Every sight has a story to tell

The woman who transcended infinity

Great men often had selfless partners resolutely supporting them in pursuit of their dreams. This is the story of one such woman, Janaki Ammal, wife of the celebrated mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

December 22nd is the birth anniversary of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematics genius. Most of us have heard of Ramanujan. Thanks to the film ‘The man who knew infinity’, his life story is quite well known. But how many of us know about the woman who stood by him during his troubled years — his courageous wife who continued to celebrate him in her own quiet resilient way all her life?  This story is about her — the woman who knew Infinity and perhaps transcended it too.

Her name was Janaki Ammal. She was barely 10 when she was married to the 21-year-old Ramanujan in 1909. Since she was too young to run a house, Janaki lived with her parents for the next  3 years. In 1912, Ramanujan got a job in the Madras (Chennai) Port Trust and Janaki’s parents thought she was ready for the life of a householder. The couple moved into a small apartment in Triplicane, along with Ramanujan’s mother, Komalatammal. Was this the beginning of a romantic phase in her life? Hardly.

For one, they were constantly under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. Remember,  Janaki was not even 14. For another, even by the conservative standards of those times, Ramanujan must have been an unromantic husband. She observed that he spent most of his free time in mathematical research and not even a loving wife could distract him  from this first love. Despite all this, Janaki adjusted quickly to her new life. Perhaps romance would bloom in good time?

In 1914, Ramanujan had a breakthrough. He was invited to study mathematics in Cambridge. This was an opportunity of a lifetime but Ramanujan was in a dilemma! Overseas travel was taboo to orthodox Hindus, because they believed it would pollute the soul. Anybody who violated the taboo lost his caste and social status and was even ostracised. 

Detour: The age-old taboo that prohibited Hindus from travelling overseas was called ‘Kalapani’. And yet, in the early 1900s, a king from Jaipur went off on a long journey across half the globe, after finding ways to circumvent the taboo. Watch that story in this short video.

Ramanujan was a deeply religious man and this complex problem tortured him intensely.  He finally resolved it the religious way. After praying to his family deity, Namagiri Thaayaar, he declared that she had blessed the overseas trip. Janaki, who hadn’t spent any time alone with Ramanujan in their brief time together, hoped to travel with him.  By then, Janaki was 15 years old and  naively asked Ramanujan if she could travel with him. However, Ramanujan declined, saying she was probably too young to travel. He was to regret that decision later.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, Indian Mathematician
The young Srinivasa Ramanujan

Leaving behind his wife and mother, Ramanujan left for Cambridge. At Cambridge, he immersed himself in the joys of research . Those were his brightest years. Those were also his darkest years. He was alone in an alien culture. He was socially inept, with no friends except his own mentors in the mathematics department. The taboo still rankled in his mind. He was wary of eating outside, because even vegetarian food probably did not conform to puritanical Hindu standards. Good food was scarce anyway during war time. He cooked his own food at odd times during occasional breaks from research. He was overworked and undernourished, so something had to give: his body. At the end of 5 years, he had earned fellowships at the Trinity College of Cambridge and the Royal Society, but lost his health. Reluctantly, he decided to return to Madras in 1919. In all this time, Ramanujan wrote letters to Janaki, but she never got to see most of them. For reasons best known to her, Ramanujan’s mother hid these letters from Janaki. She even hid his letter announcing the date of his return to India, so Janaki did not go to receive him.

Srinivasa Ramanujan, Cambridge
Ramanujan with his colleagues outside the Senate House in Cambridge, (1914-1919) 

Once home, he continued to nurture ambitions of returning to England after he recovered. He told Janaki that he would buy her diamond earrings and that she did not have to live in poverty ever again. During this time they got very little help from their own relatives because no one wanted to associate with a man who had broken the taboo. Janaki continued to tenderly nurse Ramanujam, hoping he would turn around. Ramanujan was overwhelmed and told her that if she had only accompanied him to England, things would not have become so dire. 

Deep inside, Ramanujan knew that his life was rapidly fading away. He feverishly worked on his last theorems from his bed. Janaki did not complain because at last, she had Ramanujan all to herself. But it was too good to last. Within a year Ramanujan died. His relatives boycotted the funeral and did not support Janaki.  

But this determined woman was not ready to give up. Janaki, barely 22, went to live with her brother in Bombay (Mumbai). There  she educated herself in English and tailoring. Not wanting to be a burden, she returned to Madras and settled in Triplicane – the same neighbourhood where she and Ramanujan had started life together. She opened a tailoring school and shop to supplement the small pension she received from Madras University. Though the income was small, she was in charge of her own life . She had the respect and support of the small local community.  Then came a tragedy which became a life defining moment.

One of her close friends in Triplicane was a single mother named Soundaravalli. She died suddenly in 1950,  leaving an orphan son, Narayanan, who was just 7 years old. Janaki made a bold decision: she adopted Narayanan. Even though she was already 50 years old, she decided to take the plunge. She educated Narayanan until he got a job in a reputed Bank. In 1972 she conducted his wedding with Vaidehi, a girl from the same bank. 

Janaki Ammal, Srinivasa Ramanujan
Janaki Ammal, wife of the celebrated mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan

Unlike in her own marriage, she encouraged her son and daughter-in-law to move into a house nearby. She loved them but did not want to stifle their independence. She knew from her own experience that youngsters needed space! Janaki continued her independent life, living frugally and spending her savings by paying school fees for poor students. Some children would ask her for a small part of their  examination fees, because her blessing was considered auspicious! When she was nearly 90, she retired and moved under the loving care of the grateful Narayanans. She had always been a giver who found joy in giving. Now it was her turn to receive.

She passed away peacefully in 1994, aged 95 years. She was just 5 years short of 100. But 100 was a mere number. Janaki had transcended infinity!


A Story by

Storytrails

  1. The young Srinivasa Ramanujan – Konrad Jacobs CC BY-SA 2.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Ramanujan with his colleagues outside the Senate House in Cambridge – Charles F. Wilson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Janaki Ammal, wife of the celebrated mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan – Prabhachatterji, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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