Episodes in Minakshisundaram's life

Subbaramiah Minakshisundaram was known as Minakshi by his colleagues and friends. He was called Jeja by his parents; Jeja meaning God. Various members of his family wrote articles about him which are at http://minakshisundaram.org. We give below a version of certain episodes in Minakshisundaram's life based on these articles.

1. Early religious experience.

From: A Daughter's Tribute by K Girija.

As a child after his upanayanam [ceremony performed before a child is acepted to study with a guru], he would religiously perform the Gayatri Japa Sandhya Vandanam [religious ritual] with his grandfather, each morning and evening. It so happened one morning my great grandfather had to leave early in the morning to work in the fields. Little Jeja was told by his mother and grandmother to perform his japa. The house was a traditional Kerala house. A central open court with a trellised roof with verandas on all four sides with rooms. On one side was the kitchen, pantry and dining area. The large, lengthy veranda or savadi was also the main area of activity of the family, what the Americans say family room. Here on the wall were two huge, life size pictures of Lord Siva and His consort Goddess Parvathi. Little Jeja, as was his habit, sat down before these pictures and started his Gayatri japa. Within a few minutes little Jeja fled into the kitchen and, very frightened, hid behind his grandmother. When questioned about what had happened, the little boy said, "The one in the picture was standing in front of me." His grandmother laughed, pacified him and said there was nothing to worry about and that he should go back to his japa. After a while he went back to continue his japa. Hardly ten minutes had passed when he ran into the kitchen again. This time he held his mother tight being absolutely petrified. Again he repeated that the God in the photo frame had come out and stood close in front of him. He was frightened, his hair was matted ... This time both his mother and grandmother were speechless. They looked at the pictures and the wide veranda but there was no one there. They thought the child was frightened of the pictures or some evil spell was on him. They performed a tiny ritual to remove the effect of some evil eye. Yet he refused to go back to the japa.

2. Studies at Pachaiyappa's College, Chennai.
From: A Daughter's Tribute by K Girija.

My father has seen difficult times in his early life and had to struggle against poverty. My paternal grandfather was forced to retire from the British Raj Government Job due to ill health very early in his career. He was a sanitary engineer and hailed from Salem. They lived in Mambalam, Chennai, in my father's maternal aunt's house, free of rent. The very young genius Minakshisundaram would walk eleven miles to Pachaiyappa's College, Chennai everyday. He would give tuition to students very early in the morning and late in the evening before and after college hours. He would never ask for fees from the boys he tutored. My grandmother would goad him. He patiently explained that the boys will pay him when they have money or whenever they wanted to. Most of them failed to pay as my father never asked. His two younger brothers were at school at the time. Many a day would pass with nothing to eat. In fact I can recall my grandmother telling us that more often they would drink only watery buttermilk and eat a little rice mixed with salt stored in a mud pot for two or three days. None of this diverted my father's pursuit of studies in mathematics. Very often the Chula [traditional Indian stove] would be lit only once every two or three days for cooking.

3. A difficult start to a career.
From: S Minakshisundaram, by K G Ramanathan.

After taking the D.Sc. Degree of the Madras University in 1940. Minakshisundaram was hopelessly stranded without a job. He was offered a university job on a miserable salary, but he rejected it because, as he said, no self-respecting scientist could accept the humiliation of being paid like a porter at a railway station. He felt very frustrated, but due to the timely assistance of Fr Racine who was professor at Loyola College he could earn some money by coaching a few students of that college for the university examinations. Such things seem incredible now-a-days, but in those days (during the 1940s) research was still considered a parlour game and only administrative positions were sought after by young talented men. That Minakshi should have stood so steadfastly to a career in mathematics even under such adverse conditions redounds to his greatness - a greatness that can be understood and appreciated only by those who have known the hard conditions, during the years preceding and following the second world War. 

It was during these years that Fr Racine and Minakshisundaram organized the weekly Mathematics Seminar - a new thing in Madras at that time - in which many, including Chandrasekharan, myself and a few others participated. Minakshi's work by this time had attracted the attention of mathematicians in England and the U.S.A. Meanwhile he was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Mathematical physics at the Andhra University and he felt relieved.

Shorty afterwards, in 1946, due to the efforts of Fr Racine and interest evinced by professors M H Stone of Chicago University and Marston Morse of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, Minakshi was offered a membership at the famous Institute. He arrived in Princeton not merely with a very sound knowledge of mathematics, but with an exceptionally sharp and clear mind capable of attacking important problems. Contact with professors Weyl, Siegel and Pleijel brought out the best in Minakshisundaram. He stayed in Princeton for two years and his work there may, perhaps, be called his best work. His knowledge of classical analytical Number Theory, and the interaction with Weyl and Pleijel resulted in a beautiful and important work by Minakshisundaram and Pleijel.

4. At Princeton from 1946 to 1948.
From: A Daughter's Tribute by K Girija.

From 1946 to 1948 when Minakshisundaram worked in Princeton, he lived as a paying guest in an independent house owned by an elderly lady. Princeton is very cold in winter with severe snow fall. The landlady was a typical American with a warm nature. She was kind and affectionate towards this young foreign-alien-scholar from far off India. Unfortunately the young man was an absent minded professor! He would leave the front door open even in winter. The house would become dreadfully cold inside. She spoke to the brilliant mathematician several times. Sincerely Minakshisundaram would apologize with a promise to rectify the slip. Unfortunately he would more often forget. Then she would leave a note on the door which helped some times. Then the note became a large hanging notice with block capitals, CLOSE THE DOOR. Young Minakshisundaram was too engrossed in his research and hurry-burry that the problem persisted. Ultimately the landlady, with much regret, requested the young mathematician to vacate as she suffered with arthritis.

5. Minakshisundaram's 1950s home.
From: A Daughter's Tribute by K Girija.

My early memories of our home is very vivid. The Army barracks built during the World War II was converted into faculty accommodation. In 1950 when my parents moved into these, it was a long hall with a set of rooms compromising of kitchen, stores, pantry, a room for the chefs and bearers to relax at one end. At the other end the western toilets, shower rooms and bath tubs were spacious and clean. The hall had five doors and ten windows on each side, and verandas on both sides running the entire length of the barracks. The entire stretch of each veranda had 18 pillars supporting the tiled roof. There was a false ceiling below the high tiled roof which was home to rats and lizards. They would scurry about all night on the false roof. I remember walls were built to divide the hall into five large rooms. Three rooms were allotted to my father and the other two to another professor. At one end outside, a little further from the main house, was built an "outdoor". From this traditional Indian toilet the night-soil would be cleared by the scavenger daily. The central room and the third room, 'moodo roomu' as we called it, was always occupied by four to six students. It was also a library as my father bought all the latest books in mathematics from all over the world over from various publishers. His interest in philosophy, history, literature and psychology made him purchase several books. The library also had a cane table with four cane chairs where visitors were received. Also, outside on the veranda, there were cane relaxing chairs and wooden chairs for visitors to sit on. My father accommodated students free of rent and even provided them with meals. All those who stayed at our house had won distinctions in education and went on to distinguished careers too. Today many are still in high posts or retired from international institutes or universities.

6. Warden at Andhra University.
From: A Daughter's Tribute by K Girija.

Minakshisundaram was the Warden of the Andhra University Boys Hostels in 1960 to 1961 and we moved from the long barrack house accommodation into the traditional bungalow of the warden's house. It had gardens all round the house. There was a car garage and quarters for four servants, a gardener, an office peon [and attendant in India], a driver and the house maid and watchman lived in these. All these buildings were built by the British military during the World War II to house British military personnel.

My father worked hard to straighten out all the problems for two years! He visited every hostel block unannounced, checked the rooms for cleanliness, electricity, water, toilets and shower rooms. He addressed the students in a friendly manner, walking into their rooms. He went on rounds everyday to various blocks and messes where food was cooked and served. He checked the stores and maintenance. He would lunch and dine in each mess with the students as an unexpected visitor. Soon he became a familiar and popular figure.

Towards the end of his time as warden a peculiar problem cropped up. The Andhra University doctor was a good friend of my father. He resided in the campus quarters. One night after evening duties in the Andhra University Dispensary, which acted as a hospital, the doctor went to his father's house into the town. Late that night a student fell ill and was taken to the Andhra University tiny hospital. The night nurse in charge tried to give medicine but telephoned the doctor as the student grew worse. Despite carrying out the doctor's instructions the student died. Within an hour the entire student community in the hostels assembled in front of the doctor's house, shouting and throwing stones. When they realized nobody was there they marched to the warden's quarters.

By this time my father had received a call from the hospital and he was waiting for the student crowd. It was after midnight and our entire family, that is my grandmother, mother, brother and myself were worried. My father was waiting in the front trellised veranda where cane chairs and cane tables were arranged for visitors. We turned on all the lights inside and outside the bungalow so the students need not be in the dark. The front door was wide open and we heard the shouting crowd. We watched from the door of the drawing room which opened onto the veranda. My father stood up as the students entered the gate and signalled to us to move inside. My brother, at the end of the veranda, turned off the lights there and stood behind the wooden screen just thirty feet away from the entrance door. My mother and I waited behind the curtain of the door. My father had walked to the front door with his hands clasped behind his back and waited very calmly for the students. They surged forward trampling the garden and shoving each other. They came right up to the front door, filling the whole garden, shouting slogans for justice and dismissal of the doctor. My father waited patiently for fifteen minutes while the shouting continued. Slowly the shouting lessened and in twenty minutes there was silence.

My father smiled sympathetically and spoke in a clear voice slowly, kindly and gently. He calmed the violent emotions of the students with soothing words but with a firm voice. Having pacified their emotions he explained the situation and the tragedy of the student's death. Then his voice picked up momentum and force, driving home to the students the irrationality of their attitude and behaviour. He told them that all necessary precautions will be made to ensure the medical needs of students. He told them to go back and rest. He waited but although there was silence there was no movement from the students. The situation was tense and the silence and waiting seemed eternal. Suddenly from somewhere at the back, in the darkness, a single voice shouted "Dismiss the doctor". A stone came with great force and landed on the roof over my father's head. From the slit in the curtain I saw my brother about to move out. I was about to move also. But my father's stance and voice froze us. Not only us even the students froze. He raised his voice very challengingly. He invited the student who flung the stone to come up. He goaded them to be bold, to come to him and attack. He chided them not to be cowards. He said justice will prevail in anything and everything. He told them he was not afraid. There was a pregnant silence. Then the students ashamed, apologized. The sensible ones were convinced and turned away wishing my father goodnight. As the majority were convinced the rest followed like sheep. It took half an hour for all to be cleared and the gates closed, doors bolted and lights turned off. We were relieved and retired soon.

7. Minakshisundaram and smoking.
From: Some Personal Reminiscences, by G S R Sarma.

His chain smoking habit, his nemesis unfortunately, he acquired at middle age while on the long ship journey back from the U.S.A. He was never seen from that time on without a cigarette except in the class room. Even so, he used to say that the students have a right to smoke only using their own money and not using their parents'. In his last years, he used to confide that this habit controlled him like a Pisacham [a devil] which he tried occasionally to exorcise but in vain. He said he could be off smoking for some days but then he just couldn't think or do mathematics. Withdrawal symptoms from mathematics were more painful to him than those from smoking. I think the addictive habit was particularly harmful in his case due to his slight basic build and light eating, like a bird, as I often observed.


JOC/EFR November 2019