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When The Real Shakuntala Devi Had Come To My Home In 1971 To Have Pongal And Filter Coffee

Posted: August 2, 2020

Almost 50 years ago Shakuntala Devi had invited herself over to my house for breakfast, quite by chance! Here’s how it happened.

It was somewhere around late 1971. She had come to Trivandrum on a whirlwind tour. The papers were full of her events as she went to various schools performing her Maths Magic. A businessman had given her a red car to use and as it drew into each school the kids would rush up to get a glimpse of her.

Although I used to write for the Hindu then, I wasn’t covering this particular tour. But I was very curious to watch her in action. As luck would have it, she was performing at the Trivandrum Club which was just next door to where I lived, and so I walked across.

Meeting Shakuntala Devi

She was a small plump woman in her forties with short hair and a bouncy walk. She was vivacious on stage, performing her magic with elan. I sat enraptured.

After the performance was over I went starry eyed to congratulate her,
One of the organizers whom I knew introduced me to her saying “she too is from Bangalore your home town.”

“You are a Bangalore girl!” she exclaimed. “Can I come to your house tomorrow for breakfast?’ She had gripped my hand tightly. “I am pregnant and I crave for home food. I cannot take hotel food any more”.

I was taken aback. I was barely 22 and recently married with no cooking experience. Even as I was trying to find the words to tell her this, she asked, “So what are you giving me? Idli dosai?”

I mumbled that I didnt have the batter. “But no upma,” she declared.

“Pongal?” I said finally, weakly.

“Ok,” she smiled letting go of my hand. “Give my driver your address on the way out. I will be there by nine. I get very hungry you see. It goes with my pregnancy.”

Next morning her red car rolled in exactly on time. My rocket scientist husband was impressed.

Her red car was followed by a whole bunch of excited kids from the colony where I lived. “Shakuntala Devi, Shakuntala Devi,” they chanted. She smiled and patted some of them on the head before coming in.

For the next hour or more over my Pongal and hot filter coffee she regaled us with stories of her childhood, her world tours and performances.

The woman behind the phenomenon

Her off-stage persona was very different from the one I had seen the day before. She had so much anger and angst in her. She was especially bitter about her father who she said exploited her talent and robbed her of her childhood. He was a lion tamer in the circus, she said, and when he found out his three year old could do magical things with numbers he immediately made her into a performer.

She never forgave him for not sending her to school and for dragging her around the country against her will. she earned the money but never got to keep it. Like other child stars she became the family’s money earner and she could have no life of her own. At one point when she was in her late teens she just broke free.

She continued to give her parents some money but she was now in control of her own life. Now all that was in the past. She was married to a Bengali IAS officer and was expecting the child she longed for.

That was my first and last meeting with her, and it was an unforgettable one.

Many years later at a friend’s house in Bangalore I met Shakuntala’s daughter. I tried to tell her about how I had met her mother briefly when she was carrying her. But Shakuntala’s daughter wasn’t particularly interested. Perhaps she was so fed up of people telling her about meeting her famous mother. Also my friend told me relations weren’t particularly good then between mother and daughter.

Watching the biopic triggered all those memories. I had mixed feelings about the film. Somehow all the darkness inside the woman I had met never surfaced in this airbrushed bubbly film. Vidya Balan was superb, but she only captured Shakuntala the genius show woman. The one who smiled and bounced around as she raced against computers and revelled in the adulation of her audiences.

The other Shakuntala… the angst-ridden off-stage one… had disappeared forever into the shadows…

Image source: YouTube and a still from the film Shakuntala Devi

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Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and author who started her professional writing career at the

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