Long Walks On Leafy Streets

2/21/2017 Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC
It is only late February but it already feels like spring is here. I keep telling anyone every chance I get how this is all the result of climate change. It is pleasant, no doubt, but part of me misses the proper winters that we used to have in Washington, DC when I arrived here about 23 years ago. The Cherry tree in front of my office window has started to bloom and the Juneberry bush in front of our house has put out buds. I noticed green shoots in our backyard while filling the recycling bin this evening, with Prashant in tow.

Prashant loves running around in the grass, whether it is our backyard or a playground. Yesterday was President’s day and so we had a long weekend. We took him out to play several times. He loves to run around in the grass and shouts with glee when I throw a dry leaf up in the wind. He would go and pick it up and then give it back to me to do it again and again until I got tired. He also enjoys lying on the grass and looking up at the sky.

The more I spend time with him the more I get attached to him and to life itself. When I was young I used to wonder why it is that our Hindu sages went to the forest and lived a monastic life. Was it not possible to do that even while living a regular life as part of society? I have gotten the answer in many places from many sources over the years but only now I am really beginning to understand it deeply. I do meditate often and with everything that is going on I don’t think I have gotten so mired in the material world that all the years of contemplating the nature of life have been in waste. As many teachers have said, once you get even as much as a glimpse of the true nature of life, it never leaves you. Nevertheless the love one feels for one’s family is real and somewhat stronger than the love one feels to other beings, no matter how spiritually mature and full of compassion one might be. It creates a deep desire to live long and live prosperously so that they have a good life. Yet at the same time having a deeper perspective on life would help one to not be afraid of death so much, but to know that even when you are gone you will be with them in spirit.

People who accomplish great things always live with us in spirit. It takes a bit of selfishness to neglect one’s family and immerse oneself in one’s work, as many great men and women have done. If I were endowed with great talent and special capabilities perhaps I would be doing the same thing, because in the bigger picture such men and women, even when they lived aloof from society, contributed something lasting and of great value.

Such a man was Srinivasa Ramanujan. He is an inspiration to all Indian mathematicians because he was the first Indian mathematician of the modern times to be recognized as a true genius. The great mathematicians Hardy and Littlewood compared him to luminaries such as Euler, Jacobi and Newton. Leaving his young wife (a child bride, in fact) with his mother in Tamilnadu he spent five years in Cambridge collaborating with Hardy and producing groundbreaking work that continues to inspire great mathematics to this day.

Friday evening of last week I came across an article of Bruce Berndt, a Professor at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, about the books Ramanujan read while in India. Professor Berndt has spent almost all his professional career in proving, editing and publishing the works of Ramanujan. I had the good fortune of attending his lecture while I was a student at I.I.T Chennai (formerly Madras). They organized a conference in honor of Ramanujan’s centenary in 1987. Anyway, I read the article and it inspired me to read more about Ramanujan. I also bought the movie “The Man who knew Infinity” based on the book by Robert Kanigel with the same title.

I watched the movie over the weekend and it really woke up a passion within me to do some good mathematics myself. It was an excellent movie, no doubt, mostly true to the facts and appreciative of the mathematics involved, in spite of a few moments that made me cringe especially as an Indian. But what really inspired me was seeing the passion that made Ramanujan forget everything else and devote himself so completely to mathematics. I decided to avoid reading news or surfing the Internet and instead spend most of my time thinking of mathematics over the weekend. I hope this feeling continues and results in something good. But it also filled me with sadness to think about what Ramanujan might have accomplished had he been able survive the disease that took his life soon after his return to India in 1920. He died at the very young age of 32 leaving a very young wife and no children. Yet although he lived and died in a short time like a brilliant meteor or an ethereally beautiful flower that blooms only once his presence is with us today as bright as the stars in the sky. Looking at the equations in some of his papers I was filled with awe as if I were looking at a whole new world. Truth, beauty and love – they all come from the same source and they are all eternal.

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