**5. Nothing To It**

Namagiri briefly stopped pounding
the laundry in the washbasin, sat up, and looked across the room. Ramanujan was
still sitting there!

“Dear?” she said. “You’re still
working?”

Ramanujan said, “So

*many*sums... so*much*merchandise to count... each computation is fast, but reading and writing them all, one after another, that takes time. I am only one computer; that is what the Prince and the Sheik need to understand.” He scanned a tally, picked up some counters, and placed them on the board in front of him.
Namagiri returned to her laundry.
Shall I tell him yet, she wondered. Is there anything to tell? Almost eight
weeks! But still, perhaps a false alarm. Perhaps she had merely skipped one.
Wait a bit to be sure...

She finished the load and set it
aside. She was about to start the next bundle, but paused to look at Ramanujan.
“Why... you’re still on the first stack!” Curious, she walked over to look down
at Ramanujan, seated cross-legged at a board full of bins full of counters.
Ramanujan scanned a tally, placed some counters in some bins, and moved
counters from bin to bin. “What a funny game you are playing!”

“It’s work, not play,” he said.
“This is a counting board. Sit, Namagiri, sit beside me, I’ll explain it...
thank you,” he said, as they leaned against each other. Ramanujan scanned a
list and added counters to the counting board. “See that? This tally - ” - and
he held up a piece of papyrus covered with tally marks - “ - has two hundred and fify-four marks, so
watch; I put two counters here, five here, and four here. See?”

“I see! So these are ones, these are
tens, these are hundreds?”

“Just so. Ten counters in a place
are worth one counter one place to the left.”

“I see; so worth on the
counting-board is mostly a matter of position?”

“Just so.”

“Like here in the palace?”

“Just so.” And Ramanujan returned to
his sums. He discarded one tally and picked up the next one in the stack.
Namagiri inspected the discarded tally.

“What is this strange stuff?” she
asked.

“It is called papyrus,” Ramanujan
said. “From far Egypt. Very useful in holding records and tallys. Our guests
have consented to trade one plus twelve dozen dozen sheets for equally many
drams of curry.”

“One plus twelve dozen dozen! Why
does the Prince want so much papyrus?”

“He wishes to record all our laws
and treaties and accounts; so he got that much just to make sure it was
enough.”

“One plus twelve dozen dozen sheets
should suffice for any sensible task.”

“Just so,” Ramanujan said. “And
dear? perhaps you can help me. Sit here... yes. I’ll call out the numbers, you
place the counters...”

Ramanujan and Namamgiri changed
places; she placed counters as Ramanujan called out, “One hundred and
fifty-six... yes... three thousand four hundred and twenty-five... fifty-six...
now, take out ten from there and put one over there... yes... six hundred and
forty-one... eleven... five hundred and fifty... yes, no ones... four hundred
and two...”

“No tens?”

“Just so. One hundred and
sixty-nine...” And so it went; soon they finished the first count. Ramanujan
read the counting board, then wrote on a blank sheet of papyrus:

Seventeen thousand, four
hundred and sixty-six.

“What are those strange marks,
dear?” Namamgiri asked.

“Words, of course. I know you can’t
read them...”

“No, not

*those*squiggles!*These*squiggles!”
“Oh! They are digits.” Ramanujan
blushed. “Really I should spell them out in full, but it’s shorter this way...
I’ll write these figures out properly once I’m done.”

Namagiri glanced from record to
counting-board and back again. “So

*that*is a one,*that*is a seven,*that*is a four,*those*are sixes.”
“Just so,” Ramanujan said. He turned
aside from the counting-board, picked up a small bright object, and started
manipulating it.

Namagiri stared at it. “What are you
doing with that baby rattle?”

“So

*that’s*what it is.” Ramanujan held the toy up. Glass beads slid on wires strung on a wooden frame. “I thought it was a glass-bead game. The caravan trader didn’t say.”
“And what are you using a glass-bead
game for?”

“As a counting board. See? One of
these beads equals ten of these... we can do the exact same kind of
arithmetic.”

Namagiri looked at the baby rattle,
then at the counting board, and back. She laughed. “Leave it to you to see
these as one and the same!”

“I was thinking of getting a few
more glass-bead games. No more than twelve...”

“Twelve!” Namagiri exclaimed. She
stood up and said, “Sure, let us have a dozen dozen dozen sheets of papyrus and
a dozen baby rattles to count them with.” Then she walked across the room,
squatted at the washbasin, and started the second laundry load.

* * *

The next day was the eighth week.
Namagiri was almost certain, but wanted to wait just a bit longer before
telling him anything.

As before, she was doing laundry
(quickly) and he was doing sums (slowly). “I am only one computer,” he
complained. “Even with all these ‘abaci’-” and he indicated the dozen baby
rattles surrounding him on the floor.

“What an odd name!” Namagiri said.

“That’s what the Lady Nan-See calls
them. Even with more than one abacus, I can only do one arithmetical operation
at a time!”

“Poor dear. I would help you if I
could-”

“Thank you! Come over here... good!
I’ll call out numbers, you compute! Do you want the counting board?”

“No, I’ll take an ‘abacus’,”
Namagiri said while picking up a baby rattle. Ramanujan called out numbers and
Namagiri manipulated beads. It was a relaxing break from laundry-pounding; and
she had been feeling out of sorts lately.

Soon Ramanujan was recording their
calculations. “If only you could help with this part! It all has to go through
me,” he complained. “You see, dear, counting-board and abacus solve only half
the problem. We have to record our results, so that others can do more sums on
them!”

“Perhaps we could just keep the
numbers on the abacuses?”

For answer Ramanujan tilted an
abacus. Beads rattled down. “Too unstable for records. It'll never do to have
envoys carry baby rattles about! And so I am forced to write it all out in
longhand!” He wrote:

6 myriads, 8 thousands,
3 hundreds, 4 tens, 7 ones.

“What is that word? I sort of
recognize the others...”

“‘Myriad’, dear. Meaning ten
thousand.” Ramanujan sighed. “Each power of ten needs its own number-name.
There’s no end to it.”

“But why do you use words?” Namagiri
said. “You know I can’t read them! And neither can our Arab partners.”

“And we are as illiterate in Arabic
as they are in Sanskrit,” Ramanujan said. “And so it all comes back to me! I
have overheard the Sheik complaining...”

Namagiri smiled. She knew all about
overhearing complaints.

Ramanujan continued, “He was
scolding the Prince. Scolding him, mind you! He said, ‘One single genius will
not suffice for our needs!’ He said, ‘My clerk, the rabbi Shmuel ben-Tennon; is
he a genius? No! But he is hard-working, and he is systematic, and systematic
work will serve when inspiration flags!’ He said, ‘We need an army of fools,
and a way to organize these fools into something effective!’ And so I have been
wondering...” Ramanujan stopped calculating, and said to Namagiri, “Could we
record these calculations... by drawing

*pictures*of the counting board?”
“Pictures? Too cumbersome,” Namagiri
judged.

“But you see, that is how I do it.
With pictures in my head.”

“What if you just used digits? No
number-names?”

Ramanujan stared at the
counting-board in front of him. “So this number in front of me... I write it as
six eight three four seven?”

“That’s what’s on the
counting-board, after all!”

“Interesting idea. Perhaps you can
help me out. I’ll call the digits, you write them.”

“I would be glad to; but first show
me how to draw the digits.”

“There are nine in all. They look
like this.” And Ramanujan wrote down nine symbols. “This
is the One,” Ramanujan said earnestly, drawing the digit. “Here is the Two.
Here, the Three.” And so on; he went doggedly, step by careful step, from one
to nine. “And those are all the digits,” he concluded. “Let’s get to work.
Write the numbers in columns, like I did over here. Ready? Good.” He scanned a
tally. “Six hundred and twenty-one.” Namagiri wrote a tremulous 621. “Good!
Four seven nine. Good. Three one four two. Eight nine nine three. One one
one...”

After a few minutes the tallys were
recorded. Namagiri looked over the list and said, “You know... I could sum
these up for you.”

“How?”

“On the counting board, of course.
You showed me how yesterday, remember? And I’ll record them for you, the same
way.”

“Why, thank you, darling! For all
that writing was making my arm sore.”

“But in turn you must do some work
for me.” And Namagiri pointed to the laundry basin.

“You mean... let’s swap
counting-board and washbasin? Sure! Washing is easy!”

“And summing is work? For you,
perhaps,” said Namagiri. “For me it is the other way around.” And she started
playing with the counters. Namagiri shuffled counters, Ramanujan pounded
laundry; a change of pace for both.

Soon both were done. Namagiri jotted
down the final sum, then handed the sheet to Ramanujan. She said, “You know, if
you just used digits and never number-names, then I could help you all the
time, and we’d get your work done faster.”

“What an interesting idea,”
Ramanujan said. “Numbers using only nine digits!”

“Tell Prince and Sheik this idea,”
she urged. “Make a point of how important position is for these numbers. One
counter is worth ten counters of the rank below! I’m sure that both Prince and
Sheik will understand that part right away.”

“I will try it,” Ramanujan promised,
gathering up papyruses and abacuses. “Oh... and dear? Later this week, could you
help me do...”

“Some more tallies?” Namagiri
sighed. “Yes.”

* * *

The next day, it was eight weeks and
a day; two cycles missed. There was no question about it anymore; so Namagiri
resolved to tell.

But Ramanujan was too upset to hear
anything just yet. “Disaster, dear!” he cried. “I tried to show Prince and
Sheik the nine-digits positional system, but it failed!”

“What went wrong?”

“The Prince was agreeable to all my
suggestions, as ever.”

“He is Prince Rahni to his friends,
which means practically everybody.”

Ramanujan nodded. “But the Sheik was
critical. He asked me these sums; fifty-four plus one hundred forty-nine; one
hundred thirteen plus one hundred seventeen; and twelve plus eleven!”

“And what of it?”

“Why, try these sums yourself!” So
Namagiri sat at the counting-board and proceeded to add 54 to 149. “See?”
Ramanujan said when she was done. “A blank column in the middle, between a two
and a three! Now try one-one-three plus one-one-seven!” Namagiri did so. “See
that? Now the blank column is on the end! Two-three-blank! And eleven plus
twelve makes two-three, no blanks at all!”

“I see all this; and what is the
trouble?” Namagiri asked, then said, “Oh. How do we write these down?”

“How do you write them down!”
Ramanujan exclaimed. “For look!” He wrote:

2 3

2 3

2 3

“Which is the two-blank-three, which
is the two-three-blank, and which is the blank-two-three? That is what the
Sheik asked me.” Ramanujan shook his head. “The blanks are invisible! I was
unable to answer, so he dismissed me. He
told me to come back when I've got something.”

Namagiri stared at the counting
board.

“This is so frustrating!” Ramanujan
exclaimed. “So close yet so far! A tiny little problem like this, and we are
back to me writing longhand!”

Namagiri stared at the empty column.
“This is not a tiny problem. It is no problem at all.”

“Yes, and this no-problem stops
everything!” Ramanujan cried. He paced back and forth. “If only there were some
elegant, simple way to count and calculate; but what is it?”

Namagiri continued to stare at the
empty column.

Ramanujan said, “It is as if there
were something too clear, something too obvious, that we're all missing, right
in front of our noses, but we don't notice it. But what is it?”

Namagiri looked up. “You mean... you
really don’t see it? How odd!”

“If you can see something that I do
not, please tell me!”

“No, it is not something...” she
said. “More like nothing.”

“So you see nothing too.”

“Yes. No. Yes. No. I see something,
but it’s really a kind of nothing.”

Ramanujan stopped pacing. “What?”

Namagiri indicated the empty column.
“There is nothing in here, right? No counters? Yes. And you need to number how
many counters are in each column, yes? So you need to number how many counters
are in this empty column.”

“But what number is that? There are
no counters.”

“The counters are missing; very
well! But a number is missing, too; the one to fill these blanks.” Namagiri
tapped the paper with the 2's and 3's. “You need a new digit; one indicating an
empty column.”

Ramanujan looked puzzled. “A digit
for counters that aren’t there?”

“Call it a placeholder; a way to
keep the places straight. But yes, you can call it a number for nothing,” she
said. “It counts the void.”

“A new number...” Ramanujan sat
down. He contemplated the idea awhile. Then he said, “But what are we to call
this void number?”

“ ‘Void’ is as good a name as any,”
she replied; and since they spoke in Sanskrit, they used the Sanskrit word for
void, which is ‘Sunyata’.

“And how are we to write this
Sunyata-digit?”

Namagiri picked up a pen and drew a
tiny circle. “There. Small. Round. Unnoticed. Invisible. Like me.” She smiled.
“Tell the Sheik that we have something better than Something; namely, Nothing.”

Ramanujan said, “And why should he
listen to nothing?”

“And why not?” Namagiri replied.
“Doesn’t he have most of his trouble with nothing? The money that he doesn’t
get, the goods that aren’t there? And doesn’t he live with nobodies doing
nothing, all the time?”

“Nobodies such as you and I?”

“Just so!” Namagiri replied. “Prince
and Sheik would multiply themselves by ten, by a thousand, by a million!
Therefore they should seek sunyatas. Quiet, transparent, ignored; this
placeholder is emptiness, but it means multiplication times ten.”

Ramanujan said, “This Sunyata is
nothing, but it is no ordinary nothing.”

Namagiri said, “It is a fertile
void.” She paused. She might as well tell now. “Like me.”

Ramanujan’s eyes widened. “Why, why,
darling, what do you mean?”

She mused, “How convenient that you
bought all those baby-rattles. We shall be needing them soon.” Namagiri patted
her belly and said, “It has been eight weeks and a day since my last period.
Two cycles missed. Do you understand?”

Ramanujan understood. He leaned over
and kissed her belly.

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