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Almost 50 years ago Shakuntala Devi had invited herself over to my house for breakfast, quite by chance! Here's how it happened.
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.
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.
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 age of 20 as a trainee with Hindustan Times Delhi in 1967. When she was 21 she became a full- read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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If you want to get back to work after a break, here’s the ultimate guide to return to work programs in India from tech, finance or health sectors - for women just like you!
Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend related to personal financial planning and she shared how she had had fleeting thoughts about joining work but she was apprehensive to take the plunge. She was unaware of return to work programs available in India.
She had taken a 3-year long career break due to child care and the disconnect from the job arena that she spoke about is something several women in the same situation will relate to.
More often than not, women take a break from their careers to devote time to their kids because we still do not have a strong eco-system in place that can support new mothers, even though things are gradually changing on this front.
A married woman has to wear a sari, sindoor, mangalsutra, bangles, anklets, and so much more. What do these ornaments have to do with my love, respect, and commitment to my husband?
They: Are you married?
They: But You don’t look like it
Me: (in my Mind) Why should I?
Why is being married not enough for a woman, and she needs to look married too? I am tired of such comments in the nearly four years of being married.
I believe that anything that is forced is not right. I must have a choice. I am a living human, not a puppet. And I am not stopping anyone by not following any tradition. You are free to do whatever you like to do. But do not force others. It’s depressing.