The unsung mathematician from India

We all are familiar with the name John F. Nash, the Nobel Prize winner in economics for his game theory in the year 1994. Atleast you must have seen one of the best movies ever made (according to me) named ‘A Beautiful Mind’ based on this great mathematicians life. How inspiring it is to know about his life, after suffering from schizophrenia (A disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel and behave clearly) and the way recover and finally won the Nobel prize. It is truly inspiring.

Many of us know John Nash’s  story. But how many of us have ever heard about an Indian mathematician Vashishth Narayan Singh. None or may be very few. It is very unfortunate as a country for India, as it cannot look after it’s own countries wealth. I feel this is a person everyone should know about his journey at least every Indian. 

From a village in Bihar to USA, from  the life of name and fame to the life of mental disturbance and poverty this is Dr. Vashishth Narayan Singh’s story-

Dr. Vashishtha Narayan Singh was born as the first son of Late Lal Bahadur Singh and Smt. Lahaso Devi in Village Basantpur, under Sadar Block of Dist. Bhojpur on 2nd April 1942. His father was working as a policeman in the state Police Dept.. Vashishtha Narayan Singh had his primary education in the village school. Thereafter, he went to Netarhat School in class VI. In the year 1962, he passed his matriculation examination, topping in the entire state of Bihar. 

After his school education, he got admission in the prestigious Patna Science College. From Netarhat to Patna Science College, in 1963, was a natural progression for him but what happened thereafter was something extraordinary. Dr Nagendra Nath, Principal of the college, also a Maths teacher, on getting complaints, one after the other about Vashishtha often disturbing the Maths classes by posing questions somewhat unrelated, summoned him to his office chamber one day. He was given a few difficult questions, much beyond the Intermediate class he was student of, to solve. Not only did he solve them promptly right in front of the Principal but also further showed his skill in solving each of them in ways more than one. Dr Nath was awestruck, stood still for a while in total disbelief for he was face to face with kind of prodigy he had never encountered before. What followed after that was even more remarkable. The Rules of the University were amended and made flexible (courtesy, Governor cum Chancellor of the university) to enable Vashishtha to straightaway take the B Sc (Maths Hons.) final year exam after his first year in college. He topped the class with distinction. At the end of his second year in college, he was allowed to take the M Sc (Maths) final exam.

In earlymid 1960’s Bihar College of Engineering Patna, was in much better shape and world class faculty members used to visit the College. There was some Mathematics Conference in Bihar College of Engineering during mid 60’s where Prof John L. Kelley, HOD University of California, Berkley(UCB) as also present. 

He had presented a list of 5 most difficult problems in Mathematics or so. Vasistha Narayan Singh solved all of them and that too in different ways.

This Berkley professor got impressed and requested him to come to Berkley for further study. Vasistha Narayan Singh told him that it would be difficult for him to come to US on his own. HOD promised all the help and kept the word. HOD arranged for visa and flight ticket and got him into UCB.
He took good care of Vasistha Narayan Singh at UCB as Vasistha Narayan Singh was a shy person. Vasistha Narayan Singh did not let down HOD and did his PhD with style and went on to work for NASA. You can find his Ph.D thesis even now here.

Things were going fine with him till sometime in 1975, and what happened one day changed all that. He was found snubbing his junior for an error in a manner somewhat unfamiliar with him and much to the annoyance and disappointments of others working in his unit. Promptly he was referred to the doctor – a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed as the one suffering from schizophrenia at its early stage and was prescribed some therapeutic medicines to continue with.

By then, Singh had become a role model for the youth in Bihar. He worked at UCB as assistant professor. He was perhaps also Bihar’s most eligible bachelor of his time. Marriage proposals came from across the state. In 1972 he finally gave in to his family’s wishes and decided to tie the knot. His bride was the daughter of a government doctor from a nearby village. A month after the nuptials, the couple departed to live out their American dream.

“In America, Bhaiyya‘s wife one day found him taking some pills,” says Prasad (his brother), “and asked her father about them. That’s how we ourselves came to know about his illness.”

In 1974, the couple returned to India and Singh started teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. However, he soon become “fed up with the internal politics” there and opted instead to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. He later moved to the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata.

Badly shaken by Singh’s mental condition, his wife left for her father’s house, never to return to her husband. Prasad says, “We do not blame her. Not everybody can live under such circumstances.” Their divorce was finalised in 1976. “It had a huge impact on our brother. He suddenly become very withdrawn and stopped eating,” says Prasad. A few months later, he became violent. The family was left with no options, but to send him to the Kanke Mental Asylum (now Central Institute of Psychiatry, Kanke).

He was discharged from the institution in 1985, but two years later, he disappeared from home. Despite all efforts, he could not be located. For four long years, the family waited for word about him, until some informed them that Dr Vashishtha Singh had been found loitering near a garbage dump in his ex-wife’s village like this-

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“After that, we have never let him out of our sight,” says Prasad.

When I saw the above picture for the first time I just couldn’t beleive my eyes. “How on earth this is possible” was my first expression. You might is thinking the same.

Now He speaks, but only when spoken to, and he avoids eye contact while speaking. When asked about his stay in Berkeley, he says with some lucidity, “I had a very good time there. I used to live at 10/20 Vine Road or was that 20/10?” Then just as suddenly he loses his train of thought. He mumbles, “But all of that has been destroyed now. Don’t you know Russia dropped atom bombs there? America is a wasteland now. Kelly sahib is also very worried.” His nephew, Rakesh, tells him that his mentor died many years ago. Singh insists, “No, no, he is alive, I spoke to him last night. He is in Delhi.”

 

I think how ignorant can be a country, above pic is just the reflection of this. A national treasure like him are treated like this. “We are not asking for any financial help from the government. All we want him to have is an academic atmosphere.” said his brother.

Compare this story with John F. Nash’s story. Almost similar circumstances he was also suffering from schizophrenia but with the support of his wife, friends and country he recovered and went on to win Nobel Prize. His story became famous. well he deserved that.

What happened here with Vashishtha Narayan Singh after being found with schizophrenia his wife left him (when he needs her most), most importantly his own country didn’t came up to support and help him.

The biggest irony is even now his own country is not giving him the respect he deserves. Probably they don’t even heard his name as media is busy spreading shit news.

But it’s our responsibility to know this gem and show some respect. Some of his pics

 

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 – Good bye until next time.

Sources-

1. Abhishikta ujjain’s answer of what is the difference between India and United   states of America

2.Business standard article

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