Hardy’s Apology

Written by : Sundar Sarukkai  Directed by: Prakash Belwadi

Maybe because I studied in an all-boys school in my teen years followed by predominantly all-male IIT Kharagpur. But something about friendship between men moves me deeply. That’s why I like ‘ Dil Chahta Hai’, that’s why   ‘Ecstasy’ by  Sudhir Kakkar ( based loosely on the relationship between Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda) , that’s why I relish Gulzar’s ruminations on Pancham. And that’s’ why I so enjoyed ‘Hardy’s Apology’ at Ranga Shankara last Wednesday, a play that captured the very special relationship that the British mathematician GH Hardy shared with the Indian genius Ramanujan.

The stage before the play starts with its ornate wood-carved Pi on one side and wooden frames on the other and an unremarkable bed set up the mood wonderfully. The opening sequence with Hardy talking some pills to commit suicide got my attention fully. The major narrative preoccupation of the play is the episode where Ramanujan fell down in front of a train in London as the Second World War planes bombed the city. As Ramanujam tries to explain what actually happened and the two friends try to spin a cogent enough story that will be believed by   the public, steering them away from the notion of attempted suicide that prevailed. Well it had something to do with Ramanujam’s realization about the content in the cup of Ovaltine that Ramanujam drank in a café. Through this lengthy exchange we learn about the warm and genuine friendship that the two great mathematicians shared. What drew an English aristocrat and a poor, socially unsophisticated Indian towards each other? Yes, a common love for mathematics was the foundation of their friendship, but there was more. And the play brings this out very subtly but quite palpably.

Hardy's Apology

I had gone to see the play with my wife and daughter and my wife cannot be interested in any book, play or film if it does not have women characters.  So while I was looking askance at her to see how she was taking the play, Janaki, Ramanjujan’s mother entered the fray. And she owned the stage as she launched into her tirade, in Tamil and Tamil-inflected English, against the world which was blaming her for mistreating her daughter-in-law and keeping the young couple apart. Sundar Sarukkai, the writer of the play, showed an astute grasp of the Iyenger Brahmin milieu and imagined the backdrop of Ramnujan’s domestic life with a touch of poetry. The tragedy of Kamla, who was married to Ramanujan when she was 9 and Ramnujan 20, and had lived just one year together as man and wife is too served up with a mix of poignancy and humour.

The play ends with Hardy sort of answering the complaint by Kamla that Hardy never visited them after Ramanujan’s death and ruminating on the relationship he shared with Ramanujan. The fact is Hardy was not that kind of a demonstrative person. And his friendship was with Ramanujan. He could never be dishonest enough to feign feelings that he never felt.

I had seen a minimalistic production of the play when Sundar had just written it, and it was a very satisfying play even then. But the full-bodied production directed by Prakash Belwadi was a heady pleasure. I have mentioned about the well-designed sets.  The music was appropriate. The action on stage, especially involving the women as they talk while taking wet clothes from a bucket, laying them on a clothesline to dry, was choreographed with imagination. But what made the production soar more than anything else  was the performances. Everyone was good. But Sal Yusuf’s classy performance as Hardy was cut above the rest. It was a tough ask- he was playing the chraccter in his youth and as a very old man with white hair and a stoop, he was portraying a white man, and he was using an accent which he had to hold. Siri Ravikumar as Jankai had the audience in splits and shew as obviously playing to the gallery. But I did not complain, because  I do go to the theatre to get amused and she WAS very good. Nakul  Bhalla as Ramnujam  started out a little unsure but slowly came unto his own, taking us into his inspired but tortured existence. Divya Raghuram as Kamla had a brief role but she touched our hearts too.

How much do I know of Ramanujam’s mathematics? Not much really. (Except for the little incident at the hospital where Hardy says the taxi he took to come had a number of 1029 and Ramaujam exclaimed that it was the smallest number that could be expressed as two different set of sums of two perfect cubes : 10 cube plus 9 cube and 12 cube plus 1 cube. I cannot even begin to imagine how anyone can think of such a thing and how in the world one goes about proving such a thing – and I was the winner of the National Science Talent Scholarship in  Maths! ) Did the play made us any wiser on Ramanujan’s mathematics? Or Hardy’s? Not one bit. Thankfully, it did not try. What does a play talk about when it talks about two mathematicians? Anything but mathematics, would be my answer. That’s not the domain of theatre. The significant achievement of the play was in so totally humanizing these two famous characters from history and making us connect with them as human beings.

Hardy said, “ I will say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘ Well, I have done the one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’  Elsewhere, he called his collaboration with Ramanujan, ‘the only truly romantic incident in my life’.

And the play captures this magnificent romance with subtlety, humour and a full palette of human emotions. I was grateful for the art form of theater once again after a long time.

(PS: No photographs of the play of course.  But here is one of the stage before the play started.)

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