We gratefully acknowledge David Leavitt and Bloomsbury for the permission to run the following exclusive excerpt from The Indian Clerk.
The letter arrives the last Tuesday in January 1913. At thirty-five, Hardy is a man of habit. Every morning he eats his breakfast, then takes a walk through the Trinity grounds—a solitary walk, during which he kicks at the gravel on the paths as he tries to untangle the details of the proof he's working on. If the weather is fine, he thinks to himself, Dear God, please let it rain, because I don't really want sun pouring through my windows today; I want gloom and shadows so that I can work by lamplight. If the weather is bad, he thinks, Dear God, please don't bring back the sun as it will interfere with my ability to work, which requires gloom and shadow and lamplight.
The weather is fine. After half an hour, he goes back to his rooms, which are good ones, befitting his eminence. Built over one of the archways that lead into New Court, they have mullioned windows through which he can watch the undergraduates passing beneath him on their way to the backs. As always, his gyp has left his letters stacked on the little rosewood table by the front door. Not much of interest today, or so it appears: some bills, a note from his sister, Gertrude, a postcard from his collaborator, Littlewood, with whom he shares the odd habit of communicating almost exclusively by postcard, even though Littlewood lives just on the next court. And then—conspicuous amid this stack of discreet, even tedious correspondence, lumbering and outsize and none too clean, like an immigrant just stepped off the boat after a very long third-class journey—there is the letter. The envelope is brown, and covered with an array of unfamiliar stamps. At first he wonders if it has been misdelivered, but the name written across the front in a precise hand, the sort of hand that would please a schoolmistress, that would please his sister, is his own: G. H. Hardy, Trinity College, Cambridge.
Because he is a few minutes ahead of schedule—he has already read the newspapers at breakfast, checked the Australian cricket scores, shaken his fist at an article glorifying the advent of the automobile—Hardy sits down, opens the envelope, and removes the sheaf of papers that it contains. From some niche in which she has been hiding, Hermione, his white cat, emerges to settle on his lap. He strokes her neck, and she digs her claws into his legs.
"Dear Sir," he reads.
I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course. After leaving school I have been employing the spare time at my disposal to work at Mathematics. I have not trodden the conventional regular course which is followed in a University course, but I am striking out a new path for myself. I have made a special investigation of divergent series in general and the results I get are termed by the local mathematicians as "startling."
He skips to the end of the letter—"S. Ramanujan" is the author's name—then goes back and reads the rest. "Startling," he decides, does not begin to describe the claims the youth has made. For instance, he writes: "Very recently I came across a tract by you styled Orders of Infinity in page 36 of which I find a statement that no definite expression has been as yet found for the number of prime numbers less than any given number. I have found an expression which very nearly approximates to the real result, the error being negligible." Well, if that's the case, it means that the boy has done what none of the great mathematicians of the past sixty years has managed to do. It means that he's improved on the prime number theorem. Which would be startling.
I would request you to go through the enclosed papers. Being poor, if you are convinced that there is anything of value I would like to have my theorems published. I have not given the actual investigations nor the expressions that I get but I have indicated the lines on which I proceed. Being inexperienced I would very highly value any advice you give me. Requesting to be excused for the trouble I give you.
The trouble I give you! Hardy shifts Hermione, much to her annoyance, off his lap, then gets up and moves to his windows. Beneath him, two gowned undergraduates stroll arm in arm toward the archway. Watching them, he thinks of asymptotes, values converging as they near a sum they will never reach: a half foot closer, then a quarter foot, then an eighth… One moment he can almost reach out and touch them, the next—whoosh—they're gone, sucked up by infinity. Now there's a divergent series for you. The envelope from India has left a curious smell on his fingers, of soot and what he thinks might be curry. The paper is cheap. In two places the ink has run.
This is not the first time that Hardy had received letters from strangers. For all its remoteness from the ordinary world, pure mathematics holds a mysterious attraction for cranks of all stripes. Some of the men who have written to Hardy are genuine lunatics, claiming to have in their hands formulae pointing to the location of the lost continent of Atlantis, or to have discovered cryptograms in the plays of Shakespeare indicating a Jewish conspiracy to defraud England. Most, though, are merely amateurs whom mathematics has fooled into believing that they have found solutions to the most famous unsolved problems. I have completed the long-sought proof to Goldbach's Conjecture—Goldbach's Conjecture, stating simply that any even number greater than two could be expressed as the sum of two primes. Needless to say I am loath to send my actual proof, lest it fall into the hands of one who might publish it as his own…Experience suggests that this Ramanujan falls into the latter category. Being poor—as if mathematics has ever made anyone rich! I have not given the actual investigations nor the expressions that I get—as if all the dons of Cambridge are waiting with baited breath to receive them!
Nine dense pages of mathematics accompany the letter. Sitting down again, Hardy looks them over. At first glance, the complex array of numbers, letters, and symbols suggests a passing familiarity with, if not a fluency in, the language of his discipline. Yet how strangely the Indian uses that language! What he is reading, Hardy thinks, is the equivalent of English spoken by a foreigner who has taught the tongue to himself.
He looks at the clock. Quarter past nine. He's fifteen minutes off schedule. So he puts the letter aside, answers another letter (this one from his friend Bohr in Copenhagen), reads the latest issue of Cricket, completes all the puzzles on the "Perplexities" page of the Strand (this takes him—he times it—four minutes), works on the draft of a paper he is writing with Littlewood, and at one precisely puts on his blue gown and walks over to Hall for lunch. God, as he hoped, has disregarded his prayer. The sun is glorious today, warming his face even as he must shove his hands into his pockets. (How he loves cold, bright days!) Then he steps inside Hall, and its gloom muffles the sun so thoroughly his eyes don't have time to adjust. Mounted on a platform above the roar of two-hundred undergraduates, watched over by portraits of Byron and Newton and other illustrious old Trinitarians, twenty or so dons sit at the high table, muttering to one another. A smell of soured wine and old meat hovers. There is an empty seat to Bertrand Russell's left, and Hardy takes it, Russell nodding at him in greeting. Then a prayer is read in Latin; benches scrape, waiters pour wine, the undergraduates begin to eat lustily. Littlewood, across the table from him and five places to the left, has become caught up in conversation with Jackson, an elderly classics don—a pity, as Hardy wants to talk with him about the letter. But perhaps it's just as well. Given some time to think, he might realize it's all nonsense, and spare himself coming off as an idiot.
Although the Trinity menu is written in French, the food is decidedly English: poached turbot, followed by a cutlet, turnips and cauliflower, and some sort of sponge cake in a glutinous sauce. Hardy eats little of it. He has very strong opinions about food, of which the strongest is a detestation of roast mutton that dates back to his days at Winchester, when it seemed that there was never anything else on the menu. And turbot, in his opinion, is the roast mutton of the fish world.
Russell seems to have no problem with the turbot. Although they are good friends, they don't much like each other—a condition of friendship Hardy finds to be much more usual than is usually supposed. For the first few years that he knew him, Russell wore a bushy mustache that, as Littlewood noted, lent to his face a deceptively dim and mild expression. Then he shaved it off, and his face, as it were, caught up with his personality. Now thick brows, darker than the hair on his head, shade eyes that are at once intensely focused and remote. The mouth is sharp and slightly dangerous looking, as if it might bite. Women adore him—in addition to a wife he has a clutch of mistresses—which surprises Hardy, as another of Russell's distinctive features is acute halitosis. The breadth of his intellect and its vigor—his determination not merely to be the greatest logician of his time, but to diagnose human nature, to write philosophy, to enter into politics—impresses and also irritates Hardy, for the voraciousness of such a mind can sometimes look like capriciousness. For instance, in addition to the third volume of his mammoth Principia Mathematica, he has just published a monograph entitled The Problems of Philosophy. And yet tonight it is neither the principles of mathematics nor the problems of philosophy of which he is speaking. Instead he is amusing himself (and not amusing Hardy) by laying out—complete with diagrams sketched on a pad—his translation into logical symbolism of the Deceased Wife's Sister Act, which legalizes the marriage of a widower to his wife's sister; Hardy all the while keeping his face averted so as not to have to take in Russell's acrid breath. When Russell finishes (at last!), Hardy changes the subject to cricket: off-spinners and short legs, hooking mechanisms, the injudicious strategies that, in his opinion, cost Oxford its last game against Cambridge. Russell, as bored by cricket as Hardy is by the Deceased Wife's Sister Act, helps himself to another cutlet. He asks if there are any new players for the university whom Hardy admires, and Hardy mentions an Indian, Chatterjee of Corpus Christi. The summer before, Hardy watched him play in the freshman's match and thought him very good. (Also very handsome—though he does not say this.) Russell eats his gateau avec crème anglaise. It is a considerable relief when at long last the proctor utters the final grace, freeing Hardy to escape logical symbolism and walk over to Grange Road for his daily game of indoor tennis. As it happens, his partner this afternoon is a geneticist called Punnett, with whom he also sometimes plays cricket. And what does Punnett think of Chatterjee? he asks. "Perfectly fine," Punnett says. "They take their cricket seriously over there, you know. When I was in Calcutta, I spent hours on the maidan. We'd watch the young men play and eat the strangest stuff—a sort of puffed rice with a sticky sauce poured over it."
Recollections of Calcutta distract Punnett, and Hardy beats him easily. They shake hands, and he returns to his rooms, wondering whether it's Chatterjee's playing or his handsomeness—a very European handsomeness that the contrasting dark skin only renders all the more unexpected—that has really drawn his attention. Meanwhile Hermione is yowling. The bedder has forgotten to feed her. He mixes tinned sardines, cold boiled rice, and milk in her dish, while she rubs her cheek against his leg. Glancing at the little rosewood table, he sees that the gyp has delivered another postcard from Littlewood, which he ignores as he did the last, not because he doesn't care to read it, but because one of the tenets that governs their partnership is that neither should ever feel obliged to postpone more pressing matters in order to answer the other's correspondence. By adhering to this rule, and others like it, they have established one of the only successful collaborations in the history of their solitary discipline, leading Bohr to quip, "Today, England can boast three great mathematicians: Hardy, Littlewood, and Hardy-Littlewood."
As for the letter, it sits where he had left it, on the table next to his battered rattan reading chair. Hardy picks it up. Is he wasting his time? Better, perhaps, just to toss it in the fire. No doubt others have done so. His is probably just one name on a list, possibly alphabetical, of famous British mathematicians to whom the Indian has sent the letter, one after the other. And if the others tossed the letter in the fire, why shouldn't he? He's a busy man. G. H. Hardy hardly (Hardy hardly) has time to examine the jottings of an obscure Indian clerk…as he finds himself doing now, rather against his will. Or so it feels.
No details. No proofs. Just formulae and sketches. Most of it loses him completely—that is to say, if it's wrong, he has no idea how to determine that it's wrong. It resembles no mathematics he'd ever seen. There are assertions that baffle him completely. What, for instance, is one to make of this?
Such a statement is pure lunacy. And yet, here and there amid the incomprehensible equations, the wild theorems unsupported by proof, there are also these bits that made sense; enough of them to keep him going. Some of the infinite series, for instance, he recognizes. Bauer published the first one, famous for its simplicity and beauty, in 1859.
But how likely is it that the uneducated clerk Ramanujan claims to be would ever have come across this series? Is it possible that he discovered it on his own? And then there is one series that Hardy has never seen before in his life. It reads to him like a kind of poetry:
What sort of imagination could come up with that? And the most miraculous thing—on his blackboard Hardy tests it, to the degree that he can test it—it appears to be correct.
Hardy lights his pipe and begins pacing. In a matter of moments his exasperation has given way to amazement, his amazement to enthusiasm. What miracle has the post brought to him today? Something he's never dreamed of seeing. Genius in the raw? A crude way of putting it. Still…
By his own admission, Hardy has been lucky. As he is perfectly happy to tell anyone, he comes from humble people. One of his grandfathers was a laborer and foundryman, the other the turnkey at Northampton County Gaol. (He lived on Fetter Street.) Later this grandfather, the maternal one, apprenticed as a baker. And Hardy—he really is perfectly happy to tell anyone this—would probably be a baker himself today, had his parents, Isaac and Sophia, not made the wise decision to become teachers. Around the time of his birth Isaac Hardy was named bursar at Cranleigh School in Surrey, and it was to Cranleigh that Hardy was sent. From Cranleigh he went on to Winchester, from Winchester to Trinity, slipped through doors that would normally have been shut to him because men and women like his parents held the keys. After that, nothing impeded his ascent to exactly the position he dreamed of occupying years ago, and which he should, by rights, occupy, because he is talented and has worked hard. And now here is a young man, living somewhere in the depths of a city the squalor and racket of which Hardy can scarcely imagine, who appears to have fostered his gift entirely on his own, in the absence of either schooling or encouragement. Genius Hardy has encountered before. Littlewood possesses it, he believes, as does Bohr. In both their cases, though, discipline and knowledge were provided from early on, giving genius a recognizable shape. Ramanujan's is wild and incoherent, like a climbing rose that should have been trained to wind up a trellis but instead runs riot.
A memory assails him. Years before, when he was a child, his school held a pageant, an "Indian bazaar," in which he played the role of a maiden draped in jewels and wrapped in some Cranleigh school version of a sari. A friend of his, Avery, was a knife-wielding ghurka, who threatened him…Odd, he hasn't thought of that pageant in ages, yet now, as he remembers it, he realizes that this paste and colored-paper facsimile of the exotic east, in which brave Englishmen battled natives for the cause of empire, is the image his mind summons up every time India is mentioned to him. He can't deny it: he has a terrible weakness for the gimcrack. A bad novel determined his career. In the ordinary course of things, Wykehamists (as Winchester men were called) went to New College, Oxford, with which Winchester had close alliances. But then Hardy read A Fellow of Trinity, the author of which, "Alan St. Aubyn" (really Mrs. Frances Marshall), described the careers of two friends, Flowers and Brown, both undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge. Together, they negotiate a host of tribulations, until, at the end of their tenure, the virtuous Flowers wins a fellowship, while the wastrel Brown, having succumbed to drink and ruined his parents, is banished from the academy and becomes a missionary. In the last chapter, Flowers thinks wistfully of Brown, out among the savages, as he drinks port and eats walnuts after supper in the senior combination room.
It was that moment in particular—the port and the walnuts—that Hardy relished. Yet even as told himself that he hoped to become Flowers, the one he dreamed of—the one who lay close to him in his bed in dreams—was Brown.
And of course, here is the joke: now that he lives at Trinity, the real Trinity, a Trinity that resembles not in the least "Alan St. Aubyn's" fantasy, he never goes after supper to the senior combination room. He never takes port and walnuts. He loathes port and walnuts. All that is much more Littlewood's thing. Reality has a way of erasing the idea of a place that the imagination musters in anticipation of seeing it—a truth that saddens Hardy, who knows that if ever he traveled to Madras, steeped himself in whatever brew the real Madras really is, then that pageant stage at Cranleigh, bedecked with pinks and blue banners and careful children's drawings of goddesses with waving multiple arms, would be erased. Avery, swaggering toward him with his paper sword, would be erased. And so for this moment only can he take pleasure in imagining Ramanujan, dressed rather as Avery was dressed, writing out his infinite series amidst Oriental splendors, even though he suspects that in fact the young man wastes his days sorting and stamping documents, probably in a windowless room in a building the English gloom of which not even the brilliant sun of the east can melt away.
There is nothing else to do. He must consult Littlewood. And not, this time, by postcard. No, he will go and see Littlewood. Carrying the envelope, he will make the walk—all forty paces of it—to D Staircase, Nevile's Court, and knock on Littlewood's door.
Every corner of Trinity has a story to tell. D staircase of Nevile's Court is where Lord Byron once resided, and kept his pet bear, Bruin, whom he walked on a lead in farcical protest of the college rule against keeping dogs.
Now Littlewood lives here—perhaps (Hardy isn't sure) in the very rooms where Bruin once romped. First floor. It is nine o'clock in the evening—after dinner, after soup and Dover sole and pheasant and cheese and port—and Hardy is sitting on a stiff settee before a guttering fire, watching as Littlewood pushes his wheeled wooden chair from his desk and rolls himself across the floor, without once averting his eyes from the Indian's manuscript. Will he crash into a wall? No: he comes to a halt at a spot near the front door and crosses his legs at the ankles. Socks, no shoes. His glasses are tipped low on his nose, from which little snorts of breath escape, stirring the hairs of a mustache that, in Hardy's view, does little for his face. (Little for Littlewood.) But he would never say so, even if asked, which he never would be. Although they have been collaborating for several years now, this is only the third time that Hardy has ever visited Littlewood in his rooms.
"'I have found a function which exactly represents the number of prime numbers less than x,'" Littlewood reads aloud. "Too bad he doesn't give it."
"I rather think he's hoping that by not giving it, he'll be able to entice me to write back to him. Dangling the carrot."
"And will you?"
"I'm inclined to, yes."
"I would." Littlewood puts down the letter. "Look, what's he asking for? Help in publishing his stuff. Well, if it turns out there's something there, we can—and should—help him. Providing he gives us more details."
"And some proofs."
"What do you think of the infinite series, by the way?"
"Either they came to him in a dream or he's keeping some much more general theorem up his sleeve."
With his stockinged foot, Littlewood rolls himself back to his desk. Outside the window, elm branches rustle. It's the hour when, even on a comparatively mild day like this, winter reasserts itself, sending little incursions of wind round the corners, up through the cracks in the floorboards, under the doors. Hardy wishes that Littlewood would get up and stoke the fire. Instead he keeps reading. He is twenty-seven years old, and though he is not tall, he gives an impression of bulk, of breadth; evidence of the years he spent doing gymnastics. Hardy, by contrast, is fine boned and thin, his athleticism more the wiry cricketer's than the agile gymnast's. Though many people, men as well as women, have told him that he is handsome, he considers himself hideous, which is why, in his rooms, there is not a single mirror. When he stays in hotels, he tells people, he covers the mirrors with cloth.
Littlewood is in his way a Byronic figure, Hardy thinks, or at least as Byronic as it is possible for a mathematician to be. For instance, every warm morning he strolls through New Court with only a towel wrapped around his waist to bathe in the Cam. This habit caused something of a scandal back in 1905, when he was nineteen, and newly arrived at Trinity. Soon word of his dishabille had spread as far as King's, with the result that Oscar Browning and Goldie Dickinson started coming round in the mornings—this though neither had a reputation for being an early riser. "Don't you love the springtime?" O. B. would ask Goldie, as Littlewood gave them a wave.
Both O. B. and Goldie, of course, are Apostles. So are Russell and Lytton Strachey. And John Maynard Keynes. And Hardy himself. Today the Society's secrecy is something of a joke, thanks mostly to the recent publication of a rather inaccurate history of its early years. Now anyone who cares to know knows that at their Saturday evening meetings, the "brethren"—each of whom has a number—eat "whales" (sardines on toast), and that one of them delivers a philosophical paper while standing on the "hearthrug," and that these papers are stored in an old cedar wood trunk called the "ark." It is also common knowledge that most of the members of "that" society are "that" way. The question is, does Littlewood know? And if so, does he care?
Now he stands from his chair and walks, in that determined way of his, to the fire. Flames rise from the coals as he stokes them. The cold has got to Hardy, who in any case feels ill at ease in this room, with its mirrors and the Broadwood piano and that smell that permeates the air, of cigars and blotting paper and, above all, Littlewood: a smell of clean linens and wood smoke and something else—something human, biological—that Hardy hesitates to identify. This is one of the reasons that they communicate by postcard. You can speak of Riemann's zeta function in terms of the "mountains" and "valleys" where its values, when charted on a graph, rise and fall, yet if you start actually imagining the climb, tasting the air, searching for water, you will be lost. Smell—of Littlewood, of the Indian's letter—interferes with the ability to navigate the mathematical landscape, which is why, quite suddenly, Hardy finds himself feeling ill, anxious to return to the safety of his own rooms. Indeed, he has already got up and is about to say goodbye when Littlewood rests his hot hand on his shoulder. "Don't go just yet," he says, sitting Hardy down again. "I want to play you something." And he puts a record on the gramophone.
Hardy does as he is told. Noise issues forth from the gramophone. That's all it is to him. He can ascertain rhythm and patterns, a succession of triplets and some sort of narrative, but it gives him no pleasure. He hears no beauty. Perhaps this is due to some deficiency in his brain. It frustrates him, his inability to appreciate an art in which his friend takes such satisfaction. Likewise dogs. Let others natter on about their sterling virtues, their intelligence and loyalty. To him they are smelly and annoying. Littlewood, on the other hand, loves dogs, as did Byron. He loves music. Indeed, as the stylus makes its screechy progress across the record, he seems to enter into a sort of concentrated rapture, closing his eyes, raising his hands, playing the air with his fingers.
At last the record finishes. "Do you know what that was?" he asks, lifting the needle.
Hardy shakes his head.
"Beethoven. First movement of the Moonlight Sonata."
"I'm teaching myself to play, you know. Of course I'm no Mark Hambourg, and never will be." He sits down again, next to Hardy this time. "You know who it was who first introduced me to Beethoven, don't you? Old O. B. When I was an undergraduate, he was always inviting me to his rooms. Maybe it was the glamour of my being senior wrangler. He had a pianola, and he played me the Waldstein on it."
"Yes, I knew he was musical."
"Peculiar character, O. B. Did you hear about the time a party of ladies interrupted him after his bathe? All he had was a handkerchief, but instead of covering his privates, he covered his face. 'Anyone in Cambridge would recognize my face,' he said."
Hardy laughs. Even though he's heard the story a hundred times, he doesn't want to take away from Littlewood the pleasure of thinking that he is telling it to him for the first time. In fact, though, Cambridge is full of stories about O. B. that begin this way. "Did you hear about the time O. B. was dining with the King of Greece?" "Did you hear about the time O. B. went to Bayreuth?" "Did you hear about the time O. B. was on a corridor train with thirty Winchester boys?" (The last of these Hardy doubts that Littlewood has heard.)
"Anyway, ever since then, it's been Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart for me. Once I learn, they're the only composers I'll play."
He gets up again, removes the record from the gramophone and returns it to its sleeve.
Dear God, please let him take out another record and put it on the gramophone. I'm in the mood for music, hours and hours of music.
The ruse works. Littlewood looks at his watch. Maybe he wants to work, or write to Mrs. Chase.
Hardy is just reaching for Ramanujan's letter when Littlewood says, "Do you mind if I keep that tonight? I'd like to look it over more carefully."
"Then perhaps we can talk in the morning. Or I'll send you a note. I rather imagine I'll be up most of the night with it."
"As you please."
"Hardy—in all seriousness, maybe we should think about bringing him over. Make some enquiries, at least. I know I may sound as if I'm jumping the gun…"
"No, I was thinking the same thing. I could write to the India Office, see if they've got any money for this sort of thing."
"He may be the man to prove the Riemann hypothesis."
Hardy raises his eyebrows. "Really?"
"Who knows? Because if he's done all this on his own, it might mean he's free to move in directions we haven't thought of. Well, goodnight, Hardy."
They shakes hands. Shutting the door behind him, Hardy hurries down the steps of D Staircase, crosses Nevile's Court to New Court, ascends to his rooms. Forty-three paces. His gyp has kept up his fire, in front of which Hermione now lies curled atop her favorite ottoman, the buttoned blue velvet one. "Capitonné," Gaye—who knew about such things—called the buttoning. He even had a special cover made for the ottoman, so that Hermione could scratch at it without damaging the velvet. Gaye adored Hermione; spoke, in the days before he died, of commissioning her portrait: a feline Odalisque, nude but for an immense emerald hung round her neck on a satin ribbon. Now the cover itself is in tatters.
Should they bring the Indian to England? As he mulls over the idea, Hardy's heart starts to beat faster. He cannot deny that it excites him, the prospect of rescuing a young genius from poverty and obscurity and watching him flourish…Or perhaps what excites him is the vision he has conjured up, in spite of himself, of Ramanujan: a young ghurka, brandishing a sword. A young cricketer.
Outside his window, the moon rises. Soon, he knows, the gyp will arrive with his evening whiskey. He will drink it by himself tonight, with a book. Curious, the room feels emptier than usual—so whose presence is he missing? Gaye's? Littlewood's? An odd sensation, this loneliness that, so far as he can tell, has no object, at the other end of which no mirage of a face shimmers, no voice summons. And then he realizes what it is that he misses. It is the letter.