Code writing is very reassuring: Vikram Chandra7 min read . Updated: 15 Nov 2013, 11:43 PM IST
The author on his twin lives, the prospect of writing ebooks, the culture of Bay Area programmers and 'Sacred Games' the TV script
After three novels, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), Love and Longing in Bombay (1997) and the voluminous Mumbai thriller Sacred Games (2006), 52-year-old author Vikram Chandra writes a book of non-fiction. Sacred Games, written with amazing writerly willpower and covering a wide sweep of the city and its milieu and local details, is one of the most underrated Indian novels of this century. As it is being developed for a television series by AMC (creators of Mad Men), Chandra’s new book, Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code, a memoir about writing fiction and computer programming, releases worldwide.
Mirrored Mind is a puzzle for the first 100 pages. Chandra introduces his reader to the logic of computer programming, which he mastered while on a secretarial job at Columbia University in the 1980s. Intermittent chapters and parts of chapters are about his journey into writing. Towards the end, it is obvious that for the writer, the book is an exploration of how the two converge in him. It is an unusual, circuitous book, written in Chandra’s elegant, condensing prose. Edited excerpts from an interview:
This is an unusual book. Did you think of it as a way of writing a memoir, or have you been thinking deeply about how these two Vikrams, computer programmer and novelist, have met?
I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I got into it when I was in grad school, and even after I stopped doing it professionally, I kept up with it and enjoyed it. After Sacred Games I was working on some fiction, then I had this little pause. The usual solution is to take a walk away from it and come back to it and hopefully things would work themselves out. This time I don’t know why, I remembered this idea I had a long time back for a short essay about the culture of programmers. Computer programming influences our life every day. We use multiple devices for various things in a day. Not many people know how programmers think, what their hierarchies are, what they want to do with their code. So I thought I will write for the general reader a short anthropology kind of piece on these guys. I was working on that and suddenly I found myself 20 or 30 pages into it. So it was a surprise to me that it ended up as a book.
In your life, do these two occupations complement each other? You say that writing involves painful “tunnelling", while you talk about programming as pleasure.
A lot of writers report that the act of writing is not pleasant. For me, programming has worked as an escape from that. In computers I can completely lose myself. It becomes a game, and you are playing the game. One of the people I quote in the book says, “The computer is the game." It’s a very different process and it requires a different kind of absorption. After a day of literary work, which is very ambiguous, when you are always searching for something and not entirely sure you got it, programming is very certain. Once you write some codes, you can test it to see if it works. Code writing is very reassuring. On the contrary, with a book, after it comes out it disappears. There’s nothing certain about it.
The computer programmer is ubiquitous in pop culture now. He has lost his mystique.
He is very common, but not very well understood. I suppose the mystique that is there now is that of money. The idea that he can become a billionaire literally overnight is astonishing. It’s a dream that drives people everywhere. Then there is the darker side of it. It’s a skill that can be acquired without that much training; you don’t need to go to a fancy institution to be a hacker. The nerdy kid, sitting in a small place somewhere, masters this craft and then he converts it into an economic and social power—that’s a classic of our times.
How much do you code now?
I do it in a hobbyist way. I have not worked on an extended project that I can one day present to the world. There is no head space for it at this time. But whatever little I do, I find both the technical and social aspects of it very interesting. I follow it very closely. And if you live in the Bay Area, you go out for dinner, you’ll hear the language from tables around you. Just like Bombay or Hollywood where everyone has a screenplay, out there everyone has an idea for an app.
Your closest friends are writers and film-makers. How do they see these two sides of you? Do they know the programmer in you?
Yes, it is only through the Internet that I know people who are both. I quote one guy in the book who is a painter and a programmer, I know someone in the East Coast who is a writer and a programmer. It’s interesting to have a closed circle of family and friends who are artists and writers and film-makers. Programmers tend to think of themselves as artists, but most artists think computer programming is nuclear physics.
You quote American computer scientist Donald Knuth in the book, who says that the programmer’s work is about “excellence of style". How important has that been for you and how much of that did you achieve?
Yes, most people think programmers are giving instructions to a computer. As Knuth says, you are writing codes for programmers in the future who will maintain your code. The trouble is that if you can write a code today, six months later when someone tries to understand it, it can be incomprehensible. Sometimes even you can look at something you wrote six months back and be baffled. So the programmer’s job becomes that of, “a person should understand, by looking at a particular section of code exactly what it’s trying to do and exactly how it’s doing it". One step beyond is that if you can do something elegant rather than a jugaadu solution. Often that also leads to better functionality.
You say that as a child, you were the classic nerd who wished you were the cool sports guy.
For any middle class kid growing up in India, the brief was that your future lay in being an engineer or a doctor. I did well in the exams and I liked what I knew about physics and other sciences. There’s a level at which investigative science becomes very interesting and after Class X, I realized I was not built for that. What you have to do to become a good engineer was beyond me.
Where do coding and fiction meet?
If you are a programmer and you are thinking of the world algorithmically, you believe that it is made up of smaller systems. You start thinking of the world in that way—how do all our narratives connect? What’s so interesting is that, that is not such a modern thing. Panini’s grammar is a little machine, a little algorithm. The ancient Indian intellectual tradition is heavily biased towards treating all knowledge as Panini’s grammar. When you are investigating something you want, find the algorithm of how it works, which is what the ninth and 10th century guys like Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta did in literature. They find out what is beauty, why are we effected by beautiful poetry? It’s the same operation at work.
Starting with blogs in the early 2000s and now the way we are using social networking and YouTube, the self now exists in public eye—one of the central thrusts of the 21st century taken to an extreme. Where do you see this self-obsession going?
Yes, self as performance is at its peak now. You are constructing selves both in the real world as well as the Internet world. It is a continuous performance. It’s in the grain of our reality now. Ebooks are the future for us authors. Only last month, in the The New Republic there was a report about American publishing, which everyone is in gloom and doom about, saying no one is reading. A new study says that revenues have been steady since 2006. The only change is that in 2006, the number of physical books sold were much higher and in 2013, that number is lesser than ebooks. It’s really lovely to hold my new book fresh at the bookstore like I am doing now, but I read only in my devices.
Would you write a book just to be consumed in a device?
That would be one’s ambition, but I am not sure I am ready to delve into that. In this book, I introduced some LEGO logic games which are diagrammatic, which would be cool if designed for a device, but the right platform has not been built yet. I can’t sit down with Word and make that book happen.
You did some film writing with ‘Mission Kashmir’. Any film writing on the cards?
I am associate producer with the AMC project, which is scripting Sacred Games as a television series. I want to stay as far away from the scripting as possible. It would drive me insane. The script writer is amazing; she has seen the story with possibilities that I could have never seen.
What is your next book?
It’s what I stopped writing when I started this book. It’s a novel partly set in India and partly in other parts of the world.