Knowing Infinity – Shanta Acharya

Illustration by Ilisha Dhond

     An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.

         – Ramanujan

The pilgrimage from Erode – wet skull,

land of legends and gods, where an enraged

Shiva tore off one of Brahma’s five heads –

and Kumbakonam – where touched

by small pox at the age of two, refusing

to speak till three, losing younger siblings

to disease and death, you left your child-wife

with your mother already struggling to make

ends meet and your father going blind –


your journey from the familiar sounds

of the Cauvery, the temple bells of Namakkal

and fervent prayers to stone deities –

to the hallowed quads and corridors of Trinity,

(when India was British and Victoria still Queen),

the silent mists of Cam, church bells, choir in chapel,

Gothic windows and cloisters of Whewell’s Court –


a place strange, stone cold, distant, indifferent

to everything you lived for, believed in –

is a tale from the ancient Hindu epics

where gods changed the course of human lives.

Did the power of your deity weaken

beyond the seven seas?


In Cambridge your world

was turned upside down, inside out –

faced with prejudice and rejection,

lonely and malnourished, unable to return home,

caught in a war that landed at your doorstep

with its sick and injured. In the middle of all this

you were diagnosed with tuberculosis.


For five years you struggled, sought solace

in the truths of mathematics,

made friends with fractions, integers, algorithms.


Born with a quick mind, your thoughts

travelling with the speed of light,

you assumed your peers would keep up,

not shoot down your flights of intuition,

demand proof of your conclusions,

examine the black box of your equations –


unable to decipher the hieroglyphics

of your imagination, the great Unknown your life

was etched on, art created in a language of symbols –

your inspiration, dancing gods, rejoicing in

spaces infinitesimally large and small.


Even your greatest champion

could not keep pace with your soaring insights –

the things you could see a mystery to others.


With unlimited faith in your gift,

you sacrificed everything – family, home, love, life…


Did you have premonitions of your demise,

a premature death at the age of thirty two –

know there was not a moment to waste

in transcribing the legacy of a lifetime?


Did you know that anything less –

the least bit less confidence in your ability,

dedication, persistence, patience or luck,

would consign you to obscurity?


What were the odds of you not being

remembered as the man who knew infinity?

Shanta Acharya was born and educated in Cuttack (Orissa, India) before studying at Oxford and Harvard. The author of ten books, her New & Selected Poems will be published by HarperCollins, India, in January 2017. Founder of Poetry in the House, Shanta hosted from 1996-2015 a series of monthly poetry readings at Lauderdale House, Highgate, in London. In addition to her philanthropic activities, she served twice on the board of trustees of the Poetry Society in the UK.