Life Journey Of Mathematics Wizard Dr. Vashishtha Narayan Singh

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This is a sequel to a story titled: ‘Unending Woes of a Wizard’ that appeared in Times of India dated 10th April, 2013 and posted by Prof. Prabhat Ranjan on his Facebook (FB) wall.

Responding to the above FB post, I have recalled and recorded the academic brilliance of Vashishtha, a couple of years junior to me at the Netarhat School. In academics (read Maths), he was way ahead of not only his own classmates but also perhaps his schoolmates including those who were senior to him. He was obsessed and was in absolute love with Maths to the extent of often getting restless when some tricky problems remained unsolved.  He was then seen trying to solve them during the evening games period at the jumping pit site while others were having a go at long jump / high jump.

Mathematics Wizard Dr. Vashishtha Narayan Singh

Vashishtha Narayan Singh was actually blessed with some outstanding DNA in him that had manifested quite early on while he was a teen-aged school boy at Netarhat. 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. The aspirant toppers of M Sc final class then, aiming for the gold medal, fearing the obvious threat posed by Vashishtha, dropped out in sheer panic and the first position in first class that year went to this prodigy.

The destiny then, in later 1960s, took him to the USA for Ph D studies and a lucrative and prestigious assignment with NASA. 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. He soon returned to India, joined as a faculty member in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee, later in IIT, Kanpur and finally in Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Kolkata before the ailment got the better of him forcing him to land up in a mental hospital, the Central Institute of Psychiatry (CIP), Kanke, Ranchi sometime in 1980-81.

On his return from the USA, much against the doctor’s advice and bowing to the pressure of his family members (who reportedly were refusing to accept him as a mental patient) the medicines he was prescribed, were discontinued. As a result, his condition started deteriorating. His wife sought divorce and got separated and he was left to fight a lonely battle against the ailment that by then had become irreversible.

During the decade-long (1980-90) treatment in CIP, Kanke, and the then Bihar government had committed to meet all expenses concerning his treatment. So, fund was never an issue or constraint in course of his treatment. It’s another thing though that no bills of the CIP concerning Vashishtha’s treatment were ever cleared by the state government and remained outstanding. Dr. Dinkar Minz under whose unit he was getting treated, had shared this with me in a conversation.

In 1990-91, to enable him to attend the last rites of his deceased father, the CIP had released him on parole. After attending it, weeks later, he went missing and subsequently years later how he was re-traced and brought back to his native village in Ara , finds mention in the Time of India article that’s referred to in the beginning of this write-up.

Talking about the ailment Vashishtha came to be afflicted with initially, Dr. Minz explained to me elaborately the protocol of treatment that’s normally followed in three stages – therapeutic, maintenance and preventive- each requiring administration of prescribed medicines for prolonged duration and an absolute personalised care. In larger percentage of such cases, the patients, on early diagnosis of this ailment, get back to near normal status. In Vashishtha’s case, however, Dr Minz laments, discontinuation of the medicines at the initial stage of treatment, was a serious lapse and a huge blunder on the part of his family members – somewhat also foolish and irresponsible act – that made the patient’s life truly miserable. That simply closed all probability for the patient to stage a recovery. By the time he got admitted in CIP his ailment had reached an advanced stage from where recovery was a challenge, both for the patient and the doctor. As it turned out, odds were heavily stacked against the patient and his vanishing act while on parole made it further worse. The patient is now fated to live with it for the rest of his life, Dr. Minz signed off after saying this.

Wrapping up this sad episode, I may like to share another aspect to it. At the time few early batches of boys were at the Netarhat School, our Principal Late J N Dar  (Pradhanji)  with his gifted ability to observe and assess everything in good detail, used to keep track of the progress of all of us to the extent possible. In 1980-81, Pradhanji and Mataji happened to visit me and my family members at my official residence in New Delhi. We had a very relaxed time and chatted all though the day on topics ranging from the time spent at Netarhat to the life after that. With Vashishtha’s case then relatively fresh in mind, I posed a simple query by asking him as to why this brilliant boy had met the fate the way he had.

Pradhanji, for a while, went into a thoughtful mode and then responding to my query, began by saying: ‘See, Vashishtha alone was not the only most brilliant student of the school; Satya Deo Prasad (1st batch) too fell in that category. But then, similarity between the two ended there itself. While Satyadeo, apart from excelling in academics, also participated enthusiastically in school’s other activities (he was in A team in both football and hockey), in cultural programmes he was seen there too, well within his own limitations though. Vashishtha, on the other hand, chose to concentrate on academics and academics alone, showing little or no interest in school’s other non-academic activities. This approach made the difference between the two, post-Netarhat.’

Pradhanji went on to further elaborate on his own observation by citing a simple phenomenon of the sun rays, when allowed to pass through a convex lens, converge at a focal point and if a piece of paper is placed there, the same get burnt instantly. Likewise, if one is gifted with the special talent that’s linked with the human brain, the care would need to be taken not to converge it to a focal point in a manner a lens does but allow it to dissipate by participation in activities other than those requiring the exercise of brain cells.

I wouldn’t know how would the psychologists of the day react to and relate Pradhanji’s observation vis-à-vis the circumstances that led to the ailment Vashishtha had fallen prey to. But as far as I am concerned, Pradhanji’s observation had convinced me then, convinces me now.

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Narendra Bhagat

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A retired I.A.S. officer, Mr. Narendra Bhagat spends part of his time to blog and write for our magazine. He has authored two books.


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7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. amitabh says:

    Sir,I did not like that part of the article where you sited an example of the convex lens.Usually we use that example in a positive aspect to show how concentrating all your energy on a point can do unthinkable things. That vashishtha narayan singh did not participate in any extra curricular activities ,acted against him and he could not understand the world better. But,that is the way the genius are.They have no other choice to do something other than what he is born to do. People like you and me can not understand that.We can just make a guess. There are many examples in the world. There are many mathematicians who suffered from mental diseases.May be because this world were too cruel for them.

    Anyways,now that internet age has come and people has started to know about the forgotten ones, we can hope that we get a proper insight of his life in an objective manner through a film,documentry film or even a well researched book.

    1. Amitabh, I appreciate your reservation about ‘the convex lens example’ in my article.However, the same was simply intended to bring home the critical point linked with Dr Vashishtha’s story.Otherwise,Psychiatrists, like Dr Dinkar Minz who attended on him at CIP, Ranchi is of the view that prodigies like Dr Vashishtha have extraordinary DNA in them right since their births ….. such individuals, once identified, need to be nurtured and looked after truly well right through their life spans to continue getting their contributions to the humanity at large …. unfortunately, it’s here we often fail – Dr Vashishtha’s story seems to sum up this aspect…..

  2. Ankur Raj says:

    Thank you for this amazing article…
    i think that he was lost in the tides of time
    This story had inspired me a lot….

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mr Swapnil. Having known Dr Vashishtha as a prodigy in his school days that manifested later in higher education n reaserch, it really hurts me to find him in a situation he is in now.

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