Set in turbulent twelfth century India, against the backdrop of the savage wars waged by Muhammad of Ghor and his band of Turkis, Starcursed is a sweeping tale of science, romance and adventure that will transport its readers to another world.
Guest Post by Author Nandini Bajpai
Girls, Math, and History
Thanks for having me on your blog, Debdatta. And thanks also for hosting a review tour for Starcursed!
In my novel Starcursed the main character's name is Leelavati. I have a really strong emotional connection to that name because my grandmother’s name was also Leelavati and I've always loved it.
The incident that inspired me to write the book also has to do with this name. It started with a trip to the Museum of Science in Boston. I live in the Boston area and we take our kids to the Museum of Science quite often because it’s a nice Museum (in spite of what I’m about to say next, it IS a nice museum!)
So they have a really massive Mathematica display which shows the history of mathematics. It takes up a whole wall and one of the entries they have is about an Indian mathematician called Bhaskaracharya. This is what it says:
A page from Bhaskara’s Lilavati
Bhaskara is remembered for transmitting the rudimentary algebra of his predecessors Aryabhatta (the first) and Brahmagupta. His book Lilavati, the beautiful, looks askance at negative numbers but does say the square of a negative is positive. Bhaskara’s one word proof of the Pythagoras theorem was known to the ancient Chinese though his clever way of generating solutions to the Pell Equation – rediscovered by Euler - seems to have been his own.
This is a pretty dismissive write up about a mathematician who deserves much more credit, but this display was probably made in the 1960s, when people were still in denial that the number system was even Indian, so I was like okaaay.
What really caught my attention though was the name of the book!
As I said earlier, this was my grandmother’s name, despite the different spelling, so just think how it read to me. It might help to imagine reading the same text with her name replaced by a name we can all immediately recognize as a woman’s name.
For example, Caroline. It would then read (please imagine a professorial tone here!) thusly:
A page from Bhaskara’s Caroline.
Bhaskara is remembered for transmitting the rudimentary blah blah of his predecessors blah. His book Caroline, the beautiful, looks askance at negative numbers but does say that the square of a negative number is…etc.
Doesn’t that immediately make you stop and wonder who Caroline was and why on Earth he’d call his book on math Caroline?
Or try Susan. (Again, the professorial tone.)
A page from Bhaskara’s Susan.
Bhaskara is remembered for transmitting the rudimentary blah. His book Susan, the beautiful, looks askance at negative numbers…etc.
I mean, you have to be completely without curiosity or imagination not to wonder who this woman was, right? But apparently no one who made the Mathematica display wondered about it. And by the way I should mention that this entire Mathematica display did not have one single woman in it. Not even Ada Lovelace and definitely not Hypatia.
Since I am neither without curiosity nor imagination, whatever my other faults, I did wonder about it. I looked it up and here’s what I found.
The book Bhaskara wrote was very popular. It was the standard math book in India for ages, and it has math questions in it that are directly addressed to a girl, sometimes called Leelavati. There’s also a story, in a Persian translation, about Leelavati being Bhaskara’s daughter. It tells an amazing tale (not to give too much away...) about a wedding, and a bad horoscope, and a water clock that gets blocked by a jewel dropped by Leela herself. In other words, lots of material for a brilliant story.
Someone should write about that, I thought. Someone should really, really write about that! And I kept on thinking that for years until one day (just like the quote from Lily Tomlin!) I realized that I am someone.
A still from a documentary about Lilavati. Click to see the episode, though it's in Hindi only. Also, she's much younger in this version than in Starcursed.
Being a fiction writer and not a mathematician or historian I did not write a math research paper or a non-fiction history book, I wrote a novel.
It's taken some time and effort (gross understatement alert!) to find a publisher for this book since the usual reaction, I imagine, is something like: You've written a story about WHAT? Girls, Math, and History?! But for every good story there's a great editor who believes in it, and I was lucky enough to (eventually) find Sudeshna at Rupa Publications. So, happy ending!
One final word to readers who may have read my YA novel Red Turban White Horse. I know that Leela’s voice is very different from Mini’s voice in RTWH. That’s because Mini lives in the 21st century in Massachusetts and is into fashion, and Leela lived in the 12th century in Ujjain and was into math!! But they are both smart, confident, capable girls on the threshold of their lives and I really enjoyed being in both their heads—I hope you do too.
And also—this is important—there's Rahul! :)
About The Author:
Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read. Although she dabbled in corporate finance, business analysis, and fostering shelter animals, her first love is writing. Her novel Red Turban White Horse: My Sister's Hurricane Wedding was published in 2013 by Scholastic India. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, kids, their dog Yogi and cat Rakhan.
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