Book Review of The Indian Clerk

My tribute to the great mathematician S. Ramanujan on his birthday, 22 Dec, National Mathematics day in India .
The Indian clerk by David Levitt is a novel (published in 2008), based on life of S.Ramanujan the renowned Indian mathematician. The tome is a highly engrossing narrative of lyrical prose that alternates between frames of imaginative lectures by GH Hardy, himself a brilliant English mathematician of the last century, and a third person fictional drama based on true events in England in the backdrop of World War-1.

The novel begins with an innocuous letter from an uneducated Indian clerk that Hardy received in early 1913.  His first reaction was to ignore and possibly let it burn in a fire this one in many such letters that came his way but had a change of heart on closer examination of the scribblings on stained pages of the letter.  The originality of the mathematical works on the pages that appeared to hold promise of solving some of the most unsolved mathematical problems of all times, set him on a path that led to coaxing the English authorities to bring the Indian to Cambridge,  become his close associate, mentor and collaborator of the most brilliant mathematical works of the time.

Once, as an answer to the question, as to what he would consider his best contribution to the field of Mathematics, GH Hardy famously quoted Ramanujan’s discovery as his best work.

The remarkable research that spans four years of Ramanujan’s stay in London at Trinity College Cambridge also dwells on lives of people around Hardy in Trinity College Campus, their gay relationships, Hardy’s own private life and his sister’s, and that of his close work associate -Littlewood, and working of a secret society that they all belonged to during the War. Also featured in the book are other famous personalities of the time including Bertrand Russell and D.H.Lawrence. As a first- time reader of Ramanujan’s life story, eager to know more about life details of the math genius, his inspiration and perspiration for math, I felt little disappointed with the narrative often veering off from the main subject of the book. However, I do see now, the author’s objective in bringing out these details. For a reader the explicit detail helps to put in perspective the life of the young Indian, belonging to an orthodox Hindu family, married and vegetarian in a foreign land.  

While trying to get his ideas through and a recognition for himself in the English territory where racial discrimination wasn’t an unknown word, there was an undercurrent of softer, human side of the society which helped Ramanujan overcome his adjustment problems be it food, etiquette or weather. Other than Indian community comprising of students and professionals, there was an astonishing amount of affection for him displayed by Alice Neville wife of Eric Neville, and other English colleagues and womenfolk who went to the extent of even learning south Indian vegetarian cooking to make him comfortable.  

The two years though were tough living away from his young wife in India, but it was time well spent in Cambridge under Hardy who drilled in him the importance of having proofs for any hypothesis; it resulted in publication of papers, in collaboration, in leading mathematics journals. The highly composite numbers, partition formulae, mock theta functions and many others were his ground-breaking work which continues to baffle and inspire mathematicians for further work even today.

Life took an unexpected turn when Ramanujan developed a chronic dull pain in his stomach which was first diagnosed as cancer and later rejected and understood as TB which made him leave Cambridge and  spend nearly a year in Sanatorium and a private hospital and his work on Reimann hypothesis remains unfinished.

Reading the book my heart filled with pride for this brilliant mathematician who brought so many laurels for himself and for his country and has evinced interest among the western writers to research on his life story but  finished the book in tears as the life of a rare genius was cut short, at the the very young age of 32, by cruel game of destiny. 

I highly recommend the book to know about the legendary math genius. One must also watch  ‘The man who knew infinity’ to know his life story,

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