Debkumar Mitra reports
Mathematicians are loners. They live their lives in the shadow of their favourite discipline, rarely coming out to interact with the outside world. Vashishtha Narayan Singh, who passed away on November 14 at the age of 72, was no exception.
Singh, a child prodigy, lived a life that can be mounted on billboards of apathy and neglect, but that has little to do with the subject that he loved so dearly and lived in its corner: mathematics.
His awe-inspiring flight from the nondescript village of Basantpur in Bihar’s Siwan district to the PhD programme at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, has all the ingredients of a great obscurity-to-fame story. However, before Singh could become another Srinivasa Ramanujan – that early 20th century mathematical genius from Madras, whose story of no formal training in pure mathematics and subsequent recognition by the English mathematician GH Hardy over an epistolary relationship went on to become the stuff of mathematical legend, bestselling biography and documentary films — the Bihar mathematician’s journey was cut short by mental illness that yanked him away from mathematics and its world.
Remarkably, both Singh and Ramanujan were nearly the same age when mathematics, and the world, lost them — the Tamil genius succumbing to his ailment (later identified as hepatic amoebiasis) and the Bihar prodigy to schizophrenia. While Ramanujan was already a celebrity in number theory before the liver-related disease killed him, Singh was not that lucky. The latter’s brilliant 1969 PhD dissertation, ‘
Reproducing Kernels and Operators with Cyclic Vector I,’ widely cited and celebrated in the world of mathematics, did not actually set the Ganga on fire.
And tragically, at the height of his mathematical prowess around 1973-74, Singh started displaying mental instability. By the mid-1980s, the genius was a has-been. One of those Oh-could-have-been stories that are often told in the annals of science. Singh was born in the 1940s to a Bihar police constable. Very early on, he demonstrated his ability with numbers, and a mathematical fairy tale began to unfold. After finishing school at Netarhat Vidyalaya, present day Jharkhand, he moved to the Patna Science College in 1963, where he had an astonishing run. His seniors and peers from school recount that the principal of the college was so impressed that he insisted that the governor and chancellor of the university bend the rules to allow Singh to appear for the BSc examination in his first year in college, and then for the MSc exam the next year. Young Singh ‘topped’ both exams and became quite the sensation.
The next part of Singh’s journey started at Berkeley, California. While at Patna Science College, Vashishtha met Professor John L Kelly, who was then the head of the department of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. Apocryphal stories have it that Kelly wanted to test Singh and gave him some intractable problem to solve, and was utterly surprised when the youngster cracked them all. The veracity of the story may be unconfirmed, but there is little doubt that Singh had impressed the visiting American mathematician with his innate understanding of numbers.
Kelly invited the young man from Bihar to Berkeley for further studies. Some claim that Kelly even paid for Singh’s flight ticket and arranged scholarships for him to pursue his graduation at UC, Berkeley. In California, Singh graduated with the highest honour and soon completed his PhD. Singh started working at Berkeley as an assistant professor, and he reportedly worked with the US space agency Nasa at that time – although his alleged role in the Apollo moon-landing should be taken with a pinch of moon dust. As it usually happens, myth-making starts early with geniuses and the memory of Singh’s early exploits in India started giving him a ‘superhero’ stature.
One such story from that period is about Singh being called in to do some calculations when computers at Nasa had stopped working for some reason. Going by this story, when the machines started functioning, Singh’s calculations matched those of the machines. But these unconfirmed stories of a ‘legend’ should not diminish in any way Singh’s genuine mathematical genius.
In the early 1970s, stories of a young man from a poor Indian state winning accolades in the US became a part of academic gossip. Some believe even to this day that he even ‘proved Albert Einstein’s E =mc2 wrong’. Whether he actually did such a thing, people made it up, or he hallucinated about it – in the way he often claimed to meet Kelly much after the Berkeley mathematician’s death — is not the point. His mathematical achievements were remarkable enough in creating this image of a mythical man.
This did help the man. Swirling stories about Singh attracted several marriage proposals for the eligible bachelor, and back home, his family put pressure on an already mentally unstable man on medication, forcing the young mathematician to marry. The marriage did not last long. In 1974, Singh came back to India and began teaching at Indian Institute Technology (IIT) Kanpur, then moving to Tata Institute Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and finally, to Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta.
All the while, he was fighting what increasingly looked like a losing battle to schizophrenia. In the late in 1970s, Singh was institutionalised at Kanke Mental Asylum — today the Central Institute of Psychiatry — at Kanke, present day Jharkhand.
It was downward spiral after that. Mathematics still appealed to him, but in a language that only he could understand. To others watching, it was incoherent gibberish. In 1985, he left the treatment facility, and two years later he vanished — only to be discovered in tattered rags in 1989. Former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had sent him to Nimhans (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences), Bangalore. In 2002, then BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha had arranged for his treatment at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), Delhi.
In the new millennium, Singh was a lost soul. A genius who felt the entire world conspired against him and a silent mathematician meditating his new theorems, lemmas and conjectures.
It is the culmination of misinformed relatives, government apathy and genes that turned his life upside-down. Vashishtha Narayan Singh’s story, and his three-decades-old fight with schizophrenia, may appear to have the same contours as those of Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash, the troubled mathematical genius and inventor of the ‘Nash equilibrium’ in game theory, on whose life the award-winning biography by Sylvia Nasar, ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ and Ron Howard-directed Oscar winning film of the same, was based on. The similarities — schizophrenia, numbers, a lifelong quest for beauty in mathematics — cannot be extended to the lives lived by both the men. While Nash had continued to suffer, he had received the best care. But Singh had nothing that could help him handle a raging mental disorder. In death, Vashishtha Narayan Singh has proved one theorem — mental disorder is still not considered a disease by many in this country. Maybe some other mathematical genius from Netarhat Vidyalaya will reap its benefit. But for Singh, it will probably have to be limited to a government funeral, prime ministerial condolence, a few obituaries and, maybe, a biopic – perhaps the 2018 film that director Prakash Jha had reportedly planned, but was stopped after the mathematician’s brother Ayodhya Prasad Singh legally refused to give rights to have the film be made of his mentally unsound, once-a-genius sibling.