Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy: Notes on the 100th Anniversary of their Friendship at the Height of Empire

Sometimes communion is harder to parse than antagonism. What leads people to take risks and violate taboos to express solidarity and friendship? This is a central question for E. M. Forster in Passage to India, which I am teaching right now. It is also the central question in the fascinating real-life story of the friendship between the British mathematician G. H. Hardy and his Indian counterpart Srinivasa Ramanujan, who went to England to collaborate with Hardy a few short years before Forster wrote Passage to India. (An Indian film about Ramanujan in Tamil and English has been released this year to mixed reviews.)

Srinivasa Ramanujan was, I am told, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century—I have no expertise in mathematics, and so I rely on the testimony of others here. But, mathematics aside, how do we evaluate the personal dimension—not to be understood as separate from the ideological—in Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy? For five years following his arrival in England in 1914, Ramanujan formed an unlikely friendship with Hardy—one that Hardy called “the one romantic incident in my life.” Against all odds in that great age of empire and racism, Ramanujan and Hardy, so different in backgrounds, managed to regard each other with respect.

It might be tempting to conclude that in the Ramanujan-Hardy episode we have evidence of the objectivity of science—of the capacity of scientists to recognize worth regardless of background. But Hardy was not the first British mathematician to whom Ramanujan wrote. E. W. Hobson and H. F. Baker, also renowned Oxbridge mathematicians, had already rejected Ramanujan by the time Ramanujan’s famous letter introducing himself reached Hardy. Ramanujan’s biographer Robert Kanigel recounts too the prejudice that got in the way of Ramanujan’s success once he was in Cambridge.

How then do we account for the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship, so contrary to its times? Kanigel in his biography emphasizes how much at a tangent Hardy’s character was to the mainstream. He was a militant atheist, a pacifist, possibly homosexual, who routinely espoused sympathy for unions and labor agitations. In short, Hardy was all at the same time a feted insider to British privilege and a queer fellow at the margins of this privilege. Is it that privilege enabled his successful advocacy of Ramanujan, while queerness impelled him to attempt the advocacy in the first place? And what about Ramanujan? Was there anything more than ambition in the way he searched out Hardy and formed a friendship with him? We can only speculate about some of this. The paucity of the archive when it comes to Ramanujan ensures that some of the answers in the Ramanujan-Hardy relationship will never be known to us.

Because of trends in scholarship since Edward Said’s Orientalism (published in 1978), we know much about the antagonisms of colonialism. But what of the unlikely and romantic—to echo Hardy’s language—solidarities? A fuller understanding of how these came to be sustained despite contrary ideological currents remains an ongoing scholarly project, one that presents us with the knotty theoretical problem of having to read against, and often without, the public record. History is not only little help in this regard, it is a formidable obstacle.

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