Late Prof. E. H. Neville of Cambridge played a notable part in Ramanujan's meteoric rise. He gives a very moving account of his association with Ramanujan.


         … Ramanujan’s name had become well known in Cambridge, the home of mathematics in England. G. H. Hardy, then a young lecturer at Trinity College and now the dominant figure among English mathematicians, who was destined to be closely associated with Ramanujan in the future, has sometimes said that Ramanujan was his discovery, but the truth is that Ramanujan chose Hardy. In a booklet dated 1910, Ramanujan found for the first time formulae like some of his own, and acting on the advice of Seshu Aiyar, he wrote on January 16, 1913, a letter to the unknown author. No one who was in the mathematical circles in Cambridge at that time can forget the sensation caused by this letter. An obscure Indian clerk was appealing for advice because he was inexperienced, for help in the publication of his theorems because he was poor. ‘But only’, he said, ‘if you are convinced that there is anything of value. Of the theorems sent without demonstrations by this clerk of whom we had never heard, not one could have been set in the most advanced mathematical examination in the world’. It must be confessed that the first suggestion was that the letter was a hoax, that the theorems must be familiar theorems, skillfully disguised, but this explanation was soon abandoned for there were some formulae in the letter for which it certainly could not account.

         Of these Hardy has said, “They defeated me completely; I had never seen anything in the least like them before. A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written down by a mathematician of the highest class. They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them.” A great mathematician who has discovered formulae of an entirely novel kind does not use them to mystify his friends.


         Hardy answered the letter promptly and Ramanujan knew that at last his intellectual solitude was at an end. His friends in India encouraged him and supported him, but none of them had the knowledge to bring him the human satisfaction of being understood and appreciated …

         I visited Madras myself in the opening of 1914. After my first lecture Ramanujan was introduced. We sat down, and he turned the pages of a notebook. Two days later he turned the pages again, and after our third meeting he said, “Perhaps you would like to take it away with you”. The astounding compliment took away my breath. The priceless volume had never been out of his hands: no Indian could understand it, no Englishman was to be trusted with it. The truth was, of course, that the English were objects of suspicion not as individuals but as components of the governing machinery; I came from outside the machine, and for no other reason than that, I enjoyed an overwhelming advantage which was grossly unfair. Richard Littlehailes, the Professor of Mathematics, in particular, had done and was to do far more for Ramanujan in Madras than I did.


         Ramanujan's trust having been won so completely, I raised immediately the question of Cambridge, and found to my delight and surprise that Ramanujan needed no converting and that his parents' opposition had been withdrawn. In a vivid dream his mother had seen him surrounded by Europeans and heard the Goddess Namagiri commanding her to stand no longer between her son and the fulfilment of his life’s purpose. Lest he should be harassed presently by attempts to dissuade him, I addressed myself to the task of convincing his friends that the proposal was in Ramanujan’s own interest. I wrote at once to Hardy that the intangible obstacles had disappeared and that he must see that financial provision was made; I should try to obtain grants in Madras. But if I failed, the money must somehow be found in England. I do not know what account I gave of Ramanujan and the notebooks, but I made it abundantly clear that if Ramanujan was willing to come, financial difficulties simply must not be allowed to interfere. For a moment Hardy faltered. ‘Be careful what you promise’, he wrote, and he forwarded cautious memorandum of the “We-have-heard-of-those-untaught-geniuses- before” types, from the India Office in London. I claim no credit for ignoring this warning and laughing at Hardy's endorsement of it ; I had seen the notebooks and talked with Ramanujan, and Hardy had not. Moreover while letters were travelling between Madras and London, it was becoming likely that all the money wanted would be found in India. Littlehailes introduced me to everyone who carried weight in the University or in the civil administration; everywhere I talked of Ramanujan, explained as I have tried to do now the importance to him of a stay in Cambridge, and urged generosity. On January 28, I addressed to the University authorities a prospective memorandum. Littlehailes drafted proposals in detail, and within a week the University, with the approval of the Government, had created a scholarship ample to maintain Ramanujan in Cambridge and his wife and mother in Kumbakonam. A few days later I left Madras.


         It was in April 1914 that Ramanujan arrived in Cambridge, where he lived in my house until residential accommodation became available for him in July in Trinity. He felt the petty miseries of life in a strange civilization, the vegetables that were unpalatable because they were unfamiliar, the shoes that tormented feet that had been unconfined for 26 years, but he was a happy man, revelling in the mathematical society, which he was entering, and idolized by the Indian students…


         I must not end without making an attempt to describe the man himself. In figure he was a little below medium height, and stout until emaciated by disease; he had a big head with long black hair brushed sidewards above a high forehead, his face and his complexion never really dark, grew paler during his life in England; his ears were small, his nose broad, and always his shining eyes were the conspicuous features that Ramachandra Rao observed in 1910. He walked stiffly, with head erect and toes outturned: if he was not talking as he walked, his arms were held clear of the body, with hands open and palms downwards. But when he talked, whether he was walking or standing, sitting or lying down, his slender fingers were for ever alive, as eloquent as his countenance. He had a fund of stories, and such was his enjoyment in telling them that in his great days his own irrepressible laughter often swallowed the climax of his narrative. He loved a paradox, but I do not know of any that he invented; the paradoxical element in some of his own early work must have made him aware that the wildest nonsense of today may receive a logical interpretation of tomorrow. He had serious interests outside mathematics, and was always ready to discuss politics or philosophy. Loss of caste was a price he was prepared to pay for coming to England, but he kept the price as low as he could by adhering as closely as circumstances permitted to the observance of his religious practices and in particular in maintaining the strictest vegetarianism. “When I go back”, he said to me once, “I shall never be asked to a funeral” and if he spoke with a sigh there was no sense of pollution mingled with his regret. In everyday life he had an instinctive perfection of manners that made him a delightful guest or companion. Success and fame left his natural simplicity untouched. To his friends he was devoted beyond measure, and he devised curiously personal ways of showing his gratitude and expressing his affection. The wonderful mathematician was indeed a lovable man.

         Had Ramanujan not left India he might be alive today; but he would have had always the sense of power and frustration, not of power and accomplishment. Death, too, was a frustration, but the life's purpose of which his mother dreamed was at last in part fulfilled and it is better to be frustrated by unsought death than by life. So Srinivasa Ramanujan believed, for he told me just before he left England that he had never doubted that he did well to come.