Writing Code

Vikram Chandra opens up about his new book, Mirrored Mind, getting ferociously cranky, and going back to fiction.

November 30, 2013 09:18 pm | Updated 09:18 pm IST

Vikram Chandra. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Vikram Chandra. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

He writes long and thoughtful novels and speaks that way too. Vikram Chandra’s new book Mirrored Mind is a bewildering experience for fans of his fiction. Red Earth and Pouring Rain , Love and Longing in Bombay and Sacred Games were tales that had a plot, characters, fictional logic… they were about people who were described, they lived lives readers could vicariously experience. Mirrored Mind starts with a very brief peek into Chandra’s life as a code-writer in the United States and slides rapidly into a discussion of the logic of computer programming and code, referencing the work of Abhinavagupta, Kashmiri thinker in the 10th and 11th century AD. In a way, this is as autobiographical as he could get, one feels, since there is a reticence that roots the fluency of speech and filters the ‘personal’ out. Excerpts from an interview:

If you are not writing fiction, you ‘get ferociously cranky’…

It’s typical writer angst; if I’ve not done it for a while, I can feel myself getting ‘ferociously cranky’. My wife notices it too and says, “I think it’s time for you to go and do some work now”. This came about when I was working on some fiction and hit one of those pauses. It’s not quite being stuck, but I didn’t know how it was going to work out next. Usually the way for me to solve that is to take time off and read a lot and watch a lot of bad movies and listen to music. All this fertilization results in a chemistry and there is a solution and then I’m back. But this time — I don’t quite understand why — I thought I would write an essay that I’ve had in my mind ever since I started working with computers, which was when I was a grad student. I always thought it would be fun to write a kind of anthropology of programmers. I thought it would be a 20-30 page thing; I would publish it in some glossy magazine and be done with it and, by that time, the fiction would fix itself. But it just took off; I insisted for a long time that I was writing an essay; then I was writing a very long essay and, then very late in the day, I realised that I had actually written a book! It was quite a pleasant surprise really.

Are you happy with what you have done?

You always have moments of doubt, where you can’t quite see the shape of what you are doing or know where it is going. My first reader is Melanie, my wife. She would read and say, ‘this is interesting’, ‘this is weak’, ‘but what the hell is this thing about’…And so it was very pleasing when it finally fell into its structure and chapters came out of it quite naturally … You never know once the book gets out in the world what people will read it as … that’s a little baffling.

How would you describe this book?

That’s been part of the trouble. Chiki Sarkar (Penguin) came up with this name, Mirrored Mind . There have been many conferences around the family table and over the Internet trying to figure out a name for the thing. I started with Geek Sublime, because at that time I was thinking about geeks. One reason we did have difficulty with the name is because it is about many things. It’s about programmers and aesthetics of code, about pre-modern literary theory, its relationship to a formal language (Sanskrit), in large parts about gender as well — with specific reference to literature and programming…

And to a certain extent about you…

I think it is a little bold to tell people it is a memoir, since I don’t really reveal anything intimate in it. When I hear ‘memoir’, I always think, ‘I’m going to get some juicy stuff from this!’ That’s one of the pleasures of reading. But this is not stuff like ‘And then my girlfriend did this’ and ‘then I went there and got drunk’ and so on. It’s also about the process of writing and how it differs and how it is analogous in some sense to using this other kind of language that is programming code. And what people do with code is only going to get more and more strange, mind-boggling. I think things are going to happen in the next five or 10 years that we could not have imagined today. So it’s a very bizarre, interesting time to live in.

Once the promotions and touring is done with, he has a book waiting for him, he says, “Now I’ll go back and start writing fiction!”

Mirrored Mind;Penguin Books India, Rs 499

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