How did you conceive of the book?
I didn’t think of it as a book, at all. I was working on some new fiction and I was fair way into it but got a bit stuck. Usually at times like this I read, watch movies, listen to music and it fixes itself and I get the answer. This time, for some strange reason, I thought I would write an essay in 20-odd pages and publish it in a glossy magazine. The premise is the anthropology of computer programming, which I have been thinking about for years. Then, I started writing it and it just sort of exploded in all kinds of directions. I had no idea that it was going to lead me to 9th century Indian literary theory — tantriks and all of that.
Women and programming — tell us more...
One of the things that has been prominent in the last two or three years is that in Silicon Valley, this question of sexism has become very prominent. If you look back at the popular Silicon Valley websites in the last three or four years, it looks like there has been some scandal / some upset, every two weeks.
So, that is another thread that runs through the book, the idea of beauty through politics through gender. The history of programming itself is an interesting example about that. Earlier, it wasn’t thought of as a male-dominated profession and that it turned into one consciously. The paradox is that in India, it’s not marked as a male-dominated one as the women portion of the programmers here are more than there in the US. At least, on the face of it.
The book being quite technical, who is your intended audience here?
I don’t know. One useful way to think about it, is through the Indian critical term, the Sahrday — somebody who’s cultivated and has the same heart or sensibility as yours. There is this paradox, which I was talking about — we completely depend on computers now but vast majority of people in this world have no clue about how they work. They just treat it like magic. Even if you don’t sit down to use a computer / phone, there are processing chips inside traffic lights, and the trains are also run by them. Our world is suffused with computing and it’s increasingly going to get more like that. It might be impressive to look at this world to the extent that we can.
Coming back to your question of audience, I was a kind of humanities’ person who got into programming by coincidence, right? And, I’m assuming that there are other arty people who are interested in it and conversely programmers who are interested in aesthetics, which they are. Some combinations of that will be a Sahrday.
Sanskrit and programming fit because...
Because of the programming languages’ connect with Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and the kind of questions that are being asked now about formal languages and its relationship to art and beauty. I think that one of these things still operates in Indian culture but Indian scholastic tradition is not known any more as we don’t have it taught in schools and colleges. But I still think it forms us in the shape of Indian movies, or in the way Indian art expresses itself. It allowed me to think about my own fiction in a way that was very productive. It’s in my samskaras, it’s the thing that makes me who I am.
What next, after Mirrored Mind?
After this, I am going to go back to my fiction. It was fun writing this, but the annoying thing is that you can’t make up things. You’ve to put a footnote everywhere. It’s going to be fun to return to fiction where you’ve complete control over the shape of everything.
Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code, Vikram Chandra, Rs 499, Penguin. Available in bookstores, Nov 15 onwards.