And always the nagging question: What might have been, had he been discovered a few years earlier, or lived a few years longer? Ramanujan was a simple man. His needs were simple. So were his manners, his humor. He was no idiot savant; he was intelligent in realms outside mathematics, persistent, hardworking, and even, in his own way, charming. But by the lights of Cambridge or, for that matter, of Calcutta or Bombay, he was supremely narrow and naive. Something so small as Mahalanobis's lesson in the art of blanketing could leave him "extremely touched."
He was shamed by the most insignificant slight. His letters, outside their mathematical content, are barren of grace or subtlety. The story of Ramanujan is the story of an inscrutable intellect and a simple heart. It is a story of the clash of cultures between India and the West, between the world of Sarangapani Sannidhi Street in Kumbakonam in South India, where Ramanujan grew up, and the glittering world of Cambridge; between the pristine proofs of the Western mathematical tradition and the mysterious powers of intuition with which Ramanujan dazzled East and West alike. It is a story of one man and his stubborn faith in his Own abilities.
But it is not a story that concludes, Genius will out-though Ramanujan's, in the main, did. Because so nearly did events turn out otherwise that we need no imagination to see how the least bit less persistence, or the least bit less luck, might have consigned him to obscurity. In a way, then, his is also a story about social and educational systems, and about how they matter, and how they can sometimes nurture talent and sometimes crush it. How many Ramanujans, his life begs us to ask, dwell in India today, unknown and unrecognized? And how many in America and Britain, locked away in racial or economic ghettos, scarcely aware of worlds outside their own?
His is a story, too, about what you do with genius once you find it. Ramanujan was brought to Cambridge by an English mathematician of aristocratic mien and peerless academic credentials, G. H. Hardy, to whom he had written for help. Hardy saw that Ramanujan was a rare flower, one not apt to tolerate being stuffed methodically full of all the mathematical knowledge he'd never acquired in India. "I was afraid," he wrote, "that if I insisted unduly on matters which Ramanujan found irksome, I might destroy his confidence and break the spell of his inspiration."
Ramanujan was a man who grew up praying to stone deities; who for most of his life took counsel from a family goddess, declaring it was She to whom his mathematical insights were owed; whose theorems would, at intellectually backbreaking cost, be proved true-yet leave mathematicians baffled that anyone could divine them in the first place. Ramanujan's story is about an uncommon and individual mind, and what its quirks may suggest about creativity, intuition, and intelligence.