By Arka Chattopadhyay
Love and Mathematics: Do the two Becharas know each other?
‘I am not going to review Dil Bechara.’ I say this knowing full well that I am not Sucharita Tyagi and this is not Film Companion! I will stick to my opening lines nonetheless because what I have in store is not a movie review. Instead of reviewing what has been extensively marketed as Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput’s last cinematic offering after his unfortunate suicide in July, I will highlight a thread that has been neglected in the film. This thread concerns a mathematically understood notion of infinity and its relation to the phenomenon of love. The neglect of this thread in Dil Bechara becomes all the more interesting when we consider Sushant Singh Rajput’s own interest in physics, cosmology and the stars and all his Instagram posts with images of the earth as the mother, the solar system and so on. These posts went viral after his demise and we created our narratives about his death as a return to his dead mother – his mortal union with galactic time and stardust! Dil Bechara could have been a perfect last film to cinematically deliver him to the stars, he loved so much! But this wasn’t to be, thanks to the almost complete omission of this thread from the film (the edited version released online; one does not know if the original 2 hour version had it!).
Intuitively speaking, the relation between love and mathematics is not ready at hand. Though if we think deeply about some of the archetypal romantic actions like counting the stars of the sky or removing the petals while alternating between ‘loves me’ and ‘loves me not’, it is noticeable that a mathematical aspect of counting is at work there. The oscillation of doubt in love finds a logical expression in the affirmations and negations of ‘loves me’ and ‘loves me not’. In a bout of romantic sleeplessness, can we count all the stars of the sky? As Rahman’s song ‘taare ginn’ from Dil Bechara suggests:
Taare ginn, taare ginn
Soye bin saare gin
[Count the stars, count them
Without sleeping count them all]
The desire to count all the stars in the sky is a mathematical act of love that looks out toward interstellar uncountability. Is the uncountable the same as the infinite? We will return to this question. This is not an isolated instance of counting in the Dil Bechara album. In ‘khulke jeene ka’, Amitabh Bhattacharya’s lyrics bring back counting as a motif:
Umar ke saal kitne hai gin gin ke kya karna
Beet jaye na ginti mein hi varna
[What do we do counting the years of life
Let all the time not pass in this counting]
In a film that tells the story of a star-crossed love between two cancer-patients, numbers and counting become imprints of finitude. Love wants to count the uncountable (stars) but life reminds the lovers of their impending mortality and exhaustion of all counting in death. The songs of Dil Bechara create an expectation for this mathematics of love but the film steers clear of it. Is it because love and mathematics is too arcane a relation to explore in a run-of-the-mill Bollywood film?
Counting the Uncountable: Where is the Fault?
How does love speak to a mathematical conception of infinity? This question is explicit in John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars (2012) and in its eponymous Hollywood movie version (2014). Interestingly, the Bollywood version of the same story, Dil Bechara recently released on Hotstar, almost writes out this mathematical and cosmic dimension of infinity from the narrative and replaces it with notions like the eternal (hamesha) and the incomplete (adhura) that are not understood in mathematical terms in the film. It is this exclusion and mutation of the mathematical that I want to talk about in what follows.
Green’s source novel invokes infinity in a mathematical way when the lovers (Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters) exchange their favourite books. The narrator, 16-year-old Hazel, suffering from thyroid cancer, takes liking for a line in her favourite writer Peter Van Houten’s novel, An Imperial Affliction. The line goes: “(s)ome infinities are larger than other infinities.” This formulation that there are some infinities bigger than others, runs through the novel. It becomes a romantic pronouncement for the lovers’ experience of love as infinity amid the finitude of death. Hazel tracks down the disappeared writer with Augustus’s help to know more about the abrupt ending of her favourite self-identified novel about a girl, suffering from cancer. In a meeting that turns sour when Van Houten disrespects Hazel’s medical condition, the writer develops infinity along mathematical lines with a mention of the great 19th century German mathematician Georg Cantor. Houten says, “Cantor showed us that some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” He also refers to Zeno’s paradox of the race with a tortoise. The tortoise gets a head start and even though the human being is faster than the tortoise, he can never catch up. Through these mathematical and logical ideas of infinity and incompleteness (Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem is an obvious echo), Houten tries to justify the mid-sentence ending of his novel. These mathematical ideas lace the romantic tragedy with a promise of endlessness for love. They also insist on the unfinished nature of love. One of the two may die but the other lives on with the memory of the dear departed.
Josh Boone’s 2014 film The Fault in Our Stars leaves out Zeno’s name from the tortoise paradox. But, we do hear Willem Dafoe as Van Houten name Cantor and his invention of actual infinity. It is thus fair to say that the mathematical question of infinity in love has its place in the Hollywood film as in the book. Georg Cantor’s continuum hypothesis itself is important for actualizing the notion of infinity in the mathematical field of set theory. Cantor went as far as writing a letter of apology to the church as he felt guilty about displacing the idea of the infinite from Christian divinity to a material and worldly domain of numbers.
Mathematics has a more elaborate and deeply emotive moment in Green’s book as well as in Boone’s film adaptation. When Augustus’s cancer relapses and he comes to know, his days are at an end, he organizes a pre-funeral for himself where Hazel reads out a eulogy for him. She says she cannot express their love in words and therefore would like to talk about mathematics:
I can’t talk about our love story, so I will talk about math. I am not a mathematician, but I know this: There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.
Hazel’s eulogy comes back to Houten’s formula that some infinities are bigger than other infinities. The biggest infinity is the infinite created by two people in love. The declared bypassing of love through mathematics ironically returns to love through nothing other than the idea of infinity. The above passage, retained ditto in the film, takes its support from the Cantorian formula that the set of real numbers between 0 and 1 is uncountable and infinite. This is an infinity that does not lie at the beginning or at the end of numbers. It rests itself in between numbers. This infinity stands for the infinite world of love. It shines with the experience of an infinite world, shared by the two lovers.
Number Sequence of Love: Infinities between 0 and 1
This conception of mathematical infinities in love reminds us of the contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou who invokes mathematical infinity in love as a human process of making truth together. In his books, Being and Event and Logics of Worlds, Badiou writes at length about mathematics from a philosophical position. He is profoundly influenced by Cantorian infinity as a positive notion. His idea of the infinite does not offer a negation of the finite. Badiou’s Cantorian infinite is situated outside the finite. It is no negation of the finite. This is a positive entity in itself. It exists in the real world of numbers and in their internal chasms. More relevant for our discussion however is Badiou’s evocation of mathematical infinity in love as another process of truth making. Badiou offers a numerical sequence for love: one, two and infinity. He calls this the “numericity” of love. For him, love is all about the two. It breaks the solipsistic loneliness of the one. Love divides the one by creating a two. From this twoness as a condition of existence for the lovers, they aim at the infinite.
In Conditions (2008), a book in which Badiou talks about the human subject’s relation with infinity, Cantor’s mathematics as well as love in an essay titled ‘What is love?’, we read:
In love, there is first the One of solipsism, which consists in the confrontation or the body-to-body of the cogito and the black–grey of being in the infinite repetition (ressassement) of speech. Then there is the Two, which occurs in the event of the encounter and in the incalculable poem of its naming. And, last, there is the Infinite of the sensible which the Two traverses and develops, and in which it little by little deciphers a truth of the Two itself.
To gloss this difficult passage, let me observe that love is a flight from one to two and then to infinity. Two people meet by chance and fall in love. This experience makes them go beyond themselves and approach a shared world. This world of the couple is already an approach to the infinity that lies between 0 and 1. Let us say 0 and 1 fall for each other and as they become a two, they start exploring the infinite real numbers that nestle in their gap – the deep romantic chasm between 0 and 1. As Badiou says, this infinity which opens up in the passage from one to two makes the truth of love.
To come back to Dil Bechara, it is music that replaces literature in the film. Kizie Basu, the female narrator is obsessed with the incompleteness of a popular song ‘main tumhara’ by Abhimanyu Veer. With the help of her lover, another cancer-patient and amputee, Immanuel Rajkumar Junior aka Manny (many or multiplicity as infinity?), she is able to track the intractable singer, living in Paris and thereby making it into a perfect romantic destination. Veer misbehaves with them and says, the song remains without an ending just like life which by its very essence is unfinished and unfinishable. This is the only glimpsing of infinity in Dil Bechara. There is no evocation of mathematics to scaffold the idea of incompleteness here and infinity is not mentioned explicitly anywhere.
In the pre-funeral scene of Dil Bechara, the reference to mathematics is dropped once again. Kizie, rehashing a familiar filmy dialogue, says that one day all of a sudden Manny made an entry into her life and one day he simply made an equally abrupt exit, leaving her all alone. The number sequence of this tragic love seems to be 1-2-1 rather than 1-2-infinity, as Badiou would have it. As one of the two terminally ill lovers dies, the other is tasked with preserving their love story as long as they survive. The truth of love as the power of twoness thus remains in the surviving one. The survivor is not alone because she is empowered by the memory of infinity that opens up like a flower between the two human beings in love. Zero and One do not add up to a two but the encounter of zero with one unravels all the big and small infinities between these two numbers.
One of the final shots of Dil Bechara shows Kizie walk the graveyard after visiting Manny’s grave with a limp that resembles Manny’s walk. Kizie folds infinitely multiple fragments of Manny in her body and soul as she outlives him. As long as she is there the mathematical infinity of fractions between 0 and 1 makes their love story sparkle. At the end, I wonder why the makers decided to silence the mathematical voice in this love story of terminally sick lovers. Was mathematics considered too arcane, too tangential for love? Whatever the reason may have been, as I have argued, mathematics still breathes life into the silent core of Kizie and Manny’s love. The word the two lovers invent is ‘seri’ meaning ‘ok.’ This invented word underlines their world of little or large infinity. ‘Seri’ comes between Kizie and Manny as an interval that joins them eternally.
In Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film, the makers couldn’t deliver him to the infinite stars, but his Manny will hold our hearts for a while at least. In the most memorable and recurrent scene from the film, as death-stricken Kizie and Manny sit silently in a rusty, inoperative BBD Bag minibus with a few semicircular beams, that looks out into the beautiful stagnant waters of a lake, they can see an infinite world of wordless love that threads them together. It throbs with the endlessness of perpetually ending life as it holds us in its stasis. Irrespective of whether mathematical references are retained or not, this world of the lovers is inherently mathematical in its flirting with the infinite. Death can bring the two back to the one. But this one is strengthened forever by the infinitesimal memory of the two.
Arka Chattopadhyay is Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar. He is the author of the recently published book, Beckett, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real (Bloomsbury, 2018).
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I think this is one of the most innovative writings I have encountered in the longest time. It adds such beautiful poignancy and meaning to John Green’s vision in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS which I haven’t read. Thank you for your wit, warmth and lucidity.