Caution: Spoilers ahead about the biopic ‘Shakuntala Devi’.
The biopic Shakuntala Devi, which was recently released on Amazon Prime Video, contains a few revelations about the renowned human calculator. One of them refutes the frequently made assertion that she divorced her husband because he was gay.
Shakuntala Devi and Paritosh Banerji, an Indian Administrative Service officer, were married in 1964 and had a daughter, Anupama. They were divorced in 1979, two years after Shakuntala Devi wrote The World of Homosexuals. The Vikas publication, comprising essays and interviews with openly gay and closeted men, is thought to be the earliest formal study of queerness in India.
Anu Menon’s biographical portrait has been made after consulting Anupama Banerji (the film describes itself as being “based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter”). Vidya Balan plays the mathematician, while Jisshu Sengupta portrays her loving husband. In the film, the couple grow apart because of Shakuntala Devi’s frequent tours to promote her mathematical talent. Shakuntala is possessive of Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) and keeps her away from Paritosh, which makes the daughter resentful.
The World of Homosexuals is dealt with in a couple of scenes. At a book launch in London, Shakuntala asserts, “Don’t be afraid to say the title out loudly.” She adds, “Who we choose to love is our personal matter.”
Shakuntala then drops the bombshell that she wrote the book because her husband was gay: “My ex-husband was a homosexual. It is his choice and I support him.” Anupama (Sanya Malhotra), who is hearing this for the first time, storms out of the gathering. Shakuntala catches up with her and says that sometimes, in order to sell a book, you need to weave a story around it.
The implication is that Shakuntala Devi lied about Paritosh’s sexuality. When Anupama later asks her father about the allegation, he shrugs it off, saying that there is nothing wrong with being called gay. The film doesn’t explore the subject any further.
The scenes flatly contradict the view that the mathematician and astrologer was spurred to write The World of Homosexuals because of her own experiences. In Vismita Gupta-Smith’s 2001 documentary For Straights Only, Shakuntala talks about her troubled marriage. She says it “created havoc in my life and my child’s life, and then I needed to look into it, study it more thoroughly, and then I realised that if this is accepted by society, so many victims would not be there, suffering the way they are suffering…”
The World of Homosexuals is out of print. A scanned copy has been uploaded on the internet by the LGBT support group Orinam. The book includes case studies as well as essays with such titles as “What is Homosexuality”, “The Law” and “Homosexuality in Prisons”.
In the foreword, Shakuntala Devi wrote, “Homosexuality is basically as old as humanity, but what is comparatively new, and urgent, is the need for contemporary society to come to terms in its thinking and its law making, both with psychological knowledge and human behaviour.”
Elsewhere in the introduction, Shakuntala Devi made it clear that the book was “the work of a lay person for lay people”. She added, “My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being. And I wish to write about a group, a minority group, of my fellow human beings who have been very little understood, and have been forced to live in ‘half-hiding’ throughout their lives by a society that is merciless towards everything that differs from the statistical norm.” She hoped that the publication would end “the long silence of conspiracy on the subject”.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, was struck down by the Supreme Court only as recently as 2018. In the chapter titled “Law”, Shakuntala Devi concludes by saying that same-sex relations between consenting adults should not be considered a criminal offence.
The book begins with a lengthy interview with a man whose name has been changed to “Venkata Subramaniam”. He is described as a senior executive of a reputed company in Bengaluru. He speaks frankly to Shakuntala Devi about his same-sex encounters, his ability to live a double life, and his decision to seek a bride. Shakuntala Devi’s line of questioning displays the same curiosity and rigour that she brought to her mathematical feats. Edited excerpts from her interview.
‘A type of a relationship grew between us that cannot be explained’
SD: When did you actually have your first homosexual experience?
VS: When I was in the final year at High School. There was this boy, also a Brahmin, who was a kind of a football hero. He was tall, well-built and had an excellent physique. But he was poor at his studies. As the final exams were approaching, he’d become panicky. He begged of me to help him with his geography lessons. I agreed and invited him to my house in the evening, and he came with his books. In the evenings my sisters used to have their music lessons, so the harmonium was blaring from the hallway. I decided to lock my room from inside. We were doing the lessons and suddenly I felt Seenu’s hand caressing me. I did not protest. Somehow I liked it. Seenu had a powerful personality and a strong will. Everything happened so quickly that when my mother knocked on the door with coffee for both of us, we’d completely composed ourselves and were back at our lessons. Mother, of course, remarked that I was looking a bit tired, but she left us alone and went away.
After that first day, we met every day in the evening to do our ‘lessons’. We’d start the evening with the act and later begin our studies. My whole life changed. Besides being a sexual partner, Seenu was a true friend to me. A type of a relationship grew between us that cannot be explained. We came to be dependent on each other.
SD: Did your mother or father suspect anything?
VS: No. They were proud that I spent so much time at my studies, and by the way Seenu didn’t belong to Kumbakonam. He was originally from Pudukkottai. His parents were still in Pudukkottai. They weren’t well off and they had nine other children. So they’d sent him to Kumbakonam to stay with his uncle and aunt, who were childless, and therefore they could spend well on his education.
SD: I see.
V. S. After the final exams he went back to his parents to Pudukkottai. And I was miserable. We both had done well in our exams. I stood first in the school and Seenu got a First Class. His aunt came to my place and thanked me over and over again for the good influence I had over Seenu and gave me the entire credit for his passing in the First Class. She told mother that she would like to send Seenu to the same college as myself. I got admission in one of the best colleges in Madras, and when Seenu’s uncle and aunt arranged to send him to the same college. We stayed in the hostel and shared a room. No one suspected anything….. we were both very happy. But the inevitable day came. We both got our degrees and had to leave college. Seenu went back to Kumbakonam to settle down there with his uncle to look after his land and his business, and he was compelled to get married by his uncle and aunt to a first cousin.
SD: That must have been terrible for you.
VS: Yes, I suffered a lot in the beginning. I simply couldn’t bear the idea of Seenu with another person – that too a woman. The very thought sent shivers through my body. I reached such a level of despondency that I even considered suicide. I tried to see him, but he wouldn’t see me. I wrote to him several letters, but he didn’t reply to even one…in fact in the later stages, he started sending them back to me unopened. He cut himself off from me completely.
‘Indian marriage is pot-luck’
SD: What is your situation at present?
VS: I have a steady friend now, right here in Bangalore. He holds a junior position in a public sector undertaking. Of course he’s much younger than I, but we get along very well. We meet almost every other day, sometimes even every day, mostly at my house because there’s more privacy in my place. He belongs to a joint family – there are twenty other members in his house.
SD: How do you feel about children?
VS: I love children and I think that it would be beautiful to bring them up…pity Mohan can’t conceive!
SD: Pardon me for being so direct, but you’re such a handsome man. Lots of young girls must be losing their hearts to you. How exactly do you tackle them?
VS: That’s always been a problem you know. The girls think that I look like Rock Hudson.
SD: I think so too. You certainly do! In fact I wanted to say so myself but I didn’t want to be so forward. Just like Rock Hudson – same height, same build, and good God, for an Indian you’re so fair! I could have sworn that one of your parents was a foreigner.
VS: Certainly not. Both my parents are South Indian Brahmins, as orthodox as they come.
SD: If only things were different you would’ve fetched the highest dowry in the marriage market I bet!
VS: Well, you’ve won the bet, because I’ve fetched a very good dowry, perhaps one of the highest in my community.
SD: What do you mean?
VS: I’ve been on the marriage market for the last two years and I’m going to be married next month. My parents are very hard bargainers, you know. They’ve struck the best deal, particularly Mother. She’s a great bargainer, starting from brinjals and onions up to a matrimonial dowry. She has wangled out quite a lot – diamond earrings, diamond necklace, a Fiat, silver utensils, lots of cash – and she expects to squeeze more out of them just before the marriage, at the eleventh hour – you know the old trick.
SD: But really, you’re not serious about getting married, are you?
VS: I am. I’m going to be married. The reception is in Lalbagh. I hope you’ll be in town. You must come.
SD: Now look… I just don’t understand….
VS: There’s nothing to understand really. I’m 30 now, and my parents have been after me to get married for the last six years. They started getting horoscopes from girls’ parents almost from the time I left college. And after all I’ve a duty towards my family.
SD: How do you expect to make a success of your marriage?
VS: Look now, you’re talking like a foreigner. What’s success in marriage in India anyway? It’s only a commercial arrangement. No question of any love or companionship. All that’s expected is mere conformity… that there’ll be in my marriage, rest assured.
SD: But still the whole thing sounds so cruel to me – to marry a girl, knowing very well that you can’t make her happy.
VS: Who said I can’t make her happy? I agree I can’t make love to her, but why should she expect romance in an arranged marriage? After all, her father is technically purchasing a bridegroom from the marriage bazar and they’ll get their money’s worth. The entire city is going to admire her father for having been able to find such a fine match for his daughter. Social image. That’s what they want isn’t it? And they’ll get it. After all they’re paying for it. He can very well afford it. He’s a millionaire.
SD: But Mr Venkata Subramaniam, I still wonder what will happen to the girl when she finds out. God! The poor girls is being victimized by everybody, isn’t she?
VS: I don’t agree with you. Indian marriage is pot-luck. She gets what she’s destined to get. And I’m taking the same chances aren’t I? Just imagine, I could’ve been what you would call a normal person and she could’ve very well been a lesbian, In fact she may still be one. I don’t know.
SD: I hope she is… for her own sake.
VS: Well, what does society expect of marriage in this country…. stability. There’ll be plenty and plenty of stability, because whatever may be the case I wouldn’t dream of leaving her. After all, I have to think of my family name. I’ve three younger sisters to be married. And of course my wife would have no way of leaving me, therefore ours will be a very successful marriage.
SD: What do you expect to get out of this, personally?
VS: Nothing, absolutely nothing.
SD: Then why do you want to get involved in this?
VS: To make everyone around me happy. My parents are made happy because they get plenty of money to celebrate the marriages of their daughters. It would have been very difficult for them otherwise, and of course there’ll be more to come in the future. My future father-in-law is happy because he found an excellent son-in-law, so well-placed. And the girl …. I haven’t even seen her. I only know that her horoscope tallies with mine perfectly. She’s going to be happy because she gets a husband, home, and lots of social prestige. So everyone is going to be happy.
SD: As a homosexual do you feel oppressed by society?
VS: No, because no one knows I am a homosexual except my various sexual partners. And now you, of course. But you have promised not to divulge it.
Excerpted from The World of Homosexuals, Shakuntala Devi, Vikas Publishing.