That picture of mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan with fellow Indian students in Cambridge, published in this column on October 25, has led me through a couple of byways since then, all leading to S. Narayana Ayyar whose persistence enabled Ramanujan's genius to become known to the world.

It was, I found, a hundred years ago this year that the two met, leading to those first steps Ramanujan took on his journey to renown. Much is known about Ramanujan; those byways I've been following ever since that picture has led me to discover something about Narayana Ayyar, a person about whom little is known other than that he worked at the Port Trust.

Before arriving at the Madras Port Trust, Narayana Ayyar was a lecturer in Mathematics at St. Joseph's College, Trichinopoly, where he had done his M.A. in Mathematics.

In the Trichinopoly of the time, a well-respected faculty member of one of the leading colleges in the Presidency and the head of the Golden Rock railway workshops of the South Indian Railway were bound to meet.

And meet they did often, often enough that when Francis Spring, on retirement, was asked to head the Madras Port Trust, he invited Narayana Ayyar to come along with him as his Office Manager. Narayana Ayyar joined the Port Trust in 1900 and, in due course, was appointed Chief Accountant, the highest rank held by an Indian till his retirement in 1934.

Narayana Ayyar first came across Ramanujan's work when he was the Assistant Secretary of the Indian Mathematical Club (later Indian Mathematical Society) of which he was a founder-member. The work had been referred to the Club's founder-President, V. Ramaswamy Iyer, by Dewan Bahadur Ramachandra Rao, Collector of Nellore District.

It was Rao who had helped Ramanujan move from Kumbakonam to a small house in Sami Pillai Street, Triplicane, and who had got him a clerical job in the Accountant General's Office on a salary of Rs. 25 a month. His interest in Ramanujan's work kindled, Narayana Ayyar got him a sinecure at the Port Trust — at a salary that was Rs. 5 more! — and proceeded to get the by-now-knighted Francis Spring interested in his new recruit who did little work in office but scribble numbers on scraps of paper.

During the 14 months that Ramanujan was at the Port Trust from March 1912, Narayana Ayyar spent several hours every day after work with him, working together on mathematical problems. And of some of Ramanujan's work that he'd seen during those evenings he was to write two papers to the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.

But, as early as 1907, Narayana Ayyar was contributing papers on his own work — on geometrical problems — to the Educational Times, London. Its full name was the Educational Times and Journal, of the College of Preceptors (a name it adopted in 1861, after being known as the Educational Times from its founding in 1847), and it is now known as The Educational Times: A Digest of Current Educational Literature.

Narayana Ayyar also contributed to the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Club from its founding in 1909 (it became the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society in 1912). That Narayana Ayyar was a mathematician of some quality becomes apparent from this record. It was that affinity to mathematics that had him recognise Ramanujan's extraordinary talent and had him campaigning with Sir Francis Spring to send Ramanujan into G.H. Hardy's care at Cambridge.

Another bylane led me from Narayana Ayyar to other Port connections. His younger son-in-law, M.S. Venkataraman, was recruited by the Port Trust as a Traffic Probationer and, trained by Godfrey Armstrong, became the first Indian Traffic Manager of Madras Port. In 1947, during the changeover after Independence, he became the first Indian to officiate as Chairman of the Trust. In 1950, he was appointed Administrator of Cochin Port and, after helping it grow considerably, retired in 1960. It was while in charge of Madras Port that Venkataraman ensured that all the papers in the Port's records connected with Ramanujan were collected and sent to the National Archives in Delhi.

Narayana Ayyar's son, Subbanarayanan, too joined the Madras Port Trust and retired in the post his father had first joined, Office Manager.

And, to close the circle, the picture used with this column on October 25 had come to me from V. Viswanathan, the son of Venkataraman and the grandson of Narayana Ayyar.

Getting the name right

An irate N. Gopalakrishnan writes regarding the statement in this column on October 25 that V.G. Suryanarayana Sastriar adopted the name Parithimar Kalaignar, and was known by it for the rest of his life. “This is utter nonsense and this apocryphal story is sedulously propagated by interested parties and widely believed by gullible parties.” (Your columnist included, no doubt.) He states the correct position was given by VGS's son, V.S. Swaminathan, in his biography of his father.

That position is that when VGS experimentally composed the first Tamil sonnets, he sought to gauge the views of Tamil pundits on the new form by publishing them — under the title Thanippasurathogai — but while doing so “thought it expedient to use a pseudonym”, Parithimar Kalaignar. “He never used this nom de plume for any other work he wrote,” says Gopalakrishnan who adds, “G.U. Pope, while praising the sonnets, stated that Sastriar need NOT have diffidently adopted a pseudonym when publishing them; he could have boldly published them under his own name.”

Be that view as it may be, Sastriar's place in Tamil scholarship must be secure — despite my ignorance of it — for he was thought highly enough of to warrant a stamp and first day cover in 2007. Readers D.H. Rao and R. Seshadri, philatelists both, turned up to show me the cover (the picture today, with stamp and frank enlarged for clarity).

The Postal Department's note on the stamp says Sastriar's student years in Madras Christian College were made possible through the support of Raja Bhaskara Sethupathi of Ramnad. Sastriar won the gold medals for Tamil and Philosophy, but chose the Tamil Department to teach in despite being initially offered a more lucrative post in the prestigious Philosophy Department. Explaining the name Parithimar Kalaignar, the note says it is a literal Tamil translation of the original — Surya = Parithi, Narayana = Mal and Sastriar = Kalaignar.

Besides his championing the cause of Tamil in the University of Madras, Sastriar wrote in an editorial of the journal Chenthamizh (November 1902) that Tamil is a Classical language (uyar thani chemozhi). He later edited Gnana Bodhini.