The Forgotten Genius

It is unfortunate that few Indians know of Vashishtha Narayan Singh, a mathematical genius whose career was marred by state neglect and long suffering from schizophrenia. 

One year after his passing on November 14, 2019, at Patna Medical College and Hospital following a long illness, he was conferred Padma Shri posthumously in 2020. His death also proved the callousness our society places on addressing mental disorders.

Born on April 2, 1946, in Basantpur village, located in the Bhojpur district of Bihar, Vashishtha displayed his predilection towards mathematics since childhood. He obtained his elementary and high school education at Netarhat Residential School, located in what is now Jharkhand. He did his graduation and post-graduation from Patna Science College, where he got admitted in 1963. There, the mathematical mettle of the 17-year-old got its due recognition.

The Emergence of Prodigy 

According to a newspaper report, Vashishtha’s brilliance highly impressed the college’s principal. He insisted the then Governor and Chancellor of the University bend the rules for Vashishtha and allow him to appear for the BSc (Hons) Mathematics examination in his first year in college and then for the MSc exam the next year. And Vashishtha was allowed! Vashishtha ‘topped’ both the exams to prove that the faith of the principal on him was well placed. He did his graduation and post-graduation in two years, instead of five, and that too with flying colours. 

However, what impressed the principal of the institute, Dr. Nagendra Nath, was Vashishtha’s mathematical prowess, which is another interesting story that can be traced from the website of Netarhat Old Boys Association. Dr Nagendra Nath, then the principal of Patna Science College and also a maths teacher, was getting regular complaints about Vashishtha, who often disturbed the maths classes by posing questions. The principal summoned the seventeen-year-old to his office one day and gave him a number of difficult questions to solve, which a student of the Intermediate class is not expected to solve.

Vashishtha solved them promptly and showed his skill in solving each of these problems in more than one way. Dr. Nath was awestruck because he realised he was facing a prodigy.

Reaching New Heights

Vashishtha joined the University of California, Berkeley in 1965 and did his PhD in 1969 under doctoral advisor John L. Kelley. His PhD dissertation is titled Reproducing Kernels and Operators with a Cyclic Vector (Cycle Vector Space Theory). His PhD dissertation attracted wide acclaim in the world of mathematics, but he still remains a relatively unknown figure in India, a country that has a long tradition of worshipping cricketers and matinee idols.

Following his PhD, he joined the University of Washington, where he was appointed as an Assistant Professor. He also had a prestigious assignment with NASA. Five years later, in 1974, he returned to India to teach at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. 

However, his tenure at IIT Kanpur was short. After eight months at the prestigious institution, he joined another revered institution, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay. Later, he served at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, another globally renowned institution.

We could glean from social media that Vashishtha had even challenged Einstein’s equation E=mc2, though there is no credible source to prove that bombastic claim. Another mathematical genius from India, Srinivasa Ramanujan, attained fame at a young age, but both of their careers were cut short: Ramanujam’s by untimely death due to liver-related disease and Vashishtha’s due to schizophrenia.

Racing Downhill 

From 1973-74, he started showing signs of mental instability, and by the 80s,  schizophrenia had permanently invaded his mind, and he was frequenting psychiatric hospitals. His marriage lasted only three years(1973-76) and ended in a divorce. The mental disease irreparably harmed his brilliant academic career and personal life. In the late 1970s, with his condition worsening, he was admitted to the Central Institute of Psychiatry in Kanke, in Jharkhand and remained under the care of the said institute until 1985.

He returned to his native village of Basantapur in 1987. However, he was far from cured. During a train journey to Pune in 1989, he simply disappeared. He was found not before 1993, in Doriganj, Bihar, in tattered rags. The mathematical wizard was subsequently admitted to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, and treated at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), Delhi.

Former Bihar’s Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav sent him to NIMHANS, former BJP MP and now All India Trinamool Congress MP and actor Shatrugan Sinha arranged his treatment at IHBAS.

Though Vashishtha eventually returned to academia in 2014 as a visiting Professor at Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University (BNMU) in Madhepur, Bihar, his brilliant academic career was over much long ago. 

A Beautiful Mind

Vashishtha’s remarkable and tragic life had some similarities with Nobel laureate in Economics John Forbes Nash, who introduced Nash equilibrium in game theory and whose life inspired an Oscar-winning film directed by Ron Howard. Nash, too, suffered from schizophrenia, but unlike Vashishtha, he received the best possible care and got due recognition of his talent from his society.

In 2018, the noted filmmaker Prakash Jha announced a biographical film based on Vashishtha’s life. However, he was prevented from making the film by the mathematician’s brother, Ayodhya Prasad Singh, who legally refused to give him the right to have the film made about his brother.

Vashishtha Narayan Singh, through his life, can inspire a multitude of young people living in obscure villages of India with limited means to reach the global stage by relying solely on his/her talent.

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