The seamstress and the mathematician (21 April 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, April 21 2018)

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In the Chennai suburb of Triplicane, there once lived a seamstress called Janaki. Respectfully addressed as Janaki Ammal, to her came many with saris to mend and blouses to stitch. But there was more to the old lady than tailoring. She was, for one, a pious Brahmin who chanted mantras and went often to the temple. She gave to charity and educated a number of grateful children. Though in her youth she was cheated of a prodigious sum, she acquired skill enough to run a chit fund for the housewives of her neighbourhood. Upstairs, she lived in a little place, and downstairs, she conducted business. But for all the decades of her self-supporting life, she kept with her also a tin trunk, full of crumbling papers that concealed the most poignant memories. For in a different time and a different space, Janaki of Triplicane was married to a “somebody”. And long before she became a seamstress, she had been wife to a man who scaled the very heights of cerebral greatness.

It is not known what, as a 10-year-old, Janaki made of Srinivasa Ramanujan, who arrived in her Tiruchirapalli village to wed her in the summer of 1909. His train had been delayed and her father was furious. Yet, once tempers were soothed and insults forgotten, the mathematical prodigy and this young girl from the country were married. To look at, the bridegroom was uninspiring: Smallpox had devastated his face, and a classmate described him as “fair and plumpy”, built like “a woman”. At 21, there was little, furthermore, to commend him to the top league of prospective husbands: Five years ago, he had dropped out of college, and a second attempt at university had also ended in depressive disaster. His energy was electric, though, and his mathematical abilities astounding. But he had no patience for other subjects and spent his days doing accounts and failing hopelessly at becoming a tuition teacher.

Raised by a masterful mother, and awkward around his disapproving father, Ramanujan took some years to find his bearings. In 1912, employed as a clerk at the Madras Port Trust, he finally crawled out of poverty, renting a house where he was joined by Janaki. While he solved sums on discarded packaging paper, and engaged with the city’s mathematics professors, the young girl watched from the side and learnt what it meant to be a Brahmin wife. He was a sensitive man, full of fears of rejection but bursting with godly devotion. “An equation for me,” he declared, “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Of course, little of this was discussed with his teenage wife—he never saw her alone, and, when she slept, it was with her watchful mother-in-law. Janaki cooked, and Janaki cleaned. And then, one day, she heard that her husband had been invited to that alien country people called Great Britain.

The decision was not easy: Ramanujan had been corresponding with the legendary G.H. Hardy and in Cambridge he was already a sensation. But what sensible Brahmin boy with a government job could toss aside everything to scramble after an abstract world of numbers? So the gods were consulted—the family went on pilgrimage, and divine sanction was received in a dream. Janaki, all of 15, asked to sail with Ramanujan, but this was dismissed as outrageous—he was going to achieve great things, and she would only distract him from his God-mandated purpose. And so it was that a week before he departed, Ramanujan said goodbye to his family, packing them off before he cut off his tuft of hair and wore for the first time the garb of a Western gentleman. When a photograph arrived showing her son like this, it took his mother some time to recognize him.

For five years, Janaki didn’t see her husband. At first, she served her mother-in-law, but soon there was mutiny in the kitchen. Letters addressed to her were intercepted by the older woman, and young Mrs Ramanujan built up the courage to ask direct questions. Our genius himself, while making history, was living a life of personal misery—there was tuberculosis, social awkwardness, a suicide attempt, and all the inconveniences of World War I afflicting life in Britain. In 1919, his health in pieces but with much distinction under his belt, Ramanujan returned at last to India. He asked for Janaki to come and greet him, but his mother “forgot” to let her daughter-in-law know: It was from newspapers that the wife of this freshly-minted fellow of The Royal Society discovered that her husband had finally come home.

Ramanujan did not live long, but the year he and Janaki spent together had its moments of tender affection. She cared for him, and he told his mother to retreat—if only, he regretted, he had taken Janaki along, he might not have felt so lost on foreign shores. Their marriage, hitherto unconsummated, was at last given a semblance of emotional substance. He remained orthodox—they moved from a house called Crynant because “cry” was inauspicious, while Ramanujan approved of Gometra because it could be read, in Sanskrit, as “friend of cows”. His tuberculosis, of course, cared little for auspicious addresses, and his mother blamed Janaki’s stars for bringing upon her son the terrible eye of Saturn. When Ramanujan died on 26 April 1920, he took with him whatever trace of warmth survived between the two women feuding by his bedside.

A widow at barely 22, Janaki spent most of the following decade in British Bombay with her brother, learning English and acquiring the skills of a seamstress. In 1931, she returned to Chennai, beginning a new life, working to supplement her meagre pension, and eventually adopting a little boy, who cared for her till her end, six decades later. Occasionally, great scholars from abroad came to see Janaki, seeking answers to questions left behind by her legendary husband. But she only had memories and gentle words to offer. As this seamstress of Triplicane said to one of them, the chief thing she remembered about her beloved Ramanujan was that he was always surrounded by sums and problems.

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