Indian-American writer Vikram Chandra, out with his latest — “Mirrored Mind”, tells Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty about coders, artists and the necessary fiction of the same hearted reader
He made his mark with the very first novel he gave us — “Red Earth and Pouring Rain”, a good 18 years ago.
Indian American writer Vikram Chandra, carrying on the path of writer-hood with aplomb since, has admittedly returned to his rooting as an author, a juggler of words, for his latest — “Mirrored Mind — My Life in Letters and Code”, just published in India by Penguin.
“Mirrored Mind”, says Chandra in an email interview before embarking on an India tour to promote the book, draws from the parallel worlds that he began living in while writing his first book. The world of a writer taking control of weighing and using words, pouring out their meanings, their ambivalence, their aesthetics, and that of a computer programmer, using words for coding.
Both writers and coders use words but do they mean the same thing, is the question he has tried exploring between the pages of the book.
The author of “Sacred Games”, also remembered by many in this Bollywood–soaked nation for co-writing the Hrithik Roshan starrer “Mission Kashmir”, here takes a few questions to relate to our readers what “Mirrored Mind” is all about. Excerpts:
What triggered your choice of subject for “Mirrored Mind”? Why did you zero in on the writings of the 10th-11th Century Kashmiri poet Abhinavagupta to take forward the subject?
I live near San Francisco, very close to where a lot of cutting-edge developments in the computer industry are being created, and like in any industry town, you run into its players at restaurants and coffee shops, over dinner tables. I’ve always been interested in programming and its culture, particularly in the version that exists in the Silicon Valley, with its mythologies and values. One thing I noticed was that programmers — because they deal with language on a daily basis — are centrally concerned with aesthetics. Good code is not just functional, it is beautiful; in fact, one could argue that better function flows from elegant code. So there’s a claim that’s often made, that code can be “eloquent,” that programmers are artists. I wanted to see how far the analogy would hold, and to what extent it was useful.
In this investigation, the ideas of Abhinavagupta and other thinkers from the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis” proved to be very helpful. Panini’s grammar makes Sanskrit a formal language that in its structural elements resembles programming languages; the operations of its syntax and grammar are constrained by rules. In fact, Panini’s innovations directly inform the way that programming languages are constructed today — you use “metalinguistic formulae” to constrain and generate programming languages, and that comes directly from Panini. So, Abhinavagupta and other aesthetic philosophers were dealing with a similar problem: what is beauty? What effects of a (formal) language produce the profound reactions that a reader has to literature?
How much of it would you call autobiographical?
I use some of my own experiences from the time when I was writing my first novel, which was also the time I first learnt to program and began working as a consultant. As I wrote that first book, I also began to read, very haphazardly, about pre-modern Indian aesthetic theory. So that memoir-ish strand is what ties together what one might call the two mirroring narratives of the book, about programming and aesthetics. I should say, though, that it’s not very “autobiographical” in the sense of me confessing dark secrets or revealing personal aspects of myself.
As a writer, have you ever worried about how readers would take a subject of your book? Has it ever made you tweak anything to make it ‘reader-friendly’?
No, I don’t worry about how readers will react, mainly because I don’t know what a “reader” is. I know that I write for specific people in my life, and I pay attention to their reactions, but to write for an anonymous, collective reader of some sort would be self-defeating. On two sides of the globe, in the American and Indian entertainment industries, I’ve seen first-hand the kind of dumbing down that happens when creators start thinking about “the average reader.” Because film and television are industrial arts which require industrial sums of money to get the product made, it makes a certain kind of sense to think that way. But when I’m writing a book, I’m investing myself, and I don’t want to dumb myself down. This is where the notion of a sahrydaya becomes essential; that “same-hearted” reader is a necessary fiction that may or may not turn into a reality at some point after the book is gone from me. But that’s who I write for.
You have explored in the book the question: Do words mean the same thing to coders and writers? And you happen to be both. If the two tribes are in opposing worlds, how have you been straddling them? Is it difficult? Would you call yourself an exception?
In the book, I try to show that finally what coders and artists do with language is very different. Programmers try to remove all ambiguity from language; denotation is what they live by. Poets, on the other hand, try to say what is unsayable. That is, the beauty of literary language lies finally in what it does not say; writers try to approach this resonant ambiguity through the production of what the old philosophers called dhvani, reverberation, echo. In my daily life, I have to deal with the ambiguities of literary language every day, every moment, and I also don’t know what effects this language will finally produce. So, to me, the strict determinism of code feels like relief, like play. I’m not sure that the ability to be in both worlds is rare because the processes are so different, or because most artists haven’t actually tried to code. There are certainly artists who can do both, but they’re in a minority. Maybe, this will change as it becomes clear to the general populace that coding is a skill that is valuable not just to the specialists. If you’re a business manager trying to understand the Big Data that your company produces, being able to code certain operations would be very useful.
Are you a compulsive writer?
Taking holidays from writing is something that I enjoy, but I get cranky if I’m away from it too long. My wife and daughters tell me that I’m being annoyingly grumpy, and then I know it’s time to return to my desk and those empty screens.