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[694] The Indian Clerk – David Leavitt

1clerk

” Human situations, on the other hand, are complex and multiform. To understand them you must take into account not only misunderstandings, occasions, circumstances, but the mystery of human nature, which is as rife with contradictions as the foundational landscape of mathematics. ” (Part 9, p.447)

I am not sure exactly what “fictive biography” is why it matters, but The Indian Clerk, like many novels in the genre of historical fiction, employs real characters to construct a story that shines light on the immense gulf that divides us culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. The book is dextrously wrought and deviously researched. The Indian clerk in the title is Srinivasa Ramanujan, the celebrated mathematics genius who fetched up at Trinity College, Cambridge, six months before the start of the first world war. Although a fair amount of the narrative is written in the third person, the author’s proxy is Ramanujan’s sponsor, a leading figure in mathematics at the time, H.H. Hardy, who receives the original letter from the Madras shipping clerk and who, with his colleague Littlewood, makes arrangements for Ramanujan’s arrival. The self-taught maverick, rejected by his own society, is trying to prove Riemann hypothesis, a formula for calculating the number of prime numbers. But interspersed with the prodigy’s mathematical feat and life in Cambridge are great issues, focused and rooted in on the human front that makes this novel a gem.

God had nothing to do with it. Proof was what connected you to the truth. (Part 1, p.33)

The Indian Clerk is a study of differences, of oppositions, of human kindness. Hardy and Ramanujan are completely different people. One from west and the other east. Imperial homeland and infiltrating colony. God-disdaining atheist and a Hindu goddess-relying observer. Mathematics is what draws Ramanujan away from the social awkwardness conjoins him with Hardy. Despite his genius, he remains a studiously enigmatic presence in the book, uttering only conventional pleasantries and suffering repercussions of the intolerable situation at home, between his tyrant mother and recalcitrant wife by arranged marriage.

And so when the Hindu adheres to certain prohibitions and strictures for the sake of propriety and decorum, rather than because he accepts the doctrines of his religion as literally true, he is not acting as a hypocrite . . . (Part 4, p.202)

The interaction between Hardy and Ramanujan is on center stage, but the many peripheral characters give the book its social texture and periodical background. Many aspects of the book are very nuanced: the misanthropic, homosexual Hardy’s dealings with his bluetstocking sister Gertrude, his membership in the secret society of which many members are gay, the insularity that the math contest embodies, the don’s wife Alice Neville’s secret passion for Rmanujan, Littlewood’s affair with Ann Chase who would not divorce her husband, and Bertrand Russell’s loss of college fellowship for opposing the war, and a visit by D.H. Lawrence who offers grim opinion on marriage,

The fictionalized account is like a fairy tale in which a Westerner recognizes an undiscovered talent and seeks to unearth and display his luster. But at heart it’s revealing the unlikely but deep friendship of two men and their struggles, rooted in their upbringing and inveterate traditions.

485 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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