The Indian Clerk
by David Leavitt
Bloomsbury 2007 496 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
In January 1913, celebrated British mathematician G. H. Hardy received a letter at Trinity College from an obscure clerk in the Port Trust Office in Madras, India. What became almost immediately clear to Hardy was that the author, Srinivasa Ramanujan, was the greatest mathematician he had ever encountered.
David Leavitt’s beautifully crafted The Indian Clerk purports to dramatize this historic relationship, but it does much more: it creates a portrait of English academic life in the earlier part of the 20th century that is by turns provocative, surprising and absorbing.
G. H. Hardy, known to most non-mathematicians as the author of the brilliant 1940 memoir A Mathematician’s Apology, was then 35 and at the height of his fame. Ramanujan was an Orthodox high-caste Hindu from the tiny village of Kumbakonam, husband to a thirteen-year-old, and son of an angry, controlling harridan of a mother. Largely unschooled, Ramanujan sought out Hardy, along with other British mathematicians, to enter into a mathematical dialogue. Hardy, using his skills as an academic politician, arranged to have Ramanujan travel to England, but not before having to overcome Ramanujan’s religious scruples about traveling over water. On arrival, he stunned mathematicians with his genius, but was not without his personal quirks.
“Here we have, after all, a young man who never wore shoes until he boarded a ship for England; who would not eat the food in the Hall for fear of contamination; who claimed publicly that the formulae he discovered were written on his tongue by a female deity.”
Ramanujan’s taciturn, courtly manner concealed a man with a score to settle with the world. “He was a man whom the dispensers of prizes had failed to esteem properly and he resented them for it. Naturally this rejection led him to doubt his own worth; and yet from the start he also displayed a certain hubris, a faith in his genius, and took a solitary pride in knowing that he was better than his time and place.”
The story alternates between an imaginary lecture Hardy might have given, outlining his true feelings about Ramanujan and his colleagues, and a third-person narrative that enters into the thoughts of a number of other characters. Mostly, however, we follow Hardy through the early years of his contact with Ramanujan and the subsequent war years. These were curious times for British academia.
Hardy’s circle consisted of, if not overt homosexuals, a homosocial environment in which male-male relationships predominated. “In Cambridge, it was common in those days for young men to be ‘inseparable,’ and to function as couples, and socialize as couples.”
Nowhere was this more evident than among the Apostles, an academic, invitation-only club of high-flying, mostly gay academics, including (the famously heterosexual) Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, G. E. Moore, Alfred North Whitehead, and others. It was “common knowledge that most of the members of ‘that’ society are ‘that’ way.” Introducing Ramanujan, to say nothing of Wittgenstein and D. H. Lawrence, into this moist, overheated circle produced curious results.
Hardy’s sexuality was that of a tortured, closeted gay man who periodically found romance, no more so than with Russell Kerr Gaye, whose early suicide daily haunted Hardy’s thoughts. While Hardy was not celibate, he presented himself to the world as “dry, sexless Hardy.” The war was to break up this tight circle of men, as some were imprisoned for their pacifism (Russell, for example), others forced back to their “enemy” home country, while others enlisted and died in the slaughter.
Throughout his five-year stay in England, Ramanunjan continued to work with Hardy, most famously on a still-unsolved mathematical problem known as the Riemann Hypothesis. Their work together was interrupted by Ramnunjan’s illness, an undiagnosed stomach ailment that was to kill him at age thirty-three.
Hardy would not be anyone’s idea of a worthy dinner companion. As he notes in the novel, “In my considered opinion, the extinction of the human race is immensely desirable, and would benefit not only the planet but the many other species that inhabit it.” Hardy was happiest in his universe of abstractions, a place absent of “religion, war, literature, sex, even philosophy.” Despite this unpromising raw material, Leavitt crafts a memorable character in an environment parallel to the exhaustively examined Bloomsbury circle.
Ramanujan’s life has been told before, in Robert Kanigel’s excellent biography, The Man Who Knew Infinity. Yet, Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk paints a fascinating portrait not only of a mathematical genius, but also of the society he too briefly inhabited.