Recipe For Tragedy? An Account Of S Ramanujan's Diet Struggles
Image Credit: Ramanujan, in the centre of the group, at Cambridge. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

WHEN S Ramanujan reached the shores of England in 1914, it was to mark the start of a five-year stay at Cambridge, where he worked on (and honed with his collaborator GH Hardy) some of the mathematical discoveries that led to his fame. By now it is well-known that as intellectually stimulating (and challenging) as Ramanujan’s Cambridge stint was, he also had constant troubles with his diet: Highly religious, Ramanujan was by extension a strict vegetarian and one may even say, a picky eater. It is believed that his food habits may have played a role in the breakdown in health that dogged him even after his return home in 1919; he would die the very next year. Coupled with his own restrictive eating and the realities of wartime rationing of food in Britain for the larger part of his stay, to what extent Ramanujan’s poor diet was a catalyst in his death is a matter of conjecture.

As his health deteriorated especially, Ramanujan became even more particular about food. Here is a letter he wrote to a friend from his sickbed. It is dated 19 June 1918, and addressed from Matlock House, the sanatorium where he was being cared for:

My dear Ramalingam, 

The whole of last night I had fever and my temperature this morning was about 102 ~ The old cook has left this place the day before yesterday. The present cook spoiled yesterday all the appalappu by scorching some of them and leaving some raw (without stirring them perhaps). The curried rice was just like akshata and as hard as uncooked rice. Yesterday I had no dinner. At least I had some breakfast and plain boiled rice before. Even these she can't prepare properly now. And so please don't send me anything except avarakkai (broad beans), vendakkai (okra) and nilakkadalai urundai. Don't send anything to the matron with instructions or any such thing. Did you meet Dr Ram yesterday? I redirected a letter to you yesterday. Perhaps it may be a reply from Mr Field. 

Ever yours, 

S Ramanujan 

(Don't send me oil, curry powder, or appalappu. You may give me all these things after I leave this sanatorium.)

As we know from a later letter, Ramanujan’s friend did send him the three food items he asked for. He entreated Ramanujan to let him know should he require any more food at all, and begged him to be a little more flexible with his dietary rules. “Tinned maize is very hard to get but I have not given up my search. There is little hope of my getting any dessicated coconut. Unfortunately coconut cakes and coconut biscuits cannot be well made with ordinary moist coconut kernel. From the last few lines of your letter I gather you are confident of being moved from Matlock Sanatorium. Even if it were otherwise possible, are you in a state fit to be moved? Certainly not. Well it is up to you therefore, to eat or drink plenty of porridge, eat tomatoes, bananas, cheese, cream, macaroni etc. Bananas and cream go together lovely. Eat these and fatten yourself and then alone, the possibility of your moving will be considered.”

However, it is Ramalingam’s letter to Prof Hardy — sent at the same time, with the one above enclosed inside — that offers a wealth of insights about Ramanujan’s routine at the sanatorium. Ramalingam confides in Hardy his true thoughts about Ramanujan’s dietary arrangements at the sanatorium, prefaced with a warning that he will be writing “somewhat harshly and tersely and at a good length”. He then lists Ramanujan’s meals: 

For breakfast — scrambled eggs on toast and tea

For lunch — plain boiled rice, chillies and mustard fried in butter. Occasionally, some cucumber and lemon fruit. On two occasions, the doctor at the sanatorium had been able to procure green peas. 

Tea — Similar to breakfast, with “green onions substituted for eggs at times”

Dinner — Similar to lunch, with a glass of milk.

Ramalingam told Hardy about the worrying moments when he felt Ramanujan had not been served food that might have helped him regain his strength, as also treats like bananas and cheese. Occasionally, the staff would be able to get Ramanujan puddings of various kinds — rice, sago and the like — and he relished them. Ramalingam included instructions on how appalams could be prepared for his friend, why he should be prevented from eating raw avarakkai (and have the sanatorium staff boil it for him instead). Apart from the items his friend had asked for, Ramalingam sent cheese, so Ramanujan could have some macaroni.

“Ramanujan is not only a vegetarian but is one with a strong Madras palate; what is worse he is suspicious of anything that is offered to him being meat. I will write to him and advise him that he should choose between killing — no, controlling will do — his palate and killing himself. He is thinking of his vegetarianism even at the expense of his health and life. But one cannot but think of him as cranky or headstrong when he refuses cream and say plums on it; he also dislikes porridge or oatmeal. The solution is to provide him with Madras dishes; but is it practicable; are they commendable for his health?” Ramalingam asked Hardy. 

Unfortunately since Hardy’s replies to Ramalingam have not been preserved, what course of action was finally taken to improve Ramanujan’s diet at Matlock is not known.