‘I think some people really are a few steps beyond where the rest of us live’

There is much more to Ramanujan than his mathematics, says Robert Kanigel.

Updated - August 02, 2016 09:22 am IST

Published - December 26, 2011 12:29 am IST

CHENNAI, 25/12/2011:  Robert Kanigel. Photo: V. Ganesan.

CHENNAI, 25/12/2011: Robert Kanigel. Photo: V. Ganesan.

Robert Kanigelis the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity (1991), the acclaimed biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Mr. Kanigel, a writer and journalist who has written several books and taught science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is currently in India on an invitation from the Indian Academy of Sciences to give lectures as part of the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Ramanujan. He will be honoured for his “superb biography” and his service to mathematics in India at the Inaugural Ceremony on December 26 in Chennai, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will declare 2012 to be the National Mathematics Year.

Ahead of the Chennai event, Mr. Kanigel spoke to Science CorrespondentR. Ramachandranin Mumbai about how he went about the research on, and writing about, the life of Ramanujan. Excerpts from the interview:

In the Preface, you have said the publisher suggested that you write about Ramanujan when you had not even heard of Ramanujan. What caught your fascination that propelled you to get into it and produce this book?

When the editor first approached my agent, and the agent approached me, my first reaction was that this was not going to work. I didn't know about [G. H.] Hardy. I had some background in mathematics, not a lot, but some. But I didn't close my mind to the idea. I started doing a little initial research at Johns Hopkins University. Then I got hold of a BBC documentary on Ramanujan. Until then I hadn't known anything about Hardy. And somehow in there, the idea of it being not only about Ramanujan but about the kind of tension between Ramanujan and Hardy — the friendship, the mentoring, and the relationship between two men working at the very highest levels — that attracted me more.

At that time, I knew very little about Ramanujan, about South Indian culture, about anything. But at that very early stage of my interest, it was that idea of friendship and collaboration at the very highest level that really intrigued me.

But you have dealt at length with the psychology of Ramanujan — the way his character was built, the temple town atmosphere in which he grew, his religiosity — as if to probe the psychology of the man to understand his mathematics, which seems to give an impression that his spiritual bent of mind had an impact on the kind of mathematics he did. Do you believe that?

No connection

I don't think that had an influence on the mathematics per se . None. Zero. What I tried to describe was the world from which Ramanujan came. If somebody wishes to try to trace a connection between any of that and the mathematics, they can try but I don't think they are going to get anywhere.

Nonetheless, if we try to understand his personality and his character, and the way he was in the world, we would want to know about his upbringing, about the religious influences, about South India and his relationship with his parents as best as we can. So I would deny any relationship between that and the mathematics itself. There is much more to Ramanujan than his mathematics. He is a human being.

What I meant was, for example, the book title itself, and your reference to the fact that he related zero and infinity to something divine and, for instance, your example of values that 2n – 1 took as an equation that Ramanujan talked of representing the thought of God…

Role of social ethos

That is one story, one anecdote. It is not me but some South Indians in the world that he grew up with who saw some direct connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. I am telling that story. I am giving it a place in the book. But that is different from saying that there is itself direct intimate connection between his religiosity and his mathematics. If you are writing a biography or reading a biography I think, it's a mistake to be too quick to make direct one-to-one correspondences between A and B . I think in something like a biography, you can't say that A caused B . You can say that it is one of the influences upon his personality, on his life, on his character.

Do we understand Ramanujan now or does he still remain mysterious?

I think he does. I think you could say the same thing about literature, the arts. What is the genius of Picasso? People will try to explain it in an easy way but I think they are unjustified in doing it. I think some people really are a few steps beyond where the rest of us live. We are forced to view those intellects, those artistic sensibilities, as a little bit mysterious or a little beyond what is the common realm.

There is a second aspect. There are many people out there, very smart, brilliant in some [areas], and they don't do anything with their lives. They are just stuck there. There are personal characteristics that propel people to do what they do, that is beyond the actual work that they are doing — a kind of an ambition, a kind of a drive, a kind of pushing force — “I am going to make something of myself and nothing is going to get in my way.” And I think that's part of an understanding of how a Picasso or a Ramanujan come into the world.

Did that push in his case come from...

…it came from his mother…a dynamic character.

Did you have a pre-conceived plan when you came down here to explore? Or did you let the information come to you as you went around and structured the book accordingly?

I had done a fair amount of reading before I came over here and I had spent two or three weeks, I think, in Cambridge. Basically I structured my time to go to the places which figured in Ramanujan's life. I did my best to observe something of Ramanujan's world by visiting those places, making allowances all the time that this was 1988 and Ramanujan had lived in the early years of the 20th century. So things change but I had to start somewhere and that was my approach to visiting those places he had visited.

Narrative non-fiction

Your description of places and events would almost seem as if you were there and met Ramanujan. For example, you describe how Ramanujan walked.

Other people had written about Ramanujan and there were stories. [S. R.] Ranganathan, [P. V.] Seshu Iyer, [R.] Ramachandra Rao, [E. H.]Neville, Hardy himself and there were other people. These people had taken little snippets of Ramanujan and I absorbed all these snippets and I tried to put them together. Always looking for areas where they agreed and areas where they didn't and tried to make sense of that. So I know how Ramanujan waddled down the street. I have been doing this for a long time. I have been a professional writer for 40 years and this is what I do for a living.

Trying to somehow create worlds out of disparate material and trying to make it vivid for my reader, all the while having respect for what is true and not going beyond that slippery line between non-fiction and fiction.

In that sense, The Man Who Knew Infinity is certainly different from other biographies that are dry accounts of life and events…

There has been a movement at least in the U.S. — I don't know whether it is so in India or elsewhere — for the last 30 years. It gets called new journalism, emerging journalism, or narrative non-fiction, all of which represents an attempt to move away from what you just described — boring, tedious, simple statement of facts — to blow true stories out of what we know from facts. I consider myself something like that, in that tradition.

Film option

Maybe that's why people are trying to turn your book into a film now. What's happening to that film proposal?

For six or seven years now a screenwriter has purchased something called an ‘option', where he has access to use my book and the title and the information there to make a film. He has written the screenplay through many versions, through many iterations, and the efforts of the last six years have been to secure financing. It's now very, very close to signing on the dotted line and my understanding is that the Indian actor, Madhavan, has agreed to play Ramanujan and the screenwriter and the producer, Edward Pressman, have been negotiating with possible financiers.

Hardy & Ramanujan

Before you get to Ramanujan's life in Cambridge, you devote a lot of pages to describing Hardy himself — his world, the Cambridge life, even the Apostles Society to which he belonged, and his personal life.

In some respects, I consider this almost a dual biography about Ramanujan and Hardy. Let's say you have other authors writing the biography. All of them would have included Hardy as a major character in the book. The question is how much. For me Hardy played such an important role that their chemistry, their tension, their friendship, their relationship played a central role mathematically and personally in Ramanujan's life. And I felt it was really important for the reader to come to understand Hardy as well as Ramanujan.

However, towards the end you do say that while Hardy was interested in the mathematics of Ramanujan, there was no emotional attachment between the two even as friendship — in the sense Hardy did not care so much personally, as a human being, for Ramanujan. He treated him more for his mathematics, as a kind of master, and Ramanujan wanted to obey him.

I agree with everything you said up until the end. I don't know about the ‘master' and ‘obey'. But Hardy's relationship with Ramanujan was a little bit problematic for me. I think it does come across in the book; and I think I was more explicit in that case than in some other areas.

As much as Hardy did for Ramanujan, and as good a person that he basically was — and he cared in his own way — nonetheless I don't think he was the best friend that Ramanujan could have had in England. Somebody emotionally more compatible might have been better for Ramanujan in those days.

Do you think this absence of a real friendship affected the mathematics he was producing there?

I don't know. Certainly we all have problematic relationships of one kind or another with our parents. A tension is in there. Some parents are more distant and separate and not involved and have very high expectations of their children. And the children, maybe they don't feel that close to their parents, but they respond to their expectations. I think it might have been a little bit like that between Ramanujan and Hardy. I am just making a vague connection, not a one-to-one. I don't think Hardy was the ideal friend that Ramanujan could have had. Maybe he was the ideal taskmaster to extract the mathematics out of him. I don't know.

But I think Ramanujan certainly felt he had to produce, at least he wanted to. And he [Hardy] was the man, in all of Europe maybe, that Ramanujan was closest to mathematically and it would be natural that he wanted to please him.

New approaches

Are there still some pieces in your story that remain unexplored for you to understand them better, together and individually?

Sometimes book reviews churn out phrases like ‘This is the definitive biography of…' I don't believe in that idea. I think there is always another approach to take, more research avenues to pursue, other directions, other things to look at, other aspects — just as when you take a photograph, by the very act of framing, you exclude other things that are not in your frame. It is like that in any kind of ambitious writing.

I expect that someday some other biographer will come around and take another approach to the story of Ramanujan and Hardy and bring new insights that are not there yet.

Did you come across other things you had missed, which could have lent a different perspective to the whole thing?

What was the fatal illness?

After the book came out, there was new theorising about what Ramanujan actually died from. That would have been interesting to bring to it. Other than that, I don't know myself whether new material has been brought to light. But I expect it will come to light.

You have written other biographies. How do you compare this effort with the others?

Every subject presents its own problems. In the case of Taylor [ The One Best Way: Frederick Winslaw Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency by Robert Kanigel], one of the problems was that he was not such a nice, friendly personality. He was a complicated character but there are plenty of resources about him.

In the case of Ramanujan, I was facing a three-part problem. India, England, and mathematics. Mathematics is hard, an American coming to India presents difficulties. It's all across a 75-year historical gap. And England too. People think that for an American, that should be easy. It's not. So all of these were part of the complications in writing this particular biography. But every biography presents its own problems. In the case of Ramanujan, what I wrote was the first western biography. Some people write biographies of Charles Dickens or Isaac Newton where 20 biographies have come before and their problem is to find something new to write. I didn't have that problem but I had these other problems. If you ask if it was a more difficult biography than the others, I wouldn't say so.

But would you say the barriers this presented were more challenging than the others?

I guess I will have to say that. The fact that the mathematics is so difficult. The fact of trying, obviously with not much success, of penetrating South Indian culture plus the English culture.

If you started out today, how different would this biography be?

That's a great question. Well, I will start with The Man Who Knew Infinity . Of course it will be different, no question about that. Twenty-five years have elapsed. I am a much older person. I might see things differently. Frankly, it depends in part on your financial resources, whether you can spend more time. I don't know. I would be interested in laying my hands on the letters that Neville might have written about Ramanujan to various people. I still think I would devote so much on Hardy. Berndt has made it his life's work and he has published several books in English that contain nothing more than some of this new material that he has located in English and some in Tamil about Ramanujan.

I would probably start with those new materials. I make a distinction in my own mind between the raw material and the final product itself. Some of that material is good raw material.

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