Lust for Numbers


Cover2 “The Indian Clerk” by David Leavitt is loosely structured around a lecture given by the brilliant English mathematician and Cambridge don G. H. Hardy. In 1913, as Hardy is engaged in trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis — a mathematical problem involving prime numbers that Leavitt (the author of a brief biography of the mathematician Alan Turing) seems to understand deeply and that I won’t embarrass myself by attempting to summarize — he receives a letter from one S. Ramanujan, a poor clerk working in a colonial accounts office in Madras. Without the benefit of any formal training, Ramanujan claims to have come close to a solution to the famous problem. What little Hardy knows about India is derived from a grammar school drama pageant — a “paste and colored-paper facsimile of the exotic East, in which brave Englishmen battled natives for the cause of empire” — but on the basis of the letter, he and his collaborator, J. E. Littlewood, invite Ramanujan to come to Cambridge. While Ramanujan is living in England, war breaks out, and the young mathematician is not able to return to India for another five years.

Once Ramanujan arrives in England, he becomes a Cambridge celebrity: there is competition among the dons for proximity to the “Hindoo calculator,” as he’s called in the press. Another mathematician, Eric Neville, takes Ramanujan into his home; his wife, Alice, becomes obsessed with their guest’s comfort, catering to his dietary restrictions, albeit in a very British fashion (a “vegetable goose” is one of the more appealing attempts). There are various justifications for the impulse to save Ramanujan: Alice claims to be easing his culture shock, while Hardy hopes to develop his mind. In both cases, however, their fascination has a sexually predatory edge: Hardy “cannot deny that it excites him, the prospect of rescuing a young genius from poverty and obscurity and watching him flourish. … Or perhaps what excites him is the vision he has conjured up, in spite of himself, of Ramanujan: a young Gurkha, brandishing a sword.”

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