By Vaidehi Nathan
Srinivasa Ramanujan is counted among the top mathematicians in the world. He was born on December 22, 1887, in a poor household in Kumba-konam town, in Tamil Nadu. His father Srinivasa was a clerk in a local cloth shop. His mother Komalatammal, was a housewife and was known in her place for singing bhajans in the temple. She called her son ´Chinnaswami´ which in Tamil meant ´little lord´.
Born after a series of short-lived children, Ramanujan was brought up in lavish love, especially from the mother. One of the endearing memories of Ramanujan was his mother´s bhajans.
Right from childhood, Ramanujan´s mathematical skills were known. When still in school, he borrowed the books of his neighbour, who was doing gradua-tion in maths. Needless to say, he began teaching this neighbour soon after.
The story behind the ?discovery? of Ramanujan is interesting. Those were the days of the British. Ramanujan had visited several leading mathema-ticians of his time with his papers and notes. Most found his work beyond their understanding.
While working in a temporary post in the Madras Presidency, one day, a senior British officer came upon papers in the files, which were scribbled with numbers. The officer called his subordinate to scold him. The man told the officer that these were the writings of one Ramanujan, who was reputed to be a great genius in maths. The officer sent these papers along with some selections from Ramanujan to some mathematicians and finally Ramanujan wrote to G.H. Hardy, a mathematician of great repute, in Trinity College, London.
Ramanujan had no formal training in maths. He wrote as numbers the problems and solutions came to him. Seeing his paper, Hardy was first tempted to dismiss it as yet another crank mail. But a few hours later, with his mind still ?troubled? by the ?wild theorems? he had unheard of till then, he approached J.E. Littlewood, his friend and fellow mathematician at Trinity. After several rounds, Hardy was convinced of Ramajunan´s genuineness. He was invited to join the Trinity College.
Ramanujan left India at the age of 25. For the first time he wore shoes and anything other than the south Indian veshti (dhoti). Ramanujan was miserable. He was a vegetarian and had never known any climate other than warm and hot. England was wet and cold. But intellectually it was most stimulating. Hardy and his collea-gues gave Ramanujan as much as they drew from him. He had the genius in him; they provided him the tools. In 1919 he returned to India as he was unwell and unable to continue in England.
In Madras, he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. His wife, Janaki, who was thirteen when he left for England was 18 now and was his constant companion, nurse and friend. He shared with her his experiences in London. He died on April 26, 1920. He was 32 years, four months and four days old. Ramanujan maintained closely written notebooks. They contained all his outpourings. These have been published and researched upon by thousands of maths scholars. He was a path-breaker. The statement that many still make is: ?If only Ramanujan had lived longer or had been discovered earlier.?
While in England, Ramanujan had been receiving a stipend from the Madras Presidency, Ramanujan spent only a part of it. So, when he came back, much money was left in his account. He wrote to the government seeking that the money be spent on some educational institutions or used to provide succour to the needy students. Such was his generosity.