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'The Indian Clerk' Who Changed Mathematics

Oct 13, 2007 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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In the world of mathematics, Srinvasa Ramanujan had a beautiful mind.

The 23-year-old was an uneducated bank clerk in the Indian city of Madras when, in 1913, he wrote a nine-page letter to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy filled with prime-number theorems. Soon after, Hardy recruited Ramanujan to work at Cambridge.

In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, author David Leavitt re-creates the lives of these historical figures, delving deep into their intellectual and personal worlds. Though Ramanujan died just six years after arriving in Cambridge, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and on the world of mathematics.

In Leavitt's fictionalized retelling, once Ramanujan arrives in England, he receives the intellectual recognition he lacked in India, but he finds his new home bleak and uninviting. Meanwhile, his colleagues' lives are filled with personal intrigue. Hardy, a reclusive scholar and closeted homosexual, has conversations with the ghost of a lover. Hardy's work partner, J.E. Littlewood, has a long-term affair with a married woman.

During Ramanujan's time in Cambridge, World War I also wreaks havoc at the university. Cambridge becomes a hospital, and its intellectuals are undermined by the war propaganda machine. Leavitt includes cameos by notable historical figures such as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and writer D.H. Lawrence.

Scott Simon spoke with Leavitt about Ramanujan's life and legacy.

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