“The Man Who Knew Infinity” book review: Before the movie, read this.

by Mugdha Wagle on April 25, 2016

the man who knew infinity
Author: Richard Kanigel
Publisher: Westland Books
Year: 1992
ISBN: 9780349104522
Rating: ★★★★½
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The trailer for The Man Who Knew Infinity shows a slim, fair-skinned Ramanujan bidding a touching farewell to his young wife, then a suit-clad Ramanujan at the heel-end of kicks and blows from racist Englishmen. None of these things, according to the book The Man Who Knew Infinity, ever happened. Buy The Man Who Knew Infinity at the best price.

I’m not sure the movie is based entirely on the book of the same name. Nor can I, or anyone, know if the book itself is 100% accurate in depicting Ramanujan’s life – in any posthumous biography, there is bound to be a certain amount of speculation and guess-work involved.

But Richard Kanigel’s book – at 359 pages no metro read – does a good job of portraying Ramanujan, the man – and equally important, his times. The Man Who Knew Infinity lets us see its subject not only as an individual, but also as a product of, and both victim and triumph of, early 20th Century India and England.

What’s so good about it?

For one, it’s comprehensive. The amount of research that has gone into it is obviously quite large, yet the book is easy to read, even entertaining. Characters – Komalatammal (Ramanujan’s mother) , nurturing yet domineering, the biggest influence on her son’s life – Seshu Iyer, Narayan , Sir Francis Spring, well-wishers all, in equal parts awed and bemused by the genius in their midst – and of course, Janaki his 9-year-old child-bride, almost a non-entity before he leaves for England but a beloved helpmeet once he returns ill and dying. Then there’s Hardy, the man whose name is linked most with Ramanujan’s. Their relationship is similar to Graham Greene and R.K.Narayan’s (explored in Narayan’s autobiography, My Days). Hardy himself is a colourful, intriguing figure – cricket aficionado, firebrand atheist, fierce anti-war commentator, prolific and profound writer (A Mathematician’s Apology), a man who almost gave up Mathematics because of the rigid exam system that he later helped reform, a genius who was completely unenvious of genius in someone else – nay, who encouraged, supported and nurtured it until it bore luscious, abundant fruit.

Second, the book is a mind-blowing piece of social commentary. Even if you aren’t interested in Mathematics, or Ramanujan, you will be seduced by the descriptions in the book – pre-independence South India with its rigidly observed class and caste distinctions(and the author scrupulously differentiates between North and South India during the British Raj, declaring that “If the North (of India) was lik Europe during the Enlightenment, the South was, religiously, still rooted in the Middle Ages. If Bombay was known for commerce, and Calcutta for politics, Madras was the most single-mindedly religious.”), pre-World War I Britain, Winchester School and Cambridge university with their quirks and affectations that so befuddle foreigners, even a distant glimpse of America. A sidelight on platonic homosexual relationships among the academic cognoscenti. A page and a half on the difference between Vishnu-worshipping Brahmins and Shiva-worshipping ones. All about the horrendously difficult Tripos exam, with the highest-ranker accorded an absurd amount of respect for plodding diligently through the syllabus and not for showing initiative(remind you of something, dear Indian students?) The book leaves you with a profound sense of time and place, immersing you into the history of its setting.

The Mathematics isn’t neglected either. Kanigel ventures beyond the cute Hardy-Ramanujan number (1729, also called a taxicab number because of this story) and takes on Prime numbers, partition functions, Theta functions, and other concepts, leaving the reader with a sharp sense of wonder at the sheer romance there can be in numbers.

Perhaps most important of all is how Ramanujan is fleshed out – a three-dimensional figure. Genius, yes, of course – but also hungry for recognition while affecting to be modest, brought up to be a strict, rigid Brahmin (but who felt differently after his sojourn to the West? Or was that just wishful thinking on the atheistic Hardy’s part?) absurdly touchy about imagined slights (he once ran away from his house during a social dinner because two of his guests refused third helpings of the rasam he’d cooked), a lonely Indian struggling to survive the cold British climate and the cold British people, who certainly never went out of their way to drop their British reserve and welcome him socially. A man who attempted suicide once (Hardy persuaded the police not to press charges), a man who failed his final exams in school, a man who chose to starve rather than eat the tasteless vegetarian fare prepared for him by hospital matrons.

Ramanujan, as Kanigel points out, had a short but full life, one which can be all things to all people. Poor boy from India gets to live his dreams in the West. Indian genius bogged down by Western racism. Two geniuses, one a devout believer, the other an atheist, form the greatest partnership in Mathematics. The rigid Indian education system buried a genius so deep, it took a miracle for him to be discovered, and even that was perhaps too late. Being a genius doesn’t save you from personal problems like cat-fights among your womenfolk. Genius dies young – so much potential left untapped.

The book touches all these aspects, gives a fair assessment of divergent viewpoints, and leaves readers the freedom to decide for themselves.

What wasn’t so good?

Clearly the book has been written with American readers in mind. Descriptions such as “Tanjore… an area the size of the state of Delaware”, “natives” to describe Indians in Madras (no one calls Britishers ‘natives’ of England, have you noticed?), “Canarese” to describe one of the South Indian languages… all of this cannot fail to strike the Indian reader as strange. An Indian edition of the book, with such references purged, would be good to have.

It would also have been good for Ramanujan’s biography to have a few more pictures of him and his doings, esp. those of his letters and notebooks, so that a reader would get to see more of his work, read more of his own words. There is just one photograph of Ramanujan, one which the author himself admits isn’t what Ramanujan really looked like (he was ill at the time the picture was taken.) Why, even Hardy gets two photographs!

What’s the verdict?

Go watch the movie if you must – it’s sure to be at least as entertaining as The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind. But do read the book – you won’t regret it, and it’s likely to stay with you long after the popcorn is over. Buy The Man Who Knew Infinity at the best price.

Written by Mugdha Wagle

Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she’s reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!

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