We at Orinam register our condolences at the passing of Shakuntala Devi today (Sunday, April 21, 2013) in Bangalore. Born in 1939, Shakuntala Devi rose to fame as a computational wizard at the age of five, and went on to achieve international acclaim as a mathematician. In 1977, the same year she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number mentally, she also published “The World of Homosexuals”, typically the last book to be mentioned in any biographic account of hers.
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. Twenty four years after the publication of this book, Shakuntala Devi, speaking out in Vismita Gupta-Smith’s documentary “For Straights Only” , said that the book was motivated by her marriage to a homosexual man. The marriage was a failure, but instead of reacting in a homophobic manner, she felt the need to look at the subject of homosexuality more closely and try to understand it. In her words “My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being.”
Featured in the book are interviews with “Venkata Subramaniam”, a senior company executive who narrates his self-discovery of homosexuality, and the double existence he plans to lead with his same-sex lover and the woman his parents have chosen for him. Another interview is with a young man who has come out to his parents by way of explaining why his does not want to get married to a woman. She has also interviewed Srinivasa Raghavachariar, head-priest of the Srirangam temple in Tiruchirapally district, who opines that same-sex lovers must have been opposite-sex lovers in a previous birth.
Here are some quotes from Shakuntala Devi’s book.
“Immorality does not consist in being different. It consists in not allowing others to be so. It is not the individual whose sexual relations depart from the social custom who is immoral – but those are immoral who would penalize him for being different. A law-abiding citizen who respects the rights and dignities of others, if he is made to suffer merely for deviating from the conventional norm, is not the offender – he is the victim”.
“What we know is that many decent, intelligent, moral and apparently normal people find their own sex more exciting than the opposite sex. They are found in all walks of life and in all professions. If homosexuals want to live within the discipline of society, what does the society expect them to do? Live a life of total celibacy?
“An important question that arises in the thinking members of society is - must then these millions who already exist and tens of millions yet to be born be condemned to misery, loneliness and degradation?
“The time is overdue now, when rather than pretending that homosexuals don’t exist, or hoping to eradicate them by the sheer weight of disapproval or prison sentences, we face the facts squarely in the eye and find room for them so that they can live unfettered and unmolested, and make their contribution to the common good of community”
“On this level nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve – not tolerance and not sympathy.”
Amazing stuff, this!
We close on a non-queer theme by paying tribute to Shakuntala Devi’s first love, mathematics, in her own words. The following, from “Mathability” is her almost evangelical plea for people to take up the subject.