On a visit to Mumbai to launch his first work of non-fiction,author Vikram Chandra,52,speaks on the joys of computer coding,how it made the prime passion of his life writing possible and why he likes fiction more.
You were in the middle of your next novel when the idea of Mirrored Mind came up. Tell us about it.
After Sacred Games,I started working on a new work of fiction. And there are always these times while writing fiction when you dont know where you are going next or whats going to happen. You are waiting for the characters to tell you what they would do next. Its not a stop,but a pause. Usually when that happens,I watch a lot of movies or read till the answer pops up. This time when that happened,I had this idea of writing an essay about the culture of computer programming with specific reference to the US. I thought it would be a 30-40-page essay which would get published in some magazine and I would happily get back to writing my novel. But once it started,it grew and grew. It took me some time to realise that it is going to be a book.
I have been thinking about computer coding for a long time as I have worked as a programmer. And pre-modern literary theory is something I have been investigating ever since I started writing. Both these things came together in the book. I surprised myself. The only other piece of non-fiction I have written is an essay in the 90s.
How do you bring together programming and literary theory?
Individually,there are enough works on both.
In the field of computers,there are mostly papers and articles. There are lots of books on literary theory. I try to look at the connections between these worlds of art and technology. This was the idea from the start to look at beauty in programming and literary theory. One is ancient,the other modern. I had to refer to two prominent theorists Anandavardhana,a 9th century thinker,and Abhinavagupta,an 11th century Kashmiri thinker. You cant talk about rasadhvani without mentioning them. Abhinavagupta,especially,was a polymath. He wrote nearly 50 books.
Why did you take so long to make your non-fiction debut?
Writing non-fiction is a very different process. In fiction,I am guided by my characters. I can tell what will happen next,I will find a shape if I follow them. But when you are talking of ideas and concepts,it is hard to see that. You can put any idea and combination and structure it as you please. This is terrifying to me. It was a long process of writing in patches and then trying to find a shape for the whole thing. Now,I am ready to go back to fiction. Its very annoying not being able to make things up.
Did writing Mirrored Mind involve a lot of research?
I have been reading up on programming for decades. I have been gathering little pieces of thoughts and ideas. As I went along,I discovered new stuff too. Then,you can have thoughts floating in your head,but while telling someone about it,you have to clarify your ideas. The intention was to talk to a person who does not know anything about computers or literary theory.
Conversely,I did not want to assume any knowledge on part of the reader about literary theories. That was the interesting part of the book. You try to take a very esoteric idea and try to clear it on the page as you go.
When did you study computer programming?
As an undergraduate,I took one or two classes in programming in the US. But I found it boring. The way they teach is very abstract. Once I got my hands on a desktop computer,I started to play with it. You can say I am 99 per cent self-taught.
Your first taste of success came with computer programming…
Thats true. I was a teaching assistant at the University of Houston,but thats a severely underpaid job. One of my friends in the writing programme asked me to set up her new computer. A week later,she asked me to help her friend who owns a bookstore. I started getting paid for these jobs. That helped me in writing fiction. Once my first novel got published and I got a university job,I stopped doing it professionally. I still keep up with it for fun.
Do these lives ever collide?
The only time I felt resentful was when programming took up too much of my time. For me,writing is best done in a steady way. I like to work every morning for six days a week and keep producing a fixed quota of writing every day.
Mirrored Mind is a slim book unlike your works of fiction…
Different books have their own natural shapes. While writing Sacred Games,my wife Melanie and I tried for months to cut parts of the book. We would take out one 60-page section and read it again. And then realise that something had changed. The editors at the publishing house tried their best too. I will still argue that the novel is what it needs to be. Mirrored Mind is what it needs to be. There are certain things I did not mention in it because they dont fit naturally into it.
You talk about hackers with a certain amount of respect. Are you one of them?
I am not a hacker. I can piece together codes and make a software work. But hacking a machine and getting past some of the defences is another game altogether. In recent years,the term hacker is nothing of what it originally meant. When people talked about hackers in the 60s and 70s,it meant someone who has really understood the technology and how to build software.
Are you into gadgets?
I spend way too much money on them. I change my phone too often. It is one of my few vices. I am interested in new technology and I keep playing with it.
How do you sustain your interest in various subjects,including literature,technology,Bollywood and the underworld?
I am completely driven by curiosity. This is one of the greatest pleasures of being a writer you can indulge your curiosity. You can pretend its for research even if it does not end up in a book. In the 80s and 90s,we saw a lot of crime in the city. We were in Bandra and there are many people associated with the film industry in this neighbourhood,who have been extorted by various people,one was shot at,one wounded. I wanted to understand whats really happening in my street. So I started investigating.
Similarly,when I got into programming,I started thinking who programmers are,about their hierarchy. In America,culturally its very different. Programmers have a certain cowboy machismo. In India,programmers are those who sit in a room and type. There is a gender problem too in the Silicon Valley. Every second week,there is a scandal. Also,there are more women programmers in India than in the US. These are questions I was interested in.
Sacred Games was supposed to be adapted into a tele-series. Is the plan still on?
Film business is the same everywhere in the world. You never know till they start shooting. Its in development,so we will see what happens. AMC,which has made Mad Men and Waking Up Dead,is doing it. It will be exciting to get Sartaj Singh on screen. But I did not want to adapt the novel myself for the show.
The gap between Sacred Games and this book is nearly seven years…
It was natural as our daughters,Leela and Darshana,are five and three years old. The last five years have been a blur. Writing this book in the middle of all this is yet another surprise. I take a long time to work things out. I am a very slow writer. I write around 400 words a day.
Are you going back to the same idea you had before you started writing Mirrored Mind?
I dont know what kind of animal it is going to be. Part of it is set in Mumbai and the two other sections will be abroad somewhere.
Your wife Melanie Abrams too is writing her second novel. How do you manage your schedules?
It has been a tough few years for her. She has not had the time to write. Now,both the girls are going to school,so she has the morning to herself. She is still teaching half time and I am taking a break this semester. She is very different from me. I write at the back portion of the house where no one enters. She goes to a cafe.