Book review : “The Housekeeper and the Professor”

For last few years, I have been reading quite a few Japanese authors and I am in love with ways, Japanese writers handle emotions. Most of the folks I know are in love with Murakami, but frankly, I did not like his works. The Japanese author that I love is Kazuo Ishiguro, and now after reading this, I will be adding Yoko Ogawa to that list.

If you visit Varanasi and go to Assi ghat, there is a quaint little bookshop which goes by the name “Harmony book store”. I have been frequenting this bookstore since class 10th or so. It’s been almost 20 years, the owner always has the best recommendation, in fact, “The professor and the housekeeper” was recommended by him.

The story revolves around a sexagenarian mathematics professor and his housekeeper, and her 8 years old son. Everyday conversations between the housekeeper and the professor, are around numbers. Prof loves it when especially if there is a prime number involved. Now if you are a geek or engineering background, you would love all these number references. How to find beauty in a prime number. The emotional aspect of the story is high, it unfolds like a lotus, presenting us ordinary existence of a housekeeper and the professor, yet their extraordinary existence.

“Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.”

Through the pages, we learn about housekeeper’s son, whom prof calls as the root cause of his thick tuft of hair. Together they share a bond and mutual love for baseball. But the crux of the story is that Prof had an accident a few years back and owing to that his memory lasts only 80 minutes. To cope up with this, he uses sticky notes on his jacket.

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Every morning the housekeeper will have the same set of questions
What’s your shoe size?
When is your birthday?
It was the sheer pleasure of going back to numbers, looking at them in an intuitive way to decipher their mystery. A few years back I remember seeing the documentary about the Cambridge Prof who solved Fermat’s last theorem. Here we had ‘the most beautiful mathematical equation’. Read the paper in the link, by Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin.

This quote from the book perfectly sums it up

“…The pages and pages of complex, impenetrable calculations might have contained the secrets of the universe, copied out of God’s notebook.
In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that that even the faintest light would shine through it. The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth.”

Now I am waiting to watch the movie, and waiting for book depository to deliver Yoko Ogawa’s another classic “The memory police”.

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