Seeing the obituaries of Henri Cartan I am reminded of Fr. Charles Racine, one of the big influences in the development of modern mathematics in India and started wondering whether his name will be recalled much after some more years and whether I would have done mathematics without him.
I do not remember being interested in mathematics or any thing in school days. I was an average student though I seem to have done well once in mathematics in the ninth grade ( I came to know about it since Umamaheswararao sitting next to me who was usually first in the class tore off his answer sheets). My doing well might have some thing to do with the teacher Paruchuri Sambasivarao and his reputation as a good teacher as well as a womanizer. At one stage, I was too young to get admission in an Engineering college and my father decided that I should do Mathematics Honours since it might help in getting better scores for I.A.S. exams. My date of birth was also adjusted so that I would get four chances rather than the usual three. It was then in 1956 that I joined Loyola College, Madras where Fr. Racine was the Head of the Math. Dept. People loke Ramamathan Krishnan and Akbar Khaleeli were still in the college and we were more fascinated by them than discrepit teachers. Later I learnt that two of the students who were wearing dhotis the Tamil way were Raghavan Narasimhan and C.P. Ramanujam. For some reason, we had once a week a discussion type class by one Krishnamutrthy. I forget his first name but he is the only good teacher I remember from college days and was wonderful teacher. Up to that time mathematics was just manipulations and calculations which I could do some extent but did not find particularly fascinating. Krishnamurthi wore dhoti the Telugu way, wore a cotton jacket and traditional headwear. He was serene, had beatiful handwriting, rarely backtracked his steps on the board and his pace was just right for me. He explained to us about natural numbers, rational numbers, real numbers and why there were more real numbers than rational numbers. For the first time, mathematics seemed to be about things one could understand and not just manipulations. And there were beautiful concepts and arguments like Cantor's diagonal argument and I was converted. I started borrowing books from the library read with partial understanding many books and parts of books outside the syallabus. Some like "Men of Mathematics" indicated that a life of mathematics could be exciting. Two books from those days which I still cherish are Artin's "Galois Theory" and Hausdorff's "Set Theory", the second determined the research direction that I was to take later. I slowly found much of the class material outdated and boring and by next year started cutting classes.
I still did not meet Fr. Racine. Around this time I started growing (nearly ten inches in one year) and found it more and more difficult to attend classes and was thrown out of college. I might have met Fr. Racine around this time but I am not sure. What I remember is that Fr. Racine wrote to my father that I had potential and that I should come back to college, The next year I went to college again but the story repeated ieslf. It was during this time that I used to go to his room in the fathers' quarters, chat about mathematics, borrow books from him. But I had to leave again, I heard that he was unhappy but could not dissuade the authorities.
After a few months at home, I found that the only one I could discuss mathematics was my mother and went to another college where attendance was not strict and after my bachelor's degree, Fr. Racine asked to come again to Madras. This time, the college did not insist on attendance or other protocols. I survived two boring years and joined TIFR, Bombay in 1964 full ten years after finishing school. At last, I could study and work on whatever I liked. Senior colleagues would sometimes go out of their way to study and lecture on topics that I was interested in even when they did not specialize in those areas. I pursued Topology of which I had some glimpses in Hausdorff's "Set Theory". It was only later I found that I was given a wide bearth because many seniors were Fr. Racine's students and there were some requests from him about dealing with me. Since then until recently when social problems started bothering me, it has been a life of mathematics. I do not know how well I did or whether I fulfilled Fr. Racine's expectations but most of the time I did not feel that I was working since I was 'working' on things that interested me. It was also during this period in Bombay I found out about his influence on Indian mathematics. He was in touch with some of the top French mathematicians and some of their latest work was available to him . Through seminars in Madras, he seemed to have influenced many mathematicians like K. Chandrasekharan, Meenakshisundaram others. More of this later. I was probably a difficult case but he did modernize courses as much as possible under the university restrictions. N.U.Prabhu in Probabilty modelling across continents talks of the influence of the mathematics courses on Analysis from the books of De La Valle Poussin and Goursat by Fr.Racine. I found that the mechanics courses taught from the books in early 1900's for British polytechics particularly horrible. When I got to know him, I complained and he immediately gave some notes that he prepared himself which were more in the spirit of Banach's "Mechanics".
His interest in his students continued even after we left Loyola College. Around the end of 1974, I visited France for a few months and before my visit, Fr. Racine wrote to me asking me to say 'hello' to Henri Cartan. Henri Cartan was an institution in France and I duly ignored the advice. One day, I saw an old gentleman near one of the steps outside IHES in Bures sur Yvette, and the gentleman said "You must be Swarup, Racine wrote to me about you". It turned out to be H. Cartan and soon after he translated a paper of mine (which, unfortunately was not a good paper) and published it in Comptes rendus. Here is Ragunathan's description of some of Fr. Racine's contributions:
"Father Racine was born at Tomay-Charente in France in 1897. He enlisted for active service in the First World War in 1916 and was demobilized three years later after an ankle injury that left a limp for the rest of his life. He then entered the Jesuit order and was ordained a priest in 1929. He spent four years studying
mathematics in Paris and obtained a doctorate in 1934. He was sent to India to
work at St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli. He moved to Loyola College, Madras in 1939 and stayed there till his death in 1976, nine years after his retirement in 1967.
Father Racine had worked with Élie Cartan and Hadamard, both legendary figures in mathematics. He counted André Weil and Henri Cartan (another famous mathematician and Élie Cartan’s son) among his friends. With this background, Racine naturally had an excellent perspective on mathematics, which he brought to India with him. He began weaning some Indian mathematicians away from traditional Cambridge-inspired
areas and Minakshi was his first big success; and there was a galaxy of brilliant
students to follow; the list would occupy substantial space in any ‘who’s who’ of Indian mathematics. To mention a few names: K. G. Ramanathan, C. S. Seshadri, M. S. Narasimhan, Raghavan Narasimhan, C. P. Ramanujam.
Father Racine was apparently not an exciting speaker. Students found his classroom lectures difficult to follow. His French accent combined with what amounted to mumbling to the blackboard, made things worse. It was, however, outside the classroom that his influence was decisive. He was remarkably good at spotting talent and then encouraging it. He liked talking informally to his students, especially the talented ones and gave them invaluable advice in their career decisions. Mathematical activity was by no means Father Racine’s sole preoccupation. Apparently, he was a spiritual adviser to the Jesuit community of the college and was engaged in resolving personal problems for the Catholic laity around him. The French government conferred on him the coveted ‘Legion d’honeur’ in 1962. In all the 42 years he spent in India, he made only two trips to France; yet he remained very much a Frenchman. But there can be little doubt that he loved India more than France. I was not privileged to be his student, but remember with pleasure the one long and informal meeting I had with him in the company of my teacher M. S.
Narasimhan. He was an excellent example – by no means unique – of the coexistence of the cassock with a lively disposition."
Ragunathan's article Artless innocents and ivory-tower sophisticates: Some personalities on the Indian mathematical scene appeared in Current Science, 2003 and has a photograph of Fr. Racine. Raghunathan's photo appears in the photo section of this blog.