Did Srinivasa Ramanujan fail in math?

Societies need myths to live by, and a mathematical genius failing in an exam is precisely the kind of myth that makes life alluring

Updated - July 28, 2014 02:13 am IST

Published - July 28, 2014 02:08 am IST

Illustration: R Rajesh

Illustration: R Rajesh

How did Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), the mathematical genius, fare in his Intermediate examinations? Did he fail in mathematics? Or did he score a centum? Conflicting assertions float. Myths hover around geniuses and lend them an aura, and Ramanujan is no exception.

Interestingly, the myth originated even during the mathematician’s lifetime. The Madras Times of April 6, 1919,published a profile titled ‘A Famous Madras Mathematician: Mr. S. Ramanujan, FRS’ on the occasion of his return to India from Cambridge. This contemporary sketch, notes for which the paper claimed were “chiefly collected from papers in the possession of the Madras Port Trust,” Ramanujan’s employer, stated that “In December 1907 … he appeared privately for the First Arts Examination and had the distinction of failing in all subjects, doubtless as a result of his illness.” (original emphasis)

>Read: The legacy of Srinivasa Ramanujan

C.P. Snow, the young friend of Ramanujan’s primary benefactor and mentor G.H. Hardy, in his preface to Hardy’s remarkable memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology , remarks that “Hardy did not forget that he was in the presence of a genius: but genius that was, even in mathematics, almost untrained. Ramanujan had not been able to enter Madras University because he could not matriculate in English.” Here we find a new confusion cropping up in the form of mixing up Matriculation and Intermediate examination. (The Intermediate course consisted of two years of study in a college after completion of schooling culminating in Matriculation; this would be followed by two years of study leading to the undergraduate degree of B.A. The intermediate course was also called the First Examination in Arts or F.A.)

In the same year (1967) that Snow penned his foreword, S.R. Ranganathan, better known as the father of library science in India, published Ramanujan’s biography. Ranganathan, who began his career as a mathematics teacher and was a near contemporary of Ramanujan, mentions that in 1922, i.e. within a few years of Ramanujan’s death, statistical methods first came to be prescribed by the University of Madras as a special subject in the honours course for mathematics. Ranganathan decided to apply statistical methods to some educational problems and studied the marking system in the University of Madras for which he consulted mark-books of Intermediate examinations of earlier years. Ranganathan states that he found Ramanujan’s mark in one of those volumes and saw that he had “really scored a very high percentage of marks in mathematics. His failure was due to poor marks in the other subjects. This is the true story.”

>Robert Kanigel in his authoritative biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity , states that he appeared for the Intermediate examinations four times and failed in all of them. “Except for math he did poorly in all his subjects. … He’d take the three-hour math exam and finish it in thirty minutes.” T.V. Rangaswami’s Tamil biography (‘Ragami’) on which Kanigel’s account of Ramanujan’s early life is largely based, states that he sat for the F.A. examination three times and failed. Ragami however adds that in his last attempt, in 1907, he got a hundred out of hundred in mathematics.

A recent docu-novel based on extensive research, David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (2007) underlines his repeated failures in examinations, a point reiterated by the Ramanujan Museum’s website: “Appeared privately for F.A. examination, secured centum in mathematics, but failed to secure pass marks in other subjects.”

>Read: A new app pays tribute to Srinivasa Ramanujan

Why do we have such conflicting statements veering from failure to complete success? As Ashis Nandy notes, “a popular Indian myth would have it … he failed in mathematics.” Both versions mythify the genius born under colonial rule. If he failed, then colonialism was at fault as it could not measure a native genius. Apparently the denouement of the drama of Ramanujan’s life, the crowning glory of international recognition would be perfect only if his failure in the university examination was complete. And if, on the other hand, he scored a centum it could be argued that the native had beaten a system devised by the coloniser. Either way, the nationalist myth-maker won.

Despite his distance from politics, Ramanujan had to carry the burden of an incipient nation. P.V. Seshu Iyer, a figure of some standing in the contemporary world of mathematics who encouraged Ramanujan, was to write in 1917:

“The age we are living in has been one of many great national upheavals. We are to-day claiming for the wider recognition of our powers, active and dormant. Politically we are issuing into a united nationhood and materially we hope soon to be abreast of the more civilised countries of the world. Intellectually too, our literary and scientific achievement has not been behind hand but has been receiving world-wide recognition. The poet went out, sang and was honoured with a prize and a knighthood. The scientist struck famous academies of Europe and America in tremulous wonder and Mr S. Ramanujam is in a fair way to do a similar thing for mathematics.”

We find here, the burden that Tagore and J.C. Bose bore being shifted to Ramanujan’s young shoulders. The myth of Ramanujan’s failure in the math examination has much to do with this nationalist burden.

Myth apart, the questions remain. Did Ramanujan really fail in Mathematics? How much did he score? What papers did he sit for? Twenty-five years ago, through sheer serendipity I stumbled upon a file in the Tamil Nadu Archives at Chennai that had a copy of the lost marksheet. My finding was published in the Economic and Political Weekly (13 February 1988) as a short essay under the title ‘Colonial Education, Bureaucracy and a Genius’. Unfortunately this important discovery did not receive the attention of Ramanujan scholars. I therefore re-present the finding in the context of a renewed interest in Ramanujan’s life and the release of his bio-pic.

In 1916 the Cambridge University conferred on S. Ramanujan, the B.A. degree ‘by research’. Small honour this, considering those that were to be bestowed on him in later years and of course, posthumously. As we know, The Royal Society elected Ramanujan fellow, and Trinity College, Cambridge, made him fellow, the first Indian to be so honoured, when he was only thirty. But it created a flutter in the bureaucratic circle of the then Government of Madras. From this flutter emerges Ramanujan’s marksheet.

It was a time when the Swadeshi movement had been crushed, and Annie Besant’s Home Rule movement was in the upswing in south India. In a few months’ time the Home Rule movement would see its apogee with the punitive internment of Annie Besant in Ootacamund. With hardly anybody to challenge it as the mouthpiece of an organised nationalist movement, its daily, New India (25 April 1917), needled the colonial government with Ramanujan’s failure in the Intermediate examinations as a pretext.

"We are glad to announce that the Cambridge University has conferred the B.A. degree on S. Ramanujan. We are not surprised at the well-deserved recognition conferred on him. What if he had to remain a failed F.A. of the Madras University? But the fault will certainly not be Ramanujan’s; the discredit will not attach to him. The Madras University experts did not think him worthy of their F.A. Examination … "

This taunt evidently stung. The Government of Madras swung into action and asked the Registrar of Madras University to report on Ramanujan’s alleged failure in the F.A. Examinations. Francis Dewsbury, the then Registrar, replied from his summer office at Ootacamund:

“The office records show that S. Ramanujan appeared for and failed at the F.A. Examinations of 1907, after private study, four years after passing the matriculation examinations of 1903. His record is:

In all probability he absented himself from the papers in physiology and history.”

Will this archival fact slay the myth of Ramanujan’s failure? Unlikely. Human societies need myths to live by, and a mathematical genius failing in an exam is precisely the kind of myth that makes life alluring. Perhaps it’s a shame to dispel such myths!

(A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer. chalapathy@mids.ac.in)

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