THE INDIAN CLERK by David Leavitt. Bloomsbury USA: New York. September 2007. $24.95. 485 pages.d861db73fb4c580fa041976250108ac8-2

In 1913, G.H. Hardy, one of Britain’s preeminent mathematicians at Trinity College, Cambridge, received a strange package from India. This package contained page after page of curious mathematical scribbling that on first glance looked ill conceived; however, once Hardy studied the documents, he saw that these were the notes, calculations, and theorems of a genius. This genius, Hardy learned, was a poorly educated young man from Madras whose passion was mathematics. His name was Srinivasa Ramanujan. Hardy’s long-time personal quest was to prove the Reimann hypothesis—which to this day has not been verified—and Ramanujan seemed to be the person to help him. With the help of another colleague, Hardy successfully convinced Trinity College to bring Ramanujan to England and convinced Ramanujan that the trip would be his key to status as a legendary mathematician.

The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt was and was not what I expected. I’m not a mathematician, nor am I one who delights in the beauty of the logic of mathematics. I was, however, both drawn into and disappointed by this fictionalized telling of the relationship between one of Britain’s master mathematicians and his stellar “find,” a rustic from Madras whose lack of formal schooling belied his grasp of concepts and theorems reserved only for the most revered scholars.

What initially drew me into the novel was the recurrence of a speech Hardy supposedly would like to have given, a device used by the author to slide into a first-person narrative. I hoped that this contrivance would allow Hardy to tell the incredible story that centered on his discovery of Ramanujan, the man himself, and his time in England: a time understandably fraught with discomfort and confusion, for England was very foreign to this strict Brahmin. (To make matters worse for the young genius, World War I provided an external source of anxiety and distress.) Unfortunately, despite Hardy’s story telling and other delightfully portrayed characters contributions, Ramanujan, the title character, was relegated to nothing more than a seemingly secondary role. I wanted more of Ramanujan—at least enough to balance out Hardy, his mentor and collaborator.

‘Leavitt stated in a Newsweek/MSNBC.com interview that he “wanted to portray Ramanujan as he was perceived by the English people in whose company he suddenly arrived … I thought it was more interesting to allow him to be the center around which other characters’ lives revolved and whom they basically turned into whatever they needed him to be.”

While this seems to be a fresh approach, it minimalizes Ramanujan and his achievements. Perhaps it would have been more effective had the story been told by Ramanujan: how he reacted to Trinity College, English life, the climate, the hardships of eating and living according to his beliefs, the thrill of being among acknowledged mathematicians juxtaposed with his longing for a degree, a fellowship, or recognition. Or perhaps alternative points of view, shared by Hardy and Ramanujan, would have presented an appealing counterpoint.

The novel does seem well researched. One example of this lies in the fact that many of Hardy’s character traits mirror those discussed by C.P. Snow in his foreword to Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, a mathematical memoir of sorts published in 1940. As for Ramanujan, one can only assume that the research was gleaned and applied, but because of the character’s relegation to the background, it appears not to be the focus. The positive impact, nonetheless, of having read The Indian Clerk is that I desire to know more about the miraculous mind that claimed a Hindu goddess had given him the knowledge and ability to create complex mathematics without formal tutelage. One needn’t be a math-aficionado to welcome a good piece of history.

It appears that Ramanujan may come to life on the big screen soon. Actor-writer Stephen Fry is turning Leavitt’s book into a screenplay. Edward R. Pressman is developing another film, based on a Ramanujan biography. Filmmaker Dev Benegal is scheduled to film Ramanjunan’s story as well. One of them might actually consider that Ramanujan shouldn’t take a back seat to Hardy. And perhaps then the story of Ramanujan and Hardy will add up correctly.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

 

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