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R.I.P. Shakuntala Devi, math-evangelist and ally of the queer community

source: WIkimedia
source: Wikimedia

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.

World of Homosexuals, by Shakuntala Devi (1977)
World of Homosexuals, by Shakuntala Devi (1977)

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” [2001], 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! Read book here.

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.




Watch Shakuntala Devi in Vismita Gupta-Smith’s documentary ‘For Straights Only’ below:


7 Comments. Add your own »

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  1. It was a revelation of sorts for me to learn that the late Shakuntala Devi wrote such a book as The World of Homosexuals. I am very interested in reading the work but find it is not available on any online store. Could you please help me out? Mail me at the address provided in case you come across this comment.

  2. Thank you for talking about Shankuntala Devi’s book and her support for the homosexual community. But please don’t say ‘queer’. Queer community? Queer was frequently used as a derogatory term. And, most people in the LGBT community disapprove of using queer because they consider it offensive.

    Please change your headline.

    1. Countless LGBT Americans also use the term “queer” in the same way, symbolically as a “reclaimed” word as well as practically as a less laborious way to refer to the all-encompassing L-G-B-T-Q-TS-SSL-etc.-etc. community. By no means would I say “most people” consider it offensive, particularly among younger generations; it is just as widely accepted and used as it is derided.

  3. It is humbling that she took what may have been an unexpected personal misfortune in being in a mixed-orientation marriage, turned it into a quest for knowledge and wisdom, and talked of it with commission and courage. That is just awesome, humbling and a huge learning.

  4. I remember back in school, I had a few math work-books with her photo on the cover. And back then, I used to ponder on her acclaimed fame for being ‘the Human Computer’.

    I am no smarty pants genius but I am so gay. And now, I learn that this mastermind mathematician was also a gay crusader having published a book on homosexuals back then in 1977! That was so forward and liberal of her if we think of society back then. I am amazed and simply admire her even more.
    R.I.P. Shakuntala Devi

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