Ramanujan, the thought of God, and being in the Zone

  • Sitaraman Shankar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 08, 2015 12:51 IST
Ramanujan, a self-taught 23-year-old whose education and culture was routed through his Tamil-Brahmin way of life, worked by intuition; his theorems, which mathematicians still call ‘good guesses’, bypassed proof.

The film based on Robert Kanigel’s excellent biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons is due to be released in India next month. The book tells a riveting story: Ramanujan was a self-taught prodigy from the sleepy town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu and would have languished uncelebrated if his mysterious – some would say mystical – mathematical proofs hadn’t caught the fancy of British mathematician GH Hardy at Cambridge. The Indian agonised over loss of caste but journeyed across the seas and spent a short and productive time at one of the world’s pre-eminent universities before coming back home to die at the tragically early age of 32 in 1920.

The biopic will come and go, but what lingers in the mind is a quote in the book from Ramanujan: “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”

One could put this in the context of Ramanujan’s religiousness and devotion to the family goddess in Namakkal, but equally, you could see it as a belief that truly inspired work gets done only when there is at least a hint of deeper meaning, when the mind talks to, or lives in, something bigger. Perhaps Ramanujan tapped into a spiritual well from which numbers flowed forth – what else could explain the fact that a man with no formal training in high mathematics produced such complex and significant work?

Decades after his death, his mathematical results have been put to application in fields as diverse as crystallography and black holes; is it fanciful to extend his statement on equations and the thought of God to other disciplines?

Fast forward eighty years after Ramanujan to a setting ironically more familiar to most of us: The Sydney Cricket Ground. It was January 2000, and early in the then stop-start career of VVS Laxman, long before his initials were later expanded to Very Very Special by the very Australians he tormented. It was the third and final Test of the series, and India completed an unwanted symmetry by losing it in three days to go down 3-0. But the Test is remembered most for Laxman’s second innings 167, out of a total of 261. The next highest score was 25. After one misjudgement -- he got hit on the head early in the innings -- Laxman couldn’t put a foot wrong even if he tried.

The innings was a precursor to his much more famous 281 in Kolkata against the same opponents a year later. Indeed, many of Laxman’s later innings were match-winners but that was almost incidental. There was the technical virtuosity of Tendulkar and Dravid, and then there was Laxman at his best, in a trance-like state, caressing express yorkers down the ground for four. Here was magic that could make everything else look pedestrian; a Van Gogh compared to the house painters at the non-striker’s end.

Those musically inclined, and seeking a poignant story more in line with Ramanujan than Laxman, would look no further than Mukul Shivputra. The son of the legendary Hindustani vocalist Kumar Gandharva was once found begging in a Bhopal temple, his clothes in tatters. He was known for his eccentric behaviour, but also for his undeniable genius, which would flower at the most unpredictable of times. If you went for a Shivputra concert, they say, you never knew what you got. But if your stars were right, and the man was in the mood, magic happened of a very rare sort.

Mathematics, cricket and music. Each is a perfect amalgam of science and art, and perhaps it is in such spheres that being in “the Zone” really counts: That state of being that sportsmen describe when the game appears to get into slow motion, the crowd goes quiet and focus is absolute. Perhaps Ramanujan, Laxman and even the moody Shivputra spent large periods of their careers in the Zone. As someone once said, talent does what it can, but genius does what it must; genius doing what it must is probably the individual getting into the Zone despite himself, his innate, exuberant talent flowing even if he nearly destroyed it, as with Shivputra, or if he came from a humble background, like Ramanujan, or was less celebrated than his peers, like Laxman; talents picked up and drawn out, the spiritual would say, by a higher energy.

Being in the Zone, or in Flow, as it was called by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, or the allied idea of genius doing what it must: Was this what Ramanujan was getting at, when he spoke of the thought of God, a century ago?

Read: Ramanujan biopic: A man who was more than the sum of his parts

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