An Interview with Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra is the author of two novels, one short-story collection, and most recently a non-fiction book–Geek Sublime–that’s part memoir, part history of coding and part meditation on aesthetic pleasure.
After moving to the US from Bombay for college, Chandra pursued graduate degrees in film, and then writing, while supporting himself by coding. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.
Chandra preferred to conduct this interview via email, because he “has an easier time answering questions in writing,” yet graciously invited me to get coffee. In person he spoke sharply, but with much energy and curiosity. Our conversation touched upon pre-modern detective thrillers, long-form television, and why the Indian left must act in order to prevent the right from completely appropriating the country’s rich cultural tradition. This interview focuses more on his new book.
Chandra’s first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and his short story collection both won Commonwealth Writers awards (for best first book, and best book—Eurasia region, respectively) and Sacred Games–his ‘magnum opus’, that among other things features a gangster in the throes of an existential crisis–was subject to a famous bidding war than ended in the author earning a one million dollar advance. Geek Sublime, as he mentions below, “has been published in three English-language markets with two different titles and three different subtitles; everyone’s trying to come up with some way to embody that mixture of themes.”
I: “KIND OF A FICTIVE TRANCE”
THE BELIEVER: The Indian edition of Geek Sublime is subtitled “My life in letters and code.” The first part of this phrase–‘my life’–strikes me now. Because your book isn’t like a traditional writer’s memoir: no failed short stories, no personal struggle. Instead you present detailed discussions of various issues—pre-modern Indian literary theory, the history of coding, gender issues in Silicon Valley to name a few—that are close to your heart. Was this an attempt to create a more profound portrait of an artist?
VIKRAM CHANDRA: I was worried about that subtitle, because—as you point out—the book itself isn’t very revealing of my inner life and romantic torments and so on. But the Indian publishers really wanted to indicate that it was not precisely an academic treatise about programming or writing either. Of course I wasn’t thinking of any of these issues as I wrote. I was trying to work out some thinking about literature, code, and pleasure, and I wanted to ground all this in my own lived experience as a writer of fiction. That is, to show the reader how I came to these ideas, and transmit some of my own wonder and excitement about these encounters. So the form of the book came—as it always does—from its content and from what I wanted it to convey, not just the facts but also the emotion. And the content is quite varied—it moves from ancient linguistic systems to logic gates and pre-modern Indian literary theory and genetic engineering. I think that’s why the book has been published in three English-language markets with two different titles and three different subtitles; everyone’s trying to come up with some way to embody that mixture of themes.
BLVR: Geek Sublime, like JM Coetzee’s Youth, is on one level about an aspiring young writer in a foreign country, coding for a living. There’s a big difference though: Coetzee’s narrator spends most of Youth retreating inward and failing to write, while writer’s block hardly appears in your book. Indeed your matter-of-fact discussions of writing are intimidating. Any thoughts on how you managed to retain focus and self-belief?
VC: I hate to fall back on that “writing is a compulsion” trope, but I’ve always experienced the urge to tell stories—even if only to myself—as a kind of necessity. As I child, I did it to comfort myself and also because it was such damn good fun, and it was reliable. I was able to put myself in a kind of fictive trance by walking in circles while bouncing a favorite orange ball, and I’d make up these long-form stories that ran for weeks at a time. Of course as you encounter all those thorny questions of making a living, it gets harder and harder to maintain a trust in the storytelling. I was lucky—my parents were incredibly supportive, and I found some teachers who told me that what I wrote had value. I don’t think I’m especially confident; whenever I’ve made a decision to do something—go off and write that first novel, for instance—I’ve been beset by self-doubt and a recognition of how stacked the odds are. But not trying is worse. I mean oppressive from moment to moment, so that it becomes hard to live in my own skin. So I’ve always trusted my gut, and gone ahead with a sense of inevitability.
BLVR: Do you think your coding has affected your writing? If so, how?
VC: I think the reiterative process—write, improve, rewrite, throw away and rewrite—is certainly similar. I’d argue that writing literary prose is harder, in a way, because finally you can’t be sure it’s ever working fully in the way you intend. The lovely thing about code is that you write it in small chunks, and each little chunk has a specific purpose. So at least you can test each chunk, and then the progressively larger assemblages of these small pieces. There’s software that’s built specifically to run your code tests for you, and this test-running software typically signals that each test—there may be dozens—has passed by displaying a green checkmark. There’s such a rush when your testing panel goes “all green” for a section of code. Of course with literature there’s no such happy state; even with a book that has been “successful,” you as a writer know how unreliable contemporary taste is as a marker of anything—just take a look at the early reviews of Gatsby.
In engineering terms, I think the construction of great complexity through the composition of small components is common to both processes. My disposition to see the world as a network of networks has roots in the Indian traditions of story and philosophy, but it certainly finds encouragement in so much of the technical work that’s being done nowadays.
BLVR: You come from a film background, attended film school, and in an interview once mentioned that film speaks to the Indian mind in intimate ways. Could you talk a little about this intimacy, and if and how you channeled it into your writing?
VC: Film has played such an intrinsic role in the making of modern India that I think it would be hard to write fiction set in these landscapes without somehow acknowledging the role of cinema. The Lumière brothers showed up in Mumbai in 1896, barely a year after their first show in Paris, and Indians started making movies a couple of years later. During my childhood, before the advent of commercial television, film was pretty much the only popular entertainment available. So there’s a very real sense in which the modern Indian conception of self and nation has been shaped in this cinema, which despite its underlying technological base has continued to use tropes and forms that have a long genealogy in the subcontinent. Film is of course a modern, industrial mode of art, but it has served as the ground for a conversation within the tradition, using some of the vocabulary from the past. And that very difference, I think, has protected it from the depredations of Hollywood, which has eaten up many national cinemas, or made it hard for them to be born in the first place. As a writer, this filmic tradition—with its imagery, its music—is an inescapable part of the streets that I write about, and one that gives me a whole universe of metaphor and representation that I can play with. So of course I do.
II: “I COULD SPEAK, AT LEAST TO MYSELF, ABOUT HOW TO WRITE AND READ.”
BLVR: In one of Geek Sublime’s scenes, you find your first book’s title at an Indian poetry reading at the MoMA. On reading more of the poet’s (AK Ramanujan) work you write, “And as I read Ramanujan and others, I had the curious sensation of recognizing myself, of beginning to know why I was moved by a certain kind of narrative construction, why a particular heightened mode of drama struck me as sublime.” It’s a particularly Eliotic moment: the writer discovering the canon he is writing (and perhaps must write) within. What other reading were you doing at the time, and did it place your own work in context?
VC: The interesting thing about working within the Indian tradition is that it’s a living one. That is, Eliot’s version of modernity depends on a split between the present and the past; he’s mourning what has been destroyed, and is working within the ruins. In India, the past remains stubbornly alive in popular aesthetics, in religion, in ethics, in social practice—often this refusal to become properly modern is the source of much frustration and shame, and this “backwardness” is identified as the cause of problems on both the personal and societal levels. In terms of storytelling, there is a kind of globalizing heroic narrative about the creation of the modern novel which insists on the novel’s newness and on its improved ability to embody the truth, to be “realistic.” I knew when I started writing my first novel that I wanted to challenge these teleologies, which are an essential part of the colonial project. I knew what kind of alternative narrative modes I wanted to deploy because I had experienced and enjoyed them in my life; they were also alive. What I gained from Ramanujan and others was a critical vocabulary, an aesthetic philosophy that had been developed over centuries, refined and utilized. The tradition is multifarious—the critics and philosophers argue vociferously with each other; it is also open-ended—if you think something is lacking, you are free to propose alternatives and amendments. So I read haphazardly in this crackling conversation, from Bharata (circa 2nd century BCE—2th century CE) to Pandit Jagganatha (17th century CE). I’m sure I didn’t understand much of it—many of these people were high-level philosophers and linguists, so the level of the discourse is often well above my pay-grade. But I patched together an attitude, a way to approach my own work that resonated with my intuitions. I could speak, at least to myself, about how to write and read. And for a writer, that’s no small thing.
BLVR: At graduate school, American students found your writing ‘melodramatic.’ Rather than accept this as reflection of your failings, you felt that their response arose from some fundamental differences in Western and Indian literary sensibilities. Did you understand this clearly as a student, or did your perseverance arise from something more intuitive? Did geography creep into your writing and your literary sensibility?
VC: I’d put down a lot of the perseverance to sheer stubbornness. I always come to what I write through intuition, by feeling out little fragments of story and structure that swim out of what the Indian tradition refers to as samskaras and vasanas—a deep sediment of “memory traces” that exists far under awareness. I suspect this is how many writers work; the question always is—how much do you trust these hunches, and how do you deal with external critiques from your partner, your workshop, the market? Especially when you’re young, negotiating your way to some kind of productive balance is really tricky. You’re not sure you really have any skill, or what you’re trying to make has any value. Perhaps the rational thing to do would be always to defer to those with more experience. So doing what you want to do, without retreating into a defensive “I’m a misunderstood genius” stance, requires a certain obstinacy. When I was growing up, I was often told I was a dhith—Hindi for somebody who is wilful, with an added leavening of impudence. It’s a quality that’s useful for artists.
Being in a foreign landscape always teaches you how local your assumptions are. Working with people whose tastes differed from mine demonstrated this in very real terms. And yet there was commonality too; I was lucky to have two teachers, John Barth and Donald Barthelme, who engaged me in conversations that were enormously fruitful and transformative. Kshemendra wrote in the 11th century CE that a poet “should go/ among many people/ in many places/ and learn their languages.” Travel changes you and makes you more yourself.
BLVR: Your books have been primarily been set in India. Do you see yourself writing fiction set elsewhere? What do you think the challenges involved in such an under-taking?
VC: In Red Earth and Pouring Rain, there’s a narrative strand that runs through one half of the book that’s set mostly in America. After that, I haven’t touched down on this continent again, but this isn’t programmatic. I work by instinct, and allow my curiosity to take me where it will. And this is a survival tactic, really—books take a long time to write, so you want to work on something that gives you energy by drawing you in. The fiction I’m working on now has a section set in America, and others in far-flung corners of the world. It’s quite unformed at this point, so I can’t talk about it much, but I will say that one of the themes that seems to be arising is geographical dispersion and global connections. So it’s starting to make sense to me that like in Red Earth and Pouring Rain, the action moves through several cultures.
III: “‘GREATNESS OF INDIA’ NARRATIVES”
BLVR: Returning to Eliot, I felt Tradition and the Individual Talent’s presence throughout Geek Sublime—both with regard to your personal artistic process, and with regard to literary theory. In hindsight however, I realize what I was feeling was Abhinavagupta’s profound presence in Eliot’s famous essay. This reversal of West-East literary hierarchy is an important, though quiet point that runs throughout your book. What are your feelings on the prominence of Western literary theory in syllabi today? Is it high time students—in the West, but especially in a country like India where Eliot, not Panini is taught in classrooms—are exposed to a more eastern-oriented critical cannon?
VC: I wouldn’t make any kind of strong claim about Abhinavagupta’s influence on Eliot; we don’t know if Eliot ever encountered his work, although it’s certainly possible. But in general, I think it would be useful for students in India and elsewhere to read in the Indian intellectual tradition. For one thing, it would complicate the very simplistic notion that Indian thought is “mystical” and nothing else. These theorists and thinkers were interested in awareness, the nature of the self, the purpose and meaning of life, the phenomenology of aesthetic pleasure, and so on, but they were hard-headed rationalists within the context of their times. They examined each other’s logic with an exacting rigorousness. Many of them would tell you that all scriptural authority and received wisdom was finally inferior to one’s own lived experience as a means of knowing the truth.
In modern India an engagement with the past inevitably comes laden with political meaning. We are, of course, working in the shadow of the still-influential colonial construction, according to which Indian civilization descended from Vedic greatness into medieval degeneracy, and so needed intervention by the British. The left in India is so afraid of “revivalism” that it mostly cedes the historical ground to the right, who come up with these simplistic “greatness of Indian culture” narratives. And the far right feels free to make up completely ahistorical distortions of the past in their fevered pursuit of sameness, of a mono-culture. What is missing in all this back-and-forth is any knowledge of—for instance—the hedonistic atheism of the Carvakas, of Nagarjuna’s skepticism, of Abhinavagupta’s Tantric notions of pleasure as knowledge. The incredible, dazzling variety of the intellectual and artistic traditions gets quite lost. And there is so much that is useful in all that multifariousness. I don’t think we should think of this interest in the past as a purely curatorial enterprise. It’s not just museum-making. What I’ve learned from my haphazard investigations is integrated into my everyday life as a writer.
BLVR: Your study of literary theory has influenced role in your artistic sensibility. Do you think it’s important for a young person (especially a writer) to study theory? If so, why? Do you teach any theory to your students?
VC: I don’t think one needs theory to be a writer. You may have your own private notions about how fiction or poetry work that serve perfectly well. I suppose my own interest in theory is analogous to my fascination with computers and software—I like to figure out how systems work, and am interested in other people’s system-making. I should point out that this kind of “systems thinking” is very old in India—David Shulman describes the Vedic fire altar as a full-scale model of the cosmos, and its associated texts as “operating instructions.” Especially after Panini, every theorist wanted to provide a full, working schematic of his or her domain. And this is very conspicuously what Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta try to do with poetic language, which is why reading them gives me so much pleasure. It’s not the only way to approach writing—their near contemporary, Rajashekhara, wrote a much more down-to-earth book, the Kavyamimamsa (Investigation of Poetry), in which he’s concerned with how a poet should spend the day, what kind of poetic conceits are useful, and so on.
I’m not a theorist, so my use of theory in the classroom is practical rather than completist. It’s useful for students to have what the computer geeks call a pattern language—a way to refer to often-used solutions or “design patterns,” and the dhvani theorists provide a really good vocabulary, so I teach that. Contemporary “transportation theory” ideas about the cognitive effects of fiction are also useful, so we talk about those as well.
BLVR: In the Indian narrative tradition, stories are frequently interrupted by anecdotal tangents or new storylines (and this reminds me off…). You’ve mentioned the influence of such interruptions in your own writing and I think they are present in Geek Sublime as well. Could you talk about how the various discussions you branch out into, add to the book’s central narrative and come together at the end?
VC: Those kind of narrative excursions are very, very common in Indian literature. And they can be very substantial in themselves. The twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the Mahabharata depict events in the aftermath of the great war, and comprise discussions and debates about duty, governance, the rule of law, marriage, and so on. Together, these two chapters form almost a fourth of the entire epic. As a writer, it’s fascinating to me that these intricate moral reflections are positioned after we’ve seen all morality break down. You can’t help listening to all this discourse through the emotional impact of the enormous loss of life that you’ve just witnessed. Should you be cynical, or understand all this as the hope for reconstruction? I’m very interested in the possibilities of layering, of the reflective connections you can build structurally. In Geek Sublime, I wanted to juxtapose various aspects of language—code, literature, even DNA—and also thinking about language in various epochs, especially as articulated by a kind of algorithm-seeking intelligence that exists across culture and time. I’m interested in aesthetics both in literary and formal languages, but aesthetics are always rooted in specific cultures, in histories of gender and economics and religion. So all of these things are in Geek Sublime, in conversation with each other, so to speak.
IV: “As a reader, I love nothing more than to be so drawn into a book that the external world becomes unreal.”
BLVR: Geek Sublime has detailed sections on varied topics: the role of women in coding, the history of coding etc. You even present a comprehensive introduction to logic gates. I can thus imagine many ‘non-literary’ readers being attracted to the book. Was this something you kept in mind, and is it satisfying to consider how Geek Sublime might act as a gateway into literary fiction for someone?
My wife Melanie Abrams is a fiction writer, and is absolutely a non-geek. She’s had to put up with my attempts to explain my technological obsessions for years. So in some sense the book tries to explain to her what I’m doing when I’m shut up in my study for hours, transfixed by some strange hieroglyphics on my screen. I also wanted to do this without resorting to the usual hand-waving people use when they try to explain to civilians what computers do– “Oh, there are lots of ones and zeroes and silicon chips and computing happens.” So I got down to the metal, as it were—to the logic gates. And conversely, what writers do with literary language is often mysterious to outsiders, and again there’s a fair amount of hand-waving in attempted explanations—“Writers create an ineffable beauty with words, etc.” The Indian literary thinkers tried to build a rigorous theoretical base to explain what literature is, what it does, how it affects consciousness, why we consume it. So I’m hoping that Geek Sublime works as a doorway in both directions, and does so without talking down to readers.
BLVR: “Artha”, a computer-virus-focused detective mystery, from Love and Longing in Bombay, has a coder as a protagonist. Do you enjoy involving coding in your stories? Any metaphors waiting to be exploited there?
VC: Writers in science fiction have been using programmers and their work for decades, and very productively so. The narrative devices available in sci-fi allow for the embodiment of code and its effects in particularly striking ways—Greg Egan does this memorably in Permutation City, which will bend your mind as you consider the possibility of virtual copies of yourself. Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects provides a poignant take on the Turing Test. So it’s being done already, and literary writers are starting to engage with the technology and its processes as well. I’m sure the trend will widen, but working within the bounds of “realism” confines you to an extent; watching a programmer work is about as boring as watching a writer work, so like literary stories about writers, stories about programmers tend to focus on the emotional life of the protagonist rather than the work itself. Computing is already pervasive, and will only get more so. Its metaphors are making their way into our language and self-conceptions. We have no choice but to engage with them.
BLVR: Pankaj Mishra concluded his mixed review of Sacred Games describing you as “a writer who possesses the rare, prodigious power to make literature.” In Geek Sublime, this prodigious power, or ‘vital thing’ (as Henry Miller put it) is connected to the writer’s ability to produce Rasa and Dhvani through his images and sentences. I admire your style, but what most draws me to your books is the living, breathing characters. What do you consider the ‘vital thing’ to be for yourself: word-to-word literary beauty, or character and plot creation? Is this a non-question?
VC: I’ve recently been reading David Shulman’s More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. In it, he describes a performance of Kūtiyāttam, which is a Sanskrit drama form that has been practiced in Kerala for more than a thousand years. In this, a solo performer, using nothing but his body, creates an entire universe of characters and landscapes over a performance that can run as long as forty-one nights. Shulman writes, “If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, you may find it hard to believe that an act performed in open space, in abstract, regularly patterned, pure dance (nrttam), with a graceful attentiveness to the tiniest detail and without haste, can be endowed with such integrity and can evoke an invisible world of such profound tangibility… I have found from my own experience that in the course of watching a play spread out over more than two weeks, some three to five hours each night, the intervening hours of daytime ‘normalcy’ seemed to exist only by virtue of the far more integral, intensified hours of performance. The latter were, to me, real in a sense quite different from that of my daytime reality.” That dense reality created through performance is, I think, what the writer must devote everything to—the language, the characters, the plot, the resonance of dhvani or implicature. Shulman points out that bringing worlds into being through concentrated acts of imagination has an Indian history that goes back to the earliest Vedic texts, but I think this is a cross-cultural impulse. As a reader, I love nothing more than to be so drawn into a book that the external world becomes unreal. And that kind of fiction is what I try to make.