Being French, and being clever, it was inevitable that Paul-André Meyer would have that qualité étonnante. Meyer loved mathematics and probability (but only the difficult problems; trivial problems annoyed him), languages and culture, and philosophy and history. When he passed away somewhat early and unexpectedly on 30 January 2003, the Department of Statistics at Berkeley described him as “the father of the modern French school of probability”.
But he wasn’t just the father of the French school; Meyer was extremely influential even in the Indian school of probability. I (SB) recently spoke to Rajeeva L Karandikar (RLK), an eminent Indian probabilist, about his interactions with the French maître. It was a riveting conversation as Karandikar talked of Meyer’s research work, his likes and dislikes, and of his many endearing human qualities.
SB: You must have met Paul-André Meyer many times.
RLK: Oh, several times. We’ve met at Bangalore, Kolkata, Strasbourg and once even in Paris where we took a long afternoon walk in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
What did you talk about when you met?
Many things. We obviously talked a lot about probability, but also about so many other things. Paul-André the man was almost as fascinating as Meyer the probabilist. I remember a conversation with him at Mysore that left me deeply surprised.
It was 1982, and Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) was hosting an international probability conference in Bangalore. Meyer was of course invited. As was the normal practice those days, the delegates took a day off to see the Maharaja’s Palace in Mysore.
When we reached the Mysore Palace, all the delegates got off the bus, but Meyer kept chatting with me. I thought Meyer wanted to complete a conversation before leaving … but soon realized that he was in no mood to get up!
When I politely told him that it was time to get off, Meyer was apologetic: “You please go, I’m not going”. When I asked why, Meyer said that every palace that he knew was built on the blood and tears of hundreds of suffering man. “That’s why I never visit palaces!”
Seeing me perplexed, Meyer hastily added: “This is no disrespect to an Indian palace. I stay in France, but I’ve never gone to the Versailles Palace!”
When did your technical interactions begin?
It was about 1980. I was writing my Ph.D. thesis and completely excited by some of our new results in martingale theory, which were based on the work that Meyer was doing in France. I had submitted my first paper to Sankhya, and it had been cleared for publication by the external referee (who – I didn’t know then – was Meyer himself).
I had also written a second paper on the same theme … and I sent this paper directly to Meyer who was then also the Associate Editor of the respected German journal Z. Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie und Verw. Gebiete (everyone simply called it ZW)
Meyer was a very punctual correspondent (remember there was still no email!). My letter too elicited a prompt – although unexpected – response from Meyer. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do … and, in any case, your proof is wrong!”, he wrote.
Meyer ended his letter with an even more worrying postscript: “And, by the way, this error means that your other publication – that I had cleared for Sankhya – also cannot be published. Can you please tell the editors not to publish that too?”
For me, this was a double whammy; almost like crashing down from infinity to zero. Fortunately, Meyer’s following letter restored my cheer: “I’m so sorry, but there’s no error in your paper even though I don’t understand what exactly you’re wanting to say. So please do not withdraw the Sankhya paper”.
And Meyer’s next letter, that came in two weeks later, set my spirits soaring: “I now judge your paper to contain very good ideas, but it is very badly written! Will you permit me to rewrite it in a style that’ll make it more sensible and publishable?”
Isn’t that very unusual … for a top professor to make such an offer?
Oh, very, very unusual … and that too from such a renowned master. Remember too that there were no word processors yet! So, Meyer didn’t just have to rewrite, but also retype the paper on his old mechanical typewriter.
It was a wonderful gesture from Meyer. And after investing so much personal effort himself he didn’t even agree to be a co-author. Meyer was simply being exceptionally kind and encouraging. That paper eventually made it to a volume published by the Strasbourg School of Probability.
Talk about that meeting with him in Paris …
That was 1984. I was returning to India from the US and decided to have a stop-over at Paris. Fortunately, Meyer, who lived in Strasbourg, was himself spending a few days in Paris. When I called him to seek a meeting, Meyer agreed immediately. “You are visiting my country, so I will drive to see you!”, he told me.
We had a long and enjoyable chat walking through Jardin du Luxembourg. I asked Meyer, who was to spend two years (1960-62) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, why he chose to return to France after the first year itself.
“Oh that … actually that’s an interesting story”, Meyer replied. “I went to the US accompanied by my wife and we soon discovered that we were going to have a baby. Now if my child (it was a daughter) was to be born in the US, then she would, when she turned 18, have the option to opt for US citizenship … and that’s something we didn’t want!”
But didn’t Meyer himself spend many years in America?
That’s correct. Meyer (born 21 August 1934) was born in France between the two World Wars. When the Second World War appeared inevitable, the Meyer family (Meyerowitz those days) went to Buenos Aires in South America to get away from a troubled and dangerous Europe. When Meyer returned to France in 1946, he spoke Spanish as fluently as French.
Meyer loved languages. Seeing me talk Bengali in Kolkata, Meyer asked me if I could also write Bengali. When I said no, Meyer expressed surprise and unhappiness and urged me to master written Bengali before his next visit to Kolkata.
Meyer himself made a very sincere effort to read and understand Sanskrit, and even learned to read the Devanagari script. At – what was to be – our last meeting in Strasbourg, he showed me a book gifted to him by the famous Indian probabilist K R Parthasarathy. The book had something written in Devanagari that Meyer couldn’t read. He asked me to read it for him. As soon as I saw “Om Bhur Bhuvah” I knew this was the Gayatri mantra and I recited it to him from memory. Meyer was impressed!
Curious that a top French professor should find the Gayatri mantra enticing … and had you mastered the Bengali script when you met him next in Kolkata?
I had, but there was alas to be no next meeting in Kolkata; in fact, Meyer visited Kolkata only that one time. I still recall Meyer’s idiosyncrasies: he refused to stay in a Kolkata hotel, preferring the less comfortable ISI Guest House instead. Meyer was also very keen to visit the Dakhineswar temple. When we offered to send him in an ISI car, he refused. “I know it is possible to walk to the temple from this guest house!”, he said. So, I had to walk with him, and it was quite an ordeal given the din, the sweat and the general lack of hygiene. But Meyer said he enjoyed the walk, and the peace and solitude he experienced at the temple.
In 2000 we tried to persuade Meyer to visit Kolkata for another conference, but he refused. “I’m no longer working on probability”, he told us very firmly. We even tried to tempt him with another visit to Dakhineswar, but Meyer had moved on. He now lived the life of an ascetic, apparently only interested in the wonders of the Orient. All our last conversations were about the history and culture of China, Vietnam and the captivating thoughts of an Indian saint named Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.