Sid sat on the floor with his eyes wide open. Slowly, he pulled himself closer to the wall. Several sheets of paper with vague drawings, numbers and crazy mathematical equations adorned the wall. He then stood on his knees and brought his index finger to the one sheet that is very famous. He traced his finger along the grid of equations and then turned around to catch my attention. We both smiled. This was the paper that had the famous Ramanujan square complete with the working. And, we were in his house — the house that belonged to the man who knew infinity.
Ramanujan’s house is nestled amid a row of houses in the Temple City of Kumbakonam, in Southern India. Kumbakonam is unlike any other city I have seen. Tall colourful temple towers called gopurams dot the city’s skyline. On most crisp mornings, Sanskrit hymns mix exotically with the aroma of the city’s signature coffee and tease our senses.
The temples themselves are an art lover’s paradise, with carvings that are centuries old. Beautiful stone pillars resonate with musical notes with a tap of our finger, dainty maidens in ornamental clothing smile coyly from the temple walls and well sculpted elephants and horses pull stone chariots in the temple square. With so much to see, Ramanujan’s house was last on our list of places to visit.
The house is on the busy street of Sarangapani. It was here that we sat, retracing the genius’s life, in our own limited way — sitting, dreaming, walking on the very earth that Ramanujan once walked.
The house itself is very small. Blue rounded pillars balance the roof. For a visitor, there is nothing much to see except bare roofs, walls and empty rooms. A small room overlooking the busy street has two large windows. A tiny board above the window reads that Ramanujan sat hours looking out of the window. I walked towards the window to get a glimpse of what Ramanujan could have seen. Buses, auto-rickshaws, cycles bustled along the street raising a cloud of dust and drowning our whispers in loud honks. “Ramanujan certainly didn’t see this,” laughed Sid as he continued to look out.
After a couple of minutes, we stepped into the living room. One side of the wall was filled with many mathematical writings. Sid had found the workings of the magic square on a soft board there.
We sat staring at that wall, trying to make sense of those equations. “But then,” said Sid, “if we could, then, we would be mathematicians,” and we nodded in agreement. Yet we sat staring at the writings on the wall before we decided to exit the house. It was only when we stepped out that we noticed the small square sitting area outside. Called thinnai in the local Tamil language, this used to be an integral part of the house in those days. This was a place for socialising — where women sat cleaning the grains or men sat chatting up with fellow passers-by. “Can we sit here for a bit?” I asked the lone security guard who was watching us. “Of course,” he gestured as we settled on the cool floor. We sat there with our backs to the blue pillars and the feet spread on the floor. “Do you think he would have sat here and worked on Math?” Sid asked thoughtfully. “I would like to believe so,” I said as my imagination threw pictures of a little boy running amok in the house.
Well, we may not have visited our ancestral homes, but sitting outside Ramanujan’s house, we bonded over silly tales of yore. And by just sitting there on that thinnai, we believed we caught a glimpse of the man who knew infinity and just maybe we found the key to the world of Mathematics.
—Sudha Subramanian is an author and freelance writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @sudhasubraman.