The Man Who Knew Infinity
A young woman’s review and reflections upon a film that honors a life of genius, and touches on issues confronting Hindus today
BY ANNESHA SENGUPTA, NEW YORK
THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY, DIRECTED by Matthew Brown and based on Robert Kanigel’s 1991 book of the same name, introduces the life of one of the most influential mathematical figures of all time. The film follows Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) from his time as a young mathematical genius in Madras, where he worked as a common accountant, to far-off England, where he worked with (and often baffled) the top mathematicians of Cambridge. The film explores a clash of cultures which remains familiar to Hindus living in the West today, and shows how, throughout his studies and transformations, Ramanujan maintains his cultural heritage and deep Hindu faith, even in the face of racism and xenophobia.
To this day, S. Ramanujan is a legend in mathematical scholarship. He broke new ground in many abstruse fields, including mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series and continued fractions. While he was criticized during his lifetime for not providing adequate proofs for his theories, almost all of his claims were proven correct posthumously. The Ramanujan Journal, established in 1997 and named in his honor, publishes work in all areas of mathematics influenced by him.
When the as-yet-unknown Ramanujan sent some of his work to professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) in Cambridge, Hardy found it so remarkable he first assumed it was a fraud. Finally convinced otherwise, he invited Ramanujan to Trinity College at Cambridge, the setting for most of the film. There Ramanujan faced racism and a lack of understanding about his strong Hindu faith. After much hardship, and a massive campaign by Hardy, he was made the first Indian fellow of Trinity College. But his story is a tragically short one. Soon after becoming a fellow he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, dying at age 32.
The Man Who Knew Infinity traces the arc of this rich yet fleeting life, emphasizing Ramanujan’s devotion to his faith and showing how he attributed his work to it, even while it was mocked or disrespected within the halls of the college.
Watching the movie, I felt a deep connection with Dev Patel’s masterfully portrayed Ramanujan. I am no mathematical genius—I almost failed calculus—but I responded deeply to the way in which he practiced his faith in an environment where Hinduism was seen as something foreign and inconsequential.
Ramanujan saw Hinduism as an intrinsic part of all that he loved—mathematics, his family, and the very soil on which he walked. His faith was as important to him as air or water. He was a brahmin and one of the first scenes of the movie shows him praying to Namagiri, his household Goddess. The scene is familiar to those who, like myself, grew up in a Hindu household. As a child, I would never practice piano or Bharatanatyam without my murtis of Saraswati and Nataraja. I would gently lay them on my piano bench while I practiced my scales, and then move them above the fireplace before I was ready to dance. My non-Hindu friends did not understand this. “What do these murtis have to do with art?” They asked me. Some of them listened, as did Hardy, Ramanujan’s colleague, but others followed their ignorance to the bitter end. Through it all, I’ve always found strength in my Gods. Regardless of what others thought, I felt they imbued me with a vision as I began my study of arts.
I was a child, learning scales and the initial steps to my dance. Ramanujan was a mathematical pioneer who lived a century earlier. The Deities to which we connected were different, but both our souls were linked to the same faith.
Ramanujan’s mother (Arundhati Nag) and bride Janaki (Devika Bhise) were spiritual women, respecting many of the brahmin customs. The centerpiece of the home was their altar, and before Janaki’s arrival, rice was sprinkled around the house, befitting Hindu tradition. Ramanujan’s bosses, on the other hand, found his deep devotion to Namagiri unnecessary, even childish. When his boss learned of his invitation to Cambridge, he urged the young man to accept: “Other people will have a chance to understand you, just not your Namagiri.”
The movie shows clearly that in British-ruled India Indian religions and thoughts were considered less legitimate than British and Christian ones. Despite Ramanujan’s demonstrably brilliant mathematical mind, he continually faced pressure to travel to England; only this would legitimize his genius. For those like me who find themselves practicing Hinduism in an area of the world that is predominantly Christian, this feeling of being illegitimate, somehow “less” than others, is all too familiar. In the public schools of Christian-dominated countries such as the UK and US, children learn Christian theology, as if Christian beliefs applied to all children. Similarly, holidays are provided for Christmas and Easter, but not for Durga Puja (which was very important in my household) and Diwali. In both UK and US, Christmas is actually a national holiday.
For Ramanujan, food in England was also a great challenge. The film depicts this well. On his first night in the dining hall at Cambridge he is offered potatoes—the only apparently vegetarian item on the menu. He takes a bite, only to learn that they were cooked in lard. He stumbles out, disoriented having realized that this environment will not be friendly towards him.
I experienced similar issues throughout my childhood. Hinduism allows for a variety of consumption practices; some of us avoid beef and pork, some of us forgo meat altogether. Several times I have been offered beef without any thought. My Hindu friends have confided in me that they accidentally ate meat, even beef—their friends gave them vegetables cooked in beef stock, or they weren’t told that their burrito contained chicken or beef. The people who gave us these meat products, like the hapless server plopping down lard-cooked potatoes on Ramanujan’s plate, were not acting from malice, but from total and profound ignorance. I have seen Ramanujan’s fear and disorientation on my own face and on the faces of those I love.
Ramanujan’s very journey to England was marked by strife and controversy. According to a tradition known as kala pani (black water) anyone who crossed the ocean would shed their caste. This custom was fading even in Ramanujan’s time; but his family was conservative, and his decision to go to England was considered a betrayal.
“I’m finally here and you talk of crossing the sea? It is forbidden for us,” pleads Janaki with her husband. But Ramanujan calmly responds that if their neighbors rejected them, they would simply move to a more progressive neighborhood.
This conflict between tradition and globalization continues to dominate the personal and public lives of Hindu communities living in India and abroad. How much are we to cleave to conservative traditions? Is it possible to maintain our Hindu faith while letting go of certain tenets that we may deem outdated? This is a question I’ve grappled with and that I continue to grapple with. And it is clearly a question that Ramanujan encountered. One moment in particular stood out to me. When he tells his mother he must move across the ocean, she is praying at the altar. It is an interesting directorial choice; Ramanujan literally pries her away from her religious reverie. Her face is horror-struck when she sees he has cut his hair in the Western style, and she immediately blames the influence of his wife. In the end she, too, turns away from tradition. She allows her son to leave, and later is seen bragging about his publications in a large, appreciative crowd.
But Ramanujan maintained his faith even in England. The movie shows him waking up each morning and lighting incense, wearing the symbolic tilaka on his forehead. “You have something on your forehead,” an ignorant professor remarks. On a small, cold ledge in his sparsely furnished apartment, he lays out his murtis and creates mandalas of sand. Later this small corner becomes the place where he does complicated mathematics.
Throughout the movie, Ramanujan’s faith is shown as a source of great strength, an endless well of perseverance that sustains him across oceans and ideologies. Two of the most powerful scenes occur when faith and math are inextricably linked. In one, Hardy, Ramanujan’s dear friend and a staunch atheist, asks Ramanujan how his formulas come to him. “Namagiri,” he says with profound earnestness, “She puts formulas on my tongue while I sleep. Sometimes while I pray.”
Across the ocean, Janaki is still waiting to hear from her husband, unaware that her mother-in-law has been hiding his many letters to her. When she fears he has abandoned her, she runs to the temple and throws herself on the floor. There she finds scores of formulae written in Ramanujan’s hand before he left. For Ramanujan, math and God are sides of the same coin.
Ramanujan exemplifies the ways in which Hinduism can connect—and I mean this literally—everything. Even when I am not actively engaging with my faith, even when I am admiring art at a museum, doing my taxes, or having lunch with a friend, the formula of faith is all around me. The Man Who Knew Infinity is in many ways an acknowledgment of Hindu connections; Ramanujan’s math is connected to his body, which is connected to those he loves on the other side of the ocean.
The movie also shows that the alienation of Hinduism is not necessary: Hardy, a pronounced atheist, respects Ramanujan despite or perhaps because of his faith. The real tragedy is not Ramanujan’s death but the lack of acceptance by those who cannot open their minds to the beauty of other faiths.
The real Ramanujan once said, “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses the thought of God.” The Man Who Knew Infinity emphasizes this sentiment throughout.
Ramanujan’s body is ultimately defeated by the diseases and unfriendliness of his new climate; but his math, his faith and his spirit remain absolutely eternal, with his divinely inspired work still relevant today.