April 02, 2020
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A Head For Numbers

A fictional retelling of the life of G.H. Hardy and one of science's great romances: his discovery of Ramanujan

A Head For Numbers
A Head For Numbers
The Indian Clerk
By David Leavitt
Bloomsbury Pages: 496; Special Indian Price: 495
"I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only 20 pounds per annum," began Ramanujan’s famous first letter to G.H. Hardy, containing pages of mathematical results which were simply astounding. And this from a man in remote Madras without any formal training in mathematics! Thus began the ‘discovery’ of Srinivas Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians of his time.

Born in a poor Brahmin household in Kumbakonam, Ramanujan had an uneventful schooling. The only thing which set him apart was a passion for mathematics. Though his access to mathematical literature was very limited, he arrived at some astounding results, enough to get him a job in the Port Trust. Then, in 1913, he wrote two letters to Hardy, describing some of his work. Hardy, the world’s pre-eminent mathematician at that time, was sufficiently impressed to arrange for his coming to Cambridge. This was the beginning of a relationship which was to last till Ramanujan’s untimely death in 1920. Leavitt’s book is a fictional account of Hardy’s life and his relationship with Ramanujan.

Cambridge was humming with intellectual activity in the years before the Great War. Keynes, the economist; Moore, the philosopher; Hardy and his collaborator, Littlewood; the intellectual giant, Russell, were all Fellows at Cambridge. Many of them were also members of The Apostles, a select, semi-secretive ‘club’ founded in the 1820s. Induction was by invitation and some of the brightest (including Tennyson, Whitehead etc) were members. Many of them later formed the Bloomsbury group.

Leavitt captures Cambridge of that time very well—the bizarre and arcane induction rituals of the Apostles, the petty rivalries and, interestingly, the underlying current of homosexuality among the dons. It is probably no coincidence that the author has written several works on homosexuality, including a scholarly study on the hidden tradition of homosexual literature.

The genre of the historical novel is an interesting one—while the author has to be faithful to the major events and actors, s/he is not constrained by the actual unfolding of events or even the characterisation. Leavitt’s book does well in sketching the major characters of that period. Hardy, of course, is the main protagonist, but there are others, including Hardy’s sister, his gay partner and Mrs Alice Neville, Ramanujan’s benefactress in England, who are well portrayed. But the author falters when it comes to his Indian characters, including Ramanujan and his friends at Cambridge like Mahalanobis. For instance, it is hard to believe that Ramanujan would have ever addressed G.H. Hardy as Hardy in their conversations, given that he always addressed him as ‘Mr Hardy’ in his letters. The wonderful collection of Ramanujan’s letters compiled and edited by mathematicians Bruce Berndt and Robert Rankin brings this out clearly. The historical novelist is allowed latitude in his use of language but to lend an aura of authenticity, there has to be consistency with the characterisations.

There is, of course, some very clever use of language in the book. Referring to the wartime shortage of tenants in Cambridge, there is a delightful line about "all tenants becoming lieutenants". Or, for instance, the recounting of the story of the doctor who told his mathematician patient that he had an odd sense of humour, to which the mathematician replied, "Odd, as in 3,5,7?"

This is a good book about Hardy and his times at Cambridge. What it most definitely is not is a book about Ramanujan. He emerges only as a prop in the book and that too in a shoddy, exoticised way. One doesn’t get a feeling of the genius’ conflicts or his trials and tribulations as an object of adulation and sneering in racist England. Robert Kanigel’s stupendous biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, is a much better book if one wants to understand the life and works of the "greatest mathematician of the last 100, possibly 500 years". Leavitt’s book, though about the "Indian clerk", is not where one would get any insights into the mind of the genius from Kumbakonam.

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