Whenever someone called him a ‘genius’, Srinivasa Ramanujan used to show them his elbow. They were full of marks and small bruises. The mathematician grew up in poverty, having little money to buy even paper, and thus had to resort to using his elbow to wipe out the formulas he had penned on his slate.
Rajith Nair, heritage lover and founder of The Traveling Gecko, is narrating this story on a bright Sunday morning as part of a Madras Day special tour outside the Marina Light House, not far from Triplicane, where the mathematician lived.
But the story of the mathematician didn’t begin in Madras — it began in Kumbakonam, where he grew up. “He was always brilliant in studies — by fifth grade, he was the brightest student in the district, excelling in mathematics, English and History,” narrates Rajith. “At Kumbakonam Town High School, where he studied, the young boy tutored senior students and questioned even teachers in complicated mathematics theories.”
That students from other nearby towns came and stayed at his humble home, giving the family some rent, helped them not only financially but also gave Ramanujan more insight into the world of mathematics. One of these boarders once gave him a book on Trigonometry, which he mastered in no time. He was soon hooked on to another book, An Elementary Synopsis of Pure and Applied Mathematics, which had 5,000 theorems. “There was a catch though,” says Rajith, “The theorems didn’t have any proof, and it was up to the students to crack that. Ramanujan took to this like fish to water, spending many hours on it.” People believe that it was this book that triggered his genius.
Kumbakonam might have been his starting point in pursuing a life that revolved around numbers, but it was the big city of Madras that propelled him to greater fame. “The people in Pachaiyappas College, the Madras University and the Port Trust, and the philanthropists of Madras played an important role in opening new windows of opportunities for him,” says Rajith, mentioning names like V Ramaswamy Iyer, Ramachandra Rao, Seshu Iyer, Narayana Iyer and Sir Francis Spring as the people, who helped him a great deal and in ensuring that he went to England to expand his repertoire.
The personal side
Ramanujan was an extremely sensitive person — he once ran away from home to Visakhapatnam, only to return after a few months. Many years later, when he was in Cambridge, he did something similar. “He (Ramanujan) once invited a friend Gyanesh Chandra Chatterjee, his fiancée and a friend home for dinner,” narrates Rajith. “After having a couple of portions of the rasam soup, the fiancée and the friend were full and declined the next serving.”
In some time, the guests realised that Ramanujan was nowhere to be seen. He’d gone missing for four days after that incident; they later received a telegram: ‘Send me 5 pounds. I need money to come from Oxford to Cambridge.’ “He later told his friend that he was hurt that the guests declined the food he had made.”
Some of these stories would come alive even today if you were to visit the Ramanujan Museum at Royapuram, which houses not only a wonderful collection of letters and books but also some interesting photographs. “The first time I visited the museum, I was struck by the stories behind the many Madras personalities who’ve played a key role in Ramanujan’s life,” signs off Rajith.
Want to know more of the Math genius who made our city proud? Visit the Srinivasa Ramanujan Museum at 15/9, Somu Chetty, 4th Lane, Royapuram. For details, call 25960877.