The story of a Kumbakonam boy whispers that the extraordinary lurks everywhere
You might divide people into two kinds. Some hear the music of mathematics. Others are deaf to its harmonies but sit, courteous and attentive, till the curtain falls. We all must plod through a certain amount of mathematics in school. I dutifully studied algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, then I wiped my slate clean after my last exam. Now I don’t quite remember what a cosine is, even.
That doesn’t keep me from reading about a mathematical genius. The immediate trigger was a visit to Kumbakonam, where I saw the little row-house on Sarangapani Sannidhi Street in which Srinivasa Ramanujan grew up. It is as austere as it probably was when he lived there. There is one bed in the front room. In the minuscule koodam hang photos, historical documents and laminated equations. A bust of Ramanujan stands on a plinth. Out on the verandah is the brick-paved floor on which he continued his calculations when he was too impatient to wipe his slate clean.
Shortly after that visit, I took up Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan. Kanegal calls the story of Ramanujan “romantic”. We all wonder what this shining and sometimes sorry figure would have accomplished if he had better braved the English chill and lived past 32. As it is, he left theorems and problems enough for armies of mathematicians to prove. Kanegal draws rich portraits of the prodigy in Kumbakonam and of G.H. Hardy, Fellow of Trinity, who brought him to Cambridge, so that by the time the two characters converge in this biography, we are primed to hear something splendid. Kanegal writes enough about partitions, highly composite numbers and mock theta functions to satisfy the layman that together they did indeed achieve something stellar.
The romance of Ramanujan is the romance of genius. Yes, he was a boy from Kumbakonam who became famous in Cambridge and remained unchanged in essence, with or without his kudumi, a matter of satisfaction to every South Indian. But he was of another species from those who rigorously prove and explain theorems, as Kanegal puts it, in a “neat lockstep march to certainty”. Ramanujan’s work was insight, intuition, imagination. What makes it seductive, Kanegal says, is its richness, beauty, mystery, its “mathematical loveliness”.
The house in Kumbakonam still whispers that the extraordinary lurks everywhere. And the romance of Ramanujan wakes us to delight in the mathematical loveliness around that place. The precise count of the Indian cuckoo. The exponential progression of tree branches. One clay roof tile locking into another. A repeating pattern on a sari border. A set of steel dabbas, each a little larger than the one before. The geometry of Kaliyamardana Krishna on a pillar in the Sarangapani Temple. Talam — no matter how tone-deaf we are, we can always hear the maths in music. And the stars between the stars in the tropical sky. So much of what delights us in life is number, geometry, series, pattern, rhythm and infinity.