This wasn’t Joshua’s first brush with Ramanujan. Nor was it Lakshman’s. They were picking up the threads from where they’d left off back in the Eighties. Ramanujan was an enduring inspiration to Joshua just as he was to scientists and mathematicians around the world.
With his birth centenary in the offing, the mid-Eighties saw a remarkable surge of interest in him. The centenary celebrations also brought into the limelight his widow Mrs Janaki Ammal who was living with her adopted son in Madras. She was approached for interviews by scribes as well as students and teachers interested in first-hand information about Ramanujan and in uncovering any unknown facets of his eventful life.
Joshua too had visited her house in Triplicane during one of his trips to India and held a long interview with her. Lakshman had personally taken care of the arrangements and accompanied him during the meeting. Age was catching up with Janaki Ammal, and her hearing too was failing. Though she had learnt English while living with her brother’s family in Bombay after Ramanujan’s death, Joshua’s accent made it harder for her and she found it easier to converse in Tamil. So Lakshman’s presence proved very helpful for Joshua. He assumed the role of the interpreter and helped translate the audio-recording and bring out a transcript in English.
Now, years later, they printed out the transcript and sat browsing through them, the fan squeaking above and the dusk birds trilling on the trees.
“We got married in 1909. I was ten years old. In those days girls used to be married when they were seven years old.
“When he was studying only in school, he would be teaching college students in town.
"His schoolteachers used to like him a lot. He would help his school headmaster with writing timetables.
“Mathematics was his life-breath. He could never be seen without a slate and pencil in hand. He will be always working without food or sleep.
“He was very fond of theru koothu (street play). He would go to watch the show wherever it was held, even if it was very late in the night.
“Many people in Kumbakonam used to know him. Someone or the other would always come looking for him. If they ask him to give tuitions to children, he would help them. If they ask him how to go on a pilgrimage, he would help also.
“He used to regret not taking me with him to England. After he came back with the disease, he would say that if I had been able to go and take care of him he would not have fallen sick. He used to say this again and again.
“More people know about my husband now in foreign countries than in India. As his centenary is approaching, many people are doing research about his life. So many people are coming and seeing me.
“In this country of sculptures and statues there is not a single statue of my husband. They were saying for years they would erect one. But it was the foreigners who finally made one and gave it to me.
“We lived in Kumbakonam for many years. But Namakkal Namagiri Thayar (Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi in the Namakkal temple) is our family deity. He saw that Goddess in mathematics. Today children who are weak in mathematics are asked pray to that Goddess for blessings.
“He used to say whether I live or die, my mathematics would feed you. It really happened. Many people are giving me a pension in his name.”
Kumbakonam, here we come! thought Lakshman.
“This is it,” Ranga Bashyam pointed at the nondescript building nestling among shops. He climbed up the steps and started working the lock, trying each key in the unwieldy bunch.
Lakshman and Joshua stood on the street and quietly ran their eyes around.
The house remained more or less true to the old pictures Lakshman had seen: a modest, old-fashioned agraharam row-house with alternating stripes of white and red – lime and red-earth – decorating the plinth. The curvy oil-lamp niches in the walls was sufficient proof that the house predated the advent of electricity.
Ranga Bashyam managed to coax the lock open and called out: “Please come in, sir.”
A strange feeling welled up inside Lakshman. He couldn’t imagine how somebody who grew up in such meagre circumstances and lived for just thirty-two years managed to leave such an extraordinary legacy lasting a century. For once the word “fabulous” seemed like a grossly inadequate understatement. The humble house that stood in front of him suddenly seemed holier than the hundred temples in Kumbakonam. He took off his shoes reverently and climbed up the steps in his socks.
Though vacant, someone on the street had been caring for the house this Margali. Several florid rice flour kolams bordered with a ribbon-like band of red earth decorated the front yard. Lakshman skirted past them gingerly. Joshua too took the cue and followed him cautiously.
“This is the childhood home of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the greatest Indian mathematician of the twentieth century. This is the very roof under which he discovered hundreds and hundreds of theorems as a young boy,” Ranga Bashyam announced.
The place was no different from any other house in a small town or village even on the inside. It stood on the strength of wood, brick and lime with no hint of steel or concrete. An open courtyard – mutram – funnelled sunlight and fresh air into the living area. There wasn’t much furniture to be seen in the living area except for two gaudily painted folding chairs, clearly a more recent addition to the house along with electric lights and ceiling fans.
Lakshman circled the main room and courtyard, but he couldn’t find any trace of Ramanujan however hard he looked. The house had been left unoccupied for quite some time and the musty, woody odour that characterised such old provincial homes was even more pronounced here. The scent brought back memories of his childhood home near Trichy.
The bedroom was to the left of the main entrance; it had a barred window overlooking the street. Lakshman went in after Ranga Bashyam, Joshua following close behind, his hat clutched in hand.
An antique-looking wooden cot lay in front of the window taking up much of the bedroom space.
“This cot . . .?” Lakshman said tentatively.
“Ramanujan’s!” Ranga Bashyam said. “He used to sit on it in front of the window and do maths all day long. My grandfather has seen him with his own eyes. He used to know him well.”
“Yes sir! The whole street was like one big family in those days. Everybody knew everybody else very well. Believe it or not, my grandfather spent days searching for him when he ran away from home.”
Lakshman and Joshua spun around and took stock of the bedroom. Except for the cot near the window and a bookshelf recessed in the wall, there was nothing else in there.
“Aren’t you going to take photos?” Ranga Bashyam asked, his eyes trained on the camera Joshua had strapped on his beltline. “The other foreigner took pictures everywhere.”
Lakshman became alert instantly. “He took photos?”
“Yes sir. He didn’t just stop with photos. He and that Narasimhan fellow even went out and started taking apart the thatches on the roof.”
“What!” Lakshman gasped.
“Yes sir. When I warned them there could be scorpions there, they brought a cricket stump from somewhere and began poking and probing with it. Kept sticking the stump up all over the roof like maniacs.”
“Did they find anything?” Lakshman asked.
“No sir. They even turned this cot upside down, but nothing much,” Ranga Bashyam said. “But that professor fellow took a lot of photos. Didn’t even spare this empty bookshelf.”
The old man unhooked the wooden door and flung the recessed bookshelf open. “I don’t know what is there to photograph here but he just kept clicking.”
The bookshelf was empty with long rows of black ants crawling up the back wall. But there was something about its unvarnished wooden door, its inner side…
Lakshman and Joshua couldn’t see what it was exactly from where they stood. With hearts pounding faster and blood rushing to their faces, they homed in on it in two strides like two cheetahs converging upon the same prey.
It was an old, sepia-tinted oilpaper map of India, squarish in shape, almost as big as the wooden door. All four of its corners were frayed – someone had tried to peel it off the door but failed. The contours and outlines of the map had become pale with time; the labels were all reduced to illegible smudges. But the ragged lines of major rivers had survived, especially in the north. Sharp streaks of grey – pencil marks, probably – were visible in some places, concentrating heavily in the south.
Lakshman took his eyes off the map and said with a sly wink, “Josh, why don’t we take some pictures?”
Joshua gave a knowing nod and whipped out his digital camera.
Excerpted with permission from The Steradian Trail: Book#0 of the Infinity Cycle, MN Krish, Westland.