Friday, 6 February 2015

Book of the Month: The Indian Clerk (David Leavitt)

The Indian clerk in American writer David Leavitt’s ambitious, dense and expansive novel of the same name is the celebrated mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. The novel traces the last five years of Ramanujan’s life during which he collaborated with the British mathematician G.H. Hardy—a body of work that would ensure that Ramanujan would be remembered by posterity— before he died at the age of thirty-two.

There are not many fields in which it is possible to be a prodigy. Music is one; mathematics is another; maybe chess. You never hear of a prodigy nurse, or a prodigy civil servant. Ramanujan chose his field well. He would have struggled to become a prodigy had he trained as a social worker. But he chose to be a mathematician; rather mathematics chose him. He could no more have stayed away from playing with numbers than he could have lived without breathing.

Born into a poor but cultured Brahmin family to an overbearing and ambitious mother and ineffective father in the present day Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Ramanujan was an autodidact. He probably was also an idiot savant. Having little aptitude for, and less interest in, subjects other than mathematics, Ramanujan struggled through school, and did not achieve qualifications. Languishing in a dead-end clerical job in what was, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Madras, the self-taught maverick worked on mathematical formulae, trying to find answers to unsolved riddles. He then proceeded to send his intriguing theorems, unsupported by proofs—partly because he did not want to give away too much lest the recipients pass off his discoveries as their own, but also because, having received no formal training in the subject, he was indifferent to the need of backing up his postulates –to a number of British mathematicians. Most of them did not take the trouble to reply. Then Ramanujan wrote to the Cambridge-based mathematician G.H. Hardy. Hardy—a forgotten name these days, but, in the years before the First World War, one of the leading mathematicians in England— detected, in the pages crammed with wild theorems and quaintly ornate English, the extraordinary intellect that was at work. After discussing with his Cambridge colleague Littlewood—the two were working diligently on the number theory and felt Ramanujan’s genius would be of valuable assistance—Hardy came to the conclusion that he had to get Ramanujan to Trinity.  

It is G.H. Hardy who is the narrator of The Indian Clerk; he is the protagonist, not Ramanujan. The story of Ramanujan, rather the five years he spent—years that coincided with the First World War—in England, unfolds for the reader through the eyes of Hardy. And it is not the story just of Ramanujan. Leavitt, through his protagonist, provides an arresting description of the prevailing ambiance at the Trinity around the time of the Great War. Hardy is a droll, temperate, unaffected observer and chronicler of what goes around him. In an earlier, non-fiction, account of Ramanujan’s life, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Hardy is depicted as cold and aloof. Leavitt chooses to describe his fictional Hardy as a man possessing—despite his outwardly sceptical and cold manner—of great warmth and loyalty. He is not so much haughty and aloof as shy, reticent and private. Indeed, as the novel progresses, you feel that you know Hardy a lot better than Ramanujan. It is Hardy’s life—the experiences that shaped him, his uneasy relationship with his mother and sister—that is described with great depth and seems flavoursomely imagined. Leavitt makes full use of the poetic license while exploring Hardy’s sexuality. G.H. Hardy of The Indian Clerk is a practising homosexual, albeit closet. Leavitt describes with obvious relish the private shenanigans of luminaries such as John Maynard Keynes and other Cambridge homosexuals, outwardly wedded to the manners and etiquettes of the Edwardian and Georgian England, and gently pokes fun at the two-faced approach of the British society—at least of the privileged class— towards sexual mores. However, the sexual life of Hardy, for whom Leavitt reserves a great deal of affection, is laced with pathos. The fictional Hardy is haunted by the suicide of his lover, Russell Gaye (a real life person, one of the many who appear in the novel, who shot himself in 1909). Gaye is always on Hardy’s mind, and his ghost frequently visits Hardy. It is a testimony to Leavitt’s great narrative skill that the encounters between Hardy and Gaye’s ghost, which would have run the risk of becoming overly theatrical and tawdry, instead, leave the reader with a sense of deep sorrow and loss. The secret meetings of the Cambridge fellows, who, in the great tradition of academic snobbery, belong to a centuries-old secret club entitled the Apostles, are described with great verve. Some of the characters peripheral to the story, such as the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, Hardy’s colleague at Cambridge, are hilarious (and uproariously believable). Since Ramanujan’s years in Cambridge were also the years when the Great War was raging in Europe—Ramanujan arrived in Cambridge a few months before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and returned to India a year after the war ended—it was inconceivable that the war would not have an impact on the intellectual world of Trinity. Russell was a pacifist; so was Hardy. The difference between the two, if you believe Leavitt’s ‘fiction’, was: while Russell was publicly mutinous about it and even contrived to get himself expelled first from Trinity and then be sent to gaol for inflammatory pamphleteering, Hardy kept his view to himself and quietly left Cambridge for Oxford at the end of the war.

What about Ramanujan, the Indian clerk fetched by Hardy from his Indian obscurity to the rarefied corridors of Trinity? Ramanujan remains an enigma for the reader. When you reach the end of the  477th and the last page of the novel, you still do not think that you really know the man. He is like the blurred outline of a face you glimpse outside your window on a rainy day—you can just about make out the features but can’t see how the blurred features go on to make the whole face. Ramanujan’s life in Cambridge is recounted to the reader by Leavitt’s proxy, G.H. Hardy, the narrator. And Hardy, perhaps in keeping with the reserve of the Englishman of his generation, is either not curious about Ramanujan’s background or else thinks it is impolite to inquire too much. Such information as is provided about Ramanujan’s life in India is sketchy and remains encased in the stereotype of Ramanujan’s puritanical Brahmin background. The five years of collaboration throw scarcely brighter light on Ramanujan. Hardy scrupulously avoids getting to know Ramanujan, no doubt following the sound English policy that it is better to have cordial, if distant, relations with the ‘Hindu Calculator’ than trying to get to know him really well and discover that they actually dislike each other. And Ramanujan does not seem to do much in Trinity outside of his meetings with Hardy and Littlewood: other than lamenting the lack of choices for vegetarians, boiling rasam—a kind of spicy, vegetarian soup; he is ecstatic when he receives tamarind, an essential ingredient for the rasam, apparently, brought from India by an Indian student—, and goes to London from time to time in the company of a couple of Indian friends to visit a woman who, appropriately enough, has learnt to cook Indian-style. Hardy, the narrator, seems to remember, every now and then, in the midst of his reminiscences about Trinity, that there was this young Indian genius who lived there for five years, and provides the reader with a snippet of, for all outward appearances, banal incident involving Ramanujan: he (Hardy) might have seen Ramanujan on the streets of Cambridge talking with other Indian students; or he might have noticed Ramanujan coming in the opposite direction and the two might have waved at each other. This is because, you suspect, Hardy, for the most part, remains a slightly bemused onlooker with regard to Ramanujan’s life. He, an ill-at-ease-atheist, is sceptical of Ramanujan’s claim that an Indian goddess visits him in his dreams and reveals mathematical formulae. When Hardy arranges for Ramanujan to come to Trinity, Ramanujan is initially reluctant—or says he is reluctant—to cross the seas because he is not sure whether the Goddess would deign to visit him if he were away from India. The matter is resolved after Ramanujan spends an entire day in the Goddess’s temple and she visits him in his dreams that night to assure that she would not desert him even if he crosses the sea. Hardy’s response to the resolution of Ramanujan’s dilemma and the manner in which it is resolved is: ‘very convenient’. Ramanujan’s ‘arranged marriage’ to a nine-year-old girl (he was 21 at the time, although the girl continued to live with her parents until she was 15) is dismissed as one of those things Hindus do. When Ramanujan is in England, he is, insofar as Hardy can make out, concerned—in the same way you would get concerned if caught short with an unseasonal downpour—that his wife, Janki, does not write to him even though he has been writing to her once a month. (Janki, who was 20 when Ramanujan died in 1920, survived her famous husband by 74 years, leading a life of quiet anonymity.)  It is suggested, later in the novel, that Janki and Ramnujan’s mother did not get on, and the mother intercepted his letters to Janki. All of this is recounted without any comment by the narrator who obviously considers himself ill equipped to fathom a culture and religion that are alien to him and the intrigues of Indian families. The result is: Ramanujan does not really come alive to the reader. He comes up with complex mathematical formulae and theorems; he performs amazing feats of mental arithmetic (earning the sobriquet ‘the Hindu Calculator’); he boils rasam; and speaks in excessively formal and stultified English: he eats, breathes and lives, but where is the life in him?  When Alice Neville, the wife of Cambridge mathematician, Eric Neville, who was tasked with the responsibility of bringing Ramanujan to England and at whose house Ramanujan stayed for the first few weeks after his arrival, develops a crush on Ramanujan (another occasion in the novel, as acknowledged by the author at the end, where a poetic license is taken; while Alice Neville did exist, there is no evidence that she fell in love with Ramanujan), it is described entirely from the point of view of Alice; the reader knows nothing of what Ramanujan feels about it. For the most part Ramanujan is a passive recipient of whatever the fate dishes out to him. And what the fate has in store for Ramanujan is not very nice. He becomes ill with mysterious illness in his third year in Cambridge. Hardy arranges for him to be seen by a number of specialists. No one can really reach to the bottom of what is wrong with Ramanujan, although several diagnoses are bandied about. Tuberculosis seems to find favour with most specialists although they all agree that Ramanujan is showing none of the characteristic signs of the disease. Nevertheless he is wheeled out to different sanatoria which seem to have in common desolate atmosphere and esoteric medical practices. Hardy visits the whippet thin Ramanujan in a particularly vicious sanatorium in Wales. Here, for the only time in the novel, Hardy’s taciturn prose steps up to the task of conveying the pathos of Ramanujan’s life; the only time Ramanujan—miserable and depressed—comes alive.

The Indian Clerk is a slightly misleading title. The novel is more about Hardy than about Ramanujan; and, when you finish reading the novel, it is Hardy, and not Ramanujan, who lingers in your mind. I do not know whether it is intentional. If it is, one wonders why. Maybe Leavitt was more at ease imagining the world of Hardy, the atheist English mathematician (also a competent writer), who, although from a different era, still came from a culture and held beliefs that were Western. Either that, or Leavitt, during his extensive research (catalogued at the end of the novel), realised that apart from his prodigious mathematical gifts, there wasn’t a great deal of interest happening in Ramanujan’s life. (I find this difficult to believe.) That Ramanujan left little by way of personal memoirs probably did not help. However, you feel that Leavitt made Hardy the protagonist of The Indian Clerk, rather than Ramanujan who was the Indian clerk, because Leavitt, an American writer in the 21st century, found the task of putting himself in the mind of a late nineteenth century Indian almost too daunting.

The Indian Clerk is a work of great depth. Leavitt’s prose achieves the seemingly impossible effect of appearing dense and lucid at the same time. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully underplayed novel of great merit, a worthy addition to what D.J. Taylor, in his review in the Guardian, described as an increasingly popular genre of fiction involving real life historical figures.