Ramanujan - The Hindoo Calculator

High above, the plane had taken off from Vegas, rising over the arid Nevada deserts, headed for Raleigh, North Carolina. The desert was opening out with hues of red and brown, deep chasms or canyons splitting the empty terrain as though enormous forces had ripped the surface apart. My eyes were becoming heavy lidded, and I dozed off. 15 minutes later I was awake, the lady beside me was chatting with the aisle seat occupant. I looked at them in curiosity. A cultured black man, a Chinese girl and at the window seat the Indian me. For a moment, I curiously thought, would this be a first time? Who knows??? The Chinese girl was uncharacteristically talkative and asking various questions to the person beside me. Seeing me awake, she changed targets and took me on saying in heavily accented English, you missed the drink order…now don’t forget to ask for your snacks…wow! I thought what a forthright girl? Then she got on to the other person asking how the various words on the peanut and cracker packets were pronounced and the man was patiently explaining it all to her. She said groundnuts, the guy said, ‘in America we say peanuts’. She said biscuit and he corrected, no it is crackers…

I opened the book The Indian Clerk – By David Leavitt that I had picked up the other day from the library, as usual the name beckoned to me from the good reads section and I had grabbed it. Thus started a 7 hour non stop quest, at discovering another enigma from our part of the Eastern world, the great Srinivasa Ramanujan – called the Hindoo calculator. The book turned out to be a relatively heavy novel, if it can be called so, as it is more than just another biography of the person. It also covered the lives of many other luminaries around him during his 5 years in Cambridge - Trinity College in the UK. If I say that the book is written by an American who teaches in Florida, you would wonder a bit, especially when an American writes lucidly about the life in Cambridge between those 5 years, in language decidedly British English. I for one was awed. The book was a fascinating study of the genius of Ramanujan – whom the British press, called Hindoo calculator and his contemporaries GH Hardy, Littlewood, Lawrence, JM Keynes, GE Moore, Bertrand Russel called the greatest living mathematician.

The book was good and difficult in parts, but engaging. While I found the chapters of gay relationships of various dons at the college and some of the general outlook of certain characters tedious, I must admit that I would not have gleaned this much about Ramanujan had I not read the book. The characters are fascinating, so also the chapters detailing Ramanujan cooking rasam & Sambar in his college room and the lengths he goes to get the lentils, ghee and tamarind to get it right (no mention of Hing though!! Such details would certainly have escaped a writer from Florida who also makes mistakes like calling a rickshawallah Govindran). Most definitely, I would not have known of this genius’s failings, like taking a whole year to figure out that you get in between sheets to sleep tight in the West, rather than on it and don sweaters to keep out the cold. Alice Neville’s affection for him is semi fictional, but his family relations like his teen wife, his domineering mother and reluctant father are interestingly characterized.

While most people believe that Raman died of TB, it is alluded in the book that he died of lead poisoning from the lead lined brass bowl he had brought from India and its reaction with tamarind…But I have subsequently read that it could also have been hepatic amoebiosis, something that could have been cured…Anyway the young genius died at the age of 32, something that he always knew would happen and something, it appears, his mother blamed on the ‘tailored or fudged’ horoscope of the young Janaki he married as a child.

But Ramanujan is a fascinating person and for the uninitiated, this book takes you into the western study of an oriental. From my experience, most British academics are a bit leery of Indian academic credentials & originality in thought; but this book tells me that they had great respect for intellect and that there were many Indians studying in Cambridge those days. Leavitt the author has done extensive research and is himself a person who has a fair share of critics and support…I thought it exhausting prose, and as such this book is recommended for an academic, not a casual reader. His understanding of the Indian mind is a bit shallow, especially the thought processes and the inter dependences, connections etc with family and others. And, let me warn you there are decent doses of mathematics equations and so on…But I am thankful of course for laying my hands on this book, for now I know quite a lot about the great mathematician Ramanujan.

So who is Srinivasa Ramanujan?

The man who knew infinity, people may say!!

Born 1887, Erode in TN, he excelled only in mathematics during his school days, winning awards and scholarships. In 1912, he finally obtained employment at the Madras Port trust earning Rs 30/- per month!! It was in 1913, that he sent samples of his work for potential publication to GH Hardy, a renowned mathematician and Don at Cambridge. Initially leery of crossing the Kala pani, Ramanujan finally did it in 1914 and settled at Trinity College Cambridge to research math for a tumultuous period of just 4 years whence he produced work of such magnificence that he would certainly have been of Nobel Prize class. He was the first fellow of Indian origin in Cambridge and obtained his BA (later upgraded to PhD), FRS and what not during those few days. Unfortunately illness overtook him in 1917 and for two years, he suffered in various sanatoriums being treated for TB and cancer. It was during this period that he attempted suicide in London. One thing he and Hardy worked hard on but could not complete was the solution to the Reimman hypothesis,

Janaki Ammal, his wife since betrothal from age 9, and who never lived an adult life with him, save a few days, died in 1994 after accepting a final award from prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. She raised a neighbor’s son at Bombay, named W Narayanan, after Raman’s death. Those interested in knowing her life may refer this document.

It was early in 1911 that he went to the Indian mathematical society looking for a Job. Ramachandra Rao recounts - A short uncouth figure, stout, unshaven, not over clean, with one conspicuous feature-shining eyes - walked in with a frayed notebook under his arm. He was miserably poor. ... He opened his book and began to explain some of his discoveries. I saw quite at once that there was something out of the way; but my knowledge did not permit me to judge whether he talked sense or nonsense. ... I asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted a pittance to live on so that he might pursue his researches.

Godfrey Harold Hardy went on to claim that his greatest contribution to mathematics was discovering Ramanujan. G. H. Hardy's personal ratings of mathematicians state the following. Suppose that we rate mathematicians on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, Hardy gave himself a score of 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80 and Ramanujan 100.'"

Ramanujan died at Kumbhakonam in April 1920, one year after returning to India, and even three days before the event, he was busy scribbling in his note books – equations and theorems, with all the results but never as he was wont to do, the proof. Such was his genius that even today experts are studying his jottings for a better understanding of complex numbers. Picture this extract from Kanigels bio - Ramanujan used a slate for working out his mind-boggling results and began entering the concise results themselves in notebooks. These notebooks have nothing short of a cult status in mathematical circles. "When he thought hard, his face scrunched up, his eyes narrowed into a squint. When he figured something out, he sometimes seemed to talk to himself, smile, shake his head with pleasure. When he made a mistake, too impatient to lay down his slate-pencil, he twisted his forearm towards his body in a single fluid motion and used his elbow, now aimed at the slate, as an eraser..."

Ramanujan’s favorite vegetable was Lady’s finger…one that supposedly makes us brainy! One section of the book details Ramanujan cooking a dinner for his Indian friends. When his friend’s fiancĂ©e refuses a third helping of his handmade Rasam and rice, Ramu gets upset and walks away from the room, taking a trip to Oxford. He returns only after four days after he manages to get train fare from Hardy!! It was probably his Rasam cooking that popularized Mulligu Thanny or Mulalagtwany soup in UK…who knows?

‘The Indian clerk’ also details the efforts of a friend who’s ship was captured by the Germans and it is only months later that he reaches Britain. Ramanujan asks him, did you bring it? Yes, indeed, the Tamarind from India for his Rasam has arrived, safe…In 1917-18, however, he had no choice but to eat eggs on doctors advice, though just a year back he ran away from the hostel he was in when the landlady served him ‘Ovaltine’ where eggs are listed as one the constituents on the label…

For Ramanujan, Zero represented absolute reality!! He was also maddeningly stubborn and fatalistic. When on his deathbed, a doctor suggested he go to Tanjavur for further treatment, he refused, punning instead that – “He wants me to go to Than (My) – Savoor (City of Death).

The book is done and dusted, the plane has landed, now starts my working week in Raleigh….The Chinese lady whose feet were upon the seat dropped them down and rushed out…The black man rolled his eyes…I am back in the land of the living….

Think about this quote by Ramanujan - An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.

Those who would like to study the genius may refer to –

Ramanujan: Essays and Surveys - By Bruce C. Berndt, Robert Alexander Rankin
Collected Papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan, By Srinivasa Ramanujan
A Hindu article
Ramanujan Bio


Sunita said…
Hi! I wandered here from Abraham Thrakan's blog and somehow got lost here. Absolutely delightful posts! I've already spent more time here than I thought I would / should (hmm... we'll have to order dinner out tonight, I think ) and I keep coming across one post more read-worthy than the next.
Your blog is definitely going to keep me busy for some time.
I loved the post on Mark Twain. I always did have a soft spot for him! And I agree so wholeheartedly with his comments on the incomprehensibile nature of Indians!
Indrani said…
"Great read" - Ideal label for the post.

I didn't know eating lady's finger, makes a person brainy.
Maddy said…
A mail from a sharp reader prompted me to add this comment about the Eeyam poosiya vessel used by Ramanujan to cook Rasam and being the vessel attributed to his death in this book.

People often think the vessels which are called Eeyam, in which you typically make Rasam contains lead or is lead Actually, the vessels which are called Eeyam are actually Velleeyam which is an alloy of Tin and Aluminum. There is no lead in that, Although Eeyam means lead.
Thanks to vandanaskitchen.blogspot.com

However in later years unscrupulous craftsmen did use lead instead of the tin alloy for coating vessels.

One of the reasons why Leavitt could have come to this conclusion is the unexplained madness that prompted Ramanujan to try & throw himself at an oncoming train during his last days in the UK. This could have been considered an effect of lead poisoning!
ER Ramachandran said…
Thanks for a wonderful article.

I had read this interesting episode.Maddy, Please let me know if it is in the book.

Once, when Ramanujan was sick,Hardy came to see him in the hospital.Ramanujan saw the number of the car - 1729- and told Hardy in a flash:

'This is a unique number.It can be expressed as cubes of a number in two ways.

10 Cube+ 9 cube = 1000+729

12 cube +1 cube = 1728+1

That was the genius Ramanujan, whom we lost when he was so young.

Maddy said…
Thanks ERR - You got me there. No I am not sure it is mentioned in the book though I read about the 1729 incident at many other places. I think it was a fictional account between the two chaps.
harimohan said…
once again maddy an absorbing post of a genius whom we didnt know much about
shouldnt our textbooks for schools contain stories of such giants who were indians
but look at what is hapepning one party trying to brainwashing children with thier ideology and other one making a storm in a tea cup efffectively spoiling thier education !
Maddy, great post as usual. There were quite a few facts in the post I didn't know (eg. his PhD.)

Btw, okra's my favorite vegetable too, but my grasp of calculus is a lot less facile. ;-)
Wonderful write up, Maddy. One feels so sad on learning about the penury and the consequent indignation great geniuses like Ramanujan may have felt in their lives.
L V Nagarajan said…
Only recently I read a biography on Ramanujan, "The Man Who Knew Infinity". It was amazing and poignant at the same time. In this book the incident about number 1729 is mentioned. Apprently, Hardy told that this a very colour less number and Ramanujam immediately replied giving the interesting feature of the number
Some of the problems mentioned in the book, revved up my aging mind. I tried to prove one of his equations and succeeded. I am sure this being one of the simpler equations of Ramanujan many would have solved it during the last century itself. Still I feel elated that I was able to share a very small part of his genious. Ofcourse I had a formal education upto master's level in engineering in one of the IITs. If only we had IITs in those days ........?
If interested you may see these two proofs for Ramanujan's equation, one of which I call as Derivation, in my blog http://lvnaga.wordpress.com/category/Mathematics/.
Happy to be associated with great minds of India,
regards to all,
L V Nagarajan
Maddy said…
Thanks Sunita - you made my day...There are many to read and many more to come, so keep visiting!!

This ladys finger & brain power thing is something we heard from young days, i have heard many elders say it.. Indrani!

thanks Hari & BPSK - hey BPSK, okra - bhendi wil help you calculate, but not with the calculus, this stage!

Thanks Ramachandran and Nagarajan - Yes, I will check out your blog for the derivations!! Ramanujan was famous for solving equations, but not writing out the steps!! But then, some of the greatest mathematicians were born geniuses, with poor education!!Maybe an IIT would have controlled their wild minds that went into uncharted waters and we would not have got a genius!!
Maddy said…
All - I will be in India for some days, on a much needed holiday - so please bear with me until I am back...
Praveen G K said…
Superb article!!! I have always been a big fan of Ramanujan, the undoubted genius in Maths. I also had the pleasure of reading the book, The man who knew infinity, by Robert Kanigel, and that was fabulous. A once in a lifetime Mathematician!!!!
Karthik said…
Nice Post! It is interesting to note that while Ramanujan was a deeply religious person, his mentor, Hardy, was an athiest.

And I don't agree that an IIT could have helped him in his research in any way. Maybe a quick access to leading professors in UK, yes. Ramanujan was far above 'great' mathematicians and only a person like Hardy could have guided him.

Even Hardy mentioned that a lot of time was lost because Ramanujan was deriving many equations which already existed.

But, anyway, he was a superlative mathematician second maybe only to Euler!
Maddy said…
Praveen and Karthik - thanks for your comments. Ramanujan was an interesting person, certainly quirky..but well who i snot one?
Anonymous said…
Don't be silly Kiara. You made a great impact with your text, greater than you possibly think. About the series ...
Kamini said…
I don't know I missed this piece of yours - very enjoyable as always, thanks for pointing me to it!
Have you read Robert Kanigel's book? Do read it if you haven't, it is really superb.
Srivalli said…
Very interesting to read Maddy. Will surely look upon to read more about Ramanujan now that I have read so much abt him from you and Kamini!
Maddy said…
thanks Kamini - I will try & find it one of these days..

thanks Srivalli..hope you enjoy reading more about Ramanujam. he was a complex person actually.