History & Culture

The nostalgia formula

Recall: The bronze bust of the mathematician  

Sarangapani Sannidhi Street in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, takes its name from the massive temple that looms at the end of the road. Yet, a barely-there agraharam house on that unremarkable and dusty street also demands attention. Simply because it was home to a mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who confounded the scholars of Cambridge with his sheer genius with numbers. The house is 150 years old and, fortunately for it and for those who know of and revere the man, SASTRA University stepped in to maintain it as a heritage structure. In 2003, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam declared it an international monument.

Just as well, because Ramanujan’s home is today squeezed between Pandian Hotel on one side and a sanitaryware shop on the other; a hoarding of the shop rests partly on its roof. Very little of the original street exists, but for an old godown diagonally opposite his house called Vembu Ammal Mandapam, which is in a shambles, and of course the Sarangapani temple.

It is not difficult to imagine Ramanujan sitting on the thinnai outside, leaning against the pillars that are painted a bright blue today. There are many stories of how he sat there dreaming of numbers and formulae, scribbling them on his slate and, when too impatient to rub it clean, how he continued his calculations on the bare floor. A short passage from the thinnai leads to the inner entrance. One can’t help being moved entering the house with its low doors. It lies largely empty today, but for a cot and a bicycle parked inside. Maybe the family did not have many worldly possessions that could be preserved and displayed proudly. But there is a bust of Ramanujan in the hall, set there by the university. There is also a bedroom and a kitchen and a tiny backyard with a well. An ammi kal and a small aduppu sit in the otherwise empty kitchen, where no doubt Ramanujan’s mother Komalatammal and later wife Janakiammal spent a good part of their day, cooking and doing puja and sitting on the small thinnai right by the kitchen door cleaning rice in the bright daylight.

The main hallway has copies of some of Ramanujan’s letters and some of his work framed and hung up. ‘Some magic squares liked by Ramanujan’, ‘Fascinating patterns even in irrational numbers’, ‘Hardy Ramanujan Rademacher Series’, ‘Exquisite forms among powers of numbers’… are some of them. Then there are copies of postcards he wrote to various people, one of them from a sanatorium in England to Cambridge University, requesting an extension of date for his admission as he was unwell.

In the bedroom there is a framed copy of the house paper dated April 16, 1860. More of Ramanujan’s correspondence with Hardy and his mathematical calculations are displayed at a museum at the university building in Kumbakonam. According to a spokesperson, the university will hold a celebration between December 14 and 16 at which the winner of the Srinivasa Ramanujan award will be honoured. The award of 10,000 US dollars is granted to mathematics scholars for exemplary work done before the age of 32, the age at which Ramanujan died.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 1:35:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/the-nostalgia-formula/article4013282.ece

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