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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The lion that roared out a theorem

It was a late December evening when we reached Namakkal, outside Salem in Tamil Nadu, in search of the real Srinivas Ramanujan, mathematicia...

Written by Kishwar Desai |
April 27, 2005

It was a late December evening when we reached Namakkal, outside Salem in Tamil Nadu, in search of the real Srinivas Ramanujan, mathematician and genius. My husband, Meghnad Desai, had dreamt for many years of a film on the life of Ramanujan and now finally we were in the process of making the dream come true.

We were at goddess Namagiri’s temple, Ramanujan’s family deity, with a large Hanuman temple close by. According to the local lore, Hanuman is growing, therefore there is no canopy above, for fear he would burst through the roof!

Namagiri is hewed out of sheer rock, plunged in a mysterious darkness, lit by the soft glow of lamps and I imagine Ramanujan standing here, a supplicant like us, a century ago. Her husband Narasimha, next door and lion-headed, roars at us, lunging out of the black rock facade. These two deities, however, were the inspiration for Ramanujan’s mathematics and to the bewilderment of British mathematicians, he would often describe how theorems and results were ‘‘revealed’’ to him, by them, in his dreams. But almost in continuation of his mystical experience, our evening ended on an amazing note. To understand the peculiarity of it all, I must mention that we had actually reached Tamil Nadu through a series of bizarre coincidences, and had not planned the date of our arrival at Namakkal. Imagine our surprise and pleasure, when we realised, in another coincidence, the day was December 22, Ramanujan’s birthday!

The next morning we reached his childhood home, in Kumbakonam, to find it newly whitewashed and painted-with a pukka roof, unlike the thatch in which he had hidden his proofs, after it was discovered that the problems he had ‘‘solved’’ had already been discovered by Euler, 150 years earlier. Nearby is the Sarangapani Temple where his mother sang bhajans to earn money. The Town High school is surprisingly well-maintained and the principal was obviously proud of the school’s most famous student. Meghnad insisted on looking at the latest school honours role (as always, the researcher) and was pleased to note that the proficiency in mathematics continues. The next stop was the Government College where Ramanujan worked and studied for some years. The College is set on a riverbank. The Principal was most welcoming and we were escorted to the Maths department which is decorated with a photograph of both G.H. Hardy as well as Ramanujan. We were intruding on a (all women!) Master’s degree lecture in Mathematics.

The following day we headed back to Chennai, but unfortunately, we discovered that while in smaller towns like Salem and Kumbakonam history is not completely obliterated, Ramanujan’s Chennai is drastically altered. His home at Hanumantharayan Koil Lane, a narrow, nondescript road, is marked by garbage dumps and temples, and bears only a small plaque indicating that Ramanujan had lived here. But access is barred with the front door firmly closed, unlike in his day. At Pachaiyappa College, where Ramanujan had studied in the Junior FA class, the older buildings which we located at the back, operational in Ramanujan’s time, are in complete disrepair.

Disappointed we turned towards his home in Saiva Muthia Mudali street, in George Town. But this, too, was a fruitless endevour and we could neither identify the house, nor was there any plaque.

Driving by the Presidency College, and the Port Trust, where he had worked, our last stop was at Fifteenth Avenue, a more sophisticated part of Chennai. He had lived here, briefly, before his early death, on his return from the UK. Of course, though barely in his 30s, and ill from tuberculosis, he was already famous. And there were many in Chennai who were ready to help him, unlike when he had left and when it had been a problem to even raise the Rs 75 per month which he and his family required. Yet, for us, it is not the dilapidated, neglected structures in which Ramanujan lived or studied which really marked his memory. Instead, its privately maintained enterprises like the Ramanujan Museum and people like a former school teacher, P.K. Srinivasan, who has lovingly and carefully built up a shrine to mathematics in his house in Chennai. He has a vast store of Ramanujan memorabilia, which he graciously shares.

The most striking part of our travels was that the impression we had received of Ramanujan’s poverty from western authors was in stark contrast to what we found. In fact, by Indian standards, he was not poor though the family did not have much money to spare. He was rich in his heritage. After all, he came from an Aiyangar Brahmin background, so had both an intellectual arrogance, and a support structure, which supplied him the self-confidence required to step into the British world. What he severely lacked was a peer group who could understand his work, and that is why his move to Cambridge was crucial. His champion, G.H. Hardy, a shy English bachelor, an avid fan of cricket and the greatest English mathematician of his age, was enchanted by the simple Brahmin genius. In the arena of mathematics, there are no hierarchies of age, status, colour, creed or race. Hardy soon realized that while he was a Wrangler and Fellow of Trinity, Professor at Cambridge and Fellow of the Royal Society, it was Ramanujan who was the genius among them.

Ramanujan was early among the global heroes, India produced in the 20th century. Ultimately, our search for Ramanujan, in India, has now given us a completely different insight into his genius, and that is why our film now is taking an intriguingly different shape- unlike the Western myth of a poverty stricken, poorly educated man, showered upon by grace and favour from a benevolent British society.

Desai is a London-based writer

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