‘Maths is the only truth in the world’: Watch 8 old clips of Shakuntala Devi

Watch Shakuntala Devi in action, stunning audiences by performing complex arithmetic between long numbers.
Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala Devi
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Bengaluru-born Shakuntala Devi, who came to be known as the ‘human computer’, has been in the news lately, thanks to an upcoming eponymous film about her life starring Vidya Balan. Shakuntala, who died on April 21, 2013, was renowned for her mathematical genius – a talent she says she had since she was just three years old.

But all said and done, the idea of someone performing multiplication of over 13-digit numbers, or deriving 23rd cube roots of long numbers seems quite surreal. 

So, we scoured the internet for some videos of the math wiz to see her in action, and to learn more about Shakuntala in her own words. Here are some clips that will awe you.

‘Do you want the answer from right to left, or left to right?’

We have seen a glimpse of this in the upcoming film, where Vidya Balan asks the above question. And it happened in real life too.

In an interview with Asian Television Network founder Dr Shan Chandrasekhar in Canada, Shakuntala talked about her skill with mathematics. “Mathematics is a concept. […] Mathematics is not just being about to add, subtract, divide, multiply; it is a concept. It is the greatest logic. It is the only truth in the world,” she told the host.

In a demonstration later in front of a panel of three people, she demonstrated her prowess. First she derived the cube root of a nine-digit number in mere seconds. She does tell the person writing the number on the board to not use any English language words or commas in the number as it confuses her.

Shakuntala is very confident, and even sassy in this interaction. When a panellist gives her a rather complicated equation to solve till two decimal points, Shakuntala says she’ll solve it to six decimal points.

And finally, Shakuntala is asked to multiply two eight-digit numbers, and she asks, “Now tell me Ayaz, do you want the answer from right to left, or left to right?”

On the BBC demonstration that made her a household name

One of the most popular instances from Shakuntala’s life that made her a household name is her demonstration with BBC’s Leslie Mitchell in London. She was 14 and it was her first television show. In an interaction at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, Shakuntala narrated what happened in London that made her renowned.

She explains that the show was arranged by the Indian High Commissioner, and the High Commissioner at the time, said to her, “Don’t let down the name of the Indian people here. Do all the sums right and bring the best name to the country.” “I said I’ll do that,” Shakuntala says.

She recalls that she did the first three sums correctly, but in the fourth one, the answer that BBC had did not match hers. “The master of the ceremony said that I can’t believe that BBC made a mistake, I don’t think you (Shakuntala) know the answer. I said, no, I know the answer, there are three mistakes in this (BBC’s) number. But he said, no, the time is up. But then Leslie Mitchel, the anchor of the show, got a number of calls, including calls from the High Commissioner, saying I should be given a chance to check the number. They checked the number and found that the machine had made the mistake, not me,” Shakuntala says.

Watch from 31:50

Here too, after narrating this incident, Shakuntala goes on to awe the room by identifying the weekday by the date – any date of any year – that the audience gave her.

On inspiring young people with her skills

Shakuntala went around the world, entertaining people and even an elite crowd with her mathematical gifts. However, she also interacted with school and college students, as she knew that she could inspire them.

In an interview to a Russian channel when she was in Moscow, Shakuntala says, “I conduct workshops also whereby I inspire children by showing them how beautiful and wonderful numbers are.” She then goes on to ask the host what his date of birth is, and identifies the day on which he was born.

Further, similar to what happened with her at the BBC demonstration, Shakuntala finds a mistake in a cube root of a number given to her on the Russian show.

In another interview in Hong Kong, Shakuntala had talked about inspiring school and college students. “Students who have been poor in mathematics, pick up very nicely after I give the shows.”  

Her talent of identifying days and dates

Apart from solving complex arithmetic, another of Shakuntala’s many talents was being able to identify the day by its date – from any year – and even vice versa to an extent. In the interview with Shan Chandrashekhar, she goes on to name all the dates in a given year that would fall on Saturdays, and then does the same thing for Thursdays.

In this video from Associated Press archive, Shakuntala Devi is in Hong Kong, and identifies the day from a random date – December 7, 1941. “Sunday, correct?” she says, smiling. She does, however, make a mistake in the next one.

In the subsequent interview, she says, “No, I don’t think it’s difficult to settle down, but there’s no need for me to settle down.” We see a glimpse of this side of Shakuntala’s in the film trailer also, where Vidya Balan says to Sanya Malhotra, who’s playing Aparna Banerji, Shakuntala’s daughter, “When I can be amazing, why should I be normal?”

Videos of her demonstrations across the world

Shakuntala Devi also made an appearance on ‘Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women’, a 1989 show hosted by Ricky Jay, where Shakuntala demonstrated her extraordinary talents against two people who generated random, intimidating numbers from a computer.

There are some other clips of her from demonstrations in 1951 and 1969 as well. However, TNM was not able to independently verify these clips.

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