Today’s nonfiction picture book biography surprised me in many ways.
Priya Naranyanan is a writer, poet, and architect based in Ahmadabad City, India. While researching FRIEND OF NUMBERS, she traveled to many places associated with Srinivasa Ramanujan, including his homes in Kumbakonam and Chennai, India, and in Cambridge, England. You can learn more at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
FRIEND OF NUMBERS tells the story of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. At first we the reader see Ramanujan as a young boy living in India who is obsessed with numbers. This wasn’t something that everyone around him understood. And yet, he would grow up to have one of the greatest mathematical minds our world has ever seen. His impact is still being discovered, even today. I was astonished I had never heard of him before I read this book and I loved his persistence. Even more so, I loved Priya’s dedication in trying to tell his story as best as she could, following his footsteps all over the world (boy can I relate to that on more than one story I’ve been working on!). And the illustrations by Satwik Gade combine mathematical and Indian symbols in a gorgeous display unlike anything I’ve quite seen before. This book is fascinating on so many levels!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? When did you start writing stories? What brought you to this picture book?
Priya: Writing has always been my go-to medium for self-expression since I was a child. And reading was my favorite escape from this world. This meant that I was always busy conjuring fantastic ideas and dreaming up worlds when I was not reading about them. However, the idea of getting my pieces published never occurred to me back then. I rarely even shared them with my family. It was only after I became a mother and confronted a dearth of stories for children that were rooted in the cultural and geographical context of my country but just as fantastic as stories by the western authors I’d read growing up that I started to think about writing with the intent to get published. Not having formally studied literature or writing, it was a slow climb up the publishing ladder and continues to be. I learn with every book of mine that gets rejected or published.
Friend of Numbers, once more, happened because of a western author, Robert Kanigel, whose book The Man who knew Infinity left a profound impact on me. More than anything else, I was struck by the fact that no Indian author had written so convincing a book about the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. It also left me wondering why, while there were several fascinating biographies of western scientists to inspire children, there wasn’t much on Ramanujan for a young audience. As I read and re-read Kanigel’s book, something within me told me that perhaps it was I who was meant to capture Ramanujan’s simple yet eccentric life -his tantrums, struggles, insecurities and, most importantly, his passion for mathematics- in a book and put it across to young readers in a way that would inspire them to follow their heart.
Me: What was it about Ramanujan’s amazing story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Priya: There were two things actually. The first was the era to which Ramanujan belonged. That was a trying period for India as a country, being as it was under British rule. It was also a time when, with there being no computers and emails, one had to hand-write letters, seal them in envelopes with stamps, drop them into the red mailboxes that stood across towns and wait for weeks or even months for a reply. I was fascinated by the fact that despite it all, Ramanujan, sitting in his one-room home in a small town in southern India, exchanged letters carrying complex mathematical ideas and calculations with G H Hardy in far-away Cambridge, England, and convinced the latter to invite him over. The other aspect that drew me to Ramanujan was the fact that he died so young. He was only 32 when he died, yet, in that short life, his passion for mathematics catapulted him to the status of one of the most brilliant mathematicians in the world. Obviously, a lot of what made him a genius lay ensconced in his childhood and that really intrigued me.
Me: Your back matter talked about how many places you traveled to learn more about Ramanujan’s life. How long did it take to bring this story to it’s final stages?
Priya: Oh, it took me 3.5 years to get the story to where it is now. But it didn’t feel that long, really. I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey that started with a visit to Ramanujan’s home in Kumbakonam and ended with a serendipitous trip to London, Putney and Trinity College in Cambridge.
Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?
Priya: I did! Although Kanigel’s book served as a starting point, I knew that I had to move beyond it when I decided to write my own book. It meant conducting a lot of personal research to do justice to my story and make it my own, especially because my focus was on Ramanujan’s childhood and my audience were children. I read several other books, both by Indian and foreign authors, to get a comprehensive idea about the era, the region and, of course, my person of interest. Renowned librarian S. R. Ranganathan’s book Ramanujan: The Man and the Mathematician, published way back in 1967, was a rich source of information that gave me a peek into Ramanujan’s life through the words of his friends, peers and relatives.
Not being from a mathematics background myself, I also read books, papers and articles that explained the various mathematical concepts I came across when researching Ramanujan’s work. While articles by Ken Ono and Bruce Berndt helped immensely in wrapping my head around the nuances of Ramanujan’s ideas, my friend Mokshay Madiman, a mathematician himself, set up a virtual meeting and patiently explained one of the most flummoxing equations Ramanujan had shared with Hardy. I still have the book in which I had fervently taken down notes during that meeting.
Finally, Richard Chapling, a young and brilliant math professor at Trinity College who had researched Hardy’s work, painstakingly took me though several of the ideas Hardy and Ramanujan had worked together on. I still remember the train journey we took together from London to Cambridge, how we stood outside house no. 1729 (the taxicab number!) in Putney and chatted for hours and the time we went punting down River Cam. There was never a pause in our exchange and he was so selfless in sharing all the knowledge he had.
Me: Wow! What a journey! I love how you made the complicated math so accessible at the back of the book for young readers. Did you have to have help to put that all together? Or were you able to figure that out on your own?
Priya: Like I mentioned earlier, I had help figuring out many of Ramanujan’s complex ideas. However, thinking through and deciding on the best way to present them to my young audience was a journey I had to take on my own. After all, I was the writer and this was my story.
Me: Satwik Gade’s illustrations in this book are pitch perfect. Did you have any illustration surprises? Any favorite illustrations?
Priya: Satwik’s illustrations were revealed to me only after he had completed all of them and put them together with the text in a book format. So the entire set of illustrations was a surprise for me, and a happy one at that because as you rightly pointed out, they are pitch perfect. Nothing is out of place or extraneous. I have two favorite spreads in the book -the one where little Ramanujan wonders what the last number would be and the one where he’s is playing with numbers with a slate and chalk. I love the layer of cultural context Satwik’s illustrations have added to the narrative through the use of kolams (patterns traditionally made on the ground with rice flour) and kites. And I love the giant ant in the shape of infinity!
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Priya: Having written books in all formats, I find picture books the most challenging because of their focus on the brevity and preciseness of words. And when your story is already short, it is both challenging and frustrating to find and trash those extraneous words that you might have fallen in love with when writing the first few drafts. One also has to ensure that one leaves enough room for the illustrator to step in and add an extra layer to the story, an added perspective for the reader to discover and decipher. So my advice is to be ready for a zillion revisions and re-writes until a voice within you says ‘this is it!’ And to be ready to put your ego aside and allow the illustrator an equal platform to showcase his/her skill.
That is great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog Priya.
But wait, dear readers! There’s more! I also interviewed the illustrator.
Satwik Gade is an artist and designer whose work is inspired by comics, Indian mythology, and Impressionist art. He lives in Chennai, India, where he is the political cartoonist for the newspaper The Hindu. You can follow Satwik on Instagram.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing? How did that lead you to this book?
Satwik: I was a very religious child. I started drawing because I was fascinated by the four armed, blue skinned God Vishnu and wanted to draw him because I thought he was really cool. Later I realized friends are entertained when you draw caricatures of teachers or other students. It was only when I did really badly in college entrance exams for science based courses that I realized arts was probably the way to go. I had done really well in drawing and language based exams and got into a really good fashion college. There I became aware of some of the ways in which I could make a living by drawing. An internship at a children’s book publishing company helped me understand more about the process and everything that goes into illustrating and printing a book.
Me: You have quite a diverse portfolio and a variety of styles. What made you choose the style you did for FRIEND OF NUMBERS?
Satwik: Studying at a fashion college meant that I was not trained as an artist or an illustrator. I was trained to work on a diverse range of projects which require diverse styles of illustration and design. So I have always been someone who picks a style based on the content. When I was commissioned to work on this project, I had just started using an ipad and there was this software called procreate that everyone was beginning to use. Exploring the software showed me how I could recreate my brush, ink and watercolors based drawings on the digital canvas. It gave me more room to make and correct mistakes. I think I was able to use a very vibrant colour palette because I could try colours and then change and edit them. Colouring by hand on canvas or paper can be very unforgiving, so it’s hard to be experimental with colours when you are illustrating an entire book for very little money.
Me: I love the color palette you chose for this story. Can you talk a little bit about how you created the art for the story? Did you use traditional media, digital, or a blend of both?
Satwik: I used only digital for this. But I was recreating my hand drawn style rather than exploring digital on its own terms. I observed a lot of photographs from that time period. I also read a lot about Ramanujan. Reading and imagining proved more helpful than photos. I think my process is spending more time reading than honing my drawing skills. Honing skills is extremely important but that’s something all artists do. Reading is equally important but many artists don’t. So as an artist being a voracious reader can easily set you apart.
Me: I love that. What an interesting idea. One of my favorite illustrations is the scene where Ramanujan is adding up all the numbers in the world. The numbers are woven into ants and traditional designs. It’s a brilliant choice! What made you decide to do that?
Satwik: Thank you so much! It’s my favorite too. Sometimes when I do something very good, it’s hard to think of myself as the person who made it. It feels like it just happened. I would definitely put this down to reading. I had read books about mathematics, both fiction and non-fiction. I knew that traditional Indian kolams are made by women who are often even illiterate but the designs they make are mathematically very advanced patterns. I have seen coder friends mathematically code these on computer languages to make these drawings. So while depicting an era where there were no computers, I felt this was a cool counter-colonial (and counter patriarchal) way of showing that he had a mind that was as sharp as a computer’s and that he was inspired by the domestic, which was a woman’s domain, rather than books and schools which were the domain of men.
I wanted to use ants because ants usually feed on these kolams which are made from rice flour. The kolams are drawn outside the house so as to prevent the ants from coming inside the house in search of food! But also when one thinks of infinitely many things, I think we would typically think of ants because they are one group of insects where we can look at infinitely many of them in one place and stay to observe without freaking out and running away (unless they bite!)
Me: Ha! That’s true. What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Satwik: The sense of joy and curiosity and wonder in the little boy’s face. Ramanujan led a very tragic life. But the boy in my drawings is so gleefully unaware of the future even though I as an artist know what happened. I don’t know how I was able to shield the little boy in my drawings from what I knew was going to happen. It was one of those everyday miracles.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Satwik: Keep drawing and reading. When you get bored of drawing, read. When you get bored of reading, draw! When I say read it could even mean listening to stories. Like listening to a storyteller. (My grandfather told me stories of Vishnu). Or an audiobook. (I can’t listen to audiobooks but many friends love them.) Basically engaging with stories where there is no visual aid. Not comics, video games or cinema. Just audio or words.
Me: If you could illustrate any picture book (past, present, or future), what would it be and why?
Satwik: I grew up reading a lot of Indian comics especially from publishers like Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and Diamond Comics. I would have loved to illustrate Stories of Vishnu for ACK, do a YA action adventure short for Tinkle, or do a Chacha Choudhury, Billoo or Pinki comic for Diamond. Or have my own strip at one of the many awesome children’s magazines I grew up reading like Illustrated Weekly, Champak or Chandamama. All these are still very popular with kids and are running strong. So maybe I can actually do something for these publishers soon. Fingers crossed!
Ohh! Good luck Satwik! Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book (it was just released this week), I highly recommend tracking it down. It’s a fascinating read about a man not many Americans have heard about. His mathematical mind went on to change some of the fundamental things we take for granted today in our world. The writing here just sings and the illustrations are stunning. I can promise that this is a book you will want to study to see how it all came together.