by Hartosh Singh Bal
Over the past month there have been two separate reasons to return to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The first was the result of an astounding piece of mathematics by Ken Ono and his colleagues on the theory of partitions, bringing to a conclusion some of Ramanujan’s most interesting work in number theory. The second was thanks to Patrick French’s recent book – India, a portrait – which ends with a short two page biography of Ramanujan. The first Ramanujan is of course the Ramanujan who should matter, the mathematician, the second is unfortunately the Ramanujan who has come to occupy public memory, the metaphor.
It is not clear what French’s Ramanujan stands for in a chapter that seeks to explain the specifics of individual, social and organizational behavior on the basis of particular Indian traits such as religion or caste, but given the title of the chapter – Only in India – it does seem that French believes there was something particularly Indian about Ramanujan’s story.
This belief is not unique to French and has only been compounded by Ramanujan’s own description of the Goddess of Namagiri as the source of his inspiration. The result is that Ramanujan has come to embody certain romantic notion of eastern or more specifically Indian thought. Even those who want to allude to Ramanujan the mathematician do so in such terms. Paul Hoffman, in an otherwise entertaining book on the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – The Man who Loved Only Numbers – writes, “While Hardy and Ramanujan’s partnership lasted, the two men stood the world of pure mathematics on its head. It was East meets West, mysticism meets formality, and the combination was unstoppable.”
Ramanujan’s otherwise excellent biographer Robert Kanigel devotes the entire first chapter of the book – The Man who Knew Infinity – to Ramanujan’s religious and social upbringing. However important this may have been to Ramanujan the man, the claim that it is central to Ramanujan the mathematician does not stand up to scrutiny. Ramanujan did not learn his mathematics in a temple. By the time he went to school only a few of the traditional Vedic schools still functioned. They had been largely replaced by schools teaching a curriculum based on European science.