Vikram Chandra’s new book is frustrating and analytically confused. It is important to say this upfront if only because his writing is so full of dodges and non-sequiturs, and they are all so ‘interesting’ that, once in the thick of them, it is almost impossible to recall the general scatter. One starts to wonder why, when everything is so interesting, one is growing bored. One questions one’s own discernment. Chandra himself is well aware of all this. “What is most delicious on my palate,” he explains, “is a medley of tastes that come together to reveal a dominant rasa... If savouring is a form of knowledge, then a complexity of affect affords the most to know.” Indeed, it seems that the secret purpose of this book, which is an exploration of Chandra’s beginnings as a novelist alongside his vocation as a computer programmer, is to justify the way he writes. But his aboriginal purpose was probably to objectively understand his style. If so, we would be doing him a disservice by accepting his excuses.
When a narrative takes deliberate wrong turns, it is necessary to follow it closely. In Mirrored Mind, the evasiveness begins at the beginning. Chapter one, sets forth a question about coding programmes: can coding be beautiful, in the artistic sense? This is answered almost immediately, in an obvious and unobjectionable way. The purpose of coding is not to give aesthetic pleasure, but to make programmes work. Nothing in the rest of the book attempts to complicate this answer, which is then repeated in the final chapter. However, a false start has been made; the book has been framed as an inquiry into coding, not fiction writing.
There follows an auto-biographical account of Chandra’s first forays into writing and programming; and then a chapter piece on the way computers work and on the sociology of Californian programmers with particular reference to gender. It would be unfair to call these two chapters mere showing-off but it is also important to say that in (or out of) the context of the narrative, they serve little other purpose. Thus, the book finally turns to fiction writing, the real matter of personal consequence for Chandra, the work by which he is known and judged, only after he has shyly or slyly persuaded the reader to look the other away.
We now learn of how, while trying to understand his Indian characters for his debut novel, Chandra first turned to Sanksrit texts and of his introduction to Panini’s path-breaking book on grammar. It is pointed out that Sanskrit is a logical language with rules of construction similar to programming languages. And this passing comment is really all the (loose) connection between coding and writing that we perceive. But Chandra insists on more. “Like programmers with their discussions of the ‘eloquence’ of code, the classical Indian theorists tried to think about the effects that flowed from formal-language texts and went beyond the purely functional.” In fact, there is no comparison between programmers talking excitedly about ‘beautiful’ code, and the works of the Indian theorists whom Chandra proceeds to discuss — Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, who wrote books on how dhvani, or reverberation, could be formally set up in language to yield rasa, the aesthetic enjoyment of artificially induced emotions.
These theorists were criticised, even within the Sanskrit literary milieu, for trying to nail down via algorithms what can only be understood ineffably or humanistically; for trying to make a science of beauty. However, Chandra cites them with approval, takes from them a notion of writing which exalts grammar over meaning, and puts a near-mystical faith in the form and architecture of a literary narrative, as guarantors of its beauty.
In short, something confused about the author’s mind is revealed in Mirrored Mind. Chandra leans on the subject of coding, really only to add ‘reverberation’ (not meaning) to his narrative about fiction writing. But, whatever may be one’s theory of literary narrative, the internal logic of narration forces attention to meaning. Chandra is therefore led to follow and be misdirected by his evasion. He begins and ends with the confident proposition, that coding is about making things work, not being artistic. Along the way, he commits to another proposition: being artistic is about making things work. And he is confident about this too, in all likelihood, because he is still thinking about coding.