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God, math, and Ramanujan's fascinating story

By Arthur J Pais
Last updated on: December 22, 2016 13:39 IST
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December 22 marks the 129th birth anniversary of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the greatest Indian mathematician of the 20th century.
Just 32 when he died, Ramanujan has fascinated mathematicians, writers and filmmakers for nearly a century.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, the great mathematicianFor his 12th novel The Indian Clerk, David Leavitt, one of America's distinguished writers, chose to work on the relationship between mathematicians G H Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Leavitt, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and professor of literature, offers a complicated and intriguing story starting with Hardy receiving a letter filled with prime number theorems from Ramanujan, a young accounts clerk in Madras (now Chennai).

Hardy and his collaborator J E Littlewood soon decide Ramanujan is a genius and invite him to work with them.

The book explores the difficult relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan, and the various indignities and health problems the Indian genius suffered, leading to an avoidable tragedy.

Leavitt discussed the process of writing the book with Arthur J Pais for this interview first published on in September 2007.

How did the idea for the book come about?

The last book I had published was non-fiction about the mathematician Alan Turing. It was called The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was part of a series about scientific discoveries.

In the course of researching the book, I came upon the story of Ramanujan and Hardy. The minute I encountered the story I was absolutely fascinated by it because it was such an interesting combination of personalities, so radically different.

How much did you know about these men before you started working on the Turing book?

I knew a little about Hardy earlier and his involvement with the Apostles, the Cambridge secret society, because I had done some research about the Apostles. But I did not know the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan.

What impressed you most about the story of these two men?

I really felt very engaged by the story and I decided to research it further.

What interested me the most was that both men seemed to me extremely compelling figures, but in very different ways.

Hardy was a very atypical mathematician in that he challenged the stereotype image of the mathematician as anti-social and awkward.

Hardy was very sophisticated, very suave, very genteel and at the same time very, very eccentric in his behaviour.

He was a member of the Apostles. It was very, very rare for a scientist to be inducted into the Apostles. It almost never happened!

So that interested me, as well. Of course, Hardy obviously was also homosexual in a very quiet way.

What about Ramanujan interested you?

Ramanujan interested me because I have always been fascinated by India.

My brother John Leavitt is an anthropologist who has been for quite a while in India and has done most of his research and work in Uttar Pradesh.

Of course, Ramanujan was from a very different world, the world of Tamil Nadu, a very high Brahmin but (from a) poor family.

I must also say I have been fascinated by Indian writers; among them, R K Narayan.

Narayan's world, in a way, is very similar to that in which Ramanjun grew up.

When I visited Kumbakonam, the place Ramanujan grew up, in many ways it reminded me of Malgudi )Narayan's fictional town).

What else interested you about the relationship between the two men?

I think another reason why Hardy and Ramanujan fascinated me was about the whole religious question.

Hardy was a devout atheist -- the oxymoron! -- whose attitude to religion was extremely hostile, rather like that of Christopher Hitchens (author of the bestseller God Is Not Great).

And Ramanujan said his mathematical formulae came to him as visions provided by a goddess.

This way of conceptualising mathematics was anathema to Hardy's code.

How did Hardy take it?

Hardy had trouble in accepting that possibility, even though Ramanujan actually perceived a mystic connection between his mathematics and his religion.

In other words, Hardy persisted in arguing that Ramanujan just claimed to be devout to please his family, but in fact he was a rationalist and much more like Hardy.

But that is something I think very few people believed except for Hardy.

You have also said that you have been fascinated for a long time with artistic imagination.

True. I have always been interested in the artistic imagination and the creative process, but I was getting a little bit tired of writing about painters or writers or musicians, and the idea of mathematician as a kind of artist was something that fascinated me.

The more I learned about Hardy and Ramanujan, the more they seemed very much to be artists in terms of their approach to their lives and approach to the world around them.

And I just began to envision a novel, a sort of novel with a fairly big scope.

Were you ever tempted to write a work of non-fiction based on these two lives?

No. I have always loved the genre of, for lack of a better term, the historical novel.

The novel about real people, when it is done well -- which it rarely is -- can be a very thrilling genre.

I have always wanted to write a novel about real people and it seemed to be this was a perfect opportunity.

Why was that?

Because I felt I could imagine my way into the material.

And by blending what I knew with what I could imagine, I felt I could create something that was very much the work of the imagination as opposed to a work of scholarship and a work of biography.

I wanted to be able to do combine a kind of retelling of real events with a kind of re-imagining of events.

And you know there is a lot of stuff in the novel which is entirely imaginary or speculative, and which is something I passionately wanted to do.

Which, of course, would not have been possible in a non-fiction work.

If I were writing a non-fiction book I would have been constrained.

Take, for instance, the character of Alice in the book. She is a very invisible figure (in the records). It suited my purpose well.

I could make the character grow in the fullest sense. But you should be clear that you do in an afterword -- as I did -- specify what is true and what isn't.

You don't want people to come away from your novel thinking everything was true.

What were the challenges in writing the book?

I love doing research. Researching the book was fun.

But the biggest challenge was trying to describe the past the way that felt natural, to describe the world of 1914-1915 in a way that did not seem overly researched or artificial.

Another challenge was as an American trying to write about principally British characters.

In some way I felt more of a kinship and familiarity with the Indian characters.

Why was that so?

They (the Indians) seemed more like me than the British characters.

In what sense?

I think it is because I come from a Jewish immigrant family. My grandparents were immigrants from Lithuania.

It is a society that was very family oriented, very matriarchal and I felt a lot of parallels between Ramanujan's family and my own.

In some ways, his mother reminded me of my father's stories of my paternal grandmother. I felt there was a great sense of familiarity when I dealt with the Indian characters.

How far removed were the British characters from your family experiences?

British society at that time was so much rule-bound, so rigid that it was more alien to me.

Writing about it was more of a challenge. But it was more fun too. It was a matter of almost learning the rules so that I could then describe a society that was nevertheless fascinating.

With all challenges involved in writing the book, I must say it was something I really enjoyed working on.

Tell us more about it.

When I began working on this novel, a lot of things were happening in my life. My job is very demanding at the university. This book was a wonderful thing to be able to turn to.

It also gave me an opportunity to travel to India, which was an extraordinary experience.

Had you been to India before?

No. I went to the house in Chennai where Ramanujan had actually lived. It was fascinating to see that the particular world in India had not changed much.

There were other things that were much more subtle. There is a reference in the novel to open doors -- to the doors in a hotel being open.

We noticed when we were staying in the hotels in India people often left their doors open. It seemed very strange to us, as Americans, because we want the doors to be closed; we want privacy.

But to Indians keeping the doors open was like a communal atmosphere.

What did that make you think of?

That started me thinking about the differences between the very uptight British characters and Ramanujan and what a shock it must have been for him to come from a very open, communal society into a very closed, rigid society.

And if you put that on the top of going from some place which was very hot to some place which was very cold, and the country being in the midst of a war, you realise that it must have been an extremely strange experience for him.

At the same time what a strange figure he must have seemed to these English people!

Obviously at Cambridge there were many Indian students, but most of them came from wealthier backgrounds.

This was the beginning of a great accomplishment and great tragedy involving Ramanujan.

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Arthur J Pais /