Monday, August 27, 2007
Friday, August 24, 2007
Thursday, August 23, 2007
On several occasions, Kanigel tries hard to describe what Ramanujan is not. Kanigel has obviously spent considerable time in India, where the hype surrounding Ramanujan is tremendous, compared to America. People in India strongly believe Ramanujan couldn't put a foot wrong. Well Ramanujan was wrong, albeit only very few times. But he has made an error or two. So Kanigel tries to put in perspective the few instances in which Ramanujan was wrong. The case where Ramanujan claims to have found, a function, for the number of prime numbers less than x (for example if you supplied a value for 'x', say 32671, then the function would tell you how many prime numbers fall between 0 and 32671), is quoted in great detail. The only problem I had with this is that I was always cut off from Ramanujan's hype. So would most American readers. In an attempt to compensate, balance, and possibly moderate an invisible hype surrounding Ramanujan, Kanigel's presentation of 'both sides' comes out as rather negative. In fact upon reading the book, you don't immediately get why Ramanujan was called a genius. Kanigel uses a lot of subtlety in saying that. You have to pause and think before going - wow! I felt the positives could have been highlighted in more detail - even if it was done so with the aid of metaphors - so that a uninitiated reader can understand the reason behind Ramanujan's genius.
Another negative aspect that I found about Kanigel's presentation of Ramanujan's story was his filling up of gaps in Ramanujan's life. He knew about India's struggle for independence, and the first world war. Both happened when Ramanujan was reasonably close to ground zero. And Kanigel weaves a narration that implies that Ramanujan's life could not have been left untouched by such factors. I have my own doubts on this. However, on parts of the book that indulges in social commentary, Kanigel does not say his opinions in his own words. He carefully cherry picks and quotes other authors of Politicial, social books of that time to make his point. I thought this was an interesting way to narrate your point without being apolitical.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
A cousin of mine claimed to be a Ramanujan expert and kept doing square roots for arbitrary license plate numbers he saw. He even told me that Ramanujan wrote awesome theorems, which were burnt in a fire accident leaving us with only conclusions and no proof. Another old man told me that the white man stole Ramanujan's work, took credit and killed him through starvation. I understood all this to be untrue as I read this book. More importantly it convinced me that the closer you go to people, who are so called 'Ramanujan experts', the more you will get disappointed. As Kanigel puts it, many try and relate Ramanujan's work to the common man by comparing him with Bach, Beethoven, and Michelangelo. I have been listening to Beethoven for a decade, and I can't say I fully understand him either. So understanding and taking pleasure from Ramanujan's work through comparisons with art is "for a layman, to be sure, this is an ultimately unsatisfying way to confront Ramanujan's mathematics, for it keeps us at several removes from what he did, leaves us having to take others word for it, looking at his mathematical achievements through a blurry film of metaphor, poetry, and, yes, ignorance. True, the composition of a sonata maybe equally mysterious; but the result more intimately involves the five senses."
Robert Kanigel's book has been on my 'To Read' list for a really long time. Once as a guest to some body's house in Dallas, I got so bored with the proceedings of the evening dinner that I decided to take this book from a shelf and read it. I read about 70-80 pages. I was so fascinated by Kanigel's grasp of South Indian life that I decided to read the book in entirety later, which did not happen until recently. Remember, this book is meant for an American audience. To capture South Indian life, more precisely, Kumbakonam life, is not an easy task. Yet, Kanigel's preciseness is amazing. The details that he can grasp, he grasps well and presents it with a depth that very few foreign writers about Tamil Nadu have managed. You get none of the stereotyping, approximations and glossing over that other North Indian and foreign writers tend to do while writing about Tamil Nadu. For example, he casually mentions that a marriage is over only after the 'sapthapathi' is complete - which - not many South Indian Brahmin's know. He delves deep into aspects of Ramanujan's customs, rituals, more specifically his Brahmanism, vegetarianism. The analysis on Ramanujan's habit of eating with his hand and the precautions such people take in everyday life to keep that hand clean is simply amazing. Kanigel's attention to detail is outstanding and more often than not - on an un-American subject, he comes out with an accurate analysis - something which even authors from Tamil Nadu fail to do. And if you feel he got it wrong somewhere, think again.
Briefly Ramanujan's story had 3 aspects; 1) Mathematics; Ramanujan worked in an area called pure Mathematics. This is an area of mathematics that rarely, if ever, has any practical application. It will not help the world become better than what it already is. If it does, its purely accidental. Ramanujan's genius lay in his understanding of numbers and its properties. It was purely pure. Hardy was a mathematician who clearly disliked people's penchant for applied Mathematics. He detested it and believed in Math for Math's sake. So Ramanujan-Hardy was a near perfect marriage. Ramanujan schooled in Sarangapani Sannathi Street, Kumbakonam, was unexposed to progress of modern Mathematics in Europe, and so ended up reinventing theorems already invented by Euler or Jacobi. This does not diminish, in fact it adds to, Ramanujan's greatness. However, it significantly wasted his time. Carr's book of formulas, which was a pocket formulae book of sorts that contained only final conclusions/theorems and no proofs, greatly influenced Ramanujan in his formative years. Because of that book, Ramanujan truly believed that Math was done and dealt with in end results. Many can have this wrong assumption but to continue doing Math in such a style - you need to be Ramanujan. Either the book accelerated Ramanujan's horsepower or Ramanujan was already super-intelligent - Ramanujan's intuition powered him to directly provide a solution for many problems without going through a formal proof process (so much for my cousin's fire theory) . That he was able to see properties for numbers, which others hardly saw, made his art look like magic. But he wasn't a human calculator, which is a lower form of genius. He was a very intuitive person. Hardy's 'prove it' attitude greatly, but correctly, altered Ramanujan's working style. For his mathematics, Ramanujan was considered equivalent of Math gods such as Euler and Jacobi, which is pretty much the highest honor a mathematician can receive. If his life hadn't been terminated, Math would have been immensely richer.
2) Ramanujan/Hardy's Personal Life: Ramanujan was an orthodox Iyengar, who was subject to the customs of his time. He was fat, was mama's little obedient boy with little interest in sports. You could call him a Thayir Sadham (curd rice) and you would be partially correct. But only partially. Kanigel brings out Ramanujan's social ineptness very well. In contrast, Hardy was, well, gay. Which in orthodox 18/19th century England was blasphemous. Hardy was also a cricket fanatic and lawn tennis player apart from being a handsome man with excellent social skills. Both were rebels in their own form and style. Ramanujan was, though not wretchedly but, unbelievably poor. He couldn't afford education. Lost his scholarship, failed in exams, and ran away from home. He led a life, which in those days bordered on knife's edge. Nobody, not even him, knew how he would survive the next day. A life, which in today's world will be considered ridiculous. The only typical thing is his life was that; he married a girl almost a decade younger than him, his mother ill-treated that girl and kept them apart. However, unlike most daughter-in-laws, Ramanujan's wife ran away when he was in England and returned only when he came back. Not only did he have such probems burning background while he was busy being a genius, Ramanujan, himself, was an ultra-sensitive person, bordering on super-eccentric genius. He urinated/excreted on the math papers, when he found out that his 'original' work had already been invented by Euler. He ran away from his England home, when his guests did not appreciate his cooking. He tried to commit suicide because he wasn't as productive as he thought he would be(his sickness kept him away from math).
3) Ramanujan, a pioneer NRI: People forget that NRIs (Non Resident Indians) weren't common during Ramanujan's time (1914). Yes, Indians were slaves, workers, barristers and all that but we didn't belong to anything remotely upper class. The travel, the culture shock, the racism (India was British colony) that he might have faced while mingling with low-class British cannot be understated. But the religious connotations are also fascinating; "For an orthodox Hindu - and Ramanujan came from a very orthodox Hindu family - travelling to Europe or America represented a form of pollution. It was in the same category as publicly discarding the sacred thread, eating beef, or marrying a widow. And, traditionally, it had the same outcome - exclusion from caste. That meant your friends and relatives would not have you to their homes. You could find no bride or bridegroom for your child. Your married daughter couldn't visit you without herself risking ex-communication. Sometimes you couldn't go into temples. You couldn't even get the help of a fellow caste man for a funeral of a family member. Here was the grim, day-to-day meaning of the word out caste." Ramanujan was a rebel who not only defied such a disproportionate challenge but also adapted, mingled and mixed with the English to the point where visiting Indian students called him Socially 'good'.
It is the combination of the three incredible aspects of Ramanujan's life that makes it so interesting, romantic and sexy. Not his Math, which awesome as it might have been, is clearly beyond common man's grasp. What I understood was that - just being genius in mathematics was not enough for Ramanujan. He had to contend with family chaos, dislocation from his reality and the inherent mental imbalances that his math abilities had given him. This is the part that a common man usually grasps. This is what makes Ramanujan's story fascinating for the common man. The fact that these worldy aspects curtailed Ramanujan's career is as interesting as the fact that such a career was curtailed.
To Be Continued.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Friday, August 10, 2007
The show goes on.
Thursday, August 09, 2007
Thiru-VithuvaKodu in Thamizh and Thiru-MithaKodu in Malayalam is a temple situated 2 Kms from Pattambi Railway station. It is one among the 13 Malai-Naadu (Kerala) Divya Kshethrams, part of the larger 108 kshethras. It is en route between Sheranur - Calicut and can also be reached on the Coimbatore - Guruvayur route if you skip Thrissur route and take the Pattambi route. You need to ask for directions once every kilometer. Its 10-14 kms from Guruvayur-Pattambi junction. This is a Krishna temple, similar to Guruvayur, but it also has sculptors of the Pandavas. What makes it really special is its location. It is situated milli-meters away from a river called Bhaarath-Puzha, which is probably half a kilometer wide and is filled with water to the brim. The temple seems to be perched on top of a hill'ish sort of mound jutting into the river. The temple is on the part of the mound above the river. Add to it several hundred trees that surround the place and you literally get heaven on earth. The slight drizzle and the clouded skies made the whole place look like a picture. The place looked extremely private and I was told a decent swim was also possible in the river. This temple is open between 6:30 AM to 10:30 AM and from 5:00 PM to 7:30 PM (though many in coimbatore complained that they don't open until 6:00 PM). It is a government temple, part of Devasom.
Coimbatore is a fantastic place. Its a stinking rich place too.The number of filthy rich people per square foot would astound you. Apart from being close to the textile hot-spot 'Manchester of India' - Thiruppur, it is prime marketing test bed for luxury car manufacturers. With its cool temperatures it would make an excellent place for these software tech parks. Added to that Kovai thamizh is probably the sexiest thamizh around. Like pretty much everything else concerning Tamil Nadu it is poorly marketed. Whenever I visit Guruvayur, I usually prefer an overnight train from Madras to Coimbatore and a 3 hour drive (a fantastic scenic drive) to Guruvayur. Mainly because there is no good place( I mean a clean luxurious place with a clean restaurant) to stay in Guruvayur. That the drive is simply awesome and you get to buy fresh Nenthram Chips is an added reason. This time that drive was a let down. The road was damaged by rain and it took us over 4 hours to get to Guruvayur. The chickenguniya scare meant that I did not even venture into the dirty restaurants of Guruvayur - even by mistake. Nenthram chips was also out of question for the same reason.
On the subject of food while at Guruvayur; There is a fake Saravana Bhavan that, from memory, sux. Krishna Vilas is reputed to be a good restaurant that I haven't yet checked out. The Asbestos covered path to the temple starts in the middle of the road until the main entrance of the temple. There are a few restaurants in that path. I have eaten in all those restaurants bar one, and they are all bad. Especially the brahmin hotel that is at the start of the road. I haven't seen a more uncomfortable yucky restaurant in my life. As much as I think that Malayalam is the sexiest language in India, I do not think high of Kerala food. The size of the rice (which is compared with size of plucked-out eyes) is a big downer. The thickness of dosai should be 0.5 millimeter in the center and 0.7 millimeter on the side. Not 0.5 and 1 cm (or meters) which is really Uthappam specs (Karnataka, please note this point - and kaara chutney baeda, please).
Guruvayur is not crowded during weekdays and this is off-season. So the wait wasn't more than 20 minutes. I could in fact come out and do a second darshan. I guess everybody now knows that Guruvayur has started allowing women dressed in salwar into the temple. This is done to facilitate people from N. India. In case you didn't know before, you heard it here first:-). My father was clamoring for shirts-allowed rule, which in my opinion has slim to negligible chance of getting implemented. Usually my complaint (well lets say kurai) with Kerala temples is that the idols are extremely small. The 'saligrama' size idol is what one would find in Badrinath (which is also a Namboodhri based temple). The idol sizes (for most Vishnu temples) in Kerala is smaller than that. My estimate is that the average idol size is 30 cms tall and 15 cms wide. It might be slightly bigger but I guess you get my drift. It would be interesting to do some research on the reasons behind this variance among temples in South India. Temples located in areas that later became part of Tamil Nadu are seriously huge (for example Thirukarangkudi temple near Thirunelveli is really really huge - somewhere above 90th percentile in terms of hugeness with Thirupathi being around 60th percentile) - whereas temples that are just a few kilometers away from Naanguneri, now part of Kerala have miniscule idols. Another interesting thing about Kerala temples is the absolute silence. None of the 'govinda govinda' 'amma magamaayi' 'appane' 'jai radhe shaam' yells can be heard here. I remember my uncle walked into Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple, Thiru-anantha Puram chanting Vishnu Sahasranamam. He recalls the incident with a one liner; 'Since I was queitly chanting it, I was quietly asked to shut up'.
So anyway back to topic. I usually come out of Guruvayur thinking 'Krishna saw me' rather than the more active 'I saw Krishna'. The area surrounding the main idol is so dark and the idol itself is so small that you end up staring into - well - a poorly lit place. You can't really say for sure, if you really got the shape of the idol or not. For the past one week preceeding my visit to Guruvayur that was the subject of my complaint. The Guruvayur temple's idol is located a 20-25 feet away from the queue/viewing area. Its almost as if the idol is inside a dark cave. Given that you will hear the Jaragandi equalant - 'nadakkum' sound within 2 seconds you barely have time to figure out whats what, before you are whisked off. The ornate deepams that are found in Kerala are lit only at some points during the day. Given the way my probabilities work, they are never lit when I am around. This time luckily, they had a Kalinga Nartham get up for Lord Krishna. I learned that the idol is always in the same standing posture, but the Sandal carving and decoration in front of the idol changes. The lights were lit and I could see the cross-legged Kalinga posture. Since the crowd was minimal they let me stay for close to a minute before saying 'nadakkum'. The temple timings for Guruvayur is usually not well advertised. I know for sure that they close between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM. I have done a Nethriya Darshan at 4:30AM. So they are certainly open between 4 AM and 1:00PM with a 1 hour shut-time in between. I have no clue about evening timings.
On the way back Annalakshmi is a pretty good restaurant to eat in Coimbatore. Anna poorna has a good set up in People's Park. This time, on the day I visited, the court decisions on the Coimbatore blast were given out and so there was some commotion. An enduring memory of Guruvayur always persists. There is a stage right outside the temple. Many many years ago my grandfather took me for a Kathakali performance of Ramayana enacted in that stage. It was a stunning performance. Their facial contortions and effects made me a fan but that wasn't all. In the end, Ravana runs into the crowd. He literally runs until the last row of the stage. Rama shoots an arrow into Ravana from the stage. It not only hits Ravana straight on his back but the arrow pierces into the costume and sticks. I have no clue what material the arrow and Ravanas clothes were made of. You need to have some talent to pull that off.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Friday, August 03, 2007
Today, a combination of circumstances saw me walk into a lecture on Brahma Sutras. This was a convoluted, complicated subject and I felt the book wasn't enough and some supplemental verbal explanation was required. My grandma and her brother were attending a class on this and I decided to be a guest student. When I walked into the room, I felt that - if you divided the age of the youngest person in the room by 1 million, I would still be younger than that number by about 3 million years. The sharpest eye among them couldn't see beyond 2 Milli meters and they had to hold the book inside their eyelids. Some of them were born before dinosaurs lived on earth. Many had seen Ramayana live and were on a 'vaa da po da' basis with Rama. I looked like a superman among these people. As incredible as it sounds, in that group, I was faster than speed of light, I had 'laser' vision which could penetrate everything except lead. All those people looked at me with some curiosity. At the end of the lecture, the lecturer pointed to me and said "kutti paiyan vanthirukkan, unakku ithellam ethavthu puriyartha'pa kuzhanthai" (a small boy has come, do you understand any of this child). I safely said 'no'. Didn't want to even say 'sort of'. If he had asked me to repeat what I 'sort of' learned to the oldie crowd I have no clue what I would have done. Everybody laughed at my answer and said 'in time you will understand'.