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.


Re-imagining Shakespeare

For a extremely fantastic assignment on Shakespeare, we were given the creative liberties to play around with either The Tempest or Othello and come up with a piece of our own. While some of us wrote, others drew while more still danced. In this series, we bring to you in parts the works of some of our fellows out here. The theme of the first three is Othello; one of them a 9gag page, the other a deviant art work while the third plays with urdu poetry. Hope you like it.


Our very own designer from CEPT, came up with the delightful idea of creating Facebook profiles of the Othello characters and conversing amongst each other. Check out Apoorva Singhal’s work right here. 

Palak Malik uses fun Bitstrips to create a thoroughly entertaining story set in modern times. Go through it for a good laugh and entertaining design work right here. 

Putting Ghalib in conversation with Othello to recreate his last speech makes an interesting read. Have a look at Onaiza Drabu’s take on Othello here.


Why don’t you let these entertain you for now. Wait up for the next batch!

Gender and Culture in Bombay Cinema

For our first semester at the Young India Fellowship, we had a course on Gender and Culture in Bombay Cinema by Professor Geetanjali Chanda from Yale. Throughout this exciting course, a quirky young Fellow, Kaustubh Khare took notes in a refreshing new way. He did this for more courses as well and we shall soon bring them to you, one by one. For now why don’t you have a look at the most exciting class notes here

Kaustbh is an architect from IIT Kharagpur and quite the artist right here at YIF. We shall be bringing you more of his work soon. Stay tuned to this space!

January 2028

Envisioning the future is a unique talent, here we delve into the visions of  fellow Nirmal Karta as he talks about his personal interpretation of an idyllic life. A fine peppering of Zen philosophy some good old common sense and plenty of zest for life, a fine piece for an afternoon’s rumination.


2028, January 1st, 01:00 AM.

A new year that would probably have been like the 40 odd new years of my past, had it not been “that” stray thought which whizzed through the channels of my brain at the strike of 12. Describing that thought in the language of words and reason cannot do enough justice to the emotional effect that it had on me. It wasn’t alien; it wasn’t a perfect stranger at my doorstep. No, I had seen it almost 15 years back. A question whose answer I couldn’t even possibly comprehend what it could be. I still can’t.


What is the sound of one hand clapping?


A koan is a riddle or a story which, when told by a Zen master to his student, has the potential of shocking that particular student into a state of consciousness known as satori – Japanese jargon for ‘sudden’ enlightenment. In this state of consciousness, all distinctions and evaluations you’ve ever had about the outside world evaporate in a puff of white incense, leaving you with a profound admiration of the unity in the universe and of all the experiences possible in the universe. There’s no logical or scientific response to the thought; merely a humble but profound “Wow!” reaction. But how does this thought have anything to do at all with what I’m now, in this present moment in time and space?


Liberating myself from the focused pursuit of money in this dog-eat-dog world had been no easy task. In other words, it is imperative to draw a line of distinction between profession and business, in terms of their end goals. A business generates your wealth whereas a profession generates your salary. Still not clear enough? As of now, I have close to a dozen different sources of passive income that keeps building my wealth irrespective of whether I’m relaxing in my cultured marble bathtub or I’m out preaching life to the masses – a motley mixture of paper and real estate assets in India. Wealth is not measured in terms of money; it’s a measure of time – the time you can survive, starting from the instant you say a loud NO to ‘actively’ working for money. Although that nugget of wisdom seems like it just came out of a run-of-the-mill fortune cookie, it had helped me understand a profound thing or two about humanity. As the Australian aboriginal saying goes, We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are all just passing through. Our Purpose here is to Observe, to Learn, to Grow, to Love and then, We Return Home. Work, as we define it today, is the source of nearly all misery in this world and the “office culture” essentially consists of the totality of all totalitarian controls in the workplace – “office discipline” is what the factory and the office have in common with schools and prisons and mental asylums. I’ve reached a point in my life where I can lock myself in my penthouse on the 30th floor, set amidst the clouds of the Bangalore sky, and still live the rest of my life with my accumulated “wealth”. But that’s not what I want or intend to do. Wealth has freed me from the chains and shackles forged by the concept of work, which has opened up new horizons to invest time and effort into. As I sit here writing, safely ensconced in my den with a delicious Marlboro Red placed between my lips and an Italian crystal glass of the best Jack Daniels Tennessee whisky – a personal favorite – I ponder over what I want to do about something close to my heart –Education.


15 years back, only 10% of India’s burgeoning student population ended up receiving professional college education. Sadly, the numbers haven’t changed much since then. The whole education system’s bogus, if you ask me. Children are whisked off to concentration camps called “schools”, primarily to keep them out of Mom’s hair but still under control, incidentally to acquire the habits of obedience and punctuality so necessary for workers. The system educates creativity out of these kids, focusing just on the brain and that too, only one half of it. If I had known what I know now back when I was a child, I would have had second thoughts about getting “educated” in a system that sees the human body merely as a vessel to transport the heads. I do not know how to achieve it, but I envision a future where play substitutes work. “Work” – That’s such a dreadful term, a Pandora’s box of sorts with waves of negative energy trapped inside it. The “playful attitude” should not be confused with aimless loafing around. It’s much more than that. Play is voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. The attitude doesn’t stem from “a suspension of consequences”. The point is that it’s not without consequences. That demeans the concept of play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. In such a system, children should be teachers, not students. They embody the spirit of “play” and the adults can learn a lot from them. Adults and children are not identical but they can become equal through interdependence. Only play can bridge the generation gap, I feel. With those thoughts in mind and time in my hands, I hope to create a revolution in the same system whose inadequacies and blemishes I had observed during my journey in this world. Maybe not now, but definitely ‘then’.


So, what is the sound of one hand clapping? It became a part of my core personal philosophies since the time I’d heard it from a friend of mine. You cannot wrap your mind around it. You’re not supposed to. Hence, my path to, for lack of a better word, enlightenment began with accepting the fact that control is an illusion and nirvana is not about attaining some far-out state of consciousness. Life’s illogical and absurd at times. It confounds reason. At the end of the day, it’s all about being in the here and now. To quote from a favorite book of mine, “What we have trouble getting is how enlightened consciousness can be both ordinary and transcendent simultaneously”. Destroy your ego, detach yourself and be an observer. Sounds too much to handle? Here’s one more koan then, before you transcend all sounds and reach the soundless sound:


What did your original face look like before you were born?” 

The End Of A Day

Today we bring you a poem by one of our aspiring writers. Kritika Pandey while not studying for her fellowship maintains an extremely active blog where you can find her ramble, tumble through the avenues of life. Do give her a shout-out.


A gentle breeze, a well-known scent
This day was bought and now it’s spent
A fresh layer of yellow leaves
Now lines the edges of this lane
A flock of birds, moves high and high
Goes missing in the evening sky

A long walk home, the steps are slow
The pallid beams of streetlights flow
The fireflies, a barking dog
This weird skyline of a tree
Another breeze, that well known scent
And a day just came and went


-Kritika Pandey

Anunaya Chaubey Writes

At the Young India Fellowship, we have the coolest deputy dean you could wish for. Do you not believe us? While we revel in his wonderful company, you can read up more about Anunaya Chaubey here. The beautiful poem that follows is by him. 

I paint a tree 

because I want to feel like one

because I want to know one

because today I  want to be one.

Summer In My Head

Nina Sud is a graduate in literature who is also an actor. She originally thought of this during a theatre workshop where you had to come up with a story revolving around a prop and narrate it in character. Her prop was a pair of spectacles. 

And  it’s summer time again.

Summer somehow always seems to be the season for transition. Winter is more static, with the weather making it too tough to really be doing much more than sitting in the blanket and planning out details of the summer months. With the days growing longer the playtime of the children in the park increases, the number of people on the road increases and so does the number of ice cream carts. Strangely, the worse the weather gets, the more reasons I am given to be outside the comfort of my home and braving the sun.

The race for colleges in The University of Delhi has started again. Last year I was a part of the race. After years of reading articles about it and seeing pictures of students check cut off lists and fill forms, I was one of the people those articles spoke about. It’s the same thing that happens year after year, just with a different group of people. And each group feels its experiences are unique.

My first memory is a hazy one, the kind of blurred flashback you could expect to see on a movie- With the voices coming from far away and a five year olds laughter as the soundtrack. But the first summer I can remember is more important.  That summer begun with us moving to a new city. My parents always had spectacles or so it seemed to me then and that summer my older sister got a pair too.   Change was something I was still learning to cope with. Fitting in was an art I still had to master. The exclusion of being the only one different in my family, the one place I ALWAYS fitted into was hard. Yes, so not having specs is not really standing out in a big way or doesn’t mean you’re not accepted but try explaining that to a scared, insecure 6 year old. My mother had told me not to wear the specs because they would spoil my eyes and if I did, I’d need a big pair too. Little did mother know that ever since I learnt this, I would stand on a stool in front of the bathroom mirror, wearing a pair of specs too big for me, wondering how long it would take for my eyes to get spoilt. Funnily enough I still don’t need specs even 13 years later.

I know how it is to have my entire world and everything in it change. I like that.  Facebook, Orkut, BBM are all too recent to have counted for anything in our childhoods. You couldn’t always keep in touch with people like you can now. You couldn’t know every single detail of their existence through their status. You moved and you made new friends. If you were lucky you would run into them years later in a different city when you were a different person. But you weren’t that lucky every time.  College was a new adventure and just the right time period. It would be over before I got bored of it. I convinced myself of the truth of this statement when I was preparing myself for college.

That summer when it started was filled with dreams and expectations of the summers to come. But it was also a reminder of the first one I remember. A little girl on a bathroom stool who only wanted to ‘fit in’. The little girl had stayed in me. I didn’t know it then but the specs changed into other things according to the situations I would find myself  in and what it was that I wanted to fit into.The specs would change into a harry potter book when I was 8, a guitar when I was 13, a cigarette when I was 16…it would change into so many different things later in my life that I eventually stopped recognizing their symbolism.

There were a lot of changes after that summer I had to learn to deal with. A lot of them are yet to come. In a lot of situations I’m the only one comfortable to step into the limelight and it is easy for me to keep to it and ignore the ones in the shadows- All those years of moving have given me the gift of dealing with change in the best way possible. But the memory of the six year old with her mother’s specs never let me do that. The six year old in me recognizes the same in the others. All of us are trying to fit in, all of us are trying to find a place in the world.

I still smile at the memory of that summer.  The summer whose memory guides all the summers that follow.

The specs in my hand have turned into a pen now. But this time, they not only helped me fit in. They help me reach out.

If it isn’t the lost six year olds in us that help each other out and recognize each other in times of need, we’re going to have a tough time being adults.