BANGALORE: The place remained true to the old pictures Lakshman had seen: a modest agraharam row-house with alternating stripes of white and red decorating the plinth and coconut-frond thatches shading the doorway. Several florid rice flour kolams with red earth borders decorated the front yard.
The curvy oil-lamp niches in the walls were sufficient proof that the house predated the advent of electricity. Kumbakonam, here we come!
Lakshman skirted past the kolams gingerly and went inside. Joshua too took the cue and followed him cautiously. 'This is the childhood home of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the greatest Indian mathematician of the twentieth century,' Ranga Bashyam said grandly. 'This is the very roof under which he discovered hundreds and hundreds of theorems as a young boy.'
An open courtyard funnelled sunlight and fresh air into the living area. There wasn't much furniture around except for two folding chairs, clearly a more recent addition along with electric lights and ceiling fans.
The bedroom was to the left of the entrance; it had a barred window overlooking the street. Lakshman went in after Ranga Bashyam, Joshua following close behind, his hat clutched in hand.
An antique-looking wooden cot lay in front of the window occupying much of the bedroom space.
'This cot . . .?' Lakshman said tentatively.
'Ramanujan's!' Ranga Bashyam affirmed. 'He used to sit on it in front of the window and do maths all day long. My grandfather has seen him with his own eyes. He used to know him well.'
'Yes sir! The whole street was like one big family in those days. Everybody knew everybody. Believe it or not, my grandfather spent days searching for him when he ran away from home.'
Lakshman and Joshua spun around and took stock of the bedroom. Except for the cot near the window and a bookshelf recessed in the wall, there was nothing else in there.
'Aren't you going to take photos?' Ranga Bashyam asked, his eyes trained on the camera strapped on Joshua's beltline. 'The other foreigner took pictures everywhere.'
Lakshman became alert instantly. 'He took photos?'
'Yes sir. He didn't just stop with photos. He and that other fellow even went out and started taking apart the roof thatches.'
'What!' Lakshman gasped.
'Yes sir. When I warned them there could be scorpions there, they brought a cricket stump from somewhere and began poking and probing with it. Kept sticking the stump up all over the roof like maniacs.'
'Did they find anything in the roof?' Lakshman asked sharply. 'No sir. They even turned this cot upside down, but nothing much,' Ranga Bashyam said. 'But that professor fellow took a lot of photos. Didn't even spare this empty bookshelf.'
The old man unhooked the wooden door and flung the recessed bookshelf open. 'I don't know what is there to photograph here but he just kept clicking.'
The bookshelf was empty with long rows of black ants crawling up the back wall. But there was something about its unvarnished wooden door, its inner side. . .
Lakshman and Joshua couldn't see what it was exactly from where they stood. With hearts pounding faster and blood rushing to their faces, they homed in on it in two strides like two cheetahs converging upon the same prey.
Extract from The Steradian Trail (Westland) by M N Krish