In the film The Man Who Knew Infinity, Srinivasa Ramanujan finds himself at Cambridge, under the collaborative mentorship of G.H. Hardy, a leading mathematician of the 20th century. Ramanujan, a clerk from Madras, caught Hardy’s attention with his genius. His intuition allowed him to see theorems, and he would arrive at them directly, often without the steps that served as proofs leading to the theorem.
At Cambridge, Hardy pushed Ramanujan to arrive at and provide these proofs, to instil in him academic rigour that was essential for others in mathematics to regard the genius of his work. However, in the process, he overlooked the emotional and personal well-being of the Indian, who found himself estranged in a foreign environment.
Ramanujan grew miserable, initially from the fact that he couldn’t eat properly. A brahmin, he had been brought up with strict rituals around food and cleanliness. He himself seemingly couldn’t cook much, and probably starved much of the time he was at Cambridge. The cold got to him as well, both from the place and from the people at Cambridge, who looked upon him as a dark-skinned intruder and a fraud, wasting time and resource of Trinity College. The film captures this hostility well, as well as incidents of racist bullying, where Ramanujan suffered a physical attack.
But what apparently hit the man most was that he hadn’t heard from his wife, Janaki, his anchor, and that led him to mistakenly believe that she might have forsaken him. The film tells this part of the tale well, and the viewer is drawn into the painful misery of the young Ramanujan, as he feels increasingly abandoned and lonely. Sick, he is diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis, with the doctor telling him that he should soon “set his affairs in order”.
Ramanujan became increasingly depressed. Despite the fact that new theorems kept coming to him and that he was doing all he could to have his work recognised and published, his internal fabric was giving way.
Depression is a blow to the vital energy within. It is a tear or a puncture in the vital strength within us, the strength that otherwise leads us to live and engage with everything around us. More often than not, it is triggered by a deep sense of grief and a loss of confidence from the belief that things cannot be set right. Depression has a direct consequence on immunity. It suppresses and weakens body immunity and leaves it susceptible to disease.
Research has been conducted on depression among patients with tuberculosis and other diseases. Less research has been done on how patients who suffer from depression are more susceptible to diseases such as TB. Here, the cause is depression and the consequence is a serious breach in physical health.
The premise is simple. When we feel happy or have things to look forward to, our mind feels equipped to deal with challenges. Biochemicals are released in the brain and blood, which, in turn, empower the body to do the mind’s telling. However, when we feel low, the same tasks appear increasingly burdensome and pointless.
Ramanujan’s story is a case to consider. That he had an extraordinary creative ability was clear to Hardy and to anyone who understood the significance of his work. His mind and being were exceptionally intuitive, and probably in the same measure, exceedingly sensitive as well. His emotional misery affected his health intensely, even fatally. Had he felt less forsaken, he might have lived longer, both for his own sake and for all those who realised the worth of his genius.