Monday, May 23, 2011

Story Telling Project 5 - Struggles of a Genius

Chennai, 1912.
Srinivasan, a student of Madras Christian College makes his way through the bye lanes of Triplicane.  He is handsome, athletic youth with well developed muscles. Hence his friends call him “Sandow” after a very famous body-builder of those days.

Sandow stops by a dilapidated house and knocks at the door.  A short, uncouth, unshaved, young man with bright and shining intelligent eyes opens the door. His eyes lights up in recognition and he warmly welcomes Sandow into his house.

“Addey Sandow va?  Va Va! [Hello is it Sandow? Come, Come!]. Welcome to my humble abode!”  

Sandow: “How are you Ramanju? Not seen you since you left Kumbakonam . I came to know you live here. So I thought I would drop in. What you have been doing all these days?

Ramanujan:  Well Sandow it is a long story. I joined Pachaiyappa’s college. I excelled in Mathematics but failed miserably in all other subjects.  This happened twice and so had to leave the college without getting my Intermediate degree.  Since then I have been pursuing independent research in Mathematics.

Sandow:  No wonder they all call you a genius!

Ramanujan:  Me a genius! Look at my elbow, it will tell you the story.

Sandow: What is all this, Ramanju? Why is it so rough and black?

Ramanujan:   Dear Sandow, my elbow has become rough and black in making a genius out of me! Night and day I do my calculations on slate. I wipe the slate every few minutes with my elbow.

Sandow: Why don’t you use paper to do your calculations?

Ramanujan: When food itself is a problem, how can I find money for paper? I may require four reams of paper every month.

Sandow:  Tell me honestly, what do you do for your food? How are you surviving?

Ramanujan:   After I left the college I lived in extreme poverty and was often on the brink of starvation. Then my Professor introduced me to Mr.  Ramachandra Rao. He is the Collector of Nellore and also the Secretary of Indian Mathematical Society.  I showed him my research work to him. Initially Mr. Rao had a doubt whether it was really my own work. He grilled me for a long time on elliptic integrals, hypergeometric series, and my own theory of divergent series. Finally he was convinced   about my genuineness. He then asked me, “What do you want?”  I said, “Sir, all I need is some job to take care of my basic need of some simple food so that I could pursue my research without worries”.  From that day onwards that great man has been providing me with money every month.

Sandow: Then why do you worry?

Ramanujan: How long I can depend on others? I feel a deep sense of humiliation. Therefore I did not take the money from Mr. Rao last month.

Sandow: What a rash thing to do! What are you going to do now?

Ramanujan:  Last month I applied for a clerk’s position in Madras Port Trust Office. In my application I mentioned that I could not pursue further studies after Matriculation and since then been devoting all my time to Mathematics and developing the subject. But I also said that I was quite confident that I could do justice to the job and requested them to hire me.  And I attached a recommendation from a mathematics professor, who wrote that “Ramanujan is a young man of quite exceptional capacity in Mathematics".

Sandow: So did you hear from them?

Ramanujan:  Well I have good news.  I got this letter from them. I have been appointed as a Class III, Grade IV accounting clerk.  Pay is Rs. 30/- per month.

Sandow:  Congratulations Ramanju! I feel so happy for you. Wish you all the Best! Well it is getting late, I should leave now.

Ramanujan:  Thank you Sandow. So nice of you to come and see me. We will meet again.

March 1st 1912. That was the day when Ramanujan came to know that he had got the job. It   was the turning point in his life. Things changed for better after that.  

Ramanujan joined Madras Port Trust Office. At his office, Ramanujam could easily and quickly complete the tasks he was given, so he spent his spare time doing research. His boss and colleagues encouraged him in his mathematical pursuits.

Next year he sent his work to Prof. Hardy of Cambridge University.  Greatly impressed by Ramanujan’s work Prof. Hardy invited him to England to pursue research. And the rest is history.

Within a couple of years Ramanujan was recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians of modern times. Unfortunately he died young at the age of 33 in 1920 after his return to India.

What happened to Sandow?  This intimate friend of the genius Ramanujan went on to become a very successful lawyer in Dindigul.  Not many people know about this. But I am sure about it because… I am Sandow Srinivasan’s grand nephew!

[Date Delivered:  May 21 2011


  • To understand the purpose of stories about historical events or people
  • To use the storytelling skills developed in the preceding projects to tell a story about a historical event or person
Time: Seven to Nine Minutes

I had always wondered whether my Grand Uncle "Sandow" Srinivasan knew Ramanujan the mathematics genius, since both of them were contemporaries and belonged to the same small town Kumbakonam. Last year my cousin (Sandow's grandson)  drew my attention to a short conversation between Ramanujan and Sandow Srinivasan  described in the book "Ramanujan - The Man & The Mathematician". The author of the book Dr. S. R. Ranganathan, himself a mathematican and also a pioneer in library science was Sandow's classmate in Madras Christian College. This conversation is also available on the net:
For this project , I adapted the original conversation by making it more detailed. I added  a couple of narratives by  Ramanujan (Source: Wikipedia)  about his struggle for survival after he had to discontinue the education, his meeting with  Mr. Ramachandra Rao and  his application for a position in Madras Port Trust Office. There were discrepancies regarding the dates and numbers in the original conversation which I corrected based on the information available in Wikipedia.]