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Resurrecting Ramanujan, Through Poetry

Resurrecting Ramanujan, Through Poetry

A bust of Srinivasa Ramanujan at the garden of the Birla Industrial & Technological Museum, Kolkata. Photo: AshLin/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Amit Chaudhuri’s new book, Ramanujan, though still unavailable in India, pushes the envelope of what we think of as Indian poetry, or even poetry.
  • Two striking poems in the book are titled ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’; in the latter, Chaudhuri creates a striking atmosphere, describing a train arriving at night at the famous university town.

American mathematician George Andrews discovered Srinivasa Ramanujan’s “lost notebook” among the papers of G.N. Watson at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1976. It contained hundreds of unnumbered pages, with more than 600 mathematical formulas. No proofs were provided.

Since then, these notebooks have been published in several volumes, revealing to the world yet again the particular genius of the Indian mathematician who died in 1920, when he was only 32 years old. Now, Amit Chaudhuri’s new book, Ramanujan (Swindon, UK: Shearsman Books, 2021) resurrects the mathematician through poetry. The book, though still unavailable in India, pushes the envelope of what we think of as Indian poetry, or even poetry.

Amit Chaudhuri
Shearsman Books (May 2021)

Chaudhuri, one of India’s best-known writers, has two previous volumes of poetry to his credit: St. Cyril Road and Other Poems (2005) and Sweet Shop (2019), which I had reviewed. Both books were characterised by a sort of prosaic, documentary style, reflecting on urban life. While St. Cyril was about Bombay, where Chaudhuri grew up, Sweet Shop documented the famous mishtir dokan (sweet shops) that dot Kolkata’s map.

The current volume, too, takes the reader to different cities in India – Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru – and elsewhere, to Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. Besides Ramanujan, we meet other characters such as jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and German writer Sybille Bedford. And, there is enough food and drink as such narratives should have.

The poems about the different places are like the postcard-shaped polaroid photographs that one sticks on one’s fridge with magnets (or at least did before all photography became digital). Two of the most striking poems in the book are titled ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’. In the former, the narrator, possibly a friend or colleague of Ramanujan, says:

It took us a few days after we arrived
in the suburban flat
from which Churchill College was a glimpse away
— milk left in the fridge
by an invisible hand,
bread and jam placed recently on the kitchen table —
to realise Cambridge was not Oxford.
It felt more beautiful for a day.

The poem evolves into something more melancholic, with the unnamed narrator recalling or evoking Ramanujan. The poem on Oxford is much shorter; only about 21 lines. But even in these few lines, Chaudhuri manages to create a striking atmosphere, describing a train arriving at night at the famous university town:

You know
It’s two minutes away
but it takes about ten
to get in.
The train
slows down
in the night
and Oxford moves towards you.

One is reminded of the sense of foreboding in the opening sections of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, where the young poet takes a boat out on his favourite lakes and chances upon a mountain. It is a sort of Kantian ‘sublime’. Cambridge was Wordsworth’s alma mater, as it was Ramanujan’s. Chaudhuri did his doctoral research on D.H. Lawrence at Oxford.

Also read: Verse Affairs: In War and Peace

The book is divided into six unequal parts. While the first part has only two poems (‘Ramanujan’ and ‘Cambridge’), the second and the third parts have 19 each. The fourth part has four, the fifth, 13 and the final part has one poem. It is not apparent why the poems have been so divided – is it chronological or thematic? One cannot really be certain. Nor is there any variety of metrical forms or narrative experiments – all the poems are in free verse, except the last one. Titled ‘Short Q and A’, it extends over 17 pages and contains questions and answers such as this:

What’s the difference between epic theatre and realist theatre? Epic theatre gives to us for the hundredth time a story we know. We have even memorised its lines. Realist theatre gives us a ‘new’ story that confirms the conventions we’re schooled in. We go to epic theatre for the already known. We go to realist theatre for the expected.

One could imagine it to be a modern rendition or translation of Platonic dialogues or something out of Khalil Gibran’s poetry.

Besides Ramanujan, several other people appear in the book: Jarrett and Bedford, as I mentioned earlier; Chaudhuri’s parent; his wife (famous literary scholar Rosinka Chaudhuri) and his daughter. There is a sense of loss in some of the poems, such as ‘Parents’:

Will I see them one day
like a young soldier who’s returned
home after a war
he thought would never end,
entering the hush of the drawing room
to find them sitting there?

In others, such as ‘Wind-up’, there is humour:

You’re listening to Celine Dion!’
I’d turned the volume up
to hear the warbling
over the shower.
‘Research,’ I said.
She fled the scene.
I think
she’d have
taken any explanation.

One might argue that these poems are perhaps too simple in their metier, like polaroid snapshots of yesteryears. They show you domestic scenes, private meditations, with little direct engagement with political or social developments. (This is often an accusation against Indian poetry in English)

Chaudhuri perhaps premeditates this in his poem with a Bengali title ‘Tuchchho Kobita’. It means a minor or inconsequential poem. But Chaudhuri turns the meaning around: “It’s always close, like an only / child. We never beget epics.”

Indeed, there is nothing epic about these poems or this book. These are verses in a minor note that provide pleasures of their own kind.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.

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