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India's own beautiful mind?

Vashishtha Narayan Singh was a poor village boy who went on to earn a doctorate from a US university. But before his genius could fully blossom, the mathematics prodigy's mind tragically became a victim to schizophrenia. Yet his legend lives on

Satyavrat Mishra  |  Patna 

The name of the village is Vasantpur, but it is more popularly called "Vashishtha Babu ka gaon". It is 12 km from Ara in Bihar's Bhojpur district. The narrow lanes lead through a congestion of concrete houses to a simple yellow house facing a brick wall plastered with dung cakes. The village has erratic power supply and no piped water to boast of, but it does have a good road. "It was built during the last assembly elections as several big politicians visited our house," says Ayodhya Prasad Singh.

The reason the politicians made a beeline to the yellow house in a nondescript village is because it is the residence of Dr Vashishtha Narayan Singh, the elder brother of Ayodhya Prasad, and a celebrity in his own right in this area.

Past the courtyard, where women sit making pickles, is a windowless room, whose walls were once a bright pink. Now the paint is peeling and the walls are soiled. An old copy of a doctorate degree hangs desultorily amid stacks of mathematics books and a black plastic board with chalk scrawls on it. On a bed strewn with religious books, beneath a pink mosquito net, lies a fragile figure with a grey stubble and vacant eyes.

Sometimes, a spark lights up the grey eyes of that man. Singh, for that is who he is, scrawls some equations on a piece of paper and cries out triumphantly that they stand solved. Everyone looks askance. At such times, you feel a great sense of sadness in the around. That's because if Singh had inscribed mathematical formulae on a notebook 30 years ago, academics and students across the world would have scrambled to know what the man had jotted down.

For, Singh was a wunderkind, blessed with a mathematical brain that is given to few. Today, though his mind constantly wanders into domains unknown to humans and he is incapable of coherent thinking, he is still respected enough to be invited as visiting faculty by a university.

He is India's own John Forbes Nash, the schizophrenic genius on whose life was based the elegiac Hollywood film, A Beautiful Mind. Both men share a striking life story, of early recognition of their intelligence and a brilliant record in academics and work and then the descent into delusionary depths. But while Nash has recovered adequately enough and at 85 today continues to earn the respect of mathematicians, the cloud has yet to lift from 71-year-old Singh's mind.

* * *

The tragic story began with Singh's birth in 1942 in an impoverished family in the village of Vasantpur. He was a bright student and after his primary education, he was sent to Netarhat Residential School near Ranchi, then one of the best government schools in east India. Here he topped the state ranks in the matriculation exams of 1957 and the intermediate exams in 1961. He then got admission in Science College, Patna, with mathematics as his honours subject. It is here that he met Professor John L Kelly, who was head of the Mathematics Department at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). Singh so impressed the visiting Kelly with his innate understanding of numbers that the American invited the young Bihari lad to Berkeley for further studies. He even paid for Singh's flight ticket and arranged scholarships for him to pursue his graduation in UCB.

Singh graduated summa cum laude ("with highest honour") and went on to complete his PhD in 1969. His dissertation, which won acclaim, was titled "Reproducing Kernels and Operators with Cyclic Vector". Then, at the height of his scholastic achievements in US, signs that something was wrong began to show up. He sometimes acted irrationally, would forget things, even got irritated and violent at minor things.

By then, Singh had become a role model for the youth in Bihar. He worked at UCB as assistant professor and some swear he also worked for NASA. 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, "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).

Singh was diagnosed with schizophrenia, like John Nash. 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.

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

* * *

The local newspapers published the story about Singh's disappearance and how Bihar's popular hero had spent four years like a vagabond.The political game to cash in on Bihari pride began. Then chief minister Lalu Prasad sent him to Nimhans, Bangalore, and offered five of his family members jobs with the government. Almost a decade later in 2002, when the National Democratic Alliance was in power at the Centre, Bharatiya Janata Party MP and actor Shatrughan Sinha arranged for Singh's treatment at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), Delhi.

Singh came home from IHBAS in 2009. His youngest brother, Dasrath Singh, says, "They took very good care of him. He has been very quiet since he returned from Delhi." He also says that the family has not had any problems with the former mathematicians since then.

"A doctor from IHBAS still looks after Bhaiyya," says Prasad. "As he does not like travelling, the doctor checks on him every month via phone." What about medicines? "We buy these from Ara. We spend around Rs 2,000 every month. It would have helped to get medicine from government hospitals, but it's okay. We do not have any complaints," says Prasad.

* * *

It's hot and humid in Vashishtha Babu ka Gaon. "Summer seasons are particularly difficult for him," says one of Singh's nephews. "He becomes very restless in the heat. Electricity supply is erratic, in fact, we don't have power most of the days. So we have given him the coolest room of the house," he adds.

As we converse, Singh calls out for Prasad, who disappears into the pink room with some pills and a glass of water. Minutes later, he remerges and says Singh is awake and can meet visitors.

The unshaved face turns towards the door as he realises there are in the room. Then in a frail voice Singh says, "Aawa, Aawa (Come in, come in)." He looks around and gives no sign that he recognises the guests.

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."

A neighbour volunteers, "He is like a national treasure. The government should have taken care of him." Singh's brothers also concur. Prasad says, "We are not asking for any financial help from the government. All we want him to have is an academic atmosphere." The family realised that deep within the recesses of Singh's mind, he still relishes his academic past. In April this year, he was invited to the Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University (BNMU) in Madhepura. They say he seemed strangely at peace there. "He wants to teach. He may not say this, but this is what he wants," says Prasad.

BNMU, on the request of Congress leader Ranjeeta Ranjan, has offered Singh a job as visiting faculty, even if it just an honorary gesture. But talk is that there is politics involved. Apparently, a former vice-chancellor of BNMU was close to politician Rajeev Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav, husband of Ranjeeta. Yadav intends to run for the Madhepura seat in the 2014 general elections and needs the support of the upper castes for a win. People say the gesture to Singh is meant to please the upper-caste voters. Despite repeated attempts, incumbent vice-chancellor RN Mishra could not be contacted for comment on the matter. The university registrar, Vishwanath Bibeka, however, says the Academic Council cleared the proposal to induct Singh as visiting faculty "a long time ago". The onus, he says, is on the VC to implement it. Once he does, maybe a brilliant mind will finally find the solace that it has been searching for.

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First Published: Fri, July 05 2013. 21:49 IST