Book: Mirrored Mind
Author: Vikram Chandra
The computer, for most of us, is just an aide, helping us write, do sums and make presentations.
So we would probably be forgiven for being a little nonplussed at the premise Mirrored Minds starts off with: that computer programming code can be elegant or beautiful, and those who write them are creative artists, akin to painters and authors.
No, Vikram Chandra is not being whimsical, esoteric or difficult. The idea has some precedence and he refers to some venture capitalist and programmer Paul Graham’s essay ‘Hackers and Painters’ which posits a similarity between the two groups saying both are trying to “make good things”; computer scientist Butler Lampson’s essay ‘Programmers as Authors’, and Donald Knuth, of The Art Of Computer Programming fame, who once described a programme saying, “reading it was just like hearing a symphony”.
But that’s only the start of this slim volume which Chandra says he embarked on as a break from the book he’d started writing after Sacred Games (2006). “I have been thinking of writing about the culture of computer programming for years and years. I thought that I’ll write a quick little essay, a glossy magazine essay, quickly done, quickly published and get back to my work. I started writing and it just blew up,” he says.
At its core, Mirrored Mind is Chandra’s personal, very idiosyncratic rumination on his double life as fiction writer and computer programmer. The fascination with computers began at film school in Columbia when the company Chandra worked part-time for as a medical transcriber got PCs for all its employees. The ease with which Chandra could do his assigned tasks on the machine, and tinker around with the systems to further minimise effort had him hooked early. Soon he was reading up books on hardware and software, and trouble-shooting for colleagues and friends something he loved doing and also got paid for.
Chandra’s “very passionate hobby”, thus, not only kept him in some comfort during the grunge years in university and when he was writing his first novel, the acclaimed Red Earth And Pouring Rain, but also allowed him to make biannual trips to India.
But it would be a lesser book if it were only about computers and programming code. Mirrored Mind is also Chandra’s testimony of how, and why he came to write his novels the way he did; his worldview and literary influences; and a meditation on the act and art of creation/writing itself: “Writing sentences felt like construction...You put each word in place, brick upon brick, with a shimmery sense of what the whole edifice would look like, the shape of the final thing.”
Chandra’s chapters and arguments flow intuitively, through association rather than logic, as he harks far and wide through ideas and philosophies across cultures, one thing leading to the other. Searching for first principles, he ventures into a detailed exposition of how it is that computers do what you command them to, a passage, almost out of a maths, or computer science textbook, full of difficult terms as “logic gates”, “truth tables”, “base-2 system”, Babbage’s Difference Engine and so on I confess that I switched off after a point. But then he reaches even further back to Sanskrit and Panini’s Ashtadhyayi and thereon, in another long digression, to an analysis of Abhinavagupta, Anadavardhana and pre-modern Indian aesthetic theory of rasa-dhvanis, and finally tantric thought.
The connection between programming language and Sanskrit linguistics is familiar territory, something scholars have tracked exhaustively, but how are the mysterious practices and sexual rituals of the Kapalika and Kartabhaja sects fascinating though they are germane to the central argument?