I read with sadness the passing of Shakuntala Devi (November 4, 1929 – April 21, 2013); India’s ‘human computer’ was accorded Permanent Resident status by US Immigration in 1996, but not without a tough Request for Evidence (RFE) and a bit of dallying. I met Devi on a summer afternoon when she dropped by to discuss the RFE. She came in wearing a colorful sari and a bright smile. She looked at me quizzically and asked if I knew the day I was born. I was already familiar with her remarkable talents and knew instantly what she was doing. So, although I knew, I couldn’t resist being swayed by her charm. “Not really,” I responded.
Devi had this unique sense of knowing who she was and how her presence affected people. She spoke with a strong accent, but her delivery was impeccable. Within moments she had summed up exactly what the Service was alleging. She smiled and said, “So, they think I am a performing flea?” I smiled and waited. “You know, I can provide you with enough information about my achievements to fill an entire room.” With that, she stood up and turned to leave. Before she left, she outlined for me her efforts to influence math education for young girls in India and elsewhere.
I saw her as an inspiration and was soon able to put together a compelling case of how Devi would be a role model for US children, especially girls. I found surveys and reports documenting the remarkable fact of how girls lost interest in math around the eighth grade. The US was already on the decline in math and science education and proving my point was not too difficult. However, what put the case over the top was something that Devi sent to me from her Hotel in London (she had a handwritten note in the package on Hotel stationery) – “What do you think?” was written in bold black ink. I opened the package and among other things found the cover of a publication – ‘The Greatest Minds of the Twentieth Century’. Inside were some select pages. The book covered several great inventors, authors, statesmen, politicians, etc. The book was organized alphabetically. I turned the pages and came upon “D” – Devi, Shakuntala – “Human Computer”: calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in her head in less than a minute, and in June 1980, at Imperial College, London, accurately multiplied two random 13-digit numbers in a few seconds. The sum, picked at random by the computer department, was 7,686,369,774,870 x 2,465,099,745,779. After 28 seconds she correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730, a feat that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
I then turned the page and laid out the next ‘great mind’ side by side with the previous entry – Einstein, Albert, Born March 14…I smiled with the knowledge that I had just been given what I needed. Devi had just made her case!
Shakuntala Devi was a survivor and did remarkably well at presenting herself in the best possible light. She was a performer and a ‘showman’ and created waves wherever she went. The US was right in according Shakuntala Devi permanent resident status as an ‘Alien’ of Extraordinary Ability and I am privileged to have been part of that journey.