Priya M Menon | April 27, 2013, Times Crest
Long before homosexuality entered drawing room conversations, math wizard Shakuntala Devi had written a book on the subject.
She was known as the ‘human computer’ for her ability to solve complex arithmetic problems mentally. But few people know that mathematics wizard Shakuntala Devi was also one of the earliest allies of the queer community.
In 1977, the year that she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number mentally, she also published The World of Homosexuals. While the book – probably the first Indian book on homosexuality in modern times – is now out of print, the Indian gay community still considers it to be a work that was ahead of its time.
Few references to the book were made in the obituaries written soon after Shakuntala Devi’s demise recently, but gay organisations paid tribute to her in their blogs. “The book, consisting of interviews with homosexual men in India and a same-sex couple in Canada, is remarkable for its progressive approach to the subject, ” writes L Ramakrishnan of SAATHI, a nongovernmental organisation, on Orinam. net, a bilingual website with information on alternate sexualities.
Ramakrishnan’s aim is to introduce the younger generation to a work that advocated social acceptance and decriminalisation of homosexuality in an age when few dared to talk about sex. “What is remarkable about the book is that she approached the community with empathy rather than condescension and sympathy, ” he says.
What made the mathematician delve into such a complex subject? It is not easy to trace people who knew the math genius and what prompted her to write the book. But the information one gathers from the few who knew her, reveals the picture of a sad, lonely but courageous woman, who decided to understand what homosexuality was after her husband came out.
Twenty-four years after her book was published, Shakuntala Devi was interviewed by Vismita Gupta-Smith for her documentary For Straights Only. In it, Shakuntala Devi talks about her marriage to a gay man. Though the couple broke up, instead of reacting in a homophobic manner, she said she felt the need to research the subject. She interviewed a number of people across the country, and this research resulted in The World of Homosexuals.
“When I was researching my documentary, I was told about Shakuntala Devi’s book, ” says Gupta-Smith, who was inspired to make her documentary about the prejudices faced by South Asian queer community after her brother came out. She met Shakuntala Devi in Atlanta in 2000. “She was very frank, progressive and compassionate as well as a scientific-minded, logical person, ” says Gupta-Smith. “What struck me as a filmmaker was that though she had been through a sad, emotional experience, she could take a balanced view. ”
Shakuntala Devi’s stance on morality was advanced for her times. In her book she writes: “When we have arrived at a concept of morality and ethics in interpersonal relationships according to which the dignity of the human condition is respected, we would have ascended to a higher plane of morality in which only hatred is condemned, never love. Then we will have a saner and more healthy society and also a more enlightened sexual morality. ”
Ashok Row Kavi, chairperson of Humsafar Trust and executive editor of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, was one of the people Shakuntala Devi approached to review her book. According to him, the book is remarkable in many ways. “Throughout history we have had people based on gender – napunsaka, ardhanareeshwar – but not based on sexual orientation. For the first time, she made homosexuals visible as men, who look like other men but are attracted to the same sex. She didn’t make any homosexual out to be feminine, which was a very big thing, ” says Kavi.
“But the book falls on its face when she tries to rationalise it in the Indian context, ” says Kavi. One of the people she interviewed was Srinivasa Raghavachariar, head priest of the Srirangam temple in Trichy district. “He attributed homosexuality entirely to reincarnation, ” says Kavi. According to Raghavachariar, same sex lovers must have been opposite sex lovers in a previous birth.
“We spent a lot of time discussing the reasons for homosexuality. Though she did not talk about her personal experience, there was something very sad about her, ” says Kavi.
While she did not touch upon her personal life, Shakuntala Devi did talk about marriage in her book, and how homosexuals misguidedly enter marital relationships to “cure” or escape detection. She felt marriage should not be forced upon anybody. Her words touched a chord with many members of the queer community, who were grappling with their sexuality at that time.
“The book played a very important role in my life, ” says Pawan Dhall, country director (programme and development), SAATHI. At 14, he was just discovering and coming to terms with his sexual orientation when he stumbled upon Shakuntala Devi’s book in his father’s library. “It was just what I was looking for. All of us struggle with the question – Am I the only one? For me, that was answered early on. The book made me realise that homosexuality is not a problem, that there are other homosexuals in the world. It gave me a sense of assurance, ” says 44-year-old Dhall who is based in Kolkata.
Time has rung in change. The Delhi high court ruling of 2009 decriminalised homosexuality, pride marches are being held in cities and small towns. But Shakuntala Devi’s work remains relevant as prejudices still prevail, say activists. “The history of the LGBT community in India before the 1990s is being lost very fast. Before the NGOs came and consolidated material, it existed only in people’s memories, ” says Niruj Mohan, a Pune-based astronomer, who is part of project to archive LGBT history. “Shakuntala Devi’s book is an important part of our history, which many people are not familiar with. And that is why it needs to be preserved and passed on. ”