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"Ramanujan was my discovery"
on 9 September 2007
In this big and expansive novel, author David Leavitt brings to life the world of Edwardian England, and in the process, recounts the relationship of British mathematician G. H Hardy (1877-1947) with the Indian born genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920). Godfrey Harold Hardy was most known for his achievements in number theory and mathematical analysis, but it is his relationship as mentor, from 1914 onwards, of Ramanujan that has become most widely celebrated.
"I did not invent him, he invented himself, and my association with him is the one romantic incident in my life, tells Hardy in 1936 as he begins a speech in the New Lecture Hall at Harvard University. Back in 1913 Hardy received a strange letter from an unknown clerk in Madras, accompanied by nine dense pages of mathematics, containing theorems on infinite series, improper integrals, continued fractions, number theory, and including the attempt to prove the "Riemann hypothesis."
Upon showing the formulas to his collaborator J. E. Littlewood, they both conclude that these results "must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them." As a result, Hardy, buoyed along by his sense of ambition, sequesters his best friends Eric Neville, and his lovely wife, Alice, to travel to India in order to bring Ramanujan to England.
In a series of letters to Hardy's sister Gertrude, Alice tells them both much about Ramanujan's situation where he grew up poor in South India. Once a promising student and locally renowned for winning academic prizes in high school, his total engagement in mathematics proved disastrous, and ignoring all his other subjects, he repeatedly failed his college exams.
Also deeply religious, Ramanujan's domineering mother fears both the social and spiritual consequences of her son breaking the rules of his caste and crossing the seas, and the great cultural gulf that separates India from England. Still, to England Ramanujan comes and where, upon his arrival, he is cared for by the Nevilles who make him feel at home by feeding and bedding him, while showing him how to navigate the byways of Cambridge and the stuffy corridors of Trinity College.
Thus begins a very successful five-year collaboration with Hardy that endures through enormous social and political upheavals. It is here in England that Ramanujan must face the difficulties of being a brown-skinned man in an all white world and where the English customs ultimately prove to be very strange to him. Eventually, however, the winters and the alien culture begin a toll on his health. With the arrival of World War 1, the English are gradually beaten down by unremitting German bombings, which only make things worse for Ramanujan.
In order to adhere to his caste's strict dietary rules, Ramanujan has to do much of his own cooking, but with the prerequisite wartime shortages, the young Indian finds himself bereft of many of the essential ingredients. Where once the kindly Alice Neville had beguiled him, and Hardy with copious amounts of exotic vegetarian dishes, now Ramanujan must scrimp and save for the foods he craves, in particular the fresh vegetables that are a staple of his diet. In 1917 he was hospitalized, his doctors fearing for his life. By late 1918 his health had improved; he returned to India in 1919. But his health failed again, and he died the next year
As most of the action of The Indian Clerk is filtered through Hardy's eyes, Leavitt does a truly remarkable job of painting the mathematician's most intimate thoughts as he clings desperately for meaning in a drastically changing world. The author is also able to get right inside the mind of the mathematician and the world, that for all its abstraction, is far more real to Hardy and Ramanujan than the world in which they eat and talk and sleep, "this was the world in which Ramanujan and I were happiest - a world remote from religion, war, literature, sex, and even philosophy."
Of course, this novel is not just about Hardy's triumphant professional relationship with Ramanujan, but also about his relationships over the years with Littlewood and the Nevilles, his sister Gertrude, and also of the men in the elite society of the Apostles which was made up of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and G. E. Moore. For Hardy, these are the men were the individuals who would determine England's future as an empire.
Hardy was a committed atheist and, according to those who knew him best, particualry Littlewood, a "non-practising homosexual." But to his credit, Leavitt doesn't shy away from presenting this enigmatic side of Hardy's life as he embarks on a stormy affair with Thayer, a wounded working-class soldier who has just returned from the front lines, while still harboring feelings for the great love of his life, classicist Russell Gaye who committed suicide, and who periodically comes back to haunt Hardy in his dreams.
The Indian Clerk certainly goes beyond the simple retelling of the lives of two mathematicians, one British, the other Indian, with Leavitt far more intent to paint a much boarder canvas, that encapsulates all of the personal ambitions and a rigid proprieties that made up much of Edwardian social, political, and sexual dynamic.
The mathematical tabulations, do every now and then, come across as a bit dull, particularly for those of us who know nothing about math, (my eyes actually glazed over at reading them), but in the end, they are central to our understanding of the main protagonists' love of numbers, including their infinite flexibility and their rigid order, and the degree to which both Hardy and Ramanujan had this incredible and unbelievable ability to manipulate them. Mike Leonard September 07.