Review of The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not.  “Immortality” may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.

–G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology


Curiosity is a wonderful thing.  It leads us from familiar ground into unmapped territory.  Curiosity led me to The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt after discovering the Indian mathematician Ramanujan in a children’s book about famous mathematicians.  It’s ironic that my curiosity could ever be piqued by a mathematician, having been math-cursed since first grade when Mrs. Neely made me stay inside at recess to count Popsicle sticks.  Who knew mathematicians could be interesting? 

Ramanujan’s story is about more than math, though.  His story is about the nature of raw genius and the strictures of academia, of East and West, war and peace, faith and skepticism, ambition and poverty, a disturbingly domineering mother, and a child-bride.  It’s a pity Shakespeare wasn’t around in the beginning of the 1900’s. 

The Indian Clerk is a fictionalized account of Ramanujan and the English mathematician who discovered him, G.H. Hardy.  In notes at the end of the novel Leavitt reveals which elements of the story are fictionalized and which are based on fact.  He didn’t fictionalize much and he’s done his research.  However, The Indian Clerk is primarily about Hardy, not Ramanujan.

Leavitt shows Ramanujan through Hardy’s eyes, beginning with a lengthy interlude on Hardy’s life as a turn of the century Cambridge don.  Though Hardy is every bit as interesting and eccentric as Ramanujan, Leavitt at times gets bogged down trying to recreate the intellectual milieu of Cambridge.  Leavitt fleshes Hardy out as a brilliant but melancholy gay man who never recovered from the suicide of his long-time lover, Russell Gaye.   Gaye appears in The Indian Clerk as a ghost whose chats with Hardy making it possible to witness his introspection. 

Hardy first heard of Ramanujan when he received an envelope postmarked from India.  The envelope, from Ramanujan, contained pages of wildly scribbled mathematic theorems and formulae.  Hardy was perplexed because, while Ramanujan obviouly lacked formal mathematic training, he showed a spark of genius.  The two men began a correspondence that led to Ramanujan coming to Cambridge to collaborate with Hardy. 

Getting Ramanujan to England was difficult because of his religious beliefs.  He was born to a poor family that was of the highest caste, Brahmin.  Ramanujan outgrew his resources in southern India and knew that if he wanted his work published, he’d have to leave India to do so.  The rules of Ramanujan’s caste, however, forbid traveling across the ocean.   Ramanujan, who credited his mathematic gifts to the family’s goddess, turned to her for guidance.  He prayed for three days in her temple before deciding he should make the trip to England. 

Unfortunately, Leavitt gives only a sketch of the Ramanujan’s life before he left India.  Hardy’s narration provides a bare minimum of Ramanujan’s past and his religious beliefs, creating no more than a sort of shadow character.  In The Indian Clerk, Ramanujan remains an enigma to Hardy and to the reader.  If you want a more complete picture of Ramanujan, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

In England, Ramanujan faced difficulty adhering to his strict vegetarian diet, adapting to western clothes (He’d never before worn shoes.) and coping with English weather.  One incident reported by a fellow Indian student illustrates his discomfort with Western ways, but isn’t included in Leavitt’s book.  Upon going to Ramanujan’s apartment to meet the great mathematician, the Indian student learned that Ramanujan was suffering from the cold.  The student, upon checking Ramanujan’s bed to see if there were adequate blankets, discovered that Ramanujan did not understand that he was supposed to pull the blankets back and crawl  in under them.    In The Indian Clerk, Hardy makes much of his observation of Ramanujan’s odd sleeping habits, coming off as something of a letch.

When Ramanujan’s health began to fail, so did his desire to continue the work he had begun with Hardy.  Unable to get a definitive diagnosis of Ramanujan’s illness, Hardy detaches from Ramanujan.  Particularly troubled by Ramanujan’s lost drive for their mathematic work, Hardy struggles with the role Ramanujan’s religion and family play in his life.   As an atheist it was inconceivable to Hardy that Ramanujan allowed his religious strictures to limit the use of his mathematical gifts.  Eventually, Ramanujan returned to India and died shortly later.  Hardy lived a long life and always considered his work and friendship with Ramanujan as one of the best parts of his life.

One cannot help but contrast these two men.  The difficulties of being a gay man in a straight man’s world parallel the cultural difficulties Ramanujan faced as an Indian Hindu in England.  Though it’s not clear in Leavitt’s book, Ramanujan’s religion was a big part of his life.   As a child, he sat for long periods of time in the temple working math problems.  Hardy felt that many of Ramanujan’s maladjustments were due to a stubborn adherence to religious strictures.  To Hardy, the mathematical principles and religious dogma could not coexist, and he found in numbers a kind of clarity that was almost religious.

The Indian Clerk is interesting as an introduction to the lives of these two unusual men and there’s no reason to be put off by “math content.”  It certainly isn’t a ripping adventure; in fact, its pace is laborious in parts. For those curious about Ramanujan’s story, The Indian Clerk is a good place to start.  But, if you are bitten by the Ramanujan but, as I was, it won’t suffice.  You’ll want to dig deeper.



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