David Leavitt

"The Indian Clerk"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 2, 2007)

He was our James Dean.

To equate the dark, droopy-eyed Srinivasa Ramanujan to America’s eternal sex symbol might seem like a stretch, but many Tamilians will tell you the comparison is not misplaced. Ramanujan, widely recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians ever, was from Tamil Nadu state in India. Tamilians have an almost obsessive love (or at least respect) of math and to us, Ramanujan was a superstar. The story of a small-town clerk struggling to get by, whose astonishing math genius was discovered abroad, who returned home to die tragically young—is the story I remember hearing over and over again from my grandparents.

Yet for all the glamor surrounding this brilliant star was the tragedy not just of his untimely death at 32, but of the fact that his genius would have remained largely undiscovered had he not been discovered abroad. “A bittersweet tang sometimes slipped into the encomiums India lavished on Ramanujan over the years, sad reminders of the poverty, bureaucracy, and institutional rigidity that almost crushed him in 1905,” wrote Robert Kanigel in his absolutely brilliant biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity. “Ramanujan was an inspiration to India, yes—but also a rebuke. How could India let him come so close to being lost to the world? Why hadn't he gotten more encouragement? Why was it left to foreigners to make him famous?”

Ramanujan was “made famous” by Cambridge mathematician, G.H. Hardy, a brilliant mathematician in his own right. It is this seemingly improbable relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan, that author David Leavitt brings to life in his wonderfully researched new novel, The Indian Clerk.

Early in 1913, a letter arrives at Hardy’s desk—the writing is labored but the writer promises Hardy some “startling” results in mathematics. Upon close inspection Hardy realizes that he has stumbled upon a diamond in the raw and that the writer, Srinivasa Ramanujan, must be brought to Cambridge to have his talents nurtured. “Ramanujan's (genius) is wild and incoherent, like a climbing rose that should have been trained to wind up a trellis but instead runs riot,” Hardy recounts.

After a series of efforts, including sending word through a special emissary to India, Ramanujan finally reaches England—he and Hardy work at a fevered pitch making some of the greatest strides in mathematics. Hardy is a fond believer of mathematics’ discipline and loves the rigor of the proof: “Any proof pleases me,” he says, “If I could prove by logic that you would be dead in five minutes, I should be sorry that you were going to die, but the sorrow would be very much mitigated by my pleasure in the proof.” So his initial professional interactions with Ramanujan frustrate him—Ramanujan, who has not had any university education, wanders off tangentially quite often. Hardy later realizes that these stray asides too lead to startling discoveries. 

The pace continues until the First World War breaks out and Ramanujan falls very ill. Exactly what is plaguing the “Hindoo calculator,” as the local press labels him, is difficult to fathom and he is pronounced as suffering from tuberculosis even though he shows no symptoms of the disease. Leavitt’s description of the war and its effects on England are done beautifully. The parallels he draws between England and Ramanujan—both in a simmering “stasis” are effectively realized. Ramanujan for his part, slowly wastes away, longing for the South Indian rasam, a flavored soup eaten with rice, that gets increasingly difficult to come by because of the rations imposed by the war.

Leavitt’s use of metaphors is very clever. He describes Gertrude, Hardy’s sister for example, as “a woman as thin as an exclamation point and just as emphatic.” Toward the end, Leavitt details the various burdens on the young Ramanujan through the vivid imagery of fishhooks. Leavitt also does an absolutely brilliant job of portraying Hardy—the brilliant mathematician who is so out of touch with the real world. Hardy struggles with his sexual identity (he is a closeted homosexual), and the Hardy we see is one who is far more comfortable in the abstract realm of mathematics than in everyday social interactions. “So far as the human psyche is concerned—he would be the first to admit it—he is as inept a student as has ever been born,” Leavitt writes, “Mathematicians live in an abstract realm for a reason.”

A staunch atheist, Hardy’s only religion is mathematics: “A slate and some chalk. That's all you need,” he says. “Not pianos or thimbles or nails or saucepans. Not sledgehammers. Certainly not Bibles. A slate and some chalk, and that world—the real world—is yours.” Ramanujan, on the other hand, was widely considered to be deeply religious but Hardy thought otherwise, labeling him an agnostic. “He saw no particular good nor no particular harm in Hinduism or any other religion,” Hardy recalls. “In Hinduism, as I understand it, observance matters far more than belief.” Of course whether this was actually true or whether Hardy willed it so through his own colored lenses is difficult to tell.

While Hardy is beautifully realized, Ramanujan remains a slightly more enigmatic figure and as Leavitt has pointed out that this was intentional. He does a good job however, of showing Ramanujan’s struggles with a domineering mother and his isolation in cold, dreary England.

While a few mathematical formulae pepper The Indian Clerk, one can cleanly skip these and not miss a beat. The reader would be advised to go back to these later and observe some of the beautiful and ordered symmetry many of these equations exhibit.

Despite its pedantic tone and the slow pace in the initial chapters, The Indian Clerk is an intelligent read. “Immortality may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean,” Hardy once wrote. The Indian Clerk is a compelling portrait of two of the discipline’s most immortal figures and an improbable relationship that lead to some of the greatest discoveries in mathematics.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Indian Clerk at The Elegant Variation

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About the Author:

David LeavittDavid Leavitt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a BA in English.

His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, The Paris Review, DoubleTake, The Southwest Review, Tin House, Food & Wine and Travel and Leisure.

He is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute of Catalan Letters in Barcelona Spain, Professor Leavitt was recently named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.

Leavitt is a English professor a the University of Florida, where he is the director of the creative writing program. He is also the editor of "Subtropics" magazine, The University of Florida's literary review. Leavitt divides his time between Tuscany and Gainesville, Florida.

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