My Mathematical Muse: A Journey into the Life of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Three years back, in 2016, hubby dear bought the book -The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel. It was supposedly a well researched biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Not a fan of biographies then, I let the book rest on my shelf for a whole six months before I started reading it.                                                                themanwhoknewinfinity

Until then, I had only heard passing mentions of Ramanujan, never read about him -surprisingly, not even an anecdote or snippet from his life. So, Kanigel’s book came as a surprise. It immediately drew me into its pages, taking me back to an era (Ramanujan was born on 22nd Dec, 1887) that was hitherto unknown to me except in the context of India’s freedom struggle.

For reasons unknown, the book had a profound effect on me. No sooner than I had finished reading it, I got an opportunity to go to Chennai. I immediately made up my mind to visit Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan had spent the better part of his short life. From Chennai, I took an overnight train to the small, dusty town on the banks of the Kaveri – the journey in itself was rather amusing, with my second class compartment being populated by men wearing white lungis and white shirts and women wearing gold jewelry that offset their lips and tongues that had turned red with chewing betel leaf.

Once in Kumbakonam, I spent half a day at Sarangapani Sannidhi Street that was, at one time, witness to the many eccentricities of my newfound muse. Ramanujan’s house -recently renovated after escaping demolition, thanks to our late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s intervention -sat sandwiched between two other houses that had been converted into shops. A set of steps invited me into this narrow house that stretched backwards in length. The blue columns weren’t blue during Ramanujan’s time; I’m sure they weren’t even painted then. The well laid Mangalore tiles weren’t there during his time either -the house had a thatch roof then.

The majestic gopuram of the Sarangapani Temple


But the columns and roof didn’t matter to me. What mattered was the high plinth on which Ramanujan sat as a child with a slate and chalk and worked on his mathematical ideas. What mattered was the window behind which was the tiny room with a single wooden bed under which Ramanujan hid to solve equations as a child because his father would get angry if he saw him do something so useless! Further inside was a small living room (that’s now a memorial of sorts), kitchen and the backyard with a well.rama-mainP1020154P1020161

It was indeed a humbling experience to stand inside that house, on that street, in that dusty town from where Ramanujan had started a mathematical journey that took him all the way to England and back. But, as Kanigel’s book informed me, Ramanujan wasn’t just about mathematics. His short life (he was 32 when he passed away) was a tapestry woven from numerous strands, each as interesting as the other. He was a staunch Vaishnavite Brahmin, who not only knew his scriptures but dissected and discussed them even as he brooded on the concepts of ‘shunya’ and ‘infinity’. He was highly superstitious, with an interest in astrology as well as the occult. He was a quintessential ‘mama’s boy’ who fell back upon his mother for everything in his life. Be it narrating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharatha and the Puranas, or imparting knowledge about their traditions or teaching him to pray and become a devotee of the Goddess Namagiri of Namakkal or playing with him, his favorite board game -the Aadu Puli Aatam (Goats and Tigers), or giving that vital push towards achieving his mathematical goal, Komalatammal was instrumental in nurturing her son’s love for Math and standing up for him when it mattered. Finally, there was also a strange dichotomy about Ramanujan – while he was confident about his mathematical prowess, he was extremely insecure about everything he did, yearned for recognition of his genius, and took offense at the tiniest of alleged faux pas by friends or peers.

Sitting on the steps in the backyard of his house, I recollected excerpts from Kanigel’s book and found myself drawn to this complex, intriguing character from the past. Soon, I was trying to imagine Ramanujan’s childhood, figuring out how his surroundings could have contributed to his love for mathematics. As I did so, quite unknown to me, a seed was sown into my thoughts -a seed of an idea for a book for children based on Ramanujan’s life story. Researching for the book, I ended up reading many more papers and books that talked about his life and works -most importantly, S R. Ranganathan’s Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician. Today, that idea is on its way to becoming a reality. My picture book biography on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan has charted its own journey and is expected to be released soon.

(edit: the book was launched on 18/1/2020 and is now available in stores. Adding a pic of the cover page… you can read more about it here)1But that is only half my story.

Being an interior architect, my first connect with people is through the spaces they inhabit. So, after visiting his Kumbakonam house, I wanted to now visit all other places he’d been to or stayed in. This wasn’t easy, given that my city of residence isn’t anywhere near these places and that I have a home, office and my kids to tend to. However, they don’t say -if you wish for something with all your heart it does become a reality- for nothing. So intense was my wish of understanding the enigma that was Ramanujan that serendipity offered me a few chances to catch up with my muse. Earlier this year, I got another opportunity to visit Chennai. I made the most of it by visiting the house he’d briefly stayed in, in Triplcane, thanks to a dear friend. I then hunted down the site of the house he’d breathed his last in -unfortunately, the house is no longer in existence- and another house that he’d briefly lived in after his return from England.

The house in Triplicane where Ramanujan lived briefly
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The ‘Crynant’ where Ramanujan stayed briefly after returning from London -he was shifted to another house, Gometra, because he felt the word ‘cry’ in the name of the house was a bad omen

Then, as luck would have it, I got an opportunity for an academic visit to London. After my professional commitments, I stayed back for a few days to visit places in London and Cambridge that my muse had been to. And so, with the help of Richard Chapling, a young mathematician and Trinity alumnus, who started off as a total stranger but ended up being a dear friend, I traced Ramanujan and his mentor Godfrey Harold Hardy across London and Cambridge. Together, Richard and I walked the walk that Hardy once described as being the ‘most distinguished walk’* – from his home at St. George’s Square, along the Grosvenor Road and across the Vauxhall Bridge to the Oval; we visited the house in Putney that is famed for being the place where Ramanujan had the legendary conversation with Hardy about the number 1729; we traveled to Cambridge to visit the Trinity College where he had spent five precious years, the Wren Library where his original letter to Hardy has been preserved, the Centre for Mathematical Sciences where his bust sits in splendor; we paused at the houses he’d stayed in at different points of time, we walked down the streets he would have once walked… back in London, I hunted down the house on Cromwell Road that Ramanujan had stayed in when he first arrived in London -the building is now home to the French Embassy.

The house on Cromwell Road
The house in Putney


The plaque commemorating an interesting conversation
Richard outside what was once Hardy’s post-retirement home in London. Incidentally, Hardy has been Richard’s mathematical muse for quite some time now 🙂
The house on Chestertown Road, Cambridge
The Great Court at the Trinity College
The New Court where Hardy lived when in Cambridge
The dining hall for the Trinity professors and students where Ramanujan refused to eat since non-vegetarian food was served here.
The block in Bishop’s Hostel where Ramanujan occupied a room on the top floor
Issac Newton at the Ante Chapel of the Trinity College Chapel that acknowledges the contribution of the all-time great Trinity alumni through engravings on marble and etched brass plaques (in Latin).
Next to Ramanujan’s plaque

Visiting all these places was a strangely emotional journey for me – strange, because here I was, getting affected by places that I had no immediate connect to. I often sit and wonder why I was drawn towards Ramanujan’s story. A friend recently tried to impress upon me the idea of ‘past connections’ and ‘karma’. I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to agree with him in this context.

There are some more places with a Ramanujan connect in India that await me, and there is a more detailed story of his inside of me that needs to be told (perhaps, for older children). I guess I’ll get that sense of closure only when both these journeys are completed… and I hope it happens sometime soon enough.

Today, though, I’m going to celebrate Ramanujan’s birthday by sharing the Magic Square he’d worked out based on the date of his birth: 22-12-1887 (exploring possibilities with these squares was one of Ramanujan’s earliest mathematical preoccupations).

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For those who do not know, a Magic Square is square grid in which a given set of unique positive integers are arranged such that each cell has a different integer and the sum of integers in every row, column and diagonal is equal. In the above case, the sum in each case is 139. It is a happy coincidence (I’m sure Ramanujan would’ve been pleased as a punch when he realized this) that 139 is a prime number and the sum of five consecutive prime numbers: 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37!!

And on that note, here’s me wishing my mathematical muse a very happy birthday!!

File photo of Ramanujan (centre) at the time of being conferred a Bachelor’s Degree at Trinity

*The original quote by G H Hardy (thanks to Richard) goes thus:

‘The half-mile from St. George’s Square to the Oval is my old brandy nomination for the most distinguished walk in the world.’

Richard tells me that Old Brandy came to mean a taste that was eccentric, esoteric, but just within the confines of reason.

**P.S: There’s a separate post begging to be written about my amazing visit to Cambridge with Richard. I hope I find time for it soon enough…




Poetic Injustice

Is there something like poetic injustice?

The red effluent emptying into the sea through a pipeline is not a chemical; it is waste from a fish cutting factory a few hundred meters from the shore at Kadike beach, Udupi dist. If you want me to spell it out, it’s fish blood. And bits and pieces of fish too, I guess, my clue being the crazy number of eagles hovering around the point where the waste is flushed into the sea. Every now and then, they swoop down to pick up tiny pieces of cut fish that must’ve gotten flushed along with the blood.

After observing them for almost half an hour, I’ve decided that not only is this a case of poetic injustice, like I pointed out, but also one of rendering the eagles lazy, almost domesticating them! I stood for a few minutes exactly under the cover of eagles in the sky -they were flying pretty low and their white heads popping out of speckled coats looked awesome from below- but none was bothered by my presence; their eyes were all on what the pipe was spitting out.

The pic above is of one of the two pipes that connect the factory to the sea. Ambling along the beach, when I first spotted the red effluent though, it wasn’t gushing out of this pipe but what seemed to be a cloth embedded into the sand a few feet into the sea (see pic below). My detective senses went on an overdrive and I imagined all sorts of things… especially given the fact that there was news just the previous day of mutilated parts of a lady’s body having been found in Mangalore, not far from where I was.

‘Could this be someone’s mutilated body part?’

I shuddered at the thought.

A closer look revealed that my imagination was indeed fertile, thanks to the innumerable whodunits I watch on TV! The cloth was just a shoddy job at camouflage -it covered a pipeline that carried the effluent to the sea. I sighed in relief, but was soon angry at the mindless pollution being caused, no doubt by some chemical factory nearby. Seeing a local strolling along, I stopped him and asked him about the effluent.

That’s when I was told about the fish cutting factory.

My anger immediately dissolved into deep sadness at the irony of it all… imagine you are the ocean; how would you feel when the blood of your own children were drained back into your lap? Tears collected in my eyes as I looked at the waves lashing against the shore -a desperate ocean trying to collect every remaining bit of her children and pulling it into herself… back into the womb from which they’d all once emerged.

Yet, there is a counterpoint to it all. Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens that it was the Cognitive Revolution that made homo sapiens a successful species. I agree. The power of imagination did set us apart and it is that power that makes me imagine the sea to have a soul, to feel like I do, to react like I would. What if I did not imagine? What if the sea was merely lashing its waves ‘coz that’s what nature, as explained by science, makes it do? And the fish? Well, they do not have cognition; they might suffer physically as they gasp for breath and die, but they don’t grapple with concepts like ‘was my fish life purposeful‘. They just cease to exist.

And that brings me to the part where I realize how important a part language plays in our cognition. When I asked the local about the red effluent, his words were crude – fish cutting was the exact phrase he used. And it is his choice of words that has made me write this entire piece! What if he’d said fish processing? Sounds more mellow, more peaceful, more acceptable to the emotional bit of our brain, doesn’t it?

Note: What I’ve expressed above was typed onto the ‘notes’ app in my phone in one flow -from start to end. I haven’t edited it; it felt more authentic to present my thoughts in the exact same sequence they occurred to me as I walked along the beach… all in the space of fifteen minutes!