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Remembering Shakuntala Devi, India's 'human computer'

On the third death anniversary of eminent 'mental calculator' Shakuntala Devi, we look back at her life and times and her unique gift that enabled her to attain international recognition and her contributions in other areas...

Shakuntala Devi was born on 4 November 1929, in a orthodox Kannada Brahmin family in Bengaluru. Her father, who rebelled against the family to join the circus as a  trapeze artist, lion tamer, tightrope walker and magician discovered her amazing ability to memorise numbers while teaching his daughter do card tricks. Shakuntala was 3 years old at the time.

Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala Devi

Both father and daughter then set out on road shows that displayed her unqiue ability at calculation, which she did adeptly without any formal education. Shakuntala Devi had demonstrated her calculation and memorisation abilities at the University of Mysore by age 6 and moved to London with her father in 1944.

Shakuntala Devi travelled the world demonstrating her arithmetic talents, including a tour of Europe in 1950 and a performance in New York City in 1976. Shakuntala Devi divorced husband Paritosh Banerji, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service from Kolkata, who she married in the mid-1960s after returning from one of her world tours. This was due to Banerji's homosexuality, which inspired Devi to study homosexuality more closely to understand it. 

She wrote the book, 'The World of Homosexuals' in 1977, which is considered to be the first study of homosexuality in India. This pioneering work features interviews with two young Indian homosexual men, a male couple in Canada seeking legal marriage, a temple priest who explains his views on same-sex relationships and a review of the existing literature on homosexuality. Despite it's unorthodox subject matter, the book, however, went mostly unnoticed at the time.

Shakuntala Devi caught the attention of American researcher Arthur Jensen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who wanted to study her abilities in 1988. Jensen, tested her performance of several tasks, including the calculation of large numbers. During the study, Devi calculated two problems presented to her namely, the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375 before Jensen could copy them down in his notebook. The results were later published two years later in 1990 in an academic journal.

In another study conducted at the Southern Methodist University in 1977, Shakuntala Devi answered the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. The answer -- 546,372,891 -- was confirmed by calculations done at the US Bureau of Standards by the UNIVAC 1101 computer. A special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation.

On June 18, 1980, she again solved the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers 7,686,369,774,870 X 2,465,099,745,779 that were randomly picked by the computer department of Imperial College in London. And this, she did in 28 seconds flat. Her correct answer to this multiplication sum was 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730. This incident has been included in the Guinness Book of Records.

Shakuntala Devi's Google Doodle
2013 Google Doodle honouring Shakuntala Devi on her 84th birth anniversary. Pic courtesy/Google

In 2010, Shakuntala Devi made news in her native Bengaluru, when she accused her maidservant of stealing gold valuables worth around Rs 8. 5 lakh from her residence. Though the police managed to recover part of the stolen booty, the remaining valuables worth Rs 7.5 lakh weren't retrieved.

Shakuntala Devi was admitted to Bangalore Hospital in April 3, 2013, as her kidneys became weak and she also had breathing problems. She breathed her last on 21 April at age 83. Her last rites were conducted in the presence of hundreds of people, including relatives and admirers. She is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerji. 7 months after her passing, a Google Doodle was posted in her honour on 4 November, her 84th birth anniversary.

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