Friday, November 29, 2013

When Shakuntala Devi visited IIT Madras

Shakuntala Devi passed away in April, this year. I wanted to post this article then but as it has been happening of late, it looks like I always have a post about IIT Madars around the Saarang season and boy do I have a story to tell, when Shakuntala Devi visited IIT Madras in the 80's.

The Indian born Mathematics genius and child prodigy who was named the Mental Calculator was even mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for her unbeatable feats with numbers (which I assume stand unbeaten till date) but at IIT Madras something happened that I wonder if she was ever aware of. Sounds odd? Read on... (By the way this is no urban legend, because I WAS THERE.)

It was the early 80's. I am not sure in which class I was studying but just as I reached home from school that evening (I was studying at Vana Vani, inside the IIT Madras campus) my neighbor "Ammu akka" tells me that Shakuntala Devi is scheduled to arrive at around 6:30 PM at the CLT for the Extra Mural Lecture. We had all heard so much about Shakuntala Devi and her super-human skills at computations and numbers and I just couldn't wait to see her. I don't recall if  I took Sathish (my brother ) along but after washing up, changing clothes and taking a quick bite I pedaled to the CLT from my home in Velachery with all the energy and speed I could.

Outside the CLT was a huge crowd as if a "free Amitabh Bachchan" movie was being screened inside. There was no way anyone could even get near the doors of the CLT. All chairs inside were filled and the rest were standing on whatever standing space they could find. I even wondered how Shakuntala Devi was going to make it inside. In the air was this feeling as if some God was going to appear. IIT M Students, Professors, Lecturers, and school students from Kendriya Vidyalaya and Vana Vani were there waiting with bated breath.

Meanwhile the management pro-actively fearing such a turn-out to the show had the prudence to wire the stage with CCTV and had a T.V monitor (luckily with a big screen) positioned outside the CLT so that everyone outside could watch the proceedings going on inside. Knowing that there was no way I could get inside the CLT, I managed to get a vantage position near the T.V monitor.

What a feeling it was when Shakuntala Devi walked through the doors and onto the stage. All of a sudden we became little children looking forward to an awesome "Magic Show" and a "Magic Show" it indeed was. After a formal and brief introduction including details about her feats and Guinness records, Shakuntala took over the mike like the host of some modern day "Reality Show". For the next one hour or maybe more, she swayed the crowd like no other. It was entertainment par excellence. We just wished it would go on forever. It was not with just numbers that Shakuntala was good at. She could easily get the crowd into raptures with her irresistible humour, most of the time she would use numbers and mathematics in them as well. It looked like the audience just couldn't get enough of her.

The best was yet to come and it can only happen in a place of geniuses, as IIT, Madras. Shakuntala picked up two IIT students from the audience. She insisted that both be poor in mathematics. Obviously, how can that be, right? Unknowing to her and to the audience one of the two guys that volunteered was no ordinary math guy at all. Remember this was a time when "aam juntha" were only into calculators, maybe college students had scientific ones. Meanwhile Shakuntala was spitting numbers and answers for math questions from members in the audience like a Gatling gun. Every time someone was asked to give her numbers to calculate her assistant would write the numbers on the blackboard behind her so that the audience could see and probably do the computation on paper or on their calculators. The assistant would also write down the answer as Shakuntala would say it. For the audience's sake Shakuntala would repeat her answer only slowly.

Oblivious to Shakuntala (because she was facing the audience) something was going on behind her, and not many very noticing. Every time Shakuntala was giving the answer to a computation, the assistant was tryring to beat Shakuntala by trying to write down the answer before she could finish. Sometimes the assistant would get a few of the numbers wrong in his answer but sometimes he would get it right. Amidst the applause and the focus of attention being on Shakuntala not many were paying attention to what the assistant was doing but to the people who were observant it was a double delight.

Then came the multiplication of two 12 digit numbers. We were told that this was the one where Shakuntala beat the Omega Computer (I may have got the name of the computer wrong). Not only did Shakuntala beat the computer but she also indicated that the computer  had generated a wrong answer. Anyway, two random 12 digit numbers were sourced from the audience and the answer obviously was going to be a long one. Now comes the best part. Believe me, even before Shakuntala had read out her answer,  the assistant had already WRITTEN HIS DOWN. As I had written earlier,  Shakuntala was indeed reading the answer out slow but watching this guy outsmart the legend was something unbelievable. This time though several people watching the T.V set took notice of what had just happened. As Shakuntala read out the numbers of her answer the assistant did change a couple of numbers in his answer but the amazing part was that all along Shakuntala was oblivious of what was going on behind her. It's a pity she left the show without knowing that. I wonder if she ever did.

Once back at home while discussing the show with "Ammu akka" I mentioned the assistant but she had no idea of what I was talking about, but for me and several others that day who took notice of the volunteer, it was a sweet icing on the cake.

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