The Joy of Numbers

Harsh Snehanshu compiles anecdotes from bright youngsters who grew reading Shakuntala Devi’s books.

It was my ninth birthday party. Throng of guests brought me numerous gifts, all my favorites – cricket bat, wickets, football, scrabble, chocolates, sweets, stationery and even goggles. My granduncle, a retired engineer, was one of the last ones to arrive at the party and all that he’d brought for me as a present was a small book, unwrapped, titled Figuring: the Joy of Numbers by some Shakuntala Devi. Dejected, I muttered to my friends, ‘Who brings a math book on one’s birthday?’ They echoed my sentiments. Inwardly, I wondered whether my granduncle knew that I was scared of Maths.

A year went by, my cricket bats, wickets, and football wore out; chocolates and sweets were gulped in long back; stationery, scrabble, and goggles either broke down or got lost; and my granduncle passed away, but his present remained – its unwrapped white cover now wrapped with brown paper, its text underlined, tick-marked and smudged, being read and practised over three times. During my tenth birthday, the same people came with the same bunch of gifts, gifts I didn’t like anymore. I missed my granduncle; his last present remained the best for the coming years, for it fostered an innate love for mathematics within me.

From a child who feared mathematics to a JEE aspirant fond of numbers, algebra, calculus and puzzles, I owe my career to the late mathematical wizard Shakuntala Devi. Throughout my student days at IIT-Delhi and now at the Young India Fellowship, I met a lot of students who fell in love with mathematics courtesy Shakuntala Devi’s books. This Monday, when Google commemorated her birthday with a doodle, I went forth asking people to share their memories of the late Shakuntala Devi and interesting stories unfolded, some of them listed here.

Rachana Ramchand, a computer engineer from NIT Warangal and a former employee with Oracle, relates, ‘As a child my Dad would take me for long walks every weekend up in the hills of Britain. I never noticed the length of the walks as they were filled with math puzzles, tables and quick arithmetic. We moved back to India when I was nine, and Dad became busier. Walking on the Indian roads with a clumsy nine year old wasn’t happening anymore, so he got me the Shakuntala Devi’s book, Puzzles to Puzzle You. I remember reading and rereading her introduction, longing to be like her one day. Her puzzles seemed tough in the beginning; I never knew how to solve linear equations formally back then and would do it intuitively. Soon, my pace increased and I finished three of her puzzle-books that my parents had gotten for me. Mathematics has always been my favourite subject and her puzzles made me look at math from a broader perspective – math was no longer mere numbers. Math became a framework by which everything in this world could be defined, quantitatively. And that still hasn’t changed for me.’

Kashmir-born Onaiza Drabu, a former employee with McKinsey & Company, recounts, ‘As a child cooped up in warm rooms of Srinagar during my winter breaks, I’d bring out these bunch of books and a lot of waste paper and get set to solve ‘puzzles to puzzle’ me; and they did. They really did. I often found myself slyly peeking at the back, checking answers, trying to be as honest as possible. It was the introduction to one of these books where she talks about how she calculates that marvelled me. I tried to think like her, multiply like she did and one day become faster than her. I thought books would be written on me. I had a crazy imagination. My father always tried to make me do math the Shakuntala Devi way; constantly quizzing, sitting together and solving. Between me and my brothers, we own thirty odd puzzle books but the only ones we remember are the tiny white ones which have this black and white photo of Shakuntala Devi looking down at us. To this date, I get thrilled solving a case study, or an estimation question. It is the same thrill I used to get in classrooms when without calculators I could shout out answers before the other kids.’

Santosh Sundaresan, a physics graduate from IISER Kolkata, had the most interesting anecdote to relate, ‘Shakuntala Devi was performing at a local university, and my school arranged a trip to go watch her. On the bus going there, my friend was preparing a question to ask her; he was zealously working out the answer on scratch paper. When we were there, she took questions from the audience. At the very end, when it was time for the last question, she called on my friend. He asked her, “What is 7 to the power of 13?” She just laughed. “I thought you were going to ask me something tough.” “Well, what is it?” he persisted. She immediately gave the answer. He exclaimed, “No, that’s wrong!” The audience gasped. “Well, what answer do you have?” she asked him. He confidently read the answer off his scratch paper. She chuckled. “Oh, I see what you did,” she said. “First you computed 7^2 = 49, and then 7^4 = 49^2 = 2401, and then 7^8 = 2401^2 = 5764801. And then, for the next step, to get 7^12, you multiplied 7^4 by 7^8, and you then just have to multiply by 7 to get your answer. But when you multiplied 2401 by 5764801, you carried wrong in the thousand’s column and that’s why you got the wrong answer.” He checked his scratch paper, and that was exactly what he had done.’

Shakuntala Devi is no more with us, but her books, her inspirational story and these memories remain testimonies to the fact that a human mind can work faster than computer, there is joy in numbers, and mathematics can become a lifelong love affair.


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