Updated: March 3, 2012 21:09 IST

‘What is Ramanujan without mathematics?'

Comment (6)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Robert Kanigel: Telling the story of an incredible relationship. Photo: V. Ganesan
The Hindu
Robert Kanigel: Telling the story of an incredible relationship. Photo: V. Ganesan

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?


At WorkSeptember 24, 2010

My son read the book in his intermediate school and wrote an essay comparing Einstein and ramanujan as part of a class project. I gave him the book. It is sad that Indians have to learn about the great people among them from the west.

from:  KVR
Posted on: Mar 5, 2012 at 01:27 IST

This great mathematician has been forgotton even in his native town, Kumbakonam. TN Govt should take necessary steps to popularise his works and also built a grand memorial in Kumbakonam.

from:  Anthakudi Nagarajan
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 12:49 IST

Such an innovative article makes us learn a lot about the Great Mathematician. This is from a 8 year old.

from:  Harshu
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 03:02 IST

Living not too far from The Institute for Advanced Study where Einstein used to bike his way, not too long ago, I read Kanigel's work with fascination. During my childhood in Kumbakonam, we used to literally spend countless hours on the "thinnai" of Ramanujan's house where his passport-sized picture was the only adornment above the door, indicating that the great soul lived there. Attending Town High School, the aptly named 'Ramanujan Hall' was the scene of so many school events.
I am glad that a relative 'foreigner' discovered the greatness of Ramanujan's story and decided to write a meticulously researched and definitive account of his life and times. The book has been written in a vivid style, made more meaningful to me due to my own personal life trajectory. I just wish someone somewhere has the good fortune of also seeing it made into a movie. Kudos to Kanigel!

from:  Rajagopal
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 00:55 IST

Very exciting article, looking forward to reading the book soon.
Its sad that even to this day, the govt of India has an official policy
(due to politics) not to recognize merit or create an eco system to
encourage merit. Instead of maintaining a perpetual scarcity of quality
educational institutions, India should provide enough opportunities to
all sections of the society and from that level playing field, needs to
be a meritocracy.

from:  Srinivas RS
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 00:43 IST

Its high time the tamilnadu government appreciate Ramanujan's works and make his popularity on par with that of useless politicians and filmstars

from:  Sundar
Posted on: Mar 3, 2012 at 20:54 IST
Show all comments
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

More »



Recent Article in Books

At the Helm — A Memoir: V. Krishnamurthy; Collins Business, A-75, Sector 57,
Noida-201301. Rs. 599.

A technocrat’s reminiscences

The author, V. Krishnamurthy, is a proud son of the Karuveli soil and has served the Union Planning Commission in two different periods. »