Readers Write In #250: “All my parents were interested in was having sex all the time”

Posted on August 23, 2020

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(by Anu Warrier)

I typed this sentence on my office computer and sat back, not knowing what I was going to write. My brain was awhirl. Just three months into my training period at a leading newspaper, I had been thrown into the deep end almost immediately. I’d no background in journalism then, no idea of how interviews were conducted. And here I was, back from ‘interviewing’ Shakuntala Devi. Now I was left to contemplate how to turn her angry gush of words into something resembling an article that could be published in the features section of a family newspaper.

Something about my strange stillness caught the attention of Madhuri, who was an assistant editor at the time, and my immediate senior and mentor. Madhuri was a gentle soul, very kind to inexperienced trainees like me. She came to stand behind me. A soft ‘Oh’ escaped her as she read the sentence I’d typed. In a scandalised tone, she said, “She couldn’t have said that!” “She did!” I mumbled defensively. “I have her on record.” “Let’s hear it,” said Madhuri, still in disbelief. I played back my Dictaphone. As she heard that shocking sentence – and more – Madhuri eyes grew rounder. “Well,” she said resolutely, “Don’t start the article with that sentence!” I grinned, though I was still flustered by the experience.

When I was told to interview Shakuntala Devi, all I knew about her was what was in public domain at the time – she was known as the ‘Human Computer’; she was wizard with numbers; she had beaten a computer in mathematical calculations… I’d also watched her on Doordarshan,astounding a studio audience with her absolute recall of dates and days. But why I was going to talk to her about female infanticide in Tamil Nadu (which was the subject of the interview)? I was told that she had wanted to talk about it, and so we were going to feature her in a first-person narrative, ‘as told to Anuradha …’.

So off I went, a brand-new Dictaphone clutched in slightly sweaty palms, wondering what the heck I was going to ask her. Frankly speaking, I knew nothing about female infanticide in Tamil Nadu either, except what I had read in the newspapers of the day. I needn’t have worried. Apart from the initial pleasantries, I didn’t have to say a word. Contrary to the image I’d had of her, courtesy the Doordarshan appearance, the woman before me – short, plump, neatly dressed – was not bright and chirpy as she had been on my small Black and White TV screen. She was bitter, angry, and sharp-tongued. If I hadn’t seen her photographs or on TV, I might actually have stepped out of that flat in Prabhadevi, Bombay, to make sure I had the right address!

But this was the Shakuntala Devi in person. And she didn’t let me forget it for a minute. That day, sitting in her living room, where she adjured me sharply to ‘Sit straight! I can’t bear people who slouch!’, I listened, my mouth – metaphorically – dropping open as she orated. Shakuntala Devi was good and mad, and she wanted to make sure the world knew it.

Her angst was understandable. In the stories of female infanticide, she felt the echoes of her own troubled childhood. “The sense of outrage that I feel about this issue cannot be expressed in mere words,” she burst out. She continued in that vein for several minutes before admitting that the women of Salem who had allegedly killed their female children were probably saving them from worse fates. ‘But it’s murder, nonetheless,” she said, and in her opinion worse than female foeticide because ‘that’s just an egg; this is a human life.” [I was quite taken aback at that; I’d never heard anyone in my circles make that distinction before this.]

Female infanticide had been going on for many years though it had only recently come to national attention. So why did it bother her so? Her own childhood was to blame – she didn’t have one. In her telling, her father was a lion-tamer in a circus who inadvertently made the discovery that his eldest daughter was a mathematical prodigy. That effectively ended her childhood as he exploited her talent to make money. “I did not see one paise of it,” she said, bitterly. Nor did he bother about her education, she said, as he dragged her around the country ‘like a performing monkey’.

Earning her own living since the age of three, and with the responsibility of the entire family on her frail shoulders, it was no wonder that Shakuntala Devi was so angry. She faced corporal punishment for any mistake she committed on stage. The mental and emotional trauma was worse until she freed herself from her parents while still in her teens.

She was equally scathing about society and the media who, she said, victimised her just as much, though in a different way. “I’m a victim of my image,” she told me, grandiloquently. “Everywhere I go, I’m asked questions about when I began, how I can calculate so quickly. I’m not allowed to lead a normal life.” I felt a vague sympathy for her, though I wondered why she had wanted to speak to someone from my newspaper then.

But she was appalled that any civilised nation could allow its children to be killed, or if allowed to live, forced to beg, or become prostitutes. If nothing is done, and immediately, she said, “we will be dealing with a nation of emotional cripples.’

She admitted she was an emotional cripple. She had nothing but her fame, both national and international. It didn’t seem enough. “I sometimes think I would have been far more grateful to my parents had they strangled me at birth.” There was unintentional irony there.

She was, I think, wrestling with her own sense of impotency. What could she, as an individual, do to help alleviate the plight of these children who, to her, were as she once was – helpless, not in control of their own fates? Why wasn’t the government doing anything about it, she asked. I’d no answer but she wasn’t looking for one. Beset by her own troubling memories, she exhorted me to make her case for her. “It’s time the world knew my story,” she told me, as we parted. “Perhaps another child will not have to suffer as I did.”

That was the first and last time I met Shakuntala Devi. I did eventually file the story, keeping in mind Madhuri’s exhortations as I did. (Or she would have red pencilled it immediately, I’m sure.) That meeting stayed at the back of my mind for years and came to the forefront again when the film was announced. Because the Shakuntala Devi I had met was an unforgettable woman.

The trailer didn’t appeal to me – Vidya didn’t recall Shakuntala Devi to me. However, not wanting to judge a book by its cover – or a film by its trailer – I did, recently watch a part of it. [Not completely, since currently, I’m in no mood to watch movies.]

Vidya Balan is a fine actress and she aced the on-stage persona of Shakuntala Devi very well indeed. Shakuntala Devi was made for stage; even during the interview, I felt like I was watching a finely tuned performance; perhaps she had become so inured to ‘acting’ that it became as a second persona. However, the anger, the bitterness, the pent-up emotions – they were real, and deeply embedded in her psyche.

But I did not see the lady with a quicksilver brain who jumped from topic to topic without a break, and demanded, nay, required that her auditors stay with her – on topic. And those troubling emotions? I didn’t see those either in the glossy film I watched.

Shakuntala Devi’s biopic seemed like a film for thesetimes – bright, cheery, all the darkness removed. It showcased the brilliant mathematical mind revelling in the adulation of her audiences, smiling beatifically in the floodlights of the world’s stage. That little girl who yearned for a normal childhood, that bitter young teenager who emancipated herself, the middle-aged woman whom I met, filled with palpable anger – they are nowhere to be found.

The Shakuntala Devi who is now immortalised on celluloid, is glossy and pretty; even her flaws are airbrushed. The flesh-and-blood woman behind the gloss, with all her complexities and insecurities,has vanished into the darkness of the void.