", Himmat Volume 16 Part 1, 1979, p. 10, ""An amusing sidelight of the contest in Bombay is also provided by a woman – the mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi, who is standing as an independent from Bombay South. Mrs. Devi has also filed her nomination from Medak in Andhra Pradesh, where she is fighting Mrs Indira Gandhi. Despite her mathematical mind, Mrs. Devi, I am afraid, just does not add up. From her 17th floor Cuffe Parade flat she claims that she is "100 per cent" sure that she will win from both constituencies. She is standing as an independent because "parties don't want intelligent people in the party". To her being Prime Minister or President "is something like being a housekeeper". By entering the fray she wants to "deglamourise" politics. Politics should not be a full-time affair, she feels, and more like her should enter. Incidentally, she is known to have approached the Congress (I) for a ticket because, as she herself admits, she "had the impression that Mrs Gandhi alone would fight for democracy in the country". She changed her mind suddenly, she says, when Sanjay Gandhi was given a ticket to stand from Amethi in UP; "I realised that Mrs. Gandhi had fooled me the way she had so many people. I saw all sycophants surrounding her." So now Mrs. Devi wants to "defend the people of Medak from being fooled by Mrs. Gandhi"."
For Garcia-Arroyo the beginning of the debate on homosexuality in the twentieth century is made with Shakuntala Devi's book The World of Homosexuals published in 1977. [...] Shakuntala Devi's (the famous mathematician) [sic] book appeared. This book went almost unnoticed, and did not contribute to queer discourse or movement. [...] The reason for this book not making its mark was because Shakuntala Devi was famous for her mathematical wizardry and nothing of substantial import in the field of homosexuality was expected from her. Another factor for the indifference meted out to the book could perhaps be a calculated silence because the cultural situation in India was inhospitable for an open and elaborate discussion on this issue.