Robert Kanigel reflects on the making of his book The Man Who Knew Infinity, about Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Is Ramanujan confined to the world of maths alone? Geniuses cannot be confined anywhere, any time. This one, prodigy or phenomenon, belonged to the realm of Keats, van Gogh, Mozart or Adi Sankara. Even his biographer Robert Kanigel — whose book about this modest clerk from Kumbakonam — chose to explore the intellectual bond between him and Hardy rather than dwell on his maths.
Writers like Kanigel prefer to reflect on those coincidences, to wonder at that rapport between two brilliant minds — one the product of a typical British education; the other a failure in a system that would not recognise merit. The story of Ramanujan and Hardy astonishes him; this bizarre meeting between “an English don and an impoverished Hindu genius whose like has never been seen again.”
“My agent asked if I was interested in writing a book on an Indian mathematician,” he begins. Then adds: “Never knew him nor heard of him.” We are sitting in the boardroom of the Indian Academy of Sciences. “Then what made you agree?” I ask. He answers with another question. “Can a writer turn down an offer like that?” But he was not excited. He did not think it would amount to much. “His is not a pretty story,” he continues. “Then I heard about him on BBC, read things about him, and it built and built….” He finally travelled to South India.
“I don't believe in luck,” he says. “But this was incredible. There was this stranger telling me that his grandfather Narayan Iyer worked with the great mathematician Ramanujan in the Port Trust of India!”
It was the beginning of an exciting journey of discovery about a young scholar who spoke about the correlation between god, zero and infinity at 18! Kanigel retraced Ramanujan's steps through childhood, school and undergraduate days. He finally came to Namakkal where the mathematician worshipped the goddess Namagiri believing that she wrote equations on his tongue.
“It was a wonderful experience,” says Kanigel. Picking up the story from how the poverty-stricken youth wrote on a slate because he could not afford paper, how he travelled third class with tickets bought by friends, how he lived on a handful of rice and rasam offered in charity, how he came to Madras in search of a Grade 1V clerk's job, how he met various scholars with a notebook crammed with mathematics that they could not understand... he arrived with that historic letter at Cambridge that completely changed his life. The collaboration between Hardy, a leading mathematician of his day, and Ramanujan, an unknown genius, had all the elements of an orchestrated play. Their finding each other was the “greatest coincidence”.
Meeting to two cultures
Robert Kanigel started writing. In the beginning, he was more engrossed with the play of words, the structure of sentences. He was fascinated by “this meeting of two cultures.” As he wrote, he became more interested in the intellectual relationship between them. But, when he closed the book, he wept. Ramanujan's life was so tragic that it was no longer a literary achievement. It became a “testimonial to the truth that genius can flower in the most unlikely places.” It is evident that Kanigel was totally captivated by the life of this Indian clerk who turned science upside down. How else could he write about the discord between Ramanujan's wife and mother with the same intensity as he describes the rapport between two great scientists? Kanigel is a master storyteller, who can uncover the secret of powerful relationships.
Here is one writer who can get emotionally involved with his subject, and yet knows how to step back to describe with clarity and conviction a “life's work that resounds a century later.” His magnum opus “The man Who Knew Infinity” is a brilliant combination of intellectual commitment and emotional passion that few writers have achieved.
Were you trained in science writing?
I was trained, but not in school. As a journalist for many years I worked closely with talented editors, learned from them and from the act of writing itself. Creative writing can't be taught, but it can be developed and nurtured.
What was your motivation to write about scientists?
My writing has emotional, human and narrative qualities. Inevitably, it is drawn toward the work of intellect, in many different areas and disciplines.
Does criticism bother you? Does an author write as much for himself as for his readers?
I do read criticism of my work, take it seriously, and try to learn from it.
As to your second question, I don't know about authors in general but, yes, I write for myself, yet I try never to forget my readers. I'm always thinking, ‘What do my readers need to be pulled along into the story?'
As a writer, my first love is for words, sentences, structures. I want to take the reader on a long journey, exploring and discovering new meanings as we went along. Even at a primitive level, the reader must understand what those words convey.
Were you fascinated by Ramanujan or his mathematics?
Both. You can't detach one from the other. Can you write about Beethoven without his music? What is Ramanujan without mathematics?