Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India. 21-22 December 2018
Srinivasa Ramanujan’s legacy is undeniable in the mathematics community. His uncanny story from his birth in the small town of Kumbakonam to his election as the first Indian as a Fellow of the Trinity College in Cambridge and his early passing is well known and now even in film format. The accomplishments he packed in his 32 year long life, in a bad choice of words: his “innovations,” makes him the Steve Jobs of mathematics. One can only wonder where mathematics would have been if he were to see 35, 40 or even 50?
Ramanujan’s legacy is transformed into heritage in his hometown with the efforts of the Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology & Research Academy (SASTRA) University. This young university built a reputation for their quality of education inside India and for the Annual International Conferences on mathematics inspired by Ramanujan’s work. Later, this annual conference is crowned with the Ramanujan prize to acknowledge ground-breaking achievements in the spirit of Ramanujan of researchers under the age of 32. Although I do not know its past, nowadays this prize is considered to be of the highest rank in number theory, and even considered as a predecessor of a possible Fields medal, which is awarded for researchers under the age of 40.
I had the privilege of delivering a lecture in the 16th International Conference on Ramanujan among a handful of local and international researchers. This conference packed a lot in the one and a half days. On top of the first day’s tight schedule with seven lectures, we got to listen the addresses of the prize winners on the second day’s morning. The 2018 SASTRA Ramanujan prize is shared by Yifeng Liu and Jack Thorne for their invaluable advancements in number theory. It was no surprise that these researchers were inspiring and it is clear that they will be pushing the boundaries of knowledge for a long time.
For most speakers this conference started at the Chennai airport. I would also like to start reflecting on my experiences from there. After getting the invitation, getting the visa, getting ready, getting to the airport, getting to Chennai airport after midnight came my first sight of India: chaotic… yet somehow familiar. It took me a couple of failed phone calls and walking around the arrival area twice to find the person picking me up from the airport. I was the last one to arrive on 19th of December (technically first one to arrive on 20th). GP, a college friend of my former professor from University of Florida and the Ramanujan prize committee member Krishnaswami Alladi, was a long time volunteer of this conference. We started chatting as we wait for the cab to arrive. GP met everyone that I know in the community and more. Over the years of volunteering, he collected many interesting and sometimes really funny memories with the influential mathematicians, and he was not a bit shy to share.
The next morning, I got to meet my graduate school friend Chris Jennings-Shaffer. Although we were living in adjacent countries, it was the third time that we met in another country. It is no surprise that University of Florida and its graduates were showing some presence in this conference. Three members, Krishnaswami Alladi, Alexander Berkovich, and Frank Garvan, of the four member number theory group are all active and leading researchers in Ramanujan influenced mathematics. Krishnaswami Alladi himself was a part of this conference, and me and Chris were, in a way, representing our former advisors Berkovich and Garvan, respectively. After the breakfast the conference invitees started to meet around the minibus that will take the crew to Kumbakonam.
The details I missed about the traffic in India were all visible in the morning. The roads were just as chaotic as the insides of the Chennai airport, if not more. Inside the bus, it was the driver, a chaperon from the SASTRA university and the conference group and the honking noise. The cars speak in the language of sounding horns to indicate the overtakes in Chennai area. Most trucks even had “Sound Horn” written on their back, demanding indication from tvertaking vehicles. Our driver, in every single strip of the way and in each trip, sounded his horn to anything and everything: from the upcoming trucks (that clearly can see us) to the monkeys sitting on traffic barriers . Yes, there were some monkeys around the mid-point of the road. Begging and looking for food from the passing vehicles on the highway. We were getting honked at in the rare occasions our horn wasn’t at use. The symphony of the klaxons became the normal ambient noise of the Indian roads while we chatted and got to meet each other more. With a lunch break, it was getting dark when we finally made it to Kumbakonam, but the days schedule still included a short Ramanujan themed pilgrimage.
We started with the school Ramanujan went to. A big compound stuck in time with pastel blue outside walls and bright green parrots nesting on its higher floors. Our bus parked right in front of the Ramanujan’s bust and we started to wander around towards the building. Krishnaswami guided us around the school after some group photos in front of the building; it was clear that he knew the building like the back of his hand. After care takers of the school served us coffee and tea at the main classroom, and after I left my mark to this historic location by spilling coffee (gracefully), we took group pictures with Ramanujan’s bust and headed to Ramanujan’s house. This tiny house in the middle of Kumbakonam was now a modest museum for people to visit. Another bust of Ramanujan in the middle of the house triggered another big photo session. This time the photo shoot needed to be done in small groups due to the limited space. There weren’t much furniture to reference any living conditions but, just by looking at the size of the house it was clear that it could not have been a comfortable life. Maybe Ramanujan found his comfort in mathematics, maybe that discomfort was his key which took him out of that house and made him into this legendary name today. We signed the guest book and thanked SASTRA for the protection efforts and for turning this place into a museum. We moved on to the Sarangapani Temple down the road from the house. It was the first and only attempt of the group to walk on the roads. We did get honked at, a lot, but we made it to our destination safe. Mathura Alladi and Krishnaswami guided us through the insides of the temple where Ramanujan and his family worshiped. We got the blessings of Vishnu in his Vaishnava incarnation. The temple was almost empty at the time we visited, but we learned that it was only because that the previous day was the main day to visit this temple and it served thousands that day. It was a spiritual and once in a life time event… till the next day.
Although getting to Kumbakonam exhausted everyone, most of the group was ready for breakfast at 7:30 am. This was the suggested time by Krishna because we were going to SASTRA at 8:30 am. After a huge cheerful chat on the breakfast table about food, India, similarities and differences with other cultures and such, we found the day’s first speaker and pack in our bus. Crossing Kumbakonam in the morning showed me how rustic the town really was. It was crammed together and chaotic (as everywhere else), it was alive. I felt that I was in a protective bubble in that bus, which had two chaperons with us this time. We were only there to take part in a university activity and the life out of the bus was so much different than what I have seen so far. Not bad per se, just completely unfamiliar. The university delegation was waiting for us at the doors of the SASTRA Srinivasa Ramanujan Center’s door. We were guided to a big amphitheater and the inauguration ceremony started with the talks about the significance of Ramanujan’s legacy and how SASTRA was there, dedicated to protecting it. The actual ceremony included the presentation of the awards and some really nice talks about the history of the conference and the meaning of the award. The awardees then took the podium for short acceptance speeches. Both Yifeng and Jack kept their speech short but highly elegant. Not that I was giving an acceptance speech anytime soon, but I thought to myself that I couldn’t have managed to keep my speech that tidy. Now I have two examples to cheat from. Thanks guys.
The ceremony was followed by a photo shoot and TV interview sessions for the organizers and the prize winners. They made it to the news and to the newspapers the next day. It was great to see that mathematics being valued by a wider audience than usual audience —you know— mathematicians only. The award winners, this school, and the prize were definitely deserving to be recognized. Us speakers thankfully weren’t at the spotlight and got the chance to see the Ramanujan museum at the university. It was a nice collection with one missing link, an original piece. I wish the museum had a letter from Ramanujan’s hands, not necessarily mathematics related or anything, but maybe a letter to his mother or wife, who lived in Kumbakonam too.
The academic portion of the award started after the interviews. The amphitheater was filled with students on the back and their professors in the front. I hoped that the students were sitting there by their own accords. I felt bad for them, they needed to endure seven (mine included) long lectures. It was definitely too much for me now, after many years of training in seminar sleeping. The talks showed how many fields Ramanujan touched. I couldn’t find it in me to zone off. It was so nice to see all those beautiful questions, ingenious approaches, intricate details… all taught from the experts in these fields. There was one cryptography related lecture, where it was admitted that there weren’t any involvement of Ramanujan with the topic. On the other hand, time-and-time-again I have heard that Ramanujan just “approaches out of his grave and snatches the results off of people’s hands.” Cryptography researchers better be aware; they might find themselves in the backyard of Ramanujan any day now.
It was already late afternoon when the day’s program ended, but our hosts wanted to show us the Brihadisvara Temple of Shiva. It was an exhausting day, but with little to no hesitation we filled the the bus for a ride there. It was another long car ride of sounding our horn and feeling other people’s frustration over their horns. It was the end of the day after all, everyone wanted to be back home as the sun sets. We met our tour guide at the gates. He told us that particular day was the God Shiva’s day and we caught a unique day to get his blessing. All we needed to do was to get the blessings before the pantheon closed its doors. We entered the huge courtyard and hastily get the blessings from The Nandi (bull) incarnation of Shiva, the Shiva himself and his wife Parvati. It felt a little rushed to go from one shrine to the other one, but right as we were regrouping (and taking group photos) in front of Parvati’s shrine the sound of brass horns and conchs started. A group of followers started the intense ritual of carrying Shiva in a litter down the stairs with smoke and lots of brouhaha followed it. The relic and the horn players made their way into the shrine of Parvati to tuck Shiva goodnight with his consort. It marked the end of the day for Shiva and for us visitors of his house. It was definitely not a performance one can find in a mosque or a church.
The second and the last day of the conference only had the lectures from the prize winners. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the SASTRA University itself. On the first day around the lunch time, we got the chance to walk around the active school. I knew the school was in action, and at first sight it became clear that SASTRA was providing an incredible service to this developing region with the limited resources they have. If time permitted I wanted to see a lecture, and (although be a huge distraction) to share the experience the students have. I got lucky; not only that I did not miss the big lectures, the dean also arranged a classroom for me to visit. It was a complex analysis course for a mixed audience: some mathematics majors, but mostly from engineering. I am glad that I got the privilege to sit in that room with all those brilliant students, but I also want to apologize to the instructor for being a distraction. He asked me if I would like to ask anything to his students. I didn’t. I instead offered if the students would like to ask anything to me. They didn’t. With the instructor, we went through a brief conversation on my resume, and how I got out of Turkey and started to be a world roamer. Of course, that was to encourage the point that every single student can do the same. Nevertheless, it made me feel a little embarrassed. I wanted to be clear that it wasn’t boasting but an example for the students to aim towards. I can only hope that our conversation had the wanted effect on the students.
After lunch, we packed into the minibus once again to listen to honks for hours. The ride from Kumbakonam to Chennai area took about eight hours. By that time, Chris and I had about only four hours before our flights. It didn’t make sense to risk going anywhere else but to drop ourselves at the airport. We “worked” on a conjecture of Chris with our fried minds with banana chips and water till the boarding time came. No progress made on that conjecture yet… but much progress in me has been made in this trip. I may have not gotten the prize itself, but I have been awarded greatly. Maybe it was all those blessings and the red dots on my forehead, maybe it was all those influential mathematicians, maybe it was the place and its significance, but, no matter what it was, I took home many new views to digest, many memories to fondly remember.