Srinivasa Ramanujan’s short life of 32 years was one crowded with spirituality, poverty, recognition and staggering genius.
Born in Erode and schooled at Kumbakonam’s Town Higher Secondary School where he first discovered the joy of mathematics, Ramanujan’s story arc travels from the thinnai of the small house on Sarangapani Sannidhi Street where he practised his sums to the long corridors of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he stunned his fellow students and professors. He also formed an unlikely friendship with the distinguished mathematician GH Hardy at an unlikely time — an era of war, conservatism and racism.
Srinivasa Ramanujan: Friend of Numbers (Tulika Publishers), an English book for young children (six-plus) written by Priya Narayanan and illustrated by Satwik Gade, was recently released in Chennai. Ahmedabad-based Priya is an interior and furniture designer who teaches a course on Architecture and Design at a university and has written three other books for children. Gade is a visual journalist and illustrator who has worked with newspapers. Among his books for Tulika is the award-winning Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why.
Priya’s fascination for Ramanujan began with Robert Kanigel’s book The Man Who Knew Infinity . She travelled to Kumbakonam, Chennai, Erode and Cambridge to see the houses where he lived, the places where he hid to escape the wrath of his father as he worked out one sum after another even as he failed in other subjects, and the rooms where he revealed his theorems to a grudging but later admiring Western audience of scientists that led to him becoming the first Indian to be elected Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
“I had been researching for three years on Ramanujan,” says Priya. “But it was a challenge to compile his life into a book for children. I had initially pegged it for slightly older kids. Then I learnt of the non-fiction picture book workshop by Tulika and I thought I should participate. I already had enough content for the book and decided to write; Tulika accepted my proposal.”
The book follows a chronological account of Ramanujan’s life guided by comtemporary mathematician JE Littlewood’s quote, “Every positive integer is one of Ramanujan’s personal friends.”
“The book looks at numbers as friends, looking for patterns in numbers and numbers in patterns,” says Priya.
With endearing illustrations that capture the life of a Brahmin family in a small town, Ramanujan’s untidy shock of hair, his finding patterns in gopurams , ripples of water and in the lentils for rasam , and his struggle with health before he passed on, leaving a legacy for future scientists, the book tells his extraordinary story from Madras Port Trust clerk to immortal genius — a reminder that journeys have no limits.