What the numbers didn’t tell – Shakuntala Devi

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. ”

Gay Pakistanis, Still in Shadows, Seek Acceptance

Max Becherer for the International Herald Tribune

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT Ali, a gay man who lives in Lahore, is in a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis. “The gay scene here is very hush-hush,” he says.


Published: November 3, 2012
Max Becherer for the International Herald Tribune-A street in bustling Lahore. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are a common sight.

The group is invitation only, by word of mouth. Members communicate through an e-mail list and are careful not to jeopardize the location of their meetings. One room is reserved for “crisis situations,” when someone may need a place to hide, most often from her own family. This is their safe space — a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis.

“The gay scene here is very hush-hush,” said Ali, a member who did not want his full name used. “I wish it was a bit more open, but you make do with what you have.”

That is slowly changing as a relative handful of younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West, seek to foster more acceptance of their sexuality and to carve out an identity, even in a climate of religious conservatism.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in Pakistan, based on laws constructed by the British during colonial rule. No civil rights legislation exists to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But the reality is far more complex, more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell” than a state-sponsored witch hunt. For a long time, the state’s willful blindness has provided space enough for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly.

One journalist, in his early 40s, has been living as a gay man in Pakistan for almost two decades. “It’s very easy being gay here, to be honest,” he said, though he and several others interviewed did not want their names used for fear of the social and legal repercussions. “You can live without being hassled about it,” he said, “as long as you are not wearing a pink tutu and running down the street carrying a rainbow flag.”

The reason is that while the notion of homosexuality may be taboo, homosocial, and even homosexual, behavior is common enough. Pakistani society is sharply segregated on gender lines, with taboos about extramarital sex that make it almost harder to conduct a secret heterosexual romance than a homosexual one. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are common. “A guy can be with a guy anytime, anywhere, and no one will raise an eyebrow,” the journalist said.

For many in his and previous generations, he said, same-sex attraction was not necessarily an issue because it did not involve questions of identity. Many Pakistani men who have sex with men do not think of themselves as gay. Some do it regularly, when they need a break from their wives, they say, and some for money.

But all the examples of homosexual relations — in Sufi poetry, Urdu literature or discreet sexual conduct — occur within the private sphere, said Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer and activist for women’s and minority rights. Homoeroticism can be expressed but not named.

“The biggest hurdle,” Ms. Jilani said, “is finding the proper context in which to bring this issue out into the open.”

That is what the gay and lesbian support group in Lahore is slowly seeking to do, even if it still meets in what amounts to near secrecy.

The driving force behind the group comes from two women, ages 30 and 33. They are keenly aware of the oddity that two women, partners no less, have become architects of the modern gay scene in Lahore; if gay and bisexual men barely register in the collective societal consciousness of Pakistan, their female counterparts are even less visible.

“The organizing came from my personal experience of extreme isolation, the sense of being alone and different,” the 30-year-old said.

She decided that she needed to find others like her in Pakistan. Eight people, mostly the couple’s friends, attended the first meeting in January 2009.

Two months later, the two women formed an activist group they call O. They asked for its full name not to be published because it is registered as a nongovernmental organization with the government, with its true purpose concealed because of the laws against homosexual acts.

O conducts research into lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, provides legal advice and has helped remove people from difficult family situations, and in one case a foreign-operated prostitution ring. The group has made a conscious decision to focus its efforts on the dynamic of family and building social acceptance and awareness rather than directly tackling legal discrimination.

Their current fight is not to overturn Article 377 of the Pakistan Penal Code, on “Unnatural Offenses,” but to influence parents’ deciding whether or not to shun their gay child. They see this approach as ultimately more productive.

“If you talk about space in Pakistan in terms of milestones that happen in the other parts of the world like pride parades or legal reform or whatever, that’s not going to happen for a long time,” the 33-year-old organizer, who identifies as bisexual, said. “Families making space — that’s what’s important to us right now.” Both women say their families have accepted them, though it was a process.

There are distinct class differences at work here, particularly when it comes to self-definition. Most of those actively involved in fostering the gay and lesbian community in Pakistan, even if they have not been educated abroad, are usually college graduates and are familiar with the evolution of Western thought concerning sexuality. Mostly city-dwellers, they come from families whose parents can afford to send their children to school.

Those who identify themselves as gay here are usually middle and upper middle class, the 33-year-old woman said. “You will get lower middle class or working-class women refusing to call themselves lesbian because that to them is an insult, so they’ll say ‘woman loving woman.’ ”

While the journalist lives relatively openly as a gay man, and says his immediate family accepts it, he understands that older gays have separated sexuality from identity, and he also recognizes that this approach is changing.

Still, he sees the potential for serious conflict for younger Pakistanis who are growing up with a more westernized sense of sexual identity.

“They’ve got all the access to content coming from a Western space, but they don’t have the outlets for expression that exist over there,” he said. “Inevitably they will feel a much greater sense of frustration and express it in ways that my generation wouldn’t have.”

That clash of ideologies was evident last year on June 26, when the American Embassy in Islamabad held its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride celebration. The display of support for gay rights prompted a backlash, setting off demonstrations in Karachi and Lahore, and protesters clashing with the police outside the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. This year, the embassy said, it held a similar event but did not issue a news release about it.

“It is the policy of the United States government to support and promote equal rights for all human beings,” an embassy spokeswoman, Rian Harris, said by e-mail when asked about the backlash. “We are committed to standing up for these values around the world, including here in Pakistan.”

Well intended as it may have been, the event was seen by many in Pakistan’s gay community as detrimental to their cause. The 33-year-old activist strongly believes it was a mistake.

“The damage that the U.S. pride event has done is colossal,” she said, “just in terms of creating an atmosphere of fear that was not there before. The public eye is not what we need right now.”

Despite the hostile climate, both the support group and O continue their work. O is currently researching violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis.

“In a way, we are just role models for each other,” the 30-year-old said. When she was growing up, she said, she did not know anyone who was gay and she could not imagine such a life.

“For me the whole activism is to create that space in which we can imagine a future for ourselves, and not even imagine but live that future,” she said. “And we are living it. I’m living my own impossibility.”



An Anonymous humorous letter to Bible candidate – Rick Santorum

Dear Friends,

 I have been greatly moved by Rick Santorum‘s wise pronouncements, guided by Biblical principles, especially those concerning marriage. Of course he believes that sexual intercourse should be used only for purposes of procreation (he says he has never worn a condom), but there are some gray areas I was hoping he could clear up, so I wrote him the following letter:

Dear Sen. Santorum:

 Thank you for doing so much to educate us regarding God‘s Eternal Law. I have learned a great deal from you and understand why you would propose and support a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, which of course is an abomination.

 As you said, “In the eyes of God, marriage is based between a man and a woman.” I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.End of debate.

 I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how I might obey them:

 1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female,provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies only to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Can I own Canadians?

 2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her? (She works hard, but does eat a lot.)

 3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanness (Lev. 14: 19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking when meeting young women at church socials, but most of them seem to take offense.

 4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is with my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them, or would Lysol work?

 5. I have a neighbor, Aaron Rogers, who insists on working on the Sabbath.Exodus 35:2 clearly states that he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it? And how good is the Packers backup QB?

 6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev.11:10) it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I  don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there degrees of abomination? What about a homosexual at an oyster bar?

 7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I do wear glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here? What about contacts? Can God tell?

 8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die? I know they must be put to death, but I do not know the recommended method. .

 9. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field (I think corn and alfalfa). And his wife wears garments made from two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev. 24:10-16). Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14).

 10. And last, I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean. May I still play football if I wear gloves?

 I know that you are very busy with your presidential campaign, but, if you get a chance, I would really like your guidance on these critical and disturbing issues.

 Thank you again for reminding us of the eternal and unchanging truth of the Holy Bible.Thank you again for reminding us of the eternal and unchanging truth of the Holy Bible. God bless you. And may He guide you in your quest to lead this great nation of ours. “

 Sincerely Unknown Author

P.S- The mail came as a forward,, in my mail inbox  🙂


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