Biographers aren’t supposed to have histories. They illuminate the lives of people they write about, much like translators making sense in world assemblies where world leaders hold forth in different tongues. Staying silently in the shadows, not hogging the limelight.
So when Robert Kanigel, the biographer of ‘The man who knew infinity’ stepped up to the lectern in Chennai, it was as if the shadow had moved to center stage. A century after Ramanujan was born in 1887, Kanigel made his own journey to Chennai to research Ramanujan’s life. He described the sense of bewilderment he felt having walked out of the railway station and being surrounded by a group of aggressive auto rickshaw drivers. The one he finally chose led him to an auto where a passenger was already in the seat. Kanigel, a naturally shy man, found his tongue loosened by the trip and the strange experience of the unfamiliar. He babbled to his co-passenger about arriving in India to research a book on Ramanujan and the trips he planned to make to places he could not even pronounce. It turned out that the passenger was the grandson of Vishwanatha Iyer – who was instrumental in getting Ramanujan a job at the Port Trust! The statistical possibility of such an event happening would be so low as to be impossible. And Kanigel, an avowed sceptic admitted that there was more to it than he could explain
This set the tone for a trip through Ramanujan’s early life in India where he got a much closer look, thanks to the happenstance at the station. When the book was published in 1991, it went on to become a bestseller, and translations in German, Spanish and Greek followed. But the Tamil translation, into Ramanujan’s native tongue is still in progress. There was a flurry of questions at the end of the oration where the small but vocal audience asked Kanigel questions like ‘Was Ramanujan a sad man at the time of his death?” And Kanigel’s response was that he did not think that Ramanujan was a particularly introspective man. Even through his last days, he did as much work as his health would permit. He drew out the ‘Everyman’ trait of his genius where he spoke of Ramanujan’s hunger to be recognised among his peers, even to be considered a notch above them. In expanding on whether Hardy, the person who discovered the depth of his work was a good friend, he emphasised that Hardy’s role as a taskmaster may have actually helped in getting Ramanujan to work harder rather than the warm glow of friendship.
But this was a night of coincidences. This talk was the prelude to the 125th anniversary of the mathematical wizard. Earlier in the day, the Prime Minister of India had declared 2012 as the National Mathematical Year and Dec 22nd, Ramanujan’s birthday as National Mathematics Day. But the strangest coincidence of all was that the venue, Lady Andal auditorium was directly opposite the house – ‘Gometra’ where Ramanujan breathed his last in Chennai at the age of 32. In a way, the circle of life was complete. It was as if the man who knew infinity had managed to start exactly at the point where his life ended.