Remembering Shakuntala Devi: The “Human Computer” and The Pioneer of Gay Rights.

Shakuntala Devi, the master of mathematics and calculations, fought for the right to love freely. After she found out her husband, an IAS officer, was gay, Shakuntala Devi went on the unique journey of understanding, accepting and supporting homosexuality.

Her book ‘The World of Homosexuals’ was the first book in India, which called for decriminalization of homosexuality, and full acceptance. The book surfaced in 1977 after two years before her divorce from Paritosh Banerji, an IAS officer of 1960s, who was homosexual. Despite her broken marriage, she didn’t react in homophobic way. Instead, she felt the need to look at the subject of homosexuality more closely and try to understand it. In her words ‘My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being.’”

The pioneering book 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 decriminalization of homosexuality, and “full and complete acceptance, not just tolerance and sympathy”. As people were highly ignorant, the book went mostly unnoticed at that time. The book is the first study of homosexuality in India.

Her mathematical talent earned her a place in The Guinness Book of World Records. Scientists, professors as well as psychiatrists were astonished over her incredible arithmetic talent. She could carry out hectic calculations of any numbers (even a 200-digit number) in seconds.
She once gave the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds and answered the multiplication of two 13-digit number in 28 seconds.. In addition to her work as a mental calculator and novel-writer, Devi was also an astrologer and an author of several cookbooks.

Here is an excerpt from her writing:

“Immorality does not consist in being different. It consists in not allowing others to be so. It is not the individual whose sexual relations depart from the social custom who is immoral – but those are immoral who would penalize him for being different. A law-abiding citizen who respects the rights and dignities of others, if he is made to suffer merely for deviating from the conventional norm, is not the offender – he is the victim”.

“What we know is that many decent, intelligent, moral and apparently normal people find their own sex more exciting than the opposite sex. They are found in all walks of life and in all professions. If homosexuals want to live within the discipline of society, what does the society expect them to do? Live a life of total celibacy?

“An important question that arises in the thinking members of society is – must then these millions who already exist and tens of millions yet to be born be condemned to misery, loneliness and degradation?

“The time is overdue now, when rather than pretending that homosexuals don’t exist, or hoping to eradicate them by the sheer weight of disapproval or prison sentences, we face the facts squarely in the eye and find room for them so that they can live unfettered and unmolested, and make their contribution to the common good of community”

“On this level nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve – not tolerance and not sympathy.”

The World of Homosexuals (Vikas Publishing House, 1977).

Shakuntala Devi was born in Bengaluru, India to a Kannada Brahmin family. She left us in April 2013 at the age of 83 years. 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.

R.I.P. Shakuntala Devi.

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