shakuntala-devi

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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 talent 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 as well as texts about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology. She wrote the book, “The World of Homosexuals”, which is considered the first study of homosexuality in India. She treated homosexuality in an understanding light and is considered a pioneer in the field.

Shakuntala Devi was born in Bengaluru, India, to an orthodox Kannada Brahmin family. Her father rebelled against becoming a temple priest and instead joined a circus where he worked as a trapeze artist, lion tamer, tightrope walker and magician. He discovered his daughter’s ability to memorise numbers while teaching her a card trick when she was about three years old. Her father left the circus and took her on road shows that displayed her ability at calculation. She did this without any formal education. At the age of six, she demonstrated her arithmetic abilities at the University of Mysore.

In 1944, Devi moved to London with her father.

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 above mentioned 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 1977, at Southern Methodist University, she gave the 23rd root of a 201-digit number 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.

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 Bengaluru in the early 1980s.

In addition to her work as a mental calculator, Devi was an astrologer and an author of several books, including cookbooks and novels.

In April 2013, Devi was admitted to a hospital in Bengaluru 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 then. She is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerji.